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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Tharoor tragedy

I almost -- almost -- feel sorry for Shashi Tharoor. He apparently thought that a PhD in diplomacy and a lifetime in the intrigue-ridden corridors of the UN prepared him for the treachery of the political tamasha here. Which is why he came a cropper within a year of his entree into the members-only club that our netas have made for themselves.

Those who live by the tweet also die (metaphorically speaking, of course) by it, so it was perhaps inevitable that a vengeful tweet from Lalit Modi would do in the 54-year-old minister who thought he was part of GenNext. But more than poetic justice for Tharoor, the rapidly-spinning-out-of-control scandal serves as an ominous warning for all those arrivistes who want to join the party: if you wanna boogie with us, learn the steps first. Or face the music.

Nepotism, affaires de coeur, lining nests, subverting official privileges -- anything goes, as long as it's not made common knowledge. Leave that to the nosy papers and TV channels to ferret out, if they can or if they dare. Don't flaunt what people don't expect you to flaunt, is the strict code of the politically privileged. Violate it and you'll pay for it.

Luxury cars (even if they embarrassingly get burnt up in a Lutyens' bungalow garage occasionally, and thus make it to the newspapers), holidays and junkets at government expense, discreet friendships, and the like are all okay because they can easily be camouflaged or explained away. Sadly for Shashi, many of the things he did could neither be explained away (to the public) or condoned by his political peers.

Perhaps he was too sure of his own cleverness to figure out that he hadn't learnt the right steps yet... By then it was too late. Alas.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An old fashioned romance

My grandmother never said very much about her life as a young woman -- only as a mother. A set of letters and the recounting of an incident by her daughter, my aunt, made me see her -- and my grandfather with new eyes. It's so relevant in these days of instant romance and attention deficit disorders....

Love lives on silently

BEING but a toddler when my grandfather passed away, my impressions were entirely based on the grim photograph of a middle-aged gentleman that reposed on my grandmother’s pooja mandap through the decades of her widowhood. Everyday she would anoint his sepia visage with a sandalwood paste tika, place fresh flowers at the base of the frame and include him in her invocations. But for me, he was about as abstract as the gods he shared counter space with.

Till a cache of letters emerged from a forgotten trunk. Neatly tied with string, the small envelopes bore postmarks from all over what was once united Bengal. On each of them, my grandmother’s name was written in a copperplate handwriting by a fountain pen, in violet or turquoise ink. Intrigued, I opened them. The short letters were all in English, positioned exactly in the middle of every page, and included many poetic quotations to convey a lover’s longing.

Amazingly, they were from my grandfather, dating back to the 1920s.

This year, my grandmother would have turned 100. It’s hard for me, therefore, to imagine her as a teenage wife, opening those letters amid the hustle-bustle of running a household. Perhaps she even smiled secretly at her absent husband’s ardent thoughts. Romance wasn’t something I associated with grandparents...till my aunt told me a story.

Once, when my grandfather was away on tour as usual, a package arrived at the town post office. As it was addressed to my grandmother, she was told to collect it in person. Outraged at the idea of their bahu going to a public place, family elders forbade it. So a neighbour persuaded the postmaster to send the packet home. It turned out to be rectangular and heavy, and it was decreed she would open it only in her husband’s presence.

Luckily he returned the next day and was told immediately about the packet. Half-amused, half-exasperated, he told his wife to open it. Inside was a cake with the inscription "Happy Birthday, Aruna".

It had travelled all the way from Calcutta’s best confectionery, and that was why he had returned a day early. No one else had remembered, but evidently he wanted to go to any lengths to make my grandmother smile secretly on that special day. Suddenly, the sandalwood tika, flowers and a silent devotion that even death could not part, made sense.

Ode to Boromashi

This is a piece that I wrote on a person who always inspires me. I posted it on Facebook and got so many wonderful responses, I simply had to put it in my blog. I'd love to know of your stories about such family members...

Dipu's decision

The nicest thing about going back to Calcutta (never Kolkata) for even a short break, is the chance I get to have a cozy natter with my mother’s eldest sister, sitting on her balcony in the mellow evening breeze. This time was no different. Yet, she was a little more frail, her voice even softer, her characteristic still-black hair now cut short and the ubiquitous printed white saree replaced by a more comfy housecoat that Bengalis call ‘sharadeen’ or ‘all day’.

Amid the hullabaloo over the epochal passing of Jyoti Basu — some seven years older than my aunt — her thoughts were on a different tack. Not for her any self-pitying notions of mortality or decrepitude. “There is no one left to call me Dipu any more,” she said with a wistful smile. “One by one, everyone of my generation is gone. I’m not far from my 90th birthday, after all. No one of my age to talk to, gossip with, laugh with...”

“There’s always your children, your younger sisters and all of us cousins and grandchildren. We all love chatting with you, listening to your reminiscences,” I protested stoutly. “But you don’t call me Dipu,” she answered. “I’m Ma, Didi, Boromashi, Boropishi and Dida to everyone now.” That is indeed the case. Even in the midst of a close-knit extended family that has always admired and loved her, her age has left Boromashi isolated in a way none of us can remedy.

But as usual, she has thought of a solution. Something that never would have occurred to me. “I have told Rahul (her eldest grandson and my nephew) that his newborn daughter Anjulie should call me Dipu,” she announced with a note of glee in her voice. “Isn’t that perfect? My first great-granddaughter can’t call me by any of the names you all do, so why shouldn’t she just call me Dipu?!”

