creative writing, Fiction

“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565)

Beaten down by a merciless winter, the dogs, lean and hungry, chased after something darting across the snow. All they found was a skinny rabbit. We had been gone since sunrise and nothing to show for our efforts but this one catch. The animals were hiding, or else dead – whether from the elements or some other predator, we will never know. We hung the skinny rabbit on my spear and trudged home through the deep snow, boots sinking into the ground, the cold reaching through the hide and under our skins. We passed Thelma and her children, who were feeding fuel to a blazing fire. Did her husband bring home something more substantial than a mere rabbit? Was there a deer hiding inside the home? She eyed the rabbit on my spear and nodded at me as if to say Fate, eh?

“The children are young,” Abe said in a hard voice, “They only know hunger and games, they do not see themselves growing thinner with cold.” Abe was married to my sister, as I was to his. We lived as neighbours on the bridge above the river. From the hill beyond the hamlet, I spotted Abe’s wife gathering firewood, a black smudge on the landscape. We decided the day’s catch would become stew for the children. There was the question of the dogs, too. How could Abe and I afford to feed them, keep them alive, so they in turn continued to feed us and keep us alive? I tossed them bones too hard to chew. They chased down birds on occasion but even the birds were becoming wary, soaring the open skies and coming to rest on high branches, away from desperate jaws.

Abe was right about the children. What happens when there is not one skinny rabbit left? Hannah is already looking out for mice. Last night she told me how our last loaf of bread was chewed up in a corner. It’s a good sign, she sighed, her voice an odd mix of hope and despair. “I can lay out the traps and cook them while the children are out to play. They won’t know the difference.” I held her hand in the dark and closed my eyes. “Abe and I are to hunt tomorrow. Maybe I will bring our boy with us. You will not have vermin for dinner.”

Advertisements
Standard
Essay, Writing

Plucking the Fruit: Freelance Writing Tips

I attended a freelance writer’s workshop yesterday at The Arts House. Sat at a marble table in a white room with a high ceiling where the Prime Minister once held his office. 20 aspiring freelance writers showed up. By the end of the workshop, I realized I was going around my freelance writing business (see #3) in a horribly wrong way. The $20 I paid for my seat was the best investment I ever made for my future.

1. Write what you know about.

Plenty of successful writers have said this time and time again. Write only what you know about. I knew this refrain, I’d heard it frequently enough, but I realized yesterday how superficial my understanding was. What this really means is that stamp collectors write about stamp collecting (even if it’s not a “real job”, so to speak); readers write about books; marathon runners write about marathons; overweight people who’ve just lost 50kg write about the exercise of discipline; partygoers write about clubs and nightlife; self-professed fashion critics write about fashion disasters; kitchen gods and goddesses write about food. When you stick to what you know, you can’t go wrong. It’s really that simple. 

2. Stories. Stories everywhere.

Stories are all around us. This was a ground-shaking epiphany for me. Anthony Koh, the full-time freelance writer who led the workshop, gave an example of how a simple daily occurrence can become a good story. His female friend, a cool, classy lady, was suddenly besotted with Edward Cullen during the height of the Twilight fever. She’d seen the movie once and wanted to see it again, only this time, fearing Robert Pattinson-induced jealousy, she asked Anthony instead of her boyfriend. His interest was piqued. Why was a woman who didn’t fall under the Twilight demographic so smitten by a fictional teenage vampire? He bought the book, read it and realized that Edward Cullen was the perfect boyfriend. He knew exactly what to do with women and how to do it. Twilight was a 101 guide on how to woo a woman. That became a selling story.

3. You are a salesperson first. Writer second.

Writing is a passion. The passion is what keeps you going. But at the end of the day, you’re writing for money. There’s no point churning out article after article if you don’t know how to sell yourself. Get a website blog. If you are as yet unpublished, use your website as a platform. When editors ask you for sample writing, point them to your blog. Just make sure it’s professional, and you aren’t writing about how your pet died. Market yourself on social media. Get yourself a namecard and distribute it. Send out holiday cards to everyone that’s helped your writing career in some way. It shows gratitude, humility and helps them remember your name.

