Ashmi Ahuwalia’s city through the lens of nostalgia #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.
In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.
Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.
Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.
And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.
Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.
Remembering the poignancy of the ‘Fallen Leaves’, Judisches Museum, Berlin
Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.
My emotional bond with art is also my tool for positivity
I feel blessed today by my good fortune in finding not one, but two gurus to guide me through my journeys in art and self-development. For these are intrinsically linked and I see that clearly more than ever before in my life.
Let me back up. Culling out lessons from the experiences of friends, family and my own, dealing with the stresses of urban life and staying positive in the face of multiple pressures are the most oft repeated challenges we face. For those who put all their eggs in one basket, by choice or otherwise, it becomes vital to excel in their chosen area of concentration, whether its the home, the workplace or a serious hobby. My strategy has been to diversify my risks so to speak and is in line with the fact that i do have multiple interests and I may say talents that I can pursue. For many years, I focused on studying and music suffered. If I turned to music, a full time job would mean it would get little attention. If I left it, my guilt would kill me. I would stare longingly at salsa dancers and die to learn. I would go to performances all alone and cry bitter tears of remorse.
In my thirties, in the middle of struggling to balance home and career, raising young kids, something snapped inside me. On an impulse, I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, after a gap of ten years! As I learnt to take time out for myself and got back to dance, my confidence grew. Three years later, I started learning kathak, for the first time in my life. I also tried various music teachers till I found my current guru. Between music and dance, both of which I pursue earnestly and purely for self-satisfaction, I found the self-confidence to explore new avenues at work, to think creatively, to approach problems with a positive attitude. If a particularly tough tukda (technical piece in kathak) can be mastered by being attentive and through practise, if my voice can hit that high note that eluded me last year, then issues at work can also be tackled.
Today, I find myself far more centred than I have ever been before. Even if things don’t go as planned, if I don’t meet my expectations in one area of my life, there are other things happening to compensate. I had this vital insight this weekend, that I had been deploying this as my stress management and positive thinking strategy! Whatever works, I guess!
This morning, I had the fortune of interacting with two talented artists. Nishi Singh, a kathak exponent of the Jaipur gharana who weaves the nuances of the Lucknow and Benares gharanas into her dance thanks to her training under several gurus was invited by my kathak guru ji Jayashree Acharya for a lecture demonstration with us students. We were doubly fortunate today to meet Vidushi Mamta Maharaj, daughter of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who also visited the studio. In watching her love for her art and her versatility-she played the tabla, sang and danced with equal ease-I was reminded that love and passion, and an immersion in the arts can bring a fluidity to life that mere hours of tutelage and practice cannot. Mamtaji’s message was one of emotion, of the need to connect to your art through your emotional side as much as through the intellectual side. To me, it is a validation of the emotional bond I have had with music and dance for years. There was a time when I would be ashamed of crying at a performance or being too emotional to sing on certain days when Masterji was too harsh in me. But now I know those were the signs that the bond is there for life.
I sit out hearing Udai go through his music lessons inside. There are days when I see his tears of frustration at not getting his notes right. And I hope with all my heart that he forms this bond just as I have!
THiNK2012 and how it opened my mind- Nov 6, 2012
It’s been hard to explain to friends and relations in Goa (and elsewhere) what exactly the Thinkfest is all about and why I would come all the way to sit for three days through this conference that is not directly related to my work! See, that’s the thing. It’s hard to say what is and what isn’t related to my work. In a sense, everything is inter-related and that is exactly why, at the Thinkfest, you can strike up conversations with people from very different backgrounds and make sense of those! Everyone here is in a mode of looking at the world as a continuum, as a complex arrangement of connected ideas and cultures, as a world in which any two people can find something in common with each other.
Today, after the deluge of lectures and panel discussions that have flooded my mind with information, ideas and controversial conversations has sunk in, I really wonder what is it that I am going back with. Here’s an attempt to synthesize some of the takeaways, for me.
