Friday, November 4, 2016

Calcutta Chromosomes

At 5:00 in the evening the sky has already turned dark. There may be a few stars here and there but most of them are camouflaged by thick clouds that lurk low. There is no sight of the moon either, or maybe it is hiding somewhere behind the imposing hoardings dotting the skyline. The roads beneath are hidden too, by thousands of vehicles – cars, taxis, autos, buses, tempos – all trying to make their way out of the mayhem. The little space left on pavements has been taken up by pedestrians. It seems like the entire city is out in full force. And why not? It is after all that time of the year when the mother comes home to meet its devotees.

Many refer to the Durga Puja of Calcutta as world’s largest art installation. The rest think of it as a carnival where people from all walks of life participate together. Then there are those who consider it madness and insanity. There is one more category though – of people who once thought of it as sheer absurdity but have now come to appreciate its significance and beauty.  I happen to belong to that category. Until only a few years ago I dreaded Calcutta during Pujas but experience and maturity have made me see the other side of it. So much so that every other autumn I make it a point to visit the city to experience the madness that it is.

I have arrived in Calcutta this morning and am presently caught in the backseat of a cab between my friend and her mother. Dressed in brand new clothes, and all set for the night out, they are animatedly telling me about the interesting pandals that have come up this year and filling me in with the latest Puja trends. In between they are also arguing with the cab driver about the shortest route, and admiring the lighting and decoration on the road.  

We are headed to the heart of North Calcutta, Shobhabazar, where we finally reach after spending two hours on the road and paying precisely two hundred rupees for the drive.

The way modern day Calcutta owes its origin to old Calcutta, modern day Durga Puja owes its origin to the Bari Pujos of north Calcutta. It was here, in the homes of rich aristocrats, that the concept of Durga Puja had taken roots during the 18th century, and until 1790 the festival continued to be celebrated only in the courtyards of the rich and powerful. It was only in 1790, when twelve young men were debarred from attending the ceremony at local landlord’s home, did the public celebration begin, a practice that has now become the norm. In the lanes of old Calcutta though one can still come across quite a few Bari Pujos in the courtyards of rich aristocratic families although minus the opulence of the 18th century.

Walking though the lanes of North Calcutta is like taking a lesson in history. Not only do you come across practices that are dying but at every nook and corner you also come face to face with an important landmark in the city’s lifecycle. I see many such places too, unfortunately as much as I would like to, I cannot go close to them at this hour. So I make do with the Puja Pandals.

The first pandal is one of the oldest and most famous of the area at Ahiritola. The façade is decorated with iron sheets, pieces of wood, and other scrap; the interior is created like an art studio – an unfinished sculpture here, a broken statue there, some tools and clay lying around in the background. The Durga meanwhile stands majestically in the centre created by clay and painted in black and red. Being an ardent fan of terracotta, I am spellbound by the creativity of the place, I want to stay there longer, but am pushed out by the swelling crowds.

Outside the pandal the street has turned into a food and entertainment zone. The road is lined with stalls selling everything from biriyani to korma, from coffee to cola, from ice cream to sweets. While most of the country fasts during this time of the year, Calcutta feasts.

My friend and I are now walking in the lanes of the neighborhood discovering one puja at a time. The pandals of this part of town are mostly small in scale but big on creativity. Unlike their sponsor rich counterparts across the city, these pandals are a result of the sweat and blood of the humble residents of this once elite neighbourhood.  We discover many interesting pandals hidden in narrow lanes and bylanes, some made with washing machine pipes, some created with handcrafted dolls; some decorated with local oil paintings, yet other made with wood, bells, even drums and paper.

Our next destination happens to be the most famous puja of the neighbourhood, Kumhartuli, or Potters Colony. The place is famous for two reasons, one: the idols here are supposed to be huge and unique, and two: it is here that all idols for the festival are created. The popularity also means serpentine queues, crowds, and endless wait. In my numerous visits to the city, I have tried to see the puja t Kumhartuli many times but have never been able to. Today also we spot the long queue from a distance and turn back.

If the art and craft of old Calcutta makes you whimsical, it is the grandeur of posh south Calcutta that makes you go wow!

After having done a fair bit of rustic old Calcutta and gorging on some authentic Bengali sweets, we are now looking at ways of getting to the other part of town. Taxis are few and far between, buses are bursting at seams, and radio cabs are quoting five times the price. We decide to hop on the lifeline of Kolkata – the metro.

The metro turns out to be full too, so full that the doors don’t shut until some people are made to get off.  We squeeze in somehow and gasp for breath for the next twenty minutes.

All efforts seems worth their while when we reach the first pandal in this part of the town – a majestic replica of the Meenakshi temple of Madurai at the famous Ekdalia Evergreen Club. 

The vibe of this place is completely different from what we have been experiencing all evening. Although it is close to midnight the night here is still young: food stalls are all up and running and doing brisk business. The hip and young of the city can be seen thronging the pandals in their puja best, laughing, eating, clicking selfies. The place looks less like a place of worship and more like a college fest. We soon become a part of it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Wake up -- before it's too late.

In my 15 years of living in this city, never have I questioned my choice of being here. Not when they raised questions on the safety of women in the city, not when they touted it as a 'show off' culture, not when they declared the city rude and crude. And that has not been without a reason -- for all its flaws, the city gives me and my family what no other city in this country can, and that is reason enough for me to be faithful to it.

But in the last two days, since my return from Lucknow after Diwali, for the first time I have started to question my future in Delhi. For the first time being a resident of Delhi is giving me sleepless nights. For what I see outside the window is outright scary -- not only for me but also, and more importantly, for my children. 

What I find heartbreaking is that not only poor and illiterate -- those who perhaps have only festivals to assert their existence -- are lighting fireworks and crackers indiscriminately, but also the so-called educated of the society are indulging in it uninhibitedly. In my apartment complex alone, the crackers began at least three days before Diwali and went on until late last evening. This when they can see the result right in front of their eyes: the smoke, the smog, the haze -- not only outside but inside the houses too. And then there are factions that are debating the fact that firecrackers alone are not, and cannot be responsible for the pollution. Pollution is everywhere so how do my handful of crackers make a difference?

My dear educated people of the world, please understand that your ten anars or fifteen rockets may not seem like too much, but if everyone lights as many firecrackers, it will translate into billions -- and much, much more poison for your children. And yes, the lights that your plug in three days before the festival and continue to keep on until a week later also has a carbon footprint, as does the plastic packaging of your 'gift packs' and the smoke from your car that you run for hundreds of kilometers within the city to distribute these 'gift-packs' and buy these lights.

