Monday, 30 December 2013

on Ittars... (Deccan Herald, 1 Dec 2013)

The fragrance of royalty

Delhi’s Nizamuddin is better known for Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah (mausoleum). 

Walking towards it, one cannot miss the waft of fragrances that awaken and enliven our senses. During my last visit, instead of going straight to the dargah, I took a narrow lane and found myself in an exquisite ittar market. Glass-panelled shops with beautiful crystal bottles holding perfume oils enchanted the passers-by.

Walking into one of the shops, I started a conversation with the owner, Mohammad Faizan (23 years), who is taking forward his father’s business. “My father came to Delhi some 60 years ago from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, and he started this business for Islamic reasons. There is sunnat in it, and no work is considered purer,” Faizan tells me. This reminds me of Eid, when it is customary for every Muslim man and woman to apply ittar. Muslim men also wear ittar on Fridays for their jumma prayers.

Ittar, a term with Persian roots, is natural perfume oil derived from herbs, flowers and wood. The Arabic word is attar. The oil, obtained through hydro or steam distillation, is aged. No alcohol is used in ittars. Hence, unlike synthetic perfumes, ittars are worn directly on the body: insides of wrists, behind ears, insides of elbow joints and back of the neck.

History relates that the Mughal nobles of India were great patrons of these oils. The Jasmine ittar was a particular favourite of the Nizams of Hyderabad. It is also mentioned in Ain-e-Akbari by Abul Fazal that Emperor Akbar used ittar on a daily basis. 

It is also said that a Mughal princess’ bath was incomplete without ittar; particularly Oud which was, and is, prepared in Assam. Legend has it that Mughal Empress Noor Jehan discovered one of the most expensive and exotic ittars, Rooh-e-Gulab, while in her bath. 
Faizan informs, “Our Indian products are home-based and mostly come from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.” It is today the ‘Ittar city’ or the perfume city of India. 

“Our products have varied markets within and outside India. Oud is most in demand outside India, especially in the Gulf.” He tells me that Oud is like wine, gets better and more expensive with time. “Oud starts at Rs 10,000 for 10 grams and can go up to lakhs, often auctioned. This perfumed oil is mostly for the royal families of Saudi Arabia.” 

And that, “Arabs don’t use it as perfume 70 per cent of the time; they mostly use it as an aphrodisiac. The perfume increases the body pressure.” 

The Indian government apparently, reveals Faizan, has put a ban on the export of Oud since its source Agarwood (dark resinous heartwood) is a rarity. “Arabs mostly come all the way to Delhi and Mumbai to purchase them.”

The popular ittars within India, Faizan tells me, are the flower extracts Raat ki Rani and Bela. “But these perfume oils, in natural form, come very costly because of the processing mechanism. Hence identical products, not natural but made of essential oils, are in demand in Indian markets.” 

Though ittar has a steady clientele, Faizan states that pure ittar is almost a thing of the past because of its price. “People, especially youngsters, can’t afford pure ittar and so go for western perfumes available in good price.” But he does admit that they get clients from diverse religious backgrounds and not just Muslims. Besides, they get corporate demands too. 

“Denim makers approach us for water-based ittars. When denim is being processed, the heavy chemicals used leave a very pungent smell. To remove this smell, they use water-soluble ittars.”

Faizan shows me a bottle of Ruhkhas, which is used in summer for its cooling effect. “The more you sweat, more will the fragrance last,” he says. 

Then he dabs a drop of some bliss on my right wrist. It is Shamama-tul-amber, he tells me, which is priced at Rs 1,200 for 10 ml. “It is made of garam masala (Indian spices), amber (a rare extract from the Salmon) and sandal oil. It is in huge demand in the Gulf and India and all other cold places. It keeps you warm.” 

On my left wrist, he adds a dash of Oud. I came back smelling divine, with fragrances on me that survived two showers.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

My short story, "That summer" published by Writers Asylum

My short story story, "That summer" has been published by Writers Asylum. An excerpt:

"I loved Aita not only because she was my mother’s mother but mostly because she was a child like me, at least, at heart. I have always remembered her as this frail old woman with hair as white as cotton tied in a bun that looked more like a pig’s tail. She would be there at the gate in her starched mekhela chadars and toothless smile, waiting to welcome us every time we went. I have never known her in any other image. She would wait for me to come during my month-long summer and winter vacations, bathe in the rain with me, make bird houses with me, pick lice from my hair, make me sleep with her at night and tell bedtime stories. Grandma’s place at Digboi, in one of the northernmost corners of Assam, was my favorite playground. Every time, there would be a new calf or a pigeon, duck, cat, dog, or plant for me to get excited about. And there would be some new story too to keep me occupied during the stay.

Like that summer, in the early 1990s, when Aita took me to the gooseberry tree by the pond behind the house. “Living in the town has destroyed your skin. Look at you!” she told me, holding me by the hand and leading me through the backyard towards the pond. “Your skin hangs on you like a tortoise’s shell when it should be soft and glowing. You need to eat lots and lots of gooseberries.” As we neared the pond, Aita let out a strict, “Be careful now! I don’t want you in the pond. Just follow me!”
As I nodded, she placed a step on the tiny patch of land between the gooseberry tree and the pond, her foot slipped and she went sliding into the pond. It all happened so fast that Aita’s shout came out only after she had landed in the pond. I thought I was imagining things when a little fish leapt out of the water and almost fell into her open mouth crying out in horror."

