Saturday, December 20, 2008

A country of fatalists

On night shifts, it is common for reporters to roam the city, hunting for news. I was supposed to cover a car rally that was starting from the Gateway of India at around 5:30-6am in the morning of 12 December; which meant I left my office somewhere around 4:30am.

It was two weeks since the terror attack, 26-28 November 2008, and this was the first time that I was visiting those spots; in the dead of the night; after the incident.

As I left my office, I felt a chill. I remembered the last time I had been to Gateway, some 4-5 months ago.

Like visitors do, I had walked around the Taj’s outer corridors, trying to get a glimpse of the happy times that were hidden behind those glass windows, wondering about the fun people had in those dim and tastefully-lit restaurants.

But now, I knew those windows had been sealed with wood and cardboard; to hide the devastation, 60 hours of terror had caused. The Taj was covering its scars, so that healing could begin.


These were my thoughts as I drove through the quiet streets of Mumbai. We passed through the CST railway station – the pride of Mumbai. I could feel the enormity of what had happened here just a few nights ago. Bullets had been flying; bullets that two of my colleagues had barely managed to escape from. But many others hadn’t.

In the past 15 days, nothing had happened to reassure me that bullets would not fly here again. “So who would it be next time?” I shuddered to think.

In the quiet of the night we proceeded towards Gateway. When we reached there, we found the area was barricaded. How ironic!

When the whole anti-terror operation was going on, anyone and everyone from the general public could get real close. But now after all was over, the barricades were up, with two policemen on guard.

Why is it that we always take re-active measures? Haven’t we heard that prevention is better than cure?

At Gateway, I was met by my counterparts from other channels. The first question everyone asked one another was how they had fared after the coverage.

As we stood there, we noticed two youngsters with knapsacks waiting for the morning ferry. Did the terrorists also look as commonplace as these two kids? Was that why no one stopped them when they moved freely around the city, unleashing terror?

Yes, it was irrational to be reminded of Kasav and his cohorts, just because there were two young men in front of us with knapsacks.

But then paranoia is irrational.

This chain of conversation was broken as two morning walkers came along and asked us if we thought it was safe to take a stroll near the Gateway.

Walking at Gateway and Marine Drive is so taken for granted by every Mumbaikar. And yet here they were today wondering if they could walk!


The rally arrived; its members were to go to Delhi to hand over a citizen’s charter to the prime minister.

Suddenly there was some hope in the air. Maybe more of such movements would be launched and people would take them seriously.

But call it a journalist’s cynicism, I wasn’t sure if this fervour would last. But for now, these people really seemed to want to make a difference.

I hope it lasts, but the issue of citizen’s security seems to have taken a backseat as our rulers play at diplomacy and mandate 2009 politics.

The terrorists used the sea this time and targeted hotels. They might use and target something else next time. Are we any better guarded than we were 15 days ago?

More than 600 people have died during the last 3-4 months in this country in terror attacks. But no one seems to have learnt a lesson.

Maybe that is why we will continue to be fatalists. Wondering, when we leave home every morning, if we would be back home safely in the evening, and shrugging it all off, with “Is desh mein kahin bhi kuch bhi ho sakta hai.”

Friday, October 31, 2008

My interview with Madame S

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any person or incident is purely intentional and made with the express purpose of infusing some humor into the current situation :-)

The Marathi vs. Non-Marathi issue is heating up again; and so its time to speak to some ‘intellectual’ Maharashtrians. And if you are talking about Mumbai’s intellectuals, how can you miss Madame S. Madame S is intellectual, fashionista, socialite, controversy all incarnate. And though she has for long been a Maharashtrian in denial, she admits that the ‘dynamic’ Raj Thackeray has reminded her of her roots. I went to meet her one fine afternoon. She descended all decked up in the latest of fashion, which was nothing but a rehash of the bold beads, bright colors, flower generation look. Here’s an excerpt of our small talk.

Madam S, how lovely to see you (fake plastic smile in place). You know Ma’am, up until now, I never knew you were a Maharashtrachi Mulgi. You were such a ‘cosmopolitan’ figure. Why this sudden pride in the Marathi culture?

Madame S:
Oh darling, I always do whatever is the ‘in’ thing. You see, in the last few days, the only thing talked about in Mumbai is Raj Thackeray’s ideology. And I seriously believe in the principle of reflected glory. If you cant be the sun, be the moon. Soak up the limelight, and reflect it as your own darling.

Oh, so you mean you are talking about this now because it is in ‘fashion’? You mean you don’t believe it?

