Category Archives: India

India waits…

Like millions of Indians, I am waiting for the election results to be announced on May 23, 2019. I feel that rush of anxiety in my heart. I don’t think that I was this anxious even for my exam results. Human emotions are strange, actually.

It has been a bitterly fought election in 2019. Too much of mud-slinging, character assassinations and hate speeches.

Even as I am waiting for the results, in my head I am planning a nice dinner for myself irrespective of the result. Earlier in the day, I tweeted : Notes to myself: This too shall pass. #electionresults2019

Five years ago, on May 19, 2014 the then general election results were announced. It was a gruelling summer day in Ahmedabad. I was trying to make a sense of the path ahead for India (well, I  am still trying to). But at the same time, I didn’t want to be consumed by the political climate. I had ordered a plate of biryani and caramel custard just to feel better.

Let us see how India swings.

 

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One way ticket…

(‘Desh’ (meaning country) is how my mother-in-law refers to Kerala whenever she talks about her years of growing up there. I always tell her, “India is your country. Why are you referring Kerala as your country?” But she refuses to listen to me. She shifted to Gujarat when she got married almost 50 years ago. This piece first appeared in an anthology titled ‘People called Ahmedabad’. I am sharing this here as we celebrate Gujarat Day on May 1. This is about leaving home, finding home and also about love and longing)  

mummy

(The Matriarch… )

More than fifty years ago, Sowbhagyabati Menon arrived in Ahmedabad from a small village in Kerala as a young bride. She started a whole new chapter of her life in this dusty city which is so very different from the lush green village of hers dotted with beautiful houses, swaying coconut trees and paddy fields. Today, she starts her day with a cup of tea and two Gujarati newspapers. And she loves her eclectic mixed neighborhood of Khanpur, in the walled city of Ahmedabad.

She looks back at her Gujarat journey with a sense of nostalgia and fondness. “It was my first train journey and everybody in my family thought that I was really going away too far. We all had heard of Ahmedabad only through news.The first house I stayed in Ahmedabad was on rent. It was a small house but I was surrounded by wonderful neighbors who wholeheartedly welcomed this young Malayali.”

Gujarati language sounded more or less like Greek or Latin to her. But she was hell-bent on learning the language. So, she sought the help of her neighbour’s school-going daughter. With a paper and pen, they moved around in the kitchen to note down the names of vegetables in Gujarati. Later on in the day whenever she found some free time, she diligently practiced on her own, saying it gently and slowly, “bataka (potato), dungri (onions).”

In Kerala, she was used to having boiled rice and in the initial days of her arrival here, she just couldn’t stand the smell of basmati rice in her friends’ houses. In the beginning, she stayed with her Gujarati friend for a couple of days. Her loving hosts were feeling miserable that their guest just refused to touch any of the Guajrati delicacies they offered to her. Then one day, her host friend went to a small south-Indian restaurant to pack a meal of masala dosa, idli, vada for her.Probably that South-Indian platter was more precious to her than any piece of gold jewellery she was wearing.

But she has come a long way since then. Today, she loves her share of thepla, methi gota, sukhdi, khichdi, poori-aam ras and undhiyu. In fact, her children and grand-children now especially ask her to make Gujarati khatti meethi dal and every Uttarayan, she gets up at 3 am in the night to prepare lip-smacking unidhiyu. From her kitchen now comes a regular spread of both Kerala and Gujarati cuisine.  

She loves being in Ahmedabad which has given her a home, friends and beautiful memories to go back to. With a sense of love, she says, “Gujratis are nice,warm people. They are affable and made me feel at home from the beginning.”

So, what has she enjoyed the most about her life in Ahmedabad? She says, “I feel a sense of freedom in Ahmedabad. Here, I move around freely with my friends, have gone for late night movies. There is no restrictions on movement like I had in Kerala and I have enjoyed the freedom to explore life. My neighbours have taught me the art of saving money. They have taught me the art of compounding interest. So, that has definitely made my life better now.”

“I have also enjoyed celebrating festivals like Diwali, Uttarayan, Navratri and Bestu Varash (Gujarati New year).  And yes, I was a true blood Malayali before, having my share of cooking in coconut oil. After more than four decades in Gujarat, I have lost my taste for coconut oil.”

Does she miss Kerala? “Oh, I miss Kerala’s magical monsoon. Even after so many years, Gujarat’s dry, arid long summer feels really tough. In these months, I long for Kerala’s rains. I also miss the fabulous celebrations of Onam in my village. Though I try to cook an elaborate sadhya on Onam but it just doesn’t feel the same.”

