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Off West-End

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The annual Dramatics Competition in my school in Bangalore was an important event. There were “audition” announcements made months before D Day, friends from different “houses” became sworn enemies and there were a gazillion committees created to divide tasks – executive, props, costumes, etc. I loved the buzz. I was nearly always in the props committee, if not part of the audience – stage fright and the fear of public speaking never let me audition for a role. But I graduated school with a huge love and respect for theatre.

Flash forward 10+ years, and I’m sitting in the Young Vic Theatre and watching Rory Kinnear play Joseph K., the protagonist of Kafka’s timeless The Trial. I love the quiet and understated vibe of Off West End theatres, where more “serious” plays are staged, where famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Kristen Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumberbatch keep returning to reprise classic literary characters.

This, to me, is the heart and soul of London theatre. Raw and real. Where (for the most part) the sets don’t overshadow the characters and the story but complement every aspect of the production. I remember watching Ibsen’s The Dolls House, and being mesmerised by the sets – a revolving house that showed all the rooms at appropriate acts and settings. By the same token, Chekhov’s Three Sisters had no appeal for me – its bare stage and flawed modern adaptation where suddenly the sisters broke into a trance just didn’t seem to do justice to one of the greatest playwrights and his work.

I love the quiet and understated vibe of Off West End theatres, where more “serious” plays are staged, where famous actors like Kevin Spacey, Kristen Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumberbatch keep returning to reprise classic literary characters.

There’s something otherworldly about watching TV and film actors perform on stage. I expected little from Gillian Anderson (of The X-Files fame) when I sat down to watch Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, especially as I’d studied the play in college. Needless to say, her perfect portrayal of one of most flawed characters in literary history blew me away. On the other hand there was Kristen Scott Thomas, the darling of English and French art films, who reprised the role of Electra, Sophocles’s tragic heroine. She was brilliant in her acting but let down by a flawed adaptation.

Don’t get me wrong– I enjoy the big lights, the grandeur and extravaganza of the West End plays. Some of my own unforgettable memories have been of watching Matilda and The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night Time, where the sets come alive and you’re whisked away to another universe. But if there ever was a choice to watch Wicked or an original play about Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, which was staged at The National Theatre, the latter would (and did) win hands down.

As an English Literature student I’ve studied a few more Shakespeare plays than normal. To watch them at The Globe, the birthplace of London theatre, was overwhelming. It’s built in the shape of a globe and reminded me of The Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore, which is shaped like a violin. It’s a place I associate with the likes of Hello Dolly and The Fiddler on the Roof, my first experiences with commercial theatre.

Whether you’re a literature student or not or a longtime resident of London or just visiting, take a chance on the intimate storytelling that the Off West End theatre has to offer. You’ll find one at every nook and corner, dotted all over the city, buzzing with stories untold and retold, again and again.

The National Theatre, Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX

Young Vic Theatre, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ

You can find a detailed theatre list and schedule here.


All You Can Read

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Neil Gaiman says a book is a dream that you hold in your hands. Kitab Khana is a repository of such dreams. Nestled in the busy streets of Fort, the bookstore offers the brief moment of respite that every self-proclaimed city rat silently craves – a place where you come to lose and find yourself at the same time. After all, there’s nothing a good book and a great cup of coffee can’t solve. It’s where backpackers find their next trip and children find their first love. A bookshop is a factory of stories, endlessly churning out portals to other worlds – one minute you’re hurtling through space in a sci-fi thriller, the next you’re romancing in Victorian-set England. The bulging bookcases are filled to the brim with classics and contemporaries not only in English, but also Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Urdu. It’s like a breakfast buffet, but all you can read instead of eat!

Kitab Khana has its own classic old world charm – there’s a little café tucked neatly in a corner (rightfully called Food For Thought), for you to peruse old books or have new conversations in. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Enid Blyton novel. Would you like a cupcake with your next book? How about a puff pastry with that mystery novel? Or a latte with that new sensational crime thriller? But I have a book to find, and a slice of pound cake to miss.

