Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year, Blogdosts !

      It has been one hell of a year, it has! I am glad it is nearly over. 
Here's to new beginnings... hope and happiness in 2015. 
I love your comments. Do keep them coming! 
Have a glorious 2015, dear, dear Blogdosts! 
Thank you for your love and support!
       Where have all the children gone….?
I am writing this on X’Mas Eve. This is possibly the first time in several years that my mood is hopelessly down… the festive spirit has yet to touch me. I have gone through the motions, of course – the tree in the living room is fussily decorated, the front door lit up. I have the presents neatly gift wrapped and ready to distribute. Someone has sent us X’Mas cake and pudding…. someone else, champagne. We have attended five pre-X’Mas parties… there are two more to go. The weather in Mumbai is unbelievably cool and the sunlight, a pale shade of gold. On the streets there are countless Santas tapping car windows and peddling velvet reindeer horns. Along the seafront, people are lighting ‘wish lanterns’ imported from Thailand. What sort of a wish should we be making?
Ever since the Peshawar attacks on helpless children that left 132 kids dead, I have been thinking of  little else but the plight of  grieving mothers mourning  their murdered sons. Their lives will never be the same again. And while the rest of the world readies itself for a brand new year… new beginnings…. 2014 will be permanently marked as the year of grief for these unfortunate women. There can be no grief as profound, as scarring, as deep as the death of a child. Almost every other loss known to mankind  is  replaceable.  But nothing and no one can take the place of a child. I know couples who lost children under tragic circumstances more than forty years ago. But even to this day (while they  themselves confront age and death), the memory of that child remains vivid and omnipresent. Every little reminder, brings tears to the eyes…every family occasion is tinged with sorrow. The dead child’s absence is tangible – a powerful pull that touches the living more acutely than the vibrant  presence of  all the others present.
Of course, the world has moved on and away from the gruesome killings in Peshawar.  Closer to home, schools across India are tightening security and conducting emergency drills, just in case there is a repeat of that horrific terrorist attack on Indian soil. As the year draws to a close, it is time to ask ourselves what we can possibly do to combat  threats of this magnitude, involving defenseless innocents. Children are the world’s most precious resource. How can we protect them? Most mothers of slain children end up blaming themselves .Some may be thinking ‘If only I had been there, I could have saved my son and taken the bullets.” Or, “What if  I had not sent him to school that day? Why didn’t my sixth sense warn me something terrible was going to happen…” Hind sight is an awful affliction, and mothers possess more of it than needed. Unable to come to terms with the enormity of the tragedy, mothers obsessively recreate the last few hours of  the time spent together and conclude they could have prevented the tragic turn of events. A mother in grief ceases to be a rational person. It is useless trying to talk her out of flagellating herself emotionally. Perhaps that is the only healing she knows… and she should be granted the space and respect to deal with the tragedy in whichever way she chooses.
Women and children – the world takes both for granted. This is intrinsically wrong. Horribly wrong. 2015 is a good year to begin a genuine transformation, that goes beyond lip service and weak legislation. Our track record in India is abysmal on all counts. We treat women and children atrociously. Always have. 2014 was no better. But why bleat and plead and beat our breasts? Why not push for the overdue changes ourselves? Let’s begin with basics – let’s prosecute those who exploit child labour and treat the guilty like the hardened criminals they indeed are. Nobel Peace Prize winner  Kailash Satyarthi has shown us the way forward. Let’s also focus on getting our girls into schools. Malala Yousafzai… fittingly won her Nobel, for fighting this war . If 2015 is dedicated to women and children by a united world, we would have taken the first major step in the right direction. Can we afford to wait for even a day more? How many women and children do we want to lose to violence before we wake up and do something to save them…to save humanity at large?
The narrative for women and children must start now. Let’s ring in the new year on this positive note.

Thank you for sharing 2014 with me, beloved readers… I value you in my life. Here’s to a better 2015.
                                  NDTV  BLOG 18               30th Dec 2014
                     Why  Bollywood doesn’t stand by its own…
I was on a television panel discussion last night. Yup. Same one on which the anchor provides all the answers to questions asked by the nation. The topic was volatile (widespread vandalism of theatres screening the Aamir Khan starrer, ‘PK’ in Ahemdabad, Bhopal and elsewhere)  but the panelists were thanda. The panelists who were supposed to condemn the violence, that is.While the three defending the disgraceful shenanigans belonged to right wing  political/ religious outfits, the three of us representing the  ‘voice of the people’ were disappointingly muted. Well, I tried my best to be heard over the din of smug, self-appointed custodians of Hindu sentiments, but it was a frustrating and pointless exercise. I asked why the channel had not invited someone more ‘tagda’ to represent Bollywood . The reply didn’t surprise me – nobody of any importance from the movie industry wanted to speak up  - for the principle, not an individual. For the wrongness of what took place. Not for Aamir Khan. Or Raju Hirani. Or even the contents of the controversial movie. Speak up against these sort of intimidatory tactics. Speak up for our threatened freedoms. Speak up for democracy. Speak up for peaceful protests. Speak up for their own future, for heaven’s sake!
The answer is pretty obvious: Bollywood is scared.
Bolllywood  has reasons to be scared. Very scared.
And this is the real story : Bollywood is vulnerable. Perhaps, more vulnerable than any other sector in India.  It has always been this way. In earlier times, when Bolllywood itself was run in an erratic, unprofessional and disorganized fashion, it was easier for anti-social elements to exercise control over the film industry.  These ‘elements’ were dangerous and armed. They resorted to direct threat, blackmail and murder. The motive was money. Bollywood was a soft target for extortionists looking to make a killing the easy way. It was hard to stand up to these goons…and still stay alive. Some who tried to take on the underworld, paid for it heavily… and got the message fast enough. So did the others. Perhaps, this was when the term ‘setting’ was coined. It was a polite way of admitting you had done a deal with the ‘Bhais’. Yes, it was hard to handle outright threats back then. Maybe, it’s even harder now.
Today, even though the Bhais are still around, the Bollywood model of doing business has changed. Bollywood is corporatized now and run more professionally by men and women wearing Armani, not sleazeballs in polyester safari suits. But hello! the monies generated by superhits have gone through the roof, too!  ( ‘PK’ has grossed Rs.233 crores already).The vultures are still circling the big studios. But there are new players on the scene to contend with. These  people exercise  muscle power and clout as well… and as effectively.  Bollywood continues to run scared. There is no place to hide.
I don’t blame big stars, producers, directors for not jumping into the latest ‘PK’ imbroglio. They simply can’t afford the risk! There is far too much at stake and nobody wants to commit professional hara-kiri by challenging the might of shadowy outfits claiming to represent the majority.
This is such a shame. If Bollywood had indeed decided to take a joint stand and speak in one voice this time, perhaps the film industry would have benefitted in the long run. After all, this sort of wanton destruction serves no real purpose. It is not Aamir or Raju paying the price for the ‘protests’ – it is theatre owners! The movie has been cleared across the board. Leela Samson has issued a sane statement in the wake of the debate. Justice Lodha’s directives are abundantly clear. The film has been screened without any incident for 10 long days. All of a sudden there are violent reactions? Come on. 
And Bollywood has  kept mum.
Is it cowardice or good sense that dictates how Bollywood reacts to threats? I’d say it’s both. Silence has become the standard. Which in a way, implies surrender. Most stars shy away from engaging in larger issues that concern the film industry. They remain obstinately non-committal. Or genuinely indifferent. This is just so short sighted and selfish. If the big wigs in Bollywood get together and form a strong and singular body to represent their interests across the board, such attacks can be better addressed. It is not merely Aamir’s problem or Hirani’s problem. It involves everybody! Bollywood tends to segregate and compartmentalize crises, with zero show of unity when it is most required – like now.
Soon the ‘PK’ attacks will die down. But there will be more. Of that, we can be sure. What then? Will Bolllywood continue to play ostrich? Suffer amnesia and laryngitis? One hopes not…for its own sake.
There’s nothing as sinister as the silence of the lambs…
Attn: Meenal,Sudipta              Mumbai Mirror   26thDec 2014
               Chick of the year : Malala Yousefzai

