Love, Wine & Everything in Between

By Shubhangi Thakur

Perched in the coziest corner of my favourite Italian spot in the city two months ago, I confidently declared myself a pink martini girl, when asked about my drink of choice for the evening. Ten seconds later, I tweaked my drink order and, in a whimsical twist, ordered a rosé. That impulsive choice set the stage for a night of contemplation, inspiring the words you’re reading now.

Wine was my first alcoholic adventure, but I remember it was a very deliberate choice sparked by pure fascination. I’m someone who has grown up with the cinematic enchantment of couples sharing sips but also the vengeful splatter of it ruining a dress. Is it the allure of romance or the intrigue of drama that captivates my imagination? Truth be told, my daydreams often veer towards scenarios involving the latter. But as it turns out, the magic lies more in the liquid itself than the scenes that unfold as a consequence of its consumption.

A bottle of wine has long been a vessel for the profound exchange of affection between lovers, echoing through the corridors of ancient civilizations. In the Middle Ages, wine became entwined with the feast of Saint Valentine on February 14th and was whispered to bestow good luck and happiness in matters of the heart. This tradition persisted, making wine an essential part of 18th-century European Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Ancient Indian texts, such as the Rigveda, explicitly mention the use of ‘Sura,’ a type of wine, in religious rituals, believed to act as a conduit for communication with the divine. Notably Sushruta, hailed as the Father of Surgery, actively employed wine for anesthetic purposes, emphasizing the diverse roles of this beverage in ancient practices.

Wine even graced the opulent cups of gold, silver, and jade, embellished with Farsi and Arabic calligraphy, in the courts of Mughal emperors such as Jahangir and Shah Jahan. A fascinating apocryphal story hints that Jahangir’s first love was not Anarkali, but the intoxicating elixir itself.

Beyond rituals and rulers, wine has served as a muse for poets across history—from the verses of Emily Dickinson to Rumi. It has graced myriad artworks—from Renaissance feast scenes to modern still lifes. Over centuries and across diverse cultures, whether in the realms of arts or sciences, the meaning of wine has evolved, shaped by the specific places and periods in which it has been shared and consumed.

There are profound parallels between consuming wine and being consumed by love. The four steps of wine tasting—look, swirl, sniff, sip—aren’t exclusive to wine; they extend to the delicate art of deciphering the flavors of love as well. Unlike its other alcoholic counterparts, wine demands a ritual. Why does wine, warrant this special attention, unlike other drinks hastily mixed with tonics and flavors? Moreover, contrary to the popular belief that love blinds, I posit that love, in truth, heightens our senses. It exposes us to countless nuances and sensations, elevating our experiences and understandings—a resonance reminiscent of the intricate notes found in a corked bottle. A glass of wine often becomes an opportunity to sit, to slow down, and to savor the inherent beauty of the present—a sentiment intricately entwined with the essence of love. 

SEE: What color is it? Love, akin to wine, presents itself in varying hues. Just as oak aging deepens the color of wine, the shared experiences and challenges in love contribute to the richness and depth of the emotional connection.

SWIRL: Let it breathe. Just as a wine glass is swirled to release its aromatic compounds, love thrives with aeration. Love, when given the space to breathe, reveals its complexities and nuances, creating a bouquet of shared memories and experiences.

SNIFF: What do you smell? Like in wine tasting, smell is crucial in the symphony of love. Love’s essence, much like fine wine, is often judged by its scent. Aromas can evoke memories—coffee, books, salt, or sea. Each whiff encapsulates shared moments, crafting a scented memory profile that lingers.

SIP: What do you taste? Taking a sip of love immerses one in a complex taste experience. Allowing those moments to coat your being might unveil the sweetness of shared laughter, the fruitiness of affection, the saltiness of challenges, perhaps the acidity of disagreements, and even the bitterness of trials. The overall impression forms a balanced blend, crafting a unique flavor defining the relationship.

SAVOR: Does the taste linger? The aftermath of love is the sensation that lingers after the initial experience. Similar to the lingering taste of wine after swallowing, the essence of love remains with you. The duration of love’s aftertaste can vary, reflecting the depth of connection and the enduring quality best reflected in the lingering sensation.

Intriguingly, another parallel that captivates my imagination is the concept of terroir. Originating from the French term meaning “sense of place,” it unveils an interplay that extends beyond external influences, delving deep into the emotional bedrock where relationships take root. This juxtaposition is particularly fascinating when considering the cultivation of wine grapes and the development of love.

Much like how the terroir of a vineyard molds the sensory identity ofwine, the background and context in which love unfolds become the terroir of relationships. Love’s terroir echoes a delicate equilibrium between vulnerability and strength – the moments that carve out intimacy, the trials that probe truthfulness, and the nuanced evolution of self. 

This uniquely distinctive terroir of love, similar to the revered terroir of a vineyard, is cultivated over years through layers of understanding and empathy, which in turn transforms into a multidimensional exploration, diverging from a linear narrative.

Within the realm of wine consumption a timeless relevance and richness transcend the ordinary. No other food or drink delivers such sensory pleasure, and few pursuits can transport us as far from life’s mundanity—except, perhaps, the escape found in the pages of a good book. Both love and wine, in their entirety, require one’s undivided presence—not just during their enchanting beginnings, but throughout their nuanced progression  and lingering aftermaths. They are enduring eternal experiences deserving of being savored, contemplated, and celebrated.

Later that evening, the rosé I indulged in proved to be a little too bitter for my taste, not quite aligning with my preferences. Yet, it spoke in its own unique vocabulary, much like love. It served as a poignant reminder that wine, similar to love, possesses a distinctive vocabulary – and there’s no dictionary to understand this vocabulary; you can only know by indulging.

In the lively discourse on love that filled the rest of the evening, I savored every sip of my bitter rosé, curiously listening to the intimate encounters and anecdotes shared by those around me. It prompted me to view my life as an ongoing quest, a journey to discover all the metaphorical corked bottles I wish to house in my bar. To discern which ones genuinely delight my senses, those I can gracefully tolerate, and those I’ll unequivocally avoid.

The Legacy of Bookkeeping

By Shubha Bhatt 

Approaching the year’s end, I’ve begun brainstorming gift ideas for a few close friends and family. Last year, I created calendars for some friends in Delhi, containing visuals from my initial time in the city. The idea was inspired by a collection of calendars I encountered at a bookstore around this time last year. Over time, one consistent item on my gift list has grown to be books, although picking the perfect title remains a considerable challenge.  

On one such occasion this year, I was in search of two specific titles as gifts to one of my professors right before I graduated. Although I wished to personally visit a bookstore to acquire them, my schedule during those exam days didn’t allow for it.  Upon a friend’s suggestion, I decided to contact Bahrisons Booksellers via Instagram to inquire about the availability of the titles. In no time, Mithilesh Ji was coordinating my order for one of the books while consistently updating me on the shipment progress and simultaneously checking with other Bahrisons stores in the city regarding the availability of the second title. I received the book at my place within a couple of days. 

Bahrisons Booksellers 1977

Bahrisons Booksellers, now a double-storeyed establishment in Khan Market, has been delivering books up to the doorsteps of its customers all over the city for at least the last 50 years, recalls Mr Anuj Bahri Malhotra, who has been running the store after his father, Mr Balraj Bahri Malhotra. “Every bookshop, anywhere in the world, would deliver books to you at home. We had a set of staff dedicated to offering this additional service. We would even have the books sent to the customers if they selected the books at the store but couldn’t carry them back. And we never charged for it,” adds Anuj reminiscing about the long-standing tradition. The bookstore started in 1953 as a small shop within the confines of the then “refugee market” or what has grown to become Khan Market. The neighbourhood is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan who helped families affected by partition acquire shops, ensuring they could rebuild their livelihood. 

Anuj in the shop, 1988-89

Anuj joined his father in 1979 at the Khan Market store, the oldest and the smallest of all outlets now. But visits to the bookstore were an everyday ritual ever since his childhood. “My training started as a peon, that’s the only way I can put it. I used to study at the Air Force School and the bookstore was within walking distance from there. I would come to the store after school and spend the other half of my days cleaning the shelves, and wind up by delivering books on my bicycle.”

