Saturday, 31 December 2011

End-of-the-year-ramblings and a tribute to democracy

They say the year 2011 was the year of protests and revolutions; Time Magazine namedthe anonymous, face half-covered protester the Person of the Year. The Arab world witnessed what many have called the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution. Wall Street was occupied by anti-capitalist protesters—the “99 percent”, as they call themselves. Back home, many claim that we witnessed the “second freedom struggle”, this one against corruption—of what kind, though, remains ambiguously unanswered. It seems that people were happy rallying around a messiah figurehead, and chanting anti-government slogans. “Politicians are thieves!” said millions of voices. This year has been one where our concepts of democracy, governance and freedom have been tested, challenged, changed and, rather paradoxically, taken for granted even.
A great year for democracy, a great year for revolutions—only, like always, there’s a catch.

About a year or so back, I scribbled these lines in a notebook, unaware of its significance in the context of last year’s protests. It goes like this: 
neither am I a son of a politician, nor an influential anywho...I am a voice in the silent for too long...decided to speak up now. The kind of voice you should be afraid of. Very, very afraid.

When I saw images of hundreds of thousands assembling in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Tripoli, in Sanaa, in Damascus, I realised the profoundness of these otherwise meaningless lines. Democracy, it seemed then, was being salvaged from a deep, dark slumber it had fallen into in these regimes of tyranny and decadency. Today, while I still hold that romanticised perspective, I confess, I am a tad cynical. At least when I see democracy being taken for granted in my country.

Take the Parliament proceedings, for example. The Opposition and members of the so-called civil society called it a “midnight murder of democracy”. I beg to differ. I would refer to the same incident as democracy struggling to fight efforts that stifle it. Make no mistake, I am not a firm believer in democracy; it is, in Rousseau’s words, a system meant for gods. Thus, a democracy for a flawed species like ours can be only that: flawed. And it is also one which my countrymen have taken for granted. And this is the premise of this essay.

The year 2011 may well be the year of protestors, and it may be rightly so, too. But we can hardly feature in the same. India is notorious for processes which subvert the democratic principles on many, many levels; the bureaucracy has come to exist like a sui generis system, existing as a culture industry of sorts, subsuming talent, dissent and everything it can; which is, to all intents and purposes, running the country. People who speak up for rights are labelled as seditionists, anti-nationalists and what not; indigenous movements are labelled as being Luddite and anti-development; vast hinterland tracts of the country living without electricity, water supply and organised governance. 

This is the murder of democracy, or the rape of it. Having my rights trampled by the vociferous advocacy of someone else’s peeves - that is the molestation of democracy. All these are far from homicidal intents. And we should know one thing: the democratic setup (in the neo-liberal sense) is what allows the powered classes to retain control of power. So, for the better or worse, democracy in India is a self-serving, and a self-defeating mechanism simultaneously. It is alive, but crippled. Not murdered, mind you. Not yet, at least.

Which brings me to the next part of my argument: the future of democracy. Anna Hazare’s fast has been declared a revolution, freedom struggle and what not. Truth is: the only true oppression that we have ever seen, collectively, was pre-1947. There have been regional tensions in the past, four major wars, countless attacks, and tens of thousands of lives lost in all kinds of extremist violence. Yet, I think I’ll be brash—or foolish—enough to say that we will never see the same fate as Egypt, or Libya, or Syria. One, because the self-serving and self-defeating system would not allow for the state to become tyrannical; and two, because revolution has died in the minds of the Indian people.

Sure thousands gathered at Ramlila Maidan and protested, sang songs of unity and nationalism. But when push comes to shove—which we, in all probability, would not feel—the sarkar is the maibaap for the people. No matter which party is in power, the government will always be the patriarch of the Indian people. We won’t take to anarchy or revolution because (apart from the need for it not arising, in the first place) we are all too preoccupied with our nine-to-five jobs, our bubbled existences, the IPL, whilst partaking in profound criticisms of the government, holding candle-light vigils, staying indoors on election day, to name a few. And the other India—the one which, by government standards, earns less than 32 rupees a day—is too busy trying to make ends meet.

Self-serving and self-defeating at the same time.

A revolution is too time consuming, too unpredictable. We go to election with fixed, dichotomous results in mind: either the UPA or the NDA. Or, a caste or linguistic affinity. Religion, maybe.  And frankly, can there be another option? Unless Team Anna contests the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.

We won’t change the nation because that would mean changing our habits; inviting uncertainty, chaos and a possibility of missing the IPL and our daily dose of Bigg Boss.

This essay, or rambling—whatever you choose to call it—will not change the nation, nor aid the same in any way whatsoever. Because that is not my prerogative; as Oscar Wilde puts it, an artist’s job is to portray the world as he sees it, not to reform it as we know it. I cannot imagine a “changed” India. And I don’t think the 1.2 billion Indians can do so either—not without problems, at least. They may go to Ramlila or Azad maidan and protest for a romanticised vision. And I, on my arm-chair—or desk more so—will continue to be cynical about it. We are a paradoxical nation filled with hypocrites and starved souls. And by god, that’s a very morbid reason for why I love India.

Here’s to democracy, to revolution and to a freedom taken forever for granted. Happy new year and have a fantastic 2012!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Some thoughts on multiculturalism

As a nation, largely and collectively, we take personal pride in calling ourselves a multicultural or a pluralist society. Of course, why shouldn’t we—many rightly point out. We are a very large nation, with the states having their unique, distinct, yet collective heritage. The official state-sponsored secularism makes matters like religious orientation a question of choice and is thus, protected by law against discrimination. True, xenophobia is a reality in today’s society, but often so when it confronts states as politico-economic entities, rather than cultural ones; even the right-wing organisations are not strictly anti-other cultures per se—at least not now; the BJP would require Muslims and Christians be more Hindu, or Raj Thackeray would want migrants to be fluent in Marathi culture (as if that’d stop him and his north Indian bashing agenda). However, apart from such instances of ethnocentric discourses, our notion of multiculturalism, even within such complex structures and realities, is rather dogmatic and one-dimensional.

