Wednesday, 9 December 2015

My latest short story 'The Road to Aikon Aita's House' in New Asian Writing (9 Dec 2015)

My latest short story titled, 'The Road to Aikon Aita's House' has been published by New Asian Writing. Synopsis: In this story, the narrator talks of her life from fragments of memory, linking characters and landscapes along the way. It is as if the narrator is reminiscing about those childhood days, those journeys to upper Assam by road, which seem like a lost legacy now. And in this nostalgic trip she remembers the special relationship one of her grandmothers shared with a Muslim man from the town. 

Read the story at

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Papier Mache (Deccan Herald, 23 August 2015)


The genius of pied papers

Juanita Kakoty, August 23, 2015, DHNS
Family craft
model paper works Attractive papier-mache products.

Forty-three-year-old Shabir Dehqani was one of the master craftsmen who displayed his artistry at the Design Haat conducted by Apeejay Institute, in Delhi. 

Shabir Dehqani had come from Kashmir with his papier-mache products. He sat on the ground of his stall showing a painted papier-mache box to a few foreign students. He was pointing out the intricacies of the simple yet elegant craft of making the most with paper!

Listening to him talk about his family’s association with the craft was almost like flipping through the pages of history. 

“We are originally from Persia where papier-mache has been used to manufacture small painted boxes, trays of all sorts, étagères, a piece of furniture with open shelves and cases,” he said. 

He also informed his listeners that his family migrated to Kashmir in the 14th century. “There, our forefather, Raza Ali, started a papier-mache workshop and taught people this art form.” 

Apparently, in those days, there was unemployment in the region and the craft Raza Ali taught enabled many to earn an income.

As I picked up a colourful papier-mache jewellery box, Shabir explained the process behind creating such elegant products. “First, the paper is turned into a pulp with water and glue, and then it is  mashed. It is shaped after one’s choice and further smoothened. It’s in this final stage that colours and motifs are coated on it.”

Shabir informed that papier-mache is a French term that means “chewed paper”. “In Persia, bright colours are used to paint these products, and we have continued with this tradition. However, in the old days, only paper was used. But since 200 years now, we are also using wood and cardboard for our products,” he said of the craft’s evolution.

I looked at the sturdy products around me and it was really difficult to tell the paper products from the ones that were made of wood. Then Shabir revealed an interesting fact. 

“Although papier-mache is a French term, the craft originated in China!” Amrit Das, senior faculty at the fashion design department of the institute, said, “Shabir Husain and the other craftsmen from different domains that you see at the mela are master craftsmen who have won national awards and have been practising their craft for at least 25 years now. We are trying to provide platform for them to  interact with stakeholders at both the national and international levels. Through this, we hope to help them bring their crafts to a contemporary level, suited to the needs of the contemporary market, while keeping the intrinsic traditional essence of the craft alive.”

Thursday, 20 August 2015

How I Realised I am a Feminist

When the Women's Reservation Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in September 1996, the morning after we were gathered around breakfast and the newspaper at home. I was busy eating and wasn't paying attention to what the elders of the family, it was the men who were basically discussing this, had to say until they hurled a question at me: 'What do you think, do women require reservation to make it to the Parliament?' I was a little surprised that they asked me, a student in Class X, and not the other women present (who were mostly housewives). I cleared my throat with as much importance as I could considering kids in the family were generally not allowed their opinion in matters of the state or family when elders were discussing it. And I said what came to me naturally, that women are strong, meritorious and capable enough and do not require quotas to succeed. All of them applauded my statement. And I felt very good. And that was the truth for me at that time. I knew nobody at home supported reservations. I often heard elders complain of how somebody from a scheduled caste, scheduled tribe or other backward class had managed a promotion ahead of them because of the quota. Also, all around me I noticed women who were doctors, engineers and teachers. All doing good. What I didn't take into account was the social background they came from. All of these accomplished women I knew of were from middle class families with fathers mostly as engineers (because my father was an engineer with a state department in Assam so I knew many of his colleagues who had daughters doing very well), doctors, professors, bureaucrats, geologists and upper scale employees at Oil India Limited or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). So while in school, these were the families I knew and their daughters were invariably doing well and also went on to marry well, successful husbands from similar 'good families'. And yes, nobody in my family had heard of feminism till then, nor had I. 

In Hindu College, Delhi University and JNU, New Delhi, where I pursued a Bachelor's, Master's and an M.Phil. in Sociology, I became aware of India's caste system for the first time. I devoured the books by stalwarts M.N. Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Yogendra Singh and declared to all I knew how 'safe' Assam has been for everyone. Weren't we lucky we had no caste system or its perils ever? And my non-Assamese friends always marveled when I told them this because they could not fathom a world without the caste system. Where they lived, who they interacted with, dined with and married was always dependent on what castes you came from. I was shocked and enlightened them about how we can marry just anyone other than the 'tribals' because the tribals are not like us, we are like the rest of the Indians (although at that time I only meant the Hindus when I said 'rest of the Indians'; also my idea of how the rest of the Indians were was limited to what Bollywood showed me). Also, I had no idea how I was using the word 'tribal', placing them lower in the social hierarchy as if it was alright. And I hated the sight of the feminists - the fabIndia kurta wearing, kohl-eyed women who aggressively shut you up, or rather shut me up. They would never listen to me and dismissed me like  a non-entity. Not just me but everybody else like me who had no interest in discussing what the state was doing, how oppressed women were, etc. etc. And they talked so much about 'gender' issues that I skipped opting a paper on gender studies for as long as I could. No, I didn't want to be like them. And I am glad I am still not like them. I can listen to your opinion calmly even if it is bang opposite of what I have to say.    

