Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Next Table

She watched him from the shadow in which she was seated. Sitting at the next table, his laugh had caused her to jerk her head up from her menu. Still the dangerously handsome man who had broken her heart and trust when he was still but a boy, and she a young girl. Across from him, his pretty bride smiled and listened attentively, coyly feeding him forkfuls of chowmein, oblivious as the girl from his past looked on.

Today, successful (and single), she had moved on. But why was it pins still pierced her when she remembered watching his retreating back through her tears?

She paid for her uneaten meal and left on her high heels. Walking a little straighter than usual. Leaving her past behind. And the man, who had been unable to meet her gaze, exhaled imperceptibly and smiled a little wider, opening his mouth for another taste of chicken.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pappu Paas Ho Gaya

(I'm sorry this is a long post but I've waited 12 years for this moment so you have to give me 10 minutes of your time!)

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a land far-ish away, I turned 18. I was living away from my parents for college and didn't have access to a car, so the buses remained my lifelines. But eventually it dawned on the family that I needed to learn to drive. I was almost 20. And the driving lessons began. At Nanda Motor Training College, Hauz Khas, New Delhi.

I learnt so much more than just the gears and steering control. I learnt that civilians call cops "mamaji". I learnt that honking was as essential as your clutch/accelerator coordination, that aggression was the name of the game. In all this, somewhere, I didn't quite get a grip on the driving part of it. Oh, I got a license of course. That was easy. I was so excited that I'd be getting one that I went and got a brand new photograph clicked. Where I beamed a little too much. But I thought I looked great, and all grown up. And couldn't wait to hand it to the license people to stick it on my brand new license.

We reached the license office at Sheikh Sarai. It was a hot June day and we hung around waiting for our tests, growing tanned and sweaty. Eventually they called me in and made me sit on a stool and I thought it was a break so I collapsed onto it only to realise that the computer facing me had a built-in camera and it took the worst photo of me. Ever. The license was valid till 2018. And I buried it in my wallet, hoping I'd never have to show it to anyone.

Soon my parents moved back to India, there was a car in the family, and I tried my hand at driving it. Oh, it was ugly. Especially when I tried reverse gear. I would screw up my face, and think, do I turn the wheel this way or that if I want to go that way? Should I scrape closer to that two-wheeler or to the big car? Should I run over the lady on my left or the man on my right? Once, as I was looking in the rearview mirror, pondering these mysteries of life, I spotted my mother cowering in the backseat, flinching at each jerk, gritting her teeth for certain death.

Then there was the famous time she and I argued over my bad driving and she got off the car and stomped off. My father and brother smirked and told me to keep trying. (We're a very supportive family.) I'd have chased her, but the engine stalled. A cacophony of horns erupted behind me and I turned the red of the L that should have been on my rear screen.

So, I learnt to be content to be driven. The years rolled by. Friends who drove were my best friends and escorts back from late evening events. I evolved a finely nuanced strategy of dealing with Delhi auto drivers, alternating between aggression and more aggression. Bus drivers and conductors on regular routes were my friends and blocked seats for me.

I had a dream. I would own an auto. I would paint it pink. Autos don't have reverse gear. You just pull it physically. I would drive it to work and back. And if money was tight, I'd charge people to drop them wherever they were going. (This never happened. None of this. It remained a dream.)

Then, I moved to Mumbai. Where the public transport is simpler than your own car. And my inability to drive got covered up by "it's so much easier to take an auto or the train". But my first monsoon in Mumbai, I was home alone with a delirious husband, no ice in the freezer, no doctor within reach and knee deep water outside. I watched as our car parked in the lane sank to the tyres. And ran down, looking frantically for a driver who would shift it. I found one and he moved the car for me.

But I couldn't believe myself. I was dependent on others for something that belonged to us. I have to learn to drive, I decided. But it wasn't so easy. Still, I kept it up. The two years in Dubai didn't help because I just didn't get around to taking driving lessons for a UAE license (which is notoriously hard to get at the first go).

But then we moved back and I signed up for driving lessons again. The SX4 is a wide car and roads here are narrow. Anando thoughtfully suggested getting me a smaller car but I stubbornly decided I would drive what he drove. And I've kept at it. First, little zips to the nearby restaurant for late dinners. Then early morning drives to the gym and back. But I knew I had to do the most important thing. Drive alone.

It was 6 am and Anando was out of town. I decided to drive alone to the gym. The building guards are used to seeing us leave with him at the wheel. I thought they looked at me suspiciously when I drove out on my own. 50 metres out and it began to pour. Oh no. I'd never driven in rain. Turn back, I told myself. But then the guards will laugh at me, I thought. So I drove on, deciding that I'd circle the neighborhood lanes for a respectable amount of time and then go home so they'd think I actually went to the gym. But then I hit the road, I worked the wipers, "gal mitthi mitthi bol" came on the radio, and I decided to go for it.

