Monday, February 01, 2016

The Jaipur Literature Festival, 2016


Okay. So I shake out my cold nervous fingers to get some heart back into them, a spiritual response to the gargantuan task of chronicling the phenomenon that was the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2016.

Here goes.

JLF, the world's largest free literary festival, is quickly becoming a must-do for us. We went for the first time in 2014, and left fascinated. 2015 saw yours truly participating in, and winning, one of their contests, and consequently becoming the recipient of free accommodation for the duration of the festival, but due to unforeseen circs, in the form of upset innards of the significant other, the year failed to see our jubilant selves at ye olde Diggi grounds. Though the final month of the year more than made up for the disappointing start, when we did the litfest circuit with IIMBUE at IIM Bangalore (though technically not a litfest, but a not-so-distant cousin) and the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai.
The shenanigans at these two are now the stuff of legend, and I am living in the hope that the day shall dawn when, in between writings of great import, of the suitability and non, of girls and boys, by dint of a charitable soul and a curious mind, a two-line or even less expansive missive will be scribbled and sent on wings of ether, to my inbox. Mr Seth, I live in the hope :)

2016 dawned bright and fair. Truly, it felt like the year of change. It was time to lay in stone this new family tradition, of the annual pilgrimage to dear ol' Diggi.

This time too, I tried taking part in the creative writing contests, 'tried' being key here as I found myself having exceeded the word count on the story, and having created a beast of no mean exoticity in the poem. Of course, one cannot discount the possibility of both of these being simply underwhelming, but intact entries they were not.

Under the tyranny of not having got anything for free, one fine day we saw our bank balance visibly shrink as hard-earned cash dissolved into plane tickets and hotel bookings. But you know, we are what you call - hedonists, out and proud.

So, we arrived in Jaipur on the third day of the fest, determined to stick around till Diggi shut its gates on us on day 5. The air was nippy with promise. Color shone everywhere. The sounds of silence had given way to erudite speech, with tent upon tent of people - curious, energetic, insatiable - people.

It was a magical three days. We have come a long way in the last two years, and the span of things that interests us now is much wider, the knowledge we already hold much deeper. Made the experience even more pleasurable. I am going to try and capture some key highlights here, and to make it palatable, let me do it via my favorite social media tool of the moment - the tweet.
Now I am quite a social media savant, wearing different accounts like a modern day Edward De Bono. At JLF this time, I decided to live tweet my observations, partly to have a lasting memory of the many ideas being thrown at me, and partly to engage with others similarly inclined. Turns out I ended up belting out more than a 100 tweets over the three days, and even won a prize for one or the other - a signed copy of one of William Dalrymple's books. Some consolation :)

So am going to pick out some of the more evocative tweets, and try and transport you to those sessions, those ideas.

"The next time you see a hijra on the road, and she isn't Laxmi, show her the same respect" - Jerry Pinto, at the end of the session with Laxmi, the famous hijra.
India is indeed at some strange crossroad today, on the one hand, an unconventional person like Laxmi beams into every middle class living room as part of the BiggBoss family and on the other, women are still raped for - simply existing. I saw the crowds interact with Laxmi that day, and she was like opium for the masses. They cheered her on, applauding all her provocative sound bytes, and paying her the biggest compliment of all - that of attention. There is no doubt that India is changing, changing out of its straitjackets into garments that allow movement, but the real test of its newly minted mindset will be when no family will feel compelled to throw their gender-bending child onto the streets.
In the meantime, my review of Laxmi's book - here.

"The public doesn't want to pay for media, leaves them to the mercy of advertisers, outside funding." - Shoma Choudhury during the debate on 'Trial by media'.
Now, Shoma C is a wonder woman. Rarely have I seen somebody with such well-thought out views about such contentious topics, The panel was one of journos, from Madhu Trehan to Avirook Sen. Trial by media, that insidious outcome of a damaging set of inputs, the inputs including the usual suspects, corporate interests, favoritism culture, governmental threat but the biggest of all, without which none of this would have been sustainable - the two-headed monster of public voyeurism and public apathy. The public craves sensation as if it were a drug, and in chasing that immediate gratification of having the fastest information, it does not stop to think if it is accurate information. Living in some sort of narcotic-induced haze, neither does it care for accuracy, nor does it want to pay for it. It is indeed tragic that today public sentiment can force media outlets to take unconsidered stances that have such disastrous effects on people's lives.

