Friday, August 22, 2014

Celebrating Madras: Where everyone belongs

(Published in, on August 22, 2014, retrieved from

It is a lucky kid who grows up in a city by the sea. My childhood was an idyll. Every weekend, my family would do an ‘outing’ – to the beach, where my mother would stand guard by our footwear as we splashed around in the sea; to the movies, at a time when all the city theatres had rickety seats, enormous movie billboards and distinctive names; to Guindy Park, where we would press our faces against the glass in the snake park and then scream and run away, where the ‘big slide’ looked so much larger when we were children; to a ‘5-star hotel’ for dinner. And then the cycle would repeat itself.
As one grows up, one becomes familiar with the uglier aspects of one’s city – the perverts who ensure that every girl feels the city she grew up in is the most unsafe for women, because they choose to sexually harass the most helpless section of women: school and college girls, who are squirming uncomfortably in their changing bodies.
People emigrate and immigrate, changing the mindscape of the city. Builders poach for homes, and inheritors poach for money, changing the landscape of the city.
One feels enraged when colleagues ask why you don’t speak the ‘rashtriya bhasha’, a phrase that is nonexistent in our Constitution, which declares that we can have no one national language.
One feels angered by the reservation created to woo vote banks, which sends hundreds of us to foreign shores.
If one does stay back in the city, one remembers the lines every boy in IIT Madras uses when he wants to hit on a girl: “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire” – fittingly borrowed from Voltaire.
One lives in new places and learns new languages, and wonders whether it is time to say goodbye to one’s home, which is so different now from what it was.
I lived in London and Delhi for years, and was happy in both. But when I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing, I knew I had to come back home. I needed the sea, I needed the music and the dance and the beat of my city.
Here I was, in my twenties, and I had grown up with the pulse of Madras, but only half-heartedly attended the dance and music classes in which my mother had dutifully enrolled me.
When I came back, I decided I had to know the city. It isn’t just the Marina beach, or the Mylapore mamis. It isn’t even just the turtle walks, or the pseudo-love we find in holding hands on ‘Bessy Beach’, or the make-out sessions in cars parked by Broken Bridge. It isn’t just coffees in Amethyst and Anokhi. It isn’t T Nagar shopping. It isn’t the Koyambedu vegetable market. It isn’t Landmark and the The Book Shop, and the childhood haunts to which we have had to say goodbye. It isn’t the clichéd vignette of the uncle drinking filter coffee with The Hindu, as the aunty perambulates the tulsi plant in the backyard.
As I enrolled myself in various classes that required me to travel across the city, I discovered that Madras works in pockets. Dance classes in Kalakshetra introduced me to the distinctive costume and airs that we students own. Rabindra Sangeet introduced me to tens of migrant housewives and small businesswomen, many of whom have only learnt English after moving to the city and meet to speak the one language they all know – Bengali. Urdu classes introduced me to Triplicane, where signboards may be found in Urdu and English, where people speak their endearingly hybrid version of Tamil-mixed-with-Urdu. Ballet classes introduced me to expats who had come to the city to learn Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi or Kathak, and were teaching their dance form to make the money to pay for classes in another.
I had loved the other cities I lived in because they drew their character from the people who populated them, and from their own history.
But Madras is a live history being made. What I treasure most about this city is that it will absorb people into its distinctive character, while also allowing their histories to mould it.
It belongs to the fishermen who cast out their nets and boats in the morning.
It belongs to the priests who walk or bike to their temples every morning.
It belongs to the expats who move here for corporate jobs, and find fellowship at consulate parties, just as it belongs to the metro construction labourers whose delight when they stumble upon Hindi speakers is obvious.
It belongs to the people who learn Tamil, so they may expand their carpentry businesses.
It belongs to the students who crowd into school vans or walk to school, swinging their lunch baskets.
It belongs to the already-tired college kids who hold out their bus passes in a 47A, for the conductor to punch.
It belongs to the people who walk briskly in the park and go ‘HA-HA-HA’ in those ridiculous laughter clubs at the Marina.
It belongs to the people who hunt for parking spaces outside the exclusive gym, membership to which costs less than their kits.
It belongs to people who meet every month to whistle out film tunes, or who meet thrice a week to run between 10 and 18 kilometres.
It belongs to the harassed people who fight their way along the IT corridor. It belongs to the people who head in the opposite direction, where the manufacturing industry has its base.
It belongs to the RJs who are so annoyingly bright and cheery in the morning.
It belongs to the motley crew that bands itself into various amateur theatre rehearsals in the evening.
It belongs to the people partying in clubs, and hoping the cops won’t catch them driving drunk.
It belongs to the cops who ask people to blow in their faces.
It belongs to the folks lying drunk outside a TASMAC store in the middle of the night.
It belongs to the people who push and shove past each other in T Nagar, crowding the jewellery shops when no one supposedly has any money to spend.
It belongs to the people waking up to wear new clothes and light sparklers on Deepavali, and who cringe and shut their eyes when the 10,000-walas take off.
It belongs to the dogs that go nuts on Deepavali day.
It belongs to the literary and theatre and music festivals, ticketed and unticketed. It belongs to the sabhas and the canteens that the sabhas boast.
It belongs to the people from across the country who met here, married and decided to call it home, speaking English to each other, because that’s the only language they have in common.
It belongs to the people of my age who steadfastly say ‘Mowbray’s Road’ and ‘Edward Elliot’s Road’ and ‘Village Road’– ‘Greenways Road’ and ‘Mount Road’ will never change – and to the uncles and aunties whose faces light up at those familiar names.
Sometimes, I worry that the generation that still calls this beautiful city ‘Madras’ will die out. But then, August 22 arrives, and I know that will never be the case.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Personality test disorder

