The djinn-saints of Delhi

There’s a djinn that lives next to the Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium in Delhi. His name is Laat Waale Baba (The Pillar Saint) and he’s older than the stadium and older than the British rule. Some whisper he’s even older than the city-fort which was built by Sultan Feroz Shah Tuglaq in 1356, after whom the stadium is named. Laat Waale and his assistants, thousands of other minor djinns, live in the skeletons of the once royal city. And they live royal lives. For they get a heap of letters and coins and prayers and fruits and sweets from worshippers every week.

The ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla

Come Thursday, be it sweltering hot or bone-chilling cold, hundreds of worshippers gather around the Minar-e-Zarreen, a 13.1 meter high, polished sandstone pillar that stands in the middle of the ruins. The pillar, which is believed to be the pathway for the djinn and his minor army, is surrounded by a protecting grill put up by the Archeological Survey of India who maintain the Tuglaq ruins. The worshippers stretch their arms through the grill, futilely to try and touch the pillar, their hands full of letters, photocopies and hope. After the trial to touch, they kiss the grill and tie up these letters, full of prayers. They even bring photocopies and photographs so they can post multiple letters to multiple minor djinns in case one of them is not heard. All letters are full of prayers and pleadings, asking for a wish or hoping the senior djinn or one of the minor ones will help them in matters of the heart, or marriage, of wealth or of health. Some even bring their possessed relatives for exorcism in ruined caverns with bats hanging upside down in the dampness, witnessing the thrashings and shrieks.

Letters to the djinns

A worshipper whispered to me that a hundred years ago, under the British rule, these ruins were haunted by ghosts and pretas and thugs and tantrics and dogs and bats and the Pillar djinn wasn’t a saint. He turned into one post Independence when partition changed the dynamics of the capital city. That’s when, people, maddened by grief of what humans could do to other humans, left with no hope and no other saints or gods, crawled to the ruins, clutching letters of hope. They turned to djinns when they saw the worse in human nature. For they hoped that djinns, who according to Islamic mythology live for centuries and are made of smokeless fire, might know something about life and dignity that humans forget. Continue reading “The djinn-saints of Delhi”

Five myths about an author

I’ve been writing books for six years now. When I began my journalist career more than a decade ago, I was sure I couldn’t write an article. It took me five years of wanting to write fiction, a Master’s degree, one failed novel and millions of procrastinating moments to finally do something that all blogs, all writers keep suggesting: write. After a year of stalling, I started to write fiction and once I did, I couldn’t stop. In the last five years, I’ve written six books, four of which are published and two lie at various edit levels. The longest of this, my first of Anantya’s series, Cult of Chaos, touched 1,20,000 words at manuscript stage. I became an author when I started to write (and not when I was published). Here are a few myths I’ve come across in my life as an author.

Myth 1: Writing is a hobby for them

If you want to get published, writing fiction is a creative business. Like any other commercial designer, you’re selling your ware in the market. If you look at writing as a hobby, there will be no sales involved, you will write whatever you feel like writing, chuck the rather painful process of editing. It will be pure art, and you won’t care two-hoots if it’s appreciated or understood by anyone else. For those who want to write this way, I suggest heading to a vanity publisher so they can distribute their books to friends and family. For the looners who want to publish a book with a commercial publisher, wake up to the fact that you’re starting a business. It would have all the pains of a new business. You have to present a spectacular product, polish it till it becomes commercially viable and acceptable, take the pains of editing it again and again and yet again at various levels,

