Saturday, December 30, 2006

A long time gone

And I'm back after a hiatus of - how long has it been, about three months or so? Though it certainly feels like longer! And to all my friends and readers who inquired after me - thanks a lot for the enquiries! Though I normally desist from forays into my personal life, I'll break with my blog tradition and go into a few details about the rather astounding, shocking, and bizarre turn of events that, among other things, had kept me away from normal routine, which includes blogging.

Of course none of what is to follow will be news to a few good friends who also regularly read and comment on my blog - nor will they react to my oft-repeated statement that around three and a half months ago, my blessedly ordinary life suddenly took on hues that are more in keeping with an execrable Ekta Kapoor soap opera. In a nutshell, I (and my husband, of course) suddenly found (ourselves) right in the middle of that most sordid of affairs, a raging dispute over property (no, not mine - I personally don't own any, and nor do I wish to after what I've just encountered). And I realised just how low people can sink when they're grubbing for money - especially if they've nothing much else going for them. It also brings to the fore a rather frightening truth - that you never really know people, no, not even if you've been around them all your life; which leads on to a more disturbing fact - that apart from very few people, who you can possibly count on one finger, you can never trust anyone. Sometimes the people who consider closest to you (whether by virtue of blood or otherwise) are the ones who hurt you most.

Without going into the sordid details (and sordid is a word that's going to crop up regularly all through this sad story), let me just ask - what is it about property and money that brings out the worst in people? Several people who know the details of what happened to us have mentioned friends and relations who've been through similar experiences - and all, without fail, have shaken their heads sorrowfully at the thought of the corruption that money invariably brings in its wake. So do you have to be moral reprobates to begin with (as the people involved in this instance, the 'other side' so to say, undoubtedly are) for the greed for material wealth to get a hold on you, or is it that money, property, etc., are powerful enough to corrupt even those we would unhesitatingly term 'nice people'? At this point in my life I sincerely believe that greed for money is quite stupid - I mean, we're all going to die someday, right? And we won't be taking wads of cash with us when we do. So is there any point spending whatever time's given us plotting and scheming just to make those mythical millions? Besides, if one is healthy, intelligent, qualified, and not afraid of hard work, there will always be jobs and, therefore, opportunities to make money, available constantly. (Of course, if you're desperate, middle-aged, fat, balding, unemployed, quite incapable of crossing over to the local market all by yourself to buy daily rations let alone holding down a job, and yet are an egomaniac to boot, you might be compelled to look for alternative means, which means will invariably consist of impinging on the fundamental rights of people within trampling range. That, incidentally, is a fairly accurate description of one of the chief perpetrators of the crime committed against us. And no, I don't care if I sound melodramatic.)

However, do I feel this way only because I'm not even remotely wealthy? Will I turn into my worst nightmare if I ever come into a huge sum of money - or am faced with the prospect of doing so? I don't know - but I'd certainly like to know!

A caveat - I know every story has two contrasting sides. Everyone the world over is firmly convinced of her/his innocence, and the depravity of the Other. Hell, even George Bush believes all his egregious actions are sanctioned by none other than God Himself! And it's the done thing for both parties to go around self-righteously defending themselves, and asking the heavens to strike down those opposing them. We should know - we've been maligned and slandered from here till kingdom come to all who'd care to listen - and never mind that everything that was said were lies. If only our country had proper slander and libel laws, and a functioning judiciary - I'm sure I could sue the pants off these people!!! Unfortunately, these are the perks low-lifes get from living in a developing nation - they can get away with murder, even. But in this instance, I can say with a completely clear conscience that we did not do a single thing to bring this upon ourselves; that in the clear-cut demarcation of right and wrong, we are firmly in the right; and that we emphatically did not deserve the abuse that was heaped on us. And I guess that's one of the reasons why we received the support of friends and well-wishers when we looked for it.

My feminist ideals have had rather a confusing time of it as well. Since the days I discovered Simone de Beauviour, I've had a healthy contempt for the stereotypes that women the world over are traditionally expected to conform to - and one of them is the stereotype of motherhood. Reading academic discourses about how women carry an additional burden of bearing the responsibility of the nation on their shoulders in their avatar as caring, nurturing beings - the trope of 'Mother' India - also led me to debunk enthusiastically the notion that all women want nothing more than to bear children, and are 'naturally' loving, sacrificing beings. However, when faced in reality with a woman who connived against her own offspring just for the sake of property, who abused, vilified and maligned her child who had nothing but love for her, I found myself resorting, like everyone else, to horror - 'how can a mother desert her son?', as a hymn we used to sing in school went. But I guess what horrified us was not so much a stereotype as the subversion of certain basic expectations we have of a few chosen people - we unconditionally love, trust, and are loyal to a few people, like parents and spouses. And when that bond is broken, when that trust is betrayed, it's a shock that shakes you to your very core.

So what have I learnt from this experience we could have done very well without? Trust no one (as Fox Mulder would say)? Perhaps. It certainly has strengthened my belief in the inherent rottenness of human nature. Yet we received overwhelming support and love from other quarters as well, and that we shall never forget. I'm also never going to take anything for granted, no, not even something basic like turning on a tap and having water flow out (I should know - since our water supply was cut off, and we had to live without water for a couple of months before we finally could shift out); or crib about mundane everyday routines. When we were living in the midst of unbearable tension and stress, with nerves stretched taut and emotions running high, how I longed for the good old days when my biggest problem was office politics! And yes, I did understand why the police in India are so hated. I mean, can someone please explain to me why we even go through the charade of having a police force? They do no work except abuse the power their uniform gives them - in the last three murder cases I read about in the papers, the police had refused to do anything, and in two cases had actually tampered with evidence. I know from our experience that they're rude, ignorant and prejudiced, they reluctantly take down complaints when it's obvious you won't go away without filing one, complaints that they're not ever going to follow up on; they take bribes from just about anybody (this one cop had obviously been bribed by the other side, and was merrily informing them of our every move within the police station, before us and the other cops who, of course, couldn't give a damn) - they're the last people you can turn to if you need help - and they're all we apparently have!

