Saturday, June 15, 2019

Pesky Little Things and Pestilential Evils

In summer, most of us, take off to more temperate zones (preferably abroad, if the Gods of finance have been kind), where we stand in queues, get jostled by tourists, take drool worthy pics to be posted on Instagram to offer incontrovertible proof that we are having the time of our lives and to rub it in everyone else’s faces. Then we return to dear India, to deal with an increasingly leaden feeling in the pit of the stomach. Too much pasta and a second helping of sesame jellyfish before pudding is not to blame though. It is the unwelcome confrontation with a reality where customs officials are curt, there is increasing evidence of a land where responsible waste disposal is non-existent, forced corneal exposure to casually exposed buttocks as folks void their bowels in public, near death experiences as a million traffic rules are flagrantly flouted while cops don’t even pretend they are averse to accepting bribes… I could go on, but you get the picture.

Most of us trudge home, unpack and whip out our smartphones or binge – watch Netflix/Hotstar/AmazonPrime, slinking slowly but surely into a sludge of indifference which is our preferred state to better acclimatize to the reality of living in Incredible India. We get back to the grind and avert our eyes from the open manholes and drains, choosing instead to take a cute pic of our frothy cappuccino and slice of key lime pie. There are online battles to be fought over the feasibility of free rides for women on public transport, Kareena Kapoor’s right to look her age or Deepika Padukone’s slightly bulging gut and India’s prospects in the World Cup after all.

Why bother with the little things? Like the charming types who spit dangerously close to your peep - toed shoes (which you were in the process of photographing to show off your darling Balinese nail art) right on the pavement with the unsightly cracks, assorted litter and homeless folks. Or those who take the last available seat in the metro nano - seconds before a bent old lady lowers herself into it. Why speak up? It is easier to shame the boor in 280 characters and let the Twitterati do their thing which is mostly spew ineffectual hate. But isn’t that the woke way to make a difference?

It is annoying to think about the fact that we are facing an acute water crisis in most parts of India even as leaky water tankers, slosh water all over the potholes as they are headed to their destination or the fact that the quality of air is so bad in the metros that oxygen masks will soon become a necessity. Why bother about these irksome little things? After all they couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bigger evils that plague this land. Like the case of a man accused of allegedly raping his seven - year old daughter with four pending cases against him for rape, assault and kidnapping who was released on bail so he could be an accomplice in the murder of a two – year old. But it sucks to think about a broken system. It is far simpler to plan a vacation to fairer climes. Or better yet to seriously consider that waitressing gig in Manhattan.

This was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: Why blame the divider in chief?

Grrrrr.... ******* beep *** beeeep!
Pic courtesy: Chandramouli Vidyasaghar

India is voting and until this interminable exercise in democracy is concluded on May 23rd, we have no choice but to hunker down and shield ourselves as best as possible from the hate filled rhetoric and vitriol swapping that are but only two symptoms of extreme election fever. Civil debate and discussion in political or social discourse was pummelled to death many moons ago thanks to television hosts who have long encouraged hyper contentious, rancour – filled exchanges to boost TRPs and ensured that outrage inducing talking points would trend across social media. But even so, few anticipated the resultant plunge into the vile cesspool of partisan politics, where only the bullies, provocateurs, trolls and extremists thrive having browbeaten and shouted down all suggestions to play nice.

Having chosen conflict and controversy as the only viable strategy, practically everybody seems to insist that you pick a side – Namo or Raga, and are dangerously close to issuing an ultimatum like the Sheriff of Nottingham, ‘Join us… or die!’. If like me, you tend to sit on the fence and spout gyan about being forced to choose between a rock and a really hard place, you are taught what it is like to come between a Nazgul and its prey. This kind of extremism seems to convince people that they are heroes fighting for a worthy cause, against those who have gone over to the dark side, even though it is the exact same logic embraced by terrorists and leads to irrational, unnecessary statements like ‘All Modi supporters are bhakts!’ and ‘All Rahul Gandhi supporters are anti – nationals!’. Lines have been drawn and if one is perceived to have crossed it, then one can expect to be mercilessly abused and shamed for not being on ‘the right side.’ Arguments on the subject even among family and friends let alone social media followers become so heated that most are ready to exchange blows and bad words over it. It is very par for the course to see former Facebook friends (whatever that may be worth) unfriend each other over a difference of opinion but not before a spectacular online shouting match over who they did or did not vote for. Why has it become so impossible for us to see that a differing opinion is just that and need not necessarily be immoral or steeped in evil?

Those still possessed with a rational mind would note that neither Namo or Raga is likely to prove a blessed saviour who will rid this land of the many evils plaguing it and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity, though both talk a big game.  Once the results are announced, whichever way it goes, India and its citizens will need to acknowledge that it is we ourselves and not the divider in chief who are responsible for the division among us given our own stubborn commitment towards upholding the caste, class, and religious differences that have torn us apart and been successfully exploited by those we periodically vote to power.  It is time to accept that the onus is on us to bury our differences and work together towards a more promising if not perfect future. We can start by at least trying to keep things friendly and respectful even if we can't see eye to eye for nuts. Or to paraphrase John Boehner  we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable or utterly despicable.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Supreme Screw – Up