There's been no looking back. I've begun driving short distances alone, and in traffic. And today, oh, today was my Everest. I drove alone all the way to Town and drove all the way back. That's 42 kilometres in weekday traffic. When I got off the car and "beeped" it to lock, I almost wanted to take a bow. But it was 3 pm in my building complex and my audience was a bored guard listening to a cracked rendition of "pee loon" on his cellphone radio. So I came home and wrote this post instead.

And oh, in case you don't get the title of this post, watch this:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Bad Example

She's my age. A distant cousin I met just once. Known to be a pretty and smart girl.

When I was in college, worrying over tutorials and classes, entirely focused on studies like the 'good girl' I was, we heard news that she'd run away from home with a boy. The horror of it all. My parents spoke of it disapprovingly, worrying for her parents. Apparently she got married, and then came home to ask for her parents' blessings. We just heard about it in whispers, because she was A Bad Example. To me it seemed she'd done something unthinkable - defied her parents.

I often wondered about her. How their life was. If she ever regretted her actions. If his family accepted her. If they were happy.

She seemed to be. I occasionally saw chirpy messages from her on a cousin's Facebook wall. I heard that her parents eventually came around to the marriage. Especially after she'd had a son.

Her son is 12 now. And this morning I heard she lost her husband to cerebral malaria.

I don't know how her life played out. Or what her future holds. Neither did they. But sitting so far away, I'm glad she went for what she loved. Made a life happen with a man she loved. I hope that she has no regrets.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Agenda for the Day

Just two and a half centimetres of paper, gripped between my thumb and forefinger.

It's day 292 of 2010, and the bunched pages of my agenda book tell of scrawled to-dos, deadlines met, missed or extended, people I met, people I called, places I went, meetings I attended, invoices I sent, cheques I received, drycleaning dropped off, laundry delivered, tickets booked, plays attended, movies watched. They record birthdays and anniversaries, phone numbers taken down while talking, and feature the inevitable doodles - smileys, signatures, faces, flowers, patterns. I can tell what pen I was using, when the ink ran out, when I refilled. I see entries and remember entering a doctor's appointment with dread, scratching out a completed task with pleasure.

The blank pages tell of days when I was away from my desk, having fun. Thankfully, there are several of those as well. Occasional entries already made for the days to come hint at what is yet to be. Of things I am looking forward to and commitments I must keep.

It is most of 2010. It is a chronicle of my life this year. In point format, though, it leaves out many details, friends and foes, tears and triumphs. But I can fill in those blanks.

19th October 2010. My pen hovers, then writes firmly on Today, waiting to fill up this page before I start on tomorrow.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Incensed mornings

Spirals waft in my wake, weakening into wisps as I turn away or walk very fast.

The fragrance remains, locked in spaces I choose to enclose. But soon, it escapes into ether, becoming nothing but a faint recollection of a fragrance that once was, clinging only to the folds of clothes unused for long, papers untouched, books unread.

Strong, the smell-strands of lemon grass tickle my nostrils, refreshing the stale air in a room locked for the night. Lavender speaks of flowers from far, reduced to a few moments of magic, meant to soothe and calm, Sandalwood is a prayer, even in the hands of an atheist.

The scented air of freshly-bathed mornings, a scramble to get to work, the last moments of peace before the emails begin.

The stick burns down. It's soul of smoke spins up and away. And the remains of the morning lie on the floor, a pattern of ashes to be swept away.

Till tomorrow.

Monday, September 06, 2010

365 x 3

Time heals all wounds. But it cannot take away that sudden urge to dial a number still saved on the phone. To share a funny story. To seek a spot of advice. To clear a doubt. To hear a blessing. To recognise silent laughter over the airwaves. To spill all.

And I can never make an insipid adraki gobhi without wishing I'd asked for that recipe while there was still time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Media pass to watch Mahim Junction: Rs 0
Auto from home to train station: Rs 24
II class train ticket to Churchgate: Rs 6

Being the only one to realize (with horror) that I'd travelled in the first class compartment: Priceless

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Write Like

Based on this post,
I write like
J. R. R. Tolkien

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I can live with that!!!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Pouring rain is so much prettier
Than staring at a laptop screen,
It takes your mind to green places
That may be unvisited, unseen.

My mind's divided as I alternate
Between laptop and window in turn,
If I look out the window I’m rejuvenated;
If I look at the laptop I earn.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mind Your Language

This is my response to Sunayana's Red Marker Blogathon, which has been going on since the 1st of June and has lots of indignant grammar-worshippers up in arms. As I told Sue, I kept waiting to decide which was the pettest of my pet peeves but the procrastination meant that by now, all my grievances are already taken. I could have aired my complaints abt SMS styles n hw im puzzld wid d things ppl rite al d tym, but then SMSese is not a language in my book, so I won't discuss it.

Instead, I'll talk about a few mistakes that people make:
  1. "To no end": This basically means, "without any result", or "in vain", as opposed to the phrase "no end", which means, simply, "endless". "She complained no end" means the woman would not stop complaining, whereas "she complained to no end" means her complaints made no difference.