I know this is turning out to be one long blog, but I guess the situation warrants it. We've put at least some of this behind us - the problem is far from being solved, and obviously will not go away in a hurry, but as long as we're not in the thick of it, I'm all right. The trauma will of course take a while to dissipate - I've unfortunately led rather a sheltered life, because of which I was completely unprepared to deal with the seamier side of life - and yes, I'm still angry, upset, tense, and very bitter. But I guess it's when things are really bad that you learn to appreciate the good things all the more - I remember, in the middle of the crisis, looking at a handicapped beggar at a streetlight and saying a grateful prayer for being so lucky myself. As long as you're healthy, as long as you have a job you enjoy, and at least one pastime that you can get really passionate about, as long as there are people around you, be they friends or family, who love you and who you can count on, you can get through a lot. I'm almost sorry for people who chase ephemeral things like money - just shows how vacant their lives really are.

And of course, since I've bared a lot on a public forum, I can't end without thanking a few of the people who saw us through - Dodo, mashi and mesho, Mukta, and of course, my wonderful family, without whom we'd be nowhere (sound exactly like I've won an Oscar, don't I? :-P).

Friday, August 25, 2006

On marriage, fidelity and such

I know I promised people a post on my cats, but earlier this week I caught the last half of Barkha Dutt's We the People on NDTV, which perplexed me one hell of a lot, and raised rather a lot of questions that I would like to discuss. So that is what this post is going to be on - I'll give you all the lowdown on the feline half of my family next time, I promise.

The issue was marriage and fidelity, prompted by the release of Karan Johar's much-hyped Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna - or so I gathered from the fact that Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan were part of the panel - along with some esteemed people who the media clearly considers specialists when it comes to matters pertaining to emotional well-being - Shobaaaa (did I get the number of 'a's after her name right?) De, some tarot card reader whose name I've forgotten, and the creator of Anyway, what I want to discuss is the issue of fidelity. We've all been brought up tp believe that cheating is BAD, seen enough films and telelvision shows that show marriages breaking up thanks to extra-marital affairs, and have a well-defined contempt for the greatest vamp of all times - the 'other woman'.

Yet here were people blithely asserting that fidelity isn't such a huge issue any more, because 'everyone cheats'! And, since everyone does so, it ceases to be wrong - in fact, the tarot card reader, who doubles as a counsellor (presumably because of the qualifications deciphering pretty coloured cards load her with), stated emphatically that she never encourages women with straying husbands to leave them - quite the opposite, in fact, even if the wives are clearly shattered by the incident. Ms De (when she wasn't busy promoting her latest book) supported this statement. And everyone imputed this recent sociological change in the family structure and roles to modernity, since it's the youth who are supposed to be indulging in merry cheating everywhere you look.

Shah Rukh was actually the only one who made any sense, and certainly the only one who came across as honest - after candidly confessing to being 'old-fashioned' and 'conservative', he exhorted people to be clear in their heads about why they were getting married - did they genuinely believe in the commitment they were making, or were they doing so because everyone in India is expected to marry at a certain age, in much the same way that they're expected to graduate or get a job? Because if you believe in the commitment you make, you will honour it. But his was a lone voice - even people from the audience calmly said they wouldn't leave their partners if they discovered them cheating.

Now this is where my perplexity lies. Because I always thought marriage - any relationship - was a pretty sacrosanct deal. You become responsible for the happiness and well-being of another person, and the commitment you make is not so you can break it at the first available opportunity. When I got married, I did so to a person I loved, someone I wanted to share the rest of my life with. The commitment I made was a promise I'm not going to renege on. And one of the essential components in a relationship is trust. You trust your partner to be with you, to honour his/her commitment towards you, to never hurt you in any way. Cheating means s/he's done all the above. How, then, can you stay on in a relationship with a person who's betrayed your trust? How can you ever trust her/him again? Does anyone else feel the same way, or is it true that fidelity has become a bit of a joke these days? Is it true that, despite the sanctity social norms have bestowed on the institution, marriages are increasingly becoming a sham? I know my friends feel much the same as I - so where is this 'everyone' who cheats as a matter of course? Is this yet another sign of the moral turpitude of our times?

Here, I'm not taking into consideration 'open marriages/relationships' - if people have stated their intentions of eschewing monogamy to their partners, and if the partners are happy with the arrangement, there is nothing else to be said. But that isn't the case here, obviously - surely women wouldn't be tearfully asking the tarot lady if divorce is a good idea if they knew what they had signed up for?

It came as no surprise when, later in the discussion, one found that divorce was much frowned upon. Bad word, that - still is, strangely enough, even in the liberated 21st century where everyone cheats. People were even more firm when it came to children - a couple has got to stay together if they have kids, was the unanimous opinion. Except for Karan Johar, and I agree with him (can't believe I actually said that!) - wouldn't living in the company of two adults who just do not get along, in an acrimonious, tension-riddled household, actually harm the children in the long run? Contrary to what most adults think, children are not stupid. Far from it. Their parents' unhappiness and hostility would communicate themselves to them - and imagine living the better part of your life in constant tension and stress. Wouldn't it be better, given that scenario, to separate and give children some form of resolution?

Tough choices, I know, and complex issues, but - what do you think?

