Tuesday, March 30, 2010


There are times when you begin to wonder about what it means to do what you do, even if you are deeply involved with your work. Report, write poetry, dance, cook, make films - when will it really start to matter?

One of the times I can remember thinking - actually starting to use my mind and heart and conscience - about where I was headed was in college. P. Sainath had come in for a guest lecture and began talking even as he rolled up his sleeves (quite literally) and began to unburden the class of its collective ignorance about India.

The more I listened to him, the more I questioned my world, the vapid predictability of my ambitions, and the sweet lies we allow ourselves under the guise of media.

Knowledge is a powerful thing. And the point of media is to disseminate knowledge. 'Mass media' is to reach out to the masses. Through newspapers, television, films, radio - this is what we do. Help people gain the tools that they can use to chart their lives. But why do we sign up for mass media? Why do millions of youngsters feel driven towards media courses? Why are people lobbying to get media included even at the pre-graduate levels of study as a specialisation?

I am reasonably certain that they are not driven to do what Sainath does. Or what a small handful of others do whenever they find a media vehicle that allows them a voice. Or those who get up and do something that seems important even if they cannot find a media vehicle that will let them reach out to the masses. One such venture is Nero's Guests, made by Deepa Bhatia, who works as an editor for mainstream Hindi films.

The film is well-made, of course. But it is more than just a good documentary. The word that springs to my mind is 'important'. It is more important than any recent film which purports to be propped up on the rockbed of social conscience. It tells a powerful story of inequality and strange truths that pass for justice and freedom in our country. Through Sainath's work, the film tells us about ourselves.

I think it should be watched and not because it needs a pat on the back from approving, socially aware citizens. The film doesn't need us. We need the film. And we don't need the film to apologize for us, to make us feel that we're somehow more responsible because we showed up to watch a 'different' film. We need it to recover a small part of ourselves that used to be honest and believed in justice.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Battles, battles

The war against just-shut-up-and-get-a-degree attitudes.

Two days after Aman Kachroo’s death I wrote that it won’t be the last case of ragging death. Sadly, I was not proved wrong. Aman’s father had vowed he’ll not let another ragging death take place. He now says he feels defeated. Since then the death cases reported include those of Ankita Vegda in Ahemdabad, Sneha Dani in Mumbai, Chintumoni Bordoloi in Guwahati, Dheeraj Kumar in Amritsar, Anirban Dutta in Durgapur, Poonam Mishra in Lucknow, Satyendra Singh in Jamshedpur, Greeshma Shanker in Trivandrum, Ayan Adak in Kolkata, Prashant Chitalkar in Pune, Sridhar in Puducherry, Gaurav Sadanand Raut in Nashik, Premlatha in Kancheepuram and a few days ago, Satwinder Kumar in Mumbai.'

The column points out that 'Despite very little publicity of the (anti-ragging) helpline by the ministry, it got 1.6 lakh calls in just eight months, till February. While that is some indication of the prevalence of ragging, it is worrying that of this huge number only 350 complaints were registered and of those 350, only 18 educational institutions chose to respond'.

When will we learn to respond in time?

The war against shoot-off-your-mouthery by sulky politicos

Men will whistle in parliament because there are women around?

So, you know, perhaps they will. And not just young men. After all, men do whistle in a lot of other places when forced to set eyes upon women. But what are you trying to say?

That parliament is special? That you alone should have be privilege of working in an environment where men do not whistle?

Or are you trying to say that men are provoked to whistle only when they are confronted by 33% women. That a piffling 9% isn't enough to make the elected rep's heart sing?

Or are you saying that whistling interferes with law-making?

We have had thrashing, walk-outs, screaming and slanging, chair-throwing. I think Indian democracy and women parliamentarians can cope with whistling, if whistling happens. Thank you, Mulayam ji, for your concern. Now sit down and catch your breath... yes, that's a good boy. And save your breath, now on, for whistling in parliament. I would dearly love to see what Mayawati would do to you afterwards.

The war for trust.

Apparently, people just don't trust the media any more. Not the majority, anyway. Trust in newspapers is down from 61% to 40%.

