Book Review – Shaping the world: women writers on themselves

shaping-the-world-400x400-imadw6zjxmpv6fz2My review was published in the Deccan Herald recently. Please find the review below:

Shaping the world: women writers on themselves
Edited by Manju Kapur
Hay House
2014, pp 272
Rs. 399

SHE VOICES HERSELF“Reading novels seems to me such a normal activity, while writing them is an odd thing to do,”wrote Susan Sontag, the American writer-activist. That was when reading fiction was common.

Today, it is the fashion to bemoan the decline of reading habit. On the other hand, writers generate the kind of interest they never did in the past. In the age of lit fests and glitzy book launches, writers are forced to shed the cloak of invisibility and present themselves to the naked eye, to answer a bombardment of questions: Why do you write? How do you write? How did you begin? Where do your ideas originate? How much of it is autobiographical?

If the writer happens to be a woman, there are further queries — making it clear that while writing is no longer an odd thing to do, a woman writer remains an oddity. Do you struggle with the label of being a woman writer? Does it affect the choice of material and themes you write on? Was it difficult finding a publisher? How on earth did you get the time? These are among the FAQs that writers bravely attempt to answer. They are also the raison d’etre for Shaping the world: Women writers on themselves.

Edited by Manju Kapur — a novelist known for the sharp, restrained, often ironic portraits of the north Indian middle class — the book is presented in the form of very personal accounts by acclaimed contemporary writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Twenty-three different voices, ‘detailing their writerly selves,’ in tones ranging from chatty and frank to reflective and poetic, could become confusing, but here they are harmonised, partly due to the fact that as writers in English they have commonalities.

‘When we took up our pens, whose example was there before us? Whose voice did we have echoing in our ears that would validate ours? We had the English literature we grew up with, the British school and adventure stories we consumed, with descriptions, personal appearances, names, food and places that were totally foreign to our context,’ says Kapur. While Blyton and Christie are mentioned as childhood influences, George Orwell’s Why I write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own have been frequently quoted. Apparently, if you want to be a writer, you must read the first essay; if you are a woman who wants to be a writer, you must also read the second.

What, besides love for reading, fuels the impulse to write? ‘I like the malleability of words, how I can play with them like a child,’ says Janice Pariat, who, like Anita Nair, Anuradha Marwah and Tishani Doshi, was an early starter, keeping notebooks and secret diaries. ‘Storytellers are forever sifting for the word,’ says Shinie Antony, who, besides writing skills, displayed a fine business sense by playing scribe to classmates who wanted to petition God, complete an essay, draft a love letter — all for a fee. Others — Shashi Deshpande, Bapsi Sidhwa, Kavery Nambisan, Jaishree Mishra, Mishi Saran, Susan Visvanathan — were bitten by the bug after they had lived a little more, travelled, acquired degrees, a job, a husband, a child or two.

‘The reasons a writer feels compelled to create an imaginary world can spring from many sources,’ writes Meira Chand, ‘but to me all reasons appear to be rooted in the need of individuals to examine issues of relevancy to their lives.’ For her debut novel, Jaishree Mishra drew from a well of painful personal memories; Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories was inspired by the magical words and images of the Khasi folklore of her childhood. Social observation, on the other hand, was the source for Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé and Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly.

Though several of these writers have also trained and worked as journalists, copy writers and academics, writing fiction has not been a career so much as a calling. ‘Writing = joy + gratitude,’ says Sri Lankan Ru Freeman. ‘For when I write I know who I am,’ says Nair.
Each of these essays is special for its shape, tone and flavour. Brimming with details about where they write (the dining table is a favourite), when they write (pre-dawn hours, usually); helpful advice such as the importance of establishing a routine or Namita Devidayal’s ‘When you write you are better off not thinking about the audience, or whether it is going to sell, or whether it will be liked by your mother,’ the book — notable for the candour, commitment and generosity of its contributors — is a worthwhile read for readers, writers, wannabe writers and those who are curious about women who spend their time inventing fantasies

Navas / The Vow

Short story in Marathi by Asha Bage. Translated by Keerti Ramachandra.
(published in New Quest, May-June 1998)

Translator’s Notes:
Pandharpur a small town in Sholapur district of Maharashtra is famous for the Vithoba, (an avatar / incarnation of Vishnu) temple, where the idol is found standing on a brick, his hands on his hips. His Rakhumayi stands beside him. The famous Vithala temple of Hampi is dedicated to the same deity. Every year thousands of devotees (warkaris) from all walks of life and sections of society, gather together at Dehu and Pune and walk all the way(about 250 kms) to Pandharpur carrying ‘palkhis’ of Eknath, Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Muktabai among others, singing bhajans composed by these saint poets. They make this pilgrimage every year and the people of the villages they pass through provide them food, shelter and medical facilities, for no charge. On Ashadi Ekadashi(the eleventh day of the month of Ashadh) they converge at Pandharpur for the Mahapuja which takes place at 3.00 am. Poet saints like Purandaradasa from Karnataka have also composed bhajans addressed to Vitthala of Pandharpur. Some of Bhimsen Joshi’s most popular bhajan renditions are by these poets. Mangalashtaka is a blessing sung at a wedding or upanayana ceremony. Bal Gandharva one of the best known actor-singers of Marathi stage in the first half of the twentieth century played only the roles of women characters since women did not perform on stage,

Revati had just come home from college when the postman brought Digumama’s letter. She had expected him to reply promptly but when she saw the postcard, her face fell. Every inch of her inland to him was crammed with news. She’d inquired after Mami, their three children, the varkaris who came to Pandharpur every year, even Mama’s poetry. In return she’d received a few terse sentences. He hadn’t answered a single one of her questions, hadn’t even referred to them. Once again, she glanced at the postcard.

