The Elephant in the Quilt

A quilt shaking as though it has a life of its own, like an elephant in there – a pair of young female eyes  is struck into silence by what she sees…

This is how the 1942 short story, Lihaaf translated as The Quilt ends which was eventually hailed as a trailblazer in women’s writing about class, gender and sexuality in the Indian subcontinent. The author was a bold, irreverent 27 year old woman named Ismat Chugtai whose liberal upbringing and a keen awareness of patriarchal politics made her take up the pen. Later in life, her non-fiction work, Yahan se Wahan Tak would read, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante…Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words.”


It is this fire from her pen that charted a new kind of writing where women could use the form of the short story in Urdu to talk about not just female sexuality but about other kinds of discrimination, oppressions they faced on a daily basis. This however did not go unopposed by patriarchal institutions as stories like Lihaaf faced court cases and others like Angaarey were banned at various times in the subcontinent.


Apart from Lihaaf, Chugtai is today best known for her story collections like  Chhui Mui, Thori si Pagal, Aik Baat, Do Haath, novellas like Ziddi which was made into a hit Hindi move of the same title but most of all for the novel, Tehri Lakeer or The Crooked Line which was considered her magnum opus. Later her non-fiction work like essays and memoirs especially Kaghazi hai Pehraan too received much appreciation and renown. Official recognition came in the form of a slew of media awards including the Filmfare Award for best Story for the Partition classic Garam Hawa on which she worked with noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as well as state awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976.

Chugtai died in 1991 in then Bombay but not before she had been successful in ‘Lifting The Veil’ – incidentally the title given to an anthology of her stories – from the reality of gender and class politics in the subcontinent and offered women writers to come, new avenues in literary form and style.


RUMI – The Mystic


The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.


But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.


Talking About Gender Inequality

Apart from a few soft gasps, the room was silent!



This quote from a 1980 UN Report made up the first slide of the Gender Sensitization class that I took yesterday. Though women in most societies do more than men was generally accepted as a fact by my students – themselves all women – when framed in numbers, the very extent of the inequality shocked them into silence.

Over the next two hours, we covered a few theoretical concepts and then moved on to some of  the ways gender was relevant to language, communication and workplace dynamics. Along the way we not only explored various ways, language posits – for example through words like ‘sportsmanship’, ‘penmanship’, ‘right-hand man’ etc –  the male gender as the norm but also how popular psychology concepts like the masculine ‘report’ vs the feminine ‘rapport’ style of communication construct, disseminate and perpetuate gender stereotypes and hence inequality. Eventually we arrived at various gender issues at workplace, ending with the most traumatic of them all, sexual harassment.


Though I tried to keep the lectures as focussed as possible to the course curriculum, the ‘digressions’ were especially enjoyable. We covered possible causes of patriarchy and talked about Gerda Lerner’s social historicist hypothesis in the Creation of Patriarchy. How immensely valuable is such research – using data from anthropology and culture studies, she historicizes patriarchy which eventually frees women from the notion that existing gender inequalities are timeless and universal.


What made the class truly enriching were inputs from my students as well. Kamla Bhasin for example was pointed as one of the foremost feminist voices in the Indian context and at one TED talk, she reveals how patriarchy impacts both genders – oppressing not only women but dehumanizing men as well. What it has done to the third gender, I asked the class to reflect, on their own.

I however not only conclude the class without a mention of the person, who started it all for me – my Gender Studies professor from Jadavpur University, Dr. Indira Choudhuri. I did my best in the last few  minutes of the class to share with my students her erudition, ground-breaking research as well as the sheer dynamism of her personality – while also regretting that as a student more than 20 years ago, I was barely equipped with the experience and sensitivity to optimize my learning from her.

Thankfully we all grow and come to know better – herein lies my hope for society as well!


A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”



Dream On…

Can it be really true?

That every face from your dream has crossed your path in real life – sometime, somewhere…?? Ok that thought now gives me the shivers! What about the skeletal person I encountered at an empty circus ground in my last dream? Or the old crony from a familiar nightmare? Is it possible that I have actually come across them in my waking hours.