"The Arab spring has told the world that we are not happy and we are unwilling anymore to live in chains." - Mona Eltahawy, the revolutionary.
Yes, we had a flaming red-haired revolutionary on the panel for the debate 'Beyond the Arab Spring'. It spoke about whether the revolts having taken place in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had failed or whether they were simply seeds sown, waiting to reap fruit over time. It was an excellent panel, comprising academics with deep knowledge about the Middle East, immigrants impacted by the dictatorship regimes and revolutionaries ready to die for their cause. You know, there is such a marked difference in the way an academic speaks versus how a revolutionary speaks. While the academic infuses her speech with refinement, a flattening out of every statement in terms of intonation, even-sounding, the revolutionary speaks with a crescendo building up towards the end of every sentence, that feeds into her next, herself getting more and more impassioned with every argument, culminating into an explosion. In this case, it was an explosion of applause that greeted the end of every one of Mona E's fiery speeches. What an experience.

"He is not serious enough to have a sense of humor." - Oscar Wilde, channelized by Stephen Fry. It was mostly entertaining to listen to him, but at times, awe-inspiring as well. And what inspired awe in me was the same old chestnut that I have been struggling with for so long - a life spent in pursuit of what you really love to do - to be or not to be. Mr Fry is a case in point, as was Mr Wilde, one with a happier story than the other. Stephen Fry's reverence for Oscar Wilde is not unknown, but I had not known how deep a connect the former feels for the latter. It is amazing and gratifying to see people live on, immortalized in another's life, inspiring generations separated from one's own.

So these were some of the sessions I loved the most. There were a host of others that were equally thought-provoking, with panels ranging from lawyers to politicos, to doctors, and social workers. From talking about the possibility of a 'Partition museum' at the borders, to a new way of looking at geriatric care, from Shashi Tharoor's intellectual quips to his equally shameless BJP-bashing at the slightest chance, from Irving Finkel's witty enthusiasm to Desraj Kali's languorous irreverence, it was a feast for the mind, heart and soul.

And how can I end without touching upon the grand debate? The debate to end all debates, that took place at the end, as a fitting climax to the five days of stimulation. Well, that's what it was supposed to be, but it turned out to be a war zone with these usually sane individuals turning into rabble rousers. And as you know, it is mighty easy to rouse the rabble these days.

"Have never seen such a politicized atmosphere in India as in the India of today. Every debate is a debate of political affiliations." - Me.

So the debate was about Freedom of Speech and more importantly whether it should be absolute or not. It had entities such an Anupam Kher and Suhel Seth on the Nay, and Madhu Trehan, Salil Tripathi and Kapil Mishra on the Aye.
It was a crazy debate, surreal, with each speaker playing to get the maximum cheers, claps and whistles, trotting out flogged-to-death arguments that a high school student could have thought of. Some bits were illuminating like Madhu Trehan's examples from her early journalistic days and her information on why article 19 was laden with qualifiers (was due to Nehru's personal insecurities as per her, have to read up on this), as were some of Salil Tripathi's comebacks acerbic enough to raise a laugh. But mostly they all of them missed the essence, choosing to debate more about Freedom of Speech and less about its Absolute-ism.
It was fun though, good to see some good ol' punch-in-the-face tactics sometimes.

And so the event wound up, and one thing that stayed with me as the organizers and festival directors said their good-byes, was Namita Gokhale invoking that rarely called upon entity, Saraswati, to bless everyone.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

When Bertie Met Jeeves


Guys, wrote this poem for a ‪#‎Zeejlf‬ contest. Reproducing here. Think not many may get the context given is based on two authors and their works. Will be ecstatic if proved wrong.

*******
    A knock on the door
Followed by light throat-clearing
Startled little Bertie
Shook him off his bearing
    Coz it was half past nine
In the Pollock household
But then you might ask
How was Bertie being so bold
    As to be up at this hour
with Mama Pollock next door?
Well, it was imperative
As he needed to make sure
    He needed to make sure
That his mum did not intend
To attend the school annual day
As the year wound to an end
    And you might be forgiven
For thinking ill of him
But if you knew the plight of B.Pollock
You'd not take a view so dim
    You see there was an essay
He’d written in ‘Evolved Thinking’ class
About (hypothetical) mothers who smothered
It’d been graded as well above pass
    And now as was the norm

