Thursday, December 31, 2009

Food for thought

Did you realise that the price of tomatoes is up nearly 500 % (at least in some cities in India)?

Also, did you know that India's daily turnover in vegetables and fruits is USD 59 million, which is three times that of a large firm like TCS. AND, did you know that the average wastage is USD 27 million?

Just visualise it. Rs 130 crores lying about in gutters and on the fringes of farmers markets, rotting. Every day.

And do you know that if the price of tomatoes rises by just 10 % - that is to say that, if you were paying Rs 10 for one kilo, you would now be paying Rs 11 per kilo - the increase would amount to ten times the turnover of all Reliance Fresh stores put together. Or that, Reliance Fresh makes no profit at all from its sales of fresh vegetables?

This info comes from a very interesting two-part article in a new magazine called Beyond Profit. Do check out the piece by Venkat Subramanium.

He also says that it is no point blaming the local subzi-wala for rising prices. It is really the agents and middlemen at work.

According to the article: "Each agent is networked with a few buyers in nearby areas, who are his key primary buyers. Nowadays, with the spread of mobile phones, SMS (text) messages flash back and forth in frenzy before any auction and most prices are predetermined." (emphasis mine).

Predetermined. Which means that there is a whole chain of agents who "keep close tabs on how many truckloads have been loaded up from villages and are on the way to a particular market. On a given day, if there are 20 trucks of tomatoes coming IN to the auction market, they may set price at INR10 (US$ 0.20). If they realize that only 10 truckloads are coming, then they increase it to INR20 (US$ 0.40). Often the farmers are unaware of this silent collusion between the transporters, loaders, and even local dabbha/mote wallahs and how information flows back and forth along the chain. Hence once price is set, it is unviable for farmers to even look for any other market as distances are too far and expensive. As a result, the farmer is forced to accept or dump the product in frustration."

And oh, all that bigmouthing about 'direct procurement from the farmer' and eliminating the middlemen? Turns out that all big brands that sell veggies in supermarket chains also shop at the nearest mandi. By which time, the farmer is no longer in any position to bargain.


You can read more here. The magazine also has a new piece on clean drinking water technologies that are now available at very reasonable prices. Do read.

Here's hoping the year ahead is happy, and easier on the heart, soul, wallet, etc.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some mornings, I begin to believe that there is something to be said for cable television, after all.

When the newspaper doesn't arrive and you decide to get your morning fix of news visually, and then discover that there isn't more than five minutes worth of fresh headlines on TV news, and when you decide to channel-surf for a bit and you come upon the excessive sight of Kimi Katkar in a yellow saree making enthusiastic attempts to disrobe a rustic Anil Kapoor, flinging her pallu away from her chest, lip-synching lyrics like "Utaar apni dhoti, aur baandh meri saree."

For reference:

And this, followed up by the sight of two kids starving, waiting on the beaches of Bombay for someone to feed them, and then, delirious with joy at having eaten a little halwa, hopping from foot to foot, going around in circles.

Some mornings, I begin to almost believe in the benefits of cable television.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Am headed south for some poetry and stuff. If any of you are in those places, please do come. Bring friends. Pass the word on to others who might be interested.

In Chennai, as part of the Prakriti festival:
MGR Janaki College; 11 am
AMM School; 2:30 pm
Kalakshetra; 8.30 am

And in Bangalore:

Toto Funds the Arts is pleased to invite you to a reading of short fiction and poetry

Annie Zaidi
Saudha Kasim

Venue: Crossword Bookstore, ACR Towers, Ground Floor, 32 Residency Road, Bangalore - 1
Date and time: Tuesday, 22 December 2009 at 6.45 pm

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Look. Listen.

I have spoken of two violent incidents in parts of the country where tribals live, and which are supposed to have a naxal problem. But it is far, far better that you hear it from one who really knows. Himanshu Kumar, who lives in Dantewada and runs an NGO there, addressed a group of people at an event organised by Tehelka.

Anybody who wants to understand the roots of the problem, and the way forward, should listen to this talk. It is in four parts. Watch it right through.

Monday, December 14, 2009

More news that isn't making headlines but should

And speaking of social activists in tribal areas, in the naxal context, here's another note from Imran Ali, a law officer with the Human Rights Law Network, about some recent developments: "the arbitrary, unjust and illegal detention of social activist Kopa Kunjam and advocate Alban Topo on December 10, 2009 in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh"

Again, I have not investigated this piece of news myself so I will refrain from making random remarks about 'state oppression', which is a very complex, very loaded phrase that I will expand upon some other day. But I will say that attacks on fact-finding teams and independent investigators are a sure sign of trouble. Trouble spelt U-N-D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y.

Here is what the HRLN has to say about the arrests:

"Ironically, December 10 happens to be the International Human Rights Day to which India is a signatory. As what can be called gross violations of human rights and Supreme Court guidelines, the Chhattisgarh police whisked away Kopa, an activist with a Gandhian non-profit organisation Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, and a young lawyer of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), Alban Topo, who is working on the Right to Food ongoing case in the Supreme Court and currently visiting Dantewada, without complying with the D K Basu guidelines of the Supreme Court. The two were not informed by the police as to why they were being detained and where they were being taken. Alban was brutally beaten up in over 18 hours of illegal detention and released today by the police in deep interior forests of Bijapur in Dantewada, with a warning that he better cease his association with Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. The HRLN team is yet to reach him and confirm his condition. Condemning the Chhattisgarh police action, senior Supreme Court Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves called it "shameful for democracy". He said that there is no democratic structure in Chhattisgarh. Alban Topo was illegally detained and assaulted by the state police and his release was sought after much pressure and protests, he added. Alban Topo is visiting Dantewada district as ration shops had been closed there and the starvation situation is quite grim due to the security forces operations. He is working on the Right to Food case filed in the Supreme Court and went Dantewada for fact finding.Vanvasi Chetna Ashram is run by Himanshu Kumar, a committed Gandhian social activist working among the tribals of Dantewada and Bijapur districts of Bastar regions. The Ashram has increasingly raised its voice against State atrocities upon tribal civilians. An all-India fact-finding was conducted by People's Union for Civil Liberties- Chhattisgarh in June 2009 where the team visited the site of the demolished Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA) at Kanwalnar near Dantewada. The findings revealed that during the demolition, the State administration did not even spare the hand pump though it was installed by the Government itself. The fact-finding report claimed that the State is trying to use military means alone to address the problem of Naxalism in Chhattisgarh and anyone not with the state (read also Salwa Judum), runs the risk of being branded a Naxalite sympathiser."

News you might not have heard, or have seen and already forgotten

This is something I have received as a press note in the mail. I cannot claim to have investigated the matter, but I found it surprising that almost none of the major papers had something like this covered properly although tribal rights, Naxal violence and the roots thereof are supposed to be headline-making items in our country at the moment. I am simply reproducing what has been sent to me since I am not currently in a position to verify the claims of the activists. I am personally inclined to believe them. So, here goes:

An all-women fact-finding team was attacked on its way to Narayanpatna, Orissa, where a democratic tribal movement led by the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh is being brutally supressed by the police at the behest of local liquor mafia, landlords and mining companies. This team had gone to Narayanpatna to bring out the real state of affairs, particularly regarding the spate of rapes and molestations of women by the Orissa Police, CRPF and the dreaded Cobra battalions. The local media has actively tried to hide the truth, branding the peaceful Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh as a Maoist outfit.

Please show your protest by calling the DM and SP of the district.
DM -- Gadadhar Parida 0 94381 8184649
SP -- Deepak Kumar Chauhan 0 94379 62200

From the Press conference: Update at 9 December, 2009. 2.45 p.m.

The 9 (member) women fact-finding team just concluded a press conference at Parvathipuram, Vijayanagaram District, Andhra Pradesh. Here's the narrative of the day's happenings as told by Shweta Narayan and Madhumita Dutta to Nityanand Jayaraman over phone:

At 10 a.m., the All India Women's Fact Finding Team consisting of 9 women reached Narayanpatna Police Station and requested to meet the Station In-charge.
1. Sudha Bhardwaj, Advocate, Chhattisgarh2. Mamata Dash, Delhi
3. Madhumita Dutta, Chennai
4. Shweta Narayan, Chennai
5. Rumita Kundu, Bhubaneswar
6. Pramila, Bhubaneswar
7. Kusum Karnik, Bhubaneswar
8. Ramani, New Democracy, Orissa

9. Durga, Chhattisgarh

We were told that the policeman was busy, and were asked to come in the evening. The person questioning us asked us for names and mobile phone numbers and names of organisations. We gave all of that. We noticed quite a number of uniformed policemen, and many people in plainclothes. None of the people in uniform (we assume they were policemen) had any name tags. We asked one of them who the people in plainclothes were, and were told that they were all policemen. We asked the man how many police were there in this area, and he said more than 2000 police. One striking thing is that none of the many people gathered there were adivasi.About 20 adivasi men were huddled, squatting inside the police station premises. We asked the police man near us who they were, and were told that the adivasis were former activists of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, who had come to surrender. This has been happening for a few days now, and many newspapers are reporting this.

By this time, the crowd of so-called plainclothes police were getting restless. We heard people commenting saying: "Ab aa rahen hain. Jab hamarey gaon jal rahe the, tho kahaan the?" (When our farms were being burnt, where were you? Now they show up.) Madhumita felt the situation was looking troublesome, and suggested we leave. As we were stepping out of the police station, our driver was cordoned off and was being questioned in a very hostile manner and being threatened. We heard someone saying that he is a regular to these parts, and they enquired as to his antecedents.We somehow managed to extricate the driver. One of the policemen in plainclothes, who we saw inside the police station premises, was taking photographs, and he said "Maaro Inko." (Beat these people up). That is when more than 200 people surged ahead. The driver was being slapped repeatedly. Madhu and 75-year old Kusum Karnik tried to intervene and that is when one man went for Madhu's throat. Kusum was hurt too.