(Published in The Friday Times, on August 15, 2014, retrieved from

For several months, I have been repeatedly amazed by the number of Facebook friends I have who are desperately trying to find out their mental ages. I deleted several from my Friends list after glancing through the questions on this erudite test, which include the likes of “It’s Saturday night. What are you doing? (a) Reading a book (b) Patting your baby to sleep (c) PARTY! (d) Fumbling for your glasses.”
There are tests that tell you which celebrity you look like, what colour your aura is, which depressed Russian author would have been your soul mate, which Victorian heroine you would have been, which nonexistent person you could have married and made babies with, and hell, even which Shah Rukh Khan you are.
I couldn’t resist that one, and it turned in the most accurate result. Apparently, I’m Devdas: “You live to drink and you drink to live. This is how your average day goes by and you live life with no regrets.”
That’s a good deal better than the other Shah Rukh Khans. What would one rather be? The creepy stalker from Darr? The creepier stalker from DDLJ? The killer from Baazigar? The mitthaiwala from Chennai Express? I mean, you can’t really do much worse than a Raj or Rahul, right?
Another test, which promised to find out who I am, offered me this result, which gets everything spectacularly wrong, except that I am female, and they probably got that from “How often do you paint your nails?”:
  • You are female.
  • You are currently in your mid fifties.
  • You have a wonderful big family and a deep loving connection with your lifelong partner.
  • You have short hair, light coloured eyes and stylish glasses. 
  • You have long ago decided to live every minute to the fullest. Your life experiences taught you that no moment should be wasted on something or someone you don’t love.

I am going to be in my mid-twenties for a long time. I’m rarely sure of the whereabouts of my family members. I have long hair, black eyes and have never worn glasses. I spend the majority of my time on Facebook and Twitter, and waste nearly all my time on accountants who won’t send me my cheques on time.
Since the world wants to feel awesome and unappreciated, evidenced by how well Linda Goodman sells across the world, here is a list of tests we do need:
Which horror movie doll are you?
You can just see the answers already, right?
“You are Chucky from Child’s Play. You can be fun and silly, but when it comes to terrorising a family and ruining all memories of a happy birthday, no one can quite beat you. They could cut you into little pieces, and yet you’ll return all slashed, but whole, and hunt them down.”
“You are the Ventriloquist’s Dummy from Dead Silence. Hell, you don’t even need the nursery rhyme to scare the living daylights out of people. Your large, staring eyes and vacuous smile are enough. They could try and bury you, but you’d still rise. Hail Mary Shaw.”
“You are Billy the Puppet from Saw. Nothing tells people something bad is about to happen like your arrival on a tricycle. Whether you’re advising people on how to save themselves from death traps by gutting other people, or hinting to the dunces that they’re going to die anyway, you’re wonderfully chilling. You can also rock the tuxedo-and-rouge combination.”
Which brand of lingerie are you?
It would be hard to let people down with this, unless of course, we went back to those pointy local brands from the nearest retail store. You know, something like “You are Dolsevita. You have been misspelled, and will be mispronounced, and the sales person will have to stare at the chest of an embarrassed adolescent before recommending you.”
It’s far more likely that you will get: “You are Victoria’s Secret. You’re high maintenance, and people would die to be able to wear you. You are a stepping stone for models to date footballers. It doesn’t matter that you were made in an Asian sweathouse. You’ll eventually land up on a ramp in Milan.”
What makeup accessory would you be?
I suppose most people would end up with: “You are an eyelash curler. Few people know what you’re used for, and you look like an instrument of torture. When you’re being worked, you find yourself wondering why people would want to do this to themselves. You’re cold to the touch, and generally redundant.”
Which Holy Book would you be?
Umm, perhaps let’s not even go there. Whatever answer you get, the only result is: “You could start a war.”
Which dictator should you have married?
Who would have been your ideal suitor? General Batista, who not only ran a dictatorship, but whose defeat led to another one? Adolf Hitler, who would have wiped Israel from the map before Ahmadinejad could voice it? Saddam Hussein, with the uniform and moustaches, and golden toilets?
Which Bollywood animal hero are you?
Are you the suicidal haathi that was Rajesh Khanna’s saathi? Or the crow that went around pecking the crotches of the idiots from Grand Masti? The dove that carries messages in Delhi 6, or its braver, multi-purpose, villain-attacking counterpart fromMaine Pyar Kiya?
I think the highest honour, though, would have to be the Pomeranian from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. One of my greatest triumphs in life is that I have not seen the movie. But I understand this dog can read letters, and save people from unhappy marriages in the nick of time.