4. Your pitch will make it or break it.

I’ve been writing freelance for 4 years now, and until yesterday, I had no idea how to pitch a story. This is a moment for my wall of shame. Before you pitch your story to a magazine, do some research. Read their past 3 issues at least, so you know you’re not giving them something they’ve already printed. In your e-mail, summarise your story and angle, and convince the editor why your story will be good for their publication (i.e., sales).

Imagine you are a door-to-door salesperson. You knock on the door, they open it and ask, “Hi, what do you want?” And you have only 30 seconds to sell your idea. That’s your pitch. An Indian entrepreneur once told me during an interview: “You’re sitting below a mango tree. You can’t wait for the fruit to drop into your lap. You have to climb the tree and pluck the mango yourself.”

5. Know when to write for free.

There are some publications that any writer would give an arm and a leg to write for. For me, it’s National Geographic and Time Magazine. I’d write for them at no cost in a heartbeat. The honour of having your story in such respectable publications is greater than any monetary remuneration. Unfortunately there are very few magazines that inspire that level of respect. For everything else: agree on a sum of money that you feel is a fair compensation of your efforts. Stay away from the ones that pay $20 for 5 articles. That’s not fair in any world, let alone this. Remember: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Standard
Festivals, Lifestyle & Culture, Photography

How to Walk on Fire & Other Lessons

The escalator deposited us at the train station’s waiting area together with thirty other stranded souls. Outside, the weather had turned foul. Tea-coloured puddles gathered around curbs and corners. Unperturbed by the torrential downpour, the yellow-robed firewalkers went about barefoot and without umbrellas. All of them, without exception, held on to a stalk of neem leaves and one yellow-green lime. One guy had tucked his neem into the gathers of his yellow robe around his waist. Shoeless, he waded across a calf-high puddle without concern, his double-folded dhoti coming up to his knees. An Audi slowed down for him as he crossed the street, eyes gleaming and a steadfast purpose in his stride.

Much later in the night, pressed up against hundreds of unyielding bodies, standing next to a man sipping at a straw (I’m pretty sure it was vodka) from a paperbag, a Chinese lady asks me, “What is this all about?”

She had heard about theemithi from her friends, about how the firewalking ceremony is a huge event in Singapore’s Indian community. Thousands show up to rally their support for the firewalkers. Hundreds brave the journey across the burning coals. Standing across the street and looking up at the live feed set up from inside Sri Mariamman Temple, jostled around like a ragdoll, it’s obvious that this was not the experience she signed up for.

“So all of this starts with the Mahabharata. It’s considered the greatest Indian epic.”

“Like a story?”

“Yes. Like a story, except it’s a poem and some people think it really did happen.”

So I tell her about Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, and how she was almost publically disrobed in the court of the Kauravas, who were her husbands’ enemies. Krishna, the sweet and occasionally cheeky god so dark-coloured that he is depicted with blue skin, steps in and saves her from humiliation. This incident was arguably the catalyst that sparked off the Mahabharata, the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, blood cousins and bitter enemies.

Theemithi – the actual fire-walking ceremony – is only the culmination of several religious rituals, all of which mark the Pandavas’ eventual victory of that war between kin. In the Mahabharata’s grand finale, Draupadi walks on fire to prove her chastity and virtuosity. She emerges unscathed, without a single singe on her body.

Every year, tens of thousands of believers and devotees all over the world follow Draupadi’s example and brave the journey across hot coals in memory of that victory of light over darkness, of good over evil.

*

Firewalkers within Perumal Temple. Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Firewalkers within Perumal Temple. Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Potbellied and lean, hairy and smooth-skinned, young, old, tattooed, pierced, white bearded, clean shaven and ash-smeared – there is no standard stereotype of a firewalker, except that they are all dressed in saffron and yellow robes, now wet and clinging to their bodies. A crowd of men, hundreds of bodies, pressing in and moving about; the perennial dodging of elbows and polite (sometimes exasperated) excuse me’s had started. Hearing a woman’s voice, most stepped aside respectfully; others, not so. Such was the chaotic scene within the tented compound of Perumal Temple.

