tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:/posts Sairam Krishnan 2023-10-15T17:33:04Z tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1974483 2023-05-10T10:30:12Z 2023-09-07T07:29:12Z Stories from an older town

A couple of months ago I was at home in Pondicherry, and my mother asked my father and me to go get fish for lunch. 

So I rolled out my needlessly powerful motorcycle and off we went to the old harbour near the stadium. There’s a narrow road that curves down from the main road to the very badly maintained harbour, and as always, it was bustling with people, noise, and the thunk of knives on wood. There were women on both sides of the road, squatting on makeshift stools or on their haunches, their cutting boards in front of them. On these broad boards were the treasures of the Bay of Bengal: small prawns and huge prawns, squids, small sharks, a red coloured fish with funny gills whose name I don’t know. There were sting rays too, and crabs of different shapes and sizes: Both of these can only be prepared with copious amounts of pepper and red chillies. When you eat them, your mouth burns, but you can’t stop. You just eat and eat and then run for Arun ice cream.

The market that day was a cacophony of women’s voices, haggling, nagging, fighting, teasing, and spitting. It used to be much larger and more crowded but my little town is modernising too, and now there are air conditioned places to get your meat and fish. But this little remnant of an older town shouts on, and natives like my grandfather and father will buy their fish from no place else.

My grandfather actually never bought his fish here, at this market. He was a busy man, but when he came to buy fish, he came in the early morning and went directly to the harbour. He held one of pre-liberalisation India’s great ranks: a gazetted officer, and he could hop directly to the harbour, choosing the best fish right off the boats. I have been on these jaunts with him, and the smell of the sea and fish would hit me as he drove his old Vespa right up to the jetties. It is a smell I know very well. It is the smell of my grandmother’s furiously hot crab curry, which I would spill on my white school shirt as I gobbled it down at lunch, the red stain taking days of washing to come off.

As I drove us back home, my father told me a story.

He showed me a road next to the harbour, just behind the Volontoriat, a social service organisation set up in 1962 by a young Belgian woman named Madeleine Herman de Blic. The Volontoriat (tra: roughly, the Volunteers) is transliterated directly to Tamil by us locals. So it is, even now, written and read in Tamil with the French pronunciation, not English. The organisation uses the same old building it has been in for decades, and Madeleine Herman de Blic, now an Indian citizen, was in 2016 conferred the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, for her service to society. This is in addition to the French government’s Legion of Honour, and the Order of the Crown from the King of Belgium.

Behind that road, where this lady worked to improve the lives of Pondicherry’s fishing community, said my father, was my great grandfather’s cowshed.

This was my grandmother’s father, they were the ones already in Pondicherry. My grandfather’s father and mother were still in the paddy fields in our village of Sangeethamangalam, under the great hill fort of Gingee (Senji in Tamil).

He had four cows in the cowshed, my father said, and as the eldest, it was at times his job to accompany my great grandfather to milk runs around town. And these weren’t normal milk runs. When his grandfather woke up, my father said, he would go and open the cows up. There was no real traffic in 1970s Pondicherry, and the cows knew where to go. Each one of them would wander off to a particular restaurant, where the restaurant owner would set out some overripe bananas and banana leaves for them. By this time, my father and his grandfather would turn up at these restaurants, greet the owners, and milk the cows in front of them. People were particular about these things then. The milk would go straight to the kitchen, and the cow, having done its job, would come back to the shed, even as its owner went to the next restaurant, where his next cow was waiting patiently. My father’s job was at times to milk the cow and at other times to make sure all four of them were back and secure in the cowshed. After that, he would take his bag and go to school. This was the VOC Government High School, on the street beside mine, the almost 200 year old Petit Seminaire.

I don’t know why my father told me this story then, because unlike me, he isn’t a talker. But now that he is retired and has time to reflect, maybe he’s thinking about his growing up years. It is also beautiful to me how the story of your family can also be the story of a place, its geography, its little landmarks, its very soul. My father became a policeman in his own town, and I knew he didn’t take that lightly. He was a reader, that’s how I became one, and he knew that in his life a circle had been completed, a story had been told. As he plays with his grandchild, my son, I would like to think that he’s a content man. 

One of my own goals is to complete that circle for myself, to become someone in the place that made me. Because who else would you rather be?

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1912884 2022-12-05T14:27:51Z 2023-06-22T16:27:15Z Things I miss

An ongoing list of things I miss, in no real order or importance:

I miss laughter. Like at school when your teacher couldn't say the word journey and when he did it left you and your friends in splits, ending in the lot being thrown out of class. The kind of explosive, uncontrollable, ugly, snorting laughter that came up from your gut and left it aching afterwards. I miss that. I think it's been years since I have laughed that way.

I miss being bored. Like during summer vacation afternoon, sun blazing, streets burning. Nothing to do, nothing to think, the world caught in time. Nothing in your head, no worries, no joy, no sadness. Just endless vacuum, ready to be filled up with things like cricket cards and Asterix and Tintin and Superman.

I miss being lazy without the accompanying guilt of adulthood. I miss being useless, of watching MTV without the constant threat from inside your head that the future is being imperilled by not spending more time in front of your computer. I miss life without the stress and the pressure.

I miss cricket. God I miss it. The thrill of an early morning game, the competition, the arguments, the easy camaraderie, the Pepsis after, and the banter. And then coming back home with stories of your spectacular fielding that no one believes. I miss the knocked-out naps after. It's the greatest game in the world.

I miss having my friends around, like really around, when you could call them and actually meet them on the same day, in 30 minutes or less, all of them together, and you could buy cheap beer and cheaper chips and spend all evening talking about obscure Swat Kats episodes.

I miss obsession. Of burning through the Lord of the Rings books in three or four nights because you are now into the books and there’s nothing else in the world more important. Not food, not exams, nothing. I miss the sheer volume of words I could put away in my head, reading like my life depended on it.

And in a lot of ways, it did.

I miss music. Like when you put a song on as you walked to class and felt as if it had been written for you, composed for you, and each lilt sent goosebumps up your arms, and you felt it, all of it, replaying it again and again and only taking it off as you entered Economics 1.

I miss the feeling of waking up to a cold morning and feeling like a new being, of looking at the world with a cup of tea and thinking how wonderful this is, that you are young and life is ahead, and it was only a matter of time before you found your way. I miss that beauty, pregnant with promise and opportunity.

I miss watching the world. Like I used to do at the Jama in old Delhi, like I used to do at the Marina, like I used to do at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, like I did this weekend in Mysore, like I do from the roof of the Ajantha bar in Pondy, spaces where I can sit and breathe a bit, where the world doesn't seem that big or frightening.

PS - I'll keep this going.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1888272 2022-10-10T11:46:31Z 2023-01-19T10:49:50Z Palm trees and the open road

On a rather cold Pune morning last week, I read Joy, Zadie Smith’s celebrated essay. This is from one of the central passages, and the specificity of it is, what else can I say, joyful.

"Until quite recently I had known joy only five times in my life, perhaps six, and each time tried to forget it soon after it happened, out of the fear that the memory of it would dement and destroy everything else. Let’s call it six. Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs—of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed."

In another place, Smith describes the emotion as "that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight."

I know what she means.

When I shared it on Twitter, a friend replied that she always felt joy as: "an intense sense of well-being/connection whether it shows up unsummoned one morning or after your heart's been cracked open by a movie or in a relationship."

This is true too. The word unsummoned is important here. 

As I read the essay, I found myself trying to remember the times when I had known joy myself, or at least felt a semblance of it.

I understood both the definitions of it, though, both Smith’s and my friend’s. Like Smith, I don’t think I have ever felt joy without the terror of loss. I always thought this was peculiarly Indian, a superstition we have about not letting ourselves feel too happy, and I was surprised when I saw it here.

And like my friend, I have also known it as an amiable companion, as someone looking over my shoulder at times when I had nothing to worry about, or when I was enveloped by something completely of the time and place I was in.

There’s one memory that immediately came up, though.

