Tag Archives: India

AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE: The Observer

(via nziff.co.nz)AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE
directed by Gerard Smyth
Interview on Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon, 23 July 2014

The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.

I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid,  self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.

Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.

In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.

Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.

Learn more about Karunai Illam — and, if you like, donate to the organisation — here.

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THE LUNCHBOX: Overlaps and folded chapatis

Irrfan Khan in THE LUNCHBOX

(c) Sony Pictures Classics

THE LUNCHBOX
directed by Ritesh Batra
Metacritic: 76

After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.

It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?

Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.

The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.

By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.

Read an interview with director Ritesh Batra here.

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Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at a busy junction, where three thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

*

This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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Book Review: ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ by Sharell Cook

'Henna for the Broken-Hearted' by Sharell Cook, 2011 (Pan Macmillan)

One of my first Inside the Bloggers Studio interviewees was Sharell Cook of ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sharell and her husband in Mumbai and even more lucky to count them both as friends.

It’s as a friend that I write this post full of pride for Sharell, because she is finally a published author. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ hit the shelves in Australia a week or so ago, and it’s great to see Sharell’s straightforwardly elegant prose gracing the pages of a real live book, not just on the computer screen. And while I’ll refer to her in the first person throughout this review (we are on first name terms, after all), I won’t be biased. Well, not too biased. I hope.

The book is closely tied to the blog Sharell has written for the past few years. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ tells her story of making an unexpected transition from Australia to India, finding love and a chief purpose in life – writing – along the way. It all sounds very ‘Eat Pray Love’, especially with a title like ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’, but this book is much better written, more informative and more resonant than Elizabeth Gilbert’s me-me-me-memoir. The title even makes sense once you read the introduction, linking the slow reveal of henna designs as they are painted to the unfurling of meaning in one’s own life.

The book follows Sharell through heartbreak in Australia, volunteer work in Kolkata, falling in love with an Indian man and – after some eye-opening experiences in the beach town of Varkala and Himalayan village Manali – eventually settling in Mumbai as an Indian housewife. If you’ve been following Sharell’s blog for a long time, a lot of this will sound quite familiar, but the facts are presented in ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ in a longer and more cohesive form. Rather than coming across as a series of connected vignettes, the book actually feels a book, as in a single story that we follow from the first page to the last.

However, an interesting sense I get from the book is that rather than having a traditional ‘ending’, ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ gives a clear sense that Sharell’s life went on beyond the confines of its pages. We’re dropped into Sharell’s life for a few years, privy to a period of incredible upheaval, but we know that the end is not actually The End. Sharell makes no claim to understand everything about India, married life, or even about herself, and we can feel that the learning continues after the last page. I, for one, will be clamouring for a sequel.

What ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ really offers, though, is an honest new voice. I’ve always found Sharell to write on just about any subject with fundamental truth and honesty, but without compromising on elegance. I think that’s what sets the book apart from most transitional stories. There are no attempts to trick the reader by writing floridly around a point; instead, Sharell tells it exactly like it happened, warts and all, and she does so in a way that illuminates the deeper truths behind her experiences – truths many of us will be able to relate to. In her honesty, Sharell transcends simply narrating her own experience and speaks to all of us.

Probably the strongest section of the book is when Sharell is slowly getting to grips with Kolkata and falling in love with her husband-to-be. Their courtship is incredibly sweet and romantic, a real-life fairytale, but tempered with the reality of Sharell’s freshly broken heart and the more immediate challenge of dealing with daily life in India. She gives a good sense of what it feels like to drop yourself in such a foreign environment, and what the adaptation process is like. It’s slow, and there’s no single ‘eureka’ moment of understanding. If you put your mind to it, though, there are many small understandings along the way, each adding to a slowly growing knowledge and understanding of one’s surroundings. This is what happens to Sharell the longer she spends in India, and it’s what happened to me too.

On the other hand, I do have a criticism: the book is too short. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m pandering, but there were often moments where I wanted more detail about a particular event, like some of her experiences in Varkala and Manali. Still, the book is about a transformative process over a number of years, not so much the small details. Cramming those years into 300 pages without losing all sense of perspective is an admirable feat, and anyway, there are plenty of small details to flesh out the story and make it more real.

I recommend ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’. It certainly isn’t for everyone, particularly folks who have no interest in India or in alternative healing therapies (which also feature at certain points of the book). However, those with an interest in transitional stories, cross-cultural experiences and the essence of true love – and figuring what that means – will find it fascinating.

Congratulations, Sharell. Here’s to many more!

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Wake Up, John Donne

It was like those Middle Ages paintings of God & Heaven, clouds parting and light bursting forth – but the all-powerful bearded giant had been erased, leaving an enormous hole in which the sun could dance freely.

