Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lahore da jawaab nahi!

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror.... 
I am back after a glorious trip, and here are two images taken at the Lahore Lit Fest. The puss in boots is Mehr Tarar, who became notorious as the ''óther woman'' in the Shashi Tharoor - Sunanda Pushkar tragedy.
                      The seductive lure of Lahore…
Inshallah! I am keeping my fingers crossed I’ll be in Lahore when you read this. The Lahore Literary Festival has grown into an important property in a very short time, and may soon rival our very own Jaipur Lit Fest. I jumped at the invitation to participate in its 2014 edition which has attracted several authors from India,including Vikram Seth and Amit Choudhary.  Of course, Pakistani biggies like Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie will be participating as well . I am looking forward to three sessions (“India a Cultural Conundrum’ being one), and a book signing at Liberty, the largest bookstore in Lahore, where I am sure I’ll be asked a hazaar questions on the controversial Wendy Doniger book. I have been to the Karachi Lit Fest and enjoyed it hugely. I couldn’t make it to last year’s edition much to my disappointment since my visa didn’t reach on time. Now,with less than 24 hours left for our flight to Amritsar ( and then on to that dramatic walk across the Wagah border), I am understandably jittery. The organizers tell me other invitees like Mira Nair have made it across the border smoothly and safely. So, here’s hoping my next column will be a post-Lahore one.
This is my third trip to Lahore .  To me, Lahore is like a veiled houri – full of intrigue, beauty and mystique. Lahore is seriously oomphy. Differences between Lahore and Karachi are a lot like the differences between Delhi and Mumbai. Karachi being a commercially driven port city, the mentality of the people is similar to ours – Dhanda matters. Time is money. People are like worker ants, rushing around from shop to shop, office to office. The level of education here is possibly the highest in Pakistan. One meets well qualified professionals – mainly CAs, bankers, doctors, IT professionals. Most people converse in Sindhi. The city itself isn’t half as pretty as Lahore. It’s more like Mumbai, without Mumbai’s glittering skyline and impressive Sea Link. And, of course, minus Mumbai’s glitz and glamour.
 Aaah – Lahore! Let me put it simply : Lahore is lajawab on many levels. If one leaves those burly, tough looking cops, fierce Generals and oily politicians out of the picture, it’s easy to fall in love with Lahore. It is an extravagantly romantic city. The kind of destination that makes you long for languorous trysts on moonlit nights, clad in flowing  muslin, ittar on the wrist and a poet spouting  flowery verse, with indolent companions greedily feasting on partridge… and compliments. Lahore is a complex and layered city, with incredibly creative people doing incredibly creative things – everyone is a closet shayar. The begums of Lahore are stunningly beautiful and supremely stylish. They seem to float and glide, not walk or stroll. All their ‘adas’ make them irresistibly beguiling. They wear their impeccably cut clothes with enormous elan, while their make - up tricks could give international make- up artists a serious complex.
The rich in Lahore are seriously, seriously rich. They enjoy their wealth with complete insouciance. The decadence of the rich in Lahore takes one back to another era when money spoke an unapologetic language of power and privilege that was understood by all. The men are ahem… unambiguously macho, sharply dressed and effortlessly gallant. If these studied, old-fashioned mannerisms are just an affectation, let’s have some more of  the same!  Everyone speaks  robust Punjabi.  Thinks Punjabi. Lives Punjabi. Extravagance and sho-sha count for everything.  Flashy lifestyles are openly admired -  discretion is reserved for the faint hearted. Doesn’t it all sound soooo Delhi!

Culturally, Lahore can be compared to Istanbul (another favourite destination). It has a vibrant arts scene that encompasses architecture, sculpture, movies, music and literature. As for the legendary cuisine and hospitality, once you have sampled the mutton chops and kebabs of Lahore, you can’t settle for anything less! Like Delhi, the markets are crowded and teeming with locals shoppingand eating at street stalls virtually round the clock. Compared to our steep prices, it’s possible to buy quality fabrics (oh, those amazing cottons!) and designer outfits without spending too much. As mehmaans from across the border, the warmth extended is genuine, and all interactions are unfailingly polite. Lahore is self-indulgent and glorious. Lahore resembles a pampered mistress, while Karachi is the neglected wife. I enjoy both cities . I am lucky. I don’t have to choose!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's in a book????

