Category Archives: India

More Mail for Obamaji

Dear Mister Doctor President Obama,

I hear you have been receiving letters from India via your own esteemed country’s publications. This is the hegemony of the west at play, and you can yourself see how popular it is.

But you will also note that it is full of wrong information. But then, what else can you expect from these parochialists? It is good you made a federation in your country, and not just because it earned you the definitive article before the name. Now we in India are also asking – why are we not ‘The’ India. One day these parochialists will win, but I am writing to ask you not to support them. All this talk of God’s own country will only create divisions between states.

What will you do with elephants on beaches anyway? You have your own jumbo jet and you are bringing your own ‘Beast’ to India, no? Good. It is always better to travel with one’s own things. My uncle always told me to carry my own towel and pack it placed neatly on top of everything in the suitcase. This way when they ask you to open it at customs, there will be a neat ‘lajja vastra’ on top of all your other astra-vastras. Then, you can manage, you know. What is lajja you ask? Shame, shame it is. Shame garment we have here and everyone who can make shame wears it. We are like that only.

First you will be asking why I am calling you Doctor when you are a doctor of law and not medicine, or economics, or other such subjects. This is because we respect education very much in our country. Thousands of regulations we have to give promotion and work, but we call all professor. Respect is there, first. Then we don’t bother about anything else. Here we do degrees also fast fast. We are a nation in a hurry – so many people you know. If they don’t get degrees fast then where will they go?

I am rambling, this is I think is your goodness – you are very easy to talk to. Other presidents and all are not like that always. They have to get used to their own importance first maybe. One day they will learn, or you teach them. So many lessons your country has taught the world. Best to be like you only, then it becomes easy for y’all. That is how we say it, no? Y’all. Love Y’all. Most respectful distance be maintained in love shove and y’all.

One thing I wanted to tell you before you came visiting here and that is only why I am writing all this pretty stuff before. We have to be friends first no, otherwise how will you listen to me? No no, I have no packets for you to deliver, and I don’t want chocolates – we have our own very good halwa here and even if you think that Halwa is something that Turkey and all those countries do – let me tell you, our halwa is very different. It doesn’t have the stickiness of that other stuff, and it is – you know what I mean – lighter. Home made. Imports are trying to be coming, but they are too tough. There is no ‘one halwa to rule them all’ nonsense here in India. One village has one potato dish, next village – same potato, different dish. All a mixture of things we are, so we manage. Fully diversified portfolio. When one thing goes wrong something else saves us. Something always goes wrong somewhere – but why talk of bad bad things. Let us talk of happy and auspicious things and then only that will be our story.

So that one thing – now listen carefully. When you come here, make sure of this okay. I am saying it like best friend. Don’t buy anything imported here. That is where everything goes wrong. All sorts of wine shine and other indian made foreign things are made here only. Or will be one day. We make everything you want, so no outside stuffs ok? And prices, baap re! It is cheaper to go to other countries and buy things there only. Here, make sure you buy local only. Better for climate change also and really if you know where to shop, you can get everything here. Our cheese may be monotonous and the wine still a bit acidic – but ma, why you want that when you have chhole bhature and kaju barfi!

I know they are planning fancy dinners for you but here is the thing. (Okay, this is another thing). Food in Delhi and North India is the best in the world! Don’t go by all the over-engineered curries you have had anywhere – they are all wannabes. Pretentious frauds will be there everywhere. Don’t worry about Delhi Belly – that is all an urban myth put out by our enemies – you know them well, why to ask now. We have the best lassi and chhacch and you will have no problem with your stomach if you follow ancient rules. Now you ask your people to get you a hot fresh tandoori roti, some melt in the mouth kebabs, some phirni and other good stuff and you and family fully enjoy. That is why we are best. We put enjoy into everything. You come visit, and our whole family will enjoy together.

So Obamabhai, (bhai is brother – and if you are not brother then it would be oh-so-inappropriate to talk so freely to you), do what I say, come and visit and enjoy. Also, remember it is fully traditional that if you (and now we are modern so we allow all this) visit your sister’s home, but surely you must bring gifts that will bring honour upon you and your sister’s name.

Your loving sister, and with helloji to Michelle bhabhi and love to all in the family…we are all waiting eagerly to welcome you all. After all, all visits give pleasure – both in the coming and going.

(And that other fellow and his letter? Here it is – if you missed the very fantastic Sidin’s satire
It was so good, I could not resist joining the fun)

Caste and the Kitchen

We all grew up knowing what caste was, though for people like me who grew up on a campus – neither religion nor caste entered our reality. As children all of us played together, equally cruel and kind regardless of where we came from. Caste was a question that came from the outside – and as a child one notices the smallest, silliest things – the persons who came to clean the toilets were the only ones who had their trousers rolled up. Men came to clean toilets – even now I have hired a man to clean the toilets. (He does make tea too if all the other help is away and I am working or unwell – that is because it is his regular job – he is a tea seller). Even now I do not know the caste, or even religion of the help who cooks, cleans the house, looks after me and my family. Well, maybe religion – I know it makes no sense to call the plumber or electrician between noon and 4pm – they will be at prayers they say and I realise they are muslim and it is how they arrange their working lives. Sometimes I wonder if I am discriminating when I call another professional at that time – or am I respecting the professional terms they have laid down. Their shop, their call.

I did say that this piece would be politically incorrect. By my standards it already is – and I’m digging deeper. But before I do – a caveat. Some of these are things one hears, receives, processes and discards. Some remain as troubling thoughts. Some – just an acknowledgement of a reality that must be changed.

