12 April 2015

The Faith of Radio Producers

A few weeks ago, when I was in the middle of producing my first ever professional BBC radio documentary, I realised this:
I have been trying to do this - EXACTLY THIS - for almost 10 years.

I've gone from college radio to community radio - I've spent years working freelance at the BBC.

In all that time, this dream lived on faith. My thin, weary faith that I would ever get there. My family's strong, unbreaking faith that I would. My friends' help and support and care. The nights I have spent telling Jonti this may never happen...

And finally.

I can barely believe it's true. Click on 'Show More' and see what I mean. 

Producing it was so tough. I had so little time, and I spent an entire week of the production feeling like I'd been slammed against a concrete wall. I was literally aching in every part of my body. 

But I made it - in just under 3 weeks. It's had some very nice reviews. It made BBC Radio 4's Pick of the Week, the BBC's weekly highlights show.

Anyone reading this knows how much I've wanted to do this - how much this has consumed me for years now. Anyone reading this has been a part of supporting me get to this point. Thank you. 

04 April 2015

Fiction's just another word for lies

A couple of weeks ago, I performed at the John Rylands Library, a beautiful neo-Gothic library with some of the best secular stained glass in Manchester.

It was an exceptional night run by First Draft & by the John Rylands. I was really excited to be one of the folks invited to perform.

The library has an enormous collection - and a lot of it is stuff that's never been catalogued.

They made a small bit of it, a part called the EL Burney collection, available for First Draft's performers to view. The EL Burney collection was all stuff collected by Isabella Banks, a 19th century English novelist who was born in Manchester.

The collection itself was strange - a bit of plant plucked from Washington's tomb, a bit of cloth from Empress Josephine's boudoir, a bit of cloth from Napoleon's tomb, a braid of hair from a Fijian islander, a shell purse, a metal stamp, a Russian wooden spoon. A collection, yes - but there was no apparent focus to it, not like, say, a stamp collection. It was just a bunch of things.

We were supposed to respond to the collection, with a performance of some kind.
Photo by Phil Benbow

I wrote up a short blog post about my performance for First Draft after the event - you can read it here: https://firstdraftmcr.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/isabella/

And here's another view on the event, from my lovely, brilliant friend Dave Hartley, which really explores the borders between fiction and lying. Is fiction lies? Are all stories lies? Can we say anything that isn't actually a lie, in some shape or form? http://davidhartleywriter.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/therein-lies-story.html

At Dalal-Small Towers, we're getting ready for our Atlanta Wedding Celebration - it's very exciting to think that soon we'll be in Atlanta.

21 January 2015

Goodbye, Ba.