Recently, two Supreme Court justices ruled that sex on the false promise of marriage is rape. Naturally, I did a double take. On reading more about the case of Anurag Soni versus the State of Chhattisgarh, it became even more ludicrous. The Justice Shah noted that the evidence made it clear that the victim would not have consented to the sexual act if she had not been promised marriage and hence it was a clear case of not just cheating and deception but rape as well. Apparently even if both the victim and accused have married and moved on while the law takes the scenic route towards justice, (or a skewed version of it in this instance) it does not absolve the ‘rapist’ from the consequences of his actions. The bench proceeded to elaborate on the heinousness of rape, its reprehensible nature and how a rapist ‘degrades and defiles the soul of a helpless woman’ before reducing the ten year prison sentence prescribed for the crime to seven deeming it adequate punishment for such a monstrous act.
While loathsome Lotharios are hardly deserving of sympathy, this judgement is simply wrong on so many levels. While it would appear that the ruling is in favour of women, the fact is that it has its roots in some seriously regressive notions of chastity and the misguided belief that a ‘good girl’ would never consent to sex if the offer of marriage wasn’t on the table. That a woman has somehow been violated or rendered ‘impure’ if she has made the choice to have consensual, commitment free sex. Now sensible folks have been fighting this kind of moral policing and antiquated mind-sets for many yonks now and it is infuriating that there are insidious forces determined to keep women pickled and preserved in a revolting vat of virtue for all of time.
Worse, equating fraud with rape serves only to make a mockery of the sheer gravity of the latter. This is the last thing victims of sexual assault need given the abysmal track record our courts and society at large have when it comes to dispensing justice in cases of rape. In a land, where nuns sworn to devote their lives to prayer, service and celibacy have been slut – shamed for accusing a bishop, little girls who have been violated and killed are blamed while their perpetrators roam free because the long arm of the law seems to have atrophied, such a ruling is downright dangerous. Inevitably, this will become the female equivalent of revenge porn, a weapon to be unleashed on men following messy breakups resulting in Casonova types getting caromed with rape charges leading to ill will towards the female of the species (She consented to carnal relations stupidly believing herself worthy of marriage despite her wanton ways and dares to call it serial rape!) as well as escalating tension between the sexes.
It will become even easier than it is now to dismiss victims of rape as lying and vindictive wretches who do not have the ‘moral fibre’ to keep their legs tightly closed before marriage. Thanks to such asinine legal interpretations of the tricky question of consent, the judiciary as it stands in India today has proved Dickens right. The Law is an ass. And an idiot.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Standard.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Bold and Beautiful Begum

Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, wife of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, was one of the key players in an age when history was being made. She witnessed first-hand the birth of a nation, carved out of the sacrifice of those who fell during the partition, the darkest chapter in the history of both India and Pakistan, the horror and aftershock of which continues to reverberate across the subcontinent. The ‘Dynamo in Silk’ who rolled up the sleeves of her elegant gharara to help fulfil the vision of her husband and his dear friend, Muhammad Ali Jinnah left behind a remarkable legacy that championed feminism and selfless service. It is one that deserves to be celebrated and held up as a shining example of grace in the midst of all things grotesque. It is a matter of almost criminal negligence on the part of historians that a complete and detailed biography of her extraordinary life did not exist before the intrepid duo of Deepa Agarwal and Tahmina Aziz Ayub came together to put together this beautiful labour of love – The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady.  
Born Irene Margaret Pant in remote Kumaon, her family was yet to recover from the outrage generated over their conversion a generation ago and were dealing with the overt hostility of the Brahmin community. As a bold, intelligent and enterprising young woman, she was teaching economics in a Delhi college, when she was drawn into the politics of the day and met the man she was destined to marry and the one who would prompt her to change her religion for love. Married in 1933, the dashing young couple threw themselves into the working of the Muslim League.
The newlyweds played a pivotal role in persuading Jinnah who had distanced himself from the party and moved to London to come back and take up the mantle of leadership and represent the rights of Muslims whom it was felt wouldn’t be treated fairly in a unified India. Unfortunately, given the many lives that were lost in the bloodbath that was the partition, Jinnah paid heed and this particular reviewer couldn’t help but wish that the Begum had persuaded the Nawabzade to take her to Bora Bora instead for their honeymoon!
In 1947, Ra’ana left for Pakistan. Her efforts in setting up relief camps to provide succour to the many who were deprived of their loved ones and all their worldly possessions has rightly been commended.  Jinnah died shortly after these tumultuous events and tragically, Liaquat Ali Khan fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1951 and only the Begum remained. As an active player in the political sphere, one of Ra’ana’s most noteworthy achievements was the establishment of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) in 1949 which went on to benefit millions and continues to play a crucial role in the fight for the emancipation of women in a land where personal freedom has often been sacrificed on the altar of rigid religious dogma.
She made her indomitable presence felt in the fields of education and social service as well. Ra’ana was also her country’s first ambassador to Netherlands, Italy and Tunisia in addition to serving as the Governor of Sind. She won the Human Rights Award of the United Nations and many more in recognition of her exemplary work.
Told in two parts, Deepa Agarwal handles the early part of her life leading up to the partition and Tahmina Aziz Ayub outlines the latter half of her life in Pakistan. Both provide an intimate glimpse into the heart and mind of a legend. In the Begum’s own words, ‘Pakistan was visualized as secular and democratic. Today Pakistan is out and out a theocracy and under that garb, every vestige of personal freedom is snatched away.’ Like her we too can’t help but wish that it had all been otherwise.

