Friday, January 27, 2006

The question

Last fortnight, traveling to Makrana, while I struggled to read on the berth above, the three other people in the compartment discussed the 'great function' in Lucknow - the kayastha mahasabha.
A lady who was apparently a local district leader for kayastha ladies kept insisting that it was time to make the world sit up and take notice... "ke hum bhi kuch hain!"
Her husband kept repeating that the kayasthas controlled Raipur. "Doctors, engineers, IAS.... sab kuch humare haath mein hai."
The lady kept saying, "Jab tak hum sarkar ko dikha nahin dete, ke hum bhi sangathit ho gaye hain, hume kuch nahin milega."
The gentleman across her kept saying, "Bilkul theek kaha aapne. kayasth bhi sampann hain... ab dikha dena chahiye."

I was burning to ask a few questions - like what they want to show, and to whom? Why did they want the world to pay attention? Of what? What was the government doing to upset them? If 'they' controlled all of Raipur, clearly they must not know want; what else did they want from the government?

But I do not ask. There is a simmering anger in my head and I know my voice will betray it.


In Makrana, my contact-activist asks me, "What are you?"

I said, "Journalist."

He said, "Yes, yes... but what are you? Where are you from?"

I said, "Delhi."

"Delhi... proper?"

I sighed deeply. "Proper."

The question is more improper than my half-lies.


On the road, the driver asks me, "What are you?"

"I'm a journalist."

"Yes, but what are you?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"What caste?"

Deep sigh. I say, "I don't know what caste. My family never told me."

"What? You don't know."

"No, I don't know."

"You never asked?"

"No, I never asked."

It is not a lie, but it is not the whole truth. My whole truth is too large to fit into the front seat of this jeep.


In Jodhpur, an activist asks me, "You... are from Delhi?"

"Yes, and no. I live there now."

"Ah... and you... are?"

"A journalist."

"No, I mean... your surname is... what are you?"

I shrug. I do not want to answer the question.

But the question insistently poses itself. "You are Muslim?"

I smile. But I really meant to flinch.


In the train, in the general dabba, beteeen Jodhpur and Makrana, I try to read. The dabba is almost empty but a young man takes the seat directly opposite mine. He waits to catch my eye and begins conversation.

"Excuse me, madam, you are going to Jodhpur?"


"What caste yours?"

"No caste."

"But how can that be?"

I look at him for a cold, silent minute, before saying. "No caste."

"You are christian?"

"I am nothing."

He subsides. My eyes scan the page, not reading. The guilt of having been rude to a curious stranger hangs heavy on me. But sometimes, enough is just enough.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Just a few bits of info

I'm not a scientist. I'm not a food expert. I'm not even sure I'm wholly receptive to the new and the un-tried/ un-tested. And I'm slow to forgive.

That said, consider then, these few pieces of information.

This firm was responsible for making and selling Agent Orange, to the US army during the Vietnam war. This potent chemical not only destroyed a lot of Vietnam's forest cover, but also had horrible consequences for human beings.
Birth defects. Neuropathies. Fatalities.
The thing was, they - the army, and most probably the firm, knew how it could affect people. They didn't care.

But that was war, right? And all's fair in love and war.

But when the war was over?

Compensation to victims? Bah!
No, they just concentrated on doing the Vietnamese another favour, selling them seeds that led to crop failure and consequent economic ruin.

Really, why does one need war at all, when there's the whole wide third world waiting to embrace genetically modified seeds, a sector over which the said firm has significant control through patents?

Cancer? 'Bah!' they say. Their argument is, if it could cause cancer, why would so many countries give them licenses and approvals?

Protests? Boycotts?
'Bah-bah!', they say. Actually, they don't. They just refuse to acknowledge that there are any protests. Just a 'lack of awareness' in very few places.

Like the USA?

Yeah, like the USA. And Canada, yes. Germany too... and some other European nations, but that doesn't mean a thing, does it?

Hide facts? Them?

Get reporters fired? No way!

Why are they doing so well in India?
What do you mean 'why'?
Which other country in the world would give unstinting support and approval to bt cotton seeds in one state, when another state has just banned the same product?

Committies? Inquiries? Reports?
Oh, yes, yes, yes. All of those.

But the said firm is not likely to be held responsible or made to compensate farmers, any time soon, not while we continue to judge the success of a given product by looking at how many people buy it, or of an agri-technology by counting how many acres are covered by it.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Of houris... and appropriate (un)dressing in bed

Religious leaders have their merits. They're an endless source of amusement, for one, as reported here.

