Saturday, March 21, 2009

Of Reflections and Shadow Play

If someone had told me on my first trip to Delhi in May 2007, for a conference on music, that I would spend more than a month there, I would have laughed. Then again, there’s a lot I’d’ve laughed at back then that I find myself forced to admit is true, now. The hideous auto rickshaws startled the daylights out of me. The greenery was a pleasant surprise. All said and done, though, two days later, I was glad I was at the smelly airport, ready to get back to Madras. A chance encounter in a lift, a successful job interview and another flight later, I was back in the smelly airport, with two suitcases in hand.

“You’re going to hate it!” an acquaintance of an acquaintance had told me, “the North Indians will drive you mad. They don’t speak English at all…like at all!!!!”

“Oh, come on!” I said.

Although I felt incredibly alone being driven through lamp-less lanes by a communicative taxi driver, who declared, “madam, this is famous Yamuna!” as he pointed to some ugly grass off a bridge, which seemed to have been built for no good reason, I could not bring myself to believe people didn’t speak English largely as a first language in any Indian metro. Come on, my cab guy did. I’d been in a lot of cities and known the aloneness-mingled-with-excitement that accompanies any new move. But the aloneness in Delhi was different. It wasn’t solitude, which has always been a natural inclination – it was loneliness. I had family in the city, and I had friends, but the air somehow seemed to cut me off from everything that was familiar.

I had an epiphany later that night. Nothing can alienate one more than language. For the same reasons London became a second home, Delhi was cut off from me. The room service guy didn’t understand what a toothbrush or a bathrobe was, and I spoke no Hindi. The latter has been a rather unfortunate win accomplished by my Tamilian rebelliousness against being forced to learn Hindi when I would rather have learnt Sanskrit, over my natural proclivity to pick up languages. Perhaps the chauvinism of belonging to a culture whose literature dates back three thousand years at the very least, towards a culture whose oldest literature is what, three hundred years old? Other factors were my distaste for Bollywood and a rather immature tit-for-tat attitude towards the other Indians I’d met in London, whose insistence on communicating in Hindi even when non-Indians (and I) were in the group, had simply got to me.

Being more practical than I let on, though, I asked a friend, “how do you say ‘give me this’, politely? As in, not dedo. As in ‘could you please give me this’?”

“People will laugh at you,” he said, “anyway, if you insist, de deejiye.”

Having deejiye-d and leejiye-d and keejiye-d my way around for more than a year, with ramifications including being mistaken for a Lucknow-ite by an automan, being declared the God-given daughter of another and having been told by yet another that every rupee from me was worth a lakh, and being given a house to live in by my landlords because my obsequiousness indicated I would be no trouble, I think back to my initial days in the city, when the alien sounds of an alien tongue lent a viscosity to the air around me.

I remember coming back home from London and promising myself I would never leave the city again. I remember the smell of the sea and how the waves seem to carry away the burdens on one’s shoulders. I remember the days of sunshine all year round, the dappled shade of trees in lazy coffeehouses, the vibrant theatre scene, evenings that came with the certainty of a music concert where one could lose oneself in a larger cosmos, the thrill of speaking in three different dialects of Tamil in a single day, the camaraderie at rock concerts where you know you’ll meet five people who swear Pink Floyd changed their lives as much as yours, the auto guys you’ve learnt all the lines to bargain with, the confidence that comes with being able to express everything one wants to say…and I wonder if I will ever have that again. I wonder if I will dance at The Music Academy, I wonder if I will sing at Narada Gana Sabha, I wonder if I will act at The Museum Theatre, I wonder if I will recite poetry at the Alliance Fran├žaise and The British Council, I wonder if I’ll hold a baby turtle in my palm and release it into the sea.

After living through my first winter in Delhi, I counted down the months to my next job change…five more months, makes a total of ten months, and I will be back, I thought. I sent back my winter clothes, began to repack as I had done in London, in bits and pieces of my life I could carry back with me every time I went home. And yet, I found myself buying books, filling up the spaces in my shelves, stocking my kitchen, buying cushions, pouring potpourri into bowls, carving a home out of a house. I find myself exchanging pleasantries with the woman at the convenience store, explaining to the man at Mother Dairy why I haven’t been around for a couple of weeks, teaching the kid downstairs new words. I find myself able to stay away from Madras for as much as three months without feeling the pangs. I find myself hauling gas cylinders up the stairs, cleaning up the rooms and carrying out pigeons that choose to die in my kitchen, and find I have the strength and the stomach for it.

