The Wildings: Excerpt

From the blurb:

In the labyrinthine alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighbourhood in Delhi, lives a small band of cats. Miao, the clan elder, a wise, grave Siamese; Katar, loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior tom; Beraal, the beautiful queen, swift and deadly when challenged; Southpaw, the kitten whose curiosity can always be counted on to get him into trouble… Unfettered and wild, these and the other members of the tribe, fear no one, go where they will, and do as they please. Until, one day, a terrified orange-coloured kitten with monsoon green eyes and remarkable powers, lands in their midst—the first in a series of extraordinary events that threatens to annihilate them and everything they hold dear.

(The Wildings, Aleph Book Company, August 2012)

Illustrations for The Wildings by Prabha Mallya

The tomcat watched the pair as they left, the old queen and the young half-grown kitten, their silhouettes fading away into the darkness. He felt a small pang as he remembered his first hunt, and he hoped Miao would be kind to Southpaw.

The night was humid, the air scented with raat ki rani and mogra blossoms. There was a half moon, partly obscured by clouds. As they slipped away, Southpaw felt his fur tremble with excitement. “Miao, where are we-?”

The older cat turned sinuously and cuffed him, her claws out just enough to leave a thin red line on his neck. “The first rule,” she said. “No mewing. No whisker linking unless I say so, because your prey is small enough to pick it up. And smart enough to make a run for it.” She cuffed him again, this time slamming his head to the right and holding it down so that he could see a frightened gray musk shrew scutter away, into the safety of the lantana bushes.

Southpaw’s flanks were heaving from the pain, but more than that, the kitten was in shock. Miao had washed him every day from as far back as he could remember, her tongue gentle as she teased out the tangles in his fur.

She had brought him his first piece of mouse, which tasted heavenly, and fed it to him herself. She had let him play with her tail and pounce on it, only lifting him gently away when he nipped too hard. The older cat had never rolled him on the ground, as Hulo did when he exasperated the tom, or smacked his belly, as Katar often did, or so much as nipped his neck in warning.

For a while he followed her in miserable silence, his head still ringing from the blows. The earth was cool under his paws, and when they crossed the stone path, he followed Miao’s example, retracting his claws.

Gradually, his mind cleared and he began to watch Miao more closely. She appeared to glide swiftly over the ground, and he realized that she set her paws down as lightly as she could, often switching pace in mid-stride in order to avoid stepping on leaves, twigs, slippery mud, paper bags or anything that might make a sound. Twice, she froze in mid-glide, once to allow an unknown stray dog to trot past—luckily, he didn’t even see them—and once for no reason that Southpaw could tell. She listened, the second time, with her head to one side, her whiskers stretched tight, and whatever she heard appeared to satisfy her, for they continued along the hedge, following its curved path all the way to the empty lot that stood in between and yet away from the Bigfeet’s houses.

Southpaw’s tail, which had been dragging sadly on the ground, began to rise ever so slightly. The empty lot was on the edge of the wide stretch of scrubland that lay between Nizamuddin and the next set of buildings. It was a kind of no-cat’s-land, as wild as the grounds of the Shuttered House but much less threatening. The real badlands lay just beyond, where lantana and keekar had grown into a bristling tangle, and where the whippy branches of untamed raat ki rani creepers wound their way around the frame of a Bigfeet building, abandoned half-way.

The kitten had only been here once, briefly, when he had followed Katar furtively as he prowled the long grass in search of prey. This was at the outer limit of the territory of the Nizamuddin cats—beyond this, and they ceded ground to the canal pigs.

They were moving into clumps of tall Sarkanda grass, its purple plumes transformed by the dimness of the light into nodding shadows waving far above Southpaw’s head. Miao suddenly stopped, taking cover behind a pile of wood chips, paper and plastic bags and other Bigfeet detritus. She signaled to Southpaw that he should listen, and he could see from the way the fine, tiny hairs in the inside of her ears rippled and stood up again that she was excited about what she could hear.

He concentrated, but the sounds that came to him were the ordinary sounds of the night. The far-off clamour of car horns from the road, the cheerful chirruping chorus of the locusts, the occasional rustle in the dry grass. From above, the owls called at random intervals, their soft solemn cries breaking the silence and rippling into the night. Miao radiated a deep quietness as she settled in to wait. She was almost invisible against the long grass, and once, a moth settled on the top of her head, fluttering away in alarm when the older cat twitched a whisker.

A rough map of the place began to form in Southpaw’s head. There were many rats here, or had been: he could sense their runways, and was startled at how orderly and widespread their lanes seemed to be. Many of the trails led to the very back of the lot, and when he closed his eyes and inhaled, it seemed to the kitten that he could smell the odour of old droppings. Some of the holes smelled different, though, and were away from the rat runways, with a more oily set of rubmarks.

The scent was tantalizingly familiar and yet alien: it took a few seconds before the kitten placed it, allowing his night vision to expand enough to let him see the holes more clearly. They were almost snout-shaped, and the odour was—he’d got it! Bandicoots lived here, too, but then Nizamuddin was home to many varieties of animals aside from the Bigfeet. And there was something else that the kitten couldn’t place: a dark scent, powerful but not evil, sending warning drumbeats out into the air.

Miao sent out a quick warning, and then the older cat was crouching, her belly flat on the ground, hindquarters waggling, claws out and ears pricked. Southpaw found his teeth chattering like hers in excitement, and dropped to the ground himself—just in time to see a bush rat shoot across the path, its tiny black eyes panicked.

Miao’s paw moved so fast that Southpaw didn’t see the action. Nor did the luckless rat, its body flying up and landing with a small thump on their right. Southpaw forgot his manners and bounded towards the rat’s body, driven by an urgent need to get his teeth into its flesh. There was a hiss, and then Miao swatted him, right across his tender nose.

“Never do that!” she said. “Always check that your prey is dead, not just stunned.” Moving warily forward, she watched the rat for a few seconds. Then her paw shot out and she flipped her prey through the air. It came down on Southpaw’s flank.

Miao held back. When Southpaw looked at her for direction, she said nothing, and her eyes were opaque. “Your kill,” he said politely. “Owwwwwwww!”

The rat had sunk its yellow teeth into his rump, and it was trying to scurry away.

