Were you the nit who decided
that north is up, south is down,
west is left, and east is right?
Are you the hack who rhymed
“West” with “the best”,
and not “pest” or “infest”?
Is yours the East
that’s a mythical beast,
or, at the very least,
a weird sensory feast?
And are those things lining your soles
a pair of tiny magnetic poles?

In Space, every which way
is this-way-that-way.
Ignore all imaginary arrows,
only go by what your eyes can see,
travel far enough in a straight line,
and all norths become souths,
and all easts turn west.
Directions are meaningless
for excellent reasons
when you’re a cosmic turtle:
world-burdens are lightest
when down is also up.

In my unoriented map of India,
Kanyakumari is its crown,
while Kashmir is its spiky,
furry, prehensile tail.
Dravidanadu is the head and chest,
and MP, its queasy belly.
Gujarat and Assam
are its outstretched hands
(or perhaps the hems of its frock),
Bengal is a saucy hip,
Kerala, a bloodied lip,
and the NCR is on its knees.

“Quit messing around,” you sass.
“You can’t turn this country on its ass!”
“Shall I put the Centre here,” I ask,
“in the middle, next to its…
uh… place of business?
This makes both strategic
and semantic sense, yes?”
“No, you urban naxal,
the Centre always sits on top.
Nations can’t be ruled
from below the belt!
Brains can’t be stored in one’s legs!”

Because you’re such a mussel
(shellfish, mass of nerves,
and not an octopus
(eight twisty limbs
and nine twisty brains),
my omnidirectional atlas remains closed
to you and your crusty kind.
You may return once you’ve grown
an extra heart or two,
and ink sacs with the power
to blot out every latitude.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

His Lordship blinks awake.
“Whuh? Where am I?”
First and final of his ilk,
Right and Honourable,
Peerless peer, master tactician,
“And blind as a bloody mole rat.”
At 3a.m., hungry like the wolf,
He trips and fumbles out of bed,
And launches himself into the void.
“A nice sandwich would hit the spot.
Perhaps a mug of cocoa too…
But where the hell are my glasses?”

Purple-robed, specs-less Cyril
Scurries through the labyrinthine corridors,
Hands outstretched,
A just-resurrected mummy.
“I’m a velveteen mutant ninja rat!
An International Thuggee of Mystery!”
The shadows bend and twist,
Strip away from the walls,
Swirl, wrap, and tighten around his head,
Layering it like a too-large turban.
“Who knows what evil lurks
In the hearts of men? Not me, Bob!”

That big silver blur – “Ah, there’s the fridge.”
Thence, he conscripts his troops:
Cheese and pickled gherkins,
A sliver of roast beef, some lettuce,
And a dash of Wooster.
He deploys them between
Three fat slices of yesterday’s loaf,
And halves the assemblage
With practised ease
(The way he partitioned
Circles and polygons
As a student of geometry;

Or cultures and peoples,
As an occludent of geography):
Sharp, quick, straight down the middle,
Never mind a few errant crumbs.
“Diagonal cuts are for pansies!”
He devours one half,
And throws the other to the dogs.
Nothing ever goes to waste,
Not in this household, no sir.
And this is a resonant philosophy,
For, in another era, in a different mansion,
Time eats its own tail –

A similarly Honourable Prime Minister,
On his third and final hour of sleep,
Sweats and tosses as he dreams
Of choking to death on breadcrumbs.
His struggles are watched by an old white man
In a turban made of shadow.
Lord Cyril (for this is his restless spectre)
Offers pithy advice in lieu of first aid:
“In hindsight, Mr. M, I’ve learnt
To value vision over eyesight.”
Even this nightmare can be escaped,
Of course, if one simply were to awaken.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

I’ve grown to hate new year’s resolutions, because they’re invariably too ambitious, vague, and easy to shirk. It’s all too familiar and frustrating: the abandoned gym membership, the unused Rosetta Stone package, the new musical instrument that’s still in its case six months later, etc., etc. And I’m speaking as a victim here. I’ve been seduced, groomed, suckered and abused by the self-improvement industry nine ways to sunday. I wised up eventually, but only after I’d spent too much of my earnings on hobbies and skills that never truly materialised.

I now prefer to-do lists. (I’m not splitting hairs, no, and yes, there is a distinction.) I find to-do lists to be more practical than resolutions simply because they’re so mundane. Resolutions have a grand, life-altering quality to them, whereas to-do lists are purely administrative. Minimal ambition = minimal anxiety. This, to me, makes to-do lists more approachable.