True, we may profess our multi-ethnic, pluralistic nature by saying that festivals or religious celebrations are more widely celebrated, and all; we may enjoy the cuisine of another state, or perhaps even dress traditionally for any such occasion. But, these attributes are external, as opposed to an internalised one, like say, language. People often remark that Marathi speaking skills are rather efficient, for a Bengali, that is. And I get even stranger looks when I say that I enjoy Tamil music.
“How can you?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Because I like it, and I enjoy the music,” is my usually awkward reply.
“But you don’t understand the language...”
“Do I need to?”
Well, need I elaborate anymore?

We are programmed—as citizens, or Indians, or plainly as individuals in a multicultural society—to think that each culture, so to say, is endemic. In the real world, this would translate as one of those shows on SAB TV, where you have practically every linguistic state group residing in a cooperative housing society. And quite often, we are fooled to believe that such realities actually exist. If we are indeed so multicultural, why then, for example, are people from the north-eastern states conspicuously absent in Tarak Mehta’s cooperative society? More so, not only are we led to believe that each culture is endemic, but also that in being endemic, they are something external to us. We may enjoy Gujrati theplas being a Maharashtrian, or appams if we’re Bengali. We might even dress, in rare occasions, in the “garb” of another state. But internalised knowledge, say language, or music, is something unknown to our schema of understanding.
Maybe that’s why a certain professor of mine expressed her surprise when she met a student, who happens to be Catholic, and would sing Hindi songs—not the larger ‘Bollywood’, mind you—with ease, as opposed to, perhaps Christmas carols or Billy Joel.

In a broader international context, we may take insult when we are lumped as south Asians; because “we’re Indian, and we are a multicultural society.” But even within the multicultural framework of our own society, we respond only and largely to the state-sponsored idea of pluralism. More pressing issues, such as tribal identities were left unresolved during the period of state formation. And now that we are a properly functioning politico-economic union, with demarcated cultural hubs, and indeed the idea of what exactly may constitute culture, such questions would remain unanswered or unresolved.

A celebration of multiculturalism, thus, seems to require the marginalisation or negation even, of certain cultures. And I shall not expect a relaxation of those curious looks when I profess my likeness for Tamil music.  So much for unity in diversity, I suppose.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Forgotten Justice

The internet is abuzz with a lot of activity concerning two individuals: Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez. There are online petitions, Facebook pages, newspaper campaigns demanding justice for Keenan and Reuben, and for zero-tolerance of crimes against women. The tragic incident, which unfortunately resulted in the deaths of Keenan and Rueben, has put this issue of sexual harassment and street-violence in the limelight. The chief minister, the law minister and the likes have been approached. A vast, internet-surfing, 20-something (and older) crowd has demanded justice. And in all likelihood, justice would be served.

I shall not deal with their quest for justice, or any of their campaigns doing the same. Nor I am going to advocate their cause. Not because there’s something wrong in it; for clearly, there isn’t; but because I have come to question our very sense of morality and conception of justice.

There are several questions I have about what happened that night, and thanks to the media, there are several answers too. I will refrain from commenting on them, because by doing so I would indirectly question Keenan and Rueben’s actions, and thus, their memories. What I will question, is the aftermath in the public domain; which I see reposted on my Facebook wall every day.

Most of the posts say that, I could have been in their place, and therefore I should care about the cause. I agree to that.

But is that the only reason why I should care? Because someone from my social location has been wilfully and gravely caused hurt; because my existence and ideas of freedom in this city are now under threat? Or is it because my female friends (also from my social location) could bear the brunt of such callousness in the future?

If it is so, then I shall very politely refrain from expressing my “support”. Make no mistake; I am not undermining the cause here; but the methods to act upon a cause.

For one, I think there’s something very wrong in the way we’ve all jumped on to this bandwagon. For long, and even now, the newspapers have carried one-paragraphed reports of cases, be it crimes of a sexual nature, or instances of street violence resulting in deaths and injuries. Be it rape, or dowry deaths, or child abuse, society’s response to such crimes has always been that of schematic empathy, so long as the mainstream has remained unaffected. My question is: why haven’t there been campaigns to address these issues?

Before I answer that I would like to share an example.

About six, maybe seven months back, there was a case of serial-rapes and murders of three girls in a Kurla slum. All three girls were abducted from outside their homes, raped and murdered; their bodies were discarded as one would do so for a culled animal. The Garib nagar area lived in perpetual fear for the lives of their children for nearly three months. Despite of which, the third girl’s body was found on the terrace of a police building. Mercifully, the killings stopped and a suspect was arrested. And it is commendable on part of the press that they followed the case thoroughly till it reached a somewhat conclusive end; I am not yet aware of any trial or conviction. But, while this incident may have put one isolated issue on the frontlines of public discourse, several others are relegated to one-paragraphed, correspondent reports, only to be lost in the newspapers.

Every other day there are reports of sexual offences against women, or about people being assaulted as viciously and fatally as Keenan and Rueben were. It’s not that crime has reached unmanageable proportions or that the police are not doing their job. Whatever the scenario was, it is still more or less the same. The tragic episode at Amboli was an instance where these two worlds collided, and led to a crime of the most heinous nature, condemnable by all standards of a civilised society.

But the real injustice does not lie only in this one instance, which by all means was a freak incident. The real injustice lies in our inability to see beyond our pain. We are asking for tougher laws because our shelled existence of safety and security has been shattered; because we have been exposed to the murky and treacherous waters, through which thousands thread every day, and very often, they do so under the pain of death and suffering. It’s only when our feet have been filthied that we are asking for the mud to be removed. And truth be told, we will retreat to our shelled existence once we are assured that we shall never again come in touch with such murkiness, even if it damns the people on the other side.

