Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: Yatrik by Arnab Roy

Indian writing in English is in a curious quandary. Sales are up, as is reach and acceptance. However the kind of books that sell, and have got the reach and acceptance are usually so bad in terms of both plot and language, that one despairs instead of being happy. In this cesspool of Chetan Bhagats and Ravinder Singhs, it is so rare to find someone actually writing something good - paying attention to both language and plot - that it's a refreshing revelation. Arnab Ray's Yatrik is one such book. It's not perfect, and I have some quibbles with the tone used in parts of the book, but those are minor ones. The important thing is that Yatrik is pretty radical in nature. Radical because it dares to take regular themes - love, college politics, heartbreak, family, and weave them together into something very unexpected, surprising the reader with the deft handling. 

I am not really going to talk about the plot - the book blurbs gives it away anyway. Suffice it to say that the 'story' is told in multiple flashbacks. However even the flashbacks are of two types - the expository ones where Anustup talks about his life in conversation with his companion in the afterlife, and the three plot driven ones where he gets to see the "other side". This makes it a tricky motif to sustain and to his credit Arnab does a good job of delineating the flashbacks. 

[As an aside: In terms of atmosphere and themes, while I hesitate to examine a text based on the author's life (blame it on my lit-crit background), a couple of things do stand out that seem to illustrate the author's personal beliefs, especially for us who have followed his writing for long. One, his deep abiding affection for Kolkata's Durga Puja, especially at Maddox Square. I just knew there would be a scene set there somehow and I was not disappointed. Secondly his abiding contempt of mercenary 'intellectuals' who are routinely bought over by the blandishments of power and fame - these are represented here in the character of Atulya-da. One cannot help but equate Atulya with real life mercenaries like Suvaprasanna in Bengal today.]

In the use of language, Arnab is definitely head and shoulders above many of the 'writers' being published today. No question about that. The issue I have is with the fact that the characters, while differentiated clearly by their personalities, don't always speak very differently. Sometimes they do, like the pimp extorting money from Anustup's mother, but that was clearly crafted to be so. All too often the register is similar, almost as if Arnab forgot that they are different people. Maybe this is deliberate, almost like the author wants to make it clear that he is in a 'meta' way, translating all the words for us readers from the Bengali the characters must actually have spoken, but it still jars somewhat, at least for me. Also suddenly you have words being used that break even this illusion of authorial translation ("douchebaggery" stood out as a example) because they simply don't have a Bangla equivalent. Also even if we take the 'meta' translation explanation out, a student leader in 80s or 90s Kolkata simply would never use that word - it was not in circulation then.

However these are quibbles. Overall Yatrik is a bold experiment that needs to be lauded, and yes, read by more people. It takes guts to write something that is so "uncategorizable" to coin a phrase. It's smooth, fast paced, yet makes you think. How many Indian books nowadays have that as a package? According to me - the better of Arnab's two novels so far. Definitely recommended.

[This review was posted originally on]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review - Urban Shots - Bright Lights Ed. Paritosh Uttam

This is a short story collection edited by Paritosh Uttam. Now I am an admitted fan of the short story genre ever since I read the first O. Henry story in school. That was one of the reasons I decided to take up this review in the first place. Also adding to the allure was that this was going to be the first "Indian" collection of short stories I would be reading and reviewing. I also expected to be objective because I had never read any of the authors ever before.

Given the expectations, overall the experience was disappointing. While there were a coup of nice ones, most of the 28 stories in the book left me dissatisfied, and in some cases thinking why the story existed in the first place. A case in point is the first story, 
Amul by Arvind Chandrashekhar. It is supposed to be a bittersweet story of a broken family, told from the perspective of a young girl who loves Math. As the sordid story progresses, you learn that her drunkard dad killed her unfaithful mother, who had been carrying on with the cable techie, her dog had died, she kicked a cat, and finally, in a brutal denoument, she has cancer. Basically sadness all around. Not sure what Math had to do with it though.

Silk by Salil Chaturvedi is a nicer story about crumbling marriages laden with some overwrought imagery of blood which was quite unnecessary because it added nothing to the story. The theme of an affair as self actualization is interesting though. Across the Seas by Ahmed Faiyaz is a  slice of life snapshot of a Muslim family with one son abroad and how the family both misses him and is proud in equal measure. It is probably set in the early '80s when getting a telephone connection involved long waiting periods and bribes. Alabama to Wyoming, written by the editor, Paritosh Uttam mocks Indians' USA obsession, as well as our presumed right to cheat Americans of their money, all in the backdrop of a visit to the Taj.

