Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium
Suhas Roy = Radha.
Suhas Roy = Crows.
Suhas Roy = Jesus.
Suhas Roy = Sensuality.
Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.
For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…
So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.
A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”
The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…
However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.
This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!
Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.
“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”
The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.
In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru, he titled one done in an art workshop.
From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.
Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces. But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.
Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.
As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.
Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?
No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.
Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”
For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!
“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”
This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.
*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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I have been an immigrant to a new country three times: from France to England, England to Canada and then, Canada to America. Being an immigrant is often a highly positive experience. We may have greater opportunities, we seek our dreams, we grow them. On the other hand, immigration for those of us who have gone through the process, is not easy. It is expensive, time-consuming, nail-biting and often lonely. It is said that those who immigrate ‘successfully’ do so because of familial support and/or because their children reap the benefits of their sacrifice.
Whilst there are too many stories to condense any one feature of immigration, we can only talk of our own experiences and somehow in understanding that, perhaps stay open enough to understand others. We can come together through that collective understanding.
As a psychotherapist, I work with many immigrants. I see clients daily who were born elsewhere and sometimes struggle to acculturate in their new-found country. Where I live, near the border between Mexico and America, we have a multitude of immigrants from Mexico, central and south America as well as from around the world, coming through the borders, seeing asylum and a better life.
Consequently, there can be a high degree of racism in rebuke for the startling numbers of immigrants passing through our city. I can drive down a road and see people lined on the street much as you would see in other countries, begging and homeless. Our resources are stretched and one option chosen by the Governor of Texas was to bus immigrants and asylum seekers to other states in the US. Initially this was considered a racist, insensitive act that treated people like cattle. When you look at it closer, you can see it was perhaps these things but also a desperate plea for other states to understand the overwhelming nature of immigration for border states and share in the expense.
It is easy for a non-border state to believe the border should be effectively kept open and all immigrants allowed in. but when it’s on your door step it can be challenging. Most people in Texas care about immigrants but also experience some of the downsides of too many immigrants at once. In El Paso, people froze to death sleeping on the streets, houses were broken into, the situation was dire and extreme and locals didn’t have enough resources to manage. Shipping immigrants who wish to go to other states, to those states, might appear cruel, but also makes sense, if it’s consensual. Whilst many of the Texan Governors decisions have been quite possibly racist and prejudicial, this choice was in part to show other states how dire the situation is.
Why are there so many asylum seekers right now? As President Biden announced the lifting of closed borders to asylum seekers, the numbers attempting to come into America increased exponentially. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called the “Remain in Mexico” policy (officially, the Migrant Protection Protocols) caused immigration to be somewhat halted. The original reason countries like America accepted asylum seekers goes back to WW II where the Jews who survived ethnic cleansing had nowhere to live and were essentially stateless. The right to seek asylum was incorporated into international law following the atrocities of World War II. Congress adopted key provisions of the Geneva Refugee Convention (including the international definition of a refugee) into U.S. immigration law when it passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
The laws that exist now were enacted to protect them and ensure stateless people were never again turned away in droves. The creation of Israel was in part the consequence of WW2 and the abuse against the Jews. It could be argued any issues with Israel are directly linked to the ethnic cleansing the Jews experienced and their subsequent statelessness. Laws endeavoring to protect future people from such experiences are what we now use in our handling of asylum seekers. “When Congress finally eliminated the racial provisions in U.S. immigration and nationality law in the 1940s and 1950s, generations of federal practice and procedure did not instantly disappear without a trace. Over the years, other government agencies had developed their own racial classification systems, often partially borrowed from INS experience, and such systems could take on lives of their own.”
The downside to this is, the world has dramatically changed since the 1940s (2,307M versus over 7 million today). the population is growing at a heady rate and thus, even if a small percent of people seek asylum from any one country, it is huge in comparison to previous numbers. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that from Biden’s Inauguration Day through May 2022—just 16 months and change—about 1.05 million migrants were apprehended on the southwestern border and then released into the US. With every year, the worlds population swells and with it, a strain on resources. ‘Affluent’ countries such as America, may literally speaking have the resources to help asylum seekers but the reality for many asylum seekers is quite different once they are in-country. According to Census Bureau statistics, immigrants’ share of the U.S. population rose more from 1990 to 2010 than during any other 20-year period since these figures were first recorded in 1850—from 7.9 percent to 12.9 percent
What constituted poverty in their country of origin may be considerably lower than what money they can earn in America, if indeed such earnings can be made at all. The social welfare system protects asylum seekers by giving them somewhere to live and a stipend until they are able to find work but what of those who do not possess the necessary skills? Not to mention the dearth of certain jobs. Immigrants wishing to live in the cities, may find work is only available in the agricultural parts of America and not earn enough to live on without language and education in a city. Likewise, they must contend with crime, safety issues and making the meager money they receive, stretch to pay for themselves and their families. What might seem initially like a lot of money, in comparison to their home-countries, is quickly devoured by the more expensive living expenses of America.
Immigrants who move to America or other developed countries, on a visa rather than asylum, may fare better. But note how many PhD’s are driving cabs or serving in restaurants. Underemployment is a phenomenon whereby those who are educated, are working at a lower level than that education would typically warrant. For their children there may be greater opportunities but for many first-generation immigrants, the adjustment and opportunities are restricted. Doctors in their own countries, they find American prohibitions on accepting foreign transcripts and learning, despite the low quality of American education in comparison to many other countries. It’s almost if you were being subjective about it, like having to pay the price for immigration.
When I immigrated to Canada, I found many who possessed PhDs and advanced education were unable to find work. There was some push back from locals who resented skilled workers and felt all immigrants should ‘know their place’ and take the dregs work. This is something you really don’t believe will happen to you when you are very educated, and get a skilled worker visa, but it’s a reality, perhaps less spoken about because it makes the host country look unkind. But go beyond the shiny posters about immigration and speak to the people and you will find it’s not uncommon.
Immigration is necessary for many reasons, not least the Western world ageing and requiring new blood because of declining birth rates. But the Western world wants immigrants to do the work they don’t want to do just as much as they may appear to want immigrants to ‘succeed’ and for every Doctor and PhD who was an immigrant, there are plenty who find themselves no better off through immigration. That’s a sacrifice worth making when you have no other choices or you hope your children will inherit the American Dream but if you have no children and you’re sold a false dream, then it can be disheartening if not crushing. There are 11 million recent immigrants in transition, best estimates predict, who labour in American fields, construction and kitchens, as well as American classrooms, detention centers and immigration courts.
What we hear less about, is how many immigrants leave. And how many suffer silently, having fallen between the gaps, into anything but the American Dream. What can be done about this? Should we impose immigration restrictions not out of cruelty but an understanding that a host country is ill equipped to deal with mass influxes and that the original reasons for the laws have evolved/changed as our population has grown? Should we insist other states take some responsibility for asylum seekers? As well as demand other countries pitch in more? And understand that what may look racist, is in fact a more realistic approach than flinging open the border and allowing everyone to come in at once?
It is an interesting dilemma and one that won’t be decided any time soon. The racists and extreme economic conservatives will battle against the diametric opposite liberals who believe all should inherit the opportunity a country like America holds. Both sides are too extreme in that they don’t consider the reality. The reality is racism should not and cannot endure in a country like America where soon ‘brown skin’ will be the majority and old racist ways are being challenged. But equally, being so ‘woke’ that you don’t see the fall out of idealistic policies, isn’t the answer either. In tandem with an identity politics that emphasises the subnational, a too progressive project may place global concerns above national interests. Hence, the oft repeated slogan “global problems require global solutions.”
Speak to the people. Many times, people criticise me for living in Texas. They assume I’m one of the ‘bad guys’ without understanding Texas is made up of a huge diverse population. Within that diversity are many Latinos who don’t want mass unchecked immigration any more than the racists, but for radically different reasons. Things aren’t as simple as they seem in a Twitter comment. There are many complex considerations that must be taken into account to ensure the best outcome not only for asylum seekers but those who already live in-country. There are answers, but they won’t come from knee jerk reactions or entrenched thinking on either side.
What we do know today, is people are literally dying to come into America and with them, perhaps some unchecked terrorists sneak in, just as they did before 9/11. In order to protect everyone and ensure things are done legally and safely, immigration must have some controls and should be funded accordingly, without any one state taking the majority of the strain. Many Texans are quite the reverse from what you’d imagine, if you subscribe to stereotypes. Maybe the problem is we should really get rid of stereotypes and try knowing who people really are before we judge en mass. Houston has one of the highest Indian communities in the world. All cities within Texas have absorbed huge numbers of immigrants from around the world. Let’s think less of ‘them and us’ and more about truly doing what will be best for those seeking to come into a country and begin a new life. Immigration is a conundrum, but if we work together, instead of apart, we can find answers.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons.
Christopher Winnan is a man of many hats. He has travelled widely throughout Asia, seeking out the latest breakthroughs and emerging technologies; with an uncanny ability to pick and forecast trends. As a travel writer and location scout, he’s explored off-the-beaten-track places; contributing to National Geographic and Frommers. When not consulting or publishing about Asia’s newest frontiers, he has an on-going fascination with past exploration, from the karst landscapes of south China’s opium trails to the ancient tea-horse trading routes across the Tibetan borderlands and eastern Himalayas. He writes on a wide range of subjects, both non-fiction and fiction, transporting guests to worlds old and new. Keith Lyons introduces us to the multi-faceted persona of Christopher Winnan, his past, present and future…
Tell us about growing up in the UK. When did you first get into writing?
The first paid writing gigs that I had in the UK were for top shelf men’s magazines, titles like Mayfair, Knave and Men Only. I was still too young to write the Readers Wives’ Real Stories, and so instead, I would pitch them bizarre subjects that they used as factual fillers. One I remember doing was a deep dive on the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and another was about the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople. I used to find obscure books at the library on strange subjects and then compress them into articles. I may not have been Pulitzer Prize work, but the pay was good, and the work was steady.
