Monday, September 18, 2017

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner: A week to remember.

Right from the moment you meet him, you get the feeling you've never encountered someone with quite as much elegance in their bones as Karan Singh. At 50, he's the poster child for mid life crisis gone terribly right. With his perfect skin (sodium bicarbonate mixed with coconut oil), his impeccable manners, his tasteful jewels ("They're my mother's and I don't care if people laugh I'll wear them!") he makes you feel from the moment you enter, as if you've come home to your favourite mad uncle's country estate. 

Unlike his other properties - Suryagarh in Jaisalmer and Laxmi Niwas Palace around the corner from Narendra Bhawan, the Bhawan focuses less on grandeur and more on fun at its most fabulous. 

You enter and are greeted by jazz music playing in the driveway (what was once the gaushala for the late King's hundreds of cows), a vintage car in mint green just sitting pretty, and modest steps leading up to a brilliantly tiled patio. Everything is over the top and yet all of it feels accessible. Even the big rose red grand piano painted with Edith Piaf's song Non,Je Ne Regrette Rien - aptly, No, I have no regrets. 

There are statues everywhere - once thought so fashionable and by the 90s relegated to vintage stores and grandmother's home, Karan has embraced and rescued them, lining up marble dogs and porcelain mermaids with crystal vases in glass fronted closets. "I love the period in India everyone ignores," he says. "The 1940s to the 1980s". He's caught on to something fantastic. Lord knows we're all sick to death of the colonial nonsense and Days Of The Raj bullshit we're still fed as though our slavery were something to glamorise. Instead Karan has silver footed charpais lining the chevron tiled corridors, because the late king Narendra Singh loved them. He has a restaurant called Pearls and Chiffon - an ode to the sassy Indian women of the late 70s, and two walls of Benarasi silk panels, framed for the property by Ekaya Banaras. 

What is truly glamorous though is the fantasy Karan offers. You'll be coaxed into champagne for breakfast and apple flavoured cupcakes before dinner. Nowhere else in the world do you step into a hotel "lobby" that is a library and living room abundant with (what must now be collector's edition) Encyclopedia Britannicas, potted plants, pictures of various old family dogs, and penguin classics galore. It is nothing short of a Marquez novel and any minute now you expect traveling gypsies to come by, set up a tent and sell you potions that will keep you young forevermore. 

Do not for one second let the fabulous life fool you, Narendra Bhawan may sound like stepping into your favourite book but like with most brilliant books it is luxury for the intellectual. It is a thinker's paradise...filled with care and clues to bigger things. The pottery outside the bakery isn't just Alice In Wonderland themed, it was personally sculpted for the tearoom by Karan's favourite Bengali artist. The magazines by the reading chair are no ordinary glossies, they're collector's Playboys from the 1970s. You'll find massive extraordinarily crafted light fixtures from little designers in Pondicherry, and limited edition signed art bought off auctions with a dose of luck. Each room is a tribute to a different moment in the life of the late Maharajah of Bikaner and Karan has seen to it that every aspect is represented. When we tell him our room number he begins to explain why he chose the shape of the bed he did, and the idea behind the art above it. We sit there astounded at his knowledge of his own property and the world in general, as a golden retriever named after 1950s New York gangster Bugsy Malone bounds up and the grandame of the property, Juju The Cat stretches out like a queen on the red box you receive your mail in each morning.

Karan's care, concern, and attention to detail reflect everywhere. The staff are in awe of him and they abundantly emulate his attitude. What a formula like that results in is an experience full of warmth, where you feel like no whim or whine will go unnoticed or unsettled. No request is too large, and no problem so great that they cannot with one smooth sweep of a crisp cotton kurta'd arm, solve it. In the evening Karan and his managers Sid and Amara gather at the front bar for martinis, introducing guests to each other, calling for micro mini pizzas, white wine and chilli flavoured chocolates under a starlit sky to an electro swing soundtrack. 

Where do you go when your sick of the cold brilliance of luxury? The answer is simple. You go home to Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner. 