Myth 2: Authors earn a lot

While interacting with students at IIT-Kanpur, one of them asked me, how much do I earn from writing book. I gave him a few figures, pittances mostly. He counter question was: ‘Then why do you write?’ I looked at him point blank and said that if he wanted to get into writing for the money of it (in spite of the fact that I think of it as a business), he was choosing wrong. Better to do a start-up and sell it for a few lakhs or millions. For majority of the authors don’t earn anything in comparison to the effort put into the making of the book. In India most publishers give you an advance on the book that’s calculated on how much the publisher thinks it’s going to sell. In hard figures, if you’re not a celebrity author and most are not, the advance is anywhere between Rs 2,000 for a children’s book to Rs 1,00,000 for what they call ‘genre fiction’. Many books never earn beyond the advance, so authors get no royalty beyond it. Each of these labours of love take around one year to write, edit, finish and market. And I am estimating a fast turn around. If you put the same year into a job, any job, even at a call center (which begins at Rs 25,000/month), you will earn much more than this book is going to give you. Keep this in your head so you’re not disappointed later on. If earning royalty is your motivation, most likely you’re headed for the depression pit.

Myth 3: They have it easy

‘Oh you work from home? That’s so nice. I wish I could do that.’: You will get it again and again and yet again. Writing was the hardest thing I took on myself and as you can see from the first sentence, this line of thought gets me burned up. Because I know that being an author is the most difficult person I will be. For one, there’s no security in this work. I can cease to be an author the minute I’m not writing or don’t have another book in my mind. It’s not easy, this constant insecurity I’ve to deal with.

Myth 4: Authors are naturally creative

As a lot of people who write will disagree to this. Creativity is like a friend who makes plans on Whatsapp and never really comes to meet up. It’s unreliable. What makes an author is not creativity, which all of us have to some extent, but hardwork, perseverance and determination to write, to pen down or to draw that spark that the creative soul’s left in us. To scratch that itch. Write everyday, even if you’re sick, busy, have a lot on your mind, stressed, feeling in dumps. Write even if no words come. Being at it constantly, chipping away the stone is what makes an author.

Myth 5: Authors are chaotic

Most of the ones I know are meticulously planned when it comes to the book they’re writing. They might have strewn a few books around, I know I do—papers and books and whatnots, but I know exactly what is there. There’s a method to that madness. Just that you might not see it.


For more tips on writing, head to this section. Know of any other myths you’ve heard? Please put them in the comment section below.


What Happened to Narasimha After He Killed Hiranyakashipu?

The sun is high and hot, slashing the skin, but the breeze and the swaying coconut trees soften it, scattering shadows and cooling the meandering unpaved path I follow. The long, deceiving coconut leaves suddenly move to reveal the monolith I search for. Six and a half meters tall, the monolith of Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu, overpowers me, making me feel helpless and tiny, an ant standing infront of an incensed elephant.


He sits there cross-legged, immense and majestic, back straight, cobra-hood throwing shadows on his sunkissed face. His tennis-ball-size eyes blaze, no matter where I stand. I am dwarfed.

Narasimha is an angry god. He broke demon Hiranyakashipu’s neck like a twig and clawed his stomach and wore his intestines as a garland, screaming in extreme delight. All because the demon king had forbidden his son Prahlad from worshipping Vishnu in the Asuric kingdom and was trying to murder the devout boy.

But not many know of what happened to him after he had done his duty for the gods. In one of the most spectacular tales I’ve come across during my readings of the puranas, the same Narasimha, after killing the demon, couldn’t control his own wrath and like an unstoppable nuclear bomb, kept exploding, burning and destroying the universe till Shiva, the god of destruction, had to intervene at the request of the devas and stop Narasimha.

The tale saw two superheroes of mythology face each other in an ultimate fight. One version says, Shiva in the form of Sharabha, an eight-legged beast, with two heads, and a strange mix of all kinds of carnivorous animals defeated Vishnu’s avatar.

The other version is vociferous that Narasimha took the form of Gandaberunda, a more ferocious bird-animal mash-up and blew Sharabha to smithereens. Whatever version you believe in, the story explores the uncontrollability of anger and how it is capable of destruction. I wrote another version, in comic format as part of my book The Skull Rosary. For that’s how tales are. They belong to no one, yet everyone feels entitled to take credit on knowing the ‘right version’.

