Friday, 2 March 2018

Just the page, off-stage

A profile in two voices of India’s most thought-provoking playwright in English, MAHESH DATTANI. Originally published in 2001.

It’s a June day. A breezy gust ruffles the spray of magenta bougainvillea overhanging the intimate outdoor  theatre at J P Nagar, Bangalore. A green bamboo gate creaks onto the dramatic space. Muffled footfalls lead up the curve of steps to a terracotta-bricked interior.

A study door opens. A flourescent blue-green Macintosh squats atop a study table. An assortment of books line a wall. Videos of Hindi film classics of the Fifties and Sixties are stacked tall in a niche. Notes from Ella Fitzgerald’s honey-brown voice waft through the air. A full-length mirror lines the length of the door. A futon with a blockprinted spread hugs the wall adjacent to the window. The early evening sun rides a shaft in.

A youthful man enters, a quiet presence. Clad in a subdued orange khadi kurta, Kolhapuri chappals on his feet. His gaze is unambiguous, his voice muted. The crescendo and diminuendo of his laughter ripples through the space he has claimed for his own. His hands form mudras in the air, the gold bangle on his wrist flashes as he speaks, darting from past to present, from reality to flights to fancy within the dimming of a spotlight.

He’s India’s most lauded contemporary playwright in English, honoured by the Sahitya Akademi in 1998.
Labelled by theatre scholars as the definitive voice of the Nineties and the millenium.

Back home from Lilette Dubey’s Prime Time production of his incest-based play, “30 Days in September,” which premiered to a standing ovation in Mumbai in May. It was commissioned by the Delhi-based RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest), funded by the Ford Foundation.

Off-stage, just pages from the life of 43-year-old Mahesh Dattani:

I was 12 when my parents took me to watch a Gujarati play. Before the play began, the atmosphere at Bangalore’s Ravindra Kalakshetra was raucous. Everyone was yelling at each other: ‘Kantibai, kem cho’ and all that. Then, the bells rang, the lights dimmed, there was an announcement, then loud music. The curtain went up, and there was pin-drop silence. This surreal world unfolded, with make-up and costumes. There were peccadilloes going on, who’s sleeping with whom and so on. (Pausing for effect) At the end of Act One, a gun went off. And somebody fell ~ in the audience!

My god! It was a play within a play! It was like magic, suddenly breaking the boundaries of illusion and reality. I think that influenced my theatrical technique very strongly. Because I always break those spaces, going backwards and forwards between past and present, real time and dream time. That experience was a major high for me.

I never really thought that I could be a part of theatre. (Reflectively) Being part of a middle-class Gujarati family, it was just assumed that I’d join Papa’s business after graduating in history, economics and political science from St. Joseph’s College. Papa sold machinery for packaging and printing. He was a pioneer in his field. Later, I did a course in marketing and advertising because I wanted to be a copywriter. It was fashionable at that time. I tried it for six months, hated it, then joined Papa’s business.

By then, I was with the Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT), helping out with production. My first role was in Utpal Dutt’s Surya Shikar, done in English, directed by Simha. I was in the chorus, one of two scrawny guys. (Guffawing) Every time we came on stage, the audience would burst out laughing. We were just not coordinated!

It was the late Seventies. At that time, an old school buddy, Bimal Desai, came up with an idea: “Let’s do a play together. You direct and I’ll act.” After sifting through a pile of Neil Simon scripts, we chose Woody Allen’s God. It’s so tweaky, so funny. We recruited all our college buddies to fill the cast of twenty. We were all so inexperienced!  I must have been about 21. Yet, we managed to get six house-full shows because of the student community.

You know, I’ve directed more plays than I’ve written. This may sound trite but it’s true ~ as a director, I enjoy the power. As a playwright, I’ve absolutely no power. Of the plays I’ve directed, I’m most proud of the staging of my play, Bravely fought the Queen, in Delhi. It won the Sahitya Kala Parishad award for best production in 1998.

(Passionately) Quite frankly, I write because I’m a theatre person, not because I’m a writer. It’s quite by chance that I became a playwright. At one point, when I was directing European plays like In Camera, Sartre, Euripides and all that, I decided I wanted to do an Indian play. I read some translations. I loved Vijay Tendulkar’s Silence, the court is in session, and Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq. I was impressed by Badal Sircar’s Baki Itihaas. But the English translations weren’t anywhere near the originals. Maybe the plays don’t lend themselves to translation.

So I thought: why not try my hand at writing? That was in 1984. Where there’s a Will was the result.

Whether as text or as tone, his words tear at the edge of consciousness, blurring social constructs. He draws naked truths out of long-shuttered closets, ferreting out themes beyond bedroom farces and historical romances. His dialogue reeks of middle-class, urban Indian life today, strewn with Hindi and Gujarati, charged with unspoken socio-cultural subtexts. On the boards, invisible issues strut the stage, bringing the audience face-to-face with its own moral subversions. His theatrical voice is gender-sensitive, seeking out the lighter moments amidst unvoiced angst. He often fines-tunes his plays in rehearsal with his Bangalore-based theatre group, Playpen.

He describes ‘Where There’s a Will’ as an exorcism of the patriarchal code through intimate sequences in the life of the money-centric Mehta family.  ‘Dance like a Man’ (1989) explores the homegrown reality of the male classical dancer through the lens of social acceptance, stemming from the playwright’s own six-year-long Bharatanatyam stint under noted gurus Chandrabhaga Devi and U S Krishna Rao.  As staged by Mumbai’s Prime Time, it did a record hundred shows in India, London, Dubai and Colombo. ‘Tara’ (1990) addresses the trauma that results from the separation of conjoined different-sex Siamese twins, engineered to favour the male child. Some view it as a lens on the gendered self, others as an alternate perspective on the feminine self in a male-centric world.

1991 saw the first staging of ‘Bravely Fought the Queen,’ dominated by hot-blooded, fully-fleshed  characters struggling to breathe amidst the debris of urban double standards. The next year brought to life his first commissioned play, ‘Final Solutions’, an unequivocal exploration of communal strife at the request of Mumbai’s theatre giant Alyque Padamsee.

‘Do the Needful’, his first radio play for BBC in 1997, delves into the social psyche of arranged marriages Three others followed, including ‘Seven Steps Around the Fire,’ centred around the daily tribulations of the hijra or eunuch community, as uncovered by a scholastic sleuth.

When Prime Time put ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’ on the boards in 1998, it punched the mainstage audience between the eyes. As the first Indian play to focus openly on gay themes of love and partnership.

Off the page, just scenes from the life of Mahesh Dattani:

People keep saying to me: “Why do you write about such depressing subjects?” (Shakes with laughter) After Thirty Days in September, a gentleman protested, “We can read about incest and all that. But there’s no need to put it on stage.”

I’m not looking for something sensational, which audiences have never seen before. Some subjects, which are under-explored, deserve their space. (Contemplatively) After all, incest can happen in your family or mine, wherever there’s a child and an adult. It’s no use brushing these issues under the carpet.

I have to take inspiration from real life and make it my own. Unless theatre is about the human condition, it doesn’t always work. Even if it’s a commissioned script, like the one I did for a film on HIV, Ek Alag Mausam, that’s the only way I can write. I met over 25 people who were HIV-positive. I saw a person dying in an AIDS hospice. It was so overwhelming. I just wanted to get away. (Pausing) Finally, I thought: “What if I discover I’m HIV-positive tomorrow? What will that mean to me?” It will mean I’m in touch with my mortality.