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Cherra in my mind

I blurted out "Cherrapunji" when a couple of us were discussing our favorite places in the world. It's not that I've grown up there or keep visiting it every now and then. It was just a visit in 2008, with my parents and Dulu jethu and Munu jethai, that did it for me. The wettest place on earth before Mawsynram (also in Meghalaya) claimed the title, Cherrapunji is about 4-5 hours from Shillong (by road) and we were wondering, as we made the trip, why on earth had we not visited it before! Considering the fact that we often traveled to Shillong, which is at a two hour drive from Guwahati, my home town. 

Here, I get together a photo essay from my 2008 trip. I don't know why but Cherra is in my mind today!

on the way to Cherrapunji from Shillong

a shop by the roadside selling mustard green pickles, my favorite!

the beautiful Cherra sky

the Cherra hills

in Meghalaya, a common sight is of women running shops and stalls by the roadside and at marketplaces

women running the show in one of the roadside stalls at Cherra 

a bunch of interesting people we met. I (extreme right, standing) pose with them.

megaliths (burial mounds) inside a village in Cherra
the Cherra sky - clear and blue

such fresh air that when I look at these photographs even today, I can smell the crisp air!

We stayed at the breathtaking Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

here I am taking in the beauty of the place!

at Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

the little lady who made our stay at the resort comfortable :)

Carmela, who along with her Andhra husband Dennis, owns the lovely Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

we pose with the village boys who came to the resort in the evening to sing for us. they were so talented! 


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

My latest short story published - "The cabbie and the Madamji"

My latest short story "The cabbie and the Madamji" has been published by Writers Asylum.


"He said his name was Dharam Pal Singh and he showered Neha with utmost respect. “How far have you studied, Madamji?” he once asked Neha as he took her to The Claridges for a meeting. “PhD,” she replied.
“Have you done B.A.?”
“Oh. Yes,” Neha tried not to laugh.
“My son’s also done his B.A. and has now joined my taxi service. He can speak in English, you know!” Dharam Pal announced proudly. And then he went into the story of how diligent and efficient his son is and that they got him married right after his B.A. because he was quite a catch and there were many parents of girls after him. “His B.A. fetched him quite a dowry, you know?” he winked at Neha when their eyes met in the rear view mirror. “He now has a two year old daughter and his wife is pregnant again; hopefully it will be a boy this time.” Neha wanted to say something, but she deemed it better to keep quiet.
As they were about to take the turn towards Claridges, Dharam Pal said, “I am sure my son could have got a job like you. After all he is educated like you. But I need him for my taxi service, you see, to expand my business. So he had to make a sacrifice for his father. I am sure God will reward him well for this.”
Neha’s office is located in Noida, across the Yamuna. But she has to move around the whole of Delhi NCR on official duty. On a few occasions before, Dharam Pal had chauffeured her to and fro from the office to the ministry offices at Nirman Bhavan. He wasn’t an employee with her organization, but his taxi stand was close to their office and so his services were taken for most of the traveling around by her colleagues. So a kind of unwritten contract existed between Dharam Pal and her office. And if ever Dharam Pal got to know that her office has used the services of another taxi provider, he would come over and create quite a tantrum at the reception. In the last six months that Dharam Pal had got to know Neha, he had also taxied her to the Indira Gandhi National Airport once when she was flying out of the country on work."

Friday, 22 November 2013

shopping at Duty Free :)

Every time someone I knew flew out of the country, they came back raving about duty free shopping at the international airports. So I really looked forward to duty free shopping when my turn came. But when a friend recently asked me how has been my experience, I went blank. Now I know why I went blank: my mind’s still dazzled by the sight of the sparkling shops, much like that of a child who finds herself in a mela! I became a consumer of sights more than a consumer of products (primarily and sadly because I had little money)! And I must admit that although I am more of a person who loves to shop at local markets for local products, I was more than happy being a consumer of the sparkling sights at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi and Heathrow, London.

It was in 2011 that I was in Heathrow; and I picked up two bottles of flavored drinking water by mistake. I saw the price on the shelves, and since it went with the price of flavored drinking water outside, I picked up a bottle. The guy at the counter told me that at that price, I was getting two at Duty Free. And he fetched another bottle of the same for me. My first experience with the glory of Duty Free shopping that was. I was full of glee. But as luck could have it, I couldn’t finish one bottle at one go, which left me with two bottles and I had no space in my hand baggage for even one bottle! Plus, my hands were occupied with the hand bag, the laptop bag, a huge coat and a stole that slipped from my shoulders to my hands every now and then. My hands, in other words, were full and they couldn’t occupy themselves with any more stuff like the two bottles of my recently purchased flavored drinking water. So, I somehow finished one bottle (gulped more than half of the precious stuff down my throat because I didn’t want to throw it in the bin) and left the other bottle with the amused counter guy.

