20 November, 2007

Shakti Bhatt, Jet City Woman

By Ankush Saikia

My first novel Jet City Woman has just been published by Rupa & Co. It’s a short novel set in Delhi and northeast India. The last page has this acknowledgement: “The author would like to acknowledge his debt to Shakti Bhatt (1980–2007) for her role in the editing of this book and in the conceptualisation of its cover design.”

I met Shakti Bhatt in March of 2006. I had finished writing my first novel and was submitting the manuscript to publishing houses. One of them was the newly set up Random House India, where Shakti worked as an editor. The RHI office was on the third floor of the World Trade Tower in the Hotel Intercontinental Complex on Barakhamba Lane, near Connaught Place. The day I visited, I found that the main road had been blocked and narrowed in places due to the Metro Rail project, and the side street was under a thick layer of dust. The receptionist at RHI pressed a button by her desk to open the locked glass door—I entered and asked for someone from editorial. The receptionist called up Shakti, who came and led me in; we sat at a table where we had a short talk and I handed over the floppy which had the manuscript as a PDF file. A wasp hovered outside one of the office windows in the mid-day sun, cars and buses moved on the flyover outside the building, and two young men walked along it carrying the decorative light stands used in wedding baraats. She struck me as someone very different from the other editors I had met so far.

That first meeting was brief. I heard from Shakti a few weeks later: she said she liked the book and was pushing for it to get accepted, but that she might have to drop it as RHI was looking at just a few books that year, with a focus on non-fiction. I waited for responses from other publishers, and those weren’t encouraging. Then I heard from Shakti again: she said that my book might get accepted after all. A short while after that she left RHI. The months passed. I still hadn’t found a publisher. Then in October 2006 there was a mail from Shakti from the Frankfurt Book Fair asking me to mail her a PDF of my manuscript. She was planning to set up an imprint with one of the largest book distribution companies in India, she said, and was looking for manuscripts.

We met about a month later, in a coffee bar in her beloved Khan Market. The imprint was to be called Bracket Books, and she wanted Jet City Woman to be the first book it published. I sensed an ambition and drive in her, along with a sharp intelligence. We started work on the editing: she had me cut out a lot of flab from the book, and got two new scenes added. There were some issues to be ironed out with the distribution company over the contract, so that took some time. By March this year the editing was over, the contract was being drafted, and she had got two options done for the cover by a graphic designer; one of those became the final cover. I spoke to her for the last time on the evening of 3oth March. I remember it was a Friday. She suggested we meet the following Monday at the designer’s studio as there were a few more ideas for the cover she wanted to discuss. That Monday morning I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Shakti had, suddenly and tragically, passed away on the night of the 31st. I thought it was a sick April Fool’s joke at first. It took a couple of days for the news to really sink in. Shakti’s husband Jeet had already flown down to Bangalore by then.

Whenever I think of Shakti I remember her in one of the coffee bars in Khan Market, sipping her coffee and looking around through her sunglasses as she talked about ways to market Bracket Books, a stylish and elegant woman with a very down-to-earth sense of humour. She was a genuinely nice person, and bought a touch of the glamour and sophistication of the media scene in New York (where she had worked for a while, and had first met Jeet) to Delhi’s growing but still staid and dusty publishing world. I went over a couple of times to Jeet and her flat in Defence Colony, and also met them socially. I found them to be very open and friendly people. By nature I am something of a closed book; I regret now that I didn’t make an effort to know her better.

Shakti was the first person from publishing to take my novel seriously and to say that it was good (and that it also needed quite a bit of work). Unless you’re an unpublished author met with rejections everywhere for a manuscript you know is worth enough to be published and read, unless you’re in that desperate state and start questioning your own worth as a writer, you’ll never know what it feels like to find a person who believes in your book. For that I shall remain eternally grateful to you Shakti. May your soul rest in peace.

The Bracket Books venture was put on hold indefinitely after Shakti passed away. A friend helped me find a new publisher, and a couple of months down the line Jet City Woman has finally been published. How I wish Shakti was here to see the book.

27 October, 2007

Caferati's first annual Celebrating Shakti Bhatt Workshop - a report

A report on the workshop (which was announced here & here) is long overdue, for which, my apologies. If it had been up to me, I would still be searching for my notes. Thankfully, there is an Annie. And an Anita.


Annie Zaidi on the session about Indian Poetic Forms:

The evening began with me making emergency calls to Ashwini — had forgotten to organize envelopes — and Danish — would he please pick up blank paper and extra pens — before landing up a good 45 minutes early at the Attic, where the organisers of the miniature paintings sat at a little table, looked at me expectantly and offered me a chair.

I looked at the paintings, thought about how beautiful the photos would look with these as the backdrop, fretted about what we’d do if enough people didn’t land up or too many did, and paced about anxiously while the Attic staff laid out the ‘farsh’ and the chairs.

As people began to stroll in, I worried about whether to put the shoes inside or outside and whether there was a chance of them being stolen outside. Then I went about collecting money from the participants — and one would-be participant who could not attend because of a last-minute emergency, but showed up anyway to pay up since he had confirmed attendance (thank you, gentle person).

When Professor Shivaprakash called, unable to find his way from Regal, Monica kindly went down to fetch him. He arrived with another scholar from JNU and ten minutes later, we started the workshop.

While the good professor said several things about poetry in general, and more specifically about the historical contexts of forms and short forms like the haiku, I did not manage to take down everything.

However, I do remember that he had compared poetry to firecrackers.

Just like there are two kinds of crackers — the single dazzle-burst kind, like the anaar for instance, and the multiple boom-boom-boom kind, like the larhi — similarly, there are two kinds of poetry. The latter kind gradually reveals itself, one idea leading to the next, and culminating in one final burst that may be a big, definitive finale or a quiet fizzle. The other kind says all it has to in a very short space of time with a very limited use of words. The haiku for instance. Or a doha, a tanka or an abhang. Or the vachana.

He also said that these shorter forms could be equated with a Zen-like instantaneous illumination.

Prof Shivaprakash had chosen to concentrate on vachanas, a form of Kannada poetry from the medieval ages, and also the subject of a forthcoming book he is editing for Penguin India.

Literally, a vachana means ‘speech.’ Alternately, it also means ‘promise.’ A vachana he said originates from triplets in Kannada that was often sung by women, and often contained rural and/or domestic themes.

In the medieval era, vachanas were popularized by speaker-poets many of whom came from the artisan classes and as the form evolved, their poetry became a tool of critique, against both the existing modes of poetry and transmission of knowledge.

Poetry is comprised of meaning and sound, he said. And what these new speaker-poets did was to challenge the content of Sanskrit poetry while simultaneously changing the way it sounded. They were opposed to the use of ‘abhida’ or a referential language. A referential language would depend on figures of speech, such as similes. They felt that a simile is a substitute, and therefore nor the real thing. Only real experience ought to be the subject of poetry, according to the vachana poets and therefore, they often spoke of their own lives, their work and their immediate environment.

Professor Shivaprakash also discussed the two foundations of meter in poetry. One depends on the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables, which is how it is in older English poetry. The other kind depends on the equivalence of syllables, that is, vocalic length, such as it is in a ghazal. However, meter, he said, is only one manifestation of rhythm in a poem. There is also the notion of a sprung rhythm, which is what vachanas use. Such as ‘we were the first that ever burst into the silent sea.’

In the Kannada vachanas, there are few end rhymes, but there is often an initial rhyme. The first or second sounds of each line may rhyme. This brought a different kind of symmetry to the language. One of the best-known, and Professor Shivaprakash’s favourite, vachana poet is Akkamahadevi. He had circulated copies of some of her work as samples that were given away to participants.

The session was opened up to questions later and several participants wanted to ask the professor tough questions. On the question of what exactly the form was like, he said that the thing about this form was that it followed no rules. It is rooted in the breaking of form, and therefore, it is difficult to ascribe rules to it. He was not sure that new poets will succeed in writing a vachana, or how to advise them to write it, but added that it is possible to write ‘a vachana-like poem’.

Towards the end of that discussion, I observed that forms seem to grow from one to the other, with new twists and variations leading to new names for the form. Such as the qasida giving birth to the masnavi, the marsiya and the ghazal and how the ghazal itself seems anxious to grow in different directions but seems not to be able to find a new name for the newer experiments.

That led to some talk of other Indian poetic forms such as the anthadi and the keh-mukarni (both of which we have seen many examples of in Caferati's forum), examples of which were read out and met with much delight.

The participants seemed more enthused by the idea of the naughtier, saucier keh-mukarni so that form was chosen for an exercise. Several people came up with instant verses which were read out to much merriment and blushing. (Note to participants: do post your efforts in this thread, if you don’t mind.)

Though I had not read mine out, I had written this one:

There’s such black in his eyes
Black his tongue, black his lies
Black as coal, black as a rai
Your beloved? No, the kadhai.

