Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year-end Grant

[A poem I wrote in 2009, at a New Years' party. Setting it free today. Ainwayee.]

I had heard of human love, thwarted
by the underworld: one backward glance
and all is lost! 
For the gods are cruel and quick
to snatch.

So I expected no generosity, stepping over shards
of sozzled gloom, I stalked the night for
sandpapered hopes: It's new year's and I've paid 
my dues.

On every floor, a bruising joy
brushes past like a metaphysical conceit
that no longer expects to be understood.
Glitter lines two streets - those eyes! - and hair hangs
heavy on balustrades.
Knees pump, sucked-in bellies, a yowl
of beseeching.
The air parts - warm cake 
with rent hearts
of strawberries.

I turn away, but
too late!

The gods have sidled up
and caught my hair, icy hands
on my neck, they whisper: Now! 
Make a wish. Quick!
The countdown begins: ten, nine...
We give you, here, someone to hold.
Eight, seven, six... Scream, hop about, 
kiss... Three, two...

I creep up the steps, tumbling
like plastic glasses of abandoned rum,
I try to hide in a loo where a woman weeps 
(except it is a man: beads, cleavage painted on);
A god follows me in, grim
under that sussurating yawn.
He pretends concern, says: Come!
This is not done. Make a wish.
We're happy this year. Really. 
And even for gods, good times don't last
Don't be this way, don't piss me off.
It's new year, come on, 

The gods are cruel and quick
to snatch, and I had heard
of human love, thwarted
by the underworld: one backward glance...

But when a god stood there, screaming: Ask! 
I lost my head; I felt cowed.
And that was how, this year too,
I went ahead and asked for you.

(C) Annie Zaidi

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not legitimate

I’ve been reading a novel from which I want to share a few lines: “… says it does not matter if you lie to …. They have no right to silence, even if they know speech will incriminate them; if they will not speak, then break their fingers, burn them with irons, hang them up by their wrists. It is legitimate, and indeed … goes further; it is blessed.

Can you fill in the blanks? What and who are we talking about?

These lines are from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, set in the sixteenth century. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, is talking about ‘heretics’, people who have different ideas about what the Christian faith is all about. Such people were arrested, tortured, and — especially if they had no money or political influence — burnt in public. The public rarely protested.

I know. Not a cheery memory during the festive season. But I bring it up because it struck me that the writer could easily have been talking about modern India. Nationalism is our sworn faith, and the state can snatch up people who have different ideas about what loyalty to India means, or what development should be. And the public still doesn’t protest.

Consider the fact that the National Human Rights Commission has recorded 14,231 custodial deaths in India between 2001 and 2010. That’s about four people a day. Not just slapped around or hung up by their wrists. Dead.

Read the full piece here

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Of potatoes and smashed glass

It doesn’t matter that much whether or not Walmart arrives. We already have Reliance and More and Big Bazaar. As a buyer of potatoes and multi-grain atta, it’s the same to me. I’m basically looking at a glass-fronted alternative to the subzi mandi.

Is this good for me? Probably not, given that fresh food is always better than food kept for days in cold storage.

Is it good for the environment? Probably not, given how much paper and plastic packaging is used by big corporations in their packaging of food.

Is this good for farmers? We only have to look carefully at districts where corporations are acquiring foods directly and figure out whether farmers’ lives have changed for the better, particularly small and marginal farmers. Besides, if elimination of middlemen is our chief concern, the best thing to do is to set up farmers markets in every suburb of every town, where farmers are free to come and camp every day, and bring us absolutely fresh, chemical-free food.

So what exactly does the big supermarket give the consumer that the local vendor cannot? Well, toilets for one. I’d much rather shop in a competitive, open-air market but a customer cannot be king in matters of retail if her/his bladder (and dignity) is at stake.

I was covering a protest rally in 2007, in Delhi, when a vegetable vendor called Dulaare Lal complained about how ‘companies’ — foreign or Indian — are treated with respect by the state. They have the benefits of electricity, water and endless space. In contrast, Dulaare Lal didn’t have a license to operate on the roadside.

Dulaare Lal paid Rs50 every day to be allowed to sit at Gol Market.

But he was allowed to sit only between 5pm and 8.30pm. Dulaare Lal had one little bulb hanging overhead. Dulaare Lal knew that customers — the ladies especially — need toilets. He and other vendors had been begging the municipality to build facilities, for they were forced to relieve themselves in the street nearby. But there was no toilet and no running water. When it rained, vegetables rotted because there was no shelter and the municipality wouldn’t permit vendors to have plastic roofing.

Read full piece here

And here's another interesting piece on FDI retail in India from the food inflation and is-it-better-for-farmers' perspective:

"If organised retail is the dampener for inflation then it follows that countries such as the UK, Brazil, Thailand and Malaysia among others where the penetration of organised retail is high should have had minimal or very low rates of inflation. In the US where retail stores account for 83 per cent of the market share, inflation has not been so easy to control. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for the first quarter of 2011 reported food price inflation in the UK at 5.5 per cent and rising to 6.3 per cent in the third quarter of 2011.
According to a September 13 bulletin put out by the UK Office for National Statistics, the most significant upward contributions to the commodity price index came from food items such as meat, bread and cereals where there was a 7.1 per cent rise and much higher for processed foods. In India meanwhile, inflation is showing a downward spiral with food inflation down to 6.6 per cent from a high of 20 per cent, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee predicts that if the trend continues, “we may perhaps have the year-end inflation at 6 per cent-7 per cent.”
Modern retail chains invariably squeeze farmers’ margins and the cartelisation of purchases by the biggest chains has come under scrutiny in the EU and in the US. In the EU, retail chains have become “gatekeepers” controlling the only access that farmers have to consumers (see ‘Abuse of power by EU, US retailers’ p39). The trend in Asia is unlikely to be any different.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Spat upon

A friend’s friend got spat upon while he was riding a motorbike. The traffic light was red. A passenger riding in a bus in Mumbai just poked his head out of the window and spat. Our friend was mid-trajectory.

As the traffic moved ahead, our friend accelerated, stopped his bike right in front of the bus and forced it to stop. Then he climbed into the bus, located the spitter in his window seat, grabbed his collar, and spat back at him.

The weird thing is, in our country, if you want to prevent people from urinating or spitting on a wall, the only way to do it is by putting pictures of gods and goddesses or some other religious symbol. All that worship and stated respect for ‘Dharti Maa’ and here we go, spitting at her all the time.

I have often wished that there was some technology that would make spit bounce back at the faces of spitters. Some kind of anti-gravity film with which we could coat our streets and walls. Perhaps some clever inventor will make it some day.

In the meantime, we spit at our own great structures — the landmarks that define our existence. Residential buildings, court-houses, government offices, police stations, railway stations, even the inside of (air-conditioned) railway compartments — spit, often paan or gutka stained, is all over the body of our republic. And it is, quite literally, corroding our structures.Believe it or not, even solid structures like the iconic Howrah Bridge are in danger of collapsing.

Read full piece here

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

There’s a man. His name is Bhagwati Sahu. He was a ‘Janpad’ member, a kind of elected representative for the local population in Rawaan, where a cement factory had been set up. This was the Ambuja-Holcim plant, in Raipur district... The police say Bhagwati has criminal antecedents, and listed 18 cases where he is named as an offender. These turned out to be five cases listed over and over again, most of which are relevant to his activism work.

The Chhattisgarh High Court has refused him bail.

Remember Soni Sori? Yes, that school teacher who was arrested for being a Maoist. Yes, the one who didn’t trust the Chhattisgarh police, and ran all the way from the bloodied forests of her home to the national capital, seeking protection, saying she feared for her life. She was probably hoping that there would be some sanity, some semblance of justice in Delhi. If not in Delhi, then where? But the judiciary had handed her over to the Chhattisgarh police almost immediately. Remember how she had ‘slipped in the bathroom’ almost immediately after the Chhattisgarh police got their hands on her? Remember how she was in no condition to even walk into the courthouse in Raipur because of head and spinal injuries? Well, they did some scans in Kolkata and found ‘foreign objects’ insider her. This school-teacher had already complained that the cops were pushing pebbles into her private parts.

I suppose they call it interrogation. I suppose that’s how things are.

Read the full piece

Friday, December 09, 2011

Love me tender?

There is a question I have been wanting to ask for a long time now, particularly of my filmmaker friends: Can you name ten tender love scenes from Hindi films made in the last five years?

