City Chicks in Sarees

It happens a lot less than people would have you believe. Once, young women moved from their babyhood swaddle straight into sarees, worn around the knee with the aanchol or pally wrapped tightly around the waist. Then there came the intervening modernity of dresses, but most Bengali girls still graduated to the saree fairly young, and once there, didn’t switch loyalties for the rest of their lives.

Now, I’m surprised if I see one person below forty in Bombay’s streets wearing a saree. The times, they have a’changed. To be fair, though, there’s a class element to the city-saree. Most of the cleaning ladies in my neighbourhood wear sarees. Their employers seldom do. Is it because sartorial modernity is considered the premise of the better off? Would employers raise their eyebrows if their maids suddenly turned up in something as innocuous – and eminently Indian – as the salwaar-kameez, much less something a little more ‘western’? I haven’t had the chance to find out. However, I have noticed that one can get sarees for much less than a salwaar-kameez set, and certainly a pair of trousers and a shirt. So perhaps the cleaving to the traditional, though enforced by one’s cultural capital and form of labour, is also perhaps propped up by one’s financial capability.

This sudden nattering about sarees has been brought on by the #100sareepact. Did anyone else know about it? Now, I don’t even own a hundred sarees, and given that I mostly work from home lately, I doubt I’ll wear the ones I do have. But this sounds like a fun project, and so I think I’ll participate by adding old pictures of myself in sarees. Because memes are for modifying, right?


This is today’s picture. It’s my wedding morning, and I’m wearing an inexpensive red-bordered golden-yellow saree bought specifically for the messy wedding-morning rituals. This saree was a yard too short for my generous frame, so first we tried to make do by wrapping it a la Mumtaz, with a tiny pallu. That didn’t work. So then we unwrapped the whole thing, and began the first wrap from the back, instead of the front. This time, it was draped to all the adult women’s satisfaction. There’s a lesson in this process, and it is this: flaws hidden are flaws acceptable, as long as the show goes visibly on.

As people familiar with Bengali/Indian weddings will know, there are two throne-like chair at every wedding venue, one for the bride and one for the groom. They are usually overstuffed and damned uncomfortable. However, since I was doomed to spend the rest of day demurely adorning this chair, I spent the morning making damn sure the chair knew who was boss.

A Photo Essay on Destruction

We had a lovely guest for dinner yesterday. In his honour – and in an effort to keep face-licking off our mehmaan nawazi – we allowed the dogs to romp unsupervised in our bedroom, while we socialised civilly inthedrawing room.Electrified by the sudden free rein in this otherwise-forbidden room, the dogs went absolutely wild. This is the state the bed was in after our guest left.


My partner saw this mess while I was clearing the dishes (we dropped by a few times in between chatting to check on the dogs). To prevent further damage, he put the dogs in the bedroom balcony, where to also hang our laundry to dry.

Once our guest left, we opened the door of the bedroom… and saw the dogs looking damned pleased with themselves.


Of course, Kaju immediately made an effort to get to us, but alas, the window of his jail was too high.

Shorshu, of course, thinks it is déclassé to try and rescue herself. She issued bird-like warbles, indicated she would like to be rescued from her undignified perch, and cuddled for her troubles.


Finally, after I let them both out of the balcony after half an hour’s detention, Shorshu immediately jumped onto the destroyed bed and curled up, like it was her goddamned right.


While Kaju posed cheerfully for the camera, proud of his evening’s efforts.


So much for lessons learnt.

Little Red’s New Coat, Road Dahl

I was speaking to my mum on the phone today, when my dad came on the line specifically to tell me that he read my post reproducing James Thurber’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and that he enjoyed it very much. My mother added from the background that it was delightful.

It’s a bit unsettling at first to know one’s parents reads one’s blog, but I’m quite kicked, really, to play parent, and introduce them to new things, the way they introduced them to me once. So here is an excerpt from another re-telling of the Little Red fairytale, this time by Roald Dahl. It’s a favourite of mine, despite raising contemporary concerns of gun-violence, the fur trade, and encouragement of cruelty to animals.

The action below begins after the wolf has eaten Red’s grandmother, and is preparing to eat Red once she arrives.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
Roald Dahl

Wolfie dressing up in Granny's clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Wolfie dressing up in Granny’s clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
He quickly put on Grandma’s clothes,
(Of course he hadn’t eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma’s chair.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said.
“…But Grandma
what a lovely great big furry coat you have on.”
“That’s wrong!” cried Wolf. “Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.”

