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 And the high -pitched amir-garib confrontation that got all the taalis, had been replaced by amir-amir romances featuring Bollywood bachchalog of the third generation  ( some with talent, most without).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!”

                         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


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

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.
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!
                     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.
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 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...
                         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. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

An era of Shuddh Hindi Romance coming up...?

This appeared in Sunday Times
    An era of  Shudh Hindi Romance coming up…?
 Perhaps, I should have written this column in Hindi. I have nothing against Hindi. Or any other language for that matter. In India, we have 22 official languages to choose from. Each one of those languages is rich and profound. Most Indians possess impressive language skills and can communicate reasonably well in four or five languages. Hindi is just one of them. So is English - our chutneyfied version of  it - which deserves official recognition as an Indian language. Apart from our mother tongues, many of us are fluent in at least  two more languages. This is an enormous national asset. Hindi has not been declared India’s national language so far.  And regardless of what the political class assumes, Hindi is neither spoken nor understood beyond North India. Even in Maharashtra where I live, Hindi is, at best , a second language after Marathi. Since both languages use the Devnagiri script,  people can read simple sentences without too much difficulty. That’s not the case in other States.  Mumbai has its own version of  spoken Hindi , popularly referred to as ‘Bambaiya’. This is street speak at its most colourful with a vivid use of  racy colloquialisms. I find ‘Bambaiya’ totally ‘Jhakaas’ – and I challenge anybody to come up with a shuddh Hindi substitute for that delicious exclamation.
Which is why, it is awfully annoying to note that the new government, while still taking baby steps managing our vast country, is sending out a few directives that are entirely out of sync with the mood of the nation. Take the recent Home Ministry order instructing government departments to stick to Hindi on social media platforms – sorry, this is not going to fly. Why the hell should someone who does not use Hindi as a primary language be compelled to express himself / herself in it? This smacks of an insidious attempt to gradually impose Hindi as THE language across India. And that , is not going to be accepted by a vast majority of Indians. DMK Chief, M. Karunanidhi stated as much when he said, “ This amounts to an attempt to treat Non-Hindi speakers as second class citizens.” Jayalalithaa has written a letter of protest as well. Government departments are manned by people from all over India. Their official accounts on social media are accessed by anybody and everybody interested in following what’s going on in the corridors of power. Why should such communication be restricted to Hindi? To counter argue – why not Bengali? Tamil? Urdu? Telugu? Why should Hindi alone be given this special status? NDA allies are unhappy, and so are many Indians, who believe in national integrity.
The real fear isn’t about the domination of Hindi in a country that is blessed by such a multiplicity of complex languages and dialects (over 2,000 and still counting!). For six decades, we have functioned just fine with our crazy khichdi of assorted linguistic flavours enhancing communication. Language is about reaching out and embracing differences of all kinds. Language is about expression and influence. Language is fluid and fantastic. It evolves organically and changes with each generation making unique contributions to it. There are other ways to ‘unify’ India, surely? Every language has its own unique cultural identity and status. It creates and occupies its own special space in history. Hindi is a beautiful language. But In India we are fortunate enough to have many, equally beautiful languages. It is important to respect linguistic diversities and not allow any one language group to overshadow the rest.  Let’s get this straight – all languages are equal in a democracy.

The new government has started off on a positive note with many worthy programmes and projects. For the ‘achhe din’ to continue, a re-look at some recent initiatives is urgently required. From the sacking of Governors to the stubborn refusal to deal firmly with Minister of State Nihalchand Meghwal ,  there have been significant missteps that cannot be easily overlooked.  The expectations riding on Modi’s government may be unrealistically high – but this Sarkar is obliged to live up to them, given the overwhelming mandate it has received. The ‘D-Word’ – Development – is a deadly one. It cannot be seen in isolation to mean economic development alone. Giving Hindi precedence over other languages (English included), could lead to resentment and hostility, divisiveness and suspicion. The most common fear being : It’s Hindi today. What will it be tomorrow? That’s a legitimate enough concern. Perhaps, the  new sarkar was merely testing the waters to gauge the response to the ‘Hindi Only’ instructions. Instead of looking ahead and hastening the globalization process via easy and accessible communication systems, we will be taking ten steps into the past. India could do with a massive dose of positivity and patriotism after a decade of fragmentation, frustration and chaos. Why not start by leaving the language option open to users? Otherwise, there will be many who’ll accuse the sarkar of  ‘ullu banaoing’ citizens by trying to push Hindi down their throats. Nahi chalega! Nahi chalega! Yeh dil maange more – language-wise and otherwise.