“It’s nobody’s kill until it’s dead, Southpaw,” Miao said.

He looked at the rat, and the rat looked back at him. Its eyes held terror and anger in equal measure, and the kitten hesitated. His instincts urged him to kill, and he could feel the saliva at the edge of his mouth at the thought of tasting its blood and its flesh. But the rat was bigger than he’d imagined, and its teeth were sharp; the blood he could smell in the air was not just the rat’s.

Southpaw put his whiskers out and almost lost one more as the rat ran towards him instead of away, against all expectation. Its eyes were glazing from the loss of blood, but it nipped as hard as it could at his face, and skittered past his left flank. The kitten wheeled; the rat wheeled too, staying near Southpaw’s back paw. The kitten twitched his tail out of the way just in time to prevent himself from being bitten again.

The pads of his paws were sweating. He could no longer see Miao, and he was not aware of the path, the runways, the rat holes, the lantana bushes or the grass. All he could see was the rat, its body tensed as it prepared to circle around, behind him—and he swung around in a sinuous arc, catching the rat by surprise, his paw connecting with its body, his claws out.

The rat flew through the air again, but this time, the body was limp and still. Southpaw wasn’t taking any chances. He batted the corpse twice, thrice, before he was sure it was dead, and then, though his mouth was salivating in anticipation, he exerted a great effort and turned to Miao.

“Your kill,” he said.

Miao came up and examined the body. She patted it twice, too, to make sure it was dead. Then she carefully tore out the throat, considered a delicacy. Southpaw looked away; only young kittens would drool, he told himself, trying very hard not to drool at the prospect of a tender, fresh-killed rat dinner.

“Yours, I think,” said Miao. She dropped the morsel of flesh from the throat in front of him, and when Southpaw did nothing, she pushed the kitten’s mouth gently downwards. He needed no further bidding, and they ate companionably, Miao feeding from the rich stomach, Southpaw relishing the back and the tail.

“It was a good kill, for the first time,” said Miao when they were done. “Room for improvement, could’ve been better, but not bad, young Southpaw.”

Southpaw rubbed his face against hers gratefully, purring his thanks. Miao allowed him to take the next two kills—a mouse and a shrew, both easy once he’d got the hang of swatting with claws extended. Each time, the kitten was scared: even the smallest prey could cause damage, especially when it knew it would be fighting for its life. But Miao watched him face down his insecurities, and she thought to herself that this one would make a good warrior. In her experience, it was never the bulk of the cat that counted or even the speed of the paw, the sharpness of the claw, as much as it was the ability to conquer one’s fear.

They began to stroll back home; the moon was passing behind clouds and its light was touched with purple and yellow, like an old bruise. They had almost reached the road to the canal when Southpaw felt all his fur stand up at once, Miao whirled, and the air filled with the thick aroma of damp fur and cedar. Behind that was the powerful, warning, dark scent he’d smelled before, drumming through Southpaw’s head.

He turned, not wanting to see whatever was there. Miao had hunched her shoulders up, her face was down, her teeth bared, and she was growling in a low, deep voice. But Miao was to his left and a little behind him. Whatever it was that had spooked Miao, he would face it first.

The first thing the kitten noticed was the creature’s eyes: inquiring, intelligent, assessing. Its face was neat, the fur beautifully combed in bristles of brown and silver, the whiskers black and questioning. The ears were round and made it look almost cute; but the creature was nearly their size, it rippled with muscles, and Southpaw gulped as he noticed the claws. They were thin, like curved stilettos, and he sensed they would be razor sharp.

“Don’t even think about touching the kitten,” Miao said, moving up to stand beside him. “Whoever you are, you’ll have to get past me.”

The creature cocked its head to one side and considered her with some amusement.

“I could rip both your throats out, cat,” it said, speaking in Junglee, the common patois that all animals used, like her. “But I have made my kills for the night and the bloodlust has dimmed. As it has for your kitten, I see. One kill or two, boy?”

“Three! And it’s my first hunt!” said Southpaw, forgetting for a second to be afraid.

The creature’s eyes crinkled. It turned to Miao.

“It is good to be young and out on your first kill,” it said. “I’m Kirri, of the Clan Mungusi. Perhaps we can find a way to end this evening that does not involve bloodletting, perhaps we can’t. What do you say, O Cat?”

Miao had stopped growling, though her fur was still spiky in warning.

“Hail, Mongoose,” she said pleasantly. “I am Miao, and it has been many years since I met one of your kind. Are the snakes back in Nizamuddin, then?”

Kirri gave her a long considering look.

“Not here,” she said. “But over there, where the Bigfeet were building yet another of their warrens, I met an old Nagini—old in years, not too old to fight—and how we danced! She had me pinned, but I wriggled free; I had my teeth at her throat, but she threw me off balance with her tail. It was a dance such as I haven’t danced in months. She is dead and I have dipped my muzzle in her blood, but she was a worthy warrior.”

“I have no doubt,” said Miao, “that you have killed many snakes, and been a mighty warrior yourself.”

It was just common politeness, but the mongoose looked pleased.

“So I have, Miao. You may not be of Clan Mungusi, but you are indisputably a huntress yourself, a member of Clan Scar. You and the boy may pass unmolested this night, and because I have killed well and so has this young warrior, he may ask me a question.”

Miao turned, and nodded at Southpaw. From the set of her shoulders, he picked up her anxiety: the mongoose, so relaxed now, might be quick to anger, and the kitten knew without being told that he must get the question right. Should he ask Kirri how one killed a snake? Should he ask her for advice, what the best killing moves were?

To his horror, Southpaw found himself asking none of these questions. Instead, he said: “If you please, Madam Mongoose, might I look at your mind?”

The mongoose’s eyes went black. She stretched and stood up on her hind paws, letting the scimitars of her claws show.

“You ask to link with my mind? A kitten asks this? Of me?”

Barely twitching her whiskers, so quietly that Southpaw was almost sure Kirri hadn’t heard, Miao said: “If she attacks, run. I’ll take care of her. Run the moment you see her move, don’t wait.” Every muscle in her body was tense, and looking down, Southpaw saw the ground near her paws go dark from the sweat.

