Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fatima Bhutto. Abused Goddesses and more

Loved meeting Fatima Bhutto and launching her debut novel 'The Shadow of the Crescent Moon' in  Mumbai last evening.
This appeared in The Week...

                                         Abused Images
A few weeks ago, I was sent a link by a female friend in America to a website featuring dramatically altered images of popular Hindu Goddesses. She asked me whether the images would cause trouble for the designers of the visuals in India. On the face of it, the ‘cause’ being addressed via the campaign was worthy enough. It was meant to draw attention to the alarming increase in violent crimes against women in India. But the manner in which this serious issue was being tackled, left me feeling disturbed and upset. Perhaps, that was the whole point. The images chosen for this purpose were the ones we are entirely familiar with….. and love!  Our pantheon of Goddesses (as depicted through popular calendar art ) is easily and instantly recognizable. Garishly painted posters of Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga   in traditional forms (think Raja Ravi Varma), can be seen across the country, often on pavements of our temple towns. Pilgrims buy these glossy prints to display on their walls back home. The devout offer prayers and worship these vivid art works. To be confronted by the same images …. but grotesquely distorted and digitally transformed, came as a terrible shock. I certainly didn’t want to look closely at  this Saraswati’s face or Lakshmi’s. Not if the well loved faces were projected with black eyes and bruises, gashes and cuts. Was I being over sensitive? Goddesses as victims of physical abuse ? Even if the intention is to draw parallels between the battered state of our women in real life and the exalted position of our Goddesses , sorry, but the message was lost in the sensationalistic approach that shocked but did not connect. To me, those terrible images were an assault on my senses. The horrible truth about how we treat women in India is known to all. That the same woman who is publicly hailed as a Goddess, is often beaten black and blue at home, is also not a secret. Even so, I couldn’t look at the pictures without cringing. Purpose well served? Or side tracked? 
I am sure there must be thousands of others who took equal offence. Call it an exaggerated sense of sentimentality, but there it is. I  experienced strong revulsion and deep anger, that has stayed. One can argue that the cause is bigger than the depicted desecration. To that, I would counter argue : what about emotion? Just as we respect the feelings of rape victims and refrain from flashing close ups that high light evidence of physical brutality, believing such an act would further traumatize the person, why not extend the same logic here? My more cerebral girl friends have assured me this controversial campaign has succeeded in what it set out to do. They say it has generated global attention and jolted enough people. I am sure that is true. But jolted them into doing something about the crisis? Or merely jolted them? There’s a huge difference.
We must know where to draw the line. Especially when it involves religious sensitivities. I  refuse to wear my religion on the sleeve, but that does not give anybody the right to offend me in the name of a social cause. We are in the midst of an overwhelming crisis involving defenceless women and children – their safety, their health, their well being, their future. Drawing world wide attention to this problem is our collective obligation. But in the process, we also have a huge responsibility towards the very segment we are attempting to aid. Campaigns that are so in your face, can often be counter- productive. Rather than pushing us to do something about the stepped up atrocities against women, such a strategy can push us away from dealing with  harsh and ugly realities. I must have been taken off guard when I first encountered the Abused Goddesses. But I experienced a sharp stab of pain, as I hastily turned away and tried in vain to obliterate what I had seen.

Diwali will be here soon. Goddess Lakshmi in all her glory, will be welcomed into millions of homes. Indians across the world will pray for prosperity and peace for all. In those prayers will be included the fervent hope that the future of women and children, not just in our country, but wherever they are, will be safer and significantly more secure. It is time for reflection and respect. Not shock and abuse. Let a thousand lights illuminate our minds and hearts.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The bitter truth about Karwa Chauth...

