“Only connect,” said E. M. Forster, and Parmesh Shahani couldn’t agree more as he journeys from Mumbai’s Lakme Fashion Week to the Edinburgh International Culture Summit


We spiced things up this season at Lakmé Fashion Week. Instead of taking our Godrej India Culture Lab to the LFW venue as a pop-up, we hosted an LFW event on our Lab’s Vikhroli premises itelf. Author Sharanya Manivannan, (whose book The High Priestess Never Marries is out on the stands this month) flew in from Chennai to read a sensual poem, an ode to her clothes left behind in another country. “Things I bought as much for the undressing as for the dress,” she read out in her silky voice. “Vine of bells for the wrist, twins of the same for the ankles, so a lover might learn the sound of a bed being left. Batik boots — those leopard-print boots ribboned up to the thigh, loved once and boxed ever since….” By the time she was done, my eyes were closed and I had reclined in my seat, wistfully…with a half-smile on my face.

Our feisty panel discussion jolted me out of my reverie. For this, Sharanya was joined on stage by Nisha Susan, the founder of The Ladies Finger website, legendary designer Anita Dongre, craft revivalist Laila Tyabji, and actor and internet phenomenon Mallika Dua. Laila spoke about how fashion was just a formalised way of finding your identity. Anita echoed this by adding that if feminism is all about being what you are, fashion is about choosing what you want to be.

Both Aditi and Sharanya raised important points about how fashion often stereotypes women either through the lens of skin colour or body size. “Being dark-skinned and short, I was made to feel I didn’t have the right to be or feel beautiful,” shared Sharanya. Mallika revealed that casting directors were always telling her to lose weight. “Otherwise, you’ll get only the chubby girl parts!” Indeed, a feminist agenda for fashion would mean breaking out of these limited boundaries, and we need to encourage initiatives like Christian Siriano’s diverse runway at the recently concluded New York Fashion Week that included many models that were size 14 and 16, or Wendell Rodricks’ show at this time’s LFW which had a range of ‘real women’ slaying it on the catwalk.

Labour was another key thing that was discussed on our panel — whether one’s own personal labour as a woman, or the collective labour by women that goes into producing fashion — either in factories or in the handicraft sector. Laila Tyabji pointed out the hypocrisy that many upper-middle-class and rich people (but not you, dear Verve readers, I am sure you are not like this, right?) practise while buying from craftspersons. “They will bargain for 250 rupees but not over a 2,000-rupee shirt in the mall. This has got to change.”

In India, as elsewhere, our crafts are a form of storytelling and when we support them, we support stories told by women, added Tyabji. Organisations like Dastkar have empowered women artisans who use their knowledge of traditional embroidery and weaving, and as Laila emphasised, “supporting them supports the feminist movement and creates a new wave of feminists”. Perhaps this is something that our new textile minister Smriti Irani should recognise as she goes about her mission.

Blogger Pallavi Datta (of Pallavi Style Diaries fame) had created a unique fashion display at our event. Nearly a 100 years after the publication of writer Munshi Premchand’s works, she had interpreted the female protagonists of his novels — Nirmala, Dhaniya, Suman, Malati, Jalapa — through today’s women wearing contemporary labels like Anavila.



Here is an excerpt from what Pallavi wrote on her blog about Dhaniya, the heroine of Premchand’s Godaan, that Geetu Hinduja had essayed for Pallavi’s exhibit: “How did Dhaniya develop this sense of righteousness? Uninformed and stranger to literature, to see through the farce of gifting a cow to a Pundit to ensure passage to salvation when her society has tattooed that very belief on her since her childhood and bound her tight in a false notion of ‘Niyam’ (rules)? From where did she, living a deprived life, develop such grace and deep reserve of benevolence? I feel the deprivation of Dhaniya in our society today, for she surely would stand up and save the helpless, terrified youngsters from barbaric ‘mercy killings’ or perhaps shelter the girl infants from their butcherly deaths and raise them as her own and create a ruckus when a girl is being preyed on, vulture like, by creeps. Where did we lose her among moot bystanders? Though, sometimes, I do see her as a lower-middle-class grandmother who stands by her gay grandson or as a mother who defends her daughter’s choice to not marry or as an air hostess who saves a young girl from a farce-like marriage with an old man. I salute them, these tribal warriors, who lead their lives boldly ruled by the moral compass of their soul.”

It is a powerful phrase — ‘moral compass of one’s soul’. Something that we all need to reflect on. How many of us privileged folks live our own lives this way? I was thinking about it all the way to the Edinburgh International Culture Summit at the Sottish Parliament at which I was invited to speak.