This was followed by a short break for snacks — dhokla, samosa, gulab-jamuns, tea — and we went on to the next session on editing, led by Anita Roy and Urvashi Butalia.

Anita Roy, on the Editing for Non-Editors session that she and Urvashi Butalia conducted. Urvashi and Anita are from Zubaan.

The workshop kicked off with the participants all coming up with their own definitions of what an editor should be/should do. This ranged from correcting grammar to taking the author out for a drink (specifically: after their MS has been rejected). The nice list of editorial roles defined by Gary Kamiya — “Editors are craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons — sometimes all while working on the same piece” — was added to by the group: my favourite being “butcher.” Urvashi went on to elaborate on all the different kinds of editors there are out there — commissioning eds, desk eds, copy eds — and what to expect from each.

I then, perhaps fancifully, compared an editor's work to that of a gem-cutter: polishing, honing, cutting, until the light passes through as sparklingly and as clearly as possible. Some diamonds are rougher than others, so need more work. Some will never be more than a hunk of coal, and best consigned to the fire early on.

Then, having hedged around a bit and said how there aren't any real guidelines about how to approach a commissioning editor with your work, proceeded to contradict myself totally by laying down THE LAW in the form of 10 Commandments (see below).

Getting down to brass tacks, we all had a bash at re-punctuating a piece of de-punctuated text: specifically, an extract of Don Marquis's free verse work, Archy and Mehitabel. Had a lot of fun figuring out where to put quote marks and arguing about commas.

Then we sharpened our pencils and the cutting blades of our editorial minds by tackling an extract of an article that appeared in "Crime and Detective", whose idiosyncratic usage of the language reduced many participants to tears — of laughter. But which, usefully, kicked off a discussion about how much authorial quirkiness (and specifically Indian-English intonation, usage and vocab) one should or could allow.

One of the nicest comments afterwards was a backhander: "When they said there'd be editors coming to talk to us about editing, I thought: Oh my god, how dull can it get? But actually, I really enjoyed that."

Well, good. So did we.

I think Shakti would have too.

Anita's Ten Commandments:

Submitting your MS to a publisher

1. Thou shalt first find out about the publisher.
If you’ve written a short story for children, there’s no use sending it to Granta. If you’ve written a book review, send it to a journal that actually carries reviews. If you’ve written a book about growing dahlias, don’t send it to a publisher of feminist fiction. Etc. etc. Go to a bookshop or your bookshelves and see who’s published the kind of book that you think yours would sit well next to. Do your research first, and find out which place is going to suit your work best, which ground is likely to be the most fertile for your kind of seed to grow.

2. Thou shalt abide by the submissions process.
Usually on their website the magazine, journal or publisher will have something called “Guidelines for submissions”. Do stick by these if you possibly can.. They are there for a reason. If they state up front that they only accept proposals through an agent, don’t expect them to make an exception for you. If they say: don’t send it by email; then don’t.

3. Thou shalt not tell the publisher why they should publish you.
It’s an editor’s job to figure out whether this MS is suitable for their list, whether it will sell, and why: not yours! Editors are invariably turned off by authors going for the hard-sell: eg “I am sending you the gist of my most valuable work. I am sure it will excite you and you would react positively.” Also be realistic about your target readership — “It will appeal to young ones and senior citizens” cutteth zero ice.

4. In your covering letter, never resort to LARGE FONTS, underlining, exclamation marks, bold, or coloured type.
This smacks of a kind of lapel-tugging desperation on your part — not good — and also the suspicion that you think the editor has the deductive powers of a three year old, who needs Bright colours and Loud sounds to hold his/her attention. Is this really who you want to be editing your precious prose?

5. Thou shalt make sure thy covering letter is not full of typos!
Scan and rescan and print out on paper and then get someone else to read through your covering letter before you send it off. There is nothing more off-putting than having an author make spelling and grammatical mistakes in his/her initial approach – does not encourage an editor to read on.

6. Thou shalt judiciously exploit personal contacts.
“X suggested I contact you.” “We met at Y launch”. “I heard you speak at Z conference” – anything that helps the editor feel that there is some kind of personal connect will help your MS stand out from the crowd.

7. Chose your fonts with care.
Go for safe fonts: Courier, Times, Garamond, Times New Roman. Don’t feel that you need to have ‘designed’ your page before sending them in. In fact, that may backfire: if you’ve got illustrations that the editor hates or have laid out a page in a way that just doesn’t go with their style, it makes it that much harder for the editor to see past the flummery to the “meat” i.e. your words!

8. Attach attachments.
Double check when you say you’re attaching an attachment that you actually do! And make sure it’s in as bog-standard a format as you can think of: MS Word almost always. 1.5 or double-line spaced.

9. Tell them who you are.
Always helpful to have a bit of biodata about the author — where you’re based, age, profession, what else you’ve written or done. But keep it relevant, and keep it short.

10. Thou shalt take ‘No’ for an answer
If you’ve been rejected by one publisher, go kick the door, or the dog, put on some loud rock, pour yourself a stiff whisky, cry, wail or otherwise get it out of your system. Then find someone else to reject you again. Do NOT argue with a ‘reject’ letter. Everyone knows they are full of platitudes like “not quite right for our list at the present time” — do not write back and say, oh, that’s ok I can wait, what about next week/month/year?
There’s no reason why you can approach the same person/publisher with another story another poem another time, but asking for a re-trial is a big no-no.

And finally, comments from some of the participants.

Monica Mody:
Thank you, you guys, for organizing this fabulous workshop! I enjoyed Prof Shivaprakash's session even though I wish there were more interactive, poet-friendly elements in it. And sorry I couldn't stay for the entire editing session.

Nupur Maskara:
Yes, it was fun to attend. Thank you for organising it, it was a great way to remember your friend and what she stands for. I have put up the kehmukarni I wrote at the workshop on my blog.
The pics are great!
looking forward to the next session.

Gopika Nath:
I really enjoyed the workshop. Professor Shivaprakash was really very interesting and enlighteneing and opened new windows of interest. In fact I have recently picked up a book by Ramanujan on Vacanas! Urvashi and Anita were useful in terms of the exercisesthey made us do. I would have skipped some of the points Anita made re what one should or shouldn't do, which mostly called upon good ole common sense. Some of the comments/suggestions presented a& very personal, even prejudiced view, rather than one that could be seen as universally appplicable advice. There were times when I felt that for every negative idea she presented, I could already hear someone I had read/heard etc, contradict this, in my head. But that was really a very minor point.
A workshop in memory of someone who has contributed significantly to the field of writing and publishing is a great idea. However, it would be appropriate to list these contributions during the introduction. I, did not know Shakti, nor her work and really would have liked to know more than what the young girl talked of. I could not make much sense of her "being a huge person" and that ilk.
Thank you for all your efforts towards organzing this and hope that we shall have more in the future.

Venita Coelho:
I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. Thanks to you guys for putting it together.
Just one suggestion. You might want to start earlier next time. It's not very fair to people of the caliber of Urvashi and Anita to have people leave mid workshop. Perhaps an all day affair next time with a break for lunch?

Preeta Priyamvada:
It was great to be at the workshop. I did find it useful, but I had to leave early and could not sit through the entire second session - the one i was more interested in. The invite mentioned the editorial workshop would be the first one and I had planned accordingly. Anyway, I do look forward to more of such workshops. Can we have one on hindi literature too - giving an overview - history + brief information about the different genres?

Michael Creighton:
Yes, it was a good afternoon. And I did think Anita's ten commandments were helpful. Thou shalt drop names! Why not?
For what it's worth, here's my keh-mukarni, written that day.
I lick wet, salty, spicy skin;
I bite, I suck, I sigh, then grin.
Who gives so gives so good, I wanna hollah?
My wife? No, friend, the Bhutta wallah!

If you were at the workshop, please feel free to add your impressions and/or feedback as comments. Those of you who attempted keh-mukarnis, please post them in the comments, or email me.

P.S. There are photographs taken at the workshop posted in a Facebook album.


20 October, 2007


The belated summer's sun,
weak shadows on a brick wall.

Lauryn lyrical on the floating
screen of the machine that maintains me.

The candles at the window are ashamed
of their stripped beauty, forgetting how
they colored the night for us.

Grab me, bed, let your cool silk sedate me.
Only one thing on my mind—
free me from the family of food.

(from the journals of Shakti Bhatt)

You Are the Butterfly and You Are Gone

by Anjali Wason

Distance does not make you falter.
Now, arriving in magic, flying
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
Jeet and Shakti made being in Delhi a little easier. I think they made this city more tolerable for a lot of us.

We first met them at the Habitat Centre two years ago, and discovered that we had all lived in New York recently and were new migrants to Delhi. Hirsh and I left for the summer soon after but upon our return we invited Jeet and Shakti over for a dinner party. The weather was nice by then so we sat on the terrace, smoking 50’s style slim cigarettes between courses and sharing stories.