In early 2008, I had just entered my final year of engineering school. I had been doing very badly in my 2nd and 3rd years and had a bunch of papers to clear. But for the first time, gripped by fear that I would never graduate if this went on, I had pulled myself up, studied like a lunatic, and attempted to pass everything in my 6th semester exams.

Now, in the 7th semester, I was in my final year, and waiting for the results.

This was the town of Karaikal, part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, about 7 hours south of Chennai along the coast. It’s the countryside, basically, and all we had was open space and the wind. The tea shops of this old fishing community opened at 4 am, some even at 3 am, to serve working fishermen who had to leave for the sea. For an early riser, this was great, and the miles and miles of open coastline meant that the scenery was beautiful, in some places astonishing.

I was playing cricket at what we called the stadium. This was a huge parade ground at the southern end of the town, near the border with Tamil Nadu. It had running tracks and cricket pitches that were ignored for most of the year, but cleaned up on Republic Day for the local MLA to hoist the national flag.

I was fielding close to the batsman when news arrived that our results were out.

The year is 2008, remember: we had feature phones, and internet access was from the local cyber cafe. So off we went, in a procession of noisy motorcycles, hearts in our mouths, the tension showing up in coarse language, teasing, and laughter - the refuge of nervous and insecure young men the world over.

Outside the first internet place we could find, someone checked my results, and told me what I thought would never happen: I had passed everything; the current semester’s papers, the old papers I’d failed, the practical I’d been attempting to pass for three semesters, everything.

Emotions ran high there, some of us had passed, some of us had failed, and some of us had done a bit of both. The sun was going down, the southern dusk arriving quickly and quietly, with that suddenness that I’m still alarmed by.

I had a Bajaj Caliber 115 then, the motorcycle made popular by the hoodibaba campaign. There almost always was no one on those roads, but that day, I would not have noticed even if there was traffic. I zoomed past the palm trees, the wild bougainvillea, and the thorny bushes so characteristic of Tamil country.

I felt light, like a weight had been lifted off my young shoulders. In that euphoric daze, I realised also that life was coming at me, and that I had just passed the first hurdle of what were going to be many. I was terrified too, of the future, of course I was, but right at that point, I was happy.

For now, it was me and the road. And this feeling in my heart. Joy, maybe.

Written in February 2021.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1888263 2022-10-09T04:35:24Z 2023-01-19T10:52:10Z Theorems on red-tiled terraces

I grew up in small houses.

On the Air Force bases we lived in, the accommodations (or airmens’ quarters, as they were called) were bare, two-roomed boxes. If you were lucky, you were allotted one with a balcony. We were on the ground floor in Jamnagar, so we had a yard. But there was still little space, especially for a family with two growing kids.

In Pondicherry, we moved around for 3 or 4 years before my father built our own house. These houses were even smaller, and when for the first time we moved into a slightly larger one (meaning separate rooms for me and my sister), it turned out to be horribly ventilated, becoming a furnace in the southern summer. You could have baked bread in one of those dark, air-deprived rooms, and we moved out of there pretty quickly.

Stifled and starved for space, I used the red-tiled terraces to study, walking up and down in the mornings and evenings, memorising theorems and formulas. Even in my terrible engineering college, whose only redemptive feature was that it was next to the sea, I still did not study in the library: I used the massive terrace, enjoying the strong winds and the view of the horizon.

I didn’t realise it, but as I grew up, I carried this around in my head. I asked for, and took up, less space. I never knew how to occupy and inhabit places, friendships, and relationships, and this extended to the offices I worked in. I was, and remain, boisterous and loud, but that’s a response. I don’t feel like I belong, so I do something to lay claim to places and people. It’s not natural, and consequently has hurt me and the people I loved.

This is just one of the things not growing up with money leaves you with, but it’s also a reflection of how working class India thinks about space. It’s utility, not indulgence. It’s to keep things, not live and love in, or to fall in love with.

And this keeping of things is relevant too; hoarding comes from a place of self-doubt, a fear of not having. And a house with too much stuff offers less to the people who actually live there.

After I started working and making my own money, this was one thing I consciously worked towards: having my own space, for me and for the things I loved and cherished. So I don’t feel small. So my dreams don’t feel cramped. This translated to - and I noticed this only when my younger cousin pointed it out - a string of rented apartments in Pune and Madras with one common overbearing feature: large, glass-fronted French windows.

It was as if I was still reaching for the outdoors, for light and for air.

This last week, I gave up a bunch of my books to a used books shop. I didn’t want money, I just wanted to be rid of them. I had started hoarding too, and I wanted to be free of that insecurity, the fear of losing things that is borne of owning them in the first place. I told the polite Ismaili who owned and ran the shop that I don’t want anything in return, but he insisted I take a few books. We had tea together, and I chose from his fairly good collection of mostly crime fiction.

Returning in an auto, I looked at the 4 books I was bringing back, in exchange for about 40. I started the first of those that very evening, on the terrace.

Written in January 2021.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1887865 2022-10-07T06:18:30Z 2022-10-07T06:23:24Z A Madras and Chennai Super Kings reading list

There’s a bunch of friends I’ve grown up with, with whom I went to school and then to college, and who remain my closest gang of never-do-wells. We do at least one trip together every year (usually Kodaikanal, whose lanes we now know like the back of our hands), reliving old memories and retelling old stories. We have a WhatsApp group with a cringeworthy name we thought up when we were 17 or 18, and it hosts our conversations and our constant bickering.

If you had a peek at it, it would be very difficult for you to guess that these are grown men in their 30s, and that almost all of them have kids.

The group is never more active than when there’s a CSK match on, though. In late 2007, our 3rd year of engineering, we got ourselves a cheap TV so we could watch cricket. We watched the 2007 World T20 together. All of us were avid fans, and played a lot.

And then the IPL began, and the Chennai Super Kings bought Dhoni.

This marked the beginning of a fandom we have celebrated together for so long we don’t remember a time without it. At least once every year we try to go to a CSK game. in 2019 we went to Bangalore to watch a thriller where Dhoni put a ball out of the Chinnaswamy and we almost, almost won.

This sense of community and loyalty is why at least one of us will text in the group just as the toss happens, that quintessential question: Enna da, batting a?

Over the years, I have written a lot about the city and about the Super Kings.

I grew up in the Indian north, and this gave me a way of seeing (the Naipaul phrase) the Tamil south both as an insider and an outsider. The culture, proud and loud, extends to me a belonging I never had and only found when I moved back home to Pondicherry. But because I had an understanding of the other to compare it to, I found that I could articulate its essence much better.

This was then the starting point for the three essays I share here. Written at different times in my life and in response to different things, there are three things common to all of them: A vision of Tamil identity, my understanding of my people, and the team and a player that somehow embodies these things.

1. On Madras, its women, and its evenings (August 2015)

One of my own favourites, and an essay several of my friends ask me about again and again. Written when I was a different person, and when some of the most important things in my life, good and bad, hadn’t happened to me yet, it is a celebration of Madras and its quiet, self-contained romance.

2. Whistles in the night (March 2018)

The Chennai Super Kings returned in 2018 to the IPL after a two year ban, and we couldn’t wait. It was a dream return, a campaign that will be remembered as much for its symbolism as for the victory. But it was the anticipation of it, the idea of something you loved coming back to you expressed as collective emotion, that I tried to capture here. I succeeded, I think.

3. The hero from the hill country (July 2019)

Written just after India’s exit from the 2019 World Cup campaign in England, this was a kind-of farewell to Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of India (well, that’s how he’ll be remembered, though Virat led us that campaign). I consoled myself by the fact that he would still lead the Super Kings, and that he still belonged to us, in a way. But I won’t lie: I teared up when I wrote it. There’s a lot of MS in this, but there’s also a lot of Madras.

More than a decade I have followed and loved this team, and as my life and career speed up, I have less time to devote to the pure, rabid fandom of my younger days.

What sustains me yet, however, is that every time there is a CSK game, a bunch of old friends in different corners of the world will come together over a screen, and at least one of them, bleary-eyed, will text again that old, beaten question: Enna da, batting a?