But then she trails, “Many of the people with whom I grew up in Kerala are gone now. The ancestral house of mine needs constant attention. Life in Ahmedabad feels much easier now. And did I mention about the uninterrupted power supply in Ahmedabad?”

Well, home is here only.

The Art of Self-Branding

A FACEBOOK STATUS UPDATE

“I write like a dream. But that doesn’t take away the effort I put into every book, every launch, every conversation, every interview and every thing associated with my work.. ” 

All around us, we see people blowing their own trumpets. And with social media, self-branding has got a brand new aggressive makeover. Almost every day, we come across such acts of self-branding. Now people are busy in advertising themselves on Facebook, Instagram and the like. Everyone is a writer, a photographer, a master chef, a film critic, a designer… the list goes on. Everybody is everything. The lines between amateur and professionals are blurred.

So, here as an Indian, I am going back to our mythology to understand this act of self-branding.

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From The Mahabharat 

Krishna tells Arjuna : “You can kill yourself physically by harming your body or intellectually by praising yourself. For when a man praises himself, it is intellectual suicide.”

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From the Ramayana

When Valmiki completed his Ramayana, Narada Muni wasn’t impressed. “It is good, but Hanuman’s Ramayana is better’, he said.

‘Hanuman has written the Ramayana too!’, Valmiki didn’t like this at all, and wondered whose Ramayana was better. So he set out to find Hanuman.

In Kadali-vana, grove of plantains, he found Ramayana inscribed on seven broad leaves of a banana tree.

He read it and found it to be perfect. The most exquisite choice of grammar and vocabulary, metre and melody. He couldn’t help himself. He started to cry.

“Is it so bad?” asked Hanuman
“No, it is so good”, said Valmiki
“Then why are you crying?” asked Hanuman

“Because after reading your Ramayana no one will read my Ramayana,” replied Valmiki.

Hearing this Hanuman simply tore up the seven banana leaves stating  “Now no one will ever read Hanuman’s Ramayana.”

Hanuman said, “You need your Ramayana more than I need mine. You wrote your Ramayana so that the world remembers Valmiki; I wrote my Ramayana so that I remember Ram.”

At that moment he realized how he had been consumed by the desire for validation through his work.

He had not used the work to liberate himself from the fear of invalidation. He had not appreciated the essence of Ram’s tale to unknot his mind.

His Ramayana was a product of ambition; but Hanuman’s Ramayana was a product of affection.

That’s why Hanuman’s Ramayana sounded so much better. Valmiki realized that “Greater than Ram….. is the name of Ram!!!! ”
( राम से बड़ा राम का नाम ).

There are people like Hanuman who are just happy to celebrate what their heart says. They are not hungry for praises. They are content with their craft.

So let us not be like Valmiki, thinking our ‘Ramayana’ is the best.

(Even as I was writing this, I came across this phrase in Hindi Apne muh miya mithu (It basically means self praise. In other words it means to tell other people how good and successful you are.)

Take me as I am

It’s bit tiring as people keep on telling me, “Oh my God, you have got grey hair. Why are you not coloring your hair?”

Well, I am very comfortable with my grey hair. The grey hair tells the story of a rich, textured life I have lived. I can’t color my experiences. I have to take them as they are/were. It is all part of an organic process.

I dread spending hours in the salon for coloring my hair. I had streaked my hair seven years back as I wanted to have fun with my hair. It was a long long process which was quite expensive too.  I am not here to make a statement. If I feel like having those purple streaks to match my purple lipstick sometime in the future then probably I will do that.

But why do people are so worried about other people’s grey hair? They should be more worried about climate change, mindless consumerism and the like.  Not someone’s grey hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

People called Kerala…

This narrative has lived within me for almost four months. I feel, there is always a right time for the story to travel. From my heart to the world outside, In between experiencing the story and telling the story, Kerala has seen worst of times in terms of devastating flood and loss of human lives and property. Now, Kerala is back on its feet.
In India, it’s now time for celebrating Diwali. Diwali, the festival of lights is all about joy, happiness, love and light. This narrative is all about celebrating that light. How dark would be darkness without this light… 
diwali
Hussain:  The navigator, the philosopher
Hussain drove us from Fort Kochi to Palakkad. He also took us to Arakal and in the beginning of the journey, he told us, “I will take you to such a place that you will forget Ooty.” Hussain is the symbol of my India — liberal, secular, quirky, gentle and caring.

He has six friends and he tells us they will stand by each other no matter what happens. Before marriage, he told his wife, “You don’t need to adjust with my parents but you need to do so as far my friends are concerned.” He talked about his wife in a gentle and caring way. He makes sure that his wife has her share of fun and enjoyment. “Just because we are men that does not mean that only we will enjoy. A woman is a human being first and she must enjoy.”