It may sound bizarre but, to me, gender never was an issue.  I’m not conscious of masculine or feminine expression. I am who I am. At times it may be categorized as feminine, at times as masculine. It doesn’t bother me. But peculiarly, it’s a big deal to others. It took me a while to realize that my perception was different from that of others. It again became grist to the mill, a question of challenging people’s perceptions. That’s why I have titles like Dance like a Man, or Bravely fought the Queen! The latter is  based on that Hindi poem about Jhansi ki Rani. Khoob lari mardani, woh to Jhansi wali rani thi! If she’s brave, then she’s like a man! She can’t be a woman and be brave. Isn’t that ridiculous?

What’s the big deal?  OK, genitally you belong to one gender. (Casually) But beyond that, it’s all social construction.

In Dance like a Man, the father doesn’t want his son to carry on being a dancer because he sees that as a woman’s profession. He makes a deal with his daughter-in-law that she can continue dancing if she’ll get her husband away from it. She asks why. He says, “A woman in a man’s world may be considered progressive, but a man in a woman’s world is pathetic.”  There’s always laughter about that. In the next line, she says, “Perhaps we aren’t progressive enough.” There’s always silence after that one.

In a sense, there’s a complicity when the audience agrees with the politics of a character, and are suddenly put into a spin when it’s turned on them. It’s the same in On a Muggy Night in Mumbai. There’s a dialogue between a gay man and a lesbian, who’re very good friends. She tells him: “If you were a woman, we would have been in love.” He turns round and says, ‘If you were a man, we would have been in love.” When she says that, there’s laughter. When he says his line, laughter. Then, she says, “If we were heterosexual, we would have been married.” (Dramatically) Both of them go “Aaaaaaaaaaa!” No laughter there.

I see all my plays as socio-political. (Passionately) That’s how I see Final Solutions, which deals with communal tension. I don’t delve into the machinations of the higher powers, how they manipulate events, although there are strong overtones that it’s all politically engineered. When Alyque approached me to write it ~ this happened before the Babri Masjid incident in 1992 ~ I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing it. 

I’ve based it on a riot I’d read about during the tazia festival in Ahmedabad where, traditionally, the rath or temple chariot is taken out by Muslims and Hindus. That particular year, there was some communal tension, especially when the rath went into a Muslim area. In Final Solutions, the rath became a symbol for projecting ideas and images of self through gigantic idols.

I like to focus on people who aspire to freedom, but are somehow bound by society.  (Pushing his hair back) That’s where my dramatic tensions arise. I realize how empowered I am as an urban, upper middle-class Indian. We can live our lives the way we want to, whether you’re single, unattached, without kids, or single with kids. No matter how disapproving society is, it allows you a life

(Thoughtfully) What if I wasn’t so empowered? What would my issues, battles, struggles be, then? All my characters are women who are out there in some way. Either sexually expressive as in Bravely Fought the Queen. Or in some ways handicapped like Tara and Chandan in Tara. That’s what makes them come alive, the fact that they have battles to fight.

I don’t write about any subject until I see where the dramatic conflict lies.  I usually choose the urban family unit because, in our times, that’s where I feel the conflict is. Perhaps it was the same in Tennessee Williams’ or Eugene O’Neill’s time. But if you look at modern American playwrights, they hardly ever write about the family because that’s not where the conflict lies.

Though I deal with grave subjects, my optimism seems to somehow come through. Despite the sense of loss, despite the characters’ turmoil, there’s always a funny side to it. Maybe it’s just the way I am. I haven’t figured that one out. 

When I sent Lilette the script of Thirty Days, I said, “Look, it’s very grim. There’s not even one scene where there’s an iota of humour.” She had a couple of readings, then told me, “You’re such a goose, Mahesh. That scene is so funny!” I don’t know how, it just comes through

(Bringing his fingertips together) Playwriting, of course, is really for posterity. In theatre, the only thing that stays is the written text. Everything else is so transient. That’s the magic of theatre. You create an illusion and it’s gone. It’ll never be the same again.

On stage, he assumes a diametrically altered  avatar. Gone is the tentative persona that drapes the everyday being. Gone is the sensitive individual who laughs at life’s uneven trajectory and at the puckish imp within himself.

He takes Bangalore by storm in the recent BLT production of “Henry IV,” the 1934 Nobel laureate Pirandello’s classic satire on the madness intrinsic to all mankind. In the title role, he alternates between sackcloth and satin, ranting and reasoning, unleashing spine-chilling mood swings that mirror our inner turbulence. At moments, he flashes with the fury of the misunderstood, at others he analyzes the human condition with formidable lucidity. Irrevocably, he unlocks layers of the character with undeniable histrionic finesse.

He’s inspired by the total theatre experience, whether as an actor, a director or a playwright. To him, all the world’s his stage. Whether it’s a Playpen production in Bangalore, Border Crossings in London, or Prime Time in New York. It’s the ebb-and-flow of audience-actor interchanges that are the elixir of his life.

His theatrical acumen has drawn applause from around the globe. In a half-page review, New York Times writer Stephen Bruckner felt, “Dattani is a canny and facile writer, and there is nothing (in his writing) that is alien to American audiences. “ At home, Alyque Padamsee thanked him for giving “sixty million English-speaking Indians an identity.”

He built Rangamane in Bangalore as a studio space for the performing arts in 1998. He’s held playwriting workshops in India, and teaches an inter-cultural course on theatre at Portland State University, Oregon, as a visiting professor since 1996. 

In the theatre of life, just thoughts between the acts of Mahesh Dattani:

Ultimately, all theatre is about the actors and the audience, you know. (Flinging out his arms) It’s the actor’s chemistry. Everything is geared towards that, whether you’re a playwright or a director or a set designer. That’s quite a power trip. I enjoy acting, directing, playwriting for different reasons.

Clarity is something I work on constantly. Some ideas may seem very obvious to me. But the actors may say: “What is this?” I’d say: “Don’t you see it?” And they’d say, “No, where is it?” That’s when I realise it’s in my head. I need to bring it out, perhaps through the action.

(Toying with a pen in his hand) I like to keep a lot in the sub-text. I hate it when actors expect me to spell out things, which means they don’t trust their acting ability. With amateurs, it’s disturbing when they try to paraphrase.

Sometimes, actors don’t trust audiences. I don’t know why. The actors are not more intelligent than the audience.  I hate those presumptions. The audience has the advantage of sitting back and taking it all in.  You’ve got to take feedback from the audience, whether it’s silence or laughter or applause.

Do I have influences? (Meditatively) Tennessee Williams was my favourite playwright for long. I realize Tara has shades of Glass Menagerie. But that was involuntary. I admire Tendulkar very much. I find his plays very progressive. He doesn’t write from a predominantly male perspective, either. His characters are so grounded, regardless of their gender. I’d love to direct Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, but I can see how it doesn’t work in English. I wonder if English theatre audiences in India have even heard of Vijay Tendulkar or Mahesh Elkunchwar. I’d say they’re both the creators of modern Indian drama.

 (Fiercely) I feel writing in English, as we do in India, is our strength. When Prime Time did Dance like a Man and Muggy Night in Mumbai in New York, they didn’t tone it down. Now, in Muggy Night, there’s a whole scene written in Hindi. Nor did we change words like ashtapadi or Gita Govinda, in Dance like a Man. The audiences loved it; they got the context. It was very empowering as Indians to say: “This is who we are, and this is how we speak our language.”

