Saturday, May 27, 2023

Dazzling Damayanti Redeems Toxic Tale of Love


Nala Damayanti is a timeless tale of love from the Mahabharata that seeks to impress upon impressionable young girls, that they must love their spouses unconditionally. Even/especially if, said spouse is a whiny, weak loser who irresponsibly gambles away his entire Kingdom before abandoning her in the forest, to fend for herself. Husband dearest might be a rapist, murderer, and afflicted with every kind of awful trait there is but the wife must put up with his crap not just with superhuman stoicism but with a loving heart and devote every waking moment of her existence to pandering to his unworthy whims, enduring his gross embrace, and bringing forth sons by the dozen. She must also refuse to entertain even the thought of another man let alone his advances, because according to the ancient incels who wrote the scriptures while under the influence, a woman’s chastity must be safeguarded at all costs even if it entails eking out a miserable existence without an orgasm in sight, leave alone happiness or fulfillment.

Anand Neelakantan takes this material, and working within these crippling limitations does his utmost to redeem it. The fate of humanity, which is dangerously close to extinction, thanks to Brahma, the original dirty old deity, rests in the dainty hands of Damayanti, and her ability to love a man, who is hardly worth her toenails unconditionally, while fighting her way past the many barriers, that loom on their way to a doubtful happy ending. She is aided in her hopeless quest by Hemanga, a golden swan with a beak that just won’t quit jabbering. The lovers face untold hardships, thanks to the wily machinations of Kali, a God of darkness, who emerged from the sum of humankind’s fears and insecurities as well as Indra, Agni and Yama who toy with humans because they can and since immortality does not seem to have rendered them immune to boredom.

The story chugs along pleasantly enough. Here, as in the epic one wonders what Damayanti sees in Nala. We are told that the way to Damayanti’s heart is through her stomach and Nala as an amazing cook, manages the feat with a little help from Hemanga, in whose wake chaos usually unfolds. This isn’t quite convincing, but the reader goes along because of the charming mirth present though the proceedings. Nala is a self – made, irritatingly noble soul who has made a better life for his people but his achievements notwithstanding, he suffers from a severe inferiority complex on account of belonging to the Nishada tribe. He and his people are constantly dehumanized over their lower caste status. Neelakantan explores this recurring theme common to most of his books with the sensitivity and sharp wit he is known for, making Nala a sympathetic figure when he is not being an insufferable one.

In contrast to the self – pitying and almost ineffectual Nala, we have King Rituparna of Ayodhya who towers over the story with his brashness, bawdy tastes, and ferocious appetite for life. A truly memorable character, he appears to be a stand – in for the author himself with his irreverence and impatience for those who are so filled with fear about the torments of an afterlife that may see them in hell for their sins, that they forget to savor the joys of the single life allotted to them and fail to fill it with love and worthy deeds. He is the perfect answer to false Godmen and priests who play on the human penchant for being foolish for personal profit. Too bad, Damayanti doesn’t ditch Nala for Rituparna, but an epic tale can only go so far and thanks to Neelakantan, the modern reader will hopefully emulate Damayanti’s intelligence and gritty resolve to extricate herself from impossible situations in which she lands up thanks to idiot males without ever losing sight of the power of love to fix almost anything.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Hashing out the Harsh Truths behind Hashtags

 Hashtags that set social media ablaze tend to be ominous beings that mutate into something

bigger and uglier in seconds. They lurch along in true monster style dividing people into

opposing camps who shovel s**t at each other before piping down, since the creature that

stirred up such divisive sentiment has simply vanished in a puff of digital smoke, having

achieved its mission to divide without conquering or liberating. Besides being almost entirely

useless, hashtags serve a sort of purpose. They reveal much about those of us who generate

these thingamajigs and waste our lives watching them play out in virtual time, preferably in the

form of easily consumed reels or tweets as per our personal penchant for prejudice.

Take the #TheKeralaStory for instance. It reveals that though we mindlessly consume content

which has been hastily assembled with the view only to make a profit, without caring a crap for

political or social consequences, folks will still argue about whether Bollywood and the patented

brand of balderdash with a heavy helping of baloney it belts out, has the capacity to divide

people along the lines of religion and endanger secular India and everything it stands for. In the

meantime, most of us still in pocession of a semblance of sense have little patience for

indifferent Gods and the more moronic of their followers because we'd rather watch

#GuardiansoftheGalaxy3 since Superheroes are sexier and don't bore us with tedious talk of sin

and shame.

Speaking of shame, #WrestlersProtest tells us that sexual harassment remains an inconvenient

truth which we Indians insist on burying under the carpet because who amongst us has the

bandwidth to deal with the whole He said She said hoo-ha which is destined to remain

inconclusive though protestors carry on protesting till they are fit to burst? We prefer to wear

them out with indifference and further abuse till they can protest no more. And when the issue

persists and victims continue to be victimized by powerful predators giving rise to further

hashtags, we merely shrug in exasperation or blame the victims for being falsely implicated in

their victimhood before turning to #IPL2023 for more mindless entertainment.

Like the #KohliGambhirFight. It confirms what we already knew. Most Delhites are angrier and

more aggressive than most and think the rest of us are worth less than the dirt beneath their

shoes. We bristle with outrage and feel better about ourselves by treating those we consider

beneath us worse than dirt.

