Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Digital Pains

(Published in The Friday Times, on September 17, 2014, retrieved from

Remember when we didn’t have email and Facebook and mobile phones? We couldn’t pretend we were on important calls to avoid relatives. We were forced into long conversations on the landline before the era of caller IDs and blocking options. We had to actually go to birthday parties, instead of tagging old pictures with sappy messages and writing on Facebook walls.
If you were born in the Eighties, you know what this is like. And if you’re misanthropic – which is really just the politically correct term for ‘anti-stupid’ – you know why you thank the multiple inventors of the internet and social networks every day, for minimising the obligation of face-to-face interaction with people.
If you have a reasonably good memory, you also remember the days when you had to book a trunk call to reach people who lived in other cities and countries. Everyone had to yell on the phone, and then wait for the sound wave to travel to the other person, so that conversations usually went like this: “Hello?...Hello?...Are you there?” “Hello?...Can you hear me?...Yes, you can!” “Ah...I thought I...Yes, what?” “Sorry?...Can you hear me?” “Hello? Helloooooo?” “HELLO!” “Yes! Finally!” “What? Final exams, did you say?” “HELLO! PAH!”
Some of your relatives still tend to yell over the mobile phone when they make long distance calls.
Now, all was well when the generation we think of as ‘adults’ – the generation which is anywhere between fifty and ninety now – thought Viber was a sex toy. However, a combination of émigré children and affordable smart-phones has awakened them to the financial advantages of ‘getting tech savvy’.  Nothing excites a middle-aged South Asian more than the prospect of saving money. Except the prospect of ‘actually seeing people in America!’
And so, one day, I stumbled out of my room for coffee, and heard an aunt holding forth on how she speaks to her daughter, while the others listened in fascination and asked intelligent questions like, “Spike is the same as Viber?”
“No, no,” the aunt said, patiently, “Not Spike. It’s Sky-pee. That’s for the computer. Viber is for the phone.”
“I think it’s Skype, not Sky-pee,” another relative interjected, “And the best is Google Hangouts. You can use it on both phone and computer. My son installed everything in my phone before he left.”
Who would grudge a loving mother the chance to ensure her offspring are eating roti every day, and also using the pressure cooker she sent along, undeterred by the prospect of her kids being questioned by the FBI in case there was another cooker bomb explosion?
However, I take issue with the confidence they gain from this. Next thing you know, they’re on Facebook. Thankfully, I don’t have a Facebooking mum. When she was contemplating it, I said, “Obviously, all my friends will add you. And then, there’s this socialite circle. And your patients.” She shuddered and refrained.
Unfortunately, not all ‘adults’ are asocial.
When uncle-aunty types add me, I tend to put them on the Restricted list. But, every now and then, I write a Public post, so that people will not figure out they are on Restricted. Every time I post a quip under Public, they read it and diligently counter the flippancy with aspiring wisdom.
One day, I quoted Seinfeld: “I'm tired of pretending I'm excited every time it's somebody's birthday.
What is the big deal? How many times do we have to celebrate that someone was born? Every year, over and over. All you did was not die for 12 months. That's all you've done, as far as I could tell.”
Pat came the response from a friend’s father: “Imagine living a life where every day is just as joyous and you receive gifts, cards (not any more in these days of email) and good wishes from friends and family. As well as a day of celebration, a birthday is also a time for reflecting on your life and reviewing what the intervening years have brought you. In the meantime, why not live each day as your birthday? Why miss out on an excuse to celebrate life? If it sounded philosophical, it was not meant to be!!!”
I’m not sure what irritates me more about the last statement – its inherent contradiction or the multiple exclamation marks.
Worse, they poke. How do you react when you find the biology teacher of whom you were terrified in school has poked you? And how do you react when you find your aunt has gone and poked your father-in-law, who has poked her back, and they are now playing Candy Crush Saga with each other?
The way I see it, we only have two choices – either all social networks need to set an upper age limit; or, we need to stop young people from crossing the seas.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kashmir floods: Of prejudice and petty politics

