Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Vashi Plaza experience

I love walking through bazaars. They are so exuberant and pretty. So many haphazard symmetries and smudges of color. I like looking at blizzard of hoardings that pierce through the sky like architecural erectile dysfunctions - each one with its own idiosyncratic signature; one will have a florid pink background with Tang-colored lettering. Another will have a quirky spelling error - 'Plane dosas' and 'mineral woter'. Yet another will have so much to say that you want to gag it: 'Best, export-import quality, good surplus, no damaged piece, filmstar style, well-fitting, tailored, wonderful price for best export-import quality...'

There is something being peddled practically on every inch of available space. Ceramic pots, nuts and bolts, printer paper, snacks, food, and drinks. Each shop or cart is adjusted in this crazy, calculated method that there is just enough space for people to stop by, browse, buy, and move on. This arrangement of space, designed purely for business, is fascinating.

There is a lot of jostling, but there is place for everything.

I am reminded of a line I read in the menu of Chor Bizarre - '....here, nothing matches but everything gels.'

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I pray

I pray for strength to get past fury when people judge my actions out of context and criticize me.

Or worse, when they advise me.

I pray for strength to believe in the truth I have lived by.

I pray that I do not let other people's estimation of my character or my capacity to love hurt me.

I pray that I do not get judgmental of people, especially when they too speak out of ignorance, pain, or despair. As I have.

I pray that I am strong enough to get through a difficult marriage and still cherish the good moments I had.

I pray that I take care of my parents as unflinchingly as they have taken care of me.

I wish that I can get past the guilt that I have put them through so much trouble, and yet they are always, always there for me. And they are always, always smiling.

I pray that I never forget to appreciate this force of life that has given me so much. A family that will stand by me, no matter what. Friends who won't ask questions before they offer their shoulders to weep on. Colleagues who have shown the kind of compassion I hadn't expected from strangers.

I pray that I never lose the will to travel or write or try something new.

I pray that I don't hold it against people when they don't believe my side of the story. When stories get personal, biases are a given. Sometimes, even the most blatant sequence of events can be interpreted in various ways.

I pray that I never, ever behave like the people who make me angry.

I pray that I have the strength to keep silent when lashing out is tempting.

I pray that I understand the difference between ego and dignity.

I pray that I have the strength to pick my battles well. And having picked them, fight fair to the finish.

I pray for peace. For myself, for everyone. An agitated mind is an ugly mind.

I pray that I am a strong, happy parent to my daughter.

I pray that I can sing in the rain, again.

I pray that I can sleep through a night again.

I pray, with all my heart, to look forward to a tomorrow again.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Today

Today, I waited for Jaygee at Barista, Bandstand. From my table, I could see a precise, sharp cut-out of grey-blue cloud against which the skyline seemed etched, as if with a fountain pen. A frolicking mass of waves jumped around. Several couples held hands and scampered towards the rocks.

There was wispy drizzle and a cool wind.

A stranger, next to my table, sipped his latte while scribbling in a bright orange notebook.

For no reason, other than probably to share sudden wee good fortune in a large, large city, he looked my way and said, ‘It’s beautiful today.’

Yes’, I replied.

He went back to writing. I went back to waiting.

Monday, July 23, 2007

For now

For now, it seems that my marriage of five months is over. I head back to Mumbai tonight. I do and do not know whether it was my fault. I also do and do not know what went wrong.

This knowing-unknowing is the very worst part of heartbreak.

It is unfortunate that I did not get to celebrate my first anniversary in poetic, tingly Delhi winter. And that my marriage ended just when the clouds got lyrical and gauzy.

But there are many things I learnt in and from Delhi. And most times, when I say, Delhi, I mean my soon-to-be-ex-husband.

I learnt to drive. Maybe a couple more failed marriages and I will learn to park and reverse and then I’ll be set for life.

I learnt to marvel at the intrepid guts of workers who trudge along in heat. The perspicacity is humbling.

I learnt to steel my fragile ego from the withering looks of auto-people.

I learnt the shayraana of clouds against ruins.

I learnt to love simple generosities of simple folk in a Noida bus.

I learnt that I embody the bard’s pithy truism - that I love too much but not too well.

I learnt that intuition is not necessarily gas in the tummy.

I learnt that when the promise of the mountain tops fade away, the aegis of the sea beckons.

I hope Bombay wants me back.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What my service provider knows

I have a Hutch pre-paid connection. Pre-paid is to mobile connection what the color of the pumpkin was to Cinderella. (Side issue, I mean.)