The kitten took in the mongoose. Everything about the creature terrified him; the patches of blood on Kirri’s fur near her mouth, the wicked claws, the body that was all muscle, no fat. But he straightened his whiskers and said: “You had one kill today, Madam Mongoose. I had three, and one of them was my first. I beg pardon if what I said was wrong, but I just wanted to know what a true hunter’s mind looked like.”

The mongoose stood down, and her black eyes looked deep into the kitten’s blue ones.

Southpaw shivered, but he held his ground.

The mongoose showed her teeth, and said: “So you want to know what a hunter’s mind is like, kitten? Come. Come inside, little one.” She fixed her stare on the kitten, and Southpaw found himself looking back into her intense black eyes.

The first impression was of hardness and sharpness, like standing in the middle of an obsidian plain; the mind of the mongoose was smooth and opaque, like black glass, and the kitten felt as though hidden claws combed his fur very, very lightly, as the mongoose let him link.

Kirri’s memories were carefully organized. The kitten found himself looking at receding images of snakes, and rats, and smaller prey—first images of the living, caught in mid-battle, then of the dead, often bloodied, often snarling. Another set of memories filed away battle plans: how to twist in mid-air, how to stalk one’s prey from behind, how to dance with a cobra.

“Southpaw, that’s enough.”

He ignored Miao’s voice, and moved a step forwards, fascinated.

There was something in the centre of the plain that the kitten was drawn towards.

“Come,” said a voice softly in his head, and the kitten looked deeper into Kirri’s black eyes. “Come closer, little one. See what you want to see.”

“Get back, Southpaw!”

It pulsed, reflected back in the black glass; Southpaw sensed the predator’s arrowhead mind, the singleminded focus on making a clean, good kill. The link between them was strong; he wanted to move closer, to see more.

A sharp pain in his flank made him howl. He leapt backwards, and felt the mongoose’s teeth—so close, far too close!—snap shut on one of his whiskers. Southpaw yelped and backed, feeling the whisker tear. A paw slashed at his ear, but the curved claws just missed him; and then Miao was there, calmly smacking at the mongoose’s belly. For a second, there was a blur of brown fur and white fur—and then there was nothing.

Miao blinked. Southpaw blinked. Kirri had vanished, melting away into the whispering grasses.

Timeline of censorship

Poster by Sanjay Sipahimalani

Timeline of book bans/ challenges and censorship in the arts in India
An indicative list of key bans and challenges in India since Independence, with an emphasis on writers and literature. This timeline will be updated as information becomes available, and is a work-in-progress.

1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000-2010 | 2010- |

2010-present:
January 2012: Threats of violence by a handful of protestors prevent Salman Rushdie from coming to or addressing writers and readers at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival.
Four writers, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil, read extracts from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in a gesture of solidarity and protest at the festival, sparking controversy.
Read more: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main51.asp?filename=hub110212Notes.asp

January 2012: Symbiosis University in Pune cancels a screening of Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi, a film on Kashmir, after members of the right-wing ABVP protest, saying that the film is anti-national and offends their sentiments.

http://www.firstpost.com/india/censorship-at-symbiosis-see-no-kashmir-hear-no-kashmir-speak-no-kashmir-199780.html

January 2012: The Uttar Pradesh government bans performances of a play called ‘My Sandal’, for violating the election code of conduct. The play is widely assumed to satirise the corruption and expensive tastes of UP chief minister Mayawati.

November 2011: An exhibition of Korans in Delhi is shut down after All-India Muslim Personal Law Board member Kamaal Farooqui and Syed Yahya Bukhari, brother of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, along with their supporters denounced the event for “wrongly interpreting the tenets of Islam and the holy Quran”.

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/article2481853.ece

October 2011: Delhi University’s Academic Council drops A.K. Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas from the Delhi University B.A. syllabus, largely due to pressure from right-wing organizations.

http://www.sunday-guardian.com/artbeat/ramanujan-a-the-ramayana

http://www.sacw.net/article2344.html

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1111027/jsp/opinion/story_14672561.jsp

July 2011: Screenings of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues cancelled in New York after protests from the Forum for Hindu Awakening.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/07/24/sita-sings-the-blues-hindu-film-causes-a-stir-in-queens.html

March 2011: The state of Gujarat bans Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/01/books/gandhi-biography-by-joseph-lelyveld-roils-india.html?_r=1

2000-2010:

October 2010: Copies of Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey are burnt and a 24-hour notice was given to vice chancellor Dr Rajan Welukar to drop the novel from the second year syllabus of Mumbai University. Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aditya Thackeray, leads the protest, complaining that the book contains “anti-Shiv Sena” passages. The complaint later shifts to the charge that Such A Long Journey offends the sensibilities of Maharashtrians. Mumbai University issues notices to all colleges dropping the novel from the syllabus.

http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?267551

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article838537.ece

October 2010: Writer Arundhati Roy faces sedition charges after speaking on Kashmir at a symposium. A month later, in November, a mob of BJP Mahila Morcha activists attacks her house.

http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/sedition-or-free-speech-arundhati-roy-reacts-62566

http://www.hindu.com/2010/11/01/stories/2010110157351800.htm

August 20, 2009: The Narendra Modi government in Gujarat bans Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah-India, Partition, Independence, on the grounds that it tarnishes the image of Sardar Patel. In September, the Gujarat High Court overturns the ban, saying that the State needs to have more respect for the fundamental rights of citizens.

July 8, 2009: The Chattisgarh state government bans the late Habib Tanvir’s play, Charandas Chor, written in Chattisgarhi with a 20-year record of performances in the state, on the grounds that it shows the followers of the Satnami Panth community in a bad light.

http://www.altlawforum.org/news/chattisgarh-government-bans-charandas-chor

February 2008: The UP government bans Jaishree Misra’s Rani, a work of historical fiction, on the grounds that it contains “highly objectionable” material about Rani Lakshmibai’s personal life–ie, a reference to a (fictionalised) chaste romance between Lakshmibai and a British officer.

July 2006: Members of the Bangladeshi community in London march in protest against Monica Ali’s “misrepresentation” of Sylheti life in her novel, Brick Lane. The protests fizzle out, and the film version of Brick Lane is released in 2007.
January 2006: The Maharashtra government had banned the sale and circulation of yet another James Laine book, The Epic of Shivaji, for derogatory observations on the Maratha warrior king. The book is a translation of a 300-year-old Sanskrit epic, Shivbharat, commissioned by Shivaji himself to celebrate his life.
On the James Laine controversy:

http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol5/issue1/laine0.htm

Film: 2006, seven states (Nagaland, Punjab, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh) ban the release and exhibition of The Da Vinci Code. Many of the state high courts have since overturned the ban.