I like lists containing easy, actionable items that build up imperceptibly, tricking me into hitting my grander goals. I set these to relaxed, unthreatening timelines. And since I’m only answerable to me, I always forgive myself if I don’t get all the way to the end of my list come December. (My new mantra is to embrace my failures and renounce all guilt. It’s been very freeing.)

Last year, I had set four big goals for myself: to read more, to write more, to get better at playing guitar, and to dedicate some time each day to just sit back and space out. I didn’t give myself a lot to do in the first two instances, except to remind myself periodically to carve out time for each. I’d decided in advance that my primary focus for 2019 would be music.

Here’s the music-learning list I made last January:

Guitar goals

1. Try and practice for at least 20 minutes each day. (No pressure.)

2. Get comfortable with open chords by Feb. ’19

3. Learn one pattern each for the minor and major pentatonic scales by March ’19

4. Learn all notes of one key (A/E) by April ’19

5. Understand the basic theory of modes by April ’19

6. Play as often as possible. Keep the guitar next to the desk, within reach.

7. Visualise and get comfy with the fretboard layout by Dec. ’19

Harmonica goals

1. Practice and acquire better breath control by Feb. ’19

2. Learn the layout and notes on the A harp by March ’19

3. Perfect 3rd position playing by June ’19

4. Learn 10 new turnarounds by Dec. ’19

5. Attempt more jazz

I pinned this ^ directly above my work desk, so it would be hard to evade. Here’s how the list panned out:

I ended up discarding my harmonica goals altogether, a few months down the line, because I was getting a ton of practice at weekly jams with my various bands (all four have since fizzled out, alas). There’s really no substitute for playing with other musicians, for learning with a real-world context, and I was lucky to have access to this luxury all through 2019.

On the guitar list, I not only got through most of my tasks without trouble, but I also managed to supplement my practice schedule with a couple of months of one-on-one lessons with a friend who’s a professional guitarist, which strengthened my rudiments (especially strumming techniques) immeasurably. By the end of the year, I had a repertoire of ten or eleven songs that I could play decently; I’d figured out the blues scale well enough to play intermediate-level solos across the fretboard in any given key; I’d learned a few flat-picking patterns, better bends, pull-offs, hammer-ons and other techniques to spice up my strumming; and I’d finally understood how to practically apply the circle of fifths. Not too shabby, considering I’d started out being only able to improvise a little blues in E, and to play four or five basic open chords.

This year, now that my daily guitar practice happens more or less on autopilot, I’ve decided to focus my annual to-do list on reanimating my zombie reading and writing habits. Rather than go into the many reasons for setting such a goal, I’m simply going to trust your perspicacity and share my lists with you as is (this is also for my own benefit — putting them up so publicly will, I hope, embarrass me into action):

Reading in 2020

1. Identify ten or fifteen books to read during the first four months of the year [this part is done — ref. the new book pile in the photo above], and attempt to read them all. Get at least halfway through each book before giving up!

2. Set the customary GoodReads reading challenge of a 100 books. Try and achieve at least 70% of this goal. (No pressure.)

3. Listen to more audiobooks (rather than music or podcasts) during long walks. Schedule four such walks per week.

4. Read for at least four or five hours each week. This is NOT asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!)

Writing in 2020

1. Try and write for at least five hours per week, divided up based on convenience and daily demands. (WRITE NEW MATERIAL, instead of endlessly plotting or rewriting existing chapters.) Five hours a week REALLY ISN’T asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!) Stock-take by Feb. end, by which time at least three new chapters should be completed. (No pressure.)

2. Preface each writing session with a ten-minute meditation, in order to create a tiny buffer between this hour and all the other distractions of the day. Spend the first few minutes jotting down a brief outline of what to write in that session. Put down pen and zone out for a few minutes, to let that outline take vivid form in the imagination. Now WRITE.

3. Write without pausing, without stopping to research or rewrite stuff, tempting though that might be. And when the momentum starts to flag, take a breather, jot down ideas for how to proceed from this point, STOP WRITING, and move on with the day. (Resume tomorrow.)

4. Start pitching feature articles to periodicals again. (It’s never too late to revive lapsed skills.) Have something published by April / May.

5. Complete and refine all pending poetry ideas. Take it one at a time. Relax and enjoy the process. Write on weekends only, for two hours per week.