I was on my way home. The leaving-India saga had finally closed, in spite of more deathly bombs on the night of my departure. I would soon be reunited with my mother, and subsequently the rest of my family, for the first time in two and a half years.

Sat next to me on the red-eye from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur was Ashwin, a kind and extremely well-spoken purveyor of fine precious metals. (He took over the family business instead of following his dreams and becoming a pharmacist.) I don’t know if any of his clients in Zaveri Bazaar were hit by the terrorists, but I imagine he was pondering the impact of the attacks on his business. Or, perhaps he was looking forward to the 40 Years On high school reunion he was due to attend in Malaysia. Maybe he was simply asleep. In any case, I noticed the view before he did.

Nothing’s ever taken my breath away; neither did the stupendous sight out my window. It did, however, move me nearly to tears. That was partly a result of the moment being the culmination of a month of uncertainty over my future, not to mention a desperate final week in Varkala that sapped my last feelings of belonging in its insular, arrogant atmosphere. Still, it wouldn’t have mattered which emotions were coursing beneath my external mask. It was stunning enough to push me first through disbelief and then into a sort of cathartic ecstacy. I cannot adequately describe it, but nevertheless I will try:

The sun brilliant, full, yellow, rising. Magnificent columns of cloud streaked red, orange, pink & purple, the first plain rays of the morning hitting each droplet of moisture and becoming art. Bands of clear sky, the wild blue yonder thinned to white at its lowest point and left deep and calm at its highest, hanging like a mute witness in borderless layers above the sun. A spellbinding wonder in each direction. A sight to still any racing mind, to silence the music in your head and open mental doors that are usually closed.

Ashwin was looking past me now, out into an atmosphere where the magic hour had surpassed itself. We watched in silence as the sun’s fierceness grew and diminished behind thin streaks of water & ice. The Earth’s surface, to which we would return in just half an hour, was absent and forgotten.

I breathed in and out slowly to clear the lump in my throat and allow myself to just take in the view. I was sure it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.

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You’re Very Not Welcome

Those who know me or follow me on Twitter have heard all about my bizarre and extended difficulty at leaving India. For those who don’t, or who want to get ‘reacquainted with the facts’ as Gandhiji would say, here’s a quick summary (feel free to skim over, this isn’t the important bit):

1) I was asked to leave India because my salary is too low. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Thiruvananthapuram told me that I had to get out before July 5, which was when my final visa extension would expire.

2) However, in two and a half years here I’ve never received an actual physical stamp of extension from Delhi, so Immigration rejected me at Mumbai airport and scolded me for not having an exit permit. (The FRRO had told me that I didn’t need anything to leave.)

3) I returned to Kerala to get the exit permit, which I was assured would be ready by Friday 8th July (yesterday); it wasn’t, of course. This meant rebooking my flight a second time. The FRRO insists to me the exit permit will be ready on Monday 11th; I’ll take a train to Mumbai on Tuesday 12th and fly on Wednesday 13th, hopefully to be in NZ Thursday 14th.

4) [I’ll leave this space blank for whatever goes wrong in the coming days. There will surely be something.]

(I acknowledge that it is ultimately my fault that I’m in this mess, because if I’d done more research back at step (1) I’d have known of the need for an exit permit. I’ve lost upwards of Rs 30,000 as a result, which was all the money I’d saved for my intended one-month holiday in New Zealand (most of which would go towards a tour of the country to visit family), so when I get back to NZ it will be for an indefinite period of time and I will be looking for work straight away.)

Okay. Those are the facts. What I want to talk about now are the implications I derive from this saga about where I am or am not welcome.

In India, a key philosophy is that ‘the guest is God’ – or, in other words, a visitor is a blessing and should be treated as such. Whenever I visit somebody’s home, all the family members present will be called to come and welcome me. I’ll be seated in the most comfortable chair in the living room and someone will bring tea and a selection of snacks (or, if it’s around lunch or dinner, a small meal). The TV will be switched on so that I have something to watch, if I so wish, and to make me feel at home (I don’t own a TV but okay, the gesture is sweet). Until the time I leave, the house’s entire focus will be on me. If a child sleeping in another room wakes up and starts crying, someone will quickly go and return with them, missing only a few seconds of doting on me, the guest.

This literal sequence of events has happened many times over during my three years in India. Apart from that, I am very fortunate in that I know many wonderful people in India (again, both in person and on Twitter) who have made me feel extremely welcome here. I’ve even felt at times like I belong – which is ideally how it should be. We’re all human, after all.

