Himani Dalmia’s Blog

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Businesswoman

In Quest of Harmony January 29, 2015

(An edited version of this piece first appeared in Marwar magazine, January-February 2015 edition.)

Himani Dalmia accompanying her guru Vidushi Malti Gilani on stage during a Sabrang Utsav performance in New Delhi.

Himani Dalmia accompanying her guru Vidushi Malti Gilani on stage during a Sabrang Utsav performance in New Delhi.

‘When you are eighty years old, this gift will stand by you,’ my guru says to me often. Her silver hair falls in wisps around her face, held back in a small, determined bun. Her face is still striking, even with its deep lines and folds. Her beauty would have been no ordinary thing in her youth. ‘I have seen so many people who lose interest in life, who sulk in their rooms, waiting for their children and grandchildren to dutifully take out time for them. When all the trappings and bustle of youth are gone, your music will give your life richness.’

I have no doubt in her prophecy. If there could ever be a role model for aging gracefully, it would be my Hindustani shastriya sangeet guru, Vidushi Malti Gilani. It has been twenty years now since my first music lesson with her. I was ten years old at the time, sitting obediently by my mother in my shorts and t-shirt. She was my third guru and, to my pre-teen eyes, appeared the most forbidding yet. My first teacher had been a kurta-pajama clad gentleman in his thirties, who prolifically taught me enough bandishes to fill up three notebooks in three years. He would play the harmonium rather sleepily as I sang along. My mother often sat with me in those lessons to prevent his nodding off completely but I hardly blame him for his somnolence. One cannot teach a six, seven or eight-year-old anything more than the words and melodies of songs, which, for a classical musician, is like laying out ingredients repeatedly in a cooking class without doing any actual cooking. My second teacher tried to take my cousins and me to the next level. My lessons with her were shared with my tau’s daughter, Katyayani, who is one year older than me. We would be carted off in a car, reading Nancy Drew, Paula Danziger or Judy Blume books on the way. Our new teacher was an affectionate and charming lady who introduced us to the taanpura and the tabla for the first time. After exposing us, however, she preferred to use practical ‘petis’, or electronic boxes that simulated the sound of these instruments, for lessons. She taught us a plethora of classical and semi-classical songs. Our repertoire expanded considerably but we were not able to continue our lessons with her for more than a year because her own professional music career took off at lightning speed. She felt she would not be able to do our lessons justice and bowed out of our lives. Today, she is one of the best-known musicians in the country: Shubha Mudgal.

My mother now began the quest for a new guru and found Vidushi Malti Gilani, one of the senior-most disciples of the legendary twentieth century maestro and doyen of the Patiala Kasur gharana, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Malti aunty, as I called her then, was a regal, serious and impressive person, always dressed stunningly in a kanjeevaram sari, a string of pearls and kundan earrings, with a signature red bindi drawn in by hand. She wore arresting red-frame spectacles and, on occasion, Versace and Prada sunglasses of outlandish designs. Malti di, as I call her now, was always friendly and loving but, from the very beginning, had a different approach to my musical education from my previous teachers. Maybe it was because I was finally old enough or perhaps because that was the only way Malti di could teach but the way I understood music was entirely deconstructed by her. She started with Raga Yaman, a standard beginning for a shastriya sangeet student. Malti di was a purist and did not believe in electronic instruments. She spent the first twenty minutes of every class tuning the taanpuras and teaching me how to tame these wilful instruments. She had a tabla player present for every lesson, some less-than-satisfactory ones in my early years and later a senior musician, Ustad Nawab Ali, who became an integral part of my musical training.

Lessons with Malti di were detailed and thorough from the beginning. No simple melodies for her. From my very first class, she set about introducing me to the concept of taal. I would spend entire lessons just reciting dha dhin dhin dha while one of the less-than-satisfactory tabla players, alternately drowsy and flattered, rapped away at his instrument. After that, entire lessons singing a single line. Soon, Malti di introduced me to taans. Entire lessons comprising one taan repeated countless times until it rolled off my tongue and wrapped itself into the taal. And the ragas began to stack up – Bhupali, Kedara, Kamod, Bageshari, Rageshari, Bihaag, Malhaars, Bahaars, to name a smattering.

As I entered my teens, I took responsibility for my music. It graduated from being something my mother aligned for me into something that was so intricately linked with my life and who I was that the number of lessons and time spent there was no longer in question. I was clear, of course, that music would never be a career for me. Academics and school life held precedence over music then, just as my work in business does today. It was in my teens that I learnt to compartmentalize my life. My “worldly” life led me from being an academic achiever at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya to a literature student at St Stephen’s College and Oxford University to writing for the Edit Page of the Times of India to publishing a novel and, finally, to committing myself to a life in business, working in my father VN Dalmia’s fast-growing foods company. Literature and writing was my first love but even that took a back seat to my professional career. Music was yet another parallel life. I went for lessons four, sometimes five, times a week through my school and college days. Even while I worked at the Times of India, I took special permission to leave early so that I could pursue my music. One of my biggest concerns before joining the work force full time was what would happen to my music. But my parents had brought me up with my mother’s strong middle class values, as an absolute antidote to the privileged environment I was born into. There was no question of taking my time or dabbling about in the arts. Literature and music could hone my mind and give me intellectual stimulation but, at the end of the day, I needed to pull my own weight. As far as my parents were concerned, what career I built was up to me, as long as I didn’t depend on dole-outs from them or any future inheritance for my subsistence. So, I committed to office hours and music got entrusted to the weekends. I worked towards building India’s first olive oil and canola oil brands, Leonardo and Hudson respectively, by day, moonlighted as a writer by night and continued music as an intellectual and spiritual pursuit in what time remained.

