Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

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The master raconteur takes his final blow in style

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Khushwant Singh in younger days

(This is my review of journalist and author Khushwant Singh’s (arguably) last book The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous, published in The Sunday Guardian a while ago. A delightful, pacy read, this book is for keeps.)

Among the commandments for writing good profiles, as taught to us throughout journalism school and careers, is ‘show the good, the bad and the ugly’. This basically means that someone attempting to condense a person’s life or deeds into an essay, you must be objective; show your subject as they are, not as they might want to be seen. The best profiles or biographies, certainly, are the ones that are unabashedly honest, laying criticism and/or credit where it is due. To be honest, then, requires courage, and is seen as essential to being a good journalist and a credible writer. Khushwant Singh has known this for the larger part of his long and illustrious career as both.

In the introduction to his latest book The Good, The Bad and the Ridiculous, he writes: “I have met a good number of this subcontinent’s most famous (or infamous) and interesting people. I have also suffered famous bores, and sometimes been rewarded with behavior so ridiculous that it becomes compelling…. A lot of what I have observed or found out is not flattering, but I have never held back from making all of it public in my columns and books. If what is good about a person can be written about, why not the bad? I don’t do this out of malice, only out of my firm belief in being truthful.”

Having lived for almost a century, Singh is well-placed to comment and opine on, and chronicle the life and times of the people who have shaped, or at least lived fairly public lives in, the subcontinent. He has also seen this part of the world change dramatically, from the time of British Raj to Independence to the rise of the ideological right-wing in India to the present era of globalization and liberalization. And he has kept a diary, “an extremely useful habit”, as he calls it.

In a sense, Singh fits the ‘been there, done that’ bill perfectly. One only needs to go through the 35-strong list of names he has written on in this book to see how, as editor of some of the country’s most notable newspapers (such as The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Hindustan Times), he has come into close contact with figures as powerful as Mahatma Gandhi, as revered as Faiz Ahmed Faiz or as celebrated as Protima Bedi.

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The book cover

Of these 35 profiles, some are scathing, others admiring, still others are a smooth blend of both – but they are never conjecture. Instead, they are a (reliable) peek into the private lives of the rich and the famous, of political honchos and celebrities from the worlds of cinema and literature – and he never deters from that other commandment of profile writing: Know thy subject well. He talks of film director Chetan Anand’s sexual promiscuity in the same breath as of poet and fellow-journalist Dom Moraes’ Anglo-Indian arrogance. He recounts a drunken, humiliating episode with actress Begum Para as vividly as he remembers the blackheads on Amrita Shergill’s nose.

He also retells, in chilling detail, his encounters with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the man who held the entire nation hostage from his ‘holy’ seat in the Golden Temple; a confrontation with Indira Gandhi where he pleaded for the release of Bangladeshi prisoners of war, where she admonished him for trying to lecture her on morality, followed by another encounter where she met him warmly at a party; and a summons by Jawaharlal Nehru in London while he (Singh) was PRO for the Indian embassy, after his affair with Lady Mountbatten had become public.

Singh talks about people who have entire books, films, even institutions dedicated to unearthing every tiny detail of their lives – such is the hold they have over public imagination. His profiles, then, become more like excerpts, snippets from entire lifetimes, the aankhon-dekhi that only he can elucidate upon. In that sense, The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous can also be read as an autobiography of sorts, for it also gives us a peek into the mind and heart of Khushwant Singh.

For instance, we learn of his sympathies for ex-defence minister George Fernandes and ex-President Giani Zail Singh, his deep admiration for social workers Mother Teresa and Bhagat Puran Singh; his attempts to trace the roots of Phoolan Devi’s criminal career tell us of his ability to look beyond the given picture; and those to revisit his blind faith in Sanjay Gandhi, unapologetically stating that “he was loyal, and so was I”, show us a man of conviction, but equally open to criticism; and his piece on L.K. Advani is a veiled apology for supporting the man who triggered this wave of ideological polarization – something that he regrets not writing about more, as he has stated in past interviews.

During the launch of the book at the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, earlier this year, his son Rahul Singh announced that this may well be his last book, citing health reasons for his retirement. For this reason alone, The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous demands a read – to see the world, one last time, through the hawkish eyes of this doyen of Indian journalism. As for the generous sprinkling of gossip and scandal throughout – which is delicious to read, nevertheless – an old man can be allowed his indulgence, once in a while.

Suspended on Beliefs: Riding the faith cycle in Madhya Pradesh

(This. Because I’m on a nostalgia trip. Also because I’m wanting to run away from Big City right now. But mostly because this is one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime.)

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Our little boat is silently making its way across the river Narmada. The only sounds audible are of geese squawking farewell to each other in the distance, the melodic strains of the oar splicing through the water, and the rapid clicking of a camera — it is a beautiful clear sunset in the tiny town of Maheshwar, the kind that occurs the day after torrential rain. Our destination is the 200-year-old Baneshwar temple situated in the middle of the river, one that the more modern motorboats only circle around for the benefit of tourists. “Once we get there, take your time, take as many pictures as you want, there’s no hurry,” says Kaluram, our wizened 60-year-old oarsman.

