Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thousand apologies....

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

At the Times of India debate in Kolkata ...

Converse???? With hard core politicians??? That's a laugh... but I did try!
This appeared in Asian Age....
                            Happy, Happy… Women of the World….  It’s our day!
After a really, really long time, here I am  facing yet another Women’s Day, and not feeling cynical. Has anything changed? Not really. Which can only mean one thing : I have . Changed, that is. Gone is the raised , skeptical eyebrow, the scornful comment and the mocking smirk, the disillusioned air, the lofty disdain … hell, I may even celebrate! This is the time for optimism and hope. As women, we cannot afford to give up on ourselves. We are a month away from Elections 2014. And the scenario is changing by the minute, as it were. There are no givens, this time. There is nothing we can take for granted. Forget Poll Pundits and all those predictions. The arithmetic simply does not add up, no matter who is doing the calculations. Which is why it is important to hang on to our common sense, observe the goings on carefully, engage in the process with passion and commitment, and do ones bit with sincerity, keeping US and our specific interests in sharp focus throughout.
Sure, the shifting political narrative is leading to serious confusion in the minds of voters. More women in the Prime Ministerial race means more to think about.  There’s a fresh cast of characters and the race has just hotted up. Mamata  now says she will support Jayalalitha as prime Minister. Hey Bhagwan! Miraculously, as it were, we have feisty Didi on  ferocious Amma’s side. Which ought to scare opponents. Two ambitious power ladies with their loyal supporters, ganging up against the usual suspects are bound to generate panic in political circles. Throw in Mayawati, and the game gets hotter still. All three are formidable , single women who talk turkey and terrorise those who stand in their way. Mighty male colleagues of  this triumvirate are known to shiver in their pants when the women are on a war path. Known for their quick tempers and harsh words, these are women you don’t  ever want to mess with. Will they make good prime ministers? Big question.
Narendra Modi’s shrewd  self-positioning as a no nonsense strongman, out to crack the whip and straighten out India, is seen as a virtue by supporters. His megalomania is also touted as a positive trait (“ Narendrabhai’s personality is such… we need a leader who projects power”). Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is displaying softer skills and channeling his inner woman convincingly. There is  a great deal of appeal in his approach, especially  for Young India and the female voter. As of now, these are the choices in front of us. And I am not throwing Mulayam Singh into this khichdi. Nor Arvind Kejriwal, for that matter. Arvind on the outside, may do much more for the country’s larger interests than Arvind on the inside, expending precious energy on aiming for the top job ( a case of premature  ejaculation).
How does any of this pan out for the women of India? Well, there is an upside to the issue in that women count big time in 2014 and will without a doubt swing the votes in this election. We saw that happening with Arvind in Delhi. It was women who voted out another woman ( Sheila Dixit). And women who backed Kejriwal. This, of course, was directly related to the Nirbhaya case and Dixit’s arrogant response to it. If one can give the benefit of the doubt to Kejriwal for that shocking comment on khaap panchayats ( Yogendra Yadav insists his own response was misquoted), it would be fair to say that Arvind is seen as being sympathetic to women’s issues. With Modi, it is a case of  accepting his bombastic promises, while also examining his track record ( to be fair, Gujarat has indeed introduced several important pro-women initiatives).
These are the main political actors we have to pick from, unfortunately. But the story beyond politics, beyond legislation, is the more interesting one. If real, ground level change is taking place, it is inside the heads and hearts of our women. This emphatic refusal to remain passive onlookers and stay mum, is the driver that will eventually bring about change in real terms. There is a quiet, female revolution underway that is making itself evident through popular culture ( perhaps, the most sensitive barometer to monitor attitudinal shifts). It is movies like ‘Queen’ which will push social boundaries and act as a wake up call for a complacent society. It is time to acknowledge what is actually going on across India (a lot!). Translated, it is  indeed leading to something positive and inspiring for our women.

Meanwhile, I am tempted to participate in all those Women’s Day activities I once shunned and deemed ‘meaningless’ – awards functions, special screenings for women, discounted cocktails, mad, giddy parties for women, by women. Why not? Lectures and seminars are one way of reclaiming  our space. But hey – what about something jolly and frivolous, too? Women’s Day need not be a grim reminder of all that is terrible about our lives. It can equally be a celebration of all that is wonderful. This year, I am opting for wonderful. Here’s to us!!!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Happy International Women's Day!

