Atlas of a Master Storyteller

As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.

In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting menNow he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.

Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero.  This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”


Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.


Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”  it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.

You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland. 

As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.

Christoph Ransmayr*

Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.

The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.

“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”

And I see it all. Every little thing.

Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.

“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”

What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.

“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”

And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.



Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like the yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat or the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.


Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family, in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi, unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad, yet dark, hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.



In the Country of Men – A Story of Love and Grief

Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.

Many times while reading Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’, I asked myself if this book would have resonated so much with me had I not been living here, in the UAE. If I had not had, among my friends, people who hail from other Middle East nations. If we had not shared stories with each other over tea and croissants. Or reminisced longingly about our home countries while maneuvering the rush hour traffic…

The answer is, probably not. Because some stories tend to remain once removed until they enter your immediate orbit. Until the ambiguous ‘they’ becomes a Maha, Sameh or Yasmin. Until you see at close quarters the shadow of displacement and hopeless longing at the edges of their brown, sun-lit eyes. Then they begin to find their echo in you.

Once, early on in my brief stint with a corporate house as its content provider, I was introduced to someone who had just come back from Syria after the funeral of his sister. She had been arrested some weeks ago for taking part in protests. In the same office, a young girl, only slightly older than my son, went to her country on vacation and was held there under house arrest. In the idealism of her youth, she had posted some images of protests on social media. It took months of intervention for her to be allowed out of her country.

In the Country of Men reminded me of all these stories. And others I have heard and read over the past twelve years in the Middle East.


Set in Tripoli, Libya, during Qaddafi’s regime, the narrative unfolds as a series of events seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Suleiman. Slooma, as he is fondly addressed by the people close to him, is a not-very-silent witness to personal and political realities he is unable to fully grasp.  His beautiful yet ‘ill’ mother is an enigma; so is his businessman father who suddenly goes away without informing him. Then there are others – friends, neighbours, and acquaintances – whose lives are inextricably tied to his own: Moosa, Nasser and several others, including his friend and next door neighbour Kareem and his father Ustath Rashid.

Suleiman is puzzled and deeply hurt by the events that unfold, and he reacts to them in ways that only a child is capable of. In the end, he too bears the brunt of an uprising gone wrong in the world of adults.

In the Country of Men is also a story of love – the love of a nine-year-old son for his mother. She who condemns Sheherzadie of One Thousand and One Nights for choosing the life of a slave over death. Suleiman’s love for his mother is complex, often inexplicable even to himself. He longs to protect her from her own past, from all the men who seem to run her life. Yet there are times when he is filled with anger and hatred towards this self-absorbed woman with secrets he can’t bear to be privy to.

If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark, warm embrace of hate, but always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. 

In the Country of Men certainly has its moments. Poignant ones. Some as beautiful as the Mediterranean sea and sky they evoke. And there are words that linger even after you close the book and put it away.

I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. (…) How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us.

So it goes, Matar’s narrative, which effectively conveys Suleiman’s love, loneliness, bewilderment and misplaced anger to the reader, while highlighting the pervading sense of the fear and anxiety that stems from Libya’s political climate of the time. The unease that Suleiman feels is also the reader’s.

I have to admit though that I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, especially towards the end, when the story suddenly seems to fragment, dissipate. There are  paragraphs that felt disjointed and rushed, pages I sought more from. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative stopped just short of achieving something. Poetry, perhaps. Or something equally vague.

Or perhaps the fault lies in my expectations.

For a while now, I had been reading more about books than books themselves. My desk and bookshelf are full of half-read fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Sometimes I feel as if the summer has a vice-grip on my soul, not allowing me to focus on anything. ‘In the Country of Men’ is, in truth, the first book I have completed in many weeks. And I feel a sense of release – as if a dark spell has been broken. As if the ennui, the listlessness, will soon begin to ebb, like the heat outside. In that sense, I do have a lot to be grateful for. To Hisham Matar’s Man Booker Prize-nominated book.


Visiting The Little Prince in Japan

By Rowena Mondiwa


“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

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In the little resort town of Hakone, just outside of Tokyo, I visited a part of my literary childhood. The moment I learned that Japan has the only Little Prince Museum in the world, I made a mental note that I had to visit it should I ever visit Japan. That dream came true in June 2017 when I visited Japan for the first time. On hearing my Hakone plans, my friend from Tokyo asked me, “Why are you going to Hakone? Onsen (hotspring)?” Most people do go to Hakone for the hotsprings, to visit  the famous lake, or to see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear. The look of amusement on my friend’s face is one I’ve seen on many non-readers’ faces when I tell them about my literary aspirations, but that has never stopped me from my single-minded bookish pursuits. Fellow bookworms will understand my love of bibliotourism.