He has an ulterior motive — while we do a quick round of the temple and dismiss it as just another one of Madhya Pradesh’s countless shrines, he shrugs off his holey rubber chappals, does swift ablutions in the river and gets on with lighting diyas, offering flowers, perambulating the temple with folded hands and eyes devoutly shut. Sheepishly, we look the other way, perhaps not wanting to invade his privacy. Once he’s done, Kaluram crouches on the steps of the temple, lights a beedi and proceeds to give us a brief history of the place.

“Every year, there’s a flood in this river — banks, houses, trees are all washed away. When the tide ebbs, this little shrine is the only thing still standing. We think of it as a miracle — which is why I come here to pray every day,” he explains. From our vantage point in the dimming light, Ahilya Bai Holkar’s massive fort looks dwarfed in the distance. Under a starry, moonless sky, we quietly make our way back to the ghat, now thronged by people sending off little betel leaf boats loaded with flowers and incense sticks into the river.

Maheshwar is a small town, quite off the beaten track, that thrives on a special kind of textile crafted here and because of adventurous tourists, mostly foreigners. Ahilya Bai Holkar, after being appointed ruler of Malwa in 1767, set up her capital here. Inside the fort, one of the few living ones in the country is a little house with a blooming angan where she used to live.

This space is now a museum stocked with her sparse belongings, countless portraits, posters and canvasses printed with poetry in praise of her piety, simple beauty and valour. Inside the fort are also countless shivlings, a school for girls, a Maheshwari cloth workshop run by old, widowed women and the poshest restaurant in town.

The people of the town seem to follow Ahilya Bai’s example dedicatedly — their visits to the smooth sandstone riverside are a daily ritual, says Kaluram. Not only does this serve as a release from the humdrum of everyday life, but it also acts as a binding force, instilling a sense of community. This spirit is quite in contrast with nearby Mandu, a more popular destination thanks to some wonderful historic architecture marvels, but which we are repeatedly warned away from due to brewing communal tensions. The issue at hand was a Hindu opposition to the Muslims offering namaaz at the local Bhojshala temple, a tradition that has continued for ages.

We’ve arrived here after a week of haphazard travelling — having hopped onto a train to Jhansi from Delhi, we headed to Khajuraho, “the land of the Kama Sutra”, as an American girl on the train put it. Khajuraho is, of course, particularly popular with the foreign tourists because it is a window to India’s heritage that celebrates all that is carnal. We cycle around the tiny cosmopolitan village that has cropped up between the eastern and western temples, populated with little hotels and restaurants serving a global menu. The temples themselves are beautiful — cut in sandstone, with statues depicting sexual positions studding the tall structures. Even the Jain temples to the west, known to be a tribute to sacrifice and abstinence, are designed thus, inspiring a sense of awe for those who are acquainted with the ways of the Hindu religion.

Pachmarhi, the Deccan’s only hill-station, is known to be an important destination on the Shaivite pilgrim’s map. Deep in the Satpura jungles is a cave, popularly known as Jatashankar, where you descend into a wet crevasse to discover a small shrine to the lord of destruction, guarded by tridents and a stalactite that looks like the hood of a cobra snake. An old woman wrapped in blue plastic sits on a rock and sings bhajans in a startlingly clear voice. When we compliment her, she gives us a toothy grin and demands I take a picture of her. Calling herself shankarji ki bhaktan, she says, “I’ve been here since I was a little girl — never married, no kids. He is my lord, my soul. I sing for his pleasure.”

Near the cantonment is the town Church, among the few survivors of the British contribution to this town. From a distance, it looks enticingly haunted, half-obscured by tall poplars, and we can catch glimpses of pretty stained-glass windows. But a woman selling cigarettes in front of the church intercepts us and, after some discomfiting questions (“Where are you going? Are you Christian? Catholic?”), tell us that tourists aren’t allowed in anymore. We find out much later that her tale of a mob coming and vandalising the church, post which it was only open on Sundays for mass, is a complete hogwash and just a ploy to earn some extra money on the side.

Our sojourn into the heart of India was not meant to be a religious one, but it seems that in Madhya Pradesh, faith just happens to be the driving force for pretty much everything. We leave Maheshwar with a heavy heart — our agnostic souls found peace sitting on the steps of the fort, as we watched breathtaking sunsets in silence. On the bus to Indore, the closest stop for a railway connection, we meet a maulavi dressed in a black achkan and white pyjamas, his silver beard flecked with red. We offer him our breakfast — delicious sweet and spicy poha wrapped in newspaper, for the princely sum of Rs. 5 — at which he smiles and begins talking about politics, religion and education, exalting the virtues of the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita and the Quran in a single breath.