I remember being impressed that Shakti made it a point to talk to every person at the party and ask them about themselves. You expected something else under that glamorous exterior. But she was warm and friendly, and curious about everything—the opposite of a snob.

Over the next few months, we saw a lot of one another—the evening might start off at a book launch but we would always end up at their house, where Shakti would heat up some of her mum’s undiou or her mother in law’s beef curry.

People flocked to Shakti. Tall, short, foreign, Indian, writer, call centre worker, Shakti was open to everybody—made it a point to talk to everybody in a way that made them feel comfortable, in their own language. She asked about my family, complimented my cooking, the way I’d decorated my flat. And I could always be myself in her company.

She wanted to take a trip to Himachal and I told her we would have to wait till I quit my job. I wish we had gone, just so I could have gotten to know her better. But its amazing how much love she inspired in people in the two years she was here. How much she touched people and influenced their lives.

Her life was short, but it was filled with so much friendship and generosity. You just have to look around the British Council tonight; read one of her stories; or listen to her friends speak about her to know she was a talented, creative and loving human being. And someone we will miss dearly.

17 October, 2007

Cellphone Portraits

By Shakti Bhatt

Blue Cross

Delhi Airport, 3 A.M.

Reader On a Train

The Book of Imaginary Birds

27 September, 2007

The Ten Commandments

by Samit Basu

The ground was cracked and dry and bleak, and dark clouds streaked the angry sky
As Moses crawled his weary wander down the slopes of Mount Sinai.
His head was bowed, his back was bent, he carried stone tablets of truth
He wished he'd known this day would come; he'd have done push-ups as a youth.
He halted by a rugged rock and laid down the twin slabs of stone.
He looked around and started as he saw that he was not alone.
A vision of delight now stood before him, fashionably clad.
Her eyes were bright and sparkling, her presence made him strangely glad.
'I've heard you have a manuscript,' she said, 'so can I take a look?
'I've heard you're wise and mesmerizing, Mo; It's time you wrote a book!'
'This isn't mine,' said Moses, 'It's the word of God Omniscient.'
'So you would be his agent, right? You'd get a fair fifteen percent.'

With slender hands she reached out and picked up the stones and Moses stared
She read them calmly. 'Ten Commandments. Good title. There's something there.
Ten simple rules to help you lead your life, to guide and show you how,
Great concept. There's a market, too – self-help's very big right now.
Let's see -You are the Lord. Hello. You're number one. Well, great, congrats.
I can't use idols? Really? Um, including beads and prayer mats?
Don't use your name in vain – whatever that means, well, fair enough.
Oh this one's nice – well done. I promise to take weekends off.
Honour my parents. Cool. Don't murder. Does meat-eating count?
Good stuff so far – This launch should work best as a Sermon on a Mount.
Don't commit adultery. Good. Unless, of course, you're really pissed.
Don't steal, ok, don't bear false witness? What? How does that make the list?
Don't covet your neighbour's house. House across the street okay?
Don't covet your neighbour's wife. That's easy, man, my neighbour's gay.
That's it? That's all? I see. Well, Mo, I'll say this - you might think me daft
But this needs work. It's promising, but this is only your first draft.
These rules are fine, but they're the kind people can work out on their own.
A bit generic, no? And what a stern and distant tone!
I see you're aiming this at the mass market, but a little trust
Wont hurt; a little faith and understanding is a total must.
The Ten Commandments must be well thought out or they'll give it a miss.
These wont work, 'cos even I can think of better ones--ten rules like this.'

'Rule One: Thou Shalt Get Off Thy Lazy Ass And Get A Life,
Thou shalt not moan or groan or bitch or throw thy toaster at thy wife.
Thou art definitely good at something, find it, use it, try and do thy best.
Do what makes thee happy, take an honest shot and screw the rest.

Rule Two: Thou Shalt Be Gorgeous. Thou Shalt Be One Sexy Guy or Gal,
Let glamour be thy middle name, and merriment thy truest pal.
Care not for sneers and jeers or fears of scorn; thou art born to rule.
It matters not what other people think; be thyself, thou art cool.

Rule Three: Though Shalt Live Life In Full, and Experience Every Hour.
Ambition's fine, and so are dreams, but let them not your days devour.
In striving for the mountaintop thou must pause, take in the view,
The little things, the secret songs, the dusty paths, the dawn, the dew,
Let's drop the nature metaphors; thou must shop, and read, and lobsters eat,
Dance, and learn, and cry, and yearn, and party whilst thou hast thy feet.

Rule Four: Thou Shalt Love. This one is tough, but easy too,
Love, and learn to love again, and love until thy face turn blue.
Love that passes, love that lasts, love that haunts, inspires and lingers
Self-love too, but not too much, lest thou hurt thy lovely fingers.

Rule Five is not so soppy: Thou Shalt Be Silly sums it up,
Life's a joke, a laugh, a dream, a wine-glass, not a bitter cup,
Thou shalt perform most diverse acts of looniness; thou shalt be random,
Thou shalt make them giggle, thus earning glad, undying fandom.

Rule Six: Thou Shalt Listen. Thou Shalt Care, Thou Shalt Reply,
Be thou part of others' lives, let them find thee standing by
In times of need, let them remember joyous smiles and soft-held hands.
Share their dreams, soothe their screams, be patient, try to understand.
I'm sorry if this sounds too pious; I'm no angel, but I try.
Won't answer thy every text but there's no harm in aiming high.

Rule Seven: Thou Shalt Always Make An Everlasting, Bold Impact.
Work or play, night or day, they must heed your every act.
Thou shalt be different, be unique, wow them all with style and grace,
Remember; if thou leavst no mark, thou art but a waste of space.

Rule Eight: Thou Shalt Love Thy Body, every bump and bulge and loop
Thou shalt worship at its altar; thou shalt learn to hula-hoop.
Thou mayst try other stuff as well, other ways to move thy pelvis,
Trust my word on this one, though; hooping makes thee feel like Elvis.

Rule Nine: Thou Shalt Break These Rules. Make New Ones, or thou art fools,
Thou shalt not blindly follow me just because I art so cool.
Thou shalt live by thine own rules, and question all that thou art told,
Without, of course, being obnoxious, and making all thy friends feel old.

Rule Ten: I Could Come Up With More, But I Won't, For I Am Nice.
And I could make this longer, but that would increase the cover price.
These are your Ten Commandments, Mo, now write them all in twelve-point size
In double-space. You got a three-book deal. Well? Will that suffice?'

There's no real suspense in this tale, for we all know what happened next.
Rose-toed Moses then supposed the stranger sought to ruin his text.
He would not change; He spurned her help, he blindly sought a vanity press,
And this, alas, you see, is why the world is now in such a mess.

But sometimes strangers cross your path when least expected, bringing smiles,
Sometimes smiles can touch your heart and make you wait and think a while.
Sometimes thoughts can make your silences turn light, fire dreams anew
And if sometimes your luck runs true, you might find your Shakti too.

22 September, 2007

The Shakti Bhatt Foundation announces the inaugural 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize

Sept 27, 2007
7 PM
Charbagh, British Council

September 27 would have been the writer and editor Shakti Bhatt's 27th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, her friends will read from her work and remember her with poetry, short fiction, and music.

The Shakti Bhatt Foundation will announce the inaugural 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.

All are welcome.

The Shakti Bhatt Foundation is a non-profit trust set up by her family to keep her memory alive. It wishes to reward first-time authors of all ages.

announces the inaugural

2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize is a cash award of one lakh rupees.

A 3-member panel of judges will shortlist entries. The 2008 panel of judges includes William Dalrymple and Kamila Shamsie.

We invite entries in the following genres: poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction (travel writing, autobiography, biography, and narrative journalism) and drama.

Open to first-time authors of all ages.
The book must be published between June 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008.
Only books published in India are eligible.
Publications must be in English or translated into English from an Indian language.
Vanity press publications are ineligible.

Deadline for entries is July 15, 2008.

Jeet will be happy to answer specific questions.

If you would like the mailing address of the foundation, to send in your book, or if you have queries for Jeet, please leave a comment with your email address.

27th September

A series of events commemorating and celebrating Shakti Bhatt have been planned over three days around her 27th birthday.

The Shakti Bhatt Memorial Reading & Tribute
Thursday September 27
7 pm
The British Council, 17 Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi

September 27 would have been the Shakti's 27th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, her friends will read from her work and remember her with poetry, short fiction, and music. The Shakti Bhatt Foundation, set up by her family to keep her memory alive, will announce the inaugural 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.

Thursday September 27, 2007
After the British Council event (see above)
N-30 Jangpura Extension, First Floor, Side Entrance, Near Eros Cinema

After the British Council event, Shakti's friends and family will be gathering to celebrate her birthday. Please do bring along anyone and everyone who knew and met Shakti, anyone who would like to remember her. There'll be food and music - please also bring a bottle of whatever you are drinking. For more information, contact Lesley Esteves at lesley DOT esteves AT gmail DOT com.

