Literary aspirations

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 8.32.10 PMDescribe the tone of a loved one who is deceased. Or about the inability to hear it.

I’d completely forgotten that I’d noted this prompt down from my book Writing from the Senses, and came about it sort of accidentally today. I really cannot remember whose voice I wanted to write about at the time the prompt caught my eye, but encountering it today made me think of my two grandmothers and their voices and speech mannerisms and thought perhaps I should try and record those memories.

First, my paternal grandmother Kamakshi Patti, who died a long time ago in 1982. The first thing that comes to mind with her is a visual, but I do have some vivid memories of her habits or speech and her sayings, and since this post is about the memory of sounds, tones and voices, I’ll stick with that. The thing I remember most of all is her whisper. The adjective “sibilant’ might have been coined with hers in mind, so onomatopoeically perfectly does it suit. Her whisper was not the type one associated with secrets, far from it. It was a carrying sound in which every syllable could be heard with crystal clarity. Probably because, oddly enough it was guttural too, in tone. I remember how my cousin Kappu once fondly said that while she often strained her ears in vain to hear gossipy conversations between her Mom and Patti (after the lights went out at night and everyone including the women were in bed) when they spoke in normal voices, she could relax and hear everything once my grandmom resorted to whispering. And since Patti saved that voice for the juiciest bits, my cousin never missed an important detail — can’t say I remember any details myself, but yes, I too share fond memories of listening to those whispers.

Two more specific sound related memories: My grandmother never spoke English but she would always talk about a song that she learned during her brief years of school, and sing (sort of) the opening line to us. “Welcome welcome, hearty welcome” it went in a Tamil accent, whose tune I couldn’t for the life of me reproduce. But I always remember (and hope I always will) the pride and joy with which she told us about the song. Then there was the way she said the words “beans”–always mispronouncing it as “beems.” For some reason this infuriated, or at least irritated, my obnoxiously snobbish brought-up-on-English self at 7 or so and equally all-of-those-things younger brother. We would try and try to make her say it right and she would patiently repeat it after us but get it wrong every time. Poor thing–she never got upset with us kids despite our atrocious rudeness.

One last memory of her that I’d like to record in this post is not exactly about her voice, but related, which is her remarkable facility for communication with all and sundry, despite not sharing a common language. As far as know Kamakshi Patti never spoke anything but Tamil, but she was the quintessential intrepid soul who could with gestures and a lot of hand waving, she could make herself understood when needed. I particularly remember the way she got a visiting American boy called Raji Thron (who may or may not be the same person who has a yoga website) to perform all sorts of chores like grinding dosa batter on the old fashioned stone or  fetching water to clean said stone, which she certainly could not get myself or my brother too. She was widowed relatively young and still made her way to on her own by trains and buses (and changing them) all the way to the Hindi-dominated North India where we lived, on her own several times. Like I said, intrepid soul.

Intrepid is not the first characteristic, I associate with my other–ie .maternal–grandmother, Chuppu Patti, who might have been the kindest person I can think of in many ways. I would have said gentle, but while her soul was gentle–perhaps the gentlest of anyone I’ve ever encountered–her voice was not. It was strong, slightly hoarse (as was my K Patti’s too). She had a great facility for various Indian languages and could speak some half a dozen of them to my knowledge. I particularly remember visiting her in Sringeri in the state of Karnatka, just a few months after they’d moved there, and being amazed at how easily she seemed to speaking to all the local shopkeepers in their language. Not so my grand-dad who’d moved there the same time, although he being of a more scholarly bent of mind (more on that below), when he got around to it also learned to read and write the language.

I have many more memories of this grandmother since she was with us until 2013, but I don’t have the kind of specific anecdotes about her voice  as I do about my K Patti. This last is just a tiny bit ironic because this grandmother actually shared her name–Subalakshmi–with one of the most famous Carnatic music singers ever, down to the initials M.S. that preface the given name. What I remember most about C Patti is her gentle but consistent nagging of my grandfather to do whatever he was supposed to rather than read whichever book he happened to get his hands on on any given day. Actually come to think of it I just remembered something after all–an exasperated remark, in Tamil naturally, to the effect of “As if he’s going to do a PhD with all that reading!”

On that note this sleepy person who did go on to get a PhD by reading (and writing other things besides blogs), during said Patti’s lifetime–though regrettably not until after Thatha, the non-PhD avid reader passed away–will end this post, which may have actually caught me up on my blog-once-a-week resolution made on June 10 (#40).


Now that I think about it, there are many ways that this prompt might be taken–in my colleague/co-author, Ton van Helvoort’s words, it has a lot of “interpretive flexibility.” And sometimes, that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Because not all interpretations are benign or even innocuous, even though many are.