Monday, July 31, 2006


I've recently been beseiged by complaints stating that my blog posts are always 'angry' and 'serious', and that I never write 'happy posts'. Now I know the correct reponse to such accusations is: 'it's MY blog, my own personal space, and I shall write what I choose, so there!' But I choose not to be that rude, since the ones making the complaints are friends, people whose opinions I solicit and value. So here's my take on the situation - if by 'happy posts' is meant lighthearted anecdotes about people in the office or what I had for lunch yesterday, I cannot oblige. When I began this blog, I wanted this to be a space where I talk about what touches me, issues that I consider serious, problems that I wanted to bring to the fore and incite discussions. I did not want this to be a personal diary of sorts - because, as my friends can testify, I'm a rather private person who emphatically does not want her life to be put on display for the whole world to gawk at. Not that I'm judging those whose blogs are well-maintained diaries of their innermost thoughts - I'm simply not one of them.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that's far from perfect - I think I can safely presume that everyone will agree with me. Rather more unfortunately, I happen to live in one of the most imperfect cities in this already way-too-imperfect world - New Delhi. It's the city which has had the dubious distinction of having made it to the cover story of Outlook, which focused on everything that was wrong with it - and everyday life in Delhi is nothing short of a battle and series of disillusionments. Unless you are deaf, blind, or utterly insensitive and stupid, you cannot but help noticing things that bother you, things that place you on the road to cynicism. I could, of course, leave such things be and write instead about the antics of my kittens - who are absolutely adorable, and a tiny demolition squad in themselves. I could go on and on about how gorgeous my solemn little Aslan is, how hyperactive the quirky little Piglet is, or how mischievous the little monkey of an Ariel is - and tales of their mother, my lovely Moody Cat, could take up several posts. But I'd be boring everyone, wouldn't I? (And that's a rhetorical question - the first person to say my kittens are boring will be in big trouble! Seriously, let me know - if anyone's interested, I'll put up a few pictures of my little ones.) But I took the decision to write about less pleasant subjects, for the simple reason that these are the topics that are never thought about, and not talked about all that often. And I invite debate and dissension in response - in fact, the more opinions, the more thoughts on the subject, the merrier!

And then, while I was pondering about such issues, the government, in a colossally stupid move that they're now blaming the ISPs for, went and banned blogsites, thereby depriving me and all other bloggers of their personal space, and daring to presume that some bureaucrat somewhere actually has the right to decide what we should or should not say where, when, how and why. And now that I have my space back, I'd rather have it stay the way I want, and write what I want to write about - who knows, someone somewhere might just decide to play God with our fundamental rights and take it away all over again, so I should just make the most of my time, shouldn't I?

Parting shot for the whiners - my next post will be an update on my one of favourite television shows, Desperate Housewives. Chortle, chortle. *Rubs hands in glee* Wait for it!

Friday, June 30, 2006


Is there something intrinsic in the world of entertainment and creativity these days that causes people to eschew all attempts at originality and look to the Western world for ideas they can filch? I mean, look at some of the biggest releases in the Hindi film world in recent times - Fanaa, for instance, has been taken from Ken Follett's extremely well-written and gripping spy thriller, Eye of the Needle. Alag is a direct lift from the 1995 Hollywood film Powder, which starred Sean Patrick Flanery (see photographs above - note, especially, the similarity not only in the lead characters' appearances, but in their stances in the picture right at the bottom of the Alag poster, and that in the poster for Powder. Talk about dead ringers!) in the title role. Kaante, as everyone knows, was taken from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. What I don't understand is, first, why people in our country have to resort to plagiarism at the drop of a hat - and that too, do so without any compunction. Is it that we have a genuine dearth of good ideas in the so-called creative minds ruling the roost in our country? Or that these minds are just too lazy to exert themselves so as to come up with something original when it's so much easier to have someone else do the thinking and visualising, and just copy their end results?

I tend to believe it's the latter - and here I'm not considering great film-makers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, but the ones churning out the mainstream Bollywood flicks. And somewhere, we tend to view this mindless copying as something laudatory. Just a couple of days ago, I read this gushing article on Rakesh Roshan's new film Krrish - and it was all about how the visual effects in this film are exactly like the ones in Hollywood films. India can finally make films whose visual appeal matches that of Hollywood, the writer stated proudly. And sure, we know that - all of us have been reminded inexorably of Neo (of Matrix fame) when we've caught sight of Hrithik Roshan in the film's trailers. I agree that the fact that we now have the technology to rival that of Hollywood is a source of pride - but why can we not put it to some original use? We've all seen the marvellous things American and British film-makers can do - how about finding out what the Indian ones can do with the same resources?

And why do I say that we don't think there's anything wrong in plagiarising? Because I haven't yet come across anyone who's asked this question before. Because the same people who plagiarise with such impunity actually have the audacity to claim ownership - the Alag director, for instance, went on record telling the media how it's his special project, how a friend of his gave him the script and he loved it, how intense the whole experience of preparing the lead character's 'look' was - yeah, right! I mean, how intense could copying Sean Patrick Flanery's albino look have been? Though, of course, the well-muscled hero with the cool shades in Alag couldn't come even remotely close to capturing the vulnerability that Flanery brought to his performance (again, see the last picture of Flanery as Powder) - and no one, not even the film critics, ever slam them for it, not even when they calmly state in their reviews that such-and-such film was a rip-off from so-and-so. Remember what happened when the Kaavya (she of the plagiarised Opal Mehta fame) story broke? As someone in the publishing industry, I was extremely interested - I read every article, participated in discussions in forums, spoke to friends - and I was appalled by the fact that there was hardly anyone prepared to condemn her for her actions, or consider her culpable. Mitigating circumstances, everyone screeched, lack of ethics in the publishing world. All right, but what about her own ethics? She was old enough to know right from wrong - and there are mitigating circumstances in everyone's lives. Do we then make excuses for everyone who does something not quite right?

