Sunday, September 06, 2020

Bad Money and Worse!


Vivek Kaul’s unsparing and inspired analysis of the shambolic state of Indian banking and the Public Sector Banks owned by the government in his new book, Bad Money: Inside the NPA Mess and How it Threatens the Indian Banking System is hugely fascinating and every bit as horrifying. Thanks to the likes of infamous defaulters on behemoth loans like Nirav Modi and the King of good times, Vijay Mallya, the media as well as the public found themselves paying attention to the twists and turns in the murky world of high finance, especially since the poster boys for bad money merely represent the small fry in a gargantuan problem. The abysmal state of the banking system reeling under the crushing weight of bad loans to the tune of over 10 lakh crores has become painfully apparent.

The questions boil over demanding explanations… How did the Indian Financial System managed to land itself in such a hopeless mess? Why were so many defaulters and corporates allowed to get away scot – free with their ill – gotten gains having brought the economy dangerously close to the brink of total collapse? What is the government’s role in all this and why exactly are key officials who ought to have kept their eyes on the ball caught so often with their pants down? Exactly how much of the taxpayers’ money has been forked over to keep the PSBs afloat? Is the money stashed in banks after a lifetime of toil and labour safe? What is the exact price being paid for the staggering levels of corruption, malfeasance and disgraceful negligence on display? Is there a feasible solution to the banking crisis? Kaul undertakes the task of providing simple answers that are never simplistic while unravelling the many layers to a complicated issue without being condescending or obfuscating despite possessing a formidable intellect and a gift for grasping the intricacies of the complex, confusing maze of Economics and Finance.

Divided into two halves composed of crisp chapters and concise writing with a fair bit of number crunching that mercifully manages to spare the brain from the trauma of keeping track of impossible mathematics, Kaul’s Bad Money is never less than engrossing. The reader becomes familiar with the history of banking as the author details the factors that led to excessive government control over banking, the assorted variables that led to the present crisis while skilfully establishing the fragility of financing positions and the extent of the rot that has set in.

Kaul expresses his disdain for political posturing and bumbling moves like the populist loan melas that succeeded only in generating corruption, crony capitalism, partisanship, and fostering financial irresponsibility. These also failed those they were intended to help. The author shines a light on an intrinsically flawed system where knowledge is separated from power and existing enforcement agencies have failed to deter frauds, leading to the inevitable fallout from bad loans with small time borrowers who are unable to pay feeling the full weight of the law even as the big fish swim to greener pastures.

The author makes it clear that the banking system is in bad shape. Efforts to amend the damage have come undone. Sound solutions though available are not being implemented since nobody wishes to upset the status quo which benefits the corrupt. The government which ought to dilute its stakes in the PSBs would rather pretend to be doing something without actually doing anything. While this state of affairs persists, the bad money is not going anywhere. Kaul’s book is brave and brilliant and must be made mandatory reading for all.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

What is in a Language?

 It happens every few years. A desperate politician type hoping to mobilise his dwindling vote bank says something stupid about India needing a ‘unifying’ language and insisting that language is Hindi. A political opponent responds with a loaded tweet about being asked if she is an Indian because she cannot or will not speak Hindi. And that does it. The South Indians rally together to #StopHindiImposition united like never before by their shared concerns about protecting their beautiful languages. And there are always those who leap into the fray, crazed eyes glinting wildly fuelled by dreams of an India where everybody speaks and swears in the same language, worships the same Gods, wears the same clothes, and eats the same veggie saapadu washed down with gaumutra.

Oh my Kadavuley! I have always wondered about the pointlessness of it all. After all, the British have already done a thorough job with English imposition. Practically everybody speaks English in India (pidgin English counts!), since it is the true unifying language not just in India but the rest of the world as well. All parents want their children to study in Angrezi medium schools because hard – bitten practicality wins over pretend idealism every single time. And nobody can claim that fancy, high – paying jobs where you get to wear those perfectly tailored suits and step into air – conditioned sanctuaries of polished steel and chrome away from the unforgiving tropical heat to lord it over the unfortunates who haven’t made it past the hallowed portal can be nailed down if one is fluent only in Hindi. Or Tamil. Or insert any regional language you prefer.

So the great majority of us speak English with varying degrees of fluency and have neglected our mother – tongues. Can we read high – falutin poetry and prose or deliver a formal speech in the language of our ancestors? Of course not. We shell out beaucoup bucks to master the Queen’s English or its poor cousin, American English and yet we hardly speak it like natives even though we like to pretend otherwise. I will never forget that time, when I enthusiastically charged into a Macy’s, NY, to take advantage of a handbag sale only to have the saleswoman look at me with the withering scorn reserved for savage illiterates because she could not follow my Indian accent.

Unfortunately, even that did not inspire me to return to the warm embrace of my mother – tongue – Tamil, which I speak disgracefully according to most. Or learn Hindi. Why should I? The purpose of language is communication so we can understand each other better. And that will happen only if we focus on the essence of what is being communicated. Not the words themselves. Or the language in which they are uttered.

This column was published in The New Indian Express.  



It is hard to write about anything that is not about Corona, celebs or celebs afflicted with Corona. But if you are as determined as I am it is not that difficult to come up with something that is not panic – inducing or superfluous. Such as the much overlooked, age old problem that is stress – related silvering or as it is unflatteringly called – ‘going grey’. In a world where lovely locks are valued more highly than talent, personality or virtue and only slightly less than all the treasure in the world, it is a matter of earth – shattering importance when one discovers those unwelcome strands of silver sticking out from the scalp with ominous intent.

The unfortunate individual, in this case, yours truly, then needed to deal with the unbearable trauma that inevitably follows. Haunted by visions of impending senescence, decrepitude, failing health, dementia and death, I briefly considered therapy for stress reduction or cheaper options like embarking on a virtual quest for the fountain of youth. I developed a depressing new habit which involves examining the scalp minutely, bemoaning my lost youth and willing the white hairs to disappear or magically become glossy and black again.