Open Baithak
Friday September 28
6.30 pm - 9 pm
The Queen's Gallery, British Council, 17 Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi

At Open Baithak, a series of performance poetry events, Shakti will be remembered and her video shorts will be screened. Write to Monica Mody for more details at openbaithak AT gmail DOT com.

Caferati's first annual Celebrating Shakti Bhatt Workshop
Sunday September 30
Time 4 pm
The Attic, Regal Building, Parliament Street, New Delhi

Caferati's Delhi Chapter is hosting the first Annual Celebrating Shakti Bhatt Workshop. The first session (on Indian poetic forms in English poetry) will run from 4-5:30pm and the second (on editing for creative writers) from 6-7:30pm or so. Read more about this event here. Space is limited, so please let the organisers know if you plan to attend by mailing: zaidiannie, anita.vasudeva, dan.husain, manishalakhe, or zigzackly (all AT gmail DOT com)

After the workshop, Caferati plans to go out to drink a toast to Shakti, and to enjoy the company of friends over a cheery dinner. All participants are welcome to join in, and pay for whatever they drink or eat.

Looking forward to sharing and celebrating together with you all,

-Friends of Shakti and Jeet

25 July, 2007

The Day I Heard You Were Gone

By Annie Zaidi

The sun poured,
yellow leaves whistled down.
Heaps of seasonal letting-go
stood in my way and gardeners bent
over a late spring,
stuffing it into sacks
of green cloth.
The street struggled with smoking piles
of dry neem.

White and pink flowers stretched their lips
and smiled so much—it was grim.
Sun pouring down,
smoking winds spat in my eye,
yellow leaves skinned the air—why this?
Why in spring?
I slowed down under a neem
and caught a leaf.

What did it mean?

24 July, 2007

Thanks for the memories, beautiful

by Nipa Sahasrabuddhe

I've been in bad shape for weeks. I just cannot forget Shakti's face. Whenever I close my eyes, I see her smile and I hear her infectious laughter.

Her stay with me here in the US was one of the most important times of my life. Those months with her taught me to be happy with the things I have (she would point them out one by one), and not to whine about the little things. Most of all, she made me believe that raising a child and taking care of your husband were not nominal jobs. She would always tell me what a big and difficult task I was doing. She had more confidence in me than I did in myself.

And I remember her love for food. She would ask me to make simple dishes like bhinda ni kaadhi, and until she finished eating she would be saying, "Sexy food, Nipa, the kaadhi is orgasmic." Just broccoli with a pinch of salt would make her respond in the same way: she would totally enjoy it.

She took long walks with my daughter Aryaa so I could get some time to myself. She always said that they had meaningful conversations, that Aryaa had a philosophical mind and was a very wise kid. I have some great pictures of them together, Aryaa climbing all over her, trying to wake her up in the morning. They had a very special bond. Shakti would put on loud music and she, Aryaa and I would dance crazily. Life was always fun when she was around. Those were days when I did not like living in America. I missed my family and was always lonely. When Shakti moved in, I started enjoying myself. She would share her deepest secrets with me and talk about her emotions and feelings. Rajan, being the conservative one, made rules for her, that she had to be home by 9 P.M.. She tried very hard to respect his wishes, though she wasn't always successful.

I was packing for India when she announced that she had decided to marry Jeet. Shakti's role in my life didn't end with her marriage. When I returned to America with a yoga certification from India, Shakti encouraged me to start teaching yoga. She wrote up a resume so I could apply to various places. And she designed fliers for me. Without her encouragement, I wouldn't have done anything. I think she knew me well, knew how to push me so I would have the courage to do stuff.

I still cannot get over the shock of what happened, but I have decided that I will not cry anymore. I will think of all the beautiful memories she gave our family. I will just think of the difference her presence made to me and my daughter.

12 June, 2007

Cellphone Portraits

by Shakti Bhatt

Self-portrait with pencil, New Delhi, 2007

Market Cafe, New Delhi, 2007

Airport, New Delhi, 2006

10 June, 2007


by Zac O'Yeah

Although weeks and months have passed, I still find that whenever I think of Shakti I must remind myself that I can't just dash off an email to her. Her mails in my inbox sink, day by day, further into the past. When I try to summarise our meetings over the few years that I knew her, I am astonished at the speed with which she rocketed through life.

When we first met in an espresso bar in Bangalore in 2004, she and her husband Jeet had just returned to India, and as I recall, she had plans to go to Kashmir to shoot a documentary on the poet Agha Shahid Ali.

We met again soon for an evening of drinks at one of those old joints from colonial days that still dot the Cantonment area, then there was a gallery opening and dinner at a Goan-style restaurant, followed by more drinks at an Irish pub. A typically Bangalorean mishmash! And I found out that they were moving to Delhi. Once there she started editing a lifestyle magazine and asked for our contributions (my wife, Anjum, did write a piece on Hampi during the year that followed).

Before I had time to think of writing something myself, I ran into her towards the end of 2005, Christmas shopping in Bangalore's Commercial Street. She was excited to tell me that she had chucked up the magazine job and joined Random House as an editor, and she asked if Anjum or I would like to submit manuscripts for her consideration. At our favourite espresso bar, a few days later, Jeet filled us in on the details - the interview process Shakti had gone through, the 32 book ideas she submitted, the Random House executives who flew down from New York and London to interview her over two and a half hours at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, while Jeet waited outside in the car... Without any previous experience in book publishing, Shakti bagged the job. We were all rather amazed. And to top it off, a few days later she was back in Bangalore, early in the new year, to receive an award for young authors. As a matter of fact, she had written a splendidly well-crafted short story, which made me realise that she was somebody whose literary instinct could always be trusted because she was a writer as well as an editor.

I did ultimately send her my latest novel, after about half a year, when I was done with the editing. This was around the time when Anjum had her book launch in Delhi, and afterwards the party sort of seamlessly shifted to Jeet's and Shakti's Defcol house where we listened to old LPs and ate fruit—what an amazingly healthy cocktail snack!—late into the night. While she did send me an email saying that she'd like to accept my book for publication, she also informed me that she was leaving Random House... to set up her own imprint. The publishing house didn't have a name yet, but she asked me if it was okay to bring the manuscript along with her to the new venture. Already hugely impressed by her, I couldn't but agree.

As her publishing house took firmer shape, she gave it a name—Bracket Books—and asked me to send the latest edit of the book; I noticed that the headquarters of Bracket Books had the same Defcol address as their home in New Delhi. When she acknowledged receiving it, she wrote how great it felt to see, for the first time, the name of her new publishing imprint on a manuscript package. The sheer joy she displayed about being a publisher made me happy at the thought of being published by Bracket Books. She also told me that she had two other novels lined up for Bracket Books' first year—2007—"an edgy urban romance and a thriller based in Pakistan". What she didn't tell me, but I learnt later, was that she was simultaneously penning not one, but three novels of her own.

The last couple of times I met Shakti, in late 2006 and early 2007, she was full of projects. Bracket Books was all set to take off. There was talk of launch campaigns. Shakti said she was interested in acquiring good non-fiction, so I brought along a British writer friend, who happened to be in India doing a stint as a foreign correspondent, to a party at their Defcol house—where I was beginning to feel quite at home. One of Shakti's own short stories had just been selected for the shortlist of a prestigious British competition. Jeet's writing was doing spectacularly well, with several book projects at hand. So much was happening around her.

But March turned to April and she was already somewhere else.

08 June, 2007

DefCol cycle rickshaw ride

by Tripti Lahiri

I still can't believe you're gone. I can't.

I pass your block all the time and so naturally I think of you and then I think back over this past year and I realize how much I saw of you, how many, many conversations we had, how much of a part of my life here you were.

Most of the people I meet now I feel like I met with you, or through you or at some gathering where you also were. When I see people we both know I feel sad we'll not all be in the same company again.

I think of you a lot. It's been exactly two months. But two months and a day ago you were still here. I thought about calling you that night to see if you were around and wanted a drink, but I didn't. I had worked till late at night and was feeling low-energy. I remember you being amused at how early I could fall asleep.

I first remember meeting you on a rooftop in Nizamuddin and chatting for a really long time, bonding over being ex-New Yorkers. I was so wrapped up in the conversation that I never even had time to notice that there was a shaven-headed man lurking always in the background around you and that you were married.

It suited you so well.

And then we exchanged numbers–as one often does at parties in Delhi. And we met randomly the very next day at brunch in Safdarjung.

I didn't really expect to hear from you–one exchanges so many numbers that sometimes I look through my directory and I don't know who most of those people are–but then you called to make plans to go for coffee, to tell me about a poetry reading, to invite me to hang out when you and Jeet still lived at your mother's. You expanded my life so much in those early days when I didn't know very many people here.

Sometimes I wondered if you weren't too cool for us to be friends. Yes, I know that's a little high school. But I don't think you thought about things like that.

