Sunday, November 17, 2019


Freedom of expression is sacrosanct and I have always taken issue with those who would seek to curb it. It is the inviolate right of the people to give voice to their thoughts and speak their minds (never mind that we would all be better off if we kept out traps shut more often and refrained from spewing stuff and nonsense) without the fear of being clapped in chains, thrown in jail, slapped with a lawsuit or assorted repercussions. Yet, there are too many painful examples of journalists, activists, writers, artists and outspoken people in general being muzzled, sued, harassed or killed outright.

Ever since we won freedom in India, FOE seems to be the first casualty every time the ruling party wishes to pull the wool over our eyes when it comes to their more dubious dealings and unscrupulous activities given their commitment to only disseminating information designed to make it look like the sun shines out their nether ends. Which is why it is bloody awful when a British born Indian columnist who wrote an incendiary piece about the “Divider – in – Chief” for a foreign publication, has his status as an Overseas Citizen of India revoked. Not only is it unsurprising but a stark reminder that India may not quite qualify as the largest democracy in the world unless we are referring solely to its burgeoning population.

While this is the sort of thing that prompts one to make like Greta Thunberg and call for revolution, bristling with righteous wrath, I can’t help but concede, that we have only ourselves to blame for the gradual erosion of the basic rights we have taken for granted. Knowing as we do, that every single one of the freedoms we enjoy today has been won after long, excruciating and often bloody struggle we nevertheless feel free to squander it all away on inanity, frippery and selfish self - indulgence without ever pausing to consider the sacrifice made by those who gave their lives for this land.

Even something as sacred as FOE is forever being misused. It is not just the trolls who are practically expected to abuse and provoke by sending vulgar messages pertaining to lewd and lascivious acts or vicious threats outlined with unforgivably bad grammar and worse spelling, but the militant progressives as well with their fanatical commitment to wokeness and an unwillingness to listen to dissenting points of view. Together, these extreme factions have drowned civil discourse almost entirely. Everybody seems to feel entitled to be as obnoxious as they please not bothering to even hesitate before pulling out all stops to annihilate the lives and careers of those who dare to contradict whatever ideology is currently in fashion.

We have forgotten that human beings are complicated creatures who are definitely more than the sum of their worst tweets. That purveying fake news on Whatsapp because it validates our biases is doing a disservice to fellow citizens. Of course, the government needs to clean up its act, but it is still wise to look within and ask ourselves if we are worthy of the rights we are losing. Now more than ever it is important to reinforce our commitment to honesty, integrity, decency and kindness before the chickens come home to roost and crap all over us. 

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Hateful Ode to Mommy Dearest

Mothers are traditionally revered and with good reason. They bring forth life into this overcrowded world after all. It is also believed that it is only a mother’s love which is pure and entirely selfless. Most mums will be happy to assert that it is all codswallop. Few of that extremely disgruntled and overworked lot would appreciate being placed on a token pedestal given that they are not paid or appreciated enough for the gazillion chores they are expected to shoulder on a daily basis. Sometimes, the very nature of the job with its attendant stressors can make the mommies depressed, resentful, and mean.

Avni Doshi’s ‘Girl in White Cotton’ is a delicate, yet powerfully rendered sketch of a dysfunctional mother – daughter relationship and an evocative read. Told in spare and elegant prose from Antara, the daughter’s perspective, Tara, tends to come across as something of a mommy from hell. She is a loose cannon and a rebel without a cause, choosing to walk away from an admittedly ill – suited marriage, straight into the arms of a charismatic Casanova/Guru with her young daughter in tow. Tara is not the sort to comfort her little one who suffers from nightmares and is unable to acclimatize to a strange new place, where her mom has no time for her and tends to disappear with her Guru into his boudoir, leaving her to get by as best as she can. If Antara insists on acting up to get some attention, odds are she is going to be physically or verbally abused.

Later when the reprobate Godman replaces Tara with someone younger, she leaves in a huff and is infuriated when the husband and parents she walked out on are not exactly falling over themselves to help her out of the hole she dug for herself. Probably with the view to cut off her nose to spite her face, Tara decides to become a beggar before eventually returning home in disgrace and hooking up with an unsuitable artist type.

