Essay, Lifestyle & Culture

Two Different Fires: Little India Riots 2013

Published at

8 December 2013


“Can we make a move? Grab dinner and get out of here? I’m exhausted.”

The bride and groom had completed the last of their seven perambulations around the sacred fire. Behind a large red cloth to keep away prying eyes, he marked the parting of her hair with orange sindoor. The couple sought blessings from their elders by touching their feet in the presence of guests and gods at the Lakshmi Narayan temple along Chander Road in Little India.

It had been a long Hindu wedding. The monsoon rain had just let up after 5 hours of steady downpour. The overall mood of marital bliss and cool rainy weather was working its lethargic magic on my limbs.


We piled our plates high with palak paneer, chapatti, creamy raita, chick pea curry and a serving of bhel puri – fried hollow crackers stuffed with potato, sweet sauce and yoghurt, topped with a sprinkling of coriander and finely ground black pepper. Crispy, sweet-sour, juicy and beautifully messy. That bhel puri was a winner. Long after the riot police wrapped up the chaos on its way to the temple’s doorstep, the one thing I remember with longing was that bhel puri.

The fourth floor of Lakshmi Narayan temple was empty except for the servers. As a common room for refreshments, steel tables and plastic chairs had been arranged for guests to sit and have a meal. Wire mesh windows lined the walls.

Pop pop pop pop

What’s that?

Don’t know. Some people having fun. More bhel puri?

Oh yes oh yes.


The party on the ground floor was getting noisy. People started shouting. Silence, then more shouts. We didn’t think too much of it.

I was wiping my mouth of the yoghurt that lost its way when the elevator doors slid open to reveal the aunt and uncle of the groom. The first thing they told us was: “There are riots outside.”

What? (Not a surprised what or even a shocked what because surprise and shock are emotions that imply an understanding, no matter how vague, of the situation. My what was more like request of a definition: What riots? It was the worst sort of what, the one says You might as well be talking to me about quantum physics or neurobiology because I have zero understanding of the word.)

Yes, real riots.

Is there a rooftop?

Two floors up.

What do you mean riots?

Pop pop pop. Again that sound. More distant yelling.

The cameraman for the wedding and a couple of other guests jog towards the stairs, but not before the elevator doors yawn open again and deposit the bride and groom, their faces blanketed with frowns of worry. They are accompanied by the groom’s brother, who everyone calls Bhaiya because he is the oldest.

“We’re locked in,” he announces. The newly married couple find a chair each and sit down. The henna on the bride’s hands is glowing, the tips of her fingers coloured the deep dark brown of earth.

What riots? What happened?

Real riots. (Again, that phrase.) Someone got knocked down by a bus and died on the spot.

Locked in. Real riots.

In the finery of our sarees, sherwanis and Anarkalis, anklets tinkling, bangles jingling, earrings gleaming, we run up the stairs to the rooftop.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.


It is dark on the sixth floor. Large and empty, except for wedding guests, temple staff and priests gathered at the wire mesh windows. It is impossible to make out anyone’s face here. My eyes adjust slowly to the night, my feet tread carefully. I am paranoid about falling down and breaking my leg.

Pop pop pop. Fweeeeeeee.

In the distance, a car is on fire. On Racecourse Road, a crowd gathers around a police vehicle. Encouraged by cheers and whistles, it is pushed over and (set on?) catches fire.

Above the susurration of our urgent whispers, the jarring whistling and cheering on the streets and the unexplainable popping sound is a dismal wail of a car horn screaming into the night, unstoppable, as though someone’s unconscious hand (head?) was pressing into it.


Is that another staircase?

Hidden in a small corner and obscured by the night is an old-school winding spiral staircase that opened up to an open-air rooftop. There are already at least ten people crowding the high cement stairs. Modesty forgotten, I hitch up the folds of my long dress and climb up into a crowd of friends and guests.

A wave of vertigo rolls over me as the stairs opened up to fresh air and an unrestricted, unhindered view of the chaotic scene. The corrugated roof sheeting is so close that I can leave my purse there as I fix my center of gravity. There is nothing for me to hold on to other than the corrugated roof sheet in front of me and the wedding cameraman beside me, who is recording the footage of the scene, his camera swivelling left to right, right to left, as the rooftop witnesses give real-time updates of the events.

At times, there are pockets of silence when everyone lapses into silence and looks unbelievingly at the mayhem surrounding the temple. The mournful wail of the car horn rises into the night. Again, that pop pop pop.

It was a real riot that was beginning to feel unreal.


The horn stops abruptly. Another vehicle catches fire. Occasionally there is the sound of something breaking, smashing, followed by loud cheers.

Bloody Bangladeshis.

No, they’re not Bangladeshi. Most likely Madrasi.

What makes you think they are one or the other?

Because the Bangladeshis don’t come to this corner of Little India.

That’s a far stretch.

No, seriously. This is where the workers from India have a drink on weekends.