So I begin:

We heard of caste first in civics and history textbooks when we read about ‘harijans’ and Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against untouchability. Yes, we led a sheltered life. Like Siddhartha, one started looking around then, and watched and learned. I learned that we were sheltered from injustice. In our lives people from all castes cooked for us, sat next to us on the train or bus and came to school with us. This was not so everywhere. Some would receive left over food, while the food given to the priest’s wife when she came for her fortnightly collection was fresh, often uncooked. Across houses that one visited, the priest and his wife collected food and money, had the first fruit of the season sent to them and for that privilege their feet were touched and blessings received. Left over food first went to the maid, and if it was something she wouldn’t take, then it went to the sweeper on the street or the lady who came to wash the toilets. If the rotis were too dry, they went to the cow. One wondered if the street sweeper who also cleaned the toilets was tougher and hardier than others – they must have superior digestion surely to be able to deal with food that we could not handle.

Of course I asked, everywhere – and was told how lucky the sweepers these days were – we had plumbing. So much more progressive than the times when they had to go from house to house collecting poop. Of course this was icky and seen as something they could never wash off – how can one wash off a smell, an aura that sticks to you? How can one wash off a belief, a fear, a prejudice? Of course cow poop was okay – you could cook with it once it was dried on sunny walls – the cook’s fingerprints still visible on each round. It was a confusing world. The person who pooped, and presumably washed off could also cook – there was a secret formula here that needed to be figured out.

It took me years to try to figure out this magic formula. Movies helped. Watching rich friends helped. The ‘old’ families always had a cook, often hereditary. And the cook was almost always called ‘Maharaj’. For a while, till I learnt Hindi properly – I wondered if ‘raj’ was one of those words that had two meanings – king and cook. Didn’t seem likely. But this maharaj was obviously a job, a role – not quite a caste. Caste? I started looking carefully, and sure, most of them had the little ponytail that marks brahmins. The boddi or chutiya as punjabis said. I asked a friend’s grandmother why all the traditional cooks were brahmins, why not others? Of course by then things had changed, and our households had eaten food cooked by many. Her answer was simple – brahmins were trained to be clean. (I baulked, but I was just listening, and now I’m just relating. And trying to understand what/how other ppl think)

That simple. Skills.

It’s not really about the caste. It is about the assumption of skills. That’s where we are stuck.

People still believe that these are stuck in time and still think that castes represent certain skill sets, rules, disciplines. Some niggly feeling that the problem may lie here.

I thought about what the grandma had told me, and to my young mind it made much sense that cleanliness and kitchen skills were required in the kitchen.
Our textbooks told us about four varnas or castes. (Yes, we have more nuance in the discussion now, manthan ahead) They had roles, we were told – brahmins worked with knowledge, Kshatriyas with weapons, Vaish with money and the Shudras with all the yucky stuff. (I wondered where the farmers went if 70% of India lived in the villages? The broad classification left one puzzled – where do the postmen fit? And doctors?) I think we were taught less about the systemic classification of professions and more about how one accepts it as traditional. It is what was.

And each of them had rules. The brahmins, the custodians of the intellectual property, the teachers of the generations were prepared and disciplined to live longer. (Of course, this was my child like logic making it up, trying to parse what the friend’s grandma had said). Their food cooked a certain way, the levels of hygiene they exercised much higher than others. Their task was to avoid contact, contamination and therefore illness. They held knowledge and they had to pass it on, to do everything they could to pass it on. The Khshatriyas were charged with security – they had no such constraints. On the contrary, they were charged with passion, gusto, bravery. Were their rules, their festivals different? Did they have different festivals? Did they celebrate them differently? At a recent wedding I was reminded that even today a groom takes a little sword from the bride’s parents and returns it to them after the wedding – after their girl has been troth to him. A simulation of a kidnapping or an enactment of a (strange) act of valour perhaps. The costume certainly includes a sword even in these times. The business people were charged with prosperity – their rules included glorifying consumption, and the demonstration of joys of consumption.

The Shudras had fewer rules, we were told. They did not know how to ‘do it right’ so one could not bring them into the house. Did they know that leather was not allowed into the kitchen, that milk and meat were not to be touched with the same hands unless washed and purified in between? Did they know how to segregate and keep away from contamination and contagion? It wasn’t clean, they were not clean – the handed down urban legends said. Does this still get told in some places? I am sure it does. The segregation of the ‘unclean’ continues, sadly. Do refer to the NCAER survey that started off this conversation.

Was this the magic formula I looked for? Pure conjecture, surely. We can only speculate. It is unlikely that there will be evidence for any of these quotidian rules and their mutation over time. Something that would rationally explain the myth of untouchability? Is it possible that in passing it down the generations only the rigid shell of the rules remained and we forgot it was about rules of living to fulfil professional goals?

Does that make it right to discriminate? Of course not. Can one not include simple sanitary processes regardless of caste? Duh. Of course one can. What would I tell the friend’s mother who would not let the same person clean the toilets and cook in the kitchen? (Yes, Rupa said something like this – but she was reflecting a pragmatism that is based on experience and reason. Other people have said it before her. This is not about her, it is about the reason for that wrong practice).

For many of us who have gone beyond the idea of caste as apartheid, we still maintain the divisions between the various functional areas of the house. And until we are sure that processes that ensure health and sanitation are adhered to (process, six sigma in the household in India – hah!) we will continue that separation between the zones. It is not about the people, their caste or where they come from anymore. It is now about skilled and reliable best practices near our food – and that comes from attitudes, experience and training.

Some of us have moved on from believing that these skills and practices are associated with caste. Others still continue to believe the old even in the face of new evidence. The journey continues.