  2. "Rest assured": When you are trying to stop someone worrying, you say "rest assured, it will be done," or "don't worry, it will happen." Unfortunately, I find a lot of people saying "You can be rest assured...", forgetting that "rest" is a verb here, and you cannot "be rest", you can straightaway "rest", in an assured manner!

  3. "Few" vs "a few": "Few" means very little. One could say "The pouring rain meant that few people were out on the streets." On the other hand, "a few" means "some". To illustrate, "I met a few of my friends." but, "in my hectic schedule, I have been able to keep in touch with few friends." When I say "the suggestion for a picnic found few takers," I mean not many people were interested and that there's no picnic on the agenda, whereas "the picnic idea found a few takers," means there were some people who were interested and so, pack your hampers.

As a professional editor I'm always spotting and laughing over mistakes people make in the language. Sometimes, I even take a photo. Unfortunately, given the power English wields in India, pointing out someone's poor Hindi or Bangla is usually laughed off, whereas correcting someone's English is a more delicate matter. But over the years I've come to realise how the power of expression is of supreme importance. Few of my colleagues at the ad agency I worked at in Dubai spoke correct English. But sometimes they said things that, though grammatically dubious, were emotionally/practically spot on. Yet, they hankered after my corrections, afraid of looking foolish. I would be requested to draft leave applications, CVs, covering letters and, even the language for a wedding invitation. It reflects poorly on our world that people are judged by their English when so few have access to good English teaching. I had a teacher in class 1 who insisted that the name of the colour-changing reptile was not pronounced as "kameleon", but as "CHameleon", as in "check".

On that note, here is a gem I got from Anando, who studied at a school with a good convent-sounding name in the heart of what is now Jharkhand.

A little boy reached school late. The teacher was in the middle of the lesson. He glowered at the boy and said "Why are you late?" The boy quaked in his shoes, and said, "Sorry Sir, I was stuck in a jam." The teacher fumed and corrected the boy: "Jam is what you put on your bread. Jaaam is what you get stuck in."

But wrong Hindi (or any other language can definitely get you into trouble). A relative, who speaks poor Hindi, lost his ring. Requesting the maid to look for it when she swept the house, he said (to her horror), "Mera angootha kho gaya hai." (Angoothi means "a ring" and angootha is "thumb").

Although this relative found his "angootha", I shudder to think what happened to the sweet Bengali gentleman who, seeing a young girl getting soaked in the rain while he stood dry under his umbrella at the bus-stop, offered, "Meri chhati mein aa jao."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Last light

He was miserable all day, overshadowed and forgotten. He tried to be seen. To remind people he existed.

He peeked from the left, but they blocked him from view. He tried to peep from the right, but they were on to him. They stood everywhere. Strong and opaque.
Still, as the day wore on, they grew complacent. His time was up, after all. But then, just as he went out, he smiled one last time. And this time, nothing could hide the fire he had within.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

In Today's News

Two pieces in today's Business Standard. I have been trying to write as much as possible this year. The blog's getting neglected as a result - I have Suku's tag to do and Sunayana's Blogathon to write for. But both will happen.

Meanwhile, please read these. For both, there was a 500-word limit, but my thoughts run deeper (and longer) than that!

Watching Shakespeare's bloodiest play: After studying Macbeth in school and in college, I finally got to see it staged at The Globe. I was mouthing some of the dialogues along with the actors and it was a memorable experience.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I spy, with my little eye...

Ever since I moved to Bombay I keep complaining that I never spot any of the stars who are supposed to be all over the city. Not for me casually running into film stars at Joggers' Park or walking past them in the market. I've had people visit for a week and meet Dimple Kapadia at the airport. Someone else saw Hema Malini. Someone else was late boarding a flight and was put on the last small van to the aircraft with...Shahrukh Khan. And I know, that guy who dumps his father at 2nd Innings House in Lage Raho Munnabhai...and then doesn't regret it till Munna hangs him by the ankles from his office window....yeah, that guy. Sheesh!!

So many months of whining later, I feel like I totally got my due when I had, 2 tables away from me, Helen and Salim Khan. As I was leaving, I smiled at her. And she half-smiled back. The vamp Helen. The sizzling siren. The one who writhes around Amitabh in Don, and who's always Chin chin choo to me. And with her, Salim Khan, half of the Sholay magic story.

I'll stop complaining now. Besides, Karishma Kapoor walked into Costa Coffee that day and stood around for ages. And I was totally cool about it. I think I'm finally a Mumbaikar now.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bollywood Backstage

This was published in today's Business Standard. The slightly longer version appears below.

The mirror betrays its age. Faint brown veins spider against the glass, lending one’s reflection a sinister appearance. The bulb-holders around the mirror are missing several bulbs, giving it a gap-toothed appearance. I imagine all bulbs in place, lighting up as the late Nargis preens at this mirror, pinning up her hair stylishly to one side, framing that sharp profile in readiness for her next scene. Down these corridors, with the unpleasantly green paint now peeling off in patches, down these worn stairs, the wood now concave where most feet have stepped, she would have gracefully gone, into the spotlight and into cinematic history.

