Refuge Between The Lines At MCubed Library


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When my friend Vibha started talking about starting a little library for children I could smell it: the thousands of escape routes through stories, the unfailing safety of a fortress built with books.

I have hidden in libraries as often as I have hidden in chapels and hold the memories of their comforting refuge as closely as I do of homes and people I have loved. Chancing upon a couple necking among the sagging wooden shelves, narrow corridors and musty, asthma-inducing air of one of the libraries at St. Xavier’s College. Feeling the static crackle on synthetic carpet as you scoured the microfilm directory at the British Council library, where the ancient Parsi dowager at the counter would snarl at you. Disappearing into the local circulating library and second-hand bookshop on Waroda Road.

The librarian in my first school stood 6ft 4, weighed about 400 pounds and had the protruding forehead reminiscent of a medical condition referred to as “frontal bossing”. When he said “Sssh”, you ssshed. I didn’t need a sshhing. I had already fallen in hushed, speechless love with our library, furnished horror-movie-asylum style: spare powder-coated metal shelves, grim formica tables, cold steel chairs and clinical fluorescent bulbs. Blue and cold, watched by the glowering Frankenstein’s Librarian, somehow the smell of books overcame the smell of tween-fear. I’d found a place to run to when it all got too much.

In this age of e-reviews, Kindle Paperwhites and authors marketing their modern equivalents of penny-dreadfuls, the quiet of the digital-free library still calms an old part of my soul.

MCubed was a dream that came true for Bandra. Vibha is loved and admired in our ’hood, and when she told the community that, after years of searching, she had found a space to set up, everyone rallied round. Donations poured in: money for repairs, books (more books than they knew what to do with), furniture, talent and art work, computers and cushions, a projector, time volunteered, letters and visits from ‘famous’ people… It took a lot of organizing and some scuffling, but finally Maharashtra Mitra Mandal (MCubed) Library was open to children – a simple membership fee structure helping to support the memberships of underprivileged children too.

Over the few years since it opened, the library has evolved into a cultural hub for everyone. There are film viewings, book clubs, author appearances, introductions to art, story reading and craft making sessions, book-fairs, guest appearances by film-makers, authors, musicians, astronauts… There is also a grown-up section now, not least for the teens who outgrew the last few shelves labelled to indicate age-appropriateness.

In this age of e-reviews, Kindle Paperwhites and authors marketing their modern equivalents of penny-dreadfuls, the quiet of the digital-free library still calms an old part of my soul. The other day, we discovered, in an old-fashioned library magic way, the first of a trilogy called Lion Boy, written by a mother and daughter who go by the penname Zizou Corder. “The hero of the book is asthmatic!” my asthmatic 10-year-old said excitedly. We all read the book. It is brilliant. My husband found the second book in a second-hand bookshop. We felt like rebels.

Now my eldest saunters over self-importantly to the grown-up section. My 10-year-old is reading through the shelves at record speed. Our youngest has just begun to read and we go through the “I can read” shelf (carefully avoiding the Little Bear books because Maurice Sendak’s illustrations now cripple me with terrible melancholy).

MCubed is the hideout I send everyone to. I have told people off the street to go to the library. Gifted children memberships for their birthdays. On days when my kids are chafing from struggling against the friction of coarse Mumbai, I send them there to hang out a while.

When my youngest was still a baby, I would walk into the bright, airy peace of MCubed, sleep-deprived, unkempt and gratefully release my two other children into its safe spaces. I will always remember the day the librarian looked at me and said, “You know, if you need a nap, there’s a chaise in the grown up section. Another mama used it the other day. I know how it is. You don’t worry. The children will be safe here.”

I thanked her and quickly turned away, eyes full of tears at her gentle, perceptive kindness and that warm, familiar feeling of finding shelter in the citadel of a million stories, a fortress built of books.

Maharashtra Mitra Mandal (MCubed) Library, Princess Building, Near Bandra Gymkhana, D’Monte Park Road, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050. Phone: 022 2641 1497


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Being Aishwarya Arumbakkam


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Genesia Alves talks to Aishwarya Arumbakkam about Bandra, her new project, and being a woman in Mumbai.