When the Taj and Oberoi were attacked on 26th November, a certain class of people were shocked and were forced to come out of their luxuries; precisely because these very luxuries were now under threat. The Taj became the symbol of the 26/11 terror attacks; not CST. The 26/11 attacks have had anniversaries—which were callous and hypocritical celebrations of elitism; the July 11 train blasts, or any other terror episodes, haven’t.

In a similar vein, on-going campaigns crying out for ‘Zero-tolerance’ and ‘Justice for Keenan and Rueben’ reek of upper-middle class bias and elitism. It reeks of our apathy and indifference to confront issues which do not directly affect us. There is a huge deficit in our notion of morality, and the way this notion espouses justice. And as such, by declaring our outrage in the public forum, there is a severely hegemonic move towards covering up this deficit. We profess to defend our morality by contextualising justice in a way in which it would primarily benefit us. Not that a campaign sexual harassment would not benefit a less privileged, marginalised group. But we are consecutively and conspicuously failing to address a larger question: not just about the denial of justice, but also of the lack of access to it.

The outrage and outburst regarding the vicious assault on Keenan and Rueben’s is by every means justified; but this is an outrage moulded by our class consciousness and threat perception to our way of life. More than that, what I find staggering are the posts on the Facebook page, which demand nothing short of vigilantism, bloodlust and anarchy. Such extreme reactions are not a manifestation of injustice; far from it, this is the result of severely clamped vision of society beyond our own boundaries. Many claim, they’ve been wronged; but to manipulate such motives and indeed to manufacture conscience and justice on a public forum is a condemnable act in itself.  

And this demand for justice stifles another one, rendering it meaningless and unimportant: that of social injustice.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Freedom For Granted

There's a lot being said and done in India these days by a man called Anna Hazare. Millions of Indians are following him. They've found their messiah, it seems; one who will root out this evil called 'corruption' and restore India to her former glory. The entire nation is in a frenzy; a euphoria. "Enough," say a million voices. "End corruption now!" Pity, if only it were so easy.  

I have, or at one point had, tremendous respect for Anna Hazare; they way he transformed his native village Ralegan Siddhi into a near-perfect utopia, his honesty and sense of honour and most importantly, his belief in the Gandhian way of non-violence. Today, as he and his compatriots (and not to mention, thousands of sycophants) hog every news channel and news paper, I feel deceived. Not that my respect for Anna Hazare has diminished; it's actually a matter of principle: I have a thing against people who've got the Messiah Complex. And as is evident, Anna Hazare has a tremendous one. 

I realize now, as I am writing, I have not said a single word about the Jan Lokpal Bill--the reason why Annaji is a national phenomenon. Clearly, the man has overshadowed the cause. And that is what bothers me. 

Also, I do not consider Anna a second Gandhi. Just the same way I cannot call some racist neo-fanatic Hitler. To do so would be to show utter disregard to history. And I do not, and will never, don the insignia stating: 'I am Anna Hazare'. I am far too big a narcissist to assume someone else's identity. Besides, I already mentioned my dislike for people with the Messiah Complex earlier, no?

To get to the point, I do not endorse the Jan Lokpal Bill which has been drafted by the members of the so-called Civil Society (what are other Indians then, uncivil? or savage?). Neither am I in full support of the government's version. Both have some serious glitches. Though the latter, if drafted with direction and political will (note the 'if') would be more workable than the so-called Civil Society's. Most importantly because it would have the sanction of the Constitution and the Parliament behind it (the very powers that citizens vested in it). Sadly though, it is not to be this way. And mobs wearing Gandhi caps on Azad Maidan and elsewhere are also indicative of something gone terribly wrong. 
I will not criticise the Jan Lokpal Bill here; it is flawed, yes. And you know very well what the flaws are (unless of course, you're one of those Gandhi cap wearing anti-graft crusader ramblers sorts). What really bothers me, is that these mobs, and the pseudo-intellectual support that they're getting have dubbed this as protest as a 'revolution', even to the extent of calling it a 'second freedom struggle'. This, I feel, is misplaced idealism and the most explicit instance of optimistic stupidity gone awry. 

There are very few of us who have seen the Freedom Struggle for what it truly was; and Hazare is one of them. They rest of us just know stuff from textbooks and movies; including me. True, civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and Swadeshi formed the cornerstone and indeed the beacon-light for guiding the Freedom Struggle. But this was undertaken with a vision; the vision of a free and independent India. And today we are free and sovereign, albeit victims to a host of vices. And on this plane, a protest is justified. But who are we protesting against?

The people who you and I have elected to represent us? People who are defiling the most sacred and purest tenets upon which our nation is based? People who misuse and abuse their powers for their own selfish gains?
Or, people who resort to unjust means because they chose to serve us? The ones who abuse their power to bridge severe chasms of inequality? 

Truth is, corruption is not something which plagues only the superpowerful elite. It has penetrated every level of our social infrastructure because all who hold responsibilty have ignored the rights of all others who are entitled to rights. We have failed to address the basic causes of this 'evil' of corruption. Injustice and apathy. Corruption is not an evil; it was born of our own incompetence to hold up our morals. To obey the most basic and essential rules. And to cover up for this, we devised a way to work around the system. 
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And this is not because corruption is inherent in power relations. This is because corruption is the fall child of power gone berserk.
By not stopping at a traffic light, by spitting on the road, by not paying taxes on all these little mistakes, we have created a monster that now plagues all higher forms of power. And now that it hurts us most, we ask for power over these very institutions which we, so to say, corrupted. 

I agree, the reason I am giving is simple and straightforward; and that it may vehemently countered. But only if we were so vocal when corruption was at a nascent stage, if only some Messiah like Anna (or he himself) would have seen this and protested then...who knows?

