December 22, 2014

Essay: Homesick in the Homeland


When I step outside, the soles of my shoes noisily crunch upon scattered yellowing leaves; I pick one up and twirl it around and around, my eyes idly locating the point where green becomes yellow, life blurs into decay.

However, these leaves are not fall leaves; in fact, I am living nowhere close to a place where deciduous trees flourish. I am in New Delhi, India and these are faux fall leaves only in my eyes. It is as if they have fallen and turned yellow simply to assuage a curious kind of yearning and homesickness I am experiencing for the last place I called home, the United States.

A year ago, I was standing in my Pittsburgh apartment balcony one morning, awe-struck in admiration at how the tree outside had seemingly turned blood-red over night. In the clear, sharp autumn sunlight, it gleamed deeply and brightly, the sidewalk below thickly carpeted with fallen red leaves. I remember scooping a few up and decorating my living room with them, mirroring the fall landscape outside. These days, as I glimpse one stunning image after another of fall foliage on social media, I can't help but reminisce about and miss America even though I am now technically in my homeland.

Perhaps, that is what lies at the heart of the matter: I am in my homeland...but not my home.

Having been born outside of and spent the majority of my life away from India, I and indeed, many of India's Currents readers are very well accustomed to being familiar with what it is to be nostalgic for the homeland. It is ever-present in the food we consume, the cinema that we watch, the clothes we wear, the compatriots whom we gravitate to, and the shrines, religious or otherwise we build within our home, in our quest to accept and reconcile with the fact that we are ultimately not in our homeland.

Even though I lived in India only as a small child and that too very briefly before moving to the place I would (and still call) home for the next many years, Oman, I would nevertheless find myself missing its sheer presence every time we returned from there post vacations. When I moved to the States, I would find myself acutely yearning for my home-town, Jodhpur, of all places, especially during the artic winters. Glimpsing the snow-blanketed landscape and nature at its most minimal, memories of the buzzing streets, vibrant festivals, iridescent clothing, and food would almost obsessively invade my mind. Even though technology allowed me to somewhat fulfill these above mentioned yearnings, it was never enough. To employ a food metaphor, I could recreate India in my plate but it was as if a mechanical, unfeeling had wrought it.

And yet, after I had arrived in India few months ago and began the gradual process of calling it home, I found myself in a peculiar dilemma; up till now, I had always essentially perceived India as a vacation space. I would arrive here, spend a few hectic weeks travelling around the country, and then, as vacation neared its end, inevitably begin missing Oman or wherever I happened to be living then. It was time to go back, I would tell myself. However, this time round, I realised I was no longer on a holiday: I was here to stay.

When I arrived in my new home, Delhi, I began to anchor myself to the notion of permanently living in India, as opposed to being a migratory bird. It was then I began to realise how much I missed the States. What also struck me was how the very things in India that used to delight or provoke curiosity or stimulate my attention made me almost blasé; what I had once yearned for was now omnipresent for my consumption, any time, any day. It slowly dawned upon me that I was in the curious situation of being homesick in what was ostensibly my homeland. The truth was that it never had really been my homeland: it was merely yet another new home in the caravan of countries that I had inhabited through my life.

Would it ever feel like home? I asked myself.

Nature's Child: Street-art in Shahpur Jat

A few days ago, I started to see how my question could be answered. I found myself at Shahpur Jat, a residential area in South Delhi, which was the subject of a pulsating street art festival earlier this year. My interest in street art had begun in Pittsburgh itself and I was now eager to experience street art in a Delhi urban context. When I arrived at Shahpur Jat, the almost-winter sun was disappearing into the dusk air. As I wandered through the narrow bylanes, excitedly spotting and admiring the fun, quirky, iridescent murals, I was simultaneously aware of an atmosphere entirely specific to the area. I passed by crowded biryani and tea and samosa shops, cute boutiques, peanut sellers roasting peanuts, fish for sale, and children and puppies alike playing in the streets while their elders sat outside rainbow hued doors and gossiped. 

Shahpur Jat streets

The deeper I explored the maze of lanes, shops, and houses, I felt as if I was transplanted in a similarly vibrant network of gullies in old Jodhpur, which I had so often missed when living in Oman or States. In fact, at one point, I glanced up to see an ochre-hued house draped with freshly washed carpets – and that sight immediately took me to Oman. 

An Oman-looking building

I had come looking for art in Shahpur Jat – but what I did not anticipate finding was home.

I moved to the country of my put down new roots. While it will be time before I can truly acknowledge the home in my homeland, the project focuses on looking with your eyes open, rather than remaining lost in the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia. Also, significantly, knowing where to look. And one dusk evening, as you are wolfing down warmly roasted peanuts and smelling woodsmoke in the air, you will start thinking, that, yes, perhaps, this place could be my home, after all. 