Vendors distributed Bandung – a pink coloured beverage of rose syrup with milk, a Singaporean favourite – and lukewarm chai. Also up for grabs: Styrofoam packets of rice and lentils. While the vegetarian food was primarily for devotees, firewalkers and their families, a few vagrant immigrants had wandered into the tented compound and were attacking the free vegetarian meals with gusto. They clustered in groups along the tent’s perimeter, uncaring of the puddles that leaked onto the tarpaulin. Some stood. Plastic chairs, placed at random locations, were occupied by women and the elderly. Human traffic flowed in every available direction. There was no method to this madness. I kept my elbows out and eyes alert.

Presiding over this utter mayhem was what sounded like devotional music. Devotional music sung by an exceptionally enthusiastic – but still quite tone-deaf – bearded man, and accompanied by an electronic keyboard. Everyone with neem stalks was waving them in the air, over their heads. Those without neem stalks were waving their hands. No one noticed that the music sounded like a rock band gone bad. No one else noticed that faint hint of marijuana in the air either. Odd, that.

The crowd within Perumal Temple. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

The crowd within Perumal Temple. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

A man stood guard near the entry into the main temple compound, where the firewalkers were praying in preparation for their sojourn across burning coals later in the night at another temple. An important-looking card hung around his neck. We made eye contact, and I approached him.

“Hi,” I smiled, presenting the most pleasant side of my personality.

“Hi,” he smiled back. Great start, I thought to myself, until he pointed at my camera and said, “You can’t go in. You need a media pass.”

“But I am documenting an important Hindu festival. More people need to know about this.”

He shook his head. “I’m very sorry, but you need to present a media card. There is no other way in.” He seemed genuinely apologetic.

“What happens after this?”

“The priest will start the prayers soon, then he will lead the whole procession towards Sri Mariamman Temple.”

“With the firewalkers?”

“With the firewalkers.”

“What time exactly, you think?”

“Hard to say exactly but maybe 6 o’clock the prayer will start. Half an hour later, the priest will start walking.” My watch read 5:57pm. Okay, I thought. Sounds reasonable.

*

Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Traffic wardens in ponchos, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

I make my way outside, find shelter beneath the shophouses across the road. The monsoon scene made everything look like a parody. Traffic wardens in plastic ponchos and temple officials carrying stately black umbrellas.

Travelling in a single file in front of the temple were firewalkers draped in yellow and saffron robes. I peered through the viewfinder of my faithful Nikon. I need to take a step forward, to get a better angle, but find that my left foot is fastened to the ground. Stuck and… sticky? Definitely facing resistance. I look down and find my slipper wedged deep in a pile of something brown, black and resembling excrement. Definitely human.

I look up to my partner, unbelieving. “Find a puddle. Wash it.” Having dispensed with this ground-breaking advice, he snaps a photo of me looking dismally at my foot sunk in shit. Something for my wall of shame.

*

The downpour eventually calms into a steady drizzle; the sky deepens to a twilight blue. The humidity of the mushrooming crowd is tempered by a gentle, flirty breeze.

After ninety minutes of standing around, there is finally sign of activity: a traffic warden waves his hands and whistles for the traffic to stop. The temple gates open a fraction and eight men in dhotis march out. Spearheading the group is a man with a coco broom sweeping the ground in rapid strokes as he walks. He is followed by another man carrying a fire torch. The torch bearer is closely followed by a man with a small drum and another carrying prasadam in a steel pail. The rest appear to be just accompaniment. The entire procession hurries past as though they’re late for an appointment.

I am confused, irritated and a little angry. Was this it? This little 30-second performance was what I waited for all this while?

The three women on my right had staked out their spot around the same time as us. Up till now, they were engaged in a riveting conversation in Tamil. One of them turns to face me, perhaps sensing my irritation.

“What just happened, Aunty? Do you know?”

“Warding off evil, girl. Cleansing the path. After this, the priest will come.”

Warding off the evil eye, Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Warding off the evil eye, Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

*

Again, it is the traffic warden’s cue that draws attention to the fact that something is about to happen. By this time, we had been standing for three hours. We entertained ourselves in every possible way: sang Hindi songs, played iPhone games, pointed at cars, watched YouTube videos and experimented with camera settings in low light conditions, all the while standing. The both of us are past irritation and well into exhaustion.