My mother advised not thinking too much about greying hair assuring me that it would exacerbate the situation and recommended elaborate home remedies featuring amla powder, fenugreek, coconut oil, assorted items sourced from the pantry and that notorious henna which does little more than reveal that you are trying to conceal your streak of silver. She also recommended yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. In her opinion, these three can fix all the problems in the world from the trifling to the apocalyptic. The husband said I am panicking over nothing pointing to the shock of silver he wears with ease and pretended not to hear when I muttered darkly about a sexist world where men with the ‘salt and pepper’ look are considered distinguished and stylish while greying women are seen as having given up on themselves and deserving of being airbrushed out of existence.

One friend said I should take the plunge and find an app that will allow me to find a beautician equipped with PPE to style and colour my hair. Another friend said I should own the greying strands and ease myself into a new look as an eccentric, genius type author.  An acquaintance who no doubt has a bone to pick with me offered to pluck out the offending greys though it is well known that silvers and greys show up in droves to mourn their fallen compadres. The internet offered umpteen solutions ranging from the practicable to the preposterous. I swear there are folks out there who swear by pee therapy as the perfect solution for all your hair – related concerns!

Finally, I considered accepting the greys and moving on to more worthwhile pursuits. After all how can I hope to be fully empowered and self  - actualized if I am going to enslave myself to the demands of vanity and devote my years to painstakingly dyeing my hair and fighting to resurrect the parts of my body that have refused to resist gravity despite my half – hearted attempts at self – care?  It would be wonderful to claim that I have made my peace with my ‘greysome’ situation and am handling it with grace and acceptance. But I remain hopelessly conflicted and wish there was a solution to this hair – raising dilemma.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

When Paranoia met Corona


Even in pre – Corona days, I was a compulsive hand washer and my handbag was never without a small bottle of sanitizer. One can never be too careful. People in these parts poop, pee, and noisily spit just about anywhere. As a WFH author, I have long encouraged myself to practice social distancing and it was never difficult because I have an abhorrence of crowds and will risk wading into one only if Vijay Sethupathy/Devarokonda have released a movie. Social gatherings aren’t a big draw either unless there is coffee and cake. But since I can brew a wicked cup of coffee myself and now that my relationship with my tempestuous oven is cordial there is no reason to try and cure my tendency to be a hopeless introvert who is perfectly comfortable eschewing socializing, virtual or otherwise.

The husband who was cautious to start with seems headed towards full-blown hyper - vigilantism. He is making his own sanitizer with isopropyl alcohol and glycerine, vacuuming every inch of the house and scrubbing all available surfaces with lizol and I believe he spends his free time drawing up plans to build a sterile bubble we can step into every time we have to step out in order to rebuff germs as well as its carriers for good.

We have welcomed the newly enforced rules and regulations insisting that people wash their hands with soap and reaffirm their commitment to personal hygiene. Yet, even I can’t help but think we are going too far and it is high time we got a grip. For it is one thing to be sensibly cautious but quite another when we allow ourselves to become dangerously paranoid. There are too many news articles attesting to how we have swung towards the latter. 

These are hardly the best of times and it is okay to be scared. But when we allow unfounded fear and irrational concerns to rule over good sense, an already crappy situation becomes far crappier. It is heart-breaking to hear about doctors being pelted with stones, nurses evicted from their apartments by heartless landlords, relatives of the deceased being hounded and harassed while attempting to perform the last rites, and immigrant workers being barred entry from their villages and towns. It is sensible to want to avoid risking infection but not if it is going to cost us our humanity.

We are in this together and it is only a matter of time before we learn to live with Corona the way we do with the umpteen viruses, bacteria and thoughtless humans out there. So wash your hands, drink your coffee, eat your cake and do whatever it takes to prevent going stir crazy.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Chronicle of Unconventional Choices

Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Getting There’ is supposed to be a romp on the wild side as the author gazes back fondly on her ‘spiritual quest’ to find love, truth, and her identity. Mostly, though it is a chronicle of unconventional choices made by those rare individuals who can afford to get away with partnering with the devil within. It all began for Padmanabhan, when she decided to shed a few spare kilos by visiting a diet clinic and had an epiphany which prompted her to undertake a quest to lose the baggage she was lugging around like dead weight instead. Two Dutch men showing up at her lodgings to meet a bidi seller turned Guru gives her the impetus to follow her reckless impulses to sever the serpentine ties of familial/ societal expectations, and journey to the other end of the globe.

The search for whatever it is that propels this Quixotic mission sees Padmanabhan cheat on her sweet if bland boyfriend, lie through her teeth to all her loved ones and inconvenience or hurt more than a few of those who cross her path. Written with disarming candour, the author makes no bones about her selfish self – indulgences, sexual conquests and privilege which leaves her free to do exactly as she pleases, rationalizing or brushing aside the inconvenient pangs of conscience.

Amusing and awkward in parts, ‘Getting There’ is most engrossing and yet an uncomfortable pall hangs over it, as it is hard to shake the feeling that the narrator’s personal journey was made possible on account of the freedom she enjoys to go where her wayward will takes her which is something that others hailing from this neck of the woods would give an arm and leg for even in these supposedly evolved times, let alone in the 70s where this tale is set. And the narrator uses it mainly to follow through on largely idiosyncratic whims which includes traipsing across the U.S.A and Europe mostly at other people’s expense, getting high, abandoning her diet, sleeping a lot and working a little.
Getting back to the existential angst at the root of this epic search for the self, the narrator with bravura chutzpah makes it clear that she cannot abide societal norms which dictate that a woman can never be fulfilled if she fails to get married to a suitable man and dutifully trot out children. Naturally, she is judged by her own brother, exasperated roommate and a breathtakingly jingoistic NRI type. Padmanabhan, of course, is shamed by their words but it is also water off a duck’s back and you can’t help but applaud the fierceness which sees her so committed to doing her own thing.

