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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

More on "Peepli [Live]"

I return briefly to my post on “Peepli [Live]”. I’ve just come across an interview with Peter Brook done a few years ago, in which he was fed questions by several theatre people and critics about his work and his ideas about theatre. The very first question put to him by a theatre director was, “Given the state of political unrest in Africa, is there an appropriate theatrical response?”

I’d like to quote part of his answer to this question because he it says succinctly about plays what I was struggling to say about the film’s approach to the problem of agrarian distress. He says, “It is quite clear that when one takes any political subject straight on the nose, one is in enormous danger of simplifying what everyone knows by heart from television and newspapers. Suppose we do a play about Iraq or genocide or Aids in Africa, it is very hard not to produce stereotype reactions. The only thing political theatre can do is open up contradictions by exposing the other side of an issue. And sometimes, by taking a subject from the past, we can awaken current concerns. Every real political play contains not only vibrant criticism of a ghastly situation. It's only complete if, at the same time, it evokes the possibility of something worth living for. Otherwise grumbling simply produces grumbling.”

I may not go with the last sentiment, because grumbling has a place in a society such as ours. But when the grumble ends once again with the obvious it doesn’t get us anywhere at all. In “Peepli [Live]” the end shows Natha as a construction worker in Mumbai. The contrast between where he once belonged and where he finds himself now is underlined in bold. Tall buildings go up before him as he sits disconsolately on a heap of rubble covered in the white dust of their construction. A caption tells us that X million farmers have migrated to the cities in the last Y decades. That’s sleight of hand. All those millions didn’t come because they’d lost their lands. They came and continue to come because that’s what industrialisation is all about and also because family holdings cannot sustain growing families for ever. Even if Natha had managed to keep his land, one of his sons would have had to migrate to the city. Are we trying to turn the clock back or should we be saying there will always be people who will choose to migrate to cities and that’s fine, but there should also be an assurance of survival for those who choose to stay back and till their land.

Circumstances being what they are, Natha might be allowed to see a silver lining in his present situation; to see that working hard and sending money home for the family was a better alternative to dying so they could live. It’s not the best life but it is work. Work is dignity. It is also an escape from the clutches of the local goonda politicians.

Of the many lovely touches in the film, one is the brief dream Natha has sleeping in the hut where he’s been dumped by his tormentors. He sees himself dressed in yellow silk riding a caparisoned horse. Perhaps a more realistic waking dream about having work and being productive could have put a little light in his eyes at the end of the film. Such an end would not have destroyed the “messages” the film-makers had already communicated about our cynical media and politicians and anti-poor systems of governance. But it would have given us a less maudlin view of migrants. They are poor, sure. They are exploited, sure. But on both counts less so than in the villages they come from. They are tough, these men and women who come to work in the cities. They have clear goals in life. They don’t sit around on rubble heaps inviting people to feel sorry for them.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

[Live] but not alive

I saw “Peepli [Live]” two days ago. Here, first, is my head-view of the film.

My head says the film depicts the truth. How do I know that? Because I read stories and statistics about farmers’ deaths in the papers everyday and I hear television newscasters occasionally breaking news about them. It’s like breaking wind, the only way they can remain in good health they say.

My head tells me the film is right about politicians too. We read those stories too in the papers and hear television newscasters and talk show anchors etc etc.

My head tells me the film has its heart in the right place which, as all of us know, is the left place. The conditions of farmers are dire. In our entire 5,000 year cultural history we have not found a way to beat the rain at its game. In Girish Karnad’s “The Fire and the Rain”, highly placed brahmin pundits hold a huge, huge yadnya to bring rain. At the end the rain comes. So does Indra’s voice, from up above. These things happen in plays, stories, novels, myths being used as metaphors etc.

Some of us believe in the science of yadnyas. Our ancients knew things which modern man foolishly discards as blind faith. Yadnyas are performed today for rain and because we love religious shows. Since belief in ancient science is a matter of faith, we believe the yadnyas work. But they are not known to have brought rain, filled our water reservoirs or irrigated parched fields. So the farmers’ basic most serious affliction remains unaddressed. “Peepli [Live]” demonstrates that this is so.

It also demonstrates other things like the absurdity of government schemes that compensate families of farmers who have committed suicide but do nothing to prevent those suicides. While showing us such worthwhile things about our country and the way it is run, the film also entertains us with excellent dialogue, performances and robust though occasionally erratic camerawork.

Despite all of which, the film fails to engage our mind. The reason is plain. It holds up for our attention what we already know; and since we already know, the thing that is satirically displayed in the hope that the overdoing will somehow penetrate our calloused layers of information. The problem with satire is that there can be no hope of progression. Given how the film begins, we know how it will proceed and how it will end. Its predictability puts our minds to sleep.

Satire is anger’s tool and as cathartic as tears. Let us suppose for a moment that a viewer comes in with zero information baggage. He doesn’t read the papers, doesn’t watch television, doesn’t think. The film tells him all the things about farmers that he should know. If he is sympathetic, he goes away thinking, okay, but what can I do about it? If he is not, he says, wasted evening. They said it’s funny, but it’s not.

The people who are supposed to sit up and take notice, the media, politicians and administrators, have never claimed to be better than their portrayal in the film. So again, it tells them nothing that they don’t know.

Raw knowledge of how things are is not in short supply. Film-makers who wish to turn that knowledge into film must find stories that will grip our imagination, allowing us to discover a new way of looking at what we have always known. Stories as demonstrations of “reality” don’t do that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

As we stand to salute

I saw Peepli [Live] yesterday evening. I have a few things to say about it but in a separate post. This one is about what inaugurates the PVR Lower Parel film experience. Their “Jana gana mana”.