Please stop and think about your children. What kind of world are you leaving behind for them? What kind of life do you want them to live? What kind of values are you passing on to them? Because, my dear educated people of the society, money may buy you air purifiers and face masks, but no amount of money can help you buy clean air for your children.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Of Irreverence, Writing, and New Beginnings

It is 4:45 in the morning and after many, many weeks I have been able to wake up at this hour without feeling giddy with exhaustion only to fall in my bed again. After many weeks I feel like spending some time with my thoughts on this blog. But what do I write about?

Earlier today -- rather yesterday -- I shared a piece with my friends that I had written three years ago. I had shared it because I still agreed with what I had said back then, but more so because I was pleasantly surprised by the irreverence in my writing. Unlike many other posts, I had many reactions to this, mostly of people who agreed with the point. Friends and acquaintances from whom I had not heard in a while wrote to me; some of them called too. I also had many, many (over 200)  others reading it without saying much. Seems like everyone else liked the irreverence too.

When I had written that post, being read by 200 people was not something I had ever expected or imagined would happen. At that time, at the most, 2 people read my posts: one, the husband; two, a friend. Anything extra was a bonus to be celebrated. 

Perhaps that is why I could write so uninhibitedly.

I could put on paper -- or on the screen -- what I had not been able to say all those years. Sometimes what came out after a night long tryst with my thoughts surprised others, mostly it surprised me: was I even capable of saying all this?  Where had I been hiding so much? I am not sure about others but I really liked the woman who spoke in New Beginning. It was a indeed new beginning for her.

Today, three years later, the same woman is totally lost. The beginning that had been made has been going rather well. The dream of writing and being read has been fulfilled but the irreverence is lost. It has since been replaced by 'what will they say' syndrome. I seem to be going the way most writers do. 

"What will they say' syndrome is not new to me though. If that is what keeps me from writing blasphemous things now, it prevented me from sharing what I wrote. I was unsure of the reactions and judgements people might make after reading all that I wrote. And I, the dutiful wife, the doting mother, the daughter, the sister, the friend, could not risk my image, could I? And so, even though the pages of this blog are full of things I wanted to say, and did say, they were never shared with people I know, or who know me.

My writing, when it started, was not only a result of what I hadn't said until then. It was a direct reflection of what I read and how much I read. It was also fueled by unhappiness with the system. A friend had once commented on how angry my posts were. Nobody likes to read angry writing, he added, people have enough anger of their own. Even though I did not agree with what he said then, subconsciously it seems to have affected me. My posts started becoming more and more tepid. Not something I want or like. 

And so, today, three years after it all began, and months since I wrote for myself, I promise myself another new beginning, in which I will go back to being who I truly am. I only hope I am still capable of doing that. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Date with the Goddess

A large replica of the Meenakshi Temple stands quietly at a crossing, towering over apartment complexes and palatial bungalows of the posh neighbourhood. Painted in shades of red, yellow, green and pink, adorned with intricately carved idols, it looks every inch the original temple it is supposed to be. A few lanes away, the famous Ambaji temple from Gujrat has come to life in white and gold spires. Its perfect torans welcome you at the gate even as celestial nymphs dance on the layered white ceiling inside; a fluttering red flag on top completes the picture. At a little distance, the Sun God can be seen riding his chariot pulled by seven golden horses. The chariot is decorated with miniature paintings, peacock motifs, arched doorways and marble lanterns. There is also Pegasus, the flying horse, created with terracotta beads guarding a beetle-nut plantation, a large Burmese pagoda standing majestically on a busy intersection, a studio with angels and demons hanging from its rooftop, a tribal village set up in the middle of the city, and much, much more.

It is humanly impossible to describe all the Puja Pandals in Calcutta, it is perhaps not possible to see all 2000 of them either, but it is surely worth your while to spend a few days experiencing one of the world’s greatest art festivals that comes to life in Calcutta during the Durga Puja.

My numerous visits to Calcutta have taught me quite a few things about the city and its people. Being prepared for the Puja frenzy and spending hours on the road – either stuck in traffic or standing in queues in front of the pandals – is one of them. But it has also taught me some shortcuts. To avoid the very first traffic jam – the perpetual one on the Howrah Bridge – I decide to take the ferry across the river. It is not only a time-tested method to beat the taxi queues and the traffic at the railway station, but also provides a spectacular view of the Calcutta sky. In less than fifteen minutes of de-boarding the train on a busy shashti morning, I am already on the other side of the Hoogly, standing in the shadow of colonial Calcutta.

The city seems to have just had a shower and every inch of it is now glistening in mild autumn sun. The mild fragrance of orange-stemmed Shiuli hangs heavy in the forever moist air of the city. Blooming of the Shiuli flower, incidentally, is also considered the onset of autumn, and in Calcutta, it means only one thing: Durga is on her way home with her children. In this part of the city though there is no sign of the mother or the children so I hail a taxi and head to where all the action is.
Your experience of Durga Puja largely depends on which part of the city you decide to go to: the elite South-Calcutta or the rustic North-Calcutta. I chose to head south for it is during my stay here that I started appreciating the festival and what it stands for. Until then, the non-Bengali in me could never appreciate the madness around the festival.

In hop off the taxi at the junction close to my erstwhile home and walk.

Like always, the pandal outside my apartment complex in Hindustan Park is small but based on a contemporary theme – the recent surgical strikes – but the showstopper here, like always, is the idol. Dressed in a thick cotton sari, sans any jewellery, or weapons, the goddess looks like the everyday woman of Bengal. I thank her for getting me here and walk towards some of the most famous pandals in town – Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Singhi Park, and Ballygunj Cultural Association.

It is barely noon now but the neighbourhood is already bursting with colour and bustling with people. The roads are lined with colourful banners and advertisements: on one hand you have Vidya Balan selling jewellery and Boroline, on another you have Saina Nehwal telling you the benefits of an anti allergy powder. Here you have Ajay Devgan riding a horse; there you have Saurav Ganguly holding a bottle of Coke. There are many others too who my non-Bengali eyes cannot recognize. The people meanwhile are out in full force despite the rain and humidity, dressed in their Puja best.

Outside the largest pandal, a replica of the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, an army of hawkers has already set shop. They are selling everything from puchkas to jhalmuri, from pizzas to burgers, from ice creams to mishti doi, and are doing brisk business too. Looking at people devouring puchka after puchka, I am tempted to try my hand at a few too when the sky opens up and I have to run for cover.


“You must take the cab from under the flyover, it is the closest and the cleanest way to reach Shobhabazar. I always use that road. But then the road may be closed. What about the next signal? Why don’t you take a right from there? I saw some taxis going that way. Oh ho! Why did you not turn? Now we will have to stand here for another half an hour. You should have turned right from the last intersection only.”

