Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why attack a 'Makdee''.... and spare the snakes?

A Frazer and Haws Ganeshji. One of my all time favourite images taken at the showroom in New Delhi.
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                 Why attack a ‘Makdee’… and spare the snakes?
I was really, really aghast to read the entirely unfair publicity given to a vulnerable young actress, driven to prostitution after experiencing abject failure in Bollywood, despite a promising start. And what a start it was! 11-year-old Shweta Basu Prasad won a National Film  Award for Best Child Artist in 2002, for her performance in Vishal Bharadwaj’s film, ‘Makdee’. Twelve short years later,  at age 23, the poor girl is splashed across national and regional newspapers after she was “ caught in a compromising situation” in a Hyderabad hotel.Arrested by the over-vigilant cops and packed off to a Rehabilitation Home, Shweta faces a minimum of  ten days in custody while the cops frame a charge sheet. Effectively, her life and career are both over. And I fear for her  safety. Going by the abysmal track record of how all such State run shelters and Homes function, with rampant sexual abuse, torture, starvation and worse, Shweta is likely to face a whole host of nasty problems while she is being ‘rehabilitated’ at  government expense. Meanwhile, the media will sadistically pounce on the juicy story and torment her further… till the next scandal… and the next.
Shweta’s sordid experience in showbiz is not new or unique. There are thousands of Shwetas out there, struggling to survive in a heartless industry, which is more a meat packing factory than a provider of legitimate entertainment. The real tragedy of girls like Shweta kicks in after they taste early success, and then nothing happens. Buoyed by praise and misled by avaricious agents, they start dreaming big and expecting too much. Since image is everything these days, they often end up living way beyond their means, frequently borrowing money to subsidise their jumped up lifestyles. Movie business the world over functions in exactly the same way, when it comes to women.  It works on a demand/supply principle. The supply always exceeds the demand. There are any number of alarmingly young girls waiting for a break and willing to go to any lengths to get it. Shweta had it better than most, having worked with established directors like Nagesh Kuknoor and Ram Gopal Varma.  Despite such a huge advantage, Shweta, when she was busted in the staged raid, was broke and jobless. In her brave and upfront statement, she stated she had a family to support and was lured into prostitution by an agent who set her up with a Mumbai businessman.
Why pick on a comparative non-entity like Shweta, when there are hundreds of high profile, prominent, top bracket stars indulging in exactly the same  ‘dhanda’? It’s an open secret in Bollywood as insiders snigger about the ‘rate cards’ doing the rounds. Some of the featured names would make most people roll over and die of shock! One wonders where Shweta went wrong. She blames her flop career to picking the wrong roles.A lot of actresses pick wrong roles, but not all of them become prostitutes. The problem is different. Bollywood  refuses to acknowledge the levels of poverty and desperation that drive young aspirants ( male and female) to seek other avenues to pay their bills and stay alive. Some of these strugglers take to drugs and alcohol ( a brave admission by ‘Mary Kom’ Director Omung Kumar Bhandula, that his FTII trained father died an alcoholic after failing to get roles), and that path  often leads to prostitution or…. suicide.
Shweta is a victim of a sting operation conducted by a Telugu television channel. She was easy bait. With no powerful patrons or backers, Shweta turned out to be just the thing a TRP- obsessed media organization could effortlessly exploit.But why have Shweta’s clients been shielded from media glare? Why aren’t they being named and shamed ? Why pick on Shweta?  Her story got the cops what they were looking for – attention. And the channel  got its eyeballs. Where does that leave Shweta? At the bottom of a pit… still poor… and now shunned as well. ‘Balu’, the pimp who booked her for a fee of one lakh a night (keeping 15k  as his commission) allegedly assured her she wasn’t the only actress indulging in this racket, and several other actresses also free-lanced as prostitutes in order to keep body and soul together. This was Shweta’s  third ‘assignment’ and possibly her last. At 23, her future is looking scarily dark and grim. If anything happens to this young woman , who will assume responsibility? The State? Bollywood? Society?

We need to take better care of the Shwetas we may know in our own lives. We certainly owe a desperate, hungry, young person that much.

Kashmir: A flood of memories...


                 The nation weeps for and with the people of  J & K…

All of this week, I frantically tried to contact three men – Yousf  Bhai, Naqvi and Sajjid .They are my “Kashmiri friends.”  I  have known them for a few years now. Over time, we have established a warm and wonderful friendship.  Sadly, so far I have not received a response from any of them. Are they safe? Are they even alive?Like me, there are thousands of people who are deeply concerned about friends and relatives they have not heard from.There are thousands  more who are mourning the loss of loved ones.  Ironically, it has taken a grim national tragedy to bring one thing sharply into focus  -  we can jointly challenge and fight the mightiest of enemies within and outside the country, but there is nothing we can do to halt nature’s fury. Even as the water levels come down and some modicum of ‘normalcy’ returns to Srinagar and other severely affected areas, those of us with emotional connections to the State will continue to keep our hopes alive… till the actual news arrives and we get to know for ourselves whether it’s good or bad.
The three men I mention are traders of the finest shawls and carpets from Kashmir. For four generations their families have been engaged in the pursuit of beauty and excellence through their exquisite, hand crafted wares. During our chats, I have asked the younger men whether they’ve thought of doing something else, something more ‘modern’, and they’ve shaken their heads, “ This is our legacy… this is our life.”. Their deep knowledge and fine taste have illuminated our exchanges, regardless of whether I was buying anything. Just watching them remove each precious shawl from its soft mulmul covering, and gently open its folds to reveal indescribable beauty, has been a matchless experience I will always treasure. It is at once a richness and a rare education to hear them speak passionately about family traditions going back  a century and more. And to share stories about wealthy patrons from overseas who have tried in vain to entice them to ‘step up production’ and market their shawls to international luxury stores. “How do we explain to these people that it is impossible? We cannot insult our inheritance and weave mechanically in order to meet market demands!”
Each time they visit, they bring  kilos of freshly shelled walnuts and apricots from their garden, honey from the wild flowers of their region, delicate saffron stems from the fields they tend, hand embroidered  silk firans for the girls, and pashmina scarves as presents for close friends. Such generosity! Such refinement! So much pride in their craft. Like them, there must be countless families struggling to cope with this monumental tragedy, their looms washed away, their precious shawls and carpets destroyed by the furious waters, their homes completely submerged, along with any hopes of  recovering what  is irretrievably lost in the deluge.
It is at a time like this that India truly shines. Not all of us have a personal connection to people affected by the floods in J & K ,yet we are bound together as a nation by the devastation that has already claimed over 300 lives . It is the men of our armed forces we need to express our deepest gratitude to. Over 1,081 sorties have been undertaken so far and over 1,10,000 lives saved under extremely hazardous circumstances . The combined efforts of  our men in uniform have seen the successful evacuation of  countless trapped citizens. The newly installed Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh has led 30,000 of  his men from the front, earning the blessings of  innumerable marooned J&K  denizens.  But where was Chief Minister Omar Abdullah? Or his ministers? Busy using their VVIP status to rescue their own people, according to reports.Shockingly enough, Abdullah was callous enough to state, “People are alive to shout slogans, I have no problems.” Really! The problems are right there, right now. And the irate people of your State are ready to deal with them… and you. Watch out, Omar!
Perhaps, an overdue and vital turning point has finally been reached between the people of the beleaguered state and the Centre. If this crisis does lead to a truce of sorts, both sides should seize it immediately. All efforts should be made to build on the goodwill generated by the intervention of  the Indian Army. Yes, there is rage. And frustration, too.  Faced with local administrative indifference, arrogance and apathy, denied access to food or water, with poor or zero data available about missing people, a backlash is inevitable. The real challenge begins now. The waters will soon recede. But the floodgates of public anger  have been opened.Winter is round the corner. There are bereft families out there who have lost everything…. loved ones, possessions, homes. A shroud of sorrow covers the valley.

