Saturday, November 30, 2013

The sad saga of Tarun Tejpal....

.This appeared in Mumbai Mirror today. Before the arrest...
                   Uneasy lies the head….
There was no escaping the word ‘uneasy’ this week. Too many awful things were taking place at  around the same time. The required mental space to absorb these rapid and sordid developments , was missing. The unease was caused on two levels – professional and personal. While I don’t know the Talwars,  I have  followed the grisly  five-year-old murder trial of Aarushi, their teenage daughter, in her own bed. What was a mystery back then, remains a mystery till today. Yes, even after the parents have been convicted of the crime ( life sentences for the double murders – Aarushi’s and  that of their domestic help, Hemraj). Then there was the equally disturbing Tarun Tejpal case, with all its bizarre twists and turns. No grisly murder here, except for the murder of several reputations. Trouble is, I know Tejpal. Not all that well. But certainly as a social friend, who has been to our home ( I have not been to his). We also have several friends in common, which was certainly not the case with the Talwars. The difficult questions  people in media were asking themselves last week were these : If you know someone  enough to invite them home, share a couple of meals with them and interact in an amiable way when paths crossed, how  difficult  is it to comment publicly on what has undoubtedly become one of the most high profile sexual harassment cases in recent times? The frank answer is ‘Very!” It is indeed very difficult to put your opinion on the line and say it like it is. But then again, is it fair to stay out of the dialogue because of this reason? To me, the answer is obvious: “No”. You don’t step out of something that is far bigger than the individual involved. You don’t stay silent when the issue is this important. Once the young journalist’s letter was leaked, everything  became fair game. Discourses on the mess raged across television channels and countless social media platforms. The mess got messier.  Especially after the far-from-dexterous handling of the crisis by a gang one can dismissively call ‘Friends of Tarun’. The dated idea of  ‘dog doesn’t eat dog’, combined with the even sillier institution of  the Old Boys’ Club showing public solidarity for one of their own, exacerbated the issue still further, making all those chaps bleating away on panel discussions , look rather foolish. The case being what it is, cannot be convincingly defended, even by Tejpal’s most loyal drinking buddies. They tried! But all they got for their show of loyalty was derision and sneering (“ Birds of a feather…”). Especially after Tejpal did an about turn and slandered the victim.
The Talwars had it tougher. The only people to put up a pretty spirited and valiant defense on their behalf were family members and their lawyer. The Talwars were pretty isolated by the time the verdict came in. And regardless of whether there is a section of society that still believes in their innocence, for all practical purposes, it’s now a dead story. Even though we still don’t know for sure who did it and why (murder weapon missing, motive not established). Both these Delhi-based stories packed a powerful emotional punch. Which is also why nobody could remain neutral or uninvolved in the debates that followed. In both cases, the targets were young, vulnerable girls. One is dead. The other is courageously fighting on. Something is terribly wrong. And drawing conclusions becomes that much harder when you know the accused. In this instance, Tejpal. It also makes one wonder whether one can really ‘know’ someone. To all those fellows standing by Tarun, and willingly sticking their necks out for him, my sympathies. They sound just as loutish as Tarun. But that’s entirely their prerogative. But for all those men and women who have stood by the victim from the word go – now, that takes guts. Loyalty is definitely a cherished virtue in these fickle times. But surely truth and fair play stand for much more?
I can hear the laughter of the men defending Tejpal as they as they order another round of beer at their favourite club. I can hear them say, “What’s the big deal? It was just another elevator encounter….like so many other similar encounters. Poor Tarun!”
Poor Tarun, is right. But NOT in the way his cronies mean it. And poor Talwars, too.

Moral bankruptcy is a great leveler…. and spares nobody. As no doubt Tejpal and the Talwars have discovered.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Silver lining for our golden years!

I am delighted to sign on as Brand Ambassador for NULIFE! Their motto? Grow Young!
Senior living is going to be the next big thing in India, as our cities shrink, life expectancy goes up and children don't have the time to look after ageing parents ( global problem). I liked the holistic concept that was presented to me before I signed on. The complex will be up and running in approximately three years. It promises security and top class health care at a pretty reasonable price. Check out the website and judge for yourself!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What sort of ''átonement'are we talking about??

