Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Sarojben matters more than Jashodaben...

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
                     Why Sarojben matters more than Jashodaben…
Who on earth is Sarojben? Let me call her ‘Everywoman or Everyben’. I have known Sarojben for over thirty years. We meet just twice or thrice annually, but you know what? We KNOW each other. There is a level of mutual ‘pehchaan’ that goes beyond just meeting regularly.  In any case, isn’t it true that one can meet a person every single day…. even share ones life with someone… and yet know nothing about him or her? Nothing of any consequence, that is. My friend Saroj lives in a village  outside Amdavad. But her strenuous work takes her across India…. and straight into some of the most exclusive mansions.  Saroj is by far the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to textiles and embroideries, craft skills and artisanal excellence. She has impeccable taste and an eye for beauty… for detail… that would be the envy of highly qualified curators and experts.  But, get this - Saroj is unambiguously poor and technically illiterate.Though, to me she is one of the ‘richest’ and most ‘educated’ people I know. She travels from city to city carrying heavy loads in gigantic canvas bags that are stuffed with antique textiles, old borders, frayed  shawls, embroidered blouses, ancient Garas, faded pichwais… and occasionally, a few brass objets she has chanced upon, carelessly discarded by  rich patrons who now prefer to show off their Lladros and Laliques. It’s a hard, spartan life . But the wiry, fine boned Saroj has no complaints. I have seen her battling a serious illness herself …raising funds… borrowing money  and paying absurd interest rates, to try and save her young daughter-in-law’s life ( the girl didn’t make it). Through all these travails, Saroj has hung on to her sanity, sense of  humour and strength. An incredible amount of strength. Yes, there is a husband somewhere in the picture. Plus, a couple of sons, too. But it is a Saroj show all the way – and it is Saroj who provides for the family, grand children included.
Has Modi’s decade long sarkar  impacted her life in any way? Enhanced and influenced it? Is her village taking advantage of  all those programmes one keeps hearing about? Has she experienced the much touted ‘progress’ in her State? Benefitted from even a single scheme? Is Saroj aware of the several women’s empowerment  initiatives? Does she have proper latrines, sanitation, clean drinking water at home? Nope,to all the above...but she isn’t one to moan and groan about these lapses. She is a highly intelligent woman, who has managed to survive using her robust common sense and sharp wits. Today, she is able to Whatsapp images of  her finds – gorgeous Patolas and Tanchois, rare Pichwais and slightly worn out  Jamewars. She has taught herself to store numbers in her cell phone and operate a bank account. But her life remains as challenging and arduous as it was when she first began taking her treasures from home to home and managing  her precarious finances on the meager margins from those sales. She knows she has been ruthlessly exploited by wealthy patrons who have paid her a pittance… or not paid at all! She knows some of those fancy ladies have taken credit for locating and supporting those very weavers she has painstakingly discovered, travelling on foot from village to village looking for something precious and exquisite . Saroj is philosophical and wise. She shrugs it all away as a part of life. And bears zero ill will towards those who refuse to give her her due while basking in all the  glory themselves.
I asked her whether she was excited at the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister of India. Saroj laughed and asked me a counter question : “ If he didn’t bother about me as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, do you really think he will care about people like us once he goes to Delhi?” Her response made me think about Jashodaben. How different has her life been from Saroj’s? I’d say both women were sailing in the same boat. With one key difference. Saroj managed to rise above her adverse conditions and make something of her life through diligence and hard work. Who knows? Maybe Jashodaben’s fortunes are about to change overnight, now that she has been officially recognized as Narendra Modi’s legally wedded wife?