As for me, I am praying hard while waiting for the phone to ring with good news about my three loving  brothers from Kashmir -  Yousf  Bhai, Sajjid and Naqvi -  wherever you are, may God be with you.
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                         Twisting two words – ‘Love’ and ‘Jihad’.
It is really unfortunate that our creepy- crawlies ( read: politicians of a certain hue ) have deliberately concocted a dangerous and ugly term (“ Love Jihad” ) and given a bad name to both words. In fact, the random and reckless overuse of LJ, has spawned an entire industry of haters and baiters, busy ‘outing’ couples they hold guilty. The media, too, has fallen for this nonsense, and readers have been subjected to reams and reams of  LJ stories, some with a positive spin, but most, minus a modicum of sensitivity or tact. It is that time of the year when we feel obliged to display ‘communal  harmony’ at its most self-conscious. So, newspapers will feature Hindu-Muslim celebrity jodis ( the usual suspects), and carry pictures of  Bollywood stars from  different faiths, celebrating Ganpati “with fervour’’… as if there is some other way to celebrate festivals. Get ready for more such cheesy coverage during Durga Puja, Navratri and Diwali. Perhaps, these reminders are essential at a time when a crass female politico from Gujarat is talking about banning Muslim boys from attending Dandiya Raas evenings, because she fears an epidemic of ‘Love Jihads’ . What sort of rubbish is this! And why don’t more citizens show people like her their place?
Interfaith marriages work on exactly the same principles as same faith ones. And fail for the same reasons. Chances of  ‘no faith’ marriages surviving or collapsing, are also the same. At the end of it, love marriages (as opposed to arranged) are about love. And love involves commitment. Commitment, like the clever ad famously reminded us, is like Lycra – either you have, or you don’t. When two young people take the plunge, they do so in good faith. That faith does not come with religious strings attached. Mischievous politicians are deliberately misusing words like ‘Jihad’ to scare and confuse people. Any form of  coercion is unacceptable.  Any forced conversion, is awful. Yes -  both happen. Sensible people condemn them, regardless of which religion is involved.  Faith is personal. And should remain personal. It is humiliating to force citizens in a democracy to flaunt or deny it. Which is why, we need to exercise great caution before blabbering about ‘Love Jihad’, without bothering to examine its wider, trickier implications.
Here’s a charming story I heard during a recent trip to Hyderabad. A cheerful  restaurant manager struck up a friendly conversation with me over breakkfast, as I attacked a gigantic paper dosa. He was the original Bandra Boy ( though,a Catholic from Kerala, and not a Goan, as he hastily clarified). He couldn’t marry the girl he loved, since he didn’t own his own house. The broken- hearted fellow moved to Hyderabad and got a good job as a waiter in a 5-star hotel. Soon, he met lovely local girl and they got married. Sensing that his wife was the bright star in the relationship, our man willingly and shrewdly rejigged his identity, plus his prioritities. He promptly changed his name and adopted her surname and religion. They have two kids today, who follow the mother’s faith.  The lady is going great guns, pursuing higher education, while her husband continues to work regular hours at the hotel and takes care of the kids. Once his wife has an MBA degree under her belt, she plans to apply for a better job after which the family will move to a bigger place,preferably  in an area where they don’t have to buy expensive drinking water from a tanker. In other words, here’s a family that is fully sorted. After 22 years at the hotel, the guy still has amazing levels of enthusiasm, as he looks after guests with a broad smile and genuine involvement.  He is happy with the choices he has made and looking forward to an upswing in his life after his wife clears her exams. He proudly showed me her photographs from his phone and said, “No tension. No ego. It has worked out. I speak Telugu fluently, eat local food, and participate in community life.” I pumped his hand before leaving the restaurant. I am sure there are countless couples across India like this happy chap.  While petty politicians create enmity and rifts between people, there are those who go about their lives quietly and in peace. The only way to combat the ‘Love Jihad’ controversy  is to mock it, and mock those talking about it. Who better than Yo Yo Honey Singh to do that for a mass audience?   After giving us the catchy, stupendously successful ‘Baby Doll’, may we suggest an irreverent take titled ‘Love Jihad’ that exposes Netas who manipulate the gullible with this loaded term?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi, Blogdosts...


                       Smriti could learn a thing or two from Sarika…
Sarika , the talented, light-eyed actress of yore (“Humraaz” 1967), has always but always been her own person. She was one of the first leading ladies in Bollywood to openly break a cardinal rule or two when it came to acknowledging romantic relationships. Without going into too many personal details, let it be said that it took guts to leave her home, take charge of her career, and move in with Karan Kapoor ( Shashi Kapoor’s photographer son). Subsequently, she fell in love with a much married Kamalhassan, moved South, produced two daughters (Akshara and Shruti) with him, took a backseat from acting, and immersed herself totally in her husband’s world. Till, that carefully built universe collapsed…  and she found herself  back in Mumbai, ready to begin a new life yet again, minus any discernible support system. Rather than allow such a traumatic mid-life crisis to bog her down, Sarika quietly picked up the pieces and soldiered on. Today, she has slipped back seamlessly into Bollywood and more recently, into commercial television (“Yudh”). Sarika continues to remain an outsider in the glamour world, sticking to handloom sarees, sporting little or no jewelry, her luminous face devoid of make-up.Her daughters are doing reasonably well in a hard and cruel business that’s showbiz. And Sarika sensibly makes zero reference to Kamalhassan.
What interested me about her present life was her candid confession in a recent HT Brunch interview. When asked about her educational qualifications, she stated simply that she’d never been to school and college ( “ never went to any. I studied on my own)! And yet, here was a woman who picked Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as her all-time favourite book and answered most of the other questions in a mature, straight-forward fashion. Sarika sounded far more educated than many so-called well-educated celebrities, in and out of Bollywood ! While her admission(self-schooled) came as a surprise to me, I thought to myself how refreshing it was for a high profile actress to not shy away from an inescapable fact of life. Sarika could have fibbed. That she was so upfront about her lack of a formal education was at once endearing and heart breaking. I am sure Sarika won many more fans after that interview. Just like Smriti Irani lost several after her Yale boast.
No matter what level of damage control Smriti now undertakes, it is a pity one careless claim will permanently mark her political track record. Smriti has been positioned as one of the brightest stars in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. She started off her political innings on a high note. Her being appointed the minister for HRD ( under which Education forms a key responsibility), was critically scrutinized by Modi-watchers, but given Smriti’s other abilities, everybody was willing to give her a fair chance. Yes, there were glaring discrepancies in earlier declarations about her educational credentials, but they were glossed over, as Smriti took charge of her portfolio and briskly got down to work. No matter what she says today about the unfortunate Yale boo- boo, it is one major faux pas, she won’t be able to wish away. Had she only been more transparent about her educational antecedents, nobody would have bothered all that much about specifics and technicalities ( correspondence course? Degree or diploma? In which subject? When? From where?). By misleading people and talking about a ‘degree’ from one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, Smriti Irani dug her own grave.

