Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


BN Goswamy

My profile of Professor B. N. Goswamy in Mint Lounge this week.  Here and pasted below.

  • Culture
  • Posted: Thu, Dec 15 2011. 8:08 PM IST
Look at art intently, and with patience
As someone who loves abstract and contemporary art, I am a little rattled by Prof. Goswamy’s obvious love for ancient Indian art

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Prof. Brijendra Nath Goswamy is in Bangalore to deliver Tasveer Foundation’s inaugural lecture. I have been allowed to take him out for an hour. Where does one take a man who is arguably India’s foremost art historian? I consider a ride in our new Metro to Angadi Silks or Vimor to buy a sari for his wife. This is a man, after all, who invited three of the country’s top dancers—Bharatanatyam’s Malavika Sarukkai, Odissi’s Madhavi Mudgal, and Kathak’s Aditi Mangaldas—to perform at his wife’s 65th birthday. They agreed. I want a similar grand gesture when I turn 65, I tell my husband. He gives me a sceptical “are you worth it” look. Finally, I take Prof. Goswamy to The Taj West End, mainly because it is close to art collector Abhishek Poddar’s house, where he is staying; and because it has an “Art Corridor”.

Art walk: The Art Corridor at The Taj West End in Bangalore. Courtesy The Taj West End, Bangalore

Art walk: The Art Corridor at The Taj West End in Bangalore. Courtesy The Taj West End, Bangalore

Over cups of cappuccino, we talk about his lecture on rasas or aesthetic emotion that the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi has helpfully uploaded on YouTube. How can my readers learn to be connoisseurs like you, I ask. Prof. Goswamy spells out a few Sanskrit words in explanation. To appreciate art, you have to be an adhikari, he says; an adequate viewer. You have to be sahruday, or of the same heart as the maker. “It is not just empathy but much more than that,” he says. If you are able to cultivate this sensibility of “looking intently and with patience” at a work of art, it will speak to you. Look at all parts of a painting, he says. You never know where the artist has slyly left his stamp. Be aware of your reactions when you observe a work of art: What emotions does it evoke? Perhaps it brings to mind a piece of music, or poetry.

I take Prof. Goswamy on a walk through The Taj West End’s Art Corridor, where a number of contemporary paintings are displayed. I want to see art through his eyes and he obliges. He stands before a Shuvaprasanna owl drawing that he likes. “Shuvaprasanna sees something in birds that you and I don’t ordinarily see,” he says. “There is something sinister and wise about this owl, and I like the fact that he hasn’t covered the entire painting with black and allowed some room for the painting to breathe.” Thota Vaikuntam’s three paintings are dismissed with a “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It’s too laboured; all surface.” Before we know it, we have an audience which trails us.

Prof. Goswamy’s distilled aesthetic comes from art acquisition trips across India with C. Sivaramamurti, the National Museum’s first director, whom he calls a “savant who knew art from the inside”. In Cuttack, Prof. Goswamy was drawn to a painting in a private collection in which the Hindu god Krishna was carrying Mt Govardhan, except that the base of the mountain was shaped like a bow. Prof. Goswamy felt that the painter was connecting the Krishna avatar to the earlier Ram avatar. He talks about a verse in the Krishna Karnamrutham, in which Yashoda puts a baby Krishna to sleep by telling him the story of Ram. “When I saw Mt Govardhan painted like a bow, I felt that the artist too had made such a connection,” says Prof. Goswamy . “It was like leaping across time and space to hear the whirring of the artist’s mind. It was extraordinary.”

Prof. Goswamy’s facility with Sanskrit verse, Urdu poetry and Indian philosophy allows him to make uncommon connections between the Natya Shastra, the mother lode of all Indian aesthetic traditions, and, say, English poetry. He says that Abhinavagupta, who interpreted the Natya Shastra, talks about a chamatkar or miraculous effect that will occur in the mind of a rasika when a work of art “whispers” in her mind. “It is as if magical flowers are blossoming in your imagination. We call it adbhut pushpaani,” says Prof. Goswamy.