Can you? Because I can't. I can't even think of even five. Of course, people's interpretation and judgment might differ, but when I say tender love scenes, the emphasis is not on love scenes. The emphasis is on tenderness. Which involves a measure of gentleness. A certain degree of empathy, even respect.

I remember a time when there was no cable TV. The only films we saw were either black-n-white state-approved films from the 60s and 70s, or some colour flick that stumbled into our little township thanks to the traveling projectionist that wandered past once in every few weeks.

This was a time when there was no kissing on screen. At least not of the lippy kind. There were quaint sprints through gardens and nodding roses, occasionally boy and girl would disappear behind a bush. The rest was left to your imagination. If you were adult enough to guess, well, you guessed.

Then came cable TV. Our local cable-wallah showed Mr India when he had nothing else to show. This was supposed to be clean family entertainment. We all saw it at least half a dozen times. We had Sridevi's wiggling, writhing moves in the rain by heart. I was too young to make sense of the writhing but even I knew that this was seduction of a kind.

Was it tender? I don't know, but it least it was clearly pleasurable for the woman on screen.

Barring these rain-dance sequences, and some athletic, even aerobic kind of moves on grassy slopes, we saw no sexual loving in films. We did see plenty of rape. Or near-rape scenes. Filmmakers took their own sweet time over chases where some poor girl would be running for her life, clothes askew. Or her clothes were being ripped off, and she stood there paralysed by fear, eyes wide, begging for mercy.

When filmi boys wooed girls they tended towards stalking and harassment and when they were shown as wanting to get intimate, they did things like grabbing wrists, pulling a somewhat reluctant girl towards themselves, or trying to kiss her though she kept turning away.

Towards the late 90s, things had begun to change; we saw Hindi films with what we used to call 'French kissing'. Raja Hindustani was an eye-popping revelation for us girl students. We used to think only foreign peoples kissed like this.

Then came the new millennium. There were more and more and more films with love scenes. Impassioned scenes. Kissing scenes. Violent scenes. But where was the tenderness?

I have been watching newer films with a fair degree of concern because when a filmmaker does include a love scene in a Hindi film, it seems shadowed by something unpleasant or negative. Perhaps the story is about unfaithful partners, or about a character's obsessions or just youthful experimentation. Very rarely do we get to see lovers being really tender with each other.

Why does  this bother me so much? Because I do believe that films impact us profoundly. Our imaginations are shaped by what we see. Films are a social, collective experience - mostly approved by families - and now that they come to TV sets so quickly, they are usually a shared family experience. Soaps and reality shows are mostly a de-sexed business, despite the constant references to affairs and pregnancies. But toddlers are getting most of their learning from TV and even if they are shielded from darker, more adult cinema, they will soon be exposed to ideas of love and longing and togetherness via the screen, much before they experience it in their own life.

It has been years since I saw a balanced, equal, gentle kind of intimacy between lovers in Hindi films (there were glimpses of it in the recent Rockstar, which is another reason I liked it). I am worried because what do young boys learn as an appropriate first move? Or young girls? It seems as if stereotypes continue for the most part. Women are often being pushed into bed, or carried there, which kind of reinforces the idea that women are weaker, lighter, and need to be led somehow. And being grabbed by the hair or wrists is not a particularly respectful treatment.

Even in scenes where the woman is shown to be equally eager, the couple seems inflamed by uncontrollable passion so that beds might get broken and clothes get ripped off without pause for thought. And there is room in this world for passion, and then some to spare. But if anything can sustain a romantic relationship, it is our solid, remarkable capacity for gentle love. If a relationship is worth having, it must have some mutual respect and empathy too.

And yet, most films do not bother with this aspect of love, particularly in its physical aspect. Rarely does the camera or the filmmaker's eye pause and rest on gentle intimacy. Go over most major film releases over the last decade and see if even ten percent of Hindi films have imbued their vision of physical intimacy with tenderness.

It is almost as if they are embarrassed by real tenderness. And I wonder why that is. If we are unable to envision it, capture it, savour it, how do we communicate the power of such moments to others, especially to young people?And if we are unable to communicate the one thing that is worth communicating, then what exactly are we communicating instead?

This Blog is part of the Men Say No Blogathon, encouraging men to take up action against the violence faced by women. 
More entries to the Blogathon can be read at Join further conversation on &

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What we get, we praise (sort of)

Thanks to Rockstar, I've been reminded of the one artistic element no artist can hope to control: the audience.

I was having a conversation with a friend who didn't like the film. At all. He said I must have been in a sappy mood to have liked it. I pointed out that I'm always in a sappy mood. He insisted the film was not about love in any real sense, that the lead character was irresponsible, that he slept with a married woman without trying to 'fight' her marriage in a proper way.

At that point, I refused to discuss the film. I thought he just didn't get it. One of my aunties certainly didn't get it. She did not dislike it but she said, 'the film is about this new modern culture....'

I wanted to protest - no, it isn't about that at all. Other conversations with friends, film enthusiasts, aspiring film makers, film technicians, critics - all pointed the same way. I kept thinking 'No, they don't get it'. But then I saw the IMDB listing for the film. The brief description says: 'He woos... rises to become a rock-star - then self-destructs.' And I wanted to say, no, no, he does not self-destruct; he does not even woo.

But IMDB pages are usually put up by the guys who make the film, eh? Has Imtiaz Ali written that description? Is that what the film is about - self-destruction? Did I get it wrong?

And yet, I feel as if I really do get it. Despite my impatience with excessive romance in films, I felt Rockstar more sharply than other love stories, even the ones Imtiaz Ali has made before. In fact, I felt as if the filmmaker was pushing so hard to capture that emotion - a gnawing, unending hunger for love - that he forgot to be ruthless with the script.

A more rigourous application of Ali's (excellent) screenplay sense would have papered over the unwieldy bigness of this film's plot. One of his chief strengths as a writer is believably likeable characters but usually, he gives them only just enough screen time to drive the story forward. Not this time.

And yet, this film felt more honest to me.

Life allows us the opportunity to experience every shade of loss on the colour card of love. But none of us can quite understand another's compulsions until we suddenly wake up one morning and find ourselves transformed. So it is with our responses to certain films.

For instance, I was a child when I first saw QSQT. I could not understand why my older cousins liked it. It was a stupid movie, I thought. First they (the romantic pair) are stupid enough to run away and live in the hills. Then they are stupid enough to die. What's the point? And why would anyone want to run away with a boy?

This was the phase when I watched black-n-white films happily as long as there was Johnny Walker or Mehmood in the cast. Johar Mehmood in HongKong was my idea of a good watch. I liked Charlie Chaplin. I even liked a strange film where Sridevi was playing a fairy (have forgotten the title). I used to like films with kids in them, and I enjoyed child-like behaviour. Cake-throwing sequences were my favourite.

As a teenager, I began to enjoy love stories. DDLJ and KKHH marked a departure in my tastes. I understood the desire to fall in love before getting married (though I had never met a boy who even vaguely interested me) and I assumed it would be very hard to forget a 'first' love.

I did not know then that is is not only possible to forget first love, but also to feel ashamed of it. I also did not understand guilt in love. So when I saw Arth, although I felt its emotional honesty, I did not understand it fully.
There is a scene where Smita Patil (her character) is saying that she feels as if the tiny black beads of the mangalsutra (belonging to her lover's wife) are scattered underfoot. They hurt her skin. i.e. She finds it impossible to move without hurting.

I thought that was kind of crazy - a manifestation of a mental breakdown. It took me many years to figure out that guilt was driving her towards a breakdown.

For the most part of my 20s, I did not fully grasp the nature of marriage. I didn't know how deep the claws of social conditioning dig into our flesh. Despite consuming books and films about unhappy couples, I thought marriage was a permanent concept. That it was inevitable, and that any love outside it was vaguely unclean. All my friends and cousins thought the same way.

But life taught us new lessons. Married friends began to write back to describe their marital experience in one word: "Yuck!" My generation has seen itself go through undesirable affairs, divorces, abuse, despair, very strangely won loyalties. And so, when I see Heer (Nargis Fakhri's character in Rockstar) two years after she's wedded a stranger in a strange country, unsmiling, mentioning doctor's appointments, it makes total sense. I don't need scenes specifying how and why this girl is dissatisfied. I can fill in the blanks.