Antara regales the reader with an account of her mother’s shenanigans and the privations she endured on her account. She talks about befriending a stray dog while living on the street, attending a boarding school run by a sadistic nun who takes corporal punishment to extreme levels and dealing with weight issues because she is always tempted to fill the emptiness and angst gnawing away at her insides with food.

Eventually though, the shoe is on the other foot. It is Tara who enters her second childhood as she begins to lose her memory and finds herself at the mercy of a daughter whom she has wronged. Antara clearly takes after her mother as she discovers her own propensity for cruelty and vindictiveness. Though Antara is married to a wonderful man, the demons from her past hold her down and she flails about in the depths of misery with only her mother, turbulent memories and dreadful secrets for company.

It is terrifying how well – equipped mother and daughter are to tear each other down, though they continue to need the other desperately. In the end, when Antara brings new life to inhabit the sticky web of betrayal, hurt and resentment she has woven with her own mother, one can’t help but shudder in grim anticipation.

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Feminism in Myth, Non – fiction and a Historical Romance

In Bhumika: A Story of Sita, Aditya Iyengar envisions a life for his protagonist without the Man – God who has come to define her in the collective consciousness. In the twilight of her life, a somewhat embittered Sita is given an opportunity by Sage Vishwamitra to find out what could have been if a certain someone hadn’t prevailed at her swayamwara, won her heart and spirited her away to fulfil the dictates of his destiny. What if she had never married Rama or been abducted or cast aside because her purity had been called into question? What if in an alternate life, Sita had been Bhumika, a Queen who will defy convention and fight to live life on her own terms?
Bhumika, is a feminist reinterpretation of Sita, who has long been held up as the ideal woman given her perceived docility, innate goodness and submissiveness although there are those who would argue that like other strong women in mythology, it is only the jaundiced lens of patriarchy that has rendered her thus, since this remarkable character has always been more complicated and strong than most believe likely. Be that as it may, Bhumika cleaves to more contemporary views of the feminist ideal. She can lift and string the mighty bow, Pinyaka and is more than capable of ruling her Kingdom without a man’s help, thank you very much.
This Queen is determined to include women in the workforce and free others from restrictive gender expectations. Bhumika’s crusade is a lonely one though and she has neither close friends nor lovers but only strife for company. Sita later wonders if it had all been worthwhile. Iyengar leaves the reader in no doubt that both their choices were valid and ultimately it is all about making your peace with the decisions made for better or worse. 
Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot on the Ground: A Life told through the Body has its feet planted firmly on the ground with all things earthy, profound, and practical. It is a remarkable autobiography of a life lived fully, unapologetically, and narrated with oodles of grace and humour to spare. The feminist perspective on display in these memoirs is subtle, matter – of – fact and entirely effective.
Gokhale bares intimate details about her life through her body never shying away from discussing her tonsils, misaligned teeth, adipose tissue, breasts, buttocks, menstruation, childbirth, menopause, glaucoma, cancer, and bunions. While navigating the topography of her body, she takes the reader on an arresting journey across the landscape of her life that includes badminton, idyllic childhood vacations, dance lessons, a stint in cold England for her education, young love, failed marriages, disappointing relationships, children and a varied career as an author, translator, journalist, critic and an executive at Glaxo, the pharmaceutical company, amongst among things.
The most inspiring takeaway from the book, is Gokhale’s cheerful acceptance, boundless optimism and ever present equanimity even in the face of the trials and tribulations that cropped up at regular intervals the way that terrible two is wont to. Whether it is a relationship gone wrong, the ineptness of doctors who almost certainly exacerbated severe health issues she faced in her later years like failing eyesight and cancer, or even the household help who molested her, Gokhale has the refreshing air of one who has made her peace with the past and is free of resentment or anger. Her independence, free spirit and absolute refusal to point fingers at anyone for the little and big things that went wrong along the course of her existence is a valuable lesson for everyone in this age where it is fashionable to play the name, blame and shame game with impunity.
Dust under Her Feet, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s confident debut novel is a historical romance set in 1940s Calcutta, when American troops set up an army base in India to beat back the Japanese from Burma. Yasmine Khan is the unlikely proprietor of a night club – The Bombay Duck, which exists as a utopian zone, where the rigid boundaries separating people on the basis of caste and race are supposedly blurred, except they aren’t actually. Soldiers roped into a war that is in truth being played out by pig - headed politicos in the interests of imperial greed with no expectations of anything but that of getting slaughtered find some respite when they watch Yasmine’s girls sing and dance, helping them forget their troubles however briefly.
Yasmine’s motley family include her childhood friend, the gorgeous and talented Patience as well as people from all walks of life and she looks out for them while running the business with an iron hand. She doesn’t expect to fall in love but naturally she allows herself to be swept off her feet by the much married American Lieutenant Edward Lafaver. What follows is a tale of love, lust, and betrayal while the Second World War and famine rages all around them.
Ahmed dapples with burning issues like discrimination on the basis of race, caste and gender but it mostly feels superficial and half – hearted, given the author’s preoccupation with the ultimately undercooked romance and a friendship gone awry. A horrendous incident of rape and its repercussions are dealt with in a particularly ham – fisted manner, existing mainly as an area of contention between the lovers. Dust under Her Feet strives to be epic but succeeds only in being occasionally engaging.