A self – proclaimed feminist and one who is committed to being truthful as well as not inflicting hurt, the narrator with admirable bravery, lays bare the cracks and fissures in her own philosophy and principles by revealing the many times she thought nothing of throwing another woman under the bus while in pursuit of passion, lying to get her way or shrugging aside the pain she is causing others. Like the unforgiving lens that confronted her in the dietician’s clinic, Padmanabhan does a striptease to reveal her psyche, warts and all in its naked glory and it is impossible to look away.

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Being Indian


Most of us are heartily sick of the gloom and doom forecasting headlines that inform us every single day that India has witnessed a record spike in Covid positive cases and deaths. We are then helpfully informed that the numbers are probably not reflective of how bad the ground reality actually is. A favored coping mechanism is to ignore the news, busy ourselves with daily routines, debate whether to bake a vanilla sponge cake with chocolate glace icing which is certain to undo hours of yoga, cardio and strength training, weigh the pros and cons carefully before succumbing to the sugar demons lying to yourself that you are doing it for the kids though you know you are going to finish most of it, then tune into Netflix and binge watch a show to distract yourself from anxieties pertaining to Corona and your strained relationship with the weighing machine.

Every once in a while though a case comes along that shakes us to the core and forces us out of the ennui that has come to characterize our existence. The custodial deaths of Jeyaraj (58) and his son Bennix (31) have sent shock waves rippling across the nation already reeling from a global pandemic. The facts of the case at least the ones that are available and not entirely contradictory are grisly in the extreme. Father and son were beaten, tortured and allegedly sodomized before they were declared dead in a Kovilpatti Govt. hospital which is about 100 kms away from where they were arrested for supposedly violating lockdown rules and regulations at Sathankulam, Tuticorin district. Two of the cops involved have been suspended and another two transferred.

Public outrage has reached its zenith and a multitude of voices have been raised demanding #JusticeForJeyarajandFenix. Trending hashtags don't really fixate on accuracy which probably explains why Bennix has become Fenix. All agree that the token disciplinary action taken against the dirty cops and magistrate is inadequate to say the least. The ruling govt. as well as the opposition have duly called each other out and promised the victims' families compensation to the tune of 25 lakhs. One can only hope that once the smoke dies down and the hashtag stops trending, the fight for justice continues.

These are troubled times and if we pause to introspect, it become abundantly clear that we are also responsible for this brutal,unforgivable system where the rot of corruption has set in too deep. As Indians, we have become inured to doing things we shouldn't because we know we can get away with it. And we are right about that. Folks especially if they are rich and powerful can easily get away with murder, theft and just about anything else provided they have the money to throw at problems or the connections that will help them wiggle free. All of us play along because that is the only way to get along with fellow citizens of a morally challenged nation.

The legal system is in shambles and law enforcement is a joke and a half. The courts are so backed up, that a case is unlikely to see the light of day even after the perpetrator has lived to the ripe old age of 200 before kicking the bucket. Small wonder rapists, kidnappers and extortionists roam the streets like they own it while families of the victims bury their dead and cower in their homes destroyed by grief and fear. As for the rest of us, we are perfectly content to coast along just as long as we or our loved ones are untouched by the madness and savagery lurking outside the cosy comfort and confines of our home, work and lives.

That makes us complicit in this systemic evil as everybody is guilty of wrongdoing at a major or minor level. Are the beady eyes of IT officials raking your dubious company's records? Just buy them a fancy car, a crate of booze, or a trip abroad. In trouble with the law because your son and heir got drunk and mowed down a car killing a family of four or bludgeoned his wife to death with a dumbbell?  No problem... there is always somebody who knows somebody who can brush these things under the carpet. All you have to do is buy a five - bedroom sea - facing apartment for some politico type's mistress. You do it without blinking thanking your lucky stars that you have not been called upon to provide the mistress as well. Your kid can't be bothered with burning the midnight oil for a medical seat? Not an issue... It has already been bought and paid for. So what if some auto driver's daughter killed herself because her decent marks notwithstanding, admission was denied her? The outrage will die down eventually. It always does. Why the hell should we bother about the problems of the poor and the unfortunate?

So we shrug our shoulders and say, THIS IS INDIA. We will remind ourselves of our culture, heritage, philosophy, Taj Mahal. Yoga, Ayurveda, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kamasutra, Madhuri Dixit, Virat Kohli, P.V. Sindhu and Dindigul thallapakatti biriyani so we can take pride in being Indian and ignore the anti - nationals constantly harping about all the things that are so horrifically wrong with this land like raucous crows. What else  can we do? Everything else is too hard and it is somebody else's problem. Definitely not ours. So there! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


This year continues to boggle the mind with its capacity for unleashing tragedy on an unfathomable scale. The tragic passing of 34 - year old Sushant Singh Rajput has led to an outpouring of grief and triggered a much needed conversation about mental health. But of course, it didn't end there. The whole thing has become an unstoppable juggernaut of toxicity. First, there were the paparazzi types who plastered photos of his remains across the internet, uncaring that he is survived by family and friends who don't need this nonsense while coping with their loss. If that were not bad enough they barged into the homes of his aged, traumatized father and relatives with their prying cameras and intrusive questions so that their suffering could be broadcast on prime television for the consumption of the voracious public. Then the conspiracy theories began with everybody playing detective and floating theories that ran the gamut from bizarre, highly improbable to outright ridiculous, which was shared across social media where folks became more and more frenzied not unlike the sharks when they get a whiff of fresh blood.