The tipped ASI board standing like a drunk sentry near Narasimha’s monolith informs me this one is not the ugra or the angry form that tried to destroy the universe. This one is the benevolent Lakshmi Narasimha, his anger abated, his desire to destruct lessened by the tiny Lakshmi who sits on his right thigh, marred invisible by ravages of time which have broken everything but her hand, still carved around his waist. But the way his fangs pop out of his oblong cavity of a stretched mouth, his smile looks more like a snarl and it is difficult to believe that Lakshmi has any tempering effect on the guy.

In Andhra Pradesh, the tribals have their own tale. They recall how Hiranyakashipu ordered his guards to throw Prahalada in the sea, placed a boulder on him as punishment for worshipping Vishnu and that the child was rescued by Samudra, the ocean god himself. There is no mention of Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, who is part of all grandma tales in northern states of the country.

The same Samudra, due to a curse was born in a tribe named Chenchu. After Narasimha had killed Hiranyakashipu, the gods invites him back to the divine abode, but he refused. Instead, he travelled through the jungles of Andhra Pradhesh where he fell for a local girl, Chenchita, the daughter of Samudra reborn, a tribal huntress who wielded a bow.

The love tale delicately describes how Narasimha plucked a thorn out of Chenchita’s foot and so wanted to marry her. Chenchita didn’t say yes immediately. She wanted to be sure he’s the right husband for her and so tested him on his food gathering and hunting skills, important for survival in the jungle. From then on, Narasimha stayed on, as a son-in-law of the tribe, coming in their dreams, to cure them of ailments.

In Simhachalam, ten miles from Vishakhapatnam, he is a composite form of Varaha and Narasimha. Scholars claim the deity is local, assimilated into the Vaishnav mainstream centuries later. Centuries ago, so the locals claim, this was a Shiva temple. When Ramanuja visited this temple, he defeated the local priests in a debate and so converted the temple into a Vaishnava one.

Lord Varaha stonecarved statue at Simhachalam temple.

I am quite fascinated with upmanship between the Vaishnava and Shiva cults, something which comes out very strongly in the story of Narasimha and Sharabha. Being a storyteller who thrives in versions rather than limit myself to one of them, I converted the whole Sharabha retelling into a dream in my graphic rendition, The Skull Rosary. For in dreams, even the impossible becomes possible. It’s Prahlad, the biggest devotee who has the dream about this cosmic fight.

The one where Narasimha, the god he worships goes out of control, trying to destroy the universe. It’s a dream, or maybe not. Prahlad is not sure but he sees the one he idolizes destroying the universe with his ferocious anger. How can his god be so destructive? And how can his god in turn be destroyed by another of the pantheon?

And if you’ve seen the blasphemous dream, how do you erase it? At the end of the story, Prahlada, who if you remember in the story is merely 12 years old when he sees his god come in Narasimha form and brutally kill his father, is terrified and confused.

In modern times, someone would’ve suggested a psychiatrist to analysis his dreams, but at that time, all he has is Narada Muni. So he goes to the Muni and asks: ‘Who is stronger, Shiva or Vishnu’s avatar?’ Narada smiles and says: ‘Vishnu and Shiva are like seasons. One comes after another. One dies, one is born. Like life and death. Don’t fall into the trap of comparison, the one that feed arrogant blood.‘ For he’s Narada, the journalist of Indian mythology, and will never take a side. Or will he?

If you know any other versions of Narasimha folklore, please do add them below in the comments section. For stories that other readers have posted, head to and enjoy! 


A different version of this came out in Discover India (January 2015) as my first column with them along with stars like Ruskin Bond (awesome author) and Rocky Singh (Highway on My Plate).



Are stories real?

This story was recently carried in Swarajya magazine and got over 150 shares online. Thrilled! Editing this a bit and resharing.


Of stories, Oh muse speak to me.

Some time ago, I took a friend and her nine-year-old daughter to Bull Temple in Bengaluru. It’s the place with one of the country’s largest monolith bull, in the shape of Nandi, the servant bull of Shiva. The majestic Nandi far surpasses the tiny Shiva here, who you almost miss in a small alcove behind the bull. He is spectacular in size, structure and sheer architecture. To excite her, I promised this little lady, who was still sleepy and not too thrilled with the idea of seeing a temple, with a true story after she had seen the Nandi.