With time, the space in and around the bookstore has evolved in ways other than its magnitude. Anuj’s wife, Mrs Rajni tells us that the store had a different touch to it when she joined back around 1987. “We used to have a stationery table just here where we’re sitting (the corner right in front of the cashier counter.) An old, wooden cabinet with a glass lid showcased a variety of pens as the section was organised and managed solely by an elderly individual named Uday Singh. He was the only one who seemed to find his way around the space and was always here, so much so that people used to think that he was the owner of the store. He actually came as a helper with my mother-in-law after her marriage. However, he faced health issues later in life, and the stationery desk faded away with his demise.” 

It’s surreal how several visuals can accumulate to ignite new meanings for a narrative. As a young boy, Mr Bahri would sell pens at Chandni Chowk to earn a living after the family fled their hometown near Lahore in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition. In a way, the stationery desk housing a collection of pens, which lived on at the store until years after its establishment, served as a testament to enduring times, thereby bearing signs of the store’s humble beginnings. Mr Anuj highlighted his father’s enthusiasm and commitment towards being a bookseller, acknowledging that while the book trade may not have been highly lucrative, it was a distinctively respectable profession. 

Something that continues to be unbelievably true for bookselling, he emphasises, is that you don’t have to be literate to step into the trade. “Book distributors often recognise books not by their title but by the colour of their covers. For instance, one can hear them say “Woh parso jo biology ki laal wali book aayi thi na, woh de dena inhe.” (“Give them the biology book in the red cover that arrived the day before yesterday.”) This holds true for any bookstore you go to, right from Bungalow Road, Chandni Chowk, Nai Sarak or anywhere else.” Staff members like Mithilesh ji who were compelled to leave education mid-way to earn a livelihood have been motivated to continue learning within the walls of the bookshop. Having served at Bahrisons Booksellers for over thirty years, he reminisces how the store was renowned for its intriguing collection of nonfiction books and political memoirs back in the day. 

Balraj and Anuj at the bookshop

Bahrisons Booksellers has expanded its presence over time to other localities around Delhi and has stores actively running at Saket, Gurugram, and Vasant Kunj. Additionally, they operate one store each in Kolkata and Chandigarh. According to Rajni, the readership in Delhi possesses a distinctive character, with a notable presence of academic readers. However, customer preferences vary depending on the specific location of the store. For instance, the collection displayed at the front of the mall store in Vasant Kunj is different, where there are high chances of more spontaneous purchases. 

Reserving a small corner for author book signings in the post-Covid era speaks volumes about the adaptations independent bookshops undertake to explore fresh opportunities. Mrs Rajni further elaborates that the art of bookselling demands directing efforts towards meeting the needs of the customers. “Our USP at Bahrisons has always revolved around providing personalised service to our customers. One may think that it’s a bookstore after all, that you may go inside, make a purchase and come out. But apparently, there’s so much more that goes into getting that book on the shelf.”

Having spent more than two decades in the field, Rajni is well aware of the nuances that need to be addressed at every step. So many hands touch a book, right from the press to the publisher and the distributor to finally reach the shelf over here. Moreover, her team consistently strives to respond to the excitement that builds up around the release of a specific book. The influx of calls, Instagram messages, and inquiries from in-store customers indicates that people are waiting for a book, and they make it a priority to procure it. It’s a thrilling experience for her to simply chase a book that way. For example, she got a new Jeffrey Archer book on the day of the interview and ensured that it has been displayed on the window for passers-by to notice.

According to her, there are certain customers who visit the bookstore every single day which makes her wonder why someone would visit a bookstore daily. These individuals are already well-acquainted with the layout of the store, the contents of the shelves, and the latest additions. Some head directly to the “new releases” section, while others come in search of a specific book they’ve heard about. Many times, customers engage in conversations, seeking opinions from fellow readers about the book they’re considering. In the midst of it all, there might be a regular author present, signing copies. Interestingly, even those unfamiliar with the author might opt for a signed copy at such moments. Rajni has encountered her fair share of surprises too. Recently, she engaged in a conversation with one of the main leads of ‘Made In Heaven’ who dropped by the store one morning. She tells us that she gets to meet several such people, all of whom are genuinely pleasant and ordinary individuals. And she strongly believes in providing a private and welcoming space for them when they visit the bookstore. 

The bustling environment of the bookstore makes for a dynamic atmosphere that seems to have a life of its own. The interactions and experiences that unfold there transform the space into a community hub built over a shared enthusiasm for literary work. The independent bookstores have given life to Khan Market in ways more than one. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the neighbourhood is held together by a string of the written word. There used to be around eight bookstores in the area around 1987 including Tharia Ram & Sons, Timeless Book Gallery, Faqir Chand And Sons, Full Circle Bookstore, Atma Ram, The Bookshop, Bahrisons Booksellers and more. The very presence of the independent bookshops have vividly shaped the cultural landscape of Khan Market. 

At The Remnant Archive, a notable project on our horizon for the upcoming year involves a neighbourhood mapping initiative. We aim to delve into the fascinating dynamics of how the surroundings of a community have contributed to shaping its evolving nature over the passage of time. When asked about how the bookstore has soaked in the changes in Khan Market over the passing years, Rajni promptly replied, “Don’t you think the time has stood still in the bookstore?” She elaborates, “Over the years, the market has evolved. Some brands and stores that were cherished have closed down. People often inquire about the music shop that once stood here, offering a diverse range of music records, cassettes, instruments, and equipment. There used to be an old-fashioned chemist with high ceilings, exuding a vintage and rustic charm. (Pauses and greets a customer, “Hello! Good to see you after such a long time!”) Many such stores that were iconic to the market have also shut down possibly due to soaring rents, financial challenges, or because they couldn’t keep pace with the current market trends. 

As for the bookstores, there have been numerous in Khan Market and all of us were thriving. Even now, the presence of other bookstores in the vicinity never poses a threat. We maintain a strong rapport with each other. Given the surge in e-commerce services, all of us are aware of the responsibilities we carry with our roles, promising our customers good service and accountability. We might take some time but in situations where a book is unavailable, we take it upon ourselves to locate it and ensure timely delivery. Surviving in such times is undoubtedly challenging, so there’s always that mutual respect and admiration among us for each other. When I write to a publisher with a concern, I always try to emphasise its impact on all independent bookstores. I refrain from making it specific to Bahrisons and instead advocate for all of us.”

Through its many endeavours, Bahrisons Bookstores stands out to be what we like to call in our team “keepers of human connection.” It is here that individuals from the city and wide across have bonded over either books, or in their company. Where else does time rush by like it does in a bookstore like Bahrisons. The timelessness of the store at Khan Market and the familiarity that holds its shelves fosters a sense of community and belongingness for anyone walking through its door. Standing as a cultural landmark for the last seventy years, the bookstore has grown to become a living repository, safely storing collective memories that transcend generations. Moreover, it continues to nurture a love for reading within the community, thereby cultivating a legacy of bookkeeping through its unwavering acts of resilience and hope. 

“It has been a great life. I’ve learnt so much in the trade.”, Anuj remarks, handing out glass bottles of ittar to Shubhangi and me, urging us to read his daughter’s work on fragrances and memory. 

However, Anuj, captivated by the world of thrillers, reminisces about his youthful years spent engrossed in Perry Mason novels in a store corner. “One thriller equals ten literary works for a publisher. It’s astonishing how authors in this genre can keep you hooked for 900 pages.”

We spoke to him around his workspace on the second floor when he had just arrived for the day’s work and could be captured in his element. For readers of thrillers, he highly recommends ‘I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes, a copy of which he generously gifted to Shubhangi, affirming that within every bookseller resides an avid reader.

Winter Yearning, Commonly Known as ‘Melancholy I Can’t Put My Finger On’

by Naina Rathi

For three years as I walked in and out of college: away from the same dead-end, down the same street, towards the same train, everything remained the same. Almost everything. In all those years, for all of the year save winter, a creeper hung from a balcony. With pretty orange flowers decorating a pretty corner of a house that was too huge to be pretty. Gone during the winters, leaving me lonely again.

