Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bade Bhaiyyaji ki vani, badi suhaani

My column in Sunday Mid-day about Amitabh Bacchan's desire to copyright/patent his voice.

There's no point asking how much money is enough - none of us know the answer to this question. But have we got the pitsiest public figures in the world or what?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

television purgatory

My column on watching Bigg Boss - or rather not watching it.. with a mistake, poor Deepak Parasher got called Pankaj Parashar (although the latter may also feel he is a poor thing)

Of course now there is a stay order, so I am still not saved but hanging somewhere in between

Sunday, November 14, 2010

the problems of plenty

Today's Sunday Mid-day column, about the pleasures of libraries, maybe the necessity. What I couldn't expand on in the column but which people can check out from here are two excellent online library ventures - they will send and pick books up!

And this one just for comic books

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Labbu's birthday

Today is my father's birthday and I am continuing my effort to write something about him as I decided to in 2008 and then managed to in 2009 and here I am now, writing in 2010, but at the 11th hour as he would have said :).

When my father was small he had very fat cheeks. His cheeks were so fat that if you slapped one cheek the other used to wobble. So his two older sisters loved to call him over and then slap him, and laugh to see the other cheek wobble. This exemplifies the love of Punjabi women, as many will know. They really did love him, as I saw over the years - he was the apple of their eye - and accordingly they had their own petname for him: Labbu - from Laabh, a blessing luckily gotten.

In all my years with him I never heard anyone actually call him that, although my aunt in Bombay would sometimes lovingly say: he is my favourite, I used to call him Labbu.

My father always laughed and loved to tell this story of cheek slapping. He loved telling stories of his childhood which was evidently a happy one - despite the hardships of Partition - and a very energetic one, full of going here and there with friends, trying to imitate Fearless Nadia by plundering the sofa for springs, learning to swim in the Yamuna, eating 6 boiled eggs at a time and getting up to every kind of mischief.

When he was sick we had to spend many days in the hospital for his chemo and he would tell me stories I'd heard many times before about his early years in Lahore. I always liked hugging my father but those months I did it a lot and often squeezed his cheeks, no longer fat, and soon I took to calling him Labbu-chand.

In this last year, there has been an addition to Labbu chand's family - my sister had a baby, I acquired a niece whom I call Kishmish and she has fat cheeks. Like me, she loves to listen to stories. Since she was two months old she's recognised the cadence of storytelling and always becomes rapt - her father makes up funny stories for her and now, at seven months, she has even begun to gurgle at them. Like my father - her grandfather - she loves being hugged and kissed. I hug and kiss her as much as I can. Sometimes I tell her stories too about a naughty little boy called Labbu, always getting up to mischief, always getting into trouble, but never reforming, running around the streets of Anarkali bazaar, somewhere near the Neela Gumbad, playing with Akhtar, the boy whose father owns the trunk shop on the ground floor, eating finger sticks from Moqam din and Sons bakery.

This being my father's birthday month I have started writing a story in which a little girl with fat cheeks escapes into the past with her grandfather and meets him when he is a boy with fat cheeks and then they proceed to be naughty together.

To remember is very painful, but the thought of forgetting even more so.

For Kishmish, who never lost Labbu, I hope he will be the happy remembrance of a little bit that went into making her. For me the story is like giving Kishmish a hug and a kiss on behalf of Labbu who would have been the best Nana a girl can have, a hugging and kissing and making you feel special kind of grandpa.

This is the first part of the story. I'll post more when it's written out.


Kishmish had fat cheeks. Really really fat cheeks, that looked like clouds. Everybody loved to pinch them. They would say, oh so cute, and bend down and pinch both cheeks hard. Kishmish would glare, but did that stop them? No it didn’t.

Kishmish lived on the 7th floor of a tall building. From the balcony she could see pigeons and crows, huts and shops, divali lights and construction dust, far away a hill, and hundreds of cars on the roads.

One day Amma was taking Kishmish down in the lift so she could play. The aunty from the 6th floor got on. Oh how cute you look in that frock Kishmish, said aunty and pulled Kishmish’s cheeks. Kishmish glared at her. But did the 6th floor aunty stop? No she did not.

Then the didi from the 4th floor got on. She had a purple iPod and yellow nailpolish. Kishmishhhhhh! she screamed. You’re so cute! She pinched both of Kishmish’s cheeks. Kishmish glared at her. But did she stop? No she did not.

On the ground floor as Kishmish ran out of the an uncle she did not know, smiled at her. Kishmish smiled back. Then he bent down and pinched her cheeks. What a cute little girl! he said. Kishmish glared at him and glared at him. But did he stop? No he did not. In fact he started to pull her cheeks some more. This was too much for Kishmish. She screwed up her face. But he kept on. So Kishmish kicked him and he let go! Oh, that felt pretty good.

The uncle yelped.