Double Mixed by Namita V Nair is a contrived schlocky story of cheating spouses who discover they have been cheating with people who are also spouses. Totally filmy stuff. This is followed by another Ahmad Faiyaz story, 
Good Morning Nikhil. Faiyaz seems to be a complete family person because this is another small scene from a family where nothing happens. And ends with a dedication to his son! Fortunately Maami Menace by Pradeep Raj strikes a lighter note, being a funny story about a overly familiar old woman who tends to take advantage of a nice family's politeness. The next one Peacock Cut by R Chandrasekhar is a very mildly amusing froth about an American wrestler/basketball player wanting a weird haircut in India. 

In Father of my Son by Roshan Radhakrishnan, I found the first really interesting story in the collection. It's a delightful little story of a little boy's naughtiness and repercussions told in a funny, matter of fact manner from the father's perspective. The strict mom and the lenient dad might be cliches but still fun to read nonetheless, especially as an example of familial love. The Bengal Tigress by Malathi Jaikumar also deals with family but in a far more trite manner and purports to show a single act of defiance by a submissive wife as some sort of emancipation for her. In true Hindi movie style earns the respect of her husband by that one line of dialogue she utters. It does not help that the author gets the Bengali milieu and name wrong.

Mr. Koshi's Daily Routine by John Mathew is a touching and plaintive portrait of a sad, bitter man forced to conform and compromise all his life because of the demands of family and expectations. The story comes to a head with a final act of symbolic defiance that is his plaintive cry against all that is wrong in his world - his old boss, his dim colleagues and his supercilious but successful neighbor, Waghmare. In contrast, the next story Mr. Perierra by Ahmed Faiyaz strikes a sadder note, with a story of an expat visiting India and getting to meet an old terminally ill teacher who had influenced him a lot as a child.

The Wall by Saurabh Katiyal is an evocatively written description of ennui that strikes a young corporate executive of 31. The same corporate sales environment is covered in the next, mildly diverting story Jo Dikhta Hai Woh Bikta Hai by Sneh Thakur which is a portrait of a sales based FMCG company where rookie salespeople are being inducted.

The Interview by Manisha Lakhe shows two faces of a famous and legendary film star, the accidental knowledge of which shakes the beliefs of an adoring reporter covering him for a profile. Paisley Printed Memories by Sneh Thakur describes a happy wedding in the memories of the bride, ending with a wrench that forces one to question how reliable or transient those memories are. Heaven & Hell by Shachi Mail shows how a short encounter with a mehendiwalla causes a woman to reevaluate her entire existence.

Cats & Sponges by Meena Bhatnagar is an interesting little amorality tale of interpersonal intrigues set in a hotel, while 
You Eternal Beauty by Naman Saraiya is a story that begins with promise but loses itself in a litany of Calcutta cliches. Wrong Bangla to boot - "Amar ke jete hobe", anyone?

The Window Seat by Salil Chaturvedi is perhaps among the best of the lot. Deals with a chance meeting between a laid off, divorced pilot and a girl who has just broken off a relationship with a married man, and how they help each other. The fourth Ahmed Faiyaz story in the collection, It's All Good does nothing to redeem his impression on me, being a silly little morality tale on spending beyond your limit set in a sales dept in an organization.

The Pig in a Poke by Mydhili Verma is based on the Nigerian scams, and starts off promisingly when a teenager responds to the con email in a funny manner, but disappointingly loses steam when we realize the response was not being sarcastic! Bummer! Ready, Jet, Set, Go - another one by Uttam's favourite writer Ahmed Faiyaz. There seems to be a clear pattern here. Ahmed seems to have a chip in his shoulder about new India. This time he takes on chick lit and Indian bestsellers and the kind of gauche people who publish and read them. Another trite storyis the next one, called Things That Can Happen In A Park by Gagan Narula. A pointless vignette of an interaction between a young research scientist and an old geezer in the park.

Also set in a park, but more interesting is Hot Masala by Jhangir Kerawala, where he describes a set of morning walkers and their encounter with a mugger who might be one of them! The Raincoat by Rashmi Sahi is a nice, touching story of a family bonding together in penury via a hand stitched raincoat. This is followed by The Weeping Girl by Kunal Dhabalia which is the story of a guy being trying to help a girl seemingly in distress. The problem is, you can see the conclusion coming a mile away. The final story in the book is Hot Pants by Arefa Tehsin. It's an
amusing story of a young girl suddenly free of her mother's strict supervision for a night.