Back in Delhi, at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, I completed the rest of my shopping. I had picked up little souvenirs for family and friends from places here and there in England. But, as is the case with me, I knew people loved chocolates as gifts. In Delhi Duty Free (, I bought chocolates like crazy. My husband, who had lived in Berlin for a while, always got chocolates from Duty Free when he came home. “You get the same brands at good price, plus you don’t have to carry a load all the way!” I remembered his words and shopped like crazy. As I was walking out, a brother-in-law’s favorite Johnny Walker Black Label caught my eye. I checked the price, it was incredible! I quickly bought it for him. And resisted the urge to buy a couple more considering the mountain of chocolates I already was carrying.

This is it as far as my Duty Free shopping experiences are concerned, but I know people who have bought TVs in Dubai Duty Free, like 2-3 TVs at a time for themselves and family. And only last week, a friend coming back to India got so busy at Delhi Duty Free that he left his luggage at the baggage collection belt unattended! 

SPECIAL NOTE:Thank you Blogmint (, India’s first and only paid bloggers network, for letting me share my Duty Free experiences! 

Monday, 11 November 2013

My latest short story "She worked in a spa" (published by Writers Asylum)

My short story "She worked in a spa" has been published by Writers Asylum. An excerpt:

"She was quiet, shy and highly attractive; and she lived like she never belonged there. We lived opposite each other, in flats set upon a narrow lane at Malviya Nagar Khirki Extension, one of the many bustling and bursting middle class colonies in Delhi. Our balconies almost touched one another, jutting out of our fourth floor flats. And often we passed smiles from our balconies, even exchanged a few words at times. I was living there for three years, she came a year after. I was putting clothes to dry in the balcony when she arrived in an autorickshaw. Behind it came a small van with a bed, a wooden almirah, three-four suitcases, a chair, a table and three buckets full of utensils. From all the stuff that emerged out of the autorickshaw and the van, it seemed she must have been around in the city for a couple of years.
I saw her arrange her rooms from my room behind the balcony. We all lived in two-room sets, rooms that were set one after the other like train coaches. So our bedrooms were partially visible from the other side, despite the curtains put up for privacy. She often moved about her flat in shorts that highlighted her beautiful legs and tank tops that clung to her beautifully toned body. Her skin shone like gold and there was something extremely attractive about her. No wonder she flaunted it, I thought. But with time, as I understood it, she wasn’t flaunting her beautiful skin and body, she was just being herself! The way she walked and talked complemented the casual manner of her dressing. And she was friendly in a very casual way. As if she couldn’t decide if she liked me."

Read the whole story at

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The extraordinary stories in our ordinary lives: The story of a Muslim daughter-in-law

Shahida and I were roommates at Kamrupa hostel when we were pursuing our Bachelor's degree from Delhi University, in the early 2000s. We used to pray together. In the mornings when I would place an incense stick in front of my little Ganeshji on the study table, she would come and stand by me. I would go and sit with her when she performed her namaaz. We fought and hated certain things in each other, but were very fond of and learnt a lot from each other too. Later, when I married a Muslim and she a Hindu, we joked that God perhaps got confused who was Hindu, who was Muslim because we both prayed together!

               catching up with Shahida after many years. with our husbands. Mumbai 2010

Many moons ago, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, Dad and I were forced to move our car into the nearest garage, somewhere near Guwahati Medical College, when it suddenly broke down on the road. It was some minor thing that had to be fixed, thankfully, and dad and I spent the next fifteen minutes with the owner of the garage while his men worked on our car. Dad and the man started chit chat and I, in the absence of any attractive option, listened on. A little into the exchange of pleasantries and the man started lamenting about the hurt his Muslim daughter-in-law was hurling at his family. "She performs Namaaz. She refuses to apply sindoor," seemed to be what had disturbed him and his wife most. And I remember being furious at him (maybe, my soul knew what was in store for me several years later!) and telling my dad later when we were on the car again that the man was insulting his daughter-in-law by talking about her to people like that; and that now that she was family and living with them, he should accept her for what she is, how she is no matter how bad or good that is for him. And my dad gave his consent to my opinion (maybe his soul also knew what was in store for me several years later!) No wonder my dad and I are soulmates :)

Anyways, I am glad that things have turned differently for me and a few of my friends who have got into inter-religious marriages. My father-in-law is unabashed about the fact that he has a Hindu daughter-in-law; and for the past five years he has regularly wished me on every Diwali. It goes without saying that this gesture means a lot to me. So is the case with my friend Shahida Hussain, married to Deepanjan Ghosh. Her in-laws have never cried about her being a Muslim, even while considering the fact that Deep is their only child. They could have harbored ideas about a daughter-in-law from their own culture, community, (Shahida is an Assamese and Deep a Bengali) etc. etc. But nothing like that. Shahida's in-laws are nothing like the man I encountered in that garage in Guwahati years ago. They don't freak out at the sight of their Muslim daughter-in-law performing the namaaz. And acceptance came quite naturally to not only her parents-in-law but also extended family like grandparents and uncles, aunties and of course the cousins. 

A few years ago, Shahida, a senior manager in a bank, and her husband (an IT professional) got themselves posted to Kolkata to be with the latter's parents, retired and settled in the city. They live together and there is not a single festival that is not celebrated in that house: Eid, Diwali, Janmashtami...etc. Shahida jokes that Christmas is the only festival when she enjoys a holiday; "all other festivals are celebration at home so lot of work and preparations!" Her late father-in-law had told her on last Eid that this celebration should never cease to be observed at this household. "The year he expired, as a Hindu custom, all festivals in the family were not celebrated except for Eid, which the extended family got together at my place to celebrate to respect one of Baba's last wishes," Shahida says.