My days are now filled with a certain anxiety, where I sort of jump out of my skin at every little sound. So, I, many times, wonder when my dreadful office days will end.

Hutch decides to be the pointer of the Universe Jonathan Cainer keeps talking about. Hutch sends me an advert: ‘Dial *123*21* to activate the Astro alerts and know what your starts have in store for you today. Rs. 15/ month.’

Yes..that’s what I want to know..about my ‘starts’.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bad Work Days

I feel dizzy, nauseous, and have a sharp, throbbing pain that shoots up and down my back. Muscles at my neck are tight. I can’t seem to breathe properly. My brain totally shuts down when I have to do some really important task. I make so many mistakes, and when those are pointed out, I get more nervous and make some more mistakes.

I don’t know what to do. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I was being really disorganized. But this week, I worked weekends, worked 15 hour days, got everything today, and still, the client isn’t happy. No-one at work is happy.

Where am I going wrong? What must I do to make things better? When will this feeling go away?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Atop the little head

I watched Matrubhoomi last night. Half-way I decided not to. Five seconds later, I decided to plod on. Every fifteen minutes I had an overwhelming urge to vomit. Or scrub my skin raw in scalding water. Or wash my eyes to remove traces of all that I had seen. I was enveloped with a sort of revulsion that I will be trying to shake off for a long time to come.

The movie begins with a man drowning a new born baby girl in a cauldron of milk. It then takes us down a few years when there are no women left in India because of the tradition of female foeticide.

One woman, however, is discovered by a village priest. Her name is Kalki (it is quite telling that we hear her name only once in the film - from her father). She is married off to five brothers for five lakh rupees and five cows. On the first night, the eldest son takes a calendar to mark out the dates each of the husbands will spend with her. Now, because there are 5 brothers and 7 days in a week, two days remain to be accounted for. Their father takes over - being the head of the family, etc. In fact, he spends the first night with her.

So, in rotation, she spends her nights with the six men. One of her husbands likes to dress up in shiny ghagra cholis and smear a fake moustache on her before he has sex. Some kind of kinky reversal role-play. Another one has committed several acts of bestiality with cows after watching porn films. His copulation behavior with her is much the same. However, one of the other brothers (Sushant Singh) falls in love with her. She reciprocates to the tenderness.

On the days that Sushant Singh is allowed to be with her, he reads to her, they talk, they laugh. At night, she responds to him the way she doesn’t to the others. The father and the other brothers peep and watch them getting close. They get jealous and kill Sushant Singh.

Some time in the film, Kalki writes to her father and tells him of her father-in-law having sex with her. Her father comes and collects the additional one lakh rupees and leaves. Kalki is then beaten up by the brothers who tell her that her father is a pimp.

One day, she decides to run away. A servant boy helps her to escape. The brothers hunt them down, shoot the boy, and take Kalki back. Now, because she has become impure on account of running away with a person from the lower caste, she must be punished. So she is shackled and kept with the cows in the shed.

In the meantime, the murdered servant’s brother wants revenge from the higher caste murderers. And there is no better revenge than ravaging the honour of the family, who is lying in the shed among cows and dung.

Later, Kalki gets pregnant. One doesn’t know who the father is, but because the father-in-law had spent the first night with her, he claims that that the baby is his.

News of pregnancy has spread throughout the village. Elsewhere, the lower-caste revenger claims paternity of the baby. So he sets off to get his ‘dulhan’ home.

The higher castes will have none of it. What follows is a bloodbath where all the men are killed (save for another servant boy who has taken care of Kalki during her pregnancy.)

The movie ends with an exhausted Kalki looking down at a beautiful, bawling baby. It’s a girl.


***************

Now, I generally don’t measure a movie’s impact by punishing viewership. I react very badly to scenes of sexual assault. Instinctively, I get my legs closer together, close my eyes, wring my hands, and wish that it would all go away. From the movie, from this world. But this movie pushed me to the rims of squeamishness. I was subconsciously pushing my husband’s hand away every time some-one on the screen exploited Kalki.

I don’t know whether Matrubhoomi was a good movie or not. The music and the cinematography are impeccable. There are scenes of Kalki (who looks like a pretty, young bloom) in bright yellow cotton sari and a pink blouse. She looks so fragile and innocent. Then, when the idea of it is soiled so brutally time after time...it’s nauseating. There is a very sharp break in the visual syntax that I still can’t reconcile with. I can, however, acknowledge that if flinches and grimaces are benchmarks for influential cinema, then the point was very well made.

