Short Story – Hungry

This is my latest fictional piece – and I was very lucky that it was published soon after it was written. Read it in the October 2016 issue of ‘The Madras Mag’ (http://madrasmag.in/article/hungry/). It is much longer than my earlier pieces, but I do hope it will keep the reader interested until the end. 🙂

jalebiindia

Nothing else bothered her as much as the hunger. Not the headache, the grey feeling that settled over her, the tight knot in her neck—none of it was as crippling as the ferocious growling in the centre of her stomach that would not be satisfied until she had shovelled in food enough for three meals.

Four slices of bread with jam, ten biscuits, a Five Star bar, a packet of Maggi noodles, some wafers, a couple of murukkus, two dosas with leftover fried potatoes, and a glass of Horlicks made with five heaped teaspoons of the sticky, beige powder.

The growling seemed to subside but she still felt empty inside. She rummaged in the cupboards, desperately searching for anything edible. She put a couple of appalams in the microwave and waited until they puffed up and the smell of cooked urad daal filled the air. As she pulled them out and blew on them impatiently, she felt a wave of disgust pass through her.

She wondered if she would—heaven forbid—vomit on the kitchen floor.

The vomiting sensation passed. The disgust remained. She hastily bit into the appalams and stuffed them into her mouth, lest there remain any evidence of her gluttony.

She quickly left the kitchen; a desperate measure to avoid eating more. As she turned on the fan and sank down on a chair, she ran a hand over her stomach. Why couldn’t she be like her cousin—that skinny bitch who claimed to eat tonnes of food, but never seemed to add an inch to her perfect frame? ‘She probably puts a finger down her throat and vomits it all out,’ her mind spun out a soothing explanation. She giggled at the thought of where else a finger could go then looked around hastily to ensure that her dirty thoughts were not given away.

Not that anyone was around to look at her. She thanked her stars that her parents weren’t home—if not, she would not have been able to lay her hands on the food. Her mother would have stared her down if she had so much as crept near the kitchen cupboard. And then, she would have had to endure the continuous string of insults.

“Why do you need to eat so soon after lunch? So that you can add a few more inches to your stick-thin frame?”

“Stay off the food for some months at least—if not, any boy who decides to go past your photo and come to this house will run away.”

“As it is, girls get fat after marriage—who will marry you if you look this now? And, if you are this fat, you will find it very hard to get pregnant.”

“You can’t cook one decent meal, but you like to eat for two.”

The comments should have hurt. Like rusty blades being drawn across her skin. Like acid poured down her throat. Yet, they never seemed to touch her. The words just glided through the air like puffs of toxic green smoke.

She went to her room and looked at the mirror that hung from a rusty nail. What was she looking for? All she could see was a pudgy face with sagging cheeks, lips drooping downwards. Her nose did not compensate for any of her flaws, and her hair looked dry and lifeless. She did not take off her clothes and examine her body closely, like she did on some days.

Not for her the carefree toss of her hair or the wilful smile when she wanted to display her feminine charms. She had waited desperately to become less awkward. To become the person who did not blend into the crowd. Yet, while her three female cousins seemed to transform from average ducklings into attention demanding swans, she had watched from the side-lines. She alone seemed to elude the sprinkling of fairy dust that nature seemed to pour by the bagful on her teenage cousins.

There were her father’s sister’s daughters—two of them—who seemed to have breasts that were rounded to perfection, and a waist that curved beautifully into shapely hips. Not to mention their big eyes and radiant skin which more than adequately compensated for being a shade less than the acceptable ‘wheatish’ complexion. And there was the skinny bitch—her mother’s brother’s daughter. A lithe beauty who stood at 5-feet-8-inches, with coltish long legs, and slender arms that she showed off in fancy puff-sleeved blouses. Her glossy, straight hair was much loved by all women in the family, and she was often compared to former film actress Amala.

