Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why the greens miss Jairam Ramesh

Over the last couple of years, I’d often see press releases from environmental groups or an angry letter on a mailing list lashing out at Ramesh. He may have promised to rethink the Renuka dam, or allowed more construction on the Narmada. Whatever he did, Ramesh was making his presence felt, and a lot of people are wondering if Jayanthi Natarajan will follow suit.

What distinguishes a visible minister from an invisible one is that the former takes decisions that matter. Some turn out to be stupid decisions. Sometimes, they run contrary to the plans of the political party leadership. But a good minister must take contrary decisions and make frank statements. And the public must believe that the minister likes to use his brains. Even if his thinking is not in alignment with our own hopes and fears. But at least, let him apply himself to the task at hand, enforce rules, ask questions.

Ramesh seemed to have applied himself, as far as he was allowed to. But I’m not mourning his transfer to Rural Development. Visible ministers are desperately needed in every ministry. Already, after accepting his new portfolio, Ramesh has stressed the need to revisit land acquisition laws. Perhaps, he will once again find himself on the wrong side of POSCO.

Read full piece here

Monday, July 25, 2011

For the love of my ancestors:

I can’t remember the last time I noticed film credits roll in Devnagri. In fact, I too have switched to the Roman script when writing in Hindustani. And perhaps it’s better this way. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because all civilisations move from one script to another, one dialect to another. That’s how Urdu got made, a language that came striding in from the battlefield into bazaars, used first by rough-tongued soldiers and then by ferociously refined writers.

But film writers no longer write in Urdu. Film posters no longer advertise themselves in Urdu. Credits certainly do not roll in either Devnagri or Nastalik.

But what of audiences who have not made a smooth transition to Romanised Hindustani? Is there an automatic assumption that these people are illiterate — and therefore cannot read the credits anyway — or that they are uninterested in films?

Watching Paromita Vohra’s Partners in Crime, the English title also appearing in Nastalik, I was briefly distracted by thoughts of my grandmother. I remember watching films with her, late at night on TV. She wasn’t illiterate. But if she sat down to watch one now, she wouldn’t be able to read a single word on the screen — not even the title.
Read full piece here

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Street smart questions

"When motor vehicles bring in the risk of death, why are pedestrians given most of the responsibility of preventing it?"

That and some very pertinent points raised by Karthik in his new post where he writes:

The term “jaywalking” was introduced at this time, and pedestrians who cross mid-block were caricatured as being unsophistacted and boorish... It occurs to me that such propaganda bears remarkable similarity to the notion of the “white man’s burden” that European colonizers used to justify their tyranny.  The caricatures of jaywalking pedestrians correspond to early European prejudices about oriental people. In the meanwhile, streets that were used for several millennia by pedestrians and other street people (street vendors, for instance) were effectively invaded by automobiles. Rules advantageous to the colonizers were then enforced as a way of “civilizing” the “uncivilized”.

Read it here

Monday, July 18, 2011

Living like life matters

The tears come when the kachra-wala rings the bell. It is the son of the lady who usually comes. A boy in his late teens, hair plastered down, he says the usual morning word — “Kachra!
For the first time ever, I speak to him. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
For the first time, he smiles at me. There’s three feet of water outside our building. The rain hasn’t stopped. And this impossible city has just suffered a fresh round of terror. 
All night, I have been stubbornly, wearily silent. I snapped at my mother when she called after hearing about the blasts. I didn’t want to say a word at the time — not on Twitter, not on Facebook, not on blogs. Anything I said would seem platitudinous, insignificant. This is not a time for words. It is a time for… for what?
The question is on television, on twitter, on people’s minds. This can’t keep happening; why can’t it be stopped? Why can’t we… But what do we do?
Someone suggests: Hit back, like the USA. But the first image that floats into my mind then is that of a distraught father carrying the body of a little child.
Hit back at whom? Whose children? Bomb which bazaar so that we might have the satisfaction of saying: We killed as we were killed.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Respect comes as respect goes

What do you want, Mumbai? Who do you want as your neighbour, or tenant? You want ‘good’ people, yes? By good, you mean ‘respectable’, non-violent (not publicly violent anyway), quiet people (who don’t complain when you turn noisy during festivals). You want kids who work towards being accepted rather than causing mayhem. Yes?
And you want some do-gooders, yes? The old lady who plants trees. A retired uncle who ensures waterproofing of the terrace happens on time. A doctor whose doorbell you can ring at midnight. A collegian who tutors ‘weak’ students.
What you don’t want is a do-gooder who helps the most vulnerable of us all. Say, a neighbourhood ‘doctor’ who treats slum-dwellers at his home-clinic. What you certainly don’t want are girls like Trina Talukdar and Robin Chaurasiya.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Very mad (and a tiny bit maddening)

The blurb describes Ibne Safi’s Jasusi Duniya series as an “intricately demented world of larger-than-life villains, mad genius detectives and beautiful femme fatales”.