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.


I have nothing at all against precocious children determined to save the world and draw our attention to catastrophic climate change. The boundless idealism of students is charming even if their simplistic solutions to everything is irritating in its impracticality. Even the eternal willingness to play truant from school (or life) is understandable and on some days, I am tempted to bunk the endless monotony of chores that await on a daily basis and join the global climate strikes.
However, doomsday prophets are another matter altogether. They all have lots in common - messianic zeal, self – righteous wrath, magnetic charisma, tend to advocate extreme courses of action and enjoy a rabid cult following who accept every impassioned word they utter to be the gospel truth. The seeds of panic and fear are sown and it spreads like a contagion, leading to a worldwide pandemic and epic upheavals which if history is any indication seldom leads to desirable outcomes. Damn it, now I am the one sounding like a panic monger and anxiety attack inducer. See what I mean about these things being infectious?
Greta Thunberg, the freshly minted, iconic climate – change activist’s passion and sincerity is compelling. However, I find it exasperating when she thunders that “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction” using her reach to convince children that they have no future unless world leaders along with the rest of the entire populace act immediately to avert the impending doom. “We have to focus every inch of our being on climate change… unprecedented change in all aspects of society need to have taken place within this coming decade.” Come on! I think we can all agree that neither we, the people nor those we have chosen to lead us are going to do anything of the sort.
All of us like our creature comforts too much to give it up. We find it convenient to fly, leave the air – conditioner on, take long showers, eat meat, and use every single technological advancement ever made to make our lives easier. If anybody suggests we give up our refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves, fancy cars, become vegan and revert to a simpler time/pre – industrial age, we are going to ignore them. Hard. However, to assuage the guilt, we might whip up a social media storm to express our support for eco – warriors and helpfully suggest that everybody else and the government do their utmost to combat climate change, deal with that stupid hole in the ozone layer, those melting glaciers, endangered species etc.
Still, the hopelessness of it all is hardly reason enough to give up hope. Children need not live in fear. The truth is that none of us can possibly know what tomorrow holds. What we do know is that we are living in a golden age of prosperity and scientific advances. Alternate sources of energy are being explored and with time, there is reason to believe there will be positive change. And even if the worst were to happen, odds are we will find a way to live in a post – apocalyptic world and use the pieces to build an even better one. In the end, like the cockroach, we will endure even if we don’t overcome, and find a way to blunder on the way we always have.

This articles was originally published in The New Indian Express.

