29 June 2015

CineVoice of the Nation

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

Continuing my short history of the Indian film magazine in English: editor Burjor K Karanjia and his many publications.



In last week's column ("Stars, Scandals and Fandom", Jun 21, 2015), I began a short history of the English-language Hindi film magazine. Starting in the 1930s, I brought the story down to the 1970s, when a series of new magazines altered the tone and texture of Indian film journalism in English.

But in 1970, the highest-circulating English magazine about Hindi cinema was Filmfare. It was edited by the late Burjor K Karanjia, whose politeness, erudition and general gentlemanliness were legendary. Karanjia was an unlikely film journalist: a Parsi from Quetta, Karanjia qualified for the much-prized Indian Civil Service in 1943, but got quickly bored and decided to abandon a potential bureaucratic career to explore other options. 

In his memoir, Counting My Blessings (Penguin, 2005), he describes how his fascination with cinema, first kindled in his Wilson College years by a chance witnessing of Franz Osten directing the lovely Devika Rani on the sets of his film Always Tell Your Wife, grew into a serious interest in film journalism. Being from a moneyed family, the 27-year-old Burjor decided to enter the field by launching a magazine. (Burjor's brother Russi Karanjia had already founded the investigative news tabloid Blitz, to which Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet recently paid fictional homage.) 

Cinevoice, launched on June 7, 1947 at the Taj Mahal Hotel, in a glittering ceremony attended by many film grandees, was meant to "represent the industry's point of view" and fight its battles, while also being, in Karanjia's own words, "a journal that was clean, that was constructive and that had a conscience". Among the 'battles' waged in the pages of Cinevoice was a campaign "to plead for social recognition of the film community". It may seem difficult to imagine in our Bollywood-besotted era, but in those days, writes Karanjia, "film stars found it difficult to secure flats in decent localities in the city. No club, moreover, would admit film stars as members." Motilal, and later David Abraham, were the first actors to be admitted to the Cricket Club of India. Cinevoice also tried to gain film folk respectability by marshalling them into national political participation. He credits his colleague Ram Aurangabadkar with the idea of getting three contemporary actresses - Nargis, Snehprabha Pradhan and Veera - to attend the first All India Congress Committee (AICC) session held after Independence, and report on it for Cinevoice

Karanjia is also credited with instituting a system of film awards as early as 1949 - the Cinevoice Indian Motion Picture Awards (CIMPA) - and for programming a live charity show to raise money for "Kashmir Relief and Troop Comforts", called "A Nite with the Stars." Neither of these ventures quite took off independently, but both live shows with the stars, and film awards (which Karanjia managed to run with greater success as Filmfare editor), have proliferated to such a degree that our cinematic culture is unimaginable without either. Cinevoice did not last long, and neither did Karanjia's other self-funded journalistic venture, Movie Times

Nutan on the cover of Filmfare, May 1970.
But with the editorship of Filmfare came a certain stability. The magazine was a commercial publication that gladly put Hema Malini or Rajesh Khanna or a bikini-clad Sharmila Tagore on the cover, but also allowed Karanjia the space to do what he had set out to in Cinevoice: represent the voice of the film industry. In the February 13, 1970 issue, while applauding the liberal attitude taken towards film censorship by the Khosla Committee Report, Karanjia's editorial called it out for equating commercial considerations with dishonesty, and wrote that the charge "betrays an ignorance of the many complex factors that have made film-making in India an adventure and a gamble, and that have attracted to it the wrong type of finance and the wrong type of filmmaker." 


Karanjia also combined in his person roles that today might seem impossibly divergent: he edited Filmfare for 18 years (and Screen for ten), while being Chairman of the Film Finance Corporation (FFC, later to become NFDC). The same February 13, 1970 issue of Filmfare, for instance, reported a press conference at which film director Basu Chatterjee discussed the film he had just finished shooting, with a loan from the FFC: Sara AkashChatterjee, the report noted, was a well-known Blitz cartoonist who had adapted Rajendra Yadav's Hindi novel into a film with an all-new cast and "a determination to steer away from songs, dances and other cliches of the Hindi cinema". 


