Friday, July 28, 2006
Unfortunately, I am not in town on that day (no, really, I swear I'm not), so I can't make it, but the rest of you must attend. Judging from the list of confirmed attendees, it seems that the chances of it being a warm, funny event are high.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
(Oh, everyone else does too. All cultures, in their own way, are afraid of the human body. Afraid with an irrational, inexplicable, unshakeable fear). However, I’m not going to rant about the human body or global morality. I'm talking about Indians and the way in which the fear and shame associated with the body is transmitted through popular culture - at the very first stop one makes on the popular culture highway, i.e., at the doorstep of music and movies, both of which have long been happily married in India.
To understand popular sentiment or prevailing morality, to grasp the recent wave of common (and I don't use the word in a negative way) tastes, we have to turn to Bollywood. It tells us a lot about what the masses are thinking, what they want, and also what they shy away from.
Hindi songs continue to be filled with the same old references to the body that have been used so long, that they've become quite respectable through familiarity. For instance, the eyes, the lips, the cheeks (aankhein, honth gaal, naina, lab, rukhsaar) hair (zulfein/ lat/ baal) is okay. Oblique references to the feet and hands, slim waists (patli kamar) and wrists (kalaayi/kalaiyya) are okay too. This, of course, is about the women. For men, all references are limited to the eyes and sometimes, almost metaphorically, to the arms (baahein/baazu).
Nobody writes songs about legs, about necks, about hips, about backs and stomachs and shoulders. Which is a small part of a larger problem.
Our songs try out all the new sounds that are popular in the western world. Hip-hop, Indie, Fusion-rock - we've absorbed the music. But when it comes to the words and the images created through those words, we continue to brush the body under the carpet, with one sweeping carpet-word: 'ang'.
What we do have are several references to sringaar. A woman's allure is referred to through the wardrobe or the trinket box. 'Bindiya' 'kangan' 'paayal' 'jhumka' 'jhanjhar' 'chunri' 'kaajal' 'gajra' 'lehnga'... and more recently - leading to great infamy and scandalous delight - the 'choli'.
I can't help but wonder - what makes us, as a mass culture, so hung up on a woman's wardrobe?
It stands to reason that the reference is not to the object but to what it encases. The arms that bear the bangles, the earlobes that bear the earrings, the hair and the nape of the neck behind the gajraa, the ankles encircled by the paayal; behind the choli, there is, of course, only the 'dil' (heart). Or, if you prefer, 'tabaahi' (destruction).
Objects obscuring the real object of affection, and thereby taking on a life of their own; in doing so, they force our songs into narrow patterns of imagery and rhyme. Because 'lehnga' so obviously rhymes with 'mehnga', the two find themselves being coupled again and again. And there, without any deliberate attempt at stereotyping, you have a message being sent out - woman --> clothes --> expense!
But apart from lyrical objections, my main issue with these songs is because songs are a significant tool of association of ideas. For instance, whenever I think of 'seasons in the sun', I grow sad. 'We had joy, we had fun...' leaves me with no sense of joy or fun. The words have taken on meanings that extend beyond their own immediate meaning. Like 'Blowing in the wind'. All you have to do is sing that phrase 'blowing in the wind' and the images that come to mind do not have anything to do with either wind or blowing. Now consider the potential for damage that is inherent in stereotypes perpetuated through an overwhelming emphasis on 'chunri' and 'chehra'.
In India, in many ways, we've been regressing, morality-wise. Our songs tend to either reflect that truth, or ensure the continuity of that truth, or accomplish both agendas simultaneously.
You heard a song like 'Sar pe topi laal, haath mein resham ka rumaal…' (red cap on your head, a silk kerchief in your hand) a generation ago. Can you think of one song in recent times where the woman's voice is so boldly praising the man's appearance, if not his body? I can't think of even one.
Think of - 'apni ada hai tera apna hi dhang hai; dheela-dheela kurta hai, pajama tang-tang hai' (you have your own style, your own ways; your kurta is loose and your pajama is tight). Think of - 'badan pe sitaare lapete hue' (stars wrapped all around your body).