In a collection of 28 stories I can hardly count 4-5 that I genuinely liked. Most of them were either boring, pointless, or just plain bad. This is supposed to be the 2nd collection in the Urban Shots "series". The most benefit of doubt I can give the editor is that maybe he has used up all the good ones in the first part. But that being true, I wouldn't hold my breath for Part 3.

This was originally published in The Book Lovers blog. 

Book Review: The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

Thrillers are forever. They are the comfort food for many readers like me - the dal chawal or hakka noodles that many of us crave when we are tired of having the rogan joshes and steak tartares of literary writing. We know what to expect, the plot twists, the heroic characters, the devious villains, the urgency of saving the world/person, and successful denoument. We know all this and that makes us happy. Enough to go back to the thrillers repeatedly, whenever we need some respite and comfort in our reading. All we thriller-loving readers ask for is a potentially plausible plot, and in the absence of that, a cracking pace and cathartic conclusion. 

By this yardstick Michael Robotham does a middling job in The Wreckage. Other than the fact that the title has no real relevance to the plot, the story is eminently plausible, dealing with international financial wheeling dealing and chicanery in the backdrop of the Iraq war and subsequent occupation by US and British forces.

Two stories progress in tandem. One set in Iraq, initially stars the Pulitzer winning journalist Luca Terracini who is apparently daring and resourceful enough to be living outside the Green Zone with Iraqi people, being half Iraqi himself. The other story involves a washed out, retired cop (aren't they all?), Vincent Ruiz, who is first mugged, then transfixed by a young girl with some extraordinary resources and powers. 

Luca starts to cover, then investigate, the robbery and disappearance of large amounts of reconstruction money from Iraqi banks. In this he is aided, both in professional and carnal terms by an UN financial auditor, Daniela Garner. Things rapidly escalate, and some bombings and attempts on his life later, Luca has to flee Iraq; but clearly he has stumbled upon something really big. On the other hand, in London, detective Ruiz realizes that his mugger has access some big secret hidden in a notebook she doesn't even remember stealing, that people are willing to kill for, the first victim being her junkie boyfriend.

The rest of the book traces the two storylines and how they merge, exposing multimillion dollar fraudulent banking transactions, helped along with the pregnant wife of a banker who had disappeared with the notebook everyone wants to lay their hands on. Meanwhile MI6 and FBI is also involved somehow - the question being, are the intelligence agencies friends or foes? The story is fairly detailed and the conclusion not completely obvious. 

Micheal Robotham is a competent thriller writer. The language flows smoothly. The characters are well delineated, if a bit one-note. He resists making the protagonists into superheroes - a trap that writers like Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy fall into frequently. Maybe it is the Britishness in him that makes his characters more understated and realistic. However, that also means that personally I felt that the payoff at the conclusion was not as satisfying as I would expect from a thriller that is 500 pages long. I finished the book with a curious feeling of emotional disconnect, not really happy for the characters who survive or sad for those that die. Again, I might have been spoiled by masters of the genre like Ludlum, but the conclusion could definitely have been more forceful.

All in all, a good read, but there definitely are better thrillers out there.

This review was originally posted on The Book Lovers blog. 

Pearson International - Toronto's Artbeat!