Amma turned around and glared at Kishmish. Kishmish! That was very bad. Why did you kick that uncle?

Kishmish looked away glumly. Amma waited.

Kishmish said nothing - would Amma understand if Kishmish said he had pulled her cheeks? No she would not. She would say, oh the uncle likes you and you behave like this?

Fine, Amma said. No playing for you. Get back in the lift.

And so Amma and Kishmish came home. Amma put on her computer and started to talk to her friend on gmail chat.

That’s not fair! Kishmish said, you are playing with your friend on the computer!

I did not kick anybody Amma said, so I can. And I am not playing, I am working.

Kishmish went into the balcony. Nana was sitting there trimming his moustache in the sun. A shiny black crow was cawing loudly from the roof. Oh, Nana said, listen to that crow, looks like we’re going to have some guests. Kishmish did not answer. Nana laughed when he saw her face. Nana never pulled Kishmish’s cheeks – he only laughed at her always.

Nana! Don’t laugh at me! Kishmish said.

Oh Nana said, you are sulking are you?

No yelled Kishmish. I am not sulking.

OK Nana said, and went back to looking at his moochhi in the mirror.

I am bored! Kishmish said. I want to go and play.

Who can stop you from playing, Nana asked. Play!

No, I want to play with someone!

Ok, you can play with me, Nana said.

No! You are too old! You can’t run and play.

Hmm, Nana said. Maybe. Maybe not.

What if… we went to a place where I’m not old. Then we could play together.

Kishmish looked interested.

Where is that place?

Nana put the mirror and the scissors down. It’s called Anarkali Bazaar he said.

Now look in my eye, the blue one. Nana had one blue eye and one brown one. He could not see from the blue eye.

Kishmish came and looked into the eye closely, frowning.

Do you know what’s behind the eye? Nana asked.

What? Kishmish asked, her eyes big and round.

It’s the Neela Gumbad!

Kishmish peered and squinted and then yes! behind Nana's blue eye she could see a big old building, like one she'd never seen before, with a round domed roof of deep, beckoning blue. There were people around it, selling things on carts, going about in rickshaws or walking.

Do you want to go there? Nana asked. Kishmish nodded, a bit excited but a bit scared too.

So then let’s go, Nana said, to the Neela Gumbad, the Neela Gumbad, the Neela Gumbad. And in a minute they were there, standing inside a round building with a big blue dome. Next to her was Nana. He was 5 years old like her and he had the FATTEST cheeks, much fatter than hers! And both his eyes were brown. He did look different, but it was definitely Nana.

Come on Nana said. And the two of them ran out of the Neela Gumbad and into Anarkali bazaar!


Last to last week's Mid-day column - we had Divali holiday in between.

A couple of my friend's fought with me about it because they felt I did not take a clear stand on what I felt about what Arundhati Roy said about Kashmir - and I felt a bit frustrated by that. I somehow think there are many types of solidarity - I suppose one is definitely for many to say the same thing at the same time.

On the other hand I guess I am a bit more invested in trying to reach out to a more "regular" audience and also in the idea of debate which eventually is not about rights and wrongs but about the ability to listen. And I don't feel very interested in making declarations about matters of national importance (which is not to say that I don't think those declarations should be made) but interested in a rather more local voice and way.

Still, it's an uncertain thought, only half formed in my head and I'm still wondering.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't look left, Don't look right - just head to the cinema

My friend Bela Negi's film is releasing this October 29th in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore. Please do go see it and please spread the word around! Here's my column about it from last Sunday's Mid-day

Saturday, October 9, 2010

vamps, victims and videotape

Have been shooting so not updating but pasted below a longer version of my Sunday Mid-day column from last week, which appears today in The Delhi Guardian which is apparently Delhi version of The Independent of London (go figure). They don't have a website yet.

You can watch online the VAMP video as well as the documentary it responds to - Prostitutes of God


Recently a YouTube video called “VAMP Protests ‘Prostitutes of God” went viral.

Produced by Vaishya Anyaya Mukti Parishad (VAMP) a sex worker rights organization in Sangli, it was a series of testimonies by people who had featured in the VBS documentary by Sarah Harris - “Prostitutes of God” - which explored sex work around the cult of Goddess Yellamma and linked to the Devdasi tradition. One after another, these people asked the filmmaker why she betrayed their trust by insulting their gods, misinterpreting their culture and portraying them as craven victims.

VAMPs video is lo-fi and basic, but its power packed and direct. In all the verbiage about the possibilities of digital media, this stands out as a politically creative and impactful moment.

It’s not the first time people have felt this way about a documentary produced by a first world filmmaker/network about an “Indian problem”. Dana Briski’s Oscar winning “Born into Brothels” met with much criticism. Outside a small group, this was dismissed as the pettiness of over-intellectual, permanently discontented activist types who don’t understand what it takes to tell a good story. The VAMP video, as a direct testimony of the subjects themselves is hard to ignore as carping. It also throws light on how documentaries work, and so, how not to make them.