Aishwarya Arumbakkam comes in the door, her wispy fringe standing up from having cycled to our flat through ridiculous Bandra traffic. You’re likely to forget how young she is when you’re talking to her. This baby-faced 20-something combines the ballsy, feisty gumption of a crime reporter with the keen, intuitive eye of an artist. It is a potent combination. Her black and white photography gets under your skin. You look. You look. You can’t look away.

Her last exhibition, Items, was a series of everyday women, dressed as classic vamps, doing everyday things. Her previous exhibition, Stalked, featured victims of stalking portrayed with such delicate vulnerability that it makes you feel voyeuristic, predatory.

Aishwarya is from Chennai. She studied Film and Communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She finished her stint at NID with a six-month exchange program at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Then she moved to Mumbai. Specifically, to Bandra.

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya?

“It’s the only place I see myself living in,” she says, “here. It’s community based. I prefer small stores to malls, walking to taxis, knowing my neighbours. It’s safe. It’s affordable. There is always something to do, someone to meet.” One of Aishwarya’s hangouts is Duke’s on Chapel Road – a decades old eatery with great malabari parathas, kheema, dal-fry and reliable tea, popular with the old locals and the young people from around the world who now call the area home.

But Aishwarya doesn’t just hang out in Bandra. A friend runs a football camp for underprivileged kids in a gigantic slum in Reay Road. This is no Dharavi. You don’t read about this slum in the paper. Tourist buses don’t go there. It is a parallel universe. It can be dangerous. She finds it heady and compelling. “The dominant population in the area I shot was Tamil,” she says. “Signages, advertisements, music, food, language – it was a jolt back to another time in my life. It’s funny what familiarity can do. It put me at ease. I love how edgy, dramatic yet vulnerable the whole space is. There are no facilities, terrible sanitation. It’s beyond awful. But there’s a constant buzz.”

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya? She shrugs. “I’ve always been fiercely independent. And then, your everyday experiences contradict that, oppose your instinct, your behaviour, try and force you to conform. I was always feminist, but being in such a patriarchal society just enhances it.”

In one picture in Items, a trained physiotherapist sits in the twee costume from the song “Mera Naam Hain Chin Chin Chu” in the film Howrah Bridge. A far cry from the coquettish Helen, she holds a dumbbell in one hand, perched on an exercise ball. It’s funny. But not “ha-ha” funny. “Items was the most well received and understood body of work I’ve done,” says Aishwarya. “It was fairly sharp, yet playful and that attracted a lot of people to it.”

Stalked is more disturbing. “It was a reaction to several things around me,” she says. “Our bodies, the way we view them, the issue of stalking, its portrayal in popular media, being a woman in an urban environment. Documenting this was tougher for the victims than me. They opened up, put themselves out there. The process of making the images was cathartic. It created a space to accept themselves, their bodies and take a step towards moving on.”

Aishwarya’s day job is in commercial filmmaking. She throws herself into it. “TV commercials offer me excellence in terms of budgets, aesthetics, scripts, technicians. A lot of it is very creatively satisfying. But a majority of commercial work is governed by paradigms that don’t always allow you to voice your own opinion. Hence the importance of having a parallel artistic practice.”

Her new project has begun. It deals with her environment, the body, mindset. It will make waves. What’s scary for a young woman in Mumbai in 2015, I ask her. “Living here as a woman is scary,” she says, “But what is liberating is that it’s the only city in India you can still probably live as a woman, without going absolutely crazy.”

You can find Aishwarya Arumbakkam’s work on her website.



Lose Yourself In The Stories At Strand Book Stall


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Ed. Note: Strand Book Stall has shut down since the publishing of this article.

I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton.

When I wasn’t in school, I was reading. My local library indulged my appetite for Blyton’s mysteries, but I fell in love with books when I was 12 years old and read an abridged version of Jane Eyre. I had never witnessed writing so emotive and characters so strong. My literary tastes broadened, and I started building my personal library. I collected more books than I had time to read, but I didn’t care. Browsing through endless stacks of books is the perfect way to spend an afternoon (or several).

