Sunday, December 11, 2022

Two new poems

I have two poems out in a special edition of the Portside Review, focused on what is 'Endangered'. Editor Sampurna Chattarji picked two very different poems though they are thematically linked in that they look at danger from different perspectives.

In ‘The sky fails to fall’, I address the destruction implicit in a lack of consequence. What if the skies don’t fall when they should? There are events that should stop us in our tracks, freeze our blood. There are conditions under which we should become dysfunctional and refuse to conduct business as usual. If we don’t, those destructive conditions become stronger, and yet, that happens so rarely. The skies do not fall even as, metaphorically speaking, the sky is actually falling.

The other poem is a sort of list or litany and it derives from my current research on 'witches' in South Asia. While mine is a literary project, I have been reading some anthropology too. In Witch Hunts: Culture, Patriarchy and Structural Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2020), Govind Kelkar and Dev Nathan argue that a witch-hunt enforces or reinforces patriarchy.‘I found a witch’ is a ‘found’ poem series that draws directly from Kelkar and Nathan’s work. It foregrounds women who were ‘hunted’, weaving together key phrases that jumped out at me into compact micro-narratives, citing only the barest facts. Part of the reason I adopted this style was the need to emphasize the violence and the motivations behind witchcraft accusations, and partly because the psychological terror, the isolation, and the heartbreaking betrayals were already present. I have tried to write so that the women might confront readers more directly.

You can read both poems here:

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Current research

Many of you do not know but over the past year, I've gone back to studies. I'm in the second year of a PhD (English Studies/Creative Writing) at Durham University in the UK. (Please hold your congratulations until I've actually finished doing this; send good luck and fortitude instead). It has been over two decades since I was a scholar and I was rather nervous about my own aptitude viz academic reading and writing. I am mainly a practitioner and a background in journalism teaches you something about research but it does not involve quite the same degree of immersion in one topic and any analysis you offer doesn't have to be supported/evidenced to the same extent. Doctoral research, even if you do it via artistic practice, is different. I've made it past the one year mark, so I thought I should let more people know. Some of you have been reaching out, inviting me to places and events now that things are opening up again after the Covid-19 situation. Or asking me to read and review or blurb books and I have not been able to do much because there is SO MUCH reading to do towards my own research.

In case you're wondering, I'm looking at the figure of the witch in contemporary South Asian fiction, and starting to feel like I do know something about it. In case you're also wondering, unlike an MFA, a creative writing PhD is not geared towards the production of a novel or a collection of poetry. One submits some creative work but it is research based, AND a critical thesis that contextualizes the research, provides a theoretical framework for it either within the field or across disciplines where necessary.

When I started to apply, someone had asked me: why do you need to do this? Need is the wrong word, of course. I want to do this. I've just never been able to afford it before. I have applied and been accepted twice before, at a Masters' programme in the UK when I was in my early 20s and then an MFA programme in the USA in my late 20s. But there was no money, not even enough money to defer admission and to reapply the next year for more scholarships, or to take a year off just to build a stronger application. I was determined not to ask anyone else, not even my own family, for that much money. So it took me much longer. It was during the pandemic that I finally began to clear my head and think about how far I've come and how much further I want to go, and what kinds of things I want to work on in the future.

A PhD is very hard work; it is not the same as starting a new literary project. There are days when I am physically exhausted from trying to understand yet another chapter or theory. However, if you want to go back to studies after a long break, I recommend you do so. Here, I am relieved to notice some grey heads and harried parents of teenagers at conferences and seminars. It is good to be free of that nonsense about 'Why are they still in university?' Education is for everyone and research especially (in my view) gets more interesting when you have some experience of the world. I feel better prepared to undertake my research now, with more confidence and curiosity than when I was in my 20s.

Friday, November 11, 2022

On Reading Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

What a thing it is to discover a good book decades after it has been written! I wonder why nobody told me to read Sara Suleri's Meatless Days before? There were so many South Asian, especially diasporic, novels discussed over the last twenty years but not once did I hear anyone say: if you just want to look at good writing -- experimental writing that defies assumptions of genre -- read Meatless Days. I am both moved and startled by it. Some of the sentences are of such a sensory quality that I find myself wanting to lick them off the page (I don't actually do that. I don't! Really, I don't!). The language is a felt one, communicating itself with such a sharp metaphorical edge at times, it is like a new flavour on the tongue; at other times, it engages my literary senses with a sweet viscosity.

