Sunday, May 30, 2010

Discovering the Mary Westmacott books

Thanks to new Rs. 150/- editions and my sister leaving behind a couple of Agatha Christies on her last trip, I have been reminded of how wonderfully she wrote. It's now well over twenty-five years since I first discovered and drank them in. I have occasionally found an unread book or re-read favourites, but between excellent writing, a decent memory and cinematic adaptations, had stopped, thinking I would remember them too well to enjoy another reading.

Not true.

And yesterday, I bought "Giant's Bread," one of the novels she wrote under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. I have long hesitated to pick these up. What if they are boring?

Let me tell you: "Giant's Bread" is unputdownable! Set over a couple of decades between the Boer War and the First World War, the characterization and plot are amazingly contemporary. It's only the references to specific locations and events that remind you that this is not a story about the last two decades (and yes, the absence of email and cell-phones!).

I want especially to highlight the section where Christie/Westmacott writes from the perspective of a small boy. It's brilliant. There's no trace of the well-traveled, world-feted novelist there: just a little boy, who is afraid of grand pianos and has imaginary friends.

If you are looking for a fun read for a summer evening, try "Giant's Bread." Now, I must earn the time-off to read the first volume of the Ariadne Oliver omnibus!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

An hour in Landmark

I took some time off to wander around Landmark, Nungambakkam this morning. I go often, usually with visitors or with a specific agenda. It's always a pleasure to wander around books without an agenda or time-limit. It's not often that I do that without also spending money.

I increasingly spend more time in the non-fiction section than the fiction, mostly because I am in the middle of some project and so the subject is on my mind, but also because I am increasingly loath to spend money on fiction. The Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith are a delight but almost INR 600/- for fiction is more than I can afford. And I realised today that I want to be very sure I will enjoy a book before I pay for it. Take the two together and there's not a lot there that I will pay for. But that's not what I wanted to blog about.

I was looking at the women's studies shelf, or whatever they call it at the moment. It's a melange of books that includes V.Geetha's "Theorizing Patriarchy" alongside Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and "Women who run with wolves." Whatever. But searching for something that I might enjoy as much as I did "Reading Lolita," I noticed two trends.

One, books about friendships between women seem to use Jane Austen a part of their plot. Women read Austen. They write about Austen. They recreate Austen. Now I love Jane Austen's books and have no trouble understanding why others do, but it's just curious that so many books seem to make people loving Jane Austen's work central to their plot.

I also noticed that a lot of books are about mothers looking for children, fighting for children, etc. Or the book about the beauty parlours of Kabul. Or women in West Asia writing about their struggles with what western publishers see as a bad situation with marketing potential. Why not, is one reaction, and "hmmm" is the other.

I also noticed that the shelf with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" magazines has grown in size. Interesting, I guess. Magazines are glossy, people are glamourous. And I feel like Rip Van Winkle, rediscovering the universe, one bookshop visit at a time.

And perhaps the strangest thing was that I was not tempted by a single new work of fiction. Not one. I came back with Agatha Christies that I have read before, confident that they would be totally paisa vasool. And that others visiting our home would be happy to read them too.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The delicate thread of livelihood: A tangail from Fulia

Last week, this time, I was getting ready to go with two friends to the small weaving village of Fulia in West Bengal.
The expedition was planned following a casual question about saree shops in Kolkata. I am a great fan of Bengal cotton sarees. They are simple, elegant, hardy and still light enough for the hot, humid weather of cities like Bombay, Chennai and indeed, Kolkata itself. They are also always wide/ tall enough for tall women to wear comfortably, a great virtue in my family. And need I say, they last forever; out in the balcony two days ago, was a saree I had bought in 1996--worn first to outings, then to work meetings, then at home during the day by my mother and now in the night.... still going strong. (Very simple saree on the right was the first cotton saree I chose for myself at 14, and the one I wore to our school farewell party thirty-one years ago.... still good!)

Anyway, this post is not about sarees or our clothing preferences. It's about the consequences our changing preferences have for traditional artisans.

I want to share with you some photographs I took in the village, with the encouragement of my friend. I don't normally take photographs of strangers and am uncomfortable when I see tourists do that. People are not curiosities! But I want to share these pictures that I took in a weaver's shed, with the weaver's nonchalant assent. And I do mean nonchalant. He barely looked up from his work, letting the rhythm keep him focused in a way I wish I could emulate.

We had driven out in an air-conditioned vehicle and could still feel the cruel mid-day sun, past the tinted window-glass. He wove with that sun beating down his bare back.

We had gone to Fulia at least partly in search of lower prices. But travel is such a good teacher! The visit reminded me of things I knew, but don't think about.

It takes so many days' work to weave a single saree, and the work is so fine. We take one look at a saree and say, "No." Or if we are more outspoken, "Ugh!" or "Who'll buy that?" If we actually like the saree, we are likely to second guess the quoted price because we are sure that the customer is taken to be gullible. The person who really loses out is the artisan/ artist who created the saree in the first place. But we don't think of that.

If I buy a saree for Rs. 400/-, I will then make sure I have a petticoat/ underskirt that's just right and a blouse that matches. I might even have two blouses made--a dressy one and a simple one. More fabric, and tailoring, too. Depending on where I live, I might spend between 700-900 rupees to make my saree ready-to-wear, but the weaver will still get a small fraction of that. And that's the fraction affected by the habit of haggling over prices.

But if I don't even buy a handloom saree, with or without haggling, what happens? That's the point of my post, really.

In the last few years, I have seen more and more Indian women move away from handloom. The most important reason is that handloom cloth is hard to maintain. It needs to be washed separately because bright dyes may bleed. It needs to be hung out to dry separately. Handloom sarees (and salwar-kameezes) often need starching. They almost always need ironing. Who has time? Who has space in India's densely packed cities? And how many can afford even the roadside istrivala (ironing-cart) on a regular basis? Fair enough.