The last time I found a book I knew nothing about that blew me away was in 2009. I had visited Strand Book Stall with a friend. She bought Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I bought Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. I’ve read many books since, but I remember The Historian because of how I found it – while leafing through dozens of books at Strand with no agenda. I felt like I had uncovered a secret treasure.

Idling isn’t just tolerated at Strand; it’s encouraged.

I missed that feeling of buying a book I’d never heard of, hoping to be delighted as I delved deeper into it. I made my way back to Strand six years later, but this time with an agenda – there would be no checking Goodreads ratings or Amazon rankings. I was going to judge a book by its cover, dammit. And, well, the first few pages. Let’s not get too crazy.

I headed straight for the wall on which I’d found the Kostova, my eyes wandering over the books that filled the shelves. Barbara Taylor Bradford sat next to Bram Stoker. John Updike next to Charles Dickens. Ian McEwan next to William Shakespeare. Beautiful hardbound volumes of the works of Marcel Proust, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters sat above them like kings. It was erratic, but it was utter delight. There are no demarcated sections here. Sure, there are general guidelines – classics and some fiction to the left, educational books at the back, children’s books upstairs – but the boundaries are blurred. This is no cookie-cutter bookstore where you head straight for your genre of choice and browse with blinkers on. Authors and genres mingle at Strand, leaving you to explore at your leisure.

If you’re looking for something specific, your best bet would be to ask the staff. After giving me a respectful few minutes of staring at the shelves, an attendant asked what type of book I was looking for. “Just browsing,” I said with a smile. He smiled and nodded in understanding and left me alone. Idling isn’t just tolerated at Strand; it’s encouraged. There are chairs around every corner that beckon you to take your time. I spent over an hour in the store, and the staff never made me feel as if I’d overstayed my welcome. I had two books tucked under my arm that the attendant placed at the counter. “I’ll leave these here for you,” he said. He knew I’d be there for a while.

I walked around the entire store, perusing every book that stood out to me. The title, the author, the colours on the spine – if it caught my eye, I pulled it off the shelves to flip through. New books share shelf space with older ones, and the pages of Nathan Englander’s The Mystery of Special Cases were browned enough to pass off as second-hand (it wasn’t). That didn’t bother me. Books are meant to be read, and books that look like they’ve been enjoyed by many a reader are especially appealing. I spent a considerable amount of time sitting in front of the Blyton collection (far too small for my liking) but pulled myself away before I bought them all. I wasn’t there to revisit my childhood. I was there to make a discovery.

And I did. Just minutes before leaving the store, I found the book I knew I had to read. Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: A Vast Ocean Of A Million Stories is a 450-page non-fiction book about the Atlantic Ocean. Four hundred and fifty pages. Non-fiction. About an ocean. I didn’t have to let that sink in. I bought it without thinking twice. What stories can Winchester have to tell about a body of water that fill 450 pages? I needed to find out.

I found it among the fiction books.


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The Sum Of All Our Arts


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Nirvair Nath is no ordinary 22 year old. He was 10 when he moved to India after spending a decade in Ghana. As a child, Nirvair dreamt of being a chef, cooking up culinary dreams in his head and the breakfast table – the standard fantasies of a standard adolescent. Twelve years, a shift halfway across the world and three schools later, he finds himself an artist. “How did that happen?” I ask him.

He never decided to become an artist, he tells me, but that’s how it works. It just happens. One minute you’re applying to culinary school, the next your mind takes a full U-turn and heads elsewhere. We’re at his week-old studio, and he’s answering my questions as he draws deep, dark strokes on paper. It’s a makeshift working space in a modest-sized old apartment where the windows don’t have frames and ideas don’t have boundaries. There’s music playing in the background, soft enough not to disturb but loud enough not to blend into the white noise. It’s not distracting and he draws in tandem with the beats. Is this how he usually works?

Usually he works out sketches in his notepad before he translates it to the canvas, but there’s no set rule while creating art. And there clearly shouldn’t be.

It’s a makeshift working space in a modest-sized old apartment where the windows don’t have frames and ideas don’t have boundaries.

