Friday, August 14, 2015

Books Need People

The school I went to had a fantastic art teacher. She's the sort of woman who makes you believe in garden gnomes. Who throws glitter onto the edges of things in perfect proportion, draws roses with an easy wrist and owns a cottage in the mountains where she thinks it absolutely necessary to her students’ education to visit just before their final school examination papers.

She always brought equal parts magic and terror into our school week, sprinkling generously her eccentricities on our days. She could be the ultimate storm on a bad day, cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes and lustrous long black hair which unfurled behind her, escaping the wooden stick holding it for most part in perfect place. And then she could be the gold tip on a winter afternoon, floating into the room with her hands around a cup of chai, gorgeous Gujarati shawl wrapped around her, the mirror work on it reflecting the sunshine and lighting up the room in an array of tiny stars. She would smile and her magenta painted mouth would say words like "viridian” and “Prussian" and “cobalt”. 

She did everything differently. Defiantly. She made us paint a hundred different flowers, just because she adored them each equally. She made us climb hills filled with lemon trees because she believed almost superstitiously that it's what would take us from mediocre art students to truly impassioned artists. And it did. She made us weave with superhuman patience, dhurries on massive wooden looms and pluck Gulmohar during our summer holidays and study a pineapple’s scaly skin as a repeat pattern and chip our nails making mosaics of fish and lotuses and cut our hands on glass for lamps we painted to look like the windows of churches. She was a hard taskmaster and we cursed her under our breath and called her “witch”, but the truth is, she was a good witch and some days we lived for her smile. She was what made school bearable on many a mundane Monday, and her non-preachy effortless, almost collaborative wisdom and naughty humour were refreshing after a day of being spoken to like a child. She made me believe fairies live in the upturned cups of fuchsia flowers and that one of her ancestors had most certainly been a raven. Under her tutelage mountains came to life in lines of coal and we learnt the delicate joys of watercolour.

There were many things that made her magical aside from her most fabulous style of imparting knowledge. These include her Mona Lisa smile, her sons who were so far beyond the rest of us when it came to being cool that some kids mistook them for being the opposite (they were listening to Dylan and reading Kerouac while we tried to find the meaning of life in Nancy Drews), and the very, very special fact that she was magically associated to the best bookshop in town.

You cannot script something this perfect. That this beautiful, eccentric, wicked, wonderful lady who gave us respite from the corridors of math and malfunction in her gorgeous, temperate-climed art department that unfolded like a box of secrets, one room into another, was married to a man who had decided to spend a lifetime expanding his love of books and giving in turn this gift to anyone who would pause to have it. Though I’m certain I would have grown up with a love for Fact & Fiction either way (my parents were both huge fans), being Rati ma’am’s students let us feel like we had some extra-association to the place, and as we began thirsting for the sort of whacky knowledge they weren’t giving us in textbooks, the book shop became our number one preferred place.

Every few weeks I would make a little trip to “Priya Market” in Vasant Vihar with my reading buddy, Ishita Chaudhry. We never had more than 500 rupees between us, and it came together in a bunch of crumpled notes, sweaty from school skirt pockets and long bus rides. We'd enter, the little bell on the door jingled, and we’d say our shy hellos to Ajit uncle and Ravi ji as they sat together, listening to Jimi Hendrix or something we hadn’t heard but wanted to.  The sensation after that was one of being engulfed. Of being swallowed by the whale and travelling through his belly and when you were finally ejected in a huge baptism of seawater, it felt like you would never be the same again because your mind had been stretched and twisted and coloured and enchanted and we came out reeling, each having visited many planets, each with all of one book in our hands. 

Oh we could spend hours there amongst the slim shelves. We would look forward to our “book day” for weeks in advance. In the interim the school library would provide less provocative stuff, but we longed to “have” the books we wanted. We longed to read about sex and drugs and rock and roll. About history and religion, about wars  - not the versions we were being taught but the other side. We wanted philosophy and music biographies. We wanted Jim Morrison’s poetry and dark books on the occult. We wanted love stories. Real ones spanning times of cholera, not those peach covered romances with curly-fonted titles filled with heavy breathing. Back then if I remember correctly, Fact & Fiction sold music too – wondrous box sets of Janis Joplin’s discography and rare Leonard Cohen concerts. I also bought my first box of Tarot Cards there and as a teenager spent many nocturnal hours drawing swords and wands to fight the demons of insecurity and cast spells on basketball playing boys. Sometimes on weekends my parents would take us there, and those days were bounty-days. Instead of the one or two books I had to usually make do with, I got three or maybe even four. Swooning, I’d exit the store, palms sweaty from excitement, books held possessively in bag.