Yet another example - last week HT City carried a story, complete with photographs, on how fashion photographers have been copying photos taken by photographers abroad for their calendars - so there was Bipasha Basu doing a J Lo, and Priyanka Chopra aping Britney Spears. And the photographers went a step further by actually claiming copyright for these pictures! I'm actually genuinely puzzled at this lethargic attitude and steadily declining originality in everything we do. Are we denegerating into a nation of copycats? And am I the only one, to quote the Dixie Chicks, who ever felt this way?

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Bookseller of Kabul

This weekend I read Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul, published in 2004, and subsequently reprinted no less than 25 times. It focuses on an Afghan family in the days immediately following the defeat of the Taliban by US forces - the family patriarch is the bookseller in question. The author looks at the lives, loves, hopes, desires and aspirations of the family members, and intersperses the account with dollops of Afghan history that anyone with the ability to trawl through Internet search engines can have access to. Shah Mohammad Rais (the bookseller, named Sultan Khan in the book) was so incensed after reading the book that he flew over to Norway with lawyer in tow, and sued Seierstad; they reportedly also got into trouble with the authorities and their neighbours. I can understand why.

To begin with, the author makes up pseudonyms for everyone in question so as to maintain anonymity, but then describes them in such great detail, down to their professions and area they live in, that the entire exercise is rendered redundant. I'm also not sure why Seierstad chose this particular family - as she herself claims in the Foreword, the family, being an urban, educated, rich one, isn't representative of Afghan families at all. As an author, she is well within her rights to choose the story she wants to tell, and focus on characters that are best suited to take the narrative forward - but if the story is a true one, and the characters real people, holding them up to the world's scrutiny without any well-defined rationale can just be a mere exercise in voyuerism. Which, to my mind, is what this book is all about. Coupled with this is the trap all white, Western people fall into - that of gazing at the 'other', the developed nations, through their detached, culturally-specific, and all too often ill-equipped lenses, and interpreting cultural nuances with their aid. In her attempt to fit Afghanistan within the stereotypical vision that most people outside the country, especially those from the global North, have of it, the author highlights only those incidents that conform to the stereotype, and focuses on just that evidence that confirms her hypothesis - that Afghanistan is a backward country still in the grip of religious forces, where men rule and women are treated worse than cattle.

All of which might well be true, but is a journalist really allowed to choose only those facts that best suit her at any given moment in time? There's a thin line between reporting on another culture and using the facts to reflect your own bias - The Bookseller of Kabul is an indictment of Afghan society in general and this one family in particular. Seierstad stayed with the Rais family for several months - I cannot believe that in all these months she came across just these smattering of incidents to write about. As a white woman, her primary concern was the way 'women were treated' - a fact that's not new to any of us in the Indian subcontinent, but which must have elicited gasps of horror from the so-called progressive white world - the target audience. While Sultan Khan is held up as a man brave enough to defy the Taliban and court imprisonment in an attempt to preserve his country's history and culture, that facet of his personality is subsumed under detailed descriptions of his despotic behaviour towards the rest of his family, his lasciviousness where his beautiful, teenaged second wife was concerned, his materialistic bent of mind that caused him to sacrifice humanity at the altar of business and profits. We get to hear all about how his sons hate him (has anyone who read the book notice how peculiarly ambivalent her attitude towards Mansur was? Was she sympathetic or did she disapprove of his selfishness? Was Mansur a confused teenager whose will was steadily being eroded by his tyrannical father, or was he a spoilt, self-centred boy who believed everyone in the world had been created for his pleasure alone? He took on several guises, much in the manner of a chameleon, depending on the point the author was driving home at that given moment) and the women in his family fear him - all helpfully repeated with every anecdote just in case you missed the point the first, second, or fifth time.

My major problem with the book is that it adds nothing to our knowledge about Afghan history or culture - as I mentioned earlier, the bits of history the author rather monotonously recites are stuff we all know about, or facts easily available on the Internet. There is no analysis, no critical commentary - just a mere presentation of facts, whether they be about the history of Afghanistan, or about the Rais family. However, how is getting to know the little domestic details of one family in Afghanistan going to help anyone? How is it enriching the corpus of literature that already exists on this topic, and sundry related others? The only thing it does it satiate our desire to see into other families, to satisfy the voyeur present in all of us. Seierstad doesn't disappoint here. She lingers deliciously (much like the Afghan women she describes gossiping) on stories of young women's transgressions in matters of love, and the punishment that befell them thereafter; on the 'dirty thoughts' that flit across the minds of young teenage boys; and, most obviously, in the whole chapter devoted to the hammam. Now, all of us with some knowledge of the world know what the hammam is all about. It's no different from the bathhouses of Rome, or the saunas in the West. It's a communal bathing area. Fatima Mernissi and Bouhidiba, among others, have written marvellous articles critically analysing the role of the hammam in Islam, and the gender relations that become manifest through it. That, however, is not what Seierstad had in mind - she chooses to focus on the hot and steamy interior, scenes of women scrubbing each other's backs, breasts and thighs, talk about how married women strip completely while unmarried ones don't - if this isn't blatant voyeurism, what is?

I'm not surprised Mohammad Rais was furious. Instead of a book on his family he could proudly show off, he was presented with constant references to his cruel and tyrannical character, accounts of his family's alleged feelings towards him as well as their illicit desires, all of which he would rather not have known, and, as if that wasn't enough, he had to be presented with rather negative descriptions of the naked body of his mother! If that's not going to drive a traditional, god-fearing, conservative man to apoplexy, I don't know what is. Would Seierstad have done the same with the mother of, say, a bookshop owner in Soho?

