Where do you lie?
Where do you not?
You are the hesitation in my step
The boldness in my raised head
The indented half moons on my palm when my nails dig in a shade too deep
The worry in my voice
The plaintive cry of the muezzin
The sky silhouetting the towers of the mosque
You are every bird that flies across that vast expanse
You are the call of the bird, dying into the evening sky
You swish between my toes as wanton waves
Sing in my blood and lift my senses
You are the half-formed thought of an early morning
The gush of a river as she crashes against rocks
The poetic sheen on a drop of dew
Everywhere I feel you
You run, always a step ahead of me
Always out of reach, yet tantalizingly close
Like a scream in the stillness of a mid-morning
A sudden moment of quiet in a crowded bazaar
The half-arrested gaze of strangers fearful of intimacy
When they ask me where you are
What shall I tell them, where shall I begin?
How shall I teach them to hear with the eyes, taste with their ears? What can I teach them what it is to feel beyond the senses?
And so they will condemn me to a life beneath other lives
They will call me insane, mad, a fool
But let them, I cannot bring myself to care
For every moment there is a moment lost from the pursuit of you
You who widen my eyes in a moment of surprise
You who fire my imagination
You who have no name

– Cry of a madwoman

The Seven Stages

The craftsman stood in front of his workshop, under the colourful banner that announced his name and profession to customers. It was a fine morning. He would create something new today, he thought.

He set out to make something with the fresh clay…

In the beginning there was the new; freshness, innocence, every day an adventure. Stumbling, falling, rising, curiosity followed everything everywhere and fed on every experience, small or big. Laughter bubbled up every once in a while, tears appeared just as often, petulance reared its head and the base of it all there was a contentment and peace that would soon falter and then vanish altogether. But there was time yet.

… he moulded it gently, beginning to give it direction…

Curiosity intensified into a grave quest in right earnest and innocence began to give way slowly to knowledge of the world and its ways. The brightness dimmed just a little and a certainty began to take its place. Selfishness reigned. The laughter came less frequently and petulance transformed into temper. There was a transformation taking place.

… and when he was satisfied it was hardening, he began to use strength; carving and embossing…

Intelligence dominated now in thought and word and deed. Suddenly, passionate love bloomed – rich, sharp,  ripe, fragrant, painful. New highs and lows appeared where a placid graph had stood before. Pain such as never had been seen alternated with ecstasy. Desire warred with caution and won hands down. Towards the end, wisdom began to form. Compassion reared its head and began nudging selfishness out.

…pleased with its form and shape, he raised the pot to the sun and the rays illuminated its perfection…

Compassion fuelled action now. Desire burgeoned into a steady affection. Intelligence had ripened almost fully to wisdom, and elsewhere self awareness was giving slow, sure birth to humility. A larger vista opened up. Regret coloured memories of the past and its squandered opportunities that had never been recognized. 

…he filled it with water and began watering tree upon tree on the dusty stretch of road; and lo! the pot served its purpose ably

Energy rose out of regret, strong and purposeful and filled the vacuum of all the wasted years. Direction married experience and hindsight and the result was pure magic: achievement! Surely this had been the purpose, the ideal – to transform crystallized ideas into concrete victories.
This then was the zenith, and it would last a few glorious years.

…until one day, many years later, a crack appeared in the side of the pot – and despite his efforts began to widen slowly…

In due course, tiredness began to set in. Aches and weariness became par for the course and action was no longer the easy matter of routine that it had been. Wisdom was now as fine wine, cooling the parched young desire-fuelled minds of all that reached for it. A certain premonition of finality was beginning to descend, and with it brought about the surprising return of a kind of innocence.

…and one morning, the pot cracked whole and shattered to the ground, spilling its last load of water.

The end was inevitable and come it did, with infirmity and inability. It was not sudden, but when it appeared it conquered immediately. In the last few moments before the end, everything played in a quick dance – curiosity, laughter, anger, intelligence, desire, love, affection, realization, wisdom, action, satisfaction, tiredness, infirmity, the return of innocence. And then – the end.