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
Happy Women’s Day, readers!
After the longest time, I am uttering these words ( Happy Women’s Day!)  without feeling and sounding  phony to myself. The reason may appear idiotic and frivolous, but it happens to be true! I watched ‘Queen’… and something inside me automatically clicked on the ‘Like’ button of my heart and mind. ‘Queen’ is certainly not the greatest movie ever made. But there was something incredibly true and moving about it. None of this would have worked had it not been for Kangana Ranaut’s heartbreakingly sincere performance in the title role. The movie’s bagged its well deserved stars from reviewers. But I am not at all sure those favourable reviews will convert into impressive box office numbers. After all, it’s a woman centric film, without a six pack actor (what a relief!) to attract the masses. The only ‘hero’ is Kangana – and what a superhero she is! I really cannot think of any other actress who would have accepted a role that required her to bare her soul, not her body, and face the camera sans  make- up or fancy costumes. Given Kangana’s fashionista image, this is a role that breaks several moulds and fantasies in one go. Deglamourised , almost plain, and clad in ill-fitting salwar- kameezes, Kangana lives her character ( Rani Mehra from Rajouri) and makes us live her life with her.
It is a genuinely feminist film, without being self-consciously so.  Which is another reason why it may alienate a section of the audience hooked on testosterone-driven drivel that passes for entertainment ( and, unfortunately, also makes  big bucks) .‘Queen’ is a truly modern movie  that takes an unblinking look at contemporary  social realities.  Without giving the plot away, in brief, ‘Queen’ is about a trusting, in love, naïve, suburban girl, who gets dumped two days before the wedding (during her mehendi celebrations) . Her boorish London -returned fiancé  ( well played  by Rajkummar Rao) casually breaks off  the shaadi in a coffee shop (“ A lot can happen over coffee’’ – the irony is not missed by anybody), saying her modest status no longer matches his newly acquired grand one! Considering, it is he who has relentlessly pursued her through college,the abrupt rejection comes as a big, big blow to Rani (“Queen”). What happens next, is so unexpected and uplifting, you have to watch the film and find out for yourself.
The message is simple : there is a ‘queen’ inside every woman. If only she can locate her! Sometimes, it takes a really hard knock for that discovery to take place. But once a woman finds her inner queen, there is no stopping her! We see Kangana’s transformation taking place subtly and gradually. In cinematic terms, all the devices used to showcase this change, work very well, without shouting even once. All the other characters of  this splendid ensemble cast, are credible and terrific – yes, the Russian( intense), the Japanese( amazing!), and the Italian ( yummy!). But it is Lisa Haydon playing ‘Vijay’, who not just holds her own, but also manages to steal the show from Kangana in a few superbly scripted scenes. Apart from Lisa, grandma Biji and baby brother Chhotu , along with Kangana’s screen parents (“ Call me Ashu…”  says her mithai shop owner father to ‘Vijay’s’ cleavage, over Skype ) all contribute equally to creating an invigorating environment, a fresh space, for a movie that does indeed speak a new language and instinctively taps into today’s  myriad small town ‘queens’ desperately looking for an escape and eventual redemption from the tyranny of their narrow existence.
As for Kangana, I have been a die-hard supporter and fan of this spunky, individualistic actress from the time I watched her debut film. Here’s a Bollywood girl who has consistently defied the stereotype and written her own rules to establish herself in a terrifyingly competitive  business. She doesn’t need to have ‘Feminist’ tattooed across her forehead. Her life speaks for itself. It is girls like Kangana and Parineeti Chopra ( ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ was a real gem) who will go down as game changers some day. And let’s also hand it to their brave, risk taking directors and producers who have gone ahead and made these delightful films which wake us up to say, “Hello! India has changed. Women have changed….”

8th of March no longer seems ridiculous! Have a wonderful time at the movies, folks!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Lahore Lit Fest pics...

So, this is the feisty, fiery Fahmida Riaz....and our very own equally feisty and fiery Namita Gokhale.
And the pic above is us with our friend, thee iconic Rajeev Sethi...