“What, in the name of heaven, is THIS?” I wondered when I set eyes on it after my security check at Pearson for the first time. Imagine, if you will, four thick metal sheets curved towards each other in the form of a nested ‘namaste”, but not touching, creating a tunnel like passage between them that people can walk through, as they look upwards and around in wonder, automatically whispering in awe.  Not that it would make any difference. The acoustics of this installation, Tilted Spheres , by Richard Serra ensures that even a whisper carries through audibly from end to end! Oh, and it weighs 120 tonnes!
As it turned out, this was just the beginning. Toronto takes its image as a world city and cosmopolitan centre for arts and culture very seriously and the design of Pearson International Airport reflects this desire. 
Take the spectacular installation situated just before the Security Check at Departure. I remember being gobsmacked as I walked in and saw hundreds of cubes - red cubes, black cubes, transparent cubes – all floating in front of me.  It took me some time to realize that these cubes were inside a massive Plexiglas water tank with internal mechanisms creating jets and currents that carried these cubes upwards and down again, like hundreds of square fish in an aquarium. Really made me ponder, it did. Did the cubes represent workers like me, frozen in office cubicles, buffeted by the currents of corporate life? Maybe the installation was called The Iced Cubes or something? As it turned out, I was wrong. It was not named The Iced Cubes. Instead it turned out to be the work of Ingo Maurer and was named Earthbound…Unbound. Very impressive and arcane, but I still thought my idea had merit.
Paper planes in an airport? Yes, you’ll find that too here. A set of 19 white hanging metal planes resembling paper planes that kids make, set against the white background of the terminal roof, evokes sheer pleasure in the mind, especially if you have a tall beer in your hand to help your thoughts take off. Officially named Flight Song, the artist is Robert Charles Coyle.
One of the boldest statements is made by the literally named Concentric Bands by painter Sol DeWitt. Bright, almost psychedelic in effect, it leaves an impression in your mind long after you have seen it. As does the beautiful ceiling installation Jetstream by the Canadian artists Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes.
These are many other installations. Like the two life-sized bronze tigers that are very popular with the kids, flying fibreglass human figures and some beautiful abstracts on the white walls - all by Canadian artists with mostly unpronounceable names.
As I helped myself to my 3rd beer and ruminated on all the art I saw at Pearson airport, I had to admit that as airports go, Toronto had succeeded in elevating its airport to a higher, um, plane.
Note: This post was originally written for and in published in Time Out Mumbai. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: The Yellow Emperor's Cure by Kunal Basu

This is a remarkable book in many ways - ambitious, layered, dense with characters, and obviously the product of a lot of research. It spans two countries in terms of geography, but references a dozen others. It has a singular plot, but a plurality of digressions, lending it the air of a putative epic novel. Kunal Basu has been writing for some time with a fair amount of success and it is fair to say that he has a pretty sure grip over the language and the milieu he writes about. He knows a lot about the orient and his best success previously has been a story based in far East - The Japanese Wife, later made into a eponymous arthouse movie.

The Yellow Emperor's Cure is set primarily in China in the era between the Opium wars and the Boxer rebellion. The protagonist, Antonio, is a brilliant Portuguese libertine and surgeon, whose charmed, and charming, life is rudely jolted by the news that his famous, hugely admired father has contracted a deadly form of syphilis. That one fact changes him completely, starting him on an obsessive quest for finding a cure for the deadly disease and save his beloved father. He soon realizes that there is no cure in Europe or America - just a few hints and rumors of a almost magical cure in China guarded by their inscrutable doctors and medicine men. This is based on anecdotal information that the Chinese seemed not to be as affected by syphilis as the Europeans. The European sailors came back racked by the disease after visiting the fleshpots of the Far East regularly, while the Chinese seemed to fare better overall.

In his desperate quest for the "Yellow Emperor's Cure", Antonio leaves his both his best friend and betrothed behind and sets sail for China. Luckily for him, his father's fame, and his own stature and connections ensure that he's welcomed and given royal treatment wherever he travels. Even in Peking, he is provided bed and food at the Dowager Empress' palace with the empress' personal doctor Xu teaching him the Chinese systems of medicine. His native European arrogance frequently causes him to dismiss the esoteric methods the Chinese use, while his desperation to cure his father makes him an impatient student. 

That is, till the doctor's beautiful assistant, Fumi, arrives as a replacement teacher. 

The mysterious Fumi turns his world upside down, acting as both teacher and lover, friend and maddeningly exotic adversary. Her dark past and incomplete back story consumes Antonio, who now wants to know everything about her and her earlier, murdered paramour. In fact the book now takes a turn towards a mystery novel where Antonio now wants to know more about Xu, Fumi and the Empress, but his quest gets more and more dangerous, because the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion has started. Whose side are the Chinese on? Are they friend, or foe? What will happen to Antonio and hs quest for the cure? These answers take up the last third of the book.

In the middle of all this there are a host of characters, mostly European, some with important and many others with bit parts to play - most of them representing various nationalities who stay in closed walled communities, gotten rich because of the opium trade, but now scared for their livelihoods (and lives) because of the incipient and inevitable Boxers' "spirit army" revolution. Add to these eunuchs, prostitutes, soldiers, beggars, thieves, and you have a cornucopia of characters that should make for a rollickingly colourful and exciting book.

The puzzle then for me was - and there is no way to put it delicately - with all these elements mixed in, why is so much of the book such a crashing bore?