Back then they used plastic bags, then we nagged and nagged and nagged till one day I remember a paper bag being whipped out and Ajit uncle saying "Here you go, we got paper bags! You kids…" And he looked annoyed but as we left he had his trademark amused smile on. 

Over the years I've heard people say the Fact & Fiction bookshop guys weren't friendly, and I always found myself giggling at this. Of course they weren't! They were connoisseurs. In my version of the world they weren't meant to be friendly! Bakers are friendly. These guys, they were meant to be stoic. They were the generals in the Army of Literary Saviours and you earned their respect; each book you read took you a tiny notch higher. I remember the day I walked in and asked for a book on the Beatniks. I must have been about 14 and that day, my time had come. I remember Ajit uncle stood up (something I assure you he doesn’t do when you request a Chetan Bhagat). He reached up and brought down a variety of books, handing them to me while quietly explaining which I could start with, and what each held in store for me. Embarrassed that I could only buy one, I did, and then I floated out the store, knowing I was finally part of some secret club of REAL readers. From then on, whenever I walked in, he had books waiting for me. A history of LSD, a book of all Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, a book on The Who on tour, Hanif Kureishi screenplays and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (Oh Ajit uncle what a masterpiece that was!) What you found in these alcoves you couldn’t find in other bookstores, because nowhere else was the human(e) hand so strong as here. This wasn’t a collection rattled off and mass-ordered courtesy some chart topping list of lurid time-passing bestsellers. This was a handpicked archive of wisdom and wizardry combined, a closet full of secrets and journeys and dormant passions you didn’t yet know you possessed. And I wanted all of it.

So the years passed. I eventually went off to college and my trips became less frequent. No one in my family dares possess a Kindle (yet?) but that said, college degrees, online shopping, lifestyles that had more style and less life in them, and shifting further away geographically all came in the way of the once every few weeks trips we used to make to the little market that had changed a little too. From being one of Delhi’s cleaner, more “happening” markets, it now played second fiddle to the nearby malls where kids go to do everything but read. Last year, I finally made two resolutions of sorts. The first to read more, and the second, to buy my books from independent booksellers. Because ironically, to truly kindle a fire, you need paper.

I made a trip back to Fact and Fiction and found my world intact. The bell on the door jingled, Ajit uncle smiled hello, Ravi ji nodded and I was lost once again to the only love I’ve never parted from…the one consistent companion my life has had. The books came off shelves as if on their own, the right ones finding their way into my hungry palms. Love and war and poetry and art chatted to philosophy as the biographies perched egoistically to one side and the music books chilled with the music system from which Pink Floyd performed faithfully.

For a short time, a sort of peace was restored in my life. I had also managed in adulthood to find a small group of people who still read and make time for it, and they each contributed recommendations and delights that changed my world for the better. Recently, some of them decided to start a small Book Club in Bombay. They named it, most deliciously, Between The Covers. I joined, hoping to add something different to my reading. After much debate they chose to attempt the 800+ page The Luminaries, as a first novel. In keeping with my resolution, I made a mental note to buy it at Fact & Fiction when I had the chance. And then, I saw the article. It was titled (almost too simply, because really how else does one say it) – ‘Why I am shutting down my bookstore in New Delhi’.

Over the last few days I have found myself back at the bookstore, more than once. I feel the need to go back, to sit on those wood floors and pore over words as a sort of ritual in mourning. I buy the books in piles, amazed at how little books still cost. We spend more on a meal or a single drink at a bar. Everything I’ve been waiting to read, I buy. Things like The English Patient and Wolf Hall and the new Jeffrey Eugenides book…I know I will read these eventually, so I buy them all now, together. I reckon these will become keepsakes more precious than other books. Like a pendant you give a child and say, “Take care of it, it belonged to your grandmother,” I see myself handing over my copy of Eva Luna to my child saying, “Be careful, it was bought at Fact & Fiction”. Because in the folklore of my life, this store has been the fairy godmother, Gandalf, and Prince Charming rolled into one. I feel like years from now the books I bought in this store will be held onto still, like a clump of soil from ones motherland, wrapped in a traveler’s handkerchief that you open from time to time to remind yourself where you really come from. I am terrified at the thought of people limiting themselves to best-seller lists, or of people who do not read at all. I am scared for a world in which children do not have the patience to find the meditative stillness of reading, or where they no longer need to use their imaginations because they are satisfied with the pictures given to them, instead of yearning to conjure their own. I lie awake at night sometimes and wonder what happens when a book is forgotten. When no one reads it anywhere any longer. Does it cease to exist?