"Bang bang, she shoots him dead." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“Bang bang, she shoots him dead.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

"My lovely furry wolfskin coat." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“My lovely furry wolfskin coat.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

Little Girl and the Wolf, James Thurber


NOTE: On the one hand, a tale of cynical ‘empowerment’. On the other, a possible advocacy for NSA’s ‘good guys with guns’ fallacy (or in this case, ‘smart kids with guns’ fallacy, recipe for an even greater tragedy). Either way, this is James Thurber’s all-American two-paragraph version of Little Red Riding Hood.

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(MORAL: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

#JeSuisCharlie? Foutre le Camp!

I see on Facebook today that Charlie Hebdo is still trending, and an email informs me that the asinine hashtag ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬, started soon after the Paris attack, is still raging on the interwebs.

Well, I *am* furious about the disgusting – and frankly idiotic – murderers, but this “Je suis Charlie” nonsense is taking pop activism too far. I am NOT Charlie Hebdo, thank you very much, and neither are most of you showing solidarity with the hashtag. European xenophobia – and I say this because most of my friends abroad live in the USA – is a beast quite unlike the hysterically blind, unself-aware American one: it is far more open and unapologetic. In a way, that’s often a better thing than the subtle poisoning of the subconscious, but it is still not a good thing. And much of this xenophobia is expressed culturally through satire.

Does that mean Charlie Hebdo’s staff deserved to be slaughtered? No. Litigated against, perhaps, but not violated physically, much less murdered. On the other hand, do they deserve to be universally applauded for ‘bravery’? I don’t think so. It’s easy to be part of the cultural majority of a land and claim to be an equal-opportunity satirist, but that is not how power works. And indeed, if googling serves me right, I believe France – which is trotting out it’s historical culture of appreciation of satire as a moral brownie point – once banned a magazine for satirising Charles de Gaulle [UPDATE: Facebook connections tell me the banned magazine was Charlie Hebdo’s earlier avatar. Fascinating.]. So much for historical equal-opportunity.

In summary, Hebdo had every right to print what they did, even if they didn’t have sterling taste or a clean social or political conscience. On the question of religious ‘offence': if you’re a deliberately uninformed Hindu, you’re free not to eat beef (or any animal protein), but you have no right to stop anyone else from consuming it. If you’re a devout, conservative Muslim, by all means never draw the prophet, but you have no right to attack or slaughter those that do (but of course, you could take them to court). If you’re a conservative, stupid Christian, stay away from the school curricula. Your ignorance is your choice, not society’s collective burden. Let things stand at that, and all shall be well.

Well, well-ish. It’s a pity that that is the best we can ask for at the moment.

The Dragon Nightmare: The Porcelain Doll 1

AUTHOR BRIEF: Hemendra Kumar Roy was a very popular author for children’s and young adult fiction, not that there was much of a difference between the two at his time. Society was rather different then – India was still a colony, for a start – and therefore the flavour and style of Hemen Roy’s stories are rather different from what one might expect today. This is also what makes them particularly interesting, despite Roy’s somewhat bombastic style.The story so far: Ace detective Jayanta’s friend Manik witnesses a dark, shadowy figure flying away from his neighbour’s roof, moments after his neighbour is murdered. ThePart 1 here.

Part 2. The Porcelain Doll
‘There’s nothing supernatural about this matter, Sunderbabu’, said Jayanta briskly. ‘There might be such things as lost souls, but they don’t break into homes and steal.’

‘No, of course not’, said Sunderbabu hurriedly. ‘Of course not. But you’ll notice, whoever killed Niradbabu – and I’m not saying it was ghosts – didn’t actually steal anything. They merely tried to open a locked strongbox.’

Jayanta looked thoughtful. “And you say it was the same in the two previous cases?”

“Yes!” said Sunderbabu. “In each previous instance they managed to open the almirah and strongboxes, but didn’t actually take anything. Not money, not jewellery… nothing.”

“So clearly the murderers were looking for something else”, mused Jayanta. “There must be something else, otherwise nothing makes sense.”

Sunderbabu cleared his throat. “Well…there was something in the locked strongbox. Nothing important or valuable, just this silly little doll.” His hand dipped into his pocket and brought out a small porcelain figurine. An old Chinaman was sitting on a ram, looking quite satisfied with himself. The entire statute was about six inches high.

Jayanta plucked it out of Sunderbabu’s fist and peered at the design. “This is very old porcelain, and the craftsmanship is excellent. I’d say it probably comes from China’s more glorious times – a representation of the country’s rich artistic heritage. Sunderbabu, it might be news to you, but old Chinese porcelain is as rare and valuable as snakestone. That must’ve been why Niradbabu kept this ‘silly doll’ locked in a strongbox. Is this what the murderers were looking for?”
‘Could be’, said Jayanta, ‘but what about the other two victims? What were the murderers looking for in their homes? We haven’t found Chinese porcelain there.’