This appeared in the Sunday Times...
             When  terms of ‘Atonement’  backfire….
I was tempted to write this column in Spanish ( thank you, Shoma Chaudhary), but thought better of  it, given that in any crisis, good, clear and honest communication has a far better chance of convincing people, than the use of fancy  language and childish taunts. Since we live in an age of Brand Success overriding virtually every other attribute, this week’s sordid scandal involving an alarmingly young (18) female employee fighting off aggressive sexual advances of her middle- aged (58)  boss/ mentor,  inside  the cramped confines of an elevator in a Goa hotel, is an interesting case in point. Regardless of  how the saga eventually pans out , the damage done to Brand Tehelka is looking pretty grim and perhaps irreversible. Enough has appeared about the lurid details of the case, so let’s skip the muck, and focus on what could have been done to salvage a pretty hopeless situation. And, more importantly, what wasn’t. Briefly put , the charge against Tarun Tejpal is serious. And here’s  Mistake Number One : It wasn’t treated seriously enough  -  either by Tejpal or his Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhary. Mistake Number Two: the wording of  Tejpal’s admission / apology. It was pretentious in the extreme. And sounded totally hollow. Excuse me, but who the hell talks of ‘atonement’ and ‘laceration’ except overwrought actors in dreadful Hollywood Biblicals from another era? Mistake Number Three : when the excreta had already hit the ceiling fan and there was clearly no going back, Ms. Choudhary chose to go on the offensive, instead of displaying remorse or even plain regret for what had transpired during her watch. She nonchalantly referred to the attempted rape of her junior colleague as an ‘untoward incident’. Mistake Number Four : Tejpal decided his own punishment for his ‘lapse of  judgement’ and grandly mentioned ‘recusing’ himself for six months. Nothing more was needed . The damage was done.
If only, the two main players in this mess ( Choudhary and Tejpal), had shown some sensitivity towards the victim ( that’s the very least under the circumstances), and done the right thing by seeking legal opinion to help the young woman , perhaps the widespread criticism that has hit them would have been less strident. There is nothing heroic about a sexual assaulter admitting his crime, especially since he was probably aware of the CCTV camera footage that  could eventually nail him. For his buddies to laud him for being ‘gutsy’ and ‘honest’ by owning up, shows a pathetically skewered way of thinking. It is the victim who showed guts by speaking up. Well after all hell had broken loose, and social media platforms had created a war zone out of the controversy, nothing of any worth was forthcoming from Tehelka’s side. And this is where arrogance and short sightedness kicked in. Asking a media person if he was ‘an aggrieved party’ compounded the original sin and only succeeded in alienating  / angering the press further. At this point, what Tejpal and Chaudhary  needed  was the support of   media colleagues and well wishers.  But after this boo boo, nobody of consequence was willing to stick his/her neck out and defend what was increasingly looking indefensible. Even those early sympathizers who were shocked that “ one of us” had done something this horrible!
Now that the Pandora’s Box has been pried open, it will be very difficult to put a lid on the scandal. By challenging public opinion, Chaudhary may have hammered the last nail into Tehelka’s coffin. The answer to her rather rude question , “Are you the aggrieved party?” thrown at a jouno, is a resounding ‘Yes’.  Every woman in India can claim to be the aggrieved party under these awful circumstances. Regardless of whether the young victim pursues the case, it is really out of her hands now. Public opinion is far more lethal than any amount of self-inflicted laceration and atonement . Admirers of  the Tehelka brand of journalism have long believed that this powerful brand stood for the truth. Stood for justice. Penning weak apologies in over heated prose is a poor substitute for both – justice and the truth.

A young woman’s dignity is worth much more than the token ‘atonement’ on offer. Who should know that better than the two firebrand crusaders and activists who had taken it upon themselves to teach India how to THINK?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

When a mentor becomes a predator....

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
              What happens when a mentor turns predator?
 I have been a working woman most of my adult life. Today, I have four daughters in the work place. I  have been very fortunate in that I managed to take my safety and security in the office entirely for granted and have come through without having to deal with a single unpleasant incident that could’ve scarred me for life. Can my daughters (and millions of working women across India), hope for the same? Going by several recent encounters of the unsavoury kind, the answer is obvious. Not because men have changed. But the times have. Women in an earlier zamana were conditioned by society’s lop- sided rules to shut up and put up if  the boss was acting ‘forward’ ( that was the strongest term used for what was and remains, nothing short of sexual harassment). Even mothers would advise daughters to change –  their way of dressing,  behavior, thinking. The unspoken message was unambiguous: men will be men. The boss is your superior. He can get you fired. You will lose your job. What then?
 Well, we now have the answer. And the answer is pretty simple : Speak up!This is exactly what Tarun Tejpal’s 18-year-old victim did. She plucked up the courage to nail her mentor/boss after she was ( allegedly) sexually assaulted by Tejpal (58), on two separate occasions at what has become an annual pilgrimage for the country’s intellectual elite – the THINK Fest in Goa. Let’s leave it to the Goa police to decide what happens next as per the law of the land. The incriminating CCTV footage is with them. And, of course, there is Tejpal’s own admission and apology. Without delving into lurid details,  but going by what is already in the public domain, it is safe to conclude that the 18- year-old employee (whose best friend happens to be Tejpal’s daughter), was traumatized enough to provide a detailed account of what happened inside an elevator, with a man who was not just her boss/ mentor, but also her father’s friend. A man she looked up to, admired and most importantly, trusted.  Here is the most disturbing part of the sordid saga. What were the victim’s options at that critical point when she had to get into the elevator with this figure of authority? Should she have refused to travel in the same elevator car, sensing the man’s intentions? Pressed the alarm bell? Complained to hotel security? Rushed to the police the next morning? Come on… how many inexperienced young girls would have the presence of mind to take any of those steps? She did what any frightened person would do – she spoke about her awful, emotionally shattering experience to her friends, and later to her family. That she must have been shell-shocked, is a given. That she must also have felt pretty powerless right after the attack, is understandable. It took the victim a few days to write an email to her Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhary. What happened subsequently with Ms. Chaudhary , need not be gone into here. The bald truth is staring us in the face – a mentor preyed on the vulnerability of a young, female employee and abused his power. Period. It is not an uncommon story. Predictably enough, the  trickle of  support Tejpal received was primarily  from other men -  his cronies.  That’s how most Boys’ Clubs operate around the world. Members immediately close ranks and stand by the accused man. No thought is spared for the woman who has been assaulted and humiliated.
Perhaps, this particular incident signals the beginning of the end of this form of female subjugation in the work place. The brave young victim chose to go public with what was a beastly attack on her, by a man she considered a father figure. There are thousands of women caught in similar situations. Forget committees and enquiries. Forget legalese and officialese. All those take time and test the patience of victims and their families. The first and most effective thing to do is expose the assaulter. Show zero tolerance. Go to the police. Demand justice. Shame the predator publicly. It is your dignity. Your life.