Let me explain… Musical instruments have always fascinated me, in part because I can’t play any with any degree of facility. That may be the reason this prompt caught my eye. Well, that and the fact that it reminded me of a scene in an episode of the T.V. show Sex and the City, where the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (SJP) in pursuit of the eponymous goal, is “played” like a cello–by a cellist (I think) or in any rate, a musician. The way it was played, the scene was mostly amusing, in a smile- rather than laugh-inducing way, not particularly romantic or erotic, but (or perhaps thus?) memorable for all that. There was another, genuinely romantic scene in one of the later seasons, where the Mikhail Baryshnikov character plays her a song he’s written for her on the piano (another another piano-related romantic moment suddenly popped to mind: the fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges “makin whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys… but I digress). The point I guess I’m trying to make is illustrated in the difference between what happened to Carrie in the two episodes–whereas she was played in the one, she was played to (or for) in the other–and that makes all the difference.

Being played has another far more negative connotation, which is what came to mind when I looked at the prompt today. It means being taken for a fool or being conned. And for me, personally, that is the worst thing someone can do to me. I can remember virtually every time I’ve been played (which is not the same as being played a joke on or teased etc etc) and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the folks who’ve played me either at a personal or professional level. I think it’s because more than them, it’s myself I can’t forgive for having been so gullible, to have been taken in and being played. And so there is transference of the anger. Which is not to say that I sit around plotting dastardly revenge (although I will admit to some fantasies of me fabulously snubbing these people) but I do gradually distance myself from those who played me. Eventually,  in the first case, I think indifference is the best revenge. And living well is always a good revenge as well, in any circumstance…

Gosh, this turned into a weird and sort of cathartic, self psycho-analysis rather than a fun write up about how I would like to be a violin or Cello or piano or something. But that’s the thing about writing to these prompts– they really unlock unexpected memories, feeling etc. And the write-up emerges quite different. Oh well,  until next time. For now the answer is still… (42).

Select a cooking implement to use as a prompt…anything that triggers a story/memory. Write for 10 minutes (or more…)

This prompt in Writing from the Senses appealed to my sense of whimsy, which is why I copied it into a draft, two or three years ago. But somehow I haven’t been able to to home in on an utensil. Today though as I’m up at 4:30 A.M. the image of a tea strainer, the type made of stainless steel floats, to mind. Why I can’t think, although perhaps it is my subconscious desire for a cup of tea, a usual companion when I sit with my computer in the wee, predawn hours.

Tea rather than tea strainers are what I have more memories around, though not any specific cup or type of tea. Drinking tea was perhaps the first habit I acquired, as a five year old whose mother brought her a warm cuppa early in the morning. Canny woman my Mom, by doing so she ensured that neither my brother nor myself were ever grumpy to be woken up. How so? you might wonder. Well,  you see, the warm libation in the morning had the immediate effect of getting our innards going. Once out of bed and in the bathroom, we were wakeful enough and there was no going back to bed. We’d get ready for school, mostly in good time. Whether or not this routing instilled a sense of punctuality in us (I mean to be on time but have many lapses) it did instill the habit of morning tea, or bed-tea as we called it then.

The anecdote brings up another tea-related memory, a story or parable really, that I forever associate with Governor Jai Shuklal Hathi* of Panjab, a man who often presided over various cultural programs for August 15 and 26 January (Indian Independence and Republic Day respectively) that I participated in–as in danced at with other friends–as a kid. He was talking about the forming of habits and trying to wean ourselves of them, using tea as an example.  It was a clever sort of word play that appealed, to my even-then nerdy self. A habit became a bit, further weaned to bit, and even with the b got “it” still remained. And then the kicker–even after removing the “i”  (some subversive teaching of Hindu philosophy there what?) were were still left with our T.

I am not sure if this parable was intended as a warning about forming habits, or about the dangers in gradual weaning, or about tea drinking (which would have not been credible given most of us had a cup in our hands). None of those lessons, intended or otherwise, stuck. But the story and the habit did, and unlocked by the prompt, I offer it to my readers.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.47.25 PMTo return to the impetus for this post–the stainless steel tea strainer–and trips down memory lane, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a particular one that is probably right now lying in storage  packed up along with all my other kitchen goods. It was a gift from my friend Aman during our days in New Haven. She brought me one after a visit to India, perhaps after hearing me grumble on too many times about the flimsy plastic rimmed ones, and I’ll always be grateful for it. The steel one has traveled with me the world over, from Yale to Eau Claire, Egypt, Korea and back its country of origin in India. Where to next I wonder? I wish I knew… but that’s a subject for a different (and whinier) post. Meanwhile I’ll sign off to go get my first cuppa habit this July morn (#47)

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.51.45 PM*A footnote on Gov. Hathi’s name, which might conjure up images from the Jungle Book of the elephant brigade led by a Colonel of the same name, which in fact, means elephant in Hindi. The name at the time seemed very appropriate at the time for to my pre-teen self he seemed elephantine in his bearing and gait.

