Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sharing, caring etc

Further musings on toilets and our shared existence as citizens, families, lovers etc. I do firmly believe that the day we all start leaving a public toilet cleaner than we found it, we will have understood the true meaning of patriotism.

I'd also like to say that there is nothing so unromantic as an unclean toilet, and that a nice, airy, really sparkling clean bathroom-toilet is a strong incentive to commit to someone.

The following comic appeared in Mint.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

because lioness hearts are not the same as lion hearts

"cubs are slow, fathers fast and lion mothers know that truth
is the thing that prevails... "

I have a new-ish poem in Kindle magazine. This one was inspired by a National Geographic program about the lives of lionesses and lions in the savannah grasslands in Africa. Read the full poem here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Short Story - Inverter

For a minute, nothing. Then a pool of light gathered at the window across, smearing itself untidily against the grimy glass.

I didn’t know what to do after that. I looked at the moon, at the street below, and sucked in the warmth spreading in my blood.

The next night was the same. She let her pool of light shimmy across the lane one more time, and went down the stairs. I too pointed my torch at her, turned off the light, then turned it on again.

We did this every day now...."  

From a new short story 'Inverter', published in Verve magazine. Read it here.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

A snatch of music

This is the latest script I did for The Small Picture in Mint. It comes from me missing music in public spaces, and then, chancing upon a few snatches at suburban railway stations last year. 



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

# wishlist 2014

I had, on an impulse, begun to tweet a wish-list in the new year. Most of these were civic or political wishes. Am compiling them here in one place and will keep adding to them as I keep wishing and wanting.
- Can somebody not pass a law against people stealing others' hisse ki dhoop? Isn't sunshine basic human right like food, water, oxygen

- Pass a law to prevent housing society discriminating against tenants and home buyers on the basis of religion/ race/ caste/ sex/ marital status.

- Do away with 'obscenity' as a legal concept for arts and public spaces. Define sex/ nudity limits for the public in clear terms. Everyone should be subject to same rules, regardless of religion/gender. If Naga Sadhus can be nude at a public mela, so can performers in a park.

- Introduce farming, childcare, sewing as optional subjects at the Senior Secondary school level instead of Chemistry, Physics, or Geography. Home Science must be a compulsory exam (theory + practicals) for both boys and girls at the higher secondary level. Cooking, cleaning etc should be treated as new subjects and be available as new combinations. (For instance, Biology + Farming + Childcare is an excellent combination and it should be allowed at an entrance levels for pre-medical exams. Any additional knowledge of other subjects, say Chemistry, can be acquired after the entrance is cleared, through a secondary exam for students who opted out in school.)

- Insist that all public offices be open to citizen engagement via email, along with a guarantee that they will get a response within 3-5 days. Officials in all departments MUST resolve email complaints in 7-15 days. Failing which, citizens should be able to approach a higher official to escalate the issue, also via email or phone.

- Citizens must have the right to approach a lower court directly in case public officials fail to respond to email complaints within 15 days.

- Insist on TOTAL transparency, especially for wages and labour. Firms, even private ones that employ less than 20 people must also be open for public scrutiny.

- I want cars to be taxed MUCH higher. The state should also incentivize experiments in transport: 4-wheel cycle carts? Solar cars? Also incentivize WALKING.

- Free up transport choices. I want cycle rickshaws in Mumbai and other cities. Cyclists need to be given priority because they are the most efficient commuters in every way possible.

- Set up a website and an office to help less educated/ illiterate workers get registered for work, and potential employers can access them through phone calls.

- If people are going to jail for non-violent crimes only because they cannot pay the fines, allow them to opt for community service instead.

- For sexual crime offenders, along with jail terms, they must take a course of education on gender, consent, sexual rights. They must read certain books, watch certain films etc.

- Make gender studies compulsory in secondary schools, as a sub-set of social sciences. Make it optional in colleges, in lieu of compulsory English/Hindi.

- Let sewage treatment happen at local levels (within residential colonies and each territory demarcated along political zones). Make corporator/ MLA directly responsible, and encourage citizens to take care of their own sh*t.

- Instead of 'free' water and electricity, let people harvest their own water in cities and use solar energy. The capital cities must lead by example. They must also own up to the fact that there's nothing free in life. Citizens in villages pay with their lives for 'free' water and electricity (@ArvindKejriwal listen up!). If we must have free water (in taps, inside homes) and 24-hour electricity, let the villages have it first, before the cities do.
- Enforce commercial land grant rules based on intent of use. If a factory/ mill shuts down, the land reverts to the city or the public commons. It can only be put to commercial use, if someone wants to set up another labour-intensive project.