A few days after landing in Tokyo I took the Shinkansen to Odawara, and from there I took the bus to Hakone. The lady at the Odawara bus station nodded knowingly when I told her I was going to the Little Prince museum, and with gestures told me to wait until the bus driver calls the stop of Hoshi no Ōjisama Myūjiamu (The Little Prince Museum).

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Bookworms are strange, I’m the first to admit it. I’m compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my literary loves. Having literary experiences ranks higher than a lot of things in my life. With The Little Prince, this book goes back with me a long way; the love runs deep. I was 10 years old when I first encountered it, and I was immediately smitten, probably due to a mixture of the great pictures (to this day I believe that all novels should contain illustrations), the characters, the simple truths. It was also due to being a child, nodding fervently when the prince says, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I totally got that, being a misunderstood child myself. Now as an adult, I believe that book helped me keep my childlike curiosity and heart, and it’s a book that seems to have grown with me, one I have gained a deeper understanding of.

When I stepped off the bus in front of the museum, I realized I had picked the perfect day and season to visit. The sun was shining bright, and the flowers, particularly the roses, were in full bloom. The Little Prince museum was built as a sort of replica of a French village. It was, like I said, a perfect day to visit. The gardens were spectacular. We could explore the book and also the life of de Saint-Exupery

It feels cliché to say this, but I honestly felt like I was walking in the book. Books that really impact us as children, I believe, become a part of our souls. When the mind is still young, naïve and growing, with childlike curiosity and still not fully aware of the world, it is a mind that is malleable and fertile for new ideas and words. The first talking rose you meet you will probably remember, and subsequent talking roses won’t be as strange to you. When you learn that grown-ups only care about numbers, you vow not to be like that. At least I did.

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Rowena and I met in the great world of Twitter, brought together perhaps by a shared love for the written word. It was pure serendipity that she feels the same spiritual connection I have with The Little Prince. Perhaps more, because she travelled all the way to experience it!


When I requested her for an introduction of herself to the readers, she sent me this: “Due to her Third Culture Kid upbringing, Rowena has always been passionate about culture, language, and communication. The arts are her passion and keep her grounded and curious about life. Other hobbies include nature, cooking, travel, and hiking.”

So now I learn that we share much more than a love for the written word! Nature, cooking, travel… And flowers. Isn’t it wonderful that social media enables birds of similar feather to flock together, even when they roost in different ends of the world?


Images courtesy Rowena Mondiwa 

Rowena’s blog: https://lesreveriesderowena.wordpress.com



A Tapestry of Words


Reading The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor. An anthology: a collection of- what? Prose? Poetry? Short stories? Just texts? I don’t know. There are things that defy classification. Nor can I review the book – in the real sense of the word. Because I don’t have what it takes: the knowledge, for one. Or the objectivity, the clearheadedness, the whateverelse. I was never good at reviewing anything!

No. I’m just a reader. A feel-er. A reveller in words…


So I can do only what I can do: meander through the weft and warp of the tapestry, pausing every so often to wonder, marvel, feel, revel…

And thank whoever is up there or down here – for all the beautiful words that come to me in brown, bubble wrapped parcels… Just gratitude and love.  As I realise, yet again, that to write is to – 

       love                        rue                      hope

paint                                               hum                             dance

     linger                         wonder                       wander

          ponder                         hesitate

 reminisce                       listen                                     dream

hurt                              bleed                       splinter              grieve

recall              sigh                             sob                    smile

       trust                         confide                        pray 

    reach out                             feel


                                                             in words


 Thank you John, for this beautiful gift I am unravelling, one word at a time. And for reminding me that… 

To write is. 

To live. 

 And die. 

One word at a time.


The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor -writer, critic, and translator. Published by Xenos Books. 