The silos in our heads: They need to be broken every now and then, but they exist for a reason. I find that no matter how broad minded I may be or how radical the thoughts I am exposed to, I continue to look at everything through the social and political lens that is fitted inside my head. That lens was forming when I was a child and was fairly hardened even in my early twenties. It’s darned hard to change it now. For instance, my parents were rather staunch Congress supporters and we have always had a slightly off the centre thinking in our family. Today, I am being forced to deconstruct this in my head. The left off centre is promoting reforms that traditionally seem extremely right, the right is opposing the idea of free markets. In India, being neutral about religion actually just puts you out of the framework, everything is so linked to the religious divides. And to add to matters, living on one side of the class divide and empathizing with the other really leave you nowhere. Yes, that’s me. The one who feels like I belong nowhere and yet want a say, albeit a tiny one, in deciding the future for my country. And so, being in a silo can give you the sort of leverage that no man’s land never will!
The heart and the head: Many talks at Think2012 moved the audience to tears. The adivasi girl Kamla Kaka spoke about police atrocities from a very personal perspective. The police fired at a village meeting that was being held to plan a harvest festival because they misunderstood it as a meeting of Naxals. That wasn’t all. She told us how they treated them, did not return dead bodies for an entire day, threatened them, came back and then killed another man, did not let a women go back to her newborn baby while she was returning from the fields, threatened rape and assault on the women….we had tears rolling down all of us, men included, industrialists and bureaucrats included, but what can we do, how do you make sense of a State that has different rules for difference classes of citizens? Then when I see Baba Ramdev say on TV that the Congress is bought over by big industrialists, I am forced to wonder….
Yes, we do use our head to make sense of things, but our hearts must drive our judgement as well. When tears stream down, you must recognize that injustice has been done. Then make sense of the different voices in the fray.
Indian morality: Think2012 consciously tried to break the mold of middle class Indian morality that is rather on the prudish side. Erica Jong said fuck a million times during her interview, and that somehow diminished the value of what she said for many among the audience. Of course, she says this for effect, but where she comes from and with the life she has led. But somehow, it was ok when Sir Bob Geldof, legendary rockstar and philanthropist, did the same. To be fair, he said fuck only half a million times, but even so, I see a really chauvinistic pattern here.
Sex in itself did not offend the rather elite crowd at Think2012, but a feminist talking about sex did! Being immoral and feminist and female, that was too much for the guys to take. The women mostly loved Erica AND Bob!
I have a lot more to share and everyone will have to bear with my post-THiNK rants for some more days.
The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012
I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.
And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these- Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?
In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).
In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.
But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.
In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.
Burst of creativity, a gift full of love for Ramukaka- Aug 1, 2012
Last night, the celebrations continued back in Goa even as I settled back into the office-school routine with the kids in Gurgaon. There was a big party in honor of Ramukaka, who turns 75 next month. He shares a birthday with my dad, August 31st, and that makes him more special than he already is! The party was held a month in advance thanks to all the VIPs from all over the worlds being in town for Arnav’s big day.
Anyway, a few weeks before leaving for Goa, I was racking my brains for a gift idea. What could I possibly give someone who had no great fascination for things material and who pretty much has what he really needs and uses? I decided I would do something with an emotional twist. A gift of love, playing on nostalgia is what would be suitable, I thought.
This is what I came up with.
1- I found an old box that once held Makaibari green tea
2- I painted it in bright acrylic colors and here, Udai was my willing assistant
3- I culled through photo albums for pics that would bring a smile, a tear…tug at the heart
4- I enhanced these and got them printed
5- Then I created, using waste material from old wedding cards, square coaster-style cardboard squares, using the pictures and also painting on messages, phrases…strung together in a sort of poetic style
It read something like this:
You have given us so much
happy times together
strength in times of need
a home in your heart
you are wonderful
we are blessed
6- I got the squares laminated
7- With a needle and nylon thread, I stitched them all together and used a beautiful string of pearls from someone’s super fancy wedding invite to tie it in together, as a finishing touch!
Here’s what it looks like. Needless to say, Ramukaka loved it. It now sits on his computer table. I hope they look at it again and again and are reminded of our love and respect.