The past month or so, however, has been a constant struggle against a system which simply does not care, and certainly makes no effort to make me feel welcome. I’m by no means saying that I deserve special treatment – and my experience is not even close to the worst it can get for a foreigner, let alone a poor farmer in Bihar – but between traditional Indian hospitality, which I so keenly feel among regular people, and the impenetrable bureaucracy of the government and its processes, there’s an enormous disconnect.

When one government worker rebukes me loudly and openly for following the instructions of another government worker – which is what happened at the airport – I certainly don’t feel welcome, even as I was being told I couldn’t leave. When one government worker rebukes me for following his own instructions – which is what happened the moment I got back to the Trivandrum FRRO – I feel absolutely insane, like an insignificant insect who keeps knocking on the door of the system, thinking ‘this time they’ll listen’. The FRRO then went on to lie to me about what he would do to help me, just to get me out of his office; once my planned exit permit fell through yesterday, he finally adopted a remorseful and guilty tone, though of course he didn’t apologise.

I still take responsibility for not getting things done the right way at the start, but all this just made me think that there’s only one place where I am truly welcome, and that’s New Zealand. Why? Because I hold a New Zealand passport. Most of my family is there, and they do accept and support me wonderfully, but the passport is the key here. After all, there are kind and genuine people everywhere, and thus potential for feeling a sense of belonging wherever you go, but the only order of law that will serve my interests is that of New Zealand.

Naturally, every single one of my calls to the New Zealand Consulate in Mumbai was answered respectfully and with great care, including several times by the Consul General himself. Concurrently, I spent three days calling the Trivandrum FRRO while I was in Mumbai but he rejected the call or let it ring every single time; I had to travel 2000 kilometres over land just to speak with him. This now does not surprise me. He is part of a system which is neither set up to look after nor care for me, let alone make me feel welcome.

So, back to New Zealand I go, unsure of my next move. I had intended to come back to India at the end of July – I even booked a return ticket – but that is now impossible for a number of reasons both financial and temporal. New Zealand is my legal home and I can live there largely free of the hassles of bureaucracy, so it makes sense to be there while I get back on my feet.

The most distressing implication, for me, is that in today’s world one simply cannot expect to feel automatically welcome with one’s fellow men and women around the world. In fact, the opposite is true. In India, since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the David Headley scandal, the majority of people – especially government officers – are extremely suspicious of foreigners. By the sounds of things, it’s the same everywhere. Foreigners have plenty of trouble trying to enter or remain in the United States, in Europe, and in New Zealand. The fallacy that outsiders pose the greatest threat to a nation’s security has become rule of law.

I’ve made a number of deep and strong human connections in India, connections that I hope will last for a very long time, and I have in many ways felt at home here. Those connections, those people, are a home of sorts. (I’ve been thinking a lot about what ‘home’ is lately, especially since I was asked to leave India; am working on a long-form post about it.)

Those connections will have to wait, though, or at least remain strong across continents until I’m in a position to wade through the bureaucracy once again. I can’t help feeling that there must be some way that we could all move freely, as if each of us were a citizen of the world rather than a particular nation. But it would require everyone to behave with the collective good, the best interests of our species, at heart. That is hugely idealistic and unrealistic to begin with; now that the system is set up to engender suspicion of foreigners and promote the idea of ‘us versus them’, such a genuine global community is unforeseeable.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I know that in a place like in India, the prevailing traditional ideology was to be welcoming. I suppose I’m lucky that I’ve been able to experience its influence with so many great people. More than anything, those people and experiences drive me to overcome the system, to jump through its hoops and fight it if necessary, just so I can spend an extra minute in their company.

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“The joke happens in real life and then I blog about it”


Jayanth Tadinada, aka g2, is the author of gtoosphere, a blog of satire inspired by his life as an IIT student and a member of India’s growing upper middle class youth. He is also my colleague on The NRI, contributing regularly hilarious posts such as his aam aadmi interviews.

His posts on gtoosphere are a mix of observations about television media, social networking culture and Indian society in general, and they often seek to explode myths and inspire people to look at the world around them in a more mindful way. In the line with his heroes, his method of confronting people is to amuse, something at which he succeeds apparently effortlessly. His irreverent ideas come across as equally inspired by Indian and American senses of humour, and will hopefully strike a chord with many.

Jayanth did me a favour and answered a few questions to help me get this Inside the Bloggers Studio thing rolling again, even though he is a busy college student preparing to join the salaried masses.

***

Why did you start blogging?

There was a phase when I was bunking a lot of classes and yet I was not happy. (Those were pretty depressing times!) I felt I needed a better reason to continue bunking classes. So I thought a hobby might help.

