Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Mighty Fine Guy: Remembering Air Cmde Jasjit Singh...RIP


Years ago, at one of the many conferences discussing India, Pakistan, nukes and South Asian security, a young kid asked one of the speakers this question: “What do you think is the solution to the Kashmir problem?” The speaker, in his inimitable soft-spoken style, his voice laced with a whisper of mischief, winked at a bunch of us and said: “Well, if I knew the answer to that, young lady, I’d have won a Nobel Prize by now!” Immediately after that, he proceeded, in all seriousness, to reply to that near-rhetorical query, making the person asking the question feel like hers was perhaps the most important one at the conference.

That was Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, in a nutshell, who passed away on Sunday. A man people looked to for near-impossible answers – a man who gave me my very first break more than a decade ago. I remember wandering into the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), one fine day – a freshly-scrubbed, jeans-sporting history buff who had been newly-initiated into the fascinating world of International Relations – wondering whether I should perhaps intern in India’s premier thinktank dealing with defence and security issues.  A tall, distinguished-looking Sardarji asked me whether I was lost and I told him that I was looking for the Director’s office, as I wanted to drop off my CV. To my utter horror he said: “You mean my office?”

Unperturbed by my lack of recognition, he asked me to step into his office. What followed was a 20-minute intense grilling about what I wanted from life in general, why IDSA in particular, which ended astonishingly with a simple question: ‘How soon would you like to start?’ That’s just how it was working with him. He usually knew what you were all about, but would allow you the courtesy of coming to that very same conclusion yourself. That’s what made him a good boss and an exceptional leader – as well as the longest-serving Director of IDSA – besides being a mentor to JNU’s countless free electrons.

I remember going for a brief fellowship to the LSE while I was at IDSA – a couple of years after he had left the Institute. We travelled to various cities and visited countless places within London itself as part of the course curriculum. In about 80 percent of these places, which included a handful of thinktanks, the EU Parliament and NATO, every time I would introduce myself as being from IDSA, someone in the room would ask: “Oh how’s Jasjit? Give him my regards!” prompting my batchmates to finally ask: “Just who the hell is this guy? Batman?”

That’s just what he did for IDSA – carrying forward and leaving behind, in equal parts, a legacy that made it synonymous with the best in Indian strategic thinking. At conferences, he never forgot to introduce us ‘little people’ to the biggies who responded to his invitation. I remember being absolutely awe-struck meeting Bob McNamara – straight out of a long-forgotten American history course-book – at my very first Pugwash Conference, having been generously introduced to him first by an alert boss who realised I was wistfully debating my move over the rim of a beer glass!

I just wish I had gone a little beyond the chance meetings and the holiday messages I sent every year – always replied to promptly and with much warmth. For he always made the time when we met – even after I had moved on to chase yet another dream – to remind me to ‘stop being possessive’ about my writing and just ‘letting go’ of that article that had been sitting on my desktop for days, on the odd occasions that we spoke or met briefly. I remember him telling me to stop being shy about what others thought of my writing and let them critics worry for a change...

...for he knew how to deal with those too – and how! I remember thinking, if I can “give it off” to those smart-mouthed India bashers at random conferences (in my rookie opinion), even half as well as he did – with measured logic, clarity of thought, conviction, unmatched grace and without ever raising his voice – I could run for President one day!


I wrote this in half an hour. I took your advice, Sir, and this time it was easy to let go. For you were just one damn fine guy, Air Cmde Singh, and you will be missed by at least two generations of proud patriots, thinkers and wannabes alike. We were lucky to know you…

Monday, August 5, 2013

Whose battle is it anyway?

...and may the worst man win?
A lot of people ask me: how the hell do you work with government? Why? Isn’t it really bugging to deal with one of the world’s slowest systems that works at a pace and in ways that are incomprehensible to most mortals?

Yes, it’s bugging. Yes, it’s slow. Yes, I often feel I am doing penance for much evil in a previous life every time I wait patiently for meetings in dusty extensions of air-conditioned offices, chatting with myriad co-passengers bravely navigating the world of the Indian sarkar. Yes, I feel like I could be doing something much better with my life every time an arrogant PA hangs up on me or makes me call after yet another ten minutes, without once telling me that – maybe, just maybe – sahib can’t really talk to me today. Yes, I want someone – anyone – to go to hell every time I have to pimp a just cause, by couching it in so much undeserved politeness I feel like chewing my own head off.

Yes, sometimes it’s that bad. Because, yes, it’s true that if waiting on the Government of India was a sport, we’d beat the pants off everyone else at the Olympics.

So why do I do it?

It’s because for every arrogant, self-entitled ‘babu’ I meet (unfortunately they’re all too real), there are ten who make me believe that maybe we’re not betting on the wrong horse here. Just like it’s true that the Government of India hires the best and the brightest, it also nurtures some of the most innovative and creative heads in the business, burnishing them into some of the most committed and determined individuals I have come across. Let’s face it: they have to be. Being a wimp is simply not an option when you’re working for the Indian sarkar.

We Indians love to complain about everything that’s wrong with the ‘system’, not once stopping to think that if the system works at all, it’s because someone, somewhere is doing their job. And they’re often doing it not in the absence of constraints, but despite them. What makes some succeed within the same ‘system’ we are so quick to write off is what stands them tall and apart from the others.

I see evidence of this every time I visit different states where there are stories of hope, scripted by determined administrators that find scant column space in mainstream media. I see it in the reverence reserved for senior bureaucrats who continue to inspire long after they hang up their boots, and hear it in the stubborn passion of their worthy successors.

Strangely, I also see more convincing evidence of this in every email that is politely answered, every decision that is quickly taken, every request that is politely declined and every over-sweet, chipped cup of tea I am offered with an apology for being made to wait despite an appointment. Most importantly, I see it every time I am treated with respect as a fellow professional who is perhaps as busy – if not more – than the person with a three-alphabet suffix in that high-backed chair with a white towel cover.

So when I first heard that the IAS officers of the country were getting seriously ready to take up the cudgels against injustice meted out to one of their own, I felt a strange sense of vindication for my, some would say, ‘unreasonable’ conviction over the years – that there is only so long that a government can treat the world’s largest democracy’s administrators so badly. This is one battle that has been brewing for years, it seems. Now as I see the debate deteriorate to the usual one-upmanship between career commentators over everything but the issue at hand, I’m dangerously close to questioning my pick.

In fact, as I sit chewing on my lip and letting my love for conspiracy capers run amok in my head, I wonder if there’s a plan that goes beyond a wild-card draw - where the end result will depend on which political party finally manages to pull that veritable ace from up their sleeve. Or – and this is a comforting thought – is someone secretly plotting the Indian Babu’s Great Comeback? For if I was to choose a moment, that would be, like, now.

Sometimes it seems the only one demanding any answers is Arnab Goswami with his dedicated Band of Brothers. Well, this time the nation can rest. It's time for someone else to speak up or hold their peace forever.

I know that things are sometimes not as simple as they seem. But, really, how much more complicated do you need to make them before it all starts to make sense? I hate to say this, and perhaps lose a few friends in the process, but if the country's cream can't do anything to prevent such strange high-handedness, perhaps they deserve to be insulted by bottom-of-the-barrel scum.

As for me, and not that it matters, but I'm keeping the faith...for now.

And yes, I'm back to re-claim my blog - even if you never missed me. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gag Reflex


Thanks to Anne Taintor...once again!
(An older post - an editorial I wrote on our website following Mr. Kapil Sibal's remarks on 'regulation' of social media...a lazy way of getting back to this blog!)

Why does it feel like I woke up in China?

Oh yes, it’s because the Indian government’s latest ‘appeal’ to social networking sites for a little ‘regulation’ of ‘sensitive’ content has a kind of sneaky Sino vibe to it. Most of all, it comes as serious blow to seasonally cynical Indians like this author.

