My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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14 September 2019

Today in Photo

Scenes from the Catular adaptation of Agatha Christie's The Body In The Library, featuring Bruno M. Ganz as The Body. #catsofdelhi #tabbysofinstagram

via Instagram

Travel Diary Part Three: End notes from Vietnam

* Every night was happy hour in the streets of Hoi An's Old Town. Women—and it was always women with the exception of a few places—called out to us. “Buy-one-get-one-free,” they said, standing in front of bars called things like Mr Bean and Funky Monkey (complete with a picture of a sad lab animal expressioned baby rhesus monkey). I wondered about the men, there were young men everywhere, sure, but I saw no one who looked above the age of 40. Where have all the middle-aged men gone? So exceptional was this lack of men that I made a point to notice the one middle aged man I met, a shopkeeper selling me a knock-off Superdry backpack in Hanoi. I took note of his greying hair, his portly dad bod, his wedding ring, and realised it was the first time I had been served by a man of his years in three weeks. In Ninh Binh, we took a three hour boat ride around the rock formations and flooded caves, and each and every boat was rowed by a tiny woman, often much older than us, all wrapped up with a conical hat on her head. Where are your men, Vietnam? And why aren't they working as hard as the women do?

* Next to the Acacia hotel was a little bar, and since the happy hour in the centre of town got a little overwhelming—all that music, so many different choruses of Havana-ooh-na-na, so many drunk white tourists stumbling about—we stopped off there, even if it was a little inland. An Australian man ran it, almost completely deaf, we found out later, and his sole employee, a charming (young) Vietnamese man who poured out our drinks and smiled at us and told us which village to drive our scooter to the next day if we wanted to go for a long ride. I asked for something local and he pulled out three varieties of rice spirits, infused with jackfruit, pepper, coconut and honey/ginger. I had the pepper over ice, which was spicy and lit up my mouth like I was drinking a neat whiskey. A German man who had been in Hoi An for four months and counting appeared to make conversation with us. An English man who was drunkenly shouting at people passing by yelled at us, “Yay for inter-country marriages! Got a Vietnamese wife and kids at home!” I wondered if we looked the same to him, me and K, our marriage of equals, to this old sloppy-drunk man, and what I assumed would be his much younger wife. I wondered if I was being fair, assuming that only on the basis of watching old white guys with young Vietnamese/Thai women across the two countries. Assumptions, as we know, are ass-making.

* We parked in the Old Town and came back from lunch to find our scooter gone. Everyone laughed when we told them and directed us to the police station. Well, actually, they didn't quite say, “Go to the police station” that was just us asking for directions. There's only so much you can convey with sign language. One police station was on the outskirts of town, a large government building which was completely abandoned. We walked through the corridor, poking our heads into each room until we finally found two officers, bent over paperwork. They looked surprised to see us, but were courteous, despite our limited communication. They drew us a map to the other police station we had to go to, the traffic guys, where once again, everyone was on a tea break, but there was one (English-speaking!) cop there who told us to check with one of the big parking lots and not pay any more than 10,000 dong for parking. (The currency in Vietnam is so devalued that everything is in the multiple of 10,000, which makes for some confusing currency conversion, but eventually you get the hang of it.) K parked me at a coffee shop eventually, my short legs were tired, my brain was whiny, sometimes my body is just like a toddler's, and went off on an epic journey to find the right parking guy, who demanded 100,000 dong. Back and forth they went, until K finally agreed on 20,000, thanks to the friendly policeman. This was not the last of our scooter misadventures.

* The second of our Scooter Misadventures happened in the gorgeous town of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is where all the travellers “in the know” go instead of Halong Bay, which is the Vietnam you've probably seen photographed, huge rock formations in the middle of the ocean. But because of its popularity, Halong Bay is overrun with houseboats for day trips and night trips, and that's all there is to do there, go on a boat in the ocean. In Ninh Binh, called the “inland Halong Bay” the boat rides are shorter—three hours vs a whole day—and go through a series of underwater caves, which are very cool. (You can choose from four routes, a very popular one is the route that goes to the area where Kong: Skull Island was shot, but since we hadn't seen the movie, we chose the caves.) Anyway, also in Ninh Binh, driving about, our scooter's battery died, and we were stuck on a very remote village road, not a shop or anything around us, except for one house. Out of that house came a man eventually, and he waved his hands about and so did we, and finally, I pulled out the Google translate app (which is AMAZING), and wrote: “can you help us” on it, translated to Vietnamese and held it out. He held up his hand, whipped out his own Google translate app and wrote, “You have to get gasoline.” Through this back and forth, we established that K would ride with him, two kilometres away to get the petrol and I would stay in his house, across the table from his elderly parents. They looked surprised to see me when I walked in and sat across from them, but his father began to pour me lots of teeny cups of green tea and when he realised I did not speak Vietnamese, began to shout all his questions to me in the hope that I was just deaf, not an idiot. We nodded and smiled at each other, Father gave up and went back to his TV, I looked at my phone, and then the grandkids came in, and K came back, and I went outside with the kids and the grandma and showed them pictures of the cats on my phone and they laughed and said, “Meo!” which was the one Vietnamese word I knew (cat!), so I also said, “Meo!” and we had a grand old time saying, “Meo.” I ran out of cat photos so I tried to pull out a dog photo, but they were not that interested in the dogs. Oh well.