- If private schools, hospitals are not admitting the poor, then let them buy land at commercial rates. If subsidized land rates are being offered in cities, then the schools and hospitals must be open to the public. Preferably just build a whole lot of public hospitals.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Plural losses

This piece was written for The Small Picture on December 6, and for my grandfather, who left so much unfinished, so much unsaid:




Saturday, January 11, 2014

On writing, getting published etc

I often get approached by aspiring authors who want to know how to get published, and what my own experience has been like. So I thought I would just collect my various thoughts and responses in a single post. Treat all advice, however, as general advice. Each writer has a different journey and therefore different points of view.

- Finish the manuscript.
- Edit it to the best of your ability. Format it properly and check grammar and spelling.
- Send a query letter directly to a publisher. You will know of most publishers if you are a reader (and if you are not a reader of books, I don't know what you are doing trying to become an author).
- Most publishers have websites. You just have to run a google search. Many Indian publishers these days do encourage you to query directly, so send an email. Try and make sure your email has complete sentences and full words instead of sms-ese.
- Find an agent if you are confident that you will get a good advance. India has very few literary agents but Siyahi and Writers' Side are two example. For foreign agents, you will have to again send query letters. Am afraid I don't know anything about finding foreign agencies.
- There is some good advice here, written by those who are clearly more experienced than me : http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/getting-published

MORE

I recently talked to Cosmopolitan (India) magazine about how I got published. Here's the Q and A, which might be useful to some of you:

1) What made you take to writing? What were some of your motivations, aspirations, goals etc? Anxieties, concerns too?

A - I do not recall ever making a conscious decision to 'take to writing'. I wrote a bit in high school, but mainly essays or my speeches for debating contests. As an undergraduate, I used to participate in all extra-curricular activity - song, dance, drama, fashion show. The college had an extempore (on-the-spot) poetry contest and I participated, and to my surprise, won. I began to take writing a little more seriously then, mainly because of the encouragement I received by my English Literature teachers. Soon I began to co-edit the students' magazine. By the time I finished college, I knew I could write decently, and didn't know if I could do anything else. I had no clear ambition or, indeed, motivation. But I did write quite a lot of letters, diaries, poems. Mainly to express myself, I think. Nor did I have many anxieties in the early years. I had the arrogance and confidence that very young people often do. I think I needed it knocked out of me, and that happened very quickly when I moved to big cities and my reading widening to include contemporary Indian writers who was clearly leagues ahead in terms of both creative expression and basic knowledge of the world, society, culture and so on.

2) Did you start by getting feedback from your inner circle? How did the aspect of support and encouragement from family/ friends play out?

A - I rarely sought feedback in college, though I did show my poems to close friends. It was only a couple of years after college that I began to think about what I could do to get better. I began to read a lot more contemporary work from India as well as translations from everywhere else, that it began to sink in that perhaps I was not ready yet. I began to seek peer review groups and found a couple of places online. 

Friends and family are reasonably supportive, though I do not show my work to them while it's in process. Unless these friends happen to be writers themselves. We've had well-known writers in our family before (my maternal grandfather), and in any case cultural growth has always been encouraged in my family.

3) Were there steps involved? A progression? Diary...blog...digital...publishing/ author conventions & seminars...networking...print? Would you recommend that to aspiring writers?

A - Yes. Like I said, I wrote a lot of letters and essays initially. I began working for newspapers and magazines and wrote almost daily from the year 2000 onwards. At home, I would try to work on fictional stories though none of them came to fruition. In addition, I blogged a lot, from 2005 on, and was offered my first book deal on the strength of those posts.

I don't think seminars or writer conventions helped in the publishing process. I am not good at networking and when I attend, I do so in a quiet way. However, it is always good to hear other writers speak of their ideas, and be introduced to new kinds of writing through such seminars. Writers come in all kinds of personalities, so what they take from a gathering of writers depends on what they came looking for.

4) What's the best way to pitch/ put together a proposal and make oneself stand out in the clutter?

A - I wish I knew. I've rarely attempted book proposals, and when I have, I have not been successful. I prefer to just write the whole book and then try to get an editor interested in the manuscript.

5) Could you please dwell on the writing process itself? Timeline, schedule, any experimentation involved? Learnings from the process? What was particularly fulfilling/ frustrating? What to guard against?

A - I like to experiment with genre. I want to try and write in as many kinds of ways as I can, so I give most genres at least one shot. I also get rejected a lot, and some of my work is a failure even in my own estimation. My main learning is that you've got to keep at it. 

I don't have a fixed schedule, but I try and write regularly, and I read regularly too.  