Chi. Sau.Chhakubai,

Blessings. Received your letter.Was very happy. The wada is full with varkaris just now. No space to set foot in. If you wish to perform the thread ceremony of your son, come after Kartik Ekadashi or after Purnima preferably. Inform the date, the menu, what pakvan you want, the number of people coming. Arrangements will be made accordingly.

The formal closing Ashirwads etc was general, no names mentioned. Signed Yours Digambar R. Govardhan.

Digumama had not written to her but to one of the pilgrims, she felt. As if there was no difference between her and the varkaris who stayed at his wada every year! The only concession he had made perhaps was in his use of her pet name, Chhakubai. The name evoked memories of her childhood with her grandparents in Pandharpur.

Soon the rest of the family returned. Seeing her at home Shridhar remarked, “Arre, no classes today?’

Classes were cancelled. Students’ strike.”

What for?”

Do they need a reason? When I heard there were no lectures, I didn’t wait.”

Shridhar was silent after that. She thought, I’ve been teaching in this college for so long, but there’s no satisfaction. Commerce students taking Marathi! How much interest can they have in the subject? You become indifferent, too, as a result. These days I’ve begun to wonder –does the college, these students, my subject have anything at all to do with me? None of it has assimilated into my life – it has remained distinct, independent of my existence. When I wrote to Digumama at Pandharpur I thought I could get away for a few days, away from the routine – and see the dry bed of the Chandrabhaga transform into an ocean of people– as Aie had described to me so often. Shrirang’s thread ceremony was only an excuse. I had made that vow so long ago. Shri is past the age of upanayana now, he’s in college. I could have easily let it remain unfulfilled. That letter to Digumama had been written for a specific purpose. How disappointing his reply had been!

That Shri’s thread ceremony should be performed at Pandharpur was an old vow she had taken. It had been discussed often enough yet when she placed Digumama’s postcard before Medha, Swapna and Shri, it elicited all sorts of reactions.

Why Pandharpur? Why not some other place?”

If it has to be done in the presence of the gods, then why not in our puja room?”

Basically, why have a thread ceremony at all? What happens if one doesn’t? So many communities don’t even have this custom.”

Aie, avoid the dates of the cricket test match, okay!” Shrirang warned.

Revati was puzzled. Does my vow mean nothing to my family? Does it really mean anything to me? Did I make it only because I felt like it at that moment? Is it possible to explain why something happens at a given moment, in a particular situation? There are so many questions, so many doubts in one’s mind. Should one keep questioning everything all the time, instead of accepting it? Surely even that which seems irrelevant has some bearing on one’s life, is woven into the fabric of one’s existence, past or future?

Revati was silent, but Shridhar sensed that she was upset. He began to say something to make amends, but she burst out angrily. “There’s no need for everyone to go to Pandharpur. Just Shri and I would have gone, but the father’s presence is necessary.”

Medha threw her arms around her mother and placatingly, exclaimed, “Mama!”

Revati shrugged her off.

You angry, Aie?”

Of course not! What’s there to be angry about?”

In an attempt to humour her, Medha asked, “They used to call you Chhaku at Ajji’s didn’t they?”

Only Ajji, Ajoba and this Digumama. Everyone else called me Revati. Ajji-Ajoba didn’t like that name…”


Because it’s the name of a courtesan in Shaunshaya Kallol, a very well known Marathi play.”


And the associations are also like that,” Revati said, smiling.

Like what?”

My father had gone to see the play with Bal Gandharava playing Revati. He had grown old by then and tired, and could barely come on stage. But his voice hadn’t aged. By the time Baba got home it was almost 3 a.m. Aie had gone to the hospital, and I was born at 4.30. Baba decided since I was a girl…”

But didn’t he explain why he wanted the name?”

He did, but Ajoba dismissed it with ‘A courtesan!’ Then Baba told him it was also the name of a star…”

Which of the two names do you prefer, Revati or Chakku?”

I like both. One because my grandfather gave it to me, the other because my father chose it.”

Aie, Digumama – is he a close relative of yours?”

No, he’s no relation. He grew up in Ajoba’s house, that’s all.”

That night, Swapna asked her, “Aie, why did you make a vow only for Shri? Why not for us?”

This time Swapna’s question did not annoy her. “Because I wanted a boy after you two girls.”

But why did you want a son? What’s wrong with daughters?”

Revati smiled. She had been desperate for a boy then. Now she found it amusing. Sons, daughter, there’s no difference. Viewed like that it shouldn’t matter if her vow remained unfulfilled. She was much more practical now, not so weak in spirit, or touchy.

Her mother often used to say, “You needn’t achieve anything else in life, but you must produce a son. Your own flesh and blood to pour water into your mouth at the final moment. Who knows how one’s last journey will be made – as a helpless lump of flesh or…One’s shame must not be exposed to a stranger’s eyes. A daughter and son-in-law are, after all, outsiders. No matter how large the family circle is, it is the son who must cover one’s naked body.”