Our top ten favourite things at the Bhawan:
The Chilli Chocolate 
The Banana Cupcakes 
The Pickled Cold Chicken
Lauki Ka Halwa
Pickled limes with matthri.
The ghee from Manali.
Sunset at the rooftop swimming pool, with a view of all of Bikaner.
Evening drinks at the front bar.
Playing with Bugsy Malone and stalking Juju the Cat.
Late night star gazing (or breakfast!) at the lake. You can see the enture Milky Way Galaxy from here - so maybe dinner...going into breakfast :)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Literature of Utmost Happiness: A Review

When I began the book, despite on-the-fence reviews and a generally sceptical audience, I was enthralled. Planting her feet firmly in Old Delhi, Roy begins the book with a hermaphrodite born in the same space as RoohAfza, a graveyard that very quickly becomes a guest house, a boy indirectly blinded by Subodh Gupta and enough satin and sequins for the entire cast of Cats. What starts out a cross between the brilliance of  City Of Djinns and Middlesex, turns very quickly into a scrapbook of Arundhati Roy's own socio-political journey over the last two decades. So much so that at times you pause and say, "Oh Arundhati separate the novelist from the activist for Chrissake!"

Though the book begins with Anjum, it is also the story of four friends - Naga, Musa, the "Landlord" Mr Biplab Dasgupta and one Tilotamma or Tilo of raw hair, angular features and extraordinary character. No prizes for guessing who Tilo will remind you of or is most likely loosely based on. And she's mesmerising. The book spans thirty years with a light touch, and traces the journeys of these four friends as they try to find their way to Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services (and petting zoo?) at the Graveyard.

Somewhere the book ventures into magic realism but something tells you with Roy this isn't a genre but a way of life. It is how she genuinely sees the world, not how she wishes she saw it. There are butterflies and bulls that appear at odd hours, boys that become fire and babies resembling baby seals. There are groups of friends that give you hope - a Bengali, a Kashmiri, a Keralite and a Delhi boy. A Hijra, an Imam, an erstwhile mortician and security guard, a jet setting builder, a goat trader, a protesting doctor and a graphic designer. You see? It is the world as it should be. A world where the borders between humans, if not those between countries, attempt to erase.

Yes it is part manisfesto, and touches on every political scar dealt to this country since the Mughal Era (no seriously, she manages to include partition, '84, Bhopal, the North East, Godhra etc etc in 400 short pages), and yes there are times it gets both painful and tedious. When 25 pages from the end of the novel she takes a detour, adds a character and gives her a background that includes rape and other torture and a three generation life story littered with social evil, you almost want to groan. But that's the beauty of it, you feel like such a little shit when you do. So you read. And you learn. And you feel the shame and sadness you avoid otherwise, while living your grand life of books and holidays and first world problems. And there, Arundhati Roy succeeds, she makes you feel with her what she has had the burden of feeling alone all these years. She sparks your conscience.

With her the personal has always been political, so I'm not sure why we expected less, or expected an easier novel. But here's the genius of it - the novel, for all its mention of torture techniques, is funny. Its humour may be dry and dark but it's definitely there, almost a survival skill beneath all that sorrow.

The book is a reminder of everything we should be fighting for (and have already lost) as a country, told with the broken-hearted elegance, nonchalance, rage and charm of an Old Delhi courtesan with both boy and girl parts. I'm not sure whether an international audience will find it as fascinating, and I'm deeply against ideas of patriotism and the problems that sentiment carries, but I do think, this is at the heart of it an "India" book. It is lament and love song both. It is a bomb which under the right gaze will detonate a thousand thoughts, a thousand feelings. At one point Roy asks, "What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?" And truly - who gets to decide?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Moving to Mysore: One month of Ashtanga Yoga in the deep south.

To understand how I came to Samyak Ashram, I will need to tell you a little about my grandfather. M.M. Misra (or Yum Yum Mishra as a South Indian man once requested at their Allahabad home, sending my mother and her brother, then aged 10 and 9, howling through the garden with laughter). Dadu. My maternal grandfather: teller of grand stories, stubborn as an ox, giver of children’s names, lover of machher jhol, whiskey and one beautiful German woman. His personality so big, his brain so handsome, believing equally in mathematics and the madness of planets, he combined both to create a sort of rogue astrology that the rest of us did not simply believe in but I think over time became. Of the eclectic array of yoga courses available online it only made sense to pick the one that began on his birthday.

So as the sun set on the second day of 2016, tossing upward one last brilliant burst of flame setting the Mysore sky alight, I found myself in a taxi, the driver turning off National Highway 17 after about four hours of smooth cruising from Bangalore airport. As he slowed down for painted cows, village dust fluttered and city lights were lost. The air was cooler, suddenly full of the promises that should have arrived on the 1st but were possibly nursing hangovers up until that moment. There were palm trees swaying against the mauve twilight and the stars hung low and luminescent. There were so many of them…I looked up and thought ‘I cannot count’. Delhi suddenly felt very far away. That first night I slept like a child, with the windows open to the sky.