Quite possibly, Malala Yousefzai is the most famous 17- year- old on the planet right now. As she well deserves to be. Her acceptance speech after winning the Nobel Prize for Peace 2014, is remarkable on several levels. It sounded like it was written by her and not drafted by a professional speech writer. It was the impassioned voice of a young woman, aware of her extraordinary position in history, and yet girlish enough to admit she still fights with her brother! Her message to the world was profound and yet, couched in simple, straight forward language. When she talked about leaders opting for tanks over text books , she received spontaneous  applause from the well-heeled, hard- nosed audience  assembled inside the magnificent palace in Stockholm. Watching her on countless television screens across the world, were millions of awe struck admirers…plus, a few powerful foes. Her voice remained as steady as her gaze.  It was hard to believe she was not yet eighteen!
What must it be like to  be Malala – a teenager who achieved global recognition the day she defied the Taliban and in return, got shot in the head for daring to challenge a diktat that forbade girls from attending school.This was in 2012 – the dramatic year that soon became a pivotal one not just for Malala, but for all vulnerable students in Pakistan. The first miracle was that she survived the gunshot. The second, was still more notable -  she carried on with her education,  and in the process became a hugely admired global icon. Where did this young girl get the courage from? What made her take on the Taliban… and emerge victorious as an international ambassador for education? I’d say, look no further than her family. Malala has  publicly acknowledged the role played by her parents in her fight to speak up on behalf of  children who are denied a fundamental right – the right to study . Ziauddin Yousefzai, her proud father, and Tor Pokai, her supportive mother, are two people who deserve to share her Nobel honour equally. Had they compelled her to rethink her decision and stay put at home after she survived the attack, perhaps the history of education for girls in Pakistan would have been different. Unfortunately, the significance of what Malala stood up to and would continue to stand up for, was completely lost on her government. Yes, a $10 million Malala Educational Fund was announced amidst great fanfare. But the tragic truth is that even after that, the number of girls who DON’T go to school  in Pakistan ,has gone up! Malala herself pretty much lives the life of an exile, unable to return to the country of her birth.  The book ‘I am Malala’ has become an international best seller, inspiring countless young people to derive strength from Malala’s incredible life. But she herself, lives away from her country, her people, in distant Birmingham
This year indubitably belongs to Malala – she is the chick of chicks. At seventeen, she has seen more life than most women at seventy. What happens to Malala next is crucial. Will she stay the course? Will she remain unswayed by all the adulation and fame? How far will her activism take her? Twenty years from now, she will be just 37- years- old  –  how will she use these two decades? She talks of becoming the Prime Minister of  Pakistan someday. Inshallah, that will happen. It’s hard to believe anyone could possess such a resolute vision of life at the tender age of seventeen. But then again, Malala is not the average teen. She possesses a maturity  -  a sense of destiny  -  that is way beyond her years.
Pakistani watchers insist the massacre in Peshawar occurred as a direct fallout of  Malala’s Nobel. It is said the Taliban wanted to send out a strong message to girls who want to follow Malala’s example. Well, they now know they risk getting their heads blown off  if they persist. If so, Malala faces an extra challenge. The safety and security of several thousand girls has been unfairly thrust on her. Malala was fortunate – she survived the gun shot. Others may not be as blessed. Malala’s crusade is pretty daunting. She is a natural born leader…. politics is but a part of natural progression. Reassuringly enough, tomorrow’s Prime Minister of Pakistan  is still kiddish enough, candid enough, to publicly confess she fights with her brother! Thank God, she does! Or else the world would have wondered if Malala was for real.
For now, it’s enough that Ms. Yousefzai is doing what millions of  students her age do – she’s studying hard, appearing for exams, and making sure the grades are good. And yes, she continues to scrap with her brother!
Here’s to 2015, dear readers. And to more Malalas across the world. Thank you for sharing this space!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The illiteracy of the Ruling Class...

What a fantastic launch! At 92, Ram Jethmalani remains one of the sharpest brains in India! Outspoken, witty and enormously charming, I really enjoyed moderating his session at the recently concluded TOI Lit Fest in Mumbai.
Sunday Times                  Politically Incorrect              5th Dec 2014
                           The ‘Illiteracy’ of the ruling class…
This week was reserved for BJP Union Minister ‘Sadhvi’ Niranjan Jyoti and her foul mouth. No amount of gargling with boric acid will cleanse that. Or her mind. She may have apologized and taken back her despicable words. But the fact that she uttered them in the first place, is shocking enough.The even more shocking aspect of this incident is this : are we really upset by what she said? As upset as we need to be under the circumstances? Or will we take her gutter language in our stride and move on? In another, equally distasteful context, will we also overlook Mamata Banerjee’s crude ‘Bamboo’ remark and put it down to yet another ‘Didi outburst’?  Are we getting so accustomed to vile language being spewed in public by prominent political players, that we no longer react to these  crude remarks with the abhorrence they demand?
The worst aspect of the ‘Sadhvi’ speech was Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu’s weak attempt at justifying her revolting words by explaining Niranjan Jyoti is ‘a woman from an economically weaker background who has risen without all sorts of support.” So???  Was he implying we should employ a different set of standards for individuals who rise ‘without all sorts of support’. What sort of support did he mean? He added he had ‘counselled’ her and she had ‘realised her mistake’. He put a lid on the controversy by firmly declaring, “There the matter ends’. Oh no, it doesn’t. If anything, there the matter begins!
Mamata has never needed anybody to either defend or counsel her – nobody would dare attempt it either. Nor would anything work in her case. Unlike Union Minister Niranjan Jyoti ( can you believe this 47- year- old  is Minister of State for  Food Processing Industries?), the Chief Minister of West Bengal lays claims to many impressive college degrees, and on paper at least, she is a highly educated person! Which makes one wonder what we mean by education these days! Is this the language used by ‘educated’ people? Should one start divorcing education from culture, upbringing, sensitivity, knowledge, civilized conduct?
Look at the Sadhvi’s track record -  here’s a person who has made it to this enviable position  after winning from Fatehpur, a constituency  which the erudite V.P.Singh had nurtured and  won twice. Jyoti  belongs to a community of  boatmen - seen as an important vote bank in the state. She was the only woman to be sworn into the 21 member council of ministers. It was believed she was being rewarded by the party for helping the BJP crack the Dalit and backward classes in Uttar Pradesh. All that is fine. It’s politics as usual. That her declared net worth hovers around 25 lakhs, also says something. But is that ‘something’ enough? Can her modest beginnings be exploited to condone her atrocious public abuse? Will anybody offer similar concessions to someone who comes from a less deprived background? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the abusive ‘Sadhvi’? Why?
This is yet another example of the politics of convenience and opportunism. Sure, she is an elected representative of the people and nobody can take that away from her. But did she have to be inducted into the government and given a ministerial berth she is clearly not qualified for? No, she didn’t! And if she has been placed there, either she should shape up and fit the bill, or, if she crosses all limits of decency (as she did), she must be sacked. Why should the offended people of India passively accept her programmed, hollow apology and go along with the government when it declares it a ‘closed chapter’. Who closed it? Not us!
Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti calls herself a ‘Katha Vachak’. She is someone who delivers religious sermons through story telling. She also describes herself as a social worker. Most would agree her latest speech disqualifies her on both counts -  if that was her idea of a good story, sorry, it sucked. And what sort of ‘social work’ does she do apart from inciting followers? It is disingenuous to say that her speech was not made inside the Parliament, and therefore can’t be held against her. Really?  It is precisely this kind of arrogant justification of blatant wrong doing that is worrying voters. If the Sadhvi gets away with this and still hangs on to her position, it will encourage others to follow suit, test the waters of tolerance and see if they too are honourably exonerated by the powers that be. Parliamentary conduct and language be damned, we have witnessed disgraceful scenes of hoolganism indulged in by all the parties at some point of the other. The disturbing trend has to stop and strong disciplinary action taken against those who misbehave and break laws of civil conduct – within and outside the Parliament.

