Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why is India Afraid of Dr. Binayak Sen?

(Published in, on 29th December 2010, retrieved from

(Picture Courtesy:, image subject to copyright and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

A child molester is sentenced to a year and a half in jail, twenty years after his victim killed herself, and gets out on bail within four months.

A convicted terrorist is being fed biriyani while the hangman finishes up his backlog.

A man who is responsible for the continuing suffering of millions of victims, twenty-six years after a gas tragedy, leads a cosy life in the United States of America.

Two men who cost the government lakhs of crores are being raided by the CBI after ample notice that would have allowed them to get rid of incriminating evidence.

And a human rights activist is sentenced to life imprisonment – the maximum penalty for most rapists and murderers.

A man who has been hailed across the world and in his own nation for his stellar work in the rural healthcare field, a man who has clearly stated that he doesn’t condone Naxalites or approve of their violent methods, a man who was jailed for more than a year without trial, has been convicted, on the basis of an unsigned letter, of making war against the government.

So, what makes Dr. Binayak Sen an enemy of the nation? The fact that one of his patients was a Maoist ideologue? Or the efforts of his fact-finding team in exposing the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum?

Each one of Dr. Sen’s thirty-three visits to Narayan Sanyal in Raipur Jail was carried out with prior police permission. The postcard penned by Sanyal, that was used as evidence to arrest Dr. Sen in May 2007, was signed and sealed by the jail authorities.

But where were the lawyer and impartial witness when the state authorities were rifling through Binayak Sen’s computer?

As one of India’s most high-profile criminal lawyers, Ram Jethmalani, ‘embarrasses’ his party by offering to represent Dr. Sen (incidentally, for the second time, after securing his bail in 2009), and the global chorus protesting against the sentence gets louder, the Indian government is beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to its Eastern neighbour.

Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was in prison, unable to receive news of his winning the Nobel Prize this year. Startlingly reminiscent of Dr. Sen’s Jonathan Mann Award in 2008, eh?

Why is India so scared of people who talk? Take the sedition charge against Arundhati Roy. Frankly, there isn’t much she says that I agree with, mostly because her speeches are poorly-researched, vituperative, ambiguous and, sometimes, funny. But that doesn’t mean I believe she ought to be arrested and tried, simply for mouthing off the government.

What makes an Indian who questions the running of the country less of an Indian citizen than the Prime Minister? Chances are that the ‘activist’ – oh yes, the word is always within quotes – in question has been a citizen of this country far longer than the Chairperson of the UPA coalition.

But in India, there seems to be a rule that one cannot speak against any action of the government unless one is a part of the state machinery. And, it seems, a state agent can get away with anything, including the molestation of a child.

How far are we from turning into China or Iran or Sri Lanka, where most political prisoners are journalists and activists, held for criticising the government? How different are we from the Thought Police of George Orwell’s 1984?

The historical rebellions that took place in this country are considered landmarks in nation building, and their perpetrators eulogised as heroes. Has anyone read of the Revolt of 1857, or the Dandi Salt March, or the Indian National Army, or the Quit India movement, in unflattering terms? Would anyone condemn Mangal Pandey or the Rani of Jhansi or Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Subhash Chandra Bose as an enemy of the state?

Does the fact that India is now run by Indians make it illegal to speak out against the government? Worse, does daring to defy the government mean one could be sentenced to a life-term in jail, without possibility of bail?

If so, our nation is in a perpetual state of Emergency. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I Finally Get to Wear my Roberto Cavalli: Niira Radia

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 26 December 2010, as 'Finally, a Chance to Wear my Black')

She stirred a hornet's nest in the Indian political circle, and deserves to be the Express Woman of the Year. Accepting our award, Niira Radia clears the air on several misguided perceptions that so many have about her.

After everything I’ve been through, it’s only fair that I be given the Woman of the Year award. It means that much more to me coming from The New Indian Express because (a) they don’t depend on me for their salaries (b) I don’t exchange “miaow”s on the phone with anyone from here.

I do think they could give me more credit, of course, for representing three business empires that have interests in telecom. But then again, maybe I’m a little self-obsessed. There are three ‘I’s in Niira Radia, you know!

More than the award, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity to clear the air over several misguided perceptions of me that my words may have caused. Uh, wait, that didn’t come out...anyway. Come on, babu, everyone deserves a chance to defend oneself in a country that’s supposedly run by a man who wants to be the wife of a Roman emperor who was foolish enough to get killed by his best friend! So, here are my defences:

I am not happy when boys get into accidents: Yes, and I don’t need my ‘darling’ to chide me for it! When I said ‘very good’ about the son of a client’s brother getting into a car accident, I followed it up a “baar baar, they are only after us!” Didn’t the schoolgirlish note in my voice carry all the innocence of a petulant child? I’m not nasty, I’m just dealing with a maturity challenge!

I was the one stringing along the journalists: Nahin, so absurd, all these people have been getting column space to claim they were stringing me along. Now, do I need to explain how important it is for journalists who are pally with politicians to depend on me to get to my clients? I could simply withhold the interviews and give them to journalists who can’t influence political decisions, you know! Jeez, a certain journalist was right, there’s a lot of misogyny here!

You can never say Tata to uprightness: Oh come on, you know I meant ‘goodbye’. Well, building hospitals is charity work, ya. My clients never bribe anyone. That’s why the Leader’s nephew had to go. And that Jaguar that was going to be delivered to me on Saturday was not a gift! I never really got to sink my claws into it.