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This time at the Feeling Bookerish workshop, the theme was “Dreams” and looking for some trivia about dreaming, I came across this page. We also discussed a few more interesting  tid-bits like how people who are born blind can also dream, one cannot read or tell the time in a dream and especially the phenomenon of sleep paralysis when you most wish to escape your pursuer in a dream, you find yourself unable to move.

But how strongly are these fun ‘facts’ backed by science? Not much – I could not find any news or institutional source on the internet where these have been proved by  systematic research. That my workshop participants and I had a lot of fun, imagining fictional situations bearing out such ‘facts’, was another matter!


Additionally we discussed books where dreams play a crucial part in the theme or plot like Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, The Mummy’s Foot and, of course, the inevitable Interpretation of Dreams. Personally I came away delighted having made my acquaintance of a new word, “oneirology,” – the study of dreams – and loving the roll of the word in my mouth – “oneiron” !


This House of Wine

“Here I am, within the House of Wine, holding a cup

Which in turn holds the nectar, reflecting this place.

Such is the mystery I have spent my life working out –

Am I within the tavern or is it within my soul?”

-Translated from Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachhan

After a long while, today I played my CD of award-winning Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s classic verse collection, Madhushala, rendered in famous singer Manna Dey’s finely nuanced voice. The title loosely translates to a tavern, a place where lovers of wine gather, drink, sing and love. Indeed it functions as a rich, multi-faceted symbol – sometimes standing for the final destination of the earthly journey and at other times, representing the ideal universe that celebrates equality, humanity, creativity and love.


“The one whose inner fire has burnt away all books of religion,

The one who has broken down the walls of all temples, mosques and churches

The one who has left behind the calls of all priests and pundits,

Only such a one can be welcomed in this house of Wine”


A central figure in the poem and the Tavern is the ‘Saki’ – the Pourer of Wine. Usually an idealized feminine figure, she is also the Beloved and represents beauty and creativity. But not always. The complexity of the symbol is evident in a stanza where the poet says,

The God of Death will come one day as the Pourer of Wine, bearing a black cup;

Drink now this pure nectar, for then my friend, you will never regain your senses.

That will be the final Bearer, the final cup and the final oblivion;

Thus traveller, drink now with love, for you may not pass again by this House of Wine


What a deeply humane and richly poetic vision!

Poet Harishvansh Rai Bachhan. Photo Courtesy: Amar Ujala

Mythology with Kids


This time the topic of my Feeling Bookerish workshop was ‘Mythology’. Almost all my young participants fell back upon the familiar and turned up to discuss the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two epics of ancient India.

From ‘Mahabharata’ – Draupadi’s humiliation

Of course these texts are an endless source of delight and entertainment for Indian kids – with myriad stories within stories but in the end the good winning over the evil. Thus Mahabharata unravels the genesis of the Great War between two families – the Kauravas and Pandavas – while Ramayana is all about the victory of heroism and the just over treachery and the unjust.

Somewhere along the way, we also got discussing gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts – Athena/Minerva with her wisdom and quiet courage turned out to be a particular favourite of the older girls in my workshop, especially in comparison to her brawny, vain brother Ares/Mars. Zeus and Poseidon were the subject of numerous anecdotes – thanks to teen fantasy fiction and movie representations which seem to have become more popular than the original mythological stories.

Egyptian Sun-god Ra travelling through the Underworld


But where were the fascinating tales of Arabian adventure from 1000 and I Nights, brooding heroes  like Odin and Thor from Norse mythology, the complex facets of Egyptian gods like Ra, Isis and Osiris and fascinating Native American creation stories? I wish the participants had taken a bit more effort and ranged a bit further in their reading. But as the session continued beyond its scheduled two hours, I realized that at least a spark had been lit and the next time the kids would find themselves in a bookstore or a library – virtual or real – they just might reach out for that book on mythology that is unfamiliar, remote and strange…