This past Sunday, my lovely grandmother passed away. We call her "Ba," in my family.
She was my last living grandparent. She lived to 92. She was an amazing, tough, loving woman, who lived through WWII, and the struggle for independent India. Her parents died when she was really young. She worked hard to get educated - incredibly rare for a woman in her time. She had 5 kids. Her first baby died as an infant. She adopted an extra kid, because raising 4 kids was hard, but the fifth kid needed help.She had a love marriage, which was so rare in her time, it was almost radical. She raised strong, tough, loving daughters - my mom and my aunt - and we loved her. We loved her so much.I feel so grateful that she got to meet Jonti, when we visited in August. We'll always have the hilarious memory of her being super-concerned about Jonti's coffee and breakfast needs. "Nija, did you warm up his omelette? Make his coffee. He'll want coffee. Does he want toast? Make him some toast."I didn't know quite how to tell her that Jonti usually makes me coffee in the morning, and that he knows a lot more about cooking eggs than I do - he always cooks his own eggs... He was sad the day we left DC and he teared up saying goodbye to her then. When she was younger, when my grandfather (my Dada) was still alive and for some time after he died, Ba used to spend the year traveling between her children's homes - a few months at our place, a few months in New Jersey at my uncle's, a few month in DC at my aunt's, a few months in India with her kids who stayed there. I'll always have the memories of her lying on our living room floor and watching Bollywood movies with me. She would fast forward through the songs and the fight scenes, thereby making every 3-hour Bollywood flick about 1 hour long. She got through a lot of movies.One summer, my mom and dad took us, along with my Ba and Dada, on a 6 week road trip around America, in an Astro Minivan. We saw the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite National Park. 
She loved sweets. She was very sweet about how poor my Gujurati was. A few years ago, I recorded a long audio interview with her, about her life. I dug it out the other day, only to find the files had been corrupted - 1 hour and 45 minutes of interview, all chopped up into 700 12-second files. I spent all day yesterday reconstructing the interview, and it was a wonderful way to remember her, listening to her voice.She had a long, incredible life. To go from her tiny village, her home with its dirt-and-cow-dung floor, to being an American citizen and travelling the world. She saw her homeland go from colonisation to freedom. She sent 3 of her children off to live the immigrant dream in America. My mother was the first to go. She told me, when my mother left, that she wondered when she'd ever see her again.She lived to see all her grandkids married, except one. And that one is a doctor. You probably couldn't ask for more. She met so many of her great-grandchildren; my niece and nephew have had a great-grandmother for 12 and 10 years, respectively. That's 12 and 10 more years than I ever had, and it's such a gift.  Her funeral is today, in DC. I can't be there, because my passport is with the UK Visa office, and I couldn't get an emergency passport from the US Embassy in time. My mom can't be at the funeral either - she is in India right now, on a trip that she'd put off for years... in case something happened to Ba, ironically. (Please don't correct me if that's not actually ironic. I just can't right now.)Last night, I was scheduled to co-host a celebration of creative non-fiction... a live literature event, launched by The Real Story (I'm co-editor of it). We'd been planning this night since November last year.And when I learned I wouldn't be able to be in DC, I thought going along to this event might be good. I'd see friends. I decided to read a story about Ba, which I'd written a few years ago, as a tribute to her. I read this story Last night, I said goodbye. It was a good night. Today, I'll be joining my family in DC and my family in India on Skype, so we can all witness her funeral and pay our respects. (That's a funny turn of phrase, isn't it? When else is 'respect' plural? And why are they 'paid,' as if it's some sort of obligation or debt? Hmm.) I'll be thinking about her strength and bravery for the rest of my life. I'm honored to be her granddaughter. I'm lucky to have known her. I only hope I can live up to her amazing life.Goodbye, Ba.

10 January 2015

Shakespeare was a War Reporter.

Jonathan Zenti lives in Verona & very kindly offered to host me & Jonti for a couple of a nights after the end of the festival.

So, on the evening of 5th October, Zenti and I drove up from Ferrara, on Italy's tiny, winding roads. The first time I saw Jonti on our first anniversary, I was severely carsick.

Really, it was that romantic.

The next morning, sunny, warm Verona beckoned, with its imposing Arena & busy streets.
Jonti & I set out to find a perfect spot to break our first bottle of anniversary messages.Zenti suggested we break our bottle at Juliet's grave.... WHAT? WHERE?...Verona, it seems, is under the impression that the events described in Romeo and Juliet *actually* happened there. That Shakespeare travelled to Verona, saw the street violence, the two warring families, and like any good war reporter would, recorded them for the world to see. Maybe he was hoping a neighbouring superpower might intervene. He got *really good access.* You can stand underneath "Juliet's balcony" & in the courtyard, you can have your picture taken with a statue of Juliet - apparently, touching her boob brings you good luck in romance.For a price, you can even go into "her house" & stand on said balcony - and visit a museum full of the kinds of things Juliet would have been surrounded by.You know. If she was real.(Well, ok, apparently, there is some evidence that Romeo & Juliet was inspired by a true story, but even that true story didn't take place in Verona, so there's really no basis for these bizarre tourist traps.) And for another wodge of cash, you can also visit "her grave." Strangely, there was no mention of Romeo's grave. We figured it wasn't worth our money to see the grave of a fictional character. But we did stand outside it to break our first bottle!Some of the messages made us laugh, while others were just confusing. Most of them made us smile, but we did end up just actually crying in a square in Verona.Dan's message, "Remember the thing Tuheen did with Jonti's shoes? We have done it with you cars. NAY CHILDREN" made us giggle and giggle, reminiscing about Jonti dancing in cardboard boxes. First wedding was so fun. I'm really looking forward to second wedding in May... Ahhh. Back to Verona! We decided to head up Lamberti Tower, to get a view of Verona from above. Jonathan later told us that no one knows who built the Lamberti Tower - that it's actually one of Verona's strange mysteries...

A view of VeronaAnd because Allen once said, "I don't care about pretty buildings, I want to see you in front of them..."

Verona does have lovely market squares. Jonathan Zenti's sister runs a gelateria in Verona - he organised a free scoop for each of us. What a fantastic host. Seriously, it was the best gelato I've ever had, a cherry chocolate amaretto mix that I really hope Ginger's get on to soon.
We didn't get to go up on the Arena, or explore more of Verona's nightlife, because we were only there for such a short time. The next day, we were off to Padova, then Venice! Oh, well.... there's always another reason to visit Italy, right? 