I sit sandwiched between my friend and her mother in the backseat of a taxi as they try to decide on the best route to get to our destination. It is only 5:00 PM but the road ahead is jam-packed, so is the road on the right and the pavement on the left. The driver, an elderly Sikh gentleman who speaks Bangla, has been trying to explain to them that most roads have either been closed down or have been converted into one-ways, but the mother-daughter duo is not ready to believe him. “He’s trying to make money out of us,” they tell me in English. After an hour and a half on the road, and listening to my friend and her mother’s high-pitched conversation about almost everything related to the Puja, we finally get off the cab in the heart of North Calcutta.

Unlike its posh counterpart, North Calcutta does not boast of many large-scale pujas. The pandals here are more artsy and less commercial and mostly hidden in narrow lanes and by lanes. The food isn’t fancy either. Unlike the burgers and pizzas of the South, huge pots of Biryani and Korma line the wide avenue. There are large stalls selling Chinese food, kathi rolls and hand churned ice cream too.

Meandering through the lanes of the humble neighbourhood we spot many innovative pandals. One of them made up entirely of scrap, another just with washing machine pipes. Next comes a colourful Eiffel tower followed by a jungle and a cave. My favourite is the one with a mammoth Mahishasur pinned to the ground by Durga’s trident. The most famous puja of North Calcutta however happens to be at the potter’s colony called Kumhartuli. This is also the place where all the idols for the festival are created. Owning to its popularity, the pandal is often crowded and queues run into miles. Today is no different. The queue can be seen from over a kilometer away. In no mood to jostle the crowd I promptly turn back.

If there is one place in Calcutta, where you can expect some peace and quiet even during Puja frenzy, it is Park Street. Having spent the entire day pandal-hopping, all I can think of now is a place to sit and something to drink. After much deliberation my friend and I settle for Trincas, an institution best known for supplying office goers with their daily dose of alcohol. It seems like a safe bet for hiding from the Puja crowd: who would spend the shashti evening cooped up in a bar? What I seemed to have forgotten is that no place can escape the puja frenzy in Calcutta.

The bar turns out to be noisy and overflowing with people. My first instinct is to return from the door itself but chances of finding a table anywhere else are bleak, so we take on the only vacant table in a corner. Next to us is a group of middle aged women drinking and singing along the band that is dishing out bollywood numbers, to my left is a young couple with a child, gorging on chilli chicken, in front of me is a family of four laughing and swaying to the music. As I settle down with my drink, I find myself enjoying too. What is Durga Puja without some noise and crowd after all.

This post first appeared in The Hindu

Friday, September 30, 2016

In The Kingdom Of The Sun

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

Sixty-five kilometres from the capital city of Bhubaneshwar, and thirty-five kilometres from Jagannath Puri, with even the last hamlet a few miles away, the Sun Temple in Konark gives ‘in the middle of nowhere’ an all-new meaning. Built in the 13th Century by King Narasimhadeva of the Ganga dynasty, by the now-vanished Chandrabhaga River, this UNESCO World Heritage site is often compared with Khajuraho for its form and feature, especially erotica.

Having been to Khajuraho recently, I had a similar picture of Konark in mind. I expected clean wide roads, quaint cafés, foreign tourists, and fluent English-speaking guides, but what I find here is the opposite: the road is wide but dusty, and instead of quaint cafés, it is dotted with small tea stalls and pushcarts. The tea stalls are selling tepid tea and the pushcarts are stocked with limp vadas — made of semolina, not lentils — and a watery curry of dried peas. There are some shops too, trading in coconut water, fresh cucumber, and sugarcane juice. The only remotely foreign-looking tourist in the crowd of locals and villagers happens to be me; and my guide can barely string together a sentence in English.

A long walk along the dusty road leads me to a large iron gate. I am allowed to pass through it without any checks onto a long, sandy walkway lined with stalls selling cheap handicrafts. On either side are large lawns, a standard feature of all World Heritage Sites; only here, they are unkempt and littered all over. As I reluctantly walk towards the complex, wondering if I have wasted my time, energy, and money in coming to Konark, I begin to realise how enormous the scale of the temple is.
Also known as the Black Pagoda, the temple in its original form is supposed to have contained a 52-tonne magnet in its main spire. So strong was the force of the magnet that ships often lost their way along this part of the Bay of Bengal, and therefore, the spire was brought down by merchants. This, however, is only one of the many theories related to the damage of the mammoth 229-feet-high main tower of the temple. The other stories consist of curses, lack of proper support, Muslim invasions, and natural calamities.

What I see currently is the second-largest tower of the temple, soaring a grand 128 feet against a perfectly blue sky, and a large platform with pillars but no roof. Even from a distance, the structure looks colossal, and the people around it look like colourful confetti strewn all over. Built in the form of a chariot driven by seven horses and supported by twelve pairs of wheels, the temple depicts the journey of the Sun on his chariot across the sky. The horses signify the seven days of the week, while the elaborately-carved wheels denote the 12 months of the year. Just like the Khajuraho temples, the walls here are richly adorned with gods and goddesses, nymphs and humans, animals and plants. There is erotica too, but much more subtle than what I have seen elsewhere.
What stand out most, however, are the lessons these sculptures teach, like the imposing sculpture at the stairway that has a lion crushing an elephant and the elephant a man. The elephant here depicts strength; the lion, pride. True, a man who cannot keep his ego and power under control is bound to be crushed by them.

“How do you think the kings checked time, madam,” my elderly guide suddenly asks, breaking my chain of thought. His Oriya-infested English and witty remarks have kept me entertained for over an hour now, and he has gone to the extent of declaring me a form of goddess Lakshmi since I, like her, apparently have a slightly misaligned eye.

“Do you see the wheels, madam?” the guide goes on to ask. “These are not wheels but timepieces, which were used by the kings to know the time even before watches were invented,” he adds in his lilting tone. Divided by spokes into sixteen equal parts, and further by smaller bead-like carvings into units that equal three minutes each, the wheels, with the help of the shadow of your finger, can tell you the accurate time, down to the last minute. Not only that, the ornate sections of the dials also depict the season and the time of the day: flowers for spring, mating macaques for winter; a lady dressing up in front of the mirror in the morning, stretching in the evening, and indulging in procreational activities at night. It is evident that the art here also has logic behind it.