But what has twisted my mind is how I reacted to the end, when I saw the baby. The baby, in the movie, is the product of severe, inhuman exploitation. Her mother has been traumatized in so many soul-crushing ways. She, however, never once contemplates suicide. Even when she is pregnant and in bondage, she tenderly moves her hand on the swollen belly - before the men come and rape her.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about this little bit of ...life; it’s coming into this world that just mutilated whatever essence it stood for...and yet..when one is done is scourging through muck and filth, there is such hope and relief in seeing a baby.

As if the baby comes with a message that as long as there is the possibility of me, things will be okay. As long as life gets cultivated in someone’s body, even one that goes through starvation and horrors, as long as it survives.....as long as that happens, peace can be salvaged.

That is what a baby has come to mean. A little soul, that needs to be cultivated and taken care of, is our license to redemption. It is a sharp stirring of our comatose conscience. It’s coaxes a visceral prayer for the kindness out there.

That is the pressure on a baby. We ruined this world for you, child. Please take care of us.

Gibran said that children were life’s longing for itself.

It’s such a thorny crown to wear.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Correspondence

I like Barkha Dutt. I think she is intelligent, articulate, and very clued in. Someone forwarded me a piece she had written on the St. Stephen's quota issue. I forwarded this mail to a gentleman who I hold in very high regard. He replied. These two emails represent to me why dissent is important, why we learn so much from differing opinions. Because every story has a teller.

**********

For God’s sake - Barkha Dutt

Nostalgia can be an awful bore, especially for those whose memories are painted in hues different from ours. What we take away from our school and college years is especially personal and rarely transferable to someone standing outside that circle of experience. Perhaps that’s why the outcry over the new quota policy in St Stephen’s College has been dismissed by so many of you as the self-indulgent rant of an elitist alumni club. Some of you have even questioned why the admission procedure of an individual institution should become a matter of national debate. You sneer at what you call the nepotism of various editors and writers who studied there, for devoting a disproportionate amount of space and time to their old college (by the way, doesn’t it make its own point that so many of these opinion-makers are products of St Stephen’s?) And you demand to know why you should give a toss about how many seats are reserved in a college that didn’t leave an imprint on your life.

Here’s why.

There are only a handful of educational institutions that can be called emblems of a Thinking India. Just like Oxford and Cambridge separate the best from the rest in Britain, and Ivy League schools attract the most accomplished minds in the US, India can lay claim to just a few colleges with a legacy that is robust enough to mould the mind and shape the soul. St Stephen’s is inarguably one such place. What our IITs are to engineering and science, St Stephen’s is to the world of liberal arts and humanities. When this government proposed an additional 27 per cent quota for OBC students in the IITs and IIMs, we all had an opinion, even if we were never going to study technology or business. We didn’t sidestep or ignore the debate because it was only about a few thousand young people, and we were not one of them.

The quota policy, we believed, impacted the future of India, and we were all stakeholders in that. So it is with St Stephen’s. For those of you who have missed the controversy, here is what the fuss is all about. Under a new officer on special duty (Valson Thampu, my old teacher), the college has increased the overall Christian quota to 40 per cent, of which 25 per cent will be kept aside only for Dalit Christians. A certificate from a church will determine who is a Dalit Christian, and all such applicants will be measured against a cut- off of 60 per cent marks, irrespective of which subject they want to study (students competing in the general category for a seat at St Stephen’s usually need anything upwards of an 85 per cent score.)

If you add the seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and those kept aside for the sports quota, only four out of every 10 seats will now remain genuinely competitive. Christian students and SC/ST candidates already apply at a cut-off that is 15 per cent lower than that for the general category. And if this were not bad enough, the chairman of the Supreme Council that governs the college has declared that this “could be further lowered if there are not enough candidates to fill the quota”.

There is a frightening evangelical energy driving the new proposals. Thampu and others who support him have cited the college’s “Christian foundation” and unambiguous identity as a “mission college” to justify the new quotas. I studied English literature at St Stephen’s and it was Thampu who taught me how to look at the Bible as so much more than a preachy religious text. His passionate classes brought the Bible alive as a wonderfully constructed work of art. The Christianity of the St Stephen’s College I remember was atmospheric (how we loved the chapel, the choir and the Cross), cultural and entirely subtle.