And to think there was a time when people said 'it is written' (likha hai... humne khud padha hai) as a euphemism for incontrovertible truth. Now, they cannot even trust what they see any more. TV news is trusted even less, at 36%.

The war to get your priorities right

Read this. It is from the front page of The Times of India.

'Yet another event in Delhi had a nasty brush with its bureaucracy and red tape on Wednesday when the autumn/winter edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, arguably the country’s biggest fashion event, had to cancel all shows on the first day. The reason: the Delhi Fire Service Department refused to give it permission and Delhi Police, in turn, withheld the no-objection certificate.'

Read it again, carefully - 'nasty brush' 'red tape'. The tone of the entire piece is judgmental and negative. As if the fact that the firemen insisted on the fashion world taking preventive measures was such a yawn. Clearly, some designers thought so. One has been quoted saying : ‘‘What’s this? The government needs to make some sort of special effort when it comes to events of this magnitude. We have foreign buyers standing outside in the sun. What will they think about the Indian fashion industry?'

I suppose it is alright for designers to think that way. I just have a problem with the tone adopted by the writers (or editors) of the piece. It is an editorial tone that seems to be saying: 'Permission-wormission, certificates... all that nonsense, so much bureacucracy in this place yaa, I mean, we're all dressed up now, and trying to do our thing and these guys don't even see how much trouble they're causing, why don't they just give us the damn piece of paper and get out of our way?'

Curiously, the Mirror also carried a fire department story on the same day. Five people died in a fire in Kolkata.

I wonder how much and how bitterly the same people would have complained if, god forbid, a fire had broken out at one of these 'events of this magnitude'. It would, of course, have been the fault of the fire department who did not insist upon enforcing security norms, and the police, who gave a no-objection certificate without even bothering to check ground realities.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dreams of positive grief

I have time these days. A little more time than I have allowed myself over the last year or so. Time to think about myself, life, patterns, hopes, futility, art, purpose.

I am not sure whether this much time is good for any writer. Particularly a professional one who is not really given to philosophy. But I have been attempting to collaborate with another writer/filmmaker and, as was inevitable, talk veered to 'positivity'. Leaving people with positive images. Positive overtones. Positive pitches. Positive 'vibes'. Putting a positive spin on things.

And I found myself getting annoyed. I make no secret of my own leaning towards darknesses and ambiguities. In fact, I often find myself disappointed with plays or films or books because they tie up so neatly. The hero jumps in and saves the day in the nick of time. The heroine finds true love. The children get their puppy. The puppy gets to learn salsa, and gets to make out with a tigress. Whatever.

There is nothing so annoying in art as absolutes. And the only absolute I can stomach is the absolute of grey. Which is not to say that I cannot, or do not, write happy endings. I do. But an overbearing emphasis on happiness can be as soul-destroying as relentless grief.

One recent show that particularly made me think about feelings and vibes and endings in art was the play Dreams of Taleem.

I should mention straightaway that my Marathi is almost nil and the script is a combination of English, Hindi and Marathi. Now, 'Taleem' in Marathi is slightly different from 'Taleem' in Hindi-Urdu, where it means education. And I went in expecting a show about, well, I don't know, kids wanting a real education, or some child protagonist fighting to stay in school. It turned out to be about theatre. About acceptance and rejection. About anonymity and pasts and secrets. About children and old age and tolerance.

It was about many different things and despite the fact that there were whole chunks I did not understand the meaning of, it was alright. Because I did actually understand. And what was amazing was that I was laughing without any idea of what the joke was about. And then I would turn to my friends and they would be laughing hard too. I would ask them what the joke was and they would say, there was no joke. But there was nothing you could do but laugh. It was just the moment. And to tell the truth, it was actually a slightly scary and slightly sad moment.

This is an incredible thing to have in a play. I don't think I have seen anything like that in theatre in Bombay over the last two years. To be able to weave grief, absurdity, fear and laughter so simply, and so naturally that the words themselves aren't very imporant - that was some really accomplished writing.

On the other hand, there was the matter of the end. And the play itself dwells upon it. How are things going to end? Is a sad end the only possible end in a sad, complicated situation? That is a question asked by one of the characters in the play, one who is determined not to let sadness and despair and intolerance win a second round. Whether it wins or not, I will leave you to find out. Dreams of Taleem is playing at Prithvi theatre this week. I recommend it unreservedly.