Life plays strange games with us. Those who make their own rules and stay afloat despite tremendous odds, are the hardy survivors who believe in keeping their heads down and getting on with the job. Like Saroj. There is so much to learn from this wonderful woman. I feel so privileged to call her my friend.
This apeeared in Asian Age...
               Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party…
“We cannot stop loose motions by wearing tight briefs”, reads Shri S.S. Radhakrishnan’s eloquent poster. He is an Independent candidate from South Chennai, and wants to drive home his message in vivid, alarmingly graphic terms. Fair enough. I admire his courage of conviction. This is his way of  registering a strong protest against corruption -  unique and yucky as it might be! I don’t know this worthy gentleman (I found his priceless poster on Facebook). Chances are he’ll lose his deposit. But the man has to be admired for putting himself on the line and doing the right thing by his own personal definitions. In the same city, art impresario Sharan Apparao chose to make her own, equally unique political statement  at a high profile fashion event , when she sported glittering earrings bearing the images of Amma Jayalalitha and her patron, the late MGR.  Whether or not Ms. Apparao was doing so with her tongue firmly tucked into her cheek, her bold declaration had the chattering classes… well, chattering some more! If Sharon was indeed wearing her loyalty to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on her ear lobes, let’s just say besotted fans are capable of anything when it comes to worshipping their icons. And more power to Sharon for putting it out there.
The larger question is : Should high profile individuals reveal their political affiliations or not?Right now, Bollywood personalities are divided on this issue, when they really ought not to be. This week, an initiative spearheaded by Anjum Rajabali, a screen writer, urging his film fraternity to vote for a secular party was signed by several stars who agreed with Rajabali that “ the need of the hour is to protect our country’s secular foundation.” Those who came on board included Mahesh Bhatt and Nandita Das. While Madhur Bhandarkar and Anupam Kher  voiced their dissent. Mukesh Bhatt pointed out that the film industry has always been ‘apolitical’ and that’s how it should remain. Really? Apolitical? Since when? Not true. The film industry in Mumbai has always had to kow- tow to and play ball with political parties – local and national. Given the somewhat dodgy nature of the movie business, political parties have consistently  made strenuous efforts to muscle into ‘managing’ Bollywood. Whether it was the Shiv Sena offering protection against underworld threats years ago, or the Congress  getting directly involved in Sanjay Dutt’s contentious criminal past,  the close relationship between the movie and political world  has always existed. Down South, there is a long history of  politicians-mega stars exerting a powerful influence over voters. So, what are we talking about? If a Rajnikant invites Narendra Modi to  a well-timed tea party and the pictures are flashed across India, what does it actually mean – two ‘friends’ sipping chai innocuously? That’s it?If  Salim Khan,Salman Khan’s father, meets and greets BJP leaders, is he doing so without knowing the wider implications of  that encounter?  Let’s drop the charade and double speak for once. It is perfectly okay to  declare where you stand. You must! It is also imperative to stick your neck out and take a position.  If not now, then when? About time we  as a nation , showed some guts and stopped cowering at the prospect of being hounded and harassed by leaders we may have moral issues with and  perhaps, openly criticised. India is not North Korea. At least, not yet. India is not China (ditto). Correct me if I am wrong, but when I last checked, we were still a functioning democracy. So what the hell is wrong if one guy in Bollywood sends out an email to 350 colleagues and 60 of them sign the appeal for a ‘secular India’? Have these people committed a crime? Broken a law? Even assuming Anjum is a  closet Congresswallah pretending to be neutral – so what? Is the content of his appeal abusive or derogatory? No, it isn’t. Is it rational and sane? Yes, it is. If anybody wishes to read between the lines, go right ahead . If someone thinks it’s a direct pitch to vote for the  Congress party, again, that’s not a sin.  So…what is all the fuss about?
I’ll tell you: No matter what Narendra Modi claims in television interviews about not being ‘vindictive’ if he comes to power, nobody believes him. Nobody wants to take that chance. Most people think twice, thrice, a hundred times, before saying anything critical about Modi. They quake  at the prospect of Modi going after them if he wins.  This kind of fear psychosis is not good for a nation. In fact, it is a terrible indictment. Why should any Indian live in fear? Of retribution ? Of speaking up? But, that awful fear exists! It is real… and it says a lot about what’s happening in the country. There is paranoia and that paranoia is pretty justified given what we have observed during the past few years. There are open threats being issued of throwing people into prison. Or of releasing those who are in prison.  There is no mention of following the law of the land. How can Bollywood remain detached and uninvolved? Why should it? Why should ANYONE?
Going by what happens in Hollywood and how openly top stars back and even campaign for the candidates they support, why can’t we be equally upfront about our political loyalties? Revenge and retribution are scary words. It’s a shame they have found acceptance across the board… and with good reason. The people of India fear the wrath of  Narendra Modi. A great leader only succeeds when the people of the country respect the person… trust him or her with their lives. When those very lives are threatened, when that precious bond of  faith is broken, what one gets is a country under siege . Nothing suits India’s enemies better than an India that is terrified of  itself.
As for me, I am definitely looking for tighter briefs. Much tighter!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday... it's a good time to forgive and forget...

At the KIMS Usha Lakshmi Centre for Breast Diseases, Hyderabad, with the founder, eminent doctor and great humanitarian, Dr. P.Raghuram, possibly the only doctor in India with four FRCS degrees. Proud to be the patron of this wonderful initiative.
Yash Birla's moving and truthful book is doing very well , I am happy to report. If in Mumbai, do come to the launch...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

'Baby Doll'' Sunny Leone...