The sprawling complex is now inundated with people out to make the most of their weekend. There are groups in every corner of the temple, some taking selfies, some hastily capturing the erotica, some gazing at the sundial in amazement. The largest congregation, however, can be seen in and around the Natya Mandap. From where I am, the high platform of the dance hall looks like a large chessboard with richly-carved columns of various kinds precariously placed like pawns. Just like the main temple tower, the rooftop of the Natya Mandap is also believed to have been damaged, but the lack of a roof-top has only enhanced its appeal.
Konark, after all, is all about imperfection.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lingering Flavours of Coorg

This piece first appeared in The Hindu

I have come to Coorg looking for two things: white coffee flowers and dark pandi curry.
The coffee flowers have evaded me. I have not bothered to crosscheck the information I have about the time of their bloom and have reached Coorg only to be greeted by torrential rains. So I pin my hopes on the other thing: Pandi curry.

I have heard many stories, watched numerous food shows, and read reams about the rich, flavourful treat from the region and, even though Pork is not my first choice of meat, I am eager to experience the phenomena called Pandi Curry.

Going by the stories I have heard, I already have a flavour of the dish in my mind: I have imagined it to be hot & spicy, with thick gravy, which tastes somewhat like the spicy mutton preparations of Andhra or the peppery chicken of Kerala. I could not be more wrong. The curry is spicy and yet bland (yes, such a combination does exist), I find it too high on spice and too low on flavor, and it does nothing for my taste buds. I make do with the beautiful rice chapattis called Akki Otti and some bland chicken.

With both my motives of travelling 2500 kilometers from home having been defeated, to say that I am now dejected will not be an exaggeration.

“What is a broken heart that cannot be mended by good food?” Says my host Kaveri when I share my disappointment with her. In a matter of minutes, I have a plateful of the most crispy onion and potato bhajjis accompanied by cups of strong coffee. I am not even done with it when her cook, the ever-smiling Lakshmi, asks what would I like for dinner. I ask for basics and eat my dinner of the perfect poriyal and parathas a few hours later in candlelight. A steady stream of rain falling on the asbestos rooftop of the cottage accompanies me for my meal.

What began with the bhajjis in the evening continues in the morning with perfectly steamed rava idlis, hand ground coconut chutney, and endless bowls of tomato Sambar (with baby potatoes). The idlis are soft as cotton, the sambar full of flavour – hot, spicy, tangy, sour all at once – and the chutney ground to perfection. I spend close to an hour sitting by myself in the brick walled verandah enjoying every bite of the food and listening to Laksmi sing a melancholic tune in Kannada.

As I get ready to pack, I realize Kaveri was indeed correct. The steaming idlis, the spicy sambar, the velvety chutney, and Lakshmi’s melancholic song have more than made up for my disappointment. I promise to come back only for them.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Discovering the Real Rasgulla

This post first appeared in The Hindu. 

Legend has it that once, upset with Krishna for not taking her along for the rath-yatra, Laxmi decides not to let him into the Jagannath temple. Upon his return, when Krishna discovers the doors to his home shut, he pleads with Laxmi to let him enter. Having had enough of the Lord’s hide and seek, she refuses to budge. Krishna tries every trick possible, but fails. Helpless, he leaves the temple, only to return in a jiffy with a pot full of soft, fluffy rasgullas. The trick works and Laxmi opens the temple doors in no time.

The story happens to be one of the many legends prevalent about the origin of the rasgulla in Odisha. Not only the legends, but the documented history of the Jagannath Temple also has mentions of the syrupy sweet. It is believed to have existed in the land of Lord Jagannath since the beginning of time.
The rasgulla has, therefore, always been a bone of contention between the Bengalis and the Oriyas. While the Bengalis believe that it was ‘invented’ in their backyard by a certain Mr. Das in the 19th Century, Oriyas laugh the claim off: How can you invent something that has always existed?

Bengali or Oriya, I have forever been in love with rasgulla and I have had my share of good and not-so-good ones too. The best so far has been the warm, nolen gur rasgullas from a non-descript shop in a bylane of South Calcutta’s Hindustan Park. The worst I prefer not to remember.
But all of these have been the Bengali version. In the land of Lord Jagannath now, I cannot wait to lay my hands — or spoon — on the legendary Oriya version.

My quest for the sweet begins as soon as I step into the temple town on a fragrant autumn evening, but as luck would have it, I get to sample it only on my third day there. In a sweet shop, after completing my pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple, and all associated places of worship, I have finally earned my share on a pattal (leaf bowl), which is handed to me by the gentleman behind the counter of the shop.

The rasgullas are large, off-white to the extent of being beige, and look deliciously different from their posh, gleaming-white cousins in big cities. I try to cut through one of them but fail. Fresh off the kadai, they are too spongy to be cut by a flimsy wooden spoon, so I choose the easiest way out. I pick up an entire piece and put it in my mouth.

It causes an explosion in my mouth. But it is not that of overwhelming sweetness or artificial sponginess; it is strong, slightly chewy, and not too sweet. 

In a matter of seconds, it dissolves in my mouth, leaving behind a lingering caramelly flavour. As I reach for the other, and another, I know why Laxmi let Krishna in. A pot full of these rasgullas is worth so much more than one’s pride.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Pran of Indian Toons

This piece first appeared in The Hindu. 

Long before I set foot in Delhi — a city I now call home — I had seen it through the strokes of his brush. Not only Delhi, I had also seen Jupiter, an alien and a computer much before I had actually seen any of them, and I was not the only one, there was an entire generation of children who did.
As a young girl of six, who had just learnt to read, my motivation to visit my uncle’s place in Allahabad would be the many books that I got to read there. I would often ride pillion on his assistant’s bicycle and go to Civil Lines to pick colourful comics, which kept me entertained and engaged for hours. All these comics — Billoo, Pinki and Chacha Chaudhary — bore a similar signature on them, which, at that time, I read as Prap (I was too young to understand arty fonts). It was much later that I realised that the man was called Pran, a name well-suited for someone who infused life into mundane, everyday incidents and characters, and made them immortal. 

Pran Kumar Sharma, fondly known as cartoonist Pran, can easily be called the pioneer of comics in India. In the 1960s, when he started drawing Daabu for a Delhi-based newspaper, there were hardly any comic strips around. Most comics available at the time were reprints or imported versions of Phantom, Mandrake and Superman. In 1969, he created Chacha Chaudhary for a magazine called Lotpot. A character that later became his trademark, and found itself a permanent place in the International Museum of Cartoon Art, USA.

An extraordinarily intelligent old man, Chacha Chaudhary, is always impeccably dressed in a white shirt, black waistcoat and a red turban. Armed with just a charming smile and a small wooden stick, he can, in no time, make the fiercest of dacoits and strongest of villains bite the dust. His mind is faster than a computer and sharper than a needle, which he uses to tackle the toughest of situations with élan, when he needs strength; he has Sabu, an alien from Jupiter and his dog Rocket. The endearing old man, not only overpowers the rogues but also teaches lessons in honesty, goodwill and brotherhood — all this while entertaining you.