This book review was originally published in The Sunday Standard.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Thoughts on Tughlaq

Cover illustration and design by Parag Chitale
Published by Penguin Random House

Muhammad bin Tughlaq is one of history’s bad boys and as such has exerted a strange pull over me, ever since I heard about him in grade VI, during Sister Fabiola’s history class. Being fascinated about him is one thing but writing a book on his life and travails was altogether a different kettle of fish for the Sultan has put the complex in complicated and the puzzling in paradoxical. What a character he was and still is (even if it is only in my own head)!
            Modern historians concur that he has been terribly misunderstood and so called scholarly accounts from the likes of Ibn Batuta, Barani and Isami reek of bias. He was exceedingly unpopular among the followers of his own faith for daring to be tolerant to his subjects who belonged to other religions, failing to zealously guard the principles of Islam from idolatry and heresy and raising non – believers to high posts instead of dealing with them using the savagery he was infamous for.
            The Sultan had a rough time of it with the orthodoxy who sought repeatedly to undermine his reign and even tried to have him killed. But Muhammad bin Tughlaq refused to give in to their fanatical demands, choosing instead to provoke them further by killing key religious leaders in spectacularly barbaric fashion. Needless, to say he paid a heavy price for his belligerent attitude. It probably explains why he issued an extraordinary proclamation prohibiting public prayers in the empire for a period of five years though by all accounts he himself was a devout practitioner of Islam!
In addition to this, the challenges of ruling an unwieldy empire where his subjects in the various provinces had their own language, customs, all of whom were uniformly proud and prickly about their roots which in turn led to endless bickering and ceaseless hostility often erupting into bouts of communal violence proved too much for him. The unrelenting pressures of governance and the lack of support from his officials and subjects made him bitter and cynical. Not that it stopped him from doing his utmost to implement his outré innovations and ‘madcap’ schemes viewed with alarm and disbelief by his contemporaries with his trademark impulsiveness and recklessness which effectively doused the sparks of genius that went into the making of his grandiloquent plans.  
The man was an exceptional scholar well – versed in theology, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, economics and finance with a keen mind imbued with the spirit of enquiry. Many of his ill – advised reforms particularly the one where he sought to replace gold and silver coins with alternative currency were sound but the manner in which they were enforced left a lot to be desired. A failure to seek the counsel of his councillors and experts, anticipate problems in execution, the rampant corruption which derailed many of his projects before they could take off, and careless cruelty with which he dealt with his subjects when they failed to fall in with his plans led to untold suffering and nearly derailed his authority.
The Sultan had neither the pragmatism nor the patience to see his revolutionary ideas pertaining to administration, agriculture and taxation through to a successful conclusion. When confronted with successive failures which led to a loss of face for the emperor, he became increasingly embittered and his mercurial temper led to savage reprisals which led to his being universally reviled.
Yet, even his harshest critics have conceded that Muhammad bin Tughlaq was also a kind, generous and benevolent ruler. He seemed to have genuinely cared about the welfare of his subjects and worked tirelessly to end their suffering during the terrible famine that beset his reign and laid waste to the countryside for long years. If only the Sultan had not been opposed at every turn by his subjects, circumstances and his own temperament not to mention the rash of rebellions that robbed his empire of stability he may have met with a modicum of success and changed the history of this land and realized his vision to make it a better place. Perhaps we would not be plagued with the problems of incompetent leaders, greedy bureacrats, indifferent citizens, corruption, and communal strife to this very day. Perhaps…
This book is an attempt to recreate the life and times of Muhammad bin Tughlaq and clamber into the chaotic headspace of one who was considered to be a mad monarch. Painstaking research has gone into the foundation and I am particularly grateful to Agha Mahdi Husain for his invaluable assistance which I am grateful for. But when it came to building upon the character of this towering persona, I have taken some creative liberties. When confronted with conflicting versions of certain events, I have gone with what makes sense to me personally or have cobbled together missing fragments with chunks from my own imagination.
All chroniclers of Muhammad bin Tughlaq have been annoyingly negligent when it comes to the women in his life. His mother Makhduma Jahan (Mistress of the World) is referred to with said honorific and no one saw fit to mention her real name though she is believed to have been hugely influential and known to have received foreign dignitaries and taken an active interest in governance. His sister, Khudawandzada, also gets a passing mention because the Sultan’s munificence was on display during her wedding and she dared to make a bid for power on behalf of her son Dawar Malik during his successor, Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s reign. There is next to nothing about his wife (wives?) or progeny which is truly puzzling since everybody in those times had an unhealthy obsession with the love lives of their Sultans and the fecundity of their wives. (not that things have changed drastically in these enlightened times) 
Be that as it may, I have sought to give the royal ladies a voice, even if it is mostly my own. With regard to Muhammad bin Tuglaq’s love interest, Girish Karnad gave me the germ of an idea in his wonderful play on Tughlaq and I ran with it, though in a different, much darker direction. Feel free to make of it what you will, dear reader.
For those who insist on knowing where exactly fact and fiction diverge or converge in these pages, I suggest you do what I did which is read up on Tughlaq and make up your own mind.
Every time, I make a date with history, I see the present in the past as well as the past in the present. This book is my attempt to make sense of both in order to get an inkling of the potential and perils held by the future. Does that make sense?