Before you moved to Asia, what things did you do?
In the UK, I worked as a manager in a pet food warehouse, and I was one of the first casualties in the steady move to logistics automation. Just about everybody I worked with has since been replaced by AI and robots. I was not all that cut up because I had been working almost every hour that God sent, and the great boss that had originally hired me had since moved on a replaced by someone I could not get along with. I was happy to go, just to get away from him. Fortunately, I got a nice redundancy settlement, and decided to spend it on one of those round-the-world air tickets. I always thought that I would be back in twelve months and find another job. I would not have believed that I was never going back.
What first brought you to visit Asia, and where did you go? What was your first impression?
I heard about a big military parade in Seoul, and so I decided to make that my first stop. I was only planning to stay a couple of days before moving onto Tokyo, but an Australian at my guesthouse persuaded me to go for an interview at a local English school. I had never done a days’ teaching in my life, but they did not seem to care, and I was hired on the spot. I started work two days later. The school was a massive Hagwon, a cram school right in the middle of downtown. There were at least 300 foreign teachers, and about two-thirds of us were illegals, working on three-month tourist visas. Back in those days, the authorities did not care. South Korea was an Asian Tiger economy and everybody and their dog wanted to learn English. The Korean won was really strong against the dollar, and so we were all making bank. We would do three months on and three months off. During the down time, we would go off and explore other parts of Asia, and party like animals. Then we would come back and work like dogs for three months. I can remember that it was not long that I knew all the textbooks by heart and was teaching 14 contact hours a day, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. I had taught just about every class at least a dozen time so my prep time was minimal, and honestly, I loved every minute of it. The entire country was on a massive growth streak, and everybody had high hopes for the future. It was an amazing time. Eventually, I started dating one of the Korean teachers at my school. Unfortunately, she was not an ordinary local. He father had been an ambassador, she had studied at Oxford, and Papa was now the mayor in Korea’s second largest city. When he found out that his precious daughter was with a dirty foreigner, he hit the roof. The following Monday six immigration officers turned up at the office of my Director of Studies. They were all wearing long black trench coats and dark glasses and looked like the Gestapo.
“Tell us which classroom Chris Winnan is in. If you do not tell us we will arrest every teacher you have and close down the entire school.” Clearly, he did not have a lot of choice. I spent a couple of nights in an out-of-town jail and was then on a plane back to the UK. I was not too cut up about it, because at the time, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, was jumping up and down threatening to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. A lot of the other teachers were desperate to leave but could not get out of their contracts. Anyway, it had been a good run. I had only planned to be in Seoul for three days, but I ended up staying for nearly three years.
And China, what was your first encounter like, and what made you decide to live and work there?
Like I said, we were doing three months on and three months off in Seoul, which gave us plenty of chance to explore the rest of Asia. Some places were just starting to open-up in those days. We went wreck diving in the largest WWII warship graveyard in the Philippines and ancient coin hunting in Cambodia. Cambodia, for example, was still a scary place in those days. The Khmer Rouge had only recently been ousted from power, and there were still UN peacekeepers everywhere. The markets were full of weapons, and much of the country was still off limits. We went down to Sihanoukville because we heard about an intrepid Frenchman was setting up the country’s first dive centre down there. When we went back three months later, he had been murdered by Khmer Rouge militants. We took the once-a-week train back to Phnom Penh and then just a week later, Khmer Rouge bandits kidnapped a dozen westerners and twenty odd locals off the very same train. Every one of them was executed and ended up in a shallow cave. That was a very close shave. If we had been travelling just one week later, we too would have been on this train, and I would not be talking to you now. Unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of other travellers at the time. Back in the capital, we met a Swiss who was smuggling looted artefacts out of places like Angkor back to Europe. Then there was the young Belgium kid who was trying to buy authentic Khmer Rouge uniforms. He was heading off to Battambang, which was the militants last remaining stronghold. We never saw or heard from him again.
It was dangerous but incredibly cheap. We met an American who had rented a massive nine-bedroom villa out of town for just a hundred dollars a month. It turned out he was a bit of an idiot though. He was petrified of being abducted and so he went to the Russian market and bought a load of land mines. He buried them all around the perimeter of his place, and then that night the monsoons rains came, and washed them all away.
When I was deported from Korea, I was still quite flush with cash and I had really enjoyed my teaching experience, so I decided to do a year-long intensive TEFL course back at university in the UK. The course itself was a waste of time, far too academic to be of any real practical use in the real world, but I was one of the only native speakers, on the course so I had a wonderful time partying with teachers in training from all over the world. Even in those days, the universities were corporate money-making machines. My course had about thirty students and nearly all of them were non-EU residents, which meant that they were paying around four or five times as much we UK residents.
This was long before the influx of mainland Chinese students, but there were at least half a dozen Koreans and Japanese in my class. They could barely speak a word of English between them, but the professors were instructed to give them every possible assistance, in order that they would come back and sign on for even more lucrative Masters and PhD courses. The faculty would bend over backwards to help them and practically wrote their essays for them, while we English students were generally ignored. I can only imagine that universities are far, far worse now that they are full of rich tuhao Mainlanders. At my university, there were only two Mainlanders in the whole place out of about 6,000 students in total, and they both looked as though they had stepped right out of the Cultural Revolution. They were more like a pair of North Koreans than the Chinese students you see today.
Their English was excellent, but they both wore Mao caps, and they talked as if they had come out of a time warp. They wanted to exchange stamps and discuss Marxism, while everybody else wanted to go down to the student union and get drunk. They must have had a tough time of it. Talking to them I realised that mainland China was about the only place in Asia I had not yet visited and so once I finished my course, that was where I decided to go.
What was China like when you first went, and how has it changed?
I initially went to Shanghai and worked at the very first English First language school. I soon saw what cowboys they were at that company, but fortunately, there was an abundance of work in Shanghai at the time, so I quickly jumped ship and went to work as a ‘Training Manager’ at a local five-star hotel. There were only a handful of luxury foreign hotels in Shanghai, and so I was really lucky to have landed such a plum job. I got my own room and ate like a king at the restaurants along with the other executives. My hours were few, especially when compared to that of the interns who had come out from the UK and who had to share rooms and eat in the staff canteen.
Shanghai in those days felt much like it must have done in the twenties nearly a century earlier. In the clubs that we went to at the weekend, famous MTV VJs and Cantopop stars from Hong Kong would fly in to party. There were so few foreigners at that time, that we still had a kind of rock star status, which I fully took advantage of. I ended up dating the Prima Ballerina from the Shanghai Ballet, which gave me all kinds of incredible introductions to the local movers and shakers. For a year or so, I felt like I was living a charmed life.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Shanghai was growing so fast that scores of new five-star hotels were being built. The one where I worked was one of the first, and therefore one of the oldest. Occupancy rates dropped as other more exciting options came online. They had to make cuts and having a full time English teacher on the management roster seemed to be rather extravagant and so I was one of the first to be let go.
I decided to take a job in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Foreign Language University. I went for that option because I had heard that university jobs were becoming more prestigious, even if they were not as well paid. The salary back then was 1,100 RMB per month which was about US$100. Fortunately, I had been earning ten times that at the hotel, and as it was full board, I had been able to save most of it.
I can still remember the staff of the foreign affairs office picking me up at the Railway Station and how we drove though the downtown of Guangzhou. We passed a couple of big five-star hotels, and I immediately felt more comfortable, thinking that this will not be so bad after all. We then continued to drive for another hour, and I found out to my dismay, that I was going to be working out in a secondary campus way out in the sticks.
The teacher apartments had definitely seen better days and the student canteen was like something out of the Cultural Revolution. This time, I was in for a major culture shock. Fortunately, the students were all very keen and enthusiastic. They were mainly from poor second and third tier cities out in the hinterland. Most of them had been delighted to be accepted into this particular big city university, but like me, hit the ground with a bump when they realised that were going to be at an out of town, secondary campus.
Immediately, corruption reared its ugly head. The waiban (the foreign affairs office) had a nice little earner going where they would hire out their teachers to the local joint ventures at the weekend for inordinate corporate rates. I was immediately placed at Coca Cola in a nearby industrial city. The money was good, but it was two hours travel either way and really ate into my weekend.
The other big problem that I was one of only two qualified teachers. All the other foreigners were undercover Christian missionaries from some American church organisation, who actually paid the University to hire them. Most of them were far more interested in preaching than teaching.
After a couple of months of extreme boredom, stuck out in the middle of the Chinese countryside, I started to take the long bus trip downtown to explore Guangzhou. The city itself was amazing and far more interesting than Shanghai, as it really was the Workshop of the World in those days. It was filled with every kind of wholesale market you could imagine. If it was a ‘Made-in-China’ product that ended in the west, it was guaranteed that it had gone through the markets in Guangzhou first. And they were huge sprawling places, as big as any shopping mall back home, and each one focussed on just one range of products. There were vast buildings filled with suppliers of tools, toys, Tupperware and textiles. Every time I ventured downtown, I would visit a new one and it would usually take me the whole day to explore the entire place.
I remember the day I first went to the Toy Market. There was a peasant woman outside with a bunch of plastic Star Trek figures on a piece of battered plastic tarp. Upon closer inspection, I found that they were all stamped with serial numbers on the feet, and most of them were very low numbers indeed. There was a 0001 Captain Picard, a 0002 Commander Riker and a 0003 Mr Data. I quickly realised that these were probably the factory prototypes, the original production batch that had gone up to marketing for displays and presentations before the main quantity was shipped out. I made her an offer and bough the lot, some thirty or forty figures. This was in the days before Ebay, so I went on a few early Star Trek collectors’ forums and told them what I had found and offered them for sale. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling them where I had found these, and everybody immediately accused that the figurines were fakes. China’s reputation was terrible even in those days. I could not give them away, let alone sell them, and so I sent them back to a friend in the UK as a gift. I hear that many of them are now worth hundreds of dollars apiece. This experience got me very interested in export opportunities, and from then on, I bolstered my measly teaching income by buying all kinds of oddities that I would stumble across in my travels and sell them overseas. One day I found the factory who made all the patches and insignia for the FBI and the Secret Service. For many years, I exported vast quantities to collectors in the US. I was buying them for pennies and selling them at high prices on eBay, with the help of a couple of partners in the US.
