Thursday, October 27, 2011

The songs! Our songs!

The year is 2005. The rain has settled into a sweet Delhi drizzle. Between the bus conductor’s lusty cries of ‘Gurgaanva!’ the radio crackles with song.

A group of college girls boards the bus, arranges itself in the row just ahead. The song changes to the still-popular Bheege honth tere (Your lips are wet). One of the girls begins to sing along, but there is one line she skips: Kabhi mere saath koi raat guzaar (Come spend a night with me).

In swoops a memory. I’m a schoolgirl in remote Rajasthan. It’s lunch break. The girls are soaking in the winter sunshine, singing 'Mr India' songs. The girl with the sweetest voice is singing the stunningly sensual Kaate nahin katate, but there’s one line she will not sing. All of us hang our heads, humming, afraid of being caught singing that line: I love you.

This is the sort of childhood memory I never share with Bombay and Delhi friends. They’ll never understand.

The extract above is from a longer essay on Hindi film lyrics and our changing social values. It appears in Forbes Life. Go, pick up a copy to read the full piece. It also has some writers weighing in on themes as diverse (though not always unconnected) as poker and nudity. Here's a cover image to help you identify it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A practical guide to impressing good Indian girls

First things first: This isn’t really about bad boys (we don’t know any; God-promise); this is about good Indian girls. And you should read this if you are the unsuspecting guy who walked up to a sweet girl, but when you asked for her name, she treated you as if you were a pervert. Or are you one of those who gave a girl a fancy present but she was too nervous to accept it? Are you married to a girl who loves you madly but who resents your harmless, homely sister-in-law? Why?

These are some of the questions Smriti Ravindra and I try to answer in our new book. One of the reasons we decided to do a book called ‘The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl’ was that so many men complain that they simply cannot understand women, particularly Indian women. We kind of sympathize because we know there’s cause for confusion and resentment.

For instance, when we were undergraduates (and living at a very strict girls’ college), we had instructions not to talk to boys when we went outside. Some girls obeyed. Some didn’t. Those who talked to boys would give out fake names, fake addresses. It must have been frustrating for boys when they discovered the lie, but on the other hand, what’s a good girl to do?

If the boys had real names, real phone numbers, they would try to call. The hostel warden would find out. Parents would be summoned. The authorities would tell them that their daughters were up to no good. The girls would be shamed in front of their families and families would be shamed in front of the college authorities. Did we really have a choice?

When Smriti and I began to talk of what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we asked ourselves this question: How does one get labeled ‘bad’ or ‘not very good’ or at least ‘not a good Indian girl’?

We also asked others and most of us agreed that clothes have a lot to do with the stereotype. So does body shape. A stereotypical good Indian girl is expected to not just dress ‘within limit’ but also to somehow make her body look, well, restrained, cautious. ‘Limits’, of course, are very hard to define. It is not enough to wear a sari, for instance. If you look super-sexy in a sari, then even that might earn you a bit of social censure.

So, when a girl spends hours trying to make up her mind about what to wear, remember that she isn’t just worried about looking good. She is also worried about appearing to be good.

Remember that she is expected to place others’ interests above her own (but that doesn’t mean fighting for human rights in war zones; it means eating matar-paneer even though she hates it). Above all, she is expected to look happy and content.

Remember, that for most good Indian girl, to be interested in boys is considered healthy. But if you act on that interest, you enter a grey area. How much interest can you show without suffering for it? Can you go out drinking late at night? Can you buy him a drink, without being laughed at for being ‘desperate’? Can you sleep with him and still expect him to treat you with respect?

So if you want to bowl over a good Indian girl, the best thing to do is to treat all girls with respect. Not just your girl. You must show respect for all girls. NEVER say things like ‘x girl had it coming’ or ‘y is a nympho’ or ‘girls who smoke are more likely to put out’. If she herself says such things, YOU must gently shush her, and remind her that all girls should be treated with respect.

And NEVER ever hint that there’s a separate set of rules for girls and boys. That you are allowed certain privileges, like hairy legs or bare chests, while she isn’t. She knows the rules. She will hate you for reminding her.

Do NOT ask about her sexual history. If it doesn’t matter, then why ask? Let her volunteer information if she wants to. You must not ask, even if she has asked you. Remember, we play by different rules and that a girl’s secrecy is often the only defense she has.