On the other hand, I am glad that I did not read this book before I wrote my own Bread, Cement, Cactus for it may have influenced the style in which I attempted a memoir of belonging and home, and this would not have been a good thing. Suleri's book is, in its own way, a sort of reaching for home but I needed to write a very different kind of memoir. I needed to grasp home as a sociocultural and political concept rather than reach for it within my own heart.

Suleri wrote a memoir that does something other than giving us a story about a well-known person, that opening of social doors and letting secrets spill, or even an account of living in a particular place at a particular time, taking us on a journey with a character with all their trials. Instead, it tells us what an emotional life is constructed of, using emotional tools that must be fashioned with one's own hands and memories so that, in the end, we are left with the author's heart rather than an account of her days. It is a memoir of love, not an account of relationships but a cloudy distillate in memory.

I did get tripped up sometimes by the language of the academic that sits within the writer. She uses 'discourse' instead of conversation or talk but she uses the term precisely, letting it describe an environment. A person can turn into a discourse, within himself or for the people in his life, or on account of a particular way of living and writing, seeing and refusing to see. She uses the word casually, but conscious of its possibilities. It is a pity she didn't write more fiction; I would have liked to see what she did with it but perhaps it is just as well. I think I will look out for her other book, also a personal narrative by the sound of it.

In the meantime, I leave you with these brief bits, where she talks about 'sentences' and her relationship with them from her earliest days, and the way she recalls her late mother and elder sister.

Monday, November 07, 2022

After Sappho: a review

Spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story introduces the reader to women who rejected factory and homestead and immersed themselves in classical poetry, plays, novels, pamphlets, paintings, dancing. The performers among them responded to contemporary works such as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Oscar Wilde’s Salome, while others such as Colette, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf wrote their own novels and plays.

Living in France, Italy, Greece or England, many of these women had privileges associated with a middle- or upper-class background. Apart from one named working-class character—Berthe Cleryrergue, a housekeeper who wrote a memoir about the years she spent working for Natalie Barney—most characters appear to be women of some means. They are able to host and attend salons in Paris or travel across the continent, to Lesbos or Capri. They refuse to slip easily into the robes of obedient wives and mothers, and if they cannot flee, they subvert the norms of heterosexual marriage.

Yet, this is not a novel about privilege though it does draw attention to the nature of privilege through the prism of gender. After all, what privilege does a businessman’s daughter have if her father simply hands her over to her rapist? What does privilege mean if you have no say in the workings of the nation, no matter how educated you are or how ignorant the men who rule against you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review of C

I've written a long, critical review of the 'C: A Novel'. A short extract and a link to the full review below:

She moves to the more prosaic revelation that she cannot counter a man who says the right things but does not give her what she needs. While other details of space and location do pull the narrative in other directions, it arches back to the question of a relationship that is intense but unfulfilling. Aside from this theme, much of this novel is about the struggle to create. The city and the storyteller want to go ‘go for the kill’, to capture some essential truth. The writer’s self-doubt is projected onto the voice of the city who observes: “Have I chosen the wrong storyteller?”

Most chapters read like a writer’s journal. They describe her determination to make her time abroad add up to something, her experiences in libraries, admiration for Sylvia Plath, and her pondering experiments in writing from a male perspective. Through her struggle to live a creative life and to resolve her complicated relationship, the reader gains insights into the formation of the narrator’s literary self – exposed to seminal literature in at least two languages – as well as to a wounded self, the one that was mocked and knuckle-rapped by teachers, sexually assaulted, romantically involved with ‘scumbags’, and guilty. As the ghost says, “What you’re writing is who you are.”

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Seven notes on Hope

A few weeks ago, I was invited to contribute to the Hope Project by the University of York. This is a series of conversations with writers and scholars, those looking for a way forward despite all the bad news. In the midst of intense climate change, illness, a pandemic, cultural and physical destruction in various parts of the world, how do we hold onto hope? 

I responded with a long prose-poem, taking off from the famous Emily Dickinson poem where hope is compared to a bird. As a starting note, I wondered what kind of bird this might be. Surely, not a fragile thing for it must withstand hard times. This turned into a reflection that become the first note on hope (shared below). Then I began to draw images and ideas from two major books: Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation (2006) and Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, Wild Possibilities (2016). I have also sought refuge from despair in the works of several Urdu poets, including the work of my own grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi. All of these ideas add up to seven 'notes' or one long prose poem. 

The first part of this text is below and the full version is linked to, and can be read on the York website. I also share a link below to the talk with Claire Chambers where I discuss the work and its images and my attempt to engage with hope. 