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....
              The bitter truth  about Karwa Chauth….
Today is Karwa Chauth. Ahem.  I am not fasting in honour of  my husband. And my hands are devoid of mehendi. I didn’t participate in Sindhoor Khela either. Does that make me a terrible wife? Should I be feeling guilty? I have never observed Karwa Chauth. And my husband is still talking to me. Then again, he has never kept a fast for me. Does that make him a bad husband? Should he feel guilty? It doesn’t work like that, my women friends who are fasting today, say  staunchly. Fasts and prayers are traditionally dedicated to the men in the family. I am told by fasting during  Karwa Chauth, a wife believes she is  extending  her  husband’s life. Which is all very well. But what about the wife’s life? No extension for the poor lady? Errrr… I am walking straight into a land mine here. I am about to blow myself up. And this is the right moment to exit the debate. Stop me, someone!
 The first and only time I was invited to a Karwa Chauth lunch was by a well meaning, unsuspecting neighbor. That was years ago. Not knowing what to expect, I strolled in casually dressed. There were over thirty ladies present in the large living room. All of them were clad in bridal finery and feeling awfully virtuous. One of them was a freshly minted wife – a simpering dulhan. This was her first Karwa Chauth and all the other mother hens were cluck-clucking around her.  I felt like an intruder who had  crashed a bizarre initiation ceremony. I was asked - loudly and aggressively -  “ So… you don’t fast for your husband?” I cheerfully shook my head and replied, “ Nope!”  There was a quick exchange of meaningful, knowing looks (“ She is not like us!”). Seeing their disapproving expressions, I made it worse by adding, “ My husband doesn’t fast for me , either.” The women guffawed – “ As if men will ever give up food for their wives.”  But why were these ladies dressed like they were  inside a shaadi ka mandap? There was music and dance, bangles, bindis, dupattas in vivid colours. And they were obviously waiting for something and someone. Aaah – the moon and the men.  At some point, both appeared and it was all over. The husbands looked mighty pleased as their wives gazed at them through a large strainer. The wives looked even more pleased when their mates fed them icky, sticky, evil-looking mithai. Next, the hungry wives pounced on platters of  rich food, but not before pouncing on the lavish gifts given by their grateful husbands. All this drama for giving up  khaana-peena for a few hours!
I guess this ritual made sense in ye olde days when men went to war and engaged in other foolish activities ( hunting!). Men still go to war. They still hunt. But in a different context. Corporate wars can leave a chap pretty bloodied. Agreed. But that’s not war-war. All this was going on inside my wicked head when I received a call yesterday reminding me about a very high profile Karwa Chauth lunch in the city . Damn ! I didn’t want to subject myself to another round of accusations. And I certainly didn’t want to climb into my nauwaari saree and make pretend that I was a love-lorn bride praying for my hubby’s long life. Besides, the weather has been playing cruel tricks on us. What if the moon did a no-show? Would I have to starve an extra hour or two till our lunar friend was spotted? I asked my husband whether he minded my not fasting for him on Karwa Chauth. I urged him to be perfectly honest and swear he wouldn’t hold it against me if I nibbled on a macaroon or two. He said it was fine. That made me feel worse. I even suggested we starve together. For each other. He said he wasn’t SRK in DDLJ.I said that was okay. Did I look like Kaajol ? This was getting complicated. So, I rashly promised to make it up to him in some other form. He jumped at the offer!

 I guess I am the one who is in deep trouble now!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Maiyaa Ki Beemari...

This appeared in Asian Age....
                                   Maiyya ki Beemari….
Gods and Goddesses are allowed to fall sick in India.But not our politicians. I have never understood our nervousness over health issues when it comes to our netas. Come on, guys - people fall sick! Everyone deals with illness in some form or the other.We can handle it! But our politicians want the world to believe they are omnipotent  superhuman beings who don’t know what it means to be struck by a bug. If possible, they won’t be caught sneezing or sniveling in public lest rivals jump to the worst conclusions and declare them terminally ill. This week’s fiasco in Uttar Pradesh ( not the one you are thinking of), is a case in point. It involved a rather foolish and badly timed hoarding put up by a certain Haseeb Ahmed ( UPCC secretary) and a Srishchand Dubey. Clearly men who need to work on their political savvy. Men so eager to prove their slavish loyalty to Priyanka Gandhi, they forgot all about propriety when they had the temerity to mention the unmentionable – Sonia Gandhi’s poor health. And they did so in crude, unambiguous lingo when they stated the nation’s ‘Maiyya’ was ‘beemar’. All hell broke loose, and two heads promptly rolled. The culprits were suspended and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a still worse fate awaits them, now that the  Beemar Bomb has dropped.
While Dilliwallas have known about Madamji’s delicate health for a while, it has become an unwritten diktat that the subject is strictly off limits. The topic is taboo. Even Sonia’s most virulent critics have stayed away from making a reference to her ill health in public. They attack her and the family on nearly every other problem ( Damaad Vadra  isn’t being spared , either). But the exact nature of her health issue has been kept under wraps ever since Sonia made that first trip to America for what was called a ‘check up’. Respecting a high profile individual’s right to privacy is one thing. But when that individual happens to be the most powerful person in a country of over a billion people, then, I am sorry, citizens also have the right to know that person’s medical status. Sonia’s health bulletin, in the context of the imminent elections, is definitely of concern to the voter. While nobody wants to pry, it is obligatory on the part of Sonia’s party members to share basic information with us. Information ,that is likely to impact/ influence voting. Let us not pretend Sonia’s health has zero influence on the minds of the electorate. The anxiety is entirely valid. After all, it is she  who has created the aura, the lofty position for herself in the country. To put it bluntly – Rahul’s leadership is directly linked to Sonia’s leadership. It is a package deal. People accept it as that. Rahul makes no bones about his mother’s considerable influence over his politics.He made that abundantly clear when he referred to ‘Mummy’s’ reaction to his explosive outburst against the ordinance. He followed that up by declaring his respect for just two individuals – Mummyji and Manmohanji ( an after- thought?). Sonia has been Rahul’s mentor and backbone. Without Mummyji to steer his fledgling political career, Rahul faces serious confidence issues within and outside the Congress Party. Which is precisely why it is of paramount interest to be  transparent about Sonia’s health at this critical political stage where every cue, sign and symbol count. Also,where every swing, vote and shift in loyalty can make or break the power structure.
Those jokers who rashly put up the offensive hoarding in the  busy Civil Lines area of  Allahabad , compounded the original sin by mentioning Bhaiyya Rahul’s overburdened position, implying he’d have to look after his ‘beemar maiyya’ and may not have the time for politics! The idea , of course, was to publicly urge Priyanka Gandhi to contest from Phoolpur , which was her great- grand father Jawaharlal Nehru’s constituency. This clumsy appeal may have been well meaning and typically chamcha-ish. But how it back fired! By the time the punishment was meted out to the two idiots, the damage was done. The story was splashed across India and rapidly opened up the floodgates of speculation. It is still not too late for damage control, though. Party officials should immediately go into a huddle and issue a statement that is transparent and upfront. If the dear lady is indeed very ‘beemar’, we should not burden her further with intrusive questions and additional responsibilities. Just say it like it is, folks. And she’ll be left alone. Her privacy will remain intact and be respected. Right now, there are wild, unsubstantiated rumours doing the rounds. This is in nobody’s interest. The real picture is likely to be far more optimistic with no real grounds for panic and doomsday predictions. This is how it works in a real democracy. When an American President checks into even a dental clinic to get a molar fixed, the public is told about it. The American citizen  believes he or she has the right to know when their President requires medical treatment – even if it is for a minor scratch.
It is time for Sonia and her minders to take the nation into confidence and brief citizens regarding her health. We want to know what exactly is wrong with the Congress President. Given the role she plays in all our lives, it is imperative that we are informed. There isn’t a single Indian who won’t wish her a speedy recovery. She should know that.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ready for the Red Carpet!