Ayaan stays at home with his Thamma (paternal grandma) the whole day when his parents are at work. Shahida had feared that like many of her working friends and colleagues with long corporate working hours, the mother-child relationship would get affected. "But fortunately it has not happened with me. And it is mainly because of MA, my mother-in-law. MA would always keep saying good things about me to Ayaan. Also would explain to him why his mummum (Ayaan refers to his mom as such) goes to office. Of course being with his grandma makes Ayaan least worried about his mother's absence!" speaks Shahida with a lot of gratitude for her mother-in-law.

"My Hindu mother-in-law encourages my son to learn namaaz from me," reveals Shahida. And in a lighter vein adds, "But the little one gets a bit confused at times and starts bowing his head in sajda in his grandmother's worship place, which is full of Hindu deities! Ayaan understands Assamese because his father was strict that all lullabies and child talk that I had with him during his infancy were in his technical mother tongue, i.e. Assamese." 

After her father-in-law's death recently, Shahida's family comprises of her husband, child, mother-in-law and Kaku. "Deep's father and Kaku were good friends who decided to stay together post retirement. So they built their houses in the same apartment and shared their lives together for a couple of years till one friend departed. Kaku is a renowned neurosurgeon of the country and a Brahmin by birth. So the same roof houses a Brahmin and a Muslim who are bound in a father-daughter bond. Kaku is a father figure for both Deep and me and is the Nanaji of Ayaan."

Ayaan 's  full name is Ayaan S Ghosh. He gets the "S" (Syed) from his mother. Shahida wanted it in his name and the family made it happen. 

I post here a few pictures from Shahida's album.

                 Shahida with her husband Deepanjan and son Ayaan on Eid. Home, Kolkata.

                       Shahida celebrates Durga Puja with Deepanjan and Ayaan. Kolkata.

                      Little Ayaan all dressed to celebrate Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year

At times I can but only wonder how a person who is truly educated in the holistic sense of the term, will always preach and practice tolerance for diversity. Will not seek to impose one's way of life on others, because the person will know that there is not just one way of life just as there is not one single way to claim God. This wisdom comes with holistic education, whether that education has been received in an institution or outside it. And I have noticed, in many cases, wisdom and education has nothing to do with the premiere institutes you go to. I guess, forgive me for my audacity, one has to be blessed to gain this enlightenment. It frees the spirit immensely. Shahida and I are lucky to have wise people around us. Who love us. Who support us. Who let us be.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Dastangoi at IHC and Studio Safdar (26 and 27 Oct 2013)

When evenings merged with tales, trickery and magic

At about 4:30 pm, a crisis of sorts hit our home as Nadeem got a phone call from his 'Ustaad' Danish Husain. Nadeem and Manu (Manu Sikandar Dhingra) were performing at India Habitat Center (IHC) on Saturday, 26 Oct 2013. The two of them have been 'dastangoi partners' so far, growing as a performing pair with the years. The evening was set for Saturday and everything was going as usual when that phone call tossed up a mild storm (it could very well have been a great storm for Nadeem) as Danish announced that Manu couldn't make it for something urgent had come up. And that, Nadeem will now perform with Danish. I was stumped. Can't say what was going on in Nadeem's mind though. Danish is a giant in the field of theatre and dastangoi, one of the Ustaads along with the revivalist of this art form, Mahmood Farooqui. It's like an amateur been told that she is to play Steffi Graff!

Besides, Nadeem and Danish have never rehearsed together, forget about performing together. The guys had just an hour to go through their lines and determine who would deal with which portions of the text. I was nervous. But once they took the stage, they kept the audience so engrossed! And I knew why masters are masters. Danish was excellent. He kept the audience in splits with his wit; and the short notice could not jolt the performer that he is, although he was supposed to have been partying with friends only a few hours ago before he was called to save the situation. And I must confess, really, that Nadeem was a good support. They gave was two wonderful sessions of storytelling from the magnum opus 'Tilism Hoshruba', the world's first and longest magical fantasy.

It was an evening well spent. The show was organised as part of India Habitat Centre's celebration of Indian languages.     

Nadeem Shah and Danish Husain at IHC, 26 Oct 2013. Photo Credit: Nicky Chandam

Dastangoi at Studio Safdar yesterday (27 Oct 2013) was another experience altogether. Nadeem and Manu did one story, and I was attending their performance after a long time. I realised that they have really come a long way as a pair. Nadeem is finally beginning to do justice to the fact that he performs with a seasoned actor like Manu. There were two other stories that were being performed by Fouzia and Valentina. The young Fouzia is the first female dastango ever and Valentina made her debut yesterday. They were fantastic. I was overwhelmed because two women were performing and they were so good! Their storytelling held such power over their audience that it was empowering for me, and I am sure for many other females in the audience. 

Powerful performance by Fouzia and Valentina. Superb debut by Valentina. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013

Fouzia and Valentina after the performance. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013.

Zaara with Fouzia, the first female dastango.

