Thursday, November 06, 2008

It is a good time for writing the future. A day when history redeems itself is definitely a good day to begin creating a new world. America has begun taking a few baby steps towards undoing historical wrongs by electing its first multi-ethnic president. I get the same feeling I did when Deep Blue won a chess match against the then Grand Master. There were ways and ways you could take that outcome. You could see it as the triumph of machine over man or, more optimistically, as the edge collective brains got over one brain. Much has changed from then to now. Even the preparations for a game of chess, at that level, are no longer a single brain trying to outdo itself. Now, it is a team trying to outdo its previous execution.
While these changes were happening in sports and other arenas that touch my life only via the media, we cannot vouchsafe that many changes were happening in American foreign policy. The first American election followed carefully by me was the one that put Bill Clinton in the most coveted seat in the US. And I was a teenager in a small town in Andhra, a town that had gone to sleep sometime during the Independence Struggle and was shaken out of its slumber by the mighty roar of globalization. In one such somnolent household in that town, two teenagers would get permission to watch TV beyond 9.30 pm every Thursday, to see an “informative” program called The World This Week, or as it became more popular TWTW– probably the first TV serial to be called by a diminutive. The suave Pronoy Roy would track Clinton’s progress every week. We were ecstatic when Clinton won. We would have been hard pressed to give a reason for the euphoria. We now joke that he won our admiration over his rival probably due to his looks. Anyway, it didn’t make much of a difference to India. At least a young Indian cannot give an intelligent summary of the Indo-US relations through the Clinton years. Then, Clinton had sex (at least in the new age definition of the word, if not his own) with a girl who was probably a couple of years older than I was then and nearly lost his spot in the White House as well as his home. The younger Bush with an already dubious nickname got in there after an appallingly messy election. My jaw dropped at what was possible at the mast ship of the new world. And my American acquaintance’s jaw dropped at my knowledge of their election system. I got it clamped back by telling her I did political science as one of my main subjects for my bachelor’s degree but started contemplating on the reasons behind our being a lot more informed about them than they are about us. Is this a subaltern thing? Very soon, 9/11 proved the pointlessness of being informed about their ways. This time around I decided to chill through probably the longest campaign in American electoral history. Believe me, Indians saw YouTube videos of the Democratic nomination debate in June 2007! I, on the contrary, started discussing the surprising and controversial but momentous nomination of a woman to head our country. That debate sort of fizzled out as all India debates tend to among globalised Indian youth and I, in my pig-headed way, decided to ignore this ‘history-making’ in the US of A.
I was pleasantly surprised that Obama did win, (yes, after 2000 I knew all that could go wrong and the newspapers informed me about the added woes the Obama camp faced). Being utterly jobless at the moment, I spent the most productive hours of the day lolling in bed, nursing a backache and reading everything the world knows yet about Barack Obama. That is not the best way to begin a day for any young person in the developing world. And surely not the way to creating a new future for oneself!
Obama’s rise from a black child in a completely white Texan family to waving as the president-elect of the largest democracy of the world with his unabashedly African-American family joining him on the podium is very inspiring. It gets people dreaming. We have Indians talking about the first Dalit prime minister. And also speculating on who that could be. Of course, at such moments of optimism we don’t want to talk about how we have already had a Dalit head of state who was just as good or as bad as any other head of state our country has had in the past 58 years! We still have primary school teachers painting caste names on plates to ensure that they do not commit the ‘sin’ of serving the free mid-day meal in government schools to children from upper caste families in plates ‘contaminated’ by children from lower class families. We still have mothers in upper caste household giving their daughters a dose of untouchablity for three days every month when the daughter goes through the physiological process of menstruation. And we still get Bookers for writing about dire poverty, impossible dreams and immoral means of climbing barely two rungs of the ladder: from poor to upper middle class. Munna alias Balram Halwai can give himself the new name of Ashok Sharma but his being murdered is not going to give rise to the extinction of an entire family. Outsourcing can get him a few cars and some designer clothes but will never make him the Stork.
Yes, I am talking about The White Tiger. I read a pirated copy picked up by my brother from the footpaths at Fort. Yes, I am against piracy and yes, I don’t buy pirated copies of books. People gift them to me and I accept gifts of books. Despite being part of the liberalized economy, albeit indirectly, with a husband who is an alumnus of both the Mecca and Medina of India’s role in globalization, I am, at heart, a liberal arts student who is proverbially short of cash. I tried participating directly in the new economy. About two and a half years back I got myself a job in a business processes outsourcing company. One of the best employers in the world, I was constantly reminded; while I was working for it and for six months after I had said my final goodbyes to my colleagues and bosses there. People were appalled when I called it quits there and I managed to save myself from being called a freak by taking support from a rather strange quarter – patriarchy. I suddenly transformed into the good old Indian woman by quitting a lucrative job to be with my husband. People swallowed that without a glitch while they would have choked if I had stated the real reason – sheer boredom at being treated as a processor rather than a person. And that job is one of those jobs that were heralded as the future of the country, nearly a decade back.
