I removed the mirror from the wall. Tested the hook. Checked if it would take the weight. Replacing it with my shadow. Hanging it on the hook. Having done this exchange. What else would I call it? I looked into the shadow. And found the mirror looking back. At me. Turning away in surprise. I found myself looking. Into the eyes of my shadow. Only it wasn’t looking at me. Over my shoulder. Yes. At the mirror. Which no longer reflected the face of my shadow. For it wasn’t there. To reflect. Having myself removed it a moment ago. I found it hard to understand. Or explain. So I started all over again. This time making sure to get it right. I removed the mirror from the wall. Checked the hook. Tested it. Making sure it would take the weight. Before taking off my shadow. Hanging it on the hook. Replacing one with the other. The shadow in place of the mirror. Having done this exchange. This barter. This trading. This swapping. This bold. Even clever negotiation. This “striking a deal”. What else would I call it? I looked up at the mirror and found the shadow whispering my name.

“What is a shadow? Is it but part of oneself – yes up to a point, or is it outside oneself – yes up to a point. Is it that which is part of oneself but keeps on changing its form as the light changes. So what is it reflecting and can these reflections have meaning or are they completely at variance with oneself as with the changing light. Is one’s shadow one’s other being sometimes visible and sometimes completely invisible if not absent. Does one’s shadow help one to see oneself – yes up to a point, but does it help one to understand oneself – this is worth thinking about.”

— Romila Thapar

This “negotiation” between the shadow self and the self as reflected – being in the mirror. This. To me. Is one possible “idea of culture”. There are others.

Photo by Naveen Kishore.

I wish I could tell you that there was only one truth. A single solitary truth. The one we conjure up. Magicians that we are. Of dailyness. Morning noon evening night. Day after. Day. Starting life as a figment. Tiny seedling. Our only truth. This. This one truth.

It isn’t.

People are born into their versions of the truth. They live them. Every single day. In the confinement of their solitude. Single, even troubled, truth. Some do it with a degree of magnanimity about “other truths”. Existing. Breathing. Living what we call “our lives”. Not in a singular manner. Plural. Regardless of how unpalatable these lives. These breaths. These existences may be. Others are distressed. Agitated. Angered. By the presence of parallel truths in their lives. And in the lives of others. Other? Always the other. Hinting. Condoning. Pointing at exclusion. There is the truth of “us”. Therefore there is the lie of the “other”. Because. Because these do not match their own frames. Or ours for that matter. You must arrive. Arrive I say. At an understanding. Of what works best. For you. And like Lear. Learn. Learn to live. With difference.

Remember none of this is anything but an acquired skill.

This learning too, is “culture”.

Virasat. Inheritance. An entire system of learning that makes a mockery of a scientific way of “imbibing” things cultural. One that depends on memory. And the “‘circumstance” of sensed impressions, customs, facts, and oral myths that are handed down and stories we enact as rituals and often pass on. This is a “sharing” across time and generations. We all do it in some form or another. There is also a constant state of sharing that happens within us as individuals. Like conversations with oneself. But then this act of conversing within the evolved self in our heads and hearts is not just confined to a monologue. There are multiple selves in an amalgamation of inherited memories within me. Like a Dead Souls Archive! Relatives families friends and what of the many literary experiences that form layer after layer of, yes, “passionately imbibed culture in the form of our reading-lives”! Thus inheriting “others” and their cultures. This is of particular interest to me as a publisher.

There are many ways a child will come to learn his mother’s tongue. The language of birth. Spoken from a far-off place while the protective cocoon of the womb holds it secure but allows it to listen. Every murmur. Every whisper finds its way to the child’s heart through its yet-to-be-formed ears.

Later it will hear. Before it begins to speak.

I first learned the language my mother spoke on her lap. More specifically in Kashmir. Even more precisely while I slept. In fact, the first words that reached me were not spoken words. They were sung. I heard songs. As murmurs. As whispers. As lullabies. As language that soothes. And invites the welcoming night to a child’s tired eyes. That it may sleep and rest. These were the night sounds. The ones that lulled me to sleep.

The morning song was different. It had a baser timbre to it. A fine deep-throated song that flowed effortlessly from my father’s throat. Not directed at me. This was something he did. He sang. While he dressed for work. It wasn’t a mere hum. It was popular music of the time. It was Kundan Lal Saigal’s ghazals; CH Atma; Talat; Suriya, Noor Jahan. It was the songs that heroes and heroines of the black and white era sang to each other expressing emotions of love and anger and happiness and sorrow and despair and heartache and joy and devotion and war and famine birth and death and just about every emotion known to mankind. He seemed to know them all.

Later. The film folk from Bombay discovered Kashmir. My father as assistant manager and host at the Oberoi Palace would invite the Kishore Kumars; the Talats; the Nargis and Sunil Dutts; the Padmini and Ragini sisters; the Raj Kapoors; the Simis to his humble quarters at the foot of the hill just above the hotel’s rooms and vast lawns. My mother’s tomato pulao; kheer; and gajar ka halwa and been discovered by the visiting stars who would be relaxed after a hard day’s shoot and happy to unwind and make themselves at home. Sitting on our mats and eating from our thalis the evenings would begin and end in song. Singing soirees at home.

Sleeping in her lap. Comfortable. Secure. Drifting back to memories of a time before I was born. I would listen from afar even as I fell into deep sleep.

Years later I would remember the ghazal and the songs. More importantly. I would hum the tunes. Later. Much later I would begin to speak Hindi and Punjabi and bits of Urdu.

Even later the nuns of St Presentation Convent would take me into their charge and teach me a whole new language.


I am a publisher. One who has learnt to disrespect the notions of boundaries as we know them. Not out of a sense of arrogance. Or “I know better”. No. Out of reasons that are political. As most things these days need to be. And yes cultural. Always cultural our “baggage”! Boundaries. Man created. Nation made. To me the idea of culture travels. Translates. Turns the reality of its own self the one it began with into the reality of the one defined by our idea of culture as ‘the other’.

Instead. Of opening up possibilities. We set up nation-states that ghettoise the book. Make it a commodity. To be hounded. Chased to the ground. Bought. And sold across territories. Across languages. Like literary slaves.

I guess what I am attempting to express is that in this. Our world. Of publishing. Too much time. Energy. Money is spent. On creating structures that ultimately box us in.

And yet. These precise boundaries do melt. And blur. When so many emotions springing. From what you do. And what we do. The way you do them. The way we do them. The tingle and the excitement of the words we find. Translate secure bind in the nicest possible manner. For a community of interested readers who don’t really know. Or if they did. Know. Don’t always give a damn. About labels. And territories. And conveniences both public and private. Knowing very little about how a book makes its way into their hands. As long as it continues to do so. With regularity that can only be described as unrelenting and reliable. And timely.

Here this morning we have gathered to discuss debate even explore the idea of culture. And all I have done is offer you tangential distractions in the form of poetry and suggestion and fable. Make what you will of it. This “idea of culture”.

It is after all a slope made slippery as you climb.

Photo by Naveen Kishore.