Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mumbai Mirror Column

This is my Mumbai Mirror column dated December 2, 2010. You can read the full text here

"A tea party is a double-faced symbol. As a social form it is a convivial occasion; but politically it has been, at least once in world history, a revolutionary act the Boston Tea Party."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Defending the indefensible

Santosh Desai is a serious commentator on culture. He occupies a large number of column centimeters on the city page of the Times of India every Monday. His column goes under the slug “City City Bang Bang”. I read it regularly and enjoy it very much because Desai has a lucid prose style and ideas that you can chew on.

As columnists know through sheepish experience, banging out a column of XYZ words week after week tends, on occasion, to addle your brain. So once in a while you put two and three together and make seven, what the hell! Santosh Desai has done it this week in his defence of jugaad.

His launching pad is the CWG mess that angered us, which was, in his view, a typical over-reaction. “It is time, we thunder to ourselves as we pace the floor magisterially, it is time we stopped glorifying a trait that keeps us from striving for excellence.” The trait in question is jugaad which he defines at this point as that which helps Indians “find compromise solutions which somehow work.” Further we said, “India has changed as have its capabilities and standards. And it is imperative that we deliver world class solutions to our needs.”

Desai suggests we are missing the point completely. Why should we want world class solutions when we have jugaad which he now defines as that “unique Indian sensibility which is not only about accepting mediocrity but about seeing the world in creative new ways.” Whoa! There’s something wrong with that sentence. Does Desai really mean what it says? That “accepting mediocrity is pretty good but better than that is seeing the world in creative new ways”. Or is that a grammatical slip and he actually means “Okay, so jugaad is about accepting mediocrity (tut tut), BUT it is also about seeing the world in creative new ways?” Never mind what he really means. The thing to notice is how he slips in this “creative” bit about jugaad. How does that sit with compromise and acceptance of mediocrity?

It doesn’t. What he’s done is shift the argument away from those indefensible things to more solid ground. We can’t object to “seeing the world in creative new ways” can we? Now he confidently gives us two examples of this brand of jugaad, the homely quilt made from old saris and the Nano. I wonder what Ratan Tata would say to his pet car being described as jugaad albeit of the creative variety. I know what I say about sari quilts, under which I have slept all my life, being described as jugaad. I say you ninny, they are outcomes of enforced frugality, not of “creative new ways” of seeing the world.

In saying this I’m barking up the wrong tree, because Desai has already moved to another way of looking at jugaad. He says the purpose of jugaad is “to mediate between our need and circumstances”. We presume by “circumstances” he means limited resources. Like we make old sari quilts and the Nano because we don’t have the resources to buy new quilts and big cars.

Fine. But with this new definition Desai has scored a self goal. He has forgotten that his defence of jugaad began with the CWG. We haven’t. We point out to him that resources were hardly the problem with the CWG. The aerostat alone cost Rs 70 crore or some such, a sum that could have fed our poor for years to come. The agencies charged with producing world class facilities for the Games were given world class funds. So where was the need for jugaad? And would Desai say that the footbridge that fell, injuring 27 workers was “a compromise solution that somehow worked”, in which the word “somehow” was meant to cover damage to human life and limb?

Hammering the final nail in the coffin of honest argument, Desai now elevates jugaad to the politically ISI marked cachet, “subversive”. Thus jugaad “is the name we give to our subversive disdain for reality.” I’ve tried figuring out what “our disdain of reality” means and given up. But I cannot let subversive go so easily. What exactly did we subvert when we argued that our standards of hygiene were okay with filthy toilets, paan stains and dog paw marks on bed covers? What exactly did we subvert when we siphoned off money meant for Games Village facilities to line our pockets? How was the footbridge that fell, a subversion of the “numerator-driven view of the world”? Did we say, “Aha, you build bridges that stand; we think creatively about the world so we make bridges that fall.”

The bridge would have qualified as a piece of creative thinking, marrying need to circumstances and subverting a numerator-driven view of the world with a solution that worked, if we had built it of bamboo, one of the sturdiest building materials available to us. But we didn’t. We used standard materials and a standard design. Therefore we were bound to produce a standard bridge that served its purpose.

Desai ends his column by humouring us. If we are offended by the name jugaad he says, we are free to change it; “but it would be a shame if we were to lose this unique ability to see the world in a distinctive way.” That is the final ball up in Desai’s juggling act.

