(Wrote Softspeakers for Antiserious, an online magazine run by Sumana Roy from Siliguri: “Antiserious is anti-spotlight: it aims to democratise serious attention from a handful of issues of ‘inter/national importance’ to everything that constitutes our dailiness, the gun and the gum.”)



Those who lived in that city woke up late, not knowing why they felt so rested or what had brought them such an unusual sense of peace. Some woke to a sound they remembered from their childhoods, before the city had expanded and grown clamorous: the morning chorus of birdsong. Some woke to the sound of traffic, as they had for years, but the wheels of the trucks were hushed, and the car horns honked quietly, as though from a long distance away.

It was only in the evening that the citizens began to realise how great the change was in their circumstances. In the markets, a great lament rose from the tent-houses. Priests, politicians, devotees, celebrants, wedding guests (and happy couples, and their importantly busy families) found themselves baffled: none of the mikes or the loudspeakers in the city worked correctly any more.

The mikes appeared to be completely worthless, from the imported velvety-furred, red-lit mikes of the major TV channels to the humble, steel-grey versions available for hire for all kinds of functions, celebrations, festivals and meetings. The more loudly speakers shouted, the more raucously singers raised their voices, the less audible they became over even the most expensive fully-guaranteed Japanese and Korean mikes. Haranguers, demagogues, jaagaran and wedding singers, tambola announcers, campaigning candidates, preachers, teachers, all kinds of creatures: no matter how much they yelled, screamed, roared and threatened, the mikes were on strike.

By evening, a few clever and more patient speakers had discovered a workaround: if they lowered their voices, and spoke in reasonable tones, or even in whispers, they were audible. Well, they were audible as long as they held the interest of their audiences. A bored audience could drown out a tedious speaker without needing to raise its collective voice – just a general hum of rising chatter was enough to drown out the voices of rabble-rousers who weren’t rousing their rabble enough. As for the loudspeakers, they had turned into softspeakers. Though the mechanics and the electricians did their best, none of them could find a way to turn up the volume again.

In a few weeks, most of the citizens had adapted to their changed circumstances. Wedding songs continued to play, but instead of blaring the latest dance numbers across a sleepless neighbourhood, the playlists became more seductive, more lilting, vying to lure the attention of passers-by with melody instead of volume. Those who loved dancing found, to their astonishment, that their enjoyment was not curtailed.

The softspeakers did not amplify bands and singers in the same way as before, but they did, in a gentle rumbling way, make bass lines and beats more distinct, as though you were listening to the conversations of friendly dinosaurs. People flocked to discos to dance, but also to stand in long queues until their turn came to curl up against the softspeakers, where the low rumbles soothed them to sleep. It was like spa music, only less annoying.

Politicians and priests alike adjusted – grumbling – to the new order. The priests and the imams grumbled the most because they could no longer shout the word of God, and they had to hold more interesting prayers in order to bring in the devout. Politicians wondered in despair how they would hold rallies without yelling at the masses, but to their surprise, they discovered that far more crowds flocked to see them once they had shut up.

People liked watching politicians more than they liked listening to them, and the more cunning strategists put on beautiful light-and-soundless-firecracker shows, filling the city with their images picked out in glowing, gaudy, brilliant but mercifully silent holograms and billboards.

Festivals changed, too, but only a little; though pandals could no longer grab the attention of the city by its ears, they became more and more sprawling, attempting to cast giant shamianas across as much ground as possible. And they spent more on flowers and on food stalls than ever before, to attract followers, and so even though they still took up a great deal of space and time, no one minded because of the fragrance and the tasty food.

Gradually, the city’s natives grew to love their softspeakers and their whispering mikes. Many found that they were saying what they wanted to say far more often, now that they didn’t have to raise their voices or speak with force in order to be heard. Many found that their speech had lost none of its edge or wit, but that it seemed to be easier to listen as well as speak, in this city where everyone could be heard.

The only ones who hated the new order were the permanently angry and those who were full of hate. The haters had tried to start whispering campaigns, but these had been only moderately successful – you could only listen to those insidious and poisonous voices for about half an hour without wanting some diversion, and in the absence of blaring noise, other, quieter forms of entertainment had returned, from puppet shows to street singers to bioscopewallas.