“Prostitutes of God” is not an exceptional film. In fact it’s a copybook example of what most networks ask for in a narrative about unfamiliar cultures. A central character – here the filmmaker - leads us through her journey among the natives, providing a point of identification. Her eyes become our eyes. What do Ms. Harris’ eyes see?

First, the never-before ‘insight’ that ‘India is a land of extremes, ancient tradition and modern capitalism’. Then the de rigueur bonding scenes to establish ‘intimacy’ - giggly chapatti making, arch condom games and fake sari shopping overlain with commentary about how ‘these people’ lead terrible lives, suffering the iniquities of tradition in a superstitious society. There’s some truth in these clichés, but are clichés the only way to understand the truth? These eyes see them only as examples who speak in generic sound bites. They never show us people with humour, sensuality, agency, choice or contradictions. Nor do we understand sex work differently from the common perception as a terrible fate to be rescued from, or the difference between an empowered sex worker and one who isn’t.

The filmmaker declares the Yelamma myth incomprehensible –some bizarre story about ‘fat gods in gold bikinis’. If the Indian informants were inarticulate, (as the film makes clear by using translators who can’t speak English well and using that for feeble humour) there’s Wikipedia. Reading the entry I found it comprehensible enough that the myth was a way of legitimizing courtesans/prostitutes to ensure respect and livelihood unlike the moralizing which renders sex workers illegal, unorganized, improverished and vulnerable.

Strangely, the film is part of series that is meant to take you into an edgy reality. But frankly calling people pimps and whores while mashing their reality into baby food for feeding babies is not much edgier than little kids using bad words whose meaning they don’t know.

Documentaries exist to deepen our understanding of the world. At their least they explain something simply and clearly. At their best they provide a textured experience of the unknown, and by presenting people as complex individuals, not types, create a compassionate understanding and awareness about the issues, the subjects and our prejudices. Unfortunately the form “Prostitutes of God” chooses, allows for neither.

Producers respond to this criticism by saying some things must be ‘simplified’ to help their audiences enter the unfamiliar. Have they read the comments on the film’s website? Most are in the unthinkingly racist “what’s wrong with these barbaric people” category. Maybe it’s time to try another method to change views that have existed for centuries?

The only thing that’s changed is the version of the documentary now on the website. After VAMP called them on it, the producers hastily removed a part of the commentary , which disclosed a characters’ HIV status without permission. The fear of litigation keeps us honest?

So much for the other defence producers make: we care. Maybe. From the film, Sarah Harris comes across as a nice enough person. But niceness does not prevent mediocre analysis or filmmaking. The hard work of questioning your assumptions might. And it would lead to a very different kind of film

In fairness, this is not limited to firangis. We can find unthinkingly offensive do-gooders among ourselves as easily. Noble intentions (sometimes called “human interest stories”) can be dangerous, for they absolve us of interrogating ourselves. We must cast others as fallen victims so we can be seen as their uplifting saviours. Sometimes being a devil, or his advocate, may be the better path.

Monday, September 27, 2010

let them eat cake

My column in Sunday mid-day for September 27, which resulted in some facebook argument between my friend who doesn't like any ambiguity on how we speak of Pakistan and terrorism.

I don't like to dismiss these arguments even if I instinctively don't agree because I have a terror of falling into any formulaic secular elite attitude - as if it is self evident what is progressive and what isn't. But I also can't identify with any vehement patriotism. So not fully able to understand the merits of the other side.

Anyway, in that vein, Shabana Azmi's slum cake makes an appearance in this column - but personally I have to say I don't feel as hugely outraged by it. I can see the intended joke but I think some of the annoyance is in response to the feeling that we are not exactly sure what the nature of Shabana Azmi's activism is, or what her politics are. I feel the cake joke reminds me certainly of the elites who are very sure they know what's good and bad for others - who feel comfortable about suggesting how things ought to be precisely because they are part of a ruling elite. That's why they are not confused about the humour of the cake. Whereas those who feel less convinced that their felt politics are the right politics - may not feel as strongly angry, but may also not feel as blithe about that kind of joke.

Anyway - it's noticeable that the media did not pounce on this cake. And not a word about Amitabh Bacchan's EXTREMELY bad manners in tweeting about party to gazillion people while party is still on. Given how holier than thou he is about everything otherwise, grumble grumble grumble...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aristotle for Facebook

Mid-day column for Sept. 19

According to a new Canadian study “most Facebook users have low self-esteem.” You couldn’t tell from the friendship requests. It’s easy to laugh at the breezy: “Amazing pic wanna be a frenz”, “hey aren’t you the one who wrote/made XYZ film?” and “hi send yr nmbr as I need your inputs for my class assgnmnt.” Low self-esteem cannot explain this jaunty entitlement – poor upbringing might.