Our T- shirts may have been proudly emblazoned with the motto of Ad Die Gloriam, but if anything, the tradition of our college was classic Nehruvian. With the fiery and perhaps naïve idealism of the young, we shunned caste, class and religion. Sprawled on the sunny front lawns of the college we loved, entirely unmindful of social background, region or even language, we believed that this, right here, was a microcosm of Modern India. If there was a Catholicism that defined us at all, it was the notion of right and wrong, justice and injustice and how to hang on to our principles in the face of pressure and prejudice. In the tradition of great liberal arts colleges everywhere in the world, we were argumentative, volatile and perennially in disagreement. But each one of us hoped that as we navigated our way through adult life, we would be guided by a moral compass.

Even today, as I argue (in the face of evidence to the contrary) that the good shall inherit the earth, my friends rib me about my “Catholic conscience”. But that is what I (and hundreds like me) learnt at St Stephen’s College. To watch these historic traditions of integrity and intellectual robustness being asphyxiated by a narrow textbook notion of religion is truly heartbreaking. St Stephen’s College is legally within its rights as a minority institution to bring in these new quotas (despite the fact that 95 per cent of its expenses are met by the University Grants Commission). But the college that taught us all to never accept inherited wisdom must now turn its innate questioning spirit to itself. It must answer why it has chosen to self-destruct and walk down a path that will kill the very liberalism that has defined it for decades. For the rest of India, this is a wake-up call. We have watched quota politics divide the country again and again. We sat back in helpless horror recently as Rajasthan erupted into a full-blown caste war. The poisonous cocktail of religion and politics has already destroyed other great institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University and the Banaras Hindu University. Must we keep another tombstone ready with nostalgic epitaphs in place? Merit may be a complex myth in a country as unequal as India. But it’s time for an ill-conceived and self-serving quota policy to get a firm and quiet burial. India needs a more imaginative way to address inequity and discrimination.

******

Response (I am putting up the relevant excerpt here):

...now, coming to the msg of Ms Dutt.. her grammar and syntax should please her English teacher, her persuasive style a credit to any advocate. Having said that her arguments do not move me . The hallowed shrines of knowledge will not crumble under onslaught of mediocrity, because of induction of some below par students.

Unlike an automobile factory, an educational institution is known not for its worst product but for its best product.. an animated discussion on Plato's dialogue can take place profitably even if the protagonists are not clad in designer clothes and pampered exclusivity.

As for lots of editors and others of that ilk emanating from such instution, the very same worthies have pulled down the standard of Indian journalism from dizzying heights of nation building in 19th and early 20th century , to a play of power and pelf , crony capitalism and even blackmail.

Apart from shady journos, the other famous product of St. Stephen is the IAS, IFS brigade who can definitely claim lions share of the country's travails. Mindless pursuit of power and position can only be attractive to idiots who have wasted their youth, chasing nothing greater than a career.


No, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is high time we bring overblown egos and reputations down to earth. Only regret is that the chosen process will not achieve the desired result of lifting the down trodden but will rob them of some of their brightest who will be contaminated by the selfserving process we have created in the name of quality.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A summer recipe

We had some people over for brunch this weekend. The night before A and I had spent several hedonistic hours at Aura and the Park, so we woke up groggy and unfit to do anything coherently. But I made this salad that not only required minimal co-ordination of brain and body, but was also quite summery and tasty.

Here’s what you need:

Steamed Corn - couple of cups,
1 packet mushroom, sliced finely. In fact, if you have long nails, it’s great fun shredding it with fingers.
Curd - 4-5 tablespoons (there’s more finesse if you use hung curd, but curd with minimum whey will also do)
Splashes of balsamic vinegar
I tablespoon - tomato sauce
1 tablespoon - mustard
1 tablespoon - pepper and thyme flavored cheese spread (that’s the flavor I used, one can take any variety. It's for the texture, really)
Salt and pepper

Sauté the corn and mushroom in butter until cooked.
In the meantime, mix the rest of the ingredients in a big, bright colored bowl (it reminds me of Snow White baking a cake, but I suppose others may fancy something more posh) with a wooden spoon. It does make a difference to the taste. Somehow the steel spoons make the curd taste funny.

Once the mushrooms and corn are cooked, plop them into the bowl and toss them about so that they are evenly covered with the dressing. Chill. (The bowl, that is. Actually, so can you. There are very slim chances of this dish going wrong. Unless of course you have used bad mushrooms and someone suffers from food poisoning.)

Peck delicately later.