In the dying culture of reading books and growing technology, Kitab Khana remains a staunch supporter of the fact that books will always be the primary chronicler of time and love.

A rickety staircase leads to a mezzanine above, stacked with books and hungry readers immersed in their own tales, oblivious to the world. Sometimes they hold discussions and screenings, and if you are really lucky you even get to meet local authors as you browse through the store’s many sections. Things like these are what the reading paparazzi’s dreams are made of. I head down, looking for an old Jhumpa Lahiri favourite to gift to a friend. I check my watch, and realize that I still have time to take a small detour to the late ’90s.

The children’s section is brightly coloured and littered with comfortable beanbags to sit and read on, complemented by dark wooden floors and beautiful beams and joists set up with reading lights. Have I occasionally used said beanbags to read a book? Yes.

Have I ignored the angry stares of countless children waiting to read their books as I read mine? Yes. But that’s life. I flick through Archie comics.

The owners say that Kitab Khana is your home away from home, run by a team of voracious book-lovers who are always ready to help, making recommendations and offering to hold on to favourites for you. They believe in creating an environment that enriches the reading experience. That’s what sets the store apart. In the dying culture of reading books and growing technology, Kitab Khana remains a staunch supporter of the fact that books will always be the primary chronicler of time and love. After all, batteries die out. Books don’t. It’s a classic love story.

Which is why it’s no surprise that people don’t expect meet-cutes at bookstores anymore – here you find love in the books, not out of it. For that there’s Tinder. But then again, there’s no swiping left with the right book. There’s that initial moment of trepidation as you search for it aisle by aisle, and then you find it – hiding behind a new edition of the thesaurus.

Congratulations! You have a new match! What does it smell like? Fresh vanilla, and a beautiful childhood.

I open up the book, and read.

Kitab Khana, Somaiya Bhavan, 45/47 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai 400 001. Phone: 022 6170 2276


A Piaggio, A Macchiato

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Haggerston Station is 50 metres from my apartment and is one of the reasons I love where I live. In the dark winter months, the outdoor commute is contained to just that little stretch from station to doorstep. The mornings are a swirl of people heading to the overground station with their grim, morning #bringit faces.

There’s a tiny, three wheeled Piaggio tempo at the station entrance. It has a few streamers, some music, a tray full of croissants and muffins, and a coffee machine in the back. I didn’t want to like it. Mumbai can really suck the joy out of loving anything with three wheels. Nothing with a motor and a triad of tiny wheels can evoke a positive emotion from me because the autorickshaws in Mumbai have gone out of their way to make me viscerally loathe them. But this little Piaggio tempo wasn’t coming at me from a corner of a street at the speed of light, neither was it leaving me stranded in the rain just because it felt like it. After a week of trying not to pay too much attention to it, I went and got myself a coffee. Then a few days later, another one, until it somewhat turned into a habit.

Olivia Abbatt works with clockwork precision. Macchiatos, cappuccinos, espressos and americanos make their way to people waiting politely in a scattered fashion so as not to get in other people’s way. Olivia, who’s been running this mobile coffee house since October 2014, had never thought that she would run a business someday. make; coffee unfolded when a series of ideas tumbled around her (and each other).

Along with make;coffee came the distinct distant familiarity where you know people yet maintain boundaries. It alludes to a village/hamlet life.

Olivia grew up in a small town in England near Northampton. The population of the hamlet was about 60 people, and she grew up with a deep sense of community and familiarity. She wanted to be a writer, but at the age of 18 she diagnosed with a rare ovarian cancer that became the focus of her life for the next few years. When she started to get better, she got jobs that kept her busy during the day. Her evenings were spent writing.

This carried on for a while, but every time Olivia had a relapse or needed to take time off for her health her life would come to a standstill. She wasn’t happy and gave up the desk job where she spent her time watching the clock. She wanted to start something on her own.

