That day, I was sweeping dust off my cold, marble floor with my now-mostly-decapitated broom. Poor fellow has seen a lot of dirt in its heyday. Probably charmed maids around the country and cleaned its way into the twenty-first century. Now, it almost refuses to do its only job. Now it mostly mopes in a corner, bent and broken. My broom is exhausted and disappointed with the world in general.
And its sworn enemy is hair.
Hair which clings to its bristles. Hair which doesn’t go into the dustpan. Long, ugly, thin strands which come out of nowhere.
I shook the hair off, striking my poor broom against the wall. Some fell on the floor in ugly clumps. Some stuck on the broom, like obstinate moss. I glanced at my poor, old broom, as it stood petrified in a corner.
“You go on, I’ll just rest here,” he almost said.
After the broom gave up, my saviour, my mop was ready for me. Now, that guy has true courage. Eager to face the toughest dirt and swoop it in its watery hug. Then, it will just squeeze everything out. Easy, peezy, lemon squeezy.
But it hadn’t met hair.
See, the only good place for hair to be is on the head. It’s all down-hill after that.
It’s summertime. Hair either sticks on your sweaty forehead, or keeps rubbing against your eyelids. It pity those people who have a full beard. So. Much. Maintenance.
The mop did what mops do, successfully. But hair was still lumped, glued to the floor, now wet and sticky. I waited for it to dry up, so I could begin the whole charade again. Hair makes me feel I am living in Groundhog Day.
I try to gather hair now, manually, picking up strands one by one. My broom has sunk into depression. Sitting in a corner, he says, “Will you replace me for a Roomba, now?”
“No, broom,” I say, and sigh. “Hair will take apart its circuits. You’re going nowhere.”
Broom must have said something, but I didn’t hear. I fling the dried up clumps of hair in the dustbin.
Dal doesn’t like it when I am busy, aloof. There’s a lot going on under the surface, or shall I say, the cooker-whistle, and it doesn’t become clear until I open it.
Dal burns, and tells me, “You should start paying more attention.”
On a stressful work-day there isn’t anything better than plain Dal-Chawal, with a dollop of achar, and ghee on top.
But for that, first, you have to soak the dal. Cook the dal. Wait for the dal to be of the perfect consistency. Not so thick, that it gathers the rice in its embrace, turning into a thick, almost dough-like mess. Not so thin, that it feels like I am eating rice with yellow, turmeric water.
Dal has to perfect. Much of the day depends on it.
Arhar doesn’t demand much of me. Arhar is pliable, and it understands. I wash it and soak it for fifteen minutes, then cook it slowly in the pressure cooker, with salt, cut tomatoes, and turmeric, maybe some red chilli powder. After three whistles, the deed is done.
Arhar is the best. Arhar cares.
Masoor, too, is simple, and sits in a corner, waiting for her turn. Waiting to be picked up. She doesn’t quite see Arhar eye-to-eye, and I choose it only when I have no other choice. Masoor hates me for it but doesn’t show it. Maybe someday it will.
Chana Dal is robust, versatile, and demands time. Chana Dal also doesn’t give a lot in return, except the gift of its versatility. But now I realise, in simpler times, even that is a lot.
Moong, in health and in sickness, holds my hand. And in joy, it partners with besan and oil, to become the best of its parts.
Urad demands a longer ode than a short, snappy sentence. If Chana dal roams around hanging the badge of versatility on its sleeves, Urad was born with it, revels in it. Urad feels I should spend more time with it, as I sit and dream of Arhar.
Dal says, “There’s more of me in you than you give me credit for.”
I agree. I love Dal. And Dal loves me back, even on my worst days.
I won’t delve into details of the first three months of 2020. We all know that. For everyone, it was pre-apocalypse. The before times. The good times.
I spent half of 2020 cooped up inside a 3 BHK with three other roommates and a cat. The other half was spent at home, with, well three other roommates: Mom, Dad, and Brother.
Like many, many other people who had to abruptly shift cities, I did too. Making art, writing, was just not possible. Every word a curse, every sentence an execution.
Leaving Mumbai to go back to Delhi felt like an odd sort of goodbye. My life felt truncated, snipped like a just-blooming flower from a branch. My last days in Mumbai were hectic. My other two flatmates had left for their homes early on in the pandemic, leaving me and my other roommate to clean-up, close the rent-lease, and finish other formalities. Selling off our furniture in a raging pandemic was a task the size of a despot’s ego, but we managed. Tired, we sat down to have our last meal. I asked my roommate, “Do you plan to come back?”
“Not likely,” he responded.
I replied with silence. Grim times loomed ahead. He had been let go from his job, but fortunately, I still had mine. He planned to do freelance. I didn’t, at the moment, have any such plans. The cushion of a paying job in a pandemic is one of the best and most privileged things anyone could have.