Many young men wonder why we care so much about being seen as a ‘good girl’. We care because if we are seen as not-good girls, we are not treated with respect. Our families are not treated with respect. And because, when things go seriously bad, even our pain and outrage is turned into a weapon against us. We see this happening again and again through news reports about girls who are assaulted, or harassed. The first question everyone asks is – What time was it? Why was she out alone? Did she know the boy(s)? What was she wearing? Did she live alone? Why?

There are plenty of other reasons why we care about a ‘good Indian girl’ image, but remember this – a great web of morality confronts us. Most girls end up breaking some rules. And what’s more, most girls want to break the rules. The challenge lies in snatching a bit of joy and freedom for ourselves and not getting caught. How do we do this? Well, read the book to find out more.

About the book:

Who is the Good Indian Girl? What does she look like? How does she dress? Is she real — or is she a myth?

In this funny, wicked, touching, irreverent, poignant collection of stories, Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra lift the veil (or sari pallu) on the lives and loves of girls who have been born or raised in the subcontinent.

This is the Good Indian Girl as she has never been seen before—fiesty, imaginative, a little crazy, smart, vulnerable. Prepare to be surprised. 

[This article was first published in Mumbai Mirror and can also be accessed here]

Monday, October 24, 2011

How about a corruption-free newspaper, to start with?

Newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites — they are supposed to bring you word when things are wrong. But often the media fails. It fails partly because YOU — middle-class, media-consuming citizens — swallow the hogwash about not being interested enough in ‘serious’ news. It also fails because journalists are controlled by businessmen/women. Right now, there is an ongoing battle for the very soul of Indian journalism.

Media owners are adopting policies which are not merely unethical but also illegal, like accepting cash in exchange for favourable coverage during elections. If the media will not support honest candidates, or expose the dirty ones, how will the public know whom to vote for? How can we expect honesty from politicians if they are expected to cough up anything upwards of a crore of rupees to ensure coverage by just one media house, over the course of just one election campaign? Do we then seriously expect that clean, dedicated candidates will win elections?

Go to this link ( and look at the column on the left. Click on the link that says ‘Report on Paid News’. Read it.

Here are some extracts: “The concerned newspapers and television channels typically receive funds for paid news in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.”

“The entire operation is clandestine. This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country... So-called rate cards or packages are distributed that often include rates for publication of news items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents...”

“Identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors around the same time. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed praising competing candidates claiming that both are likely to win the same elections.”

Most journalists are outraged at what’s happening (remember, you know this only because some journalists told the truth) but are helpless. Journalists are made to ‘cooperate’ with their respective marketing departments, who seem to have no respect for editorial integrity.

Many prominent media houses have been indicted by the Press Council report. And naturally, most of them have denied the allegations. Even so, it would be nice to see some soul-searching by media houses, or even an offer to place their account books under public scrutiny. It is time they showed citizens that they are trustworthy, that they deserve the right to critique politicians and bureaucrats, that they are not themselves guilty of corrupting our democratic processes.

Read full piece here

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Otherwise we are not so orthodox"

Apparently, good Indian girls don't do serious research in good libraries.

This newspaper reports that undergraduate female students at Aligarh Muslim University are not allowed to enter the better-equipped Maulana Azad Library and that even in the Women's College Library, students are allowed access to the reference section only. And what does the college princy have to say?

"Vehemently denying the allegations against the college administration, Bilquis Nasim Waris, Principal of the Women's College, said the college library was “equipped with what the girls require... Everyone knows that UG students don't need reference material and journals, they only need textbooks and even if they insist on reference material, our teachers can fetch those from the MAL and hand out photocopies,” she said.

Dismissing the demands for relaxing rules and allowing more freedom to the students to step out as “needless,” Professor Waris said the austere rules are only “to protect” the girls. She went on to elaborate: “We allow them to step out on Sundays. These girls are young and just want to go outside. These restrictions are for their good and to save them from wrong things. Otherwise, we are not so orthodox.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Come see me

Friends, strangers, countrymen and townswomen, come! The discussion with Shilpa Phadke promises to be fun. And you can ask all the questions you want. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

A leisurely stroll to the nearest thana?