It wasn’t unconscious, no, but had become second nature for me to look across and find them hanging down. Fiery orange against marble white. Until then, I hadn’t really like orange. I still don’t – some things never change – except that one pretty shade. They weren’t a brilliant painting or a streak of light in the dark or had an otherworldly shape or smell. They were pretty in a slightly more than normal sort of way, the way most pretty things usually are. So normal that I believe most (not me, but most) people wouldn’t notice them had there existed other flora around them. But I would, I did. Because, to me, it was unfathomable how such a beautifully normal being could bloom in a place I had only associated with plain dread. Plain because it fell short even when it came to being terrible; it was a tired sort of dread like it was bored of its mundane nature, of how uneventfully uneventful it was. But those drooping flowers were orange as hope. As though life was trying to escape the locked mansion, even if it meant having to jump down.

That was many many years ago. 

Back then, I didn’t know what it was like to have one’s hands weighted down. Not by gravity but by something much stronger, more powerful, tiring and hateful. I didn’t know what it was like to have winter bring me down. I didn’t know how winter brought with it a sea of sadness that wells up your eyes before you can end a sentence. Uembarked goals and silly regrets that flash before your eyes before you can end the year.

Because it’s not just the season turning, it’s the homecoming of all your heartbreaks and unfinished dreams. October days are fine, the promise of chill soothing out a year’s worth of heat, the winter sun warming your bones. But November opens its doors to winter’s permanent companions: yearning and melancholy. A yearning for warmth that must accompany the bitter cold. Familiar warm hands that must dissipate the cold. And melancholy that must end up replacing the lack of them both. 

Because it’s not just the season turning, it’s the time for rituals and festivities: year-end trips, office gatherings, weddings, homecomings, Diwali. The time of year when everyone’s hopping from one Diwali party to the next while you’re reminded you have none to go to. All your favourite people are celebrating Diwali in chillier continents (although yours feel bitter-er). You imagine what would you do if you were at one of yours: you had your people, your place, your food, your laughter, your songs, your cheers; you remember that good things become better and best only when shared. However, all you can see is one girl, cornered in her own home, flashing her teeth and the brilliant lights never shining her smile. You find that loneliness rips through your imagination too. The happiest time of the year suddenly reminds of you your adult incompetence to form meaningful friendships. Friendships that change into family. But how many families can one have the strength left to build after having to rip themselves, year after year, out of each?

Because it’s not just the festivities, it’s the year ending. And you cannot help but feel like a loser. We have a terrible habit of tattooing our failures and never remembering our wins, it’s what unites us all. Every year, this time, a ringing noise invades my brain. A voice from the year before I first saw the orange blooms. A voice that told me I would never accomplish anything in life, almost like a premonition. Throughout winter, I’m told I’m a failure who will quit before she can be challenged, who will not weather through any storm. Whom do I convince that it’s not for lack of trying?

Because it’s not just the year ending, it’s the time for longing. For throughout the year your aloneness is not threatening but winter begins to crack your walls, shake your bones. In winter, solitude morphs into loneliness. Loneliness jo kaatne ko daudti hai, that’s chasing me to take a bite out of me. How do I possibly explain that my loneliness doesn’t run deep, it spreads across the horizon? Everywhere I look are endless, empty skies…of me. Alas, no one else but you will do. I long for your familiarity, for you who know me. I long for parts of myself that I’m losing and for you to please pick them up for me. 

Because it’s not just the season of longing, it’s the time for melancholy. Melancholy; the old English word for sadness they couldn’t put their finger on, for what they didn’t know then to call depression. That’s what sadness in winter feels like: something old and ancient, that you simply cannot put your finger on. While I’ve prided my memory for its top-notch bookkeeping, this winter the ink’s running dry and I’m missing many entries, time and complete days. I’m told and know that that’s common for both melancholy and depression, they freeze your memory and no matter how much you skate, the ice won’t break.

It’s November again and I’m ready for melancholy to knock at my frozen door, bring despair with it. They are my familiar companions now.

Winters change, years shift but they remain. 

I returned to my place of learning some time ago, walked down the path that was once my favourite even if it led me to a place I merely despised not even fully hated. And it was while leaving that I remembered about them, the wildflowers. I remembered them because my head turned of its own accord, not even knowing it hoped to see something, and found that the creeper was gone, as was the balcony. The house had stayed but it had changed, it had gotten bigger. Home of the plants taken away to make room in a house already too huge. My flowers were missing but my hope believed that they finally escaped.

I realised I only remembered them because they were gone, and continued to walk on.

Author bio:  Naina Rathi is a writer and filmmaker (wannabe) from Hyderabad where she has lived most of her life. She studied media and literature, worked in advertising and this year, finally quit it. She now freelances for the Times of India and always struggles to her make bios wittier.

The First Winter Without –

by Ujwalla Bhandari

… anchor – 

My heart has been falling for months. The runs to and from closet to mirror to door to train to work to the end of the day serve to keep it in the air like a ball that an inept juggler is juggling. I’ve been struggling since home ceased to be a place I can go, and turned, instead to rubble. The trouble is masked by the facts – people sell their homes, the city is practically one endless construction site, we needed more space, the family was broken. I flip these thoughts over like totems to keep my heart afloat.

What takes me by the throat is the winter I love, setting in, warming the tea on the stove, as if to compensate for the loneliness of my ambiguous loss. Because of course, a woman who marries for love, leaves her home anyway. She loses her say about what is irrevocable, loses woman to wife, with the haze of her girlhood tugging, from time to time, at her heart. Her falling heart. Can I really fall apart that my house is gone, when I have been gone from my house for years?

The tears come for me when I realize the house was where my loneliness stopped being scary, and somehow felt safe. The walls of my room seemed to say, hey: we’re holding you, feel what you feel. My bookshelves revealed me to myself, mirrored my musings, made them real. I could trace my becoming on the spines of all I read in all those years of solitude. Whatever the mood of the world outside, the chaos or the mess, I could step into the best kind of quiet, and exhale the day away. I could keep the world at bay, and stay in the nook between my bed and the wall, burrowing into the call of isolation. People were always confusion, but at home, they were far away. It was only ever those walls that let me in, truly, that built themselves around me. Home was a place that found me, and I was lost a lot.

… love – 

And then there are the memories attached to you. In my doorway, in my chair, in my bed. Your love first found me there, too, those years, and the first thing I did was introduce you to my sanctuary. I wonder if you were wary of my heart on my sleeve. This strange reprieve from games; me, a girl who was no one, whose mind had been burrowing inwards for years; whose layers spilled into your arms as soon as you opened them.

I have craved to belong everywhere I’ve loved. For a time, we belonged together in that little haven: talking, laughing, planning a life. The ring you put into my blanket-fold for me to find, and exclaim, the glistening promise of togetherness that it signified. Our love story unfolded in my safest place. 

I craved to belong to you, belong with you, belong in love. I thought love would catch my heart and hold it. But now I know, love is about letting go. Sometimes love is a fault line; a door to safety, or an invitation into a storm. I never know how warm your hands are going to be, but the warmest place to hold them was always that home. The one that won’t be there anymore, whose last walls are coming down as I write this.

… truth – 

Ignorance is bliss. I think there are still things I omit from the narrative. The thirty-one years I spent at home were dotted with blanks of things too dark to remember. It was the scene of many crimes, from a child’s hungry eyes. An unrelenting loneliness grew miles and miles of distance between me and anyone else who lived there. But I felt as though the walls cared; the plants the ceilings, the floors. The doors closed when I needed to disappear, and opened when I wanted to run away. And there were many days when I didn’t know which – freezing or fleeing – would quell the screaming inside. In spite of it all, the ball of pain I was for so many of those years, the sight of a bougainvillea rain, pink strewn all over the patio made everything disappear. The years of ache, too, were softened by the abundant happenstances, the little quirks of the house; its creaks and creatures and its many, many blooms.

There was no winter that didn’t bring warmth – a coal fire always lit on the coldest days, as people who’d hurt one another sat around the maze of their feelings, and poured each other wine. We were broken and we were fine. And the house contained us in all our seasons. Being home was a good enough reason to exhale the weight of being misfits in the world. Hands curled around themselves, somehow only ever approximating belonging anywhere – this, us around a fire at home, is an image of the closest we came.