The craftsman examined the remains of the pot sadly, and then buried them. Idly he wondered what he would have called this one… and settled on ‘Life’. Yes, he liked the sound of that. This had been a good thing, this ‘life’, though there had been mistakes. Perhaps he would create some more. After all, it was a fine morning. Ideas humming through his mind, he walked into his workshop. Outside, the colourful banner continued to wave aloft, announcing its owner to be
Creator and Craftsman.
No two products alike.

The Race

He ran like a madman.

Fear propelled him forward like a second pair of legs, like wings he did not know he had until they unfolded and swept him down the road. His breath came in short gasps. His forehead was beaded with sweat, the cold caused his legs to itch.

He strained to hear footsteps, but beyond the pounding of blood in his ears, it was heard to hear anything any more. Would they catch up?

He redoubled his speed. At this pace, it seemed hard to say if he could have stopped even if he wanted to.

He would have to outrun the enemy.

And so he ran




What seemed like a decade later, when he could no longer run without a break, when the desire for rest fought with the desire to race and won, he slowed down and then stopped. Almost too scared to look, he turned around…


No one.

The road was empty. Relief coursed through his system, left him weak.

None of his friends or colleagues raced down the road – or at any rate, they were certainly not close behind. In the distance, there may or may not have been the sound of pattering footsteps, but if so they were reassuringly faint and distant.

By the time time they caught up (and God forbid they should!) he would be on the run again. He was ahead. He needed to be ahead.

Belatedly, as his breath settled, he searched for his parents, but they seemed to have fallen by the wayside at some point. He could barely remember them anyway, beyond vague memories – two pairs of old fashioned spectacles, faded cotton, starched shirts, worried expressions. He did not have the luxury of time to invest in love.

For a moment, childhood memories threatened to close in – but the sound of footsteps closing in took precedence. Fear lit his eyes once more, turning them pitch black and he began to run again.


Tired legs carried him forward, ambition fueled them. Slowly he gained speed.

In a few moments, beyond the curve in the road, he could be seen no more.



Somewhere in the stretch of grey road behind him, a pair of old-fashioned spectacles lay wedged into the side of the road, cracked lenses glinting in the sudden moonlight.

And then darkness closed in.


How in the world am I to focus on paying bills and the monthly EMI, on vacuuming the house and scrubbing the floors, when ahead of me in glorious abandon the wide, wide world beckons? What chance does a fused light bulb have of snaring my attention when there is a magpie cocking his head in one direction and chattering an invitation? Why must I add and subtract numbers and memorize sub-sections of the law when there is rich poetry begging to be written, pregnant with meaning? Can a tallied balance sheet offer a tithe of the emotion of an exquisitely crafted movie? 

Why does this world offer me beauty and creativity and weave a blanket of passion and madness around me, and then force me to look away from it all and into the narrow, nauseatingly perfect columns of an excel sheet? Why does art force me to earn my keep before I can surrender myself to it? How ironic is the fact that in order to get away from the small worries of every day life and paint my soul in joyous liberation, I must first have the wherewithal to buy an easel, brushes in multiple sizes and six tubs of paint!

On your forehead

Beautiful. Pretty. Skinny. Ugly. Sensitive. Touchy. Painful. Talkative. Elegant. Snobbish. Weird. Bitchy. Cool. Uncool. Likeable. Irritating. Hindu. Muslim. Sikh. Christian. Brahmin. Non-Brahmin. Religious. Atheist. Agnostic. Tree hugger. Slut. Chaste. Conservative. Traditional. Ambitious. Laidback. Modern. Cheap. Dirty. Friendly. Stiff. Shy. Introvert. Extrovert. Middle class. Old money. Poor kid. Rich kid. Fashion plate. Shabby. Mannerless. Bright. Plodding. Studious. Dull.

Amazing how well some people seem to know to describe you, when you are barely figuring yourself out each day.

Too many labels.
Only one you.

Good or bad, flattering or not, don’t let the labels get to you.

If you do, you’re finished.

Just be.

On respect

(I’d posted this on facebook a while ago, and then hurriedly remembered that I have a blog. Sigh.)

I had a conversation with my mother this morning about various things – like all mothers and daughters do – ranging from cooking, to how husbands are incorrigible, to the prices of everything to eventually life itself. At some point, we discussed the value of respect as a value. It led to me thinking about respect and its changing importance for different generations.