We said our goodbyes, to each other, and the city, not knowing if we’ll come back. Mumbai was a home away from home. I seemed cruel and unfair, this farewell. Strange and alienating. This could very well be the last goodbye.
But home was warm and comforting. I still missed Mumbai, but slowly, as work-from-home became more of a betaal-like ghost which sat perennially on my shoulder, that feeling faded. I wrote new things, but most of them dark, gruesome stuff, dealing with grief, body horror, the works. But the important thing was that I felt more in control of my craft than ever before. The change was almost sudden.
My newfound voice was starkly different from what I had written before. I plunged myself deep into creating new short fiction and was pleased with what I wrote. I also found a community of like minded writers on the same career paths as me, a community I had dearly missed while I banged my head at story drafts after story drafts, rejections after rejections.
During that time, I also did a thing which I hadn’t ever done before — narrate short fiction. Although I have it, from many sources, that I am a good narrator — screenwriting and pitching to studios in Mumbai sort of gives you that quality. But I had never done it professionally. Really, this was something else I could do, be good at, and I only found out about it in my 30s? Funny how things work out like that.
(You can listen to my narration of Sid Jain’s short story “Mist Songs of Delhi” on Podcastle.)
I wrote. I cooked. I baked. I read some excellent stuff, including Susannah Clarke’s mesmerising, often haunting, but ultimately hopeful “Piranesi”. I might write about that book soon.
The first month, my home was in shambles. It was being renovated, completely. Which meant paint. Which meant drills and dust. Which meant noise and frustration. But it passed, too.
Soon, I settled into a rhythm.
Three and a half months passed. I was happy and safe at home but I also missed Mumbai. Soon enough, it seemed, work from home would be truly a thing of the past. Offices were opening up, safely, responsibly. Moving back felt like the right thing to do. But finding a flat, in a pandemic, in Mumbai? I was kidding myself seven ways to Sunday.
“Stay here,” said Mom. “Why spend on rent when everything is WFH right now?”
She had a valid point. But someday, sometime in the future, things might just be normal again. I was holding on to that hope. And so I kept searching for a house.
My saviour came in the form of none other than my old landlord. He had an unoccupied 1BHK just waiting to be rented out. I called him up, negotiated the terms, and next thing you know, my flights were booked.
At the fag end of 2020, I was back in Mumbai. But leaving Delhi also felt cruel. My life felt like a jumble of hasty decisions, blank promises, some of which I made to myself, some of which I broke.
But Mumbai welcomed me like an old friend. Mumbai always does.
Cooking, especially baking, is therapeutic for me.
When I write myself into a corner, I either go for a run or think of cooking something. But I live in Mumbai, which is a soggy and drenched mess half the year, so going for a run in the evening is not exactly a good option. Which leaves me either cooking or the option of going into a hell-spiral of watching YouTube videos till 4 in the morning.
I choose cooking.
I improvise and mix-n-match a lot. Yesterday, I baked Irish Soda bread in a pressure cooker. The recipe normally requires buttermilk and here’s where it gets interesting.
I only had milk. Now, to make it resemble something even close to real buttermilk I needed a souring agent. I had no lemon or vinegar. And so, I was in a fix. It was time for research.
Google showed me that Cream of tartar is a souring agent. But you can’t really expect someone to have cream of tartar just lying around. And so, I was left dejected.
Lazy that I am, I didn’t want to go to the supermarket to buy a tetra-pack of buttermilk. Google to the rescue again.
Turns out, your usual Baking Powder has cream of tartar in it! And guess who has two thumbs and has a packet of baking powder just waiting to be picked up?
But I am also mischievous. I remember there is another ingredient which is used in desi households for baking. It’s your good old antacid fruit salt, ENO!
Eno is mostly used in baking dhokla and, for a split second, I was tempted to bake the Gujrati delicacy instead. But sense and a fear of extra hard work prevailed.
I mixed the dough, and let it rest for twenty minutes. I came back to check and it had risen. (Pro Tip – Proving your dough twice (or thrice) would result in an even tastier bread)
I don’t have an oven, so I had to improvise yet again. I used a pressure cooker.
35 minutes later, I had a crusty, golden, Made in India Irish Soda Bread.
I submitted my weird, dystopian novella to Tor.com’s open submission call.
“Write a Song on My Skin” started as a short story but eventually morphed into the 21K novella that it now stands as. It has some wild, interesting ideas, revolving around wild, interesting characters who do wild, interesting things.
I am currently 430 in the Moksha submission queue, with the average response time showing as 36 days. Fingers are crossed, nails have been bitten to oblivion.
I also have my Indian fantasy novella “His Majesty’s Tiger” currently with Dancing Star Press. Let’s see how things go on that front.
The previous day, in the morning, as I was preparing for my trip to Pune, my phone flashed. Whee, a new notification! A red & white Gmail icon on the top left side of my phone.
Inbox = 1.