Madame S:
Believe (laughs out loud). Belief is the opium of the masses dear. I am above all these common man things like belief. What we do is talk about X when all the world is talking about Y and by doing that, we make Y into a trend and a belief. Everyone of my ‘intellectual’ friends was busy talking against Raj. Now, if even I joined them, how would the world see me as a trendsetter. I need to be the one starting and heating up things baby. Raj has the ammo and the fuel, and while the fire is raging, I thought why not warm myself in it.

I get it Ma’am. But surely, you have lived in this city for so long and you are a Maharashtrian, so naturally you love the Marathi language. I completely empathise with your anguish when you say that no one talks to you in Marathi anymore.

Madame S:
Darling, again you don’t understand. You see sweetheart, when I was a youngster, English was the language that very few could speak. It was considered elite to know how to speak English. But now, every Ramu, Shyamu and Gonu speaks English. Where is the novelty in it anymore? Now, Marathi is the rarity. Though my upper class education taught me to look down upon it when I was young; I have realized that it is what will make me stand out today. And since I was born into it, I think I should use it to my advantage baby. In fact, in our next kitty, we are going to have a Name It in Marathi contest. The winner will be crowned Bhoomiputra and the loser will be called ‘Bhaiyaa’. Don’t you think that’s a cool idea?

(still confused) Ohhhh ok, but surely you have taught your children the language, so that they might also use it to their … ummm… advantage?

Madame S:
(laughs and gives me a ‘poor you’ look) Why should I teach them Marathi? They don’t plan to live here anyway. They are already on their way to becoming NRMs (non-resident Mumbaikars). My children will live all over Europe. You see, these days its fashionable to be an Asian intellectual in Europe. And once you establish your brand as an intellectual, no one ever questions your rights and wrongs, because anything you say is important and starts a trend. (Makes a face like a cat purring after getting a bowl full of milk)

Err…ummm…let me get this right, you are not a genuine supporter of the Marathi cause…
(interrupting me)

Madame S:
Sweetheart, only brands can be adjudged as genuine or fake. Like this bag you see, its genuine Gucci. Nothing else is ever genuine (gives me the benign ‘you new generation idealists’ look). And now, sweetie, I have to leave. I have a botox appointment. And one more thing, if you ever meet Raj, do tell him he is really ‘hot’ but he needs to wear more fashionable glasses. Ta-da baby.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The ultimate romance

I am a sucker for romances. Happily ever after endings. And mostly its only romances that I read coz they are simple, no need to tax your brains and you get a happy ending worth the trouble of reading the book. But the mother of all romances I think is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I read it the first time when I was 11 - an abridged version and I fell in love with it. For the next two years I was hunting for the original and finally when I found it I read it in one go. Took me about 7-8 hours I think. But I couldn't let the book go. Every romance written after that borrows from Jane Eyre in some way or the other. Be it the independent streak in the woman, or her confidence despite her plainness or poverty, all of this was probably articulated in the best manner in Jane Eyre. But the best part about Jane Eyre isn't Jane. Its Edward Rochester, the hero. The only other hero who comes close to surpassing Rochester's charm is Heathcliff created by Charlotte's sister Emily. But whereas Heathcliff comes across as almost black (except for his love of Catherine), Rochester as Jane so aptly puts it is 'human and fallible'. Rochester set the trend for the brooding, brash and highly independent hero. The kind women wanted to save and keep for themselves. I have often wondered why we women fall for the brooding, silent types. Is it that these men seem to present more of a challenge, or is it just the attraction that curiosity brings with it? In the novel there is always a sort of tension built around Rochester. He is the ultimate man. Brash, know-it-all, sensitive and perceptive and yet there is an air of mystery about him that adds to the allure. The aloof man who one cannot read, but who is also very perceptive. Rochester was perhaps the first of the infinitely experienced men who fell for unsophisticated virgins. How many novels after this have tried portraying men for the so called 'different' women? But none has achieved the brilliant characterisation that Charlotte achieved. When you read the novel if it were not for the references to candle lit rooms, large mansions etc, you wouldnt guess its a novel written some 200 years ago. Jane behaves very much like a 21st century woman 'Equal as we are' she tells Rochester. The kind of courage Bronte breathes into Jane is hardly found amongst many women even today. But whenever I read the novel or see any of the numerous film adaptations, I am trasported back in time. To the days when I was 13. When I did dream that men like Rochester existed and that one day some such guy would be mine. Silly adolescent dreams. Probably a man like him would be a disaster to have as a husband. But you dont care about such things when you are a teenager. And its funny how all those feelings you have buried under mounds of practicality come alive with the merest reference to an adolescent memory. Maybe its true that we never really grow up.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Living alone!