More complicated are silent strangers who know of you and have 10-100 “common friends”- but don’t introduce themselves, leaving you perplexed. Low esteem doesn’t explain this – excessive mother love might.

One thing does explain much of it – a crisis of contemporary behaviour. Today, more than ever before, we come in contact with large numbers of people, of different backgrounds and levels of achievement, but have very little idea how to behave with others, because good manners are considered square and courtesy or formality is old fashioned – and no new fashion has apparently been devised as replacement (though someone may be working on a good Facebook application).

Many disdain Facebook because they disdain networking. Some are idealistic, several disingenuous – because networking has been around longer than low self-esteem. Among 500 million users some are bound to be narcissists and depressives. You don’t need Facebook to channel your inner jerk – although Facebook might be one place you give him a turn. Many just seem socially clueless, an adolescent state reinforced by the lazy use of the word friends to describe the great diversity of relationships that exist in a society, to create the illusion that because we are on the same web page, everyone is the same as everyone.

These folks might want to check out Aristotle on Ethics, where he too used the term friendship to describe different social relations – but helpfully categorised them thus: 1) Friendship of utility: what we call networking, our parents called duniyadari and Mama Morton in Chicago describes as “when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you” 2) Friendship of pleasure: friendly acquaintances, people we meet professionally or socially whose company we enjoy 3) Friendship of the good: abiding friendships based on love and shared values, interests and time.

True friendships of the third category are an ideal – shared with few and nurtured over time. As Aristotle says: “a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.”

However, friendships of convenience or of pleasure too have their place and genuine community can be achieved by treating them with the respect due – not thinking of them as inferior and therefore not deserving of our best behaviour – an attitude Facebook – and the internet generally - sometimes reveals. As if casualness of emotion means casualness of behaviour. At the heart of this is something we’ve become very comfortable with in the present culture – selfishness or self-interest. That we need only look out for our own requirements and get what we can from others without regard for what we offer in return. And if we can’t offer as much to acknowledge this debt through our respect. Don’t know about low self-esteem – but it sure is low esteem of others!

This is based on a fundamental miscalculation - the assumption that other people are stupid and fooled by false charm or brash informality; that generosity or tolerance exist not to appreciate but take advantage of. This sort of familiarity definitely leads to contempt, and people, no matter how kind, will eventually be fed up with bad manners and mediocre, self-interested “friendships” leaving one very alone in a crowd of 2,147 friends. And that sure could make you a Facebook user with low self-esteem.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Godard of Small Things

My column, unable to resist all puns on Godard, here - occasional silliness must be forgiven, friends ( I hope) :)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Daayen ya Baayen

I recently watched Bela Negi’s film Daayen ya Baayen (Right or Left), which for all the tedious verbiage that fills our newspapers and magazines about the new space for independently minded (since it's almost all produced out of Bollywood, it's not independently produced often) cinema in India, remains unreleased, and un-promoted on the festival circuit for unclear reasons.

Without a doubt this comic drama is a labour of love and free from a lot of the generic quality that make films from India successful. It's a story in the mode of the droll, angular folksy narrative which is a tradition we haven't lately seen a rendition of, but the relief is in watching a film that does not feel puffed up and stiff with the desire to be seen as "world cinema" or "indie cinema" or whatever label is seen as cool. It's simply the film it wants to be.

What makes the film work - apart from the fact that its funny - is that through its rich local detailing and highly rooted story and characters, it creates a compelling portrait of the universal human desire to dream of utopias, to find in ourselves the best we can be: wise fools who want to love and be loved for the people we are and the poets we can be. In that it's got a clear sense of wanting to talk about some central human experience rather than be a clever description of some context.

The film fills us with a delight rarely found in recent Indian films: the delight of characters whimsical, eccentric, infuriating, flawed and funny in the way dreamers and hopers and no-hopers are.

Daayen ay Baayen is a densely textured tale of a man who returns a bit defeated from the city where he has gone to pursue his dreams, to his idyllic looking village– to his wife’s dismay at this reverse migration, a come down in this world if ever there was one. Indeed we understand her comic dismay compassionately once we pause from chuckling, because what can he do in this beautiful place where sheer rivers gleam, and trees sigh wetly and ghosts sometimes smile on full moon nights - but where a mixture of economy and culture robs men of ambition and possibility so that they sit around playing cards, drinking and farting around, making token plans of going to the city, while women slog.

But Majila, the main character is full of an ebullient optimism to start an arts centre. In pursuit of this slightly elusive dream he influences school kids into writing earnest verse, earns the adoration of his son, the mockery of the villagers– and wins a bright red car in a slogan contest. The car sets off scrutiny and jealousy and perhaps a few wrong turns as Majila loses the way to his dream as all of us do, cast asunder by criticism, ego and the uncertain business of being human with its certain desire to be successful or to prove oneself right maybe. How we finds the way back again is a ride that manages to be both sweetly and darkly comic; he arrives at his end a hero who is very triumphant and a little, just a little, as he says, compromised.