What's most fulfilling is when I've finished something - a poem or a story - and it is just where it needs to be. For now, this is the best it can be. The feeling that I've said what I wanted to say in the genre I chose. Most frustrating is not being able to do this - to start something and then not finish it as I'd hoped.

6) How would you summarise the publishing and writing industry in India currently? Is it a good time for first time writers and is there a general openness towards new voices? In your opinion, what are the challenges first time writers are likely to/ can potentially face in this setting?

A - There is a fair degree of openness. But this is not a good time for everyone in a commercial sense. Writers whose voices are very experimental, or who do not translate easily for foreign markets must be content with very small print runs and very few readers. The Indian English market is very crowded, and there is not just a lot of intellectual laziness and creative stasis, there are also a lot of below-average writing available at a very low cost. It is easy to be lost in the crowd.

7) Do you think it's tenable to be a full time writer in the Indian context? How do you manage it? Tips on how to follow one's calling and also keep the roof up?

A - Not easy if you're a fiction writer. Impossible if you're a full time poet or playwright. I have thus far made a living from journalism and related media formats. But I continue to struggle, so I really should not offer anyone any advice.

8 - What was the response to your first book like and what's in the pipeline?

A - There were decent reviews when 'Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales' first came out. I'm not sure how much it's sold but it did go into a second edition, which was good news. I'm trying to work on a novella and also editing an anthology for next year.

9) Any general pointers/ insight that you'd like to share that's not been covered in the questions above.

A - General advice - read. Read constantly. Those who live in the world of words must be familiar with the landscape. Reading is what you want others to do, when you write. You better know the worth of what you're offering before you expect anything from readers. 

STILL MORE

If you're looking for more details from my own personal experience, here is another interview:
http://www.bookchums.com/blog-detail/author-interviews/bookchums-interviews-annie-zaidi/NTc3.html


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In gratitude, and regret

I cannot fully express the nature of my regret at not having done this post before. I had meant to, as soon as I walked out of the hall after watching Club 60. But it was late, and over the last month, I was always either too sleepy, or too distracted by my own struggles to stay afloat, to stay hopeful. Next thing I hear, Farooque Shaikh is gone. And though I never met him, I would have liked to say 'Thank you', especially for playing Dr Tarique Shaikh. This post is not about the actor. It is about the film.

I cannot, with any sincerity, say that it is a flawless film. It is not. I was half-afraid actually, that I might be bored. It gave off 'sincere' vibes and such is the Hindi film industry's track record of sincerity in recent years, it is often accompanied by boredom and predictability. Still, I had little choice.

I have decided not to pay cinema halls for encouraging bad cinema. I especially stay away from 'big' films with 'stars' when they seem to offer nothing except a thick account of expenses. I stay away from stereotype and misogyny and re-makes. But I had not taken my mother out for a movie for a long time and Club 60 seemed to be the only film I could watch without compromising my newfound principles.

So we went out. One multiplex theatre had pulled the film off the screen, although a show was still being advertised in the papers. We went to another multiplex.

The film started. I was surprised at the outset - there was a very brief, fast-paced treatment of the events that led to the tragic death of Dr Saira and Dr Tarique Shaikh's son. No zabardasti ka melodrama. The drama of grief, after all, lies in the way people struggle to live, despite their losses. And the film allows this struggle to be a dignified one.

But what surprised me what that the film turned out to be actually quite entertaining. I was laughing, my mother was laughing, and none of the jokes were derogatory even if there was a hint of naughtiness in the scene. The music was lovely. We actually enjoyed all three ghazals.

But the real reason I am writing this post is that after a long, long, long time we saw characters who had 'Muslim' names, but who were allowed to be just human. They were doctors. They were allowed to live in a normal upper class home with a dining table, at which they eat parathas.

The couple is allowed to enjoy the sea breeze without an azaan somewhere in the background. The lady is allowed to wear silk sarees or salwars with no fuss. She is allowed to be who she is - a highly skilled professional - instead of being reduced to a bundle of token symbols or rituals that add up to a visual and aural portrait that screams 'Muslim'. She is allowed to love her man and demand love from her man.

And their problems are human problems. A dead child. Depression. Work. Friends. Leisure. Club memberships. They don't sit and 'pray' in times of trouble. They roll up their sleeves and try to act. And when they make friends with people from other cultural backgrounds, they don't feel like a misfit. They can go to parties and ask for a soft drink instead of alcohol, and that's that.

How hard is it to write and make films where people of a particular community are people and not slaves to communal identities? It must be very hard, indeed, for this one film has come after such a long time. But it came, and I am glad I saw it. And that's about all I want to say.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Low drama, low conflict

For a while now, I have been thinking about the need for 'drama' in stories, especially scripts. It is taken for granted that for a film or play to work, there needs to be a steady escalation of drama. That conflict must be established early on, that we (or rather, the audience) must be worried about the fate of the principal characters, and that the level of 'difficulty' in these characters' lives must rise, reaching a 'climax', after which there is a resolution.