I am so thrilled with my rejacketed books! I think they are looking smashing!
 Blogdosts - opinions, please!
Gavin , the super talented designer at Penguin Random House Books, has 'styled'' and 'dressed' the covers in pure Red Carpet style!
I am delighted the back list is selling well. With these 'hot'' new covers, I am sure we'll attract more readers - young, hip and hungry for words!!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Triumph of Good over Evil ! Happy Dusshera!

At the historic Tejpal Pujo Baadi , with my son Aditya....

This appeared in Sunday Times today....

                 The utter confusion of the chatterati….
Listen up, all you people. At the end of the day, we are all chatterati, okay? Don’t feel bad. It is not such a terrible thing to be. Let’s face it, nobody but nobody knows what the hell is going on in our country right now. The Prime Minister is as clueless as you and I. It’s a game of hit and miss – mainly miss. And all the self- styled experts who are grandly making predictions about Elections 2014, may have to eat crow eventually. This is how it has always been for the past few general elections. It works something like this: overnight, as it were, an entire industry springs up out of nowhere. Fossils of various vintages are dug out of obscurity and asked their opinions on the outcome of the elections. And they dutifully trot out numbers that nobody remembers once the results are out. Suddenly, a hush descends across television channels as the fossils go back into their burrows and we all look for new topics to devour.
But, this election is going to be qualitatively different. The cast of characters is new and untested and the quicksand of shifting loyalties is keeping everybody guessing. That includes the very vocal and opinionated chatterati. For the first time in the history of India we will be participating in an election that will be considerably influenced by assorted internet platforms… where the chatterati count.. If the last general election was about the power and penetration of television, this one is definitely going to be defined by Twitter, FB and beyond . And here is where the chatterati play such a critical role. The only neta to have recognized the power of this phenomenon is Narendra Modi. With his tech-savvy team working in over drive for the past three years, the man has a plan in place, and that plan includes incorporating all the clout which is abundantly available  across social media platforms – that too, for free! Well – nearly free. His team has also factored in the multiple voices of the chatterati and instead of talking down to this influential segment, has strenuously courted it.

Rahul Baba’s approach is far more baffling. One would have thought he would have been the first chap off the mark in harnessing social media . But no! He is still standing at the gatepost obstinately refusing to throw his hat into the ring , while keeping the country guessing with his  infuriating ‘will he or won’t he’ game. One really feels tempted to give the reluctant debutant a good shake and say, “ For God’s sake, dude… make up your mind, so we can make up ours.” In all this mess, guess who is slowly but systematically climbing up the popularity charts? An unlikely candidate, according to the chatterati… but he’s right there !  And nobody can ignore him  now. Arvind Kejriwal is attracting his fair share of sincere supporters who see him as the big change. So, while the experts refuse to take their eyes off  NAMO and RAGA, there’s actually a  third bloke sneaking up on the two of them. Not that Kejriwal stands much of a chance, poor fellow. But one must hand it to him for giving the fight a good go. Even more amazingly enough, the chatterati are  suddenly keen on him, for he represents something that is glaringly…. blindingly…. lacking in public life today -  a conscience. I have been talking to several sympathizers who are reaching for their wallets and sending contributions to Kejriwal, only because they are so utterly , bitterly disillusioned with and disgusted by the rest. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi pitch is increasingly appealing to this lot, and no – nobody is feeling sheepish about expressing admiration for an individual who resolutely refused to give up. Even when everybody else had … on him. Kejriwal  was  brusquely written off  by India. And yes,by the chatterati, too. It needs guts and determination, they are now saying, to take on a system this corrupt, this all pervasive. And he has done just that. Kejriwal seems to be the dark horse who just may have understood the tricky path that leads to the heart of the betrayed Indian voter. If, indeed he has, then the confusion of the chatterati may  actually help propel the man who can never be the Mahatma, but could do the job just being himself.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heartthrob Gulzar!