You would think things couldn't get worse but of  course they did. Many denizens on the net and graduates of shady institutions like Whatsapp have gone certifiably bonkers after all and these have come to the conclusion that Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt and all the products of 'evil nepotism' are to blame for the death of Sushant (as if any of us can pretend that we give a crap about the collective good and not the ones who matter to us most!). Apparently even Salman Khan aka Sallu bhai aka Black Buck/Pavement dwellers killer and his family were also not as committed to Being Human as they routinely insist. Now I am not a Karan Johar fan. The man's show is insufferable and unwatchable and he spells coffee with a K (Sacrilege! And also Sacre Bleu!) Enough said. As for Salman Khan, I try not to be mean - spirited but confess to laughing out loud when my Dad described him as a 'topless and talentless wonder!' to get my cousin who is a fan to quit raving about him.

Be that as it may, it is awful to lash out madly even if you are grieving over the loss of a life snuffed out too soon and actually point fingers at others without rhyme or reason accusing them of being responsible for someone's death. That is a serious charge and it is unseemly to hurl such accusations without a shred of proof. Such conduct is inhumane and insufferable and we need to give it a rest. Period.

 It is perfectly understandable to envy the rich, powerful, beautiful and famous celebs whom most are obsessed with. But that doesn't mean you have been issued a free pass to attack them at every turn and spew hatred in their direction every chance you get.  It is unfair to make them the unwilling objects of either extreme reverence or revulsion. Why is it so hard for people to enjoy their work and leave them alone, resisting the urge to stick their noses into their private lives or sit in judgement of them?

Sushant's demise is a reminder that being talented, successful, good looking and famous does not render you immune to human suffering. We have been conditioned to think that being gorgeous, perfectly groomed, skinny and sculpted just so, expensively attired, branded out from head to toe, fabulously wealthy, Instagram worthy and famous are things to aspire toward because these thing supposedly make life fabulous and worth living. But we all know it is not true. People who have these things can still be more depressed than the immigrant who has been trudging homeward without even a buck to call his own or a  mouthful of food or water to sustain himself or a regular Joe who has been chasing away Corona blues with condensed milk while sighing over (insert the celeb you love/hate follow here)'s glam Instagram feed. It is inexplicable but there you have it.

Sometimes, it sucks to be alive and we don't need to compound the situation by being so hard on either ourselves or each other. Even the discussions surrounding mental health have devolved into heated arguments with bilge being spouted every which way. Some are convinced that posting a cutely worded post about how their door is always open, the house and kitchen bench is always safe, they can have coffee brewing in minutes, can lend you their understanding shoulders to cry on, blah, blah, etc. on FB can help those dealing with depression, feeling alone or suffering in silence. There are many who think that people are depressed because they stubbornly refuse to be happy. That these misguided souls who don't get how fortunate they are compared to the aforementioned immigrant workers simply need to get over themselves and move on. If they do yoga, try meditation, listen to whale sounds, catch up with buddies, etc. they will be right as rain.

Others insist that the taboos and stigma surrounding mental health and seeking treatment for the same be addressed by getting worked up about it while issuing torrential twitter threads. Of course, everybody is an expert these days on everything be it Corona, suicide, depression or defense, so nobody cares for anybody else's POV. All I can say is that sometimes a cup of coffee, a scoop of ice cream, a snatch of a beloved tune or a friendly conversation can go a long way and sometimes a prescription made out by a professional can provide relief. Whatever floats your boat in in other words. It does not have to be strictly this or that. It can be a little bit of this, that and more.

We still don't have answers where depression and assorted mental ailments are concerned. It is cool that we are trying to figure it out. Perhaps we will have a better handle on these things in future and lives can be saved. In the meantime, all we can do is support each other's choices whatever they may be and stop turning on each other when we are not attacking celebs for painting their faces to show solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, being flag bearers of nepotism, or hawking their fave brand of lipstick. As for Sushant Singh Rajput, it is important that we celebrate his life, work, generosity, instead of attacking Karan Johar for not inviting him to some lousy party where the glam brigade show up in their designer togs and ignore the scrumptious food after photographing it for Instagram because their dietician warned them to stick only to boiled cabbage (which needs to be thrown up immediately after) because that is the only way to manage the Herculean task of pouring  oneself into a bandage dress. He may not have wanted to attend anyway because Sushant clearly preferred to spend his time on Quantum physics, helping the needy, writing poetry, playing the guitar, reading Sartre, making his kinda films, dreaming of visiting his slice of the moon and simply being himself. His memory would be better served if we remembered all the good things he stood for and learned from the demons he wrestled with. Don't you agree? 

Goodbye Sushant. Keep on doing your thing wherever you are. We will miss you.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Outraged Over Outrage!

There is something nasty in the air. And it is catching! I am not talking about Coronasura or its continued depredations against humanity. It is hate and hypocrisy, swelling up from a bottomless well of relentless rage. Not a single day goes by without people posturing on social media to constantly express self - righteous outrage over myriad issues that are occasionally serious but mostly stupid without bothering to modulate the pitch of their infernal wailing, fully convinced that their shrill voices, affected shrieking and the almighty clamour will change the world, ridding it entirely of injustice. All I can say to that is a big BAH!

Nowadays, social media denizens feel it is their national duty to lose their minds over the myriad offenses helpfully trotted out by the click bait media. And of course, no day is complete if you have not participated in or voyeuristically ogled an ugly shouting match featuring death/rape threats, blocked trolls who made unfounded allegations about your mother’s sexual history, unfriended former friends who disagreed with you and friended the like – minded who would be a welcome addition to the echo chamber you have chosen to inhabit.