The advocates of #SameSexMarriage will certainly attest to being treated horrendously in the

land where the Kamasutra which was light years ahead of its time in terms of addressing gender

as well as sexual fluidity was written. We know that love can never tear apart the fabric of

society but who wants to get involved in this farcical fracas when it is simpler to fixate on our

own love lives and marital problems or Malaika Arora's vacation pics with Arjun Kapoor?

Hashtags themselves come and go too quickly to be too harmful but what is far more alarming

is the hopelessness of the human condition they so clearly elucidate.



The Pledge: Adventures to Sada, co – written by Madhulika Liddle and Kannan Iyer, has lofty ambitions as it strives mightily to create an epic fantasy of Tolkienesque grandeur. The land of Mandala where this saga unfolds is a troubled one, with the empire having been split in two and the people being forced to weather the gale winds of hate, intolerance, and greed. In the midst of the tumult where everyone is suspicious about the activities of everyone else and people languish in prisons for no discernible reason, Jaadum, an aged prisoner and former magician who is also a chronic do – Gooder makes known his dying wish and sets in motion, the rickety plot.

Raibhu, the magician’s son, Afhash, his childhood buddy and Inosa, whose personal history is closely related to Jaadum’s secret activities for the greater good, find themselves facing down the forces of evil, led by the warlord, Umur Naash. This material calls for swashbuckling characters, rollicking pace and rip – roaring adventure. But all these requisite elements are sorely missing.

The characters are unbearably bland. Raibhu is noble, angst – ridden and supposedly talented but mostly he is commendably kind while also coming across as clueless and lacking in smarts. Some of his actions put the innocent in grave danger which makes it hard to root for him or his companions. Afhash is supposed to be the funny sidekick with a tortuous past, but this bromance is never convincing. Inosa is one of those jaw – droppingly gorgeous, tough yet tender women, favored by most novelists whose spectacular looks can be used to spark tantalizing romance as well as treachery. Umur Naash as the soulless, merciless ‘evil incarnate’, mass - murderer villain is straight out of a particularly bad Bollywood movie. Naturally, he has an eye for beauty and commits fully to destroying any semblance of it.

The plot plods along as the authors expend a lot of effort and words on world building. Some of the descriptive passages are not entirely lacking in charm. The co – authors explore the theme of religious intolerance and the people of Mandala occasionally find themselves at loggerheads over their right to worship either the land, sky, or water spirits, and one wonders why they don’t get their period underwear in a twist over the other two elements of nature as well. There are some ideas here that are intriguing, but the premise does not hold up thanks to the lackadaisical pace, clunky writing, and stilted dialogue. For people who have a monstrous war lord and his minions breathing down their necks, the protagonists follow a lumbering path through the wildlands, stopping once too often to eat, rest and tend to the superficial wounds inflicted on each of them at various points, when they can ill afford to.

There is a contrived twist in the epilogue which appears to have been hastily tacked on to whet the reader’s appetite for the inevitable sequel. This flight of fantasy is headed for a crash landing.

On Monstrous Men Who Create Merciless Machines


I once read a book by Terry Brooks, where the powerful Druid, Walker Boh is trapped by genius machines created by foolish men. Victimized by the soullessness of the true machine, he is pinioned on a sterile table with invasive tubes attached to him, and fed lifelike visions where he is fleeing from repeated attacks by relentless creepers of steel that seek to cut him up and is forced to use magic to defend himself. The machines then siphon away the potent energy expended and use it to power their cells. Poor Walker is helpless to defend himself, and the machines are perfectly content to let him keep at it, without respite, till even his formidable mind, cracks under the ceaseless strain. This is somewhat like the Matrix movies, but scarier.

Sometimes, I am convinced that we are all doomed to suffer the same fate as Walker, except, we choose to be trapped in an alternate reality, expending our vital life force on infinite inanities, so that we don’t have to cope with the evils of a broken world. How else do we explain the unvarying nature of crime and consequences? Of life’s predictable pattern of chasing highs which plunge us into fathomless lows? We are being fed the same stories with only a few variables altered, to trigger us into responding with incoherent rage. We flail at shadowy oppressors with all the ‘weapons’ in our arsenal, believing we are slaying them and making a difference. We keep tilting ferociously at nebulous nothings hoping that something will change.

It was only as recently as 2020, when the molten rage of the public spilled over when Bennix and Jayaraj became victims of custodial torture in TN. Now, we are directing our ire at ASP Balveer Singh, accused of torturing as many as ten suspects, two of whom were minors at the Ambasamudram police station. Apparently, he yanked out teeth using pliers, crushed testicles and used the police baton to devastating effect. Elsewhere, in the hallowed premises of Kalakshetra, a bastion of culture and tradition, founded by the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale, allegations of sexual harassment have flown thick and fast, not long after the #MeToo movement, promising positive change, ran out of steam. Meanwhile, a video of the Dalai Lama asking a little boy to suck on his tongue has gone viral. In all these cases, there has been condemnation aplenty. But a familiar pattern has emerged with higher ups demonstrating a fierce commitment towards protecting the accused while leaving the victims to deal with the nuclear fallout. The same as always.

Clearly, things will never change if we stick to tried and tested non – solutions for societal ills. Where we allow our deep-seated fear of tackling the powerful, for fear of ruination, rule us to the point where we are happy to kowtow to a system designed to let the strong thrive while the weak are crushed.

Perhaps, it is best to let the machines take charge. The hope is that we can program them to do better than us. While we sink deeper into a morass of merciful oblivion.