 No more suffering in silence!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Aapla Sachin....

This was written for a commemorative volume on Sachin, which was launched during his final Test Match...
                                      Aapla Sachin….
We Maharashtrians are a funny lot. To begin with, we don’t really have too many contemporary heroes ( the last icon was Chhatrapati Shivaji). Despite the acute shortfall of people to adore and worship, we are the last ones to wake up and applaud ‘our’ achievers. It is so typical of the community’s mentality, that once one of our own does receive world- wide fame and recognition, we quickly appropriate the person and take credit for the spectacular success (“ After all, he/she is a Maharshtrian… it is in our genes” ). So it was with the Master Blaster. Today, we possessively call him ‘Aapla Tendlya’. Sachin Tendulkar is as Maharashtrian as kandey-pohey. He may be one of the biggest global celebrities alive, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a true-blue Shivaji Park product – as unpretentious as vada pao or dahi misal. This is perhaps his biggest strength. Sachin has never forgotten his roots. And not all the commemorative gold Coke cans in the world can change that. It is his down to earth attitude that keeps him sane and sensible…. that took him to the top of the game. And has kept him there for 25 long years.
Most high profile Maharashtrians are not entirely comfortable with fame. Think Lata Mangeshkar. Sachin has lived with  adulation on a scale that very few human beings enjoy. But whether he is being carried on the shoulders of his team mates ( post-World Cup victory) or has fawning fans falling at his feet wherever he goes, the expression on his face rarely changes. He remains almost shockingly restrained . It is this restraint that has taken him to the pinnacle of his cricketing prowess. He gives nothing away – neither in defeat, nor when he is riding the wave. Some would call his  behaviour robotic and programmed. I call it his Maharashtrian reserve. The community tends to frown on an open display of  exhuberance in public. It is considered somewhat vulgar and déclassé. Modesty and reserve are highly prized virtues. Sachin has been raised to keep his head down and focus on the game. Period. This has clearly added to his character, particularly as a legendary cricketer whose every move makes it to the media. Sachin’s sang froid is both admirable and frightening. How can any super- celebrity remain this controlled, this untouched, this unmoved? Aaha. That’s why he is where he is in the competitive world of a multi-million dollar, high stakes game called cricket. Reticence rocks!
For 25 long years, Sachin has thrilled and mesmerized cricket fans across the world….even when he scores a duck – that is indeed some feat! What has baffled and frustrated critics is Sachin’s ability to walk away – image intact – no matter what the circumstances. Sachin is the original Inscrutable Indian. An enigma to all – fans, team mates, business associates. Everybody. But what nobody can take away from the God of Cricket, is his dedication to the game. Sachin breathes, eats, drinks, thinks, dreams, sweats and lives cricket. It is virtually impossible to separate the man from the game. Sachin IS cricket! He has served the game well. But the game has served him brilliantly, too. Today, Sachin ranks as one of the richest sports stars on Planet Earth. He has worked hard for his considerable wealth. What’s the bet he’ll work equally hard to grow it in the years to come. Sachin’s brain  is as mighty as his brawn. Though,his razor sharp  business acumen is the one trait he doesn’t share with the rest of the Maharashtrian community! Most of us are absolute duds when it comes to money matters.
Sachin’s single, most significant contribution to the game of cricket is a four letter word  -  H.O.P.E.  When the 16- year- old prodigy walked into a packed stadium in Karachi to play his first test match , every kid who had ever held a bat and ball ( be it in Shivaji Park, Azad Maidan or  the gullies of small town India ), started to believe he too could make it as a world class cricketer!  And this feeling coming as it did at a time when desi cricket was in a pretty hopeless state, continues to inspire young, aspiring cricketers so many years later. It was sheer brilliance that dazzled the world back then. And continues to, even today. From a no-hoper, demoralized side, Sachin lifted India’s position almost single handedly to make it a world class team. This is why his debut against Pakistan on 15th November 1989 remains the single most defining moment in India’s cricket history.Those 15 runs he scored changed his destiny – and ours. A gutsy, curly mopped teenager from Mumbai confidently faced a tough Pakistani team without flinching ….. nothing was ever the same again!
People will be discussing the Sachin Era for decades to come. That is perhaps his greatest legacy. Once there was a Bradman.  Now there is a Sachin.
Long live Cricket. Long live Sachin.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Betting and rape - CBI Chief's outrageous comments.

