Delhi to Naldehra: When the hills beckon

Published on 10 June 2016 in Mint

Going that extra mile to revisit childhood memories, trying golf and walking among apple orchards


We weren’t the quintessential Bengali family who had a home in Kolkata where ageing grandparents waited with gifts and blessings for grandchildren every summer. Instead, the vacation ritual comprised my father sitting and planning our nuclear family trip to the hills. This was the only way to escape the scorching heat of Delhi.

Back then—about a decade ago—Shimla was the most credible choice. A short train ride and a couple of hours’ drive was all that was needed to reach the erstwhile summer capital of British India. Those were the days when one didn’t have to climb cliff tops for unobstructed views of the mountains; snow-capped peaks shone uninhibitedly under the summer sun.

I am not sure how and when these annual family trips to the hills stopped. Perhaps it was around the time that people started complaining about how common and crowded Shimla had become. Like many others, we too bid adieu to the Mall Road, Christ Church, and the hall by Lakkar Bazaar where I learnt to roller skate.


Last month, I found myself crossing the same route, dotted with familiar pines and deodars, on a weekend break. I was on my way to Naldehra, a hamlet that is just an hour’s drive from Shimla—offbeat travel, you see, is now in vogue and going a few extra miles for quieter terrain is considered the norm. The Chalets Naldehra, my abode for the next two days, was lavish. With more than half of the first day gone in travel, I decided to stay put in my room’s balcony, with a cup of tea and a book in hand. The view of the sun sinking behind the dark-grey ranges was the perfect way to end the day.

The next morning, intermittent drumming on the window panes woke me up. It was a troop of monkeys. Grateful for the ingenious alarm clock, I hit the road for my first excursion—the Naldehra Golf Course.

It was in the early 1900s that Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, supervised the construction of this nine-hole golf course. Perched at an altitude of 2,200m, the ground is one of the oldest and most scenic in the country. It’s open to both locals and tourists for a fee of Rs.250-500, and the 30-minute climb up the ridge was worth a few teeing-off lessons. After several failed attempts, I was finally able to swing the club hard enough to make the ball fly over the net. Golf will not stay with me the way roller skating did, but I’m glad I tried.

The next thing on my agenda almost immediately superseded the excitement at my freshly discovered golfing prowess—the apple orchards, in full bloom, at the Regional Horticultural Research and Training Station in Mashobra, 13km from Naldehra. I found myself following the station chief down a rutted path flanked by fragrant fruit trees. He told me about 170 varieties of apple trees, both red and golden, were cultivated there. Shiny golden apples hung from branches that seemed to have grown tired of their weight. An hour’s walk with him, and I wanted my own orchard. In fact, at the end of the day, premature retirement to the hills of Naldehra seemed like a good idea.

Reluctant to return straight to Delhi the next day, I decided to spend some time strolling around Shimla, hoping to catch glimpses of the summer I remembered. I ordered lunch at a café overlooking the Mall Road. It was teeming with people—college students, young couples, office-goers and tourists. Noisier than before and a little less clean—things had most certainly changed.

Perhaps I was better off exploring new places and keeping intact my childhood memories of Shimla.

Room service

Published in May 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India

Hyatt Regency Delhi
Hyatt Regency is centrally located at the hub of Bhikaji Cama Place.
Hyatt-Regency-Delhi-PRINT-16.jpgLong stays
Location: Centrally located in the commercial hub of Bhikaji Cama Place
Look: Native sandstone structure inspired by the Gupta age; interiors in cream, brown, purple and grey
Crowd: Mainly leisure and corporate travellers, hip young entrepreneurs
Rooms: All rooms and suites have free Wi-Fi; there are also fully equipped serviced apartments for long stays
Eating and drinking: While China Kitchen does excellent Asian, La Piazza offers Italian
Best thing: The instant feedback via the dedicated WhatsApp number
Worst thing: Some rooms need an update (ask for a newly renovated room)
Price: Doubles from Rs10,000

JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity
The 523 rooms help host large events.
Location: A few minutes’ drive from the international airport
Look: Steel and glass outside, an understated palette of light oak, dark wood and olive inside
Crowd: Think in-transit guests, large groups and well-known names such as P Chidambaram
Rooms: 523 rooms help host large events. Female guests get rooms near the lifts, in case of an emergency
Eating and drinking: K3 for Indian, Italian and Canton fare. Akira Back is a superb Japanese-Korean restaurant
Best thing: Watching planes take off and land from runway-facing rooms
Worst thing: There’s no neighbourhood to speak of, as most of Aerocity’s still being built
Price: Doubles from Rs15,000

The Leela Palace New Delhi
The Leela Palace New Delhi is located in the high security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Leela.jpgShort stays
Location: In the high-security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan
Look: Murano glass chandeliers, Turkish carpets, exquisite flowers, modern Indian art on the walls
Crowd: Those who like to work and play, and royals such as the king of Morocco
Rooms: The 254-key hotel has three suites with plunge pools, which overlook the city
Eating and drinking: French-Italian gourmet restaurant Le Cirque and MEGU for modern Japanese
Best thing: The Library Bar (for whiskies and cigars), which serves till 1am
Worst thing: Being popular for weddings, it can get crowded and noisy
Price: Doubles from Rs20,000

Trident, Gurgaon
The Trident, Gurgaon is close to several major company offices.
In transit
Location: Close to several major company offices in DLF Phase II and III, including TCS and Microsoft
Look: A blend of Moroccan, Mughal and Rajasthani styles; plenty of natural light and water bodies
Crowd: Corporate travellers, including young entrepreneurs
Rooms: The plush rooms and suites offer lovely views of the garden or the reflection pool
Eating and drinking: Three restaurants, including Konomi for modern Japanese; it stocks a range of sakes and shochus
Best thing: The heated outdoor pool, especially in winter
Worst thing: There are few dining or nightlife options in the immediate vicinity
Price: Doubles from Rs24,000

Mining collective history

Published on 13 February, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

A Sri Lankan play delves into the common, conflicted past of two very different nations at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav


War footing A still from the play Dear Children, Sincerely. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan Ruwanthie de Chickera. Photo: S Thyagarajan

Conflict doesn’t know race or region. The nature of war is such that it spares no one. Cities burn, people die, and that is how the pages of history are made. Countries miles away from each other share a common suffering; people with diverse skin colour identify with each other’s pain, for every nation has endured a similar pattern of war, and therefore, everyone’s history is collective.

Taking a slice of this shared history to build the foundation of a theatre project titled Dear Children, Sincerely…, the Stages Theatre Group from Sri Lanka aspired to bring to light the stories and experiences that transpired years ago, but are relevant today. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of this history’s witnesses — the elders of the society — at the 18th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in New Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, and Kerala respectively.

Under the guidance of director Ruwanthie de Chickera, a cast of 15 Asian and African artistes travelled to perform in India, and brought two diverse nations — Rwanda and Sri Lanka — together for an international collaboration of three performances, unveiling three different perspectives of the past.

While the first story, Seven Decades Deep compared the enormous Hutu-Tutsi community conflict in Rwanda with the Tamil-Sinhala crisis in Sri Lanka, and drew uncanny similarities between the exile of the Tutsi families to the ‘Sinhala Only’ movement in Lanka, the second story, Marriage, Sex and Loveintroduced comic relief by recalling the traditions when it was forbidden for a bride to be seen by a groom before they got married and when dowry was measured in cows. The last performance, Upside-down Land returned to remind of the horror of the bloody insurrections and sustained communal riots that scarred both countries for life.

Dear Children, Sincerely… made its debut at the Ubumumtu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda, in July 2015; the project later travelled to Colombo for its second show in January 2016. In India, the team performed to a full-house in Jammu’s Abhinav theatre earlier this month, before travelling to Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium and Thiruvananthapuram’s Tagore Theatre.