And every day, as I practise my music and my dance, I wonder where all this will end.
Do some of us have wanderlust even after living in the same city for over two decades? Can one move three times in three years after that without longing to go back home? If 21 grams is what we lose when we die, how much do we lose and how much do we gain every time we leave a life behind us and move on? Which of those lives will we come back and pick the threads to? Which threads will not already be tied up when we come back? What does one stay on for, and what does one leave to?

It’s been a year and a half, and I have the answers to some of those questions. Some, I don’t know if I ever will. When two suitcases spill over into five rooms, does enough space come with that to disperse the viscosity of linguistic alienation? When one falls in love with forts rearing their heads over roads, can one let go of the sound of the sea? Will the dry air be able to carry away one’s unshed tears like the waves do? Will listening to Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan play live in Nehru Park make up for the memories of M S Subbulakshmi’s voice? Can visiting Ghalib’s haveli in Chandni Chowk play a parallel to walking on the rocks where Subramaniya Bharathiyaar composed his most beautiful poetry? Will drinking filter coffee thrice a day bring Madras to me from two thousand kilometres everyday? How many homes can one have?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Ninjas of the Vegetable Market

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 14th March 2009)

Living alone makes one evolve time-saving and effort-saving mechanisms that could win one doctoral grants in an ideal world. One learns to use a combination of stilettos and amateur ballet to change light bulbs without having to drag a chair to hop on to. One learns to invite male friends (or female friends who don’t use moisturiser on their hands) for coffee at strategic times – usually when a bottle of pickle has to be opened. One learns to calculate at which angle a gas cylinder’s centre of mass is lowest so one can haul it up. One learns to study the winds so one can decide when to spring-clean the house so it stays freshest for longest. One evolves a series of recipes that will keep fresh for a week. But despite these survival instincts that would have warmed Charles Darwin’s heart, and brought a glad tear to his eye, one’s evolution is hampered by one insurmountable task – buying vegetables.

I recently remarked to a married colleague, “I think I might end up getting married just so I don’t have to go shopping for vegetables anymore.”He looked up from his desk with a slow sigh, “that’s my one regret about marriage. My dad warned me. I was a young fool.” Burdened by the wisdom of his four months in connubial shackles, he shook his head dolefully.

One cannot entirely relate to this unless one has seen the Clique of Shopping Aunties in action. This lobby, having gone to the vegetable market with religious regularity for several decades, has evolved a women’s self-help cooperative, complete with a secret handshake that consists of gimlet-sharp glances and unerring aim with everything from sapotas to cucumbers. Their modus operandi is this. One sees a Benign Woman with two almost empty baskets next to her. One takes one’s place in the queue behind her cheerfully. A Smiling Woman with a couple more empty baskets and a few bundles of spinach walks up and says, by way of conversation, “excuse?” Looking at one’s own basket laden with three whole cauliflowers, a handful of beans, five potatoes, ten brinjals and enough oranges and apples to fill one’s five-inch-diametered fruit basket, one graciously allows the Smiling Woman precedence in the queue.

And then the Clique’s Siege begins. One realises in an intense moment of absolute horror that the four baskets will be filled to beyond the brim, when one sees vegetables flying from one end of the stall. One observes two women raiding tray after tray with an alacrity that would put assembly-line workers of the nineteenth century to shame. These are the Amazons of the Clique. The sindoor is their battle paint, the dupattas tied around their ample waists, their armour. Their fingers are their swords, and the long plaits they whip around, cutting encroachers-of-their-space across the cheek, their shields. In a frenzy of determination, they fling the constituents of their future dinners in graceful arcs to the Smiling Woman and the Benign Woman. With the more delicate of missiles, one of the Amazons darts to the middle, completing a chain that passes vegetables from hand to hand in a blur of action. Their work done, the Clique catches up for gossip as one waits for the bored salesman to bill the vegetables, carrot after painful carrot.

