Monday 23 November 2020

Annus mirabilis

The day just past marked a year since my last day at The Hindu.

This day last year marked the beginning of a week spent on the first actual holiday I’d had in eleven years, just sleeping a lot, reading, being self-indulgent. A week later, I began working on a proposal for some linked non-profit projects I’d been putting aside for years, and a plan for a book project I could do alongside. This was going to be the start of a year of self-discovery, of indulging myself by doing work I wanted to, and to hell with the money, doing just a bit of pay-the-bills work on the way.

But life, as it often does, had other plans. Like death. Dad, the last member of my immediate family got ill, two months were spent between hospital and home and then a sickbed, then he died.

Suddenly I was living completely alone. Suddenly, my life decisions would affect no one but me.

And I was paralysed by freedom.

Weeks went by when I could do nothing except walk every day, a couple of kilometres every day at first, slowly ramping up to 15. And then a health scare that made me pause. And made me pay closer attention to stories I’d been reading about a city called Wuhan and an epidemic of serious disease that then seemed to leap to an area called Lombardy. It seemed inevitable then that the contagion would reach us sooner rather than later. I stocked my kitchen and locked down before the thaalis and taalis.

And so nine months have passed, baby.

I had to put the projects and the book plan aside (they all needed me to travel). The kind of jobs I wanted were getting scarcer; many I know lost employment that seemed secure, and there was no freelance on offer. My health has been up and down.

But, you know what? It’s not been a wasted year.

For one, low phases aside, I’m healthy, net net. (And three Coronavirus tests came out negative.)

Thanks to once having been too broke to pay hospital bills, I had saved madly for medical emergencies I thought would come. Instead, I wound up prepared for the truly unforeseen, with savings to pay rent in the quiet neighbourhood I live in (and a landlord, bless his usually miserly heart, who hasn’t raised it, though he was contractually entitled to). I was in a godawful mental slump a few months, and I pulled myself together with this thought.

I learnt, thanks to the generosity of many of you, and a group I started, how to feed myself better, more nutritiously, with more variety, with stuff I had never encountered before. And with less waste. (Peels and scraps and bones and such are frozen, then made into stock; all remnants are composted; the only waste I generate is packaging from food, and that is one dustbinful a month.) In the time to come when we can visit each other, I won’t be famous for my dinner parties, but I’ll invite you to stay for a meal without embarrassment.

And I helped start and run two other projects that were not even on my horizon nine months ago.

Thanks to being able to afford that quiet neighbourhood (and male privilege) I was able to walk every night. I haven’t been able to do any art or poetry, strangely, but I’m not too worried about that; those things come when they come; when they do, I’ll be there.

My closest friends are still my closest friends, we talk more than we did before (though I’d also like to hug them, and that will have to wait). Friends who’d been too busy to keep in touch — more likely, truth be told, I’d been too busy or worked hours too weird to keep in touch with them — were chatting again. Some folks I knew only slightly have now become close too. Together, we talked each other through this weird reality we find ourselves in, across the world, sharing stories, sharing memories, sharing hopes.

No, not a wonderful year, but yes, a wonderful year.

Tuesday 10 November 2020


The ❤️. When did it become a symbol of love? For that matter, why is it called a heart symbol, when it doesn't look like a human heart?

Illustration from a drop-letter in 'Roman de la poire,' which dates back to around 1250 CE. The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love.

We know that we associate the heart with emotions. And that became a symbol of romance in medieval Europe, particularly the Renaissance, when it figured art showing Christ and his 'sacred heart.' It also was used as one of the four suits in European playing cards. By the 1700s, it began featuring in Valentine’s Day cards.

I read also that a symbol much like it has been seen on cave paintings dating back to 8000 BCE or more, like before the last Ice Age, but what meaning those painters may have ascribed to it is unknown. And in the Voodoo religion, the heart icon is the symbol of Erzulie, the loa of love, beauty, and purity. In Ghana, the Asante used the symbol in Adinkra, hand-embroidered cloths that represented social thought and belief, to represent love.

But I digress. Why was this shape the symbol for a heart, which to our eyes, looks rather different?

One theory associates it with saunf, fennel. Or rather, silphium a species of giant fennel now extinct. Silphium grew on the North African coastline. Greeks and Romans used it as a spice, a medicine for coughs, but also as a contraceptive. Poets praised this latter quality. It was cultivated into extinction by the first century CE. In images from the era (the city-state of Cyrene, which prospered with the silphium trade, put the shape on its money, for one) the silphium seed looks like the ❤️.

