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Malvika Singh on why clutter helps her think

“I’d never think of getting an interior decorator to come and do my home,” says Malvika Singh

“I’d never think of getting an interior decorator to come and do my home,” says Malvika Singh

You don’t really have a conversation with Malvika Singh. Rather, you listen, and try to steer her in certain directions. Mala, as she is ubiquitously known, speaks in torrents. Anecdotes, gossip, historical nuggets are all part of the slipstream. In between, phone calls are deflected, orders for tea are given, coughs are compared (to get rid of that last little phlegm ball in your throat, she tells me, you need to sleep on the heart side). We are in the Seminar office, the monthly magazine her parents Raj and Romesh Thapar founded in Bombay in 1959. Next September, the magazine, which was taken over by Mala and her husband Tejbir, will turn 60. “It is a typical Connaught Place office,” she says. “A casual office. It’s bits and pieces of our lives.”

To me, it seems utterly atypical. From the mazes and alleyways I’ve had to negotiate to get here, all I’ve seen are drab banking-type spaces, the occasional paan- spat-upon wall and an alleyway of girls in spa uniforms staring at their phones. When you pass the threshold of Seminar , you enter a different era. Genteel and worldly, but without the stiff upper lip. Sure, there are some filing cabinets and a prehistoric typewriter, but you pass over into an area of gorgeous rugs, rich plum-coloured walls, photographs, paintings, lamps, plants. “It’s been an adda ,” Mala says. “But the home was always like that. None of these tight-laced spaces. The doors are always open. We bring our lunch from home everyday and share it with whoever is here. I find it tiresome to go and have lunch meetings in some hotel.”

Mala arrived in Delhi as a teenager. She has fond memories of Bombay in the ’50s and theatre evenings at her parents’ home. It was prohibition era, so everyone got juiced on nimbu pani and chatted till two in the morning. Her parents were good lefties of a kind, she says. Father played bridge at the Willingdon Club, while mother stood outside collecting money for the Communist Party. That was a time. But her loyalties have long switched to Delhi, as she writes in her book, Perpetual City: A Short Biography of Delhi. She fell immediately for the capital’s wide open spaces, the heady mix of power and fragility. Growing older has made her more philosophical, less agitated. “It’s been a free-flowing happy existence,” she says. “So yes, when Palika Bazaar happened, I was appalled. That’s Charles Correa’s building, right? (Jeevan Bharati). And it’s not the best of Charles. I thought, why are they killing the skyline? And now, I don’t care. It’s not that obtrusive. You get used to it. We still have Wenger’s, which makes the best éclairs in town and nice greasy chicken patties, so there’s a lot of that still there.”

The desk at which Mala sits once belonged to Dr Karan Singh, erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir, who she considers a godfather. It is scattered with knickknacks — blue and white Chinese pottery, oil containers made out of camel gut, a head that Ivan Illich gave her mother. “I like to have clutter,” she says. “It helps me think better.” Above her desk — paintings, caricatures and photographs compete for space on the wall. There are posters of great Irish writers and the multi-coloured doorways of Dublin because all those theatre evenings in childhood led to a degree in theatre and a stint in Ireland, which she fell in love with. A portrait of the family by Dayanita Singh cosies up to a “Keep Calm and Carry On,” signboard. A smiling Indira Gandhi gazes out at us (because Mala thought she was the most remarkable woman), as does Mother Teresa (long story, but Mother T made her stop questioning and start absorbing).

There is also a lot of folk art, particularly Madhubani , because for her first job at 17, she was sent by Pupul Jayakar to collect the baskets that the Madhubani men made, and sell them in sabzi mandi to the vendors. “It was the most awful thing. I had to get into a truck with a smelly driver and toddle off to Delhi just as dawn was breaking to sell these wretched baskets.” Typical of Mala to complain about something she’s actually chuffed about. Like going to Italy as a young thing and not getting her bum pinched.

As Seminar enters its 60th year, they are thinking of taking the magazine online and bringing in younger audiences. Mala wants to work on other projects — a memoir of her life and other animals, children’s stories, and a cook book for her husband, Cooking for Jugnu. For all her embracing of change though, there’s still some spark of resistance in the grand dame of Delhi. Her complaint is with the new generation of businessmen and power-brokers who are happy to spend ₹8,000 on a glass of wine at Le Belvedere over a third rate meeting but complain about advertising cuts when it comes to supporting Seminar.

“We were wealthy in terms of expertise,” she tells me. Beautiful interiors were a thakath with ajrak cotton cover, two bolsters, and some cushions. You painted your wall a wild colour and bought beautiful pots from your local chap and stuck some plants in there, and your home looked beautiful. I only got a chair and a sofa by selling my jewellery because my father said, ‘I can’t sit on the floor I’m too fat,’ but we had perfectly beautiful homes. “I’d never think of getting an interior decorator to come and do my home,” she tells me. “Today it’s all sterile homes where you can’t sit or eat comfortably, you can’t have a conversation, so therefore there is no commitment to anything outside your cocoon. Therefore you can’t have a Seminar because you haven’t understood what it’s about, you’ve stopped reading books and say things like BTW. So, you know, why would I want to speak like that?”

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Printable version | Aug 19, 2022 11:37:49 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/malvika-singh-clutter-helps-me-think/article28197327.ece