MUHAMMAD BIN TUGHLAQ: TALE OF A TYRANT is my 10th book. You can order your copy right here and be the recipient of my eternal gratitude :) 

Thursday, April 11, 2019


The Indian General Election is just around the corner. Unfortunately, the damn thing does not come with a statutory warning about how the unspooling events can be hard on your heart with the added risk of your mental and emotional state unravelling with alarming speed. There are cops all over the place for the ostensible purpose of maintaining law and order who gesture for you to pull over, uncaring that a bunch of chaps in bunched up lungis and Bappi Lahiri level bling just zoomed by, nearly running over a poor old lady, in order to avoid hitting the placid cow who was taking a leisurely stroll in the middle of the road.
Naturally, your heart rate goes through the roof, while they bark questions at you and go through your luggage while an overenthusiastic type records the proceedings. The dutiful minion of the law, double checks your toilet kit which may or not contain a purloined item or two from the last fancy hotel you stayed at, while a tidal wave of terror overwhelms you as you envision yourself growing old, locked up in a dank cell reeking of urine and filled with excreta (like in Sanju), awaiting your day in court, while the judges take a half – hearted stab at clearing the backlog of cases which is surmised will take a few centuries at the very least. As the tension ratchets to unbearable levels, the cop with one last grunt to register his displeasure since you refuse to make eye – contact, allows you to leave. Where are these fellows the rest of the time you wonder, once your breathing has returned to normal, when there are young girls being abducted/raped/killed, when guilty diamond merchants are buying a first class ticket to Heathrow, when mobs lynch citizens for eating beef?
Having barely recovered from your scary encounter with the desi Mark Fuhrman, you decide to hit the spa and pamper yourself only to find that all routes to your destination are blocked because an earnest politician is on the campaign trail, nightmarish cavalcade of vehicles driven by goons with definite road rage issues in tow. Citizens have been bussed in from all over with the promise of mutton biriyani, booze and hard cash so that they can listen to uninspired speeches that promise jobs and justice for everybody while taking in the eye – popping ugliness that are the life – sized cut-outs of crooks, complete with their creatively embellished achievements on flimsily erected hoardings that seem in danger of toppling over unwary two – wheelers who don’t wear helmets since it messes with their gelled hair.
While waiting for the traffic to clear, you whip out your smart phone to check out IPL related matters when the news apps take it upon themselves to provide in – depth analysis by eager beavers about the upcoming elections hoping to convince you about the soundness of their preferred candidate though we all know that like in the past, we will simply have to choose between the devil and deep blue sea. Worst of all, the horror show with its relentless, arduous and dedicated fusillade of all things grotesque and nasty has only just begun. What to do? You sigh in resignation, dig your nails into your palms, crawl homeward and scream into a pillow. 
This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Breaking Barriers from Beneath One

Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan briskly ushers the reader into the land of the veiled for a voyeuristic peek into the intimate lives of those who are supposedly cowering behind the layers of fabric imposed on them by religion and patriarchy. Told over the span of sixteen, succulent stories, the book dedicates itself to the task of stripping away stereotypes pertaining to Muslim women who are often viewed as submissive victims of centuries of brutal repression, wretchedly resigned to the deprivation of their agency. In recent times, there has been much controversy over the traditional headscarf or the hijab. For many it is an unpalatable symbol of patriarchal conditioning and religious fanaticism while there are others who insist that a woman’s right to cover herself is every bit as sacred as her right to bare.
Javeri comes out swinging strongly in favour of the latter POV which may not go down too well with some. The brand of feminism, showcased in this book bursts out from beneath the tent- like garments and is delightfully distinctive in that the idea of empowerment here does not necessarily conform with the overarching impression of the same held by the fiercer firebrands of the feminist cause. And yet, make no mistake, Hijabistan for the most part does champion women’s rights with gusto, empathy and balance.
Ultimately it all comes down to the stories. And the things they reveal. Or conceal. As Javeri puts it, ‘We are all made up of stories. The stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves and more importantly, the stories we hide. Deep inside.’ A young girl refuses to be cowed down by expectations or assumptions and has no qualms about using her body to spice up her otherwise mundane existence especially since she can expect gifts and cash in exchange. Radha uses her body too in a quest for financial and emotional freedom. She does get these and a lot more than she bargained for but is determined to do what it takes to survive. There is the girl with the irrepressible urges that refused to be stymied within the suffocating confines of the hijab and rigidly enforced oppression. She satiates these with thievery, flashing and a stolen moment of forbidden intimacy which leads to a tightened leash and an explosion of supressed need.

A married woman commits adultery and a student explores a forbidden avenue of sexuality. Coach Annie is an inspiring figure who teaches football to strapping lads who initially look askance at the Asian who refuses to lose her headscarf but are eventually won over by her grit and gumption.
A majority of the stories are juicy and leave you with a lingering aftertaste but they aren’t all gems. ‘The Full Stop’ is a trite tale of a girl who gets her period and gets all bent out of shape because her father, a doctor is embarrassed by it. ‘The Hijab and Her’ is a similarly, unimpressive account of a young girl who inexplicably during the course of a lecture gives up on graduate school applications in favour of ISIS. These sour notes notwithstanding, the land of the veiled warrants a visit, if only to gain a proper sense of perspective in a world that is increasingly being stripped of nuance. 

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.


‘Period. End of Sentence’, a film about menstruation won big at the Oscars. Some folks cheered loudly but others have been quibbling about it. The arguments raised, pertaining to exploitation in the making of the film and careless dispensation of faulty statistics, got me thinking. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly obvious that no matter how well intentioned the feminist cause may be, inadvertently it has served the interests of big business above all else. 