Finally, activity: about 50 firewalkers emerge from the temple and form a group. They are all skilfully draped in their yellow and saffron robes, foreheads and forearms smeared with ash. They deliberate, look around and talk to each other, generally appearing quite important.

The chief priest then arrives, heralded by a huge flame. He comes with a bunch of elderly men smeared with more ash than the first group and garlanded with jasmine and roses. One priest carries a statue in the likeness of Goddess Durga. He is surrounded by men holding sky-facing swords pierced with lime. The whole procession ambles down the road, keeping within the iron barricades, towards Sri Mariamman Temple 4 kilometres away.

The head priest arrives, leading the procession.. © Preet Kaur 2013

The head priest arrives, leading the procession.. © Preet Kaur 2013

*

We arrive by bus, catching the 147 from Little India to Chinatown, where Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple is located. Ah, life’s little ironies.

Theemithi, or firewalking, has been practised at Sri Marimman Temple since 1840.  Given that, one would expect crowd control contingencies to be made for the day. Instead, all I see as I approach the temple is a wall of people. There were easily thousands packed into nearby lanes and standing on the curb, with more pouring in every minute. The air was thick with sweat and breath.

We pushed ahead as far as we could go but the crowd would not give. I saw maybe a total of ten women in all that time. There was no mayhem here, as opposed to the earlier madness at Perumal Temple. Most people stood rooted in their position, calmly watching the live feed on the huge screen. Occasionally, they clapped solemnly when a firewalker actually walked across the burning coal pit, as opposed to dashing or jogging. The clap was respectful, united, as though acknowledging the difficulty of what they were seeing.

Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

I clapped, too. Seated on a beer drum belonging to a bar opposite the temple, beside a drunk but friendly old man who was sipping from a paperbag containing a mysterious but definitely alcoholic drink, I was glad to bear witness to the night’s events. The screen was perfectly visible from where I sat, which gave me a chance to analyse firewalking techniques. Some ran, others skipped. A select few walked across slowly like they didn’t feel the pain at all.

Later on, on my way home, I spoke to a firewalker. Kumaresan, 22 years old, has participated in the annual firewalking festival ever since he was 16. Every year, Kumar fasts for 48 days prior to the festival. He eats only vegetarian food and tries to stay clean in mind and body. A gleaming gold stud shines from his right earlobe, and I notice several tattoos on his chest and wrist.

Kumaresan, the firewalker. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Kumaresan, the firewalker. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

“Doesn’t it hurt? Don’t you feel the heat?” I asked.

“Every firewalker will tell you the same thing. Your mind switches off. You cannot feel anything.”

“You mean like being in a trance?” I had heard about people going into trances before, but I was sceptical about the phenomenon.

“It’s not like entering a trance. I mean, sometimes people do get into a trance but the priests won’t let you walk on the coals if you are. They will wait for you to come out of it. Your mind has to be here. But you can ask anyone – you don’t feel anything. Like the pain, at that moment, does not matter.”

We stayed for a while, watching the screen, oohing and aahing with the rest of the crowd when a brave soul walked across the coals with the nonchalance of a man strolling in the park.

When I jumped off my makeshift seat to head home, I heard the drunk old man behind me saying goodbye. He motioned someone else to take my place. It had a good view.

Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

An idea of the crowd at Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Standard
creative writing, Food & Culture

An Ode to the Gol Gappa

I sing a thousand praises in your name, O Inventor of Gol Gappa*. Were you aware that with this one humble recipe from your Benarasi kitchen, you had changed the innocent landscape of India’s street food scene forever? That long after your death, children would be pestering their mothers for a round of gol gappay from their favourite panipuri wallah**? That after leaving for greener pastures, Indians in every corner of the world would fondly recall this unassuming, humble snack and pine for it the way a lover pines for his beloved? And somehow, even Indians who never knew that motherland would discover a recessive gene that mysteriously craves for an explosive combination of sweet and sour? After all, what is a gol gappa? A hollowed out shell of a mini puri punctured at its crown, stuffed with a tangy mix of potatoes, meethi^ chutney and shudderingly sour tamarind water; small enough to be eaten whole and big enough to make the whole exercise an example of how food can be such delicious fun. Did you name it yourself, knowing that gol, meaning round in Hindi, refers to the shape of the snack, but is no doubt also a description of the delightful O your mouth needs to shape into to accommodate it?

