A YouTube Channel I put together of video coverage from Kashmir for Tehelka (2010-2011)
An interview with Manu Joseph from Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, for Tehelka
An interview with Manu Joseph on literature and journalism from Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011, for Tehelka
An interview with Junot Diaz at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2011 for Tehelka
At 22, when he should have been saddling up to ride into success charted for him in his years as a mathematics student in Yale, Anjan Sundaram decided to leave for Congo “to try to be a journalist”. In Stringer, his account of the year and a half spent in the African country, there is little to explain why. All he tells us is that he left “in a sort of rage, a searing emotion”. The circumstances of his departure are sketchy and yet they set the tone of the travel- the mysterious anxiety he felt in America (“The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself-revealing a core of crisis.”) follows him though his journey. The difficult goodbye he bids his professor lingers in the many bonds he forms while traveling- bonds he must break before he has had a chance to fully understand them.
Later in the book, Sundaram mentions a journalist’s secretary in New York who gave him a magazine interview of Ryszard Kapuscinski. “On his travels something surprised him; he never saw a writer,” says Sundaram of the Polish writer. “When Kapuscinski returned to Europe, he said, he found the writers in their homes, writing stories about the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage…”. Decades later, Sundaram left the intimate and the familiar to make a journey uncannily similar to Kapuscinski’s. With little resources and contacts, he arrived in Congo and took up a job as a stringer for AP. From outside he looked into the world of foreign correspondents quite unlike him- comfortable and confident in their plush, insulated digs, completely incongruous with Congo’s burgeoning turmoil. Sundaram had no place to retreat to once the day was done- he was forced to live with and amidst his subjects- like Kapuscinski would say, live the story.
Sundaram, not given to Kapuscinski’s surefooted bravado, took smaller, more hesitant steps towards inhabiting the forest of things he was to write about; led more often by his growing attachment and obligations to the Congolese family he was living with than his appetite for adventure. His voice is of an everyday traveller’s, neither authoritative, nor baroque. He is a relentless observer, taking in every last detail and committing it to memory (or a notebook, as the case maybe); stringing perfectly ordinary moments till larger, invisible pictures begin to emerge, marking a historical era as it turns.
But Stringer is not just the story of the ‘dark heart’ of a continent that has endlessly fascinated writers like Conrad, Kapuscinski and Naipaul. It is also the anatomy of journalism, laid bare. The backstory of the making, reception and politics of news. Much of what we read in the book is what Sundaram thinks and feels in the process of gathering news. The brief newspaper report that carried Sundaram’s interview with a militia man, General Mathieu, could never do justice to the fantastic story of how he managed to procure that interview and how he conducted it- letting his reader into the fine, often sub-conscious, mind game that goes on between the interviewer and interviewee.
As a stylist Sundaram moves deftly between exuberance and economy creating a space for his reader to experience life in Congo very immediately, even if it isn’t as easy to make sense of it.
The maze of pillage, poverty, violence, cannibalism, colonialism and disease is unfathomable. What remains with you are the people who take Sundaram through this maze. He does not see them as ‘the others’. His objective gaze does not preclude an easy kinship even with the most unlikely of characters. It is this easy kinship that lies at the heart of Sundaram’s portrait of Congo. Perhaps, it is a function of Sundaram’s own layered identity- as an Indian who grew up in the partly in the middle-east and studied in the USA, that he does not take the identity of others for granted. The people in this book are foremost people- not stereotypes who reinforce a conveniently grotesque narrative of Africa.
In this, the book is also a sign of the times. Unlike his predecessors, Sundaram is writing in an increasingly globalised world, where the power structures are slowly but steadily shifting, as is the preeminence of colonialism; where Internet and social networks are making accessible what was previously considered ‘dark’ and unknowable. In Sundaram’s portrait Congo is not a mysterious and awe-inspiring nether land. It is a difficult place but not more or less unique than other places. Sundaram manages to present Congo as part of the story of the world we live in. Where you might find generalisations in other accounts of Africa, you are likely to find impressionism in Sundaram’s.