As someone who loves abstract and contemporary art, I am a little rattled by Prof. Goswamy’s obvious love for ancient Indian art. What am I missing? Why can’t I enjoy miniature paintings or Chola bronzes as much as him? Why are today’s Indians so disconnected with our ancient artistic traditions? Two collectors—(Abhishek and Anupam) both sharing the last name, Poddar— have talked to me about how Prof. Goswamy has infused his love of ancient art in them. If he has managed to convert two of India’s top contemporary art collectors, who am I to fight his evangelism?

I think of this as I stand before the beautifully curated artworks at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai. It juxtaposes ancient replicas with contemporary originals by marquee names—Jitish Kallat, Anju and Atul Dodiya, among others. But the contemporary pieces don’t appeal to me today. Instead, I am drawn to a beautiful Ardhanari bronze sculpture tucked away in a dark corner. I have seen such images countless times in temples. Their symmetrical limbs and serene faces are part of my subconscious. I take them for granted. Today, I observe the quiet figures of Nataraja and Ardhanari through new eyes. These bronze sculptures don’t surprise and jolt me, particularly when compared with the nearby Anju Dodiya installation. Contemporary Indian art can be stunning. When viewed through Prof. Goswamy’s eyes, it can also be shrill, emphatic, in-your-face, fighting for your attention amid a barrage of visual stimuli.

Prof. Goswamy’s refined aesthetic belongs to a quieter pre-YouTube time but can be cultivated even today. He is drawn to lightness and subtlety. He loves Urdu poetry, he says, and eschews harshness of any kind, even in words. “People say they get gooseflesh when they see a work, but that sounds like a skin disease. Even the correct English word, horripilation, sounds horrible. We call it roma harsh, or the fine hairs on our body standing erect in happiness. How beautiful and poetic that sounds,” he marvels.

Rasa or aesthetics is a topic close to his heart. Later that evening, he talks about the Pahari painter Nainsukh to a Bangalore audience that includes Yasmeen Premji, Sarukkai, Britannia CEO Vinita Bali, sculptor Balan Nambiar, and India Foundation for the Arts director Anmol Vellani, among others.

As I drop him back, I ask Prof. Goswamy who his ideal dinner companions would be. Nainsukh the painter, of course, he says. Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “because I could spend a day reciting Urdu poetry”. Musician Kumar Gandharva. And William Shakespeare, “because I am passionately fond of his work”. A scientist like Albert Einstein who “viewed light and space differently”. And lastly, the maker of a Chola bronze because “I want to know how he thinks”.

Prof. Goswamy is not just an art historian. He is really a time traveller; someone who wants to leap through the centuries and into the minds of those anonymous artists who have created some of our country’s finest art. I envy his artistic sensibility. I think of him as I walk through the Chennai museum’s superb bronze gallery, containing rare Chola and Pallava bronze originals. Speak to me, I tell the Parvati image. What am I missing? Who created you? What am I looking for? I peer hard. A certain chamatkar happens. As I watch Parvati unblinkingly, she winks and gives me a Mona Lisa smile. I swear it. I was not tripping on anything. I was merely high on art and glorious magical flowers blossomed. Adbuth Pushpaani!

Shoba Narayan winked back at Parvati. And at the Shiva (Nataraja) at the Chennai museum. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Sabyasachi Mukherjee

I spent two days hanging around Sabysachi.  He’s an interesting man.  Here is a story about him that appeared in The National.  Also pasted below.

The sari warrior

Shoba Narayan

Nov 26, 2011
Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee wants his customers to take pride in wearing Mukherjee saris and weaves.

The fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is sitting on the floor of his sprawling workshop in Kolkata, surrounded by 10 people. All around are piles of fabric. There are rich brocades in pink and purple, hardy indigo-dyed cloth, swatches of airy beige voile, rich Benares silks and nubby cotton. Two men sit on a desk, drawing floral designs that will end up as borders on his saris and skirts. A PR person walks in, stating that a Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra, is at his Mumbai store and wants to use an outfit for an awards show.