Sorry Mr Desai, it won’t wash. You’ve failed to sell us the virtues of jugaad because you’ve demonstrated through the jugaad of your column that it simply doesn’t work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dog in the dog house

A dog has been excommunicated from the high caste quarters of Manikpur village in Morena district, north Madhya Pradesh, to the Dalit quarters beyond the village. The gram panchayat has been shocked out of its wits at the dog’s behaviour as reported by its owner Rampal Singh, a rich Rajput farmer with political connections.

The story goes that the dog was walking around his owner’s fields as dogs are wont to do. Sunita Jatav had carried lunch for her farm labourer husband as farm labourers’ wives are wont to do. The husband had finished the lunch and one roti was left over. Sunita saw the dog and invited him to have it. He politely accepted the invitation, probably assuming that one roti was as good as another. Poor dog. Evidently he had not been trained to distinguish between dalit rotis and Rajput rotis. Sunita Jatav’s roti was, like her, dalit to the core.

When Shri Rampal Singh saw what the dog had done, he went ballistic. How could his pet, fondly named Sheru, brought up as a true blue Rajput, have polluted himself so unforgivably, and in the bargain put the entire village at risk of….er, umm, I’m supposed to know what that risk is. But I’m that anti-national, anti-Hindu, westernized, educated, secular thing that’s destroying the fabric of Bharat that is not India. And so I am at sea. Anyway assuming that the dog’s deed was going to give the whole village scabies or worse, turn them into earthworms in their next birth, the only way to save themselves from either calamity was to punish the dog.

The gram panchayat got into an instant huddle and excommunicated Sheru from the village. That meant they dragged him off across the village border and tied him to a pole outside Sunita’s house, there to eat her rotis forever. Henceforth neither he, his shadow nor his pee would be allowed to corrupt the purity of the village environs.

I can see a whole old-style Bollywood movie here. Rampal Singh’s little son who has grown up with Sheru sneaks to Sunita’s hut, cuddles his “brother” and also eats Sunita’s rotis. Nobody knows what’s going on till one day he grows up and wants to marry Sunita’s fair skinned, light-eyed, lavishly coiffeured, buxom daughter and gets to make a speech about all human beings being equal for show me one who can tell the blood of a dalit from the blood of a Kshatriya. Rampal Singh, struck by the radiant obviousness of this truth, breaks into tears of remorse and everyone embraces everyone else.

One story leads to another. The excommunicated Sheru reminds me of another animal that fell foul of the law and came close to being leg-cuffed. This was the unnamed brown sow of Gogol’s "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich". She was suspected of running off with court documents that would have proved one Ivan right against the other. The problem was, the law books said nothing about how brown sows were to be punished.

In India we are lucky. We have customs. So we don’t bother about law books. Sunita has discovered this to her intense anger and shock. She’s been shuttling from one police station to another to register a case against Rampal Singh for publicly insulting her with the words, “Cobbler woman how dare you feed my dog with your roti?” She would have swallowed the insult had the gram panchayat not compounded it with the injury of slapping a Rs 15,000 fine on her for her misdemeanour.

As she sits in police stations, including the one meant to register atrocities against dalits, vainly trying to file her complaint, she must be kicking herself for not having found a happier way of disposing of her leftover roti. She could, for instance, have buried it deep in Rampal Singh’s soil, there to nourish his next crop which would then have entered his granary and from there, by natural progression, his alimentary canal without his being any the wiser. That way she could have been sitting in her hut at this very moment rocking with laughter, rather than in unhelpful police stations

As an act of subversion, this would have equaled the one that Daya Pawar describes in his autobiographical book “Baluta”. One of the village duties of the Mahars, the caste to which he belonged before he converted to Buddhism, was to play music at upper caste weddings. If their music group burst into occasional laughter without a word having been said, it was because one of them had played a juicy obscenity on his instrument against the host in a code that only they knew.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More dust in our eyes

What one had feared has come to pass. The Commonwealth Games are in a sorry mess. Even taking media reports which have been so gleefully salivating over the idea of national shame with a sackful of salt, it is clear that pretty serious things have gone and are still going wrong with every aspect of the Games. It began with quadrupling budgets and major corruption to sub-standard work and a complete rout of the timeline. Now a footbridge has collapsed and strictures have been passed about the lack of cleanliness and maintenance in the Games Village apartments by the Commonwealth Games Federation.