Himani's novel, Life is Perfect, was published in 2009.

Himani’s novel, Life is Perfect, was published in 2009.

It took me a while to reconcile myself to this compartmentalization; to accept that business, writing and music could all co-exist, that I did not have to give one of them up. It always seemed disorderly, causing me to be momentarily stumped when asked the ubiquitous opening question at social gatherings: “what do you do?”

Actually, when viewed in the light of my family history, my inclinations become far from disorderly, if not entirely natural. My grandfather, Ramkrishna Dalmia, was one of the pioneering industrialists of modern India and the name ‘Dalmia’ is almost synonymous with enterprise and business. The reality is though that, today, my family consists almost entirely of writers, artistes and academics. One of my father’s sisters was a writer whose partner was India’s then leading poet, S.H. Vatsyayan; another is a professor of Philosophy; yet another, a former professor at the Universities of Yale and Berkeley, is internationally renowned in the field of South Asian Studies; and a fourth is a pre-eminent art historian with many books to her credit. As the male heirs, my father and his brother were never presented the option of drifting into academia. Businessmen they became, yes, but they also wrote on the side. And whom did they marry? One, an academic who is today a Commonwealth prize-winning novelist and, the second – my mother – a lawyer and educationist. My own generation is populated by mathematicians, anthropologists, musicians, art historians, writers and philosophers.

These cultural leanings clearly stemmed from my grandmother, Saraswati Dalmia, a Hindi poet and Sanskrit scholar. My grandfather married her when he was already at the pinnacle of business success with a small-town woman as his spouse. Making pots of money had not compensated for his humble upbringing and he was not prepared for high society. Moreover, he had a questioning mind. The later wives he chose brought cultural refinement with them. My grandmother had studied Sanskrit, was highly educated and wrote prolifically. His next wife brought with her the culture of Lahore, then known as the Paris of the east. His last wife was a writer who went on to become well known in the Hindi literary circuit and win national awards.

Himani's paternal grandparents, Ramkrishna and Saraswati Dalmia

Himani’s paternal grandparents, Ramkrishna and Saraswati Dalmia

It is the women, after all, that bring up the children. The offspring of Ramkrishna Dalmia from his later wives were born to double messages: one, to join the family business; and two, to value culture and creative expression. The cultural influence was too strong for his children to escape and was compounded manifold by the arrival of their own spouses.

My mother, born Nilanjana Varma, grew up in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in a family that was proud of its ‘Kayastha’ heritage. The word ‘Kayastha’ means ‘scribe’ in Sanskrit and the patron deity of this community is the son of Lord Brahma, Chitragupta, whose job it is to keep meticulous records of all human actions as a sort of celestial journalist. The Kayastha community has traditionally been associated with education, the arts, law and administration. My mother’s family always placed a premium on education and the classical arts. In the first half of the twentieth century, they were amongst the few Indians that went to England for higher education and then occupied important posts in India’s British government. Despite a westernized upbringing, the Indian classical arts held an elevated status for them. She tells me that, in her family, Hindustani shastriya sangeet was considered the mother of all music, including western classical. Her father played the flute and the tabla, her mother sang. The families of both her parents were chock-full of accomplished musicians. The leading artistes of the day would be in and out of her family homes, where concerts were held regularly. Ustad Bismillah Khan, the twentieth century shehnai maestro, played at her parents’ wedding in Benares. Learning classical music and dance was an integral part of any Varma or Srivastava child’s education. It was never meant to be a professional pursuit but more a way of life, an added dimension to a well-rounded and wholesome personality, a sign of good breeding. My mother implemented these parenting values with her children as well – more strictly with me, her first child, and more leniently with my brother Pranav, who nevertheless took to the piano and is today an accomplished pianist with a large-scale, public solo concert under his belt.

Himani Dalmia with maternal grandfather Prakash Kumar Varma and husband Akash Premsen

Himani Dalmia with maternal grandfather Prakash Kumar Varma and husband Akash Premsen

With such strong influences of business and the arts, it seems that my fate was sealed. It’s a balancing act, for sure, but I cannot live without one or the other and the contradictions bother me no more. The reconciliation becomes easier for me since my husband is a fellow creative spirit who went from a life in the liberal arts, theatre and the media to an MBA and a corporate career. My mother-in-law too is a literary person, an art aficionado and a rasik who frequents the concert halls of Delhi, in addition to nurturing a successful and demanding professional career in education.

Himani and Akash opted for a Hindustani classical music recital by Ustad Raza Ali Khan, the current khalifa of the Patiala-Kasur gharana, at home for their wedding Sangeet.

Himani and Akash opted for a Hindustani classical music recital by Ustad Raza Ali Khan, the current khalifa of the Patiala-Kasur gharana, at home for their wedding Sangeet.

‘You are so lucky,’ Malti di often says to me. ‘You don’t need to sing for money. You don’t need to learn quickly and put together performances and sing what sells. You can learn the true art. Our kind of music is a sadhana, a spiritual practice. I too am fortunate that I can teach you the truth behind it.’

Malti di is the founder of the Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Yaadgar Sabha, a trust founded in 1968 in memory of the great maestro. It is a unique trust because it aims to provide medical aid to musicians, the majority of whom have no medical insurance, job security or regular income. The Sabha organizes an annual concert in Delhi in the Fall called ‘the Sabrang Utsav’, after Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib’s pen name. Although she is the grand dame of Delhi’s music circles, seated in the front row of almost every concert held in the city, Malti di treats these audiences to very few performances. After extensive training by both Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib and his son, Ustad Munawar Ali Khan, Malti di gave numerous performances in India and abroad the 1970s and ‘80s. Thereafter, she decided to take a step back, focus on her riyaz and on passing on her guru’s gaiki to her students. The Sabrang Utsav is now one of the rare occasions that music lovers get to hear her magnificent full-throated investigation of the Patiala Kasur gharana style.