“Sure, let her take it. Why do you need to ask?” says Sabya, as he is universally known. Three assistants surround him with patterns that need approval. Mukherjee, 37, knows his mind. He tells the sari designer that the embroidery needs to start at the waist, where it will catch a woman’s curved silhouette; instructs another assistant to flip a pattern so that the richly textured paisley print will come at chest level rather than at the waist; and tells a third that the design needs a complete revamp.

An assistant walks in and announces that he has won the Elle Fashion Designer of the Year award. Mukherjee barely registers the praise. “What happened to the blue khadi sari?” he asks the American Harvard University student who is interning with him.

Mukherjee the label (not the man) operates out of a giant three-storey white building in the outskirts of Kolkata. The lucrative bridal collection occupies the ground floor. Here, mannequins clad in sumptuous, intricately woven lehengas (skirts) that are the mainstay of north Indian weddings stand in the dim light. Gold jewellery lines the glass counters. Rooms are full of weavers, tailors and fabric dyers and sorters.

“I am not just a designer. I am a businessman,” saysMukherjee. “One of the biggest challenges that I grapple with is workflow. I have over 600 people who depend on me for their livelihood, not to mention weavers all across India.”

Mukherjee is often called the most successful fashion designer operating in India today, with, he says, an annual turnover of US$11 million (Dh40.4m) – small by global standards, but large in terms of the Indian fashion industry, where labels die after a collection or two. After graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1999, Mukherjee began his label with three employees and money borrowed from his sister, Payal. She still works with him, as does his father, who takes care of the finances. His mother gave him his creative bent.

“We are four dysfunctional people in a very functional family,” he says with a laugh.

With long wavy hair and an easy smile, the designer cuts a slim figure that belies his prodigious talent and ambition. “Sabya is a seminal designer, who, along with Anamika Khanna, took fashion from Kolkata to a higher level,” says the Bangalore-based fashion consultant Prasad Bidapa.

After showing at Milan, New York and all across Asia, including the UAE, where he retails, Mukherjee has embarked on an ambitious project: to make fashionable Indians appreciate Indian weaves. He has initiated a project called Save the Sari, where he retails hand-woven Indian saris and donates the entire proceeds to Indian weavers.

“My goal is to make Indians aware of our country’s resources,” he says. “No machine can replicate what Indian hands can achieve with textiles. The trick is to make consumers take pride in wearing our saris and weaves.”

At Mukherjee’s beautiful flagship store in Kolkata, he has commissioned weaves from the southern textile capital of Kanjivaram and embellished the saris with his own designs. Each sari sells for close to US$2,000, and rich Kolkata matrons and their Prada-clad daughters are lining up to buy them. Mukherjee stands amid them, giving advice on colours and patterns when needed. He likes to sell. He likes helping women pick out clothes. No reclusive, angst-ridden designer, this.

“You hardly ever come across design individuals in India with such a strong DNA imprint in their work,” says Kallol Dutta, a younger fashion designer based in Kolkata. “I was gobsmacked when I saw his collections.”

Mukherjee’s latest pet peeve is the Hermès sari, which, he says, has been launched by the famed French house for an unseemly price of US$9,200.

“India offers beautifully handwoven and handprinted saris, but the sad thing is that we Indians don’t realise their value. This is why a brand like Hermès can dare to come into this country and sell a $9,000 sari here. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy an Hermès sari without realising that they are simply wearing a price tag.”

And with that, Mukherjee goes off to help a lovely Indian bride pick a rare Kanjivaram weave for her trousseau.

Bengali Films for Mint

Thank you MKR, for the below line about Mizoguchi, that I couldn’t fit in due to space constraints.  Here in Mint’s page and pasted below.  Thank you, Ghoshi, for the introductions.