Rumita Kundu was verbally abused inside the police station. One man crudely said that all these women had come to sleep with the men there. Mamta Dash was hit on her back, and abused. One man attempted to strangle madhu. When she moved to save herself, her jaw was injured. All this happened inside the police station premises.The driver was the one that was being assaulted most, and we did all we could to extricate him and board our vehicle. By this time, the vehicle was being broken. The rear windscreen was broken. With great difficulty, we fled the area driving towards Bandhugaon. We were followed by the plainclothesmen who claimed to be police on bikes. Somewhere between Bandhugaon Police Station and the village itself, we were stopped by two men in plainclothes. They said they were police, and they demanded to see the driver's license. As he was enquiring, about 20 people gathered there. But nothing untoward happened here. We were scared nevertheless.

From there, we proceeded to Kottulpetta. Even before we got to this village, news seemed to have reached them about our visit. A road blockade had been organised, with a bullock cart blocking the road. There were no oxen. The people there, again all non-tribals, pulled out the driver and started assaulting him. They tried to pull down another male colleague of ours, Mr. Poru Chandra Sahu and tried to beat them up. We intervened, and that's when Kusum didi, the 75-year old activist, was hurt on her head. We were there for more than 15 minutes. More violence. More damage to the vehicle. More slaps for the driver. Our friends outside had been notified almost as soon as problems began, and phone calls must have been pouring into the Collector and SP's office.

By this time, two bikes carrying one of the plainclothes "policemen" who had taken our names in Narayanpatna, and another plainclothes guy who was tall and burly, reached there and asked the youth to disperse. We reached Bondapalli, the border village within Andhra Pradesh. Almost in no time, a jeep load of Andhra Pradesh police along with plainclothes youth (young boys) armed with rifles and bullets arrived on the scene. They demanded to know who we were. We were treated more like criminals than victims, and our vehicle was searched. Only after Madhu spoke to the SP of Vijayanagar, and the DGP were we allowed to go. The police who stopped us immediately changed the tune, and offered to help us with medical assistance etc.

Our experience with armed youth and police has left us clearly terrified, and convinced that the situation created by the police in Narayanpatna and this part of Orissa is extremely vitiated. We have the following concerns and demands which we conveyed to the media at a press conference in Parvathipuram, Vijayanagarm District, Andhra Pradesh.


1. The scenario of terror that we witnessed, and were subject to shows the kind of tense situation prevailing in the Narayanpatna area post November 20, 2009's police firings in Narayanpatna.

2. There is no access for people to get in and out of the villages in Narayanpatna, with all routes blocked by armed goons.

3. There is no way to get information about what is happening inside, and no means of verifying the very disturbing accounts we are getting about abuses, molestations and violence against adivasi people.

4. The number of plainclothesmen who claimed they were police, and the comfort with which people outside the Narayanpatna police station were interacting with the police, and reacting to one policeman's instruction to beat us up, suggests that there may be some truth to reports that there is a Salwa Judum style Shanthi Samiti in this area as well. This may either be sponsored or working in close complicity with the police and state.

4. If the Fact Finding team of prominent women has been treated with such violence, it is clear that there is absolutely no room for dissent inside the villages.

5. All the people who attacked us were non-tribals.


1. The officers at the Police Station should be suspended to create an impartial stituation and enable the carrying out of investigations into the firing of 20 November, 2009, and the subsequent reports of atrocities against tribal people.

2. The SP Koraput should be suspended.

3. The Government should constitute a high-level independent investigation team and not depend on the police, who are clearly biased, and are using the language of terror and violence to suppress dissent.

Press Note ends here.

If you want to know more about what has been going on in Narayanpatna, here are a few basic facts, and some links:

Tribal land had been taken over by non-tribal forces, including industries, right since the 1960s. There had been a growing sense of alienation ever since. An organisation called the CMAS began a movement to reclaim tribal lands. About 2000 acres (some reports say, 1500 acres) was taken back, and according to some reports, a bumper harvest ensued.

On Nov 20, 2009, a group of tribals were protesting. The police opened fire. Two tribals died. One fact-finding team's report is here. The team found that the protests and the land movement was NOT led by naxals. Activists were concerned. A judicial probe was called for. Medha Patkar urged the governor to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

And what else can I say? Just remember this incident an its historical context, the next time you hear about 'naxal-infested areas'. Remember this, when you wonder why there is violence brewing in the forests. Remember this, when you wonder about why people sometimes make violent demands for separate states, or separate nations. Remember this, the next time someone talks about 'mobs' or 'public anger' or the absence of a formal police complaint. Remember this. Record this. And remember too, that there are strong vested interests that prevent information from seeping through to the rest of the nation. If you reject this information now, you reject your own citizenhood, in a sense.

And yes, do call the DM and SP of the district. If you know the CM's number or fax, call to ask why something like this could happen, and what action has been taken against the guilty.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Song, 2

Poison breath, poison blood
Poison milk, poison mud
Poison pump, poison tap
Poison in your mama's lap
Eyes of milk, limbs askew
Dow child mine, is that you?

Baby-making, weird art
Many arrive with half their parts
You don’t know the nuts and bolts
Little girls bleed, women don’t
There's mercury and chromium too
Dow child mine, is that you?

Applications, admin blues
So many don’ts for one big do
Petition-petition boring game
How to run if you are lame
Dharna-dharna, starve and sue
Dow child mine, is that you?

Leader comes, toxin pet
Says I’m fine, not dead yet
He fought toxin long ago
Now he’s paid for, top to toe
Back bent whole, toothless too
Dow child mine, is that you?

© Annie Zaidi, December 2009
[Songs of sympathy, 1]

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Bhopal, Bhopal

Because you are Bhopali too. In wanting justice. In wanting wrongs to be righted. In wanting that people don't just shrug and look away and click their tongues and decide to forget, while you stand there, demanding that accountability be established. That people be protected from those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. For those who place a lower value on Bhopali lives than their own. Because if you were not Bhopali on December 3, 1984, you were just plain lucky. But in every other way, and for every real purpose, you remain the person who could have been Bhopali on December 3, 1984.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Saw and did.

It has become a bit of a ritual for me. At least once a year, I like going to film festivals and gorging on art until it leaves you feeling slightly sick and headachy and I don't want to hear 'cinema' again for the next three months. It Delhi, it was Osian/Cinefan, and sometimes, smaller documentary film festivals in the middle of the year. In Bombay, it was MAMI, which made us wait so long this time around that I was actually considering going off to Delhi instead, just to get my annual fix.

However, this time, MAMI left me disappointed. Perhaps, it was because of the huge number of films, and my own awkward instinct, which seemed to be guiding me into mediocre screenings. Though I cannot fathom why there should be so many mediocre films in just one festival. Perhaps, I just missed the good ones. After the first three days, I began to rely on other people's recommendations, but even so, the overall sense I have was one of being underwhelmed.

It did not help that one had to dig deep into one's purse each time one wanted a sip of something warm. Forty rupees for one thimble-sized cup of horrid, oversweet coffee from one of those push-button machines?! That's just plain chori and seenazori.

People have already complained (on blogs, in newspapers) about the technical stuff - power cuts, format issues, terrible sound control, and so on. So I won't go over that in too much detail. But I do want to replay this: during one of the screenings, things started to go horribly wrong. The screen split up and the right side went completely dark. Then the screen split up again, and the bottom half of the frame stood hovering on top of the top half, with a noisy black line in the middle.

Behind me, there was a bunch of people whispering. From their conversation, I guaged that these were government employees. One of the ladies said, "You know, if this had happened at one of our events (meaning: a government-organised festival), they would have been up in arms. There would be such an uproar about the imcompetance of the state..."

She was right. There would have been all sorts of noises about how you cannot expect anything better from the public sector, and how the state should just let the experts/professionals handle this stuff, and how the private work ethic is better than the public one.

Which got me thinking. Why do we react with so much bitterness and anger when something goes wrong at a state-organised event at say, Siri Fort, or the Nehru Centre? And why do we just mumble about technical glitches, and then shut up, when the same thing goes wrong at a privately-owned multiplex? I am not talking about the difference in facilities alone. I am talking about an attitude. People who work with the government also work very hard to make such festivals happen. They help to fund stuff, they run stuff, they get the experts in to do their stuff. But I never hear anyone lauding them for their commitment to art or cinema. Why is that? And when non-government agencies are brought in to take over or partner such events, why is the criticism so muted?

At any rate, the thing is, I am still feeling hungry. The festival didn't have the overdose strength this time. I don't feel engorged with cinema to bursting point.

That said, this time, the documentaries were quite good. It was such a pity that almost all the documentaries were relegated to morning slots, which meant a slim audience, and I couldn't make it to most of them because of a lengthy commute. But I did catch 'Meet Me at the Mango Tree' and 'Made in Pakistan'. Both are good, engaging documentaries that accomplish what good films should - gently zoom in on a few human beings and their lives, and then allow us to see. Not just look, but see.

'Here', a Japanese film, was my usual odd pick. The sort you see only at film festivals and wonder what it was all about. The sort you cannot dislike, cannot accuse of anything, but cannot entirely like either. Experimental to the point of not being able to wow you, and yet, the sort of film you are not likely to forget for years.

Amongst the feature films, I liked a few including 'In the Loop', 'Fish Tank', 'Happy Go Lucky', 'Eden is West', and a Konkani film that roughly translates to 'Man Across the Bridge', made by a young Goan filmmaker called Lakshmikant Shetgaonkar. If you get a chance, watch.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shame, shame, shame, shame!

What can I say?
When the fourth estate, the sturdiest pillar of democracy cuts away not just at its own roots but also hacks at the constitutional heart of this country, then what is left to say? Apparently, the Lok Sabha elections were not much different, although clearly, media managements and marketing teams seem to be refining the system each time we go to the polls.

I really don't know what to make of 'freedom of the press' these days. People in traditional news media keep worrying and debating about whether the business is dying. Perhaps they should do something to hasten its demise instead.