I am told every woman Gulzar meets, regardless of age, wants to elope with the poet!
I was tempted! Not that he asked.... but! Here we are at the Bangalore Lit Fest, on our way to the stage to felicitate Hari Prasad Chaurasia - the world's greatest living flautist. And that's Vikram Sampath, a key organiser of the BILF.
 This appeared in Mumbai Mirror today...

                                 Meet the ‘QSQT’ lady….
Arundhati Bhattacharya created banking history earlier this week when she was elevated to an exceptional position : She became the first woman to head the 206-year-old State Bank of India. This makes the 57-year-old banker one of the most powerful people – people , not woman – in the world. As someone who has already featured on the prestigious Fortune 500 list, all eyes will be on Ms. Bhattacharya as she confronts the monumental challenges ahead. She has just three short years to tackle the bloated problem of  bad loans besides overseeing the operations of a staggering 15,000 SBI branches . How did she attain this position? Well – the old-fashioned way! She worked hard for 36 long years.The  appointment involved a tedious process. In the final round, she beat three others vying for the coveted post during the interview, and was anointed by the prime minister himself. For someone who joined the bank as a lowly probationary officer in 1977, her rise to the top of the pile has been steady and rock solid. During her uninterrupted career with SBI, she has, of course,held positions of enormous responsibility  in different capacities and been a part of breakthrough launches in related businesses. The quote she is best known for is catchy and unexpected. She advised people in the financial sector to get out of the “QSQT culture”. In other words, to break out of the “ Quarter Se Quarter Tak” mentality and look at the bigger picture. Married to a chartered accountant, Arundhati has been a low key professional in an era of over hyped success stories. While it is indeed remarkable that it is only in India that we so many women heading gigantic banks ( eight, at last count), should one be going into a euphoric trance over this highly privileged ladies club which is being cutely referred to as “Lehman Sisters”? Why not? Goes one argument. Every single woman in this league is there because she has earned that corner office. Interestingly enough, nearly all these accomplished ladies fall into the “conventional” , and dare I say it, even ‘homely’ category. They are a far cry from the heavily caricatured career demons projected in American sit coms. Our ladies don’t need to climb into unflattering business suits and drink beer with the boys at a friendly neighbourhood bar. They appear graceful and relaxed in bright and beautiful sarees, as they negotiate shark infested waters with aplomb, without having to change their body language or yell the competition down. Yes, they are tough. Theirs jobs demand teeth and talons. But the ones I know are endearingly soft spoken and don’t need to flaunt a ‘take me seriously’ fake attitude. This is what separates the girls from the women.
 If only more of our corporate ladies took their cues from individuals like Arundhati Bhattacharya, there’d be less stress at the workplace. Our advertising further compounds the problem by consistently projecting  career women in a certain stereotypical light – those hideous suits, that awful attitude. There is rarely any hint of a family life in these depictions – no kids, no spouse, no in- laws. Just  terrifying, robotic battle axes sporting sleek, no nonsense hair and unfussy make up. Their nails are short and painted in nude shades. They carry their iPads in discreet designer covers. Everything about their lives looks hellishly organized and scarily subdued. But the reality of our banking ladies is entirely different. I have been to some of their homes. I have met their children and in-laws, their husbands and staff members.There is nothing exaggerated about their daily routines.
It will be interesting to monitor Arundhati’s three years as Chairperson of SBI. She will, of course, be expected to announce certain bold and innovative measures soon. In that, she will be compared to the new RBI Guv, who has already set the ball in motion with his global thinking and experience. But unlike Raghu, who has been converted into a glam poster boy of the drab banking world ( I plead guilty!), Arundhati is likely to be left alone to get on with her job without having to worry about presenting her best angle during photo-ops. As a hardnosed professional, Arundhati will have to go out there and recover at least some of those bad loans. That’s going to be one hell of a call for her given the current the state of corporate India. But if anybody can pull it off, it’s this modest, hard working and brainy lady with her sensible QSQT approach.

I guess it needs a woman to best understand the bottom line.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Durga! Durga! Happy Navraatri, Blogdosts....

I am off to Kolkata to celebrate Pujo with the extended family. May or may not be in this space. Pandal hopping followed by a short break in Thailand.... before getting back to beloved Mumbai. Have a wonderful Navratri, BLOGDOSTS! Love you... will miss you....
This appears in The Week.....