Some theories say it is based on ivy or water-lily leaves. (Ancient Greeks associated ivy with Dionysus, god of sensual things, which may have lead to its association with sex and then romantic love.) Others say that that it was based on the shape of breasts or buttocks or the pubic mound or vulva or testicles.

The Catholic church's story is that a saint Margaret Mary Alacoque a vision in which the sacred heart of Jesus appeared to her in this shape, with thorns around it. This vision was in the 1600s, much after the symbol (sans thorns) was already well known, so doesn't explain the origins, but since the church had no small influence in Europe, it accounts for its further spread. (Before this, in heraldry, the heart signified sincerity, eventually became synonymous with the holy grail. Some playing cards use the holy grail instead of the heart symbol.)

Some scholars argue for a more simple evolution. They say it originates in the writings of Aristotle, who said the human heart had three chambers with a dent in the middle, and when artists in the Middle Ages drew representations of ancient texts, this is what they came up with. Some say says that the symbol does resemble the chambers of the heart cut open. Bird or reptile hearts are closer in shape to the symbol, and since early anatomical study was based on the dissection of animals, this sounds viable.

At any rate, most early graphic depictions in Europe were sort of pine-cone shaped, and upside-down, at least from our perspective. In the 1400s, a dent began to appear on the base, first small, then getting bigger. By the mid-1500s, it depiction on playing cards was the one we know today.

We no longer think of the heart as the seat of emotions, or of love, though it persists in language. And emoji. An example of iconographic inertia, to use a phrase coined by Nicholson Baker.

(All this is the product of one of those trips down rabbit holes when one goes to look up something. Maybe you'll find it interesting too.)

Monday 19 October 2020

Poetry with Prakriti: a brand new avataar

Prakriti Foundation's Poetry with Prakriti festival is responding to travel and public gathering restrictions by reinventing itself as an online festival, with readings on Zoom, on the first three Saturdays of every month, starting October 2020 and running up to September next 2021 from 7 p.m. IST.

The poets featured will be a mix of well-loved names and emerging voices, in English and other languages, from India and abroad. The format is to have one poet on each evening, to read their poems for 15 minutes or thereabouts, followed by around 15 minutes of answering questions from the audience.

I’m helping out with the festival in a couple of ways: acting as moderator for the Q&A sessions that will follow each reading, and in outreach.

Here’s how you (and any poetry-loving folks you know and care to forward this to) can get notified of who is reading and when.
1. You can sign up for updates at (This is a one-way newsgroup. I.e., there will only be emails from the admins, who are Meera Krishnan of Prakriti Foundation and I, and no back-and-forth chatter. There will be three emails a month, approximately, telling you who the poet reading the following Saturday will be, and giving you the registration link.)
2. Or, email Meera at prakritifoundation at gmail and she’ll add you to their mailing list.
3. Or if you’d prefer your updates on WhatsApp, please contact Meera or me with your phone number, or email her at the same address.

On social media, you can follow Prakriti Foundation on
If you could amplify posts on those platforms, we would be very grateful.

And yes, please share this with friends whom you think might be interested.

Prakriti Foundation is an arts and culture NGO in Chennai (India), founded in 1998. In a city accustomed to a regular diet of classical performance, Prakriti has been the space where scholars, researchers, artists, critics, poets, and filmmakers have been able to present their work to those who engage with it on serious terms. One of its four annual festivals, Poetry with Prakriti, features eminent and emerging poets (from India and abroad), with each presenting four different readings of their poems to small, intimate audiences at several venues in the city: schools, colleges, cafes, galleries, boutiques, banks, IT parks, green public parks, and other commercial establishments.

Saturday 25 July 2020

I have a joke

There was this Twitter thing that happened, and I got infected. (Some of these I added later.)

I have a joke about telepathy.

I have a joke about Bombay Winter.

I have a joke on the Indian education system, but I haven’t memorised it.

I have a joke about HR, but I had to downsize it.

I have a joke on advertising, but I have to put my creative director’s name in the credits.

I have a joke on this government’s strategy for dealing with the pandemic, and I think everyone will get it.

I have a joke on Aadhaar, but it can be traced back to me.

I have a joke about encounters. It will slay you.

I have a joke about cake, but it’s still half-baked.

I have a joke about Retweets, and y’all just going to Like it.

I have a joke on CSR funds, but I had to give it to PM CARES.

I have a joke on the freemium model, but you’ve already read your 10 free jokes.

I have a joke on nepotism, but it’s a dad joke.

I have a joke about insomnia, but I think I’ll sleep on it.

I have a joke about petroleum but it’s crude.

I almost have a joke about hypotenuses, but I just can’t get the right angle.

