Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bluffmaster: a much-delayed review

Tell me what a good movie means, to you, and I'll tell you where a good movie's playing.
That, in essence, is the magic of cinema. Or, perhaps, of all art.
Because, that all good art speaks to you is only half a truth. The whole truth being that ALL art speaks to you. Or tries to. If you find yourself speaking back to the piece in question, if you begin to 'engage' in the apparently one-sided conversation, you have what you call a good film.

To my mind, a good film has to be one of three - amusing, touching or thought-provoking.
A truly great film has all three elements. A timepass film has one. A repeat-value film has two overlapping elements. A half-way decent film tries hard, but sometimes falls into the cracks between these.

Bluffmaster is what I call a one-time-repeat-value timepass movie.

It walks a tight-rope between fun and sentiment, between slick and real, and emerges pretty much unscathed, smelling of stardust. Here's why I recommend it:

1] Because Abhishek Bacchan really has started looking really hot. He's finally made it to 'lust object' category, which means that women can stop paying attention to his histrionic skills and just focus on how hot/cool he is. He doesn't have his father's acting skills, not yet, but he's working on it and is already at the stage where he slips into a character's skin without the loose folds showing. Or at least, has the wisdom to pick roles that he can handle with ease.

2] Priyanka Chopra is looking as hot as she's ever looked. She's wearing nice clothes. She's comfortable in her chracter's shoes; she's not hamming. She fits. And characters 'fitting' is half the battle won.

3] A lot of humour.
Some of it is wit-based humour, which is rare in Indian movies. And some of it is just good, old-fashioned, improbable nonsense that you can't help giggling at. Like the scene in which Ritesh Deshmukh is trying to con Boman Irani into believing that he - Boman Irani, that is - has been shot. And then there is Nana Patekar's impossible character - the dangerous 'shark' who begins his day by doing aarti in front of the mirror.

4] The setting is contemporary; the treatment is contemporary. Including the romance between the hero and heroine, which is a welcome relief.
For instance, when Priyanka's character is angry with Abhishek, he tries to win her back - turning up at her work-place, turning up at her apartment. He does not sing mournful songs under her balcony, and she does not sob alone in her bedroom. The heroine is like most independent young career women, and moves on to other men.

5] It is a love story, which makes for easy resonance. But it is not just a love story. It is the story of a con-man, who happens to be in love with an intelligent, headstrong, woman. It is the story of a young man confronted with imminent death, and that's also a game all of us have played in our heads: What if you had only a few months to live? And, paradoxically, not much to live for?

6] It is shot beautifully.
Bombay - the grittiness, the harsh greys and concrete, the sea, the Gateway, the beach, the cheap shack, the skyscrapers, the swank hotels, the pubs, the C-grade cinema halls.... it looks real. It's beautiful.

7] The music is good. The songs don't interrupt the flow of the story. They're pacy and good-looking. (In fact, the last 'item' song that's all the rage right now, arrives only when the credits roll at the end. Nobody wants to leave the hall, of course, as long as that number's playing!)

8] There's a twist in the tale.

9] Most importantly, the 'pace' is right. Many a good script is doomed when the narrative begins to drag. Thankfully, the director (Rohan Sippy) has not resorted to slick-tricks like jump-cuts, or deliberate convolutions of plot in an attempt to control pace. Also, there are no parallel sub-plots side-tracking the story, nor irrelevant flashbacks into the hero's unhappy childhood.

Like any good story, Bluffmaster unfolds smoothly, taking care to carry you along so that you don't feel breathless, bored or confused. Which is why it gets my vote. And an unlikely, much-delayed review. Two years later, I will have forgotten all about it and will, possibly, even wonder what was wrong with my sensibilities. However, two weeks after I saw the movie, I'm sitting here, saying that it's worth watching a second time. Which is something, no?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Succumbing to the temptation of year-end lists

For the last couple of years, I've stopping doing something that I once thought I could spend a lifetime doing: reviews.

I had set out (in journalism) seriously thinking that, since books and movies were so much fun, there was no better job than to first read/watch, and then talk/write about them. That's what I'd wanted to do, week after week. And initially, I did. For my first job with a web portal's news section. For a youth magazine, afterwards...
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I lack the true soul of a professional reviewer. My response to most books and movies and music was reduced to very few words - 'nice', 'okay', 'fun', 'loved it', 'bleah!' 'whatever...' ouch'. (In a profession where many of us are paid by the word, this clearly does not bode well.)

Yet, I miss reviewing sometimes. I miss the exercise of describing a creative thing like a book, or a movie. The challenge of using words, as orginally as possible, to describe what could be a very original way with words. The magic of infusing a film review with 'ambience', beyond narrating the bare bones of a story outline.
On the other hand, I find it harder and harder to pass judgement upon any such creative work. The fact that I don't like it means nothing. I am not the world. And if I do like something, that is very likely a reflection upon me - my tastes, my values, my sense of humour, my needs.

Which is why, I've more or less stopped reading reviews. Especially movie reviews, since I realised how upsetting the star-rating system can be. Most publications have a five star rating scheme, where:
5 stars = fantastic/unmissable.
1 star = awful/please-avoid.
1 and a 1/2 stars = so-awful-that-we're-feeling-sorry-for-the-filmmakers.

I didn't think anyone really cared for the reviews and the stars, but now that most cities bank on the educated multiplex audience, it does make a difference. I noticed this year that my aunt and cousins actually refused to go watch a film because the ToI had given the movie only 2 stars. Which was horribly unfair, not just because I wanted to see that film, but that the ToI's reviews are sort of... well, suspect, at times.

I recall a time when I used to look forward to Khalid Mohamed's Sunday reviews in the Bombay edition of ToI. His make-fun-of-everything style, his silly-billy rhyme-shyme was amusing, if not edifying. But then, one day, he reviewed the film Love ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. He refused to give it a review or a rating. Not even 1 star. He said it didn't deserve even that!

Since it was an E. Niwas film, we watched it, anyway. It was a very decently made film. I was laughing almost non-stop. (Some people suggested it's lifted from somewhere else in the western hemisphere; I really don't care. That's the newest fashionable thing, nowadays - spot the slightest similarity between any old English film and any new Hindi film, and accuse the filmmaker of 'lifting'... besides, no western movie could ever have had anything as remarkable as Aslam Bhai).

That day, I lost respect for that review-column. Now, I've stopped reading film reviews. I'll read them if I'm curious about the story, or if the reviewer is a fantastic writer. But I refuse to accept reviewers' verdicts, even when ALL of them say the same thing. In fact, if they all say it's great, I get a little suspicious. If they uniformly hate it, I'm immediately curious. For instance, Apharan has good reviews but I'm not too keen on it.

For one, I'm suspicious of words like 'precocious' and 'middle of the road' and 'experimental' and 'breaking new ground' and 'dark' and 'sensibilities'. Over-used words like 'pacy', 'fresh', 'young', 'understated', 'brooding', 'original'.

I'm also irritated with 'We've seen this one before' or 'ABC film can be summed up as UPO meets YZX meets RTS meets CAB'.

My reaction to that is: "Yes, we've all seen everything there is to see, they say there are only 8 original plots on earth.... And if ABC film is suggestive of mixed elements from all these films, clearly, it is not like any one of them; right?"

Similarity of plot is neither a virtue nor a vice. After all, Mera Gaon Mera Desh is very similar to Sholay. But Sholay is a classic that I've seen eight times; most Indians remember each scene, verbatim (some day, I hope to see it on the big screen!). Anarkali had the same subject as Mughal-e-azam. But there's no comparison, is there?
Originality is not always a good thing - I have never seen anything like 'Bal Brahmachari'. I hope to be spared, in the future.
Also, subtlety or understatement is neither a virture nor a vice. Manoj Bajpai in Pinjar was understated to the point of being invisible and inaudible. Amitach Bacchan in Baghbaan was not subtle; he was heart-wrenchingly believeable. When anyone says that performances are 'low-key', I want to remind them that we grew up on and with Bollywood... Low-key?! What makes you think we want low-key? Even Naseeruddin Shah is not really low-key!
Nor is 'pace' any measure of cinematic worth. Dev had no pace to speak of, barring the riot scene, but it's worth the watch.

Also, this whole post has been one long rant against nothing and nobody in particular. I have a suspicion that I've begun to babble. But since everybody's doing their year-end lists, here's mine:

I loved Black and Iqbal. Also Bluffmaster and Bunty Aur Bubli (which I've seen twice for the sheer fun and enthusiasm it fills you with.) Both these movies - like Main Hoon Na - belong to that category of cinema that you want to re-watch when you're feeling down, and don't want to stay down.

I thought Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara had a great concept, but was just about rescued by Anupam Kher (I'd have given a lot to have Urmila Matondkar replaced by... anybody else. But I also thought it was a film that deserved to get made). Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi was alright - the word 'hard-hitting' comes to mind - but it engaged only my mind, not my heart.