Once she was dragged her feet around the bull inside the temple, we sat outside in the temple courtyard, the black sculpture of Nandi behind us and I began the true story I had heard from someone at the same spot the first time I had come to the Bull temple:

“Hundred of years ago, Nandi, one of Shiva’s bravest warriors, was invited to come to the city of Bangalore to save it from its enemies. With all fanfare, a small statue of Nandi, the bull, was placed on top of a hill so that he could protect the city. But there was something special about this bull. Every morning when the people living around the hill woke up, they would find that the Nandi’s sculpture had grown in size. So it kept on happening again and again. At first the statue became the size of a dog, then a bull, then an elephant, then a dinosaur. This caused fear in the masses. Politicians and the adminsitrators of Bengaluru became afraid that if the bull keeps growing and becoming bigger and bigger, it will destroy their entire city. That was when a poet suggested that they build a temple around Nandi. If he is indoors, the poet predicted, he wouldn’t be able to look at the sky and his desire to grow more and more will stop. That will save their city. And so it was done. A temple was built around this ambitious Nandi, the walls so close that the ceiling touches the Nandi’s golden horns and there’s barely space enough to for the Nandi to stand inside. And as soon as a structure was created around the Nandi, the dinosaur-sized bull stopped growing in size, content to remain at that size forever.”

‘Is the story real?’ asked the nine-year-old wisely. ‘Yes, I think it is,’ I answered, ‘the person who told me, told me it was a true story.’ ‘No, you’re making this up,’ she replied, looking up to her mother for confirmation. Her mother, in an equal mood to make her daughter believe answered, ‘It could be real.’ She looked back at the majestic monolith of Nandi, doubt in her eyes, but also a newfound interest. Her mother looked back at me and smiled, conspiratorially. We had done it. We had plotted magic in a child’s heart.

I came back home and started to wonder why more and more of the children I see are not ready to believe in things beyond their five senses, in anything beyond rationality. I ask this to all children I meet in the various workshops I conduct in schools. They call believing in anything other than what’s been proved by science as superstition.

To a four-year-old who I met at a party one evening, I asked if he knows why we don’t see stars in the morning. When he shook his head, I told him because every morning a monster called the Sun gobbles them up. So when you see Sun, you cannot see the Stars. For a second, I saw doubt in his eyes and then he shook his head. ‘Not possible,’ he answered. When with all the dignity of my adulthood I insisted that that was the truth, he went back to his parents to confirm.

We have become a rational, logical society. So much so that we explain to our children that myths and all stories they hear are not real, not factual, but lies and fiction. In our eagerness to divide and tag everything with ‘facts’ and ‘fiction’, somewhere we lose out on the magic and in many ways the emotional truths that stories carry in themselves. Stories can capture the truths of love, creativity, imagination, dreams, aspirations and emotions, the way facts never really can. They give us a glimpse into another world. A world which is beyond what we know or understand, can touch, see and feel. They bring a sense of wonderment, of mystery, of the unknown, of possibility. Stories make us dream, so that we don’t live by the rules and facts provided to us, but make new rules, new societies, new cultures. Stories make us creative, they make us look at ourselves in a new way and bring about change in our beings.

By telling us tales of other people, other creatures, other cultures, other beings and other societies stories show us a different point of view and make us more accepting of differences. They make troll less online and accept that there can be multiple perspectives to the same thing, with none of them being completely wrong and none of them being completely the truth too. They turn us into mature, accepting beings.