In 2007, for the first time in my life, I came face to face with the caste system right at the heart of my beloved Assam. I was at Patbaushi, a village in Barpeta district for my PhD research. There I saw how the lower castes are not allowed entry into the homes of the upper castes. I came across a few cases where two or three Scheduled Caste women had married upper caste men. These women were not allowed entry into the kitchen and prayer room in the household, and were given rooms further or cut off from the rest of the household. I was stunned. These women were also outcasts in their own communities. I had never lived in the villages of Assam and I realised how protected a life I led. I just had no access to anyone who wasn't from my social background or who actually came from rural Assam. Yes, I interacted with many people in school, the prestigious convent Holy Child school precisely, and Cotton College (for my XIth and XIIth), but who spoke about caste and communities at school? We were talking mostly about crushes, textbooks, film stars, fables, films, music, and the paranormal.

At Patbaushi, I had gone to study the changing socio-religious status of the Xatras (vaishnavaite religious establishments) in the village and stumbled upon the persistent caste dynamics instead; and how it always manifested in how the women were treated. Which is why I could not finish my PhD perhaps because my focus just shifted! Where was I living all this while? How was my world so different? And why did I think my world is everybody's world too? I felt so bad for these lower caste men and women who thought it was fine, and not their right to question, if they were not allowed entry into the upper caste households. And that was when I started to think about what marginalisation meant.

Coming to marginalisation, at a recent screening of the film 'Meena' on a prostitute who comes from a community that practices inter-generational prostitution in India, a lady came up to me and remarked how everybody is talking about the marginalised these days. Are there so many marginalised people? Who are the privileged then and where are they and why is no one talking about them? she asked me. And somehow I found myself answering her although I had no idea who she was. 'It is only in the arts, movies and books that people are talking about the marginalised,' I said. 'Do you talk about yourself or somebody else with a nice house where maids and domestic help cannot sit on your sofas or eat with you at the dining table? That's because you are in the privileged lot and what's there to talk about it? So we talk of what's happening to the marginalised who cannot sit with you or eat with you, among other things. Have you ever considered what caste or communities they came from? And if this is something regular in their castes/communities? And if ever one of them sat with you on the same sofa, then you would talk about it! The beggars that we see at Delhi's red lights - you drive by, stop at the red light, you give a rupee or maybe not to them. What's there to talk about this? But yes, there is a lot to talk about them because they are mostly from the Sansi community in Rajasthan who are nomadic tribes, and who have been practicing beggary since ages as livelihood because they cannot think of any other livelihood option. Their children do not go to school, they do not own land and houses, and most of the freed/denotified and nomadic tribes in India are not even enumerated by the Census, which is why they are neither scheduled castes, scheduled tribes or other backward classes and thus remain outside the realm of benefits provided by the state. So should we be talking about you and I who are entitled to provisions and benefits primarily because of the social and cultural capital we have been born with, or should we be talking about them, the marginalised who are not equipped in the first place to compete for these provisions and entitlements? You may ask why, and I may say 'what about the social and cultural capital which has helped you, me and the rest like us.' She looked at me a little bewildered and said, shrugging her shoulders, well I don't know maybe I will think about it, and walked away. But I am grateful she listened to me. And after she left, I pondered, if I were born in one of these communities, would it have been possible for me to be where I am today? In that case, would reservations for my education and employment have improved my life? I had goosebumps all over.   

I have seen how reservations have indeed improved the lot of many men and women. They don't have to emerge as world class leaders, but as Shweta Katti says, 'For the women of the community I come from, healthy childbirth and raising their children in a way that they can access education is a huge success.' Shweta Katti grew up in Kamathipura, Mumbai's red light area, where she spent the first 17-18 years of her life. As a child she went to the day care Apne Aap Women Worldwide set up in the neighbourhood for the children of prostituted women, where free tutions were provided to them. Today Shweta is at Bard College, New York and is one articulate, confident young woman. Her story is actually the story of how meaningful intervention and education can change people's lives. You can watch her talk in a video at 

Yesterday, I was at the launch of a report on women police in South Asia by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and learnt that of the total strength of Indian Police (Civil and Armed) - 22,83,646 - women constitute only 6.11% (1,05,325 in numbers). There were reports about how women are thought of as unfit for policing jobs! How they are perceived as physically weaker (when there were many women officers in the gathering who looked as physically tough and at times tougher than some of the men around). But the bigger question is: Would a larger number of women in the police force imply a greater sensitivity to how cases are dealt with, cases particularly related to women? We can only wait and watch, like how we can only wait and watch if a greater participation by women in the Parliament would bring a change to law and administration. But at our hearts, we know it will, because in all of my 36 years now I have seen how women can rescue other women, how women can understand other women, how across all sections, certain issues that women face are the same, and when women talk about these to each other they listen with an inherent sympathy. It is not to demean men and say they don't want to understand these issues, but the thing is they cannot understand these issues simply  because they have not faced them. 