The poor Indian janta has endured lazy parliamentarians, crater-like potholes, long traffic jams, mini urban floods, months-long wait for public services, Pakistani diplomatic snubs, match-fixing scandals and some serious affronts to our sense of national security. And as we use all that waiting tme to tweet about our miseries, we never fail to assure ourselves by repeating a simple mantra, “It’s okay, let’s be thankful that, unlike those poor people in all those other scary countries, we can at least shout hoarse about it if we want!”

Also, whenever anyone compares India and China in a drawing room discussion, we Indians quickly – and rather proudly – pipe up in defence of India’s democratic freedoms. We never tire of emphasising our open relationship with the Internet and, to some extent, the love-hate one we have with our politicians and cricketers. After all, we’re free to Google almost anything and everything, and freely use it to plump up our blog, Facebook or Twitter tirades against the State and everyone else. 

Quite predictably, then, the recent remarks made by the Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal have come in for sharp criticism from India’s chattering classes. In fact, a recent coffee-break discussion entered the realm of some fanciful scare-mongering, to the extent that I had visions of KGB spies following me on my morning walk or of hi-tech gadgets being embedded in my SMS-friendly thumbs.  

Let’s just say, as self-respecting citizens of the world’s largest democracy who have had to endure some second-rate governance over the years, we just don’t trust the euphemisms. Words like 'screening' and 'monitoring' scare us. It kind of turns back the clock and makes us feel like the government is looking to extend the 'Official Secrets Act' approach to uncomfortable issues right into our comfort zone. Secrecy, in the name of “national interest” has long been the firewall against greater transparency. The 'hurting the sentiments of others' argument just seems to add yet another layer - of a different kind - to government control over information.

In fact, being a student of history, I can’t help but think back to our middle-school introductory chapter on the Indian National Congress. It talked about the subtle colonial nod for the formation of the Grand Old Party as a kind of ‘safety-valve’ for the brewing national discontent against the British. Now we’re being told that our very own safety valves might be up for scrutiny. And that Big Brother might not like it every time we broadcast our personal views, either about a political leader we’d rather not have, or about a blasphemous painting we might secretly covet for its golden ‘investment’ potential – whatever the case may be.

Every appreciative glance, we need to remember, has an equal and opposite disapproving glare somewhere. Ask Facebook - the demand for a 'dislike' button that has been doing the rounds for ages now has more than its fair share of 'likes'.

I’d like to add two problematic thoughts here:

1. How are online outpourings of "hate" worse than certain political leaders who verbally intimidate entire regional communities; or go around threatening arson against a foreign retailer? Where is our gag reflex then?
2. Most importantly, who decides what is ‘objectionable’, content’? Forget an entire nation – or a generation – sometimes it’s very difficult to even align your moral compass to your family’s or friends’. Whose teetering values will we have to prop up next by our ‘responsible’ or ‘sensitive’ behaviour? Also, why should anything be judged by the intransigence of the least tolerant in a society?

To sum up, I can’t help but refer to an old Supreme Court judgement that captures this dilemma beautifully. While upholding pre-censorship of films in the landmark KA Abbas case of 1970, the SC held that our standards must not be reduced to a level where the protection of the most depraved determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.

And that’s the problem right there.  

(First published at http://igovernment.in/

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snare-e-Punjab

dunali (double-bore gun)... revaalver (revolver, of course)...panga (trouble-making)...daaru (booze)... kudiyan (chicks)... kukkad (chicken)...gwandiyan de munde (neighbourhood boys)...gabroo (strapping young lads)...laung da lashkara (glittering nose-pins)...sat rang de parande (colourful hair accessories)...chaati di lassi (most awesome buttermilk)...boys gona ral ke pao bhangra tonite (weird Pinglish on CD covers)...botalan de datt (poppable liquor bottle caps, as I imagine it)...zameenan (land; property), as well as the most wonderfully vague, all-encompassing and versatile one-word in all of history: laih! and all that jazz. Yes, those of you who are familiar with any or all of the above and the fact that they are all being listed together, alongside this very (in)appropriate picture, have guessed it right: I've just been to paradise and back.

Sadda Punjab. All ours. All mine. Even though all I mostly do is make short trips for various weddings every few years, it's where I feel so much at home -- despite my Anglicised, Bend it Like Beckhamish Punjabi (a friend's words, not mine), despite my turned-up nose at all types of chaat that is non-UP, and very much despite the fact that my non-asexual name cannot be confused for one belonging to a boy. This trip, unlike most previous ones, was a result of having some time off after many years and because I felt the overwhelming need to get in touch with my inner Jatt...and meet as many cousins and rishtedaars as possible.

Every time I make a trip to the land to which I truly belong, I am reminded of the absolute generosity of both the soil and its people. Going back to where my antecedent generations put down roots and where my grandfather first walked, and then cycled, to school everyday -- along dusty tracks cutting through fields swollen with the fruits of his ancestors' labour -- my heart swells with a strange kind of pride. I have never lived in Punjab, having been born and brought up, first, in Delhi and then in the badlands of Ulta Pradesh. But it squats in a special corner of my heart...and refuses to leave. I am reminded of its dynamic energy everytime I hear a dhol; feel its warmth everytime I squint up at the sky on a Sunday morning at an outdoor wedding; and, on a more regular basis than I'd be willing to admit, it screams for attention everytime I nostalgically hit the 'Punjabi' folder on my iPod, quite often when I'm feeling low or lethargic; it even traipses into my consciousness if I so much as chance upon an episode of Krishi Darshan on DD, which I feel compelled to watch for a few seconds if ever it flashes on my TataSky menu while I'm looking for another channel.

For me it will always be this exotic land that embraces me in a giant bear hug everytime I go there. A place where no patch of land is left fallow... A green so true that it would send The Hulk into a sulk...A place where enthusiastic direction-givers cross the road to your car and go about explaining roads and routes with as much gusto as cheerleaders at a home game...where you can find burly boys on Enfield mobikes clutching dainty pink shagan ka lifafas (bright gift envelopes with money inside them - given on weddings to newly married couples)...where Lohri is not just another declared public holiday but a veritable volcano of celebration, which, for those watching from outer space, must seem like the earth itself was going up in a huge puff of smoke fuelled by tonnes and tonnes of popcorn, peanuts and rewri (sugary nuggets)...where the sudden sighting of a Verka milk bar on a busy highway leads to much squealing of tyres and hasty U-turns...where “biba” means so much more than a well-known brand of traditional ladies wear...where you cannot go for more than half a kilometre without spotting a well-lit, well-stocked liquor vend, most of which come fully loaded with a chicken tikka joint, to boot -- the two often joined at the hip like Siamese twins...It's the land of creativity beyond compare, where pictures of fat, juicy murgas (roosters, in preference over that other word!) lure you with slogans such as "See me anywhere, but eat me here"...and where traditional sweetmeats tracing their origins to the pre-World War I-era come packaged in happy, shiny boxes that exhort you to "Forget to eat, but not Dhoda sweet"...where you are plied with more food and more calories per social visit than can be found in any self-respecting American diner...

If the Times of India is to be taken seriously, then India might well be a state of Punjab, rather than the other way around, but the sad truth is that even as I bask in the warmth of old memories, I am continuously reminded that the generous land where my Dad spent his early childhood drinking lassi from mammoth glasses is not the same anymore. Stories of proud hope clash miserably with tales of broken dreams in faraway lands; of a youth so hooked onto drugs that the government is hiring popular singers-songwriters to write paens to a land besieged by a curse of plenty, in a desperate bid to wean a generation away from choosing the easy way out. Then there are those older stories of pesticides leaching into the groundwater and of children being born with horrific congenital defects, which jostle for space amid the crowded cities with their BMWs and SUVs -- all this in a state that has more Mercedes showrooms than any other in India; a planned mall with a helipad, no less; and matter-of-fact tales of half-a-dozen Beemers being given away as wedding presents to the "Boy's" family!