                            ‘Dehati Aurat’ – who me???
Okay. So we still don’t know for sure whether or not he said it. Poor Nawaz Sharif  found himself in a bit of a media mess recently when he was widely (mis) quoted on a remark  that couldn’t be corroborated but was flung around by people like Narendra Modi, regardless. Frankly, it makes zero sense to me. Why would Sharif refer to Manmohan Singh as a ‘dehati aurat”? What is the implication? And hello! where is the ‘insult’ to India’s mahaan Prime Minister, assuming this remark was indeed made? Nawaz may have got his voluminous shalwars into a twist with desi presswallahs, but frankly, Modi’s OTT attempt at whipping national outrage over it, backfired pretty badly. For one, Modi’s bleeding heart, over reaction sounded insincere and theatrical. For another, all the real ‘dehati aurats’ in India were miffed. I am including myself. What the hell! Is being called ‘dehati’ a put down in the first place? Is it derogatory to refer to a man as an ‘aurat’? By displaying shock and hurt over this innocuous comment, we have once again exposed our prejudices to the world.
What is so terrible about being identified as a ‘dehati’ ? Loosely translated, it refers to someone who is from a rural background – a villager who is possibly illiterate, but is unambiguously  a non-sophisticate.  Dehatis form the majority in India. If someone referred to me as a ‘dehati’ , I would smile and say ‘Thank you!”  Why are we so damn touchy? Rather, an honest-to-goodness ‘dehati’ than a pathetic urban wannabe. And as for the ‘aurat’ part of it – in today’s day and age, a confident man should have zero issues if someone called him a woman ( even if that someone was trying to act funny). Just for the record, a ‘dehati aurat’ in our society, is grounded, tough, practical and a survivor all the way. She has to battle tremendous odds just to hang in there, raise a family and push ahead somehow.  She handles her meager resources deftly and manages to  balance  her precarious position in a backward, patriarchal society that gives her zero status. She cooks, cleans, slogs day and night,nurturing her family with no recognition, no rewards. Aha … but look at the upside. Unlike her city sisters, she doesn’t need to worry about her size zero frame  (hers may be the result of malnutrition). Nor does she lose sleep over not possessing designer handbags and haute couture . No kitty parties for her, no front  row fretting during Fashion Weeks.  No weekends in Ibiza ( look what that break did to poor Katrina Kaif).No competition melt downs to deal with at the work place. No bitching to battle at society soirees…. isn’t she in a far better space?
 I look at Rabri Devi’s extraordinary life and marvel at her incredible resilience. What hasn’t she gone through? She is the archetypal ‘Dehati  Aurat’.  Today, her husband Lalu Prasad Yadav, is in jail, while she is spiritedly rallying his supporters and putting up a feisty resistance against those who she says have framed her good husband. She has done it earlier as well – and won the admiration of those who had cruelly mocked her. Rabri Devi has no problems with her ‘dehati’ status. Nor does someone like a Mayawati. Mamata Banerjee can also be dubbed ‘dehati’ by critics, even though she holds several academic degrees. Perhaps, back in Italy, Sonia Gandhi’s countrymen also think of her as a slightly rustic person . Who knows? And who cares?

 In Manmohan Singh’s place, I would not feel in the least bit slighted over the perceived taunt.  A ‘Dehati Aurat’ is the backbone of India. She is Nargis Dutt playing an iconic role as ‘Mother India’. We need to acknowledge our Dehati Aurats far more than we do.  If I were an influential fashion designer, I would immediately create a line inspired by this woman or launch a new label called ‘Dehati Aurat’. It would certainly be a whole lot more identifiable than the dreadfully tacky red carpet rip offs designers claim are their own creations. This is a serious Gown over Ghagra  moment in our social consciousness. I am ready to start a Dehati Aurat  movement that will restore the skewered balance in our madcap existence. Perhaps I should invite Nawaz Sharif to become the President of  the newly formed organization?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rahul Baba aur Chaalis Chor...