My memories of the Sabrang Utsav go back to the very beginning of my association with Malti di. At that time, Malti di would have my cousin Maya and another older student, Mala, accompany her in her performances, playing the taanpura behind her and giving vocal support. I would attend the concert with my parents, often falling asleep with my head on my father’s arm. I could not fathom the kind of music that was being performed – the gradual explorations of a raga, the layakari, the behlavas. It was all very slow and dull for me. Then, over time, as my own musical understanding grew, I would find myself in the same place at the same time of year, in a completely different state-of-mind. I began to enjoy all the performances immensely and particularly Malti di’s because I never heard her sing from A to Z in a lesson. I began to understand where she was trying to take me in my own education. As I grew, both physically and intellectually, the same auditorium and the same stage began to look smaller to me every year.

That was until Malti di decided it was my turn to accompany her on stage. I must have been fourteen or fifteen years old. My cousin Maya had left for the United States for her PHD in Mathematics and Mala was no longer taking lessons from Malti di. My cousins Amba, Katyayani and I were the senior-most students left. So, for a few years, either Amba and I or Katyayani and I were the two accompanists for Malti di’s performances. In the first few years, it was terrifying. Singing the asthayi and antara with her just to give vocal support was not a problem but Malti di would often flick her head towards us during the gaps in her singing, expecting us to throw out a few taans or behlavas. At that moment, all musical knowledge would flee my mind and I would be dumbstruck. It would take superhuman strength to tune into the sound of the tabla, understand where in the cycle of ek taal or teen taal or jhumra I was in and launch into a taan, landing correctly on sama with so much relief that I could barely complete the phrase!

I gained confidence slowly. Malti di coaxed me into doing a couple of solo performances. The Utsav was held in September every year, with preparations beginning a few months before. It was in the lead-up to the Utsav that I would feel the strain of juggling so many parallel lives. Musical fruition that needed hours of riyaz everyday could not be conjured up in convenient doses. In the month of September, music would become my number one priority. I would try to fit in as much riyaz as possible, often asking Nawab Ali Khan Sahib to come to my house for some practice with the tabla, un-supported by Malti di. And then, the big day would arrive.

Himani performing solo at Sabrang Basant Utsav 2012

Himani performing solo at Sabrang Basant Utsav 2012

Entering the auditorium itself represented a shift in the space-time continuum for me. The floral arrangements on the stage were familiar; a large print of MF Husain’s portrait of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib stood regally to one side; audience members who had arrived early murmured softly in the background, against the portentous sound of instruments being tuned. My parallel lives melted away. Now, it was just me, my taanpura, Malti di and the raga before me.

When the performance ended, when I set my taanpura down, folded my hands to the audience and departed the stage, I would be washed by a jumble of feelings – relief, gratitude, pride and self-doubt.

Life would revert to normal after the Sabrang Utsav was over. I would return to my regular schedule of music lessons over the weekends.

Now, almost twenty years after I first came under Malti di’s care, the upscale colony where her home is situated is a different world altogether. Originally occupied by old business families or defense personnel, it is now peppered with expats and diplomats. The rents have sky-rocketed and old buildings have been broken down to create modern low-rise apartment complexes. But Malti di’s home remains a safe haven.

Nawab Ali Khan Sahib and I set up in Malti di’s room, looking out at her beloved gulmohar tree. Lessons are sometimes about reviving khayals learnt years ago, sometimes about arduous voice culture and sometimes about perfecting concepts of laya. They are also sometimes about gossiping over chai, Malti di’s trips down memory lane and spending time with my cousins and her as a family. And from time to time, they are about my cousin Amba, who we lost in a car crash when I was seventeen. Although Amba and I grew up playing together, our primary interaction in her last few years was at music classes. It is at music classes and Sabrang Utsav that I miss her most.

‘Don’t let life upset you,’ Malti di says often. ‘Khan Sahib used to say: why stress or mope about things. In the time it takes to do that, you can do riyaz of several taans!’ Like any spiritual practice, my musical training is not just about notes and beat and melodies. Life lessons and anecdotes are an integral part of it, while my relationship with my guru is an overriding part of it. It is possible that, with anyone else, I would have labeled my music an unnecessary self-indulgence and given up on the battle years ago. My relationship with Malti di is much more than that of teacher and student. The path she has set me on is greater than just that of mastering a skill. It is a sadhana, a commitment to my intellect and my spirit. It gives me moments to breathe in an otherwise hectic life. It gives me a chance to tap into my multiple family legacies. Like a khayal, intricately tied to the rules of its raga and the taal it is set in, and yet ultimately unstructured and improvisatory, my life in music and with Malti di grounds me by making me a tiny member of a limitless universe and by making me struggle to achieve every success, and yet finally sets me free.

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Rome February 4, 2010

One of the realities of dealing with print media is that, out of every 10 articles one is requested to write, at least one gets lost in the abyss of deadlines, double-planning and forgetfulness at the editorial desk. The piece below was written for a travel column but never saw the light of day. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it though, because it allowed me to relive one of the most special holidays I have ever been on: the ten days I spent in Rome. Usually wary of labelling favourites, I have no hesitation is saying that Rome is my favourite city in the world. Here’s why.

In the 1953 Audrey Hepburn classic, Roman Holiday, Princess Anne arrives in Rome after a diplomatic tour of European capitals. Escaping from her royal confinement in a truck, Anne spends a day frolicking about Rome with Gregory Peck. When she returns to her princess-ly duties and holds a press conference, she is asked which European capital she liked the best. Throwing diplomacy to the wind, Anne bursts forth: “Rome! Rome!”