The magazine quoted its own editor as having stated at the press conference that "Audiences, I think, are ready... The question no longer should be where these films will be screened, but what sort of films should now be made." The report went on: "The Corporation, he revealed, has already sent a proposal to the government for securing a network of theatres based not on opulence, but utility." 

Jaya Bhaduri on the cover of Filmfare, Dec 1972
As editor, he was credited with almost doubling Filmfare's circulation, and making a genuine effort to return the Filmfare Awards to their early prestige. He went on to write even sharper editorials for Screen.
Karanjia resigned from his position as FFC Chairman during VC Shukla's unsavoury reign as Minister for Information and Broadcasting during the Emergency, in January 1976 (though he did later become NFDC Chairman). But what distinguished BKK was a rare combination of traits: an enthusiasm for helping finance a new kind of cinema, but never being disdainful of commerce.




Book Review: Regret -- by Ikramullah

Published in ScrollWith ‘Regret’, Urdu fiction in translation reveals a writer of courage and beauty.

The two novellas in this volume are defined by Partition without being ‘about’ it.

In his Introduction, co-translator Muhammad Umar Memon writes that when Penguin asked for an author photograph and an endorsement for the back cover of the book, he realised there was barely anything written on Ikramullah in English. Ikramullah’s own response was wonderful: “Dear Mr Memon, I am not in favour of printing an author's photograph on the book. No comments of famous writers are presently available. I do not preserve such writings.” An image and a quote were eventually found. But no wonder that I had never heard of Ikramullah before this book.

A great year for Urdu in translation

The last year in Indian publishing has been particularly good for new English translations from Urdu: in 2014, we got The Sun That Rose From the Earth, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi's own translation of his story collection Savaar aur Doosre Afsaane, published in Urdu in 2001 by Aaj Ki Kitabein, a Karachi publishing house.

Also in 2014, HarperCollins brought out Rakhshanda Jalil's translation of the legendary Intizar Husain's stories, entitled The Death of Sheherzad. This year, there has already been a buzz around Ali Akbar Natiq, whose short stories were published by Penguin in Ali Madeeh Hashmi's translation as What Will You Give For This Beauty? and Yoda Books’s Rococo and Other Worlds: The Poems of Afzal Ahmed Syed, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Many of the Urdu writers getting translated now have reached a venerable old age: Intizar Husain, who lives in Lahore, was born in UP in 1925 and migrated to Pakistan in 1947; Faruqi, who lives in Allahabad, was born in 1935; Syed was born in Ghazipur in 1946 and has lived in Karachi since 1976. Natiq – born in 1976, “in village 32/2-L near Okara” – is the youthful exception, and also the only one of these recently-translated Pakistani writers who was born in Pakistan.

Intizar Husain, Afzal Ahmed Syed and Ikramullah himself were born on this side of the border, in a pre-Partition subcontinent. At 76, Ikramullah is just a little younger than S.R. Faruqi. He was born in 1939 in Jandiala village, near Jalandhar, and finished school in Amritsar before moving with his family to Multan.

It’s always the Partition, as it must be


This biographical detail sparked my interest because both the novellas in this volume – 
Regret, originally Pashemaani, published in Sawa Neze Par Suraj in 1998, and Out of Sight, originallyAankh Ojhal, published in Bar-e Digar – are haunted by the Partition. And if you're thinking, “Oh, not another Partition narrative”, let me say two things.

First, that we need many more, not just because the Partition is the most harrowing thing to have happened on this subcontinent, but because we are still far from having come to terms with its effects. The more stories we tell, the more films we make, the more memories we muster, the better. Without them, we are fooling ourselves to think we can move on.

And second, the effectiveness of this book lies in the fact that it is not “about” the Partition in any way you might imagine. In fact, you could say that neither of the novellas here is particularly invested in plot. The Partition is not picked out as grand historical tragedy – and yet the protagonists are more changed by their experience of it than by anything that happens to them since.

Regret is an affecting first-person account of a boyhood friendship. Ikramullah conjures up his world in a single summer afternoon, which begins when the narrator invites his friend Ehsaan to eat “qulcha and spicy curried grams”. (The translators' choices here are inexplicable: “qulcha”, “aamla” and “bhang-bathu” are retained without explanation, but kofta becomes “meatball” and chhole/chane, “curried grams”.) Ehsaan “had absolutely no interest in stories”, but he inhabits the newspapers with all his imagination: a fan of Kemal Pasha and General Rommel, he is a tracker of trains, and so struck by images of the Bengal Famine that he feels like “taking off” for Bengal.