(The rest of the story is less interesting, we went to the mechanic, the battery was dead, we had left the scooter rental guy's number back in the hotel, so I Googled “scooter rental Ninh Binh,” we came across a number where the owner spoke English, and she knew who we were talking about and gave us his number. Phew.)

* Hanoi was amazing. I had an old acquaintance there from Bombay, and she took us to a speakeasy bar which she made me promise not to write about, so I won't, but it was amazing. We also went to Binh Minh Jazz Club, which is very popular and in the Lonely Planet, so I'm not ruining anything, but they have live jazz every night, which is very good by any standards, and nice wine for the first time on our long trip, so that was great fun. Hanoi isn't a very late night city, except for these random coffee shops which stay open till about 1 or 2 in the morning, everyone either super caffeinated or huffing on nitrous oxide from “happy balloons” which are a big thing all across Vietnam. (I did not try any.)

* It was also in Hanoi that we found board games—we bought five Chinese knock-offs of popular board games at a little shop we stumbled across. It started raining really hard the second time we want back (to buy more) (a game that costs 4500 on Amazon in India was 1200 there and so on), so we asked the shop clerks if they wanted to play a game while we waited, and made some new friends. The other instance was going to this board game cafe where the walls were lined with games, and they showed us how to play Splendor, which has turned into one of my favourite games of all time, and which, yes, we brought home with us.

* When we got to Bangkok, K fell ill with the flu, but not before we spent a day in the clothes mall, five floors of cheap clothes, overwhelming even for an avid Sarojini Nagar-er like me. We also made our way to the Bangkok Foreign Correspondent's Club, in the penthouse of a building (the Lonely Planet said we could go!), which was great fun, just for the people watching, and sitting in one corner of the oak panelled bar. Definitely fancier than the FCC in Delhi. OH AND WE WENT TO A CAT CAFE! Which was so fun, but all the cats were definitely dopier than our fellows back home, which meant they were happy to cuddle, but they seemed not very... cat-like? Drugged like the tigers or just inbred, do you think?

 ANYHOW. That was our trip!

13 September 2019

Travel Diary: Hoi An, Nha Trang and more Saigon!

(Yes, this was a newsletter I sent, but this is also my travelogue from our massive Vietnam trip last year. Read if you haven't already, or hey, re-read for shits and giggles.)

Where you from?” asked everyone. If I didn't answer immediately, they made it into a longer question: “where you fro-hom?” I said, “India” and to my surprise, some people looked confused. India! Your biggest neighbour! (China-Schmina.) It was only in Hanoi that I realised that the Vietnamese word for India is “An Do” which doesn't sound anything like the crisp short “India” that I use when I'm travelling. Do we all have a travelling accent? Mine gets slower, more enunciated, like I'm meeting the Queen or something. “Pardon me, but do you happen to have the time?” (Not quite that bad.) However, a few days in Saigon, and I was sign languaging with the best. I waved my arms around to gesture “big,” I scissored my pointer and middle finger to indicate “walking.” I became, in short, a French person. (“Zis is 'ow you say, a leetle worn no? Maybe you give me a bettair praaice.”)

Another reason I was culturally confusing though, was because K is a tall, European-ish person. Most often, the answer to the “where you from” question would be met with some head scratching. “You're from India, okay, I get it, but this tall person with the facial hair?” Then he'd say, “Germany” and the relief was palpable. “OF COURSE! HE'S GERMAN! IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW!”

In Hoi An, we sat in an empty soup shop and the little old ladies who ran it watched a Hindi TV serial over my head, full of fair, big eyed people, dressed in full Bollywood, and I waved my hands around, “IT ME!” but they just nodded and smiled politely, and shot, “Ignore the crazy lady” looks at each other. Indians are confusing though, ethnically speaking, don't you think? Not everyone “matches” each other, and unless you move in a crowd, it's hard to tell exactly where we're from. It's sort of nice, being confusing, I like answering where-you-from questions, I like that not many people guessed. I felt like an International Woman of Mystery for a bit there.


At the Cu Chi Tunnels back near Saigon, our one and only guided tour experience, we met a group of single travellers from the same hostel—a Dane, a Taiwanese and an Indonesian. They stood by, amused, when I went into the tunnel and immediately retreated out again, pushing past the line of people that had formed behind me in my panic. The tunnels were basically an underground network for guerilla warfare, and it's pretty neat how they're done, but they are very small and dark. The Cu Chi tourism board has put in electric lights, so it's not pitch black, but there's an underground earthy smell and the walls are thick, and you have to drop to your haunches and squat-crawl through them (our thighs hurt for three days afterwards.) I don't think I'm so much claustrophobic as I am prone to very sharp and vivid flights of imagination. This time, I was wondering to myself casually, “Oh, what would this be like if I were claustrophobic?” and boom. Panic. Plus like the crowds pressing in behind you etc. Also I misheard the guide. He said there were two routes: 40 metres and 20 metres, and I thought that meant the caves went down 40 m or 20 m, not the distance travelled, you know? I didn't want to go further underground! But I finally crawled my way through, and was very pleased when it ended swiftly. It's quite something, plus there's all sorts of War Things that people into War Things will be pleased about, examples of bamboo traps for instance, or holes where bombs fell into. And if you feel like playing soldier-soldier, there are real guns to shoot at a firing range including an AK 47 and so on. (You have to buy five bullets at a time, and you can't share.) (Guns are LOUD. I retreated to a far corner of the rest stop and ate an ice cream instead.)