Now, think of the current crop of popular songs. The very popular title song of Dhoom has two versions . The English version has lyrics like 'dhoom dhoom gonna make you sweat now; dhoom dhoom let's get all wet now...'. The Hindi one has lyrics like 'ishq ishq karna hai kar le; ishq ishq mein jee le mar le' (love if you want to love; live in love and die in love).
Attraction - depicted through sizzling, sweating visuals of crowded discos - is covered up by the verbal veneer of 'love'. Two strangers are dancing in a disco and the words are all about 'mohabbat' and 'ishq'. A club dancer, in 'No Entry', is being offered to a reluctant married man with the words 'ishq di gali vich kar entry'. What, pray, has ishq got to do with it?
The curious result is that between all this talk of tera jalwa and meri dhadkan, we insert english phrases like 'I want your body'.
It is strange, is it not, that with our tiresome trunkloads of songs, for all our wet sari rain dance sequences, we still do not have an appropriate word for attraction? Think about it. Can you think of one popular Hindi song that speaks of attraction as attraction, and not as 'pyaar'.
Meanwhile, our videos or the movie picturization of songs, get obsessively physical. They are completely focussed on the female body, for which our songmakers seem to have no appropriate words. The songs themselves remain paralysed, trapped in a maze of trinket-boxes, and remixed metaphors.
The real danger, of course, is that this obsession with the outer - not just outer, but outermost - layers of personality, reduces our collective, public ability to deal with the body itself. Our perception of beauty does not even go skin-deep. We don't go so far as the skin; we're too wrapped up in the aanchal. And while India is a very long way from words like 'let me lick you up and down...' (except when we're writing songs describing the girl as a ice-cream that's never been taken out of the fridge) we're also a very long way from something like 'Where do you go to my lovely, when you're alone in your bed.'
In fact, none of our popular songs even mention 'bed'. The closest we came to it was 'sarkaye liyo khatiya', in the last decade, but that only led to people suggesting that the khatiya is contrary to our 'sanskriti'.
The nineties, to be fair, tried to break the mould. Honesty was peeking out through innuendo-laced curtains. 'Saiyyan ke saath madiya mein; bada maja aaya rajiyya mein' - is rather upfront. Another song mentioned pigeons, but all of India knew what the gutar-gutar was really about.
Double meanings come from double standards.
Unfortunately, public outrage forced songwriters to change lyrics. In the song, LML, 'Let's make love' was changed to 'Love me, love'. 'Meri pant bhi sexy' (please note, it is probably the only song we have that mentions the male wardrobe, barring topi and rumaal), the word sexy was briefly replaced by 'fancy' . 'Sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bolein' was changed to 'Baby, baby, baby...' (and I personally find 'baby' far more ridiculous, condescending and rather annoying, compared to 'sexy')
[I have a soft spot for David Dhawan films' songs, because, for all their faults, they unfailingly capture the hopes, aspirations and struggles of the movie-going junta. Lyrics like 'main to ice-cream kha rahee thi; main to chakkar chala rahi thi... teri naani mari to main kya karoon.' Crass? That's open to interpretation. Honest. Yes! Other lyrics, like 'ek garam chai ki pyaali ho, koi usko pilaane wali ho...' (all I want is a hot cup of tea, and someone who makes it for me) 'oonchi hai building, lift teri band hai... ' (your building's so high and the elevator isn't working) '...chalti hai kya nau se barah' (coming with me to the nine-to-twleve show?) or 'main tujhko bhagaa laya hoon tere ghar se; tere baap ke darr se...' (I've got you to run away from home, because I'm scared of your daddy) 'madhuri dixit mili raste meing; khaye chane humne saste mein' (I found Madhuri Dixit when walking down the street and we ate cheap chick-peas together). None of these are classics, but you have to give them full marks for honesty.]
To get back to the point I was trying to make, our popular songs are often brash, but when it comes to speaking of the body itself, the songwriters baulk. Because, as a culture, we baulk.
