Roshnimo: A Life Full of Little Loves

I can’t believe she is gone. Roshni, the light of our lives on Twitter.

The last thing she said to me, earlier this year, was that she had been quiet and off the grid, and that she would explain sometime. But now all I am left with are memories … memories of all the little things that she loved, and that she made me love too.

She loved NLP. And even though she absolutely despised bragging, she sent me an old, old poster of a web data extraction system that she won an award for.

She had the most tangential American Sports connection you could make up. She was the Superb Owl, almost literally. If you knew her, you’ll know what this means.

She loved the Language Log. She was absolutely tickled when XKCD made a Language Log reference in the alt-text of one of the strips.

She loved Doge. She once told me the story of how she lived next to the Japanese school, which was home to – naturally – a lot of Doges. One day she spotted one, and asked the bemused owner if she could take a picture. “Because of the meme”, she said. The owner thought she was asking what Shiba meant. It all got lost in translation. Maybe something for the Language Log to write about some day.

She loved 90s Bollywood, and the songs. She loved Suman Sridhar. And she loved, loved, loved Hawa Hawaii. She was Our Own Bijli ki Rani.

I sent her this comic below for a birthday once. She was Singapore, Singapore was her.


And most of all, she brought me the gift of Swarathma. In the Summer of 2010, she sent me their songs — Ee Bhoomi first, and then Pyaasi. I became a fan, and then a groupie, and stalked the fledgeling band around Bangalore for all of the Summer of 2011. They even dedicated a song to me as they played in the window of an electronics store somewhere in Jayanagar 4th Block; but little did they know, that song was really hers.

Megha tu bhi laut ja re
Ghar samundar bhool gayi hoon
Raakh ko kyun mujh mein bahaya
Toote kinaron pe kyun jhukaya sar

Goodbye, Bijli ki Rani.

Darling Roshnimoo.

I don’t know what we are going to do. Without you.



The Gentle Art of Savorites, or: What We Lost When Twitter Grew Up

In the beginning, there was Old Twitter.

I don’t really remember anymore how all of this began. I know there were blogs, and a sub-community that came from there. Most of us started out making puns and playing hashtag games, trying to get noticed by someone with over five hundred followers via that most elusive of all validations — the quote RT. I still remember the Tweetdeck window– black and yellow–when someone hit the jackpot:

RT @user Tweet;

repeated twenty times in quick succession.

We started out as a family. We played games together, we listened to music together, we watched sports together. In the Great Sporting Summer of 2010, we watched a Football World Cup side-by-side with Wimbledon and one of the first of what were to become monthly India-Sri Lanka cricket fixtures. We all watched, together, as an Indian team won a World Cup. While Chasing. On Indian soil. With Sachin back in the pavilion. And we all went mad. And then we turned up the next day to check on our timelines and to swap stories and make memories.

Our family was funny: we made the early proto-memes. We declared that Pujara was friendly and Chawla was a disaster.

We were passionate. If one day we were outraging over Outlook Magazine’s top-of-social-media list and trolling the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (Siruma De Lakhs), then the next day we were conducting our own mock polls for top-of-twitter lists and finding yet more ways to make Nithyananda sound dirty.

We met each other, and made plans with one another. We fell in love, had infatuations, staked out crushes; and invited our entire timelines to weddings and standup routines. We traveled the length and breadth of the country alongside people that we had previously only shared the up-and-down scroll of the timeline with.

We quizzed! Rebus questions, nonsense answers, fastest fingers, crazy rate-limits; and a spot of intimidation.

But most of all, we woke up every morning and avoided sleep every night with a very special bunch of people. We had no reason to keep coming back save for the fact that we loved these people, and the things that they brought into our lives. And the various things that they made us feel.

So where did everyone disappear?

Into our favorites.

All communities evolve. The Old Twitter family, held together in those early days like a bunch of chrysalises in the larval stage, exploded into a brilliant flash of talent. Some wrote their books and started making themselves regulars in various columns. Others traveled and did small things in the midst of big events, and big things in small places. Some went into photography and arrangement, and the natural 0utlets for those talents. People made (and are still furiously making) newsletters and blogs and podcasts that followed their passions and their talents — films, music, policy, technology, cooking, esoteric pun paraphernalia. We made Whatsapp groups and mailing lists.