Nadeem Shah and Manu Sikandar Dhingra. An engrossing performance. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013.

This is how my daughter Zaara kept busy as her father performed. Seen here with another female dastango Poonam (who wasn't performing that day)

Eating samosas :)

"The word Dastangoi refers to the art of storytelling, it is a compound of two Persian words Dastan and goi which means to tell a Dastan. Dastans were epics, often oral in nature, which were recited or read aloud and in essence were like medieval romances everywhere. Telling tales of adventure, magic and warfare, Dastans mapped new worlds and horizons, encountered the unseen and protected the hero through many travails and lovers as he moved on his quest. The hero’s adventures could sometimes parallel the mystic quest, at other times the story narrated a purely profane tale. In the process of telling the story the narrators freely borrowed tropes and themes from other stories, thus it was that Rumi’s Masnavi and Arabian Nights both came to contain many stories from the Panchtantra tradition. While Dastans had many principals and many stories, the story of Hamza began to stand out early on." - Text  by Mahmood Farooqui (Source:  

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My latest short story published by Writers Asylum (24 Oct 2013)

My latest short story 'Amma and her kothi at Shaheen Bagh' has been published by Writers Asylum. You can read the story at

An excerpt from the short story:

"Amma was killed when she stepped out of the bathroom. It was one sultry June afternoon and her cries, when stabbed by her assailant, cut through the tormenting heat, piercing it with its oppressive shrill. A deathly silence followed for a few brief seconds then another round of cries rung out in the air. Two more people were killed after her. The maid and the cook, who came running at the sound of their mistress’s distress, met a similar ghastly fate. By the time neighbors mustered courage to enter the kothi, the assailant had well disappeared with the weapon of crime.

It has been two years since and even today the mention of that ominous afternoon sends shivers down the spines of Shaheen Bagh residents, more so of those who live inThokar 8 in the vicinity of that kothi which has long been razed to the ground. In its place now stands a building where about ten families live in separate flats, like all those apartments around it, set upon narrow lanes, glued to each other and jostling for space."

Empowering women through sports

This is straight from a sportsperson's mouth (yes, that's me even though I gave up competitive sports in 1997, but the 'sportsperson' spirit in me is still alive and will always be I reckon): It was great to participate at the session 'Harnessing Women's Potential in Sports' in the ongoing TURF 2013, the 5th Global Sports Summit and India Sports Awards, organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). The session got over about an hour ago and I am writing this even while the Awards ceremony is taking place perhaps.

I was excited to see the esteemed speakers: International marathon champion of the 1990s, Sunita Godara; Vice President of Women's Hockey Federation, New Zealand, Penny Simonds; Franz Gastler whose work around girls' development in Jharkhand through football is celebrated news in recent times; and Indu Puri, a former table tennis champion, somebody who was a role model along with the likes of Monalisa Baruah Mehta when we were playing table tennis as girls.
The session took me back to my years as a table tennis player in the 1990s: the heady feeling of  being Assam state champion, winning medals at the national level, being a female sportsperson and all the opportunities and challenges that I faced as a female sportsperson. It made me remember my friends too  (across all levels - district, state, national and international players), especially my female friends, and our course of life somehow influencing the kind of sportsperson and individuals we grew to become. And how the social conditions we grew up in helped us achieve whatever we could in the field of sports. We must confess that we were extremely lucky to have parents who supported us and encouraged us to engage in sports, all kinds. They did not think of it as a waste of their money. Or as a waste of our time.

But most importantly, the session made me reflect, yet again, how sports has immensely contributed to building confidence in me and my friends; has given me skills like concentration, focus, and determination that come handy in all that I do even today; has taught me that hard work can be fun; and has given me friends whom I will always cherish. But then, the picture stops being rosy right there because we all know that India still needs to perform much better in the international scene, has to spruce up its sports infrastructure and institutions, and play the right kind of politics that will do more benefit than harm to the sportsperson and to sports in general. These were some of the issues discussed in today's session. Here, I seek to take up the rest of the narration through a photo-essay.

Sunita Godara, former international marathon champion, said she's 54 years old and still actively involved with sports. She organizes 'runs' and takes great pride in her Taekwondo academy for slum girls. She raised important points like acknowledging and giving recognition to sports so that a mindset favorably disposed towards sports develop in the country. She also spoke of tapping youngsters at the school, district and state levels by highlighting role models, especially local role models whom they would know and identify with. There is also the need to break myths associated with sports, she said, like how girls will become masculine with sports, that they would lose their virginity with hymen rupture, etc. And this, she suggested, could be done only by sensitizing people, sensitizing the parents. She also made a good case for involving women at the top levels of sports administration in the country.

Penny Simonds spoke of sports and women in New Zealand and how India and New Zealand could get into partnership for harnessing potential. It was interesting to hear her speak about how she continues her association with sports, although she no longer plays professional hockey, and how she is like this "duck" (in her words) running around with her kids and their friends trailing behind her. She said, it is important for mothers to stay involved with sports and encourage their daughters to do the same. I liked the point she made about having sportswomen as role models in media other than the actors, because they are definitely more healthy and it would do a lot of good to have them as role models for young girls. Speaking about broadening the base of women involvement in sports, it can be done through sport activities in family, offices, schools, etc., she said, because sports together is great bonding time too. Simonds also talked about having more female coaches, sports administrators, and more all women sports academies.      