Of course, it is taken for granted that we are talking about a particular moment in time, or rather, a phase in someone's life. It could be 24 hours or one night (eg - Gateway of India, starring Madhubala), or a few months (most films we watch), or over twenty years (eg - Amar Akbar Anthony). Very occasionally, the story may span two or three generations (eg - Jasmine Women, or Gangs of Wasseypur) wherein it is understood that the protagonists change, and our investment in their future might shift at any point.

Which means, we pick out a slice of someone's life, a slice that is full of difficulty, and further dramatize it for the purposes of... well, for the purpose of drama. Because what else do people want from storytelling, right?

That is what we're taught by books, by theatre and film practitioners, and in most of the entertainment options we've had. This is not wisdom I wanted to challenge. Until recently.

I read a short story a few months ago (I'm forgetting the story title and the author's name) and was left a bit unsettled at the way it ended. It was the story of a man and a woman who are in bed and perhaps trying to figure out what they will do with each other. They are not a married couple. I'd assumed that some form of marriage or a commitment angle would work itself into the story. There must be conflict, because one of them will not agree to the other's terms. There would be tears or resentment, and eventually, they'd make up or part ways forever.

But the story never left the bedroom. There was a vague discussion, skirting the edges of disagreement. No major drama though. There was an assumption of desire, and a call for truth. And then what? Well, nothing. That was it. The writer allowed the characters to stay untroubled. There was no violence, not even of the emotional kind.

And it left me stumped. Because I'm conditioned to expect 'high' drama. In stories, there's a lot at stake: life, limb, sanity, social security. My reading and watching life has prepared me for troubled situations escalating to fever pitch, usually ending in violence. If not blood and gore, then at least a kidnapping-rescue situation, a gentle-slide-into-fatal-disease situation. At the very minimum, an I'm-going-to-die-without-you situation.

I still remember the face of my little niece as I was trying to tell her a story. I'd created some animal characters and set up a chase. My niece was about four years old then, and she was not liking the dangerous direction my narrative had taken. She interrupted me twice, and each time, added bits to the story to 'save' the protagonist. She wanted things to be 'alright'. The problem was, I did not know how to tell a story in which things were just alright for everybody.

I realize now that this is not because I am so aware of the wrongness, the tragedy and danger in people's lives. 'Real' life is fairly dull. People are bored, but not bloodthirsty. Many of them accomplish things without coming to grief. Are those stories not worth telling?

I clearly remember being bewildered by this film Happy Go Lucky . It is the story of a school teacher who is very optimistic. From the first scene on, I was expecting that character to come to grief. Why else would you make someone so cheerful, right? I was so sure that her cheerful, trusting outlook would be destroyed (or at least, severely tested) that I got really tense, biting my knuckles in the dark theatre. But although she is walking about at night, alone, she comes to no harm. 

Then she meets a nice-looking man. I thought "Ah! Now comes the conflict!" But no. The man likes her back. They get together. All is well. So then?

So then, I felt a bit annoyed. I thought, 'What kind of film is this? Nothing really happens.' But then I calmed down and thought some more. It is not that 'nothing happens'. There's a lot happening in every scene.; I wasn't bored at all. I was actually very involved with this character and her life. The thing was, nothing bad happened. Sure, some people were mean to her. But I felt pity for them, not for the protagonist. She was fine, handling everyone's stress quite well.

The best part is, three years later, I remember every other scene. That actress, her smile, her eyes, her ability to trust, to not be overwhelmed by sadness, to wait for happiness. So now, I must admit that it's a good film. A memorable film! 

What was the script doing? It was not escalating the drama quotient. It was negating the need for a drama quotient. Not every story needs drama, and not all dramas need to end in either tragedy or comedy.

These days, I am more and more convinced that 'high drama' does not lie at the heart of entertainment. Most people are actually looking for happy sights and sounds. We fear death and destruction - ours as well as other people's. That's why so many people prefer watching 'hulka-phulka' cinema. When we watch 'action' films, we prefer violence that has no resemblance to real physical violence. It is not messy. We do not feel the pain or guilt that is inevitable in real life. When we watch thrillers, we want to walk away with something at the end - a sense of justice, at least, and restored normalcy. When we watch romance, we want to melt and have faith that people actually want - and get! - each other.

In a story, things must happen. In life too, things happen. But must those things be violent? Does every sadness or disappointment have to lead to depression? Why are we so very reluctant to tell stories of normalcy, of dull aches and quick recoveries? Why are we not more vigilant, more resistant, more open to what a good story is, and how it must be told?