… a Past that speaks to the Present – 

The person standing over the stove in her husband’s house is a stranger. Seasons change and I try to reach her, crossing the bridge of space and time, from a girlhood we have shared. I am still 19 and idealistic, reading on my bed, in my room, in the house of our dreams, that, in this parallel universe of before, still stands tall, adorned in its vines and flowers. I send her the image of where I am, nestled in a nook that has held us both. She is letting the winter have her, resigned to the falling of home and heart. I try to reach through the lonesome fog, to the yearning in her, to the loss of self that she has endured at the hands of tradition and circumstance. You didn’t know when you left, that there wouldn’t be a home to come back to, I remind her. Even if the bricks fall, you can always go back there in your mind. I imagine that she hears me; that’s the single tear that gathers in the corner of her eye is the bridge from me to her. We’ve always favoured winter, for it has taught us how to stay warm.

I watch from Before, and want to hold her; this brave & broken eventuality I know will be me in a Future where our house has been razed to dust. It’s cold, but I will her to savour the tea, the quiet morning, the weight of the book in her hand. I will her to let herself mourn home; everything it was and wasn’t. I will her to feel me there with her, a part of her, that can witness her – witness the loneliness away. As a fragment of her self, I want to offer a sunbeam of belonging, to warm the skin of her soul. I want to remind her of what we know in our bones – that the lonely can grow roots again and again:

for this feeling;

this longing for home –

is home.

Author bio: Ujwalla has felt in poetry ever since she can remember. She sees the creative word as a language that captures interiority with a kind of magic that evokes the depth within its readers too. She is fascinated by the power of this resonance. She works by day as a psychotherapist in New Delhi, with the resonance of words at the heart of her practice. 

A season of Yearnings

by Affan

Yesterday, I opened my wardrobe and retrieved my blanket. It emanated an odor that stirred my senses, transporting me back to last year’s winters. At its peak, that winter mirrored my emotional fragility. I had pledged that by the onset of the next winter, I would have penned all the stories I yearned to write. As the idealist I used to be, I foresaw myself transformed — refined, akin to a sage, devoid of immoral tendencies.

Now, I realize I’ve lingered in the same state as last year, and the year before, and so on. I’ve merely dreamt of change, never truly embraced it. This season, unfolding from the previous, reveals the fallacies I’ve concealed beneath my social exterior.

As the wind breezes and days pass, I don’t tally the moments I squander, yet persist in lamenting my obituary state of futility.

I remain under the blanket, yearning to rise and complete the drafts of stories and essays initiated long ago. I wish to witness the sunrise, the unfolding day, the birds leaving nests in the morning and returning in the evening. I long to comprehend and articulate life as it is.

My window is open, the blanket envelops me. A gentle breeze sways over my potential resistance to procrastination. I feel a sense of retardation and mournfulness, inducing sleep whenever wakefulness threatens to remind me of my lapse into procrastination. Upon waking, I am further disheartened by the unaltered reality. The seasons change, and as I drift to sleep each night with unfulfilled aspirations, I await an unforeseen change, knowing that with winter’s arrival, dissatisfaction with my present state will intensify. Come summer, I’ll mourn the passing of winter, and this perpetual cycle is destined to persist as long as I live, as long as seasons shift, and I persist in promising change in the next season, ensnared in the cobweb of uselessness.

Author bio: I am Affan, currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Delhi. As a dedicated writer and avid reader from Aligarh, poetry courses through my veins. My aspirations extend to becoming a filmmaker, fuelled by a fervent desire to alter the conditions of the world through transformative storytelling.

All My Leaves

by Nyssa Lowenstein 

I think I’m like a tree.

If a tree wanted to cling to every single leaf it ever produced.

But I don’t want them all the time, so I will bag and box my leaves.

Protect them under my limbs regardless of season.

Use my roots to hoard them, press them in books to preserve them, tangle them in fallen sticks, throw them into junk drawers and lockets.

I never want to lose one. 

What if I lose one? 

What if I forget it forever? 

I spend a lot of time collecting all of my leaves. Dreading, catching them as they fall. Instead of reaching for the sun, or reflecting on the passage of seasons and the passage of time that will produce thicker bark, more rings, deeper roots reaching for deeper wells of water and richer soil. Nitrogen, aquifers. 

I want all my leaves. 

I want to protect and save them, out of my mind, but in physical space. I need them. They say something about me. About how I’ve lived. How I’ve been impacted by the air, the weather, the ones who want to chop me down and the ones who will attempt to rake the leaves that I so desperately want to keep but slowly smother my existence.

I weep when they disintegrate because they are not meant to last the time that I am. 

And weeping harder for the ones that I know I’ve forgotten and will never remember exactly, or the ones I can’t recall at all. 

I understand my leaves are meant for a specific purpose, that they are an extension of me for a moment, absorb the vitamin d, give insects a thing to eat or to mate on, and drop when things turn cold. Not forever. I shed them unwillingly. My aging and growth, my wrinkles and seedlings. 

But I want to protect these fronds and petals. Keep them close. They are precious. How can anyone deny they are precious?

If I were a tree that moved – I would carry them with me. 

I know that they would either fertilize my roots better if I allowed their removal. Time passed, rotated to compost, lowered fire danger, made fodder for bird’s nests, or squirrels would chase each other through them in rustling displays of flirtation. 

They would make grass greener and flowers bloom. 

But if they are no longer mine, they are no longer mine. Would someone understand them as I do?

That I want to celebrate each one no matter how painful and that’s why some of them sit in dusty boxes and others are loved to dust out in the open. Get a birthday cake and a party. Some will live longer in my consciousness because I saw them every day. Memorized. 

The ones that sit in boxes in shadowed altars in back closets peel back scars and wounds when I see them again – knowing they are important and if I lose them I will lose that pain that still rings true each time I see them. That I’m never really healed. 

It wrings me out like a towel. 

I love my leaves. I hate my leaves. They make me look haggard and a little unwell. In many ways they have stunted my growth, but are somehow crucial to who I am. Cozy and decaying. A museum.

How can I be ungrateful for them? How can I show my respect to them if I leave them behind or allow them to be swallowed by nature or the local town dump? How can they produce someone else’s mulch?

Author bio: Nyssa Lowenstein is a writer, film producer, and theatremaker. Nyssa has been previously published in The Remnant Archive, and at The Unsealed. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University with a BFA in Acting with certificates from Yale University and Moscow Art Theatre School. Originally from Denver, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Adam, and cat, Milton @nysistrata

TRA Inside an Artist’s Head: Akansha Rastogi

Akansha Rastogi in front of Anpu Varkey’s mural, Summer’s Children, ‘Very Small Feelings’, 2023. Photo courtesy: KNMA

Akansha Rastogi is the Senior Curator at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the brain behind Delhi’s favourite exhibition this summer, Very Small Feelings. In collaboration with Samdani Art Foundation, Rastogi co-curated this exhibition with Diana Campbell, Artistic Director, Dhaka Art Summit. The first iteration of the exhibition was held in Dhaka which was later brought to Delhi as part of the series ‘Young Artists of Our Times’, conceptualised by Rastogi in 2019. With the adage, ‘Nothing is older than a child’, Very Small Feelings invites the visitors to access their childhood as a place that can be entered and exited at will. 

Rastogi’s journey has not been straightforward. “I’m not trained as a curator, in the sense that I didn’t really study curatorial studies.” Films, performing arts and theatre were her entry points into the art scene. With a Bachelor’s in Literature, it was the jump she took to study Art History which reoriented her career. As a fresh graduate, she joined OSIAN’s as an archivist where she worked alongside other curators managing a variety of archival materials concerning modern and contemporary art in the subcontinent.

At the Delhi Art Gallery, she worked on their collection of Chittoprasad’s books and helped them bring out a series of five publications. Eventually, she joined KNMA in 2011. It was then a new private collection without an archive, housing some 450 works and a small team with Rubina Karode as the Director and Mrs Kiran Nadar as the Chairperson. “I was very lucky to come in at a very formative period of this new institution. I grew with it.” 