About John Taylor: http://johntaylor-author.com/en/about-johntaylor/


Soul, he said


It was love at first sight. In a greyly lit room filled with mild disquiet, anxious conversations and a few grey souls, the black and gold catalogue seemed strangely aloof. Luminous, and beyond anything my imagination had conjured up when I heard the term ‘publisher’s catalogue’. I watched it being passed from hand to hand to exclamations of delight and awe, smug in the knowledge that it was intended for me. You may covet all you want, ladies and gentlemen. But this beautiful, beautiful object is mine – and you can’t do a thing about it!

When it finally reached me, I held on tight, refusing to pass it on further or even put it down on the desk. I am known to be selectively selfish.

Later that evening, it was with a sense of reverence that I opened the catalogue to go through its contents: a collection of texts from his authors, written in response to a ‘provocation’ sent out to them by Naveen Kishore, founder and director of Seagull Books:

A myth. Of futility. Do not misunderstand so early in the half-formed thought. Not merely and uselessly futile. I speak of the futility of our lives filled to the brim with so many things. Not always essential. These so many things. All vital. Or life giving. Just things. That rattle in empty tins. Like heads filled with echoes.

So make me a myth of the futility of things.

And they did. Ivan Vladislavic, Mahasweta Devi, Thomas Lehr, Gayatri Spivak, Hans Magnus Enzensburger, Monica Cantini, Yves Bonnefoy… Just a handful of names from the impressive list of writers who responded to the provocation.

Sisyphus, it seemed, was being celebrated as never before – through language stretched, bent and moulded to loving will. Words like perspectives and writing styles seemed inadequate to describe the wealth of text those pages contained. The illustrations took off where the texts ended, adding to the meaning, lending it colour and form that seemed almost impossible.

At every turn of page, the possibility of the incredible, the unexpected – the fantastic. I was an overzealous Alice meandering through Wonderland! 

Futility Catalogue

Back in the eighties, when my cousin was doing her MA, she had a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets – a hardbound volume with a blue and cream sleeve – that I had my eye on. Somehow, it always ended up spending more time with me than her. So much so that I had seriously considered pinching it while leaving home for the big city in search of a job. (To be fair, I did try asking her nicely, but she refused.)

In the end, I did not, of course. But it left behind a gap that no paperback, new or second hand, was ever able to fill.

I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that over the years, there have been many great works of literature that I left halfway through reading merely because the dull black, closely printed words on equally dull, thin, bluish-grey paper seemed a sacrilege to the literature it contained. And soul-numbingly tiresome to read.

So you see what that catalogue, and the many books that came from Seagull after, meant to me.

Now I am the proud owner of some truly remarkable books; among them these gorgeously produced catalogues, each with its own eclectic set of texts. There is the Loss catalogue (one of my favourites), last year’s stunningly beautiful one on Blindness, an earlier catalogue on Notes finished and incomplete… Plus a few older ones that I am yet to read. The pleasure I derive from the sheer sight of them, the touch and smell of them, is beyond words.


There’s a rather cheesy statement that talks about the universe conspiring to get you what you want with all your being. Perhaps it’s true. Only, I had not even dreamt of finding my own writing within the covers of a Seagull Books catalogue – until I received the ‘provocation’.

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

Body, soul, fear, love, death. Literature. Existential angst. The dark as a substitute for soul. Why did those words make me think of my old home? My tharavad, now a tired old ghost that lives somewhere between me and my sleep. Its trees and snakes and dark corners. Its shadows – warm, generous, forgiving. At some point, they had willingly sheltered a broken, confused teenager from the harsh light of the outside world. Shadows.

Collage by Sundandini Banerjee 

My childhood was one of stories – heard, read and imagined. And eventually narrated, with great gusto and enough embellishments, to lure a bunch of open-mouthed younger cousins to do my bidding. She still talks about the stories you used to tell, my aunt told me a few days ago. Bindu, her daughter, had been one of my most avid listeners. Minichechi! Don’t stop now… Go on, pleeease!

And so I wrote my response, with little conscious thought about what/how I was writing.

Body, soul, fear, love, death, literature, existential angst… And the dark as a substitute for soul. Tangled inextricably, like the roots of an ancient tree. Who am I to separate them?

The other day, some of us friends were talking about healing. One suggested religion, another counselling – or psychotherapy, where necessary. I did not tell them that I had tried it all, with limited success. Literature, I said, and they smiled indulgently. I smiled back, knowing. 

That was random recall. I do that to a fault.


When the ‘Soul’ catalogue reached my home in Dubai, I was in India. And when it reached my address in India, I was on hospital duty. My moment of glory, suspended. 