I have a joke about dickpics; I’ll DM it to you.

I have a joke about Unilever’s skin cosmetics, but that wouldn't be fair.

I have a joke on right-wing historians, but I need to rewrite it.

I want to do a joke about start-ups in India, but I haven’t found an American idea to localise.

I have a joke about poetry in India, but I’d have to self-publish.

I have a joke about starting a bakery, but I really knead the dough.

I have a joke about the ubermensch, but it would only work for a nietzsche audience.

I have a joke about philanthropy, but I just can’t give it away without seeing your five-year plan for scaling up.

I have a joke about publishing in India, but it will only reach 5000 people.

I have a joke about banana bread, but everyone’s already making it.

I have a joke about newspapers, but we have to shutter the edition because we have no ads.

I have your joke about mansplaining and I’m going to tell it to you.

I have a joke about Greek yogurt but it’s against Indian culture.

I have a joke about the I have a joke jokes, but it doesn’t meta.

I have a joke about insomnia, but I think I'll sleep on it.

I have a joke about rashtriyans on Quora, but .. excuse me, phone call.. Yeah Agrima?

I have a joke about history, but I'd be repeating myself.

I have a joke about my advertising clients, but after I'm done with the focus groups.

I have a Delhi police joke. It has a punchline.

I have a joke about the Sirens, but you're not listening.

I have a Lakshman joke, but it might cross the line.

I was going to do a joke about International Female Orgasm Day on the 31st, but I didn't hit the spot.

I have a joke about vaccination. But young folk may not get it.

I have a joke about collarbones, but it's not humerus. (This came from another Twitter discourse.)

Saturday 18 July 2020

The Goa Project Sessions

Since May, I've been helping The Goa Project shape something we're calling the TGP Sessions.

Background: The Goa Project is an annual unconference that happens in Goa. Unconference? The attendees pitch sessions and vote for who gets stage time. (I wrote a piece about it back in 2017, much before I first volunteered, if you want a then-outsider's point of view.)

Image is a poster with the logotype 'The Goa Project Sessions' Below, the text says, 'Alternate Sundays. 5:30-6:30 PM, on Zoom.' In smaller type, below, the text says, 'The TGP Sessions aim to keep our community active, engaged, making new connections, collaborating. They are just like the TGP editions you are familiar with, except spread out over the year, for an hour at a time, and online. Attendance is free, but registration is required.'

The TGP Sessions is an idea we came up with as a way of keeping the community engaged in these lockdown times. (The community is people who have attended TGP editions in the past or contributed to them, or who participated in the first TGP Residency in 2018.) It's also a way to grow the community, since it's pretty clear that we won't be able to have a gathering in Goa any time in the near future.

We meet every alternate Sunday, between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., IST, on Zoom. Attendance is free, but you need to register.

The Sessions go like this.

There are up to three segments, or sessions within a Sessions.

Up to two of these are 10-minute presentations of interesting ideas, things people are creating that are aimed at making for a better world, debates, and so on. These are each followed by 10 minutes of Q&A and discussion. Some Sessions we've had so far: an overview of the evolution of money, from gold to cryptocurrencies; valuing labour in a time of unprecedented economic shifts; building platforms for collaborations and communities; communities that have arisen as a response to the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown; arts and culture in times of pandemics; mental health in quarantine; a case for cutting up the Supreme Court; technology creative people are using; how live storytelling can transition to digital; alternative sexual lifestyles in India; how improv trains your mind; how to do good podcast and live online interviews.

And we conclude with what we call the creative showcase (again, not more than two of these on a given weekend), which is for artists and performers to show us things they're making: art, plays, music, poetry, anything that can be done through a Zoom window. We've had a duo that makes music that fuses Carnatic music with other forms, and a Odissi dancer making the case for dance for both physical and mental health. Coming up, photo essays, interactive theatre, poetry, more music.

Want to check out the sessions? You'll need to register on Zoom and you'll get the meeting ID and a unique password. Once you've got the feel of it, you may want to pitch a session. You can use this form to pitch a session and this one for the creative showcase. And we have a mailing list you could subscribe to, which notifies members of TGP events (currently one mail a week, usually on Friday, with the coming Sunday's line-up).

We encourage people to attend sessions before pitching. And to continue to attend once they've done a session. The idea is to build a community after all, one with no stars who only come in to present, where everyone contributes and collaborates. (Important note: none of this is paid for in cash. TGP is all volunteers who do stuff because they think it's worth doing. The result has been a rather interesting collection of people over the years, folks well worth your time to get to know, and the kind of collaborations and relationships that result when interesting minds bump into each other.)