The thing is, we live in far less opaque times these days. It’s virtually impossible to concoct stories or suppress information. Politicians, in particular, need to be super cautious before opening their big mouths and making tall claims. They really ought to know better than to believe they’ll get away with lies. It takes under two minutes to corroborate/ cross-check practically any information about public figures. How could Smriti Irani have imagined that she of all people, would get away with such an absurd  declaration. Did she really think nobody would double check? Or did she really not know the difference between acquiring a legitimate, bona fide ‘degree’ from college, after studying for it like every other student, and getting a certificate after attending a 6-day leadership programme? If it is the latter case, it is time to worry. A Cabinet Minister heading a ministry that is supposed to be in charge of young minds ( 50% of India’s 125 crore population is under the age of 25), is a monumental responsibility. One hopes Smriti Irani is aware of the task she faces at this critical juncture. Nobody cares a damn whether or not she studied at Yale. But we sure as hell care that she lied about it. That was the real ‘unpadh’ move…
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                                        Alia Bhatt as Albert Einstein: It’s her way or the ‘Highway’…

“Genius of the Year” is clever,clever,clever. But clever is not always enough. The reason why ‘Genius…” has worked brilliantly and gone viral, is because it uses its own cleverness to explore a universal anxiety about appearing stupid in public. Every single person watching this video will instantly connect to his / her own stupidity and ignorance. It is designed to make you squirm at the recollection of something dumb you’ve said or done at some point in your life. And most of all ,it taps into every person’s ‘Alia Moment’. Who hasn’t had one? Or several? The best thing about the video , of course, is Alia Bhatt herself, as she goes along with the running gags and sends herself up. Now that may just turn out to be the smartest thing she has ever done in her young life. In one stroke, Alia  has managed to change her image of being the dumbest doll in Bollywood, to that of a spunky, spirited, sporting girl who can laugh at herself and come out on top of her game. Now it’s the turn of her critics and detractors to look totally stupid. Well done!
The video also makes viewers review their attitude to GK and IQ. The two can be mutually exclusive and often are. Alia’s talent on screen has been unambiguously established , and there’s a good chance she’ll walk away with the Best Actress award this year. Talent of this caliber generally goes with a high IQ. About her abysmal GK – come on, she exposed that during her Koffee interview and ended up becoming the butt end of some pretty nasty jokes . She took them on the chin. So, let’s hand it to her for two reasons  1) Alia had  the guts to agree to the spoof that is entirely based on her low GK quotient 2) She had the brains to figure out such a risky decision would work in her favour.
The subtext of the video is equally compelling. Take Karan Johar’s line : “ Of course we have hot and clever heroines in Bollywood – they are called HEROES.” Meeoow! Truer words were never spoken, and one wonders how many heroes ducked for cover after that dig! It’s Karan again who , when talking about the Black Hole theory, adds a naughty, self-revelatory aside when he mumbles, “ Black Hole… something I have not entered recently.” Ooooops! Confession time on YouTube, Karan? These swipes, demonstrating throwaway panache by one of Bollywood’s most successful producer-directors, also show an admirable coming of age all around. To  be able to mock yourself… to indulge in  self-parody… to make fun of the humourless geeks out there who relentlessly tormented Alia for months, is an inspired move… one that has paid rich dividends to everyone involved in the project. Eventually, it is Alia Bhatt’s triumph and redemption. Particularly, the last staged joke when Alia states her ambition to become “India’s First woman Prime Minister”, till she is reminded India already had one – Indira Gandhi. Alia squints, looks bewildered, goes blank and asks, “Who? Who? Who?” What a masterstroke!
Thank you, guys for coming up with this genius idea. And if Alia does not bag a well-deserved award for ‘Highway’, let’s give her one for this superb performance!
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                I don’t want ‘mardaani’ – do you?
I am staring at Rani Mukherjee’s face in a prominent ad as I write this. The headline says, “Be the woman you were born  to be…” And I  feel worried. Was I born to be hard? This hard? Yes, we know Rani plays a cop in the film. Her character is described as “Tough. Fearless. Independent.” Like millions of other Rani -watchers, I am wondering whether Mukherjee is playing herself. She has been promoting her film in innovative ways.  Her latest effort was to flag off the Women Beat Marshalls on behalf of the Mumbai Police. Presswallas have referred to her loose clothing and obvious weight gain, while concluding the newly-minted ‘maalkin’ of  Yash Raj Films is expecting her first child with Aditya Chopra. Perhaps she is. Perhaps she isn’t. What does it matter? In my head, I am comparing her promotional efforts to Ajay Devgn’s (“ Singham Returns”).  That makes it two cop films back-to-back. With one major difference – the gender of the cop.
Going by the trailer of ‘Mardaani’ , Rani probably pulps as many bad guys single handedly as Ajay did in his movie. She also gets a bloodied nose, which is more than what Ajay suffers after  breaking countless bones ( not his own, of course ) and shooting dozens of   nasty toughies. Ajay walks away without a scratch on his face, or even a  blood stain on his spotless ganji. His  trendy aviators stay firmly on his nose through most of the action, and he also finds the time to sing a love duet with his ditsy girl friend. Ajay is the quintessential Bolllywood cop.  I would love to get our CP Rakesh Maria’s take on the portrayal and ask him what he thinks of  cop films in general, and Bollywood  masala cop films in particular. Does a supercop like Bajirao Singham enhance the image /credibility of our cops…  or do such projections mislead the public into thinking our friendly neighbourhood cops aren’t doing enough if they don’t bash up at least fifty armed goons, blow up twenty vans, and also find the time for romance – all in a day’s work.
Rani’s character is tougher to play, going by early reports. And I wonder how women will relate to it. With movies that are determinedly breaking old moulds and projecting female characters as  made-of-steel  superwomen, capable of  taking on the most brutal adversaries, physically and emotionally, are we, in fact, creating a brave, new role model for the desperate-for-change, impatient-for-justice women of India? If our real lives continue to be as vulnerable, perhaps what we need for our survival is an escape into fantasy storylines that show women in full charge, undaunted by and unafraid of anybody or anything?  The very concept of ‘mardaani’ is troubling, because it suggests we have to clone aggressive male behavior in order to hang in there.It was used by Hindi poet Subhadrakumari to describe Rani Lakshmi Bai  and means “Like a man’. Not all of us can be Rani Lakshmi Bai. Not all of us have access to police training. How many women know how to use guns… ? Or even fists? After Rani’s macho act, we will watch Priyanka Chopra as iconic boxer, Mary Kom.
Rani and Priyanka are representative of today’s generation of accomplished professionals in Bollywood. By choosing these unusual roles, both of them are indirectly reflecting contemporary concerns that plague women.  Uncompromising competitiveness being one of them. The very notion of beating men at their own game, is a loaded one. The message that women have to outperform, outshine, outdo men, if they decide to step out of their comfort zones and fight for legitimacy, is in its own way, most unfair. Why should women have to expend extra energy being more like men? Why should women have to change so drastically in order to win respect? Why should women have to gate crash a Boy’s Club to fulfill their dreams and ambitions? There are millions of women out there who may not possess the required ‘mardaani’ to cope with society’s demands. Will they be in a position to cheer Rani? Applaud Priyanka / Mary? Will these portrayals inspire lesser women?Or discourage them?  The message being sent out, is a little dodgy. What it suggests to me is this : Women live in tough / dangerous times. If we want to make our way through picket fences without getting molested, beaten, raped, murdered, maimed, we’d better start toughening up.  If we don’t tap into our own ‘mardaani’, we will be vanquished. Our popular movies are saying , “Get ready for war.” Whereas, real life is crying out and pleading, “Give peace a chance.” Tough choices. Have you made yours?