This appeared In Asian Age....
                          What’s the difference between  betting and rape? Let’s ask the CBI Chief…
Ranjit Sinha ki toh hadd ho gayee! The CBI Chief ( no less!), has left India speechless with his crude, crass and callous comment earlier this week. While talking about legalizing betting in sports, he jauntily added his own perspective : “If you can’t prevent rape, enjoy it!” While the country was reeling from the atrociousness of this remark, especially since two important cases will soon be in the news – the Aarushi murder and the Nirbhaya rape  -  it made one question the CBI Chief’s right to retain his job While sacking the man is the prerogative of the right authorities, getting an apology out of him is a poor substitute. We can bay for his blood and express our collective outrage across platforms, but that will still not compensate for the damage done. For a man in his position and at his age to make a joke out of something as serious as rape, displays a lack of education, not just an absence of basic decency. No educated person would dare articulate such an odious comment if  there was a good education and the right upbringing behind him. And by education, I am not referring to a string of degrees from the best colleges in India and / or abroad. An educated person is one who follows a modicum of civility at all times. An educated person would never make the grave error of  trivialising something as terrible as rape. Especially not in a country that is reeling under what has been graphically described as a ‘rape epidemic’ this year, by the world press.
Most thinking people feel it ought to be made virtually impossible for Ranjit Sinha to crawl out of this mess without paying the price for his abject insensitivity.As an after thought, he has described the nasty sentence as a “proverb”. Which  book of proverbs is he referring to? The scary part is how casually other men have reacted to his gross remark. I was at a seminar the day this disgusting story broke.  And an elderly man got up to state he found such topics ‘superfluous’. Nobody  protested! The few women present tried to shut him up. But the other guys shrugged indifferently and even patted the man on his back, as if to say, “It’s really quite okay… don’t let these angry women browbeat you.” That is precisely why I believe Ranjit Sinha will get away with the loathsome comment, after a token ticking off. The rest of India will also move on, in search of other nauseating individuals uttering outrageously offensive sexist comments in public.
If you ask me, Sinha himself must be perplexed and wondering what is so terrible about his ‘joke’. For decades men have been saying the same thing - “ The only thing for a woman to do during a rape is to lie back and enjoy it.” Generally, if this is dropped in mixed company, other men laugh uproariously before correcting themselves and looking sheepish. But that only happens when  women  glare and express their rage / contempt .  I have been present when foolish women have joined in the laughter,  and further encouraged the chaps to go still further and crack some more ‘jokes’.Even though it is  inconceivable to me that a man would be foolish enough to say what Ranjit Sinha just did. We live in aware and sensitized times. Incidents of brutal rapes taking place across India have dominated media space throughout 2013. Is Ranjit Sinha living in a bubble? Does he not read news reports? Or watch television shows? Is he unaware of the widespread international and national coverage generated by the ghastly Nirbhaya case? If so, he has no business being in his job for one more second.Apology be damned.
But you know what ? Tragically, Ranjit Sinha is not alone.  Whenever the subject of rape comes up these days, I can spot several men who turn away in boredom, as if to convey their indifference to the issue. There is a sense of ‘rape fatigue’ hanging over us that one can’t escape. Perhaps men really and truly don’t get it! I have also come across guys who have rolled their eyes, plugged their ears and declared, “ Please! Bas! Can we change the subject? Don’t you women have something better to talk about?”  

Errrr…. excuse me, Sir! But we really DON’T! So before you turn away and start discussing mighty global issues, do remember rape is a serious crime. Yes, even in India! Even if it does take place on a sickeningly regular basis. Don’t you dare  make fun of  rape, or convert it into a ‘boys only’ joke. That is seriously uncool. And it makes the lot of you look like illiterate boors. Ranjit Sinha falls into that category. As the top dog in the CBI, his job is to protect the women of this country. Not denigrate them in public. He needs to go back to school. Perhaps, even to a reform school. He could do with an orientation course. Let’s say a crash course in how not to hurt the sentiments of all those who recognize rape for what it is – a heinous crime against humanity. Not just against women.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sachin's Aie....