Written in October 2020.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1887433 2022-10-06T07:27:16Z 2022-10-06T07:27:16Z Why do you love reading?

Yesterday my friend Shankar Ganesh messaged me on LinkedIn. He was looking for an old answer of mine on Quora, an answer I had written in 2013 to the question ‘why do you love reading’.

Why indeed?

I had actually deleted my Quora presence a year or so ago. I wanted to consolidate my writing online; was looking to create my own little space, like this one. But I had saved my answers. I had sent them to my mail, where they waited, I guess, for Shankar to remind me.

I sent my answer to him yesterday, and today, I’m putting it up here.

Why do you love reading?

I'll write three lines for you.

'My name is Sairam Krishnan. My friends call me Sai. My father was an officer in the Indian Air Force. I'm a small town boy, brought up in several Indian towns. I grew up on British classics and radar stations and jetplane specifications.'

There. What did you read? You read something about a boy from India, right? And there might be a few who never knew that there is such a person in some corner of the world, living a life like mine.

Well, now you do.

Reading is a window into another world, into lives and manifestations of it you never knew existed.

Have I ever been to Istanbul? No. But I know about 16th century Istanbul's coffee-houses and their connection to the time when the winds of radical Islam first blew into a peaceful religion and ended up impacting all of us. I read it in a book by Orhan Pamuk.

Do I know how it feels to be poor in America? No. But I know how they live, how they have to rely on community kitchens & handouts, how finding living space is expensive and almost impossible, how much physical and mental abuse they have to take. I read it in a book written by Barbara Ehrenheich.

Do I know the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland? Do I know how the shadows mingle with the smell of draught on cold Scottish evenings? No. But I know they do. I know how the old and the new are interchangeable in Scotland, and how evil transcends everything. I read it in Ian Rankin's Rebus books.

And I don't mean only books. This is what happens when you read anything, even a tiny passage like the one I wrote about myself. You know something. At that point, you are that person.

That is magic, isn't it? It is seductive, the ability to let your own mundane life behind, to become someone else, doing something else, something exciting and exotic, even if it is for just some time. Who said time travel doesn't exist? It does. And we travel across time each time we read history books and watch Robert Clive and Siraj-ud-Daulah meet at the Battle of Plassey.

I mean, how could you NOT love it? You are seeing things you never can in real life, learning so much, improving as a person, incorporating empathy, and so much more.

In the end, it’s the stories, it’s all about stories. The world, our memories and the way we look at other people, are all stories.

We are drawn to them anyway, stories are in our nature, and readers are just people who love them just that bit more.

I was tempted to edit it in many places, but I did not. It’s a wide-eyed 25 year old’s answer, and I don’t want a cynical, hardened 32 year old changing it in any way.

Some things are better left as they are.

Written in May 2020.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1887119 2022-10-05T14:07:29Z 2022-10-05T14:07:30Z The greatest game in the world

Batting is hard. Anyone who has played any serious cricket knows this.

It is an unnatural thing to do: bend over at that curious angle with a piece of wood in your hands, and try to play a ball coming at you with speed, not to mention the bowler’s skill. To do it for more than 5 overs - helmet on head, the Indian sun beating down, and on matting pitches that behave in any way they want - is to subject yourself to a kind of torture most people spend their lives avoiding. But we, those who play this game or have played it, love it. We love it because it means something. We love it because of the feeling of removing the helmet and the pads and the numerous guards after a long stay at the wicket. It’s the satisfaction of achievement, of something we can’t name.

On Day 5 at the Gabba, Cheteshwar Pujara batted. He took blows everywhere, and at least one finger probably needs more medical assistance. But he batted. He has done this before, of course, and has won us games and series, including the last one in Australia. But this series, he has been Australia’s arch-nemesis, not because he made more runs, but because he refused to get out. They had to bowl the balls of the series at him to get him to leave, and even that wasn’t enough on the last day. Young Pant’s exploits will become legend, as they should, but he was able to do what he did because a man from the dust bowls of western India turned up against the world’s best bowling attack, and wouldn’t go away.

Bowling is hard. Fast bowling, even harder.

When a fast bowler lands, four or five times his body weight hits his knee and ankle. His foot slides violently ahead, with the force of delivering the ball bringing it slightly back again. All of this happens in seconds. There are stories of fast bowlers of yesteryear not removing their shoes during breaks so as not to get scared by the blood they knew they would see. And yet, we do it too, willingly, amateurs and professionals, alike - we run in and let rip. The thrill of it, the wind in your hair, the batsman in your sights, leaning into your stride, and delivering one that pitches on off and seams away - how do you describe that feeling?

We love it without knowing why, without understanding why our heart leaps as the ball swings or seams or bounces or screams.

In this last test a lean leftie named Thangarasu Natarajan made his debut. This was a man who bowled with a real cricket ball only after he was 20. He had no money to buy shoes as a junior cricketer, and he almost gave up the game. Well-wishers and teammates from his state side encouraged him, and helped him play in Chennai’s well-funded, superbly organised leagues. He bowled there, a lot. He won a place in the Tamil Nadu first-class side. He matured, he bowled with red balls and white, and kept it straight and tight. He made a name for himself in the IPL, but only after a couple of years of being in it. And then he was invited on this series as a net bowler. As he leaves Australia this week to meet his child for the first time, he has reached the pinnacle of the game.

This man, who first bowled on the famed red soil of his home district of Salem, in which grow the mangoes the world waits for every April, is India test cap 300.

These are just two stories from several that this year’s historical tour has thrown at us. There are so many.

Captain Rahane, leader, almost statesman-like; Shardul Thakur, whose heartbreak of a debut test stands forgotten; Mohammed Siraj, all Hyderabad, all heart; young, fearless Sundar; the immensely likeable, audaciously talented Pant; the Punjab rising again, in rebellion and resistance, in the country and on the field, with Gill declaring his arrival; the old warhorse Ashwin showing his experience; Vihari, holding Andhra and India aloft on an injured hamstring: Phew.

What do I write about? See my problem?

But I’m also lying. I knew what I was going to write about.

In 2005, I watched the series which sealed the primacy of test cricket in my head and heart: Freddie’s Ashes. I have watched cricket for so long after that, lived through the Indian limited overs victories of 2007 and 2011, watched the Stokes miracle at Headingley, and the Sri Lankan triumphs in South Africa. The game has changed, and there’s also a lot of it. They way we watch it has changed, the way we listen to it has changed, the speed of it is has changed.

And that change meant something else too.

Whether we admit it or not, test cricket was waning. The younger, newer nations are concentrating on the slam-bang versions that are televised, and which presents their players with superstardom. They are not to blame at all. They are responding to the incentives, financial and social, that they see.

Fans always worried that this would happen, that this game of attrition, resilience, and skill, this beloved form of our game, would fade away into irrelevance, into something only richer nations play. This fear of ours - that the romance of the five-day game, of long-drawn battles, of ebbs and flows, of cricket at its purest - would be denied to newer, younger fans, is something we carry, even if we don’t say it out loud.

And this is what gives me most joy after this series - not India winning, not all that absolutely marvellous cricket, not all these stories.

No, what gives me joy is that another generation has seen what test cricket can be. And what test cricket can be is life itself - it sometimes all goes belly up, but if you dig in there and brave the heat and the insults, if you have patience and grit and you watch well what’s being thrown at you, you’ll get your chances, and when you get them, you can take some of them, and when you take some of them, you might have an innings worth remembering - a life worth living.

It’s tough. But test cricket is tough because life is tough: Nothing good comes easy, nothing worth having is easily had.

This is the romance of this game, this is its lesson for life.

In the greatest cricket novel ever written, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman, he writes, “The ball is made of leather with a hard seam running its circumference. The bat is made of willow. The sound of one hitting the other is music.”

The world was astounded these last two months at the melodies our game had to offer. This series, and all the cricketers that played in it, have made sure that more people will come back to listen. Those who love this game can’t ask for more.