The project, which is based on conversations with senior citizens, mostly public figures and a few ordinary people, delves into their memories, experiences, and reflections in order to create a bank of stories. These are then taken to young people through storytelling and live performances.

“Research into Dear Children, Sincerely… started in April 2015, when we began talking to people born in the 1930s in Sri Lanka. This remarkable generation, born in colonial times and now eight decades old, essentially grew up in parallel lines to their country. The idea of bringing Rwanda into the picture happened naturally. I had a friend there and we spoke about the common histories of both countries. Every scene has been created from a conversation with an elderly person. The idea is to create a number of short performance pieces that will focus on one aspect of history, one opinion, one story,” explains Chickera.

Commenting on the comparison of the theatre scene in India and Sri Lanka she says, “There’s a huge amount of infrastructure in India; the industry is massive and very powerful. India is what Sri Lanka can aspire to be in terms of support, training and infrastructure. Sri Lanka has very good talent, but the industry is very weak. Plenty of young people take to theatre, but they burn out soon because the industry cannot sustain them; there’s not enough money to pay the actors for their training. It’s a very vibrant and young industry, but unfortunately the actors don’t mature, many of them fade out.” And is her country too facing the brunt of intolerance and censorship? “The theatre space has always been under the radar. It continues to be. The previous regime was beginning to crack down on journalists and influencing the artists, but the present system is different. Censorship was very high. It’s no more like that. People are pretty outspoken,” she says.

In a very short span of time, Dear Children, Sincerely… has managed to impress the ARIADNE theatre makers — a group of female theatre directors working in countries of conflict and post-conflict — and through ARIADNE, the project is now being adapted in Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Burundi, Serbia, the UK, the DRC, and Belgium. With nine countries on board, the project is all set to go global.

Their stories are real events, witnessed by real people, and real comments that manage to etch the past forever in the chapters of today. The past, as they say, is never truly behind us; no matter how hard one tries to forget, it claws its way back. And perhaps that is imperative to remember.

OTT and loving it

Published on 12 December, 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

The fifth edition of the Delhi Comic Con brought with it fans, TV stars, socially-conscientious comics and plenty of good vibes

Kristian Nairn takes a selfie of his fans at Delhi Comic Con 2015

Kristian Nairn, aka Hodor, at the Delhi Comic Con. Pic courtesy: Comic Con India

A sunny winter weekend, plenty of excited (and painted) faces, and a zone full of superheroes: Comic Con India returned to the Capital with a bang and left fans wanting more. The NSIC exhibition ground in Okhla buzzed with action last weekend. Fathers carried their toddlers dressed as superheroes, teenagers pranced about as Hogwarts witches and a somewhat lanky, albeit enthusiastic Spiderman posed generously for every fan.

Founded in 2011 by Jatin Varma as an experiment, Comic Con India has grown with every successive edition: this one had more than 250 exhibitors. “Comics and most things nerdy have been a part of my life since I was a child. I’ve grown up reading what everyone else has — Tinkle, Asterix, Tintin, MAD, DC & Marvel — and later went on to lap up every local and international indie comic I could find. There are so many favourites, but if I were to pick one it’d be Superman,” says Varma.

The first edition, held in Delhi, was free and saw more than 10,000 visitors over that weekend. The footfall has grown massively since and keeps increasing each year.

Comic Con now attracts more than 35,000 visitors a day, with an average ticket price of ₹300 at each show.

Celeb showstopper

Northern Irish actor and DJ Kristian Nairn (who portrays the character of Hodor in the blockbuster television series Game of Thrones) stole the show with a jam-packed session on day two of the festival. With season six a few months away, it was clever of the organisers to have one of the GOT characters make an appearance for fans in India, where the audience for content-focused television has grown phenomenally in the past two years.

For the uninitiated, Hodor is a friendly giant, one of the nicest characters on the show, whose defining characteristic is that he can only speak a single word — Hodor. Fans queued up to catch a glimpse of Nairn as he politely dismissed all questions about the forthcoming season, and refused to reveal if Jon Snow was alive or dead. He humbly admitted to not having read any of the books, but hoped that George RR Martin keeps his character alive till the very end.