Remember the song from Murder, 'bheege honth tere...'? In Delhi, I'd often see young girls begin to hum the song, but when they came to the line 'kabhi mere saath koi raat guzaar' (spend a night with me sometime) , they would just hum the tune, ashamed to sing the words out loud. As a culture, we are ashamed to admit that we spend nights with each other.
In stark contrast, think of Hindi poets, such as Shamsher Bahadur Singh. He writes of the memory of a blade of grass caught in the teeth of his lover. He talks of being able to connect with a lover only through her body. Despite an openness in our literature, this acceptance of the body has not filtered into the public consciousness of culture, and I'm not surprised. The majority does not read. The majority does listen to filmi songs.
We have a culture of songs. What we also have is a culture that masks body and desire through vague references to objects, or by singing breathlessly about 'love' when the emotion is simply lust. We have a culture is equally adept at clamping down on real-world love, when confronted with it. ‘Ishq’ and ‘pyaar’ all over the radio, but somewhere in Meerut, couples get beaten up for hanging out in parks. Is there a connection there? I think so.
Because if something is not spoken of, it becomes unspeakable, in every sense of the word.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Which doesn't mean that you can go berserk with refined grain and sugar, while trying to sleep off the adipose tissue. It just means that when on diet, sleep a lot. Preferably in the open air. This is just the right weather.
Monday, July 17, 2006
I have yet to see anything fantastic (having made the mistake of leaving early, and thus, inadvertantly abandoning Paradise Now, in favour of aloo-parathas across the street) but I did enjoy watching Achuvinte Amma (Achu's Mother), a Malayalam film which I almost didn't see because the guy introducing it said it was about 'a girl looking for her identity'. My heart sank at the thought that it was going to be the usual blah about an adopted child or a girl who wants to know who her 'real father' is.
As it turned out, the film was a warm, funny one about two beautiful young women - Achu (Meera Jasmine) and Vanaja (Urvasi) - who are close, but not in that stereotypical cloying-conflicting fashion of the big screen version of mother-daughter relationships. This is a relationship with plenty of potential for disaster, but is not an emotionally draining disaster-zone from beginning to end. The pitch is higher than the typical festival-circuit movie, the colours louder. But that's something I'm used to, and rather like.
What's more, it struck me later - this is that rare Indian movie where a mother is a real person, not a weepy devi with greying hair, singing bhajans, or crying her eyes out for the sake of a wayward son. This mom's got a career, a personality, fears, quirks, mystery, etc. The daughter has a career too. And not as a secretary/nurse/doctor/teacher - which is what most Hindi films reserve for the working woman. This girl is a civil engineer who works at a very real construction site, helmet, dust and all. The best thing is, the mother is not dependent on the daughter, either financially or emotionally. She loves the daughter desperately, but finds her own way forward.
There are also some delightful characters to watch out for, such as the persistent matchmaker and the gold-strung great-aunt. I have minor quibbles with the assumed morality of Vanaja's history, when it is revealed, and the chronological inconsistency of the flashback scene. But on the whole, it is quite watchable. Do watch, if you get a chance.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Last year, one thousand women were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, collectively, (in my opinion, almost all of them were eligible in their own individual right as well). Hero Ahmad was one of them.
Her words led me to think of the battles women have fought for their rights, over the last century or so. In India, we have had a woman prime minister, several women chief ministers and now, women are demanding a third of the legislature. Yet, the Women's Reservation Bill has been stalled again and again, since it was introduced in parliament in 1998. Despite the fact that there is no outright, outspoken rejection from major political quarters, governments come and go but the bill remains a bill.
Yet, we've been lucky in India; at least, we didn't have to fight to be allowed to vote on equal terms. In other places - places, mind you, such as the land of the free etc - suffrage was a hard-fought battle. It won't hurt us to remember how hard this particular battle was fought.
Let us take a brief, sweeping look at certain points in the history of the movement. According to the wiki,
'It is notable that New Jersey , on becoming a Federal State after the American Revolution, placed only one restriction on the general suffrage - the possession of at least £50 (~USD 250) worth of cash or property. The election laws referred to voters as "he or she." In 1790 the law was revised to include women specifically. (emphasis mine) Female voters became so objectionable to professional politicians, that in 1807 the law was revised to exclude them. Later, the 1844 constitution banned women voting."