It was inspiring to hear Franz Gastler talk about how he has brought together sports and development of the girl child in Jharkhand, a, place, he said, he heard of as notorious for the high instances of child marriage and girl trafficking when he came to India 5 years ago. He spoke of his successful experiment and showed the gathering a video on the work he is doing. On why he chose football as the sport although he never was a football player, rather an ice hockey player, he said: "Football provides a safe space and a large space too for groups". In his words, "Sports program should be a springboard for development and empowerment".  
This is a shot I took of Franz's video. Here we see his girls having fun in the field. It was interesting to hear the girls talk about how empowered they feel and their experiences in general in the video.

Former table tennis champion, Indu Puri spoke of how sports help build confidence; and how it is important to sensitize parents to enable their girl child to go to distant places and play tournaments. She spoke of how sports is empowering and can be seen as a long term engagement because sportspeople, even those who have played only district level, can find employment trough sports quota in government and semi-government offices and organisations.
 Sujit Panigrahi was the moderator of the session.
And here I am, posing at the venue :)

SPECIAL NOTE:Thank you Blogmint (, India’s first and only paid bloggers network and the online media partner for FICCI’s TURF 2013, for having me there for the LIVE Blogging experience at TURF 2013! I had much fun. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Raghu Dixit and his music (Deccan Herald, 20 Oct 2013)

Return to the roots

Oct 20, 2013 :

Folk fixation: Bangalore-based musician Raghu Dixit.

Multi-talented artiste, Raghu Dixit is known for his unconventional music. From composing music for theatre productions to being a crowd-puller at top musical events, the singer speaks to Juanita Kakoty about his journey.Bangalore’s very own quirky musician who is known for his traditionally unorthodox attire (bright-coloured dhotis and shirts) and his folksy tunes, Raghu Dixit needs no introduction. Having composed eclectic songs that transcend genres, Raghu is admired for making music that he truely believes in and harks back to his roots.

Raghu is a singer, songwriter, producer and film score composer. A gold medalist in Microbiology (Master’s) and proficient in Bharatanatyam, Raghu is known more for his musical compositions. He is the founder-front man of his band The Raghu Dixit Project and Antaragni (which disbanded in 2004). As the founder-front man of his bands, Raghu has performed in hundreds of concerts all over India. The Raghu Dixit Project launched its debut album Antaragni: The Fire Within in 2008, which was well received.

Raghu is a self-taught musician. “I started with Indian classical dance,” he says, “And went on to play the guitar after a college-mate of mine placed a bet that I couldn’t learn the guitar in two songs. What started as my attempt to win that bet, became everything for me. I loved the feeling of being able to just sing and make music. From there on, it has been one long roller-coaster journey.”

Language no bar

Speaking about his multi-lingual folk band, Raghu says, “The Raghu Dixit Project is an amalgamation of musicians and artistes that I really want to work with to perform my music live. As any musician or composer will tell you, there is nothing better than performing your music to an audience, and I do that through The Raghu Dixit Project.”

And about creating multi-lingual compositions, Raghu says, “I don’t think I do this consciously. I am comfortable with singing in Kannada, my mother tongue and Hindi, our national language, and I sing in both these languages. Recently, I wrote my first Tamil song, and I love how it has turned out. I would definitely love to write and sing in as many languages as I can. It’s amazing to see audiences around the world respond positively to my music. I have seen people, regardless of age or gender or race or language, enjoy the music the band plays, and I’ve seen this in different corners of the world. I just want to continue making music that I think is the best I can do, and hope the audience continues to love it.”

Raghu confesses, “I have only worked with folk lyrics, stories and ideas. The music is original and composed by me. Even when I work on a classic folk song, I only use the lyrics and the essence of the song, and compose a new melody and musical arrangement for it. My biggest inspiration has been the folk music and tradition of Karnataka, and I have tried a variety of things with it, as you will see in the songs on my upcoming album.”
Apart from his albums and live performances, Raghu has also produced music for contemporary dance and theatre productions like the Indian contemporary dance group Nritarutya and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Black Coffee’s Body Catcher, which brought him critical acclaim as a composer for theatre productions.

On performing live

Speaking about his recent performance at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Raghu says, “Bacardi NH7 Weekender is one of the biggest music festivals around today. Not just biggest in scale, but also in terms of quality right from the days they had teething problems to this date as an established professional event.” The Raghu Dixit Project and Lagori performed at the recently concluded Bacardi Weekender event to build awareness and hype for the Bacardi NH7 Weekender 2013 music festival. “Next, we are playing in New Delhi on 13 September,” informs Raghu.

“We have been associated with Bacardi Weekender for the last four years now, ever since it started,” he says, talking about his association with Bacardi NH7 Weekender adding, “And we have played at several venues so far: Pune, Delhi, and this year, they have added another venue — Kolkata. It’s almost like we have become the mascots for the event.”

Referring to the recent performance in Bangalore, Raghu says, “It was a huge collaborative event with musicians from all over Karnataka coming together.” 
On a concluding note, Raghu adds, “I think the folk music scene in India is finally getting a much needed boost. A lot of people have started discovering a wide variety of folk music from India because of the different people who are working with it and interpreting it differently. As Indians, we have always had a soft corner for our folk music, and with so many people working on making it accessible in a contemporary way, I think our folk music is in a really good place now.”