        Rahul Baba and the Chaalis Chor….
Oh, how I love this lad! Rahul Baba has given India a brand new narrative overnight! Forget Alibaba, we now have our own fable titled “ Rahul Baba and the Chaalis Chor.” Though , frankly speaking, forty is a seriously modest number , when you consider just how many criminals there are in Parliament at present ( for a ball park figure, multiply 40 by 10). Rahul’s  “Ordinance Outrage” ( as it has been aptly dubbed)  was nothing short of a masterstroke. No debate there.While miffed Bollywood directors were squabbling over India’s official entry to the Oscar’s, here was an award winning performance that could teach many  an overreaching superstar a thing or two about histrionics and timing! I have watched that  incredible “ All nonsense”  clip many times over. And I am pretty certain about one thing : this was no temper tantrum.  Nor was it a spontaneous explosion. Everything about ‘that moment’ appears rehearsed and well planned. And one has to hand it to Rahul – he couldn’t have improved on the script! While Namo, his main rival, was still banging on about ‘Dehati aurat’ (oh please, get over it, already!), Rahul nonchalantly hijacked someone else’s press conference ( tch! Tch! Bad manners, sonny boy), gave a Gabbar Singh look straight to camera, curled his pout into a menacing sneer and took off. He just took off! And let fly. Shabaash! In one go, he achieved several objectives, not the least being the crushing of Modi’s bombast.
Young India worships those who dare ( most of our ad commercials featuring products aimed at male consumers are unambiguously macho and laud those who challenge the status quo). Well, Rahul played up to popular sentiment, played straight to the galleries and walked away with all the applause. It is hard to believe he did what he did in isolation. Or that he wasn’t tutored. It’s even harder to accept that Sonia, his mother, was unaware  her son was about to drop a bomb. A bomb that had the potential to alter the India story dramatically. Subversion on this scale? Scary! It wasn’t just about displaying an absolute lack of good etiquette (whatever the personal equation between him and Manmohan Singh, there is something called protocol and propriety in public life).  To diminish the office of the Prime Minister when the man wasn’t in the country is to cock a snook at democratic functioning itself. Let’s compare Rahul’s out of turn comment to an off the cuff remark made by a  headboy of a large school , which insults an absent Principal during assembly. Any good school would first rusticate the headboy for insubordination and then go into the reason for his deplorable conduct. No such thing happens in India, when it comes to our netas.
 This is not to say Rahul was wrong in asking for this preposterous ordinance to be junked forthwith. He has the gratitude and support of the entire nation for getting it scrapped. But surely, there was a better way to achieve this objective? Or does none of that matter given the larger good? Worrying question.Today, Rahul is India’s biggest hero for speaking up and getting others to speak up on what would most certainly have been the most besharam ordinance in our history. Is this a foretaste of things to come? If Rahul Baba gets bugged by something else in future, will he once again call it ‘nonsense’ and insist its papers be “torn up and thrown away”? He made it sound as simple as that! Elders in traditional Indian families are known to indulgently shake their heads when a child misbehaves and croon , “ Jaaney bhi do… bachchpana hai.”  Rahul Gandhi behaved like a spolit brat – let’s face it. This one time, we can pardon him, since it was all for a greater common good. The real fear is that having tasted blood, he may take this route again and again . Then what?

As of now, the Modi camp has gone into a huddle wondering how to top Rahul’s Ordinance salvo. Modi’s Toilets-and-Temples speech has not found too many takers, though I am one hundred per cent with him on this one. It would be interesting to monitor how many public toilets have been constructed by his government in Gujarat. The last time I was there, locals were still peeing and crapping in the open, and the drains were not covered. If it’s going to be a toss up between ganda nullahs and ganda netas, we know where the country stands on this issue. At least one jailed neta ( Lalu Prasad Yadav) has made sure he has a clean , tiled toilet for himself inside Ranchi jail. His khaana peena is also sounding pretty good. He has a television set and enough khaini to keep his senses lulled and his mind comparatively quiet while he serves time.  Lalu going to jail in the first place, is all thanks to Rahul Gandhi. Closer to home, Rahul may have a far tougher time dealing with some of his notorious kith and kin. Keeping criminals out of Parliament is the easy part . But keeping criminals out of ones own backyard?? Aha – haven’t you heard of the phrase: ‘Charity begins at home?”

Friday, October 4, 2013

What an unappetising movie controversy!