This essay originally appeared here in India Currents

November 28, 2014

My first story on Medium: The House with the Mint-Colored Walls

I love the idea of Medium and have enjoyed reading many stories that have appeared on it; in fact, I always look forward to its weekly digest every Friday, which features the best from the week. I thought it would be a great platform from where to start sharing my stories as well and so here I am, reproducing the first of my stories. And given my constant preoccupation with homes these days, perhaps, it's appropriate that my new house with its mint colored walls was the focus of my debut story. 

It's bit of a long read so sit back and enjoy...


Pink and Mint

The first thing that I saw when we walked into the apartment was its mint green walls.

We had just arrived in New Delhi two days ago. Since June, we had moved from Pittsburgh, traveled across the United States, and divided time between Bombay, Bangalore, and Rajasthan before finally making up our mind to come to India’s capital city. I was both utterly exhausted of being a nomad for the past many months and apprehensive about calling Delhi home. Actually, more precisely, calling India home.

Apart from annual holidays to the homeland while growing up in Oman, I had never previously lived in India before. I was becoming increasingly disconnected to the idea of calling it home over the years. In fact, the label itself was becoming a complex abstraction for me. Was the home in homeland actually home? What was home anyway? I could worry about the semantics of home later though. Right now, I wanted a house: a nice, comfortable house, where I could anchor myself and start fleshing it into my space again.

I fell sick hours after landing in Delhi. On our first night, we went to a mall where there was an indie rock concert going on in a huge open-air court. I remember sitting on the edge of a white marble planter, simultaneously listening to the crowd sing along to the music and feeling a dreaded itchiness invade my throat. Every time I had previously visited Delhi, its notorious dust and pollution had not been my friend. The following morning, I woke up to find that the itch had snowballed into a cold: my eyes watered continuously, my nose was on fire, and I had little desire to do anything but remain under the covers for the next day.

I couldn’t, of course. I had a house to find.

Our apartment was the second one that the real-estate agent showed us in what would be a long succession of potential homes. Seeing the green walls after a day of battling a burgeoning cold, consuming cold, dessicated sandwiches, and dodging dusty, traffic-clogged roads was like stumbling head-first into an oasis. I wanted to camp out on the sofa itself, refusing to budge further. Afterwards, once we were done with visiting the other apartments (good, terrible, and ugly), the only one that remained with me was the green wall apartment. In the morning light, it would be mint-green, I thought, by dusk, it would assume the shade of pistachio ice-cream. I like the green wall apartment, I told my husband at dinner that night, as we listened to three college-age musicians sing Bob Dylan, let’s take that one.


The Tree Whose Name I Do Not Know
We arrived in the apartment. My cold became a fever — and I spent the first week in our new house, ensconced in the bedroom, either staring at the ceiling or the windows bracketing me. On one side, the shadow of a massive peepal tree and its spreading, embrace-like branches and numerous leaves dutifully dappled the balcony while the other tree — whose name I still do not know — was framed within the window, like a minimal black and white photograph. During the day, their leaf shadows stenciled and overlapped one another upon the green walls, the walls fluid canvases. The leaf-shadow dance lulled me into sleep; the green soothed and calmed me.

The house swiftly became a welcome sanctuary after all those migratory, mobile months.


We are still in the process of turning our house into a home. In fact, we are still befriending the city, understanding its costume, its dialect, when it sleeps, when it wakes up, the art of razoring through its traffic jams. We potter about in the house, migrating from one room to another, wondering where the guest room should be, what color flowers will look good against the mint.

A river of traffic flows behind our house. We hear people’s conversations, dogs fighting, and ambulance and police sirens. I was accustomed to a soundtrack of silence in all the places that I had previously lived. This is the first time my ears are constantly negotiating the overwhelming barrage of sound, the sheer plurality of it; my mind is learning how to filter, distinguish one sound from another. However, I don’t miss the silence quite as much as I miss peering above into the nocturnal sky, glimpsing the dense population of stars studding its surface. Here, in the city, like any other city, they are just as invisible as they are during the day.

Our landlord’s art work meanwhile still dots the apartment walls. In the living room, you can see camouflage-hued tapestries of Paris, a bright bird water-color, an Ancient Egyptian god and goddess in dialogue, and a mountainscape sparely executed in oils. I have decided that these works will continue to hang there on the walls until we discover and introduce our own to them. In any case, they are strangers no more; our daily engagement with the works has made them familiar to us.
There are three paintings though that that we have decided to never remove as long as we stay in the apartment.

These paintings are portraits of three distinguished women hanging upon one wall in the living room. I call them distinguished simply because that’s exactly the sort of air they exude. I have no idea who these women are. I don’t even know the names of the artists who painted them. What I do know is that these portraits define the house as much as the walls themselves. And like the tree window-photograph in my bedroom window, I am content to see their framed selves on the walls.

One of the Distinguished Ladies

What is remarkable is that each of them wear an identical expression of contemplation in their portraits. They look as if they were mulling over a problem or a puzzle or a query — and were about to unpack their thoughts to the artist. The thoughts would quickly spill out, raw, unadulterated, like paint gushing upon a palette from a newly pierced open tube. Yet, the women would just as swiftly incorporate them into the bigger picture, the larger idea, connoisseurs of both the macro and micro. These women are constantly editing themselves, their thoughts, striving to be better, fuller, richer persons. But they wouldn’t bite back their words, that’s for sure. If they have something to say, they will say it.