Swiping down, without unlocking the phone, shows only the subject of the email, not the contents. It was the response to a story, one of my favourites I have written, from Truancy magazine. Needless to say, I dreaded a rejection. So, I took my time opening the email. I brushed my teeth, had my breakfast, changed, and got ready.
As I was heading out, I decided to open the email. I braced myself for another imaginary e-slip to the wall. (Readers of Stephen King would get the reference)
To my immense surprise, the story had been accepted. I didn’t jump up and down in joy, but my heart was still leaping. A smile crept across my face. The story had finally got a home, after two years worth of rejections, almost all of them personal.
I first wrote it in 2016. It hasn’t changed much since then. I believed in it then, I believe in it now.
Belief keeps a writer going, trust me. These little nuggets of praise and validation keep a writer going.
My story, “Waiting for Karaga” will be published in Truancy 5, come Boxing Day. Have a look at the website, and read all the gorgeous, evocative stories already published there.
Ah, the spirit of Mumbai. I’d heard of it when I was in Delhi. I would watch on television with utter horror the travesty that was the city’s transport system which came to a shuddering halt every monsoon. I would wonder what cosmic rails does the city run on? Why haven’t people moved to a different city?
I would never continue to live in such a city.
Then, two years ago, I moved to Mumbai. This is my second monsoon. I am still asking the same questions. And yet, I haven’t left the city.
The city has a raw, magnetic charm to it. Full of magic and mayhem, Mumbai is a bustling cornucopia of ceaseless wonders. A coalescence of petrichor, the smell of seafood, salt, plastic, dust, sweat, metal, blood. If Delhi is a dustbowl of a Lynch-esque dystopia, then Mumbai is the drowned world of Ballard. Delhi is static, ancient, in no hurry. Mumbai shrugs and moves on, only finding itself repeating its own mistakes. The rains are proof. A week ago, a plane crashed in Ghatkopar. Two days ago, a bridge collapsed in Andheri. There was some hue-and-cry. And then, a lull. Like nothing had happened. BMC probably heard about it, probably not. They don’t care. Neither do the people it seems. The spirit of Mumbai is only for social media brownie points.
People have lost their lives. But there are just too many people for the city to even give a fuck.
Shrug and stay home, people. Let the rains do their thing. Because when the rains will be gone, Mumbai will start again.
There is something to be said about the frame story. When done right, it can be a magical, almost cathartic experience. Forrest Gump did that splendidly. It hinged mostly on an earnest performance by the master Tom Hanks, but the story itself, despite its various shortcomings, found its place in the hearts of thousands. Our ancient epics are all nested, frame stories, and it is no wonder that an artist reaches out to this device to tell a story. But, over-reliance on this trope can be tiring. Rajkumar Hirani clearly doesn’t get it. Or even if he does, he chooses not to act upon it.
“Sanju” is far from a biopic. We are now stuck in a vicious circle of calling almost every Bollywood biopic a hagiography because Indian filmmakers don’t know any better. With the exception of Paan Singh Tomar, we haven’t really seen a truly great biopic here, and Sanju doesn’t fill that vast, gaping crevice either. With a towering figure like Sanjay freakin’ Dutt as a subject, you have a treasure trove of information to handle, and yet you play it safe by making a needlessly romanticized, overwrought film, which is riddled with platitudes. Real characters are erased, facts are glossed over, and by the end, the film feels like it is trying to absolve Dutt of all the guilt, rather than tell an engaging story. In ‘Sanju’, everyone is blamed for Sanjay Dutt’s failings, except Sanjay Dutt himself.
Which brings me back to the point of the frame story. Hirani employed this device to some effect in ‘3 Idiots’ and it worked. Largely because that film was entirely fictional. In a fictional narrative, many misgivings of a story can easily be attributed to creative liberties and no one would bat an eye. It works in literature; books allow breathing space for both characters and story. In a movie, you only have so much time.
Sticking to the same, cozy schtick when you have a biography to tell is lazy writing. And when the subject of your own biopic is narrating the incidents to a fictional biographer, you can’t expect to have an honest account of everything. One might ask, “Goodfellas” was also a biopic, narrated by the person it was based on. I say, “Goodfellas,” told it as it is, leaving the audience to make judgments of their own. It laid bare the mob life, never glorifying it. “Sanju” does exactly the opposite. In the end, it becomes so busy in blaming others for the protagonist’s failings, that it forgets to tell a good story. Sanjay Dutt’s failings are brushed aside, and genuine facts sandwiched between two melodramatic story arcs — one, that of a father-son relationship, and the other of friendship. The film feels patched together from anecdotes, and the struggle to shoe-horn a theme, that of “kuchh to log kahenge”, is vulgarly evident.
Every frame of the film reeking of privilege and nepotism, “Sanju” is a story of a man patting his friend on his back for his wrongdoings and saying ‘there, there.’