This appeared in Mumbai Mirror
Will the real Nihalchand please stand up?
One of the most cowardly lines in government lingo is “We’ll look into the matter.” When this annoying line gets tossed around while a 20-year-old woman is running from pillar to post fighting for justice… and quite possibly, her life, just hearing those meaningless words makes our blood boil. Because we know what the phrase actually means – it means zilch! Illey. By the time the authorities get around to ‘looking into the matter’, the traumatized woman may just be dead. That’s how bad it is. That’s how callous it has always been. Except, this time the narrative is different. It involves a Minister in Narendra Modi’s newly formed cabinet. It is he who is being accused of rape by the victim. And while he runs away from the media, refusing to respond to the charges, there is a bunch of inept BJP spokespersons ‘looking into the matter’. While these chaps continue to look, Nihalchand Meghwal, Modi’s Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilisers, calmly cools his heels and buys time, waiting for his political mentors to bail him out. And, no matter what outraged citizens feel, the brazen Minister will not step down! Worse, party bosses are backing him all the way.
On Arnab Goswami’s Newshour, a certain Mr. Rao suggested this was a case of mistaken identity and that the woman, who was 17 years old when she was repeatedly raped by – get this – 17 men, had got it all wrong!  He also insisted that the Nihalchand named by her, was a different Nihalchand - not the Minister! He went on to make the most preposterous comments about his co-panelists, audaciously saying some of us were ‘hallucinating’. Stuck with the lousiest job on earth (defending a colleague accused of rape and intimidation), Mr. Rao also dug his own grave in the bargain. Even assuming all of us were on hallucinatory drugs that night, what could Rao have said to save the Minister’s butt? The story is sordid enough, if true. According to the charges, a tender 17- year-old bride’s husband – yes, husband – pimped her to friends and influential people, in return for favours. Allegedly, the girl was drugged during these encounters and forced to oblige. When she did file a  police complaint against her tormentors, the case was closed and her charges dubbed ‘false and fabricated’. Ditto happened at the District Court. It is only after she filed a review petition that an additional district judge issued notices to Meghwal and 16 others.
 Once that happened, the story changed dramatically. The woman now claims the Minister’s goons come to her village every day to intimidate and threaten her. She says the Minister has offered her a job and large sums of money to delete his name from her complaint. Let’s take the most cynical scenario here, and assume the woman is lying through her teeth. Let’s give the men the benefit of the doubt and feel sorry for them. Let’s accept they could have been framed. Should the imbroglio end there? No way, Jose. It’s too late for that now. One of them is a liar. Which one? The woman is poor and to all appearances, fighting a lone battle against powerful men pitted against her. Their lives aren’t under threat. Hers is. What is the truth ? “ Let the courts decide” is the other cliché one hears over and over again. Given the snail pace of justice, that could take twenty or more years.  The woman will be 40- years- old by then. Nobody will remember the case or even the Minister’s name. Perhaps, that is the intention – to tire out a victim till someone either drops dead, or runs out of physical/monetary resources to pursue the case.
Most times, women facing sexual exploitation (whether within the family or outside it), are made to feel responsible for the abuse and placed on the backfoot. Terrorising a victim into silence is easy. Generally, it is via threats to her person. This case is murkier still, since her husband is involved. This is not all that uncommon. There are any number of  pimp-husbands in Mumbai ( Bollywood , corporate India, Police and other government agencies), who are notorious for  exploiting their wives. Nobody talks about it openly. But everybody knows who they are. We have men in Parliament who are complete rogues – bigamists, serial adulterers, paedophiles, black mailers and worse. Nihalchand’s will be one more case that will be ‘looked into’ eventually… if ever. Meanwhile, a 20-year-old victim has been asked by the cops if she can name witnesses and provide accurate dates when the alleged rapes took place!