We do not know what struggle really is; what it is like to have a foreign authority dominate us; to be reduced to a mere colony, existing to serve and only serve.
We also do not know what oppression really is. Yes, emminent persons like Dr Binayak Sen, and hundreds of nameless others, have been incarcerated because they opposed the injustice metted out to fellow countrymen; so also Hazare's brief jail stint. Persons like Irom Sharmila who have furthered the cause of fighting injustice have been persecuted brutally. And that is a huge and disgusting blot on the democratic fabric of this nation.
But this is a country which also is allowing people to gather in masse and protest against the government. It hasn't bruatally cracked down upon its own citizenry and bloodied its streets with innocent blood. A nation that is striving to reform a deplorable state of affairs in the face of adversity. A nation where every change in government has been peaceful (but in some places, was marred with violence. Yet democracy prevailed).
A nation where its own citizens have taken their freedom for granted.

I am, and have always been, a skeptic of democracy...and in all likelihood, would remain one. For a democracy is only as good as its people. And truth be told, we aren't exactly a good people. Yet, this democratic setup is the best hope we have at proper self governance (a term I am skeptical of, again). 
Then again, any system which tells me what I am to be and what I am to do is, in my eyes, a truly opressive one. And I'd much prefer a democracy to that, thank you very much. Or maybe, anarchy; like V would say.
If I were to choose between a messiah-led ochlocracy or being in league with an outlaw vigilante, I would choose the latter. Because a mob is made up of idiots; especially one which is led by a guy with a Messiah Complex, guided by a noble cause. 
And noble causes, we know, pave they pathway to hell. 

So long, and Freedom Forever!

Friday, 22 July 2011

“Bad roads—so, what’s the deal with them?”

Walking in the roads is a huge pain these days. And so is driving. And so is the use of any form of public transport that runs on surface; except maybe the state transport buses—they’re a hazard by themselves, and right now, adding those to the equation would be the perfect recipe for either a colossal disaster, or perhaps, the best bloody ride of our lives.

Anyway, I suppose you get my point: this post is a ramble/rant against bad roads. I know it’s probably an old issue by now (well, Hindustan Times certainly has found a new issue for the second page; about time, I’d say!) but as with all other notes, I wanted to be sure of the, let’s say, gravity of the issue here. Suffice to say that after thirty-one near misses in the nearly two month’s abstinence from driving, and a month long campaign by HT, I have decided that the issue has sufficient gravity.

Bad roads. Hmm. So, where does it start? Well, while a section of the civil society would scream “politicians!”, “corruption!”, I, sir, would beg to differ. There is, I believe, a matter of great scientific inquiry involved—which thanks to the sorry levels of public intellect—is absent from all discussions of public importance. I would not talk of contractors and the BMC here, partly because of the scientific nature of my inquiry, and mostly because I know very little of it. What I will focus on, as always, is how we Indians adapt, or rather, should adapt.

Thanks to Anna Hazare and his “team” of civil society members, the people of India have lost one it’s most enshrined of virtues: adaptability. People no longer think it to be cool to duck, jump, side-step, run, and even sleep, while doing most of our daily tasks. Make no mistake; I am not equating adaptability with complacency here. The former is an active process, involving a high level of cognition and fine-motor skill dependency; the latter is, well, doing nothing other than not doing what I just described.

Let me illustrate. So, they say bad roads are dangerous. I concur, they are; but let’s adapt, shall we? The SAS and the Royal Marines are among the best military units in the world because they train in the harsh environs of moors in northern England. We have a Dartmoor on practically every station road, and during the monsoons, there is nothing better than cross-country training while on your way to work (the dirty clothes would irk many. But as of now, that’s the only glitch I see in my near-perfect hypothesis).
Yes, I agree that cars and other large vehicles are very clearly a hazard. So, I’d say, we should ban them from the roads. Sounds simplistic? Well, that’s because it is. Until you bring up that bit about political will and public apathy.

We’re so accustomed to the comfort of our cars, that we’d yell “bloody murder!” to any such proposition. Now that, ladies and gents, is complacency. I mean, we can all agree that cars and other vehicles are huge contributing factor to pollution levels in the city, and the abomination we collectively call ‘traffic jams’ (hmm, funny jargon; mental note for next post). Most of them have very low ground clearance, use a lot of fuel on account of driving on for miles in second gear, and frankly, they come in some very horrible colours. They are also, correct me if I’m wrong, a major contributing factor to the whole pot-hole scenario as well.

Any road has a carrying capacity; if a road is built with a carrying capacity of 50,000 cars in say, six months, then they end up carrying over two-hundred thousand in the same period in the real world (Note: I think my figures are maybe a tad bit exaggerated). The point being: our roads, no matter how corrupt the contractor is (Yes, sue me, Mr Hazare; or better still, go on a fast), are built to carry a certain amount of cars in a given period of time, as they are anywhere else in the world—except perhaps Cuba and some other failed Communist states. And if there’s a marked increase in the pressure on roads, particularly due to faulty driving (this is India!), braking and speeding (and not the mention, the state transport buses)—all of which we see plenty in India—the roads naturally would suffer. And here we aim to hang the poor contractors. Tsk Tsk.

Another thing most of us fail to see is the potential for rally cars and sports utility vehicles. Yes, those very idiotic, large, the all-brawn-no-brain, Sunny Deol type SUVs; particularly the Range Rovers and Land Rovers. What we need are more liberal policies and a reduction on taxation. Heck, they’re even coming up with the ‘green’ versions for the eco-mentalists (what an aberration, but still—).