This appeared in The Week...
                     India comes of age with ‘Baby Doll’ Sunny Leone…
Appropriately enough, I am writing this on All Fools’ Day! And in front of me is a copy of a popular fanzine featuring ‘Baby Doll’ Sunny Leone. It quotes her as stating, “I know that many people don’t like what I represent…” Shall we call that the understatement of the year? So… what DOES Sunny Leone represent? Bluntly put : sleaze. Sunny Leone’s extraordinary life is worth a film in itself. But right now, she is enjoying the success of her horror-erotic movie, ‘Ragini MMS 2’. I haven’t watched it so far. But going by the reviews, it is obvious Ms. Leone has a valid reason to celebrate. So does her canny producer, Ekta Kapoor. For those coming in late, Sunny Leone ( real name Karenjit kaur Vohra, born in 1981), an established adult film star in Canada, became known in India after she entered the Big Boss house. The publicity around her participation revolved around her chosen career –  Sunny  was identified as a ‘porn star’ . One of the hottest in the world! It is to her credit she didn’t hide her antecedents. She efficiently handled all the jibes and taunts that came her way during those early days, with dignity and poise. That Sunny was a married woman came as a surprise to puritanical critics. That her husband, Daniel Weber , was also her manager, knocked the socks off those who had already branded her easy game. So much for pre-conceived ideas and hasty judgements. I also plead guilty!
Today, when I watch Sunny going about those incredibly tedious promotional activities for her film, I marvel at her tenacity. It couldn’t have been easy getting a toehold into tightly controlled Bollywood circles for a woman who is seen as an ‘outsider’ (the annoying outsider-insider dilemma is not restricted to politics alone). Credit must be given to Ekta Kapoor as well to have the vision and guts to cast Sunny in such a pivotal role. Of course, Ekta being one of the shrewdest players in the movie business, coolly extracted  her pound of flesh ( why not?), by heavily focusing on the erotic content of  Sunny’s debut movie in all the tantalizing promos. A less daring producer might have tested the waters by casting Sunny in a multi-starrer, or by getting her to perform a sizzling ‘item song’. Characteristically enough, Ekta boldly went the whole hog and presented Sunny with a solo vehicle that – surprise, surprise – did indeed involve a bit of acting. Just a wee bit. But what the hell.The movie could easily have been a shamelessly voyeuristic sleaze fest, with heavy duty moaning and groaning and little else.But Ekta actually bothered to provide a fig leaf of a story line and projected Sunny Leone as a bona fide star.This was a master stroke – an inspired brain wave. And given the lopsided logic of the movie business, if the film is a hit, nothing else matters. Least of all the heroine’s past.
Let’s see what happens to Sunny now. She talks about shuttling between her home in L.A. and her work in Mumbai. She definitely does not talk about going back to her old job as an adult film actress. One guesses those days are over. Her manager/husband of six years is very much around, and was last seen playing Holi with the Bollywood crowd. Given the status of the Balaji banner Sunny has been launched by, she can afford to sit tight and wait for other assignments, now that her movie has been declared a commercial success. That Sunny found audience acceptance in a country like India, is again very telling. Ten years ago, someone like Sunny would have been mocked and attacked by the hypocritical film industry itself. It would only have been producers of C-Grade ‘blue’ films who would have pursued her. Today, Sunny can walk with her head held high alongside any of the other newbie actresses, and demand the same level of privileges ( a fancy vanity van to call her own). Whether or not she’ll be able to sustain her current level of success remains to be seen. But the fact that she broke through the invisible cordon that makes most of  us pre-judge persons who choose a different career path, must be acknowledged. India has sure come a long way, it must also be said. If there is space in our hearts and minds for a Sunny Leone, there is hope for us.

And yes – boo to you, Muthalik!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

We, the women of India demand...