Five freedoms we ought to have

(Published in, on August 15, 2014, retrieved from

Every Independence Day, the virtual space and newsprint is flooded with articles seeping with nostalgia, thrill, hope, recrimination, bitterness and cynicism.
I have written some of these over the years, and I am not sure under which category this one will qualify. I love my country. I love my flag. I love my passport. I love that we are such a motley lot, with so little in common, and yet we can come together to celebrate a victory in sport or cinema or justice.
But, as I sit down today and think about the freedoms we have and the ones that we don’t, I worry that the various chauvinistic minorities that make up this nation – linguistic, religious, gender-based and cultural – will destroy the freedoms we hope to have someday.
India, I feel, will be truly independent when we can say we have the freedom:
To love and marry anyone whom we choose                               
Over the last few days, two male friends of mine married their respective boyfriends. They live halfway across the world. While I am thrilled for them, it hurts me that they will not be recognised as married men in the country of their birth.
It is not only a question of sexual orientation.
Our society stands judgment on people who marry out of religion, out of caste, or out of choice. A girl who eloped with her lover and married him was raped and killed by her own father and his friends, so that she would be “taught a lesson”.
Several villages in Tamil Nadu were involved in a caste conflict over the marriage of Divya and Ilavarasan – a love story that culminated in the death of the latter.
We will be truly free when we are free to love and marry the people we want to, and when the country respects our choice.
To be who we are
This is a country where people are lynched for being Sikh, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.
This is a country where men are mocked for wearing leggings or earrings.
This is a country where transmen and transwomen are traumatised by the very authorities who owe them protection.
This is a country where one’s caste determines one’s life – not just how one is treated by society, but also the educational access one has.
This is a country where one cannot live without a label, and where that label will not determine one’s life.
Equal treatment for all will exist only when we stop being ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’, when we don’t divide people into vote banks and tantalise them with reservation.
We will be equal only when we look at each other, and see fellow human beings, with no thought for labels.
To wear what we want without ‘asking for it’
The fact is, you could get raped if you were wearing a burqa. You could get raped if you were wearing jeans so tight they look like they were painted on.
Every day, little girls and little boys are sexually abused.
We should have the right to go out, live our lives, and come back home safely.
To say what we want
One of the fundamental rights guaranteed to us is the right to freedom of expression. However, it comes with a clause – we can say what we want, as long as it does not hurt anyone.
We ought to have the right to say what we want, and people are free to agree with us or disagree. They are free to condemn us. But they ought not to be free to silence us.
India has been quick to ban literature and cinema that is ‘offensive’. Everything is offensive to somebody or the other. Why, political correctness is offensive to me.
We burn books, we attack cinema theatres, we hold dharnas and celebrate when we get what we want – books banned, films erased from the ‘now showing’ lists, dialogues muted.
Cartoonists are jailed. Writers are unwelcome. Activists are threatened.
Can we call a country independent when there is no space for people’s voices?
To watch what we want
As a fan of cinema, I am irked by censorship. I don’t see why a group of people gets to decide what the rest of the country ought to watch. I don’t see why women who gyrated to innuendo-filled ‘classic’ songs fifty years ago can now preach about ‘morality’.
Morality is subjective.
The role of cinema cannot be confined to advocacy. An actor who smokes or drinks on screen is depicting a character who smokes or drinks – if his fans interpret that as an advertisement to smoke and drink, they are fools.
This is a time when we need to confront several realities. Art is a powerful form of inquiry and exploration. To stifle artists is to stifle society.
When we have these five simple freedoms, perhaps we can think about the others we ought to have. Perhaps we can look back and celebrate what we have achieved. But, for now, we are simply being oppressed by a different set of people, with a different colour of skin and a different language and a different name, but with the same philosophy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rape photoshoot: When fetishism masquerades as ‘activism’