I hate the term ‘post-colonial’. I resent the way it is used to classify south Asian writing. Isn’t American writing, Australian writing, also post-colonial? (Throwing up his hands) It’s one way of negating our 5,000 years of culture. In a sense, we’re the ones who’ve colonised them. It’s like what they’re doing with Chicken Tikka Masala and Balti cuisine. We’ve done taken their language and made it our own!
Surrounded by theatre buffs at the old-world Koshy’s restaurant in Bangalore, he talks and breathes theatre, recites from old plays and new, casting around for fresh talent. He listens to all-comers, making eye contact a personality trait. Over endless cups of coffee, he recalls prized productions and projects into the future.

Attending a recent documentary film festival on the burning issues of our time, he reflects on the plight of the Kuruba tribe at the Nagarahole sanctuary, then rises to defend the alternate perspective of a film-maker. Mulling over provocative themes, engaging intellectually with tourism-related paedophilia or the shadow of the beauty myth on urban India, he interacts spiritedly with potent ideas.

His dreams for the future envision a shared space for Kannada and English theatre. Perhaps a theatre  village named Natyagram, along the lines of Protima Gauri’s Nrityagram, outside Bangalore.

Between curtain calls, just passages from the average Indian life of Mahesh Dattani:

I was absolutely floored when I got the Sahitya Akademi award. It was the happiest moment of my life. It’s quite a trip for me to be mentioned in the same breath as Shashi Deshpande and A K Ramanujam, names I revere.  (Laughing long and strong) I thought they’d never give it to me because I write in English and about horrible subjects.  Besides, it’s an award for literature, not for drama.

Initially, my family was concerned about me. But it was a big moment for my late father when I received the Sahitya Akademi award. He felt very proud when Alyque did Final Solutions in Mumbai, and when Bravely fought the Queen was done in London.

I joked with him then. I said: “I’ve done Mumbai, I’ve done London. Next stop: New York.” But New York happened in July; I lost him in March.  When I was reading the half-page New York Times rave review of Dance like a Man, the first thought that struck me was: “I wish my father was here!” (Silence for a few moments) It was actually a sad moment for me because he wasn’t there to share it.

My parents adapted to my life well because I achieved a modicum of success. If I was a failure or unrecognised, I don’t know how they would have felt. They’d probably say: “Why do you want to do all this?” The important thing is that I can earn a living out of what I’m doing. I’ve received a fair amount of recognition. I guess I’ve been a good boy. That’s what parents want from their children, don’t they?

He’s dedicated the Penguin edition of his Collected Plays, published in 2000, thus: “For my parents, Gaju and Wagh: ‘Look! I’m dancing like a man!’

The stage fan whirrs. Simon and Garfunkel’s ageless lyrics play on. The curtain comes down. But the spotlight remains on Mahesh Dattani.

(This interview was originally published in Man's World in 2001).



Murder and mayhem, Scottish style

Murder and mayhem in
My adventures as an Indian backpacker in Scotland in 2001

DAY 1/ July 25: Rainy, blustery and grey as gloom

7.35 am. Edinburgh looks cold, bleak and as welcoming as a dungeon. Stone facades all around, ornate lamp-posts rear their heads as I puff my way up High Street from the railway station. The flourescent blue-green backpack bumps against my derriere at every step; either it’s too long or I’m too short. Thoughts of a sub-five footer on her way to an all-Scotland backpack trip hyped by Lonely Planet, Let’s Go and Rough Guide. I wonder why. Dash into a coffee shop. “Yes, can I help you?” says the lanky Caucasian serving up brioches and cafĂ© au lait to Polish, German and Latvian tourists. Haggis Travels? All I get is a long, blank look.

A bend in the street. I’m in luck. I find five sun-bright yellow buses, each with the Haggis legend: Wild! Sexy! Seductive! “The Compass Busters tour?” asks the post-teen behind the counter. “Your driver Sue’s just gone! Follow her to the bus. Yes, she’s the one with the long blonde hair.” I chase her down the cobbled pavement. I ask a petite brunette if I’m in the right queue. She nods. All aboard for kilt-knows-what!

“You’ve arrived in Scotland during the coldest, wettest July ever on record,” plump Sue dimples at us, her 22 wards, in the rear-view mirror of her Mercedes-Benz coach. “But our skins are waterproof; we won’t dissolve.”

8. 29 Edinburgh dissolves in the mists behind us. We’re on a low-budget trip off the beaten track. No museums, no mega-malls, no big cities. Pale-lashed Shaun, a high school teacher of history and literature from Canada, is my seat mate. “There are some basic rules on my bus,” Sue’s back on the voice track. “If you want to pee, fart or desperately cuddle, smile and ask me nicely. I’ll let you off my bus… I won’t ask you to introduce yourselves. That’s a drag. Why don’t you swap seats? Sit next to someone you’ve never met before. Then, you tell us all about him or her.”

Canadian Jeff, a shade less blonde than Shaun and fabulously freckled at 26, tears himself away from his fiance Kim, who’s deep in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” He chews at the edge of his thumb, then smiles tentatively. “I teach maths as a supply teacher at a central London school. Most of my students are from Bangladesh. Bhalo! Bhalo! They taught me that,” he offers. I’m a zero at maths. Figures are the key to Jeff’s past ~ as a banker, then an accountant.

Before we know it, we’re summoned to the front of the bus. “This is Aditi. She’s a writer from India,” says Jeff. “If you don’t behave yourselves, she’ll write about you.”

“If you do behave yourselves, I’ll have nothing to write about,” I cut in. Smiles. Guffaws. Chuckles. Sue grins. I’m the odd one out among this bunch, mainly supply teachers from Australia and Canada.

The bus halts. It’s pouring. “Let’s make ourselves tea and coffee by the stream,” suggests Sue. Burly Carlos of Fijian origin, now Melbourne-based, toys with the strand of shells around his neck as hauls the tea bags, coffee powder and thermos flasks of hot water out of the bus. Spiky haired Damien, currently an Aussie hobo, lends him a hand. We pile out in windcheaters. How come Carlos is still in his flimsy T-shirt? A rippling neigh of Carlos’ trademark laughter is the answer.

10.10 Historic Stirling makes Sue pull up. “This is where William Wallace, the ‘guardian of Scotland’,  defeated the forces of Edward I in 1297, after the English king had killed 7,000 people at Berwick-upon-Tweed,” she explains. “If it hadn’t been for Wallace, we’d have still been a part of England.”  Pointing to the steep Wallace Monument, the tallest in Europe to an individual, she dismisses a tawdry life-size statue of Mel Gibson in his Braveheart avatar as Wallace with the words, “That’s the worst piece of tourist tack ever. If any of you paste a picture of it in your holiday album, don’t tell me about it.”

Driving past lochs and glens ~ lakes and valleys in everyday English ~ Rob Roy creeps into our lives at Balquihidder Church. Though a MacGregor by birth, when the Campbell clan outlawed the name, he’d appear like a shadow from the mist and steal their cattle, which he later sold back to them. “He died in a duel at the age of 70,” Sue tells us, demonstrating the joust with an imaginary sword.

Once Caledonia, now Scotland, only three per cent of the land’s original forest cover of birch, oak and ash remains, thanks to ecological mismanagement since the Napoleonic wars. Today, fast-growing Norwegian pines cover the hilly terrain as cash crops, harvested every 25 years.

14.22 Six hours into Scotland, we know of the four Jacobite uprisings against the English crown, the fierce highland charge invented by Bonnie Dundee that laid English armies waste, the laws that governed the clans, even the massacre at Glencoe of the MacDonalds by the Campbells, who were their guests ~ on the orders of William of Orange because they signed a letter of fealty to him last.