The Right and Righteous Way to Celebrate Diwali

Every year, when Diwali comes around, the Indian thing to do seems to be to get into a vehement argument about how best to celebrate it. Firstly, there are those who insist that bursting fireworks in an already dangerously polluted world is an irresponsible and reckless thing to do, and call for a blanket ban of the material which is literally explosive (Greta Thunberg would approve). These ostensibly environment conscious folks who belong to all walks of life, would be making an excellent point, if not for the fact that most are not quite ready to give up flying, driving, using animal products and the rest of the things that usually give Greta Thunberg and her fellow ecowarriors conniptions.
Then we have the Hindutva types, who insist that Hindu festivals, traditions, rites and rituals are unnecessarily being targeted by Godless folks and foolish intellectuals. Since ancient times Diwali has been celebrated with ritual oil baths, the consumption of delicious sweets and savouries guaranteed not to rot the teeth or clog the arteries provided they are cooked with the right dose of religious fervour, the adornment of the self with new clothes and ornaments, prayer and the all – important fireworks. Those who claim that fireworks were invented by vested commercial interests in China to blow up the world are liars who are woefully ignorant of the power of our venerable sages and rishis who could put up dazzling pyrotechnical marvels that lit up the heavens by merely twitching their eyebrows. How dare anyone question the wisdom of the ages? It is all these modern ideas that have prevented India from becoming a super – power and taking over the world.
They insist that the Gods in the pantheon will be mollified only if crackers are burst with gay abandon during Diwali celebrations and all who say otherwise especially the celebs who gripe about crackers exacerbating lung – related ailments but feel free to splurge on spectacular fireworks displays to impress their firangi husbands are anti – nationals, who are working hand in glove with ISIS. To hell with them! As every sensible person blessed with true faith is aware, appeasing the Gods in the traditionally approved manner will see the divinities rid the world of all its evils. And surely that includes those dratted carbon footprints, holes in the ozone layers, melting glaciers, and the rest of the ominous stuff that climate change nuts, sorry activists are always harping about?
Others can’t really be bothered with political correctness, theological debates, and environmental issues. It is the Instagram feeds that matter at the end of the day. Thanks to the television and the internet where all those ads keep popping up with unwanted diligence, it is well known that Diwali isn’t Diwali unless one is photographed while togged out in expensive designer outfits and magnificent pieces of jewellery not unlike those flaunted by heroines in those extravagant historical epics and earned at least a few thousand likes across social media platforms. If followers aren’t made sick with envy and left contemplating the futility of an existence without similar baubles, then Diwali celebrations are incomplete.
In the meantime, nobody cares about the most important thing. Diwali has fallen on a Sunday this year depriving us of the chance to holiday on a weekday. How can one celebrate this catastrophe?

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Pressure to become Parents and its Perils

A 74 year old Andhra woman, Mangayamma Yaramati reportedly resorted to In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment to give birth to twin girls, recently. The father, Sitarama Rajarao is 82. Having spent over 9 months in the hospital, being constantly monitored by a panel of experts, the babies were delivered after a Caesarean section was performed. Needless to say, geriatric pregnancies of this nature being extremely rare, there has been considerable press coverage and the couple pronounced themselves delighted, insisting this is the happiest time of their lives.
The reaction to this has of course been mixed, given that she is the oldest new mother in the world today. Many feel that congratulations are in order, but in this situation, it is also evident that the couple have been under tremendous pressure to become parents. Mangayamma clearly feels vindicated on having ‘succeeded’ after over 5 decades of trying and failing to conceive. She said that her determination to be a mother stemmed from the fact that she had been criticized and stigmatized. People in her village would make her feel guilty and look at her as if she had ‘committed a sin’.
This accusatory mentality is typical in India where too many men and women are subjected to unrelenting pressure to become parents. Those who cannot or have chosen not to become parents are made to feel like failures or accused of being selfish and self – indulgent in the latter scenario, never mind that it is nobody else’s business. Not that such considerations stops relatives and random strangers from hounding the couple especially the mother and peppering them with unwanted suggestions, tips, and assorted voodoo on getting pregnant. These include but are not limited to bizarre sexual positions, dietary remedies like seared animal genitalia, umpteen temple visits, expensive pujas, amulets and foul smelling herbal concoctions sold by charlatans, gaumutra, painful fertility treatments, and what not. It would be funny if it didn’t amount to harassment and mental torture, which sees couples go through hell merely to prove that they are ‘virile’ or ‘potent’ even though they certainly don’t have to. It boggles the mind, that in a heavily populated country like India, we are still turning on the screws to force our citizens to have more children, when less  or none is clearly the need of the hour.
Interestingly, Mangayamma was inspired to do what she did after another 50 plus neighbour successfully opted for IVF. Three years ago, Daljeet Kaur, another geriatric Indian woman, had a successful birth. It is believed that she too was in her early 70s though her exact age is not verifiable. Medical practitioners and ethicists have questioned both the doctors involved and the parents for the dubious choices involved. Extreme geriatric pregnancies like these involve much higher risks for the mother and child. There is also the question of providing a viable support system for the children down the line, given the life expectancy of their parents. As for the doctors involved, surely the ethics involved in making the decision to encourage people to opt for such treatments given their advanced years and far from optimal physical condition is debatable at the very least?
Advances in science and technology has made so much possible. But just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. 