How was your experience in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai?
Guangzhou was an interesting place to be in the early days. It really felt as though I had been taken back in a time machine. In the decade before the handover, Hong Kong was at its most exciting and vibrant, and crossing the border back into the mainland after a visa run was like suddenly going back fifty years. Bicycles ruled the road, there was no such thing as the internet and there was not even any English language TV. I might as well have been on another planet. Guangzhou was the first city to open up to western business interests, and this had also been the case in the past, and so the people that were drawn there were curious about all things western and what was going on in the largely unknown outside world. The city had been hosting the world’s largest international Trade Fair for more than fifty years, and so twice a year I was able to make friends with intrepid entrepreneurs from the remotest corners of the earth. I remember developing a passion for Yemeni cuisine, partying with Senegalese ambassador and exploring the factory slums with a group of businessmen from Madagascar.
Living conditions were most definitely in the hardship category, but the opportunities were immense. I left the university and went to work for an American corporate training company right in the heart of downtown, and fully immersed myself in what was, at the time, the most exciting city on earth. I had always felt myself to be somewhat of an ugly duckling, but here I quickly transformed into a tall, handsome swan. While I was coaching the eager new managers at the world’s biggest multi-nationals, I had a nice little sideline in modelling gigs. One year, I played the role of visiting businessman in an advertisement for the first state-owned five-star hotel in the city, and suddenly, my face was on TV all over Guangdong and Hong Kong, twenty times a night. I could not walk down the street without people recognising me and wanting to talk to me.
It was ironic that I was so popular downtown because my name was mud back at the University that I had just left. I was talking to some of my old students, and they told me that one of the missionary teachers had been caught in bed with one of the students. Rather than fire and deport the missionary, they expelled the student. They then announced at a student assembly that it was me that had been caught en-flagrante, and that I had been fired for this indiscretion. This was of course a lie, but I was no longer there to defend myself, and it also meant that they got to keep a missionary teacher that they did not have to pay.
I later landed a short-term six-month contract at the brand new computing campus of BeiDa, Beijing’s most prestigious university, and I hated just about every minute of it. I had been looking forward to working with the crème de la crème of Chinese education, but the students turned out to be robotic study machines, superb exam takers, many with photographic memories, but barely a shred of imagination between the lot of them. Nobody ever asked any pointed questions, contradicted what I said or suggested interesting alternatives. All that they were capable of was rote-memorisation and mindless regurgitation of the textbook.
Obviously, any discussion of current affairs, geo-politics and domestic issues was completely off the table. Here I was, with what was supposed to be a few thousand of the brightest young minds in China, and not one of them wanted to discuss anything of consequence. To make things worse the climate was appalling, the freezing temperatures made worse by industrial smog that was so thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread on your toast for breakfast. I did a little bit of sightseeing on my days off, but everywhere had been so thoroughly transformed with revisionist propaganda that I soon gave up. Even the food was appalling. Chinese cuisine is disappointing at the best of times, especially if you have spent any length of time in any other Southeast Asian countries but coming directly from Guangzhou where Cantonese really bucks the national trend, being in Beijing was like being on prison rations. After six months, I was going crazy and incredibly relieved to leave.
What has it been like to be in China at its peak in terms of energy, growth, dynamism?
I am not really sure I saw China at its peak, not by a long shot. You have to remember that China was way ahead of the rest of the world back in the days of Confucius and then again back in the Tang and Ming Dynasties. When I was there in the nineties, China was still reeling from a series of the worst man-made disasters that the world has ever seen, including the Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution. It was not surprising the Deng Xiaoping era was a period of rapid growth. They were after all starting from almost nothing and just about every other country on the planet was years ahead of them. People talk about the Chinese economic miracle, but in hindsight, which other way could it have gone? They were already at rock bottom in terms of economy and technology. From there the only way was up.
I was very lucky that I was living there as a foreigner with all the advantages that entailed, but it was still pretty unpleasant to be a Chinese citizen, especially a female. For ordinary Chinese people, life was not much better than it is in Iran, Russia or even North Korea. It was slightly better for a few years after Deng’s reforms, up until, say the Beijing Olympics, but it was not some Golden age of equality and mass prosperity.
As foreigners, we were somewhat isolated from the most unpleasant aspects. In fact, many existed entirely inside an expat bubble of privilege and protection, not even wanting to know what was going on in the real China. As an explorer, I saw with my own eyes what life was like in the mega-city slums, or back in the quasi-medieval villages of the hinterlands, and it was really grim. I can only imagine what it is like now, with the mass lock downs and large-scale crackdowns.
Most of the expats I knew enjoyed the exoticness of their existences, but it is not like we lived like the British colonials of the Raj. Yes, occasionally you met the kind of expat businessman who live in a gated villa and threw away a thousand dollars a night on karaoke whores, but most of us were teachers who lived in regular apartments and shopped at local wet markets. The fact was that life in China was so unpleasant that the really rich folks simply did not want to go there. I can remember briefly doing some consulting work for the heir to the VW fortune, who was planning to invest millions, if not billions in green technology and environmentalism. Once he arrived, he found that he hated the place so much that he immediately flew back to Tokyo permanently and handed off all responsibility to his subordinates. Once his initial enthusiasm disappeared, so did the funds and the whole thing came to nothing.
I can also remember meeting an eighty-year-old who was backpacking his way around Yunnan, staying in hostels and guesthouses with youngsters that were around a quarter of his age. It turns out that he had been stationed in Shanghai as a Marine, just after the war when he was still in his twenties. For me, that would have been a much more interesting period to experience China, or maybe even earlier, in the days of Chiang Kai Skek and the gangsters that ruled the city.
How did you get into researching and writing travel articles and guidebooks?
I was on a visa run in Hong Kong, browsing through the China travel books in a bookstores in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was quite proud of the growing body of knowledge that I was slowly accumulating on the growing megalopolis of Guangzhou, and I wanted to see what the existing guidebooks said about the place.
I was very disappointed when I saw that the writer for Frommer’s claimed the entire city was a complete waste of time. He talked about a few lacklustre tourist sites, but this was completely unfair as Guangzhou was never a tourist city. It was an international business hub. He practically ignored all the wholesale markets, and the vibrant restaurant culture. I was very disappointed and wrote to the publisher telling them so, and that Guangzhou deserved much better. They agreed and asked me if I would contribute to their forthcoming edition, and could I cover another eight provinces at the same time.
When did you venture into Southwest China and how did it contrast with other parts of coastal city China?
It was when I got that first commission that I really started venturing into the Hinterlands. Obviously, I was required to cover all the coastal cities, but honestly, most of them were just provincial versions of Guangzhou filled with pop up factories and very little else. Huizhou Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wenzhou and every other bloody Zhou were almost all identical. A few fake temples to replace everything that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but otherwise all pretty similar and boring. I was glad to get out into the sticks and explore the mountains and the countryside. Of course, this also had its downsides.
The second time I worked for Frommers’, I recommended a guy that I had met on the road who had been working for Rough Guides. They gave him Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, all the places that I did not want and so it worked out really well. I had just had a meeting in Shenzhen with the new Director of PR for Shangri La hotels, who had been incredibly gracious and offered to comp me at any of her properties all over the country. I was grateful, but back in those days there were only about two Shangri Las in all the provinces that I was covering, so it was not really a big deal. Anyway, I told my friend Simon from Rough Guides to get in touch with her, and she quickly offered him the same deal. There were so many Shangri Las in his patch that over the next twelve months he enjoyed more than 200 free room nights completely at her expense. She was so happy with all the free coverage that he gave the brand, that she put him and his entire family up for a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at the company’s flagship hotel in Hong Kong. All meals included, unlimited bar tab, limo, everything. It must have been the holiday of a lifetime. As for me, I can remember turning up at the Shangri La in Beihia, and it was a worn-out shell of a state-owned enterprise dump that had yet to be renovated. I took one look at the place and decided to pay for a guest house in town out of my own pocket instead.
What’s your fascination with things like the ancient tea-horse routes or opium trails?
I was very lucky working for Frommers’, as the editor encouraged me to explore and find new places. She gave me a freedom that most other guidebook writers did not enjoy. If you work for Lonely Planet, you have to cover the three must see sites, the three most popular eateries and three of the most well-known hotels. They cover so much that there simply is not room for anything else.
With Frommers, I had much more autonomy. For example, the first edition that I did they asked me to go and cover the up-and-coming destination of Hainan. It was so disappointing that I told them if they insisted that I go back, I would not be doing another edition for them. Fortunately, they agreed.
I was fascinated by the real history of China, not the propaganda that the official guides had to memorise in tourism school. I knew that there were stories that were being suppressed, fascinating takes of history and adventure that deserved to be told. The Opium Trails was a great example. For hundreds of years opium has been the main cash crop in Southern China, and much of the North too. Not only was in popular domestically as a recreational drug, but it was also exported to feed the habits of all the coolies that worked in the Chinese enclaves that existed all over Southeast Asia and beyond. So much of it was grown by the greedy landlords that it often led to regional famines and conflict. When the Communists took over, they changed the names of most cities, but if you start looking at the old records, you soon see that opium was the key commodity of the domestic economy. In Kunming alone, there were more than 120 opium distilleries.
How do you feel as a guidebook writer knowing later others will use your expertise to make it easier, but also that it might change a place?