At a recent meeting, retired Justice Hosbet Suresh explained Section 151 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure). Essentially, you could be hauled off to the nearest police station if a cop thinks you are going to commit an offense, and you could be kept there for 24 hours.

A lot can happen in 24 hours. You could be forced to perform acts that leave you scarred for life, but which we cannot prove in a court of law. Or you could be obviously broken but the fractures and bruises may be explained away as an ‘accident’ — slipping in the bathroom, for instance.

Now, what is one to do about slippery bathrooms? What should we say to a woman who was seriously injured immediately after being handed over to the Chhattisgarh police? Apparently, Soni Sori, accused of being a Maoist, has managed to hurt herself while in custody — she slipped and fell, it is being claimed — after she was handed over to the Chhattisgarh police.

Her family — including her father and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi — has been hurt and hounded and the whole business has already been reported in the national press. Soni had appealed to the judiciary in Delhi, saying she fears for her life. Now what does one say to the honourable judges who saw fit to hand her over to the Chhattisgarh police?

And what does one say about octogenarians getting manhandled? Activist Kavita Srivastava’s 87-year-old father was pushed around when the Rajasthan police came calling while helping the Chhattisgarh police find Soni Sori. If Mr Srivastava was hurt, I suppose we’d have slippery bathrooms to blame.

(...) You might be set free and then arrested again. The poet Varahara Rao was arrested about 15 times. Arun Ferreira, who spent four years in jail as an undertrial, was acquitted but the police re-arrested him before he could even meet his family.

Read full piece here

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

City Nights 2 (a poem)

The city comes pouring out
of her mouth like sleek brown rivers
of discontent, her hands flat
against the pink café walls,
the round-faced waiter in his purple apron,

The city pours out of her mouth -
colour of churning monsoon street,
bags under neglected coffee eyes,
soles of slippers that have spent the evening
in an old-fashioned cemetery,
colour of guts.

On her fleshy back, a hand
rubs in the city’s truth –
This happens.

At least once in your life, the city
comes pouring out of your mouth
until you are drained and your gut is a shocking pink
like the walls of a café where shaky first lovers 

One of these days, past midnight,
it will all come true -
Everything will come pouring out of you.

Your big bum,
the beer towers you drink to fit in,
the hands that rub your back as you gag
over an alien sink,
loose knots of mustard hair,
dead phone batteries,
under-cooked mutton.

The city will come pouring out of you
and when it happens, you will smile
with your eyes shut tight,
you will say to the nearest friend –
This happens.
This had to happen.
It happens to everyone.

[Edited slightly after it was published in Verve (India) magazine]

(C) Annie Zaidi

Matrimania and more

Found a wonderful, insightful, informative piece about marriage, its past and future, and what it means to be single in our romantically crises-ridden age. The context and a lot of the research is from the USA but what the writer says and experiences will resonate with many of us in developing nations, particularly educated, urban single women.

I'd strongly recommend that all single people (men and women) read this article. All five, lengthy pages of it. Parents of single people are also strongly advised to read it too. Two very short extracts from the article are here, below:

"When I embarked on my own sojourn as a single woman in New York City—talk about a timeworn cliché!—it wasn’t dating I was after. I was seeking something more vague and, in my mind, more noble, having to do with finding my own way, and independence. And I found all that. Early on, I sometimes ached, watching so many friends pair off—and without a doubt there has been loneliness. At times I’ve envied my married friends for being able to rely on a spouse to help make difficult decisions, or even just to carry the bills for a couple of months. And yet I’m perhaps inordinately proud that I’ve never depended on anyone to pay my way (today that strikes me as a quaint achievement, but there you have it). Once, when my father consoled me, with the best of intentions, for being so unlucky in love, I bristled. I’d gotten to know so many interesting men, and experienced so much. Wasn’t that a form of luck?

