Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s…

Where one bucket of wheat equals one candy bar

Where one bucket of wheat equals one candy bar

Paul Salopek’s (Twitter — do yourself a favor and follow along) latest post is, per usual, a gem; a brilliant-cut diamond of a piece:

Salopek is currently in Turkey. At Yelkovan Koyü, Turkey, 37°48’16” N, 38°32’28” E, if you like accuracy. He is at a bakal, an oasis. He writes of the man he meets there, and of the lives he encounters in this outpost that time forgot:

“We are poor here,” Karadoğan acknowledges. He is a kind man. He himself is poor. “Not everybody has money in their pockets all the time,” he says. “I buy the grain and resell it in Kâhta for a small profit.”

In exchange, the Kurdish farmers in the village obtain soap or salt. Batteries or cigarettes. Notebooks and other schools supplies. There is a brisk trade in candy—in sweets.

“It is the children’s job to clean the grain,” Karadoğan explains. “This is their reward.”

In this world, in this life, one bucket of wheat = one bar of candy — the title of Salopek’s latest post. And as with much of his work, it is not the travelogue that strikes you, though his project is a travelogue spanning 21000 miles and seven years. What really grips you and won’t let go is the stories he tells of the lives and of the peoples he encounters along the way. Stories that lift you out of your skin and put you inside another’s — and in doing that, both diminishes you and enhances you at the same time.

Consider this lead-in to his previous post, Mother Rivers:

Coban Ali Ayhan sings like a human being in pain—like a man pouring salt into the open wound of his heart.

He bounces a wounded cry down into the canyons of the Tigris River: a blade of rusty water that saws its way through the bedrock of time. Ali’s song is a hymn to true love, which is to say, to love unrequited. It is the tale of a beautiful woman who remains blind to the longings of the singer. It is a lyric of loneliness. Of waiting. Of resignation—a form of acceptance. It is the perfect ballad for this antique river and this doomed, haunted town.

Through his posts I’ve met Coban Ali Ayhan. And Murat Yazar, who walked with Paul into what looked like death, but turned out to be a cup of shared tea. Muhammed Sadiq Demir, the tailor who mourns a world where people no longer repair their clothes, preferring instead to just junk them and buy new. Ismail, who with gun in hand attempted to oppose the armoured tanks of the ISIS. Yuval Ben-Ami, Paul’s trekking partner through Israel who would rather walk (and sing as he walked) than anything else, and who was not above leading Paul to Nazareth because there is a good hummus shop there.

“Strangers are friends you are yet to meet”

Each post in the series introduces me to strangers. And thanks to the art of the narrator, they become friends, people whose fate I am now invested in; people I care about.

There is something I print and hand out to journalism students during my infrequent lectures on narrative. It is from the introduction to The DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics. I tell the students it is the best definition of story, and of why we write, anyone could possibly want:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

Those words could have been written for, and about, Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk.

Change of Address notification :-)

Dear all:

I should have done this before, with due consideration for all of you who kept visiting even during this period of prolonged hibernation. My apologies.

That said: I resumed blogging a while back. Sporadically — but that is going to change too, and it’s going to get a lot more frequent.

It’s all here — on Tumblr.

See you there.


Gary Smith Redux

His narrative voice was an empathic, whispering lyricism, and he wrote with a dazzling omniscience that in his finest work was earned through many, many months of intensive reporting. It was impossible to imitate him. And it was impossible not to try.

It’s almost like a wake, the reaction to Gary Smith’s retirement. Alan Siegel joins the chorus of quality writers weighing in on the impossible standards the premium sportswriter of our times set.

But the trick of Smith’s technique was that he made it seem possible for relatively inexperienced writers who’d yet to have a Gary Smith moment. His work seemed less like an exercise in high-velocity writing than it did a feat of sustained attention—to his sources, to their anecdotes, to the minute but revealing details that accumulate throughout a life. It was of course much more than that, but when you’re 21 and the extra-inning, lightning-delayed American Legion baseball game you’re covering has you questioning your career choices, it’s nice knowing there are more ambitious and yet still doable varieties of sportswriting out there. Maybe with the right subject, you start to think …

“The imitation of Gary Smith has been the cause of reams and reams of very bad writing,” Lake said. “That is not his fault. People want to be like him. I say that as someone who’s done it himself.

“You’re playing with fire when you try to do what Gary does.”

And if hadn’t caught it already, here, a comprehensive round-up of Smith’s work, and lots of links: In the Furnace of the Sporting Psyche.


And then there were none…

Recipe for Mango Pulisherry:

Peel two ripe mangoes (pick the really sweet varieties for best results). Chop them into chunks one inch or bigger. Place the chunks in a saucepan. Add two teaspoons chilli powder (more, if you really like the heat to pop); two teaspoons of salt, and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder. Pour enough water to cover the pieces and bring to a boil (Did I mention turn on the gas?). Simmer till most of the water has evaporated.

Grind half of a big-sized coconut and two teaspoons of cumin seeds into a smooth paste. Add to the cooked mangoes, stir; add a quarter cup of thick curd (Did I mention, stir again, folding inwards till everything is nicely mixed?). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and stir occasionally, (carefully, you don’t want to break up the mango pieces into unrecognizable pulp) till the sauce thickens.