When I grew up, some of us (not all) learnt to respect. Not obey or fear, but to respect. We respected our parents because it was incomprehensible to us why two people on the cusp of life would seemingly sacrifice so much – sacrifice their days to dirty little hands and clearing up toys; sacrifice their nights to crying babies; sacrifice their hard earned salaries to indulge as many childlike whims and fancies as they could and provide a solid education, indeed the best they could provide; sacrifice their peace of mind for parenthood.

We learn to respect teachers as surrogate parents, not because they always knew best but because they gave us the gift of knowledge. Even while we complained bitterly of ruthless teachers claiming every extra period available and snatching away games period (that most unforgivable of crimes!) somewhere deep down we knew the dedication and commitment that spurred each teacher to reach out beyond the call of duty and spend even further time looking at our at-best accusing faces to teach us as much as they could. Come to think of it, what’s to stop a teacher from saying “Well, that’s about it, I’ll leave you to die with the rest of the portion” and not insist on “I’m taking this period, and this one, and this one – all so I can finish this chapter though it doesn’t affect my variable pay in the least”? A teacher’s compliment was, and is, for some of us the Holy Grail and we would fly home from school on imagined winged horses that day, flush with joy, repeating the exact phrase or words to ourselves and yell it to our mothers as soon as we reached home – “Amma, miss said my essay was ‘very well written’!”

We learned to respect age – not to agree with everything it said or to sacrifice our views or principles – but because with that age must have come a wealth of experience -and experience is always worth listening to, even if not heeded all the time. We spent a few extra minutes listening to old people and their reminiscing, cribbing mentally but outwardly respectful.

Some of us, we’re none the worse for having respected. We’re none the worse for having bowed, folded our hands, smiled respectfully, lent an ear to the experience someone older, for trying (if not always succeeding) to treat the watchman, the ayah or the beggar with as much respect as would treat influence, power and wealth.

I had a very old tuition master once, a wizened old man with a joyous smile and very set ways of doing everything. Every day when I was fourteen, I would visit him and sit learning math – or his version of math that used to be taught twenty years before then. He had been a Maths teacher decades previously and sorely missed teaching eager classes. He did not know that math had advanced sufficiently for his teaching to be outdated now. His simple pleasure in solving a problem for me in his favourite purple ink was infectious. For a long time I visited him every evening and he looked forward to my visits, starting with familiar comments on what I was wearing (“Why is your nail polish not red? Red is the only colour nail polish should come in!”) and winding up with “Have you understood, girl?” (after having taught me the same problem as he had last week). Eventually, many months later, I rebelled and moved to another tuition class where my grades improved significantly. But somewhere deep down, I feel guilty even today thinking about his shocked and very let-down face when my father and I told him we would not come over again. No, my decision to get better tuition was not wrong, but I could have gone over simply twice a month to spend time with him, to let him teach me whatever he wanted to, to give him the pleasure of being a teacher again. I had the time, but my impatient youth did not have the consideration or thoughtfulness.

Sometimes, experiences in life are not about ‘us’ – they are not about whether WE want to go to drawing class or whether WE care to spend Sunday afternoons with an aged aunt. They are about the other person, that rare entity we barely pause to think about. They are about an old man’s dedication to catch a bus to and fro at the age of eighty five and teach you drawing and sketching every day. They are about a wrinkled, tired old lady’s pleasure in having a listener and reminiscing about her youth and beauty at a time when life is about to sing its swansong. These are experiences which life is throwing at you to see what we do with them – some of us welcome them with grace, some of us jeer and pass on.

And yet life throws still more experiences at us generously. I for one am learning (however late) to treat them with more maturity and grace, to respect people and experiences. One thing is for sure – I have never regretted the journey.


I put this up on my posterous.

An old woman lived inside a temple. She did not move or speak. She stayed in the same spot, doing nothing.

Every day, the man watched her sit quietly – saying nothing; doing nothing. He watched her do nothing and say nothing for days and weeks and months until one day he could take it no longer. Her inactivity roused him to action. He would prod her into action, he promised. He would take away whatever it was that stopped the poor soul from acting, from talking, from living.

He walked up to her.