If it is a thing with feathers calling through chill lands, perhaps it has a curved beak and talons

It cannot be a snowflake. A bird of prey, surely. Sharp-eyed hawk looking far into the distance, swooping when the moment is right, swallowing little mice

A scavenging thing perhaps, living off that which cannot weather the sore storm. On land, it seeks small mammals. On strange seas, fish. A feathered thing that can poach from bears and mountain lions. Strong, STRONG. Fierce in the knowledge that every desert has snakes and lizards, every lake has toads. Every posh enclave has a garden where lunching ladies eat ham and cucumber sandwiches. The magpie ability to grab, to sneak into alien nests to conserve her future. A crow is also a bird after all.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A staging, at last

It has taken thirteen years but, finally, my play 'Name, Place, Animal, Thing' got staged. The Bay Area Drama Company produced it and Rita Bhatia directed the shows ran at Sunnyvale Theatre recently.

This script was shortlisted for The Hindu Playwrights prize in 2009, but was not staged at the time, partly because I was a freelance journalist who had very little contact with theatre makers. A couple of wonderful readings happened during the pandemic (Atri Bannerjee directed a dramatized reading for the Almeida Theatre in the UK and the Panas Panas Theatre in Kuala Lumpur did a Zoom reading) but this is the first time the play has been staged with costumes, props et al. 

I am glad that the artistic director, Basab Pradhan reached out and made this happen. I couldn't be there to watch the show but many others, especially the South Asian community in the Bay Area, did come to watch. This matters a great deal to me since the play focuses on the intersection of domestic work, class and gender as it plays out in South Asia. 

I was asked to write a blog post too, to help audiences engage deeper with the themes of the play. I wrote at some length so that readers may have a bit of historic perspective viz domestic work and child labour in independent India. Here's something to chew on: 

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, was applicable to 64 professions that were deemed hazardous; domestic work was not included. Activists lobbied the Indian government to change the law so that children under the age of 14 could no longer be employed as domestic workers. Initially, the notification was restricted to government servants, who comprise a negligible percentage of the population. Still, the government did concede that children should not be employed in households. The work can be never-ending (a domestic worker can be woken up in the middle of the night to perform a chore) and the risks of exploitation are high since constant oversight is not possible.

In 2006, the government of India finally expanded this order into a law so that children under 14 are no longer permitted to undertake domestic work. However, there are an estimated 150 million child labourers between the ages of 5 and 14, of which at least 7.4 million are domestic workers. More recent studies suggest that 74 percent of child domestic workers in India are between the ages of 12 and 16. Clearly, implementation of the law is weak. Besides, the law only applies to children under 14. What happens to the 15-year-old who lives and works in someone else’s house?

One of the activists I'd met in 2006 told me that if the law were properly implemented, employers are afraid they will be “orphaned for the lack of a slave”.

The script is included in a set of three published in book form as well and you may buy it  online or, ideally, in any bookstore that stocks it. A Kindle version is also available here: 

Sunday, June 05, 2022

"Against the impossible dimensions of this city, the 12 small lives flicker bravely..."

A new review of City of Incident

"Against the impossible dimensions of this city, the 12 small lives flicker bravely under the razor-gaze of the author’s lens. It begins with a moment, an image, a mood that flowers into a story. One life is linked to another, seeds are sown in an early chapter that will sprout in a later one. Sometimes it is a vague intersection, the sort of thing that is natural in a thrumming metropolis, sometimes a deep connection is forged. But mostly each is returned to their own life – who can refuse to live it?! – by the metronome of their own circumstances.

Riot was urgent and political; City is restrained and almost entirely focused on the individual. We are to know no names; identities are linked mostly to class. As in Greek tragedy, the moments of greatest drama are all conducted off-stage and we get to hear of it only through the chance words of others. In my view, it is the economy of this stylistic choice that makes City so compelling."

- Devapriya Roy writes in The Indian Express

Thursday, June 02, 2022

City of Incident: Reviews

"We are reminded that the author’s voice, shining through the telling, illuminating the prose, is what keeps the novel vital and alive. While binge-watching leaves us exhausted and glazed-eyed in the wake of a series, when we dive into the quiet, transformative pool of powerful prose, we emerge renewed."

- A review by Devapriya Roy in the Indian Express

"Sight and insight; every episode, and there are twelve interlinked ones, appears at first glance a stand-alone narrative even though the blurb advises us they are interlinked. But the interlinks are subtle and demand of the reader the embrace of that same cinematic gaze that defines the telling of this novel: the reader has to remember that a the plastic bag will reappear as a defining moment in the emotive core of other protagonists inhabiting this city whose own core is defined by the precincts of the railway line at one end and high rise apartments at the other. In between the skywalk on which the dispossessed make their homes as ladies in their clackety-clack heels pass by. For Zaidi, this contrasting scene of poverty and middling affluence is not the site for social realism, breast-beating about the iniquities that plague the city. They are the locations of illusions, of yearnings, and glimmers of redemption from love denied or a life despised."