While, on the one hand, you have the larger-than-life, fantasy-driven adventures of Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, on the other, you have the very real boy – and girl – next door in Billoo and Pinki, the other two most famous characters of Pran. 

Billoo is our very own version of Archie Andrews — an average school-going teenager, who loves watching TV and hates studies, he tries hard to woo his classmate Jozi, and is often chased away by her rifle-wielding father, Colonel 3-0-3. He also has his run-ins with the neighbourhood wrestler, Bajrangi Pahalwan, whose windowpanes are often a subjected to the wrath of his cricket ball. 

If Billoo is your average teenager, getting into trouble with his teachers and parents, Pinki is a cute little five-year-old. The apple of everyone’s eyes, she lives with her grandfather called dadaji, an elder sister called didi and a squirrel called tuk-tuk. A hyperactive child, Pinki tries her best to help her family and friends — whether they need it or not — and invariably ends up creating bigger problems for them. Her goofy moments, cute mannerism and disarming smile are not only delightful but also relatable. 

Together they — Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo and Pinki — transport you to a land of fantasy, happiness and joy, a land where I, and many more of my generation, have not been in a long, long time; the land where Pran, the Walt Disney of India, in his passing, seems to have escaped to, to become immortal like his characters.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Men, Women, Sex and Other Bitter Truths

Discovering your old writing is quite interesting. It not only tells you about how you wrote back then, but also reveals who you were and how you have changed since. I happened to discover something I wrote as a comment/response to someone's blog post about women & sex. This was written even before I had started writing here, for this blog. Interesting to see how bold my writing was back then. Maybe because I knew no one was reading it. 

Here's a sneak peek.

What a co-incidence! Just on our way back from Amritsar, my husband & I were discussing the same thing.

Its funny that if a woman goes out wearing modern clothes and much make up, has a drink or puffs a cigarette, talks to men, it is considered as a visible sign of her being fast & immoral. It's the other women who label her so. Perhaps they are just plain jealous that they can not do the same; the men, in all probability, usually silently appreciate her. Some might bed her too. Nothing wrong in that as long as the woman is happy, right ?? But then, the same men, when want to get married, want a virgin for a wife. Why are men not chauvinistic then ? 

A man can go out, have sex, come home & sleep like nothing happened. Even if his wife finds out, there's not much that will happen -- some emotional drama, some false promises and life will get back to normal. 

Now imagine the other situation. The wife goes out, makes love -- I use this term because, I think, women mostly make love and not have sex -- comes home, gets back to normal life. Only this time guilt hounds her, especially, if she's a "good girl". In time the husband gets a whiff hell breaks lose. I needn't explain what all can happen here.

Coming back to women vs women.

In school, I was the only one who wore short skirts and dresses, as most of the other girls had switched to suits by the time they were fifteen; I remember what a scandal it used to be. How all other girls stared at my legs, some even suggested that it was inappropriate way of dressing: what will people think?

Many years later, when I had moved onto suits, a few close friends at work were discussing men & sex when I joined in. I will spare you the details, but, what came out most significantly, was the horror when I readily participated in the conversation -- nine out of ten did not expected me to talk about it. Reason? I wore Indian clothes and looked like a good girl. If you wear indian clothes, don't use makeup, don't look "hot", you can't have or want sex, you see. Quite amusing!

Nobody imagined that someone who's dressed in a suit, hates make-up and is good at her work, can have or even want sex. So sex is a bad thing for bad girls. Maybe that is why, I too used lovemaking rather than sex. Conditioning you see!

That also reminds me, I used this topic in the first ever job interview I gave. I still remember the horror on the face of the interviewer. I think it was more to do with my being a girl, that too from a small town & not so much to do with the topic.

I think, I will write a post on that someday.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Of Muddy Boots & New Beginnings

Best things in life happen by chance. Or maybe they happen by design that seems more like chance. 

I started writing by chance too -- or maybe design that seemed like chance -- some three years ago. It is strange how I had always wanted to write but, until then, had never picked up the pen to actually write. I mean, if you want to do something, you do not take twenty years to do that, do you? Well, I somehow did. 

I began writing for no one in particular. My words at the time were only an expression of my loneliness, and sometimes, frustration. I had no one to talk to, and, if I did have someone to talk to, I did not have anything to talk about. Writing therefore came in handy.

The other thing is that I have always been poor with the spoken word. I fumble and stumble, and often end up putting my foot in my mouth, when I do not do that, I end up putting another persons foot in his mouth. Staying quiet therefore is usually the best thing to do. Writing, the second best.

And so I wrote. Sometimes purposefully, mostly purposelessly.

It was another stroke of chance, (or design?) when I got the opportunity to write for the paper. This was also something I had always wanted to do, but hadn't done anything about it before. Probably the time was now. 

Writing for others gave me confidence. It was reassuring to know that there are people, other than me, who want to read what I write. Like all writers, the obvious next step was to dream of my own book - to travel the world alone, to go where no one else has ever gone, to be where no on else has ever been. And to write about it.

But the bigger the dream is, the longer it takes for it to come true. 

A book therefore may be sometime away. I really need to feel that I am ready for that, or, as a friend puts it, I need to do enough riyaaz before I get on to the stage; but what I am surely working on is the first step towards to book -- my own travel page.

I intent to make That Girl In Muddy Boots my practice ground for all my travel work until I am confident of having enough riyaaz to back me up on the stage.

Although my travel work now moves to That Girl In Muddy Boots, New Beginning remains my first love and the place where I will continue to laugh, cry, rejoice, rant, and love. 

I hope you continue to love both.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

If you do not mourn

They say you die everyday, if yo do not mourn those who have gone away
That with every one who leaves you, a part of you is also gone,
That you lend some of your soul to the dead if you do not mourn;

They say you begin to lose your hopes, happiness and joy
That you start living in a world that will never come by
They say never again are you your own, if you decide not to mourn;

But you don't listen to what they say, for you have always been the one to have your way

So you cling on - to the people, the dreams, the relationships - in your heart and in your head
You hold on to the ghosts of the past and expect life to come back from the dead

You hope that your uncle with return someday, and your child will come back from her grave to play
You wait for the relationships to thrive, you look forward to the slightest of reprieve
You live in hope each day, for mourning the dead has never been your way;

And one day you realise, what they said was perhaps the truth and not lies

With every loss you haven't mourn, a large part of yourself you have torn
With all those who have died - people, relationships, dreams and hope, some of you has also gone
So much so that from where you stand today, apart from skeletons you can see no other way.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Of Madness & Writing

You know you have finally got off the dry spell when you get off the computer after hours only to realise that your house looks more like a battlefield and less like a home.