I end this blog with yet another story, which my Nani told me a few months ago, sitting in her bedroom. She’s 75 now. I am, well, have been an adult since quite a while. Still, she sat me down like I was the little kid I used to be, her rheumy eyes watery (she has acute cataract and can barely see) and her voice quavered as she told me this story. A true story, she insisted which she had heard from her brother who had been to Haridwar recently, who had heard it from someone who had in reality experienced this:

‘One day in Haridwar, there was a fat-fat lady. She was so fat, so fat, so fat (Nani’s hands spread wide) that her body could barely fit into a car’s backseat. She stood on a road, asking for a ride from a rickshaw-wallah to Hari-ki-paudi, the popular holy ghat on the banks of Ganga. Since the fat-fat lady was so fat, no rickshaw driver was ready to take her up to the ghat, which is a winding road that goes up and then down and up again. She seemed too heavy! She asked many rickshaw drivers, and all of them refused. Finally a thin, scrawny driver pitied her and agreed to take her. He helped her alight on the rickshaw and started to peddle. Surprisingly, though she was so fat, the driver could peddle the rickshaw as if it was empty. She felt weightless.

‘He kept on turning back to see if the fat-fat lady was still on the rickshaw. God forbid she should fall! It was an easy ride for him and he reached the steps of the ghat, the Hari-ki-paudi. The fat-fat lady stepped down and said, “Please wait and take me back. I will just take 15 minutes for a quick dip in the Ganga and come back. Till then, hold on to this. It’s for you.’ With that she took out a handkerchief which was tied into a small pouch from her fat bosom and gave it to the rickshaw-puller. He nodded and waited. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty, then an hour and then an hour again. The driver started to worry. Had she drowned? Worried, he went to the ghat and inquired. A lot of bathers saw a fat-fat lady go into the Ganga to take a dip but no one saw her come out. One bather informed him that he saw her clothes, floating in the water, but no woman inside them. ‘Poor lady,’ cried the rickshaw driver, ‘she has drowned in the waters of Ganga! She was so fat!’ He finally remembered the little handkerchief that she had given him and opened it. The kerchief had precious emeralds and rubies and diamonds! He went back to the same road he had picked her up from and inquired about the fat-fat lady. Finally he found out that the fat-fat lady had lived in an ashram in Haridwar. She was a rich lady and had died there with a wish to take a dip in the Ganga on her lips. She had died a year before she had met the rickshaw driver! ‘She was a soul who needed to take a dip in the Ganga to be released,’ he thought, ‘and because I happened to help her that she gave me so much money.’ The precious stones had made him enough money to make sure that he and seven of his generations wouldn’t need to work. ‘This is the biggest tip anyone will ever get,’ he thought before giving his rickshaw away. He wouldn’t need it now. This is a true story. My brother heard it from a guy who had happened to meet the rickshaw driver.’

Thank you, Nani, for making my eyes go round with wonderment, even though I insisted after the story had ended that there was no way it could be a true story. Could it?

PS: I hope instead of facts in comment boxes below, everyone tells stories and tales that they heard in temples, roadsides and from grandparents that made their eyes pop out in wonder.

The secret of Thillai Nataraja

The legend goes that once, long ago, before time was clocked, Shiva came strolling into the Pichavaram mangrove forest. In those days, magicians who thought that gods can be controlled with rituals and mantras, lived there. Shiva decided to test the sages and took the form of a bhikshuk, a mendicant seeking alms. Inspite of his matted hair and his filthy attire, the sages’ wives couldn’t control their desire. Angered, the sages sent scores of serpents after the mendicant. Shiva wore them in his matted locks, neck and waist. The sages sent a fierce tiger, who Shiva skinned and wore as a skirt. Finally, the sages sent Muyalakan (or Apasmara the immortal the demon of arrogance and ignorance). Shiva subdued him, stepped on top of it and danced the dance of eternal bliss and knowledge, in his Nataraja form and so the sages knew him. Nataraja remained behind, in his celestial dance pose, still worshipped in the Chidambaram temple today.


(Photo credit: noisypilgrims)

The secret lies behind that curtain which whispers. No one, not even the priests in the temple know what it is. Some whisper it’s the bared truth: that god is nothing, mere akasha, or ether, which is what this temple represents too. Vacuum, sheer space, emptiness. Some claim that it’s only holy men and saints who can see the reality. That behind that gauzy flutter of the curtain, Lord Shiva himself comes to strum the dance of destruction with his consort, Parvati, invisible to the naked eyes of normal people.