"Haruki Murakami once asked, “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves.” Zaidi posits a painful answer to this question, unflinchingly marking the social divisions that proliferate her web.

Some of these social markers inevitably crisscross – like gender complicating class relations. Zaidi also pays attention to how these divisions are uniquely manifested in the space of a city, which is as merciful as alienating in its bequeathal of anonymity."

- A review of City of Incident by Gayathri Shankar in

"This sense of something just beyond — something nameless that is tantalisingly within one’s grasp, but recedes as soon as one stretches out a hand to it — unites Zaidi’s characters, all of whom labour under different forms of constraint: everyday constraints imposed by class, patriarchy, age."

- A review by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu

"City of Incident captures the aspirations and losses of a bunch of people irrespective of their socio-economic status—there’s a trinket seller, a bank employee, a policeman, a security guard, etcetera. Most of them are unhappy in their own ways, some more than the other. As an author, Zaidi doesn’t provide her characters with many dialogues. She sets the stage simply by establishing the scene and ruminates on the peripheries that carry it forward."

"This is where people meet; this is where they fall in love and this is where they settle down. Those riding its trains, buses and ferries have their dreams too, though mostly unfulfilled. That is a given. But one cannot brush them aside or push them under the mildewing carpet of memory."

- A review by Ganesh Saili in The New Indian Express

"The narration is lively and attractive. The story is not to delve deeper into the lives but to understand the merging of the city, its color, and the people’s psyches."

"Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed."

- A review by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose 

"A diverse cast of characters — a cop, a bank teller, a security guard, a fragile woman having an affair, her lover, his ex-wife… — show up and, one by one, reveal parts of themselves: their thoughts, their observations, how other people see them, how they see other people, a significant life-altering incident. The local train runs in the backdrop."

Other reviews on Goodreads: 

More reviews on Amazon: 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

A review of Rohzin

Myth, muse, mirage, a romance and a lament -- the metropolis is a protean beast haunting the dreams of its writers. In Rahman Abbas’ Rohzin, Mumbai serves many of these functions, now a watery canvas floating the boat of first love and now a cesspool of emotional traumas.

The story begins in Mabadmorpho, a coastal village where Asrar has just finished high school, and decided to go to Mumbai to learn a trade. Living in ‘Jamat ki kholi’, along with other boys from the village, the teenager is introduced to the glitz, the stink and the contestations of identity that have defined Mumbai in recent decades. Seen through his eyes, the city comes alive with details such as a gold tooth with a yellowing one right next to it, a commode that looks like a bursting and blistering ulcer, a drain in Kamathipura and its sustenance of animal and insect life.

Despite its sensory shocks, Asrar is willing to be seduced by the city and is not disappointed. He finds work with a manufacturer of costume jewellery and embraces new experiences, though the sadness and confusion that had infused his life in the village continues to inflect his moods. That is, until he meets Hina, the daughter of a perfumer. The romance that unfolds is marked by sweetness and a lack of calculation typical of teenage love, but the novel is saved from the cliches of love-at-first-sight through other, less idealized sexual encounters and the quiet grief of the young men who live and work together. Feminine grief and desire are pencilled in rather than detailed, and ultimately subsumed or made serviceable within an overarching masculine fantasy.

The perfumer, Yusuf, has also been shaken from his moorings through an encounter with an Algerian woman, whose beauty and erudition lead him to reconsidering his faith and his marriage. He leaves his wife, whom he has treated less like a partner and more like a field to be ‘ploughed’, and enters a circle of Luciferians. Here, one set of rituals is exchanged for another, replete with candles and speeches, and sexual encounters are unencumbered by responsibility. The novel frequently segues into philosophical conversations about sex and strictures that may limit human experience, and the question of whether one can liberate oneself from civilization. However, it stops short of building a serious debate about such questions and it is never clear whether Abbas portray the ‘reptiles’ of the unconscious ironically or as a conscious commentary on cults that may emerge from grief, guilt or ennui.