After having visited Rome for the first time recently, I understand her fervour. Cities have charmed, cities have thrilled and cities have entertained in the past but Rome penetrated my consciousness in a way that was completely new. I could not shake off the city’s magic for weeks after I had left it. Perhaps it was because Rome is the cradle of western civilization and even we in India feel connected to its mythology and history. Perhaps it was because Rome’s overflowing, spectacular art and architecture is an assault on the senses that takes a while to recover from. It may have been the soul of the city: the agony and the ecstasy of its history with Christianity. Or was it the food, the wine, the olive oil, the cappuccino, the gelato? It was all this and more.

Of course, for me, there was the added excitement of finally being in Italy long enough to practise my Italian. One and half years of learning the language at the Italian Cultural Institute in Delhi would be put to use buying, ordering, enquiring, reading and listening while making my way through one of the most exciting cities in the world! My father, brother and I knew that, in eight days, we would barely be able to scratch the surface of what was on offer. We settled down with guidebooks, maps and tourist brochures the moment we arrived. There was so much to see and such little time!

The thing about Rome is that it is a city of layers. The ruins of ancient Rome stand amidst the monuments of Renaissance Italy, all held within the structure of a modern capital. As you walk through the vias and piazzas, the supremacy of the Caesars rubs shoulders with the power of the Popes; classical Greek sculptures from the 1st century B.C. are mirrored in the neo-classical art of the 16th century; Christian aesthetics transform and sublimate “heretical” pagan structures.

There was so much information to take in, so much history to get straight in one’s head! The city was born when the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus and was then ruled by seven kings. This was, of course, followed by the futuristic Republican era, which came to a swift end when Julius Caesar decided to take matters into his own hands. One Shakespearean tragedy later, Imperial Rome had emerged. Magnificent forums, amphitheatres, arches, temples and baths sprouted up all over the city. Peering into the central hollow of the Colosseum, walking through the Roman Forum, driving past Circus Maximus, staring up at the ceiling of the Pantheon, my brother Pranav and I had mastered the dynastic chronology: Julius, followed by Octavius, followed by the Julio-Claudians and then the Flavians, Trajan who built the forum, and a few more till Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.

It was then time to discover Christian Rome: the complex history, the politics, the faith, the magnificent art, the symbols that so understandably inspired Angels and Demons, the complete interweaving of personal and social histories with religious mythology. It left me awestruck. The basilicas housing masterpieces like Michelangelo’s heart-wrenching Pietà, his imposing Moses, along with grandiose frescoes and mosaics are but teasers to what awaits in the smallest country in the world: the Vatican.

How can a space of less than half a square kilometre hold so much power, faith, wealth, history and art? Approaching St. Peter’s Basilica through the Piazza San Pietro, flanked by Bernini’s sculptures and focussed inwards by an Egyptian obelisk, I could sense the faith of the millions who had congregated here for a glimpse of the Pope. The Vatican Museums beyond hold perhaps one of the greatest collections of art anywhere in the world. Walking through rows of ancient sculptures, the room of maps, the room of tapestries, the Raphael rooms (with the superb fresco of Plato’s Academy), galleries and alcoves bursting with art, one can only imagine what dignitaries and kings over the centuries might have felt while on their way to meet the Pope. Nothing prepares you, however, for the final stop: the Sistine Chapel. We stared mesmerized at its ceiling, something our guide had already de-coded for us panel-by-panel outside the Museums. Michelangelo’s interpretation of Genesis and the Last Judgment cannot be overestimated. One cannot tire of craning one’s neck up to absorb his work.

When we left the Vatican, we were tired, hungry and dumbstruck. We collapsed in a cafe, digging into our pasta and sipping coffee gratefully. No one spoke for a while but, after a few minutes, there was too much to say. The Vatican had been, by far, the highlight of an already incomparable visit.

We had only one day left, after which we would depart for Venice. There was much argument over what we should do, which finally boiled down to a choice between climbing up the Victor Emmanuel II monument and visiting the Trevi Fountain. We chose the latter and I am glad, not only because the sculptures gushing with water are impressive in themselves but because, legend has it, if you throw a coin into the pool, you have ensured your return to Rome. Needless to say, we threw in a lot of coins. Returning to Rome is essential. There is just so much left to see and so many layers left to uncover.

 

A Second Undergraduate Degree July 30, 2009

 

 

 

The dreaming spires of Oxford

The dreaming spires of Oxford

Those who have known me for a few years know that my experience at the University of Oxford was mixed, at best. I wrote this fictionalized memoir in short story form while I was at Oxford, just as a record (in case I question myself when I am 50!) and to help me make sense of what I had been through.

 

 

 

 

I had decided to keep panic at bay by taking a walk through central Oxford. The sun was out today after an entire month! This rare visitation had pulled everyone out of their homes and onto Cornmarket Street, where a band with an impressive sound system played sixties’ classics. The everyday bagpiper had been forced to relocate to the other end of the street, a safe distance from the pair of evangelists that was telling passers-by about how exactly to reach heaven. I noted that the Asian men who handed out information about Islam being a peace-loving religion were missing today.

Sipping on my cappuccino-to-go, I congratulated myself on having found an effective solution to my now-permanent state of misery. The light and people had certainly made me forget about the hell I had got myself stuck in, four thousand miles and several sharp headaches away from home. Except for the occasional surge of annoyance at the sight of the so-called dreaming spires of the university, I felt pretty cheerful.