That's our Guv on Republic Day 2014....
This appeared in Sunday Times....
                               What’s in a book? A lot!!
For starters : Am I offended by Wendy Doniger’s book? Hell, no! Am I surprised by what happened this week? Naaaah! Is it the end of the world? You must be joking. Do I think Hinduism is under threat…or that Wendy set out to insult a great religion? Frankly, the answer is ‘no’ to both. Wendy Doniger is a professional scholar.  This is her interpretation. She is entitled to it. Those who find the book objectionable , need not read it. There are many Wendys in the publishing space. They do what they have to – spend years decoding ,  dissecting, analyzing material. It is their chosen vocation. A lot of what is deconstructed is necessarily subjective. After all, it is the effort of one academic searching for explanations and answers. So be it. If you choose to read the material -  and react – do it. Go ahead and write your own book. Or,write to the scholar/author and refute the thesis. Hold a peaceful meeting and state your perspective. There are ways and ways to respond – passionately and spiritedly – without converting your views into an ugly, self-defeating pitched battle. Which is precisely what has happened with Doniger’s ‘The Hindus : An Alternative History’.
Now, let’s see it from the Publisher’s point of view ( I have to state here that I am a Penguin author). But this battle does not begin or end with Penguin Books and Wendy Doniger . Nor with those who asked for the book to be withdrawn and pulped – the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti. The SBAS has been at it for years (remember how 75 paragraphs were removed from several NCERT textbooks?). They will be at it for several more. The thing is, this time their victory appeared easy. Was it really a ‘victory’? And how easy was it? What about the Publisher? The rather facile argument is that Penguin should not have buckled under pressure. That in ‘the old days’ Publishers were bold enough to stand by authors and books, regardless. Well, it’s time to state the bald truth and say it like it is (sorry, intellectuals!). Those old days are over. And the world of publishing has changed. Knock off all the romantic notions surrounding the book business and what do you get? A business under financial threat across the world. A business trying to stay afloat in the face of competition coming at it from unexpected directions and in entirely unknown forms (come on, who could have anticipated e-books and free downloads?). Survival itself is at stake given these daunting developments. Besides, let’s be candid, at the end of the day, publishing IS a business. And every publisher in the universe is a ‘baniya  publisher’ ( a term that has been thrown around a lot these days). And hello! which publisher would actively back a book that has a zero  sales’ potential? Which publisher is willing to lose money on a book? Which publisher wants a book/author to get into trouble? Not one. Every book is a gamble. It is published in good faith. Publishers don’t consciously court controversy. They don’t enjoy facing criminal charges (as in this case). And they certainly don’t like losing money! A great deal of it. If that makes them ‘baniya publishers’, that’s okay. And yes, in today’s aggressive environment in which everything is potentially a ‘product’ that has to be flogged in the marketplace, there really isn’t that much of a difference left between selling a book and selling a bar of soap. If that sounds awful, it is a reality one has to accept. Authors and public intellectuals taking a lofty view of the publishing industry, should climb down a few notches and smell the coffee. It is likely to get still worse by the ‘old’ standards, as decisions whether or not to publish a book are taken by marketing mavens crunching numbers and not visionary publishers willing to back a tome they believe in. Yes, it’s that grim. Publishers with a book like Wendy’s on their list, are particularly vulnerable. It is not about having financial resources to fight it out in court. It is about asking basic , practical questions : is it worth it?

Wendy’s controversial book will do just fine . More people will read it now that it has become a hot potato. The SBAS will no doubt, look for other soft targets and gloat over this particular win. The ‘scholar dollars’ won’t dry up. So, relax. Hinduism has survived worse . And will continue to thrive  -  book or no book. Our various freedoms are definitely under threat. Make no mistake about that. It’s just a question of figuring out whose freedom scores in such wars. And whether there is something called absolute freedom in the first place .A difficult decision needed to be taken .And it was taken. It was not ‘fear’ alone ( despite the rumoured death threats ) that dictated Penguin’s decision, I imagine. It was a question of  not hurting public sentiment. There really are no winners here. Least of all the much loathed SBAS.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A tale of 7 missing buffaloes!