 You decide who is hallucinating / concocting/ fabricating material here….while anonymous authorities promise to ‘look into the matter’.
This appeared on the NDTV blog...
                               It’s not about Preity alone…
That’s the damn problem with celebrity spats – the personal becomes more important than the larger issues raised. When such spats involve a beautiful and brave former ‘Bollywood star’, who is facing a slow and painful fade out, and a volatile rich man, who happens to be a former lover and current business partner, it’s a made-for-media story all the way. The easiest thing to do with all the juicy material flying around is to dismiss it as a high profile lovers’ tiff, as certain journos with deeply vested interests have tried to do. Once you reduce the case to nothing more serious than a former girl friend’s public pique at being dumped and possibly replaced by a younger, hotter woman,perspectives change and opinions alter. In Bambaiyaspeak, it becomes another flippant Bollywood ‘lafda’, worth milking by scoop- famished mediawallas .  It also makes Zinta look bad. Perhaps, that’s the whole idea. Preity is being projected as either a ‘poor thing’ who can’t handle rejection, or a neurotic, high –pitched , out of control woman chasing publicity at any cost. This is grossly unfair to Zinta. As it would be to any other woman caught in similar circumstances.
Let’s be honest : It takes guts to file an FIR against a powerful person who has allegedly been abusive in public. Abuse is abuse – verbal, physical, sexual. This is not a fight between equals. Pitted against Zinta is a wealthy, well connected, individual. Zinta will find herself increasingly isolated, not just by her own film industry colleagues (evasive!), but even by those in her social circuit. That’s Mumbai. Zinta is no longer regarded as a force to reckon with in Bollywood – she has made too many professional mistakes - turning a flop producer being the latest. That’s how it goes in the movie business – a female star is only as valuable as her last week’s box office collections. Most fans will find it difficult to recall Zinta’s last commercial hit. Becoming the part owner of an IPL team that narrowly missed the cup this season, has ensured a certain level of visibility.But the debacle that took place at the stadium on 30th May, and which is dominating media space right now, will only erode whatever is left of the PZ brand. India is not terribly kind to strong willed, outspoken women who are dubbed ‘trouble makers’ if they dare to raise their voices, especially against men. Zinta is such a woman. In the past, she has bravely stood up to pressure tactics by being the only witness to stand by earlier statements against the Indian Mafia in the notorious Bharat Shah case of  2003.Today, she’s at the centre of another ugly controversy and is being hauled over the coals across social media platforms.  Why not let the cops get on with their job? It must be noted that Zinta has not accused anybody of  molestation –sexual or otherwise. Her lawyer has sensibly relied on a Supreme Court verdict which specifies that the real test is whether an action “shocks the  sense of decency of a woman.”  If  Zinta was indeed called a “fucking whore”, a “ fucking bitch”  in the presence of several people inside a stadium,as she claims, and reminded of the fact that she is just a ‘bloody actress’, one would think it definitely qualifies as a fit case that must have shocked her sense of decency – as it would, any woman’s. And since Zinta’s ‘class’ was also allegedly questioned in the exchange, it is appropriate to point out that generally it is the abuser who displays his / her true class….not the victim!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Big " O" - Optimistic India!

This picture was taken at the Flamenco- Gypsies Festival. 3 days of magic under the stars!
This appeared in Asian Age...
                               The Big ‘O’….