Nairn agreed that he wasn’t particularly impressed about being offered the role of Hodor. “The guy only said one word ‘Hodor’, which didn’t make any sense. It was crazy,” he said and added it was his mother who convinced him to take it up. It was only gradually that he started falling in love with the character. “The only way to play a part like Hodor is to have that connect. You can’t pretend: it has to be real. And apart from the size, we had a lot in common. I think I am just as nice as he is,” said an amused Nairn.


Comic Con provides a platform for creators and publishers to showcase their stories and characters. But while the hero-villain duo of Batman and The Joker, made more popular than ever before thanks to Christopher Nolan’s films, take centre-stage every time, this year’s edition saw other interesting ideas as well.

Sharing space with established comics stars was a superhero called Shabash, who came all the way from Bangladesh with the Dhaka Comic Con team. The Dhaka team was in the Capital with their ‘Beyond Borders’ theme. The aim was to join forces with the rest of the comics world. Founded by Saadi Rahman in 2012, Dhaka Comic Con is Bangladesh’s first-ever official comic book convention. They’re all set to kick off their fourth edition later this week.

Standing out among the crowd was the ‘Share Good Vibes’ stall that sold merchandise with quotes on peace. “There is so much negativity around us these days. Everyone seems to be getting depressed because of so much wrong happening in the world. Our aim is to spread positive vibes and encourage people to become happier and more optimistic,” says Nikhil Sharma, one of the founders.

Books etcetera

Graphic literature has never really received the attention it deserves: not in the past and especially not now, when people prefer to watch a comics-based film or TV show over reading the original book. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Iron Man, The Hulk and Jessica Jones: these characters were born in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. But perhaps it’s less time-consuming to watch TV than to read the pages of a book.

This year, along with the usual fare, there were also some books that featured serious socio-political themes. Cartoonist Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari, which was originally published as a webcomic, traces the dark history of the Naxalbari uprising and the Maoist conflict in central India. Ram Devineni’s Priya Shakti features a superhero who is also a rape survivor. Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir is an autobiographical book that mixes history with personal recollections to give an insider’s view of the Kashmir conflict and how it shapes the psyche of a young boy.

So the Comic Con had something for every taste of every reader: from the rippling muscles of American superhero comics to the gritty realism of political graphic novels.

The real challenge, however, is to boost comics sales throughout the year, and it will take several successful Comic Cons to pull that off. But we spotted one diehard reader spending ₹50,000 at a single stall. May his tribe increase and flourish.

Raising an illusion

Published on 4 September, 2015 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

German mentalist Nicolai Friedrich on how magic uses logic and creative thinking to accomplish what appears impossible

Mixing it up Mental magic, says Nicolai Friedrich, is a mixture of psychology, suggestion and magic. AGP World

Mixing it up Mental magic, says Nicolai Friedrich, is a mixture of psychology, suggestion and magic. AGP World

Anything that’s pleasantly out of the ordinary is magic. It’s often overwhelming and even freaky. For Nicolai Friedrich, it is a metaphor for the human ability to make seemingly impossible things possible. Friedrich blends visual artistry and mind tricks with excellent comic timing, leaving audiences awestruck. He attempts to inspire the audience to look beyond the boundaries of reality. With no one in his family even remotely connected to magic, he started out by studying law at the university and even became a professional lawyer. But magic was destiny. “My mother thinks I learned something really serious. But lawyers and magicians have a lot in common, so I guess it worked out all right,” he says.

On his fourth visit to India, Friedrich performed across five cities. In an exclusive interview before his opening show in New Delhi, he talked about the magical tricks that oscillate between belief and make-belief. Excerpts from the interview.

Is magic for real?