My Sunday Column for The New Indian Express

Sunday, April 02, 2023

The Maharaja who was the Best of Men

 Maharaja Rajendra Narayan Singh Deo, born to a royal family in the Bihar and Orissa

Province of British India was adopted by the Maharaja of Patna state and served diligently as

its last monarch. What is even more impressive is that he became the first ruler of a princely

state to sign the merger agreement for accession into the Union of India, indicating a measure

of dignity and grace that seemed to have characterised his political and personal life as well.

His is a story of duty, temperance and compassion that makes for interesting reading thanks

to the painstaking efforts of Pabitra Mohan Nayak and V.R. Singh. The reader is treated to a

fascinating glimpse of the turbulent history of Odisha in the aftermath of Independence, the

bloody upheaval that came in its wake and intermittent power struggles that followed which

came to define the political and cultural landscape as we know it today.

The Maharaja’s ascent to the throne itself was not without drama. A particularly harrowing

passage outlines the palace intrigues that plagued this highly desired seat of absolute power,

the path to which seemed riven with bloodlust, betrayal and unspeakable tragedy. The authors

eschew unnecessary sensationalism and steer clear from scandal which is a tasteful touch,

preferring to let their subject’s meritorious conduct and exemplary record speak for itself.

Affectionately addressed as the Maharaja, even after he stepped down, Rajendra Narayan was

a progressive thinker who worked hard for socio – economic and cultural reforms in his state.

He continued to serve his people by entering politics and eventually becoming the CM, a

hugely popular and effective one at that. What is even more impressive as narrated by the

authors is the Maharaja’s earnest appeal to lend his voice in support of the most downtrodden

in society be they poor farmers, exploited women or the untouchables. It is to his credit that

while addressing the rights of a Brahmin widow, he went on record to state: ‘The harshness

of the social laws on the weaker sex is so obviously inequitable that one cannot help

wondering whether these are laws of a civilized nation or narrow prejudices.’ He similarly

believed that ‘if man was indeed the temple of the living God, there was no place for

discrimination.’ The Maharaja was also a man of action. It was he, who welcomed the

Harijans into Patna and threw open the gates of Raghunath temple, the main Palace temple to

let them in, in a move that was the first of its kind in the state.

In addition to this, the Maharaja worked to eradicate child marriage and was instrumental in

implementing better healthcare services, quality education for all, modern infrastructure, and

farm reform among other things, he deemed would be for the betterment of his people. Based

on the existing evidence, Rajendra Narayan appears to have been a man of sound principles

and good sense. However, despite his erudition and determination, he wasn’t always

successful in his endeavours. A particularly painful defeat was the failure to restore the

broken limbs of Orissa, which was the loss of the districts of Seraikela (where he was born)

and Kharsawan which had formally been merged with Bihar, though many felt that

historically, culturally as well as linguistically, it made more sense to integrate them with

Orissa. The Maharaja worked hard to restore these lost districts to his state and made a

powerful case but all efforts by him and others like another famous CM of Orissa, Biju

Patnaik were in vain and to this day, they remain outside Orissa and come under the

jurisdiction of Jharkhand.

The Maharaja and his wife

In their bid to do justice to this remarkable person, the authors tend to treat the Maharaja with

a level of reverence that makes this a hagiography. He is even credited with being a

practitioner of esoteric Tantric arts who could cure snakebites, while remaining a secular

Hindu. One cannot help but think that it impossible for even the saintliest of saints to be as

saintly as their devotees insist, they are. An unflinching portrait with the warts and all might

have served the Maharaja better. Even so, there is no denying that he clearly was a legend.

An edited version of this book review was published in TNIE Magazine

Monday, March 20, 2023



Touched and thrilled to be featured on the cover of Storizen Magazine Sharing a short extract from the interview where I take a shot at explaining why I do what I do. Will share the link in my stories. Many thanks to Saurabh Chawla
and Pria Raiyani for making this happen!
What inspires you to write?
A bolt of lightening from the sky! Pixie dust!

All kidding aside, I think writing keeps me sane. I am actually happy when the words are doing their mystical dance on the laptop screen. Reading and writing are my conduit to a magical realm ruled by beauty, truth, fantasy and imagination. Whatever, I gather from my sojourns into this fabled land, I try and share with my readers, hoping they derive something they can use in their own lives, the way I have in mine.

Can you give some insights on the book – Abhimanyu? What kind of research and factors did you consider when writing the character?
    Abhimanyu is very special. He is one of the most beloved characters in Indian mythology and with good reason because he was the best among the best, in every sense of the term.

In a lot of ways, he is the pulsing heart and soul of the Mahabharata. TheGolden Prince was blessed with all the strengths of Arjuna, Krishna and the other Pandavas yet possessed none of their weaknesses. A rare hero who was every bit as good and kind as he was great and that is no small thing. It was a pleasure to unearth lesser-known nuggets of information about him and share the story of the Mahabharata entirely from his perspective.

As regards research I went back and explored the epic I have loved all my life by putting myself in Abhimanyu’s place. Thanks to him, the familiar material felt fresh, and I got

to plumb the psyche of fascinating characters like Subhadra, Draupadi’s twin - Dhrishtadyumna, his charioteer – Sumitra, Nakula, Sahadeva, the Upapandavas, his cousins in Dwaraka – Pradyumna, Samba, and his wife, Uttara, who usually get eclipsed by the razzle dazzle of more famous characters. But of course, the spotlight was on Abhi himself and being by his side from his birth to his untimely death. It was a heartening, often harrowing experience and I cried my eyes out while working on the manuscript, but in the end, it was entirely worth it.