Nowhere stays the same forever. Brigadoon is not real. Everywhere changes, whether I write about or not. In fact, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to assume that I can do anything alter the vector of a specific location. I agree that tourism can cause irreparable damage to pristine environments, but that is a problem that is caused by the many flaws of capitalism, not by me writing about it. To be honest, most of the very best places that I ever discovered are still relatively unknown even by the most adventurous travellers. For a while I did consider keeping them a secret, but I soon realised that was completely pointless. The real damage is caused by mass tourism, not by a few adventurous backpackers trying to get off the beaten path. From what I have seen, even the most remote locations were pillaged and plundered long before I was even born. Occasionally, I would find a remnant of what existed before, but it is usually just a brief glimpse of what was there previously.
How have you managed to stay at the cutting edge of ideas, new places, trends etc?
I love to read old guidebooks that have long been out of print. One time, I found an eighties paperback that had been compiled by a couple of overseas language students who wanted to explore the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou during their summer vacation. Much of what they had written was tips on how to avoid the local authorities and visit places that were usually off limits to foreigners. Back in those days, nearly everywhere was forbidden and those two guys seemed to have spent half their holiday being escorted onto buses by local policemen who really did not want them to be there. Their explorations were long before the first Lonely Planet, and so their guidebook was filled with places that I never heard of before. This is the main problem with guidebooks. They establish well-travelled routes, which then receive so much traffic that everywhere else is usually ignored, even if the places recommended in the book have gone so far downhill that they are hardly worth considering any more.
I was always on the lookout for new places that I had never heard of. Whenever I arrived in a new town, the first place that I would check out was the local Xinhua bookstore. In the days before mobile phone and even owning a GPS device was completely illegal and likely to get you arrested as a spy, locally printed maps were always a treasure trove of information. Libraries are few and far between in rural China, but everywhere has a state-owned bookstore that disseminates all the government propaganda and school textbooks.
Sometimes I would really on local expertise. I remember one time I was travelling through Yunnan with a really glamorous Shanghai socialite. I think that she was slumming it with me, probably to enrage her parents. While we were in Kunming, she insisted on visiting one of the most expensive hairdressers in town for a suitably elegant coiffure. I asked her to quiz the head stylist on the trendiest new restaurants in town, and he gave us some amazing leads. One of the best was an amazingly innovative new place that had set up shop in what was previously a retail outlet for the local, state-owned Chinese medicine factory. It was full-on oriental apothecary in style, wall-to-wall with all those tiny wooden drawers that they used to store all the herbs and tinctures inside. The menu was a bamboo pot full of temple shaker sticks, the kind that are used by Chinese fortune tellers. You shake the sticks and depending on what falls out they tell you your future. In this case, we shook the sticks in order to decide what to order. All the food had medicinal ingredients like Lion’s Mane mushroom, gingko nuts and goji berries. It was a unique experience, that I would never have found by myself. Sometimes, insider information is essential.
How glamorous is being a travel writer and how does the reality compare with the perception?
As I explained before with regard to my friend from Rough Guides and all his free comps, it can be extremely glamorous. I imagine that if you are working for the New York Times and writing about the Caribbean, it must be a non-stop life of luxury. If, on the other hand you are out in the back of beyond in rural China, working for an English language guidebook in a place where absolutely zero percent of the population speaks any English, it is more of a challenge. In a place like China, in terms of finding interesting places, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you ever meet any princes. Unfortunately, I can never be absolutely sure of that fact until I had actually been there and had a good look around for myself.
There again, some of the most spectacular discoveries come from the most uncomfortable conditions. The further you get away from civilisation, the more unspoiled the nature becomes, but the harder the travel becomes. I can remember spending endless hours in a horribly cramped minibus to reach a remote one-donkey mountain village that probably had barely changed in the last five hundred years. The accommodation would have been considered hardship conditions even by Mary and Joseph. There was no heating, the bed was carved into the bare rock and the toilet was a couple of planks over the adjoining pig sty. Despite all of this, the terrain was some of the most spectacular karst that I have ever seen, ancient stone staircases cut directly into the side of the mountains surrounded by vistas straight out of a Tolkien epic poem.
What’s the process of writing for you? How do you find topics or get ideas?
I try to keep abreast of interesting new developments by dipping into a wide as range of media as possible. Fortunately, this is easier than ever with the modern internet. I especially like websites that have very active comments sections, where people express a wide range of opinions and add valuable insights to the original article.
It is only when you dig into sites that have very active comments sections that you start to get some contrary opinions and interesting leads to follow up. Reddit is obviously one of the most useful resources, while Youtube videos have by far the most comments.
I recently watched a video about the future of resin 3D printers, and the presenter asked his viewers to share their thoughts on the way that that the industry was heading in the comments. The result was a selection a very knowledgeable individuals offering some very valuable insights that would have been difficult to find anywhere else. Good videos can often have thousands of individual comments and so in that case, I find that it is always good to sort them by the most replies received. That way you can start with the most active conversations and avoid all the mundane monosyllabic comments.
I recently found an interesting website called Exploding Topics. They have a regular newsletter where they highlight the most searched for trending topics on Google. Most of them are quite obscure but it is still interesting what is going viral before it hits the mainstream.
With subjects that I am especially interested in, I will do a regular Youtube search every month or so and sort the results by date uploaded. This way I can see all the latest content since I last searched and see for myself what is trending. For example, I regularly search for new 3D printing related videos, and recently discovered that the field of 3D musical instruments is suddenly taking off. Some wind instruments, such as clarinets can be extremely expensive, often requiring rare tropical hardwoods and craftsman engineering for all of the finger controls. Seeing and hearing some of the 3D printed versions showed me that the technology is rapidly catching up, and it probably will not be long before we see the very first entirely 3D printed orchestras. A 3D printed violin might not sound like a Stradivarius, but open-source designs are being improved on all the time and are vastly reducing the cost of entry for any aspiring musicians.
The general media is slowly being eviscerated and they simply have not got the resources to cover all the interesting stories out there. Even with the field of 3D printing, there are so many new areas opening up. Mainstream media cannot be expected to cover niche topics such as 3D printed firearms, 3D printed clockwork mechanisms or 3D printed crossbows, but all of these are making very rapid advancements and are fascinating subjects to watch develop.
What satisfaction do you get from being an expert in your many fields, getting positive reviews, gaining acknowledgement?
I am not sure it is possible to really become an expert these days, especially when so many fields are advancing so rapidly. It is good to try and keep an overview over a broad range of topics. Anyway, that is where the most interesting breakthroughs come from. From people in different fields making imaginative connections between topics that would otherwise seem completely unrelated. Hopefully, one day I will be able to make one of those world-changing cross-fertilisations that nobody else had ever considered before.
How vital are language skills, contacts, connections and your own drive to help find the latest?
The world has become such a huge place that I am not sure that personal networks are really of all that much value as they were in the past. If anything, I would say that social media is a distinct disadvantage in this sense. It is too much of distraction and too often becomes an echo chamber. Look at Wechat in China for example. Everybody is separated out into their little special interest groups which really makes it difficult to get an accurate view of the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I choose not to have a phone, and I notice that slowly, more and more people are starting to see the advantages of this choice. Not many at the moment, admittedly, but I recently found out that both Alan Moore and Andy Hamilton both choose not to have mobiles. These are two great examples of amazing writers, and so I am tempted to believe that I am following the right path.
How do you stay disciplined for your writing?
My last job in China was as the director of Marketing with a Chinese travel agency. The Chinese owner had very little clue of what was involved in the creation of quality content. Towards the end of my contract, she signed a contract that would have required me to write about 400,000 words in a matter of months. In the end, the project never came to fruition, but for a for weeks, I found myself under enormous pressure and realised that I was quite capable of writing 10,000 words per day, something that I would never have dreamed possible previously. I would not like to have to maintain that kind of output on a regular basis, but it is very useful to know that you can do it when push comes to shove.
These days, I like to get at least a thousand words out of the way first thing in the morning before I check my email or get sucked into Reddit. This gives me a sense of achievement early in the day and means that I can be more productive for the rest of the day.
How has the guidebook industry changed from the days of Lonely Planet/Frommers to now in the digital age?
On-line Travel Agencies such as Agoda, Tripadvisor and Booking.com killed the guidebook publishing industry stone dead. I hear that there are still a few Lonely Planet guidebooks being published, but they do not really count, as that company never paid a decent living wage in the first place. I read that that the brand has been sold twice in the last couple of years and are now a major money sink. Unfortunately, the OTAs are no better, and in many ways much worse. Having worked in the travel industry for such a long and having experienced all the tricks that hotels and travel agencies get up to, I would estimate that at least 90% of TripAdvisor reviews are fakes. They might not be paid for in cash, but are usually part of some quid pro quo deal, like a kind of insider trading within the hospitality industry. The remaining 10% that might be genuine are usually for the most popular, well-travelled places that everybody already knows about. The end result is that there are plenty of reviews of five-star business hotels that are paid for with points or exchanged air miles, but hardly anybody is going out finding new routes, and discovering new places.
The other main problem is the fact that the OTAs charge 20% or 30% per booking which has put huge financial pressure on a lot of the smaller accommodations. Admittedly, this was also partly true for Lonely Planet. In any location, the three places that got included in the book usually had more business than they could handle, while everybody else struggled to find customers. The OTAs have only made the situation far worse and have caused endless numbers of smaller operations to simply give in and shut up shop completely.
Still, what grates me most about about the OTAs is that they did away with one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Anybody that was paid to be a professional travel writer literally had their dream job. I am all for automating as many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs out of existence as possible, but why do away with the most exciting jobs on the planet, just so that another Internet company can improve its bottom line by a few bucks? The demise of the paid guidebook writer is the end of an era, amazing job opportunities that future generations will never even know existed.
How different is factual writing from writing fiction?