(Saturday afternoon writing brings a half asleep memory of childhood questions. Questions we parked to deal with another day. In my daily life I hope I do not discriminate. And will correct myself if I find I do slip up. Sharing that half asleep, half thought through conversation with myself. Because conversations are at their richest when mid way)

Swachh Bharat and Me

Swacch Bharat

Leaders and Photo-ops make for good conversation. Swacch Bharat needs to raise the game and improve the conversation about cleanliness – and for that it is good to see the leaders of the nation pick up the broom and join in. Even if it is very clear to everyone that they really do not know how to hold the broom, let alone wield it effectively. India is a forgiving nation – we understand. They have done their bit. It is a bit like our movies. If we believed it all, then all our heroes and heroines would be pathologically poly-amourous. Sequentially of course. But if we did not go along with it, then would we laugh, cry or dance along with them? Sure, the nominal demonstration has value, and we go along with that.

But I wonder if that is really what a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was meant to be? Is that the intent? Or is it an idea that found its TRP byte and stayed with it? Surely Swacchh Bharat cannot be about doing a job that is allocated to government employees that are paid for by our tax rupees? Surely Swacch Bharat is a lot more than holding a broom. The goal is clear – we need a cleaner India. There have been many who have fallen ill living virtually or even literally in the middle of garbage. It is a travesty that the poor do not have access to clean water even for drinking let alone the daily necessities. Water on tap seems to be a lower priority than simple access to cleanliness. Countries with far lower water supplies than India’s have been able to ensure adequate water supplies to ensure cleanliness and health. Surely swacchh bharat is also about good toilets, safe washing facilities and better habits among the people.

This is not just about money. Often the rich and the poor are equally guilty of littering. It is often the rich who wipe their hands after eating on silk curtains and the poor who wash their hands well after a meal. This is about access, information and behaviours. And enablement.

Not all who wield the broom have done it for a photo opportunity. Many areas have been spruced up by volunteers. I wonder where they dumped the garbage they collected. Was there are system to take it forward from there? Was it segregated? Recycled? Was there a landfill? Are landfills marked? What happens to toxic waste in the garbage? Is it isolated? Myriad questions.

The issues in cleaning India are not as simple as a surface level tidy up. This needs a proper strategy with incentives and penalties at the local level. But even more than that it needs a proper understanding of the nature of the rubbish that is generated and innovations to recycle it effectively and productively. There has been much work done on understanding the quality of rubbish generated in India and given traditional recycling habits it does not come as a surprise that most of value has already been extracted. Even the calorific value of garbage was low when estimated in the past. This is where some investment and effort need to be expended, else all we are doing is shifting rubbish from one place to another.

Beyond the symbolism, valuable as it is, there comes pragmatism. I appreciate leaders showing the way, but given my training, I cannot turn a blind eye simple economic analysis. Calling on the law of comparative advantage here – how does it make sense for anyone to give up on work that will generate value to millions of people/save thousands of rupees/earn more to spend that time doing something that creates less economic value? I would honestly rather spend my day earning enough to invest in a person who starts a garbage recycling business. I would rather use my resources to ensure that such a business has daily revenues. I too have been invited to sweep the streets, and I thank my friends for that honour, but I am not worthy. My sweeping the streets influences few. My working hard on what I am good at, earning elsewhere and using that earning to pay for more cleanliness is a better way for me. I do apologise for not joining this bandwagon – and the loss of camaraderie, of a sense of purpose, of the brotherhood of Swachh is all mine.

But I do assure you, and promise myself that the Brotherhood of Swacchh always has and will continue to include me. If anyone litters in front of me, I will pick it up for them. If I have to travel, I will carry my own rubbish bag. I will take my own bag when going shopping and not ask for plastic bags. I’ll even carry spare cloth bags for other customers around me – risking those looks and being labeled a sanctimonious preaching aunty. At home, I will try to generate less garbage – composting peel, tea leaves and more. Swacch Bharat matters – it is probably one of the most significant movements for India because it fosters care, mindfulness and better behaviours. It is the first step to investing in quality.

Yes, and Yes again to the Swachh Bharat Campaign. I am in. And I am in for now, and for the long haul, not just for this starting line.


The news kept coming, relentlessly, everyday. Newspapers. Radio.

Did we have a television then? No, not before 1984.

People pulled out of their houses, into their front yards. Shot in cold blood.

Terrorism. It was the first time I had heard the word. We heard it a lot in those years.

Everyday we heard of long haired people being spared in buses and trains and those with short hair being pulled out and shot. They asked them to step out, having stopped the buses on lonely roads in the middle of the fields. Some had a chance to run, run for their lives in the tall sugarcane fields. Screaming or the rustling of the tall grass gave them away. They were shot, killed.

Who were these beasts who killed innocent passengers in trains, buses? People going home to their children? Women and children traveling from their homes to their parent’s homes for the festivals. Many stopped travelling. Many grew their hair long – you could not tell that the women were not sardarnis if their hair was long. Men, not so easy to grow their hair without changing a lot about your identity.

We lived far away. In fear. Did we know whether our grandparents were safe in deep Punjab. Their house was barely 8km from the Pakistani border. Things could escalate anytime. My grandfather was a citizen activist. Fearless. A retired government of India servant. Who knew when they decided that he was the enemy and came for him. And my grandmother.

The blue inland letters that came brought relief. They used to take ten to fifteen days to arrive. So at least we knew they were safe ten days ago. No, nobody had telephones with easy, cheap and accessible STD (remember the term?) to call cross country. You called if it was an emergency. We dreaded receiving that call.