‘Let’s go for a wee wander,” announces Sue as she herds us towards Glencoe. “You don’t have to reach the peak. Take your own time.” The rocky path unwinds across heather-purpled trails. The bracken crackles under my sturdily-shod feet. I don’t join the herd that speeds peakwards like sure-footed mountain goats. . Red-cheeked Donna from Montreal, a quasi-government officer, heaves her bulk after me. My neck feels clammy, my throat is parched. I doff my thick pullover. Yet, it’s pretty chill outdoors.

Donna hails me. Side by side, we bend over a crystalline mountain stream and take in deep draughts. Sparkling Scottish spring water is sold at supermarkets, often enhanced with peach or strawberry flavours from Singapore! Natural is best, we decide, as we fill a water bottle for the upper reaches.

I lend Donna a hand as we clamber up a wobbly wooden ladder. Three young Frenchmen emerge through the brambles beyond. “How far away is the peak?” I ask, gazing towards the cloud-cloaked distance. “You’re almost there!” grins Michel, his red jacket tied around his waist, as he jumps to a ledge four feet below.

17.49 After an hour on the incline, we know it isn’t true. Our lungs are bursting with fresh oxygen, but our bladders are bursting too. I turn to Donna, she nods. We start to descend, trying not to trip, joining the ranks of those who almost made it. By the Haggis bus, we meet Naveen Chandra, whose father left Bareilly after the Partition. He’s an engineer with General Electric, blue-eyed from his German mother, brawny from his Indian gene pool. “My dad loves India, though he doesn’t visit it as often as he’d like,” Naveen confesses, as frail Gayle ~ all golden dew-fresh ~ nestles under his sheltering arm.

The mountain brigade turns up, bright with exhilaration. “The view from above is indescribable,” pants slight Caroline, tugging at the brambles on her red capri pants. Nothing in her life as a teacher has prepared her for Scotland. Adrian, her elfin-look partner, bites into an apple, breathes in the landscape for keeps.

“What I need now is a long, cold beer,” sighs dark-eyed Laurina, who teaches communications at an Australian school, swinging her ponytail. Her wish is soon granted. As four of us pile into a women’s dormitory at the Oban Waterside Lodge hostel on the west coast, overlooking bobbing fishing boats, we spy Mackie Dan’s pub tucked below the exit. Over a Bailey’s Irish Cream on the rocks, we listen to Sue’s amazing life: “I spent two years in the Australian outback. I was supposed to cook for the cattle station  guys there. But my cooking was so bad that they soon let me do what I wanted to ~ herd cattle on horseback. You can get a little sore from riding for the first few days, but you’re fine after that.”

Out of the darkness, over thirty young women dressed to the Ts storm in. They flock around a pretty woman sheathed in pale pink. All her guests are festooned with satin ribbons; they belt out bars of “She’s only seventeen…” What the heck? “It’s a wedding shower,” explains Sally, an intensive care nurse from Canberra. “They’re celebrating the bride-to-be.”

24.35 Laurina brings back a case of Bacardi Breezers for the dorm. Squat rum-n-juice bottles in hand, we swap life stories and paint ourselves into contemporary legends. Have I abandoned my teetotaller truths?

The bright sky turned navy blue only an hour ago.

DAY TWO/ July 26: Blue-grey skies,  showers out of the blue

8. 59  Refuelled with orange juice, cereal and croissants, we scramble into our yellow bus behind Sue. “Is everyone feeling fine today?” she asks, scanning our faces, sifting through assorted names. “Aye,” a chorus greets her, a Scottish touch there.

We’re driving out to the Great Glen of Scotland, formed when the continental drift from Canada carved out a deep lake-filled valley aeons ago.  Obediently, we chant: “Loch Linnhe.. Loch Lochie… Lock Oich… Loch Ness.” Will there be monsters in store for us?

A stimulating march up the Inchree trail. Waterfalls to the left of us, twisting streams to the right; fleecy clouds line the horizon, shadowy outlines of peaks barely discernible. Acclimatisation is the buzz-word here. Both Donna and I make it to the top.

We shop for supplies at a giant Safeway supermarket at Fort William. It’s packed. How come? Because people here get paid on the last Thursday of the month. Scramble around the confusion of products for 15 minutes. Settle for a stir-fry mix, strawberry yoghurt, a gallon of milk. Non-metric world views prevail here.

12.02 Another slant on ‘Braveheart.’ A coffee break at Glen Nevis, in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain at 1392 metres. That’s where Himalaya-bound mountaineers train because of its unpredictable weather. Sue mysteriously rustles up a Sindhi-pink cake as a surprise for Donna and her cousin Trudi, who share a birthday today. It’s topped by a candle that will not die out!

Scotland’s ‘freedom to roam’ law sets us free to picnic or camp wherever we please, without fear of prosecution by the owners. Isn’t that dandy? “It’s the best,” says Carlos’ girl, Kate, a social worker who’s as stunning as a blonde Nargis. 

Braveheart is a good movie for trying to condense 50 years of Scottish history into 3 ½ hours of footage,” Sue explains. “Glen Nevis gave it a feeling of a wilderness in the middle of nowhere. But the film is riddled with factual errors. When Wallace’s wife was killed, he actually skinned the killer alive and wore the skin as a belt for the rest of his life! That’s the truth.” An afterthought after reports about an Anglo-Scottish brawl in a movie hall, “In one scene, a double-decker bus goes past ~ in 1297!”

Under the fluttering double flags of Scotland ~ the rampant red lion against a yellow backdrop, and the blue St. Andrew’s cross on white ~ the tranquil waters of Glenfinnan lap at the foot of a monument to all the Jacobites who died for Scotland. A turkey-and-watercress sandwich loses its flavour as local nationalism gains the upper hand with the first bite.

15.19 Poky-haired, bleary-eyed Byron, a zoo-keeper from Australia, seeks insights into Scottish pubs. Scotland produces 180 types of malt whisky, some 100 proof. That’s potent! Local drinkers regard blended whiskies such as Johnny Walker as the dregs of the keg, opting for pure single malts from single distilleries.

“Don’t ever ever ever go to a Scottish pub and ask for a single malt whisky with Coke or lemonade. You’ll be sent right back to the border,” Sue warns us, after chasing wayward traffic on the winding roads. “These FEBs! F….English  B…s!” she swears. “They don’t even know how to drive!”

Cross-border tensions surface again as we drive past the North Sea oil rigs, heading for the scenic route to the Isle of Skye. “If we’d been independent, we’d have been the eighth richest country in the world now,” Sue explains. “But all the oil revenues go to London.”

Bagpipes play on the music system. We pass man-made lochs that generate hydro power. Grassy knolls roll into cloud-frosted peaks. Pine, oak, ferns, bracken flit by our windows. The Eilean Donan castle beckons, the location for the cinematic Highlander. St. Donan came from Ireland in the 6th century to convert the Scottish heathens.

17.39 The castle, which belongs to the MacCrae family, warded the Vikings off for 500 years upto 1255. It fell into disrepair until Farquhar MacCrae had a vivid dream depicting how to restore the castle, which he did with a budget of a quarter of a million pounds in 1995. We peer through secret peepholes into wood-panelled rooms where clan heads met to plan the Jacobite uprisings against the English foe. Authentic 17th century carved wooden furniture studs the rooms, sweeping swords adorn fireplaces, fish-oil lamps wait to be lit.

A dark-haired statue of a kilted man in an upstairs bedroom stops the scanning eye. In shock, I watch him come to life, reach for his walkie-talkie! The cold walls and twisting passageways take us to a kitchen where life-size figures preside over green jellies and stuffed pheasants. “Can you imagine the MacCrae family still living here?” whispers Kate. It’s a tough act to summon up.