Heat two spoons of coconut oil, toss in a spoonful of mustard and when it pops, add half a teaspoon of fenugreek, three/four dried red chillies and 8-10 curry leaves. Pour the tadka over the mangoes, stir, serve hot with either rice or chappatis/porottas. Enjoy the whole sweet-sour-hot thing the dish has going on.

I made this dish for myself this weekend.

It tasted weird, somehow. An odd taste I couldn’t quite identify.

Meledath House

I ENTERED this home — Meledath House, it is called — as a newborn. This is where I grew up under the aegis of my grandparents; this is where I learnt to walk and to talk and to play; where I first heard stories from the epics and the puranas.

This is where I learnt to tell my own stories. This is where I learnt to dream.

I wrote a bit, once, about the only real “home” I have ever known. A shell, I called it then.

Looks are deceptive; the home that means the world to me is a ruin waiting to happen, its foundations eaten away by familial squabbling and consequent neglect.

That was five years ago. The sight of this “ruin waiting to happen” had saddened me then. In course of a week-long trip, I spent hours sitting on the porch of that home, remembering.

Back when I was a boy, there was just this house set in the middle of a vast tract of land. There was a mango tree — one of a couple of dozen in the compound — at almost exactly where I was standing when I took this picture. (An uncle has built his home there now; it is where I stay when I visit Calicut.)

Summers were ripe with mangoes (and jackfruit, and cashew, and prickly pineapple shrubs bristling along the hedges. And if you haven’t toasted cashew and jackfruit seeds over a coal fire and eaten them hot enough to burn your tongue, you haven’t lived).

We ate the mangoes raw, spiced with chilli powder and salt. We ate them ripe — some, the firm-fleshed varieties, cut into cubes and piled high on plates; others eaten as is, teeth sinking into the rich sweet flesh, the juice dribbling down your fingers and along your arm. We piled them into huge urulis and boiled them down to their essence over wood fires, then stored them in big bharanis for the off seasonWe used them in fish curry; we made pulisherry

And that is why it tasted weird, last weekend, when I made mango pulisherry after a long while. What I tasted was nostalgia – a bittersweet flavor seasoned with memories of, and yearning for, a lost childhood and a vanished way of life.

Meledath Family

IT WAS a big home, always filled with people. This photograph was taken when my father’s youngest brother got married (back then, the camera was a cumbersome thing with a bellows-like front; the photographer slipped under a sheet of black cloth and from in there, told us kids to keep our eyes fixed on the narrow opening because “you will see a parrot there”). It only shows one branch of the family that used to live there then. There are five adults, and three children, missing from this picture — eight people who lived with us under that roof, one big, chaotic, mostly happy family.

Each one of the adults in this photograph (and those absent) contributed to my growth in one way or other — some told me stories; others bought me books and encouraged me to read and to dream; still others shielded me from the consequences of my serial mischiefs…

Each of them is a part of me and, in a very visceral way, what I am is an amalgam of these people — their ideals, their values, their sensibilities, their collective wisdom.

Six of the twelve adults in this picture are now no more. Two of those not in the picture are also gone.

Meledath now


LAST week, I went down to Calicut for the rites and observances connected to the first anniversary of my mom’s passing.

And I stood in the exact same spot as before and took this picture — of the gaping void that once was my home.

Back when I was a boy it was a home, magnificent in its isolation, nestled in its green, verdant space. Back then, I’d clamber up into the branches of the mango tree that stood here, in this same spot, and read through the day.

Today, there are 11 homes where those trees once stood. Homes of uncles and aunts and cousins; even the homes of a couple of strangers who bought some of our land and built there.

And today, there is a hurt-shaped void where my home once stood. An emptiness. An ache that defies description.

Its massive doors are likely in an antique shop someplace, as are whatever else the contractor could salvage of the thick teak beams, the ornately carved windows, the furniture that survived the ravages of time, the giant urulis and bharanis and such.

The big, porous stones that formed its walls have been crushed to powder, and carted away to some landfill someplace. Each of those stones had stories to tell. It is all dust now.

When taking this picture, last week, I couldn’t focus properly for tears. Some of that dust must have gotten into my eyes.

They all go away — people, places, everything. An uncle once removed passed on three weeks ago — among many other things, I remember him for keeping my stock of PG Wodehouse novels constantly replenished.

Memories remain — remembered joys; hurts that refuse to heal. When I can, I write them down, for with each passing day I fear the time will come when those memories will vanish, too, and my mind will blank out.

Just like what happened with mom.

PS: By some quirk, the WordPress editors stumbled on my post from last year on my mom’s passing — and decided to showcase it on Freshly Pressed.

The following days — while I was in Calicut for the first anniversary — so many of you filled the comments section with your wishes, your own stories and experiences, with the occasional tear shed for a lady you never knew, for a pain I hope you never know.

Thank you. All of you. Very much.

The man-made “natural disaster”

It's all about money, honey


Remember this image, which spoke a thousand eloquent words about the June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand?

A Supreme Court-mandated committee finds that the unchecked building of hydro-power plants was the trigger behind the devastation. Read, an excellent report by Nidhi Jamwal.

Anbulla Rajnikanth…




For a brief while there, I actually had more followers than Rajnikanth. Now I can die happy.

Speaking of followers, you know all those social media gurus who teach you how to post relevant stuff, to not spam, to not over-post, to never repeat yourself… all those “tips and tricks”?

And then the superstar does this — and his follow count mounts at the rate of 60 or so every minute. What do you know?

Anbulla Rajinikanth