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Book review | Lisa Taddeo’s 'Three Women': A searing study on sex and shame

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is non-fiction that takes a long, hard look at naked desire by inhabiting the bodies and souls of three white, mostly straight and relatively privileged American women: Maggie, who is unable to get over the forbidden affair she had with her teacher in her teens; Lina, who is a mother of two, separated from her husband and sleeping with a married ex; and beautiful Sloane, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with partners of his choosing. 
The author mentions at the onset that while there are many sides to all stories, she has chosen to focus only on these three women. She claims to have spent thousands of hours with them, even moving to their respective towns to ‘better understand their day-to-day lives’ and she does succeed in taking the reader into the intimate recesses of their minds laying bare secrets and dark desires with a voyeuristic drive that is softened by compassion and a lack of judgement. Yet the book feels incomplete without even a modicum of effort to understand the motivations of the men in these women’s lives or details pertaining to the wives and families who have been affected by the ill-considered actions of the trio. 
Taddeo’s depiction of the men as predatory, weak, and selfish makes sense from the point of view of her chosen subjects but leaves the reader marginally doubtful because they seem more like caricatures made with clumsy brush strokes of thwarted feminine need. 
Lina’s husband is a particularly vexing non-character. All his wife wants from him is a deep French kiss but he recoils from the request and his idea of foreplay is to tap her on the arm and ask if she feels like ‘doin it’. One wonders why exactly he got into a marriage where he wants to have nothing at all to do with his wife outside of providing her with a nice house and kids. Lina hooks up with Aidan who had broken things off with her when she acquired a reputation as the girl in high school who slept with three guys in one night though in reality she had been sexually assaulted. Flavour and savour is restored to her life when her sexual needs are met but her willingness to debase herself in exchange for torrid trysts made at Aidan’s convenience characterised by little emotional investment does not augur well for her. 
Taddeo is brutally honest about the desperation which drives Lina and one wonders if the point is a deeply pessimistic one about women who leave the safety of convention to pursue their desires. 
Sloane’s story is somewhat bewildering. There are times she likes having multiple sexual partners but her arc is deeply problematic because her husband chooses the men and women she has sex with and insists on being present or inserting himself into the scenario via phone or video feeds. She confesses that she doesn’t always like the partners she pleasures and it seems clear that her desires have got lost somewhere in her husband’s needs. It doesn’t help that Sloane’s passions seem rooted in past hurt and an incestuous request. So when she claims she ‘wants her husband above all else’, one can’t help but wonder if she is kidding herself.
Maggie’s story is the most affecting because she is so clearly a victim despite being so complicit in her own victimhood. Taddeo doesn’t whitewash her issues but her oppressor is a predator and it sticks in the craw that he gets away scot-free while she is all but destroyed.
Three Women is troubling and the writer’s quest for literary brilliance and use of bewildering metaphors like ‘avuncular oysters’ and ‘cool sneezes’ is distracting but it is still worth a read because when it comes to women and desire, it is best to make room on the table for discussion and dissection.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Post I-Day depression

Another Independence Day has come and gone. The Tricolour was hoisted in schools and government offices, we sang the National Anthem with ear-splitting fervour and intensity and debated whether Akshay Kumar’s latest offering of cloying nationalistic sentiment was worth the price of admission.
Some of us even made a game effort to sit through Bear Grylls’ great survival saga featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitting his wits and will against the ferocity of Mother Nature, which subjected the viewer to a lot of bull but little else, without cringing. The entire month has now become vaguely depressing.
Even the PM’s speech, where he acquitted himself better than his sojourn among the tigers who clearly took their reputation for being ‘camouflage ninjas’ seriously, did little to boost the spirits. Of course, he made all the right noises.
Regarding the revoking of special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the state’s reorganisation into two Union Territories, he explained that his government believes in One Nation, One Constitution.
It would be heartening if one were inclined to give the ruling government the benefit of doubt and construe their actions as a decisive move but one can’t help but be appalled at the swift removal of personal and civil rights the Kashmiris have been subjected to.
During times like this, one wonders if freedom is an illusion we cling to because the harsh truth is that the democratic liberties we take for granted may be taken away with a snap of the finger if Big Brother were to wake up one day feeling a little less benevolent and more inclined to be a bully and a brute.
A scary thought that makes it impossible to enjoy leftovers made from Tarla Dalal’s healthy Independence Day recipes.
The Head of the Nation also talked about the Triple Talaq Bill, insisting that his Muslim sisters were also deserving of justice and this evil had to be eradicated.
Theoretically this is a beautiful sentiment, but it is hard to get euphoric over this blow dealt on behalf of women simply because the law has also criminalised societal ills such as child marriage, rape, dowry harassment but in practice, many continue to be victimised and are considered foolish if they look to legal enforcers for justice.
Again, this is the sort of sobering thought that makes you want to flee the motherland for stranger shores where the law is actually implemented.
Finally, our PM spoke about our patriotic duty as Indians to help with his Swachh Bharat, Jal Jeevan missions and refrain from open defecation, careless waste disposal and the indiscriminate usage of water sources.
He also made a heartfelt appeal to help achieve his goal of freeing India from single-use plastic while entreating the citizens to have a care for population explosion. All fine points, but not a day goes by without a public-pooper sighting, stepping into a sea of plastic, and the news that another baby has been delivered. Jai Hind!