When I announced my intention to marry for vegetables rather than love, my usually pragmatic mother laughed.“Don’t be stupid!” she said, “men buy all the vegetables your Amazons leave behind.”And sure enough, next time round, I did notice an array of victimised men shuffling their feet, waiting for the rotted vegetables the Amazons reject.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Anurag Kashyap's 'Dev D': Where 'Maar Dala' Sums up the Entire Movie

You know it's disaster when the movie opens with a kid sitting by a know he's going to come back to that same waterfall ten, twenty or thirty years later. Fortunately, though, ridiculousness is believed to be a time-tested cure for disaster, and the movie, pacy as it claims to be slips into that.

And how could you expect anything less when you have a Devdas with a wooden face, an ambiguously Caucasian Chandramukhi with an equally ambiguous accent, a Paro who tries to be a lot of things she's not (which, perhaps, is some kind of inherent symbolism for the movie itself) - sexy, cute, funny, bubbly, steady?

These two kids, separated in the peak-horny stages of pre-puberty retain the hangover for the rest of their lives. The disaster gets funny when eight years of phone sex later, Dev D asks Paro, "do you touch yourself?", which umm...pushes her over the edge. The eighties motif of the heroine's toes curling is brought back in, of course. The ridiculousness wears off as it gets overused, albeit unintentionally. Here's an example.

The dialogue, which is perhaps the most expendable feature of the film (and it has many), goes this way:

Paro: When will you come here?

Dev: Send me a picture.

Paro: You have my picture.

Dev: No...without clothes.

Paro: Chi!!!!

Next scene: Paro uses a digital camera to click herself in the buff, following which she gets the photographs printed at a studio she travels to Delhi for, and then gets it scanned to send to Dev. Dev looks at the pictures and calls her up to tell her he's headed home (no puns intended).

If the story is to be believed, women attend their brothers' weddings in remote areas of Punjab in lingerie. The punishment for a girl who shouts at her father, irrespective of consequences, is to be sent to her ancestral village. Mothers get drunk and cry, but refuse to pick up the phone, when their daughters call and scream for help. Once a woman has been caught on camera performing a sexual act, she will readily enroll herself as one of the service providers of a brothel, despite being virgin.

The dialogue claims to be true-to-life. And original. Here's a sample:

(Ambiguous French-Indian-Spanish accent): You wanth thoo thalk? If you feel pain...then you musth thalk...

The film projects itself as belonging to the genre of Bollywood films that have bridged the gap between art and commercial cinema. So there are these three wannabe-stooges, who glare at the camera every now and then, and dance every then and again, in a cafe my film-partner describes best as "ulaga random". Unless the film were based in Auroville, the motley collection of cafe patrons could only belong in a United Colours of Benetton ad.

The movie thanks Danny Boyle. They left out Guy Ritchie, for the frame-by-frame inspiration they drew from the sequence from 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' where Nick Moran leaves the casino.

The pimp swings between homosexuality and wannabe-ladies-manliness with a frequency that is only rivalled by the reccurrence of the line, "make love to me." That refrain, of course, is the byphrase of each of the main characters at different points of time in the film.

On to the music...well, there was none. There were occasional cacophonies of genres. Except for "Emosanal Athyaachaar" being relatively funny, perhaps thanks to my habitual amusement at distorted accents, the rest seemed to have been thrown one on top of another in a manner that could rival the movie's Sanjay Leela Bansali-manufactured ancestor.

The good thing, though, is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's spirit has been troubled so frequently in so many languages with so many adaptations into so many media, that it would probably have taken this one lying down...which is in keeping with what most of the cast did for most of the film.

Setting a Tune to the Wrong Meter

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 28th February 2009)

Sometimes, you know you have the kind of face that begs to be taken advantage of by autodrivers. I approach autos with all the docility of the proverbial sacrificial goat. Across the country, I have been witness to their eyes lighting up in anticipation of an easy bargain, and have had several out-of-body experiences, watching myself put forth futile arguments as they launched into stories of their starving wives, malnutrition-afflicted children, homes with walls falling apart, and the rising fuel prices. A few years ago, a friend taught me the "look here, I'm a journalist; I know the prices, I know the police" line. I might be the only journalist in history who hasn't been able to carry that off. Fellow-members of the fourth estate have compared my predicament to that of a rapper who can't say "brotha". Sometimes, the lack of a particular quality in oneself makes one admire the same quality in others. There are four stalwarts in the field of bargaining with autos, whom I think deserve mention in these troubled times, when despite the fuel price cuts, I find myself unable to make a ten kilometre journey for less than a hundred and twenty rupees.