One's imagination may be forgiven for running riot at the prospect of having sundry mullahs - venerable old men with flowing robes and flowing beards - discussing the permissibility of taking off ALL your clothes while, er, giving your better half, er, his/her conjugal due.

I mean, just consider how much time and, er, energy, these poor men must have devoted to the serious consideration of this business of people taking off their clothes in bed. They must have spent such sleepless nights worrying about the fact that perhaps some good soul was jeopardizing his rightful place in jannat (which must be different from heaven, because Allah is supposed to be different from God), and the promised 72 virginal houris, just because he wants to take off his clothes or see his wife naked. In any case, chances are that the said wife isn't such a great sight, without her clothes - most mullahs or their wives aren't exactly playboy/girl material, and since they see no merit in playing nude in the bedroom, there is no reason why anybody else should.

On a less annoyed note, while this may be a question of great religious import - after all, most modern religions make a religion of making lovers miserable - one would think the question is no longer valid once the couple is actually married. The Quran DOES NOT specify the ways in which couples are allowed to, er, couple. It does say that you shouldn't marry your mothers and grandmothers, but it doesn't say anything about keeping your clothes on.

Aside 1 - I am given to understand that houris are not really like women. They look like women and they're beautiful, but there's a catch: a houri is incapable of love. She's not got any emotion in that marvellous body. Therefore, what all good men (not you kaafirs, of course) will get is sex, sans love. If making love is more your thing, you're better off with mortal women of clay.

Aside 2 - I have a question for the mullah-saheb.
When you go to jannat and you get the 72 houris, are you then allowed to take off all your clothes? And will they be clad houris, or unclad ones? Because Allah, you see, seems to have this disturbing, inexplicable habit of forgetting to put clothes on people when he creates them (thus, making us prone to sin as soon as we're born... but that is a different argument). So, one may safely assume that he has forgotten to make clothes for billions of houris (72 for each man means there's a lot of them!). No? But, mullah-saheb, do consider the fact that if the houris are going to be purdah-nasheen as well, most men will have second thoughts about wanting to attain jannat. Think, mullah-saheb, think...
And for Allah's sake, in future, think before you speak!

City spirits and the form

Cities have resident spirits.

By spirit, I don't mean, soul. No, 'soul' is just not definite enough. The soul of a city is - perhaps - can be found reflected in the collective character of its citizens, its actions and decisions. The soul is what a city truly is - you understand this when you've lived in it, spent time with its people. But a spirit is what you think a city is, it is the voice in which an urban space first calls out to you.

A city's spirit is like a vibe. A little electric current. A vision. A visible-insvisible something crossing the streets, something that could almost be a ghost - it is just that tangible, and no more... not real. Not the truth. It is illusion, but it is a special illusion because it is a moment that's yours alone.

If you want to catch this vibe, see the forn of this spirit, you've got to catch it within the first five minutes of stepping into the city.
Preferably the railway station or the bus stand, because airports, you see, are like roses. An airport is an airport is an airport is an airport. (Clean airport, filthy airport, big airport, funny-shaped airport, warm airport, glassy hi-tech airport... But an airport, still.) It tells you nothing about things of the spirit or the soul.

For the first five minutes after hitting the road, if keep your eyes wide open... if you don't let hassles like getting a taxi, finding the person who's going to receive you, locating a hotel etc, get in the way.... if you open yourself up to the city - each sense along the first layer of consciousness.... if you don't try too hard - don't look for the unusual; don't try to stop oddities; just absorb everything, and wait... If you're going to get the vibe, that's when you'll get it.

Take Chandigarh - the vibe is an indifferent one.
If I had to imagine a form to go with the spirit, I'd conjure up a large-squat person who is standing beside the pavement, but is not looking at you. He (it's very definitely male) is not particularly interested in you, the newcomer, and doesn't want to know much about anything. He is moving, with direction, but not with purpose. He's not positive; he's not negative. You pass him by; he passes you by.

Delhi's vibe is different. The city is a woman.
Even before I came to live here, I thought of Delhi as a quiet, dangerous female spirit. Like a woman with dark hair and flowing robes... a curious woman, pretending to ignore you. Or somebody who already knows everything about you. Any moment now, you'll see her turning a corner and in doing so, she will look over her shoulder and beckon to you with a crooked finger. She is not evil, but... but how you do you know she isn't?