Boy, are they pissed.

They’re just drunk.

They’re not all this angry. I know this guy, Suresh, who helps us out all the time. He calls his wife in India every night, without fail.

Everyone needs a catalyst.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

10:55pm or thereabouts

The fire on our left has grown bigger, yellow-orange flames leaping, jumping. The cloud of black fumes is indistinguishable from the night sky. Then, a high-pitched sound like a pressure cooker letting off steam. A mechanical, non-human whistle. The music of quickly impending danger.

The first explosion, when it came, erupted in mushroom of smoke and sent a shockwave of heat towards the rooftop. My knees grow weak.

Someone says, What heat? I don’t feel any heat and I’m standing right here.

Someone else says, It’s a shockwave.

I can feel what I feel. Who wants to make up shit like this?

11:15pm or thereabouts

The second explosion comes from the vehicle on our right, further up along Racecourse Road. By this time, I am numb. The fires rage on and on. A group of policemen jogs away in earnest, away from the rioting crowd. More raucous cheering and whistling.

Are they running away, someone asks.

Cowards, someone mutters. (Or maybe no one said that and what I’d heard was the whisper of our hearts.

But I’d run away from this madness, too.)

11:30pm or thereabouts

Flashing lights in the distance, beyond the smouldering embers of the vehicles. Charred mechanical skeletons by this time.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.


At some point, we received news that it was somewhat safe – or safer, in any case – to make our way home. We cleared from the roof and joined the majority of the guests on the fourth floor. Parched throats (from talking, excitement, heavy breathing) called for water.

Someone led us through a labyrinth of stairwells and dark rooms to the ground floor.

How do you know your way around here so well, asked a French lady from Brittany, one of the guests at the wedding.

I used to play here as a kid.

You play in a temple?

My parents dragged me here every Sunday. It was boring for a kid, so I ran around a lot. It’s nothing new, really.

We passed the mandap, where the bride and groom were making their rounds around a different sort of fire a few hours ago. Where an Indian priest from Uttar Pradesh in north-west India uttered the sacred verses of the Vedas in a language that has remained unchanged for thousands and thousands of years. Jasmine flowers and unidentified flower petals littered the area around the mandap, which guests had thrown onto the bride and groom in a shower of blessing.

Lifestyle & Culture, The Mughals in India

For the Love of Poetry: Mughals & Mushairas

Urdu is arguably the most romantic language of the Indian subcontinent. Acoustically, it is light and lilting, delicate on the ears and sophisticated even in simple sentence constructions. When expressed with skill in Urdu, the complexity and nuance of an emotion deepens. It is the language of love and poetry. That my late grandfather could speak, read and write in Urdu was and remains a matter of pride for me. Unfortunately, very few native speakers of the language remain in present-day India, a far cry from the 18th century when it was the national language of the region.

Urdu Shairi & the Ghazal

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Urdu poetry or shairi as we recognize it today took its final decisive shape in the 17th century when Urdu was declared the official language of the Mughal court. The following decades witnessed a phenomenal rise in Urdu poetry and ushered in the age of legends such as Ghalib, Zauq and Mir.

Urdu shairi is based on a system of measure, and has a very rigid form. There are several types of Urdu shairi, one of which is the hugely popular ghazalGhazal literally means “to talk to/about women”. Traditionally, ghazals mainly deal with the topic of love – more specifically, unattainable love. The poet is the distraught, spurned lover who tries to gain the affection of an aloof, disdainful, sometimes cruel beloved. Each verse of a ghazal is a complex but complete description of the topic. It requires great skill on the part of the poet to reduce the most complex of emotions into the fewest of words while maintaining sophistication of thought and word.

Kahan woh maha jabeen aur hum, kahan who wasal ki raaten,
Magar hum ne kabhi tha ek yeh bhi khwaab saa dekha,
Zafar ki sair is gulshan mein hum ne par kisi gul mein,
Na kuchh ulfat ki boo paai, na kuchh rang-e-wafa dekha.
Whither I, whither my moon, and whither those nights of love?
But to see such a dream had once been my fate;
Although, I (Zafar) combed the garden, I didn’t see one bloom,
Not one lively scent of love, not one streak of faith.
– Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Mushaira: The Poetic Symposium

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden. c. 1640-50/

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden.
c. 1640-50

The proliferation of media outlets and rapidity of communications today would be shocking to the public of late 18th century India, when newspapers and modes of communication were limited to the local-run Delhi Urdu Akhbar and the British-run Delhi Gazette. Over time, Urdu poetry evolved to become a more intimate and personal way of responding to the social and political tribulations of the period.

The commonest form of poetry recital was a mushaira, or a poetic symposium, where poets would gather to read their compositions crafted in accordance to a strict metrical pattern, agreed upon beforehand, even while meeting a certain loftiness of thought.