Now some might say what kind of an argument is that! But the fact is until the time I started living in a Muslim ghetto, I had no idea what could the insecurity of those who lived in a ghetto be like. Today, when I often face the scathing remarks of autorickshaw and cab drivers about how 'dangerous' Muslims are and how 'dangerous' these colonies are, where they are either picking me up from or dropping me at, I feel the pain of all those who live in these ghettos like me. I am a Hindu, yet I feel the pain of all those who live in the Muslim ghetto where I live. And I wonder, had I still been living in the protected shelter of my home at the upper middle class neighbourhood in Guwahati, would I still feel the pain? Maybe not and I am ashamed to admit it today. But the question is, where are our policymakers, who shape the country's 'growth,' from?  Are they mostly from such upper middle-class neighbourhoods and have they ever lived in a ghetto or in a neighbourhood where communities like the Sansi live? In that case, do we understand the implications of this? 

So, I have now realised, quite late in life, that I am a Feminist, but surely not the kind I hated in the university. I am a feminist like hundreds of others who believe in an equal world, a more compassionate world, a world where everyone is given equal opportunities, be it a man or a woman or a transgender, a world which allows greater freedom for everyone, where there is equal access to life opportunities for everyone, and a world where everyone feels safe and secured. This is because now I understand that being a feminist primarily means an alternative perspective to look at the world. And I know, like we all do, the world I contemplate is far from the truth today. So until it becomes the truth for each of us, I will support reservations to bring marginalised people to a level from where they can set off to creating such a world. But in the end, I do realise how tough it is to explain why I am a feminist and how such enormous changes are possible.    

(This piece was reprinted by The Thumb Print in August 2015

Thursday, 13 August 2015

My latest short story 'Letting go' in Himal Southasian. 13 Aug 2015.

My latest short story in Himal Southasian. 13 Aug 2015.


“Lokhora! Lokhora!” shouted a lean fellow, announcing the destination, in a sleeveless banyan that has become a dirty grey from its earlier white colour. Like a ballet dancer he flung open the back door, leapt on to the foothold at the same time, and balanced himself gracefully as he stood there keeping the door ajar with one hand. Three people got off, stooping to avoid hitting their heads on the ceiling of the Tracker, and another three standing on the pavement stepped in. There were already four passengers sitting in the row behind the driver. And three were squeezed in the front seat alongside the driver such that when he changed gears, he roughly brushed his fist against the knee of the passenger sitting next to him. Women, therefore, generally avoided sitting in the front row. 

“Oi! Move from there!” cried out Brojen Barua agitatedly from the netted verandah of the house. “How many times should I tell you guys not to park yourselves here!”

The people in the Tracker didn’t see him, but the driver started the engine and sped away. Brojen Barua was getting tired of these Trackers that had converted the spot right outside his gates into a stop. This had happened in the last two years or so with these vehicles almost taking over public transport in Guwahati. They were now seen in every nook and cranny, covering parts of the city where no buses go. “Who gave you the permission to make this a stop?” he often barked at them. And they ignored him, looking at him as if to say, do you own the road?

Read the rest of it at

Sunday, 2 August 2015

My latest short story 'Family Drama' in Eastlit, Volume 4, Issue 32, August 2015.

My latest short story 'Family Drama' features in Eastlit, Volume 4, Issue 32, August 2015.

An excerpt:

"I was the eldest among my siblings and helped Mother take care of the rest of the brood by bathing them, feeding them, cleaning their poop, etc. I even learnt to cook the waterydail and bhaat by the time I was ten years old. Which is why, I think, Mother found a confidante in me. She told me stories from her past while we washed clothes, made the beds, cleaned the house, or sang our prayer together – “Tumi Sitto Britti Muro” –  Mother singing from memory and I by following the words in the sacred text,Naamghosha.
“The Tipling High School was established by Gulok Chandra Baruah when we moved to Duliajan,” she told me one day when both of us were alone in the house. Father was away for a few days on work and my siblings were away at my aunt’s for a while. “Our house was right by the Tipling river. Father had a tiff with one of his brothers over land and he stormed out of the ancestral house in Jorhat, taking us with him.”
“How old were you then, Mother?” I asked.
“Hmmm 12 years I guess. I can’t say exactly,” she replied. The year she was born, nothing significant had happened, she said, hence no one remembered it.
Mother put some lentils and tomatoes to boil in a pot; I washed some rice for the two of us; Mother fetched some greens which she had cleaned earlier in the day and stored in a container in the fridge and continued with her story. “I was the eldest and the most hard-working like Ma. Ma used to get up before sunrise and sleep after everybody in the household had gone off to sleep. She would clean the area around the house, give fodder to the cows, feed the ducks and hens, cook food for all of us and the anxious guests who kept coming from father’s village to ask after us. I was the one up and about with Ma from sunrise.” Suddenly her voice became tender. She sniffed. “Ma worked so hard for all of us. And whenever there was fish or meat in the house, she would see to it that father and we got to eat well even if that meant she had to go without any.” A tear rolled down her right eye, which slanted a little more than the other eye, and she cried out softly, “Ma!” She closed her eyes and stayed still for a while, lips pursed as if that would keep the tears from gushing out. I didn’t disturb her. I quietly got up from the low wooden pira where I sat watching her clean the greens, and put the rice to boil on the stove. She got up in a short while and joined me with a bunch of little fish in her clenched hands. Saying move to the side, she deftly removed the hot lid of the pot where the lentils and the tomatoes were boiling with her bare hand and threw the fish into it. She then added the greens, some turmeric and salt and covered the pot once again. Turning to me, she whispered, “You have a beautiful face. Your aunt’s.” I melted and wrapped my arms around her and dug my face into her stomach, soaking in her familiar smells: of the earth, of garlic, of onions, of coriander, of fish, all mixed. “Had I a pretty face too, maybe I wouldn’t have been made to work so hard,” Mother spoke wistfully, “Meera has always been beautiful; she was a gorgeous child. No one made her work. Not even Ma.” My heart pained a little and I tightened my grip around her."