How did you change as a person after publishing these many titles? What did you learn and unlearn from your experiences as a writer?

Writing my books has definitely been a transformative and life – affirming experience. Every single book that I have written and read has helped me navigate a particular chapter of my life, helping me traipse across the good and challenging times with a modicum of courage and grace. For that, they will always have my gratitude!

As a writer, I am constantly learning and unlearning only to relearn ad – infinitum. But it is part of growth and change and it is what it is. My main takeaway is to not strive so hard for control and to learn to trust and surrender to a higher process, the mysteries of which I can comprehend only in patches. But when I can pull it off, there is always a measure of peace and tranquility to be had. Getting into the zone is hard, but staying put in there, is the hardest thing to do of all. Someday, maybe I will pull it off!
You can check it out here: Storizen Magazine.

Having a Cow about the Canine and Bovine Crisis


Infected by the Indian proclivity for procreation and rapid proliferation, the stray dogs hereabouts find their population has soared to a dangerous level posing a threat to themselves and public safety. We all know this. Eyes goggling with horror, we watch CCTV footage of a 4-year-old in Hyderabad who was mauled to death by stray dogs in the parking lot of a housing society. Tutting in outrage, we read about the infant in a Rajasthan Hospital, who was carried away by strays of the canine persuasion. We all know these news stories represent a mere fraction of incidents pertaining to dog attacks. Because, it is routine, for lean and mean street dogs to chase or bite the unwary in India, the rabies capital of the world. Even so, none of us can be bothered with addressing this very preventable menace. Instead, we are content to express our dissatisfaction of social media before stepping out of our homes for a bracing walk, with a vague prayer on our lips and hope in our hearts, that we won’t be the ones who are attacked by a stray, hit by a truck, raped, robbed, or shat on by winged terrors like crows and pigeons. These things always happen to someone else, the unfortunates who wind up as sordid statistics, splashed across the news.

It is why we look the other way, when stray cattle prowl our roads causing road accidents and claiming the lives of hundreds, when they are not loading up on carelessly disposed plastic and garbage. Of course, we explain away this unacceptable scenario by telling ourselves that cows are sacred to Hindus, although we know that there is nothing in the Shastras explicitly telling us to let all things bovine traipse boisterously across the highways in a manner that can only be described as criminally negligent. Besides cows and drunk drivers are not the only dangerous things on the roads. We have stray dogs, runaway pigs, and the odd hobbled horse too! Why are we not doing anything about this?

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) and Animal Birth Control (ABC) Acts don’t do much to prevent cruelty to animals or curb untrammelled breeding among strays. Similarly the increasing instances of Cow Vigilantism and rigidly enforced Cattle Protection laws which have criminalized Cow slaughter have only served to exacerbate the problem. It is high time this crisis in addition to being merely acknowledged needs to be tackled using a more practical approach.

Animal birth control measures need to be properly managed. Pet owners who abandon their pets and those guilty of mistreating animals must be pulled up and made to pay hefty fines. More animals and gaushalas need to be established, staffed with vets, volunteers and trained personnel committed to the job so that strays may be gathered up, fed, cared for if they are sick or crippled and spayed. Perhaps this way, our roads and public spaces will be marginally safer, and we might even successfully eliminate rabies.

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express Magazine.

Defending the Indefensible Pathaan

 The extremely loud and endless hubbub around 'Besharam Rang', a track from Shah Rukh Khan’s eagerly anticipated action film, ‘Pathaan’ is so typical of our times. Having set the internet on fire, this song has remained in the news for dubious reasons with everybody and their distant cousin weighing in, eager to criticise or defend. Hardly a classic, composers - Vishal and Sheykhar’s latest offering is not even the catchy earworm it aspires to be. But people can’t stop talking about it, which might just be the point.

In the age of social media, public sentiment is a fragile thing forever running the risk of getting perilously hurt and infected with the pus–filled discharge spewing forth with reckless abandon to hit the unwary in the eye. The song features the gorgeous and glam Deepika Padukone sporting an array of risqué bikinis, sensuously gyrating away to glory while a ripped Shah Rukh Khan looks on embodying a world of coolth the way only he can. While most oohed and aahed over the eye candy, this writer couldn’t help marvelling at all the insecurity on display. While it makes sense that the ante has to be upped given that nobody reacts to the mere sight of even an itsy-bitsy bikini anymore since it has been done to death and porn is just a click away, it boggles the mind that even a beauty of Deepika Padukone’s stature feels the desperate need to establish that marriage has not eroded her hotness quotient. As for SRK, it sucks that following a parade of box-office disasters he has chosen to hit the gym and pump himself full of steroids to give the likes of Tiger Shroff and Hrithik Roshan a run for their money instead of opting for a great script with a decent writer at the helm, which is the actual shot in the arm his career needs.

The trolls looked at things with a different eye though. They harumphed over Deepika’s ‘immodesty’ and questioned her husband, Ranveer Singh’s decision to ‘allow’ her to subject her body to the lewd gaze of the masses. Their counterparts on the other side of the ideological divide insisted that a woman, especially a grown one has the right to make her own decisions without being judged and shamed for it.

As the outrage boiled over, right-wingers leapt into the fray decrying the costume designer’s choice to use the colour saffron for the dimpled darling’s bikini, especially in a song, the title of which may be roughly translated to ‘Shameless Colour’ which was perceived to be an affront to religious beliefs. An apology was demanded from Shak Rukh Khan and the makers or else…Effigies were burnt, lawsuits and violence were threatened while the clowns from the Circus of the Absurd have been unleashed. In response, many voices have decried the attack on freedom of expression and the weaponisation of religious sentiment to stifle artists.