All of which is to say that the single woman is very rarely seen for who she is—whatever that might be—by others, or even by the single woman herself, so thoroughly do most of us internalize the stigmas that surround our status.
Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social psychologist who is now a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience. In 2005, she coined the word singlism, in an article she published in Psychological Inquiry. Intending a parallel with terms like racism and sexism, DePaulo says singlism is “the stigmatizing of adults who are single [and] includes negative stereotyping of singles and discrimination against singles.” In her 2006 book, Singled Out, she argues that the complexities of modern life, and the fragility of the institution of marriage, have inspired an unprecedented glorification of coupling. (Laura Kipnis, the author of Against Love, has called this “the tyranny of two.”) This marriage myth—“matrimania,” DePaulo calls it—proclaims that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don’t have this are pitied. Those who don’t want it are seen as threatening. Singlism, therefore, “serves to maintain cultural beliefs about marriage by derogating those whose lives challenge those beliefs.”"


"The matrilineal Mosuo are worth pausing on, as a reminder of how complex family systems can be, and how rigid ours are—and also as an example of women’s innate libidinousness, which is routinely squelched by patriarchal systems, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá point out in their own analysis of the Mosuo in their 2010 book, Sex at Dawn. For centuries, the Mosuo have lived in households that revolve around the women: the mothers preside over their children and grandchildren, and brothers take paternal responsibility for their sisters’ offspring.
Sexual relations are kept separate from family. At night, a Mosuo woman invites her lover to visit her babahuago (flower room); the assignation is called sese (walking). If she’d prefer he not sleep over, he’ll retire to an outer building (never home to his sisters). She can take another lover that night, or a different one the next, or sleep every single night with the same man for the rest of her life—there are no expectations or rules. As Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist, explains, these relationships, which are known as açia, are founded on each individual’s autonomy, and last only as long as each person is in the other’s company. Every goodbye is taken to be the end of the açia relationship, even if it resumes the following night. “There is no concept of açia that applies to the future,” Hua says."

Read the full piece. It will do you good. It will do good to all those around you. 

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why I support the auto-wallas this time

Auto-rickshaw drivers deserve to live in clean surroundings; they deserve to eat fruit; their children deserve to go to good schools. And it is true that for this to happen in Mumbai, a household needs at least Rs 25,000 a month. So, now that one of the auto unions is demanding that much money, I understand. I even kind of endorse their demands.

... If autorickshaw drivers win this battle, domestic workers, motor mechanics, balloon-sellers, writers (do I hear a hundred Amens?) will follow. Why shouldn’t a truck driver make Rs 25,000? Why not a teenaged girl who sews tinsels on dupattas?

What I find interesting is that even the state seems to value drivers above other kinds of workers., a website with information about current wage rates, has published data from various states. It shows Indians who drive ‘public motor vehicles’ are entitled to more money than those who build roads. Which is strange, isn’t it?

In Maharashtra, the minimum wage for a driver (included under ‘Public motor transport’, I’m guessing) is around Rs 7,000 (rounding off figures). This places them a bit above film production workers. Also above attorneys, barbers, bakers, weavers, typists, carpenters, security guards, and those who work with chemicals, or in saw mills. Unskilled hospital workers (who are exposed to serious health risks) are entitled to only about Rs 5,000.

As for farm workers, they were guaranteed Rs 120 per working day (in 2009), or a monthly salary of Rs 3,120. And I wondered who decides these things. Why should a bus driver make more money than a farm worker?

In any case, I’m sure farmers wouldn’t mind getting a pension, same as autorickshaw drivers. I certainly wouldn’t mind one.

Read full piece here

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Gallantry in the Versovic Veerana: A midnight frame

I was pretty spaced out during the ride back to the station. While hailing the auto-rickshaw, I hadn't even looked at the driver's face properly. We never do, do we? All I remember was that he was aggressively bearded. And that his auto gave me the full benefit of the city. No distracting music. No cricket commentary or news. No conversation on the phone. No horns.

Midnight Andheri vroomed past - engines, hammering on construction sites, yellow headlights that always seem to me more like a loud sound than a painful sight. And hooting. That unmistakable hooting sound of men trying to get a woman's attention.

I was too spaced out to notice at first. The blinding yellow, the shadows of men curled up at roundabouts, the loopy daydreams had been distracting me. But when the cat-calling continued, I looked up and saw them. About eight of them, sitting-standing on the back of a truck. They sat with their legs dangling out of the lowered 'gate' at the back. Semi-bare legs. One of them wore short shorts - a crimson red. Another wore a red t-shirt. With the light in my eyes, I couldn't see much more.