It took Nirvair two weeks to convert the abandoned office in an old Bandra apartment building into the makeshift studio space he works out of. It’s sparse and lacks a toilet, but for him it’s a second home. There’s a mattress and a collapsible table set up over bricks and simple curtains over rods. He sourced most of it from scraps left behind and brought the rest from home. He carries the speakers for his Mac in everyday – there’s no lock on the front door. “I try coming here for a couple of hours a day,” he says, “If I’m not working, I’m just thinking about what to do. Otherwise, there are always plants to water.” He points at the potted shrubs by the frameless window. The studio disciplines him, and setting it up has been one of the highlights of his post-college artist life. When I ask him where he sees himself in two years, he laughs.

He hopes to see the studio evolve into an artist’s collective – a space where musicians, painters and videographers come together and collaborate to create art. There’s so much potential for resonance between sound and visuals waiting to be tapped. What inspires him?

A bit of spirituality. His mother has always been an influencing factor, like most mothers are. Two and a half years of learning jazz funk helped too. The energy and dynamics involved with being a dancer only encouraged his art. The past six years have been formative, but he’s nowhere close to reaching the end. It’s a constant journey of self-discovery.

He’s currently experimenting with a series inspired by hand movements – ink on paper, oil paints and acrylic on large canvases. It’s a lot of expression on print – yoga and dance are two sides of the same coin. He traces patterns and loves the idea of reworking old pieces to give them new life. Nirvair finds it hard to consume art on digital media. There’s no semblance of colour or texture when you’re staring at your computer screen. Which is why you won’t find any of his work online. Art needs to be observed on walls, floors and ceilings, out in the open, indoors in a room. And that’s exactly where he plans to be – painting on the streets, by buildings and traffic signals. Art is everywhere, he concludes. We just have to find it. I sigh.

He gets back to his canvas. I get back to my colourless life.

Coral Apartments, 24th Road, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050


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Queer As Us


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My circle is now of the age where we can count backwards and forwards with equal gravitas. Naturally, the tenure of our romantic and platonic relationships becomes the yardstick we use on some days to either measure against each other, a prod to tease each other or a baton to conduct a private symphony of nostalgia. “We been together for…” “I’ve known you since…” “You remember how we used to…”

Homosexuality is as old as that troublemaker Lilith, but organized gay rights activism can be traced back to the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York. The spirit of the late ’60s, one of social evolution and public protest for change, resonated across several movements including those championing African American Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations.

The history of August Kranti Maidan is also tied to public protest and rights, the start of the Civil Disobedience movement for Indian independence. When the first Queer Azadi pride march was organized by a close friend, V, in 2008, an entourage of us landed up at August Kranti Maidan, not quite knowing what to expect.

When the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 judgement, we protested, bitter in our hearts, but smiling still at the circle, dancing, singing, being silly.

Some, veterans of pride marches in the West, surmised there would comparatively fewer leather thongs. Some, veterans of yuppie protest marches, knew there would be a lot of press cameras. We turned up, family and friends and my seven-year-old daughter, with hats, moustaches, feathery-masks (and a secret stash of red-pepper-pesto chicken sandwiches in my bag). In our troupe were V and his boyfriend, whose relationship tenure was a close second to some of the older, married couples – like us. My daughter, one of the few children at that parade, was happy to see them and really pleased with all the rainbow paraphernalia (seven is the “age of rainbows” for little girls), but it was the masks that caught her eye.

Laxmi, the grande dame herself, was on stage, fiery, enthused, talking to the crowd with a few famous activists including Celina Jaitly. But the crowd was peppered with generic folk, some avoiding each other’s eyes, masks across the board and a lot of face paint to hide identities. I recognized a young woman I knew, T, and called her by her name. She turned away.

Permission for the first ever protest against the outdated Section 377 at Flora Fountain in 2005 was almost never granted. According to a piece by gay columnist “Ally Gator”, an intrepid young Humsafar Trust activist, while making a point about raising AIDS awareness via the parade, asked a senior policeman to put a condom on a dildo the trust used in demonstrations. The policeman complied, but did it roughly and the activist pointed out that that was guaranteed to tear the condom. Ally Gator says, “The officer was so impressed, presumably as much by P’s cheek as by the demo, that he agreed that Humsafar was doing important work. And he signed the paper.”