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.


Recently, a 2:20 minute video depicting an Indian family attempting to make off with pilfered items from their hotel in Bali and getting caught went viral on social media. Not only had they stripped the hotel room bare of accessories and items like hair dryers they had even taken the hangers. In typical cringe – inducing fashion, they tried to brazen their way out by screaming at the staff who by contrast were polite but firm. This boisterous and badly behaved lot were held, their luggage examined to gather evidence of the theft and the proceedings were recorded at which point, these charming folks simmered down, put out a few faux apologies and offered repeatedly to ‘pay extra’ so they could be let off the hook. In response, one of the staff pointed out that they he was aware that they had a lot of money but this was about their lack of respect.
The collective opinion of those who saw the clip was one of humiliation and shame, which is surprising since we can hardly agree on anything anymore. The consensus was that the family’s behaviour was a disgrace and had ruined India’s image. There were calls to have this uncouth lot arrested on their return to India and revoke their passports. The internet reported similar incidents featuring the ugly behaviour of Indians in comparable scenarios in different parts of the world. Industrialist Harsh Goenka even shared a notice issued by a hotel in Gstaad only for their Indian guests. We all hung our heads in shame and condemned the actions of ugly Indians who fail to represent India with a modicum of respectability on foreign shores.
I was also reminded of the time when the semi – luxury train, Mumbai - Goa Tejas express was completely vandalized with passengers attempting to unscrew LCD screens, stealing headphones, trashing the compartment and making the loos bio – hazard zones. The problem is that as a nation we have become used to getting away with reprehensible conduct. Again, it is a question of respect. Too many don’t give a crap about the laws of this land or her people. We see evidence of this all around us. There are always those who misbehave with the staff in hotels, flights, sports arenas, theatres, etc. because we have a firmly rooted class and caste system which teaches us to look down on people who perform services for us without a shred of appreciation or gratitude.
As a nation we don’t bother with playing decent wages to the maid, tipping the waiter, waiting for our turn, driving with a care for the safety of others, keeping our surroundings clean or even doing the barest minimum for those condemned to manually clean out sewage and latrine pits with no protection. Instead we teach children to be even more entitled than we are and do whatever we think we can get away with, since we are willing to pay bribes and all. Forget about working on our image abroad, the need of the hour is to improve our behaviour right here at home, so that we learn to conduct ourselves with decency and decorum wherever we are and even if there is no accusatory camera pointed at us with the view to blame, name and shame on social media.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