He loves making money and also living life king size. He says, “What’s the point of making money if you can’t enjoy money.” Once in a while, the seven friends meet, enjoy a drink and eat a nice meal of rice and mutton curry. And the icing on the cake is after a drink or two, they all philosophize about life. So what will he do if his wife falls in love with another man? “The only answer to the question is to love her more,” said Hussain.
His friends are from different socio- economic backgrounds. Some of them are government officials, some of them are businessmen. Some of them are earning lots of money and some of them are not. But their bonding is all about love and memories. If they are all together and one friend says, “I am just going somewhere and I will be back in five minutes.” Even if he comes back after two hours, nobody asks him, ‘why did he come so late? Where did he go?’ There are no questions asked and they just take up from where they leave.
Once they all had gone to watch a movie after buying tickets at a high price (and with lots of struggle).  And when they were just about to enter the movie hall, they got a phone call  informing them about someone’s death. They all had a quick discussion and decided that ‘the person is already dead. So, even if we won’t watch the film, he won’t come back. So, it’s better to watch the movie.”
They all seem to see death from a different perspective. Once all of them had gone for a funeral and one of them cracked a philosophical joke about life and death and they all broke into a smile. And then somebody came and told them, “Do you know where are you?” And then one of the friends said, “Listen brother, tomorrow if someone dies in my family, you can come and crack a little joke about life and death. We won’t mind.”
Hussain loves the beautiful landscape of Kerala. He has a warm, loving relationship with Kerala’s swaying coconut trees, its backwater, waterfalls and the mesmerizing monsoon  “Only if you have something tender in your heart and mind then only you will love nature. Otherwise, you will end up buying things at the malls only.”
I asked him about his friends’ religious background. “We all are from different religions — Muslims, Hindus and Christians.” When I told him, “God bless you.” He told me, “No, no, say something more.” I told him, “May nature bless you.” Hussain broke into a gentle smile approving of my statement this time.
Hussain being Hussain has his own theory of people of Kerala going crazy about football teams and forming groups like, “Argentina — fans of Kallepally. Hussain says, “Byakitya nehin hai.. (They don’t have a personality of their own and that is why they are becoming part of the collective.)
Najeeb — The quiet soccer-loving man
Our meeting was accidental. My friend Lekha and I were taking a morning walk in Fort Kochi on a lazy Sunday morning and on an impulse we just went to check out a kiosk which had a board about daily trips to Alleppey or Alappuzha.  And we somehow liked the deal and decided to go there. Najeeb took us to Alleppey. When I expressed my desire to have coffee at the quintessential India Coffee House, he enthusiastically took us to one. We were in Kerala when the FIFA World Cup 2018 was at its peak. You got to be in Kerala to believe the state’s soccer mania. As we were all taking pictures of those huge cut-outs of Messi, Ronaldo standing tall in small, clean villages of Kerala, we wondered about Najeeb’s soccer love. And then when we were inside the car, we asked, ‘Najeeb, which team are you supporting?” He kept quiet and pretended not to hear. But when we persisted, he said with a tinge of sadness, “Germany and imagine they are out.” But the moment he uttered the name of Germany, we all broke into laughter. He also joined us. In his quiet dignified ways.
In no time, he understood our taste and stopped at beautiful churches so that we could admire its wonderful architecture. He took us to beautiful beaches so that we could revel in sunsets.
Gulab — For whom time waits
Gulab is beyond time. He doesn’t wait for time, I have a feeling time waits for him. He took us in his auto from Kalepally to Kalpathy, a heritage village in Kerala. As we were roaming around in the village, Gulab told us to give us a call once we were free. He insisted that he would take us back home ( Earlier in the morning, Gulab was really kind enough to wait at a pre-primary school when we just wanted to spend some time with the kids.)
We had only heard of Gulab’s ‘time sense’ before. That day, we experienced it. Every phone -call to Gulab was met with the standard answer, “I am on my way.” The shopkeepers, the autorickshawallahs, the vegetable vendors were all amused to see three of us sitting comfortably on the verandah of a dilapidated house without a nameplate.
While waiting for Gulab, I suddenly had this intense urge to have a samosa. And my friend Ayaz immediately bought one for me which came on a plantain leaf (you see, South India is a little nicely different from North India). The samosa was really tasty. And thanks to our smartphones, three of us happily indulged in some photo session too. Even after all this self-indulgent acts, still there was no sign of Gulab.
samosa
(While waiting for Gulab…)
In that state of mind, every auto-driver looked like Gulab. But you know, life is not actually that miserable. So, suddenly we saw our Gulab coming and then as they say, time stopped for us.
Living in cities, chasing deadlines at work has made most of us very impatient. We are always in a hurry, always trying to manage time. But for Gulab, time is something else. It moves or stops as per his wish. Gulab is the ultimate boss.
Ordinary city mortals like us can only wait for Gulab.
As the state was trying to cope with the tragedy,  we made phone calls to find out about the well-being of Hussain, Najeeb, Kumaran, Gulab and their families. They were all safe)

