A long essay on the Kosi…

…appeared in Pratilipi. Read the bilingual magazine for more.



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Short Fiction in Himal Southasian, June 2010.

“Small Revolutions” is a story I wrote sometime in March 2010. It appeared in the June issue of Himal Southasian. Read the magazine for analysis and news features from South Asia.

Small revolutions  June 2010

By: Deepika Arwind

Jessica Schnabel

It is past noon. We are coloured twigs across parallel lines. We have been lying here for hours in the heat. There is some discussion about whether two hundred and fifty people will actually go through with ‘mass suicide’.

There is nobody here with trucks or cranes – only cameras and lots of talking.

I can hear some people say: ‘Lakshmi told everyone that there would be an eviction and then a demolition.’

‘She got everyone to come and lie on the railway tracks.’

‘The girl is so young and yet so …’

I don’t care to listen to the end of that sentence. Right now, lying across the railway line in all this filth, I feel sick and defeated. My body is burning, and I feel the skin on my back beginning to peel.

‘Thyagamma, what are we doing here?’

‘Wait, Lakshmi. Just wait.’

‘They think it’s me, when you …’

‘Shut up Lakshmi. Keep lying down.’

When my dead grandmother arrived at the doorstep just before lunch and announced, ‘I am not dead. I am only un-living,’ we were expected not to show the slightest surprise.

Amma was at the market selling onions, and would come home two hours later to watch our very dead grandmother having lunch with us, piling more food onto her plate. Then she would faint away, and sleep till the evening and wake up with a weak heart.

A few minutes after the only streetlight in our colony came on, the ground underneath us would shudder, and the noise would be too much to bear as the evening train to Chennai clattered by. For the two or two-and-a-half minutes in which our bodies became strings plucked by the noise, some of Amma’s sanity would be restored. I think the routine comforted her.

She would repeat what Thyagamma used to say, but in a manner far more exaggerated: ‘The daily train rumble is the source of our energy. It vibrates – and something in us lives.
Something we cannot remove from our rhythms, our lifetimes …’

Then Amma would remember that Thyagamma was right next to her, and widen her eyes.

Only after it became dark did they speak to each other.

‘What are you doing here, Thyagamma?’ Amma asked her in a low voice. ‘Can the neighbours see you?’ She started shutting our window before Thyagamma could answer.

‘No. I am a family spirit. I walked down from near the market, took a right, crossed the railway line, walked through our street and nobody saw me. Parvati, you only said at my funeral, “If she has died in peace, let her go to heaven.”

‘So you didn’t die in peace?’

‘I think that is what I am trying to say …’

Thyagamma signalled for some water. I brought some over and sat down on the floor, so the three of us made a triangle.

‘Okay, tell me, how is the onion shop doing?’

‘Just like before. First Lakshmi used to come with me. Now she stays home and cooks.’

‘Oh, and onions have become really expensive,’ Amma said. ‘Who cares about all that? Thyagamma! How could you come back?’ We all called her Thyagamma, on her insistence.

‘I had to,’ Thyagamma said, and then shut her eyes to dismiss this interrogation. Later, after Amma had checked with me – for the last time – whether she was hallucinating, she decided to sleep, whining in incoherent whispers. I couldn’t sleep of course, with a spirit in the house and all that. (And that too it was Thyagamma, whom we had burned three weeks ago!)

She lay on the mat next to Amma, and sprang forth when she heard her tiny snore. Then she took me outside and we both stood in front of the railway line, just in time to hear the night train to Hyderabad go by. She heard it through its length.

‘Lakshmi, I have to tell you something,’ she said. She looked at the night sky, like she wanted to rob it of its stars, and sighed. ‘Of course Thyagamma, you have to tell me. What are you doing here?’

‘We have to save everyone,’ she said, putting her neck out to the wind.

‘Thyagamma, stop talking in puzzles. Amma is already confused. She has a weak heart, you know,’ I told her, although I didn’t mind the conversation unfolding in a Thyagamma kind of way.

‘I know what is going to happen to our small colony, Lakshmi. They are going to tear it down, and take the land for laying a wide road.’

‘How do you know?’