Sunday 3 May 2020

Favourite schemes

Airdrops of roses and whiskers on Amit-kins
Light copper’s lathis for warm wooden kickings
All of the activists tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things

Yellow journalists and Arnab my poodle
Door bells at midnight and News TV bamboozle
Wild talk that flies out through WhatsAppian pings
These are a few of my favourite things

Girls in white mourning and communal clashes
Snowflakes with long noses get fifty lashes
Silver white cashflows from corporate kings
These are a few of my favourite things

When a pup dies
When I lose a state
When I'm feeling feels
I simply remember my PM CARES s̶c̶a̶m̶ scheme
And then I don't feel so bad

Friday 3 April 2020

The doors of managing perception

You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a feku
If I was to say to you
I know exactly what to do

Come on baby, light my pyre
Come on baby, light my pyre
Try to get the light on hire

It's time to isolate it's true
The situation's really dire
You clapped and yet we're in the goo
Wait a minute, gotta sue The Wire

Come on baby, light my pyre
Come on baby, light my pyre
Try to get the light on hire, haanh?

We could take care of the poor
We could push testing rates higher
Help the farmers, okay, yes, sure
Wait a minute, gotta sue The Wire

Come on baby, light my pyre
Come on baby, light my pyre
Try to get the light on hire, haanh?

You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a feku
If I was to say to you
I know exactly what to do

Come on baby, light my pyre
Come on baby, light my pyre
Try to get the light on hire
Try to get the light on hire
Try to get the light on hire
Try to get the light on hire

Thursday 26 March 2020

Covid-19 in India: donation drives you can support

You're not enjoying lockdown, but you know you are comparatively better off than many others. And you want to help people who do not have your privilege.

Here are a few suggestions.

• Of course, there's the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund

These are campaigns on fund-raising sites that aim to:
1. Help medical professionals with equipment (masks, etc.)
2. Assist daily wagers with basic sustainance, food grains, etc.
3. Support sanitation workers and others
4. Donate to provide soap, sanitizers, etc. to people
With most of these, the platforms are waiving their charges, so all money goes to the fundraisers.
One request: pay via net banking; a credit card means the platform pays credit card charges.

Give India's fundraiser to feed Covid-19-hit families and also this page.

Give India's fundraiser for hygiene kits

Ketto's dedicated Covid-19 page, where you can find multiple campaigns:

Milaap's dedicated Covid-19 page, where you can find multiple campaigns:

Buy masks for medical workers. PharmEasy will match your donations. (It's 200 rupees a mask.)

Some more

• Want to volunteer in your neighbourhood, please see this Facebook group set up to 'help people help people', Caremongers India

Campaign for daily-wage workers in Delhi on OurDemocracy

Uday Foundation's campaign on Ketto

Campaign to buy Ventilators & Medical Supplies For COVID-19 Ward At St. John's NAHS, Bangalore on Ketto

Support for Wastepickers in a time of COVID 19

• Habitat for Humanity India: Hygiene Kits to the underprivileged to fight against COVID-19

A few more I've found

• Sumanasa Foundation is seeking contributions to buy provisions for community kitchens run by the Greater Chennai Corporation. Indian rupee contributions to Axis Bank account 91101001257036, IFSC UTIB0000006. Source, this tweet by the musician TM Krishna, one of the trustees.

• RotiGhar is distributing freshly-cooked meals to security guards, labourers, rag-pickers and others in and around Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Bhiwandi. Contributions via Paytm / Gpay to +91-97691-81218 or UPI chinukwatra@okaxis. WhatsApp these numbers for details: +91-96993-96544, +91-96190-89050, +91-99877-30605, +91-75063-84025, +91-95946-09229, +91-72087-73650. Follow (on Twitter): RotiGharIndia and founder chinukofficial

Goonj's campaign (foreign passport holders can also contribute)

• Zomato's Feeding India campaign (tax deductions available: (more info)

SAFA Society's campaign collecting funds for relief packages in Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru (tax exemptions available)

Covid-19 Relief Fund for Daily Wage Workers of Chandigarh/Tricity on OurDemocracy

Sangama, which works with working class, non-English speaking gender/sexual minorities, sex workers and people living with HIV, is raising funds for family units of sex workers, and transpeople

• Apnalaya is reaching out to vulnerable households in M Ward. Follow their Twitter (@ApnalayaTweets) or support at

Coro India, which works on equality and justice in gender-related issues, is raising funds for food packages, masks, sanitisers and soap for daily-wage workers.