“Why do you do nothing?” he asked. “I watch you everyday, I have done so for three years now. Each day, I ask myself how it is you can do nothing. Are you unable to move? Has someone forced you to do nothing? Whatever it is, I am here to help you! Be free, woman! Move, sing, dance, do what you want to do! Let no one and nothing stop you. Do you want money? What can I do for you?”

He paused, flushed with the sense of one effecting a great change.

The old woman looked at him coolly for a long minute.

Then she said –

“Have you ever considered that this is what I want to do?”



The Writer

For days he punched the keys, swearing in frustration when a paragraph did not hit the perfect note, when his words scorned to weave magic at his bidding. Each time he aimed for the flourish of a full, laden, ripe sentence, the words ground themselves against each other, jarring, proud and unsociable. Sighing, he tried again, and again, and yet again.

Then one day without warning, sentences suddenly synchronized: romance kindled itself gently, words linked arms with other words, suspense breathed sharply down his pages, uncertainty kissed his writing goodbye and lo! a plot emerged.

Fazed, he stared down at the old typewriter, an odd contraption: the corners of some keys cracked, rust embracing its sides. It winked back solemnly at him.

And then on, there was no looking back. Story after story sped out with the haste of a maid sweeping dust under the carpet.

Sometimes though, strangely enough, he thought he missed the struggle: the uncertain, agonizing wait for perfection as each phrase coined itself from the ashes of a dozen failed turns; the sleepless nights of discarding old drafts and nourishing new ones; the deep-felt satisfaction as at long last, one perfect, hard-won sentence revealed itself like a debutante at the ball.

A Sort of Letter to Writers of Novels Set in Foreign Lands

Today, I want to write a short post about writing and maybe about the reader – in this case, me. A stray thought (and I have too many of those) inspired some tweets :- starting with this one, then this tweet. Realizing that I was quite obviously building up to a post, I decided to write at length here.

This is more like a letter.

Dear writer (of also novels set in foreign countries),

I have a confession to make. When you put your pen to paper about a foreign country, rather than extol its almost predictable exotica, I wish you would write passionately of its ordinariness.  I want to know what its people eat and what they think, what superstitions hold together the stitches of the fabric of their lives. Nuggets of wisdom hidden inside tales of daily life, hardships that people undergo, if not cheerfully, then uncomplainingly.

Writing must resonate with realism.

Special moments stand out only when the mind is accustomed to the ordinary, to the rhythm of life in that faraway country, in that mayhap imaginary land. Tell me about the box of lunch packed each morning by a hassled mother with an eye perennially on the clock. About the cyclist who takes the same detour each day to stop and watch the afternoon train in the distance throw up clouds of smoke to a passive sky. In the middle of your lovingly detailed  routine that my mind has become one with, throw that surprise that you have been waiting to spring on me so badly that your heart is bursting – shock me with an unexpected death, scandalise me with an affair, shatter my calm with a fateful announcement. But before all that –  familiarize me. Take my hand and show me. I must sit pillion with that cyclist each day for those precious five minutes, as he chews on an apple and lazily contemplates who might sit by the window on the third compartment of the train. I need to mutter in exasperation as the mother juggles twenty things that demand her equal attention on a workday morning.

I need to live the ordinary before I can recognize the special.

But here is the real deal.

As a writer, sometimes you may write the ordinary long enough and lovingly enough and well enough that the ordinary becomes special. I will so lovingly slip into the everyday ebb and flow of life in that foreign land that I no longer want something that unsettles me. I will sit by the shade of the trees along with you, content to watch boys draw a crude pitch and bat to their hearts’ content or a fisherman cast his net and wait for hours, humming.

This, then, was part of the magic of RK Narayan. He did not tell me how spectacular Malgudi was, he simply showed me the intimate secrets of its ordinary people. He tapped at their hearts and out! tumbled small worries, petty squabbles, disquieting thoughts, moments of quiet generosity. He wrote of real people leading predictable, but genuine lives.

In Malgudi, I did not need to wait for something spectacular. The ordinary was enough. It fulfilled me.

For the love of Raaja

Here are four reasons I should not be writing a post about the music of Ilayaraaja.

1)      It is utterly stupid to try and write something about the music of a man, most of whose music I am yet to discover. I am slowly going album by album, spurred on by two friends, both of whom have obviously listened to and internalized waaay more of Raaja than I have. I have a looooong way to go.