When I was younger, I had romantic notions about sacrificing your feelings for others' sake. I did not know that feelings could not be sacrificed. They can only be suppressed. I did not know then that suppression of feelings can kill you. Not all at once. But in small, everyday ways - through stress and depression, through mysterious aches and pains - we can all be destroyed.

So I had no difficulty believing that Heer was either mentally or physically sick. In my interpretation, Heer's cancer is entirely metaphorical. What does it matter, the name of the disease? Unhappiness itself is a kind of disease. Living with a person you do not love can be frightening. It carves hollows into your face. It strips you of all self-respect. And if you do not have a clear idea of who you might love instead, or how much, you grow afraid that perhaps you are incapable of love.

You know that if you cannot love and be loved in equal measure, you are doomed. Before you know it, there is something wrong with you. A bad relationship usually translates into a bad self-relationship too. Lovelessness is all-pervasive. You cannot get rid of it by taking a walk or meeting a new set of friends, or shopping. There is only one way of getting rid of it and that is to find a true lover.

But to find love when it is clearly forbidden - that is difficult. It will not just disrupt your life. It will destroy your self-image.

In the cinema hall, there was a group (teenagers or people in their early 20s) seated a row behind me. After the scene where Heer kisses Jordan, then pushes him away, these youngsters started to giggle. They made comments about how they liked that part, because it was fun, and/or funny.

I found myself wanting to turn around and smack someone. I wanted to shake them and say: It's not funny, okay? This is not a funny scene. It comes from a place of torment. From holding yourself one inch short of happiness because happiness means going off a cliff of morality. And you don't want to fall.

Heer does not push Jordan because she doesn't know what she wants. Jordan doesn't want to kiss because he wants to sleep with her. He just wants to acknowledge the truth of their relationship. They used to be friends. They are no longer just friends. They have found unhappiness, and also found that there is a cure for unhappiness - being with each other. Kissing her is a way of telling her that he recognises this.

Heer also knows she is beyond the point of return. Some part of her is already past caring for consequences. But she pushes him away because she does not want to become the woman who has an adulterous affair at the first given opportunity. She is 'neat-and-clean', no matter how hard she tries not to be. She is curious but she is not the girl who wants to disrupt social structures. Nor is Jordon. Actually, gandh machaani in dono ke bas ki baat nahin hai. That is part of their tragedy.

As they begin their love affair in his hotel room, Heer cannot shake off her (social/moral) conditioning. She runs, afraid of what she has become, afraid of this feeling that has become stronger than her. Jordan has fewer qualms because he is still single. He need not feel burdened. But he will not chase her beyond a point. It is she who has to signal to him that their passion is equal. And the director conveys all of this messy emotion in about 30 seconds, with not one line of dialogue.

When I saw this deftness of touch being reduced to 'Ranbir acts so well' by critics, I felt I had to say 'not fair'. But then I realised that perhaps they are not seeing the same film.

I was seeing a very angry film. Poor Janardhan is furious because he hadn't asked for this kind of hurt. He wanted to make it big; he made it big. Now he knows that the glamourous, moneyed space was a trap. But it is too late to snap out of it. Or too soon. He is hurt but not broken. He is upset that he cannot control anything. He is angry that he cannot have a woman he is, in fact, entitled to. He wants her; she wants him. It should be simple. The world really has no locus standi.

Yet, the world butts in. It makes her run. It makes her try to break up with him. It makes her say things she doesn't mean. Later, when they manage to steal some time together, it comes crowding in to demand explanations. Stupid convention, law, tradition, media - it is ripping his life apart. And he will defy, defy, defy.

But finally, there is nothing to defy, because the story reaches a point when he is, actually, guilty. He's damaged his beloved. And his anger loses its heat. That last scene (in my reading of it) was supposed to convey a kind of defeat. A laying down of arms. When there is nothing left to win or fight for, what do you do?

You do what you can. You play music. You go to work. Perhaps you learn to live again. Perhaps, you die. Perhaps, you pretend to live. Who knows what happens to Jordan afterwards?

Every story comes from a point in the artist's heart, even if the events of the story are not from his/her own life. The rest is just craft. You are dependent on your medium to make yourself understood. But no matter how well-crafted a film (or book, or art installation, or photo exhibit) might be, understanding is not guaranteed. Because understanding is a two-way street.

I enjoyed it because, despite its flaws (some bad acting, definitely), I get Rockstar. I think. Not because I'm especially sensitive or too sappy (which might be true), but because the whole spectrum of grief interests me. I catch glimpses of it in every relationship. I puzzle over it. I hear it in songs. I read it. I write it. I watch it. And I am often dismissive of films that have no emotional depth. The filmmakers I love most are the ones who want to look at love and loss right in the eye and show me what they see.

I suppose, it is safe to say that beyond craft, beyond vision, plot, narrative, style, context or the combined talents of everyone involved in a project, there lies that elusive element - recognition. Every film, every book needs an audience who can recognise themselves in the story. Sometimes everyone can. Sometimes only a few people can. It is a bit like dancing to your own tune, except you do it in public. Those who are not in sync with that particular tune will be annoyed. And those who are in sync will fall in step.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Little green aliens

The crazy Mexican invader Krishen refers to was a plant that was deliberately brought to our desert (tossed out from an airplane, apparently). Perhaps, it was done with good intent. Some researchers and/or administrators may have thought: “Hey, some greenery is better than none. Why don’t we bring in this super-tough Mexican shrub?”

And so they did. This new invasive plant took root, sure, but even goats wouldn’t eat the toxic stuff and it was near-impossible to get rid of.

Now, years later, we are making the same mistakes — introducing new plants without due caution. But this time we are not talking about a dot of green in a desert. We’re talking about our bodies.

A fairly intense battle for our dinner tables lies ahead with genetically modified crops angling to get a foot in. And the government seems to be willing to facilitate the process, although India’s experience with Bt Cotton has already proved that GM crops do not necessarily change things for the better. There are serious concerns now because it is hard to prevent GM contamination. Odisha, for instance, had already said a firm ‘No’ to Bt Cotton, but hasn’t been able to stop it from spreading. How do you control every seed, every breeze?

Hundreds of activists, farmer groups, former civil servants and politicians have signed a petition to the prime minister, demanding that the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill be scrapped and ‘a Biosafety Protection statute’ be introduced in its stead.

The protests are getting louder since Parliament’s upcoming winter session may spell make-or-break for Indian farmers. The Seeds Bill, 2004, and the Pesticides Management Bill, 2008, might get passed.

Read full piece here

aka Mera pyaara sukumar gadha

The next time we met, he talked about history. About long swathes of grass. About what it might be to look at the sky without tilting your neck backwards and how it might be if clear pools of liquid existed at the venue of our thirst, so we didn’t have to push our tired bodies to the faraway ponds. He talked about taps and knowledge and fences. It is hard not to love one who talks like this. Although, I should have realized at this point that he was a donkey.

This is from a short story that has recently appeared at the excellent Pratilipi

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The killing of Valsa

The sequence of events seems hazy at this point. About fifty armed men showed up in the village. Some reports say she was killed in her sleep. Others say that some old women tried to protect her by hiding her under mattresses, but all houses were searched and after Valsa was found, she was either shot dead, or hacked to death (depending on which newspaper you read).

She was in Bachuwari, Bachwari, or Pachuwara village (depending on which newspaper you read) for twelve years, living first with the headman’s family and then with another family, or perhaps she lived alone (depending on which paper you read). But there had been death threats, allegedly by the coal mafia. Some say that she was already being protected by some village residents. Clearly, she had needed more protection than she had.

The saddest part of this tragedy is that it was Sister Valsa who had been arrested when she demanded proper rehabilitation. In 2004, the police had filed a case against her for ‘blocking the road’ just at the time when a fire broke out in Pachwara. She had managed to get anticipatory bail in 2007. But she was arrested as soon as she left the court premises, and had to be let out on bail once again.

I heard the news of her killing on an e-group. An activist who had known her and worked alongside her in Jharkhand mentioned that the Kerelite nun had gone riding into town in the back of a truck to file a police report against the timber mafia. She had wanted to do more for the people she had sworn to serve. Teaching was no longer enough. She wanted justice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A man's worth: dowry redux

‘So what are you worth?’ I asked.

‘Rs 50 lakhs,’ he wrote back.

I tut-tutted: What was Rs 50 lakhs these days? Too late to ‘improve’ himself, he moaned, but he’d make sure his unborn sons grew up to deserve more respectable dowries.