If time went by and I didn't call you, I would hear from you. You were so good at making friends. I think it's because you were a good listener, you were interested in what other people had to say. Sometimes talking to you felt like sharing secrets, even when you weren't, you always had this vaguely conspiratorial air about you.

But I liked that aside from meeting at parties and other things, we met separately and talked. I always came away from those conversations feeling so stimulated, so refreshed. I felt we were both sort of in wonder and awe at where we suddenly were and at our physical surroundings and it was so good to exchange observations with you.

You loved gossip. That's something I'll always remember so fondly about you. You were the nicest gossip ever. You didn't have a mean, "gossipy" way, but you just liked to talk about people and their doings or sometimes their antics. And then you would analyze whether you would do such-and-such a thing yourself if you were in X's place, or what did it mean that so-and-so did that other thing. Sometimes I think it was a way for you to ponder the vagaries of human nature. I'm glad I had a little gossip to share with you the last time we met. I wish I could update you on developments since then.

This is stupid and meaningless but I keep wishing I had treated you to brunch that time.

You had to send back the eggs because they were sweet. The bacon was too salty but we ate it anyway. I complained to the cook that he shouldn't automatically put sugar in the eggs since no one expects it. You said it was very "gujju."

I was late to meet you and you picked me up near the drain in a cycle rickshaw. There was something so funny about that. I just saw you approaching in the cycle rickshaw, telling me to get in, and I remember telling you it was the first time I had ever been picked up in a cycle rickshaw. It seemed so unorthodox. You were wearing a lemon yellow t-shirt and big sunglasses and you looked so well.

I remember one time we were out after you had just been unwell and someone greeted you with, "Shakti! You look so tired!" You weren't impressed.

You gave up dark lipstick and most everyone was pleased. Me too. I didn't really think it suited you, it was just too distracting in your pretty face. But I thought maybe it was a left-over goth thing from earlier days so I didn't comment on it until you dropped it.

You told me in the rickshaw that you had been all around Defence Colony in a cycle rickshaw just to explore it. I liked that.

Once we talked about doing "field trips" in Delhi together. One of the ones I suggested was Darya Ganj. You had already been and you screwed up your nose and said it wasn't all that.

I went later and meant to tell you I agreed but I forgot. We never did go on any field trips together.

I wish I had seen more of you after New Year's. I was a little out-of-touch with most people, distracted by something, which I told you about when we finally had a chance to catch up.

I thought I'd have more time to spend with you.

I'm so sad I'll never get to know you better than I know you now, or to keep knowing you.

One day I was seized with a blind panic that of all the people to fall out of touch with, it couldn't be you, my friend almost from the beginning. I called you up to go for brunch. I thought you'd like the departure from the usual drinks or coffee outing.

A week later you were gone.

Shakti, you are so missed.

04 June, 2007

Beat Elegy

in memoriam Shakti Bhatt

by Monica Mody

Many times I tried to become a bard for her but found my tongue
                                lost to the screams in the mouth
                                of my last night’s dream —
the dream where I run to catch the sorrows singing on his homely wall
                                & find them black with my own blood,
the dream where things happen without a reason, or logic, or forewarning,
                                & towers fall with no more provocation
                                than a breath of flat air,
the dream where I try again to run after & catch the japing sorrows
                                but they fly straight into the premises
of a noble spirit, guarded by snakes of dust & sweat & fearsome tears,
                                so I can only look at her cradled between the
                                branches of parijat, wearing a band of 7-colour peacock
feathers & a rope of charcoal, & my entreaties to her to remember him
                                go unheard, my summons to our commonalities
                                of age, once love, to no avail,
my conjuring of that tangy summer evening disregarded where
                                perfectly formed couplets were spoken &
                                soared before our collective delighted eyes,
& I give up & think she has returned to her own species,
                                or else the trace of blue
under her eyes will become one day a blue bird resting
                                its head at the tips of the branches,
but the thought hurts so much I wake up in a shrieking silence.

26 May, 2007


Shakti, Lake Como, 2006

23 May, 2007

Brief as photos

by Curtis Bauer

It was evening when I heard the news, a phone call from my friend, the poet Elaine Sexton in New York, to me in Seville, Spain, about dear Shakti's death in India. I had just returned to my apartment after wandering the streets, weaving between the Holy Week marches and processions of masked and robed men and somber music, incense and candle wax. It was all surreal, none of it seemed to have actually happened; none of it made sense, but it all made me feel numb. The next morning I walked back downtown, feeling a need to retrace my steps for some reason I couldn't explain at the time. There were wax paths winding through the city center; I followed them from Plaza Pilatos to Plaza Alfalfa, past my favorite church, La Basilica Del San Salvador, which is run down, has grass and weeds growing out of its roof tiles, but in that state of disrepair and quiet beauty that stops me every time I pass it. The streets were deserted except for the previous night's drunks and a few early tourists. Then I saw a South Asian couple wandering in the plaza, away from all the major tourist attractions, pulling a suitcase, deep in their coats and scarves and hats, but they were laughing and holding hands. And they gave me the memory of Jeet and his Shakti on a street in an Italian village as it rains, or as rain threatens and cars squeeze through the narrow streets of Bellagio and Shakti is struck by something in a shop window and steps into traffic absentmindedly and Jeet shouts, pulls her back and holds her arm, pulls her close and scolds her, but before we walk much further we're all smiling again, laughing at something she's said. And then my mind was swimming with memories of that place and the days we were together in New York City. In John Berger's book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, he says that history, our past, is never lost, but it spreads around us, and deepens our present experience. And just a moment ago my wife tells me that she's happy she didn't see Shakti in Italy, that there is greater distance in her memory of Shakti's smiling face, her energy and beauty, and that her heart doesn't hurt as much as it would have had she seen her in the fall like I had. I suppose she's right, but I'd not give that up, that last moment looking out the car window as she stood with Jeet at the gate of the palace where they were staying in Bellagio waving to me and Elaine as we drove away, those recent, now distant days we spent together walking to the lake and eating, reading and smoking in their apartment, or our picnic on the roadside or coffee in some mountain cafe where she ordered a whiskey and we all sipped it, four friends reunited in a foreign place, living together briefly, piecing together a friendship that distance had deteriorated. I still have trouble believing that Shakti is gone; I have these memories of her, as well as those of the 7 Carmine readings she filmed in the Pink Pony in New York, dinner with her and Jeet in the East Village, at Elaine's house... I think of Shakti, her energy, her life and laughter, and her absence overwhelms me.

22 May, 2007

The city of suffering & ambition

by Anjum Hasan

The last time I saw Shakti was on the night of February 20th, on the pavement outside the Delhi pub, DV8. A group of writers had just spent a few animated hours in the pub after two overlapping readings — one at the British Council and another at the Open Mic organised by Nigah. I was on a rare post-reading high (as against the usual post-reading slump). The feeling of being among a fraternity was a precious, cosy feeling. On that cold, pre-dawn street, as I hugged Jeet and Shakti goodbye, I said to Shakti — "We actually live in the same city." When I got back home to Bangalore the following day there was a mail from her waiting for me. After her usual high-spirited salutations, she said, "You left me with a mysterious note. We live in the same city... of writing? suffering? ambition?"

Early the previous evening I'd handed over to Shakti, swaddled in cloth, the gleaming Toto Funds the Arts Award trophy that she had won for two excellent short stories in early 2005. Somehow the trophy had stayed behind in Bangalore and TFA had asked me to carry it for her. Seeing it made her day, she said.

One of Shakti's award-winning stories formed part of a special issue on young writing that I'd put together for the literary journal New Quest in mid-2006. I wrote in my introduction about her "marvellous short stories that bring bourgeois Indians to life — their obsessions with servants, food, religion and relatives." The judges for the TFA award had similarly applauded Shakti's "developed and mature voice" and described her stories as "extremely well-plotted and contextualised." She would, without doubt, have blossomed into an important Indian writer.

Shakti, you are missed in that one city we all live in — of writing, suffering and ambition.