When we say goodbye to the house with the mint colored walls, I already know that we will miss these three ladies. In the next few months, we will be constantly overlaying the house with our presence— paintings, photographs, furniture, objects, books, our conversations — and by the time we leave, the house will have become an alternate version of itself, a new draft, so to speak. Perhaps, by that time, I will have even figured out how to solve the mathematical-like conundrum of learning to call my homeland home. But what these walls and admirable ladies will remind us of will be those initial paint-strokes, those first words on the computer-screen, a freshly new time, when blankness was exciting, when anything could become everything.


You can read the original version here...and in the meantime, why don't you too think about sharing your stories there?

November 24, 2014

The Neon Horse: Of Collaging, Blogging and Looking At-ed Ness

Kitschy Horse, Collage, 2014

I impulsively decided to throw together a collage a few days ago. I find making collages as relaxing and enjoyable as taking long, meandering, purposeless walks. I visually gorge on a rich buffet of colors, images, and patterns, thinking about nothing in particular, cutting and ripping and pasting until the collage somehow...fits together. The journey of creating and the end result in form of an image, however startling or obscure, both appeal to me very much.

It had been months since I last made one and when I came across this journal while organising my collection of (many and mostly empty) journals, I decided that at least, its pages should be blank no more. In the past, I was used to making bigger-scale collages but I liked the diptych format that this journal gives me, it's like simultaneously writing two interlinked yet independent stories. I sheared through a single magazine (Vogue India's September issue, to be precise), as opposed to a whole bunch and ended up structuring the collage around this fantastical horse head that featured in an ethereal, dreamy shoot. Except it has much more of a neon kitschy vibe going on here when transplanted in the journal.

I can't help but wonder though if abstracting a collage is also a metaphor for what's happening in my life though. I have cut and pasted myself into a different city - and something inevitably and unsurprisingly has changed in that moment of transition. What is it though? And what of the narrative that I am writing myself into?

I am also thinking about the blog as well. I began it sometime in April 2011, describing it as the constant visual commentary running in my head. I also meant it to be a writing portfolio, where you could dip into and leaf through my writing. The blog and I have naturally evolved with time; it's not just about capturing whatever ensnares my visual fancy, impaling it beneath the glass case of a post. I can see the changes in my writing, even the nature of my looking-at: what I look at, how I look, the details which I now pay attention to and would previously never have considered.

There is more than just the look-at-nedness, perhaps. And so, I am wondering about the shape and direction this blog is assuming. Sometimes, there's so much I would like to do with it. Other times, I am content to fiercely stake it out as my garden, my space, my world, just as I had said in my very first post

Should I continue collaging it into my story as I have been doing all this time? Or entirely repurpose it?

I think I need to go take a walk and think it out...

PS You are most welcome to share your thoughts on your own journeys/challenges with blogging or other personal projects!

November 19, 2014

What My November Looks Like So Far: Bandaged Trees, Whimsical Walls, and Germinating Poetry

It's almost the third week of November.

I resist the perpetual temptation to say, where has the year gone by? I know the answer this time. This year so far has been made of: dismantling and farewelling a home, making cross-country and maritime journeys, setting up a new home (again), hearing a city's new chatter, the colors of its dialect,  and studying its costume, its embellishments and fabrics.

The winter light is elegant, immaculately composed, a bit elusive completely evanescences by the time dusk falls, leaving behind a leached, bereft world. Seeing the mauve shadows, you think, the world feels a better place in the presence of such good, strong light.


I take pictures as long as it's there.


One of my simple pleasures soon after moving here was buying a mogra bunch every few days. When I went to the flower-seller yesterday, I once again asked him if he had any mogras; he shook his head, gesturing instead towards the piles of saffron marigolds, tooth-white chrysanthemums, and pastel-hued roses girding him. I will have to wait until next year to breathe in their giddy, monsoon-scent.

Bandaged Branches

The trees here may not be burning yellow or orange like their peers in other parts of the world; however, I am amused to see one tree adorned in these colors for an ongoing literature festival at the India Habitat Centre. I like to imagine whether it is a wounded warrior tree, bandaged in colors of blood and turmeric, pain and healing or a flamboyantly dressed one, eagerly showing off its sinuous curves in crimson and vermillion?


I wander into Shahpur Jat, an urban village, ostensibly to admire its iridescent, whimsical walls, the glad subjects of a street art festival. However, I stumble upon a maze of characters: contemplative, sad old women, hookah-smoking and gossiping men, freshly-slaughtered fish, roasted peanut, and thoughtful, kind momo sellers, pre-teen girls manning their fathers' groceries stores while intently watching a Hindi soap on a tiny TV, and a playful brood of puppies, who joyfully bite our fingers as we feed them Parle-G biscuits. There are stories of stores tucked here and there; when you walk inside them, you feel as if you have stepped inside someone's doll-house imagination, their parallel universe. I like these stories-stores. I like these walls. I like Shahpur Jat. I want to come here again.