It was to be displayed
At the year end jamboree
    It would be an understatement
To say his soul was afire
To prevent Mum from going
Was his only fervent desire
    Checking the RSVP box
On the frustrating invite
He saw a large green tick
That intensified his fright
    Right, back then to the knock -
dignified in timbre & beat
With heart beating hard
Bertie crept with silent feet
    He peeped through the keyhole
Saw a chap, tall & serene
And perhaps it was the angle..
But he had a pretty large bean
    Suddenly Bertie understood
It was the fellow from the papers
The one who promised
To clean up after capers
    Now Bertie was no average kid
He was well above par
On intellect & sensitivity
And he knew this was bizarre
    A chap from the papers?
He had certainly thought twice
Before ringing him up
And seeking his advice
    And here was the guy
Come down to assist
To save his mum the pain
And get her to desist
    So he let the fellow in
And a good decision it was
Coz even in mellow light
He looked imbued with cause
    He looked like a saviour
A sartorially impressive one
With a calm, intelligent face
And a head that weighed a ton
    And in quick hushed whispers
Bertie told the sordid tale
Never once did the man flinch, though
he might've gone a bit pale
    At the mention of the mother
His gaze did seem to haunt
As if recalling another world
Awash with strident aunts
    So Bertie stood politely
Till he returned to the now
‘Well Sir, this is quite a pickle.’
He said with raised brow
    But we shall find a way
To get Mrs Pollock to stay away
To put her off the notion
Of attending the annual day
    With that promise, he glid away
    A week hence this incident
A gent came home to talk
And it would not be amiss
To pronounce I.Pollock in shock
    You see she’d been propositioned
No, not of the indecent kind
But one that meant to compliment
Her apparently brilliant mind
    You see the national paper
Led by a Mr Reggie Jeeves
Wanted to do a piece
On I.Pollock & her peeves
    Capture her very essence
Get her views to share
And if you knew Irene Pollock
You’d know no paucity there
    And as you might guess
There was only the one day
When said interview could happen
Old Murphy again, you could say
    She tottered toward Bertie
With a deeply worried expression
Young Bertie was alarmed
He was a child with consideration
    Then she said to him,
‘Bertie, what dilemma!’
‘My life has become’
‘No less than comic cinema!’
    Attending your annual day,’
‘You know is so very vital!’
‘But to edify young Scotland’
‘Is bigger than any recital!!’
    And dear Bertie,’
‘I know you must feel so bad,’
‘But I have the only one chance’
‘And it simply must be had!’
    I shall make it up to you,’
‘My sweet boy so kind!’
‘My gracious polite son,’
‘Do you terribly mind?’
    Young Bertie kept his face
Steady as can be
And with sweetness & grace
Set his tortured mother free
    So it came to pass
D-day passed without comment
But Bertie learned a lesson
Of never to (accidentally) foment
    And he remained forever grateful
To Mr Reginald, that gent so sage
Especially when his mum’s article
Featured on The Scotman’s front page

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Potential to Kinetic


Find what you like
Not like what you find
No, don't you just settle
No, don't be that kind
(of person)
You are so lucky
The world's at your feet
Opportunity's round the corner
Believers crowd your street
So, COME OUT NOW
Out of your bubble
Folk that pull u down
They're just pure trouble
You don't need anyone
But yourself, I kid u not
U do have to work
At figurin' what u're about
But once that's done
Or even half-way through
Just start from there on
Ur journey ho gayi shuru
And there comes a time
In everybody's life
When u gotta get simply -
- fed up of the strife
You are SO much
So find your own synergy
And help ur Potential
Become Kinetic energy
****
Hope we all find occupation that is a natural extension of ourselves and of our unique passions. Nothing else should do.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My life in books - 2015


Childhood dreams are a great thing, sometimes they bring you back to reality.

My childhood dream was a simple one, to live in a library with an unending supply of Maggi. It may have been simple, but as it turned out, not easy.

To cut a long story short, it's been a while since I rediscovered this dream, along with my childhood ambition of becoming a writer, which I did fulfill if this blog and countless other spur-of-the-moment outbursts plus elaborate projects are to stand in testimony; I am a writer, just not the kind, yet, that gets paid in money. Or at all.

This post though is less about my awakening and more about what's helped keep me awake this year - my books. It's a bit of a narcissistic journey down my reading list and an attempt to parse it for meaning.