It was all a joke, of course. The ‘dowry calculator’ was doing the rounds on Facebook and I urged a friend, a business journalist, to get himself ‘valued’ for the marriage market. The application is intended a cheeky jab in the ribs, an exasperated joke aimed at people who still give and take dowry. We’d like to shake them up and say, come on, who does this dowry crap nowadays?

In fact, it’s been a long time since I heard money and marriage mentioned in the same breath. Brides-to-be discuss zardozi, colours, new linen. When shaadi season comes around, newspapers are full of articles about beauty treatments and wedding planners. Bridal wear trade fairs aggressively advertise themselves, and yet, nobody talks about where the money will come from. Who will pay for the impossibly solid gold jewellery, the band-baaja-baraat? 

More importantly, who will pay the price for it, in case nobody wants to foot the bill?

It is tempting to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much. But one morning you open the newspaper and you know who pays the price. They just found the charred body of the 25-year-old niece of a Congress MP from Secundrabad.

Once you start keeping track, dowry deaths become impossible to ignore. In June, I read reports of a 28-year-old in Basti (UP) being burnt alive; in Motihari (Bihar), a pregnant woman and her infant daughter burnt alive; in East Delhi, a 20-year-old set herself ablaze, leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter; in two separate cases in Bangalore, a 20-year-old killed herself and a police constable’s wife hung herself; and in chilled-out Goa, there is much consternation because of four dowry-related cases (two of them were murders) reported in less than a month.

It is also tempting to believe that it doesn’t touch us – educated, professional women. When I first asked my friends, they just shrugged. But the more anonymity I promised, the more stories came tumbling out.

Seema* told me that a few years ago, she was ‘seen’ by a young man who worked in the merchant navy. The boy’s parents were both academics and the family was ‘well-placed’. Everything looked set. But Seema’s uncle put a spanner in the works, saying, “This is too easy; something’s wrong.”

The family decided to put his hunch to the test. Seema’s father told the ‘boy’ outright: “We invested in her education but I’m a government servant. I can’t afford to give her anything. Our daughter will come to you with two new pairs of clothes. I just thought you should know this.”

The young man went home. Later that night, he called back to say that his mother had ‘collapsed’ after hearing such bad news. The match was immediately called off.

Another friend Preeti* didn’t fare so well. Her dad began setting aside money for her wedding when she was very little. It infuriated her but he just said she would need it one day. And sure enough, she did. “No demands were made,” says Preeti. “It’s a lot more sophisticated than that. But at the engagement, my mother-in-law casually said: ‘Whatever you give her will be put out on display, like, say, a washing machine’.”

Preeti’s father bore all the expenses for the wedding, and also forked over cash to buy new furniture although she was moving into a furnished house. Despite this, Preeti says her mother-in-law taunted her for years because she didn’t have gold bangles.

Someone else began to make disparaging remarks about the ‘north’ and said that things were much better in the ‘south’. So I began to look for dowry stories from south India. In an online forum, I found a curious anecdote about Bangalore. The writer mentioned a techie who was being interviewed for a new position. Things were going well until “this guy (…) was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA… He told the group head: ‘Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry’.”

It may be hard for some of us to imagine why an educated girl would meekly hand over Rs 1 crore to a guy who made a one-day pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. But others might wish that it was as simple as that – making a one-time lump sum payment and buying life-long love and peace. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

As Gauri Sharma, a human rights activist, points out, dowries are not paid once but several times over. “At the ‘first’ Diwali, Holi/Lohri, Karva Chauth, fancy gifts are given. In many families, the first child is delivered at the girl’s parents’ home. I know someone who just gave birth. Her husband asked her to tell her parents to pay the hospital bills! So they paid although her dad was a retired gentleman. And it didn’t end there. When she was going back to her marital home, her mother sent gifts for her husband’s entire family, plus more jewellery. I asked her mother: ‘Why?’, she just said: ‘Beta, it is riwaaz’ (tradition).”

Yes, that loaded word, tradition. It makes us put up with too many things that do us no good, and often, there’s murder to pay for it.


Hard fact: According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009, there were 8,383 dowry deaths reported to the police. These include murder and suicides in cases where the wife has alleged that her husband or in-laws have been pressuring her to ask her family for cash or other assets.


A bit of fun: Wondering how much India’s most eligible bachelors would be worth in the marriage market? 

Well, if you use the Dowry Calculator, not all that much. Whoever made the application must think that match-making aunties will not look at cricketers, politicians or actors as worthwhile investments in the marriage market.

I tried to calculate Rahul Gandhi’s dowry but there was no professional category for ‘politician’. So I chose ‘self-employed’. I also don’t know if he gets a salary as an office bearer for the Congress party, but as a Member of Parliament, his salary is supposed to be Rs 1.3 lakh a month (plus benefits). He went to Harvard so I put that down, and googled his approximate height (unverified).

The calculator says: ‘Dream dowry amount still eludes you’ and valued him at Rs 50 lakh. 

According to another, similar application (, Rahul Gandhi would not get any dowry at all.

Ranbir Kapoor does better. Since ‘actor’ or ‘artist’ was not listed as an option, I listed his profession as ‘family business’, and his skin colour as ‘wheatish’ (can do with some Fair & Lovely). Turns out, he’s worth Rs 65 lakh.

Cricket is also not mentioned as a ‘profession’, so while checking out Virat Kohli, I put down ‘self-employed’. But since he plays international cricket, it seemed fair to say that he works in ‘any country more developed than India’. He too was valued at Rs 65 lakh.

[This story was first published by Elle (India) in September 2011].

Friday, November 18, 2011

Paying for marriage, and how!

I find it hard to understand dowry in this great city where millions shove, spit and battle loneliness. That fellow whistling in the air as he rides the footboard on a train, scrutinising a girl in the next coach—is he wondering if her dad will pay for a Honda? Probably. How else do we explain dowry?

Over the past year or so, I’ve been forced to think a lot about dowry. Much has been happening. Someone came up with a computer application called The Dowry Calculator. Girls were undertaking sting operations against greedy grooms. People in Bihar have been kidnapping grooms. Sunita Singh has written an article about ‘pakarvah bibah’, in which she says that between 1995 and 2000, about 845 grooms were kidnapped, of which 556 were forced to marry at gunpoint. There was a film about it, Antardwand, which won a national award. There were screenings of Kundan Shah’s Teen Behnein, based on the suicide of three sisters who can’t deal with the whole dowry-marriage mess.

Someone on my Twitter timeline retweeted a sad brother who said his little sister, a bride of two months, was killed for dowry. Last week, a journalist emailed me the story of her maid, who is getting her computer-skills-enabled daughter married. The maid must cough up a ‘reasonable’ dowry—Rs 50,000 cash and 10 gm gold, demanded outright—and fund the wedding.

Meanwhile, the Big Fat Indian wedding continues to be glorified on TV and in cinema. Nobody seems to wonder who pays for all that jazz. Usually, the bride pays. Sometimes, she pays with her life.

... Perhaps the real problem is that nobody has a real problem with dowry. Not until the violence escalates. Not until you ask for more than someone’s ‘swechha’ permits. In fact, my generation of women is in shock about the fact that dowry harassment isn’t just something that in-laws do. It can also be something you do to your parents.

My friend G mentions a cousin who had a love marriage. The groom’s family was hostile at first; when they relented, their blessings came with a price tag. G recalls that the bride’s mother felt so betrayed at a daughter demanding her own dowry that she went into depression and required therapy.

Linking modern dowry to the disinheritance of Indian women, (Madhu) Kishwar has argued that most women do not want a dowryless wedding, lest ‘their brothers end up with an even bigger share of family resources’. But parents who bring up daughters as their sons’ equals must be wondering: where did they go wrong? Grandmothers in Kerala must be wondering: why are well-qualified girls paying for grooms?

Read the full piece at Open

Monday, November 14, 2011

Promises, promises

Your MP (member of parliament) is not responsible for water, sanitation or gardens. S/he can spend Rs3.35 crore on your constituency every year. But it is not her/his job to ensure that sewage isn’t leaking into drinking water.

Parliament’s basic job is national policy. This may translate into roads and drains, yes. For instance, new laws can force urban residents to start composting or rainwater harvesting. But to make that happen, MPs have to attend parliament. As our representatives, the least they can do is the actual representing. But are they doing it?