Friday, 17 July 2015

Conversations with an autorickshaw driver: Do I like Modi sarkar?

I have been thinking of writing about this conversation that I had with an autorickshaw driver sometime early this year for a long time now. It went like this. He picked me up from Shaheen Bagh and because he learnt that I live in Shaheen Bagh, he assumed that I am a Muslim. I did not feel like correcting him. So I just let it be and went ahead with the curve that he lent to the conversation.

"Why do you Muslims hate Modi?" he asked me. And that's when I knew that he had mistaken me for a Muslim.
"Who told you Muslims hate Modi?" I responded.
"Well, I know," he answered with a strange laughter in a very matter of fact manner.
"In that case," I said, "Let me tell you, I don't. In fact, I don't give much thought to him at all. But just that, I don't know if you know, he has not done good things to Muslims in Gujarat, therefore I do not have much fondness for him."
"So it is a community thing for you Muslims not to like him?" the auto guy charged. So I put the question to him instead, "Do you like Modi sarkar?"
"Of course, I do!" his emphatic cry still rings in my ear. "He is such a nice man, he has such nice things to say, he has done so much for India's development, for Gujarat's development. He is not a man but a devta. And you Muslims make a demon out of him!"

I went quiet for a while. This guy will definitely not understand the politics of Modi's development approach in Guajarat where the Muslims and denotified tribes have been kept outside the ring of benefits and affirmative action. And I was sure he had not seen the NDTV report on TV, just before the elections in Delhi this year, where the journalist went to one of the Muslim neighbourhoods in Ahmadabad, a place which is like a wound in an otherwise 'shining' example of development that Gujarat is for the Modi camp. Why was this neighbourhood reeking of poverty and wretchedness? No electricity, no drinking water, no sewage. And this has been the case here for the last forty years, they said.

So I just told the guy that I was the wrong person to ask the question. In all of my 35 years, I have never voted, I said. Because I never needed to. I have never needed the government to do anything for me. I have my own house, I earn my own money to spend it as I please. The government has not given me my house; and in Shaheen Bagh, I told him, I buy my mineral water regularly. So I am not the right person to pose your question to. Go ask this to someone who has no house, no money, no electricity, no drinking water. Ask them if the government has given them a nice decent house in a nice neighbourhood with hygienic conditions to live in. A decent salary to live with their self-esteem in tact. Go ask them, I said. Only they will be able to tell you if the Modi sarkar is good or not. This time it was the guy who kept quiet for a while.

I went on to tell him that I am definitely grateful for many things in life. Like the UGC (University Grants Commission) scholarship I received as a student, the SAI (Sports Authority of India) scholarship I received as a sportsperson while in school, the Delhi Metro which has made life so easy for me in the city. In that case, the governments who made these things possible, I am grateful to them. But I know for sure Modi sarkar was not anywhere in the scene when all this happened. So I told the guy that I will be more than happy if Modi sarkar gives me a reason to be grateful to it. And that it is not about being a Muslim or a Hindu. But that for people like him and me, it is about what benefits the government brings to us. And how secured it can make us feel. And to just pinch him a bit, taking the conversation back to where it started, I said, "I won't be bothered about how Modi treats Muslims in Gujarat until and unless it affects me directly. Like I am sure you would not be bothered if Hindus in Assam or Bihar are ill treated until and unless it affects you here in Delhi directly, isn't it?"

The auto guy kept quiet for the rest of the journey.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Craft. Wooden blocks. (Deccan Herald, 12 July 2015)


Carving designs & a livelihood

Juanita Kakoty, July 12, 2015, DHNS
Block printing
Intricate Wooden design blocks used for printing. Photo by author

The courtyard at the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi was dotted with clusters of workshops recently, where master craftsmen taught eager students the craft secrets. In one corner, 52-year-old Manzar Husain from Pilakhuwa, a village in Uttar Pradesh, sat with a slab of wood on the table in front of him, skillfully engraving delicate patterns on it with a fine tool.

“This is a family occupation,” he said, pointing to the beautiful wooden blocks laid out on a table nearby; something that he learnt from his father. 

“Some of these designs that I make are from my father’s and grandfather’s times, and the rest are my own. These blocks have been traditionally used for printing designs on saris, ladies’ suits and quilts. Now they are no more used for creating designs on quilts and sarees. Till a few years ago, wooden blocks were used by rural women for their products of domestic use. Nowadays, in comparison, such work has gone down,” he added.

Referring to the impact of workshops as such, he said, “This workshop is for five days only, but to master the craft of creating wooden blocks for printing, one needs about a year-and-a-half or two.” Nonetheless, he admitted that it was heartening to see enthusiasm among youngsters, and how those from foreign lands were trying to create their own designs by learning his techniques. 

Block printing is an ancient Indian craft. Uttar Pradesh has been an important centre for hand block printing with the classical butis (dots), paisley designs, and the ‘tree of life’ motif being widely used. “Hand block printing is appreciated in the West for its patterns and vibrant colours. Traditionally, the practice has been to use natural vegetable dyes. But synthetic colours are also used now,” revealed Manzar Husain.