(Published in, on September 13, 2014, retrieved from

Every day, even as the newspapers carry reports of the destruction wrought by the flooding of the Jhelum river, they also carry heart-warming stories of rescue.
So far, the Indian Army, Indian Air Force, National Disaster Response Force and Indian Navy have managed to evacuate and save tens of thousands of people. Across the state, Kashmiris in unaffected areas have opened their doors to strangers. Volunteers are using the social networks to source as much help and donation as possible, and ensuring that they reach the victims of the flood.
However, there are several virulent posts in the social media that make me wonder whether we cannot leave our petty politics behind even at a time of disaster.
Of course, there have been several condemnable incidents in the Valley – of army vehicles being pelted with stones even as they carried supplies, of boats that were kept on stand-by for soldiers being grabbed by mobs, of helicopters loaded with relief material not being allowed to land at the governor’s residence, of an NDRF trooper being attacked by flood victims.
A local Kannada newspaper, called Vijayvani, carried a story about a family of nineteen people who were reportedly stopped by a mob and forced to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” before being allowed to cross over to safety.
In disaster-hit areas, people are bound to react in panic. Publicity-mongers will take advantage of a situation to get themselves noticed, and sadists will take advantage of people’s despair to get their kicks.
However, I am worried by the anger I see on internet forums where the situation – or the stories emerging from Srinagar – are being discussed.
One of the most common sentiments is that the people of Kashmir are being rescued by the Armed Forces, against which they have railed for so long, and that there is some sort of poetic justice in this.
Now, it is undeniable that the Armed Forces have done a stellar job of rescuing as many people as they can, just as they have done time and again, every time a disaster has struck anywhere in India. They have formed human bridges, taken out boats to almost inaccessible areas, and there have been individual feats of supreme mental and physical strength, such as the case of Wing Commander Abhijit Bali heading out to save his family and neighbours, and swimming 20 kilometres back to his base.
However, we must recognise that the heroics of the Armed Forces in responding to a crisis situation are completely unrelated to the debate over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The AFSPA is frightening in its provisions, which ensure immunity to the men in uniform for a vast range of quite horrific acts.
In any conflict zone – Kashmir, Sri Lanka, parts of North East India – people are often caught between the authorities and the militants. In most cases, they are resentful of both, but more outspoken about their resentment against the authorities.
To connect the rescue operations with the protests against AFSPA is as unwarranted – and bereft of all logic – as the justification of the forced migration of Kashmiri pandits on the grounds that atrocities are being committed against Kashmiri Muslims by the state.
Facebook posts about the family that was allegedly stopped by separatists were followed by disheartening debates – disheartening because they show that even at a time of calamity, we cannot leave behind our prejudices.
In a country like India, which was forged out of hundreds of little kingdoms, and where people have various identities based on religion, ethnicity, language, caste and culture, we must accept that we will never truly be free of conflict.
Several separatist movements have been successful, evidenced by the fact that most of our states are fragments of what used to be larger administrative areas.
However, the ugliness comes in when we refuse to allow each other’s opinions and insist on an absolute truth.
The fact is, there is rampant militancy in any conflict zone, and stringent measures are often necessary to curtail them.
But, since it is impossible to identify with certainty in all suspected cases whether someone is a militant or affiliated with militants, there are bound to be ‘mistakes’. Unfortunately, these so-called ‘mistakes’ cost human lives and livelihoods.
There can be no doubt that an act with draconian provisions should, at the very least, be revisited regularly. The consequences of the act should be analysed, and the relevance of its stipulations determined.
The relationship between the Armed Forces and the people of Kashmir is a complicated one.
It is unfair to both the people and the Forces to see it in the context of the rescue operations during the ongoing flood.
And for us to focus on politics at this time rather than show basic human compassion for victims of the flood is reprehensible.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Madras

(Published in Soul Connect, India Today, on September 5, 2014, retrieved from

How does one describe a city that is part of one’s soul? I grew up in Madras, and was drawn back to my home every time I moved away. The sound of lapping waves is as familiar to me as the popping of mustard seeds in cooking oil. The moisture-laden air is ingrained into my skin, which bursts into scaly webs when I leave the coast.