The writer addresses upfront the role identity plays in triggering external and internal crises. The average Indian wears a multi-layered identity, constructed from historic and ongoing migrations. Asrar, for instance, has Zoroastrian heritage on one side, Konkani on the other, and is Muslim perhaps only as an accident of birth. Similarly, other characters are Gujarati Muslim or Arab, but connected to a pre-Islamic Egyptian or Algerian heritage. Linguistic identity complicates matters further. On the train, Asrar and his friends are initially dismissed as ‘bhaiyya’ by a group of Gujarati passengers. In response, they immediately assert their Maharashtrian identity by speaking in Konkani, thus shutting up the Gujarati group. Later, Asrar notices burqas and bearded men at one station and wonders if the area is ‘ours’. However, this identity is complex too, since these people are identified as Qasai or Chilya, and not Konkani Muslims.

Mumba devi is another major character in the novel. Through history, dream and surrealist asides, Abbas weaves in legends about the goddess, myths surrounding the seven islands that make up Mumbai, and a foretold catastrophe. The novel draws on a modern literary tradition and the influence of Urdu writers like Naiyer Masud is apparent, with realism and surrealism colluding to create a strangeness that manifests as mourning dolphins, Djinns who eat hearts, mysterious books that may turn the world on its head, and conversations between a tree and a monster.

Unfortunately, the translation is more literal than literary. While the flavour and flow of the original text is suggested, it does not always translate neatly into the English idiom. The use of phrases such as ‘temporary tiles’ and ‘looking at the fort from a very exclusive angle’ tend to jar, as does the use of ‘votive promise’ for what one imagines was ‘mannat’ in the original Urdu. Such phrases are entirely unnecessary in a book otherwise peppered with Hindi words and where whole sentences have been retained in Roman script. The inconsistent use of translated text within brackets is another inexplicable editorial decision since most of the dialogue has been translated into English and it is apparent that the characters converse mainly in Hindi, Marathi or Konkani. Worse, where translations are provided alongside the original text, they show themselves to be only partial faithful. For instance, when a character talks to a beggar boy, he addresses the latter pejoratively as ‘Abe Saale’, which has been omitted entirely in translation. I sympathize with the translator given the task at hand was so difficult (how does one faithfully translate a Bambaiyya phrase like ‘Eda ban kar peda khane ka’?) but bilingual readers will find it hard ignore such bumps and elisions.

What makes it worthwhile is the interlacing of closely observed lives in contemporary Mumbai and the fantastical elements of the Urdu imaginary. The novel also recalls the trauma of the 1992-93 riots and subsequent bomb blasts, the Dockyards tragedy of 1944, the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus in 2003, and even the future terror attack of 2008. Some of these events muddy the timeline of the novel, disorienting readers who are familiar with the city’s history. Still, the incorporation of such memories means that, despite its occupation with sex and love, the novel never strays far from the city’s socio-political wounds. For those who know the city, the novel may thus serve as ‘sheher-e-ashob’, a literature that laments even as it recognizes the beauty of what is lost.

Published in The Hindu:

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

On coverings of face or head, and the cultural value of uniformity

A good school or college teaches students to see people for the good or harm they do rather than focus on their skin, surnames, hair or tiffin-boxes. No society can hope to emerge from the dark pit of ignorance if it refuses to allow experiments with appearance, habits, even cultural values. What is ignorance, after all, but not knowing? Knowledge comes from seeing, listening, recognising, interpreting. A mulish refusal to allow difference is rooted in an irrational fear of knowledge. If uniform rules lead to the denial of education, the best academic response is to discuss the role of uniformity as a cultural value.

That schools and colleges should refuse to accept a covered head is distressing. Even more distressing is their argument broken down: you are only acceptable if you show exactly as much skin or hair as we demand. This is as good as saying: you have no right to govern your own body. This is a dangerous idea to put into any institution, private or public, and especially dangerous for women if endorsed by the state and courts of law.

Those who use the ‘uniform’ argument to keep Muslims out of educational institutions have struck a double blow. The first blow lands on the rights of Muslim students while the second lands upon the hearts of Hindu students whose capacity for critical thought and solidarity is being squeeze-shrunk out of them. They are being taught that it is okay to reject someone based on their appearance, that it is okay to bully or hate those who are different. Worse, it pushes forward the idea that cultural identities are fixed and citizens have no right to multiple or overlapping identities.

There have been some mal-intentioned arguments on social media, based on pictures of girls with and without the hijab, seeming to make the argument that if a girl can show her hair in one location, among one set of people, she has no right to cover herself in another location. The dangers of this argument are so great, and so obvious, that I am amazed at how little pushback there has been from women’s groups across the country.