After a few days of hectic tourism (and dodging scooters), K decided to find some more “hipstery” areas of Saigon. We didn't get super far, but we did manage to make it to this old building with an empty lift shaft and four floors that mixed little boutiques and coffee shops with actual homes. We wandered all the way up to the top, and sat at a little cafe called Mockingbird, empty except for two Germans with a Lonely Planet (so much for hipster), and recovered there.

Why recovered? The night before, we had actually met up with two of the three people we saw at the Cu Chi Tunnels tour, completely serendipitously. My cousin's wife introduced me on Facebook to a friend of hers who lived in Saigon, so he took us out to eat a large seafood meal, heavy on the snails. (Interesting, but I think I prefer more mainstream seafood myself.) After which, I asked him to take us to a nice dive bar, and he picked a roadside place, unnamed on Google Maps, but where they made their own rum. “It's very mild,” he kept saying, so we ordered like five bottles of the stuff, while he made his farewells sensibly by midnight, and we kept going, drinking that “very mild” rum. (The next morning, oh god.)

This friend had the cutest dog, who he brought with him to dinner, a little toy poodle called Chuon Chuon (for dragonfly), and we all had to sit her on our laps and pet her, and she put up with it with a big smile on her face. SO FLUFFY. If I ever got a dog, I'd like a Chuon Chuon myself, except my stupid ethical policy of adopt-don't-shop, get-animals-indigenous-to-your-environment etc means I'll never get a Chuon Chuon, so I might as well content myself with cats. (Think of the Instagram photos of my own Chuon Chuon curled up with the cats. GOLD. MINE.) 

On the night bus to Nha Trang

We decided to skip the Mekong delta, because it looked sort of lame. No offence to anyone who's been and thinks it was amazing, by the way. We just looked at a few of the suggested itineraries for that area and it was all, “stop at coconut candy factory” and so on, and I don't really want to see a coconut candy factory. It seemed very much like one of those bus tours to Agra where they stop off at a “marble factory” which also has a shop and you have to go in, even if you don't want to.

Instead we did a night bus up to Nha Trang. A couple of things: there's this open bus pas in Vietnam which is a good deal, but ONLY IF you know your itinerary well in advance. If you don't, it's not worth the price, because you have to tell the driver/agent your stops at least 48 hours in advance, so don't bother getting the pass even if the agent tells you it's cheaper, it's not going to make your travel any more flexible.

We booked online ourselves, and got a nice luxurious sleeper bus. I say “nice and luxurious” which it was for little old 5'2” me. For 6'3” K it was like if you or I had to spend the night on our old school desks. With padding, of course, but still, about that size and width. I stayed up most of the night reading anyway, and between his height and my reading problem, by the time we got to Nha Trang, we were both equally shattered at 6 am, and the hotel didn't let us check in till 8. (We paid for an early check-in, otherwise we would have had to wait till 2 pm, standard check-in time across Vietnam, and they're not usually cool about you reaching early.)

Nha Trang

Our plan was to literally stay in Nha Trang overnight and leave the next day, but since we spent most of the first day asleep, we stayed for an extra day, just to rest a bit. We thought maybe we'd go snorkelling or something, but it was raining, and there were red flags all over the beaches, and another couple we met at a BBQ restaurant told us that the snorkelling was terrible, jellyfish all over the place.

Nha Trang on the whole was pretty disappointing. We rented a scooter and checked out most of the town, even driving far out of it, to some remote villages, but for the most part it was very very touristy, and those tourists were mostly Russians. So much so that the signs in the restaurants were also in Russian. So, like Morjim, basically.

HOWEVER. I did have one of the best meals of my whole trip in Nha Trang, at a restaurant called Lac Canh. It's a DIY barbecue place (not the same one where we met the couple, that was American BBQ), where they bring you a little grill and marinated meat and you cook it yourself. (They have vegetarian options too.) So good, we ordered two lots of meat. 

Onward to Hoi An!

We took a plane from Nha Trang to Hoi An, being the second-cheapest and most convenient way to travel there. We didn't have any other stops to make in the South, so it was up to the more communist North for us.

I had heard so much about Hoi An, how charming it was, and how we'd definitely want to stay more than two days, that we decided to book only one night at the hotel so we'd be able to move around. (This was not my idea, in fact, it stressed me out a little bit, but it turned out to be a good idea as you shall soon see.)

The first night we were staying at the Hoi An Villa, which was sweet, but I had neglected to check the fine print in the details, and it turned out that for the room (which was not very cheap either, mind you) there was only a shared bathroom. Guys. There is a limit to how backpacker-y I can be. That limit is a shared bathroom. I couldn't. I just could not. Instantly, I fired up that Booking app, and I found us a nice semi-luxurious hotel which was just slightly more expensive than this shared bathroom situation, and had a pool and a large buffet breakfast and everything, and that is where my middle aged bones were happy. (Acacia Resort or something. Very nice, would recommend.)

And next time, I'll tell you all about Hoi An, including our drive up through the Hai Van pass to Hue!

12 September 2019

Travel Diary part one: Kuala Lumpur and Saigon

Reposting from my newsletter, so this vacation is actually last year's vacation.

I've been on vacation, and you've been very patient about not demanding news from me, or is it just me that feels like I've missed an appointment by not writing to you? Either way, I've been on a Grand Odyssey around South East Asia, and am currently in our Bangkok hotel, where I remain till tomorrow night when we fly back to Delhi at an antisocial time, which was about 2000 rups cheaper than the regular flight and joke's on us, because we will pay about that much to engage our hotel for the day tomorrow, not wanting to be on the streets till midnight.