Okay, here’s a chhotasa clarification for the innocents and prudes out there who are reading this: Bluntly put, the Big ‘O’ stands for  ‘Orgasm’. And unlike Diego Maradona who gushed, “ To beat Brazil in the final, in their own country, would be an orgasm’, this column is not about football. And the Big ‘O’ here stands for Optimism.  Desi optimism.There’s just no getting away from that blessed word these days. India is on a high. And every uncle one meets socially is busy dancing a jig and talking in rapturous terms about  this khaas optimism.Of course, the new, elevated mood has to do with the new government. Narendra Modi is here! And he will be leading the country out of a decade of darkness. Ironically, of course, soon after the Modi sarkar said, ‘Let there be light’, the power failed in Delhi! Never mind the depressing start to a century of  dazzle, poor Piyush Goyal was forced to go into instant damage control mode and resort to the oldest trick in the book – a trick that had been mastered by the Congresswallas – passing the buck. While Delhi cursed and sweltered in temperatures that would have been murderous even without the power cut, BJP  Netas assured agitators  they would fix the problem in two weeks, after pointing out it was all the fault of that wretched storm which brought down a couple of towers. But mainly it was the fault of the wretched UPA government. Granted, Piyush was not too far off the mark there, but one hopes buck passing is not going to become a regular feature of the new government. For, don’t forget, the key word to keep throwing around these days is ‘OPTIMISM’. And optimistic people don’t blame others. They tackle problems head on themselves.
At one of those dreary diplomatic functions ( warm wine, smelly suits, lousy food and fake conversations), three fellows walked up to ask whether I was also feeling – you’ve guessed it – optimistic.Never mind my answer! Later, at an informal dinner, close friends kept knocking back Camparis and saying how ‘optimistic’ they were feeling. At my favourite Bhaji (vegetable) gulley in Colaba, the mood was equally optimistic. The vendor selling lichees ( not the tainted ones from Kolkata, he kept assuring me), also told me about his optimism. My regular silversmith ( Gujarati) offered me a plate of dhokla with oversweet tea saying he was optimistic business would look up soon. A fancy educationist who runs a successful  commerce college, squeezed my hand warmly and cooed, “ I am so optimistic… my students are so optimistic… the young in India are so optimistic.” Great! Happy for you, honey! But why does nobody want to specify what he/she is so optimistic about!
With so much optimism going around, is there any space left for a teensy-weensy reality check? Is that even allowed? These days, it’s better to ask in advance what’s allowed and what isn’t . I mentioned this to one of India’s most successful industrialists, and he looked miffed. “ This is the time reserved for optimism.  Only optimism. We have to remain optimistic and focus on development. Look at the Sensex. Look at what’s happening across the board.” At another gathering of  ‘those who matter’, a few business people shuffled off when they sensed a slight dip in the optimism levels of our small group. Someone said, “No cynicism,please. India is rising….” Mild applause greeted this remark. “ Overall development is the need of the hour. We must remain optimistic,” an earnest aunty commented. Suddenly, I felt like we were all a part of Salvador Dali’s world. Or participating in the 21st century adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. To me, this kind of optimism is scary. I mention this as a response to a long letter I received from a gentleman who wanted  me to take back my words ‘for the sake of optimism… the young in India need optimism.”  His unsolicited advice was polite but somewhat menacing.
It’s come to a point I gag each time I hear the word ‘optimism’.  I want to shout, Hello! I  AM an optimist, okay? Have always been one. If I choose to articulate what I am observing / feeling / thinking / living…  does that make me less optimistic? Or more?? I would say more. For, I am optimistic enough to believe we still live in a vibrant, free environment that respects all kinds of divergent viewpoints and opinions. Am I wrong in thinking that? Am I the only one living under the false illusion that free speech is still a deeply cherished attribute? Or that democracy will protect individuals who don’t always conform to the diktats of  the majority in power? The simple answer is ‘Yes’. I do believe India values my freedoms as it does the freedoms of all its citizens.  I would say, this non-negotiable position makes me the ultimate optimist.  Perhaps, it’s time to redefine the true meaning of optimism. As of now, there is just one interpretation, one version. I wouldn’t call that optimism at all. A better description for this all-pervasive emotion which is dominating our lives right now is wish fulfillment. A billion plus wishes are posted on a long, long list. Even if a fraction of those wishes are granted, then perhaps we can truly go from being a not-so-Incredible India to a euphoric Optimistic India!