Once the fiefdom of the man who gave India classic cinema like Andaz (1949), Aan (1951), and of course the internationally acclaimed Mother India (1957), Mehboob Studios is today a historic, verdant alcove eclipsed by the shops around it. Well actually, at 4 acres of prime property in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, it’s a bit more than an alcove. And with the who’s who of Bollywood zipping up and down its bumpy driveway in their hot wheels, it’s the hub of much that’s going on in the Hindi film industry. As I enter, a silver Mercedes rolled in, which may or may not be carrying Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan behind its tinted glass.

With so much glamour breathing through its walls, I expect a building that lived up to the gloss of Bollywood. Something shiny and well maintained. But I am met with a solid, school-building-like structure, mundane windows stained with bird-droppings, a simple entrance, and a wood-paneled notice board (announcing, among other things, a salary hike back in 2008, for head carpenters to now receive Rs 902 as wages, up from the previous Rs 801) much like we had in college. The digital clock looks out of place above it, like the afterthought it probably is.

A huge hall, known as “stage” or “floor” by those in the trade, is bare save two large, ancient pedestal fans. One cools down a laborer, whose yellowing vest sticks to his skin as he takes a break from sorting the planks that will form a set for the next shoot. I park myself in front of the other as I look around. This one, stage no. 3, is the largest, at 122 by 115 feet, and a ceiling 55 feet off the ground. I crane my neck to peer to the top. Makeshift corridors fashioned from wooden planks form the grid from which lighting will be set up and adjusted. The language here is unique, I’ve heard. On an earlier visit, I was laughingly told by film-maker Anuradha Tandon, ‘You know, “Baby ka mundi kaatke upar latka de,” which suggests beheading a child and hanging it from the ceiling, actually means taking a small spotlight (baby), covering it up to minimize the light it throws, and suspending it from above!

Padmashree Mehboob Khan’s velvet-upholstered office too is untouched. The walls contain awards and commendations, including the Nomination Certificate for Mother India at the Oscars. A framed letter dated 30th October 1952, from Cecil B. deMille, President of the Paramount Pictures Corporation, compliments Khan on Aan and says it reveals the “tremendous potential of Indian motion pictures for securing world markets.” Prophetic words.

Up on the second floor of the office building, large offices contain the skeletal 18–20 staff members of the Studios. Cardboard file covers try their best to contain bulging sheafs of papers, with labels like “TDS Challans & Certificates”. Piled to the ceiling are bundles of scripts, posters, trade magazines and paperwork. Plastic cans teeter all the way to the top, each containing negatives for memorable names like Anmol Ghadi, Najma, Anokhi Ada and others. The can colors, once bright, are now fading, just like the studio itself. “Can you ever locate anything?” I ask, taken aback at the carelessness with which these are kept. Rajendra, the Bookings Manager, shrugs and says casually “Haan, mil jata hai.” He tentatively picks up a bundle of magazines, seemingly for the first time, and disinterestedly remarks, “These are all old trade magazines, you know, that keep coming.” Huge, handmade posters of the same movies lie folded in half, yellowing along the crease. What about Mumbai’s humidity and natural wear and tear for these papers? He shrugs again. Later, in the study of Iqbal Khan, Managing Director of Mehboob Studios and son of the late Mehboob Khan, I ask the same question and am shown a pink stationery file of clippings from UK newspapers of the 1950s reporting the release and success of Aan in London. “These are fine,” he insists, “and so are the others.” Unconvinced, I let it go.

Obviously, the past is on its own here. It is the present that matters. With 80 percent bookings, the studio is in demand, though it’s not all Bollywood. “Ads make up three-sevenths of our revenue,” cites Khan. And suddenly he turns the tables on me, asking, “What percentage is that?” Stumped, I grope in my head, dividing 3 by 7, that’s errr, ummm, “42 percent,” he says complacently. “In fact, the music recording studio is now just another stage, where we shoot commercials. We couldn’t afford to modernize the equipment; the Klang Bauer machine was outdated. So, rather than spending 5-8 crores upgrading our studio, we have just stopped music recordings here. Producers can rent the room for their ad-film shoots.” That hall where orchestras lovingly recorded memorable music, most often composed by the lively Laxmikant-Pyarelal, that would have India swaying on its feet is now the mute set for here-today-gone-tomorrow commercials.

But Iqbal Khan has had to be practical to keep the studio going. When his sons inherited the studio after Mehboob Khan’s death in 1964, they also inherited a 5-lakh mortgage on the property, a debt of 28 lakhs, and a court battle with their stepmother. Renting out studio space was the only option. In those days of desperation, truant producers who tried to get away without paying rent found that their film’s negatives were held ransom by Khan till they coughed up the money due to him. “My father built this up from nothing,” Khan confesses, “with Aan, he captured world attention. Though Awaaz and Paisa hi Paisa failed, he made up for it with Mother India but then he destroyed it all with Son of India.” Mehboob Khan had been a stubborn director and producer, and built Mehboob Studios in his own name to serve as the staging ground for his cinematic vision. His legacy survives, some of it half-built, including a brick structure he began constructing for a “must-have” helicopter shot. He died before that, and no one saw any point completing the building. Doesn’t Khan want to construct something else to utilize the space? “No,” the old gentleman responds firmly. “I don’t need the space, so why spend money on it?”