You know you are finally coming back to your element when you realise that you have burnt the lunch, left the clothes in the dryer too long, almost forgotten to pick the child, and haven't seen a human in hours, if not days. That you have unanswered call & messages; that your half drunk coffee cup is on the chair since morning; that your children are wandering in the house, wondering what to eat with no sign of dinner on the table or kitchen.

You know you are a force to reckon with when you have spent a large part of the day, or night, messaging friends incessantly with your passages & ideas seeking feedback, not bothered about their work or time.

And if you are a struggling writer, who has been carrying the load of a dry pen for weeks at end, you profusely thank god for the mess you are into.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Dosas of My Home-Town-In-Law

A version of this piece appeared in The Hindu.

Every year, when I head to my home-town-in-law, I have just one thing on mind – food. While the cosmopolitan nature of the town ensures you have access to the best of food from all over the country – Litti-Choka from Bihar, Puri-Aloo from UP, Rolls, Noodles, Puchka, Rasgulla & Sandesh from Bengal – it is the Dosa here that is closest to my heart, and something I long for all through the year. 
And so, hungry & tired after a 24-hour journey, the husband & I stop by at our favourite dosa cart even before we get home.

At 8:30 in the morning, the shop is overflowing with people buying Idli, Upma, Vadas, and a special variety of Dosa that is stuffed with Upma instead of the usual potato mixture (it supposedly keeps you full for longer). We park ourselves on the narrow wooden benches & look longingly at the griddle.

The griddle that is at the centre of all the action is thick & round and totally coated with batter, over which the man spreads a generous helping of onion, carrot, and beetroot mixture. He then goes on to spread the potato mix, and pours a huge ladle of oil over it. The result is a triangular dose of crispy heaven, served on a battered steel plate.

As we dig into the watery yet flavourful Sambar, the runny Dal Chutney & the perfectly golden Dosa, every minute of the year long wait for it seems worth it. 

"The Dosa arrived in Tata Nagar back in the 19th century along with its workforce from the southern states. In the last 100 years however, it has acquired a character of its own. The Dosas here are triangular & stuffed with salad apart from the potato mix, the Chutney is made with dal, not coconut; the Sambar is watery, with barely any vegetables. But one thing hasn’t changed: it still feeds the large, hungry workforce of the Steel City every morning."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What Stanford University Case Has Taught Me

This post appeared in The Huffington Post. 

The first thing I noticed on my tour of Europe last week was the women. Not only were they drop-dead gorgeous, most of them -- from 16-year-olds to 66-year-olds -- could be seen strutting around in tiny skirts or shorts and tops that were barely there. They wore make-up and heels with poise and élan that could put a model on the ramp to shame. To say that I fell in love with their confidence would be an understatement.

But more important than the women, how they looked and what they wore, was the fact that no one, and I mean no one, looked at them with awe, disgust, lust or desire. In fact, no one even turned around to give them another look. Not in the day, not in the evening, not even late at night, or in the wee hours of the morning. Having grown up in a country where not only men but even the women find it impossible to keep their eyes to themselves, it was quite difficult to believe something like this was possible. I will not be exaggerating if I say I envied those women.

I came back happy and hopeful. Happy to know that it is possible to be a woman and yet not be noticed, and hopeful that someday my girls might also live in a world where they will not be treated like beings from another world and be stared at.

And then I read about the Stanford University Case.

Turns out that I was wrong. That nothing changes with geography, country, culture. Boys are raised the same way throughout the world. That clothes, appearance, race, colour, religion, do not make a difference. That as long as you are a woman, you can be violated. 

Much has been written and said about the issue. There are clearly two sides. The judge unfortunately seems to have been on the alleged rapist's side. Just as his father, and his ex-girlfriend. Not that it surprised me. One is almost used to people who let something as heinous as rape sound acceptable. 

What stood out in this whole incident, however, was the grit of the girl. The fact that she decided to let her ordeal be known to the public. That she had the support of her family and society in doing so. It also made me wonder if we, in our society, will ever let our girls and women talk about their suffering without labelling them as loose or immoral. After all a woman who goes out at night to drink and dance is inviting trouble, isn't she? What right then does she have to complain?

The most unfortunate part is that we, even as women, teach our girls to stay quiet. We tell them to ignore people who make passes at them, to look away if someone stares at them. To cover their body, arms, even face so that they do not attract attention. To stay indoors so that they are not vulnerable.
But we do not teach our boys to respect girls. We do not tell them that the girl on the road is not your property. That any girl, young or old, rich or poor, known or unknown, has the right to her body and what she does with it. 

I cannot even count how many times I have ignored the prying eyes and the so called accidental brush of a stranger. I cannot even remember how many times people around me, who I have known, have made me uncomfortable. And I cannot deny the fact that I have been quiet throughout the 37 years of my life because every time I thought it was my fault. 

But things need to change. Someone needs to change it. And as a mother of two young girls, it is my responsibility to change what I can for them. And I urge each mother to do that. 

It is high time we tell our daughters that their body is theirs. That no one, not even the people closest to them, have a right to look at it, feel it, touch it, or violate it. That if something like that occurs, it is not their fault. That there is no shame in talking about it. That there is no loss of dignity or honour in shouting from the rooftop and shaming the man or woman who makes you feel uncomfortable.
Most importantly, we need to tell our sons to respect women. To remember they are humans with a heart and a mind and not only a body. 

And maybe, just maybe, slowly and steadily, we can make this bad world a better place.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Finding Peace in the Kalinga Valley

This piece first appeared in The Hindu. 

After winning the fierce battle of Kalinga, the land none of his predecessors could capture, a satisfied & content Ashoka stood atop Dhauli Hill to survey his newly acquired kingdom. He had expected to see lush green farms flanked by the pious Daya River and rich coconut groves, what he witnessed instead was death & devastation. The river, clean and pure until some weeks before, had turned red with blood; the farms no longer had crops, just dead, decomposed bodies. The sight transformed the ruthless emperor forever and he embraced Buddhism then & there.

I reach Dhauli on a bright, warm Sunday Morning expecting it to be full of tourists & travelers, but am pleasantly surprised at the emptiness of the place. Other than a few shops selling locally packed food, I see no trappings of a tourist centre either. 

