Tuesday, May 31, 2011

To know her, if only a little

I'd recently done a brief review of: ‘I want to Live’ – The Story of Madhubala (by Khatija Akbar). I've been a lifelong fan of the lady and then I discovered these absolutely stunning photos. If you aren't in love with her already, I would urge you to look. I promise: Resistance will be futile.

Across a chasm of two generations, men and women and children continue to fall in love with that face.
Her face – even as a print on cheap glossy paper – remains compelling. But my generation knows little
about Madhubala’s life. We’ve heard about the giggles, the early death, the failed love, the disastrous
marriage to another man.

In fact, I’ve been getting invitations to join a Facebook group whose raison d’être is to make Dilip Kumar
visit Madhubala’s grave and say a fateha. One thing Khatija Akbar’s book does is to clear up a lot of
misconceptions. It’s good to know that Dilip Kumar not only visited her grave as soon as he heard of her
death, but was one of the few people who continued to visit her when she was very ill.

The book tells us a lot about Madhubala. Her professionalism and charity is commented on early. We discover that her beauty was matched by her generosity and loyalty. That as a 14-year-old leading lady, she was cast opposite Raj Kapoor, who was only a clapper boy then. That she learnt to drive when she was 12. That she had a phobia of strangers, and odd suspicions about food and water. That she was dragged to court after she backed out of ‘Naya Daur’, and that she wasn’t the first (or even the third or fourth) choice for Anarkali’s role in ‘Mughal-e-Azam’.

The author has clearly battled major odds – Madhubala has been dead for half a century as are most of her contemporaries. So the book relies heavily on old film magazines. But what one misses most here is insight. The author has written this book as a paean to Madhubala but hasn’t bothered to sift through the research to build a faithful image of a famous woman.

A major fault here is that information hasn’t been subjected to a proper, thematic organization in each chapter. One chapter is marked ‘Co-stars’ but it simply lists the actors she worked with, without much information of what they meant to her. Where was the point of crowding the page with a list of names, which are anyway included in the Filmography?

Then there are some irritants in the form of remarks like: ‘it was an exciting time to be in films’. Has it ever
been otherwise? Besides, the 1940s and 50s birthed several mediocre films and Madhubala herself acted in quite a few. Yet, this aspect of her work has not been paid much attention.

We are treated to glimpses of emotional integrity and a rare intelligence through Madhubala’s own words. But
in many chapters, her words have been cited without any context. Where did she say (or write) them, and to whom were they addressed?

However, the main failings of this book are its haphazard organization of material, its repetitions (entire paragraphs are repeated) and its contradictions. For instance, the author suggests that Madhubala and Dilip Kumar never met on friendly terms after the Naya Daur court case. Later, we discover that they did meet cordially. Also, her strict work schedule is brought up repeatedly, but later Akbar says those rules were often broken, seriously impacting her health.

The domineering father’s behavior is explained away easily by saying that Madhubala received good values from him, after all, and was ‘never left loveless’. Yet, Madhubala herself hinted at extreme loneliness. Readers are expected to swallow the rhetoric of ‘values’ in much the same way as poor Madhubala must have had to.

Akbar’s approach to this biography is guileless and starry-eyed. It is almost as if she is afraid of what she may find if she analyses in depth the circumstances that shaped – and destroyed – a beautiful woman. This is, finally, a book about Madhubala the star, not an examination of a life.

Published here

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trading in toxins

The simple thing is to set fire to them. But that isn’t a good option, especially for plastics. Perhaps that was when someone came up with an idea — incineration. Then, someone came up with another idea — incinerate garbage and convert it into electricity. Then they took it a step further – “Let’s get carbon credits! Since garbage seems to be eternal, let’s just call it a renewable source of energy.”

So that’s why they began setting up WTE (waste-to-energy) plants in and around Delhi. Now, waste-to-energy sounds like a smart idea, but it isn’t. In fact, it is a failed idea. Timarpur had a WTE plant that had to be shut down after 21 days of operation (in 1990) because it wasn’t really generating much power. Delhi’s garbage was too wet — not good for burning.

