Discovering Narratives is a recurring series of G5A Imprint, where we bring together practitioners to have contemplative, quiet, in-depth, and organic conversations that begin with a singular point: a book, a painting, or a piece of music in the hope that this will allow both of them to unpack the layers of their work and approach.
What is extraordinary about Bread Cement Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation, Annie Zaidi’s new book, is that it weaves the personal quest (if one may use an old-fashioned, Arthurian fantastical word) that traverses many geographies in search for the meaning and location of home, with astute political observation as filtered through ideas of justice, equality and the inevitable antonymous concepts of power and greed.
I had the pleasure of talking, or rather, of engaging in an epistolary conversation over email, with Annie, about the book. As I started to frame my enquiry, I was trying to decide how to enter a work that is a memoir and also an essay, or more correctly, a series of essays that examine the edges, the contours, the shapes and the limits of human societal structures. As I read I envisage these structures as jagged entities living in uneasy balance with each other, scrabbling for power, carving out territory, the stronger always ready to subsume the other. Annie succeeds in looking at this jagged uneasy landscape she writes about through the lenses of justice and balance, bringing to the narrative, the intimacy of her own trajectory. Her approach grounds the work, it grounds the questions she poses, making them only more meaningful as a result. I came to the realisation that I had to engage with the book through the informality of the personal.
With the distance imposed upon us by lockdown, each bound in our spaces, I began to read about the remote industrial township of JK Puram in Rajasthan where Annie grew up: ‘A township like this was a set of tasks and norms. It fed you but it didn’t ground you.’ I moved from JK Puram to the villages outside its walls where the original tribal inhabitants of the area have been settled; dispossession is what this is about. The journey extends to a mofussil kasba in eastern UP and phrases like ‘native place’ began to enter the narrative. The complexity of language, of Urdu and its conflation with religion and the tension that causes even in the anonymity of the great metropolis of Mumbai is examined while Annie learns to read and write Urdu and says, ‘slowly, I am becoming the possession of my mother’s mother’s mother tongue.’ The cruel contemporary history of our country and the changing shape of its inner and outer boundaries literal, political, Constitutional and philosophical is brilliantly excavated by Annie in order to ‘make sense of this fragile thing called home’.
The beginning of this book is brilliant. You move so quickly from your own very particular personal history into the history of the disenfranchised and the history of the land and its wanton exploitation. Perhaps move is the wrong word, you are weaving in your story with the story of how everyone but the most disempowered is culpable in abusing and manipulating anything that is more vulnerable, most of all the earth.
For the reader, it is an entry into your thinking, your political leanings, but also your personal response to injustice. And of course, into the special, self-contained world in which you grew up.
Did you know this was what you were going to write about? Was your story already an investigation into justice? Or did it emerge from revisiting JK Puram, first in your head, and then physically?
Yes, I did know the broad themes I was going to write about. While this is a memoir, and I was always going to use my own experiences to think about the various themes in the book, it was also clear to me that there isn’t enough in my own life that’s comment-worthy. I was, after all, only one of a few hundred little girls who grew up in that industrial township, and there are dozens of those across India. I myself did not think of my childhood, as remarkable. It was dull, as many middle-class childhoods are, with the occasional school play or dance being the highlight of the season. However, once I moved to Mumbai and began work as a journalist, many of my old assumptions crumbled. I didn’t know it yet, but looking back, I see – I was learning to think critically.
Our school system does not prepare us to think critically. It gives us a syllabus to imbibe, not to challenge. Questions are barely tolerated. There is no in-class discussion or grading system at the secondary or senior levels, or even at the undergraduate. In a country like India, I also see how this would be very problematic. With caste and communal divisions and vast linguistic differences, an internal grading system could so easily be misused in order to discriminate further. But grading aside, most of our teaching tends to stifle independent thought. We are not even taught the difference between critical thinking and criticism of thinkers. One major advantage I had was that I was left alone to read. Books were encouraged, even though in my case, the literature available to me was fairly tightly monitored. It was age appropriate for the most part. However, I was reading well above my age since I was about eight. I was reading Dickens at 9, Thomas Hardy at 13, Tolstoy at 14, which is not to say that I understood any of it. I was just greedy for stories. However, you can’t read Tolstoy and Hardy and Dickens and George Eliot, or even Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, without developing some instinct for criticisms of entrenched systems. I had not learnt to criticize society myself but I learnt to think about texts in a more critical fashion in my late teens. And in learning to be a journalist, confronted with all sorts of problems – poverty, justicial systems, violence, lack of infrastructure, healthcare – I suddenly understood that things can be quite different from what you’ve been told. My work ultimately led me into contact with adivasi and other non-adivasi rural communities, and I understood a little more about environment and land use and mineral extraction rights. It was only then that my mind flew back to my childhood and I began to think about it from a fresh perspective. I realised that I had lived somewhere for over 11 years and had never even strolled through the nearest town, Sirohi. I had no memory of anything except the school and the hills, and so I had to return to look at it with grown-up eyes.