(Published in,

Last week, a fashion photoshoot by Raj Shetye, rather obviously ‘inspired’ by the Delhi bus rape of December 2012, was at the receiving end of universal condemnation. Shetye felt obliged to claim that it had nothing to do with the bus rape, and was “just a depiction of the situation of women in our country”, iterating that his sister, mother and girlfriend were in as much danger as any other woman.
Rather ridiculously, he also said that the clothes had been designed by the industry’s top guns, but they had not been credited because it was not a shoot for “commercial gain”. This, somehow, is supposed to make it all okay. This makes it a societal statement, not a fashion statement.
The cause of my discomfort is not simply the idea that someone decided to use such a horrific incident as the inspiration for a fashion photoshoot.
What troubles me is the idea that the reception may have been very different if it had not been an obvious fashion shoot, with people who were obviously models.
Let’s say Shetye had used college students, or slum dwellers, or middle-aged ‘real people’. Would it have been perceived as heinous, or would it have been perceived as a statement on society?
Let’s say Shetye had featured four female models assaulting a male model, instead of the other way round. How would it have been perceived?
Let’s even say the photographer had been a woman. How would it have been perceived?
A few years ago, French filmmaker Eléonore Pourriat made a video called ‘Oppressed Majority’, which went viral when she posted it on YouTube earlier this year. The video shows women jogging topless, peeing on the road, and sexually harassing men. It was almost universally appreciated.
To me, the fact that the role reversal included women in various stages of nudity brings in unnecessary shock value.
The fashion photoshoot in question raises two significant questions – one has to do with the purpose and definition of ‘art’; the other has to do with the acceptable forms of protest art.
The purpose of art these days seems to be that someone is making money from it, and someone is getting suckered by it. It has no definition. For decades now, ‘modern art’ has claimed to make some sort of vague statement, while essentially being fetishist.
Here is a person making a statement on the cruelty or kindness of society towards strangers by asking visitors to do whatever they want to her, as she sits on a chair, with bunches of roses, scissors, cans of paint, knives, matchsticks, cigarettes, ropes, whips and other assorted paraphernalia lined up.
Here are two people standing naked at the entrance to a museum, to figure out which one of them you choose to face when you brush past.
Here is a woman vomiting all over Lady Gaga in concert, as the latter exhorts us to appreciate “art in its purest form”.
Facebook and YouTube have been going ecstatic over two videos made by Tatia Pilieva, in which strangers are asked to kiss each other, and then undress each other, thereby sparking off some statement or discussion that is too profound for anyone who is not a performance artist to process.
As far back as the 1960s, Piero Manzoni sold cans of Merda D’Artista, or ‘Artist’s Shit’, a statement against capitalism perhaps. Ironically enough, these limited edition sealed cans, whose content cannot be determined with any certainty, have been selling for hundreds of thousands of Euros.
Recently, a performance artist, Milo Moiré, decided to lay paint-filled eggs on to canvas sheets. She stood nude, propped up by two chairs, over an empty canvas, and pushed out these eggs from her vagina. This was apparently a feminist statement. I don’t understand it – was it about women being perceived as reproducers and nothing else? Was it about women being perceived as dirty because they menstruate? Or was it about women being seen as creators of extraordinary art from extraordinary places?
Art has become some sort of equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, except that there is no child to point out that the emperor is naked.
It begs parody, because most of these performances look like satire themselves.
A friend once told me how he had wandered into the changing room at a Bangkok strip club by accident and he noticed a wall of lockers. Some were open, some were shut, some were locked. The open ones had various contents – pieces of lingerie, and mobile phones, and comic books, and literature.
He told me that he thought about how someone could simply shift the entire wall of lockers to an art museum, and call it an installation. This would be a display, making a statement on the objectification of women, the idea that the sensual could not be intelligent – that a stripper could not read Llosa, for instance – or well, any number of things.
The second idea – of the acceptable forms of protest art – is even more insidious. There have been objections to a fashion photoshoot. But would anyone have objected to plays or literature or dance dramas or paintings based on the bus rape? I know for a fact that several plays have been highly acclaimed simply for ‘taking up’ the issue.
Nothing has spawned literature like sorrow and hardship – political dictatorship, religious fundamentalism, sexism, Communism, racism, whatever it is that troubles the majority of people.
While all of these are issues that must be tackled, should it be considered daring and wonderful to ‘tackle’ them in just any way that strikes our fancies? Or should we start using a stricter gauge?