So, bottom line: if India wants to figure on the global map for reasons other than its loud civil society and Mayawati’s spat with Assange, we seriously need to look into the potential bad roads have for us. And once again, we must prove to the world how adaptable we are. Adaptable, mind you, not complacent!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Blood And Tears

To say anything like "I am shocked!", or "This is appalling!" would be an understatement. I am shocked, appalled and scared. And I believe so are you. That's fine. In fact, that is a sane reaction.
Mumbai was hit by blasts again, three of them this time; official sources say around twenty killed and sixty injured. But those are just statistics. Just numbers. But for many unfortunate survivors, they are names; mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends...

Through my personal observations, I can say that there are two broad responses to such tragedies. One, a sense of hopelessness and despair, soon replaced by what many call the 'spirit of Mumbai', that is, our ability to go on ahead with life, whilst upholding the innate psyche that this city builds in our minds: "Bad things happen, and will keep happening. Will that stop us? Hell no."
And two, is a path of public indignation; usually amplified by political voices. Here, governments are blamed, security agencies are too. Every political big-wig has an opinion. And, strangely, this stage of response follows the first one; candle light vigils and the sorts, you know.

Yesterday, as I sat watching various news channels, I realized these processes were already set into play. Some leader from the Shiv Sena was at Dadar, to "inspect" the site apparently. And this is before the NIA team arrived. He and his party "asked" the government to find out who was behind the blasts. Hmm, I wonder how long the politeness would last.
And in another clip, somewhere in Jhaveri Bazaar, I think, I saw a flash mob gathering near the CM's convoy...shouting protest slogans. Now that is progress.

People often comment that the Indian government is unconcerned towards its 1.2 billion citizenry, and worse still, it tends to value some over the others. The Kalka Mail accident, for example was an appalling example of this fact. Inevitably, discourses on corruption and selfishness of netas follow.
We need a scapegoat. And, in most cases, an inefficient administration suffices. I am not sympathizing with the government, mind you. I believe that they are indeed inefficient and to a very large extent, even unprofessional in dealing with crises like these. They suffer some serious lapses, lack of standardized protocol, incompetence, interdepartmental rivalry, political one-up-man-ship and the gravest of all, lack of political will, to name a few.

Then again, how virtuous is the Indian public? My answer is, not very.

True, one sees a spirit of humanity and solidarity at work when tragedy strikes. The 26/7 floods, the 11/7 train bombings and now this. Also, we've had candle-lights vigils and what-not after 26/11. Yes, India, there is hope- that's what many said.

Half of Mumbai didn't vote in the elections in 2009. But thousands came in support of Team India at Wankehede. Funny world, no?

Not wanting to be accused of cynicism again, I would like to end this post with my personal view on counter-terrorism. Why, because terrorism is a crime of the most depraved nature (let's face it, this is what we're fighting; not a war against our ideas or some abstract struggle), and thus, has to be dealt with ruthlessly. What we need is a competent and well-trained security services and an unhindered chain-of-command. A complete overhaul in our security mechanisms, procedures, protocols and basically, the way we think. And the knowledge of the fact that safety of citizens is of paramount importance. Unless this is realized by the government, I am afraid we are looking at very dark times.

In the face of such troubled times, there is very little what people like you and me can do. But what we can do is, not let the pain wash away by some mind-numbing, defeatist rhetoric. For as long as we remember the wounds and the pain, we will be conscious of what caused it.  Because if we choose to move on, to surrender to fate, spirit or whatever we might call it, then, we are doing a grave injustice to the very people whose losses we mourned; to the tears and blood they have shed.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

"Oh look, it's raining"

As a kid, if anyone ever told me that the monsoon is overrated, and annoying, I'm not sure how my reaction would've been. Then again, who says such things to children?
Today, however, if one said the exact same phrase to me; I'd think that person's thoroughly misinformed. For two reasons: one, the monsoon, or the 'rainy season' as it's know around these parts, isn't overrated. It's usually a case of 'over', but of a different kind, most of them being the grammatical cousins of the adjective 'over-flowing'. And two, they're not 'quite' annoying; I believe the word you're looking for is 'very', and as always, it applies to us humans, and not the natural phenomenon which, I believe, is called 'precipitation' by the scientific community. 
The thundering of rain clouds and the pitter-patter outside the window coincides with the opening of schools and colleges. Imagine waking up to a nice and cool morning, whilst you’re all snuggled up and cozy in your bed, and then facing the prospect of getting ready to…go out there. If this doesn’t ruin a good day, then I don’t know what does. School days, though, are okay; I mean, you don’t really need an excuse to make mischief, and splash about in puddles, and even if you do, you have a solid alibi: “But, it’s raining!”
Once you grow slightly older, and begin commuting, you say the same words; only this time, it’s a low, lazy and unwilling effort on your part, and it usually goes like, “Oh *bleep*, it’s raining.” (Do notice the emphasis, if I might add).
But hey, you never really hate the monsoon. You just end up making a list of things that you hate during the monsoons.
Like walking—anywhere outside the dryness of your house—be it the roads, or train stations; there’s cars’ splashing water and mud onto you, like it’s their god-given right to do so. And, if you’re driving, swearing at stupid pedestrians who practically walk on the roads, like it’s their god-given right to do so. They can have the foot paths, skywalks or the whole of Marine Drive for all I care…but WHY the roads?! Alas, that enlightenment is still beyond me.
Coming to think of it, there is no single apparatus, accessory or even a damn vehicle here that is completely rain-proof, other than perhaps a reinforced concrete structure, with some good paint on the exterior walls; then again, you can’t carry your house everywhere, can you? You will have to settle for either an umbrella, or a wind-breaker. And to make this choice correctly is to have a superior sense of weather-forecasting, much like the Native American Indians. But unlike us, they usually stay indoors, and stock up on food supply when they predict harsh weather. While we are left to battle the unpredictable and unforgiving rain and winds (not to mention flooded gutters and potholes), in which case the umbrella ends up upturned, and ones underpants, the only garment which remains dry under a wind-breaker.
However, before you dismiss me as a cynic, let me tell you that I, in fact, do love the monsoon. Sure it has its downsides; you’ve just read about four-hundred words of it, and also the fact that I, like over a million people, have been stuck in local trains when the tracks flood (some scary scenario, this is); but, compared to summers that makes pot-holes baking ovens, and winters that are probably non-existent (or very cold, as we saw last year), the monsoon truly is a wonderful season.
Especially if you live in a place from where you can see lush, green mountains and water-falls; and have a terrace where you can get wet without stepping on mud or, being run over by a lunatic whose wipers aren’t working. But, if you live in a place where it floods the instant the skies begin tinkling and where there are traffic jams below your window, then, I’m sorry to say: bad luck, mate. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Unsettling Scores