Still, this past week I've felt more alive, more joshed-up and (more than ever before) in serious need of antacids-- thanks to a parade of relatives hugging and feeding the life out of me -- than I have in a long, long time. It is this flawed paradise that reminds me of who I am and who I will always be: a similarly flawed, but proud offspring of a rich and stubbornly resilient heritage, held together by the sheer goodwill and tenacity of a people with hearts richer than all the butter chicken in all the world.

That's my Punjab: chakking the phattas at a corner near you!   

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lost and Found

...also to Anne Taintor for her special brand of genius!
I had been desperately looking for a piece of paper over the last couple of years. You see, while I was studying for my Masters, someone I knew gave me a faded copy of an excerpt from some magazine. At that time -- and sans regular access to the Internet and the Googling skills I was to acquire a few years later -- I had no idea where it was from, or who had originally written it. All I knew was that it spoke to me. Of course, I also had no idea at that time that the person who gave it to me was also trying to whisper certain intentions my way, but that's another matter altogether. I try not to dwell on such things, except in moments of extreme introspection about some of the choices I made much later in life...especially the ones that came back to bite me in the whatsitcalled.

I found it today. Rummaging through years-old junk at my folks' place, determined to clear the cobwebs of transgressions past, I was busy tearing up papers, letters and bagging a whole lot of whatnot when, much to an almost teenage glee, I found that scrap of paper. And realised that though a whole lot had changed, those words still managed to get under my skin, albeit for different reasons altogether.

Now, at that time, all I knew was that some strange phenomenon, who signed off as ' Oriah Mountain Dreamer' had coaxed simple words into a seductive and spooky distillation of "The Great Search" that all of us embark on at some point or the other in our lives. As for me, I don't know why, but for the last few years, every other month I would start looking around for that scrap of paper -- compelled by an inexplicably overwhelming need to find it. Not that its discovery -- or even its continued elusiveness -- could have altered the course of my life in any earth-shattering way; still, I'm glad that at least one search is over. Now, on to other things. Also I can finally pay my due regard to the author who, I now know, surely doesn't need an endorsement from me.

A lot of things have  happened over the last couple of years. I have touched, in the words of Adlai Stevenson II, the "helm of heaven" and been down to the dark pit and back. But even as gravity makes it difficult for us mere mortals to stay up forever, I -- like one of them little skittle dolls -- find it fundamentally difficult to stay down. So, here's an old hope from a forgotten drawer...for new beginnings. Happy New Year and all that.

The Invitation by Oriah
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon...
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

As for me, it is only when I turn away from the familiar and confront the demons inside, do I realise how much I owe my beseiged solitude.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mars attacks and Venus fly traps


I had mentioned in an earlier post how I continue to get these toxic mails from a bunch of pro-male, anti-female, feminism-bashing, rabid misogynists, posing as knights to the rescue of the "Indian Family", following a piece I wrote for HT some months ago. (Don't bother clicking on this link if you did read this recent blog post, or you'll accuse me of nauseating cause-promotion.) Well, to reiterate a point, comments are sometimes cleaned out from the HT site, but oh how I wish they weren't. They were quite...er...charming, to say the least. 

One commentator even threatened to get me locked up in a jail cell, and another very generously asked me to marry him, promising that he will 'not be cruel' while most missed the point of the argument entirely, either being so wrapped up in their own misery or having become prisoners of an idea a la Inception. And they kept calling me a "feminist" who doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut.

I guess I should empathise because I know how difficult it is to resist the lure of extremes. Like how I just L-O-V-E my morning cup of tea. How I H-A-T-E sleeping early. How it's just so W-R-O-N-G to wear a black spaghetti top inside out and over a pink shirt and brown trousers (as spotted yesterday); and how Nirula's still has the M-O-S-T  B-E-S-T-E-S-T nut butterscotch ice cream.  

On to other extreme sentiments. This, quoted below, is the latest in a string of comments that I received earlier in my mail today, the kind that come as footnotes to sundry articles with the mere whiff of domestic strife/ issues -- or even if they contain the word 'dowry' or, god forbid, 'women'. Here's what one gentleman wrote:
Now under the name [of] Voilence [sic] against women, men are reduced to castrated animals. Men have only duties and obligations just to donate sperms [sic]. [The] familiy [sic] system is alresy [sic] destroyed in USA in the name [of] indiviudal [sic] rights and women['s] empowerment. Soon USA from being a fatherless society would become a feminist society where only stud men would be available to donate sperms!! India will be the first country from where anti feminism will be exported as the society has not accepted the feminist way of family destruction!!

(Whatever our imagined crimes, this person must first be charged with mutilation...of the English language, of course!)

So, let's, for the sake of argument define a feminist as these dudes understand it: a frustrated, man hater who is a free electron type, tilting at established social mores, abusing 'women-friendly' laws to get back at a world full of poor innocent suckers.

Now, in their world, or even in the real, real world, I am not what you would strictly call a militant feminist by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I a man-hater with some poor sod in the cross-hairs of my shotgun, but even if I was, this is all just plain ridiculous. And to defend the objects of attack against this tirade would be to drag down the debate to the lowest common denominator: the personal-experience-fueled bitter frustrations of a few. Why is it that anyone who does not respect the tight little squares that some people have chosen to slot the world in is stamped with a red label of caution instead? Why can't some people read between the lines, see the greys and just get used to the idea that the world is not fair and that sometimes it doles out a whole lot of crap when you least expect it and that more often than not the system we live in sputters, coughs and breaks down, leaving us stranded in a pile load of the above-mentioned crap?

And, most importantly, that "feminists", whatever that term embodies, are neither the damn enemy, nor the sole flag bearers of women's empowerment. Does such a powerful beast even exist? 

Mind you, this is not to say that there aren't women who abuse the social sway they might have or the legal rights available to them, whatever be their motivation. To deny that sad truth would be wrong. Just as it would be wrong to say that all men are insensitive, philandering, alcoholic, wife-beaters, or that true love is only about la-la-la candlelight dinners and expensive flowers. Which, in turn, is much like the fact that not all moms-in-law (barring those in Ekta Kapoor soaps) are evil; or the misconception that not all children are angelic (barring the one you're pretending to coo over right this moment). Quite the contrary. 

My argument with those who moan about the perversity of the legal system, the social contract, the rules of relationships or even life in general has always been that just because something goes against popular (or personal) belief; is the exception; is abused; or doesn't work as planned, doesn't negate the logic (or reality) of its existence. Like open marriages. Or the joint family. Or flexible working hours. Or restricted access to social networking sites at the workplace. Or single-scoop Hot Chocolate Fudge. Just because it doesn't always go in your favour, or according to plan, doesn't mean it M-U-S-T  D-I-E! It works for (or even makes a whole lot of sense to) someone, somewhere. 

Well, despite evidence to the contrary, and the majority opinion, I don't even like ice cream all that much. But I'l let it freeze-dry my brain once in a while, or even give me therapeutic succour when I'm down and out. See? Just because it doesn't always work for you doesn't give you the right to trash it. 

So it is with the law. The argument that dowry- and domestic violence- related legislation is anti-men or pro-women is like saying child abuse laws are anti-adult. Or that sunscreens are out to get the solar system. Or that condoms are baby-killers. Or that hate is anti-love. Would you care to hate things you don't give a damn about?

Special laws exist because there is a logic for their existence. Dowry-related deaths are not a figment of the female imagination. Wife beaters don't just exist in the darkness of a paralell cinema set in claustrophic middle class milieus. Yes, every good thing is abused. Ask those who eat Iodex on toast to get high, but then the solution is not to ban Iodex! What would people with genuine back-aches do? The purpose of all empowering legislations, like the Domestic Violence Act, is to deal with precisely the kind of fallout that stems from a different kind of abuse of power, which in turn stems from the social imbalance in our country.    

Going back to this gentleman's bizarre analogy: Castrated animals? How would that still make you less of a nuisance in a world of ' family-killer feminists'? Tell me, when you neuter a dog, does it not bark? Or rip your favourite pants to shreds? Or yap incessantly into the night? Besides, how does that psycho babble even make physiological sense, especially when your emasculated puppy is also fulfilling its 'duties and obligations to donate sperms [sic]'? 