My accent is NOT fake! Oh, look me up on Wikipedia. No, wait, I took down that page. But whatever, I’ve lived in Londn lawng enaaahf faw me to tawk like thihs! And than I moowed to Dellee, and opho, I travell constuntly to Bombey, so obviously, yaar, I will say ‘judgemunt’ in one conversation, and ‘houme’ and ‘agou’ and ‘ghawsh’ in another. Deah me, Ratty just brings out the Londn in me, especially when he’s stuck at an airport, and not in his own plane!

I’m NOT racist...or regionalist: Wait a minute, what does ‘parochial’ mean? Look, I do admit dark people can blush, all right? And so what if I say someone is a very ‘Indian English’ speaking gentleman? I don’t stand judgemunt on anyone, ya...I mysulf am a very ‘Indian English’ speaking laydie. Well, except with Ratty, but he doesn’t quite understahnd othuh-wise, you knouw. And it’s not true that I believe an NGO has to be run by a sardar or an alumnus of JNU to stick to its business. Background is important. Wait, no, background is important. Background is important. Huh? No, this was an email forward. Sorry.

In India toh, everyone has a title, not a name: You might think this is a random rant, but do you know how difficult it is for a lobbyist to have to deal with it? First there are ‘The Brothers’. And then there are all these South Indians with unpronounceable names. What’s with the Z-H, anyway? And then there’s The Artist Currently Known as The Leader – yeah, apparently, that’s what his title means in Tamil – complete with his unpronounceable symbol, udaya whatever. He and his rising sons and his mistress’ daughter! And all the men who speak English-English get so bored talking to me, ya! All they say is ‘hmm’...well, ‘miaow’ too.

Khair, I’m grateful to this paper because I finally get to wear my one Roberto Cavalli black gown to the award ceremony. You know, I got so desperate I held a funeral when my phone went dead. But no one came home, so the gown was totully wastud.

(As imagined by Nandini Krishnan)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

All's Never Well That Ends Up in a Well

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 25th December, 2010)

I’m one of those people who’s never lived in a flat; and every house I’ve lived in has had a well.

The residue at the bottom of most of these, one would expect, includes mud off the Ganesha statues we’ve thrown in at Vinayaka Chaturthi, turmeric from the various threads the women of the house have worn to pray for the longevity of their current and future husbands, and fabric from the poonals the men of the house have discarded at Avani Avittam.

You would think the well was anointed thoroughly enough to ward off evil spirits.

Which is why a gurgling moan that crept through the air as I was drinking a glass of water from the bubble in the verandah, on the stroke of midnight, made me jump out of my skin and land up in my parents’ room.

“You must have imagined something,” my mother said, crossly, “writers always live in their imagination.”

“I don’t write horror!”

“Say Narayana, Narayana and go to sleep.”

“That would have done nicely twenty years ago.”

My brother came in, frowning. “Is someone moaning from near the well?”

I couldn’t help feeling immensely relieved that my brother had heard it. My parents tended to trust his lack of an imagination more than mine.

Suddenly, it struck me. “Oh, my God, has someone fallen into the well?”

That got my family scrambling to the verandah.

“Do you think it’s the tenant?” my brother asked, “I didn’t see him leave.”

“He did swear he’d never leave the premises whenever we asked him to vacate.”

“Why is everything you say in bad taste?” my grandmother had entered the verandah, reasonably convinced it wasn’t a banshee.

Paatti is the only one who’s been threatening to jump into the well for as long as I can remember,” my brother said.

“Look, I’m ready to jump in even now,” my grandmother offered.

“Good luck making it over the wall with your arthritis,” my brother said, as he and my father set off to investigate.

“Be careful you both don’t fall in,” my mother called out, causing my father to turn back to retort, trip over a weed and land up at the edge of the well.

“See, I told you,” she added, with a note of satisfaction.

“Is anyone there?” my brother called out.

“I’ll ask the watchman to come. Watchman!” my mother called, moving towards the gate

Two watchmen from the neighbouring houses peered in.

Amma, anna got drunk and said he was going to have a bath.”

“Our ghost is singing Kilimanjaro,” my brother called.

Amma, that’s his favourite song,” one of his comrades said, fondly.

“Oh, God! I think he’s fallen into the well! Quickly, go get him!”

The two watchmen looked at each other, until one said, “go, thambi.”

“No, anna, you’re stronger. I can’t pull him up.”

“But you’re lighter. The rope will break if I go.”

They studied each other again, and then chorused, “let’s get some automen.”

Ten minutes later, an autodriver slipped down the well on our garden hose, while another lowered it, and four others watched, along with the two watchmen and the five of us. After two minutes of silence, the rescuer emerged, dangling on the hose, with the watchman wrapped around his shoulders. If the latter hadn’t been screaming, “Kilimanjaaro!”, we might just have heard a conch blow, followed by “Mahaaaaa...bhaaaaarat!”

Six hours later, the watchman rang the bell.

Amma,” he said sulkily, “two hundred rupees.”

“For what?”

“Some fool attacked me and stole my slippers last night. I saw one floating in the well just now.”

God Forbid That India Laughs at Sex and Religion...Oops!

(Published in on 23 December, 2010, as 'Why Can't We Indians Laugh at Ourselves, retrieved from

There are two things we as a country cannot seem to take lightly – sex and religion. I’m not talking about erotic sculptures in temples. We consider those a tourist attraction for now. But if someone were to show them in films, chances are that several groups would go up in arms, over the breach of different ideals.

Come Friday, Kamal Haasan’s romantic comedy Manmadhan Ambu will release in theatres – sans the song Kannodu Kannai Kalandhal. The reason? The lyrics are offensive to the religious sentiments of Hindus.