In the seven months before her death, neither Amma nor I saw Thyagamma wake up and shut the door behind her every single night. We both knew she was meeting someone, and doing something, but we didn’t dare to find out who or what. And not because either of us predicted she was going to die, but because questioning Thyagamma would mean other things: a long lecture about keeping secrets, being private and, finally, coming to the thing she loved talking about most, our lack of concentration on the most important part of our lives, namely, the onion shop.

So we kept out of her way. And we sold our onions and, sometimes, other vegetables. Thyagamma would come while we were at the market, cook, clean and leave again, never giving us reason to complain. One day Surya, from the other side of the railway line, came to our house, and my mother asked me to go sit outside for a while. First Surya said something about Thyagamma being a wicked witch, and they both started giggling furiously. She said something about an MLA. Then Amma began to cry. I couldn’t understand much, but I knew that Thyagamma’s departures were of interest to others too.

It may have been two months ago when Thyagamma came home looking like the train – our train – had flattened her. Her eyes were a bit wet, but Thyagamma crying would mean that every pukka house near us would tremble. I had never heard her cry, but Amma said that Thyagamma howled if she ever did. We let her be, but she began snarling at us and calling us donkeys.

‘Both mother and daughter have to learn to handle the real world. Do you have any savings? Stupid women!’

Amma also shouted at her, saying she must be an even bigger donkey to have given birth to donkeys like us. ‘Why are you suddenly talking about savings?’

‘Because I am old now. Who will take care of you once I die?’ she said. ‘When will Lakshmi rejoin her school?’

I put my hands over my ears, warm and tight. I didn’t want them to discuss this once again. I had finished the state board exams, and I thought that was enough.

They were being so cranky that night that I couldn’t be around them. I went out and played with Anil and Chintu. They kept daring me to cross the railway line. It’s easy for me to do that, but I still acted scared and crossed it with a fearful expression, to create some suspense for them. Then I forced them to clap and say I was brave.

I returned some hours later. Thyagamma was sitting on our threshold with some papers in a plastic cover. ‘This is her ration card, Lakshmi, keep it carefully. Amma may sell it with her onions by mistake.’

‘I know because I know important people,’ she said that night. ‘If your mother has not already told you … I used to go to the contractor’s house. He loved me.’ I laughed so much when she said the word ‘love’ that Thyagamma tried to beat me. But she couldn’t because she was a gho – I mean, an un-living person.

It seems Thyagamma had quite an affair with this roads-and-buildings contractor; her whole body leaned forward, like a young girl’s, when she started speaking about him. She tried to cut out all the sex parts, but after some time – after I was able to accept that Thyagamma had it in her – she included graphic details about her 39-year-old contractor, about how he lusted after Thyagamma, and how she herself lusted after him too.

‘Lakshmi, you don’t know what he was like. He spoke openly to me. He played with my hair. He used to sink his head in my belly for hours and he said he could help us … give us a better life.’

She looked away when she said this, and even though the moonlight allowed me to see every wrinkle on her face, her eyes found a place to hide.

‘What is a better life? I liked our life. I just wanted you to rejoin school. But then he told me what he was being employed to do and I was so angry,’ she glowered.

So this contractor – this daring man who slept with Thyagamma – came to find out how many of us lived in the small pukka houses and shanties near the railway line. He went over to my grandmother for this information, and she said that 52 families lived there. Many were hawkers in the main market. He asked more questions. Then some irrelevant questions.

She said she kept staring at his nice, burly body and bloodshot eyes in the sun.

‘He told me one day when I was on top of him: “They’re destroying your colony Thyagamma. They want to lay a big, smooth road through it.”

‘Oho. And…? “They will shift you to some houses on some wasteland far, far away. Don’t be angry … Thyagamma! Thya-ah-ah-gamma!” He started to cry.

‘I kept him on a leash that came out from between my thighs. I asked him everything he knew.’

An eight-acre marriage hall was being built for ‘we-don’t-know-who’ to, well, marry in. It would have everything: four temples inside its high-walled campus. Several AC puja and reception halls, idols of gods everywhere – as garden ornaments and as full-length statues – and even a little cottage for the newly-weds to celebrate their first night in.