That 2008 Queer Azadi march was snatched from the jaws of a “promotes perversion” stamp just that morning when the senior officer in charge had a last minute change of heart. As we queer folk walked over the hump of Kennedy Bridge toward Chowpatty, I felt a surge of pride and overwhelming love for V, our friend of so many years, a quiet, kindly activist, a gentle, empathetic poetry buff, an “honourary aunt” to my children. People waved from buses and gawked at the tamasha. When we got to Chowpatty, I gave away all my sandwiches to everyone even though they were meant for the seven-year-old in the shadow of a friend waving a giant rainbow flag into the falling dusk.

Some, veterans of pride marches in the West, surmised there would comparatively fewer leather thongs. Some, veterans of yuppie protest marches, knew there would be a lot of press cameras.

When the Supreme Court overturned the 2009 judgement, we protested, bitter in our hearts, but smiling still at the circle, dancing, singing, being silly. Mumbai police watched, as always, some smirking, some frowning, all patience and incredible calm.

This year we went back. A promised review of the judgement meant cautious optimism. But what a change in wardrobe! Drag queens in floor length gowns, traditional Marathi kashtis (worn with a full beard), no masks, no hiding and more parents marching alongside their rainbow children than we had ever seen. Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil walked alongside his husband. And as you come to expect with raised awareness and hope for change, we marched with Dalit activists shouting slogans decrying the suicide of Rohith Vemula, people for religious freedom and PETA.

I watched a policeman look at a quite camp young man who had worn a policeman’s “outfit” to the parade. I nudged V. “They look grumpy about it.” V grinned. “Well, that boy is an idiot for doing that.” For a minute, I was worried, but then the cop staring the “cop” down turned around and rolled his eyes at his fellow officers. My husband ran around taking photographs, including many selfies with transgenders. I realized, from the old photos, he definitely has a “type” (This is fine. They all looked a lot like me). We met lesbians from the ’hood who yelled and screamed and hugged us. T wasn’t there. She and her girlfriend are expecting twins next month. They’d had a baby shower with their families and friends.

We count backwards and forwards with equal gravitas. And I believe in my heart that one day my kids and we will dance alongside the children of T and V (if he wants some) and say, “You remember how we had to march for equality?”

August Kranti Maidan, Tejpal Road, Gowalia Tank, Mumbai 400 007


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Ne Parlez Pas Anglais!


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My love affair with the language of France began when I was 12 years old and took lessons from my cousin’s fiancée. She taught me beginners’ French until they got married and moved away. Two years later, my best friend and I took a summer course at the Alliance Française de Bombay where we learned, among other things, beginners’ French. Two years after that I opted for French over Hindi for the HSC. Yet a few years later I needed an “easy A” class at university, so I took French 101. It’s safe to say my knowledge of beginners’ French is kick-ass.

In August 2014, eight years into a life in the legal profession, I decided I needed a change. I wanted to spend my weekends doing something that had absolutely, unequivocally no connection with work whatsoever. I had an idea: I knew beginners’ French anyway. Why not learn even more of the language?

That’s how, on a muggy, rainy monsoon day, I found myself sitting in a classroom at the Alliance Française’s Cuffe Parade centre. I was one of 30 students in this A1 level class, all of whom were staring either at their books, their phones, or into space – anything but making eye contact with complete strangers. What we couldn’t know on that first day was that, by the end of six months, some of us would be good friends. We would bond over beers and our love of food and reading. We would stress over the exams that had us all convinced we would barely scrape through. All that would come later. First, there was French to learn.

It’s not often we get to learn something new as adults, something literally foreign, so it’s nice to be able to surprise yourself and be proud of yourself.

The Alliance Française has a unique teaching method that I can imagine is challenging for people with no prior knowledge of French – there’s no English allowed. From day one, your teacher and you are supposed to communicate only in French. They’re supposed to teach you how to read, write, speak and understand French using only French. Ne parlez pas anglais, s’il vous plaît. Our teacher, Usha, was wonderful and slightly flexible on the “no English” rule. But not so flexible that I didn’t get lectured my fair share of times for speaking in English when I just couldn’t remember the words to express myself in French.