Some thoughts triggered by hostile reactions to masks and to hijabs in recent weeks. Read the full article here: 

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

 From an interview with Mint about my new novel, City of Incident:

With City Of ... I had started with just little flashes of incidents (in Mumbai) that I remembered, little scraps of detail that I saw/read somewhere, sights that haven’t quite left me, things I have been carrying around for years and have never forgotten. And I was unable to make sense of them, vis-a-vis my own relationship with the city and its people. With this book, I was aware that I needed to tell a story, that it had to capture the essence of all these little things—for me they are memories, but in literary terms they are just images. I wanted to construct a sense of what it means to live in a city, where so many things happen—small and big tragedies.

Link to the interview:

Monday, February 07, 2022

An interview about the latest book, about cities and loneliness and some thoughts on literary ethical

I was interviewed by Chintan Girish Modi this week about my new book. One question in particular led me to think deeper around a topic that I had been debating internally for a while, so I put down my thoughts at some length.

Q. What are some of the ethical questions that you grapple with while writing about people whose lives are available to you through observation but far removed from your own experience? For instance, people who sleep on pavements and under bridges.

Annie - I have been reading around the question of cultural representation, ‘voice’ and debates about who should write what. I run the risk of writing an essay in response to your question, but this is as good a time as any to put down some reflections and fears.

The first aspect of this question is: Should one write of what/who one sees, or should one only write about what one has personally experienced? I have to say that I disagree with the notion that one should only write what one experiences. People are told ‘write what you know’, especially when they are just starting to write, because they may not have an instinctive, immediate capacity for vivid or plausible description based only on imagination. But if we all only wrote what we have personally experienced, we’d only churn out diaries and memoirs. Where does that leave fiction? Science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction would be absolutely impossible under such conditions.

Besides, the point of literature, especially fiction, is to transpose. The writer transposes herself by building up characters in a world that may not be based on lived experience. Even if it is ‘real’, the writer could have experienced only part of it. If it is conjured, that world is unexperience-able. If it is a combination of real and conjured, the writer herself neither knows nor does not-know. She can only try to capture feelings the way one tries to capture images and memories.

Even within a narrow range of experience, within the same caste, class, religion, gender, it is impossible to represent or experience another life. You may think you ‘know’, but do you? My grandmother’s life was very different from mine though we have the same gender, class/caste background. I observed her, but her experience was not mine. Should I not write about her? I believe I should. Even if she has told her own story in her words, I should still try and make sense of her as a character from my perspective, maybe even try to make sense of my own self as a character seen from her lens.

The second part of the question is about assumptions about knowing. Do we ‘know’? To answer that, we must dip into philosophy, spirituality, neuroscience, and this is not a suitable venue for such expansions, nor am I a scholar of such breadth. To a writer, the more relevant question is: Can we know through reading and writing? Can we know each other’s hearts? Can we at least try? And my response is to try.

The third part of your question is about the person observed. We all observe people whose lives are far removed from our own. There’s little question of an ethical dilemma if the gaze is reversed, say, if a homeless man were to write about a woman riding in a bus one hot afternoon. So, this question is not about who observes; it is about who writes. In theory, anyone. In practice, not everyone.

So, I disagree with the framing of the debate though I agree that it is important to discuss who is allowed what in our society. The shape of the argument must clarify its true ethical intent: everyone deserves a voice. Everyone deserves to be able to read and write. For this, we have to argue that everyone deserves housing and cultural materials. Food, clothing, shelter, but also books, performances and internet access. In countries that do have such a vision, there are public libraries equipped with computers; people can use them for free. There are high-quality, free performances in public spaces like parks or town squares.

The fourth part is the core of the debate: equity. The ethics question arises not because of who is writing but because of who is not writing, not getting published.

I’ve considered this debate by imagining myself in the position of one who has limited cultural access. If I become part of a very tiny minority in another location, and I can’t find a publisher for my work, or don’t have the time to write fiction, or can’t find a publisher that publishes in my language, do I want others to not write about women like me? My answer is: if they can write with empathy and insight, then they should. However, I also want an environment conducive to me writing in my own language.

I also imagine the alternative: what if writers actually stopped describing lives outside of their experience? Nirala wrote about Kulli Bhat. Kulli Bhat should have been able to write about Nirala too. Should Nirala have refused to describe what he was seeing and hearing, and limited himself to writing about his own family? What would be gained from that moment in time, in literature, in our country’s consciousness, not being written? Kamala Markandeya wrote Nectar in a Sieve, about a farmer couple and their distress. The farmer should have written too. But would we be better served by Markandeya writing only about upper or middle class, English-speaking women?

