Monday, August 22, 2016

Golden Girls

SIX O’CLOCK ON a winter’s morning. I was kicking myself for promising to show up at the Chhotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak. The sky was still dark, and even the street dogs were too cold to bark. I was certain the officials were mistaken: the kids would not turn up on time. But at 6.30 am I peeked into the practice hall and found a group of boys running circles at the far end. Closer to the door were the girls, already sweating.
The girl leading the group exercises wore a white cap that buttoned under her chin, giving her an endearing, childlike look. Nothing childlike about her manner, though. She was shouting out instructions, driving herself as hard as the others. The senior wrestling coach who had been showing me around pointed her out: Sakshi Malik, Commonwealth silver medallist.
A few of the girls jogged past, bending to touch the coach’s feet. Another girl, without being asked, jogged off and returned with a chair for me. I sat and watched. Sit-ups. Push-ups. Leaps. Squats. Ten. Twenty. A hundred. Then came the special wrestler moves. A girl spinning atop another’s back. A girl spinning circles around herself. A girl grabbing the leg of her sparring partner, forcing her knee into a forward buck until she toppled backwards – the move takes less than a second to unfold. But they do it ten, twenty, a hundred times a day.
Sakshi’s shirt was drenched when, two hours later, she sat down in front of my chair to cool off. We were going to have to talk like this. She stretching, me scratching away in my notebook. She had no time for interviews. Her father was already outside, waiting to pick her up.
I had the good fortune of meeting Sakshi Malik a few months ago while researching a few story ideas around wrestling, women and sports. She was already a star in wrestling circles but not as well-known yet as the Phogat sisters. I also interviewed Geeta Phogat, who did not make it to the Olympic team after all, and her parents, and a few other girls who are not professional players yet but who are starting to assert their right to play a sport in a public space. Read the full essay here:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review : What Lies Between Us

Instead of building up to a climactic event, this novel seeks to examine a tragic chain of circumstances that leads to a young mother’s ultimate failure. This could have been the novel’s main strength for it could have set the writer free to investigate the links in the chain of tragedy and the complex nature of emotional betrayal within a family. However, the storytelling here is laid out flat as a delineation of a set of life events as told in a first-person voice that does not seem to hesitate at the door of memory.

From my review of the novel 'What Lies Between Us' in The Hindu:

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Considering Lucknow

I was asked recently to write about my own relationship to a city. I spent much of my childhood in small townships that qualify neither as towns nor as villages. And though I have lived much longer in Bombay/Mumbai, and Delhi, I don't have the same emotional tie to them as I do with Lucknow, the city where I may have spent a little over a year as a toddler, and then several months of summer and winter vacations through my schooling and college years.

The city is linked in my memory with grandparents, with the extended family, with childhood itself. But it is more than just a personal bond. There are things to admire about the city's culture, its casual, familiar awareness of its cultural capital, the genuine consideration that drives the surface politeness. This is what I've written about, but in addition to the anecdotes in this short article, there are many other memories that have been dredged up.

I had once signed up for a short course in computer programming, at Aptech. I was studying in Ajmer but transferred to a Lucknow centre for the summer months. I sat for a very basic programming test there and clearly, I had flunked. When I called the centre to ask about how I'd fared in the exam, my instructor came on the line but was too polite to tell me outright that I had failed. So he said, "It's gone for a six. You know? It's gone for a toss."

I didn't know. It took me a while to understand that he was trying to say that I had NOT cleared the test. But because he told me indirectly, and gently, that sense of having failed did not feel personal. Somehow, it felt more as if the exam itself, that sheet of paper attached to my name, had gone and done something it shouldn't have. By now, I had understood and privately accepted that computers were just not my thing, and I dropped out of the course soon after. But I have never stopped being grateful for the indirect gentleness of the teacher.