This isn’t the first time the actor has had to fight the saffron brigade. His movie Dasaavathaaram ran into controversy over the depiction of Shaivaites desecrating a Vaishnavite temple. Hey Ram fell foul of a legion of Gandhi’s fans, despite the endorsement of his descendant Tushar Gandhi.

But religious sentiment seems to get hurt far more easily in our nation than anything else. Remember the controversy over the line “Paanv ke neeche jannat hogi” from the song Chaiyya Chaiyya in Dil Se? Well, clearly we don’t like people dancing over the Heavens, whether we believe in them or not.

In fact, the one thing that seems to unite the various religions of our ‘secular’ nation is sex. Television channels simply couldn’t get enough of the sight of an array of religious and spiritual leaders, subscribing to various powers, united in their condemnation of the amendment to Article 377 a year and a half ago.

The country came together in protesting against Fire and the lesser-known Girlfriend (we don’t believe women can find each other attractive) and against Kama Sutra (uh, we don’t believe people should have sex?)

It’s a country of a billion people, and stands to beat the world with at least one statistic. Come on, storks aren’t flying in all those babies!

But, we have a Censor Board that monitors morality more closely than a mediaeval monk, and whatever slips past it has to pass through a series of filters held out by the enforcers of our faiths.

I wonder which the last film that made it to the screen without any cuts was. Probably an animated, educational series funded by the government.

No wonder movie piracy is so rampant in India. Try watching Gangs of New York on the big screen. You wouldn’t figure out why the gangs were attacking each other unless you knew the story already – the most crucial dialogue of the movie takes place in a brothel, and yes, in the middle of another exchange.

The climactic scene of The Last King of Scotland happens during a...well, climactic scene too.

Why is our country so puritan and sensitive? As Rex Harrison’s character might say if My Fair Lady were to be remade in India, why can’t we Indians teach our children how to laugh at themselves?

If we could allow everyone a say, and take it lightly, we might spend less time demolishing monuments of religious significance. Our politicians would spend less time courting arrest, and our security personnel less time checking bags.

Can you imagine the ramifications if a movie like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian were to be attempted here?

First, the funniest lines would be deleted by the Censor Board, and it would be given a ‘U/A’ rating.

After the audio release, when millions of people had already bought the music, a group would suddenly object to the equivalent of the song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, and then it would be removed from the theatrical release.

All scenes that could possibly offend the beliefs of every religious minority or majority present in the country would be removed, leaving about five minutes of footage.

On the day of the release, a group would picket movie theatres anyway, baying for the blood of the writer, director, producer and actors (which might all be the same, of course).

A list of cases would be filed against the cast and crew of the movie, which they would probably evade by joining the ruling political party in the state where the movie was made.

Furious at the losses they have incurred over the movie, the cinema owners and distributors would demand that the actor or actors reimbursed them.

The media would immediately take up the torch for the right to remain secular.

Then, of course, emails would be forwarded, revealing a deep, dark nexus between the media organisations in the country and the global headquarters of the religious bodies that fund them!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I Plan to Read White Tiger Without Jealousy: Manu Joseph

This is an interview I did for with Manu Joseph, the author of Serious Men and editor of Open Magazine, which has mostly been in the news over the Niira Radia tapes, of late. The book has most recently been in the news for making the Man Asian Literary Prize long-list. To everyone who hasn't read the book, I would highly recommend it. It's the best one I've read in years.

(Interview retrieved from

Let me begin with a trick question – how many award-winning books have you enjoyed?

Several, actually. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, his Love in the Time of Cholera, and Disgrace by J M Coetzee come to mind in the first burst. In recent times, I particularly loved Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Next month, I plan to read The White Tiger carefully, without jealousy or bias as I did soon after it won the Booker. When The White Tiger won the Booker, my own novel was in that terrifying purgatory zone of publishing where your book is on the brink of being rejected or accepted.

And moving on to another trick question - how does it feel to be on the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, alongside a Nobel laureate?

I am vainly glad and strangely not embarrassed at all to share the longlist with the Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. I have not read The Changeling but it is now inevitable that I would read it. I hope I get to meet him but then I would not know what to say to him.

What has winning the Hindu Best Fiction Award done for you, personally, in terms of validation as an author, especially given that the judges write different kinds of literature, in different genres?

To begin with I enjoyed the award evening. I was very happy and I got drunk and I remember there was very good company. I thought some two hundred people liked me very much. But the full impact of the award became apparent only in the coming days. The reputation of The Hindu is astounding. Even though it was the first award of its kind, the fact that it was being given by The Hindu had a special glow.

In Indian writing in English, there’s usually a mantra – write what you know best. So, you have Dalits writing about Dalits, housewives writing about housewives, journalists choosing reporters as their central characters, people in the Civil Services writing about bureaucracy and so on. As someone who hasn’t stuck to that convention, do you think there will be a change in the mindset, so that people won’t be expected to simply write what they know, but imagine what they can, engaging their research?

No. But there is nothing odd or wrong about people choosing to write about what they know very well. There was a time when I used to laugh at autobiographical novels and writers who write only one stunning book in their lives but now I have a more mature view - let people write whatever they want.

There are some authors who write prolifically while retaining their regular jobs, such as Shashi Tharoor. And others, such as V S Naipaul, who pride themselves on not having had any other job, save writing. What is your opinion on balancing a high-pressure job and a passion for writing?

It is hell.

Last time you spoke to us, you said your forthcoming book would be set in Madras in the 1980s, but that the storyline was hazy at the moment. Have the shadows settled into shapes yet? And if so, can we have a sneak peek?