Raipur has a warm, welcoming vibe.
As soon as I stepped out of Raipur station, I felt a ripple of... niceness, openness. It was like a teenaged boy's grin. Not entirely innocent, but fresh and toothy. Like just-baked muffins. [No, I didn't eat any muffins in Raipur].

Lucknow has an exhausted, plodding vibe.
Though I've been here too many times, lived here too long, to absorb the vibe as a newcomer would... but every time I visit this city, this vibe settles around my shoulders like a coarse shawl around an old woman. The spirit is a tired old woman who lives alone - in a big house that she can no longer manage. She looks a little resentful at changes happening without her permission.... but really, she couldn't care any longer.

Bombay gives off a busy, earthy vibe.
I think of Bombay's spirit as a sexless... creature (it's not a sexy city, for all the population and assured sex in it.) I cannot even imagine it as a wholly human spirit. When I envision a physical entity, I see something only half-human, a mythical creature but one very certainly borne of this earth... ugly, all limbs, but surprisingly strong. It running about all over you... You're not frightened by it. But you're in no rush to lock lips with it either.

Monday, January 16, 2006

cows, bikinis, polio drops

In a small town near Jodhpur, saw a cow chewing at Celina Jaitley's bikini.

The cow was calmly munching away strips of paper off a wall, which was adorned with large posters of Jawani Diwani, which has Ms Jaitley in a bikini (again!). First, the top went, then the little scarf round her hips (the one Mr Hashmi was tugging the edge of), then her pretty face.

I desperately wished I had a camera.
I realised I did have one. But I was out of film. So I said 'damn!' and blogged it, instead.


At Old Delhi railway station, on the bridge, saw a tiny table, manned by a man and a woman.

The woman called out to a family hurrying past: "Oye suno! Polio ki davaai toh pilaa do bachhon ko..." (Hey listen! Why don't you give your kids some polio medicine...)

The father stopped, looked at his small son, who must have been about three. Then he asked: "Kyon, beta? Peeni hai davaai?" (Do you want to drink some medicine, son?)

The small boy looked, bewildered, from medicine-woman to father. He clearly wasn't sure whether this polio dose was tasty or not.

Then, the father said: "Ja, davaai pee le." (Go on, drink some medicine.)

And I'm thinking - Seriously? Is this how it's done? Surely, it can't be a matter of 'go, drink some medicine then'?

Friday, January 13, 2006

More linking

I've been trying - unsuccessfully - to link to an outspoken young woman's blog and although I've gone and planted the link into this blog's template, the link refuses to show up.
At any rate, here's another blog I like, so here's linking to her.

A tag and a reluctant list

Opinionated had tagged me, asking me for a list of favourite movies, and though I didn't really want to do lists - mostly because it is so hard to identify favourites, and also because I tend to ramble and digress so many times that the post becomes a really long one.

But to begin, I must first clarify that, when I say a movie is great, I could be saying so for three reasons, and will therefore break this (ever-growing) list into three categories.

A] The movie was so much fun that I could watch it 'n' number of times. I still laugh at the funny scenes, I still get cry during the sad ones, I still grin stupidly during the romantic interludes. Films of this sort are like college friends whom you're always happy to visit, though you may not want to see them every single day. Like:

Sholay (needs no explanation)
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (the reason Kundan Shah will never lose my respect, no matter how much forgettable trash he turns out in the future)
Satte Pe Satta (Amitabh Bachchan, seven wild brothers... )
Namak Halal (Amitabh Bachchan... "I can talk English, I can walk English", and "daddu, tum?!")
Mughal-e-Azam (Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, feather stroking cheek, dialogues... the supreme contempt embedded in "kaneez ko zille-ilahi se yahi ummeed thi")
Chupke Chupke (Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, conning the family)
Hungama (the only movie where I fell off my chair, laughing)
Padosan (Kishore Kumar chewing-spitting paan, Sunil 'Bhole' Dutt, Mehmood, Saira Bano at her prettiest, sauciest, flightiest, best!)
Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (Kisore Kumar, Madhubala, ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si, Ashok Kumar, Anup Kumar)
Masoom (Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Jugal Hansraj... lakdi ki kaathi)
Dil Chahta Hai (don't we all love it?)
Children of Heaven (Iranian film by Majid Majidi.)
Chicago (the English musical... the one with Richard Gere tap-dancing)
My Fair Lady (musical again, Audrey Hepburn in the lead)
Moulin Rouge (musical, yes. Nicole Kidman, the colours, the music, the accursed show which simply must go on...)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (so much like a big, fat Indian wedding, it feels like home! please note that this is one of the few Englis movies I like which is not a musical!)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (breaks my heart, it does...)

