March 24, 2018

Of History Twitter, Imagined Delhi, and Bangalore's Many Pasts

Balabrooie Guest-House, Bangalore

I should have been a historian, or at the very least, studied history in university. I instead chose to study English Literature and Creative Writing, of which I only really enjoyed the creative writing part. I soon learned that it was one thing to read for pleasure, losing yourself in these imagined worlds but another thing altogether to study literature. I was loath to analyse and mine meanings from a book when in fact, I was more interested in writing a book myself. I didn't realise back then that being a historian would have been a perfectly viable career option or that I could have written a book and simultaneously been a historian: I could have written a historical novel, for god's sake! I now wonder whether I secretly perceived history as akin to a museum, full of glorious beauties to be admired and yet ultimately belonging to that alien planet, the past. Perhaps, my eighteen year old self also perceived historians as fusty individuals imprisoned in the past, constantly trying to achieve time-traveling when in fact, they could not? And yet, the truth was also that the courses I took in history during my undergraduate and graduate years were the ones I enjoyed the most.

I have been on Twitter for a while now, largely as an observer/eavesdropper on the incredible diversity of conversations taking place among those I follow. What has really fascinated me though in the last year or so has been my discovery of History Twitter, where I have stumbled upon the most  amazing treasure-troves of threads; historian and writer, Paul Cooper is one person that springs to my mind, whose threads are a wealth of information, his 'Ruin of the Day' thread masterfully knitting the past and present in form of the intriguing ruins across the world (fun fact: we are both alumni of the same course at our alma mater, University of Warwick!) I have also admired how yesterday and today come together, as in this piece by Sarover Zaidi on Chirag Dilli where she exquisitely wrote about love in Lodhi Gardens, "a map for lost lovers" in that wondrous green space in Delhi, where sprawling, iridescent bougainvillea trees rain flowers, the ancient tombs and mosques watch, as they have done for so many centuries.

Safdarjung Tomb, New Delhi

Looking up

When I lived in Delhi, Lodhi Gardens used to be one of my favorite places to visit in the city, aligning to my imagined notion of Delhi. For, before I moved there, I had honestly and excitedly thought I was moving to the City of Djinns, the Delhi which William Dalrymple so romantically describes and evokes in his book of the same name. I imagined myself wandering through the tombs at dusk, peeling away one historical palimpsest after another, immersing myself in the drama and beauty and pathos that was the city. However, I arrived in Delhi, fell sick on the first day, and developed respiratory issues which would greatly plague me during my two year stay - and realised  the stark difference between anticipation and reality. It's not as if I didn't explore the city at all, though. My husband and I loved visiting Hauz Khas Village: I recall the domes turning lavender at night to the beat of live music, the crumbling madrasa ruins crawling with lovers, families, and instagrammers. I spent a lovely winter afternoon at Humayun's Tomb (my favorite tomb of them all), taking around out of town visitors to Sadfarjung Tomb and the vibrant Lodhi Art District, listening to a concert one almost-winter redolent October evening at Purana Qila. Yet, as I recall these explorations, I find that all of them are underscored by feelings of melancholy or lassitude or plain physical unwellness. After a while, these tombs and buildings and histories simply did not matter because there were so many things to grapple with your today; the yesterday was subsequently of significance anymore. And we ultimately left the city, having no other choice.

I sometimes like to say that I came to Bangalore for the trees - and while that still largely remains true, I have to admit that it has encouraged me to start thinking about history more consciously than ever before. Even though the skyscrapers pile up and unattractive cuboid plastic-glass buildings spring up everywhere, I see tantalising glimpses of its recent colonial past in its bungalows, government buildings, and churches along with its much older ones in inscription stones, temples, and monuments, inviting me to unearth their stories. When I recently took a heritage walk in Avenue Road in central Bangalore, I learned about its beginnings, how KR Market used to be a pond and that the aftermath of a war saw it becoming a market, and how the founder of Bangalore, Kempegowda determined the the boundaries which once defined Bangalore. During the walk, we found ourselves inside a courtyard of Mohan Building, a building which once used to be a family home, a police station, a lodge, and now a commercial market housing silk and cotton shops; a collective of Bangalore-based artists, the Klatsch Collective subsequently decided to reinterpret its multiple layers of historical avatars through a multi-disciplinary art intervention by holding on-site installations, paintings, and dialogue last year. 