Recently, a few Indian academics of the 21st century got together to write the future. Or that is what they called their conference. Although my future is at its foggiest best at the moment, I wish I was there to listen to their speculations and discussions rather than be homebound with my bad back. Well, the bad back is the pound of flesh the liberalized economy extracted from me. What with bad postures using oh-so-convenient gadgets like laptops! Technology may grow in leaps and bounds and there could be as many Deep Blues as one may care to have but technology will never beat the human ability to dream. The MS Word program on my computer, the 2007 version , proved that to me. MS Word still does not recognize the spelling of either the first or the last name of the president-elect of the United States of America! There Obama, your work is cut out! You’ve got to get them to put your name in their mobile dictionaries! You are the White Tiger who has to prove that they are not anomalous but are variants. And my prayer for you is that you will do it with more morals than the fictional White Tiger.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Every now and then a scene from my childhood flashes across my mind – that of my best friend running away from an absorbing game to watch TV.
A technological invasion took place in my life when I was 9 years old. Suddenly, we had a TV station in our small town. TV became the new symbol of middle class affluence. Of course, the rich and a small portion of the middle-class people who had newly moved in to town from the metropolitan cities already had TV in their sitting rooms. These were large, ugly and mostly useless showpieces. During the Benson & Hedges Cricket Series, I remember, entire households spent hours together trying to attract some transmission rays with the help of quaint devices called boosters attached to the TV antennae. The antennae were also gently nudged in all kinds of direction to chance upon the appropriate angle for a clearer telecast.
The very first thing I saw on TV was Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s funeral. This took place a few months before TVs started mushrooming in our town. The entire colony gathered in the only house that had a TV. The funeral of the nation’s prime minister was the first funeral that was broadcast live on national television.
It was almost a party for the children of our colony. All normality was suspended. No nagging about homework, no enforced afternoon-naps. We were all sitting on a carpet in a friend’s house, waiting excitedly for the show to begin. And wonder of wonders! Our mothers were sitting on chairs and sofas behind us! The transmission began. A grim but attractive looking young woman made an announcement. And all of us – sitting in that room in a government colony in Maharashtra went on a virtual tour of Shantivan in Delhi! The wonder of it all! Were those VIPs really crying? Why was Yaseer Arafat – the man whose name my dad uttered with respect – hiding his face behind a temporary sunshade fashioned from a programme-card? Why was Sonia Gandhi – then known only as Mrs. Gandhi’s Italian daughter-in-law – wearing black glasses? Was it because foreigners do not weep openly, as we Indians do? And were they actually using logs of sandalwood for the funeral pyre?! These were some of the questions whirling around in my head. It was all so new; so fascinating! There was nothing sad or grim about this funeral. Not until I happened to glance at a friend’s mother and noticed that tears were streaming down her cheeks. I was puzzled by her grief. Now I realize that TV had actually transported her to Shantivan while I was just peeking at it through the window called TV.
TV has always been and still is that for me – a window that I switch on once in a while; especially when I am feeling too lazy for any other kind of diversion. It never managed to reveal its magical powers to me. My best friend was enchanted by the magic of TV. Right in the middle of a very exciting contest of hop-scotch or during our regular badminton sessions she would request an obliging elder to tell her the time by their watch. If it was a Tuesday and it was 6.15 p.m then off she would run to watch ‘Phool khile hain gulshan gulshan’. Never understood the fascination! Not even after watching the programme myself. What was so fascinating about a simpering woman coaxing some ‘celebrity’ from the film world into ‘revealing’ his ‘secrets’? And why did that become more fascinating for my friend than playing with me? After TV came into our lives, all our elaborate Saturday morning and Sunday morning games came to a standstill. Saturday and Sunday became TV days. From being my favourite days of the week they slowly became the worst days of the week. I thought my friend and all the TV watching children had gone MAD. I was sure grown ups had not got carried away. I was in for a rude shock! TV had not only captivated children but also grown ups. My parents’ friends came over for Sunday lunch and post-lunch one of the guests wondered whether we see the Sunday afternoon movie on TV! My dad, playing the perfect host he likes to be, switched on the TV. And for the next three hours this family – who had supposedly paid us a social visit – were sitting on our sofa and focusing on a subtitled Assamese movie. My brothers and I were wasting a precious Sunday putting on our best behaviour and ‘proper’ clothes. Weren’t those grownups supposed to talk? Weren’t they supposed toss a few questions at us and then send their children to play with us? How could they do this to our Sunday? Why did they have to ‘visit’ us if watching TV was all that they wanted o do? That meant some grownups had also gone MAD! TV had driven so many people crazy.
It took me a good deal of time and some well-made TV programs to give TV a chance. I allow it to ‘waste’ my time sometimes and enjoy watching it once in a while. Although I refuse to spend good money on buying one, yes I conceded, I have accepted it as a permanent prop of modern life but I wince at the idea of playing second fiddle to TV for someone’s attention. I still fail to understand the ‘modern’ impulse to switch on the TV since the remote was handy while I am talking to that person. Somehow I cannot the swallow the excuse of the remote or understand the need for background noise as accompaniment to conversation. My companion switching on the TV indicates a clear preference to me. Clearly, the TV or the premium on TV’s ability to entertain is greater than the conversation. However, if I am convinced switching it on is habitual then I conclude that my battle against this technological invasion is still on. Even after two decades neither of us seems ready for a truce.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