Madras is often associated with conservatism, Mylapore mami-mamas, filter coffee, idlis, the Margazhi Season, silk sarees, gold jewellery, Bharatanatyam and Caranatic music. But how does one capture the shades of each aspect? How does one explain that the men who sing Carnatic music during the Season will jam with keyboards and guitars during Novemberfest, and you don’t know whether their earrings are a tradition or a style statement?
To me, Madras is not about its sabhas and beaches and once-avaricious autos. It’s not about a donor heart being transported in an ambulance in record time – a triumph for the traffic police rather than commuters, who are as nasty as they are everywhere. It’s not about the Bridge-playing ‘Club aunty-uncles’, IIT Saarang, The Hindu, Theosophical Society, Egmore Museum, Vandalur Zoo, Guindy Park, or the beach-house parties along East Coast Road.
Madras, to me, is the place which allows people to be. You could go to a Bengal Association pujo or an Iranian restaurant’s Sunday brunch, and forget you live in Madras. Other cities slot people into pockets – Malleswaram for the Mandiams, CR Park for the Bengalis, Chembur for the Tam Brahms. But Madras opens its arms to you – it pours itself into you, and absorbs you into itself.
Religion and ethnicity don’t matter. You could buy a dosa outside Columbia University, and its famous seller will grin at you and ask, “Madras-aa?” The Uncle who owns an Urdu bookstore will yell in Dakhani to his daughter, “Main aatoon, so!” and turn back to his conversation with the priest from the Parthasarathy Temple, and the Marwari owner of the sports goods shop, about the annoying one-ways in their Triplicane. Malayali Christian students of Kalakshetra will speak Brahmin Tamil. You giggle with your Bengali friend as his mother speaks about taking the “Adyar Breeze” to “Besant Nagar Bitch”. You collapse with your Sindhi friend when her mother bursts into the broken ‘Madras Tamil’ she has picked up from her maid. You explain to the American who greets your friend with, “Vanakkam, sandhichadhil mikka  magizhchi” that she doesn’t understand him because she’s from Delhi.
This is a city where you could sit with the same person, and bond over a hilarious T Rajender video, discuss a Bertolucci film and laugh at a Gabbar meme. This is Madras.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why is the onus on women to protect themselves?

(Published in, on September 7, 2014, retrieved from

Picture courtesy:

Yesterday, I read an article by a young woman about how she was molested on the Delhi metro. She had felt something repeatedly bumping into her. She turned around, to see a man, who carried no baggage and whose hands were on the railing. It turned out he had unzipped his trousers and was leaning into her.
When she began to yell at the man, other commuters remained silent, and some even smirked, she says.
The woman in question managed to drag the man out of the compartment at the next station, give him chase and file an FIR. But two aspects of her experience trouble me intensely.
One is that people asked her why she chose to take the general compartment, rather than the ladies’ compartment. This immediately puts the onus on the woman to look after herself, by essentially avoiding all possible contact with men.
The second is that, when the man who had sexually harassed her said he had touched her with his hand, one of the policemen asked, “Why would this girl lie? After all she is taking the blame on herself.”
Somehow, the woman has made herself culpable by telling the truth about the fact that a man committed an obscene act, through which she was victimised.
Our ‘euphemisms’ for sexual harassment range from ‘eve-teasing’ to ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’. In the vernacular, they have to do with stripping a woman of her izzat (Hindi-Urdu for ‘honour’) or karpu (Tamil for ‘chastity’).
Every day, women encounter instances of people asking them to ‘protect themselves’ by refraining from either taking on a group of men who bother them in some way, or from dressing in the way that they want to.
Several times at the cinema, when gangs of men hoot and whistle and comment through the dialogue, I have asked them to shut up, and called in the manager when they refuse to calm down. Instead of supporting me, most people around me tell me it is not a good idea to “provoke” them, or ask what I will do if they were to follow me and attack me after the film.
 A woman can “ask for it” simply by being confident, simply by assuming that people in a civilised society will adhere to the law.
The worst part of it is that it is often women who reinforce this idea.
One day, at a reputed gym, I was accosted by a woman, who said, "Can I tell you something? Wear a longer top, because, you know...guys".
I wanted to tell her that the only person whom I have noticed staring at me was she herself.
I wanted to tell her that I would rather have the "guys" stare at me because at least they would only be evaluating my appearance, whereas she was evaluating my character.
I wanted to tell her that I felt far more violated by her comment than by any man or woman who had ever checked me out.
I wanted to ask her whether she thought I should also wear a burkha while working out and carry pepper spray, “ know...guys”.
What is the point in asking society as a whole to respect a woman’s right to go about her daily life without being violated in some form when even women can’t respect each other’s right to do so?
Recently, following the mass leak of nude pictures of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Kirsten Dunst, through an iCloud hack, the big argument on the internet was that these women ought to have been more careful.
Basically, if you don’t want people looking at your naked pictures online, don’t take naked pictures.
Now, a contemporary artist who goes by XVALA wants to display the leaked images on canvas, as some sort of subversive statement against invasion of privacy.
Some years ago, Disney forced Vanessa Hudgens to issue an apology for her “lapse in judgement” when nude pictures of her were leaked.
Women are constantly hemmed in by a combination of our voyeurism and misguided ideas of morality.
Even mainstream media outlets routinely put up pictures of ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ that actresses have, often throwing in catty comments about these women’s choice of clothes.
It is only now that we have come round to accepting the idea that what a woman wears is irrelevant in case of a sexual assault.
It is about time we acknowledged that a woman is not “asking for it” when she uses the general compartment of a metro, or takes pictures of herself to be seen by those whom she chooses to show them to.
It is about time we stopped putting the onus on women to ‘protect themselves’ by staying sheltered in every way they can think of.
Because that is the only way we will stop hearing murmurs that the victim of the Delhi bus rape should have “been more careful”, and chosen to take a taxi rather than risk public transport at that time of night.
In a society that is truly free, a woman should be able to walk on the road, wearing what she chooses, at any time of day or night.
And if she were to come to harm, the blame ought to be on the perpetrator, and not on the victim.