Friday, December 13, 2013

Other loves and lives

Had recently reviewed 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' for Time Out. Sharing the text below, with some personal additions.

A brief anecdote first: I had wandered into a tiny bookstore in Lokhandwala where I frequently drop in, just to browse. I had no intention of buying anything that day. I was picking up books at random and reading the first couple of pages before putting them back on the shelves.

And then I found a book that I didn't want to put back. I was fifteen pages in. The staff was starting to give off cold vibes. So, I did put the book back in its place and moved off to another section. Half an hour later, I had returned to the book and opened it somewhere in the middle of another chapter. I still wanted to go on reading. So I bought the book. Only to realize that I already had a review copy of the same book waiting to be read at home.

I ought, therefore, ought to state upfront that 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' is a good read. The publisher's description of the book – 'a travelogue, a memoir, a satire and a feminist critique of Muslim women's lives, interwoven with the author's own ongoing struggles as a Muslim woman' – proves to be correct. It is indeed all of that, but it is not weighed down by the sort of presumptuous rhetoric one might expect.

Critiques of Muslim women's lives, however honest, can get tiresome. What helps this book is the fact that the author is poised to speak from a position of complexity and nuance. She begins by laying bare this complexity – the overwhelming love of a happy childhood, the power of the memory of such love, modern education, changing ideologies, political upheaval, power games over pizza. Oppression is never a simple process, and freedom never an obvious choice.

Allowing the reader to look at this intimate portrait of her own life and the force that led her to break with convention, Gandhi turn to her subject – love. She sets out to examine the ways in which Muslim women seek love, demonstrate love, or resign themselves to living without love. She populates the book with a cast of characters from Bangladesh and Pakistan, both nations she used to live in, and India where she now lives.

These stories are 'alternate' in the sense that Gandhi has chosen to write about Muslim women who do not quite fit into the stereotype. Ghazala is an educated, independent Christian woman in Pakistan who has converted to marry an already married man. Laila is training to be the first Lady Health Visitor in her village in the NorthWest Frontier Province. Firdaus is a writer and Reiki healer, in her seventies. Nahid is a teenaged telemarketer in Allahabad. Tara is single at thirty, hoping for a better job in Dhaka. Ayesha is a journalist-activist-poet, still single in her late thirties, and living by herself in Ahmedabad.

Almost none of the women interviewed seem to be wholly, passionately in love with their current partners (except Nusrat and QT, who are a lesbian couple). Gandhi approaches romantic love from the fringes of society. Marriage and motherhood are not at the heart of these women's lives. This allows a wider range of ideas about love. One of the most straightforward lines comes from Nisho, a transgender dancer in Hyderabad (Pakistan). She says, “Love is like cream in milk. Love always rises to the top.”

The author constantly reflects upon politics, sufism, language. She describes a mugging in Karachi (her chain was robbed by two men on a bike, one wearing a burqa. There was apparently a ban on two men riding bikes after a bomb attack). She describes railway stations, dargahs, her own impatience with certain people. These diversions from the core theme are not uninteresting, but they do leave lesser room for a wider, more inclusive cast of characters.

The title suggests that the book speaks of Muslim women in general, althought it is limited to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Muslim women are culturally as different from each other as women from other religions, so one cannot help but wonder how their lives and loves are different from that of a Chinese or Indonesian or French Muslim woman. A greater emphasis on geographical or cultural representation might have been useful. Alternately, the title could have mentioned that the book is limited to the subcontinent.


The main triumph of the book, however, is that it allows a range of Muslim women to speak of emotional hunger, of disappointment, of politics and money. Religious identity is neither irrelevant nor all-important. Gandhi has done well to neither ignore it nor be intimidated by it.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

New poem

Another poem in another poetry magazine, Cordite.
 "Sometimes I wonder if..."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The rare poem of hope

 'Swiss Lace Blouse' was the 'poem of the week' at The Missing Slate recently.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Questions of light

I don't know if I've mentioned this booklet, published by Vikas Samvad two years ago. It is really just a reporter's diary, but it came from me wanting to take a closer look at the places and people I had been reporting about while writing for news magazines.

As is the case with many reporters who are based in cities, I traveled into villages only when there was some crisis unfolding and I could never stay more than a couple of days. Even then, I stayed in the nearest small town, looking for some lodge or hotel within the budget the magazine afforded me. There was never enough time to talk to someone at leisure, not bothering about taxi bills or trains to catch or deadlines to meet.