The next few days after this revelation began early for Amma, who I suspect did everything with her eyes shut, trying to ignore Thyagamma’s presence: a distinctly hard task if you were her daughter. Before she left, she would remind to me to stay safe, and even shoved a 10-rupee note in my hand twice.

As she left one day, Thyagamma said to me through her paan-stuffed mouth: ‘Forget everything Amma had said. Lakshmi, we women … we have to stick together. By the way, have you gotten your period?’

Four days after she died, I discovered blood in my underwear. Amma was sick then, and wept a little when I told her. When I was at school they had taught us about it, so I didn’t really need Amma’s help.

‘I got it, Thyagamma.’

‘Now you are a woman of this house.’ She made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a screech. ‘They’ll be here tomorrow,’ she said.

When the evening train to Tamil Nadu goes by, there is nobody left on the tracks.

The eviction and demolition took place a little after midnight, the squad swooping down while we were all asleep. But by then, Thyagamma had left.

Amma and I stared at each other for a long time.

I am thinking: There isn’t even a door to leave open for Thyagamma now, in case she decides to return.

Deepika Arwind is a writer and journalist based in Bangalore.

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Also the name of a Thom Yorke Song.

It Rained All Night, Buddhadeva Bose.

Just finished. Enjoyed. Novellas give you a sense of accomplishment.


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Gokarna. I don’t see a holiday in the horizon, though.

This appeared in the Summer Special issue of Tehelka.

Harem Pants And Psychedelic Trance

Deepika Arwind
Writer and journalist based in Bengaluru

Salt slippers Many of Gokarna’s beaches can only be reached only on foot

imageI’M LOOKING for a less overwhelming experience than Goa — with its endless choices of hotels, food and beaches — and fighting the near-impossibility of skinny-dipping in Pondicherry’s waters (pardon me if I’m wrong, for I’ve been to neither) — and Gokarna, seems the ideal getaway in the face of these impulses. A bustling temple town on the west coast, in Uttar Kannada district, Gokarna means ‘cow’s ear’, from which Lord Shiva is said to have emerged.

To get myself a sliver of history and a potentially unadulterated beach holiday, I board the Sugama Sleeper Travels bus from Bengaluru. Twelve hours later, the bus unloads its groggy passengers on Gokarna town’s streets, where I shop for clothes — floozy dresses and harem pants (flat rate Rs 100, and still bargaining). From there, it’s a quick ride to Kudle beach, where the auto (for Rs 100, no bargaining) pulls up on a clean shoreline. Except for a few heads bobbing in the water, there’s nobody here. The other options are Om, Half-moon and Paradise beaches. They get successively rockier, and Om beach is ‘commercial’ by Gokarna standards. I’m booked nowhere, and Sunset Cafe is welcoming: at Rs 150 a night, any shack is.

Badal, our Bihari host, who came to Gokarna for the good life, cooks up a mean breakfast complete with sausages and hash potatoes — the result of endless years of trying to please ‘firangs’. He gets along well with them, playing psychedelic trance and chatting all day.

The shacks are basic: a light bulb and undulating beds. There are only two bathrooms/toilets — needless to say they are dirty. Unless there’s a conscientious hippie cleaning the bathroom ‘for the community’ (which there was), or you are willing to spend on the sole five-star hotel (not quite the same experience), there aren’t many choices.

20,000 people flock to Gokarna on Shivaratri to watch the temple chariots
steered by hundreds leading the procession

Nearest airport: Mangalore
Nearest station: Kumta, Karnataka

Outside, the water is cold and the beach, deserted. Cows sleep and girls sell beaded necklaces. You can roll on the sand or dive in the sea till sundown. I spot two white bums in the water that belong to hippie infants Baby Ganesha and Baby Stella who are afloat in the sea with their families.

At lunchtime, gorge on beer, wood-oven pizzas, extraordinary seafood from butter garlic prawns to squid tikka, and fresh salad. Try the Lebanese-Israeli selection and even some momos served at the cafes (all of which aren’t open in the peak of summer).

The day, be warned, is spent in the minor oscillations between the sea and the shack, eating and swimming, or just buoying lightly. Others, I hear, trek across the forest-hills for a glimpse of the other beaches, but I stop at a boat-ride to Om beach.