**

Her parents had gone to the skinny bitch’s house to join in the fanfare that resulted from an ‘informal visit’ by a prospective groom and his family. She had been asked to stay at home. Oftentimes, sisters (even cousins) were asked to stay away from such events lest—horror of horrors—the guy fall for a girl other than the one he had come to ‘see’.

She knew that such flattery was not meant for her. As if in a cruel reminder, she overheard her mother saying:

“Let’s leave her at home. The boy is said to have some cousin who is working in Singapore. I will somehow convince them to try and visit us when he comes to Chennai. By then, I will make her look presentable. If we show her now, the lady might not even pass on the information to her relative.”

“What if they call us next week and tell us they want to come over? Can she lose weight at such short notice?”

“Why are you saying such inauspicious things? Let us first find out more about the boy and his family. And, even if they do come next week, I will starve her if I have to and make her look normal.”

They had not said anything much to her when they had left. She, too, had pretended to be more interested in reading film gossip in a Tamil magazine. The hunger pangs started as soon as she heard the sound of her father’s motorbike being started, and the clang of the gate as it was closed.

**

They had come back late in the evening. Without saying anything even by way of greeting, her mother had gone in to change, her saree rustling and emanating the fragrance of jasmine and agarbatti smoke. “They sent us some food,” her mother announced to no one in particular as she came out of the kitchen with some plates and set them on the table.

They sat around the table and served themselves the idlis, bondas and coconut chutney, the jangiri and onion pakoda. Her mother had made some thayir saadam – the ‘final course’ to every meal, no matter what the meal was made up of.

Silence reigned but it was not uncomfortable. In fact, her mother seemed more amiable than when she had left the house. “The boy is not all that great looking,” her mother commented. There was a hint of a smug smile on her face. She looked up; she didn’t know how to react, so she tried to smooth her features into a neutral expression. “After all that fuss she made over the two guys who had come to see her earlier…she has learnt that she is not some Aishwarya Rai who can keep waiting forever…Still, they could have found someone better looking…”

She remained quiet, unable to fathom where the conversation was headed.

“Looks like they fell for the money and the high position… and the American Green Card. Not to mention, he is quite tall… six feet, I think,” her father grunted.

Her mother’s face hardened. She bit a piece of green chilli, but it was bitterness that filled her mouth.

She reached for a second jangiri. It was a startling shade of orange, and covered in a thick white coat of hardened sugar syrup. She tried to cover her tracks but her mother suddenly said in a raspy voice, “Are you having a second jangiri?” She gulped, even as the fiery red blush of shame threatened to creep up her face. The rich orange of the jangiri seemed to taunt her. She quickly crammed the sweet into her mouth but it seemed to dissolve into nothingness.

**

A week later, her aunt swept into their house, laden with sweets and good news—the skinny bitch was to get engaged to the guy from the USA; that tall, well educated, well salaried man with the Green Card. Her aunt’s eyes sparkled on par with the diamond earrings that clung to her earlobes.

“We are going to look at mandapams tomorrow. Who knew that the marriage would be fixed so soon, and that too for a date that is just two months away?” her aunt gushed. “We have so much work to do, and Nithya—poor thing—has to go shopping for all her saris and jewellery as well.”

“We would be glad to help. You can come here for lunch tomorrow—why cook when you have to be running around all day?” her mother offered, unable to grudge her sister-in-law a token kindness.

“Of course, I knew you would offer, but our son-in-law wants to take us out to lunch tomorrow. We refused, and said the young ones can go out alone, but he is insisting so much!”

By this time, her mother’s lips were set against each other in a tight, straight line. Thankfully, her aunt left soon after. Before leaving, she went close to her mother and said, “The boy’s cousin is coming in two weeks’ time for some conference, it seems. I will somehow arrange a meeting between your family and theirs. God willing, things should work out well.”

She should have been filled with hope, but all she felt was a sense of dread for what the next few days would bring. She went into her room and pretended to read a book. Her stomach began to growl. There was nothing she could do; her mother was in the kitchen.