As for Lucknow, what it means to me, here is the article:

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jihadi Janes and Jamillas

Tabish Khair has written a fine new novel about Islamic terror and what draws young girls, especially those living in relative comfort in western nations, to the horrific war in Syria. I reviewed it here (headline not mine):

The question gains urgency after recent terror attacks that were carried out by middle or upper class young professionals who attended good schools and degrees. They are not driven to despair by poverty; their families seem to have no clue about their violent plans.
As for the young girls who have left comfortable homes in liberal societies to join extremist outfits like Daesh, the imagination boggles. With reports of horrific sexual abuse, aside from the risks inherent in a closeted life in states where women are not granted equal rights – why? Who is to blame for all this?
Read the full review here:

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The man who invented poetry

A long review of Afzal Ahmed Syed's urdu poetry, translated into english by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and published in India as the collection 'Rococo and Other Worlds':

Consider the first poem in the collection, ‘Our National Tree.’ It refers to the acacia—known as keekar or babool in Hindustani—and the poet announces peremptorily that it ought to be the national tree of Pakistan. He juxtaposes the humble, thorny plant against the delicacy and fragrance of “white jasmine” and the leisure and plenitude suggested by “ikebana practitioners.” Then, without warning, he tosses in a brutal line:
Botanists do not identify acacia as a tree
because it does not support hanging
The translation is sure to have lost some of the cadence of the original Urdu. Botanists, after all, sound nothing like mere botanists if you call them nabanaat ke maahir. Even so, there is no looking away from the striking imagery and the searing narratives. The trend continues in ‘Whom One Loves,’ where the poet begins gently, urging the reader to rescue the beloved from “a fading city/ on the last boat,” and then goes on to say:
The beloved
must be given the first kiss
a torture cell
in a salt mine

Read the full essay here 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Embodying Venus

I HAVE A clear memory of the buttons – large, translucent-white plastic – and the teacher’s fingers unbuttoning the first one. She was shouting: ‘I’m going to take off your clothes! I’m going to strip you naked in front of everyone!’
The child’s maroon tunic, with those big buttons down the middle, hung down to her ankles. In our little township school, parents often bought uniforms three or four sizes too large so they’d last.
The teacher’s brows were riven with her frown, her eyes wide, her voice transformed by rage. Her flushed face was level with the child’s. And the child was howling.
I’ve forgotten what I, a senior prefect, was doing there and what the child was being punished for. Perhaps she was in the wrong uniform; we wore white on Saturdays. At any rate, it was not unusual. The boys especially were often beaten or subjected to threats like: ‘I’ll take your pants off if you... (insert any act of disobedience here).’ Still, twenty years later, I remember that howling kid. She was not stripped after all. A promise was extracted that the mistake, whatever it was, would not be repeated. But I do remember wondering why the child was so afraid. She’s so little, I thought, she must be bathed and dressed by other people. Why does she care if her clothes are taken off?
But the child did care. At three or four years old, she was aware that the taking off of her clothes was an act of public humiliation. And she was howling out her terrified little heart.
Read the rest of it here:

I had written this essay on bodies, shame, and the politics of nudity and it was published by the Griffith Review a year ago. It is now available online to read in full.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The new grapple

At 57 kilos, Sandeep Tomar is one of the slighter athletes in the akhada, but has earned respect by throwing Commonwealth Games gold medallist Amit Dahiya in the World Championship trials last year. Noticing his ears, I ask, “Did you have an accident or were you born this way?”

Other boys cackle while Dhaka, smiling a wattage of 30 years’experience in the sport, enlightens me: “Broken ears are a wrestler’s pride.”

The 55-year-old explains how broken blood vessels from hands or knees smashing into the side of a wrestler’s head harden into a sort of floret. Dhaka invites me to touch Sandeep’s ears, saying, “They’re hard now, like stone. But when the ears first break, you want to scream if they’re touched even by a strong breeze.”

This was a story I did for GQ India about wrestling, one of the most ancient sports in the world, and one of the most popular forms of public sporting entertainment in India even today. Read the rest of the article here:

And here 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

How we are powered

I've often wondered how we've managed to avoid thinking about power supply. I mean, electricity. As consumers, we like to buy everything we need, so we are not dependent on others and so that our lives and lifestyles are not so easily compromised. Yet, we are so reluctant to actually start owning and producing our own power, and embracing the freedom that that offers. So I wrote this short comic for Mint:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Missing Person Report