Asked about improvements and renovations, he is non-committal. I suspect there isn’t much on the cards unless it is deemed essential. And indeed, why should they bother? Mehboob Studios is doing fine. Though small-budget producers prefer low-cost shoots elsewhere and the Chopras and Johars wing away to foreign lands, a steady stream of producers films here. For the forthcoming Hrithik and Aishwarya-starrer Guzarish, producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali booked one floor for seven months straight. At rental rates of roughly Rs 65,000 per shift of nine hours, this was a welcome booking. Iqbal Khan invests in no marketing, promotion or publicity. He prefers to let word-of-mouth guide producers to his gates. A new source of revenue has emerged - renting out the studio as a venue for exhibitions and events. Iqbal Khan is pleased as it takes care of overheads worth nearly 5 lakhs per month. “We make profits,” he states modestly.

If the clients are happy, I can hardly complain. In its out-of-shape realness, Mehboob Studios carries on. The Bookings Manager is endlessly on the phone, talking business, as he shows me around. Perhaps these barely-maintained surroundings – masked, wrapped and decorated to create glitzy images that hold millions spellbound – actually help keep the stars grounded, right here on earth with the rest of us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reliving 20 months in 3 days

So I'm going back for a weekend. Will things look the same, I wonder?

So much has changed in Dubai. Someone else must be enjoying the view from our 31st-floor apartment. There must be new restaurants open on The JBR Walk, which we treated as our backyard. More routes will be operational on the Metro. The Burj Dubai we craned up at is now open, and called Burj Khalifa. The company I worked for has collapsed, gone the same way as many small companies in the recession-hit Emirate. The team has scattered.

Yet, some things will be the same. It will be soothing to rediscover that comfortable nook on Gauri's sofa, and to park ourselves on the carpet as we dig into tempting snacks placed on Aditi di's centre-table. Will Irish Village still have the smiling, plump waitress with the cute accent?Possibly the guy who weighed in my vegetables at Al Maya will still be there. Zarine, who blow-dried my hair on occasion and spent 2 years convincing me to cut my hair will still be there, saving up for her kids in Pakistan. Ita will still be working at Pelle Capelli, dreaming of her next trip home to Bali.

Strangely, while I am so sentimental about the past, it's mostly just a nostalgic sweetness rather than a yearning to go back. I am happy to keep it that way. So while Dubai was great, Bombay (part II) has been perfection too. And the last 6 months have flown. So much so that it feels too soon to revisit Dubai. But before my visa gets cancelled, I want to go, put my feet up with friends, laugh, stroll around familiar spaces, and maybe visit some new ones. More updates when I return.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Battle Scar

He's a sinewy, macho dude. V-shaped body. Heavy-duty sneakers. Gelled-back hair. A powerful neck emerges out of a form-hugging T-shirt. A gold chain nestles near the collar, revealing that his name starts with 'U'. Stands straight. Like he's always on stand-by to spring into action. Speaks little. Effortlessly lifts weights as he trains out-of-shape gym-goers to sculpt their muscles. Secretly smirks when I collapse under heavy weights.

He spoke about his recent accident. A long story involving him, a motorbike, and some sort of obstacle. The bike fell. So did he. He was hurt. But he made it.

In response to widened eyes and a little sympathy, he pulled his tight T-shirt sleeve over a bicep bulge to reveal his wound. There it was. All one square centimetre of it. Covered with a slim band-aid.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sweet Impulse

Picking your way through the traffic-ridden streets of Bandra around 7 pm on a weekday evening is an exercise in attempted suicide. So when you have traversed a particularly crowded bit of pavement, logic dictates that you carry on.

But, sometimes, when the feet have moved on, the nostrils stay behind, drawing the body back, telling the mind in a hot, sweet, sticky whisper....'jalebis'.

You peer at the kadhai where he's frying them - the oil so hot it ripples like water, and golden circles form like magic as he spins, rotates and dances his hand high above. All is lost. Especially self-control.

And, armed with a packet that has the sweetness oozing out of every pore, clutched on with slightly sticky make your way home and blog about it.

But of course, you eat the entire packet first.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shortcut Surprise

I was headed home, cutting through a lane off Linking Road after buying a gift for some friends. And I stumbled across a book sale. I have written about me and book fairs before, but it was a pleasurable enough surprise to warrant a blog post.

The books (many of them second-hand) were arranged on long tables, and these occupied a long driveway of some sort of a school building. As I browsed through the rows of books, the school bell tolled the end of the day, and an army of extremely noisy, hyperactive children came rushing past, playing catch in the aisles and switching rows by ducking under the rickety tables. One minute a mischievous face peeped past a dusty stack of Archie comics, the other minute it was popping up near Deepak Chopra's tomes of self-knowledge. A terror of a man hollered at them till they all cleared out and I was left to look around in peace.