Revati recollected her Aie’s words and was stilled. Life has become so complicated, so multi-layered, one cannot live the way one would like to. Nor die! Ideas like Aie’s were nurtured when life was simple, one-dimensional, she thought. And yet she couldn’t put her unfulfilled vow, and the visit to Pandharpur, out of her mind.

At 11.30 pm, the rickshaw stopped outside Digumama’s house in Haridas galli. It was bitterly cold. Even the full-sleeved sweater and shawl couldn’t keep the chill out. Revati looked up and down the pitch dark galli. None of the old familiar landmarks were visible except Digumama’s house which had preserved its appearance. While Shri and Shridhar took the luggage out of the rickshaw, Revati eagerly went to the door and rattled the latch. The well-remembered stench from the latrine next door wafted across. Instinctively, she covered her nose. She heard someone moving inside, switching on a light, as Digumama’s coarse, gravelly voice called out, “Coming, coming!” The door opened. In the doorway stood Digumama, with his cough, a constant companion, his bulk not concealed by his height.

Who is it? Chhakubai?”

His words instantly dispelled the dryness of the postcard’s tone.

Mama quickly went forward to take the bags from Shridhar, and Shri promptly gave them to him. Revati didn’t approve of it at all, “Let him carry the bags, Mama…” she said. But before she could finish, he’d taken them inside.

When she bent down to touch his feet, Mama said, “Wait, let me wake your mami up. She sleeps very soundly, you know.”

Let her sleep,” Revati told him, but he wouldn’t listen.

Both Shridhar and Shri merely joined their hands and said namaskar. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell them, “Arre, bend down, na,” but she held back. When they were inside, she whispered to Shri, “Touch Mami’s feet.” But his jeans were too tight!

Why did you take the night train, Revati, especially, when it is so cold?” Mami asked. (Only Mami addressed her as Revati.) Revati, too, had begun to wish they hadn’t arrived so late. It was several days after Purnima and they hadn’t been able to see anything on their way home from the station.

You haven’t eaten dinner, I’m sure,” said Mami.

We have, in the train.”

A little pithla and bhath?”

No. Just some warm milk if you have…”

Sure. Shall I put some sugar in it?”

All right.”

Something caught Revati’s eye inside the room. On Mami’s bed was curled up a five-six year old child. Hearing voices, he sat up.

Who is this, Mami?”

Bhaskar’s son Amit. Lives with us.”

Hm, I’d heard Bhaskar’s wife had passed away – but much later – I wanted to write, but…” Revati couldn’t find a suitable excuse.

It wouldn’t have mattered to Bhaskar, anyway. He was all set to go to America. He stayed back only because she was critical. Now he’s settled there, permanently, married too,” Digumama told her. Like his letter, this information was also conveyed in a dry, unemotional manner. Revati’s gaze drifted to Bhaskar’s little boy. Such a big responsibility for Mami, at this age…

The wada is still full of varkaris. Will you sleep here tonight? We’ll see about a room for you tomorrow,” Mama said,

It’s all right, Mama. We’re here for just one night.”

But our son-in-law might require a separate room…”

Have the reservations been made for tomorrow’s bus?” Shridhar asked, ignoring the previous remark.

Yes, we’ll collect the tickets in the morning.”

Although Digumama had been informed that they had planned to return the next day, Revati didn’t think it was proper for Shridhar to mention it so soon.

Shridhar and Shri went to bed. Mama had placed three cots with mattresses and clean sheets, in the small courtyard. “Do you need a blanket or just a quilt will do?’ he asked.

No. No blanket.” Revati was reminded of her Ajoba. He had used only a quilt.

As she was getting into bed, Mama began, “All the arrangements have been made, Chhakubai. The muhurta is at eight. It’s a good time. There is another later in the day, but not as auspicious.”

Eight is fine, Mama.”

You’ll have to get up early…”

We will…”

What pakvan do you want made?”

Well, there’s usually puran for naivedya, so that is a must. Besides that, just sugar with the meal will do.”

Wah, Chhakubai! You come all the way here to perform the thread ceremony of your son and then try to save money? Don’t worry. The lunch will be from my side,” Mama said in his typical wry fashion.

Revati felt like laughing. She had suggested sugar because she didn’t want to trouble Mami. Actually Revati had wanted only the basic religious ceremony to be performed – none of the trappings or rituals. She had clearly stated this in her letter to Digumama.

You want the ceremony in the temple or…?”

Inside the temple, Mama, in Pandurang’s presence.”

In that case you will have to pay Rs 51 more. Otherwise the total expense would be about Rs 200.”

Only Rs 251? The new pant-shirt to be given to Shridhar after the ceremony had cost more than 800 rupees. An unnecessary formality.

Mama’s questions were never ending. “The ritual bath – at home or down at the river?”

I’m definitely going down to the Chandrabhaga. Shridhar and Shri will bathe at home.”

Well, the mangalashtakas and the main ceremony will be at the temple. The earlier rituals will be at home. You’ll have to finish bathing before that. Then whoever wishes to go to the river can do so on the way to the temple. Normally, once the daivak, the Gods, are formally invited to the ceremony you are not supposed to go out. But we’ll overlook that.”

Revati’s eyelids were drooping. She lay down and closed her eyes. Shridhar and Shri were fast asleep. On the floor beside her were Mama, Mami and Bhaskar’s little boy.

Just as she was drifting off, Mama’s voice broke in once more, “What about his hair? Will he agree to have it shaved off?”