There are so many compounded injustices that I have learnt I cannot keep at the forefront of my mind but must suppress in order just to function and proceed with life. It is not a blanking out, rather a compartmentalising, a siloing technique that I, and I imagine many people, must exercise in order to avoid paralysis and execute the quotidian and manage the creative.
Recently I was reading about memory and the many theories that exist about the way memories are stored in the brain. One such proposes that it is not the memory itself that is stored in the brain, but a trigger. When the trigger is reawakened, a neural pathway is reawakened and regenerates the information, and we reconstruct our experience of the past – and what is fascinating is that the reconstruction is informed by the context of the present. This makes me think of your closing comment in the previous email about your memoir.
One thing I have learnt though is that even when I consciously attempt to bury a memory, there is always seepage. Seepage that confounds the devices I try to use to control and manage the memory, and permit entry into difficult and painful knowledge in a measured way. One such tragedy that refuses to be stilled now, after reading your book, is the excavation and destruction of the ancient Aravalli hills.
We have to get some repairs done in my mother’s house and have decided to try and manage the risk of Covid-19 to address the more urgent of them as the lockdown lifts. When I ask the contractor and the mason if we can find ways to fix leaks without using cement, they are completely uncomprehending. Will I be able to do the research and identify alternative, and effective methods? I retreat and accept that I must use the means I have of writing and drawing to justify, or rather, come to terms with the bags of cement that will soon line the driveway.
Triggers, writing, drawing: this brings me to the rich, strong drawings by your mother that illustrate the book. She is, as emerges through the text, a key link in the memory chain that runs through this book. So many questions about the images come to mind – the elements, the composition, the collaboration, the relationship, the friendship, the shared memories, the cross-pollination…. Could you tell us about how these illustrations came about and the process by which they did.
The loss of history and cultural memory has this sad consequence too – we lose knowledge that could actually help us conserve the planet. This loss ranges from something personal and small – like not knowing how to darn socks – to something important for the community – not knowing how to preserve food – to knowledge that affects the planet, like not knowing how to build without factory-grade cement. Our ancestors used to be able to build with stone, wood, mud, and the buildings would last at least a couple of generations, which is not bad. We did use limestone of course, and other materials, before there were any cement factories. The question is – how much resource extraction and manufacture is necessary, for what purpose?
The illustrations were not conceived of as part of the book initially. When I turned in a first draft and met with my editor at Cambridge University Press and the prize manager, we began to discuss the look and feel of the book. I had offered a seminar a few days before and rather than simply read from the work, I tried to talk alongside pictures, which was a first for me. I thought some pictures might make it easier to convey a little of the landscape and the issues I was describing. The distinction between the Himalayas and the Aravallis or ‘western ghats’ is not immediately apparent to those who don’t live here, nor is everyone familiar with the map of the Indian Subcontinent and how Partition changed it. Later, when we began to discuss the book, the question of pictures came up. I had some personal photos but obviously, I am not a professional and they were not very good photos. Clearing maps and other images for copyright and permissions would have been another long process and there was no guarantee I could get them. Besides, there was no budget to acquire or commission fresh images.
That’s when I remembered that Mom is an artist. She had illustrated one of my short novels, Gulab, before as well as the publicity poster for my documentary film, In Her Words. She has painted since she was a very young woman, and she did illustrate a children’s alphabet book too. That was decades ago but I had scanned some of those old watercolours and I showed them to Chris and Jane, who both agreed that she should be persuaded to contribute some illustrations to this book too. So when I came back to India, I began to persuade her. She agreed to try something in ink but insisted on reading my text first. I had told her that she could paint something from memory, or from old photos, or draw an object freehand, anything at all! But she wanted the drawings to capture or condense the various themes in each chapter. So she would sometimes look for visual references, but broadly she composed each illustration on the page, as a sort of narrative in itself.