Those who loved the softspeakers felt sorry for their angrier brethren, but provision was made for those who missed raising their voices. They could gather at spots outside the city limits and shout, “I hate softspeakers! I miss noise!” to their heart’s content. They could clang and clatter and quarrel, and make a ruckus, and create pandemonium for as long as they wanted, and many did, for hours and hours, and sometimes for days and days.

But every so often, one of them would stutter into silence in mid-rant, or would find himself turning down the volume on his loud, loud mike. And then when darkness fell and they thought no one was watching, they would go back to the city of softspeakers, missing the hush, the peace, the million murmuring conversations.

Speaking Volumes: India’s suffragette-princess


For the last two decades, I’ve taken my voter’s ID card for granted: it’s just there, like the “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” of India itself. I almost voted for Dharatipakkad in my first election, before using my franchise a little more wisely, and will vote along with much of Delhi this Saturday. Like most of my generation, I can neither imagine living in a country nor a world where women had to fight for the basic right to vote.

In my favourite photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh, the princess stands outside Hampton Court, an elegant woman whose face expresses her determination. She is selling copies of The Suffragette. Until Anita Anand wrote Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury India), even most feminist historians were unaware of the role played by Maharajah Duleep Singh’s daughter in the Votes for Women campaign.


Sophia Duleep Singh died a year after India gained its Independence at the age of 71, peacefully in one of the estates marked out for the former royals by Queen Victoria, who was also godmother to the princess. She had seen her father, the deposed king, fritter away a large part of his legacy after his move to England; she and her sisters had grown up without “roots, playmates or competent parents”.

The loss of the kingdom and the riches symbolized by the handing over of the Kohinoor had only been partly alleviated by the allocation of grace-and-favour houses to Sophia and her siblings. They were close; in the portrait of the three sisters taken at their Buckingham Palace debut, Bamba, Catherine and Sophia lean towards each other, comfortable in their long white debutante’s gowns. Ranjit Singh’s grand-daughters did not receive their due from the British, then or at any other time, though Sophia and Queen Victoria remained close.

Anita Anand’s liking for her subject is obvious; Sophia, who appeared to be apolitical in her teens, made strong choices all through her life. Aside from her lifelong love of animals, she had a tendency to take up causes with intensity and involvement.

She had grown up in Elveden: “The estate had an air of surreal but pleasant madness,” Anand writes. The Prince of Wales came down to shoot pheasants with Duleep Singh; the duties of footmen included chasing after parrots, jackdaws and the odd baboon. For a while, Sophia appeared in the papers as one of London’s fashionable young women, known for the elaborate dresses she wore, the Borzois she bred and for being a “first-rate cyclist”.

 Debutants, credit Peter Bance (c)

But in 1903, on a visit to India, Sophia explored Punjab for seven weeks, while her sisters retreated from the warm weather to Shimla. She began to understand her heritage, and to love the country that had shaped her history without ever being home. On the ship back to England, Sophia was one of the rare passengers to notice the plight of the lascars, the “ragged merchant seamen” who lived precariously on London’s docks. She changed the lives of thousands of sailors by setting up a home for able seamen; later, after the Great War, she would channel her philantrophic energies similarly towards the cause of Indian soldiers in Brighton, volunteering at a hospital for the wounded.

A separate book could be written on the number of women in that age whose relative privilege – wealth, estates, position – could not compensate for the frustrations of not being allowed to join the workplace, run industries, or participate in political life. Philantrophy was among the few acceptable outlets for their intelligence and energy.

In 1907, Sophia met the revolutionary Sarla Devi Choudhrani, and was profoundly swayed by the speeches she heard Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai make in Lahore. The sisters were taken aback to find themselves on stage with the nationalists: “Up we got amid cheers… oh dear we were cockatoos with a vengeance today.” By 1908, back in London, she had found the cause that would stir her almost as much as the talk of Home Rule in India: women’s rights, and the meetings of the WSPU, where Emmeline Pankhurst, Uma Dugdale and others gave animated speeches.