As we get closer to the highway, we spot a poster by a local political party, calling for an end to namaaz in the Bhojshala temple and sporting one of the ‘sexy’ figurines from Khajuraho. While we’re busy guffawing at this, our new friend finds this violation of amity atrocious. “What is the point of religion if all it makes you want to do is force your ideas upon others?” he demands, his voice quavering. “I teach my pupils all the holy texts — and the only way to find true faith is to sieve the good out of these, because, I must warn you, they aren’t without flaws,” he asserts. It was ironical — he used the very factors that drive us ‘secular’ city folk into disclaiming religion to inspire a pluralist sensibility. But then again, in this land of convergence, such a manifestation of faith can hardly be surprising.

Uzuri: The goodness of the wild on your plate, Masterchef style

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The terrace at Uzuri

South African chef Guy Clarke finished 11th on Masterchef South Africa’s last season. He was rather popular on the show—mostly because he is cute as a button. Now, he is set to have the folks of Delhi eating out of his hands at Uzuri, the new restaurant in town that he has crafted the menu for, in collaboration with Michelin starred chef Rishim Sachdeva, one of Heston Blumenthal’s sous chefs, who has worked at The Fat Duck and The Savoy (UK) in the past.

Uzuri has had a lot of people eagerly waiting for a while now – not only for the brand names attached to it, but also for the kind of experimental, never-seen-before cuisine it has on offer. They call it ‘Euro-fusion’, which basically means African and European sensibilities on one plate. This, obviously, promises to be quite a novelty for an audience that has practically no exposure to African food.

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Salmon fillet salad

But there’s no yams and foo-foo to be found here. On their brief but drool-worthy menu, you find staples of European cuisine – steaks, tenderloin patty, quinoa salads, pastas, an abundance of meats, seafood and vegetables – but then, there’s something different. For example, the salmon fillet salad comes with a pickled kohlrabi (that vegetable that looks like Sputnik) which is super-tangy and spicy at the same time, thin slices of cucumber, fennel, sesame seeds and horseradish vinaigrette. On the whole, this makes for a really sour dish which, for a country that eats pickles with every meal (sometimes even as a tea-time snack) is quite palatable. Then there are the artisan breads – three kinds of breads, one made of sourdough that is left to rise for 48 hours, with toppings of wild mushroom and truffle ragout (perfect for ketchup lovers), cottage cheese and chilli, and smokey coleslaw and chilli garlic infusion.

For mains, there’s a variety of meats where the African influences rise to prominence. The tenderloin steak comes glazed in a film of coffee powder and paprika, with a chunk of truffle butter smoked a moment before it arrives at your table, marrow roast potatoes and vegetables ­— and it is pure rapture slicing through the perfectly roasted meat.

This goes for the sous vide chicken breast too – the meat is wonderful, but this dish disappoints because it is too dry. The truffle gnocchi and wild black cabbage sides can do with a thinner sauce, or a glass of wine on the side. But, as chef Sachdeva informs us when he arrives with dessert (a dreamy dish involving strawberries, lemon marshmallows, berry and basil coulis and pecan ice cream) for a chat, they’re still experimenting and fine-tuning their dishes to Indian tastes. This, then, is perhaps why we’d urge you to try Uzuri (Swahili for goodness) – for artistic food at a no-reservations, humble space.

Living Room Conversations in 2013

“It’s pretty clear now that Modi will be our next Prime Minister.”

*grudging nods*

“But you have to see, no, how these Congress people have sold off our country. The BJP, whatever else it may be, at least has sound minority upliftment policies.”

*grunts of derision* “And what might these be?”

“They don’t believe in any of this wishy-washy business of reservations. You know, reservations and quotas and all these fillips have actually harmed the minorities. They’ve become comfortable with the way things are. Expect the government to hand everything to them on a silver platter.”

“Okay, let me stop you right there. Reservation as a policy may have gone wrong in our country, that’s another discussion. But if the BJP is against it, it’s not because they genuinely care about the Muslims or other minorities, but because they want votes. Hindu votes. Lots of them.”

“No no, that is rubbish. The party may have started out with the Hindutva peg, but look at how they’ve changed. Look at what Modi has done in Gujarat, he has transformed it. What development!”

“There are actually reports saying other-….”

“Have you been to Ahmedabad recently? Looks like Europe only. Beautiful. The roads, the cleanliness! And I hear they have great infrastructure too.”

“But that’s only in areas that are non-Muslim. There are reports that say Muslim areas have been ghettoised. That there were boycotts and Muslims were discriminated against for the longest time. For all you know, this is still true. The man is just cashing in on the UPA’s weak moment.”

“And he might as well. Such brilliant governance. He will turn the country around.”