**

She was draped in a dark maroon saree, one that her mother hoped would blur the lines of her figure. Her hair was rolled into a bun, and a strand of jasmine flowers was wrapped around it. Lipstick, kaajal, powder. She felt as if her arms were made of wood and stuck to the sockets with superglue. Yet, they did not fail her­—she was able to easily sweep her palms into a ‘namaskaram’ to the guests.

The room was crowded with people—her relatives and his. She sneaked a glance at the ‘boy’. He was dressed in grey pants and a blue-and-white-striped shirt. Probably a couple of inches taller than her; his paunch spilled over the belt and strained against the buttons of his shirt. The hair on the top of his head was thin, and threatened to reveal a bald patch soon. He just stared ahead, and did not seem to want to look up at her. She felt a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach; her head began to throb lightly.

The next half-hour went by in a blur; years later, she would try to recall what they had said to her, but fail to remember anything but a hazy scene that resembled a photo taken with a trembling hand. He supposedly asked her what she had studied and what her hobbies were; his mother had asked whether she could cook well. What had she told them? She would never know, for the responses she gleaned from some of the attendees changed with each retelling.

**

Her parents had gone to the prospective groom’s house. They had received a phone call earlier in the day, and all she had gathered from the brief conversation was that they had been asked to pay a formal visit. She was to stay at home. Her mother smoothed down the pleats of her saree one too many times, while her father combed his hair carefully. They argued for a bit about where they could find good mosambi and bananas on the way. They had called for a taxi. “I have made coffee for you; it’s next to the stove,” her mother told her before leaving the house.

She walked into the kitchen but knew better than to rummage through the shelves. Her mother had effectively removed very trace of ready-to-eat food from sight two weeks back. She was made to eat less rice than normal, and sent on walks around the block twice a day. Her hunger had given way to a persistent dull ache in her abdomen and head but she dared not complain.

She would get used to it. Just like she would get used to the guy they would marry her off to. She wondered though, what he thought of her. Did he think she was fat? Would he tell her to eat only one ladle-full of rice at each meal? Or would he mock her rotund figure? Maybe he would completely ignore her? ‘He is fat, too!’ her mind replied angrily but she shushed the thought hastily. He was working in a foreign country, had a decent job.

And they had yet to know for sure if the marriage was fixed or not.

The bell rang. She wondered if it was her parents; they had been gone for less than 15 minutes. Maybe they had forgotten something at home. She could see her mother climbing up the stairs hurriedly, beads of perspiration lining her tense forehead; her father following closely behind, chiding her mother for the lapse.

She opened the door. It was the prospective groom who had come to see her. He was standing there, looking highly uncomfortable. She was taken aback to see him. “My parents have gone to your house…” she said, her tone conveying doubt and accusation at the same time.

“I know…I came to a friend’s house. He lives two streets away, near the police station…” he pointed his hand vaguely towards the right. “I…I knew it was near your house…I came to give you this.” He extended a plastic bag. He didn’t look at her; he looked shy.

She reached out and took the bag mutely. He smiled briefly, nodded and then quickly ran down the stairs. She saw the hint of a twinkle in his eyes before he turned away. It was only when he had been gone a few minutes that she realised she should have called him in, offered him coffee. Yet, she did not run after him or call out his name.

She closed the door and went into her room. Inside the plastic bag was a small box bearing the label of a prominent sweet shop in the neighbourhood. The smell of ghee wafted into the air when she opened it. Badam halwa. She stared at it for a long time. Then, she pulled off a bit of the sticky concoction and savoured it. It melted on her tongue, leaving behind a trail of saffron-scented satisfaction in its wake.

(END)

*Picture taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/feastguru_kirti/2213698239/sizes/o/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6931416

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A Dyeing Art

An edited version of this article appeared in Culturama magazine – June 2016. You can see the article on Page 50 at this link: https://issuu.com/globaladjustments/docs/culturama_june_2016_web

All pictures courtesy Niranjan Jonnalagadda – do not reprint or re-use without prior permission.