“Besides, with machine-based printing capturing the market, the demand from garment and quilt factory owners for wooden blocks have come down. They now churn out finished products much faster and therefore stand to gain in the process. Also, machine printing is cheaper than hand printing. This has adversely affected the artisans who practise the art.” Nonetheless, he said, “there are people ready to pay for it. That keeps us going.”

These wooden blocks have been put to various uses. Women by the roadside and in the markets in Delhi are seen applying mehendi on eager customers with these blocks. “It’s easier for us because patterns can be made in less time. With a tube of mehendi, one takes at least 10 minutes to draw a pattern on one palm. With these blocks, we need only two-three minutes,” a woman with a basket of wooden blocks and mehendi paste at Dilli Haat recently told me.

Interior designers now employ the blocks in decorating walls. “I often use these wooden blocks with ‘tree of life’ or paisley patterns to decorate my clients’ walls. They come cheap. The aesthetic value is also immense,” commented interior designer Urmimala Bhuyan Bora. Celebrating its annual event, the design institute displayed exquisite traditional Indian crafts amongst a host of other things. “We look forward to such events,” confessed Manzar Husain, “They give us good exposure.”

Friday, 26 June 2015

In and around Guwahati: A photo essay

This June, my husband was visiting Guwahati after two years. And he was clear that he would like to see more of the city than my relatives, unlike his earlier two visits when Guwahati just meant my relatives' houses. So I did the smart thing. I went home in May, escaping the Delhi heat and immersing myself in the rains and the sweet smell of the rain touched earth. I spent as much time as possible with my lovely parents, lounging in the verandah with a book in my hands and gloriously staring away at the rains. Oh the rains! After all that Delhi heat! I ate veggies from my dad's garden to my heart's delight and felt as fresh as I could with all that organic food and the rains. There were friends to catch up with, good old friends with whom I had a great time. Then came my husband in June, delighted to see all that rain. He came for just seven days - nothing if one wants to travel around these parts of the country. So it meant no trips to upper Assam or Shillong or Cherapunjee for us. He decided to be the perfect tourist in Guwahati. And I, happy to let my mom take care of my daughter, accompanied this tourist. Here are a few pictures from those days of 'touristing'!  
The most compelling prayer, kneeling down to nature. This is at North Guwahati, on the other bank of the Brahmaputra. This part of Guwahati is still untouched by the 'development' madness that has come to afflict Guwahati city (which is technically South Guwahati, on the other side of the river). 

Till the Xaraighat bridge was constructed over the Brahmaputra, people took ferries to travel between north and south Guwahati. This spot is right outside my father's maternal grandparents' house. 
Photo: Nadeem

I told my husband and daughter how my father stayed with his maternal uncles here in North Guwahati while doing his higher secondary (then called intermediate) from Cotton College. He would take the ferry everyday from these shores to the other bank, and then walk up to the college. Just in case you are thinking, it does not make a very long walk :)   

I remember my grandmother telling me how, when she was a little child, the whole family had rushed to the banks of the Brahmaputra to welcome one of the brightest stars of this Mazindar Baruah family - Ananda Ram Baruah, the first person from Assam to go to England for studies. He matriculated at the age of fourteen, was the first Assamese to study law in England and was the first Assamese civil servant (India was under the British then).   

I pose with my daughter and a favourite cousin, Kasturi who also happens to be my dad's favourite cosuin's (Bap Khura) daughter. Photo: Nadeem

This is the entrance to the Auniati Xatra at North Guwahati. It is a branch of the main Xatra in Majuli. Photo: Nadeem

Entering the Auniati Xatra.

Within the compound of the Xatra. Once many years ago, I had met the century old caretaker of this Xatra who was sitting here right at this spot, reading a newspaper without any glasses. He is no more but everybody in North Guwahati remembers him and his warm presence in this Xatra.  

The Kamakhya temple at the Neelachal Hills, Guwahati. I don't visit places of religious worship unless it holds some cultural or historical attraction. But even then, if someone were to ask me where, I would say Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi and Ma Kamakhya in Guwahati. I don't go to these two places looking for anything but those moments of peace I find within their premises even in the midst of frenzied behaviour by devotees.  

Devotees from all over India at Kamakhya temple. Photo: Nadeem 

By a stroke of luck, we happened to visit Kamakhya just as it was gearing up for the Ambubachi mela - the festival that celebrates the menstruation period of Goddess Kamakhya. The 'yoni' of the Goddess is supposed to be located here. Hence, for these seven days in June though the temple stays closed, yet devotees from all over the world come here to receive energy. As my aunt Emi Pehi mentioned the other day, the little pond in the temple premises turn blood red during this time and devotees dip themselves there to take in the energy. 
Photo: Nadeem

A devotee who has arrived for Ambubachi mela well in advance.
Photo: Nadeem

Devotees who have turned up for the Ambubachi mela. Photo: Nadeem 

Devotees at Kamakhya who have come for Ambubachi mela. Photo: Nadeem 

The sacrificial goats and pigeons at Kamakhya. Photo: Nadeem

Now this is at Kalakhetra, the wonderful institution that represents the diverse cultural and historical entities of Assam. One can see here in the background the replica of the Rang Ghar in Sibsagar. The Ahom kings, in the medieval times, used to be seated at the first storey of the Rang Ghar during festivals and watch buffalo fights on the ground below. 

A walk through the trees. I remember visiting this place while in school with my dear friend Tahin, whose father Ratna Ojah was the director of Kalakhetra at that time and it was he who shaped up this wonderful project. Uncle had given us (Tahin's friends) a tour of Kalakhetra even before it was opened to public. How privileged we felt! 