One is a friend of mine with a penchant for walking on medians and manipulating the world with a puppy face. Perhaps it is a combination of these qualities that have penetrated the defences of autodrivers. But she made history by travelling six kilometres for thirty rupees. The story goes like this – once upon a time, as Velachery basked under the gloaming of a summer's evening, an isolated auto came into contact with this four-foot-eleven-inch matador. Sighting what he misperceived as easy prey, the autodriver demanded a hundred rupees. The matador laughed, told him she had been born and raised in Chennai, a statement she managed to carry off despite her Anglicised accent and assortment of jewellery from various parts of the world. The autodriver was then subjected to a thirty-second bulletin, in the course of which she managed to convey she was from the press, had relatives in the crime branch and the metre rates had recently been revised. Half an hour later, she joined us at a coffee shop, gloating over her hitherto unparalleled feat.

The second of these stalwarts was born and raised in the Gulf, and came with the part-American, part-Malayali twang characteristic of a student of the Indian schools in the Gulf. And yet, he taught me what I consider an invaluable technique for bargaining when there is no short supply of autos. Standing outside a mall, he accosted an auto and said, "West Mambalam. Forty rupees." It was a seven-kilometre distance, and I laughed. The autodriver made the pleading face that would precede an account of his impoverishment, and the stalwart coolly said, "next!" Five dazed autos passed by, till finally, he said, "go, go. The next autodriver's in the line." The introduction of colleague rivalry into the argument had its effect ,and waving at me, the stalwart was on his way to his destination (which, much to my surprise, he went on to reach safely).

The third stalwart was famous for his neutral accent. He spoke English, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil without a flicker of a change in cadence. His grip on each of the languages, though, was an impressive cross-section of enlightenment. His technique was simple. In a voice that could rival the pathos of the most appealing train-singer, he would say, "saar, student, saar. Kaasu illey." He usually paid half what I did to travel a couple of kilometres more than I did.

But the Most Valuable Bargainer award must go to a friend of mine from Rajasthan who doesn't speak a word of Tamil. He would bark out the location, hold up three fingers (this rate never varied, irrespective of distance) and keep laughing till the autodriver did all the bargaining himself and agreed to thirty rupees.

'Amma, the Guy I Want to Marry...Uh...Has A...'

(Published in Zeitgesit, The New Indian Express, dated 14 February, 2009)

While media, activists and citizens of the world have gone up in arms against the Sri Ram Sene threat to marry off couples found cosying up in public, I know at least one woman who is euphoric at the prospect. She has been trying for three years, unsuccessfully, to break the news that she has been dating someone from another state and religion to her parents. She has got as far as, "amma, there's…uh…you know that John-guy, this friend of mine…uh…he bought a dog. It's really cute." Enough to elicit a puzzled half-smile and a bewildered nod, but those can't usually be interpreted as parental approval to tying the knot. Her mother thinks of John as a sort of demented dog-collector, but that hasn't helped the case much.

"So all we have to do is hold hands?" she said, excitedly, showing me an article in the papers.

"That seems to be the lower limit," I said, "you can always tell your parents he was helping you cross over the gutter."


The two of them plan to go to the beach, a couple of prominent parks, and hang out somewhere near a pub or movie, far enough from the unwelcome protection of bouncers, on Valentine's Day. A few tears and media publicity should do the trick. A messy annulment or divorce in the public eye would ruin the girl's future, and John would be the knight in shining armour who stood by the bride forcibly thrust on him.

The outcome of their love story remains to be seen, but the moral policing could turn out to be a reprieve for quite a few couples. Take for instance, the ones where a partner is afraid of the 'commitment', but plans to make it at some point in future. I know of one man who is practically married, whose girlfriend's parents have become old buddies of his own, and whose girlfriend's only cause for insecurity is the fear she may hit menopause before he can bear to lose his bachelor tag, and therefore be deprived of motherhood. Apparently, the main factor holding him back is a boast that dates back to his college days that he doesn't believe in the institution of marriage. Despite having been mono-non-gamous for about a decade now, he believes it will be a loss of face if he were to lay his sword down and bow at the altar of the hated institution. Being forcibly married off would solve both their problems quite neatly. He has always claimed to be more against the institution of divorce than marriage (logic has never been a major strength of his).