Type the word ‘Srikalahasti’ in an Internet search engine, and popular results that pop up are for the Shiva temple located in this town, which is regarded as one of the most holy shrines in India. People come to this temple, primarily, to perform a special puja or ritual to neutralise the negative effects of Rahu and Ketu in a person’s life. (Rahu and Ketu are two malevolent deities in the Hindu astrological tradition of navagraha or nine planets; they are said to be powerful enough to mitigate all forms of prosperity).

A lesser-known fact is that this town, located in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, is that it is a centre for an ancient art form known as kalamkari. Originally known as vrathapani, the art form was given this, more popular name by the Muslim rulers of the Coromandel and Golconda provinces, who bestowed the terms ‘kalamkar’ on those practising the art, and ‘kalamkari’ on the goods that were produced. The term is derived from two Persian words – kalam (pen) and kari (craft) – and refers to the art of decorating pieces of cloth by drawing and colouring with a pen.

It is in Srikalahasti that I meet Niranjan Jonnalagada, who is regarded as one of India’s best kalamkari artists. He is a fifth generation artist in this tradition. His grandfather, Lakshmaiah’s paintings of scenes from the epic Ramayana and from stories of Lord Krishna’s life are exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Niranjan’s grandfather and father (Gurappa Chetty), played a key role in reviving this art in the 1950s, when it was near extinct.

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Of Art and History

The origins of kalamkari are said to date as far back as 3000 BC. Some historic sources say that samples of this fabric were found in the excavated sites of Mohenjo Daro. The art form flourished under the Vijayanagar kings (1336 to 1646) and Golconda Sultanate (1512 to 1687). Temples were primary patrons, and, hence, the artists were strongly influenced by religious themes. Many of their paintings depicted sequences from epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata or themes from scriptures such as the Puranas. The pieces were used as backdrops or wall hangings in the temples, or draped on rathas or temple chariots.

 

In the 17th century (or even earlier), the artists’ works were highly sought after in other parts of the world as well. Indian cloth was valued for its high quality, and Indian craftsmen were regarded as being particularly skilled in creating dyes from vegetables and minerals and ‘fixing’ them on to the cloth so that the colours did not fade.

Niranjan (2) 5

In the later half of the 17th century, the British East India Company established a roaring trade in these fabrics, and special orders were placed from the European market to produce them as dress materials and furnishing. During this time, European designs such as the Tudor rose and Persian symbols such as the ‘tree of life’ found their way into the craftsmen’s repertoire of designs, and into the kalamkari tradition.

Winds of Change

Despite its rich tradition, kalamkari suffered a decline in the early 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution resulted in boycott against fabrics imported from India to Britain. By this time, due to colonial rule, local rulers had been ousted and patronage for the arts was extremely limited. With their livelihood in question, many artists branched out into other fields.

“My grandfather and father became schoolteachers,” says Niranjan. “In the 1940s, my grandfather, Lakshmaiah, was only one of two traditional kalamkari artists in Srikalahasti. Despite being a schoolteacher, he continued to practise kalamkari as a hobby.”

In the mid-1950s, Lakshmaiah met Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, a former member of the Indian Independence Movement, who was working to revive indigenous arts and crafts. Kamala Devi was concerned that the introduction of Western-style factory based mass production – seen as a necessity for economic development – could stunt the growth of traditional artists and artisans. Thus, she set up a series of museums and institutions to archive and encourage Indian crafts and arts – including the Theatre Crafts Museum, Central Cottage Industries Emporia, All India Handicrafts Board and The Crafts Council of India.