Saturday, 12 October 2013

the air still smells of Durga Puja

The air still smells of Durga Puja, but so much has changed. Every year I wait for October, to smell the fragrance in the air. I wait for it brings back memories from my childhood. And somehow, the magic of Durga Puja seems to have frozen with my memories. Mostly because for about 15 years now, I have been celebrating Durga Puja in Delhi. And celebrations here have never been able to come close to the memories that I hold. I am not too sure how Durga Puja is in Assam these days. A few years back, I was there at home in Guwahati one fortunate October and the scale of Durga Puja struck me and scared me at the same time. But there were still a few wonderful puja pandals - where the throng of people did not suffocate; there was the festive cheer, the balloons, the pistols, and the oh-so-yummy-DurgaPuja-jalebis!!! The puja spirit rung in the air. Not like here in Delhi, where Puja means only CR Park and the rest of the city goes on as usual!!!   

I remember Durga Puja in my grandparents' place in Golaghat, a small town where everybody knew everybody. "Aren't you Bodu's daughter? When did you come?" people would ask me when they saw me walking or cycling on the streets. "Aren't you the spitting image of your father!" they would say and that's how I would know they knew me even if we had never met before. In the evenings, my aunt (whom everybody knew because she was the only lady branch manager of a bank in Assam those days and her interviews had appeared on newspapers) would walk us to the town centre where the Puja celebrations would happen. The whole place used to be full of people, baloons, masks, pistols, and lines of shops on both sides selling fancy clothes, accessories and jalebis! The air smelt of jalebis and crackled with toy pistols. That's Durga Puja for me even today. Jalebis and toy pistols. We never got anywhere near the Goddess though. We saw her only from a distance. Evenings were utter madness around the pandals. People pressed against each other, shouting and screaming at one another yet offering heartfelt prayers to the Goddess, a technique that went hand-in-hand.
Having looked at the magnificent idol of the Goddess and the demon, we would make our way back to the house. On the way, aunt would ask me and my brother to choose some gift for ourselves. I always chose one of those bright absurdly fancy frilled frocks hanging somewhere in the lines of shops around the puja pandal: a Durga Puja Special! Brother would also select some similar absurdly fancy stuff for himself, depicting something that we must have seen our screen heroes and heroines wear in the movies. And then we would buy masks. When I was small, I used to buy masks of animals. But as I grew older, I preferred the pretty face-of-a-woman masks. And in them, I felt that I really was that pretty woman whose face people saw on me. I guess it's nothing to psyche out about, most children that age do things like that :)    

Later, when we shifted to Guwahati, and somehow took to spending our Puja vacations in Guwahati, the puja pandal at Lakhi Mandir close to our home used to be the major attraction. After tea and jalebis at home, we would walk down to the pandal, dad leading the way. During the late 1990s, I am a bit confused when exactly, Beltola puja, right at the mouth of our lane, came up in a big way. We could no longer think about taking our cars out in the evenings then. There used to be a sea of people moving like waves all over! And the focus shifted from just the Goddess and the Demon to the entire architecture of the pandal. So a movement started, and it continues up till today, of fabulous pandal decorations. After Titanic swept people off their feet on screen, they did so on the stage too during Durga Puja. The Goddess that year came on a ship, the titanic to be precise. People went berserk with pandal decoration and that brought in a whole new ecstatic fervor with Durga Puja. Speaking of my generation, innovation started with the Goddess and the demon moving: a movement of the eye, the neck, the limbs etc. with every progressive year. And then innovation graduated to the level of the pandal, lavish wealth spent on creating them. At a time when poverty is discussed and debated, you would wonder why is this wealth being wasted in decorations. That's all fine. It's serving some purpose which is why it is happening perhaps. But to reflect back, I would say, bring back the days of my childhood any day when Durga Puja meant jalebis, toy pistols, masks, new clothes, joy in the air, and walking to the pandal with family, passing by lines of shops selling absurdly fancy stuff. Just that.   

Monday, 7 October 2013

an outsider-turned-insider's perspective: living in a Muslim neighborhood. Part One.

(The Book Review, Volume XXXVII No. 10 - OCTOBER 2013) 

A Human Interest Tale

Juanita Kakoty

I must confess that the sight of a ghetto, particularly one with a Muslim core, used to stir emotions in me not too comfortable stemming from the obvious fear associated with the ‘other’. This fear was difficult to explain because all my life I had never ever been directly confronted by a Muslim; but the fear struck when I would see somebody performing the namaaz, men in beard dressed in white and a skull cap, the sight of black masses beneath which I understood were women. All this evoked a fear that even bordered on irritation.

I, like many, suffered from this inexplicable fear. Just the sight of the burqa, surma in men’s eyes, the black thread with an amulet sticking to the throat etc. roused that fear although I had some closest friends who were Muslims. Somehow they just didn’t seem “Muslim”. I still remember an incident from my graduation days. My close friend Shahida Hussain had got chicken pickle from home and all of us were devouring it. During the feast I said that I had only once before eaten chicken pickle, to which she replied, “At some Muslim’s place undoubtedly!” And quick came the reply from me, “No, at an Assamese’s place.” I still remember the look she gave me and what she said thereafter, “Aren’t Muslims Assamese?” That look and query haunted me for a long time.