The picture you see of Congo in this book bears the imprints of the author’s emotional responses. You travel with him to Bunia from Kinshasa, out to where the war is and struggle to understand its meaning, its nature, like he does. His “first understanding of the war would come at some distance from” the “instruments of violence”- in the displacement and restless transience that become palpable in the silence of the makeshift settlements in Bunia’s poor quarters. His eventual disillusionment with the way things shape up post the historic 2006 elections, feels personal, and therefore compassionate. He is disappointed as political machinations defeat hope, ideologues reveal themselves to be corrupt, and the people return to a life of misery and denial. But his true despair comes from being holed up in a factory as street battles between the electoral parties consume the city. Trying desperately to find someone who will help him leave the country, Sundaram becomes the inadvertent chronicler of a war everyone else has fled from. Once again, calling to mind, Kapuscinski and his proclivity to travel to and stay behind in places all other journalists were likely to ignore or abandon.
Sundaram does not reference or discuss any books or material he might have read on Congo. He does not respond, in this account, to the writers that have walked this path before him. You might find yourself wishing he had if you recall these earlier journeys, if only to understand the impulse of writers, artists and filmmakers to adapt, recreate and pay homage to the masters; to appreciate what it feels like to stand on the shoulder of giants and see a different view from theirs. New Journalism is no longer new, neither is New Literature; but with Stringer, Sundaram proves himself to be a worthy successor to both their legacies.
(This review was first published in The Dawn Herald)
To read Ismat Chughtai is to give in to a peculiar and mighty joy that rises from the wellspring of the examined life. Her biography A Life In Words, translated most naturally and effectively by M. Asaduddin from a collection of essays in Urdu, reads rather disjointedly. It does not sequentially narrate what would be considered the main events of her life, and even though the translator is apologetic about this in his introduction, it might be the best thing about the book.
Ismat’s account of her life follows the dream-like pattern of our own reveries- where memories play in random order linked inexplicably through feelings, songs, smells and colours. We get an impressionistic picture of her world- a form she used perhaps more consciously while writing her short stories. But then fact and fiction are inseparable in Ismat’s context. She wrote like she lived- impulsively, rebelliously, joyously- questioning the order of things, honing her intellect and submitting to her insatiable spirit.
The book feels rather like a night-long conversation- meandering, taking unexpected turns, going back, then hurtling forward, now melancholic and suddenly gregarious. This, again, is reminiscent of her fiction. She writes, “When I wrote I imagined my readers sitting before me. I talked and they listened.” And the reason we have been listening enraptured for decades is apparent when you read this book.
Chughtai did not fuss over her writerly self. There are barely a couple of lines on her process in her memoir. The rest of it is dedicated to the recurring themes and subjects of her fiction- her times, her life and its people. Chughtai thought of herself as an opinionated storyteller. She wields the same deft scalpel on her family and her psyche as she does on her fictional characters. There is little retrospective lens adjustment as she looks back at her ideals, impressions, battles, prejudices, guilt, grief and mischief. The account of her trial on charges of obscenity for writing the short story Lihaaf and her fleeting romance with Zafar Quaraishi Zia are as wonderfully entertaining as revealing. They capture equally her bravura and the farcical strictures of her society.
But the real heroes of this book are ordinary women who occupied her life and her mind. Women whose existence comes to life briefly, in fragments- folk songs, recipes, rituals and embroideries before they are lost forever. Women who are denied their part in the external world but have robust, fascinating interior lives. Chughtai, who recounts hilariously her rebellion against the burkha, yanks the veil off the interior lives of women.
That is not to say for a minute that her stories are dry, self-serious or tiresome. Chugtai’s social commentary floats blithely on her rippling wit and inventive language. She does not set herself up as an advocate of women’s rights, nor apologises for them. Nor is she confined by the doctrines and motivations of the feminist movement of her times. In another context she says, “There is something in me that militates against putting faith in anyone uncritically, however great an intellectual he may be.”
Chughtai’s feminist statement is greater than her struggle for freedom to live on her own terms- to study, have a career and marry a man of her choice. It is truly manifested in her struggle to free her mind and speak it at all costs. To read this book is to taste that freedom, to relish a juicy family saga, to match the characters from her life to the ones in her books, to find an inimitable account of the romantic and eccentric social history of Raj era India and to really just have a very good time.