I have nothing against The Rising. Didn't love it, but I didn't think it was all that bad and I'm still in love with Aamir Khan's moochhein... and the fine wrinkles round his eyes. (pause, sigh deeply) By the way, WHY does everyone go on and on about Madame Kher's cleavage? I completely fail to understand what the fuss was about. There was cleavage, yes, but in the age of Mallika and the silicon brigade... and considering everybody's been watching Baywatch... this should've passed unnoticed. I, for one, didn't bat an eyelash.

[PS - I know I have not linked to all the things and people I should have linked to, as blogosphere etiquette demands, but there are simply too many film and actor names and I don't have the time.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Meet happening

There's a blogger's meet happening in Delhi. 2nd January, 6:30 pm, Barista, Connaught Place.

Apparently, Amit Varma, from Bombay, will be there. Shivam tells me that this is also a sort-of farewell meet for Saket Vaidya, who seems to be shifting to Bombay.

I won't be there, because I will be in Bombay (much Delhi-Bombay commuting is happening, as you will note). I will be in the lap of the family, with - hopefully - the luxury of having bed-tea in bed.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Another think

Shit happens.
It happens, because we let it happen.
We don't lift a finger to stop it happening.

What is really infuriating, to me, is not the news of the gang-rape itself, nor the (alleged) abdication of responsibility by the railway cops from UP or MP. What is infuriating is the assumption that the 'system' was, as expected, dysfunctional, and that we - the comman man, if you will - are suffering because the cops failed in their duty.
As if we had no duty of our own!!

Have you all traveled in a 'general' compartment in UP? I have.

There is not once square inch of space in that dabba. People lie down on the narrow luggage-racks overhead. People squat in the aisles. A space meant for six people is occupied by twelve. By the most conservative estimate, there are at least 200 people in one general compartment. Maybe more.

How many dacoits/rapists/robbers/assailants/whatever-they-were?
Maybe 8. Not more than 10.

Ten men. Two cops.
[Okay, so there should have been five cops according to the rule-book. But that's neither here nor there; the rule-book rarely works anywhere.]

The point is that we - the aam junta of this mahaan rashtra with it's mahaan sankaar and centuries' old tradition of dharma - expected those two cops to fight off those ten men, while we sat back on our cowardly little backsides.

Three men protested, anf were pushed off the train, for their pains. What galls me is that there were only three of them.

Even if these 8-10 dacoits were armed - and I doubt they were carrying bombs or even fancy automated weapons that would have silenced the whole compartment in one blaze of fire - are you telling me that five men couldn't have stood up and pinned down one assailant each? You'd only need fifty men....

A woman was getting raped, but not one man had the guts to even reach up and pull the emergency chain!

I remember people pulling the chain when some member of their travel party got left behind, as the train began to pull out. I remember people pulling the chain when someone from the platform called out 'Pull the chain!', without waiting to find out why. 'Why' comes later.

Yet, not one man or woman, in that probably jam-packed compartment, reached up to pull the chain.

What really scares me is this sense of deja vu... Names, places, dates change. The story doesn't.

Remember August 2002, Mumbai?

Mumbai... that haven for women. That one 'safe' city in the country. Where women aren't assaulted so easily, even if they're alone, even at night.
But when they are, the city looks on, not lifting a finger. Even if it's a 12-year old girl being raped by a one-armed man.... Not one man will have the sense to pull the chain. Trains, late at night, stop at almost all stations - the average time between smaller stations is two minutes, maybe three, maybe five. Not one man tried to step off the train when it stopped, to interrupt the raping.

When citizens - you and I - do not want to take on criminals, because we're afraid of getting hurt, why should we expect the cops to be any different? Toting a gun doesn't make you a superman, for God's sake! The cops are just extensions of this system that is 'us'. They get paid to do a job, but money cannot buy courage, or even social responsibility.

The cops will pass the buck, if they can. No society can ever be made secure through state-sponsored forces alone. We are our own security.

Why do I feel safe when shopping at Lajpat Nagar in the evenings? Because there are hordes of people there.
Why do I hesitate before taking a walk down the more deserted streets of Central Delhi, evn in broad daylight? Because there aren't enough people about.
Why do I not hesitate before watching movies at the mulitplex-cum-mall complexes at night? Because there are hordes of people.
If there were no people, but only five cops, I'd be scared out of my wits.

Because a man with a gun is only as dangerous as his whims - a uniform is no guarantee of my safety. The 'public' is. The hordes are.

Or so I used to think. I guess, I have another think coming.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Asli cheez, and the alternative

Once upon a time, people sold 'chaai-chaichaigaramchaaaai', on railway platforms and in train corridors.

Now, they sell 'dip cha-dip cha-dip... boliye saab?'

Once upon a time, the chai would come to the traveler. Now, the traveler must step off the train, go looking for a stall which serves properly boiled-n-brewed chai, from proper iron kettles. The asli cheez, as it were.

Or else, one must ignore the call of the garamchaai, and settle for some ashen-sweet dip-dip.

The latter has it's merits, though. With dip-cha, one can play with form and colour. One can control what the brew looks like. One can dip-dip until the colour deepens to resemble the five-o-clock winter sunlight falling across one's hands.

So... Boliye saab?

Chai, in other posts.

men, murderers

Prejudice or values, I'm learning, are a function of perspective, and directly proportional to one's range of experience.

Take, for instance, murder.

I've grown up thinking that if there is sin on earth, it is murder. That killing a human being - especially for the purpose of material gain - is the greatest sin. You can condone a lot that's labelled 'criminal'; but how can you forgive somebody for cutting short a life? For destroying any potential that a life may have held, for the future? For bringing about something as irreversible as death?

All these years, I thought that I couldn't bring myself to be nice to murderers. Until I went to do this story.

Here's when I met men who have killed several times over. Men who killed so many that they didn't remember how many.

A curious magistrate had asked 'how many' when old Lukka Daaku (Lokman Dixit) was brought to court after his surrender, "Judge saahib, do you remember how many chappattis you eat in a month?"

Lokman Dixit. Old man. Green woollen cap, white cotton dhoti, shuffling feet. Great-grandchildren, playing with new-born puppies; I played along. An old pension-earning school-mistress wife, who insisted on silently standing behind him, in the background of the frame, while I took his pictures, oblivious to his yelling. Old man with the wrinkles of an wise grandfather.

I met this old man who didn't remember 'how many', and I felt no outrage, no tempestuous sense of wrong-doing and lack of justice. No resentment. Nothing.

I said namaste, and, unthinking, called him 'baba'.

Just like that. Baba.

Baba is what grandfathers are called, in this part of Chambal. And I think of my grandfather - his morning quiet, his aversion to violence of any sort, even raised voices, his wollen cap, his shuffling feet, walking stick, wisdom.

I wait for Lokman Dixit to speak, while he struggles to find answers to my questions - Will the new gangs surrender? Will he help them persuade them to surrender?

And he says: "I wouldn't, not unless the police asked. But I don't believe that there will more surrenders.... Koi nahin chahta, beta. Sarkar, samaj, police, koi nahin chahta. (Nobody wants them to surrender, child. The government, society, police... nobody.) They'd lose the bribes these gangs pay. They'd prefer to kill them. If you don't catch them, you get money. If you catch and kill them, you get accolades and president's medal. Inke toh dono haathon mein laddoo hain. (They've got sweets in both their hands, which means, either option is sweet, for them)"

.... and after a long pause, he adds, "You see, child, the problem is that the police force was made by the British, for their own purposes. They were made for the bureaucracy and to protect the (foreign) government. They weren't ever intended for the poor. That's the basic problem. That's why the police is pathetic. They extract two paise from rickshaw or thela-walas..."

He drifts off again, before adding, "I don't talk about the past in front of the kids, don't know what might come into their minds... Even when we meet at Jaura, at the Gandhi Ashram, we don't talk about the past... I get bad dreams, sometimes."

Dixit still remembers one colonel, Girdhari Singh. "I met him near Dhaulpur. He said 'Go over to Pakistan.' I said, why should I? This is my homeland. He said,'why are you ruining your own home?' That got me thinking. Then Vinoba Bhave appealed for a surrender, and we asked to meet him..."


The novelist Tamanna (Manmohan Kumar) has written some 48 books, most of them novels about dacoits in this region. He is bursting with anecdotes about many a prominent daaku, of his time.

Like the one about Mansa Ram, a dreaded dacoit from Datia. Tamanna told me, "On May 1, 1972, about 81 dacoits surrendered. Mansa Ram Singh was one. But surrender meant nothing. He ruled the prison, like it was his sasuraal (in-law's house). He was known to beat up the jailor. Later, he had done this interview with Kamleshwar for Doordarshan. The show was titled 'Bandoonkon ka badshah' (The King of Guns). Kamleshwar asked him how many people he's killed. Mansa Ram retorted, "If I'd known you would be asking me, someday, I'd have kept a record"."

"I have one grouse", Tamanna says. "The media goes overboard in it's descriptions. Especially the women. The papers describe all dacoit women as 'dasyu sundari'. Beauties! All dacoit women are described as great, irresistable beauties.... When you see their photos, you'd be willing to puke!"