                                           

Sunday, August 17, 2014

68th Independence Day... and beyond!


                               Singham Returns…as  NaMo at the Red Fort.
“Darwaza tod do, Daya…” thunders Bajirao Singham, the Scowling Supercop. His burly junior kicks open a heavy, wooden door and voila! The bad guys are caught red handed. It is a perfectly pitched Bollywood moment from the distant 80s, when our movies stuck to linear storylines ,simplistic plots, over- dramatic dialogues, exaggerated body language, emotional outbursts and babyish plots that didn’t demand the slightest mental exertion . It is also a symbolic line that encapsulates the rage of the oppressed. The movies of that era were crammed with similar lines and scenes. There was always one larger-than-life hero, capable of single-handedly taking on hundreds of  adversaries. The hero believed in old-fashioned, traditional ‘Indian’ values, like worshipping the mother, protecting sisters, respecting elders, helping colleagues and destroying evil people. His love interest was generally incidental and played a largely decorative role. The hero invariably took on the ‘system’ at enormous personal risk. He was ready to sacrifice his own life when faced with moral issues . His  chief adversary was mostly  one- dimensional and heavily armed. The hero’s levels of personal pride were second to none. It was ‘izzat’ he lived for. ‘Izzat’ he died for. ‘Izzat’ was all that mattered. It goes without saying, this mythical hero always won in the end…. no matter how daunting the odds.
Bollywood was missing this brand of stereotypical herogiri for a while. Indian audiences had started to stray. Some movies featured clever canines in title roles. Others had masked men in harness fighting gravity and logic. The ‘weepie’ was virtually dead. And the high -pitched amir-garib confrontation that got all the taalis, had been replaced by amir-amir romances featuring Bollywood bachchalog of the third generation  ( some with talent, most without). With Singham Returns, the blockbuster formula is back with a bang. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Let’s call this a double dhamaka weekend for viewers. The action in both mega productions was superbly staged by technical teams that understood the mood and pulse of the nation. While one portly hero, wearing a tri-coloured turban dominated  television channels across India, delivering  catchy lines from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, another flexed his coiled-oiled muscles dressed down in a spotless white ‘ganji’. The message embedded in both performances was exactly the same : Mein leta nahin, deta hoon. Roughly translated : I don’t take, I give. The give-and-take as exemplified by Bajirao Singham  is in the larger interests of society. Each time Ajay( Singham) Devgn, utters that line in the film, audiences clap as if on cue.  It is obvious an emotional chord has been struck… and successfully exploited. There is hope for India, after all.
Since dare devilry and fearlessness play such key roles in the projection of superheroes, it is significant that Narendra Modi – the Singham of  Politics – shunned a bullet proof screen while addressing the nation on Independence Day. Since nothing he does is divorced from design, one can safely assume, it was a calculated decision to project courage and confidence. Analysts will describe it as a shrewd if fool hardy move. President Barack Obama is seen as a pretty smart  world leader  -  but even he doesn’t deliver public speeches without mandatory protection and top security in place.
Narendra Modi’s speech has been deconstructed and decoded to death by experts. The hidden meanings have been unearthed and analysed by those in search of deeper agendas. The wah- wahs for going extempore on such a significant occasion , are still pouring in. Professionallyy trained theatre artists are known to work hard on monologues. But even by their exacting standards, a one hour, six minutes monologue is one hell of a challenge. Modi, like Singham, conclusively proved he’s the boss, while pressing all the right buttons (“ I come from a poor family…and here I am addressing the country from the Red Fort’’). By displaying concern and respect for the women of India, he won over millions of female hearts. Bracket ‘women’ with ‘izzat’ and you get two buzz words that are at once inclusive and emotive. If Singham took  an ‘aie shappat’ (“ I swear on my mother’) and followed that up with a ‘vardi ki kasam’ (“ I swear on my uniform”), when he vowed to  vanquish enemies, Modi  too, didn’t lag behind in the promises he made for a stronger and safer India.
At a time when connectivity is the key, it can be safely declared that the Prime Minister succeeded in socking his message to the waiting nation, preferring to stick to a chatty, avuncular approach, using uncomplicated analogies and easy-to- get , easy-to-digest , bite-sized , home grown platitudes. No grand flourishes, no poetry, no high-flown lines. Much like Bajirao Singham. Let’s hope Narendra Modi takes the next logical step forward and translates these good intentions into real action… without stripping down to his ganji, of course.