Talented photo- journalist Santanu Das, who has just published his wonderful book on Udvada. Santanu deserves better recognition and support.
He would love to take on more commissioned work, now that he has quit his day job with the Times of India.
This appeared in the Asian Age...
                All it takes is 7 missing buffaloes….!
The Lord be praised! Seven stolen buffaloes of  Urban Development Minister, Azam Khan, were finally located after a massive, night long buffalo hunt which was launched by Rampur SSP Sadhna Goswami, using the services of  a crack team , including sniffer dogs. The retrieved buffaloes cost three Uttar Pradesh policemen their postings, to say nothing of their prestige within the force. Their crime? They were on night patrol duty at the time the buffaloes went missing. We don’t know what the buffaloes feel about their kidnapping and eventual rescue, but clearly, the Ministerji is vastly relieved. Obviously, this particular gentleman was very attached to his buffaloes. So attached, in fact, that he thought nothing of using state machinery on a priority basis to search for his cattle, keeping everything else on hold. Five police teams fanned out to conduct raids across Rampur. Investigators from the district police’s crime cell were also called in, as the enraged Minister expressed his anguish in no uncertain terms. This level of  police servility towards political bosses is not restricted to Uttar Pradesh, alone. In Maharashtra, we are witnessing blatant political manipulation / interference in police appointments as Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan takes his own sweet time to name a Police Commissioner.  As always, the voice of citizens will be ignored while political parties fight over what is possibly the most coveted police appointment in the country.
Which is why Azam Khan’s blatant misuse of his position has not shocked the rest of India. In Uttar Pradesh, of course, this form of  netagiri has traditionally been condoned. Uttar Pradesh  with its hopelessly feudal thinking will naturally accept Azam Khan ordering local police personnel to find his missing buffaloes – or else! Never mind that his atrocious behaviour draws attention to the apathy displayed by the State administration towards riot victims still suffering in Muzaffarnagar camps. For Azam Khan, the lives of those orphaned, starving children are obviously worth much less than the price of his precious buffaloes. While we keep talking nonchalantly about the many Indias that co-exist cheek-by-jowl within a radius of five miles, do we forget the century we are living in? The context? The crisis? Of course, we do. Azam Khan  is emblematic of this anomaly. He thinks and behaves like a medieval zamindar, focused on rural concerns that are narrow and selfish in the extreme.  How can this man be in charge of urban development? Does nobody see the irony of his portfolio? And if somebody does, should he not be removed from this ministry immediately? Does he even know the meaning – separately and together – of those two words ?
Perhaps, Azam Khan  has inadvertently become the face of Elections 2014. And in Azam Khan’s deplorable conduct, we can read the terrifying text of the real conflict that faces India today. Simply put, it is the vast rural-urban divide.  The chasm has grown to an extent that now appears unbridgeable to voters. It is going to be the dramatic contest between the Chaiwalla and the Latte drinker, isn’t it ? Between buffaloes and Bentleys. There seems to be no in- between  option at this point.  Narendra Modi  has shrewdly positioned himself as that Chaiwalla who represents the majority. While poor Rahul Gandhi struggles to strike a credible balance between his love for the Italian Cappuccino and his  desi obligations. If one can understand that, one can decode what took place in Rampur. What is scary is the fact that more people in Uttar Pradesh condone Azam Khan, than condemn him.  “It is our way of life in these parts,” they shrug.  And so it is!
In a bizarre development, Aam Aadmi Arvind Kejriwal shocked admirers by justifying the power of Khap Panchayats by providing a pseudo-cultural context to them.We are likely to witness many more such stands getting direct endorsements from politicians as a run up to Elections 2014. Hardly anybody is talking about development in real terms. Nobody has made women’s issues central to their political agenda. So far, they have opted for tokenism and talked around both subjects, gauging (accurately, perhaps) that these count for little in an election that is about asserting religious identity above all else. If that makes you uncomfortable, too bad. So, no amount of  ‘zeher ki kheti’ speeches will impress  or influence the voter. The numbers will only kick in from those looking for a leader who promises everyone a quick fix. A quick fix that comes with an important rider – Hindutva.  Everything else is icing on the cake -  just a way to dress up the main dish and make it more appetizing. Narendra Modi has sensed the mood. Sonia Gandhi can call him a ‘Maut ka Saudagar’ a thousand times over. But this Chaiwalla has cleverly figured Indians don’t give a damn about ‘zeher’ - they love tea. And Indians also love ‘natak’. If  Modi sounds more and more like a  Gujarati stage actor performing at Mumbai’s famous Bhang Wadi in the ‘80s, it is by design. Modi’s campaign is specifically geared to win over the Lost Indian. The one who’s unable to figure out the better option -  should it be a pricy  Latte at a neighbourhood Starbucks or a cutting chai at a local dukaan? Modi has the answer! It is obvious: the era of snobby public school lads and Oxbridge intellectuals running the show from Delhi is finally over.

 There’s not much of a difference between Azam Khan and Narendra Modi, after all. In India, the buffalo always wins.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Rahul Gandhi: Simpleton or Sawant???

This appeared in Sunday Times today...