#MeToo.. let us just listen

#MeToo has consumed my life for last one week. The more I read about it, the more I angry I feel. And in moments of solitude and self-reflection, many painful memories of hurt and abuse have resurfaced. And the story is both personal and universal. It’s a fact that most women in India have their #metoo experiences  both in public and private space. Since the #metoo narratives have been shared on the social media, many of us are talking to each other to share our experiences. The common thread is that we all have gone through harrowing experiences of verbal, physical and emotional abuse at different level. In our workplaces. And that’s a reality even if it is difficult to swallow.  The time has come to listen to women who are speaking, who are sharing raw emotions which they have been holding within themselves for years together. It’s not easy to come out and speak about your experience of being violated of basic human dignity. By doing that, you are laying your life in front of strangers. You are making yourself vulnerable.

In recent years, the process of communication has definitely become democratized. And one can’t suppress collective and individual voices for too long. Somewhere, like a tree, the voices will find a way to have a place under the sun.

Let us be clear on one thing. This is not a battle against men. This is not men bashing. This is about people who have abused their power, their authority, their superiority in whatever form. This is about not respecting a woman’s boundary. This is about some people having a sense of entitlement based on their power, position and gender. This is about commodification of women. At work place, at intimate spaces, at parties.

It’s nice to see stories are coming out from the entertainment industry, from media, advertising industry, corporate sector and more. Let it all come — from different walks of life, from urban India, small town India, rural India. The narrative of pain, hurt and abuse suffered by women from all walks of life must now be a part of our mainstream narrative. We can no longer push these stories under the carpet. It’s time to listen to our women.

Our streets are not for our women. Otherwise, many of us will not think twice before taking a night flight/cab. And at that time it doesn’t matter whether we women are

journalists/engineers/nurses/academicians.   If our streets are not ours, if we don’t have the freedom to move without any fear in our India then what are we really talking about? These are basic fundamental rights of any citizen. This is our constitutional right to move freely without any fear in our own country. A nation can not be a global player if its women are not feeling safe in their own country. Our offices are now telling horrible stories of sexual abuse. Men at work must realise that women are not sex toys.  It’s not cool to crack sexist, misogynistic jokes. It’s not cool to comment on a woman’s colleague’s body parts. It’s not cool to be a skirt chaser.

The time has come for all of us to be sensitive about gender identity, gender empathy, gender fluidity and look at life and people beyond gender binary. Empathy and compassion is the only way to move forward. Let us teach our children to look at life beyond stereotypes of gender and role play. It’s absolutely fine if your father is a fabulous cook. It’s absolutely wonderful if  your mother loves solving mathematics puzzles instead of cooking rajma-chawal for you on a Sunday.

We need to break down barriers and question our own mindsets. Talking to LGBTQ community members in the last few weeks (post Supreme Court verdict on Section 377) as part of writing stories have made me understand their deep lonely struggles in life. And all their stories have common thread of bullying at school, isolation at home and the innate pressure to be ‘normal’ (which just means being straight).

Let us share our stories and  from there will only emerge lesson of empathy and compassion. As a beginning step,  let us just start listening.

 

 

 

A journalist…what it means to be one

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Photo by brotiN biswaS on Pexels.com

(The youngest member in our newsroom is 22 years old. I have given more years of my life to journalism. Most of the world outside sees journalism as a glamorous profession. Not many are aware of the grime, the sweat and not to talk about long working hours and less holidays. But it is definitely one profession that gives you an ability, a perspective to look at your own life like an outsider)

I am a story-teller but I am not the story. That’s why every day, I wake up with a sense of deep gratitude. It’s humbling to be a journalist. It’s the story that is much much larger than me. It’s the story that matters, it’s the face behind the story that counts. I am just the narrator bringing the story to the world. People trust me with stories which define them as individuals. Not for anything else but for the fact that I am a journalist. People bare their vulnerable souls to me and share with me stories of love, loss, success, failure, aspirations .. all in the hope that their story reaches to the world. As much as you need the stories, you need the story-teller too.