The Bangkok hotel is called Tim Mansion on the sign, but the wifi is Tim House, so you wonder when they upgraded. It's not a “mansion,” well, I suppose it's a large building with many rooms, but there's no silver tea service or a butler to hand you warm damp towels after a day of sightseeing, so I guess it's Tim House after all. My stories are many and varied, so I'm going to cut this up into two or three parts (lucky you, right?) and send them to you over the course of a few days, sooo if hearing about travel stories is not really your thing, feel free to ignore them and regular Delhi-based programming will return after these instalments.

Oddly when we got into Bangkok and unpacked, there was a strange driver's license tucked into K's bag—it's a backpack so easy enough to open while on the baggage conveyor, I guess—and it belonged to some dude from Canada, but Pakistani origin. I know this because I looked him up on Facebook, and while his name XYZ is pretty common, turned out that plus the Canada province he was from made him only one of two people. One of whom was posting excitedly about his trip to Hanoi and Bangkok. So I messaged the guy, but he turned out to be, well, not the sharpest tool in the shed, so despite my providing instructions and directions to the hotel, he kept saying, “I don't know” and calling me “dear” and “Meena” and I was almost glad he lost his license, because if there's one thing worse than being called “Meena” by someone I do not know (IT IS NOT THAT HARD TO TYPE OUT MEENAKSHI) it is being called “dear.” At that last “dear” I gave up trying to give him more instructions, and now he has left the city and the mystery of how his license got into our bags will never be solved.

But I'm going backwards. Let's return to three weeks ago. 


There are no direct flights from Delhi to Vietnam yet. I believe one is starting soon, but until then, you have to stop over in Kuala Lumpur (to get to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as I'm going to call it from now on, since I am also a person who says “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai”) or Bangkok to get to Hanoi. We'd never been to Malaysia either, so we decided to extend our stopover to two days so we could look around KL a bit, get a feel for the city, etc. Plus I have a cousin there who offered to put us up for a few nights, so everything worked out perfectly.

There's a certain joy in hanging out with your cousins as an adult. I'm sure people with siblings feel this way about them too, but with cousins, you sort of drop in and out of their lives—you stay in touch for a bit during college, ingrained with years of hanging out every summer, but then, eventually you sort of scatter, like seeds in a pod. Depending on how you are related, you will see each other at family gatherings, and make an effort to get together if you're in the same city. But, you know, life happens. On my mum's side, though, I've managed to stay relatively close to all my sibs-once-removed, we have a Whatsapp group and everything. (On my dad's side is my one-and-only female cousin, and that is a treat in itself.) Anyway, my KL cousin was the perfect host, and told us lots about the city and turned out to have the same approach to tourism as we did: it's best experienced through putting things into your mouth, so we ate everything.

KL is an interesting city. It's much more expensive than I imagined, like fancy Delhi prices for eating and shopping, but the food is varied and plentiful. I stayed away from biryani etc, though my cousin told me that the Indian food in Malaysia is not quite like Indian food in India and should be experienced at least once, but I rejected it in favour of Chinese and traditional Malay curries, which are kinda amazing. Picture me as a sort of Pac Man just opening my mouth and having food drop in, and you'll picture what I did over the last three weeks.

Of course, I went to the Petronas towers and took a photo of it from right underneath (check). Of course, we also went to the electronic mall and bought K a new laptop battery, and me an SD card. (Check.) I also went hoping to get a cheap deal on a phone I've been eyeing, but alas, the prices were pretty much the same. 

Actually, this reminds me of the First Day Abroad disaster. As some of you know, we got married last year (that's not the disaster), and for our wedding, we got some money in dollars as well (still not the disaster). The plan was to use these dollars whilst a-travel, because the rupee keeps crashing, better rates etc etc, BUT someone (me) very helpfully put all the dollars into different pouches in her locked drawer, for safekeeping? Or something? When we had our home invasion last year, the burglars had unearthed one of the dollar pouches I had (what? Don't you all have little baggies with a little foreign currency in it?) and left it on the floor (maybe they thought it was play money?) and so that was added to my stash, plus another envelope with more money, basically, long story short: instead of putting all the money together, I put it in separate locations and only carried one of the pouches with me, the Burglar one, so we had a lot less money than we thought we were going to have. (There's your disaster.) Also I thought I had somehow dropped the money between home and the airport, and that was freaking me out so much, I sat down at KL airport and wept. Anyhow, budget-schmudget, I finally said, let's just have a good time. 

(Now that I am back in Delhi, I can tell you that the dollars are safe and sound, and very unhelpfully, still in my locked drawer.)


The only research I have done for Vietnam is:

1) Recalled the Vietnammy bits in Forrest Gump.

2) Let K show me the first half of Apocalypse Now. (That movie is LONG.)

3) Watched the This Is Us Vietnam episode.

4) Watched the BoJack Vietnam episode.

5) Eaten a few meals at Little Saigon in Hauz Khas market, which I am pleased to report is pretty authentic.

Anyhow, so apart from those last two things, my Vietnam is mostly an American construct, war and poverty and guns and all that, and war is not a super interesting subject, says the child of peace times in her own country. Unfortunately, it is for everyone else, so it was hard to get an idea of the country that didn't involve the Great American War Lens of the '60s just like, hanging over it.