2)      Better and more worthy listeners and writers than I, have paid handsome tributes to Raaja. Readers have hung on to every word of theirs, and nodded here and Ah!ed there. I am most definitely not a worthy successor.

3)      I am not a long time connoisseur of Tamizh film music. This means that I cannot compare Raaja’s songs with anyone else’s and draw clever, insightful parallels. I cannot with a flourish say, “And in 1982, XYZ composed ABC which one may indeed say is comparable to Raaja’s PQR!” Readers love such things, especially the erudite variety. They can vociferously agree or disagree, in turn quoting six other songs as a support framework.
(Besides, I wasn’t born yet in 1982. Just saying. Not that the year of birth should have much influence on someone’s knowledge of anything.  Unless it happens after their lifetime. But I digress.)

4)      I am technically unsound. For the longest time, for instance, I did not realize that interludes were called as such. Everything sans the actual vocals falls under the broad umbrella of ‘BGM’ for me. BGMs 1, 2 and 3 describe: the intro to the song, the interlude preceding Charanam 1 and the interlude preceding Charanam 2, respectively. I don’t know my ‘parts of a Tamizh film song’ at ALL. Purists look at me pitying and with scorn. Muttered insults abound.

Okay, so now you know what not to expect from this piece. For those of you who are lawyers and like your disclaimers in black and white: Don’t Expect Any kind of Intelligent Analysis, Deep Insights Of Any Nature, or Any Value Add To Your Knowledge Of Raaja.

And yet, none of these factors though true is sufficient to dissuade me from writing about the pleasure his music gives me.

For those of us lucky enough to experience it once in a lifetime, true love takes us by surprise, shaking the foundations of our orderly existence and splashing our hitherto dull lives with hues to match the rainbow: the glorious red of passion, the dark green of jealousy, the sea blue of contentment.

Imagine falling in love afresh every day… plunging to the depths of bottomless sorrow, rising to the heights of ecstatic joy, and experiencing everything in between: querulousness, pleasant surprise, gentle flirtation, overpowering anger, dismay, bitter betrayal, light mischief.

No day is like another, and yet every last one glorious.

Welcome to the music of Ilayaraaja.

I have seldom taken to anything as freely as I did to Raaja’s music. I am normally as anti-newness as it is possible for a person to be. Very few songs catch my fancy at first listen. And then there is the ready censure. Somewhere, in a song that the whole universe adores, I must spot a small part where the shruti does not align. Or where the voice wavers. The concept of looking at a song as a whole and not dissecting it, was simply not introduced to me. I am slowly picking it up, and not sure if even should.

One of the first Raaja songs I heard was Ninnukori Varnam. For a long time as a child, I was confused about whether this was an alternate Carnatic take on the popular varnam. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and the ‘interludes’ were fabulous! I remember trying to master it on the Casio keyboard while in primary school.

Raaja’s intelligence at composition blew my mind. As a small child, I was absorbed with what little I heard of his music from time to time.

When I first heard Aagaya Vennilave (Arangetra Velai) at seven or eight years of age, I was puzzled. The song seemed to follow the meter of ‘rupaka taalam’ which I was somewhat familiar with. This is why. I have tried in my novice way to draw the meter of the pallavi of the song.

1     2     3   4   5   6    1      2       3       4     5      6

aahaaya veNilaave  tharai meedhu vantha thEnO?

1     2     3   4   5   6    1      2       3       4     5      6

azhahaana aadai soodi arangerum veLai thAnO?

So far, so good. But then!

1          2      3      4      5      1           2   3   4    5   6    7
malar soodum koonthale   mazhai kaala mEgamai kooda
uravAdum vizhihale iru veLLi meengaLai aada

The lines “malar soodum koonthale mazhai kaala mEgamai kooda  /uravAdum vizhihale iru veLLi meengaLai aada” followed a 5-7 split metre.  This could not be rupakam because it did not come in cycles of 6 and 6! The world had ended. I grimly looped the song and told myself my taalam was bad. What was the point of music classes! My mother did not seem to care one way or the other. She was happy to just listen. This further irritated me.