It will take us a long, long time to forget the faces of Organising Committee members, Mr Mattoo and Mr Bhanot as they addressed the new problems thrown at them by the Press and television channels. Mr Bhanot’s was webbed with indignant lies while Mr Mattoo’s offered a serious challenge to frogs sitting on lily pads. What they said was totally unbelievable. Mr Bhanot said something like the following, in a voice that was full of irritation with people who were not getting the obvious: “See, their standards of hygiene are different from ours. That doesn’t mean we are wrong. We are right and there’s nothing wrong with the apartments. But they are complaining so we will bring the level of hygiene up to their expectations though their ideas are different from mine or yours or everybody’s.”

A sportsman on a TV talk show, offered a gloss on this outrageous statement. He said people like Mr Bhanot were used to our sportspeople being given dumps as accommodation. That’s what he meant by our standards of hygiene. E and his colleagues appear to have assumed that the same rule must be holding for sportspeople from other countries.” It’s come as a shock to Mr Bhanot that other countries expect clean, well-maintained apartments for people who run and jump and swing a raquet or two.

Mr Mattoo assured viewers implacably that they would do their best to rise to international standards. It wasn’t a major problem. When it was pointed out that a bridge collapsing and injuring 27 labourers, five of them seriosuly might be seen by many as a major problem, he nodded yes-yes, while still sitting securely on his lily pad.

One is reminded of the time Prince Philip of Britain made his famous diplomatic gaffe when he remarked that a loose screw or wire or whatever it was that he had noticed must have been the handiwork of an Indian. How shocked and angry we were then. How dare he? We who send some of the best engineering and computer brains to the UK and the USA to be held responsible for loose screws?

But bad reputations are not fabricated out of sheer malice. Prince Philip did not have a history of India-bashing. We must give him credit for simply going about his business with eyes and ears open and perhaps reading newspapers. He might be doing that even now, shaking his head and saying to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you Beth? These fellows are dangerous old eggs. Can’t deal with nuts and bolts.”

Nuts and bolts mean detail. We go for large gestures. A passing remark made by someone on a television talk show should have been grabbed and a whole new talk show built around it. This someone said that elsewhere in the world, apartments built for sportspeople at international games meets were clean, efficient and functional. No razzmatazz. What we have created apparently is 5-star accommodation. Since none of the organizing committee people were called upon to comment on this aspect of the games in any talk show, we are short on specifics. But if this is true, it will not surprise us because it would be absolutely true to type.

Today Jaipal Reddy, who heads the Group of Ministers for the Commonwealth Games, is quoted as saying the Commonwealth Games Federation is complaining “only about maintenance. The top end flats I tell you will go for a million dollars.” They have to be 5-star for him to make that claim. He also gives away the centre of focus of the Commonwealth Games. It is not the comfort of visiting teams. Right?

Mr Reddy also seems to have misread the Federation’s complaint about filthy flats. Deeply aggrieved, he says, “What the delegates want is 5-star hotel kind of maintenance. Now tell me where can we get liveried staff? We can only employ semi-skilled casual labour for these jobs.”

The complaints are not about our national obsession with stars Mr Reddy! Nor about the liveries. It’s about the work. Casual or not, workers must be fully trained for the jobs they are expected to do. If staff is hired for maintenance work, they must be trained to maintain, no?

So please stop justifying the mess. Stand up Messrs Bhanot, Mattoo and Reddy, hang your heads in shame and say a simple sorry, first to our visitors, and then to the nation.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Variations on the theme of modaks

The best news about Ganeshotsav comes in soft pouches filled with coconut and jaggery called modaks. I would never dream of buying them or having them made. I have my mother’s recipe which I follow to the letter to produce a sweet that falls only 20 per cent short of the perfection she used to produce with the same recipe. The secret’s not in the words. It’s in the eyes that must judge and the hands that must mould.

These days modak flour made of fragrant rice is available with every good grocer in a Marathi manoos dominated neighbourhood. Just say “modkachi pithi” and you’ve made a beginning. My mother began by buying the right kind of rice, washing it, spreading it out to dry and getting it milled to exactly the right fineness.

If you want to make 20 modaks, scrape two normal sized coconuts. Add to the scrapings three-quarters of their volume of jaggery, mix together and cook. Consider the filling done when it has lost its runniness and come together without becoming sticky. If it does get sticky, pretend you always meant to make toffee, not modaks. Before you take the stuffing off the fire, add about 10 powdered green cardamoms, give the mixture a good stir, let its warm fragrance fill your lungs and set aside to cool.