Writing fiction is far more difficult because you need to be constantly creating an original storyline. Either you need to be a natural born storyteller, or you need to do a lot of drugs. I have been working on a solar punk novel for many years now but it requires much more effort than non-fiction. Rather than repackaging facts, you have you come up with truly novel ideas and then back them up with believable facts anyway, which makes it at least twice the work of producing non-fiction. Some of the more prolific novelists seem to be able to channel stories from another dimension. I remember reading that Robert E Howard, for example, would just sit down at the typewriter and the character of Conan the Barbarian would just flow out of him, like he was possessed by some literary spirit. Only very occasionally have I had that kind of experience, but I sure wish it was something that I could turn on and off at will. Now I understand why so many fiction writers struggle with writer’s block. At least when you are writing about real world facts for a work of non-fiction, you can always go out and do some more research. It is really frustrating when you are halfway through a fictional plot line and suddenly the inspiration just dries up and will not come back.
What is travel like post-Covid? What have been the best places you’ve lived in, and where are you now?
Honestly, I have not yet done any post Covid travel. It is still too much hassle to consider at the moment and anyway, I am lucky that I have spent the lock downs in a very pleasant Thai beach resort, and I could not have been more comfortable if I had tried.
As for the best places that I have lived, well I always found that tourist locations were a better bet than solely industrial or commercial centres. Tourist towns are usually popular with good reason, and as long as you find one that is not too developed, then they are often quite affordable. Obviously, this does not apply to the Bahamas or Tahiti or Monte Carlo. While I was living up in the Himalayas, I would often bump into fellow guidebook writers who were there on vacation, but who like me had chosen to live full time in one of their favourite discoveries. I met an Australian who had relocated to Thimphu in Bhutan, a Kiwi that was living up on the terraces of Ubud above Bali, and a couple who were enjoying the high life in Hong Kong. This was shortly after the handover but still long before the descent into despair, back when Hong Kong was still a world class city.
What was interesting was that most guidebook writers would choose to settle somewhere that had been a highlight in their travels, and that these places were often far more attractive than any of the places that you see in these entirely fabricated Top Ten Places to Retire articles. The only exception was the Lonely Planet writer who was compiling the latest China edition. It turned out that he lived in Ulan Bataar of all places, the capital of Inner Mongolia. It turned out that he had married a Mongolian girl and that is why he was stuck in Bataar.
These days, there are far fewer places to choose from than before. Most countries have clamped down on long term visas, and the end of the globalisation era will see far fewer long-term expats than I have experienced in my lifetime. A worldwide wave of fear and xenophobia prevails all over and the only foreigners that are welcome are those with huge amounts of disposable cash, even though they often end up wrecking the housing market and the economy for the locals.
I was very lucky to experience as much travel as I did, and it is sad to see that current generations will not have the same opportunities. When I was young it was easy to travel and find work as an English teacher or in the tourist industry, but those days have rapidly come to a close, and in the future, I think that if you really want to travel to exotic climes, you will probably have to go with the military as part of an invasion force.
How about air travel in the age of climate change? Is it better to view documentaries?
Oh yes, definitely. I gave up flying in the early part of my writing career, but I was lucky in that I had plenty of time to travel, and so going everywhere by boat and train was an adventure that I could justify. These days the new cost of flying is so prohibitive that it is going to be restricted mainly to the very wealthy from now on. The good news is that you can explore many of the most amazing parts of the world through travel documentaries. When I was young, we were lucky to see the occasional show about the rain forest or the outback, but these days, there are amazing films of some of the most remote places on the planet. These guys that jet around the globe with the aim of visiting every single country on the planet, honestly make me sick. What utterly narcissistic excess, when you can now travel all the way around the globe from the comfort of your very own armchair!
What future travel plans do you have?
Not many at the moment. Covid has put pay to just about everything and it looks like we are entering into a global recession that will make travel expensive and difficult for a long time to come. Still, there were not all that many places left on my bucket list anyway. It is ironic that most of the places that I really wanted to tick off were locations that most people had either never heard of or would never dream of actually visiting. For example, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has been at the very top of my list for a long time now, and yet the UK government only considers it a place to forcibly deport unwelcome refugees. In truth, Kigali was one of the fastest developing cities in Africa, attracting lots of high-tech investment and with a wonderfully cool climate and beautiful countryside. Admittedly, it was not ideal when it came to democracy and freedom of speech. I really wanted to experience the urban chaos and incredible opportunities of Lagos in Nigeria.
I always wanted to see the Tepuis of Venezuela, and I always fancied the idea of living in one of those medieval tower blocks in Sana’a in Yemen. Unfortunately, more and more of these places are now becoming off limits to even the most intrepid of travellers, and so maybe I will have to wait until my next life before I get chance to experience their charms.
The good news is that life in Thailand is really not so bad.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
There is good money to be made on Amazon, but only if you approach writing as a business. This means putting in long hours and hard work when you are getting started. It means having a wide selection of attractive products for your potential customers to choose from and making sure that they are up to date and relevant. I took all the unique experience that I built in Guangzhou and created the world’s only guidebook to the city and its hundreds of specialist wholesale markets. Unfortunately, as soon as the Chinese economic miracle began to grind to a halt, so did my sales. Although I had recommendations from embassies, consulates and chambers of commerce, I could not get any official backing at all from the local government or tourist authorities. Then, on top of this I had to deal with assassination reviews from local tour guides and interpreters because my work was so thorough that it negatively impacted their business. Finally, Covid struck and by now, my book is probably completely out of date.
Initially it took years of adventure and exploration to compile, and now I doubt that I could ever afford to update it, even if I could get back into the country in the first place. Therefore, my advice is to try and make sure that your writing has a long shelf life. If you want to create an evergreen title that provides you with a long-term passive income, then you will need to choose your subject matter very carefully. Find a good cover designer on Fiverr or develop the necessary skills yourself. A good cover sells your work and a bad cover will quickly consign it to Amazon oblivion. Find a fellow author who will help you with proof-reading and editing. You will never catch every single spelling mistake by yourself, no matter how many times to go over your work, and this will be the first thing that readers will complain about in their reviews. Professional editors are very expensive, so find someone who you can share the task with.
Always be looking for new subjects to write about. Your breakthrough book will very likely be the title that you least expected to succeed, but the more you publish, the more you increase your chances of it happening.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, in conversation with legendary actress Deepti Naval, on her penchant for words at the unveiling of her memoir, A Country Called Childhood, at an international literary festival in Shimla, India.
“Where’s the session?”
That was the question on every lip as I entered the beautifully restored Gaiety Theatre – the Gothic architecture that was designed 135 years ago by an English architect following examples of Victorian Britannia, to be the Opera in the Town Hall complex built for the British rajas who’d shift the capital from Delhi to Shimla to escape the oppressive Indian summer.
It was the second day of Unmesh, and I was to conduct a conversation with Deepti Naval whose appearance on the Hindi screen with Shyam Benegal’s Junoon(1978) had given every young girl like me a new icon – one we could readily identify with, since the doe-eyed beauty was so Indian! Not overwhelmingly dolled up, not westernised, not running around trees mindlessly, the personas she essayed were so close to life! If anything, here was an actor who’d come back from the US armed with a training in Fine Art – but spoke like us.
The literary face of Deepti Naval is not so well known, though. In fact, some of the youngsters in the audience – which was studded with stars of Indian Cinema like Sai Paranjpye, Goutam Ghose and Atul Tiwari – didn’t expect the actress to be there, in the International Festival of Literature organised by the Sahitya Akademi, and hosted by the Ministry of Culture to mark 75 Years of Independence. “Who’s this writer? The actor Deepti Naval? Didn’t know that!”
So, although I cherish every memory of Miss Chamko in Chashme Baddoor (1981, As Far be the Evil eye); of Sandhya Sabnis in Katha (1982, Stories); of Mahatmain in Damul (1985, Bonded Until Death); of Ek Aur Panchavati (1986, One More Panchavati) where she acted with my father, Nabendu Ghosh; of Memories in March (2010) and Listen..Amaya (2013), I decided to ignore the actress and bring to the fore the writer Deepti Naval, of whom Gulzar wrote in the Preface to Black Wind and Other poems (2004), her poetry collection: “She has her brains in her heart, or her heart in her head. She lives the experience twice. First, when she actually lands in a situation and takes the full experience of life. The second, when she filters it, takes the essence in a poem and relives it.”
RS: I’ve heard some of your poems on YouTube; I’ve read some of your stories, and though we don’t have the visa yet, we will soon have entry into that country when your memoirs are launched: A Country Called Childhood — I love the name!
All your stories and certainly your poems come out of your lived life. Is it always your own life or does your aesthetics sometimes follow what happened to another person? I know you’ve directed a television serial, so – d’you sometimes become the camera and simply watch the characters in action?
Deepti: Yes, all my stories come from real life. Most of the stories are my own experience and the rest either happened to friends or I heard the story, perhaps three sentences, that has stayed with me for some reason. It has registered and never left me. So, when I got down to writing, I thought, ‘Why don’t I recreate what could have happened?’
Obviously, there’s an element of imagination in recreating the stories but they’re real episodes that have happened to real people. There’s only one story – The Morning After – which is completely fictional. The rest of the stories are all somebody’s or the other’s experience.
RS: Just taking up on that expression — completely fiction: Does ‘fiction’ come out of the air or does it come out the soil?
Deepti: Always from somewhere — in life, in this world. Something has got rooted in your mind, and you feel that you can develop it. If you write about it, you can share.
RS: I know at least one story that I read – ‘Thhulli’– has come out of the homework you did for a film that probably never happened.
Deepti: No, the film never got made. The film, Red Light, was to come out of a script that was given to me by Vijay Tendulkar. It was about a girl who stands under the lamppost in a red-light district, and then whatever happens… I was to play that girl. So, I felt I should do some homework.