It’s beautiful, ‘Mma! You know you are in lofty company? I was told over a long-distance call. As eager as I was, eight nights of no sleep and total mental and physical exhaustion later, I have only now started reading. That too in small chunks – between client meetings, press releases, testimonials and op-eds that were waiting for me.


I pause in between work to look longingly at the silver grey catalogue on my table. I pick it up, flip through the pages with their marvellous illustrations. Touch a word, a dragonfly… Read a line or two, and put it aside – feeling the guilty taste of  unfinished work on my tongue. Let me finish this, I promise myself. Just let me get this done! And I return to my work.

Times are tough, as times tend to be. In fact, they have been so for a while. But you have so much literature in you! someone had reminded me once. True. There is always the literature. All 402 pages of it. Waiting.


The Summer, the Desert and the Digamma

Desert sky

We entered our sixth year saddened and in pain.

Every day my son asks me,

‘How long my father, until we return?

I miss the children of our street,

I miss the taste of our water

And the weather of our gorgeous country.’

Shiva read out the lines to me this morning. Written by Salam Ashara, a Syrian refugee. It was part of an article on refugees in an old edition of Gulf News, one that fell out of a shirt that came from the laundry. The launderers here fold the clothes around newspapers while ironing – perhaps for ‘structural support’ as Appu insists, or, as I suspect, for the fresh, crackling sound it gives off when you touch it.

Just a few lines of poetry, crisp like a starched and ironed cotton shirt. Lines written by a father who wants to keep his country alive for his children. How else does one keep anything alive except through the written word, the symbols – letters – it comprises?

The Malayalam word for ‘letter’ (from the alphabet) is ‘aksharam’: ah + ksharam. That which does not perish. Everlasting. Timeless.

Young Saintana was my colleague during my short stint as external consultant at a PR firm. She used to give me a lift sometimes, when we both finished work at the same time. Meandering through the peak hour traffic from Internet City to Al Rigga Station, we would talk about random things. And very often our conversations moved between her passion for perfumes and cooking, and her memories of her hometown somewhere up in the mountains of Syria – which she hadn’t visited for ages.

Beyond her delicate Mediterranean profile and tumbling sunlit curls, beyond Dubai’s speeding skyline, just short of the orange sky, a thousand vivid images would shape themselves into an abstract tapestry. Woven as much by her words as her slim fingers waltzing in the air. Colours, smells, tastes, togetherness, warmth, love, nostalgia…Grandparents who told stories about the past, ‘jamming’ and pickling seasons when all members of the family gathered around a table, picking the finest fruits and vegetables and spices…

“Our hands would be all red with the juice from the cherries,” she would say, smiling at the memory. And I would watch her fingers wrap around the little red fruit that only she could see. 

I loved listening to her stories. Stories of a culture so different from mine, yet so similar. I too have stories like that. Stories of what once was, and now isn’t. All gone – just like that. Never to return. Or to return as something else for someone else.

Like the digamma.

The Digamma is the title of the book that I’m currently reading— Correction: one of the three books I’m reading intermittently these days. It’s a collection of poetry in prose by Yves Bonnefoy, published by Seagull Books. Out of the five books by this great French poet that my kind friend of words had sent me last month, I chose this one because its title intrigued me.

The internet has a lot to say about the digamma.




a letter of the Greek alphabet (Ϝ) that became obsolete before the classical period of the language. It represented a semivowel like English W and was used as a numeral in later stages of written Greek, and passed into the Roman alphabet as F

I don’t understand – not really. A letter that was once a part of an alphabet, and then wasn’t. Which then became a number, and was eventually passed on to someone else to become something else…

How does it all work?

I’m reading The Digamma in fits and starts – one little paragraph, a page, a couple of lines at a time. I lose the thread somewhere in the middle and put the book away, then take it up and start rereading it.

I’m also reading And; Nonetheless by Philippe Jaccottet (ChelseaEditions) and the last few pages of the latest Seagull Books catalogue in between.


I pause to marvel at the beauty of a word, a sentence, an image it conjures. Then I lose my grip on the text again, put it away again and this time, head to the kitchen. With something bordering on despair.

“Despair, ‘Mma? Isn’t that extreme?” Adu asks. Perhaps it is desperation then, not despair, that I feel.

Cooking always helps. The absolute physicality of it, I mean. Till it tires me. 