The Conundrum that is Choice

There is so much by way of choice today, it is hard to make a choice. I spend a big chunk of my free time, trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix and sometimes I can’t make up my mind and end up watching nothing at all. It is the same in restaurants. I put in so much effort to make the right choice when it comes to the hundreds of varieties on offer that invariably I order something funky and the memory of a jellied scaly fish swimming in a foul smelling white sauce, described by food critics as sex on a plate, haunts me the next time I find myself in a similar predicament. 
It is the classic paradox of choice described by Barry Schwartz. The overabundance of choice has put so much pressure on us to make the perfect choice that we are unable to choose anything at all. When we do choose, it is impossible to be happy with the decision because we are convinced that there is something better out there, that impossibly perfect thing we must have in our lives and which we have missed out on because we didn’t keep looking.
While it is hard enough to wrestle with personal choice, we compound matters by criticizing the choices made by others in order to feel better about our own. Of course, everybody is entitled to make their own choices, just the same as us, but we prefer it, if everybody makes the same choices so that we can all be miserable together. If not, we will judge and shame while viciously condemning those who do the same to us.
We will attack not just the makers and Shahid Kapoor for the admittedly problematic Kabir Singh but those who watched it and dared not to hate it, because they found it to be engrossing cinema and brand them as flag bearers of toxic masculinity.
We will not respect Zaira Wasim’s decision to disassociate herself from Bollywood. How dare she? Here I am praying fervently before the Karan Johar bust in my puja room hoping he believes the definitive proof that my great aunt was a stunt double for Hema Malini when she danced on broken glass and gives me a glitzy launch and this teenager throws it all away because acting interferes with her religion! Of course I am going to natter on about her foolishly regressive choice or if I am Barkha Dutt, worry about ‘the indoctrination of religious conservatism.’
What about Virat Kohli’s inexplicable decision to keep backing Dhoni? Sure, the legend has contributed his mite to cricket but he is done damn it! We twitter warriors have begun a crusade to get the legend dropped and we urge you to join in.
Given the chaos over choice, I am convinced that the solution is to let our mothers take all decisions. They will always be happy to do it and we can have the comfort of blaming them when life becomes crappy. Or we can find a way to live with our choices and make even the dubious ones work for us. But that is sensible and deserves to be rejected outright since it is better to stew in discontent while laughing ourselves silly over the foolishness of others. 

This column was originally published by The New Indian Express.

Gem of an Emperor: Maharaja Ranjith Singh

Born on the ashes of the declining Mughal dynasty, the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh enjoyed a dazzling period of glory. The king successfully united the warlike Sikhs who had consolidated themselves into Misls or confederacies for the purpose of resisting invaders and preserving their autonomy.
Despite making common cause when threatened by the Afghans or the British, these were given to much infighting and petty quarrels.
Though he belonged to the Sukerchakia clan, believed to be one of the weaker Misls, Ranjit Singh managed to rise to absolute power, and brought peace to the realm in troubled times, earning renown as a wise and canny ruler who was strict but fair.
More importantly, he knew when to bare his steel and when diplomacy was called for. Having concluded a treaty with the East India Company, he secured his eastern boundary, giving him the freedom to expand his kingdom in other directions.
Sarbpreet Singh’s The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia: Stories from the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is a tasty treat for history buffs and all who nurse a passion for the glories of India’s complex past.
Filled with colourful characters who made their mark in Ranjit Singh’s famed Lahore Durbar, the juicy stories provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of the one-eyed monarch with his zest for power, life and the pleasures both afford. It is a captivating narrative, allowing the reader a bird’s eye view of the intrigues, scandals and plots that rocked his court.
Mata Sada Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s mother-in-law, with whom he shared a complicated relationship is a remarkable figure. It was she who was responsible for propelling the young Ranjit Singh to power by boldly speaking up in a time of confusion and indecision, urging the Sikhs to fight and make their bid for glory. She was an active participant in the wars that were subsequently waged and helped carve out an empire that all too briefly, held out against the British.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the mystical Sikh faith had loudly proclaimed the equality of the sexes, and Sarbpreet Kaur makes it a point to highlight the stories of the brave as well as capricious women who stepped forward and danced with destiny as they strove to leave their mark on history.
There is the dancing girl of Lahore, the queen who overdosed on opium furious over an ungallant slight, and another blessed or cursed with robust sexuality, as she played the ‘Game of Thrones’ with deadly intent and endless intrigue.
The Kohinoor is yet another player which changed hands many times and bears testament to the abiding avarice of humans.
The trials and tribulations faced by mighty warriors and schemers with courage as abundant as their prickly pride such as Hari Singh Nalwa, Akali Phoola Singh and the Dogras make for a riveting read. Shortly after the death of the great monarch, his kingdom imploded a victim of murder, foul play, treachery and avarice delivering Punjab straight into the hands of the British.
Through these charming tales, Singh subtly highlights the high points of a glorious chapter in Indian history while gently pointing out the foibles of race pride and greed that has so often resulted in untold loss and tragedy.

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 outrĂ© 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 :)