This appeared in Gulf News....
                The Aam Aurat speaks … We, the women of  India demand…
It’s time to talk turkey. A bit late in the day, perhaps. But if not now, then when?The formidable female vote in India has led to the coining of a new word : Femocracy. Sounds fanciful at this point, but believe me, any politician foolish enough to ignore women and exclude them from the political narrative, is in for trouble. After centuries of being treated like she didn’t exist, the Aam Aurat in India has suddenly established her presence at the polls. From being ignored to getting courted, it has indeed been a long journey. Today, this aam aurat is raising her voice and asking to heard. Those who plug their ears and shut their eyes hoping she’ll go away, do so at their own peril. This woman isn’t budging. She’s not going away. And what’s more, she is winning the lop- sided war finally. The struggle to get here has been long and arduous. It would have been even longer and still more arduous but for one single defining moment that altered the scenario… perhaps, forever. That moment happens to be tragic in the extreme. A hefty price was paid for it. Let’s call it the Nirbhaya Moment. Everything changed in an instant, as soon as gory details behind the shocking rape became public. Nobody can fully explain why this particular rape became the pivotal point around which thousands of citizens rallied, given India’s terrible track record ( 3 rapes every hour!). But the spontaneous outpouring of outrage and grief that New Delhi witnessed in the aftermath of the brutal crime, is something that nobody could have anticipated… and nobody can afford to forget. Least of all the arrogant political class, Even after the streets of Delhi had been virtually taken over by angry citizens demanding justice for the victim, the aloof Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, refused to climb down from her high horse and meet the protestors. This level of callousness proved to be Dixit’s nemesis and the last straw for the enraged public. It underlined once again how marginalised women were in the overall scheme of things. Women simply did not matter.  Women did not count. Their safety, their lives, their existence – none of this mattered to the ruling class.
Now it does.
Arvind Kejriwal replaced Sheila Dixit as the newly minted messiah of the masses.It’s another matter that he didn’t last more than 49 days in his job. But even Team Kejriwal had to acknowledge the role played by women voters who backed him and formed his main constituency during the local elections. It was indeed the precious female vote that propelled Kejriwal to victory and made a cult hero out of him. It’s therefore, a big shame that Kejriwal has failed to cash in on this overwhelming wave of female support. Today, this key constituency of energized women is bewildered and let down by the one leader who they thought would root for them and be solidly on their side, come general elections. Instead,  Kejriwal short sightedly lost that early advantage when he endorsed khap panchayats ( thereby indirectly condoning horrific honour killings), by providing what he called a ‘cultural context’ to this medieval and illegal method of delivering instant justice.
Fighting well entrenched social practices in a patriarchal society is never easy, and it’s possible Kejriwal preferred to cop out rather than stick his neck out. But he has paid a huge price for back tracking. Women are in no mood to support him in the same numbers or with as much enthusiasm. The troubling question still remains : if not Kejriwal, then who? Where is that champion we seek? Can we expect anything better from Narendra Modi of  the 56” chest? A Prime Ministerial candidate, no less, who has famously claimed his single status makes him less prone to corruption? That should apply equally to Bachelor Boy Rahul Gandhi at 43, who coyly admitted he’d marry when he found the ‘right girl’. But at least Rahul redeemed himself a little when he kept repeating his ‘women’s empowerment’ mantra like a parrot during ‘the interview’ with Arnab Goswami. It’s a good mantra, but it would help if  Rahul spelt out what exactly he proposed to do for women if his tattered party managed to grab power. On the other hand, the indifference of the three power ladies ( Mamata, Mayawati and Jayalalitha)  isfar more disappointing. Not a squeak has come out from their respective mouths to suggest they are even thinking about the welfare of their own tribe. So, we have a Didi, Amma and Behenji jostling for position, nursing high hopes of occupying the prime ministerial seat, but keeping mum on  critical women’s issues. So much for sisterhood.
 This is a pretty awful home truth to digest. In real terms it means just one thing – nothing is likely to change for the women of India, regardless of which party cobbles the next government together. Every leader is hanging on to the status quo and concentrating on vote bank politics at the expense of everything else. The Aam Aurat is being left out in the cold once more. But wait a minute – the political class may not have changed its foul mind set, but the women of the country certainly have altered their position. They will no longer lie back and enjoy it, metaphorically or literally speaking. With 23 dowry deaths per day, their very lives are at stake. With females being snuffed out in the mother’s womb, their survival is under threat. Yet, despite daunting odds, the women of India are not just managing to stay alive, they are thriving and flourishing like never before and across varied fields. They are excelling in professional areas that were denied to them for decades. Today, driving through Mumbai, you are likely to see an impressive number of policewomen patrolling the streets. Take a commercial flight in India, and every so often the captain of the big bird is a woman. 10 of our largest banks are headed by women. Bollywood divas today are bringing in the big bucks at the box office. Several media empires are owned and run by women.  Change is in the air. The only idiots who haven’t noticed are our netas. Too bad for them. Without a coherent narrative for women in place, their political agendas remain half complete. If women are stridently demanding equality, opportunity, safety, security and overall progress, it is their absolute right to do so. And, mark my words, they will eventually get it all.

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest game changers in Elections 2014, will be women. It’s time for politicians across the board to wake up and smell the perfume!  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Meera Sanyal; Jhaaduwali ex-banker