Ikramullah writes without flourish, and is a master of the telling detail: the exhausted qulfi seller dozing off in the heat, the Lala who reads the newspaper while his workers make puris, the Cold Well with crystal glasses for Hindus and Sikhs and a tin cup for Muslims, the coal-gathering Lali and Toti who have no Begum or Khanam in their names. Rioting, departures for Pakistan and negotiations for evacuee property all feature later, but the register in which Regret remains unequalled is as a discovery of class, social and political difference through children's eyes.

Out of Sight, in contrast, takes the threat of an anti-Ahmadi riot in a Pakistani town as the trigger for an outpouring of deeply adult guilt. It is narrated in the voice of Ismail, who as a young man managed to get away to safety in Amritsar while his family and townsmen were killed in Partition violence.

This novella is a quietly persuasive account of how groups of people are incited to violence, and how the consciousness of power can incite a majority to behave with a minority. Yes, it does not have the evocative power of Regret. But this slim volume reveals a writer of courage and beauty. One hopes more of Ikramullah will come our way in English before too long.

RegretIkramullah, translated by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin Books India, 2015.

26 June 2015

Book Review: To the Farthest Rock

A book review published in last week's BL Ink:

Travelling Light
An impeccable translation of the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh’s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak brings 1950s India vividly to life


At the age of 27, having quit his recently-acquired position as Hindi teacher at the Bishop Cotton school in Shimla, Mohan Rakesh decided to travel. Here is how he describes it: “I had long wanted to travel by coastal roads along the sea. Sometimes I had time, sometimes money, but seldom both together. Then I resigned from my teaching job and time and a little money became available. I set out for the seacoast immediately.”
It was December 1952. To the Farthest Rock, translated from Rakesh’s Aakhiri Chattan Tak, details his three-month journey along India’s western coast, starting with a train ride from Delhi to Bombay, and ending in Kanyakumari. Rakesh went on to become a major Hindi writer — his best-known works are the Delhi-set novel Andhere Bandh Kamre, and the plays Adhe Adhure, Ashadh ka Ek Din and Lehron ke Rajhans, all regarded as 20th-century classics. At the time he made this journey, though, he had published only one book of stories: Insan ke Khandahar.
But reading this book, one does not often feel that one is reading a 27-year-old. If anything, there is an admirable maturity in the way Rakesh holds out against the temptation to hold forth. There is a definite authorial voice here: observant, sensitive, and open to experience. But his refusal to marshal authority — either journalistic or writerly — is what makes this an unusual travelogue. It is not that Rakesh isn’t interested in places, or history, or art; it is rather that he is more interested, always, in people.
There is no ‘point’ to this book except as the travel diary of a young writer. It goes where he decides to go, and much of it unfolds as everyday conversations between strangers, on trains, in boats, in hotels, or just walking around a village. It has little in common with the judgmental audacity of a similar travelogue written by a young Indian man at the start of his writing career: Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. The sympathetic, observational tone put me more in mind of Upendranath Ashk’s 1940 short story ‘Furlough’, also set in a train compartment, a decade or so before Rakesh. 
To the Farthest Rock, by Mohan Rakesh
Translated from Hindi by Satti Khanna
Rs. 299, 192 pages, HarperCollins, 2015.
There is no pretence here of neutrality, of being a fly on the wall. Of course, Rakesh describes what he sees and hears, and does so with both precision and poetry. But what makes his pen-portraits of encounters with people so appealing is that he is always present in them: a quiet, sometimes surprised, occasionally irritable interlocutor. 
The muscular old boatman who rows him across the Bhopal lake, for instance, only gradually acquires a personality — and Rakesh describes the process with charming transparency: “We had been addressing him as ‘Boatman’. At the end of his recitation of Ghalib I asked him his name. “My name is Abdul Jabbar Pathan,” he replied, emphasising the surname Pathan.” When Rakesh says to Abdul Jabbar, “I would not have expected somebody your age to enjoy romantic poetry,” he is being candid about his own youthful tactlessness. Later, when Abdul Jabbar says he has “sworn off carnal desires”, and asks if they have the time to listen to “something different”, Rakesh again lets us in on his eyeroll: “I thought we were in for Sufi preaching”, before telling us how wrong he was.
While it does not consciously seek to locate itself in time, To the Farthest Rock is charged with a post-independence melancholy. There is the teenager travelling ticketless, who describes his life’s Partition upheavals with not a glimmer of complaint. The many unemployed young men Rakesh meets in Kerala are perhaps the strongest indicator of the national mood: an English-speaking, Sanskrit-reciting beggar; the jobless ‘debating society’ that gathers at Tellicherry’s railway station.
But even those who have jobs seem to have all the time in the world. Perhaps this is what the world was like in the 1950s, or perhaps it would still be like this if we were to only try getting on a train without a hotel booking or a return ticket. From the middle-class Karvakar, who persuades him to stay a night in Vasco, in his house, to the labourer Govindan who leaves his work to show Rakesh a coffee plantation, locals seem to go out of their way to spend time with him. Perhaps because Rakesh seems genuinely interested in their lives — from the young man who has decided not to marry “to avoid changes in his and his mother’s peaceful routine”, to the travelling salesman whose work keeps him away from his wife and child, the less he asks of people, the more they confide in him. But he also captures, with quiet poignancy, the experience of linguistic alienness.
The mention of language brings me to what is perhaps the most attractive thing about this book: the writing. I have not read the Hindi original, but in Satti Khanna’s excellent rendering, the language feels crisp even when the thought is meditative. The descriptions are crystal-clear, never indulgent with imagery. When there is an image, it is memorable. “Waves rose from the water like sharks.” Or when describing a spontaneous harmonica competition on a steamer from Goa to Mangalore, he writes: “The contest shifted from the quality of playing to the volume of ovation.”
The black-and-white sketches by Trinankur Banerjee add an attractive new layer of imagery. Satti Khanna’s ‘PS’ — a wonderful feature of HarperCollins’ translations — insightfully locates Rakesh in the Hindi literary context, and adds another visual layer: photographs, among which I was delighted to discover one of Rakesh with Ashk. It made for a perfect end to a book of companionable conversations.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19 June, 2015.