Returning to my room three hours later meant having to face the utter hopelessness of my situation. I sat on the bed, head in my hands, wondering if I dared to check my e-mail. If my parents had written, it would be only to ask what the status of the crisis was. My bua in America must still be asleep, so there would probably be nothing from her. Professor Lyman at the Oriental Institute had said he would take a few days to get back to me. There was always the chance that someone from the History faculty had written to say everything was sorted out but it was best not to feel too hopeful.

The irony of it was too much to bear. Fellow undergraduates at my college in Delhi had started referring to me as an Oxonian the day I received my offer letter. ‘We are pleased to extend to you an offer to read for a second undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford’, it had read. This was followed by a similarly phrased letter from the University of Cambridge two weeks later. “What a dilemma to be in!” my friends had joked, “shall I go to Oxford or Cambridge? No one would want to be in your shoes!”

Applying to Oxford and Cambridge had been an impulse decision entirely. In my third year of college, everyone around me had begun to apply to British universities feverishly. It was perhaps the only herd-like thing I’d ever done in my life: I decided to apply as well. My mother supported me whole-heartedly, smitten by the idea of my following in the footsteps of her granduncles, who had educated themselves there in order to become barristers and civil servants. She suggested mildly that I consider applying for something other than English, but these attempts met with violent shrieks from me. Studying Literature had changed the way I looked at the world and I would not be parted from it.

“Don’t apply for the second undergraduate degree,” my bua, a Professor of Hindi at the University of California, Berkeley, warned me. “Himani, the undergraduate in English at Delhi University is fantastic. You are more than prepared to start a graduate course. Apply for the Master’s.” I decided to apply for both a second undergraduate as well as a Master’s at both Oxford and Cambridge.

“No-no,” my mother’s friend, a former Rhodes Scholar who had read Economics at Oxford thirty years ago, said dismissively. “Everyone from India goes to Oxbridge to read for a second B.A. You will do only the second and third years of their B.A. and the degree will convert into an M.A. after seven years.” This was the strongest argument put forward by the supporters of the second B.A. I was confused about how this magical upgrade would occur but did not think too much of it. Generations of Indians had travelled to these haloed centres of learning and returned with ‘M.A., University of Oxford/Cambridge’ on their résumés. Whether the course they had studied was undergraduate or graduate hardly mattered.

The decision was made for me about a month after I sent my application for graduate study to both universities. I received an e-mail from one saying my application had been unsuccessful. Feeling disappointed, I wrote to the Convenor of the course to ask if I had perhaps not supplied a sufficiently detailed research proposal. The reply read: “Your research proposal could have been more specific. However, we felt you may be happier reading for a second undergraduate degree. Several students from commonwealth countries come to our University to gain a second degree and find that it prepares them better for graduate study here.” I had raised an eyebrow at this and my friends joked with me about how I would be the token commonwealth student at the University, relating stories about elephants and coal-dancers over tea and crumpets.

My parents flew with me to England to help me settle down. My college was an imposing Gothic structure with pinnacled towers and windows of colourful glass. My room, however, was in a newer building just across the road from the main site. It was a small room but I liked it because it was freshly painted, modern and bright, with an attached bathroom.

My parents stayed for ten days. I had to begin a new life here and they were very anxious about everything. I could not understand what all the fuss was about most of the time. Life here seemed pretty simple. I would last the eight weeks of each term without too much anguish, I was certain.

Things started to go wrong very soon after my parents left. There were no problems at all with cooking, cleaning, laundry or shopping. But I wasn’t in Oxford just to learn how to live away from home and take care of myself. I was here to obtain a second undergraduate degree.

“Himani, Chaucer’s language needs some getting used to,” one of my English tutors said to me at our first meeting.

“I’ve read The Canterbury Tales in my first B.A,” I reminded him.

“Are you quite comfortable with it?” he looked doubtful. I assured him that I was. “Well, if you need any extra classes, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I repeated, feeling stung.

The class was given plenty of time to finish reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. I found, however, that in the first week itself, my classmates seemed to have read the entire book. “We read the Modern English translation,” one of them told me later. Not wanting to prove my tutor right about Indian students, I decided to read the Modern English version too. It was then time to write the weekly essays that the Oxford tutorial system was famous for. I researched the subject copiously to understand what scholars had written about it recently. When my tutor told me that he was much more interested in a close textual reading and my own analysis, I consoled myself by deciding these were just teething problems.

Creating a social space for myself was also proving to be difficult. I had spent the first week of term participating in orientation activities with First Year students. Mixing with eighteen-year-olds fresh out of school required patience. Scared at finding themselves in alien territory, these children (I could not think of them as anything other than that) were trying very hard to define themselves. They viewed me with suspicion. Though only four years older than them, I felt like a giant wading through a crowd of dwarves. I hoped it would be better when I met the Second Year students, whom I was to study with.

My classmates were welcoming but they too were unsure of how to relate to me. I could see them wondering if they should offer me guidance or ask for my advice. I knew I was a misfit here too.

“You have graduate status,” the Women’s Advisor of my college had told me in the first week. “Make sure you get to know the graduates.”

I decided that this was my only hope. I began to spend much more time in the Common Room for graduates. It was certainly a relief to be away from wide-eyed children once in a while. My situation had made me realise that which side of a B.A. degree one stood on made a huge difference. I saw that difference in myself: stepping out of undergraduate college had changed the way I related to the world. I no longer identified myself in conjunction with a definite social group. I was an individual, a grown-up, who had to take life decisions.

Most graduates, however, could not quite understand my story either. When I told them I had graduate status because I was reading for a second degree, they asked me what my first degree was in. “English,” I would mumble and then proceed to explain, shame-facedly, that Oxford and Cambridge expected South Asian students to repeat their degrees. They would nod slowly, uncomprehendingly, and then turn to talk to a “real” graduate, to discuss supervisors, research topics and dissertations. I was an impostor here.