These days at the bookstore I pick books I want, touch them, read passages and place them on the tiny counter in front of Ajit uncle, asking him, “Is this one any good?” then wait for him to give me his short but always honest criticism. I haven’t been able to mention to him or to Rati ma’am the real reason we both know I keep going back this week, sometimes alone, sometimes with family or an old friend, or then with a new friend whom I’ve told “must see” the store once before it goes. I can’t seem to offer my condolences, scared I will well up and make a complete idiot of myself. I did manage to ask, out of fear I would come one day at the end of this month and see a lock on the door – “So when is the last day?” And he couldn’t answer. All he said, after an emotional pause in which he closed his eyes a moment, was, “Imagine waking up and there’s no Fact & Fiction.” Imagine.

In a strange testimony to that space that gave my life so much sparkle, on the first day this week I went back to make a sort of pilgrimage, I was lost between Naipaul and Anais Nin when I heard a familiar voice. I looked up and saw Ishita, my school “reading buddy”. We haven’t seen each other in forever. We both stood there staring at each other, amazed, before embracing ever-so-warmly. You see…there is irrepressible magic in those four walls.

Goodbye Fact And Fiction. What a marvellous giver of dreams you've been. In a city oft-starved for soul, you should know you provided one restless, angry, and confused kid a halfway home of riches, a land of infinite possibilities and a telescope to all I could have and be and want and dream. They say if you change one life while on Earth, you have done better than most…that your time here has been worthwhile. Well you changed mine. Thank you.

This winter, you, like me, would have been 31 years old. Goodbye old friend.

Here’s an interview with Ajit Vikram Singh:

Here’s an older piece by his son Jairaj Singh, who speaks fondly of his memories of growing up in a bookshop – lucky guy:

And here is Ajit Vikram Singh’s own piece, on why he finally made the hard choice of shutting down his bookstore:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Blue House: A Tribute To Frida Kahlo

For as long as I have known of her, I've wanted to be Frida Kahlo. Who hasn't though? She is the ultimate fact, the penultimate personality. So deep and vast and serious, yet light and sardonic, somehow seeing both the celebration and comedy of life while simultaneously mourning it.

In her now so famous paintings, she surrounds herself with nurturing or lustful elements, painting herself as borne of flora and fauna, canvases littered with talismans of a feral, feline and "feminine" life, and yet her garb, so full skirted and rosy and silken could just as easily turn "masculine". She could have flowers in her hair and simultaneously, smoothly hold a cigarette, make confident conversation in a room full of politicians, walk like a man or even make love to a woman. She was assertive and aggressive about her passions, at a time it was considered horrific for a woman to do so. Frankly, women around the world still struggle with the glass ceilings and boxes they aren't allowed to cross or tick off.

She was considered outrageous. Always so dramatic, yet lacking in melodrama she is simply sad and pure. Like she felt things clearly, unclouded by malice or social stigma. Like a child's version of the world - animals are good, the earth needs love so grow your own garden, paint and eat well and when you love, do so with infinite generosity. Travel, laugh, and don't spend so much time on what other people think. Oh and wear flowers in your hair.

So glamorous yet so earthy. So passionate and full of pains both physical and beyond. (Kahlo spent her entire life in pain due to a spinal birth defect, polio at age 6, and a tram accident at 18 for which she later underwent no less than 35 surgeries. A few years before she died her leg had to be amputated as well.) Humanitarian, class-less, sexy and yet maternal, she is an elegy of extremes. It is no wonder then that people continue to be fascinated and even obsessed by her, and that Frida has become a first name reference for strength, grace and resilience.

This year the feminist Mexican artist who has over the last few decades achieved some sort of grandame level of cultural iconicism, rose to even greater heights, returning to pique the public's curiously posthumously yet again. Her affair with Catalan artist Jose Bartoli came to light after his family found her letters to him - works of art in themselves, they show that our heroine was not just adept of oil and brush but of swivelling that true instrument of passion and colour - the heart - using a variety of mediums. Simultaneously a photographic exhibit of her belongings (shot by Ishiuchi Miyako) released earlier this year and the public could finally view the glory of Kahlo's wardrobe and quirky personal effects. Sealed in a bathroom in her house all this time, the items were there on order of her husband Diego Rivera, who eccentrically but somehow in keeping with the folklore of their lives, asked they remain there for 15 years after his death.