B] This category of movie is one where I am captivated as long as I'm in the dark theatre. Nothing jars, nothing is out of place. No obvious flaws in script, or performances. So I acknowledge the brilliance involved, even though - in retrospect - I may not want to watch it a second time. Like:

The Sixth Sense (I don't like horror or supernatural thrillers as a rule, but this one was something else.)
Black (the new Hindi one)
Pather Panchali (the first of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy)
Lagaan (the only cricket match I've been able to sit through... teeth clenched, fingers crossed et al!)
Mammo (Shyam Benegal, Farida Jalal playing granny, grannies as protagonists)
A Beautiful Mind (the one where Russel Crowe plays a prof)
No Man's Land (the one that Lagaan lost to, at the Oscars)
Zakhm (Mahesh Bhatt's directorial swan-song)

3] The kind of movie that may not seem to be all that powerful/brilliant while I'm watching it, but two weeks - or two years - later, a scene from the film will flash across my mind with such vivid intensity that I will be taken aback... these are films I can't forget, not if I tried. Films that reached into my subconcious and hooked their claws into a corner of the fabric. Films that stay with you - sometimes, despite you - like personal ghosts. Like:

Sazaa-e-Kalapani (Priyadarshan's film about the Andaman prisons in pre-independence India)
Arth (one of the reasons why I forgive Mahesh Bhatt for scripting Murder and its ilk.)
Mahal (Ashok Kumar falling in love with a ghost)
Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad Aayi (not sure why I like it, but I do; it haunts me)
Boys Don't Cry (Hilary Swank... I still shudder and switch off a section of my mind when I think of the climax)
Turtles Can Fly (An Iraqi - or Kurdish? - film about a bunch of kids, orphans in times of war)
Peacock (Chinese film about... how can you say what it was about... that kind of film.)

[Not linking to all the films in question; I don't have the time.]


I entirely forgot to mention Let's Talk, an English film made in India, that is the cinematic interpretation of a thumri. This is an interesting film, a strange film (with Boman Irani, in his pre-popular avatar, delivering a spectacular performance) about options, decisions, alternatives and the open-endedness of most situations.

Also, speaking of alternate endings, perceptions about truth and reality, questions about goodness and so on, it's hard to beat Kurosawa's Rashomon (one of those movies... haunting your conscience, making you think, testing your own values).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The real tragedy

So Gudiya is dead.

And, let's face it, as far as we're concerned, she's been dead a long time. She briefly came alive when she really died, and the media went over the old questions once again.

Perhaps, we're letting ourselves grieve for Gudiya now, in a way we wouldn't have if she was just another flash in the (newsroom) pan, if she was still around, the way last months' newspapers are... We're saying our 'peace be upon her's, shedding our remorse like the tears we can't quite summon up; under fistfuls of newsprint/airtime, we're burying the uncomfortable memory.

For me, Gudiya refuses to go in peace. Because I know: there, but for a twist of circumstance, go I - complete with those large eyes hollowed out by the lack of defiance.

There, but for a personal history of landed ancestry who could afford libraries, goes an illiterate young woman who was married off, and that was that. There, but for a progressive grandfather who kept his daughters out of purdah, kept them in college as long as they wished... there, but for grandfather's headstrong daughters... there, but for a job and plenty of debate at every stage of growing-up... there, but for the books I read... there, but for a mother who asked questions and who refused to follow the rules... there, but for my fierce pride.... there, go I.

Yes, there, but for a happy accident of birth, - and the grace of a God who wasn't as gracious to women like Gudiya - go I.

Any woman's husband could disappear for years. Any woman would have moved on to another man, built a new life, had children. And if the first husband ever came back, she would have faced this awful dilemma. It could have happened to anybody... but Gudiya was not anybody.

The tragedy called Gudiya is the tragedy called television.
The tragedy of a generation that is apparently so divorced from its own truths that it seeks amusement through programmed 'reality'. The tragedy of a news-force that needs 'powerful' stage-managed content, and of a medium that can only survive if there are enough people holding their breath, not taking their horrified eyes off the screen as a 'real' tragedy unfolds.