Do we not do our utmost to ensure free and fair elections? Do we not express outrage at booth-capturing, or attempts at influencing votes through distribution of cash, liquor or even expensive food items? Do we not declare elections days 'dry days' for this reason? Do we not place deadlines on campaigns, and do we not prevent threats, intimidation and hate speech?

Why do we do all this, if not to ensure that democracy works as best as it can, in its own muddling, bumbling way? And how can we bring ourselves to stand by and watch this happen?

I vote for a constitutional intervention. Let there be more stringent laws. There have to be limits to selling 'space'. If newspapers and television channels have so little self-respect, so little understanding of what their jobs mean, so little love for freedom or faith in the power of word and image, then they deserve to be regulated.

In fact, there already is a law that says: "Whoever voluntarily interferes or attempts to interfere with the free exercise of any electoral right commits the offence of undue influence at an election. (171C(1) The punishment for the offence of undue influence is prescribed under Section 171 F of IPC, which says punishment of imprisonment up to one year or fine or both could be imposed." But perhaps, this is not punishment enough.

I, as a citizen of this country and a journalist, want those who are guilty to be sued. I want them to be fined for at least an amount equivalent of what they have collectively earned through the last Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, and I want the money put into a trust which ought to go into a national body of ombudsmen, or an independent body of media watchdogs, with a legal cell attached.

And yes, I want all those candidates who paid off the media to be disqualified, and to be barred from contesting again for the next ten years.

Now, somebody please go file a public interest petition. Let the courts decide. Let the lawmakers decide. But for our own sakes, let us put a stop to this.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An anthology on India now

This is out.
It was first published in Italian, and titled 'India'. Now it has been untranslated and published as 'India Shining, India Changing'.
I'm in it, with an essay on child protection realities and the relevant policy in India. Please head out to the nearest bookstore.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Including One Woman

Wrote this poem a couple of years ago, in response to a photo and a brief news item about the police opening fire upon a group of protesting farmers in July 2007. It was published in The Little Mag a few months ago.

Including One Woman

Last night there was a great storm
but the sky stood there - upright,
almost a hard white.

Last night, she'd gone
to the state capital; we'd had a fight.
But they said, she's waiting, come.
Now is not the time.

So I went and there she was.
White sheets, like we've never crept into.
Her, like I'd never seen her before.
Red saree, yellow flowers,
like I've never seen grow.
Hair wild.

On the bus, I borrowed a newspaper.
Five, it said, including one woman
(I hadn't let her take the child).

There was a photo but
you could hardly tell.
That wild hair.
Yellow flowers, red saree
and her smell. A new smell.

This new smell I did not know.
It came from her. I touched her and thought:
Why does she need to go
to these places? These new places
of noise and smell
and run run run.
Red. Red. Red.

Wild saree riding up her legs. Bare feet.
On the street she lay on concrete.
The sheet was so white.
They said, they'd help me
take her home. I said, thank you.

I lifted my hands and said, sir,
raam-raam. I said, I kept the child.
And they said, this is no place for children; you were right.
But, I said, but
we had a fight. We had a fight.
They said, you were right. I said, she wanted the child
by her side.

Beside her, I squatted and cried:
I should have been at your side.

She had looked up at the sky and said: Listen.
The sky is rumbling. There will be a great storm.
Keep the child warm.
And I had sworn not to see her face again
if she went to the city, again.
But she went. And here I am.

I'll take her back. I'll take her back. Let me
please take her back, I said.
They said, we will
help. It wasn't supposed to be
like this.

I said, sir, yes.
They said, be strong, stay calm.
I said, yes.

At the fire,
I told the child:
Last night there was terrible storm.
And the sky stayed right where it was.

(C) Annie Zaidi, October 2007

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And here's a touching (not to mention, informative) photo essay on the pedals that really do run our cities.

And, thanks to Hari Batti, another very interesting essay on this business of what things really cost - to make, to dispose of - and why this should be so.

Not laughing matters

Found a fun link on Nanopolitan. About West German spies collecting East German jokes. The jokes are funny, of course, though the whole business is awfully sad at one level. Sample this bit from the article:

"Telling jokes was playing with fire," says Kleemann. The Stasi had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on the East German population of 17 million. It regarded every political joke as a potential threat. Anyone who poked fun at the representatives of the organs of state and society was subject to prosecution.
"There were cases of people who were jailed, it was particularly bad in the 1950s and 1960s," says Kleemann.
Here's one example about how that risk was lampooned: "There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes."

I also found another awful thing while going over my long-neglected blogroll.

A report about a foreign journalist who was brutally beaten up by the Delhi police. What makes it particularly scary and sad is that it could so easily have been me. I worked in that particular magazine, albeit very briefly. I lived in that particular colony. Hell, I even lived in that particular block.

There were times I returned very late from work, often 2 am or 3 am, and I'd see cops in the neighbourhood all the time. When I moved houses, just a few streets away in a neighbouring colony, I was often stopped by cops who set up barriers and check-points at night. I was never sure whether I ought to feel reassured or worried at the sight of a police checkpoint near my home. In the bazaar nearby, over and over, they would make warning annoucements about theft and unidentified, unclaimed objects; and the message would end with: 'Delhi Police - with you, for you, always'.

It used to be one of our in-jokes amongst the journo fraternity in Delhi: that that is part of the problem -- Delhi police, with you, always.

Jokes aside, I'd thought there had been some improvement. After all those crash courses in how to deal with the public, and the importance of cops having a good public image. After all that, this!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The bad and the ugly

So here's the promised post about my ultimate film watching experience.

While I was in college, for a set of very complicated reasons, we didn't get to go out much, and movie-watching was limited to once or twice a month. Our pocket money was limited too, and while we had enough to pay for the movie outings - including tempo fares and chaat and popcorn and cold drinks - we did not have so much money that it didn't matter having to spend it on a bad film.

We used to keep an eye out for new movies in the local halls. Our options were limited, of course. We never got to see any good Hollywood or other foreign movies. But we could choose between, say, the new David Dhawan film or the new Mani Ratnam film in Hindi.

I was a great one for experimentation. New faces, new cinematic voices, and up I jumped, ever willing to check those guys out.

One fine day, I saw amongst the listings a film called Bal Brahmachari. Starring a girl from a powerful filmi khandaan, Karishma Kapoor, and the son of a film star, Puru Rajkumar.

It was hard to tell what the film might be about (we didn't read film reviews back then) but there was something about the poster that suggested comedy. I like comedy. My friends like comedy. So I began to persuade them to plan our next outing around this film.

They were reluctant. Who's this hero, they asked? What's the story? I clicked my tongue. I reminded them of Prakash Mehra's filmography. I invoked a film called Brahmachari, starring Shammi Kapoor. That was a decent watch, I said, so why will this one not be decent? It sounds like contemporary, youthful fun!

Finally, I prevailed. Me and the other girls went to the cinema. We bought our Rs 17 balcony tickets. We settled down on the rickety seats. The film started.

There was something odd going on, though. The film seemed to have begun on a note that was first struck in the 60s perhaps. All of us squirmed uncomfortably in our worn-out seats. This did not bode well for a comedy. There was something about a couple in a car. My memory fails me now but there were villians around, and the good man was killed; the good lady was heavily pregnant, and running for her life. She ends up in the temple. A hanuman temple. Where the priest was a brahmachari. And therefore, unable to touch a lady.

It is a wild and stormy night. Temple bells are tolling like mad. The lady begs and pleads for her child's life. If I remember this scene right, the priest blindfolds himself and proceeds to deliver the baby. Blindfolded! Without medical assistance. Hmm.

While I was 'hmm'ing to myself, from the corner of my eye, on either side, I could see my friends glowering, first at the screen, and then at me. In a whisper, I comforted them: "Abhi set up ho raha hai. Ye scene background establish kar raha hai. Iske baad aayegi comedy."

We waited for the scene to finish. Memory fails me yet again (a good sign, because it means I was not deeply scarred by the experience) and I don't quite know how the baby turns into Puru Rajkumar. But he does. And this baby is a brahmachari too. Because of the Hanuman temple connection. Hence, the saffron scarves and jackets and shirts, which seem to be a staple in all the songs, while a lissome lady attempts to seduce him, dressed in all the colours of the spectrum.

The heroine is a go-getter type who isn't afraid of boys, as robustly evidenced in this song; (I really want to know who choreographed this; so much, erm, energy!) she somehow falls in love with the lady-shunning brahmachari. Minutes tick past, agonizingly.

None of us is laughing, except during one dialogue where Deepka Tijori's character - the hero's best friend-cum-brother - informs Karishma's character that his buddy even wears a red langoti, all because he is a devout brahmachari.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice more pronounced glowering. My friends have abandoned all pretence of watching the film. They are staring at me. I whisper, "Dekh, abhi set up ho raha hai. Matlab, iske baad comedy shuru ho jayegi."

Another half hour passes. Somehow. My friends are restless. They want to leave. This is a new development. We NEVER walked out of films, because our meagre pocket money did not allow us to simply forget about the wastage. We'd rather sit through a half-baked plot and heavy hamming. But in this case, my friends were determined. It was insufferable, they said.

So I whispered, "Let us wait until the interval. Shaayad interval ke baad comedy shuru hogi."

Shaayad. I was feeling very guilty and very small, under the sulky glares of my friends.

We waited until the interval. Ate our samosas, drank our colas. The hall went dark again. I crossed my fingers.

Another string of developments occurred. Tijori's character lands up in hospital. Puru's character rushes to the medical store to get a life-saving drug. Apparently, he cannot find the necessary drug (I can't remember why, maybe the shop was closed or the pharmacist was missing), and so he lifts the whole almirah full of medicines and carries it to the hospital.

Ram. Lakshman. Hanumaan carrying the mountain on which the life-saving herb grew. Get it? Hanuman-bhakht. Get it?

At this point, all my friends turned around in their seats, facing me. They were pointedly staring at me as if they would have liked to strangle me with my own dupatta right there, if only they weren't too polite to do so in public.