And what might be the 'feminist way of family destruction'? I must confess to having a silly giggle at the thought of an incendiary bra-burning, Fab-India wearing terror-monger setting the marital home on fire, while in the process of taking a man to task. Or a menopausal type running amok with the lawn mower. See, how easy it is to generalise? 

The problem as I see it, is -- to borrow jargon from my earlier days of strategic enlightenment -- is seeing everything that exists between a man and a woman as a zero-sum game...I lose if you win so I'm going to try my damndest to kick you in the head if you try to use it to tell me I'm being a jerk. Really?

Be it serious crime or stupidity, they're gender-neutral. Such levels of stupidity should be a crime and a crime is a crime.

As for me, I'm tired of the options thrust upon me sometimes, and of having to choose between being or behaving like a "nice, homely girl" or "aggro, over-independent, feminist bitch". I may be "aunty" to the neighbourhood kids and still be "baby" to my old boarding school "bearer-jees" and "guard-jees", but I'm not going to choose between the black and white tags these so-called activists run around with. I reserve my right to be a bit of both, thank you. And to change my mind, if I please; all the time, weaving in and out of your two end-zones, while making sure that I'm not stepping on your dainty toes. Not all the time and not too much, anyway. 

So I will allow a boy to pay for my meal (sometimes) but not take my better driving skills off the table for another, cussing at him and showing him who's boss if he foolishly tries to cut me off near the India Gate circle. I will fight tooth and nail for the right to my financial independence but still hesitate just a second longer to allow a man to hold open the door for me. I might ask one to help me carry my shopping bags, yet not stare at some poor, exhausted man with the heavy briefcase to get up and offer me his hard-won seat in the "reserved for women" section on public transport. I will let you tell me I'm being silly, but equally expect you to not go all touchy on me if I tell you that pumpkin isn't really your colour (even if you don't know that pumpkin, baby, is so much more than a vegetable!) I will not wait and play games like how long before I return your call, and invite you out to dinner myself while secretly hoping you do it first. 

Still, when the dude above says that "India...has not accepted the feminist way of family destruction", I tip my hat right back at him for this one. For I'm sure there are more like me who have not accepted your narrow definition of feminism at all, dear sir, or your idea of the 'feminist' barracuda. The one that exists solely to make men's lives miserable. The one that is the killer of happily-ever-after family dreams. The one that is out to get all those guys who never had a date in college and blame the entire female species for their misfortune. The one that is out to demolish your particular version of a "happy married life", the one that doesn't understand the difference between "disciplining your woman" and domestic abuse (there isn't one, by the way).

But I will say this: the day we succumb to the Pygmalion Effect, if only as a direct consequence of your strange accusations, hang us, if you will, but do make sure we're not wearing pumpkin, will you? It's soooo not our colour, either.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Emperor has no clothes!

Leaking roofs and coffers with holes
Stadiums standing on faith and totem poles
India awaits its turn on the auction block
No time, none even to take stock
Money spent, records not even in a dusty register
Where are you, Mr.Prime Minister?

Red flags running amok in jungles beyond reach
Everyone's an expert, thanks to that freedom of speech
Hollow victories built on dispensable lives
Bidders all, exchanging high fives
Sore wounds left alone to fester
Where did you go to, Mr. Prime Minister?

Floods that wash away memories of years-long drought
Want money for food? Well, come on, show us that clout
Fields lie waste, grains left outside to brave the weather
While burning tears rain on hides of leather
A nation caught in the eye of a twister
Where might you be, Mr. Prime Minister?

The Valley burns, but there's no fire in the hearth
As your well-fed minions steadily add to their girth
The sick await doctors you didn't hire
While our taxes merrily burn in this hellfire
Look up your job if you will in Webster's
And tell us, what must you do Mr. Prime Minster?

Besides putting that foot in the mouth
In some conference room up West, or down South
We're trying to level the diplomatic scores
Even as the enemy lies in wait at our shores
I guess we'll patiently wait for the next disaster
To see what you'll do Mr. Prime Minister.

Angry voices float above your head
But you choose to ignore them instead
Watching in a Zen-like state
As we battle it out with our wretched fate
Who knew silence could be so sinister?
Till you showed us it is, Mr. Prime Minister.

But then, why must you listen to our stifled screams
When you're building the India of our dreams
One that's powered by energy, nuclear and clean
So you turn away from what's burning up your screen
It's us, Sir, wondering from here on to Twitter
Whatever the hell happened to our Prime Minister?

NOTE: The views expressed are extremely personal

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are you game enough? My very own Commonwealth Games advisory: Vol. I

Someone emailed me this picture as part of a chain mail.
Credit to whoever took it. Thanks!  
Countries are issuing advisories all the time...don't go here, you might get killed; don't go there, you might discover no one in your family cares enough to pay a ransom to get your little pinkie back; don't go anywhere, you paranoid bugger, they might worship cows but they WILL sell you for a buffalo; don't stay put, no one here likes you anyway, you burden on our recession-hit social security benefits, and so on...and on...

Now, by now everyone knows that the Commonwealth Games (CWG) are going to be a complete washout, what with a few people who think-like-me praying for that exact same outcome . Now I don't know if Mr. Aiyar really has the same reasons for thinking like me, since he studied in the same city I did -- under a similarly physical-activity obsessed bunch of Nazis who had probably been similarly tortured in their salad days, before moving on to torture children in countless boarding schools across the country -- but my perpetual prayer in those days was something along these lines, repeated like a mantra every time the dormitory gong sounded at precisely 5 am (those Nazi buggers!):

"Let it rain, please. I can't go for 5 am PT yet another day. Please Lord Indra, I will die if I have to run around in that field one more time, squelching those slow-moving snails under my pale-yellow-from-too-much-choona-polishing fleet shoes...Please, Indra-ji. I will not drink fizzy drinks for two whole weeks. Please...I will wash my socks every alternate day. Please...I will eat all my spooky, tastes-like-my-own-blood Ferradol iron supplement and not slip it to those over-fed athletes who will eat almost anything. Please...I will make my own topography sheets in Geog class. Please, Indra, my man...I will participate in more extra-curricular activities, and go beyond clicking my own pictures in the photography class, or lying to my half-deaf Sitar guruji. Please..."

And so I prayed. Every single day. But there was some sort of evil force in that town. No matter how bad the deluge, it always, always stopped raining in time for PT at 5 in the dawn and games at 4 in the playground-cum-lawn every evening. Always. But I digress.

So, going back to the CWG, I would like to issue an advisory of my own, which, I feel, it is my public duty as an Aamir Khan-inspired Indian who must treat guests to her country -- like most five-star hotels do, even as they do their best to dodge inquiring looks from all the native brown people -- as demi-gods. Atithi Devo Bhava and some such. So here's my prayer for the unsuspecting foreign visitor -- the one nervously hanging on to that air ticket that's bound to land him or her in a soup at IGI's 'swanky' new Terminal 3, or that Games ticket to the stadia from hell.