Had a super lovely launch of my latest book, Shobhaa: Never a Dull De. Gauri Sinde sparkled....  we engaged in a lively conversation on gender issues and more...
This appeared in Mumbai Mirror today....
                              Sachin’s Aie….
“ I was there for Sachin’s historic match!” This is going to be something we’ll all hear for years to come from those who were fortunate enough to watch the Master Blaster playing his last test match.  Why not? Even for someone like myself ( plainly put : I am interested in the lives of cricketers, and not in cricket per se), I had goose bumps when Sachin Tendulkar walked onto the cricket field to a standing ovation .The roar that greeted him was so deafening,  I was sure it would cause a mini seismic quake at Wankhede Stadium.Forget rock stars, forget movie stars. That magical afternoon, there was no sun, no moon, no star  in the firmament. There was just one luminous body on earth and that was Sachin. I have seen and interacted with countless celebrities in my long career. But I have never been a part of something like this.Nothing and nobody  can  manipulate as spontaneous and visceral  a response (pure, unadulterated adoration ) for an individual. I have seen mega celebrities come and go in my time. But never have I witnessed this insane level of admiration amounting to undisguised worship for any individual. Not even for a Godman. While experts will no doubt try and deconstruct the Sachin Phenomenon over the years, and we’ll get to read several erudite theses on the making of a Living God, I will always wonder what must have been going on inside the mind and heart of  just one woman in that large stadium - Sachin’s Aie . What a magical moment it must have been for this wonderful lady who had never been to a stadium to watch her famous son play! Unbelievable, but true! When she finally did make it, it  was  only to see her son play his last test innings. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about this.
 I am sure most of us managed to catch Mrs. Tendulkar Sr.‘s  close-ups on our television screens. I am equally sure a lot of us stupidly tried to read her expression when Sachin came out to bat.  I, for one, was completely floored by her simplicity and the obvious lack of any artifice, as she tried to stay out of camera range and have her fill of Sachin in full flow. Here was a simple, middle class Maharashtrian lady of a certain vintage, unaccustomed to publicity, who thought nothing of unselfconsciously sticking her tongue out, as if  to say, “ Ooops! Am I really on camera? Should I smile? Look away? Hide my emotions? Ignore the lens capturing every flicker of my eyebrow?” I found her naturalness and innocence so disarming, I wanted to instantly hug her.
Getting those few, rare and privileged glimpses of Sachin’s proud mother, also gave us, his admirers, a marvelous insight into the man who is indeed a god to his followers. As the books always say, “ If you want to understand a man, meet his mother.” For all these many years, Sachin’s Aie has scrupulously stayed away from the public eye.  We knew all about his father and his brother Ajit. We have seen his gorgeous kids and lovely wife. Why, we also know a little about his mother-in-law. But this was the first time we saw Sachin’s mother. And everything suddenly became very clear.  Observing a Very Famous Person through a ‘Mom filter’, often makes that remote  celeb a little more real.  It was reassuring and fabulous to note how very modest and retiring Mrs. Tendulkar Sr. obviously is. The lady is simply not used to fame!! Even though her son happens to be one of the most famous individuals on Planet Earth!
God bless Sachin’s Aie. It is time to say ‘Thank you’ to her. I am sure she knows it in her heart of hearts – but it’s always nice when someone else says it : Sachin’s place can never be taken.He is what he is, because she is what she is. India….and the cricketing world, owe Sachin’s Aie a big one!


Monday, November 11, 2013

You are invited!

This volume will be launched at the TATA LITERATURE LIVE! on 15th November at 4 30pm. I will be In Conversation with the multi-talented Gauri Shinde, director of English Vinglish!
 This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....
                       Caste-ing Couch….it still exists!
She had mehendi on her hands. But no joy in her eyes. It was the first time we were meeting. It was none of my business, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “ Newly married?” She jumped out of her skin, like someone had just tripped her. “No…… I mean…. yes! But how did you guess?” Well… the mehendi?  “That was applied during Diwali…” she fibbed. And nearly burst into tears. Okay. So, there was a story happening here. And not a happy one. I waited for her to compose herself. She didn’t require much prompting after that point. Here’s her seven year old saga, pretty much like she narrated it. For reasons of protecting her privacy and identity, I have switched a few details. But those are irrelevant…not important. Her life is!
She is a Mumbai girl all the way – a smart, educated, self- made professional, who lives with her nuclear family and works ten hours a day. He is also a Mumbai guy – like her, a smart, educated, self made professional. He also lives with his nuclear family and works the same long hours as she does. They have been dating for seven years. Both families expressed certain reservations about their relationship. Her mother was more concerned about their well being, if they were to stay with the boy’s family . His father had precisely one issue : caste! That’s it. CASTE!! The boy’s family falls into the OBC category. The girl is a Brahmin. Her folks have no problem with that aspect . His do. Especially his father (retired professional with a college degree). In fact, he feels so strongly about it, he has frequently threatened the girl and tried to force his son to break off with her. Clearly, his threats didn’t work. A few weeks ago, these two wonderful young people, did what any couple in love would – they got married. Not in a temple. Not ‘privately’. But in court. With all the documentation in place.
Then why the secrecy?
Here comes a typical Mumbai crisis : they have no place to stay other than their respective family homes. They have saved enough to rent a modest place and hope to move in soon. Till such time, they have to pretend to be single and continue like nothing has changed in their lives. She put on a brave smile and shrugged, “ I know we’ll find a small place eventually…. till then, we have to keep it quiet.” I was alarmed when I heard her story. More so, because she genuinely believes once they announce their marriage, all will be well. If only! In my head, I am thinking – what if her father-in-law sees red? What if he decides to teach them both a lesson? What if… what if….
I kept quiet.
But not for too long. Without wanting to scare her, I asked a few basic questions. Given that she and her family had been threatened by her husband’s father earlier, had she taken the precaution of going to the nearest police station and informing the cops? No, she hadn’t. Most people don’t. BIG mistake. She has already taken a huge step by getting married to the man she loves. Great. The next step is equally critical… crucial. There are enough horror stories out there revolving around vengeful fathers and murderous community members ready to take law into their own hands and ‘punish’ those who refuse to play by their rules. There was not a minute to lose, I warned her. She had to seek police intervention . The young girl bit her lip, as her eyes filled with tears. “ My parents were willing to do anything…. everything…. even pay an unreasonable dowry. But that man refused to listen. He just kept issuing threats.”
I fear for the young couple. Their love for and commitment to one another are rock solid. Seven years of consistency and faith count for something. But what does one do with narrow mindedness on this scale? Too many couples  are losing their lives in the name of ‘following traditions’. What sort of a culture is this that accepts / condones/ overlooks these crimes?