When I quit full-time journalism, I went back to the group that had helped me source stories before, and asked if they'd help me stay in a village for a week or two. They first sent me to Chutka, a village that had been displaced before - to make way for Bargi dam - and was once again facing the prospect of displacement due to a nuclear power plant proposal.

This was the first time I was going into a village with a desire to just figure out how these things were playing out, and what I found surprised me, educated me, distressed me. It wasn't the difficult questions of environment or health or 'development' that worried me so much as the constant undermining of democracy at every step. It was also very scary to see just how hard people have to fight to hang on to their rights. It's a wearying battle. But they fight it. And mainly, they fight peacefully.

The wonder of this, and the simplicity and justice of the solutions that people themselves come up with, went into a diary that was printed as 'Who Will See the Light?"

Recently, it has also been translated as 'किसके हिस्से आएगी रौशनी?'



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thinking of witches

Here's another poem. It comes directly from having watched the Hindi film Ek Thi Dayan, and its sadly confused take on the subject.

The idea seemed promising - a growing boy, fed on a foolish diet of myths about what witches look like and what their motivations might be, turns against his stepmother. The consequences are tragic. The film, however, is a failed promise to itself. It blunders on along its twisted plot, without giving pause to speak for - or even a proper look at - the soul of the 'witch'. I was also a bit distressed by the film's refusal to challenge any 'evil' stereotypes, especially in a nation where women continue to be killed if they're branded as a 'witch', although everyone knows that this is usually about property or personal vendetta.

What I did find interesting, though, were the brief glimpses into passionate relationships, and the powerful feelings of jealousy evoked in the minds of those who compete for a beloved's affections. A couple of dialogues grabbed my attention particularly, for they made me think of the torturous emotions that accompany sacrifice, and the human need to intercede with destiny, the human willingness to go to any lengths for a small portion of happiness and love. That led me to the writing of this poem:

http://northeastreview.com/2013/10/04/annie/

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jet Blues

Dear Jet Airways

There are some things you just don't do. Such as telling a passenger who has shown up with a confirmed ticket, three whole hours ahead of an international flight, that the flight is overbooked.

If a flight is overbooked, it is your problem. You are in a fix and you must extricate yourself painfully, expensively. You don't get away with it by saying: “This is the norm. All flights on all airlines are routinely ten percent overbooked.”

I don't know of if airlines are 'routinely' turning away passengers with a confirmed ticket, bought weeks in advance, by citing IATA rules (which passengers are not expected to be familiar with. I don't even believe that those are the rules.)

But what really, really upset me was not the nonsense about being overbooked as much as the lack of integrity I was subjected to.

On the morning of October 26th, 2013, I showed up at the international airport in Mumbai. The lady manning your check-in counter took a look at my printed ticket and said, “Madam, please wait. I will call you soon.”

This was unusual but I shrugged. I waited. She told me to sit down because it might be more than a few minutes. I sat down, began to read. This lady did not call me, did not even look at me, for over half an hour. Then, worried, I went up to the counter again, and this time, she informed me that the flight was overbooked and that I could not fly today. That I would have to wait one day.

A whole day! Not an hour, but a whole day!

I had never heard of such a thing, so I told her this was ridiculous.

She began to say 'routine' 'regulation' 'mentioned on website' etc. I told her that 'Overbooking' cannot possibly be the norm. You're supposed to place people on stand-by in case of cancellations. That is the norm. And I was not a stand-by passenger. How could the airline refuse to take me?

So this lady told me to go talk to her supervisor.

I said, “No. YOU talk to your supervisor. This is your problem. This is not my problem. I should not have to go running about the terminal, luggage in tow, looking for your supervisor.”

There was another gentleman passenger at the next counter, similarly perplexed. He too had been told that he could not fly. He said he could not possibly wait because he had already made group bookings for a hotel in Kathmandu. He would lose that money. Who'd compensate him?

It turned out that the airline was actually offering him a compensation of rupees four thousand. I, of course, had not been offered any compensation at all so far. But still. I wanted to laugh. Could an international airline seriously expect to get away with this sort of mess by tossing out Rs 4000? What kind of hotel does one get around the Mumbai airport for that amount?

The expectation, I suppose, was that passengers will grumble and sulk but will not put up a fight. Quote any random regulations and they will not challenge you. But I was furious. Furious, not only at the prospect of missing a flight, being inconvenienced for two whole days, having to cancel proffessional commitments etc, but also at being treated shabbily.

So I said that I would not tolerate being treated like s**t and if this flight left without me, there'd be hell to pay.

Finally, a supervisor showed up. She tried to placate the other gentleman with the same spiel about IATA rules and how he'd come too late. People were being checked in on “a first come-first served basis”, she claimed.