Now for the wrapping. Take half a kilo of pithi. Measure out an equal amount in volume of water. Put the water in a thick-bottomed vessel with three teaspoons full of ghee and a dash of salt and boil. Add the pithi bit by bit to the boiling water while stirring all the time. Read that again. See? It involves both hands. But you need a third to keep the pot steady on the burner while you’re stirring. If you have help, call for it now. If not, muddle along. You’ll manage.

Once all the pithi has been absorbed into the water and become a white mass, turn the gas down to as low as it’ll go, cover the pot and wait till a good steam rises when you open the lid. Along with the steam you are rewarded with the sensuous scent of basmati. Open your ecstatically closed eyes, put the higgledy-piggledy dough in a shallow basin and go at it. Of course it’s hot. Knead it with the flat bottom of a bowl or something to save your hands for the first few minutes if it’s unbearable. Then rub the palms with ghee and water and knead, knead, knead till the dough is smooth and lumpless.

There is a special vessel to steam modaks in, but a pressure cooker without the pressure does just as well. Smear ghee in the pressure cooker vessels. Now start moulding the modaks. Apllying ghee to your palms, take a ball of dough, press the middle with your thumb to make a deep hollow. Now turn it around in the hollow of your palm pressing the sides the while to create a vertical katori. It’s like the potter turning and moulding a small pot on his wheel. Never seen that? Oh dear.

Fill the katori three-quarters full with stuffing. Pinch the sides of the katori all around and bring the flutes together at the top and pinch into a fine tapered nose. That’s what the top is called. Naak.

Stand these beauties in the ghee smeared pressure cooker vessel and staem them for seven minutes. Take out, allow them a minute or so for willingness to be lifted out of the vessel, split at the top or don’t. Spoon pure home-made ghee over them and thank me for your ticket to heaven.

And while we are on modaks I cannot resist the temptation of translating a short poem by the late Vinda Karandikar from his collection titled “Virupika” (Distortions) In the sicties when this ten line poem was written, a storm broke out of moral high-horsing and wounded sentiments that consumed tons of newsprint. Karandikar didn’t know what had hit him but kept his cool and defended his little work in the tone of a patient teacher putting kindergarten kids through the basics of education.

Here’s the poem, with some of its alliterative punch lost, but most of its wickedness in place.

Gazing upon the curved-trunked, great bodied Ganapati,
A beautiful woman,
Given to reading pornography,
Was filled with lust.

Upon which, the curved-trunked, great bodied Ganapati,
Took her quickly by her modak breasts,
Whirled her around in the sky twenty-one times
And flung her into a howling hell
Called chastity.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Staged disaster

It was an extremely unusual way of spending a Sunday morning. I was on the fourth floor of the Kala Academy, Prabhadevi watching a group of some 20 women and one man, ranging in age from 18 to 70, dance. They presented three “items” in Kathak, Bharata Natyam and Odissi. They had been learning the basics of the three dance styles for three weeks and this was their passing out programme. I’d never seen anything like it in terms of enthusiasm. One woman came from Powai, another from Borivali and a third from Dahisar.

The idea for these workshops came to Nandini Krishna, the Bharata Natyam dancer when the mother of one of her students said ruefully that she herself would have to wait till her next birth to learn dance. Nandini wondered why she couldn’t be given a shot at it in this birth. So she got her friends Keka Sinha the Kathak dancer and Shubhada the Odissi dancer on board and together they began running workshops in all three styles.

Watching the workshop participants perform took me back to my own dance learning days. It was extremely difficult in those days to find authentic dance gurus in Mumbai. I went to so-called Katahk classes and so-called Manipuri classes, but nothing added up to anything substantial.

People like to believe that in those golden days everybody appreciated the classical arts unlike these gross times, when Bollywood alone dictates tastes. To that I say rubbish! And here’s my experience to prove it.

Known in school as someone who was learning classical dance, I was often called upon to perform in annual concerts. I always refused, horrified at the thought of getting up on the stage to make a spectacle of myself before my classmates. But one year the teacher refused to take no for an answer.

The day of slaughter arrived. I was in some kind of ghagra-choli outfit with abla work. A friend of a friend was on the harmonium playing a staccato lehra. This too shall pass I said to myself as I danced a few desultory tukdas and a gat, none of which made any sense to the audience. Totally dispirited, I did my last little twirl and walked off the stage to a polite sprinkling of applause.