***********************

I feel like I am in a Bengali movie.  Wait, that’s too easy.  I am in Kolkata, after all, at the top floor of Priya Cinema, which, according to some, is the hub of Bengali cinema.  I want a better simile.  I email Bangalore-based film expert M.K. Raghavendra, who can describe a film as a “French noir courtroom classic in the tradition of H.G. Clouzot” and actually know what it means, and ask if there are any cult movies or directors whose styling is reminiscent of old Bengali movies.

“Only Japanese films perhaps.  Maybe Mizoguchi,” he replies.  “There is a ceremonial sense in the indoor sequences of his period films like Ugestu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff as there is in Ray’s Jalsaghar.”

Okay.  Let me rephrase.  I feel like I am in a Mizoguchi film.  The scene is the dim-lit drawing room of producer and actor, Arijit Dutta, whose family owns Priya Entertainment.  Generations of Kolkatans grew up watching movies at his Priya Cinema.  Sitting at stage left is national-award winning director, Aniruddha Roy “Tony” Chowdhury, who is sipping a single malt and spreading bonhomie.  If he is stressed about next day’s shoot, he does not show it.  Across him is gifted actor, musician and director, Anjan Dutt, who, with his beard, spectacles and absent-but-possible cigarette, looks as a polymath should.  Near him is Srijit Mukherji, erstwhile economist, theater actor and director, who holds a stack of invitations for his “daughter’s wedding,” as he says—his film’s premiere, in other words.  Beside him is Birsa Dasgupta, whose parents and grandfather were in films.  He talks about Bollywood and Bengali films with the fluency of an insider, having worked with Anurag Kashyap and Imitiaz Ali.  Actor Parambrata Chatterjee is the object of much teasing, thanks to his Dutch girlfriend.  “How can a Bong patao a Dutch girl?” the others ask.  In the middle sits Raj Chakraborty who says little but grins a lot.  The others tell me that he is the most commercially successful director in the group.  The piece de resistance as far as I am concerned is a beautiful Bengali woman who comes in carrying plates filled with fried bekti and prawns; momos and dips.  She is clad in a simple yellow soft cotton sari that is pulled around her head.  She looks to be about 50, with a fair, round face and a bright red bindi.  She is Dutta’s housekeeper but the courtesy with which he treats her speaks of long association.  She opens the door and hands him the plate.  I hear whispers of hilsa and bekti.  She nods and shuts the door.  Dutta takes the plate around.  I am entranced by the lady with no name; the others don’t seem to register her presence.

When he learned of my interest in Bengali cinema, Dutta offered to put together an ‘adda’ for me.  The ease with which the group came together with a few days notice speaks of a camaraderie that is absent in other areas, let alone Bollywood.  A top Kolkata fashion designer tells me that the fashion frat in his city does not fraternize.   Certainly, I cannot imagine Tamil directors coming together and discussing their films with the self-effacing generosity that this crowd did.  None of the directors here talk about their movies.  Instead, they use each other’s films to illustrate a point.

“The entire scenario has been changed by Raj,” says one.  “He has shown that no matter what story you say, the production cannot be shoddy.”

As they refill glasses, they discuss union strikes, distribution and funding.  Perhaps this sense of community is what drew these Bengali directors back home.  Perhaps as a result, Bengali films have started picking up after year of decline.  In 2007, 56 Bengali films were made.  In 2011, that number climbed to 130.  What draws these directors is a sense of history and the ability to work outside the straitjacket that Bollywood imposes.  Mukherji talks about the thrill of working in the same studio where Ray worked; where Mrinal Sen walked by; where Uttam Kumar applied makeup.  “That gives me goosebumps,” he says.

“In Bombay, you get a lot of templates.  Here every filmmaker is a template onto himself,” says Chowdhury.

“The road was opened by Anjan-da and Tony-da,” credits Dasgupta.  “We have a huge legacy but the pace here is leisurely and vibrant.”

“Yes, but let’s not pander to the stereotype of Bengalis being a soft race,” someone says.  “We are very aggressive, very racist.”

“The stereotype of the intellectual Bengali was the class that Uttam Kumar represented,” Dutt says.