The story has taken a very definite shape and right now I feel very vain and excited. But I don't know why I don't want to discuss it.

You said earlier that Serious Men was in the making for a long time, even before you actually sat down to write it. Has your second book come to you more suddenly, or has it been in your mind for years?

Strangely it has been in my mind as two different fragments for about a decade. I don't know why I seem to always want to gather two stories and make them into one. Maybe it is a psychiatric condition.

The initial aspiration of most authors is to write the kind of book they would want to read. Since you’re one book old now, do you believe you have found the genre that suits you best? Or, do you plan to experiment with other genres – a play, poetry, non-fiction – or other kinds of fiction – children’s writing, a crime mystery, perhaps?

I do not know the genre of Serious Men, honestly and I do enjoy reading its various descriptions - all of which, I agree with. My second novel is a mystery novel, but then the mystery is as much the story as the process of solution. I know that I am incapable of writing a children's novel now but I feel, in about ten years I will be able to write a children's novel. I believe that the key to writing such a novel is to understand that children are people who cannot articulate complex thoughts but they do have very complex thoughts. They even understand darkness and appreciate stories that do not treat them as fools - the reason why Harry Potter was so successful.

What kind of opening would make you promptly return the book to the shelf?

A scene where a woman is cooking and the whole recipe is mentioned and some smells are mentioned and the word 'aroma' (which is a very ugly word) is mentioned and interior decor of the kitchen is described.

Reality Shows: Whom Are We Kidding

(Published in on 17th December, 2010, retrieved from

“I’m very disappointed.”

“There was absolutely no shruthi.”

“Please don’t take this the wrong way. But if you can’t sing, don’t come here. You’re causing trouble for yourself, trouble for us, and trouble for the viewers. Thanks.”

A child gapes at the judges. The television channel dutifully plays mournful music as the camera focuses on the face of the mother of the child, sitting in the audience and crying. Taking a cue from her, the child, microphone still in hand, begins to tremble and sob as the music rises to a melodramatic crescendo.

As channels vie for TRPs, and reality shows feed off voyeuristic inclination, the concepts involved grow more daring and the prizes more enticing.

I remember a time when the prize winner of a televised singing contest would get a memento and a singing contract. But now, the bounty includes houses and cash up to fifty lakh rupees, in addition to a contract.

Children in middle-school are being offered a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to become professionals. Sadly, no one reads the fine print – that out of a hundred contestants, ninety-nine will leave heartbroken. And the winner will lose his or her childhood.

Many of the young contestants may be so scarred by the stinging criticism they are exposed to at an impressionable age, that they might stop pursuing the art they believed they excelled at.

The risk of this has increased with a change in the demeanour of the judges. The traditional formula of good cop, bad cop and lawyer seems to have been replaced by a possibly more exciting one – a harsh bench.

American Idol began with Simon-who-found-everything-absolutely-horrible, Paula-who-would-applaud-everything-and-take-on-Simon, and Randy-the-nice-guy-who-would-say-you-could-have-been-better.

But tune in to a vernacular channel, and you’ll find three judges shaking their heads sorrowfully as the contestant trails off.

Why are we turning our children into miniature adults? Are their parents vicariously sampling the limelight they themselves may have been denied? Or do we believe this is truly what children want – the chance to showcase their talents as early as they can?

In April 2010, the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission warned that it would stop shows that violated children’s rights, such as reality dance shows, after an NGO complained that the dance sequences were ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’.

However, the parents of contestants went up in arms, claiming the allegation was false.

But you could flip through television channels on any afternoon, and find children re-enacting film song sequences in which the male and female lead woo each other. The costumes are usually smaller versions of the skimpy clothes the heroine wears in the original, and the dance steps ape the suggestive ones that get the ten-rupee-seats whistling in theatres.

Outside India, the genre of reality shows featuring children has gone a step beyond talent hunts. UK-based Channel 4 telecast a four-part series Boys and Girls Alone, dubbed ‘Kid Brother’ by the media, in 2009. The show featured ten eight-to-twelve-year-olds of each sex, who would live in two villages, about half a mile apart. The show allows the parents to watch from the sidelines, and decide whether to intervene.

The fortnight saw the children being picked on, fighting over money, planning a coup, hunting animals and living with the opposite sex. Two pre-pubescent children managed to fall in ‘love’, and trick everyone else into believing they were ‘just friends’.

Parents interpreted fights as leading to a resolution, where their offspring learnt to “respect each other’s feelings and listen to those”. But the channel received nearly two hundred complaints from viewers about the nature of the content.

How long before an Indian channel picks up that idea, and preys on the children’s ability to draw viewership, in a country where child rights are barely recognised?

One wonders how many degrees separate these shows from child pornography. Are the viewers of these shows much less perverse? And what can one say of the parents who protest against a ban on shows that violate child rights?

At a time one of the biggest pop sensations on the planet is sixteen-year-old Justin Bieber, it often seems that youth is a component in the measure of one’s success. But how many child stars do we know of who don’t rue the fact that they didn’t live a normal life?

Before putting our children in front of cameras, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether a shot at fame is worth the risk of a lifetime of low self-esteem.

Five Questions for a Fairweather Government

(Published on 10 December, 2010 on as 'Welcome to Chennai, Watch out for the Sewage, retrieved from

From Mirabai and Tansen to Raj Kapoor’s white-sari-clad damsels and Mani Ratnam’s village belles, Indians have always celebrated the monsoon. Crops grow, birds sing, rivers flow. It’s the season of love, of joy, of abandon...but of these inclinations, the only one state governments seem to have imbibed is the last. However, to them, it goes with another word – abandon infrastructure.