A small flight of stairs leads me to a landing. Flat & large, it looks like just another temple courtyard, not a hilltop. On one side of the courtyard is a small enclosure with a Buddhist temple. The large blue board outside the temple declares the connection between the temple and Buddha’s predictions from 2,500 years ago. The temple doors however are shut, but I find the window open and peep in. 

Inside the compact room, banners of Na-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyu hang between two pillars, and the ceiling is festooned with red, blue, and yellow buntings. Numerous idols of Buddha are placed on a high platform along with prayer books, bells, candles; a drum stands on the side. I want to ask someone when will the temple open but can find no one around. Disappointed I walk towards the Stupa.

Located just off the Bhubneswar-Puri highway, the imposing white Pagoda is visible from afar. While the hill, and the history associated with it, dates back to 261 BC and even has relics from Ashoka’s time, the Stupa is fairly recent – it was built in 1972 by the Japanese Buddhist Sangha and is the current face of Dhauli. The same foundation has also built the temple in the courtyard.

By now, the hitherto quiet surroundings of the hill have started to stir. Some tourists have arrived in a mini bus and a few local couples on bikes. While the tourists soon start doing touristy things – lighting incense sticks, clicking pictures with the family, talking in high pitched voices – the couples get busy doing couple things. I spot one sheepish pair trying to steal a kiss under a golden lion, in no mood to spoil their reverie I look away.

It is evident that the place has had a glorious past. The Stupa, adorned with murals depicting scenes from Ashoka’s life, idols of Buddha, and large golden lions perched atop tall columns, must have looked resplendent in its hay days, presently though it is in shambles. The plaster is coming off from places, idols are defaced with graffiti, and paint is peeling off at several places from the walls. The golden lions have turned pale too as if mourning the neglect.

What strikes me though is the peace and quiet of the place – despite the crowd & clamour there is a sense of serenity here that is hard to miss. 

As more and more people fill the narrow corridor of the Stupa up, I retreat into a corner and look at the panoramic view of the Kalinga valley. From where I am I can only see shades of green and blue, and a silver Daya river winding across the fluorescent expanse. Some stray clouds meanwhile float in the deep blue sky even as soothing breeze fills the place up. I try to imagine how Ashoka would have felt when he looked at the river of blood & the carpet of bodies from the same spot, but fail. The positivity here overpowers every negative emotion. I am reminded that it is this peace & tranquility that both Buddha and Ashoka had intended to achieve by spreading the faith; they certainly seem to have succeeded in doing that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Of Anxiety, Worthlessness & Lost Friends.

The worst thing about anxiety, depression, polarity etc is the way it affects your relationships. It makes you do things to people you'd not normally do. It makes people do things to you the way they normally wouldn't.

I have, sometimes, for no valid reason, spewed venom on those closest to me. I have called, texted, even woken people up just to fight or have an argument with them. All this not because they have done anything to deserve it, but because I was in such a deep pit myself that all I could to do was to pull them down in the pit with me: I needed company!

Most people have understood & forgiven me. Some of them have pulled me up. But there have been those who have neither forgiven, nor helped me get back. Ironically they were the ones I relied on the most. Maybe I had hurt them beyond repair: you always take those closest to you for granted.

The thing about such feelings is that they isolate you from the world around you. You see the world as I and them. You look at them being happy and going about their lives while you continue to suffer. Often in silence.

Then there are times when you gather courage and seek help. You tell people about what you are going through, but mostly you suffer in silence: How do you explain to a normal person the knots in your stomach? Or the sinking of your heart? How do you convey the helplessness and dejection, the fear and the anxiety? How do you justify the highs and the lows?

Most of my highs have been followed by lows. The happier I have been, the more forlorn I have become. The feeling of being on top of the world, in no time, transforms into a feeling of uselessness and worthlessness. The transformation is so sudden that often I don't know what make of it. 

It is therefore quite understandable if others around me cannot. It's also possible that they consider me as moody and irresponsible especially in my behaviour. It is OK if they do so, after all they can only see the manifestation of my anguish. But what is not OK is the lack of empathy for the millions who suffer silently because no one understands.

But what does someone who doesn't know how it feels do to help?

It is fairly simple. If you ever come across a person who acts unlike himself, do not judge him/her. Do not try to solve the problem for the person either. All someone with anxiety needs is a friend, some one who can listen to him, someone who tells him he's not crazy or stupid or mad or irresponsible. Someone who reiterates that this too shall pass.

If you can, be that someone.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Joy of The Jalebi

A version of this post first appeared in The Hindu

It is 11:30 in the morning and we are as famished as we are tired. We have been out since 4:00 AM, have driven over 250 kms, visited the tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula and the Taj Mahal, and are on our way to the erstwhile capital of Akbar, where we also plan to catch up on breakfast. But there is a problem: we have taken a wrong turn and instead of being on the road to Fatehpur Sikri, we are stuck in a narrow lane in the heart of Agra’s Sadar Bazaar.

On a Sunday Morning, all of Agra seems to have descended on the street: hawkers, shoppers, cattle, cyclists, pedestrians. So we crawl on the street along with them hungry, angry, and frustrated praying no one hits our brand-new car.

It is then that we spot it. A corner shop with wok full of hot, juicy jalebis and fat, round asafetida laced kachauris. We forget all about our misery & stop the car in the middle of the road for a dose of UP-special breakfast.

Jalebi & kachauri happen to be the most coveted breakfast the Hindi heartland. Rich, flavourful, and wholesome it is almost a staple with the locals. Every Sunday morning, irrespective of which part of the state you are in, you can see a long queue of men & children in front of sweet shops waiting patiently for their Jalebis and kachauris. 

The flavours of the kachauri keep varying as per region – tangy in the eastern stretches, asafetida laced and spicy in the western parts; served with dry potato preparation in the east and with oily gravy in the west – but the form of the dish remains the same. These crusty, crispy, beautiful domes of flour, filled with lentil mixture fried to perfection and served with potatoes on the side can turn the biggest prudent foodie into a glutton. Jalebis on the other hand remain the universal favorite. Unlike most part of the country though, in UP they are eaten in the morning and are essential to complete your breakfast. They are also fatter, juicier and much more sinful than their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Together they are to UP what Fish & Chips are to a Brit – inseparable with each other and staple of the locals.

By the time I reach the stall, dreaming & salivating, there are only four Kachauris left in the shop and there are at least ten people in the queue ahead of me. I almost break down in frustration and anticipation. I don’t know if it is pity or awe that my expression induces in the shopkeeper, but he decides to hand over the last four pieces to me along with a bag full of piping hot jalebis. On another day, I’d have insisted on waiting for my turn, but today I shamelessly grab them and run back to the car.  Being a UPite there is nothing more precious to me than my Jalebi-Kachauri breakfast.