Is it so terrible to use cloth instead of pads while menstruating? Padmen who make a fortune selling sanitary napkins have informed us that cloth is for curtains and civilized, empowered women are better off using their more expensive product. After all, pads are far more comfortable and convenient, even if they are not biodegradable. Besides why should women bother about the environment when it is doomed anyway? It is simpler to vilify cloth, even though it was good enough for our grandmothers who certainly were not unfortunate, illiterate, and miserable savages who did not know better. I remember an older woman who explained that in the good old days, they would all have a box filled with clean rags that were used, washed, boiled, dried, replaced and reused every month.
Of course, I am not advocating that we go back to the days of restricted movement while menstruating, with the stigma thrown in for good measure. But I am merely pointing out that cloth wasn’t too bad and sometimes, women like to take three days off from their never –ending chores and workload. Therefore, if there are ladies out there who prefer to use cloth, perhaps we should just leave them alone instead of making condescending movies with sad music about their wretchedness.
This applies for innerwear as well. I was told that earlier, women belonging to the lower castes/classes were ‘not allowed’ to wear blouses or bras and it was only in the latter half of the British reign that they were emancipated. But surely those ‘poor, unfortunate’ women weren’t exactly complaining? In certain parts of the country, like in Kerala it was perfectly acceptable for ladies to go about their work, topless which had to have been ideal given the sweltering conditions. Then came the dark day, when marketing ploys were successfully employed to convince the female of the species that the smart, sexy and sassy among them were the ones who bound their breasts behind the satin, lace and underwire reinforced lingerie that Victoria’s Secret had helpfully purveyed at an exorbitant price. And of course, the civilized thing to do was to conceal these behind tailored blouses!

Don’t even get me started on beauty product hawking conglomerates who decided that the only use they have for feminism is to cash in on it. Women are told that their social currency is tied to their ‘natural beauty’. Therefore rather than devote themselves to their studies, personalities or jobs to get ahead in their lives, it would behove them to make looking good, a full time job. Today, if a girl is not exquisitely groomed and expensively branded out from head to toe, then she may as well go back to the cave she supposedly emerged from. Bring out the war paint, ladies, it is time to free feminism from the chains of consumerism! 
This artcile was originally carried by The New Indian Express.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Vegetarianism is not Synonymous with Virtue

I have nothing against vegetarians. A lot of them are friends who invite me home for meals where I cheerfully stuff my face with pulao (just don’t call it veg. biriyani), stuffed chapathis, papads, gobi manchurian and carrot halwa.  When I return the favour, they are content to tuck into my veggie fried rice, chilli paneer, mushroom au gratin and chocolate fudge without gagging at the sight of the non – vegetarian spread. More importantly, they have never judged me for my carnivorous ways nor, I them their culinary choices since these have their roots in culture, tradition, religion or personal preference. That ought to be that, but unfortunately it isn’t. 

In recent times, many from the growing ranks of vegetarians who may prefer terms like vegan, lacto vegetarian, ovo vegetarian, pollotarian, pescatarian or flexitarian have taken a militant stand against eaters of meat seemingly determined to convert those they believe don’t know better with missionary zeal and extreme shaming tactics. Herbivores seek to condemn and criticize those who are partial to their deluxe bacon burgers and mutton biriyani or simply cannot pay the criminal prices charged for kale, aubergine, quinoa and salads made with 75 environment friendly ingredients. Surely that is obscene in a land where too many are unable to afford one square meal let alone an expensive, organically sourced vegan one? If a fattened goat feeds a family for a week why begrudge anybody that?
Almost as bad is the attempt to impose cardinal culinary principles on others by those who are sanguine in the mistaken belief that vegetarianism is synonymous with virtue which makes them morally superior beings and the offspring of dharma and ahimsa. When those of the phytophagous variety (foes of flora, I like to call them), insist that it is not possible for those who can’t do without roasted chicken to love or care for animals, that those who feed their children meat are guilty of abuse (never mind that courts in various parts of the world have pulled up parents who forced their dietary ‘principles’ on their children with the result that they wound up malnourished) and meat eaters are destroying the planet, the overblown rhetoric stripped of nuance leaves me convinced that all this is little more than superficial posturing and hollow outraging, designed to dictate what others eat and police personal menus.
Studies by Nicoletta Pellegrini have shown that while consumption of animal products have a high environmental impact, vegans with their excessive reliance on processed substitutes for meat and dairy don’t necessarily show a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Besides bland purely vegan dishes are not half as fortifying or fulfilling as meat based cuisine which leads to a higher food intake which in turn defeats the purpose, herbivores keep harping about. It is why experts feel an ovo – vegetarian or flexitarian diet is more likely to produce environmental benefits.
I am not advocating indiscriminate consumption but it is easier to make healthier choices when one is not pressured or forced into it. After all, you are what you eat, and if your dietary decisions make you smug, sanctimonious and superior, perhaps a change in the menu might be in order.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.


Benjamin Kingsbury’s An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 is about a natural disaster of near apocalyptic proportions which claimed 215,000 lives by drowning and at least another 100,000 lost to cholera and famine. While the extreme forces of nature that led to this catastrophe are meticulously documented, Kingsbury insists and rightfully so, on placing the focus on the ‘all – too human patterns of exploitation and inequality – by divisions within Bengali society, and by the great disparities of political and economic power that characterised British rule in India’ that shaped this natural disaster which exacerbated a horrendous situation to inhuman levels of suffering and loss of life. 