Kalakhetra. It has beautiful murals and sculptures depicting Assamese life from yonder years. It also houses a great museum and a craft training centre.

Looking outside from a tea stall at Kalakhetra.

This is at Panikheti. My cousin Phu and her husband Chintu took us there, to this lovely resort Eastern Retreat which has this view. The resort is right where the water ends.   

Panikehti. Beautiful Panikheti.

I also took the husband to the Guwahati Zoo. When we were young, we were told that sanctuaries are natural and zoos are often man made. This Guwahati Zoo is the only natural zoo in India, we were told while in school. Now I don't know how true that is, but the zoo is indeed lovely, and I have always loved it, with its huge trees and plants besides of course the animals. 

The hubby caught a friendly Hippopotamus!

I captured a few pelicans right at the mouth of the zoo. Thereafter, I was too caught up with the sights of nature and the animals to click any more pictures. We saw a few white tigers, and two royal Bengal tigers. We also saw how meat come for them in buckets; the caretaker throws them into the cages and releases the doors for tigers to come in for the food. I was struck by how one tiger came at a time, picked up one piece of meat and left for the next tiger to come and pick its share. They were disciplined and not fighting for food!     

This I had to put up. The husband took this picture from the train as it entered Assam. The landscape just changed, he said, to such lush green that he stood by the door of the coach, taking in the beauty for as many hours as he could. 

Here's another picture from the train by the hubby. You can see how the hills become the clouds and the clouds become the hills in the distance.

Note: This piece has been reprinted by The Thumbprint in June 2015 (

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Sujani craft (Deccan Herald, 31 May 2015)


At the needlepoint

Juanita Kakoty, May 31, 2015, DHNS
Rural crafts
Stitch in time A 'sujani' embroidery work depicting village life.

I was struck by pieces of cloth depicting Madhubani art in stitches at the Design Haat organised by the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi. Meera Jha, a 55-year-old artist, sat in the midst of a group of foreign students seeking to learn the craft from her. Black, broad-rimmed glasses rested on the bridge of her nose, as she applied a running stitch to what was sketched out on a cloth. She told me that this is the sujani stitch from the Madhubani region of Bihar.

Sujani has an interesting story. Meera told me, “I’ve been practising this craft since I was 10 years old. I am from Madhubani in Bihar, and I learnt sujani from my mother. In those days, girls were not sent to school. We stayed home and learnt to cook and stitch from our mothers and aunts. They said this is what would come of use when we got married, when people would say how nice this girl is, how much work she knows! We were made to study a little though in the confines of our homes. Sujani, traditionally, has been used to prepare blankets or quilts, as people in villages were not rich enough to afford mattresses or beds. Earlier, the threads used for stitching were pulled out from the borders of old saris and dhotis.”

I pointed towards a huge rectangular piece of cloth hanging behind her and asked if that was a quilt. Meera said, “This is simply for wall decor. Here, I have used sujani stitches to tell tales from the Ramayana. And a few of my sujani works are on display at museums in India and Japan.” I looked at the piece intently and saw the depictions of Ravana arriving at Sita’s cottage; Sita coming out to offer bhiksha; Ravana carrying Sita off; Ravana and Jatayu fighting in the air; Hanuman with his tail aflame… all these in one fascinating canvas. She informed, “People interested in sujani are now more keen on buying works that depict some story.” Because of this, sujani holds great aesthetic value as customers buy it for display.

Meera has been teaching sujani to Indian and foreign students at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, as well as in Anandgram, New Delhi. And she reveals with great pride that she has displayed her sujani works at Pragati Maidan at least 10 to 15 times so far. Her husband Umesh also practises the art form with her. He started much later in life to augment his wife’s gaining popularity. This is interesting because, traditionally, men in Madhubani never practised stitching.

“We have been hosting this Design Haat as an annual event since last year,” informed graphic designer Ashit Sarkar, who has been working with the Apeejay Institute of Design for the past 15 years. “The idea is to create awareness about the design throughout India and abroad, and to promote Indian art. A lot of Indian art like patachitra, sujani, etc. is dying. To survive they have to come out in contemporary forms. The Apeejay Institute facilitates interactions and exchange of design ideas between Indian and foreign craftsmen. Such collaborations encourage innovative and novel creations using traditional crafts. So, sujani, for instance, compared to 50 years ago, has more simplified designs now. Plus the stories are also not just from the epics anymore; contemporary stories are being portrayed.”

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stitches from Kutch (26 April 2015, Deccan Herald)


Stitches from Kutch

Juanita Kakoty, April 26, 2015,
Folk craft
A creative touch A colourful display of Kutch embroidery. PHOTO by Author

In a corner of the courtyard at the recently concluded Design Haat by the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi, 40-year-old Keshav Bhai sat in his stall displaying all sorts of embroidery from Kutch — patka, chaupar, khatri. Intricate embroidery with glasswork, made with threads of vibrant colours, enchanted visitors at the stall. Gorgeous bags, quilts in patchwork and apparel were on display. 

“Weaving has been a family tradition,” Keshav said as he laid out beautiful kanjaris before me. Kanjaris are long backless blouses which are heavily embroidered, traditionally worn by the women of Gujarat’s Kutch region. “These are only worn by married women,” he thus spoke of the kanjaris. 