“But let’s not forget.  The first English film—36 Chowringhee Lane—was made in Bengal,” Dutta corrects.

“Even Ray was very global,” Mukherji adds.  “And Robi Thakur was very global.  He marketed himself very well.”

“And Vivekananda marketed himself very well,” adds Dasgupta.  Any moment now, I expect the Swami to open the door and walk in.

Soon, they are all correcting each other and adding to the argument and smoking and drinking.  The door opens and closes.  The lady with the red bindi makes her Shakespearean “exits and…entrances” and “all the world’s a stage.”  The scene fits every Bengali stereotype I have; every one that they insist is not true.

“My grandfather wore a dhoti but played Frank Sinatra at home,” says Dutt.  “So please, let us not say that Bengali-ness is about dhoti and rosogolla and bhadralok.  Let us not make them this monolithic paan-chewing group who wants to make movies instead of selling potatoes.”

Frankly, this group would be terrible at selling potatoes.  Look at them now, talking about Truffat and Kieślowski and Wong Kar-wai.  These aren’t brittle time-conscious Bollywood filmmakers who are engaged in the debilitating high-stakes game of commercial cinema.  These are “artistes” who have made their peace with commercial success.  They don’t disdain it anymore; they go after it.  “Look at us,” says Dutta.  “We are talking about distribution, posters, hoarding.  Two pegs down and we are all relaxed.”

“We also talk about art, but in a spirit of cooperation, not competition,” says Chowdhury, who has just made a few phone calls to fix a small glitch in another man’s production.  He invites me to watch his shoot the following day

All the directors goad Dutta to open more theaters in the districts.  “You guys need to change the mindset of the districts,” he counters.  “The days of self-indulgent cinema is over.”

I ask Chatterjee, the young actor, why he is in Kolkata instead of Mumbai.  “Kolkata is an international city but it hasn’t reached saturation point,” he replies.  “I want to be part of that ferment.”

Tamil film actor, Surya, much as I enjoy him, could not have delivered that line.  He might have attempted that sentence, but to use the word, “ferment?”  That word and that line can only be owned by a true-blue “intellectual Bengali,” the one that these guys insist doesn’t exist.

Shoba Narayan thanks Arijit Dutta for his adda.  She wishes she could return the favor, but sadly, the Kannada film industry comes together to support alleged wife-beaters, like the actor, Darshan.

 

About A Pet. Inji darling. RIP.

A very very hard piece to write.  I wrote reams of prose and then rewrote it countless times.  This has been in the works for the last four months.  Finally worked up the nerve to send it and have it published.  Not going to show it to my kids.  Don’t know if they can handle it.  Luckily, one is on a school trip and the other doesn’t read my column.  Here is the link to Mint’s page.  Pasted below is my longer version, which needed to be cut for space.

The night before my dog, Inji, died, she and I lay beside each other on the orange couch in our living room.  She didn’t shut her dilated golden eyes the whole night and neither did I.  Too weak to move after a month of not eating, I watched my beautiful beige Labrador with her still-silky coat suffer spasms all through the night.  The E.Coli infection that had eaten through her kidneys had finally lodged inside her brain.  The shivering that had started six weeks before turned into violent paroxysms.  Let go, child, I whispered to her, as she drooled bile and saliva; as her body rattled so hard I could hear the emptiness inside.  I wanted her to die; I wanted the decision not to be mine.  Her eyes never left me, even as I went to get her some water from the kitchen—water that spilled off the sides of her mouth.  Was she scared? I don’t know.  I was.

You want to know about grief.  Let me tell you about grief– not the spousal grief so beautifully captured by Joan Didion in her book, “A Year of Magical Thinking.”  This grief is the kind that is felt by a whole family that watches a beloved pet lose life’s last battle.  Grief is about spending six hours a day at a vet’s clinic, watching a once-frisky dog lie still on a metal stretcher and get two bottles of ringer lactate solution mixed with penicillin, B-complex, Vitamin C, and a cocktail of drugs.  The sound of grief is the drip of drugs, muffled sobs and incoherent prayers.   It is the smell of antiseptic mixed with urine.  Grief isn’t one emotion.  It is shock, rage, bitterness and incessant questions.  Why me? What’s a good way to die?  Streaming tears interspersed by a tidal wave of sobs that the body cannot contain.