And just as we were the ones who created, so surely were we also the ones who consumed. But as the content began to arrive from all corners and at all times, a curious thing happened: instead of prioritizing and engaging with things that brought us joy, we started throwing everything into our favorites and the closest read-me-later contraption. We went from enjoying a mango every day of summer to just dumping all the fruits into the blender.

And then we forgot to turn that blender on.

There is still so much to enjoy on Twitter. The mediums and mechanisms have evolved, and perhaps there is more noise and much more distraction now. The larvae have mostly become beautiful butterflies, each one flitting off in its own direction and leaving colorful trails behind for us. All we need is the time to glance into our unkept favorites and lists, and to savor the things that call out to us.

The Gentle Art of Savoriting.

And if you — having evaded the trap — get to the end of one of these things you enjoy, make sure you leave a traceback for the creator of that content. In a post from many years ago, I argued this: “The currency of every writer is the engagement of his reader; and their appreciation the gold standard that keeps the instrument afloat”. The words sound amateurish now, but the sentiment remains strong.

Let us keep our favorites afloat, so that we may enjoy many more years of creative content on this wonderful platform that has only given and given. Let us take leisure and find ourselves enthralled yet again by what we thought we had lost, but which was hiding in plain sight.

Let us savor our favorites.

On Dreams

What can you do? We were born with brains that can live in a thousand different places and times, all in the blink of an eye. But our bodies! – they are stuck in the ritual, straight-line progression of time.

I dream about many things. Some things I see less often now than I used to as a child — snakes; crocodiles; the weightlessness of an elevator that strangely seems to be shooting up, defying gravity itself. Turning up late, or unprepared, or just completely disoriented — to an exam. Finding myself in the middle of an exam, two minutes to go and a blank paper in front of me.

Adulthood brings many unwelcome gifts. One of these is the “Wake up at 3am to make an early train or airplane or bus or appointment” blessing that starts your day, once in a terrible while. On those late nights and early mornings, my dreams–unoriginal bastards–are about being awoken by the alarm, only to find time still remaining on that clock. Here age and a disappearing youth have cheated me: for when I was in school, I could barely close my eyes on nights like these. A school picnic or excursion; an annual day; a scout camp, an exam, the first day of school, the last day of school, a Satuday — no sleep, no dream.

There are dreams with people: some of them gone from your life, some of them gone from life itself. There are places. Both are remembered subjectively–not as they are now, not as they were then–but as they first entered your mind and your memories. Incongruous, imaginary, incomplete; these aren’t memories, they are projections. Of desire, longing, heartbreak, happiness — or just the brain’s wish to linger just a moment longer on the worries of the day that has passed, or passed away long ago.

There is always a central location, a master set. An ancestral house, a beloved school. Sometimes a very eerie and accurate memory of a past dwelling. Half-remembered layouts of airports and railway stations and neighborhoods and markets — video-game set-pieces to rush through in the failed pursuit of a metaphorical train pulling out of the platform. Chasing, running. Away from an animal, a horrible encounter. Towards a desire or a future unfulfilled, a life never lived.

Dreams are strange. They have probably fascinated humankind since the beginning of time itself, and they will stay with us until we advance enough to know anything but the most basic things about our brains. About consciousness and about ourselves.

Until that time though, they will regulate our moods and mould our memories. They will inform our aspirations and draw on our deepest, most latent thoughts — masquerading always as faithful memories.

What can you do.

Sixteen Years: A Tribute

Sixteen Years: A Tribute

Monday was September 11. Again.


“America attacked! Planes in buildings!!”

This was the first time I ever read it.

Read, not heard. Read, not saw.

It was a Tuesday evening turning into night in India, and I was logged on to the weekly quiz on And so in this chatroom filled with school kids, college quizzers, online lechers, and a very hardworking volunteer admin — there was this crazy message. That kept being pasted over and over again.

Rediff had just added the headline. And so I turned on the news. And did not turn it off again for the rest of the night.

My father was in Arizona then, and he reported back sporadically on happenings there in the following days. The first day was shock, people huddling around TVs and not knowing what was going on.

Shock was followed by fear. Some people not knowing when and where the next attack would come from. Other people having to hastily hoist flags on their porches and stick flags in their dashboards.