In your first blog post, you mention a diary. Is gtoosphere an extension of that diary, and do you still write it alongside your blog?

No, I don’t write a diary in the traditional sense anymore. I maintained a diary for a couple of years in high school. It was mostly about what was happening in my life around that time. After coming to IIT, I no longer felt the need to keep an account of things happening in my life.

I was into reading psychology for fun (nerd alert), interpretation of dreams and stuff like that. I started maintaining a dream diary where I describe the dreams I have at nights (afternoons actually). We remember our dreams only for a very few minutes after we wake up. So I always sleep with a book and a pen somewhere close to my pillow. (Yeah, I know that’s weird!)

For the last year and a half or so, I developed the habit of noting down funny ideas, silly observations and interesting thoughts as soon as they pop in my head. I store them in Google Wave (yes, Wave!) and refine them from time to time. So technically, I do write a diary but it’s more about what is going on in my head rather than what is going on in my life.


What is your first memory of writing creatively?

The first time realized I enjoyed writing was when I was writing essays in high school. Most of the topics were very dull and ordinary like ‘your hometown’ or ‘post man’. I took it as a challenge to write those essays in interesting ways.

I often broke the conventional school essay format and made up stories with long dialogues, exaggerated descriptions and bizarre storylines loosely inspired from the Famous Fives and Hardy Boys I was reading at the time! Luckily my English teachers did not discourage that sort of behavior and often rewarded me (with generous grades) for my attempts, however lame they were!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I consider any of the little things that momentarily make me lose sense of time as beautiful. It could be a movie or a book; a conversation or a cat playing; filter coffee, National Geographic channel, a warm shower on a cold morning, dessert before main course, an intelligent conversation, yawning, huge spiders, useless trivia… it’s a very long list.

I also find extremely complex stuff like snakes, Scarlett Johansson, the human brain, religion, the Internet, Godavari, classical music, history etc. all to be very beautiful.


gtoosphere fits quite nicely into Indiblogger category of ‘humour’. Are you ‘the funny one’ among your friends in real life?

Yes, I am definitely ‘a funny one’ if not ‘the funny one’. Most of my friends have a very good sense of humour too. I get most of my ideas from the conversations I have with my friends and my brother.

What differences are there between telling a joke in real life and telling it on your blog?

The joke happens in real life and then I blog about it. That is usually how it is. A joke in real life is about timing and spontaneity, it just happens. But when you’re writing a joke, you have the time to think and build the context. So the onus is on how funny the idea is to begin with. Maintaining the flow, the punch lines, the comic art – all just follow from the idea.


Speaking of Indiblogger, you’re quite active on there, as well as on Facebook and sporadically on Twitter. How important are social networking sites in relation to your blog?

Very important! They are the lifeline for my blog. I would have never got myself to write anything more than sticky notes if it is not for the instant feedback that I get from readers through social networking sites.

Comic art is integral to many of your posts. Which do you enjoy more, drawing/design or writing?

What I enjoy most is the ideas – coming up with them and connecting two or three ideas that people wouldn’t otherwise think of connecting. That is what drives me. I also immensely enjoy the process of refining the lines over and over trying to find that elusive economy of expression. I feel I am moving in a direction where words come easier to me than strokes.


Name some of your favourite satirists, and whether they’ve influenced your own creative style.

The first comedian that comes to mind is Jerry Seinfeld (his standup). He has this ability to point out really silly things around you which makes you go, “how did I not think of that first?” In one of his interviews, he explains that he never uses profanities in his material because he feels that (in many cases) they are a shortcut to get a few cheap laughs. I adopted that policy for my blog too.

One more thing I picked up from him is to not misrepresent anything just for the sake of getting a laugh. This pushes me to work from an honest feeling about something. So when I joke about how the aam aadmi doesn’t deserve any sympathy, I really mean it!

George Carlin is a personal hero of mine. His body of work is just so vast that it’s an encyclopedia on how to construct a joke. The philosophical undercurrent that runs through his material had a huge influence on not just my writing but on me as a person as well.

Larry David, the genius behind Seinfeld (the sitcom) and Curb Your Enthusiasm is another big influence. He kind of convinced me that profanities are funny when used in a tasteful way but I decided to stick with Seinfeld on that one ;)

When it comes to political satire, Jon Stewart is the best it can get. All my posts on politics and media were directly or indirectly inspired by him. I also like Bill Maher (I did a couple of “New Rules” posts) and Woody Allen.