Missing Person Report

When you went missing, Nilofer, we didn't think we had anything to do with it.
We thought of accident, rape, bodies in dumpers. We visited Deonar, Nilofer,
to describe hair parted down the middle and flesh of eighteen, twenty, just in case
chunks of flesh was all they could find. We thought next of men, of boys.
Each unaccounted smile we remembered in your eyes, we caught it on the street
and roughed it up. We did a count of heads that had turned. We printed posters, Nilofer,
with your name and face and all our phone numbers and then we chased that trail
of paper across six suburbs to say, again, in two new languages, that we were still fretting
over a girl who would not return. Then we thought you would just come back like a mewling kitten
in the monsoon. And then we were suddenly tight on cash and anyway, we had other things to do.
You stayed missing. We thought if you cared enough to return, you would. And you should. After all
we did for you... and then we began to think about what we did to you when you went missing, Nilofer.

- Annie Zaidi

This poem was first published in an anthology called Indian Voices: Volume One

Monday, May 09, 2016

Law abiding citizens

It is curious, this idea of who is a law-abiding person and who isn't. There is a crush of voices around me talking about how 'we' are law-abiding and how 'these people' don't follow the rules. The more interesting question is, which set of rules? It got me to write this comic.

Do read it here:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Love, loneliness and the female form

December 2012. India woke up to the shock of sexual assault that was so violent, it turned our collective stomach. For a while, our outrage spilled out into the streets. There was talk of changing laws. Not long after, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) decided that lingerie was part of the problem. They decided to ban the display of lingerie-clad mannequins.

"On May 16, all 227 members of the BMC’s general body put aside their party differences and passed a resolution put forward by Ritu Tawade, a Bharatiya Janata Party corporator from Ghatkopar’s ward number 121, to ban mannequins wearing lingerie because it provokes men to commit ‘wrong acts’" 

I did not know what to make of that. Do we agree that a female-shaped body makes perverts out of men? And what of the men who dress and undress mannequins? Did they want to rape real women?

It was a laughable idea. I once lived near one of the biggest garment markets in India and would often walk past shops that had just raised their shutters. I watched female-shaped mannequins being dressed. Most shopkeepers were men. They would strip a mannequin, then drape it with sarees, suit fabrics, lacy lingerie. Those men didn't look excited in the least. They looked either grumpy or preoccupied.

I was thinking of the shopkeepers and their un-sexy chores when I wrote this short film. 

Some more thoughts on mannequins and the idea that the female form needs to be kept under wraps in this article:


Monday, March 07, 2016

Clothes, clothes, clothes

Are you one of those people who has too many fancy clothes, and yet, never enough? Do you struggle to keep track of which outfit you wore at which wedding or party, and what set of people have seen you wear it already?

I did a short comic about this peculiar problem. Read/See it here:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love for the motherland - Meditation 1

You can cut it up and sell it all, bit by bit - time, labour, eyes, kidneys, womb, even the heart. The one thing you can't buy - or snatch - is human love, and a country.

Country. Who knows how it grows inside of you? What is this love? For the land? For mother? For yourself?

Motherland. The mother and the earth.

Perhaps they call a country 'mother' because you don't get to choose it. You don't get to choose whether or not you are going to love her. At least, not when you're young. The mother - who can be a sister too, or a grandmother, or a father; anybody who looks after you - is the source of self-definition.

A country - a motherland, a homeland - is a feeling that we associate with mother, with home.

Not everyone is happy at home. Not everyone is safe at home with mother. Children run away sometimes, when there is not enough love and too much fear in the air. A child begins to wonder if the mother is truly helpless, unable to keep him (or her) safe. Perhaps she is not free. It takes a long time before a child loses faith in the mother - when he tries to win her love and keeps failing, when he cannot count on her to be fair, when he is humiliated.

There's this novel. Saul Bellow's Herzog. The protagonist is in a courthouse and happens to hear the proceedings in a case of murder. A mother is accused of killing her child. Smashed the child's head against the wall.

A witness says that the child was crying. Trying to cling to the mother. She would throw him back against the wall. He would keep howling (for his mother), keep trying to seek safety (with his mother). So it went until the child fell silent and that was only when he was dying.

This happens, too.