2015 started with me reading '2014: The Election that changed India'. This was the year I discovered the joy of reading non-fiction, as is evident from the others I also read - 'India in Love: Marriage & Sexuality in the 21st century', 'Introducing Marx', 'Why is Sex fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality' and 'Human Universe'. And those I couldn't complete, but which equally satiated my curiosity while opening up new doors of wondering and wandering. Now, before I get into summarizing these books and their relative or absolute merits, let me add a dash of personal insight here. Fiction has been my poison all along, I think the first book I ever read was at age 6 or 7 and it was the 'Famous Five and the Z-rays', if I remember right. To an introverted, shy kid who never really felt at place in most groups, and consequently believed there to be something the matter with self, this world of make-believe was very very real. More than twenty-five years along, I can still recall the feeling of having a new Enid Blyton in my hand, the smell of it, the feel of my fingers on its shiny embossed cover page lettering, the absolute ecstasy of looking forward to reading all summer. Reading fiction gave me another world to relocate to and I needed that, then. But over the years, I have become more confident, more able to navigate society and my personal social anxieties, so much so that sometimes I fool even myself with respect to the I vs E question :) I think this and other factors have led to a central shift - from me wanting to escape the world to me wanting to understand it better. And that's where the non-fiction comes in.
So of all the books I read, I loved every single one. Politics is another (genetic) obsession, and 'The Election' helped me apply a strategic lens to, as well as understand the nitty-gritties behind, the election to beat all elections, the grand 2014 dance of democracy. Coming to something very different but equally if not more compelling, 'India in Love' was a collection of anecdotes from across the length & breadth of the country and spanning every segment possible, and as the name suggests, these anecdotes were about how India has loved in the past and is changing its game, real fast. It was peppered with a high quality of quantitative data, that mostly served to edify. A couple of examples to illustrate its illuminating power: apparently one in every fourth man in Urban India is having an extramarital affair and around 70% of all homosexual men are married! It's a wonder the wedding industry continues to grow in size and complexity every year, given how the marriages it leads to today are likely to be as short lived as the ceremonies themselves. Similar in theme, but addressing the Why rather than the What, was 'Why Sex is Fun'. Written by Pulitzer winning scientist Jared Diamond, this book was a synapse-coupler. Understanding that we are what we are, from our sexual habits to our social structures, because of natural selection across the millenia of evolution, is eye-opening. 'Introducing Marx' was like a crash course in the history of philosophy, leading up to dear ol' Karl. What a guy, no other thought school has had the kind of lasting impact on our world that Marxism has had. I don't pretend to know everything about it, and will need to keep revisiting this and other material to gain a deeper understanding. But while 'Why Sex is Fun' is about unconscious acts on the part of our ignorant ancestors, 'Introducing Marx' introduces us to the brilliance of our first scientists, philosophers and other challengers of the status-quo. I remain fascinated. And lastly, Human Universe, positioned as a love letter to mankind, is breath-taking in scope and jaw-dropping in content. Written by a British physicist, Brian Cox, it covers everything from the origin of the Universe to present moment (give or take a few years) and is equivalent to marathon training for the brain cells. Not an easy read but then the Universe wasn't created in a day, not even by God.

All amazing books.

Another niche I read was African origin literature. 'Americanah' and 'Half of a Yellow Sun' are both very interesting books, shedding light on what has remained largely under wraps for most of us confined to western culture and its writings apart from our own. Nigeria is more than one thing or two things, its stories are both extraordinary - as in 'Yellow Sun' about a country fraught with strife - and ordinary like in 'Americanah', speaking about the lives of people like you and me, except with a different starting point and hence a different trajectory. I liked both of them, 'Americanah' more than 'Yellow Sun' because it was better written (although by the same author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and was more like the kind of storytelling I like replete with the nuances of human emotions.

This was also the year I finished reading 'Anna Karenina'. And read 'An Equal Music'. 'Anna K' was everything it promised to be - intense, thought-provoking and a difficult read. Tolstoy leaves no thought un-inspected, ranging from the insecurities of Anna to the agricultural and political pursuits of Levin, and this could be tedious for many, it was to an extent for me too; but the chance to time-travel to the Russian society of the 1800s made up for it, for me at any rate :) The best part of the novel though is how feelingly Tolstoy writes through a woman's eyes, capturing her trials and hopelessness, being both a superb author in taking us along in her madness, and also an extremely progressive human being in defying through an impulsive, confused but an extremely honest Anna, the mores of the time. 'An Equal Music' was disappointing for me at least, but just the kind of thing you could expect from Vikram Seth - a writing for the sake of writing. I cannot overstate how much I admire his writing and now after having heard him talk, him. So I wish for my sake that the novel had been more mainstream, about something I could connect with, but it was what it was, a largely esoteric piece of literature combining two of the author's passions - writing and music.