There were stages in the book where I could barely will myself to turn the next page, so somnolent were the words, so static the story. Of course some parts are interesting and informative, but nowhere while reading the book could I ever use the word "excited" to describe my experience. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe that it's my failing. My tastes might have been corrupted by reading too many Steig Larssons and not enough "literary novels". But the truth is, as I reread my comments above, they seem to promise a book more interesting than the one I actually read. 

This is not to say it's a bad book. It is obviously is the product of an enormous amount of research. I just wish Mr. Basu had resisted the impulse to put it all in this one book - the number of characters is immense - at least 5-10 could have easily been cut out. Some details are redundant - used only to prove Mr. Basu's research rather than contribute to the book in any tangible way. I get the feeling there is a more interesting book hidden within this one - one that is only 250 pages long instead of the current 350 odd pages.

For people who like arcana and milieu-based novels, this book might yet be a good read. I suggest they go for it. People who prefer shorter, snappier, faster reads should probably skip this one.

This review originally appeared on the Book Lovers Review Blog on May 21, 2012. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Implementing the RTE: Practical Solutions

Since the government passed the Right to Education Act (RTE), the nation has been feverishly debating the tenets. Now that the Supreme Court has validated the act, the reality has finally set in. This act is law and thus, has to be implemented.

In the last few days may educators and pundits have written about the RTE, from both positive and negative points of view. As expected, Left leaning commentators like Mihir Sharma have lauded the act, while others like Meeta Sengupta have been more critical (see here, and here). Basically in a simplified fashion, the points for and against the act are these:

  • India is an elitist country and quality education has been restricted to a few. The RTE democratises education.
  • Schools that have taken government aid or land at subsidised rates have a duty to abide by government rules and policies. In any case the government already mandates many rules for private schools.
  • Education needs to be more democratic to give real life lessons to kids. In foreign countries, every one studies together regardless of social background.
  • It is the duty of private citizens to provide for their less fortunate brethren in terms of education, in terms of increased fees.

  • This is forced social engineering. You cannot put different societies into a room together and force them to get along. There will be grave adjustment issues.
  • The government should not have a say in what private schools do or who they admit, especially since they are not helping in any way.
  • The law is illogical and un-implementable. There are too many unanswered questions and the government has taken no step in trying to even provide a practical approach to addressing them.
  • The government is outsourcing, free of cost, its duties of educating society, while not caring about abysmal standards of its own schools.
  • The school fees of children in private schools will increase, as they will have to subsidize 25% extra children and the school will obviously pass the burden on to them. This will cause a huge burden to middle-class families who struggle to send their children to private schools.

Personally, while I understand the social concern, and support the concept of egalitarian education, I find the the law to be more theoretical than practical. I feel it's badly thought out, badly framed, and has little connection to the real world it will impact. There are little or no guidelines for implementation, and based on the Education Minister's remarks it would seem that the law will be implemented, in most cases, on a wing and a prayer. Supporters of the law could call me biased and there's a case to be made for that, since I send my daughter to a private English medium school, automatically catapulting me to the ranks of the “elite”. However, my attempt is, independent of personal preferences, to see how best it can be implemented. The law is passed and the die has been cast. I am more focused on the addressing the real-world problems that implementation will undoubtedly throw up. 


It has to be implemented, we all know that now. The question is - what is the most effective (I was admonished for using the word "painless") in a previous draft) method in which it can be implemented to the best benefit of everyone it affects? What are the practical ramifications of the law? Most importantly, what practical measures can a school take to ensure compliance with the least amount of disruption? I think there are three main angles that need to be considered by schools while implementing the RTE. These pertain to Social, Educational, and Financial disparities between the children.

1. Educational Disparity

Adjustment issues can be mitigated by initially creating a separate section for underprivileged children. Now please note, I am not advocating segregation. What the separate section will do is provide a path to gradually assimilating them to a new culture and way of schooling they might not have been used to in the past. This will work like a remedial education class, with the objective that after a fixed time period, say a year at most, all the children will be integrated into mixed classrooms.

The temporary separate academic activities for the underprivileged kids, would ensure that the teachers can concentrate on coaching them to knowledge and skill levels equivalent to an ‘elite’ child before they can study together. This will ensure that the poor kids do not feel inferior or insecure at the beginning, and also that the class is not interrupted while the teacher has to repeatedly explain linguistic concepts to some kids, where the others are proficient already.