Written in January 2021, after the Indian team's victory in the final test of the Border-Gavaskar series in Australia.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1887078 2022-10-05T04:33:59Z 2022-10-05T04:33:59Z To be worthy of what we lose

A friend texted me last week from Europe. As we spoke about work and careers, she told me how living in another country was helping her rethink a lot of things.

Almost like meeting a new version of herself, she said.

I have found that travel does that to me, which is why I always find ways to wander. At the same time, it is my identity, my sense of history and home, that keeps me grounded in a world that seems to be trying very hard to implode.

So I go away, in a sense. But I find that I can’t go far.

I don’t know why. It’s hard to define that feeling, like that pang in your chest when you look out the windows of a train at night, wind rushing through hair and face, and wonder whose home that tiny pinprick of light is.

That thing I can’t name, that unknowable sense of longing, is a constant companion. I’ve made peace with it, sort-of.

My friend told me that every time she and I sat down to talk, she would always think this guy must have done a lot of introspection, a ‘crazy amount’. And how I always spoke with such clarity.

It’s always weird when friends tell you these things, because you don’t have that perspective. You are stumbling along on your own way, fumbling, falling, getting up, and trying again. You don’t look at yourself like that.

But, as I told her, it wasn’t natural to me. I sort-of fell into things, and let life take me along.

The thinking happened because of necessity. I lost too much once. And I told myself never again.

As the hurt and pain congealed, cleaned itself up, and became a scar not immediately visible, I acted on it. I subjected every little conversation, every little decision, really every move, to silly levels of scrutiny . I thought a lot about why I chose to do this over that, and what would really make me happy. It became second nature, and now I do it unconsciously: I’m acutely aware of what I say and do and feel.

Does that mean I have not made mistakes? No, of course not, I still fuck up all the time. I’m very human, as fallible as everyone else. Probably even more so.

It’s a journey, as most things are.

A couple of days ago, Pico Iyer tweeted something Emily Dickinson wrote: To be worthy of what we lose is the supreme aim.

Indeed.

Written in July 2020.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1884155 2022-10-03T08:30:02Z 2022-10-03T08:30:03Z Home and country

I lived in five Indian towns before I was fifteen. One of them was the capital, but Delhi in the early 1990s still felt like a town, my mother tells me, so we’ll call it that. I grew up speaking Hindi at school and Tamil at home. I picked up some Gujarati in Jamnagar and some basic Khasi in Shillong, both of which I’ve forgotten. 

At that time if you’d asked me where home was, I would have showed you a drab ground floor flat on a rained-out, beautiful hill. I had claimed that hill as only children of a certain age can: I knew almost every corner of it, where mushrooms grew, which berries were the sweetest, and which after-rain puddle was deep. It was mine.

Only when we moved back south in the early 2000s did I get that somehow innate sense of Tamil-ness back. 

To grow up around your own people, speaking your own language, in the town where your father was born, where your grandfather asked your grandmother’s hand in marriage, not far from where your ancestors bred cattle and goats and worked the land for rice and where the sweat fell from their brows: is a privilege. It’s not something I take lightly. This soil bears the weight of my people’s history. It is mine. 

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed you my gorgeous little seaside town.

When I moved to Pune, I rented a flat with French windows that caught the waning afternoon sun. I filled that hall with books, and watched cricket with my friends on weekends. Once when I was returning to it after 3 weeks or so abroad, I remember feeling overwhelmed at how it felt, with my books, my vase full of dried flowers, and the comfort it seemed to give me. This was the first time I lived alone, and had made a home. It was mine.

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed the corner beneath the window, where I read, and I would have made you a cup of ginger tea.

I started to understand how home can be something you are born into, and also be something you make, or choose.

I’d never thought about home in this way before. The first time I started to do so was when the Citizenship Amendment Act or the CAA, was passed into law by the Indian parliament at the end of 2019, and protests broke out almost immediately. I also understood its relationship to the National Register of Citizens or the NRC, and how a combination of the two could be devastating for the secular, equal polity that India aims to be.

I was alarmed.

I had believed for a long time that the wonder that is our country is open to everyone. That this huge, vast, unknowable land is mine, of course, as it is also everyone else’s around me.

Of course I was wrong. As I grew up, I realised that India has worlds within worlds, I learnt about caste, about patriarchy, and had experiences of casteism and classism. I tried to educate myself about all of this; I'm still learning. But I had been corrected and jarred to come to terms with the realities of a national history which is by no means simple.

But I can’t turn away from it, from my nation’s incredible contradictions, and from my duty to its ideals, just because there are no easy answers. India is home. It is mine, its is yours, it is ours. It is, and I have believed this with all my heart, saare jahan se accha. I have to do what I can to make it a better place.

And if someone challenges its very founding ideals, I have to defend it too. I owe it to the freedom generation, I owe it to the joy and happiness and privilege of growing up where you belong, I owe it to my father who spent all his life in uniform. But most of all, I owe it to my people, our people.

If someone, in all these years, had dared to ask me to prove that I am who I am, I would have no understanding of how to answer. I probably would not have understood. I am Indian, that’s who I am. I have no notion of how to be something else, someone else.

To challenge someone’s idea of home is to strike at the core of a person’s identity, to strike at their sense of who they are. It's cruel, violent, callous. Which is why it was the first time I too felt compelled to get on the streets.

Because I know and understand what home is, and I cannot imagine what it would feel like to lose it.

A version of this was written in January 2020.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1883213 2022-09-26T12:59:40Z 2023-10-15T17:33:04Z A room full of books

I’m moving again, and I'm thinking about my books.

Growing up, I’ve always looked for spaces where I could sit down and think. And to me, thinking means writing, and reading. In the different houses I’ve lived in, I’ve tended to find these spaces and sort-of claim them at specific times. At university, this was the volleyball courts at 6 am, where I could sip my coffee, a magazine open in my hand, look up at the hills, and think. At home, this was the terrace in the evenings, where, refreshed by gusts of southern breeze, I could be alone for a while.

But this time, in this flat, I’ve filled a room with books, made up a sitting corner with cushions, and got one of those writing pad-things. 

I love it.

I’ve always known I’ve wanted this, a room full of books; From the time my old man took me to book fairs in Pondicherry, from when I pestered him to buy me books from those Scholastic brochures at school, from when he enrolled me in a local lending library, to when my reading matured and found its own way, I’ve always wanted this.

My books are ridiculously eclectic, there being no real theme in the selection, perhaps my love for travel writing and Naipaul the only stand-outs. There are more unread books than read ones, also because I acquire books constantly. And I think I like that too.

As Nassim Taleb writes in Black Swan, "Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books."

I think I believe in that more than is good for me.

There is less than a month for me with this particular space, to enjoy it a little bit more, to make sure I remember it a little bit better. 

And I really hope to remember all this: the slowness of the ceiling fan, the droning of my refrigerator, and the Madras humidity that makes me sweat as I hunch over my laptop, trying hard to get a sentence right, hitting backspace over and over again.

Written in January 2020 in Madras.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1882752 2022-09-25T12:33:33Z 2023-10-15T08:48:28Z In defence of the university

In 2014, I was invited by my alma mater, Amrita School of Business, to write a short piece about my time there. This was for a popular MBA student forum, advertising of a kind. But I couldn’t say no. 

I remember missing the deadline, but write I did.

I’m reproducing a few passages of what I wrote, edited for context.

The business school you attend will not just give you an education and a degree, it will give you a worldview. So do all colleges, you might argue, but no, business school happens at the age when you become aware of the world around you, how things function and why they don’t, and you begin to question things. Thoughts become ambition, and a young mind tries to figure out its place in the world. It’s a very important time.

I went to study business at Amrita. I don’t remember making that choice very consciously; I had a few other pretty prestigious places to choose from. I just looked at the choices I had, and said this is where I’m going, to this lush green campus at the foot of the Western Ghats.

And it made me who I’m today – a left leaning, bookish professional with a healthy distrust of no-holds barred capitalism. But that’s just one thing Amrita moulded me into. It nurtured the romantic in me, made a writer out of a lover of words. It made me a walker rather than a runner. It made me conscious of history, geopolitics, and the need to give back to the not-so-fortunate. It rounded me up, chipped off my edges as best as it could, and sent me off into the world.