No, Mama. Just a token snip,” she replied drowsily.

That means, the barber loses his income for one day, Chhakubai – I had booked him in advance…He needs the money, you know.”

Mama seemed quite unconcerned that it was very late and everyone was asleep. She forced herself to ask, “How much is he to be paid?”

A complete shave is five rupees. Since it’s only one lock, we can give him two. ”

Give him five, but let me sleep, she wanted to say.

The shehnaiwalla…” Revati pretended to be asleep. Mama lay down declaring loudly, “Fallen asleep, it seems. Hm…better sleep. You have to get up early.”

Revati’s shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.

When Mami woke Revati up, it was still dark. “Tea’s ready. Also hot water for your bath.”

Revati wasn’t fully awake yet. She hadn’t slept well at all. The little boy had a severe earache and through the night she had heard Mama and Mami bustling about, attending to him. Tempted as she was to get up and help, she didn’t. Just as she was dropping off, Mama had a coughing fit. And an old woman in the next room was groaning loudly. Before Revati knew it, the night had gone.

Let me sleep a little longer, Mami,” she pleaded. “It’s not day yet.”

It’s four o’clock!” Mami retorted.

Revati noticed that that Mami was bathed and ready. Hadn’t she slept at all? “Shall I wake up the others?” she asked.

No. Let the men sleep. They need it. After you are ready, then call them.”

Revati was amused. Men need sleep, women don’t? Mami gave her a cup of tea. Revati remained huddled by the fire even after she’d finished drinking it.

Although they had a gas stove, they always used wood fire in the winter. The firelight played on Mami’s face. Mami was younger than Revati’s mother, but her hair was all white. She wasn’t stocky like Mama. Her hands were thin and bony and the veins stood out sharply. The mixed fragrance of warm bath, soap and wood smoke that exuded from her jolted Revati awake.

Has sleep flown away from your eyes?” Mami asked.

Revati just smiled.

This particular hour is very deceptive, you know,” Mami said.


You think it’s still night, but imperceptibly, day is creeping in. I’ve been fooled so often…Your Mama has a poem, Revati.

It is a deep dark night

From somewhere a light appears

To illuminate the twilight

Comes a beloved friend.

Revati glanced up at Mami. So much more warmth there was in her, so much sensitivity. Who could have taught this illiterate woman all this? Mama? Or had she picked it up herself? Digumama’s verse was like himself, awkward and clumsy. Nothing delicate or subtle about it. Yet the words rang true.

By the time Revati finished bathing, night had turned to day. Mama, the varkaris, everybody was up. Sounds of teeth being cleaned, bodies being washed, suggested a flurry of activity. The maid was sweeping and swabbing in the rooms. The courtyard had been sprinkled with water and Mami had made a fully bloomed eight petal lotus rangoli on it. A deep sense of contentment washed over Revati. The fatigue of the journey, the sleepless night vanished. She wasn’t even annoyed because Shridhar and Shri were still asleep!

When the priest from the temple arrived, Revati asked in surprise, “Why the bhatji, Mama? You normally officiate yourself…”

That’s different. Today I’m performing the ceremony, not conducting it.”

Revati smiled. Mama was all dressed up for the occasion. He wore a brand new dhotar and uparna, thrown over the same old dusty jacket and shirt and the inevitable topi. As if it was his own grandson’s thread ceremony!

When Shridhar sat down, Mama asked, “No new dhotar for the son-in-law? At least a silk shirt piece?”

Revati was embarrassed. She’d clean forgotten that the family presented gifts to the boy and his parents! She’d had new clothes made for the men and she’d remembered to pack Shri’s churidar pyjama and Bengali kurta. But this dhotar – shirt piece…

Never mind, never mind,” consoled Mama. “We will have the formal presentation first.”

Mami came forward carrying a tray with a sari, blouse piece, a dhotar and eleven rupees on it.

Mami, what’s all this? No unnecessary formalities, I told you,” Revati said disconcerted.

To which Mama retorted in his abrupt fashion, “You want to perform your son’s thread ceremony, Chhakubai, without anyone – neither the boy’s sisters, uncles or aunts, grandparents, friends. Besides, three is not a good number. When I saw you, Shridhar and Shri yesterday, I had to pick up a pebble to make up the fourth!” Mama’s voice rose sharply.

Revati stared at him in baffled silence. Mami intervened softly, “Enough!”

As the priest started, “Keshavayanamah!” the shehnai player arrived.

I said I didn’t want him, Revati grumbled to herself.

Your services will not be required today,” Mama told him almost ruefully. The man stayed where he was.

Revati, a puja shouldn’t be performed in silence,” Mami whispered. “You won’t have to pay him much. He is given a retainership in the wada. If you like you can give him a fiver.” Mami hadn’t accused her of being stingy as Mama had done, but she’d implied it all the same.

I have my cassette player and a Bismillah Khan cassette. I’ll switch that on,” Revati said and went to fetch it. The priest paused while the tape started. But Mama was muttering, “Once the puja has begun, you shouldn’t get up Chhakubai.”

Shridhar held his little transistor to his ear with his left hand and followed the priest’s instructions with the right.

What’s this? Put the radio down at least today,” Revati snapped under her breath.

Just the news headlines,” Shridhar declared loud and clear.

Very well. We’ll begin after the news,” Mama acquiesced.