I woke and found the temperature in Mysore in January is an odd thing. It’s perfect for making love in. It is mild and cool, with a slow breeze. The mornings are crisp with a cuddly sort of cold and the afternoons like warm toast with just the tiniest yellow of butter. The first thing I did when I woke was light a candle against the misty air and whisper “Happy Birthday Dadu”. I thought - it is easier to change ones life on a day the ancestral stars shine bright. I stepped out to the balcony where a thousand birds whistled, cold toes in ecstasy against the smooth maroon floor tiles; resting my palms on the iron railing I leaned into the day, into the peppermint blue sky, overwhelmed by the feeling that I had done the correct thing.


I’ve been promising myself (and threatening loved ones) that I will do the Yoga Teacher’s Training Course for almost ten years. I remember in particular an email thread from 2008 where my friend Vandana floated amongst a small group the idea of four months at the Bihar School of Yoga. It was greeted immediately by my friend Ravina with the following:


Another friend wrote back:
Bihar means…you have to actually go do yoga in Bihar? Or is it like Delhi Public School (in Dubai)?

To which Ravina replied:
Yes, is it like…Bank Of Baroda (in Delhi)?
(We have jobs you know. We’re urban hippies. We like money.)
No Vandana. Nobody including you is going to do it. Your enthusiasm will die out in no time, watch for it. But this was most amusing, thank you.

And that’s where that ended. Looking back now I see how living in our Delhi bubble, just out of college and crammed with flimsy ideas of what is cool, we knew so little about yoga. We clearly knew even less about Bihar.

Eight years later I knew I couldn’t take a whole four months off. Hell I wasn’t sure I could take four months of yoga let alone four months off. Life (and my body) no longer worked the way they did when I was 23. So I decided to go with one month. And even that had taken bravery. As a free lancer I simply prayed no significant I-just-cannot-say-no sort of work popped up in this time. And with that prayer on my lips I had signed up, only eight years late, for the Ashtanga Yoga Teacher’s Training course.


The Samyak building is a rectangular horseshoe. Good for luck. The first floor is all bedrooms, the ground floor is bedrooms and a dining hall in the middle, and the top or second floor is home to the beautiful wooden floor yogashala which opens out onto two long terraces where we sun ourselves before and after classes. It’s where we will watch the full moon when it rolls round later that month, and it’s where we light candles, play music and scribble onto tiny notes all the things we wish to expel from our lives, before burning the papers under the starry sky.

It isn’t long before the place is a-bustle with voices from everywhere. The first person I meet is Ben, the Australian blue-eyed boy with blonde dreadlocks, as I walk down the steps. I don’t know this now and overwhelmed with shyness only manage to wave a hello, but in two weeks time we will play guitar together like old friends. In the sunny dining room I meet incredible Jessica from England who serendipitously went to the same university as I did, gorgeous Joana from Colombia, Alessandra the Italian ayurvedist with crochet dream catchers in her ears, my secret favourite Suzanna, Caroline the beauty from Belgium, Sonia a soul sister waiting to happen from Canada, a couple of talkative French girls, one very handsome Irish boy called Ryan, Gaurang the “other Indian kid”, Hanna the tall German…and a bunch of others that make up the 17 people who are to be my family for the next four weeks. It’s a baby United Nations here, and people wave hellos, shyly ask how journeys have been before sitting down to eat together on the floor in the dining hall.

I meet the gurus. Aravind, Raakesh and Tripta are all just about skimming 30, and are friendly and humble, humorous but private. They arrive wearing spotless white lungis edged in gold, and big smiles; they have an old school air about them. Then there’s Stephanie. Steph is a sinewy Frenchwoman with a body like an elastic band. She addresses (aside from feminine yogic concerns), anatomy. She can take one look at the alignment of your hips and tell if you have a shortened psoas muscle. She can tell from touching your back with her fingertips whether you have scoliosis and which collarbone will rest lower because of this. Holding a skeleton in class, twisting its spine lovingly this way and that, she explains to us what yoga is doing to us on the inside. And precisely what happens when we do it wrong. She is a burst of laughter on a good day, a storm on a bad one. She teaches acro-yoga, yin-yoga, pilates, and the “business” of yoga. She is strong and beautiful and you don’t want to get on her bad side.