But for me, the question remains: why do we feel the need to rebel against sadness in our stories? So often I hear people saying that they like humour. They want to read humour. They like gags on sitcoms, even poor ones. They like funny films. They want even the everyday tragedies of our society to come topped with the safety valve of comedy. They want all our black pots of misery to be coated with a non-stick hoax of joy.

Why do we forget that people have always had as much of an appetite for tragedy as they have for comedy? Even in ancient Greece there was tragedy and comedy, both. But tragedy was just tragedy. Another facet of life. Grief was another state of being, a part of you that the artist was calling forth, demanding a connection. It wasn't 'negative'.

Could it be that we get so much visual and textual exposure to bad news and bitterness that we cannot deal with it any longer? Especially if we have to pay for it. Especially when our expectations of art are so driven by our expectations of ambience and entertainment and comfort. Or has it been different in any other pre-mass media age?

I sort of get it because I too watch those movies, those sitcoms, read the funny books, watch crazy youtube videos. I understand. But there is a corner of my mind that rejects too much of a sugar pill. I am discomfited by our relentless quashing of truth.

On the other hand: what truth? The truth as it exists? Or the truth as we would like it to exist? When it comes to a fabrication of the mind - films, books, plays - who can say which of these truths is more significant? In a piece about the movie Avatar, Zizek has said, 'If we subtract fantasy from reality, then reality itself loses its consistency and disintegrates. To choose between "either accepting reality or choosing fantasy" is wrong: if we really want to change or escape our social reality, the first thing to do is change our fantasies that make us fit this reality.'

If we are going to change our truths, perhaps the first step is to change art.

Our stories, then our lives? I don't know. I know that the best work I can do will have to be the work I want to do, regardless of who wants to read it, or buy it. But I am not yet certain about whether or not this is self-indulgent. All I know is that the most powerful art I have read or seen is the kind that does not turn away from pain, one which does not deliberately employ humour as a weapon of defense for its protagonists, one that isn't afraid of infecting audiences with its stinging tail of grief.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Green posturing, reductionist science, sex-changing frogs and big waste bucks

Doing green stuff is a lot harder than posing for cameras. I wish someone would tell some of our celebrities, particularly actors and models, that instead of wasting precious newsprint (which is not an environment friendly thing to do) by going yak-yak about how important it is to care for the environment, watch out for climate change etc, it might help if they actually DID something. Stop taking so many flights, for one. Think of ways to make photo and film shoots environment friendly. Recycle. Don't drink from plastic bottles or cups. Don't insist on air-conditioning.

It does get my goat when I see the morning newspaper filled with bullcrap coming from actors and actresses and supermodels and businesspeople who are constantly taking helicoptor rides, for god's sake! And not because it is an emrgency, or even because there is no other way of getting to a certain place. Some of them do this every single day if they happen to be shooting at some distance from the city. I feel like shaking them and telling them that if you cannot deal with staying put on location for a few days, then for all our sakes, please, please do not sign up for such projects. Or, at least, shut up about the environment.

I, for one, refuse to go to the movie hall and fork over my hardearned money to enable their unsustainable lifestyles. You want to take helicopter rides, do that. Not on my money, and not with my goodwill.

Okay, now that the rant is out of the way, some interesting links.

I hadn't thought of genetic engineering in terms of 'reductionist science' but this piece made me think, and also clarified what exactly Bt Brinjal is trying to do and how it might be different from regular, non-Bt brinjal.

Genetic engineering is based on reductionist biology, the idea that living systems are machines, and you can change parts of the machine without impacting the organism. Reductionism was chosen as the preferred paradigm for economic and political control of the diversity in nature and society.... Real scientists know that mechanistic science of genetic reductionism is inaccurate and flawed. Deeper research has led to the emergent field of epigenetics. Epigenetic mechanisms can edit the read out of a gene so as to create over 30,000 different variations of proteins for the same gene blueprint. Epigenetic describes how gene activity and cellular expression are regulated by information from the environment, not by the internal matter of DNA.The limitation at a higher systems level is even more serious. Bt brinjal is being offered as a pest control solution. A gene for producing a toxin is being put into the plant, along with antibiotic resistance markers and viral promoters. This is like using an earth-mover to make a hole in the wall of your house for hanging up a painting. (emphasis mine)

Read the rest here.
And speaking of toxins and what goes into your body, here's some news about a chemical called Atrazine, a herbicide used by farmers in the US. 16 US cities are now suing Syngenta, the manufacturer of the herbicide, asking the corporation to pay for cleaning the water supply.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not banned the product yet, but has launched an investigation into possible health impact.