Workers, perhaps, packers and movers. Or friends of the driver, hitching a ride to somewhere after a hard day at work. I looked at them for a minute and then looked away again. A traffic light. Both vehicles stalling, engines working hard.

The whoops and hoots grew louder. They had noticed me looking. They wanted me to look again.

It gets tiring. Them wanting to be looked at. I could look. Then they would hoot louder. Then they would nudge each other and say, "Look, she's looking." Then they would make a gesture, perhaps it would be obscene. Perhaps, it would amuse me. Then I would feel insulted.

I wasn't yet feeling insulted. But now it was impossible to slide back into that trance induced by screaming yellow midnight traffic. I looked away, shifted so that my face was in the shadows.

As if that mattered. They weren't hooting at my face or my clothes. I was covered neck to wrist to ankle. They were faceless men themselves, tired working men, but they saw a woman and wanted her attention. And   I didn't want to give it to them.

I couldn't. You never can. How can any woman in this city - any city - give a group of random men the attention they obviously want, and hope that the situation will not worsen?

I did the predictable thing. Lowered my eyes, shrank somehow, counted down to when the light would turn green. The light turned green.

But even a small truck is a large thing. On a road reduced to a ribbon by massive infrastructure projects, it is hard to ignore. And so we travelled that way for a while - me in the auto, behind the truck, and the men calling out - not words, just sounds. Looking at me.

There is something awful about being looked at in this way. It seems preposterous even when there is no danger. You want the looking faces to go away. You do not want their eyes on any part of you - not your hands, not your feet, not your shadow.

And then my auto-driver began to weave impossibly. First right, then left, then right, swerving sharply. He was going as fast as he could. Hooting sounds still floated in, but somehow, they seemed to have been deflected. Somehow, I felt less helpless.

As soon as he could, the auto-driver squeezed through a gap on the left, hit the accelerator hard and overtook. From the wrong side, yes. But finally, I was rid of them - the hooting, the looking.

Once we'd left the truck behind, the auto-driver slowed down. The night swung back into pools of yellow-grey and the hum of a hundred engines. I relaxed. I began to space out again. In a few minutes, we reached the station. I paid him. He found other passengers. I said, 'Thank you'.

I didn't really say thank you, though. How do you say 'thank you' for such things? For guessing that I'd feel bad about the hooting; for wanting to do something about it; for doing what he could without me having to suggest it.

I still couldn't see much of him as I alighted. All I saw was his beard. There was the slightest touch of grey in it. Or perhaps not. There was something about him that suggested greyness, as if he was on the far side of youth. Perhaps it was his silence, his wisdom. Perhaps, it was my silence, my wisdom. Who can say?

Monday, October 03, 2011

"She puts on the safety chain and opens the door a few inches. The broad shoulders turn. It is a familiar face after all. It is the face of trouble.

Seconds pass as her soapy hands fiddle with the safety chain. She should shut the door now. She should make an urgent phone call. Or she can talk across the chain, ask him what he wants. The safety chain clatters gently against the door as Sujata turns back to go into the kitchen.

The door hangs open."

[Extracted from a short story that has been published here.]

Sunday, October 02, 2011


So I got into another crib-fest about Hindi films and how disconnected they are from ‘reality’. How our filmmakers have turned into elitist bubble-vermin, how the bubble shall surely burst, how it deserves to burst because films are media, and media has responsibilities. On and on.

Then I thought, but what about ‘media’ media?... Thinking about the information put out by the ‘national press’ has goaded me into making a list — a list of things to write about that are guaranteed to make various groups of people fear the nation and her institutions, including the fourth pillar of democracy. Here are some items from that list:

Write excessively about a visiting skinny blonde who wants to sell us hand-bags. Do not write about Gopalgarh (Bharatpur) and the firing in which at least 8 people died and 23 were injured.

... Do not ask what the home ministry hopes to accomplish by allowing the Border Security force (BSF) to arrest alleged Maoists, and the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF) the power to interrogate them.

Avoid asking why Lingaram Kodopi is wanted, or why Kopa Kunjam was arrested. Do not ask who will be granted powers to undo interrogations that go too far.

Respond to the public’s need to figure out the new Facebook. Do not respond to the public’s need for more public transport.

Read the full piece here
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