Friday, June 29, 2018

Quite often I press the past forward button, and see one beautiful demure lady, my mother, her eyes downcast, glued to the fabric stretched taut by an imported frame, weaving the silk threads with dexterity, the colours flowing into each other.

I see four young women or girls sitting at her knees, equally engrossed in the embroidery that they are learning from her. Their hair is combed neatly, with not a hair out of place, Each of us have long plaits some thick, some thin, kept in place with a smidgen of coconut oil.   Little Women? Yessss!  Having been fed on Louisa M. Alcott,  Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters, I imagine the young women in lacy crinoline dresses,  with their petit point, supervised by a matron, airing their views in the confines of the walls, discussing their beaus and how they would set their cap on the handsomest of them.

I was obsessed with the crinoline dresses,  Georgette Heyer and Margaret Mitchell, with the lace covering the throat, and an exquisite broach which enhanced the whole ensemble. Oh for the corsets that showed off a whittled wasp like waist. I often dreamt of getting married in a crinoline dress, white of course, and going down the altar to say my vows. Mummy would shake her head sadly and say it was my misfortune to have been born an Indian and that I would have been better off in a  Brit family. I certainly didn’t get married in a white dress, but realized my dream of wearing a crinoline dress, though hired, when I directed a play at age 15 at a cousin’s wedding, scenes from King and I, and of course I was Anna, whirling to the tune of Shall We Dance, with a King who could barely suppress laughter at my enthusiasm.

I was swept off my feet by the Englishmen in the novels I read, who rode horses, and I adored the clothes they wore,  their gallantry and  manners.  I don’t know exactly when that all changed, but I became Indian with a patriotic  ferocity, hated the colonial rule and charged with an obsessive loyalty, wanted to wear handloom sarees at age 16!   My peers floated along in gossamer georgette and chiffon sarees,  with floral prints which looked right off an English garden!

From my mother I learnt to sew, to knit, to embroider, and later to cook, as a girl in my time had to be trained in all the home arts. I loved sitting at her old Singer sewing machine which you worked by hand, and made garments and other pretty things for the home.  Amazingly all these talents receded into the back burner when I married  andset up home, and looked after the family. When the children grew up I worked sometimes full time and though it was to do with mainly textiles, I trained my workers to cut, sew, embroider and print. I hadn’t taken up the brush to paint for many years now. Sadly I put away all these  art related books, needles and threads, telling my self that that belonged to a bygone era.

Today as I live alone, and when loneliness washes over me in the evenings and I have little more me time..when the birds have flown, every single one of them,  I have come full circle…

The crochet group started by friends drew me in and here I am learning to crochet, the one thing I never learnt from Mummy dear, and have ferreted out all my design books, my knitting needles and embroidery stuff. Inspired by the friends who have done such amazing work, I plod on trying to recapture the romance which I had lost, and it gives me great pleasure though I have miles to go to complete even a single project.
And pretty soon I will take up my brush and paints, and pour out my heart into colour to give me the solace that I need.
I have come full circle, haven’t ?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Dubai Literary Festival