Three days and a dark tan later, I’m back in Gokarna town, making a quick dash to the Mahabaleshwar temple. There’s more to buy in the markets — zari bags, embroidered shoes, yellow leather chappals, fisherman pants and balloon skirts. And then the bus back to Bengaluru, where I’ll need my sunblock this summer, and where I’ll lament the poor quality of an overpriced kingfish fillet.

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May beginnings.

My review (this is the edited version) of “An Evening with Anton Chekhov” that appeared in The Hindu on May 3. Now, to find the other reviews I’ve done and post them here. This is hoping I’m more regular with my blog.

Sachin Gurjale, "A Reluctant Tragic Hero"

“Swan Song”, a one-act play, is perhaps one of Chekhov’s many strokes of genius, but as his first play it seems to surpass much of his other work. A deft, neat script that doesn’t for a moment contain itself within the physical confines of the theatre, “Swan Song” tells us a little about old age, an actor’s conflict with his art, and the passing of things. A widely performed play, it was one of three Chekhov’s one-act plays performed in Toto Funds the Arts’ and Rafiki’s “An Evening with Anton Chekhov” directed by Anmol Vellani.

The protagonist, Vasili Svietlovidoff, a 68-year-old comedian, was played by Jagadish Raja, who staggered through a dim corridor of light, in a shrunken clown’s costume with a candle in his hand. Raja’s performance was nuanced and his body compellingly conveyed the unsteadiness of his drunk demeanor, of his rundown self.

Apart from being inaudible in certain parts of his speech — certainly a drawback, Raja told the story of Svietlovidoff, making us believe him.

The performance, for the most part, also demanded the unquestioning attention of the audience, if they wanted to follow a trajectory that meandered between nostalgia, despair and fleeting hope — a performance both the actor and director had fine-tuned. “The Harmfulness of Tobacco”, performed by Ashish D’Abreo, was one of the most consistent performances of the evening that held itself most assuredly through its length. The short play is about a severely henpecked husband, who is forced into delivering a lecture about the ills of tobacco at a ladies club, and instead ends up recounting the many tragedies of his own life.

This play, less intense than the first and more obviously comical, was written by Chekhov in six drafts. The performance by D’Abreo attempted to strike a balance between the internal and the external influences that lent him the personality of a meek husband, waiting to deliver his own unrehearsed monologue. In his withholding and moments of seeming-abandon, the script was mostly squeezed out of its potential, with the actor delivering a straight, simple performance.

But perhaps, “A Reluctant, Tragic Hero” was more inventive than the rest, considering the strength of the script itself — a stretched out “the poor husband” joke that has for long burdened cinema and television soaps.

Sachin Gurjale, who played the part with earnestness made the audience part of the play. With the house lights on, and a sense that we were part of the storytelling, the play was comic-tragic in the moments it played itself out.

In that sense it did not become anything else, and mostly highlighted Gurjale’s abilities as an actor.

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This issue of Pratilipi…

..has five of my poems. Read the rest of the bilingual journal for more poetry, fiction and non-fiction essays.


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Poem : Don’t Lie to Kathmandu.

Just getting started. What better way than a poem?

Don’t lie to Kathmandu: it’s a dot in your large cunt of states,

and dots never did hurt, unless they became ovaries.

Don’t lie to the smiling folk, warm like palmed coins,

because you already have your own roll along

coastlines, forests and muddy plains.

Don’t lie to Kathmandu – you’ve lied enough.

Played with its ease, tossed over its ramparts

and ruffled its antiquity.

Don’t lie; look, even boys with low-waisted jeans who

smoke on the streetsides ignoring the goras,

have come to loathe you. (Worse, be bored by you.)

Don’t lie to Kathmandu; they are already calling its

girls whores in your PGs, and charging them double auto fare.

Don’t lie; even your films have. Under its

warm filth is your own city, with newly installed

women cops and cratered roads.

Don’t lie to Kathmandu, it blots into a country

of people traipsing up mountains with fridge

and beer on their backs.

Don’t lie; it doesn’t ask for nuke-treaties

and will nod to playing second-citizen.

Don’t lie to Kathmandu, because lies echo everywhere,

in Guatemala and Mexico and Jamaica

– and then-

poems begin to write themselves.

Don’t lie to Kathmandu if you don’t want a poem.


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