Actors love to indulge in things like that. So, I went to a red-light district with three of my colleagues. And that experience, of that one night in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Bombay, what happened that whole night… How I met this girl called Thhulli, up in one of the brothels. How I pursued her — I wanted her to give me time. I wanted to sit and chat with her, and that was managed. I got that space with her — until things got a little rough. The whole ambience became very tense, and I had to be salvaged from that situation into getting out. It was an eye-opener.
RS: The portion that first grabbed me was your first encounter with Kamathipura.
Deepti: Yes, I’m particularly drawn to this one experience. It was a dark monsoon night when we first stepped into that area. And you know what the monsoon in Bombay is like — if it starts to pour, it is unending. So, it was one of those nights and we’re in my Ambassador car. We were just cruising along the red-light district. You don’t see many people because it’s pouring, and it’s very late in the night.
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Deepti Naval
The street we had now entered was completely dark, the only source of visibility being the headlights of our car. It was an eerie feeling driving through a lane where you could see nothing, just the sense of something not being right. We drove slowly into the uncanny silence of the waterlogged avenue, broken only by the sound of ripples caused by the whirring of car tyres.
‘Something tells me we should turn back,’ Tanvir spoke gravely. No one said a word. Inayat drove cautiously up to the end of the lane, then switched gears. Slowly the Ambassador started to swerve, heavy with the water in its wake. This is when I began to get my bearings.
Thrown suddenly into the floodlights as the car made a gurgling U-turn, on both sides of the street, were women – standing behind the bars, their powdered-to-white faces alternately Illuminating in the shifting light. They were neither soliciting customers nor bargaining. They just stood there, languid, confined within their cages, each occupying a separate, dark world.
“Why are they locked behind bars?” — I spoke under my breath, not believing what I saw.
“These are cages,” answered Tanvir. “Women here are not allowed to get out.’
‘They’d be killed if they did,” declared Inayat.
“My God! So, they do exist, the famous Cages of Falkland Road!”
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: But let me read a few lines from the portion where you’re recognised as an actress. That must be quite a common experience for you…
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Ratnottama Sengupta
“No, no more Ikkey! Go…go! No more! The girls are tired and sleeping. I cannot wake them up now.”
“It is not a customer Thhulli!” he said in a hushed tone, then moved aside to reveal me standing nervously behind him. The woman saw me, and for a moment there was in her eyes… not instant recognition, as I had expected, but disbelief.
She suddenly looked perplexed. “She is… she is…”
“She is a film star…” and he whispered my name to her, bending real low, as if he was the only person who knew about my dark secret.
“She wants to talk to you. They want to make a film on your life.”
I shot a glance at him — a clever little fellow, I thought.
“At this time?”
“Just for a few minutes…” I quickly pleaded, the ‘please’ carried forward with my eyes.
The woman relented. The man stepped aside allowing me to enter through the half gate. “Yeh Thhulli hai!” he said, introducing me formally to the woman from the window.
The greater part of the room was in darkness. I walked into my grim surroundings, grateful for being let in at this unearthly hour.
I looked about the room. It was just a single room, very small, cramped with two giant sized wooden beds with bright coloured curtains hanging around them. Underneath the beds, sprawled all over the floor were girls. Nine of them, Thhulli informed me as she asked me to follow her.
She adroitly crossed over to the other side; I hesitated a bit, looking at the bare legs zigzagging the floor. Knees jutting into knees, hair enmeshed with hair, the girls slept soundly, huddled into each other. I followed Thhulli avoiding placing my foot on braids collaged against the burnt grey cement floor.
Suddenly, I stood face to face with a distorted version of myself in the huge mirror tilted against the green wall. Appearing strange in this setting, I saw myself slanted in the mirror — a cotton stole wrapped around my head, blue jeans and a white top, wearing my trekking shoes, the old olive Timberlands that refuse to wear out. A low night lamp turned to lime green the corner where the cupboard was cemented into the wall. Both of us now stood in the only space left in the room — the window.
“Baitho,” said Thhulli, looking around for something for me to sit on.
From under a heap of bedsheets she pulled a red plastic stool spilling sleazy magazines about the floor. I tried not to look. She dusted the stool with it, then fixing her own hair in the mirror, moved down on the floor, gracefully. I looked at the stool at first, then, decided to sit down on the floor next to Thhulli — at the window.
Thhulli curled up and smiled, the innocent smile of a child. A woman of thirty or so, she looked older than her years. Her face had great beauty, I could see, with clear skin and gentle features. “Assamese?” I inquired. “No, Nepali,” she replied, her legs pulled up against her chest.
For a long awkward moment we looked at each other, then she spoke in awe, “You are very famous.” Her Hindi had a falling forward tilt to it. “I have seen you,” she said gently.
“In a film?” I asked, my hopes rising. This was my chance of connecting with her instantly.
“No, not in film. On the wall, on a poster… and on that!” She pointed towards a small television set, a grimy fourteen-inch B&W perched on a heap of aluminium trunks at the other end.
“You were singing,” she said shyly.
“Singing?” I tried to restrict my voice to a whisper.
“Yes, under a waterfall… with… with Mithoon Chakraborthy… your song Uthaile ghunghata… chand dekh le!” 
“Oh my God! You watch that stuff!”
“The girls watch it all the time! They love that song. They love seeing films. We get to watch them in the afternoons. The minute they wake up, they switch on the TV set. I let them… they are young.”
“And you don’t go to the cinema hall?”
“We hardly go out!” Thhulli became quiet almost as soon as she said that. Dressed in a lungi and kurta, her knees pulled up on one side, she was far from the pan-spitting, hard faced kaddak madams of kothas that we see in Hindi films. This was a face you would never expect to see in a brothel. I quickly revised my pre-conceived notion of prostitutes.
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: The rest of it is also full of sensitive moments. And this is a story that we would not hear if she were not an actor. The amazing thing is this seems timeless! Recently we saw a similar situation in Gangubai Kathiawadi, which is set at least half a century ago, in Nehru’s time. There too the girl says, “We see the actors only on the posters, because we are never allowed to go out.”
Deepti: That’s a hard-hitting reality. They Are Behind Bars… and never allowed to go out!
RS: Deepti you’ve travelled widely, across the globe. After your studies you came back to Mumbai. You’ve travelled across India. You’ve also travelled through the arts. You’ve studied Fine Art in New York, you’ve seriously done photography, you’ve been in films, you’ve taken to writing. Lamha Lamha (Moment to Moment), your first book of Hindi poems, came out almost 40 years ago?
Of course, I’m going to ask you to recite one of your poems. Again, I won’t ignore the actress all together. In fact, one of my favourites is about Smita and you. It’s again an experience that you can share only with another actor.
Deepti: Smita and I? That’s from my second book of poems, Black Wind. By the time it came out, I had lived life. Lamha Lamha was all about romantic ideas about life, about love, those tender feelings you have before you really start living the harsher realities of life. And Black Wind came out in 2004 – it was a dark period, when things were not going well. So, the poems turned out… a bit dark (smiles). But there’s this nice poem addressed to my friend Smita Patil. It kind of describes Smita’s and my relationship. I wrote this poem after she was gone.
SMITA AND I
Always on the run,
Chasing our dreams…
We met each time
At baggage claim
Stood a while together
Among gaping crowds.
Spoke unspoken words.
Yearning to share
Afraid of ourselves.
All around us people
And we, like spectacles
Amidst the madness.
Trying to live a moment,
A glance, a touch,
A feeling to hold on to –
And move on…
The last time we sat together
Waiting for a flight,
I remember I'd said,
“There must be another way
Of living this life!”
For a long time you remained silent.
And I’m still running…
To prove you wrong.
R.S Deepti, you’re a woman. And by that very definition you’re an artist. An artist who speaks in many voices. Do you still do photography?
Deepti: That’s taken a back seat since writing took over. But painting I still do, yes.
RS: So, in the title story of the collection, The Mad Tibetan, you’re relating your experience of travelling in Ladakh with the camera. You’re looking at your protagonist through the camera aren’t you?
Deepti: When I first went to Ladakh in 1993 there weren’t too many Indians there. Leh was full of foreigners. It was as if I’m in Europe. As a photographer it had fascinated me. About four years later, I wanted to see that landscape during winter. In summer you see these patches of green, a cultivated green patch between two houses. I thought, let me see how the landscape changes in winter, how it turns grey and brown and black.
So, after a Film Festival at Siri Fort [Delhi] I got onto a flight with some faujis – military men flying there from Jammu. Then I looked for a taxi. In summer I’d seen many tourists – foreigners toh bhare pade thhe. But now I didn’t see a soul, taxis too were difficult to come by. So one fauji said, “Ma’am you wait here, we’ll organise a vehicle for you. Where d’you want to go?” “Leh,” I said. But Leh was deserted. No hotels in sight, the streets were deserted. I knew one co-actor, Phunsook Ladakhi, lived in Stok, some 13 kms away. I asked if they could take me there.
Phunsook was not there but his wife, her sister and a child were there. I stayed with them. They didn’t speak Hindi and I didn’t speak their language, but we could communicate. There I would take my camera, take some rajma — kidney beans — rolled in a dry roti in the pocket of my parka jacket, and go around Stok and Choglamsar. There I saw this Tibetan man in an open tent by the river Indus. I found it fascinating that a man was living in a tent that didn’t have a roof – it was tied down with bamboo poles but had no roof! ‘This is weird’ I thought and started taking photos. Pictures of him. A few kids were playing around him, calling out ‘Nyonba! Nyonba!’ – the word means crazy.
Meanwhile it started to snow. I was taking pictures – and I realised that in that wide open, with the kids gone, I was alone with the camera and this man! He was then posing for me with animated gestures, and I thought, “Wow! What a study for a photographer!” Then, once I realised that there was something off with the man, I started to retreat and get back on the tar road which is the old highway. And he ran after me for quite a bit. But he ran up to the point where there was a barbed wire. Perhaps that was symbolic: I managed to pull it up, got under it and came out on the tar road. He stayed there, and his expression was one of a child. Like, ‘Now you were playing with me, and now you’re running away! Game over?’