While the jury is still out on whether this is the best or worst of times, we can all certainly agree that this is definitely the stupidest of times. This extreme obsession with Bollywood whether it is manifested in the form of creepy adoration or vicious hate has gotten entirely out of hand with only the stars and the talking head studio types profiting from all this. Controversy sells. The entire entertainment ecosystem is fuelled by generating outrage and endless feuds which is why we get these carefully computed seemingly arbitrary lyrics which double as hashtags and SEO keywords – bloody chum for the ever-present sharks, endlessly circling the waters for a taste of juicy scandal. None of this amounts to much in the grander scheme of things. This entire controversy distilled to its essence amounts to little more than a trending topic, to be forgotten in the blink of an eye or until Ananya Pandey opens her mouth to utter something inane, ensuring that the spotlight is turned, full blast on her.

The more rational amongst us can choose to distance ourselves from the fray and shout ourselves hoarse to draw attention to wars being fought, people living below the poverty line with no way to afford a single meal, the threat of being decimated by the looming threat of a pandemic; nuclear apocalypse; or the grand culmination of global warming and environmental degradation but who cares? People’s attention has been very successfully diverted by raging non–issues pertaining to Deepika Padukone’s strategically displayed side boob, SRK’s chiselled abs, Alia Bhatt’s new baby and Malaika Arora’s reality show. And since, it is painfully obvious that you cannot beat ’em you might as well join ’em and make sure to add your own contribution to an entirely nonsensical discourse by writing at length about a song that is definitely not worth writing home about and trying to convince your editor you deserve a bigger fee so that you can find an affordable stylist to help you look like Janhvi Kapoor for Karan Johar’s glitzy entirely newsworthy New Year’s bash that you haven’t yet been invited to.

This article originally appeared in Outlook India.


 If I read, one more hyper-articulate article naming Pathaan as the definitive film of the

millennium, that has struck a blow on behalf of the minorities and the oppressed against an

India languishing in the stranglehold of Gau mutra drinkers, I am going to flip and throw up

at the same time. As a former fan, I am happy enough that Shah Rukh Khan has delivered a

blockbuster after a protracted dry spell at the box office but I am less enthused at the prospect

of seeing more of this CGI – generated -sculpted-abs-wielding abomination in place of the

brilliant actor who dared play the irresistible anti – hero in films like Baazigar, Darr and


Moreover, I draw the line at proclaiming him as a beleaguered victim just because he is

trolled on occasion for his half – assed not – quite political proclamations on social media and

had to deal with his son being arrested on trumped up drug possession charges, who has risen

from the ashes to emerge as a triumphant champion of secular India struggling to assert itself

against divisive politics. Given the extent of his wealth, fame, and power, he is better

equipped than most to weather a storm so let us hold back on the pity already and save it for

the more deserving. Like those unfortunate Indians who can’t afford three square meals a

day, a roof over their heads or a potty beneath their bums and are about to lose their hard –

earned LIC retirement funds thanks to the murky machinations of Mr. Adani.

Let’s face it, while there is much to love about King Khan, a small – time television actor

who bucked the odds to emerge as the undisputed Badshah of Bollywood before Aditya

Chopra, Karan Johar and Manish Malhotra got their claws into him and remade him as an

overly styled lover boy who became increasingly risk – averse when it came to taking up

meaty roles worthy of his considerable talent, it is nevertheless confusing as to why he is

being projected as some sort of saint by all those starstruck journalists who are otherwise

constantly crowing about fact – checking. Are they just going to ignore the Dawood

controlled influence of the underworld in the 90s which saw the emergence of the Khan

triumvirate or the fact that the IPL itself is a monster money – laundering scheme and anyone

who is as closely associated with this enterprise as SRK is, cannot reasonably be viewed as

Mr. Squeaky Clean?

Most importantly, why are so many insisting that a middling Bollywood film heralds the

beginning of a new World order where love and acceptance has overpowered hate and

intolerance? That is every bit as stupid as saying that the marriage of Siddharth Malhotra and

Kiara Advani has reaffirmed our collective commitment to love and peace or that hugging a

Cow is going to magically transform our lives, filling it with positive energy and untold

benefits. Be smarter, people and free your befuddled brain from Bollywood machinations.

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express Magazine.

'Queersapien' book review: Memoir of Identity


Sharif D Rangnekar’s Queersapien is a tall drink of tender coconut water on days when the entire world seems to have been hard baked in intolerance and hatred.

It is a candidly narrated tale of the author’s quest to shed his own fears and insecurities after coming out of the closet, braving the hostility of a landscape where, on one hand, the Supreme Court has decriminalised ‘gay sex’, reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, but on the other, acceptance is still hard to come by for the LGBTQIA+ community, in order to find love and live his best life.

Written with heart and sensitivity, the book is a journey which extends both inwards and outwards, gently nudging the reader towards finding a means to make the collective spaces inhabited by human beings, one where individuals can thrive without being judged, shamed and brutally punished, simply for being true to themselves and allowing their sexuality to blossom unimpeded.

The author’s emphasis is on building bridges across differences and making a break from the established order not to descend into the darkness of disorder but to emerge into the light of diversity. Rangnekar’s freestyle mode of writing may be discomfiting for the unwary as he leapfrogs from the subtleties of the Indian legal system, data and expert opinions to personal reflections and raunchy anecdotes from the heart of the sin cities in Thailand, but it works if you surrender to the flow and get into the spirit of things.