The image of streets full of once-beautiful buildings now with crumbling facades overlaid with layers and layers of grime, usually within a hop skip and jump from a river that wends it way placidly northward, ought to make the identification of this city a no-brainer for anyone who has spent more than a day here. But if it doesn’t, might help to recall sounds rather than sight. The cacophony of car horns blaring with scarce thought to the need or usefulness thereof, punctuated by the plaintive tones of the call to prayer some five times a day should be a giveaway. Walk to the banks of the aforementioned river – the Corniche as any road running by it or any other body of water (e.g. the sea) is called – and pay the gray-gowned man for a ride on one of his wind-and-oar powered sailboats and within seconds the sounds of those cars recede. If you happen to have taken the boat from the area that functions as the city’s downtown then across the river you can see the geometrically-shaped domes of the Opera House silhouetted to the west. Depending on the time of day (or night) those domes may appear yellowish or starkly bright…

Of course, anyone who has read pages from this site would recognize the “where” of the above paragraph: Egypt, specifically Cairo, where I happened to at the time of the first Tahrir square uprising of 2011. In this case too it was a writing exercise based on Writing from the Senses, the sense in this case being that of hearing. Although re-reading the passage I find that despite the supposed focus on sounds,  there is more there about the sights. Which just goes to show what visual creatures we humans are for the most part.

But here’s another memory of sound: Imagine it beginning as murmur from a sea of people, gradually growing in volume and fervor as you draw nearer to the source. It had a definite rhythm too, one I can still hear in my head, but only try to replicate in spacing out the syllables (think of it, :in a ba-boom ((1) ba-boom (2) ba boom, (3)ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom



Iskat el ni-zam

I am not fluent enough in Arabic to break the meaning down by individual words, but the overall meaning, loud and clear to anyone hearing them, was crystal clear. “The regime needs to go!”  As indeed it did on the night of February 11, 2011. It was a heady experience to bear witness to this piece of Egyptian history, and, as I have likely said in an earlier post, profoundly moving. For me personally, the signature moment was when a guy in Tahrir Square who was part of a contingent bearing a poster with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture. “Where are you from?” he asked me and when I told him I was Indian he beamed, shook my hand,  directed my attention to the poster and told me: “See that? We want what you have, and one day we’ll be there too.” I nearly wept with the combination of hope, pride and joy–in him, in Egypt and of course in Gandhi.

Well, it’s now nearly 7 years since that “Arab Spring” and pride and joy do not figure high in my list of sentiments right now on much (except when it concerns my darling nieces, but this post is not about them). Certainly  when I felt like weeping on the matter of Egypt, the tears are not of joy. For as everyone knows–the promise of the uprising gave away to chaos and piling problems. But I still have hope, only in tiny sparks mind you but its there. Because I know from history that 7 years is a minuscule drop of time against the backdrop of Egypt’s history. No country has got democracy “right.”–not India which has been at it since the middle of the previous century, and certainly not the good old USA. But at some level, I believe that is the point. Democracy is not static or definable, and really the only truly successful democracy is one that adapts and changes according to need, much like evolution.

But I digress… Am sleepy and losing steam and so will sign off now on this my belated entry for week 5 of my resolution (#48).

An alternative title (or a subtitle) to this blog entry might well have been My Adventures in Anosmia. Anosmia for those who might not know is the lack of ability to smell. It might be caused due to trauma, a bad infection (I’ve heard) and may be temporary or permanent. In my case it was congenital, that is to say I’ve been anosmic since birth, and therefore the condition is permanent. It has something to do with the way the olfactory grooves in the brain were formed or not formed, I believe. I just didn’t or couldn’t get into the groove, one might say.

Despite being born anosmic, neither I nor indeed anyone around me cottoned on to the fact for many years. Even now, even folks closest to me, including my Mom forget and will hold out something to me and say something like “isn’t this lovely?” or “smell this,” and I’ll obligingly sniff. The habit is deeply ingrained because it wasn’t until I was past twenty-one when a doctor pointedly asked me about my sense of smell and I thought about it, that I finally learned for a fact that I actually couldn’t smell. The fact was confirmed by a series of medical tests…

Now that I think about it, there had always been hints, but only in retrospect do I recognize them as such. For instance, I remember reading about an experiment  in which a blindfolded person was asked to identify a piece of fruit–apple or pear–fed to them while the other one was held to their nose. According the to book most people would identify the fruit by smell not taste, but no, not I. At the time I was puzzled because I always unerringly identified the fruit I was eating, whereas most others gave mixed responses. I was evidently relying on other clues such as texture to make my guess. Then there was the fact that I always needed to do a taste test (or sometimes a curdle-in-hot-water test) to figure out if  milk had turned. And my enthusiasm as a teenager for the perfume Chanel No. 5 was a mere peer imitation. Fact of the matter is that no matter which perfume was held to my nose, all I got from taking a whiff was a cold rush of air through my nostrils! More often than not, it was the color of the liquid or the design of the bottle that determined my choices.