For once, the blurb does not exaggerate. Safi is one of the most popular Urdu writers of the 20th century and Blaft has done newer non-Urdu reading generations a huge favour by publishing at least a few of his translated works. Born Asrar Ahmad in undivided India, ‘Ibne Safi’ moved to Pakistan in the 1950s but continued to cater to readers on both sides of the border.
He sets his novels in a cosmopolitan city by the sea, which could as easily have been Bombay as Karachi. Here, there are plenty of bars and cafes, dancing halls and lavish house parties, picnicking families, plenty of nightlife. And some very unpretty lowlife as well.

His main detective, Colonel Faridi, is a mildly eccentric aristocrat but Hameed deserves his own star in the literary detective’s sidekick hall of fame. Here’s a police officer who not only lives with his boss, but also dresses his pet goat in neck-ties and hats. Sample this delicious bit from Smokewater: “Hameed’s billy goat, had he been human, would have committed suicide. Or, instead, he might have assumed the role of an Urdu critic, and pronounced a sentence of death on the ghazal that was now being read to him”. When he is admonished for such antics by his boss, Hameed retorts, “I have not the slightest interest in dignity… the bacteria of dignity is even more dangerous than the bacilli of phthisis.”

This combination of eccentricity, social critique, and the odd philosophical nugget is what makes Ibne Safi’s books so likeable.

In other respects, Safi sticks to the usual standards for pulp. The central detective (Faridi) is mysterious, uninterested in women and always a step ahead of the criminal forces he’s tackling — quite like Sherlock Holmes. The femme fatales are reserved for the eccentric non-genius Hameed, although his attitude to women is painfully real — he wants to flirt with them but he gets bored easily. The good girls are disoriented and exasperated by him. The bad girls pose serious threats to his life. Faridi always rescues him, of course.

Despite the stereotypes, Hameed is such an oddball that a turn of events is hard to predict. For instance, he wants to dance with a female colleague in a ballroom, but not in aid of an investigation. He just wants to escape from thoughts of crime. Hameed’s perpetual disgruntlement lends a dash of comic melancholy that is rarely seen in detective fiction. He sometimes seems to be carrying the burden of the writer’s soul.

But this is a writer who treats us to strange criminals like Dr. Dread and Finch (both make an appearance in all four books). Finch is a former circus performer while Dr. Dread is an international assassin who specialises in bizarre poisons — stuff that makes a respectable girl swear loudly in public and take off her clothes. But Faridi too has access to weaponry that 007 might covet, such as “a stun grenade, with the added capability of settling off a blinding flash and raising the ambient temperature dramatically within seconds”. This forces criminals to strip while rendering them incapable of violence.

Sex and gore are palpable elements of crime fiction but Safi doesn’t rub the reader’s face in it. A new generation of readers will also find it impossible not to read more into Faridi and Hameed’s complex relationship. But this awareness only lends an extra touch of pathos to the overall absurdity.

All in all, these books are a fun read. The translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has retained the humour and the cultural dressing that would have lent the original novels their tang and bite. The occasional snarky paragraph about the frailties of women will annoy some readers but fans of pulp have to be made of stone to resist Safi. 

This review was published in Forbes (India).

Thursday, July 07, 2011


A friend's friend was cheated and threatened by a man who married her. He and his family disappeared when it seemed like their game was up. But he's still out there (on various marriage websites) cheating women, using them, milking their parents for all they can afford to spend at the wedding and afterwards.

The girl has bravely set up a blog, put up his photos from the wedding, and is trying to bring him to book. She also needs to track him down so that her divorce can be finalised and she can begin life afresh. Here's an extract from the blog:

"Her parents travelled to Bangalore to meet the boy’s parents and all seemed well... Before the engagement, in Decenber 2008 the girl’s parents asked the boy’s side to produce some certificates to be able to verify the claims made, but these were apparently locked away safely and were therefore not shown. They did not press for fear of offending the boy’s family.