2. Social Disparity

Along with education, the school will also have to ensure that there is a path towards a future where the social disparities between the children do not impact their growth and education negatively. This is easier said than done because class biases are frequently ingrained in children from an early age on both sides of the social tracks. However, children are also very adaptable and far more willing to abandon their biases when presented with the correct opportunities and education – both by teachers and parents. One way of doing this effectively is through sporting activities.

It is my belief that even as the academics is disaggregated at the beginning via different classrooms, the games/sports time SHOULD be spent together, giving the kids from different social and financial level/strata an opportunity to interact while at their most equal, carefree, and happiest.  And it has been observed, and you might agree, that children bond best while playing together without being influenced by social encumbrances. Other non-academic areas of integration would include cultural activities – music, singing, poetry, and dramatics – where all kids can participate at equal levels. This non-academic interaction will foster a healthy respect for each other’s abilities and talents outside of the pressure of academic comparisons and performance.

This phased integration will help in ensuring that the “culture shock” is reduced and dispersed over a period of a a few months (maybe a year at most) and the children can ease into studying, and interacting with each other on an equal basis.

3. Financial Disparity

One of the elephants in the room that “elite” parents fear but don’t talk about, except in the safe confines of their living rooms, is the fear of their kids being targeted because of their financial status. This targeting, they fear, can take the form of snatched away food from tiffin boxes, or stolen watches, compass boxes, pens etc. This fear, however unfounded, makes them hesitate to put their kids in mixed settings.

While this fear might rarely realized in practical life, there still is the  possibility that a "poor" child will be enticed at the sight of a shiny new compass box that his parents would not be able to afford him/her, especially given the predilection of rich parents nowadays to gift expensive baubles to the apples of their eyes to prove their love on a continuing basis.

The only effective way to address this bias is for the school to decree that the students not carry any item to school that be above a certain monetary value. The school can, for example, mandate a couple of brands of reasonably priced compass boxes that everyone should purchase. The same goes for notebooks, calculators etc. Kids have no need of wearing watches in junior school, in any case. Cellphones and PlayStations should be banned outright. Many schools have actually implemented this rule already, with fair success. Now this will have to be done not just as a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have.


I feel these measures would ensure that the act can be implemented with the least amount of disruption in the educational lives of our children. It is not going to be easy, and there will be many barriers to the successful implementation of the RTE, but since implementation is imminent, the best way to do it is in a planned, calm, and practical manner. To do this we have to both confront and address our experiences, biases, and conditioning and take measures to mitigate as many possible problems as we can think of.

Finally, I sincerely believe that the school boards like (ICSE, CBSE, the state and international boards will have to get into the act to ensure that their curriculum is amended to address the new requirements. Innovations like multi-track curricula, incorporation of regional language education into the main curriculum, and flexible scientific testing will be needed to allow all children to perform at a certain level. It is only when the curricula are flexible enough to adapt itself to changing realities that the act will really be successful in implementation. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Old Man In The Housing Complex

I first heard about the old man in our housing complex from my daughter's 16-year old babysitter. I mean before that I had seen him walking around the complex but didn't really know anything about him till the babysitter spoke to me about him. Now a bit of background - our housing complex is similar to hundreds in Bombay, a group of buildings aggregated together in almost haphazard fashion in a certain area with a common boundary wall. Each building was a different housing society sharing a common area where the kids played every evening. As you'd expect there are many kids in the complex - ranging from a few months old (in their mothers' arms) to preteens playing "lukka chhupi" to teenagers knocking a football or a shuttlecock around.

Coming back to this "uncle" - he was seen every evening walking around the complex a few times carrying his infant grandson in his arms - the very picture of a loving, doting grandfather. After a while, a little tired due to his age and the burden of lifting a young child, he would down on a chair near where the kids play and watch them, an indulgent smile on his face, intermittently talking to his grandson in his arms. Sometimes he would call out to the playing kids and talk to them. Sometimes he would shout encouragement in their sporting endeavours. Sometimes he would ask the girls to come closer him and tickle and play with his cute baby grandson in his lap, as young girls are wont to.

So apparently this old man was very fond of the young girls who play together in the complex. A little too fond, according to the babysitter. He would call them, run fingers through their hair, caress their cheeks, put an arm around them - all pretty innocent gestures, except that the hand would remain in their hair just a tad too long, the pat would last just that little bit longer, the arm around the waist would squeeze that little bit harder, than the girls were comfortable with. Added to that were some inappropriate comments. Once he said to the babysitter when she wore shorts - "Aaj tum bahut sexy dikh rahi ho" ("You are looking very sexy today"). She was so shocked she never wore shorts in the playground again.