The root cause of the Sadhvi’s deplorable utterances is the lack of education – and by that I don’t mean getting a degree from a reputed university. People like her, irrespective of which religious group they represent, deserve to be ostracized and shunned. If she had been asked to step down, it would have sent the right signal across party lines and perhaps, deterred future hater mongers from making such inflammatory comments. But will we ever show such sense and take necessary steps in advance? Unlikely. There is too much at stake – all sorts of  nasty equations to safeguard, dubious factions to protect. That leaves the Bewildered Indian who wonders what went wrong… when… why.  We remained silent when we ought to have spoken up. People like Niranjan Jyoti don’t suddenly pop out of  nowhere. They wait… they know when to strike… because they also know who’ll protect them when they do open their mouths. It’s the Sadhvi today – who will it be tomorrow?
    Shobhaa’s Take                 27thNov2014 Asian Age
Perhaps my strong emotional response to the Ferguson case in distant St.Louis, Missouri, has a lot to do with the fact I spent a fortnight in America recently and came back with thousands of  images exploding out of my head. Most were pleasant – very pleasant. Some, not so. I was back on the West Coast after a fairly long break. The flight to Los Angeles seemed never ending – well, over sixteen hours cooped up inside an airplane is almost as bad as being strapped into an MRI machine for sixteen minutes - and equally claustrophobic. The  LAX airport looked most third world ( to be fair, massive construction is on to convert it into a swanky new terminal), and I smirked superciliously, remembering Mumbai’s glittering T2 and several other equally attractive, modern terminals across India. The entire experience on arrival in the land of milk and honey, was disheartening and gloomy ( no porters, no trolleys, poor signage, total chaos), and the long drive to the hotel over shabby flyovers and dirty streets, didn’t help the mood.
Later, much later, walking around the impossibly spread out city and talking to locals, it was pretty obvious that the great ‘Melting Pot’ of the world was showing signs of  strain and was in danger of boiling over. As it happened when Michael Brown, an 18- year- old , unarmed  African American teenager was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white cop, who was later exonerated by a grand jury. “I just did my job. I did what I was paid to do,” Wilson blandly told his interviewer on ABC News, further fuelling the wrath of protestors across the country. At the time of writing, several cities across America are burning, in what threatens to be a major polarizing moment in race relations – uneasy and troubling at the best of times. Flashpoints like the Ferguson case take place when society refuses to address ghastly truths about itself and pretends ‘all is well’ when it damn well isn’t. We, in India, are in exactly the same situation, and for the same reasons. We refuse to give our demon a name. In place of race we have religion.
 Most Americans by and large remain indifferent to what’s going on in India. And I am talking about desi Americans, too. Most are so frighteningly insular in their outlook, one wonders whether they have any other real interests and objectives beyond making money ( the primary reason most of them immigrated to America more than thirty years ago). Yes, they are vaguely curious about Narendra Modi and his government. But if you think the Madison Square Garden extravaganza impressed these folks, forget it. They took pains to point out it was precision staged by well-heeled BJP supporters in America, who efficiently managed the gushy Indian media coverage of the hoopla . According to the people I met, the average Joe didn’t know ( nor care) that a Very Important Man from India had come to America and met President Obama. What was a momentous, historic event for us back home, was apparently nothing more significant than  a  four line reference in mainstream newspapers there. In fact, the ‘Indian’  person who is occupying the mind space of our deshbhais and behens far more, is  Republican Governor of  Louisiana , Piyush         Bobby Jindal (he also holds the post of Vice Chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association), who is being described as the ultimate ‘dark horse’ with a pretty good chance of clinching the  Presidential nomination, beating Hillary Clinton and the rest in the race to the White House. Eat that!
How does race touch ‘our’ people in America? It is funny – they remain suspended somewhere in between – neither ‘idhar’ nor ‘udhar’. A little like the proverbial ‘dhobi ka kutta’. I didn’t see any real intermingling   - whether with the Whites or African Americans. If anything, Indians stick to other Indians, and largely mind their own business. Their prosperity is evident and visible, more on the West Coast than elsewhere. These are the wealthy techies who have done spectacularly well in Silicon Valley and beyond. They work hard , educate their kids at top schools, spend those green backs judiciously,  invest in decent homes… travel… and  stay out of trouble. Like the other Asians. Perhaps, that’s the best way to survive and thrive. Their kids feel American, eat American, live American, think American, dream American. Their idea of India is nebulous at best. And the only connect is via grand- parents they may meet once in two years.  Are they friends with White kids? Frankly, I can’t comment. I didn’t see much of it during my short stay.
 How do the several Indian communities living in America respond to the Ferguson saga? Do they experience the same level of outrage as African Americans demonstrating on the streets? Clearly not. But try asking them where their sympathies lie, and don’t be surprised if they defend the White cop, Darren Wilson. The thing is, we are as racist ( if not more so) than anybody else. Educated, successful, overseas’ Indians actually think they are White! Not coloured – even though that is the category they technically fit into. And that is how they are seen.  Personally speaking, going through the rather demeaning line of questioning by Immigration officials, I wasn’t all that surprised to be asked a few really intrusive / offensive questions , in  tones that dripped sarcasm. Nor was I shocked to be searched and checked for ‘gunpowder and explosives’. This is how it goes. Michael Brown paid for it with his life. Prejudice wears blinkers and sees what it wishes to.
 Often,your only crime is the colour of your skin. Whether in America or India.
             Mumbai Mirror               4th Dec  2014
                              Rohtak Sisters : Drama Queens??
 I clearly recall collaring a brute who had deliberately brushed past me outside Eros cinema, and clobbering him. Nobody had intervened or come to my defence. I must have been seventeen years old at the time.Now comes the  dramatic story of the Rohtak sisters. I  confess I fell for the uncut version myself. So impressed was I with the way Aarti(22) and Pooja (19)  fixed their tormentors in a crowded bus, I promptly hailed them as modern day Jhansi Ki  Raanis in a tweet! By then, they were all over the media, along with a beaming dad, and had also made it to CNN and the BBC World. Their stand was being applauded by countless outraged women ( and a few men) across platforms. Their quotes urging women to fight back and not take such public harassment lying down etc. were being extensively quoted. Not wishing to be left out of the narrative, the Haryana Government hastily announced  a cash award for bravery  ( since withdrawn) to be given on Republic Day!  Soon, video number two surfaced showing the girls taking on a man in a Mumbai park and thrashing him energetically. So far, three chaps (Mohit, Kuldeep, Deepak) from the bus incident have been booked. But the slightly dodgy part of the story still remains: were the beatings staged? And if so, who shot both the videos? Is it true one of the girls was overheard requesting a female co-passenger to shoot the maar-peet before the actual beating took place? Was the belt she used to flog the guy taken out of  her bag or  was she wearing it when the assault took place? These are important details that establish the motivations of the girls. Aarti has denied carrying the belt in her handbag , insisting it takes her 20 seconds to whip  it off. As for the rest, well, we shall find out soon enough.

I recall innumerable similar situations from my own life when I didn’t think twice before accosting men who had deliberately brushed past me or passed rude/ lewd remarks. I have chased down a few near Churchgate Station ( I grew up in the area) and let them have it – verbally and physically ( what are large , heavy  handbags for??). I am talking 40 years ago! Later, I did repeat the same drill if anybody ‘accidentally’ touched my daughters. Of course, such a public display of unbridled rage embarrassed the girls no end and they urged me to ‘let it go’. Absolutely not! No woman should ‘let it go’. That’s how we breed monsters in our society - desperadoes who dare to molest women in congested localities, because they believe they can get away with it.  They generally do.  And so the cycle goes on… generation after generation.
The ‘Rockstars of Rohtak’, as sections of the media have dubbed them, live in different times. They are savvy about the power of  provocative videos going viral and creating instant, overnight celebrities . It’s entirely possible both the videos are indeed accurate recordings of  two separate incidents that took place, involving the same two girls. It is also possible that both times there were obliging bystanders around who had the presence of mind to start recording these nasty incidents and nail the culprits.  But – and it’s a vital ‘but’ – what if the two girls had in fact planned the incidents to make a point? What if it was their way of sending out a strong message to other women who have suffered in silence – and ‘let it go’? The quotes one has read and heard, sound incredibly well composed and admirably calm. The girls must indeed be very mature and confident. Plus, they have the support of their father, whose quotes are equally convincing. Provided both incidents took place as seen in the videos, without any stage management, then, of course, my skepticism /cynicism is misplaced.
This is where media responsibility kicks in. In our impatience to flash a potentially ‘hot’ story, we rush in blindly, without bothering to fact check . In the process, we get had. We get used. We get exploited. Worse, we end up with egg all over our faces. Definitely not nice!
While the basic message of these two videos is laudatory (“women should fight back and not take any form of harassment lying down”), we must stop to consider the possibility of a miscarriage of justice as well. Public opinion is so ‘tagda’ ,  those boys could have been lynched had the co-passengers been aggressive and involved. As of now, they stand accused and their future looks pretty bleak.  The Rohtak sisters are heroes, basking in the unconditional admiration they have received for standing up to bullies.
As someone who hasn’t taken anything in life lying down (or standing up, or even sitting!) , I am all for the Rohtak girls showing the way. Fingers crossed they haven’t  ‘ullu bano-ed’ us for  instant fame.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Tyranny of Notoriety....

At the packed to capacity meet for NULIFE in Pune, recently. I am happy to announce that NULIFE will be launching one-bedroom units for senior citizens soon. This was after extensive market research showed that senior citizens were looking for a space that would meet their needs for a secure, comfortable life , in a conducive environment. This has always been the objective of NULIFE  and its promoters Disha Direct. For more information, check out their website.
          Mumbai Mirror            28th Nov 2014
                                     Jashodaben – Superhero!!
Let’s hand it to her – it takes one hell of a lot of guts for the abandoned spouse of the powerful Prime Minister  of the country, to file an RTI application demanding to know what sort of privileges she is entitled to as the legally wedded wife of Narendra Modi! Most women in her unfortunate position would have either kept mum or taken full advantage of the situation ( read : perks). Clearly, Jashodaben is made of sterner stuff. How cool does that make her?
When she toodled off to submit the RTI application to the Mehsana police earlier this week, she was riding pillion ( with helmet? Without?) on her younger brother Ashok Modi’s scooty (she  has been living with him at his modest house in Unjha after her husband picked politics over his bride whom he married in 1968). Left to pursue her unfinished studies, Jashodaben was living a life of total obscurity, even during the time her husband was the high profile Chief Minister of Gujarat. And there she would probably have stayed even after he rose to lead his party to victory in the historic elections, had the Supreme Court guidelines not forced her husband to declare his marital status. For years and years, Modi had left his marital status blank while filing his nomination papers. But the Lok Sabha election papers made it mandatory for him to ‘do the needful’.  Virtually overnight,  Jashodaben’s existence became known to the public. One assumes she was fine with that, considering she remained under  wraps even after Modi assumed office. It was only after armed guards started to ‘protect’ her 24x7, that the lady decided it was time to ask a few relevant questions. Such as :  On whose orders was she being provided these guards? She went further, citing Indira Gandhi’s tragedy (Indira was assassinated by her own guards), and expressing her own fears that the ‘ambiguity’ revolving around the identity of these guards (who refused to tell her on whose orders they were tailing her!), made her believe there was a grave danger to her life. What an extraordinary charge to make, given her unique position!