18.45 We drive over the world’s most expensive toll bridge to the Isle of Skye, built for 128 million sterling, unveiled in 1995. Local drivers pay 12 sterling for a return trip. At every pub on the island, at every fish-n-chips stall, this remains a constant bridge of contention, especially since the withdrawal of all ferry licenses. “There’s a current public litigation pending for Skye’s 12,500 residents because, under Scottish law, it’s illegal to charge a toll for a road when there’s no other form of crossing,” explains Sue.

20.10 Hectic activity at the Kyleakin International Hostel’s communal kitchen on Skye. Damien and his dumpling-like Naomi do pasta with meatballs, Caroline whisks up a grilled cheese sandwich, Sally chooses to rehydrate a Thai soup. We all settle down together with shortbread for dessert. Midway through a tale about his livewire grandpop of 98, Damien turns to me: “Have you ever met Sachin Tendulkar? He’s nifty! Even Bradman thought so.” Cricket helps us to bond across invisible boundaries even after we drift to the Saucy Mary pub.

Suddenly, conversation stops. Some Aussie girls from another Haggis tour drop their pants for every shot they miss at the pool table. Can you get happier and higher than that?

DAY 3/ July 27: Fluffy clouds, fleeting rain, high spirits

9.45 Sleepyheads all, we slide silently into our seats on Skye. Surrounded by craggy Black Cuillin mountains, the glaciated remains of volcanic activity, we’re all bundled out towards the icy Sligachan creek, where we listen to tales of the warring MacLeods and MacDonalds of yore. Referring to a local grace who was granted the boon of eternal youth and beauty, Sue adds, “All you have to do is dip your face into the water like her for exactly three seconds, no more, no less.” To encourage the timid, she takes the first dip. We all follow, even the beefy outdoorsmen from Australia. With dripping faces, we realize we’re now wide awake, even if no more beautiful than before!

That’s when murder rears its head, through a game Sue devises to get us better acquainted with each other. We pick a card each from a deck. I draw the Ace of Spades ~ and find I’m the murderer. Will Carlos and Trudi, as the detectives, zoom in on me? I tap Shaun gently on the shoulder outside the bus. “You’re dead!” I say. “The murderer wears grey shoes.” And walk away. Donna’s next in line. Can they come up with creative deaths?

13.25 We’re walking down a slippery incline towards Lealt Falls when Donna stumbles past, her mouth caked with mud. Did she trip? Is she hurt? “It w-w-was the murderer,” she stammers. “It was sickening! I died of an overdose of sheep shit! All I saw was the flash of… a silver ring…”

Relief floods through us as we sit on a ledge, watching the silver-streaked blue sky seep into the watercolour waves at the horizon, with the Scottish mainland a mere blur beyond. We listen to a fairy tale about the Silkies, beautiful seal women who turn human when their pelts are stolen. Reality strikes soon.

Around 1770, we learn, many farming communities were forced off their lands by the landowners. Thousands died, others fled to the New Colonies of Australia, Canada and the US. The crests and troughs along the slope were once filled with kelp to yield a crop or two.  That’s probably when the Scottish national dish of haggis ~ made of the lungs, heart and innards of a sheep or calf, mixed with oatmeal and spices, boiled in the animal’s stomach ~ came into being.

14.20 The AM Pub at Florigarry, the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape over the seas to Skye. Dare I? I order Traditional Haggis with Neaps, without a clue about whether I’ll be able to swallow a spoonful. Carlos and Byron are busy besting each other at the dartboard between hoots of laughter. My order arrives with a can of Irn-Bru, Scotland’s favourite soft drink, which outsells global colas. I take a tentative forkful of my haggis. Hey! It tastes just like the Kheema Masala my Ma dishes up. “I didn’t want to tell you it’s made of minced lamb these days,” winks Sue, raising her Irn-Bru in a toast. I sip mine. Just like a sweetened soda pop, I decide. It’s a certified cure for hangovers, she adds.

16.11 A mystical trek into the cliffs and pinnacles called the Quiraing, created by massive landslides of rock. “These are still active on a geological time scale and will some day slide into the sea,” a rock-jawed beer-drinker at the Saucy Mary pub at Kyleakin tells us later.

We climb over the grassy knolls, past sheep droppings, jump over slippery streams, and realize we can no longer see the misty clouds because we’re in them! Looking down from the table-top flatness, the lakes below appear crystal clear, clear enough to see the swaying foliage at the bottom. We’re breathless, too awed to even exclaim.

18.24 Back at the hostel. “Let’s explore the castle,” chants Naveen, setting out towards the 10th century Castle Moil. Fifteen of us trail behind, over a rocky path, across peat bogs. After the original castle fell into ruin, this one was built by a Norwegian princess married to a Scottish clan chief in the 15th century. Her claim to fame? She’d swing a chain across the bay to the isle and collect a toll from all vessels sailing by ~ then flash herself to them as a welcome gesture! Her name? Saucy Mary!

“What if we do a Saucy Mary?” suggests Kim, flapping at her bright red T-shirt. Kate and Donna and Trudi grin at the idea. Can we muster up enough courage? The guys line up along the castle wall, cameras poised for action. We have our backs to them, the sun plays on our faces. Did we do a Saucy Mary flash across the bay? Now, that would be telling!

On the way back, Naveen throws Jeff’s shoes into the mucky stream under the bridge. “Don’t wade in, Jeff,” Kim shrieks. “I’ll buy you three beers if you do,” says Carlos, his shoulders rippling with laughter. Jeff jumps in. The water’s shallow. He returns holding his shoes triumphantly over his head, festooned with seaweed and festering shells. 

20. 20 The Saucy Mary blares with heavy wattage. Floppy-haired teens belt out lyrics we can’t decipher. The Bloody Mary at the Saucy Mary doesn’t measure up. Even the packs of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps are soggy.  Time to move on. We move en masse to the King Haaken bar, where a jazz group is tuning its heart out. The barman looks puzzled when I ask for a cranberry and Guinness shandy, an Irish pub ladies’ special. We lose track of time as we boogie away the night. When did the sun go down? None of us have a clue.

DAY 4/ July 28: Bright and breezy, icy and stormy, by turns

10.15 Over that blasted bridge, ripping with islander’s curses, to the mainland once more. Carlos and Caroline, Byron and Jeff, are all geared up to do a lap at Loch Ness, the lake that teems with tall tales. Will we spot monsters like the fabled long-necked, goggle-eyed Nessie at Loch Ness?

Cloud-iced Munro mountains, the highest in Scotland, blur through our windows. So do the stunning Four Sisters of Glenshiel, craggy peaks all in a row. Were they originally beautiful sisters who waited forever for a silver-tongued Irishman to keep his word? We’ll never know.

“John Cobb lost his life trying to shatter the world speedboat racing record on Loch Ness,” Sue tells us. “He broke the record, touching 333 km.p.h. on the reverse lap, but his boat vanished. They found bits of it, but not of Cobb… Either Nessie ate him. Or he’s trying to set a record for the longest time underwater.”

Loch Ness looms large, a grey expanse of water that laps at our toes. I dip my fingers in; they curl tightly away in protest. The heroic swimmers troop in; they’re out in seconds flat. The 23.6 km lake, 900 feet deep, has a surface temperature of 5 degrees Celsius! “The monster that made waves in 1934 later proved to be a hoax perpetrated by a Harley Street specialist and his accomplice, aided by the periscope of a plastic submarine,” Sue says, badgered by our questions. “Maybe I don’t believe in a great green monster with three humps. I hope they don’t find a real monster because, if they do, the scientists will go overboard. I hope it remains a mystery, a legend, an enigma.”