The author’s revelations from his stints in Thailand are particularly moving as it clearly takes a lot of strength and confidence to be this vulnerable. He dwells at length on some of the spiritual as well as sexual connections made

in a land where attitudes are far more progressive with regard to sex and fluid sexuality but also addresses the scarier aspects of going in pursuit of carnal nirvana as it comes with the risk of sexual assault and battery.

A charming touch is Rangnekar’s tendency to recognise the privileges of his gender, class and caste while remaining sensitive to women’s rights, sex work and the struggles faced by the minorities and marginalised who have so much more to lose. Particularly touching is his description of the obstacles bravely overcome by his widowed mother, who raised three sons and made the effort to open her home and heart in order to provide a safe space, not just for her children but for all who sought it. Veena Rangnekar is a legend and the world desperately needs people like her.

Making peace with your own identity is an arduous, lonesome journey. Too many are terrified to even attempt it. Very few make it to the destination that is an oasis of calm empowerment and even fewer manage to remain there. But every story like Queersapien serves as a much-needed beacon of light to guide those who wander––lost and far too frightened to come to terms with who they really are.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Naatu Not to seek White Validation


It is always lovely when Indians win recognition on the global stage and athletes, scientists, artists et al. hailing from this land receive their fair share of accolades. Our homegrown achievers deserve this hard earned recognition especially since our motherland does not exactly have a reputation for nurturing talent or creating a conducive and hospitable terrain for the meritorious to survive and thrive. Which is why it is pretty cool when an Arundhati Roy or Geethanjali Shree wins the Booker Prize,  AR Rahman wins an Academy Award, a PV Sindhu wins a silver medal at the Olympics, or when Naatu Naatu takes home the Golden Globe.

It is easy enough to understand the need to celebrate these wins with boisterous gusto as the more honest among us Indians will admit that on most days, life in India is hardly cause for celebration. There is simply too much evidence of corruption, incompetence and criminal negligence every which way you turn... A mother and her 2 – year old were killed when a Metro pillar collapsed. A young software engineer lost her life following an accident on a pothole riddled road while dropping her brother on the way to work. Pee – Gate is one of the most cringe – worthy news stories of all time and these are only the more recent examples of India when it isn't quite as incredible as it is purported to be. 
Thanks to the despicable behaviour of our countrymen /women/ children there comes a point when  we want to disown our Indian brothers and sisters so that we can adopt Japanese siblings who always clean up after themselves, are frightfully competent, painfully polite and wouldn’t dream of peeing on anyone or anywhere other than a urinal. I daresay, it is thanks to these unpatriotic thoughts that we dare not admit to, that we feel the need to go absolutely bonkers with pride and joy every time an Indian receives White validation. Because deep down we know that most of us respect each other even less than the white folks do. Racism is only part of the problem. The truth is we don't do much to be worthy of approbation.  
It is sad that the excessive display of National pride on these occasions masks a loathing for so much of what India has become. The solution for this sorry state of affairs simply cannot be to rest on the laurels of random Indian victories and putter along on potholed roads with chests puffed up with vacuous pride. Now is the time to get off our keisters and get to work mending the many broken things that need fixing if we are to hold up our heads and take our rightful place on the global stage. It means confronting the painful truth about  being Indian rather than disappearing into a footstomping song where two Telugu Superstars school the White man while owning their regional identities, without desperately seeking his approval to feel better about their own shortcomings. 

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express Magazine.



Last Sunday, I read a news article about two Bengaluru cops who were suspended after they extorted money from a couple returning home from a party, insisting that according to the rules, they were not allowed to walk on the streets after 11 pm. The married duo had their phones confiscated, were put through a gruelling interrogation and threatened with imprisonment if they didn’t pay up. The frazzled husband revealed the details about his ordeal on Twitter and after his tweet went viral, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, clarified that there was no rule preventing people from walking on the road at any time of the night before taking action against the errant constables.

Now, this qualifies as a happy ending since too often, justice is delayed and denied in India. It is also a heartening reminder that occasionally, social media can be a useful tool to redress a wrong. However, I couldn’t help thinking that this ugly incident is so typical in modern India. For some reason, so many get outraged and there is a lot of finger – wagging as well as outright condemnation when couples are spotted doing something as innocuous as holding hands and walking on the road. Practically everybody wants to throw the book at lovers if they so much as kiss in darkened theatres or parks. The backlash is instantaneous and often ugly, forcing smitten youngsters to sneak around and seek out isolated places far from prying eyes with the result that they often put themselves at heightened risk for harassment, blackmail, and further violence.

On the other hand, the average Indian doesn’t get hot and bothered when folks piss and poop in public uncaring about the strain they are subjecting unwary eyeballs to. Those who are critical about such unacceptable behaviour are themselves criticized for not checking their privilege and told that there are more temples than toilets in India, as if this somehow makes public defecation acceptable. Most are similarly unconcerned when gross uncles burp/fart loudly or dig their nostrils in full view of all and sundry. However, the same people insist that all things remotely related to love and sex be treated as filthy (chee!) to be confined to dark, dingy rooms, preferably beneath suffocating sheets if you are married and strictly forbidden if you are not.