Reality Check

(Published in The Friday Times, on August 8, 2014, retrieved from

I’m not entirely sure when I got hooked on to reality shows, but I have a feeling it may have all started with Temptation Island. I was in school, and somewhere on the other side of the world, four masochistic couples had decided to test their love by hanging out on separate islands with half-naked models, or half-naked potential models. Star TV Asia brought home a censored version, with very little of the loving and a lot of the fighting. I think everyone ended up cheating on everyone else, and then wailing about how they were all so sorry.
But then, there were all those boring shows about lazy people getting folks with OCDs to enter their homes, throw a fit, and clean up for them; or, random people with inferiority complexes getting stylists to plaster their faces with makeup and put them in expensive labels they would not be able to afford once the show ended; or, people looking for houses and somehow assuming the world would be interested. I was temporarily de-addicted, but mainly because watching someone making faces while scrubbing a sink only shows me firangs need servants, and there’s nowhere further to go once you’ve made that obvious deduction.
However, all that changed when I moved to the UK to study, work and bolster my CV so I could come back with a mongrel accent and command a higher salary. Trash TV in the UK is in a league of its own. Over the course of two years, I watched a woman try to find a husband on national television; I watched something called ‘Wife Swap’, which – while being less interesting than it sounds – still has people traumatising families; I figured out how stingy people could have lavish weddings; I followed some bizarre Lord of the Flies-inspired show called Boys and Girls Alone; I revelled in D-list celebrities trying to climb the red carpet ladder by eating insects and scaling cliffs; I followed the stories of cokeheads trying to sober up, and teenagers trying to lose their virginities.
Most importantly, I watched in fascination as Shilpa Shetty – hitherto most famous for being Akshay Kumar’s ignominiously ditched ex-girlfriend, and the girl who was murdered by a psychotic Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar – became a celebrity for weeping on Big Brother. My most abiding memory of the show is Shilpa saying soulfully to a roomful of scornful people that she could not sleep with her feet facing South (or it may have been North, or East, or West) because of “Indian feng shui.” I had no idea that there was an Indian feng shui.
The nastiness had me hooked. When I came back to India, I kept up with reality shows. America’s Next Top Model has tens of tall, thin women being criticised for their noses and teeth, and made to undergo surgery for a shot at winning. All those shows with Simon Cowell smirking at the judges’ table became immediate favourites. I had no idea “darling” could be an offensive word till I heard him say it.
When I was freeloading off some friends, on a trip to Bombay, I got addicted to Masterchef US. I don’t think three mean men have ever been judges on the same contest before. This was a gem. Just once, when a blind contestant managed to plate a delicious dish, one of the judges welled up. But, save for that one slip, they haven’t let me down. Over two seasons, I have watched them destroy the confidence of anyone who dared to say they could do better than make Maggi noodles.
Recently, though, my world has turned upside down. I have found Masterchef Australia.
When you grow up watching cricket, it doesn’t occur to you that there is even a remote possibility of
Australians being nice. When you spend years watching reality shows, it doesn’t occur to you that there is even a remote possibility of judges – okay, judges who are not Paula Abdul – gushing over the brilliance of contestants.
These three guys – Matt, George and Gary – sent a woman into the Top 24 for making a dhokla. I mean...a dhokla. Worse, they took a selfie with her and the dhokla. Man, if I made gol gappas, they’d want to marry me. When a contestant screwed up a pie, they called in his grandmother, to ask why they should pick him. “He really likes cooking”, she said, in a shaky voice, and he got in. Everyone shows pictures of their sick babies and ex-girlfriends for sympathy. Everyone has a sob story about how their families don’t think cooking is a better career idea than, say, investment banking.
“I’ve never been able to find love, so I pour all my unrequited love into food,” you could say.
“I tayll you, you keeyp cookin’ like thayt, and you’ll find love all right, ’cause it’s true what they sigh, you know, the wye to a maen’s heart is through his stowmach. Give us a hug now, love,” they’d chorus.
Worse, the contestants give each other hugs, cooking tips and general encouragement.
Why the hell is this show even on television?

Monday, August 04, 2014

When Nazar Auntie strikes

(Published in The Friday Times, on August 1, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times
Recently, I lost the main disadvantage of being from the third-world – my passport was stamped with the last, and most important, visa of the Holy Trinity – a 10-year multiple entry to the United States, which now shares space with my Schengen and UK visas. As I collected my passport from the consulate, I felt I had to step on to a podium, and make a speech of some kind, reminiscing about how far I had come from where I was. As no podium was available, and the queue of anxious graduates, geriatrics and golmaal-doers waiting for their fingerprinting appointments didn’t appear to be an amenable audience, I had to make the speech in my head.
The person I am most grateful to is a distant relative I will refer to as ‘Nazar Auntie’.
Now, all of us know Nazar Auntie. Every family has one. She is the designated caster of the Evil Eye. You tell her about a prospective job, the company sends you a regret letter; you tell her about an entrance exam for which you’re preparing, you fall ill on the big day; you tell her about a scholarship you need, and you flop at the interview; you tell her about your happy relationship, and your boyfriend “needs to talk” for the first time in years.
There is a family tale about a man who waited for years to take his wife on a European holiday. Four days before they were to leave, he told Nazar Auntie, and his mother promptly died, precluding him from crossing the seas for a year.
And so, when Nazar Auntie enters the home of any relative, it appears everyone is in mourning.
“Has your grandchild started talking?” she asks eagerly.
“Not a word. Why, barely a sound. He may be mute,” the grandparent says, with a convincing sniff.
“Have you started looking for a groom for your daughter?” she asks.
“No, she doesn’t want to get married. We are, in fact, afraid she may...not like men,” the parent says, with a convincing shudder.
Every utterance to Nazar Auntie is a lament. This was how it worked in my family too.
However, I recently discovered that Nazar Auntie could be put to more beneficial uses. It is true that when she is jealous of fortune, it is reversed. However, in her case, the converse holds true. When she is satisfied with misfortune, it too is reversed.
My Eureka moment occurred by serendipity. My new car had been at the receiving end of some urchins’ artwork. I was nearly in tears when I arrived, and Nazar Auntie was thrilled.
“What happened?” she cried, “Are you all right?”
When I told her, I sighed, “I don’t think insurance will cover it either.”
“No, no,” she trilled, beaming, “It is your responsibility. They will hold you culpable, and you won’t get a naya paisa for it.” She sighed, “That too, a brand new car. You hadn’t even taken a photograph in it, no?”
I haven’t been in the habit of taking photographs in vehicles since I graduated from my tricycle, so I was able to honestly say, “No.”
A few days later, my insurance policy holder said I could make a claim under ‘third party damage’.
Since then, Nazar Auntie has become my confidante.
“I entered a play for this contest,” I tell her, “I don’t have a chance. I wrote it in three days, and they get hundreds of entries, and some people work on theirs for a whole year.”
“Three days!” she gasps, “Did you even think when you were writing?”
“Worse. I don’t think I did a spell check, and I’m sure it’s full of errors,” I wail.
A few weeks later, I discover my play has been shortlisted.
“I don’t think I have it in me to keep a man consistently interested,” I whine to her, when I feel I’m not being pampered enough, “They’re all crazy about me when they start flirting, and then they take me for granted.”
“You can’t learn to play games,” she says, happily, “You either have it or you don’t.”
The next day, I randomly receive roses accompanied by a sappy note, likely the result of a Google search, but worthy of appreciation nevertheless.
“I never get paid on time,” I whimper to her.
That is a long shot, but very occasionally, I get cheques without having to carry my begging bowl to the accounts departments of each of the papers and websites and magazines to which I contribute.
So, as I was about to leave for my visa interview, I did a quick check – certificates, appointment letter, passport, phone call to Nazar Auntie...oops.
“I don’t think there’s any point even applying for a visa to America,” I tell her, “They won’t give it to me, no?”
“No spouse, no job, definitely not.”
A few hours later, I finally have the freedom to travel, without being suspected of wanting to trade my house-with-garden for a bedsit and second-class citizenship.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Why I’m troubled by Huma Qureshi’s Femina cover