I have often looked longingly through her images and after reading extracts of her love letters to Bartoli some time in June, decided to ask my photographer sister Nayantara, if she might be keen to work on a tribute project.

We planned for weeks. Moti the langur, the white pigeons, the location, the colours. We pored over paintings and literature, zoomed in on earrings and textures. When Ogaan India came on board with the clothes and make up artist Savleen Manchanda agreed to create the essential unibrow and rainbow of roses-on-head look, I was more convinced than ever, there was some sort of Kahlo Magic at hand. Like one of her surrealist paintings, the shoot took on a life of its own, where the elements fell into spaces, as if in a dream, and against all odds.

We shot on what would have been her 108th birthday, July 6th. It was the day the monsoon finally came to the capital. The day a rainbow drew itself across the Delhi sky in reward and reminder. The day we meticulously made a childhood dream come true.

The tribute is called Blue House, in honour of Frida's own house La Casa Azul, and perhaps also because we shot it in our own version of The Blue House, our childhood home, ironically teeming itself with exotic wild birds, occasional animals, forgotten spirits and ghosts of Christmases past. Frida was born and raised in her Blue House, which still stands today in Coyoacán, now a museum dedicated to her life. She lived there later too with Rivera, and she died there, exactly 61 years ago to the date today. In honour of her life's work and unending inspiration, we present:

"Blue House: A Tribute To Frida Kahlo"

In closing, I'd like to share a different tribute to the artist; a poem by the American poet Marty McConnell. A remarkable woman herself, her poem Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell has been misappropriated in thousands of ways. It contains in it the line now oft attributed to Frida herself - "take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic". The poem in its entirety is far, far more beautiful. Here it is, Frida's advice on love, re-imagined:

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell
by Marty McConnell

leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. train your heart
like a dog. change the locks
even on the house he's never
visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
you have an apartment
just your size. a bathtub
full of tea. a heart the size
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. don't wish away
your cracked past, your
crooked toes, your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought because the 
at the market was so compelling you
had to have them. you had to have 
and you did. and now you pull down
the bridge between your houses.
you make him call before
he visits, you take a lover
for granted, you take
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. place it
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
don't lose too much weight.
stupid girls are always trying
to disappear as revenge. and you
are not stupid. you loved a man
with more hands than a parade
of beggars, and here you stand.
like a four-poster bed. heart like a
heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.

You can read her work and learn more about her here: 
And you can view a rather comic yet heartbreaking project on the misappropriation of this poem, here: or 'because even the alphabet is precious'

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ink Image Ideology

Recently a fashion magazine asked me to tell them the stories behind my tattoos, in a few lines. I declined, because of the impossibility of the task, but attempted for the first time to address my own ink. Here, in more than a few lines.

There is no way to share on the slippery impermanent pages of a monthly magazine that pimps out cerise and silk as life altering options, the reason for choosing to make something stay. I answered them at first, said the one on my ankle represented the sign under which I was born and the guitar on my forearm because I “love music”. Expectedly, like any client seeking ink, they asked for more detail. There is no way to share though that as an 18 year old the desperation to change myself juxtaposed with the ironic need to find what was a permanent enough part of me, led to the first inking of a scorpion on my ankle. And how very quickly after I bought my first butterfly as part of a promotion for the city’s first tattoo parlour. We were in the middle of a nightclub, I remember an overpriced beer in my right hand. I felt so cool (probably looked so stupid), eighteen and inked, drinking away the pain, beer thinning blood, blood dripping down wrist…and a few years after in a mall in Malaysia I got a second butterfly to match. (Because girls who drag their feet need wings by their heels.) These winged things shouldn’t define you, but when you print them out on the canvas of your skin they begin to, and the boys who share your bed say things like, “Oh you’re just like one.” And you wonder if it’s because you always fly away. There was a time I wanted petits papillons all over my body…but no one needs to fly that high.

I have poetry and words printed on me here and there, and there is no way to explain that some are for dead people and some are for life as we know it. That “ferrous” is for my father’s spirit and not just his profession and though he cannot understand my obsession with mutilation, he has so much respect for freedom that he cannot and will not say, “But I liked you better that way”. He thinks ink is for punks and pirates and that I curse like both put together, but he’d rather I am myself than anyone else. He taught me through example that no one is allowed to judge me for what even he won’t.