Seierstad, in every work of hers, is annoyingly self-indulgent, a fact her next book, 101 Days, an account of the first 100 days of the American war on Iraq, attests to. Unlike most good journalists, she focuses more on herself than the history she's witnessing, or the people she's interviewing, or even the facts she's reporting. We can't but be aware of her presence throughout - and nowhere is it more obvious than in The Bookseller of Kabul. Cliched, pointless and badly-written, Seierstad's work is a lesson on how journalism ought not to be done. I'm not surprised it became a bestseller, though - after all, the same can be said of The Da Vinci Code, and look where that's at now. Also, there's nothing people like more than to witness someone else's dirty linen being washed in public.

I'd initially intended for this blog to contain short reviews of three books, but this one seems to have taken up way too much space already. So will leave the others for later blogs - and the remaining two, thankfully, have been books I enjoyed immensely.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Rang de Basanti

This is a long-overdue post, about a subject that has been discussed to death already. But for various reasons, I got to watch Rang de Basanti only very recently, and therefore it is only now that I can comment on it with any degree of authority.

Aamir Khan fans can stop reading straight away, because this is not going to be one of those laudatory 'this-is-one-of-the-greatest-films-ever' sort of review - quite the opposite, in fact. Let me start with a couple of simple questions - why, pray, was this film such a huge hit? And why did the people who raved about it consider it a serious film of sorts, one that was likely to change your worldview? The film looked, sounded, and felt exactly as though it had been made by an adolescent, for an audience of yet more adolescents.

To begin with, it starts with this huge cliche - an European coming over to India to make a film on a part of Indian history, a cliche that has its roots in the colonial empire, and a tradition of social anthropology that based itself upon the premise that it was only the enlightened white gaze that could shed any light on any aspect of 'native, primitive' life, be it their quaint culture or history, which was almost always oral (note how the details of the history that Sue wants to document come from her grandfather's diary) - and this light would then be carried not only to the outside/Western world, but inwards, to the natives themselves. The presumption here is that since the natives in question are primitive, and, therefore, dumb beyond belief, they would need their lives to be explained to them by the civilised world (again, note how the four young men refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this part of their history that's being highlighted, and continue battling each other on the grounds of perceived or imagined differences, till Sue's angry outburst that brings them to their senses). Orientalism, Edward Said called this phenomenon. Bollywood's now packaging it as a story because of which 'a generation awakes'.

College life is, predictably, full of the stereotypical 'fun' that exists only in Hindi movies - certainly no one I knew behaved in quite that hysterical way in college, and we can all safely say that our university days were some of the greatest days ever. And that's not all that exists in Bollywood - so does the Delhi University that the film professed to showcase. Which institute in DU has hostel rooms the size of a modest (swanky) apartment? Where is that amphitheatre where one can hang around at all hours of the night, making merry before a roaring bonfire (why exactly they needed a fire in summer, I didn't quite get)? And since when has Delhi been all clean and airbrushed with almost empty roads? And incidentally, the International Studies Institute is an institution meant for research, not teaching. The film's supposed to be taking place in Delhi, but meanders bewilderingly all over north India - suddenly you're in some fort or the other in some place that's reminsicent of Rajasthan; the next moment you're gazing at the Golden Temple in Amritsar; and then there are the lush green fields of Punjab; a dhaba situated in the middle of nowhere in particular; and then there you are at Chandni Chowk where guess what? the only Muslim character resides. Whodathunk it?

Only one of the young men has a rich dad, but everyone else also drives expensive cars and bikes; there's the stereotypically doting Punjabi mom who takes pride in her martial race - there no mother in all of Punjab who hasn't sacrificed her son for the sake of the country, she declares; the Sanghi with a heart of gold (he, incidentally, is a very important person in the saffron party who moonlights as local goon - yet he's all naive when it comes to money matters in the party); the lovable young Air Force officer with a widowed mother and pretty fiance, who you know will be sacrificed at the altar of box-office returns the minute you set eyes on him - the cliches just didn't stop coming! We're also treated to a romanticised notion of shirking responsibility - Aamir Khan's over-the-top character apparently graduated 5 years previously, but prefers to spend his days at the university instead of getting a life because he feels safe there, everyone knows him there, he's somebody. Loser, we'd call him in real life. Bollywood calls him a hero. I know the director had to come up with an explanation as to why Aamir Khan does not and cannot look like a college student, but did it have to be so lame?

And then, of course, there were the factual errors. People in India are well within their rights if they wish to hold a peaceful demonstration, candlelight vigil, or protest march. There are scores happening all over the place. The authorities do not have the power to ask people to break it up - and certainly not in the violent way the film showed them doing. Second, every criminal's entitled to a fair trial. Even Abu Salem was granted one, for crying out loud - and here you have four unarmed students who've turned themselves in being gunned down in cold blood, before the entire nation and the press. This can happen in a dictatorship - and while I'll be the first to admit that India has more than its fair share of problems, it still hasn't come to the point where the State can kill anyone it wants, anywhere it wants. We are still a democracy, albeit a malfunctioning one. Third - who the hell listens to the radio, and that too at 6 in the morning?! Puh-leeze! Fourth, no defence minister in his right mind would toddle off for a walk on a deserted street with his dopey bodyguards ambling along a convenient distance away. It's really not that easy to kill a politician - if it were, there would be very few of them left.