When I went to see Abhijeet Singh in November 2011, I knew just one thing about him—he had worn a coat made of gold to his grandiose winter wedding in December 2010. The coat (called an achkan)—a feat in couture—was designed by his maternal uncle and one of India’s best-known designers- Raghavendra Rathore. I was there to find out more- How would gold be used in a coat? How would such a coat be made? Why would someone want to commission it? In a country of impossible contradictions what does wearing a golden achkan say about a person, beyond what can be inferred by its cost alone? The answer to the last question lies in how Abhijeet Singh and Raghavendra Rathore’s ancestral past is reflected in their present lives, and how they use it to shape their futures. My quest to understand the meaning of the Golden Achkan took me to a place where design celebrates the insatiable desire of haute couture to create exquisite, exclusive perfection, and becomes uniquely Indian by crossing over into the realm of Rajput legacy.
Sitting across the table with 39-year-old Singh, it was hard to relate my image of a man in a gaudy golden coat with him. He is coy and laidback with impeccable manners and a very bright smile. Simply clad in a smart, casual navy blue T-shirt and jeans, he tells me that he is particular about what he wears but not brand conscious. He is just as particular about time he says, pausing the conversation while the waiter pours our coffees. His preferred coffee shop—Emperor’s Lounge is dignified and understated. It is located in The Taj Mahal Hotel that prides itself on its address—Number One Mansingh Road- a road that runs through the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the seat of Indian democracy but ironically, is named after Maharaja Mansingh of Jaipur—a dynasty related to Abhijeet’s forefathers by marriage.
The story of Abhijeet Singh’s ancestry runs alongside modern Indian history. His paternal grandfather, Tribhuvan Prasad Singh, was an ICS officer, India’s first finance secretary, and a landlord from the Kachhawa clan of the Rajputs. During the heydays of the freedom struggle, Tribhuvan’s home in Bihar hosted leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. Rumour has it that his landholdings were so prodigious that the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, 1976 was enacted with specifically him in mind. Whether or not the rumour is true Abhijeet’s father, Nand Kishore Singh had to bring up his children in a place where being from a noble family did not automatically entitle you to privilege any more. He embraced the new ways of a young democracy and went on to carve a place for himself in it. a postgraduate from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics and a teacher of Economics at the equally prestigious St Stephen’s College, He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1964 and has ever since held some of the most powerful public posts in the country as a Member of Parliament, a finance secretary of the Planning Commission and an Officer on Special Duty at the Prime Minister’s Office. He has also distinguished himself as an economist and is very well connected in the corporate sector.
Abhijeet’s maternal grandfather, Maharaj Hari Singh, from the Rathore dynasty of Rajputs, was the brother of Maharaja Hanwant Singh, who was the ruler of the princely state of Jodhpur at the time of its accession to the Indian Union in 1947. In 1952, dissatisfied with the state of the Indian Union, he contested the general elections, dying in a mysterious plane crash on the very day he was declared the winner. Hari Singh died young, too, but he lived a full life, one of the highlights of which was his wedding in 1947—an affair as grand as Rajputana had ever seen, recorded at length in National Geographic. On this momentous day, Hari Singh wore a coat made of gold.
Decades later, in November 2010, his grandson commissioned a wedding coat just like the one worn by Hari Singh.” But while Hari Singh’s golden coat had blended seamlessly with the pageantry of his era, the meaning of Abhijeet Singh’s anachronistic achkan has been complicated by all that has since come to pass.
In the year that Hari Singh was married, the amalgam of 565 princely states and British India made way for a federal democracy based on socialist ideals. Barely a quarter-century later, the last ceremonial import of subcontinental royalty ended when monarchical titles and privy purses were abolished in 1971.
Abhijeet Singh, like his parents, married at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the spectacular, Art Deco, gold-hued, layered-sandstone, 26-acre residential premises of the erstwhile rulers of Jodhpur, which is, with its 347 rooms, one of the world’s largest private homes. A part of the palace was converted to a hotel in 1972 to raise money for its gargantuan maintenance. Unlike when Singh’s parents were married with exclusivist pomp, 64 rooms and suites can today be rented out by, and to, anybody who is willing to pay a nightly minimum of `28,000 for a ‘Historical’ single-bed to `660,000 for a ‘Grand Presidential’ single-bed.