This is not a flawless film - and the screenplay would have benefitted from much stronger structuring, because in its current form there is a slight diffusion of intent, and the film is not always consistent in terms what approach to plot it is choosing - the incremental one or the overtly causal/eventful one. So we might begin to wonder a little half way through where we're headed, a feeling not always offset by the strong sense of where we are. In other words, while each scene is lovely and specific in itself, sometimes the weave is not tight enough.

However, with its very sure mise-en-scene, inspired performances from a mix of Bollywood and local actors as well as amateurs and dialogue full of local sarcasm and humour the film stays with us both with because of its feeling of enjoyment - I found myself chuckling to myself for a couple days after at the though of different shots, or dialogue or character- and its deeply humane view of people. There is a school principal who loves to say "and miles to go before we sleep" as a homily for ending speeches or while giving advice; an old lady, Harduli, who has used her husband's freedom fighter pension to buy a shiny new pair of sneakers for climbing the mountain to get to work and as she tells a villager -"what else do I need but this and a good pack of cigarettes. Indeed she has loaned the money to everyone in the village, because she doesn't really need much else. There's Majila's sister-in-law who is embarrassed by his city jeans, all colorfully patched, and throws them away in the field, toothless men who complain about the government while playing cards, Majila's gift to his wife - a backscratcher for scratching his back and all sorts of little things that we relish while and after watching the film.

The film's accomplishment is that it shows us that not all Indian film entertainment – and it’s entertaining indeed – has to come in a Bollywood costume or with a mediocre, meaningless pretend-social message. I do hope others can see this film soon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Meet the Parents

Here's a longer version of the column that appeared in Mid-day on Sunday Aug 29th


As a non-parent, it was news to me that the PTA laws had been changed by the government because I did not even know that PTAs were governed by actual state laws. Going through them I’m not sure if I was impressed or alarmed at how much a parent could or should be involved in school activities.

Now, parenting – and especially motherhood – are becoming so hallowed all over again, although in new yummy-mummy bottles - that a non-parent probably has no locus standii to be saying anything at all about this stuff. But I’m going to claim my rights as a former child and current sufferer of the results of all this hot-house parenting to wonder a bit about some things.

The current noise, to recap, is over the fact that the state’s government has scrapped elections to PTAs and these will now be constituted by appointment. Naturally this leads to all sorts of concerns over whether this won’t favour the school managements and leave parents powerless – very valid concerns indeed.

But what are the mutual concerns? Are PTAs essentially a union body – to make sure the school gives parent-child consumers the things they promised? Or do they come together in order to ensure that the school becomes a positive and progressive preparation for public life, which is why we suffer through all that homework and torture from classmates in the first place (oh you didn’t? well, lucky well-adjusted you).

As with many democratic processes, this depends totally on each PTA. Some apparently have gathered to ensure a pension for retired teachers. Others have the usual complaint: most parents are unwilling to volunteer time or take responsibility.

I have a friend whose enthusiasm for attending PTA meetings (given that she routinely tells her kid that he should not take the school too seriously) is a matter of amusement between us. She attends each meeting with an agenda. Some of these things include: more Hindi (since its Delhi) books for the reading period. Good ones, not boring ones which make kids hate the language in comparison to the bright and funny books for kids in English. Of course she also leaves knowing that most of this won’t change because for all that parents want “alternative” education, many also want mainstream success for their kids, eventually.

I may be wrong but it seems there’s a great deal more obsession with parenting – especially mothering – in people of the upper middle classes – amongst people with h the surplus income that allows one partner, usually the woman, to be a full time parent. They send their children to schools and after-school programs that promise to turn out Spanish speaking, ballet dancing, brain gymming, precious wonders in touch with nature and their inner artiste via new teaching methods and air-conditioned classrooms. These experimental schools are often expensive – but good air-conditioning and CCTVs aren’t cheap. And you need good security to keep the kids in and maybe other kids out. Frankly, as a child, this sort of scrutiny would have sent me into permanent depression – I longed at all times to escape everything in the real world of adult anxiety and injustice and retreat to one of my own making - but I accept I’m not the ideal these parents and teachers are aspiring to. Everyone thinks their child has a special someone hidden inside that can be discovered. No child is allowed just to be ordinary then, I guess, at least in a certain class. What is this vision all about?

Is it a vision that the Right to Education Act might be interfering with for some? I quote from a circular that Bangalore’s Bethany High School issued to parents: Under this Act, all private unaided schools will have to accommodate 25% of their strength of children around the neighbourhood without any screening. This means that any child will have to be allowed into school and share the classroom with your child. Eminent psychologists have said that this will be detrimental to the psyche of all children, yours and the others, and the school has to sit back and admit indiscriminately and cannot refuse admission."