Think of that.
In fact, when the state of Utah did give women the vote, in 1869, the US Congress took away the right again, in 1887. This was the year in which Susanna Salter was elected mayor of Kansas, although she'd been nominated as a 'joke'. The first woman mayor in a country that was refusing to allow women to vote.
This battle for political equality was not necessarily a demure affair. Let me pick out some of the more aggressive events recorded in the timeline of the movement, (sourced from the ever-useful wiki, again).
1905 – Militancy began ( Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a Liberal Party meeting and spat at a policeman)
1908 – Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister (personally opposed to votes for women)
1905, 1908, 1913 – 3 phases of militancy (Civil Disobedience – Destruction of Public Property – Arson/Bombings)
1910 – Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working class criminal, Jane Wharton, was arrested and endured force feeding to prove prejudice in prisons against working class women. Lady Lytton was instrumental in reforming conditions in prisons. The force feeding shortened her life considerably.
1913 – Emily Davison threw herself under the King's Horse at the Epsom Derby
1914 – Mary Richardson slashed the Velasquez in the National Gallery with an axe, protesting that she was maiming a beautiful woman, just as the government was maiming Emmeline Pankhurst with force feeding.
1918 - The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised all women over the age of 30. This was probably so that women would not outnumber men in the voting process
1928 - Women received the vote on equal terms as men (over the age of 21).
In 1913, at least 5000 women marched in Washington DC, demanding the right to vote. But ...
"The crowd became abusive and started to close in, knocking the marchers around. With local police doing little to keep control, the cavalry was called in as 100 women were hospitalized. Many suffragists now concluded that public protests might be the quickest route to universal franchise. " (For the whole history)
It seems to me that things have not changed drastically in the US, as far as public attitudes to women and politics are concerned.
"Wal-Mart has even made anti-woman statements in the culture wars through products it chooses to sell, and those it chooses not to sell. Ten years ago, it pulled T-shirts that read, "Some Day a Woman Will Be President," featuring Margaret from "Dennis the Menace." Wal-Mart called the shirts "offensive" and "against Wal-Mart's family values." But it continues to sell violent video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, where players get points for having sex with a prostitute and garner even higher scores for killing her to avoid payment."
Equality is not a joke. Equality is a rough road. A long journey. And we would do well to remember those who broke their backs laying out this road. Because 'Someone can only be strong for the future when they remember the suffering of the past'.
I felt insulted by the question, but looking at her face, I realised that she was asking because she really didn't have a clue.
Calmly, I put down my newspaper, and delivered a little lecture on history and current affairs.
She persisted. "But why are all terrorists muslims?"
I mentioned the LTTE. And the various armed guerrilla groups in the north-east. I told her about the Khalistan movement. About Ireland and about Nazism. About how fraught the word 'terrorist' is...
But I don't think she was persuaded. She probably still believes that muslims are aggressive, violent, murderous.
Now, we've had Tuesday.
For the first two days, I was so tired. Because being afraid is one of the most exhausting feelings I know.
My first reaction to the news was fear. Sitting safe at home, watching the news, listening to the high-pitched newscasters announce yet another, yet another... I was afraid. Not just of what might happen in Delhi. Not just of what might happen to family and friends in Mumbai. Not just of riots. Not just of a backlash.
I was afraid because once more, I was stuck with trying to distance myself from 'them'. Once more, millions of people like me find themselves ashamed because their name, their group, their community, their identity has been hijacked. Stolen by murderers and cowards. So that some will feel compelled to denounce and decry events they're not responsible for. So that others don't go on thinking of muslims as a violent murderous terrorising lump of homogeneity.
Through my exhaustion and numbness, I have read some nonsense about why Tuesday, why July, why now, why not other places, why not 'muslim-dominated' suburbs?