I'm not sure if this might help you navigate our country better, but what the hey, eh?! I'm just doing my duty as a citizen who has had to live with the constant nuisance of navigating a city that resembles a scene from the movie 2012, all for your visiting pleasure of course. Still, I will do the right thing and here's a teaser-trailer of what to expect if you do survive Terminator, uh, Terminal 3:

  • If someone asks you to hop into their cab for half the price that's being advertised by legit cab operators, make sure that you are an impoverished student who plans to bunk down at a dodgy 'lodge' in Paharganj for the entire duration of your stay in our beautifully under-priced country, and are willing to sell the clothes on your back for a masala dosa and a cutting chai at Amar's Vaishno Dhaba.
  • If you are not fit enough to carry your own luggage, leave it behind before boarding the plane to this, our great country of 100001 magic tricks. Again, be prepared to sell your VIP gallery pass for board and lodging at Paharganj and get used to watery sambar (lentil soup) with floating objects that may or may not be organic vegetables, fertilised au naturel along the banks of the Yamuna, if you know what I mean.
  • Now, do lock your doors at night, especially if not in Paharganj, or else you might just wake up on the banks of the Yamuna! 
  • If you do happen to see Indian men holding hands and walking along the roadside after their late night meals, in Che Guevara tees and boxers, please do not panic. This is not a prelude to revolutionary streetside indecent exposure. They think they're wearing respectably lengthy shorts, or nikkar, and they have absolutely no idea who Che was. They might believe he is Kishenji the bad-ass Naxal or Prakash Karat, the badder-ass Commie for all we know. And if you see a woman in a cotton/ handloom nightie and there are any headlights around, look away. Quickly. It won't be a pleasant sight.
  • Do not cross the road anywhere. At any time. Ever. Even if the traffic light is red and there is no one gunning their engine or slinking slowly across the stop line while being parked atop the pedestrian crossing and even if the traffic cop's calisthenics tell you it's your right of way. It's not. It never is in this marvellous land of we-have-pedestrians-for breakfast motorists. My advice? Plan all your activities on one side of the road if you are from a poor country that took the recession to heart and cannot afford a big, black, overcharging taxicab. Shop, eat, and make merry in a straight line. Or hire a bullock cart. They have right of way everywhere in India. Deck it up with colourful ribbons and god-pictures and no one will EVER cross your path for fear of starting a race riot with a poor pilgrim with spiritual powers.
  • If you plan to drive, you better know how to play Grand Theft Auto well. Really well. Driving in India is like a video game and you better be good at it, or else. We keep no score and we take no prisoners.     
  • While ordering at a restaurant, make sure you don't go for dishes that have elaborate descriptions underneath. Just like you would ignore a French menu that doesn't list crepes with minimal fanfare, don't fall for the frills. They are usually pretentious and measly offerings. I love the descriptions though. They're so darn cute. Tip: Eavesdrop on some desi-occupied tables around you and pick what sounds best and is said with a brook-no-argument kind of authority by the male head of the family. Ignore the whiny kids; they're probably whining for desi versions of firang food. It probably will be a Chindian version of your best-loved Oriental take out. Preferably find a table full of Punjabis and, for best results, sip something from a can while you wait for their food to arrive. Use your senses (and their good sense) to guide you. They know their food as well as the Italians, or the Irish. Oh yeah, we do
  • While taking any mode of public transport, do not emulate the locals. They often prefer open-air accommodation, with a lot of swinging from a ledge to the edge of danger. Spidey could. We can. You can't. Get over it.
  • Ask for directions only if you are willing to discover 15 ways of getting to one place, all at once, spoken in unison. We love giving people directions and sometimes tend to forget that they might not be going where we are. If you use a map, rely on landmarks such as "Raju's corner cigarette shop", "Sakhubai's Ladiss and Giants Booty Parlar" and "Kitty's Kirana Korner" or "Scotland High Public School: we have no branches". Chances are you'll find it in a few hours. Road signs are passé and a needless waste of public space, in times of an acute shortage of free retail space. 
  • Finally, to wrap up this first edition of the advisory, when you're getting all those immunization shots to guard you against the vagaries of our 'Developing, Third World' existence, do get a booster dose of 'patience plus' and a couple extra of 'whatever' and I promise you you'll be fine. You might even have fun, and go on to invest in non-existent, sub-judice real estate, right after making hooch-induced blood pacts to visit again. 
Now that you have the first edition of this easy-peasy guide, please do come. We're working very hard to make our lives miserable for a few greenbacks you'll throw at us and all because of our Stockholm-syndrome type sense of belonging to our erstwhile colonial masters.

We love you, our brave guests from distant shores. Sometimes even too much, because we don't quite like most of our neighbours. They suck and the exchange rate up north ain't too great, unless we're over there and standing and haggling for a kebab. Besides, you think we would ever take the effort to show them the flashing neon light and make their lives easier? No, Sirree...to each their own hell.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Family ties and what not

I get a lot of spam from these male activists who say they are fighting for the rights of men/fathers/brothers everywhere. It started out as vitriolic hate mail after a piece I wrote for HT a few months ago and then they just never stopped. Apparently, as a fellow journalist warned me after reading some of the online comments on the piece (too bad the website's dusted and cleaned every few weeks; they were priceless), I'm on "Le LIST" for all of eternity now.

Anyway, in the most recent mail one of them was, as usual, frothing at the mouth about yet another 'feminazi' (their word, not mine - though I must admit, sadly, to being familiar with the breed). After wondering why she has turned against her own by justifying high-end prostitution as a matter of 'democratic choice' (a claim that linked to a 2008 article, no longer available, and which I have no idea why I was being told about 2 years later), the author of the original mail went on to ask: "Would she say this, if her sister entered this trade at the high end?"

So here's my thing: Why must we always drag the family into it? Like a bunch of mafia bosses at a who-will-whack-whom-into-extinction-first gala. 

Sample these:
Observation: You're not supposed to use these water bowls for washing your hands, you know!
Burn!: Would you be saying this if my hands were your grandfather's dentures? Would you, freak?

O: You should stay away from his girl. There'll be nothing but trouble.
B: Would you rather I try with your wife instead? Huh? How would you feel then, loser?

O: Kids at the beach? No, I think we should use a picture of girls in bikinis for that resort promo.
B: You want a chick in a bikini, do you, you wanker? How about we just put your sister's picture there?

O: I think it might rain today...
B: Why, is your dad the fuckin' weatherman?

O: These apples don't look too crunchy. Are they old?
B: I picked them from your mom's backyard. Why don't you go ask her when they were born?

Oh, I could go on... Only to get back to that original question: why must we always bring the family into it?

I am so tired of driving past a gazillion traffic spats on Delhi's roads every single day. Somehow, above all that bumper-to-bumper indignation and honky-tonk, a few lines always manage to float in through my rolled-up window with a warm and fuzzy familiarity:


Tere baap ki sadak hai kya, saale? (Is it being your father's road or what, bro-in-law?)

Or, sometimes, it's that favoured cliché that has spawned a hundred spoofs, along with its own family-inspired repartee:

Q: Tu jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai? (Are you happening to be knowing who my father is?)
B: Kyon, tujhe nahin pata tera baap kaun hai? Ja apni maa se ja ke poochch! (Why, are you not happening to know your own patrilineal lineage? Why be not asking your own Mummy?)

There you have it. The Great Indian Family Drama.

What? Lazy post? Maybe. Mere baap ka blog hai; main jo bhi likhun! (Blog of my father, I'm doing what I'm please!)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Of clunky reporters and Chunky Pandey

It never fails to amuse me that people still use the words 'concubine', and 'paramour' (special mention: 'danseuse'?). This is why a metro news item that would have inspired nothing more than a quick glance and casual solemnity, made me want to slap on some eau de cologne, hop onto a Vespa and ask someone for directions to the Fifties.

Still, I read on. And soon that one word wasn't the problem any more.

After establishing the fact that a lady lawyer had been brutally stabbed and killed by her 'paramour', the reporter went on to add that:


"After committing the crime, the accused had attempted suicide by slitting his throat at the murder scene. However, he ran away from the spot when his colleagues tried to catch him and entered a retroom[sic] in the court where he consumed pesticide."


Now, I just don't get this. How evil and inept can a 'paramour' be?

All through this, I couldn't help but think of the poor woman who was murdered, may her soul rest in peace. But the reporter seemed hell-bent on not allowing the reader enough solemn space to appreciate the gravity of said paramour's crime. Here's the coup de grace:

"Both were wearing black robes when the incident occurred, sources of the High Court police station said."


Huh? The crime was committed on the premises of the state's highest court, no less, and the deceased was a lawyer, for crying out loud. You don't need anonymous 'sources' to provide that crucial piece of crime scene trivia, much less include it in your misspelt report. What did you expect them to be wearing? Soccer jerseys? Black lace and bootstraps?