Friday, September 05, 2014

“We regret to inform..”

(Published in The Friday Times, on September 5, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

For a little over a week now, my dread of being nominated for the ice bucket challenge has been superseded by my dread of being nominated for that ten-book challenge on Facebook. The fact is, this new challenge has made me reconsider several friendships. How can you respect someone who says the drivel written by Paulo Coelho or Khaled Hosseini or – horror of all horrors – a book like The Secret ‘stayed with’ him or her? Those are the books I gift to people I intensely dislike.
So, before anyone could nominate me, I set myself a new challenge, and nominated five friends of mine to take up the chain – books that I struggled to finish, and wished I hadn’t read. On my list were God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling, The Complete Works of Jane AustenFive Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, Autograph Man by Zadie Smith, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and several random books that had landed up with me for review.
Encouraged by my friend and nominee, humour writer Tazeen Javed, I decided to pen a series of fictional rejection letters that would have rendered my years of studying literature – and later, reading books – somewhat less traumatic.
Dear Miss Austen:
I wish I could thank you for sending us your manuscript. However, I find that rather hard to do under the circumstances that I have put myself through two hundred pages of manipulative women line maro-ing conceited jerks (whom they perhaps thoroughly deserve) into marriage. Therefore, I shall tell you that I find your sense of irony underdeveloped, your skills of observation mundane, your characters stereotyped, and – most of all – your use of alliteration exceedingly annoying. Your books are essentially about gold diggers causing inexplicable transformations in haughty men. We feel your time would be best spent painting, playing music, sewing and pursuing men, much like the women in your novels. If we happen to hear of suitablebachelors moving to your county, we shall let you know, so you may – at the very least – write from experience, which would render your future novels less hollow.
Dear Miss Emily Bronte:
I have just finished your complicated story of a family of tantrum-throwers whose main preoccupation appears to be marrying each other. I have three main issues with the book: First, this Catherine woman is so silly, flaky, passive-aggressive and conniving that any man who falls for her must be quite the masochist; therefore, I am in a quandary over whether to feel sorry for Heathcliff, or pleased at the pleasure he must draw from the suffering. Second, how did he make all that money? I’d like to point you to The Count of Monte Cristo, which makes it clear that the pauper got rich by finding jewels and drugs in an Oriental hangout. Perhaps you could incorporate something similar in your next draft? Third, the name ‘Heathcliff’ is absolutely ridiculous. I find it rather more suitable to a cat than a man.
Dear Mr Joyce
Greetingingsandsomesuch broogadillooogawanging. My mynde is riddledaddledabung with a mix of wurdsendemoshuns going kashoomgrushplunkferlunkwadoongibinkelliblurbs. Oops. Did I confuse you? Your Finnegans Wake has made me forget why I became a book editor. I have resigned my job, and plan to write pornographic novels for the rest of my life.
Dear Mr Coelho
I was quite fascinated to rediscover that the Middle East is a magic land of flying carpets and secrets buried in pyramids and whatnot. I only regret that you didn’t include a genie in the lamp – or was it a stone in your book? – and a witch who can turn into a bird or some such thing. That is the sort of enlightening, innovative fantasy in which I like to lose myself. Also, alchemy has been a quite successful career choice, as you must know from the many millions of people who turned stone into gold. I am not entirely sure you can detect sarcasm, so here is some straight-up advice for you: Step 1: Become a spiritual guru. Step 2: Move to America. Step 3: Negotiate with Hollywood.
Dear Ms Rowling
Having read JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman, and Tom Brown’s School Days myself, I am surprised you couldn’t string together a more coherent and readable mish-mash of all their work. I do believe there are more adjectives than nouns and more adverbs than verbs in every page of every book. No one stops when they can stop abruptly. No one whispers when they can whisper softly. I don’t see why you needed quite so much time to come up with characters who are shadows of the originals. I feel I have wasted too many words on this letter already, perhaps the aftermath of trawling through your bulky tomes (oops, adjective-alert). So, let me express this mathematically. Gandalf > Dumbledore; Sauron > Voldemort; Gollum > House-Elves; Saruman > Fudge; Ringwraiths > Dementors; Daemons > Patronus (yep, I read Pullman too).
Dear Mr Rumi
I am sure your poetry reads quite wonderfully in the Persian original, but sound like a boy band in English, man. I’ve got to make a living, yo. Maybe I’ll peddle this stuff outside a girls’ college, or put it on Hallmark cards, or better still, at the end of Bollywood films. Your soulful 140-characters-or-less sentences are kinda cloying, bro. Here’s some advice: if you know people who play the guitar, keyboard and drums, you could send a sample to MTV. Maybe you’ll be the next One Direction. Or, better still, keep that band and get someone to sing the Persian lyrics on Coke Studio.