It is no longer fashionable to simply look at things be they big or small without passion or prejudice, so that we can see it for what it is. Rather, everything has to come down to fickle feelings which leads to a massive outpouring of overheated emotions and little else. It is fun to feel disgusted and vent your fury on what is perceived to be a just cause, before moving on to the next loaded topic, till you are trapped in an endless loop of expressing aggression that achieves nothing and damages sensitivity to the point where you are permanently benumbed to real evils.

Who even remembers the events that trigger this outpouring of overwrought grief and fury anyway? Will people remember George Floyd’s name a few months from now? Or the pregnant elephant that was fed or fed on a pineapple stuffed with crackers? That J.K. Rowling was mercilessly trolled and accused of being transphobic because she put up a tweet protesting a headline that was being politically correct and referred to ‘People who Menstruate’ instead of the more obvious ‘WOMEN’?
Unfortunately, it is this ‘just anger’ which is constantly incentivized with favourites, likes, retweets, follows, and umpteen shares which prompts more and more bellicosity. Let us not kid ourselves. Hashtag activism does not lead to tangible victory against oppression. All it does is distance you from real issues and people outside of the virtual space who can be helped not with runaway rage but with your willingness to actually lend a helping hand.  

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Harsh Reality and All things Surreal

Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan manages to be a charming travelogue as well as a fine example of old school journalism that delves deeply into the troubled history between Indian and Pakistan, while providing balanced insights into the situation as it was and is. The Partition which remains a suppurating wound is a prickly subject and Khatlani treads lightly but doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths either making the reader wince at the painful memory of that dark time when so many were killed so senselessly.

The book is also a fascinating history lesson on the circumstances that led to the partition itself, its aftermath, the birth of Bangladesh, political intrigues and assassinations that shaped the violent history of Pakistan, the bitter wars fought between the ‘Separated Twins’, precious overtures of peace that succeeded every bit as much as they failed, terrorist attacks that derailed all efforts towards rapprochement, and the simmering cauldron of conflict that is Kashmir. Leavened with humorous and sentimental tales about colourful characters such as Aqleem Akhtar aka General Rani, Pakistan’s abiding love for Bollywood in general and Madhuri Dixit in particular, a shared passion for cricket that birthed an epic rivalry… the pages practically turn themselves.

However, it has to be mentioned that the author cuts considerable slack for Pakistan’s far from secular character by digging deep for examples of the pitiful few who advanced in their chosen careers despite belonging to other faiths. His stand is far more critical and harsh though when it comes to secular India which boasts of multitudes belonging to different religions who have excelled and rose to the top of their respective fields though there have been admittedly shameful instances of communal strife and violence.

That said, I loved the tale of the Bulars who taking after their ancestor Rai Bular, a Muslim devotee of Guru Nanak, played a significant role in saving many Sikhs during the partition and have continued to work towards inter – faith harmony. By sharing heartening anecdotes about those individuals who distinguished themselves as shining examples of kindness, friendship and bravery on both sides of the contested boundary, the author does provide a salve of sorts for past hurts and offers a modicum of hope that India and Pakistan will someday set aside their differences and head towards a future brightened by friendship and shared ideals.

The famous Urdu author, Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs is an entirely different kettle of fish altogether with its adoration of all things surreal, starkly removed yet mired in the nitty - gritties of harsh reality as it attempts to look at the bigger picture of the human condition in all its unvarnished glory. Translated by Haider Shahbaz, the narrative boldly plunges into all things bizarre as it charts the tortuous journey of Hassan and his fragile mind, fraught with his assorted anxieties. His story of course, is not straight – forward subject as it is to interpretation at every stage while relying heavily on the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and submerge him/herself entirely in the dazzling array of feverish images expertly conjured up by the author who has a sure hand and a deft touch.

Never less than intriguing even when making allowance for a tendency towards self – indulgence, Baig’s saga is wildly creative and endlessly fascinating as it segues wildly all over the place while careening across the will – o – the – wisp tendrils of a wandering mind as it alights on assorted objects, veering off – tangent into their improbable yet not quite impossible backstories. Other characters who traipse across the narrative include a bunch of budding auteurs trying to make a film called This Film Cannot be Made, a collector, junkyard owner, a professor whose manuscript on enlightenment might have been mistakenly relegated to the trash heap, a theatre troupe featuring a motley crew of artistes, hopelessly corrupt and villainous cops, amongst others. This novel will prove to be a challenging read because it has many layers and can be explored at many levels of thought. Yet, it is engaging, shocking, hilarious and deeply troubling in turns and leaves one feeling as though one has been put through the ringer – emotionally as well as intellectually. A tour – de – force of a novel! The translator deserves kudos for doing justice to the brilliance of the original material while keeping much of the essence intact. Baig and Shahbaz can take a bow!

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Arjuna Vs Karna

Bros turned foes
Forget Rafa Vs Federer, Rajinikanth Vs Kamal Haasan, Ilayaraja Vs AR Rahman, Dindigul Biriyani Vs Sivakasi Parotta, Pizza Vs Pasta... The most intensely debated rivalry has to be Arjuna Vs Karna. Blood flowed freely in the family whatsapp group last night as too many had gone over to the dark side.
Folks keep refering to the Ekalavya incident when it comes to condemning Arjuna. All I can say is he was a minor at the time and all he did was complain to his Guru. It was Drona who demanded the poor chap's thumb. So if anybody was to blame, it was Drona. And FYI, Arjuna grew up to be a good man who respected women and treated fallen foes with respect, fairness and compassion. So it is about time we stopped judging him unfairly on the strength of his worst deed. 
As for Karna, while it is true that fortune spat on his face, I don't see how misfortune can excuse misconduct. It was not okay for him as a supposedly decent adult to suggest the disrobing of Draupadi or break Abhimanyu's bow from behind. Just inexcusable.That said, certain versions of the epic suggests that the spirit of Narakasura possessed Karna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra making him savage, bloodthirsty and bereft of pity which was at odds with the kindness and generosity that usually characterized his essentially noble nature (barring the times when he insisted on being a part of an unholy quartet committed to indulging Duryodhana when he was at his envious and intractable worst and instigating him towards greater heights of folly).
Ultimately I find there is much to admire about Karna but I still think Arjuna remains the best and greatest of them all.
Full disclaimer: In case you haven't figured it out already, I love Arjuna and am totally biased 
Do watch episode 6 of #MahabharataWithAnuja for Karna's grand entry right here. Or this one, where he became mean to get even with Draupadi for rejecting him on account of his lowly birth, or episode 16 , where he played a dastardly role in the death of Abhimanyu, or this one where he is killed.