Was I a good student? Not really. Though I tried sometimes, when I had time off from the endless walks on evenings when the wind brought rain and shook the trees. But something did happen to me, in the roads and paths I walked on, in the mountain rain, in those corridors and classrooms. Something happened, and I changed, and I became ready to go face the world.

Amrita was where I was first humbled under the weight of all that I did not know, a humility I learnt to carry and use. Amrita was where I learnt that the world isn’t all about money and ways to make them. But most importantly, it was where I understood that learning to learn is an education in itself.

If what you read makes you think I was in love with the place, I was. But it wasn’t just that. It was where I felt I was first taken seriously, where the sometimes ridiculous ideas of an idealistic 22 year old were listened to with attention by people who cared, and encouraged to pursue. It was where I could sit on a rainy evening and discuss Amitav Ghosh, old cricket advertisements, and your term papers, all in one breath.

That place was where I first learned to be me.

For those of us like me who come from India’s small towns, confined by familial expectations and the narrowness of mind that sometimes characterises the Moffusil, universities are the first real intellectual spaces. They are where we are first free to express ourselves. Without the physical space that Amrita gave me to be, and become, I would never be the ambitious, confident professional I am today.

It is this physicality that I lament today, as education moves online. It’s all well and good for the city’s young people, but it sends those of my kind, from the backwaters and beyond, immediately on the backfoot, especially young female students. And in all this din about online education and the obsolescence of universities, everyone seems keen to forget about the value the physical space of the university provides.

Those who are making the loudest noise about this either seem to be from the west, whose generalised wisdom seldom translates well to the Indian context, or from folks who are invested in companies which sell education online.

Except online education can’t replicate even in part what universities actually give us.

Because if it was just a degree, a piece of paper, a credential, sure, the argument works. But our colleges and universities are more than that. They are spaces where the befuddled, narrow young mind first opens itself up to new ideas, new people, new surroundings, and has the option to transform all that potential into something meaningful. Where it learns what it can be, what is open to it, what it can achieve. Where it meets the world and learns something about itself it did not know before.

None of this will happen in front of a screen, none of this will happen tap-tapping on a laptop, none of this will happen on Slack or Teams, however much you improve the technology and the experience.

And finally, in an India that has changed, where differences are being weaponised every day, where the other is for some reason an enemy, we need places where our young people can just be. We need places where our disparate cultures can meet and engage in the conversation that characterises community and democracy. We need places where we can learn about each other without judgement, without the poison of our politics. 

The university campus may well be the last of such places in our beleaguered nation. We it need now more than ever.

Written in August 2020.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1881343 2022-09-20T14:35:45Z 2022-09-20T14:41:34Z A good year

It's 2003, you are 16, and you are in your maths tuition. You’ve claimed your place in the middle of the side-bench and resumed whatever nonsense it is that keeps you laughing like a maniac through those years, and which cement your reputation as an obnoxious, loud troublemaker. You are having the time of your life when in walks a girl who stuns you, and the entire room, into silence. 

You are smitten. Your friends notice, they tease you.

You don't know that a year later, you'll hold her hand as you walk through a Pondicherry evening.

But for now, you are just quiet.

The blackboard has trigonometry on it, which you are good at. What you aren’t good at is differential equations. You hate those. But those come later.

Your red bicycle is outside; you'll have bhel puri on the way home, to watch World's Most Amazing Videos on AXN at 8.

Dinner is mom's delicious fish curry with dosas, and you tease your little sister for a bit before your old man whacks you.

You are reading Michael Crichton’s Timeline, a weird time-travel book which you love because you are a bit of a nerd and there’s a lot of shit in it that sounds like science.

There’s a match tomorrow and you make a mental note not to go to your slower delivery early in your over. It tends to get hit. But if you get it right on the 4th or 5th delivery, you are in with a good chance of hitting the stumps.

The book sags, and as you nod off, you think of her.

Life is good. For a while, at least.

Written in December 2019.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1881057 2022-09-19T11:41:22Z 2022-09-19T17:58:17Z What I miss when I miss chai

I miss chai.

It’s a ridiculous thing to be missing now, you might say. And you will be right. But for someone whose rhythms of life are dictated by it, normalcy is chai. I miss it a lot.

Not tea, mind you. Not tea, the posh, dipped in hot water variety. You can have it all you want. It’s a soulless, vapid, foul thing, tainting chai’s name worldwide, and I want nothing to do with it. What I miss is the proper Indian version - boiled with milk, ginger, cardamom or other spices, had with a biscuit or two, downed with conversation and snark. The ones which always, always remind you that though life may be tough, the breaks can be delicious.

And if you are wondering if I’m one of those annoying, insufferable chai tragics, make no mistake, I absolutely am.

There are two shops in the lane where I live, and both serve the lovely, fragrant, Irani chai I’m so fond of. One is a sit down, get-a-biscuit-too version, which I visit in the early mornings with a book. The other is the very Puneri, very rude, take-it-and-walk stand, which I love even more.

These days, every time I walk past their downed shutters, I feel a pang, and wish they were open. 

But my favourite, the one I take all my friends to, is not one of these two.

It’s further ahead, past the Aga Khan bridge and the Kalyani Nagar crossing, past the Mercedes showroom, and the cooperative bank building. It’s barely a shop - just benches and a table, but at 5 am everyday, you can see groups of people congregating for that heavenly little cutting chai they serve. I have never had better chai, and believe me, I have had it everywhere, from Delhi to Varanasi to Madras to Lucknow to even Ahmedabad (their Wagh Bakri blend is what first hooked me on to the stuff). Once I observed an older lady getting off a car with a notepad, and writing down how the chai was being made. No one batted an eyelid, she seemed a regular. Noticing me watching, she told me that that she had tried to do this multiple times, but never could get that taste right.

Both she and I agreed then that she probably never would, and solemnly drank up.

I remember this one monsoon morning when a couple of my best friends had moved into my flat for a short while, having been driven out of theirs. I woke up very early, as I’m used to, and found Ashwin up. We started talking. We talked for a long time, about products, marketing, life and cricket. First we talked at home, and then got on my motorcycle and zoomed around Pune’s streets. We downed 5 cups of chai at (at least) 3 different tapris, including the one I described above, my favourite. We talked and talked and talked. I don’t remember any part of our conversation, but I remember the chill in the air, how the morning felt, and all that flavour.

Well, almost, but isn’t that enough?

In Madras, the tea is not as good, but I know where to get a decent cup. Our office had tea made for us inside too, but that misses the point. You have to go outside, have a couple of bajjis lathed in oil that are definitely not good for you, and talk. It is a communal activity - an excuse to get together at 5 pm and enjoy the balmy (okay, hot) evening. 

There are so many stories I have like this, and I could go on, but I won’t. Except maybe that Delhi’s best little kullad is from the man opposite the Hanuman temple on Connaught Place. Go there and have it, if you can. In the winter, preferably. After a Sunday morning trip to the Daryaganj Book Market, even better.

I’ll leave you with this video I love. It’s a creative for Society Tea, made by the agency Black Swan Life. It illustrates everything that I feel and love about chai as our country’s national drink. I don’t think it’s ever been made official. But who cares? 

If that’s not true, nothing is.

Written in Pune in June 2020, during lockdown extensions.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1880129 2022-09-16T07:53:34Z 2022-09-19T14:05:37Z An evening in lockdown

The new flat isn’t done yet. Especially my room. I have to get some furniture, more bookshelves, but obviously that isn’t happening anytime soon. There are books strewn around the house, TV shows paused in-between, work is an effort to get to, and every look at the news makes me anxious. It is a very strange time.

It started raining mid-afternoon. The skies went dark, and the air felt cooler, lighter. I lay on the bed listening to raindrops pattering on the air conditioning unit and fell asleep.

When I got up, the evening still felt empty enough to try to fill up with something. So I dragged a chair out to the balcony, put my feet up on the large pot with the dead plant, and started Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of his overland journey to China in the 1980s. I didn’t particularly take to his writing the last time I read him, and this seems as good a time as any to give people a second chance.