It has been like that for a while now. I’m unable to read or write or do anything else as I’d have liked to. I’m restless, listless. Just less.

Perhaps like my body, I too need a complete overhaul. And some green. There’s almost no green left in me now. The summer, the desert, has drained me of green.

I have the sun, baby, but not the chlorophyl! So I can’t photosynthesise.

Urgh! That sounds cheesy even to me!

Let me say it again: I blame it all on the summer in this desert. This desert as in the desert on this side of the great desert out there, the one you see as you speed past it on the highway. That one is vast and primordial, like an ancient bedouin matriarch with deeply wrinkled face and hands, peering at you benevolently from behind her batoola. That one still has ghaff trees and bone dry desert shrubs. And if you stop your car, step out and wiggle your toes in the sand, you can find seashells buried within.

Seashells! Can you believe it?

So this— no, that desert out there was once a sea, an ocean. Blue and green and thronging with life. And then it was gone. All of it. The blue, the green, the life… Became something else. Like the digamma. All that is left is this vast, insatiable lust. For blue and green and life.

Still, on a winter evening, you can go out there, spread your arms and embrace the desert. And the sky, the bare hills, the sea you know is there, somewhere. Beyond, beneath… Who knows where, exactly.

This desert, the one you see in between the glass and chrome and concrete, this one is different. It gets to you. Gets you, rather. Sooner or later. This one is just sand, and one day you realise you’re also just sand. Perhaps with bits of fossils buried in you. And you also know that eventually they’ll dig you out, out of yourself, and build another skyscraper where you now stand.

And you, like the digamma, first become obsolete, then return as a number, and then become something else for someone else. A handful of sand? Seashells? Stardust? Memories? Or a story you narrate to a colleague on a summer evening as you weave through the rush-hour traffic?

You, then, are a letter in an alphabet, a symbol. Aksharam: that which does not perish. That which is, even when it isn’t. Like the digamma.


No Fixed Abode: an Introspection of Urban Isolation

I have a penchant for rereading books I like. A variation of the errant tendency that makes me repeatedly listen to the same song or watch the same movie till it becomes a part of my DNA. The thing is, I like the comfort of returning to a familiar space, no unpleasant surprises in store. And there is also the thrill of finding interpretations and nuances that were missed the first time round.

Recently, though, I have developed a new habit. I return to the same book just hours after I have finished reading it the first time. I think it started with The Pilgrim’s Bowl. I was so unwilling to put it down that I went back quite a few times, revisiting random lines, paragraphs and chapters. Now I find myself doing it with other books too. Maybe my reluctance to part is growing with age. 

When I finished reading No Fixed Abode, I knew I had to read it again, and urgently. The reasons were very different from those that made me return to The Pilgrim’s Bowl. If that one was about poetry and nostalgia, this was because it left me – for want of a better term – restless. The kind of restlessness one feels when one is not able to decipher the last couple of clues in a crossword puzzle. 

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No Fixed Abode is not a book that would ordinarily have crossed my path or mind. I got it at the recommendation of a friend, one with similar taste in words. The name itself was intriguing to me. For someone who lost count of the number of times she has moved homes, such a name would automatically ring a bell.

Then of course there is the seductive charm of a hardbound, beautifully produced book batting its eyelashes at you through its prim grey jacket. There’s no book-lover alive who can resist that kind of temptation. I couldn’t. 

A confession: It’s rarely that I read a book blurb before I’m through with the book itself (I know it doesn’t make sense, but then, that’s me – I hardly make sense), but this time the terms ‘ethnofiction’ and ‘fictional ethnography’ on the inside flap of the jacket caught my attention. Certain polysyllabic words are so irresistible that it is hard to leave them behind and walk away. You have to bend down, pick them up and hold them to the light.

So I did my usual back and forth with Google and came up with this definition by Tobias Hecht, an American anthropologist, ethnographer, and translator:  

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

I warmed up to the term – and to the genre itself – immediately. Marrying anthropology and imagination seemed like the perfect situation, leading to endless possibilities. The rest of the blurb actually piqued my interest further: urban poverty and the resultant isolation is not a topic I come across very often, except in essays and activist Tweets. 

No Fixed Abode, however, did not fit into any slot I had created for it. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from all of them. 

Narrated as irregular diary entries made by Henri, a retired tax inspector who can no longer afford to maintain a home in Paris, No Fixed Abode explores the growing distance between an individual and the wider society he has been a part of, in a personal yet curiously objective manner. 

