Suffer little children to come unto me…

I am sure that if Jesus was the man the Good Book says he was, he would not just be distressed, he would be outraged. After all it was a relatively small incident, trading in the temple, turning his ‘father’s house’ into a marketplace, that caused him to fly into the only Biblically documented instance of his extreme rage. What would he do then to the many who have over the years abused and misused the power that they claim to possess in his name.

I saw a film a couple of years ago which filled me with anger. Titled ‘Deliver us from Evil‘ the film made by Amy Berg chronicled the deviant life of a self-confessed paedophile Oliver O’Grady, an Irish Roman Catholic priest who admitted to raping and abusing as many as 25 children during his tenure in Northern California, one of his victims a mere infant. What was disturbing even though O’Grady mouthed words of repentance for his acts was the matter of fact attitude with which he looked into the camera and spoke, his expression as hollow as his words, at times a smirk creasing the corners of his mouth. Perhaps I imagined it… but I wouldn’t be surprised if others who have seen the documentary observed the same. I believe it was there, his smirk, his face smug in the belief that having served just seven years in prison for destroying the lives of 25 known victims, he was out and free, living a life paid for by the Vatican, bought by the crushed spirits of his victims and others like them in countries around the globe. It seemed as though in reliving his crimes for the camera he felt a sense of elation, recollecting the power he once exercised over the powerless. His victims, afraid, not just of the horrors they knew awaited them when they were with him, since many of them were abused and raped repeatedly, but helpless, knowing that no one, not even their own would probably believe them.

I was angry for a while at Amy Berg for allowing him those moments of glory, giving him the floor to gloat, to talk about the letters he sent his victims many years later asking them to come and meet him, which they refused to do. But I also realised that it was her initiative in making this film that exposed another paedophile to the world and to me, who had never heard of Oliver O’Grady up until that day. I called my sister who lives in the U.S. and told her to watch the film… I don’t know if she did. I must confess that I cried at various points during the film. I even contemplated turning my back on the church, but then as I always have in life, I chose to take what was good out of my religion and leave aside that which is unwholesome.

My church is Christ after all, not his priests…

O’Grady took refuge in the confessional, claiming that his superiors were aware and did nothing, neither restraining him, or sending him for therapy, nor reporting what ended up being a series of heinous offences to the police. What they did instead was shield him and suppress all evidence of his crimes. It was the persistence of his victims that finally saw him face some form of punishment, not for the offence of rape or sodomy but for performing ‘lewd and lascivious acts’ on two minors, brothers, for which he received a 14 year sentence, serving just 7 before he was deported to Ireland. Since then O’Grady has roamed free, apparently travelling to the Netherlands where he worked in various parishes under an alias, mostly around young children.

The film also focused on the deeper cover up by the church, with O’Grady’s Bishop at the time, Roger Mahoney, playing ringmaster. In fact the film alleges that Mahoney’s attorneys cut a deal for O’Grady’s silence regarding Mahoney’s knowledge of his crimes, in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money to be paid to O’Grady when he turned 65 years (i.e. in 2011).

In 2010 O’Grady was once again in focus when he was arrested in Dublin, Ireland, for possession of child pornography. Some of the photos and videos depicting children as young as 2 years of age.

In fact Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) himself came under scrutiny and criticism  for suppressing  instances of child abuse and transferring priests accused of such offences to other parishes where they continued to abuse helpless victims, a claim many of Ratzinger’s supports refute citing the case of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado who Ratzinger actively pursued against the wishes of Pope John Paul II under whose patronage Maciel thrived. It was only after the last pontiff’s death that Ratzinger in his role as Pope Benedict XVI ordered Maciel to a ‘reserved life of prayer and penitence’… an extremely light sentence by any measure considering that Maciel was then 85 years old and died less than two years later, having fathered six children, some of whom he allegedly also abused.