In the night, in the place I was staying in Stok, I could hear some sound: Ta-tar-tar-ta… It was a scary sound that I’d been hearing over the past couple of nights. I came down and didn’t see the women or the kids. I knocked on their door and got no response. There was no sign of life. And the sound had come really close. So, I said to myself, “No good being scared.” So at three at night, I opened the window and tried to confront the source of the strange sound. “Who’s there, trying to bother me?” I called out.
And then I see this Nyonba. The mad Tibetan had strung together a whole lot of Coca Cola cans and was dragging them on the tar road like a rattle – going this way and then going that way…!
It was an amazing sight, and sound. I ran for my camera, but it was nighttime, there was hardly any light on the road, and I was on the first floor. So, I said, forget the camera, let me just be in this moment. The camera cannot capture all the beauty that we experience!
RS: Sometimes we don’t have the time – or the opportunity – to read but the experience is shared when the screenwriter narrates it so vividly like you just did. And clearly you have the eye for details. We see this in all your stories. Also, as I have already mentioned, most of your stories are about women – as was the series you directed, Thoda Sa Aasman.
I was touched by the story, ‘Sisters’, about the two pre-teen siblings who live with their alcoholic father because their mother has left them. And the father decides to shave off their hair because it’s full of lice. And the agony the loss of hair causes – only a woman can realise what it is to be forcefully deprived of their hair! It’s not vanity, it’s something deeper, it’s the crowning glory of an Indian woman.
Deepti: Yes, this story is set in Joginder Nagar, a small place in remote Himachal Pradesh where my mother had lived. When the father shaves off all their hair, and they have to walk back bald-headed, they are so embarrassed. Everybody is staring at them, the other kids are jeering at them. These Pahari women had beautiful long hair and now they were takla munda, a shining bald pate! The humiliation of being heckled at, the agony, is too much.
RS: But even at that tender age, and in such a disturbed state, the girls are so sensitive! They plan to leave their father and go away to the city where he won’t find them…
Deepti: They try to take the last train at night and get away from the misery of facing their neighbours after the unbearable loss. But then they think of their father, so forlorn without them. One of them gets on the train, but the other says, “Wait… what if mother comes back?” So, they both stay back!
RS: But Deepti, there’s at least one story – ‘Bombay Central’ – which is entirely from the male perspective. It’s also happening primarily between two men. It’s not only a man’s point of view, it is a masculine experience too. How did you come by it? It was also the first story I read because, being born and bred in Bombay, I was lured by the title – I expected to see some of my city in it.
Deepti: I’d heard the story from an Assistant Director(AD) during one of my film projects. We were talking about who came to Bombay – now Mumbai — from where and how. This AD told me later, “I couldn’t bring it up in front of everyone, but I was only fifteen when I came to Bombay. And something strange happened…”
This boy was on the train coming from some place in Madhya Pradesh. Sitting across him in a starched white kurta-pyjama was this very proper slim man who kept looking at him, as if sizing him up. “Why is he staring away at me?” the boy started to wonder. As the train approached the Bombay Central station, the man started to make small talk with the boy. The conversation continued and when they alighted at the station, he brought the boy home.
The boy gets his first glimpse of Bombay, its downtown area, and is struck by it, and the house where he lands up. And through the night he spends there, he realises that he was brought home by the man for his wife! It so happens that she kind of seduces him – and he is made to sleep with her while the man is in the verandah across, lying on charpoy with his face the other way while the full thing happens here! The boy realises that he is probably impotent, but he loves his wife so much that he doesn’t want her to leave him… so he brought home a naïve young person who wouldn’t fight!
When I heard this, I felt I had to write it. I wrote some of it from imagination, building some of the description on what I was told – whatever he had conveyed to me… Yes, it is a male story!
RS: But as I finished reading it, I thought to myself, what if we change the gender? Would anyone be surprised if an elderly woman takes home a naïve young girl for her husband? I think we’ve all heard some such thing happening, being experienced so many years back and perhaps even now. But this was so startling, it reminded me of Roald Dahl.
I must mention two other things about the story. First, this is also happening on a monsoon night – the boy decides to stay in the man’s house because it is pouring when he arrives in a new city late in the night…
Deepti: Yeah! My stories are full of the Bombay monsoon! The rest are all in the pahar, mountains…
RS: The other thing is that the boy was also lured to the city by the moving images of the tinsel town on the silver screen. Of course, this guy was not coming to be an actor…
Deepti: No, he was coming to assist in filmmaking, to learn to eventually be a director and make his own movies…
RS: And what was the final resolution in life? Did he achieve his dream?
Deepti: Yeah, he became a filmmaker and made three-four decent films (laughs).
RS: Wonderful to know that Tinsel Town is not always heartbreaking, full of shattered dreams! Now, with A Country Called Childhood, we are in Amritsar…
Deepti: Yes, we will go there but before that – I will go back to my book of poems, Black Wind and Other Poems. There’s a section here called The Silent Scream. This came out of my curiosity, and deep interest in psychology and the aberrations of the so-called sane mind.
While I was writing these poems, I was also writing a script called Split. This was about an actor who gets a script where she has to play a mentally disturbed woman. I wrote about how the actor goes into that role for which she’s shooting in Ranchi. How she goes to the asylum, spends time in the women’s ward, comes to know some of them and imbibes all that into her work. But eventually her own ghosts start popping out from the closet – and in a cathartic moment she breaks down in front of the camera.
Yes, it turned out to be a dark script. Nobody wanted to put in money on a subject like this – so that got shelved. But what happened is that despite writing that script, there were many images that were floating around in my head, “this hasn’t been woven in… that too got left out…” Those came out in the form of these 22 poems.
What happened was, when I was shooting Hip Hip Hurray for Prakash (ex-husband Prakash Jha) I came to know that there’s a very big mental institution there – Ranchi Mansik Arogyashala.
At this time, I was offered a role by Amol Palekar in Ankahee where I play a girl who is slightly off the rocker. I told Amol, “I can’t do the scene – hallucinating, convulsing and all that. I need to see how some of the patients behave.” Amol said, “No no don’t – you’ll come up with all kinds of strange ideas.” But since I was in Ranchi, I decided to go. On one occasion, I went with Goutam Ghose – I wanted him to direct the film.
I went in planning to go there 2-3 days, and I spent 23 days. After the first four hours I spent there, I was so zapped, so enervated! I felt, “My god! Just one visit and I’m feeling so drained – what if I were to do an entire 30 days of shoot! What would it do to me as a person? And if an actor has to stay for 30 days in that character’s state of mind, would she remain unaffected? That was the seed of the script Split. The mirror image, but there’s a split.
So, I took permission and spent the whole day inside the ward, on the verandah with all the women. I came to know them at close quarters and ended up with a deeper understanding of their minds. Some of the women were clinically not even mad, but if someone came and wrote “her mind is not stable,” they can put you there. He can go frolicking and nobody comes to take the girls back. They can be excluded from property and everything, totally discarded. There were so many girls like that.
So, here’s a girl I used to watch every night. I’d be sitting in the verandah and she’d come out – I could see her trying to deal with herself…
She stands at one end of the verandah,
A naked bulb glows at the other end
Staining the dark floor with dull yellow light.
Beyond the empty ward
Drag echoes of the autumn night.
From pillar to pillar, in severe silence
Skulk slithering shadows.
Out alone in the cold she stands
Night after night
Fighting her demons!
Her body, frail and brittle,
Flaps leaf-like, on two glass feet.
The torched face, broken
Then tacked together, so bluntly
The ragged joints show.
Hounded eyes that do not blink
Frozen in a deathlike glaze.
Her fragile spirit, splintered.
These are not the features
She was born with.
This is the face we gave her.
Another poem is about a girl who’s different from the rest of us. She’s different, but delightfully confident. She has this flight of mind which the world doesn’t easily accept…
‘I’m DURGA! I’m KALI!
No one can conquer me!’
She pulled the crown off the idol’s head
And wore it on herself.
The crowds were aghast!
They swore at her,
Chased her with sticks, stones, screams…
But she slipped into the wilds
Flying beyond their reach.
At the magic hour
When sun and rain dazzle the earth,
She danced and skipped,
Jumped and leaped,
Chasing a single rainbow…
Light-footed, she glided
Through the celestial landscape
Wearing her cheap silver crown
She tripped the light, luminous.
“I am DURGA! I am KALI!”
A frog leapt in the slush –
She lunged towards it, caught it!
Croaky frog twitching in her left hand
Stick in the right,
A tinsel crown aslant her forehead
She was one with the elements.
With earth, with sky, with slush,
With trees, with breeze…
Dancing! Mesmerising her Gods!
Her laughter gurgled in the wind
Her feet spinning the good earth.
And then the villagers got her.
Caught her by her feet
Dragged her through the sludge.
Frog, stick, crown dragged behind,
Straggled on the muddy track.
‘She’s too dangerous to be left free!’
They signed on a piece of paper,
Dumped her in the loony bin,
Wiped the vermilion off her forehead
Chopped the long black hair
Razed it to scalp
Locked her behind the solid grill.
Left her squalling, on the cold dank floor.
Now, when the sky is overcast
And the earth is wet and brown,
She walks down the courtyard,
Blue-templed and dead-eyed,
The cardboard crown trails behind her,
None make a sound.
There’s another aspect to this. I was working on the script, taking notes, talking to the women. And there was one girl, she was mad on seeing me there. She was livid, she just didn’t want me there. She would come up and tell me, “Chiriya ghar hai kya? Is this a zoo? Ka dekhne aaye ho, tamasa? Have you come to see a spectacle?”