I understood this fear as a “social construction” only during my Master’s in the university: A fear constructed by the media, by people who nurture that the good of one’s religion can be best highlighted by maligning the other religion, that the goodness in oneself can be pronounced only by demonizing the “other”. Hence, I value university education a lot. It taught me that fears emerge from creating distances, physically and in the mind too, from those who are not like us. And then, in time, I married a Muslim and with that traces of fear about the “other” even at the sub-conscious level vanished. As I interacted more with my husband’s family and people from his community, I got used to seeing women in the hijab and burqa and it stopped seeming strange any more. Salaam Aleikum, Khuda Hafiz, inshAllah were words that began to feature in my life regularly along with Namaste, Bhagvan etc. and they ceased to terrify me. The “other” became so regular and ordinary for me that I stopped taking notice.

About a year ago, my husband and I acquired an apartment in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, a Muslim neighborhood close to Jamia Milia Islamia. A few of my non-Muslim friends and family members were apprehensive about this move. But as they frequented us, their perspectives changed and this is what they have to tell me now, “What lovely neighbors you have! Where in the whole of Delhi would you get neighbors so helpful and concerned?” And it’s true. As we moved into the house, with our four month old daughter, my neighbors paid us a visit. They even sent us food. Food, interestingly, is how we bond in this neighborhood. There is a regular flow of food into my house and I send food too to my neighbors; be it Eid or any other day, whenever somebody cooks some special dish, a portion is sent across to the neighbors. There is a great sense of satisfaction and bonhomie in it. My neighbors, like my in-laws, know that I am a Hindu and accept me for who I am, what I am. And I respect them for this.

Some of my neighbors are the early residents of Shaheen Bagh. They preserve the oral history of the neighborhood. I seek, here, to construct the past of the area with the help of their narratives. Shaheen Bagh is a neighborhood along the banks of the river Yamuna at Jamia Nagar, Okhla in South Delhi. On the other side of the Yamuna lies the city of Noida. Rashida Baji, a resident, tells me, “Shaheen Bagh comes under Abul Fazal Enclave Part Two. It stretches from Thokar (lane) No. 6 to Thokar (lane) No. 9. The area is in Delhi but the road by the Yamuna belongs to the government of Uttar Pradesh just like the park at Thokar No. 9.”

Munni Baji (Faizun Nisa), 45 years old, came here in 1996. “There must have been about 50 houses only in the whole of Shaheen Bagh when I came. People used to come here from Jasola to cut grasses. This whole area was used for cultivation,” she tells me. “And at Thokar No. 7, where our house is, there were about 3 – 4 houses in all and lots of water and big grasses all around. Around that time, land rates were very low, at 1.5 lakhs for 150 Gaz. That’s the rate at which we had bought our plot of land.” Today, land is no longer available here and the real estate business is going strong. 

“Shaheen Bagh was much below the water level and was always inundated with floods. We filled our plot with earth up to 7 feet before building the house. Even now we need to fill the plot with about 5 feet of earth more to come up to the street level,” continues Munni Baji as we enter her house from the street and go down a few stairs from the main gate towards her courtyard that has pomegranate and mango trees besides other shrubs.

There are interesting anecdotes to share too. Rashida Baji and Munni Baji, who have grown as thick as sisters over the years, run their tailoring business from a room at one corner of the latter’s courtyard. Sitting there, Munni Baji narrates, “Till 1997, there was no electricity in Shaheen Bagh. My husband and a neighbor got some wire bundles and bamboo poles and set up electricity lines illegally from Abul Fazal Part One till our house. We had to pay a fine of Rs 12,000 for this when a raid happened. It was in 2005-6 that electricity was legalized in this area.”

Times have changed. Today, there are buildings all around and only a very few like Munni Baji have resisted the temptation to cash in on the real estate boom. They still maintain their house the way it was, with the courtyard. But, Munni Baji reminisces, “The earth used to be more fertile those days.”

Rashida Sameer, 36 years old, came to Shaheen Bagh in 2002. She recollects, “There were houses then, no flats. I could then see the Yamuna from my house at the ground floor. Slowly, a second-hand furniture market came up here and the density of population increased. There were many mosquitoes too at that time, because there was no drainage for water. It is since 2009 that facilities like drainage, installation of sewers and converting ‘kuccha’ road to ‘pucca’ road happened.”   

Rasheeda Sameer continues, “Till 2003-4, the Yamuna used to be filled with migratory birds. That changed and the birds suddenly stopped coming. I see a few birds this year again (end of 2012). That’s a good sign.” Shaheen Bagh overlooks the Okhla Bird sanctuary. It pains me to see how a neighborhood by the river, overlooking a bird sanctuary, has the potential to look good but no efforts have been undertaken towards that end.  

I often go to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the nearby park at Thokar No. 9 with my female neighbors dressed in the burqa. The burqa is no hindrance to how we connect or how much fun we have when together. They follow their religion and I mine. It’s not religion that binds us. Or maybe it is. Because it is only those most comfortable with their own religion and identity who can respect that of another.

My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...