The Gym Chronicles

(Published in The Friday Times, on August 29, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times
A few months ago, I moved out to a writer’s pad, somewhere along the coast, with a window that looked out on to a coconut grove and another that faced the sea. I spent most of my time peering out of the two windows, swimming in the very nice pool in the apartment complex’s club house, and occasionally visiting its rudimentary gym.
When I was commissioned a play, and later cast in one of the roles, I had to move back to the city for rehearsals. There’s something about easily accessible coffee shops and hangouts – and also about food that appears magically on the family dining table – that makes one reconsider returning to one’s writerly haunt.
The downside of moving back into the bungalow with a 4000-square-foot terrace and no club house, with lots of food and no need to cook, is that one tends to pile on the pounds. And so, I decided to succumb to a trend I have resisted for years, and signed up for a six-month membership to a well-equipped gym.
The main outcome of this on social media was that people started forwarding me an article about how bored women in Bombay were leaving their rich, busy, industrialist husbands for their gym trainers. I’m not sure why they sent me the piece. For one, I am not married. For another, my South Asian classist tendencies have always taken precedence over my cosmopolitan privileged guilt.
My tryst with the gym started off with an ego massage. I ran into a couple who had watched my play, and had loved it. Even more wonderfully – for it is a rarer occurrence – I met someone who had read my book. There is nothing more flattering for a writer to hear than, “You’re...[first name]...[surname]?” Third, my assigned trainer – perhaps in the hope of my opting for a personal trainer package – asked whether I was a film actress.
But then, I discovered several categories of people who made the experience less pleasant:
The hitters-on
I am not sure what would motivate a man to make small talk with a woman when she is grunting and crouching, or panting on treadmill.
Perhaps they joined the gym in the hope of meeting insecure women who will eventually become hot.
Perhaps they think sweat on a man is sexy, deluded by American dramas (though even those largely acknowledge that the sweating man must be Latin and hot to merit any charm).
Perhaps they think it would be romantic to get in shape together, until you can eventually squeeze comfortably into a love seat.
Whatever it is, someone forgot to tell them that a woman would not be wearing lycra and working out, with her hair plastered to her head, and cellulite jiggling, if she were seeking male attention.
The unsolicited advisers
It’s only from their vocabulary that you can tell whether these guys are trainers or customers.
They’ve been regulars for years, have shed every micro-inch of flab, YouTubed every work out video ever made, and are waiting to share their pearls of wisdom with you.
You’re screwed if they catch you getting through hip abduction or lat pulldowns in the wrong position. They will make you move aside, show you how you work out – cue the titter – and then tell you what you should be doing instead.
They keep an eye out to make sure you don’t hold on as you run on the treadmill – and this is the deal breaker, because, I mean, there’s only so much one can do to get through 20 minutes on a moving surface while listening to Tum Hi Ho fromAashiqui 2 (which is always on loop in my gym.)
The conversation duds
These people roll around the gym, trying to make friends. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that conversation is an art; what they provide is imbecility.
These are the people who ask you questions such as, “So, you’ve joined to lose weight?”
No. I’m here to check out your legs, you want to say. Someone ought to send you to a geisha school.
The competitive uncle-aunties
They look at you with that odd mixture of jealousy, admiration and camaraderie of which only gym uncle-aunties are capable.
Then, they ask you which Level you’ve set your EFX or cycle at, and how many kilometres you run at what speed on the treadmill. When you tell them, they sigh and say, “That’s so difficult. You’re going to hurt yourself. I go at Level 3, max 4.”
But...I don’t have arthritic knees, you want to say.
The former crush
The worst thing that can happen to you is to discover that someone you had a crush on when you were in early adolescence is now an overweight, balding father of two, who pants on the treadmill next to you. Well, it’s the second worst thing. The worst thing is to discover that he works in the IT industry.
I suppose it’s like that moment when the kid comes out of a mall in New York to find Santa Claus munching on bagels at a pushcart.