While I love books, I usually prefer to buy books I have already read that I love and want to own. I don't often buy books on the chance that I'll like them. (A recent exception - and a gamble that paid off - was Aseem Kaul's Etudes.)

Searching through books on sale is always such a thrill. They're not really arranged according to a system or a logic. If you're lucky you'll find all books by one author in one place. The excitement lies in running your eyes randomly over piles and thinking - the next book I spot will be something I've been looking for in a long time - and when it is, well, I wouldn't exchange that feeling for much! It's like striking gold!

Since I didn't have too much cash (they don't accept cards), I narrowed my "chosen" pile down to a copy of The Kite Runner (the pirated version was for 195 and the genuine one for 200! - I checked carefully and then bought the original) and, a childhood favorite - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the version with the crazy illustrations by Quentin Blake (who's done all of Roald Dahl's books). Yay. I walked away with the two books clutched in my hand, my fingertips a bit grimy after picking up and putting down so many old books, and the bargain-seeker in me very satisfied.

For those of you in Bandra, drop in at the sale. It's on till mid-March, and the hall is in the lane that connects Linking Road and Waterfield Road, opposite Amarsons.

Who Decides What's Right?

Published on Sunday, 14 February 2010 in the newspaper Business Standard.

Born as a rebellion against indirect censorship of documentary cinema, today Vikalp is a platform for free speech and creative expression

“Censorship is neither possible nor desirable,” asserts Dr Jayasankar, Professor, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a founder-member of Vikalp. He cites the famous example of the blank editorial in the Indian Express during the Emergency as the perfect act of silent defiance. “Who decides what’s right? It’s the idea of a less powerful ‘other’, one that cannot handle the truth, that is problematic,” he explains.

It was precisely to give this “less powerful ‘other’” the freedom to choose what it watched, that Vikalp was born. The Campaign Against Censorship – a group of Indian film-makers committed to freedom of expression, reacted strongly when the Censor Board inserted a certification clause just for Indian entries in 2004’s Mumbai International Film Festival. Angry protests forced the authorities to withdraw the clause, but the censorship remained – film-makers soon realized that the selection committee rejected the politically sensitive, controversial films anyway, despite the fact that many of these had travelled to foreign festivals and won awards and appreciation. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (dealing with Gujarat’s communal massacres after Godhra in 2002), Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water (which explores the struggle over the Narmada dam), and Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar’s Naata (about two men working for conflict resolution in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum) were among the rejected films.

A constructive protest

Vikalp: Films for Freedom, began as a six-day festival that screened the rejected films and some more, as film-makers withdrew even their selected entries from MIFF, preferring to screen them at Vikalp instead. “We received a lot of threats to stop us from screening the films,” recalls Dr Anjali Monteiro, another founder-member. She continues, “What was interesting was that even some of the MIFF jury members came to watch the movies we were screening!”

“Vikalp means ‘an alternative’,” says Anand Patwardhan, renowned documentary film-maker (Bombay our City, Father, Son and Holy War, Prisoners of Conscience, Ram ke Naam) who suggested the name. Screening all the rejected films just across the road from MIFF, Vikalp truly became an alternative space for those six days. Today, six years later, what is the organization doing?

“It is not an organization; it is a movement,” clarifies Patwardhan. This loose-knit collective, functioning over e-mails and Yahoogroups has given audiences access to documentary films in India. The movies screened may or may not be controversial. The last year saw screenings of, among others, Lightning Testimonies, Amar Kanwar’s film capturing women’s narratives of sexual violence; The Other Song, Saba Dewan’s exploration of the world of the tawaif; Kora Rajee directed by Biju Toppo of Jharkhand looked at issues of adivasi labourers and displacement; Kurush Canteenwalla’s Goa Goa Gone portrays the impact of mining – Goa’s second-largest industry – on the lives of people. Suma Josson touches on the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region in I Want My Father Back. Vikalp has also brought to the screen foreign documentary films, such as Iranian film-maker Nahid Sarvestani’s The Queen and I, an autobiographical account of Nahid’s interactions with the wife of the Shah of Iran.

Encouraging debate

Today one can easily disseminate films over the web – so is Vikalp’s role really crucial anymore? Attend a screening and you would know it is. Vikalp’s USP lies in the opportunity and space it creates for discussion. The film-maker is almost always present, encouraging and answering questions after the screening. The latest session (in January) screened Anand Patwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience, in which political prisoners of the Emergency narrate their experiences. “Unfortunately, these things still happen,” says the film-maker, which means that an entirely new generation could relate to a film made over three decades ago, resulting in a heated post-screening discussion.

Victoire Guena, Cultural Coordinator at Alliance Francaise, Mumbai, where most screenings take place, says that the 72-seater hall is usually packed for Vikalp screenings, with people spilling over on to the carpets as well. “We welcome people to Alliance to view these movies and are happy to provide a space for this freedom of expression,” says Guena. What does this mean? That there are more people walking the streets of India whose minds have been opened to things they may not have seen and views they may not have heard.