(Published in, on August 2, 2014, retrieved from

It has created the waves it intended to create. Some sharp folks have pointed out that it came out in the wake of a strikingly similar concept involving plus-size model Denise Bidot in a strikingly similar pose. But, the Femina magazine cover with actress Huma Qureshi standing behind a regular mannequin to the dimensions of which she does not conform, has made news.
However, I find the image disturbing, chiefly because the first sentence I read is ‘I DON’T OWE YOU PERFECTION!’
Apparently, the magazine is oblivious to the irony of a woman branding herself imperfect because she consciously refuses to conform to the ideas of perfection she supposedly opposes.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of models, actresses, clothing brands and magazines have been speaking out against the idea of a Size Zero figure. The Barbie has been at the receiving end of severe criticism from researchers and scholars.
Body fascism has become a topic of discussion in the fashion and film industries.
Unfortunately, these attempts to break stereotypes tend to backfire, thanks to clumsy wording such as “I don’t owe you perfection”, or even the popular catchphrase “real women”.
On the one hand, we insist that we have the right to “be imperfect” – a self-defeating argument in itself. On the other, we insist that “real women” are women who carry an extra bit of cellulite – fat, voluptuous, curvy, you-name-it.
The first idea – that we are all right with being “imperfect” – troubles me for obvious reasons. It sets a norm for perfection.
The second idea – that real women cannot be skinny women – troubles me for a more insidious reason. Just as a prejudice exists against obese people, so does a prejudice exist against people who are naturally thin. I have known women with perfectly normal eating habits referred to as “anorexic” because they happen to be thin. I have known women who actually sob that they feel insecure about their lack of curves.
I happen to fluctuate rather wildly on the weighing scales. Both my diet and exercise regime have been more or less consistent. However, my erratic sleep patterns, my metabolic rate and my moods have an effect on my weight. In the last decade or so, I have grown an inch taller, while my weight has gone back and forth, ranging between 52 and 84 kilograms.
At every single one of those weights, despite my oft-voiced dislike of personal remarks – even the ones that are intended to be complimentary – I have been subjected to unsolicited analyses of my appearance. I have been called “gaunt”, “chubby”, “toothy”, “overweight”, “bony”, and “obese”. I have been told my cheekbones stand out too starkly, or that I have a double chin, or that I look ill, or that I am “letting myself go”.
None of these comments has been pleasant to hear. The fact is, women – and even men – are never allowed to feel comfortable in their bodies by a society that revels in critiquing appearances.
What we need to focus on is educating ourselves – and the hoi polloi, as it were – about the idea of health. There is an assumption that overweight people are lazy gluttons. There is also an assumption that skinny people are pill-popping, smoking, bulimics. It may be true in a large number of cases, and it may be false in an equally large number.
The problem is that, in focusing on appearance, we are only changing the parameters of acceptability, rather than doing away with those parameters. And in doing so, we are reinforcing the idea that “real” people look a certain way, while “perfect” people do great damage to themselves in order to look a certain way. And this is yet another form of body fascism.
The paparazzi stalk actresses on holiday, on family outings, in airports, and everywhere else, hoping to catch a moment when they don’t look their best – to capture them without makeup, to show us the wrinkles on their knees, and the sagging skin on their legs and stomachs, the lines around their eyes and mouths, to prove that these women are “imperfect” too.
We are ignoring the idea that appearance is not everything. Fitness and flexibility are not necessarily tied to body weight. Neither is health.
The way I see it, just as the photographs of the dishes in the menus of restaurants and cafés rarely look like the actual dishes themselves, retailers have the right to choose how they want to brand their products, what kind of models they want to use, and which message they want to send out to their prospective consumers.
What we need to focus on is that these advertisements and films are not real. The people acting in them are samples of humanity, and as real as we are. But they do not set a standard for what we need to look like.
As long as we keep the discussion focused on the bodies and faces of the people in these ads, and prescribe a norm, we are undermining the idea of fighting stereotypes. And in doing so, we are undermining the confidence of our own, impressionable selves.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dear Parents: Honey Singh isn't to blame, you are