Coming to some light literature, I read some stuff from my old favorites this year as well - 'Career of Evil' by JK Rowling, 'The Girl in the Spider's web' by David Lagercrantz, 'Go Set a Watchman' by Harper Lee and 'Ideal' by Ayn Rand. 'Career of Evil' was better than the previous two installments of the series (both of which I loved as well, JK R can do no wrong in my eyes) and getting more interesting by the minute with regards to the Cormoran-Robin equation. Nobody quite creates characters the way JK R does and I am eternally grateful to her for bringing all the people she has into my life :) Btw does anyone else think that the trio of Cormoran-Robin-Mathew is reminiscent of Harry-Hermione-Ron? If so, give me a shout. 'Spider's Web' was good, and I am thankful to Lagercrantz for giving us another installment of Lisbeth Salandar, I only wish he hadn't infused her with normalcy. She appears more emotional, more human in this one and no, that's not the Lisbeth I know. Harper Lee was another who could do no wrong, and I was of the same opinion about Atticus Finch, but in 'Go Set a Watchman', she decided to shatter my little bubble. I know people are never what you build them up to be inside your head and that is one of the reasons most of my heroes are either dead or imaginary. Having said that, I also liked that she infused him with some grey - fiction with a touch of reality, a beautiful reminder of the fact that nobody is perfect and if we set such an expectation, we are bound to be disappointed forever. As for Scout, I doubt if she will ever manage to accept a society that has such a different value system from her own, even if it is to try and change it gradually, but it's an interesting thought, one that rebels like me need to think about while hibernating in our ivory towers of disengagement. Now for Ayn Rand; I had an intense love affair with her around ten years ago, but gradually realized how dogmatic she was and regurgitated her out of my system. Picked up 'Ideal' on a whim, and was completely taken aback at the memories it brought back. I realize now how fundamentally her beliefs have shaped me, and while I may have broken out of the rigidity she imposes, the conflicts I face at many points in my life as well as the values I revere arise from her work. It was shocking to me that I could have been in denial for so long. In that, this book, though a slim volume, was a very rich experience.

As an aside, for those who have persevered through this piece thus far, kudos. You can most definitely make it through 'Anna Karenina' and Levin might just be your soulmate.

Talking about favorite authors, I doff my hat to Alexander McCall Smith, whose writing is so ethereal that few people get its charm. I love his Scotland series, of which I read copiously this year. He is the kind of writer who can make the most basic of actions seem rich in meaning, and I believe they often are - we feel a myriad of emotions in the blink of an eye, past biases, self perception, value-system all coming together to decide the course of action, what we then endeavor to rationalize ad infinitum. It must be said though that his 'Emma' was an unqualified disaster, but then Jane Austen is, well, Jane Austen.

Some other light reads were 'The house that BJ built' by Anuja Chauhan, a couple of Georgette Heyers, the 'Rosie' series by Simsion Graeme and 'Yes, Please' by Amy Poehler; three of them being romantic fiction approached from very different angles, and the fourth a true autobiography in that you would do well to pass time with it during commute.

And then there were some quirky ones, like 'Panty' by Sangeeta Bandopadhyay, 'Dangerous Women', a compilation by several authors and 'The Stranger' by Albert Camus. 'Panty' was odd and other-worldly, the kind of book that is open to interpretation. 'Dangerous Women' had some good tale telling, especially 'Second Arabesque, very slowly' by Nancy Kress, a story set in a post apocalyptic world where any form of art is heresy. 'The Stranger' was strange, the kind of book one reads because it so defies any tenets of good story telling, coming deep from the author's psyche and speaking of his anguishes and turmoils.

And now we come to the ones that truly influenced me one way or the other. '40 Rules of Love' by Elif Shafak, 'Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides and 'Rustom and the Last Storyteller of Almora' by Gaurav Parab. '40 Rules' was that catalyst that accelerated a very fundamental shift in how I interact with the world. Given as I am to intense self-scrutiny and reflection, I know increasingly better with each passing day where I stand and where I don't wish to, and I have always struggled with how to balance openness with discernment. Openness for a multi-centric humanity that is a mix of very different value systems, some of which I might have a strong point of difference with, AND discernment or an expectation for some amount of value match, at least on the core ones, with everyone I interact with. Increasingly this year, I had been feeling a pull towards the former, openness and acceptance, and that in tandem with this affection-inducing book, and a conversation with Rashmi, set me on that path with even more angularity. So much so that I started an initiative (Ze Salon), whose primary objective is to meet new and different people and perspectives. Mighty influence :) Similar was my experience with 'Middlesex', which in addition to being informative is also an extremely touching and engaging story about a hermaphrodite, and it again brought home how different people are, and that it is okay to be a freak, imperfect, abnormal, for who really is normal? I highly recommend both these books to everyone, they will bring you closer to accepting others and more importantly, yourself.
Now 'Rustom' is a special book, it has been written by someone I know (Gaurav Parab), who had done a great job of not only writing it well with an original and engaging plot but also of making it a success, all the while paying obeisance to Corporate life on the side. It is inspiring, and 2016 will be about me trying to walk in his footsteps.