I’ve always dreamt about escaping. It’s a recurrent night time scene. The scenario’s never entirely the same, but each time I find myself surrounded by enemies who’ve miraculously failed to notice my presence(…) I wake up suddenly, shaken and upset, and the relief at having escaped my demons – those demons I can’t identify but which return regularly to haunt me – soon gives way to anxiety at having to face the tedium of the daily round. 

Henri’s ‘escape’ from domesticity, and subsequently his identity, happens by degrees: a slow transition from being an ordinary citizen to one that veers off the expected course, warily treading the unfamiliar paths of homelessness. In relinquishing his possessions, Henri is also leaving behind everything that has thus far been integral to his existence. To him, being alone is no longer an imposition, it is something he accepts  without resentment.

Loneliness — it’s best to call it by its name — has nothing unbearable about it. Silence is less annoying than the efforts aimed at overcoming it, and it’s infinitely less painful to be quiet on your own than when there is two of you.

As his grip on everyday social requisites loosens, Henri finds himself faltering at the fringes of the normal, unsure of the way ahead. The ties that bind him to the community are fraying, and even being with friends is no longer what it used to be.

It’s difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role anymore, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place, or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless.

Henri’s defining moment comes when Dominique, an artist who drifts into his life, invites him into hers, once again offering a chance to return to society. As Henri makes his choice, his readers are faced with the vagaries of a culture that has rendered their choices and priorities questionable at best. 

Marc Auge

To me, No Fixed Abode is a rather dispassionate introspection of urban isolation in the form of a deceptively simple narrative. Written by Marc Auge and translated by Chris Turner for Seagull Books, the book poses questions that are both cultural and anthropological, leaving the reader a little disturbed – as if suddenly confronted with an uncomfortable truth.  

They say books appeal to us because we find bits and pieces of ourselves in there. Or because we find in them answers we have been seeking. In which case, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to immediately reread No Fixed Abode: whether I was looking for fragments of the self, or trying to find answers.

Perhaps I was merely attempting to understand the questions themselves better. 

All I can say is that the book left me just as ruffled the second time too. Some truths remain uncomfortable regardless of how many times you confront them.


The cover of No Fixed Abode has been designed by Sunandini Banerjee from a photograph by Bishan Samaddar.

*Images courtesy Google Images

The Lure of Sleeping Places

“‘Sleeping beauty’ landscapes with their lieux dormantes, their  ‘sleeping places’.

There was a house opposite our tharavad – family home – where I had spent a good part of my first twenty-one years. A quaint, colonial style, occupantless bungalow (words like unoccupied and abandoned don’t seem appropriate in this context) that was called poonthottam veedu or ‘the garden house’ – for obvious reasons. It used to be a source of endless fascination for us, my friend Suma and me. Whenever she came down on vacation, we would plead with the goodnatured groundkeeper until he allowed us to wander around the grounds, and on rare occasions, inside the house, on the condition that we didn’t touch a thing, mind us.

“…like a space in which no one will ever really live.”

I lost count of the times we had visited it – through our childhood, teenage and youth – until we both left our hometowns for separate metropolises. There was always something new, something fascinating, to discover in that little bungalow with its large yard. A sudden, unexpected flush of yellow lilies that decided to bloom one morning; a  large, petrified cement fish that revealed itself when someone decided to clean up the broken fountain; a pattern we had not noticed before on the stunning blue mosaic of the porch; a heartbreaking crack that had developed in our absence on the exquisite sculpture of a cupid and angel locked in a timeless embrace – the one that stood in its niche at the far end of the porch.

We would wonder at the treasures that lay beyond the closed doors, or inside the locked wooden boxes and table drawers.  A bathroom window would have sprung open in the night wind, and we would stand on our toes to look at the framed posters of women in wet, transparent dresses that adorned its walls. We would giggle quietly, and talk in hushed whispers about the owner – an artist who had died long before we were born. A collector of beautiful things, a dreamer whose life, in retrospect, must have been far removed from his immediate reality.