The Huffington Post article goes on to say that 'Atrazine has long been a controversial product. The European Union in 2004 banned its use, saying there was not enough information to prove its safety. The EPA recently announced that it would be re-evaluating the herbicide's ability to cause cancer and birth defects, as well as its potential to disrupt the hormone and reproductive systems of humans and amphibians.
Last week, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
reported that male frogs exposed to levels of atrazine below federal limits could become functional females, with the ability to mate and lay eggs.
Citizens in all sixteen of the cities named in the lawsuit get their drinking water from sources next to or surrounded by agricultural fields where farmers use atrazine. Some of these cities sell their water in bulk to other nearby towns.'

Not nice. Citizens have had to spend millions of dollars (according to their lawyer) to put in place filters that can get the toxic stuff out of the water. And I am glad the corporation is being asked to pay up now.

And here's something on recycling in India. Mostly good news, but it does make me rethink my own stand about workers who handle potentially toxic stuff without any protection, in India, when nobody in Europe or the US would have agreed to do so. Made me think of Alang and the ghost ships.

'Remarkably, according to Of Poverty and Plastic, a book by economist Kaveri Gill, 60-80% of the plastic in Mundka is successfully recycled—far above the recycling rates in Europe and China. (Yet) Mundka exists in a tenuous state of truce with the law. It is, strictly speaking, illegal.'

Rest of the piece here.

Tnext time I drop a plastic cup into the dustbin in some office or shopping mall, I will probably be thinking of turnovers of Rs 40 lakh.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Two pieces worth reading if you are interested in understanding farm subsidies in India and the not quite charitable business of microfinance.

This year alone, the budget gifts over Rs. 500,000 crore in write-offs, direct and indirect, to the Big Boys. That's Rs. 57 crore every single hour on average — almost a crore a minute. Beating last year's Rs. 30 crore an hour by more than 70 per cent... Maybe the pro-farmer claim was merely a typo or proofing error. They just dropped the word “corporate” before “farmer.” Reinstate that and all is true. This is a budget crafted for, and perhaps by, the corporate farmer and agribusiness.

From the same piece:

Several of the loans disbursed as “agricultural credit” are in excess of Rs. 10 crore and even Rs. 25 crore. And even as loans of this size steadily grew in number between 2000 and 2006, agricultural loans of less than Rs. 25,000 fell by more than half in the same period.

The rest here. And what an interesting word: 'Kleptocrats'.

From a piece on microfinance: An extensive ET research across India shows that although the sector continues to be in denial mode, worried regulators, lenders and the borrowers themselves are distancing themselves from the Gold Rush and evaluating future options. RBI deputy governor Usha Thorat agrees that there is aggressive pushing of loans to groups without ascertaining the repayment capacity of the ultimate borrowers...

25% of borrowers in Kolar had more than five loans, while three loans was the average for all borrowers. Take Karnataka, and the penetration of microfinance loans among poor households stands at 263%. In Andhra, the number is a staggering 823%... To be fair, MFIs didn’t invent the credit needs of Indian households. Money enters the village economy only after the harvest, and the rural population has always borrowed to meet expenditure requirements. But what is new is the MFIs’ insistence on weekly repayments. It is not easy to sustain weekly repayments in agricultural areas where money supply itself rises and falls with the agricultural cycle.

The whole piece here.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hum to aise hain bhaiyya

A piece published in Tehelka as 'The Bhaiyya, the Bandit and the Bak-bak artist'.

