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Article: KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Kalpana Mohan - More Than Words

KANAKAVALLI VIGNETTES : Kalpana Mohan - More Than Words

Kanakavalli’s February Vignette is the inimitable Kalpana Mohan, a writer who grew up in Chennai, and lives in California. In the summer of 2012, Kalpana returned to her childhood home in Chennai to look after her ailing father. Over several long trips she made to spend time with him, she wrote ‘Daddykins’, a beautiful and poignant memoir of her life with her eccentric and lovable father, through the lens of his last two and a half years. In an email conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, Kalpana contemplates the grief she grappled with as she wrote the book’s final chapter after her father passed away. Tracing her journey as a writer and a reader, she describes how a good book leaves her feeling breathless, changing her in some fundamental way. Kalpana tells us why she loves to travel, what beauty means to her, and how she and her husband passed on a love for India and its traditions to their children. For Kalpana, the kanjivaram is a celebration of Tamil culture that always brings back memories of her mother. Even as she weaves magic with her words, wit and charm, Kalpana takes a moment to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire, curating a selection of her favourite kanjivarams. We should have known that Kalpana’s interview would be driven by her writing, and we are delighted to present her responses, unedited, as she emailed them back to us. Nestled within is a bittersweet story of laughter, love and loss; a story crafted in the skilled hands of a true wordsmith.

More Than Words

A Writer’s Journey

I believe I always knew deep inside that I wanted to be a writer although I didn’t know for a long time what form my writing might take. In college, I enrolled into a literature program. By the time I graduated from Meenakshi College in Chennai in 1981, I knew I wanted to write for newspapers and magazines. I started by writing for a community newspaper after I graduated with a diploma in journalism at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In 1984, I moved to the United States as the wife of a computer scientist from the Silicon Valley. Given my own sudden interest in computer programming (following mild attempts at brainwashing by said husband) I enrolled in mathematics and computer science courses and ended up four years later with a master’s degree in computer science. Software development was challenging and fun. Yet, in the corporate world, I felt unhinged as a Martian behind a shuttle loom in Kanchipuram. I left IBM after a decade and began freelancing as a writer for local and regional publications in California. My first book “project” took shape after I won a first prize at a book pitch contest at Kepler’s Books & Magazines in 2011. But before I could begin writing the book that was on my mind, my father took seriously ill. I flew to Chennai to care for him. Out of that experience with my father a book would emerge. When my father first took ill in the summer of 2012, I began writing vignettes on Facebook about my life in India.

Kalpana's Facebook posts, which inspired the authoring of her book 

I also began living in Chennai for long periods of time; I began writing about living as a child in my father’s home almost 30 years after I left for the United States. My father and I clashed often. My only sibling, Urmila, eleven years senior to me, tended to be nurturing as a caregiver; I, on the other hand, teased and annoyed my father endlessly.

Above : The last Karthikai that Kalpana and her sister Urmila celebrated with their father

Over the months, people around the world began to follow my stories about life with him during the extended period of time I spent in Chennai; once in a while, people asked me if I had ever thought of writing a book.

Another from Kalpana's Facebook posts,

Painted Prose

The hardest part of writing ‘Daddykins’ was working on its final chapter after he passed away in June 2014. I worked long hours in his bedroom from our apartment in T. Nagar while sculpting out passages about the end of his life. Grief is hard to paint in words. Too much sorrow is like the melodramatic Tamil cinema of yesteryears in which actor Sivaji Ganesan always sang as he died and didn’t manage to die until he finished his song. In writing, however, and, I suppose, in all art, less is always more. The writer has to allow for the reader to meet him halfway to make for a more fulfilling reading experience.

The rewarding aspect of writing this complicated chapter of the book—which was concurrently the most difficult chapter of my own life until that point—was the approach I adopted. I decided to present the aftermath of a death in exactly the way I experienced life in the days after my father died. Life seemed to happen in shards of time. Emotions ran high. We experienced sudden bolts of grief. Sometimes we collapsed into helpless laughter over my father’s eccentricities. People came and went. We learned new aspects about our father’s life. We received phone calls from strangers. Relatives whom we had never expected to see flew down to be with us. A close relative—who should have been at our home to pay his last respects—never called or turned up even though my father had been a crucial force in his life. As we mourned the loss of our father, what comforted us was a park that had sustained him in the years following our mother’s demise. Walking at Jeeva Park every morning is now part of my routine whenever I visit Chennai.

In the wee hours of the day, I do sometimes sense my parents’ presence. My father flits between the kapok trees in the form of a grass yellow butterfly. My mother waddles disapprovingly, assuming the form of a crow, and hangs around by the Ganesha in the peepal tree.