During and after the wedding, in Jan 2009 the girl and her parents observed many small things like the heavy drinking habits of the boy & his family, going back on their word on marriage arrangements & delaying the marriage registration, the boy disclosing later his numerous affairs and also that his salary was actually less than half of what it was originally quoted etc.

the girl was supposed to join the family overseas only later, and on a student visa not on a spouse visa! During this time she was expected to live with the boy & his family without a registered marriage, without disclosing that they were married (apparently for visa requirements) and her family was expected to fork out an additional 24 lakh rupees as fees for the educational course that she was supposed to be joining!!! 

Humiliated, cheated, the girl knew something was wrong and asked her father in law who was still in India to send her to her husband on a spouse visa instead of the roundabout way that they were proposing as that would entail lying, an immoral humiliating living condition and an additional, totally unnecessary financial burden on her father. Her father in law then got abusive, threatening and violent."

For details, visit the blog. If you have any information, contact this girl. Or else, just contact the Bangalore police (080-22942552). 

Monday, July 04, 2011

Brazen Feminist's take on Slutwalk Delhi

It’s not as easy as choosing between a pink lehenga and blue jeans with climate control factored in. What-to-wear is a finely calibrated decision. I think of whether to take an auto or a cab, train or bus. I think of where I’m headed, at what station to get off, at what time.

And despite all this, even if my legs and arms are fully-covered, even if no cleavage or belly is on display, I’m afraid. Even this great bustling insomniac city will not let me be.

Nobody has accused me of dressing ‘slutty’. But every day of my adult life, I have had to protect myself from the aftermath of random strangers on the street attacking, abusing or threatening me. Note: I am not saying I protect myself from attacks. What I’m protecting myself from is the aftermath. From people who will say that my clothes were provocative, that the time of the night and my being alone was an invitation to assault.

So yes, I get the sentiment that makes a bunch of women in Canada declare: Yeah, we’re slutty, so what? So what if we sleep around? So what if we wear tiny skirts and high heels? So what if men look at us and want us? Is the police force trying to tell us that rape is alright? Are you saying we deserve to be hurt?
And yet, when I heard that someone was organising a Slutwalk in Delhi, a part of me went sort of quiet...

On the other hand, if boundaries are to be pushed, someone has to take some risks. Jasmeen Patheja, founder of the Blank Noise Project (a group I’ve been part of since 2006) points out that Slutwalks are a kind of performance. There is an element of fiction here. And it is a fiction that sells. The media is lapping up the story of provocatively-dressed women demanding their right to provoke. Cameras focus on women wearing bras (clearly, feminists with arsonist tendencies are ancient history) so that ‘skimpy clothes’ are not just the first thing we see. They’re the only thing.
... Meanwhile, the fiction has whipped up a storm even before the fact has materialised. Celebrity columnist Shobhaa De has dissed the proposed event for being an ‘attention-seeking protest … neither workable, nor desirable.’ Seema Goswami drew up a damnable analogy. She compares a woman who attracts attention to a house that’s unlocked and therefore likely to get burgled.

All of which is making me pricklier and pricklier.

I now find myself wanting to get into arguments about ‘workability’. Is the only workable solution finding a rich man who provides us with a glass bubble to commute in and bodyguards to fend off assaults? As for seeking attention, that’s the bloody point!

Anger and pain are at the heart of every movement, but when we march, we must sometimes wear the boots of provocation. Slutwalk is designed to provoke. 

Read the full piece here:

what you don't know can hurt you

It’s been so long since I saw television that I’m stunned at the sight of a young man being insulted on national television. I’m squirming on behalf of this aspiring Roadies contestant, angry at the ‘judges’ who are calling him stupid to his face.
But the next minute, the young man loses my sympathy when he says that he agrees with the ‘Ayodhya verdict’, though he doesn’t know what the verdict is. He doesn’t know what the Ayodhya issue is. He thinks Ayodhya is where a ‘war’ happened and confuses it with the big one in Kurukshetra (which features in the Mahabharata). This strapping young man also doesn’t know who the president of India is, but assumes she is male.
By the time the video clip ends, the interview panel is falling about laughing. They are calling him ‘cute’. How else do we deal with the fact that young, school-educated, urban Indians don’t know a thing about themselves or the forces that are shaping their nation? They’re so ignorant, they’re like children.

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