This appeared in Sunday Times...BTW, i was masochistic enough to actually sit through 'Besharam'' last night. I deserved the torture!
                       One more unappetising movie controversy….
This is really getting impossible to digest! It’s Oscar time , folks. And the jury has picked ‘The Good Road’ as India’s official entry. It is assumed the 16-member jury has done so fairly and minus prejudice. Accept the verdict… and go back to your aubergines, ye critics. I watched and enjoyed ‘The Lunchbox’ immensely, as did countless others. But I am not over-reacting to the jury’s decision and taking it personally. Chacun a son gout (“ to each his own taste’, as the French put it). I have not watched ‘The Good Road’ so far , and according to  vociferous critics of the movie, neither have too many other film lovers. This anomaly is meant to support the critics’ argument that there was some sort of a sinister conspiracy against the universally acclaimed ‘The Lunchbox’. Come on, guys. Grow up! Take it on the chin and move on. Undoubtedly, ‘The Lunchbox’ is a lyrical, delicately balanced film exploring urban loneliness via a clever cinematic device (the title’s dabba). And yes, it has the backing of  heavy- weights from India and abroad ( I stopped counting the number of producers after the first five names). But should the eminent jury have been swayed by that business arrangement and nominated the movie against their better judgment?  ‘The Lunchbox’ has received rave reviews, done the international film circuit, garnered global good will, generated a positive buzz and wowed critics. Deservedly so. But that still does not take away the right of a duly appointed jury to pick a film they believe is the better choice. Or else, why have a jury in the first place? Let popular opinion, combined with the influential backing of  big ticket movie makers, take the final call. Unfortunately, this time round,  Goutam Ghose, the well respected Chairperson of the jury, has himself gone to town and voiced his preference for ‘The Lunchbox’ over ‘The Good Road’. This is never done! His public dissent  really does  insult  the status and opinion of  colleagues on the jury and adds fuel to the fire that’s burning up social media.
 For years we have been messing up big time at the Oscar’s by sending the most preposterous films to compete in the Best Foreign Film category. There have been charges and counter charges of favouritism and / or discrimination after every announcement. This year we were indeed spoilt for choice – so many wonderful films all in one go! But after Ghose put his foot into the boiling cauldron of  controversy, we instantly lost perspective. He talked about how it would have been “easier to convince the Oscar jury’’ (about ‘The Lunchbox’) since the film has a ‘good cast’ plus a foreign distributor (Sony Pictures Classics). Inadvertently, Ghose has revealed one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets : it’s all about lobbying. And lobbying at those levels requires big bucks. ‘The Lunchbox’ had both – the required financial backing, plus the clout to push ahead in Hollywood. Instead, the jury bravely picked a small budget movie made by Gyan Correa, who is a relatively unknown film maker, and which deals with an uncomfortable topic – child prostitution along the highways of Kutch. Squeamish members of the Gujarati film fraternity promptly jumped into the fray and started talking about the movie ‘defaming’ Gujarat! Words like ‘blasphemous’ have been thrown around. Hello??? Self- appointed guardians of morality assumed overnight charge of Gujarat’s fair (?) image and asked how NFDC could have used ‘people’s money’ to make a film that shows India in a poor light. “ It is their duty to show the country in a good light,” thundered an enraged director, quite forgetting that it is certainly not the ‘duty’ of a film maker ( or any creative person) to play propagandist. 
Now that dirty politics has entered the frame, it’s going to lead to a few bloodied, out of  joint noses in the days to come. ‘The Lunchbox’ may have appealed to aficionados of cinema, and tickled countless taste buds, but it is the road less travelled, that will be  shown to foreigners ( that is, if ‘The Good Road’ makes the final cut)  There is also the other silly debate as to which of the two films is more ‘Indian’ in content. Well, Ritesh Batra’s  unusual, essentially urban take on emotionally marginalised people in Mumbai is as ‘Indian’ as Gyan Correa’s movie about a grittier rural reality.  Let’s not quibble over which of  these two Indias will ‘sell’ better overseas – such an attitude  only reveals our own insecurities…. not the brilliance of our film makers.

The jury has pronounced its verdict. Is the decision that hard to digest? Heartburn ke liye ek achcha solution hai : ask the Aunty upstairs for a herbal  remedy!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We are all racists....