Ah, the joys of in-depth reporting in this country, what with our diligent note-taking and ear for detail.

Talking of soccer, the great game is at the heart of my top two of the week.

Soccer-crazy husband of a friend to another friend: Hey our TV's not working. Can we drop in at your place to watch the semi-finals at night?

The other friend who just does not get soccer (and most other sports): Well you could, but we usually turn in really early, so you'll be on your own. Anyway, relax. I'm sure you can catch a repeat show or something in the morning.

[Repeat show of the once-in-four-years FIFA World Cup semi final between Germany and Spain? Images of Marie Antoinette flash before my eyes, documentary-style...let them eat cake...]

Anyway, soon the scene shifts to my place, where we're watching the semis, desperately praying for a breakthrough so that we may use our fists and mouth to ceremoniously punch the air and shout happy obscenities, respectively, instead of using them to stuff empty calories into our faces... About ten bowlfuls of chips and fifteen Diet Cokes later, Puyol nets a neat header and there's a right ruckus in my bedroom, while I shoot dirty glares in the direction of the red-shirt sporting secret Spanish fan to my right.

Friend who has been asleep for the last 73 minutes of the game: What? Chunky Pandey scored?!!


Well, let us all have bloody cakes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dementia, now!

Snippets from the morning meeting:

Someone: So, what's behind this big ban on all these militant outfits by Pakistan?

Someone else: Just Punjab...Blah blah blah... the US has... blah blah... bad-ass Taliban... blah blah....(some one says, "but where the hell is that Zardari?")... blah blah.... Sharif brothers... blah blah blah ... Tehrik-i-Taliban... blah blah blah....after Benazir... blah blah...the son...blah blah...Sindh... Punjab... blah blah

Another person: The son? I think he might have much trickier issues to deal with beyond what's going on in Pakistan. BTW, does anyone remember this (biographer/ hack/ someone) *guy* who once interviewed Benazir? Apparently, (and, of course, like some of our meeting anecdotes, this can neither be confirmed, nor denied) Bhutto told him that she was rather worried about her son prancing about the hall in a tutu and ballerina shoes.

Person busy with a phone smarter than mine: Huh? Benazir Bhutto's son, that Zardari boy, uh, Bilawal chap? Are you serious?

[Now, what we just love doing in our meetings (NOTE: only after we have finished debating loftier issues of national importance, that is), is to up stray comments a notch...]

That person: Yeah, I can just imagine the headlines: "Baluchistan Bolshoi", starring Bilawal Bhutto.

This person: Umm, not Baluchistan, Sindh.


The same person: No, no. It doesn't have the same ring to it... you know, the alliteration appeal?

The other person: Ah yes, and what might it be called?

Me: Swat Lake? (and, with a flourish) "The Baluchistan Bolshoi presents...Bilawal in Swat Lake!"

[You see what I'm doing here. Taking credit. I thought it sounded good. Even a little funny, perhaps?]


Someone who's had enough of the Bilawal groupies: So, tell me, how did the Court really decide who George Fernandes should go home with? I mean, he's got Alzheimer's, for God's sake. He couldn't have been all that competent to choose between lady-who-wants-to-wash-the-dog-while-demanding-her-furniture-back and lady-who's-locked-him-up-in-the-house-and-won't-let-his-brothers-see-him, can he, now?

Someone other than me: I hear they had a Konkani lawyer present, something to do with regression therapy or some such thing, thinking he might regress enough to start babbling in Konkani or something. The judge said he wished to "know his mind".

[Good luck with that, Horatio.]

Still another person: Well, I guess that didn't work. I mean he's 80, suffering from both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's...apparently he appeared confused and disoriented and when asked how many brothers he had, might have mumbled "six".

[He has three, poor thing. I mean this is the same guy who visited Siachen, at the age of 70, no less. It makes me sad. Still...]

Me: It's just as well the Judge was smart enough not to ask him how many wives he had. That could have gotten ugly.


[There. I did it again. Even though I felt sad, I just couldn't help myself.]  

Context: Most of our meetings seem to follow a similar path after the day's business has been dealt with, eventually waltzing into every-man's land of nonsense -- a ten-minute warm-up for the rest of the day, over truly awful coffee.

Explanation: The inane keeps us sane amid the mundane. (I just can't help myself!)


Against better judgement:  It ain't no crime to rhyme.

Inner Voice: Oh, please do stop, get on your paws and beg for mercy.

POSTSCRIPT: I just hope that when I lose my mind, there's no judge willing to lead a treasure hunt to find it. I'm just saying.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Strangers in the night

Quite like this corny next line,
It was a dark and stormy night;
A bit like having make-up sex,
In the middle of an unresolved fight.

Thence upon a time,
They had a go at it twice;
Only because the first time he fumbled,
Not unlike the three blind mice.

With her thoughts far, far away,
She lay awake to watch him sleep;
A smile played on her scarlet lips
Lost, he looked, like Little Beau Peep’s sheep.

There lies my boy, she thought,
As she smoothed his furrowed brow;
Now that we might have found love,
Where the hell do we go from here now?

As her baby slept,
The innocent sleep of a child;
She updated her Facebook status,
And smoked a Classic Mild.

Shaken by the questions that plagued her,
Not stirred, as you might note;
She tried hard to battle the demons,
And dug a pencil out of her Kookai tote.

As the shopping list made its way down the sheet,
The silhouette in the bed began stirring;
No, I’m not ready for you to wake up just yet,
She thought, with her mind whirring.

One night, oh lord,
One night is not what it takes;
I need to know if this is the real thing,
Before that man in my bed awakes.

He mumbled a word in his sleep,
She strained her ears to hear;
And on her worried face,
A cute little frown did appear.

Say that again, will you,
I’m not sure I heard you, my eternal flame;
What the hell did you just say, asshole?
That’s not even my friggin’ name!


Monday, June 14, 2010

Hanging by a word

I'm a little worried about my reading habits these days. Gone is the time when I would, very wisely, pepper my gourmet (albeit eclectic) diet of the printed word with just the right amount of junk food: moving from the Hardy Boys, to sneaking in the odd Victoria Holt from the senior school library, right on to smuggled Irving Wallace, Ken Follett, Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz and a late but very brief brush with Mills and Boon (in my defense I read my first 'MB' at the age of 21 and continue to doggedly resist that sappy Danielle Steel woman).

All this, unthreateningly tucked into the middle of some serious heavy-duty reading of whatever on the bookshelves caught my fleeting fancy.

All the authors I mention, however, had a very important role to play in our sequestered all-girls' boarding school life. Special mention must go out to a few:

  1. The Hardy Boys got me comfortable with the idea of male chemistry, and taught me that not all "buddy boys" are necessarily gay. It's different, of course, for women. After all, we own the word 'girly', and are often expected to hold hands and giggle.
  2. Victoria Holt. Hmmm...That lady taught me that when you try to dramatically read aloud a love scene -- from a book you were not supposed to have checked out from the library in the first place -- in front of your entire 7th grade, duly emphasising the rrrrippping of shirts and the thudddding of hearts coming together as one, do look over your shoulder after a minute or two to check if the very propah English teacher is not watching with a practised glare (and barely concealed amusement)
  3. Then, beyond the near-Victorian love scenes of the Holtian world, had it not been for Ms. Collins and her authentic Hollywood fare, we might never have known what lay beyond the sanitised menu of school-level sex education (or the clumsy stories of the class's legendary half-a-boyfriend-old slut) 
  4. But for Ms. Krantz, I might never have hit upon that ultimate flu-fighting remedy: vodka and orange juice. And it works, though not by the jugful as I might have imagined in those heady days. In fact, now, after some headache days following that bit of advice, I'd definitely advise a little caution.  
  5. Irving Wallace? That man showed me the power of the double role, leading to a lifelong love affair with hammy Govinda/ Suniel Shetty movies. 
  6. My first brush with Ken Follett taught me to improvise on everyday household items to fight off cold-blooded international spies. Not sure when that might come in handy though, but then we learn and live, my friends.   
  7. Mills and Boon... Honesty now. Every girl deserves a foolish dream. And the even more foolish ideal of the (im?)perfect man. Sigh.