‘Lao Tzu!’, said Sunderbabu suddenly.

Jayanta and Manik stared at him.

‘Those two men!’, Sunderbabu exclaimed. ‘I knew I should have held onto them. Annoying twerps. I bet they know about the other two deaths. Hah!’

Jayanta brows crinkled. ‘What “two men”’?

‘Young upstarts’, snorted Sunderbabu. ‘Came along to the last crime scene, poking about and asking questions. I knew straightaway they were trouble. “Who are you?” I asked, “What d’you want?” They laughed and said they were looking for an adventure. Adventure! Imagine! Cheeky fools.
“How would like the prodding of a copper’s rule instead?” I asked, but they just laughed. “If the police prods us, we’ll prod right back. Prodding the police definitely counts as an adventure in our books!” Can you believe that? I was about to have these nuts thrown out when one of them saw this doll. “Lao Tzu!”, he shouted, “Look, Lao Tzu!”
Now, you know I don’t stand for that sort of tomfoolery, Jayanta. So I got right in their face and bellowed, “Get out! Get out of my sight right now!” My shouting voice is usually a force to be reckoned with, but these two were not fazed at all! They sauntered out, holding hands and laughing. Hoom!’

‘Did you get their names?’ asked Jayanta.

‘Bimal, Kumar… something like that.’

Manik sat up in his chair. ‘Bimal? Kumar? Sunderbabu, you don’t mean… could these be the famous adventurers Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu?’

Sunderbabu waved a dismissive hand in front of his face. ‘Who cares? I don’t. Adventurers indeed! What they are is a precious pair, just like the two of you. They spout gibberish just like you, and just like you, they’re barking mad. ‘Lao Tzu!’ Honestly! What does that even mean? Anyway, I’m off now. Lots to do’.

And so, with his mood apparently restored, Sunderbabu left.

Jayanta broke the silence first. ’I’ve heard of Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu too, Manik’, he said softly. ‘Amazingly strong, wonderfully smart, appearing when anything strange happens. If they’ve visited Niradbabu’s home, then something about his murder must have struck them as odd… which means they know more about it than we do.’

‘What about Lao Tzu though?’ asked Manik. ‘That’s what confounds me. What is it?’

‘Never heard it myself. Tell you what, let’s look it up in the encyclopaedia. Would you get the volume down?’

Manik not only got the encyclopaedia down, he started looking for mentions of Lao Tzu himself.

‘Here it is!’ he exclaimed after a few minutes. ‘Jayanta, listen to this! Lao Tzu is a person. He was a Chinese philosopher, born in 604 AD, and considered the founder of Taoism, an eastern religion.’

‘Hmm, so then the statue we saw must have been Lao Tzu’s’, Jayanta said almost to himself. ‘But what does a man living in China nearly three thousand years ago have to do with the death of a Bengali clerk in twentieth century Calcutta?’

Silence descended on the room.

“Newlyweds are Magic”

This past weekend has been a blur of illness and all-nighters. I’ve been assailed by asthma and spike in spondylitic pain, and we’ve both had to put in the daily 30 hours to meet deadlines and things.

Trawling zombielike through my Facebook timeline this afternoon, after a rocky, uncomfortable couple of hours of shut-eye, I came upon proof of happier times, when ‘pulling all-nighters’ meant loading the fridge with home-cooked goodies. Newly married, new in Bombay, living in one room in a guest-house and sharing one domestic washing-machine and one induction-base cooker with two whole floors of guests – man, those were the days. I remember, when I first posted about cooking through the night, a concerned friend asked, “But why the night-shift?” Before I could think of an answer, a worldly-wise wit piped: “Same reason why elevs make shoes at night. Newlyweds are magic!”

Here’s the post from FB. Enjoy the graphics :-|


After a night of peeling, chopping, dicing, coring, tossing, stirring, frying and juicing, we now have a wonderful assortment of reheatable food: one jar of excellent Bolognese sauce (made with mutton keema, tomatoes, fresh basil and dried oregano); a large bowl of pulao-daal; stir-fried korola and pumpkin (called tita-chhechki or teto back home); a spicy dry cauliflower curry; and lau-chingri (prawns with lauki — a light Bengali delicacy). Plus, fresh-squeezed musambi, apple and tomato juice. After achieving this incredibly marathon feat on ONE stove-top and ONE wok and ONE pressure cooker, we finally dined — at 7AM — on Maggi and one slice of leftover cheesecake. Now we’re going to crash, and be dead to the world till late afternoon. Call us, and I will personally darken your doorstep with a chainsaw.


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