In which I report on my visit to India this past winter. Many thanks to the editors of Granta magazine.
A Bihari man working as a driver in Delhi told me a strange story. His name was Deepak. When his mother complained of chronic stomach pains, Deepak brought her from the village for treatment in a hospital in Delhi. The doctors told him that his mother would require surgery; there was a problem in her uterus. After the operation, which incurred a considerable expense, the lady returned to the village. Her health problems, the pain in her stomach, continued. Deepak brought his mother back to Delhi. This time he took her to another doctor who decided to do tests and run some scans. This doctor found that during the previous surgery the mother’s uterus hadn’t been touched at all. Instead, she was now missing a kidney. Deepak and his father went to the first hospital to complain, but were shooed away. Deepak’s parents then returned to the village, and two years later his mother died.
We were driving through Gurugram at that time, passing the high-rise offices that house the likes of Google, Deloitte, Oracle, Microsoft. I didn’t know whether Deepak was talking of this shiny new India when he told me that the poor were scared of cities like Delhi. They will die if they come here. I wanted to tell Deepak that people like him kept the city running, but it would have sounded hollow, and I remained silent.
Granta Magazine, one of my favorite literary journals, has just published a report of mine entitled “Many Words for Heat, Many Words for Hate.” Above are the first two pages. Get a copy of Issue no. 162 or subscribe online. Here’s a paragraph from the piece:
In Delhi the heat is chemical, something unworldly, a dry bandage or heating pad wrapped around the body. I sent a note to my friend Ravish, who was an anchor on NDTV’s Hindi show Prime Time. I asked Ravish that if Inuit supposedly have more than fifty words for snow (a specific word, for example, for snow used to make water), why don’t we Indians have more words for heat? Ravish asked members of his audience to respond to this question. Words and phrases that Ravish and I didn’t know, in a mix of Indian languages, came in from different cities and parts of the country, adding nuance and variety to what the newspapers were only calling a ‘heatwave’. Ravish concluded his monologue by saying that if you forget the many words for heat in your own language, you will also forget the names of your neighbors or the fact that people of two different religions used to live peaceably together. You will also forget why you are beginning to forget.
HEAT Magazine in Australia has published a short-story of mine titled “Dear Editor.” It offers an account of the arrival of fascism in a remote small town in India. Read it here.
Dear editor, both bathrooms at the back of the Air India flight from New York to Mumbai were out of order. The doors had Not Working stickers pasted over their metal handles. Identical stickers, from different days, stuck on top of earlier ones.
In the op-ed that I had already begun to compose in my head, I was going to write that the bathroom doors were festooned with yellow stickers.
The plane hadn’t taken off yet from JFK. I needed to use the bathroom. But what I’m trying to tell you is that I felt I was already home.
I am delighted to report that I will be in conversation with the marvelous graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee on December 17. Our discussion will focus on how storytelling and commentary is, in reality, a way of keeping a diary. Not just a personal diary but a public diary. A collective diary of the everyday and the small and the ordinary. A diary of the city, or even of the country. The event is organized by A Suitable Agency. Please come to Sunder Nursery for the outdoor conversation. The event is free and open to all but you need to register here.
Ten days ago, I was leading a writing workshop for faculty at the college where I teach. I was preaching the importance of devising writing prompts that take you out into the world. The discoveries you make become material for writing.
A day later, a friend who had participated in my workshop sent me a link to the Joan Didion estate sale that was coming up for auction. My friend texted: Who will walk away with Joan Didion’s sunglasses?
The leaves are turning color and this is what I did over my October break. I have painted the foliage that I can see outside my window onto the calendar page for October. The calendar, a gift from The Bookshop in Jor Bagh, Delhi, carries a poem by Maya Angelou. One line reads “I love the book and the look of words.”