My dog, Inji, was just three years old.  The word means ‘ginger’ in Tamil.  I wanted an Indian name; my kids wanted to call her “Laika” after the first dog in space.  She ended up being Inji Laika Narayan.  She was a healthy happy Labrador who liked to eat– not the sort of dog to contract a life-threatening illness? But then isn’t that what all parents (and that’s really what I was to my dog) say when their child succumbs to the “lethal march” of an illness that never stops?

The entire span of her illness was six weeks.  Was that too short a time; or too long a time to watch her suffer? Was it good that her illness gave our family time to adjust? Or would it have been better if she had suffered a stroke and died the next day without suffering? I can tell you that there were days during that long month when I woke up in the morning, dreading the sight of her tired, prone body that didn’t have the energy to jump up as she once did.  But still her tail wagged.  Although I am ashamed to admit it now, I occasionally wished that Inji would die in her sleep, relieving me of decisions about drugs that didn’t seem to work; freeing me from days and nights at the clinic.  After several weeks of this bleak routine, I just wanted the whole thing to be over.  Not my husband.

People react in different ways to health crises.  You learn new things about your spouse and children.  I learned that my husband who didn’t even like Inji as much as I did would never give up on her.  He was like a maniac—going on the Internet to discover new medication for chronic kidney failure in dogs.  He consulted four vets (one in America) about urine cultures and blood reports.  That’s when our fights began.  We argued over medical protocols and dropping creatinin counts.  I wanted to let Inji finish her life at home, without needles, in peace.  He accused me of pulling the plug; copping out.  He never gave up.  Till one day he did and the next day, our dog died.  He is still grieving.  I seem to be over it; or so I tell myself during those moments when I feel Inji behind me as I boil milk in the kitchen.  I say this when I insert the key into my front door and feel my body tighten with pleasure in anticipation of the overjoyed welcome my dog gave me—tail wagging, body shaking from side to side.  I still smile when I open the door.  And then I stop.

That last fateful evening, Inji started frothing at the lips.  She hadn’t eaten for a month.  Towards the end, she stopped drinking water.  It was over, said the vet.  The infection had affected her brain.  That evening, we returned home from the clinic and followed the usual routine of calling four vets before deciding that the illness had won.  My husband conceded defeat and called my sister-in-law, Priya.

Every family has a go-to person for a variety of crises.  You call your Mom for certain things; your Dad for others; your siblings for something.  In our family, the pet-person is Priya.  She was the first person we called that evening.  She and my brother came over; and basically didn’t leave till we buried Inji.

Who are you? Are you the kind that grieves intensely and quickly; or does your grief take time to reveal itself and leave?  Does it ever leave?  In the days that followed Inji’s death, I told myself and everyone else in my family that I was over it.  As I watched the palpable grief in the people I love, I told myself that I was different from them; somehow stronger.  Not true.

Dr. Morton came over on Inji’s last morning.  We asked if Inji had a chance to recover.  He said No.  He said, “If I don’t anesthetize her now, she’ll be dead by tonight.  But she’ll be in pain the whole day.”  We briefly debated whether to pull the kids out of school, and ended up bringing my elder daughter back but leaving the younger one out of the whole thing.

At 11.30, my elder daughter put Inji’s head on her lap.  My mother poured Ganga-jal into her mouth.  Inji sipped it.  My father looked dazed.  Priya wept along with my husband.  My brother hugged me.  Our friend, Sriram– a dog lover who simply showed up as friends do in times of crisis—said, “Watch her eyes.  It helps you gain some closure.  So I stared into my dog’s eyes, watching for signs of pain or hurt.  Her eyes remained dilated.  Death would occur in a few seconds, said the doctor.  I saw the light go out of Inji’s eyes.  With my fingers, I closed them.