The Scottish Parliament is housed in a gorgeous building designed by the late architect Enric Miralles. It was my privilege to meet one of today’s global heroes — Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, director-general, Antiquities and Museums, in Syria, Damascus. He had the foresight to persuade the Syrian government to shut down all museums in Syria in 2012 and transfer all their artefacts to a secret location, far away. Because of his leadership and foresight, over 90 per cent of Syria’s artefacts are still preserved today, in spite of the terrible civil war in the country. Despite this victory, he described himself to us as “the saddest director-general” of any global museum. Syria’s antiquities may be safe, but the damage to sites, especially in Aleppo, is irreversible, and we only need to see the news each night to learn about the tragedy Syria’s innocent people are facing, caught in the crossfire.

All you Verve readers, if you think that this damage to museums far away has no consequence to you then you are wrong. Our world is interconnected and has always been. So in Syria’s history, there is also Greek and Roman history and this is why so many international organisations are supporting Professor Abdulkarim in his mission. Likewise, when the Bamiyan statues get blown up in Afghanistan, it is a loss not just for Afghanistan, but also for us in India, and indeed, the whole world, as Buddhism has no geographical barrier.

Truly, we are all connected and the sooner we realise and respect that, the better it will be. Recognising the connectedness means working with differences. Living on multiple borders, geographical, historic and also imaginary, and breaking boundaries between the governments, corporations, NGOs and citizen initiatives in working towards a common future.

At the Summit’s opening dinner, Scottish National Poet Jackie Kay, gave us a poignant performance of her poem Threshold. She spoke out the word ‘welcome’ in many languages, including Hindi, because “one language is never enough”. All of us in the audience didn’t understand each and every language — but we could feel the underlying feeling. When we commit ourselves to polyphony, to building bridges instead of walls, we also commit ourselves to understanding, or at least trying to understand the other.



This is something that author Jerry Pinto has always believed in, and this is why he has committed himself to translation. His first translation in 2013 was Marathi film-maker Sachin Kundalkar’s novel Cobalt Blue, followed by one of the first Dalit autobiographies in Marathi, Daya Pawar’s Baluta in 2015 and Marathi, Gujarati and Marwari theatre artiste Vandana Mishra’s I, the Salt Doll earlier this year. Next year, he will release Marathi writer Malika Amar Sheikh’s autobiography Mala Udhvasta Whaychay, that recounts Sheikh’s tempestuous marriage to Marathi writer, poet and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal.

By the time you read this column, Jerry will be at Yale, collecting his Windham-Campbell Prize and its attached purse of 1,50,000 dollars. This is truly Jerry’s year — he was always prolific — but what began as a bang with the release of Em and the Big Hoom has become a dhamaka now, and I could not be more proud of him.

We hosted Jerry for a talk at our Lab before he left and he spoke about what gets lost but more importantly what gets found in translation. “All literature is translation” he said. “Imagine a world without Homer, the Mahabharata, the Bible, imagine a world without Basho….” He recounted E. M. Forster who in two words, summed up human existence so well. “Only connect.”



While in Edinburgh I also managed to connect to the Fringe Festival, which is one of the 12 festivals that take place in the city, attracting 4.5 million visitors. It was also a brilliant idea to take in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo — billed as the greatest show on the planet. After witnessing it live, I would have to agree. A parade of international military bands performing on the esplanande of the imposing Edinburgh Castle, fireworks, light and sound, stunts on motorbikes, horses and much more. It was like a mega Bollywood experience. The Tattoo now gets a live audience of 2,20,000 people every year and a televised audience of 100 million people from 40 countries. What I loved more than the military pomp and ceremony were the pop culture cutaways — like the Star Wars projections on the castle ramparts, or the US military band breaking into Jack Rabbit Slims, the Travolta-Thurman dance number from Pulp Fiction.



I also swung by London for a couple of days after Edinburgh, mainly to eat one of the meals of my life at Michelin star chef Jason Atherton’s Berners Tavern. I had heard so much about the restaurant that I checked into the swanky Edition Hotel in which it’s located just to make sure I get a table. It didn’t disappoint. After years of curry coma, contemporary British cusine is coming back in a big way now. Atherton sources the freshest ingredients from all across the UK and cooks up dishes like traditional British pork pie or a mac and cheese with oxtail…. Simple on the outside, but divinity in the first bite.



*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder
that appears in Verve magazine each month.