The rain fell, slowly then quickly, then becoming one of those comforting, calming drizzles.

My first-floor balcony has no view. It’s blocked by thick, heavy boughs of what we call the golden shower tree, the Indian laburnum. I know it from university, it is the tree under which I learnt to dream. The rain makes its yellow flowers look prettier. The tree’s branches fall lustily over the railing, obscuring the three money-plants that travelled with me from Madras.

A conversation drifted in from below, it grew darker, and the watchman went by, switching on the apartment’s corridor and stairway lights. I couldn’t hear any traffic, and this is unnerving to me. I’m used to the noise and the bustle of restless, modern India, and I have realised, several times during my trips abroad, that nowhere else can be home.

In the book, Theroux was talking about the greyness of suburban Paris and the ugliness of most of modern Belgium; he was looking through the windows of a train.

I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t see, couldn't place the scenes. I was thinking about something else. 

On train journeys in India, I wait and look for a scene that’s very important to me. Now that I think about it, it’s laughable, but I always look for the railway crossing in a small town, or a the sight of the station-master’s musty cabin over a lonely platform. Behind this is usually the railway quarters, recognisable by the compulsory rows of bougainvillea and jacaranda and gulmohar and champa, and of course, laburnum. 

I lived in quarters like these once, when my maternal grandfather worked in a sugar-mill, and the house we had looked exactly like this. Later, my uncle, his son, lived in Perambur in Madras, where the Integral Coach Factory is. When I was visiting, I would try to find some time to drive over to the road where the quarters were, and there that familiar scene would be, all the trees and flowers I knew but could not name, a few Anglo-Indian aunties sitting under them.

Something about these scenes of domesticity, of stability, have always remained important to me.

I read on, and when night fell, I came in. I left the chair there. Maybe it’ll rain again in the morning.

Written March 2020, in Pune, during the first lockdown.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1879298 2022-09-14T06:22:22Z 2023-02-17T15:39:40Z We will never be here again

I've been writing and publishing essays on startup marketing for a few years now, only lately assembling it all in a newsletter.

Every time I’m ready to publish one of these, I look for pictures to put it up with. As most marketers know, there is a (rather lazy) template for such accompanying photographs: laptops (preferably MacBooks), tables with stationary artfully strewn around, a few good-looking people pointing and gesturing, whiteboards with intelligent-sounding nonsense on them, and so on. I usually choose one with the least distractions, and don’t think about it beyond that.

Sometimes during such banal searches, a picture suddenly comes up that stuns me. I stop and stare; I know this is special, I download it if I can. But it saddens me for a minute, this travesty: this is not the place this picture should be. Someone made this photograph, a piece of art evidently of some aesthetic value, and this is where it ends up, on a random stock photo site on the internet, for strangers like me to peddle ideas with.

That’s how it is with all art, you may argue. Who decides what has value, and what doesn’t, you may ask. And you will be right. There’s so much stuff out there in the world now, and there obviously isn’t that much time in our lives. 

Or is there? 

With the amount of pictures, and memes, and gifs we make and share, aren’t photographs, in whichever way we engage with them, the predominant idiom of our age? The smartphone’s democratisation of creation, access, and distribution means that it is easy to see, rather than hear or read, in these times of short attention spans. 

In Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole’s wondrous collection of essays, he writes:

Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented. It does not have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more.

In a world where the future is uncertain and the past is subject to an incessant wrangling over its meaning, it is in the photograph that a generation is trying to hold on to whatever is visible to them. That is why Instagram is so important now, that's why it probably will remain important for a while.

Near the end of Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 movie Troy, Brad Pitt’s Achilles has something to say to Rose Byrne’s Briseis. It’s probably my favourite movie dialogue of all time, and I come back to it often:

I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again

In the moments that we are able to capture, share, and go back to, we have paused the past, defeated it for a second, even. Who we are in that photograph is who we will always be.

We will never be here again.

Written in November 2019. Photograph taken by Karthik Pasupathy in Yercaud.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1878908 2022-09-13T15:54:21Z 2022-09-13T15:54:22Z Fever dreams

I was rendered useless by a fever most of last weekend.

Most friends told me to read a book and relax, or watch a movie and distract myself, but I am smarter than that. I remember a fever a few years ago in Madras when I decided to read the World War Two book Flags of my Fathers. I was beyond 150 pages before it dawned on me that this was a bad idea: I now had pictures of battlefields and soldiers and big blasts in my head, and I wasn’t able to get rid of them. That night was filled with nightmares and visions of soldiers, wars, and blood. I swore to myself that night, delirious and sick, that this would be the last time I went near a book with even a hint of a fever.

But as with such things, the promise didn’t hold.

As I sat around the house recovering this last week, I started a book called Against a Peacock Sky, about a British anthropologist’s years in a Nepali village. More a researcher’s lived experience than travel literature in the strictest sense, it’s still a good look at rural life in a country then very unexplored. From an Indian perspective, what is familiar are the religious rituals, poojas, and certain superstitions; what’s different is the landscape. The fatal winters, the livestock which had to go south for the cold season, the travelling tourneys of traders from Tibet and the southern plains of Nepal, all of this was coloured, transformed, and lent sharpness by the vagaries of the cold.

I don’t know if it helped me recover, but it certainly didn’t give me nightmares.

As I finished it, I started thinking about this particular and peculiar couple: books and fevers. The easiest book-memory at that intersection for an Indian reader is Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, his absolutely brilliant novel of history, mystery, and myth. Published in 1995, it is still one of the better science fiction novels India has produced. I won’t give away spoilers, but If you haven’t read it yet, please do. It celebrates a kind of mysterious open-ended storytelling that is somehow, and you’ll understand this when you read it, very Indian.

Another book that comes to my mind when I think about fevers is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, a novel I absolutely adore. It is in every way a Bombay book (a genre in itself, this). The sprawling city is both the hero & the villain of the story, a story that will take you to back alleys, to the politics of Mao's China and back to the changing metropolis, which keeps trying harder to blow itself up. Visions of colour, light & dark, good & evil, haunt the characters, but they have no idea which is which, and neither, as the reader, do you. I was talking about fevers, was I not?

In 2013, the first real winter I was experiencing in years, I was in Delhi, and the bitter wind would freeze me half to death every time I stepped out. Not very surprisingly, I ran myself into a week of high fever and general misery that I only remember parts of. However, sometime around that episode, I summoned enough willpower and stupidity to go see the Taj Mahal for the first time in my adult life. I wouldn’t have told you this as I chattered my teeth away that night, but looking at that great marble mausoleum in the winter moonlight was worth it; every coughing, sneezing, wheezing second of it.

I remember thinking what a terrible, almost unimaginable potion of pain, loss, ambition, and vanity someone must have drunk to even think of creating something like that.

But then, isn’t love a kind of fever too? Perhaps the most potent kind?

Written in November 2019.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1878700 2022-09-12T12:07:31Z 2022-09-12T13:29:15Z Memories of monsoons past
My earliest, and perhaps fondest, memory of rain does not involve rain at all. It’s from Shillong, and I have this vague picture in my head of my father and I with a red plastic bucket. Hail fell around us, and even as my mother shouted from the door of our little airmen’s quarters, we collected as much as we could. It was dangerous of course, blocks of ice falling from the heavens at speed, and with our only protection being a black service-issue umbrella. There was no reason to collect that ice, we had no use for it, and all I did with it was watch it melt. It drove my mother mad. But I remember that laughter, and the cold, crisp air of the high east for what it was: pure, unadulterated joy.

In Jamnagar, in Gujarat, we were ready for school at half past 6, and would be herded into an Indian Air Force truck, rain or no rain. I would fight to find a place for my little sister to sit, and once satisfied, would resume conversation with my gang of merry men. It was only after we reached school that we would realise that it was closed. You see, there were no phones then, no local television, and news would only arrive if someone brought it to you. The driver would ask us kids to sit tight as he checked for any other children to be ferried back home. In that time, we would start up a cricket match. The western rain was no joke; I used to own gumboots for the monsoon. And so we would run in the rain, get drenched, bowl fast, fall down, splatter mud over each other. And in the 30 minutes that it took for our driver to return, a 5 over game would be done, complete with a fight, a man of the match, a sore loser, and bragging rights for the way back.