Parents have quickly defended the circular because “it’s not saying underprivileged children will be ill-behaved but that if they happened to be, the school was not empowered to act against them. The school has piously declared it educates 20 children free.

You don’t need school (or parents) to teach you that meanings lurk between lines. The school seems to have a problem affording poor children education as a right but no issue giving it as charity, because charity keeps the power equation clear. The parents are uncomfortable with the idea of poor kids and their kids being in the same class. They are not bad people. But, their goodness prevents them from articulating exactly why they have this problem.

In the meantime, the BMC has asked that all new secondary school spaces should give 50% of their built up area for a municipal school in return for exemption on the FSI of the remaining 50%. This will help implement the Right to Education act apparently, with BMC schools being a sort of visible annexe, sort of like a servants quarters in those nice bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Today I watched a video of a popular guru giving gyan on parenting – to be a good parent you just need to stop living a distorted life and be the best according to your ideas. Isn’t it cool how he never defined those ideas – spiritual freedom, baby! I’m not a parent, godperson or even an eminent psychologist, but I guess it’ll have to do that I’m a former child: as bad as parents who can’t be bothered, are parents who care so preciously about their own little princes and princesses. They really have to think about all kids a little – and teach their kids to do so too. How else are those kids going to be good parent – or teachers?

Because Spacebar is Strict

Here is last week's column :) in Mid-day about the price of your soul.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Modesty of Outrage

My column which appeared in Mid-day today. I'm not linking to the website because they made a mistake and added a line from Devdutt Pattanaik's column to the end of mine, which sort of creates a misreading of the whole piece!


On August 3 Vibhuti Narain Rai resigned from the Jnanpith Selection Committee. Rai, a novelist, former IPS officer and VC of Wardha Hindi University created a brouhaha with his sexist remarks to Naya Gyanodaya magazine, roughly reported in the press as: “women writers in Hindi are in a race to prove who is the greater prostitute” and the entire “feminist discourse has been reduced to one about the body by over-rated, over-promoted women writers.”

The permanently hyperventilating press sought and received counter-remarks, petitions were drafted and Rai resigned. The truth triumphed? I wonder.

The tone of many reactions was strikingly similar to Rai’s own remarks. How dare he insult women writers by calling them prostitutes! If we think this is an insult, then, aren’t we subscribing to the same dessicated notions of purity or respectability we claim to condemn? A famous writer said: “being an IPS officer he is talking like a constable!” So constables are automatically crude, uninformed and jungli, while IPS officers are of a better, er, class? What sort of arguments are these?

VN Rai is not your average bigot. He’s a well-regarded writer, especially for his novel Sheher Mein Curfew, which looks at pro-Hindutva communalization of the police. So, given this, I assume the first thing you’d do is read his original interview, rather than rely on the fragments quoted by our media, world famous though it is for accuracy, sincerity and non-sensationalism. Or wouldn’t you?

If you did, you’d see that his interview is a complex performance of paternalism. On the one hand he acknowledges that a male dominated society, unable to stomach women’s sexual freedom or personal choices, brands them ‘bewafa’ or loose (in fact he uses “chhinal” meaning slut, not prostitute). He defends people’s right to choose their own type of relationships – although he feels gender equality is needed for this to be meaningful. He then uses this argument – of others’ regressiveness – as a reason for women to observe limits and to ‘lift’ feminist writing above trivial matters like sexuality, advocating a trickle down effect of sorts – after 500 years when men are enlightened, women can be completely free. Till then we must be economically and intellectually independent but “dignified”.

This patronising legislation of sexual freedom, couched in claims of feminist concern is the oldest line in the conservative game. Huge energy – from honour killings to beauty codes to ostracism of “slutty” behaviour (anything not Main Tulsi Tera Aangan Ki trademark) – goes into preventing women’s sexual freedom. I wouldn’t say any discussion of pleasure, desire and the female body is trivial in this context. Without rebellions, we’ve seen, there has been no change. Revolution is not a modest business. As for this hierarchy, where matters of “the world” are politically superior to personal life – get over it. Those who would have us behave modestly in return for other rights are certainly not as bad as those who want to slap us for going to a pub, but they are at least second cousins.

But censorship, banning, and shutting people up are ineffectual primitive acts - they stem from outrage and end only in outrage. The real battle is changing the terms of the debate through public discussion.

Sadly where are the spaces for this kind of public debate? Perhaps we will have to create them ourselves. The media, where ideas ought to be worked out with intelligence has reduced itself to a theatre of exclamations in which we have but modest roles of outrage. In the absence of dialogue, we can only display stock postures and loud poses – like we are acting in a silent film about the freedom of expression.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I'm lame like that

Yeah it's kind of sad, that I have to pretend to update my blog by changing the template - to whom am I pretending? What do you call this sort of lameness? Thanks but that was a rhetorical question...