It was an evening like any other; I was on vacation, at my ancestral home, with uncles, aunts, grand-uncles, grand-aunts, and every kind if possible relation a person's family tree could offer. The evenings, thankfully, were free of power cuts this time; which meant one thing: the television was on, and it usually fluctuated between soaps, news and cricket, accompanied by the commentary of those who were watching it. 
Me, I was in another room; that is, until I heard a familiar track coming out of the TV room. I listened to it more intently; yes, I have heard it before. It took two seconds more before I realized what it was: Hans Zimmer's 'Pirates of the Caribbean' theme. Since when have my grand-uncles taken a liking to Jack Sparrow and his antics, I wondered. Curiosity got the best of me, but sadly, I was disappointed. 

On the TV screen there was, oddly enough, no Jack Sparrow. There was a woman, who I deduced was the vamp of the serial; large, murderous eyes with a litre of charcoal under her eyelids, flashy sari, and a wonky bindi which resembled a modern artist's nightmare on canvas. The camera panned to the protagonist; who was dressed austerely; by the standards of the vamp, this guy was, in fact, naked. He wore a vacant expression, which I'd reclassify as vacuumed. And on the background, was a score that had made Sparrow’s escape memorable.
Predictably, this was out of sync considering the nature of the serial; which I was later told (rather hurriedly) was about infidelity and surrogate children. I took back my comment it the score being out of sync; to describe it as a metaphor would be to say that the Leaning Tower of Pisa would look good with chocolate and cherries on it. Still, that would be funny. This, on the other hand, evoked a mixed-response of hilarity, amusement, and puzzlement.

It is a sad fact that our country’s film, music and television industries are infamous for being plagiaristic. Or as they call themselves, in a first-grader kinda way, copycats. And when these, um, copycats, try to legitimize their copying as inspirations, we have something known as ‘India’s __________’; now this could be anything. Look at all the Woods we have here: Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, and even the strange SandalWood. As for actors, Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, could be called India’s Robert de Niro, Marlon Brando and Sean Connery put into one; Akshay Kumar as ‘India’s Chuck Norris’; and Ram Gopal Varma as India’s Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock, who, obviously failed at it.  
Okay, I don’t want to insult any more great names this way by drawing absurd references; but you get my point, right?

When it comes to music, though, shamelessness knows no bounds. Music in the Hindi film industry can be classified into two distinct eras; one, when people like R D Burman, Kishore Kumar and their contemporaries made music that was distinctively of their respective eras, like the jive and rock ‘n roll numbers (which sounded just too similar at times), and the classical stuff. And two, that is, a time when Globalization was at its peak, tracks and background scores were lifted shamelessly off Western movies. We, however, beat that too. Kollywood would remake an English movie, which then would be remade by Bollywood, and then finally, and rather horribly, by Tollywood; which until quite recently had just one staple actor and actress, who usually played lovers, and a villain, his side kick, and a veteran who played roles of a cop/doctor, until he got old and played the role of a cool granddad. And then there’s Mithun, who was last seen on a dance reality show. Sorry, got carried away…anyway, about music.

So, how is the situation today? Much better, really. Yes, you have new and upcoming composers like Amit trivedi, Vishal-Shekhar and veterans like Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, who give Indian music their due respectability and some fantastic scores, if I may add that. Then again, we have people like Pritam, who give plagiarised scores, but ones that at least sound good (I checked if he’s the one who had put the ‘Pirates’ track in the serial; turns out, they didn’t have a music composer).
And of course, how could I forget Himesh Reshamiya. A person who is notorious for singing nasally, in seven out of eight tracks in his own album. Well, he also tends to plagiarise his own numbers…not that any one notices that. Speaking of which where is he?

And, speaking if ‘where’, ‘is’ and ‘he’ again, I wonder where Devang Patel is? If you don’t remember who this mad Gujju fellow was, allow me to refresh your memory. I consider him to be the pioneer of parody music in India. He was India’s Weird Al Yankovic, if I may use that analogy. He never, for a moment, tried to conceal the fact that his songs were plagiarised. Because, they weren’t; they were parodies, and hilarious ones, too!
‘Pichchadi pe kutta katta’ (Who Let The Dogs Out), ‘Hai Kammar’ (Whenever, Shakira), were considered to be classics! And he didn’t leave Indian pop stars of the nineties either; ‘Made In India’ which was a parody of, well, ‘Made In India’ by Alisha Chenoi.

God, where are the good parodies these days?

As I am about to end, I can hear another Hans Zimmer track playing, from ‘Crimson Tide’ in, you guessed it right, in a Bengali serial. In fact, he is one of the most plagiarised musicians on Indian TV, as I gathered through some painstaking (and thoroughly boring) research.

Hindi movies, and even serials, and I might as well add reality shows, too when I am at it, still use plagiarised tracks. And when they have their own tracks, they sound awful. Some Disney shows, though, come up with some very cool tracks; and by that I mean, the Hannah Montana and Jonas type tracks that would only thrill thirteen-year-olds.
As I kid, I grew up on some very good shows, like ‘Hip Hip Hurray’ and ‘Just Mohabbat’, which had some amazing music to it.
If there ever had to be a distinct Indian music of my generation, this would be it; and of course, so would Devang Patel.