6. For the love of all things holy, please complete and send out pending assignments / manuscripts, you lazy bastard.

7. Hot tip: since oversharing book-related plans and narratives always seems to lead to insecurity and paralysis, don’t talk about the work, and just work.

Keen readers will note that I haven’t included health goals in any of these lists. It’s definitely a major concern for this year, as well as the decade ahead. I’ve been growing a sizeable midsection, my sinuses are chronically fucked, and my joints are always on the verge of seizing. I’m making a list to tackle these problems too, but (in the spirit of point 7 ^ in my writing list) its contents are none of your goddamn business 🙂

What are your goals for 2020? What are you reading these days? Do you believe in scheduling the good habits you want to assimilate? Do you prefer resolutions or lists? Does it matter? Will any of us survive long enough to see our plans implemented? Will we learn to love the bomb? (Can we please just let the drones fight it out?) Can AI create better politicians? Will Disney kidnap Martin Scorsese and force him to make a superhero film? Can we unleash graffiti artists on all the bleached corals? Is Elon Musk the first human clone? So many questions…

If you have any compelling methods or theories with regard to any of the above, please write in and tell me. (No pressure.)

In 2010, I was 27, invincible, arrogant, all mixed-up, and primed to hit adulthood with everything I (thought I) had. I had just foolishly accepted the calamitous job of setting up and running a new science magazine for one of India’s grand old publishing companies, which also meant I was making fancy money for the first time in my working life, and I had recently found the love of a beautiful, funny and kind woman who was willing to ignore my eccentricities, my moodiness, my tardiness, my physical imperfections, and accept me fully for the odd bird I was.

This was that glorious alignment of events that would define my life and career, I was certain. It was all happening. What wonders would follow? Perhaps I would finally finish that novel I had been rewriting and discarding once every year like clockwork. Or perhaps I would work on making that big movie I had been putting off ever since film school (for lack of funds, people, better ideas, drive, energy, [insert list of excuses]). The air was still somewhat breathable, Lonesome George was still alive, and the future looked eminently editable. The blues was only my favourite genre of music, and not yet the defining narrative template for all of existence.

Well, shit.

I am 37 today, entirely different, and perhaps even a bit upgraded, simply for having been repeatedly broken down and remade until I have been left with no edge, minimal airs, and the fewest of fucks to hand out for free. There is a lot of perspective to be gained from a constant state of agitation. The last decade took three grandparents from me, but it also gave me a marriage and a lovely new family. During its course, I had to carefully navigate the abduction of a loved one by a set of hardened international criminals, but this event also restored (some of) my faith in our country’s bureaucracy. The science magazine I had put so much thought and effort into was subverted, broken down, shut down and sold, but exiting it also returned me to children’s books (an industry that I had entered only half-heartedly back in 2002, and had roundly rejected by the end of the Noughties — I am now in it for the long haul, minus all prior misgivings).

I quit a job that came with big perks and a clear long-term trajectory, but it led me to starting a studio that brought me some truly fun branding projects. I lost much of my good health, which I took for granted thus far, to unexpected new allergies and chronic ailments, but these setbacks also led me to martial arts, which in turn led me to rediscover yoga, meditation, and a cleaner diet. My depression intensified in several respects, but its recurrence also gave me better insights into how to manage it (and sometimes even harness it). Nearly twenty years since I began the attempt, I am still writing, discarding and rewriting that old novel, but I am getting more disciplined at the process of writing, my ideas are clearer, and I now know better than to discard the map and turn back the moment I hit an uphill stretch.

And then there is the music, my one true love. In this decade, I have learnt to play blues harmonica, and sing well enough to play live gigs, and hold my own while jamming with seasoned pros. (My fourteen-year-old self would be proud!) But I have also been in at least four bands and multiple music projects that died premature deaths, and the slow decay of the Bangalore music scene has been heartbreaking to watch. It’s always great until it sucks, and vice versa.

Many crises will carry over into tomorrow’s decade: the precarious state of India’s democracy and its economy, the erosion of liberal values and the rise of authoritarianism across the world, the seemingly irreparable condition of our environment, the endless landslide of species loss, etc., etc., etc. I know it’s probably mawkish, given the horror of this situation, to talk of silver linings, but my experience of the past decade has taught me one thing above all: to value optimism. The tough part is in defining that optimism within an achievable framework. And so my wish for you, in this new decade, in your unknowable new future, is that same optimism — a cautious, precise optimism, but also an ultimately liberating one.

Happy new year!