I gave up. We all stood up and, muttering 'excuse me' to the patient knees blocking our way to the exit, walked out.

This is the first film I ever walked out of. It has been thirteen years since, and none of my friends have allowed me to forget. Even now, each time we meet, I get cursed and laughed at and teased. "Comedy, eh?" "Comedy hogi, comedy hogi!.... all because of this idiot."

The years rolled on. In the interim, I saw good films and bad films and walked out of only two, perhaps because of the insane prices in multiplexes. Then, there came along this project called Kambakkht (Kambakht?) Ishq.

I am pleased to report that I did not actually see it in a hall. I was out of the country, and was told that Bollywood movies could be downloaded off the internet if there was a really fast connection.

What the movie was about, I will not say. I cannot say. The writers themselves (rumour has it that there were more than three people involved) seem to have conflicting notions. For instance, they cannot seem to decide whether Kareena's character should be a supermodel, a high-society' girl or a struggling part-time model who is actually an aspiring surgeon (look at the wiki entry: all three are mentioned on the same page, and rightly so. The script reflects all three).

For now, I will content myself with quoting other people:

"Noyon Jyoti Parasara from AOL concluded, "The film has nothing going for it. It has a worryingly bad script, horrible screenplay, traumatising dialogues and unpleasant music.".... Rajeev Masand from CNN-IBN, who gave the film 1 star out of 5, noted that Kambakkht Ishq "is a loud, vulgar and seriously offensive film".... Rachel Saltz from The New York Times concluded that "[the film] has only one frantic desire: to entertain. It spottily succeeds, despite its frequently crude humor, relentless pace and a few unpalatable racial bits."

But I will say this: it was the time in my life that I found myself wanting to get up and leave the room, every few minutes. Had I been alone, I probably would have switched off the TV and that would have been that. But I wasn't. Besides, after the first one hour, I just became curious to see how far this could go, just what kind of disaster course this particular vehicle of randomness was doomed to take. It was no longer just a movie. It was like a survival course I was enrolling myself into.

So, yes, I survived. But only barely just. I complained bitterly and went to lie down in my room. But two hours later, I found myself sitting up in bed, wanting to throw up. I was that angry.

Parasara is right. It was a traumatic experience! A part of me was deeply galled that reasonably independent, confident young people, especially the women who were part of this project, allowed themselves to do this.

Take a look at the wikipedia page. Whoever has done the character descriptions seems not to have watched the film. The heroine is described as a 'firebrand' and a 'hardened feminist'. A feminist! Feminist? Dude, go out into the world and look at what feminists are like; or just come meet me. I'll show you firebrand.

Oh, forget that. Forget the feminism. The female lead is even described as being in possession of some 'caustic wit' and a 'sardonic tongue'. Where? Where? I like women with wit and sharp tongues. But which frame? Which scene?

It isn't just bad cinema any more. It isn't just something that tested the limits of my patience. It isn't just something that wasted time, money, hell, even bandwidth! I came away feeling insulted. As a viewer. As a woman. As a writer. As an Indian. As an Indian woman, for god's sake!

And there is nothing I can do about it, of course. There probably will be many, many more movies like this. All I can do is breathe deep, and put it down on record: this is now officially the worst Hindi movie I have ever seen.

Sometimes, I comfort myself with this little daydream: I will get to meet the team - the director, the writers, the actors - and I will shake their hands, and give out little trophies with 'Kambakht Ugh!' engraved on them. Congratulations.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Some good, old-fashioned racism

Wrote this short piece for Tehelka, recently:

When I was five, we moved to an industrial township in Rajasthan. It was a very dusty place, full of cactus and scorpions. The other remarkable thing was the low hills against which the colony nestled and from where a muffled ‘boom!’ - they used dynamite to extract limestone - occasionally escaped.

We used to climb those hills, taking picnic hampers with us. Any adults we met along the way warned us about the ‘Bheel’. Other children brought back scary stories of youngsters being accosted and robbed of everything, including their clothes. (This business of clothes was intriguing. Sometimes clothes would disappear off washing lines, and at least twice, kitchens were broken into, and large jars full of laddoos disappeared.) The Bheel was usually accused, or perhaps, the Garasiyas.

We grew up without making friends with a single Bheel or Garasiya or Rabadi tribesperson. A handful worked as peons or gardeners. Mostly, they supplied milk or helped build houses for us. But we didn’t talk to them. And it wasn’t just about class. It was that some of them were gypsies. It was that the women seemed too ‘free’ with their laughter and backless cholis. That divorce was as easy as walking out of the house and smashing a clay pot. It was that we didn’t even know what they ate.

It took me twenty years to give all of this a name: Racism. Your usual garden variety. The ‘give them subsistence-level work; don’t let them live nearby; treat them all as potential criminals; don’t let your kids mingle with theirs’ kind. Over the years, I realised that we are a deeply racist nation. And our diversity permits racism to flourish unbounded. We are full of ‘others’ whom we might insult, wish away, attack or kill.

In college, in Ajmer, a clutch of Kenyan and Nigerian girls would narrate horror tales of being touched blatantly, roughly, in autos and tempos. ‘Kaali’ and ‘habshi’ was tossed at their faces. Habshi, once a fairly innocuous term describing a person from Africa, has now turned into a word loaded with contempt. Many south Indian girls I know have also had ‘habshi’ thrown at them like an insult.

A friend, a writer from Assam, was asked by his Delhi landlord to vacate and told ‘you people are dirty’. I have had a real estate broker ask for my ‘caste’ in north Delhi. In the Mumbai suburb where I currently live, I’m told there are newer, swankier buildings coming up where no Muslims will be allowed to buy. That’s the unofficial USP.

Oh, we’re racist alright! Look at any form in which racism manifests itself, and we make the cut. It might do us good to take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and start cleaning up our own filth instead of flapping our arms and screaming ‘racist’ southwards, in the general direction of Australia.

Do read all the other essays on racism in this country. Scroll down and the links are all here.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

More inconclusive rambling

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching Ikiru. The DVD had been lying around the house, but the blurb suggested that it might be a depressing watch so I'd been avoiding it for a while. My mother saw it in my absence, however, and when I asked what it was like, she said, "Oh, it is just like Dasvidaniya."

So that was what finally prompted me to watch Ikiru. It is a Kurosawa film and it does what it is supposed to do - makes you feel; makes you think; makes you take notes. But I was interested in was something else.

When I bought a DVD of Dasvidaniya, I did so with a measure of expectation. I like Vinay Pathak's work, for one. Besides, here was a film with an atypical protagonist (atypical for Hindi cinema) who wasn't a 'hero' and he wasn't going to pretend to be one. Here was a new director who had picked an unusual theme for a first film. The promos were not committing hara-kiri.

Since I am not part of an audience that only likes happy-happy, bling-bling, the film should have appealed to me. I was its ideal target audience. Unfortunately, it failed to depress me. My heart didn't feel wrung out. I did not fear for, hurt for, cry for the protagonist.

Ikiru, however, did work.

In both films, the protagonist is an ordinary man, no longer young. Both have cancer. Both have lived fairly responsible lives, taking care of the family, staying away from the temptations of wine, women and song/dance. Both want to 'live' (in capital letters) before they die. And they set about doing it too, initially through the help of a character who has always led a dissipate life.

Here on, the two films take divergent paths. And here on, Dasvidainya failed to work for me. But it was through watching Ikiru that I began to understand why.

Ikiru is a Japanese film and the disc I had access to was not in good shape. It got stuck in places and the sub-titles would not appear in some places. Even so, I didn't want to stop watching. It was quite slow moving too, and I can get a trifle impatient with slow storytelling. Even then, I wanted to go on watching. The film was about a man who is going to die, so one knew how it will end. And yet, I wanted to know what happens next. With Dasvidaniya, I did not want to know.

I think, the essential difference was that of the 'inherent idea'. This is what I mean when I talk about the writing out of any piece of art. There is a surface idea, and there is an inherent idea - the one that decides why this project is significant, what it is trying to resolve, or what is the writer grappling with?

In Ikiru, to my mind, the inherent idea is this issue of dying. Not the act of dying. Not the physical process. But all the conflicts around the awareness of dying. The aftermath of this awareness. The impact of one's death; or others' knowledge of your own awareness of impending death.

In Dasvidaniya, all I was left with was the surface idea - a terminally ill, dull middle-aged man decides to get a life. People who find out, commiserate. Things that were going wrong, get set right because of this tragedy.

In Ikiru no such thing happens. The man's attempts at getting a life are complicated, ridden with all the awful social judgments that prevent most other people from getting a life. There is a huge reluctance on the part of other people to acknowledge his lonely, last struggle. And while he is forced to behave out of character, he is still in character. He behaves as someone like him would logically behave when forced to get a life, at his age!

In Dasvidaniya, the protagonist comes across as someone who is essentially loved. As if, by extension, this makes him a lovable guy.

In Ikiru, the protagonist feels unloved, right up to the end and even beyond. And we, his audience, feel the full force of this tragedy.

In Dasvidaniya, there is nothing to root for. Because the dying man seems to be doing alright for himself. In Ikiru, we can see him falter and fail and grow miserable and make mistakes while he seeks to redeem his existence, and we finally want to reach out to him. And this is possible only because the writer/filmmaker did not cringe while making a full exploration of impending death and what this knowledge does. A good story is made not just by twists and turns of events. It is made up of detail, of depth.

I had the same feeling for Ghajini. I had already seen it before I got hold of a copy of Memento. Ghajini had struck me as an average sort of masala film - romance, violence, colour, song, a touch of humour, revenge (and its wild popularity served as a stern reminder of the fact that the soul of the average Indian film-goer hasn't changed much from the eighties or nineties. They want what they want! Which is to say that the 'multiplex audience' is a myth. Now, Wanted is the latest reminder of that fact). I wasn't wildly taken with it, and didn't understand what the fuss was about until I saw the original, Memento.