When the family first began to entertain itself with the notion of obscene amounts of ghee, red meat, zardozi et al, at my expense, the question arose: what kind of man? I wasn’t sure what kind of man I wanted, but I was sure I didn’t want a ‘bhaiyya’. Which is to say, I didn’t want a typical UP-ite. Which necessitates that awkward question: what is a ‘typical UPite’?

Most Indians carry around a sprinkling of prejudice in their DNA, particularly when it comes to other communities or regions. Geographical and linguistic affiliations are so strong that most of us find ourselves tucked into little pockets of imagination. Call it stereotype. Call it community culture. Call it what you will, but we cannot help identifying each other based on clothes, accents, moustaches and different grade of jollity. But what is one to make of the UPite? What does he look like? How is he to be picked out in a crowd?

Up comes traipsing (well, sauntering, considering it is UPites we are talking about) the first identity marker. But it is more a non-identity marker. You cannot pick out an Uttar Pradesh man in a crowd. He is virtually faceless. He has no lavish mop of curls, no twirly beard parted down the middle. He does not like to be seen in a lungi, if he owns a pair of trousers. And he does not set much store by turbans.

When I was growing up, there were three broad categories into which I cast the UP man: 1. White chikan kurta-clad sons of former zamindars who continue to rear pigeons and fly kites as a full-time occupation and sometimes carry guns (almost like a liability); 2. Lean, inscrutable rickshaw-pullers/stone-breakers/gardeners; 3. The westernised, English-speaking intellectual.

There was a time when, if a Hindi filmmaker wanted to create the character of a provincial intellectual, he would place the character in Allahabad, the city once known as the Oxford of the east. By the time I grew up, UP had cast off any intellectual pretensions it had, and settled firmly into a mould defined by politics, caste and religion.

If I zoom in closer into my mental picture, I can see a fuzzy image cobbled together from scraps like sherwanis and black band-galas, Urdu couplets, paan, dawdling at street corners, gentility, tall tales, long memories, and tongues that instantly betrayed their origin. But almost as soon as I begin to discuss stereotypes surrounding the UP man, alarm bells go off. I'm reminded of soft-bellied Bhojpuri-speakers from Azamgarh who ended up in poetic graves. And of English-speaking goons from Aligarh who routinely force you off reserved seats during train journeys. Or Urdu couplet-spouting men with dangerous mafia links.

The UP-wala is a slippery creature. He does not like being lumped within brackets. Yet, he doesn’t make any concerted efforts at knocking down the brackets encircling his tidy existence. He is the quintessential migrant who remembers to send money back home, which keeps the land watered and sown, so he can return home and help bring in the harvest. The typical UPite is bound to land like he bound to nothing else. For this, he will fight – with guns, with whatever little hegemony he can scrabble at, with endless court cases.

Resident UPites insist that they are pan-Indian: ‘the Hindustani man’. That they have little in common with each other except accidental geography. But they readily admit to one binding feature. As Avinash Pandey Samar, a research scholar at JNU, puts it, “The first and foremost characteristic is the huge sense of relief all UPites feel about not being Biharis.” It injures the UPite’s sense of self to find himself lumped with the Biharis by non-UPites, particularly the Sainiks and MNS-ites in Maharashtra. But to the rest of the nation, UP, Bihar, and parts of Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana, is all one big blob that goes by the name of ‘Bhaiyya’ – the guy who abandons the mofussil mitti, trundling into metros without even the assurance of a bed to dream in.

Like millions of other Mumbaikars, Mahesh Chowdhary, a sales and marketing professional, subscribes to this stereotype. “There are three kinds of UPites,” he says. “The lower class, one that leaves whenever there’s trouble at home. They leave with zero back-up and work in conditions you cannot imagine. Marathi people have a saying that means ‘I will break but I will not bend’. The UPite will bend. One of my clients owns a zari workshop. The men who work there come from UP. They are crammed into a room, ten feet by ten, twenty-five men to a room.” Chowdhary deals with the middle class and a few upper class entrepreneurs from UP. “UPites have a decent business mind but one successful man will bring in ten others from his backyard. There is a lot of cronyism, and that sometimes manifests in the form of gangs.”