02 January 2015

Italy In the Dark

Alongside hot yoga, In the Dark Radio has been one of my great passions of 2014. 

In the Dark Radio is a mini-revolution in radio, in listening - we curate themed listening events, creating audio programmes of the world's most innovative radio makers & producers. 

It started out as a group in London. Late last year, a friend and I started running it in Manchester - and early this year, when he left to try out great big London for himself, I had a choice: run In the Dark Manchester on my own, or let Manchester, this brilliant city, continue existing without it.

I kept it going on my own and ran 6 events through the year. It was a lot of work, but now, it's changing & growing & getting even more exciting. In the Dark Manchester is now a proper group, with, you know, more than one member.

And In the Dark has been kind to me, as well - not only did I get to go to my first ever British music festival (Latitude), but I also got to attend & present some of our favourite international audio pieces at the Internazionale Festival in Italy - an incredible treat. 

I hadn't been to Italy since I was a child - back when you bought things in lira. The festival was from 2nd-5th October - since the last day coincided with our first wedding anniversary, he decided to come join me in Italy - and we made it into a week-long celebration! (That part will be in another post, coming soon...this post is just about the festival.)

The Internazionale festival was in Ferrara, a little town I'd never heard of before, with a blocky domineering castle in the middle of it. The festival was in this strange castle (note the actual moat!) and our In the Dark events were held in the dungeon!

This was the dungeon, where we held our listening events. The water in the moat was just visible through the gated, arched windows. 

The pieces we played out were perfect for the event - both involved multiple languages, both involved the tricky am-I-being-understood feeling that takes over when you're in a new country, with new people. My favourite was by Katarina Smets, Senza Parole.

The only downside to Ferrara - the only thing that stops me moving there just about now - are the mosquitoes. I'm not even sure they are mosquitoes. They are giant flying bugs, possibly military drones, that bite you (me) with all the righteously true aim of the vengeful. They hate you (me). They keep you (ME) up at night, flying at you (ME ME ME oh god ME), like some kamikaze mote of dust, and bite, over and over and over again. 

Needless to say, I spent my days in Ferrara slightly tired, scratching my ankles & I spent my evenings... not getting great sleep. 

FUN FACT: Enzo Ferrari, the guy who, you know, invented the Ferrari or something, is actually from Northern Italy, very near Ferrara.

The festival treated us really well & I made some new friends in Italy. They put us up at a little church-turned-hotel, with this view every morning.  

The Internazionale Festival is a journalism festival, run by a magazine of the same name. In the English speaking world, we often feel like our media is half-baked, whether it's 24 hour news always chasing the bloodied victims of some horrific event, or it's local news, proclaiming the newest excellent thing to happen to our lovely town.In Italy, though, the newspapers almost exclusively cover Italian politics. As in, front page - Matteo Renzi (Italian Prime Minister). Pages 2-8? Italian Parliament. Meanwhile, stories about international issues, like say, ISIS  - flounder in page 9, if they get covered at all.Internazionale, the magazine, was founded partly to fill this gap in Italian journalism - and the festival is largely about bringing Italy's journalists together with the international experts - to try to give these other stories some room, some awareness. It was a little bit shocking for me to realise that in this Western European country, even many journalists wouldn't have seen a documentary about Rwanda. Jonathan Zenti, one of the festival organisers, told me that he just reads the Guardian, rather than even looking at Italian news sources - which is fine for him, as he speaks/comprehends English really well. He didn't seem to think all Italians got their news elsewhere, though.
Given the choice between watching documentaries on human rights tragedies or wandering around a warm Italian city in the sun, I think you can guess that I spent nearly every day just wandering around Ferrara's gorgeous little alleyways. Occasionally, I stumbled on a park. 

As I wandered, I listened to Lea Thau's 'Love Hurts' series on the Strangers podcast, an intimate peeling and prodding and untangling of love & relationships. (Go listen now).This is the Palazzo Dei Diamante, which I read about one morning, before heading out to find it. I translated with my non-existent Italian, in my head: "Palace of Diamonds! Covered with marble & 8500 diamonds - sparkly!"When I found it, I realised that actually, it is an entire facade of pink & white marble, carved into 8500 diamond shapes.