In a white walled, gray-shiny floored gallery, I glimpse an artist's fictional maps. When I was a little girl, I would spend hours reading the atlas, jigsawing the countries together, how Austria was pink, USSR the largest country in the world, tracing the ocean between India and Oman. I even made up my own country, Trontia although I never went as far as to become its cartographer; it still exists somewhere in the landscape of my imagination. It's been years since I have thought of Trontia though. It's also been years since I thought of space colonies and I only just remembered my sheer awe at the thought of a home other than Earth when I saw Interstellar yesterday. At the same time when I was mapping Trontia in my head, I was poring through science encyclopedias, hungrily inhaling everything astronomical: black holes (unimaginably frightening), the sun ageing into a monstrous red giant, nebulae, aliens, and space colonies, the artists' depictions of them resembling Earth distilled and bottled in glass rings.  

It Happens in the Unlikeliest of Places

There are poems waiting to be written too. Here is one gingerly poking its head through the stone, plucky, salad-green, and glossy. I let it emerge. There will be plenty of time to let it and others grow. 

What  is your November looking like so far?

October 29, 2014

Delhi Diary: Of Marigold Earrings, Crimson Pomegranates, and Faux Leaves

Marigold Earrings
Belated Diwali greetings, dear readers! This was my first ever Diwali in India and I was eagerly looking forward to celebrating it along with witnessing all the festivities. However, while a nagging cough meant that I was unable to participate as fully as I did have liked to, I was nevertheless privy to the sheer carnival of colors, sights, and sounds that preceded the festival. Diwali markets particularly left me visually stunned what with stall after stall in our local market crammed with miniature earthenware lamps, painted idols of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, glitzy, glittery decorations, rangoli stencils, and flowers, saffron marigolds either heaped into hillocks or strung along the lines like dangling chandelier earrings.


I can already smell winter in the air. It smells of woodsmoke.


Patterns and Solids

The vegetable stall is loaded up with generous gifts of the earth: most familiar, some unfamiliar. I poke through massive bundles of spinach, fat, purple-streaked spring onions, ivory-hued cauliflowers, green-flecked red tomatoes, and startlingly vivid ombre hued radishes. I examine a vegetable which appears to be an offspring of cauliflower and Brussels-sprouts. I mentally cook recipes inside my head, wondering which vegetable to marry with the other. At the nearby fruit-stall, I place shiny red pomegranates inside my vegetable-stuffed bag: at home, they temporarily become photo-toys before being consumed.

Faux Fall

A year ago, I was standing in my apartment balcony in Pittsburgh, smiling in delight at the spectacle of the tree outside my apartment having turned crimson overnight. Now, thousands of miles away, as gorgeous fall postcards fill up my screen on various social media, I peer at the still, silent green trees outside my new apartment balcony. However, when I step outside, I glimpse the poetry of fallen leaves everywhere: they may not exactly be autumn leaves but as if to assuage my fall yearnings, the leaves collectively are graduated shades of yellow.


A God in Every Stone

I had been waiting to read this book for a long time ever since it was published in April this year. I first discovered Kamila Shamsie when I was searching for a good read for a long-haul flight from London to Muscat during my student days. I was on the verge of purchasing a quintessential Soutth Asian novel, redolent of pungent mango-pickles, shimmering silk saris, and jasmine flowers;) when I chanced upon her second and newly published novel, Kartography. As I read the opening lines, I knew I had found an author whose worlds and words would thoroughly involve me - and not just for the flight. Shamsie plays with words, has a facility for phrase and prose, and constantly presents a kaleidoscopic Pakistan, far removed from the universe of generic media reports and stereotypes. I have read all of her novels and even had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival several years ago. This book meanwhile hopscotches from Ancient Greece, early 20th century Europe, and colonial Peshawar, remarkably interweaving archaeology, colonialism, patriotism, history, love, betrayal, a city of flowers, the poetry of letters, and the inkiness of death.

How has your week been so far?

October 20, 2014

Delhi Diary: Of Fruit-Sellers, Mint Walls, and Bookmarked Flowers

So New Delhi it is, my new home.

Even though I have previously visited it countless times, it was quite a distinctly different feeling altogether this time round when we landed at the airport; as the taxi wended its way through the web of streets, trees, cars, people, and buildings, one phrase recurrently echoed in my head: this is home now. I recalled in the past when we would arrive in Delhi from Oman during summer holidays, how excitedly, curiously and intensely I would examine my surroundings, almost as if I was intent on inhaling the city. This time, even though it had been barely hours since I had begun inhabiting the city, I was already blasé about it: bits of ancient stone and stories peeking from the foliage, the dried leaves poetically dotting the ground, the towers of rainbow hued bangles, the exquisite gardens of mehendi patterns being wrought on ladies' palms for Karva Chauth...