Worse, we feared going there. Year after year, my grandparents did not see their daughter, my mother. Or me, their grandchild. One day my mother had enough. She has never been scared of anything. She wasn’t going to be scared of a few AK-47s (oh yes, we children learnt about those too from the newspapers)

I cannot imagine what it would have been to be a child there. Or a young man accused of colluding with the terrorists. True or false, nobody knew. Those were dark times. Friend or Foe, there was little to trust. There was little but trust – if you lost that you had nothing. My grandparents and their neighbours had a pact. The partition and its riots was part of their living memory. Less than forty years, history was repeating itself. This time, the neighbours vowed, they would stand together. Sikh and Hindu, they would not be parted by these outsiders seeding violence. They knew where to hide in each other’s houses. Curfews meant sharing food, passed from terrace to terrace. Rotis still came from the sanjha chulha at the end of the road using the same terrace route. The neighbourhood stood strong together. Sanjha.

My mother decided that we would go to Punjab. Tickets were booked months in advance, but we could not find tickets to the destination. We would have to travel by bus for a part of the way. Just another six hours by bus. Was it safe? No. Were we going? Yes.

I started learning gurmukhi, the script of punjab. I barely knew a few sentences of punjabi – I began practicing. Went to the local gurdwara and bought a gutka – a small abridged version of the prayer book. I had read in the papers that women who recited the gutka were left alone – the terrorists were not tricked by long hair anymore. They needed proof of being a devout Sikh to spare your life. We insisted my father stay at home – it would have been very dangerous to have taken an obvious ‘mona’ into the Punjab in those days. We were daring but not foolish.

Gutka memorised, salwar suit dupattas draped, hair plaited, we were on our way. From train to bus, on high alert. We did not sleep all night. How could we? Anything could happen. An incident had happened just the week before. We were in the new badlands. As beautiful as ever, the tall crops waving, the straight canals full of water still the pride of the land. The canals had run red, we had heard. When the carnage came, there was no right or wrong, there was young blood.

There was a new police chief. A crackdown. Things were getting controlled. Brutal control. Mistakes were made. But the terrorists were being beaten down. Cornered. Their funding from other countries squeezed out. They were retreating into their stronghold. The villages and towns becoming safer, they said. I was a child. I read the news.

My mother and I boarded the bus well in time. It was dawn. We would reach our destination just after lunch. The bus was full. There was safety in numbers. Enough women. Families. It was going to be fine. I almost relaxed. Fell asleep.

Then the bus stopped. I woke up. It had broken down. No danger, no safety. We disembarked. The bus drove off. Why would a bus that had broken down drive off? We wondered that later, after it had gone. We were forty or so of us, surrounded by tall crops. The narrow tar pathway was the highway. We looked far into the distance, there was nothing. We looked at the tall grass – it was wheat or rice. It did not matter. It was tall and thick enough to hide more than a dozen gunmen. Were we safe in that lovely sunshine? The morning mist had risen, it was a clear day. A beautiful moment and not one of the families there could breathe. With our bags and bundles, all we wanted was to live. We had read and heard stories like this a hundred times. Gunmen would appear and we would be a mess of flesh and blood spattered on the green. They may not even find us till they harvested the crop. This is what fear looked like then – a dozen families with furrowed brows, stiff backs and pinched faces.

A bus trundled towards us in the distance. Was it life or was it death? Was the ordinary allowed to be just that? Or would something else cross our path today?

It was ordinary. It was a simple state transport bus but going in totally the wrong direction. It would take us another six hours away from where we wanted to be. A city. Cities were safer those days. A decision needed to be taken. Another bus may never come, or it might be hours or minutes. Uncertainty had seeped into everything, bus timetables were certainly not exempt. Do we stay where all was uncertain or do we go the wrong way?

All the other families boarded that bus. Out of there. Away.

My mother and I were the only ones left behind. One suitcase, one bag, two handbags. Two women. And a bus driving away into the distance. We were alone.

I have to admit it was moment. The sheer beauty of the fields, the sky, the faint white clouds was enough to drive any fear away. We were not made for fear, the two of us. We were made to lift our heads high and live that moment. And the next. Death could come, but this moment of pure freedom was ours. Unchained from any hope, any expectation. As I said, it was a moment.

Which turned into a half hour. And an hour. Two even. Surely, any terrorists who wanted to kill us would not still be hiding in the crop. We began to relax, reassuring ourselves and getting irritated at the same time. Had we taken the bus we would be somewhere at least, not in the middle of nowhere like now. There must be a village somewhere but we could not see it – anyway there was no guarantee that it would be any safer than we were. Even the suitcase we were sitting on was getting uncomfortable now, the sun hotter, the road surely dustier. We waited, this time knowing we were safe for now.

Eventually a bus did come along, and yes it was going in our direction and past (how? Our direction was the border. Ah, I was a child, this is all I remember). We got in, and the fear rose again. From the known devil to the unknown. I sat with all my senses clenched, four hours till we reached the town. It was almost night. Dim lights glimmered. A solitary rickshaw was rapidly commandeered by us – we were frazzled by now and were not going to let anyone get ahead of us. Women traveling alone – the others let us be. It was just past the curfew and all the shops were shut. Nobody on the roads. We reached my grandfather’s house and for the first time since my childhood I saw the big entrance doorway shut. We rattled the chains to ask them to open up. Not a sign, and yet we knew they were all there. An entire street cannot be so silent – they were all hiding in fear. We called out, fearless in our exhaustion. Our voices were heard and recognised. The door slowly creaked open, the rickshaw was paid, and we went in. Our beds were ready and they could not believe we had been out this late – unthinkable in those times even though it was not fully dark yet. The house glowed eerily in the single lamp lit low for us as we washed up and were fed.

The holiday had begun.

(As I look back to this I realise how much more dangerous the world has become now. The madness had begun then, and it has spiralled out of control in so many places all over the world. Like an eruption that will pop up and will not go away. Children know guns now, not just from the newspapers. They have seen and faced both ends of the gun. To survive. Or not)

It is Dhanteras Again..