With nearly a century between them, there cannot be a more appropriate new friend for my aunt than a wide-eyed little cherub, too young to be constrained by inhibitions about seniority. Hearing a child’s voice calling out “Dipu!” will definitely make the weight of Boromashi’s nearly-90 years slip away like a school satchel at the beginning of summer holidays.

As usual, a chat with Boromashi has given me a unique gift — an age-lifting miracle that has nothing cosmetic about it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Phoren Hand

I came across an article by one Derek Shearer yesterday which actually prompted me to write my first real post on this blog. In the midst of one ramble about attending a wedding in India -- the high point of most westerners these days as their minds boggle and eyes goggle at our extravaganzas -- he put in list of books on India that visitors should read.

It's all very well that he happens to be a "Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles" and a Clinton acolyte rewarded with an ambassadorship to Finland, but why should his recommended reading list name only foreigners or non-residents, writing on India-- barring Ramchandra Guha and William Bissell, of course? I quote his list:

  • In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce, former Financial Times correspondent in New Delhi, is the best single introduction to the country. A model of foreign reporting, clear writing and thoughtful analysis.
  • Nine Lives--In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple, is an exploration of how traditional religious beliefs are transformed by today's globalized society. Dalrymple is an exceptional writer and reporter, and his history books like The Last Mughal, and his travel books on India and the region are all worth purchasing.
  • India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramchandra Guha, is the single best history of modern India.
  • Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra, tells the story of late British India and brings it forward to the present. A good companion to Guha's work.
  • Making India Work by William Bissell, is a policy book by the current director of Fabindia, the company founded by his American father who went to India on a Ford Foundation grant, met an Indian woman (Bim Bissell, a noted figure in Delhi society whom we met at the wedding), and stayed to start a textile company. In the book, Bissell gives his prescriptions for downsizing India's inefficient bureaucracy, improving its struggling educational system, and revitalizing neighborhood democracy.
  • Three of my other best reads on India include, Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominque LaPierre, a cinematic like recounting of the moment when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan; Ambassador's Journal by John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as JFK's diplomat to India in the 1960s; and The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, one of the great journalists of the 20th century.
  • In the fiction category (not the serious novels you will find in a proper course on modern Indian literature), I recommend The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, the first in a new detective series set in New Delhi introducing Vash Puri, self-proclaimed "India's Greatest Detective", Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, a Dickensian detective novel set in today's Mumbai, and Delhi Noir, a collection of short detective fiction edited by Hirsh Sawhney which explores the darker side of Indian life.
  • There are too many Bollywood and Merchant/Ivory films to recommend any particular ones. Instead, you can start your Indian odyssey at home with the BBC documentary, The Story of India, narrated by historian Michael Wood. Of course, if you have not seen Monsoon Wedding or Slumdog Millionaire, you are missing out on great treats.

Get the general idea? Don't get me wrong, all these may be great books, and many of these writers are friends of mine -- upright and quite in love with India -- but surely the net must be cast wider? Shearer has hit all the old buttons: Gandhi, saffron clad sadhus and bell-clanging temples, sleazy and communal politics, corruption, red tape and overweaning poverty.... Things he perhaps comfortingly remembers from his first visit to India in the 1970s. But the fact is, not only has India moved on a lot since then in very fundamental ways, she has many more facets that should captivate visitors, firang and NRI.

Unfortunately, Indian writers do not seem to capture that well enough or perhaps, often enough. History has become the battleground of ideologies and in the din the rollicking historical novels of ancient and Mughal India by the Chennai-based Abraham Eraly have been muscled out of the limelight, for instance. Much as I deplore the pedestrian prose of Chetan Bhagat, his 95-rupee books do indeed capture a zeitgeist but he is hardly recommended reading for everyone. The lyrical movies of Farhan Akhtar are a window to a different India yet we persist with tomtomming Meera Nair and Deepa Mehta...

On the topic of homegrown staples, Amar Chitra Katha's timeless telling of India's lore is an incomparable introduction to the Indian mindset. Can you think of a better way for a newcomer (foreign or NRI) to understand why the Delhi High Court cites the divine romance of a celestial couple -- Radha and Krishna -- when giving a verdict on live-in relationships? RK Narayan's evocation of south Indian culture, Tagore and Sarat Chandra's prescient observations of the fissures and foibles of Bengali family structure still ring true today...

This country that straddles the past and present without a wobble is the India that the world will soon have to contend more and more. This is also the India that wants to take on the world. The India of Infosys and IPL, of women minting money making papad and honey, of boys with as much RAM in their craniums as Big Blue swotting for their engineering exams. But it is as much the India where millions head for an absolving dip in the Ganga as their forebears have done for millennia, where a watch displaying 'rahu kaal' is snapped up by businessmen so that they don't sign deals at inauspicious moments, where the great holy centres dish out free meals for thousands of poor people every day even as the rich shower the gods with billion-rupee coronets.

Sadly, very few Indians have obliged us with more relevant readings on this India. So Mr Shearer has a ready excuse for his skewed list.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I've finally taken the plunge!

As a lazy Libran, it's taken me this long to actually start a blog, though I had the name ready for ages! Anyway, here I am with my first post. Considering I usually have a lot to say about most things (as my friends will agree!), maybe it's fitting that I put it all down on a blog instead! Tomorrow I shall begin in earnest....