 Today, the plucky lady is seeking answers to basic questions  and wants to know ‘all the protocol and facilities, including security details’ she is entitled to as the wife of the prime minister. She says her guards do not carry any official orders with them.  And what obviously bugs her equally is that these men tail her in comfortable, air conditioned cars while she uses public transport!  Oh yes – the guards also demand to be treated like her family’s ‘guests’  - which must mean they expect khaana –peena from her kitchen1 Hello????
Her RTI application is bold, blunt and to the point. It reads, “ I am the wife of the prime minister of India and have been extended security as per protocol. Which other service can be extended to me under the protocol? Give me a detailed description of the protocol.” Hurrah!Good on you, gurrrlll! She also stated in an interview to a journalist that she is willing to go and stay with the Prime Minister as his wife in Delhi. Jashodaben wears a mangalsutra around her neck and sindhoor in the parting of her hair –  easily recognizable symbols of being a married woman.
 Now the ball is in her husband’s court.
 Will he reinstate a lady in his life who he has not been with for 46 years ( well, technically, they shared space for the first 2 or 3 years of their married life… if that counts). Will Jashodaben be formally ‘presented in court’ as it were, any time soon? Will she be his official hostess at State banquets? Accompany him on his official tours overseas’? Receive Barrack and Michelle Obama when they arrive for the grand Republic Day Parade on 26th January, 2015?
 Even more importantly, will someone – anyone – explain to this bewildered lady who exactly those heavies are and why they are tailing her? Is it really for her protection? If ‘yes’ – reveal their identities, produce relevant orders and that will be that.
Her fears are understandable and entirely justified.
On the other hand -  and let me play the Devil’s advocate here - for a lady who has timidly accepted her status and fate in life for close to half a century, isn’t it a bit, ummm, strange, that she has suddenly picked up the courage to ask tough questions to one of the toughest men in contemporary India, who just happens to be her husband?  Who is backing Jashodaben?

 Over to you, Mrs. Modi.  It’s your turn to answer the questions now.
NDTV Blog 16                    
                                   The Tyranny of Notoriety…
Tarun Tejpal has always been something of a rogue. There. I said it. So what? A rogue’s life is never easy… and eventually things catch up. As they did in Tejpal’s case ( let me not bore everybody with tedious details of  ‘that’ dreadful incident in Goa at Tehelka’s Think Fest / Bonk Fest last year). Tarun was accused by a junior female colleague of indulging in some pretty loathsome sexual misdemeanours – okay – rape.  After which,all hell broke loose , with  Tarun making it worse and worse for himself, till finally the Goan authorities did what the law of the land dictates and the swashbuckling Tejpal found himself in a grotty local  lock up – disgraced and isolated for the most part.
That’s the brief history.
I am not going into whether or not he ‘did it’ (let the courts decide). Neither am I going to join the over- heated feminist debate regarding the victim’s trauma. For me, this nasty scandal was less about sex and more about abuse of power – an even worse offence. Let Tarun and his lawyers figure out how to extricate him out of this monumental mess.
This piece is about a specific invitation extended to Tarun by the organizers of the annual Times of India Literary Carnival to be held in Mumbai from December 5th to 7th . The furor that was generated by Tarun’s inclusion as a panelist in a topic aptly titled, “The Tyranny of  Power,” was such that the invitation was promptly withdrawn, albeit with a jaunty if weak explanation (“….the reaction to his inclusion suggests that our litfest was in danger of being overwhelmed by an extraneous issue.”) Oh well… that’s elegant understatement for you! ‘Extraneous issue’??? That’s a pretty cheeky euphemism for a much discussed sexual assault case !
The man is not coming.
I wish he was.
Here’s the thing. It was an audacious move on the part of co-organisers Bachi Karkaria and Namita Devidayal ( both veteran journalists with the TOI) to have invited one of the most despised and notorious men in India to the Lit Fest . It was even more audacious of  Tarun to have accepted .This is the amazing part. Did the organizers really believe Mumbai is ‘cool’ enough to handle his presence without protest? Was that their only miscalculation? After all, it was a perfect fit – the subject and the moderator ( Manu Joseph) would have ensured a full house on 6th December. Controversy never killed a LiFest – right? But the accusations both ladies faced on social media were different. They were suspected of  being part of a complex ‘rehabilitation’ programme. This is rubbish! What would they gain by ‘rehabilitating’ Tarun??? Come on! Then there was the other thing about displaying insensitivity towards the victim, when the case is sub-judice .What nonsense! I don’t think there was ever a deep, dark, devilish plan to ‘exonerate’ Tejpal by giving him some respectability at a Lit fest. I’d say all they were probably doing was providing Tarun a platform. That’s what Lit fests are about it – or ought to be. Is there an unwritten rule somewhere that says only pure, untarnished saints can be  invited to Lit fests?? How dull and boring that would make these events! Is Tejpal the only person with a dodgy reputation to be extended such an invitation? Hell, no! Half the people who draw readers to Lit Fests are pretty colourful characters, some with criminal records, others who have made being offensive in public their main objective in life.
Tarun Tejpal would not have broken any law by attending the TOI Literary Carnival. Neither would the organizers. And that’s the whole point. People who have issues with Tejpal ( I certainly do) were free to stay away, stage protests, boo. Ditto for writers taking the high moral ground. By buckling to pressure, the organizers have  surrendered a fundamental right, and given in to shrill public opinion. I so wish Bachi and Namita had stuck to their guns and boldly fought this round. Instead Bachi fell for the bait and responded to media’s taunts  by saying, “ We are not film stars or a gossip magazine. The Litfest is serious business.”  Oh dear. I wonder how invited film stars to this LitFest are going to  feel after this?
 Well…. someone has to self-lacerate and recuse himself/herself.
If not Tarun, then….?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Amrika returned!!!

So looking forward to my friend and former colleague,  Godfrey Joseph Pereira's debut novel, ''Bloodline Bandra''. As is the case in most first books, this one too, is drawn from the author's life as a Bandra Boy, born in Pali Village, speaking that particular East Indian lingo , and making the long journey to New York, after a very successful stint as a journalist in India. What he documents  next, will shock you - the life of a 'legal slave'' working for an exploitative desi employer, before freeing himself from further  tyranny. It launches across South East Asia on 25th November.
A fortnight spent in Amrika, was an eye opener on many levels! It was a great trip and we narrowly missed getting snowed under. Thanks to my TiE Con friends Toni Das Gupta in LA and Nitin Rai in Portland, I got to meet some extraordinary people when I addressed members in both cities. I would love to post pictures of the trip on the blog.... but the images are on my phone and I don't know how to transfer them. Any solutions???
This appeared in Sunday Times...
     Modi has made chutney of the media….
Keep them hungry. Keep them guessing. Starve the media. Throw them crumbs. Make them beg. Narendra Modi and his strategists are on top of the game. And it is becoming a bit much! Not since the infamous Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1977, has Indian media been reduced to this pathetic level of redundancy, meekly reproducing press handouts and forgetting all about critical analysis. Modi has established a new set of ground rules for any sort of media engagement. And those are pretty simple – it’s his way or the highway. So far, Modi is in the driver’s seat. And his team is winning. When and how did this terrible fall take place? Was it cold bloodedly planned? Or does desi media itself have a death wish? Lots has been made of the Diwali Milan in Delhi during which several mighty journalists fell over themselves to click Selfies with the Prime Minister. I won’t really read too much into that – this is the age of the Selfie. Everybody but everybody wants to click one – even President Obama. Hell, I tried it (unsuccessfully, I might add) with Narendra Modi myself at Nita Ambani’s Mumbai event, where top Bollywood stars were falling over backwards to do the same. Selfies are addictive. Nobody lives the moment anymore -  people prefer to record it! It’s the irresistible childish thrill of capturing an image of yourself with a famous/ notorious person … and sharing / gloating later. Selfies, per se , are pretty harmless and don’t  mean a thing. Not even those taken with the P.M.  The media surrender I am referring to, is far more insidious and goes well beyond jostling for space next to one of the most watched individuals on earth right now. Trust me, Selfies with celebs would have happened  decades ago, had Selfies existed back then.
The real worry about media’s dramatic descent, is the spectacular absence of  any dissent… any distance, from Modi and his team. Why are seasoned journalists suddenly shying away from analyzing the political scenario, adopting the same stringent critical standards they once adhered to? What is everybody afraid of all of a sudden? Retribution? Of what kind? Could it also be true that the established media class representing an earlier era ( which had benefitted so richly from government largesse in the past ) has taken the softer option and decided  to play ball with Modi?
Love fests between journos  and politicians are doomed affairs, as so many scribes discover to their chagrin once the cosy relationship curdles and ends. So long as one feeds off the other, the equilibrium is maintained – albeit uneasily.. The trouble starts when a new set of power brokers emerges almost overnight and challenges the old status quo. That seems to be the case with Modi and the press right now.
 It’s time for journalists themselves to do some serious ‘Mann Ki Baat’ with the nation. Have we brought this on ourselves? Even if that is the case, why are we putting up with ill treatment and open contempt? Which is the best way to regain lost ground…. some self- respect, for Godssake ? It’s definitely not through sucking up to Modi and his A-team. Chamchagiri has its pitfalls and chamchas invariably come to grief in the long run. Every shrewd politician knows that. The old practice of cultivating and ‘paalo-ing’ sympathetic / friendly journalists is long over. We live in social media times, where it’s a savage free for all. Nothing and no one is ‘untouchable’. There are no sacred cows left. You give as good as you get…. and only the toughest survive.
 Modi prefers to control and calibrate media interactions – what is euphemistically called ‘managing the fourth estate’. For him it has always been a one way street. This suits him just fine. It also establishes who is boss.  Modi’s message to the media is direct and simple : Get lost! He has proved he doesn’t need traditional media by going all out to conquer new media. He was the first desi politician to understand the awesome power of public opinion as expressed through user- friendly platforms like Twitter, FB and more. He harnessed and exploited the incredible potential of all available electronic  media to kick start his campaign, construct his global image and win that unbelievable mandate during the last general elections. Having tasted victory, he is convinced there is absolutely no need to woo the press. And he is absolutely right!
But does that mean that the press also stops doing its assigned job? Gets seamlessly co-opted? Kowtows to officialdom? Pounces greedily on morsels of monitored information thrown its way? If we carry on like Modi slaves much longer, the day won’t be far before we give up all claims to credible, truthful, hard hitting journalism and turn ourselves into performing monkeys, happy to dance to Modi’s ‘dumru’. What a sad day that will be for India!