It is Dhanteras again, and the festival has begun. You cannot fight the little excitement that comes with the slight chill in the air. Like your best friend pinching you on the day you wear a new dress. The sparkles in your eyes could light up the sky. You hug yourself, staving off the cold and it reminds you of the many times you will be hugged and blessed in the next five days.

Only a ridiculously organised person would find themselves ready for Dhanteras. The house spick and span, new artefacts in place, fresh sheets everywhere, nut bowls filled and placed strategically, the snacks and drinks on standby. The card party season started a while ago, but now the non stop indulgence begins. Celebrating plenty, grateful for what we have, we celebrate the harvest that has been sold and accounts closed. The accounts totted up, bonuses paid out. We celebrate in thanks to the gods and goddesses that made it happen. We celebrate ourselves, let our hair down a bit, laugh a lot and let go a bit.

All that really takes organisation, I’ll admit. To have all the gifts ready and delivered, to have the baksheesh envelopes ready, to have the mithai boxes listed and handed out, to have the lights glimmering, the flower curtains waving in the breeze…(And let’s not tell anyone about the spoons counted, the cups ready in trays, the glasses sorted and ready in strategic corners, the bodas/vadas half fried in the fridge and the chutney cubes in the freezer). (If we are being posh – the canapés and their fillings satisfactorily filling a whole shelf of the fridge in tiny little plastic boxes – let’s not tell anyone about that too). (Did we need more ice?.. I’m sure we’ll be fine…its not so hot anymore…)

Swish on the glittery garments, bring on the bling! It’s time for us to make it happen and swing. Smile, swig, slug, sip, nibble. Share. Reach out. Shine on, you crazy diamond. It’s Diwali!

(I write this as the mundane tasks remain. I have run the inventories, gaps identified, purchases ordered – we are ready for the season of hosting and visiting. The house is clean, but needs rearranging. I have my rust and dull gold silk spreads ready. The jewel coloured raw silk covers for the white sofas too. the lights are being put up. My girl will bring the marigold strings tomorrow – they last two days. I wait for the suji, oil, sugar and maida to be delivered so that the massive home cooking drive can start tomorrow. Should the laddoos be suji or besan? The maida and ajwain are for the matthis. I’ve never had a Diwali without matthis. Namak Pare, certainly. And some murukku if I can get my head around it. Besan barfi has been delivered, so I’ll make suji laddoo. And khoa and coconut will do well for little naardus and barfi. Should I make a chocolate barfi too? That’s just another ten minutes and the khoa has arrived. I wait, spring coiled, ready to release the mother who claims her own space in giving, sharing out the smiles.)

Lokhi via Hanuman

With apologies to the Hanuman Chalisa… but today is Lokhi Pujo and has been a bit like this:

Kaj roop dhari lekhan padhava, beti ban kaaj badhava;
Mai roop mein lallan saraaha, bou avatar dhare kare lokkhi chadava #today

In my working role, I taught some reading/
I became a daughter and helped advance some tasks
As a mother, I appreciated my child
And then in the role of a bahu, I did the Lakshmi Puja Offering

Cinema and Politics in India

Political drama in Indian television did not take off, and I wonder why – maybe because Indians like to be able to relate to their soap opera characters and this was a step too far. The few one has seen has had characters with local political influence, yet the plot line is set within the traditional zar, zameen, j(z)iadaad mode. With honourable exceptions like ‘Ji Mantriji’ and the utterly hilarious Kakkaji Kahin.

Movies on the other hand have done better. The first political movie I remember having seen is Leader. Too much of a child to appreciate the nuances, the inherent dichotomies of an idealist politician’s life were made clear, as bollywood does through simplification and repetition. A story for the masses, about one of them growing up. A coming of age story if you will.. as many movies of the fifties and sixties were anyway. There was politics in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 and Aawara, among others. And in Balraj Sahni’s Garam Hawa. But these were not about political leadership, which is our quest today.

A political movie that I cannot forget is “New Delhi Times’, the story of a newspaper editor battling for his independence in the face of political pressure. It came after a long gap. The big political movie before that had been about the emergency – Kissa Kursi Ka and was certainly censored, if not banned outright. Aandhi was a tamer version of a female politican’s struggle to chart her own path – one of the early ‘having it all’ conversations via cinema. It was a thinly disguised version of Indira Gandhi’s life that veered into fiction whenever the biographical details became a bit too uncomfortable to handle.

There have been more movies about local politics than about grand political leaders – Smita Patil’s fiery eyes as she and her team poured mirchi (red chilli powder) on to the local power-dada’s people comes to mind. That was echoed and raised to the level of a ‘centre’ aspirant in the recent Gulaab Gang, based on a real life group of women in pink who beat up their oppressors for justice. Gulaab Gang’s ‘madam’ has aspirations beyond the local, competencies gained from having trained with the best – her own family. Yet the narrative rarely raises questions that were not raised in the movies of the 60s, nor does the plot line take it beyond contexts set in the more violent movies of the eighties and onwards. Nayak and the entire genre of movies about gangland wars and mafia leaders with political connections wield great power, but none of these can be called political dramas in the sense of the fine intellectual cut, thrust and parry one would expect of true leadership. In that sense, maybe only ‘Gandhi’ makes the cut, but that was worshipfully received into the Indian pantheon though not strictly an Indian movie.

Some, like the recent ‘Rajneeti’ did try to span the broad sweeping canvas of politics in India, falling short in performances and storyline – a grand idea brought to its knees in a quest for – popularity. I mock myself here, because politics itself is often reduced to a quest for popularity in a democracy. The same criteria applied to it’s shadow representation in film often reduces it by many dimensions, losing grit and character along the way. That’s just the way it has been played out in Indian cinema so far. The ones that have been lauded for their grit and realism include the very long “Gangs of Wasseypur’ and the recent ‘Katiyabaaz’, both again scoped to the local or regional.