We spoke to Rastogi in her office space at KNMA, where she was at work and in her element. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Could you tell us what your process is like as a curator? We’re curious about how the mind of a curator works when working on an immersive exhibition such as Very Small Feelings

I believe curators and facilitators are also creative people. They have as much agency as the artists. So, I am always on the lookout to work collaboratively and explore the power of exhibitions as a medium and an expression. My curatorial training comes very much from my experience as a researcher and an archivist. I spent my formative years looking at thousands and thousands of artworks, managing huge private archives, and working with lists that were over 500 artists. That kind of exposure enabled me to develop my own processes of listening to the materials. What is the material telling me? How do you listen, initiate conversations and activate your research? How to listen to the artists, to the city, your surroundings and all the other simultaneous stories that are being told?

Very Small Feelings is special and personal for me, because I was pregnant and delivered my baby as we were conceptualising and thinking through all the conversations with the artists. My baby was six months old when I travelled to Dhaka to install the show. So, in many ways, it is rooted in that sort of personal space which has always been crucial to my curatorial practice, especially as the exhibition itself centres around the ideas of childhood. The personal always informs my practice in some way or the other. For instance, my experience of being a part of the artist collective WALA became important when I was curating an exhibition titled Hangar for the Passerby in 2017 at KNMA, Noida. 

Tell us more about the series Young Artists of Our Times and how it led you to curate Very Small Feelings.

Young Artists of Our Times is a series which I conceptualised in 2019 with a very straightforward focus — thinking with the youth in South Asia and how museums and institutions must involve and engage with that demographic. The series conceptually expands the idea of ‘youth’ or ‘youthfulness’ and prompts one to think of it as a place, a transformative energy, and a sensory body which expresses and thinks differently. 

At the moment, the series is still in its initial stages as it has had only four exhibitions. The first was Smell Assembly. We translated a year-long research by two anthropologists, Ishita Dey and Mohammed Sayeed, into an exhibition. To prioritise smell over sight challenged the museum in an interesting way because it is difficult to contain smells and a different kind of logic is required to durationally think with smells. This was followed by Summer Children by Anpu Varkey, and then Right to laziness… No, strike that! Sidewalking with the man saying sorry, imagined as a thought-form on the idea of apology.

With Very Small Feelings, which is the fourth exhibition under YAOT, our focus was quite simple — how to think about contemporary art and children together? Most contemporary artists don’t create work from that perspective.

How was your experience co-curating this exhibition with Diana Campbell? How do things flow when two people’s curatorial practices come together? And what would you say is the cultural significance of these kinds of cross-border collaborations?

When Diana and I started talking, she was working on the Bonna edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, and the core ideas behind Very Small Feelings—storytelling, focus on orality, childhood, children, play and intergenerational exchanges—connected very well with the schematics of the summit, and excited both of us to develop various layers of the exhibition. Bonna became one of the characters to anchor the exhibition. In the Delhi edition, when we see the works related to the mythology of Bonna, it makes a huge difference. It was always clear to both of us that it would be a story-led exhibition and more than an exhibition, we thought of it as a playground. Diana and I kept exchanging notes on our research and creating a repository of projects, artists and practices we were interested in. It took us a year and a half to develop the concept, commission the artists, figure out artwork loans, institutional collaboration and infrastructure for making these ambitious projects and artworks happen. The scale of the exhibition really grew with Diana’s experience and DAS’s promptness in engaging with so many work productions happening on the ground.

To answer your question about cross-border partnerships, they are difficult to manage. This was a crucial collaboration between Samdani Art Foundation, Dhaka Art Summit and KNMA, two private institutions situated respectively in Bangladesh and India which are key supporters of contemporary art in their own contexts. The overall focus was on South Asian artists because that is our region and both the institutions believe in being inclusive of that aspect but it was a global conversation in itself. For KNMA and Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), it was clear that SAF will take care of the entire production in Dhaka and KNMA will manage the production that takes place in Delhi. KNMA supported all the Indian artists to go and install their works at the summit. We also applied for international grants and funding separately which enabled us to bring numerous international artists.

Dhaka Art Summit is a fantastic platform and I learned a lot from Diana. Over several years, they have created a massive ecology of local craftsmen and people who are involved in making the installations with international artists. I came back with many takeaways because such formulations matter to me and I like to experiment with the dynamics of an exhibition space; trying to work around the integration of how stories and narratives can be entwined with the processes that manifest them. That is why this exhibition is conceptualised as a ‘spread’ which grows and thins out or gets chunkier at places sometimes.

Belly of the Strange III by Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

What would you say were the major differences between the two iterations of the exhibition — between Dhaka and Delhi?

Dhaka was an entirely different context because the exhibition was one of the many shows within the summit. It was installed at a multi-floor venue, the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Dhaka is always significant in terms of its footfalls. The summit and thus this exhibition was visited by 5 lakh 75 thousand people in just nine days. It’s a huge number which makes Dhaka Art Summit the largest attended festival in the world. It was extremely dense and the exhibition was super crowded at all times. 

Most of the projects were commissioned for the show. So, they were coming into being for the first time. The Dhaka Art Summit iteration was more raw, and had an entirely different kind of energy and a celebratory carnivalesque feel to it. It took us another six months to develop it further for Delhi, accommodating many changes that artists made in their works. So, this version is different in the sense that works have changed and evolved. The ones that were produced on-site were remade. We added newer projects, also in lieu of a few works which we couldn’t exhibit because of space limitations. For instance, children’s artworks and Devi Prasad’s project were amongst the many new tangents which weren’t present in Dhaka. In fact, Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange is the first work that we commissioned for the show. What you see here is the fourth iteration of the on-site work and if one looks at the difference between the outcome in Dhaka and here, it’s fascinating how the shape and size of the installation can change according to the space available.

This exhibition is also very different from the kind of exhibitions that KNMA has done so far. Many installations for this show were produced on the site, making both the artists and the works unstable, raw and dynamic. 

Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: KNMA

We have been talking about artists but we would also like to bring in the audience here. A new wave of interactive, immersive experiences focusing on visitor engagement has recently swept museums – something which comes out very strongly with Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty’s Belly of the Strange and Afra Eisma’s Poke Press Squeeze Clasp. What do you think about that and how does that challenge you? 

It’s a fantastic question. Thinking with audiences is always exciting. I do think about audiences but I also don’t because, at certain points of developing the project, one shouldn’t. I believe that work should also be allowed to express itself without any pressures of how it will be received. Otherwise, one falls into the trap of generating the same material. So, from the very beginning, Diana and I conceptualised Very Small Feelings as an interactive exhibition where the audiences are not passive viewers but are completing and making the exhibition by thinking with us and the artworks. 

I believe in the Theory of Loose Parts which was developed by Simon Nicholson in the 1970s who argued how museums, schools, daycare centres and playgrounds don’t work for people and are failures mainly because the creative potential that the space held was saturated by the time it was created. The architects, builders, and everyone involved had their fun while designing the space, making its elements, and resolving the problems which arose. However, by the time the public enters, these spaces are robbed of their fun and are devoid of any creativity. So, he instead proposed a theory of loose parts that are variable and allow the agency to be shifted to the other participants also. I think our exhibition is doing that to some extent. 

We wanted the exhibition to involve the whole being. The sensory body had to be challenged and activated in every way. So, sometimes you jump up, sometimes you lie down, sometimes you just sleep in the Belly, you explore that space through your body. The Belly looks like a toy because the creators were inspired by these small wooden toys. It seems like a headless and tailless body and only you can activate it. I would like to add Afrah Shafiq’s work which is an interactive game to this list. So, that agility was very important to have and we commissioned works which allow you to do that. 

Khaal Gaaon by Anga Art Collective, Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

However, every day has been a challenge in terms of administering the exhibition which also reflects the quality of engagement. For instance, in Anga Art Collective’s space (where visitors are invited to create artworks which become part of the installation), a kid didn’t want to leave their work behind. We eventually had to allow them to take it because the young artist held the right. Though conceptually, the artist of that field wanted such things to be left on the site but we make room for these little negotiations. 

I also believe that the linkages between posterity and digitality are here to stay in terms of designing experiences. Museums do need to think more openly about how they are engaging with numerous media and mediums.

Nobody Knows for Certain, Interactive fiction and archival game by Afrah Shafiq, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: TRA

Do you think that centring the idea around youth or childhood allows you to tap into new sets of inquiries? How do you evaluate the role of children as ‘artists’ in this production of things? Does it disturb some established hierarchies?