“Kamaladevi came to Srikalahasti and met my grandfather. She asked him to take up training, so he selected six people to train – three from his family and three from other communities. The six of them trained others, and the art was revived in Srikalahasti,” says Niranjan. Lakshmaiah was also the first to teach women this art. He established a training centre and instituted a two-year course in 1957. Gurappa Chetty followed in his father’s footsteps and began to teach students in Srikalahasti, and at Sophia College in Mumbai.3 Niranjan, in turn, learnt the art from his father (Gurappa Chetty).

Niranjan lives in Srikalahasti, where he runs the Kalamkari Research and Training Centre. Like his father, he teaches students at his hometown and gives lecture-demonstrations in other parts of the country as well. Paintings, bespoke designs on saris and other wearable fabrics are part of his repertoire, and his designs are bought in India and overseas as well.

Teaching remains his primary calling – and he teaches students in Srikalahasti and inother cities. He has also travelled to several countries – including the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Switzerland, Sri Lanka and the United States – to give lecture-demonstrations. “When we do live demonstrations in other countries, people there are very interested, primarily because it is all hand-painted and hand-made – even the dyes,” he adds.

Crafted by Hand

The kalamkari process has not changed much over the centuries – it involves as many as 17 steps, all of which are done by hand. The cloth is first prepared by soaking it in a myrobalan (a fruit) and milk solution and then washed in running water. Then, the outline of the images are drawn are with a ‘pen’ – a sharpened bamboo or date palm stick with a bundle of hair or a small piece cut from a gunnysack, which is tied just above the pointed end with cotton thread. The end is dipped in dye and then used like a stylus to draw freehand on the fabric.

17 th Century kalamkari Manchester Musium 13

The fabric is treated and then the colours are filled in with the pen – but only one colour at a time. Each time a colour has been filled in, the cloth is treated with alum solution to ‘fix’ the colour. A final treatment is done once the design is complete. Due to the use of milk and natural dyes, kalamkari fabrics have a pungent smell, which fades away with time.

Opportunities and Threats

Niranjan says that kalamkari became famous in the 1960s, then suffered a decline in the 1980s, and has seen renewed interest in recent years. The surge in interest could be due to widespread initiatives by the government-run bodies such as Dastkar and Crafts Council of India to promote indigenous arts and crafts. The fact that weavers and artisans now travel to major metros and cities across the country has also helped to reduce the gap between the artist and consumer. E-commerce, too, has played its part in sparking interest and enabling wider reach. Thanks to these changes, kalamkari saris, dupattas, stoles and furnishing are now in great demand in India and abroad.

However, this surge in demand has also led to the rise of spurious lookalikes. If an artist were to follow the traditional method, it might take up to a month to complete an intricate design on a sari (which includes the two borders of the six-yard drape and the large panel on the free end or pallu). Add more colours or intricacies to the design, and the timeline is increased by a few more days. It is a labour-intensive process and involves the effort of two or three people at each stage – and, thus, is much more expensive when compared to printed fabrics.

To beat the high prices and time-consuming process, many businessmen/women skip the traditional process and replicate hand-drawn kalamkari motifs and designs through screen-printing. This reduces the price to a tenth of what you would pay for an authentic hand-drawn piece, and enables production at a much faster rate.

So, how does one make out the difference between the original work and a printed lookalike? Niranjan points out that hand-drawn motifs and designs cannot be identical across the work. If it is, it has been printed for sure.

He lists other concerns as well – the use of chemical dyes, for one. “Traditionally, only four primary colours are used in kalamkari – black, red (maroon), yellow (mustard) and blue (indigo). Green is (sometimes) derived from these. Now, we see turquoise, orange and purple in kalamari – definitely chemical colours. Also, the colours used by some people are much brighter – in contrast to the original process, which gives very subtle results,” says Niranajan. The process of making natural dyes is a priceless technique in its own right, and to lose the knowledge (which is typically passed on from master to student) due to the onslaught of chemical replacements is sad indeed.

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Add to it the fact that even simple designs are immediately scooped up by willing customers – which leaves ‘artists’ with little need to actually learn the techniques and designs properly. “Once kalamkari became famous, middlemen who don’t know anything about it are taking it up,” Niranjan says.