Before the first two weeks of term were over, I found myself beginning to question not only why I was here but why this degree existed at all. All Oxford undergraduates, not just second B.A.s, gained honorary M.A.s seven years after completing their course. It was a fake M.A., I thought with anger. Only the brightest students from India could be admitted to Oxbridge, and we had come, for so many years, to study for a second time what British, European and even American students needed to only once.

I began to bristle as my tutor introduced the class to Christopher Marlowe. Yes, I was silent as my classmates rattled off facts about the political situation in Britain in the sixteenth century, but I knew that the text of Doctor Faustus played with ideas of transgression and subversion. My tutor blinked when I said this and then turned the tide of the discussion. He was not interested in theory. I heard my bua’s voice telling me six months ago: “Himani, Oxford is very conservative. It’s not the right place for English.” What a fool I was to ignore her.

I realised with every passing week that what was expected of me would require almost no effort. I was to write two essays per week, one for each of my tutors. Each essay would discuss a different author. This meant that I had three days to read everything Ben Jonson had written and then conjure up an essay on him. Needless to say, the essay would only skim the surface of the topic. This was certainly not like my course in Delhi, where I would have had a month to write an essay on one aspect of one poem by one writer. My sketchy essay on Ben Jonson may have taught me enough for conversations over coffee but certainly not for any academic understanding of him.

I considered skipping through this course happily, just for the sake of it. But even if I were to do that, I would gain no degree at the end that I did not already possess. Why was I struggling to live here, spending so much of my father’s money, to obtain another B.A. degree?

“This is such a huge mistake!” I wept to my parents on the phone.

“Can you switch to another subject?” my father asked. I was quite sure Oxford would not allow it.

“People have switched though,” a classmate told me later. “They talk to their tutors and try to get accepted into another subject.”

I went through the list of possible subjects frantically but the idea of any one of them filled me with despair. I did not want to learn the skills of an undergraduate. I wanted to do research-oriented work. I was qualified enough to do so, after all! I needed to switch to a graduate course.

I spoke to one of my tutors, the Head of my college’s English Department. He seemed puzzled.

“But you applied for an undergraduate degree!” he said when I finished explaining my situation. I did not know how to respond. It was true. I had applied for an undergraduate degree.

“Well, yes, but now that I’m here, I feel that it isn’t making sense for me,” I ventured.

“But you applied for an undergraduate degree,” he repeated. I stared at him helplessly. They wouldn’t let me into a Master’s course! I felt like saying, but my pride stopped me.

“Yes, but I feel that I am repeating things I’ve already done,” I tried again.

“It’s a fairly flexible system,” he shrugged. “Just choose to work on authors you haven’t studied before.” Tears sprang up in my eyes. Did he not see what a waste that would be for me? I wasn’t spending lakhs of rupees a year, living away from my family, just to be better read! I could see in the tilt of his chin that he felt an undergraduate degree from Oxford was a worthy enough prize to suffer this humiliation.

“Undergraduates develop certain skills,” I changed tack, “and I feel I’ve already acquired those. I was hoping to move onto more research-oriented work.”

“But you applied for an undergraduate degree!” he said triumphantly. I slumped back in my chair. I decided to abandon this inevitably circular discussion.

“Could I talk to the Convenors of Masters’ courses to see if there’s any chance at all that they could fit me in?” I asked.

 “I suppose you could,” he said, trying to show magnanimity, “but I doubt you’ll find success. You see, graduates are selected through a careful admission process where they are judged against each other. I don’t think you can gain – how do I put it – backdoor entry.” I wanted to grab the bottle of wine standing on his desk and smash it to the ground. I was not going to let him make me feel like a barbarian who couldn’t abide by procedures of the civilised world.

“You see,” I said to him calmly, “I feel that, if I cannot shift to a graduate course, it would perhaps be best for me to suspend my studies in Oxford and return home.” He raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. I wondered if the college would be willing to lose a student paying international fees.

“That would be unfortunate,” he sighed, “but I don’t really see a solution.” I wanted to cry.

“Can I call the Convenor for the Master’s in English?”

He gave me her number. I called her later that day and asked to see her. After my meeting with her, she told me she would be in touch in a few days. I then sent e-mails to the Convenors of Master’s courses in History, Women’s Studies, Oriental Studies and Anthropology.

A week went by. Most Convenors, including that of English, sent me e-mails saying they could not accommodate me at this point. Professor Morris from the History Faculty, however, asked me to come by and see her. She was in charge of the Master’s in Modern South Asian History.

“I strongly believe that the second B.A. should be done away with,” she told me after hearing me out. “I will try to do what I can to admit you but the system here is rather bureaucratic. In the meantime, start attending our classes. I wouldn’t want you to lose more time than you already have.”

Feeling jubilant, I went back to College. That week was extremely stressful. I attended all the History classes but also had to keep up with my English work until my transfer was confirmed.

I began to spend most of my time in my room. Seeing the city and other students made me feel like a pariah. As a second undergraduate, I hadn’t quite fit into the system, but now, I had no right to be here at all. This sprawling institution, complacent in its reputation built over seven hundred years, need not bend itself for one student from a faraway country. I had made a decision when I applied for the second undergraduate and must live with it. But walking on those cobbled streets from the Bodleian library to my room, I could not help but feel that I was not responsible for the situation I found myself in. This very institution was responsible and it owed it to me to solve my problem.

The next week, Professor Morris wrote me a gentle, apologetic e-mail. The Director of Graduate Admissions felt they could not admit me. I did not have a background in History and would not be able to cope with the course. “I, personally,” she wrote, “know that an undergraduate in English has probably prepared you sufficiently but, unfortunately, the decision is not in my hands. I do hope you have better luck with another Faculty.”

