Sunday Long Reads: Evolution of drawing room through the ages, the need for women to reclaim their bodies, and more

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In the ‘new normal’ of being housebound, a look at how the drawing room has evolved through the ages

The drawing room is dead. Long live the drawing-room!” It’s a phrase that has never been more relevant. As spaces in our homes become multifunctional in an increasingly virtual world and we are reduced to thumbnail windows on meeting platforms, has the drawing-room come full circle? From formal spaces where we received guests, the drawing room has become our work-from-home station, where aspirational virtual backgrounds (beaches or bookshelves) have taken over. Yet, much before the drawing-room was the total, thinner, baranda, balcão — the public space to courtyard houses, where neighbours dropped by for a chat or strangers stopped to ask for directions — “it formed the public threshold, the interface with the street, where social interactions with strangers and neighbours were at street level.

There was no concept of a formal drawing-room. Indian domestic spaces, typically for large joint-families, focused on multifunctionality and flexibility of spaces. There was also no concept of formal furniture. It was largely floor-based or low-height, such as khatiyas, gaddis, jhoolas, or chatai, which are light and easy to move around. The addition of a drawing room as a formal and enclosed space to meet visitors first arose in well-off Indian homes, with the arrival of the Portuguese and the British,” says Kamalika Bose, conservation architect and co-author of A History of Interior Design in India (SID Research Cell, CEPT University, Ahmedabad).


Why the young woman needs to reclaim her body and how to go about doing it

Dear You,

Walking in a park in the winter sun, among families sprawled on the lawns for Sunday picnics, I was particularly drawn to a little girl, maybe around seven years of age, dancing to a Bollywood song. Carefree and completely oblivious to the people around, their stares or smiles, as if transported to another world, she swung her hips and swayed her hands, with eyes closed and a smile on her lips.

I walked on, but that sight stayed with me. My initial delight and warmth gradually gave way to a sense of unease. When would this little girl lose this disinhibition and start becoming aware of the constant “gaze” that follows women? When would the indulgent smiles turn into looks of judgement? When would she start finding her thighs too fat, voice too loud, spirit too wild? When would she start checking what she says, how she says it, measuring her worth through her body measurements?


What do bats have to say about being blamed for COVID-19

Bats have been squarely blamed for starting the COVID-19 catastrophe, so, Down in Jungleland went deep into a bat cave in a remote forest to find out what the bats have to say for themselves. A host of assorted creatures joined the conversation:

DIJ: Good evening, god, it smells here… Well, sir, what’s your take on the fact that humans were blaming your species for spreading this scourge around the world? Scientists have admitted that they were bitten by some of you who were already infected.

Bat: What the hell were your precious scientists doing fingering us in the first place? Of course, we’ll bite if you take such liberties. You were researching us for some nasty viruses, weren’t you — which you could then raise and develop and use as bio-weapons on your own kind? Well, we gave you one for free, so, why are you complaining? You humans make us sick — you have evil intentions towards your own kind and, when things boomerang, you blame us. Thousands of us have been slaughtered by panicky people. All we want is to be left alone so that we can continue pollinating your bananas, durians, and a host of other food plants. If we stopped, you would starve.


Why the road has been long and hard for Padma Shri awardee Birubala Rabha, Assam’s crusader against witch-hunting

Sometime in 2010, Birubala Rabha thought she was going to die. Afloat the Brahmaputra, with a film crew who was interviewing her, the wooden boat suddenly capsized, throwing overboard the camera, a crew member and Rabha, 61 at the time. Gasping for breath, she somehow managed to swim to safety. “The water was very deep and I told myself, ‘Okay, today is the day I am going to die’,” Rabha chuckles at the memory more than a decade later. “But then again, I have never been afraid of death. And that is probably why I managed to live,” she adds.

It is this fortitude that has guided Rabha, Assam’s plucky crusader against witch-hunting, through a remarkable life. A life that was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri, last week. “I think this one is more special than the others,” Rabha says, at her home in Goalpara district, lined with mementos of different shapes and sizes. “I’m getting double the phone calls I usually do. But I am telling them, awards are well and good, but the point is for humans to help other humans, for us to be brave and unafraid.”


Audrey Truschke on why religious identity was not of primary importance in pre-modern India

In her first book, Culture of Encounters (2016), historian Audrey Truschke had explored the crucial role played by cultural exchanges between the elites of the Mughal court and the Sanskrit-speaking populace in establishing the Mughals within the social, political and cultural framework of the region. Truschke had argued that the Mughal empire’s dynamism relied on its ability to embrace a wide range of cultural influences, especially Sanskrit.

The associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, USA, returns to this theme in her third book, The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts, in which she analyses Sanskrit texts written between the 12th and 18th centuries to note an absence of any marked religious animosity between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent.

Truschke’s views are often met with virulent criticism by right-wing idealogues, that reached its peak with the publication of her second book, a biography of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. In this interview, Truschke, 38, speaks of exploring the resilience of pre-modern India in her new book and her refusal to be stymied by the hate directed at her for countering propagandist readings of history or for calling out Islamophobia, sexism or human-rights violations around the world.


What would it be like to live Sita’s life?

SL Bhyrappa, author of 24 novels and several non-fictional works, with probably the largest readership of all living Kannada writers, is a controversial figure. Mainstream Kannada criticism has been disapproving of the authorial manipulations, reinforced cultural stereotypes and the conservative brahminical ideology in his fiction. In the last two decades, Bhyrappa has published novels which are badly-written ideological tracts with themes in consonance with the right-wing agenda. Kavalu (2010) is a misogynistic attack on feminism and Aavarana (2007) is a communalised narrative of Indian history. Saartha (1998) alleges that Buddhism enervated Hindu valour and, thus, made India vulnerable to foreign invaders. However, he is also an enigmatic figure because, in his five-decade-old literary career, he has also produced some of the finest writing in Kannada fiction. Gruhabhanga (1970), Vamshavriksha (1965) and Parva (1979) are testimony to Bhyrappa’s great talent.

Uttara Kaanda (2017), recently translated into English by Rashmi Terdal, is one of the most significant novels in Kannada. A powerful narrative which demythologises the Ramayana, it deconstructs the epic from the perspective of Sita. In this long soliloquy, punctuated by other voices, a reflective Sita narrates her life with Rama. A foundling, discovered by the king Janaka in a furrow while levelling the ground for a sacrifice, she is marked by a deep sense of separateness and solitude. The greatest influence on her has been her “Appa” Janaka, who educates her in dharma and the philosophical systems. But her destiny had other plans. Few women could have survived, unscathed, what she experienced: marriage to Rama — which took place owing to his resolute defence of dharma in the face of Dasharatha’s opposition on the grounds that Sita is a foundling of an unknown caste — a 14-year-long exile, abduction by Ravana, war, and public humiliation when Rama cast doubt on her chastity twice.


Sai Paranjpye’s memoir gives a close look at her career, but has some glaring omissions

If you’re a movie fan and meet someone who understands your references to Miss Chamko, or who, while passing around a cigarette, says, “zara munh kadva karva le”, you know you can build something with that person. At the very least, an adda. Films like Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Katha (1983) occupy a special place for some of us who were watching films in the 1980s. The inept Naseeruddin Shah from Katha and the bright-eyed Deepti Naval and Farooq Shaikh from Chashme Buddoor jostled with superstars and modified our memory of cinema of that period. Sai Paranjpye, in particular, with her (RK) Narayanesque humour, captured the middle class and its foibles and graces in a fable-like form. This quality stems from the very sunny and comic vision of life she brought to the world of arts.

This sunniness warms but doesn’t scorch. Her memoir A Patchwork Quilt beckoned with the promise of this warmth and nostalgia. I won’t call her “pioneering” and “woman director”, in order to respect Paranjpye’s vexation with such labels. She writes, “Wherever I go I am never allowed to forget that I am a woman filmmaker. This can get quite exasperating….To the eternal question that I am plagued with — what is the main disadvantage of being a woman director — my answer is: being endlessly harangued with this very question.”


Masala Lab is an essential read for serious cooks

Did you know that you can caramelise onions more efficiently by simply adding a pinch of baking soda? Or, that when cooking a recipe that calls for tomato purée, a sachet of tomato ketchup, in addition to the purée, will ensure that the final dish packs a flavour-jammed wallop?

Krish Ashok’s Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking is full of such advice which, if followed, promises to not just improve the taste of the food you cook, but also make the whole process of cooking more efficient and rewarding. In his introduction, Ashok, a Chennai-based software engineer, describes his book as an attempt to “de-exoticise Indian cooking and view it through the lens of food science and engineering.” Which, if you’ve wondered why you should dry roast whole spices before grinding them or why kasuri methi should only be added when the dish is almost ready, is a welcome exercise.

The book, which should be in every serious amateur’s library, breaks down the how-to and why-to of almost every step of the cooking process in an Indian kitchen — from making perfectly fluffy rice to making chapati dough with 100 per cent hydration to explaining how different kinds of salts should be used. Along the way, the author also explodes certain myths that, like most family recipes, have been handed down from generation to generation — such as the idea that the number of whistles in a pressure cooker reliably indicate how well-cooked the food inside is or that an over-salted dish can be salvaged by dropping in a ball of dough.


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