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.


Holi Colours on the Horizon

Soon the sky is going to be awash with dusts of pink, red, orange,  green, blue and yellow.


That’s right – India is getting ready to ring in Spring with a riotous festival of colours – Holi. Just like with all other Hindu festivals, this too can be traced back to mythological narratives; the story of Holika, sister to Prahlad – an ardent Vishnu devotee,  who is saved from being burned to death by his piety and in whose stead Holika burns.

Or something like that – I never did have a taste for these gory stories…

But on ground, Holi is celebrated with the full fervour and flavour of any other spring festival across the world –  indeed by some accounts, celebrations even touch Dionysian limits of frenzy. By and large though, Holi is an occasion to ring in the rejuvenation in Nature that accompanies the change of seasons from winter to spring in most parts of the country.

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In north India especially, the respite from foggy mornings is welcome as the sun’s rays grow stronger and life-sap begins to flow and hum. In eastern India, this is the season when red and orange  flowering trees like Krishnachura and Palash set the landscape ablaze and fire up the blood. Known as Dol in Bengali, Holi was transformed into a Spring festival, Basantotsav by Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan  where the young year is still ushered with music, dance and poetry.


Though Holi celebrations in southern india are more muted, nevertheless the occasion is marked by narrating folk songs about the God of Love, Kama and his consort, Rati. In Braj region and western India, Holi is interwoven with the romantic exploits of the butter-thief God, Krishna whose stories still grant a degree of licence to young people across the country to give in to amorous revelry.

The colours of Phagun, the musky fragrance of thandai, lilting thumris in raag Kafi, the dense sweet taste gujiya and the warm embrace of loved ones – Holi is a pure explosion of sensory pleasures.

And I am not complaining !

Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !


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.



A Walk through Calcutta History

1724 – Calcutta gets its first European Church, built by the Armenians.

The Armenian Church Spire

So, what else is happening across the world in early 1700s ?

In mainland Europe, the War of Spanish Succession pits the Grand Alliance of newly united England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic and Austria against France, the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and supporters of Philip in Spain.

North America is still a stage of colonial struggles among the British, French and Spanish though the colonialists are facing far more defiance in the southern continent from its original inhabitants and slave communities like Maroons.

St. Andrews Church at a busy Calcutta crossing

Europeans have arrived in Africa in search for trade opportunities and found slaves to be the most lucrative prospect; Australia is still being “discovered” by European explorers while the Qin empire  around this time has made China the biggest economy in the world. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal empire is past its prime, 1707 being the year of demise of its last powerful ruler, Aurangzeb.

Fourteen years later Calcutta already has a thriving Armenian community who have the resources to build their first church. As more European traders flock to this hub of trade and commerce at the mouth of the Ganges in eastern India, the city opens out its arms to communities and people from across the world.

The Portuguese Church in Mediterranean colours

And this is what the walk, was all about. Over the course of three and half hours lit by a weak winter Calcutta sun, we explored old churches, temples and synagogues practically hidden by shops and stalls on busy streets but all of them rich repositories of a diverse, multi-cultural ethos that Calcutta is still proud of today.

Gorgeous interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue

Along with the Armenian Church on (ahem !)Armenian Street, we looked up St Andrews Church in Dalhousie Square, the Portuguese Church in the Bara Bazar, the Beth-el Synagogue on Pollock Street, the newly renovated   Maghen David Synagogue on what else !, Synagogue Street, the Saifee Masjid in Chitpur and the remains of the older Fire Temple on Ezra Street. The walk was rounded off with the visit to the Chinese Sea Ip Church on Terita Bazar as well as the Burmese Temple next to Central Avenue.

intricately carved wooden panel at the Sea Ip Church

Cheekily titled, The Walk of the Unfaithful, the tour was conducted by let us go; well-known blogger and guide Rangan Dutta regaled us with facts, legal tangles and trivia about all these heritage structures and the colourful past that they symbolize.

Calcutta – so proud of you! Can’t wait to go back and sign up for another walk…



My New Year treat – date palm nectar

What sweet libation is this…Nectar fit for the Gods!

The date palm is not among the more famed offerings of the east Indian state of Bengal. Sweets like rosogolla, fine cotton and silk textiles, umpteen variety in freshwater fish delicacies and a penchant for the artistic temperament – yes! But date palms? Isn’t that part of the usual desert landscape? Or the mandatory prop of an oasis scenery ?


But come winter and the date palms that dot the Bengal countryside – unlike anywhere else in the world – offer the most delicious liquid molasses, known in Bengali, as jhola gur. The sap from the date palms is collected in earthen handis tied to the trees and then after a bit of cooking on wood fire results in a golden brown liquid very similar to maple syrup in appearance but much more fragrant.


Further cooking on the fire leads to a thickening of the syrup which is then poured into moulds made within the earthen floors of the thatched huts of gur-makers.


In fact the final product may be of two types – a lighter brown jaggery that is mellower in taste and smoother in texture


And one that is harder and slightly grainier with a more intense sweetness. Where this variety scores over the former is in its longevity as the lighter coloured version tends to spoil sooner while this harder version keeps well in the refrigerator, over an entire year even!


I wish this blog post could reach Champaka Haldar, and her family who are among the fast dwindling tribe of creators of this truly delectable variety of jaggery.


Unfortunately the range of skills involved in its processing – starting from the climbing up the palm trees and tying the handis to collecting the sap and cooking it on the firewood stove for varying lengths of time to get different textures is on its way out. With fields being cemented into urban settlements, younger generation migrating to cities in search of work, lack of government support for such cottage industries and winter setting in later or temperatures not dipping enough, I fear that the art of making patali gur may not survive for long – and with that Bengal will not only lose the flavour of nolen gur in its prized winter sweetmeats but the distinction of being the only culture with the knowledge of processing this tree nectar into the tastiest of molasses and jaggery.



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!