We drove in a motorcade to Kengeri, an hour outside Bangalore, where a wonderful organization called People for Animals, rescues wildlife that has been cruelly treated by humans and rehabilitates them.  They also have a pet cemetery in a woody knoll.  We buried Inji there with full honours and rites—four pallbearers, sprinkled rice, her favourite foods—milk, bananas, tuna– and a jasmine garland.

To those of you who are considering getting a pet, let me tell you my experience.  Having a dog in the house forced my husband and I to walk together every morning and every evening.  You can outsource that, but we chose not to.  It was the best 20 minutes of our relationship and it happened everyday.  Sans mobile and interruptions; free of the walls of our household and its chores, we enjoyed the morning sunshine, the relative quiet, and talked about news and world affairs; about trees and philosophy.  We met other dog-owners from within our community, and got to know our neighbourhood better.  We learned the rhythms of our street; we learned to recognize the street-sweeping ladies.  Having a dog impacted our kids but not always in pleasant, predictable ways.  There were many days when I said nasty, awful things to them in an attempt to goad them to do more doggy-chores.  “We should have never got this bloody dog,” I would scream, after Inji pooped in the balcony, or vomited in the bedroom.  I yelled at my kids to walk the dog and when they refused because they were watching “Masterchef,” I would curse and bang the door and take her down myself.  Having a pet often seemed like more work than it was worth.  But there were also tender moments when I caught my kids lying on the floor, curled into a ball with Inji.  When they came home in a bad mood; or when they cried, Inji put her head on their lap and made them feel better.  Every morning, Inji would come into the bedroom and our oxytocin levels would go up, simply because of her wagging tail and oh-so-beautiful eyes.  If you are considering a pet “for the children’s sake,” realize that it will not be idyllic.  But it will teach your children compassion.  Your child will suddenly notice other animals, birds, stray dogs, insects and trees and view them as an extension of your family—just like your pet.  Your child might refuse to burst Diwali crackers because she is worried that the rockets flying to the sky will scare the birds.

Not having Inji around has freed us in many ways.  When we are out, we don’t rush back home because the dog is alone.  We are able to travel freely, without making kennel arrangements and then calling from Pune and Shimla to check on our dog.  Weighing these tangible freedoms against the intangible pleasures of having a dog is difficult.  That is the exercise our family is engaged in as we process whether to have another pet.  This time, we are sure we want to adopt; but we are not sure about when.

If you define a well-lived life as having a variety of experiences, then definitely get a pet.  I have stared at death in my dog’s face and it isn’t pretty.  It haunts me to this day.  But it has also prepared me for other kinds of death.  I have also experienced the kind of love that even my mother or children cannot give me.  People who want to experience unconditional love should get a dog; but also be prepared to take it out to pee four times a day.

It’s been six months but I still miss Inji, our beautiful golden Labrador, every single day.

Shoba Narayan’s family is debating when to get another dog.  Two are ready to adopt one right now and two are not.

 

Anupam Poddar Profile

This is a profile of Indian art collector, Anupam Poddar, who has one of the best collections of Indian Contemporary Art.  As the piece suggests, it could well become an Asian art collection in the near future.

Here is the URL of the profile in The National

Here is the PDF upload.Poddar Page 1Poddar Page 2

Here is the URL of a column I wrote for Mint

About Kolkata’s Mamoon Akhtar

This ran during the Ramzan-Eid season in The National, Abu Dhabi

A harbinger of hope for Kolkata’s poor

Shoba Narayan

Aug 20, 2011
Mamoon Akhtar, the founder of Samaritan Help Mission, joins students at one of its schools. Courtesy Samaritan Help Mission

 

With their bright smiles, curious eyes and dark hair, Urmin and Sabina, 8, look like typical school-going children; except they aren’t. Until recently, both these girls peddled drugs for their parents, selling heroin to the “uncles” who thronged their tiny huts in the Tikiapara slums of Howrah, Kolkata.