Not everyone is willing to love, no matter what. Sometimes people get confused - they mix up love with want. Love is not the feeling of wanting to have/own someone; it is the feeling of belonging with someone. And love for the motherland? That is already a given - you already know you belong. There is no doubt, no question. You take the motherland for granted.

If a child is screaming, his mother does not have the right to throw him against a wall. You don't ask children to offer proof of love. A mother may or may not be able to give the child all he needs but it is her responsibility to at least give him love - it is her primary dharma.

You can't force love for a country. It is impossible. A country is not a thing that can be 'had'. You can have power, you can have a seat at the head of the table. But not a country. A country cannot belong to you. You must belong to her. A country is a feeling - the feeling spells 'mother'; it spells 'home'. This love, this feeling of belonging is not something you can pick up in the market, not is it a sword dangling above your head. Where there is fear, no love can survive.

देश प्रेम पे ध्यान - १.

पुर्ज़ा-पुर्ज़ा कोई बेचना चाहे, बेच सकता है - इंसान का समय, उसका ख़ून, उसकी आँखे, गुर्दा, गर्भ, यहाँ तक की उसका दिल. सब बिकता है, या छीना जा सकता है। सिर्फ़ उसका प्यार और उसका देश महफूज़ है।

देश। पता नहीं कैसे बनता है ये लगाव। किससे? मिट्टी से? माँ से? अपने आप से?

Motherland. माँ-मिट्टी।

शायद इसीलिए देश को माँ कहते हैं - इसमें फ़ैसले की गुंजाईश नहीं। माँ से प्रेम करना, न करना, अपने बस में नहीं है। कम से कम, बचपन में नहीं। माँ... जो देखभाल करे। दीदी हो, नानी हो, बाप हो - कोई भी माँ बन सकता है। बच्चे का अस्तित्व उसी से है।

देश - वतन, मुल्क़ - ऐसा एहसास होगा, माँ वाला एहसास।  घर वाला एहसास।

हर कोई घर पे ख़ुश नहीं होता। माँ के पास सुरक्षित भी नहीं होता। भाग जाते हैं बच्चे घर से, जब प्यार कम और डर ज़्यादा हो। बच्चे के मन में आता है, माँ शायद मजबूर है। शायद ग़ुलाम है। बहुत मुश्किल से बच्चे का विश्वास टूटता है - जब लाख कोशिश के बाद भी माँ प्यार नहीं दिखाती, इंसाफ़ नहीं करती, या बच्चे की बेइज़्ज़ती करती है।

मैंने एक किताब पढ़ी थी - Saul Bellow की Herzog ... कचेहरी में एक शख़्स जाता है; किसी और के क़त्ल की सुनवाई है।  एक माँ ने बच्चे को मार डाला।  दीवार से उसका सर पटक-पटक के।  

बच्चा रो रहा था, रोते-रोते माँ से लिपट जाता। माँ उसे उठा कर दीवार की तरफ़ फ़ेंक देती। बच्चा फिर माँ से लिपटने की कोशिश करता। माँ फ़िर दूर पटक देती। ऐसा होता रहा जब तक बच्चा ख़ामोश ना हुआ। ख़ामोश तभी हुआ जब मर गया। 

ऐसा भी होता है, है न? 

हर कोई, हर हाल में प्रेम नहीं करता। लोगों को कभी-कभी ग़लत फ़हमी हो जाती है, वो प्रेम और चाहत में फ़र्क़ नहीं कर पाते। प्रेम वो है जिसमें आप किसी को हासिल नहीं करना चाहते, बल्कि ख़ुद उसके हो जाना चाहते हैं। और देश प्रेम? इसमें तो कोई सवाल नहीं, कोई शक नहीं, क्योंकि आप तो पहले से देश के हवाले हैं। You take the motherland for granted. बच्चा चीख़ रहा है तो माँ, दीवार पे उसका सर नहीं पटक सकती। माँ को हक़  नहीं है। बच्चों से प्रेम का प्रमाण नहीं माँगा जाता। माँ ज़रूरतें पूरी कर पाये या नहीं, प्यार दिखाना उसका पहला और आख़री धर्म है।

और देश प्रेम में ज़ोर-ज़बरदस्ती मुमकिन नहीं, क्योंकि देश हासिल करने की चीज़ नहीं। सत्ता हासिल है, कुर्सी हासिल है। देश हासिल नहीं। एक एहसास है, माँ वाला, घर वाला। ये एहसास, ये लगाव ना बाज़ार की चीज़ है ना ही सर के ऊपर लटकती तलवार। जहाँ डर है, वहाँ प्रेम कैसे हो सकता है?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How we deal with anti-nationals

First of all, Bharat Mata ki Jai.