For those like me, the normal ones who sway between disbelief and staunch belief, all I see is a shimmering layer of golden bilva leaves which the priests have hung behind the curtain. For how does one see ether? ‘The curtain represents maya, the illusion behind which one hides oneself,’ says the guidebook I read before. Just words which don’t really tell me what I would feel. I sway to the beats of the aarti, belief overpowering disbelief, and decide that tonight, not matter what, I will gut my fears, those burdens all of us carry, will sacrifice them in this temple complex.

The curtains sway and the emptiness whispers. The devotees sigh together, itching, craning their necks, their eyes open wide, not daring to blink, for a single glance of the dark emptiness. Some stand looking up to the dias, some, like me, stand on the stairs a few feet away, sacrificing distance for height. The drums beat to the rhythm of the aarti, the devout prostrate on the floor, the priests sing in a cacophony of sound with the drumbeats and the brass bells, their wide plates full of heady smells of jasmine and camphor. I crane my neck with all others, together now, our oh-so-important individual identities slipping away in the dark cold shadows that lie all around us.

The Nataraja form shimmers with the diyas surrounding it in the dark dampness of the sanctum sanctorum. The dance signifies creation of life and its destruction after life has become unwieldy. The circle of life, the bronze ring around the Nataraja signifies the whole cosmos. This is one of the first known temples in the country which started worshipping the Nataraja form, the dancing form of Shiva. No wonder Bharatnatyam, the dance form which is inspired by Shiva’s Nataraja, still flourishes here.

The Thillai Nataraja temple is massive, covering an area of over 40 acres. Built and then rebuilt in the 12 and 13th centuries, layer after layer, the temple is the foremost of all temples for Saivites, the Shiva worshippers. Its dark corners and rooms are full of cosy shrines of minor gods, relevant for some, ignored by others. As you walk through its grand halls, with intricately carved balustrades and canopies, an occasional masterpiece in bronze, the damp smell clings to you, as do the shadows, always there, always with you. They are not scary, but they never become completely comfortable too. They are what they are, shadows, floating full of your fears and supernatural powers. Things you don’t really understand.

In contrast, the courtyard is full of life. Every evening, its grand space flows with a sea of locals and tourists alike, sitting in conversation, gawking, praying, singing, laughing, walking, huddling. Estimates state that around a 100,000 people flock its stone paths every year. Chidambaram falls in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, ruled since centuries by Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara, Marathas, the British before it became part of India. The Thillai Nataraja temple which is the heart of the town, named after the tillai trees that used to surround the shrine but now have receded ten kilometers away to the Pichavaram mangrove forest.


Ten kilometers away, the Pichavaram mangrove forest sways to the tandava still, open to the sky as we float amidst it in a small wooden dinghy. The darkness in the temple has opened up to the blue, clear, cloudless sky. Rooted in a few feet of water, spread over a whopping 1100 hectare area, the mangrove trees with their clawed out white roots, shiver together, dancing the eternal dance of nature, in a huddle, constantly whispering the secrets that they hold so close to their bosoms. I, in the dinghy that drifts between their huddles, stare up at the eternal trees, jealous at the stories lost, the eternal tales the grand Avicennia and Rhizophora trees tell. They whisper it to the many varieties of birds that come to their branching, pecking on their leaves and fruits. The watersnips, cormorants, egrets, know it as do the storks that fly high and the spoonbills and pelicans. They stare back at me, from the untouchable heights of the tillai trees and tweet about the dance. I look at them as an outsider, a wanderer and wonder what they know, to be at peace so.

This is one of the stories I’ve heard about Thillai Nataraja’s secret. Another, which I find a little silly is about Shiva showing up to Parvati that men are better, by doing a dance pose which she can’t. That one’s too middle class, too sexist and too banal and a complete let down of the beautiful philosophy of Shiva, Bharatnatyam and the Goddess. If you have another version, do retell it below!

(First published in Discover India August 2014)