The intensity of the mushairas that developed in Delhi were legendary, helping popularise Urdu as a language of poetry in the Mughal court. A culture was built around taking lessons in poetry writing; it even became fashionable for royalty to learn Urdu shairi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, was an accomplished poet in his own right. He had a habit of setting his court difficult poetic tasks, such as the challenging art of tazmin – the adding of an extra line to the couplet so as to turn it into a three-liner without losing the sense of rhythm.

Zafar also received his own pupils for composition and helped correct their verses. The court diary records him as taking “A khasburdar and a female – Piram Jan – as pupils in poetic composition.” From her name, Piram Jan appears to be a courtesan, and the fact that Zafar publically tutored courtesans is interesting evidence of the high social status that better courtesans enjoyed in Mughal Delhi, and the degree to which many of them were renowned for their poetic talents.

The novel was made into a movie starring Rekha. Umrao Jaan, 1981

The 1899 novel Umrao Jan Ada was made into a Bollywood movie starring Rekha. (Umrao Jaan, 1981)

In what is widely considered Urdu’s first novel, writer Mirza Hadi Ruswa tells the story of a cultured courtesan-poetess named Umrao Jaan. The novel, titled Umrao Jan Ada, was published in 1899 and presents a lavish portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow’s decadent society and the mushairas of the time. In fact, the narrator of the novel meets Umrao Jaan at a mushaira, where she first coquettishly hides behind a purdah (curtain) and invisibly calls out her praise with wah-wahs. Later, Umrao Jan emerges and, at the request and subsequent delight of the crowd present, recites the following lines:

Galat andaaz hii sahii voh nazar
Kyun mere haal par nahii hotii
Ay adaa ham kabhii nah maanenge
Dil ko dil kii khabar nahii hotii
Even if that gaze is brazen,
Why does it not rest upon me?
Oh Ada, we shall never concur-
A heart knows nothing about a heart.

In Farhatullah Baig’s The Last Mushai’rah of Delhi, Baig presents a fictionalised but well-informed account of how enchanting a Mughal mushaira must have been:

The courtyard has been filled so as to raise it to the level of the plinth of the house. On the wooden planks were spread cotton rugs. There was a profusion of chandeliers, candelabra, wall lamps, hanging lamps and Chinese lanterns so that the house was converted into a veritable dome of light… From the centre of the roof were hung row upon row of jasmine garlands… the whole house was fragrant with musk, amber and aloes… Arranged in a row, at short intervals along the carpet, were the huqqas, burnished and brightly polished…
The seating pattern was arranged so that those assigned places on the right of the presiding poet had connections with the Lucknow court, and on the left were seated the Delhi masters and their pupils.

Hookahs, paan and sweets would be passed around. A spirit of friendly competition and camaraderie would emerge. After the Bismillah was proclaimed, the personal representative of the Emperor arrived from the court with the Emperor’s own ghazal. Verses and couplets were passed back and forth, one inspiring the other, and while the others shouted their approval with wah-wahs, lesser skilled poets grew silent and reticent. The recital would continue till dawn, and climax with the mushaira’s most accomplished poet reciting his verses.

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle
A thousand desires like these, each desire enough to consume me,
Many wishes have been fulfilled, yet many more still remain.
– Mirza Ghalib (1797 –1869)
Lifestyle & Culture

5 Tales about the Festival of Rakhi

Photo by musical poet ( CC-BY-SA 2.0     Sisters tie an elaborate thread of cotton or silk around their brother’s wrist in a prayer of longevity.

Photo by musical poet ( CC-BY-SA 2.0
Sisters tie an elaborate thread of cotton or silk around their brother’s wrist in a prayer of longevity.

Indians will look for any excuse to celebrate. No one really knows the official number – I’m not sure if there even is one – but according to some national sources, every state observes different public holidays. India cumulatively celebrates an average of one festival every 2.5 days!

So, it’s that time of the year when sisters extract copious amounts of money from their brothers in exchange for tying a little silk thread around their wrists. I’m talking about the festival of Raksha Bandhan aka rakhi, of course, and I wrote a little something for the guys Little India Directory.

I asked my mother once, “Why do I tie rakhi?” The best answer I received was “So that your brother will protect you. It is a tradition.” 

Read the rest here.

Food & Culture

A Short History of Biryani

Under Mughal rule, cuisine was distilled to perfection and refined into an art form. Biryani is one such dish that was polished in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors. The word biryanicomes from the Persian birian. It is basically a dish of rice and meat, not unlike the pilaf. This is no coincidence, because the wordbiryani was used interchangeably with pilaf as late as the sixteenth century.

What we do know for sure is that as a cuisine, the biryani or pilaf was refined during the reign of the Mughals. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich and smooth with cream and yogurt. Imperial cooks threw in spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. The result was a fragrant, heady and flavourful dish fit for royalty. Till today, biryani is one of the cornerstones of Mughlai cuisine.

Read the rest of the article here.

Read more about the food culture of the Mughal Empire.