Offering to put a bullet into them, hanging, beating them to death - this is not how we deal with anti-nationals. 'We' means some Indians, like cops and law-makers, on behalf of all citizens. We don't just kill them -
Kill them

- though that too has happened. What we do is, we arrest them. Sometimes, we talk nicely. Five minutes. Or even an hour. Sometimes, we take a guy for a long drive. 

He is shaken. If any stranger shows up at your house, says he is a cop or a spy (Intelligence), you are already nervous.

if he is innocent, why nervous

We call him to the station, or we pick him up from home. We don't say where we're going exactly. To the family, we say things like, we'll bring him back. Or, we ask: Is there a reason for you to be worried about him talking to us? The family keeps quiet. No matter what they say now, it will make things worse.

Is she Kashmiri?

Monday, February 08, 2016

aurat aur mandir

कल अख़बार देख कर मेरी माँ ने कहा, अगर शनी मंदिर में औरतों को जाने की इजाज़त नहीं है, तो ना जाएँ। क्या फ़र्क़ पड़ता है?

एक पल को मैंने भी सोचा, ठीक बात है, नुक़सान तो मंदिर का ही है। मैंने ख़ुद तय किया है, किसी ऐसी जगह नहीं जाऊँगी जहाँ औरतों को बराबर दर्जा मिलता। आधी आबादी बॉयकॉट करेगी, अपने आप अक़ल ठिकाने लग जायेगी।

कुछ साल पहले तक मैं दिल्ली के निज़ामुद्दीन दरगाह जाती थी, लेकिन मज़ार पहुँचने से पहले मुझसे फूलों की टोकरी ले ली जाती, मज़ार को हाथ नहीं लगाने दिया जाता। मैं बाहर बैठी क़व्वाली सुनती लेकिन मन में अंगारे भड़कते रहते। आख़िर मन इतना खट्टा हो गया कि मैंने जाना ही छोड़ दिया। मुंबई में हाजी अली भी नहीं गयी।

आख़िर दरगाह जाने वालों को सूफ़ी की मोहब्बत खीँच लाती है। सूफ़ी संतों की सबसे ख़ास बात यह थी, वे भेद-भाव नहीं करते थे - न जात-पात, या मज़हबी कट्टरपन। मानने वालों में औरत और मर्द बराबर हुआ करते थे। ये औरतों से छुआ-छूत का चलन नया है। आज से पंद्रह-बीस साल पहले, जब मैं पहली बार हाजी अली और निज़ामुद्दीन के दरगाह गई, किसी ने मुझे रोका नहीं। और जब सूफ़ी संत ख़ुद जीते जी औरतों को दूर न रखते, किसी को क्या हक़ है हमें रोकने का?

अक्सर ख़ादिम मज़ार को अपनी जागीर समझते हैं, ठीक उसी तरह जैसे पंडित मंदिरों को अपना गढ़।

मंदिर हो या दरगाह, इनका वजूद भक्तों से है, और उनके दिए चढ़ावे से - फ़ूल, प्रसाद, कील, रोली, नारियल, चादर और पैसे। सबसे बड़ी बात - पैसे। तो मैंने भी ठान ली - एक कौड़ी न दूँगी। अगर औरत की देह से इतनी तकलीफ़ है, तो इसी देह की मेहनत से कमाए पैसों पे क्यों हाथ मारने दूँ? इसी देह में पनपती है श्रद्धा, और ग़दर भी।

लेकिन फिर मन में एक और बात आई - अगर ये लोग ('ये' लोग जो तय करते हैं, औरत को क्या आज्ञा है, कहाँ प्रवेश है, कहाँ नहीं) कल ये कह दें कि औरत का हर मंदिर में प्रवेश निषेध है, तो? अगर वो ये कहें, देव ही नहीं, देवी की मूरत को भी औरत छू नहीं सकती, तो? और किसी दिन अगर वो ये कह दें कि औरत का पढ़ना-लिखना धर्म के ख़िलाफ़ है, तो?