“The mellow, unvarying light reigning in the painting makes one wonder whether it is the morning or evening light – morning light, more likely because there is an impression of waiting -, a light that seems inside things…”

It was our world, Suma’s and mine: intimate, secretive and special, and one we never tired of visiting and revisiting. Whether to walk around, our bare feet crunching the crisp dead leaves that lined the ground, talking about whatever girls talked about at that age; to sit on the dusty porch and hum popular film songs and poetry, Suma’s lovely voice lending tone and depth to my obsessively recalled lyrics; to collect a bunch of lilies that we would carefully place in the hand of the cupid, marvelling at the incredible care with which even the fingernails of the statue had been sculpted…

Or merely to breathe in the air of beauty and mystery that the place held.

“…a thin layer of dust fall on the objects of his still lifes…like a layer of time that would protect them and make them denser…”

Some books are like that too – mystical in their lure. They fold their arms and smile their MonaLisa smile, and you are hooked. And once you open the cover and step inside their portals, they have you for life. You revisit them any number of times, and there will always be something new to discover: a word here, a nuance there, a phrase that torments you with its possibilities, a sentence that is lit from within, and without shadows when explored in sunlight.

A couple of nights ago I finished reading ‘The Pilgrim’s Bowl’ by Philippe Jacottet: the Swiss poet’s meditations on the oeuvre of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, translated into English by John Taylor. Now, I am not educated enough on art, and apart from excerpts from essays by R. Siva Kumar on K.G. Subramanyan’s works, I’ve never read long texts on art. So what I know of Morandi (apart from what I have just read) comes from the internet: that his paintings are ‘noted for their tonal subtlety in depicting apparently simple subjects, which were limited mainly to vases, bottles, bowls, flowers and landscapes’. But The Pilgrim’s Bowl has me spellbound.

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…his natures mortes…make you…think of the patience of old farmers or a monk in his frock…

I came to know of ‘The Pilgrim’s Bowl’ because my friends from Twitterland were raving about it. I bought it because it is everything I want a book to be: hardcover, with a lovely jacket, and, and, lovingly produced by Seagull Books. I admit to being unabashedly partial when it comes to Seagull books because they are unfailingly of a quality that books ought to be, in an ideal world. Often much more, because The Pilgrim’s Bowl comes with ‘the painting plates of Morandi’s works pasted in the old fashioned manner when type was set by hand and colour plates printed on smooth (art ) paper and cut and pasted in the book.’ Gorgeous!

“…I can say no less despite my having less to say…”

Reading a text written by a poet about an artist he deeply reveres is pure pleasure, as I realised while perusing Jaccottet’s words on Morandi. ‘Meditates’ is indeed the only term that describes with a degree of accuracy what the poet does here. Thoughts and words meander – sometimes sure-footedly, sometimes tentatively – to explore the artist and his art with what I would call a childlike wonderment. If ever I get to see Morandi’s works in real life, the experience would be richer for having read The Pilgrim’s Bowl.

I found myself going back and forth, unravelling words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, exploring them in and out of context, underlining some, scribbling beside others, turning them over and over in my head and looking at them in different lights. The last page seemed to come all too soon.

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Giorgio Morandi

Despite that sudden, familiar pang as I closed the book and put it down, I know I’m not going to miss this book; not really. Simply because I’ll return to it for sure, and often. How can I not? I’m a collector too. Of stamps, coins and marbles with air bubbles trapped in them; of pebbles, seashells and dried flowers pressed inside books; of books and words; of experiences and leuix dormantes – beautiful ones. And like any collector, I often visit my treasures – to gaze at them, to breathe in their scent, to press my cheeks against them… And sometimes I smile in the darkness knowing that they are mine.

The Pilgrim’s Bowl is the latest to go into my metaphorical box of collectibles – the large wooden one with brass inlay. And each time I feel the need for some quiet words, some ‘…light that would be both internal and remote, and blend with infinite patience’, I’ll open it and take out ‘this small and erudite tome’ and delve into its depths. 

The thought makes me smile.

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Philippe Jaccottet

*Most images are courtesy Google Images. Their captions are excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Bowl. 

A Preface to Man

Disclaimer: The English translations given here are personal interpretations of the Malayalam text, not written in consultation with the author. Any possible flaws or misinterpretations thereof are my responsibility. 


Poorna valarchayethum munpe marichu povunna ore oru jeeviyaanu manushyan.

“Man is the only animal that is fated to die before reaching maturity.”

Subhash Chandran’s multiple-award winning Malayalam novel, Manushyanu oru Aamukham (DC Books), roughly translated as ‘A Preface to Man’, begins on that profound, yet admittedly pompous, note.