 What a superb initiative! I spent two afternoons at the Made in Pakistan Expo at the World Trade Centre.... and was delighted to see the enthusiastic response from eager Mumbaikars grabbing all those gorgeous Gul Ahmed lawns and Khadi outfits. There was just one stall selling onyx objets... and I bought my daughter two lovely tables.  If only we had more such exchanges! What's more, there was delicious Pakistani food , too!
This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....
                                Why I feel a li’l worried for Meera Sanyal…
Let’s face it, SOBO generates very mixed feelings , not just in the rest of Mumbai, but across India. South Mumbai does exude a very specific vibe – you either get it… are a part of it… or you don’t. Meera Sanyal, the polished, sophisticated, well-educated banker , with declared assets of 50 crores, is  very SOBO. She is also the AAP candidate from South Mumbai. Meera really ought to be ‘the one’ most likely to win from this elite constituency, given her impressive credentials. But will she?  It is assumed that ‘People Like Us’ will vote for ‘People Like Her.” Let’s forget what happened during the last elections – Meera was a late lateef candidate, and a total novice at the time. Well, she has had four long years to think about her future in politics, and it is obvious, she has bravely made that incredible leap of faith. Meera has taken the plunge, for better or worse. She contested (and lost) as an independent candidate in 2008. This time she has picked up the gauntlet (and jhadoo), donned the AAP topi, and is giving it her best shot. A lot has changed in the interim. We are living in an era of  Boti Kebab politics. There are no issues in this election. Just personalities and dirty tricks. So, what is a SOBO memsaab supposed to do to impress voters?
Four years  ago, I has accompanied Meera to the Ganesh Murti Nagar, along with a rag tag army of supporters. It was quite an experience.There was  Meera going from door to door trying to engage residents in a meaningful dialogue. Her language skills in Marathi were pretty poor at the time, and it was obvious she was not going to win.Today, Meera is far better equipped ( she has worked hard on her Hindi and Marathi). But Meera is still Meera – a fancy Memsaab in their eyes – a rich lady in whose home, perhaps some of them work as domestics. There is no getting away from that. And to Meera’s credit, she too isn’t running away from addressing their concerns about her refined background . Instead, she is telling them how she could use her elevated position and considerable skill sets to help them improve their lives. The biggest challenge  till today, remains the scarcity of  water in the area.Women complain they are forced to pay anything between 500 to  5000 rupees a month to buy water in the black market! How can someone like a Meera Sanyal fully grasp the enormity of the crisis, they ask anxiously. “A lady who probably drinks only mineral water at home, will never understand our problem ”, they sigh. It is the lack of  latrines in this over- crowded, filthy bustee that voters feel most strongly about. They really don’t give a damn about anything else.  Give us latrines and water, and we’ll give you our vote, they emphasise. Rightly so.
And this is where I feel concerned. Why should Meera’s  SOBO identity or her upper class background work against her? The fault isn’t Meera’s ( her sincerity cannot be doubted) . The fault is with the rest of us who live in SOBO. Those who talk endlessly about the ‘right’ people getting into Parliament, but refuse to line up with the aam janata on election day to cast  a vote. We expect Meera to do our dirty work for us, because we don’t want to do it ourselves. We say we’re sick of  thugs, sick of corruption, sick of  unaccountability in public life, sick of just about everything around us.  But we definitely don’t want to budge from our comfortable homes. Meera has had the guts to jump into the fray. If voters refuse to look beyond her posh appearance, it is not her fault! At least Meera is being herself and not donning deliberately dressed down, crumpled sarees ‘so as to identify with the hoi polloi.” That is patronizing, condescending, hypocritical and downright insulting. The only way for Meera to win – if not this election, than the next – is to win the confidence of her constituency - to prove to her voters she means business and is capable of getting basics in place for them. Basics!
Like a Congress volunteer sniggered, “ Why waste time on high flying, high rise wallahs? Milind doesn’t bother about them. He’s smart. He knows they don’t vote. He focuses on keeping the slum dwellers happy – Congress style! Meera Sanyal should learn from him.”

 Really? Should she??

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

India's Mood Swings - Elections 2014

Someone really kind and sweet , sent this for me. Thank you, Rama!
This appeared in Asian Age...
                           India’s mood swings…Elections 2014
Simon Denyer, the former India Bureau chief of the Washington Post, has published a book titled ‘Rogue Elephant’. In an interview he claimed he was very optimistic about India, underlining what makes India a better nation than its main rival, China. “ I believe democracy is what makes India great.” Given the importance Indians give to opinions expressed by foreigners ( read: Western press), don’t be surprised if  Denyer’s quotes are liberally used by political parties of varied hues, to push their agendas as D-Day ( 7th April) rolls up. With less than a month to go before this rogue elephant goes to the polls, the mood of the moment is decidedly devilish. The voter can identify more villains than heroes in the wide open field, and that is hardly comforting! With just one certainty  in place ( If the BJP gets its calculations right and forms the next government at the Centre, Narendra Modi will become the Prime Minister of India) , there is enough ammunition / provocation built into that reality to make several citizens nervous. More than India’s citizens,such an eventuality is making our neighbours jittery.  Understandably so.During an invigorating panel discussion at the Lahore Lit Fest in February, several questions were built around the Modi Effect. Audience anxiety was palpable as concerned Pakistanis expressed their fears for the future of Muslims in India. I wanted to reassure them that if Modi does indeed become Prime Minister ( and let me state at this crucial juncture that I have been a very vocal critic of Modi ), he will go out of his way to placate India’s Muslim population that makes up a good 15 % ( approximately) of  our 1.3 billion people. Not because he has had a dramatic change of heart. He will do so because he is one of the shrewdest politicians in the world right now.  Modi is ambitious enough to seek a place in history books -  a place that shows him in a good light. He is also astute enough to realize how important it is for him to undo the past, or at any rate, pretend to do so. He has to make amends, in order to lead the country. Modi may never ever be in a position to obliterate Godhra from public memory and debate, but given the chance to head the next government, he will need to prove his secular credentials convincingly and emphatically. Especially when it comes to America – a country that has yet to grant Modi a visa. This should come as a great relief to those who believe Modi will suppress and oppress India’s minorities. No Sir, he won’t! There is far too much at stake. And as Prime Minister, Modi will go flat out to overturn his old reputation.  More than anything else, Modi now wants to position himself as a global player.  In order to achieve that objective, he will have to woo world leaders. And the best way to woo them is via commerce. Investments. Money. Trade. Commerce does not go well with hate politics. Muslims will be safer and far better off  in Modi’s India than with anybody else.
The ‘anybody else’ in this case is Rahul Gandhi. A well meaning gentleman not known for his intellectual prowess.And certainly not equipped to lead India. It seems apparent each time one encounters key Congresswallas, that the old party has conceded defeat before a single vote has been cast.  Denyer had accurately described Manmohan Singh as a ‘silent but tragic’ figure. With Singh having diminished himself in such an embarrassing fashion, that leaves just Rahul and his mama Sonia, to soldier on valiantly to try and save the party’s tattered image. This, while senior party colleagues make zero attempt to conceal their resigned and vanquished attitude. Perhaps the fatigue of fighting corruption charges on all fronts is finally catching up with Congress party stalwarts and their corporate cronies. This eyes-wide-open response to corruption is a big first in a country that has passively and patiently looked the other way during UPA’s brazen misrule . Today, we can take pride in the fact that India’s vigilant judiciary (and not the army) is calling the shots. There is finally a glimmer of hope that justice does exists in this 66 year-old bumbling democracy. Big guns who’d enjoyed immunity and protection for decades are being systematically reined in by alert law makers. Some of India’s well entrenched sacred cows are being openly targeted by the likes of  ‘anarchist’ Arvind Kejriwal. Nobody would have imagined that a person like Subrata Roy, who headed a ….. business empire, would actually be sent to Tihar Jail, where he is presently lodged, sharing a common criminal’s cell with .. other inmates. Kejriwal himself is not being spared by a vigilant media which had made a cult hero out of him just a few months ago. Participating in a vibrant debate in Kolkata recently, it was encouraging to note how energetically the informed and alert audience members grilled the panelists, throwing aggressive questions at everyone, including Salman Khurshid, India’s Minister for External Affairs, and the soft-spoken Yogendra Yadav, the Aam Aadmi Party representative.