19 May, 2007

Cellphone Portraits

by Shakti Bhatt

Shoes, Bellagio, 2006

Subway, Frankfurt, 2006

Self-portrait with books, New Delhi, 2007

Self-portrait with headboard, New Delhi, 2007

Self-portrait in pink, Frankfurt, 2006

In Praise of Shakti Bhatt

by Elaine Sexton

My earliest impression of Shakti is that of the young beauty who dazzled my friend Jeet Thayil when they met, changing him, and charging their lives, and our lives in New York, with a rare and infectious delight. She stepped into our community of poets and writers in Manhattan with a grace and presence few failed to notice. Shakti was a steady mate to Jeet at readings, parties, events, all the while establishing herself, with an uncommon zeal, as a journalist, art maker, and curator. She filmed and edited a documentary of our poetry collective, 7 Carmine, with the precision of a seasoned professional, though (to my knowledge) this was her first venture in this genre. She impressed me and many among us with her keen knowledge of contemporary American poetry and fiction. When they returned to India, Jeet and Shakti left a void, and in the intervening years it seemed we might lose the thread of what bound us so tightly together. When we learned Jeet, accompanied by Shakti, was granted a fellowship at the Bellagio Center in Italy last fall, the poet Curtis Bauer, living in Spain, and I agreed to meet in Milan and drive north to spend a few days with them. The four of us shared an intense few days sharing and critiquing new work, smoking cigars and drinking Chianti in their comfortable quarters overlooking the lake. Exploring the grounds and the narrow roads from town to town skirting Lake Como, we were enchanted by the place and what drew us there. To say we savored every moment understates how charged and lucky we all felt to be together. We had just discovered Shakti as a writer of fiction. Still a bit shy about putting her own work forward she put our poems ahead of her stories, always enthusiastic, generous and insightful in her remarks. One could see, clearly, she was a fine editor. In a few weeks, upon returning to Delhi, she would begin work on her own imprint after this month-long hiatus with Jeet. When I last saw her she was brimming with talk of several new authors and the prospect of finding new work to usher into print. Her enthusiasm for the heady art and literary world of Delhi was so fierce that she had both Curtis and me convinced we were crazy to not quit our jobs and move there immediately! My last correspondence with Shakti was an email exchange on a beautiful and complex story she drafted at Bellagio. Those of us who knew her in New York are still reeling from the news of her untimely death. The loss of someone so vital and young, just beginning to exercise all that imagination and energy on so many worthy projects is unspeakable. Shakti leaves an indelible mark on me as a fledgling friend, and on so many others as an author, editor, confidant, and devoted partner to Jeet — roles she filled with a magical grace.

17 May, 2007

The lilies

The lilies were her favorite flowers. The leaves, each bent and curved to occupy its destined space, were striking—their deep comforting green in sharp contrast to the shocking pink of the flower's insides. The petals, each at a different stage in its career, waiting for that heightened moment that would reveal them in their ecstasy. The ones in full bloom seemed to savor their peak, oblivious of the gloom that would follow in a few days.

She rubbed her fingers against the petals' rough edges where the miniscule prickly growth aroused her skin. The long, precariously balanced tips on the internal stem, the male seed—mostly red, sometimes an even more perverse pink—looked at her as if in challenge: can you be more lovely than I?

(from the journals of Shakti Bhatt)

Shaktiben, what's happening tonight?

by Bani Abidi

This January when I came to Delhi for Sarnath's book launch, Shakti and I met for coffee one day in DefCol. She and I sat in a little park in the market and spoke about the state of English writing in India, about Bracket Books, about the author from the North East whom she was going to publish, and moved on to a long conversation about North East politics and then, just as easily, we switched to art and what I was working on. Conversation is rarely as engaged, as easy, and as interesting as it was with her. I remember shouting out to her while Sarnath was on the phone with her later that evening, that I had loved talking to her. She was one of the main people I would think of, when, in the following months, I would tell my friends in Lahore that Delhi is socially a fabulous place. I was really looking forward to having her be part of my life in Delhi. I remember her running up to me at Sarnath's book launch and stating that she had instantly developed a crush on my husband with his new haircut! She was such a mad and fun person, so charming...and so beautiful.

I think of her in her striped tights, short sexy skirts, and her black coat. In her spiffy winter outfits...this petite, gorgeous woman with the most striking personality...that's what I thought when I first met her last December. Samit posted on his blog a photo from his birthday and I can't stop thinking of that evening. We hung around freezing, huddled, eating fish tikkas, and finally had to drag Sarnath away from his obsessive socializing to get to Samit's in time. It was really heartening to be able to connect so quickly with a close friend of Sarnath's, who had no problem in joining me in taking the mickey out of him. She and he were such party buddies...he would say, "Let me call Shaktiben and find out what's happening tonight".

Her death has been an awful loss for everyone.

May her memory and her spirit live long and continue to touch the lives of even those who were not fortunate enough to have known her.

16 May, 2007

Add: this list

by Monica Narula

I remember Shakti, and I remember Shakti and Jeet together. I
remember the times we sat and ate together and I remember the
fact that we didn't manage to get drunk together. I remember the
terrace and her study table and the book shelves and the beautiful
bed and the sound of a live saxophone. I remember a pink drink I only
tasted and tomato sandwiches I put away in quantity. I remember
birthday tea and delicious pastries when passing by on another day. I
remember avocados and beef fry. I remember interview sessions and
real conversations. I remember laughter and photographs. I remember
wit and 'a lack of irony'.

I am so glad that all of this was a part of my life.

Sleep well, sweet sister

by Sajay Samuel & Samar Farage

After some months of their meeting, Shakti and Jeet dropped by for a weekend. This would be the first time we would meet her. Jeet was still courting her and evidently needed to move matters forward. And so, one crisp fall weekend, in a little flat in a little town in Central Pennsylvania, we supped on a dinner prepared by Jeet for Shakti. If food is the music of love, on that clear night we partook of a glorious song.

To us she seemed an improbable gift: beautiful, charming, and wise beyond her years, a sharp intelligence wrapped in a warm wit, a shard of light around which many could gather. She was forgiving—when we could not attend their wedding in New York; she was hospitable to a fault—when we risked a journey to the big city to see them; she sternly prodded and poked as only a motherly editor would—when she heard we might have something to write about. We met her about once a year and each time we parted we left heartened, lifted.

And now we miss her. And now we weep for him she has left behind. And now we take joy in the memory of her.

15 May, 2007

"Tell me why you love the sea"

by Sonia Nazareth

Shakti, I met in February this year.

24 hours later we are in a bar. As we sip Cosmopolitans, I think how joyful I am to have met this vital girl, with vividly lashed eyes and lips beautifully swollen into doing her bidding. Two waiters hover by, attentive, but we forget to order for we discover that besides being in college at the same time and being the same age, we are happy together. Space opens up around us. And we fly in. Sharing about our lives is as easy as it was buying the identical black dresses that lie beside us. We talk about what makes our summer's winter and our winter's summer. And the honesty in her makes everything a hopeful shade of spring.

As we bypass the squid in favour of conversation, I see how easy it is to love this girl. For the empathy in her eyes is the space in which we are human. And vulnerability in our interaction has become as easy as strength.

But that's not the only reason I love her. I love her for the way she injects me with warmth. And the world with life. And her gender with androgyny.

I love her for the eloquence in her face that has even the pastry sitting between us with its jammy red heart responding.

It is time to go now. As we leave she presses an Indian sweet into my hand. "You must eat it, it is homemade," she says. I nibble. She encourages me to go further. A hunk of sweetness dislocates in my mouth. Crumbs fly everywhere. We laugh. We hold each other. We promise to write. "Tell me why you love the sea," she cries as her black and yellow cab flies past mine. We know we will always be friends.

Immersed in the world

by Keki Daruwalla

I came to know Shakti obviously through Jeet and I knew Jeet Thayil only through his poems. I reviewed a double-decker he had figured in with Vijay Nambisan and liked his poetry (though he thought, I came to know later, that I had not been laudatory enough—a common enough complaint with most of us poets—mea culpa). When he started editing an anthology of Indian poetry in English for Fulcrum magazine, we corresponded. Then he moved to Delhi and came over with his wife, Shakti. The couple was obviously in love. It was the first time I had met her and I couldn't help being impressed. She was warm, outgoing, and thoroughly immersed in books. She was more aware of what was going on in the literary world than I was. In fact, she was with Random House who had just opened a branch in Delhi.

Shakti told me at our first meeting that one of the projects she was toying with was to ask me to write an autobiography—but an unusual one. Link it up with your writing, she said, concentrate on the external event that triggered off a poem or a story. I wouldn't look at a proposal for an autobiography (it would be pretty boring), but the way she put it, it seemed quite an idea and I kept mulling it over.

When Bruce King and Adele came to Delhi and stayed at Nizamuddin with Jeet and Shakti, who were then with Shakti's mother, Sheela Bhatt, I went across. We had a long evening over pepper vodka.

After that we kept meeting at literary events—and in Delhi they are events. I went to a performance poetry function organized by the British Council at the Habitat Centre, where Jeet was reading. It was quite an evening, with a rap session thrown in. There was a big crowd and I was told it was Shakti who had sent as many as 300 emails to people about the event. In a country which puts a premium on mediocrity, if not downright incompetence, such efficiency was almost baffling.

I thought Shakti was a fine judge of poetry, and when she didn't like a poem or a poet, she didn't mince words. (Frankness was one of her endearing qualities.) She had a feel for language and the texture of the narrative that goes to make good literature. I was told later that she had started work on a novel. I would have loved to read it.

Nothing prepared me, or anyone else for that matter, for the tragedy that overtook her. I went to IIT Kharagpur for a talk and when I returned on April 1st, I saw a disturbing email from critic and friend Bruce King, from Paris, talking about the "horrible news about Shakti". I phoned up fellow poets but no one seemed to know anything. The next day the terrible news was confirmed

I carry Shakti's image in my mind—very slim, confident, beautiful in her own way, always warm, and looking forward to what life had to offer. May her soul rest in peace.