That Great American War Lens shattered as soon as we stepped out of the airport. Hordes of screaming teenage girls were waiting for a K Pop boyband, and since they were bored, they cheered for all of us, each time we passed the automatic doors. Finally, in a bustle of pink and glitter, the K Pop band emerged and walked swiftly past the fans, the screams rose to an almost chant, and I got a video of it for my Instagram stories, but we were in Saigon proper now. 

We stayed at The Tripwriter Hotel, chosen primarily because of the hotel sign, The Tripwriter spelled out in typewriter letters. Apart from that, it was a modest little hotel, small rooms, but clean, very close to everything, and a free breakfast in the morning, so can recommend if you're looking. The sign was hidden behind some ivy though, so even though we were dropped off right next to it, we spent another hour, walking with our backpacks through the heat and past the zillions of scooter drivers who are everywhere, even on the sidewalks, looking for the place, until we looped back and found it.

(There are 4 million people in Saigon, and 2 million drive scooters. This is a true fact that a guide told us.)

Everything in Saigon happens in District One. It is the Connaught Place of districts, if Connaught Place was somehow also Hauz Khas Village and Humayun's Tomb. We were staying in the Pahargunj-y bit, and every night, there were rows of bars, all competing with each other's sound systems, all with white tourists, mostly young, sitting in clumps at the entrance, looking somehow startled. Like, “Am I really in Saigon or just at my local with my friends?” Or maybe I misinterpreted their expressions. Maybe they were thinking, “Look at us here, now, so young, so unstoppable.” As you walked your way to the end of the Long Road With The Bars, you started seeing more local faces. Young Vietnamese also came to this part of town to party, and they also parked themselves at the entrance, watching the world go by, chattering at the tops of their voices. No murmurs for the Vietnamese, by the way. They are a country that like to communicate at the tops of the their voices, whether it's two in the afternoon or midnight on a night bus when everyone's trying to sleep or six am, right outside your hotel room. Even just passing a friend on the street.

I, on the other hand, am far more tolerant about people talking really loudly when I can't understand what they're saying. It's still annoying, but it's just regular annoying, not annoying in the middle of my brain, where I am woken up by my own head conveying to me what people are saying, you know? 

to be continued! 


11 September 2019

Today in Photo

Back when I used to blog and @kritisingh used to blog, we met in real life and realised we knew everything about each other. All the failed romances, all the favourite bars. I visited her occasionally around the world: Singapore, Hong Kong and every now and then she comes to Delhi and every now and then we have drinks on a muggy evening. No longer Jaeger bombs (which she introduced me to one crazy Singaporean evening and which I will never drink again, urk) but even in our sedate 30s, we're cool. Even offline, we're cool. It's nice to meet old friends after a long time. There should be a long foreign word for when you have both comfort and novelty. #delhidiary

via Instagram

Today in Photo

After four attempts and a little help from YouTube, I finally got my sari on yesterday. @shankar.charu was telling me about this sari pact group she has, where the challenge is to incorporate saris into your everyday life, just wear it all day to meetings and the like. I don't have meetings and I only have two cotton saris which I stole from my mum, but I liked the idea. Normalise the sari! A lot of people - - - including my mother - - do on a regular basis, but I was struggling even to get the garment ON so it was very much a special occasion thing for me. However yesterday I just put this on (one hour in advance to account for all my draping mistakes) and hosted friends for drinks and dinner and stayed cool and comfortable all evening! So I'm much more inclined to join this pact now, saris open up a whole new door of my fashion experiments. When winter comes I will break out my silks and have dinner with you. #whatiworetoday #saris

via Instagram

10 September 2019

Thoughts on Made In Heaven: Is Indian TV finally going to show something relevant to me and you?

I watched Made In Heaven, Zoya Akhtar's dreamy luxe vision of rich Delhi and the weddings they have, over the last week and of course, I had some thoughts, which I attempted to tweet about at the time, but now it's been like a week since I watched the show, so I feel like my opinion has fully slow cooked, and is ready to be placed on the table properly.

I'm not a very Bollywood person. I've seen the iconic movies, your Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Segue: This last one because I used to know this guy who was O-B-S-E-S-S-ED with this movie. He lived in West Delhi somewhere, and was friends with my secondary friends, you know who I mean, not the people you hang out with all the time, but the people who will do when your first choices aren't available. Anyhow, I remember sitting in his large, very adult bedroom, like it was all matching counterpanes and thick ornate curtains and some scenery type painting on the wall. We were in college, so my room at that point was postcards on the wall and poetry/lyrics I thought were damn deep written on the back of my door. Also, my room was yellow and purple with spirals on the ceiling. I was about eighteen. Anyway, this dude would light a joint which my secondary friends would smoke--not me, I might have had spirals on the ceiling but my vices were few--and then we'd all pile on to his bed and watch K3G, which made them laugh a lot more than me.... oh.)  But I wasn't into Bollywood, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief when two people suddenly burst into song, or some dad came down very hard on his daughter and she didn't scream, "I hate you, I hate you" but actually went along with what he said? And we were supposed to be rooting for this chick? PLEASE. (Segue part two: Of course, I never found it hard to believe in all the bullshit Hollywood was feeding me, like a prostitute getting a millionaire who paid for her sexy services to be decent and kind to her and eventually falling in love or that a man and a woman can never be friends, which is SO RIDICULOUS and please do not buy into this myth, ladies and gents.)