Saturday, June 7, 2014

An Open Letter to Jaya Bachchan... and more.

           Sorry about my long absence... I have some technical problem happening here. It's impossible for me to access my blog from my android phone. Which means I have to be home to post here. And since I work on an antiquated laptop with snail speed, it makes the entire operation somewhat daunting. But please don't give up on me! Keep those comments rolling...
This picture was clicked by my husband in Hong Kong last week.
     An open letter to Jaya Bachchan…
Dear Jaya,
I have known you for over forty years. I write this in anguish and pain. You are a senior representative of the Samajwadi Party in Parliament. But much more than your political avatar, you are a sensitive woman -  a wife, mother, grand-mother. Why have you not spoken up against the sexual atrocities being committed in Uttar Pradesh involving defenceless young girls? Or against what happened in Meghalaya with a Garo woman who had her head blown off for resisting her attackers? What crime had this 35- year-old tribal woman from the South Garo Hills district in Meghalaya committed? Obviously, it was the same one committed by the two teenage Dalit girls strung up on a mango tree in front of their humble hut in UP’s Badaun district earlier - all three victims were  born into wretchedness. They died in wretchedness.Their crime was poverty. We in India, demand justice, all the while knowing, there’s none. Not so long as Akhilesh Yadav, the brash, young Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh brazenly refuses to acknowledge the enormity of the crime. And he is not alone. Which makes me wonder : Has that most awful four-letter-word – RAPE – lost its impact on a society that has to deal with multiple rapes on  a daily basis? It certainly looks like nobody is willing to deal with these crimes, least of all, the authorities in UP. Here’s a nauseating comment from your senior SP leader Ramgopal Yadav, “ In most places when relationships between boys and girls come out in the open, it is termed as rape.” Jaya! Really!! Mulayam Singh’s response was still more arrogant, “ Google something else. Media’s job is to speculate.You do your work and let us do our work.” In other words ( pardon the French ),  “F**k off!”
 Jaya, I respect your outspokenness. And I have known you to speak your mind on several issues in the past. I appeal to you through this column, to break your silence on these ghastly, grisly, gory incidents, which have made it to the International press and generated enough of a backlash to provoke UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon into issuing a strongly worded condemnation of the Badaun incident. He  damned the ‘Boys will be boys’ comment and added, “Together we can empower more people to understand that violence against women degrades us all.” Going beyond the terrible press India has been receiving in this case, and also going beyond commercial issues (“ The advisory will impact tourism… foreign women will avoid visiting India ”), the more immediate concern is this: what can we do to stop such savagery? Jaya Bachchan, you can certainly play a powerful role in educating your political mentors by pointing out the immorality of their despicable behavior to them. If they fail to pay any heed to your advice, it would be best for you to disassociate yourself from this pathetic lot and resign from such a morally bankrupt party. That would win you a great deal of national respect.  Can you do that? Will you?
I was in Meghalaya a few weeks ago, and had the chance to interact with exceptional Garo women. We discussed several challenges faced by them in a rapidly changing society which is slowly coming to terms with new cultural contours that don’t always respect tribal traditions. Tragically,the blood curdling attempted rape and eventual murder of the 35-year-old Garo wife-and-mother could have happened to any woman in the village. Her assailants used an AK-rifle to blow her head off in the presence of her five children, after locking up her husband. There is cold bloodedness, sadism and sexual frustration evident here. Just as there was in the Badaun case. And just as there is in every rape that was ever perpetrated. Let’s not create categories for rape (“ This one involved guns…. and  is therefore worse than the other ones which used knives, ropes, stones”). A rape is a rape. It’s a crime not just against women but against humanity itself. Unless we are prepared to see it in that context, we will continue to downplay rape as something that happens when men can’t find a willing partner and attack the first woman… child… they come across.

 Do it Jaya. Force the SP top dogs to act against the murderers. You owe it to your countless fans. And to yourself.