I said that I was there a whole hour ago. How come I wasn't checked in? At least half a dozen passengers approached the check-in counters and were given boarding passes though they arrived after me.

She kept repeating that she could do nothing, the airline could do nothing etc etc. So I began to shout.

I HATE shouting and it was one of the first few times in my life that I deliberately raised my voice. I said that I would sue the airline. Your supervisor said I could go ahead.

So I said, “Great. Would you please give that to me in writing? That I am welcome to sue Jet, and that the management is okay with that?”

She sort of humphed, and left. I was still shouting at nobody in particular. I found myself saying things like I've been on enough international flights to know that this is not how things are done. They cannot possibly tell me to turn around and go home and come back the next day.

I shouted until I was in tears. At this point, the lady at the counter told me that it's okay. Could she have my passport?

She was checking me in. I was feeling mainly relief, so I mumbled about how nothing ever gets done without shouting and screaming, and quickly collected my boarding pass.

If that had been all, Dear Jet, I would not have posted this note publicly. As it is, I have waited two weeks because I wanted to think this over carefully. I was upset, but I was also willing to forgive and forget. After all, mistakes happen.

But!

At the departure gates, I expected to find a big crowd. Now, the flight was overbooked. Right? I was given to understand that I was being turned away because I was one of the last to check in. “First come, first served”, that's what I was told.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the waiting area was half empty. Imagine further my surprise to see that I was one of the first few to board the plane. I also could not help noticing that several of those who came in much later were caucasian passengers.

Imagine, Dear Jet, what this looks like to me.

I'm not making any allegations yet. It is possible those passengers had checked first. It is possible they were in the loo, or cafe, or the shops. Maybe they were driven by early morning shopping impulses.

Still. I'm asking you to imagine what it looks like to someone who was told she could not board this “overbooked” flight. It feels like a social push-around. I found myself brooding on my appearance, my accent, trying to compare it to those who were waved in without any fuss. Was it my desi get-up? Shiny jootis, red-silver imamzabind, inexpensive luggage, non-NRI accent? What?

I finally came to the conclusion that I must have looked powerless. After all, I did sit down and wait submissively for half an hour, just because your counter staff told me to. If I had been less educated or less observant, I'd have waited indefinitely.

And what then, Jet? You'd have sent me home and never compensated me for lost time, stress, the nuisance value and wasted work opprtunity, nor the good people who had already spent money for bringing me to Kathmandu.

So, I decided that you need to be told this, and you need to be told publicly. I don't want you to punish any particular member of your staff, but I do want you to think about how you treat passengers.

Let me tell you what else I saw.

I noticed a passenger, someone who struggled with Hindi, asking a question. One of your staff at the departure gate did not answer; he was bruque to the point of being dismissive. He was polite with me. He wished me a good morning, but he did not wish the Nepali passenger right behind me, someone who was wearing inexpensive clothes and did not speak much Hindi.

I also noticed that although you're doing this international flight, your flight attendants did not seem to speak much Nepali. This is perhaps not a legal requirement, but it ought to be. It is vital that you have one person on board who is able to communicate safety instructions. The person sitting near the emergency exit did not speak English or Hindi too well, and your attendant was neither able to explain to him what would be required nor made any attempt to get him to exchange seats with a passenger with whom they could communicate better.

I'm not saying that you're the only airline with a problem. But you're the airline I've flown with, and I don't want to have to stop flying with you.

So treat this as well-meant advice. Deal with us as paying customers upon whom your livelihood depends. Shiny jooti-wearing women. Tired non-English speaking mothers dragging bawling kids. Greying men with un-branded baggage. Men in dirty synthetic fleece jackets and cheap baseball caps. All of us.

We pay your bills. Don't lie to us. Don't mistreat us. And don't make us scream and shout to claim a service we've already paid for.


Sincerely,  

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Love in (and upwards of) Simla


The landscape is grim—a mix of rock and mud that yields at the slightest provocation. But the wind does extraordinary things to it, cutting and smoothing over the rock-face until it seems as if a hundred thousand faces or feet are waiting to emerge from the mountains. You imagine that you see a furrowed brow, a nose, a set of giant toes. In fact, there is a story about how an invading army from Tibet had been scared off by the locals, who stacked up hundreds of human-shaped rocks over the peaks, fooling the enemy into thinking they were fatally outnumbered.
But from Tibet also came monks and kings who created the beautiful monastery in Tabo. Proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chos-Khor monastery is over a thousand years old and contains a treasure-trove of Buddhist art. There are nine temples and the walls of each were once covered with paintings that tell episodes from the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. They’ve been recently damaged due to ecological change. The 1975 earthquake left cracks and the increase in rainfall has destroyed large swathes of the paintings originally done by Kashmiri artists. The Archaeological Survey of India’s attempts to restore them have been poor, but whatever remains is stunning. There are a thousand ‘Medicine Buddhas’ painted in the main temple, and there are also references to ‘Past, Present, and Future Buddhas’. You don’t know the difference.
Outside the temple, a row of matrons will smile, curious without being intrusive. They will ask: Where are you from? Where are you going? Answer honestly. You aren’t sure.
An extract from a longish essay on trying to recapture romance along the old Hindustan Tibet road. The full essay is only in the print version of the magazine so far.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Madness Around