This brings me to the end of this post and this year, give or take a day. I am glad I did it because it revealed to me how significant these books have been, the whole for each being far greater than the sum of its parts.

And now as I watch the sunlight around me gently wave farewell, its warm fingers lightly grazing my cheek for the last time (or nearly so), I decide that next year, I want it to be more of this year, and I want myself to be - nothing less than the Sun.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Unforeseen Consequence


Everyone in Govind Nagar knew Sharmaji. He was the secret sauce of the mohalla.

Every child knew the tap tap of his cane as he came walking up their gravel paths, and no lady of the house was amiss at whispering hasty instructions into her cook’s ears to lay out the best of hospitality at his disposal. Along with the prayers that went up to Lord Ganesh before embarking on a new job or a marriage proposal, a tranche of blessing-seeking was sent his way as well. In fact, he was divine representative cum career counsellor cum family court all rolled into one. Parents would come seek his advice before sending their children away for higher education. He was given pride of place in every wedding, every function and if he ever fell ill, the good housewives of Govind Nagar would care their hearts out. He also helped the usually-amicable residents sort out their differences, and he was a talent at that, they all went away feeling like their suit had won.

Such was their devotion to him, that a group of them was proposing renaming their local park in his honor.

It had not always been so. He had appeared out of nowhere around twenty-three years ago. Nobody knew much about his past life or relations - damned odd in these parts, where people’s identities are tapestries interwoven with threads of family history and ancestral legends. Nobody knew what Sharmaji’s coordinates had been before arriving here, and at first he was viewed with a sense of unease.

Things had continued in a similar vein till the day things had completely changed.

It was the early 90s and the country had taken on strange hues. For a couple of decades post India gaining its independence, it had been widely believed that a country of such size and with such inherent diversity would fail at the gigantic experiment of democracy it had undertaken. But India had made it work. It was chaotic, in fact it was like an acrobatic act performed by clowns, a disorganized and heterogeneous mix of clowns at that, and you laughed to see them try out complicated manoeuvres like hand-standing, grand-standing, fire-ball juggling and the rest; you laughed till you realized that they had made it work, albeit with some oddly landed flips and near drops, but largely made it work creating an unprecedented display of balance & beauty.

But it was the 90s and the country had taken on strange hues. The political landscape was dotted with opportunists intent on using the Almighty himself as a means of securing power. While every effort was made to sanctify the birthplace of a revered Hindu God, if at all such a being existed, he had probably decided to disown his own creation and left for vanvas, not for the first time in his immortalized story.   

Into such turbulent times, had Sharmaji arrived in Govind Nagar. The residents had heard through various dubious sources that the long vacant ‘Kamla Nivas’ had been sold by the grandsons of late Barrister Ravi Shankar Prasad to a person of unknown repute. The Barrister had been a much respected member of society, and it was widely hoped that his equally successful lawyer grandsons would return, tiring of the lucre of foreign lands, moral compass pointing due home, towards the city of their birth. But none of that came to pass. Instead the good citizens of Govind Nagar awoke one morning to see heavy activity in the vicinity of Kamla Nivas, and stood by as an entire morning was spent regurgitating the old but still sturdy furniture of the ancient house, while a host of modern looking pieces found their way in.

Sharmaji had some very peculiar habits that didn’t do much to endear the local populace. While in his early 50s, as some nosy kids had found out, he was not one to surrender to the geriatric pleasure of gathering rust. Instead, he was often spotted in white vest and running shorts, doing laps around Moti Jheel park. People might have forgiven him this defiance of the laws of nature, had he not insulted the principal sport of Govind Nagar - Rummy. Upon being invited for a game in the early days of his arrival, he was rumoured to have said that card games were for the lazy. Govind Nagar bristled as one and unanimously agreed that this strange Sharma was best left alone.

As these events took place at home, events of another nature unfolded elsewhere. It was the fag end of 1992, and every draught of wind brought alarming news; especially pertinent to Govind Nagar as its demographic was a mix of religions, a Hindu majority but with a significant population of Muslims, most of them old families accepted as an integral part of the social fabric. But in the years leading up to that fateful month of December, one could see a loosening up of that beautiful fabric, threads once so intricately woven were now in danger of unravelling at the slightest provocation.