The first few days have been a blur of roaming around and exploring the city, shopping, flat-hunting, falling ill and starting to flesh a house into a home. What continually strikes me is that I am a transitory bird no more, always aware of imminent departure: I am here to stay, which translates into starting to befriend the city, rather than merely gawking at and absorbing it before leaving and saying goodbye with a headful of memories and sights.

I wouldn't deny that I am a little bit homesick although it has now come to a point where I am never quite sure where exactly I am homesick for! Sometime, the sound, smell, and sight of foamy waves crashing upon the Seeb beach at dusk will flash through my mind; other days, as I glimpse unbearably beautiful images of flame-hued trees and massive leaf-carpets in Pittsburgh on Instagram, I recall one cool, crisp fall morning when I stepped outside onto my balcony only to see that the tree outside my apartment had turned crimson over night.

But then, I tell myself, this city has its own gifts to offer too. There is a slight nip in the air as the weather decides to become winter. Whether in our immediate neighborhood or the larger city itself, we see Diwali preparing to be celebrated (the first time I will be celebrating Diwali in India!) During the nights, numerous lights dress up the adjoining houses; the shops are crammed with an overwhelming buffet of color, sequin, and embroidery. And in the mornings, when I wake up, I see a different tree on either side, bracketing my room, casting their unique leaf-shaped shadows upon the floor...

Here are some visual notes from my diary:


Walking towards Sarojini Nagar market, I spotted this beautifully arranged platter of fruits: reddish ed berries and lime-green star-fruit. I asked the fruit-seller if I could take a picture; he interpreted it as photographing him and immediately commenced to make himself presentable, removing his cap, brushing his hair with his fingers, and positioning himself upright. After taking a picture of both the fruit arrangement and the seller himself, he beamed upon seeing his picture. "I look very fresh in this picture, right?" he said, grinning.



The walls in my new home are mint-colored; however, depending on my mood or if they catch the texture of the newly wintered saffron light, they are just as liable to turn pistachio.

One of the first things I did after moving into my house was to buy flowers - and even though I first picked my traditional favorites, roses (just opening pink and white buds, which contrast wonderfully against the green), I also bought a bunch of white, intoxicatingly-scented mogras. When I was living in America, my mother would text me pictures of fat, fluffy mogra blooming in our garden in Oman; even though I was surrounded by summer flowers of all dazzling shapes and textures, I still yearned for the mogras. And so, when I spotted the bunch sitting atop a hillock of orange marigolds, I immediately bought it - and drenched the house in a fragrance redolent of low-hanging clouds, crumbling havelis, and the monsoon rain's first embrace of the parched earth.

Bookmarked Flowers
I have always found myself employing the image and notion of the unwritten journal as a favorite metaphor of mine whenever I have envisioned the future, perhaps owing to the fact that the my journal has always been that significant and precious space in which I have mapped out the coordinates of my life. As I begin this new chapter of mine, mogra-bookmarked, I wonder what journeys and adventures await me...

October 2, 2014

A Tourist No More

As I start settling down into India, learning to name it home, I found myself thinking about how that's influencing the way I am seeing the place and subsequently, altering the texture of my photography and writing. Earlier, I experienced a constant need to document moments, significant or quotidian; if I wasn't photographing them, I was writing them down in my journals or daily planners. It was as if I feared that if I didn't make the effort to memorialize their existence, it was if they had had never happened: memories thus metamorphosed into impaled butterflies, pinned down and shut up in glass cages of photographs or diaries.

While I had been journaling for many years, I only regularly started taking photographs though when I got a digital camera. I still remember the first ones I took of Pushkar on a winter morning: the trilingual sign-boards in Hebrew, English, and Hindi, a street dog sitting sentinel on the sun-soaked whitewashed ghats, the famed, heaven-scented pink Pushkar rose cradled in my palms, yellow mustard flowers paint-daubing the fields... Even though I knew I would return to India and would always do so annually (or sometimes, even bi-annually), I would greedily stock up on capturing photographs, akin to a squirrel hoarding away nuts in preparation for the long, bleak winter. Back home in Oman or wherever I happened to be living at that moment, I would scroll through the photographs and notes, both admiring and yearning for that foreign country, the past, briefly transported to that particular coordinate of time, place, and my thoughts. 

The other day, a friend asked me during a What'sApp conversation about how did it feel to be living in India now that I was no longer a tourist. As I mused about how exactly to reply to that, I idly scrolled through my camera roll on my phone, looking at the pictures that I had taken since I had moved. It then occurred to me that I was not as avidly or prolifically taking pictures as I otherwise would have been wont to. Earlier, when vacationing in India, if I saw an arresting sight or mentally framed a great shot while zooming past in a car or in middle of a conversation, I would have regretted the opportunity of not being able to take it: that unphotographed photograph would forever linger in my mind. However, now, I told myself that I had all the time to see, explore, process - and photograph and write about it. These images would no longer be postcards or souvenirs from a trip; they would be the weave and color and embroidery of my every day-life.