And then inevitably came anger, followed on its heels by its more virulent cousin, hate. A Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot in Arizona. Ugly incidents sprang up all over the country.

Why would someone fly planes into buildings? Why would someone cause this level of pain, and death, and destruction? Why?

It was September 11, 2001.


In 2008, I visited the world’s greatest city for the first time. My first inglorious experience of New York — like perhaps many others’ — was a cramped and overpriced motel room in Jamaica. The gateway to traffic and urban hell, the part of Queens that is neither cultural nor quaint; never cheap and never convenient. Nothing to redeem it.

But over the next few days, I walked and took the subway and rode the tourist bus and took the ferry — but mostly I walked, and walked some more. And towards the last part of the trip I found myself downtown, in the Financial District. Almost as if the city were saying to me, “You’ve seen everything else there is to see, and now it is natural and decent that you should be brought here.”

Cranes. Construction. Endless orange cones. Ugly canopies everywhere the eye could see.

And that gaping hole in the heart of it all.

It was quite impossible to hear anything, search for any sense of memorial, find any meaning in the middle of all the noise and the dust and the activity. So I walked across the street to St. Paul’s.

The Little Chapel That Stood.

George Washington worshipped in that church. He came there on the day he was inaugurated, in 1789. The chapel pre-dated the country it stood in by ten years.

And as if to send a message to the entire world and to the hateful and the aggressor, the chapel made it through that dark day on September 11, 2001 unscathed. It served first as a witness to the horror; then it served as a rallying point for the responders that followed into the depths of the horror; and then in a final act it served as a solemn, sad vessel for the tributes that followed them. Tributes that followed those who went in knowing that they would never return.

And again, in the darkness and the quiet of the church, in a corner shaded from the bright light and away from the throngs of the visitors … that inevitable question. Why?

It had been seven years.


I live in one of the innumerable towns and villages that dot Westchester County, just to the north of New York City. Memorials are all over the place here — at the base of a dam in Valhalla; at the shores of the Hudson in Croton; across the train tracks and abutting a nuclear power plant in Peekskill.

They come in all sizes — some are big affairs, with lots of public money spent on them. Others are smaller, more personal. Many of them contain pieces from the towers: shards of the metal, some masonry. Some bear names, others just simple dedications. To volunteers, firefighters, policemen and women, emergency responders, business executives, computer programmers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters…

It has been long enough now that most of these memorials have receded into the background. You won’t find them unless you’re looking for them.

Or unless they’re looking, and they find you.

And at those times it is impossible not to be caught up in the moment. The rest of the world watched this as a vicarious news event. The biggest of all time. Princess Diana’s death, only multiplied a million times over.

Yet these towns and villages, they didn’t just watch it. To them, it wasn’t something that went away at the click of a button. They lost friends and family that day. I work with people who lost colleagues that day. One of the people I work with, a distinguished scientist and a genteel man, speaks of the day he lost some of his closest friends and colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald. All the way up at the top of that North Tower, alone.

I want to ask him about it, but I do not have the courage. I don’t think I ever will. It feels voyeuristic, demeaning, disrespectful. Yet to hear him speak, enough time has now passed that he speaks of it matter-of-factly. It is something that happened, just like any other thing that happened last week. Or in the 70s. He is very much like those memorials; he remembers the events, the memories of the people are etched in his mind — yet unless you are looking for it, you will never notice.


Some beautiful, crisp winter days, I still find myself looking over at the New York skyline. Sometimes it is from up north, on a hike. Sometimes it is from the base of these very tall buildings, from Midtown down Madison Avenue or from Greenwich Village down Seventh Avenue. And I always imagine that but for the malevolent and the hateful, parents would still be with their children and families would still be together. New York would be different, more innocent. So would America. The world even.

That but for the malevolent and the hateful, those two towers would still be standing proud; the exclamation points on this, the greatest city in the world.

And at those times, you cannot help but wonder — why?

It has been sixteen years.


Post Script: I was listening to this 9/11 Fresh Air episode with first responder John Feal, and you should too. Feal was one of the many non-uniformed responders who showed up Ground Zero to help with the rescue and then recovery operations. He suffered a horrible injury that almost took his life, and then was denied compensation to cover for his medical expenses. He started a foundation that would eventually help many other first responders fight for compensation.