Fifth - this isn't an error so much as a deliberate omission - the entire freedom movement is centred around north India, excluding every other part of the subcontinent. As a matter of fact, the violent nature of the movement, which the British had labelled 'terrorism' ) makes you think, doesn't it?), started in Bengal. It was Khudiram Bose who, at the age of 19, killed a British officer and was sent to the gallows. Bhagat Singh had extremely strong ties with the Bengal chapter of the freedom struggle - he, actually, had gone and killed the wrong officer. You wouldn't know any of this watching Rang de Basanti. (Not that this is surprising, really - India's regions are so divisive that most ignore the existence of others. If you go to Pune and check out their interpretation of history, it would seem as though they were the ones to singlehandedly send the British limping back to England!)

As for the forced and contrived parallels drawn between the freedom fighters and the protagonists, the less said about it the better. If people can seriously believe that two completely different contexts, two separate sets of ideologies, and the exigencies of two different points in time can coincide and therefore be dealt with in exactly the same manner, there is nothing that can be said to them.

What I also fail to understand is the message this film supposedly has for the youth. Love your country and do all you can to improve it. Improve it how? By taking recourse to violence and killing the first convenient scapegoat? Because that's what the defence minister was, a scapegoat. He's not the responsible for keeping corruption in defence deals alive - there was a defence minister before him, and there would be one after him. Besides, defence deals are not made by the defence minister alone - the top brass of the army, and the cororate houses, are equally culpable. It would be too controversial and dangerous where the economy's concerned to showcase that, however. Also, let's not forget that these kids only woke up to the fact that things are going horrible wrong in our country when it affected them personally. So the message is - sure, we all know there's corruption, but chill, enjoy life, till it hits you or someone you love. Then, turn into self-styled messiahs and kill the first person you think is responsible without any in-depth knowledge of the situation. Violence, however senseless, is cool as long as you have some sanctimonious reason to back it up with. Does anyone see any generation awake in the wake of Rang de Basanti? I don't - and I know it's because the urban, educated generation this film targets is very much in cahoots with the State - it's the State's economic policies that keeps their daddies and them flush with the money required to maintain their thoughtless lifestyles and lord it over the less privileged, who're too marginalised to make a difference even if they tried.

There are only two good things about Rang de Basanti - the scene where Pandey apologises to Aslam is brilliant, and entirely convincing. Second, this film will lend itself beautifully to a Mad magazine-type spoof. Can't wait for it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Why the comparison?

I don't know about the rest of you, but I was thrilled to wake up this morning to the news that that execrable homo sapien, Salman Khan, had actually been sentenced to five years' imprisonment for having killed a chinkara, which, as we all know, falls under the endangered species category. By the time I reached the end of the news story, however, I was feeling rather disturbed - at the way the news had been presented. Rather than being glad that punishment had been meted out in an instance where the law had been violated, and that too to someone like Salman Khan, who had money, power and connections behind him, the newspapers have been busy drawing parallels with the Jessica Lal case, and asking: so if the death of a chinkara could receive justice, why not that of Jessica Lal? The implication is clear - animals seem to matter more than humans.

Now this is patently unfair. The Jessica Lal case shocked all of us - and anyone who's heard me raving and ranting about it cannot accuse me of dismissing it as not worthy of consideration. But I'm sorry, I have to ask - are these two cases related? I don't think so. So why, then, this comparison? This is not Salman Khan's only offence, people. He killed several chinkaras, a blackbuck (another endangered species) - there's a separate case pending against him for that - and he's also facing yet another lawsuit for reckless and drunk driving, which left three people dead. (It's another matter altogether that the man should have been tried for murder - 3 people dead! - but the indisputable fact remains that the dead happened to be pavement dwellers, whose lives don't matter, and the accused a Bollywood star, whose life and tantrums certainly do.) The man's been going around breaking laws with impunity, be it the wildlife preservation one, or the ones pertaining to drunk driving - and in one instance, at least, he's got what he deserved. I think the blatant misuse of the law and order machinery that we witnessed during the Jessica Lal case is precisely the reason why this is an occasion to rejoice - that somewhere, at least, the law is being upheld, and the accused brought to justice, regardless of who he might be.

I really wish people wouldn't make this an animals versus humans debate. And I'm not just saying that because I'm well-known for my passion for animals, wildlife, the environment. Most acts and bills that are passed are put in place because it serves some function, and protects some essential aspect of society and our lives - be it our right to religious freedom, protection of property and the sanctity of human life, or the preservation of wildlife, to name just a very, very few. Anyone breaking any law that serves to protect and preserve deserves to be punished through the proper channels - whichever they might be, it's hard to tell these days. How do we get to decide which laws are more important, and therefore which crimes more worthy of punishment? Isn't it enough that someone in some court has finally done something right?

And incidentally, animals don't have it good in India. Far from it. Like it or not, they have just as much a right to live on this earth as we do. And no, we do not have the right to play God merely because we're better equipped, for the most part, in terms of weapons, strength or technology to lord it over them. Maneka Gandhi's already done irreparable damage to the animal rights movement, which willy-nilly has come to be associated with her hysteria alone - and now the media seems to be following suit. Sure, go ahead and ask why justice could not be meted out in the same fashion in the Jessica Lal case, in the Sanjay Nanda (he of the BMW notoriety) case, in every case that comes up for trial - perhaps one day those accountable will be made to answer. But please, let's not trivialise the little victories that are taking place, merely because they happen to be vis-a-vis a different species.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Question of Dowry

Earlier this week I attended a two-day seminar on the women's movement and the law, which was graced by several well-known academics, activists and lawyers. There were some very interesting and some not-so-interesting papers presented, some thought-provoking, and some entirely incomprehensible. Anyway, the issue I want to discuss here - rather, some random thoughts I want to note down on - is that of dowry.