21 June 2015

Stars, scandals and fandom

Today's Mirror column:

Reading in English about Hindi movies: a very brief history of the Indian film magazine as we know it.


Writing about films is one thing; writing about film stars is quite another. There are those who do both with aplomb. But in India, most long-running film magazines have been much more interested in the lives of film celebrities than the content of films.

The first Indian magazine completely devoted to cinema coverage was the Gujarati Mauj Majah, first published in 1924. Among English magazines, Baburao Patel's well-regarded monthly FilmIndia, published from 1935 to 1961, was one of the first. (The legendary and indefatigable Patel, who produced the entire content of the magazine himself – later aided and finally replaced by his wife Sushila – is the subject of a new book called The Patels of FilmIndia, which I'm looking forward to reading).

This was followed by the first trade publications, like KayTee Reports and Tradeguide, concerned not with stars but with predicting the commercial success or failure of particular films. In 1951 came Screen, launched by the Indian Express group in a colour broadsheet format. Screen, because it was concerned both with recent events in the industry and with films under production, could “be situated somewhere between the trade and the fan magazines”, writes film scholar Rachel Dwyer.

Close on Screen's heels came Filmfare, launched by the Times of India group in 1952. Filmfarewas glossy and upmarket, but it intended to be a family magazine and a sophisticated one. The first issue contained a manifesto that stated, “This magazine represents the first serious effort in film journalism in India. It is a movie magazine – with a difference. The difference lies in our realisation that the film as a composite art medium calls for serious study and constructive criticism and appreciation from the industry as also from the public.” This noble intention was cemented by the institution of the Filmfare Awards in 1953. Filmfare remained biweekly until 1988, when financial troubles forced it to become a monthly, which it has been since.