 Narendra Modi has made chutney of the media in India. Ramnath Goenka and others who stood up and walked tall while the rest crawled inn 1977 -  where are you when we need you the most?
                NDTV Blog 14                           
                               India’s ‘Damaad’ flexes his muscles… and gets kayoed!
Are we nuts?
Are we idiots??????
Sonia  Gandhi’s son-in-law seems to think so!
The  most notorious muscleman ( all brawn, chhota bheja) in India, has landed  himself in a mess flexing those pumped up biceps( the size of well- fed puppies) during an altercation with an ANI reporter, who had the himmat to ask him a forbidden question, when he was supposed to stick to the script and focus on body building. After all, theindividual infamously referred to as a ‘thug’ and India’s ‘Al Capone’ by Dr. Subramaniam Swamy, was doing the honours inaugurating a gym , and not addressing a political rally. The ANI chap bravely tried to push his luck by doing  what any hard- nosed journo would have done face-to-face with a person who has a lot to answer for – Priyanka Gandhi’s buff hubby, Robert Vadra -  Delhi’s perennial party boy and front row fixture at assorted fashion shows. Little did the enterprising reporter know that a politely worded question about the Haryana land deals scandal Vadra is embroiled in would lead to a national debate.Vadra lost it!  Questioned the man’s sanity, called him an idiot , pushed aside the mike and camera, and left his heavies to do the rest ( demand the offensive footage  get instantly deleted ). All hell broke loose after that…
 Here comes the far more interesting story. Once the clips went public, responses were sought from Congresswallas. Diggy Raja dutifully trotted out the  tired old, “ He’s a private citizen…” cliche, and made it worse by projecting Vadra as a victim being ‘ hounded’ by the media. Bechaara Bob! He must have felt so hurt, so hurt by that direct question, that his mother-in-law had to rush to his side and console him for 45 long minutes. Vadra, the private citizen, who has enjoyed the most incredible public privileges in the country all these years, is a seriously pissed off  man. As a very private citizen, who has never held any public office (or any known office, for that matter!), Robert’s supporters have every right to protest . After all, the poor guy just happens to  get treated like a VVIP – is that his fault? Yes, he has body guards and commandos trailing him… so what? Who stops other private citizens from hiring their own private armies, huh? And why grudge the man a few, chhota mota perks like being exempt from frisking at airports etc. These are small , petty matters in a democracy  - let’s face it, some people are just more equal, that’s all. Why are the BJP chaps making such a big deal out of this? And imagine calling his behaviour ‘inappropriate’. What is inappropriate about insulting a reporter doing his job? As if their party people have never misbehaved with the media? Thank God for Sandeep Dixit, who showed some sense by not endorsing this particular private citizen’s right to intimidate a tv reporter. Unfortunately, Sandeep’s simple act has not gone unnoticed by those out to prove their loyalty to Soniaji and her  ‘Damaadji’. It is being whispered that first Sheilaji ( Sandeep’s mother) praised Modiji ( sort of) and now the son has made conciliatory noises when the First Family is being openly attacked. Definitely, something black in the lentils …
The Broadcast Editors’ Association has demanded an apology from First Citizen Vadra. Meanwhile, the public is being given lessons on what the Constitution of India says about the right to privacy, personal space and liberty by Congress spokesmen.
The question to ask is this : When on earth will Robert Vadra  be ready to answer the questions being posed about the Haryana Land deals? Next week? Next month? Next year? Between gym routines? Right after strenuous work outs? Outside his favourite night club? Backstage during Fashion Week? He just has to say the word, and the media will be there at a time and venue picked by him. But if he really thinks the media is going to back off and let it go because of what happened on Saturday, forget it,  bro. No matter how inappropriate and inconvenient it appears to you and your ma-in-law’s  acolytes, there is a job to be done. If you have nothing to hide, and you are indeed innocent , prove it! And face the consequences – like any other private citizen of India.
It’s true what you said about us – we are nuts! We are idiots! Those questions should have been asked years ago. But this time we are also serious – jawaab de do, beta. Till then, expect more questions.  Aapke intezar mein…

Sunday, November 2, 2014

'Small Betrayals''. The new book is out!

Lovely Sunday! Launched my latest book - a collection of short stories - this afternoon, at the TataLive! Lit Fest in Mumbai. I was In Conversation with British Scholar Ted Hodgkinson, and it turned out to be one of the liveliest sessions I have participated in, at any Lit Fest!
 This appeared in Mumbai Mirror....
                         Amruta Ranade Fadnavis: Meet the Missus
Forget Devendra. Hello! Amruta. And welcome to Mumbai… ! You are going to fit right in, I can tell you. Your husband may be the youngest Chief Minister of  Maharashtra. But you, my dear, are the star! It is you who interests the city far more. Remember, you are now the official ‘vahini’ of the State. Previous ‘vahinis’ have been convention bound and boring, choosing  to stay out of the public eye, therby leaving their high profile ‘yajmaans’ to hog the limelight. But those ‘vahinis’ were not like you to start with. At 35, you are a proud, financially independent working woman (Associate V.P. Axis Bank). Just like millions of fellow Mumbaikars. We are exceedingly proud of our female work force – from the hard working  Kolis to corporate power ladies. Our women form the strong spine that keeps Mumbai going on multiple levels. Soon you will be one of us. According to published reports, you have asked for a transfer to a branch in Mumbai, and I am guessing you will get it. But you have also stated if that does not happen, you will continue working at the premium branch in Nagpur. This is what any professional would do. Given your upbringing ( both parents being doctors ), it explains your work ethic and modern thinking. When you stated “ I want to grow intellectually,” to an interviewer, it was clear you weren’t going to be the traditional , decorative ‘vahini’. What a relief!
Going by the fact you addressed over 100 meetings in Nagpur on behalf of your husband ( while he was busy hurtling across the State on behalf of his party ), he owes you a big one. I mean, his impressive win by a 59k lead has a lot to do with your focused campaigning with the women of his constituency ( all the Mahila Mandals who backed him). You urged the ladies to come out and vote for your man. And they did just that! You also kept the daily 100- plus visitors to your home, well fed and looked after, while making sure the hubby stayed away from oily food and mithais.  It was the others who got to eat  the laddoos – ha ha ha! Oh yes…. given the high,sartorial standards set by the PM, you also took charge of  your husband’s wardrobe! Wah! Kya baat hai! Especially because your husband  used to be a model! Yes, Sir!  His old bill boards show him prancing and preening for a shirt brand…that’s pretty cool! I don’t think Maharashtra  has been lucky enough to get a  model-CM during its long history. We’ve seen all kinds of blokes, peddling all kinds of stuff. But not shirts. Well, some of them did specialize in shirts – they took them off our backs. But this Devendra Dude is different. In more ways than one – he married you!
We like the bike story a lot! Apparently, you often coax hubby to take you for a ride. Errr… on his motorbike. That won’t be possible in Mumbai, alas –  not with him as CM.  Besides,you have noticed the chaotic, traffic, right? Apparently, you also get him to join you during stage performances and sing a duet or two. Again, now that he is the CM, poor guy will be singing a different tune henceforth… possibly, in Gujarati. But so long as both of you sing in sync, that’s what matters.
Your ‘ideal bahu’ story gets better and better! You frequently give credit for your husband’s amazing success story to Sarita, your feisty mother-in-law. Ekta Kapoor, please note! You may be 8 years younger than your husband, but you sound incredibly mature in the way you handle your many roles. As for your daughter Diviija, all of 5, hey – she’s something else. A natural born politician. I heard the biggest kick she derives is when she entertains an audience by repeating her dad’s political bhaashans. Which 5-year-old does that? And she prefers to attend his rallies over playing with other kids.  I guess, she won’t opt for banking as a career when she grows up…