Now this brings me to my current obsession with fly-by-night thrillers. That old fascination with the treacherous world of Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carre, Wilbur Smith and the rest has now metamorphosed into a love for the criminally insane. Criminal Minds, Castle and Law and Order apart, I am now a proud fan of the likes of that grand dame of crime thrillers -- Mary Higgins Clark -- having tracked down every one of her books with the dogged determination of a crime-fighting forensics expert à la CSI; of the mostly hammy and sometimes brilliant Tess Gerritsen; and of those Scandinavian crusaders against crime -- like Inspector Wallander of Henning Mankell, VanVeeteren of Håkan Nesser, along with that strange and addictive duo: the delinquent Lisbeth Salander and that lucky sod (according to men who might wonder why he gets all the babes), Mikael (Kalle) Blomkvist, both creations of the man who died too young (and unsung): Stieg Larsson.

So, as I feverishly move from page to page and from one murder mystery to another, I feel I'm spinning out of control, being flung into a parallel universe in which I must stay high on some kind of adrenaline, periodically injected into my system by espresso shots of suspense. Gone are the days when I read all that stuff of 'substance'. Now its more like a whole lot of substance abuse, what with this gnawing need to pick up yet another crime thriller. Just one more ride and I'll be done...I swear. One more...

Well, that surely can't be too good in the long run, what with all the wise men and women at work lapping up the latest climate change caper or those monotonous political monologues. Back home, the ignored bookshelf is sagging with sagacity and silently crying out to be relieved of its burden of the seriously written word: tomes that have been foisted upon it by guilt trips to the bookshop, every time a new thriller winked on the horizon.

Hang in there fella. I'll get to you. Just after this one chapter, I promise...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bhangra in the Bible belt

Years ago, on a beach in Langkawi, I heard a Malaysian boy-girl band butcher Sade and her smoky rendition of this song. Not that it is a favourite or anything, but I can still hear them in my head, as clearly as if they were here with me, whispering feverishly into my new Sony headphones: "He's a Smooth Operaaator; Smooooooooth Operaaaaatorrrr...Coast to coast, LA to Cheee-caaago/ Across the north and south to Keeee Laaago..."

Yes, Cheee-caaago, which is where I was this past weekend, for a Sardaron ki Shaadi no less. My cousin brother got married, amid the following near life-altering experiences/ realisations:
  • a long, long...long flight, during which I thought I was dying of tetanus; 
  • the treachery of having my travel agent set me up for a "Hindoo Meal" on all legs of the journey (still, a small price to pay for all those aisle seats, I guess);
  • two aborted landings before the one that worked out (which seems to be par for the course for me in American airspace, if previous experiences are taken into account);
  • my first stretch limousine ride ever (with the Panjoos in their Hummer/ Pajeros wondering why the blasted "Limmo" driver was so slow);
  • the scribbling of ugly henna on my hand by a sleep-deprived laborious Gujju aunty, undeterred by my jet-lagged nod-offs in between;
  • posing for photographs with the most well-decorated albeit stinkiest mare known to man -- fussed over  by a cool-shades sporting firang couple in ill-fitting traditional Indian finery; 
  • being treated like a minor overseas celebrity: "Oh, you've come aaaallll the way from India for this... wah!"
  • brushing up on my rusty, pseudo-accented, Bend-it-Like Beckham-ish Punjabi;
  • breaking a fairly high pair of heels during the bhangra blast that followed the beautiful Gurudwara ceremony, and dancing along with the rest of the mob to my favourite kind of music nevertheless;
  • the heart-sinking awareness that all the cute men (correction: boys) worth flirting with (as is compulsory at weddings) were at least 10 (to15!!) years younger;
  • learning that Starbucks can never replace the good, old fashioned, non-branded cold-coffee sold in unmarked milk bottles, despite serving up an awfully good latte;
  • the cosy realisation that I can feel comfortably at home in any old corner of the civilised world armed with a backpack and some greenbacks;
  • re-discovering that grand old temple of consumerism, where retail therapy definitely has lots going for it. In fact, there's a very real chance that a coalition of the billing, headed by Wal-mart may yet take over the world;
  • hearing my friend's four year old cite New Delhi weather updates from his dad's iPhone after every few hours and gleefully basking in the knowledge that three/four-year-olds find me amusing (yay!); and 
  • cautiously discovering that a fresh flower can actually taste pretty good in champagne, especially when you're trading old war stories over the rim.
and then some more...
    So, well-fed, well-travelled and much pampered by overseas relatives and a special, special friend (my very own personal genie), I'm back, freshly armed with the knowledge that ----

    • you can take the Indian out of Punjab but never take the Punjabi out of any true-blue "Kanedda" or "New Yark" expat; 
    • that despite his preference for turkey sandwiches and parrot green silk shirts, he'll still shake a leg (or two left ones) to "Apna Punjab" while wearing that eternally wistful look on his smoothly shaven face; 
    • that elasticised petticoats apart, the glitter of "gota" and gold is only bound to increase as you move Westwards; 
    • that no limousine, no matter how swanky or big, can hold the rustic Punjabi spirit in check for longer than it takes the driver to maneuver it past the next curb; 
    • that there's a strange serenity in watching freshly scrubbed children sincerely reciting the 'Hanuman Chalisa' in a Yankee accent before going to bed; 
    • that a strange new city can smell your fear, so the trick is to feel none, even if you get evicted from a shopping mall following a bomb scare, without a cell phone to call for a pick up; no, not even then.
    • that you have to ask for those different dips with your buffalo wings takeaway and that it is no longer all that plebeian to ask for some Dunkin' Donuts coffee; and 
    • that some women are genetically programmed to hate all other women who might get into an interesting discussion with their husbands, even if the said interaction is limited to a genuinely sanguine debate on the oil spill in the Gulf of M.


    So, all this is what I finally pushed past the green channel at customs clearance back home, besides sundry other memories from a holiday that wasn't supposed to be. I didn't carry a camera and made no other travel  arrangements, yet I landed up sleeping under six different roofs in a week-and-a-half long visit. Such is the power of spontaneity... and good friends. Especially those who live in the 'nap-towns' of the great American mid-west and are genuinely excited about your humble presence in their palatial suburban homes, even if all you do is sit on the patio and giggle over old school photographs.

    I love you guys, but the next time I'm going to Vegas.

    Friday, May 21, 2010

    What if beggars became choosers?


    Office party. The usual suspects doing the unusual dancing and making merry like there was a nationwide merry shortage. It's fun though, this ritual of putting people who you work with in a semi-dark room with 80s music,  free grub and booze, while expecting them to relax and forget all about low pay packets, stalled increments and all those bad hair days at work in a single night of drunken swaying. This can have a particularly surreal (eerie?) quality to it. Especially if the hallowed venue happens to be the House of Horrors, where they "do not serve anything Indian" and the kebab-like apparitions are referred to as "chicken charcoal", in awed whispers, if you please. Where pizzas are thin and tongues get fat, pretty soon, with second-rate vodka.

    So this place? It's a temple of kitsch where pseudo-faithful devotees can pay obeisance to Panjoo excesses. Well, the faux Adonis & David statues aside, the lighting is upscale dhaba, and the dining room at the back makes you feel that any moment soon you'd have someone's head served to you on a platter. Preferably one that you've been meaning to off for a while now! Then there's that fountain of giant mutant grapes and water spray fans that generate so much mist that it's entertaining enough to watch people stumble in and fumble their way towards the "party". Oh, and every time you open your mouth to speak, it tastes like you swallowed a mouthful at Marine Drive (which, by the by, I did, once -- but then that's another story for another day). As some one said, "If Veda is an old world brothel, then this is all leather and chains". I believe there is a Rohit Bal connection here as well. It figures. Though I do wish I could claim that line as my own. Sigh.