Above: The cover of Kalpana's book 'Daddykins', featuring a photograph of her and her father in Dar-es-Salaam in 1975


I suppose some of my happiest moments with my father were invariably centered around eating. My father wasn’t a glutton, yet he enjoyed a halwa or phulka or a dosa made with attention to detail. After my mother passed on, he visited me in America on two separate occasions. I remember the sparkle in his eyes when I made him a dish that he loved, or when I took him to Peet’s Coffee and bought him a warm marble cake and an extra hot cappuccino.

Wonder Years

I had a magical childhood in the cozy bungalow into which I was born. I had so much time to read and dream on the verandah of our bungalow, my head resting against a gargantuan red oxide pillar. By the time I began to read, my father had invested in a ten-volume encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, that he kept under lock and key in a large glass cabinet, “the showcase,” in the living room of our home. My father indulged me also with a membership at a local “lending” library where I borrowed Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drews, among others. I really do believe, however, that I actually sharpened my writing blade against the edge of Harvey comics. I devoured Spooky, Richie Rich, Little Dot, Archie, Casper, Tom and Jerry and Wendy.

Above: Kalpana and her father photographed with his first scooter, circa 1962

When I landed in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania in the year 1972 as an 11-year-old, our family moved into an apartment building consisting mostly of expatriate Indians and a few locals. I felt that the town was unconventional, the opposite of conservative Madras. East African women were not shy about their bodies. They possessed pointy breasts and small waists, and derrieres that ballooned like the sides of a terracotta amphora from ancient Greece. I learned that a family unit could be different from one that comprised of a father, mother and their children. One of the tenants, a local Tanzanian, was a part-time father with a full-time mistress. There I learned that wives sometimes turned a blind eye to the dalliances of their husbands and that life could often be nuanced and tortuous. But amid all this complexity and the subtle class differences among expat Indians—often determined by whether they worked for the government or “parastatals”, a fact that reflected in the style and furnishings in people’s homes—I learned to appreciate the pristine charm of Tanzanian beaches and the country’s natural beauty.

Above: Kalpana with her parents in Dar-es-Salaam in 1972

The Storyteller

I don’t know if what I have is a gift for finding stories as much as a tendency to find the irony or hilarity in everyday life. Several people on my father’s side possess a natural flair for mimicry and my father and his siblings had an uncanny ability to poke a finger into someone else’s soap suds. Beyond that, my father’s sisters—whom I resemble almost completely—really know to tell a tale.

People who’ve read ‘Daddykins’ say that, if anything at all, it’s a worthy exercise in handing down the story of an ancestor to a succeeding generation. There’s so much power to the story because while the details may vary, the gist of a story often finds resonance elsewhere, many thousand miles away. So, yes, stories are a great segue to the human condition and I grew up on stories that my paternal grandmother told me night after night as we sat on the verandah in Chennai. I made sure my own children grew up on stories and they continue now to be avid consumers of the written and the spoken word. In all my work (nonfiction), I use stories about people to make a point; when I received an offer for my second book, I pitched my version of the book on Indian English as a series of stories about people and their experience with English. My next book, an entertaining narrative on the evolution of the English language in India, will be out from Aleph Book Company in July 2019.

The Magic of Travel

I love interacting with locals on my travels. Every place teaches me something about myself even as I learn something about someone else. During my ten days in Berlin one October I was moved by its efforts to inform its people of the terrors of the Third Reich. In Thiruvananthapuram a couple of years ago, I was mad when I found out that the entrance fee to the fascinating Kuthiramalika was only 15 rupees but I was moved when I discovered it was kept low to encourage the poor to step in. I do think every place has a story if only someone knows to look for it.

Above: Kalpana on a visit to the tea estates of Valparai

Among some of my unforgettable experiences are these: Relaxing at dawn with my son in the pillared hall of Vellore’s Jalagandeshwarar temple; strolling through Kolkata with my daughter and interviewing designer Sabyasachi inside his atelier; driving up Chamba valley in Himachal Pradesh in a battering ram of a car; drinking tea and munching masala vadai with my father’s loyal chauffeur Vinayagam in the tea estates by Vaalpaarai; ambling about Rio’s Copacabana beach along with my husband wondering how young women in thongs could walk with a strip of cloth sawing through their cheeks; living under the shadow of the Eiffel tower during a magical year in Paris.

Above: Kalpana with her husband and children at the Independence Square in Colombo on a family trip to Sri Lanka

Home and Heart 

Chennai represents everything that’s both exceedingly beautiful and disappointingly stodgy. But this city of my early years helped me hone my voice when I returned to it as a grown woman. For that I’m grateful. I think the city that inspires me the most will always be Chennai even though I know that the people who sustain me for the large part—both as a writer and as a person—are now in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Reading as a Writer

It’s impossible to zero in on one favorite book or a favorite author. While I don’t read nearly as much as I should and am envious of my many friends who read voraciously and imbibe so much of what they consume, I love a book that grabs me by its tentacles and won’t let me go. When I do let go of it in the end, I must be breathless and speechless; my world view must have shifted and I must have changed in some cellular way.