     Mumbai Mirror last Saturday...                     
                      Smriti Irani keeps the flag flying….
For  Smriti Irani, achhey din aa gaye hain. And why not?  On the dramatic day  of the swearing in ceremony ,Smriti appeared on several channels when it was known she was going to be an important member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Smriti presented a picture of equipoise and confidence. There wasn’t a trace of exaggerated emotion as she calmly answered the standard questions (“How has the journey been so far… how do you see the journey for the next few years?”). An overawed Arnab Goswami gushed uncharacteristically as he kept repeating how Smriti at 38 , was the youngest cabinet minister  to hold office at the centre. He also mentioned Najma Heptullah’s age several times ( 78). And remarked how Najma was the oldest minister in Modi’s cabinet. And I thought to myself how perceptions have altered! Two strong, determined women representing different generations in the same cabinet. The best part about Smriti Irani’s remarkable career track has been her visible growth ( pardon, the pun). More, much more than her weight, it is her impressive evolution as an articulate and dynamic political leader, respected for her sobriety, clarity, modesty and commitment that has propelled her to her current job( Minister HRD). These are four key qualities which have paid Smriti rich dividends.When asked for the hundredth time about her ‘journey’, Smriti replied simply and patiently, “Let me be honest. I come from a lower middle class home. When I was growing up, all we could think of was having a roof over our head and a job to hang on to.”  This is the sort of transparent, down to earth admission that today’s India immediately connects with. No bombast. No bragging. The follow up question about losing in Amethi to Rahul Gandhi was dealt with equally gracefully when Smriti acknowledged her defeat without making any silly excuses. There was maturity and balance in all her responses. And this is what her admirers will look out for as she takes charge of her portfolio and gets down to work.
Smriti sure has come a long, long way from the time she was the darling of millions, playing the role of an overburdened ‘bahu’ in Ekta Kapoor’s breakthrough serial which had the nation completely hooked. Her transition from a mega television star to a BJP spokesperson happened seamlessly. At each turning point, Smriti found just the right words, the right tone, the right perspective. This couldn’t have been easy at a time when Modi was the favourite punching bag of the media and was routinely hauled over the coals for his controversial remarks and unconventional policies. Unlike her more agitated counterparts thrust into this unenviable role (defending the indefensible, night after tiresome night). Smriti remained super calm, opting for measured discourse over high pitched rhetoric. It was said she was Narendra Modi’s chosen one. It was equally obvious why she was in such an envied position. It would be most unfair to  sneer at  Smriti  for being the Boss’ pet. Managing so many egos within and outside her party, will be her new challenge. But what’s the bet Smriti will score over some of her more aggressive colleagues and maintain the dignity of her office? That’s the thing about some fortunate Power Ladies of today – they know exactly how to maintain the all important balance in their lives. We in Asia, are accustomed to women in positions that come with mega clout.We are equally accustomed to women so frighteningly marginalized, they don’t even have a shot at survival, forget anything else.
 In a scenario that is so dramatically divergent, someone like a Smriti Irani stands out just for being a sensible ‘aam aurat’, who has worked bloody hard to get to her position. From this moment on, her life will be transformed forever. She will be watched and monitored like never before. A huge responsibility rests on her shoulders. And the media, as we know too well, is not known to be kind towards high profile individuals dealing with challenging assignments. Somewhere, there is a nasty little spot inside most critics who wait for signs of weakness…. who wait for mistakes…. who wait to pounce on someone in the limelight. Especially if that someone is like a Smriti Irani … a comfortable-in-her-skin politician, ready to break the stereotype and take on adversaries, without once losing her dignity and self respect. Most significantly, Smriti does not threaten other women. One generation has grown up thinking of her as the beleaguered woman next door. A friendly padosan they can enjoy chai ,dhokla  and gupshup with. This is a huge plus – and Smriti is smart enough to recognize it as one.
Smriti Irani  has made ‘Gharelu’ cool. Good for Smriti Irani.
This appeared in The Week...
           Why I feel sorry for Sonia Gandhi….