I knew what she was feeling. She thought – and it wasn’t tamasha, people just walk in to see us, “What are we? Creatures to be stared at?” She would confront me whenever she got a chance. Her state of mind I have tried to put down in this poem which is addressed to me – the so-called sane world.
THE STENCH OF SANITY
There’s something rotten inside of you.
In your flesh, the stench of sanity!
It breathes in your eyes, this thing…
Something decadent in your flesh
It will be too late,
You will die of it.
This thing that sleeps with you
Night after night,
Like an ageing wanton woman,
Spent, but not quite spent.
And she waits for you to dump her
In some dark street corner.
Yet she follows you, drunken whore!
There’s no getting away for you
You will die of it,
This thing, that breathes…
Inside of you, in your flesh
The stench of sanity!
The anthology Black Wind got its name from the lovely poem of that name. That was at a time when everything I was going through was dark. Between 1990 and 1995, I was going through depression, and suicidal attacks. It’d come every 20-25 days and I had to fight it. And I did!
One has gone through all kinds of ups and downs in personal life, so my poems are autobiographical. There’s not much to hide – nothing that I am embarrassed of, nothing that needs camouflage. What I was reluctant to talk about, that is also in this new book, so I’m very comfortable with myself now.
RS: So now it is time for celebration… We’re about to enter A Country Called Childhood. What made you think of this title?
Deepti: I was writing and sharing my chapters with my editor, David Davidar of Aleph Book Company. Somewhere I’d written a sentence that these were the sound, the smell, the feel of a country where I grew up, a country called ‘Childhood’. He caught on to that phrase and said, “This will be the title of your book.”
Yes, childhood is a country where we’ve all been and at some point, we leave that country – ‘that museum of innocence’, as Goutam Ghose just mentioned – for good. And we leave with no return ticket! We only live with the memories of that place.
RS: Surely your childhood was in an actual geographical landscape?
Deepti: My entire childhood was spent in Amritsar. That’s where I was till I turned 19, then I went to America. But all the 18 years until then had been spent in Amritsar and growing up there left vivid imprints in my mind. The rest of it I’m a little vague. Sometimes a colleague says, “Arre we were there in such-n-such festival, together we did this, or that.” And I think, “This person remembers all this so distinctly, but I don’t!” But my childhood I remember.
The first four chapters were written 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been jotting down even the smallest incident that comes back at odd moments. Later on, I would recall it and write it the way I remember it.
Then of course there was this whole element of research. Because family history se jo suni-sunai baat hai — all that I’d heard or was part of family lore — had to be cross-checked to make sure they have a foothold on the ground. There was a lot on the Partition, there was the Japanese Invasion of Burma during WWII when my mother’s family walked over the Assam Hills and came into India over months. All these stories rooted in historical events needed cross checking.
And looking for photographs! From whichever source I could think of, any relative I met, I’d say, “Aunty you must be having some pictures? Please look for them!” “Y-e-s, there are some lying somewhere upstairs!” I’d coax them and chase them and get them to bring down the suitcase from the attic or wherever, dust it, tease them out of envelopes… And if I saw anything that was of interest to me, I’d plead, “Give this to me, I’ll get it professionally scanned… and cleaned!”
This went on endlessly. Off and on, I was also involved in [film] shootings. Only when the publisher came into the picture some five years ago that I said to myself, “Now this is a project, I have to complete it before I do anything else.” I did a couple of web series and a film too, but these were a distraction for me. I was dying to get back to the book. Because when you’re writing, if you do anything else, it takes so much more effort to pick up from where you left. Woh wapas itni aasani se nahin hota — it’s not easy to get back to the same state of mind. It’s a discipline I have to learn from people like Atul (Tiwari) here. Sai (Paranjpye) also has written her memoirs — A Patchwork Quilt, is a wonderful book. Sai’s the sole reason for people knowing me as Miss Chamko – that’s why my writing has been overshadowed by my on-screen essays (smiles).
RS: Is there anything on Sai in A Country Called Childhood?
Deepti: No, my next book will have a huge chunk on Sai. This is only about my childhood. I started to write it as a homage to my parents. But it took me so long to finish this book, they have both gone. That’s the only thing that’ll hurt me about this book.
RS: Are you a single child?
Deepti: No, I have an older sister and a younger brother in America.
RS: So what will you read out to us today?
Deepti: Let me read the opening of my book. I’ve tried to recreate my childhood as vividly as possible, the way I remember it visually. And I want the reader to come with me… through my childhood.
Prologue — Reading by Deepti Naval
Memory rushes back. At times it pulls me by my finger, eggs me on, saying, “Come, let’s go inside those dark chambers where you stood in the light, rejoicing a life yet to unfold.”
It’s getting dark in the city of Amritsar. Shops are shutting down, street lamps come on, casting dim, yellow light. Rickshaws and bicycles hustle to make their way home. A handcart loaded with gunny bags wobbles down the street. Even Dwarka’s wine shop is closing. The old salwar tailor pulls his rickety shutter down, gets on his bicycle and paddles away. Shahani’s voice can be heard – she’s urging her buffaloes home. Grubby little boys, the mochis, play outside in the gully and behind the threshold of the phatak, the big iron gate, two little sister, Bobby and Dolly go about their lives…
This scene seems like it is from hundreds of years ago but it actually dates back to the year 1956. It’s one of my earliest memories, in which I’m almost four years old. It’s the street I remember the most, the street on which I lived.
So now I go into third person and I see myself there.
A litte girl darts out of a house, crying, “I want to go to my Mamma.”
“Your Mamma has gone to the cinema. You get in here at once.”
“I will also go to the cinema,” she retorts and runs down the street.
Suddenly something stirs in the air. There’s a muffled grunt in the sky and the breeze changes. The sky turns red. Tin sheds begin to flap and rattle. The smell of wind on earth. It’s a dust storm. Stray pieces of paper littering the ground outside the book binders shop fly up and float in the air. Bicycles fall in a slow, studied motion along the wall of the cinema hall. The wooden shutter of Gyan Halwai’sshop tilts and slips out of its clamp. He stands with his arms outstretched, holding it with all his malai lassi strength against the wind, his lungi threatening to fly off. A rickshaw puller pedals backwards and sideways. The world seems to slant at the edges. Dust storms the streets.
My Sardi’s voice cuts through the mayhem. “Stop, I say. Get back girl. It’s dark!” she yells.
The girl is not coming back. She runs all the way to the end of the street and suddenly finds herself in the middle of Katra Sher Singh Chowk in front of the Regent Talkies, surrounded by huge cinema posters. The posters begin to tear from the whiplash of the wind. Sarr… sarr… sarr… faces of actors and actresses fold up and slap against the dry whitewash of the decrepit cinema.
Unable to keep her eyes open from the dust, wind and tears, the little girl hides her face in her sleeve. At her feet swirl particles of dust-torn scraps of paper; bright orange and pink trimmings from the tailor’s shop gather momentum. She stands still for a while, watching the little merry-go-round go around her dotted booties, until her eyes fall upon something.
Across the street, the Plotwala is doing a Tandav. He’s the skinny man who sells little leaflets with the plot and songs of Hindi films printed on them. A strong gust wisps away the sepia-coloured leaflets from his hands and flings them into the wind. They soar in the air, going up and up in circles, dodging the poor man’s attempts to retrieve them. Tossed into the wind, the yellowed sheets somersault, now diving to his feet, now rising as if in sudden applause. He leaps and plunges by the side of the road, flapping his arms around, hurling himself at the musical notes. One leap slips into two and two into four till the songs dance above his gaunt, lanky frame. He dances with the songs, the poor Plotwala, trying in vain to hang on to his only means of livelihood as it slips away into grainy air.
No one notices the little girl as she stands in the middle of the road, enthralled by the dance of songs. Her large eyes filled with tears but she forgets to cry.
“There you are Marjani!” – my Sardi steps forward, scoops me…Now I’m back to first person: … scoops me in one sweeping movement, lodges me onto her hip, strides down the street, puts me back inside the house where I belong.
As we enter, my grandmother rises from a chair, pointing a finger at me, “No little girls from good homes go out to cinemas on the street.”
Excerpted from A Country Called Childhood by Deepti Naval
RS: One question in the mind of those who’ve been hearing you: Is poetry closer to your heart, than prose/ fiction?
Deepti: Writing is close to my heart. I look at life through both. I’m always looking for the little things that make life so interesting. At the end of the day, I would like to be known as an artist. Somebody who just felt compelled to express herself any which way, whichever form comes in front of me. Work is joyous, interesting work more so.
RS: One of our listeners here feels that the actor in you is talking when you are writing – because your writing is very vivid and visual. Does it come from your experience as an actor? Do you pay greater attention to details in life because you have to act?
Deepti: I think being an actor does train us to observe life. And when you notice something, you grab that and keep it somewhere in your emotional reservoir – perhaps for future use! But as a child too, I was very observant. I used to observe my mother very keenly. So yes, looking into the shadows helps me be Miss Chamko, and definitely it helps me in my writing.
RS: So which expression is more satisfying to the artist in you – acting or writing?
Deepti: It is immensely satisfying for me to put down something in writing. Because, as an actor I’m carrying to the audience a concept that is the director’s, and the writer’s. Then there’s an editor there who has put it together in the best way to take the emotion of the moment to the audience. I’m a tool in chiseling the portrait – Miss Chamko – that people love…
But we – artists — continually interpret life through our work. Even acting. Acting isn’t a camouflage either, you have to bare yourself, your inner self. There’s no work that is not autobiographical. Writing is perhaps more so.
 Translates from Hindi as ‘Awakening’. This is the name of the festival in Simla in June where Deepti Naval’s book was launched in 2022 June.
 Film based on Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons (1978), set in 1857 against the backdrop of the revolt.
 The forest where Rama built a hut and stayed during his exile in Ramayana
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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