We are a free country and thereby free to innovate our own national anthem. Keep more or less (very less will do) to the original score and feel free to do your own thing. At PVR they fly a plastic flag on the screen. It looks waxy and doesn’t really fly. It only kind of heaves a little. The opening line is sung by a male, the next by a female and so on till they join voices for the final crescendo, except that in this case we must coin an alternative word to crescendo which I hope will suggest itself to me as we go along.

It is as difficult to catch the quality of a voice in words as it is to catch a colour, a smell or a taste. But I will do my best.

Take a pot of honey. A fuzzy-backed bee bumbles by, spots the honey and stops off for a sip. Its throat grows dreamily sticky and sweet. Now transfer that throat to the male singer of the first line of the national anthem at PVR. Naturally, the words that slip out of it are covered in this sticky, sweet substance. But that substance is further refined by what the Indian understands as the proper voice projection to express noble sentiments. The result is an added glaze of haziness.

The second line is sung by a female. She too has been on the honey pot. But the glaze she has added to the cloying leftovers of that outing is what the Indian understands as the essential sweetness of womanhood. In the role of the essential Indian woman, this singer is called upon to add cute little trills between notes. Her coup de grace is the trill on the dying note of the last ‘jaya he’. The anthem has been so slow and sweet that your dearest desire is to run out and puke when it ends. Then you get this last little trill and you’re nailed to your place in horror.

The idea of playing the national anthem before every show is to instill in us a feeling of pride in a nation that is marching ahead, however reluctant we may be to having such a feeling instilled in us. At Edward theatre, Dhobi Talao, where Majlis held a screening of faded old FD docus about (then) Bombay, a split second before the anthem came on, the usher commanded, “Khade ho jao”. There was threat in his voice, necessary, we inferred, for the Edward regulars. I mention it here just to point out that there are people who may not think there’s much truth in the notion that our nation is marching ahead.

We at PVR are also not encouraged to think so. Rather, the picture we are given is of a nation that has taken time off to sit in a garden stringing garlands of dainty flowers while everything else runs to seed. The charitable view of PVR then could be that, far from being proof of a wimpy idea of anthems reflected in a godawful choice of voices, their “Jana gana mana” is a heart-felt comment on the state of the nation.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Image seekers

I agree with Mani Shankar Aiyer in essence, although, taken as a whole, his outbursts against the Commonwealth Games sound like axe grinding. The idea I am wholeheartedly with is the need to put money and efforts into excelling in sports, making an international mark and then aspiring to host mega sports events.

One doesn’t know the process by which nations get selected as hosts for these events. Is it enough for them to thump their chests and say we can do it? Or is there a process by which their claims are examined? Are track records checked? Are there parameters against which a nation’s real rather than imagined preparedness determined? How far down the infrastructural ladder can a host nation afford to be if it is to meet deadlines? Are cultural blocks in the way of meeting deadlines such as proven corruption and inefficiency taken into account? Does someone mull over other cultural clues like the phrases by which a nation happily describes its attitudes, in our case “chalta hai” and “we are like that only”?

I have my doubts. But let’s take it from where we are. We’ve asked for this responsibility and been given it. We might even pull it off without too many noticeable glitches. To wish the event to fail as Aiyer has done, is churlish. I’d rather wish everybody involved (Kalmadi and Dikshit in particular) the very best of luck. Having said that, I must return to my original point about the mismatch between the reality and the image we are aspiring to. What will the image bring us if we manage to make a good show of the Commonwealth Games? We will be known as a country that can organise Commonwealth Games, and by extension, other international sports events. That will look good on the country’s CV. But the reality will also be up there on our CV, looking not so good.

The sports environment in India isn’t healthy. A particularly putrid stink has been in the air for the last few weeks around women’s sports. We do not have a consistent sports policy that assures promising young people the rigorous training required for international competition. Cricket is an exception. As the national mania we must leave it out of this discussion, except to point out that the body which administers it hasn’t come out of the IPL scams smelling of roses.

Saina Nehwal has triumphed because she backs her ambition with hard work, dedication, total focus and objectivity in assessing her strengths and weaknesses in the international context. Before her, her trainer Gopichand and before him Prakash Padukone shone in international badminton. Chess is the other golden feather in our cap. Then there’s tennis where there have been a few enthusing ups, neutralised somewhat by acres of plateau and several downs.

Let’s take the Olympics as a measure of where we are. Khashaba Jadhav won a bronze in 1952 at Helsinki. Milkha Singh, “the Flying Sikh” was a terror on the tracks between 1958 and 1960. He won golds right, left and centre. But when it came to the Rome Olympics in 1960, he lost his bronze in a photo finish. Twenty-four years later, another star runner, P. T. Usha, enacted the same script. It was medals galore before the Olympics and defeat by 1/100th of a second in a photo finish at Los Angeles in 1984. Then there was silence till 2008, when suddenly India won one gold in shooting (Abhinav Bindra) and two bronzes, Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijender Kumar in boxing. Soon after Bindra was treated shabbily by Indian selectors who didn’t see the importance of the amount of practice he had to put in to stay where he was.
Point is, we don’t really care about sports. Had we cared, we’d have been at the top more often. Look at the pool we can draw from-- 1,150,000,000 (1.15 billion) people at last count. Why then do we compete so fiercely to host mega sporting events and see them as a mark of national pride? I can think of only one answer. Because we worship false images, and we worship MONEY. We see how much of that has been slipping into committee members’ ever hungry pockets.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good luck Jane Austen