The thing was - she never told me this at the time it happened. I learned about this a few months later when I mentioned that I had taken a picture of a cute boy who was being carried around by his grandfather with my camera. Her immediate reaction was - "Bhaiyya woh achha admi nahin hai. Ajeeb hai" ("He is not a nice man. He is weird."). Upon my asking why she recounted the incidents to me. My immediate concern was my daughter, of course and I asked he if he had ever tried to get close to Tee (our nickname for her). He had not, to our relief, either because she was too young, or or because Tee was too indifferent to an old man sitting in a chair to walk up and talk to him. Plus the babysitter had ensured that she never let Tee get close to that man.

My mind was in a whirl. There were other children to consider, not just mine. On the other hand, there was no reason for taking any direct action because he had not done anything illegal. There had been no molestation as such - just an unnamed feeling of discomfort. I reiterated to the babysitter that while the man had not done anything bad yet, it made perfect sense for her to not just keep Tee away from him under ALL circumstances, but ensure all girls in the complex - maids, kids, babysitters, everyone - be careful around him. I was also curious if it was just her overactive imagination that had made her feel that way. However, that she said, Interestingly, that other girls who she played with, had also experienced the same sense of ickiness when near this man. And best and most gratifyingly, they had actually discussed it among themselves and decided to collectively, to politely boycott the man! Either education and knowledge of good and bad touch, or an innate sense of self preservation had made these kids take preventive action on their own!   

That's exactly what happened, and old man soon realized that not a single kid seemed to be interested in talking to him any more. In fact many would just move away from the immediate area when he arrived. Nowadays he stays within himself, still walks his toddler grandson around and does not seem to be trying to befriend other children.

Sometimes I wonder - was I overreacting? Was the babysitter lying or overreacting? Were the kids overly imaginative? The answer to all these questions is - Yes, maybe. But how does one know? And how can one take the chance? In the absence of any obvious illegal act, there was nothing official we could do. But it would be equally irresponsible and stupid to ignore or brush aside the feeling that teenage girls get when they are "creeped out". All in all, I thought we reached a satisfactory solution. But still when I see him in the complex now, I shudder involuntarily. Every time.

Only one thought bothers me. All indications were that the old man seemingly wanted to be close to girls. But what would I have done if it were boys instead, given he had a grandson he was with all the time? And what if his next grandchild is a girl?

Note: This post is in support of the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month - April (CSAAM), and is cross posted on the CSAAM blog here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Sari Story: A Male Perspective

The year: 1987. The cinema theatre.
A voice crooning, “Kate nahin kat te ye din yeh raat…,” Sridevi, and a wet blue sari. Can we ever forget that? That is possibly one of the most iconic cinematic images of our hormonal teenage growing-up years. I can’t say for sure, of course, but that Alisha-Kishore song, and most importantly, the imagery, might just have been the spark for the lifelong fascination with the 6 to 9 yard garment known as the sari.

Flashback to: 1975-1980. Childhood.
Of course the sari has played a role in my life throughout - both before and after Sridevi, apart from cinema. Most of the earliest memories for Indians are entwined within the saris of our mothers and grandmothers. How safe those folds of my granny’s sari were, how warm and inviting - a place of repose, rest, and recuperation. A place where I could hide from strangers, and place from where play peek-a-boo with friends. A normal accepted ritual was wiping my hands with my granny’s pallu after washing my hands. It was as if no matter how much soap I used, the cleansing was complete only with the soft touch of granny’s sari. For many growing-up years the sari was a secular garment, representing only the daily and the mundane, the safe and the trusted. It was something every older (a generation older than me) woman around me wore daily - a functional, even slightly mundane dress.

Then the teenage years, and the hormones, kicked in. The sari would never be the same again.

The year: 1987. School.
I blame Mrs. Mathur for changing our view of the sari totally and irreversibly. No fault of hers really, when I look back and think about it. She was the junior English teacher at our school. I am sure she walked and talked the same way for the many years we knew her. I am even sure she wore the sari exactly the same way. But wonder of wonders - suddenly one day she looked different. The hitherto purposeful walk seemed feline, the so-far straight posture seemed louche, and the sari, from being a practical, usual dress, suddenly seems artfully draped to tease us with that louche felinity, with brief glimpses of skin - a sleeveless shoulder here, a bare waist there. It was suddenly almost too much to bear. In front of our very eyes, Mrs. Mathur had metamorphosed from a fairly unremarkable, sweet lady into a menace to hormonal teenagers’ educational prospects.