Political leaders, real or imagined, tend to sweep through our film story lines almost as if they were incidental. They turn the story, true, but their role is merely to catalyse the plot or apportion or absolve leaders of blame – as in the recent Madras Cafe, which is about India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict. One of the strongest characterisations of political leadership in Indian cinema has been in Sarkar, and Sarkar Raj, the former a stronger movie by far. Both apparently were based on real life personas and incidents.

There are many more that are political in nature, marking the twists and turns of India’s troubled secular socialistic democracy. From the traumatised Bombay to the gutsy Dabanng, politics pervades our lives and movies. Is Yahudi less political for having been about the ebb and flow of cultures? If not, then we could count Pinjar, Veer Zaara and Gadar too. Is there room for people’s tales in political dramas – then Mission Kashmir and Shatranj ke Khilaadi epitomise protagonists and anti-protagonists.
Many come as hagiography of historical heroes – all politicians in their own right. Shaheed Bhagat Singh has had four or five movies (and I still love the black and white version best).Tales of war, in victory or loss embed their own political commentary – Haqeeqat an incisive tale of the tragic relations with the chinese mismanaged and misunderstood politically, as well as a criticism of the way political leadership handles logistics and its implications on the ground. The title itself a crisp reminder of the point it is trying to make unlike other war movies that are more jingoistic – probably because they record victories.

Others come from its political history though not always presented as such – I could not call Mughal-e-Azam any more a love story than I could call it political. Lagaan is no less about political leadership for being a story about cricket and taxes. From another age and yet from a bureaucratic system that has its roots in Sher-Shah Suri’s legacy via Akbar lies the tale of systems, power, politics and love comes the movie ‘Hazaar Khwahishen Aisi’. Both cadenced by the ebb and flow of politics in the lives of leaders. Does Razia Sultan also qualify here? I think it does. Indian movies tend to bring love into everything – politics remains the backdrop, yet a key player in the lives of the people who populate the story.

Sharp political commentary however is best done with humour – and I cannot end this little essay without a hat tip to movies such as Peepli Live and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. There is more to say, much more about movies and politics, but as Commissioner D’Mello learnt – “Thoda Khao, Thoda Phenko”. Rarely heard a smarter comment on the choices offered by politics and power.

A list here, of a few hundred movies that offer commentary on people and politics:

(This was just meant to be a listing, not an analysis. It’s not much more, but oh, so tempting to do a meaty analysis. Ah, another time. Do add movies I’ve missed)


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Toilets stink. There is no getting around the fact that toilets are icky places. Especially in places like India where the line between clean and dirty is so firmly drawn. There will be nothing that crosses over that line. Toilets firmly fall into the category of dirty. And are kept so. 

Not for all of course. But as the current campaign against open defecation highlights — open defecation damages health and stunts growth of children. It is of course unhygienic, ugly, filthy and smelly. We don’t want to walk through roads that are lined with shit, flies buzzing over the piles heading threateningly towards us.. ugly enough for you? People live like that, and it must be made better. 

But would you, honestly, hand on heart, even step into the tiny stinking toilets that they make? The ones they have in schools? I wouldn’t. Probably because my hands would be busy making sure no part of me touches anything and thanking myself for having worn high heels or sturdy shoes that day. Do I sound supercilious? I intended to. Because this is what ‘patronising’ does to design. It is not okay that a toilet in a good home or a starred hotel is designed for cleanliness but a toilet in a village is not designed to succeed. 

It is not okay that the toilets designed for those who are poor are boxes with doors and holes in the ground. It is not okay that these are not easy to clean. It is not okay that frugal design must mean poor design. And yes, that pun was intended. 

Many have been ridiculed for saying that Indian village people prefer to defecate in the open. It is not okay to preach to others before figuring out their needs. The wisdom of the crowd deserves respectful attention — they must have good reason. Would anyone ever prefer to walk a distance compromising their privacy and safety if they had a better option? Would people line up along the side of the road or railway tracks if there were better facilities available? The challenge now is to provide better toilets that are not boxes of shit — pardon the expression. The challenge is to provide a dignified option that naturally lends itself to sustainable maintenance and cleaning. 

(Oh, shall I start you off? How about the floor of the toilet not be solid, but be a concrete grid that people step on, so that extra water is not retained on the surface. Where should the water go? To a sloping second floor below the grid that can join the drain/filter and seep into groundwater. You have the space to do this — the toilet pipe needs at least 8 inches to 2 feet of clearance, so you can create a false floor and a sharply sloping solid floor beneath it.) 

A self cleaning toilet? On a budget? Am I kidding? Nope. That is why it is a design challenge. Up to you, frugal innovators an designers now, the ball is in your court! What does a good toilet need? Drainage, privacy, water (yes, India), ventilation, self cleaning design, safety and nudges to best practices. Frugal Design — are you up to the challenge?

Another Election, Another Estimation (Psephology Phwrrr!)

Those were simpler days in psephology. Exit polls did not hold the exalted station in news making that they do now. At least they were not as maligned and misunderstood as they seemed to be today. There were only two channels that were broadcasting election results. One was led by Prannoy Roy who was the undisputed master of the swing. His program ran with the needle of judgement standing tall over and info graphic of the seating pattern of the Lok Sabha pointing to the future of the nation. Staid Doordarshan had barely discovered bar charts, though one has to admit they learnt fast.

This is a tale from an election past. Events of grand national import were taking place, tragedy even. But this is a smaller story, an anecdote even.