But Olivia didn’t know where to begin or what to do. She liked food and loved to cook, so the idea of a pop up restaurant seemed great. It wouldn’t be a colossal commitment and yet would be a foot in the door in the food business. Olivia started to attend enterprise events organized by Startup Britain and Ideastap and over time brewed the idea of running a mobile coffee house. The benefits were many. She’d be her own boss, have low overheads, could source coffee locally and could stop working by noon or 2 p.m. when traffic was minimal.

It was a perfect idea that she managed to execute in a year. To start operation as early as October was a sign that Olivia loved her idea and couldn’t wait to begin; it also meant a hot cuppa Joe for 6 a.m. commuters, which is the stuff that dreams are made of. I’m being exceedingly polite when I say that London winters are not fun.

Olivia missed the feeling of community she grew up with, but that came back when she kick-started her enterprise. Along with make;coffee came the distinct distant familiarity where you know people yet maintain boundaries. It alludes to a village/hamlet life.

Olivia eventually wants to expand her small business within the community and is even considering involving other people. She wants to make the space she’s working from more relevant and garner a substantial network within the neighbourhood to build an integrated local business.

With her Piaggio tempo and personal brand of spreading cheer, Olivia has brought a sense of community to an otherwise vanilla station entrance. It’s going to be interesting to watch her orchestrate her plans for expansion and build a village – albeit figuratively – from scratch.

make;coffee, Haggerston Station, London, E8 4DR


Hoxton Mini Press Makes Beautiful Photo Books

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While walking down the dairy section of the supermarket one afternoon I saw an old lady with a shopping cart. She was well dressed, had a little bit of make up on and a pint of whole milk in her cart. I was several paces behind her, and instead of looking for what I needed, I started to follow her. She wore small beige shoes with laces, cream pants, a jacket that would have fit her better a few years ago, spectacles and silver ear studs. At the bread section she picked up one bagel and then slowly walked further down to get a carton of eggs.

I followed her till she went to the cashier, and despite how creepy I may have seemed to someone watching, I stood there a while, trying to understand why I had followed her. Maybe it was something as simple as a need to know what someone well into their 80s bought at the supermarket, or because it made me wonder if meal time ever got lonely for her. Did she have a husband at home? Or a sister or a son? I tried to imagine her life during the remaining time I spent absent-mindedly buying my groceries.

While Martin wanted to make a book about the history and diversity of East London, Joseph wanted to talk about Piranha 3D and tall Scandinavian women.

A year later I came across a book called I’ve Lived In East London For 86 ½ Years, a photo book about a gentleman named Joseph Markovitch who lived in East London for 86 and a half years. The photographs have blurbs of his thoughts and opinions on things and people around him. I read and re-read the book for several hours while lying on my living room floor. In the introduction the photographer, Martin Usborne, writes about how he met Joseph in 2007 in Hoxton Square. Martin spent several months building a friendship with, as well as photographing, Joseph. While Martin wanted to make a book about the history and diversity of East London, Joseph wanted to talk about Piranha 3D and tall Scandinavian women. In pictures and a few words, I could see Joseph’s life as he walked around Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Hoxton. Unlike the time at the supermarket, I didn’t have to imagine these various scenarios.

Martin enjoyed the process of working with Joseph so much that it prompted him to start Hoxton Mini Press, a publishing company about East London. He loves photography books and has a substantial collection of them, but his beef with collectible books is that they are always priced beyond the reach of the average person. The idea behind Hoxton Mini press is to make beautiful books that anyone can buy. Sure, they’re East London centric for the moment, but the publishing house is just two years old. There is always the possibility of Paris Mini Press or New York Mini Press.

Martin hasn’t chalked out a long-term plan, mostly because he’s swamped with several projects at present. His team of four (his wife Ann, an intern and his two dogs make up the publishing house) handles the studio, then there is his freelance photography work and, as the publishing house gains traction, there are launches of books, new pitches, concepts and a frenzy of activity that doesn’t allow him to think beyond the current day, at least for the moment. He works with local artists and photographers and uses the best materials to make these collectible books, the kind that are cherished and can be handed down. Hardbound, not boastfully large and very, very affordable, these collectibles from Hoxton Mini Press tick several “must have” boxes.