So what have I been seeing and photographing in these initial months? Here are a few visual and written notes...

Eye-food: Jodhpur

Eye-food: fuchsia merging into saffron into pink. Fallen chunky gold hair-ties resembling errantly discarded gold bangles. The night air smells of pregnant rain-clouds. Dessicated leaves decorating my feet. Banana leaves angrily tearing apart the sky. Mother Mary in a green sari. 

Reflecting the World: Bangalore

Frozen headlines on a lemon wall. Mirror-smooth, polished granite tombstones stacked atop each other. Chickens crammed in coops. A smashed carnation. A Mickey Mouse with a human head. A little girl in a fairy costume with a dahlia growing out of her crown. Tilak-smeared fat, furry, old dogs. 

Flight or Fight: Cubbon Park, Bangalore

At the park: pigeons fly into trees and become leaves. Three Marwari women gossip about hair-cuts. There is a wildly eccentric tree growing in the middle of a suave park. Black dog in front of gods. Post breakfast: mathematically perfect cones of dosas. Ice-candy stolen from a blizzard.

Long, pock-marked seed pods, glossy, polished nuts and red cotton-silk blossoms. Pelicans swimming in a jade-thick lake. Flowers illuminating a shy morning.

September 20, 2014

Object Stories: Mona, Pooja, and Aarti's Notebooks

In the last year, I became particularly preoccupied with the idea of photographing objects; the more I pursued object photography, I started thinking about the stories behind the objects and the notion that objects themselves can be stories.
What would happen if I brought together objects, people, and stories then? In my new photographic endeavor, Object Stories, I wished to engage in dialogue with people and ask about the significance of objects (or not) in their lives; and if they did matter, discover the stories behind the ones most precious to them. This project presents the people whom these objects belong to and the stories underlying the objects; it is also a work in progress, constantly evolving, resulting in a differently conceptualized and presented Object Story each time.
For my first installment, last month, I spoke to a group of young teenage girls I met at Sambhali, an incredible Jodhpur-based non-profit organization actively working towards empowering underprivileged Rajasthani women and girls through education, vocational training [such as sewing], self defense and more to ensure that they become confident, socially aware and financially independent individuals. I discovered the organization three years ago during a visit to Jodhpur, which happens to be my home-town and have kept in touch with them since.
I spent a few hours with Mona, Pooja, and Aarti along with their friends, Sanju and Rekha, listening to them talk about their lives: their lives as child-brides, and the seclusion and insulation of their lives prior to Sambhali, how Sambhali has definitively and positively changed them, infusing them with so much self-awareness and confidence, and their aspirations and fears. Talkative, bubbly, inquisitive, protective, and philosophical, they in turn took me to their favorite Ganesh temple, their homes, their families, and lives.
When I asked them about the objects that mattered to them the most, they interpreted the idea as the ones that would best represent them - and they each produced three notebooks-journals which were presented to them by a Sambhali volunteer. It contained their sewing and embroidery swatches, their photographs, and bits of information about themselves. Far from having a voice or agency of their own once upon a time, they had literally written and were continuing to write their lives into being. 

                                             Trio of Stories

                                                Mona, 15, Jodhpur

"Before we came to Sambhali, we just stayed at home…at the most, we went out to gather branches for the chula [wood-fired stove[. We never even went to school. I unknowingly got married when I was ten years old along with my older sister. Till date, I have never seen my groom’s face. We had no idea what our lives were all about. Coming to Sambhali has changed everything: we are now filled with so many hopes and dreams for the future."


                                                Knitted Dreams
                                    Pooja, 16, Jodhpur

"Even after marriage, we want to keep on coming to Sambhali. We come here every day between 9-2pm apart from Saturdays and Sundays. On those days, we feel something big is missing from our lives."

                                              Aarti, 16, Jodhpur

"We had never even picked up a pen in our lives…and now we are learning English, Hindi and Maths. We have also participated in an English drama, done a video-photo workshop, and are learning boxing and lathi [baton] as part of self-defense. Earlier, we used to be hesitant about speaking to anyone…we now know how to approach people and address them. “

                                            Looking into the Future

"We want to be further educated. We want to sew and make things for other. We want to be something and stand on our feet."

I appreciated the opportunity of getting a glimpse into these girls' lives and thoughts through the medium of their notebooks. I do wonder what else they will fill these notebooks with; all I nevertheless wish is that they keep on filling the pages of their lives...and may there be hope and promise even in the blank pages.

What did you think of this first of the Object Stories? I would love to hear your thoughts!


With many thanks to the founder of Sambhali, Mr Govind Singh Rathore, the team, and of course, the spirited girls themselves for all their help in facilitating this feature!

September 16, 2014

What Do I Call Home?