But the big moment of change in English-language film journalism in India was the 1970s, when a clutch of new magazines changed both the way we related to the stars and the language in which we were meant to do it. Jerry Pinto summed up the 70s magazine scene in his superb bitchy-funny Introduction to The Greatest Show on Earth, a spectacular anthology of writing on Hindi cinema that he edited in 2011. “Filmfare was the grand old lady, still published in an improbable size that meant you couldn't open it fully in a crowded bus or train. Stardust was the snazzy newcomer with a hint of middle-class contempt for the arrivistes and outsiders that made up the film industry. Cine Blitz came later and launched itself on the unsuspecting public with Protima Bedi – a Bollywood citizen through her open marriage with Kabir Bedi – running nude on a city beach. In between, for a brief while, there was Super, which had an almost indecipherable column, written as a letter, by Bubbles. Since Bubbles assumed we all knew the stars' nicknames, I often read it wondering at what was really happening and who was doing what to whom. When one did know (Daboo was Randhir Kapoor and Kaka was Rajesh Khanna) one felt validated in one's knowledge.”

Stardust, writes Dwyer, was founded in 1971 by Nari Hira of the Magna Publications group “as a marketing opportunity for his advertising business”. It was meant to be something along the lines of the American celebrity gossip mag Photoplay, more salacious than the then-staid Filmfare. Dwyer's 2001 essay contains the following wonderful account: “Twenty-three year old Shobha Rajadhyaksha (later De), who had been working for Hira for eighteen months as a trainee copywriter, was hired as the first editor. She had no interest in the movie world and had never worked as a journalist, but was hired on the strength of an imaginary interview with Shashi Kapoor, whom she had never met.” The imaginary interview was clearly a thing, combining an opportunity for writerly showing-off with a jokey fantasy that indulged the star's fans. Jerry Pinto cites one ridiculously risqué one with Bindu, from the now-defunct Film Mirror, which ends with the “reporter” waking from a dream. But more of that in another column.

To return to Shobhaa De, she apparently produced the first Stardust issue alone (with one paste-up man). She was later joined by a production staff of three and a team of freelance reporters who “collected stories which she wrote up”: a one-woman show not far from Baburao Patel. But De seems to have stayed put in her office, somewhat unusual for a young journalist. In her memoir Selective Memory: Stories from My Life, De's version of it is: “My eyes and ears were so attuned to reportage that I preferred my colleagues' version of their meetings with the stars to personal encounters.” Dwyer puts it somewhat differently. “De stubbornly refused to move in the film world, only meeting the stars if they came into the office,” she writes, making one envisage a scenario that seems nearly unimaginable today, when a respected and senior film journalist told me that even he finds it difficult to get interview appointments with current stars. Most stars, he added, seem in such a huge rush to finish the interview that it can barely become a conversation.

Super, too, was founded by an exceptionally young team that included Bhavana Somaya and Namita Gokhale. Gokhale, then 20, encountered Dev Anand some four decades later at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and was amazed to have him recall the last time they had met. “It was in 1981, I think,” he mused. “You were with your editor Rauf Ahmed – what was the magazine called...?” Whether it was the fact that these young people were just exceptionally memorable, or that stars in those days met less journalists, I don't know.

Book Review: Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing

Published in the Indian Express:

A Book of One's Own


To represent the immense variety of texts produced by Indian women over the last 2,000 years — in 350-odd pages — is no mean feat.

Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing
Ed: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 372 
Price: Rs 595

First things first: in assembling this anthology, Annie Zaidi has accomplished a mammoth task. To represent the immense variety of texts produced by Indian women over the last 2,000 years — in 350-odd pages — is no mean feat.