I cried for an hour after I read that e-mail. The thought of returning to my English tutors, to that triumphant gleam in their eyes, and writing essays about a different author every week, made me want to jump onto a plane and fly far away. I wrote to both Professor Morris and the Director of Graduate Admissions to ask them to reconsider. I called my parents after that.

“Sweetie, cut your losses and leave,” my father, ever the businessman, said. “It doesn’t matter how much money has been spent. It’s a losing proposition so don’t carry it through.”

“Darling, stick out just this one term,” my mother said. I knew she couldn’t bear how unhappy I was. She blamed herself for the decision. “We will all work out what to do when you come back.”

After hanging up, I sat back in my sofa to think. It would not do to lock myself in my room and feel sorry for myself. I needed to solve the problem. I considered my options. Professor Morris may still come through for me. I should not close that chapter. The Faculty of Oriental Studies too had not refused outright. They had simply been uncertain about whether my Sanskrit was strong enough to study an ancient Indian text. I decided to phone Professor Lyman at the Oriental Institute.

“It’s a shortcoming of the Institute,” he said to me, “that we cannot offer the study of modern Indian literature.”

“But what if I were to study medieval literature?” I suggested quickly. “Like Tulsidas or Surdas? And I could look at their sources in Sanskrit texts. My Sanskrit is good enough for that, especially with the help of translations.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” he said thoughtfully. “Let me speak with the Lecturer in Hindi and the Director of Admissions and then get back to you. But, you know, Oxford is not a helpful institution. From my experience, I feel it would be best not to get your hopes up.”

My own experience at Oxford had taught me that. No matter how hard I struggled, the system simply made adjustments to tighten its defence. I did not know what to do. There were only three weeks of term left. Nobody would help me, I thought gloomily; neither History nor Oriental Studies would work out. In the meantime, I would have to keep writing my English essays. I wanted to leave this country. It did not matter if I lost a year of my life. I needed to scramble out of this nightmare and scratch it from my memory.

I lay awake in bed for several hours that night. I need to do something to lift my spirits, I thought to myself. Maybe I would spend the next day just window-shopping through central Oxford.

 

 *

 

I did have an e-mail from Professor Morris the next day. “Dear Himani,” she wrote, “I’m afraid there is nothing I can do. The Oriental Institute is perhaps less hindered by bureaucracy. I wish you the best of luck with them.”

Professor Lyman did not write that week. When I phoned him, he said he was yet to determine whether anything could be done. I felt all my hopes sinking once again. There were only two weeks of term left. They could hardly accept me into a one-year Master’s course when I’d missed an entire term. My English tutors, who had assumed my attempts would never succeed, suggested I concentrate on my essays.

My bua wrote to me almost every day from Berkeley. She knew how academic institutions worked. She told me to keep after them. “You’re almost there, Himani,” her e-mail read, “trust me, Oriental Studies will work out. Don’t lose hope now, my dear. Your grandfather wrested the cement monopoly from the British. He faced the same bureaucracy, the same insistence upon procedures and rules. You are his granddaughter. Know that we all love you and support you.” I smiled a little at this e-mail. Everyone probably knew I was on the verge of a breakdown. They were doing all they could to strengthen me.

I went to see Professor Lyman later that week. Dr Fodor, the Lecturer in Hindi, was with him.

“The good news is,” Professor Lyman said, “that, provided you are able to work out a research area with Dr Fodor, there should be no problem admitting you here at the Oriental Institute.” I almost sprang from my seat with excitement. “The bad news,” he continued, “is that I don’t know if the University and your college will allow it. But I’m going to make some calls tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Dr Fodor to see what you can work out.”

Dr Fodor was a charming Hungarian gentleman. His English was strongly accented but his Hindi flawless. We talked for about an hour about medieval poets. I knew he was judging my knowledge and aptitude for the subject. I seemed to have passed the test because he thereafter began to suggest areas I could focus on. At the end of two hours, we had decided I would write my dissertation on the depiction of the wedding of Ram and Sita in the works of Tulsidas. I knew that this was probably the fastest anyone in Oxford had decided on a research topic!

The last week of term began. I met Dr Fodor every day, working out details of my dissertation. He gave me reading lists and I spent hours in the Indian Institute Library trying to navigate them. My college had permitted me to provisionally let go of the English course.

Although sensing that my problems may in fact be over, I held back on any celebrations. This was Oxford, after all. If even one person down the chain of command objected, my transfer could fall through.

“I think it is safe to say you have been admitted,” Professor Lyman wrote to me two days before I was to leave for India. “The paperwork is yet to be done but all the people involved have agreed to your transfer so I do not anticipate any problems.” I wrote a common e-mail containing the good news to everyone in India and my bua. The subject line read: “Pop the champagne!”

I spent the next day packing to leave. More than joy, I felt a combination of relief and exhaustion. With all my belongings back in my suitcase, I decided to go to bed. I needed to wake up early to catch my plane the next day.

I lay awake for a while, worrying about problems that could crop up at the airport, that strip of land where one had almost no rights and nobody had any reason to help anyone. This was just paranoia of course. There would be no problems. Had I not proved myself to be invincible? I’d fought this unyielding institution and come out victorious. And yet, I couldn’t wait to be away. Yes, I had won the battle and carved a place for myself in a system that allowed me none but, when I walked on the streets, I still felt the cold walls of the old buildings closing in on me. I still felt eyes on me, as though the gothic gargoyles on the medieval buildings were watching the new impostor closely, protecting this centre of learning, as they had for hundreds of years, from evil. I closed my eyes, relieved that I was leaving, and wishing I did not have to return.