(Published in on July 25, 2014, retrieved from

I have been watching with some amusement over the last few days, as the open letter to Honey Singh from a parent gets Twitter and Facebook mileage. It is rather remarkable that so many parents believe the responsibility to ensure that their children don’t learn “foul language” rests with Honey Singh, and not themselves.
Clearly, parents would rather have films avoid all depiction of alcohol, smoking, and all that is deemed vulgar, lyrics censored and books rewritten, than have an open discussion with their children about sifting through the various stimuli that come at them. Children are impressionable, parents are busy, and therefore pop culture needs to stifle itself. Umm. Not quite.
When I posted my opinions on Facebook, a couple of parents agreed with me, saying it becomes rather easy for people to blame pop culture for its “evil influence” on their children, rather than choose not only what their children are exposed to, but also how they react to the exposure. Most people took umbrage. Apparently, parents don’t want to be seen as “controlling”, and therefore the onus is on society to censor itself.
The fact is, I haven’t involuntarily heard a single Honey Singh song. I Googled him around the time of the “Balatkari” controversy, and that was the first I had heard of his music.
Our channels take their moral policing so seriously that they beep out words like “ass”. So, Harvey Two-Face in India is grateful to Batman for “saving [his] beep.”
However, most entertainment channels are in competition to produce reality shows involving children. Worse, they find parents who are only too happy to enter their children in these contests, and who weep miserably when the children lose.
First of all, the idea of reality shows for children is cruel and ugly. But, if you must enter your child in one, the least you can do is be supportive, and show him or her that winning is not everything.
Often, it appears to me that the majority of parents doesn’t monitor their offspring at all, and then whines about pop culture.
Children are incredibly sexualised these days. I know parents who dress their children up in item number costumes and itsy-bitsy bikinis, because “this is the only time they can wear it”. Some find it “cute” to make their children dance to item numbers and ape the moves of the actresses.
The latest rage is usually an item number, and these songs play at all events from weddings to children’s birthday parties. The fact is, they ideally should not be playing at events which are open to all ages. The fact also is, parents should not blame the makers of such music, but the people who choose to play the music at these events.
Those of us who are in our twenties and thirties now – many of whom have little children – grew up during Silk Smitha’s heyday. Our excitement with television – which acquired cable when we were little kids – and our parents’ lack of paranoia precluded our being shielded from these. However, I don’t think my friends grew up thrusting their nonexistent busts at imagined cameras. I certainly didn’t.
Like most children, I turned to the adults in the family in order to temper my opinion to the norm, through imitation. My mother would usually shudder at the songs, and my takeaway was the addition of the word “vulgar” to my vocabulary.
My friend, independent journalist Sandhya Menon, who has two young children, made an excellent point about replacing dialogue between parents and children with bans. “I was impressionable, just like scores of kids are, but I also had a solid, gentle, equal conversation going with my parents so that I could parse the crap and decide for myself. The minute you as a parent take away conversation and replace it with bans, judgement and authority, you’ve lost the chance to raise a kid who can think for herself and in fact say, yoyowhatsisface is an idiot.”
She also agreed with the idea that one cannot demand that another forfeit his or her right to speak: “As for the general argument that [children are] being exposed to it outside the home, well, they’re also being exposed to consumerism, greedy competition to top a class no matter what the cost, and carbon monoxide. To feel as a parent you have the right to ask for sanitisation of pop culture or curb expression is a tad self-important.”
So, perhaps, rather than blame Honey Singh for their children’s vocabulary, people ought to see that they have failed as parents if they refuse to keep channels of conversation with their children open, and refuse to understand that children are not imbeciles.
They can be trusted to make their decisions, because they look to guidance from people they trust – most often, their parents.
I know several children who have prompted their families to turn vegetarian by pointing out that it is cruel to eat animals. I have little cousins who chide me for littering, and for buying plastic bags because I can’t be bothered to take a bag along when I shop. Usually, they tend to have some effect, chiefly because it’s embarrassing to be told off by someone half one’s size.
My point is, children can sift through what’s right, when they are empowered to do so. When we shun the responsibility and blame pop culture, we are infringing on the rights of other people.
I don’t care for Honey Singh’s music or lyrics, but he does have a right to continue doing what he is. I have a choice between patronising him and rejecting him. So do the children.