There’s no getting away from that stereotype – gangster, goon, hired gun. There was always the bandit from Etawah lurking in the background. There was Rampur, famous for its switchblade knives, and the nascent crude revolver industry, caricatured recently in Ishqiya (a film set in Gorakhpur) where a young boy says, “In my village, we learn to load a gun before we learn to wash our behinds”.

Men such as Abu Salem, Dawood Ibrahim, Mukhtar Ansari, Babloo Shrivastav have only bolstered this image of the UPite as an aggressive, violent type. My own grandfather had laughingly told me that in the place we come from, only two things are famous – imarti (a fried sweet) and goondagardi.

Almost everyone I know has a scary UP story to tell: family feuds in Ghazipur, Lucknow University campus murders, child murders in Nithari. Parvez Imam, a mental health professional turned filmmaker tells me of the time he met a cabbie from western UP who coolly confided that he’d killed a man. “He seemed quite proud of the fact,” says Imam, a gentle, poetry-loving soul who grew up in Aligarh and is now one half of the band, 'Dr Chef'.

Imam believes that machismo is common to all patriarchal cultures, including most parts of UP, but that it has an almost militant quality in parts of west UP, although the Purabiya (eastern UPite) is no saint. After all, my grandfather was talking of goondagardi in the east, in districts like Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur. Dozens of people hired as contract killers in Mumbai and Delhi seem to have arrived from these dusty, fertile badlands. The usual arguments about lack of development and unemployment are made - that UPites have too much time on their hands, and so they waffle. That they resent the emptiness, therefore they begin to stray.

But why do they have so much time on their hands? Riding on the back of the jobless desperado, yet another UPite waddles in – the slow, lazy man who is uninterested in doing any real work and yet, he is hungry for power. I have to confess that I have never seen a UPite running for anything, barring his life (or an election). The rolling gait of a bearded professor; the straight-backed stroll of a pensive student; the lithe lolling of a field hand: yes. A mad dash? No.

On the other hand, why rush? What’s to be gained by scrambling? “The UPite’s slowness,” says Parvez Imam, “comes from having a different approach to time. The language itself, particularly in Awadh and eastern UP, is long drawn-out, languid. Whether it is the poor rickshaw-puller or the nawab, they all share this quality. The impression that they are slow buggers or dodos is a colonial legacy. The British brought with them an industrialised mindset, an emphasis on speed - the notion that time equals money. In UP, it didn’t and it still doesn’t.”

Lack of discipline is another common complaint. Ask any college professor or university dean in UP. Lawlessness is but a by-product. However, from the UPite point of view, violence has little to do with criminal tendencies or even ambition. It is something history and society has thrust upon you. I believe I still have an uncle or two riding around the ancestral farms with a gun. They say there’s no other way to survive up there. Have land, get gun, keep land. Don’t have land, well, get gun anyway. Because other people have 'em.

Nevertheless the UPite thinks of himself as a gentle person, by and large. The teenager who gets into a gang-war like situation on campus is probably recuperating by quoting Faiz to a pretty classmate. The grim, silent chauffer who barely seems to listen to instructions probably spends hours hunting for romantic couplets that invoke full moon nights and oceans of longing, which he might be SMSing to the cook.

According to Ashok Chakradhar, a poet and the vice-president of the Kendriya Hindi Sansthaan, UPites are some of the mildest guys around. “We might be reactionary, but not aggressive. In fact, the poet Dhoomil has said, ‘Bhaasha ke maamle mein behad bhades ho/iss kadar kaayar ho ke Uttar Pradesh ho.’ We are somewhat cowardly.”

Corroboration comes, swift and wounding, from the feminine quarter. An army officer’s daughter, Tanvi Saxena, who heads corporate communications for an IT firm, says that UPite men like to think of themselves as ‘dudes’, but only until push comes to shove. “Male cousins in UP will object if you wear jeans outdoors. By contrast, the Punjabi man will just get into a fight to protect you if necessary. Not UPites.”

It doesn’t help that UPite men have a reputation for ogling. And stalking. And claiming ‘girlfriends’ on the basis on who has stalked a girl most consistently. It is common for a man to refer to a woman as ‘my girl’ strictly on the basis that he has stared at her every day on the bus, or that he knows her address, her siblings’ names and the extent of her father’s influence with the local police and administration. The UPite man does not see longing as distinct from wooing. What he wants, he thinks he deserves.