Sonam Kapoor’s sister Rhea Kapoor has produced a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma”, to be released this Friday. The publicity has started. It is nothing like what happens with films that feature the Khans or the Bachchans. The budget is probably not impressive compared to their films and, even more importantly, the film is woman-centred, which makes it just a cut above that other down-market category, the “regional” film.
However, what bothered me was not so much how women are seen by the market, but how they see themselves and their work. The headline announcing the film on page 1 of the Bombay Times, dated Monday August 2 said, “It’s chick-flick time say Anil’s daughters”.
In the story, Sonam Kapoor is quoted as saying, “It is a coming-of-age chick-flick that will appeal to women of every age and social strata.” She goes on to add, (and this statement defeats logic), “Not to forget, that it’s a Victorian love story that the guys will find equally exciting.” Does she mean guys are so soppy that they have to go back 200 years to enjoy a love story? Or does it mean, a little more cleverly, that guys are stuck in the Victorian age and will, therefore, find the story relevant?
Anyway, to return to the headline, what exactly does chick-flick mean? Let’s go to the origins of the phrase, to find out. The term originated with a certain kind of women’s writing. I’ve come across four definitions of it. One holds, rather fuzzily, that chick-lit is literature “written by women for women”. Does that mean the book jackets carry a warning that says, “Injurious to male health”? If it is proved that some men have read it, does the book lose its precious place in the category?
A certain Prof Suzanne Ferris holds that although the genre chick-lit was born in 1996 with Helen Fielding’s “The Diary of Bridget Jones”, the mothers of the genre were the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. The idea!!! Students of English Literature at college, men and women, read the Brontes and Jane Austen as seriously as they read Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. No student of English Literature has been called upon to do the same with Bridget Jones.
Amy Sohn defines chick-lit as being about women, ages 20 to 60, who can stand on their own two feet. That lets off poor Jane Austen, none of whose protagonists ever stood on their own two feet, cushioned as they were by personal fortunes. But it does not let off Charlotte Bronte whose Jane Eyre was a working woman.
The definition that describes the genre most clearly, ensuring that no work that falls outside the definition can assume the name of chick-lit, puts the main emphasis on the tone of narration. In chick-lit, says the unknown author of this definition, the tone is personal and light, like a friend confiding in you, and its defining feature is humour. That lets out the Bronte sisters too. We may accuse them of many faults, but never of humour.
Now let’s return to “Aisha”. If the makers themselves are claiming it is a chick-flick, then we may expect something giddy, giggly and soppy. So be it. But how can we make it up to Jane Austen who’ll be turning frantically in her grave? First “Bride and prejudice” and now this. Give the dead soul a break.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The me-too syndrome

In his column today in Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha raises the question of why the HRD ministry has short-listed the following four names for the brand ambassadorship of its adult literacy programme: Nita Ambani, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi and Priyanka Vadra. He suggests that this should be taken as a slap in the face for women because all four are nobodies in their own right. If they are anybody at all, they are merely wives or daughters of politically or financially powerful men. He proposes instead another short list, honouring the work women themselves have done—Shabana Azmi, Chanda Kochar, Kiran Mazumdar and Ela Bhatt.

I am all for Guha’s list of illustrious women, and, as he says, we could add dozens of more names to it. But the questions he asks at the end of the column are not exactly the questions in my mind. He asks, “What are the origins of this ridiculous proposal? Is it a manifestation of the feudal culture within the allegedly democratic government of India or is the handiwork of a particular individual, seeking to please the richest and the most powerful people in India?” The questions are rhetorical. Everyone knows the answers. Of course we are feudalistic. The HRD ministry can be no different. So whether it’s the whole ministry or an individual member who came up with the “ridiculous suggestion”, it must have had every member’s approval for it to get into the Press.

The question in my mind is something else. I want to know what brand ambassadors do. Since the concept belongs to marketing, a return to origins is important to see how its spin-off is expected to function. In marketing promotional models are hired to drive consumer demand for a product, service or brand. Their single most important qualification is an attractive physical appearance. They must also be literate because they are expected to provide information to prospective customers/clients face-to-face. Finally, they must be some kind of performer because they are supposed to deliver what is described as “a live experience that reflects on the product or service they are representing.” In brief, persuasion by every means is what promotional models do.

Now in adult literacy, the information part is easy. You are telling grown-up men and women the tremendous advantages that will accrue to them if they learn their letters. Nita Ambani is eloquent on the blah-blah aspects of social good. She said in a guest column for Businessworld on 16 May, 2008, “Philanthropy in the Indian context is an extension of our age-old belief in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, wherein we regard the world as a family. All the men and women are thus our brethren. Of course, today we have moved well beyond this philosophical definition. For what we do in the name of philanthropy isn’t born only out of love of humanity. It also stems from our efforts to address the biggest problem humanity has created for itself — the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.” One may rely on her then to produce some equally impressive fluff to sell adult literacy.

But what will she do with the questions that are bound to follow in a face to face encounter? What will she say to Gangamma from Dharavi who asks, “I work the whole day in four houses and come home late evening to cook and take my husband’s beatings. So where’s the time to study letters?”

Will Nita Ambani say, “Oh dear! You work in four houses? I don’t even work in mine so I’m in no position really to answer your question. So sorry.”

What will she say to Sakina from Malvani who says, “The only time I have to myself is when the whole family is asleep. But I’ll need light to learn letters. And that Anil Ambani is charging us so much for electricity, we don’t switch on our lights only.”

Will Nita Ambani sniff up her brand new nose and say, “He’s like that only, that Anil.” Will that bring Savitri anywhere near books?
Let me turn for a moment from this depressing prospect to Dr Madhav Chavan’s NGO Pratham. Chavan left his job to become part of Maharashtra’s adult literacy campaign of the late eighties. Now he concentrates on children’s education. Pratham has also appointed a brand ambassador, Anupam Kher. From him we know clearly what he will do as a brand ambassador. He says he’ll leverage his media image to “augment Pratham’s fund-raising capacity.”
That’s a very useful thing to do and celebrities are extremely useful in doing that kind of thing. But an NGO is in constant need of funds and so needs a celebrity. Does the HRD ministry need funds? Aren’t we paying taxes? And aren’t we also coughing up something called education cess? Where’s all that money going?
No, it’s not money that the HRD ministry is looking for. It’s looking for a with-it image. In marketing, their syndrome is called “me-too”. When your mind is too impoverished to think up a new idea, you just pinch one from the next person, colour it blue or pink and market it as “the new way to a new you”. Brand ambassadors are today’s concept, and an eminently pinchable concept too. Narendra Modi’s got Bachchan (paid ambassador though he is) for Gujarat tourism. Let’s have one for adult literacy. It’ll like make adult literacy like really sexy. Way to go baby!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Private space public eye