In the next few years, Queen Victoria’s god-daughter would become a headache for the British government. Sophia marched with Pankhurst, witnessing and being badly jostled in the many assaults on the suffragettes by London’s police; she funded the cause, and joined the hundreds of women who refused to pay their taxes until they had the vote. In a more flamboyant moment, Sophia attempted to stop the prime minister’s car as it left Downing Street; she had concealed her women’s rights poster in her fashionable furs.

It is so easy to erase women’s names from history. In Indian newspapers today, the conversation centres on just a few stalwarts of the nationalist movement, almost all of them male – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, but so rarely even a mention of Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Annie Besant and the rest.

Anita Anand mentions that Sophia’s voice would have been lost had she not kept detailed diaries, which were fortunately passed on to the British Library. Anand managed to speak to three people who knew Sophia well, including her god-daughter, Drovna. She had almost given up on tracking Drovna when she received a phone call in July 2012: “My name is Drovna – what do you want with my Princess?”

Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary is a painstaking biography, perhaps more thorough than brilliant. But by resurrecting Sophia Duleep Singh’s overlooked life and memory, this book is a reminder of how bitter the battle was for the women’s vote, how remarkable it was that an Indian woman would have joined that cause in London, and how the early calls for nationalism resonated in the heart of this maharajah’s daughter. The last word should be left to Drovna, who remembers Sophia often telling her: “I want a solemn promise from you. You are never, ever not to vote. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.”

“Please leave him alone”: reading Perumal Murugan

(Published in the Business Standard, 20 January 2015)

The day before Perumal Murugan declared Perumal Murugan, the author, dead, I had begun reading his novel One Part Woman on my Kindle. The download of the book was prompted by fellow readers of an unpleasant sort – professional offence-takers, who had been harassing Murugan with threats since December.

One Part Woman is about a childless couple whose lives change after they take recourse to an old temple ritual, a day of special licence, so that the wife, Ponna, can have a child. The offence takers had shrunk the intricate world of the novel, narrowing it down to the complaint that Murugan had offended the Gounder community by speaking of the ritual.

Two years before Murugan felt the need to kill off his writer self, I had read his novel Seasons of the Palm with intense interest, spurred by a profile of the author and professor in the Caravan magazine written by N Kalyan Raman in December 2013. Raman, translator and critic, had placed Perumal Murugan’s four novels against the backdrop of the tradition of “vattaara ilakkiyam”, or sub-regional literature, explaining that while these were praised for their mann vaasanai (fragrance of the soil), they were felt to lack the universality of mainstream literature.

But Raman disagreed with this assessment, and in his essay, he unwrapped the riches of Murugan’s Kongunadu novels – making special note of the landscape, both geographical and social, of Thiruchengodu and other places – in such a way that he must have sent many other readers off to the library as well as me.

In his final paragraph, he wrote: “It is a curious paradox that even as progressive Indians would like to abolish the caste system, they have little or no understanding of the lived reality of specific caste groups in their traditional homelands. Even as these communities are stalked and often dispossessed by the forces of modernisation, they remain hostage to the ways of the past that have sustained them for centuries. Will they ever be able to enter a secular future? Perumal Murugan has at least shown us a glimpse of what our collective struggle may be about.”

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2000) was translated into English in 2013 by Aniruddh Vasudevan. In December 2014, reports came in that the Hindu Munnani and other caste organisations had launched a campaign against the book. They had political support – Tiruchengode town Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh President Mahalingam led “more than 50 cadres” in a march; they burned copies of Murugan’s book in front of the local police station in December 2014.

On January 12, the district administration called the author in for “peace talks”; instead of upholding the author’s rights, officials told him to issue an unconditional apology. Murugan wrote a short, blunt note on his Facebook page: “Author Perumal Murugan has died.” He said he would withdraw all his books and writings, and requested all “caste, religious and political” groups not to engage in protests or create problems. “Please leave him alone,” the note ends.