I am feeling exceedingly sorry for Sonia Gandhi -  not the politician, but the mother. Look at what happened recently – the soul destroying defeat of the Congress party, led by her beloved son, Rahul Gandhi was blamed squarely on the ma-beta combo. Not only was this the most humiliating moment for India’s oldest political party, but for Sonia Gandhi, it was also an admission that her son had flopped. And flopped  badly. Sonia did indeed take that to heart, as was obvious at the briefest press conference any national leader has held, during which Sonia conceded defeat, and all but yanked a broadly smiling Rahul away from the harsh glare of the spotlight, before the poor chap  made an even bigger fool of himself. Yes, she managed to recover her equilibrium a little after scowling, sulking and refusing to congratulate Narendra Modi after he was declared the prime minister designate. Since then, she has consistently refused to smile! Yes, she and sonny boy did the right thing by attending the historic swearing in ceremony and thereby avoiding another controversy. But Sonia’s grim visage told its own story. That  particular narrative has a lot to do with her disappointment with Rahul – the Prince who failed to deliver a royal result. It’s hard to say who one feels sorrier for – the mother or the son, in this case. My sympathies are with Sonia.
Let’s be honest, she has led a tough life. Not just as the widow of an assassinated prime minister, but also as one of the most feared / hated women on the subcontinent. No matter what her admirers claim, Sonia never managed to win our hearts. Whether that had to do with her aloofness, or the fact that her Italian origins acted as a barrier, despite her best efforts to become ‘one of us’, the truth is Sonia remained an outsider. Very few people understood what she was all about. The original sympathy wave was eventually replaced by resentment. This simmering anger against her was rarely articulated, such was her power and hold over the party. Sonia was perceived as a deep, secretive, closed individual, who showed zero tolerance towards anybody who opposed her diktats. The ‘official’ Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was reduced to a pathetic figurehead, unable or unwilling to assert himself, particularly during his second lackluster term in office. All this was discussed soto voce by courtiers too timid to take on ‘Madam’. And soon this paranoia extended to Madam’s son, the sweet Dimpled Darling, who lived in La La land and did what Mummy wanted him to.
Sonia must have nurtured many dreams for her handsome boy. If that were not the case, she would have left the country right after Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death, as many Gandhi family well wishers expected her to. But Sonia is made of sterner stuff – she stayed. And waited. And that is where her calculations misfired. For all the careful grooming and nurturing she invested in her mild mannered son, the poor chap just couldn’t live up to the high expectations that were thrust on him, not just by his mother, but the entire country.
Rahul is still a happy-go-lucky bachelor boy. That must worry Sonia the mother. While Priyanka put up a fine show campaigning for mum and brother, there is the Robert Vadra factor looming large on the political horizon. Uma Bharati had made a categorical statement saying the next government would send Vadra to jail. Apart from this threat and other vexing family issues, Sonia will be coping with stepped up criticism from within the party she has so far controlled and dominated, without having to tolerate even a murmur of criticism against her autocratic style of  functioning .With Congressman Milind Deora boldly opening the Pandora’s box and questioning Rahul’s leadership, Sonia has a tough job of  fire fighting ahead of her. Given the fragile state of her own health (surely, it’s time she revealed the nature of this mysterious ailment?), Sonia’s decline in strictly political terms, seems imminent and inevitable. This may be the hardest part for Sonia to swallow. And one wonders  -  what next? Will Rahul finally find a suitable girl and bring her home to mummy? Will Priyanka decide to take the plunge and relieve both – her mother and brother of their responsibilities? Will the family business declare bankruptcy and call it a day after six decades of running an enterprise called India?
Above all, will Sonia the Supermom, sensibly step back and allow her son to make up his own mind as to what he wants to do with his life? Clearly, Rahul has not inherited the dominant political gene from the Gandhi family pool. Sonia needs to respect the verdict of the country, and that verdict is pretty unambiguous -  Rahul is not the change India was looking for.
Sorry, Sonia. Rahul’s a lovely chap. But Mother India needed another son.