Tamanna has other stories to tell - my favourite being about a brave woman cop who went chasing dacoits. He says it is a true story. Someday, he might turn it into a novel, in English, if he can find a publisher.... "She killed 5 dacoits in an encounter. She went through mud and rain. Alone. When the villagers found out she as a cop, they refused to give her even a cup of tea."


Mohar Singh, who's now a local politician as well in Mehangaon, was part of the Madho Singh-Mohar Singh gang. But he began his career training under a woman - the original bandit queen, Putli Bai. She, who was one half of the Putli-Kallan gang. She, who took pride in her work, leaving behind signed notes every time she committed a daring robbery. But Mohar Singh is dismissive of her work, now.

"Putli didn't do much... she was around for 5 years (she was killed in an encounter later). She had a big name only because she was a woman... but yes, that's where I first went, when I turned baaghi... Later, I met Madho Singh in the forest. We'd all meet each other wandering in the forests. Sometimes, the villagers would introduce us to each other and we'd formed our own gangs."

He begins to get nostalgic about his 'support base'. "In Dabra, we went to loot at a wedding. We'd just begun, and I saw the bride, sitting there quietly. She said to me, "Uncle, I'm going to be taunted for the rest of my life, all because of you". So, I felt bad. Those were times when we didn't even have ten rupees. But I asked the guests to take back their money and jewelry; we blessed her and left. In jail, this same girl came to visit me. She was crying because she thought I'd be hung. I consoled her and told her that our terms of surrender ensured that we would not be killed..."

And there's Makhan Singh, who was part of the Chhidda-Makhan gang. Chhidda was the only dacoit to be hung by the authorities, in recent decades. He had killed a small child. Makhan was the less cruel brother. Cousin, actually. But caste and family ties are so strong, that there is not much difference between 'real' brother and cousin.

Now, when Makhan Singh laughs, his eyes crinkle up, like a man who is used to laughing a lot.
He's had some acting experience too. A few years ago, some film crew from Bombay came to him, offering Rs 50,000 to play himself. "The film was 'Anokhi Aahuti'. But then there was Ayodhya, and the riots, and the film shooting was put on hold... Later, they gave me Rs 20,000. I thought I might as well take what was coming my way."

He talks of this and that - tube-wells, land, farms, caste equations. His grandchild brings out an old gun - licensed, this time around... "A punjabi from the army, Niranjan... he sold us our guns, in those days. He is in jail, now."

But Makhan Singh does not talk so much about guns or Chhidda. When asked to pose for a photograph, he handles the gun lightly, as if stuck somewhere between unease and familiarity.


Makhan Singh. Mohar Singh. Raghuveer Singh.

Old men. Grandfathers. Murderers. Surrendered dacoits....
.... murderers?

And, unthinking, I call them 'Baba'.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Plug time again.

This time is a friend of my brother's, Jay (as in, Jai).

Jay is the first Jai I knew. Now I know of two other Jais, both well-known blogozens. Which is a completely irrelevant factoid of sub-zero significance; do forgive.

Anyhow, those who wish to scream and pull their hair out in frustration at Jay's complete disregard for spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like, are welcome to beat him up, the virtual way. Don't curse me for sending you there, though.

Monday, December 12, 2005

How much is enough?

A while ago, I attended a press conference that didn't result in a story. To tell the truth, I did not even stay until the end of the conference.

It is hard to sit through testimonies of women who describe the years they spent being tortured, raped, jailed, harassed, orphaned, widowed and so on. All this, they said, was perpetrated by the police and/or the Special Task Force, while looking for the moustachioed brigand, Veerappan.

I listened to them. Five of them. And then I could take no more. (Thankfully, at least one journalist stayed back, and wrote about it.)

After an hour of this, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I walked out of the hall, into the sunshine.

Woman after woman breaking down. Woman after woman faltering as she could not find words for describing what had happened. Old women. Young women. Broken health. Lost jobs. Ongoing cases. Women naming the police officials who'd raped them. Who could have pointed out their tortemtors, in a line-up. But the cops were not going to organise a line-up for their fraternity, were they?

Oh, they did constitute one of those famous commissions of enquiry; the Justice Sadashiva panel was set up in 1999, and submitted a report to the National Human Rights Commission as early as Dec 3, 2003, confirming the terrible truth of those women's testimonies. However, it was not made public. That was why these women were here - they'd come to Delhi to protest, and demand that this report be released.

The delay was apparently caused by the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, who had not submitted their comments on the report. When they finally did, their responses were ridiculously defensive, saying, among other things, that the panel had exceeded its brief... exceeded... what? How do you limit the brief of justice?

It was only on the 19th of October, this year, that the NHRC ordered that the report be released to the complainants. The panel has recommended that 89 of the victims of STF's ... er, methods, be compensated.

And I'm sitting here, wondering, how much would be compensation enough?

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Last week, a senior journalist asked me to fill up a questionnaire about women in media, gender parity and suchlike issues. She warned that it was going to be a complicated questionnaire and I should think hard before filling in my responses.

It was complicated.

Partly because there are no straight answers to all questions, and partly, because there's no information available.

For instance, numbers :

How many women journalists in this country? In this city?
How many women in print and how many in broadcast and how many online?
How many on contract? How many unionised?
What percentage? What ratio?
How many in senior position? How many in super-senior, top-of-the-heap positions?
How many in 'hard' and how many in 'soft' news?
What percentage? What ratio?

I just don't know!!

I found only one report, about discrimination in scribe-land, based on a study conducted by the National Commission for Women, about gender issues in the Indian media; and even this turned out to be limited, because most of the potential respondents did not respond to the survey.

The one union website that did seem active and frequently updated, did not have any statistics broken down, along gender lines. Unfortunately, most women are not members of any union or press club.

Ultimately, I used my own limited experience to answer those questions. In any case, collecting data from various media offices is not a very efficient way of researching gender parity, because media - especially nowadays - is in a constant state of flux. People are always moving; ratios are always changing.

For instance, in our bureau, women form 33.33 % of the editorial team (3 out of 9), but in the Bombay bureau of the same publication, women comprise 100% of the team (all 3 are women, last I heard).

Earlier, when I worked at the ToI office, my team was almost perfectly balanced. But the Femina Girl team was not; there was only one guy there. When I first joined Mid-day, there was an equal number of women and men, but that changed within a year - thus upsetting the ratio.

But on the whole, looking around me, and judging by the number of women I see at press conferences, and major events, I'd venture to say (and I'm sticking my neck very far out, while saying this) that we have a more or less balanced ratio in the English language media. This is NOT true of Hindi, Urdu, Marathi or any other language press.

Also, gender-beats/roles are often pre-defined.
Development issue or Social sector press con - 50% women. Police press con - 20% women. Riot situation - 10-15% women. New car launch - 30% women. New lipstick launch - 70%+ women. New lingerie line launch... ummm, maybe 50% of all the women journalists working in magazines, and 95% of all the mostly-male-photographers in town.

On a serious note, the fact remains that there is a serious non-representation problem for women journalists in the small towns, in the regional press, and that's where it really matters. Everywhere I travel, I meet local journalists, but only once have I encountered a woman journo, and that was in Udaipur, which is not really so small, as small towns go.

Most photographers and camera crews are men. It is also true that nearly all women journos I know end up handling 'features'. In Bombay, I knew of only one other girl who covered courts, and only one who covered crime. While these beats continue to be a male bastion, it is also true that the woman brigade isn't doing much to storm these bastions.

For instance, I would not voluntarily tackle crime. If the beat was assigned to me, maybe... but I wouldn't be too happy doing it. Not because I'm scared; I've done my share of chasing lawyers, hanging around police stations, watching raids, speaking to criminals... I continue to do all of the above, when the story demands it of me. But I will never be on back-slapping terms with these people, and I can think of other things I'm more interested in.

Yet, this is not necessarily because I am a woman. So, okay, I have not been around long enough, but in my limited experience, I have never been made deliberately uncomfortable by cops or criminals, while I'm on the job.

On the contrary, in my limited experience, I have been made very uncomfortable by fellow-journalists - men AND women - and some former bosses.
How do I reduce this complexity to numbers, percentages and ratios?

There are other problems with regard to gender parity on the work front.
I know of several women who do not want to work very hard. They want a job in the media because it makes them feel glamourous and powerful. But they don't want to meet cops, criminals, or even a raggedy social worker who wears torn chappals.

Some of them just want a job, want to work enough to justify keeping the job, but don't want to break any stories. They lack ambition. Other women have severe hang-ups about 'these modern girls' who are a blot on the face of all Indian womankind, and complain about younger girls taking away their jobs (such are the women who're responsible for the lack of a bar at the Indian Women's Press Corps). As if older men don't lose their jobs to young blood!

If women don't get promoted... well, maybe some of them don't particularly deserve a promotion. But I am bothered by the assumption that many of us are not getting promoted because we are women. I am bothered by the caveat in questionnaries, that even allows us to assume such things, giving us this hole to slip our possible incompetance into.