Everyone already knows that it is a brilliant film, but once again, what made it memorable was not just the cleverness of its construct or its premise or its treatment. You can take a story about a guy who has memory loss problems, give him a crazy mission to kill the bad guy, and it might end up a comedy. All that is just surface. That is not the inherent idea.

In Memento (in my opinion) the inherent idea is memory, and our relationship with memories - the way it is tied up with our sense of self, our purpose in life, how we play with it and how it plays with us. How much can we trust memory? Can it manipulate us? Even if we don't want it to? The film explores these questions. Perhaps it does not find answers. That is not the point. The point is the attempt, because that is all an artist does: Try.

A lot of new books I've been reading have also disappointed me for the same reason. I keep looking for an inherent idea there. For evidence of a struggle. For signs that say, the artist pulled out all the stops in trying to figure this out.


There is a fascinating, and partially illuminating, debate happening on a related theme over here. The journalist who wrote the original piece said a few things he shouldn't have, or just didn't make his point very clearly, which led to a lot of people aiming cursive literary kicks at his teeth. I followed the debate but failed to put in my two bits (the website would not accept my rendition of its anti-spam gibberish).

What I did want to say was that while the ban-worthiness of a book is no mark of quality, and while the writer did shoot himself in the foot by admitting that he had not read the books he was criticizing, I do sort of understand what he was trying to get at.

Recently, Shyam Benegal was invited to say a few words at a screening of many, many short films entered as part of a contest. I was not there myself, but from what I heard, he had just one thing to say about those films: 'Why?'

It is a cruel word. But often, while reading a lot of books being written these days, I find myself wondering: Why?

Which is not to say that every book written or every film made must be 'serious', or politically rife, or have a social conscience. But it does have to change your life in some small way. It has to make the reader happy at the very least. If it cannot provoke, let it at least please. The trouble is, in my view, that many writers are not very sure of the 'why' aspect themselves. They don't seem to know why they are telling this particular story, and why it matters, and how it should be told so that it meets its objective. It is alright to fail. I don't mind the ones who try and fail. But the ones who don't seem to be attempting anything specific (except becoming a 'writer', or staying one) are tiresome. And for a critic to keep up with hundreds of books like this must be tiresome too.

But on the other hand, that is what critics do. It is their job to sift through the random stuff and let the rest of us know what is worth our time and money. Which is one reason I am reluctant to review anything professionally. There is a certain amount of responsibility attached, a certain foreknowledge of the wider field is assumed, and odious comparisons must be made. I am just happy for now to recommend what is good.

So go watch Ikiru, if you have not already. It is good.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What they wouldn't let them say

Last year, I'd watched a performance of Sakharam Binder, in Hindi. I think this was a little after the play's author Vijay Tendulkar died.

Until then, I had only heard about the dramatic strength of Tendulkar's work. I had read his texts, of course, and understood the political force, the moral arguments, the social dilemmas that serve as the sheath for his plays. But it was not until I saw a reasonably good production of Sakharam Binder on stage that I felt its true power.

What the play is about, I leave you to find out for yourselves. But I will admit that I was surprised at how relevant it seemed even now, how utterly modern, and how much I could identify with it, although the women in the play live out events that are utterly alien to me or my family.

Recently, I saw bits of it again, embedded within the structure of a new play titled S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship, and was struck once again by the sheer force of Tendulkar's text. In fact, I wish the actors who were performing the roles of the central characters from the older play would put up a production of the whole play again (In case anybody on that team is reading this, congratulations, those were very powerful performances). Many people in my generation have not been exposed to Tendulkar's theatre, at least on the stage. And our generation needs to watch and learn, not as writers or performes but as citizens.

Sex, Morality and Censorship is a self-explanatory kind of title. The play takes off from Tamasha, a form of theatre that was earthy, rustic, bawdy, and inevitably political, before it was 'rescued' and sanitized by urban artistes who brought Tamasha into the lives of respectable, middle-class and elite Maharashtrian society. And then the narrative moves on to the story of how Sakaharam Binder was staged, banned, rejected, protested against, taken to court, cleared, and finally performed once again.

This is not a real review, so I will not go into the details of how the play is structured and which elements work, and which ones don't. But I will say that the play caused several threads of thought to be extended in my head.

One of the most interesting facets of the legend of Sakharam Binder is the fact that it was banned. I have always found bans are interesting. They tell you a lot about the culture, the people, the true state of the moral fabric of a nation. This particular play was not banned because of its unbridled depiction of violence in the household. People had objections to the bits that had something to do with sex or bodies. There were protests against scenes that had an actress undo and then redo the drape of her saree, for instance; or scenes that suggest sex (although there was no actual sex or nudity on stage). The censor board had problems with filthy language (which is usually language that refers directly or indirectly to sex).

Sakharam Binder is full of abuse (verbal, sexual, physical, social, emotional). Watching it is not an entertaining experience. It is not a play I'd take a child to. Yet, it is a play that everyone over eighteen should watch. It is a slap in the face of hypocrisy. It is a mirror held up in our collective faces. It is art, and it represents all those cliches about art and the purpose it serves in human society.

A society that does not have the stomach for Sakharam Binder does not have the stomach for truth. And a state that refuses to allow people to see the truth is a repressive, anti-democracy state.

It is not surprising that in a society like this, the pile of stuff that gives offence should rise higher and higher. First, it was Tendulkar's plays. Then it was Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy. There was Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. There were two books on Shivaji that were banned. The Bhavsagar Granth is banned.

Every other week, somebody or the other decides to take offense to something or the other. The name of a profession. The name of a city. The name of a prophet. A song. A verse from a holy book, for god's sake!

There is no end to this, and in India, particularly, just because there is so much diversity and such vibrant, unwieldy power structure, censorship and the denial of the right to freedom of expression has reached ridiculous proportions. And by ridiculous, I do mean ridiculous. Except for very small groups of people who decide to take their chagrin into bloodshed terrain, everybody else just finds their chagrin amusing, an object of ridicule!

How did we let things get to be this way? Why are we not doing something about it? What are we afraid of? Where does the average Indian citizen draw the line as far as censorship goes? If the average citizen finds the truth about sexual relationships disgusting and wants to ban a play or film, should the government listen? What if the average citizen wants historical or religious plays or films banned? If the average citizen does not find hate speech particularly disturbing, should the government let racial hatred and war-mongering and all sorts of potentially dangerous speech go on, without any checks or controls? How average do you have to be to qualify as an average citizen?

These are important questions that need to be asked, and answers need to be demanded. Unfortunately, outside of a few newspaper and magazine editorials, nobody's asking. And certainly, nobody's answering.

That was one reason Sex, Morality and Censorship left me a little dissatisdied at the end. It is a play that comes at the right time. And it does touch upon the larger issue of censorship in India, how censor boards function, who sits on them and so on. But it fails to ask the question of how and why 'romantic' comedies that are full of sexual innuendo are so popular with the audiences? How is it that we can laugh at bedroom capers involving infidelity but cannot deal with a play where a character does not believe in the institution of marriage? Why?

The plays rears its head, then it sighs, puts its head down and goes into hibernate mode. I expected it to make connections for me - the connection between our moral values and our need for theatre. The connection between prevalent morality and current power structures. Because those connections exist. And understanding them, watching them unfold might help us reach some answers too. Perhaps, I expected this text to be as revelatory as the one it was discussing. I wanted it to tell me something I did not know yet, or did not yet have the courage to face up to.

Nevertheless, it is worth watching. Because part of the theatre experience is the sense of engagement with the groundswell of the play you've just seen. That is something films or books or the internet can never replicate - the sense of having been there, almost a part of what was going on. The sense of having stood by and watched. The sense of having had a small sliver of truth delivered into your hands, to do with it what you will.

P.S. - for those who are interested in censorship and book bans in general, this link ought to be interesting.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Self-indulgent rambling that leads to no conclusive argument

Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the question of quality and context in matters of art. Since I spend much of my time reading or writing or watching films and plays, there's plenty of food for thought these days.

What really makes a piece of art good? Perhaps, art is the wrong word to use. People have funny ideas about what constitutes 'art' and what doesn't. It's a much bracketed and parentheticized word and the issue has been debated up and down the ages, right across borders and time zones. Perhaps, it might be more reasonable to say 'creative enterprise'.

What makes any creative enterprise wonderful (again, I hesitate to say 'great') or even worthwhile?

To me, personally, this has always meant that it ought to involve the audience. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me empathise, perhaps make me think too. It should draw me into itself. It should sink its teeth into my memory. Above all, it shouldn't bore me. It shouldn't make me look at the watch, or wonder about lunch, or flip the cover to see how many more pages still remain.

Sometimes, things are just cut and dried and obvious. The artists leave no room for doubt.

For instance, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the Renaissance masters really were masters. Michelangelo's Pieta is, well, it just works! So does Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. And so does Emily Dickinson's Success Is Counted Sweetest, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. And so does Shaw's Pygmalion and the movie version, My Fair Lady. And so does Mandi.

To me, these are examples of creative processes that were wholly successful. Similarly, I have absolutely no doubt about certain creative undertakings either just went very wrong, or they failed to even register long enough to puzzle over.

Bal Brahmachari belongs to the former category (I'm usually cautious with criticism in public, but I have to confess that this was the worst Hindi movie I saw over a period of almost fourteen years. Kambakkht Ishq, however, more than matches up to it and perhaps deserves to wear the wobbly crown now on. But more on this on another post). Several of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays belong to the latter category. I read his collected works as an adolescent but many of them didn't strike me as anything to write home about. Just so, some abstract modern art leaves me untouched.

There is, of course, subjectivity to account for. When people ask me for my all-time favourite book or movie or author or artist, I usually get irritated. But if the annoying questioner persists, I name 'Sholay' in the film segment. It is not the best movie I've seen but it is the only one I've seen so many times and am willing to watch yet again.

Similarly, Shakespeare is probably not the most brilliant writer down the ages, but something makes me return to him, makes me willing to look at him from different angles, listen to or watch other people's wild interpretations of his work.