Things had come to this state so gradually that no one could quite put a finger on its genesis. As with most things in life it started out small enough - a missed invitation, a door slammed too quickly, the quickening of footsteps while passing through a certain street, not letting children go over to play and there it was, the seeds of dissent sown. Before one even realized what had led to it, one was right in the middle of it, living it. The elders of the mohalla who would once gather all together to discuss everything from the tyranny of their wives to the liberalization of their country, were suddenly meeting in smaller sub-groups; the common terraces that stretched across the street and had once served as a focal point for the women to catch up on neighbourhood gossip, seemed ominous now, almost lethal, in their silence; even the children smelled trouble and where earlier you could see a rowdy gang of multi-hued mischief-makers running circles around their indulgent parents, now you saw them dissipated, discouraged, dispassionate, on edge as if waiting for disaster to strike.

Disaster did strike. An episode, that would define a political party for better or for worse and continue to send out powerful shock ripples into space & time rearing its ugly head once every few years, occurred in the first week of December. It resulted in outbreaks of violence across the country. Waves of hatred travelled outward from the epicentre, finding release wherever they sensed a weakness, wreaking havoc across the length & breadth of what was for the first time post-independence, definitely not Nehru’s India.

And how did all this affect Govind Nagar, you might ask. Already having fallen prey to segregation in their everyday lives, the day that brought news of the calamitous occurrence at the purported divine birthplace was a dark day in its history. While there had been much confusion & lack of accurate information, everyone knew something irreparable had happened, and there was a whole smorgasbord of responses to be seen: the Pandey youths, who had disappeared over a week ago, re-appeared, changed, much emboldened and with a gang of boys in tow, they seemed to be in the throes of a strong emotion, visibly controlling their selves; the local maulana and his family were nowhere to be found, people said they had crept away in the dark of the night and were headed to Mumbai; his apprentice was seen walking to the Mosque for Azan in the middle of the morning, dressed entirely in black, the color of mourning; most other families had shut themselves inside their houses, with  entrances barricaded, windows locked, money and jewellery hidden away. All of these responses told of the mistrust that had taken root deep into this mohalla. Tension covered everything like a thick blanket blocking out hope and happiness.

But what of Sharmaji? Well, the residents or at least those who had happened to sight him were of the opinion that he had finally taken leave of his senses. There were strange apocryphal accounts of him being spotted out on the streets, in his white vest & running shorts. Mrs Zoya Ansari, who’d happened to be looking out of her window when she’d seen him pass, immediately reported to her husband his strange demeanour. “There was somehow a different look to him, some sort of determination, like a madman’s”, she’d observed to him.

Later in the evening, around 5.30, during the time of the evening Azan, the inhabitants of Govind Nagar and especially those who lived close to the Mosque heard what sounded like a brawl – some screaming, followed by a couple of shots and sounds of struggle. It was a briefly lived skirmish, and soon silence restored itself. But this silence was more threatening, every moment pregnant with the possibility of violence.

The next two days passed pretty much in the same fashion. News channels started reporting the events of D-day in more detail, along with the aftermath - the brutal repercussions, some incidents also being reported in their town. However their mohalla remained silent, still watchful, but silent.

Finally on the fourth day, some people gathered the courage to come up for air. All it took was for one to venture out, before several others followed suit. While theoretical wisdom might have recommended indefinite confinement under such circumstances, the human spirit was far too curious to pay heed.

So out came the denizens of Govind Nagar, seeking information like it was sustenance. And they weren’t disappointed - there was some astonishing news awaiting them. The missing-maulana’s apprentice, Adnan Haris, initially skittish but turning expansive upon realizing that none of the people in the immediate vicinity had any intent to take up arms against him, told everyone a fantastical tale. He alternated between temerity and timidity, one instant shooting accusatory daggers at his audience for having ensconced themselves in safety and the other, apologizing on their behalf, believing and forgiving them in that moment for not having had any other choice. By and by the story was extricated in the whole - it turned out that the Pandey brothers had come back with instructions from their extremist clique to create trouble in Govind Nagar, one more stab among the series of assaults, arranged in cold-blood to wound, rather, cripple the nation. On that first day, they, along with their band of hoodlums, had marched over to the Mosque and entered the premises, daggers out, fangs bared - mouthing obscenities. There were only a handful of people inside, mostly beggar women, and Adnan. The brothers had seemed a little disappointed to see such few people, and as per Adnan would have ensured they got their glory if not in numbers then in brutality. But they didn’t get any further with their nefarious designs, because Sharmaji arrived just then.

Sharmaji, who’d apparently spent every moment of that day patrolling the neighbourhood and especially high risk areas, also armed, had arrived in the nick of time to confront the brothers. Sharmaji was one to the five or six crazed youths of which the Pandeys were the leaders, but what he lacked in number, he made up in strength, strategy and ironically, weaponry. While the Pandey team was armed to pierce, tear and puncture with a naked and merciless arsenal of swords, choppers and knives, Sharmaji had gunpower on his side. Armed with a firearm, and his ferocity, he had managed to take the brothers out. As soon as he'd disabled them with a couple of non-fatal but strategically aimed shots, the others of that craven crew had taken tail and fled.