One of my favorite writers continues to be Rohinton Mistry whose writings on the Parsi community and Mumbai will always inspire me to catch the color of every place I visit. R. K. Narayan’s The Guide remains one of the my most memorable of all time. It was relevant in 1958 when he wrote it. It is relevant in the age of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. It will be relevant 300 years from now. The Guide is a reminder that people of all stripes will always fall for fake news, fake people, fake promises and fake agendas. It’s also a prescription for how the only way to be is to have a clear moral center that drives from the brain, drills through the aorta, skirts past one’s bile, cuts through our crap, steers clear of #MeTooOrgans and propels us into action while always rooting us to the ground.

Transplanted Roots 

It was very important for my husband and me to hand down an appreciation for Indian culture to our children. When you live outside your culture, the only way to impart values is by creating an artificial environment inside your home. Food and language are markers of a culture, of course. While it’s easy to pass on an appreciation for food, it takes determination and consistency to keep one’s mother tongue. We did not completely succeed in handing down Tamil as well as we should have even though the language permeated our lives in so many ways. Art is a potent tool to convey the philosophical underpinnings of Hindu culture. Both our children—a 28-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old son—spent fourteen years training in the classical Indian arts. Our daughter learned bharatanatyam and Carnatic music; our son was trained in the Carnatic tradition as a vocalist and a violinist. Our children often talk about the dual environment that shaped their minds and their own need to strike a balance between the Indian and the American.

Expressions of Beauty

How do I define that which must be seen, felt, heard, or sensed? I’ve felt it while listening to a rendition of Rabindranath Tagore’s Amor jhonma bhoomi by a musician who choked as he sang. By the time he reached the end of a song that seemed to tear him up inside, I was in tears at my dining table in Saratoga. That impassioned moment—when the artist transported the rasika—was one of extreme beauty as art, truth, and feeling coalesced into something special. I’ve felt that moment of beauty in the arc of my children’s musical growth when their daily cacophonic screeches on the violin emerged into a melodious rendition of the Beethoven Spring Sonata fourteen years later. Beauty can be in the simplest of things. It hovers in a sunrise over Haleakala crater in Hawaii. It ripples out in the giggles of a baby. Conversely, it resides in convoluted, terrifying places, too, as in the spectacle of a lion’s paws tearing at deer flesh in the Serengeti. And then beauty resides in the most mundane, as in the availability of internet after an hour’s breach when life itself seems to stop. In a world brimming with color, real beauty can often be found in black and white. To me this very notion is filled with beauty, that there cannot be warp without weft or man without woman, and that together, a thread of warp and a thread of weft can work their way towards a marvel of creation, a continuous fabric that at once protects and enhances the human form.

For me, a handwoven kanjivaram sari is that sublime expression of beauty born in a loom. It is the quintessential garment that celebrates the magnificence of the Tamil culture to which it owes its origin. When I step into the thousand-pillared halls of temples in Tamil Nadu, the sight of stone friezes on pillars evokes all those intricate motifs on the pallu of a kanjivaram.

The weave goes back a thousand years at least. What came first? What inspired what? Will we know for sure? This much I do know, that the sculpture and its reflection on fabric is a thing of beauty to behold. Of all the saris I want to wear, the kanjivaram holds a special place in my heart also for yet another reason. It reminds me of my late mother and her eternal longing for a wardrobe that filled her eyes and her heart. My mother believed she could never own an adequate number of kanjivaram silk saris.

On Craft and Kanakavalli 

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Kanakavalli is for its attention to craftsmanship and history. In the writing world, we always talk about how every sentence, to justify the reason for its existence, must blossom into several layers of meaning while driving the story forward. I see that every sari at Kanakavalli is curated with that same sense of purpose—with an urgency and an awareness that even as modernity encroaches, threatening hand looms and the livelihood of artisans, sari institutions have a dual responsibility to revive classical traditions and to safeguard art.

I often justify my decision to wear a Kanakavalli masterpiece in the following manner. The Kanakavalli sari was created by the minds and hands of several skilled artists; the least I, the consumer, could do was to drape it as perfectly as I possibly could. The slight giddiness I feel upon swiping my credit card always passes, for beauty comes at a price.

Kalpana’s Kanakavalli Kanjivaram

When I turned 50 years old, my father handed me a wad of notes and told me to go and get myself a sari. I remember that I saw this temple-bordered marvel at Kanakavalli. I absolutely had to own it. When I returned home and showed him the sari, my father let out a whistle. Seconds later, his excitement faded when he realized it was black. Like many Indians of his generation, he grimaced at the choice of the colour black for festive occasions. Long after his passing, my sister and I continue to indulge our love for black and a black beauty enters our wardrobe year after year.

- Kalpana Mohan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera,  photography by Raghuram Vedant

View Kalpana's curation here  


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