There is obviously a vast difference between stories based on observation and what emerges from lived experience. This is a difference between Markandeya or even Mahasweta Devi’s work, and that of Manoranjan Byapari or Baby Halder. But I don’t think it is a good idea to create rules about who should write about what. It is bound to boomerang. If we say that white people can’t write about black or brown lives, can we argue that black and brown people do have the right to write about white people or their motivations? Or are we only allowed to write from the perspective of a victimized/colonized person? Such rules are easily hijacked by those who are politically and socially powerful, and used against those who are trying to right the balance of power. There is a danger of writers who write about class or caste divisions being silenced on the grounds that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, because they cannot possibly have experienced both (or all) sides of the divide.

In an oral literary culture, cultural equity is easier to achieve. Ali Khan Mahmudabad, in his book Poetry of Belonging, writes about mushairas where unlettered, working class poets participated alongside upper and middle class poets. Publishing and, even more significantly, distribution equity is much harder to achieve. So we must advocate for publishing those who want to write but can’t access literary organizations. We must ask for free libraries too.

When we strike a blow for equality, we must be aware of how the blow lands, and whether it has the desired impact. Is the blow landing on the shoulders of writers of fiction, instead of shaking up governments and leading to policy changes? We have no comprehensive data about the income/caste/gender profile of writers in India. We still need permission from the censors to enact a play, permission from the police to perform on the streets. But I notice that the more inequality increases in the world, the more people focus their critiques on artists and their individual choices instead of turning on structural inequity, patriarchy and state policy.

What power does a writer have, after all, except powers of observation, comprehension and empathy, and a certain felicity with language? You write about what you see or know, about what matters to you, what moves you, what you feel is important. That is the core of a writer’s ethic. Or, my ethic anyway.

The full interview is available here:

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Happy Basant


I was looking for a bright yellow photo to post on social media for Basant Panchami. Among my saved photos, I found this one. I am in a hotel room, on a research trip to Sirohi in 2019, for my book 'Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation'.

In most small hotels in central and western India and many parts of the north too, especially in district headquarter towns, small-ish hotels are the only option available to travellers. These tend to be usually business travellers rather than tourists or researchers. In such places, if you want tea or breakfast, you have to call the reception (if the room phone works) and ask for one of the employees to go to a local dhaba and fetch something to eat. The only option is poha (unless you want samosa or jalebi first thing in the morning, which I don't). You see my feet in the photo because I was sitting on the bed and eating. There was no table to eat at.

Here's to research, to travel, and to poha (although the featured poha in this photo was a sad little dish; I prefer it with lots of peanuts, potatoes, and even shredded chicken in mine).

Meta gaslighting

I've written recently about my struggles with Facebook, its 'security' viz logins, and it restricting me from commenting on posts. Over the last week, I have been carefully trying out the identity-confirmation-via-comments option. It is confusing, disorienting and as one of my friends here pointed out, rather creepy. Even so, the option does not work and the gaslighting has reached 'meta' proportions. Even when I choose my own comments, FB/Meta insists that I am wrong.

I attach below a sample (took screenshots finally, though this has happened for three days consecutively). I have clicked only my own comments; the rest are either not mine at all or at least not made in recent months. The 4 options I clicked were the correct ones, but... So, clearly this is either some major glitch, or Meta is getting into the business of convincing me that I did not say what I did, or said things which I didn't.

Now I am torn between saying that I am going to go off FB altogether and fighting this nonsense. At any rate, there's no way of getting away from it unless I also quit WhatsApp. It's going to be tough. Just putting this out there for the record. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The heart of the republic

Freedom is not simply a matter of being fed. The technical lack of a cage also does not define freedom. She may be trained to perform on stage through a judicious mix of fear, pain and food, but a lioness balancing on a chair and being ridden by a clown cannot be called free.

Hunting and killing also do not necessarily translate to freedom. A lioness must also be free to not hunt and not kill when she chooses. One who is expected to tear into a gladiator, or an unarmed Christian convert, is no freer than the human she will kill.

Freedom, then, is a form of self-determination. Being able to make one’s own choices is vital to the process of achieving it, and inhabiting it. And what is the republic if not a human attempt towards self-determination?

Some thoughts on the republic, freedom and Born Free today in the Indian Express: 


A first review for City of Incident

"Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed.

The universality of her characters is also played out by the ordinariness of their roles. Community, caste, and religion are not the identifying features of these stories. These scenarios can belong to anyone. It comes as a shock to the reader to realise this. Everyone has a story to tell. This collection proves it as long as one is prepared to look beyond the nameless faces and make the effort to understand."

A review by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Another extract from my new novel, 'City of Incident':

Another extract from my new novel, 'City of Incident' has been published and is free to read on Do buy the book either online or in your favourite local bookstores.