The Beauty of Space: Ambara, Bangalore
Balabrooie Guest-House

Over the years, I have come to appreciate more than ever at how heritage structures are finding new, alternative, exciting contexts in which to reincarnate. Bangalore has been no exception at this front and I am glad to see how beautifully restored and renovated mansions are enjoying a new avatar as hip boutiques and cafes and art spaces such as Cinnamon, Raintree, and Ambara and of course, the magnificent structure that is NGMA Bangalore. Yet, I am also painfully aware of the numerous heritage structures which are being demolished or under threat of demolition every day, the colonial bungalows springing to my mind, for instance. The other day, after I chanced upon and explored Balabrooie Guest-House, which was built in 19th century, I learned that it had been rescued from being destroyed thanks to the valiant efforts of local activists back in 2014. The demands for its demolition. had been made so that something more useful could spring up in its place. Does history always have to be useful? Can one not appreciate history for what it is: history?

There is no singular past just as there is no such thing as history; our many pasts are full of both his-stories and herstories. Last November, I greatly enjoyed participating in a mapping walk led by Aliyeh Rizvi of Native Place. As we walked from Cubbon Park to MG Road (the boundaries which once marked that of the erstwhile British Cantonment), we heard stories about what it once was, what it was now, and what it could become; we participated in constructing new stories about the city while reinterpreting the old, mapping a new atlas upon that of the old. And it struck me that I too was doing the same in a sense through my daily documentation of my experiences in the city on Instagram, a city which I was now starting to call home. With the exception of Muscat, I had never stayed long enough in all the other cities I had lived in to call them home - and if I forever remained a migratory bird of sorts, how could I invest myself in the city and its stories, let alone begin to narrate them?

Yet, in Bangalore, I have found myself wanting to narrate its stories of its past and people and architecture - and realise that there lies the making of a historian somewhere anyway. I place my ears against these ancient walls, like one does with shells, conjuring up the sound of the crashing waves and wind. And I try to hear what once happened inside those walls, what secrets I can persuade the matrix of stone and cement and design to reveal to me if I am patient enough - and how they will color in the blanks of a city which is only just beginning to take shape for me.

February 17, 2018

A year later on: Notes on Bangalore trees and me

I can't believe it's been over a year since I last posted here. Where to begin? How to begin? Perhaps, where I ended last year: the trees, the trees of Bangalore, which have given me so much life and inspiration and beauty that I often quite can't encompass it all.

The tabubeia are now beginning to lose their flowers and I will have to wait for another year to see them bloom, lushly coloring the Bangalore skies. But this is the thing that a year of Bangalore trees have taught me, gifted me, rather: there will always be a tree leafing, flowering, fruiting somewhere whatever the season.

The rain tree outside my apartment is bursting into the brightest of life-affirming green; all last month, I saw the old leaves fall in a rain of yellow, one by one, until the branches were entirely shorn of them and I could clearly see the eagles which came to rest on the bare tree limbs. A green-throated woodpecker has made its homes in one of the trunks: perfect black holes of nests. One of the three avocado trees is filled with upside-down Christmas trees of flowers, the bees and butterflies giddily orbiting around them. The imli tree hangs heavy with deep brown pods, home to several birds including a owl couple; it now splits its time between the imli tree and an enormous peepal tree metres away. A tree I discovered only last year, the lipstick tree offers spiky chocolate brown fruit to the sky; once, when I picked up a cracked open fruit, the red seeds spilled out and I rubbed them on my palm skin, seeing a cloud of red form. And it occurs to me that all trees are not the same, responding to seasons as they please: if one avocado tree is ready to flower, the other is patently not.

One of the fig trees is plump with fruit, a few hardly making it to the ground without being bitten or tasted. Last year, I learned about the flowers inside its fruit, the wasps who make it their universe, their dance manifesting into a theatre production which I was proud to be associated with.

I participated in a human chain last July where we protested the proposing felling of trees on Old Airport Road, Bangalore. The trees had already been daubed and marked with bright red paint, much like branded cattle, in my eyes. The protests worked as in those trees were saved from senseless destruction; yet I hear today that there is yet another protest for 600 trees that could be purportedly axed elsewhere in Bangalore. I hope and hope that these trees too will have the opportunity to grow and spread their wings of branches for many more years. What price, development in face of these venerable creatures who give you shade, water, filter the sunlight, and illuminate the otherwise drab urban landscape with their leaves and flowers?

There was a rain tree which I made friends with soon after moving to my neighborhood; I would see it every day, its branches in conversation with that of its neighbors, the massive peepal tree and the jacaranda. Last summer, it was cut down in order to make space for an Indira Canteen. The process to uproot and destroy its existence took days: the stump lingering for days before giving way to the messy sight of the massacred leaves and branches and those once indomitable roots. The Canteen was built, the space where the tree once stood unused. Do trees have ghosts? Do their ghosts haunt the spaces which they once called home? The peepal tree leaves look lonelier, the jacaranda when it flowers seems less purple in its absence.