All of these factors are threatening the continued survival and growth of the original art form. There is little that institutions can do to protect this rich tradition from such threats. “Its up to the customers to realise the value of this art and support it, and spread the word about it,” Niranajan says.

I mention something that struck me as being extremely strange about the town – most people on the streets had no idea of what I was referring to when I mentioned the word ‘kalamkari’. Why did these people have no idea of the town’s rich tradition? “There are only two or three families who continue to do this work. Others living here and outside are all doing screen-printing. So, it is not seen as something very big or famous here. We have to educate them,” Niranjan explains

However, he says, it is not time to write an obituary just yet. There are people who still love and respect the art – and remain true to its legacy. His own family is an example. “Both my daughters are following in this tradition,” he says proudly. “And they train people to do kalamkari.” Hopefully, he says, more people will be trained in the authentic art form and keep the links alive.

And, some day, I hope, the town will be just as famous for its art as it is for its temple.

(ADDED INFO) Chock-a-Block 

There are two distinctive styles of kalamkari, both known by the names of the townswhere they originated. The Srikalahasti or ‘pen’ style is one; the other, known as the Machilipatnam style, follows a process whereby the main design is block-printed on cloth, with the finer details drawn in with a pen. The kalamkari designs developed in this coastal town (also located in Andhra Pradesh) were influenced largely by European and Persian elements, as the fabrics produced here in the 17th century was primarily for export.

Niranjan new creation 4

Both kalamkari forms have been awarded the Geographical Indication or GI tag by the Indian government (an indication that identifies goods as produced from a particular area, which have a special quality attributable to its geographical origin).

 

Short Story – Loss (Unpublished)

I wrote this story some time back. This work of fiction is not based on my own or any one else’s experiences; the core of the story was gleaned from several different sources, and it took a while before I put it together. Not everyone gets justice, and not everyone overcomes hurdles to write a success story – nonetheless, each and every story has its place in our collective consciousness.

The first thing she noticed when she walked through the gates was the missing tree. More like noticed the stump with ragged edges that marked the space where the tree had once stood. It had been big, with branches that spread out in a wide expanse, and broad, smooth leaves that looked like little green plates. She used to gaze at the tree from the kitchen window, wondering what life was like for the crow that had built a nest there. Where was the crow now?

The next thing she saw was the neighbour staring at her with an odd mix of expressions – curiosity, contempt, pity – almost as if each feeling was taking turns to appear on her face, then hiding itself upon being spotted. She stared back blankly, at which the neighbour turned away. She walked up the two steps that led to the house, and went into the hall. She was home. Or maybe, ‘home’ was where she thought she was heading to when she boarded the plane that morning.

The immigration officer who stamped her passport looked pointedly at the purple patch above her left eye, and at the knitted scar near her temple. But – thankfully – didn’t ask any questions. He was a young boy. She sensed pity, maybe fear, in his glance. 

She nodded off to sleep soon after she boarded the plane, tired from all the nights she had spent crying in the kitchen, and the drudgery of the days that preceded them. When the stewardess gave her the lunch tray, she peeled away the aluminum foil slowly, hesitantly, dreading that her husband would materialise inside the aircraft and fling the tray away. She ate every bit of the meal, carefully ensuring that not even a scrap was wasted. And then fell asleep again. She woke up only when the stewardess patted her shoulder gently, and told her that they would be landing in a few minutes.

Her mother and father had come to the airport. She found them standing outside, looking small and meek amidst the well-heeled crowd that walked quickly, dragging stylish suitcases, and chatting on fancy phones. She felt odd as she walked towards them, clad in an over-size salwar kameez, clutching her red vinyl travel bag and cheap brown handbag. They seemed to have become thinner and greyer. They didn’t say anything, but their gaze rested more on the ground than on her face. She wondered if it was because their necks were bent with worry. Or if they couldn’t bear to see the scars that marked her face. Or if they feared that their worry and anger would burn a hole through her.