Then came Sridevi and the song, and the blue chiffon. Sigh.

Forward to: 2002. College hostel. Saraswati Puja in Kolkata.
This was the one occasion where we were allowed into the girls’ hostel (and vice versa), ostensibly to view the idol and pay our respects so we could all get a good education. As it turned out, the most awesome education on the occasion was driven the fact that all the girls wore saris that day. A frisson of disbelieving excitement ran around the room. Where was the pimply girl who we liked to make fun of? Where was the fashion disaster who would wear large bindis with jeans? What happened to the girls in skirts but with hairy legs? We gaped with open mouths - the girls we met every day in college, and frequently ignored, suddenly seemed to have been replaced with magazine models in their colorful and distinctive saris! What a revelation for the gangly, awkward, sweaty boys wearing mismatched clothes! Saris actually made women look even better than they normally did. In fact saris made them look beautiful! Sounds obvious now, but at the time I (and I would bet most of us), suddenly felt unworthy to be standing before such a collection of statuesque, unattainable beauty. It was a sober, bemused lot that came out of the girls’ hostel that day.

Year: 2005. University days in Pune.
I could barely believe it. Two amazing things had happened. First, I had a date for New Year’s Eve (someone actually agreed!). And second, she was wearing a black sari (yessss!), when we went to pick her up in my friend’s car on our way to the RSI Army Ball. I was also dressed smartly for a change, but how proud I felt to have that lady in beautiful black silk dancing with me that evening. She just stood apart from the usual skirt and dress wearing girls – resplendent and statuesque. I got a renewed respect for the sari that day. Of course she didn’t have much to do with me after that, but while my memory of her has faded, the memory of that sari remains distinct.

What explains this fascination men have for saris? The short answer is - I don’t know. I am sure experts will be able to provide psychological, Freudian, Jungian, Oedipal explanations. But what I know is this – there is no other dress that enhances women’s intrinsic beauty like the sari does. And it doesn’t ever get old. How can it? Look at the variety! Look at the styles! Imagine in your mind’s eye, Malayali women in cream and gold huddled around a rangoli celebrating Onam, and then the Bengalis celebrating Durga Puja in their white and red bordered saris, smearing sindur on each other. Imagine Gayitri Devi in the finest silk and Rekha in a Kanjeevaram; remember Indira Gandhi in handloom weaves, and Raja Ravi Verma’s ladies in Paithanis.

It’s been a long relationship - saris and me, and I still cannot get enough. Of course I might be open to charges of sexism, and I have been told so by women occasionally, because I extol the aesthetic virtues of the sari apparently without caring for the difficulties women face in wearing and getting around in them.
In my defence, while the sexism is unintentional, the aesthesis is ingrained n the male gaze. I cannot help it. Long live the sari!

A version of this article was published in eSakal in November.

Friday, November 28, 2008

India's 9/11 (part 2)

Okay here are a few more thoughts:

1. What if we cancel white elephant deals like buying an old warship like Admiral Gorshkov and use the $2 billion to create an urban counterinsurgency force with the latest in training and equipment? Maye we can just train and arm the current NSG better!

2. What if we decide to have a moratorium on all elections for 5 years and use the money saved to replace the policemen's trusty bamboo lathis and 303s with submachine guns and the flappy cardboard "bulletproof" ponchos (for want of a better word) with Kevlar?

3. What if we institute the draft, where every person between 18 and 20 gets a compulsory one/two years of army experience, like Israel, so that everyone has some knowledge of what to do in emergency situations?

4. Dunno, but here's another thought. What if we have templated rapid action response plans based on a 100 hundred hypothetical emergency situations, so that it does not take 36 hours to realize that the terrorists might be watching TV inside and knowing what is the next step to be taken by the army!

5. What if the PM and Leader of the opposition decided to work as a national government for 3 years to ensure that:
a) all decision are taken by consensus
b) no decision will be opposed for the heck of it
c) all decisions are taken in the national interest

Radical thought, eh?

6. What is Mulayam Singh and company, AND the CPIM politburo are arrested for sedition, for aiding and abetting terrorism, and generally acting against national interest?

Ok, now I am floating into pipe dream category. Scratch the last one, but I believe that all the others are practicable, if there is political will and genuine love for the nation.