For one aggravated minute, I wanted to launch into a little lecture about Mumbai's communal demographics. To point out that there are few suburbs that are Muslim-dominated, but there are some where large numbers of them are concentrated. Mira-Bhayander, for one. Jogeshwari for another. Bandra (east) for yet another. Do they sound recently familiar? I wanted to point out that almost everywhere, victims of 'muslim' terrorism are muslims. Certainly, in Kashmir. And in Iraq. And in Somalia. And in Morocco. I wanted to say a lot of things about a lot of things.
But I was just too tired.
Note to friend with whom I've had warm debates about insecure youths in terrorist outfits: Cold-blooded, pre-planned murder is cold-blooded, pre-planned murder. You can call it a riot. Or you can call it a terror-strike. Murder, by any other name, would be just as unjustifiable.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Chai is an hour in which to be left untouched, getting colder by the minute, while you write, writewritewritewrite, with a speed that overwhelms your sworn temptation. To sip when your fingers pause for thought, and let it half-register in your mind - 'it is cold'. To put it on the stove again, return to the writing, get caught up with one particular sentence that seems to be breathing larger, longer, until it is a whole paragraph. To look up at the stove and realise that the tea is boiling over and away. To bring what's left to the desk, take a sip, turn to the computer screen... 'so, where were we?'
Chai is to be left untouched, getting colder by the minute, while you write, writewritewrite, and to sip and think - 'it is cold'. To dunk it into the microwave. To look up when the microwave timer goes off, say aloud that you're coming, just half a minute... But to let it get cold all over again. To feel a pang of real sorrow as you finally pour it down the drain.
To make a fresh cup of chai. To shut down the word document, open the music folder, put on Tu Bin Bataaye, lean out of the window, fresh air on your hands, hands wrapped round warm cup, and give that cup your full attention.
Chai is for reaching out for, in the heat of a July cheated of the Monsoon, yet another day, snapping - 'of course it is too hot for chai!' But chai must be had... Leave out the milk. The milk makes the chai hotter, denser, more unbearable. Like the humidity makes the summer unbearable.
Chai is to curse over. Chai is to lemon and ginger over. Chai is a moment in which you try to find a cooler place on a simmering pillow, the breeze in a muggy night.
Chai is more than you'd believe.
Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Besides, journalists were on the banking blacklist back then. Many papers published reports saying that mediapeople were one of the groups that had awful credit ratings. Then, the media boom happened. Salaries shot through the roof and once again, the random phone-calling began.
All this while, I resisted. But lately, it has been very inconvenient not having one. To book rail or air tickets. To shop online. To book hotel rooms in advance. To establish credentials. One needs a credit card, and I ended up asking friends or family to book on my behalf.
That was why, when a turbaned, timid-looking salesman interrupted my fruit-salad break outside my office, and asked me if I'd like an ICICI credit card, between the slice of mango and the slice of chikoo, I said, 'Yes, please. I would'.
This turbaned salesman (TS) beckoned to his companion, a more articulate senior, I presume, and they followed me to my office. They asked for proof of identity etc. I cited passport numbers, pan card numbers, Form 16, visiting card, ATM balance-enquiry slip etc. The senior salesman (SS) asked me to just sign the form and said he'd do the rest.
I was taken aback. "How will you fill up my application form? You don't know me at all."
SS said, "Oh, we have your documents and we'll call you if we need any further information. Just remember one thing. When the bank calls you to verify your details, don't mention that you live in a rented accomodation."
It turned out that ICICI, as a matter of policy, will not give credit cards to those who live in Delhi but do not own a house there, which is more than half the population, I'm sure.
"But what if they ask for proof of residence?" I objected.
SS said, "Oh, don't worry. This verification business happens online or through the phone. They won't come knocking at your door."
I was uncomfortable with the lie, but the two of them persuaded me that I didn't need to lie. They'd do all the lying. I just needed to keep my mouth shut about living in a rented place.
They got up to leave again, but I insisted on filling up the form myself.
In the section that asked how many years I've worked at my current and previous jobs, SS told me to put in 5 years. "Or at least 3 years."
He said, "But ma'am, that is the way things are done. You just write double the actual figures. That's how credit ratings are established."