Well, I believe there is magic happening around us every day. However, we are often blind to those little wonders of life and nature. Instead of admiring, we simply take them for granted. I have to admit that my show is not real magic but it absolutely looks like it. So I try to get as close to real magic as I can.

What got you interested in magic and mind-reading?

At four, I saw a magician in a circus. It perplexed me and I thought of becoming a magician myself. Soon after, I invested all my time, money and effort in learning new tricks. So probably this first magic show was the cornerstone of my career.

Can magic ever go wrong?

Oh yes, especially if you have invented something entirely new. However, it is all part of the natural procedure of trial and error. The most important thing that you learn is to never make the same mistake twice. Luckily most of the time, the audience will not even realise when something goes wrong, because a good magician always has a plan B up his sleeve, so he can secretly switch to that and finish the trick.

Which is the most difficult trick you have performed till date?

I flew an airplane blindfolded. It was a dangerous publicity stunt for German television and since there was no autopilot I am happy that I managed to land the plane safely.

Does mind-reading involve intuition or the sixth sense?

I would say both. Mental magic is a mixture of psychology, suggestion and magic. Even though it looks that way, it has nothing to do with supernatural powers. However, our mind has much more potential than most of us are aware of. If we train and use some of the hidden potential we possess, we can do things that may seem like miracles to others. The study of human psychology helps us understand why people behave the way they do. It is quite easy to detect a lie or predict future behaviour. Our body is constantly sending out information, so if you think your secret thoughts are safe within your head if you keep your mouth shut, you are wrong!

You have performed in India before. How has the response been?

Indian audiences have been very receptive and have loved my ‘mentalism’ and illusion tricks.

Have you heard of or met any Indian magician or mentalist?

I have met some Indian magicians and mentalists and have heard of some, but unfortunately I have not seen their shows yet. The only magician whom I knew and admired a lot was Ali Bongo. He lived in the UK, but I found out that he was born in Bangalore.

Would it be correct to say that magic tricks have logic to them and yet they are illusions?

Yes, that is absolutely correct. Magic uses logic and creative thinking to accomplish something that looks impossible. The fact that it looks impossible is the illusion, since all magicians are also bound to the laws of nature.

My bookshop won’t tell you what people are reading: A bookseller’s lament as he waves goodbye

Published on 9 August, 2015 in

An interview with Ajit Vikram Singh, owner of Delhi’s beloved Fact & Fiction bookshop, which has announced its closure.

DSC_0934It is around five in the evening when I reach Fact & Fiction, one of New Delhi’s oldest independent bookstores, whose owner, Ajit Vikram Singh has announced his decision to shut shop. For every booklover in Delhi, it’s a time to mourn, however briefly.

There was a time when I too, like many others, used to frequent the bookshop, at times to buy books, and at others, when I ran out of money, to simply hang around and browse. Today, as I sit across the table from Singh, poking him with questions that he is probably tired of hearing and answering, I am amazed the irony of my own much-delayed visit. We have all delayed so much that the shop has to close down. Over to Singh.

Response to stimuli
“Running a bookshop is a very organic thing,” begins Singh, “you don’t stuff it full of books that you like. I started Fact & Fiction back in 1984 with very few books. When those books sold, I put more of the same kind on the shelf. It was a response to stimuli and that’s how it grows. You put the best books on the subject that works. This wasn’t the mix when I started – it kept changing over the years.

“It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t want to lose interest in books till the very end; I was still ordering books and I was still trying to stay engaged, I mean I can’t think of it as the end. It’s not a business, it’s my life. I’d hate to bid adieu but I don’t know, I don’t see any space, I don’t see any other avenue.

“The book trade doesn’t seem to want bookshops like ours. Since all these e-tailers have come in, the book trade has just gone their way. They’ve extended all support, all help to them, put all their focus on them, and they’ve just let booksellers like us be. Let this event be a reminder to the trade that they’ve got to include and support everyone the best way they can.

“After thirty years, I think it is bad news for me too. Earlier, going to the bookshop was a regular affair. Obviously things have changed over this period of time. But till the shutters come down, I’ll keep ordering books.”