The interview got me thinking about the nature of tragedies like this, and heroes. Tragedies almost always create heroes. Some, like the innocents on the planes and in those buildings and on the ground — those are heroes that don’t know they will be heroes, people going about their daily lives whom we consecrate because there is nothing else we can do for them. For their families, and their memories, and their unfinished lives.

Then there are other heroes, people who walk in knowing full well that they may not get to walk out. These people don’t ask to be heroes, yet the label is thrust on them — almost as if the label were compensation enough.

But it isn’t.

The measure of a society and a civilization and of our collective humanity is how we treat those that have less than us, those who lose more than we ever did. Perhaps there is very little that is constructive in remembering events that happened years ago; perhaps there is even something not so constructive about it.

Yet surely we can channel these tributes and these memories into ensuring that we take care of those that turned up on that fateful day to run in and try to rescue those that were past taking care of themselves.

The best of ours must always see the best of us.

Quiz Club

Before I start this piece, I think my views on this are not nearly as important as Sowmya’s and Siri’s. So please, go read them first.

Quizzing has always been an activity loaded with privilege and — yes — exclusion. In this it is no different from many other organized activities that we indulge in to build bonds and create communities. So while there may not be something inherently wrong with the activity itself, it is disingenuous to pretend that quizzing does not have a discrimination problem. And that exclusion and discrimination comes along many axes, one of the most troubling of which is exclusion by gender. Another is exclusion by class, and all the usual markers that stand in for class:

“What school are you from? Which school did you go to?”
“Oh you’re friends with him! Great.”
“Yeah my cousin was a senior / member of the club four years ago.”

There is definitely an ‘old boys’ club’ feel to most quizzing circles, and unlike certain other pursuits quizzing can actually claim that unsavory reputation both metaphorically as well as literally.

I’ve felt this privilege, on both ends. More often than not I’ve been at the ‘right’ end, the one where it seems like you possess some magic qualities that let you just “fit in”, as it were. It doesn’t matter whether it is Madras or Bangalore or Hyderabad or New York, you automatically know how to first ingratiate yourself, then feel part of the group, and finally move into a position of control and power within that group. It is very tempting to imagine then that something is very right with you, with the activity, with the entire system.

… but I’ve been at the wrong end of that privilege too. I moved a lot as a kid. And every single time I moved, I’d have to fit into the quizzing “culture” of a new place, as it were. I remember particularly the move from Chennai, where being in a certain school automatically guaranteed entry into that charmed inner circle — to Hyderabad, where the situation was the same but the school I went to was outside that magic circle. Of course this is intersectionality at its most banal; I didn’t have to deal with any baggage other than the school I was from, and the relatively first-world problem of “Oh! No one’s heard of a quiz in this place.” I wasn’t a girl, I wasn’t older, I didn’t have a disability, I didn’t ‘look’ different. I mention all these categories for two reasons — one, all of those groups were severely underrepresented in any quizzing “scene”. And two, because there was always, always at least one person who fell into each of those categories (sometimes multiple at the same time) who would try their very best to come in, fit in … and then not come the next week. Or to the next event. No one made it easy.

And I am certain beyond doubt that the majority of you that are reading at this point identify with what I’ve just said. You’ve either been part of one of those groups, or more likely you have seen thwarted attempts of the kind I’ve mentioned.

Which brings me to the point of this long-winded series of thoughts. Why would we circle the wagons? Why does quizzing, as an activity, need defending? Is it so endangered in today’s world that someone’s recollections (or even generalizations, if you think that) are going to kill it forever?

Clearly people are talking about what they think of as problems with quizzing because this is their lived experience. Women (and more than a fair number of men) are calling out the very real problem of sexism that they have either seen, or faced, or endured for years on end while quizzing.

Let’s create an active space for people to come forward and share their experiences, for them to make a case for what needs to change to make quizzing more accessible and welcoming. Don’t shout them down with counter-examples, don’t demand proof or justification, and let them make a full case. Even if that case happens to be very anecdotal or extremely personal. And even if you disagree with what is being said, or question the immediate or long-term motivations of the person saying it.

This is neither novel nor surprising, and it isn’t very specific to quizzing and the problem of gender diversity either. This is just common sense when trying to foster a communication that will make something we all love more open, and other contexts identify it as a set of very small steps in being an ally.