“And they stitch it themselves for their wedding and to wear thereafter. By the time a girl is eight or 10 years old age, she learns to stitch; and when she is about 20, she would have stitched some eight to 10 of these kanjaris for herself.” For contemporary fashion, he said, kanjaris could be used in kurtas as embellishment.

Sitting next to him, 35-year-old Umra, wearing a stunning kanjari, was teaching a team of Chinese students a few stitches. These students were working out some Chinese designs with these stitches. “This is in tandem with the spirit of the Apeejay event, the Design Haat that is being organised,” said graphic designer Ashit Sarkar, who has been working with the Apeejay Institute of Design for the past 15 years. “The intention is to facilitate the exchange of ideas whereby the traditional crafts could be taken on to the level of contemporary expressions, which would attune them to modern markets.”

“I learnt these stitches from my mother and aunts when I was a little girl,” Umra said. Referring to the kanjari she was wearing, the talented artiste revealed that she had stitched it as a young girl, before she got married. “We get a lot of demand for our embroidered bags and quilts, which we make through appliqué and patchwork,” Keshav explained. “Appliqué and patchwork have been traditionally used by women in Gujarat to create bags, quilts, dresses, etc. from worn and torn pieces of cloth.” These techniques have been especially used in the region for making quilts for domestic use, he emphasised.  

Laying out a quilt in front of me where little patches of geometric-shaped fabrics were sewn together, Keshav said, “This is patchwork. Traditionally, this technique was used by women to create quilts with used pieces of fabric.” Appliqué, on the other hand, he said, is the art of decorating a piece of textile by applying fabric on fabric with the edges sewn down. “We cut the fabric in some form or shape and then stitch it on the surface of the textile. Appliqué is one of the oldest crafts of Gujarat; the women have used it to create quilts, wall hangings, and dresses by using different patches of fabric and piecing them together.”

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Parvathy Baul (Deccan Herald, 19 April 2015)


Singing her way to the divine

Juanita Kakoty, April 19, 2015, DHNS
Baul music

Musical discovery Baul artiste Parvathy Baul during a performance.

Parvathy Baul needs no introduction. She has mesmerised audiences in India and abroad for 22 years now. And I understood the why and how of it when I saw her on stage for the first time at a recent event in Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi. Draped in a saffron cotton saree, jata hair falling like a cascade down to her ankles, an iktara in one hand and a duggi slung over the shoulder hanging by one side of the waist, Parvathy cast a spell over the audience every time she sang in that powerful voice of hers.

It wasn’t just the voice or her singing, but the strumming of the iktara and the playing of the duggi along with it, accompanied by graceful dance movements, that had a transcendental quality to her performance. Sitting in the audience, I realised, although she sang in Bengali, I could experience the transcendence she was going through as well as the transcendence she was affecting upon me. The manner in which the audience applauded her after every performance was evidence enough that the others felt the magic too.

Baul is listed as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO since 2005. Parvathy told me, a few hours before she went on stage, “It is a tradition which is thousands of years old. And it is a guru-shishya parampara where one needs to be initiated into the Baul tradition. The singing and dancing here is typically used for meditation: You start feeling lightness, you give up your ego and all that you carry in your mind, and finally you transcend, you experience freedom. That is Baul. And once you experience freedom and cross all your blocks in the mind and knots of the mind, you experience pure joy and love! To experience this is Baul.”

Parvathy doesn’t come from a Baul family. “I have learnt Baul singing and dancing from my guruji Sanathan Das Baul from Bakura and Shashanta Goshain from Murshidabad.” As a child, she had been trained in classical music and classical dance though. “But,” she admitted, “What I was looking for was freedom of the spiritual kind. I was looking for an art form with a strong spiritual side; which would not only be a performance, but also a path that would make me live in a certain way and make me experience what I perform throughout the way... Like you need to keep a connection which is divine! With Baul, I think, it is complete because it involves singing, dancing, meditation, as well as playing one’s instrument: You become a complete receiver, absolutely open and transparent.” Then she added candidly with a smile, “Now I can articulate all these things. But when I chose Baul, I could not articulate it. I just loved it.”

“The Baul songs used to be oral, maybe up till the 1990s,” she informed. “After the 1990s, we have lots of books. Many people have published the Baul songs.” Bauls of yore used to go from place to place in search of music, collecting songs. But there is an available repertoire today. “And this repertoire is strong. But, one has to remember that Baul is about continuity. It is not about looking for an end by just gathering information. It has to come from within. If one is with the flow, then naturally one will write a poem and compose music for it. That’s the uniqueness of this tradition. It never settles. You have a repertoire which you collect from your guru. And then you have to go beyond this repertoire. You have to become independent and find your style, your song.”

Today, Parvathy is one of the foremost Baul singers of the country. “I feel happy that my work has been appreciated, but I feel I am still a student and I have a long way to go.” She is just 38 years old but when she speaks it seems like she carries the wisdom of a soul which is civilisations old. “What I am doing is a service to mankind. I am sharing the experience of love that I have inside. If I can make somebody happy or if someone draws strength from my Baul, then my work is worthwhile. And I feel this is a service to my gurus as well. I feel a need to carry on this parampara without compromises, without diluting it in any way and practicing it in its absolutely pure form.” 