There were a couple of points during the discussion on dowry that struck me - the fact that whenever we discuss this issue, or it's brought to our attention, it is almost always the violence that emanates from this institution that claims our interest and indignation - even more than the notion of dowry per se. It seems almost as if through all the protests, the media reports, the so-called sensitisation of the police force, the debates surrounding the efficacy of the laws/Acts against dowry, what is being sought to be highlighted, and eliminated, is the violence accruing from it, rather than the practice of giving and taking dowry itself. Instead of clamouring for an end to dowry deaths, we should be asking for an end to dowry; instead of the filing cases against people suspected of murdering or driving a woman to suicide, we should be involving the law and order machinery much earlier.

Which brings me to the second point - how do we define dowry, exactly? There was a discussion on the benefits of extending the definition of dowry - and this I agree with. Dowry these days can no longer be limited to the exchange of gifts, an exchange which is almost always unequal, reflecting the inequality in status that persists till date between the bride givers and bride takers. Isn't the blatant display of ostentation that characterises the majority of marriages a part of this institution? I think it is - yes, I know the lavish arrangements are all too often explained away as signifying the 'happiness' that accompanies a marriage ... after all, a child will only get married once (though that's far from certain in the 21st century!), and why should the family not go out of their way to make the occasion as memorable as they can? Scratch the surface, though, and you open a very different can of worms. We all know that the ostentation is invariably due to a desire to enhance one's status in the particular community that one resides in; or due to an almost desperate desire to cater to the groom's family's every need, lest their daughter bear the brunt of the latter's displeasure at a later date; in some instances certain requirements are even dictated by the bridegroom's family; or all of the above. Buttressing as it does the lowly status assigned to girls/women and, by extension, their families, this pressure to 'perform' and stage a splendid wedding is no less a form of dowry than the more material demands for cash or goods.

Incidentally, despite all this inequality between bride givers and takers, the law, when it is upheld, looks upon dowry givers and takers as equally culpable. Rather unfair, that - while I agree that aiding and abetting an offence is just as big a crime as the criminal act itself, dowry givers are more often than not presurised into acquiesance, thanks to the patriarchal nature of our society and the obsolete traditions it insists on clinging on to. Which woman, knowing that her parents will be arrested, will go ahead and report a case of dowry?

What this seminar also did was bring out the incredibly fractured and fractious nature of the women's movement - but that complex issue, with all its myriad over- and undertones, is best left for a later post.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


A little while ago I finally finished reading Christopher Paolini's Eragon, the first book in his Inheritance trilogy. ('Finally' because my life has taken this sad, sad turn - all I seem to do these days is work at editing some manuscript or the other, or travel in filthy DTC buses to get to work ... the good old days when I was actually reading, and a lot, appear to have gone on vacation. It took me three months to finish Eragon, and most of my reading was done on said DTC buses - when I was lucky enough to get a seat, that is!) I'd heard so much about the book - and the author, who's almost a child prodigy - he's 21 now, but was only 15 when he began writing the book, and was 19 when it took off. I have to say, though, that I was quite pleased with it.

Despite the fact that this is purely conventional fantasy - Eragon smacks heavily of Tolkien and, in a far more obvious manner, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (which itself owes a lot to Tolkien's LOTR), and sticks to the structure of the traditional fantasy tale (a world that might or might not be our own, rules that are different, yet strangely familiar, an endearing hero who is uprooted from a regular life to find that he has hitherto unplumbed depths of courage and nobility within him, battles, monsters and, ultimately, at the heart of it all, the age-old fight between good and evil), Eragon works. This is mostly thanks to Paolini's imagination, continually creates new situations and characters to capture our own, the fact that he is rather a good story-teller, and because he has discovered what appeals to people - believable characters who hold our interest, who can endear themselves to us, and who we can, at some level, identify with.

Eragon is about a farm boy who discovers a dragon egg purely by accident, and ends up becoming a Dragon Rider - the mythic warriors of yore who were defeated by the rogue Rider Galbatorix, who, having crowned himself king, now unleashes his cruel regime over most of the land. Helped by the mysterious Brom, Eragon sets out on a journey that is as much about finding himself as it is about discovering his destiny. In the gripping, taut narrative, what stands out - a stroke of genius on Paolini's part - is the relationship between Eragon and his dragon Saphira. Their growing love, trust and respect for each other, mutual dependence, and complete synchronicity of thought and action is portrayed quite remarkably.

Nevertheless, the fact that Christopher Paolini was just a teenager when he wrote the book is quite apparent - in the way he can't quite resist showing off his certainly commendable vocabulary, in the almost textbook quality of his treatment of grief and love, especially the latter (you can't help being reminded of the fact that Eragon's creator is not much older than the character himself), and in the fact that he doesn't deviate from the tried and tested fantasy novel formula that has contributed to the success of several writers before him. Despite this, however, it is not too hard to see why Eragon rivalled Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Eragon is entirely believable, romanticising as he does, the qualities of loyalty, nobility, courage, endurance and determination. How many of us haven't yearned for an event that would somehow change our lives, set us apart from the rest of the world and make us heroes, not because we belong to some magical world that we will in all probability not be privy to, but because we embody values that are fast becoming anachronistic?

Is Eragon a great piece of fantasy fiction? No. But is it a good, interesting read that manages to stay with you for at least a while after you're done reading? Yes, it is. Now I can't wait to read the sequel, Eldest.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Whose world is it anyway?