I urge him to begin from the beginning.

Starting point
“I loved books and I wanted to do something with books. I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged reading. My father was an omnivorous reader. He read everything – from Batman comics to Chandrakanta, and from science fiction to philosophy. He was a great role model for me. My mother too was an avid reader and she read in Hindi.

“Buying books as a kid was one thing that I will always cherish. Personally, I went through several phases of reading. At times science fiction, other times occult, and a lot of non-fiction and history books too. People who start a bookshop think that they’ll spend all their time reading, but unfortunately, after being at the bookshop the whole day, when I go back home and pick up a book to read, I realise that sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Where do old books go?
“Books in India are cheaper than anywhere else in the world. If price was such a big concern and the readership was so motivated, why isn’t there a second-hand book trade in India? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for so many years now.

“Real estate prices are higher in New York and London, but all of these cities have a very healthy and thriving second-hand book culture. Here, either the book goes to the pavement or to the rag-picker, or – worst case scenario – gets pulped. There is no system of retaining the books.

“I’m told Calcutta has a College Street, but it’s all largely textbooks, and same is the case with the Daryaganj market. From among a thousand books you might find a handful of classics or contemporary fiction or non-fiction. Basically, the reading culture is not there. The education system in India does not promote reading as a thing of enjoyment. Reading shouldn’t be an ordeal but maybe it’s made to appear so.

“The kinds of books most Indians are buying are either related to their professions, motivational books, or quick reads. Or they keep oscillating between the seven or ten most-hyped books. They don’t have the time to discover or pursue other books.”

What triggered the decline in demand?
“Some of it is because retail sale in the area (where Fact & Fiction is located) has suffered collectively. Many shops have shut down, so there’s a general decline because of this. Secondly, parking has become chaotic and people don’t like to come here. The Vasant Vihar area in itself has become very a problem because accessibility has become very limited thanks to the new flyovers. It’s a combination of a lot of reasons.

“The presence of e-tailing has really grown leaps and bounds in a short time. They’re now advertising on television and newspapers. They create this uncertainty in the market, so that you always feel that something is available at a cheaper price, even if it is not. The psychology has changed, as a retailer you don’t feel confident. Consumers may not get a discount here and they may not get a discount online as well, but the attitude is such that they’re always looking for that elusive lower price.”

Change in buying patterns
“One cannot make out the trend of what everybody else is reading by looking at my bookshop, because it has a slant towards certain kind of books and I’m attracting those kinds of people. I have nothing against the new crop of authors, clearly people are reading them and therefore they sell, but the unfortunate part is that they don’t lead you to reading something else, something better.

“For example, the good thing about the Harry Potter series was that people who read Harry Potter went on to read books by JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and a whole genre of such authors. It dispelled a myth that children can’t read 600-page books, that they’ve got Attention Deficiency Syndrome.

“These books elevated the genre of fantasy fiction, and I am truly grateful to the Harry Potter series for that. But a lot of these contemporary Indian authors don’t seem to be leading readers anywhere else. They don’t get you into the process of discovering other new writer or of going after something else. They have a fan following and they just make their readers wait for their own books.”

Packed like Mathi

Published on 25 April, 2015 in BLink

Kerala’s sardine serves as a powerful muse for the award-winning playwright and director Jino Joseph, as he attempts to make sense of migration and loss in his hometown, Kannur

Malayalam play Mathi won four awards at the 10th  Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2015“I have no academic background in theatre. I belong to an agricultural family in the municipality of Iritty in Kannur, Kerala, and no one in my family or neighbourhood understands, or is interested in theatre,” says Jino Joseph, the 29-year-old playwright and director of the Malayalam play Mathi, which bagged four major awards out of 11 — for Best Script, Director, Production, and Actor — at the recent 10th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards.