Not being a mall hopper I am always on a quest for the unusual during my regular visits to Dubai to be with my family. The highlight this time was attending the 10th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature held this month at the Intercontinental Hotel Dubai Festival City. As Press you can take in any number of programmes, but otherwise you attend each session for a fee. What was immensely gratifying is the professional way it is conducted, the choice of speakers, and the rigid sense of punctuality from start to finish.
Dotted with interesting zones, the Festival space includes a Festival Bookshop, a book signing area, a Creekside cafĂ© with lounging mats and soft pouffes, a Foundation Friends Lounge, a Family Oasis with activities for the children, Childrens reading zone,  Heritage Majlis where poetry, readings go on throughout the day. And the concept which really seemed wonderful was the emphasis on children’s literature, and encouraging children of all ages to explore books.
I looked forward to listening to Alexander McCall Smith, for I’ve loved reading his books beginning with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Smith’s fast paced writing, spiced with humour. Author of more than 100 books, McCall Smith was recently awarded the prestigious Medal of Honour for Achievement in Literature by the National Arts Club of America. He was not able to make it on the scheduled date, owing to airports closed in Europe due to heavy snow and blizzards. I did catch up on him at a later date, and it was one  hour of mischief, laughter and story telling all the way.
 I landed at Melissa Hemsley’s talk which did interest me being a foodie and a cookbook author myself. Hemsley is the author of Eat Happy 30 minute Feel Good Food, and charmingly put across her views on healthy home cooked meals which can be completed in 30 minutes.
The biggest bonus was attending a lecture by Shashi Tharoor, interviewed by William Dalrymple. Brilliant as usual, Shashi talked to a packed hall, where there was not a single seat empty, and many stood throughout the programme, riveted to the speaker as he led us on to the atrocities committed by the British Raj, and lambasted them for reducing the richest independent country of the world in the 17th Century having a GDP of 27% to third world poverty in 200 years. By the time the British left, India’s share of the world GDP had plummeted to just over 3%. Emperor Aurangazeb’s wealth alone was more than that of all the heads of state of the world put together. The damage done by colonialism is unquantifiable, and when you think of 3 million people who died unnecessarily during a tumultuous period, any sum of money paid as compensation would not justify this enormous loss of life and property.
The British had a revisionist populist history which was taught in schools and colleges alike, making out that they had done a big favour to India by ruling them. Britain owes reparation to our country, and though people say people who were offenders and those who were severely affected are no longer there,  it makes sense to at least render a public apology.
“India, a country sophisticated in textiles, in banking, in merchandise was submitted to 200 years of plunder and loot, to line the British coffers.”  My own feelings about the weaving industry reduced to tatters found an answering chord in Shashi Tharoor’s description of the East India Company destroying our handloom industry, one which wove muslin called woven winds, soft as clouds and passing through a small ring, sold as British calico… William Bentinck, governor of Madras and later governor-general, wrote that ‘the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India.’ Tariffs of 70 per cent and more were imposed on the textiles India produced, and cheap British cottons flooded the Indian market.
Indian soldiers were harnessed to fight for the British in World War 1 and Indian taxpayers had to contribute  8 billion pounds to pay for expenses. We were foolish enough to support wars against ourselves, while they pocketed all the profits.
 Tharoor’s personality, his diction, his articulate speech and his passion and anger against Indians having to wear British yokels earned him deafening applause and he must have had the longest queue of fans waiting for him to sign the books they bought, the latest being  Inglorious Empire.. What the British did to India .
On the second day of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, William Darymple author of Kohinoor, History of the World’s most Infamous Diamond with Anita Anand British TV journalist gave us what he called the true history of the famous gemstone.
Why would the magnificient gem among the world’s largest, weighing about 105.6 carats be anywhere but in India?  It sits on the purple crown of the Queen Mother, on the Maltese Cross and being displayed in the Tower of London. Read the book to find out the methods of trickery, bloodshed, or sheer generosity if you will deployed to change ownership.
Darymple and Anand uncovered layers of four centuries of histories to substantiate that India was the only known source of diamonds, before they were mined in Brazil in 1725. The Kohinoor which ironically meant the Mountain of Light was mired for centuries in murder, larceny, bloodshed and calamities and bode evil for its owners. In the 17th century, the Kohinoor Diamond occupied pride of place in the magnificent Peacock Throne, which was commissioned by Shah Jahan. In 1739 the Persian ruler conquered Delhi, with his frenzy of carnage and carried off the throne with all his jeweled booty to Persia.
In an unbelievable magical historical tour the diamond was grabbed by the East India Company to the Crown of Queen Mother  Elizabeth.

And now there are six claimants to the infamous diamond, India of course, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Afganistan and Taliban.  According to Darymple, India has the strongest claim, but whether the claim will be considered is another question. There is a U.N rule regarding loot that has to be returned, but operational only from the 20th Century! So the chances of India ever getting this National Treasure back is anyones guess…

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Going through Metro Plus of a few days ago, and reading a feature on Albert Bakery in Bangalore, brought back a string of nostalgic memories.

We lived in Mosque Road, Fraser Town when we could walk miles without the scare of being run over by speeding vehicles or tripping on broken pavements. I was born, brought up, educated in this once lovely city, a real pensioners paradise, got married at home,  and had my children there...before the shift to other cities, and finally nesting in Madras, for 45 years. So where are my roots? Chennai yes, as my connections are there. Bengaluru for old times sake, a paradise which has been converted to a burgeoning city bursting at the seams, no longer commutable with ease.

Albert Bakery was just down our road, a laid back modest looking old place, small, but churning out pastries, rolls, cakes with unfailing regularity, based on the demand and quick turnover. On drizzly days when the city turned its airconditioning on, my father would go over to Albert Bakery, and order flaky melt in the mouth "puffs" laden with mince meat, and vegetarian puffs for my mother. The connect between the cool weather and the puffs transported us to highs as we sunk our teeth into each puff, careful not to gorge ourselves incurring our doctor father's displeasure!

When our visitors came, they were given a package of butter biscuits,  something not available in Chennai or other cities and one of Albert Bakery's signature product.Cake making was common in our home in Bangalore, and my mother had those ovens which you placed over kerosene stoves, till Albert Bakery stepped in. "Send your batter and we will bake it for you, Ma'am", he said.

After licking the cake batter bowl clean, we girls used to march off to Albert Bakery in the morning, w after Mummy poured it into cake tins, and by tea time the baked cake was sent to us!

The Muslim gentleman who owned AB was my father's patient as were so many others in the locality. He is no more, and his sons are carrying on the business. They as young kids might have known my father Dr Chander, and I would be delighted to meet up with them on my next trip to Bengaluru. paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/baking-its-way-into-hearts/article23266073.ece