 Just got back from what is sure to become THE premiere Lit Fest in India - the just concluded one in Bangalore.Everything about it is right - mainly, the all important vision. More on that in another post...
This appeared in the Mumbai Mirror...
                            We are all racists…
It happened to Professor Prabhjot Singh this week in New York. He was battered by a mob of  30 people on bicycles who taunted him  by screaming ‘Osama’, ‘terrorist’ while he was walking through Harlem last Saturday night. They ripped his beard and assaulted him till a passerby intervened and saved his life. By then , Prof.Singh had suffered a jaw fracture. Bloody and bruised, he certainly was. But not down and out, as his subsequent quotes prove. Understandably, his main concern was for his one-year-old son who he fears may also suffer a similar fate later in life. It’s a legitimate fear in a world that is wracked with hate crimes.  Earlier this month, Nina Davuluri…. the newly crowned Miss America was subjected to equally violent personal attacks which, despite being verbal not physical, were no less lethal. Seconds after Nina was crowned, she became the target of the most vituperative racist abuse online.  She too was dubbed a terrorist and an agent of Al Qaeda  on various social media platforms. People mocked her skin colour and  questioned her American identity . Like Prof.  Prabhjot Singh, Nina D… also took the unprecedented attacks in her stride and in the bargain, won more than just a beauty pageant title – she garnered world wide respect.
We are talking about two highly educated professionals of Indian origin facing the collective fury of mobs who hate them. Why? For what reason?Well, bluntly put, for not being White! In a country that elected its first Black President in history, there has been a disturbing downslide in acceptance/ tolerance levels when it comes to racial issues in recent years. One had hoped – even  dared to imagine - Barack Obama’s amazing ascent would trigger off a new era of equality and colour blindness, more so in a nation  that is the planet’s biggest melting pot of ethnic differences. And yet, what we are living through is a shameful chain of events that conclusively establishes the rise of intolerance and hate.There has to be a reason for this escalation of racial attacks. And the reason is nothing more than plain ignorance. We live in a world that is not just alarmingly ignorant but let’s be honest – largely illiterate. No matter what the statistics show, the new literates are in fact scarily uneducated in real terms. And it is this lack of education - an absence of  genuine learning - that is leading to a widespread epidemic of crime against those who look different, eat different, smell different, act different, are different.
But wait a minute… we are no better in India. Before we cast the first stone, let us whip ourselves first. Nina D would not have made it past the first round here, had she had the gumption to fill the beauty contest form in the first place. And poor Professor Prabhjot  Singh might also have had to cope with his share of  pathetic Sardarji jokes. Our obsession with lighter skin has been around for centuries. The incredibly high sales of products that promise a fairer skin to men and women ( soon there’ll be one for babies – why wait for the child to face prejudice?)  underlines this ugly truth. Yes, Indians are racists. And no, we are not all that ignorant. Our racism has been endorsed and certified for ages… by the sages! And our sexual attacks on gori-gori firang female tourists are an expression of this sickness. Let’s call it a form of reverse racism. Then again, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario : How would Indians react to a beautiful Black contestant bagging the Miss India crown? Would we accept such a winner? Or would we protest – “  She can’t win! Just look at her complexion! She doesn’t LOOK  Indian!” Like there is just one kind of a milk white Indian!  I am pretty sure such a title holder would face the worst slurs….. and promptly give back her crown! As for the reactions to a professor of African origin teaching in one of our universities … just forget it. We have seen how students from African countries are discriminated against  right here in Mumbai.Yes, the world’s a pretty nasty place. So is India.  Thank you, V.S. Naipaul for reminding us of a ghastly but inescapable reality  -  we  continue to live in an area of darkness, in more ways than one.
This appeared in The Week...
                                        Does Zadie Smith have a point?
I read a recent article in a British newspaper which featured Zadie Smith, the 37- year-old writer of  ‘The White Teeth’. Zadie is beautiful. Oooops. I just used the forbidden ‘b’ word . Her beauty , she says, is the cause of a major problem for her. Her much admired good looks come between her and her critics who are unwillingly to take her seriously or give her due credit as a writer.Cambridge-educated Ms. Smith ( she wrote her brilliant book during her final year) finds their attitude ‘misogynistic’  She says emphatically, “The assumption that beautiful women did not have to be intelligent is sinister.” She also cribs about media’s  “ ridiculous obsession” with her looks,  and insists it is not she who places all those pretty pictures in the papers, but photo editors. She also referred to a letter in an Italian paper in which the writer grudgingly conceded that while Zadie is…. maybe… a ‘good’ writer, she couldn’t possibly be “great”. It was, of course, Zadie’s beauty getting in the way. Again! Zadie sniffed, “ I am not too  beautiful to be an author.” Relax!! I wanted to croon, “Oh you poor darling… there, there….iIt can’t be so bad… it’s going to okay…. promise! We all love your book and we’ll pretend we haven’t noticed how super amazing you look…  we promise not to hold your appearance against you when you show up for a book signing session looking like a movie star.”
Does Jhumpa Lahiri have a similar problem? If  indeed she does, she has certainly never spoken about it. Jhumpa is seriously spectacular. And she is seriously successful. Her new book has once again established her credentials as one of the most read contemporary authors across the world. She is currently on top of the best seller lists in India. Her pictures are everywhere. And she is looking better than ever. I am sure she gets her share of gush in print. But nobody thinks less of her as a writer because she is good looking. If anything, her personality enhances the appeal of her books and is an essential part of her positioning as an established author. This is how it goes these days. Authors have been converted into brands , just like everybody else who is successful – film stars, tennis players, musicians, artists. We live in visual times. Attention spans have shrunk. Everybody wants to look good – has to look good. Everybody is looking for that instant fix. And if that fix comes in an attractive package – why not live with it?

This is my second, better considered reaction to the Zadie interview. My first was to agree with her and declare , “Welcome to the club!” It can be pretty tiresome to have to deal with a level of scrutiny that refuses to extend beyond the female writer’s age, hair, cheekbones, clothes and other details that have nothing to do with writing. Yes, it is annoying and unfair. But that’s the sort of stereo typing women have been subjected to since time immemorial. It is nobody’s fault. And women have to be sensible about this ‘objectification’, provided it doesn’t turn nasty. Zadie mentions Sylia Plath and describes her a beautiful woman, thereby further reinforcing the ‘beauty’ curse. Jhumpa on the other hand, appears to be comfortable with her physicality, neither drawing attention to her looks nor apologizing for them. Her ‘take it or leave it’ attitude is the one that works far better than Zadie’s wail. No matter how strenuously Zadie protests, what’s the bet she’ll wonder where the paparazzi have disappeared if her public appearances get ignored? Instead of worrying about not being taken seriously by critics, she should continue writing with gusto and passion. After all, success is still the best revenge! And good looks, a God given gift to be cherished by those fortunate enough to have them in abundance – like Zadie. Like Jhumpa. As extraordinarily talented writers, their job is to write. If there are idiots out there who assume beautiful women do not have to be intelligent, hell…. it’s their tiny brain talking. Stupid, yes. ‘Sinister’ ? Hardly.