This was the year Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber while campaigning. The nation was in shock, but of course the juggernaut of democracy had to move on. Elections continued. But the results were less predictable than before at least at the constituency level.


I was a young student then and stepped up for a newsroom job during the elections. They needed people to man the phones and keep track of results coming in from the constituencies across the nation. Each of us worked a state – mine was Karnataka. We worked in twos, or at least had someone watching over us all the time. Shifts, as one does. There were frenzied moments when six constituencies seemed to have moved along rather fast and in tandem. Other frustrating ones as we waited for the results, checking our phone lines to make sure we missed out on any sliver of news.


As I said, these were simpler times. We merely had to differentiate between a lead, and a declared win, keep track of the parties and candidates and of course the margins by which they were leading. Oh, did I tell you – counting was manual in those days. It took ages. I believe they showed movies on television then, but we were above all that. We were the first information people.


And that is where the trouble started. We were supposed to be first. But the other channel always seemed to have a tally of more seats declared than we, Doordarshan did. If we had a total count of 200 available, they seemed to have information of 210 declared. All approximations of course. Memory is rather fuzzy after all these years. How was this possible? We had our persons stationed in the same place, calling just as the results were declared. Their people were listening to the same announcements. How could they know more? How could they get their information faster?


As soon as we, manning the state hotlines (oh yes, we had cool words like that) got the news, we scribbled it and ran to the newsroom. It was turned to script and announced within two minutes. There was no delay in this chain.


Some of us stepped up to investigate. Nothing official about it. We were young ‘uns a bit cheesed off about coming second in a two horse race.


And then we figured out what was going on. Or at least we thought we did. It had to be this – all other possibilites had been eliminated, we knew with sherlockian confidence. The other team was cleverly estimating ahead of wins. They were including the massive margins and the near wins in the declared wins total. Whereas, we the stodgy sarkaari minions were going by the book and announcing formally declared results.


Well, two could play the game as well as one.


And that is what we did. (No, as I said, there was nothing official about it. I do not know who took the decision, and after all these years it did not matter)


Those of us manning the hotlines now not only kept a tally of the declared wins, but also of the near wins. We had a separate column where we recorded the total of the two. The results that went out were just a few moments ahead of their time. But now the private sector was not ahead of the public sector. We had proved our fealty.


Or so we felt.


For the other team pulled ahead again. How was this possible? The risks were huge – the other results were not ready to be declared, the margins not large enough to estimate victory. We could not overstep into what was clearly guesswork given the information we had. How were they doing it? The best brains were put to work again in front of the competitor’s TV feed. Rapid numbers were crunched. Their lead of declared wins over our numbers was analysed. And the answer was startlingly obvious. They were feeding off our feed. They had assumed (or so we thought – there is no way of verifying now, there certainly wasn’t then) that the Doordarshan feed would stick to the traditional rules and only declare seats won when the final announcement had been made.



We had taken very few chances, very very few – the seats were clearly won (or lost), so we were still on firm ground. But the race to the latest numbers was on the verge of going out of control. It would have been so easy – Use their declared numbers, as they had used ours, add the estimated dead-cert wins, and announce. A slippery slope that was inevitably headed to disaster. The statistically inclined amongst us quickly figured out that in 3 iterations of this game we could declare more seats than actually existed. Our experiment was called to a rapid halt. A tense fifteen minutes when we waited for our estimates to show up in the official announcements. Of course they did – we were good. And the lag was less than a quarter of an hour. Our announcements of course were very boring for the next few minutes. But we were safe again. Nothing inaccurate had been reported, no harm done. We were back to being the horse on which the snazzy others could ride in glory. We, the safe trotters knew that when it came to the crunch we were the ones who could be relied upon to carry the real story.


We may not have won that race, but victory in the battle was clearly ours on the day.


Or so we believe.


At least we learnt a lesson in estimation that day.


(This story comes to me from the mists of time. Do not ask me to recollect more, even the people from then are forgotten)

A Day in Delhi

is not enough..
The sun is shining in Delhi.. gently, as it does on special days. Not quite the ‘kachhi-dhoop’ (nascent, raw sunshine) of winter but more the beckoning of a nubile spring. The breeze raising barely a whisper against the skin, but a whisper that brings one closer. The skies glow in their shades of blue, a shade more sophisticated than the blingy days ahead. The gardens, I know will be alive with colour, the roads speckled in shade. What does one do on a day like this here other than embrace it?

Some of us started early and caught the mist off the Gurgaon Faridabad road on their cycles, swooping down at the pace of their hearbeats. Others traversed the ridge, the low peaks taking them down paths that few care to dwell on.. they often meet at the heart of Delhi – India Gate. The C-Hexagon calls them all, though few know that the immediate area around the actual India Gate permanently has a ban on large gatherings. This is where Delhi gathers when India wins the World Cup or just has great weather…

Food is what Delhi does best and starting with a morning bread pakora and chai in the Buddha Jayanti Park is a pleasant way to begin. Or then there is the little gali near Gol Dak Khaana.. or even the one behind Khan Market. Delhi’s foodies never have to look far, there is excellence around every corner. For the more posh there is idli-appam-kaapi at Sarvana Bhavan on Janpath that starts at 8am, but there is a queue within half an hour. My personal favourite of course is a delightful walk in Lodi Gardens where you try hard not to eavesdrop on delectable gossip about people everybody knows followed by a crisp if spartan breakfast at the IIC. For those who are quite not morning persons, there is of course the famous Delhi brunch.. be warned that brunch here does not quite start at the same time as most places in the world.. your guests are likely to turn up after 1pm.. and of course you either go to the Yum Yum Tree (proper prosecco and sangria) or the Olive, made famous by its consultants and bankers with their trophy dates (To be fair to them, they are delightful and get it just right).