In the same vein, I liked Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games a whole lot. I found it compelling and insightful. Not everybody agrees with me. And I actually enjoyed Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and No Smoking. Almost nobody agrees with me. But that's okay. I am content to like creative work for my own sake.

The tricky bit, as always, lurks in the grey. I am bothered by the ones on the margins. The ones I cannot slot into 'awesome' or 'ugh' or 'I should be interested, because...?'. The ones that make me argue for them. Or the ones that I am unable to dismiss.

For instance, The Burning Train. I use it as an example because I caught it television, again. It certainly isn't on my list of favourites. But I saw it as a kid and remembered having enjoyed it tremendously. Several scenes stayed stuck in my head for over a decade - scenes of tenderness, or extreme passion, or public sacrifice, or just plain visual drama. I thought that it may have captured my imagination because because we travelled so much by train. But then I saw the film again a couple of years ago. And I still found it a decent watch.

Today, I saw it yet again. My mother was watching and I plonked down beside her on the sofa, and found myself getting sucked into the story. I knew what was going to happen, but the details were still shiny. At some point, the twists and turns and overladen crisis settled down into a pattern and I left.

But I had to think about what kept me on that sofa for over an hour and a half, annoying ad breaks and all. I still responded warmly to the emotional bits, laughed at the funny bits, clung to the pace. I still wanted these characters to live. But I could also spot bits that were just there, not doing anything. I could spot bits that raised feminist hackles. I could think of ways to make it tighter, to toss out the social tokenism. I wasn't bored. But I wasn't sitting back admiring either.

Perhaps, I was just more grown up. Grown up a certain way - looking for craft in any form, struggling to hone my own craft, learning to critique in such a way that you take the craft apart, not the artist. But having said that, how is one to decide on the merit of a creative piece? Does the value of a film diminish in proportion to your experience and evaluation of it? Yet, it is you who changed, not the creative enterprise. How is the artist to be held to account then? Does any review or response or critique make sense?

Another odd example is a book of short stories that has made me uncomfortable because I couldn't find the right mental space for it. The writing was not structured like most speculative or science fiction stories. And these were also not 'realistic' stories that have a bit of science or math or astronomy forming the backdrop. Most of the stories in the collection tread a heavy line, a blurry line. And I found this was testing my patience. I found myself wishing the stories were more focussed, less sprawly and wiggly.

Now this is the worst sort of criticism that can come from one writer to another - this accusation of being all over the place, not on account of your craft, but on account of not fitting neatly into a box. I would baulk if it was my writing in question. So I thought it through, and decided that my discomfort with the stories was actually symptomatic of a problem: a pre-conditioned approach to reading. We expect genres to unfold in certain ways. Because they often do. Because too many authors have begun to write inside the margins.

However, my reading isn't severely limited by genre. I read whatever makes me curious. I especially try to read contemporary work. And I have liked fantasy, speculative or otherwise experimental fiction.

But yet, these stories... It was bothering me: the fact that the book failed to connect with me. So I did yet another rethink and finally came to the conclusion that I was dissatisfied with the stories. Not with the way their everyday bodies slipped into magic realism and fantasy and sci-fi without warning, but with the distance of the characters. I wanted more from them - more explanation, more meat, more flesh, more imagination, more light, more dark. Just more. More to remember them by.

And there is also a suspicion that I might have enjoyed them more if I was older, except I would have to be older right now to enjoy them. Ten years later, my tastes will have moved a bit further off. I cannot explain it, but there it is.

None of this answers the question I set out for myself when I began writing this post. What makes a book a good read, disallowing individual preferences of genre or form?

I think the only question I have resolved is that it has a lot to do with timing. I feel that way about books or movies or even buildings. They appeal to different people at different ages. The fortresses we'd visited as kids seemed completely overwhelming, once. When I grew older, a low-ceiled monastries or loosely defined meditation caves cut out of rock left more striking impressions. Delicate filigrees and carved marble awed me when I was little. Naturally-formed coloured/precious stone leave me shaken and silent now. And I saw the Taj Mahal as a thinking, travelling adult, and was a little surprised that I was touched by its elegance. Not awed. Just moved.

I found James Joyce and Virginia Woolf boring and entirely lacking in texture when I was a teenager. But I returned to them a decade later and was forced to change my opinion. And there was a time I used to think that Ernest Hemingway was a simple, short read but not substantial enough for long train journeys (don't say a word; it is taking a lot for me to admit to ever having thought of Hemingway as insubstantial). In my early twenties, I confess I found some of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films a bit of a yawn. And frankly, I am afraid to watch them now, worried about what that might reveal about me and my intellect.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Speaking of speaking

"Four hours and 29 minutes is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest speech in front of the General Assembly, given in September 1960 by Fidel Castro. The former Cuban leader is known for his interminable speeches - his longest on record in Cuba clocking up seven hours and 10 minutes at the 1986 Communist Party Congress.

Even that was topped, when at the UN Security Council in 1957, the Indian politician VK Krishna Menon talked for nearly eight hours defending India's position on Kashmir."

You can read the rest of it here, but what I want to know is: Did Mr Menon accomplish this considerable task without taking bathroom breaks? If he did, somebody please given him a posthumous medal right now!

For managing that feat alone, he's totally my hero. I mean, could you do that for your country?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Eid Mubarak/ a.k.a New auto maton insanity

Took an auto to come home last ight, like every other night. The auto driver started driving, then pulled over to the side and cursed beneath his breath. He just sat there, one finger poked into his ear.
I asked him why he'd stopped.

He said, "Eid. All these people walking on the roads. It is impossible to drive."

I looked ahead. The road was empty. Well, as empty as most other days. There were a couple of kids standing nearby. A second later, a firecracker went off. The driver took his finger out of his, started up the engine again and said, "The road will be bad today."

Five minutes later, we reached the gate of my building complex. I told the auto driver to drive right upto our building. But the gates were, surprisingly, shut. But of course, I realised why. Navratri was also on. There is a pandal and a music system put up around a central pillar. Dandiya music blared out. Kids and teenagers were dancing in small, scattered groups.

I told the auto driver it was okay, I'd get down at the gates, and began to pay him.

He said, "Eid really messes things up. Everything blocked..."

I thought, 'What the...??' and hesitated for a moment, wondering if I ought to ask him what he meant. But I didn't after all. I walked past the crowd, the music, the kids, reached home, let myself in, and tried to forget about what he meant.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Remembering silence

People forget. Easily. Newspapers, magazines, television crews forgot, until we have a dry news day and we begin to think of what was left unfinished, unremembered. We mourn what can be mourned, perhaps: fallen tower that led to a war that led to an impossible geopolity that none of us know what to do with, even now. Or a fallen dome that changed our soul. Or a savage little battle that hasn't stopped mattering, or shaping identities which continue to battle.

There are dates we remember, because we are not allowed to forget.

But whenever we bow our heads to let grief come slithering into our everyday, then let us also mourn all the rest of it. All of it. Every little snatch of bad, depressing news that we'd rather forget. Let us mourn invasions into our own heartlands. Let us mourn our falsehoods for they allow all corruption to exist. Let us mourn our access to the 'system' for that is precisely what allows it to exist. Let us mourn our inability to dream each other's dreams or wake from each other's nightmares. Let us mourn because, like someone has said:

Let your silence begin

at the beginning of crime

Because, in the name of justice and humanity, you can never mourn for just one tragedy. Begin, if you must, at the beginning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh, how I love the buffaloes!

International literacy day came and went. And somebody out there did this.

Don't know who holds copyright etc, but since it says 'janhit mein jaari' (issued in the public interest), it makes sense to spread the word and make the public aware of buffaloes.

GDP for nine-year-olds.

And godowns on the moon.

Great new blog. Go see. Go argue. Go smile.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A sad and lengthy saga of communication people who aren't so good at listening

Dear Reliance

Our telephonic association goes back a long way. I don't even remember how long. You do have a reputation for not listening and not caring about people who give you their money, and in a limited measure, their trust. But I'll try telling you anyway. Perhaps, you will learn.

I got my first cell phone about nine years ago. Back then, it was an Orange connection. It was a reasonably good service. It wasn't cheap, but I never had any horrid customer-relationship experiences.

Then there was a big hoo-haa about Reliance offering the best rates in the market. Everybody was getting a cheap phone. So when I moved to Delhi, I got myself a Reliance connection. It was a nightmare.

My biggest problem at that time was that bills would not arrive. Apparently, because I moved house. I asked you to make that change in your billing information records. It would not happen. I asked why. I was told you needed a new proof of address. I told you I did not have proof because I was renting or sub-letting. You shrugged. I asked you to change the address to my office address. You told me to get a letter from my office, certifying bonafides etc. I did so. The bills still did not arrive, at least, not on time.

I made a telephonic complaint, took down a complaint number. But, nothing.

I made it clear that I required a paper bill so I could get reimbursed at work. That was part of my deal at work. But to no avail.

This process would be repeated every month. Every month, I would get reminders from you to pay my bill on time. I would protest that I have not got my bill. You would shrug and ask me to come collect a copy from the nearest Reliance service center. In effect, this commute added between Rs 40 and Rs 60 to my monthly telephonic expenses. (Don't even get me started on the time wasted on this extra commute, and energy spent being mad at you.)

Your managers would nod, look at me blankly, give me one more complaint number on a scrap of entirely unofficial paper.

Once, I got into a raging fight with your tele-calling person. The lady - and later, another gentleman - kept insisting that I had to pay 'on time' while it was not yet time to pay up. Messages and phone calls would arrive at all hours of day, including weekends. When I tried to demand a paper bill, I would be told, 'We are just the call center', that I would have to go to Reliance headquarters if I wanted to take this further.

I decided that if the bill did not arrive yet again, I would switch to another service. Coincidentally, my mother wanted to gift me a new phone that month. We went looking for new handsets. At a Reliance outlet in Delhi, we were confronted with rude salespeople who did not have any of the designs we liked on the brochure.