 Caste! Our country’s single biggest curse. We are obliged to fight it with all our collective might. Or…. stay doomed.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mumbai Chhi Bai!

    I wrote this piece for my friend ( the very competent editor of Lokmat's Deepotsav 2013) Aparna Velankar.
         Mumbaichhi bai          
As an impressionable and highly curious young girl aged 10, who had moved from Delhi to Mumbai rather abruptly, I was entirely unprepared for the culture shock that awaited me in this throbbing, insane, electrifying city that actually belongs to no one. Bombay (that later became Mumbai), is very much its own person – and that is both, its strength and beauty. And perhaps, the reason for its downfall, too. Whoever tries to own or control Mumbai, eventually faces defeat. Which is why, Mumbai continues to exercise such an overwhelming influence over me. And I suppose, also over all those who call it home. Mumbai always reminds me of a wild, untamed, gorgeous mare, galloping across rivers and mountains, as greedy bandits chase her fruitlessly, even as she remains permanently outside their grasp. Mumbai has a hypnotic effect on the unwary. Nobody ever leaves Mumbai. It is like a drug, and we are all addicts who are not looking for a cure! So, when I was referred to as a Mumbaichhi Bai recently, I took that as a supreme compliment. Of course, I am a Mumbaichhi Bai – thank you, very much!
The first Mumbaichhi Bai I ever met, however, was a Koli woman who’d come to our home at Churchgate every Saturday morning to try and sell her catch of fresh, plump pomfret fish. In Delhi, pomfret was not easily available. And we were not a die hard fish eating family in the first place. If the fish per se held no fascination for me, the fiery tempered woman haggling with my aie, certainly did. She was an asli professional. A true-blue working woman of  Mumbai. Remember , this was over 50 years ago. But I recall being awestruck by this pomfret seller’s super confident attitude. She worked hard and long, carrying a heavy basket of fish on her head. She was her own marketing manager and P.R.person.  She operated in a highly competitive field. Her sales strategy and pricing had to be bloody good for her to stay ahead of the rest. To cap it all, she also looked fabulous! She was strong and fit without going to a gym. Her skin glowed minus botox and facials. And she had more style in the way she put herself together than several city socialites wearing Sabya’s latest ensemble. She didn’t need a designer handbag – her money was tucked into her ample bosom! As for her wealth – she wore most of it on her person! At least half a kilo of solid gold adorned this Kolin. And I can assure you, she had more jewellery than my own mother. But beyond the dazzling display of gold, and well beyond her colourful language peppered with choice Marathi abuse, it was her  no-nonsense attitude that left a deep impression on me.
Then there was Tulsi – a middle aged widow who worked as house help in our home and supported a family back in the village. Not only was Tulsi a reliable assistant to my mother in the kitchen, but she also doubled up as a weekend electrician , carpenter and plumber. There was virtually nothing Tulsi couldn’t do! At one point, when my sister Mandakini was learning how to drive, I was sure Tulsi also wanted to take a few driving lessons. That would have made her the only driver clad in a nine-yard kashta saree! Again, it was Tulsi’s indomitable, never-say-die spirit that I grew up admiring. Tulsi would prepare my Bournvita at 5 a.m. when as a young athlete, I would leave for my intensive training camps at dawn, often when there was little or no light outside. I’d be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, my hair tied neatly in a pony tail. I would walk to Azad Maidan a kilometer or so away from home, close to Dhobi Talao and Metro Cinema. The streets used to be semi-deserted and silent. Yet, I never felt insecure or afraid. Getting back, I would see hundreds of women emerging from Churchgate Station and heading to work. It was such a familiar sight, I never stopped to actually think about its deeper significance. I took it for granted from that age itself that women in Bombay worked hard and were entirely safe in the city. The vision of the original Mumbaichhi Bai, in that sense, remains intact and unchanged even today. Yes, even after the horrific gangrape in the Shakti Mills compound..
 In all honesty, I  cannot say my confidence wasn’t temporarily dented after the incident. Perhaps, not for myself, but certainly for my daughters. I have tried my best to conceal my anxiety from them. I don’t want them to be disillusioned, either by Mumbai or their own ambitions. I want them to continue to believe they can get ahead in life – the same way, I did. Without looking over their shoulders for potential rapists or assaulters carrying blades /acid / broken bottles. Why live in a permanent state of fear suspecting every second man? What good is panic in an emergency? But, one part of me warns : “ Don’t be so idealistic, unrealistic and impractical. Mumbai today is not the city you grew up in. Mumbai has changed. It is brutal and uncaring ”. The other part dismisses such negative thoughts and says : “Cities may change, but people never do. Our Mumbaikars are different. They have fellow feelings. They care!” Sometimes It’s hard to convince myself. So, imagine how much harder it is to convince my daughters.