Friday, April 15, 2016

In Search Of Solitude

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

At 10 in the morning, the sun is as bright as it is hot. It is hard to keep your eyes open without a pair of sunglasses on, just as it is difficult to stand in the sun for long without having to scurry for cover every now and then. However, shade is not that easy to find; after all, I am at a place where there is hardly anything except the sun, sand and some roofless ruins.

The idea of travelling 2,700 km from home to a tiny shoal of land jutting out from the southern tip of the country had struck me while reading about The Ramayana. I had not only discovered the interesting past of Rameswaram — until then, it was just a pilgrim centre to me — but had also come across the story of the ghost town of Dhanushkodi. I had planned to visit soon after reading about it in December, but could manage to get away only in the middle of summer, after months of planning and days of travelling.

According to legend, when Rama’s army had to cross over to Lanka, he built a stone bridge over the ocean. After the war, when there was no use for it, he broke it with the end of his bow. Dhanushkodi happens to be one part of that bridge.

If one part of Rama’s bridge lies at Dhanushkodi, the other end is not too far away: just 30 km into the ocean is the Sri Lankan border town of Talaimannar. Supposedly the other end of Rama’s bridge, it is a flourishing coastal town and the closest land border with India.

Strange as it may sound, until only 52 years ago, India and Ceylon were connected through these two towns. The Indian Railways ran a train called the Boat Mail from Madras to Dhanushkodi; from there, passengers were ferried across the straits in boats to Talaimannar. At this time, Dhanushkodi was a bustling town with a sizeable population.

All that changed on the night of December 23, 1964, when a cyclone of unprecedented scale hit the coast. So high were the waves, that not only the coast, but the entire town was taken in its wake.
The tide engulfed homes, schools, hospitals, post offices, railway lines, and even a running train with more than 100 people on board. Neither the train nor its passengers were ever found. The town was declared unfit for habitation. The railway line was terminated and diverted to Rameswaram. The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by vehicles that have been converted into a 4-wheel drive indigenously, by attaching a small metal part to the wheel. No other vehicle can run over such thick layers of sand. We travelled in one such jeep from Rameswaram. Since the time we left the chaos of the temple town behind an hour ago, we had only had the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for company on either side. There were some stone walls too, erected for the safety of tourists and pilgrims. Beyond the haphazard walls was a never-ending stretch of gold: the sun’s rays dancing on the surface of the sea. The sky, meanwhile, was a deep shade of blue. 

The surreal drive, with the glimmering waters, the uneven boundary walls, the sound of the sea and the salty breeze, was an experience that I thought could not be outdone; until I reached land’s end, that is.

It is ironic that devastation should be so beautiful. With its untouched beaches, sparkling water, and distance from the chaos of cities, Dhanushkodi could pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean. Should you build a luxury resort here, it could give the most exotic islands a run for their money. But all you see are ruins: the walls of a church, with its altar and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall-and-a-half of the hospital; a tall column and some arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what was once a railway track.

There are some humans too — five, to be precise. They run shacks here, selling trinkets and packed food and beverages to the few who find their way into the wilderness. But they do not live here; they come here much after the sun rises and return much before it sets. 

My not knowing Tamil at this point became a handicap, even though I wanted to talk to these people, to find out if they belonged to Dhanushkodi, or if their ancestors ever lived here, but all I could manage was a polite greeting before going ahead.

The quietness was unsettling; the lack of any sign of humanity eerie, and the melancholy the place induces, unnerving. 

I tried looking for signs of life — a stray dog, some birds, trees, vegetation — but apart from some tiny crabs on the sand and some wild weeds, I saw nothing. I walked a little more, and then, I did not have even the weeds or the crabs for company; just the sun, sand, sea and me.

I thought of looking myself up on the map — by my estimate, I would be a tiny dot placed almost inside the sea — but gave the thought up midway and quickly headed back to the vehicle.
I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for solitude, but was now eager to get back to the commotion of Rameswaram.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Of Voyeurism, Kate Middleton & The Frustrated Indian.

This morning, the first thing I read in the papers was about the court declaring voyeurism a punishable offence. Case in point was a man peeping into a girl’s bathroom regularly. While the report left a bad taste in my mouth, I was reminded of the girls I know who underwent the same trauma.

These were not the girls on street who had to go on the road or the bushes, but girls like me who lived in big houses protected by boundary walls and iron gates, and yet, they were vulnerable enough to be violated in the apparently protected environment of their own homes. While today, after twenty years of the incident, they may laugh the matter off, it cannot negate the fright, terror, and humiliation they went through at the time.

I was in a way happy that the judiciary is becoming conscious of the right to a woman's privacy, although not sure how much a law can change the mind of a man who views a woman only as meat.

The next thing I saw, this time on FB, was Kate Middleton's picture at Rajghat. Apparently the wind had gotten into her dress while she was paying tribute at the samadhi and the press went camera crazy. The picture went on to be published on the front page of a national daily, complete with a crappy headline. I will not be surprised if the photographer gets a promotion for doing a wonderful job and raking in the money for the papers, but will be pleasantly amazed if he is sacked.

The picture, which I refuse to share – for if I do, I would also be compromising the dignity of the woman – tells exactly what is wrong with our country. It is a testimony of our sexually frustrated society, our perverted minds (I can bet that at least 70% of us, who have not seen the picture yet, will look it up after reading this post) and our voyeuristic mentality, and the fact that a woman is nothing but a piece of meat. It does not matter if she is Royalty or the woman at the road.

While we pretend to be moral, chivalrous, modern people on the outside, specially when it comes to sharing posts on Facebook, re-tweeting tweets on twitter & circulating moral messages on Watsapp, in reality we ogle at the legs of the woman who chooses to wear a skirt, we strip the girls in sleeveless clothes & low neck tops with our eyes; we grope the women with dupattas and saris with our hands.

We also create advertisements that talk about grabbing buns, breasts & thighs; about providing, or not providing women at a pub. And we find this funny.

The saddest part is that it is not only men who do that. Women are equally at fault: have you seen a mother, mother-in-law, sister, or wife telling the man to look away if the woman is in a state of disarray? No, they have always told to women to cover up lest the man be tempted. 

A few days ago, a well-meaning neighbour patronizingly told me how he is concerned about my daughter's safety. The daughter, who is barely eight, dresses is shorts when she goes down to play. And, according to him, it can be harmful for her. "You know how the men think, we need to be careful."

I wanted to tell him that I don't need to be careful of how my child dresses, a man who looks at her badly needs to be careful of me, lest I pull his eyes out. But I just nodded my head and walked ahead. And that is what is wrong with our society.