“But there is still a large number of people, at least I know several people, who are dead against him coming to power. He and the party he hails from are divisive forces. If we think six degrees of separation…”

“But why? Till when are you lot going to harp on 2002? Godhra wasn’t the only such incident that happened in the country. The Congress also allowed all those Sikhs to be killed in 1984 when Indira Gandhi died.”

“But look at the scale of violence! Two wrongs never make a right. No one’s saying that 1984 was acceptable. But neither can 2002 be, right?”

“They started it. They started it by setting fire to that coach full of men, old and young, women, children. All those poor souls did was go to Ayodhya…”

“So then it was a retaliation to the Babri Masjid episode…”

“In which no people died. All they did was demolish that mosque!”

“But why? Why do that? Why did it matter so much? Doesn’t that just show you what they’ve thought and wanted to do with the minorities all along?”

“No! There was a temple earlier. It belonged to us, that land! Those bloody Mughals came and plundered through everything. During Ram’s time, there was a temple there…”

“What?! How can you possibly know what was there in the time of a mythological character? This is such ridiculous conjecture!”

“But they did have it coming. And how can you take their side? They don’t even let their women study, or breathe in peace. They’re such a patriarchal lot, and so extreme! They don’t really want to live here also. But India’s government made it so convenient for them. Being secular means they get the best of both worlds. They’re far away from the troubles of Pakistan and here they can be as ‘Muslim’ as they want to be.”

“But…? What best of both worlds? They make up the larger part of our poor classes.”

“And whose fault is that? Because of these reservations, they don’t have the incentive to work hard and move ahead in life. Their basic survival needs are met by the government. And you don’t know, but they also get a lot of opportunities. So many seats in the UPSC and in public sector companies and schools and colleges lie waiting for them to come and simply take. And they wouldn’t even have done anything to deserve it.”

“But even if what you’re saying happens, these ‘benefits’ can only be reaching a small percentage of people. I’m sure a lot are still not even aware of what all they have a right to.”

“No, all that’s rubbish. They all know. They’re very cunning. They send their kids to these madrasas, where they learn the same codes of conduct that existed 100 years ago. Empty minds are the devil’s paradise.”

“BUT WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? THIS IS A COMMUNITY LIKE ANY OTHER MINORITY THAT IS MINORITISED! THROUGH STATE ACTION, THROUGH STATE TERRORISM, BY THESE SANGH PARIVAR TYPE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SUCCESSFULLY BRAINWASHED MIDDLE CLASS EDUCATED PEOPLE LIKE YOU…LOOK AT ALL THE INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE THAT HAPPEN IN THIS COUNTRY, THE MINORITIES SUFFER MORE EVERY TIME. THIS IS A DANGEROUS TREND….”

“Listen, calm down. We don’t know who’ll be PM yet. But it’s quite certain that Modi will be our leader. We need a man like him to come to power. He will save the economy, and put up a brave face in front of China. He is what this country needs.”

*Resigned to our fate, we reconsider our options. Much to our horror, we realise, there are none.*

There is no point of history. History is the past becoming the future becoming the present all over again, all the time.

Boys II Men: Dissecting masculinites in South Asia

(Let’s Talk Men is a project started by Aakar, a media house in Delhi started by filmmaker Rahul Roy. The thrust of this project is to investigate masculinities as a part of the emerging gender discourse in south Asia, as in the rest of the world. In this second edition, held in Delhi last week, four films helped a small but deeply engaged audience make better sense of the over-arching term — Patriarchy. This can also be read here.)

In an unequal world, ‘boys will be boys’ is an oft-repeated phrase that encompasses a wide range of social behaviour – from a general sense of XY entitlement to an assumption that men are ‘like that only’, pre-ordained from birth to be violent, dominant or generally the powerful sex. Yet, there is now greater interest in attempting to understand what goes into making men, rather than simply studying how this has affected other genders. The NGO Aakar’s project, Let’s Talk Men, is an effort in this direction – with four films shot and executed in four separate South Asian contexts, the initiative aims to reveal various situations that men find themselves in and are moulded by. Last week, the second edition of Let’s Talk Men was held with films from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. Supported by Partners for Prevention, a UN agency, the first edition happened in 1998. “When we started, masculinities were just beginning to be discussed from within the feminist movement and academic circles. It was a fairly new concept then, but the second edition is timely as it has gained from all that has happened in the past 15 years. It also tries to open windows on how men can reflect on their separate situations and see themselves differently,” said Rahul Roy, director of Aakar.

His film Till We Meet Again touches base with the four protagonists from Jahangirpuri, Delhi, of his 1999 film, When Four Friends Meet. The men, whose earlier preoccupations dealt with girlfriends and finding employment, are now married with children. They attempt to negotiate the everyday with their families and friends, and are, in a sense, appropriated by this city that they earlier looked upon critically. Kesang Tseten’s documentary Men At Work, on the other hand, looks at four different kinds of work spaces. Here, a Nepali domestic worker, a mechanic, young boys studying for priesthood, and Gurkhas vying to be part of the British regiment, find themselves being regimented into becoming men. Prasanna Vithanage’s feature With You, Without You positions itself at the heart of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, tracing an army officer’s tryst with love and reality. Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s feature Zinda Bhaag puts the spotlight on the lives of three boys from Pakistan for whom emigration (by hook or by crook) is the only answer to, and escape from the pressures of society and family.

