Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Vindication of Limited Freedom of Speech

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 19th September 2009)

There are some people who want the country to consider an amendment to the human rights laws. One must be entitled to free speech with a stranger/acquaintance as long as it is restricted to the weather, clothes and jewellery. The professionals who are vigorously nodding as they read this are – I don’t really need my crystal ball for this – doctors, lawyers, singers and people who work in the media.

The thing about working in a news medium is, people believe interlocution with a creature that is partially responsible for what they watch, read and hear, must compulsorily involve the information the said creature has spent about ten hours processing in the office.

“So, who is going to win the elections? Congress or BJP?”

“Is Osama alive?”

“When is the recession going to end?”

Whatever answer you come up with, the weather expert talking to you has the opposite opinion, and will spend another half-hour making you reiterate all the analysis you’ve just typed out in office. And those who don’t consider us Oracles, believe in the concept of encyclomedia.

“What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Indo-US nuclear deal?” (Maybe you should speak to Manmohan Singh and Prakash Karat.)

“What exactly is the subprime crisis?” (Look up ‘Bird and Fortune’ on Youtube.)

And then there are those who believe they hold the key to broadening the perspective of news media.

“You know, you people are all doing the same story again and again. You should do something about how corporation people have dug up the road outside my house and are not filling it in.”

“Nowadays, you get these sunshades for cars which you can put across the windscreen…”And then there are those lovely little innocent questions that insiders would roll their eyes at, but which might strike the layman as intelligent.

“Do you people learn the anchor reads by heart, or is it written on the camera?”

“What about reporters? Is someone telling them in their ears what they have to say?”

“How do you know when to start talking and when to stop?”

And of course, there is that dreaded ‘compliment’ – “Wow! There is SUCH a huge difference between how you look on television and how you look in person! I mean that in a good way!”

When I worked in radio, several curious strangers have asked me, “say something like you say it on radio?” A friend of mine who did a spot of playback singing has become a recluse because she couldn’t go to a get-together without someone asking her for a demonstration.

And then there are doctors. With every generation of my family sprouting a few of those, I’ve seen just what they undergo. At funerals, people want to know what could have caused the person’s death and how he or she could have been saved, and whether they themselves run the same risk. At weddings, people want to know what the possible causes of heartburn could be. There is always someone around who sticks out one’s forehead or neck, and wants to be checked for fever, or someone who sniffs and asks if the noise is indicative of swine flu.

My lawyer grandmother spent most of her youth being questioned about divorce proceedings, and turned rather cynical. But that world view came in handy when someone asked her opinion on a good time to make his will.

“Ask that man,” my grandmother claims to have said, pointing at a smiling gentleman, “he is an astrologer.”

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Shakespeare Gets it Wrong Now and Then

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 5th September, 2009)

“I don’t even know these people!!! I mean, what the hell? Roschelle?!” my friend’s face was first puzzled, then angry, then quietly appreciative of his sense of poetry, while all of us wondered whether he was doing the British ‘apples and pears’-equal-to-‘stairs’, ‘Britney Spears’-equal-to-‘beer’ thing. Or the American, "no way, Jose!" thing. You’ve got to admit, ‘what the hell, Roschelle!’ has a ring to it.

“What…is a Roschelle?” he asked, looking at a piece of fancy stationery.

“Oh! Oh! Roschelle!” I came to life, “that’s…”

“A brand of Swiss chocolate?” another friend offered, “are they opening a store here?”

“No, Roschelle’s not an ‘it’!” I said, “it’s a she…uh…”

“Uh…Roschelle is not a ‘she’. It’s a groom!” the friend who was trying to figure out which wedding he was invited to, said.

“WHAT?!” and all of us pored over the invite. After intense scrutiny, and a search of social networking sites, we decided a man named Roschelle was unlikely to have friends, and had decided to send out invitations by the (phone) book.

It might be a source of comfort to him, if he happens to read this, whoever he is, that he is not alone in his misery.

Maybe months of being sick, clothes one cannot fit into, kicks in the gut, nightmares of being fat for life and scary scenes of childbirth from sitcoms and pulp movies leave women bitter enough to avenge their newborns by naming them. Or maybe it’s that the fathers get so nervous they can’t quite think and come up with the first word or object they can think of. Or the grandparents are upset they couldn’t name their own children, and the deprivation has had a lasting psychological impact. But whatever it is, some children are doomed from the start.

I logged on to a networking site after a four-month hiatus, and discovered three of my friends had had babies, and a couple of them had status messages about going nuts trying to pick a name.

“Oh, that’s a scary thing,” a friend of mine said, “I know someone called Rhythm.”“Rhythm? Like Hridim or something, or like ‘rhymth and blues’?”

“Oh, his sister is called Blues!” my friend said. Turns out their parents tried really hard at being musicians, and decided they would produce R&B one way or the other.

It was a story I refused to believe till I saw a Page 3 (or whatever the local alternative is) picture of Rhythm with his girlfriend (Jazz?)

Then, of course, there is the Ganesh-Dinesh-Mahesh syndrome. As a child, I knew a couple of sisters called Shruthi and Dhvani. When their mother discovered a third was on the way, guess what name the child was endowed with…yes, full points for Smrithi. It could have turned out to be a Princess September story, but the mother chose to act wisely. Instinct tells me she’d have started naming further offspring, if they had chosen to spring, after the ragams.

