Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There's a book in everyone....

These are a few more images from Barcelona. No explanations needed, I guess. That glittering sculpture in a balcony is so eye- catching, I couldn't resist clicking it...


This appeared in Bombay Times on monday....

Not everybody can be an Amitav Ghosh, but a book does indeed lurk inside each person.Book readings of super celebrity authors can either go horribly wrong, or wonderfully right. Fortunately, Amitav Ghosh managed to pull off a sublime evening when he read from his latest novel ‘River of Smoke’ ( part of the ‘ Ibis’ trilogy). For one, he reads well (Vikram Seth is another author who makes his characters come alive at readings). This is a special skill and not many authors possess it. Mainly because most authors are writers not performers. Given the choice, most would prefer the relative anonymity of letting readers decide whether or not they like the book rather than participating in elaborate road shows where they are reduced to becoming performing fleas. But in today’s tougher, more competitive times it’s not enough for a writer to do his\her job of producing a book. It is obligatory to promote it. It’s relief to his publishers that Amitav wears his talent lightly and goes about the exhausting business of public readings and signings with patience and grace. It says a lot about his professionalism. Not only is Ghosh a top rung writer with a vast global following, but he is also one of the hand picked contemporary writers whose name crops up as a contender for the prestigious Nobel. But unlike some particularly aggressive self- promoters with far less substance, Ghosh remains disarmingly modest and consistently considerate. Since we share the same publisher and publicist, I know how gallantly and charmingly he acknowledges the contributions made by each and every person working behind-the-scenes to make these events a success. Even while responding to tiresome questions from the audience, he does so without once losing either his cool or his shirt. V.S. Naipaul, on the other hand, is notorious for shutting up silly readers with a short and sharp put down. One young girl in Mumbai really asked for it when she raised her hand to enquire in a sing song voice, “Mr. Naipaul… what are your books about? I haven’t read any of them.” He glanced witheringly at her, and with a dismissive wave of his hand announced imperiously, “I refuse to answer such a stupid question. Next!” No, the girl didn’t dig a hole and disappear into it – she giggled.
I genuinely believe there is a book in every person. Maybe even two or three. Some people choose to write it, most don’t. That’s the only difference. Going by the questions Amitav took last week, it did sound as if there were several potential novelists in the audience, looking for tips from the master. Unlike Naipaul, Amitav listened attentively to each question and replied with sincerity. The terrific thing about the evening was that the crowd was made up of hard core fans of the author – people who knew his work intimately and were genuinely interested in the latest one. This was such a refreshing change from the usual suspects who turn up for launches – any and every launch will do – not knowing a damn thing about the chief guest. These are the professional gate crashers who routinely show up at five star venues and hang around the bar, attacking every passing waiter and pouncing greedily on the canapés. They have never bought a book or a painting in their life…. but does that stop them from turning up to scrounge around shamelessly? Naah. This is not just a Mumbai phenomenon, mind you. I have seen similar types in London, New York, Berlin, Singapore, Hong Kong… the list goes on. My favourite memory of Amitav is watching him swat flies during a brief stopover in Patna, while we were on our way to the annual Bhuvaneshwar Book Fest. He was writing furiously throughout the long flight, and getting really bugged by those aggressive flies . Perhaps they’ll feature in his next book?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Slutwalk, anyone??

This appeared in 'The Week'. It has generated a mixed response. Surprisingly, several well-educated, well-travelled young women feel as strongly as I do about the meaninglessness of it all. What is the primary objective? How does it help the cause of women? If it's just some silly, harmless stunt by a group of young things who 'want to make a difference' - well, whatever it takes, honey. But let's not delude ourselves that Slutwalks will change the world . Or men...

Slutwalk? No thanks!

Come on, ladies… strut your stuff by all means. But don’t downgrade yourself in the bargain. What is all this rubbish about slutwalking your way to feminist heaven? Get real. Get a life. To start with, these kind of cheap stunts serve no purpose other than to titillate Page 3 paps. Besides, it’s such a ‘me too’, depressingly ‘wannabe’ thing to do. Why not come up with something truly original – like the path- breaking ‘pink chaddi’ campaign? Why react to some dumb Canadian cop’s sexist comment? By doing so, aren’t women the world over giving him unwarranted importance and attention? Seen in our cultural context, the idea of a multi-city Slutwalk is an absolute no-no - even if the intentions behind the move are to shock and awe the men of this country. The only response to such a gimmick is likely to be the exact reverse of what was intended. Men will leer, peer, gawk and lech. It certainly won’t make them stop dead in their tracks to review their mindsets. My main problem with this approach is the actual degradation of women implicit in the word ‘slut’. If we fall for this ruse en masse and start addressing ourselves with such a nasty putdown, chances are not just men but other women too will jump down our throats and say, “The bitch asked for it.”
The power of imagery and words is such. Self-deprecation works in progressive environments. Self-mockery is a potent tool, but only in countries where literacy levels are high enough, and the audience sufficiently educated to know the difference between taunting perpetrators of violence, and playing up to a stereotype. Some of the images of Slutwalks coming in from around the world, look more like send-ups – exhibitionistic chicks flashing their goods for the cameras. When a busty female scrawls a ‘Look, but don’t touch’ message across her ample bosom which is on full view, what is the average joe meant to make of this display? In India, a woman parading in the streets clad in a decollete bra ,will be labeled a ‘besharam aurat’. Her reputation will be in shreds for evermore, and if single, her chances of finding a ‘respectable’ boy will plummet instantly. As for the state of her parents – aiiyyyo – they may be forced to go into permanent hiding. But far more important than such a fallout, it’s the counter productivity of the act that bothers me. Defiance is one thing – and I am all for it. But plain stupidity, quite another. The argument that today’s woman is free to dress as she pleases, get sloshed at bars, use language any which way she chooses … well, in theory, it’s a great argument. Does it work? Naaah. Not even for her – the bold, brave and beautiful one who wants to break rules and conquer prejudice overnight.
There is also the reverse argument which involves mens’ freedoms. Of course, we are used to the sight of men peeing by the roadside in broad daylight, or exposing themselves in public places ( notoriously, on trains). But what if male colleagues in the work place decided to let it all hang out and challenged women not to complain?What about hanging out at a popular bar and finding topless men asserting their right to knock off that damn shirt in the heat? Or if men wore signs on their crotches during a protest rally that warned women to keep off the turf? Imagine a male boss turning up in a bulge-popping pair of skinny jeans on a casual Friday, his shirt buttons undone upto his navel? Trust me, some prissy women would feel offended enough to file a complaint. It goes back to the old , ‘what’s good for the goose…’ theory. Rape and other acts of sexual violence against women ( and men, too…. excuse me!) , must be condemned and fought all the way. But I am just not convinced Slutwalking is the answer to resolve an age old battle. Dressing to provoke a reaction from the opposite sex is as ancient as the hills. It’s all a part of the mating game and existed way before the era of sexual politics came into the picture. Whether it’s a scantily clad woman at a wedding or a man dressed in a cod piece at a formal event, the same rules apply. The definition of appropriate gear is timeless and has nothing to do with changing fashion trends. However, the decision to dress in skimpy attire with little regard for the cultural context, is a matter of individual choice. By all means bare all if that’s what you want. It is your right to dress as you please. But do so and bear the responsibilities and consequences of that decision as well.
Remember, just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no free show either!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The new 'Sush' in town....

Barcelona images! Boats...corridors.... Columbus looking for the new world. Oh... I adore Spain! So much like India, really. Only cleaner..
This appeared in the Sunday Times today...
I'm leaving for Bangalore and SAP-ing it tomorrow. Should be funnnnnnn!
Politically Incorrect

The new ‘Sush’ in town…..

She’s the newly crowned Hottie in B-Town. Errr… ‘B’ as in BJP, not Bollywood. She can sing, she can dance. She shakes her booty with the best of them. And she has countless admirers panting for more. Those who were lucky enough to catch her ‘live’ performance at the ‘ashram sthal (Rajghat) have been oohing and aahing over her deft moves – on and off the dance floor. Kya jhatkas. Kya matkas. Wah, Sush, wah! Like any top heroine, she too has been attracting her share of detractors – mainly jealous rivals who cannot keep up with her seemingly inexhaustible stamina, especially during chart busting ‘item’ numbers that are considered so rocking, news-hungry tv channels can’t get enough of them. With each telecast of those amazing ‘thumkas’, her popularity soars along with her unique sex appeal . This surging wave of acceptance and approval is causing serious heart burn within her own production house – the BJP. No matter. As any leading Bollywood producer will tell you, ‘Boss…paisa vasool.’ If something works big time in a movie,it is important to milk it for all its worth and instantly cash in on the craze . This is when the all-important ‘overflow’ takes place. Remember what happened with ‘Munni’ and ‘Sheila’ (but not to ‘Jalebi’)? The mega success of any Bollywood fillum depends on ‘repeat value’. It is when audiences flock back to cinema halls begging for more that the trade exults and distributors dance in the aisles giving laddoos to all. Success on such a scale has to be skillfully leveraged by everybody who has a stake in it – from the producer-director downwards. That is how a cult is created.
Sushma Swaraj has got it. She is ready to flaunt it. Toh – problem kya hai, bhai? As it is, the BJP sounds like a finely shredded cabbage salad ( minus raisins, at that). Propping up a hirsute yoga –master who runs away from his own big bash dressed in drag, is hardly the best image builder for a headless, formless and confused organization. Bringing in an ageing and portly Uma Bharti ( famously referred to as the Sexy Sanyasin in the good old days) doesn’t sound like a particularly inspired marketing plan. Sure, she has her unabashedly RSS credentials to her credit – or discredit. But, she seems like an anachronism – a faded star from another zamana altogether. It’s a little like dragging poor Asha Parekh out of moth balls and expecting her to headline a Bollywood gig. Not happening. Uma is passé and out of it. At 52, she is still fairly jawan in political terms. But after a six year vanvaas, nobody really remembers or cares about this firebrand’s track record. That she had taken on and vanquished many a foe ( including Digvijay Singh), to become the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in December 2003. Uma seems strangely out of sync with today’s janata. Whereas , a Sushma Swaraj appears a totally cool person – a woman on top. Since the BJP seems to favour heavyweights ( literally), a singing Nitin Gadkari has not found a mass base so far and seems to have antagonized party bosses by shooting off his mouth and speaking out of turn once too often. That leaves dear Narendra Bhai, who is the Coy Superstar, patiently waiting in the wings , for the teaser trailer to release and give audiences a jhalak of the ‘new, improved’ Modi ( hello! He plays golf! Must be a good chap, then!). Despite strenuous attempts to give the guy a make over, the chattering classes continue to be suspicious of Modi, who will never ever live down Godhra, no matter what he says or does. Arun Jaitley? Ummm…. too cerebral and brash. Too Dilli. Too rich. Too snooty. Difficult for someone as elitist to woo the unwashed masses. That leaves Shivraj Singh Chohan and Sanjay Joshi. Manageable. But strictly no star quality.It’s a little like trying to sell a multi-star blockbuster featuring also-rans. Mogambo definitely not khush!
That takes us to our ‘Sush’. But before her grand elevation and re-positioning, she needs to do two things urgently – lose weight. And discard those peculiar jackets she throws over her sarees. What’s with those shapeless ‘bundis’?The rest of her carefully constructed persona works splendidly – that broad strip of sindhoor in the maang, the low nape bun, the undisguisedly coquettish air, her oratorical skills and eloquence, the seductive body language … sab kuch mast hai! Sushma ki Jawaani ( in spirit, if not in age), could be the BJP’s biggest trump card. That is if mandarins put aside petty differences and ego tussles to focus on the party’s survival and future growth. There isn’t much time left. Baba Ramdev’s flop show has not helped matters, either. Then again, if all that the Congress Party can come up with is Rahul Gandhi, where’s the hitch? In any case, the UPA government is not about to create box office records with its recent poor showing in virtually every arena. Poor Manmohan Singh is looking so ‘thekela’, one feels like borrowing all of Amitabh Bachchan’s snazzy props from his forthcoming movie and handing them over to the Singh who is no longer the King ( or even the chief courtier). Perhaps clad in that hip gear, riding a motorcycle and hiding his sad eyes behind the coolest shades, our sweetheart of a prime minister will be able to join Grandpa Bachchan to belt out a duet that goes : ‘Buddha Terra Baap Hoga.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Intellectual Whores and Bloody Bores...

These are the final goodbyes...
On the 6th of July, the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai is planning a tribute to M.F.Husain. Let us hope and pray it honours his spirit and does away with boring, insincere speechifying by pompous asses who barely understood his genius... or even knew him for the person he was.
This appears in Hi! Blitz....

Intellectual Whores and Bloody Bores…..

If there’s anything and anyone worse than a bloody bore, it’s an intellectual whore. Puzzled? Okay… tell me you really DON’T recognize the following types : The I.W. s generally hang around at Embassy and Consulate soirees, clad in dreadful kurtas ( both men and women). They have perfected the art of crashing these parties over twenty long years of serious sucking up. That makes them permanent fixtures on lists that rarely get updated, going by the attendance of these cheapo fossils. Some are desperate enough to cultivate each successive social secretary and treat these lower level officers like visiting royalty. It’s the sort of treatment those poor sods are entirely unaccustomed to back home. But of course they revel in the importance so lavishly showered on them by these moochers. The only reason for the heavy-duty spongers to turn up night after night at these events is for the free booze and food. Some have become experts at figuring out menus and alcohol brands on offer from host to host. They turn up their noses at parties hosted by the old East European block of kadka Commies who continue to serve cheap vodka and stale sausages. They flock to German evenings for the superior beer and better sausages. The Brits are broke these days and such are the lean times they’re facing, even a toast at Queen Lizzie’s birthday dinners is raised with local, lukewarm champagne. No matter. The idea is to go scrounging around for whatever’s on offer… and bore the hell out of everyone present.

Mumbai’s I.W. s fall into another category altogether. They prey on corporate types. They love Bankers the most because those guys have amazing expense accounts, plus entertainment budgets and serve rare single malts at their do’s. The Mumbai I.W. loves to name drop – in the old days it used to be the names of famous artists like M.F.Husain. Now, it’s strictly Bollywood. But since the fake ‘intellectual’ tag has to be lived up to, the I.W. throws in social issues and municipal matters to demonstrate the existence of a conscience. Armchair activism gains a few extra points if the person can confidently ‘lagao’ something vague about a meeting with the chief minister. If there’s an arty, museum connection somewhere, that’s still better. A few mentions of an obscure Biennale generally impress the ignorant. All this ‘haw haw’ talk is interspersed with heavy duty bragging, generally about Delhi connections – Ministry of Culture, Sheila Dixit or Montek Singh. The last two names interest the tight ass Bankers present and ensures another round of a 21-year-old Single Malt. Net -working being the name of the social game ( does nobody meet just for the pleasure of spending a pleasant evening together , anymore?), it is vital to use nick names known to the inner circle and then exchange knowing looks with those who ‘get it’. Woe betides those who don’t! Social death guaranteed. Then comes the worst part – asking for favours. These can include anything from a trip to a foreign destination ( with companion), to an out-of-turn allotment for something significant ( car, apartment, land). The modus operandi remains the same in both cities. The I.W. stands in a prominent, well lit corner and starts sounding off on the controversy of the day ( Radia, Amar Singh, Lalit Modi). Insider gossip ( rubbish! It’s mostly recycled junk) is traded with a small group over several rounds of whatever is going – after the third drink nobody knows, counts or cares.
The Arty Whores are a breed apart. Their sole purpose in life is to confuse and confound those who may be genuinely interested in understanding art. Their prose is dense, almost impenetrable. They spout dated clichés about assorted European ‘movements’. Their pens and the artists’ paint brushes they represent, are both for sale. Reviews have no validity, nor do their pseudo-intellectual ramblings in pricey catalogues ( they charge a whack for writing those dreary, ponderous pieces). You can spot the pompous creeps at art openings, hanging around looking for – you’ve guessed it – free booze. Once sufficiently tanked up, supremely annoying, mostly inaccurate arty gossip takes over – which canvas sold for how much at the Christie’s auction. Which painter is on the make and doing which young, hot art dealer. How art prices are being manipulated by the art sharks… and isn’t it terrible what that art bully did with the attractive newbies participating in his art camp!!
What do we do with these bores and whores?
Jettison them, of course! Uno dos , tres… and out you go!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

London and Barcelona images.

This was the church I admired in the dying light of a cool London evening, just after saying goodbye to Husainsaab in his hospital room. It will always have a special memory since I sent up a prayer for him at that moment. A prayer that went sadly unanswered.
I had just left the LCC ( London College of Communication), where my daughter is seeking admission. This was the spectacular view from the large window in the airy office of one of the Directors... you can spot the London Eye in the far distance.... just beyond the storm clouds that were fast gathering.
Beautiful Barcelona looks stunning from any angle. This narrow street leads up to the famous Picasso Museum, where we spent several enchanted hours. I particularly enjoyed Picasso's tribute to El Greco. And yes, just as we left the gates, we witnessed a knife fight in this very street!
And that's the W Hotel, seen from the cable car. I was hot and bothered and not in the mood to take pictures ( an hour long wait for a measly 10 minute ride), but the W looked pretty interesting from this height. Reminded me of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.
Guys.... just say the word.... I have more where these came from, okay???

Mubarak ho! Bollywood's Bahurani is in the family way! Great news. A rather puzzled foreigner asked me sweetly, " Is it traditional in Indian society for a father-in-law and not the husband to make such an announcement? Is it a part of the customs of a patriarchal society ?" I really didn't have the answer. But if any of you guys do.... enlighten the rest, please!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kuch Love Jaisaa??

This appeared in The Week...

It’s an old, old story… but like any worthy classic, it never dates. Whether it is Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulata’ or the more recent Shefali Shah interpretation in ‘Kuchch Luv Jaisaa’, the married-but-bored housewife continues to fascinate us. When I wrote ‘Socialite Evenings’ ( my first book) twenty-five years ago, I was savaged by critics ( hello! So what else is new?), mainly because Karuna, my protagonist, walks out of a marriage that is boring. BORING! Not abusive, not cruel, not oppressive. I believed then, as I do now, boredom is a perfectly legitimate reason to end a relationship. Terminal boredom, that is. Not to be confused with ‘boring phases’ which most marriages go through. But imagine the tedium involved in spending the best years of ones life with a person who is dull, uninspiring and plain ‘duh’. Better to invest even five short years in an individual who hits the right spots and makes you feel vibrantly, gloriously alive. During my short stay in Bhutan recently ( I was there to attend ‘Mountain Echoes’, a real gem of a lit fest), I met a local lady who clearly believes in living life Queen size. And why not? She is entitled to it! Beautiful, privileged, influential and adventurous, this gorgeous gal has been married four times and is a Glam Granny to boot. She admitted candidly ( minus prodding) that the only reason she kept up the quest for a suitable husband in that tiny mountain kingdom was to keep boredom at bay! There was absolutely nothing for young people to do in the old days – no movies, no television, no internet, no restaurants, no bars, no airport… you get the picture. How was a restless, educated and exceedingly beautiful young woman supposed to keep herself busy all day? Dating was not an option ( Bhutanese society continues to be very conservative… almost medieval). Her only escape route and diversion lay in marriage. But hear this - all her ex- husbands remain good friends. She hosted a dinner for three of them last month, and it turned out to be great fun for all, she giggled. Why not? She is an upfront, engaging personality who now travels the world promoting causes dear to her heart. Bhutanese society has obviously made its peace with their most prominent socialite, going by the response to her.
Interestingly enough, our first encounter was an impromptu one in the buzzed bar of the wonderful Taj Tashi where I was staying. I noticed an attractive woman who was holding her own effortlessly with a group of six, fairly inebriated men. She came to my table , introduced herself and asked me to join them. I did so briefly, since I found her personality bewitching and electrifying in that strange setting. I discovered those rowdy, happy fellows lustily belting out Elvis Presley hits, were generals in the army and other high ranking officials. I still didn’t know her identity but was sufficiently intrigued to ask around. When she invited me to lunch a couple of days later, I promptly accepted. There was a story in there… a good one!
I was not disappointed. She is a special person – energetic, uninhibited, bohemian and what the Brits would call a ‘good egg’. She described herself as a bitch, qualifying quickly, “… but a good bitch.” I knew exactly what she meant. Women like her are so easy to slot and damn. She means no harm to anyone. And yet, her alluring presence does attract flak – a great deal of it. We discussed boredom as being the single most under rated cause cited in modern divorce. We both felt it should be right up there, with adultery and insanity. It is equally potent! Nothing can destroy a relationship as swiftly as the realization that the person you are married to, is a bloody bore, after all. Boredom cannot be salvaged or ‘cured’. Marriage counselors cannot talk a partner out of being boring. It is a condition – like diabetes. But unlike diabetes which can be managed through a sensible diet and medication, what does one do with boredom? Ummm… very little. Shut up and put up?
More and more women are refusing to either shut up or put up. It’s simply not worth it. Those who can move on, are doing just that. Leaving several rather bewildered men behind. Men who ask themselves what they’d done wrong to deserve such a fate. Now that’s a seriously boring question! Sorry… but if it has to be asked, the woman is perfectly justified in dumping the guy. Modern marriages are cruel, indeed. Better that, than deathly dull relationships frozen in aspic.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hum Sab Jaanwar Hain....

This appeared in Bombay Times today....

Hum Sab Janwar Hain…

While the headline of this column is technically accurate, it takes powerful images of wild animals in their natural habitat to drive home the point that those lucky creatures are far better off in the jungle than most of us living in so-called ‘civilised’ urban spaces . A fact that was driven home ( in vivid 3-D , at that) when Nita and Mukesh Ambani hosted a reception to showcase the impressive work of their close friend, eminent psychiatrist Dr.Rajesh Parikh, at ‘Antila’. I was told by a very proud T.P. Pandey ( the man behind the superb 3-D prints) that this was the first such exhibition in the world! Pandey, who heads Taco Visions, is the winner of the gold, silver and bronze medals at the prestigious annual awards for printing held in Philadelphia.That is some feat, given the fact there are just five top awards to be won each year. The best part of the evening was the charming, extempore speech made by Dr.Parikh, in which he confessed he had become something of a pain in the butt for family members accompanying him on his regular jaunts to Africa. “Had I been Bono or Madonna, I could have said, ‘ I love you, Africa,’ and left it at that….” before going on to quote from Vivekananda and pointing out that Africa was indeed the cradle of civilization and every human being on earth can trace his or her ancestry to that vast and beguiling continent. He added with a final flourish, “After going back to the same game resorts more than twenty five times, Mukesh pretty much knows most of the animals. He says, ‘last year, we’d seen this lion at that spot. So, I say to him, ‘maybe the lions know you, too. After all, there are twenty lions in that park, but there’s only one Mukesh Ambani’.” Taalis.Taalis.
I have picked my favourite image from this show ( a few years ago I had grabbed a close- up of the beautiful saffron flower shot by Dr.Parikh in the Kashmir Valley). This time I fell for a picture of a female elephant fiercely protecting her young one. She looked ready to charge at the man ( Rajesh!), intruding her space. He smiled, “One has to stand very still when that happens. If a person turns around and starts to run, she will chase you. The trick is to engage but not threaten.” Pretty much like it should be in our world but rarely is. Stand your ground. Send out a message that you mean business. But don’t get into an ugly confrontation that could crush you. Aah well, the wisdom of animals far exceeds that of human beings. Perhaps this sort of an exhibition only helps to underline the fact. And yes, another ace lensman , Uddhav Thackeray was around taking a keen interest in the well-mounted show ( take a bow, Kaushik Roy). His own, recently published book on Vithoba also features some extraordinary images of Warkaris (pilgrims) congregating in the small town of Pandharpur. I mentioned the book should also be published in English and other regional languages. “But how does one translate ‘abhangs’?” wondered Uddhav. To which his son Aditya quickly replied, “If Rumi can be translated, so can these ‘abhangs’.” Maharashtra’s youth leader is obviously ready for the job!
J Dey’s murder may require deeper investigation than merely rounding up the usual suspects. But the point is : do the authorities genuinely want to get to the bottom of this? Does anybody really want to hear the truth? Or is it just far easier to palm it off as another underworld hit? J Dey has taken countless secrets to his grave. Secrets , that would have compromised the careers of several top dogs in government and politics. Those jobs are safe. For now. But truth does have a rather nasty way of coming out and surprising the unwary. The guilty had better watch out!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

M.F.Husain:Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna

These are the last pictures I shot of Husainsaab . It was in Dubai 2010, when we met him at his home and he showed off his 'toys' - the magnificent Bentley and the super sexy Bugatti. Strange.... after his Memorial Service in London, as we walked out of the Dorchester Hotel, we noticed several gawking tourists clicking pictures of a stately Rolls Royce Phantom in the driveway. Husain's son, Shafaat offered us a ride in the gorgeous car... and it seemed just so apt! His London driver, who'd been his chauffeur for the past four years,obviously knew his master well... and chatted warmly about him as we drove past Hyde Park and on to the charming Duke's Hotel, where we raised a glass of the finest, to our friend and India's finest artist.

This appeared in Asian Age today....

M.F.Husain: Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna….

My biggest regret is the book that never got written! Husainsaab and I had been discussing it for over a decade. In fact, it had become something of a joke between us – ‘Husain’s Women.’ On the 6th of June, just two days before he galloped off into the great beyond, astride one of his signature stallions, M.F.Husain turned to me as I was saying ‘Goodbye’ and declared, “Let’s do it…I’m ready for the book.”It’s ten days since India’s most iconic painter slipped away in an impersonal hospital room , more than 4,000 miles from where he was born. It was in the pilgrim town of Pandharpur that Maqbool Fida first opened his eyes and saw the world he would later chronicle through his characteristic bold and unhesitant strokes. The same fearless strokes that made him the most controversial artist of his time…. and eventually ostracized him from his own people. Husainsaab died a lonely man, abandoned by nearly everyone, except his family members. When I met him at the Royal Brompton Hospital, barely 36 hours before he passed away, the only person by his side was his youngest son Owais, who had flown in from Dubai the same morning. His other five children were expected. Perhaps he had sensed the end was near. Perhaps not! I’d say ‘Not’. Because if there was one defining quality he possessed it was his never-say-die spirit. Husainsaab was very much a creature of the here-and-now. It was all about the moment – this very moment. And , of course, it was about the many tomorrows… the unending miles he had to travel before he could finally sleep. In all the years I knew him, he never once talked about death. It was too dull and boring a subject! Even that late evening in London, as he gazed out of the large window at the golden light outside, his right eye rheumy, his chest heaving as he cleared the phlegm accumulating rapidly in his lungs, he put on a show… his vanity intact! The minute I entered his room, his hands flew to his snowy white mane , as he ran his bony fingers through the scraggly strands and tried to neaten his appearance. His mind was as restless and fastidious as ever. Someone came in carrying a small parcel from Harrod’s. It was an expensive cashmere pullover for Husainsaab, since he was feeling cold. He took one look at it, felt the texture critically and promptly rejected the sweater, saying he was looking for something softer and finer! Ditto with the food on his tray. He stared disdainfully at the neatly arranged meal and turned away, demanding a falooda instead. It was really the taste of Mumbai he was craving for… and his son knew it. As we discussed ways of flying in a thermos of falooda for Husainsaab, he himself had already moved on to something else…his hand tapping urgently, impatiently on the bed…. his mind wandering to planned projects (his final work is a gigantic Ramayana series) that a lesser being would take another lifetime to accomplish. In his own mind, Husainsaab was immortal. He only spoke about new beginnings, never the end.
But it had to come. And it did. Right after he had said ‘good night’ to his daughter Raisa ( who’d flown in from Mumbai), and told her there was no need for her to stay the night at the hospital… he’d be fine and see her in the morning. Perhaps, it was better this way. He died without any fuss,and the only suffering he experienced was emotional, not physical. Ironically, he told me with great pride that the top docs looking after him in hospital were Indians. He was also totally au courant with all the goings-on back home… because, in a strange way, he had never really left it! We talked about the ‘Paanch Deviyaan’ in politics, and I was sure he had already composed a fresh canvas featuring Mamata, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sonia and Pratibha. He’d watched and enjoyed ‘Dabbang’ and was looking forward to ‘Ready’. He was aware of the Christie’s auction ( he passed away the same morning) and discussed his painting which would eventually go under the hammer and be acquired by an ardent Husain fan. I asked him what he thought of some of the other artists commanding whopping prices in international markets. People like Subhodh Gupta, for example. He paused ever so briefly and said, “I call them entertainers, not artists!” Touche. It was this outspoken trait of his that had alienated Husainsaab from the Indian artists’ community of late. But much more than that, it was the undisguised jealousy displayed by his contemporaries that puzzled and hurt him deeply. The fact that the very same people he had helped ( monetarily and otherwise) chose to remain silent when he was being persecuted. Or that some of them ran him down behind his back, unable to handle his stupendous success. As his close associates often pointed out, it was Husain who decided to enhance the prestige of contemporary Indian artists in world markets by pitching his own work at what was then considered an unheard of price. Once he’d established a benchmark, all the others benefited as well. But not once did they acknowledge the risk he took before anybody else dared to peg paintings at price levels that were internationally respectable – take it or leave it.
I looked around at the crowd gathered inside a modest mosque at Tooting, an hour away from London. There were a few familiar faces… but only a few. His son Owais led the prayers, as mourners paid their last respects. It was raining outside. Not the gentle London rain, but a full on downpour, Mumbai Monsoon style.Appropriate. The burial was still a few hours away,the plot carefully picked by the family at a leafy spot, just off the road from his favourite drive in the English countryside. A drive he enjoyed thoroughly, reclining like a raja in an imposing Rolls Royce Phantom. He’d set it up in such a way that he could paint watercolours on a fixed easel, as the car cruised along at a stately speed. He’d be listening to Vivaldi or Sufi songs, sometimes humming softly to himself. Perhaps it is just as well he lies in peace there, under a canopy of trees… undisturbed and free at last to create his own, unique images on his own terms.
His memorial service held at the posh Dorchester Hotel, saw the desi elite of London… most of whom owned gigantic Husains to better show off their wealth. Their presence would not have impressed Husainsaab. Amused him, maybe. But just before the service began, a rally of nudist cyclists whizzed past the hotel… now that’s what he’d have called a real tribute!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Platinum all the way....

Guys, I was dying to post pics from Brilliant Barcelona. But have loads of writing ahead of me today. Tomorrow is likely to be less hectic... till then, here's a halka-phulka column that appeared in Bombay Times....


When Fashion Goes ‘Platinum’….

Fashionistas are known to guard their shopping secrets in a demented sort of way. But only when it comes to what is called the ‘Cheap and Best’ option. Well, here’s one destination that is no longer a hidden one, at least not for smart shoppers. We all know how rapidly Bangkok- ka- Maal makes it to our malls and gets passed off as the asli deal. Snip and sell, has been an old trick, practiced by some of the biggest fashion labels in the rag trade. All it involves is a couple of trips to Bangkok (it’s cheaper to fly to Thailand from Mumbai than to Kolkata or Delhi), armed with gigantic suitcases. Ten years ago, local designers would return with dozens of inexpensive but trendy garments,promptly rip off the original labels, replace them with their own – and bingo! A new collection would be ready to flog in their stores (indecently marked up, of course). That’s before the Platinum Mall was discovered by canny, eagle-eyed shoppers from Mumbai. Today, Platinum has become the Fashion Temple for those in search of fun clothes, bags, shoes and accessories at throwaway prices. You can’t go wrong… and you can’t possibly lose.Platinum – especially the New Platinum next door to the original one, is like an Aladdin’s Cave, crammed with all sorts of goodies at startlingly low prices. I totally love it, but am not an addict. My raison d’etre for attacking Platinum is more out of desperation than anything else. Strange as it sounds, it’s virtually impossible to find pure cotton clothes in Mumbai these days. No mull-mull, no cambric, no organdie. The familiar ‘kapda dukaans’ are gone ( Rochiram’s on Colaba Causeway was an old haunt), and unless you shop at Fab India ( which has become a tad monotonous), or at any one of those snob boutiques where you know you are being ripped off, it is very difficult to lay ones hands on 100% cotton outfits that see you through the blistering summer. Platinum is the answer! And while you are stocking up on the latest smocks, you get to eat the best Thai food in the world, as well. That is, if you aren’t lucky enough to be at Chef Anando Soloman’s table!
All of a sudden, Bhutan has become the ‘It’ destination for restless desis looking for an exotic summer break. This is rather surprising, given Bhutan’s comparative inaccessibility. Only Drukair, the national carrier has landing rights into Paro, the sole airport in the Mountain Kingdom (Thai Airways also flies in these days). Charters from India have been launched recently and the planes are packed. Which is not the best news for the Bhutanese, knowing how fast our desis ruin pristine destinations with their utterly uncouth conduct. International foreigners are welcome, but only if they happen to be big spenders and not back packers. In order to guarantee that, visa fees are steep ( no visas for Indians, so far) and tourists have to undertake a daily spend of $500 or so. Room rates at the better lodges, hotels and resorts hover between $1,200 to $1,500 per night. Which is as it should be for this jewel of a place that does not wish to attract unruly mobs. The idea is to restrict entry to those who’ll respect local culture and traditions ( tough as it sounds,trading in tobacco is banned).But believe me, once you survive the hairy landing ( rated as one of the trickiest runway approaches on earth, with just 8 or 10 pilots qualified to fly into Paro), you are transported! Forget the food ( pretty inedible) and concentrate on the spectacular vistas of mist-draped mountain ranges, covered with lush forests ( hardly a bald patch in sight on those slopes).Yes, Bhutan is worth the trip. And I am ready to go back again. But this time, I shall cover my eyes as the pilot swings around three crazy mountainous bends, the wings of the aircraft barely scraping past the trees and homes on either side. Terrifying, but exhilarating as …. ummmm… hell??

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Salman Khan and Baba Ramdev:Both are 'Ready'!

This appeared in Sunday Times...

What do Salman Khan and Baba Ramdev have in common…?

Let me put it bluntly - Salman Khan and Baba Ramdev have hot bods . Very hot. They are poster boys for Ultimate Fitness. In fact, it’s all about the bod. Both men know as much. Both have made their reputations flaunting their impressive physical assets. And both go happily shirtless, displaying great panache along with their sculpted silhouettes.Think about it…. Baba Ramdev shot to fame much after Salman ( ‘The Bod’) Khan. The ‘Rockstar of Yoga,’ as Ramdev has been famously called, used the television platform to promote himself and become a household name. As a Yoga teacher, he made more Indians aware of physical fitness than any expert has succeeded in doing so far. Salman Khan made it in the movies on a mega scale after he decided to bare his torso and flex his biceps. Salman has been rightfully credited with generating impressive revenues for desi akhadas and gyms, to which countless men rushed wishing to emulate the actor and acquire a drool worthy physique. For the Khan, his daily workout is non-negotiable. It’s his religion. Ditto for Ramdev. Now that Salman is officially the most successful Khan in Bollywood, producers who want to work with him are expected to provide the star with a full fledged gym on the sets. Baba Ramdev doesn’t need a gym – he is the gym! Despite their different approach to acquiring the body beautiful, both these guys know it is their dedication to their respective physiques that has millions of ardent devotees panting. Salman shares his fitness mantras generously with friends, foes and fans. Baba Ramdev shares his with strangers – anybody who cares to switch on his channel or join his classes . Salman gives away his trade secrets for free. Baba Ramdev charges a bomb (Rs.10,000 per session insist his detractors). So far, Salman has not starved for a cause.Nor has he joined politics( he’s leaving that option to the other Khans!). Even though Salman is the top earner in his line of business, he doesn’t own a private jet yet ( his fans send him theirs!). Nor do Delhi politicos come running to the airport to meet him. But several Sheikhs in the Middle East do just that each time he lands up to promote a film. Salman travels with an entourage that includes Shera, his faithful bodyguard. Baba Ramdev’s entourage is much bigger and he has several bodyguards. Salman has a sense of humour. Baba Ramdev, none! Salman frequently laughs at himself. Baba Ramdev has detractors laughing at him. Significantly, both men are single. But only one of them is ready to mingle ( guess who?). In terms of mass hysteria, it’s hard to say which one generates more passion. If Ramdev’s followers were overflowing at the Ram Lila grounds last week, Salman’s besotted fans can effortlessly fill a couple of stadiums – no occasion required. Talking of ‘fan-love’ – Salman’s fans happen to be so hard core, they are ready to slaughter anybody who dares to criticize their beloved Sallu Bhai or Bhai Jaan. Baba Ramdev’s bhakts are equally fanatical. It’s called chela pyaar. Both men are acutely aware of their formidable star power… they have it, flaunt it, and exploit it. Salman peddles his Being Human line of products for charity. Ramdev sells assorted ‘cures’ for everything from cancer to baldness, for himself.
Charisma is hard – very hard - to deconstruct. In the case of these two men, one can see what turns movie audiences on each time Salman shakes his butt and goes, ‘Chak Dhinachak..” Ramdev turns into a pretzel each morning and breathes heavily as followers gasp and swoon. Devotees find all of this unbeatably sexy. Crowd mentality is hard to predict, but it’s safe to say if anybody can mobilize impressive mobs and throngs without really trying, it’s these two guys. If anybody can get thousands to leave home, forget khaana peena temporarily and join a movement – you- know-who can pull it off. So, what is it about such people that drives other people nuts? Nuts enough to abandon good sense, logic, rational behaviour… sanity, for Gods’sake? No idea, Sirji! Both are entertainers par excellence. They understand the medium and know that that is the message. Both perform effortlessly 24x7 – that’s show business. Both manipulate. Both make money. The big difference is that one of them wants to lead India out of the dark ages and banish black money. The other makes a living in an industry where the colour of money is unimportant. Both insist there is no political agenda behind their public posturing. Maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. It would be amusing to see them sharing the same platform some day… visualize the scene : two shirtless superstars , one breathless, the other breathing through one nostril, both flexing muscles ( one, politically, the other literally) and the crowds going crazy!
Wow! Yeh mera India – are you ‘Ready’ for it??
Good to be home. Nothing like comfort food to welcome home weary travellers... though I have to confess I could have happily spent three more days in Barcelona. Paella and Picasso - what is there not to love about this incredible city?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nightmare in Barceloña...

Blogdosts, I have really, really missed this space. Let me put it this way, Barceloña, gorgeous as it is, can be tough for anybody who does not speak Spanish. Here i am at the airport lounge after a battle at immigration. I am convinced there is something about my personality and attitude that sets me up for these crazy searches and questioning each time i am in Europe. But i managed to feast on Gaudi and Picasso and Miro.... reminding me poignantly of M.F.Husain´s tragic end in a strange country. Here in Spain, they honour their artists.... respect them. Streets are named after great cellists and painters. Look at how shabbily we treat our cultural icons. Have to rush to catch my flight home. More from me tomorrow. Adios.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Husain Saab.....farewell

The Gods must have been on my side. Not only did I get to say my farewell to my beloved Baba, as I called him but I was fortunate enough to have two hours of his precious time all to myself. Husain Saab was that kind of person . Addictive. You never could get enough of his extraordinary persona. You wanted to hog every second of his time. I have spent the better part of today mourning the death of Indias greatest artist. A true renaissance figure... So much larger than life. I was lucky to have known him for close to 40 years. It was a very, very special friendship.... He touched my life more profoundly than perhaps either of us realised. Tomorrow is his funeral. I shall be there. But what's the bet he himself will be chuckling at the circus that those wicked politicians want to make out of the Masters death? I have written my tribute for the Times of India. But if you ask me no tribute is good enough for a man who was not allowed to die in his own country. We should hang our heads in shame.

Monday, June 6, 2011

London calling

Guys... This is a test run. I am keying this in from London. The weather is wretched.and I am hungry.but in no mood to go in search of food.last night we had an extraorinary dinner at a place called DInner. It was out of this world. I am just about getting the hang of the iPad. So, do forgive me for all the errors. Do let me know in detail vahan kya ho raha hai. And frankly, I am sick of the baba Ramdev tamasha.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bankers or Bonkers???

First, the pictures: Check out the 5 Kings of Bhutan ( pin-ups, all!) proudly presented on a billboard at the airport.And those wonderful monk-musicians. But please, please, please look carefully at the picture with the rainbows - there are TWO of them! Let's call it a double whammy! And yes, there is a pot of gold at the end of both! And that lovely lady is the Socialite Supreme of Bhutan. Khendum rules! She was our host at a chic luncheon held in the Aman Kora, up in the hills. Great chef ( what amazing black cod fishcakes!). But otherwise, a lifeless location.
I am getting ready to watch 'Ready' this evening, before heading for the airport.... first stop London, followed by Barcelona. May go missing from this space for a while... indulge me!
This appeared in the Asian Age today....

There was a time, long, long ago, when my parents were naïve enough to go in search of a suitable boy for their youngest daughter (me!). First preference? A Saraswat Brahmin, IAS officer. Second? A Saraswat Brahmin doctor or engineer. There was no third option. Clearly, their misguided attempts failed totally. And they reconciled themselves to supporting a wicked, no-good beti who refused to ‘obey’, and insisted on cutting her own hair (the famous ‘Sadhana Fringe’- a rage at the time). But even in their desperation and through those long months of utter despair (“our daughter, the spinster”), one thing they were completely clear about : no bankers for their fourth child. I guess my parents were a whole lot smarter than I gave them credit for. I mean… look at what’s going on. From Rajat Gupta ( and wait till you hear juicier stories about this player – they are out there and about to go public), to DKS and now this Egyptian chap, Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, who was arrested after assaulting – you’ve guessed it – a maid, during his stay at the posh ‘Pierre’ in New York. Oofff! What’s with this ‘Bonk and be damned’ brigade ? Makes me sigh: Achcha bhai, parents ke objection mein kuch toh logic tha. One can’t say about the bad behaviour displayed by these banker types - it’s only about the money, honey. Money… especially other people’s money, is indeed super sexy. But a few of these horny toads obviously equate money with absolute power – the kind that says you can jump on the first female you find, and she should feel honoured to be “sexually abused, assaulted, touched, imprisoned and harassed” ( these are the charges against the man from Alexandria, who was the chairman of the Egyptian American Bank) by such a creature. There are several similar sleaze balls in Indian banking as well… and God help us if some of our five star hotel employees decide to squeal and tell all some day. Vat laga dengey!
For one, most people do not know the distinction between running a bank and owning one. Sure, both jobs require fiscal astuteness, but come on, guys, it’s just another job. Someone’s got to do it! For years and years, bankers were seen as big, fat bores. Especially by women. Dull, discreet and deadly. A good banker was meant to be seen but not heard. Talking about cracking deals and other equally crass issues was considered totally infra dig if not outright embarrassing. Good bankers stayed below the radar, were determinedly low profile and certainly didn’t party with the swish set ( yup, the same set they discreetly financed). Top bankers were shadowy figures who went about their wheeling and dealing with the stealth of ace robbers. It was a vital part of their job description to confuse everybody into thinking they were doing something impossibly profound and hard to fathom, when in fact, they were doing exactly what Shylock did – scalping everybody. Taking money from this one and passing it on to that one, while making a whopping commission for the bank. In the process, they also gave themselves humungous bonuses and generally lived like Kings. Often, far better than the impoverished maharajahs whose palaces they happily attached for non-payment of dues. As numbers ( and ambition) grew, our extra-smart , homegrown bankers were poached by Monster Banks worldwide. And those same fellows who used to sneak around corners clad in boring brown ( yes, brown!) polyester suits and synthetic striped ties, were suddenly all over the place dressed by Armani\ Tom Ford, posing and preening away on the covers of global business magazines, thinking they were Gordon Gekko himself. As a creed, ‘Greed is Good’ worked for most of them. Till a few were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or worse, with their pants down.
The World Bankwallahs were in a league of their own. They formed the super elite Big Boys’ Club, and believed they actually held the keys of the kingdom in their hot little paws. These guys had the power! They knew it. They flaunted it. They used it. And still do. Nobody knows their asli agenda. The World Bank operates like an ancient secret society where the only thing that matters is the CYA mantra – Cover Your Ass. The people who work for the WB are like the commandos we saw in action during the Mumbai terror attacks. Their identities are not always revealed. Nor are their agendas. But we know they are out there ‘doing something important.” What that is, does not matter. It’s just one of those reassuring illusions we hang on to when most of us don’t know any better The WB gang has the best time of all. They live like royalty wherever they are posted. Their spouses specialize in swiping credit cards. Their kids enjoy amazing privileges and get into Ivy League schools effortlessly. Scandals associated with this bunch, are managed with minimum collateral damage. As lifestyles go, theirs are deluxe. Check this out - they jet around the globe traveling first class, attending power events, seated at the high table with Presidents and Prime Ministers. Errr, it is said they buy and sell countries, too.Their pampered partners talk in lofty terms about acquiring havelis in Rajasthan, the way others talk about buying a Hyundai. Why then would anybody be foolish enough to throw away such astonishing perks … all because of an uncontrollable pecker? It’s a question worth asking some of our smarty pants. Same fellows who have given Indian business and Indian banking such a bad name internationally.

One only hopes ( izzat ke vaastey) their bonking prowess remains far superior to their banking skills!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bhutan Hangover - 2 !

As you can tell... I haven't come down to earth yet! Which is a good thing. My head is still in those amazing clouds that roll in across the spectacular mountain ranges surrounding this magical kingdom.
That's the Everest!!!! I shot the picture rubbing sleep out of my eyes as the captain of Drukair told us to look to our left and spot the world's most awesome peak!
The other images tell their own story. That's me at the Paro airport, minutes after landing. The picture was shot by Imtiaz, NDTV'S very competent cameraman.
That stunning building is the Taj Tashi - if it looks like an ancient structure, it's intentional. The government of Bhutan enforces a strict architectural code and every building has to adhere to the traditional model. And those lovely ladies in Kiras are singing welcome songs in the courtyard of the Taj.
You are warned : Before I leave for London this weekend, I shall post more pics! That's a promise or a threat. Take your pick!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bhutan:Somewhere over the rainbow...



Happy Birthday Maddy!! Rohan Sippy and Madhavan were just such cool guys to conduct a session with - knowledgeable,charming, sure of their craft. And mainly, no Bollywood airs or sho-sha. Just regular guys who know what the hell they are doing - and do it well. I didn't particularly like 'Dum Maro Dum' and said so in print. But did Rohan sulk and take idiotic personal pot shots? Naaah! He's educated, you see! Ditto for Maddy, who behaved like just another delegate.

I have several Bhutan images - Mt. Everest included!! All I need is some rah rah encouragement from you.... and I shall promptly oblige. Remember - you were warned!

Oh.... the link is the Sunil Sethi interview for NDTV's long-running show - Just Books.

Found it.....

The Yellow Brick Road leading from the airport at Paro to Thimphu, in Bhutan witnessed a strange sight last week, as the local Wizard ( Indian Ambassador Pavan Varma) played host to Tin Men, Scarecrows and several Dorothys who descended on the comparatively tiny( 38,394 square kilometers) kingdom hoping to pass off as heavy-duty writers, thinkers and intellectuals at the third edition of a Lit Fest, appropriately titled ‘Mountain Echoes’. Well, there were fascinating Bhutan-India Echoes at the three day jamboree that was inaugurated by Bhutan’s beauteous Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. At 57, she is astonishingly youthful, energetic and charming, besides being an author of two well received books that reflect her concerns for the kingdom that is slowly but surely getting seduced by a world that has so far seen Bhutan only as an exoticised Shangri La. Or more accurately, some vague La-La land of chanting monks and medieval practices. The gorgeous Queen Mum decided to do something about these misconceptions . The only way to find out for herself how her people really felt… how they lived… what their dreams were… was to set off on a padayatra before penning “ Treasures of the Thunder Dragon’. Her Majesty traveled on foot to different parts of Bhutan often trekking seventeen days at a stretch through thick jungles ( over 72% of Bhutan is under forest cover) and crossing mountain passes above 5000 metres ( 20% of the country remains under perpetual snow). She said with a disarming smile when I met her, “I wanted to do this while I was physically fit enough . I would have liked to travel incognito, but that wasn’t always possible. I took detailed notes along the way. I wanted to narrate the story of 21st century Bhutan and tell the world we do not live in a time- warp.” This book comes ten years after her first one… and a lot has changed in the kingdom during that decade.
The sharp, erudite and articulate Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchen Jigme Thinkey admitted as much, albeit circuitously during a lively interaction with Lit Fest delegates. Never mind that some of our self-styled gyaanwallahs were crass enough tell the P.M. on how better to do his job. To his credit, he handled most of this unsolicited advice with a smile, an amusing anecdote and enormous grace. His concerns reflect those of most Bhutanese, who realize their idyllic, isolated life stands threatened by the advent of so-called modernity..Television was introduced in 1999. Information technology as we know it, has altered the cloistered lives of over 10,000 monks, who ensure the teachings of the Buddha ( Bhutan adheres to the Mahayana School ) are preserved and communicated to the people. The Queen Mum writes that Bhutanese monks today adeptly use computers to prepare scrolls of 100,000 prayers to place inside prayer wheels.But so sure is she of the deeply spiritual culture of her people, she states confidently that the Bhutanese have an extraordinary capacity to “appreciate, absorb and adapt.” Her optimistic vision is not entirely shared by locals who point out that though foreign-educated students choose to come back home to Bhutan after acquiring fancy international degrees, the rather charming ( if naïve) concept of GNH ( Gross National Happiness) in place of the more boring, predictable and conventional GDP(Gross Domestic Product) followed by the rest of the developed world, doesn’t quite cut it with the youth. The ever-smiling Prime Minister shares the Queen Mum’s dream when he says Bhutan is proposing a world debate on the true meaning of wealth. “How does anybody define wealth? Is it only about what you have? Or also about what you are?” he asks. Officially, the Bhutanese are meant to take a holistic approach to measure their own Happiness Quotient. This includes chasing prosperity at their own pace and terms but not at the cost of their traditions and customs. On paper it’s a splendid idea. But how practical is it? Bhutan built its first ( and only) airport as late as in 1983. Just 14,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2005.The number has not gone up dramatically since then. Bhutan is not for backpackers, officials say. Thank God for that! But with the recent introduction of charters from India, Bhutan must brace itself for the onslaught of Unruly Indians ruining the pristine hills and vales of the orderly Kingdom. The trading of tobacco is banned ( no ciggies, if you are a citizen). But alcoholism and an addiction to paan remain rampant. There are no multiplexes, no shopping malls ( the first one is still under construction), no casinos and no coffee shops or bars outside the five star hotels.So how do the Bhutanese keep themselves amused? Shrugged a beautiful socialite who had married and divorced four husbands, “ What else is there to do? I was so bored!” Quite so.
Well, there is the Royal Wedding in October to look forward to… a devastatingly handsome 31-year-old, Oxford-educated King (Jigme Keshar Namgyel Wangchuk) is all set to marry the delicate 20-year-old Jetsun Pema (who did her schooling in India at Sanawar). And is it going to be an extravaganza designed to overshadow the Kate-William nuptials? “Oh, no!” insisted the P.M. when I asked, adding ,“Our King is keeping it small and simple. He is not planning to invite international media, nor heads of state to the wedding. Not even kings and queens from across the world. He is a very unassuming, reserved man.” In that case, I must have clicked a really rare photograph of the couple on the day of their engagement when they casually strolled into our Ambassador’s home which is located on a sylvan 70-acre property (the site was selected by Indira Gandhi). King Wangchuk placed a protective arm around his fiancee’s shoulder and smiled for the camera. Perhaps a fairytale wedding is being ruled out at this point. But don’t bet on it not happening.As for me, I got my fairytale moment with the couple, and I’m not complaining!