All Mumbaikars please stop reading rightaway. I don't intend to offend people I share geographical space with.

Having put that disclaimer in place, I can go on to show how I am bemused by this city. I don't mean the geography of the place. That is pretty clear to me. When I landed in this place, about a year back, I thought it was a maze; until my husband brought out the map and proved that it was just three horizontal columns, separated by two highways, and governed by three railway lines. Then I took up a job, started commuting by local trains, fell off one of these trains onto a station platform, faced total indifference at the said station for my clumsy fall, overheard personal stuff from strangers' lives on some of these trains (stuff that could seriously fuel my writerly ambitions), and naively concluded that these trains run this city.

Now, those kind of simplistic conclusions do no good to my credentials as a student of humanities and social sciences. So, I kept my 'conclusions' to myself and pontificated further. I tried exploring the common myth that it is money that runs the show out here. And there is enough dope to get that myth going. One look at the city-specific pages in any given day's newpaper would prove that -- at least one story on a murder within a family for the ownership of a flat, and surely a couple more on legal wranglings among siblings. Other than that, talk to any local and the sentiment, "there's money in Mumbai", is sure to come out in whichever dialect of English or Hindi that person is comfortable using.

As an aside, Mumbai has some amazing amount of ghettoisation, even in the way the locals express themselves. Other than the fact that people of the same language group tend to flock together, they evolve their very own version of Mumbaiyya Hindi and English! I suppose I will write about that some other time.

Anyway, slowly I was gravitating towards buying into that money theory. Come to think of it every other day the media calls it the "Economic Capital of the Country". Today's unexpected holiday in the middle of the week gave me time to do a rethink. Here's why:

It was raining last night and there was nothing remarkable about a rainy June night in a coastal city of a mostly tropical country. And, we retired for the night at half past midnight. Nothing remarkable about that again. The first unusual thing was that our doorbell didn't anounce the arrival of our maid at 7 am. Well, that being our alarm, we overslept. The husband's subconscious must have warned him for he shot out of bed at 8 am and shouted out that we are terribly late. So, we gave up our morning tea and breakfast and got ready to head to work. I was stepping into my shoes when the husband called from the car to warn me of the situation outside. All roads were flooded, there were very few autorickshaws and nearly no taxis on the road, and there were rumours that the local train might not ply for the day. He asked me to take a call on whether I'd like to risk my life to go to work; with broad hints, of course, that taking a risk would be foolhardy. Considering the students are on vacation and I sit and read all day long in the faculty room, that too in solitary splendour when my more experienced colleagues are busy with weighty administrative matters, I decided to give the adventurous ride to work a miss. I slept some more, read the paper a tad too thorougly and supplemented the standard maid-cooked meal with a chutney. The maid, by the way, showed up a little before noon to compensate for the morning's leave of absence; being the true blue professional Mumbai bai she is! And, I also got to catch up with my local friends who called in to enquire if we were safe at home. They, of course knowing how the city works, wisely decided to not venture out. The husband also reported from his post at work that there were about 3 people at work. Naturally the workaholics, including him, would not let mere Nature deter them from their workstations! But then it occurred to me that Nature did manage to bring the economic capital of the country to a standstill. The trains had to be stopped. Buses were not expected to ply on flooded roads and people were not expected to report to work in such conditions. Moreover, the ones who did report to work were requested to head back home so that the companies would not be held responsible for any eventualities. The brave ones who ventured out did so without the customary lunchbox in their bags, what with bais dealing with flooded homes, and these brave souls had no clue about the means of transport back home.