And you can buy my labour of love Arjuna: The Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince if you would rather read the much loved tales from the Mahabharata here.

Powerful Women from the Mahabharata: Hadimbaa

Bhima and Hadimbaa: The Lovebirds
One of the most charming stories in the Mahabharata is the love story between Bhima and Hadimbaa, a flesh eating rakshasi. Hadimbaa, fell in love with Bhima and chose to follow the dictates of her heart, even if it meant severing hitherto binding familial ties.Bound to her brother and used to following his orders, she nevertheless disobeyed him when he ordered her to kill Bhima and his family. Initially, Bhima did not really reciprocate her feelings even disdaining her offer to help rescue them but Hadimbaa appealed to Yudhistra and Kunti, beseeching them to unite her with Bhishma. Sometimes a gal has to make the first move and do what it takes to get what she wants :) 

Having sported with Bhima to her heart's content in all her favorite spots and borne him a son, Hadimbaa was also wise enough to know that all good things must come to an end. When her grand passion had run it course, she chose to let her lover go because their lives were meant to intersect only briefly. It is wonderful that the ancients were so pragmatic about these things. Moreover, a flesh - eating rakshasi with a voluptuous appetite is given the respect she deserves and is neither judged nor reviled for choosing to live her life as she saw fit.

This episode of #MahabharataWithAnuja  also features a dastardly plot to burn the Pandavas and their mother alive. They do manage to escape but only after making the horrifying decision to allow six innocents to die in their stead. Recently I got a lot of messages regarding the deaths of the Nishada woman and her five sons at Varanavata. This incident  is a chilling one.

While it is true that the Pandavas were under duress and had decided to use clever strategy to protect themselves from Duryodhana's jealousy and malevolence there is no
 justifying their actions when a poor family of six invited for a feast were drugged and then left to burn to death. It is horrifying to suggest that these lives mattered not at all in the grand scheme of things. The Pandavas definitely deserve blame for this and it is to their eternal shame that they killed those poor people. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that this evil deed made them evil people and therefore entirely unworthy of their reputation as noble heroes celebrated for their righteousness.
All of us are capable of evil - dark thoughts and darker deeds. But ultimately what matters is the sum total of our actions which include the good, bad and middling, our intentions as well as a commitment towards doing the right thing. The Pandavas and Kauravas did evil things for sure but ultimately both sides achieved great things as well. Their lives were ultimately rewarded when they were judged worthy to enter heaven. That is the point of the Mahabharata. By judging them harshly for individual misdeeds and dismissing the wonderful things they also did we are doing all those characters a great disservice. We aren't doing ourselves any favours either if we fail to emulate the best qualities of the Pandavas and Kauravas and learn to avoid the mistakes they were clearly guilty off.

For the juicy details, do watch episode 7 of Mahabharata with Anuja right here. 

Angry Women from the Mahabharata: Draupadi

Draupadi: The Jewel of Panchala

Draupadi or Panchaali as she is also called is one of the famous characters in the Mahabharata. As a result of a boon granted to her by Shiva in a former life, she was fated to have five strong and virtuous husbands - The Pandavas. At her swayamvara, it was Arjuna who performed a near impossible task to win her hand and heart but due to a combination of events she was wed to the five brothers.

Now the most troublesome aspect of all this is that her consent was taken out of the equation. But I have always felt that the Mahabharata's commitment is to realism as opposed to idealism. If you think about it, there are times in life when we find that the choice is not always ours to make but we have to live with the consequences. At other times, we make a choice and find it impossible to live with it. Perhaps that is the point of the epic... It is not necessarily about the choices we make or the ones that are made for us, it is about making these choices work for us. As best as we can. And I think Draupadi is a shining example of living the best life she could despite her far from ideal circumstances. No wonder she is celebrated as a jewel among women!

Check out the story of Draupadi's swayamvara in episode 8 of #MahabharataWithAnuja which also includes the charming tale of Tilottamma the ravishing temptress right here.

The disgraceful disrobing of Draupadi

The humiliation of Draupadi in the grand sabha by the Kauravas and Karna is one of the most heartbreaking chapters in the Mahabharata. It is hard not to get furious with every single one of the so - called great and noble men and heroes seated there. Bhishma, Vidura, Drona, Kripacharya, Dhritarashtra were supposed to be wise men but they did little more than recline on their backsides allowing this travesty of justice to take place.

Yudhishtra has to be the biggest putz of all time for gambling away everything he had before proceeding to stake and lose his wife. The other four Pandavas were almost as infuriating for going along with their big brother's folly. To his credit, Bhima rebuked Yudhishtra harshly and asked Sahadeva to fetch him a flaming torch so he could burn the hands that had dared to gamble away a beloved wife. It was Arjuna who urged him to simmer down since the dissent in their ranks was a source of great amusement for the Kauravas.
It was Karna, the so - called great hero with the noble heart and generous disposition who made the disgusting suggestion that Draupadi be enslaved and stripped of her garments. I hate when his fans gloss over his disgusting behavior as though it did not matter that a strong woman was made to pay for daring to reject him at her swayamvara (And no, I don't think it was okay for Draupadi to insult and demean him for being a charioteer's son but she was well within her rights to refuse to marry him). Sure he later redeemed himself with valorous deeds but this is a #MeToo story and it is to his shame that he stooped to such despicable levels of conduct. And no the unfortunate circumstances that governed his life still did not make it okay for him to behave the way he did.