There had been a very promising trend started by a group called MumbaiVotes. Their ‘Promise vs Performance Report’ tracked six MPs from Mumbai between 2009 and 2010 by collecting data from parliament, direct interviews, and compiled media reports.

They told us that Eknath Gaikwad has 99% attendance. Gaikwad and Sanjay Nirupam are classified ‘livewires’ (over 90% attendance); Milind Deora and Sanjay Dina Patil are ‘healthy’ (80-90%); Priya Dutt is a ‘ghost’ (less than 70%). Gurudas Kamat was not included because, as a minister of state, he would be judged by different standards.

They also analyse ‘questions’, which tells us how active MPs are in parliament. Do they bother with research? Are they are trying to expose policy flaws? None of Mumbai’s MPs did well, though Gaikwad asked 426 questions, way above the national average of 135. But it seems like he was focused more on raising questions than on what his queries would achieve... Every politician has a personal manifesto, where he promises to do this or that thing for his voters. So all six MPs were sent a questionnaire, demanding a progress report. Kamat, Dutt and Gaikwad did not bother to reply.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keenan&Reuben&Manu&Babla &, &, ?

In Howrah, Manu Ram and Babla Bera were stabbed for trying to protect a 14-year-old schoolgirl. To borrow the words from an oddly-named NGO website, ‘eve teasing is an inseparable part of every girl’s life causing much avoidable mental agony to her. This in turn adversely affects her family and her friends’ (sic).

It not only affects family and friends, it also leads to tragicomic situations where people assume that any girl who is approached by any boy needs to be rescued! Last month, an unfortunately headlined item — ‘Eve-tease dilemma for cops’ — informed us that, in Patna, some people beat up young men. “The girls were celebrating a friend’s birthday when some boys approached them with birthday greetings. It was quite obvious that the boys and the girls knew each other. Some residents saw them talking and thought it to be an incident of eve-teasing and attacked the boys.”

Justice for Keenan and Reuben is necessary, but the outrage seems deflected so that, as usual, we blame institutions and not ourselves. The police have already arrested at least four people. Assuming the murderers are convicted, will we be satisfied? Will there be no more Keenans and Reubens?

As far as I’m concerned, the question to ask is not how such molestation-related murders could have happened in Mumbai, but why this happens so routinely in India.

It happens because millions of men do not respect women’s bodies. It happens because parents don’t teach their sons that there are proper ways of approaching the object of their (sexual) desires. It happens because boys are not taught to take ‘no’ for an answer. It happens because we have fostered a demonic culture where women have no control over their sexuality: they must either be given away to men in a pre-approved, community-sanctioned fashion, or they might be attacked. In such a culture, a woman is seen as fair game unless her protector-men — husband, boyfriend, brother, father — can physically beat off all assailants.

The full piece is up here

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Accepted murder, proscribed fun

... this collection was written to address a specific aspect of young women’s lives – the ‘goodness’ factor, with specific reference to south Asia. A story like Sujata does not qualify. Sujata might frighten us, but her morals/virtue are not being questioned (except by Kulin and he’s such a sadist that his accusations are easily overlooked). That’s the funny thing about our culture. It accepts, even condones murder if a woman is trying to save her body, but it doesn’t accept a young woman wanting to have some fun, using her body the way she likes.

The above extract is from an interview with Out of Print, which published my short story, Sujata. The interview focuses on writing technique and editing habits. But the sentence I've put up here is something I particularly wanted to highlight in the context of the story and our new book, which is full of stories about good Indian girls.

You can read the full interview here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

God (probably) doesn't need your anger

I was too taken aback at first to ask what wasn’t right, but he told us anyway. “This thing about gods, insulting god, it isn’t right.”

What I wanted to do, then, was roll my eyes. Instead, I found myself getting anxious. But I wasn’t about to be cowed, of course. So I told the angry young god-defender that this was between us and gods; we’d settle our own scores.

He went off and stood around sulking for a bit, and complaining to the nearest person who was too polite to protest. But until he left the venue, I remained anxious, mostly on account of the young performer whose work had given him offence.

What I found surprising was that the poem should be offensive to anyone who was concerned about the gods. If anything, the poet had already taken offence on their behalf, and written about how inappropriate it was that people who are not powerful in any way should be allowed to bear the names of Them, whom we worship. I personally didn’t care so much for the poem, but that was because of its slightly unkind irony — poking fun at the most fragile amongst us. It was almost as if the god-defender had randomly latched on to the few stray words, and decided that name of the gods should not be taken in vain.

Accusing someone of having insulted the gods (or a faith) is the easiest way to make him (or her) a target for violence. And in our country, it is also the most difficult violence to punish. And so, when faced with accusations of having insulted someone’s religious faith (or caste identity), we panic. Unlike our political/economic/ecological beliefs, we do not really defend our religious ideas. We take for granted that everyone owes them respect. And we do this by seizing upon divinity.

Say the ‘god’ word and all arguments are silenced.

Read the full piece here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The songs! Our songs!

The year is 2005. The rain has settled into a sweet Delhi drizzle. Between the bus conductor’s lusty cries of ‘Gurgaanva!’ the radio crackles with song.

A group of college girls boards the bus, arranges itself in the row just ahead. The song changes to the still-popular Bheege honth tere (Your lips are wet). One of the girls begins to sing along, but there is one line she skips: Kabhi mere saath koi raat guzaar (Come spend a night with me).

In swoops a memory. I’m a schoolgirl in remote Rajasthan. It’s lunch break. The girls are soaking in the winter sunshine, singing 'Mr India' songs. The girl with the sweetest voice is singing the stunningly sensual Kaate nahin katate, but there’s one line she will not sing. All of us hang our heads, humming, afraid of being caught singing that line: I love you.

This is the sort of childhood memory I never share with Bombay and Delhi friends. They’ll never understand.

The extract above is from a longer essay on Hindi film lyrics and our changing social values. It appears in Forbes Life. Go, pick up a copy to read the full piece. It also has some writers weighing in on themes as diverse (though not always unconnected) as poker and nudity. Here's a cover image to help you identify it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A practical guide to impressing good Indian girls

First things first: This isn’t really about bad boys (we don’t know any; God-promise); this is about good Indian girls. And you should read this if you are the unsuspecting guy who walked up to a sweet girl, but when you asked for her name, she treated you as if you were a pervert. Or are you one of those who gave a girl a fancy present but she was too nervous to accept it? Are you married to a girl who loves you madly but who resents your harmless, homely sister-in-law? Why?

These are some of the questions Smriti Ravindra and I try to answer in our new book. One of the reasons we decided to do a book called ‘The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl’ was that so many men complain that they simply cannot understand women, particularly Indian women. We kind of sympathize because we know there’s cause for confusion and resentment.

For instance, when we were undergraduates (and living at a very strict girls’ college), we had instructions not to talk to boys when we went outside. Some girls obeyed. Some didn’t. Those who talked to boys would give out fake names, fake addresses. It must have been frustrating for boys when they discovered the lie, but on the other hand, what’s a good girl to do?

If the boys had real names, real phone numbers, they would try to call. The hostel warden would find out. Parents would be summoned. The authorities would tell them that their daughters were up to no good. The girls would be shamed in front of their families and families would be shamed in front of the college authorities. Did we really have a choice?

When Smriti and I began to talk of what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we asked ourselves this question: How does one get labeled ‘bad’ or ‘not very good’ or at least ‘not a good Indian girl’?

We also asked others and most of us agreed that clothes have a lot to do with the stereotype. So does body shape. A stereotypical good Indian girl is expected to not just dress ‘within limit’ but also to somehow make her body look, well, restrained, cautious. ‘Limits’, of course, are very hard to define. It is not enough to wear a sari, for instance. If you look super-sexy in a sari, then even that might earn you a bit of social censure.

So, when a girl spends hours trying to make up her mind about what to wear, remember that she isn’t just worried about looking good. She is also worried about appearing to be good.

Remember that she is expected to place others’ interests above her own (but that doesn’t mean fighting for human rights in war zones; it means eating matar-paneer even though she hates it). Above all, she is expected to look happy and content.

Remember, that for most good Indian girl, to be interested in boys is considered healthy. But if you act on that interest, you enter a grey area. How much interest can you show without suffering for it? Can you go out drinking late at night? Can you buy him a drink, without being laughed at for being ‘desperate’? Can you sleep with him and still expect him to treat you with respect?