While we have historical works by forgotten artists and experimental works based on literature, I think Very Small Feelings is tapping into a new terrain and is challenging how we perceive the idea of child artists and childhood within the museum space, which otherwise mostly looks at children paternally as footfalls. Another layer gets added to the discourse when we bring the practices of artist-educators who have been working with young learners for a very long time. Contemporary artists see pedagogy and learning as crucial parts of their practice. 

There are also artistic renditions of the cartoons we have seen or grown up with. Simon Fujiwara created Who The Bear, and Lokesh Khodke created a character of a young boy who is navigating his way through Bhopal and Hong Kong. The formats of an exhibition and a comic book have merged to give space to illustrators who work on children’s books. We also have illustrations by Ganesh Pyne, the master modernist who is widely known for his tempera works but he also worked for 20 years in an animation studio in the 70s or the 80s in Kolkata.

So, it’s definitely opening up conversations on these levels and by bringing the question of child art and child-artists into the exhibition, it’s kind of playing with the hierarchy of who is an established artist and a young artist. Who is an artist anyway? And who is the audience? Because when the audience is making their stories and leaving their own works, how do you distinguish between an artist and a spectator? You are unsure of what you are looking at but you end up engaging with it on the values and questions it is asking of you. 

This also takes me back to the questions that I used to get when I had just joined the museum— “Why should I be looking at this work? What is so important about it? Even my child can do this.” This is a common response. And now I think of it and feel, of course, the child can do this and the child can do anything and more. So, I have never rejected these questions as unnecessary ones and tried to address them in some way.

Children’s arts centres are designated separate areas in large museums. However, here we have a spread that is mixing things up in surprising ways – by your own interventions, by what you’re about to witness. Personally, as a curator, I do my job but I never dumb it down for the audience. I believe in coming to the same page together with them. I don’t take visitors’ time and intellect for granted.

The two walls at the beginning of the exhibition, comprising children’s drawings, and scribblings of a three-year-old with notes from Devi Prasad written on them are arguing for a space. But I wonder what this is doing to the space of the museum. I don’t have an answer to that but it’s definitely challenging a lot of things. So, exhibitions do also work at that level, right? They have that power.

Exhibition view, Very Small Feelings, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), 2023. Image courtesy: KNMA

This is evident in how we have also received a lot of new footfalls from first-time museum visitors. I have heard a lot of people say: oh, it’s my first time in a museum! Everyday life in the museum is very different from any other place. Here you are in touch with your audiences every single day. I actually want to conduct a workshop sometime soon about rewriting all the wall labels with the audience. I am saying this for the first time here.

Shubha: Now that we are talking about it, I wonder if you pass the mic to the audience, will they always be able to articulate what they want to say? Because our personal experiences do inform how we see things. For example, when I saw the Belly of the Strange, I could only think of how similar it is to the Fish House at Patna Zoo where I used to go as a child. The building resembles a huge fish with its mouth open. The kids used to be scared to step inside thinking that the fish might close its mouth once we were in. So, my parents used to take us in through its tail where they had rabbits. In no time, we would be looking at the fish and sea snakes and would eventually exit through the mouth of the fish, surprised how we were actually in the belly of the fish the whole time. So, the entire idea of the Belly Of The Strange being squeezed and congested doesn’t make sense to me. In that sense, why should everything be described from only an artist’s viewpoint in an exhibition? I enjoy it when there’s scope to accommodate our narratives within the installation. 

Akansha: About your observation if everyone will be able to articulate it? They may or may not be able to and they don’t have to. I too think in fragments; most things that are going on in my head haven’t been said yet and some will never be said. That’s the joy of it — to be able to hold that space for abstraction and museums are such spaces where you are able to hold that abstraction for longer. 

Prachi: I am glad that we are talking about this because I have some visitor feedback that I wanted to share with you. When I came here for the first time with my friend, we were thinking about the Belly of the Strange. What is it supposed to be? To her, it seemed like the inside of her head. I felt that I had come from the chaos of the outside world and this Belly concealed me from it, paving the way for me to access my inner child. It seems that this first installation as you enter, acts as a rite of passage to experience the entire exhibition. To another friend, it felt like the inside of a womb because you are accessing your childhood, and are kind of reborn once you are out of it. It’s interesting how we mostly think of these installations as play areas only meant for children. But this exhibition invites the adults to do just that. One of my friends wouldn’t get up from Afra Eisma’s installation. There is no other way that we would be comfortable lying down like this on a carpet in public. So, this exhibition provides a sense of privacy in a public space, which is an unusual thing. Most of my friends and I also felt a tinge of sadness and bittersweetness at the end of the experience. Our interpretation was that the exhibition invites you to access your inner child and sometimes as adults that inner child is inaccessible to us. So that inability and inaccessibility may make one feel sad. 

Akansha: Or maybe you have accessed some pasts. There are some confrontations which may have happened and some stories that may have been triggered. Sadness is a fantastic emotion! 

Shubha: I think through the means of this interview for Inside An Artist’s Head, we too wanted to understand how you can have a thought at the back of your mind and the possibilities and forms it can take. Similarly, through this exhibition, it is fascinating to witness how an idea can manifest in so many ways. 

Hindi-Urdu: Politics and Poetics of a Contested Linguistic Landscape

By Daniele Speziale

Though a lover of Hindi/Urdu poetry, my first encounter with the language was not exactly poetic. In 2015, as part of an exchange, I moved from my hometown, the Italian port of Savona, to a small village in faraway Malaysia – my first time experiencing the mighty monsoons, vibrant spices and interconnected tongues of the Indian Ocean region. It was there, at Malaysian Indian weddings, that my young self discovered the sheer fun of dancing to Sheila Ki Jawaani and Chikni Chameli at weddings. “You know what, these are pretty catchy” – I thought as I entered a Bollywood rabbit hole that lasts until today. Eventually, lyrics after lyrics and movie after movie, I picked up the language more and more – and with it, the poetics that pervade texts and dialogues. 

When the 2020 lockdown began, I found myself stuck in a tiny apartment in the Netherlands (where I studied Political Science) with an Urdu Grammar textbook and Ralph Russell’s “A Thousand Yearnings, a brilliant introductory anthology to Urdu Literature. My passive absorption of random Filmi vocabulary like “piya”, “deewaana” and “zulfon ka rang sunehra” thus turned into an active exploration of the language’s inner workings. Then, as an exercise of sorts, I started trying my hand at composing my own poems. As of today, I am a budding “ghazalkaar” (ghazal-composer) who goes by the “takhallus” (pen name) of Raahi Italvi. 

After all these years of exploring the language, this is the first time I put my linguistic, literary journey into writing – together with a few socio-political questions I encountered along the way.

The age-old question: what are “Hindi” and “Urdu”? 

The first thing a foreign learner notices when approaching Indian languages is just how thin the line between “Hindi” and “Urdu” is. So thin, that even native speakers struggle to point where one ends and the other starts. The confusion reaches such levels that an Indian friend once asked me: “Is ‘Urdu’ just another name for ‘Persian’?”. After years of reading, my conclusion is we need to start seeing Hindi-Urdu as different registers of the same language, rather than wholly distinct languages. 

Imagine a colorful continuum going from Sanskrit, on one end, all the way to Perso-Arabic, on the other. Depending on how Sanskritized or Perso-Arabized your lexicon is, what you are saying will be more likely to classify as Hindi (in the first case) or Urdu (in the second) – but still along a continuum which, in linguistics, is usually referred to as “Hindustani”. In most cases, I always found it more useful to speak of a unified Hindustani language. After all, “Hindi” speakers are way more likely to refer to their friend by the Persianism “yaar” than by the Sanskritism “mitr”. Likewise, Pakistanis speaking informal “Urdu” will call a flower “phool” and a cloud “baadal” just like their Hindi-speaking counterparts, instead of resorting to Persianism like “gul” and “abr”. 

Some may counter-argue that, still, Urdu is distinguishable by the use of the Arabic script, and Hindi by that of Devanagari. But does this distinction hold? If we look at written production in pre-Partition India, we would find magazines called “Swaraj” distributed in the Urdu script, and the slogan “Inqilab Zindabad” circulating in Devanagari. Does this make “Swaraj” an Urdu word and “Inqilab” a Hindi one? Again, the divide collapses. 