Like so many others in India and elsewhere, I am tired of writing indignant columns that point out the uses of and defend the need for freedom of expression, or rail against the rising tide of violence that artists, writers and ordinary people not affiliated to political parties or well-organised religious protesters face. Many Indians – lawyers, journalists and writers, yes, but also just aam junta (common man) – are also tired of pointing out that we had predicted that offence laws would have terrible repercussions.

It is not just power-hungry preachers from all faiths, and politicians ditto, who use these laws as bludgeons, but castes and communities. They should really form a giant group of cultural censors, deleting from the official record all viewpoints that have challenged or critiqued caste, communities and religions in India. This would in effect erase most of the gains made by gender, environmental groups and civil rights movements over the last six decades.

Meanwhile, in my small corner of Delhi, I am trying to read the works of Perumal Murugan in peace. Tamil writers had been speaking in his defence in local papers from December onwards; at the Hindu Lit for Life festival in Chennai last week, statements of support for Murugan are made, and at the Kochi Biennale, the assembled artists hold a mass reading from Madhorubhagan.

I would like to believe that these gestures will be enough to keep the books alive, but there have been too many empty chairs in our lives – one for the late MF Husain, one for Salman Rushdie, too many for all the film-makers and playwrights from Deepa Mehta to Habib Tanvir who faced violence and disruptions through their careers, too many for the rationalists exiled, like Sanal Edamaruku, or gunned down, like the late Narendra Dabholkar. In time, unless the offence laws change, this climate where thugs rule and he who has the biggest mob wins will prevail; and bookshops will silently take Perumal Murugan’s books off the shelves.

I turn back to One Part Woman with these thoughts buzzing in my mind, and then, over the next few hours, the voices of the protestors recede, the threats and righteous indignation of offence-takers are muted.

Murugan’s own voice as a writer is quiet, imbued with love for the landscape and for the forgotten bits of land between two villages, for instance – the Narikkaradu, the Fox Land. His novel speaks to (and for) women trapped between the demands of society and the high cost of transgressing social norms, and it unpacks the way caste works in a community as simply and naturally as a gifted child takes apart a clockwork toy, to see how it works. As time passes, I am drawn into the intricate tracery of friendships he weaves, the way in which the village’s history from the times of the British winds itself around the lives of Ponna and Kali.

Perhaps the only free space we have any more, until these times change, is here, in the private compact between writers and their readers that takes place in the wide, broad-bordered lands inside our own heads.

In this land, the offence-takers and the angry protestors have no valid visas and cannot cross the frontiers. In this imaginary world, the author Perumal Murugan has not died, nor have his books; he continues to write, with close, loving attention to the places he knows so intimately, free from the fear of violence. In this country, if nowhere else, all is well.

From France to India, Charlie Hebdo and the promise of free speech

Poster by Sanjay Sipahimalani; from Vikram Seth's speech at the Kolkata Book Fair.
Poster by Sanjay Sipahimalani; from Vikram Seth’s speech at the Kolkata Book Fair.

Wrote this in some sadness for the Huffington Post. It was published on January 10, a few days after the murders of the editorial team and others, including bodyguards and police officers, at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

“Responsibility cuts both ways. It is true that you cannot reason with a fundamentalist, of any religion, that there is no rational argument to be had with armed men bent on murder. But civil society and religious organizations have their responsibilities, too, and one of them is to enable and support those who want the freedom to question, to create, to debunk, and yes, even to mock. It must be kept in mind that what the team at Charlie Hebdo died for was not just the right to offend, but also the right to challenge and question everything — including religion, including Islam.

The promise of free speech goes far beyond the schoolboy thrill of being able to offend; the real promise of free speech is that we all hope to live uncensored lives, free to create in peace, and free to ask questions of or satirize the leaders, and the institutions, that run our everyday lives.”

What to read in…


And the best of the fiction and non-fiction from 2014:

(Despite the Kindle, I still do this the old-fashioned way: pile the books up on the dining table and pick out the favourites. There’s always too many to include, but at least some of the best get through.)