(Potential spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk etc) (But this is not really a show I can spoiler, no murders and shit)

All this to explain that I have no Zoya Akhtar CONTEXT, you know? I'm not sure what to expect from her, but I did get very Monsoon Wedding-y vibes from Made In Heaven, which is about this STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL WOMAN all fragile and clavicle-y with a surprisingly emotive face who comes from this lower class family and marries rich and her business partner who is a Modern Gay Man and so of course the show is just his big old gay story--I would like for once an Indian show to treat homosexuality as casual, something that ALSO HAPPENS instead of lighting it with all these deep dark art house vibes with background music that basically tells us LOOK LOOK GAY PEOPLE HAW. That being said, it IS a relief to have homosexuality actually spelled out in a show, Karan is someone we all know, there's this one sex scene in his flat which is really sexy and lingers over all of it, the nakedness, the writhing, in a loving way before panning out to show (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT) the landlord masturbating to this image, so you're suddenly taken from witnessing a private moment as a participant to a spectator like the landlord, it's very cleverly done.

Of course, because Karan is Gay, there's a whole 377 story, getting arrested, deciding to file a PIL and so on, which again, is GREAT but also, this is supposed to be a show about Delhi weddings, so it's all very confusing, what with the Great Gay Story as well as this adultery unhappiness betrayal social climbing plotline which is what is going on with Tara, the other partner, I guess to undercut that no marriages are happy? And literally, you guys, the show could not pound this point in more: NO MARRIAGES ARE HAPPY. One client discovers that her fiance has asked for a dowry, the other has to come to terms with the fact that her rich in laws have had her background investigated, one cheats on her fiance with the Bollywood superstar he has flown in, one is drugged by her parents so she goes through the motions without kicking up a fuss. Literally the only unequivocally happy ending is one where a widow remarries and her kids (my friend Charu Shankar plays the disapproving daughter with great flair!) disapprove but eventually come round.

A lot has been said about how the show is supposed to be about Delhi but is actually a Bombay person's perception of Delhi, which I didn't notice in the first couple of episodes but soon began to see is true. There's shots in the Delhi metro, a bride shooting a music video in "some ruins or something ya" but they got the accents wrong, all the people have rich SoBo accents, not SoDe at all. But okay, accents are a small part of it, there's just little details, for example, the rich husband of Tara and the best friend of Tara (Jim Sarbh, who apparently everyone except me knows and Kalki Koechlin who I do know because I try and keep track of the cool ladies) (I mean knows of in like a celebrity way, not personally) who are naturally banging each other because Tara is in a Strange New World of rich people and large dining tables and a farmhouse home from where she apparently commutes all over the city without once being stuck in traffic, and ALSO I don't know what weird time of year they've set this in, but everyone is wearing sleeveless/half sleeved clothes but not sweating or shivering. Maybe it's March! They're supposed to be Delhi, but they aren't, they're very Rich Bombay and I can't explain how those two are different only say that they ARE, fundamentally two very opposing kinds of beasts. One of the little details that struck me, and this is quite a small quibble but adds up nonetheless was how when Tara decides to slum it in Old Delhi, she's thinking a lot about her roots and so on, she eats gol gappas from a streetside guy which okaaaay calm down Tara you've been drinking RO paani for like five years now you're definitely going to get sick but also she holds the gol gappa shell delicately in two fingers and SIPS FROM THE LEAF CUP FIRST which is exactly the opposite way to eat it, which someone who was returning to their roots etc would def know.

But for the first time ever there's people like us on TV doing people like us things, I mean, rich people cray etc but you see their crayness through the eyes of our leads. I'd get rid of the SUPER ANNOYING photographer/narrator summing it up in the end, there's one bit where he's giving us a lecture about dowries, every episode ends in a mini-lecture, I got so annoyed I wanted to mute it, and he goes, "something something OUR WOMEN." I'm just like fuck off I'm not your women. I'd emphasise the working class girl Jazz who comes to work with all the rich folk, some of her scenes are delightful--her first time in a five star hotel and she does what all of us do: takes a long tub bath.

It's getting there though. With Amazon and Netflix commissioning a bunch more things (if any executives are reading this, I do have several novels which are PERFECT for the small screen!) I think we'll see more and more representations of people we know, scenes we're familiar with and so on. It's a small step, but it's a step.

9 September 2019

I re-read Pride & Prejudice and changed my mind about one of the main characters

I've been re-reading Jane Austen this past week and a half. I only have The Collected Works, which is a large paperback copy, squinty little font, so you can't lie down and read, the best you can do is propped up against a pillow. I don't know why all collected Jane Austens have this tiny font, I suppose it is to fit all seven books into one volume, but it adds to the old-fashioned-ness of the thing. You are very aware you are reading a classic, the language is dated: he "staid" instead of "stayed," they lie on the "sopha," she does not "chuse" to return his letter. That sort of thing. I think Jane would be more accessible to readers, if you wanted to make her accessible, if the publishers updated that font a bit, maybe put the Collected Works into a two volume set. Oh, I know there are all sorts of beautiful copies of the individual books floating about, but everyone needs a Collected Works, so they can read all the way through.

On the other hand, the power of Jane is that even now, two hundred years after she lived, across continents, across worlds she probably couldn't even fathom, everyone knows her writing intimately, this woman who confined herself to writing about the drawing rooms she found herself in. You may not think she's important (who are you and why do you read this newsletter by another woman who writes about the world she finds herself in?) but you cannot ignore the impact she has had on the world.