Joseph Markovitch passed away on December 26, 2013, and I met him and his world on February 24, 2015. To me, that is reason enough to have more photo books.

Hoxton Mini Press books can be purchased directly from their website or from Artwords Bookshop, 20-22 Broadway Market, London E8 4QJ. Phone: 020


Learning The Ancient Martial Art Of Mallakhamb

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Uday Deshpande has been teaching Mallakhamb, the ancient martial art and aerial sport that improves the body, the mind, and the soul, for 40 years at Shivaji Park at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir. It was founded in 1923 and moved to Shivaji Park in 1949. Free Rope Mallakhamb sessions for all are conducted daily from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Anyone from 5 to 85 years old is welcome to join.

Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Marg, Shivaji Park, Mumbai 400 028


“I start my day at four in the morning and end it at 10 in the night.”

That’s barely five hours of sleep, I thought, when Uday Deshpande told me about his daily routine. Dressed in black tennis shorts with his signature glasses and a humble smile on his face is the only way I remember this man who’s responsible for keeping the art of Mallakhamb alive.

Not much had changed since I last visited Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir some 15 years ago. The earthy smell of red mud, the little Hanuman idol, the grated coconut and sugar prasad every Saturday (the taste of which I still remember), students in the staple white and blue dress code loitering around the field, some practicing gymnastics, some doing Rope Mallakhamb and some warming up for their turn. The age old Institution was bustling with fun and fitness even late on a humid evening.

Each time a student greeted Uday Sir with the traditional SSVM Namaste – right hand folded against chest and a light tip-toe movement – jolted me to the past. Vyayam Mandir (Marathi for “temple of exercises”) has always held discipline and respect in high regard, and that can be seen in Uday Sir’s outlook too. I had never been to his office when I was a student here, but years later I still felt like a teacher’s pet sitting across him. That was his persona on the field.

We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras.

“So, Vyayam Mandir was not founded by you?” I asked in surprise. “It is a 91-year-old institution,” he said with a laugh. “SSVM was founded by Vyayam Maharshi Late P.L. Kale Guruji, who was the pet disciple of Rajratna Proff. Manikrao of Baroda. Manikrao’s teacher Jummadada was a freedom fighter along with Rani Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and many others of the league, and that is where it had its roots.”

Uday Sir came to the Vyayam Mandir courtesy of his maternal grandfather. “My grandfather lived in Pune and my mother took my siblings and me every vacation to stay with him,” he said. “My grandfather woke up at 5 a.m. daily and practiced yoga. And I would sit right in front of him and imitate his actions.” His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution. He was all of three when he met the founder of Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, and he has been associated with it ever since.

“We lived near Byculla, through my teens, but my father was a badminton enthusiast and we made the trip to Shivaji Park every evening,” he said. “That worked best for me, and I was able to spend time at the Vyayam Mandir.” He mastered the importance of discipline early on in life. Even as a school-going teenager he trained in Mallakhamb early every morning and evening. That dedication for the martial art form and fitness persevered throughout his life and career as a Customs officer too. Barring his years as a student, he has devoted close to about 40 years at this Institution, training over lakhs of students, looking after the administrative activities and now taking Mallakhamb to the world.

His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution.

Mallakhamb, also famous as an Indian martial art, originated in Maharashtra and traces back to the period of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Legend has it that a certain Balambhatt Dada Deodhar, from the regime of Bajirao Peshwa II, accepted a challenge to beat two Nizami wrestlers, Ali and Gulab, thought to be unbeatable. The then 16-year-old Deodhar belonged to the priestly clan, and so he sought help in goddess Saptashrungi. It is believed that Lord Hanuman taught him the wrestling moves on a wooden pole in his dreams. That is how modern day Mallakhamb – “Malla” meaning wrestling and “Khamb” meaning Pole – came to life. After Deodhar’s smacking victory against the Nizami wrestler, Mallakhamb soon found its way to all the akhadas in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Uday Sir told me as he walked me through the historic trail of this art.