For all those who have watched Parvathy on stage and have interacted with her, it is not difficult to see how she lives what she practices. Incredibly warm, with the glow of compassion and kindness in her eyes, she connects with people and her songs with a smile that reflects how free she is. It is not only her Baul that stays with you; she does too.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Bone jewellery (Deccan Herald, 2 April 2015)


Unusual accessories

Juanita Kakoty, April 12, 2015, DHNS
Camel bone jewellery
craft culture Some intricately craved camel bone jewellery. Photo by author

Bone jewellery is an imitation of ivory jewellery, and has been an exquisite craft from the walled city of old Delhi. I recently came across master craftsman Kahkashan from Old Delhi, a 42-year-old woman who represents the fourth generation of a family which has traditionally dealt in jewellery making. 

“Traditionally, we used to first carve jewellery out of ivory,” Kahkashan revealed. “But since the ban on ivory some 30 years ago, we now work on sandalwood, buffalo bone and camel bone. We source our camel bones from Rajasthan.” Speaking of the difference between ivory and camel bone  jewellery, the former has an off-white tinge, she said.

Ivory assumes an important cultural symbol in many societies across the world. In India, Kahkashan informed, a Gujarati bride is given an ivory bangle as a gift by her family just before the wedding. In Rajasthan too, she said, ivory bangles form an important part of bridal jewellery. “There are many other regions in India where it is compulsory for the bride to wear ivory bangles during the wedding ceremony.” Elsewhere in the world, ivory has also been much sought after not only for jewellery, but also for piano keys. This profuse use had resulted in the incessant killing of elephants for their tusks. A steady decline in the elephant population prompted a worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989.

“We have been using buffalo and camel bones since the ban,” Kahkashan said as she strung a few beads together around an engraved piece carved out of bone. And then she disclosed in a lighter vein, “There are some people who freak out at the mention of bones and think that we kill animals to procure them! It is quite a Eureka moment for them when we tell them that we use the bones of dead animals.” 

Kahkashan has been regularly invited to train students at the National Institute of Design, Ahmadabad as well as art institutes and craft centres around Delhi. She and her husband, who happens to be a cousin and from the same family of craftsmen, are often invited by centres in South Africa. “That’s one country where we have met with a good response,” she said. “My husband goes there to impart training on this craft as well.” 

Speaking about the market for bone jewellery, Kahkashan apprised that the demand mostly came from markets in Europe. “They love this type of jewellery, which goes elegantly with their apparel. South Africa also has a good market for bone and beaded jewellery. In India, there is not much demand, although it used to receive great patronage sometime in history under the Mughals. Today, it is mostly high-society women in India who make for a steady clientele.”

I came across Kahkashan at the recently held Design Haat by the Apeejay Institute of Design in New Delhi. She was one among the five noted master craftsmen invited to display their products and share their craft techniques with design students. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

My latest short story (fiction), 'Boundaries' published by Earthen Lamp Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1

My short story 'Boundaries' gets featured by Earthen Lamp Journal's latest issue. It is primarily the story of a Bangladeshi domestic help and the domestic help woes of middle class women, but, as the editor mentions in the editorial, "the reader must not miss reading between the lines". The story, largely, addresses the complexities of socio-religious identities.

One can access the story at the link below.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Jungle calm: Ranthambore

This is a photo-essay on Ranthambore, drawn from a recent visit. We were very excited about the tigers when we took the train from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur, a five to six hour long journey depending upon the train one takes. We didn't see the tiger; but came back charmed by Ranthambore nonetheless. The jungle safari early in the morning was most refreshing. We spotted a variety of birds, deer, bear, and other animals; unfortunately not the tiger. They say you have to be very lucky to see one in your first jungle tour. We saw pug marks though! And were very happy about it. The other species of animals and birds made up for the tiger's absence and the jungle cast a dense calm upon us.  

We reached the beautiful Ranthambore Vatika Resort in ten minutes from Sawai Madhopur railway station. I had booked the rooms online beforehand and had no difficulty checking in. The staff, led by Devendra, was very polite and helpful; and the cottages were amazing with very clean bathrooms. The stay was so pleasant that I would recommend this place to anybody planning a trip to Ranthambore.

we enter Ranthambore Vatika Resort 

this resort is ten minutes away from the tiger reserve

the absolutely beautiful Ranthambore Vatika Resort

the view from our cottage

my daughter Zaara is delighted to be there!

Zaara stops to pose for me :)

and then runs around again!
the next day we visit the tiger reserve. there are open canters and open jeeps that take tourists around. one can book a safari online. 

this is an old banyan tree inside the tiger reserve. 

there are lots of peacocks in the reserve

right at the entrance of the reserve, one can see this centuries' old fort, which has an ancient Ganesh temple inside.

the first time i spotted a Tiger Toothpicker

these birds are called Tiger Toothpickers because when the tiger sleeps, with its mouth open, these birds pick food from its teeth, thus, cleaning its teeth in the process. fascinating!

saw many spotted deers 

the stunning spotted deer

a kingfisher
the most convenient mode of transport in Sawai Madhopur: Autorickshaw. they charge a little more compared to the distances they cover, considering Sawai Madhopur is a small town. 
coming back to Ranthambore Vatika Resort, it offers delightful vegetarian fare. but one can go to town and eat non-vegetarian from one or two places around, like the new place Karim, where our autorickshaw guy took us. it is about five minutes from the resort, and we had amazing chicken stew and rotis there.  

spent some relaxed hours at this resort. a home away from home, and far far far from the maddening crowd!

A tip for those who love block printing: Don't forget to pick up lovely kurtas, shirts, pajamas, bed sheets, etc. from Dastkar while you are in Ranthambore.    

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...