Why? Simply because you have to love pioneer when you see one!  

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The night before Holi

The loud speakers blared with Bollywood music. You know, the "hits" and the "chartbuster" type remixes, ones that end up making more money than what the original films do. They were interspersed with some Marathi tracks as well, the very popular ones, and some which were rip-offs of certain Bollywood remixes.  Such musical...extravaganzas are a regular feature in these parts, especially on occasions like elections, Ganesh pandals, birthday parties of some politician's kids- a memorable evening and some good entertainment, I suppose...for some votes in return, of course. As if that's a crime? Not in these parts, at least. 
Tonight's occasion is Holi – the festival of colours. 

For a large portion of my life, Holi was a favourite festival; the community coming together, visiting relatives, colouring their faces, and painfully scrubbing the colours off your skin (and hoping that you wouldn't have to use kerosene, or ghazlet, as they call it here). It was a perfect getaway from the mundane routines of life; to freak out, as one might aptly describe it. 
Obviously, playing with colours was more exciting than the bonfire. Nonetheless, I tried not missing the bonfire. The uncles in the neighbourhood collected dried coconut leaves and branches, and would try to make the pile more aesthetically pleasing; once, they'd even put an effigy of Holika. They were often helped by their kids, who tried juggling duties with a game of tag, and later, cricket. 

The next day was battleground for us: me and a few friends would take on our neighbours' kids in what we called the ''Holi Wars''; we'd prepare our arsenal weeks in advance, and fortify our 'base camp'. Water balloons became grenades, and the pichkari a sub-machine gun. People who came out dressed were never spared; I mean, who in their right mind goes out dressed on Holi?
I don't think we ever won; we often got outnumbered four against one. But, that was the closest I got to being John Rambo, with the war paint on face and all.

Today, those kids I played with are some politician’s workforce; they still set up the bonfire with their fathers and uncles, but the political undertones aren't as subtle as they once were; or perhaps, I’m now old enough to understand that. 
We’re not friends now; more so acquaintances- flashing a smile when I meet them on the street, or when they come over with a signature petition for some cause- coexisting peacefully on the same street, and neighbourhood. 
The friend I used to play with became a pain-in-the-neck, obsessed with money, pubs and high-end cell phones; I haven’t heard from the second guy for over seven years. Don’t know if he’s a politician’s right-hand or a tech-geek; though, I’d prefer the latter.
Needless to say, on this particular night I wanted to avoid the noise, and all my old friends. 

I found myself in a different neighbourhood, a quieter one. I haven't been to these parts in ages. A few kids ran past me, spraying water on each other, laughing. They probably had exams the next day, but heck, like that ever stopped kids?
Their fathers and uncles were stacking dried leaves and branches on the bonfire; they could aptly be described as merry and happy. Their mothers and grandmothers, not wanting to miss out any of the fun, were outdoors too. Just the way a community is supposed to be, almost like one of those serials they air on SAB TV.
I couldn't see any political hoardings, however, which were rather conspicuous by their absence. No fancy registration-plates claiming political allegiances either. Just people who value this event, and share it with   each another and their children. 

I walked on, thinking, 'how would Prahlad feel about his bonfire being lit by some corrupt politician?' But for a moment there, I forgot that's what his father was, wasn't he? A corrupt demon-king, ultimately slayed by the forces of good?
Holi, as we wrote in essays, symbolized the victory of good over evil, and all sorts of idealistic nonsense. I think it's an excuse for people with power (and lots of money) to throw lavish gatherings...I don't visit my relatives, who'd want to ruin a good holiday? 
Those neighbours still play Holi, or maybe they don't. I haven't noticed really; guess they're all mature now and think it naive to be nostalgic. I'd agree on that. 

Call it a cliche, but times change and so do people, for the better or for worse; that's not for me to decide. They do, occasionally enjoy a game of cricket, albeit with swearing and profane references. 
Maybe, I'm too judgmental on them. Or perhaps, a tad bit cynical. 

Ah, the loud music again- 'Sheila ki jawani' this time; how appropriate. I just hope they keep to the 10 pm deadline. As if I care; I'd probably shut the windows, and watch a movie, get up late in the morning, and laze around a bit more.
I mean, who in their right minds goes out dressed on Holi?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Old times, forgotten places

Being indoors was killing me. I'm not usually an outdoorsy-adventurous kind of person; but I like my share of hiking, football, walks and travelling (more so commuting). So, after three days of studying efforts, I decided it has high time I took a little walk, nothing too fancy; just around the neighbourhood.
It's a funny world we live in. Normally, I'm a bit of a social recluse, preferring to be out when people arrive, and being in when the rest of the clan pushes off to someplace. But, while walking down the road in front of my house, I felt there was a method to my madness.

Eight-thirty in the night is not exactly a respectable time for an evening walk, especially in respectable neighbourhoods.
It was a Monday night, so as it stands to reason, most of the people were tired after a hard day's work. The houses were quiet, with the permissible TV, of course; switching between news and soap-operas. Even the strays seemed tired. Maybe, I thought, that was the mass mood; or perhaps, it was the caffeine in my system.
I took a turn and entered a cul de sac, the alley obstructed by trees and foliage, with a 50 foot drop beyond that. Thankfully, there was a streetlight.
An old man lived there, many years back; and died there too. I don't remember what his name was, but he had a dog, a ferocious one. Bingo, I think his name was. Yes, I was afraid  to cycle here; almost got bitten once. The house still existed, now consumed by dust and trees and reptiles; nature claiming what was once it’s.
Poor Bingo. I wonder what happened to that ferocious son-of-a-bitch.