As a Mumbaichhi Bai I owe it to myself and to society at large, not to give up. To keep dreams and hope alive, despite the daunting, depressing developments I see around me.Tough times demand tough solutions. I don’t possess those solutions right now. But that doesn’t matter. Mumbai has indeed been rudely shaken up. The rest of India is looking at our city and jeering : “See! Mumbai is no different from us. Working women are targeted here as well. There’s no need to continue fooling us that Mumbai looks after its female work force. That women can travel freely and safely at any hour of the day or night.  That a woman can dress the way she wants to. Eat and drink , dance and sing.  Enjoy life on her own terms . Just like men. Forget it! Mumbai is like any other city in India – dangerous. And women are the softest targets here. They should stay home and keep their mouths shut. Or else….” I would hate to write Mumbbai’s obituary. For by acknowledging that the old Mumbai is dead (murdered by anti-social elements), I will also be admitting that the Mumbaichhi Bai is conceding defeat. Over my dead body!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shobhaa : Never a Dull De

Good time of the year to launch a new title. 
Shobhaa: Never a Dull De will be released on 15th November at the Tata Lit Fest in Mumbai. I am looking forward to your reactions!

This appeared in Asian Age...
                        Mine is bigger than yours….Sardar Vs. Sardar
India is a nation of statue worshippers. We have a peculiar relationship with our statues – old and new. In the days of the Raj, we  slavishly worshipped the magnificent statues of British Kings, Queens and Generals, which dotted our cities. This carried on for years and years, well after the sun had set over the Empire. I was very fond of one particular statue in Mumbai. It was called Kala Ghoda by locals. Well, it was a statue of a ghoda ( horse) and it was black (kala). Straightforward and simple. Nobody remembered nor cared which Britisher was atop this gorgeous ghoda. But everybody was aware of the statue’s existence. It was our favourite landmark. Every cabbie knew exactly where to go if you said ,  “ Kala Ghoda chalo.” One fine day, the statue disappeared. As did several other Raj statues. Parochialism and a misplaced sense of national honour led to officious netas insisting on getting rid of well loved symbols like this ghoda. I am told the statue found a new home somewhere in the city. Perhaps, in the zoo. Along with most of the other discarded relics from the Angrez past .
Years later, a rather strange statue of Rajiv Gandhi was installed in a pretty garden close to where I reside in South Mumbai.Why strange? Ummm, the first time I saw it after it was officially unveiled, I wondered what our former Prime Minister was doing with a lasso. He wasn’t a cowboy. Then, I looked again, and hello! what resembled a lasso was, in fact, a garland. And he was flinging it in the air, or at someone in the far distance. Nice! But errrr…. a little puzzling. Most of the other statues in and around Mumbai are of Shivaji Maharaj ( in keeping with local sentiment, of course!). There is a slightly stunted one of Netaji at Chowpatty. A pretty impressive one of  Dr. Ambedkar near the University. And a rather wonderful one of Tilak, along the beachfront. There is also the famous Khada Parsee. Translation: he is standing (khada) and he is Parsee. Therefore. We like obvious in Mumbai! Statues of other notable Parsee gentlemen are positioned in and around Churchgate station. I am guessing we will soon see multiple statues of Sachin Tendulkar  in and around  Dadar.
As one travels through India,  one notices just how our statue obsession has  grown during the past decade. Mayawati rules as the Statue Queen, of course. But beyond her turf, the maximum number of statues one encounters are of  Mahatama Gandhi. As the Father of the Nation, nobody has problems with that. But now comes the Statue of Statues – Sardar Patel’s. In Gujarat. Go ahead and shoot me for saying this, but considering Mahatma Gandhi also belongs to Gujarat…to India … to the world…. if such an ambitious  statue had to be erected at all, should it not have been the Mahatma’s? All of last week, we were witness to some really petty  political bickering over one of  India’s most important statesmen – Sardar Patel – the Iron Man. It was a pathetic attempt to ‘own’ Patel, like he was the bone being fought over in a kiddish dog-in-the- manger game being played by Modi and Singh. Both men emerged looking like pygmies, as they tried to outdo one another and lay claim to Sardar’s legacy. In any case,the entire project stinks of political opportunism . Suddenly, we have rediscovered Sardar! Suddenly, Modi has decided Sardar should have been the first prime minister of India. Suddenly, Manmohan Singh has co-opted the Sardar into the Congress fold! Listen you guys – you aren’t fooling anybody! And it is insulting the Sardar’s memory to exploit him so shamelessly to score cheap political points.Modi has said the farmers of Gujarat will contribute  iron to create the tallest statue on earth.Oh dear – that notches up one more stunt  - why just the farmers? And to compare the significance of the Sardar Statue  to the Statue of  Liberty in America or the gigantic statue of Jesus Christ that dominates Rio, is totally misleading. One is a symbol of collective national values , the other is religious. If at all, Modi wanted to make a major statement, he should have considered a pan Indian monument featuring a pantheon on national figures, like the magnificent heads of American Presidents carved out of rock at Mount Rushmore. Or Mahatma Gandhi, of course!
As and when the Sardar’s statue does get erected, we will have at least one new government in place. Possibly three! The very people who are hoping to gain political mileage from the Sardar, may or may not be around. The farmers who trustingly donating iron for their hero, may also be dead and gone. But so what? Our leaders remain callous and indifferent to farmer suicides. They care a jot about rising prices and food grains rotting across the countryside. By erecting this monumental statue at an equally monumental cost, how on earth will politicians serve the people they claim to care about and represent? Symbolism of this kind, is all very well. But it doesn’t fill empty stomachs. Or improve the quality of life. We talk about the staggering, long term impact of a shaky economy. Modi discusses ‘development’ from every available platform. Manmohan Singh discusses nothing at all. He just stares and keeps mum.
Poor Sardar Patel. If you really want to honour the great man’s memory, start schools, build hospitals, provide food to those who have none and a roof over every Indian’s head, clothe your people, and make sure they have the sort of future Sardar Patel had envisioned for his countrymen. That would be the right way to honour him. But I guess, it’s so much easier to build a statue with other people’s money… and claim all the glory!