Unlike blindness, which is to sight or vision what anosmia is to the sense of smell or olfaction, anosmia is not easy for most people to understand or identify with. Indeed, more often than not people have not heard of the word, and when I tell them I can’t smell, their reaction, after perhaps the assumption that I have or have just had a cold, is  one of puzzlement combined with a vague sense of disbelief. Then when I explain, the first question almost is always is “How do you taste?” And aside from occasionally being unable to resist a comeback along the lines of “Delicious” or holding out my hand with a “want to find out?” (Only if I’m fond of the person), I try to  explain that my sense of taste is not impaired. Or at least it is not diminished in the sense of the range of foods I can discern and enjoy. I think this ability might be attributed to the fact that I learned to taste  in a different way than do most others, My nerdy/geeky scientific self thinks it might be a compensation by the trigeminal nerve for the inactive olfactory nerves/groove.  But back to the question: not only can I taste, but as friends will attest, I love variety in my meals, and am a pretty good cook… who can often re-create or at least simulate dishes based on taste alone!

It was in fact my ability in the kitchen that led certain musically savvy roomies of mine to give me the nickname that prompted the title of this post. Beethoven the composer famously started to loose his hearing sometime in his twenties and was almost completely deaf for the last decade or so of his life.  (A quick aside… All this biographical information incidentally was checked out on Wikipedia). As I said before, I didn’t lose my sense, never having possessed it in the first place, but the analogy was apt in any case, and the compliment much appreciated. That my activity in the kitchen was often accompanied by strains of a four-handed arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh played by my roomies adds an additional layer of sweetness to both the nickname and the memory of it. (#51).

A long time ago by blogosphere standards (8 years), I posted a fantasy about rendering Naguib Mahfouz’s story of the ancient Egyptian Rhadopis of Nubia into a Bollywood film. A recent viewing of the spectacle of Bhajirao Mastani immediately brought back memories of that post because it gave me ideas for those roles – the main characters as it happens – whom I had not fantasy-cast earlier. So …  I stand by my earlier line-up for Amitabh, Amir and Tabu as Sofkhatep, Tahu & the queen, Nitocris (I really do need to re-read those books again, if only I could find them), but with Irfan as a fine almost preferable alternative to Amir.  After watching Bajirao Mastani I want Priyanka Chopra as Rhadobis.. no contest. She’d be playing the opposite character from her BM role come to think of it. I also think that Ranvir Singh would fly as the Pharoah, although if one gives in to Egyptian preferences then the other Khan (Shah Rukh) would work as the Pharoah too as would Kajol as the queen because she really looks exquisite but at the same time older than Priyanka. The innocent Benamun and his physician father? Still uncast in my head though now I’m thinking a shaven Sunkrish (currently  Vikram Singh on Castle who also happens to be my cousin) might fit the bill, since he’s too young to be a Pharaoh to the queens that I’ve chosen. Another alternative is the kid from the Life of Pi. Om Puri would be a super cameo as the father  but the role isn’t meaty enough and any of the others might do (even the venerable ‘mitabachan in a double role).

Any takers-on for this project?

P.S. Om Puri died since I wrote this post, so there’s that fantasy gone with the wind or the khamsin…


Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 8.16.49 AM … H.P. Lovecraft apparently, or so said an online statistical writing analysis piece of software, on three occasions. Two pieces of writing were recent academic book reviews, one about Darwin and the other about scientific styles. The third was a peer-reviewed paper. An excerpt from my food blog, however, has me likened to Cory Doctorow, whom I’ve never read! And my trip down memory lane to my childhood bedroom seems to recall David Foster Wallace, who to my delight is described as having “a mercurial mind that lights on many subjects.” Like a changing accent then, apparently my style, language etc changes depending on the forum I’m writing for, I adapt.

I wonder how to feel about the fact that my academic writing is consistently likened to a writer of pulp horror fiction. Does the software simply regard all academic material as horrific? Or should I take this analysis as a compliment, that my writing, even about technical subject stuff has a wider reach and appeal? That would be nice…

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