It happened in Mumbai in 2005, and never quite stopped. It took Delhi by surprise this year. And now, as Chennai is bursting with NRIs and non-locals in addition to its residents thanks to the Margazhi Music Season, the rains have quite literally poured cold water on festivity.

So, here are five questions for the government:

Why does your drainage system fail every year?

Do you see those things floating around on your roads? Oh, yes, those are our cars and bikes. That’s what they look like when your roads turn into rivers.

Sometimes, your police vans call out innocently, “auto-drivers, why have you parked in the middle of the road? Please move your vehicles.”

Guess what! They can’t, and this is why: Each monsoon that our metros sag with the rains, you State Governments issue speeches, saying you were not prepared for a ‘sudden onslaught’ by Nature, and promise that work will be undertaken immediately, to avoid a repeat of the situation the next year. So, why is this an annual ritual?

If we must wade through water, why must it be sewage?

It’s bad enough that our floor mats have turned into wet blankets, and our gardens are ponds. But, do we really need manure in there?

Your sewage pipes are overflowing, and guess why?

Despite a series of employment schemes named after various members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, no one cleans out the sewage pipes.

Isn’t this rather ironic, especially when you and your allies are in power in all three of the states that are dealing with an overly enthusiastic monsoon?

How does it come to be that even newly-laid roads develop potholes?

Now, come on, did you really spend all that money on building us residents a nice, new road?

We understand that the crores that you must divert to housing and land scams need a pretext. Fine, build roads every now and again. But, if you must compromise on quality, why not compromise a tiny bit on your interests?

How about increasing the fraction of money you spend on the project, from the amount that has been set aside for the project, to half instead of a quarter?

That way, you see, you might be able to afford concrete, which lasts, as opposed to blue-metal-and-tar, which doesn’t.

Has it ever struck you that if you want to build flyovers, it might be a good idea to build some that actually serve a purpose?

Every few weeks in Delhi and Chennai, a resident is bound to see a few trees being hacked down by corporation workers. The reason? You’re making space for yet another flyover that will magically resolve traffic congestion.

And why are we still stuck in two-hour jams in dry weather, and five-hour crawls when it rains? Because your flyovers connect the least-used parts of a locality to each other, leaving a teeny-weeny space for the real traffic to grunt through.

Both cities have a few lush localities with tree-lined avenues. Before you cut those down, remember that people don’t usually use cars to reach the end of the road, so we don’t really need a bridge on all our lanes.

Why do you block traffic for your entourage to pass through every time you cut a red ribbon?

When we see your cut-outs lining the roads, with tacky neon lights dancing around your blown-up grins, we know there’s yet another function in your honour; or, you’re about to declare open yet another charity to serve society.

Your larger-than-life cut-outs usually block our view of the road when we want to make a turn, but we mind that less than being stopped fifteen minutes ahead of your leaving your homes.

Yes, you’re horrified when ambulances are not let through, and people die because you had to make a speech half an hour after they needed to get to a hospital.

But, you know what? It’s your fault. It’s also why you don’t realise that our cities have a traffic problem.

Maybe you should try making it in time to your felicitation in peak-hour traffic. If you got the infrastructure in place, chances are that the commuters who spot you won’t want to shoot you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Talk About Driving Home the Point!

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 11th December, 2010)

“Driving your own SUV is the only thing sadder than driving your own sedan, right?” my brother mused.

“Where? Where?” I peered out of my Alto.

He pointed lazily at a furious man arguing with an auto driver from the driver’s seat of a Scorpio.

“Wow. I’ve seen a poor sod driving his own Camry,” I said, “I ran into his bumper.”

“The poor sod was probably the driver,” my brother suggested.

“No. He got out glaring, and then got back in when I raised my hand to apologise,” I said, “and he was wearing a tie.”

“Well, you never know. Paatti says our maids dress better than we do.”

Hanh, but Mr. Camry didn’t swear at me. Quite the gentleman. Poor thing. My friend Neel says it’s less humiliating not to own a Rolls Royce than to have to drive your own.”

“Hmm,” my brother said, “it’s like buying a beach house, and mowing its lawns and swabbing its floors because you threw all your money into it, and can’t afford domestic help. That said, there is one thing more pathetic than driving your own SUV.”

He pointed. I gasped.

A chauffeur-driven Nano.

“Now that...,” I breathed, as the white-uniformed, moustachioed chauffeur guided his yellow charge between a cycle and a bike, “think he owns it?”

“Nah. There’s this dude at the back. He’s crouching – his embarrassment is understandable, really.”

“Yeah. This is like living in a garage, with servants to clear out the mice everyday.”

My brother frowned, “but, you know, people were saying the Nano could replace the auto. And this is sort of the right colour. You think our chauffeur’s actually an entrepreneur?”

“It’s a ninety-second signal, and both our cars are going to miss it. Why don’t you find out?”

A few seconds later, my brother was engaged in animated conversation with the man at the wheel of the Nano. I could make out flailing arms at the back, and then realised the passenger had reason to fear that my brother was a head-hunter. I did have a relatively expensive hatchback.

“Well,” my brother said, getting back in just as the signal turned green a second time, “he’s the driver. Gets paid 8000 a month, said he’s willing to switch to ours for 8500.”

“Including Deepavali, Pongal and New Year bonus, his salary beats the cost of the car, right?”

“Yeah. And the value of the car depreciates, while his appreciates. So by next year, he’ll probably make twice the cost of the car.” Then my brother frowned, “I see why I find having a driver for a Nano weird. But you chicks pay money to have people pluck hairs off your face and cut your nails, so what’s your grouse?”