Why the ice bucket challenge worries me

(Published in, on August 31, 2014, retrieved from

It has been a while since the ice bucket challenge went viral, so we already know the main criticisms against it: that people may be doing this for the fun factor without really caring about ALS; that this is “slacktivism”, allowing people who are too stingy to donate for a cause to douse themselves with cold water and feel they are doing something constructive; that it is all a waste of good water, while people are dying without access to water; that the money donated for research may not be channelled towards it by the ALS Association; that there are other causes which are equally deserving of the money, but which haven’t merited a stunt which went viral on social media.
However, there are some other aspects of the challenge that do worry me.
While it is perfectly all right for adults to choose to do what they do, I am shocked by the number of videos that show people dousing their children – and pets – with water.
What happens to the children may be the parents’ lookout, though it is rather surprising to me that the authorities in various countries have nothing to say about it.
But to take the ice-bucket challenge with your pet dog or pet cat, which not only has no clue what ALS is, but also no clue that you’re about to dunk him or her with a bucket of ice and water, is outright cruelty to animals.
Besides, several videos of the ice bucket challenge gone wrong, which do seem hilarious when they’re viewed in a series, also show just how stupid people can be. Why would you want to ask someone to tip water over you from a tree house? Shouldn’t it occur to one that the situation is begging for the bucket to fall on one’s head? And why would anyone want to fill a heavy metal bucket with water and attempt tipping it on oneself?
The stunt can be dangerous. One of the videos shows a dog which is tied to a post running away in fear when its owner empties a bucket over himself and the dog. Thankfully, the post was flimsy enough to break when the dog ran. If it had been a stronger post, the dog would have ended up getting strangulated.
Obviously, it didn’t take long for celebrities to get involved, and start nominating each other.
The problem with that is, for one, the publicity stunts have begun. There’s Matt Damon, for instance, speaking about how he has decided not to waste water, and has therefore been dunking himself with water he collected from the “various toilets” in his mansion. For one, I’m not even sure what he meant by “collecting” toilet water. Second, it’s probably best we don’t find out.
Of course, the comedians got into the act, spoofing the ice bucket challenge with their own versions. Ricky Gervais started a ‘Feeling Nuts’ trend on Facebook, apparently in support of testicular cancer check-ups, shouting out to Ben Stiller, Aaron Paul and Will Arnett to do the same. So far, Will Arnett has responded.
The problem with an issue that needs awareness being associated with a stunt is that the latter can often swallow the issue, or belittle it.
It also tends to lead to spinoffs. While some can be useful, such as the ‘rice bucket challenge’, which has been taken up in Hyderabad, it is far more likely that the ice bucket challenge – having proved such a phenomenal success – will now become a means of fundraising for more issues. In fact, ALS research is not the first for which this fundraising method has been used, though it has been the most successful.
Once the challenge runs its course, it ends up becoming an irritant.
The fact that it has already invited spoof, and also a fair amount of scepticism with respect to where the money is going, makes me wonder whether a stunt is the best way to go about fundraising.
More importantly, it makes me worry that ALS – which is a terrifying and debilitating disease – will become associated with this one viral challenge.
People who suffer from ALS require tremendous financial and emotional support. What can be worse than losing all control of, and eventually all use for, one’s body while one’s mind is intact? The wheelchairs that patients will need in order to be mobile are expensive.
One of the most brilliant men on the planet, Professor Stephen Hawking, has been in the public eye for decades, allowing us to see how the disease progressively impairs him, even as he travels the world, giving lectures with his trademark humour through his computer-based communication system.
It is not a disease that should be dismissed as something that kept the social networks busy for a couple of months.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Uncle-Aunty generator