As with any anthology, both its pleasures and its perils lie in personal choice: the editor’s love of a particular piece will eventually determine what makes the cut. With a project as ambitious as this one, there are also all sorts of less personal variables to consider. Should it include anonymous folk literature in a feminine voice? Does “Indian” include writers who later became Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizens? Does it include diaspora writers? “Indian” wasn’t the only word that Zaidi had to define: “writer”, she decided, couldn’t include columnists, speech-writers and letter-writers, and for 20th century writers, they needed to have “a body of work”. When it came to genre, though, Zaidi cast her net wide, including excerpts from novels, stories, non-fiction, essays, speeches, travelogues, memoirs and plays. A poet herself, she gives a lot of space to poems. A different editor might have decided differently. But Zaidi’s careful introduction lays out her criteria with such scrupulous honesty that disagreements seem churlish.
In any case, it is indisputable that this volume contains many more gems than duds, and a reader dipping into it at random will net enough unexpected pleasures. Some are famous names you have somehow never read: for me, these included Kamala Markandeya, the surprisingly vivid Cornelia Sorabji, Sarojini Naidu (represented not by her poetry but by a superb speech) and Bhakti poets like Bahinabai and Akka Mahadevi. Others I had never heard of, like Vibhavari Shirurkar (1905-2001), whose lovely excerpt from Kharemaster has a husband wooing his teenaged wife, or Pratibha Ray, whose Yagnaseni is a provocative Oriya retelling of the Mahabharata in Draupadi’s voice. There are several well-known writers I admire — Vaidehi, with one of her most brilliant stories, 'Gulabi Talkies', about the coming of the cinema to a small town; Krishna Sobti, with an extract from Surajmukhi Andhere Ke, which I wouldn’t have chosen, but which is rare for its frank, intimate depiction of sex; Mrinal Pande, whose Bibbo is a delightfully sardonic tale of an upper class couple’s domestic help; or Easterine Kire, whose excerpt from Bitter Wormwood offers a sharp, sweet sense of what it was to hear about Gandhi’s death in Nagaland.

The question whether such an anthology deserves to exist is answerable in two ways. One is historical: given the traditional disadvantages Indian women have battled in terms of even gaining literacy, it seems worth mapping what they have concerned themselves with when in the privileged position of publishing books. One hopes that the ongoing transformation of women’s lives (and of publishing) will make such a project seem ridiculously broad, 50 years from now. The second answer is that women’s writing is writing by women — it need not be about them. This could have been the answer provided by this book, and to some extent it is: the selections reveal that women, even when constrained by domesticity, embrace the world. It is here, though, that I must strike a note of disagreement with the organising scheme, which seems to give “female” thematics more space than gender-neutral ones. 

Still, some of her sections hold together beautifully, like ‘Food’, ‘Children’, and ‘Ends’ (which should be ‘Bodies’, since that is what ends in almost every piece). Often, though, the themes feel unnecessarily constrained. Why, for instance, must we separate ‘Spiritual Love’ from ‘Secular Love’ when our traditions of poetic writing, especially the Sufi and Bhakti poets who dominate the ‘Spiritual’ section, have never done so? Why is ‘Secular Love’ necessarily outside ‘Marriage’, with the latter so exclusively given over to depressing accounts of widowhood, marital angst, patriarchal in-laws? Conversely, some section heads are so broadly metaphorical — ‘Identity’, ‘Battles’, or ‘Journeys’ — that many pieces seem switchable. Iravati Karve’s brilliant unpacking of the Khandava fire could be in ‘Myth and Fable’ as much as ‘Battles’. Mahadevi Varma’s underwhelming piece on a Chinese peddler in ‘Journeys’ seems rather statically about ‘Identity’ to me. I could go on. 

My other problem is that in trying to fit in over 100 authors, each is allotted barely three pages. Poems benefit, while stories and essays seem cruelly cut short. I’d also have liked the date of original publication under each piece: an index isn’t the same thing. Unbound is a labour of love, and a tantalising glimpse of wonderful writers we must read. But for an introduction that offers both authoritative critical heft and delightful biographical detail, I would still return to the two-volume Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalita (1991-93) and thankfully, still in print. 

15 June 2015

Post Facto: Wake up and smell the fish: perfume and plebeian stinks

My Sunday Guardian column this month:


"When he regained consciousness, the first thing that hit Ali was the smell of fish. Rich, pungent and briny — with a hint of decay. This was not the mild, innocent fish that was tandooried every evening by his neighbourhood kebab vendor. This was formidable fish, fish that boldly declared its presence, fish that, once consumed, would stamp itself on you at the cellular level and define your character in strange, unpredictable ways. This was fish whose odour could transform, cleanse and purify you."