13. 35 Sandwiches and fresh fruit, chased by great draughts of coffee, amidst the ancient heaps of stones or burial cairns at the Balmaran of Clava, outside Inverness, the feeder town and industrial centre of the Highlands. Were people really buried or cremated at this site? Anybody’s guess.  Naveen and Gayle wander into the cairn for a quick cuddle; Carlos cups Kate’s neat bottom as the shadowy sun chases the scattering clouds. We collect our litter; it leaves with us. The cairns remain as timeless as they did in the 3rd or 4th century.

14. 11 Siesta anyone? Sue has other ideas as she drives us straight to Culloden Moor, the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s highlanders or the last Jacobite army were defeated by the English forces of William Augustus in 1746. Knee-high heather and high grass still covers the battlefield, marked by red-and-white Jacobite banner fluttering opposite the yellow standards of the English. In the hour-long battle, 1,200 Jacobites lost their lives. “Then came the worst part,” Sue narrates. “The English ordered the death of all Jacobites within a five-mile radius. The massacre of half the highland population only stopped when the English chief came across the killing of a woman in childbirth. In a bid to anglify the Highlands, three edicts were issued: No plaid! No bagpipes! No Gaelic! Today, you’d call it an ethnic cleansing.”  It’s just minutes past lunch. Even Damien looks pale at the gills. Shaun wipes away a tear.

The heavens are in tune with our mood. We imagine that windswept, sleety day, the armies facing each other across boggy land. The wind bites our cheeks, rims our eyes with red. Low mounds border the battlefield, where the Highlanders were laid to rest. No heather will ever grow on those knolls, according to legend. The ghosts of the past still thrive in the present, as we imagine Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing to France, with a price of 20,000 pounds on his head. “The English beheaded a look-alike,” admits Sue, “and paraded his head through London as a warning to other traitors. But we think the prince was a selfish man, who just wanted to be king of any country.”

An eerie shriek as we draw close to a stream where we can make wishes that may come true. Where? What? Shaun’s hanging from his belt from the luggage rack in the bus. The murderer strikes again! Six down so far.

18. 15 Our home for the night, Carbisdale Castle, complete with a lady ghost in grey and a nursery with a rocking chair that creaks for its invisible children.  Kim and Gayle, Kate and Donna, Trudi and I share a women’s dormitory with bunk-beds at the end of a corridor. Each of us gets lost at least five times that evening. All the passageways look alike, red-carpeted, guarded by ancestral portraits and marble busts, and common rooms with makeshift libraries: “If you borrow a book, remember to put one back!” say the notices on the shelves.

We’re all in a Mexican mood in the communal kitchen. Naomi stirs a huge pot of minced beef with spices, Kate shreds onions by the dozen. Donna and Trudi slice tomatoes and capsicum to fill the enchiladas with. “Is it ready?” asks Carlos, sniffing over the simmering stoves, his nostrils flaring. “Smells good…”

“Dinner’s up!” announces Kim, sipping deep of her watermelon Bacardi Breezer. The menfolk drop their cards, pile their plates high. I’m ravenous enough to give Damien a run for his money. Silence reigns; a sure sign of a good feed. We’re too stuffed to even look at the Strawberry Cheesecake and Lemon Tart desserts straight. “Let me catch my breath,” pleads Byron.

21.22 “Time for the jury!” announces Sue. Kate is picked to be the judge. Carlos and Trudi retire to the passageway to tot up the evidence. Will they find me out? They enter solemnly. “We, the detectives,” declares Carlos, “charge Aditi with being the murderer. Our clues point straight at her. She wears grey shoes. She has a red jacket.” I stand up on a bench, as ordered. “Do you wear a silver ring?” I hold up three. “Do you have crooked teeth?” I open my mouth wide. Kate tries not to let her purest Nargis profile dissolve into hysterical laughter. She announces her verdict: “Guilty!”

The penalty? “Don’t come up with anything rash!” pleads Sue on my behalf. The group decision ~ tomorrow, I’ve got to stand up on the bar at a pub and sing for them.

22.30 We sit around the common room on easy chairs, downing more beer and Bacardi. Naughty games, forgotten names, come to the fore. Laughter hits the high notes. In the hallway, Italian high-schoolers rehearse for a road show. Luminous portraits hanging high oversee the proceedings.

DAY FIVE/ July 29: A wild wind blows, an occasional sun glows

1.20 Is this the way back to our dormitory? Heck, no! Another wrong clue! Change into my pyjamas quietly. Kim’s asleep on the upper bunk, her Harry Potter still in hand. I drift into slumber. Donna wakes up, screaming! Our door is open, a white figure lurks there. We’re all frozen with fright for a minute. Trudi picks up courage enough to check it out. The marble statue of a female nude has been moved. It stares stonily back at us. Who could have done this? “It must be those silly Italian schoolboys!” declares Kim.

2.45 Shrieks tear through the stairway to the Tower. White-sheeted eerie figures charge down the corridor, chasing a gaggle of schoolboys. Real ghosts? Figments of the mind? Donna dares to trip one up. It’s Naveen! The others turn out to be Adrian, Shaun and Jeff! “Boys will be boys!” sighs Kim, as we trail her back to bed.

8.02 Bleary-eyed, tousle-haired, I sleep-walk to the loo. Not a single one free. Italian teenagers with dark rings under their eyes crouch outside the baths, too tired to look in. Not a good day for a shower. We can’t get the marble nude by our door to budge, even with six of us pushing. How did they do it?

10.15 Will Sue let us catch up on sleep on her bus? Not the faintest chance! “Let’s go to the Bone Caves,” says Sue, pointing to the heights of shadowy mountains at Inchnadamph. “They once found the remains of polar and brown bears up there.”  Stop! Outlined against the craggy top is a magnificent stag, one of the red deer that frequent this area. Nobody moves, until Byron hits the rocky road again.

Mist-covered, the landscape is mystique-ridden. “What happens if there’s an accident?” I ask Sue. “I’ve got a thermal blanket with me,” she responds, “and a first-aid kit. If someone breaks a leg, I’d phone for a helicopter ambulance. I’d get Carlos to help me. I always identify one potential rescue person in each group.” That’s reassuring.

I drink some more mountain water, splash some on my face. I’m the last but one, as usual. The swell and sweep of the peaks and valleys is enticing. I enter the narrow, rocky stretch, spot the other bobbing jackets near the cave. The wind begins to buffet me, pushes me three steps backwards for every two forward. My blood freezes for a moment as I take in the steep drop. I dangle my legs over the edge, watch the play of light and shadow in the deep glen. Herds of deer graze on the gentle slope across. Half an hour later, I slowly wind my way back to the haven of the Haggis bus.

15.44 A huge ‘aye’ greets the idea of the Clansman Centre at Fort Augustus. “There’s a gorgeous guy who presents the show on some days, but I think you’re going to get the goonk!” laughs Sue. In the heather-patched, stone-walled recreation of a Highland cottage, complete with turf roofing, we find we have. He’s got a strange drawl picked up from years in Belgium, a far cry from the soft Scottish accent we’ve grown to like. Clad in plaid, his hair wild and unkempt, MacKinnon evokes highland life for us.