I found myself frowning at that line: we Malayalis have a penchant for the profound and pompous, and the more p-and-p something sounds, the more elite and intellectual we consider it. I suffer from a reverse chauvinism that makes me sceptical of anything that sounds polysyllabic, metaphorically speaking. 

The book had come to my hands quite casually – a friend passed it on because he happened to receive an extra copy – and I was not familiar with the author or his writing. If I persisted despite the unexciting cover and the opening line, it was out of curiosity – there must be a reason the book gathered all those awards! That plus a renewed determination to explore contemporary Malayalam literature.

It took me but a couple of pages to realise what I had taken on.

Reading Subhash Chandran’s debut novel was no picnic. It was more like what I imagine a week-long trek through the Amazonian rainforest would be: excruciatingly demanding and exhausting in turns, yet every step a discovery.  In the end, what you feel is an overwhelming sense of wonderment; you are elated and humbled at once, and richer for the experience.

Manushyanu oru Aamukham unfolds itself as an extended flashback that lasts most of the narrative.  It does not merely tell the story of its central character Jithendran, his immediate and extended family, and the community he is a part of; rather, the story ‘stands within the time constraints of a hundred years to play out the emotions, traditions and experiences (certainly not history) that are quintessentially Keralite’ on the stage of  a fictitious village named Thachanakkara in central Kerala.

Most of the chapters begin with excerpts from the countless letters that Jithendran wrote to the love of his life through the course of their six year long courtship – pointers to the personal and social issues that haunt Jithan. Though the author explicitly states that he has not made any attempt to record history, the book draws heavily on the social, political and cultural evolution that the little southern state of India undergoes in the course of a century or more.

You must be aware of a modern phenomenon among the so-called upper caste revolutionaries. When they meet someone new, they somehow manage to reveal, quite subtly, their ‘upper-casteness’ within the first five lines they speak.  I think that today our society is full of idiots who, when they have no personal achievements to speak of, resort to the ‘if nothing else, I come from a higher caste, you see’ sentiment.  You once told me that from my demeanour you assumed I was a Nair.  My love, allow me to say this: I hate myself for having those affectations which made you think so.

Complex, detailed and vast, the narrative of Manushyanu oru Aamukham relentlessly dissects the vagaries of human nature, and without any attempts at judgement, presents the findings in 372 closely printed pages. Jithan’s village could be the microcosm of Kerala, or the world itself; its people, randomly collected samples of mankind.

The vacuum that the death of a fifty-four year old named Jitendran left behind on this earth encompassed, at most, his silent, vacant flat. It had nothing in particular to do with either the other twenty-seven flats in that building, the countless such apartments in Thachanakkara, or the arrogantly independent houses that rubbed shoulders with them. For inside each of them was its own master, whose life could not have been so very different from the one that Jithan had lived since he was twenty-seven. The same life that he had calmly, dutifully, carried out for the past twenty five years, in a different city: gossiping, bragging and judging, being incapable of offering a sincere compliment to another, blaming the society without any attempt at introspection, worshipping the mother goddess while vilifying one’s own mother, revelling with blind pride in the achievements of one’s children and sneering at those of others’, smiling widely at neighbours to hide the intense resentment one carried, secretly enjoying the humiliations that befell respectable members of the community, drowning one’s own guilt in loud remarks about the moral decay of society, taking refuge in the insecure religiousness of ageing, deeming vulgar the sexuality of another, holding on to a sense of entitlement and spouting the disgust that comes with that belief, and above all, deriding every human being outside of one’s immediate family of four… 

Subhash Chandran’s language is powerful yet poetic –  the work of a master craftsman who knows exactly where and how to place each word.  The resultant narrative is a linguistic treat, to be read, re-read and savoured at leisure. 

Jithan had not yet reached the age that divided the world by lines of ownership. Mine and Yours were concepts he had not grasped. His naive belief that, like the sky and the river and the wind, everything belonged to everyone gave a strange sense of clarity to his days. To him time was a celebration of today, unencumbered by yesterdays and tomorrows. Noon was when he became hungry, evening began when the school bell rang, night fell when he felt sleepy, and morning dawned when he woke up. 

There are good books that you read and pass on. There are great books that linger long after you have read them. And then there are books, rare ones, that  grab you by the jugular and refuse to let go. Books you feel privileged to read, like Manushyanu oru Aamukham.

Subhash Chandran