I still refused.
At any rate, these guys left, TS' face all grins; his incentives would probably come through, after all.
In the evening, the bank called, to verify details. When I was trying to strike a bargain with the mango-wala.
A minute later, SS called me back. "Ma'am. There is a problem. You're a reporter and ICICI, as a policy, does not give credit cards to journalists. So, why don't you just change the employment details? Shall I put down 'self-employed'?"
"But how can I do that?"
"It's very simple ma'am. Nobody checks these things. I'll manage the form."
The mango-seller was cheating me, I noticed; putting a little 200 gm weight on the same side as the chosen mangoes.
I took a deep breath, struggling to bring a smile into my voice (tehzeeb, tehzeeb! never forget your tehzeeb). "I see. Listen, if ICICI bank has a policy of not giving credit cards to journalists, then I don't want a card from ICICI bank."
I turned to the mango-seller and pointed out, politely, (tehzeeb, remember?) that he'd been cheating me. He threw up his hands, as if he was being victimized in some way, and returned some of my money in loose change, as if he was doing me a favour. The correct thing to do would have been to throw his mangoes at his face, turn into a perfect domestic harridan and give him the tongue-lashing of the month. However, I simply took the change and left. (Aside to self: Hurree Babu was right. I might as well get myself a T-shirt that reads 'Kick me please. Everybody else does.')
Being the trusting idiot that I am, I haven't even bothered taking down the salesmen's names or phone numbers. Now, the temptation to call them, asking them to return my photos and documents, bringing back that form with my signatures on it, is overwhelming. I really would like to tear it up into tiny little bits, in front of their noses. (Of course, I intend to ask them if they wanted a cup of coffee, while I do that. Tehzeeb etc). As a matter of principle, I wouldn't name those particular salesmen because other salespeople do the same, probably. They must've been trained by their seniors to 'manage' forms this way.
Also, as a matter of principle, I wouldn't accept a card from a bank that doesn't trust journalists, as a matter of policy. But can somebody tell me - what sort of principles does ICICI bank have? I'm not angry enough to sue, but it seems to me that being discriminated against, as a matter of policy, is good grounds for a rather visible round of litigation.
That apart, I have a salary account with ICICI. I was willing to let the bank directly debit all credit card dues from this account. This account always has one month's salary as a minimum balance, which I do not touch, come hail or storm. They could easily have verfied this by looking at the last year's bank statements. No loans, no defaulted payments... But they do not want me as a credit customer. Yet, if I lie about owning a house in this city, running a small business from this house for the last 5 years, they'd give me a higher credit rating. And a premium card with a credit limit that's close to a year's income... what sort of banking sense is that?
(Aside: Can somebody tell me of a bank that doesn't mistrust journalists and doesn't require you to own houses?)
Monday, July 03, 2006
In that moment, I felt home on my skin. In that moist weight pressing down on each pore, that warm density - a little shock against my neck and slipping into my fingertips. And the smell. The smell of damp earth. That smell of the promise of rain. That smell of mitti!
It wasn't raining, but it was going to. And I knew. Even before I stepped into the open air, I knew. That damp weight on my skin was telling me; that elusive almost-here smell was telling me. And in knowing this, I knew I was home.
It took two hours in the immigration queue. That too spells home. Queues. At airports. At railway counters. Everywhere. Queues. Filmi dialogues about queues (Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai). The eternal snaking lines in a warm, dense place. Home. The chitter-chatter of four-year old girls in long plaits. Mothers scolding 'tujhe phir kahin bahar leke nahin aaongi'. The one public telephone in the area lying disconnected; the wire torn off. Reliance being its unreliable self. (I'd paid three months' bills in advance, in order to stay connected; they disconnected me, anyway). Lines, crawling, sweating, murmuring, phone-calling lines.
But all I had to do was to switch off the discomfort and impatience and start thinking of the smell, the air waiting outside.
That smell of mitti that drives women to Dariba Kalan. The smell they try so hard to bottle up and sell in tiny vials of oily essence. The smell of hot June flirting with rich July. That smell of home.