My attention was drawn back to the present when a student stopped by to greet Uday Sir. There were still some men sweating it out at the Parallel Bars, and kids in gymnastic attire stretched in the lobby. We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras. “Earlier there were only four states, where Mallakhamb was known,” said Uday Sir, “but now it has centers all over the country and a presence in three continents, namely Asia, Europe and North America.” Having formed the World Mallakhamb Confederation, Uday Deshpande is sure globalising it will help gain due attention to it nationally too.

Photographs by Suruchi Maira


Victoria Park Is An Open Air Museum




When I was a child, my idea of London was a bawdy mixture of Dickens and music hall performance. London was a place in books about the plague, where corsets were unlaced under smoke-choked skies and terrible things happened in carriages. It had urchins and sad yellow light and yet it was garish, glittering with a Christmas Eve excitement. London was a place I could not imagine existing in the present.

Now I have lived here for seven years and the only time I can still remember my childhood’s imagination of London is when I go walking in Victoria Park. Victoria Park is vast and lovely and is host to several very expensive festivals in the summer, but for me it is the saddest place in the city. It is a meandering open-air museum of all the things from my history books.

victoria park london

In 1842 a red and green pagoda was placed at the entrance to the Chinese exhibition at Hyde Park. This was the year that the First Opium War, a triumph for British imperialism in all its nastiness, ended. The British liked the fans and silks of China as well as opium, and the graceful lines of the pagoda were found on many of these in well-travelled drawing rooms. Chinoiserie, they called it, this love of the enemy’s porcelain.

When the exhibition was over the pagoda was moved to Victoria Park, and its replica now stands here on an island, two-storeyed, still red and green. It looks as the loot of an empire should – magnificent and lonely. On the grey boating lake it is the showgirl of my imagining.

The park has other marks of history. There are the Dogs of Alcibiades, big stone gate-keepers copied from second century Roman statues. They are exact replicas of two marble hounds at the Vatican, except London’s are imposters who had to step in when the originals had their snouts cut off.

victoria park london

Also in the park: a Gothic drinking fountain completed in 1862. It is made of pink granite and marble, with four clock faces set round a Moorish cupola, and is estimated to have cost around £6,000, an unimaginable amount of money at that time. Those were the days of cholera and typhoid, and the fountain was paid for by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a philanthropist friend of Charles Dickens, who wanted poor East Enders to have clean drinking water. In fact the whole park was created with the poor in mind, and it became a rare pleasure garden amid the sinking poverty of the borough. Queen Victoria loved it.

The mismatch of colours and architectural styles make the park distinctively English, yet with a certain light on the water it could be Canadian, Greek or Bavarian. It is a place where I can only think of the past; my past, my heart’s past and then the greater terrifying past.

Near the eastern edge of the park is a war memorial to the men of Hackney Wick (one of the neighbourhoods the park touches), which is very small and fenced off. During the war, prisoner camps were erected along one of the fences and inhabited by both German and Italian captives. People have run along these tree-lined avenues under the sly wail of the air raid sirens.

VE day was celebrated here with no less than two nights of dancing in the open air, the park thrillingly bright after years of blackouts.

victoria park london

For me Victoria Park is saddest when it is filled with cricket teams and people drinking and laughing loudly. Then the past seems both crushed and indomitable, as though just a flimsy page covers the whole scene. If you pull it away you’ll be back with flat caps and suet puddings, running from the Germans with a rag doll in your hand.

On an early winter evening I was caught under a lowering sky, and with the others in the park began scurrying towards a place of safety, all of us hastening towards our little boxes of light. I thought we were like the people of the past, running to the next thing in blind hope, leaving things unfinished as the air got warmer and darker.

The nearest Tube stations to Victoria Park are Mile End and Bethnal Green. It is open from 7 am until dusk, every day except Christmas Day.

Victoria Park, Grove Road, Bow, London E3 5TB