We all love quizzing. No one person amongst us (or even any group made up of a significant number of us) owns it. And nobody need hold a brief for it against slights either real or imagined. What we should instead be doing is take proactive measures to grow and preserve the community of people who cherish and invest in it just as we like to think of ourselves as having done all of our quizzing lives. We need conversations like the ones at the top of this post, and we need them in our schools and our colleges and our clubs and our social media. And the conversations will only happen when we afford them an open space, and when we invest ourselves equally in ensuring that they happen.

First we listen, we ask and actively solicit from those willing to share their lived experiences. Then, we introspect. And some day, after a messy and circuitous process, we arrive at a stage where people read this post as a relic of a past that they no longer connect with.

But we always start with listening.

On Writing

The hardest thing to do is to put pen to paper. Because when you do, it feels like an irreversible commitment.

But that’s fine, because no one need ever see the first draft. Or the hundredth. Or any other. The only thing that anyone else sees is the final version.

You have to force yourself to write. There is no other way to do it. You could wait days, weeks, an entire decade – for that fully formed, perfect prose to appear. It isn’t magic when it does appear, that is just the perception of a person reading the finished thing. Never confuse the process for the product; neither is a satisfying or even satisfactory stand-in for the other.

The process is hard, and grimy, and slow. It is filled with false starts and unfounded hope. The deepest pessimism. And cynicism. It is like observing the inner workings of Marvin, the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is an enigma to the reader, and to every character that encounters him. Depressed, dark, eternally forlorn. But what goes on inside Marvin? What makes this paranoid android tick? Are there days when he whirs into protesting motion, only to find that the endless reservoir – equal parts tragedy and farce – has dried up? Maybe. Maybe The Reservoir of Marvin’s Gloom is a writer chained inside, filled with self-loathing.


Many years ago I had a friend. He is still around but we haven’t kept in touch. He was a bit like Marvin, but Marvin with a sharper tongue and lesser of the genuine kindness that comes not from mere cynicism but complete understanding. I think we all admired that in him, the ability – as we saw it then – to call a spade a heavy, blunt instrument that spreads dirt everywhere with a depressing lack of accuracy.

He likened writing to “mental masturbation”.

With as much context as my memory can muster now, I ought to repeat that. It was a time before Twitter, when blogs were still extremely popular. Outrage wasn’t what it is now – a mere tweet, a meme, a retweet. It was a golden time when an “open letter” was called a blogpost. This had of course been going on for a while, so Marvin the cynical human was somewhat understandably cheesed off. Sans the milk of human kindness, as Wodehouse might interject, towards his brethren who tended to complain, contrast, and write nostalgic odes, all in flowery prose. And his contention was that most writing was “mental masturbation”.

I insist on repeating the usage of the quotes because those were his exact words. He didn’t really explain them, so I can only guess what he meant.

I think he meant this – He did not want to be subject to the seemingly random emissions from a writer’s pen. He wasn’t interested in the process that led to that outcome either. Nor in the frequency with which they came forth. The whole process is too easy, too cheap, he was saying.


This is the man in my head now, every single time I sit down to write. I am afraid of proving him right, of becoming one more data point in his grand theory of writerly lack of self-control. I let him defeat me that day, and the thought entered my head and it has remained there every succeeding day.  Ever since, I have thought less about the process, that wonderful process. Infuriating for many of the reasons I mentioned, yet also immensely rewarding. To see page after page fill up with what had just been amorphous thoughts. The rush when you are in a zone and you put your legs up and write at an unstoppable pace. When pen and paper can scarce keep up with the flow of perfect prose emanating from within.

I let him defeat me that day, and lost all these simpler things. I started worrying about the ‘product’, its reception, and its ‘reach’, the tone. Its length. It took an unfathomable time, and effort, between recharges – to build up enough misery and self-loathing because of not writing, just so I could overcome the fear and misery and self-loathing that had prevented the writing in the first place. Like all things in life, I had become too attached to acceptance and rejection. Glory and kudos and retweets and ‘organic impressions’.

And I had forgotten about that little, kind cynic inside. The only way to satisfy that cynic is to go through the process. There are no shortcuts, no excuses with him. ‘Lazy’ is something that the rest of the world takes at face value. Not him. The only currency the cynic accepts is effort.