Don't even get me started on Duryodhana who was salivating at the prospect of humiliating the wife of his enemies and insisted that Karna's foul proposal be carried out. The barring of his thighs to a tearful Draupadi is simply inexcusable. And Dushasana is the basest among all things foul and odious for manhandling Draupadi the way he did, though she set her pride aside and appealed to him piteously revealing that she was menstruating at the time.

Love how dignified Draupadi was even in such a lamentable situation. Refusing to bow her head in shame, she called out all present for allowing such a gross act of injustice to take place. Only Vikarna, one of the younger Kauravas placed himself in her corner, stating that she was right in claiming that Yudhishtra having lost himself had no right to stake her. It was Karna who dismissed Vikarna and ordered him to leave the Sabha.

Sick of their collective perfidy, Draupadi refused to be cowed or give in to despair but defiantly placed her faith in Krishna and begged him to come to her rescue. And the dark Lord, did not let her down. And that is why he deserves to be revered for all of time. Unlike the others, he knew the value of respecting women and being there for all who needed him the most.
It was difficult to keep it together for episode 11 of #MahabharataWithAnuja since my emotions were all over the place but do check it out here.

Many attribute the rage and humiliation of Draupadi as a key causal factor that culminated in the bloodbath that was Kurukshetra. Bhima was so incensed by her plight that he smashed Duryodhana's thigh, ripped off Dushasana's arm and drank his blood. These were only two of the high - profile characters who paid the price for what they had done to Draupadi. Many more died on that battlefield - noble - minded, great souls among them. In the end, I have always wondered if Draupadi regretted instigating her husbands to fight to avenge her. Would she have chosen this path if she had known before hand that she would lose so much more than her honour? That her favorite Abhimanyu, her five sons by the Pandavas known as the Upapandavas, her father, beloved twin brother, nephews would all die on the battlefield, leaving her desolate and utterly heartbroken? Nowadays, so many endorse righteous anger and outrage when dealing with injustice or pain. But anger is such a corrosive emotion and it destroys indiscriminately. Cliched though it may be, ultimately the best revenge might just be to live well. 

Hated Characters from the Mahabharata: Shisupala, the Bull of Chedi

Shishupala's meets his end

Shishupala, the Bull of Chedi is a much loathed figure in the Mahabharata. A mortal enemy of Krishna, he was an abductor of women, stealer of cattle, and an arsonist among other things. A brute of a man, he also had a venomous tongue and a vile temper. At the Rajasuya, yagna performed by the Pandavas he abused Krishna and Bhishma in the most uncouth way possible. Krishna, having forgiven Shishupala a thousand times at the behest of the villain's mother who was his aunt, decapitated him at the yagna to the horror of all present.

Now, one of the interesting things about our epics is there are so many shades to these characters and nobody is unilaterally evil. Shishupala has a very interesting back story and if you acquaint yourself with it, you will realize that the heights of his hate and anger, came from the depths of the purest love and devotion. 

Jaya and Vijaya were the gatekeepers of Lord Vishnu. On one occasion they refused entry to the four Kumaras - pure minded souls who had the physical appearance of 5 year old boys. Angered by their ignorance and unwillingness to see past the obvious, the Kumaras cursed Jaya and Vijaya, condemning them to lose their status as celestials, take birth on Earth and live as mortals.

At Vishnu's request, the Kumaras softened the curse and gave the gatekeepers two options. They could either take birth as devotees of Vishnu for seven lifetimes or be born as his enemies for three lifetimes. Jaya and Vijaya did not hesitate. Unable to bear the thought of being separated from Vishnu for seven lifetimes, they chose to swim across an ocean of blood, battling the winds of extreme passion and violence over the course of three lifetimes in order to take their place as his gatekeepers again, as soon as possible.

In the Satya Yuga, Jaya and Vijaya were born as the asuras, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu who were slain by Vishnu in his Varaha (boar) and Narasimha (man - lion) avatars. In the Treta yuga, they were born as Ravana and Kumbhakarna. Both were killed by Rama. And in the Dvapara yuga, they were born as Shishupala and Dandavakra, both of whom met their end at the hands of Krishna. Having endured the terms of the curse, Jaya and Vijaya returned to their place at the feet of one they had loved enough to endure three lifetimes filled with hatred.

For the details of Shishupala's story and death, do check out episode 10 of #MahabharataWithAnuja right here.

Where I overcame my fear of getting crapped on for a shoot...

Some viewers have remarked that they loved the locations for the outdoor shoots and wanted to know why all the episodes were not shot like that. What can I say? Take episode 12 of #MahabharataWithAnuja for instance... I was seated under this big, leafy tree and the cameras were rolling when two birds alighted on one of the branches right above my head. No amount of shooing or loud pleading (shouting actually!) could get them to budge!
So we went ahead with the shoot, and a part of my brain couldn't help but attempt to send subliminal messages to the feathered trespassers (okay, perhaps I was the one trespassing) beseeching them not to poop on my head, even as I was narrating the story. I mean can you imagine the horror? There was this time, I fell out of the boat during a white water rafting expedition. My loving family and friends are still laughing themselves silly over my graceless tumble (which was captured on video) and if an even more embarrassing video of me with bird crap on my hair were to surface? Shudder!
Anyways, it is the reason, I actually prefer shooting indoors in a controlled environment with the air-conditioning humming softly in the background. Do check out #Episode12 of #MahabharataWithAnuja There is plenty to like for those on team Arjuna as the great man outdoes himself even by his own impossible standards of excellence. Bhima and Hanuman have themselves a pissing contest and the whole thing is just too cool. Kindly watch and share people. This is the link.
P.S: For those who are wondering, my buddies of the avian variety were kind enough not to make a nasty mess on my head. Bless them and may their tribe increase!