I remember being confused for a few full hours  before I realized that it was indeed rupakam and that the sum of 12 can be split both ways: 6 + 6 and 5+7! Simple maths can sometimes seem way more confusing in musical form and add to this the fact that I am no genius. To add further to all this confusion, the interludes were in an entirely different taalam all together: Aadi talam! Once I had the song ‘figured out’ to a reasonable extent, I strutted about, chest puffed out with pride. It seemed then, the ultimate achievement.

But what the mind cannot fully analyze to perfection, the heart can still enjoy. Aagaya Vennilave was and continues to be one of my favourite songs, rendered to easy perfection by a vibrant Jesudass and the splendid Uma Ramanan.

Another song that fascinated me when I first watched it / listened to it, was ‘Oru Poongavanam’ (Agni Natchatiram) – as much for the music as for the cinematography. The beginning of the song was so inventive; if a person who had never heard the song overheard the first two lines, they would be inclined to think they had caught the ending of the song, because of the way it tapers off.

Oru poongaavanam pudhumanam…

Adhil roamaanjanam dhinamdhinam…

Think about it, wouldn’t they make fitting ending lines, the way the tune has been composed? And they form a natural ending for the song too.

And in line with the soft, sensuous nature of the video, the music swathes Nirosha, undressing and dressing her in the imagination of thousands; caressing her every movement, capturing her every mood. Small wonder Karthik is captivated! With music like that in the air, I could fall in love with pretty much any man. There is a dreamy quality to the song that I loved at first listen and still continue to lose myself in, every now and then, as if Raaja had composed it especially for me to listen and revel in.

A favourite that I had heard before, but paid attention to (and therefore truly discovered) only recently is ‘Aaathadi Paavada Kaathada’ (Poo Vilangu). Raaja’s earthy rendition coupled with the terrific catchy tune makes it a must-listen. This song is to me a shining example of Raaja’s intuitiveness while making music. The song is apt for the accompanying video, that of a young lad who catches his love bathing and mercilessly teases the shy girl, alternately flirting and pleading – and yet, it is so much more than a light hearted number; every time I listen to it, I can hear also the woman’s heartfelt, if shy, response – perhaps why each charanam ends slightly more seriously than the rest of the song.

(Bear with my imagination – after all, half the beauty of music lies in what mood and meaning the listener invests it with, at that listen.)

I am now compelled to describe my love of the most enchanting BGM in Punnagai Mannan, a brilliant Raaja musical. We know it only too well, that slightly-over-two-minutes portion of the movie where an overwrought Kamal, tormented by conflicting emotions of love and frustration, commands Revathi to “Clap!” and the proceeds to dance his heart out, initially by himself and then as if drawn inevitably to her, clasping hands with her in tandem. As the couple moves on the dance floor: hands clasped,  eyes locking, bodies swaying, Raaja’s criminally beautiful background score takes the celebrated scene to a whole new level. It is breezy enough for the couple to dance, but heavily invested with a meaning that sends shivers down my spine. Closing my eyes, I can feel my pulse dancing in answer.

This is Raaja adding a layer that did not exist before the music.

Above all the maestro’s perfection takes my breath away. Not one note is out of place. On the fifteenth, and thirtieth listens, each song of his gives me the same sheer, perfect listening pleasure that it gave me the first time I pressed the play button.

Take ‘Unna Nenachen’ (Aboorva Sagothargal). Or ‘Vaana Mazhai Pole’ (Idhu Namma Boomi), recently introduced to me by a friend. Perfection is Raaja is perfection.

To remedy my deficient knowledge of Raaja, I am dedicating a week this year to him. This week, I propose to do a Raaja marathon, only it will be a learning marathon for me. Seven days of sheer Raaja, starting today. I started with the apt Puttham Pudhu Kaalai (Alaigal Oivadhillai). Macchana Paatheegala (Annakili), Raaja’s first number followed, succeeded by Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu (Raajaparvai) and Enna Satham Indha Neram (Punnagai Mannan).

I am welcoming the new year with Raaja’s music ringing in my ears. If there is a better way to usher the new year in, I genuinely don’t want to know yet.

Thank you for coming past the disclaimers to read so far. Please do tell me which Raaja songs or albums I should not miss over the coming week. And share your unique love of the Master of Music in the comments section.

Happy New Year in advance.