The films emphasise that people are a product of their circumstances. In Zinda Bhaag, for instance, Khaldi is a taxi-driver bent on migrating to the UK because he needs money to support his mother and his sister’s wedding. He tries through the formal route and is rejected, is fleeced by an agency, and finally resorts to gambling for a fake passport and visa. In Tseten’s documentary, an aspiring soldier says that the British Gurkha regiment is all he ever dreamed of joining because he saw his grandfather holding a gun and he wanted to do the same, because it was a matter of great pride in his family. In Roy’s documentary too, we see the four men torn between the idealism of youth and their often unbearable realities, bringing out aspects of violence that are very disturbing to watch.

A still from Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s Zinda Bhaag

“If men today centrally feature in processes of violence or discrimination, they cannot be ignored. Through this project, we’ve attempted to challenge certain ways in which masculinity is being interpreted and defined in the development sector,” says Roy, pointing to the desire for a much more nuanced investigation into the subject. And he feels this has already begun, thanks to the December 2012 protests. “It was an emotive, cathartic moment that triggered a lot of writing by men about the experience of being a man. There is a lot of social questioning – the implications of which are difficult to discern at the moment, but perhaps more platforms for men to articulate how they have received these events might be helpful,” he observes.

I now pronounce You.

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One of the trailers for Shuddh Desi Romance begins with, of all things, a statistic: “77% women feel it is wrong to kiss on the first date” (or something to that effect). This is followed by a shot of Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) going at it, presumably on their first date; after which comes yet another ticker: “If you disagree, come watch our movie” (or something to that effect, again).

This, of course, is complimented by a week full of afternoon news on TV channels with headlines like: “27 KISSES!!! IS Sushant Singh Rajput the new Emraan Hashmi?!” Forget food security, riots in UP, Wawrinka’s almost there genius, Syria and the rest of the world, because this, really, is quite the crucial question that all our lives depend upon. But, umm, I can’t overdo the sarcasm bit at this point because I, after all, did go watch this film, intrigued as I was by the prospect of seeing that beautiful man locking lips and acting skills with not one, but two, women! (voyeur much?)

So, ladies and gentlemen, imagine my disappointment when, by the time the intermission (or bathroom break, as they call it in the film) has arrived, I realise that he’s done nothing but kiss so far, and that his acting skills seem to be some kind of a mirage, an illusion that emerged thanks to those glistening bronzed six-pack abs that took our collective breath away in Kai Po Che, his debut film. As Raghuram Sitaram, he plays the tour guide + local loafer + baarati available on hire, who falls in love (at first sight) with a random girl he meets on a bus, en route his own wedding. What should’ve been an awkward but adorable guy comes across as horny and not a little retarded with his repetitive ‘kya hai’s.

Now this girl he’s fallen in love with is your average Indian cutesy thing, who talks about her previous boyfriends, and smokes, incessantly. And this girl (Vaani Kapoor) he’s about to leave at the altar (at the pretext of taking a leak, no less) is a beauty of epic proportions and seems to be the well-behaved, demure kind that is the stuff of Indian guys (and their mothers’) wet dreams. But the heart wants what it wants, so run away we must, safe in the knowledge that we shall find her.

After a rushed, incoherent proposal, Gayatri and Raghu end up in a live-in relationship (which lasts for 15 mins screen time, but I hope is supposed to mean at least a month?). After a few ups and downs, and a lot of dancing at the camera to a song that goes “ab chali meri love life” (along with smoking, drinking and shaving together), they decide to get married one drunk night.

To cut a long story short (and to avoid spoilers, and because the plot is not what I want to talk about), let’s just say that there’s a love triangle brewing. All three have commitment issues, get cold feet easily and are in the bad habit of leaving without saying goodbye. There usual excuse is that they must visit the loo right this very moment. Rishi Kapoor and his royal moustache are a pleasant break from the monotony of secret looks and winks and nudges that this film relies on. And the choice of Jaipur and Jodhpur as backdrops make sure the aesthete in you is satiated. And the stylistic moorings of the film are fresh and deserve praise.

But, finally getting around to what I actually wanted to talk about: This film attempts to put the spotlight on live-in relationships. Jaideep Sahni, the man who’s given us gems like Khosla ka Ghosla and Chak De India! in the past, experiments with the modern-day idea of a relationship — speedy, raunchy, naughty and with an exit always in view. For this, he looks at the concept of a live-in relationship and, it seems to me, approaches the subject like a star-eyed little child: there’s presumption aplenty and a thought not well-executed.