 “Darwaza Tod Do, NaMo!” Or else, it will be the people of India who will be vociferously protesting, “Aata Majhi Satakli!”
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                         Modi woos the women of India…
The single most important takeaway from Narendra Modi’s premier Independence Day speech was the concern shown for the safety of  our women. Perhaps, for the first time in India’s 68- year-old history, a Prime Minister devoted a reasonably large chunk of  his bhaashan to the importance of  dealing with one of our society’s biggest blights – rape. There will inevitably be critics / cynics who will say that  the ugly, nasty word (rape) does not belong to such a closely watched, over analysed, historic address, delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort, by a newly elected leader of  125 crore citizens. I would argue it was high time a neta had the guts to raise this diabolical issue on precisely such a vital platform. For, if we refuse to acknowledge its deep and tragic impact on our lives, we too will be guilty of perpetuating the shame. Significantly enough, Modi transferred this very ‘shame’ to those who perpetrate the crime – men. And urged families across India, to sensitise their menfolk to its ghastly implications… starting with boys in the household. Modi urged families to “question their sons, not daughters.” Articulating such a sentiment in a patriarchal society like ours is nothing short of radical. Nobody is India ‘questions’ a son! A beta is believed to be above and beyond reproach – no matter what crime he commits. This deeply entrenched attitude is not restricted to rural communities. Look around you… there are any number of  people in your own family… your neighbourhood, who might be shocked that such a preposterous suggestion was made in the first place. Modi took a gigantic risk when he went into this tricky territory. He took another, equally major  risk when he brought up the topic of toilets for women in our villages…. and  underlined the urgency of building  separate toilets for school/ college girls .
Having tabled his concerns , and expressed  sincere anguish, it is hoped Modi will swiftly do something about both issues. I wish he had announced concrete measures towards rape redressal, for example. That would have been far more reassuring, meaningful and substantive, than the big noises made from the podium. Let’s hope Modi’s government follows up the rhetoric with real reforms and focused guidelines. He had talked about zero tolerance for crimes against women during his Lok Sabha address months ago. And then withdrawn from the arena, while rapes continued unabated. While a traumatized nation waited for immediate and stern action against rapists, there was just a frustrating and stony silence from Modi. His non-committal stand disheartened those who had expected more from him at that critical juncture.On  Independence Day, Modi tried to make up for the lapse by emphasizing the issue, and placing it alongside other national priorities. Modi finally gave rape the importance it deserves.  It is upto citizens from this point on to monitor whether or not his speech will translate into an immediate action  designed to tackle India’s monumental stigma on a war footing. If Modi succeeds in making women feel safer, he will win over the hearts of millions. And if he does indeed convert our medieval thinking that unfairly protects and favours sons, he will go down in history as the architect of a major cultural revolution.
 The Badaun incident must have been that much needed, overdue wake up call for Modi’s government.Badaun represents the sum total of all that Modi referred to –  a lack of toilets for rural women, lack of basic security, lack of awareness, and a lack of accountability. Modi also mentioned the creation of 800 model villages. Great concept. We can do it. But more than building these model villages and giving ‘izzat’ to the poor, what India needs to do on a war footing is create model mind sets. Model thinking. Model communities. Even someone as charged up as NaMo will find that a far more daunting task to  tackle.
If even a single mother (or father) starts to think more deeply about bringing up a better son after listening to Modi’s speech, it will be a major triumph. If even a single rape is prevented because of his message, it will be his biggest contribution to transforming India.
As a man who qualifies as a ‘half husband’, Modi is stuck with a double responsibility towards the women of our country. We are watching! A promise has been made in public. Keep it! There are over a billion witnesses. Deliver… or else!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dinanath Batra's Loony Toons

> http://www.ndtv.com/article/opinion/dinanath-batra-s-loony-toons-567124

Isn't it time we protested more vehemently???
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An evening spent in the company of well meaning Rotarians, discussing Achchey Din!!!

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This appeared in the Asian Age
                   Let them eat Chapattis…
Let’s be super generous! Let’s be fair to Shiv Sena M.P. Rajan Vichare and give him the benefit of the doubt. He claims he didn’t know the name or religious identity of the man into whose protesting mouth he shoved a chapatti. Does that matter ? Had the catering supervisor at Maharashtra Sadan been a Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Atheist, would it have absolved Vichare? The question is redundant. We know the answer. Millions of shell- shocked viewers were left open mouthed when that dreadful footage was telecast ad nauseum across television channels. The belligerence of the act was enough to generate waves of revulsion… regardless of whether Vichare’s victim was a Muslim observing rozas during Ramzan, or not. Such high handedness is pretty common across party lines . It is just Vichare’s bad  luck he was caught on camera indulging in open goondagiri. Some of his illustrious colleagues in Parliament have displayed even worse conduct in public and gotten away with it. But here’s a case that disturbed an entire nation and left Vichare’s patrons not just red faced but resembling stale chapattis themselves.
Assuming Vichare didn’t or couldn’t read the Supervisor’s prominent name tag. Assuming Vichare did not hear the Supervisor’s name being called out by regulars. Assuming Vichare really, really detested the food being served ,can such a vicious attack on an individual be justified?Whatever the explanations in hind sight, given the history of aggressive / uncouth behavior ,one wonders whether this was a stray incident? Attacking those who are not in a position to hit back seems to come very easily to militant members of certain political parties. In this case, an incensed Vichare is seen on video footage, brutally stuffing a chapatti in to the mouth of a vociferously protesting Arshad Zubair. So….  if we are to believe that Vichare cannot see a name tag, does it mean he cannot hear either? Zubair is heard repeating over and over again that he is fasting. Vichare ignores him completely and continues to force- feed the helpless man in the presence of cronies. If this is Vichare’s spontaneous reaction to bad food, it’s worth asking whether he would behave in the same fashion outside his comfort zone ( Maharashtra Sadan),  in which he and the others eat heavily subsidized meals! Given their antecedents, perhaps they would. But I seriously doubt it! Try and picturise Vichare in a posh restaurant overseas, walking up to a snooty maitre d’ with an undercooked chicken leg in his hand and attempting to gag the man with the offensive dish. Within minutes, cops would be summoned and Vichare marched off to the nearest prison.
That doesn’t happen in India. Especially to an M.P. Incidentally, Vichare was also the Mayor of Thane.  Dadagiri comes easily and naturally to our pumped up netas. They obviously believe it is their absolute right to ignore the law and engage in unruly conduct. But the Maharashtra Sadan incident has other ramifications, given the fresh facts that are emerging….  starting with the plot on which it is built, to the substandard construction of the Sadan. Complaints about the poor quality food being served have been registered in the past.  Plus, there have been protests about the presence of M.P. s from other states temporarily sharing the space. Maharashtra Sadan is a tinder box. It is too bad for Vichare that his outburst coincided with Ramzan.
Enemies of the Sena, must be rejoicing secretly, given the turmoil in Maharashtra, with State Elections coming up, and no leadership in sight. At an uncertain time like this, when sensitivities are indeed running high, such an incident is bound to be milked to the hilt by political rivals. Nothing works as powerfully in India as a misdemeanor involving religious intolerance. Even if one were to avoid attempts by mischief mongers to communalise the issue further, the damage has been done. And had the Sena leadership handled the crisis more adroitly when the story broke, perhaps the backlash wouldn’t have been this severe. Since no genuine apology was offered, and no action taken against Vichare , people were justifiably upset.It is to the credit of the affected community that admirable restraint was shown by leaders who could easily have inflamed passions and incited trouble.
Maharashtra is going through one of its worst periods.  The State Elections are likely to witness bloody fights and gutter level politics as parties scramble to gain control over Mumbai  -  possibly the priciest real estate in the world. It is all about the money. One had hoped that if not Uddhav, his son Aaditya, would have sensed the mood of the public and dealt with the situation in a more upfront manner. There is no shame in apologizing when a community’s feelings are hurt. It is the morally correct thing to do. Leadership is about sending out the right message to party workers, and letting them know when  a line is crossed. But what can even a mild- mannered , well- meaning Uddhav do when 15 out of 18 Shiv Sena M.P.s  face criminal charges  ranging from attempt to murder to using dangerous weapons to cause hurt. Under such ominous circumstances, perhaps Vichare’s act of force-feeding a Muslim during Ramzan, does not appear as serious to the party?