This is going to be fun for all of us. Please don’t change… or turn invisible once you taste the ‘CM-ki-Biwi’ life.  Just be yourself. Hang with people your age. Check out Mumbai’s night life.  Let your hair down. Meet people other than politicos. Mumbai has an incredibly vibrant core which sensibly ignores officialdom and dull protocol. If the CM can’t take you for bike rides, we’ll find you people who can! Make the most of Mumbai, dearest Amruta. Trust me, your husband couldn’t have given you a better gift than the chance to experience one of the greatest cities of the world – aamchi Mumbai!
This appeared in Mumbai Mirror...
                            Siraj-Sajida ki love story…
Reeeellllllax, ladies.  I am not going to diss your ‘Karwa Chauth’ rituals. To each, her own punishment! If  dressing up in bridal finery, applying mehendi and giggling with other women while waiting  for  the moon  ( and your men) to show up, does it for you… and your marriage, good luck with the annual festival of  Karwa Chauth. . Meaningful  to some. Absurd to others. This year, I hear, several sensitive partners , same sex couples and ex-lovers, are participating in the day long fast. Given the dismal weather forecast, I only hope the errant ‘chand’ manages to peek through the clouds and signal the start of  hearty feasting following the fasting.
But my mind is more on a unique love story that is pretty fascinating.  Sajida, the young wife and mother of three kids, is married to Siraj,  a Pakistani man who  took  a wrong train in 1995 and accidentally strayed into ‘enemy’ country  -  India. He was 10 at the time and had run away from home. Instead of boarding a train to Karachi, he got into one that brought him to Amritsar. Well… here’s the irony : the only real home he has ever known, is India. The only real family he has, is in India. Possibly, the only real love he ever experienced  happened in India. One look at the photograph of Siraj with his wife and three kids ( a son and two daughters ), and the absurdity of  life (and some complex laws that control destinies of people caught in the cross fire), raises all sorts of troubling questions.  Since 1995, Siraj  has lived with uncertainty and fear. The man has not broken any laws during this period. He has merely tried to get on with his life, like millions of others in this busy metropolis. Late last year, Siraj Khan Pathan was convicted of entering India illegally in 1995! He finished serving his sentence on May 6th, but had been kept under detention under Section11(2) of the Foreigners’ Act. A few days ago, he was mysteriously released from the RAK Marg police station, but minus papers. Is that his fault?
The cops want to make sure he doesn’t abscond.  Abscond… and go where?
The  madness and tragedy of it all!
 Siraj has been on the run since he was a kid. Getting on a wrong train brought the little boy to Amritsar. It happens. His life would never be the same again. Heaven knows what made the child run away from home ? What traumas he may have suffered back then ? And he is still being chased out? Surely, he has run out of stamina by now? Surely, he wants to lead a ‘normal’ life with his small family? Perhaps, we shall never know the full story. But that doesn’t matter. Even if half the story is accurate, it seems cruel to treat any person like this.
I know, I know. It’s about timing. Siraj’s crisis could not have taken place at a worse time. Too many, very disturbing , bloody and violent incidents have taken place on the Indo-Pak border, while this little drama was unfolding in Mumbai. Such is human nature that there will be any number of ‘patriotic’ Indians asking, “ Why should we be showing so much consideration for one of THEM, when they are butchering OUR people?”  For God’s sake - the two are not automatically interlinked. Does any 10- year- old child know his/her nationality / identity in a deeper sense?  Must the accidental place of  birth colour the rest of  life? Siraj has found refuge … love…. fulfillment here. This is all he has known as an adult. He is as much of a stake holder in Mumbai, as the next Mumbaikar. Are we going to plant seeds of hatred and poison  in his head after close to two decades of  living in peace in a country not his own? What about Sajida and the children? What crime have they committed?
I am sure there are many more Sirajs on both sides of the border. Several may be  permanently doomed and locked up in nasty prisons, with not a hope in hell of escape. Does that mean detaining Siraj is somehow ‘justified’ ? A sensitive and fair handling of this tricky case can send out a good signal, even to those who benefit by kindling the fires of enmity and suspicion. The love story of Siraj and Sajida is what inspires me today to think about the real significance of  Karwa Chauth - well beyond the trappings and commercialization of this simple act of faith,  during which a wife demonstrates love, loyalty and commitment to her husband, who reciprocates ( hopefully!) with equal fervor.
Let’s hope there is a permanent and happy ending to the Siraj-Sajida saga.
This appeared in The Week...
                           Egg-xactly why it won’t work!
There were waves of revulsion sweeping over my ‘rational’ self, when I first read about the latest attempt to appropriate a woman’s womb via a procedure called ‘egg freezing’. Even the sound of it made me recoil. Are we chickens in an industrial coop? How dare Facebook and Apple hijack our ovaries in return for a few dollars more? Will manipulating nature in such a blatant fashion provide any real answers? Help the cause? Will women feel more secure in the work place, knowing their precious eggs ( surgically extricated) are lying frozen in a safe place somewhere, to be thawed and reinserted into their poor bodies at a convenient ( to the Company!) time and place? This is worse than any sci-fi movie script! Not only is the latest American corporate conspiracy insulting, it is intrusive, loathsome and demeaning in the extreme. Jessica Bennett, writing in TIME magazine, mentioned ‘egg-freezing’ parties hosted by fertility clinics, where women can discuss options over martinis! Really…. so this is the latest version of the old Tupperware parties in America? How soon before the trend comes to our shores and we have a brand new avatar of the Kitty Party, at which women talk about their preferred egg bank and its whopping price tag, the way they do about their latest Birkin or solitaire ?
I hope that never happens. Never ! Our biological clocks are our own business. Corporates should leave our eggs alone. Instead of luring bright, educated women to mess around with their bodies, after offering all sorts of financial inducements ($20,000 is not an insignificant amount), why don’t these companies lobby for  real reforms that are more sensitive towards women? As pointed out by Seema Mohapatra ( a healthcare law  and bioethics expert at the Barry University School of  Law) in a recent interview, the US is one of just 8 countries in the world that does not require paid maternity leave.  And look at the others on the list  -  countries like Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea! Why not start right there, and rectify the problem at its roots? Has Facebook conducted a detailed research study on the efficacy of egg freezing? What about adverse health effects? The risks involved? Is there a time frame for freezing, thawing and re inserting these eggs? What would that  be  - 10 years? 20 years? What is the guarantee that the complex procedure will work? In the meantime, countless young, female professionals have given up a few key, personal options – perhaps forever.
Buying out a woman’s absolute right over her womb, is anti-humanity. Some women may submit willingly due to financial constraints. But that cannot be justified by any corporate, when the motives are unambiguously selfish to start with. Not willing to support women by providing crèches and day care centres at the work place, they are now trying to lure them into experimenting with their own bodies…their lives. Why not create offices that are pro-family in the true sense of the word? Yes, women in the workforce are indispensable today. Respect that reality by changing the work environment first. Do not violate a woman’s right to bear or not bear children on her own terms. A woman’s fertility is sacred. Nobody should be allowed to tamper with it.