This woman is so transparent, the evil eye cannot fall upon her. Perhaps the evil goes right through her body, falling on the person standing right behind her in queue for the renewal of a second-class pass.

Not that she travels second class. She travels first class, bindaas. Who can challenge her? She wears sleeveless tops and big dangly earrings, just like a college girl. She has an office job and a faux leather handbag with a Hello Kitty clasp that she polishes once a week with Brasso. Nobody would look at her and say that she doesn’t look first class. Besides, in the terrible crush of the morning, no ticket examiner dares enter the compartment. No commuter could be expected to reach into her purse to extract a ticket or a pass. All arms are trapped, pressed, and pinned down by a dozen other arms and shoulders. All the ladies must suck in their bellies and squash each other’s breasts as they make their way from seat to aisle to door. There is safety in such crowds.

Even so, she is aware that luck is on her side. Night after night, she travels in the first-class coach when it is near empty. In four years, not once has any ticket examiner shown up and asked to see her ticket.

Read more at:

Monday, January 10, 2022

Strange little security problems

Something odd has been happening with Facebook/Meta for me. Since I've not given FB permission to take all 'cookies', and since I do not accept the prompt asking me for permission to use my display picture instead of my password, it has been putting me through a 3-step login security process. Ordinarily, I wouldn't mind the extra security, but this has been disconcerting lately. First, I sometimes find that the security code shows up as wrongly. Second, I keep getting the message that this 'device' is not recognized, no matter how many times I log into the same device, and clear 'security'. 

Third, and most disconcertingly, I am offered the option of clearing security by identifying my own recent comments. A few times, I do so successfully. More often, FB informs me that my choices are incorrect even when I can swear those are the only correct choices possible. Worse, this has the effect similar to cognitive dissonance: I see a generic comment like 'many happy returns' and sure, that could be mine, but also, maybe not? Did I, or did I not, remember to wish a particular FB friend this year? It makes me very uncomfortable too, seeing comments made by other people on the walls of mutual friends, people I don't know and whose comments I would not otherwise have read.

A fourth reason I have been annoyed is that FB keeps telling me that my access is restricted when I try to comment. I am then prompted to click 'disagree with decision', which I do. I am also encouraged to go figure out why this is happening, but when I go to the relevant page, I see 'no violations'. There is no explanation for why my reach or access should be restricted when there are no violations. There is no clear and easy way of figuring out why these things happen, and I am getting very sick of 'disagreeing with decision' each time I have to say congratulations, or happy new year, or even respond to someone's comment on my own page.

I know, logically and through reading investigative news reports, that we users of social media have very little control over what we see, or how it impacts us. Knowing doesn't make it less distressing. We have all noticed already that posts involving links, or things that are shared, get little or no traction. The whole point of being on social media is that you get to share stuff that matters to you. Photos matter little to me, sharing ideas, articles, etc matter a lot. So this limited reach for 'links' is doubly infuriating. 

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that, if my reach is further restricted, please know that I have not violated anything. Or, if I decide to deactivate the account myself, as I have done before, don't be too surprised. I have zero desire to live in the metaverse and a sub-zero desire to embed fb/meta deeper into my life.

I do maintain this blog/site, and while it is no longer so active, I shall be making more of an effort to keep it updated viz my work.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

An extract from City of Incident

Here is an extract from the first chapter of City of Incident. Please read, and then please go find the book and buy it and read the whole thing. 

They carry knives, some of them. He has seen them squatting on the train floor, chopping up beans and shelling peas into plastic bags while on their way home. It is more likely one of these ladies who carry a knife while travelling than an urchin who doesn’t even have a bag to hide it in.

What else could a woman use? A hairpin, possibly. A thin, black metal hairpin. He had scratched his forearm against one such pin and had been startled at the sliver of blood it drew, for he hadn’t noticed any sharp objects on the cluster of heads surrounding him. Or perhaps it was a needle. Those are quite sharp too and the ladies do knit and crochet in the train. Or a safety pin. Yes. That is just the sort of thing a lady might do if she was sitting by herself in an empty coach. Her restless fingers would take a safety pin to the teal-blue rexine. Stick it in. Gouge. Rip it up with a wrench and a twist of her wrist.

More here: 

New book

I have a new book out. A novel about 12 characters in a metropolis, seeking balance, love, repair. 

Please buy it, ideally at a bookstore, but if you can't go out on account of the pandemic or if you want a soft copy, it is also available in both formats online. Link below. 

Buy on Amazon:,aps,205&sr=8-1

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