A pity the rest of the country sees it differently.
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This appeared in The Week.....
                              Where’s the fire…?
 I’ll tell you where the fire is – it is raging in our society. And chances of dousing the flames are pretty slim… unless you happen to be as gutsy and determined as Subhangi Iwalekar,the young widow of  34- year- old Fireman Nitin Iwalekar , who stood her ground, demanded her rights, and took on the mighty,  after her brave husband died on duty fighting a conflagration. The horrific incident took place when a glittering deathbox ( read: commercial high rise),covered with glass panels, caught fire in Mumbai last week. Even during that devastating hour of grief, Subhangi had the foresight and courage to ask for what she believed is her right. She had the guts to ask for a written assurance from the authorities that her interests would be protected. She insisted on her husband’s body being brought to the fire brigade’s office, where she publicly and vociferously pressed for her demands. Subhagi clearly – and understandably – did not trust the administration . She refused to take verbal promises at face value. What Subhangi wanted was monetary compensation, plus, a job for herself.  This created quite a tricky situation, since the body had started decaying by then and Subhangi was unwilling to relent. Finally, Chief Fire Officer A.N.Ve rma, handed over a letter promising Subhangi a job at the BMC within a month, and offering 15 lakhs by way of compensation. Her demand was for 50lakhs. The deadlock was broken, albeit, reluctantly from Subhangi’s side. Nitin’s last rites were performed by his two little daughters, led by their feisty mother.
What if Subhangi had allowed her personal grief to consume her completely? What if she had followed society’s diktats and conformed to what is deemed ‘acceptable and appropriate’ conduct on such a tragic occasion? I’ll tell you what: Subhangi and her kids would have been screwed (pardon the expression)..  I am pretty sure community leaders, perhaps even her late husband’s colleagues,tried hard to dissuade her from ‘making a scene’.  Even though, what she did was the right and fair thing. For, had she not pressed for it, she would have been made to run around in circles by an indifferent, callous and lazy administration, for years and years. And she would never have seen the money…. or the job. Who then would have looked after her and her daughters? Certainly not those community leaders, neighbours or relatives – the very people who turned up for the funeral?
It is not easy being Subhangi in our society. We have certain conventions and social rules that need to be challenged, questioned, subverted, thrown out of the window. Not every widow in our unambiguously patriarchal structure has the gumption to stand up for her beliefs and do what Subhangi did. Most are subdued by a harsh, judgmental system that prescribes what a young widow can and cannot do at a time like this. Subhagi would have been expected to wipe off her bindi/ sindhoor, break her bangles and mangalsutra, change out of her colourful saree ,drape herself in white, sit in a corner of her home ( a brand new one she had moved into with Nitin and the kids), weep noisily, beat her chest and stick with female family members, while the men took charge of the proceedings. In this case over 200 mourners were present for the delayed funeral. Guess what? The morning after the night before, Subhangi would have been largely alone with two bewildered children asking for their father. Life would have gone on for the others, like nothing had happened. Harsh but true.
Which is why it is important to acknowledge Subhangi’s actions .She isn’t asking for handouts. It is not charity she seeks. If she is qualified and deserves the job, she should get it. The compensation will be as per the rules. Potentially,Subhangi has more than 40 years ahead of her. Nitin, the sole provider, is no more. He needn’t have died. Mumbai  has many more deathboxes, built without required permissions and safety features. While we discuss the precious loss of one fireman , we are overlooking the ghastly possibility that many more firemen could also have sacrificed their lives in Lotus Business Park, where the fire broke out. Several rules had been blatantly flouted. The swanky commercial complex in which investors like Hritik Roshan owned several floors, did not have a second staircase, nor firefighting equipment that’s in working order! This is a fit case for criminal negligence – but will the authorities act and probe further? Hold BMC officials responsible? Question the builders? Nope. When was the last time that happened? Had Subhangi meekly kept quiet and accepted a handout from the authorities, her public image may have been more ‘sanitised’, but in reality, her life would be over! We must support Subhangi for speaking out, when silence was the safer option.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Vaidik is no Amanpour!