There is no way to say without a heavy heart that I share ink with people I will never see again. That somewhere there’s a boy who reads the same line of the same poem every single day in the shower, perhaps. That my best friend and I both have tiny, matching odes to a shared God, upon us. That my sister and I share odes in ink too but maybe I can never share what they mean. Certainly not with the world in two lines, and possibly not even with you. But I’ll tell you this…there’s an anchor that becomes a treble clef just floating on my arm and I had it placed there for a boy whose life was cut too short to place it on himself. I’ll tell you this too that my wedding finger has an aeroplane on it and my ribcage has a reminder to be true, always, to what those bony bars on most days just about manage to cage in.

My arm. My left arm. I never planned for those tendrils and mandalas, the feathers and fine mesh all happened somewhat by mistake, somewhat by chance. They just fell into place, gracefully, one session after another, thanks to Senthil and Madan, two gentlemen with more vision than I could ever imagine. I remember walking into Skindeep, Bangalore and holding out my arm like a peace offering. “May I?” Senthil said, and lifted the sleeve like removing the blanket off a sleeping baby. And the next day our dreams collided and became skulls and roses.

(Photo by Nayantara Parikh)

There’s a deer there somewhere because a girl I love calls me one. There’s a flower that’s in constant bloom. There’s a bride’s worth of henna tumbling down that arm in black and everyone asks what it means and maybe it means nothing except this that I didn’t grow up comfortable in the skin I was in, and the day I “modified” it and painted it over it became, finally, something I recognized as my own. That I didn’t feel beautiful until I laid these custom clothes upon my body…and that they are woven not just of skulls and symbols but of invisible Band-Aids and silent lullabies. That maybe pain is to me what painkillers are to you. That as a woman I reclaim my body each time I make it more my own through the act of recreating my physical being as art. When you tattoo you, you become your own canvas. And the right tattoo artist is the paintbrush in sync with your soul. Madan is the only man who has been allowed to touch me for eight hours straight. Who has looked into my eyes just to gauge pain, and understood wordlessly when to start and stop. My body is sexless for Tenzin, who out of respect for my baring it and offering it up to his needles, will never view it as more than a page.

I remember, respect and love people by their tattoos. The girl with fairy wings. The girl with the key to her heart on her wrist. (Good luck locating the keyhole.) The boy who tells time by the clock on his heart alone. The one with the fish flipping on his shoulder. The one with the microphone and the one with the two secret bars on his wrist. The girl with musical notes on her ankle and a bow that unties her, somewhere you’ll never find it. The one with the exquisite dragonfly at her waist. The one with the perfect Disney reference beneath her underwear. The boy with his grandfather’s favourite quote on his ribs (and how much it hurt him that day). The boy who reminds me every time I see him that “upon us all a little rain must fall”, and the one with a sleeve in progress. Somewhere on an island there’s a lad with a line I gave him down his arm, and he won’t talk to me because I didn’t stay but the line will. I recognize my best friend by his smell and his laughter but also if you showed me isolated pictures of his star or bird or plane or unborn daughter’s name…I would know, a thousand years from now, that it’s him. There’s a woman I know with a phoenix because she is one. And another one with a galaxy full of children’s names…our names.

There are the tattoos that haven’t been got yet, like the perfect shell the-girl-from-the-sea needs, or the husky for the husky. Like the tiny map, the cosmic lotus, the tango sierra and the rhyme at my spine, all pieces I’ll place over time. Delicate pieces that will complete some jigsaw deep beneath the surface as well. I try to view my body holistically, like some lengthy piece of modern art. When people ask – won’t you get bored, I want to ask back,  “And you? Will you one day tire of your skin? And when you do…will you come seeking ink, to change it?” To grow bored of my tattoos, I would have to grow bored of my past, and the sum of my parts. My stories, my journeys. Would you grow bored of a house you have built with your own hands, filling it over decades with objects from travels to the strangest places in the world? My soul cannot tire of a home it has laden and made unique with the riches it has collected as it wandered across unmapped lands. Thus, my skin has become a map to my heart, drawn in indelible ink, because the paths I have already walked are unchanging. And now they aren’t simply the paths that brought me here, but road signs to the paths I should take. As much as they became me when I first got them, I also became my tattoos over time.

There is no judgement you can lay on my skin that I haven’t already. There is no regret you can envision that I haven’t calculated before you. Here is the simplest way I can explain my enthusiasm for what may seem like the extreme, to you: I did not forget that life is long, while choosing my tattoos. I remembered that life is short. My tattoos for the most part aren’t the hasty rash desperate coolness of youth, but a continued sense of self paired with the acceptance of mortality. So there you go. Regret is a redundant concept when you are only becoming more yourself, with a conviction that is a promise to your spirit. And that goes for everything, with ink and without.