“The Scottish highlanders lived in houses like these,” MacKinnon explains. “Each family had five to eight people, who shared the space with their animals. Smoke from the peat fire kept them warm and cured the meat they hunted. Because they inhaled it constantly, many highlanders died of lung diseases. They kept an iron pot on the fire, into which they tossed vegetables, water and entails. It all boiled together into a Scottish broth.”

The plaid, we hear, was originally a stretch of cloth six metres long. It was pleated and draped over a shirt, tied at the shoulder, held at the waist by a belt, and formed loose pockets for storage. Not too different from a sari, I think to myself. Made of pure wool, it kept the wearer warm, and could double as a sleeping bag outdoors. “You’re wearing your own survival kit,” MacKinnon quips, then pats the leather pouch on his belt, adding, “This sporran ~ that’s from Gaelic for purse ~ held oats when the highlander travelled. Whenever he was hungry, he held a handful of oats in the waters of a stream. They swelled enough to do for a meal. That’s where the notion of a tight-fisted Scotsman comes from.”

A towering sword clasped in a two-fisted grip, a shield of leather and wood to defend himself with, he assumes the Highlander Charge mode in a jiffy, as we all sit bolt upright. Shouting “Dirty Englishman!” or “Scotland forever!”, MacKinnon decimates an invisible army before our very eyes. 

The kilt, which derives from the Scandinavian word for ‘to pleat,’ was revived under Sir Walter Scott ~ because it was banned after the Battle of Culloden. “Originally, there were about 50 clans in the Highlands. Tartans of pure wool, dyed with natural extracts, could be worn by anyone,” MacKinnon explains. “But today, it’s all so commercialized. They’re even inventing new clans to suit the tourist trade ~ 2,500 to date!”

19.34 Morag’s Lodge at Fort Augustus is a far cry from the other hostels. Our girls’ dorm has an attached shower. No tangoing with strange men wrapped in mere towels. The town is quaint and quiet, a waterway meanders parallel to the main street, the Loch Ness tourists feed the local coffers. I wander into town, steeling myself to entertain the Haggis group that night. I peer into shop windows, stack up on postcards of thistles and heather, kilts and kirks. Why’s everything so deadly quiet? It takes me half an hour to figure out that it’s a Sunday. Not a creature stirs in town ~ except tourists like us!

The in-house chef cooks up a feast at four sterling a head ~ garlic bread, chili con carne, salad, salsa, pasta, baked potatoes, even ice-cream from a wooden churn.

Back at the pub at Morag’s, where the first drink comes cheap and a jukebox spews oldies from the Sixties, the Haggis gang gathers. “Aditi, aren’t you joining us?” says Gayle from the lower bunk as I jot notes, afraid I’ll dodge the engagement. It takes me a whole half hour to shower and double-hop down the wooden steps. Naomi and Kim gather close. “Ready to go tone deaf?” I ask, my knees shaking as I stand on the leather-rich seat in the pub. I launch into Tagore’s ‘Purano Shei Diner Kotha,’ the Bengali version of Auld Lang Syne, before the jitters get the better of me.

“Hey, babe, you can sing!” yells a stranger from the corner, raising his tankard. “What language was that?” puzzles Jeff, then quickly sets it right with “Bhalo! Bhalo!” The ordeal’s over. We trade school jokes, swap riddles, buy each other Bacardi Breezers until the clock strikes 2 a.m.

DAY SIX/ July 30: Blustery, biting winds; a drizzle dots the hours

8.10 “I’d like to stay on with Haggis Travels for another year,” confesses Sue, one of seven women drivers of the 22 at Haggis. “After that, I want to settle down and have a baby. I’ve got four younger brothers and sisters. I love the feel of a family. But it all depends on whether I meet the right man.”  What’s that around her neck? A silver Celtic cross, a gift from her dad on her 18th birthday. “I never take it off, not even when I shower,” she stresses.

‘Cille Choirill,’ says the signpost. Where does it lead? To a mossed-over graveyard that boasts of an intricately carved Celtic cross in stone that dominates the rolling roundness of the surrounding hillside. Does it mark a special grave? Aye, that of the itinerant bard Ian Long, who ensured that justice was done in the case of Seven Elders who killed the young heirs to a clan chief, so that they could remain in power. “In the 1930s, while building a road, the diggers found seven skulls in an old well. Maybe the story’s true. That’s the Well of the Seven Elders, near Lake Oich,” Sue adds.

13.40 The bus pulls up at Ruthven Barracks, the northern terminal of the 18th century road taken by Hanoverian soldiers travelling from Blair Atholl to Dalnacardoch through the Gaich pass. It was built to quell the Jacobite rebellion in 1719. About 300 troops fleeing the rout at Culloden took refuge here, awaiting Bonnie Prince Charlie, who let them down. The disheartened men set fire to the barracks before they fled.

15. 21 Time to cheer up at the Eldadour distillery, the smallest in all Scotland. Like all single malt whiskies, the water of life is twice-distilled here from malted barley roasted over peat fires, spring water and yeast. “Whisky is part of life in Scotland,” explains Linda, our dour-faced guide. “It was originally made by groups of farmers getting together to make whisky to ward off the harsh winters. Ours is the last handmade malt whisky in Scotland, a fact we’re proud of.”

Eldadour produces just 15 casks of whisky a week, each matured for ten years in old Spanish sherry casks that lend the spirit their golden hue. But when Linda offers us each a glass of 20-year-old Eldadour single malt, I take one sip and put it down. It’s too strange for my wine-tainted palate. Naomi pulls a face, so Byron does the honours ~ he downs her glass, and mine too. As we pull away from Eldadour, we look at the Scottish burns or streams with new eyes ~ each a potential jar of whisky!

16.04 More ancient stones at Dunkeld Abbey, more stories as we head back to Edinburgh. “The Stone of Destiny, on which the British monarchs are crowned, was said to have been stolen from Scone Abbey in 1296 by Edward I,” narrates Sue. “But the Scottish people believe that the original, which is from Egypt, was hidden by loyal monks on the island of Iona. So, generations of British monarchs have been crowned on a lookalike stone, which may have been a toilet cover from Scone Abbey!”

To round off the trip as Edinburgh’s Royal Mile veers into sight, Sue says, “Scotland has never had a Queen Elizabeth, so the present British monarch should be Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland… We all believe we’ll reclaim the Stone of Destiny one day, when we’re independent of England.”

17.30 Back at Haggis. We collect our itineraries and promise to catch up for a final drink together at The Mitre, a 1598 pub on the Royal Mile. I race down the road to look for a special gift ~ a pewter quaich or traditional double-handled drinking cup. “When the clan chiefs gathered,” Kate reminds me, “they’d pass the whisky around in a quaich as a gesture of welcome and friendship. It was originally made of wood, with glass at the bottom, so that the drinker could look behind him as he drank, in case a traitor crept up to stab him!”

20.20 Adrian and Caroline, Damien and Naomi are through with their beer-fortified steak-and-kidney pie,  gearing up for a guided Ghost Walk through Edinburgh. Will they have the stomach for it? I toy with the idea of haggis again, then opt for a duck pate with rocket salad, washed down with a double Bailey’s Irish Cream on the rocks. “You’re drinking Irish stuff in Scotland. That’s sacrilege!” teases Shaun.

Jeff and Kim help him to ease his backpack out of the ceiling-high stack we’ve created in a corner of The Mitre. I pull out my jazzy pack from under a towering grey sleeping bag. “That’s mine,” says Byron, “I’m tall enough to carry it.”

Time to run. I’ve got to catch a National Express coach to London at 21.30. “Remember how to spell my name,” yells Damien, through a bear-hug. “It’s not demon!”