September 2005: West Bengal High Court overturns the 2003 ban against Taslima Nasrin’s Dwaikhandito.
Over the next few years, Taslima, exiled from Bangladesh, faces protests and threats in India. Shunted from one place to another, surrounded by security and with the state unwiling to guarantee her safety, the author finally gives up on her hopes of settling in Bengal.

March 2004: Politician Gopinath Munde says that he was wrong to have asked for a ban on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, on the grounds that it contained passages derogatory to Shivaji.
In 2004, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” was banned in Chennai. The play however, has played successfully in many, many other parts of the country since 2003. A Hindi version of the play has been performing since 2007.

January, 2004: Over 150 activists from the Sambhaji Brigade attacked BORI, ransacking the building, defacing books and artworks, and destroying property.

-14 January: Despite the fact that OUP had already withdrawn Laine’s book from the Indian market two months earlier, the Maharashtra government moved — eventually successfully — to have Laine’s book banned, again citing Sections 153 and 153A of the Indian Penal Code.

-16 January: Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks out against the book-ban on Shivaji.

April 2004: The Kerala High Court upholds a 1991 ban on the staging of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. The original 1991 order says that the musical “is both sacrilegious and blasphemous, which would outrage the religious feeling of Christians.”

2004: the film Final Solution, which looks at religious riots and the Hindu-Muslim riots is banned by the Indian Censor Board, which calls it “highly provocative”. The ban is eventually lifted.

November, 2003: James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India published in India by Oxford University Press India in June, is withdrawn from the Indian market by the Press after protests from Hindu rightwing parties to the effect that Laine insulted Shivaji.

November 2003: The West Bengal government bans Taslima Nasrin’s Dwaikhandito on the grounds that its contents could inflame religious passions—“for the sake of maintenance of democracy” in Bengal. (In 2009, the Calcutta High Court overturns the ban.)

2003: the Indian Censor Board bans the film ‘Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror)’, a film on Indian transsexuals produced and directed by Sridhar Rangayan. The censor board cited that the film was ‘vulgar and offensive’.

2002: Anand Patwardhan War and Peace, on nuclear testing, is asked to make 21 cuts before the film can be screened. Patwardhan objects, saying “If these cuts do make it, it will be the end of freedom of expression in the Indian media.” The courts declare the cuts unconstitutional.

2001: The BJP and the VHP urge their members to burn copies of historian D N Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow, just before the publication of the book. It is banned by the Hyderabad court on the grounds that “it might hurt religious sentiments”.

February 2000: The UP government orders filming on Water to cease, saying that it has “provoked civil disorder”.
February 14, 2000: Ayatollah Hassan Saneii, the head of the 15th of Khordad Foundation, reiterates that the death sentence remains valid and the foundation’s $2.6 million reward will be paid with interest to Rushdie’s assassins.
January 2000: A 2,000-strong mob burns down the set in Varanasi where Deepa Mehta’s Water is being filmed; it touches on the lives of widows in Varanasi. The Hindutva parties feel that it “shows Hindu culture in a bad light” to depict widows in the manner that Mehta has.

The 1990s:
Film and art were more often challenged in the 1990s than books or plays. (Additional material to come.)

1999: Maharashtra government banned the Marathi play ‘Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy” or ‘I am Nathuram Godse Speaking

1998: Hamish McDonald’s Polyester Prince, a life of Dhirubhai Ambani, banned.
September 1995: The customs sends a directive to Rupa & Co, asking it to stop distributing Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh because “the question of permissibility or otherwise of marketing the book was under the consideration of the Government of India”. Though there is no official ban, the book is not available in Maharashtra and elsewhere for many months.

Film: Mira Nair’s Kamasutra and Madhuri Dixit’s appearance in Khalnayak raise questions of obscenity and vulgarity; Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen is challenged by the film censor board for its violence and the debate it fuels on caste; Mani Ratnam’s film, Bombay, on Hindu-Muslim riots, draws controversy.

1998: screenings of Deepa Mehta’s Fire are disrupted, the film-maker threatened and cinema halls attacked by protestors. The Shiv Sena led most of these protests. In 2000, Mehta and her crew are prevented from filming ‘Water’, on the grounds that her portrayal of child brides is offensive to Hindu sentiments.

http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/06/mf-husain-farewell-to-a-nations-chronicler/

Art: 1996: Paintings made by MF Husain in the 1970s and 1980s of Saraswati, Bharat Mata and other Indian deities come under attack after Hindu nationalist groups target the artist. In 1998, Husain’s house is attacked by Bajrang Dal activists. By 2006, the artist goes into exile, after exhibitions of his paintings have faced repeated attacks and after multiple cases have been filed against him in courts across the land by Hindu rightwing groups.

http://www.sawnet.org/news/fire.html

The 1980s:
Any book that misrepresented India’s borders was confiscated by Customs and released only after the offending frontiers had been manually “corrected”.

April 1989: Hindu militants threatened to kill M.M. Kalburgi, an Indian historian, for writing a Kannada-language book they claim blasphemes a 12th century saint. Kalburgi was given 24-hour protection by police in Dharwar in the southern state of Karnataka. A group of 43 Kannada writers and academics formed a committee in support of the book.

April 1989: customs authorities black out passages critical of Indira Gandhi’s regime in 500 imported copies of the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopaedia: World History from 1800 to the Present Day.

1988: On October 5 1988, the Indian Finance Ministry announced the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act, adding that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”. As with Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Ramayana and Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana Retold, this ban set a precedent, legal and cultural, for taking offended sentiments into consideration as a justification for banning a book.

October 1987: Maharashtra High Court bans Dr BR Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism, an examination and questioning of some aspects of the faith, after some Hindu groups protest. In 1998, Dalit groups take out a Bheem March in Bombay, protesting the failure of the courts to lift the ban.