I mean, for God's sake, how do I KNOW that I am not being promoted because I'm a woman. There's a whole stack of men out there who are not getting promoted either. After all, if a bureau has 20 journos, there can be only 1 chief. And only 1 resident editor. And only 1 editor-in-chief. [Four years ago, the head of Mid-day Multimedia was Bachi Karkaria, a woman].

Sure, the competition is intense. But some women have made it. Ambitious women. Maybe even manipulative women. But smart women.... but when they do make it, people (many of them being women) immediately make the converse allegation. That you made it because you used your womanhood, allowed your body and your conscience to get used.... my point is: even if it were true, what gives us the right to bring in gender parity into the media picture, in particular? What does the press, our work, have to do with our bedroom/couch choices?

PS - Please do let me know if there are any specific studies or reports about gender parity in the media.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

We, the problem?

This is something I've been wanting to say for a long time.
To quote Sad Old Bong, I too "take issue with the general trashing of everything associated with the government."

I'll admit that government-bashing is often well-deserved, but I resent the attitude that accuses everything the government owns/runs of being sub-standard, or the assumption that it would automatically be thrice as good, if it were in private hands.

I beg to differ.

A very ordinary example:

Whenever I travel (and have a reserved ticket for an AC dabba) on our country's railways, I find that they serve me well. The sheets are clean - sometimes even starched! - and the blankets dust-free. The food is edible. The attendants are polite, in general. The rajdhani and shatabdi trains - though not my favourites on account of personal boredom - almost go overboard, trying to fill the journey with food and service (I usually tip the attendants willingly, though I don't need to; they do a fair job).

The railways are government owned.

On the other hand:

I often stay at hotels in small towns. Considering the small town's rates for accomodation, these are not very cheap hotels. But even the better ones leave a whole lot to be desired.
The sheets are invariably dirty. I have to supervise the making of the beds myself (if I ask for fresh sheets, they bring fresh sheets, but don't bother to change the pillow-slips, until I call them back and request fresh pillow slips... and often, the fresh sheets are only marginally cleaner). The blankets are ragged and dusty. The telephones don't work. The food kills all appetite and the waiters often forget to knock, or wait for an answer.

Even though internet facilities are available in the town, most of these hotels have not bothered to set up a communication centre for guests (some don't even offer STD facilities, for god's sake!).

These hotels are all privately owned.

If private ownership and competition could take care of all ills, then there is no reason why these hotels should be sub-standard. They should be falling over their shoe-laces trying to provide the best possible, at competitive prices, right?

They seem to be competing, to maintain more or less the same level of sub-standardization.
[And ooh, speaking of hotels and competitions, surely, you've all heard about the lovely little cartel in Paris?]

The problem is not the government or government-run institutions.

The problem is that WE take crappy services from any given institution, because WE don't have the guts to stop, fight and demand better services. WE claim that we don't have the time, or the energy to fight with employees who aren't going to get fired anyway.

It is almost as if, we just want to see somebody punished because we're unhappy with them.
If we really wanted - as customers, as consumers, as clients - to see things change, we'd kick up a row, and keep at it, until they did change.

Let me give you another example.

At home, we have a private internet service provider. The service fails us - time and time again. In fact, the service doesn't exist. We've already paid up for the year and the cable dude (a private entreprenuer) refuses to reimburse our money.
Do we rave and rant against private cable services?
Do we sue the guy?

We bite our lips, swallow our anger and make fist-shaking-type statements about switching to another cable dude.
This dude shrugs and says "fine, switch."
Have we switched yet?
No, because we've already paid up for the year, and there's no guarantee the next dude will be any better.

On the other hand:

MNTL broadband services are not spectacularly fast. But they're there. They exist!
Our old MTNL dial-up was not very fast either, but it worked, in its own fashion. Did we rave and rant against the government and MTNL?
Did we hop mad, and switch to another service?
Is MTNL improving, offering better services, more competetive rates, faster connections?
Will we go back to MTNL?
The decision is not mine to take. But if it was, I would.


Let me tell you about last year, when my aunt was flying out of the country with her family. (No, it was NOT Air India, but a private airline from the Middle-east).

My aunt had a two-and-a-half year old kid in her arms, two daughters and an old mother-in-law. The baby started squalling, and refused to be strapped down in his seat. My aunt tried to shush him; he would not stop crying. The air hostess (a snooty Brit blonde, my aunt later told us) came up to say that the captain refused to take off until the baby stopped howling and was strapped into his seat.

So, my aunt took the baby in her lap and put the seat-belt in place.

But no, the airline staff wasn't happy. They insisted the baby be strapped into HIS own seat.

My aunt tried to force the baby down into the other seat, but he was kicking and crying. The pilot still refused to take off.

Finally, my aunt threw up her hands and handed the baby over to the airline staff. She said, "Okay, YOU handle this. I can't help."

The air hostess SLAPPED the baby.
She yelled at the baby, scolded, held him down.... and all to no avail. So, finally, she stomped off.
After which, the baby fell asleep. And AFTER THAT, the captain ordered my aunt AND her whole family to get off the plane.

My aunt pleaded, explained that the baby was now asleep; she even offered to let them punish the kid if they liked. But the captain was now adamant. He refused to fly until the whole family was off-loaded.

Eventually, the whole family was off-loaded.

Did my aunt go back to the airline office and complain? Yes.
Did they apologize? No.
Did the captain lose his job? No.
Was the air-hostess punished for slapping the child? No.
Was the family compensated? No.
Did we go to the media with the story? No.

Despite my being a journalist, despite my uncle being a government servant and in close contact with several airport officials... we kept shut.

Because my aunt was just relieved to have made it home, a day later. Despite the fact that her mother-in-law's visa required her to fly out that day, and a day late was too late; so she did not see her son, that year. Despite the fact that my aunt still cannot forgive the captain (she remembers his face and name) or that blonde air hostess. Despite all the anger and resentment.

I have a feeling - irrational and inexplicable - that something like this would not happen in a government airline. But we did not complain. We did not sue. We did not say "If this was a government airline, this would never happen."


What about the time when you and I find certain edible products with fungus on them much BEFORE the expiry date?
It happens! Somebody I know was even offered money by the company for keeping quiet about it, and not complaining... not just rotten, but filthy as well, eh? (Don't have permission to talk about this incident, so I'm not naming any names). Do we talk about this sort of corruption?

What about when the whole Cadbury keeda controversy happened?
Did we say "Let's throw out all private chocolate-making firms?"

When a private firm goes into the red - many of them do - do we say "Let's just not have any more private enterprise."?


In front of my office building, there is a nice, wide pavement.
Guess what's on it?
No, not hawkers and beggars.
Cars. Ours (well, not mine, but in general, many of these cars belong to those who work in the building).

Do we blame private 'enterprise' for taking over a public space?


We blame the government and/or state institutions like the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi).

"Why don't they keep an eye on these things?"
"Why don't they stop these illegal car parkings?"
"Why don't they raid and catch and fine and tow away and bulldoze and arrest?"
"Where are the traffic cops? Where are the MCD officials?"
And best of all -
"Why can't the government have more free car parking spots?"

But then, we have our cars and we need parking and so we avail of a little illegal private enterprise. And without so much as a choo.n, we pay up.

I seriously suspect, the problem is us.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A history lesson

I'm not a musuem buff.

There was a time when, whenever I had time to spare in a city, I'd hit the forts, the museums, the significant spots that find mention in tourist brochures. But over the last year, I'd developed a rather 'whatever' attitude to visible history, turning more and more to the written word.
Besides, it is all so repetitive - the same swords and daggers in the armoury section. The same brocade angarkhas in the costume section. The same parchment manuscripts that I could not decipher and the same erotic carvings that I couldn't tell apart, era to era.

But an impatient morning in Gwalior - with me tele-stalking a senior police official, appointment after tentative appointment getting postponed, pacing up and down, up and down, the musty hotel room - found me at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum.

And I suddenly realized that 'History' must breathe.
It's decaying living-lessons are all there - whispering in museums that nobody wants to visit because it's all so boringly 'same'.... Nobody but the college kids who don't have any other place to hang out and hold hands in. Nobody but people from out-of-town with time to spare, and a train to catch. But even so, some things have to be seen to be understood.

I re-learnt one of the most important lessons my education has taught me - life happens outside the syllabus.

You never know where you might learn what. What questions you might ask, what insights lurk in which fading artefact... you never know what a musuem is waiting to tell you.

The stuffed tigers... the photographs of row upon row of white and brown sahibs, smilingly jodhpurred, with row upon row of dead tiger, lying at their feet. Neat little ends to neat little afternoons of amusements. It was the done thing.

And now, there are no tigers in these forests of Chambal.... Why do I feel as if, if it weren't for the hue and cry about dwindling numbers, it would still be a done thing. New sahibs, new rulers, old bloodsport.