Conceding he had a point, I was silent for the rest of our ride. However, the results of my survey on a social networking site put the Nano-owner in the bourgeois class. Apparently, there are at least two chauffeur-driven scooters in India – one in Bangalore, and one in Kolkata.

But my biggest jolt was to come when my mother asked me if I remembered the cycle-rickshaw driver who used to take me to school when I was in kindergarten.

“Of course. What about him?”

“He came home the other day. He’s joined a political party. Told me to contact him if we needed any help of any kind, and then he got into the back of his rickshaw and trundled off.”

“His legs have grown that long?”

“His nephew chauffeurs the rickshaw for him. Apparently, being a politician requires him to maintain a certain status.”

If Atithi Devo Bhava is true, I'm an atheist

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 27th November, 2010)

The one thing I hate more than a party is a wedding. When you’re not being asked to help a sweaty, pear-shaped bride in various stages of undress, you’re carrying heavy plates. Even if you do run around looking so panicky no one will ask you to do anything, you’re expected to eat mass-produced food that makes you feel you’re at a soup kitchen. But the one thing I hate more than being a guest at a wedding, is receiving guests at home.

I’ve invited friends home only once. I was twelve. After running up and down two floors as my classmates asked me to fetch water, return tumblers, bring snacks, and take the plates back while they gossiped, I realised that being the host is the surest way to exclude oneself from all the fun, while doing all the work.

I now arrange to meet people at neutral locations for five reasons. The most obvious is: ‘I’m so sorry, something’s come up. Can we do this next week?’ The others are:

Guests have a way of turning up when you’re about to nap. The age-old Indian belief that to warn someone of your arrival is to introduce a ‘formality’ into your relationship, means people are ‘in the area’ when it’s most convenient for them and most inconvenient for you. In my experience, excited distant relatives land up just as I have dimmed the lights and am slumped on my bed with a book and hot chocolate.

You’re expected to offer food and snacks, and there’s usually none. In a house where four people work, one is in college and another is eighty, most meals are improvised. As the freelance writer who works out of home, I finish the coffee by mid-afternoon. The junk food is usually scattered in opened, sometimes trampled-upon, packets in my brothers’ rooms. Much to my father’s disapproval, I usually find a way around this hassle by politely taking it at face-value when guests grin and say, “oh, no, no, please don’t trouble yourself. We just ate!”

They usually have an agenda. Guests ‘drop in’ when they want to brag about something inane in a subtle manner – a high-profile wedding they managed to invite themselves to, a new word their kid has picked up, a promotion they have picked up or the announcement of a ‘foreign tour’. It would help if they got right to the point. But the conversation usually goes (a) weather-> when it rains, jungle animals are getting hitched -> wedding -> oh, guess what! (b) weather-> season for fruits -> kanna, A for what? Apple! -> An apple a day keeps who away? -> We went to the clinic, he has a cold -> he keeps talking -> he picked up a new word.

When they run out of conversation, they turn to you for entertainment. At first, there’s the satisfied sigh, and you’re expecting them to say, “seri, we’ll leave now. We have to go to that mami's house also”. But then they turn to you. Personal questions can usually be dodged by ricocheting. “So, when are you getting married?” “Oh, soon. By the way, your granddaughter is so cute! She called me akka! Most NRI kids can’t speak Tamil, no?” But sadly, most people of my acquaintance believe me to be the in-house political pundit/ economist/ paparazzo.

You have no control over when they leave. And they probably aren’t sure how long a polite visit has to be. I usually say I have a class to go to, and drive my car around the block. I wait before my gate till I see the guest car leave. My record sojourn has lasted two hours.

Monday, December 13, 2010

India Doesn't Need a Big Brother

(Published in on December 1, 2010, retrieved from )

The US has for long been credited with, or accused of, depending on your perspective, creating some of the world’s ugliest Frankenstein’s monsters – Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and – if the WikiLeaks disclosure is anything to go by – the right to free speech.

And the reason’s probably that their attitude to most other countries is so confused that they’re not quite sure whether they’re enemies or friends.

But what is their relationship with India?

Even as the US scurries to convince Vladimir Putin they “meant he was a dawg!, that’s American slang for dude!”, brief Angela Merkel on the positive connotations of ‘Teflon’, reassure Hamid Karzai that paranoia is good while threatened by the Taliban and figure out whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was flattered or offended by the comparison to Hitler, India’s own Ministry of External Affairs has chosen to go with the docile guarantee of a ‘good relationship with the US’.

Most of us were born when India was a bosom buddy of the erstwhile USSR, and have seen India transition gradually into a capitalist economy. Ironically enough, most of India’s citizens wrinkle their noses at communism, even while our Constitution declares us ‘socialist’.

Long before Manmohan Singh opened up our economy to foreign investment as Finance Minister in 1991, emigrants from India were making a beeline for American, and not Russian, shores.

Now, we believe the US-likes-Pakistan, USSR-likes-India equation is quite as extinct as the USSR.

But between providing military aid to Pakistan and supporting India’s fight against terrorism, where does the Unites States’ allegiance lie?

Over the past fifteen years, we’ve seen more than one Clinton make an official visit, and more than one US President groove to Indian music.

However, the noises the US makes with respect to India as a rising global power seem to change frequency rather often.

First, Barack Obama raised a toast to India and promised to back India’s permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Weeks later, comes the WikiLeaks report that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described India as a “self-appointed front-runner” to the UNSC, and furthermore, asked American envoys to spy on Indian diplomats working with the United Nations.