Goodbye, America: Pittsburgh

I arrived in Pittsburgh one icy, sunny morning on 12th December, 2012. As we drove through the city, noting that it was peppered with churches, encircled by hills, and river-striped, I reflected upon the dramatically hectic previous week which had witnessed me getting married, obtaining the US visa, and finally, flying down to the States to begin my new life. This is my new home, I remember thinking to myself, I am married. Given this significant intersection of two major turning points in my life, it's perhaps unsurprising that my memories of my first month in States are an inky blur of acute jet and cultural lag and exhaustion.

Azure Waters: Mackinac Island, Michigan
Cut to eighteen months later and I am now preparing to move to India, a country which I have always viewed through the lens of an itinerant traveller and an emigrant. As I currently travel across the States before finally bidding adieu to this yet another one of my adopted homes, transitioning through its cities, forests, lakes, and deserts, I muse about my experiences living here. Before living in United States, I had had called four countries my home: Australia, India, Oman, and United Kingdom. Having been born in Melbourne, Australia, I moved from there at the age of two and lived in Jodhpur, India until I was five years old. My parents then decided to take up academic jobs in Muscat, Oman and I completed my schooling there before pursuing my undergraduate and graduate studies in United Kingdom. A few more years in Oman working as a journalist and I eventually made my way to United States. 

If someone had asked me a month ago about what I would call home, I would have immediately said: Oman. The notion of belonging to a singular home, or rather, multiple homes had always intrigued me over the years; yet, it is here in America that I have became particularly preoccupied with dismantling and analysing the structure of my complicated thoughts about home and belonging. In the last year and half, I started to think more consciously about my roots and the relationship that I shared with them. I began calling India the land of my passport, even disputing the extent of my Indianness. During the height of the polar vortex which struck Pittsburgh amongst several other Eastern American cities, I could not help but yearn for Oman's intense heat and its sunlight. Whenever I glimpsed Pittsburgh's Allegheny river glinting in the sunlight, I would immediately become homesick for Oman's oceans and beaches. However, I was also simultaneously aware that no matter how much I yearned for Oman, its landscape in particular, I was not and never will be Omani. So then what was I...? 

Path to Serenity: A Trail in a Pittsburgh park

And so, for the past few weeks, as I travel across the country, I have become concerned with a new project: navigating the map of what lies ahead for me, figuratively and literally. As my husband and I hopscotch from one city to terrain to another, indulging in what appears like an interminable relay race of unpacking and packing suitcases, I recollect what my husband said to me the other day. “I miss home,” he told me as we found ourselves in yet another hotel room. “You mean you miss Bangalore?” I asked, thinking he was referring to the city that he grew up in and which we were returning to. “It's just a few days away from you now.” He shook his head. “No, I mean, I miss a home,” he said. And perhaps, that was the crux of the situation. As he talked about a home, I found myself instinctively conjuring up the outlines of our freshly vacated Pittsburgh apartment: the house which I had arrived in so many months ago and made it home, piece by piece, memory by memory. I thought of the balcony from which I glimpsed daily theatrical performances that the landscape and sky produced for me or walking through quiet, shady, tree-lined bylanes surrounding the building or grabbing dosas at the Sunday buffet at a nearby Indian restaurant. For the first time, I found myself homesick for Pittsburgh – and realising that for the time-being, it had become my home. 

Perhaps, the answer to the question as to what country is home lies nested between these lines. For me, my home lives in the present-tense – and so whichever country I happen to currently inhabit becomes my home. However, in Italian, there also happens to be a tense which describes an action that happened long ago in the past and yet, which is still occurring. Perhaps, it is that tense which perfectly describes my relationship with homes: I have been creating homes in whichever country that I have resided over the years and so, even now, whenever I visit them, each of them conjures up a veritable house of emotions, memories, and associations. There are many houses inside my home and I gladly inhabit them all.


This piece originally appeared in the August issue of The Curated Magazine and written during a time when I was just beginning to process my transition from States to India...

September 9, 2014

Of Being Nomads and Nests

This post was originally called: Of Being Nomads and Calling A Suitcase a Home...and it occurred to me that the title could very well have been the title of a poem except that it has been years since I last wrote a poem. However, given that I am currently navigating so many transitions both within my interior and exterior worlds, it wouldn't be so odd after all that I start embracing poetry once again after so long. Poetry is how I first began to see the world through words - and I am coming full circle, as if coming back to a sanctuary.  I have so many thoughts, words, memories, and visuals jostling around in my head, all like caged birds...and poetry seems to me the best way to package and present them.

But this post is not just about poetry: it is also about being nomads, becoming acquainted with the idea of nesting homes from suitcases and bare rooms and the way the air smells at dusk in different cities and countries. As we traversed across America last month and now in India, awaiting to find our new nest, I thought of the hotel rooms, friends' houses, and camp-sites that we briefly called home. And this is what I am learning about home, having mused about the subject a great deal in the past years: no matter how briefly or long you live in a place, it becomes home, whether it's for the night, months, years or decades.