     The AG-RG faceoff: Naani ki Yaad Aa Gayee
Simpleton or Savant? You decide!!!
  So… shall we say dumb is the new brilliant??? Frankly speaking, ‘those’ revealing 80 minutes last week stumped the nation in more ways than one. Arnab Goswami,the country’s conscience-keeper, was at his avuncular best when he spoke to the man who would be  PM , like a kindly uncleji dealing with a simple minded nephew.Not  bad as interview strategies go. A rope was given. It was gratefully grabbed. And the public hanging was complete. Rahul Gandhi broke several protective, motherly hearts (mine included), as he blindly rushed towards a point of no return, watched by a billion jeering people. The noose was tightened pretty early, but our sweet, trusting Rahul Baba didn’t realize what was happening till it was too late and he was left sweating at the gallows by an uncharacteristically calm interrogator-assassin. Without getting into ‘specifics’ ( sorry, Arnab!) of the lethal interview, let it be asked what made Rahul Gandhi take this self-destructive step in the first place? There are theories galore  (“ He has nothing to lose…he knows it’s all over for the Congress.”). But Rahul- watchers remain baffled . The thing is, this was a seminal interview. One assumes there was no death wish involved.  Someone obviously talked Rahul into exposing himself on prime time television. Who is that someone? Off with his head! Can’t possibly be a friend or well-wisher. Once Rahul put his foot into it, he was stuck! Worse, he promptly forgot the script and mangled his lines.But let’s be fair and give him some brownie points for actually finishing the interview and not running away, unlike India’s top orator and Rahul’s chief rival – Narendra Modi.Unfortunately, this interview is likely to haunt Rahul Gandhi for the rest of his life.
Since then, there have been countless attempts by Rahul baiters, haters, and rabid critics to dance on his grave and kiss him a quick goodbye. But what is far more interesting is the attempt by minders and admirers to provide an entirely different spin to the disaster. It has been suggested that Rahul Gandhi is NOT really dumb.  He only sounds it! He actually fakes stupidity! That’s how brilliant he is!! Why? Because that is a part of his larger, grander design to woo his core electorate. This is how it goes : Rahul was advised by some super brains in the party to submit himself  to the Arnab barbeque and then go flat out to appear daft. He was assured the nation was sick of listening to bombastic, old school netas making tall claims and sounding insincere. Young India, they told Rahul, was singularly unimpressed by crafty, nasty, oily politicians spouting clichés, and pretending they had all the answers. Rahul had to create a different slot, even if that meant  making an absolute ass of himself. His stubborn stone walling, is also being showcased as the master stroke of the century. For, no matter what Arnab threw at Rahul, the answers remained the same. This was no accident, insist his advisors. Rahul got the better of an exasperated Arnab by frustrating him…. wearing him down…by coolly repeating himself over and over again. Rahul, they now claim, effortlessly managed to hammer home his message to those who matter the most in the next election – the youth. Rahul also revealed his personal demons, confusions, contradictions, fears, hopes, dreams, concerns, anxieties, vulnerabilities…even his monumental ignorance! This, say his friends, made Rahul more relatable and real. The idea was to project him as a sensitive, passionate seeker of a higher truth, leaving lesser beings to grapple with ground level issues of leadership, governance and other boring stuff. Gushed an acolyte, “How many leaders have the guts to bare their souls on national television?” True. They have better sense.
While the attempts to intellectualise / contextualize his responses (an absurd face- saving device!) go on, an entire RG industry has sprung up online. People who are being kind to Rahul, have been offering excuses and trying in vain to deconstruct those cringe- making gaffes.  They are also providing a clever subtext to the entire exercise. Hours have been invested searching for deeper, hidden meanings, while analysing each empty utterance. These strenuous interpretations are being dished out by those who would like to believe this was not a case of  “ The Prince has no clothes”.  Alas, the less charitable openly mock his “Power is poison” refrain, pointing out how the Gandhi family had developed an effective anti-dote to poison fifty years ago.

So what happens to Rahul Baba now?  Will the wicked ‘system’ which he is very much a part of, but likes to denounce, allow him to lick his wounds in peace and get on with life? Or will the collective scorn of opponents force him to adopt ‘their’ ways and become ‘one of them’? A creature and creation of dynasty politics himself, Rahul thought nothing of rubbishing the notion with a straight face. Now, that requires ‘solid’ acting ! In many ways, and on several levels, Rahul Gandhi paid rich and direct tributes to familiar Gandhi traditions. The nation got a lump in its throat. Seriously -  Naani ki yaad aayi.