The priest fell silent once more. By that time Revati was really angry. We’ve agreed to go through only the essentials, but can’t they even do those, wholeheartedly? These mantras, they acquire a special significance on the occasion. They have a flavor, a fragrance – like agarbattis during a festive meal.

For the matrubhojan,Digumama had lined up several eight-nine year old boys, just the right age for this ceremony. Among them, Shri seemed a hulk.

Come, Chhakubai, sit down with your son. Feed him, this last time. From now on, he is (a) twice born (Brahmin), an adult. He will become independent. Childhood is behind him after this,” Digumama explained wisely. The words brought a lump to Revati’s throat. She was reminded of what her mother used to say –As long as we are alive, you will always remain children.

At that instant, the shehnai ended and Shri’s pop music came on. Quickly, Revati switched off the cassette player.

They were to go to the temple, via the river. Since there were a few minutes for them to leave Mami made tea for everyone. The shehnaiwala and the barber were waiting for it.

During this time Mama had made a trip to the vegetable market on his cycle, for vegetables and other things that Mami required. Why should he be riding a cycle at this age, Revati wondered. Why couldn’t he send someone on these errands?

They had to walk barefoot to the temple. It was bitterly cold and Shridhar and Shri were reluctant to get into the water. Even Mama felt that they could give it a miss since they’d already bathed, but Revati was determined. On the way, Mami made Revati stop at a bangle seller. She took off her watch and gave it to Shridhar. But the gold bangles on her right wrist wouldn’t come off. So the bangle seller slid the glass bangles in front of them. They looked odd like that.

Actually, you should have done this before the puja at home,” Mami said.

The surface of the river was still. Slanting rays of mild morning sun played on the water. The sand was cold underfoot. Here and there, a few people were bathing, washing clothes. Cattle were being herded across. The place was quite filthy.

The sand, the river, the atmosphere, everything seemed devoid of any emotion, uninspiring, to Revati. This wasn’t the Chandrabhaga she’d carried in her mind all those years. Where were the flags, those symbols of the Vaishnavas, the devotees? The ocean of pilgrims? The sound of taal and mridanga. And what had happened to Ajoba’s Pandharpur house? In the harsh light of day, the town of Pandharpur sprawling along the Chandrabhaga appeared grim, soulless. The blurred impression of the previous might was much better, she thought. Yes, she had experienced the old Pandharpur in the predawn light, in the warmth of Digumama’s kitchen fire, in the hot bath water. But here, at this moment, everything, the thread ceremony, without the attendant rituals, seemed meaningless. Why had I insisted on coming? Why did I ever make that vow, she wondered as a strange unease gripped her.

She stepped into the water wrapped in an old sari. Immediately Shridhar called a warning, “The water’s very cold. You’ll catch a chill.” She ignored him and went in. She could swim. She shivered as the cold water stung her. But very quickly she got used to it. It was so comforting!

There wasn’t much water in the river in this season. She swam to the other bank and came back. Shridhar was getting impatient. As usual.

Mama reminded her. “The muhurta is at eight, Chhakubai.” She was about to get out when Mama stopped her, summoned Shridhar and Shri. “Come both of you. The water isn’t deep here.” Neither of the two men moved. “It’s all right if you don’t want to take a dip. Just wet your feet and you’ll have the same sort of punya. We have shortcuts, you know!” Mama joked.

Revati shuddered. The word ‘shortcut’ was as incongruous as the pop music that had followed Bismillah Khan’s shehnai earlier. At Mama’s behest, Shridhar and Shri rolled up their trousers and waded in, barely getting their soles wet.

Face the East,” Mama ordered and both of them turned into a broad shaft of light that pierced the river, blinking in the glare. “Good. Now Shri, say Chandrabhaga teerthe aham snaana karishyami Cup your hands together, fill them with water, then let it trickle back into the river. Touch your eyes with your wet palms.”

They did as directed. Then, Mama with his eyes closed, chanted the invocation to the Ganga, Namaami, Gange, tavapaadapankajam! Surasurairvandhitamdivyarupam, Bhuktincha, muktincha tada sunityam, Bhavanu sarane tadanaranaam, as if in a trance. His flat broad voice sounded almost mellow. Revati broke out in goose pimples. Even after he’d finished, she stood motionless, her face turned to the sun.

A long line of devotees snaked its way through the sixteen pillared mantapa, into the sanctum .“These pillars represent the sixteen sanskaras, the purificatory rites, Chhakubai,” Mama explained.

Will the ceremony be performed right next to the deity?” she asked.

No. It is not allowed.”

Why? Suppose a devotee wants to?”

Even then,” Mama patiently replied. “A ceremony can only be performed in the sabha mantapa.”

But I’d hoped we could go right up to the murti. You can’t even see Vithoba from here. Can’t we have a darshan first?”

We’ll go for ashirwad later.”

Revati looked around distractedly. Was this the same temple or had it changed? Why couldn’t she spot anything familiar? Why did everything look so different?

Father and son stood in front of the priest. Shri’s expression reflected the extreme reluctance with which he had donned the dhoti.

Chhakubai, here, hold this kalash,” Mama handed her a pot of water with a coconut on it. “This is supposed to be the sister’s job,” he remarked. Revati took it.