Best X'Mas gift....!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Before you know it, Diwali is over!

It has been a great Diwali! With the family in Alibag. I'm finding it hard to reconnect to reality....
This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....

                              When the lights come on….
Prathmesh is a tubby little chap, all of fourteen, who sells an array of the most colourful aakash kandeels that come in  myriad shapes and sizes, from a string tied between street lights at a busy traffic intersection in crowded Thakurdwar. This is his improvised ‘shop’ during Diwali. He can barely cope with the demand as eager shoppers buy a dozen or more mini-kandeels for their homes. He digs into an overstuffed leather folder looking for change while two little assistants( aged eight and ten) deal with a long line of regulars who love his personally crafted kandeels. I am one of them. Prathmesh has been at it since he was in class 4! Today, he is in class 10. As I watch him juggling customers and cash without taking his eyes off the precious kandeels swaying in the breeze, I smile at an old memory. Prathmesh was knee high at the time. And not as plump. But he sure as hell knew  how to work that small crowd clamouring for his beautiful lanterns in a street crammed with other lanterns. Prathmesh had obviously figured out years ago that his are better than his competitors’. As they indeed are. Two nights ago, I took my time picking the ones I wanted, and saw him negotiating crisply with a lady asking for the usual discount ( come on…. each pretty  lantern costs twenty bucks…. these little boys have made them!). He grinned broadly when I asked whether he found it difficult to keep a track of the loose change. “Yeh mera business hai! I cannot make a mistake,” was his jaunty reply! What after the tenth grade exam, I asked.  Without looking up from his wallet, he said, “ Science college. Engineering . Then… full time business.”  Wow!
Thakurdwar  has been my beat for decades. I love Girgaum during Diwali… during any festival, for that matter. My annual Diwali ritual has not changed. This is where I go to buy traditional ‘faral’ – crisp and crunchy chaklis, chivda ( two kinds),karanjis, chirotey, anarsey, besan ladoos, kadak boondi ladoos, tikhat shev.  Faral is followed by toran and diyas shopping from one particular pavement seller, who also sells the best body scrub on earth – the Maharashtrian herbal utnay. Heaven knows what goes into that little packet, but it smells divine and your skin glows for at least a week after! Rangoli powders and chakmaki decorations to enhance rangoli designs are carefully selected next. Then comes the final stop -  for strings and strings of fragrant mogras, parijat, jui, champaks, sontakka, jaswanti blossoms. Some are already made into venis that crown neatly coiled nape buns. Others, are woven into gajras that stay wound around the wrist or are carefully tucked into a hair knot, taking care not to crush the delicate petals. It is only Shaku, sitting on a cleared patch of a dirty pavement, just outside the famous Waman Hari Pethe showroom ( a landmark in the area) , who understands the delicate life of the tiny flowers she weaves into gajras and garlands without damaging a single one. Shaku and I have been friends for years. This time, she looked under the weather. Another regular asked her worriedly what was wrong. Shaku smiled, and shrugged off her fever, saying, “It is only high temperature…. cold and cough. It will go eventually. But Diwali won’t come again this year!” Yup. Business first!
Prathmesh and Shaku.Two stories that perfectly capture the spirit of Diwali. That reflect the zest and gutsiness of Mumbai.Two individuals, struggling on filthy footpaths of a busy city without cribbing, complaining or giving in to despair. Prathmesh is sure to make it. And make it big. His bright eyes tell their own story. Shaku is old and tired now. She has lost her teeth. But not her essential joie de vivre. She throws in two extra gajras into my bag… grins and wishes me a ‘ Happy Diwali’, urging me to enjoy my ritual Diwali bath with the utnay  - “ since, of course,we only have one real ‘anghol’ during the year!”
Our Marvelous Mumbai is full of similar stories… stories that revolve around hope and hard work, and the gift to recognize the incredible potential of life in terms that go well beyond material wealth. Perhaps Prathmesh and Shaku   understand the real meaning of the word ‘rich’ far better than some of our city’s billionaires.

Happy Diwali, readers. Let there be light. Not noise!