Today, both girls go to a school run by Samaritan Help Mission (SHM), a non-governmental organisation that educates underprivileged children in the largely Muslim area of Tikiapara. Many of the students at the SHM school are children of drug pedlars, and one of the most unsavoury things that Mamoon Akhtar, the 38-year-old founder of SHM, has to do is persuade their parents to stop selling the stuff, resist the drug lords and seek a mainstream livelihood instead.

“I would never have emerged from the hell I lived in with my children were it not for Mamoon,” says Reshma Khatoon, Sabina’s mother, who now works as a domestic helper. Urmin’s father now sells fruit for a living.

Akhtar knows the pain of a deprived childhood first-hand. When he was in the ninth grade, his parents pulled him out of school because his father had lost his job and they couldn’t afford it. He worked his way to becoming a librarian but did not forget his childhood privations.

In 1999, he used his life savings to build a small school on a parcel of land left to him in his father’s will. He called it Samaritan Help Mission, and its goal was to educate the children of the rag-pickers, rickshaw-pullers, servants and maids of the neighbourhood. Since then, SHM has grown to include classes from kindergarten to grade 8, a computer literacy workshop, vocational training and a micro-credit programme. Today, SHM’s schools educate more than 3,000 children of different ages. Some are orphans; some have run away from home; all are underprivileged. SHM charges them 5 rupees (40 fils) a year because Akhtar believes that people will not value anything that is free. Funds to run the school come from Akhtar’s savings and private donors, and through word of mouth. The local American consulate is a donor, for instance, as is a Mumbai-based charity called Caring Friends.

Although SHM operates in an area that is 80 per cent Muslim, Akhtar believes in a secular education. The school’s motto is “Help need, not creed”, and while this approach has garnered the school a “national integration” award, it has also angered the conservative religious leaders of the area who believe that a school located in a Muslim neighbourhood ought to teach its children values from the Islamic faith. Akhtar refuses to change the fundamental tenet upon which he founded the school.

“My background is Muslim though I support the great teachings of all faiths,” he says. “At the core of all great teachings is compassion and caring for others.”

Akhtar lives by his words. A few years ago, he and his friends arranged for a poor girl in their neighbourhood to be married to a rickshaw-puller. The girl, Amina, lived happily with her husband and gave birth to a daughter, whom they named Adiba Fatima after Akhtar’s daughter, Atifa Fatima Mamoon.

Two years later, Amina lost her husband to tuberculosis and her mother to old age. She began working as a maid to support her young daughter, who was the same age as Akhtar’s. The two little girls went to school together and played together. What no one knew was that Amina was suffering from cancer. On June 5, Akhtar and his wife, Shabana, went to the hospital to deliver their second child and found their neighbour Amina battling for her life. Amina died the next morning and SHM made all the funeral arrangements. The orphaned Adiba, who had been left in the care of a neighbour, jumped into Akhtar’s arms when he went to visit her.

“This brought tears to my eyes. I took Adiba in my arms and decided that Adiba will be my second daughter and will live with us from now,” says Akhtar.

At 10.30 that same night, Shabana gave birth to a baby girl. Akhtar took this as the word of God who “has given me the two daughters on same date, so I sent a message to my friends that we had twin girls – one newborn and the other who is 3 years old”.

Akhtar says that over the years, he has come to realise that you cannot adopt just a child; you have to adopt the entire family. Recently, SHM has started programmes teaching cosmetology, dressmaking, embroidery, fabric painting and computer skills (with donated computers) to the local women employed in menial jobs, such as domestic help or labourers.

“Education is important, because in the vacuum created by a lack of education, Muslim children are easy targets for religious fanatics,” says Akhtar. “We want all children to join their neighbours, regardless of background, to build a better and more prosperous India together.”

Mamoon Akhtar can be reached at shm.mamoon@hotmail.com. Also visit samaritanhelpmission.blogspot.com and samaritanhelpmission.org.