All in all, the purism involved in the terms “Hindi” and “Urdu” hardly reflects South Asia’s linguistic syncretism. Still, in the case of artistic writing, authors might choose to embellish their texts with the prestigious lexicon of Persian and Sanskrit, in which case we might say they are using an “Urdu” or “Hindi” register. How did such a complex divide become so cemented, and how does it affect Hindustani poetry appreciation?

Love-hate patterns: why people romanticize either Hindi or Urdu, and sometimes dislike the other

When I was taking my first steps into the Hindustani culture, besides having to make sense of the Hindi/Urdu divide, I was also baffled by the romanticizing outlook that Indians have towards either of the two languages. To my foreign ears, words like “saadhu” and “jaadu”, “pyaar” and “yaar”, “karam” and “qasam” sounded all rather similar, even as I could usually point out which ones had Sanskrit or Perso-Arabic origins. Why was it the case that, under Filmi songs, some people would comment that they prefer Urdu lyrics over Hindi ones, while others threatened to boycott Bollywood for its use of “foreign” Urdu? 

Hindustani went through multiple historical moments that split it into “Hindi” and “Urdu”, all of which slowly cemented popular perceptions about these in India’s collective perception. British language policy, which aimed at landing a final blow to Mughal culture by eradicating Persian, allowed for the development of Hindi’s highly Sanskritized register. “Shuddh Hindi”, which embodied the alliance between British and Sanskrit-savvy Brahmin elites, achieved a dominant, “sarkaari” status over Urdu, even as it was a relatively artificial idiom. Peggy Mohan, in “Wanderers, Kings, Merchants”, traces how the British coined “Shuddh Hindi” words entirely based on English syntax, such as “prabandhit” for “restricted”, where “pra-bandh-it” is the exact replica of “re-strict-ed”.

This pure Hindi was not just distant from people’s spoken tongues, it was also a language that engaged very little with popular arts. In “Anthems of Resistance”, Raza and Ali Husain Mir argue that Hindi writers, by virtue of their elitism, never bothered engaging in “vulgar” mediums such as cinema – hence why Bollywood dialogues and lyrics came to be dominated by the more daring and progressive Urdu writers. I find it ironic, then, that Hindi-language conservatives nowadays hate Bollywood for its Urdu-ness (often on Islamophobic grounds) when it was Hindi authors who stayed away from it in the first place.

While these two stages are just small moments in Hindustani’s long history, they illustrate how Hindi and Urdu acquired the position they have today: the former a hegemonic register with, due to its top-down-ness, limited popular appeal; the latter a more marginal idiom, but with a reputation of romanticism and lyricism. 

Revamping Urdu knowledge, reclaiming Hindi poetics 

Eventually, the alienation that Urdu suffered in India led to a deplorable situation, where even self-declared Urdu lovers often see the language through romanticizing, exoticist lenses. Romanticization leads to a surface-level appreciation of Urdu as an “aesthetic” more than an actual language, while its exotification perpetuates the perception of Urdu as foreign. 

The situation of Urdu poetry is even more dismal. I remember my struggle in convincing an incredulous friend that “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna” and “Saare Jahaan Se Accha” are ghazals – her disbelief being based on the misconception that ghazals are invariably love poems, while it is in fact the couplets-based, rhyme-following meter which makes a ghazal. Similarly, when people romanticize Faiz’s nazm (not a ghazal!) “Mujhse Pehli Si Mohabbat”, I always ensure they get to know the actual text. “There are sorrows in the world far worse than love’s”, says Faiz before devoting two full stanzas to the pus-oozing, disease-stricken bodies of the poor, exploited masses. The poem, with which Faiz rejected apolitical romanticism in favor of socially-oriented art, is hardly ever considered in its entirety: viral renditions, exploiting andreproducing the “romantic Urdu poetry” aesthetic, have instead almost crystallized a repackaged, “sanitized” version of the same. 

If this is Urdu’s position in the mainstream, it cannot be said that Hindi poetry is afforded much attention either. The equally well-rooted misconception that Hindi is a traditionalist, administrative and academic language distances many from its poetics. Wealths of progressive poets like Dhumil, Vidrohi, Gorakh Pandey, Agyeya and Baba Nagarjun, together with feminist poetesses Mahadevi Verma, Kamla Bhasin, and Anamika, are thus disregarded in the subconscious perception that “Hindi is not as poetic as Urdu”. The neglect of revolutionary Hindi voices, in turn, allows for conservative forces to perpetuate their monopoly on Hindi poetics. I thus believe reclaiming Hindi for progressive purposes would pull the rug from conservatives’ feet and, while caste orthodoxy might have been intrinsic to Hindi’s development, it must be remembered that languages are constantly contested, repurposed, reappropriated and mobilized for new goals. 

Towards the future of Hindustani poetry

The poetry of Hindustani (Hindi, Urdu and every color in between) represents one of South Asia’s most invaluable heritages, but its appreciation and preservation requires a learning which pop-culture alone (as with the Faiz example above) cannot provide: from the forms that poems take, such as ghazals, to Hindustani’s enormous range of vocabulary; from the identity politics that afflict the language, to the pre-Western literary standards that poets followed for centuries. If this were not to happen, Hindustani poetry will suffer what Akbar Allahabadi predicted in his poem “Nayi Tahzeeb”: guzishta azmaton ke tazkire bhi rah na jaenge / kitaabon hi men dafn afsaana-e-jaah-o-hasham honge (not one memoir will remain of past greatness / as tales of our grandeur shall lie buried in books).

Inside an Artist’s Head: Samrata Diwan

Samrata Diwan is the founder of Family Fables Co, a bespoke publishing company that helps preserve individual, family, institutional and socio-cultural histories through books using oral history as a tool. Family Fables evolved out of Samrata’s passion project in 2017, a book on her grandmother (Nani). She worked on this book to prevent losing an essential part of family history and thereafter, continued to extend this opportunity to others by establishing the Family Fables Company.

Shubha: Your team engages with oral histories to document generations of family experiences. We would love to know what guided the creation of Family Fables and how your team navigates through the process of translating memories into memoirs. 

Samrata: Family Fables started 5 years ago but the direction towards its conceptualisation started a year or two before that. I wanted to document my grandparents’ lives. I grew up listening to their stories about partition, how they moved to Delhi as refugees and started life afresh. Such socio-cultural interactions gave insights into the lives and times of an earlier generation. I didn’t want these stories to get fragmented with time or get lost. So, I really wanted to document my nani’s stories and it was then that I was looking for someone to help me with the process. When I couldn’t find someone for the task, I decided to take the job upon myself. At first, I jumped into it like a personal project and would sit down with my grandmother to record her stories. Everything started with a need to document my family history, to just preserve what I could of it. Over time, that personal project took shape into the Family Fables Co. where we are now able to provide an opportunity for others to preserve their own family histories. 

And yes, every story or project that we work on is distinct from the other. But all of them are largely driven by an intention to create a tangible archive of history, culture and identity. So, even though the people in these stories differ, the main motive, which drives both sides, has always been to preserve the memories, and to know more about their roots. That has been the guiding force for us.

Shubha: Are their motives to locate identity also accompanied by a sense of urgency after the pandemic? 

Samrata: What happened to me is also true for a lot of other people. A lot of our clients face a common urge to know more about their roots while they still can. The complexities of everyday lives do not allow them to sit down and ask questions related to their histories to the elders in the family. Thus, in the past, a lot of our clients have been of a younger generation, wanting to know more about their grandparents’ lives. Their parents and the memories they hold serve as the main source of documentation in such cases. I feel that with the pandemic, the frailty and the uncertainties of life came to light which called for a yearning to hold onto such memories even more. We received numerous queries during the pandemic which I feel was largely because people, locked indoors, wanted to do something positive with their family around them. There couldn’t have been a better time to embark on a project like this. 

Secondly, the pandemic also allowed people to reflect and connect more with extended family members. A project like this requires a lot of commitment, not only from us who were helping with the process but also from the family itself. That commitment goes both ways. The process is time-consuming and involves digging through family albums and documents, understanding who are in those pictures, and contacting the right people. 