बहुत दूर की बात नहीं कह रही। औरत को क्या हासिल है , क्या मना है, ऐसे फ़रमान हर मज़हब में जारी हुए हैं। जाती के नाम पे मर्दों पे भी हर तरह की पाबंदी लगायी गई। इतिहास (और वर्तमान) गवाह है, मर्द-औरत-बच्चे सब पे धर्म और मज़हब के नाम पे लोगों ने ऐसे सितम ढाए कि सुन के रूह काँप जाती है। और जब भी परिवर्तन आया है, बहुत लड़ने के बाद ही आया है।

ये मसला सिर्फ़ मंदिर-मस्जिद-दरगाह में प्रवेश का नहीं है। मसला औरत और शमशान में दाह संस्कार, औरत और क़ब्रिस्तान, औरत और स्कूल-कॉलेज-व्यवसाय का भी है। औरत की देह पे हर तरह की पाबन्दियाँ हैं - यहाँ मत जाओ; उसके साथ मत जाओ; मर्ज़ी से शादी न करो; दोबारा शादी न करो; बच्चे पैदा करो; गर्भ-पात ना करो; सर अलावा शरीर के सारे बाल निकालो; दुबली-पतली रहो मगर इतनी भी दुबली नहीं के छाती चपटे तवे-सी लगे; टाँग छुपाओ; मुँह छुपाओ; सर धक के रखो; माहवारी रहते रसोई में न जाओ; आचार न छुओ; बेवा हो तो दुल्हन को न छुओ; बेवा हो तो खाना फीका खाओ, साड़ी सफ़ेद पहनो; जंग के मैदान में ना जाओ; गाड़ी ना चलाओ।

जो औरतें शनी मंदिर में और हाजी अली दरगाह में बराबर प्रवेश के हक़ के लिए लड़ रही हैं, शायद जानती हैं, पाबंदियों का कोई अंत नहीं, ना ही कोई तर्क। और अन्याय का एक ही जवाब है - संघर्ष।

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

A film about Indian women and books

I made a documentary film last year. It took a year and a half. It's out, DVDs available through the producer, PSBT. Here's the promo:

Here's a piece about it in The Hindu:

“This film is not about identity or self-definition as ‘writers,’” Zaidi says. “It is trying to look at women’s rights, concerns and freedoms, as reflected in literature. Identity is a very fluid and contextual construct. Caste may be most important outside the household, for instance, but within a household, womanhood may be her primary identity. And sometimes, the opposite might be true. However, all the women in the film have written about the feminine and female experience of life.”

If you're an institution, university, festival or a film club that wants to organize a screening, you can get in touch with me or PSBT. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A birthday card that gave me the creeps

Here's something I wrote about my great discomfort with the state having absolute access to my data with zero accountability or guarantees about how it would be used and by whom:

The year before, nobody called on my birthday. This year was better. Friends remembered. I even got a birthday card. But it turned out to be from neither friends nor family. It was from Mr Representative. Mr Ex-Representative, actually, since he had lost the previous election. I was baffled. How did he know it was my birthday? Then it hit me. He had been dipping into my data.

Read full article here:

Monday, January 04, 2016


I wrote this short comic about how to deal with the loss of friends made in a virtual age, when social media delivers so much of our friendship and our news to us:

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Wrote a review of the novel 'Kalkatta' for Mint recently. Here's a bit that lays out some of my impressions:

Each character represents some aspect of Kolkata and the lives of its citizens—rich, middle class and poor—and while so many different shades may have added up to a broadly representative portrait of the city, they do not add up to a richly layered story. The touch-and-go treatment most characters receive creates the impression that the primary purpose of having introduced them at all was to represent as many “types” as possible. It also serves to repurpose stereotypes—the sex-starved rich or bored housewife, the insensitive journalist, the torturer cop, the prostitute (albeit a male one) with a heart of gold.

Read the full review here.
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