And then, there was this Sanskritisation syndrome. I have a feeling it all began with someone flipping open a religious text after a lot of hair-tearing and nail-chewing, in the hope God would solve the dilemma. Now, kindergartens are crawling with Dhrishtis, Shrishtis, Saattviks, and possibly Rajases and even Tamases (for the kids that turn out rather more base than their procreators hoped).

But one must give credit to the Egyptians. In defiance of the millions of Arabic names waiting to be chosen, they’ve populated the country with just three names – Khaled, Omar and Sharif. And after four years of my bringing up the topic everyday, my friend Khaled chose to name his first-born Hassan. Apparently, they’re facing quite a challenge with his passport.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A Life of Serendipity with Interference from a Walking Sponge

It could be that I have been watching too many sitcoms for my own good.

Perhaps it's that at some level, I am grateful to be here. Thankful for my life, and happy about everything I have experienced, achieved, been and been a part of.

But watching the final episode of the fourth season of How I Met Your Mother, I've been doing a lot of thinking about chances, the choices you have at every step and the ones you make, that lead to more of those chances and choices.

Ten years ago, I wouldn't have dreamed this would be the life I would live, and perhaps not even five years ago. And yet, the biggest things in my life, the ones I treasure most, have happened not by design but by serendipity - theatre, work, and fulfilment.

I never imagined I would start working young - I assumed I would do a Ph.D. and then look for work. A phone call to a schoolteacher, a few months after I had seen her name under an article in The Hindu, ended up giving me my first job. I'd called to say hi and she was scouting for someone who could speak good English. And it was because the MGR-Janaki college was near my workplace that I agreed to take part in a quiz someone had backed out of - a quiz that would change my life.

So there I was, answering away to all these bizarre questions - our team comprised one woman who read the newspapers, one woman who could map the history of the world and me...the woman who knew random bizarre things the others didn't and who would blink if someone asked her which party Narendra Modi was from (all that has changed now, thankfully) - and impressing the quizmasters, who happened to be of my ilk. And when I had to call someone to conduct a quiz in my college, I turned to these two. And I met a friend of theirs whom I studied with in school, through whom I met another of my old schoolmates.

Chapter Two: The old schoolmate worked with a theatre group, which I got involved in, and met someone from radio, who was looking for a field reporter.

Chapter Three: My radio experience found me a job in radio in London and a higher-paying job in radio back at home when I returned (though the interview was fixed by one of my best friends, also known as The Walking Sponge). The building where the job was, turned out to be more significant than the job.

Chapter Four: It was a time when I was all ready to do my Ph.D. in London. My university had given me admission and I was waiting for a grant (which, eventually, went to China). Blissfully unaware of this, I was sitting at work one day, torn between gossiping with my best friend in office and accompanying the most petulant RJ in office to pick up a couple of CDs from his car. I spent about five minutes refusing to go with him, till he practically carried me to the lift. Downstairs, we bumped into a well-known television journalist, who was waiting for the lift. I happened to mention the encounter to The Walking Sponge, who asked another friend what the journalist was doing there, and it turned out a new channel was being launched. A couple of months later, I was in Delhi and working for the channel.

The past couple of years have been among the happiest in my life, and the ride from last summer to here makes me wonder how easily it could all have never happened - a phone call made a couple of months later, a quiz turned down, a missed audition, a successful argument, my university wanting research on India instead of China...any of these could have changed my life. I could be an English teacher or a radio presenter or a media scholar and never got my face on television. I could still be in Madras, possibly married to some twisted software dude, or London sitting with my Egyptian friend at Costa, and missed out on everything that's great about the life I live today. And yes, my Hindi would still be limited to, "billi ek paltoo janwar hai". And I would never have added a fifth to the number of languages I can write in (and I know that will make at least one reader wince!)

Maybe everything in our lives, including missed scholarships and unsuccessful job applications, happens for a reason. Maybe every little disappointment leads to something that is worth a lot more. Perhaps there is a pattern in the universe, in our lives, or perhaps we make it as we go along. At times, I suppose it is comforting to think of the universe as a machine, with grinding parts that just happen, something we can't alter by design because everything is pre-destined anyway. But that's not how I like to think of it. Maybe we pull these little threads of coincidence into a pattern by choosing how we twist the needles. And everytime you pause and look at just how beautiful the design's turning out to be, you thank the heavens those particular colours and textures of thread happened to be available.

Midnight to Middle Age

I'm not quite a Doris Lessing fan, but she does write some exquisite passages. Here's something from her series Children of Violence I find particularly appealing:

"Money chimed through their talk like a regulator of a machine. For all the heavy insurances, the mortgages, hire-purchase, the servants were made possible because of their ingenuity with money...They were all perpetually short of ready money, because of their god, a secure and comfortable middle age. They sighed out, 'when we retire...' as if they were saying, 'When the prison gates are opened...' "

Perhaps it's a colonial hangover, but the British middle class, the civil servants, the cream of the colonials and the bourgeouis of the isle, seem to left their aspirations behind here. And we, the independent Indians, have lapped up those aspirations, and dotted our lives with milestones that will lead to a comfortable middle age and a secure retired life. Education, cars, land, houses, things we will work our entire life to finally be free of debt in our fifties. By which time, we will want to secure the lives of our children, and thanks to inflation, they will work for a comfortable middle age too!
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