The driver of the rented cab seemed to sense the morose mood of his passengers, and switched off the cheery Bollywood song that was playing. She and her mother sat at the back, with a measured distance between them. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend to be a lone passenger. 

She leaned against the wall, and stared at the empty space outside the kitchen. Her parents were speaking in low tones in the other room, no doubt wondering what they would tell the relatives and neighbours about her ‘visit’. Probably wondering when – if – she would go back. Maybe planning the formal visit to her husband’s parents, where, behind closed doors, they would bargain or beg.

She didn’t want any part of the conversation. For the moment, she was content to rest in the uncertainty that surrounded her future. Sometimes, it was better not to know – it left room for hope. An odd poem floated into her mind, something about a woman’s journey beginning in her mother’s womb, destined to end when her bier was lifted from her husband’s home. Where had she read it? Or was she making it up? Had she broken the rules? Brought dishonour to her maternal home? Made herself an object of scorn and ridicule? The questions swirled in her mind, but they didn’t hurt or prick. Like flowing water, they washed over her, leaving behind a sense of emptiness and calm.

She heard the ‘caw-caw’ of the crow from somewhere nearby. It hadn’t left after all. It seemed to be telling her of how it had lost its home. Maybe it would rebuild it. She listened to its insistent cries, waiting for it to finish, so that she too could share her story.  

(END)

Art for the Home and Hearth, Business Line, Oct 2013

This article, published in the Home & Style supplement of The Hindu Business Line, talks about how art is making its way into more homes, including those in middle-class and salaried families. The focus is on the change in people’s attitude towards art, and a growing inclination towards spending more on different forms of art. Interviews with an art collector, a gallery owner, and the owner of a boutique that sells home decor items, are woven in. Also, a box story provides tips for the first-time collector on how to select/ buy art pieces.

Janaki Hrishikesh, a Chennai resident, still remembers the first painting she brought. “It was a scene of Krishna’s rasaleela. We had just bought a house and were looking to decorate it. The painting practically drew us to it,” she says.

Back then, in 1997, she paid Rs 1,500 for the piece, which measures 12” by 36”. Over the years, she has decorated her home with varied forms of art — from paintings and murals to masks, applique and embroidered works.

Until a couple of decades back, art was considered the forte of the rich, especially those who lived in big houses with ample space to display their collections. The scene has changed considerably — now, even middle-class, salaried families are keen to invest in art. Moreover, spending has increased as well. Janaki says she spends up to Rs 10,000 for a painting, and up to Rs 2,000 on a craft item such as a mask if it is exceptional. She adds that she is willing to put down even Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh for pieces made of marble or wood

(The article continues – read it in full at the Business Line website: Art for the Home and Hearth)

(Box story: Tips for the novice collector)

Architectural Anachronism is Good, Business Line, Aug 2013

This article, published in the Home & Style supplement of The Hindu Business Line, talks about the traditional style of architecture adopted by a couple who built their home in Chennai. The article looks at the inspiration for the unique features incorporated in the interior design, and problems faced during construction. The tone is kept light and focuses more on a personal telling of a home-builder’s views rather than an account of the ‘technical’ details.

Nestled in a corner of a small lane that branches off from East Coast Road, Ramesh and Priya’s (names changed) house reminds one of ancestral homes in Karaikudi. “Some of our friends ask us if this house is hundred years old,” smiles Priya as she greets me at the door.

There are raised platforms or “thinnais” near the steps leading to the doorway, reminding one of scenes from R. K. Narayan’s novels. Sunlight streams in from the roof down to the central courtyard, which is bounded by thick pillars. “The courtyard is a common feature not only in traditional Indian homes, but also in Italy and France,” says Ramesh, Priya’s husband.