1986: PM Antony’s controversial play, The Sixth Holy Wound of Christ, is banned in Kerala after months of protests and debate. The play is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

1983: Morarji Desai obtained a temporary ban on Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger and Nixon in the White House, which described Desai as a “star performer” for the CIA. The ban was eventually lifted, but by that time public interest in the book was on the wane. And Morarji Desai—who was then 93—gained much sympathy when Kissinger stepped up to testify on his behalf, stating unequivocally that Desai was no CIA spy.

1980: Writer Mridula Garg was arrested on charges of obscenity for a passage in her Hindi novel, Chitta Cobra. After two years in court, the charges were dropped.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2010/11/07/stories/2010110750230600.htm

The 1970s:

Politics, and what the state often saw as the misrepresentation of either India’s policies or its leaders, triggered most book bans in this decade. Former MI5 operative Greville Wynne upset MI5 and the Indian government when he published his memoirs, The Man From Moscow.

It was increasingly books that “misrepresented” India that were targeted. Desmond Steward’s Early Islam and Michael Edwards Nehru: A Political Biography were both banned in 1975 for what the government considered grievous factual errors, as were Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent and Alan Lawrence’s China’s Foreign Relations Since 1949.

Lourenco de Sadvandor’s incendiary, and sadly ill-researched, Who Killed Gandhi was banned in 1979, while the ban on Arthur Koestler’s scathing (but hardly well-informed) view of Eastern religion, The Lotus and the Robot, was carried over from the late ‘60s.

1974: Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder banned two years after it pulls in full houses across Bombay. The Bombay High Court order overturning the ban is considered a landmark free speech judgement. Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal was also often challenged and banned in the 1970s.

Key bans:
Nehru, A Political Biography by Michael Edwards. Banned: Dec 13, 1975
India Independent by Charles Bettelheim. Banned: May 15, 1976
Who Killed Gandhi by Lourenco De Sadvandor. Banned: Dec 29,
1979

The 1960s:

The most important ban of this decade, in retrospect, was the ban on Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama.

Wolpert’s analysis of Gandhi’s assassination had nothing to do with the Ramayana — it was his research into the gaps in the security arrangements surrounding the Mahatma, and the suggestion of conspiracy theories, that attracted the state’s censorship. This set a second, and equally dangerous, precedent, allowing the state to consider banning books that might deliver inconvenient insinuations about any ruling government.

Key book bans: Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert. Banned: Sept 1, 1962
The Jewel in the Lotus (A Historical Survey of the Sexual Culture of the East). Banned: July 20, 1968
The Evolution of the British Empire and Commonwealth from the American Revolution by Alfred Le Ray Burt. Banned: Aug 9, 1969
A Struggle between Two Lines over the Question of How to Deal with US Imperialism by Fan Asid-Chu, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1965. Banned: Dec 6, 1969

The 1950s:

In the aftermath of Partition, the first bans on specific books from across the border came into force—Agha Babar’s play Cease-Fire, and a treatise on Somnath called Marka-e-Somnath, the newspaper Hamara Kashmir were typical of the Urdu writings from Pakistan that were put on the banned list. One of the oddities of this period was a book about a Saurashtrian freedom fighter, written by Kaluwank Ravatwank and published from Karachi—Bhupat Singh crops up with alarming regularity on the banned list. The ban on Robert W Taylor’s trashy and semi-pornographic Dark Urge went almost unnoticed.

1958: In a rare case, the Supreme Court banned DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the grounds of obscenity. In the absence of a process of review, the ban may still be in force.

1956: Now almost forgotten, Aubrey Menen was at one time something of a standard-bearer for his generation, known for the elegance of his mind and his somewhat baroque work. Ramayana Retold was a deconstruction of the Ramayana, told with Menen’s trademark refusal to respect pedestals and the icons that stood on them. In the 1950s, this became one of the first books to be banned by the Indian government on the grounds that it might offend religious sensibilities — opening the door to future displays of competitive intolerance.

March 1953: You Made Me A Communist, a popular Malayalam play, is banned by the government alleging that the play propagated “subversive ideas” and encouraged the people to “rebel against the government”. The ban is overturned in two months.

American Military Aid to Pakistan (its full implications) by Salahuddin Ahmad. Banned: July 31, 1954
What Has Religion Done for Mankind, Watch-tower Bible and Tract Society, New York. Banned: Feb 26, 1955
Dark Urge by Robert W. Taylor. Banned: Dec 29, 1955
The Ramayana by Aubrey Menen. Banned: Sept 29,

1956
Captive Kashmir by Aziz Beg. Banned: April 19, 1958
The Heart of India by Alexander Campbell. Banned: March 11, 1959

The 1940s: British India/ Independent India

Moki Singh’s Mysterious India and Bernard Stern’s Scented Garden are fairly representative. Scented Garden was considered too sexually explicit (versions can still be found at pavement bookstalls, providing competition to the Kama Sutra). Mysterious India offered the usual stereotypes, some of them at least moderately offensive. The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a “neutral opinion” of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.

The status of these books in India remains uncertain. Some are still banned; in other cases, the bans have been overturned, but information on these is not freely available. In many cases, the book in question has dated and become irrelevant with the passage of time; in a few cases, the book remains relevant and what was once incendiary has now become innocuous.

Scented Garden (Anthropology of sex life in the Levant) by Bernhard Stern; translated by David Berger. Banned: August 18, 1945
Behind the Iron Curtain in Kashmir: Neutral Opinion (author not mentioned). Banned: Aug 27, 1949

The 1930s: Banned Books Under the Raj
Almost exactly 70 years since Katherine Mayo’s Mother India was placed on the list of banned books, the import of this “drain-inspector’s report” is still prohibited. More typical of books that incurred the disapproval of the State in pre-Independence India was Arthur Miles’ Land of the Lingam, a salacious “history” of sexuality in Eastern lands. Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven was an intemperate expose of mission conditions in India, and was banned in 1934. Perhaps the most puzzling ban was the one placed on Frank Richards’ Old Soldier Sahib, an account of this veteran soldier’s pre-war army service in India. Richards was a friend of Robert Graves; his memoir of the Great War was never banned in India, and indeed, did extremely well. Old Soldier Sahib appears to have ruffled military feathers for its candid portrayal of life in the ranks.

Hindu Heaven by Max Wylie. Banned: April 28, 1934
The Face of Mother India by Katherine Mayo. Banned: January 18, 1936
Old Soldier Sahib by Private Frank Richards Banned: Aug 22, 1936
The Land of the Lingam by Arthur Miles. Banned: Oct 2, 1937

Blogs, chai, gupshup

(From Edward Lear’s poems)

Blogs and random conversations:

The Kitabkhana Archives

Run by Hurree Babu (I stole him from Kim, assuming Kipling wouldn’t mind one cunning Bengalee borrowing from another), Kitabkhana was a first-generation literary blog. It ran for several years, until the Babu’s dhoti was (metaphorically speaking) pulled off and he was formally outed, which gave me an excuse to stop.

Akhond of Swat

Where the columns, reviews and assorted journalism are “archived”, which is my preferred term for “shoved into a large pile at the back of the almirah”.

Chai, gupshup, interviews:

Criticism: The Art of the Review (Publisher’s Weekly, interviewed by Parul Sehgal)

Read the interview.

Literature: From the JLF: In conversation with Lionel Shriver (video)

Literature: JLF:  In conversation with Kiran Nagarkar and Rahul Bhattacharya (video)

Gender: From NDTV’s The Buck Stops Here, on the Slutwalk debate. The dignity with which college student Umang Sabharwal handles her critics is remarkable.

Censorship: From NDTV’s The Buck Stops Here, on Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey and the Mumbai University controversy. The actor Roshan Seth makes an impassioned plea for the right of writers to create without fear.

 

Gender: Selected columns

Selected columns:

2004: The twilight gender (The Kolkata Telegraph)

“Because the state doesn’t recognise the existence of a third gender—there is no box marked ‘other’ next to the ones marked ‘male’ and ‘female’—to be a eunuch is to be less than human. Members of the third sex cannot vote, cannot legally marry, cannot adopt children and cannot inherit certain kinds of family property. It’s a high price to pay for choosing to be neither masculine nor feminine; as a hijra I know says bitterly, they are the living punchlines of the old joke about Sanskrit acknowledging the existence of three sexes: streeling, puling and mind-boggling.”

Read the rest of the column at The Kolkata Telegraph.

2005: The woman’s room (The Kolkata Telegraph)

“The increasing demand for the right to information has not been seen as a gender issue. But if women had a genuine, unassailable right to information, and were able to access information comfortably, so much would change. If most women knew that they had an equal right to property, that they had a right to be paid the same wage as a man doing the same job, that they had a right to expect some recompense for looking after the family and bringing up children, and most important, that they had an absolute right to dignity, our society would be very different.”

Read the rest of the column at The Kolkata Telegraph.

2012: The Female Factor (a monthly column for the International Herald Tribune)

On the battle for equal rights in marriage, fought by Muslim women in India:

“It was 1,400 years ago that the Koran gave women equal rights,” Ms. Soman said wryly.

“We have waited a very long time for justice in this country.”

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/world/asia/25iht-letter25.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

2011: The Female Factor (a monthly column for the International Herald Tribune)

On bathrooms for women:

For thousands of women across India, the existence of a toilet near their workplace is no small thing. It affects women’s ability to work, their safety (many rapes in slums and rural India happen in areas where women have to walk a long way to reach the toilet) and their mobility.

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16iht-letter16.html

The complete list of IHT columns

2012: Homosexuality in India: A Literary History (for India Ink)

“Gender was fluid, for yakshas and humans alike, in ancient and medieval Indian culture.”

Read more: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/homosexuality-in-india-a-literary-history/

English Vegetables, Desi Steak


Galangal and lemon grass were piled up in hillocks. The mushrooms were fresh and came in four varieties-white, dried dhingri, dried shiitake and dried, slightly dubious porcini. “Madam,” said my old faithful vegetable seller, “aur bhi fresh-fresh aaye hain, English vegetables.” I came back with the usual urban load of fancy ghaas-phoos: borkoli, snaw piss, red peepers, aspagragrass — and with a phrase reverberating in my head. English vegetables.

As opposed to desi veggies. My father-in-law had used it first, in appreciation of a dish of babycorn and red peppers tossed with hing, jeera and fried onions: “Aamar,” he had said in Bangla, on the only visit he ever made to our house, before the cancer made travel difficult, “English vegetables khub bhalo laagey.”

It was a winter evening and as I mechanically sorted, made mental menus and stashed my load of exotica away, I found myself counting the absences. The day before Diwali is when Bengali households celebrate by lighting fourteen lamps and cooking a mixture of fourteen kinds of saag. This year I’d made up the quota with the usual greens — palak, methi, lal saag; and some less usual ones — bok choy, watercress. (My conscience cavilled that watercress was not saag. I rejoined that I didn’t have all day to shop, and that watercress was peppery, green and leafy — ergo, close enough to saag not to make a difference.)

I slowed when I hauled out a bunch of carrots: orange, like the ones in the ‘phoren’ picture books for children, and tasteless, unlike the deep red, hairy, indigenous varieties that were increasingly hard to locate. Mulberries and phalsa had been equally hard to find in the summer gone by. In the fancy markets, English vegetables were easier to get than ever before; the old, desi roots-and-tubers stuff harder to come by, barring a few limited staples.

***

Ten years ago, at the Calcutta Club, I’d eavesdropped on a conversation happening two tables away. “These Phrench Phries,” complained a man in a Bong-Yank accent, “they are bherry limp. Not like the ashol jinish, the real thing, at all.” “It is the potatoes, Alok da,” said his companion gravely. “Until India learns to grow potatoes like the Idaho variety, we cannot sample the authentic Phrench Phry.” One chewed on a relatively inoffensive steak, whose authenticity had not been called into question, while the other contemplated, with solemn displeasure, the unworthy impostor on the plate. Together they managed to convey the impression that what to my untutored palate was a perfectly reasonable alu-bhaja would never make the passing grade as even third-rank Phrench Phries.

That was before the Hindutva brigade discovered that the two ingredients you need for the perfect Phrench Phry were: a) the humble potato raised to the standard set by the Idaho variety and b) distinctly unsacred but tasty beef tallow as the frying fat. Or the Phrying Phat. Either way, it was only a short while before, for McDonalds and company, the Phat was well and truly in the Phire.