Its been about 3 years in hostels, times it seems its the life of a pariah dog...going from place to with so many different people...while you can call most of them friends...none of them is family...the kitchen at the paying guest accommodation, well, somehow the pots and pans dont look right...somehow the tea tastes different, the salt less salty, the spices just not quite there...I cant cook there...not that I was ever an enthusiastic cook...but still this kitchen feels alien...and well your whole life seems to be at the mercy of some other person at every time...your broker, your landlord, your roommate, your cabwallah all the time at the mercy of someone or the other...and yet through all this you learn different learn how to handle learn finances...and most importantly you learn how easy your life was with you cribbed about it then, but you were actually so blessed...and its true, distance does make the heart fonder!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Touchy Indians Inc.

It was the umpteen call from my editor to cover an umpteenth protest. Frantically he yelled over the phone, “Where are you? What’s your plan for today?” And before I could say anything, he pounced upon me, “Listen I am sending you to this protest at Azad Maidan (its every Mumbai protestor’s favourite haunt). There are these people called the Touchy Indians Inc. who have organized a unique protest against…uh um…against something just go and find out.”

So left with no choice; I went to Azad Maidan, braving myself to meet this extraordinary league of gentle?men who called themselves the Touchy Indians Inc. I had heard about them from my colleagues who had covered their other ‘unique’ protests before. My poor colleagues had to stand in the hot sun while they sat on one of their infinite protests in hi-fi shades fitted with fans. They had gone hungry entire days trying to capture the ‘uniqueness’ of these protests. Sigh, it was my turn today.

When I reached Azad Maidan, I saw all the members of Touchy Indians with a placard hanging by their neck ‘Halla Bol is our copyright; ban the film’ and shouts of ‘Halla Bol pe Halla Bolenge, nahin chodenge, nahin chodenge.’ The PRO Zindabad Singh soon spotted me and directed me to the makeshift office of the director Naare Nath. A portly man with a distinct Neta look, Naare Nath sat on one of those extremely common white plastic chairs used at every meet and protest; looking every bit the I-will-change-the-world-because-what-I-think-is-right leader that he was. “Naare Nathji,” I ventured, “why are you against this film, it has not even released?” “We will serve a notice to the makers of this movie. It has hurt our sentiments, how can someone name a movie Halla Bol, how can they hurt the sentiments of hundreds of Indians? How can they threaten our identity? Tell me is this right?” “But Naare Nathji, what is the reason?” I tried to understand his indignation but failed. “Don’t you see, the movie is called Halla Bol. That is our patented Naara. No one except us can use the phrase. We have copyright, trademark, IPR and every other documentation on the phrase. Halla Bol hamara janma siddha adhikar hai.”

And because I didn’t know how to react and kept quiet, he continued. “Do the makers of this movie have any idea that they have ridiculed such a great institution of public service like ours. Dharti ham jaise logon ki vajah se tiki hui hai, do you know that? If we didn’t raise our voice frequently, our Indian culture and ethos would have ceased to exist. We say Halla Bol to all those who are a threat and we reduce them to pulp. But all said and done, we are the most secular and seva bhavi group in India. Our Hindu cadres extort gift and card shop owners every Valentines and give away all the money to Sadhu babas who teach us how to uphold Hindu traditions. Our Muslim cadres are constantly on the look out for independent girls who defy tradition. I don’t understand why all of them want to wear skirts and model in the backdrop of dargahs. Disgusting! Our Christian cadre hunts down every possible violation of the sanctity of the Bible. Then we have caste based sub groups also. They are very tech savvy, you know. They have this monitoring department where they view all the channels and track inflammatory statements made by starlets, inflammatory songs, movies, movie titles so that they can challenge insensitive people and uphold their dignity. Now, madam, you might be thinking that we don’t do anything for women. No no, it is not like that. We also have a stree morcha sangha. Very powerful women (he pointed towards some hefty women sitting at the dharna…they surely must have been power lifters…oh my god); their favourite pastime is blackening men’s faces…you know these leery men who cast their unholy eyes on our Bharatiya Naari. And let me tell you madam, all these leery men are always outsiders. These migrants, firangs and others like them. You might also argue that we destroy public property; but you know as well as I know that unless we break or set to fire these old buses, trains and buildings, then the government will never buy/ build new ones. So you see madam, how much good work we do. What would have happened if we didn’t exist? And these filmwallahs are taking away our pehchaan, our only naara Halla Bol. I say, Halla Bol on them.”

As I was escaping from all that information overload, my editor again called, “Haan, tell me what’s the scene like?” “Sir, aah well…” “Did you get why they are protesting? Good…now just file a story…and try to get some opposing views you know…liberalists…go to Mahesh Bhatt or Shobhaa De or arre you know who to call…” And so, went my day battling for sanity, juggling with the super traditionalists and the super liberals. And oh…there will be many more…sigh, sigh!