Mathi (as sardine is called in Malayalam) is the story of a fish merchant named Mathi Rafeeq, and is set in Kerala in the 1970s and ’80s. Rafeeq sells only sardine; it is his way of protesting against the big fish in the market. He invites likeminded people to his house and holds debates on social issues and performs small plays of revolution. All of them are served the delightful fried mathi by Rafeeq’s younger sister Kunjami. Later in the play, people are shown moving out of Kerala to bigger cities for work, and migrants from Bengal and other states arrive and settle in. Rafeeq meets an unfortunate death in a world faced with the loss of cultural identity.

Playwright and Director Jino Joseph's play Mathi won four awards at the 10th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2015In the play, the fish serve as metaphor for several things — the unity of the working class, societal disharmony, issues of migration, convoluted politics, and even romance. Performed nearly 30 times since it premiered at the Ninth Ajayan Memorial Theatre Festival in 2013, Mathi also received the 2013 Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards for Best Play, Best Script and the runner-up Best Actor. Back in Kannur after the award night, Joseph spoke to us over phone about how he used Mathi to depict the breakdown of the cultural harmony of his hometown, Kannur, and the present-day political dissonance.

How did you become interested in theatre?

I grew up watching commercial drama staged in churches and temples during festivals every year. I used to sit in front of the stage, on the floor, to watch those plays. In those days our source of movies was Doordarshan, which aired a new film every Sunday evening, and we waited for it every week. The hangover from those films and plays inspired me to write scripts for plays and direct them when I was in school. Later I joined Government Brennen College, Thalassery, which had a good artistic culture. There was no funding, but our teachers were welcoming of experimental plays. I wrote small plays for schoolchildren and directed short plays for colleges, which won several awards at youth festivals.

How did the concept for Mathi come about?

I had written and directed, for schoolchildren, a play named Parotta, which won a state-level competition. Parotta is a food item and the experimental play was about the education system. One day, when I was eating parotta and mathi curry in Wayanad, a colleague joined me and said I must have a ‘Mathi’ for my ‘Parotta’; he meant I should write a new play called ‘Mathi’ to complete the dish. That’s when I became interested in the subject, because the bond we share with mathi in Kerala is unique — the fish has a distinctive smell, it’s healthy, incredibly tasty…

Why did you use the fish as a metaphor for the socio-political condition?

One of the most important aspects of the play is that mathi is the fish of the marginalised, the working class. They can afford it, it gives them strength, and the smell of frying mathi is synonymous with the smell of the village.

Kerala sardine is now being exported to other cities and countries. And in Kerala we get to eat the mathiimported from Mangalore. Similarly, the working class of Kerala is migrating to other states and Gulf countries for executive jobs. To replace them, migrants from Bengal and Maharashtra are being employed for construction and agricultural works… the migrants are even hired for labour protests, and if there aren’t sufficient patients in hospitals during inspection, the migrants are made to pose as patients; they’re taught slogans in the local language for political parties’ protests.

What was the theatre scene in Kerala during the ’70s and ’80s?

Kerala was politically strong then. There were many cultural organisations that encouraged plays about feudalism and other socio-political issues. But times have changed and only a few such organisations remain, and they too are inactive. Our play is an extreme form of rural theatre and depicts exactly what is going on in the state right now. There are no big organisations supporting us and it’s a collective initiative by people who are not trained in theatre. The actors are not professionals — some are students, others are auto-drivers. The central character is played by Ranji Kankol (Best Actor awardee), who is a sculptor. He was selected for his body language and appearance.

You cook mathi on stage and even serve it to the audience. What was the reaction in Delhi?

The idea is to add an additional layer to the play. We fry mathi in between scenes, so the audience get to smell the fish being fried… to intensify the effect of the performance. Towards the end we serve the fried fish to the audience. Usually, in Kerala, the audience run on to the stage to taste the fish. In Delhi, after the play, one lady came asking for some fried mathi to be packed for her child. Mathi represents celebration. It connects people in a way nothing else does, and that’s why we announce at the beginning of the play that it’s not a drama; it’s a slice of life. Life is being enacted.