I love Telugu comedy in general. I think we people have an amazing sense of humour. I am a huge fan of Mullapudi Venkataramana. He is a genius when it comes to capturing the beauty, the simplicity and humour in middle class life – something that our entertainment industry completely overlooks.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

If I have to choose one, I’d probably choose my take on Meter Jam. This campaign sort of summed up the attitude of the young city folk of my generation. They protest because it is cool and they only do it in the comfort of their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Their anger in most cases is justified but none of them are inclined to do anything more than cathartically yell at the symptoms.

I am also proud of the articles I wrote for The NRI. I really pushed myself to write about issues that I wouldn’t have written otherwise and they were very well received too.


Do you believe in God?

Depends on how you define God. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was like, “If the Gods are really that powerful, why do I even have to pray? Don’t they have access to the wish list on my Facebook profile?” That was when I realized praying for material things makes no sense. I’ve been kind of agnostic since then.

But I feel that Hinduism (technically, it’s too broad to be an -ism) is an awesome religion to be born in. It gives you a lot of freedom of thought. You can be atheist or agnostic and still be a Hindu. The line between culture and religion is really blurred in India. I never pray but I do celebrate all festivals. (If you remove the puja from the festivals, all you’re left with is good food, family reunions and fun activities. Now who doesn’t like that?

I love the culture. I love the mythologies. I have immense respect for the religion and its philosophy. I just don’t subscribe to the over-the-counter-30-million-Gods-in-the-skies version of it! I only scratched the surface of Hindu philosophy and I definitely want to go deeper. Not now but maybe later!

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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Talking points from India v Bangladesh

I have written before about being tired of too much cricket, but this World Cup is in India, and I’m beginnning to care more the national team’s fortunes. I think that just happens to everyone who stays here long enough, because India is completely cricket mad. It’s not that every last person is in a cricket thrall, but even if only half the population cared – and I’m guessing the percentage is a little higher than that – you’ve got 500 million plus flag-waving, tv-shooting supporters.

In the first match of the tournament yesterday, India thrashed their co-hosts Bangladesh with a fantastic batting performance. Follow the link below for my talking points from the match, including why Virat Kohli is the most dangerous player in India’s batting lineup, but for now here’s why the Kerala connection – wild and wacky fast bowler Sreesanth – was my favourite thing about the day:

Personally, the best moments of the day came when Sreesanth was bowling. He’s the one wild card in India’s pack: utterly unplayable one ball, overstepping and shipping wides the next. To me, he looks perpetually in need of a cigarette. Even if he goes for ten an over, I hope he keeps his place purely for the entertainment value he brings.

Read more at The NRI…

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My First Meditation

A couple of years ago, a friend recommended that I try meditation. I had a lot of barriers up and found it hard to focus on anything, let alone what I wanted to do with my life, and she thought meditation might help.

Well, it took me three whole years, but I finally tried it. Gavin, a guy I met via CouchSurfing, turned out to have experience with Vipassana meditation and offered to lead us in a short session. In times past I would’ve said something like, “Yeah, we should totally do that sometime, that’d be awesome,” and then never actually done it. This time, I jumped at the chance.

The experience was full of unexpected lessons, ideas and delights. Above all, it brought home how quickly and far the mind can wander:

Start with the breath, the air crossing my upper lip. My… moustachioed upper lip. The air’s only coming out of my right nostril. The left one must still be blocked from that strange illness I had last week. The vitamin B complex tablets seem to have fixed me up, though.

Come back to the breath. In… and out, my chest expanding and contracting. The guests in the next room are talking in French. I should study French again. God, I studied it for five years in high school, and it would be so great to be able to speak it properly. Maybe I should ask Franҫoise to teach me.

Come back to the breath. In. Out. I like that name. Franҫoise. What was the name of that Spanish woman in my second year German class? Ah, Florencia. Beautiful name, Florencia. The way it rolls off the tongue is so pleasing. Florrrrrrencia. If I have a daughter someday, I might call her that. Florencia.

Read more at The NRI…

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Fair/Lovely/(Evil)

Last week I wrote about how I am treated as a white guy in India – but what about the opposite, the darker-skinned individuals in this society? Well, to put it bluntly, they are treated much worse.

As I suggested in part 1, the disadvantages of having dark skin are entirely cultural. The relevant cultural factors could be ancient, like caste and untouchability, or modern, like job and marriage market prospects, or a combination of both. Physicality isn’t in question: light skin doesn’t make you run faster, jump higher or think better. But sometimes, cultural and social pressures are more vivid and powerful than a physical disadvantage could ever be.

Enter big business. Cosmetics. Fair is Lovely. Fair is Handsome. It must be true: these words fit together so cosily on those little boxes of cream you can buy at Big Bazaar or your local pharmacy.

Read more at The NRI…

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