This appeared in Sunday Times
                                 Errr… Ved Pratap Vaidik…. Who dat????
 Let’s be honest, Shri Ved Prakash Vaidik is no Christiane Amanpour. For all we know or care, he could well be just another cranky old man looking for instant publicity. Well, in that case, he got it. Ved Pratap Vaidek may fervently desire to position himself as a legend in his own lifetime. He may have pretty grandiose notions about himself. But chances are, the average Indian reader was clueless about this person’s identity or existence, till he shot into notoriety overnight, spewing fire across television channels, clad in a bright tangerine jacket. Perhaps that was the whole objective… the real game plan. And all of us fell for it! The man who recently broke bread with Hafiz Saeed ( one of the world’s most dreaded terrorists) in Pakistan, clearly fancies himself as an ace negotiator, a major international player, an ‘intermediary’… and  a journalist of repute. Let him! But to disrupt parliamentary proceedings because of him, to demand his arrest, and to invest hours and hours on decoding ‘that’ meeting, amounts to a national waste of time, money and energy. Is he a fake, a fraudster, a traitor, a conman, a spy, a double agent? At this point, nobody knows! Who the hell is Vaidik? Does it matter what he says and to whom in Pakistan? Frankly, it doesn’t. The only angle worth pursuing in this case is WHY Vaidik met Saeed? And in what capacity ? Saeed, has a bounty of 10 million US dollars on his head, making him as important a catch to America, as Osama Bin Laden . Vaidik claims it was nothing more than journalistic curiosity that led him to Saeed. Well, any other journo in Vaidik’s place would also have jumped at the chance to interview someone who is up there on the world’s most wanted list -  the  criminal known as the mastermind behind the 26/11Mumbai attacks of 2008. Vaidik himself has been annoyingly vague about  the mysterious ‘Track 2’ mission that kept him in Pakistan for weeks, long after other delegates to a one day seminar had come back. Panelists/ analysts drew their own dramatic conclusions. The important question is not whether Vaidik went to Pakistan as a Congress plant or a BJP emissary. He needs to tell us how the hell he got access to Saeed? And who arranged it for him? The ‘whys’ will become obvious once that is established.
Since India’s self- proclaimed ace journalist is playing coy about what exactly was discussed during his encounter with Saeed ( all we know is Vaidek was served tea and perhaps, sympathy). Two political parties are busy playing ‘passing-the-pillow’ with Vaidik  right now. No matter what tall claims he makes, Vaidik belongs to the Baba Ramdev School of Journalism .This much, however, is known - Vaidek  did not tape this crucial, once in a lifetime interview! Can you believe that? Nor has Vaidik filed this ‘world exclusive’ as any legit journo would have. Unless, there is no story in the first place and the whole thing is a monumental hoax .What we do know is that Vaidek offered the world’s most loathed murderer  some entirely gratuitous, brotherly advice, and aired his own nonsensical views on Kashmir. Frankly, what a waste of an opportunity! Any cub reporter in Vaidek’s place would have asked Saeed a few tough, pointed questions about the horrific Mumbai terror attacks and Saeed’s role in them. Vaidik preferred to lecture him instead (“You’ll be held accountable by Khuda…”) ! Or so he claims. Given the tight security around Saeed, how did Vaidik  manage to crack it, when even America’s top agents  have failed to do so? How?? Why was Vaidik  the Chosen One for this momentous ‘interview’? Who picked him? Anybody who has visited Pakistan will tell you it is impossible to move around  freely and meet  whosoever you wish. Yet,Vaidik managed to meet Pakistan’s most protected man!

 The whole thing is beginning to sound like a cock and bull story. A set up, intended to distract attention from something bigger… something more ominous. While Vaidik’s next move is worth monitoring, for now we should drop the drama. As a citizen of India, Vaidik is well within his democratic rights to meet anybody in the world – Hafiz Saeed included. Vaidik has not committed a crime. He has merely goofed up. As have Saeed’s handlers. If Hafiz wanted to make a noise in India, he should have picked a more competent journo. Someone with credibility and political astuteness ( no shortage of those here!).  But he picked a megalomaniac who boasts non-stop about his own achievements. Even those who are agitating and asking for Vaidik’s head, should know they are wasting their breath . He really has nothing of any value to share with us. Whether or not he belongs to the RSS , is hardly relevant. He calls himself a journalist. But he blew the biggest scoop of his career! Christiane Amanpour  would never have done that. And she would definitely have worn a different coloured jacket on camera!
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                     NDTV Blog 2               
                                     “I am 6… what does RAPE, mean?”
“ Mummy, mummy… I am not feeling well…. something is paining… please take me to doctor uncle…. I don’t want to go to school…. Mummy , pleeeeease… make the pain go! I hate school…”
This could well have been what the traumatized 6 year-old-girl from Bengaluru said to her mother, after her tiny body was brutally violated  by a sex-fiend she trusted in her school.The monster has finally been identified as skating instructor, 30- year-old Mustafa (Munna), married and a father of a 3- year-old daughter. More than 5000 outraged citizens registered their protest at a rally outside the prestigious school and demanded action from the Police Commissioner,Raghavendra Auradkar. Had that demonstration not taken place, Mustafa  would still have been at it with other defenseless victims, given his history (he was sacked from another school for inappropriate conduct). Mustafa’s deviant behavior has been disclosed by the police after seizing his mobile phone and laptop containing evidence of child pornography photos and videos.
Why did a reputed school employ a paedophile in the first place?
Why was this person not thoroughly screened given that he’d been dismissed from another school after questions were raised over his character?
Why did this school take so long to react to such a serious charge by a parent?
Whose responsibility is it to ensure children are safe in schools?
 I would say, the buck stops with the school management. Our children are in their sole care once they enter the school gates. School authorities are obliged to ensure every child on the premises is safe and secure at all times – whatever it takes. Unconditional trust is what parents invest in when they pay those fat fees to get their kids into a ‘good school’. In this case, the 6- year- old allegedly suffered from a learning disability. Which means the school ought to have shown an even higher level of   responsibility/sensitivity towards her safety. If that has not happened, the school must be penalized. In other parts of the world, a school that is seen as being callous and negligent towards those in its care, would risk losing its license. In India, it works differently. Most ‘good’ schools behave like they are doing parents a favour by admitting their kids. Such schools become a law unto themselves and operate in such a high handed fashion, it’s virtually impossible to nail them for all the wrongs they get away with. Parents don’t have the guts to challenge school authorities. And those very authorities mock parents for their legitimate concerns, since very often such schools ‘accommodate’ children of politicians, police officers and bureaucrats.
It is time to demand complete transparency from our pampered private schools. They must disclose the antecedents of teachers and instructors on their payrolls. Background checks of  bus drivers  and other service providers must be made mandatory. The Principal has to be held accountable when a crime takes places on the premises.
Why should parents be compelled to take to the streets before cops respond when a child is abused? How is it possible that nobody but nobody noticed Mustafa’s perverse tendencies, considering there were other victims who have now come forward with similar charges against him ?
Let this be a landmark case. It takes one 6-year-old to break the ominous silence and nail a criminal. Well, this frightened little girl has done just that. Here’s hoping the Benguluru child rape incident opens society’s eyes to all that is abysmally wrong in the system . Schools are our children’s second homes. Principals and teachers, their foster parents. Protect our kids – that is not just your job, but a deep and abiding moral responsibility.
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This appeared in the Mumbai Mirror
We  really are the rudest people on earth!
Dateline: July 14th. Occasion : Bastille Day Celebrations. Venue: The Crystal Room at the Taj Palace Hotel. Guest list : Well-heeled invitees. Host : Monsieur Jean-Raphael Peytregnet, Consul General of France, and his wife, Madame Zhun. The invitation card carried the exact time of the formalities for the evening. These are an essential part of such celebrations. It said the two National anthems (India and France) will be played at 8 45 pm. And as is the standard drill during National Day celebrations of any country, short speeches by the host are mandatory, followed by the traditional toast. This protocol  is strictly adhered to not just in India, but across the world.  It doesn’t require more than  fifteen minutes to complete. Surely, invitees are aware of this before they accept? But the shenanigans that took place on the 14th night were so shameful, I am sure not just our hosts that night, but several other  diplomats present were left wondering about our complete lack of respect for the occasion and the shocking absence of basic etiquette we displayed. What an awful impression we created!And how brazenly we ruined the  brief ceremony . It was perhaps for the very first time that a foreign host ( the refined and erudite Consul General himself) had to repeatedly ask for silence, before finally losing his cool and reminding guests it was “not polite” to keep chattering loudly while the speeches were on. Even this direct slap on the face did not stop boisterous invitees  from carrying on with their noisy conversations! The poor woman in charge of announcements, kept ssssshhhing people over the microphone, and beseeching them to keep quiet for a few minutes. Nothing worked. Shri Sumit  Malik, the  Chief Protocol Officer, Government of Maharashtra, also tried valiantly ( but in vain!) to shut up the loudmouths in the audience. His appeals were not just ignored, but someone lustily booed him .
 What on earth is the matter with us?
I’ll tell you what the problem is. Our mentality still hasn’t changed from those distant days when access to imported alcohol was difficult and frightfully expensive. Invitations to diplomatic functions were most coveted as lucky ( and thirsty!) guests flocked to these events attracted by the bottles on the bar. They glugged glasses and glasses of fine Champagne ( Mumm, in this case), decent wines, and of course, good whiskey, vodka and beer, with the sole aim of doing full ‘paisa vasool’. Except, they weren’t paying! The main attraction was free and unlimited booze! Phoren ki daaru!  This cheap attitude has not changed, even though the best alcohol in the world is easily available in India today. But of course,it is not moofat! And our mindset is still in moofat mode…  this cuts across the income divide, let me tell you! After all, guests at these events can well afford to buy their own booze. But something  happens to them at the sight of a well stocked bar. Ditto for food. Invitees virtually hijack and attack passing serving staff to grab cocktail snacks off the trays.  We still behave like bhookey-pyaasey refugees.
 The only way to get around future disasters is for the hosts to fine tune and hone their guest list  so as to keep out ruffians who land up and spoil the evening for others. Bar service should also be suspended during the speeches and unruly guests can definitely be escorted out politely by alert security personnel. Mumbai’s notorious free loaders are known to all.Why invite these pests in the first place? Screening is a pre- requisite if  basic decorum is to be followed. It was shameful to note how disgusted other foreign diplomats  also were  by our atrocious behavior. Despite repeated requests to  maintain silence during the formal part of the evening, despite reminders  that this was a solemn occasion commemorating the Bastille Day that is celebrated by French citizens, wherever they are in the world, we rudely ignored the host and in the bargain, disgraced ourselves thoroughly. Such bad behavior in public shows the degeneration  that is taking place in our society. Conduct Unbecoming, whether in Parliament or at  private parties, has become the national norm. Hooliganism rules. People who ought to know better, behave like louts caught in bar brawls. I don’t know whether Monsieur Peytregnet and his wife have gotten over the fiasco on the 14th.  But, it certainly left me feeling awful and ashamed. If there’s one thing that never goes out of style, it’s good manners. It’s worth reminding those junglees that crass is crass – and has nothing to do with how much money you possess or which car you drive.Par  sikhaaneywalla kaun hai?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The saga of the missing suitcase...