Analysts believe that this and other communication could be accessed by more than 3 million employees of the US government, including soldiers on the lowest rung of the military. Thanks to their trust of WikiLeaks’ guarantee of anonymity – notwithstanding that intelligence analyst Bradley Manning faces court martial for leaking cables – the world has access to some of the US leadership’s frankest, and most asinine, conversations with their foreign and domestic counterparts.

The question is – what is India going to do with the information?

We’ve been dying to showcase ourselves as a global powerhouse, and we’ve decided that making friends with the biggest actors on the world stage is the quickest way to a starring role.

Our keenness to host international sporting events, attend G20 meets and become members of what is possibly the world’s most expensive and ineffective watchdog are evidence enough.

But if we continue to hem and haw, we might end up settling for a walk-on part, and that too, as comic relief.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, ‘why do we need a pat on the back from everyone else?’

The United Nations’ failures are so numerous, and its utilisation of its considerable funds so dubious, that one is hard put to think of a single crucial purpose it serves. And yet, India is obsessed with a larger role in it.

Some of our biggest mistakes stem from making a domestic issue the subject of an international referendum. That’s true of the creation of Pakistan, and it’s true of the Kashmir dispute.

If allowed to, it just might become true of the fight against terrorism. While Kasab’s death sentence has been hailed as the greatest achievement of our courts, India’s request for the extradition of terrorist David Headley was firmly refused.

Then, there’s the Bhopal gas tragedy and Warren Anderson’s bizarre escape from trial, which begs the question – why is India so afraid of embittering its relationship with the US, when the latter clearly does not care to appease India?

The Nuclear Liability Bill was passed with amendments by a reluctant Parliament, and now we’re worried that countries may hesitate to ratify their nuclear deals with India, despite the Indian government signing the IAEA’s Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC).

At a time when everyone is turning east for economic partnerships, if India seriously wants to be seen as a global power, it is time we stopped biting our nails and put our own interests first. It’s all too easy to forget that it was our hankering after international approval, combined with our hospitality, that turned us into a slave nation centuries ago.

It’s time we assessed whether we need validation from the US and UN, and whether their token gestures should suffice to give them a hand in our political dealings.

Or, we could hope for the US to make WikiLeaks an offer they can’t refuse, and buy the enterprise. Then, our leaders could point to newly revealed, possibly hastily-corrected cables and beam, “see, we were friends after all!”

If Batman and Sunny Deol Were to Have a Lovechild...

(Published as 'A Don Traverses the Streets of Mumbai' in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 12 December, 2010)

Title: Mumbai Fables

Author: Gyan Prakash

Publishers: Harper Collins

Price: Rs. 599

Pages: 348

A queue lines up to buy tickets to watch Aitraaz. A girl looks at the camera, suspicious and scared, but pouting, as if aware that it may be one of those photographers who discovers supermodels at malls or puts exotic women with arresting expressions on the cover of National Geographic. She probably didn’t think she’d end up in a professor’s book.

Mumbai Fables is cleverly titled. You just might pick it up, thinking it’s a collection of stories set in Mumbai. The beginning prolongs the myth. A pop-fantastical account of Parsi priests and the sacred fire shuddering as a foreigner desecrates their funerary arena turns out to be from a novel called Tower of Silence that I’m now glad I haven’t read.

You wonder whether this is a nostalgic expression of longing for home by an NRI, but then you learn Gyan Prakash grew up in Patna. So, Salman Rushdie’s endorsement of the book’s ‘insider knowledge’ strikes you as bizarre, and you flip to the back. Instead of a summary, you find three testimonials from academics, and one by the author of a presumably similar book on Germany, who assures you Prakash retraces five centuries here.

You wait for the history, noting grammatico-logical errors such as ‘The commuter-hour traffic jam escalated into an exodus’ and ‘Such a figure naturally cut a divisive figure’.

After wistful reminiscences from his childhood perception of Bombay, Gyan Prakash moves on to the subject of terror. Then, he meanders off into a discussion of ‘urban theory’ which is only interesting in that it makes you speculate how people qualify and make a living as ‘urban theorists’.

When he laments the absence of Irani cafes, and alludes to the cliché of regal hotels next to slums, you begin to feel the way you did when you watched Jab We Met, Jodha Akbar or Devdas. First, you think ‘why did the creator bother with it?’ Then, ‘why didn’t someone edit it?’ And next, ‘why the hell did it cost so much?’

But then, the author hits the nail on the head with observations such as, “Mumbai, it is said, stands on lands reclaimed from the Arabian Sea, as if the city had some prior claims on what lay buried underwater. In fact, the Island City occupies lands stolen from the sea.”

Finally, he begins his account of the Portuguese invasion. Stories of demolition of temples, suppression of religion and forced conversion are peppered with delightful vignettes such as a tiger-skinned ascetic’s story of resistance – the man is pulled up by Portuguese authorities for heathenishly anointing himself with holy waters, and he responds by saying he was only emulating John the Baptist. The author muses, ‘The Hindu convert to Christianity had ended up converting Christianity to Hinduism’.

Then, he tells you the legendary Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was basically a drug-trafficker. Later comes a poignant tale about how Chor Bazaar got its name, leaving just enough unsaid.

As you read on, you realise the author is a very intelligent man with varied interests and tremendous knowledge. This ambitious book traces the growth of industry, cinema, tabloid journalism, writing, theatre, the Shiv Sena, the rise and fall of the dream of New Bombay (Navi Mumbai), the emergence of the underworld from Varadharajan Mudaliar to Dawood Ibrahim, and the story of Doga – a desi superhero who might be the lovechild of Batman and Sunny Deol, though he dresses like Phantom – accompanied by illustrated plates, the highlight of which is Bal Thackeray performing cabaret.