***

That evening, as I chopped red peppers, cucumber and tomatoes for a last summer gazpacho before winter set in and drove me to the comfort of hot soups and plain dal-bhaat, the German laser knives someone had gifted me felt wrong in the hand, their weight suddenly awkward. Setting them aside, I came up with a chopper set on a wooden board that a friend had brought down from New York. It made swift work of the Spanish onions and the peppers, and I remembered the pride with which he’d told me that this was the very “offset serrated blade” praised by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential.

I’d reached the tomatoes and the last of the twilight was shading into smog when the sleekly post-modern lines of my New York-imported offset serrated blade blurred into another, more familiar image. Take away the jargon, and my chopping equipment stood revealed as a boti — the raised blade set on a rough piece of board that’s ubiquitous in Bengal and most of India. The boti retails at the equivalent of $2 or less; my offset serrated Bourdain-approved blade sells for $130 in some California stores.

The kitchen stood revealed as a cross-cultural minefield. The antique Italian peppermill, a gift handed down by my mother-in-law, used by her mother in the days when the possession of such an item conveyed an aura of world citizenship on the user, is employed in our house to grind saunf and roasted jeera. The silver salad set and the silver toast rack we received as wedding presents are forlorn white elephants: there is no butler to polish them, I prefer wooden salad sets anyway, and we are a toast-averse household. Jars of dried Italian herbs sit side-by-side with various masalas, bought whole once a month, roasted at home and freshly ground. The dried Provence and other herbs taste like…crumbly green flakes. Just as we inveigh against “curry powder”, there being no such beast in the Indian culinary lexicon, I imagine a brigade of forlorn Italians raising their voices to the heavens in protest against the use of tasteless flakes instead of the fresh herbs from the garden the original recipes demand.

I know that this discomfort is inherited, a family legacy. As with bloodlines and songlines, if you follow the tangled skein of foodlines far back enough, you may discover truths about yourself. Uncomfortable truths; but truths, all the same.

***

In my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house, meals came in two varieties: Indian and English. Indian was self-explanatory: in Didima’s house, it featured the best of Bengali cuisine, with a detour down the cosmopolitan byways of a Brahmo household. In my mother’s Delhi house, the delicate spicing of classic Bengali cuisine collided with the in-your-face punch of North Indian cuisine. It was one of those marriages that worked, against all reason.

In both households, however, the English meals followed the same pattern. Vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their lives, more occasionally lightly steamed with lemon butter; glorious jeera-spiked versions of white sauce alternated ominously with “bakes” distinguished by listless curls of Amul cheese. Cabbage was served up in thick, tasteless wedges that resembled steamed cotton wool, but sometimes it received the fusion blessing of coconut and mustard seeds with a dash of malt vinegar, all added Anglo-Indian style to the crisply shredded and only barely blanched vegetable. But the crowning sleight-of-hand came with the Roast: mutton roasted on coal fires, served with tasty but gluey “gravy”. It was years before I realised that this wasn’t even mutton dressed up as lamb: it was mutton dressed up as lamb pretending to be the forbidden meat, beef.

The sacred cow occupied a slightly ambiguous position in our household. It was perfectly all right to go out to five-star restaurants and order a steak, since it was understood that hotel steak was godless, procured from an atheist cow. This polite fiction was maintained even in the face of the knowledge that most (atheist?) steak-providing cows in Delhi were actually (agnostic?) buffaloes.

In Calcutta, conversely, beef was acceptable except if you had especially religious-minded Hindu relatives coming over for dinner, and even then occasionally passed off in extremis as innocuous mutton. If the record states that we were responsible for corrupting good Hindu souls, so be it; but add that they thoroughly enjoyed what they were eating, so long as they were allowed to do so in ignorance. The sturdy Brahmo steaks Didima cooked were seasoned with crushed pepper, fried onions, grapes, and of course, a delicious guilt.

But families change, and so did mine, eschewing red meat apparently for reasons to do with cholesterol. Once I organised an impromptu family lunch — several decades after our five-star steaks and our Calcutta beefsteaks. The potato salad and curried mushrooms went down well, but the plate of steak — cooked medium-rare, so that its pink juices oozed balefully out — lay accusingly on the table while everyone politely ate the takeaway tandoori chicken we’d ordered as a backup. It was a small thing, but it pointed at a rift, indicated that at least in matters of what we were or weren’t willing to put into our bodies, my family and I had gone in different directions.

***

Between these two extremes, the Indian lunches and the English dinners, lay a third path, not moderate but iconoclastic. It was provided by my Thakurma, who travelled from household to household along with her husband until she and Thakurda established a kind of metronomic movement between my father’s house and his younger brother’s house. There were two other brothers, but one lived in inaccessible Air Force cantonments, dots on the map of India. The other had married a practising Wiccan who convinced him that he was actually the bastard of a royal family, fostered out in my Thakurma’s household. Ignoring the evidence presented by the family nose, the very distinctive protuberance that was replicated faithfully on the physiognomy of all the brothers, he elected in the interests of marital peace to disown his natural family.

Having Thakurma and Thakurda to stay was no penance: one was the source of magical stories, the other of practical wisdom. Besides, Thakurma’s culinary contributions were of the subversive kind. She cooked everything forbidden by the dentist and took absolutely no notice of family preferences, convinced — correctly — that her skill in the kitchen would overcome all resistance.

We had an early skirmish over fish, which, in repudiation of my Bengali roots, I refused to eat. A galvanised iron tub of catfish was a permanent presence in the kitchen; I named each whiskered creature and was told that the ones missing every night had gone on a trip, and never connected the maacher jhol on my plate with the straying travellers. Aside from catfish, though, I flatly refused to eat anything else from river or sea.

Wiser than my mother, who was on the losing end of a running feud with a ten-year-old’s stubbornness, my Thakurma retreated from the battlefield. When my suspicions had been lulled, she greeted me with nimkis and an addictive mashed, pickled thing that I instantly loved. It was smooth; spiced to perfection with mustard oil; had a taste that brought the sea into my mouth; I thought she’d wrought magic with the humble potato. When she confessed that I’d been eating non-catfish fish for eight days without protest, I flew into an absolute rage. It’s only now that I can acknowledge her triumph: not only did she make me eat what I hated, she made me love it. In the war between my prejudices and my tastebuds, she won.