Interestingly, as life slowed down in a lot of ways, everybody became used to a virtual way of life. We found ourselves conducting interviews over Zoom calls. We could even complete several projects entirely without ever meeting the clients physically.

Shubha: Why do you think that oral history serves as an ideal method for collecting and preserving memories? Moreover, how do you ensure that the stories you’re portraying are neutral? 

Samrata: The information given in oral histories is often not found in books, photos or other archives. It’s the texture and emotion of individual experiences, which brings the past to life in a way unique from viewing objects or reading history books – It’s the weight of personal experience that gives this past its meaning.

There could be your personal views on a lot of subjects but we, as a team, are there to enable you (the client) to document your story; we are just the medium. We are not the key people taking the central roles. Secondly, we work so closely with the families and the individuals who are the initiators that the whole process turns out to be extremely collaborative. It’s more than them narrating and us writing. Every task is first discussed with the family, so we primarily function as a medium, a guide to ensure that the project is completed. Our opinions are not reflected in the text that is ultimately produced. 

However, we do handle aspects related to the book. Our team has the expertise in further structuring the text and designing the book. So, our clients do reach out to us saying, “What do you feel is the right way to go?” But that’s more from a technical point of view. We go about approaching the entire process keeping in mind the visions of the individuals who are overall in charge of the project. So, neither our biases come in stories nor do we influence them but we do give our expertise in terms of the structure of the book. We can’t influence, it’s not our story, it’s their story.

Shubha: Interestingly, Family Fables records personal histories in languages other than English. According to you, how does language play a role in bringing out nuances of a lived past? Given its limitations, would you say that some things are left unsaid in the archival process?

Samrata: Language is crucial. People recount their lives in a language they are most comfortable in, one that is their own. In the past, we have documented stories in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi apart from English. These are the languages that our team was also equipped to capture the stories in. We have taken up projects in Kerala where we have captured the stories in Malayalam. So, we try to organise our team in a way that we can capture the stories in a language that the particular family is most accustomed to. 

Answering the second part of your question, I would say that every archiving team interacting with personal histories, including ours, attempts to bring out the narratives in the same way it was told, which is why the language turns out to be extremely pivotal. And you are right, the body language, and the gestures all come into play when documenting such stories. There could be points where one could be emotional or points where they would want to share a photograph or bring our attention to something more about that particular narrative. 

I would also like to add something about oral histories here. We conduct a series of interviews with the family members involving wide-ranging questions. The idea has been to establish that comfort and trust with the person. Only if they feel comfortable with you being around and asking them about their lives, will they be able to share their stories. One of the ways to achieve this is to have conversations in a language they are comfortable in. This also involves an exercise of guided reminiscence wherein the person is allowed to revisit their past.

Shubha: Each book, curated by your team, is more than mere genealogical accounts and also records legacies passed down through generations. Alongside these personal memoirs, your team has also curated institutional books, commemorative books, family cookbooks, and customised products. How do you approach archiving projects in such varied formats? Is the process significantly different from recording memoirs? 

Samrata: There are various formats which we have previously taken up. As you named, there could be memoirs, family history books where we’ve interviewed up to 80-85 members in one of our projects, or family trees where we once covered an extensive tree including 300 members. In this sense, documenting family histories could seem more like placing a puzzle together. Depending on how the individuals want to go about documentation, we either do full-fledged family cookbooks which include recipes passed down generations as heirlooms, and recipes made on special occasions or recipes could also be a part of family history books. We have incorporated folk songs and recipes as separate chapters for a book tracing the histories of a family based in Multan. The idea has been to preserve what we can and that differs from family to family. We have had opportunities to document institutional histories as well. 

Shubha: Having completed five years in the publishing industry, which were some of the most gratifying stories that you had the chance to cover? 

Samrata: I started this project because I felt that there is something extraordinary in ordinary stories. Every family has a story. Every individual has something to tell you. One doesn’t have to be necessarily famous or rather “make it” in life to feel the need to document their story. So, one of the most gratifying aspects is to provide people with an opportunity to document their stories. We are committed to making this process as hassle-free as possible. Our process encompasses everything from capturing interviews, research, collecting photographs and documents, writing the narratives, providing editorial support and designing the book, thus providing a carefully produced book of your family history which is almost like an heirloom. Presenting that book to the family knowing that it will remain in the family for generations makes for the most gratifying part. 

I have had the chance to work on so many inspiring stories and meet numerous inspiring figures during that journey that it is truly a motivation for me and my team. We do this day in and day out just because such stories need to be shared and preserved. 

Samrata and the team at Family Fables are working on multiple books including memoirs, and institutional and family history books at the moment. You can find their work here


Twin Sisters With Cameras: An Exhibition Review

By Shubha Bhatt

On their 12th birth anniversary, twin sisters Debalina and Manobina received an agfa camera as a present from their father Benod Behari Sen Roy. Upon their mother’s ill health, Roy, an ardent educationist and a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London, assumed charge of his daughters’ upbringing. The dark room built in the process soon turned into a memory keeper; a site where Lina-Bina, as the twins were known, would bring their explorations of the self and the surroundings into light. With a camera in hand in their teens, the twins captured the land and lives of their hometown, Ramnagar, in ways that surpassed the lens of professional photojournalists of the time. 

Both Debalina and Manobina started out by capturing women from their immediate and extended family. The process helped them develop their own styles. Their approach, quite different from that of the traditional studios of the days, was acclaimed remarkably by the subjects of their photographs.

Personally, I don’t like being on photoshoots; the idea gets increasingly intrusive with every click. In contrast, the black and white stills from the 1930s and 1940s captured by both Debalina and Manobina seemed authentic; just as the natural daylight where they were shot in. These attempts that now seem to be acts of breaking out of the ordinary were simply their ways of life. “Debalina’s own portrait for marriage was taken by her sister… critiquing a certain kind of representation of women in older studio traditions. These were images that she rebelled against and it reflected in her portraits of women.” (Sabeena Gadihoke, Home & Beyond)

Both Manobina and Debalina moved to Calcutta after marrying in 1937 and 1946 respectively. What stayed along was their bond with photography. In the years that followed, they documented their daily lives, and social gatherings while taking on new roles as wives and mothers. Manobina, who eventually moved to Bombay around 1950, accompanied her husband on trips abroad. Such trips would offer her ways to venture out photography while exploring the cities such as that of Athens and Moscow.

On a joint trip to London in 1959, the sisters could finally come together for “more spirited photography”, an opportunity to document lives beyond their own. For the next six months, both Manobina and Debalina adopted street photography, a style that was experimental but allowed them to stick with their approach at the same time. In capturing movements in and around the Speakers’ Corner and Hyde Park, the sisters acknowledged whatever the subjects (who included a number of women) had to offer, be it eagerness or solitude. 

I believe the titles often hold the reflections and after-thoughts of a photographer. The same stands valid in case of Manobina and Debalina. So many of their thoughts could be comprehended by how they chose to name their photographs. The picture beside ‘Joy in the bus’ noted “A Bus Ride: London in a bus. I was struck by this mother and child and took his photograph.” It’s clear that it was more than a bus ride that Manobina found herself on for it was London, its essence in minuscule, that she rather experienced. In London, Debalina could catch ‘Temptations’; in Hyde Park, she found ‘Solitude’. She even photographed people’s participation in rallies against the Soviet presence in Hungary. 

Throughout the lives that lay ahead, the sisters held on to photography, and often submitted to journals to have their works published. With the camera, they were in charge of writing their story and of others, as they saw it. 

The exhibition at the India International Centre was a walkthrough of the photographic lives of the twin sisters. And yet, somehow, somewhere, it served to be more. Interacting with their family members and engaging with works from the family collection made for an experience so profound and heartfelt. There was a sense of familiarity that I could feel brimming right through the room as love and belongingness seemed to prosper very similarly to what I’ve seen and heard in my family.

Over time, I keep coming back to a particular image from 1930, shot on a self-timer and titled “The twins with friends, Benaras.” The photograph reflects what owning up to spaces (of leisure in this case) seemed like then, a yearning that women across families like mine share even today.