My role has changed now. I am Shri’s sister. I am becoming everything that Mama is making me. After the matrubhojan, my son will go away from me. I must launch him into the world, set him free to test his wings. Then my relationship with him, too, will change. He will become a friend, brother, sister…Every context demands its own particular relationship. A sister is needed on this occasion. Is that why?

When she came out of her reverie, Digumama had started on the mangalashtaka, obviously his own composition, invoking the blessings of the lord on the boy-man:

Jya stambhas karune saaksh, janata bhakti madhe naachali

Jyanchi pavana paooley parisare yanitya nadaavali

Bhaktiche sur je sur ela ghumale, yamandir abhyantari

Te saare, Prabhu Vitthala, thujhasave kuryat bator mangalam!

Through these lyricsthe temple and the varkaris swam before Revati’s eyes as they filled with tears. Shridhar and Shri stood there unmoved.

The antarpat held between father and son was dropped. The ceremony was over. Digumama’s influence had allowed them to circumvent the queue and they went right into the sanctum. The line inched forward slowly and the temple echoed with the heartfelt /invocation of the varkaris, ‘Pundalika varada Hari Vitthala.’ Most of them were total in their surrender, their footfalls rhythmic, like the reassuring beats of a mridanga.

We too should have been among them, thought Revati. There must be a particular path one had to follow to reach Panduranga, every experience taking one closer. Moving ahead slowly, one step at a time, has its own charm. This line, is it a chain, each of one’s experiences forming a link? There is a special satisfaction in moving along slowly, one step at a time.

Before she knew it, Revati found herself in front of the murti. As she gazed at the gleaming black-stone Vitthal, a powerful emotion surged through her. She felt she was drowning in her unshed tears.

The Pandharpur of the sandy waste, the filth, the indifference she had witnessed vanished. In its place stood Aji-Ajoba’s Pandharpur, the town of her childhood, with the sea of humanity on the banks of the Chandrabhaga swaying to the beat of the taal and the mridanga, pennants fluttering in the clean morning air, and presiding over it all, their beloved life-long friend, Vithoba, standing on the brick, hands on hips. Without their knowledge he had accompanied them on their journey. Here they would part company and go back alone. Revati was overcome.

Move on, move ahead. People are waiting,” Mama urged.

Her feet had turned to lead. Shridhar, Shri, the thread ceremony, all the events arranged in neat little compartments, drifted into her thoughts.

What came over me just now? How did I lose my grip on myself, my life, my relationships? I was completely carried away. Did I remember to do a namaskar? Touch his feet and ask for his blessing? Did Shridhar and Shri even do a proper namaskar? For that one moment all these things had become irrelevant.

Revati came out.

Someone has taken permission to do a milk abhishekha later on. Do you want see it?” Mama asked her. Revati shook her head.

Mama led them to Vithoba’s consort, Rakhumayi’smandir. But Revati’s heart was elsewhere. Mechanically, she did what Mama told her to.

Soon after they reached home, Mami started the cooking. Mama divested himself of his ceremonial dress and put on the usual dhotar. Again he rode off to the market on his bicycle. This time Revati scolded him, “Why all this cycling around at this age, Mama?”

What do you mean at this age?”

He thinks he’s still young!

Shridhar was reading the paper while Shri listened to the radio. Revati went in to see what Mami was doing. She was preparing the chana dal and jaggery stuffing for the puran polis.

Our son-in-law doesn’t mind jaggery in the puran, does he?” she asked apprehensively. Of course he minded. Shridhar’s family always made puran with sugar. And Revati, too, had forgotten the taste of jaggery polis! But she reassured Mami, “It doesn’t matter, Mami. You really shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble…”

It’s no trouble,” Mami interrupted. “You are only an excuse. Nobody comes these days, so only when people like you turn up, I make them.”

What about Padmakar? He’s right here in Pune, isn’t he?”

Yes, but he has cut himself off from us. Bhaskar in America or Padmakar in Pune – they’re equally far away,” Mami said sighing deeply.

Mama came in just then. He had heard the last few words. Angrily, he informed her, “Padmakar has severed all ties with us. If we die tomorrow, he won’t even observe the sutaka, the mourning period for us, I know.”

What kind of shameful talk is this?” Mami scolded.

As for Manohar, he is carried away by the Sangha. They want to bring together all Hindus, they say. Sure, go ahead. But we, his parents – aren’t we Hindus? She believes he’ll come in time to pour Ganga water into her mouth. If he comes in time to immerse our ashes, I’ll be grateful. I have often told your Mami, Chhakubai, whichever one of us is left behind…”

That’s enough. Think of the occasion, the time, before you utter such inauspicious words. What will Revati feel?”

Gradually Digumama calmed down. Then he left the room.Mami started to grind the puran. Every now and then, she dabbed her eyes with her sari. Avoided Revati’s eyes.

I came here to fulfil the vow I took because I wanted a son. Mami has three sons, but it’s as good as not having any. What strange bond has brought me here, linked my life with theirs? Revati wondered.

Mami began to blow into the fire to make the wood burn properly.

Shall I do something, help you, Mami?”

No, it’s your son’s thread ceremony. Besides the food has to be offered as naivedya, so only I must touch it. You go and rest.”

Why don’t you use the gas, Mami?”

This kind of food tastes much better cooked on wood,” Mami explained.

Revati went outside. The varkaris too were preparing lunch and the wada was filled with smoke. She was feeling very restless.