I have one foot through the door when I hear Carlos bellow, “I’m the one who found out you were the murderer! Don’t ever forget that!” I bellow back with laughter, as 21 others join in.

(This article was originally published in Man's World, India, in 2001)

Friday, 9 October 2015

Book review: The Secret of Falcon Heights by Ranjit Lal

The Secret of Falcon Heights

Text: Ranjit Lal

Penguin Books. 2014. Paperback.  Rs. 250. 220 pages. English. Young adult.

ISBN: 978-0-143-33333-3

Until about five years ago, I was afraid we would never have relevant India- centric literature for young adults. Unanswered questions teased me: Why were we, as writers and readers, afraid to engage with the societal skeletons in our collective cupboards? Why were we constantly shielding our teens from explosive subjects that throng our media?

My misgivings vanished when Ranjit Lal ~ whom I have long admired for the engaging bandwidth of his writings ~ published ‘Faces in the Water,’ brilliantly tackling female infanticide with sensitivity and surety. His novel won the Crossword Best Children’s Book award in 2010.

Was his a random excursion down an offbeat track? Lal, to my delight,  proved me wrong to establish himself as an intrepid explorer of the young adult genre. Take the 1984 Delhi riots in ‘The Battle for No. 19’. Or child sexual abuse in ‘Smitten.’ Or teen sexuality in ‘Black Limericks.’ I came to applaud each rivetting read for his literary daring and masterly storytelling.     

          In ‘The Secret of Falcon Heights,’ Lal engages with other taboo subjects that seldom enter Indian drawing rooms. Here he explores (hold your breath!) political corruption, social ostracism and even an episode with shadows of Bhanwari Devi in 1992. 

On the tantalizing book jacket, a young woman in black sets a falcon free to soar against an idyllic landscape. The cover blurb reads: ‘She’s beautiful. She’s fearless. She’s bewitching. So why is she the ‘leper’ of Pahadpur?’ Lal treats his subject with a cinematic, edge-of-the-seat vividness, interspersed with episodes of distilled teen spirit, pulsing with life. 

Sandeep, 17, narrates the story, set against a post-colonial pucca hill station, complete with a club, an army set-up and treks into the hill. How will he and his siblings ~ Manish (14) and sister Chubs (7) ~ survive three months in the internet- free hills with their terrier Jacko, under the eagle eye of great aunt Mita Masi?  They are tantalized by Aranya, the girl next door at Falcon Heights. The townsfolk shun her; they gossip darkly about her past. But what is the truth?

With all the drama of breaking news, Lal transforms the mundane into an irresistible adventure that is unputdownable, yet inoffensive to teen readers, parents and teachers alike. His dialogue, distinctive of sibling rivalry and revelry, helps. So does his ability to weave in full-blooded twists and turns into his quick-paced plot. Who are the s/heroes; who the villains? Lal keeps the reader guessing almost till the end.

Sandeep’s voice is in perfect sync with today’s teens. Take this nuanced hint  of first love when driving past Aranya in distress on a rainy road, thanks to Mita Masi’s prejudices: ‘I turned around and stared: her face was lit by the battery lantern… Her jaw was taut, her chin stuck out defiantly, rain streaming off it, but there was anguish in her eyes, the same devastated, hollow anguish I had seen in Papa’s eyes when Mom passed away.’ From that moment on, it is impossible not to root for Sandeep’s happiness, no matter how danger-laced.

Lal’s writing is charming with its unusual detailing. For instance, the way the older siblings nurture Chubs playfully, coaxing her out of her wandering ways.  Or the enchanting evocation of Aranya’s falcon as it mantles its pigeon prey on a ledge. With the trio’s parents out of the big picture (a device often used by Enid Blyton and JK Rowling), the coast is clear for an adrenalin-fuelled plot.

 This powerful narrative soars, dips and lands as effortlessly as Aranya’s falcon. In Lal’s experienced hands, it never nose-dives into patchiness of tone, plot or character.

I am now a committed Ranjit Lal fan for his convincing unravelling of the ugly, everyday India. Especially since he has made this world accessible to young adults.


This review originally appeared in the GoodBooks site: 

Monday, 14 September 2015

Book review: Big Bully and M-me

Big Bully and M-me
Text: Arti Sonthalia
Illustrations: Sebin Simon
Duckbill. 2015. Paperback. Rs. 150. 68 pages. English. Age: 7+
ISBN: 978-93-83331-21-5

Some issues are so fiercely volatile, so intrinsically fragile, that they need handling with kid gloves, especially in children’s books. Yet, reading novels by British authors Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Elizabeth Laird are like master-classes in how to communicate the most bleak, even gory, subjects. Broken homes. Refugee lives. Current politics.  Mental illness. The differently abled. They touch each issue with deep understanding, sensitivity and superb storytelling to make it child-accessible.

Within the Indian context, some authors have mastered this tricky turf. Names that spring to mind immediately include Sigrun Srivastav, Ranjit Lal and Paro Anand.

 To me, Arti Sonthalia’s book stands apart from the other Duckbill Hole books I have read because it is essentially issue-based. The series, for children just stepping into chapter books, has uncomplicated plots, fun characters and lively illustrations.

How is Sonthalia’s distinctive? Her plot, potentially a minefield because her narrator Krish has a speech impediment, is handled with intelligent emotion, laced with humour. Her quick-paced storytelling is a sure invitation to even reluctant readers. Her adept handling of the subject will silence adult doubters who ask, “But why write about this for children?”

Her main character Krish (he hates being called Krishna), is shorter and skinnier than his classmates at Bright Side School. Self-doubt clouds his days. Will his best friend Green pick him at basketball? Will Ishaan, the class bully, trip him up every day? How many wily ways must he think up to avoid oral tests, plays and debates?

His worst nightmare comes to life when Krish’s class teacher decides on an extempore speaking contest for the semester show, with an irresistible prize. But why must he be paired with the Big Bully? I will resist giving away more of this quirky plot.

Sonthalia gifts Krish a credible narrative voice: “Every time I open my mouth, my words break and jerk, making it difficult for others to understand what I say. Sometimes the words get stuck in my throat and won’t come out.’

The supporting characters are as vivid, as unforgettable. Like Dennis ‘the Menace,’ their class teacher, who ensures that classes are fun-packed. He believes Krish can conquer challenges.  

Krish’s mother promises him a new bicycle if his extempore is smooth sailing. His super-achiever brother wins an inter-school spelling bee. His smart classmate Khushi seems to read his mind. Krish is in awe of them until he discovers that everyone is human. This changes his world.  

Sonthalia evokes Krish’s plight just right. She does not talk down to young readers, neither does she preach. Her narrative sparkles, her vocabulary is spot on.

In an interview with Tanu Shree Singh on the Duckbill blog, Sonthalia says, ‘I did my research on stammering and what children face when they stammer. I also met the Indian Stammering Association leader in Hyderabad.’ She attended their sessions, listened to podcasts, read books ‘to feel the trauma a person who stutters goes through.’ What emerges is a poignant tale about the human condition, its sunshine and shadows, wrapped in an extra-large heart.

Sebin Simon’s zany illustrations enhance the story. Such as notebook jottings of Krish plotting his way to a new bicycle. Or a class joke translated as a teapot filling a car petrol tank. Or Dennis in a mighty stretched jump-stop. Or a Krish’s tall mother looming over Dennis as he announces the results.  

Sonthalia seems like a natural for the Hole books, even with her first book for children. Would young readers and older reviewers like to read more by her? Yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

This review was originally published in GoodBooks at: