Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bebo's Style Bible...

 It's party time! What a super fabulous way to launch the imprint! I am on top of the world!


This appeared in Mumbai Mirror on Saturday....

                               Like a virgin…

Last week, I made my virgin trip to Assam. I am ready to make a shame faced confession, right here, right now : visiting the Seven Sisters was never a top priority. I was attracted – yes – but also apprehensive. The usual reservations : is it safe? Will I  get my head blown off by assorted insurgents? How does one even get to the North East? Stupid, ignorant reservations, I agree. And then came the invitation to visit. Daunting logistics followed. No direct flights to Guwahati from Mumbai… I was told it was easier and cheaper to go to Bangkok. But I wanted to go to Guwahati, not Bangkok, I clarified. WHY???? asked the bewildered travel agent. Good question. Many lousy excuses later, the trip was on. Well… media men, Zarir Hussain, and his older brother Wasbir , took care of all earlier doubts ( with a little extra persuasion from Arnab Goswami – a proud son of Assam himself). I was invited to present an Award ( Assamese of the Year) to Olympian Shiva Thapa – cute as a button and all of nineteen. Apart from this important event, I had long nurtured a selfish interest or two in visiting Guwahati. Dipping my feet into the mighty Brahmaputra that flows through the city, was one. And paying obeisance to Kamakhya, the Mother Goddess, who resides in a deep dark and wet cave ( the sanctum sanctorum of the ancient temple) was another. This historic pilgrimage site is perched  800 feet above sea level on the top of the Nilachal Hill. And here’s the interesting part :  Consider this - the Brahmaputra, which flows past Nilachal Hill, is the only ‘male’ river in India. I needed to check out its testosterone levels ( very alpha and most impressive).  Kamakhya being a Shakti Peeth, is fiercely female, the seat of Tantricism,  and perhaps the most important manifestation of female energy. The juxtaposition! Wow!  I, umm,  desperately needed my fix of unadulterated female energy. I am happy to report, I experienced an overwhelming surge of the same, as I crouched next to the natural underground stream in the cave ( let me skip the yoni reference) and tasted the icy cold water. It did wonders for my estrogen levels. I swear! And I exaggerate not when I say I emerged from the dark recesses of the cave into bright sunlight feeling like Angelina Jolie on steroids or Lara Croft unchained. I was ready to take on the world.
Legends around the divine power of Kamakhya abound. She is often described as the ‘Menstruating Goddess’ . The annual Ambubachi festival attracts thousands of visitors from across the world. The privacy of the Goddess is scrupulously maintained for those three days when the underground stream turns blood red  ( iron oxide). Childless couples throng the courtyard seeking divine intervention. Tantriks make a fortune, as believers sip a mildly intoxicating brew out of a monkey’s skull.Some blessed couples return a year later,carrying new born infants in their arms. Who can question faith and miracles? On its part, the ferocious Brahmaputra claims its own victims when it floods. A centuries old structure named ‘Urvashi’ juts out into the river and is closely watched by locals when the waters start to rise dangerously. It is believed the town of Guwahati will get entirely submerged the day the tip of the Urvashi tower goes under water.
I met several bright ,beautiful and accomplished ladies of Guwahati, including a senior cop. I asked them about the Kamakhya effect. Did they feel more empowered living in the shadow of the awe inspiring Devi? They exchanged looks and smiled mysteriously. One of them confessed coyly that the last time she had spontaneously gone up to her husband to give him a cuddle, he had looked up in alarm and asked, “What’s wrong?” She said, she had shrugged and said, “Nothing…. sorry!” Oh oh. I looked across the room at their husbands who were busy sorting out national and global problems. I figured the  macho Brahmaputra had exercised its effect on that lot. They were happy in their alpha heaven. As for us, we were left stranded on the banks of the male river, waiting for deliverance…despite Kamakhya watching over us. My own pumped up estrogen levels  were also rapidly waning. No worries. I’ll find me a new fix soon.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The SDe book imprint launched at the JLF

What a Lit Fest! I had a BRILLIANT time at the just concluded JLF. Got back exhausted but exhilarated late last night after launching my imprint, the SDe Book, on the Front Lawns - the hallowed top spot at the JLF, which was packed to capacity for my session titled ''Çelebrate Shobhaa', ably moderated by the very competent Ashok Ferrey, the talented writer from Sri Lanka.Do note my vibrant Socialite Bag, a merchandising tribute from my publishers, a bow in the direction of my very first book, 'Socialite Evenings'. I love it! And it matches my mad caftan, too!
This appeared in the Asian Age on Saturday....

                                                      Rahul Baba – Maa da Laadla
Coronation of a Prince....

Now that the deed is done, let’s pump the lad’s hand and get on with it. Wait a minute. Did I just use the word ‘lad’? Ooops. Rahul  Gandhi at 40 plus is no lad. Laadla, yes. Not just his mother’s, but, as the Congress grandpas are hoping, of the entire nation’s too. Don’t laugh. It may yet happen. Anything is possible in this pathetic scenario with the acute paucity of leaders. But before we start singing hosannas and rush out to anoint the Dimpled Darling, we really need to get a few things right. For starters, can we stop this nonsense of referring to him as a Youth Leader? Or a Youth Icon? What youth? At his age, Barack Obama was a Senator from Illinois, already eyeing the White House.Today, at 51, Obama has just been sworn in for a second term as President of America. And our Rahul (just 9 years his junior)

 has yet to take his first few baby steps in the big, bad world of politics. Even so, compared to the fossils in his party, it is understandable that they would want to propel him forward as a youthful leader who could then become the youthful prime minister – just like his Daddyji before him. Perhaps his stubble and disheveled appearance are a part of that construct. Perhaps his minders have decided that’s the look which will click with Youngistan. Maybe they are right. And maybe his critics are totally wrong when they mock his speech after this week’s dramatic nomination and elevation. I have a feeling even that ( babalog speech) was a part of the overall positioning strategy. Here’s the possible scenario : Diggy and gang went into a huddle after the Reluctance Prince had been talked into accepting the number 2 position in the party.  Once that tiny detail was out of the way it was decided that Rahul Baba should make an untutored, straight from the heart speech after the mini-coronation. Sceptics who  may have pointed out that it was not the best idea given our Baba’s…. ummmm, lack of political experience, were haughtily dismissed by Diggy and everybody went home happy. Then came the ‘cold and dark’ night which saw Rahul Baba in an agitated frame of mind. He thought long and hard about the most difficult decision he has ever taken and several thoughts ran through his head. Bingo! His speech wrote itself! He confessed he had watched his mother cry just once.  Earlier, she had surprised everyone by hugging him in public. He  too had  allowed himself to blush, dimple and hold back tears. The moment of truth was but a few hours away. What on earth would he say to the waiting world?
Aha. India found out soon enough. We discovered through our Prince that power was actually poison. But the good son was willing to drink poison for the sake of the country. There was a Christ-like message in the imagery. The chalice was in place. Rahul had no choice but to do the noble thing, as several members of his family had done earlier – and take a swig. During his Garden of Gethsemane moment, he remembered his late father (“ the bravest man I know’) and the tears in Rajiv’s eyes when his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated. And now, here he was,  Rahul the dutiful son, ready to embrace his destiny and take charge of India. I have to confess I am a sucker for sentimentality. Never mind the Doubting Thomases who scoffed at the naivete of  Rahul’s childish speech, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. My motherly self reached out to the lad ( yes, at this point he had regressed and become an endearing lad), and my tear ducts went into over drive. I told you I’m an absolute sucker! What to do?
Political analysts insist Rahul Baba wasted a golden opportunity. Instead of a mature, well thought through State of the Nation address a la Obama,  Rahul converted the occasion into a maudlin Gandhi family melodrama. That is true.  So he did. But why not? How smart of him ! Rahul is no Obama. He is Rahul. A pretty simple minded chap, incapable of grand standing or brilliant oratory. It was clever of him to discard any official speech that may have been prepared for him, and decide to speak from the heart instead. At least the guy sounded genuine! But, hello! Was it smart of him to also indulge in much needed party bashing ? I think so. Rahul merely said what others have been voicing for the longest time. He had the guts to articulate popular sentiment and say it like it is. In the bargain, he did sound like a class monitor scolding naughty students . But frankly, better that than a  Sermon on the Mount.Rahul talked about reaching out to Young India in a more meaningful way. That was pretty cool. What wasn’t as cool was his reference to those leading an ostentatious life and depending on their privileged positions to protect them. His digs at Delhi’s Lal Batti culture must have reddened the faces of  several of his own party men.  Khair,Rahul sounded really cute when he made that remark. Mainly because he himself is probably THE most privileged person in India right now. Was it then , a wasted opportunity? Did he look like a wimp when he went on and on about his tete a tete with Mummyji? Yes, he most certainly did. But let me tell you, every desi mother watching him on tv that day must have wished fervently, “Beta ho toh aisa!” Let’s start counting those female votes, folks. The numbers are pretty awesome. Which is what makes me believe that the chweetie pie  speech was no accident. Whosoever designed it deserves loud applause. Taaliyaan ! India is a country of over emotional Matajis. Rahul managed to tug at several thousand heart strings in one go. He is no intellectual. But this one time, I for one think he got it right! Rahul was spot on! Chew on that, Narendra Modi.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Off to the Maha Kumbh of Literature in Jaipur! These images are from the absolutely wonderful fruit and vegetable market in Guwahati. I came back with two cartons filled with veggies and fruits ( did you know Guwahati is the pineapple capital of the world?). Those gooseberries are from Kashmir. And I pounced on the oranges from Meghalaya and Bhutan - the sweetest on earth!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bharat Ratna for Nirbhaya??

Will the Government of India have the guts to confer the highest civilian recognition on the Nameless Nirbhaya, who has become a symbol of courage and defiance for every woman who has ever faced violence and fought back bravely? I doubt it. The Republic Day celebrations tomorrow offer little hope for our women. The usual suspects will receive the usual national awards - the Padmas and more.  Nobody will remember or care who won what even one day after the announcements. Nirbhaya may be given some token recognition. But even that will not be without debate, considering what an embarrassment her death has been to the Dilli wallas. Shame!
I am off to the Maha Kumbh of Literature at Jaipur tomorrow. It's an annual ritual I look forward to.

The two images above record the magical moment  just after I stepped into the icy cold, rapidly moving waters of the mighty Brahmaputra in Guwahati earlier this week. It was a dream come true! The river is indeed magnificent, as the picture reveals.This trip along the banks of the Brahmaputra was right after a wonderful 'darshan' at the centuries old Kamakhya temple close by. Another dream that became a reality! As I am sure some of you know, the Kamakhya temple is the seat of Tantric energy and thought, being a primary Shakti Peeth. I was in Guwahati to deliver a keynote address on Violence against Women. And to present the Assamese of the Year award to Olympian boxer Shiva Thapa, all of nineteen!
 More pictures coming up tomorrow!

                                             Love and self-loathing…
A few weeks ago, I was talking to dinner companions at a lively soiree hosted by a public intellectual. As is the case these days, our conversation kept coming back to the death of the 23-year-old rape victim in Delhi.The erudite husband of a beautiful lady seated at the table, wondered aloud as to what is worse – an acid attack or rape? I was startled by the comment and asked him to elaborate. He said with complete sincerity, “ An acid attack is far worse for a woman since it disfigures her.” Still startled, but not wishing to appear rude, I requested him to clarify further. He answered thoughtfully, “ A rape victim can walk down the street confidently, and nobody will know she has been raped. But what can the poor acid attack victim do? Her scars are there for the world to observe.” Later the same night, I couldn’t get the conversation out of my head. Imagine the ‘choices’ we as women have – acid Vs. rape. One , visible. The other, not. Both violent. In a bizarre context, which is the bigger trauma? If a woman is given such a sadistic choice by an oppressor… would she be in a position to select? “ Please, Sirji…. go ahead and rape me. But… but… hold the acid!” Has it really come to that? Are visible scars far more painful than internal ones? Or is it back to the same old problem faced by women down the centuries :  “Never mind what happens to me behind four walls. Beat me, rape me, throttle me, gag me – but don’t leave any evidence behind. For , if you do, the shame of that revelation  will be far harder to live with than the  lifelong sorrow of the body having been sexually violated.” A woman is an expert at keeping countless secrets. Some of these dark secrets haunt her till she dies. Sexual abuse, often by close family members, is one of them. She is expected to stay mum, or face the wrath of her family and the samaaj at large. She becomes a sullied creature. No better than used merchandise. Her family conspires to pass on the tainted woman to an unsuspecting groom. In all this, nobody bothers to find out what hell the victim herself is going through. Having spoken to several women trapped in such appalling circumstances, I can tell you, there is just one pre-dominant emotion: self- loathing. A woman who has been brutalized physically by a man, is further brutalized emotionally, generally by her own self.
This is how it has always been. Female guilt is rarely understood. It is somehow  not particularly ‘important’ to anybody. People scoff, “ Oh… you women are such whingers! Stop going on and on about your bloody guilt. Or deal with it yourself.” Quite forgetting the larger question :Why should the victim feel guilty in the first place?
We are conditioned to accept ‘our position’ in the overall scheme of things. If a woman dares to defy that assigned position, she is branded a trouble maker…. dangerous to society. She has to be suitably punished. This punishment takes several forms – some are so subtle as to be more lethal than even a harsh beating. When a woman begins to hate herself, it is the equivalent of  a slow and painful death. Day by day, she dies a little. If her family notices and does nothing about it, she herself  accelerates the process. Often, she ends up taking her own life. The family is relieved. It is considered the honourable thing to do. At the back of their minds is the sneaking suspicion that she had it coming. That she had asked for it. That she deserved to die. Rape victims are judged and condemned far more than the dastardly perpetrators of the crime. ‘Why me?” the victim keeps wondering. And the answer she receives says it all : “You obviously invited it. You must have provoked the man.”
Nirbhaya’s case is different. There were not just six penises involved. There was also the killer iron rod. It was not just rape. It is murder. And what has horrified people across the country is that ghastly detail involving her intestines being pulled out. As any student of basic biology will tell you, one cannot pull out intestines from a woman’s vagina. Let’s leave this sordid story here. It fills one with such deep anguish, that Nirbhaya’s excruciating pain during  her courageous struggle becomes ones own.
Who deserves the Bharat Ratna in 2013? There’s no contest. It has to be Nirbhaya.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Have we finally had it with war games???

  This glorious white peacock was spotted by my daughter Arundhati in Juhu last week! He appeared.... almost like a vision.... and she clicked him quickly! It was a good omen , I told her. And I swear everything is suddenly better! Thank  you, peacock!

This appeared in Sunday Times today....

                               Have we finally had it with war games??
 Have we finally had it? Or.... are we being had? Last week was a particularly disturbing one.The number of mixed signals coming our way from assorted sources, added to the aggravation. Suddenly, the trauma of rape was out and Pakistani atrocities were in. The deeply shocking story of Lance Naik  Hemraj Singh’s brutal beheading took over every conceivable space in media. And we had gauche, inarticulate anchors blabbing away incoherently about how ‘bizarre’ and ‘obnoxious’ all this was… and how India must retaliate. Retaliate? How? Sushma Swaraj promptly provided an answer . Rashly and impetuously she thundered that for every Indian head we lose to Pakistan, we should bring back ten! Coming from a senior politician, this was a seriously dumb statement. Fortunately, the average citizen’s response was far more sober, intelligent and considered. Soon we had a cacophony of voices banging on about the signals we need to send out to our neighbor…. to America…. to the world. Nobody made much sense, least of all our Prime Minister who finally opened his mouth to declare it was ‘not business as usual’ with Pakistan. Really? No kidding! Everybody wanted to know what exactly he meant by that ambiguous, entirely vague remark. What ‘business’? What is ‘usual’ when it comes to Pakistan? As always, it was left to Pakistani spokespersons to smoothly ride over the crisis… pass the buck… and move on. All of this while the perfectly matched chiffon dupatta  stayed demurely in place  without once slipping off the coiffed head. The Birkin offensive worked – yet again!
Meanwhile, our bewildered citizens suddenly discovered the identities of a few hitherto unknown top brass of the army, who came out guns blazing, all bristling moustaches and belligerent words. “They fire.We fire,” declared Army Chief Gen.Bikram Singh. While one gentleman spoke about retaliatory action ‘at the appropriate time’ ( and when would that be, Sir?). The other spoke ominously about his ‘hope’ that our government would extend support to the army.  Huh? Iska matlab? Were we meant to read between the lines and draw our own conclusions? Was the Government holding back on required support? And support for what? Did a Lt.Gen need to send out such a crucial message using television channels to convey it? Who was this message meant for? Those  in power in Delhi? Their counterparts in Pakistan? The Americans , who are once again leaning just that much more towards our (un) friendly neighbours these days? The world at large? Bhagwan only knows.
Meanwhile, our hard working anchors were relentlessly at it . An emotional storm was being systematically whipped up. Panelists were frothing at the mouth. And everybody was in overdrive covering the grisly minutae of the heinous beheading and milking every tiny detail in a way that was embarrassing,morbid and insensitive.Suddenly, Nirbhaya and those 67 daily rapes across India – the ones that get reported – became stale news. There were no new angles to exploit. India had swiftly moved on. Hemraj Singh was the new martyr. And Pakistan had to be whipped once more in public.The flogging seems to be on hold for now. Pakistani actress Meera has planned a peace march in Delhi.Her agenda involves the granting of 5 year visas to Pakistani artists, and has nothing to do with heavier issues. A particularly clumsy gesture involved Pakistani hockey players being unceremoniously packed off. Raj Thackeray got into the act and accused our government of playing up the beheading of a brave soldier as a diversionary tactic.The rather pathetic truth is that countless people believed Raj! That’s how low our morale is right now. We are prepared to accept the worst charges against the ruling class. Even charges as grim as this one. Lots of loud noises later, the Hemraj story , too, is limping along, with non-committal comments from both sides of the border, after the shrill ‘war-mongering’ charges made by the beauteous Ms. Birkin herself. Everybody is ‘backing off ’.The  daily routine of  strutting and posturing is over.Soon it will indeed be back to business as usual. Sorry, Manmohan Singh.You’ll have to come up with a better line… and quickly at that!

Why I love bitches....

 You are going to see a lot of Gong Li in this space. She is ravishing, isn't she?And a complete heart breaker. We've had visitors all day to take a look at our newest family member. I am besotted!
This is my new column in Mumbai Mirror. Meenal Baghel, the spirited editor, has added a clever tag line : "How to be a chick, and other life lessons."'  I have received an overwhelming response to the column - good and bad. Something tells me THIS is the most fun column I'll be writing...Blogdosts - feedback needed!
                         Why I love bitches…
Soon… really,really soon….there will be a new bitch in my life. I can’t wait. I am very partial towards bitches. This one happens to be  smashing looking to boot. And quite a coquette. Perfect. As you may well have guessed, she is a four legged female dog. A stunner, who has broken several hearts already. She certainly broke mine the moment I laid eyes on her in Pune. My sister Mandakini and I jointly christened her Gong Li.This was a sneaky trick designed to melt my husband’s heart and take care of any resistance from his side. He is an ardent fan of  Gong Li - the beauteous Chinese star of movies like ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and ‘Farewell ,my Concubine.’
Her predecessor Kiara, was another ravishing female canine, all sleek lines and smooth moves. After her, I was determined to stay away from heartbreak. But one look at Gong Li, and I was smitten. I love bitches. It works in exactly the same way with humans who share traits that we nastily and rather inaccurately refer to as ‘bitchy’.  It’s a seriously awful word. Most times it is used recklessly to describe any woman who has dollops of attitude and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. If she also happens to be a man magnet,it makes it that much easier to brand her. Even if she hasn’t done anything specific to tantalise admirers. I remember a distant time in Bombay ( it was still Bombay then), when ferocious socialite wars had broken out. The scale and intensity of the brawls would have made Sean Penn playing Mickey Cohen in ‘Gangster Squads’ look like a docile, well trained spaniel. The word ‘Bitch!” was spat out several times in public. Sides had to be taken. Like George Bush Jr. the message was unambiguous and strong: either you were with one of the socialites, or against her. The question of remaining neutral did not arise.
Years later, history repeated itself. The cast of characters had changed. But not the negativity and viciousness. The scene had shifted from South Mumbai skirmishes featuring high priestesses of all that is stylish and extravagant, to upstartish Bollywood Divas settling scores and ostracizing predators. But that word ‘bitch’ stayed a constant. It’s another matter altogether that the younger generation throws ‘bitch’ around with total nonchalance. To call a hirsute , louche chap a ‘bitch’ is taken as a compliment. Most young girls prefer to be addressed as ‘dogs’.  A poster states, “Men are the new bitches.” Everybody is pretty cool about it. Even the bitches themselves, who shrug, laugh and happily admit there is nothing quite as fun as a good bitch- out with gal pals and a couple of gay buddies. A worthy gentleman I know quite well,proudly describes himself as ‘the biggest bitch in town.’No contest, there! I have also been present when serious corporate types ( men)  have savaged contemporaries with devilish glee and indulged in what can only be described as heavy duty bitching. Delicious !Maybe inside each one of us lurks a closet female dog. Some are reckless enough to let the beastie out occasionally. Modern day sociologists insist occasional bitching is good for blood pressure. It’s a valid stress buster that makes one feel lighter. What’s the point of stored up bile, a doctor asked me one day. Quite so. That was all the endorsement one needed. I instantly passed on the good news to my friends. And we felt vastly relieved. Bitching became something the doctor ordered - cathartic…. even therapeutic. And we felt terribly sorry for all those people who harboured homicidal thoughts about half the world , but not a single undiplomatic word ever emerged from their mouths. Bores! Today, bitching is seen as an art form. It is fairly acceptable democratic and kosher to indulge in it from time to time . To bitch or not to bitch is no longer the question. Not to be bitched about is a far worse social crime. Bitch and be damned being the new mantra, I guess it’s flattering to be identified as a ‘Bitch Goddess’  by the wannabe amateurs in our midst.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

'The young middle-class Indian is more concerned with Birkins and bikes and the EMIs on a new home and travelling abroad than politics,'

novelist Shobhaa De tells's Savera R Someshwar and Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

Political parties and politicians are becoming richer and richer, while India has become poorer and poorer and poorer feels novelist Shobhaa De.
That was a good reason to profile politicians, with not too much kindness, in her latest novel Sethji.
De discusses politics, the bleak situation in India, its youth and the writing scene with's Savera Someshwar and Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

The youth of India are very, very disillusioned about politics. What would you tell them?
They are entirely justified in feeling disillusioned.
But disillusionment is not going to change a thing. It's not enough to say I'm disillusioned! What are they going to do? Light candles, write protest songs, have overnight vigils somewhere, hunger strike for a couple of days? It doesn't help.
You have to channelise that disillusionment, that rage... You can't feel powerless. You cannot feel helpless. You cannot expect the change to come miraculously out of thin air... that a fairy godmother or godfather will show up and wave a wand and bingo! It will all be fixed.
If they want things to change, they have to speak up.
Like they say, the greatest tragedy is not the clamour of the strident voices of the bad, but the appalling silence of the good.
So, if they want that change, they have to jump into it, get their feet dirty, get their hands dirty and fight from within. They cannot stand on the sidelines and say I'm disillusioned, I'm hurt, I'm feeling terrible about this.
Look at what's happening in other countries. Look at the Arab Spring. Look at the young all across the world.... when they feel strongly enough, they do something about it. The young of India have to do that.

Maybe the situation in India is not as bad as Egypt.
I think the biggest difference is that we are still living in a democracy.
In Egypt and elsewhere, they were living under dictatorships where they had no voice at all. There was a huge amount of suppression, a huge amount of rage that was fermenting for decades. But there was no way of giving expression to it.
It's a different situation in India.
Having said that, I think the young middle-class Indian is more concerned with the Birkins and the bikes and the EMIs on a new home and travelling abroad. Their focus is different.
It's much more of an aspirational world that they want desperately for themselves rather than becoming politically active, politically aware or even engaging themselves enough.
They might do it through NGOs; they feel, I go on the weekend and teach slum children so I've done my bit for India but that's not enough. It's really not enough unless they actively engage in politics as it is today at the grassroots level or challenge the status quo, challenge the system.
I don't see that happening in a hurry, but who knows?

Is it because politics is not considered an honest, lucrative profession?
Lucrative, yes...
Lucrative yes, but it's not an honest way to make money. You can make a lot of money and, once you become even an MLA, you are set for life. But do they see this as sacrificing too much, giving up too much?
No, I don't think they (the youth) have the guts and the stomach for politics.
It's not about giving up a thing.
Everybody in India knows, even the illiterate man on the street knows that even if you get to the sarpanch level or the municipality, you will still make more money, illegally of course, than you ever would struggling and toiling in a factory or in any other noble, honest profession.
Everybody knows what the deal is in politics and perhaps that deters a few right-minded individuals.
The young Indian -- those who are in a hurry to make it in politics, and they talk about it openly -- says, 'Forget about becoming an entrepreneur, forget about setting up a factory, forget about borrowing money from banks which you may not be able to repay, just get into politics yaar! You'll make more money in five years than you'll make in 50 years.' It will be more than what their fathers and grandfathers have ever made...
That is the prevailing situation, that's how people feel. It's very cynical, but there it is.

As a mother, I feel this generation has none of the idealism that, let's say, my father's generation had.
As a mother, how do you personally try to grow your own children's idealism?
The only way to do it is to demonstrate it in your own life. Otherwise, it will be really hypocritical and nonsensical and today's kids will tell you exactly where to get off.
For example, if I were to indeed go out and buy a Birkin bag -- which I do not, and will never, possess -- and then come and preach austerity to them, they're going to laugh in my face. You have to walk the talk with your kids because they can't be fooled.
If there are issues that concern you deeply, as they do me and my husband, even at the risk of being preachy old fogies and having the children say, 'Oh God, there they go again with their bhashans (speeches) and gyaan (knowledge).' It doesn't deter us, we don't give up.
We keep talking about it and, hopefully, at least one percent of it does percolate.
The basic message, which I think is worth repeating to your kids, is that they should lead an honest life without compromise; they should lead a life of integrity where they can look themselves in the eye in the mirror and not shudder or blink.
That's the best you can do. Other than that, I'm not Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

What goes through your mind when you look at where India is, politically and economically, today?
You can't divide the two.
Politics and economics go hand in hand, so what we are seeing in the last few years is that the political parties and politicians have become richer and richer and richer while India has become poorer and poorer and poorer.
It's not that we don't have the wealth. We have the resources. We have the brains. We just don't have leadership. That is the crisis we are facing today and that is the crisis I hope the next election will set right.
What gives you a feeling of hope as far as India's future is concerned?
The young, the educated, the restless, the impatient and the angry.

Do you think not having the expectations and responsibilities of a family make for a different breed of politician?
You have to be married to politics if you take it seriously enough.
You really have to be married either to politics or to Bill Clinton; only then can you succeed.
If you have a Bill Clinton as your partner, then he's the one who's going to be driving you further into a political career that works for you as a couple. But even he is saying, and he sounded almost sad saying it, that Hillary wants to become a grandmother more than she wants to be the president of the United States of America.
It's very hard, especially for women in politics, to find that balance. Politics is hugely demanding. It takes a lot out of anybody, man or woman.
If you want to succeed, I'd say marry politics and forget about a sex life; forget about everything else.

The other side of the coin is dynastic politics -- where you want to hoard everything for your son/daughter; the desperate need to have your son/daughter succeed you.
What do you think goes on in the mind of this kind of politician?
I would love to know! I've tried in Sethji to explore what goes on in the minds of these politicians. But it is inevitable, it is natural.
One sees it in corporate life. Today, politics is business; it is dhanda. I've said it in the book.
Just as a large corporate house would want to keep all the money and the power within the family, and succession plans are based not on merit but on the son or the nephew or an adopted son or a foster son or son-in-law and so on, in politics too, it is the same principle.
In India, there is a great amount of reverence and respect for continuity and dynasty. It provides Indians with a sense of security. It's like being in a womb where you fully looked after; the environment is not alien to you.
Whether in politics or in corporate life, dynasty is something we've been accustomed to for decades. I don't see that changing in a hurry.

Going back to your book, it seems like you've exaggerated the stereotype of the politician or the political game. Was it deliberate?
Secondly, do you feel that Sethji really exists as he is exactly portrayed in your book with no shades of grey?
Well, tell me where the exaggerations are and I'll be able to answer your question.
What is exaggerated about (Sethji's daughter-in-law) Amrita's life or Sethji's life?
In the sense that politicians may be...
Ruthless? Immoral? Venal?

Well, yes, and also in the way they dress. Now they look a little bit like (Union ministers) Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia...
Suit-boot wallahs? Are they really all that different?
They have been marinated in a certain political environment. They may have better accents. They may dress sharper in designer wear. They may have been to foreign universities.
But scratch the surface and you see the same old (pauses) creature.

I am still trying to understand why you chose to portray Sethji in a dhoti?
Today, when you use the word neta (leader), the average Indian, even the educated young Indian, will think of the topi (cap) and the dhoti and a politician from perhaps the badlands in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.
They will not think of a Jyotiraditya. They will not think of a Manish Tiwari. They will not think of a Milind Deora.
That is the politician that is imprinted on the public imagination. That is the politician who is the symbol for venality, corruption, immorality -- everything that we find loathsome in our system.
As far as grey shades are concerned, Sethji does have his vulnerabilities. I think they come through in many ways -- particularly when it comes to caste, to his own being and his health. There are areas where he is not even half as tough as Amrita for example she takes far tougher decisions.
To me, the dynamics of the book were about Sethji battling with the new India, a new political system, a new political order which has marginalised a lot of the Sethjis in our midst, whether it is in regional politics or in Delhi.
Sethji, for example, is out of his depth dealing with the polished new political creature in the corridors of power in Delhi or in the corporate corridors in Mumbai. But that does not mean they are not succeeding (in dealing with them).
Politicians like Sethji are big players in their own way; they are just unable to speak the new language of politics.
But the canny political brain ticks away regardless; there is no such word as compromise in Sethji's book. Nothing is a compromise if it means you are achieving what you set out to do and you have a target to meet.

Another character I'd like to talk about is Sethji's daughter-in-law, Amrita. She's strong, gutsy, vulnerable. There are many other women mentioned in the book, but all of them come across as very...
Phikha (watery)?
Well, the story was really about Amrita and Sethji. They were the central characters of the book and it is their relationship that drives the story and drives the book.
The other women characters are like cameos, they come and go. They are not that important; they weren't that key to the telling of the story from my point of view.

They don't come across as strong, not even Simran, the wannabe actress who has an affair with a powerful businessman.
People like Simran are survivors. They are creatures who exist on the periphery of politics, manage to get what they can -- a BMW or a rich boyfriend with connections or a farmhouse -- and run...
Even Sethji's political opponent within his own party is a tough lady. I don't think she is a pushover. But when she has to make a choice, she settles for the money. You see people like them all the time.

Coming back to exaggerated stereotypes, like, for instance, picking up the Birkin bag or getting into a fancy car... Is that deliberate?
It's deliberate.
If you notice, the book was written much, much, before the lovely, lovely, Hina Rabbani came to India with her Birkin. And all of India was obsessed with it.
There is a Birkin syndrome in India. We even have a movie character inspired by the Birkin, the Bagwati in Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara. That's the kind of iconic status we have given to a handbag, for Christ's sake.
So, yes, if Amrita is carrying a Birkin, I have used that particular bag deliberately!

You seem to be parodying, maybe as a side show in the book, our own lifestyle ...
Not mine. I don't possess a Birkin...

I mean, the way we treat our help for example. Is there a parody of all of us there and not just Sethji?
It's not a parody... it's just a social comment.
It is how we treat our help. Even in this day and age, in the 21st century, not much has changed. It is a feudalistic, patriarchal society. We still talk a different language to the help. And I am not just talking about the babalog in Delhi.
Whether it is in Mumbai or Kolkata or any other city, we do have these clearly defined lakshman rekhas (dividing lines) we simply will not cross.
You won't ask your help to sit down with you for a cup of tea at the dining table.
So it's not parodying it, it's merely reflecting our social reality.
How did you collect material for the Delhi part? That's tough because there's so much about politicians that we still don't know.
I didn't exactly move into one of those kothis (palatial houses) for my research if that's your question (laughs).
Having monitored politics in Delhi and elsewhere for over two-and-a-half decades, and having interacted and met with several politicians from Delhi, I have a pretty good sense of what goes on inside their heads.
I've visited their houses and know the way they live, the way they dress.
You have to be a keen observer. You need to listen. You need to be curious.
At the end of it all, it's a story that I am telling; I am a story teller.
Fiction is really not about re-creating and re-producing something. That would be journalese; that would be reportage.
A lot of it has to do with imagination, thank God, so a lot of it is imagined.
You seem to go back to the Shobhaa De formula. It's not there in India Superstar or in Letters To My Children, but it's there in your other books. You seem to believe that's a good formula to go by.
There is no such thing as a formula.
I mean, it's like saying what is the Yash Chopra formula? If there was such a formula, everybody would make a Yash Chopra kind of film. It's not that tough.
You can say I will look at all of Yash Chopra's films and pick the best elements and make a blockbuster like him.
The films he made were the films that were within him; they were the films he wanted to make; they were the films he was most comfortable with. It was turf he knew.
Similarly, my novels have all reflected, at different times, my interests, my travels, my curiosity, my concerns. And the books that you refer to, whether it was the India book or Letters To My Children
They tapped much more into the journalist in me because they were tracking changes in India at various levels -- whether it was in marriage or parenting or social change within India.
This book takes me back to fiction, back to story-telling which for me is Wow! It's like a luxury... It's like checking into the Ananda Spa in the Himalayas and just letting the imagination flow like the Ganga.
Your earlier book, Superstar India celebrates India, but Sethji de-celebrates India. Why is that?
Superstar India was written when we were really on the up, up and up.
2007 was such a fabulous year for India. There was so much hope and so much optimism. We really did walk with a different swagger. And we could not have anticipated this change in such a short span of time.
Superstar India was upbeat because I was feeling upbeat. India turned 60, I turned 60. It was like a parallel story.
And then came 2008 and the big crash worldwide; it didn't happen in India then but it did impact us hugely and everything went a bit out of kilter after that but...

So the de-celebrating of India in this book is reflecting your mood as well...
Completely. All that is awful and wrong and depraved about politics in India today is, in a way, symbolised in Sethji and the cast of characters; it shows us the amoral world that we are endorsing even through our silence.
So it was important for me to write this book now.

From romance and sex and Bollywood to politics... how did that transition happen in terms of your novels?
I wouldn't strictly call them romance and sex and Bollywood in quite the same way. I think each one of them was representative of a strong social change.
All of them were, in some way, a comment on what India was going through (then) which was quite cataclysmic at the time.
In many ways, they (De's novels) were ahead of their time, even if I say so (myself). For example, Socialite Evenings, which people imagined was just -- when I mentioned Malabar Hill and the life in south Mumbai, which is the life I know best; I've grown up here since the age of 10 -- a life I had invented.
Actually, that was the new India. That was a society in transition. At that time, we were not aware of it.
The people I described, the personalities in that book were individuals who I knew; they existed.
But when I mentioned Malabar Hill -- it was quite a prominent locale in the book -- people imagined I had merely superimposed Beverly Hills in the Indian context.
There was such disbelief! People could not imagine that was the high life of Mumbai -- it was pre-Antilla (Mukesh Ambani's home in Mumbai) you must remember. But, clearly, we were moving towards Antilla.
Socialite Evenings captured all of that in a way that was very truthful. Maybe people could not stomach that or they imagined I had imagined it all, which wasn't the case. It was reality as I knew it.
Similarly, Starry Nights, I think, remains the boldest and the most candid look at Bollywood from the inside out, rather than an outsider's version of it.
Let me put it this way -- it was not Madhur Bhandarkar looking at Page 3. It's very much a felt experience. Having edited Stardust for 13 years, I have an inside view.
Starry Nights remains, even today, the most definitive book about aspects of Bollywood that people still don't want to acknowledge. We still want to pretend there is no casting couch. We still want to pretend there is no underworld money. We still want to pretend it's all kosher.
It never was; it never can be.

What do you think of this whole boom in writing? There are so many books being released. Who are your favoured writers among the young set and why?
It's almost a flood of self-expression out there.
And why not? It's like a tsunami of literature coming out.
Everyone has a book and everyone wants to tell their story or everybody has a great idea for a book or a life experience that they imagine will transform the world.
I think it's fantastic because, for decades, there was no way for young people to get published. You had to be a name. Now, how do you become a name if no one wants to look at your manuscript? So it was a bit of a Catch 22 there.
Today, there are so many publishers and big players and international brands... the biggest merger (publishers Penguin and Random House) has just taken place. There will be more money. That will support the publishing industry. That will support young authors. I'm all for it.
Today, self-publishing is no longer considered disgraceful or demeaning. Those who cannot find publishing houses are quite happy to spend their own money and self-publish.
There are platforms across the board -- there are digital options. The world's gone mad with people wanting to express themselves, whether it's on YouTube or through writing. And the platforms are available.
To pick a favourite author would be a little difficult because, well, I can either write my own books or read everybody else's. And, as a publisher myself, I get at least 10 manuscripts a week to go through. And I enjoy that very much.
I see the vibrancy. I see the quality of writing. I see the ideas more than anything else. There are people wanting to say new things and they are saying them very well. So, as of now, it's boom time.
I hope the boom time stays. I expect that it will because younger and younger people are finding their voices and people are interested in those voices; they are finding their readers. They are finding an audience.

I don't want you to list only one name...
Throw a couple of names at me and I'll tell you.

Well, let's throw the most conventional ones... there's Rashmi Bansal, Amish Tripathi...

Yes, good writer. I liked his work (Amish Tripathi). I like what he stands for.
He's smart. He has reinvented and repackaged mythology in a way that is very sexy. Like a good marketing man, he has thought about how to position his books, how to create a brand.
I think he'd be in the top three in the publishing world today.

Anybody who you think may be a young Shobhaa De?
(Laughs) well, I've been waiting in journalism for 40 years for the clone to arrive. Waiting in fiction...
>But why have clones? Why have a young anyone?
There are so many young, fresh, wonderful, original voices. Why not just raise a toast to the original rather than a clone?

What's next on the anvil? Is a new book already in your head?
Yes, it's in my head.
I'm looking at a trilogy right now, but more than that I don't know because I need to nurse this baby -- that's Sethji -- through at least till the baby is a toddler and can walk on its own.
Once I am done with that, because the promotional activity will take at least another year, let's see...
But the book is definitely there. It's exploding out of my head, waiting to be written. So it's fiction for sure for the next five years.

Any hints?
No. My husband tried to pry it out of me -- he said could it be this, could it be that, you've left a window open here, could it be that character playing a more prominent... I told him I am not giving anything away for free.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toko! Toko!

Gong Li is in the house!

Sorry, Blogdosts.... I forgot all about posting this one. But, as they say... better late than never! It appeared in The Telegraph as a year-ender...

                                              2013: Toko! Toko!
I can’t seem to get that idiotic, catchy Honey Bunny jingle out of my head! I am hoping if I repeat it often enough and get further infected by its upbeat mood, everything will be ‘Toka! Toka!’ in 2013. What the hell is ‘Toko! Toko!’ ? I don’t know. I don’t care. It sounds good. More importantly, it makes me feel good. Try saying it a few times yourself. Go on – it’s easy! After feeling foolish the first couple of times, it will roll off your tongue easily and possibly bring a silly smile to your face as well. Fingers crossed, but I am desperately hoping the next year will be equally breezy and fun. God knows how we endured 2012 without losing it completely. Especially, during the last few weeks when we were hit by one nasty jolt after another.The worst one being the brutal rape of a 23-year-old young girl in a Delhi bus. What a horrendous end to a horrible year!
My reading is that 2013 will see us obsessed by 2014. We shall sleep walk through the coming year, with all our collective energies focused on the Big Moment in 2014 when India votes. Unless, of course, we are slapped with a mid-term poll ( hardly mid-term, though!), which we can least afford. If that takes us by surprise, we should be in a better position to anticipate another dramatic, unfactored development – a third front. If the third front does become a reality , we will then have to come to terms with a fresh player. The newest prime ministerial candidate on the block. And – hold your breath  -  that person could well turn out to be  (don’t laugh just yet)  Mulayam Singh Yadav. Everything is pointing towards such a scenario. As of now, the Congress Party is playing coy and refusing to nominate Rahul Baba for the top job. With that all important nomination in a limbo, the BJP is also avoiding the ‘M-word’ ( ‘M’ for Modi). This despite Modi’s convincing and expected recent win in Gujarat. If  the guessing game continues for much longer, it will be Advantage Mulayam. And if that happens, I’ll be most interested in monitoring  developments in the Bachchan parivaar. Why them? Well, Jaya is very much a Mulayam Singh loyalist with a visible and vocal presence in parliament. Meanwhile, Mr. Bachchan , as the brand ambassador of Modi’s Gujarat, is obliged to stick to his script so long as he’s the State’s ambassador. Recently, the bahuraani of the household, the beauteous Aishwarya Rai, has also been heard singing praises of Gujarat. That leaves Abhishek. Will Junior B align himself to his mother’s political party and declare  he’s a true blue U.P.walla? If that happens, would it be fair to say the Bachchans , between them have carved up large tracts of India in an impressive way? And that Bachchan Jr. has proved he’s a pucca Mama’s Boy? Aaradhya, being a new age baby, may float her own party down the line. But  for now, a fashion line called Baby B is entirely in order. Sigh! Speculations can be so meaningless and yet so delightful.
Mamatadi, according to West Bengal watchers, has spent most of last year mopping up crores and crores of  lolly so as to consolidate her supremo position within the party. Isn’t that always the official excuse of any new Chief Minister? No hard cash. No power. If her erratic policies and bizarre actions are leaving critics dumb founded, her supporters are expressing their loyalty each time she appears on a public platform protesting against something or the other. The rest of India remains flummoxed, mainly because people are unable to understand even a single word of what Didi  screams herself hoarse over. Was that Bangla? Ingreji? Hindi?Swahili? What is annoying Miss Hawa Hawaii -  FDI ? FBI? Something else? Your guess is as good as mine! All one can tell is that she is in a bad mood perpetually. Except when she’s dancing a jig with SRK. And so foul is that mood , one critical word against her and off to the clink goes the naughty offender! Hitler Didi  has become her popular moniker.
2013 has been officially declared the Year of Narendra Modi, now that the Gujarat Chief Minister has pulled off a hat trick in his state. Ab Dilli Door Nahi. From C.M. to P.M. It has been a long and well planned journey. Modi Dabannged India in style and now there’s no stopping the man. His victory speech said it all. Modi addressed the nation in general, and L.K.Advani in particular, when he promised his adoring supporters they’d be treated to speeches delivered in Hindi from now on. As a run up to the gaddi in Delhi, Modi has mugged up his lines very well indeed. With Rahul Gandhi still waffling and playing will-he-won’t-he  games, the Congress Party looks kinda like a headless chicken. If Chidambaram agrees to keep the hot seat  still warmer for the Reluctant Prince, the entire dynamics of the game will change dramatically. Chidambaram as a stand- in Prime Minister is a far more acceptable alternative to some other candidate plucked out of nowhere. Madamji trusts the canny P.C. ( well…. to the extent she trusts her own shadow), plus, old boy Singh and Chids go back a long way…remember, they are veteran World Bank buddies. It could be a really cosy set up, unless of course, Madamji herself decides the time is right to take over India . Officially, that is.
Sports’ pundits are taking bets 2013 will finally see Sachin Tendulkar heading back to the pavilion for good. I’d say, hold those bets. Sachin will retire when he is good and ready to walk. Not because the world of cricket wants him to. Chances of Dhoni marching into the sunset before Sachin does, are pretty high.Sweet irony, there! Dada will have the last laugh… as always. He knows his job as an expert commentator on television is safe. Sachin can’t talk, saala!
India only has two and a half sports stars to begin with. Right now our love affair is with Mary Kom. Mary herself seems keener on fashion shows and catwalks than pulling on those gloves and punching the hell out of opponents in the ring. Ditto for the buxom Sania and the toothy Saina. Fashion’s gain is the sports’ world’s loss.But these ladies do have nice legs and boobs. So who’s complaining?
In Bollywood, the Khans will be battling it out for that all important 100- crores hit. While nobody’s looking…. Ajay Devgn, Hritik Roshan, and Akshay Kumar may crack the 200- crore barrier and laugh all the way to the bank. Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor will keep those hot moves going in item number after item number.  From Fevicol to Superglue these two will stay in business . As for Deepika P, who knows, she may slither past them when they aren’t looking. She’s like that. Besides, Priyanka is far too busy in the city to care about Bollywood. And Vidya may produce a little  balan of her own now that the honeymoon is over.
As for us hacks and tv anchors… we’ll keep toiling away, demanding answers from the nation to questions nobody understands!
2013 is bound to rock! Happy New Year, readers!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

 A mid-morning coffee break in Dubrovnik.... please note : no lipstick! No bob-cut. Painted and dented? Who me?????

This appeared in The Week.....
                                 Lipstick and Coca Cola….
Abhijeet Mukherjee’s crass remarks about ‘dented and painted’ women who go to discos, made me think of my father who belonged to another century ( he was born in 1910). I figured my Baba was ten times more modern and progressive in his thinking than this  52- year- old M.P. claiming to represent the 21st century. My mother did not wear lipstick. One of my two sisters did.And I have always had a love-hate relationship with it. My father may not have ‘approved’ of lip colour, but he didn’t stop us from using it. Nor did he make us feel diminished because we did. But others around him certainly didn’t camouflage their attitude, which was one of  undisguised disapproval. To make matters worse, I sported what was termed ‘bob cut’ hair. And dared to expose my arms in sleeveless frocks. This shocked the neighbourhood and led to several unflattering, unsavoury comments that questioned my character. Seen in the context of the giddy ‘60s, such  narrow minded responses are understandable. But when an elected representative of the people shoves not just his foot but the entire leg in his mouth in this day and age, he cuts a very sorry spectacle indeed. What an embarrassment Abhijeet Mukherjee must be to his father, who is not just any other dad of a gauche son, but the President of India himself!
Perhaps Abhijeet was not really himself when he was caught on camera uttering those foolish words.But when he refused to express support for the protestors at India Gate, his apology was rendered instantly insincere and meaningless. He uttered the words in an emotionless, robotic manner, like he had been coerced into doing so.  An apology ‘under orders’ has zero worth. But let’s forget this solitary sorry specimen for now. Abhijeet is representative of countless men, and yes –  a fair number of women, as well  - those  who pass judgments on women who refuse to conform to prescribed rules. These rules include wearing make- up (“paint”) and increasingly, jeans. It is automatically assumed that women, who present themselves in a certain way, are  in reality nothing but bar hopping nymphomaniacs out to destroy our precious society with their wayward ways.
We have been brainwashed over decades to think of ‘fashionable’ ladies as harlots. Or at any rate, women whose moral codes are dodgy. Despite the vast number of  crack women professionals in every conceivable field in India, the silly perception still persists – a lipsticked mouth spells trouble. It remains a strict no-no. Closely followed by long painted nails and kajaal. This is before we even get to the women’s apparel. If it is fitted and reveals body contours, the woman stands little chance of being taken seriously by anyone. Never mind, that a saree draped in a certain way, can be far more revealing and seductive. This sort of ridiculous stereotyping of our women folk, has led to a host of social issues that go well beyond ‘eve-teasing’. When Abhijeet mocked what he dubbed the ‘pink revolution’, he was tapping into something deeper and desperately serious. Misogynists  like Abhijeet ( too many of them!), cannot and will not accept that a great deal has changed in Indian society since those distant days when women had no choice but to go along with society’s archaic laws that dictated the way women lived their lives – from their appearance to their conduct. Abhijeet’s arrogance is the arrogance of the ruling class ( not politicians alone, but men). His unguarded but essentially nasty insinuations may come back to haunt him later. In the interim, it is his stoic father who will have to keep his chin up and stay out of this messy fracas.
When I shared a TV platform with Abhijeet the night all hell broke loose, I actually felt sorry for the man. He looked drugged and robotic as he obstinately kept mouthing the same prepared lines. His expression was impassive. Most times he appeared bored. There was no reference to the horrific rape that had triggered off the protests in the first place. The subtext was clear : women ask for it. Especially those women who dance in discotheques and then turn up with candles because it is a trendy thing to do. The disconnect with Young India could not be more blatantly expressed. His idiocy will go down as one of the most chauvinistic comments of  2012. The world will move on. But I still wonder whether Abhijeet and others like him ever will.
Peace and safety in 2013, readers!