The rain in Pondicherry is unpredictable: it's cyclonic, and there is no real set season. It usually comes around my birthday, in October, and it's a lovely time to be in my town by the sea. There's a particular laziness then, the mood of a small town having coffee and reading its magazines by the window. Not much moves in the cobbled paths of the white town, the paved roads of the Tamil enclave, and the dirt streets farther out, except perhaps a sullen, wet cat trying to find a place to lay low in. The power goes out sometimes, and when the town quiets down in the evening, I can hear and see the rain falling down the sloping roof of my father's house.

I went to college in an even smaller town 200 kilometres to the south, and there was a spell of record breaking rain in my first year. We were stuck in the hostel for 4 days. Food was brought out to us in an Ashok Leyland truck requisitioned for it. I used to sit near a set of stairs where the wall had broken down, and dangle my legs over the adjacent field, flooded and full. The rain would hit my legs and I would sit there listening to music on the radio of my flip-phone. Some of those songs stayed with me, and when I listen to them even now, I’m reminded immediately of the days I spent stranded, surrounded by water, sated.

I went to business school in a university by the hills and fell in love with the place irrevocably. This was the Palakkad gap of the Western Ghats, and this was mountain rain. People carried umbrellas everywhere and the roads would be filled with yellow flowers after. I never had an umbrella but I had friends, and that’s the same thing. I remember different kinds of rain-drenched days there, but what I remember most is one of the first evenings, when we walked to a welcome dinner from our faculty, and and the mist fell on us in waves, white and heavy and cold and gorgeous. All of us seemed magical, ghostlike figures. I carry that dusk around with me still: It was the first time I thought I was, you know, somewhere.

Around late January, there is a short spell of winter rain in the capital. I was told that this happens every year. It’s bone-chillingly cold already, and the rain doesn’t help. But because I couldn’t do without my early morning tea, I would take my umbrella, wear three layers of clothes, and walk to the little stall in the next street. There would be a fire going, and I would wrap my hands around the plastic cup. Breathing out my own personal mist, I’d take in the tea’s sugary, cardamom-rich warmth. My companions at that time were mostly rickshaw pullers, and they came to know me well. Once in late winter, I carried my Kindle out because I wanted to read as I had tea. They examined the device thoroughly and asked me to read out something for them. The next day, having downloaded a Hindi book, I did so. I remember how they listened, and how their eyes glistened in that light.

Rain in Madras was beautiful, and it always messed up roads, traffic, and your plans. It gave brief respite to a hot city, and even though I was there three years, I can’t seem to remember particular occasions. Except one. We were going for dinner. She had dressed up. The cab arrived at the gate, and we tried to run into it. But she'd forgotten to close the umbrella, and fought with it frantically for a few moments before she succeeded. Water dripping off our heads, we got inside, looked at each other, and burst into laughter. I’m sure she doesn’t remember this at all, but it’s enough that I do.

Written in October 2019.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1816755 2022-04-09T07:17:42Z 2022-04-14T11:27:32Z The extraordinary courage of ordinary lives

The thing no one tells you about chemotherapy is how it gives you no time. My wife was barely able to recover from the last dose that the next one would be upon us. She was almost always in tears when we had to go, but we would trudge down from our flat without fail, and our driver would bring the car out. His name was Muthu and that year he drove our red Polo to the cancer hospital at the opposite end of town every second Saturday.

He was a short, thin, hardy man, with rough palms that had stories to tell. He smiled easily, but the lines in his face were from more than his laughter. He had been with the family for more than half a decade, before I came into it. I knew he enjoyed talking. But all through that year, when he drove us to the hospital, he would be quiet, understanding the gravity of what my wife and the family was going through. 

He knew everyone in Secunderabad. Everyone waved at him, and he would call out to them, sometimes looking back and telling us who this person was and why they were important in the area. He spoke Dakhni Hindi, of course, but it was also weighed down by his native Tamil, so it was a complex, at times confusing tongue.

I got to know him well. The local barber told me about Muthu. I got a few other details from neighbours and a few from his own mouth. There’s not a lot, but I guess there’s enough.

Muthu came to Secunderabad from Madras years ago, part of a long legacy of Tamil working class migrations that began during colonial rule, and that some might argue has never stopped. Tamil migrants worked in Australia during the world wars, fought in them, went to Malaysia and Guyana and Suriname to farm sugarcane, went to Burma and Indonesia to make money, and now go to America to run technology companies. Muthu just came some distance north, but it must have been an uprooting nevertheless. We Tamils are a fiercely proud people, and to leave home is the toughest thing for us to do. Our ooru is who we are.

He was a troublemaker by his own admission. He wasn't educated, and lamented that he should have tried harder at school. He told me how his father died a broken man because Muthu would not work or become responsible. He told me about the legendary fights he would get into, the people he had beat up. This was backed up by others I talked to. He was a fighter in his time, I was told, and feared as a local enforcer. This obviously wasn’t very respectable, and he could never hold down a job. He was also a terrific drunk, and would drink himself to oblivion almost everyday, and had to be picked up by friends or family in the morning from a ditch somewhere.

His children changed him. It must have been an effort, but he tried to straighten himself out, and worked as a driver so he could send his kids to school. His daughter made him proud, she was a college graduate and worked in an office. He worried about her future a lot, but not as much as he worried about his son, a happy-go-lucky young man who took after his old man’s worst tendencies. Muthu did slip up once in a while himself, once memorably when he was in our employ. He got himself drunk one night and turned up late the next day, bloodshot and dirty, whereupon he was asked to go home.

That was the last time, he swore, and it was. He never did anything like that again. I will never forget how he was there for us, no questions asked, when we needed all the support we could get.

Muthu passed away last month. He had had a heart attack. I went to his house, comforted his son, paid my condolences to his family. He had not been working with us for a while, but we were heartbroken too. The people who are with us when we are down are the ones we hold on to the most.

On the back cover of the 40th anniversary edition of Graham Swift’s celebrated novel Last Orders, is a phrase I remember often: the extraordinary courage of ordinary lives. Ours is a large country, there are too many people. We need to remember. We need to bear witness. 

Muthu was our driver. He wasn’t perfect, but he loved his family and conquered himself to provide for them. There was pride and courage in his life. He had fought his way through, and got somewhere. He had a family, he had friends, he had a job, and he was loved. May he rest in peace.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1809938 2022-03-23T05:19:55Z 2022-03-23T14:19:54Z A blog of one's own

The first thing I ever wrote with some regularity and intent was a cricket blog I started during my undergrad years. This must have been 2008 or 2009. I called it A View from the Pavilion, and it wasn’t bad. I know this because I sent a piece to the former England correspondent of Cricinfo, George Dobell, and he was quite happy with it. It was probably the first time someone told me I was a good writer. 

For some reason, I grew tired of it, stopped writing, and deleted it. Not the writing though, just that blog. I started writing on another blog - it’s still up - a few months into business school. I would usually be able to write one post a month, at times two. It was angsty, romantic, sentimental stuff, and I cringe when I read it now. But some of it is still surprisingly readable, even good. My professors encouraged me, and gratified by the attention, I kept at it. 

That blog got me the most important break of my life. When I applied for a marketing role at a small startup called Freshdesk, the founder, Girish Mathrubootham, read it and decided to hire me.

Through those years and after, I kept writing. I wrote everywhere. I tried Wordpress, Tumblr, Medium, but was never happy.

I like classification, order, and neatness. None of these spaces gave me that. I was too lazy and technically inept to make something for myself, but I kept writing. I published a piece in the Hindu, a few pieces for Scroll, and worked on a book. This was all during a gap year when I was back home in Pondicherry.

Returning to work after, writing took a backseat and life took over. But soon the restlessness came back, and I craved a creative outlet of some sort. And now I had a few things to say about work. The CMO Journal was the result. A newsletter on marketing, I have been writing it for 2 years now. It's easily the most satisfying writing I've done, and it’s added so much value to so many people.