Since I belong to the generation of people he’s put his lens on (and seems quite sympathetic towards), I feel that his characters are just caricatures. These semi-etched people then fall in and out of love in the wink of an eye, think themselves street-smart but are actually blind to the motions of cupid and dear old Goel saab, and are also quite scarred by the travesty that is life. Towards the end, while analysing (or rationalising?) his behaviour, Raghu finds blame in all these fake weddings that he sees day in and day out. “How can I bring myself to commit to someone when I bear witness to the sham that Indian weddings are?” he asks of his companion (as promised, no spoilers).

This is where things get problematic.

First, weddings do not a marriage make. I mean, of course, you can’t have a marriage without some sort of ceremony to put you in binding contract, forever and for always. But there’s so much more to making a marriage work than simply the rituals. Yes, we do go crazy, bordering on intense insanity, during weddings. Yes, there’s ample posturing. But beyond that, what you make of your relationship is entirely based on your mutual capability and will to adjust.

Second, our main characters here seem to choose a live-in relationship as an alternative to, quite in rebellion of, marriage. All the people I know who prefer to do live-ins are actually opposed to marriage as an institution, not tired of weddings (or out of money to buy a good pair of Nikes). In Shuddh Desi Romance, the raison de etre for a live-in relationship just seems to be an aversion to being “forced” to be in a relationship.

Third, this “being forced” comes from the assumption that marriages are forever. For characters as independent and strong-minded as these, divorce or separation can’t be out of the realm of possibility, logically speaking. So, for Raghu to say “this getting married business doesn’t suit me” because it feels like imprisonment, is a little out of character too.

Sahni’s intention is clear — he wants to normalise the idea of a live-in relationship by placing his film and the characters in a tier II city, a little away from the melting pots that metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai are becoming. He also wants to show what factors could lead up to a couple choosing to keep in informal. But, the reasons he finds along the way are confused, and end up portraying an entire generation of people as thoughtless, naive and childish. Can’t see this going down too well around here.

The Wrath of the Spurned: How Acid Attacks Life Beyond The Moment

(Now that the Supreme Court of India has made the laws regarding acid attacks more stringent — imposing a rather difficult-to-implement ban on sale of acid, and a more respectable amount of financial aid — it is worth looking at how this might change things for the better. You can also read this here)

Pragya was sleeping on the upper berth in a sleeper compartment of a train to Varanasi when she felt a burning sensation on her face. She woke up with a start — she literally felt her skin on her cheek come away when she touched it. “I jumped down and began screaming with pain. It was 2 am, my clothes had melted and people around me thought I was going mad. If it weren’t for the foreigner who recognised what had happened to me and called a doctor, I would’ve perhaps not survived,” she says, recalling with vivid clarity, the moment she was acid attacked in 2006.

The attack came merely 10 days after her marriage and, as she and her family were to find out in the following weeks, was the repercussion of a rejected marriage proposal. “The man was at least a decade older than me and apparently already married. They caught him and put him in jail in the next few months, but he’s out on bail now. None of it changes the fact that it took me over two years simply to recover physically,” she says.

Recently, two men on a motorbike threw acid on four sisters in Shamli. The case has made national headlines, as did another incident in Patna where two teenage girls were also victimised in their sleep. It is heartening to see an increased focus on reporting sexual crimes against women, following the December 2012 protests that were triggered by the gangrape of a girl in a moving bus in the capital.

It is important to recognise the special nature of acid attacks, seeing as they are generally perpetrated by somebody in the know. In the Shamli case, one of the accused is the brother-in-law of the victim. The girls wanted to go to town about their illicit relationship, and this was his way of containing the situation. In the Patna case, the attackers were spurned lovers.

“A general perception is that the male ego cannot take rejection lightly and seeks to overcome his rage through such an attack. This is complicated with the impulsive spirit of today’s youth, which cannot handle what we call ‘delay of need gratification’ – they don’t seem to find any sense of illegitimacy to their actions. Another explanation would be the lack of accessibility – the feeling of “if your attractiveness can’t be available to me, I will make sure nobody else can have it either”,” observes Dr. Arvind Mishra, professor of social psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The notion of revenge is critical to acid attacks, since its intent is to ruin the victim’s life without actually ending it. Such attacks cause disfiguration that lasts for a lifetime, because the social stigma attached to deformation ensures that the victim would no longer have access to a social life, nor will she be considered a viable candidate for marriage. The fact that acid is easily available at kirana shops and supermarkets across the country, doesn’t help the situation.

The consequences of acid attacks can be very dire – considering the fact that this form is particularly popular in the low to lower-middle classes of society, the victims’ access to medical help might be limited. Basic operations to keep the victim alive could result in bills as big as Rs 50 lakh, or more, at times. Also, the facilities to treat first degree burns are few and far between. It was due to the lack of proper medical treatment that 23-year old J Vinodini died in Pondicherry after being attacked by her neighbour, and battling for life for over three months.