Speaking Volumes: Mr Mistry’s homecoming

(Published in the Business Standard, December 8, 2014)

“Mother said what she liked best was his remembering everything so well, how beautifully he wrote about it all, even the sad things, and though he changed some of it, and used his imagination, there was truth in it.”
– “Swimming Lessons”
, Tales From Firozsha Baag

The group of women queuing for their lattes at the Times of India literary festival at held copies of Rohinton Mistry’s novels aloft with the triumph of successful autograph hunters. None of the books were new; one woman, a nursery schoolteacher in her 20s, had brought her college copy of A Fine Balance, while her friend clutched a second-hand, now 10-year-old copy of that she’d bought from a pavement bookseller on Flora Fountain.

One girl had brought her student copy of Such A Long Journey from her days at University of Bombay. She had graduated in 2009, the year before Mr Mistry’s novel was, memorably and disgracefully, burned by the student wing of the Shiv Sena, and dropped from the syllabus at the university. “It feels good to get his signature on this,” she said. She did not complain directly about the burning or the banning of the book, but she said, “I liked reading it when I was a student. People should be able to read good novels, no?” She traced Mr Mistry’s signature as she was talking, her fingers touching the ink lightly and with love.

When Mr Mistry had read from his works the previous day, she and her friends had been among the group of readers at the back who had been identifying characters and passages, annotating his readings with their whispered sharings as they compared their memories of his novels.

In comparison with many writers, Mr Mistry has a small oeuvre – three collections of short stories, of which Tales From Firozsha Baag is probably the best loved, and three novels, Such A Long Journey, and Family Matters. But the collected works have a power that exceeds those of many longer bibliographies. His novels tend to stay in readers’ memories in a way that many more experimental novels don’t – Mr Mistry said in one of his interviews that he prefers honest books to clever books, which is a succinct description of his own writing.

Mr Mistry came to writing relatively late; he studied mathematics at the University of Bombay and had a job in customer service at a Toronto bank when he took a course in literature along with his wife, Freny. She graduated from the course and became a teacher; he began writing short stories, almost pitch-perfect right from the start, and soon left the dubious pleasures of customer services behind in favour of the writing life.

In one of my favourite stories, “Swimming Lessons”, a man in Canada decides to finally learn how to swim, remembering the sea off Chowpatty (“it seemed that the dirtier it became, the more crowds it attracted”); his memories are punctuated by the exchanges between his father and mother at home in India, sharing the stories their writer son has sent them by parcel post. Their wonder – “our son is a writer and we didn’t even know it, here we are thinking he is still clerking away” – is followed by a set of quiet exchanges between them: does the writer write about India because he is unhappy in his new country, or is he just, as the father argues, using his memory and his experiences to shape his fiction?

They share the stories back and forth, taking it in turns to read each one, and the argument over what fiction is for and what writing should be continues, parallel to the main narrative.

That set of exchanges on the need for stories and the art of storytelling came back to me when Mr Mistry read from his works on the second day of the festival. His voice is resonant and controlled, and he has a flair for timing, honed perhaps from his many years of performances as a folk singer. His friends say he is not so much a recluse as a very private man; even so, set him in front of an audience, and he becomes as eloquent a storyteller off the page as he is on it.

He had – finally, after several years of people trying and failing to persuade him to make a public appearance in India – given in to the persuasion of the organisers. In April, Bachi Karkaria reported that Aditya Thackeray, who had led the protest against Mr Mistry’s novel in 2010, had been asked at a meeting in Dadar’s Parsi Colony if Mr Mistry could revisit the city of his birth without fear; Mr Thackeray had said that the author would be free to come. Mr Mistry mentioned the Shiv Sena in passing: “My first thought [on hearing about the ban on Such A Long Journey] was, did it take them 19 years to come across it? I’ve heard of slow cooking, but slow reading? I heard that the sales of the book went up after that.” The audience roared in appreciative laughter.

He stayed in form when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday. “A lifetime achievement award is a funny sort of thing, like a death or a funeral,” said Mr Mistry. “When an author gets one, it reminds me of his or her books. It is also the beginning of the end.” And then he took over the mike, singing Don’t Fence Me In and old Bing Crosby numbers, reminiscing about his Bombay childhood and his memories of listening to The Beatles and old Broadway musicals.