The horrendous Jalgaon affair tells us how phoney our moral protests against nudity are. A nude in a painting brings every member of the moral police out onto the street. But when news got around that a real live woman was stripped and paraded through a village in Jalgaon district, villagers were able to take the sight with obvious enjoyment and not a single member of the Sree Ram Sene or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal protested or even mildly condemned the terrible act. The terrible act is part of our morality. This is how we’ve punished our women since the time the Kauravs attempted to disrobe Draupadi.

In this little village, a widow was rumoured to be having an affair with a village official. This was ostensibly unacceptable to the village. A conspiracy was hatched and a large group of villagers barged into her home, found the couple together, dragged them out, stripped them, beat them up and paraded them naked through the village.

The case was discussed on a Marathi news channel. Abrogating the right to decide what is moral and immoral and the right to punish the allegedly immoral has become common practice in the country. A retired member of the judiciary called upon by the channel to comment, pointed out that there were enough cultural-political formations in the country who had demonstrated the impunity with which you could take law into your hands as long as the cause was religion, culture or morality. A mob is never punished, however heinous the offence. Who has been punished for crimes committed during the post Babri Masjid demolition riots and the Gujarat pogrom? Why then would ordinary people not feel tempted to experience the heady sense of power that comes with judging and punishing your fellows?

Ironically one of the panelists on the discussion was a prominent leader of the Shiv Sena, Ms Neelam Gorhe. It was strange to hear her speak in an even voice about how wrong it was for people to take the law into their hands. But she had done her work as a political leader. She had made inquiries in the village and discovered an unsuspected angle of the case that the anchor knew nothing about. She revealed that the men who led the action against the couple were not the usual moral police types. They only wore that garb for the impunity it gave them. They were angry with the woman because she had refused to give them what she was giving her paramour. They wanted a piece of the pie so to say.

At frequent intervals during the discussion, a picture popped up on the screen which showed two people, blurred to hide their identities, sitting on the ground trussed up, surrounded by sniggering villagers enjoying the show. Somebody took that picture while they were being humiliated and mercilessly beaten. The ethical problem that news photographers once faced, is never discussed in this age of 24X7 news channels. Somebody took that picture. He was there. The only difference between him and the laughing, sniggering villagers was that they were looking at the scene with the naked eye while he was looking at it through a lens.

Did the picture add to our understanding of what had happened? No. Did it add to our sense of shame? It did, because it implicated us in the passive watching of this horrifying incident along with the villagers and the photographer.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Deities on Dalal Street

The extent to which we turn our gods into materialistic human beings, came home to me with a news item I came across on page 1 of the most widely read Marathi daily in Pune, “Sakal”. This is how it went:

“Mumbai, 16 July:

The Ganapati Panchayatan Sansthan Trust, set up by the Raja of Sangli, administers five deities—Ganapati, Chintamaneshwari Dev, Chintamaneshwari Devi, Suryanarayan Dev and Laxminaryayan Dev. The income-tax department has issued pan cards in the names of all five deities. The Trust believed that since the law permitted deities to acquire property and the income-tax department had issued pan-cards to all five deities administered by the Trust, the law would also allow them to invest in shares. With this in mind, the Trust applied to the Karur Vaishya Bank to open demat accounts in their names. But the Bank turned down the request. In pursuance of their request, the Trust then filed a plea in the High Court. However, the NSDL, which governs demat accounts, submitted that according to the law, only Trusts that were registered as Public had the right to acquire shares in the name of deities. Private Trusts could acquire shares only in the name of Trustees and not the deities.

The case was heard today by Justice P. B. Muzumdar and Justice Rajendra Sawant. The question that bothered the bench was this. Since anybody could open a demat account in the name of deities and commit fraud, who was to be held responsible for it? The Bench therefore suggested that some responsible member of the Trust should be nominated to accept responsibility for managing the deities’ demat accounts.

The suggestion of the bench was vetoed in toto by the NSDL which stuck to its stand that deities could not be allowed to have demat accounts in their names. Explaining their stand to the Trust, the bench pointed out that the buying and selling of shares required a particular kind of skill which deities did not and could not be expected to possess. Consequently, the bench regretfully rejected the plea filed by the Trust.”

Forget demat accounts. One didn’t even know deities were issued pan cards. The idea has set off a whole chain of puerile posers in my head, beginning with how deities would answer mandatory questions about their names, middle names, surnames and fathers’ names without which nothing can be opened or closed in banks?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of the brinjal

I notice that Genetically Modified Foods have made a comeback on the news front. It is reported that the European Commission which had blanket banned the stuff is now toying with the idea of allowing its member states to decide what they want to do about it. It appears that scientific evidence is piling up in favour of these technologically interfered with foods and who are we, the non-scientific community, to question such evidence?

Jairam Ramesh will again be in a quandary. Because newspaper editors are saying we can’t lag behind Europe. We mustn’t appear to be anti-science. The last time he was put in a spot, he got away by h’mming first and hawing later, which gave television newscasters and talk show anchors much scope for debate.

I was never personally involved with the debate. Brinjals are not a hot favorite in my family so their future shape, colour, taste and side-effects are things not likely to exercise its mind. But in a distant kind of way, I was on the side of the non-interference with Nature brigade. It was an instinctive, uninformed reaction but there it is. This is not to say that I am not open to being convinced that stuff like BT brinjals will be the best thing that happened to our poor suicide-prone farmers.