How marvellous – a story alongside a story, in word and drawing.
Yes, you are right, the ‘loss of history and cultural memory’, as you put it in your previous mail, is something that people don’t seem to recognise and only mourn when it is too late.
Yet, isn’t it ironic that one’s cultural roots, the memory of where we are from, seems to hold so much value to most people in this country. Our antecedents, family and community networks mean something important even in today’s world, and appear to help people identify, define, connect, place themselves. This sense of place has, to a large extent, survived colonial displacement, and modern mobility into varyingly distant diasporic spaces. You bring up how the idea of the ‘native’ or the ‘native place’ still resonates. (Like many words, we have absorbed and taken on ‘native’, absolving it from its former colonial meaning that is unequivocally acknowledged as ‘offensive’). You speak, in your Introduction, of a sentence used in north India to emphasise that connection – the place where your ‘ancestor’s umbilical cord is buried’. In the south, among many communities, a place of origin, a native place forms part of a person’s name, and in the modern format of first name and last name, often the place name becomes the last name, linking generations irrevocably with distant, unknown soil
Perhaps it is precisely about that idea of feeling ‘safe’ which you bring up in the context of language, a feeling that you belong to or are part of something that has a deeper, more ancient meaning which this identification with the native place is all about. Of course, you also dash that sentimental hearth-and-home interpretation to pieces with ‘Origin myths decide who has first claim on bread and stone, cotton and salt. The question of who is from where, translates as who can dis-possess whom.’
I love your story about responding to where you are from in your early journalism class. I also relate to the fact that you didn’t have a single word answer, a single geographic location to pin your identity too. It particularly highlights your unique and multiply informed cultural space. That uniqueness only makes your entry into the world of ‘Gur, Imarti, Goons’, the evocative heading of your second chapter, all the more fascinating. You are looking into a place and a world that is both yours and not yours, grasping and unravelling that fraying fabric that connects you with the native, looking at and into that place through the translucent sheer of the distressed weave of that fabric. Especially moving, particularly given the fact that you are not wearing rosy lenses, and are constantly and critically analysing the play of power and injustice is this statement: ‘On my first visit here, I found the soothing flatness of the horizon reach into some part of me that wants to be captured, the way trees capture earth.’ A fundamental recognition of a fundamental resonance with the geography of one’s land. This entry into your ancestral homeland is such an honest, earnest, real look at that place. And as a piece of writing, so well-structured.
I feel a great sadness – and I am fighting against falling into the complacence of mistaking sentiment for action – I feel a great sadness when I lay down this next sentence from your book and ask the question that follows. The sentence, again from early in the book, part of the book’s thesis, in a way, is: ‘I hadn’t yet been told that I didn’t belong in my own country, or that I had a smaller right to it.’ I want to cry out and say, ‘It’s not true, it’s not true.’ But who am I to say that? What right do I have that is different from yours to say so? And what power do I have to make such a statement?
So, to my question, when did you begin to feel that you had to question belonging to our country? When did you first think that you had a smaller right to our country?
Sentiment is indeed not action, though it is action-able. I feel that a big part of the problem with our times is that we have so much, an overload really, of actionable sentiments on account of an overload of information but it needs a trigger to translate into action, and that trigger occurs very rarely for us, especially those of us who have jobs or paying work, and plans for the near future. We forget that all our plans require peace and a measure of tolerance and solidarity and it is only when the damage appears overwhelming that we begin to think of action. I include myself here because I am slow to act on most fronts, considering and re-considering cause and effect.
To answer your question, I don’t think I ever questioned belonging to/with India. My question was more regional or location-specific. I was not interested in sports, so I wasn’t even drawn into cricket hostilities during India-Pakistan matches. However, I slowly grew aware Muslims in India were being taught to either question their own ‘place’ or being ‘taught’ their place. When I first heard the ‘you are Pakistani’ type of comments, I was ten or eleven years old perhaps. At the time, it did not seem aggressive. Rather, it felt like an aberration. It bewildered me, but it wasn’t a real question. My personal experience of anti-Muslim hostility came in the form of subtle cultural cues. In the form of anti-meat comments for instance. I remember a doctor in the colony. If you ever went to him with a tummy ache, he would ask whether you’ve been eating meat. And others, co-passengers in a jeep perhaps, interrogating your food habits, and feeling free to tell you that even if you did eat meat, you must never eat cow meat. All these conversations made me feel ‘different’. I have written about it in my first book of essays too – how we were one of only two Muslim families in that colony and how we visited that family on Eid. We joined others freely in Hindu festivals. We visited people on Diwali. But nobody visited us on Eid, unless we extended an invitation.