Mr Mistry has won many prizes over the years – the Giller Prize, the Neustadt and the Commonwealth among them – but some celebrations are particularly special, and some victories are quiet, not noisy, triumphs. It had been just four years since the city had been told that Mr Mistry was off limits, but now Mumbai gladly rose to celebrate one of its favourite authors and outside Mehboob Studio readers bought his books without fear or fuss.

Murder She Wrote: PD James

(Published in the Business Standard, November 29, 2014, in memory of the late Baroness PD James and her books.)

In the five decades between her first book, Cover Her Face, published when she was 42, and her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, published when she was 91, the Rt Hon Phyllis Dorothy James murdered over a score of characters. She had a knack for it; the reading public thought so too, devouring the 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels and the two Cordelia Gray mysteries.

When she died this week at the age of 94, she had reigned over the world of crime fiction, drawing in both the kind of reader who had a taste of Agatha Christie’s tidy village mysteries and the sort who preferred the new, bloodier school of Nordic-inspired thrillers. Her books may have had old-fashioned settings – from Oxbridge to Jane Austen’s fictional estates—but she had a cold eye; she saw the skull beneath the skin quite clearly.

“I had an interest in death from an early age,” PD James acknowledged in her Paris Review interview. “It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, Did he fall or was he pushed?”

Many reviewers felt there was much of her in Adam Dalgliesh, the Detective Chief-Inspector who rose over the 14 books in which he featured to the heights of Commander. Dalgliesh is sensitive, compassionate, a poet who grew up in a vicarage, but also a quietly relentless tracker of evil, a fullblooded widower who has discreet romances, one of them (mentioned in an aside) with PD James’ other sleuth, Cordelia Gray.

James loved the city of Cambridge, and based some of murders in university towns, but she herself had not attended university; her father felt that women did not need a higher education. She did assorted jobs, taking up full-time employment in hospital administration after her husband came back from the Second World War with a serious psychiatric disorder. PD James cared for him, and for their daughters with the help of their families, until his death in 1964. She had written Cover Her Face and A Mind To Murder by then, and would continue to write at a steady, even pace, producing a book roughly every two-and-a-half years or so.

Her notes for each mystery were kept in carefully organised notebooks, around 7 to 15 for each novel, recording details of landscape, the history of the time, the lives of the characters, the ways in which they were to die or to kill. She had trained herself to rise early and write before the bustle of the household began; this settled into lifelong habit, and she was known for writing between 8 am and 12 noon on most days.

It was the keen edge of her craft that made a PD James novel so satisfying, as much as the human frisson of reading about someone else’s tragedies. Robert J Ray records a lecture by James in a 1987 article in the Orange Coast magazine:

“Remember these four things. First, the body must be discovered by an innocent, a child or an unsuspecting citizen. That increases the shock value for the reader, who sees through innocent eyes. Second, the body should appear early, preferably in line one of chapter one, but no later than chapter two. Third, you cannot as a writer enter the point-of-view of a killer after the body has been discovered, after the reader knows there’s been a crime committed. Otherwise, you give it all away, because the killer, being human, is re-thinking the murder. Fourth, the killer should not be revealed until 60 per cent of the book is done.”

By 1991, she had become a national asset, a position confirmed when she was made Baroness James of Holland Park. James had her critics – many said that her novels were of the old conservative school, that the settings were both tidy and old-fashioned. But as PD James wrote in the introduction to one of her omnibuses, the modern detective story remained, despite some shifts, a reassuring genre. “It distances for us the atavistic fear of death and by fictionalizing it… helps us to come to terms with its inevitability. It affirms the sanctity of the individual human life and confirms our belief that we live in a generally benevolent and rational human universe.”

She had no fear of death, herself; a lifetime of exploring the fragility and precariousness of human life had only strengthened her faith. The pleasure in having lived a rich life came through in many of the interviews she gave after the age of 80. After her death, the first tributes to the Baroness came from Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, the next generation of crime writers paying tribute to the grande dame of their genre. They owed PD James much, and they were proud to acknowledge that debt.

Reading. Writing. Fooding. Lodging.


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