However, when this great debate was on I did get caught in a verbal imbroglio that had to do with the electronic media’s ignorance about an important part of the issue, viz, the pronunciation of the veggie’s name. I reproduce here the situation in which the debate took place and the twists and turns that it took in the hope that it will reach the ears of TV newscasters and help them mend their mistake in future discussions.

The debate began in the middle of a small lunch of old and new retired members of the department of English, Elphinstone College. One side of the dining table was engaged in a discussion about whether they got Rs 260 or Rs 288.30 per month as salary (when they got it at all) in those misty old days of yore, and about which year it was when the gap between this and the Rs 450 that the much envied lecturers at private colleges used to get closed with a bang and government college salaries galloped way ahead of the field. It was a low-volume discussion into which a voice from the other end of the table made indignant ingress. "Will someone please tell me how "brinjal" is pronounced?"

I shall have to resort to dramatic dialogue from this point on to give readers a sense of the quick, razor sharp exchanges that followed. In keeping with much modern playwriting, debaters will be named after their states of mind or as plain numbers.

Indignant: I mean how have we always pronounced brinjal?

Everybody together: Brinjol of course!

Voice one: Except when it is preceded by BT on television. Then it is "brinjle"

Indignant: That’s just what I’m angry about. Why? I mean why? If it's always been brinjol and I've always pronounced it brinjol, why should it suddenly become this thing called brinjle?

Everybody: Absolutely.

Indignant: So then?

(Stumped silence)

Voice two: It's Anglo-Indian

Voice three: It comes from the Portuguese.

Voice four: That's not Anglo-Indian.

Voice five: When did the Portuguese eat enough brinjols to influence the Brits with their pronunciation?

Voice one: They lived in Bombay. Bassein and all.

Voice two: The French call it aubergine, you know. Never never brinjol.

Voice four: Exactly.

Indignant: Never mind the French. And never mind the Portuguese. Have we not always called it brinjol?

Everybody: We have.

Voice five: But the Americans never say brinjol. For them it is....


Voice five: You've taken the very word out of my mouth. Eggplant.

Indignant: So where is binjle coming from is what I want to know. It’s not in any of my dictionaries.

Voice three: I told you it’s from the Portuguese.

Voice four: What's with you and the Portuguese? Why are you promoting them here?

Voice one: Perhaps we should look it up.

Indignant: I’m telling you I did. I was so disturbed. All my life I've called the darned things brinjols and suddenly they're brinjles. But imagine, they are not in Daniel Jones nor in Websters!

Voice five: You should have looked in Hobson Jobson

Voice four: (to Six who has been silent) You know the origin of that don't you?

Voice six: Of brinjols?

Voice four: Of Hobson Jobson.

Voice six: (Vaguely) Yes. Ya Hasan! Ya Husain!

(Stumped silence)

Three voices together: What's the connection?

Voice One: With brinjols?

Voice Two: With Hobson Jobson. I mean where's the connection between Ya Hasan Ya Hussain and Hobson Jobson?

Voice Six: Muslims chant Ya Hasan Ya Husain during Mohurram.

Three voices together: So? What's the connection?

Voice Four: The Brits heard Ya Hasan Ya Husain as Hobson Jobson.

Voice three: See? The Brits have defective ears and defective tongues. They must have misheard and mispronounced the Portuguese original as brinjols.

Indignant: Well we took our pronunciations, for better or worse, from those defective tongues. Where does going back to originals get us?

Everybody (more or less): Nowhere in particular.

Voice One: Perhaps I could help. You say you consulted Daniel Jones and Websters. What about Oxford?

Everybody: Ah Oxford.

The debate petered out inconclusively. But since I was Voice One, I felt obliged to follow up on my suggestion. I came home and looked up my Concise Oxford. And this is what I turned up.

Brinjal: (Pronounced brinjol as in "saw". Alternatively brinjol as in "hot"). The word comes from Portuguese "berinjela" which comes from the Arabic "al-badinjan".

“Brinjle” doesn’t even get a look in. I hope TV newscasters will do a dumb vegetable the favour of calling it by its right name when they next discuss the pros and cons of Genetically Modified Foods.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Of wet shoes and daft journalists

Morning walks during the monsoon are exhilarating for two reasons. The air has been washed clean of smells and pollutants so you can actually breathe without thinking you’re killing yourself. And you meet fewer of your species along the way. Some don’t want to risk slipping; some don’t want to get wet; some simply don’t want to get out of bed (I presume). The result is, you’re walking peacefully along deserted paths humming a jaunty ditty while the rain beats down on your umbrella. You are in a state of bliss.

But. Yes, there’s always a but to spoil life’s pleasures. Water is collecting in your shoes which are now going squelch-squelch instead of tic-toc. Back home, you stand them up against a wall under the fan hoping they will be dry for the following morning’s walk. They aren’t, not the next day nor the next nor the next.

On the third day last week, my friend Nandu dropped in. He looked at my wet shoes propped soggily up against the wall and said that’s no way to dry shoes. You must stuff them with balls of paper to absorb the water. I promptly did what he said and it worked.

But the story doesn’t end there. One discovery always leads to another. My second discovery was that Bombay Times which otherwise lies around the house in its pristine folds, makes excellent stuffing paper. I figure the secret’s not just the newsprint, because that’s common to all papers. It’s the extra porous fluff that goes into BT that makes it doubly absorbent.

Now, when I picked up a copy of BT to stuff my shoes, I noticed my young friend Durga Jasraj hugging her mother Madhura on the back page. Durga and I were together in an old Marathi television series called “Paul Khuna” directed by Amol Palekar and we’ve been fond of each other ever since. Not wanting to stuff her into my shoes, I tore her out to catch up with her later.

This is what the copy said. It said that there was this unnamed musical event at which Jagjit Singh, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and a whole lot of other luminaries from the music world were present along with Madhura, Pt Jasraj’s “wonderful wife” and Durga their “beautiful daughter”. So? Normally there’s no “so?” to gossip snippets. These people were there and here’s the pic is all there is to it.