    Still, I like office parties. They're so overrated. That's why they're so much fun. As it is with most overrated things. Like having sex with the most popular boy in school. I'm just saying. Or designer labels. Well, you won't see anyone swinging an Hermes Birkin bag complain about what an unwelcome burden it is, will you? Me? I'm just saying.

    Popping bubble wrap. Now, that's still waiting to get its rightful place in the world. We need a revolution.

    Ok, time out. We just got our annual appraisal letters, so this blog post must be cut short. Something about me being an open book and all that. Besides, I did think about scratching out all of the above, it might come out sounding like I'm hurt if the news ain't good.

    Which, by the way, I already am. And this is what I have learnt from the experience: intense pain is the most effective antidote to extreme embarrassment.

    Don't believe me? Try falling down on your hands and knees at a big traffic crossing, bang in front of your office, and then valiantly walk in to your place of work -- all covered in mud with a bloodied knee and a big tear in your dark lycra churidar through which said knee is winking mortification at the world -- and you'll know what I mean. Oh, and on top of that extreme physical and emotional ordeal, add the fact that someone from a local bus asks you "Arrey, kya hua, Medem?", as you wince and try to recover your dark glasses from where they are now precariously perched, on the bridge of your nose no less, while bravely lifting and dusting yourself off, all the while trying hard not to cry at the unfairness of it all, especially after a savvy lunch at one of the city's finest restaurants where you gave some heavy-duty gyan to a foreign diplomat and THEN you'll know what I really  mean. Damn CP and its muddy pavements and scattered stones and errant wires that lurk beneath them -- pure evil in Delhi's darkened heart.

    But the pain, it rescues you. It lifts you up from the immediacy of the humiliation and transports you to a place where you wave a dusty palm in a sheepish hello to sundry colleagues who stare at a muddy you -- aghast at the possibilities -- and politely wonder what hit you. This, right after you pop a cotton ball on the bloody knee, using the hole in your pants to access what's going to be a nasty, nasty bruise the day after. Let's not even go into how the rest of your mortal frame might feel after a day of re-living the fall followed by a night 's worth of fitful sleep after a few mind (if not pain)-numbing drinks with an old friend.

    So, yes, I'm in pain. Truly. May the tetanus shot be damned.

    And the letter? Oh, that? Hmmm... As I said, I'm in pain.

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Karma kicker

    Just this morning, a friend and I were discussing the embarrassment potential of parents. I bet I am not alone in this universe for having to endlessly endure the telling of cringe-worthy tales from my childhood, often narrated with a kind of absent-minded relish by my over-adoring parents. Unfortunate references to long-forgotten baby-talk, bloopers all the way from kindergarten right up to my braces days and beyond have a way of turning up at the most unfortunate of times, often in the midst of a civilised discussion on turnips.

    Imagine my 30-something brain trying to process the insult of having an over-zealous parent asking me whether I remembered to wish a particular acquaintance who I had dutifully been chatting with for about five minutes before said parent appeared, making me look all indignant and say, “Err, of course, Dad!” To add insult to injury, this usually is a cause for laughter all around, followed by a cutesy little tale about my unfortunate antics as a child that inevitably follows, as night does day, while I slink away to fume. Parents, I tell you!

    What I find most amazing (and somewhat adorable, if you come to think about it on your good days) is how parents continue to treat you like a kid while forever asking you to grow up. So even while they’re asking you to pull up your socks or your grades, they continue to tell those tales to all those on whom you wish a make a grown-up impression about you peeing in your pants when you were two. Adding to their tales are often those pesky relatives who remember seeing you last when you were just a wee lad or lass and who can’t get over the fact that evolution has a way of making you get off your hands and knees to become a responsible and respectable bi-pedal person who can do without being constantly reminded of just how much they have grown, horizontally or vertically!    

    Now, even if anyone were to deny this fact, all they would have to do is to take a look around them at the battle of popular culture down the ages, which seems to scream on about this tussle between two seemingly harassed generations. On the one hand are those lovable but crazy folks, trying to understand why their sweet little girl listens to noise as compared to actual lyrics; while on the other are their kids who are desperately trying to find a way to explain the Internet to a generation that still continues to remind them to ‘post’ an Archies card by mail to an auntie in the US whose birthday is more than a month away.

    The other day I was listening to that Linkin Park song called ‘Numb’ (yes, some people as old as me also like them…a lot), along with my friend’s eight-year old son (yes, some as young as that also listen to them). Well, he wondered if I had any of the band’s tracks and here I must admit to feeling immensely ‘cool’ that I did have it on my iPod – cool (or silly) enough to try and show off my entire Linkin Park to an eight-year old by playing it on the short drive to a mall.

    And, to my sudden horror, I remembered my parents trying to casually drop phrases like ‘pep up’ into conversations with me in my wannabe years. There I was, trying to push my coolness down the throat of a little boy, who I remember as a day-old baby and whose embarrassing stories I am sure I will repeat to at least one girlfriend in the future.

    This is the beauty of life, I thought. We become what we ridicule. Its God’s little joke on all those who have, at some time or another, looked at their parents as if they were aliens.  

    So, as I start to resemble my mother more and more each day (and here I am talking about more than facial features) I realise that it is these pulls and pressures that define the topsy-turvy world of kids and grown-ups. What’s more, it is the bewilderment of one generation about the habits of another that continues to give us some of the most hilarious (and annoying) moments of our lives. And you know what the best part is? If we’re lucky, we’ll get to experience the madness from both ends. So, bring it on mom and dad, I don’t think I’m all that afraid anymore!    

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    They're on to us or Bawl, baby, bawl



    There are certain things that should have remained in the domain they were intended to, but have found their way across the gender divide to shake up things as we know (and prefer) them. Like checked shirts worn by Marlboro-ish wannabes. I admit I gave them a test drive in the 90s when I was into this weird college-dressing revolt thing of mine. But then I moved on and began investing in slimming blacks and flattering reds and have not looked back since, thank the Lord. 

    And what's with men and phone charms? Wrap a locket on a chain or a bobbing Hanuman on your rear-view mirror and be done with it, now. Why must we have to endure the harsh glare of that diamond encrusted alphabet hanging off your phone along with the one playing peek-a-boo from underneath your baniyan, all on top of that annoying Bollywood ringtone? Ever been startled awake at six in the morning, while travelling in a train from India's Wild East to the tune of Altaf Raja begging someone to please answer their goddamn phone? It ain't pretty.

    But I guess we can make our peace with that. Boys will be boys and all that. But what feels like a direct assault on all that's good about this division of assets is when boys want to be girls. I am referring to men crying in public. As if Baby Sreesanth was not enough, we now have more live emotainment from that other playground favoured by Indians: politics.        

    It appears that the Madhya Pradesh state Assembly Speaker, not knowing what to do about protesting Congressmen who have been holding a parallel assembly session, which he has no control over, wept daintily into his bushy moustache. Like, shed actual tears. Caught-on-camera tears. Why? Because those mean boys taunted a lady from the lotus-eaters' party for being late, blaming it on a visit to the beauty parlour. Well, I had warned about this enslavement to vanity in an earlier post, people. And look how even a harmless mention of that neighbourhood temple of makeovers has come to bite us in the behind.  

    I guess it's payback time, and we should have seen it coming. We never should have left the warm comfort of the hearth to slow-drive our way to the office, wearing pleated trousers. Or tried to bend it like Becks. Should have continued to  quietly spend it like Posh. What a mess we've made of things.

    As if taunting us with paternity leave was not enough, they went ahead and started waxing their chests, before moving on to pink shirts and pedicures -- facials even! And look at this, they're crying openly now. Where does it end? It's war. Looting and pillage. What will they take away from us next?

    I just hope it is not my sparkly Saturday flip-flops! They don't do too well with toe hair. Oh, but they're into waxing them now. Time to wave the white flag and surrender. Sigh. Enjoy your bubble bath, you weepy little bugger. I'm off to share a frosted one with my buddies.