Jayasankar puts it succinctly: “We are all taught to read and write. But we need to be taught to read images.” How true. As we interrogate, as we learn to apply ourselves and infer truths from the images we see on the screen, we are the more powerful “others”, not the “volatile” communities reacting to speeches and books and films on their face value, but digging deeper and making informed decisions. That is the only way to take a stand. After all, that’s how it all began.

Vikalp organises screenings of documentary films across Mumbai. Entry is always free. The next screenings are:

To know more about Vikalp, join the Facebook group Vikalp@Prithvi, or follow the local newspaper and Time Out magazine.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New look

Makeovers don't come easy to me. My friends have been trying to convince me to get a certain haircut since 1996. It took me three years to muster up the courage to get my second ear-piercing done.

No wonder then, that this blog with the banner (see below) had looked the same for over 2 years now.

But when you've just shifted countries and set up home all over again, it hits you that change can be good too. And that things can always look better. So here's my new virtual home - how do you like it?

And below is my new home - (and my mother) - caught in a lamp-lit moment.

So now you know what it looks like where I home and in cyberspace. Should I get the haircut too?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Real Life

A peaceful day. Tranquil, easygoing, slow, relaxed. Beautiful weather. Seaside at sunset. Brisk walking. Bumping into friends. Strolling home. Music of choice. A bright kitchen. A successful attempt at a made-up recipe. A good dinner.

And then to switch on the TV and hear about Pune. This is our life. Reminds me of the soap bubbles children were blowing by the sea this evening.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In Her Own Image

A good friend helped with some valuable contacts, and I got a chance to interview Shabana Azmi after watching her perform her latest play, Broken Images. Business Standard published it last Sunday. I'm pasting the piece here as well. But first, some things I wanted to say but didn't add to what I submitted for publication.

First things first, I should never have tried to interview her immediately after the performance. Reasons:
  • She was swamped by well-wishers right after. I flattened myself against a pillar as Dia Mirza, Mandira Bedi, Prem Chopra, Divya Dutta and other familiar faces rushed to congratulate her.
  • Watching her enact her role to near perfection was intimidating, and I felt that all my questions (if I remembered them) would sound silly and completely not worth her time.
  • My mind wandered during the play because I kept thinking I'd forget my questions.
  • She eventually said she didn't have time for the interview. Would I mail her the questions instead?
So I did, and in my naivete I actually took down her email address and asked, "You will reply, won't you?" Maybe that's what did it. Because between 10.30 pm when I mailed her my questions, and 8 am the next day, she'd sent in her answers, typing on her Blackberry. Read on below to know how I put them all together.

An actor of her caliber can’t be confined to one role. And Broken Images doesn’t try. In less than an hour of stage time, Shabana Azmi bewilders and stuns with many shades to her stage persona: good, bad, shrewd, cunning, lying, vulnerable, pitiable, helpless and neglected. It’s only a human urge, when watching a story unfold, to find one person on whom to pin our sympathies. While I’m still trying to decide who I should feel for in this play, Shabana says, “The best feedback I got for this role was that the audience can’t make up their minds who the victim is and who the victimizer. I am pleased with that because Girish (Karnad) has built in enough ambiguity to make it a shifting equation.” Ah. So we are not meant to decide. I may as well just go with the flow as I watch acting so spontaneous it seems effortless and natural.

But this spontaneity didn’t come easy. Shabana, who has also acted in international productions at London’s National Theatre and the Singapore Repertory Theatre, observes, “The rehearsal period abroad is from 9 am to 5pm daily. So you get a lot of time to explore, to add and to reject. Here, we rehearsed off and on for about three months, just about two hours in the evenings because we are involved in professions other than theatre. It’s a huge pity that you cannot make a living from theatre in India.”

Arundhati Nag, Padma Shri recipient for 2010, played the protagonist in the Kannada and Hindi versions of the play. Shabana admits that watching her made it easier to play the Image in one single take. The unusual thing in the execution of Broken Images is the presence of the “Image”, a recorded version of herself seen on a large TV screen on stage, opposite which Shabana acts. Usually actors watch their recorded performances to rate their performances by their own, exacting standards. So was it not hard, not to mention distracting, to act with and react to herself? Here, she acknowledges that her sister-in-law, Tanvi Azmi was invaluable. “A very fine actor, Tanvi played both parts during my rehearsals, so that when I actually had to act ‘opposite’ myself, I knew what to expect. And frankly, I find the Image completely different from anything I have done so far, so she surprised even me!” All that preparation paid off, and the shoot, for which they had budgeted two days, was done in a single take of 44 minutes! “Had I gone wrong in the 43rd minute, we’d have had to do the whole take again,” Shabana points out. Not the sort of tension many would handle with such élan.

But then, Azmi thrives on this very tension. Theatre is about being ready for the unexpected as there isn’t the luxury of a retake, “so the odds against you are higher,” she says simply. “But once you are out there, it is direct contact between you and the audience; you need to strike a very fine balance so you can play with the audience without playing to the gallery.” Of course, being in front of a camera is no easier, she observes, “where the close-up shot can betray fake emotion to even the least discerning viewer. So I think for an actor it’s enriching to work in both mediums.”