After all, this is our culture, never mind that the Kamasutra was written in India and temples at Konark and Khajuraho reveal that in the distant past, Indians had a more enlightened view on intimacy and erotica. No wonder so many of us are incapable of healthy relationships and hopelessly ignorant about reproductive health or practising safe sex. We would do well to go for an attitude transplant as a nation, instead of persecuting lovers and blaming films like Arjun Reddy, Pushpa and Kantara for the prevalent toxicity or there will be more news stories about couples getting killed or gruesomely punished in a land where hatred and intolerance has prevailed over love and acceptance.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express Magazine.

Toxicity of the Blue Tick Twitterati


Twitter is a fascinating place. It is always good for entertainment, if nothing else. People are forever attacking one another over principles and personal preferences. It is usually a scream to view the shouting matches between the senseless trolls on either side of the ideological divide as they attack each other over trending topics pertaining to politics, religion, human rights, Virat Kohli's form, Kim Kardashian's butt and Alia Bhatt's baby name preferences.

The insufferable opinions of the obnoxious and the offensive are always available for your viewing pleasure. The  humble Tweeple get to be schooled by the Twitterati, the blue-blooded wielders of the coveted blue tick on all things inane, irrational and irritating. Ostensibly, these are the 'verified' accounts that authenticate identity and establish holders such as politicians, film/sports stars, media personnel, big business types and influencers with an insane follower count as 'trustworthy'.

In short, the chosen ones are the powerful and popular folks who have been selected as the manipulators of public opinion to further agendas that can be counted on to do absolutely nothing to bring about the greater good, even if they vociferously claim otherwise. The violent, vitriol-filled rhetoric against JK Rowling, which is less of an attempt to uphold trans rights and more of a concentrated attack against a powerful woman not afraid to fight for women’s safety, is a case in point. 

Recently, Twitter experienced extreme turmoil when the newly anointed Chief Twit, Elon Musk, upended the status quo by rolling out the Blue subscription  service, allowing users to pay a monthly fee for the privilege of becoming the proud owner of a blue tick. Naturally, the Twitterati have their innards in a twist, claiming that such a move would lead to a proliferation of fake accounts leading to misinformation, which could weaponise the platform and jeopardise world peace.  Apparently that is not at all how things stood in the fairy land that was Twitter before Musk made his move.

Of course, I am one of those who have chosen not to cough up the fee, since by miraculous happenstance, I have a blue tick on Instagram, which has caused my stock to skyrocket with my daughters and nephews. In this economy, it is my advise that others follow my lead guided by parsimony, not principles. After all, the beauty of Twitter is that it will always remain the anarchic hellhole it was engineered to be.  

Even if you get a grip on the deep-seated desire to wile away the good years in your life by endlessly scrolling through Twitter feeds with breaks for Instagram until death does you in, you walk away with the empty yet satisfying knowledge that you have done nothing at all that might be construed as useful or enriching. And you will definitely be back for more.  

#MeToo: Missing justice in hashtag activism

The #MeToo movement, a volcanic eruption of long-suppressed pain and rage from victims of abuse, was a global revolution that sought to smoke out offenders, expose their deeds and mete out punishment. Many survivors found the courage to come forward, name and shame offenders, shed the baggage 

of trauma, and facilitate healing. Some of the perpetrators were prosecuted or cancelled outright, victims received financial aid, workplace and educational institutions framed policies to safeguard women, the statute of limitation for reporting abuse became elasticised and some of us dared to dream of a world where women were not treated as sexual toys. But that was always a foolish hope.

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For, in the real world, far away from social media, consequences were far more severe for victims. They won in the court of public opinion, but mostly lost in actual courts, where decisions in these sensitive cases are based on hard-to-prove facts and near-nonexistent evidence. Consequently, many bravehearts have been countersued for defamation, slut-shamed, and suffered professional setbacks. Meanwhile, the likes of Sajid Khan find themselves in the news, having capitalised on their notoriety. 

This is hardly surprising since hashtag activism inevitably putters to a standstill. All it takes is celebs dropping pics of their weddings, baby showers, unclothed selves or funny videos of pampered pets to divert public attention. Moreover, social media trials often generate sympathy for aggressors since folks who haven’t had their brains woke-washed invariably feel that justice was not served as due process was ignored, never mind that the lame-duck legal system has repeatedly let down the injured party. 

The upshot is that #MeToo seems committed to fanning public outrage and populist pandering, which saw it accused of diluting the menace of sex crimes by lumping everything from flirtation in the workplace to sexual assault together, resulting in the doling out of punishment that is both disproportionate as well as inadequate, enabling some to manipulate it for their own ends. Meanwhile, the movement did not do enough to change deeply entrenched patriarchal mindsets and cultural beliefs that expect women to shut up and put up.

The solution, thus, lies not in vigilante-style justice meted out by a moralistic mob on internet forums, but in fixing a broken justice system and prioritising the rights of women. Prevention is still key. We need to implement rules that guarantee safe spaces for women. Mostly, the battle for gender equality, sensitisation and inclusion of LGBTQ is going to be a long-drawn-out, painful process, which demands that we fight the good fight with dedication, humanity and mindfulness rather than twiddling our thumbs, Twitterati style. 

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express Magazine.

Bloody Birthdays!


I am mildly envious of people who are into celebrating the little things in their lives, particularly birthdays. They seem so happy swirling around in a candy – coloured Tim Burtonesque fantasy land apparently feeling blessed, blissed out and filled to the brim with the love and laughter in their lives. When my birthday rolls around with clockwork like precision despite my vehement efforts to freeze time using a telekinetic chokehold, I become so cantankerous, I make the Grinch seem like little Miss Sunshine hopped up on happy pills.