So, naturally, Timarpur and Okhla people have been protesting. They fail to see why Delhi is subsidising and supporting WTE plants when the Supreme Court has already disallowed them in 2005. The Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has already written to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, pointing out violations by the Timarpur-Okhla Municipal Solid Waste Management Company Pvt Ltd (owned by the Jindal ITF Urban Infrastructure Ltd). Even the Delhi Pollution Control Board noted that “no public/public representative/any interested person/NGO attended the meeting for comments/objections on the Project” (sic). Sheila Dikshit apparently did go to meet ‘interested persons’ but stormed out of the meeting since they wouldn’t agree with her. Now ‘interested persons’ have taken their objections to the Delhi high court.

Read the full piece here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lessons of light & dark

I still remember with absolute clarity the day mom asked us: What makes shadows? In my mind, shadows were associated with darkness — with candlelight; with evening walks. So I answered: ‘Dark’. She switched off the lights and shut the windows. And hey! No shadows! Then she made us carry a desk into the blinding sunshine. Shadows!
I have never forgotten that lesson about light. That year, the class wouldn’t end when the bell rang. An experiment couldn’t be abandoned mid-way; a discovery was about to be made. Mom would always be apologising and begging the waiting Maths teacher for a few more minutes.
A few years later, Chemistry descended upon us. As did a new teacher. His modus operandi was to read out entire paragraphs, affix us with a glare and ask, ‘Is it clear?’ If you said, ‘No sir’, he would read out the whole paragraph again.
Then it was time to learn the Periodic Table with its codes/abbreviations for elements. I’ve forgotten the rest but I remember that Chromium is represented as Cr. I read it as ‘Crrrrrr’, as if I was a crow trying to imitate a motorbike. The teacher threw me out of the class. That is my most vivid memory of him. And of the Periodic Table.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The price of clean

Say, the PWD engineer decided he wasn’t going to attend this enormous cost-cutting party. Say, he fined the contractor or blacklisted the firm. Can you imagine it? I can: Engineer babu is out alone one evening when he finds himself surrounded. Or there’s the ratatatatat of machine gunfire. Or perhaps, he tumbles out of a high window in a public place.
That’s how it was for Yogendra Pandey, executive engineer with the public works department (PWD). That he ‘fell’ to his death from the collectorate is known. That he had fined and blacklisted some contractors (and was considering blacklisting more) is known.
That he was beaten up is known. That he asked for security cover twice between 2008 and 2009, but was not given police protection is known. Then in 2009, he either jumped or was pushed from the highest building in Sitamarhi.
Which was it? Jump? Push? Either way, he was killed.
Engineers working with the government have a bit of a reputation. One strong indicator is that they’re much in demand as bridegrooms amongst dowry-happy dads; in the north particularly, it is taken for granted that money will be made ‘over and above’. But on the other hand, there’s Pandey. And he’s dead.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Facebook politics

Friend requests come from religious hardliners and right-wing chest-thumpers. Also from leftists, libertarians, atheists, humanists. Last week, I was surprised to see a request from a student whose political views were listed as democratic. Surprised, because it is so rare.
Very few people choose ‘democracy’ when asked for their political views. In fact, I’ve gotten used to responses like: ‘I hate politics’. Or ‘Nil’. Or ‘xxxxx’... And this, I worry, is at the heart of our crisis: this ‘xxxxx’ which allows us to shrug off all political responsibilities. A democracy, after all, must be ‘of the people, by the people’ before it can become ‘for the people’.
... A lot of opposition to the Anna Hazare-led campaign for an all-powerful Lokpal stems from this hold-my-nose attitude to politics. While Hazare hasn’t crystallised his political views into the cryptic ‘xxxxx’, he doesn’t think he could win elections. Perhaps he believes that only big money wins elections, and he isn’t the only one. I meet far too many people who have so little faith in the Indian masses that they advocate dictatorship as a form of governance.

But I’m surprised at activists like Medha Patkar backing a supra-democratic institution. 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Roadless bumps

There was no road leading to this village. We’d walked over an hour when I spotted, in the middle of this dusty, rocky, lonely terrain, a warning sign. It said: “Speed-breaker Ahead. Go Slow.” 

It was too hot to curse so we just tittered - clearly, someone was trying to be funny - and walked on. A few minutes later, there it was. A speed-breaker. At least a foot high and six feet across.

Now I think about it, it seems like a little bump of conscience on our highway to corruption. Somebody got hired to create a speed-breaker and by God, he was going to do it - road or no road! Or maybe it was a practical joke. Perhaps the contractor was thumbing his nose at the taxpayer.

Read the rest here.
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