So if you want to bowl over a good Indian girl, the best thing to do is to treat all girls with respect. Not just your girl. You must show respect for all girls. NEVER say things like ‘x girl had it coming’ or ‘y is a nympho’ or ‘girls who smoke are more likely to put out’. If she herself says such things, YOU must gently shush her, and remind her that all girls should be treated with respect.

And NEVER ever hint that there’s a separate set of rules for girls and boys. That you are allowed certain privileges, like hairy legs or bare chests, while she isn’t. She knows the rules. She will hate you for reminding her.

Do NOT ask about her sexual history. If it doesn’t matter, then why ask? Let her volunteer information if she wants to. You must not ask, even if she has asked you. Remember, we play by different rules and that a girl’s secrecy is often the only defense she has.

Many young men wonder why we care so much about being seen as a ‘good girl’. We care because if we are seen as not-good girls, we are not treated with respect. Our families are not treated with respect. And because, when things go seriously bad, even our pain and outrage is turned into a weapon against us. We see this happening again and again through news reports about girls who are assaulted, or harassed. The first question everyone asks is – What time was it? Why was she out alone? Did she know the boy(s)? What was she wearing? Did she live alone? Why?

There are plenty of other reasons why we care about a ‘good Indian girl’ image, but remember this – a great web of morality confronts us. Most girls end up breaking some rules. And what’s more, most girls want to break the rules. The challenge lies in snatching a bit of joy and freedom for ourselves and not getting caught. How do we do this? Well, read the book to find out more.

About the book:

Who is the Good Indian Girl? What does she look like? How does she dress? Is she real — or is she a myth?

In this funny, wicked, touching, irreverent, poignant collection of stories, Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra lift the veil (or sari pallu) on the lives and loves of girls who have been born or raised in the subcontinent.

This is the Good Indian Girl as she has never been seen before—fiesty, imaginative, a little crazy, smart, vulnerable. Prepare to be surprised. 

[This article was first published in Mumbai Mirror and can also be accessed here]

Monday, October 24, 2011

How about a corruption-free newspaper, to start with?

Newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites — they are supposed to bring you word when things are wrong. But often the media fails. It fails partly because YOU — middle-class, media-consuming citizens — swallow the hogwash about not being interested enough in ‘serious’ news. It also fails because journalists are controlled by businessmen/women. Right now, there is an ongoing battle for the very soul of Indian journalism.

Media owners are adopting policies which are not merely unethical but also illegal, like accepting cash in exchange for favourable coverage during elections. If the media will not support honest candidates, or expose the dirty ones, how will the public know whom to vote for? How can we expect honesty from politicians if they are expected to cough up anything upwards of a crore of rupees to ensure coverage by just one media house, over the course of just one election campaign? Do we then seriously expect that clean, dedicated candidates will win elections?

Go to this link ( and look at the column on the left. Click on the link that says ‘Report on Paid News’. Read it.

Here are some extracts: “The concerned newspapers and television channels typically receive funds for paid news in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.”

“The entire operation is clandestine. This malpractice has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country... So-called rate cards or packages are distributed that often include rates for publication of news items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents...”

“Identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors around the same time. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed praising competing candidates claiming that both are likely to win the same elections.”

Most journalists are outraged at what’s happening (remember, you know this only because some journalists told the truth) but are helpless. Journalists are made to ‘cooperate’ with their respective marketing departments, who seem to have no respect for editorial integrity.

Many prominent media houses have been indicted by the Press Council report. And naturally, most of them have denied the allegations. Even so, it would be nice to see some soul-searching by media houses, or even an offer to place their account books under public scrutiny. It is time they showed citizens that they are trustworthy, that they deserve the right to critique politicians and bureaucrats, that they are not themselves guilty of corrupting our democratic processes.

Read full piece here

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Otherwise we are not so orthodox"

Apparently, good Indian girls don't do serious research in good libraries.

This newspaper reports that undergraduate female students at Aligarh Muslim University are not allowed to enter the better-equipped Maulana Azad Library and that even in the Women's College Library, students are allowed access to the reference section only. And what does the college princy have to say?

"Vehemently denying the allegations against the college administration, Bilquis Nasim Waris, Principal of the Women's College, said the college library was “equipped with what the girls require... Everyone knows that UG students don't need reference material and journals, they only need textbooks and even if they insist on reference material, our teachers can fetch those from the MAL and hand out photocopies,” she said.

Dismissing the demands for relaxing rules and allowing more freedom to the students to step out as “needless,” Professor Waris said the austere rules are only “to protect” the girls. She went on to elaborate: “We allow them to step out on Sundays. These girls are young and just want to go outside. These restrictions are for their good and to save them from wrong things. Otherwise, we are not so orthodox.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Come see me

Friends, strangers, countrymen and townswomen, come! The discussion with Shilpa Phadke promises to be fun. And you can ask all the questions you want. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

A leisurely stroll to the nearest thana?

At a recent meeting, retired Justice Hosbet Suresh explained Section 151 of the CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure). Essentially, you could be hauled off to the nearest police station if a cop thinks you are going to commit an offense, and you could be kept there for 24 hours.

A lot can happen in 24 hours. You could be forced to perform acts that leave you scarred for life, but which we cannot prove in a court of law. Or you could be obviously broken but the fractures and bruises may be explained away as an ‘accident’ — slipping in the bathroom, for instance.

Now, what is one to do about slippery bathrooms? What should we say to a woman who was seriously injured immediately after being handed over to the Chhattisgarh police? Apparently, Soni Sori, accused of being a Maoist, has managed to hurt herself while in custody — she slipped and fell, it is being claimed — after she was handed over to the Chhattisgarh police.

Her family — including her father and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi — has been hurt and hounded and the whole business has already been reported in the national press. Soni had appealed to the judiciary in Delhi, saying she fears for her life. Now what does one say to the honourable judges who saw fit to hand her over to the Chhattisgarh police?

And what does one say about octogenarians getting manhandled? Activist Kavita Srivastava’s 87-year-old father was pushed around when the Rajasthan police came calling while helping the Chhattisgarh police find Soni Sori. If Mr Srivastava was hurt, I suppose we’d have slippery bathrooms to blame.

(...) You might be set free and then arrested again. The poet Varahara Rao was arrested about 15 times. Arun Ferreira, who spent four years in jail as an undertrial, was acquitted but the police re-arrested him before he could even meet his family.

Read full piece here

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

City Nights 2 (a poem)

The city comes pouring out
of her mouth like sleek brown rivers
of discontent, her hands flat
against the pink café walls,
the round-faced waiter in his purple apron,

The city pours out of her mouth -
colour of churning monsoon street,
bags under neglected coffee eyes,
soles of slippers that have spent the evening
in an old-fashioned cemetery,
colour of guts.

On her fleshy back, a hand
rubs in the city’s truth –
This happens.

At least once in your life, the city
comes pouring out of your mouth
until you are drained and your gut is a shocking pink
like the walls of a café where shaky first lovers 

One of these days, past midnight,
it will all come true -
Everything will come pouring out of you.

Your big bum,
the beer towers you drink to fit in,
the hands that rub your back as you gag
over an alien sink,
loose knots of mustard hair,
dead phone batteries,
under-cooked mutton.

The city will come pouring out of you
and when it happens, you will smile
with your eyes shut tight,
you will say to the nearest friend –
This happens.
This had to happen.
It happens to everyone.

[Edited slightly after it was published in Verve (India) magazine]

(C) Annie Zaidi

Matrimania and more

Found a wonderful, insightful, informative piece about marriage, its past and future, and what it means to be single in our romantically crises-ridden age. The context and a lot of the research is from the USA but what the writer says and experiences will resonate with many of us in developing nations, particularly educated, urban single women.

I'd strongly recommend that all single people (men and women) read this article. All five, lengthy pages of it. Parents of single people are also strongly advised to read it too. Two very short extracts from the article are here, below:

"When I embarked on my own sojourn as a single woman in New York City—talk about a timeworn cliché!—it wasn’t dating I was after. I was seeking something more vague and, in my mind, more noble, having to do with finding my own way, and independence. And I found all that. Early on, I sometimes ached, watching so many friends pair off—and without a doubt there has been loneliness. At times I’ve envied my married friends for being able to rely on a spouse to help make difficult decisions, or even just to carry the bills for a couple of months. And yet I’m perhaps inordinately proud that I’ve never depended on anyone to pay my way (today that strikes me as a quaint achievement, but there you have it). Once, when my father consoled me, with the best of intentions, for being so unlucky in love, I bristled. I’d gotten to know so many interesting men, and experienced so much. Wasn’t that a form of luck?