I have a theory of sorts, which basically states that the world we live in is at a point of no return. We humans have messed up the earth incredibly badly, and as a race that is supremely selfish, greedy, corrupt and power-hungry, all we care about is making our own lives as comfortable as possible, no matter what the cost. Oh of course there are the good ones - the people fighting for justice, non-discrimination, an end to poverty, peace - but there are way too few of those. The few good things these people have managed to achieve over the decades are being undermined by the majority. Take feminism, for example. Everything that we take for granted have come as a result of bitter struggle, fought by our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers even. Who would not have thought that by now, the 21st century, women would be treated with a little bit of the respect any living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being deserves? Except - not really. And nowhere is this more apparent than the completely obnoxious and appalling show currently being aired on AXN called The Man's World Show.

I'd seen the trailers, of course - of these two moronic men who go by the names of Ash and ... something, I forget what, stating with complete conviction that they had all the answers to every possible question any man may at some point have had regarding women, while a leggy woman wearing next to nothing preened and pouted in the foreground. And then there was the very bosomy Tanisha of Neal 'n' Nikki fame telling people to go watch the show (this, at least, should have warned me - but in my defence, I wasn't really paying that much attention). Last week, for want of something better to do, I decided to catch a bit of the show. I'm still in a state of shock.

If there's anyone who wants to know exactly what the phrase 'commodification/objectification of women' means, go watch this piece of crap. This show has every possible offensive stereotype that has ever surrounded women - from the brain-dead all legs and boobs model who's dying for some attention from these guys, attention that might just catapult her into a film role, to the belief that it's only the sight of almost-nude women that keeps the attention of a man (so, cut to shots of the Kingfisher swimsuit calendar - Vijay Mallya's pathetic attempt at replicating the Pirelli), to the 'advice' these guys give every English-speaking Indian man watching the show (and I bet there are plenty) - 'guys, don't tie yourself to just one woman. Go date lots of them - but remember, keep it to one woman at a time (very important, that). And when you're with a woman, focus your attention on her - women like to feel they're special. So remember her name, her friends' names, what she likes ... and if nothing's happening for you, just move on to the next one'. Ash actually had the audacity to compare a woman with a car.

Then, of course, there's this (again) stereotypically ugly man called Benny (oily hair, nondescript clothes, heavy Indian accent to his English - as opposed to dear Ash's faux American one, which is oh-so-cool-n-sexy - lumbering gait) who can never get a woman to even look at him once. Except he does, not one, but two women, in an elevator. By the stroke of the most wonderful piece of luck, both these nubile nymphs are wearing extremely tight jeans and T-shirts, the kind that gives you ample glimpses of cleavage - and, of course, they don't mind what Benny looks like, after all, he's on TV! That's all a woman would care about - what a man has, never mind what he is or looks like. One of them wants Benny to sign her T-shirt just where it stretches across her breasts - so camera obligingly zooms in on her cleavage.

That's where I lost it and switched off the TV. I wanted to watch more, just to see how far they'd go - but I couldn't. And anyway, I think I have a pretty good idea.

What have we been fighting for? Equality, a better world where men respect us, think of us as human and give us our space - none of it matters, does it? Because clearly, it's been lost on not just men, but women too - the ones who agreed to be on the show, and the ones who watch it (and again, I'm sure there are some who've watched it and are not as apoplectic as I am). Are we progressing, or regressing? How can we call ourselves civilised, developing, progressive, if this is what we endorse?

And where are the protests? Where are the women's groups? Where is the censor board, which otherwise considers a simple kiss an act tantamount to terrorism (the Indian culture does not permit this, blah, blah)? Where are the self-proclaimed guardians of morality who will not even let the words 'pre-marital sex' be breathed on Indian soil? Where are all the people who hail women as goddesses, as mothers? Where is Sushma Swaraj? How does a prime television channel air such offensive, damaging content and get advertisers for it? And don't worry - I might sound naive, but I'm not - I know exactly what the answers to most of these questions are.

But in one fell swoop a lot of the battles feminists and humanists won over the decades was undone. And, as has become the norm these days, everyone just stood (or sat) by and watched.

And for those who might just want to see for themselves exactly why I'm seething, it's on AXN, Wednesdays at 10.30 pm.

Monday, January 16, 2006


And here I am, back from the land of viral fevers - funny how this blog, as my creation, feels a bit like a child, and my not having written anything (and therefore having neglected it) for quite a while now makes me feel rather like a guilty mother! Anyone else know what I mean?

This new year's been very weird - for the first time in quite a while there was no excitement leading up to the 31st, no 'what will I be doing', no festive feeling - perhaps that's because last year was easily the worst (and the best, my marriage being the one thing that saved my sanity and kept me whole) in my entire life - friends and family reading this will know just what I'm talking about. So I certainly wasn't in any partying spirit - all I could pray for most fervently was that things would improve with the dawning of 2006 - though, of course, the cynic in me couldn't see how moving from one day to the next could make all the difference in the world. I mean, this Gregorian calendar is an artificial, cultural construct - the Bengali calendar, for instance, is completely different. New Year's going to happen only in April for us Bongs. And the fact that Delhi's been so miserably, unnaturally cold didn't help.

Then, of course, I went and got viral fever and so ushered in the new year from bed, with a temperature that alternated between 100 and 103 degrees. Oh yes, and I watched this thriller called Final Destination 2, which was all about these people escaping death and then Death (yes, that mean guy with a capital 'D') hunting them down and kicking their asses (as Ross would say in Friends). But my good deed for the year where my own self is concerned has been joining the gym where my husband works out a week back - something I've wanted to do for quite a while now - so last week saw me huffing and puffing away at all these clanking machines (some I feel positively terrified of), staring enviously at nicely toned and far stronger people around, and doing some more huffing and puffing in a bit to join their ranks as soon as I can. And I'm a mass of aches at the moment and letting out these screeches if I even so much as lift my arm - I never even knew I had all these muscles in all these spots!

But don't be fooled by my moaning - gyms are good places. And highly addictive besides.