Now what? While the debate rages on, an Australian company is also offering payments to women for freezing eggs.There is something almost sinister about this new development. Men remain fertile forever ( almost!), so the onus of salvaging  future generations stays with women, who have biological clocks ticking away from the time of their birth. Men and women in the workplace are competing for the same jobs. Sooner or later men will start resenting these juicy egg-freezing incentives given to their female colleagues. What then? No. This is definitely not the way forward. Besides, it’s not even a fair option, since nobody is giving an extra dime to women who represent lower income groups.
 In all fairness, it needs to be pointed out that Apple and Facebook do offer other, attractive family benefits ( subsidized day care, paid paternity leave etc), but that still leaves a huge moral issue when it comes to egg freezing. As feminists are asking, does this initiative discriminate against women who opt to have babies as and when they choose to? Will this force women to reconsider choices? Postpone motherhood? These are all new and scary scenarios that will take a while to establish their legitimacy. The complex issues thrown up by the egg-freezing debate have several implications and ramifications – religious , emotional, physical, cerebral. Instead of taking away a woman’s autonomy over her eggs, and pressurizing her to take decisions that come with health risks, let’s demand more sensitivity, combined with responsibility. The time has come to enhance the lives of women in meaningful and significant ways. This is precisely why women across the world should unite and send out a strong message to global corporate houses  pushing them into parting with their most valuable asset. It’s time to say: My eggs are not for sale!
This appeared in Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle
                          ‘Model’ CM: Fadnavis – when life imitates theatre
The first time I watched a performance of the shocking, path breaking Jabbar Patel  production  of  Vijay Tendulkar’s scorcher of a  play ,‘Ghashiram Kotwal’ (1978 or thereabouts), I was completely blown away.  I watched it  again… and again. But that was a long, long time ago. I wish I could watch it once more, for it continues to remain as potent, as relevant,  as subversive today, as it was 36 years ago. Tendulkar first wrote it in 1972 in response to the rise of the Shiv Sena. So strong was its impact, it faced a ban and generated enough controversy to fuel vociferous protests each time it was staged. It is a pity contemporary theatre lovers are denied the opportunity to share this extraordinary experience.  Whenever I run into Dr. Mohan Agashe these days, I can only see Nana Phadnavis – the despicable, wily character he immortalized in the play . I asked Mohan why ‘Ghashiram….’ has not been revived. The collective genius of so many highly gifted collaborators could easily attract corporate sponsors. But that hasn’t happened… for obvious reasons. There can be no other Nana Phadnavis, of course, and as Mohan pointed out wryly, the timing for a revival  is also perfect . Mohan brought spine tingling ferocity and a sinister edge to his performance as the shrewd, sadistic, amoral Minister in the court of the Peshwas, who stops at nothing to grab and wield absolute power in a weakened, hopelessly decadent state, dominated by rulers drunk  on their ownunchecked  position of  privilege. As the play progresses , Phadnavis reduces the Peshwas to poor jokes of their earlier avatars. Agashe , making the most effective use of his thin, nasal voice and adopting a particular gait ,conveyed  just one thing - unbridled  tyranny. Mohan was evil personified, his every entry marked  by  rhythmic music that prepared the audience for the vileness to follow. Patel brilliantly exploited the folk theatre tradition of ‘Tamasha’ in this riveting portrait of corrosive totalitarianism.
Abuse of power lends itself to artistic interpretations like few other subjects. Today, Maharashtra has demonstrated unambiguously that its people have risen against oppression and arrogance .Today’s Maharashtrian doesn’t really give a damn about traditional obsessions – ask the young voter in this election whether it matters a jot to him that the new CM of the State  is  a Brahmin and not a Maratha, and chances are, you’ll get a bewildered look or a withering, scornful stare in return. Pegging political identity to the old ‘Marathi Manoos’ script is old hat, irrelevant and annoying . The new Maharashtrian is  an aggressive, ambitious, results-driven voter. If anything, the old bogey of ‘outsider/insider’ has been pushed aside in one sweep – and may it remain in the dustbin forever. Since nothing is quite as effective in today’s social media driven times, as piquant, pointed satire, I watched a ‘Being Indian’ video on Youtube which featured two ‘typical’ Maharashtrian boys indulging in hilarious banter. Interestingly enough, they were merrily poking fun at familiar sacred cows. The sarcastic script took everyone and everything apart, including that phoney ‘North Indians’ paranoia mischievously unleashed on the city by political hoodlums. Which is why, it is vital for the newly minted CM to grab this God -given opportunity  and undo the monumental mess in Maharashtra. Devendra Fadnavis has a tough job ahead of him. He isn’t exactly 100% kosher himself (there are a hefty 22 criminal cases against him, which include charges of assault, rioting and unlawful entry). He is an unknown entity in Mumbai, and is seen more as a Nagpur man. Narendra Modi called him “ Nagpur’s gift to the country’. Earlier , that ‘gift’ was identified with Nagpur oranges.
 Once the Chariots of  Fire roll out of the Wankhede Stadium and the maha drama of the ridiculously extravagant swearing-in ceremony ( complete with Bollywood-style sets) is behind us, we will watch Fadnavis closely. Of course, everybody knows the man has an omnipotent remote control ( Amit Shah) monitoring his every move. Which may not be such a terrible thing, given the tattered condition of  Maharashtra’s economy right now ( at last count, the State was dealing with a debt of 13 lakh crores). Fadnavis comes with respectable educational credentials ( a law degree, plus a post-graduate degree in Business Management). We know he is married to a working professional (banker) and is the father of a precocious 5 - year- old daughter, rumoured to entertain guests with a faithful rendition of her father’s fiery political speeches! Cleaning up the BMC should be on top of the new CM’s priorities, for unless we get rid of the rot that has seen Mumbai’s descent into a putrid hell hole, nothing else is likely to change. How he tackles the nexus between his political rivals and the builders’ lobby (together they have looted and stripped not just Mumbai, but gigantic swathes of prime real estate across Maharashtra ) , will also define his relationship with a demoralized police force.  As for corporate India, well… it doesn’t take time for our accommodating Captains of Industry to realign themselves to a new order. So long as Fadnavis demonstrates a strong will to clean up the massive devastation he has inherited, and does so transparently, the people of Maharashtra will whole heartedly support his initiatives. If  Fadnavis is as clever as Modi thinks he is, he will leave the contentious Vidharba issue alone for now.
This may be the turning point in Maharashtra’s fortunes. Expectations are running high. Fadnavis is young (44), which is a big plus. He appears gregarious and outgoing. Will he be able to manage the various warring factions angling for key portfolios and positions? For that, the ‘go to’ man ain’t our Devendra Fadnavis. It is the portly Amit Shah – rightly being described as the de facto CM of Maharashtra.
 So, let the party begin! No more ‘tamasha’. Only  ‘tootaris’, please!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Jhadoo politics...