What’s the best part of the gol gappa? Is it that first crunch that shatters the crispy fried dough? Is it the moment the sour tamarind floods your mouth while your eyebrows shoot upwards in response to that first shock of taste? Or when the meethi chutney’s sweetness cuts through the tamarind like a blessing and brings relief to your molars? Or could it be – and this is my favourite bit – that frantic journey the gol gappa makes from plate to mouth, the way you move extra quick when there are holes in the puri, how your lips stretch extra wide, knowing how absolutely stupid you must look, the self-consciousness bringing an inevitable grin to your face so you end up smiling with your mouth in a great big O?

Oh, what a riot.

Glossary

*Gol gappa is what this snack is called by in Delhi. Gol gappay is the plural of gol (round) gappa (something that is eaten in one bite).

** In Mumbai, gol gappa is known as pani (water) puri (fried dough/bread). A panipuri wallah is a street vendor who sells the snack.

^ meethi = sweet

Edit: I am so thrilled to see the response this post has gotten from gol gappay lovers all over the world! Thank you for sharing the locations of your favourite gol gappay wallahs and joining in my celebration of this super chaat. 

Standard
creative writing, Fiction

1993

Winter in a rural Punjabi village in ‘93; there is an angel in the house facing my aunt’s.

He must have been fifteen or so, with the grayest eyes I had ever seen – overcast clouds and milky asphalt. I stole glances at him, obvious and unashamed, on a windy December day. His parents ran a kite shop from their porch. My aunt sold yoghurt and rice from hers. The houses faced each other, separated by a dusty road leading to open fields that transformed into puppet theaters on warmer evenings.

Every morning, when they open the wooden doors to display dragons with long tails and spotted butterflies, I am there, behind my counter, pretending to swat flies. (December, despite the biting cold, is a popular time for kite-flying and ice-cream yoghurt.) His white skin is dotted with moles and in his eyes a turbulent winter brewing trouble. I think to myself, You are a farishta out of a Sufi parable. I think so loud that I am sure heard me. I blush crimson and stand by the door or behind the shop counter and spend whatever time I have between bouts of diarrhoea admiring him; thinking farishta farishta.

One week later, in the dead of the morning, we pack our bags for New Delhi. The rented van’s motor makes sputtering noises like an old man’s hacking cough. I wait for him in the middle of an empty street. His eyes crowd my head and become snowflakes. I think about the storms in winter that never quell.

He never came.

Standard
Fiction

17 Minutes

i.

Last night I saw someone that I wanted to talk to
because he looked interesting
but I heard a snippet of an ongoing conversation
he was having and it sounded dreadfully dull.
Where do people get the drive to endlessly regurgitate
their epiphanies and why are they content
listening to the same drivel over and over
and over?

ii.

The world can be a beautiful place
when you let go. Light falls in
perfect places, skipping across the surface
of things, and shines with a degree of shyness.
People hide behind their glasses of water,
flasks of whiskey, cans of beer, cameras, cigarettes, music,
conversation but their souls emerge
as if rising out of some darkness into the clear,
blue light of day. And voices are clearer,
insights sharper and words ring like a church bell
with an element of honesty.

iii.

At Little India, an old man was playing his sitar
to a gathered group of late-night shoppers
and the Chinese owners of the shop next door.
The street was empty and silent and every nuance of his plucking resounded beautifully.

I would love to meet someone
who can carry a conversation
like a melody, a musician,
the agent of divinity,
only to be left breathless and rejuvenated at the end
of seventeen minutes.