It is also within the momentum created by the December 2012 protests that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed recently, recognising the various forms of such violence and raising the punishment bar for rape, voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks. Up till now, all these offences were clubbed under the ambivalent label of ‘grievous hurts’ in sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment upto seven years – legislation, or lack thereof, that itself showed just how seriously violence against women was being taken by the state.

Under the amendment ordinance, acid attacks, along with the others, are recognised as specific crimes and are punishable by imprisonment of upto 12 years, along with a fine of upto Rs 10 lakh. While this is a definite improvement, it still seems to fall short of the correction required in cases of acid attack, from the point of view of the victim. “The government has made provisions for a parallel amendment in the Criminal Procedure Code to provide compensatory medical and private aid for victims. But whether this will be followed through remains to be seen,” notes Madhu Mehra, director of Partners for Law in Development.

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She is sceptical because of two factors – the speed of convictions in India is nothing to boast about, and it isn’t possible to adjudge the capacity of the accused to pay the stipulated fine. “The government needs to recognise that this is among the most physically debilitating crimes. It must also acknowledge the fact that violence can create polities of its own kind. For the victim, it would be more important to get back on her feet. You can either make sure that you take up social transformation, but when you can’t even tell the Khap panchayats to shut up, you could at least ensure that the schemes or provisions you draft are water-tight,” she states.

In such a situation, does regulating the availability of acid make sense? “Not really,” says Mehra, “because it isn’t the ‘weapon’, but the intent that needs to be inspected. Ten years ago in Mongolpuri, we heard of a case where men on motorbikes were slashing women’s faces with razor blades. The government could slap restrictions, but there’s always a way to get around the law, especially for a product so cheaply available. We just can’t deal with disfigurement and that is what needs to be addressed.”

Today, living in near-complete anonymity in an undisclosed location, Pragya believes that she’s been luckier than most, thanks to a supportive husband and family back home at Varanasi. “I have no friends though – when I walk on the road, people ask me what happened to my face. There’s plenty of sympathy, but they don’t really want to associate with me beyond that,” she says.

She has now started working with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO working to help victims with medical and financial aid. Her aim is to help girls come out of the trauma through counselling and group support sessions. “I don’t think I am abnormal – it is feeling that a lot of girls develop when their faces and bodies are maimed in this manner. I want to help them get back to their lives as before,” she says.

Trying Times

So, here’s a telling point about where we are in our scale of liberation. Two reports in this morning’s paper, one about the US and the other about India. Both concerning rape…

Obama’s government expands 8-decade old definition of rape

The Justice Department said the crime of rape will be defined as “”penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim,” CNN reported. “This long-awaited change to the definition of rape is a victory for women and men across the country whose suffering has gone unaccounted for over 80 years,” said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement released Thursday, USA Today reported.

Meanwhile, in India, a man’s sentence for sodomising a child is reduced, because he may have had justifiable reasons for his act of ‘shame’:

According to the prosecution, Harijan was a neighbour of the victim, and both lived on Mankhurd-Ghatkopar Link Road. On January 10, 2006, he took the child to a deserted place near her house and sodomised her while her father was away…On January 1, 2008, a sessions court acquitted Harijan of charges of rape but held him guilty under Section 377 on charges of sodomy…Arguing against the quantum of sentence awarded to Harijan, his lawyer Arfan Sait said he was poor and “living alone, away from his native place and therefore probably he lost control over himself”.

Where are we headed?

Annalogy

mini-revolution at Chandni Chowk. (mid-August)

(Two weeks after the government ‘gave in’ and agreed to review the Jan Lokpal Bill draft as per Anna and the rest of his brigade’s demands, the circus is over. Over? Maybe not. But definitely taking a break. Now Anna Hazare and Prashant Bhushan have differing opinions on the fate of Kasab. But where has the urgency behind the “Bhrashtachar mitaoo!” morcha suddenly gone? Patience may be a virtue, but this seems suspiciously like a case of bought silence. On another note, there really ought to be an in-depth analysis of the role of 24*7 media coverage in events and their effect on the world. But this is a rant i wrote while the storm was raging and all of Delhi was out on the roads, celebrating god knows what. The silence now only goes to show how easily we’re made fools of.)

One 74-year old man has taken the nation by storm. By simply defying his right to food, right to freedom and right to speech on various occasions in the past couple of months, in protest against that corroding feature of the Indian ‘system’ called ‘bhrashtachaar’, he has almost single-handedly put the government on edge, making it jittery enough to take damaging decisions that it has regretted two seconds later. In the tornado of fury that he has unleashed, there has emerged a ‘civil society’ more comprehensive than the smattering of NGOs and activism that the word is understood to represent in common parlance – spiritual leaders, yoga gurus, human rights activists, academics or simply my neighbour who seems to have finally found, if nothing else, a maidaan to vent his frustration – all under a single umbrella. They’ve yelled slogans as one, screamed silence as one, gone on sulking diets as one, walked the roads with candles alit and banners ablaze as one, chanted hymns, ranted against the government, fed each other’s anger, as one – one immensely volatile mass of people that is giving the impression of being a time bomb, ticking to explosion.