All the gossipy stayed-at-home types reminisced about 26th July 2006, some of them about stories of rare courage, some others about resilience and a few about melodramatic tragedies. Some other busy souls, stopped by natural conditions, busied themselves at home and got a lot of work done at home. Neighbours used the unexpected holiday to catch up on news about each other instead of the customary nod while handing the trashbag to the janitor.

Suddenly, Mumbai looked very much like a sleepy small town in coastal Andhra to me. And all this because it rained heavily on one night!

I still have not figured out what makes Mumbai go but I have sure figured out what makes it stop in its tracks! Nature does!

PS: I now think the sages were wise to consider Nature the almighty!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There I was – an atheist in a temple. By choice.
It was an unusually cold Mumbai morning and I had to be present at our organisation’s gathering marking the 59th anniversary of our nation declaring its sovereignty to the world. It turned out to be a day of learning; in more ways than one.
After the collective trip down memory lane and the reaffirmation of our patriotic credentials, our rendering of our National Anthem that surely made poor Gurudev turn in the proverbial grave, we had a wonderful Mumbai morning all to ourselves. Believe me that is an unheard of treat in Mumbai. A full day of leisure!
We were miles from home, the weather was lovely and we had time on our hands! I talked my husband, another atheist, to walk into a nearby temple. I had no idea which deity was reigning those holy precincts. I was curious and my husband was game, so in we walked.
It was one of the cleanest and least noisy temples I have ever been in. Having been brought up a Hindu, I must’ve followed my parents or have been cajoled, coaxed, or forced by them into countless temples. This definitely was the cleanest.
The garba-griha was dedicated to a beautifully sculpted and bejeweled idol. So, it was a goddess. And a devotee’s hymn informed me that the idol was that of Kamakshi Devi. The sonorous voice, dripping devotion was singing, “Kamakshi Kamkoti Vasini…” Come to think of it the song or that line of the song is ridiculous. Well, the town Kamakoti is named after the goddess Kamakshi. The place acquired its name due to the legend that it is the abode of Devi Kamakshi on Earth. What does the hymn maker mean by telling the goddess that she resides in Kamakoti?
But of course, all this is an afterthought. At that time, the only thing we, a pair of atheists, did was listen to her, awestruck. Not only was she an amazing singer but also a true bhakta. After so many years of witnessing and participating in hundreds of religious rituals, I can safely say that I have never heard that kind of true devotion in anyone’s voice. At that moment, for that lady, there was just her expression of devotion and the Goddess. She was oblivious to all else.
The minute she had sung her hymn she switched into the normal mode of going through the right motions within a temple. This includes bowing in front of the deity, dipping one’s ring finger into bowls of kumkum and vibhuti and applying these to one’s forehead.
We followed her and her family out of the garbha-griha and saw them gather together for a photograph. She was a tourist! Not a regular at this temple! Who would have believed that? She was so comfortable in the sanctum sanctorum! She was not intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings or the new faces standing cheek by jowl. It was as if neither the strangers around her nor the unfamiliar surroundings mattered. All that counted was the Goddess and her devotion for the Goddess. It was like watching Pandit Ravi Shankar with his sitar. Or Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra dancing. In those moments nothing exists for them except their emotion. They don’t perform. They transform into their emotion. So did this stranger in a kanjeevaram saree in a Mumbai temple become the hymn she sang.
It occurred to me that I go to concerts and recitals for this. To witness this transformation. Of a human being into an expression of emotion. To be there when someone experiences that slippery moment of being completely connected with one’s emotion.