Around the same time, I also started writing another newsletter called East Coast Road, for other things I'm interested in. I have quite a few pieces up there now.

But late last year, as I was thinking about starting on another long term writing project, I realised I had to tighten it all up a bit. My writing was thematically scattered, and it couldn't be found and read in one place even if people wanted to.

I realised that East Coast Road was not a newsletter at all. It was a blog, an old-fashioned personal blog. But again, I had the problem I had since the time I began writing: There were too many places to write. I needed a simple personal blog, I didn’t want to sit and code it up, and I didn’t want it to be fancy.

That’s when I found Posthaven, where you are reading this. It’s a blogging platform whose promise is that it will stay online forever. I love its simple clarity, and I love that I can just spend my time writing, not worrying about how things look, what I can fiddle with, and so on. This is exactly what I wanted.

So, over the next few months, I will be migrating every single thing I’ve ever written to this place, this blog of my own. I will also be deleting my other blogs when all that is done. East Coast Road will go down, so will my old college blog.

Simple, then: The marketing writing will go to my newsletter, The CMO Journal. Everything else will be here. 

Why do this now?

A huge part of this is just me indulging my order-obsessed brain. I'm absolutely certain no one else cares. But the other is that once this is over, I will have the clarity to launch a couple of projects that have been in my head for while. And having one place where all of my work can rest, and be read, is something I’ve always wanted.

What does this mean for you, the few of you who think my writing is worth reading?

It makes it simpler for you to follow my writing. All you have to do is click the Follow this Posthaven link underneath this post, and the posts will land in your mailbox, much like Substack. And finally, I will be revisiting, editing, and publishing again my older work. I get to go back down memory lane, refresh a few things.

There will be a lot to read. And I hope you do.

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1797800 2022-02-21T06:27:51Z 2022-09-05T19:53:45Z Why waste the time we have together?

A few days ago, there was a question on Twitter: What did your ex leave you with? I think specifics were expected, like music, or movies, or art.

But what came to my mind immediately was too long to write out there. So here it is.

Ours was a closed campus, and though the boys were allowed to go out and roam the city whenever we wished, the girls usually had only two gate passes a month. Which meant that our time together, at least outside campus, was limited. We were aware of this, though we had enough time together that it never weighed on us. It was just that we couldn't eat out, or go on coffee dates, or travel.

She was a feisty character, gorgeous, studious, and driven. I was the opposite, more interested in the library, in long walks, and in volleyball, which I'd just discovered.

One of the first times we were out together, on a gloriously pleasant day, we were shopping, and I did something that irked her. I don't remember what it was, just that it was minor enough to not matter to me, but important enough for her to get worked up. I knew these moods of hers. This was going to be a long day, I thought, and braced myself.

But when we exited the mall to bright sunshine, she was back in the radiant mood she had been in all morning. I was taken aback, having anticipated glares and taunts. But no. She took my hand in the cab to the restaurant, and talked as if nothing was amiss. I was confused, but only too glad to go along.

It was a good day, full of laughter and love and that silly optimism being young affords you. We went to get coffee before boarding the train back. I walked her to the hostel. It wasn't dark yet, and I could see her face, slightly flushed after the long day and the walk from the station. She was happy. I was too.

At the gate, she turned, and to my surprise, started chewing me out. She told me to go to my room and call her immediately so she could give me a piece of her mind.

Even more confused now, I walked back to my hostel, changed, got some water from the cooler, and called her. She did what she told me she would. I told her I didn't think it was a big deal. I know better now, but it was obviously the wrong thing to say. The argument ran its course. I went down to meet the boys, played a game of volleyball, read a bit (I think it was my economics phase - Nouriel Roubini and Raghuram Rajan and Tim Harford), and then called her to say good night.

She had been studying, as I knew she would be. I asked her what had been on my mind all evening: Why, if she was so angry, did she wait until we came back? Couldn't she have brought it up then, and sorted it all out face-to-face?

But, she said, that's the only time we have with each other outside campus. Why should I ruin it? I can be angry with you later. Why waste the time we have together?

This was more than 10 years ago. I've never forgotten it.

Indeed, why waste the time we have together?

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Sairam Krishnan
tag:blog.sairamkrishnan.com,2013:Post/1789361 2022-01-30T06:20:12Z 2022-07-26T07:53:10Z A regular, with a usual

In 2007, I was trying to pass my large backlog of engineering exams, and was studying like a madman, starting at 3 in the morning. The tea shop near where I lived then opened at 3 too, to cater to the fishermen who needed the pick-me-up before leaving to sea. I would go and stand there, along with all these rough and sun-cooked men, and I would get a steamy cup of milky, strong tea without having to ask. I would go again at 4, and again at 5, punctuating my studies with tea so I wouldn’t get tired or fall asleep. And I would never say a word, I’d just stand there, sometimes with one of my large, unwieldy textbooks in hand, and the tea would come to me. Never coffee, or the special tea. Just the normal tea, everyday.

I was a regular, with a usual.

In 2009, at my university under the mountains, the tea and coffee would arrive in large cans to my hostel, and I’d be one of the first to come get a mug. This was because it was cold there, and I was one of the few early risers. I would nod at the guy who brought the cans everyday, who knew me well. I would take my mug and walk outside to the volleyball courts, and wait. I would wait for the light to come up, and ponder the day ahead. Much later, my friends who had rooms that looked out on the courts would tell me that this was what they saw every morning when they woke up and opened the windows: Me walking around with a mug of coffee, looking up at the sky.

In 2011, at my first job, and in my first real experience of the world, I would wake up and walk to a mosque nearby, at the entrance of which was an old man selling Irani chai. I had no money and no clear thoughts about anything, but this was a routine I understood, so I would follow it without thinking. Every single morning I would be there, sipping that fragrant tea and looking around at the faithful, thinking about where life was going to take me. That city of the Deccan held me close then, and would call me back later. But I didn’t know that yet.

In 2012, in the Tamil capital, I lived near the sea, and ran laps around the road near the old church. Later, drenched and exhausted, I would go to a moderately famous restaurant on the main road. They would be just setting up, but coffee would be ready. It would arrive as soon as I sat down. The waiters knew me and also knew that at times I’d have two, reading on the Kindle. Once a friend of mine was visiting, and because she ordered tea, I asked for tea too. The surprised waiter told my friend, in Tamil, that ‘sir usually drinks only coffee’.

In 2013, in the national capital, my best friend and I were in that phase when we were rebelling against everyone and everything. Every day, he would take out his motorcycle, and we would go to the shop nearby to buy beer. One day, we told ourselves we wouldn’t drink, it had become too much, and we should stop. We would just go home that day, and watch the cricket or something. But as he drove home, he inadvertently, by sheer force of habit, drove to the liquor shop. We looked at each other, and bought bottles of Tuborg.

In 2016, in my town, I was attempting to write. I would come to the French library at 10, write for an hour or so, and go out for a filter coffee around noon. Every day for a few months, I would do this. I would go and have a strong coffee in the bar from where you could see the sea. I would stand there with the clerks from the government secretariat, and wonder at the beauty of the place I was born in.

In 2020, in a city surrounded by hills, where the idea was to slow down a bit and get some more time, I was delighted to find a Irani chai place, complete with bun maska and colourful bottles of Ardeshir. I spent some time there every morning, reading. It was a delight, and I thought that this was something I could get used to, having a place to come and read in, and go back home from. For some time, it was. And then the pandemic hit, and soon another move happened.

One day, I’ll go back home. I’ll have a boring routine. I’ll have nothing to work on, nothing to get to. I’ll just have time and a sense of contentment in my head. And I’ll have a bar to go to, one I’ll go to everyday with my friends. I would have made a couple more friends there. I will sit down there in the evening, drink a beer, and marvel at some small thing, like an insect, or the afternoon light, or the smell of the ocean. And I won’t think about anything else.

I’ll be a regular, with a usual.

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Sairam Krishnan