Okay, that done, I'm getting to the meat and bones of this, which is my beloved Pride and Prejudice. [I began with Sense and Sensibility which I hadn't actually read before, that and Persuasion are both to be tackled on this read]. Like all of you, I have certain well formed opinions about the characters in P&P, which are:

1) Miss Bingley and Mrs Bennet are the worst.
2) Elizabeth is the best.
3) Darcy is dreamy.
4) Bingley seems a Nice Guy, with not much to say for himself, but an overall impression of Nice.
5) Poor Charlotte Lucas.

Upon re-reading though, I am beginning to revise my opinions on some of the characters, but most surprisingly, on Mrs Bennet.

Now, Austen sort of wants us to hate Mrs Bennet. You can tell by the dialogue she's given, she mewls and vapours and exaggerates. I mean, who could love such a woman? Certainly not her husband, we're told that quite clearly: he was fooled by her youth and good looks, not her children, except for the youngest, perhaps, a person of such monstrous selfishness that it's hard to think of Lydia loving anyone besides herself. Her siblings? Nope, there's the brother, Mr Gardiner, who is sort of ashamed of his sister, the other sister, Mrs Lucas who is about as silly as Mrs Bennet, but they don't hang out much. Take this woman, then: five daughters, one husband, two siblings, and no one loves her. Isn't that sad?

If Mr Bennet was fooled by youth and good looks, could Mrs Bennet have been any less gullible? I'm assuming no one warned her about the fact that her new husband's home was entailed away from her offspring, besides, at that point, she might have been confident in having a son. But, she's given five daughters instead, five daughters to marry off and ensure the welfare of. Is Mr Bennet interested in the matrimonial prospects of his daughters considering he doesn't have that much money? He is not. Instead he mocks and stymies her every chance he gets, not in the least interested in whether his kids will get to live comfortably after he dies. (In Austen's time, it is assumed that the only way to live a good life is to marry into it.)

Which brings me to Charlotte Lucas. I was always a little sorry for her, here she is, age 27 and forced to marry a man who is ODIOUS. But on re-reading, I realised that Charlotte had not done so differently as anyone with an arranged marriage would: she picked a man who could support her, and who, presumably, she does not hate. She doesn't love him, sure, and she might be embarrassed by him, but she likes the life they have together, her little cottage and the hens, and she can tolerate the man and make him a good wife. We can't all have Darcys. (I did some idle wondering about their sex life, but I'm sure it was about as earnest as Mr Collins himself.)

Speaking of Darcy, I know, I know, great passion, great speeches. But the problems he outlines at the beginning of the book regarding her connections: her parents, the fact that her brother-in-law is the man he hates most in the world, the connection to a poor country parson, who is basically his aunt's servant, those problems aren't going to go away, despite all of Elizabeth's flashing repartee and hot body. What happens next? What happens when Mrs Bennet, after the death of Mr Bennet, has to go live with one or the other of her daughters, because the man she married has failed to provide her a permanent home? At least we know, since Jane has spelt it out, that Mrs Bennet does not love Elizabeth, likes her least of all her children, so probably she'd spend most of her time with Jane and Bingley.

It's funny that Austen names the eldest daughter after herself: Jane, meek and mild and lovely, always willing to believe the best of everyone, and yet, if you imagine Austen, you're more likely to think of an Elizabeth type person. Someone smart and energetic and full of life. But Austen herself never married, despite writing all these love stories, I wonder if Jane was the Jane she wanted to be, placidly drifting through life without complaints.

Did any of you also think of P&P while reading A Suitable Boy? There's the two sisters and the silly mother, and the marriage looming over it all, even though Vikram Seth is kinder to Mrs Rupa Mehra than Austen is to Mrs Bennet.  She may have been a silly woman but in the end, she was perhaps the only practical member of that entire family.

8 September 2019

A Brief History Of My Childhood In Reading

I wish I could remember learning how to read. The old family lore is that my mother used to try and make mealtimes palatable to me by reading aloud and so I picked it up myself. I was an inordinately picky eater as a child, and required many distractions to shovel food into my mouth. This was 1983 or thereabouts, we didn't even have 24 hour programming on our small black and white TV set, that's how old I am. Anyway, so my mother would bribe me into taking bites by showing me a book, but as time went by, the meals got longer, the books grew from just one chapter to two or three books per meal, I'd trot off and bring my selection, and then sit back to be fed and entertained, opening my mouth at intervals like a little queen. I must have absorbed some of this, because by the time I went to school--a Montessori school on Hailey Road, which still exists, I think, called Shiv Niketan--it was very easy for me to slip from being read aloud to to reading aloud to myself. So easy that I don't remember it happening, and I have vivid memories about my childhood. I remember being toilet trained, for example, the feel of the plastic potty under my naked bottom, how I used to drum my fingers against it, I remember thinking as a child that I could go back to being as young as I wanted once I was done growing up just by climbing into one of the big cupboards installed into the walls of our flat. I remember the way the sun looked filtering through the stone lattice work of the building. (Asia House on Curzon Road as it was known then, Kasturba Gandhi Marg to us now.) I remember two water pumps I used to call my horses, Big Horse and Little Horse, and how I used to bring them grass to eat. And yet, for all of this, I cannot remember my first time looking at a page and realising that one letter connected to another letter, and being all "Off I go!" into the story. The first book I took home to my mother, thrilled with the fact that I read it myself was The Enormous Turnip, a Ladybird book about a farmer and his wife who grow a turnip so big--so ENORMOUS--that they can't pull it out of the ground themselves and have to ask all sorts of animals to help. I remember sounding out that en-or-mous and the thrill of satisfaction I got when I got the word right.