Have often thought about sanity, the people we consider sane, and the forces that push some of us beyond - into that other place in the head. Some of those thoughts are compressed here, in another story for The Small Picture in Mint.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A new single read

I have a new short story out. It is the story of a man who has almost nothing to live for, except the fact that a woman called Noora still lives.

Available only online so far. Rs 21 for the e-single (as single short stories are sold now for readers who use, erm, readers). You can get it here.



Monday, September 23, 2013

On testing the way the wind blows

A few days ago, former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Kumar Modi reportedly tweeted: “Advaniji has failed to gauge the public mood”. He said LK Advani should have declared Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the coming general election.

It is no secret that 'Advaniji' had held prime ministerial hopes for over twenty years, and now it’s too late. His brand of politics has been sharpened to rapier point by younger men. So he has had to finally endorse Narendra Modi at public rallies.

Let us, for a moment, forget who is less suitable between the two men. Instead, let’s examine Sushil Modi’s lobbing of unsolicited 140-character chunks of advice at 'Advaniji'.

On the face of it, this sounds like good advice. In a democracy, elections are a reflection of public will. If people are discontent and thirsting for change, they’ll let you know. And it is true that a politician ceases to be significant if he disregards the electorate. A good politician is aware of, and sensitive to, the public mood.

But the problem with Sushil Modi’s advice is that it reduces leadership to mere politicking. It takes away from a politician the right to be a leader. It expects a politician to bow to ideas that please a sufficient number of people in order to win an election, and trample upon truth and Constitutional rights lest he/she is punished with powerlessness. In effect, it reduces a leader to an unthinking, spineless slave of the majority view (or whatever passes for the majority).

I don’t know if Advani’s misgivings about Narendra Modi’s leadership are moral. I doubt this. But I also think that our leaders owe us a personal moral compass. We need them to stand up for their own beliefs rather than just kowtow to the ‘public mood’.

Where have all our true leaders gone? This is our constant complaint. We imagine governance as a ship lost at sea. We think of politicians as wicked pirates (except they’re not fighting fit). But we forget what goes into the making of true leaders.

Think of the men and women whose names went into history textbooks for steering modern India through her independence struggle. MK Gandhi survived (and ultimately fell to) assassination attempts, not by the British but by Indians, who did not like his ideas on caste or religion. In nineteenth century India, notions of pollution-purity were the norm. Most leaders were upper caste and most of the country was illiterate. If public approval was all they sought, they would never have endorsed universal suffrage.

Inter-communal marriage was very rare in the 1920s. But Aruna Asaf Ali chose to risk public antagonism for the sake of her own values. Leaders like C Rajagopalachari risked political exile when they walked away from the party they helped to build.

It is not the job of a leader to be the public. A leader represents us, yes, but he/she must work for more than public approval. The job description includes upholding the Constitution; enforcing laws; making laws for a future; rejecting what is unworthy in our present; making justice a broader, more humane reality.

Sometimes this means being in conflict with the majority. If 51% of India wanted that 49% be turned into landless labourers with no access to drinking water, should a leader care about ‘public mood’? What if it’s 65% and 35%? What if it’s 78% and 22%? When does it become right to allow ‘public mood’ to dictate political decisions?

A good leader is someone willing to work to reshape popular ideas, redirect public energy and risk public displeasure. As far as gauging the public mood goes, any politician can do that.

[A version of this was published in DNA]

Friday, September 20, 2013

More than a database of grief

There is a stockpile of shared grief within each of us. It threatens to render the taste of life ash on our tongues. Each riot, every famine, each genocidal attack, racist attack, each horrific moment of hate. The maps of the world, of our place in the world, of our identity are marked by pain. And we go on. That is the thing. Without knowing why we suffered, or how to learn to trust again, we go on.

Survival is an instinct but our individual and social can matter only if we let go of past pain and find fresh reserves of trust, veering more and more and more towards the side of justice. And trying not privilege the grief of one race, one religion, or one gender over the other.


'Ground Zero', was written for The Small Picture which appears in Mint, beautifully illustrated by Prabha Mallya.
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