Standard
Fiction

A History of Spices

Red Claw Press

Assuming that pots, knives, chopping boards, blenders and a functional stove are readily available, this is an experimental recipe for tomato soup. My mother used to say that one’s history informs the outcome of one’s hands. The kitchen I work in is gray and old but heavy with the memory of epic dinner parties, light breezy snacks and Indian gourmet. The surfaces of things are stained with the matriarch whose tremendous hands have have touched everything. The spices lined up in the fridge not unlike unquestioning school children who once rolled over the texture of her old lined palms, rubbed between her fingers, colouring the tips a dark brown and sticking stubbornly between the creased valleys of her hands. Cinnamon stands upright in a jar once filled with marmalade; aadrak she keeps in a wide yellow container next to skinned garlic; badi elaichi is special and precise, used always for a specific purpose and never as substitute (but I admit I didn’t always know what badi elaichi was – I stayed out of the kitchen as a child in an attempt to refuse the heritage of my gender, a heritage my mother so gracefully accepted in her own youth – yet I could almost always detect it when it was used in lentils and rice because its strong smoky flavour is unmistakable). The curry essential, garam masala, literally translated as hot spice, sits in a Nutella jar next to tumeric (I do not know any recipe this spice compliments except one that reflects the vanity of the maker – raw eggs and homemade yogurt mixed with tumeric, I have found, will result in thick yellow-orange raw-smelling paste which is then smeared carefully across the surface of skin to keep it glowing and fair), next to which is cumin or jeera, which is Mother’s favourite although in all these years, she has never admitted why that is so even while making no efforts to conceal its supposed superiority whilst reciting recipes over the telephone to various nameless aunties.

I know little of spices, even less of their uses, but I do know this – nine months after The Pisces was conceived, after seven years of trying, like a slippery, evading eel she was determinedly stuck inside the womb. It was a premature sign of her rejection of this world, reflecting only her later disapproval of everything she saw; Mother panicked and worried for what was to be her firstborn – there were previous complications and she had finally kicked the dry spell after many years of marriage. This was the sure-fire baby-expelling remedy – a boiled pot of cumin tea that she forced herself to drink and two hours later squeezed the baby out. I first heard this story in ’98 at which point the Pisces was eighteen and heavily made-up with gray liquid eyeshadow, maroon lipstick, torn jeans and old t-shirts. Mother’s youngest sister told me, we called her Dutch Masi. I got to thinking for a long time that my sister was distraught with the world in her early years up all the way to puberty because she was made to come out when she was not yet ready. Perhaps that was why she never liked being in photographs, those sticky reminders of the past (or maybe her aversion to photographs had to do with a bad break of acne which lasted for most of her teenage life). Perhaps that was why she wore awkward clothes, had gorgeous, outgoing friends, and never failed to make me look stupid whenever she found an opportunity. In her warm, wet cocoon of comfort, perhaps, in her baby hands, she was still holding on to the place from which she came; it could have been the last strands of a previous life or a paradise of souls waiting for bodies or maybe she was in the final stages of conversation with God, a conversation that was reaching resolution; it would, she thought, provide her with all the information and tools necessary for the Great Adventure of Life so that she could breeze through it familiarly, never get stuck for too long (unlike the rest of us); alas! it was a conversation interrupted all because of jeera.

Lastly, there is no kesar in the fridge but this is hardly surprising because while saffron was used traditionally in Persia as a curative for bouts of melancholy, Indians feared it as an aphrodisiac; they exploit the spice but once – on the nuptial night, a veiled bride presents affron milk to her husband; he drinks the potion and slowly, tenderly, unhooks the clasp of her blouse and lifts up the veil while the camera focus dims and the audience groans inwardly. But assuming your kitchen is a fully equipped one and assuming it is not as laden with history and prone to inducing long bouts of musings as mine is, I finally have a recipe for you:

In a pot, put some water to boil. Add semi-cooked potatoes and carrots. Throw the sliced tomatoes and yogurt into a blender. Blend. When the water level the pot is halved, add the blended tomatoes and stir. Lower fire. Simmer for twenty minutes. Throw in some cream butter, Italian spices, pepper. Add salt according to taste. Switch off the fire and serve warm with toast bread.

Published by Red Claw Press in an anthology, Crave It: Writers and Artists Do Food

Standard