The other night, as my husband and I sat in our apartment balcony listening to Chopin's Nocturne, it was as if the surrounding trees' leaves too had ceased to rustle, the trees as absorbed as in drinking these slow, languid, gorgeous musical notes. Moments later, once the music stopped, I could hear the trees rustling again, in response to the music that they had just heard. I went to sleep, lulled by this most sweet lullaby of them all, thinking how fortunate I have been to live in homes overlooked by trees. They are my guardians, my protectors, emblems of spirit and strength and defiance.

I would be so very different in the absence of trees.

January 16, 2017

What Happened When 2016 Became 2017: Notes

The last post I wrote was about burning autumn trees. The last post I tried to write was about trees with pink flowers which I saw on a warm November morning in Delhi. It remained incomplete. But the tree and pink flowers have followed me here to Bangalore, which incidentally is my new home. The gorgeous, joy-making pink tabuleia plume the tops of trees, reminding me of cherry blossoms that I used to see during spring in the United States. I see the pink flowers silhouetted against the blue sky, carpeting the dusty sidewalks below, or simply spiralling in the air - and I smile.

It's spring in my heart.

What have I been up to in the last few months? I moved, I travelled, I did a road trip in Rajasthan (birds, mirror lakes, sunsets, haunted ruins, dogs), I stood on top of a mountain in Oman (smelling ghost roses), I climbed trees, and photographed a lot.

I didn't write much.

I visited Blossoms bookshop one cool Sunday morning and bought ten books. The first book I am reading is Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, inhaling his words, as if I am afraid that they will evanescence into air and I will never ever know what it was like to read them, experience them.

Delhi is a blurred, hot, uncomfortable memory.

Bangalore is trees with pink blooms, trees that deserve odes written to them, rust soil, colorful kolam patterns, fresh flowers, sugarcane stalks, ice-cream hued homes, the smell of old books, streets of art, and snacks wrapped in banana leaves.

I know there is much more to it. And I am waiting to explore.

But for now, I leave you with this. Happy 2017 everyone.

September 20, 2016

Of Autumn Nostalgia, September, and The Blank Spaces Between Chapters


I remember the first time I saw trees in fiery autumn finery. It was late September; I was a newly arrived undergraduate at the university that I was attending in West Midlands, United Kingdom. As I battled all-consuming homesickness, cultural disorientation, and other newbie university student challenges, I nevertheless did occasionally emerge from my fog of bewilderment to briefly appreciate the brilliant theatre that these trees were putting up on display. They were in decay, true, but they appeared no less magnificent than in their glorious summer plumage. But I didn't take any pictures of them. All the photographs that I took of those initial months on my analogue camera depicted my university, my friends and the exciting memories I was making and accumulating. I experienced three more autumns during the time I lived and studied in United Kingdom but apart from a handful of pictures taken in my Oxford college's garden where bright yellow and orange autumn trees provide an arresting backdrop, it never occurred me to photograph the autumnscape for posterity.



How times have changed! Or, perhaps, more significantly, the way and how I look at nature. I made up for my earlier lack of autumn appreciation when I lived in Pittsburgh for a year and half, savoring how autumn unfurled over the months. I learned to love its nuances: the toast-crisp air, the sharp, invigorating, buttery sunshine, and a certain headiness that belongs to only autumn. I remembered exclaiming in surprised delight when the massive tree just outside my apartment window seemingly turned scarlet overnight. Yes, the summer was over, we were approaching winter - and yet, there was a promise in the air that was autumn's alone. That I could not photograph. What still vividly remains in my memories is the pleasure of walking out on a cool autumn morning, bundled up just so, literally drinking in the autumn air, the leaves crunching below your feet, so thickly, densely carpeting the path ahead that you could scarcely see the gray concrete or the viridian grass below. If no one was looking, I would take a childish pleasure in running through the leaves, seeing them swirl in the air,  like birds agitated into flight. 


The other day, while glimpsing these orange gulmohurs dotting the soil, I couldn't help but remember similarly hued orange leaves, as they must once more densely fall on the ground in various parts of the world while the season transits from summer to autumn. There is no autumn here, of course. The monsoons have concluded in Delhi, at least...but still, something feels different. It gets darker a tad earlier each day and the cool morning breeze makes me smile in anticipation for the mellower, delicious days of between late October-early December

Perhaps, the season reflects my current state of mind (or is it vice versa?) I  must admit that I too am in transit, immersed in a limbo. I feel that I currently inhabit the blank spaces in between chapters of a novel. The hectic summer flew past and I wonder what beckons in the newly forming season ahead. So I hibernate in the den of my words, the short stories that I am trying to write, characters who are slowly beginning to form and take shape on my pages. I don't know them and they don't know me - yet. And so we are both in - there's that word again - limbo. But I persevere, writing and writing, persuading them to reveal themselves. And perhaps, by doing so, I will migrate to my next chapter, writing myself into what is going to happen next. 

September is not over yet.

 Inspired by this Instagram post of mine