All of which is to say that the single woman is very rarely seen for who she is—whatever that might be—by others, or even by the single woman herself, so thoroughly do most of us internalize the stigmas that surround our status.
Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social psychologist who is now a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience. In 2005, she coined the word singlism, in an article she published in Psychological Inquiry. Intending a parallel with terms like racism and sexism, DePaulo says singlism is “the stigmatizing of adults who are single [and] includes negative stereotyping of singles and discrimination against singles.” In her 2006 book, Singled Out, she argues that the complexities of modern life, and the fragility of the institution of marriage, have inspired an unprecedented glorification of coupling. (Laura Kipnis, the author of Against Love, has called this “the tyranny of two.”) This marriage myth—“matrimania,” DePaulo calls it—proclaims that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don’t have this are pitied. Those who don’t want it are seen as threatening. Singlism, therefore, “serves to maintain cultural beliefs about marriage by derogating those whose lives challenge those beliefs.”"


"The matrilineal Mosuo are worth pausing on, as a reminder of how complex family systems can be, and how rigid ours are—and also as an example of women’s innate libidinousness, which is routinely squelched by patriarchal systems, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá point out in their own analysis of the Mosuo in their 2010 book, Sex at Dawn. For centuries, the Mosuo have lived in households that revolve around the women: the mothers preside over their children and grandchildren, and brothers take paternal responsibility for their sisters’ offspring.
Sexual relations are kept separate from family. At night, a Mosuo woman invites her lover to visit her babahuago (flower room); the assignation is called sese (walking). If she’d prefer he not sleep over, he’ll retire to an outer building (never home to his sisters). She can take another lover that night, or a different one the next, or sleep every single night with the same man for the rest of her life—there are no expectations or rules. As Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist, explains, these relationships, which are known as açia, are founded on each individual’s autonomy, and last only as long as each person is in the other’s company. Every goodbye is taken to be the end of the açia relationship, even if it resumes the following night. “There is no concept of açia that applies to the future,” Hua says."

Read the full piece. It will do you good. It will do good to all those around you. 

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why I support the auto-wallas this time

Auto-rickshaw drivers deserve to live in clean surroundings; they deserve to eat fruit; their children deserve to go to good schools. And it is true that for this to happen in Mumbai, a household needs at least Rs 25,000 a month. So, now that one of the auto unions is demanding that much money, I understand. I even kind of endorse their demands.

... If autorickshaw drivers win this battle, domestic workers, motor mechanics, balloon-sellers, writers (do I hear a hundred Amens?) will follow. Why shouldn’t a truck driver make Rs 25,000? Why not a teenaged girl who sews tinsels on dupattas?

What I find interesting is that even the state seems to value drivers above other kinds of workers., a website with information about current wage rates, has published data from various states. It shows Indians who drive ‘public motor vehicles’ are entitled to more money than those who build roads. Which is strange, isn’t it?

In Maharashtra, the minimum wage for a driver (included under ‘Public motor transport’, I’m guessing) is around Rs 7,000 (rounding off figures). This places them a bit above film production workers. Also above attorneys, barbers, bakers, weavers, typists, carpenters, security guards, and those who work with chemicals, or in saw mills. Unskilled hospital workers (who are exposed to serious health risks) are entitled to only about Rs 5,000.

As for farm workers, they were guaranteed Rs 120 per working day (in 2009), or a monthly salary of Rs 3,120. And I wondered who decides these things. Why should a bus driver make more money than a farm worker?

In any case, I’m sure farmers wouldn’t mind getting a pension, same as autorickshaw drivers. I certainly wouldn’t mind one.

Read full piece here

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Gallantry in the Versovic Veerana: A midnight frame

I was pretty spaced out during the ride back to the station. While hailing the auto-rickshaw, I hadn't even looked at the driver's face properly. We never do, do we? All I remember was that he was aggressively bearded. And that his auto gave me the full benefit of the city. No distracting music. No cricket commentary or news. No conversation on the phone. No horns.

Midnight Andheri vroomed past - engines, hammering on construction sites, yellow headlights that always seem to me more like a loud sound than a painful sight. And hooting. That unmistakable hooting sound of men trying to get a woman's attention.

I was too spaced out to notice at first. The blinding yellow, the shadows of men curled up at roundabouts, the loopy daydreams had been distracting me. But when the cat-calling continued, I looked up and saw them. About eight of them, sitting-standing on the back of a truck. They sat with their legs dangling out of the lowered 'gate' at the back. Semi-bare legs. One of them wore short shorts - a crimson red. Another wore a red t-shirt. With the light in my eyes, I couldn't see much more.

Workers, perhaps, packers and movers. Or friends of the driver, hitching a ride to somewhere after a hard day at work. I looked at them for a minute and then looked away again. A traffic light. Both vehicles stalling, engines working hard.

The whoops and hoots grew louder. They had noticed me looking. They wanted me to look again.

It gets tiring. Them wanting to be looked at. I could look. Then they would hoot louder. Then they would nudge each other and say, "Look, she's looking." Then they would make a gesture, perhaps it would be obscene. Perhaps, it would amuse me. Then I would feel insulted.

I wasn't yet feeling insulted. But now it was impossible to slide back into that trance induced by screaming yellow midnight traffic. I looked away, shifted so that my face was in the shadows.

As if that mattered. They weren't hooting at my face or my clothes. I was covered neck to wrist to ankle. They were faceless men themselves, tired working men, but they saw a woman and wanted her attention. And   I didn't want to give it to them.

I couldn't. You never can. How can any woman in this city - any city - give a group of random men the attention they obviously want, and hope that the situation will not worsen?

I did the predictable thing. Lowered my eyes, shrank somehow, counted down to when the light would turn green. The light turned green.

But even a small truck is a large thing. On a road reduced to a ribbon by massive infrastructure projects, it is hard to ignore. And so we travelled that way for a while - me in the auto, behind the truck, and the men calling out - not words, just sounds. Looking at me.

There is something awful about being looked at in this way. It seems preposterous even when there is no danger. You want the looking faces to go away. You do not want their eyes on any part of you - not your hands, not your feet, not your shadow.

And then my auto-driver began to weave impossibly. First right, then left, then right, swerving sharply. He was going as fast as he could. Hooting sounds still floated in, but somehow, they seemed to have been deflected. Somehow, I felt less helpless.

As soon as he could, the auto-driver squeezed through a gap on the left, hit the accelerator hard and overtook. From the wrong side, yes. But finally, I was rid of them - the hooting, the looking.

Once we'd left the truck behind, the auto-driver slowed down. The night swung back into pools of yellow-grey and the hum of a hundred engines. I relaxed. I began to space out again. In a few minutes, we reached the station. I paid him. He found other passengers. I said, 'Thank you'.

I didn't really say thank you, though. How do you say 'thank you' for such things? For guessing that I'd feel bad about the hooting; for wanting to do something about it; for doing what he could without me having to suggest it.

I still couldn't see much of him as I alighted. All I saw was his beard. There was the slightest touch of grey in it. Or perhaps not. There was something about him that suggested greyness, as if he was on the far side of youth. Perhaps it was his silence, his wisdom. Perhaps, it was my silence, my wisdom. Who can say?

Monday, October 03, 2011

"She puts on the safety chain and opens the door a few inches. The broad shoulders turn. It is a familiar face after all. It is the face of trouble.

Seconds pass as her soapy hands fiddle with the safety chain. She should shut the door now. She should make an urgent phone call. Or she can talk across the chain, ask him what he wants. The safety chain clatters gently against the door as Sujata turns back to go into the kitchen.

The door hangs open."

[Extracted from a short story that has been published here.]

Sunday, October 02, 2011


So I got into another crib-fest about Hindi films and how disconnected they are from ‘reality’. How our filmmakers have turned into elitist bubble-vermin, how the bubble shall surely burst, how it deserves to burst because films are media, and media has responsibilities. On and on.

Then I thought, but what about ‘media’ media?... Thinking about the information put out by the ‘national press’ has goaded me into making a list — a list of things to write about that are guaranteed to make various groups of people fear the nation and her institutions, including the fourth pillar of democracy. Here are some items from that list:

Write excessively about a visiting skinny blonde who wants to sell us hand-bags. Do not write about Gopalgarh (Bharatpur) and the firing in which at least 8 people died and 23 were injured.