14 May, 2007


for Shakti Bhatt

by Michael Creighton

Years from now,
we may smile and sigh at the sight
of a horribly misplaced comma
or a ball badly thrown
by a woman in shoes
the color of sky,

but right now, all we can see
is this paper kite crashing,
smoke rising from a corn-seller's coals,

and beyond, that thing with feathers
hanging high in a mulberry tree,
spread wings brushing
leaves and blood-red fruit.

13 May, 2007


Shakti, Bellagio, 2006

Terrifying and irrational, it makes no sense

by Bruce King

It was only after Shakti died that I realized how few times I had actually seen her, as she felt like a friend I had known forever. We first met her in Bangalore when we were staying with Jeet's parents. I had known Jeet for many years and Shakti was new to me. I saw a young, very attractive woman with what appeared a large head, large eyes and a tiny body, who managed to dress absolutely differently each day, as if changing her appearance was both an art and a form of self-protection.

Jeet told me that Shakti was a writer, but I had not then seen anything she had written. She did, however, strike me as different from most Indian women I had met in her always changing sense of fashion, which walled in a certain moodiness disguised by a lively enthusiasm.

She was not used to living within a family and was impatient with its expectations. Yet she was not really American, although she had studied and worked in the States. Rather, the separation of her parents and her mother's career had given her a different outlook, an independence and perhaps an accompanying sense of loneliness and selfhood. We often went out to eat together and I felt she would have been happier to always do so.

It was not surprising when Shakti became the editor of a glossy Indian fashion magazine, although the magazine itself and her appointment should have seemed unusual. What was surprising was how good the material was. When a few months later, she was appointed the first editor at Random House India it seemed natural. She was obviously going to the top very quickly, but now that I knew her better I wondered whether she would ever be satisfied, which was a danger of such early success. She no sooner had the job than she seemed bored with it and ready to move on to something grander or more exciting. When she resigned to start her own publishing company, it seemed both dangerous and natural. She expected a lot from life, more perhaps than life could give.

There was Shakti who wanted to go to the best restaurants and the street stalls, who wanted to go to all-night parties and yet edit poorly-written manuscripts in the morning, who seemed to have skipped ahead a few generations of her life with her career and yet was still a girl in her mid‑twenties wanting to experience the craziness of youth. She and Jeet seemed at the centre of a new Indian cultural scene comprising the young, the attractive, those educated abroad; they were clearly different from the designer‑khadi‑clad intelligentsia of the past.

Shakti's early and rapid death was terrifying in its irrationality. Such usual images as meteors and falling stars are inappropriate as they suggest a moral fall from pride. In her case the rocket was still going up and disappeared like that. It made no sense.

Our own daughter was about Shakti's age when she died in a fire. Had the naturalness we felt around Shakti been a substitute?

A rabbit for Shakti

by Adele King

/ ( ~ ~)\
` ` `
( )o

Le lapin pleure.

12 May, 2007

Days of Shakti

by Kathleen McCaul

I met Shakti on my second day in Delhi, unsure why the hell I had moved to the city. In a blur of unfamiliar faces she immediately stood out, stalking into the room in a bright red tight top, black trousers and killer heels. A take-no-prisoners woman who filled the room despite sitting in a corner. She immediately started smoking, unapologetically. I was a bit scared of her actually, but I still asked for a cigarette and we got talking.

She'd been a journalist, she'd been to Kashmir, like me. We drank wine together and she told me about her husband and New York and asked me how old I was. We were practically the same age but she'd been married for four years. How did she do that? How did she manage to be young and grown-up at the same time? So attached and so free? Shakti seemed very romantic to me.

It was December. I filled my days with trying to work out what the hell I was doing in Delhi and wondering how India could be so cold. I visited Khan market to look at heaters and radios to stop our new flat seeming so empty and lonely. There were Shakti and Jeet filling up a car with two extravagantly huge heaters. Shakti had on her black boots and huge purple sunglasses which went with her lilac lipstick and made her look like a movie star. She was unashamedly glamorous.

"Come," she ordered.

We went to have coffee - well, I had a tea and Shakti had, as always, her thick black coffee. We talked about writing and Delhi and Bombay and we talked about her novel.

"God. Everyone in Delhi is writing a novel!" I said.

"I know," she said, with a half-confident half-smile.

I got busy with commissions and Shakti helped me with a story. She helped me with everything -- where to get a haircut, where to buy T-shirts, where to get good food, where to have fun. We met again and talked about everything and we gossiped about everyone. Our coffees spread into lunches, spread into shopping expeditions, spread into lost afternoons laughing in rickshaws; whole days and nights of hanging out with Shakti. Delhi is a big city with big distances between people and places. Shakti strolled around making it seem smaller.

I think my favourite day with Shakti was when I woke up one morning morose and uninspired. I sat on my sofa glum with the idea of a day spent in front of my solitary laptop; tapping, tapping. I thought Shakti would be busy, but I phoned her and asked if she would come to Old Delhi and review a tea shop with me. She agreed straight away; no "ums" or "ahs" or "maybes". I went round to her light and breezy flat. She gave me a midday breakfast of upma and squirted herself with perfume before we went out. Always a little bit of glamour.

Old Delhi was hot and busy and fumy. We found this miracle teashop, a small quiet wooden pilgrimage site for tea connoisseurs, a few yards away from severed goat heads and piles of deep-fried birds. We sat in the shade of the slatted blinds and tasted tea and talked and talked again. She had this great way of opening her eyes really big and arching her eyebrows and saying "No!" She talked about when she was in Florida and she was a hippy who didn't wear bras. She confessed her biggest crime to me which she made me swear not to tell a soul. I'd like to write it here, the crime was hilarious and pretty bad, but I've promised. We talked about children and our futures and food and what we liked to cook and what we were going to cook for each other. I'd just learnt broccoli and tofu stir-fry. Shakti had lived on it for a year.

We could have just gone back home after we'd both bought our earl grey and green tea, but Shakti was easy and free with her time. Being with her was like being back at university, stealing away from lectures or libraries. You knew you should maybe be working but deeper down you knew having fun with a friend was not only far more pleasant, but far more important and beneficial.

We examined oversized steel juicers and coffee-making machines shining on the roadside. One said Shakti. I got overexcited.

"You have to buy it!"

"Maybe," she said. I think she was probably used to her name, one of India's favourite words, written all over the place. I wasn't and I looked it up on the Internet later. It means power, energy, life-force.

We wandered through the market to the Jama Masjid, examining the oil-filled black woks and the fish heads and the chickens in wooden baskets and the Urdu books. Shakti was as entranced as I was, perhaps more so. She had her phone and was taking pictures and making tiny films and crouching down to talk to children. She bantered charmingly with old bearded shopkeepers and narrated overheard snatches of conversation to me.

"Those two men are arguing about who is going to die first," she told me.

We wandered through the mosque, pigeons flew around us and we talked about Islam and India and political correctness. We held onto each other, climbing up the minaret's narrow, black spiral staircase. We emerged high on the Delhi skyline and squashed in with all the dark boys in their flapping pyjamas and white caps, clinging onto the rail in the tiny tower top. Shakti took more photos and played some tunes; inappropriate hip-hop I think. She'd never been to the Jama Masjid before. We were tourists in the city we lived in. We got a cycle rickshaw back. The sun was just glowing and the shadows were long and we smoked.

"It's days like these that make me think I can still live in this city," she said. And I was so happy.

For me, Shakti was unconventional, creative and clever. She was giving up smoking by reading Anna Karenina. Underneath this immediate brightness, I found a thoughtful softness which made her more special.

She has taught me to be friendlier, more open and more spontaneous. She's taught me to phone friends on a whim, invite people I don't know so well over to mine, and be kind to strangers I meet at parties. I feel I'm a better person for knowing Shakti.

10 May, 2007

How to achieve domestic well-being

by Anand Thakore

The last thing I said to Shakti was: 'Don't worry, I'll brush my teeth.' I was seeing her and Jeet to a cab outside my house where they had been staying for a couple of days. Shakti had spent an hour in the morning dictating to me a list of items that 'needed doing': Cut your hair, use cockroach repellant, brush your teeth (of course...), get rid at once of old old flowers ('dead flowers are a favourable breeding ground for mosquitoes...'), decide which clothes you want to keep, etc. I took her instructions down in a large black notebook. Few people have been able to make me do this sort of thing. Shakti could.

She had a way of disarming people that made even things like instruction-lists and advice sound like fun; though I bet she was dead serious about every one of her numerous commandments, her 'suggestions' towards more evolved forms of domestic well-being. She insisted on tipping the servants, though I had warned her not to spoil them.