“The crucial difference between then and now is that now everyone fancies a king’s lifestyle,” says Singh, “and has access to it.”
Despite the faint undertone of nostalgia in this comment, it is apparent that Singh is firmly rooted in the present. The St Stephen’s College and Columbia University alumnus is a successful first-generation entrepreneur. Having begun his career as an investment banker with Merrill lynch and goldman sachs he went on to start a firm trading in chemicals and gradually expanded his business to include the manufacture of automobile parts. He has recently invested in the education sector by building private schools.
When Singh speaks of his lineage, he betrays no air of superiority, only a sense of belonging. His idea of his legacy is intensely personal, even reserved. He is as reluctant to discuss the values he grew up with as he is to name the cars he has in his collection. Why, then, would he choose to get married in a coat so ostentatious? I think of his observation above as soon as I ask myself this question. As Singh pointed out, the meaning of India’s royal past has been reduced to an aspirational lifestyle. When almost everybody wants to live like royalty, how does the actual blue-blood of yore conjure up its own style? Moreover—to borrow from Oscar Wilde—how do you create a thing of true worth in a world populated by cynics “who [know] the price of everything and the value of nothing”? Singh’s quest led him to his maternal uncle and designer Raghavendra Rathore from the dynasty of the former rulers of Jodhpur- who has inherited the title of ‘Maharaj’ from his father but does now use it—and he enthusiastically agreed to craft the precious achkan.
Ancient Rajput custom dictates that the material for the groom’s attire is to be gifted by the bride’s family. Supportive of Abhijeet’s desire to pay homage to his grandfather’s legacy at his wedding, his future in-laws from the erstwhile kingdom of Idar (now Himmatnagar in Gujarat) dug out an heirloom: an 80-year-old length of cloth made of gold thread.
Raghavendra Rathore was faced with the tricky task of working with this old, fragile, valuable material. Reinforcing it was the first of many challenges. He sought out artisans from Varanasi whose ancestors had spun the cloth for Hari Singh and entrusted them with the task of strengthening the weave. But the expertise had apparently dissipated over the years. “The result was ghastly,” says Rathore’s, and he had to begin work anew. This time, he got artisans from Jaipur and Old Delhi to work on building heft into the brocade—adding new gold-thread weave to the old; all the while keeping a close watch to ensure that the tones match. The paan, or motif, and the borders were embroidered separately and then appliquéd on to the finished brocade. Rathore replicated the entire process of embroidery to ensure that the final patterns were nothing short of perfect. Once the gold fringes had been added to finish and tack the paan and borders, the achkan was ready to be cut and stitched into shape.
Greater challenges awaited him at this final stage. Rathore had to modernise not just the look and finish of the achkan but also its fit. Hari Singh’s original was worn tight, almost like a second skin, in keeping with the trend of the times. A fit like that could only be carried off by a man with a bevy of attendants to run his errands while he maintained a perpendicular propriety. Singh’s achkan, on the other hand, had to be tailored to his body shape, with ample room at the back for movement. But so difficult was this material that despite precise measurements, it ended up looking like a gladiator’s costume in the first fitting.
The cut apart, Rathore also worked on making the achkan as comfortable as possible—with Singh’s feedback during trials. Several versions later, the achkan finally emerged as Singh and Rathore wanted it.
Not many clients would volunteer to dress in a fabric like this, explains Rathore. But Singh was quite literally up to shouldering the weight of his legacy. Weighing over eight kilos, the achkan was not the easiest thing to wear. Rathore could not help being a tad nervous. Engineering this jacket had been nothing short of a nail-biting adventure—coordinating the whole process over different cities and workshops, guarding the precious raw material against theft and destruction, and racing to tie it all up on time.
But the trial wasn’t over yet. Getting on and off a horse was just one of the many tricky rituals the groom had to perform gracefully in his suit on the wedding day. Rathore watched over him carefully. Even as the man of the moment slipped into a vintage Buick beige-and-maroon convertible that was the pace car for his baraat—wedding party, Rathore leapt to pull the achkan from under Singh to prevent it from stretching and possibly tearing on the awkwardly designed seats.