As if to add insult to injury, that month, not only did I have to trek to the service center for the privilege of being able to pay the bill - on time! - I was also told that the systems were down and that they could not tell me how much I owed. When I pointed out that I did not know either because no bill was sent, your staff told me I should return the next day.

It meant yet another Rs 60. But I took a deep breath and went. This time, the printer was not working. I was told I could come back later at night or the next day if I wanted a paper bill. Another Rs 60 spent, just to get a valid printout.

The staff just stared at me dumbly when I protested, as if they could not see what the fuss was about.

I had had it with you. So I went to an Airtel store instead and bought a new handset and connection.

Then I called you, Reliance, and asked that our relationship be terminated. Your call center people umm-ed and ahem-ed and asked me why I wanted to discontinue the service. I told them. In detail.

The person said, 'Oh okay... but why do you wish to stop?'

As you can imagine, I had to take several deep breaths. That phone conversation must have lasted over 20 minutes, with me trying to say, 'Look, let's just end this. I want my phone to stop functioning tomorrow onwards. I shall pay the final bill and that's that.'

Your people would not allow me to even let go of the connection with any degree of civility. They insisted that I HAD to give them a reason. I said I don't like the service. They said, 'What don't you like about the service?' I said, 'I don't like anything about the service. Your people are rude. Your bills don't show up. You make me trek up and down. Even your damned printers don't work. What do you do with all that money etc etc?'

It was very frustrating, because your call center people began pointing out that they were only the call center; they themselves were not Reliance.

The long and short of it was that, by the time I had hung up, your people were still insisting on a 'reason' for disconnection. I sighed, asked to be disconnected before a new billing cycle began, and also asked to be given a number for the request. I paid the last bill before a new cycle could begin, switched off the phone and hoped that your guys would do their job. And I noted down that request number in a safe place. (I still have it).

I never used that phone again. But then, I began to get strange messages on my work phone, asking me to appear in court. From an unidentified person claiming to be a lawyer's assistant, but who would not say who she represented.

I was worried. For a journalist, the likelihood and threat of lawsuits is a very real one. Then I consulted my chief, and was told it might be a prank. It was a weekend and the court would be closed.

In the meantime, Airtel provided decent service, at least to me, and as long as I was paying on time, there were no issues.

Then, I returned to Bombay. There was already one Reliance phone user in the family and there was some sort of free number scheme going on. So I filled up the form, and allowed myself to try out Reliance one more time. But I was determined not to deal with your service centers or your call center staff. I got a pre-paid deal and kept usage at a minimum.

Within a few days, I started getting text messages saying I owed a bill of Rs 1700 something. I thought it was a mistake. A few months later, the mistake was repeated.

Not just that, within a few days of getting a new Reliance connection, I got an intimidating phone call from somebody who said he was a cop. Said there was some legal notice about dues etc, that I had to present myself in court. I thought it was a prank once again, and hung up.

Odd thing was, I got calls from acquaintances and even colleagues in Delhi, saying that they too had a 'cop' calling them, saying that I needed to appear in court, leaving a lawyer's name and number.

Odd, because this happened when most of my friends in Delhi did not even have my new number.

The other odd thing was, these phone calls came to people who were not in any way responsible for me. I had never, ever, listed their names as surety on anything. They were not my guardians. I had never given out their addresses or phone numbers on any document that might link me to them. Which lawyer/ cop/ enraged lawsuit-filing person mentioned in magazine articles would randomly call up acquaintances and colleagues? Anyone with any legal sense would know that it could result in a harassment and/or defamation suit faster than you can spell defamation.

Besides, who would even know whom to call? Who, except somebody who has access to the numbers I might have called regularly whilst I still used my old phone? Who, except somebody who was able to call me only after I began to use a Reliance phone once again?

See, I don't like to jump to conclusions. But I have a brain and I cannot help wondering... Why would someone have access to this information, unless it was given out by a certain tele-services provider?

So this time, I called the cops. The real ones. I was advised to make a note of the caller's number and to ask for ID, at least for the name of the police station he was attached to and his immediate superior's name and designation.

So I called back the 'cop' and said I would like a few details. Please. Also, I would like to know since when Delhi police personnel have starting doubling up as secretaries for Tees Hazaari black-coats.

The caller never called back. But you see, I still wonder... Who would do this, except somebody who had access to phone numbers I called regularly whilst I still used my old phone? Who, except somebody who was able to call me only after I began to use a Reliance phone once again? Who had access to both sets of information - new and old? I think about things like that, and it is a nasty thought.

You are not a pleasure to be associated with, you know. We don't owe each other anything. Well, you do owe me an apology, especially considering your people randomly send text messages even now, saying I owe them any number of sums ranging between Rs 700 and Rs 2000. But forget that.

Because it doesn't matter much - to you, or to me - if I don't use a Reliance phone. But one of these days, it will become possible to switch services without switching numbers. Or to switch cities without having to switch services. And the only thing that will ensure loyalty then is a certain amount of civility and respect for other people's time and money and privacy. You ever think about that?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Very often, there is a hollow inside you. Inside your head. Inside your day as it steadily chews its way from breakfast to lunch, when there's nothing to show for your time but a spat-out glob of four hourly despair.

And you know that there is a word for this condition. That the condition is universal. That is not about you at all, but about the things you cannot find words for and the questions nobody seems to be asking, and if they were to ask, you know you'd wish they hadn't.

At such times, I go looking for poetry. For a certain kind of poem by a certain kind of poet. Tonight I found three poems like that. One is here with a ready translation, and below, I have done a rough translation of two more for readers who cannot read Hindi.

Kya Phir Vahi Hoga?/Will it be like that again?
- Kunwar Narayan

Will it happen again
the thing we are afraid of?
And the thing we'd hoped forwill it never be?

Will we go on, as we did,
sold in bazaars,
slaves to our own idiocies?

Will they buy up our kids
and take them to far-off lands
to build their futures?

Will they once again
rob us of our gold
by holding out pieces of coloured glass?

And will we, once again,
generation upon generation,
go on showing off
the ruins of our ancientdom,
our temples mosques gurudwaras?

Chaand se baatein/ Conversing with the moon
- Shamsher Bahadur Singh

(a ten eleven year old girl talks)

You're very round but
you seem a little skewed.

You wear the whole sky
showing just your face
fair and smooth
all rounded,
your outfit spread out

You do seem a little skewed
and how!

Oh really!
You seem to think I'm stupid!
As if I don't know about your illness:
when your body starts to get small
it just gets smaller and smaller,
and when it gets big,
it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,
and you just don't stop until
you are totally round.

One perfect round.
It doesn't seem like your illness
is going to go away...


That ends well

A few days ago, I had complained about the telephone and internet services at Chicago airport. The telephone-walas at Pacific seem impervious to criticism but I happy to report that Boingo, the internet service provider over there, did take note and rectify the situation.

Within days of blogging about the problem, I received an email from Danielle, who works for Boingo Wireless, apologizing for the inconvenience, offering to reimburse my money, also offering a complimentary access pass at some other airport serviced by Boingo, and the promise of fixing the truant kiosk.

I wrote back saying I was glad somebody noticed and responded to the complaint, and sent directions to the exact location of the grievance-causing kiosk at Chicago's O'Hare airport. I also asked that the refund be donated to some charity on my behalf instead of being mailed to me.

Danielle wrote back to confirm that the kiosk had been fixed by having it point to a different IP. And also that the refund had been donated to a charitable organisation called SOVA, which Boingo supports.

I'd just like to put it on record that, despite the annoying experience at the airport, I am now a satisfied customer after all. I wish all businesses would hire someone to watch out for feedback - positive or negative - in the media, including blogs and social networking sites. It is to their own advantage, for it is one way of showing that the company really does take the concept of 'service providing' seriously and that it does not treat a field of work with arrogance. It is good for 'image' too, besides just being respectful to the customer.

Coming up in the near future, a long list of long-standing complaints against Reliance on the communications front. Let's see if anyone's listening.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

This thing

I am usually reluctant to mix my worlds, and have taken a few pains to keep my blogging world and my poetry worlds a little bit apart. But they've collided often enough now, so what the hell.
Here's something that got published recently.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A tale of street love/lust/whateveritwas

It has been seven years since. Or eight.

I don’t remember his name. Nor his number. He gave me both. He asked me for mine – name and number. I didn’t give him either. Now it seems quite funny and once it was over, I would laugh my guts out whenever I told this story. Yet, for a while, he had me frightened.

He looked about 16 or 17, not a sign of hair on his face; thin as a reed. That much I do remember, though I wouldn't recognise him if I passed him on the street today. He was from a certain class, that much too I could tell. From his clothes, his voice, his accent, his body language.

The first time he accosted me it was outside the Lower Parel railway station towards which I walked each evening (I worked at Mid-day at the time and the office was a fifteen minute walk from the station). Just outside the station, he stopped me with: “Excuse me, madam… madam, one minute!”

How many times have I heard that phrase from a stranger and how many times have I cursed myself for stopping and listening to whatever he had to say? But, like each time, I was thinking that maybe the guy is lost and wants to ask for directions, or maybe he wants to know the time, or maybe I dropped something and he’s come to return it. And so, like each time, I stopped.


He was grinning rather stupidly. I noticed there was another guy with him, around the same age, and he was grinning too.

The young man (not his pal) began talking. “Excuse me, madam…actually, madam… I saw you madam and you are very nice… what’s your name?”

I let out a groan and then a sardonic smile. At least, I had meant it to be sardonic, sarcastic, somewhat insulting. It was the sort of expression that ought to have made him back off without any further fuss. But that was not meant to be.

He now started laughing – a half-embarrassed, self-conscious but wholly pleased laugh (and again, his grinny pal kept him company). He fell into step beside me as I walked away, and all the time, he kept talking.