The street parallel to ours had changed. A lot.
I could see at least three new buildings, one housed a coaching class; but there was a building, which is as old as I am; probably older. A constant in a changing world.
I walked further.

I had a friend who lived there once, nice chap. He lived with his grandmother and cousins, in a lovely bungalow; my mother once said it was very Goan. Yes, even I thought so.
We friends used to climb over the walls, enter the neighbouring buildings; it was our sport, a retreat. Sort of like a Quest World, you know. We used to get yelled at, barked at; once chased, too. But heck. We were kids. That's what kids were supposed to do.

Today a lavish building complex stood there, still under construction, right where the Goan bungalow once stood. Not even a coconut tree remained. So much for a Goan experience, I suppose.
Where he and his family are right now, I don't know. Until this moment, I don't think I even cared.
They're probably at a congested flat somewhere in Thane, or a MHADA colony. Or, if fortunate, a Goan bungalow somewhere in the outskirts of Bombay; I mean, further away from where I am right now.
The walls of the buildings were there where used to be. My hands itched, I could feel the cement scraping under my palms, the heavy breathing, the sweaty clothes. And the people yelling behind us. Just a little hop and a skip, that's all. No chance; the walls have been raised and now have barbed wire fences. A classic case of ''good fences make good neighbours'' I guess.
Besides, I'd probably end up spooking an old couple. Not cool.

A motorbike entered the alley, and a man disembarked. I could hear the sound of the TV from his humble chawl-like house; a 70s Amitabh Bachchan film, I think.
God, they still air those movies? And people still watch them?

He was looking at me rather suspiciously. I didn't know him; he is new around here, maybe. That's why I think he didn't know me. Oh, damn. How will he? Where do I ever socialize?
He was still suspicious. Darn, I know why: there was a spate of break-in attempts here a few weeks back. A teenager in a black shirt and jeans, unshaven: a likely suspect on a reconnaissance mission. It’s weird how they suspect good people in their neighbourhoods.
Then again, I don't quite fit the bill of a good 'neighbour' now, do I?
I quickened my pace and left for home. No point in spooking people. Last thing they (and I) want is to raise an alarm, only to discover a loner minding his business, at nine in the night. Right.

Ah, home. Dinner was ready, but I wasn't hungry. Just thought of a blog post. I entered the gate, the strays gave a warm and welcoming look, the first one in the last half hour. I latched the gates and checked the locks once again.
Good fences, after all, make good neighbours, don't they?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

All For The Gold

The sound of drum beats came as a surprise. 

The compartment was moderately full, about a dozen and a half people or more; a few standing. They, too, were a little surprised to hear the drums. When you travel in local trains for a considerable portion of your life, the sound of drums usually indicates one very certain possibility—beggars.  
And quite certainly it was one; a child. They come in various sizes, you see. This particular girl, all of 6 or 7 years, was a performer. And, yes, they come in various specializations, too; singers, dancers, performers and other kinds. 

In a swift motion, she somersaulted in the narrow passage-way; forward, then backward again. Then, twisting her arms, almost like she dislocated it (which I think, she probably did), she spun it around the entire length of her little, frail body; like a skipping rope (remember King Louis, from The Jungle Book?). If there weren't people sitting, she'd probably have done a horse bar, or parallel rings type of stunt-thingy, all in the moving train, mind you. Then of course, came the inevitable—alms. 
I honestly felt sorry for her. A girl of her age could probably put our national gymnastics team to shame, with only street-level training. And there she was, displaying her skills on a local train, begging for alms; where she could very well be India's next gold medallist.
The socio-economic disparity between two people in our country is so wide, almost like a chasm; which unfortunately secures an unjust system too. As I sat in a very comfortable first-class compartment, this realization dawned on me, like it had several times before. But this girl’s story wasn’t about missed opportunities; she obviously didn’t have any. This issue goes much deeper than that.

In the 1980s, when Mrs Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the Sports Ministry came up with the idea of tapping into these talent pools of street performers, circus gymnasts and the likes. There would be benefits for them, training and, well, better chances for India in international events. It is a known fact that several East European nations, like Romania, enroll their children, particularly girls, into gymnastic schools as soon as they learn walking. The intensive training and hard work pays off; two Gold medals in the Olympics and the family’s future would be more or less secure. 
Why did this initiative fail in India?
Come now, I think the answer actually is quite obvious. Bureaucracy.
I think it is extremely stupid that the bureaucracy has so much of a say in the field of sports. Not that I have a problem against it in other walks of life. For one, how on earth can these guys possibly think that they can run the show in sports? You see more officials on the Indian contingent than athletes. I mean, forget transparency and accountability, is it too much to ask for a little decency? 
Knowing these guys, that probably amounts to more than the entire universe. That’s why bribes suffice. And that is why only those who can pay rise to the visible level in national sporting, only to disappear because of lack of training (and in many cases, talent).

One solution is to privatize the sports sector. This is a possible option, especially after the CWG debacle, and the fact that our present athletes (not sports-persons, like cricketers and hockey players) receive pathetic training, poor allowances and no respect. 
I mean, the government would be only too happy to wash its hands off a responsibility; not that I mean this in negative sense. Skilled athletes would do the nation proud, wouldn't they? 
We, as spectators, would be happy; the young children, like the girl in the train, and their families would have a chance to be happy, and well off, while making their country proud at the same time.
What I say here is not an optimistic future that I personally envisage; this is a possibility, and this can work out. And like all problems, this requires rational thought, and most of all, political will.
Political will? I guess, now you could call me a naive optimist.

As for the bureaucrats, I'm pretty sure they'll find some other victim to fleece. Hmm, they should try making that into a sport, right? A bronze for a fraud that’s under ten lacs; silver for ten crores. And a gold for a scam above one lakh crore.

Then, I can be positive that the gold will indeed be ours.