But this story had more. The dissembling reporter goes on to say “So taken aback were we by this confluence of talent that in our reportage of the event we wrongly mentioned Madhura as Jagjit Singh’s wife and Durga as his daughter.” So? That kind of booboo is wholly and utterly expected from the ingénue reporters who don’t know the top of a tabla from the back end of an elephant but charge into musical events, pencils at the ready.

What’s amusing is the phrasing of the apology that follows all the buttery piffle. It goes “We sincerely apologise to the two illustrious musical families for the confusion caused.” Confusion? Caused by you? Like Jagjit Singh’s wife said to him, rolling pin in hand, “When did all this happen, hanh?” And friends called up Durga demanding that she reveal forthwith who her real father was?

Dear BT chumps, you’re like Francis Bacon’s little fly which sat on a mighty carriage wheel and said, “What a dust do I raise”. Believe me, the Jagjit Singhs and Jasrajs know who is who. All you needed to say was, “We regret our error”. But if habit compelled you to add colour, here’s what you could have said: “What we have long suspected, has now been conclusively proved. We are irrevocably daft. We apologise sincerely for this error and for all future errors that we will inevitably make in our long and eventful careers as journalists.”

Friday, June 25, 2010


Sorry to go on and on about the Thackerays, but I have to get this idea off my chest. This has to do with the phonetic problem of transcribing Indian names accurately into the Roman script.

Let me take my own family name as an example. I spell it GOKHALE, thereby creating a problem. What’s the A doing there? Answer: It is there because we are pedantic. By inserting it after KH, we are saying KH is a fully pronounced consonant. Without the A, we will mislead people into thinking that the KH and the LE make a joint consonant.

Great, wonderful in theory. But see the confusion it causes in practice.

Way back in the year dot, I was being interviewed for a seat at Bristol University. Three polite gentlemen sat before me on the other side of a wide table. One of them inclined his head and said, “Please sit down Miss Gokhale”, pronouncing it like Go-pale. Natural mistake given a certain rule in English spelling that has no exceptions (as far as I know), which says E after a consonant means the previous vowel is to be pronounced as it is in the alphabet.

I would have let it pass had the gentleman not smiled and inquired, “That is the way you pronounce your name, I hope?” Even then I could have nodded and said yes. But instead I said helpfully, “No, it’s Go-kha-le.” I thought separating the syllables thus would make the role of A clear. Despite which, the second gentleman said, “Oh yes, of course, I can see that now.” Then very carefully he tried it out. “Miss Go-khaa-le”, he said, bringing Hindi food into my middle. He too made the mistake of asking politely if he had got it right. Again I could have smiled brightly and said of course you have. And again I did not. I did worse. I said, “No, but that’s okay. I don’t mind.” I meant to sound kind and forgiving. But I ended up sounding patronising--to three men who’d done doctorates in heavy-duty Eng Lit issues from colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.

They guffawed at their gaffes and one of them said self-disparagingly, British as ever, “The English tongue finds it difficult to get around anything more challenging than fish and chips.” The others shook their heads and said “Oh dear oh dear, we must work on this,” while I said to myself, “There goes my seat.”

But I got it.

Anyway, all this is to explain that our insistence on transcribing a full, as against a half consonant in the Roman script makes for social embarrassment in England. Thackeray has escaped it by not going to England at all. But his name is very closely connected with English soil.

Let me pull his name apart to demonstrate how. People generally use A to indicate a full consonant. Thackeray uses an E instead. No problem. People generally use an E for the end vowel. He chooses to transcribe it as AY as in DAY or SAY. Fair enough. Each to his own. We are a tolerant nation and all that. But why doesn’t he transcribe the central consonant of his name with a K? Why “CK”?

Ah! That’s where my little idea comes in. My theory is that he chose to spell his name like Thackeray the 19th century British novelist, creator of the earliest upwardly mobile anti-heroine in English literature, Becky (Rebecca) Sharpe of “Vanity Fair”, because of a deeply felt kinship.

Just look at the similarities. The Brit Thackeray was a journalist. Our Thackeray began his journey into political prominence with a magazine called “Marmik”. The Brit Thackeray was a humourist. He wrote for “Punch”. Our Thackeray was (some people think “is”) a humourist. “Marmik” was a jokey magazine. The Brit Thackeray was a caricaturist. Our Thackeray was also one. That’s how he got his cartooning job with the Free Press Journal. Now, think of the Brit Thackeray’s first name, William. Shortened to Billy doesn’t it come close to Bal? Two consonants in common.

There, unfortunately, the similarities end and our great misfortunes begin. The Brit Thackeray’s middle name was an invitation, MAKEPEACE. He was WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY when fully unfurled. Our Thackeray was thrilled to cosy up to his first and last names; but when he came to the invitation in the middle…

Complete the above sentence and send to this blog. The person who sends in the best entry will be rewarded with a free tour of Matoshree and the chance to touch Balasaheb’s feet.

The Father's Son

The arrival of a new political menace on the Mumbai scene is heralded by two events. The first is a show of muscle power on the streets designed to make citizens’ lives maximally difficult or even impossible. The second is the appearance of hoardings congratulating the menace on having added one more year to his life.

This is to announce the arrival of our new political menace—NITESH RANE, son of, (or should I say scion of?) Shri Narayan Rane, erstwhile Shiv Sena man, then rebel Congressman, presently subdued Congressman, but raring to be something more volcanic. Nitesh Rane, besides running petrol pumps, hotels, beer bars and whatever else that has come to him by way of silver spoons in the mouth, has now also gone on to earn his own spurs. We are not privy to the rites of passage that a young tough is put through before he is let out on to the streets of Mumbai; but one surmises that his elders will certify him an honoured member of the tribe now that he has distinguished himself in his first stint at street service.