Ramesh and Priya lived in the US for several years before deciding to move back to Chennai. About five years ago, the couple asked an architect based in Pondicherry to create the blueprint. The house was built over three-and-a-half years.

(The article continues – read it in full at the Business Line website: Architectural Anachronism is good)

‘Serendipity’ – Featured in ‘Love Across Borders’

‘Love Across Borders’ is an anthology of short stories about human relationships across the border, conceived and published by Indireads as a literary and civic initiative. My short story, ‘Serendipity’, is one of the stories included in this anthology. The e-book can be downloaded for free.

Given below is a blog post written by me, as featured on the Indireads website – a brief synopsis of the story and the inspiration behind it.

When Indireads asked me if I was interested in writing a short story for an anthology that focused on the India-Pakistan theme, I was more than happy to jump on board. I tried my hand at two or three different plots, but it was a romance that finally turned out to be the best fit.

Neha, an Indian, and Riyaz, a Pakistani, meet at Changi Airport in Singapore, while they are en route to Mumbai. Sparks fly (the good kind), and Riyaz insists they should forge ahead, but Neha is troubled by the rift that divides their countries. Later, Neha decides that matters of the heart cannot be impeded by lines on a map and tells Riyaz that she wants to meet him. However, their hopes of a happy reunion are thwarted when the Taj, where Riyaz is staying, is bombed in a terrorist attack. Whether their romance is burnt to cinders, or if they meet again is the crux of the plot.

The idea of getting the characters to meet at the airport of a country foreign to both appealed because Indians and Pakistanis are often a lot friendlier when they meet on grounds away from both homes. I wanted to stress the notion of how, when you strip away the burden of social restrictions, bonds can be forged a lot more easily. I wove in the Taj Hotel bombing (2008) to show that such attacks claim the lives of people—no matter which country’s passport they hold. Above all, I wanted to write a story that touched on differences, but in a way that sought to highlight that they are largely in our minds.

– Read more about the anthology on the Love Across Borders website. To read my short story, and others in the anthology, download your free copy.

‘Beautiful’: Winner of Indireads Short Story Contest, 2013

My short story, Beautiful, was picked as a winner in the ‘romance’ category in the Indireads Short Story Contest 2013. The story is centered on the memory of a teenage boy’s first love, and the recollection of it several years later. An extract is given below – you can read the full story at this link.

“You are sitting across the table, smiling at me. The candle placed between us, and the overhead chandelier cast a beautiful glow over your kohl-lined eyes. Or maybe it is your happiness that lends that sparkle to your eyes. Your lips are full and pink—beautifully contoured, and sparkling with lip gloss.

You love me. Do I love you? But you never asked. You just lowered your eyes and asked if I have ever loved anyone. I smile back at you. You always did have a way with words.

I would see her every morning, sitting on her haunches, stooped over to draw a kolam—a traditional pattern made with rice flour and nimble fingers. She would begin with a dot, a line, a curve. Within minutes, an intricate pattern would evolve.

The entry to her house was opposite mine. I was staying with my grandparents for the summer. My father needed to travel for work, and my mother claimed she was going along to ‘take care of him’. At 13, I knew it was not the full truth. But at 13, I didn’t know it was their last chance at making the marriage work.

I loved my grandparents’ house—it was small and functional, with a garden that my grandmother tended to religiously. There were a couple of trees and some flowering plants that grew in a neat line along the wall. At one end was the gate where I would stand each morning, a cup of coffee in hand, waiting for her. I was tall for my age, so I could easily peer over the top of the gate. When she emerged from the house, I would pretend to be lost in thought, and therefore, not notice her smile. 

For the next ten minutes or so, I would stand at the gate, watching her embellish the design with little details—a flower here, a dome there—until it all came together in an artistic piece. When she finished, she would look up and smile again. This time, I would smile back. She would pick up her bowl of left-over flour and head back into the house. I would drain the dregs of my coffee and head back into the house. We never spoke.

(The story continues – read the rest of the story here)