Handloom is also more expensive. There are inexpensive weaves but they don't last as long. And synthetic daily wear sarees are cheaper than better quality handloom cottons. Understandable.

But how about those who can? Why do Karan Johar's heroines wear chiffon where Chanderi or Maheshwari weaves can look as delicate and more gorgeous? Why are TV bahus in georgette and crepe when a Mysore silk or Paithani might work as well? What about TV anchors? And evening gowns on Indian red-carpets? These are all people who can afford the sarees and laundry.

Most of all, it is the increasing adoption of the climate-inappropriate, funereal black business suit that upsets me. This is a hot, mostly sweaty country. Why would Indian women (or men) choose to wear ghastly Western style business wear (with stockings/socks and shoes) here? Moreover, when we are talking about climate change all the time, why consciously adopt office-wear that makes it mandatory to run air-conditioning all the time?

I work with young people who freak when I suggest (in jest) that they wear a saree to our programmes. It's such a beautiful dress, at any age! Our compromise solution: the salwar kameez. Because left to themselves, they would be in western clothes. In what way are t-shirts and jeans or funereal (I repeat the word on purpose) office suits more beautiful or appropriate in India than these? And aren't other people tempted by them as I always am?

With each such choice--whether by the office-goer or the student or Manish Malhotra--the weaver's livelihood diminishes. And an important part of our heritage is lost, as this traditional art, passed on from generation to generation, dies. Change is the order of life, I accept, but why usher in change unthinkingly? Will we then wait for an outsider to come and re-discover our textile heritage, willing then to pay 4000 Rs for something we shun at Rs 400? This, of course, is the FabIndia success story.

Are you now tired of my tirade, asking: So what am I supposed to do? Here's what I would request: Buy handloom when you can. And give artisan's bazaars like Dastkar or government cooperative stores a chance, before you head out to the big department stores. Try Co-optex or Apco or Tantuja or Mrignayanee, at least occasionally. Your small detour might save someone's livelihood or life, and will definitely save a part of your heritage from disappearing.

Take a look at the following: Swati Garg, Recovery a mirage for Fulia's weavers, Business Standard, May 11, 2010. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Founder's Blues

I've been meaning for ages to blog about the process of setting up a non-profit think-tank. Not so much because I have any great insights to offer but because someone else doing the same thing might stumble upon my blog and think, "Okay, I am not alone in this universe! There are other insane, misguided and obstinate people out there, whose egos won't let them beat the retreat that the rest of them urges."

So right there: Some qualities that it takes to found something when you have nothing more than your own skill-set and a clear vision. A healthy degree of insanity that allows you to boldly go where only Star Trek has gone before. An ability to selectively edit out the cautionary advice you get--and where I am, where answers to all questions begin with either "That's not possible" or "That's very difficult"--this is especially important. Obstinacy that makes you stay the course in a way that's true to your vision and not "what someone else does" or "what funding agencies like." And an ego that won't let others be right, even if you have to bend the universe to your will.

I would say that Prajnya is the natural adult version of an institution-building imagination I have always had. I am not just rewriting history to say this. Every cousin, aunt, uncle or schoolfriend that has been subject to my school prospectuses and architectural blueprints for a campus would attest to this. My school dream borrowed from all the school story-books I loved and my vision for Prajnya grew out of all the other think-tanks and dreams I have encountered.

And yes, I do use the collective 'we' when I speak about this in public, but the reality is this is a dream that found its first agent in me. So this and related posts will inevitably be very personal.

So where do I start with this? I won't do this in a linear mode because really it would not be fair at this stage to narrate the back-story of Prajnya in any particular way. Ultimately, this will be a story of many stories and many people.

What I do want to write about are moments like the one I have been this morning.

I have before me a fundraising proposal to write. It requires imagination, knowledge of the field and a tedious amount of detail to be worked out. Inevitably, we are leaping in the dark on that detail. The chicken-egg problem here is that we cannot actually be sure of the detail till we have money. We cannot get money without writing as if every detail has been finalized. So we sit down, the 2-3 of us that are usually available for this, and imagine a house of cards.

We will do X in January. We will do Z in February. So-and-so and So-and-so2 will do this with us (never mind, that they still have no idea). Jane Doe will evaluate this. Etc. Etc.

That's what all grant-seekers do. No big deal.

The catch: We actually don't have any full-time people on our payroll. So even the 'we' is an iffy 'we'. So as the person who is always there because the dream is in your head, you start to think: Okay, what's the point? Who am I writing this proposal for? Who cares if I do this? Who else is at all invested in this?

The hardest part of founding and building something is that it is very lonely. And this is both ironic and worrying, because an institution-building is a team effort--not just during public programmes but every single day. And I don't want a codependent relationship with Prajnya. It's very hard even for the founder to stay motivated when the team remains virtual beyond a point.

Prajnya is teaching me to live in the moment--the human, financial and material resources I have at any moment are all I can count on. That has spiritual virtue but in the real world, it is very difficult. I have not learned how to live this lesson yet. I worry less about what will happen--I have enough faith in whatever's brought me here to know that Prajnya will become what it should be. But I have a hard time staying motivated. My conviction on specifics wavers. My faith in anyone outside myself is easy to shake and it billows and folds like a light curtain caught in a resentful wind. And I need a lot of cheerleading which we all know is mostly unavailable in the adult world.

This is a downer of a post in some ways but this is not an easy process. And as I said, I hope my being candid will give someone else solace: You are not alone. All of us have to remember that we started on this course because we had faith in ourselves and in our dream. We need to remind ourselves (and each other) of that, oftener than we do.