From its conceptualisation to this timely save, the achkan fulfilled every possible meaning of ‘haute couture’—its creation setting a new benchmark for high-end bespoke made-to-order designer wear. But as with Singh, Rathore’s idea of this coat was larger than the straightforward idea of haute couture.
Rathore is a serious, handsome man—polite, but withdrawn. Style was always an integral part of Rathore’s sense of his legacy. His great-grandfather- Maharaja Sardar Singh, who ruled Jodhpur from 1895 to 1911, had an out-of-the-box personal style that was widely emulated. He re-designed the way the turban was worn, with the longer tail and more distinct and neat pleats in the front- a distinct style now associated with Jodhpur. The strikingly handsome king drew his sartorial inspirations from literature in Persian- the court language of the state in those days. Rathore grew up on stories of Sardar Singh, and was witness to his extended family’s indefatigable love of design—architectural, scientific and personal. But the 44-year-old designer was made aware very early in life that he would inhabit a world vastly different from the one he was born into. In the early 1970s, after the Indian government controversially abolished royal titles and privy purses, the extended nobility felt the heat of a new world that was forging itself rather forcefully. It was in those trying times that Rathore’s father, Maharaj Swaroop Singh, who he speaks of a lot, made him see that he would have to find his own way. On a visit to a Coca-Cola factory, he drew his son’s attention to how packaging and branding could turn a dark, vile-looking, fizzy liquid into an object of desire. It was an observation that Rathore has held on to. Swaroop Singh also encouraged his son to stay in touch with village life in India, even after the latter moved to Parsons School of Design in New York. There, Rathore led a very different life to the one he was used to. He did the sort of odd jobs that might well be considered below par for nobility.
New York shaped Rathore’s idea of fashion. But it was at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, where his ancestors had lived for centuries, that Rathore hosted his first solo show. This show set the tone for the future of his brand. Soon, Rathore would bring the quintessential Jodhpur attire of bandhgalas and breeches to the ramp. But as in life, so in design, Rathore has always interpreted tradition in his own way. His signature style has neither subscribed to the gilded aesthetic lazily associated with Indian royalty, nor the bright colour palate ascribed to Rajasthan. Yet he has never stopped looking for ways to bring back weaves, cuts and fabrics from pre-Independence India. One could have expected that when Rathore turned to gold it would be for a reason.
Indian design is almost as difficult to define as the idea of India. Innumerable influences have merged seamlessly to form its complex and yet uncharted DNA within which lies the invaluable blueprint of Indian history. The contribution of Indian royalty to the evolution of both history and design is by no means paltry. From the humble sari to not-so-humble jewellery—royals provided inspiration for dressing at home and popularised Indian designs abroad. The passion behind it was lost to the winds that swept away their political power and economic stability. Many of these royals languished—some rather pathetically, having failed to reinvent their lives. Abhijeet Singh and Raghavendra Rathore are among those who made it through unscathed. Both of them speak of the future and its boundless promises with infectious enthusiasm, but they also speak of rebuilding the severed bridge that can connect it to the bequest of the past.
The Golden Achkan is a glittering beacon of this dream. The methodology of its making, now perfected, is being applied to clothes and products that Rathore’s design house is creating. By modernising a vintage design, Rathore is not just keeping his past alive but also seeking to make it available to designers and historians of the future.
For Singh, the significance of this achkan is, largely, personal. His eyes glaze over with emotion when he talks about it. It is a symbol of familial intimacy, a marker of his identity and a tangible piece of his past. Singh believes that the creation of legacy is the hallmark of success and he is looking forward to handing over the achkan to his children one day, along with the stories that come with it. What his detractors might make of its ostentation does not bother him.
He says that it is impossible for him to think of the Golden Achkan as a monetary investment. In fact, neither he nor Rathore can tell me how much the coat is worth; they say that there is no record of how much was spent on it, given that both the material and the design services were inhouse, so to speak.
Abhijeet is now focused on preserving the golden achkan. His grandfather’s jacket was destroyed over time and he is determined that his will not meet the same fate. “If it were to catch fire,” he says, “all that would remain is a heap of gold.”
(Originally appears in Caravan Style and Living)