As the years went by, the two households were tossed around. My Kaka went abroad; we spent six years shifting from house to house in Delhi while my father was posted in Calcutta. In that period of collective rootlessness, my grandparents shared our refugee status. Sometimes with us, sometimes not, depending on the size of the house my resourceful mother, lumbered with three rambunctious children, could find.

All the places we stayed in then had a common feature: the pre-shrunk kitchen. Instead of the large, roomy spaces we’d grown up with, we had to accommodate ourselves to closets with a stove bunged in. Thakurma’s repertoire of sweets, which ranged from malpoa to payesh, from sandesh to labango latika, from layered patishaptas with their filling of coconut and raisins to narkeler nadu, shrank in tandem.

Perhaps we noticed, perhaps we didn’t. My sister and I had discovered liqueur chocolates, one of the many dazzling items that we knew of only as articles brought back from the amorphous land called Abroad. My mother walked in to find her daughters replete with chocolate, but with no signs of a liqueur hangover. “There was smelly water inside,” my sister explained. “We threw it away and ate the rest.” The kitchen sink reeked of assorted liqueurs for days, until our cook poured quantities of yeast down the drain. The sink continued stinking, but now in a familiar as opposed to exotic way.

I do remember, despite the lure of biscuits from Paris (they tasted disappointingly like Britannia biscuits) and then-exotic Toblerone, that Thakurma kept up the tradition in exile with a token offering. Sometimes it was alu-bhaja for tea, flaunting their swadeshi flavour in stubborn denial of conquering alien tastes—Thakurma never ate a McDonald’s French Fry in her life, and wouldn’t have felt that she’d missed out on much. More usually, she’d pull out a battered Dalda tin which contained moas — the lightest of confections, puffed rice held together with melted jaggery. When they returned to live with us, the tin smartened up, courtesy the birth of my brother, Dalda giving way to shiny blue Lactogen.

But the habit remained; though she made patishaptas and channar-payesh once in a while, it was Thakurma’s moas that flavoured those years of our childhood. They provided a rare thread of continuity in those years of evictions and constantly changing schoolbus routes, of exoduses where my mother lead the way like a new Moses, appealing to our sense of adventure as we moved yet again, me lying in a malarial haze at the back of the lumbering black Ambassador, my baby brother stolidly holding the TV aerial out of one car window like a conquering flag and my sister perched on a pile of rugs and cushions in the front passenger seat.

***

“Would you like to see our ovens?” asked the chef of a snazzy new Italian restaurant, just opening in Delhi. “They’re wood-fired.” I heard the pride in his voice and followed gladly into the inner reaches of the kitchen. Men and women in chef’s whites, tocques clapped smartly on their heads, shaped loaves, prepared duck’s breasts for roasting, checked a brace of guinea hens. The ovens were huge, industrial sized. The doors were deliberately unpainted, in a designer way meant to indicate rustic charm. They were large, and as they clanged open, twin odours of meat, from one, and bread, from the other, were released in fragrant clouds.

A beaming assistant yanked freshly baked foccaccia out of the oven and deftly assembled accompaniments of virgin olive oil, pesto and sundried tomatoes. Another platter contained zucchini, cherry tomatoes and other English vegetables in a raspberry-vinegar reduction. “For you,” he said. “To taste.” The bread smelled divine. And I knew that if I so much as tried to take a bite, I would vomit.

Three years ago, I had accompanied my father to the electric crematorium on Ring Road, braving the raised eyebrows of well-meaning North Indian friends who felt that women had no place in that temple to death. But the woman we were about to cremate was the first feminist I’d ever met in my life; it was because of her that my mother had become a lawyer, well into middle age, instead of remaining a housewife. It was because I’d seen her writing short stories that I was trying to earn a living with hack journalism instead of marrying some rich guy and doing ikebana arrangements around the house. The least I could do was show up to say goodbye.

The electric crematorium, with its bare stage for relatives to say a few words, do a few last rites, reminded me of the many knocked-together arenas where exiled Bengalis would gather during the Pujas to put on bad, histrionic, nostalgic plays. My grandmother’s body looked very light; those who raised her bier didn’t have to strain.

She had died in the sterile, impersonal space of a hospital ward, instead of in her own bed at home. She and her husband had remained eternal refugees, first from Bangladesh and then from Orissa; the small patch of land she had tried to buy and claim as her own outside Delhi was mired in an interminable legal tangle. The only space they’d had was the space they’d carved out inside our lives, and that was huge, unpartitioned, beyond all boundaries.

I joined the avalanche of mourners who’d shown up for Thakurma’s funeral, realising for the first time how many lives she’d touched. From my father’s colleagues, who had often sat down to chat with ‘Mataji’, to the vegetable seller, to my friends, to her own friends — they were all here, in tacit tribute to a life fuller than we’d thought possible.

The furnace at the electric crematorium is built like a Dutch oven. After the final rites have been performed, the eldest son steps forward and breaks the skull of his parent with a stick. Some say this frees the spirit; a dourly realistic friend told me briskly that this prevents the skull from exploding in the intense heat of the flames. “One doesn’t want,” she said, “bits of one’s brains going off any old where.”

My Thakurma lay on the platform in front of the oven. There was a final muttered prayer, a clang, the platform slid first forward and then with surprising speed, backward as the door to the furnace opened. She went in head first, her eyes closed, and before the door swung shut again I saw her head and then her torso haloed by flames.

On the plate held out by the assistant chef, I imagined I could smell wood ashes, burning flesh, crisped bones. His smile was beginning to slip a little; the staff was beginning to look a trifle questioning. In place of the focaccia, I thought I could see my Thakurma’s fair, wrinkled, only slightly mottled flesh, beginning to sear. The door of the restaurant’s brand-new, state-of-the-art wood-fired oven clanged again, as someone pulled out the duck breast au jus.

I took a deep breath and inhaled scents from the past: the talcum-and-damp-newsprint smell of old age, incense, the harsingar flowers Thakurma used for her daily puja, the faint aroma from the John Exshaw brandy she drank in ladylike quantities, that last whiff of burning hair and flesh.

“Thank you,” I said, tearing a chunk off the Italian bread. I dipped it in olive oil and ate, not knowing quite what I was devouring — flesh, flour, a memory, the present. Whatever it was, it stayed down.

(Published by Outlook in 2003)