The Scindia women - originally Maratha - are portraited in silken nine-yard navaris... but that was a hundred years ago. The Maratha came to the Chambal, and the royal women found themselves in close proximity to the Rajasthani Rajputs. They were fast shedding the traditional dress for chiffon sarees, pallus delicately perched on hair piled high... that was how royalty was dressing its modern women everywhere in northern India in the twentieth century. The modern Scindia women wear chiffon sarees. The modern Rajput women wear chiffon sarees.

Was this how the saree came to be pan-Indian, and be worn in pan-Indian ways - is this how we began to think there was only one 'Indian' way to dress? To be?

Across the costume section, a man carrying one child yells at his wife, carrying another, "Hurry fast! Time is going."
Hall to hall, section to section, the broken English follows me around. "Fast-fast... what is there to see?.. .Look fast." The man always begins yelling at his wife suddenly, the moment he sees me.
I cannot understand why.

I linger long in a separate section called 'Leda and The Swan" (Yeats' version). At least one of the Scindia rulers had a taste for erotic art. But the piece that lent it's name to this room, was a poor imitation of the original. It was, nevertheless, as out-there-erotic as could be. This marble Leda was clearly having fun.
The room had several other paintings and statues, all of women in the buff. Some Indian, some western....
I spend a long time here - it is so rare to see women being unashamed of their bodies and the sexual act, in this country. Not even in art. I see too many illustrations of ravaged women, frightened women, coying-cloying women.... This was not art at it's creative best. But I spend a long time here.
I notice that Broken English is too embarrassed to stay; he peeks and flees.

And I wonder - how do you tell a woman from a Yakshi?

In the museum, I try hard to understand this mystery. Ancient carvings of dressed (minimally, but still... dressed) women are marked 'Woman, .... year/century", but a naked statue is marked 'Yakshi'... 'Yakshi with beautiful hairstyle'.
There is nothing to tell a woman from a Yakshi. There is no explanation, about era, context, where these statues were found... nothing. All I can see is the difference between the clothes, or lack thereof....

And I'm still wondering whether even our historians, curators, cannot deal with the idea of women's sexuality. If it's sexual, it's not a woman; it's a Yakshi.... Is that it? Or am I reading too much into merely incompetant labelling of museum artefacts?

I also spend a long time with a carpet. It's not pretty, but is, perhaps, some ruler's vision of us. Or a weaver's fingers toying with the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-racial time-warp. For, on one large capet, he's given us Christ being born, also at the last supper, and there, a gun-toting British soldier, and here, some Nawaab, and there a Mughal durbar, a queen, also Budhha, and what looks like a Rabbi, and a Rajput... it makes me dizzy. Who commissioned this?
But there are no answers.

The banquet halls are very British. Long tables, massive spaces between tables, high-backed chairs, forks, knives, crystal. Tiered chandeliers - they could hold thirty of me. Or a hundred. There's another eating hall. It has Rajput-style seating arrangements, on the floor. I ask an attendant if he can give me some background on who ate there and why the separate halls. He continues to squat in a corner, points vaguely ahead and says, "Go inside and look".

In the arms section, I look at a huge gun, and finally understand the origin of the phrase "kisi ke kandhe pe rakh ke bandook chalaana".
You would have needed more than one shoulder to lift this gun. Yet, one finger on the trigger is enough, isn't it?

The palace itself is very... what is the word... square? And hurtfully white. It is not easy on the eye, yet, in it's whiteness, size, geometricentricity (forgive the term; my layman's vocabulary doesn't know how to describe such architecture), it is a strong image.

Everywhere, along staircases, in niches and corners, there are photographs of the royal Scindia family. Especially of Madhavrao Scindia and his wife and his son Jyotiraditya and his family. Their childhood. Their weddings. Their portraits. It is almost a little too intimate, here.

And I am reminded of me: I put up my nostalgia in the same way - collage on walls - the rush to fill up a place with personal history.... I wonder if it is the royal family's way of reminding themselves that all this is theirs, just like the rest of the palace that continues to be their home, out of bounds for the public....
Yet, these photographs are too intimate, almost, for a museum. Too alive. Too 'now'.

And I remember what a young party-worker had told me a year ago, in Shivpuri. "This region's biggest ailment is Mahal Rajneeti (Palace Politics). The Scindias rule - irespective of democracy. If it's not the brother, it's the sister. Now, the son."

And across a large hall-way, I see a young woman, looking at herself in one of the queen-sized mirrors. She turns to view her profile, then runs her hand over her stomach - there is a slightly swelling belly. Her eyes meet mine, in the mirror. There is such stillness there, such history...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Journalists, Conversations

Outside the government hospital in Morena, the city's journalists were sitting on dharna.

One of the journalists from one of the Hindi dailies had brought his sick father to this hospital. Apparently, the patient needed an operation. But a certain Dr Sunil refused to perform the operation until some money was forthcoming, although it was a government hospital and the procedure should have been free (or almost free, I assume).

The distraught journalist did not want to argue with a sick father on his hands. He managed to bring back Rs 5000 and told the doctor to please go ahead and perform the operation. The patient/father was taken into the operation theatre, but...

At this critical juncture, it appears, the doctor received a phone-call, telling him that an emergency situation had arisen in his own private hospital. (I cannot, in truth, describe how critical the juncture was, or exactly how far the doctor had progressed) That doctor dropped everything, stopped operating on the 'government' patient and ran to attend to his own 'private' patient.

Naturally, the journalist was upset. Word went round to the local newspapers. They all sent representatives, who gathered outside the hospital. Slogans were shouted and a certain Dr Sunil was already sounding rather apologetic, last I heard.

The journalists of Morena, however, began adopting the 'andolan' habit, much earlier.

It started with what is now referred to as the 'incident of the PNDT Act', which is better known through the flagrant violation thereof. The district collector had ordered that certain nursing homes/clinics be raided and the sonography machines be sealed, until the doctors concerned manage to produce the relevant paperwork.

A photographer from Jan Darshan landed up at one of these clinics, where the sonography machine was believed to be illegally kept. He got beaten up by the hospital staff; the doctor had him locked up in the clinic, taking away his camera, and there the poor photographer stayed until his colleagues came to rescue him.

When they went to the police, the doctor spun a neat little web of (what seem to be) lies.

He alleged that the said photographer was beaten up because he was attempting to molest one of his nurses. The police officers concerned were not listening to the photographer's side of the story. Which was more credible, in any case. [I mean, it is rather peculiar isn't it, that a photographer should choose to molest a nurse at one of the (suspected) 'tainted' clinics, on the very day that the sonography machine had been sealed by the authoritites.... and if the good doctor had to take away some offending piece of er... equipment, it should not have been the camera.... right?]

Anyway, that was when the journalists of this small town got together and began to protest - against the police, against the doctor, against the persecution of the said photographer who now found himself facing charges of attempted rape.

The tamasha continued for a few days. The nurse admitted, though not in writing, that she'd been pressured by the doctor to make certain allegations. Her husband joined the dharna-side of the fracas. The police buckled. The doctor apologized....

The matter was allowed to rest there.
Which I thought was sad... but well, one step at a time, I suppose.

A conversation:

D: You think the BJP will take Bihar?
Me: Looks like that.
D: They'll be kicked out of MP, I'm sure. Everybody hates them.
Me: Then who will be brought in?
D: Congress.
Me: Congress? But didn't MP throw them out because they'd mis-ruled and the people had had enough?
D: That's true, but now we're realising the problem with the BJP. These people do not know how to rule. Inhe shaasan ki aadat nahin hai (they don't have the habit of administration). They take as much as the Congress took. But they don't deliver.

[D takes out his camera phone at this point and shows me a blurry image of a minor official. You can't really tell much, but there's money being counted, ON the desk.
D says "Many of them don't even bother to take it discreetly. They accept money in office. It's no longer an envelope 'under the table'."]

Me: Are they less corrupt?
D: (laughing) No. But at least, in the Congress' time, people would take bribes and do the job. Here, you pay, yet there's no guarantee that your work won't be held up. Besides, people are being transferred at the drop of a hat. One IAS officer was tranferred twice in a month. How can he do any good work? Forget good work, how can he do anything? .... I'm a struggling entrepreneur. I have accepted that I cannot get anything done in this state without bribing. But give me some assurances... oh yes, if this continues, the Congress is coming back.

And more....

D: I'm interested in journalism. I hang out very often with these journalist friends.
Me (to myself) Amazing how often I hear that... (Aloud) Really? Why don't you join a paper?
D: Where's the time? And there's no money in it. Most of these boys get paid 2,000-2,500 rupees, in local papers. Even the biggest-circulating papers pay very little. You can't survive.
Me: But they do survive... how?
D: You know how it is.
Me: I don't, actually.
D: They manage... like, there's something you know about somebody. You could choose not to publish it..... that's the only way, around here. The boys who enter the newspaper business at all... they do it out of personal interest, not as a career option.

[I do not know what to say. Anything I could, would be inappropriate. We are joined, later, by a very enthusiastic young boy, who cannot be more than 18 or 19.]