Anyway, all the un-posted Mid day columns. Along with the resolve that one day soon a post will be only for the blog (to whom am I making these promises. sigh...)

An ode to mmmm-mithun, which has proved to be a v. popular column which shows how much people love him... and that everything is not about being a rich girl with a 2 crore clothes budget or chiknu boys with waxed chests (SRK not included)

And a complaint about said folks who have gone missing

And maybe in New York-London-Tokyo they discuss the weather, but in Bombay we kinda talk about the traffic

Ok that's a month's worth but my excuse must be that I have been working hard and traveling - last to Japan - about which something some day.

This will not happen again (she promises herself).

After all tomorrow's another Sunday.

Monday, June 28, 2010

and it's still raining, though not stories

Mid-day column for the last two weeks... it comes to an end soon - and the sub-editor is showing this by giving the last one a title they used for an earlier column already! Perhaps I should ask for that job...

My friend P called up annoyed one day, scolding me for using a word she did not understand (au courant and pulchritude). I felt this was a good way for her to learn new words - but maybe the sub also does not understand some words and feels fed up and decided - yeh tou generally against normalcy type of character hai, so when in doubt let's just title the column Out of the Box.


Last Sunday's on Not Having The Number

Meanwhile here in Berlin it is summer.

People have put TV sets out on the pavement and were watching the match on the street with beer in hand.

I was told that if Germany lost the match yesterday, against Englad, there would be big, grown men walking down the streets clutching their heads in despair, gathering in street corners crying.

I was looking forward to it.

Instead they won, and car horns tooted, people walked around hooting and calling out German slogans which I mercifully did not understand, trailing cloaks of German flags. Nicole cringed while I was rather wide eyed and interested. When I said to her, come on, it's not so bad, she said: would you walk around on the streets of India with the Indian flag painted on your face? Hmm??

I was silenced and resumed chopping sweet peppers for the eggs, accepting my womanly position in life, even in sunny Berlin where roses bloom shameless on the streets and men go out on the rampage because "their team" won at football.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Love and Rain

I used to think writing a column is like a little craft exercise - each time I've written one, I set myself a different writing task and try to keep at it. I find I get good at one thing - but often it becomes a kind of vice, a tic if I'm not careful.

Here are my last three Mid-day Columns

Now I realise it is more like being a different part of your personality - as today I went looking for a very old column I wrote for Mumbai Mirror in 2005. One could argue that that's life anyway, trying on a different part of your personality in different phases of your life...anyway the search for the column was prompted by the weather which has been promisingly cloudy but which refuses to rain..


After the exalted sweaty suffering, when it rained last weekend, what could be better than to pile into a rickshaw and head to Sea View on Juhu beach for Sunday Brunch?

The rickshaw is not yet rexin curtain-ready for the rains so I reach with one pant leg wet. But Imran, my friend’s four-year old son, is with us and we are too excited to care. Imran and I have a Bunty and Bubli thing going, as I’ve had to babysit occasionally and due to a complete poverty of wholesome ideas, have resorted to corrupt practices – like film song and dance routines. I say, ok Bunty we’ve reached and he says, ok Bubli, that’s good. We’re a restrained twosome.

Sea View is without contest the best hang out in the suburbs, a verandah café so true to its name it makes you want to call your daughter Lakshmi. Its has the best view of the beach, friendly crows and English breakfasts.

But. No eggs, though it’s 11 a.m. “It’s because of the rains.” I try to solve the zoological riddle here but the waiter takes pity on my foolish expression. “ The eggs come from Dadar no, but first day of rain, so truck is delayed.” When will it reach we ask in dismay? “It has left, that’s what they are saying. Let’s see.” Welcome monsoon. Due to my fear of authority I don’t ask the uniformed waiter why he can’t get some eggs from the kirana shop at the corner for us old customers.

Anyway, driven mad by our hungry fantasies, we greedily order everything but the eggs. We eat quantities of very greasy bacon and very buttery toast and soon enough, feel heartily sick.

The rain stops and the city is a distant spectre in the mist. The clouds paper over the sky and the beach is full of people and vendors roaming around in a timeless light which flattens colours, makes them mute. Even the purple of the yo-yo we buy, with its shocking pink tinsel stars and green plastic cockroach floating inside is subdued.

I am sure as we head home all sticky, that the egg truck will have just crossed us. No matter. On Monday morning I call the Jain kirana store and order one dozen baida – they don’t keep but they will get – like good Bombay shopkeepers. I hang the yo-yo from a dead plant on my window-sill where it wobbles like a bad dancer in the wind. Monday sounds drift up - the 7 a.m., 1 p.m and 4 p.m Jana Gana Mana of three mournful shifts of students on the first day of school.