Writer's Bloc

(Published in The Friday Times, on July 25, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

Often, I think I’m lucky to be a published author with prospects – I love that I can tell people I’m “working on my next book” when all I’m doing is updating my Facebook page, tweeting, and sleeping 14 hours a day. The tag of underpaid author who stands to be screwed over by greedy publishers, the digital media, and an almost illiterate audience is a decent cover for the unemployed bum who waits anxiously for the new season of House of Cards.
However, there are times when I wonder whether I would not be better off snapping at earnest young graduates and pretending to be all stressed out at a regular desk job, with decent perks, a generous salary and guiltless coffee breaks. Those times usually coincide with my book readings, where I am likely to meet the following species:
The Attacker
This person comes into his own at the Q and A session – really, why do they have those? He has decided, without reading your book and without intending to, that he hates you. He will stand up and set out to prove that your research is not deep enough, that your title is misleading, that your book does not cover the scope of his worldview, and that you generally have a personal vendetta against him. I have had a doctor tell me that 30 interviewees is not a good enough “sample size”. I have had a septuagenarian housewife tell me that my book looks at women who are too young to have “the right opinion” about marriage. I have had several people tell me that I am biased for interviewing 25 women and 5 men for a book about women’s attitudes to marriage.
The Idea-Giving Autobiography Provider
This person will start off by telling you what sort of book you should have written. He or she will suggest what your next work of fiction or non-fiction should focus on. Then, s/he will reveal that s/he buried the lead, with this pronouncement, accompanied by a coy downward look: “In my life also, I have experience so much.” S/he will then proceed to provide you – and the rest of the already fidgety audience – with a detailed account of his or her extremely boring life. It usually goes something like, “I think you young people should write more about brain drain into the USA and Europe. See, I have four sons who are all settled in the States. And when my wife and I go there for six months of the year, I look at their infrastructure, and think how our country can do so much more, and we can achieve so much more, if we only had the same infrastructure.”
The Autobiography Hunter
I am not sure whether this person is out to prove that you are not qualified to write the book, or to find out everything s/he can about your personal life. But at every book reading, someone wants to know “to what extent your book is autobiographical”. I once told a lady that mine was a work of non-fiction, and the autobiography will be apparent when I say “I”. She asked, with unwarranted desperation, “But can you at least tell me what percentage is autobiographical? Are you married? Have you had an arranged marriage? If so, are you happy in the marriage?” Okay, lady, would you like to know my chaddi size while you’re at it?
The Moneyless Buyer
I have never been to a book reading where someone has not come up to me with a book to sign and said, “Hi. I am not carrying any money at present, but can I have my driver drop off the money to you tomorrow?” I am not sure whether they have me confused with a fisherwoman hawking her catch at a market, or whether they assume all writers buy a number of their books and stack them up at readings, with the hope of selling for a profit. I am not sure whether they came with the intention of going back empty-handed, and were charmed into a purchase by my quips. But they want the book, they have no money, and they expect a solution from me.
The Autograph Prospector
This person’s motives are admirably clear. S/he has no intention of spending money on your book, but will ask for your autograph on a scrap of paper, in the hope that it may be worth something on the off-chance that you become famous.
The Advice Asker
Some people wash up at book readings in the hope that their brilliance will be recognised by your publisher. In order to draw attention to themselves, they will stand up and ask you in a version of English, “Kindly please give your advice for aspiring novelists.” I usually suggest they write in a language in which they are comfortable. They tend to take offence.
The Quid-Pro-Quo Interviewer
The kind people in the marketing department of my publishing house line up interviews for me. These reporters act like they are doing me an enormous favour, which I am duty-bound to reciprocate. One sent me her resume with a peremptory order to find her a job “using [my] contacts” in my city. Another sent me an outline of her dissertation project for advice. A third sent me his pitch for a novel, and asked whether I could please send it to my publishers “through the right channels”.
The Misquoter
Apparently, it is the fashionable thing to do for journalists to dispense with a recorder. And so, rather often, I find myself unpleasantly surprised by things I am purported to have said. I also discovered that I had written the world’s first “non-fiction novel” and “semi-fictional autobiography”.
The Unsolicited Mentor
This person is usually in his or her fifties, has self-published a flop book, and had a spat with the publisher who was set to publish it before s/he took it into his or her own hands. S/he tells you s/he is here to rescue you from a similar fate. Before you know it, you’re assigned a poorly-written novel to copy edit.
The Nouveau Riche Promoter
For some reason, there is a trend of socialites trying to buy the literati into their social circle. In these people’s houses, an original M F Husain painting will hang alongside a 5-dollar print of the Empire State Building. Vikram Seth, John Grisham, the Bible and Richard Dawkins will cohabit the bookshelves. You are asked to a literary dinner, and find yourself among ten diffident writers and fifty socialites who want selfies with every author, because they’re not sure which one in the gathering has won a Nobel Prize, or whether that’s the same thing as a Booker.
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