This is democracy at its best. 50% of India is under the age of 30. These young people are impressed by just one word  – JOBS! Unemployment remains the single biggest issue for these restless, educated boys and girls. There are 70 lakh unemployed people right now. Whichever party manages to cobble the numbers together and form the next government, will need to factor in the frustrated youth of India into the political narrative on a priority basis. Regional parties playing up caste politics, will no doubt act  as the big spoilers at the polls. That is how it has always been in India’s political scenario.  But beyond narrow mindedness and bigotry, the biggest hope for citizens in Elections 2014 remains the robust economic potential of India. In the right hands, India could still get back its lost position as the world’s third most significant superpower. Forget meaningless debates about New Politics Vs. Old Politics. What India needs is GOOD politics – with zero tolerance shown towards corruption . I feel pretty upbeat we’ll get there soon.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thousand apologies....

Blogdosts. Hazaar apologies for the long absence.... My laptop was playing up.
 There is just soooooo much to post. But It is a Gudi Padwa weekend.... I have earned a break. And Alibag beckons yet again. Sooo.... more on my return anon...
This appeared in Economic Times.... there's one more and one more .... Mumbai Mirror and India Today....

                Khushwant Singh: A very nice man to know!
It takes guts to write the obituary of an extraordinary man who had made a name for himself writing other people’s far-from-flattering obituaries (“Why glorify the dead?” he’d asked) ! I had once done a piece on Khushwant Singh in which I had stated how glad I was that I hadn’t died before him! Assuming, of course, he’d have been inspired enough to acknowledge my death in the first place. Many were his contemporaries who shuddered at the thought of what he would say about them if they ‘left for their heavenly abodes’, before he did. Well, Khushwant outlived them all, but more than living to the grand total of 99, he stayed true to the old cliché – it’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that matters. And what a life it has been! I would call it an exceedingly charmed one. Khushwant was fortunate enough to have lived entirely on his own terms. His unfettered existence defined his iconoclastic brand of writing which attracted three generations of die hard fans. His columns provided an easy read for readers in search of  mental stimulation packaged neatly into 700 word capsules. His zest for life came through strongly in his work. His candid, no nonsense approach  found several admirers who recognized his rare ability to make the most of every moment… to use the priceless filter of humour …. and just get on with life. And get on with it, he did, till the very end… waking early and getting down to work. Behind the façade of a drunken profligate, a reckless philanderer ,  carelessly making his way through life as ‘the world’s most famous sardar’, was a diligent wordsmith who never skipped a deadline, a disciplined writer who put pen to paper every single day, a voracious reader with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, an incurable romantic who could recite exquisite Urdu verse… and of course, an unabashed lover of beauty. He made no secret of his admiration for a string of gorgeous ladies who were a part of his daily durbar. And they made no secret of their love for him. Did that make him a ‘Dirty Old Man’ ? Hell, no! Disappointingly enough, for all his bluster and blatant public flirting, Khushwant remained an ‘all talk, no action’ charmer. Which was also the reason why beautiful, lonely ladies felt so comfortable in his company. He  really didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. Oops! There goes myth number one. He was not a drunkard either, preferring to sip his single malt like a true connoisseur in a civilized, slow way before ordering an early dinner and going to bed… with a good book! Yes, he was a bird watcher. Literally so. He knew his birds and trees (bees too), like he knew his poets and scholars.  There was little he didn’t know about life…and that’s what made him such a sparkling conversationalist…. who didn’t want to be invited to his salon? From Ambassadors, Presidents, Prime Ministers, actors , dancers, writers and public intellectuals, everybody flocked to sit at Khushwant’s feet and be a part of his charmed circle.
Sometimes, I used to wonder whether Khushwant was deriving a secret thrill out of misleading people who’d made up their minds about him.  Given his wicked, irreverent sense of  humour, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Khushwant had written his own obituary, Khushwant –style! Now that would be a real literary masterstroke – and entirely in keeping with Khushwant’s attitude to his own genius. He could laugh at himself and he taught Indians to laugh at themselves… I think that is his biggest legacy, given how hyper sensitive we are about our foibles. About his supposed obsession with sex, Khushwant was upfront and candid when he admitted in an interview, “Every human being is obsessed by sex…. Every married person has fantasies about having sex outside marriage… some dare to go ahead and have affairs, others don’t .” Did he dare, he was cheekily asked by his ravishing female interviewer. For once, Khushwant Singh blushed before giving an uncharacteristically non-committal, coy answer. It didn’t surprise those who knew Khushwant well.  But for the rest, his well guarded secret had inadvertently tumbled out!