For some the rain brings homework; for some, fried eggs.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Continuing Paro-normalcy

My column today on burqua brouhahahas

And last week on discussions about politics

They persist in giving the dullest titles to the pieces - I'd like to think of good ones myself but mostly I'm just frantically screeching to a deadline.

And anyway I'm sure they'd change it instantly from my frivolous ones to these extremely NCERT type ones.

It's a losing game - if you write about political ideas (because it's not about politics as such the column) then people immediately become solemn and stodgy - and here you are trying to mix it up some and hoping to re-invest the discussion with some energy in your modest way.

Maybe I'm delusional and the title writer is right. In which case it's a good thing I only have another 7 columns to go before we're done...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

paro-normal Activity - 2

The bad thing about writing a column - you're constantly stressed out about what you'll write about.

The good thing - you don' t have to be stressed about updating your blog. You can just link to

It's a good thing they rename the columns as the last one (now called Out of the Box) was formerly called Sex Sex Sex. It's my impression that columnists do not have to be like, imaginative.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Paro-normal Activity - 1

I've started writing a column in Sunday Mid-day. It's weekly. My flirtation with commitment you could say. It's a general opinion column so can be about anything.

Here's the first one, appeared Sunday April 18 and it's sort of about

Saturday, February 20, 2010

dil toot gaya deewana - so let's do the twist

My grandparents were both in the movies - but very differently. While my grandfather was very famous and is still remembered as an important part of film history, my grandmother is not someone people know of, nor did she do anything that anyone felt must definitely be noted. To a certain extent not even her own family.

She acted in some films until the early 40s and subsequently became a producer, making about 6 films, the last in the 60s.

By the time I came on the scene, she was just my somewhat glamorous and unconventional grandmother who had a cupboard full of wonderful saris and a painted tin box full of internationally acquired handkerchiefs - but more on that cupboard some other time. She played cards each afternoon, and the glowing colours of her plastic counters: pomegranate juice red, emerald green, the yellow of dal barfi, numbers written on them like varq on barfi in fact, seemed to be part of her very kaleidoscopic presence. Other ladies would come to play cards too - producer's wives or mistresses, all in wafting saris, waves of perfume surrounding them like a mysterious force field of adulthood. This was a serious affair, performed every afternoon with ceremony and punctuality.

Perhaps this is why I thought this was my grandmum's work and the counters translated directly into the treasure of loose change that sat on a silver thali in her cupboard (which I freely stole for purposes like buying ber and renting Richie Rich comics from Sarvodya which was in those days just a little lending library on the side of the shop which is today its DVD empire)
It did not occur to me that there may have been another life  - why would it? When you are five you don't really question how things are, unless they aren't the way they are in your house! As a result I never asked much about her past and the things she'd done. Now it's not so easy to try and understand what the things she did meant to her precisely, nor to see their context or their impact on the context
I periodically try to find things about her online - searches rarely turn up much. In fact often if I google her name I get tons of hits for my grandfather. She is not known for anything historic - not even for being his wife, as they separated when my mum was 9. Her company Variety Pictures - I wonder whether it's still registered - who owns the rights to the films, where the prints are...was just one of many companies I suppose.

And then tonight, one of those nights when I can't sleep because I have so much to do but feel too paralysed to do it, I did a random search and found a song from a movie Nani produced: Shreeman Funtoosh. Apparently my mum and her cohorts (all kids in the family) would be shown the films on completion as a home grown market research method, to gauge potential audience response - the char anna class as they said. On seeing this supposedly science fiction narrative, they assertively declared that this was jolly good film that was going to be a jolly big hit. It not only bombed, it bankrupted my grandmother and she did not produce a film again. 

However one song in the film was a big hit - yeh dard bhara afsana. It came often on Vividh Bharati - especially on Bela ke Phool and Bhoole Bisre Geet type programs. I was shocked to discover some time later that it was ACTUALLY from a film of Nani's. I mean, it seemed too seriously out there in the world, somehow indicating that the ordinary routines of the house - where my grandmother drank whisky and ordered about 8 things to be cooked for each meal, and I lay about reading comics, were not as reassuringly solid, definitely not the only reality there was. As if she could turn around and say "I could have been a contender."

However, this is not what she said. Rather, everytime the song played my grandmother would snort and say - there's that 64,000 rupee song (that was the budget of the film).
The song picturisation itself I believe is quite impressive. To declare heartbreak while all who are around you do the twist, other than showing panache, suddenly highlights the basically stoical nature of this particular dance form. It is worth each one of those 64,000 rupees to me, even if these are only presented to me in jewel coloured card counters.
It won't upload but you can watch it here:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


After a saga and a half and rather too much fullness of time, finally, a website is up. I have no idea why it does not show up in Google searches, but it doesn't. Does anyone know why? I mean it's been up for a couple weeks already. Anyway, here it is:

Times change alright....