Boy: Tell us something, ma'am... I want your guidance.
Me: If I can give any... sure.
Boy: How can I join a big paper in Delhi?
Me: Er... Umm... well, do you know anybody who already works there?
Boy: (small-voiced) You've got to know people?
Me: I'm afraid that's how it usually works. Or you must know people who know people who work there... or you get recruited from a campus, in a media college.... but that's only what I've seen....

Boy: Tell me something else. Something about the new things that are happening there. What software do you use?
Me: Software? I'm not sure.
Boy: Don't you design the paper?
Me: No. I just write. We have designers on the desk.
Boy: Ahhh... and you use the latest?
Me: I'm not sure. The only thing I knew of was Quark.
Boy: Oh that... that's very old stuff. What about Corel? I know all about 9 and 10 but I've heard there's a new 11 version. It must be all over, in Delhi?
Me: (sheepish) I don't know much about this...

[And I am thinking: Boy deserves better. At 19, he reports. He designs. He even handles visits to the printing press. He deserves better than to be stuck in this rut of a > Rs 2000 job, where he is forced to resort to blackmail and hush-money. But how? And what am I to do? And what are they thinking of, all these large selling Hindi dailies with the biggest circulations ever? Why aren't they thinking?]

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Getting used to it

One gets used to anything.
One even begins to find - and seek! - amusement through one's own inconvenience.

Like when you are in a third-rate hotel in small town India and the telephone wires lie disconnected. Un-connectable, actually. And therefore, there is no possibility of room service or phone calls. There is no geyser. So no possibility of running hot water.

The curtains are pale, and see-through; the window faces a busy flyover.
The hotel towel is too dirty to be used. Since you have forgotten your own, you use your clean clothes to wipe yourself, speculating in a detached way whether the stains on the hotel towel were rust, or dried blood, and if the latter, whence it flowed, and wherefore?

Like when, you walk down to the reception and ask them to give you a wake-up call at 6 am and bed tea, and then just when you're about to fall asleep, you realise they cannot call you because the telephone is disconnected. And un-connectable.

So, you spend the night restless, waking up every half hour to check on the time. At 6 am, you go down to reception, only to find it dark, with two figures wrapped in blankets, asleep on sofas.
So, you clear your throat.
To no avail.

You knock on the door.
To no avail.

You whisper "Excuse me, bhaisaab."
To no avail.

You scold, loudly, "Hello? Bhaisaab, uthiye!!"
To no avail.

You aren't sure what the behaviour codes here are like and have never before shaken awake a complete stranger. So, you shake the sofa instead. A sleepy head emerges and you say, "chai milegi, bhaisaab?"

Later, at night, since the telephone is still un-connectable, you keep an ear cocked for footfalls and rush to the door when you hear the waiter knocking the door next door. And you yell at him to stop and bring you some food.

When you enquire, he assures you that diet coke is available.

And you are amazed and ask, "Really? You can serve me diet coke? Like in a can?"

And confidently, he nods. "Yes, yes." A cloud of momentary doubt. "Maybe Pepsi?"

"Diet Pepsi?"

"Yes, yes."


Then the food arrives and is accompanied by regular Pepsi in a big bottle.

And you say, "But I asked for Diet Pepsi."

And the waiter grins and points to the bottle and says, "Yes, yes."

And you finally get it (Stop asking for the impossible, you moron!), so you grin back, saying, "Oh cool, thank you!"

Friday, November 11, 2005

Belated view of a 'flop' show I didn't attend

I must say I'm rather amused by the last blogosphere controversy which I awoke to rather late.

I saw the TOI report about the Delhi bloggers' meet the morning it was published. That is, I glanced at the headline, sulked out a thought - "Oh, there was a blogger's meet? How come nobody told me?" - turned the page, and went on scan the fine print for any news of real interest to me. Which, may I please mention (at the risk of adding to the unfounded accusation that our collective favourite pastime is MSM-bashing), there was very little of.

I noticed that the word 'flop' was used. I didn't pay any attention to the rest of the article because it was such a clear sign that the writer did not understand the blogging world at all.

Blogging is a virtual activity. Blogosphere is VIRTUAL.
It is comprised of people who sit in front of computer screens, hitting keys for the pleasure of it, or for a cause, or even for self-promotion of a certain kind. These people will read what other people like themselves are writing. These people will scream, rant, rave, stand up for each other, laugh when they receive legal notices, make fun of those who deserve it....
but these people may choose not to crawl out of the woodwork to say hello.

In any case, judging the strength of a virtual phenomena through a very real-world meeting is silly. That's like having a club of dedicated online gamers and judging their 'happening' quotient through their abilities on a grass court. That's a contrary, self-defeating exercise.

Speaking for myself...
Blogger meets: I've attended only one in the last one year and that was not an official 'blogging' event. It just so happened that Morquendi was in the country and some of us who knew each other only in blogosphere until then, decided to meet.

I'd attend a few, given enough notice, and assuming I'm in town. I like most bloggers I know and it would be a pleasure seeing them....

But I have a job. And some creative writing pretensions. I'm part of two active writing groups. I have friends who have nothing to do with blogs or media. I have more blogs than I know what to do with and they're all crying for updates.

Besides which, I do not have the luxury of blogging full-time. And to think that despite the fact that there's no money to be made, there are hundreds, thousands of bloggers in each city, blogging away like there's no tomorrow, or like tomorrow could be made different by all this blogging.... that does not sound like a flop show to me.

The fact that everyone wants a blog, regardless of whether they use it or not, is another indication of whether it's a hit parade or a flop show.

Besides, the writer assumes that there's some sort of show happening here. There isn't. Meets happen because bloggers may be so inclined. They aren't intended as a media circus, despite so many of us straddling that MSM-blog fence.

Speaking for myself, again, I would not want them to be. I don't want blog-meets to turn into Page3 events. I don't want my mug in the morning papers. And (don't kill me, fellow-blogozens) I don't even want blog-meets to be well-attended. I can deal with 5 strangers, 6 maybe, 8 at a cinch... Any more and I want to run, backing away from the crowd. After which I will promptly go and check a very crowded blogosphere, to see what I was missing...

I have a strong suspicion that I'm not the only blogozen who does this.

On the other hand, if there's a blog I really like, and it is not updated for a week or more, I worry. I wonder if something's happened to the blogger. I send (and receive) apologetic small-voiced emails enquiring after the concerned blogger's well-being (when I get these, I am very kicked, and promptly go back to posting with a real sense of purpose).

Again, I have a strong suspicion that I'm not the only blogozen who feels this.

Besides, look at my bloglines account. More and more people each week. I follow links and peep in, lips ever-ready to curl with contempt. But if the blog is consistently interesting, I go looking for its feed. And every time I add somebody, that's my way of opening the door to a blogozen, saying, 'Hey! Cool stuff... '

Which doesn't necessarily mean that I'll want to meet/hang out with this blogozen in real life...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Connoisseurs and lovers

and the day turns into a caravan of chai-breaks, inching forward along the beaten track of warm conversations.

Kashmiri chai - no, not kahwa - but the chai that Lucknow-wallas like to call kashmiri. The chai that the people of Kashmiri Mohalla reserve for very special occasions: Pink. Flavoured. All milk, no water. Loads of dry fruits, warm syrup. Children are allowed to drink this.

I detest it. I drink it.

A friend had once called me 'chai-premi'. Lover of tea.

My uncle tells me about 'his' tea. He says he's a connoisseur. "Use evaporated carton-milk. A little suffices, and it does not cool down the tea. And Lipton Yellow Label tea-bags. Only Lipton. Only tea-bags."

I smile a secret smile to myself... Connoisseurs are not lovers.

Tea is not about measures of xyz ingredients thrown together, on a flame.
It is about mornings, evenings, headaches, preferences, experimentation...

Hibuscus petals with honey. Ginger with Lemon. Ice with boiling water. Jaggery with cardamom.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Some days it works. Some days it doesn't.

Lovers don't dictate terms to the beloved. They are dictated to.

Chai will not always surrender to your whims. No matter how much you coax it, it will assert its independence. It will spoil itself, and thereby your mood.

There is no fixed 'time' for chai.
Or love.

There is no definite method to chai.
Or love.

There is no limit to the variation of form with chai.
Or love.

You don't always get what you want in a cup of chai.
Or love.

It is rarely excessive - as Kashmiri chai is - and when it is, you sometimes say 'no' to chai.
Or love.

You get burnt if you don't wait before you take the first sip of chai.
Or love.

And like I said, mamoo-jaan, connoisseurs are not lovers.

Lessons, the rail way

Train journeys have a special significance for me. When they aren't teaching me about society and humanity, they're telling me things about myself.

When I last travelled, my ticket was not confirmed. The day I was supposed to travel, I asked a railway official what I could do, and whether I should upgrade/take a chance/cancel?

He responded by telling me not to travel at all.
Which made me lose my temper, march towards the 'general' unreserved dabba, throw my bags and myself inside, cursing.

I'll admit I was unnerved.

I've traveled 'third-class' before, but never alone. And this time, I was in UP, which has given me memories of being theatened - politely , as Lucknow-wallahs are taught to speak - out of my pukka (reserved) seat.