... Do not ask what the home ministry hopes to accomplish by allowing the Border Security force (BSF) to arrest alleged Maoists, and the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force (CRPF) the power to interrogate them.

Avoid asking why Lingaram Kodopi is wanted, or why Kopa Kunjam was arrested. Do not ask who will be granted powers to undo interrogations that go too far.

Respond to the public’s need to figure out the new Facebook. Do not respond to the public’s need for more public transport.

Read the full piece here

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Talk about feeling good!

At its most literal, sadbhavna translates to ‘good feelings’. Now who wouldn’t want Indian citizens to have good feelings for each other, across the tragic, screaming borders of caste, language, religion, sex? And if a democratically-elected representative wants to fast for a few days in the hope of fostering fine fellow-feeling etcetera amongst the electorate, there is nothing wrong with that.

But the thing is, good feelings can only come to those who are feeling good about themselves and the people they must deal with. I can believe, for instance, that Narendra Modi is feeling good. Good things have happened to him. He’s been CM for nearly a decade now. Everybody tells him that he’s good at administration (which might not be the same as being a good person or citizen or leader, but that’s another story).

However, there are other Indian citizens who are not feeling so good.

For instance, the Basumatarys from Kokrajhar in Assam. There are allegations that the deaf-mute wife was gang-raped by SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) soldiers in front of her husband. That was earlier this month. A police complaint was filed, but I haven’t heard of any fresh reports on whether the armed forces are doing the needful: making arrests, trying the accused, punishing them. The victim — and the village, and in fact, all of Assam — wants to see some kind of justice getting served. But until that happens, it would be stupid to expect them to feel ‘sadbhavna’ vis a vis the SSB.

Also, for instance, the people of Karcha village in Chhattisgarh. They can’t be feeling too good after the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl... State home minister Nankiram Kanwar of the BJP shamed himself by asking why the dead child was out at night in the first place (...) It is hard to feel good about such ministers. Indian women will find it hard to forgive the BJP for not making him step down for this shameful attempt to protect alleged rapist-murderers by blaming dead children.

Read full piece here

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hail and Farewell

Since her murder, there have been allegations that evidence was tampered with. There is talk of exhuming Shehla’s body. There is talk of powerful BJP leaders being involved. Senior BJP leaders have also not said anything about the case, nor asked BJP-affiliated politicians to step down until their names are cleared in connection with Shehla Masood’s murder. They are instead taking out a ‘rath yatra’ to stop corruption.

One of the last few things Shehla did was fast — in solidarity with Anna Hazare. But despite his ‘victory’, when faced with the murder of a real person doing real things to combat corruption in her own state, Team Anna has been woefully quiet. Hazare himself is busy making statements about how Sonia Gandhi should be like Indira Gandhi. Perhaps he slept through the Emergency. In any case, nobody is fasting to bring the government of Madhya Pradesh to its knees, forcing it to investigate all instances of corruption that Shehla had pointed towards. Nobody is gheraoing the homes of BJP MLAs.

And I’m thinking, how quickly they fade — our little stars of truth that come tearing through our thick smog of violence and corruption. How quickly they fall, burn out, disappear into the dark night. She has been dead for less than a month but Shehla Masood is already fading from public discourse. The media hasn’t taken her investigations into corruption any further.

Some of her activist friends are trying to keep her work alive. Shehla had been working with a group of students to create a sort of ‘RTI leaks’ — a web resource for all information collected through any RTI application filed across India. It sounds like a very good idea and I hope the website lives and grows, for all our sakes.

Which reminds me of another poem where the lines went something like: They died that we might live — Hail and farewell! — to those who, nobly striving, nobly fell…like kings they died.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Self-loathing and the Middle class

I patiently waited in line. Five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. Finally one auto trundled up, and was promptly hijacked by people right at the back of the queue. We all sighed, shuffled, mumbled. The same thing happened again, then again.

Finally, one gent stopped a freshly hijacked auto by planting himself firmly in front of it. He asked the hijackers to vacate the auto and wait in queue like everyone else. The hijackers were a family including an elderly gent, and some women. The gent began to plead that they should be allowed to go first because, “We have ladies with us.”

This argument didn’t go down well. Angry little murmurs went up: “What, we’re not ladies?” and “We also have ladies with us.”

The old gent began to shout. His next argument was: “If I die right now, who’s responsible?” In other words, he was possibly hypertensive, and if we made him get off, he might suffer a heart attack.

He shouted louder at the protesting man who was trying to enforce the queue system. This younger gent then trained his guns upon the auto driver. “Make them get off.”

The auto driver, keenly aware of his precarious position, stared into the night, silent. The elderly gent, sensing victory, asked the driver to drive away. The younger gent, sensing defeat, shouted some more at the driver, began to abuse him. He said, “It’s really the (insert strong language) driver’s fault. Why do these guys allow it?”

I’m glad the driver drove away then. I sensed the younger gent was tempted to hit him. And there was a likelihood that others would join in.

And then I remembered why I mistrust the middle class.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Truth and reconciliation in the context of corruption

Last week a writer-friend, Vivek Tandon, called me to discuss what should actually be done to combat corruption. He thinks we need a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission — something along the lines of what they did in South Africa after they finally got rid of apartheid. In the corruption context, this would mean people being given a chance to confess their corrupt acts and redeem themselves.
They would return their ill-begotten money (whatever remained of it), perhaps pay fines, but would not be jailed for corruption-related crimes dating back to… Well, the state would fix a cut-off date, and no further acts of corruption would be tolerated.
I’m not yet sure about the workability of such a commission... Still, I like the idea of Truth and Reconciliation. It assumes that corrupt people are human; that they want to return the morsels they have wrongfully stolen from the mouths of malnourished kids; that millions of bribe-takers lie awake at night, longing to confess but afraid of being sent to jail. Can’t fault the idea for a lack of optimism.
Corruption is often unforgiveable, especially in poor nations, but Tandon argues that corruption is an intrinsic part of the culture we grew up with. We are taught to use ‘contacts’ to ‘get work done’. That’s how we get confirmed train tickets, or driving license we don’t deserve, or construction contracts, or environmental clearances. We are taught that only idiots pay taxes. Just like millions of us spit, spit, spit everywhere, undeterred by the law or exhortations in the name of public health. People do it not just because they get away with it but also because they have always done it, and seen others do it.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Readings in Mumbai

Now that the new book is out, we shall be doing a series of readings across various book-stores (and perhaps at some institutions too). This space will be updated as and when new events are finalized. Please do come. Physical invitations are not necessary, so anyone interested in the Good Indian Girl (and why would't you be?), come along for a chat.

One:  Kitabkhana
[Address: Ground Floor, Somaiya Bhavan, 45/47, MG Road, Fort, Mumbai]
Time: 6 pm
Day: September 3 (Saturday), 2011.

Snapshots from the city of waves

I headed towards the autos queued outside the domestic airport and carried my bags to the front of the line. As I got into the first auto, a white-uniformed fellow with an I-am-a-somebody demeanor leaned in, blocking the exit. He said: “Hundred rupees… If you get a pre-paid slip, you will have to pay a hundred and fifty.”
I snapped something about using the meter, and then tried to alight. White Uniform stepped back, saying, “Okay, okay. Meter…”
Later, I asked the driver how much I owed him. He tried to overcharge by 10 rupees.
I looked at the meter and took a deep breath. One part of me was saying: Forget it. The other part said: “Don’t add to a culture of financial misdemeanor.”
So I pointed to the meter. He stared at me sullenly and said, “I waited in line at the airport a long time.” I retorted, “So I pay because you have to line up?”
I wanted to say other things — about how you have a better chance of being treated with respect if you act like you deserve it; how cheating becomes a way of life; how this is a vicious circle of blame and powerlessness; how I too wait in line for autos but do not charge a premium for it. But I didn’t say any of this.
Two days later, the road was blocked by another Anna-people rally. Tricolour flags etcetera.
I was in an auto and the driver was twisting this way and that, peering at the junction. He mumbled, “Now are these Anna-people headed right or left?”
I had to smile. Big question, that one. Are they headed right, or left?
I asked the white-haired driver what he thinks about Anna Hazare. He shrugged.
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