And if you don’t feed him, he eats you.

U Srinivas: In Memoriam

Mandolin Srinivas — musician, star, prodigy, teacher, genius — passed away last week. His fingers will play no more, and there will be no more music. The words feel absurd coming out from my fingers on to the keyboard, and the thought even more alien.
I set out to write not an obituary, but a tribute instead; something that, like his music, would spread joy and wonder for a few fleeting moments.

I can’t.

Instead, all I can do is link to some of those wonderful pieces of music, and some memories and recollections with which I made a unique world of music for myself. All and every single bit of it the giving of this singular genius.

The Upstart

He was an upstart in many, many ways. Adapting and bringing the mandolin to the Carnatic tradition was but the beginning. As part of Remember Shakti, he was unquestionably the star, even amongst the giants that surrounded him on stage. Keeping beat with Zakir Hussain and Selvaganesh, bringing Shankar Mahadevan back on track; and far, far outpacing that legend, John McLaughlin. Those who have seen videos of those concerts know what I am talking about – the effort to keep up, the disbelief, and then the wry smile as tacit acknowledgement of genius from McLaughlin. I don’t agree with TM Krishna’s “reservations about his music”; to me, the “dazzle” and “razzmatazz” were as much expressions of artistic inspiration as the silences that Krishna talks about. Yes, those silences even I was a fan of; I will come to those.

The Uneasy Prodigy

Of course everyone has memories of the child prodigy years now, created after the fact thanks to videos on YouTube and recordings on the internet. The child playing a Bindumalini as stark and haunting as the big eyes that remained with him to the end; the prodigy of house concerts, and simple, sweet tracks alike. Yet little things stayed from those early beginnings up until years later. In one recording, I remember, Srinivas is introducing a kriti and concludes with “… the composer is .. Thyagaraja”. An awkward silence, then a hurried correction – “Saint Thyaragaja”. And just like that, with no other fanfare, the music is center-stage.

The Star

Of course, as time went on, the child became a fixture in the world to which he had bought entry for himself and his novel instrument. My earliest — and very likely my very last — memory of Mandolin Srinivas remains (and will remain) two sublime, short tracks recorded in 1992. I was introduced to them much later, but Palukavemi Naa Dheivama and Nenarunchara will retain pride of place in my heart. No single event illustrated the community’s embrace of this greenhorn-turned-giant of the field quite like the annual Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru; not a single one would be complete without him. In later years, a sublime Marubalka in Sriranjani.

The Teacher

Yet U Srinivas did not cease his contributions to the world of Carnatic music with just the addition of the mandolin — in front of his name, and to the list of instruments expressive enough for the system. He was a teacher everywhere he went, and a much sought-after one. And just as he picked up the instrument as a child, so he encouraged and inspired other children to do the same.

The Silence

And the silences. Some of my most enduring memories of that mandolin are single notes emanating from it, seemingly outlandish and impossible notes — the ragalapana in Karaharapriya, the unexpected twist at the frenzied climax of a Mahaganapathe; and most of all, the lone, singular note that marked the beginning of Nattai and Mahaganapathim.

I could spend an entire lifetime wondering about that Nattai, how the most staid of notes can trigger the senses even after a thousand times. And I did. I spent what seemed like a happy, blessed eternity sitting in the very back of an empty auditorium once, as U Srinivas tuned his way through a routine soundcheck before yet another concert. Of course no one else can attest to this; of course there is no recording. And of course it was just a soundcheck. And of course the genius on stage had absolutely no knowledge of my presence. These are all incongruities, just as today I turn this heartfelt tribute into a less palatable personal recollection.

But it doesn’t matter.

In that moment, it had all been worth it. The cocoon of music, the hours of obsession, the endless wonder at the depths of the genius; they all came together to mold the perfect memory.


Today, we are without those notes and the music. Only the silence remains, and the magician who could disperse a single note to turn it into bliss is gone forever. We have lost an upstart, a prodigy, a star, a teacher. A man with a genius that was enigmatic when you first glimpsed it, fleeting when you began to understand it — a genius that was cruel in the promises and desires that it left us with. U Srinivas didn’t merely play an instrument. He left us all wondering how.