But, like our wise ancestors have said 'jab okhli mein sar diya, toh moosli se kya darna?'
Besides, I was still fuming at the rude railway official and was determined to travel by this very train, this very day.

I nudged, 'excuse please'd and pushed until I found standing space, and a place for my bag on the overhead rack (where several young men were sleeping, cushioned by our collective baggage).

I must have stood for 3 minutes when an old man asked his old woman to shift and accomodate me.

I sat on the outer edge of a hard seat, at first (strange... did the railway ministry think that people who don't have reservations do not deserve to sit on cushioned wood?).

As the crowd swelled and a man's crotch began hovering too close to my face, the old woman placed her arm round my body, protectively - as if it were a shield. When she realised it was just going to get worse, she asked me to exchange seats. For the rest of the journey, she would, by turns, slap and pat the heads of 3 young rickshaw-pullers, who were squatting at her feet, dozing off into her lap.

Many stood for 5 hours. A few stood for 8 hours. No fights broke out. Those who could not sleep, smiled at nothing in particular, or cracked jokes.

A man dumped his baby nephew in my lap, when the mother grew sick of feeding him. Later, the family advised me to join 'door sanchaar', because "there is no money in writing, is there?"

The old man... he would not let me buy myself a cup of tea. I called him Baba once, and for the rest of the journey, I stayed under his wing. Cups of tea. Mineral water. Boiled chana. Peanuts... "Eat! This is not food, this is timepass."

His old woman... she told me of her dead daughter, as old as me when she died. And she broke down. Then she showed me the wounds left by broken glass bangles.

I asked her the history marked out on her tattooed arms - "this one for myself, that one for my husband, and that for the mother-in-law"... a peacock, a clove, a tree, a name...

When they found out about me, they reacted with a sombre nod. "Yes... learn to walk alone."

When I stepped off the train, I touched Baba's feet. The gratitude was not on account of the peanuts or the chai, but for reminding me of what a society could be.

For all that, it was not a comfortable trip. My body hurt. My head spun. There was no question of visiting a loo. But I am glad my ticket wasn't confirmed.

I do not know if 'destiny' is all it's made out to be, but I've been told that whatever force controls our lives, whoever guides our destinies, wants us to learn - and remember - some lessons, and fight some fears.

I had forgotten my lessons. I had lost touch with, and therefore grown afraid of, my own people. I had forgotten why people are worth it all, and what makes them worth it all.


On the way back, I was reminded of why I'm not afraid of traveling alone in this country: chivalry is not quite dead.

My dear mother had done me the favour of packing me a Bakas - a large 30-year old tin trunk, weighing half my body weight.

But at 3.30 in the night, there were no coolies volunteering their services.

I looked at the trunk, I looked at the night.

I sighed my dilemma to a young man. He helped me carry it until I found a coolie. At the taxi stand, another young man stood guard over my luggage while I went looking for a taxi....

And chivalry is not quite dead.

(All the same, mom, next time, I WILL NOT carry a tin trunk!)

Friday, October 28, 2005

The crap corps

I'd been reading; I'd been listening - with my usual mixture of reactions ranging from 'but how?' and 'don't tell me, not again!' - to the whole French 'women are crap' controversy.

And I was thinking, I'd like to meet Mr French. No, seriously. I would. I have no understanding of how a mind like that works. He is as much a curiosity, to me, as a dinosaur. And I want to see how men like him look; the kind who think - and say - that women are crap.

Then I read about these women. And I thought, maybe Mr French should meet all these women.

Better still, we should let Mr French meet Judith Miller. Or Maureen Dowd.
Or both of them.... Together.

Or all of us. At once. Then, he would truly be neck-deep in shit. Or crap.


On another note, I remember going to the Indian Women's Press Corpsfor a press conference (no, it was not organised by, or for, women exclusively) a few months ago. I was wondering why there should be a separate press club for women. So I was given some literature (they have a library too) to read. Turned out, it was set up more than 10 years ago.

I cannot find links to the essays from the founders, but the idea was to start something that gave women journalists a space to call their own. Their own watering hole. Their own chill zone. Their own cheap (relatively) eatery. Or (what the hell) their own bitchfest, for times when they needed it!

The Press Club - which is to say, THE Press Club - was/is a male bastion.

It needed storming, no doubt, but sheer numbers were not doing the trick. There were too many women journalists out there who felt left out of the 'club', even as they sat there. It was 'not a place for women'. Women journalists drinking/smoking publicly raised eyebrows. Tip-offs weren't shared with women. Women's issues weren't being taken up. There weren't enough women editors around. etc.

Now, I don't know whether all these factors are reason enough to have a separate press club. Nor do I know whether it makes a difference to the profession. But I have to say that I like the place.

There are some 350 members. It is a small-ish place and gets very packed during press cons, but it is cool and smells nice. The garden is well-kept. People are polite. Any random member whom you don't know from Eve, smiles at you. The food is good (so I've heard, with special praise for the biryani.)

A couple of weeks ago, I went to THE press club for another press conference.

And I was appalled!

Everything was falling apart. Spit-marks on the staircases, corridors smelling of sweat and piss, paint flaking off, male journalists talking LOUDLY - not on the phone, mind you, but to each other, across the hall - while the poor panelists (who had paid to use the facilities, incidentally) were trying to ignore them and finish their speeches.

The receptionist downstairs was rude. People hanging around outside leered. Everyone wanted my phone number, and being in the 'fraternity', it is hard to refuse. It is also hard to hang up on the 'fraternity' when they call you late at night on a Saturday. Not to share a tip-off. Not to pass on info. Oh no... but to 'just chat!'

And no, I do not like gender-based segregation. I do not like 'women-sit-here; men-sit-there' kind of places. And I do think that segregation is too high a price to pay for equality.

But if I'm ever taking membership, I know where I'm headed... towards the, umm, 'crap' corps.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Sophia and Savitri

A few days ago, I came across this report in the Asian Age (no link available, though I know it appeared in the Delhi edition, on 20th or 21st of October) about some luncheon club started by St Stephen's alumni - a sort of old boys' network, intended for the specific purpose of 'networking'.

One of the founders apparently said (I forget the exact wording of the quote) that it was restricted to those who graduated in the 70s and 80s, because those who graduated before were too old to matter and those who came later weren't yet important enough.

I distinctly remember the use of the word 'important', and I distinctly remember that I reacted with a hoot of bemused laughter.

You graduate from an 'important' college, and you want to 'network' with only those people who are 'important'.

Of course, I always knew that this is how it is, but I was both taken aback and wildly amused by such an unashamed admission of ego and socio-economic snobbery.


Driven by this report about old boys' ganging up for the sake of 'importance' , I decided to run a check on my own alma mater. To check on just how low my importance quotient was.

Google told me, first thing, that Sophia Girls College, Ajmer, is ranked a B++ by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

This isn't so bad, actually.
Because I was wondering whether my degree was going to be worth the paper it was printed on. Nobody I know (barring fellow-sophians) has even heard of the university, and every time I mentioned Sophia College, people just assumed I was from the more hip college of the same name, in Bombay.

The girls there pronounced the name as an indulgently westernised 'So-fi-aa'. We stuck to a humiliatingly ordinary 'So-phee-aa'.

But what I was really worried about was the ranking given to Savitri College.

I would have died of horror and humiliation if Savitri College ended up with a better ranking, because the Savitri girls were matched equal to us in all the cultural and sporting events (okay, so they were better, sometimes... but we founded our own theatre club, so there!) and they used to darkly suggest that except for our proficiency in English, the Sophians - Sopheeians - were worse off, in every other respect.

And we, we who spoke in English, trembled inwardly at the possibility. Could it be...?

What was even more galling was that both So-phee-aa and Savitri were affiliated to the same university, and that it was rumoured that Savitri actually got more grants and concessions from the government, because it was Hindi-medium for the most part. (I can't vouch for this)

As it happens, to my immense relief and satisfaction, Savitri is ranked lower. They are only a B+, while we are a B++.

Left to us Sopheeans, they wouldn't even get a B; we think they're quite average, and a C+ is about all they deserve... which probably means there are no Sophia girls on the NAAC board.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


ok, blog plugging time.

This is my unabashedly Opinionated brother.

Genesis of a drawstrung nation

This is absurd.

Whether the news is true or not, whether the alleged fatwa is justified or not, is secondary. What intrigues me is the bit about 'salwars' being Tamil gear... Tamil? Since when?

It's really quite intriguing - this mad scramble across the sub-continent to claim the unobstrusive salwar as 'traditionally ours' and hang it round women's pelvises.

I ran a search on the genesis of shalwaar (also of salwar), and found little historical information, though I did find several idiotic claims that it was of 'Indian' or 'Pakistani', 'Punjabi' or 'Muslim', origin. Much marketing of this piece of baggy sackage (there's no other apt term for it, really); while some speak of it's in-betweenness, others hint at it's genesis and the journey thus far.