Monday, June 01, 2020

A Question of Consent

Arjuna and Subhadra
I think it was Plato who wisely said that 'Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder' adroitly endorsing a surrender to relativism when it came to a question of viewing things that are subject to subjectivity. Take the above pic for instance. Some would sigh wistfully and say it is the height of romance for Arjuna to briskly whisk away the love of his life on a chariot drawn by swift steeds to a shared notion of paradise on Earth. Others would curl their lips in disapproval and insist that Arjuna's abduction of Subhadra is a violent act and an ancient #MeToo story, deserving of the severest censure. As a confirmed fence sitter, who has repeatedly been condemned for the same, all I can say is that both arguments are valid from the standpoint of those making them. 

These thing ultimately come down to individual perspective and personal interpretation which is usually complicated and varied. Everyone is entitled to their views and I wish people will try to remember that when they are trying to force their extremely inflexible opinions and ideas  (which IMO is also a form of violence) on others, especially those who don't see eye to eye with them. Having said that, regarding the rights or wrongs of this particular situation, consent is the key word. The way, I see it, the epic makes it clear that Arjuna talked things over with Krishna, Subhadra's brother who informed him in no uncertain terms that the object of his affection reciprocated his feelings and had never made a secret of her adoration of him from an early age. Some versions suggest that Balarama had planned to give her hand in marriage to his fave pupil, Duryodhana and she was quite unhappy about this which prompted the omniscient Krishna to act in her best interests. Hence, Arjuna made his move knowing that Subhadra loved him and since she did not resist at that point, and had long wished for him to become her husband, perhaps we can safely assume she had few if any issues at all with the way her love story panned out and was content to revel in her stature as the love of his love despite the fact that he had many wives? You disagree? That is fine by me... To each his/her own. 

Moving on, I think the epics make it clear that when a woman's consent is taken out of the equation, the consequences will be dire for all parties and that a good man will do well to ascertain the wishes of the woman he seeks to woo or wed. This is made abundantly clear in the story of Krishna and Rukmini. The latter was no shy maiden given to blushing in confusion over her feverish thoughts. Rukmini knew her mind, and when her brother, Rukma ignored her wishes and arranged for her to be wed to Shishupala whom she loathed, she took matters into her own hands. An epistle was furtively penned and dispatched to Krishna, declaring her love and demanding that he rescue her from an odious marriage not of her own choosing. Krishna obliged and carried her away after defeating the belligerent hordes that followed in their wake led by Shishupala and Rukmi.

In the swayamvara of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika though, it is obvious that Bhishma goofed up by not educating himself about Amba's wishes beforehand before abducting the three sisters. He paid a heavy price for his lapse as did Amba. I have discussed this matter at length here. Human desire is a complicated thing and any conversations regarding the same or concerning  the formulation of rules and regulations to govern proper, acceptable conduct in this sphere, will be useless if bereft of nuance as well as a willingness to suspend judgement and condemnation in favor of understanding and tolerance. 

Take the story of Surpanaka for instance... I hate that she is always made out to be a hefty, ugly, dark - skinned. Rakshasi who threw herself at Rama, didn't handle his kindly rejection of her well and attacked Sita prompting Lakshmana to lop off her breasts and nose. Many blame her for compounding her error by emotionally blackmailing and manipulating Ravana into carrying away Sita to avenge her humiliation. It annoys me no end that she was sacrificed on the altar of popular opinion while Lakshmana got away scot-free for his sordid deed.

The Princess of Lanka was smitten with desire when she beheld Rama, and she was well within her rights to express her passionate feelings. Of course, she could have handled his rejection with more grace but folks who believe themselves to be consumed by 'true love' which not surprisingly is confused often for good old fashioned insanity are seldom if ever reasonable and Lakshmana would have done well to show more restraint when the situation spiraled out of control.

The way, I see it the epics never intended for those who are the pawns and tools of fickle fate to be treated with contempt, abhorrence or derision. Surpanaka's feelings for Rama went unrequited and if that and her subsequent injuries were not bad enough, she has been uniformly reviled ever since but the universe in its infinite wisdom did make amends according to mythological lore. In her next  life, Surpanaka was re - born as Kubja, Kamsa's handmaiden whose extraordinary beauty was marred by a birth defect which left her hunchbacked. When Krishna came to Mathura, she was charmed by him and applied sandalwood paste on his forehead. Pleased with her love and affectionate regard for him, Krishna placed his fingertips on her chin and and as he raised her face towards him, her spine straightened out and she was cured of her infirmity. Kubja begged Krishna to visit her home for a meal, but he had to decline since there were pressing matters for him to attend to but he promised to return once he had fulfilled his duties.

Krishna kept his word and did pay Kubja a visit. She had been diligently awaiting his arrival every single day since his departure and all was in readiness for him, and Kubja was highly gratified by his presence which she had awaited for so long. There is no consensus as to whether she became one of his lovers but given the fact that his legion of lovers were legendary, I like to think that he made time to fulfill her desire for him as well. Because everybody's feelings matter even if they are unreasonable or at odds with our own, and fully deserving of consideration (within reasonable limits of course :) ) . 

For those who would like to hear my account of Arjuna and Subhadra's union as well as the kindness and respect he showed towards Uloopi, the Naga Princess who loved him fervently though Arjuna did not feel the same way, I suggest you check out episode 9 of Mahabharata with Anuja.