Start the day at Humanyun’s tomb, newly restored and resolve to come back to Nizamuddin in the evening for the evening. Wonder whether Chandni Chowk, Red Fort and the food around the Jama Masjid might be nicer.. and if you can, do attempt the walk from the Humayun’s Tomb to the Red Fort. It could have been lovely along the river, and my grandparents used to walk the distance from Lodi road to Khari Baoli and Chandni chowk every weekend via the edge of the beautiful Delhi University (Civil Lines) and Kashmiri Gate – sadly, only the cognoscenti can navigate these with comfort now. Old Delhi was built along the river, and the Yamuna still defines its boundaries if not borders. A generation later, this may be the grand central waterway as of many European towns.

The city wakes up around eleven.. most shops will not open till about noon, so as we leisurely contemplate our day the wallet finds reprieve till the evening.. who shops in the afternoon anyway? Yes, mall rats do, but then we shall leave them to their devices and look up at the sky and ponder the graces of this old lady. A walk around Lutyens Delhi? A visit to the Mughal Gardens?

New Delhi is built as a series of concentric circles, the centre being Connaught Circus – now renamed. At the centre a raised lawn that covers the seediest market I am told (we used to buy our jeans there decades ago), ringed by the inner circle, the outer circle.. and much later the ring road and the outer ring road. The latter two aren’t quite circular.  The State emporia (one for every state showcase Indian art and textiles better than others, but the shops in the grand new white building have amazing treasures. Across the road,  I would not miss a darshan and walk along the Hanuman Mandir with its bright bangle market that has every colour and pattern to brighten up your wrists and bring music to your day. A smelly lane leads you to the back of the Janpath Lane market where the street market for clothes has brought every teen in town into its loyal fold. My personal favourites are the massive jumbled mountains of clothes that are turned upside down ever so often with the rhythmic cries of the sellers..the wittiest blokes in town. Walk through, buy junk jewellery from the tiny stalls, or just watch. The more formal market feels crumbly now, but has Delhi’s best cold coffee, make-up, shoes, and music. Don’t forget to stop by the circular book stall run by the blind. Janpath has just begun.. and you are hardpressed to decide whether you want to turn right towards the tibetan, kashmiri, leather and clothes shops(you won’t find better high street bronzes anywhere else) that lead you onto the Cottage Emporium (as much a museum as a shop), or to turn left towards more delights and the centre of the market. Turning left takes to towards exploring connaught place as it wakes up, its little gems hidden behind the noveau hoardings of harsh new brands. And thence towards the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara with its clean cool marble and delicious halwa parshad. Opposite that is Delhi’s biggest Cathedral, grand in its beauty and steeped in history. I prefer the church at Sardhana near Meerut, but this is a traditional Catholic base that comes alive every Christmas.

Turning left along Janpath would take you to cultural Delhi. A detour along the Jantar Mantar where marvelling at the hardiness of those sitting in dharna should not detract from  the architectural marvel that epitomised the science of eighteenth century India. Not far is the beautiful Agrasen ki Baoli.. a three layered stepwell that stored water for the harsh summer months. Sticking to Janpath (the path of the people) allow the long cool road to lead you to grandeur.  It will lead you past the hurly burly and the metro construction (resist the temptation to duck into the Imperial, Delhi’s most beautiful hotel) to the wide road called Rajpath. Just before you reach Rajpath, you will see the National Museum. Filled with treasures from across the centuries, just the sculptures in the small garden outside are enough to take one’s breath away. A short walk to Rajpath from there is the King’s road that has the India Gate at one end and the Rashtrapati Bhavan (president’s palace) on either end. Ignore them, or stop to wander a bit, but do carry on across the giant roundabout to the National Gallery of Modern Art. I have never been able to decide whether I want to spend more time in its gardens or in its lovely halls. Old the collections might be, but they are breathtaking in their range. I often spend more time in its shops picking up reprints of rare paintings or miniatures.

When in Delhi, food can never be far.. if you have chosen to go towards the Cathedral, a short walk (or ride, nobody walks in Delhi) will take you to Gol Market where you get the best chhole Bhature in the world. Oh, and Lassi.. and gulab jamun.. and..rasmalai.. the paapdi chat is to die for.. and there is kaleva next door. Stop, stop eating now! Walk it off as you go towards the theatre district near Mandi house, catch a play, or two. Come out into the gloaming or the glowing street lights reflected off dark roads and head straight for Pandara road. More food, true.. but have you had better butter chicken anywhere in the world? (Did I forget to talk about Sundar Nagar? Another time then) (Oh, and Delhi Haat – there is always something new.. a place to wander and discover)

For those of us more discerning folks who went into the art gallery, walk down a bit (metaphorically speaking – do take some wheels, Delhi is big) along the gorgeous houses of Prithviraj Road towards Khan Market – the one place that has it all, including Khan Chacha and my favourite chocolate shop.  Alternatively Hauz Khas market has that and some more..lovely restaurants, a strange lake (Hauz means water tank) and quirky shops. It is the market behind Aurobindo market that now has the decrepit look of a disorderly dowager princess. Ignore the temptations of Green Park market, it is merely everyday kitsch unless you like that sort of thing, though it does have the nicest music and movie shops that are still not parts of a grand chain. Hauz Khas is a maze, and if you have been here a few weeks offers the additional delights of running into everyone you know..again if that rocks your boat.

For a true Delhi person, and those of you who are will find yourself nodding now, a late night past the tiles can only end in one place. The Anda parantha waala. Don’t make me tell you where it is, or how can we tell the haves from the have nots? Or maybe this is just nostalgia for what has been.

I wrote all of this.. and then this post said it so much better..