“Interestingly, ogling cuts across class and caste. It is a great leveler,” says Samar. “Ogling in UP is a major community activity. The ogler does not ogle alone. He always elbows a close friend when he spots the object of his desire, saying ‘vo neeli wali mast hai yaar’ (the one in blue is something else).”

In the midst of this happy, communal ogling, the UP man also weaves a little romance. If a lady’s book happens to be placed atop his, it is enough to make him turn a mental cartwheel. He is likely to approach a girl’s heart with a book of poems but he is more likely to lend it than to gift it. Call it frugality, a fiscal preference or just plain cheapness, but many UP women agree that their men don’t exactly wear their wallets on their hearts. Not for them the hundred red roses, the designer shoes, the antique vase. Rich men are far more likely to build themselves a house and put the wife’s name on the name-plate, than they are inclined to take her out to a seven-star pub.

Tanvi has no qualms calling UPwalas ‘tuchha’ (petty). “UP doesn’t have lavish getaways, lavish family eating and drinking places. This is partly because the culture doesn’t allow it and partly because the men don’t want to spend so much. They want to hang out with others who will pay for them instead. Or else, they carry just enough money to cover their own share.”

She concedes that whatever else a UP man might be, he is rarely dull. If there is one thing the UPite man revels in, does well, loves above his material comforts, it is talk. ‘Bak’ is the highest form of entertainment. Talk is culture. Talk is social currency. Many a good UPite who will traverse long distances for no more incentive than the opportunity for a nightlong blather-fest. There is little grace or romance associated with a brooding, silent man. The ones who get attention are the talkers, the storytellers, the poets, the robbers of other people’s couplets. Even hardboiled Mumbaikars like Chowdhary agree that there is never a dull moment when a UPite is around. “Their talk is full of masala,” he says. “A roomful of people will be kept amused for hours on end.”

However, it is wise to remember that talk is often only just so much talk. The braggart UPite is a consistent stereotype. He boasts about political and bureaucratic connections, about how much land he or his ancestors owned, or how many hundreds of crores such-n-such business is worth.

But wait. When it came to the money bit, I was stumped. UPites? Surely, the UPite does not discuss money! He refers to it delicately, if he must, as ‘intezaam’. As a facility. All the UPite men I know tend to talk about money with a squirmy sort of disdain, as if one were talking about the morning ablutions.

I decided to check with the writer and Delhi University professor Alok Rai, who had left Allahabad as a young man. When I posed the question, there was a brief silence over the phone line. "Let me guess," said Rai. “You people must be Shias from Lucknow.”

I gasped, “How did you guess?”

The UPite, it appears, is a phenomenon split – as the state itself may be in the foreseeable future – into east, west and centre. Purab, Pachhim, and the glory that was Awadh, centred in Lucknow. Most Indians of the post-independence era know the Awadhi aristocrat as cast and frozen in the mould of films like Chaudvi Ka Chand. On either side of this frozen image lies... well, whatever is not Awadh.

“The Purabiya has historically looked down upon the Pachhain (western UPite) as a boor, rich but uncouth, while the Pachhain thinks of the Purabiya as uncivilized and poor,” says Alok Rai. The ones in the middle, of course, do not think much of either. Much of this pride stems from Lucknow’s fabled ‘tehzeeb’. Just like the average Bombay-ite does not see himself as merely Maratha, the average Lakhnawi thinks of himself as poetic, refined, special. Unlike the country bumpkins to the east and the domineering Jats and Rohilla Pathans of the west, which got its fair share of swordplay and looting since it lay en route to the seat of power: Delhi.

The UPite’s obsession with politics brooks no denying. This could be because the state accounts for the most members of parliament or because it has produced the most prime ministers (a fact tomtommed by several UPites as if it was a personal achievement). Whatever the reason, each dip in the power scale is tracked. Each election is watched closely. Powerful people are discussed with a rare passion and their acquaintance is assiduously cultivated. I have not been able to figure out why. Perhaps, because there are so very many people with so little power that each man is obsessed with the idea of it, the gaining of it. Perhaps, because each man does not count, and each vote does.
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