Now, I'm no authority on traditional garments (though, we really should stop writing 'salwar-kameez' because it is pronounced 'shalwaar' and 'qameez', as in 'qatl' and 'qayamat'), but I do know that shalwaar-qameez is about as 'Indian' or as 'Muslim', as aeroplanes or T-shirts.

Let's go back a little. Let's go back 20 years.

I'm in primary school. I'm wearing a blue-green shalwaar (churidaar, actually) and it's my birthday. This is rural Rajasthan. Everyone is gawking. NOBODY wears shalwaars here. Not our teachers (all wear sarees) and not the students (all the girls wear skirts or frocks or, if the family's daring, pants).

This is the first time I'm spending any length of time in the costume either. My mother tells me, after school-hours, she found me wandering about with the kurta tucked inside the churidaar, pant-shirt-style.

Fast-forward 15 years.
I'm in high school. Everyone wears shalwaars - the Mallu Bio teacher, the Rajput kindergarten teacher, the Tamil Maths teacher, the Gujjar Socio teacher. they're not calling it 'shalwar-qameez' anymore. They're calling it 'suit'.

Fast-forward 5 years.
I'm in college. We're wearing 'suits' for formal functions, 'suits' for photo-sessions, 'suits' for karate practice (some girls wore shalwaars topped with with T-shirts), 'suits' for shopping.

The college administration approved. The hostel warden approved. Jeans were barely tolerated. Skirts (with shorts underneath) were acceptable only on the sports' field.

A year later, in Bombay, I attend a Bajrang-Dal-organised workshop for young girls. They talk of the 'outsider race' (read Muslim). They talk of denigration of women's status in society. They ask the girls to wear bindi or tika, as a symbol of their 'Indian' identity. All the girls are in shalwaars. ALL. Most of them are Maharashtrian or Gujarati.

I ask, casually - why?
The girls look surprised. "It's 'our' dress. What else will we wear?"

This dress of 'Muslim' origin, they say. This dress of 'Indian' origin, they say. This dress of 'Pakistani' origin, they say. This 'punjabi' dress, they say.... even (allegedly) this dress of Tamil origin, they say?

Go back 50 years.
My grandmother is not in shalwaar-qameez. She's in a gharara. She is wound into sareescape by my grandfather, with his nationalistic fervour - one India, secular India, free India... and one national dress - the saree.

Fast-forward 50 years.
My grandmother wears nothing but shalwaar-qameez. My aunts too. My neighbours too. And (wonder of wonders, she who wouldn't be caught dead in the garment, 5 years ago) my ultra-hip mother too!

Go back 60 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
A punjabi woman, on both sides of undivided India. Of both communities.
And oh yes, the Punjabi men too! Of both communities. They called it a shalwaar for men as well, until it became unfashionable and we started calling them simply pyjama.

[I have to interject - pyjama is not correct. It is silly to call everything 'pyjama' when men wear it. They can choose between shalwaar, churidaar AND pyjamas of various cuts and shapes.]

What they're wearing is very similar to what Afghani, or Pathan, men wore. The costume today is sometimes referred to as a 'pathan suit'.

Go to Saudi Arabia. Go to Egypt. Go to Morocco.
Shalwaars, no. Muslims, yes. T-shirts... maybe. In Iran, pants, head-scarves and T-shirts are more common than shalwaars. Even in Saudi Arabia, underneath the abayas, you won't find too many shalwaars.

Go back 100 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Possibly the Pathans. Possibly the Turks, though their version is more like 'harem-pants'.

Go back 1000 years.
Who's wearing a shalwaar?
We don't know. Probably not us. Probably nobody.

Go back 2000 years.
Go back to ancient India.
Go back to Harappa.
Go anywhere in the world.

There are no shalwaars.
There are no aeroplanes either.
Nor any T-shirts.

Fast-forward to now.
My domestic help does not wear shalwaars.
"People laugh... They look at me like I was wearing something odd. Nobody in the family wears it." This one is from Rajasthan. The last domestic help lady wore only shalwaars. She was Haryanvi.

What makes a shalwaar Indian?
What does the wearing of a shalwaar-qameez make us? Good 'Indian' girls?
How did it get to be this way? How did the shalwaar worm it's way into the moral good books of an entire nation?
Correction. An entire sub-continent.

By being what it is - comfortable? Even, cyclically trendy?

I don't think so.
It isn't just about comfort. It is also about being covered up.
It's about a drawstrung modesty.

Sarees are alright, sort of. But try wearing a saree 'sexily'. Wear it with a strappy blouse, or without one altogether. See how many 'Indians' approve.

Shalwaars are acceptable because they're non-threatening. And that's how we like our women, don't we?
Not slavish. Just non-threatening. Not disembodied, just non-physical. Not invisible, just non-visible.
Non-out-there. Non-this-is-how-I-am. Non-look-if-you-want-like-I-care.
Oh, yes, we like our shalwaars.

Lucknow, 2 years ago.
My mother cuts up her transparent sarees to make shalwaar-kameezes for me. Now, I'm still wearing shalwaars, only they don't quite hide my body away.
My aunt refuses to take me out to the market. "Are you out of your mind? What do you think? This isn't Bombay... ".

I used to wonder, in fact... why did Bombay's young women not take to shalwaars with as much enthusiasm? (IMHO, the shalwaar-related fashions were a disaster over there.)
Now, I think I know why.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

This day, that day

I often wonder what karmic contract oversees our mornings.

What stipulates, for instance, that one morning I will get up and be greeted by an empty gas cylinder, instead of the usual chai. And that, another day will begin with an hour of non-stop ranting and scolding from people whom I've done nothing to offend.

Which is what happened.

I was up bright and early (okay, so my weekday sunrise happens at 8 am... to each her own dawn) trying to call up a certain urban planner, to fix up an interview.

I had only introduced myself when the dam broke, so to speak.

The good lady refused me an interview, first-off on the grounds that I worked for a media group that doesn't 'report' but only 'supports' our editors' friends (very vehement, vitrolic emphasis on 'Frrrriends', virtually spitting out an explamation mark every time she used the word).

My plea, that I wished to understand the issues, and considered it my duty to speak to as many experts as possible - esp those with contrasting views - fell on deaf ears. To be honest, I didn't even get to make the plea. At least, not in one go.

I would say two words, be interrupted and listen to the good-if-angry lady, for fifteen minutes. How her clients' side of the picture was never represented.

Then, I'd say another three words (inclusive of articles and pronouns) and be interrupted again. Then, I'd listen to complaints about the media being biased, how my story was 'unconstitutional', how we were conducting 'trial by media' and how she couldn't care less, and would never speak to our group, in particular. And why didn't I just go speak to my editor-in-chief's 'Frriends!'
"Go to them! Go! Go to Mr R... Go to Mr D... Go!" she seethed.

She said that the activists were all being paid off. And that she could prove it. I asked her to, but she didn't want to meet me.

She asked me to ask myself - why was this issue being raked up now? At this crucial juncture? She insinuated that my bosses had sent me sniffing on the track on this story because they (or their Frrriends!) had vested interests. I did not tell her that the story was my own idea, not my boss', and that I had not even heard of Mr R and other names she was throwing at me faster than I could grab them.

I tried intermittently - three words at a time - to ask if she'd agree to an emailed list of questions, if she found it too painful dealing with me, in person. Unfortunately, she declined. She apparently didn't even want to share the same bit of newsprint with Mr R and Mr D.

She didn't want to be spoken of in the same breath as those "jokers". Several times during the conversation, she referred to various prominent people as 'bast**ds".

I was torn between hanging up on her, and reminding her that she was speaking to the media, and would she please watch her tongue? Suppose I had a recorder on, all this time? Did she realise I could, techinically, (for, although she said she didn't want to talk to me, she did speak a long, long time) put her words in print?

But there was also this bit of my mind that said this was just vented steam. And since I'd called her, maybe it was all part of destiny's preordainment - that the steam should burn my face.

Maybe it's just bad karma. Maybe, in a previous birth, I had been rude to a young journalist, first thing in the morning... Maybe this was payback time. So, I politely thanked her before assuring her that I would do my best to do a balanced story.

But yesterday.....

True, I awoke to find an empty gas cylinder, and - like always - it was left to me to tackle the crisis (read: lift gas cyclinder, carry downstairs to the re-filling shop, carry back upstairs... where are the boyfriends when you need them, I ask?).

True, I might have pulled a muscle and a half.

Also true that I am an unpleasant sight before my first cup of chai.

Especially when I trudge into daylight with a cylinder (okay, so it was a small cylinder that holds only 3-1/2 kilos of LPG, but so what?).

But then.....

Riding beside me, there are two tiny pre-schoolers, three-year-old (or two-and-a-half?) boys, in a cycle-rickshaw (closed up like a cage, for their safety). Neat uniforms, slicked hair, hankies pinned to their breast-pockets.

They look at me and whisper something to each other.
They smile. I smile.
I wave. They wave back.
Then, timidly, one of them mouths -

I stare, open-mouthed, while one giggles to the other and repeats it -

And I cannot stop laughing for the rest of the morning.

What was that about karma, again?
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