 

 

 

Names of professors at the University of Oxford have been changed but the incident described is true.  I did return to Oxford next term and completed my Masters’ degree in Oriental Studies that year itself. In the end, my experience in Oxford taught me a lot: not only that Tulsidas had confused views about gender relations, but also about how the world works and how a rapidly globalizing world will have to reckon with the increasing importance and cultural self-confidence of regions that may have, in the past, settled for only second best.

 

The making of a Delhi novel July 6, 2009

 

 

A few days ago, a journalist from a well-known newspaper asked me to contribute to a story she was doing on the recent spate of Delhi novels in the market. Since Life is Perfect is very much a Delhi novel and I am unabashedly in love with this city, I was happy to put finger to keyboard and bash out some thoughts on the subject. Alas, newspaper cycles wait for no one and, even though I returned the questionnaire half a day after I received it, the journalist had already filed the story.

But no matter, because this actually worked out very well for me. I’ve been experiencing major writer’s block about this blog, which is why it has been blank for so many months, haunting me at night and making me look sheepish when readers ask me about it. Now, I can actually put something here that I’ve worked on, that communicates my views and also invites thoughts from others.   

 

 

1. What made you write a book set in Delhi?

I grew up in Delhi and think of myself very much as a Delhi person. Life, as I know it, happens in Delhi so it was a natural choice for me to set a novel about contemporary, urban India in my own city.

I also wanted to write about Delhi’s unique social structure. More on that in Question 5.

 

 

2. Is the city as you depict, the city of your daily landscape?

Yes, very much so. The story of Life is Perfect unfolds in Lutyens’ Delhi, where I live. Characters visit Khan Market (which is a daily chore for me!), go to Delhi University and drive down Shanti Path. The life depicted in my novel is very contemporary and real and, thus, so is the landscape.

 

 

3. Bombay has always been perceived as a marketable city, with the film industry, etc. Delhi was simply considered boring. Why do you think Delhi is turning up in books now? Is the city more saleable? What is the reason for the change?

Why the city’s literary potential has not been mined and there are such few “Delhi novels” is a mystery to me. I noticed this gap in our literature early in my reading years. Delhi has such a rich history and complex social fabric. Perhaps it was considered slower and older than Bombay, with a cultural and intellectual life that could not match Calcutta’s. Perhaps, as a result, it fell through the cracks.

Indian writing on the whole is undergoing a revolution. There are more authors, more books, more readers and more international attention. Almost nothing can fall through the cracks now. So, Delhi, too, is finally getting her day in the Sun. High time, I say.

 

 

4. What according to you are the romantic or literary parts of Delhi? And if at all it exists, what is Delhi’s literary identity?

In the eye of a storyteller, every corner of Delhi has a story to tell. Infused with imagination, the slummiest alleys, the glitziest high-rises and the most staid neighbourhoods can come alive with drama and mystery.

Personally, I think Lutyens’ Delhi is the city’s jewel in the crown. Architecturally beautiful, socially vibrant and unlike anything that can be found in our other cities, it’s a truly poetic part of Delhi.

Delhi’s literary identity is Old Delhi. It’s William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. It’s also St Stephen’s College, my own alma mater, which pops up ubiquitously in novels set in all parts of the country because, so often, the author did his or her own studying there.

 

 

5. You talk about the power equations in Delhi, about who you are and where you stay making a difference to the way people perceive you. Do you think that is true everywhere or more so in Delhi?

This is partially true for most cities but I think it is much more pronounced in Delhi. In many ways, life in Delhi is unique. It’s a political city with an aristocratic heritage. A preoccupation with power and social classes is inherent in the way society functions here. In Life is Perfect, I try to bring out the way relationships develop, hierarchies form and social masks are worn.

 

 

6. What do you think about the negative stereotypes of Delhi and also the people of Delhi?

The people of Delhi are accused of being superficial, uncouth and rude. The city is often maligned as dirty, polluted and unprofessional. Unfortunately, many of these stereotypes are true. But we have to live with the good and the bad in every city. And we have to scratch beneath the surface, dig deeper. Then, we can discover what is beautiful and lovable about Delhi.

 

 

7. The parts of Delhi that you love to explore?

Most of my life takes place between central and South Delhi. I live on Akbar Road, my office is in Daryaganj and I shop/eat/meet in South Delhi. The part of Delhi that I really want to explore is Old Delhi.

Since I am a resident of Delhi, I’ve never really had a tourist’s perspective of Delhi, other than a few school trips as a child. I want to visit the famous sites of Delhi once again as an adult, with a regular tourist guide, complete with all the mirch-masala that they add to history. After all, that is just one more way in which Delhi inspires storytellers!

 

 

8. Do you have a favourite Delhi story that you recount often?

I can’t stop exclaiming about how much Khan Market has changed! During my childhood, I bought ice-creams from Sovereign Dairy and rented movies from Grand Bazaar. Institutions like The Music Shop and The Book Shop have also closed down in recent years. Now, Indian and international brands have taken over the market. The sizes of shops here are small but this does not diminish the market’s branding potential. Still, I don’t think Khan has lost its charm. Many of the old stalwarts are still around – both in terms of shops and shoppers.

 

 

9. Delhi to you is…?

A mix of the old and the new. A palimpsest that adds on layer after layer of time without losing its history.

But, more than any of that, Delhi is home. I grew up throwing pebbles in the India Gate ponds, walking with my parents down to what I called “the house of flags”, Vigyan Bhawan, watching the Republic Day air show from the roof of my house, driving around the city’s tree-lined streets to visit friends and family. Delhi is inextricably linked to my own identity.