Every year, the varkaris come, finish their pilgrimage and go away. Like them, we too are here. I had to fulfil my vow so I thought of Digumama. He isn’t a relative of ours. We don’t keep in touch. Once I go back, I’ll probably send him a postcard, that’s all. What is it that connects the lives of this old couple with the lives of countless varkaris? What is it that made me involve them in the fulfillment of my vow? What was that momentary emotion I experienced in Vithoba’s presence, when I seemed to be completely lost? It has gone now. Will I be as casual as Shridhar and Shri if I go to the mandir again? Why? Revati was confused.

She was glad when Mama called out that lunch was ready. The meal made her drowsy. When she awoke much later, she found that Mami hadn’t eaten yet.

Mami, your lunch?” she asked with concern.

My guests haven’t had their food yet,” she smiled.

Revati looked around. The maidservant, the old woman who was groaning through the night, the shehnaiwala, the barber, and a few others were sitting in a row, waiting to be served.

Revati, is it time to leave? Shall I make tea?” Mami asked.

No, Mami, you finish your lunch first.”

Shridhar and Shri were putting their things together. Revati suddenly felt that she didn’t want to go back. Back to the same routine – college, disinterested students, the house, children, Shridhar – each one to his own world, nothing holding them together – all moving in concentric circles, not even touching.

Mama looked up from his accounts as she went upto him. “Is it already time to leave?”

No. Not yet…” She wanted to say something, to talk to him. “Don’t you write down your poems, Mama?”

I used to. Now I don’t compose so often. Occasionally, I scribble a few lines in the ledger. I made up the mangalashtaka for your son after so long…That’s all my poetry is!”

Poetry in account books? “But they were beautiful, Mama,” she said. She ought to have told him earlier.

Mama beamed with pleasure. As she rose to leave, he said, “Wait, Chhakubai. Just go over the accounts.”

What accounts, Mama?”

The expenses for the ceremony, the two hundred and fifty one rupees…”

Revati was taken aback. “Are we like the other varkaris, Mama, that you have to settle our accounts?”she asked sharply.

We are all varkaris, my child! But one must be very clear about money matters. You shouldn’t ever feel, Mama overcharged me for this…”

Mama was the limit, fumed Revati inwardly. She ignored the notebook he held out. So he began to read them out. He had included everything – five rupees each to the shehnaiwala and the barber, flowers, garlands, coconuts, paan supaari. But not the gifts he and Mami had given them, the food, her glass bangles. That was from him.

Revati didn’t know what to say.

So, Chhakubai, was everything to your satisfaction?” he asked.

Why shouldn’t it be?” she shot back, taking hold of herself.

It was a very simple ceremony without any frills, just as you’d requested. But then, we gave up all the trappings long ago. One leaves one’s footwear outside before entering a temple. But to get to His feet one has to tread the path of empty ritual, isn’t it? Isn’t that how we’ve all reached here?”

Revati stood there staring at Mama, nonplussed.

It was time to leave. The varkaris, too, had vacated their rooms. The maid began preparing them for the next lot of pilgrims. Digumama rushed off to fetch a rickshaw. This is exactly how I used to feel each time I was leaving Ajoba’s house, thought Revati, her heart heavy.

She had left an envelope with some money – enough to cover the cost of the gifts. She’d put all three names on it – Mama, Mami and Bhaskar’s little boy. She hadn’t dared to give it to Mama. What if he refused? Taken offence? Wouldn’t it have been much better to have bought Mama a nice sweater, instead of giving them money like this? A warm, full sleeved high necked sweater…

The rickshaw arrived. Sridhar, Shri bent down to do namaskar. “Come again,” Mama blessed them.

Sure,” said Shridhar, confident he never would.

Though they dissuaded him, seventy-year-old Digumama insisted on following them on his cycle. Slowly…slowly, wearing the same shabby old sweater.

It was six in the evening. That same half light that had deceived Mami, lay around them. At dawn, darkness dissolved into light, at dusk, day faded into night. Gradually.

There can be no sunset in Mama’s life, Revati thought. It can only be this sandhiprakash, twilight. And in that half-light everything became crystal clear to her…

The varkaris, their sojourn in the wada, are inextricably woven into Mama- Mami’s lives. My vow, our coming here for the thread ceremony, that moment of bliss in Vitthal’s presence, when all bonds, frames, contexts disappeared, all outlines blurred, they are all threaded into my existence too. Who has drawn them in? I don’t know. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps I won’t feel the same if I come again. But the experience, while it lasted, was real. And relevant. It made things fall into place for me, became a part of me. Intensely personal like my name. Revati, the name Baba gave me. Was this ceremony then, just the excuse, the cause, for my experience? Or an effect?

Shridhar and Shri got off the rickshaw and picked up their luggage, but Revati remained seated.

Come on, get up. Our bus is waiting,” Shridhar prodded.

Digumama’s cycle was nowhere in sight. Had he left them behind? Or had he gone ahead?

Calmly Revati alighted. Shridhar had gone ahead with the luggage.


Asha Bage
is an eminent Marathi writer of short stories and novels. She was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006 for her novel Bhumi as well as awards from the government of Maharashtra and the Katha Award for short fiction. Her stories have been translated into several languages including English. Her latest novel, Chakravarti was published in June 2014. Asha Bage is also a connoisseur of Hindustani classical music.