Technically my day begins at 5am when the alarm clock rings. (Half way through the course I have to change my alarm from the hectic drumroll it has been for many years to a soft harp tune.) By 5:45 we’ve showered and shuffled to the roof through the dark, placed our mats in the shala, and are stretching out our screaming limbs. By 6 we begin. The magical thing about ashtanga is that it stresses so much on “self practice”. Also known casually as the ‘Mysore Style’ it means you get to your mat and begin the sequence and you just do it. No one tells you anything. You know it and you do it. All of it.

In the first week (when a teacher – usually Raakesh or Aravind – still guides us through it) I laugh and announce, “There’s no way I’m ever going to know the series or the sequence by heart. I’ll just print out a poster and stick it in my room and use it forever”. Cut to week three and repetitive force has found its way into my brain. I find I know at least half the series by heart. By the third week there is no one telling you what to do next. You’re at your mat at 5:55, eighteen people inhale in unison, croon out one mesmerizing ‘Om’ and begin a series of 72 postures, which you find despite your disinterest and disbelief, you know by heart. Then shower-breakfast aaaand philosophy (we’ll come to that later). Then the hilarious, informative and sometimes excruciating Asana Clinic class where you dissect each posture till your body comes apart and is nothing but bones being reset. You break for lunch and come back to teach in smaller groups of six.

You begin teaching classes from your second day at Samyak. I kid you not, it is petrifying, it is exhilarating, it is nerve wracking and it is incredible when you find your voice somewhere in Week Two. Some evenings we just discuss Sanskrit verses, translating them painstakingly. Every evening we sing kirtans, learning them slowly till we are able to belt them out with the guitar, swaying in a parody of mad hippie-dom. I laugh at everyone else for doing this and eventually I am laughing at myself for fighting it.

Two hundred hours. It doesn’t sound like a long time. A 200-hour yoga course at the end of which, you’ll be able to teach yoga yourself. I can’t say I intended to teach such a thing. Perhaps in an Ireland or Colombia you would be one of a small handful with such a rare qualification, but going back to New Delhi, I wasn’t sure I could throw this about as masterful. Let’s face it I had friends who’d been doing yoga for almost a decade. My mother had been doing it for over three. If anything, I was there to teach myself.

When I signed up for the course, I hadn’t done a day of yoga (or any exercise save an ambitious trek) in ten months. Not so much as a single push up. Not even a walk in the park. I had never done an unassisted headstand and I had never, not once, practiced Ashtanga Yoga. I’d learnt and practiced Hatha Yoga and though the asanas remain essentially the same, the breath count and strictness of series and order, are completely different. Some would have called the above “madness”. The kind gurus at Samyak though, while cautioning against it, asked about my stamina levels. When I told them I’d crossed an 18,000 foot altitude pass in the snow over ten days, they said exactly this – “We do appreciate your activities apart from practicing asanas regularly. As it is an intensive course we believe your body will adjust to the practice.”

Adjust. It’s a remarkably Indian thing isn’t it? “We will adjust,” or “please to adjust”. Almost too representative of a country where it’s taken for granted that nothing is perfect except an odd meal. Everything else is crooked, and to make sure the corners don’t cut, you “adjust”. And my body did. First it bended, then it broke, then it rebuilt itself, and finally, it adjusted. It adjusted to waking at 5am (rather than falling asleep then); it adjusted to a vegetarian diet sans a drop of alcohol. It adjusted to being put in positions even the wildest lover could not imagine and it adjusted to being emotionally assaulted in ways even less comfortable than ardha bada padma pada paschim uttanasana (look it up, it’s a thing). Yoga, I quickly found out, is about making the ultimate adjustments.

As the weeks went by I began to fall in love with my own body…something that had never happened before. I challenged it, and it sang back. I pushed it, it stretched. I nudged it, it leapt.

In Mysore I also finally fell in love with the south. In awe of the mountains of the north from the very start, I’d never been the girl for a Goa weekend. Many friends had tried to mesmerize me with this paradise for those in search of drugs and two-piece clad foreigners, but I had never felt eternity stretch out there. Oddly, the sea had appeared shallow. Over the years I accepted that perhaps I could only relish sweat up a hill maybe. But here deep in the south, a half-hour outside the city of Mysore, I felt that familiar mountainous lurch in my heart. Everything made me smile. The deep red Mangalore tiled roofs. The square buildings stoutly arranged in grid, the girls wearing gold earrings. I fell in love with palms falling towards each other to touch fingers, and I fell for the accent of hard syllables and soft intonations. I fell in love with the breezes that blew down the blue sky.