The inhabitants of Govind Nagar listened to this account, hardly able to believe such dramatic tale telling. However there was no doubting the authenticity, as Adnan was known to be veracious, and it turned out, Sharmaji’s current residency was in the local hospital. He was nursing a wound that had found its way to his shin. The brothers had been rounded up by the police for intent to incite communal violence.

A few people rushed over to the hospital, which fortunately was in their side of town, as travel too far out was still not judicious. They found Sharmaji in a leg brace, which would remain for some time; however there was to be no lasting damage.

On the whole, Sharmaji escaped this incident with little more than a limp, the only other lasting souvenir being the love & respect of Govind Nagar for all eternity.

The mohalla returned to normalcy with time, though in the rare case of Govind Nagar, this meant that it returned in a large part to its erstwhile communal bonhomie. Having come so close to losing everything, and seeing in sharp contrast other less fortunate towns and even parts of their own that had been devastated, they decided via unspoken agreement to make an attempt to embrace ‘the other’.

Though as can be expected, tragedy had not left them entirely un-singed; a few people lost relations or had friends who had not been as fortunate as themselves; Mr Mehra’s son, Jiten, a journalist, had been severely beaten up and was hanging on for dear life in Bombay; shops, hospitals, entire neighbourhoods in other parts of their town had been set to fire, lives and livelihoods shattered; it was the nadir of humanity, underlining the fragility of human resolve, the enormity of its ego.

As for Sharmaji, he still dreamed about the riot. He still dreamed about the day they had come for his neighbours, his own son being one of the sword-carrying hooligans, chanting a holy name and swaying as if under the influence of a narcotic. He still dreamed about how he had seen them, him, ransack homes, slashing indiscriminately at man, woman, child. He still dreamed about his own impotence, his shock, his stillness - his inability to stop his son from taking the lives of people he had sworn to protect as part of his vocation. He dreamed about the million times in the past he had let his son have his way, choosing to repose faith in a God he had believed was just. 

He still dreamed about that one time he had not let his son have his way, the look on his son’s face changing from one of triumph, gloating amidst the remains of a make-believe battle-field, to that of incredulity as he'd perceived the bullet from his father's beloved Colt Automatic pierce his heart, this vision always the one to jolt Sharmaji awake, every night.

Tragedy doesn’t do solitary visits. It befouls the source of the stream, it poisons the soil that nourishes the forest, it lays maggot-eggs inside brains, and generations thereafter harvest its deathly crop. But sometimes, a flower blooms, which though sustained by the stench of a thousand corpses still spreads sweet fragrance and hope. 

Disclaimer: Although rooted in true events, this is entirely a fictionalized account born of the author's obsession with backstories, cause & effect and yes, India in 1992.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Coffee Shop on a Weekday


A coffee shop on a weekday
Is quite a magical place
Of non 9 to 5 folks
Or those who've quit the race
Btw quitting from this race
Is a virtue not a vice
Coz aren't we all just prisoners here
Of our own device :)smile emoticon
Though must say, not all's pretty
And every so often the air smells funny
Wafts of frustration & disappointment
No, definitely it's not all sunny
But no gain without pain
And even if you do fail
You can go knowing full well
You dared to venture out of your jail
This jail called life
Or how we expect it'll go
But my wonderful lil coffee shop
Has a wonderful lil window
I sit writing in one corner, punctuating
every word with a dreamy glance
A glimpse outside that window
- and my heart does a happy lil dance

Friday, May 01, 2015

My Love


Stuck between paradoxes
Loved with a passion
Hated with intensity too
She's the only one of her fashion

She is strife, struggle
And rightly so
But also freshness, freedom
For the ones who know

You breathe in her scent
Cautiously to begin
But like a narcotic
She reels you right in

She'll make you tough
By demanding too much
Make you cool
You don't mind much

I like to think
She makes you true
She knows what's important
She's above the petty & so are you

She'll give you a chance
To make your name
Never one to turn away
The billions looking for fame

She's sexy
She's diligent
She's a dreamer
She's magnificent

She's fascinating as hell
But no heaven can hold you
The way she does
The way she beholds you

Nothing in the world
Equals her many-faceted sights
Day-time mess, sea-side calm
Golden nights - a thousand blinking lights

You must, absolutely must
Come back to her arms
Once you've tasted of her
Once beguiled by her charms

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I was recently asked to name my favorite place in the world and this is an ode to that. Mumbai :)