I get the feeling Khushwant Singh will be chuckling away somewhere, watching the tributes pouring in from across the country. We were the fortunate ones…. those of us who were lucky enough to have met him, worked with him ( we had collaborated on an anthology), sipped daaru in his Sujan Singh Park salon, broken bread with his formidably beautiful wife, heard him hold forth on a host of fascinating topics …and just basked in his presence.  His was a blessed life. And we, who shared bits and pieces of  the Khushwant magic, were blessed in return.
         India Today. Khushwant Singh                  
The Patiala Peg of Publishing is no more….
Funny. There are some individuals you imagine will live forever and ever. They become such an intrinsic part of your life, you start taking their existence entirely for granted…Khushwant Singh was one such individual. Three generations of avid readers greedily walloped every word he wrote for public consumption. And suddenly the one man word machine is gone!! The man in the light bulb just switched it off!!!
I am not going to write a gush-gush obit on a man who never wrote a gush- gush one himself! How can I…? And insult the great man himself? Khushwant Singh had almost single handedly raised irreverence to an art form, in a country that is singularly lacking in irony! Had he to write his own obit, he wouldn’t have spared himself. So here goes…. this one is for you, Khushwant… uncut and unsparing… just the way you would have liked it.
 Let me start by busting one or two popular myths. Come on, Singh, you were no Lothario. You didn’t  qualify as the Great Indian Lover. No way! You were not lecherous.  You didn’t grope. You were disappointingly well behaved! What the world did not know was that you probably suffered from low self worth. That much touted libido was all inside the turban. Your strike rate with all those lovely ladies in your durbar was verbal and non-intrusive. In that sense, you would never have had to ‘recuse’ or lacerate yourself. You, dear Khushwant, were an incurable romantic… mushy, sentimental and gullible. Women used you… your contacts … your influence, much more than you ever ‘used’ them. All you really ached for was to be surrounded by beauty… and lashings of female flattery… God was kind! You received both generously.
As a political commentator, you were far from astute. If anything, you were hopelessly naïve. In colloquial lingo, you were a ‘kaan ka kuchha’. People fed you stories… and you believed them. You were trusting enough of the Gandhi family, to blindly support all that they proposed and implemented, never once questioning their integrity. Your abject loyalty to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, during the notorious Emergency, cost you many fans. You lost credibility. But you refused to back down, obstinately defending the indefensible. This must have dismayed your contemporaries, who were far shrewder and  politically better aware during this sensitive period. Despite your embarrassing subjugation to the Gandhis, you found yourself in the political wilderness soon after. However, the single most impressive act you performed was by returning the Padma Vibhushan after Operation Bluestar. That took courage… and you won back the respect of several critics who had been alarmed by your Gandhi family fixation.
As a man of letters, you never did reach the heights that were expected of you. Your ‘Train to Pakistan’ remains a rather flimsy novel, that garnered attention at a time when there was no real literary competition. Most of the books that followed, made millionaires out of the publishers, but were essentially a packaging triumph – being compilations of your columns. However, nobody can take away your glory from ‘The History of the Sikhs’. This is by far your most significant contribution.
Your obsession with sex was again, a careful construct. You made a sweeping statement in an interview where you said every single human being in the world is obsessed by sex. It was a real gem of a “ Khushwantism”, and in keeping with the image you were trapped in – a bawdy, lecherous drunk! It was as brilliant as the other one – “ Nobody has yet invented a condom for the pen.”  Why you went along with this misleading positioning, we ‘ll never know. For those who love and adore you, insist nothing could be as far- fetched as that foolish branding .
Let’s talk about your branding. I wonder, were you a party to it! Or did it happen by default? Because, you know what, it may have sold zillions of books, but it did you enormous disservive. And you, dear Khushwant, were to the manor born. You were a rich man1 You didn’t need the money.And how many people know how generous you were with the royalties you received? Or how many favours you doled out each time you heard a sob story? How many people  know about  your mentoring young writers – some with merit, but most without? How many people were lucky enough to learn the nuts and bolts of magazine publishing under your dynamic stewardship? Not many. And this is my big shikayat against you, Khushwant Singh. You played up and played into all the wrong things, when you could have high lighted your many achievements and qualities. Your legendary generosity – of spirit… and… spirits… and more! And your blind trust in sycophants who flocked to your salon and took full advantage of your position.
Khushwant Singh….let’s face it, you were a sucker for praise, flattery, chamchagiri. Many great men fall into this very trap, much to the chagrin of their family members.  But what the hell – at least you lived your life Sardar size…. no regrets, no explanations, no apologies.
 Here’s to you, Khushwant Singh – the Patiala Peg of publishing is no more! But we will continue to raise our glasses and thank you for liberating  us from our  idiotic, hypocritical , fake, humourless lives… for making us laugh at ourselves… for ridding us of quaint sexual hang ups… for chucking old rules into the waste basket… for caring a damn! Jeena isi ka naam hai!
I am sure you are enjoying your evening Chhota right now… with at least half a dozen celestial apsaras fawning over you.Heaven just got sexier! Thank you, Khushwant Singh….