At the Pujo Baadi on Ashtami day...
Now getting set for Diwali....
To see or not to see.... that's the question. I saw!!!

                    Haider : Boycott bigotry… not movie….
The tragic hero of the desi Hamlet is Kashmir, not Shahid Kapoor.
Admission : I did not love the movie (Bhardwaj’s  weakest in the trilogy). But I still will not advocate a boycott of the film. Nor subscribe to the vicious hate campaign let loose on the actors over assorted social media platforms. “Hum hai, ki hum nahin?” sounded a bit too twee… even arrogant,  as a take- off on the immortal ‘To be or not to be…” line. And that did it for me!  Mind you, this wasn’t  even the worst line in the most talked about film of the year. But that’s not what the protests are about. Those who are urging audiences to stay away, have made their point. Their point  is this : Bhardwaj has made a lop-sided film that projects the Indian Army in the worst possible light, seems sympathetic towards militants, glorifies terrorists, and ignores the ‘other’ picture ( the pathetic plight and flight of Kashmiri pundits). Their strident views have found several takers who believe Bhardwaj pushed his luck by projecting the Indian Army in such a sadistic light.  He has. There, I said it. That’s his prerogative as a film maker -  it is his perspective. His decision. Hamlet / Haider  does not matter. Kashmir does. It is an unambiguously political film. A position has been taken. Political cinema has never been known for its ‘neutrality’ ( that defeats the purpose of making a political film) Perhaps, it is time for us to grow up and take it on the chin – however uncomfortable that makes us.
Crtics have raved about the visual poetry of the movie. But at the end of the film, it is the prose that stays. Tabu, playing the wily Ghazala ( oooof!  Imagine denying the audience the chance to dive into her dark , expressive eyes by getting her to wear hideous, tiger brown coloured lenses – Bhardwaj’s biggest sin), asks her noble surgeon husband, “ Kis taraf hai aap?” when he decides to operate on a militant. Dr.Hilal Meer ( soberly played by Narendra Jha – but I wish Bhardwaj had not blow dried his hair as fussily) relies steadily, “ Zindagi ke…” In a way, that single exchange sums up the movie and its message… and redeems the film from being what its accusers are calling it – propagandist and anti-India. Though, I have to say, it’s hard to overlook the obvious bias that drives the rest of the narrative.
In a bid to soften the bludgeoning of the Indian Army ( for some reason, most of the tough talking officers are South Indians – Ramamurthy being the harshest),  Bhardwaj has added a line or two after the film ends, about the great, humanitarian service performed by the Indian Armed Forces during the recent devastating floods in J and K. Disingenuous… an after thought ? By then audiences have pretty much made up their minds and come to a few nasty conclusions. So what? We can handle nasty! We can, right?
Yes, the film has polarized viewers, generated controversy, and is likely to be banned in Pakistan. It’s fine. Powerful cinema does that to people. Unless , of course, you believe in going to the movies in order to numb your senses. If that is so, forget ‘Haider’.  It isn’t for the weak hearted. As narratives go, it is flawed and self -indulgent to an annoying degree . While Shahid Kapoor gives it his best shot ( too much hair spray ruined it for me) , more seasoned actors like Kay Kay Menon ( superlative ), and Irrfan Khan ( effortlessly menacing), steal the show. Watch it, if only to learn a favourite Hebrew word I use a lot and  love– Chutzpah. Roughly translated, it means a certain audacity to get away with outrageous conduct. If only Bhardwaj and Co. had taken the trouble to find out how it is pronounced (‘ Hoots-pah’ – NOT  ‘ Choots-pa’ as Haider keeps repeating ), perhaps the movie itself would have  felt more authentic.
Next time, guys – get the details right! And that extends to more than just the correct way to say and demonstrate asli ‘Chutzpah’.
Asian Age....
                                             Bharatwaasis – Pick up that broom and start sweeping!
 Trust me, I am feeling really guilty, sheepish vaghera today. I haven’t picked up a jhadoo this morning, and got to work. Not even in my own home, forget the filthy streets of Mumbai. No wonder, I didn’t make it to Narendra Modi’s elite Dirt Squad of eminent citizens who have taken the Jhadoo Pledge. To be fair, I didn’t participate in that other nonsensical pledge either ( Ice Bucket ), so I am feeling a little better. Nine seems to be the magic number these days.  The nation is going to be galvanized by nine inspiring citizens (who just happen to be be popular movie stars, industrialists and sports people). The 9x9 story of Swachch Bharat reminds me of those wretched chain letters we used to get in the mail (when mail existed). Each time I received one, I would bin it, and hold my breath for the next 12 hours. All of them came with dire warnings. If someone was reckless enough to break that chain, awful things were in store for the irresponsible person. But -  aha – if you kept the chain going, you would receive a gift within three days. My friends hated me for breaking the chain and depriving them of the promised gifts. Soon, I was taken off all lists. I have to confess I felt a little left out. This was a form of social exclusion, that made me feel unworthy. Well, that’s how I am feeling right now. The thing is, my low  self worth is still not pushing me into picking up that broom and hitting the roads. I think I need therapy. Not just for the broom lapse, though. I need therapy because I seem to be in a tiny majority that is not quite getting it , nor going gaga over the initiative!  But why? The message is strong and unambiguous. What is there not to get, you ask? Ummm. A lot.
Driving down the hazardous slopes of Mussoorie on Gandhi Jayanti, hurtling towards Dehra Dun to catch my flight home, the car I was in, was halted by a long procession clogging a narrow street. I thought it was Mussoorie’s version of  Hong Kong’s Umbrella Protests. There was a slight drizzle, and the slogan raising jhuloos wallas, were sauntering along at a leisurely pace, protected by umbrellas. I rolled down the window and asked what was going on. The person replied brightly that they were all on a massive clean up drive.  The irony of it all, was that this exchange took place right in front of a gigantic garbage dump overflowing with mounds of rotting garbage. I suggested mildly that they should start right there, with the dump, instead of raising slogans and blocking traffic. I noticed nobody was carrying a jhadoo. But everybody was quoting the Prime Minister. I  pleaded with the placard bearing marchers to let the car pass. When I looked back, one of the protestors had just thrown a paan masala sachet on the road.
Swachch Bharat is a loaded term. We need to be ‘swachch’ on several fronts. Cleaning up our neighbourhoods is a great start… but hello! why should we be doing the municipality’s work ? We pay taxes to keep our cities garbage free. Happy to help and all that, but is this really the job of citizens? Mumbai is one gigantic garbage dump. Visitors to Mumbai recognize the metropolis from its unmistakable stench – a combination of  rotting fish and the usual muck that accumulates when waste management is a low priority. Those of us who live in this kachra, have forced ourselves to ignore it. Or, we tackle the problem by paying private garbage collectors to do what the local government is obliged to do – take care of the city’s sanitation -  but doesn’t.  It is a bit unfair to send India on a guilt trip and keep invoking the name of Mahatma Gandhi.  Unless we implement stricter laws for and impose fines ( like it happens in the rest of the world) on those who blatantly ignore civic responsibilities.  The Prime Minister may be shown sweeping India Gate and other places, on a daily basis, but we will not take the hint and follow his example. You know why? The change he seeks and the awareness he hopes to generate ( both, very positive programmes, I hasten to add), may not progress beyond tokenism. It  may turn out to be yet another , short lived ‘movement’, no deeper than the Ice Bucket trend, which died a swift death once the craze was over. Even so, let’s face it, in terms of powerful symbolism, it has worked brilliantly.
Agreed, India needs to be toilet trained. We can’t go on soiling our nappies forever.  A smallish start has been made .  Abhi nahi, toh kabhi nahi! For decades we have merrily ignored that catchy slogan, “ Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Most of our temple courtyards remain revoltingly filthy. If  we cannot keep places of worship clean, how can we possibly transform neighbourhoods?
Poor Arvind Kejriwal must be feeling really short changed right now. He no longer has the monopoly over the jhadoo - the one thing he was clinging on to, when all else had been snatched away. This is India’s Sauchalaya Moment. In more ways than one. If we get this one thing right, the rest of the crap we are dealing with, will also follow. Keep the faith, Bharatwaasis.  A solemn promise to clean the country has been made by the Prime Minister. We will hold him to it. As for me, I will take my time to give a ‘Jhadoo ki Jhappi’  to the municipal janitor. That is, if the person shows up at all!!
Just checking -  Is it true there are plans to rename All India Radio to All India Modi?
Mumbai Mirror...
                     Mimlu Sen : “ Born to be wild…”
The annual Lit Fest madness is upon us! Not that I am complaining. But the recently concluded Apeejay  Fest in Mussoorie stands out for more than one reason. For one, it is intended for a specific audience – strictly no outsiders, no press. And what an audience! Hosted by India’s premier training ground for all those scarily brilliant men and women who keep the wheels of bureaucracy moving ( or not!) across the country, the LBSNAA (Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration) saw a terrific mix of writers, thinkers in dynamic sessions with young India’s best and brightest brains – the Probationers! Three intense days packed with interactive seminars, interspersed with chai /coffee breaks, and ahem… disco/ dandiya raas evenings, made it a memorable experience all the way. But for me, the most fascinating participant by far was Mimlu Sen – musician-author and life partner of  legendary Baul performer Paban Das Baul. Mimlu’s life is worthy of a bio pic ! Yes, it’s that riveting. Take a look : Born into a very ‘bhadralok’ ( educated, sophisticated, ‘respectable’) family in Shillong, Mimlu, who said she was ‘born a wild child’, ran away from home at age 11. Okay, she didn’t get too far and was dragged back by concerned neighbours. Not that it stopped Mimlu from exploring her wild side at a later date. Product of the mad and wonderful 60s and 70s,  studying in Kolkata and participating in street protests demanding an end to a distant war in Viet Nam, Mimlu got drawn into radical politics and revolutionary movements that led to her being jailed for what were described as Naxalite activities ( she has written a book, aptly titled ‘Black Maria’ about that period ). Sick and tired of a bourgeois existence, she fled to Paris (where else?) where she was living happily in a ménage a trios, with two children -  Duniya and Krishna – when a powerful voice altered the course of her life forever. By chance, she happened to hear someone singing songs like no other… drawn to the music, she met nomadic Baul singer Paban… and instinctively decided to become his life partner. Today, so many years later, they are very much together, though she hastily clarifies, “ He belongs to everybody, not just to me.”
 In Mussoorie, I got the chance to meet Paban and hear him sing. I recalled listening to him more than a decade ago. He was a different Baul then. I guess, living in Paris and doing gigs across the world, from Mexico to Africa, has changed the nomad. He still prefers to speak exclusively in Bengali, his Hindi is charmingly kuchcha, and he leaves English to Mimlu, who plays the cymbals and translates his songs for international audiences. It is quite a story. Apart from being a most remarkable partnership.
 I read an earlier interview of Mimlu, where she said she was attracted to Paban, because he (like all the Bauls ) practiced Prem Sadhna ( Tantric love ). It is a profound , philosophical way of life that is deeply rooted in being in sync with the elements.Watching both of them together, was an education. Mimlu’s husky accent goes from French to Bengali, as she fluidly interprets Paban’s passionate lyrics. Along with her key role in Paban’s performances, Mimlu remains deeply political (she participated in a volatile debate “Naxalism, Then and Now -  A Continuum?’ With the likes of Sumanta Banerjee and Gautam Navlakha). But, over and above any of this, her involvement and concern remain focused on Paban – making sure he gets his sleep, eats on time and has the necessary back up on stage. Someone asked her about Paban’s habit of chewing tobacco, and she answered naturally and  lightly, “ You have to understand, Paban is a villager – he cannot do without chewing tobacco.”
The original wild child is now a subdued , wise middle aged woman. It made me think of how loosely and foolishly we throw that term ( wild child ) around to describe starlets, rock stars, painters who  take  slightly unconventional paths – perhaps colour their hair purple or shave their heads. But here’s Mimlu – a woman who had the guts to follow her own path… to listen to her heart…. to pay the price… and never look back. Mimlu can well afford to say about Paban, her frail, wooly haired ‘Boshtomi’ ( life partner), who sings about life as only a Baul can , “ Paban lives on a Planet called Mimlu.”
It is not a boast. It is fulfillment.