Shakti was vibrant, caring and serious about having fun. When she learned that I like flowers and tea she brought me tea and flowers. I sang verses for her from old Gujarati folk-songs, which she seemed to remember better than I did. We danced garba in my living room, spinning with the abandon of dervishes on every fifth beat. We talked about plays and books and, of course, people: primarily how they looked, walked and dressed, but also how they seemed to think, and, if they were writers, how they wrote.

She was my friend. I will miss her.

Brilliant moon

by Tishani Doshi

I'll tell you what I thought when I first met Shakti. I thought — this is a woman with balls. She was beautiful, strong, opinionated, serious, talented, funny. A rare thing, in other words. I wanted to befriend her immediately. Not just because she was all of these things, and she was married to Jeet — but because I felt that we were all on the brink of something extremely beautiful, a beginning. I thought we were settling in for a long something. And so to get this news now, to confront this other reality, which contradicts everything from those first impressions — this is hard, unimaginably hard. The last time I saw her was in February in Mumbai. We were sharing an autorickshaw. It was after midnight. It does not feel like a proper goodbye.
Brilliant moon,
Is it true that you too
Must pass in a hurry.

-- Issa

09 May, 2007

In a corner I do not explore

In a corner I do not explore—
a large accumulation
of small griefs.
The dust is still
on each mark
left by your words.

(from the journals of Shakti Bhatt)

06 May, 2007

I number these among the graces I miss

by Mridula Koshy

My friend, Shakti Bhatt, went too soon. Our friendship was too brief. I remember her daily. When I can pull away from this grief it is because I am pulled by the memory of how huge her brief life was, and how much she gave me. I remember her as a woman who glittered and shared that glitter generously, almost squanderously, with her friends. This is what I wish to honour about her.

When I met Shakti I had not begun to see myself as a writer. It was exhilarating to have her read my writing and pronounce it good. And she did more than that. She sat me down and told me where to submit, how not to be discouraged, how to use a semi-colon correctly. She told me to lie to anyone who got in the way of my writing by telling them I was sitting on a fat contract deliverable in two years. That, she said, would give me enough time to write and make the lie a truth. She was bold that way. She pronounced me a writer, and made me believe her. She asked for that first meeting with me, she pursued it into happening, and she asked to read my writing. She read promptly and emailed immediately to express approval. Then she emailed later in the day, telling me of images that lingered from her reading. Our relationship in the beginning was all about my writing and that was a first for me.

That she saw something in me and knew to build confidence in me was of course part of her generosity. I have since found out that she was similarly generous with many, many others in whom she saw talent and whom she pushed to acknowledge these talents. I have to conclude that this was more than a character trait with her; it was a skill. She was skilled in seeing possibilities in people and in working to bring them out. At the memorial held for Shakti, her friends (many of them unknown to one another) repeated the same stories – of being selected for friendship, of being organized into it (the 'Shakti coffee date'), of being told what best use one could make of one's life. I was not the only one left exhilarated and abashed by her attentions. I was not the only one caught up in her whirlwind productivity. She had projects in the air, and she slotted us as she saw fit into these projects. I had the sense she was building something big, bigger than herself and bigger than me, and that that something was to be free of pettiness.

So I come back to her generosity. The door was always open. It takes a certain intelligence to know that open doors are how one builds community, whether literary or any other. And again, at the memorial, we talked about that open door – both the literal one at D-377 through which I walked to eat up hours of her time listening to her out-loud editorial mind at work on my manuscript, and the figurative one that had her carrying on introductions among one and all, opening up space where there was an absence. Again I have to wonder: was it her kindness or her smarts? And I conclude she was possessed of both.

Shakti Bhatt was beautiful, incredibly so. I wondered how it was that her lips were always so perfectly hued and asked her why she looked like New York in New Delhi. She knew how to take a compliment. She laughed. She was that easy with receiving one. When our friendship moved on to include clothes and shopping I understood her confidence. Why shouldn't she have been confident? Her beauty, no mere accident of biology (although it was that too), was a fundamental expression of her wit and creativity. I remember her trying on a petrol blue vinyl jacket at Sarojini Nagar. So terrible, so fake, but she slouched in it to charming effect and I was all over her to buy it. She didn't. Perhaps slouching all day would not have been fun. Her style - witty, sexy and fun - was singular. Original. And perhaps it is the shallow in me speaking when I say that I number among the many graces I miss, the grace of her stylish ways. I used to describe the clothes I planned to wear in minute detail to her and she would be as absorbed in the meaning of costuming as I. She endorsed self-creation.

Recently I saw pictures of her from her New York days. It hurt to see this evidence of the person in evolution that she was. I had not thought of her that way while she was alive. It makes me miss not only the Shakti I knew but also the one she was becoming.

I cannot leave out of this the place she carved in my children's heart. At least in the case of my then six-year-old son, it went beyond the belief held common to all three of my kids that she was a kid like them, someone to play with. For him, it was a case of enchantment. He fell hard for her and in complete sincerity and innocent in his besottment said of her, "Shakti has so many…." Here he described her with his hands, curving fistfuls of air. Then he added rather judiciously, "I think Jeet must have fun with her." I know my sons have both, each in their time, fallen for me and wished their father out of the picture. The elder one has yet to fall for anyone else. The younger one, apparently his own person in this regard, gave his heart to Shakti, maybe on one of those days playing frisbee, last December in Manali. And once back in Delhi , she responded, taking the time to write him. We set him up with an email account and he wrote at a steady pace in sixteen point emails geared to offer her his kid world where he naturally saw a place for her to romp. And she came and played. I know I loved her then. What else can a mother ask for but for others to love her children? When Shakti died we helped Akshay save the thirty or so emails that traveled back and forth between them into a folder. He named it himself: "Lost." The name speaks to the loss of Shakti and a little bit to the loss of himself. I told Jeet recently, years from now when Akshay moves in the bigger world outside our home, bringing back with him the young women he will love, I will be scanning their faces for Shakti's.

I dreamt of her last night, after going to sleep thinking I would wake and write this. In my dream I had trouble meeting her eyes and felt awkward and sad for her. She looked directly and—it seemed—tiredly at me. She looked as beautiful as she did in life and was wearing a beautiful coat – three-quarter length, rich brown, with a sort of illusory ostrich feather effect to it. She took the coat off and went to my kitchen and returned with a katori of oil which she rubbed on my back. I sat on a stool like a child being prepared for a bath and, instead of bathing, wrote on a tablet of paper.

The cave-dweller (or is it the Shaman in me) wants to believe I saw her and that she was telling me to write. But the me who lives in this century knows this was a visit from the imprint she left in my mind of the enduring kindness and hopefulness she embodied. And yes, in that sense, it was her.

Skirts & myths

by Kavita Puri Arora

We first spoke on the phone sometime in October 2005. Shakti always had an immediacy and an urgency in her voice. She'd call, ask a question, push for a response, and politely hang up.

At the time she was editing Lifestyle Trends magazine and I was with HarperCollins. She'd call me off and on, mostly when she received a book she liked and wanted information on an author or an event. Like many of the other reviewers I had never met, 'Shakti Bhatt' was a myth. We got re-acquainted while I was working at the British Council, Delhi.

Vivek Narayanan recommended Jeet Thayil as one of the poets for a spoken word season BC was hosting. He gave me two numbers – Shakti's and Jeet's. He said, try Jeet but if you can't get through call his wife Shakti because she'll definitely respond. I couldn't get through to Jeet, so I called Shakti's mobile, and it wasn't a surprise when she picked up and promptly handed him the phone.

Shakti's name would always be on the guest-list for BC events. I finally met her at one such event, and I distinctly remember our first face-to-face being a long one.

We spoke about her wanting to apply for a BC scholarship, about Random House, about Bracket Books, about HarperCollins. And we spoke about Delhi, a city she loved and hated.

My most recent unforgettable memory of Shakti is from a party at my house. My husband Shankar lit a bonfire and she kept gravitating towards it. Everyone else was standing, but she insisted on crouching. "I love fire," she said.

She was drinking red wine. I went to fill her glass and noticed the rim was chipped. When I offered to change it, she said, "No, and stop being so formal." She mingled, but spent most of the evening with my friend Neeru's adorable three-year-old, Kavin. Kavin was building blocks, Shakti built with him.

That night I gave Shakti a short leather skirt. She said she would wear it to Jeet's event. "I love short skirts," she said.

A few days later, I received the following text from her:
The skirt was a big hit. The event unlike any other. J acknowledged you on stage. Thank you for everything.

Love, s
That was the last text Shakti sent me.

Alice spoke about Shakti appearing in her dreams. She's been in many of my dreams too.

And strangely enough, she was in my thoughts. This last month, without knowing what had happened, I thought about Shakti and I spoke about her. The Midsummer Night's Dream Company I've been travelling with knew of her... and now know of her absence.

The vacuum is big and irreversible.

Sometimes I wish the myth were still a myth. I wish I didn't miss her as much as I do. I wish she were still a text away.