Gudiya is also the name of a outdated tragedy called the Mullahs.

Men (always, always men, haven't you noticed?) who have everlasting religious sanction to decide people's fates. Men who can order that people be killed - for expressing an opinion, for writing a book, for believing in their beliefs. Men who, for the most part, are disrespectful with regard to the changing needs of a changing world and insist on keeping a community - billions of people across the globe - stuck in the rut of the sixth century, (or whenever Islam came into being). Men divorced from the reality of this century, and who are practically irrelevant in the current structure of law and politics. Men who are - or should be - jobless in a democracy, which has a functional legal system and a commitment to being a secular republic.
Men who would be jobless, if only we would grow to accept that it is possible to stop following unacceptable laws, to challenge them, not merely seeking to re-interpret them, and still stay Muslim. Men who might have a vested interest in not allowing Islam to grow, to change with the times. Men who need us to keep believing that we need them.

The tragedy called Gudiya is the tragedy of Indian women (or perhaps all women) who are trapped by an inability to make their own choices.
Gudiya didn't choose either the first or the second man. It was but natural that she wouldn't be given much of a choice later, when the situation got so complex that nobody really knew what the 'right' course of action was. There was no 'right' course. The only acceptable decision in a situation like this was to have Gudiya live with the man she wanted to live with (assuming he also wanted her to stay).
The corollary to this decision would be to have Gudiya face the consequences of not living with either, if both men turned her away, and of bringing up a child alone.
The tragedy called Gudiya is a woman who didn't know whether she'd survive...
if she did not consult the mullahs, would the community would ostracize her? She didn't know whether or not fatwas would be issued. Whether or not she could make do without these men. Whether or not her family would stand by her.

Whether she had a fatal sickness, or not, Gudiya needed to know that she need not have put up with the crap that was being shoveled into her life.
We need to ensure that women know: they can take decisions without involving the mullahs, the media or even their families. That they can go to the men they want, or not live with any man, that they can keep their children and that it is, finally, nobody else's choice to make.
Gudiya gave up control of her own life and that was the real tragedy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Chai at the fourth level of feeling

My grandfather used to say that what we call 'love' is not as simple as a single four-letter word. There are four levels to feelings, which in Urdu would be: Uns, Mohabbat, Ishq, Junoon.... (loosely translateable (translate-able?) as affection, love, passionate love, obsession).

I am beginning to think that my friend Jaygee is right; chai is fast becoming an obsession.

For there I was, sitting in the hot (if somewhat empty, thanks to some fleeting moment of divine grace) ladies dabba of a local train in Bombay.
And was I reading a book? Chatting up strangers? Impulse shopping for knick-knacks? Was I eating the vada-paav I have so long been missing?
No. No, no and no.

I was day-dreaming.
About chai.
The ginger-elaichi chai at the IWPC, to be precise...

I was thinking of how perfectly balanced it is - not too much milk, enough sugar to make it sweet, just enough ginger to lend it the glamour of spice, but very little elaichi so that it did not remind you of mithai. I was thinking about how they serve it in real cups, not in plastic or thermocol or paper. About how I could never stop at one cup.... the cup of chai that single-handedly persuaded me to apply for membership of the IWPC.

I was so rapt, day-dreaming.... about how I'm going to go back after my membership's been approved, for more delightful cups, and how I'll invite my favourite people to join me for chai-pakodi... that I did not realise that Bandra station had arrived.

In a sort of daze, I saw women getting off, I saw women clamber on. Then, something knocked at the back of my Bombay-trained, local-attuned brain. A voice inside my head asked me - hey, which stop was yours, lady?

In a sudden panic, I rushed to the train-door. The train was moving; after one split second of indecision while I conjured up visions of going on to Dadar, the humiliation of being caught ticketless (short-ticketed at any rate) the subsequent fine and the time lost, I stepped off the moving train.

I did not fall (another moment of divine grace, I suppose) and yet, I will not forget this trip.

Because a young girl standing near the door has been watching me and knows exactly what's happened. As the train pulled away, she grinned at me. I grinned back.

Then she started giggling and, as if to say "
what on earth were you thinking of?", she shook her head, part-amused, part-exasperated. I laughed back, shrugged, shook my head sheepishly....

And just like that, I have a moment with a stranger that I will not forget for a long, long time.
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