Nitesh Rane took this test on Tuesday the 22nd of June and came out with flying colours. His three-year-old outfit, Swabhiman, made it to the front pages of every city newspaper for putting such a huge spoke in the rumbling wheels of the city that the city stalled and came to a halt for one whole day. All Nitesh had to do was to say to his men, “Go get them Rufus” or its equivalent in Sindhudurg-Chembur lingo, and off they bounded and smashed up 200 autos and taxis. The remaining one lakh ricks and 55,000 taxis ran off the roads and hid.

The entrenched union leaders whom we have learned to live with, claimed not to have called the strike. “Why would we,” they argued, aggrieved, “when the government had already set the date for talks on the fare hike we were asking for?” So when the strike happened, they were left with their mouths open. The venerable A. L. Quadros had to shut even that when the Shiv Sena’s Mumbai Taxi Chalak Malak Sena asked the gathered media who the hell he was to be asked to speak for taximen? Quadros didn’t even twirl his considerably weighty whiskers in answer to that question. He simply turned tail and walked away.

But it was Nitesh Rane who had won the day. The following day the Press carried his utterly reasonable statement on the previous day’s victory. His aim had never been, he said, to inconvenience the public (had someone been insensitive enough to suspect him of that?) No, No, No. All he had wanted to do was to help the poor rickshawallas whose numbers his union commanded. Since this was said with an admirably straight face and justifiable pride, the Press quoted him without comment. He has thus lived up to the name of his outfit, SWABHIMAN. Pride in self.

As I said earlier, two events mark the rise of a political menace. With not a single taxi or rickshaw on the roads on Tuesday, Nitesh Rane has vaulted clear over the first bar; and the proof of this triumph is in the birthday greetings. They congratulate him, their “dashing, dynamic saheb” (yes, he’s already that! We live in fast moving times) on growing up by one year on June 23. As for us, we must now find a way of living with this added dash and dynamism on our streets!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Last week a young couple came to invite me to their wedding and stayed to discuss problems that were troubling them. The young man was disturbed by the effect Raj Thackeray’s anti-north Indian campaign had done to his north Indian friends. One story in particular had depressed him.

A good friend, a quiet, hard-working, non-drinking, non-partying type, living as a tenant in a flat in Dombivali, was suddenly told to quit his flat because the remaining seven tenants, all Marathis, didn’t want a bhaiyya in their midst. The landlord had been very happy with this young man for the four years he had stayed in the flat, but said he was helpless in the face of the other tenants’ antagonism. The young man was rushing off for a shoot when the tenants’ delegation visited. He asked them for time. The tenants said nothing doing. Go. The young man had no choice. He packed his stuff, made an SOS call to a friend and moved in temporarily with him.

After this incident, the tension between my young friend and his north Indian friends has become palpable. “When I join them at our usual haunt, they fall silent. When I invited them to my wedding, they looked at the invitation card, saw it was in Marathi and became hostile. How do I deal with this?”

I said if his north Indian friends did not distinguish between him and Raj Thackeray’s mobs, they would only help him in his dangerous work. “But the tenants in my friend’s building weren’t part of Thackeray’s mobs,” he said. “They had been pretty friendly earlier. I tell you, the poison has got into ordinary Marathi people. Can’t we do something about it?”

I had no solution to offer.

My young friend’s fiancée has a problem that ties in with the old gender issue that’s been thrown up yet again with the suave David Davidar being accused of sexual harassment. His statement expresses deep regret at the hurt he has caused his wife (thanks Tiger Woods), but claims that his ‘flirtations’ were consensual. We gather from blogs by women that problems like this occur in organisations where informal friendships between bosses and employees are part of the work culture. Trouble starts when women realise that what began as a friendship was being subtly pushed towards flirtation. The women admit frankly that they enjoy the friendships, but begin to get uncomfortable when they change colour. The line between the one and the other is so blurred that before they know it, they’ve played into the man’s hand. This explains why their protests come so late in the day.

My young friend’s fiancée is a friendly young software programmer who works in Mantralaya. She was the first of the breed to be hired, and is full of justified pride in her profession. Gradually over time she has realised that her male colleagues are not impressed by her professional qualifications. They see her only and exclusively as a young female, who may be ogled, told risqué jokes and humiliated with innuendos about how she got her job.

“Do they know,” she asked with tears in her eyes, “what battles I had to fight with my family and community to be allowed to do this professional course? Do they not see how good I am at my job? Why do my clothes matter to them more than my work? I wear what I’m wearing now, a simple salwar-kameez. Is there something wrong with that? What angers me is that it isn’t just the older men who have this attitude, but men my age as well. How do I deal with this constant harassment? What do I do when I’m told a dirty joke that embarrasses me? If I show I’m embarrassed they are tickled. If I pretend I’m not embarrassed they are happy again because they can then whisper amongst themselves that I’m a ‘bold’ girl. I really don’t know how to deal with this.”

The conundrum is similar, though less destructive in its outcome, to the rape victim’s. If she screams it excites the rapist. If she doesn’t scream, she is supposed to have consented to rape.

“Don’t your women colleagues support and advise you?” I asked. Her smile now was really sad. “They have submitted to this kind of harassment themselves. One of them said it’ll stop once I’m married.”

That of course is patently untrue.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Imagined image

This is a real laugh. When I say our country is bizarre I mean it is seriously bizarre because of stuff like this.

Organisations, governmental, non-governmental, whichever, are supposed to have eyes and ears and hands and mouths just like us. But whereas our eyes can see what our hands are doing and our ears can hear what our mouths are saying, our civic caretaker, the BMC, appears to be severely challenged in this respect.