Shiv Niketan was the sort of school where you weren't tested every week or moved up traditionally and so on. Instead, me and another classmate (whose name I coincidentally heard over the weekend after about a decade, so if his ears are burning this week, you know why) were quietly shifted from the nursery to a higher grade. I was born in December, so that's where this whole thing starts, being six months younger than my classmates, in some cases, later, a whole eleven months younger. (I made up for this early burst of prodigy by failing class 9 spectacularly and being pushed back into the batch I had originally been a part of, making me older than everyone else for the rest of my academic life, but it didn't matter, because the scene had been set and I always acted younger than everyone else by then.) When we were shifted, I heard the Hindi Aunty having a loud argument with the class teacher about me, telling her, "But she hasn't even reached my class yet!" I think this is always why I was bad at languages too, god knows I tried, and if you grow up in Delhi your Hindi is Delhi Hindi which is pretty good  okay okay not BAD in my case, if a little rusty, but not as good as people who speak it fluently and frequently. So broken Delhi Hindi, mixing up my grammar, always being taught Hindi as a task, always having a Hindi teacher who sort of hated everyone who couldn't speak the language properly, you see how I longed to read my (English) books all the time and forget the world where things were difficult and abstract. I just wanted to stay with the things that came easily and naturally to me. After all, I was rewarded for those things once by being told how smart I was for Reading Already.

It wasn't long till people started telling me not to read all the time though. All my life this has been a battle, people want me to put down a book and make conversation and I... don't want to. Especially on trains, god, the number of uncles on trains who will make loud remarks about how much I read. I feel their insecurities then, why participate in an activity that implies I am better than them. In many ways, the advent of everyone having a smart phone has been so good for my reading life, I am not the only one looking at a screen or a page all the time. We have all embraced our inner selves! My cousins, I remember, used to nag at me all the time in the summer holidays, "Don't read, Minna, don't read." My grandfather on my mother's side would take great offense to me carrying a book to the dining table, but I still find it hard to eat when I have nothing to look at. This banishment of books from the dining table just meant I ate slower and slower, or littler and littler and then slipped off to find my book again.

How old was I when I read Roald Dahl or Ramona Quimby? I don't remember, so for a friend's child's birthday, I bought The Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox but another friend tells me four is too young for Dahl. I believe though that if you read indiscriminately to your kid, any good story, forget it having big pictures on every page, just keep your kid engrossed, that the love for the story will seep in, that your child will start longing to know more about the books he or she is experiencing through you, that it will set off a need for "just one more chapter" and once you have that need, you know you're a reader for life. In many ways, we were lucky growing up, no internet, no TV, all we had were books, and it's so much easier to form a reading habit when there's nothing else competing with it. But I think if you offered your child the reward of a book instead of screen time or what have you, that if you equate reading with a Good Time, you'll have the reader you want. Of course, your kid should see you reading for pleasure too, so there's that. But nothing like an Family Read Along, whether it's Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl or Harry Potter. I know, I don't have children, but like many people who stay connected to their Inner Child as it were, I feel inside my soul like the six year old I used to be. Along with nineteen and twenty six. (The only age I don't feel connected to is 37, and this year is almost over.)
More memories, flying thicker now: going to the World Book Fair and ordering a set of the most gorgeous children's encyclopedias, and then waiting at home for them to be delivered. The way it taught you things through a story: I remember one about a picnic and a storm, and the safest place to be during a storm. (Your car, apparently.) Living in Trivandrum, my parents' friend coming to visit and bringing me a dense small printed copy of Little Women. "Don't be put off by the print," she said, but it took me a year and some boredom before I pulled it off my shelf. I have that edition still, much loved. Daryagunj Sunday book market, taking a tonga home with our book piles. So many Amar Chitra Kathas, which we bound into fat volumes so I could read them over and over. One red letter day, finding all of the Little House in the Big Woods series, just there on the pavement. Anne of Green Gables on one long train journey, my mother skipped the Mrs Rachel Lynde Is Surprised chapter and led me straight to Anne without waiting for it, a wise abridging, because I read the chapter myself years later and it was never that exciting a way to get into the book.

Books held me in my later years. No matter how bad it got, I always had my books. Briefly, books were trendy in the 90s, we'd read Sweet Valley High, not out of any great joy about the prose, but because they were a) like a soap opera and b) our parents disapproved of them. What could be more alluring to a preteen girl? My old friends are still here, still on my shelves, and though I have re-read all my childhood favorites so many times that I can no longer tell you early memories, just vague feelings about them, layered on top of each other, it's nice to know that when the world is garbage, some things still hold. I wish you (and your kids if you have any) the same joy.

6 September 2019

Today in Photo

Today's outfit is definitely one I'd call experimental, but that's what going to your friend's house is for, to try on outfit combinations you've wondered about before. (it's a lot like writing, you lie in bed and you think "Hmmm that t-shirt i stole from K would go very well on top of my tutu skirt" and then you pull it on next time you're going out and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but still fun) Anyhow, got this pinafore dress in my #sarojininagarhaul and at first I thought I'd shorten the straps but it didn't look that nice with shorter straps so I loosened it again and added a kalamkari sari blouse. So definitely kinda bizarre, but I like it so it stays. #whatiworetoday #styleexperiments #streetshopping

via Instagram