Even so, in the 80s there wasn’t an aggressive public conversation that would make me question my place or my rights. Even after 1992/93, I was too young and perhaps too sheltered to hear that question when it was being shoved into public discourse. It was only after 2002 that I became aware of how many people react to the existence of Indian Muslims with such great hostility. You did not need to have done or even said anything. The fact of being who you were put you at risk. The Parliament attack made things worse. There were various bomb blasts, and even when the blasts happened at sites associated with Muslim places of worship and in Muslim-majority areas, the needle of suspicion turned to Muslims, and there was always an implied Pakistan connection. More and more people began to question the loyalties of Indian Muslims, and this conversation did not change even after it turned out that some of these blasts were engineered by Hindu extremist groups, or when it was found that Muslim men had been killed in fake encounters or implicated in false cases, tortured for years in custody. To not know and to be misled into bigotry is one thing. But many people became aware of the truth, yet they chose to repeat or enact a narrative that treats Muslims as aliens, linking them to Pakistan in casual conversation, refusing to rent them homes, being suspicious of the Urdu script and so on. For me, this question has unfolded slowly rather than all at once, especially between 2006 (during that research trip across Gujarat that I’ve written about) and 2019, when the CAA-NRC came into being.
Thank you for responses to my previous observations and question. Your comment that you never doubted belonging to India, rather, that you were questioning your alignment with or to a region or location is an important point to emphasise. Thank you. Makes my rather dramatic cry out to you a little excessive. And yet, perhaps not, given your elaboration on anti-Muslim hostility.
Those triggers for action that you refer to – there is the individual response and engagement and the collective, and the latter needs momentum. The strong reaction to the imposition of the CAA/NRC against the shaking of the very foundations of belonging did build up that momentum before the pandemic, a force-gathering people’s movement. I thought that when the pandemic struck, the shock and outrage at the situation of the migrant labour that thrust the overwhelming reality of poverty and social injustice to the fore would also trigger such a momentum but, sadly, most of us devolved into our worst selves in the face of the crisis to the human race. Deeply discouraging.
I am going to switch registers in this section of our conversation. Reading your book, which is so finely crafted, I think about your writing. You have a facility with prose and poetry, with non-fiction and fiction. Not every writer has that diversity. Would you like to tell us a little about your writing? And about how and what drives the transition from non-fiction to fiction.
If I may elaborate: In your chapter ‘Listening to Mother’ where you address the complex power politics of language which leads, in such a strong, seamless way, to the contemporary realities of discrimination against Dalits, you bring up ‘Home’ by Dalit writer and activist Dalpat Chauhan’s, the translation of which from Gujarati into English by Hemang Desai, I believe, you read in Out of Print 35. Truly, the ability of fiction to distil and highlight an idea through story is immense. The chapter, ‘Grave Politics’ – what a very clever title – brought to mind the powerful story, ‘The Graveyard’ by Ali Akbar Natiq, translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi that appears in Out of Print 28 of which you were the guest editor. The story ‘delves into the politics of burials in a village, access to land, and exposes the way feudalism and class distinction undercuts every aspect of life, including death’. I know this may end up sounding like a promotional for Out of Print, it is just that I am immersed in the stories right now as I develop our tenth anniversary anthology, but when I was reading the chapter ‘Outsiders at Home’, there are so many works published in Out of Print that I thought of. Your story, ‘Sujatha’ that we published in September 2011 about a woman’s sole recourse to safety has stayed with me all these years. There is Divya A’s ‘Bride Barter’ from Out of Print 12 through which the lack of agency of women is so highlighted. And then we have the story in the current issue by Mariya Salim who works with gender violence that resonates with your comment when speaking about cases of ‘cruelty by husband and his relatives’ that many women ‘have ceased to think of damage to themselves as cruelty’.
There are many questions I also have about you as a writer entering the realm of poetry and how much influence your work in journalism has on your fiction and poetry, and how memoir evolved, and whether you maintain a journal … but let me step back and give you space to address your writing as you prefer to.