Told with an unflinching and unsparing gaze, Kingsbury’s comprehensive and compelling account serves the dual purpose of transporting the reader back to the horrors of imperial rule with its callous disregard for the natives, particularly the poor, while holding a mirror to problems such as ‘overpopulation, unemployment, landlessness, corruption, illiteracy, indebtedness, official indifference’ which though prevalent during British rule, remain rampant to this very day. This narrative is scathing in its condemnation of ruthless colonial greed pointing out how the people of India were left impoverished, with their manufacturers and industrialists systematically driven out of business, farmers and peasants buckling under the weight of taxation, and a massive chunk of revenue being siphoned away to England.
It also shines a light on the stunning indifference of the authorities towards the victims who having suffered untold losses were left to fend for themselves even as cholera and famine continued to take a toll. The higher ups among the imperial powers made it clear that the more niggardly and pecuniary the efforts expended on relief works, the higher the opportunity for career advancement would be. In fact, relief officers were appointed solely ‘to prove that there was no need for relief.’ In the meantime, officials saw fit to spend beaucoup sums on imperial durbars, feasting, fireworks and idle festivities.
The great majority of the public were uncaring too, not bothering to lift a finger to help fellow Indians. Regional publications like the Amrita Bazar Patrika, rued the callousness of the professional, landowning classes who were ignoring the disaster, refusing to help raise money or donate for a cause. Greed and corruption were not limited to the British alone and the landlords and middlemen saw no reason not to refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the others. Worse, no preventive measures were implemented in the aftermath.
A brilliant read, this book should be mandatory reading for Indians just so they can learn from the past, wise up in the present and prevent the future from being reduced to a disaster waiting to happen.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Tribute to Forgotten Heroes

History is oftentimes an unjust mistress often choosing to forget or ignore those who deserve to be cherished or at the very least remembered. The First World War fought between imperialist powers anxious to annexe more chunks of the planet for themselves irrespective of whether they called themselves the Central or Allied Powers, truly upped the ante when it came to large – scale carnage. By the time the unmitigated horror of it all, came to an end more than 16 million were dead. Many a tome or movie have been devoted to the heroics of the Allied forces for having successfully held on to their ill – gotten gains and having put themselves in a prime position to satiate their gluttonous appetite for more land and power but not much is known about the contribution of the 1.5 million (not counting those who volunteered or were coerced into serving) Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War and left their own indelible prints in the sands of time.
            George Morton – Jack in his ‘The Indian Empire at War’ puts in painstaking effort into piecing together the lives of these intrepid warriors who lived in a tumultuous, topsy-turvy age where they were asked to fight for democratic ideals by their masters who had denied them and their countrymen the same. The book focuses not only on the nitty-gritty of an Indian soldier’s personal reality and the cultural as well as practical factors which motivated him to pick up arms on behalf of the loathed imperial overlords but also beyond and into the decision making processes of higher forces at play in a deadly game of bloody conflict.
            This historian’s account is thorough and painfully blunt which is readily apparent when he discusses the mind-set of the Indian soldiers who pulled their triggers against peaceful protestors in the infamous Amritsar Massacre simply because General Dyer and ‘the British told them to.’ It is a chilling example of men who are trained to obey and kill because they have been taught to put aside principles and feelings when in uniform. The puzzle of Indians who fought and killed other Indians is hard to unravel despite the divided identity of the nation and an even harder reality to stomach.
            The indictment of British rule in India is readily apparent given that few practised what they preached when it came to denouncing tyranny. For all their high – flown rhetoric of fighting the Great War for all the right reasons, the British to ‘ensure their primacy over Indians as their racial inferiors’ subjected them to constant belittlement and abuse while practising segregation and denying the Indian troops their basic rights such as forcing them to live in hovels, depriving them of decent medical care and rations, while of course their British counterparts were living it up in style and given double their wages. Of course, the Indian troops despite years of loyal service could not expect to be promoted to a rank that meant anything or given their own command. Worse, they were not allowed to fight white armies in case they got new-fangled ideas about their place in the racial hierarchy.
            There is a balance to the narrative which includes anecdotes about the bravery as well as cowardice evidenced by Indian troops and a fascinating tale of two brothers - Mir Dast and Mir Mast, brothers one of whom remained loyal, while the other, who had won a medal for bravery was persuaded to desert when a holy – Jihad was declared by the Turkish Sultan makes for compelling reading. Even among the British officials, care has been taken to document actions that were fair, decent as well as disgraceful. Ultimately it is a stirring tribute to those troops whose ‘achievement was bearing their humiliations at the hands of the British with such strength in the face of adversity and not letting go of their humanity’. 

This book review originally appeared here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

New Year Resolutions for Pongal

Pic courtesy: Mash Kolams

New Year resolutions are damnable things. Mostly they are social media worthy which means it involves all things supercilious bedecked in the paraphernalia of the profound. Folks are always resolving to eat healthy, stop and smell the farts roses, go with the flow, get away from the rat race, travel and see the world, quit smoking, tweet less, smile more, pay it forward, help the needy, and make the world a better place. Needless to say these resolutions are burdensome creatures and make you feel like Frodo Baggins crushed and overwhelmed under the onerous weight of the One Ring. Which probably explains why most of us feel a pressing obligation to break them as quickly as we can so that we can go back to being flawed human beings who are conceited and callous enough not to care about self – improvement or improving the lot of the less fortunate.
            How do I know these things? From personal experience of course. I had resolved to eat right, stop allowing my insecurities to become an obsession and cease revealing embarrassing details about myself when I write up these columns. But hardly two weeks into the New Year, I have failed to convince my body that it doesn’t need desserts after every meal, haven’t managed a full night’s sleep because I am trying to figure out how to become a more successful author or a self – actualized individual and you know…
When confronted with definitive evidence of a weak will and an inability to resist temptation, guilt kicks in and claws at your underbelly making you feel lower than a worm’s belly button. All too soon, one is trapped in a vicious cycle of resolutions made only to be broken and on and on it goes. Perhaps we have gotten the methodology all wrong.
            The problem is we are making resolutions to do things we have been taught to think we ought to be doing instead of the things we really want to do. Which is why we end up like those god-awful souls who judge us when we order a double chocolate chip cookie milkshake with whipped cream and ice cream to go with the garden salad with the add - on meat and insist on viewing entire areas of a perfectly decent life as inadequate. Why not simply admit that ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay and that’s okay!’? I first heard that in the Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn classic, Dodgeball and that is not at all an embarrassing thing to admit because I am owning it now see?
            Perhaps your New Year resolution made just in time for Pongal ought to be not to make any, except that would qualify as a bona – fide resolution so what now? I know exactly what I will be doing. Now that I have made the word count for my column, I am just going to drop the whole thing and go grab a cupcake. Then I’ll probably stay up all night wondering what it is that Twinkle Khanna has and I don’t which ensures that she manages astronomical sales figures for her yarns on pads, Prasad and pyjamas while looking so damn good.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Standard.