The fascinating story of how the city developed captures a bygone era, whose echoes one senses along the stretch by the Gateway of India. Beautifully drawn maps accompany an exposition of how the incongruence between the posh areas and chawls existed even in the 1800s.

At times, Prakash’s painstaking work is supported by authoritative commentary and lucid writing. But his tone is almost stream-of-consciousness at others, with forays into soulful philosophising.

Prakash struggles to divorce the academic’s propensity to overanalyse. Try this breakdown of the song Ai Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahaan from CID:

“References to the Hindi-speaking ‘Bandhu’ (friend) and the English-speaking ‘Mister’ suggest a feeling of belonging in Bombay’s socially and linguistically mongrel world.”

He chronicles the Anglophilic Congressman Dinshaw Wacha’s foolishly euphoric praise for British rule, Khurshed Framji Nariman’s inspiring opposition of the corruption in the Back Bay project, the Britishers’ callous attitude to ‘natives’ during the epidemic of the plague, the race-based segregation of brothels, and an activist actor’s belief that ‘socialism’ meant ‘going to parties’, without being judgmental.

But often, he’s either confused or absent-minded – a five-page tangential discussion ends abruptly, and he reverts to the main topic without a transition. Then, he goes on to repeat phrases, making you wonder whether you lost the page. Sometimes, he demonstrates the stereotypical professor’s conviction that an audience needs hand-holding.

So, my advice to the reader is: get yourself past the first 75 pages, and then the book will get you through itself.
And my advice to the author is: hire an editor. Your research is meticulous, your language can be pithy, and your versatility is remarkable, but your book is way too long!

A Fun Mix of History, Sex and Drama

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 5th December, 2010)

Title: Fall of Giants

Author: Ken Follett

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Pages: 850

Price: Rs. 350

An epic of love, hatred, war and revolution declares the tagline, and I prepare myself for an orgy of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Frederick Forsyth. However, the opening is charmingly reminiscent of Thomas Hardy.

Fall of Giants, the first book of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, begins in a little Welsh mining hamlet, where a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old is readying himself to go down the quarry for the first time. Just as the dreariness of the mine, and the easy possibility of death, which the miners’ families have accepted and even experienced, are rousing the reader’s protective instincts, the scene changes dramatically.

Ty Gwyn, the luxurious country house of Earl Edward Fitzherbert, is home to ornate furnishings, gourmet food, and Etonian accents. As the earl hosts a royal visit, the dialogues play out like a well-scripted Hollywood movie – not realistic, but entertaining, with a well-prepared cocktail of bombast, repartee, balefulness and rivalry.

The scope of the book is huge. Set in the period 1911-1924, which saw the First World War and the Russian Revolution, the arena spans the globe – which, at that time, meant Russia, Europe and America. The author does justice to each of these settings, with vivid imagery that transports the reader to the place of action.

One gets the feeling Follett could, if he tried hard enough, transcend the barrier between pulp fiction and literature. But, rather like filmmaker Mani Ratnam, he seems to graze the border, while choosing to stay on the side that guarantees a larger audience and a bigger paycheque.

Although Follett’s detailed descriptions of the geography of a coal mine and the conventions of army command are useful, even necessary, for the reader to be able to relate to the storyline, there are several superfluous explanations. Who, one wonders, needs to be told what the Big Ben is?

But the aspiration that everyone, irrespective of education and lateral thinking skills, should be able to relate to the contents of the novel is perhaps the reason two members of the London gentry discuss politics before...ahem, gratifying each other in a box at the opera.

Even so, one feels the annotations might have been more discerning. Rather the follow up the line She said in English, ‘He falls to such perusal of my face, as he would draw it’ with a thinly-disguised elucidation such as He smiled, ‘We’re not Hamlet and Ophelia, so please don’t go to a nunnery’, the author could have chosen to go with a footnote (or left it for the reader to Google.)

However, most characters are three-dimensional, and appeal to the reader’s empathy or sympathy throughout the novel. The grey shades are expertly portrayed, especially among members of the British aristocracy, and one is often torn between wishing ill on and rooting for a particular character.

While the author admits to having taken certain liberties in mixing real and fictional characters in his cast, the interactions are believable.

What seems incongruent at times is the language. One of the characters is reported to have thought, For God’s sake, get to the point!­ – a phrase that doesn’t quite suit the vocabulary of a well-educated gentleman in the early twentieth century.

And even though Bill Bryson insists the four-letter-word that rhymes with ‘duck’ was first used in the 1800s, it does feel strange to come across an earl employing it in a Russian palace, in the presence of his wife.

The romances may be kitschy, but Ken Follett does take the reader by surprise in the execution of their expression. You would not expect, for instance, a Lady to orgasm in a library – though the event has nothing to do with her love for books...or scrolls.

Some of Follett’s lines are delightfully wry and pithy. Try this - A numbered list was always a good idea: people felt they had to listen until you got to the end. Later, he goes on to find a similarity between babies and revolutions - you can start one, but can’t control how it will turn out. Which is why a line that reads They had not known all this personal stuff disappoints even more. When an author is capable of so much more, why scribble in haste?

The same philosophy might apply to this poem:

Though I suffer from frustrations

The anticipation’s

A boost to our relations

When he comes

The narrative is gripping, but the reader is left feeling it could have been crisper; maudlin elements such as the death of a soldier a few minutes before the armistice is signed could have been avoided. Painstakingly long descriptions could have done with some editing.

All said, though, I’m yet to come across a novel that mixes history, sex and drama in such a compelling manner.

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