A family friend who has been going pale as wedding budgets rise year after year, and recession hit even as his daughter has begun a Ph.D. which she isn't likely to finish within four years, has finally found reason to smile. "Eight to nine lakhs saved!" he said, dramatically, stopping over for coffee one day. "All you need to do is fix a boy before Valentine's Day!"

I don't quite know how well the weeklong hunt for a suitable groom to spring upon his daughter has gone, but the unexpected political resolution, which could go about ten percent of the way to building his dream house, seems to have given him a zeal reminiscent of Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the middle ages. Those who have read the fine print might have come across the clause that moral police might get into a toss-up between a wedding and a rakhi-tying ceremony. While this could come as a bit of a bummer to some couples, it's a rather effective way of getting rid of sentimental stalkers.

There's a Market for Everything

(Published in Zeitgesit, The New Indian Express, dated 31st January, 2009)

"It's a fifty lakh deal, yaar, I can't sign it just like that. I need to see proper papers for half-crore deals! You guys send me a proposal, and I'll see what I can do about it."

Everyone on the bus had turned to look at the speaker. All of us had booked the cheapest flight from Delhi to Chennai, and hearing words like 'lakh' and 'crore' during recession under those circumstances, has that effect on one. Especially when the words are barked out by someone who is travelling on an airline that does not have Business Class, and where you have to pay for in-flight sustenance. The speaker did not have a Blackberry either. The situation brought to mind something a professor of mine had said, while assuring us he loved receiving calls during meetings. "It makes me feel important," he announced, "I'll probably say 'hey, Kim, yeah, I was speaking to Fidel this morning…yeah, it's a bit of a crisis, but Georgie likes sushi, so you really can't expect too much.'"

To his credit, the-signer-of-half-crore deals grew a couple of inches under our collective gaze and then smiled and nodded, much as Pete Sampras might if one ran into him on the subway. I call them the Compulsive Life-Marketers. You find them in lifts, in restaurants, in buses and in flights. Some of them are so obliging as to let you into their lives by sharing the music they have on their laptops. Others talk to their bosses, acquaintances, colleagues, lovers, following the same strategy as television commercials. Show as much as you can as best as you can in thirty seconds or less. Sometimes, it spills over into the realm of trailers, where one finds scenes one might not find in the movie the trailer trails.

The most frightening species of the Compulsive Life-Marketers are the Lift-Dwelling-Screamers. One wonders at times whether the only reason they work in high-rise buildings is to take the lift an average of twenty times a day and give their journeymates a peek into the non-mundanities of their lives. There you are in a three-foot-by-four-foot space with someone shouting with a passion that would put politicians at rallies to shame, about everything from the tailor not having clothes ready on time to the intricacies of their plans for the evening.

Another category that makes one distinctly uncomfortable is the Wine-Drinking-Lone-Dining-Mobile-Wielding-Maverick. You find these at restaurants, usually occupying the table right in the centre, so as to avoid any allegation of partiality. An hour after calling up all those pieces of their life that could prove most useful, they pay their bills and then move to the bars, where they go on to chat up the few who have been too drunk to hear or remember the aforementioned pieces of their lives.

Then there are the Security-Check-Victimisers. You're waiting to board your flight, dreary from lack of sleep and anticipation of the ubiquitous howling-child-in-the-flight. And in comes an alien-or-familiar-language-speaking interceptor with all the attributes of badly made coffee. They wake you up, but make you reasonably benign to the prospect of a howling-child-in-the-flight, knowing it can't get worse. At least, you don't usually understand what the howling child is trying to communicate and thank God for small mercies.

But it would be unfair not to acknowledge the purposes they have served. The Lift-Dwelling-Screamers remind you of how peaceful and quiet the noisiest office is. The Wine-Drinking-Lone-Dining-Mobile-Wielding-Mavericks show you the advantages of alcohol-induced-oblivion.

However, the case where a Compulsive-Life-Marketer achieved the ideal of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number was when a friend and I were trying to get tickets to Chandramukhi."I don't care if you got the tickets! I don't understand Tamil!" a woman was screaming to a sheepish man, two feet away from us. A few minutes later, the transaction was complete. We have reason to believe we saved their relationship.
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