Have Selfies made us Sad?

The other day, somebody clicked a pic of me and to my horror, I heard myself shrieking, ‘Don’t make me look fat!’ As somebody who has battled fat shaming all her life (a potbellied music instructor used to call me fatty boomalatty) and insists that as long as you are fit, the f in fat, stands for fabulous, it was hard to acknowledge that despite my politically correct fundas it is important for me to be magically photographed into looking thinner than I am. Strangely enough, though the voice of reason in my head upbraids me for having become a narcissist who doctors her image for a handful of followers on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter, the fact is my secret obsession with how I look online, (despite being someone whose idea of dressing up is losing the pyjamas for jeans) seems to be everyone else’s as well. After all everybody loathes pics that make them look groggy, grotesquely constipated, gross or anything less than immaculately perfect. In fact for too many it could be a life ruining issue!
The fact that this narcissism has wriggled its way into our admittedly vain and vacuous lifestyles is hardly surprising given the fact that we are bombarded by flawlessly captured selfies of folks, airbrushed and meticulously tweaked to make them look social media worthy. New mummies have never looked yummier, gym rats look smoking hot as opposed to sweaty while pumping iron, and even all those home bakers with their divine sugary creations look impossibly skinny, glossy and good enough to eat! Which means the pressure to glam up is mounting and we worry more than we should about whether our butts look big, if our greys or pimples are showing, or if there is tell-tale evidence of sleepless nights or signs of ageing. Heaven forbid!
In extreme cases, people risk or actually lose their lives while trying to click that perfect selfie which just might go viral and give them their five seconds. The rest of us wind up devoting time and money we can’t afford to spare on looking good despite knowing it might be better to shift the focus to simply feeling good.
Such excessive love of the self far from being satisfying is strangely depressing. How many of us have noticed that fun occasions like family weddings, parties or vacationing with friends feel flat because everybody is too keen on capturing the awesomeness of the moment instead of actually living it? Too many wind up missing out on stuff because of the unholy devotion to perpetual preening, posing and posting that gives the impression that one is having a rollicking time, though the reality of it is usually different.
Handwringing about virtual vanity aside, the incessant dolling up of digital avatars makes it seem as if everybody’s life is better than our mundane ones which has led to all of us moping about with a wicked case of envy and dissatisfaction. No wonder people smile only for the camera and not for real. And even worse, not even this impassioned piece is going to stop me from sucking in my gut when I pose for a pic. Help!
This post originally appeared in The Sunday Standard.

An Exhausting but occasionally Engaging Uphill Trek

Pulitzer Prize - shortlisted Deborah Baker’s ‘The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire’ is a sprawling biographical saga that is a post – mortem of the last days of the British Empire in India. The author narrates the stories of pioneering geologist, John Auden and surveyor, Michael Spender who was the first to draw a detailed map of the north face of Everest, using his skills in photogrammetry. Both men, in addition to having famous poet brothers in W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, vied for the hand of the same woman, Nancy Sharp, the English painter and sought to be included in an Everest expedition which had become “…an issue of National and Imperial importance” with diehards of colonialism seeing it as a means to reassert and consolidate their power over India.
In a surprising move, Baker is not content to chart their lives and measure the successes of these two extraordinary men, though she does do that while opting to shift focus without warning to a dizzying array of colourful characters, who are an eclectic mix of writers, artists, freedom fighters, politicians, communists and even double agents all of whom made their own mark on history and left valuable impressions behind of the cultural, political and moral landscape of a crumbling empire. Louis MacNeice (who interestingly carried a torch for the redoubtable Nancy Sharp as well) invited to cover the Partition with a view of writing a series of radio plays for BBC, Christopher Isherwood who co – wrote a play with W.H. Auden entitled, ‘The Ascent of F6’about a climber who mounts an expedition to Everest and battles the elements as well as rival nations in a race to the peak, Michael John Carritt, Indian Civil Service Officer and communist sympathizer, and Sudhin Datta, a Bengali intellectual who founded a literary journal, ‘Parichay’ and was deeply conflicted by his love of English literature and hatred of heavy – handed imperialists, sashay into the narrative at will.
Their stories have mixed results in that they do shed light on a veritable avalanche of complex historical facts which manage to occasionally engage the reader while also leaving him or her disconcerted with the sheer density of information conveyed detachedly in opaque prose and a penchant for dogged descriptiveness that is not always flavoursome enough to be savoured. The frequent meandering detours and a surfeit of material crammed into an overcrowded stage with too much happening at all levels can be most vexing. Oftentimes, the process of perusing this excellent material feels as laborious and cumbersome as scaling an unforgiving peak under extremely unfavourable conditions which makes one want to give up in abject despair. However, in the unlikely event that the modern reader afflicted with ADHD manages to persist, the rewards are not entirely non – existent.
Baker is determined to perform a delicate balancing act between the opposing viewpoints of the conqueror and conquered and is even-handed to the point of being exasperating. However her unflinching portrayal of the likes of Winston Churchill who felt the Indians were a ‘foul race’ that ‘breed like rabbits’ and needed to be bombed into submission if necessary as well as her exposure of his role in the Bengal famine strip away the glittering façade of the so – called ‘greatest Briton ever’ and reveal him to be the unabashed racist and white supremacist he most certainly was. The chequered career of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the ‘Butcher of Bengal’ and fifth prime minister of Pakistan, particularly his interaction with Gandhi makes for interesting reading.
Some of the most harrowing portions of the book are Baker’s final chapters, reconstructing the terrible Bengal famine and the communal riots during the partition. Her decision not to make it unduly melodramatic but rather keep it simple and clinical even, succeeds in making the horror all the more stomach turning. If only Baker had managed to hit her stride sooner!