Keerti Ramachandra is by aptitude, inclination and training, a teacher. She has taught English at all levels over the years but her career as an editor – translator started with Katha, New Delhi, in 1994 and since then she has been a freelance editor of fiction and non fiction for leading publishing houses. She translates from Marathi, Hindi and Kannada into English and her translations have appeared in several volumes of Katha Prize Stories, and several other journals. She had translated Mahanayak, a fictionalised biography of Netaji Bose and recently Hachette has brought out her translation of the Sahitya Akademi award winning novel, A Dirge for the Dammed. She has conducted workshops in editing and translation at SNDT University and colleges in Delhi and Mumbai.

KAFKA: A Cage in Search of a Bird

Franz_Kafka_from_National_Library_IsraelTo have an –esque after your name is so unusual that only one such name comes to mind. However, there’s nothing Kafkaesque about No 22 Golden Lane, a tiny row house- turned- into- a shop, in a colourful alley behind St Vitus’s Cathedral inside Prague Castle. What sets it apart from other souvenir shops, to its left and right, is that it was once the house of a woman named Ottilie. And what sets Ottilie (Ottla) apart from other women is that she had a brother named Franz. Franz Kafka.

The Kafkas were Jewish – a minority community in Bohemia in the late 19th – early 20th century. The fact that they spoke German (rather than Czech),  and that Franz had a rather ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith, enhanced the sense of isolation that is a hallmark of  his writing. Kafka’s work, highly autobiographical in its themes, is frequently about The Other and the dehumanization of the Other – a reason why his stories presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. For example, In the Penal Colony  (written exactly one hundred years ago), the story, told from the point of view of a Traveler, is about a complicated torture machine, the Harrow, that kills the ‘guilty’ by engraving their sentence on their flesh with a metal stylus.

Franz, born on July 3, 1883, was the eldest – and the only surviving son –among six children, Ottla being the youngest. The Kafka family home and business were in the Jewish Quarter of the Prague’s Old Town. Papa Hermann retailed men’s and women’s clothing. (The business logo was a bird, kavka, Czech for jackdaw.)  The Kafkas, father and son, shared a fraught relationship, largely because the former had a domineering, tyrannical nature. Emotional alienation, oppression, claustrophobia, foreboding and fear permeate Kafka’s stories – giving him what probably no other author has got, an adjective of his own. Kafkaesque describes a situation or atmosphere that is repressive or nightmarish, in a manner characteristic of the fictional world of Kafka. Metamorphosis – also known as The Bug Story – typically begins with what is, perhaps, the most fantastic opening line ever written: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found him himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. This story alone has been, and will continue to be, the inspiration for film makers, theatre directors, musicians and writers, who ponder on the meaning of becoming and being, reinvent it, relocate it across time and space, generation after generation.

What is it that maDSCN0382kes Kafka’s fiction so popular nearly a century after it was written? Like the best stories, his stories, too, are ‘experiences’. They evoke, in simple, even dry language, powerful feelings such as despair, loneliness, fear, confusion and guilt which resonate in the reader probably because these very same feelings are generated in us by the lives we live today.  Haven’t we all felt, at some time or the other, misunderstood, maligned and, worse, persecuted? Haven’t we come across people whose world-view is scary? Doesn’t TV watching sometimes give one the feeling that what one is seeing has no connection with one’s reality? Aren’t there days when newspaper headlines make no sense? Don’t we all know what filling forms and waiting in a queue – at the Visa office, at the bank – feels like? Hasn’t one tried and, sometimes, failed to work a ticket machine in a language one does not know?  Life sucks, Kafka seems to say, but in a way we have no one else to blame but ourselves for our predicament. Gregor Samsa turns into an insect because the life he leads day after  day as a travelling salesman, scurrying from town to town, catching train after train, is  not all that different from the life of an insect. It is, in fact, Life As We Know It.

This may sound grim, but Kafka’s writing is not without humour. His style, crisp, dry, understated,  is uber cool. It is quintessential Irony. Less is More. The joke is frequently on oneself, but it is a form of revenge, a gallows humour kind of survival tactic, in which the victim has the laugh, though it is probably his last one.

There’s nothing quite like dysfunctional relationships to make one appreciate the irony of life.  Typically, Kafka was engaged several times but never married anyone. Despite having a dad who did not understand his artistic nature, he lived at home till the age of 31.  He moved out later to his own rented room, but the hustle-bustle of the street below would send him rushing off for peace and quiet to Ottla’s little house on Golden Lane, and this was where the collection The Country Doctor was penned.DSCN0367

Kafka’s footprints are to be found all over Prague: the house where he was born ( though only the door remains from the original), the different homes in which he lived, the building that housed his school, the synagogue he visited, the university he attended, the café where he used to hang out with friends. It is as if Prague is Kakfa and Kafka is Prague. In his stories, however, the city features subliminally.  For instance, it is hard to connect the charming turrets and gleaming spires of Prague Castle with the surreal setting of his unfinished novel The Castle, a haunting tale that satirizes modern bureaucracy, much in the vein of  the more famous story, The Trial, where an innocent man is arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death for no reason, by an all-powerful authority.‘ Like a dog’ are his last words. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Kafka didn’t say it that way, but what he said was the same thing. More or less.

Typically, Kafka did not care for fame. And typically it came to him after his death at the age of 40, of tuberculosis in 1924. As a dying request to his friend Max Brod, he wrote: Everything I leave behind… to be burned unread. We are fortunate that his friend did nothing of the sort.