One has to hand it to him. Anna Hazare is to 2011 what Mahatma Gandhi was to 1942. Leadership is no walk in the park. Getting through to a mass of people that is usually too self-involved to bother about the rest (the dictum goes: “humne duniya ka theka le rakha hai kya?” or “Have we taken on the contract to uphold morality in society?”), and getting them to come out of comfort zones is a big achievement. Taking on a government along with the entire hallowed ranks of officialdom is daring, like a garish cinematic stunt one can expect from those gutsy gatsbies, the likes of Clint Eastwood or Rajnikant. He has become our new age poster-boy, the hero of this 21st century saga reiterating the ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘us vs. them’ battle that has been raging since eternity. He has suddenly metamorphosed into a demi-God, with his name on everybody’s lips, like a chant, feverishly whispered, that has the power to purge a society steeped in decades, nay centuries, of sin.

Then there is the cause itself. Corruption is that aspect of Indian life that every office, household, man, woman and, sadly, child is acquainted with. From the time we begin to gain a basic consciousness of the way systems and societies work, we are told in defeated tones that this, too, is an undesirable, but entirely real facet of how things are run here. At some level, we are even encouraged to learn how to slip it to them ‘under the table’, smooth talking all the while to cover the crudeness of the act, be it to the local plumber, the policeman or the politician (or even his peon).

We learn that as is in the case of our elders, teachers and other authority figures, “ours isn’t to question why, ours is but to do and die”. Only this time, it isn’t the steely resolve Tennyson imagines to be on the face of the many-hundred dedicated soldiers, now it done is a casual, dismissive shrug of the shoulder, and we’re on our way. A subtext that lends itself to innocent beings getting welded into maturity and adulthood in this process is: if it’s ok to give some, it must be ok to take some back too. After all, what goes around, really ought to come around too. And so, corruption, one would be forced to argue, is more than just the much publicised 2G scam, the Adarsh scam, the Bofors scam; it is more than numbers and names, it is increasingly an entire ‘norm’ in itself. Fighting against corruption, then, is fighting against our very own baser selves.

This is not to say that everybody in this country is essentially corrupt. They are not. We, the middle classes who are said to be the backbone of this movement, would essentially be victims, even in the carrying out of the act, because honest ways don’t exist. But it would bode well to pause and question – does externalising the fact absolve us all of our mini-sins that snowball into the hulk of an evil? Is everybody in this movement just fed-up of the system, are there no appearances being kept up in the process? Would one more law change everything so drastically, would this be the nation that manages to kick the butt for good? Will Jan Lokpal be the most effective nicotine patch man ever made?

Chances are, this won’t happen. A lesson our parents wish very strongly for us to learn is that change never happens overnight. Social change, systemic change, specially, is a time-consuming process and generations of protest could go into changing hearts and minds, show them a better path. Similarly, we should know that corruption, the epitome of all that constitutes the rot and decay of our precious ancient society, is not going to go away with a hunger strike and general civil upheaval, like the sustained Satyagraha of Gandhi managed to repel the British. This is because corruption is not an alien colonial capitalist invader, it lives and surfeits within and among us. Nor will it evaporate out of existence with another law being passed, because one can’t fight the system through a weapon of the system itself. We will have to be more innovative than that.

With a little common sense, it would seem as if education is the sole ambit of possible social change, especially if the change is to be as monumental as this. If you want it out of the system, you’re going to have to start from the basics. Hajmola can only quell the quake in your stomach, not eradicate the root causes. The cure might lie in changing the way you see things, do things, eat things. Forget the fish fry and butter chicken, shift to whole wheat and green leafy vegetables. Bring back the discipline and restraint in your life. So, while I too am all for holding ‘them’ accountable for all our taxes that they gobble up, it would really be encouraging to see some more long-term thinking and less indefinite fasting from Ramlila Maidaan.

Of course, to this cynicism-coated rant, one could retort that movements like this are about building hope. Hope is what we, the people, the common men, thrive on. It is also what Obama’s thrived on, with big words possibly going to land him a second presidential term. If a man can inspire hope in this world steeped in scepticism, we ought to doff our topis and stand up for him, next to him. One knows that conflict resolution is all about ‘winning hearts and minds’, which Anna, bless his starved soul, has definitely managed to do. And for simply that fact, one hopes that this circus is over sooner than later, that we get our accountability and our transparency, and that this is not just another spark of excitement in the mundane lives of countless trigger-happy and TV-hooked Indians, that fizzles out before autumn arrives.

Ann-a-shan. mid-August, Chandni Chowk