It was daunting, but it was also the best way to learn. Without the crutch of your native language you have no choice but to pay attention, work hard and learn so you don’t get left behind. Sure, you’d sit there scratching your head on more than one occasion. But that big smile on your face when you think you’ve butchered the language and end up actually speaking correctly makes all the frustration worth it. It’s not often we get to learn something new as adults, something literally foreign, so it’s nice to be able to surprise yourself and be proud of yourself.

Our A1 class was six months long, and as the months went by our numbers dwindled. Those with college or work commitments stopped attending, and those who found it just too difficult didn’t sign up for the second part. But those of us who liked to spend our weekends confusing our brains stuck on. Every Saturday and Sunday, for three hours each, we immersed ourselves in our textbooks and audios and videos, slowly rewiring our brains. We learned to speak in French. We learned to think in French. I wish I could say we learned to understand Frenchmen speak French, but they talk just too damn fast, so that’s still a work in progress.

But I’m working on it. I’m waiting for the day that my knowledge of conversing in French catches up with reading and writing it. For the day I don’t confuse all the various past tenses or future tenses, and it becomes second nature for me. For the day I can actually watch French movies instead of reading the subtitles. But most of all I’m waiting for the day I can simply order un croissant et un café allongé in Paris without messing it up even a little.

Alliance Française de Bombay, Theosophy Hall, 40 New Marine Lines, Mumbai 400 020. Phone: 022 2203 5993 / 022 2203 6187


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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


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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

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Black Horse And The Royal Tank


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I don’t get Delhi. It doesn’t seem to me to be a great place to land unless you have a big wallet to cushion your fall. The glorious parks and gracious avenues, sophisticated soirees and cultured cuisine make no impression on me once you hear women say they worry about being outdoors alone after dark.

But during the day, in tiny pockets, it’s fine. Even nice. I’m a tourist in the capital of my country and I love Hauz Khas (rough translation: Royal Lake). Or perhaps what I recognize Hauz Khas to have been. I ignore the big neon shop signs, the trendy high-street brand store doors swallowing and spewing endless streams of eight foot tall Punjabans with their glorious shampoo-ad manes and knee high boots, all boobs, no butt, shopping bags as large as their personalities.

Delhi can be high society with aspirations to high intellect. In Mumbai, they say we talk too much about Bollywood. Which is why I cannot for sure tell you when exactly I fell in love with F.N. Souza’s paintings. But it was definitely on a visit to the house of a friend who lives next to Shah Rukh Khan. He was showing us his Souza painting of Christ. We drifted to talking about Salman Khan’s paintings of Christ. We were laughing. It would have been a bit infra-dig for Delhi.

In Hauz Khas, our little caravan comprising of my husband, our three children and I saw a discreet sign. DAG. Delhi Art Gallery. We entered. Our children, used to being taken to museums and galleries, entered happily. The lady at the entrance smiled at us. The gallery had a wealth of Souzas.

“You young people, every new generation thinks it invented sex.”

In Mumbai, the Kala Ghoda (Black Horse) area is metamorphosing. Around it, vested interests train jets of sly purpose at it, hoping to sculpt this district (malleable and vulnerable suddenly because of Mumbai’s politically-powered champions of unbridled “development”) into something monetisable. Let’s make it Times Square. Let’s make it the Village. Let’s make it Hauz Khas.

On our 17th wedding anniversary, my husband and I abandon the children with my family to walk around South Mumbai. We have been walking here for more than 20 years. Things have changed. The ghost of Wayside Inn looks at Rhythm House and wonders how it still makes money. Jehangir Gallery echoes a little on the inside since Café Samovar closed recently. Two cafés, a couture patisserie, a boutique, anti-terrorist barracks and armed policemen outside the old blue synagogue. New.

The Delhi Art Gallery. Also new. We walk in conscious of that familiar frisson of excitement. This clever little gallery is here, in our city, showing their selection of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. I’ll leave you to Google the details of the group, but the work is a revelation. This is modern Indian art, some of which predates Indian independence. It is brilliant, muck-raking, intuitive, avant-garde… and as you climb up – the gallery is housed over three stories – increasingly risqué.