This book review originally appeared here.


We humans consider ourselves evolved beings, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that at heart, we are little more than the Apes (no offense intended to that noble species) we descended from especially since on any given day we are one bad judgement away from hurling poop at each other. If you are inclined to laugh, scoff or return to your fuzzy YouTube video of candid moments from the #DeepVeer wedding, I urge you to give me a chance to explain. After all, the impending crisis is a real one, and it makes sense to figure out how best to avert it under my expert tutelage. For otherwise the threat may snowball out of all control and culminate with people throwing poop or worse, bombs at each other (for the selfie – obsessed, I am not discussing photo bombs). 

Everybody has a short fuse nowadays. I know, because the other day folks shouted at me for cycling on the wrong side of the road (In my defence, I thought it was a shortcut). Some even wanted to know if I had informed my folks about my intention to die like a dog. Such meanies! But that was only the tip of the iceberg. On any given day, I am trolled and accused of being a gender traitor by feminists and am branded a feminazi by chauvinists. The left scolds me for being a ‘bhakt’ while the right threaten to have me arrested for being ‘anti – national’. It is almost as if I am incorrect about my own awesomeness!
There are so many angry folks out there, you would think it is a fad that refuses to fade. Which means you get dry humped while standing in those slow – moving queues irrespective of whether it is at the airport, temple, theme park, or toilet. If you protest, you are certain to get a full blast of rudeness with a side of spittle. People get pissed off while you count out the correct change and make certain you know they think you are a moron because you don’t believe in the suspicious notion of a cash free society. You can’t even allow yourself to drown your sorrows in a triple scoop ice cream sundae because some wiseacre will stare judgementally at your ample waistline or lecture you about the evils of sugar.
It is even worse, if you are a denizen of social media. Even if you are the sort of person who posts nothing but cute pics of pups and bunnies, it is only a matter of time before you manage to give offense to the army of social justice warriors out there who live to get outraged at the moral discrepancies of others (if not their own). That is enough, of that!
It is time to break away from the herd, now that it is a raging mob and embrace the contrarian within. If everybody has an informed opinion and is frothing at the mouth over it, be the one who refuses to get drawn into a fight. So what is everyone if shouting at the top of their lungs? You can maintain a dignified silence till civility is restored. So what if the entire species is reduced to mush-brained junkies glued to their phones? Read a book instead or go for a walk. Soon your sanity will spread like a contagion and more and more people will throw in their lot with you, till we have a new and improved herd!
All that remains is for you dear reader to go forth and spread the pearls of my wisdom so none of us have to worry about aggressive primates pelting us with poop. Or worse.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Standard

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Petta is a treat for lovers of Rajini the Superstar and Actor Extrordinaire

I really really loved Petta. And it has been too long since I said this about a Rajni film. As a lapsed Rajni fan (when even a superstar of Rajni's caliber acts in one Shankar film too many it happens), it was nice to go right back to the Annamalai, Baasha phase when I was a proper Rajni fanatic. Guess, you have to be that person to truly appreciate Petta. The first half was absolutely rocking and I love how 'Marana mass' it was. Not since Dhil, Dhool and Ghilli has a Tamil filmmaker made such a sumptuous, masala feast of a film. So kudos to Karthik Subbaraj for that. In the theatre where I was watching Petta, we were all infected with Rajni fever and were cheering, screaming ourselves hoarse for every single scene. It was such an amazing cinematic experience and an incredibly special one. Rajni is one actor who has always made me laugh and cry along with his characters and this time was no exception. I became completely nuts about Kaali (Petta Velan). Bless you Karthik Subbaraj for giving us this vintage version of Thalaivar.
I find it so annoying when people go on and on about his style which is dazzling of course, and forget that the man is one of the greatest actors of all time. I don't think there is an actor who is as sublimely effervescent and effective as he is in any film industry. Examine just about any scene in Petta and you will see what I mean.
The second half worked very well for me but on a different level. It was great to see Subbaraj's unique little quirks, eccentricities and flair on full display. There is a funeral scene which was insanely good, strangely moving and deliriously wicked as well! Loved every scene with Rajini and the terrific VJS. I thought Nawazuddin did a fantastic job as well and was a really intriguing character. What a treat it is to see Rajni cross swords with behemoths like VJS and Nawazuddin, chew them up and spit em out! In retrospect, the editing could have been tighter but with Rajni in such amazing form, we fans aren't complaining. Hope he does more films like this!
I am on such a Petta high and can hardly wait to watch the film again and again. And again.
PS: Did I mention that I really really loved Petta?