This appeared in Mumbai Mirror today....it tells its own story. Do look out for other, more positive stories about my recent trip. Am still figuring out how to upload pictures from my smartphone onto the blog! If some of you smart people know how, do let me know....TiE Retreat at Tenerife was super fun. And I have great pics to go with that narrative...
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                         The saga of the missing suitcase…
I am back. And so is the missing bag! This is nothing short of a mini-miracle. Here’s why: Instead of losing my cool, throwing purple fits and creating a hungama when there was no trace of my bag at the end of five days in London, I decided to channel my inner Gandhi and stage a peaceful satyagraha at the British Airways check-in counter, Terminal 5, Heathrow before taking the flight home. I calmly told William at counter D2, that I was not leaving the airport till my missing bag was located. My voice was calm and my gaze, steady. I  had tried everything but with zero success. Then, I said to myself, if Gandhiji could have chased the British out of India armed with nothing more than patience and a firm resolve, I would adopt the same tactic…and win. Well, it worked! William helpfully suggested a strategy that he said was a ‘little unusual’. Was I game for it? I was! I had nothing to lose  and everything to gain after hitting my head against a stone wall. I was willing to try any trick in the book. To cut a long story short, I was asked to go three levels down to where lost baggage is stored. It’s like a graveyard of abandoned suitcases from across the world.   In that gigantic pile of orphaned bags, I actually managed to spot mine! Bingo. Gandhiji had scored again.
There is a moral attached to this story: I discovered a lot about myself and more about life in general when I found out my bag had disappeared. I mentally kissed the contents of the suitcase goodbye -  my clothes, shoes, toiletries and a few sentimental items of jewellery. Once I did that, I was free! It really didn’t matter a damn after a point whether I was walking around London in flip flops and travel gear. It was such a liberating feeling . And to those I met who stared strangely at me, well, if they were going to judge me by my casual footwear and super casual clothes, it was their loss, not mine! I also knew there was no personal conspiracy against me. Thousands of  BA passengers were in the same boat and a massive technical glitch had led to this sorry situation. But here’s what BA could have done, should have done, but didn’t…
1.     Clearly there was a systems breakdown that had led to one of the worst failures in baggage delivery across time zones and continents. Whatever the nature of the technical glitch, BA should have been more forthright, apologized for the enormous inconvenience caused and immediately offered some relief to affected passengers. That didn’t happen. Worse, calls went unanswered, or entirely misleading assurances were jauntily given (“ the luggage courier is on the way to deliver your bag”). With zero transparency and no explanations, passengers were left frustrated and fuming, cursing BA all the way.Were the bags  in London at all, or were they floating around some distant airport at the other end of the world? A word of advice to BA : All it takes is one phone call, one sincere apology, one truthful statement to pacify distraught passengers. Systems do break down. We get it. But please have the basic courtesy to explain the problem, and then set it right.
2.     From a passenger’s point of view, here is what I learned : Keep your phone charger in your handbag for those emergency calls you may have to make and can’t because the battery  has died on you. Keep personal jewellery in a small pouch in your handbag. Better still, travel without the real thing. Faux is better than lost !
3.     Travel light. Stick to basics. Mix and match. Don’t pack too many options. Five days without my ‘things’ – stuff, I thought I couldn’t live without, made me realize how much junk I was lugging around.
4.     Keep all shopping receipts carefully. You’ll need them when you claim compensation on your return. I had to buy virtually everything from scratch…it was tedious, time consuming and expensive.
5.     Hang on to boarding cards, baggage tags and any paperwork that could help track the missing bag. Make sure to have your name and address prominently displayed on the bag, or else you may have to wade through a sea of identical looking bags before you find yours.
6.     Get to the airport well in advance leaving sufficient time to double check whether the bags have made it on the same flight. Maintain a comfortable two hour gap between connecting flights. Keep extra copies of all travel documents on your person.

7.     Happy travels. Remember : Mental baggage stays home. Asli baggage stays with you.