Most unfairly the item after mine was a snake dance by Mohindra Batra (I hear he lives in silicon valley now) done to the popular tune from “Nagin”. Being a snake his costume shimmered with sequins. Being a snake his moves were sinuous. Being a snake he ended his dance spectacularly, his back bent in a deep arch, his right foot touching his forehead. The house collapsed with thunderous applause.

After Mohindra came Savithri and Radha. They were learning Bharata Natyam but they were wise enough not to dance incomprehensible things like the Alaripu. Instead, they did the famous “Appalam chappalam” dance from the 1955 film “Azad” to Lata’s and Usha’s recorded voices. They too were thunderously applauded and my humiliation was complete. Golden age of classical dance appreciation? When was that?

Religious fun and toothpaste

It is festival time. Dahi handi is over. There is a middle-class view and a ground level view of this festival. The middle-class view is that politicians who hang enormous amounts of money in gold-rimmed pots hung high against the sky, are like dog masters who make their pets jump for bones. They raise their hands higher and higher till the dogs can’t jump any more and flop down, exhausted.

The ground level view is of a physical challenge that costs no money to face. Two months of rigorous practice helps young men (and these days women too) to stretch their bodies and understand what team spirit means. Reaching the pot is not only about winning money or helping a politician to a sear. It is about a proud display of skills for the public at large, again free of charge. The money in the pot, if won, has its uses. It goes into the mandal’s kitty to fund its social work initiatives.

What makes the dahi handi problematic is its dangerousness. Spines can and do break, destroying young lives. But broken arms and legs, it would seem, are par for the course. The father of a nine-year-old who broke his arm, confessed to a newspaper reporter that he hadn’t known the child was practising for dahi handi, but felt extremely proud to see him at the top. Mind you, it was scary when he fell, “But it was all a lot of fun”.

Fun is what it is. Religious fun. And since the festival emulates the deeds of Lord Krishna, harassing women is a natural part of the fun.

It is generally conceded that people have a right to a bit of religious fun. People who organise this brand of fun expect authorities to understand that it comes with extraordinary rights attached. With Ganeshotsav up next on the religious fun calendar, Ganesh mandals are pressing for permission to make noise in silence zones. Man-made rules cannot be granted primacy over demands made in the name of god.

One wishes gods could speak. Ganesha needs to say to his “devotees”, “Look guys, you worship me as “sukhakarta”, giver of happiness and also as “dukhaharta”, assuager of pain. As sukhakarta, I allow you your booze and song and dance. As dukhaharta, I must look after the comfort of patients in hospitals.”

Fortunately the thinking public perseveres in speaking up. As a result, ecology has now been officially elevated to the status of “a public concern”. Some of the less hubris-driven Ganeshotsav mandals have rejected mine-is-bigger-than-yours plaster of paris idols in favour of the smaller ones made of clay. But there is not enough clay to go around.

One mandal is going to solve the problem by installing a fibre glass idol which will not be immersed in the usual way but symbolically. The shastras are full of escape routes for all contingencies. This mandal has found one for symbolic immersion. However, devotees cannot be denied a road show. So the fibre glass idol will be taken in procession up to the sea, brought back unimmersed, and put away in a locked room till the following year. That way, “Pudhchya varshi lavkar ya” will happen with the turn of a key and no expenditure.

Some members of the mandal did express reservations about the idea. Would this not show disrespect towards the god? Worse, would a year under lock and key not damage the idol? A solution has been found for these concerns too. It has been decided that the idol will be brought out every Tuesday, changed into a fresh pitamber and worshipped.

Ecce Ganapati, vighnaharta, remover of obstacles, now turned into an obstacle in the path of ecological well-being. The responsibility for this sad transformation lies entirely with the long-ago leader of men, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak exhorted people to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi publicly to demonstrate the strength of our culture and our numbers to the alien ruler. Tilak’s purpose was served 63 years ago when the alien ruler finally left us to ourselves. So the question is, for whose benefit are we displaying the strength of our culture and numbers now?

In a recent letter to the editor of “Loksatta”, a man from Pune proposed that, Tilak’s purpose having been served, the public Ganapati should now be allowed to go private. Ganeshotsav is only a 60-year-old tradition. If we really love our traditions we should be happy to return to the original, non-political tradition of worshipping Ganapati exclusively in our homes.

Sure. Try telling that to the display-happy, money-worshipping, fun loving, self-above-all celebrants of Ganeshotsav mandals. They’ll use your head to crack their daily prasad coconuts on. No, we’re stuck with Tilak. The toothpaste is out of the tube and cannot be squeezed back in.