This morning I see a huge picture in one of the five newspapers I depress myself with everyday, of a woman in a blue kameez and yellow dupatta swiping her card at a machine. Another woman beyond her is doing the same. The caption gives us to understand that these are BMC employees in a mad rush to get home. The news that accompanies the pic goes (in a nutshell) “Tut tut; that’s very naughty”. Apparently these women are leaving office a full half-an-hour before “the stipulated time”. It’s not happening only on the day this photograph was taken. It is happening everyday.

Unnamed BMC officials are deeply annoyed. They’ve announced punitive action. First, no increments. Next, termination of service.

I’m laughing hard, really hard at this. Didn’t we think BMC employees left work early (like their brothers and sisters in Mantralaya) because they didn’t think there was work to be done in the first place? That, even more radically, they didn’t turn up for work at all because moonlighting added more zeros to their already fat incomes? And that these indeed were the distinguishing marks of the BMC employee? In fact, I was quite convinced that these practices were cleared at the interview stage itself, before employees were hired: “Repeat after me: I submit humbly to BMC’s long-established work culture. I shall keep my hands free of work at all times and at the same time, keep them well-oiled for the pursuit of lucre.” Stamp, stamp, stamp, hired!

But the unnamed BMC officials quoted in the news report don’t seem to see it that way. They complain that early leavers are costing the corporation a loss of 58,000 man hours per day, at half an hour per head, and (excuse me while I roll on the floor), “affecting the BMC’s work culture and tarnishing its image”!

Image for heaven’s sake! Like the BMC is listed repeatedly as one of our most corrupt organisations? Like its employees sit on files, not chairs at the workplace and “misplace” said files the moment their contents begin to irritate their backsides? Like they treat octroi as a golden egg laying goose in their back yards or…need I go on?

As I pick myself off the floor, irony strikes. Our contractor who is doing some knocking and plastering work on our old building because it’s been leaking for years and peepul trees have been growing out of its back, calls to say there are some BMC chaps downstairs asking for 5,000 rupees because we are repairing our building and can you spare the cash? Never in my entire considerably long life, have I bribed. If this had been my personal work, I still would not have done so. But my 96-year-old upstairs neighbour has been worrying herself sick about the leaky walls falling in on her with the monsoon setting in.

I fished out the required 5,000 rupees from my emergency fund and handed it over to the contractor in utter humiliation. I watched the oily transaction from my verandah. The recipients of the booty were four strapping young men, smartly dressed, one in a fancy jerkin. They pocketed 4000 rupees and gave the contractor a receipt for 1000 rupees—a fine for some obscure rule they must have accused him of breaking. I am now part of the system.

BMC take a bow. Your image shines bright and clear. When a beggar puts his hand out to us, we tell him moralistically to work, not beg. When your men put their hands out to us, we dare not utter the word work. We simply pay up.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Curly dreams

Hair has been on my mind for some time. Every time I see a young woman swinging a plasticky sheet of it around her face in any one of the ten thousand ads we see on TV for hair oil, shampoo, hair colour, conditioner and whatever else, I think of my generation’s aspirations. They were not for glossy straight hair. They were for waves.

Waves could be lightly secured on both sides of a centre or side parting with clips made to look like butterflies, strawberries or ladybirds. They could be tied in two bunches on either side of the head with pink or red satin ribbons. They could be trained into the most envied thing of all: ringlets.

Belinda down the street wore ringlets. At school there was Sherry of the plump pink cheeks, and ringlets that bobbed deliciously up and down. None of us wore our hair short so we could never compete with either of them. But hope wasn’t dead. We could leave long brushes of hair loose at the end of our plaits and turn those into ringlets.

Every now and again a hopeful straight-haired friend would excitedly pour into our avid ears yet another secret for making ringlets; and yet again we’d go home in high spirits to try it out and return to school with our obdurate brushes still straight as brooms. I remember one of these secrets even now. You had to coil your plait end brushes tightly around a shoelace, twist them into little knots, then dip the knots in tea dregs and sleep on them. Next morning when you undid the shoelaces, hey presto there they were, your dream ringlets. Well, as I said, it was always, hey presto, there are your brushes again.

Ringlets, we decided, were unattainable. But waves? Surely those could be managed? My model for wavy hair was Nalini Chitre, the late poet Dilip Chitre’s cousin. All his three cousins were blessed with curls, but the other two had frizz. While this was infinitely more respectable than straight hair, one would turn to it only if waves failed.

In those days an older cousin of mine from Nasik was staying with us. She was indefatigable in her determination to make waves. Earlier she would do what many still do---make tiny plaits on hair washing day and be blessed with a frizz in the evening. It lasted for a couple of days and then wore out. But those two days were Saturday and Sunday, important days because she had a boyfriend nobody knew about. When she announced that she wanted to marry him, her father, my uncle, hauled her back to Nashik where she found her next boyfriend and eloped!

Anyway, when this cousin had no time to make tiny plaits on hair washing day, she pushed her hair up into a series of ridges around her head and pinned them down with long bobby pins. This trick produced results. I tried it out a couple of times but for god’s sake, how could I waste weekend mornings on elusive things like waves when exciting games were being played downstairs on the street?

Meanwhile, my craze for curls had got around the neighbourhood. It prompted the Pereiras downstairs to do an amazing thing. One of them worked for the Army and Navy Store in Fort, and he got me a home perm set for my 11th birthday. It had blue bone shaped curlers, squares of tissue paper, rubber bands and two bottles of liquid. My mother frowned at the liquids. “Chemicals!” she said and put them out of bounds.

For a couple of years after that, I would meticulously lay tissue paper squares at the ends of equally divided strands of hair, wind them up on the blue curlers and secure them round my head with rubber bands. But without the curling liquids all I got, when I let down my hair, was zigzags, which even I, blinded by hope, could not call curls.

This precious home perm set was called Toni. It was advertised famously by a pair of twins with glossy curls. The copy went, “Which twin has the Toni?” Who cared? I knew I was never going to have it. So go away. Get lost!