That’s a passage from Shovon Chowdhury’s superbly funny 2013 novel, The Competent AuthorityDescribing a smell is a great way to transport the reader. It’s even better when you have a time-travelling protagonist just coming to, in a place he doesn’t recognise. We’re forced to think on our feet, like Ali. We inhale the very air he’s breathing, until the smell reveals where we are. Of course, it’s Calcutta.

Smell really is about time-travel. Most people will have had the uncanny experience of entering a place for the first time and having their nostrils assailed by a deep, distinctive sense of familiarity. A trace of some remembered scent is often all that’s needed to throw one into another space, another time. The whiff of mothballs in a long-closed cupboard, the steamy smell of starched clothes being ironed, the damp Cuticura scent of a swimming pool changing-room — these are smells that can propel me with unstoppable force into my own Calcutta childhood.

Eventually, though, those are mild smells. Let us return to fish, which is the very definition of odorousness — to many people, not in a good way. The very expression “smelling fishy” suggests dubiousness, odd though it is that the phrase comes to us from an island whose biggest culinary export to the world is fish and chips. But then fish-eating doesn’t necessarily acclimatise people to the smell of fish. In his 1950s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak, recently translated as To the Farthest Rock, the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh returns to Mumbai after a mere two-year gap, and is confused by “the overpowering smell of fish”. As Vir Sanghvi recently wrote in an accusatory column, North Indians seem to want to eat fish without the taste and smell of it.

Some of this aversion to strong smells is directly proportional to the degree of our post-liberalisation poshness. Even in Mumbai, where Sanghvi would agree with Rakesh that “the smell of fish was never very far away” some decades back, fish-buying has now become a “plastic-wrapped affair”. And when Sanghvi applauds the Bengali man for treating fish-buying as a sacred ritual, one can only wonder how long this proud act of baajaar will hold out against gentrification’s olfactory dictates.

I was surprised that Sanghvi didn’t mention the Malayalis, the other grand fish-eating, fish-inhaling community in the country. I sometimes think of Malayalis and Bengalis as engaged in a silent fish-eating contest, one which occasionally breaks out into fervent arguments about sea fish versus river fish. Then comes the invariable question of frying fish before putting it in a curry, and both sides decide there’s no point talking. Cue return to the silent contest. (In case you’re wondering, other fish-eaters — Maharashtra, Kashmir, Assam, and so on — are barred from competing.)

Anyway. I recently watched a Malayalam play called Matthi, where the sharp smell of fish was key to innovative stagecraft. The LTG Auditorium in Delhi was redolent of sardines when we took our seats. “Yes, the name of this small, cheap and popular fish is Matthi. A poor fish. Not to chide you, but some things have to be said to make people understand,” said the supertitles. As in Seema Pahwa’s wonderful one-woman show Saag Meat, the eponymous item was cooked on stage, and offered to the audience afterwards. Although wrecked by an inchoate politics that bundled a maudlin working class nostalgia with anti-outsider prejudice, the play managed to make the tang of matthi a stand-in for the life of the poor. “Don’t wash off the smell using soap,” one character urged the other. “Some smells remain even after us,” said another man.

Some smells certainly do. The writer Mrinal Pande has often spoken of how the lack of ventilation in the old-style Pahari houses of her childhood gave rise to a specialised vocabulary of smell. There was a word for the stench of burnt cloth, a word for the lingering odour of urine, and so on.

But if some smells are hard to get rid of, we have also spent millennia producing substances that can transform how we smell. In Delhi this January, the historian Emma Flatt spoke on the multifarious perfume palette of the medieval Deccan. According to the Itr-I-Nauras-Shahi, a remarkable treatise on perfumery written for legendary Bijapur sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah, it was “incumbent that all created beings, particularly the followers of the Prophet, use perfumes and share them with one another.” Deccani poetry suggests that floral smells, like rose and jasmine, were prized, as were animal compounds like musk and amber. Paan was highly approved: bad breath didn’t just indicate lack of etiquette, but of social status. Of course, as Flatt pointed out, perfumes and unguents were—and are—a luxury. But if poorer people smell stronger, it’s not because they can’t afford perfumes. It’s because work means sweat, and they don’t have the luxury of spending their summers in fragrant khus-cooled (or air-dried) chambers. And so, to the many privileges of the rich, is added that of smelling better than the poor. And coining phrases like “the great unwashed”.