Since she has mentioned these mediums, I draw Shabana away from the play in question, asking about cinema and theatre in the larger context. The Padma Shri awards have just been announced; there are 20 awardees in the Arts category for 2010 while just 10 years back there were only seven awardees. Does this indicate a growing recognition of the arts’ contribution towards change in society? Shabana agrees, “About time, don’t you think? All art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur.”

If art can do all this, I am further tempted to ask my next question: there has been a burst of interest in Islam in the last decade and everyone wants to understand and depict their perception of Islam – its followers, its philosophy and its misuse by extremists. Can Indian film and theatre really contribute towards this understanding? “There have been attempts by film, though theatre, I am not so sure,” she muses. “To handle a subject as complex as this you need an in-depth understanding of the issue. It works in Khuda Kay Liye, which was technically weak but well written. Firaaq was a sensitive film that managed to stir you without manipulating you. But if the film just uses the issue as a peg on which to hang a routine story, it ends up doing more damage than good.”

Given that Shabana is one of those who firmly believe in doing good, she has worked to help slum dwellers over the last 25 years. As leader of the Nivara Hakk movement, Shabana ensured that 12,000 homes were built, free of cost for slum-dwellers evicted from Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This, the single-largest rehabilitation project in Asia, is a matter of pride for Shabana. “But it is not even a drop in the ocean in the larger scheme of things,” she confesses, realist to the core. It helped to be an MP in the Rajya Sabha (1993–2007), so that she could influence policy for the powerless, but she continues her work even now. “My father said to me, ‘When you are working for change you should build into that expectation that it may not occur within your lifetime. But if you carry on regardless, one day the change will come.’ And that is my mantra for life.”



Written by Girish Karnad

Directed by Alyque Padamsee

Produced by Raell Padamsee

Cast: Shabana Azmi

Running time approximately 55 minutes

The play opens with Manjula Sharma, a college teacher and extraordinarily successful first-time English novelist, seated in a television studio and telling us about the storm her success has generated. Coolly, she refutes allegations of being a money-grabbing, opportunistic writer who betrayed her first language, Hindi, to write in English. The tension between the glamour of English literature and the step-sisterly treatment of Hindi language novelists is finely nuanced and brought forth by a now defensive, now offensive Manjula, as she flaunts the huge publishing advance and the unexpected fame she has received. Inordinately pleased for having smoothly hit out at her critics on television, Manjula prepares to leave the studio. That is when the live TV screen flickers to life again, an Image of Manjula staring out from it as it engages the author in conversation. Thus begins a riveting dialogue, eliciting truths as it goes along, that eventually strips Manjula down to a reality she has always known and denied.

The confessions the Image extracts from Manjula through simple but incisive questions reveal much about the complexities of human relationships, the love-hate bond between siblings, the significance of intellectual companionship in a marriage, and the irreversible consequences of a lie told so often, it becomes the truth, even to the one who utters it. When we create an Image of ourselves for the outside world, we run the risk of the Image dominating over our sense of self, and that is what Broken Images brings out – not in a soft and subtle way but with the brutality of a reflection that tells the truth and will not be silenced.

Along on stage throughout, Shabana Azmi is not so much an actor as she is Manjula herself: Torn, self-interrogating, and devastated as she gives voice to the truth she has subconsciously been aware of all along. More than watching a performance the audience witnesses the many protective layers around a celebrity peel away till she stands exposed, for our pity and our judgment.

The TV screen on stage has its own significance. To quote Girish Karnad, the playwright, “New technologies whisper to us in shimmering figures, seduce us with moving lines, colors and luminosities. Softwares speaking through microprocessors mould our tastes, question our judgments, persuade us to take their messages as our own, so that simulation furnishes us with copies more real than normal reality.” And so this play turns reality on its head, blurring the line between good and bad, selfish and selfless, lies and truth, and the self and the other, making it all seem one. The play is, in director Alyque Padamsee’s words, “A masterpiece about self-delusion and phantom images.”

For fans of Shabana Azmi the stage actor, don’t watch this play expecting anything like Tumhari Amrita or Kaifi aur Main. But do watch it if you want to witness an engrossing performance about the darkness within us all as the dark of the theatre surrounds you.

Upcoming shows of Broken Images:


  • Sunday, 7 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Saturday , 20 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Sunday, 28 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai


  • Thursday, 11 February, Hyderabad International Convention Centre

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Goddess of Learning

A sincerely sung vandana rewarded with a motichoor laddoo at school. Yellow clothes. Wishful, wistful genda phool stolen from Saraswati's white feet and tucked into the Maths textbook. The advent of final exams and this big chance to seek divine intervention.

My textbooks today? My computer. The Chicago Manual of Style. The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary. The window near my desk. The rusting piece of lettuce in my fridge. E-mails from my parents. Marriage. And my reflection.

Here's a virtual genda phool for all of them. May reality always be as multi-layered and may it always look just this pretty. And may it be a capsule for memories when it dries up and grows old.