(Published in The Friday Times, on August 22, 2014, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times
You know how, sometimes, you see these couples, and it’s like they were born middle-aged? You can’t imagine this Uncle ever having played gully cricket. His only part in it could have been that he was the kid peering out at the game through his window, and ran to tell the uncle-aunty whose car window or hall window broke who the culprits were. And surely, this Aunty could never have played with dolls, or got told off for “borrowing” her mother’s lipsticks and nail paint. If she ever played with dolls, she lined them all up and told them how they should behave and then asked them whether their parents had not taught them manners growing up.
The purpose of their existence on this earth is disapproval of everything they see around them. You wonder how their dinner table conversations go. Do they bond over how the world is terrible, and everyone who populates it is a Neanderthal? Or do they fault each other for the way they eat and serve and clean up? Do they compare their children favourably against the spawn of their neighbours? Or do they marvel at how their body fluids could have given rise to these horrors?
Speaking of their children – the only proof that uncle-aunty must have indulged in a biological act – one wonders how that went. They possibly had all their clothes on, called up their parents for instructions – since they likely disapprove of the magazines and literature that could serve as manuals – avoided looking at each other, mumbled to each other to hurry up and get done, before calling up their siblings to bitch about just how awful this ordeal is, and what a burden it is on good people that they must reproduce.
I’ve often wondered how these uncle-aunty types are produced. And so, I have begun observing them. It’s easy enough to spot the specimens, because they have these stock lines.
One is: “You need to change your lifestyle”. You could be anywhere between 25 and 40. The uncle-aunty coupling is anywhere between 10 and 25 years older than you. Their main source of bonding with you is your god-awful lifestyle. You’d think they’d be happy that you’re shortening it rapidly by smoking, drinking, and sleeping at the devil’s hours. But they inexplicably want you to prolong your life by giving up all that makes it worthwhile.
Another indication of such a coupling is the silent glare. You could be out with your significant other. Hell, you could be out with just any other. Nothing annoys them more than watching young people talk and laugh. Once, a friend of mine who had composed a song asked me to listen to it in his car, as he was dropping me off at another friend’s place. I loved it, and asked to listen to it once more, just before I got out of the car. “I’m so proud of you,” I said, before reaching over to give him a hug. The next moment, both of us were lit up by a beam of torchlight, and an uncle bearing the torch began to rattle his knuckles against a window. “Shall I tell your parents what you’re doing?” he barked. We were tempted to say yes. My friend had come out about being gay to his parents two weeks before the uncle “caught” us.
They can also be found in every dargah and gurdwara, waiting to jab you in the back when you have that inevitable wardrobe malfunction – when your dupatta slips a micro-inch back as you raise your face in enjoyment of the music, thereby tickling everyone’s libido with the sight of a tantalising tendril of your hair.
A favourite refrain of theirs is, “When we were your age, all this technology was not there.” It’s almost as if gadgets are singularly responsible for the decadence of the world, and you are singularly responsible for the invention of anything that ever depended on electricity. Forget the fact that more wars were fought before people had iPads with which to keep themselves occupied. This world is a terrible one, and they are glad to have lived in a simpler time. ‘Email’ might as well be a swearword. Once, I worked with a theatre director who made me bring my laptop to his house so that he could transfer my script to his pen drive, because he was too technologically challenged to download it from email. I would later discover that both his daughters and their husbands were at his place at the time. He was trying to teach me the value of choosing to drive four kilometres in the summer over clicking buttons from my air-conditioned room.
Having keenly followed these uncle-aunties, and indulged them in conversation, I have finally solved the mystery of where they come from. Inevitably, they speak about how happy their arranged-married children are, and how they did the right thing in getting them married off before they grew old enough – or smart enough – to object.
That is when you realise that the uncle-aunty generator is the uncle-aunty prototype. It’s a vicious cycle, and the world has no hope of release.

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.
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