Thank you. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the book’s craft. A book, or an essay or story, really does involve craft, which one never has full access to. Writing really is like all arts and crafts in that one can only do the work – the heavy-lifting and the delicate touches and the polishing – and then step away from it, along with the hope that one’s efforts have pulled the observer or reader into a certain frame of mind without the hard work being too visible.
About my writing, I don’t think too much about its contours. Lots of writers set out to write a particular something. A novel. A screenplay. A play. Or they stick to a genre. Like, they may decide to write romantic novels, or detective fiction, and they are able to produce a series of similar books. I can’t do that. Rarely have I set out to write a play or a novel. I usually just follow instinct, not worrying too much about where the work is headed. I have rarely made conscious decisions about form. Reportage is different, of course, as is magazine writing. Journalism requires a certain circumscription in order for it to be recognised as factual and not be dismissed as a piece of whimsy. However, I do often mix memoir with reportage, and this is quite acceptable within the broad range of non-fiction writing. With everything else, I have often begun to write and cast about in the dark until I have a vague sense of what this is turning out to be.
I’ve been writing for a living too, so that does take up a lot of time. Whenever I have found time to work on my own ideas, I’ve put pen to paper (sometimes literally) and written a few lines or paragraphs. Sometimes ideas emerge very slowly. There’s just a paragraph for days, then I read something and the elusive connection between two disparate ideas becomes apparent and then I am on my way to an essay. Other times, a poem just tumbles onto the page. One kind of practise gets into the others. My journalism work has most certainly impacted everything else I write, including poetry. Ideas, images, research, all of it coalesces in unexpected form. The discipline of scriptwriting also spills over into fiction sometimes, as it did with my last novel, Prelude to a Riot. I set out to write a monologue, then a short story, and it ended up as a novel.
Influences and connections between ideas are often fortuitous. For instance, I was looking for non-fiction texts about ‘home’ when I stumbled upon the Dalpat Chauhan story published in Out of Print, which I liked of course. Then, a few weeks later, another writer friend actually sent me the same story, saying that it may be of interest. So I read it again. While reading it the second time, I was in the middle of writing my book, and the story illustrated so precisely the reality of land and caste relations that I simply had to refer to it. I do recall Natiq’s story too, and while I did not refer to it, I did think of it. It had a strong impact on me when I had first read it. It emphasized the ways in which dispossession follows people to the grave, or rather, to the lack of a grave, and how death can become an excuse to divide people further.
Writers are formed through reading. The more genres we read, the better equipped we are to slide between formats, and to creatively blur the lines. That said, I did also train myself. I went to a journalism college after all. And I joined peer review writing groups, signed up for workshops for poetry and scripts especially, ranging from a weekend to a year. I read and watch in at least two languages, occasionally more. So, my desire to dabble in various forms also comes from having been nourished by various forms. Many writers do this actually. We tend to forget because they do one thing so successfully that the other stuff gets buried or overlooked. A lot of writers do write in two or three forms. Some things you write because there’s money at stake. Some of it comes from craving novelty. I like to try my hand at new things. Just to see what happens. I fail sometimes, but that’s alright. Once I’ve managed to write something good, or even halfway decent in a new format, a new genre, it brings me joy.
And yes, I do journal now and then, and I am acutely aware that writing is a muscle and it can be broken or frozen. There are days and weeks when I don’t write. But by and large, over the last two decades, I have written almost every other day. A letter, or a blog post at the very least.
I have, in my notebook, my next response to Bread Cement Cactus … and my next. But there is a limit I must impose on the conversation, a limit defined by straightforward considerations such as respect for the author’s time, and other commitments, but also, importantly, one influenced by the shapes of our lives and how we must allow them to be read.
The conversation closes, therefore, with this last segment about writing and about craft. Annie Zaidi’s book Bread Cement Cactus pushes at boundaries, forces the reader to examine the meaning of crossing porous, osmotic barriers. I reflect on my passage through this book and am grateful, saddened, uplifted and warmed.
 Quotations that are not attributed are taken from Annie Zaidi’s Bread Cement and Cactus: A Memoir of belonging and Dislocation, Cambridge University Press, 2020 around which this conversation is based. Page numbers are not assigned so as not to pepper the conversation with footnotes.
 In Her Words: The Journey of Indian Women by Annie Zaidi for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust of India, 2015, a film in which I proud to feature too.