All I can see in the mirror is the awkward, pimply adolescent I once was in a belligerent biddy’s body. Taking note of increasingly creaky joints, I brood over the process of aging while counting the rapidly proliferating grey strands and bemoaning my lack of success in establishing a diplomatic relationship with my weighing scale. Politely responding to all the sweet people who send birthday wishes, I make myself feel worse by dwelling on the things I was supposed to have achieved by now but haven’t.

Despite my plan to see the world and explore its wonders Ibn Battuta style, I spend most days pottering around the house with all the zip of a zombie while wishing I could sleep all day. Then when it is beddy – bye time, I stay up late adding weight to the bags beneath my eyes, trying to master the formula for instant success and land a big fat book deal or create a cutting-edge app that will allow me to buy the Chennai Super Kings and outbid Elon Musk to takeover Twitter.

While drowning my sorrows in Nutella milkshake between bites of birthday cake, I wish I had taken better care of my teeth. It is no fun to spend hours in a dentist’s chair while he wields terrifying implements no doubt lovingly envisioned and first employed by the Marquis de Sade. Sugar may rot your teeth, but it does induce a sickly-sweet high that lulls you into believing that it is not too late to turn your life around.

I resolve to invest in Bitcoin, oil and gold which seems like the sort of thing smart people would do. Going forward, I promise myself that I will nurture and cherish the bonds with all those who truly matter, especially the ones who had made it a point to call me, patiently listened to my endless whining and assured me that I was not a complete waste of space instead of devoting time and attention to accruing an army of followers on Instagram. I shall make a commitment to fitness and begin the odyssey to find a better version of myself.

Feeling revitalized, I tell myself that the year is off to a great start though the sugar – rush is giving way to inevitable despondency. As I toss and turn wrestling with unresolved sleep issues, I spend the time trying to figure out how best to trap treacherous time in a bottle before my next birthday.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express Magazine.


Saturday, August 27, 2022

Festering Wounds and a Fractured Identity

 Operation Bluestar, was authorized by Indira Gandhi in June, 1984 to clear the militants led by Bhindranwale and his armed supporters who had taken up residence in Amritsar’s famed Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. The deadly military action which left thousands dead dealt a crippling blow to secessionists fighting for a free Khalistan and the national media at the time was full of praise for Ms. Gandhi. Some felt that this tragedy could have been avoided if the PM had used diplomatic means to reach an accord with the moderate leaders of the Akali Dal especially since some of their demands were considered reasonable.Matters came to a head when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, five months after the ill – fated operation. National fury over her death and Rajiv Gandhi’s call for a pogrom resulted in anti – Sikh riots and genocidal violence against the community.

The Anatomy of Loss by Arjun Raj Gaind unfolds across a sea of suffering as heinous brutality is deliberately perpetrated against the Sikh community. Interestingly, the author chooses not to dwell on the political/ ideological nitty gritty that contributed to the tumultuous events of 1984. Rather, his is a deeply personal narrative based on real events that intimately examine the long-lasting emotional ramifications bred from a toxic miasma of hatred, intolerance, rage, and an unwillingness to forgive or forget a tragedy.

Haunted by his past, the protagonist, Himmat whose childhood is lost forever in the vicious upheaval brought on by a political assassination, is unable to move on. He was only eight years old and in the middle of an idyllic vacation with his maternal grandparents in their farmhouse when the shocking news reaches them. The ramifications are swift and shocking. Gobind, his beloved grandfather, a poet and professor shaves off his beard of which he is inordinately proud to try and disguise his identity, revealing himself to the little boy not as the vaunted hero he has looked up to but a very human and frail old man. That very night, Gobind’s best friend seeks his help to save his son, only a few years older than Himmat, who has been taken into police custody. Out of concern for his own family Gobind refuses. He changes his mind in the morning, but his intervention ensures he is taken into custody himself, beaten and tortured, despite his advanced years. Though his brave wife manages to free him, his effort is in vain, and Gobind earns himself the implacable wrath of a senior Inspector.

Anxious to protect Himmat, Gobind decides to leave Amritsar with his family. In his single – minded quest, he makes the decision not to intervene even as a great injustice is being played out before their very eyes, though Himmat begs him to help. This horrifying incident is the final straw that breaks the weakening bond between the two of them leaving Himmat feeling adrift from all he has ever known and cut off from his own identity.

Himmat is a finely etched character, whose raw and bleeding psyche is laid bare and exposed to the minute scrutiny of the reader to disconcerting effect. The constantly festering agony of one who has been unceremoniously exposed to the ugliest side of human nature is in no small part due to the crimes of the past, when the Sikhs were repeatedly persecuted in Mughal, British and Independent India. Through his protagonist, the author draws attention to suppurating wounds left on the collective psyche by unspeakable tragedy and the long-term damage done, when the embers of anger and despair are constantly stoked by self – serving politicians that perpetuates the cycle of hate leaving no room for healing. Yet, Gaind also suggests that there is always hope thanks to the resilience of the human spirit.

An incredibly affecting book, narrated with heartbreaking candor and deeply felt emotion, it is hard to put down. Gaind does a fine job of reconstructing personal trauma. Himmat moves to London and tries to drown his pain and impotent frustration in booze, chiromania and is even recruited by disgruntled youngsters like himself who still believe in the dream of Khalistan. But no amount of self – destructive behavior brings him closer to elusive peace or much needed closure until he is able to reach deep within, with only a little spectral help to find the strength to forgive and fully become the man with the heart of a lion, he was always impossibly close to being.

An edited version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express. You can read it here.