                  Why women loved Khushwant Singh….
Let’s be honest : Khushwant Singh was not a handsome man. He himself reminded the world about this unfortunate physical fact of life. So, it would be fair to say, women didn’t exactly fall for his looks… Khushwant didn’t delude himself on this score , either. And yet, some of Delhi’s most ravishing socialites were his die hard groupies, and used to turn up for his daily 7pm durbars, dressed to the nines, like they were attending a ball in Buckingham Palace. Countless other women across India found him equally irresistible. Why? How? In an age when a man’s six pack does all the talking and seducing, here was this out of shape guy slumped into a deep armchair, dressed in an unironed pathan suit ,hair and beard disheveled, legs  propped up on a moodah…hardly Casanova material, right? And yet!He was the much loved Krishna, with no dearth of Gopis to keep him company, night after night.  Possibly, it was Khushwant’s brain that was considered sexy by hundreds of  accomplished, successful, great looking ladies of varying age groups. From grand moms in their seventies to nubile PYT’s, nobody was immune to Khushwant Singh’s charm. Bingo!  That’s the word – charm. Khushwant proved a man didn’t need to dress well (he was an absolute slob), bathe regularly ( he’d admitted he washed once every three days – if that), lavish gifts ( he preferred a more cost effective option and lavished extravagant compliments instead!). All a man had to do was listen keenly to a woman, understand her sorrows ( most women have secret sorrows!), and make her feel she was his ‘one and only’. Khushwant was unbeatable in this regard - let’s call him a one man spa for women ! A few sessions at the Khushwant Spa, and women emerged feeling refreshed … beautiful! That was it. He became their wellness mantra. Khushwant( like Gulzar) understood a woman’s tears. He recited Urdu poetry , stroked a broken  ego, pumped up her self esteem when she was down, and made her believe he genuinely cared for her. In all probability, he wasn’t putting on an act. But even if that was the case – what the hell! Khushwant was the pep up pill the doc ordered. And women were grateful – some, even deeply indebted, to a grisly old so-and-so with a terrible , self-generated reputation as India’s Dirty Old Man.
 In reality, Khushwant Singh was not ‘dirty’ at all – he was consistently kind. He was the same with men and women, non-entities and celebrities. This was his most endearing trait. Men were jealous of his success with women. They’d look at themselves and wonder why those same lovely ladies shunned / snubbed them but fawned over Khushwant. What did this ‘lecherous’ ( in his own words) writer have that they didn’t? To these short-sighted men, one was tempted to ask, “ Have you ever looked beyond yourself… and looked into a woman’s heart?” I think I know the answer to that one!
 I wish Khushwant had written the definitive guide to understanding women. He would have tackled it in his own inimitable style, of course, and focused on how to ‘patao’ girls. I suspect Khushwant’s stated lechery stayed in his mind. When his wife – the formidable and handsome Sardarni Kawal Malik – was alive, he was petrified of her, and was undisguisedly hen pecked. After she passed away, he was a bit too old to indulge in anything more than verbal flirtation. Women would slavishly hang on to every line he threw at them… and he in turn would bask in their beauty.
There’s a lesson in there for men looking to improve their low strike rate with alluring ladies. Instead of talking to a girl’s chest ( legs or butt), try talking to her secret self… the one she hides and guards so jealously. Khushwant clearly possessed this special key that unlocked so many buried female truths. He did so gently, non-obtrusively and genuinely. What did he want in return? Not much. A perfume soaked caress… a warm hug… a gentle peck…and of course, the greatest high in the world for most men – a gorgeous woman’s undivided attention.
There are many who must be mourning Khushwant – men and women. He had indeed touched countless lives during his 99 years. But what’s the bet it’s the women he nurtured, encouraged, adored and worshipped, who will miss him the most?
If Khushwant Singh was a Dirty Old Man, I wish there were hundreds of other Dirty Old Men, equally capable of  enriching our lives on every level – emotional, physical and intellectual.