I have forgotten the exact words now. I don't think I was even listening very well for I was concentrating on somehow getting into a train and shaking these two guys off. But he was a determined fellow. I vaguely remember the gist of what he said – (a) he was attracted to me, which amused me a bit because, to me, he was like a child almost (b) he saw me everyday, walking down to the station, which made me very nervous (c) he wanted to 'do friendship' with me, which is a phrase that fills me with a mixture of amusement, mortification and irritation.

When I repeated this story to a friend, she told me I had made a big mistake by laughing. Indian men’s minds still work according to the old adage of “ladki hansi, toh phansi”. Maybe he thought I was gurgling with pleasure at his advances, she said.

I did not think so. Anybody can see when a laugh isn't pleasant. Even a child senses that. Yet, he kept following me, asking for my name.

When I reached the ticket window at the station, I decided that enough was enough. So I turned on him with as much fury as my partial amusement would permit, and spat out the words.

“Look, I don’t know you and don’t want to know you. I am not going to tell you my name, or anything else about me. Go away… leave me alone.”

He started arguing (with his pal with the stupid grin still hovering in the background) with me about 'why not?'

I have to confess that I toyed with the idea of slapping him but slapping doesn’t come naturally to me. Besides, I took a second look at him and realised he was just a young boy who was attracted to me and decided to take his chances. I decided to try gentleness.

“Look, you’re very young. I’m much older than you think. I’m not right for you, that’s why.”

He cocked his head and demanded to know: “Why, how old are you?”

I considered this carefully. He couldn’t be more than eighteen years old. A ten-year gap should suffice as a dampener, I thought, so I lied.

“I’m more than twenty-eight years old, okay? You’re way too young.”

“But it doesn’t matter, madam. My mother is also older than my father,” he said.

Mother? Father? What? What was going on inside the boy's mind? Matters, I thought, were very quickly getting out of hand. So I decided to turn around and run. And that is what I did, except that he began to follow.

“Arre, just listen to me, madam. Just one minute. At least tell me your name.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Why not? Please.”

“Look, I am NOT going to tell you my name.”

“But, madam, please … just your name.”

I stopped once more and looked at that boy, still with his stupid grin pasted in place, and his pleading, stupid-grin-face companion still at his shoulder. I sighed.

“What is the point? If you harass me too much, I’ll just give you a false name. How would that help?”

“Okay then, just give me a false name.”

I was incredulous but since he had asked for it, I decided to give him a name, all the while descending the stairs rapidly with him in hot pursuit.
The name of an old schoolmate popped into my head. “Rashmi,” I muttered.

“Okay, Rashmi… Rashmi ji, your phone number?”

At this point, I was so amused and so incredulous that I burst out laughing. Here I was, telling him I’d give him a false name and there he was, asking for a false number?

He stood there while I continued laughing loudly, shaking my head, hoping the train would arrive quickly so I could escape.

But he wouldn’t give up. “Why are you laughing, Rashmi ji? Okay, at least tell me where you live.”

I laughed some more.

“Come on, just tell me where you live," he persisted. "At least tell me the area, Rashmi, please.”

The train’s headlamp was curving into view. I rushed forward; both boys followed.

“So that’s where you live… Borivali?”

I was amused again at their naïve logic. It was a Borivali local that I was rushing to board and so the boy conveniently assumed that I lived in Borivali. I would be getting off at Andheri, and could have gotten off at any of the half-dozen stations in-between. Boarding a local headed in a certain direction means nothing in this city, but I wasn’t about to correct him. So I just nodded and hopped into the compartment.

He began calling out a series of numbers. It took a few seconds to for it to register that he was calling out his phone number. That made me laugh once again. Did he seriously think I was going to remember his number and call him up?

He repeated the number twice. As the train bega nto move, he called out: “Call me… remember the number, okay? Give me a phone ring… Rashmi!”

The train pulled out of the station.

And you’d have thought that was the end of the matter. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I was walking down again to the station when I heard a voice calling out.

“Rashmi… Rashmi!”

I hardly paid any attention. As the voice called out again and again, I walked along briskly, wondering who this Rashmi was and why she didn’t listen to whoever was calling out to her.

Then the voice got closer and caller sounded very loud, just behind me. I stopped and turned out of sheer curiosity. And that's when I saw them: those boys again! Their reedy, teenaged bodies with those stupid, permanent grins. I groaned with annoyance and disbelief.

“Hi, Rashmi.”

I took a deep breath and without answering him, swung back and briskly marched to the railway station. I wasn’t going to talk to him this time.

“Rashmi! Please, one minute, listen. What’s your problem? I really like you… one minute!”

This wasn’t helping. They kept following. And then, suddenly, it occurred to me that this could turn into an unpleasant scenario if I were to walk down every single day and have them at my heels all the way. Once again, I thought it might be better to try and get some sense into him.

“Look, I told you; I’m much older... You’re in college, right?”

“Yes, second year… I’m twenty.”

Liar, I thought. He didn’t look it. But by now, my annoyance was replaced by pity and amusement. I felt the corners of my mouth threatening to curve upwards.

“So why don’t you find a nice girl from college and try to pataofy her. There will be many girls of your own age whom you like.”

“But, Rashmiji, I like you.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t even know me. Besides, I told you, I am not suitable for you.”

“That’s okay. I will tell my sister to talk to you.”

Gasp. Splutter. Sister?

“Yes. I told my sister about you. I want to marry you. I’m going to make my parents meet you.”

And his pal's stupid grin got wider, if that was at all possible. I really wanted to slap this other boy.

Yipes, I thought. Marry me? This boy's imagination was moving ahead in leaps and bounds. This was no time for gentle remonstrance. It was time, once more, to run.

Of course, he followed.

“Rashmi, I will marry you, I promise. What’s the problem?”

I wanted to scream at him by this time. It wouldn't have helped, I knew, to just point out that that was not what I wanted. I had already done that the first time he followed me and he was clearly not listening. So I just kept walking towards the platform.

“You’re going home? Don’t go home right now. Rashmi, stay for a while… Let’s talk.”

I ran towards the train. They followed, still calling out to me. The phone number was called out again. With pleas to call him up.

The train chugged out.

Believe it or not, this still wasn’t the end of the matter. There’s more.

The third time he caught up with me en route to the station, it was almost two months later. Without any calling out of false names, he said ‘Hi’ softly into my ear.

I almost screamed with panic. I saw who it was and began to walk more briskly. He (with his grinning pal in tow) kept pace. As they walked beside me, my anger mounted. Also, there was a new shred of fear. I don’t like being followed, especially by people who seem determined to marry me even before they’ve touched the legal marriageable age.

He said, “Rashmi, listen. You had said I would find another girl in college, someone of my own age.”

“Yes, so what?”

“But I have not found anyone yet.”

The expression on his face and his choice was words was such that I was tempted to double up laughing, but I bit my lips hard.

“So, what should I do?”


I snapped, “My name’s not Rashmi.”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m not telling you. I told you that before. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

“Why not?”

I sighed. He just would not get it until I packaged my 'no' in layers of a context he could understand. So I decided to tell him one more little lie.

“Because my heart is elsewhere.”


“My heart is with someone else. That’s why. Understood?”

“But Rashmi...”

"Oh Jesus Christ! I told you. No."

I started descending the stairs. He tried to move faster than me and block my path but he slipped and took a tumble down the stairs. For a few seconds, I stopped, then started on my way again.

He was already up on his feet, biting his tongue, half-smiling, muttering, “Oh shit! What an insult… and that too in front of a girl!”

I can’t quite describe the way this statement made me feel. At that time, it made me laugh. Now, when I think back, I see it for what it was – an open admission of embarrassment from a relatively uncorrupted boy who hasn’t yet learnt to cheat on feelings and isn’t afraid of plunging headlong into a pursuit, confident with the brashness of youth and unaware of class or other social barriers.

Even so, I turned around and was going to ask if he was alright, if he was hurt, because I did not really want him to get hurt.

But just then, he caught my wrist to make me stop. And that was it. I was at the end of my tether. I jerked my hand away and turned on him with all the fury I could summon.

“Don’t you dare!”

“Okay," he said. "Okay, but you weren’t listening to me, Rashmi.”

“I don’t want to listen to you. Next time you come after me, I am going to yell, collect a crowd and have you beaten up.”

I walked away, not looking back over my shoulder. I don’t know whether he followed or stayed or went back.

Once, much later, I saw him and his friend, grin-faced as ever, walking down to the station. I was walking towards the Mid-day office in the late afternoon. Both boys saw me and saw that I recognized them.

But this time, the boy did not make an attempt to stop me. He just grinned. I looked at the road straight ahead and tried not to laugh. He and his pal kept grinning as I hurried past them. My reaction was: "Phew! Thank god."

And that's the end of the story. Why am I telling this story now? Because Blank Noise is collecting street stories of love and lust, about the way these emotions are negotiated in public spaces in an attempt to undestand harassment better.

Was I feeling harassed by that young college kid? I don't know. I actually wanted to be kind to him. And all these years later, I think of the entire episode with amusement and a little pity and remorse because of how he must have felt. But at the time, I was only a couple of years out of college myself and being followed everyday by two grown-up boys was a frightening thought.

No, let me be honest. It is still a scary thought. A nineteen year old is no more or less dangerous than a fifty year old. Two nineteen year olds stalking me would still make me nervous, especially if they knew where I lived, what route I took, what train I waited for on what platform.
I ask myself questions now. I ask if that boy had really done anything wrong in following me and proposing marriage outright. I ask if I had done right in allowing myself to get sucked into a conversation. I ask what could have been done differently?

I have learnt to harden myself to strangers over the years - to slide on an impenetrable mask of indifference and cold comtempt on my face when accosted by strangers whom I don't want to speak to. I like myself lesser for it. It is a terrible thing to do to a human being - to reduce him to an object not worrthy of acknowledgement even, to make him feel like that. On the inside, I cringe each time I do it.

But what are my options? When accosted by a random stranger who refuses to take 'no' for an answer, whose sense about where and how conversations about romance or marriage should be conducted, whose sense of propriety is so vastly different from my own that he seems scary, what should be done? I still don't know.
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