As I write, memories from our travels flash through my mind, one visual layering upon another: eating tongue-roof-burning hot pizza at Patsy's on a warm, electric June afternoon in New York, watching 4th July fireworks momentarily bloom in a garden of a night sky somewhere in Virginia, peering down into the sky inside a pool gouged out of red mountains, the surreal cacti cities and broken hills of Joshua Tree National Park, and the massive azure Great Lakes in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which I constantly mistook for the sea, so great was my yearning to see it (although the one time I did see the sea on a New Jersey coast, it was during a hurricane and what an ugly, white, wind-whipped beast it was!) 


And then, in middle of this treadmill of travel, there was also this to savor: exploring a garden in a desert city in India. The garden was a self-contained green universe, as gardens are: jaundiced leaves littered the grass, over-ripe bittergourds turned orange, as if in protest at not being plucked to be cooked and consumed (and when their bellies were sliced open, they revealed sticky red seeds within, nature's toys), and tiny deep pink flower petals dreamily danced away from their parent trees, their scent fiercely staining the air- and then one morning, I found a small, immaculately constructed and perfectly preserved nest sitting beneath a tree. Had it fallen or been abandoned? There were no eggs and the owners were nowhere to be seen, save a feather lying nearby. A home in a garden; the garden a my photographic quest to document the quotidian of my life, those little moments that plump our lives, it was a memory and a metaphor and a message. Or perhaps, neither of those things. Each possibility is as valid as the others.

It will happen soon enough, the nest - and so, meanwhile, I continue to wander, sights and sounds and smells aligning themselves against one another, like brilliantly hued saris in a sari shop - and when it will be time to sit down and write and ponder, I can simply reach into those memories and unfurl those moments and weave them into words.

June 12, 2014

Thoughts on RACE: Are We So Different?: Exhibition at Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh

What is race?

What is race? How do you perceive and integrate race into your daily life and interactions? 

An exhibition which has been travelling around the United States since 2007 and has recently arrived at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, RACE: Are We So Different? poses all these questions and many more, compelling us to realise that race is ultimately just a social construct - and much more than just the binary terms of black/white. RACE happens to be a project of the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. It is the first exhibition of this scale to offer an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United State

During my visit to the exhibition at the kind invitation of Cecile Shellman, museum communications and community specialist, I found myself giving much deeper thought than I have ever done before to the issues of race. "This exhibition is an invitation for thought leaders, community members, educators, students, and casual museum visitors to learn something new about how race has been classified; confront beliefs about race and culture; and to converse internally and with others,” says Shellman. “The idea is to spark dialogue that might not otherwise occur. In this way, the museum provides a safe and open space for learning about race and racism. We will consider this exhibition a success if the conversations continue well beyond our walls.”  

The exhibition is an intersection of science, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, and art; for example, we learn about the the relationship between genetic distribution and migratory patterns of earliest humans from Africa to various parts of the world, illustrating that genetically all human beings are more alike than individuals of any other living species. Similarly, we also become privy to  how people in power have classified others based on observable physical differences, and the resulting conclusions have led to systemic mistreatment of groups believed to be inferior or less capable. This study of power politics explores how groups of people were catalogued, how economics, popular culture, and politics have influenced treatment of various groups, and also, significantly, how attitudes about race have changed over time (as this American Census photograph below demonstrates). 

American Census: Changing Attitudes towards Race Over Time

Museums all over the world are constantly finding alternative ways to engage with their audience, moving away from traditional museum experiences. This exhibition is no exception: facts, statistics, and graphics merge with every-day experiences to produce a textured representation of the subject. There is ample use of multimedia presentations in form of  photographs, audio-visual presentations, and interactive stations along with standard display formats. Whether it's a station which asks you to guess a person's race through their voice or identify it by the virtue of their physical appearances, it makes you mindful of how race is woven into our every-day interactions and how we are both the objects and subjects of interactions and engagements without being particularly conscious of it.

Given that much of our engagement with the notion of race arises from visual interactions, it's perhaps appropriate that there were two photography projects interrogating the idea of race in the exhibition. One was a local project in which Pittsburgh Courier (the city's leading newspaper for its African-American community) took a series of photographs and interviews during the 1950s, asking the community at the time if there were any differences amongst them; the vast majority deny it while interestingly the same question (although reworded) is posed to the community in 2014 and several them admit to it. The project is significant for it locally contextualises the spirit of the exhibition as well as providing a larger historical perspective on the matter of inter-racial perceptions and interactions.

The Hapa Project

"What are you?" asks artist Kip in his photographic installation, The Hapa Project, which is a series of photographs promoting awareness and recognition of the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian/Pacific Islander descent in the U.S. We see individuals' photographs describing their racial make-up as well as self-written notes on how they perceive themselves. As they encounter a multiplicity of answers, visitors reflect on the sharp contrast between common conceptions of race and the fluidity of personal identity. The project ultimately underscores and reiterates the central point of the exhibition: at the heart of it all, whilst redressing long-entrenched misconceptions and myths, we must grasp and celebrate the truth that we are essentially just the same and that differences are merely skin-deep...

RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition is on at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History till 27th October

Pictures courtesy: Carnegie Museum of Natural History