Let me take you on a retro ride. It’s March, 2002. I am walking along with my colleagues in the riot affected areas of Ahmedabad — amidst burnt houses, smoke billowing from the roofs of  houses, textbooks of young children lying here and there in tattered condition, once shiny utensils now all black and beyond any shape and most importantly charred dreams. The loss is immense and palpable.  Grief stricken women and men open up their hearts to us i.e strangers armed with little yellow notebooks and ball-point pens. The world calls us ‘journalists’. A woman in her early 40s wearing a pink salwar kameez and a green dupatta holds my hand and tells with tears in her eyes, “Go and tell the world what you have seen here and what I have told you. Tell the world.” I hold her hands  gently and say, “I will. We will.”  I am the outsider in her world. Her loss has given me an entry into her intimate world. I have a comfortable home in the western part of Ahmedabad to go back to in the night.

But here in the midst of devastation — I am the narrator, I can’t be the story. Yet, I have to be there with them without losing my sense of self.  I have to bring back the story as it is to the world outside. I have to draw the boundary of not losing my self and stealing the story from them.

On another day during the same period, my senior colleague and I go on the field to do a story on relief camps. From there, committee members of the relief camp take us to a graveyard nearby. They say the smallest graves are the ones that hurt the most. Standing there among wailing men, I actually counted the number of graves of little kids who had fallen prey to mindless violence earlier in the day. There were nine of them. In moments like that, a part of  me feels like an intruder and I want to move away from that deeply private moment of those grieving intensely.

But the story is the winner here and it holds me back. There’s no moral dilemma here. I have to tell to all of you  who are sitting in their homes, or working in offices and who are not privy to what’s happening there. I have to be detached at that moment to tell you what I saw there — without any colour, any filter. I can’t jump into the frame, I can’t be the frame. I need to be there among the people to bring you back the story no matter how gruesome is the story or how heart-breaking it is. I believe, if you don’t have it in you to come to face to face with death, violence, loss and grief then you can’t be a  journalist. You got to be somewhere else.

My best friend who worked with Sebastin D Souza ( in Mumbai Mirror), famous all over the world for his photograph of Kasab in action in CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) station in the Mumbai terror attack, which eventually led to Kasab’s conviction, asked him once, “Sebastin, didn’t you feel scared while you were clicking photographs of Kasab?” He said non-chalantly, “What was there to feel scared? I was just doing my job — shooting him with my camera.”  He didn’t glorify his moment of truth, how brave he was or how put his life into risk.

Years later in an interview, Sebastian said to a leading news channel , “After all that hype of 26/11, nothing has changed. I don’t feel anything. I try to erase it from my mind. It does not seem such a big event now. Photo-wise, yes, it was a very big thing. My pictures were used across the world and helped convict (Mohammed Ajmal) Kasab (the lone attacker captured alive and hanged in November 2012).”  As matter of fact as it can be.

On a slightly chilly winter evening, I met Kalpana Gupta, a woman who had lost her husband, two kids and home in the 2001 killer Gujarat earthquake. I was meeting her five years after the earthquake had consumed her once picture-perfect life.  Like a phoenix, she had risen from the ashes of pain, loss and longing. She had remarried and she came to meet me with her two year old daughter. She took me to the same apartment where she lived before the earthquake took away everything she had nurtured lovingly. She offered flowers on the door and we sat down on the ground floor of her apartment on two plastic chairs facing each other. She was living in another part of the city then and had just taken the possession of her newly built flat.

There was no question to ask her. She had to tell her story in her own words. Till now, I have not seen someone crying throughout an interview. She had no control over her tears. The poignancy of her story overwhelmed me. Yet I had to sit stoically throughout the interview and listen to her attentively. I distinctly remember walking back on the neon-lit streets of Ahmedabad with a heavy heart. But the narrator’s job begins with that.

No matter how heavy is your heart or how dark is the night, your qwerty key board is your place to go to. In the stillness of the night, you have to detach from the world around you.  Then it’s just you and the story. That’s the ethereal moment when writing feels like prayer. That’s why, it’s intoxicating to be in the newsroom day after day, week after week and actually year after year. The high of holding the story within you and then letting it travel to the world. Once you let it go, you have no control over it.  And it’s that juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness that has fascinated me all these years. The brutality of telling a story as it is and the tenderness of the story becoming a part of your life.

We are living in strange times. An overdose of information, fake news, issues of ethics plaguing the media, the list is endless. It’s not easy to be a journalist in today’s time. But then it’s almost impossible to resist a story. And letting it travel through the world.