It is actually a breathtaking and impressive building - it can only be a disappointment if you, like me, thought there would be 8500 diamonds stuck to a building, which had somehow evaded pillaging. It can only be a disappointment if you, like me, are a little bit dim when you're in a new place, slightly tired from nightly bloodletting by  mosquitoes that might well be weaponised military insects full of vengeance. 

Some friends of Jonathan's made sure to show me & Nina (director of In the Dark) a good time. Ferrara is very proud of its local food. Martina (a resident of Rome) insisted we try a Ferrarese delicacy - pizza with a chickpea flour crust, called pizza ceci in Italian. It was decadent & luxurious. Chickpea flour has an amazing capacity to take in oil & butter & become crisper and more delicious. 

I'm still looking for a decent chickpea flour crust recipe - it would be the perfect experiment for Jonti (whose sourdough pizzas are brilliant already). I also enjoyed some other Ferrarese seasonal delicacies: capellacci di zucca, which are little pasta 'hats' stuffed with butternut pumpkin. More stuffing than ravioli, due to the hat shape & more delicious than most stuffed pastas, due to the pumpkin! Now that Jonti and I are finally getting the hang of our new pasta machine, I think these will become a staple round ours.

Ferrara is surrounded by rambling Italian countryside, dotted with crumbling farmhouses. Jonathan and Martina told me that in 2012, there were earthquakes in Northern Italy that caused a lot of damage - the region is still recovering.

It really is a lovely place. Once you get only 10 minutes from the castle, the whole place feels like a ghost town - quiet, narrow, warm streets, with shuttered windows & a yellowy, old-feeling stillness. 

I think these were the city walls. 

I really liked Ferrara. And, listening to Lea Thau's gentle examination of what it means for us to be strangers and try to connect with each other, I couldn't help thinking that there is something similarly gentle about these empty streets where I, too, was a stranger. 

21 December 2014

America - Part 1

After a long hiatus, this post is authored by Jonti – he's written some memories of our first trip to the States.


First I gave Nija a tour of Washington D.C., her nation’s capital.

Now she’d like me to write on her blog about our trip to D.C. and Atlanta together – which I am delighted to do.

When we first met, many years months ago, we were both excited about exploring and re-discovering Manchester with someone else. To see the city through their eyes. I found Nija – a non-Manchester native – who loved Manchester even more than me and during about 18 months – through dissertation-writing and job-hunting and a wedding – we did exactly that: re-discovered this northern city through each other’s eyes.

When we first met, I could not imagine that we would re-discover Atlanta, her home city, together too. Finally, this August we went for our first trip. Here are a few impressions.

We stopped off in Washington D.C. to visit Nija’s grandmother and her Aunt and Uncle.
Here is Nija with Ba.

By day, we wandered around the monuments walking off our jet-lag. I had been a couple of times to Washington and was a hardened Mall-walker. Nija hadn’t really spent any time there so I gave her a tour.

The Washington Monument had recently re-opened following the 2011 earthquake

Nija also showed me some things I hadn't seen before, at the botanical garden.

Of an evening in suburban Maryland, we would enjoy the company of Nija's family. They were incredibly generous & I had my first taste of gargantuan American restaurant portions. A salad is not a light option.


We flew down to Atlanta. Airport security was fortunately relaxed about me being ‘Small’ on my ticket but now a ‘Dalal-Small’ in my passport.

By the time we got to Atlanta we were on the right time zone and I was ready for my first Indian cookery class. Tanvi and Sanjay, Sahil and Sahana, all came around to Nija’s parents. Nija's mother cooked Dal Makhani (lentils, black lentils) and I tried to help.

Throughout the two weeks, we ate very well. Most spectacular was lacy lentils. (khandvi!)
This involved thinly spreading out a paste made of yogurt & lentils, and cooling it over the table.

Here they are laying it out:

With all the eating so well, it was lucky that the neighbourhood swimming pool was just a short walk away.

I could also play tennis with Nija's niece & nephew (reassuringly, even though they had recently won a state-wide competition, I was able to emerge victorious – though not, I suspect, for long).

I’d been warned that Atlanta is a very car-friendly city but one wonderful highlight was an antidote to the car – the late-summer lantern parade. Taking place along and celebrating the Beltline – a walking, cycling, running route which is gradually being opened up – we stood in the warm early autumn evening and watched the thousands of creative lanterns.

Also to stretch our legs we went to ‘hot’ yoga (somewhat strangely, given the sweltering Southern heat outside. In fact, it wasn’t all that hot – at least not as hot as Northern England’s hot yoga.)