Right at the top are a few sketches, erotic and astounding not only for their excellence but also for the sheer bloody boldness of it all. “You young people, every new generation thinks it invented sex.” Who said that? Never mind. Here it is. Sex and genitals and crumpled sheets and brazen women. I have a Catholic girl moment and chortle. This is classic F.N. Souza and even if it took the Delhi Art Gallery to bring him to Bombay, I’m glad he’s here in our ruddy Black Horse District. He’d never have thrived in Delhi’s Royal Tank.

Delhi Art Gallery, 58, Dr. V.B. Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai 400 001. Phone: 022 4922 2700


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Parmesh Shahani India Culture Lab

Creating The Circuitry Of Ideas: In Conversation with Parmesh Shahani

Parmesh Shahani India Culture Lab



It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s what Parmesh Shahani tells me with a laugh when I ask him how he developed the idea for the Godrej India Culture Lab. “I was selected as a TED fellow in 2009 and went for my first TED conference,” says Parmesh. “I really enjoyed the format of mashing up people from different fields and seeing what came out of it. I’m interested in contemporary India. I wanted to use this idea of cross-pollination, but only for India and all the time. Can we be in a state of TED-ness 365 days a year? What would it mean to create a new kind of space?”

We’re at a coffee shop on the Godrej campus in Vikhroli waiting for an order of bun maska. Vikhroli isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a cultural centre for Mumbai, but Parmesh is trying to change that. “It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip,” he says. “Most of the city lives between Thane and Dadar or Navi Mumbai and Andheri. That’s where we are. We’re in the centre. We’re excited to create a space that serves the city and a space where some of India’s challenges can be debated in and found.”

I first met Parmesh in 1999 when he founded the youth website Fresh Lime Soda. Fresh out of school, I was part of a growing group of young men and women that was exploring this new, digital platform for communication. Two years later I left to study abroad. There were no smart phones or social media, and the Internet was still nascent in India. Parmesh and I lost touch.

Since then, Parmesh has attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled in – and dropped out of – a PhD programme, written a book, founded the Godrej India Culture Lab and been a TED Fellow, Yale World Fellow and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Our paths have crossed over the years, and I asked him to meet me so I could find out how he went from Fresh Lime Soda to Godrej India Culture Lab.

“It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip.”

That’s why we’re here having coffee and carbs. “Very randomly,” he says. He knew nothing about media, so he went to MIT to study. He thought he’d stay in academia in America, but life brought him back to India where he was back in media with Verve magazine. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD, but dropped out and returned to India again. “I was interested in building ecosystems,” says Parmesh, “in connecting the dots between the different disciplines I’d been lucky enough to be part of. When I look back, I realise it was all about building communities around certain ideas.” I have first-hand experience of these communities. Many of the writers from Fresh Lime Soda are good friends today, even though we’ve all moved on to other things.

Through Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh is trying to create a community on a larger scale. The audiences for their events consist of students, housewives and young professionals from all over India who connect over speakers like Japanese architect Tadao Ando or economist Abhijit Banerjee. “We’re a non-intimidating space,” says Parmesh. “We don’t compromise on the seriousness of what we do. Our talks are high calibre talks. But the way we frame it, we’re welcoming and exclusive. Everything we do is followed by a reception and free food. And that’s important because you don’t just come for a cultural event. You come to hang out with each other. We haven’t just created this event space but also this hangout space. People create friendships and collaborations. It’s been beautiful.”

Parmesh is the author of Gay Bombay, a 2008 book that looks at the hopes, dreams and aspirations of English-speaking gay men in India. It’s partly academic and partly personal, and Parmesh wrote it using research and his memoirs. “I realised when I left India that this was a part of me I hadn’t addressed,” he says, “so research was a way to understand myself and my world better. Because it was research I did in a community in which I belong, I thought it was unfair to ask people for their stories and not share mine as well. I thought it was quite fair that I share my life with as much openness and trust as these people who have shared their lives with me. The book is richer because of it. Today, seven years after publication, I still get emails every month from scholars, students or just people who’ve read it saying, ‘Thank you so much. It’s changed our lives.’ It’s a good feeling.”

The events at Godrej India Culture Lab are free and open to the public.

Godrej India Culture Lab, Godrej Industries, Pirojshanagar, Eastern Express Highway, Vikhroli (E), Mumbai 400 079.