• Fit Brigade: Independent volunteers from Mumbai to help senior citizens who are living alone with delivery of essential items (groceries, medicines, fruits and vegetables) and cooked meals. Contacts: South Mumbai: 9821887707/ 9820391911; Central Railway suburbs: 9004670600/ 9833170665/9773706712; Western Railway suburbs: 9819236951/9821159710/9022420360

• AngelXpress Foundation, which enables volunteerism, primarily with teaching is now working on bringing relief to their student's families. Contact them or support via instamojo

Sparsha Charitable Trust which works in the Wadala area, is seeking support for getting supplies to vulnerable families there. Email info.sparshatrust at gmail dot com

YUVA (Youth for Unity And Voluntary Action) is raising funds for the urban poor.

• If you own a 3-D printer and would like to help doctors expand their ventilator capacity via 3D printing valves and splitters, see this page

• Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch is collecting for Gurgaon's stranded daily wage labourers

• Ahmedabad based youth organisations (Elixir, Ahmedabad Global Shapers, Hearty Mart, Communicate Karo, Amdavad Rockets and HeyHi Foundation) have an #AhmedabadFightsCorona campaign

Project Mumbai has a free counselling facility for people in Mumbai, 8 am to 8 pm, across multiple languages, including Marathi Hindi English Gujarati Malayalam Punjabi and Kannada. More here on Twitter

Project Mumbai is also helping the Maharashtra govt provide N-95 masks to healthcare workers. is raising funds for sanitation workers in Pune, and Pimpri-Chinchwad

• Mercy Mission in Bangalore is a federation of NGOs coming together to #FightCoronaTogether. See their (work in progress) page on Facebook.

I'll be updating this post as often as I get new information, and also this Twitter thread and this Facebook post.

Sunday 26 January 2020

We, the People of India

I think the preamble to the constitution is one of the most beautiful texts India has produced, putting in words what our best selves can be.

I asked a large number of friends if they would like to join in on a virtual group reading. Sveral jumped in. Here it is.

Video, Audio and Text


Arundhati Ghosh, arts professional, Bangalore
Dilip D'Souza, writer and journalist, Bombay
Jasmeen Patheja, Bangalore
Karen Donoghue, academic, Shillong
Kirtana Kumar, actor and director, Bangalore
Lalnunsanga Ralte, academic, Shillong
Mitali Saran, independent writer, Delhi
Peter Griffin, writer and journalist, New Bombay
Pervin Varma, development professional and musician, Bangalore
Rahul Ram, musician, Delhi
Rimi N, researcher, Bombay
Sampurna Chattarji, writer, Thane

The quality is rough and I will probably do another version. But I wanted to get this out in time for our seventieth Republic Day.

If you want to do this with your friends (I'd really like to see more versions, especially in other Indian languages) here's a how-to.

1. Record a 'pacing' track yourself.
Be clear, make word endings clean, don't do too much voice acting (because others may not be able to replicate your impressive interpretation; but don't be too robot-voice either). It may take several tries. You should wind up with a recording that's around 50 seconds long in English.

2. Send the audio to your friends. Ask them to listen to it a few times, then record their version.
Best way: listen on earphones on one device, and record on another. Getting the synch really, really close is critical. It can take hours to clean up otherwise.
You may also want to try a karaoke-ish style. That is, text on screen at the right pace. If you, like me, are an amateur at video editing, it can take a while. (I used GIMP to make the text, subtracting one word at a time and naming the files in reverse order, so the full text is 85.png, minus one word is 84.png and so on, until 00.png, which is a blank screen.) Then used GIMP to make an animated Gif. Then an online converter to turn the Gif into a video. There is probably an easier way to do this, but I don't have the skills. Ask a film-maker friend.
I have one version which is just my voice and the text, which I will post in the comments.

3. Mix the audio.
If your friends have been faithful to your pacing track, this is easy. But even the best intentions will produce lost of stuff you have to mess with. FOR EACH TRACK. THIS TAKES TIME!
I used Audacity for the audio editing.

4. You can release the track as an audio file, but you may want to also of a video version. This opens up lots more possibilities if you're proficient with a camera and a video editor.

I repeat, please, please do this in other Indian languages!

Sunday 12 January 2020

I saw it in the papers

The Telegraph is read by people who think they should be ruling India, but they really can't be bothered.

The Hindu is read by people who want to rule India but don't want to stand for elections.

Times of India is read by people who don't care who's ruling India as long as they get their celebrity gossip attached.

Hindustan Times is read by Delhi people who want to know whose fathers rule India.

The people who rule India don't read.

An homage to:

Prime Minister Jim Hacker on British press and readers. from tolep on Vimeo.