The studio was in Marietta – the closest, quaintest town to Nija’s parents –  where the old library is now a flower shop and a vintage cinema shows re-runs of To Kill a Mocking Bird. The general store stocked wine glasses made out of old bottles and had a fridge of local craft beer which we’d take back and drink of an evening sitting on the deck with Nija’s parents.

During yoga, the railroad rattled past, shaking the walls. The showers were in the process of being built – sometimes noisily to accompany the serenity of the class – and one of the teacher’s hamstrings snapped once – but we had a fabulous time.  Best of all at the studio, we encountered people who were just extraordinarily thrilled that we were there, in their town, in their studio.

Even riding around in the car we were always entertained. I’d been told about the ‘big chicken’, a towering KFC landmark.

However my favourite was this restaurant, a fish place that seemed not to mind implying that this was the place to gobble up Flipper –

It was a wonderful trip – this is just a taster. Part 2 is coming...

17 August 2014


I guess America does have a lot of music festivals - but they seem to me, at least, to be a particularly British thing to do. To go, for several days, to a huge campsite, and sleep in tents only feet away from other people sleeping in tents... it's something I never did in the States.

I tried, once, in Australia, and failed miserably.

But British people love a festival. I know several who will spend hundreds of pounds, on a single festival ticket EVERY YEAR to go to Glastonbury - which, remember, is 5 days long. Your food, drink, travel there and back...  are not included in the ticket price.

This year, I was invited to go to Latitude Festival as an In The Dark Radio performer.

In The Dark Radio is a collective of radio enthusiasts (you know, people like me!) who run listening events. I've been running it in Manchester for a few months, now - it's a great way to make other people geek out on radio.

Jonti and I approached it as a sort-of-cheap holiday. I had to do some hours at the In the Dark hut, he had to buy an actual ticket, but other than that, I definitely recommend Latitude.

We organised a car-share to get there with some strangers. That could have gone poorly, I suppose, but we got lucky. Annette & Sonu are people we'd actually like to be friends with.

We got our lovely new tent up the first afternoon.

The sky over Henham Park, in Suffolk. Latitude is in one of the many beautiful parts of England.

The In the Dark Radio hut was built by an artist collective called Morning.

You are not supposed to squat on the swings like this guy did. You are supposed to swing gently and listen hard to the excellent radio we play into the hut.

I'm sure I do not need to tell you why this is adorable. I'm also sure that you, too, despair at the Oxford Online Dictionary's decision to include 'adorbs' as a word.
It rained a bit on Friday night, but by the time we were festivalling again, the rain had drained away.At some point on Saturday, Jonti and I needed some time alone together, not with 35,000 other festival go-ers, and we headed back to the tent just to get some quiet alone-time. When you are willing to lay in a boiling hot, bright, humid tent in the middle of the day, you are in serious need of quiet alone-time.
On Saturday night, though, there was an enormous storm. Because we had a lovely new tent (see above), the storm was intense, but it was not in tents. LOL.We had scheduled a late night 'adults-only' radio session on Saturday night - Nina, the director of In the Dark, had it on her laptop & iPhone. As we all showed up at the hut, shivering and soaked through, we tried to plug in Nina's iPhone. It was water-damaged and wouldn't work. We tried to plug in her laptop. It didn't really want to work. Finally, we got the night playing, but our hut was just filled with drunk people sheltering from the storm. They didn't want to hear it. We wanted to get back to our tents, get dry & get into bed.We stopped the event early. Thank goodness. I trudged back through the mud and rain, hoping the tent was dry, and not entirely sure that I would sign up for a festival again, to be honest. But apart from the storm on Saturday night, we were lucky with the weather. 
And we got to see and do some very fun things. One of our favourite bands, Future Islands, played, and we got right up to the front row. Hozier & Haushka, both bands we hadn't heard and fell in love with... We saw the Royal Shakespeare Company do Revolt, She Said, Revolt, which was powerful and incredible.We saw Arthur Smith do his comedy/storytelling bit with Leonard Cohen songs, and it was truly wonderful. Until the bit at the end where a grown man came hopping out of back stage with a mask on and nothing else. Until that bit, I was very charmed by this show... And Jon Ronson gave a quirky Jon Ronson-style talk.As we were packing up the tent on Monday morning, I thought, yeah, I'd probably do it again. Bring on Glastonbury!--Side note: This time next week, I'll be visiting you Atlanta lot. Get ready! I can't wait to see y'all! I can't wait for you to meet Jonti!