At the ashram, for as far as the eye wanders there is heather the colour of lavender, like lace or a swarm of pale purple butterflies moving gently ten feet above the ground. Beyond that are the palms, green as an Amazonian frog, with yellow coconuts clustered at their throats like tribal necklaces. And just beyond that, the unhindered sky. It is consistently beautiful, constantly arousing the eye. There are kittens the colour of marmalade in the stairwell and every evening a toad comes into the dining hall for a few hours then leaves again peacefully post dinner. Puppies – Arjun and Sri – rush about, their lopsided ears and coltish legs flying about the garden.

It is also the perfect place to explore the non-physical side of yoga. Though I have tried (and failed) many, many times to meditate, here amongst the flowers and flowing water, it finally happens. It happens with ease. Initially the very idea of it scared me. How would I manage to sit still? They start us easy, with five or ten minutes. By the end I am convinced I can sit up to an hour in silence, my eyes closed, my back straight, my mind in some sort of trance that evokes the deepest peace I had ever known. They teach you different methods of meditation, they reveal the magic of it. They show you that life done right, is essentially meditation. I begin to crave meditation.

One night two-thirds into the course it rains. We wake to petrichor and an overcast sky full of melancholia that does not drain the horizon of beauty but somehow adds to it. It matches our dwindling moods, now beginning to be emptied of the childish ecstasy we first experienced on witnessing the bliss of the yogi life. The third week is hard. I ask Raakesh why we all suddenly feel like death and he says, “You’re doing three of four hours of yoga a day…your body is tired. It’s saying, ‘What are you doing to me? Stop!’” It’s true, my body has never worked this hard for anything before.

Towards the end of the third week, as I bend forward in paschim uttanasana, spine straight and legs active, arms outstretched and neck aligned, something snaps. The dull pain I’d been experiencing for a few days (and have felt on and of for years) feels like agony down my entire left side. I limp out of the class and by the evening it is suspected sciatica. A hospital visit, neurologist appointment, MRI and many thousands of rupees later I am confined to the back of the yogashala with a muscular injury parading as nerve damage. I lie flat on my mat either face up or face down depending on the sort of mood I’m in, come rain or shine. Word Of The Day 21st January 2016: presenteeism/ prez-uh- n-TEE-iz-uh m/ noun 1. the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury, anxiety, etc. often resulting in reduced productivity.

I contemplate going home. We have exams coming up and it’s been years since I experienced such a thing. The last exam or test I gave was 12 years ago. I haven’t felt that nervous giddy rush, the sweaty palmed school time performance anxiety since then. Maybe it’s the right time to leave – I’m not sure I can do this. I decide to do something else I haven’t done in many years. I write to my mother for advice. She puts it very simply. “I miss you, so I want you to come home. But I am all for completing things. If you can stay, day by day, you will finish it.” My mother tells me something interesting, almost as if it’s incidental. She tells me that nervousness and excitement are borne in the same place in our brains and secrete the same things into out bodies. “Sometimes when you think you’re nervous, you’re actually excited.” I’m not sure this is true, but I give it some thought and realize that if they are chemically of the same compositon, all that needs adjusting is my attitude. If I manage that, I reckon I can trick my brain. My decision is made.


We file into the yogashala on the afternoon of the exam and sit down to our questions. I begin to write and I write and write. I know it all. I have absorbed things I didn’t even realize I was listening to. Things like the colours of chakras and the position of your toes in asana number 13 of the sitting series. I am no longer scared. I am here because I want to be. I know this. Fuck, I own this!

The next day I pass the final exam with flying colours. I teach alongside two other students, the entire morning yoga class from opening mantra to pranayama. I have never been a good public speaker. I can fake it, but my knees and hands shake to no end (holding a paper is a dead giveaway), my memory fails me, my tongue turns to treacle. But I did it. I did it with ease. Or perhaps, it was excitement.

That night I throw on a sweater and walk to the roof. The moon is pending but the stars are out. It feels like all the constellations are right above Samyak Ashram tonight. So far this month they have always been more eastward, but tonight they shine down on us. I am alone underneath them. I drag a chair out and tilt it back, absorbing the feeling of having finished something. I feel light. I feel like I could save the whales, fight for refugee rights and run a marathon or two. After sending a few prayers upward I come down and check my mail before I sleep. obliges. Word Of The Day: zenith/ ZEE-nith or, esp. British, ZEN-ith/ 1. a highest point or state; culmination. 2. the point on the celestial sphere vertically above a given position or observer. I blow out the candle one last time. Can a month change your life? You’d best believe it.