And now on the heels of so much that’s been a blot on the holy name of Christ, we hear of Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York recanting an apology he made in 2002 to victims of clergy related sexual abuse, stating that he never should have apologised in the first place as he did not think that anything wrong had occurred in Bridgeport Connecticut or New York during his tenure there as Cardinal. His statement to a Connecticut based e-zine, connecticutmag.com while reopening the wounds of many victims of sexual abuse by members of the Roman Catholic Clergy, many unacknowledged and suffering in silence for decades, has also once again brought to the fore the fact that the church even while attempting to sound repentant at times does not really see itself as responsible for shielding criminals. It’s flippancy and irreverence for the harm caused to thousands of victims, most of them children seems out of consonance with the stated teachings of Christ.

What I’d like to know is where on earth, heaven or hell do they get off?

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3 pm at the Promenade

I haven’t ranted in so long my ranty shoes are pinching. I wonder if I need a new pair, or if perhaps a little wearing in will get them all supple once again.

Which reminds me that I need to exercise, so I went for a walk the other day. To be honest, it was more of a car ride, then a lunch halt at Saayba in Bandra, which still makes the most mouthwatering spicy seafood dishes this side of the suburbs. Though I wish they’d de-veined their tiger prawns in the special that I ordered. But my normally queasy constitution held up just fine. It probably was the Sol Kadi that did it… Oh and btw as far as Sol Kadis go, my vote would go to Central Lunch Home in Colaba. Their stuff’s real potent, and bloody delicious too. If you haven’t heard of Central, just take a trip down Colaba Causeway towards Sassoon Dock and ask for Saurabh hotel. That’s the Udipi place Gregory David Roberts aka Shantaram, Mumbai unofficial socialite tour-guide took Madonna, for dosas, and a whiff of the Sassoon dock. So go there and ask for Central, you’d probably get a cold stare, but you’ll find Central and the Sol Kadi. Believe me, it’s worth it.

So car ride, leisurely lunch (surprisingly light) and back into the car for a ride down to Carter Road, in the afternoon sun, which thankfully decided to play a bit of a hide n seek game with some clouds.

I decided to can the walk and just sit by the sea and watch the waves.

Dude… Where’s my wave?

But low tide can be such a kill-joy. So I stared at the rocks and the herons, and at fishermen mending their nets in the hazy distance, and at a group of crows pecking on… watermelon! Who knew? And at a young couple grabbing some alone time far out where the rocks were worn out enough to provide an unjagged seat.

The birds and the bees

At least someone was glad for the low tide that day.

And then as I perched on the ledge and dangled my feet off the edge I saw it.

Where have all the flowers gone...

Now, I’ve always said that we’re a hypocritical  and shallow lot. We preach and don’t practice. We want to end corruption and will rant and rave against the system, but we’re willing to offer a bribe if it means moving to the front of the line. Time is money, a friend who runs a business told me once, a month after she vociferously yelled her lungs out against corruption at a rally. We can’t help it, it’s ingrained in our systems. We’re perfect people in an imperfect world.

What’s wrong with sex determination and female foeticide, after all don’t we just love women. We even worship them, our plethora of female deities, lavishing their cold, lifeless but gaudily bedecked images with jewellery and expensive silk. Then we go home and probably slap our wives in the face because they don’t make the dal like our mother’s did.

Not forgetting our obsession with beauty, and the yardstick by which we judge it. All clamouring for white skin on Asian bodies, we even slap so much paint on our Gods, we forget their divinity as we dance around them to raucous Hindi film music. And then we rant about being colonised by the British, slamming everything we oppose as a western import, while still being slaves to the west, clamouring for American degrees, even if it’s from some back alley college without certification. And calling each other bros! Oh come on now, what on earth happened to the good old bhaiyya or bhai (brother). But bro it is, picked up by all and sundry.

Why even the girls use it… Pick up the code book while you’re at it chicas.

So no wonder Ganesh lies amidst the rocks, discarded and unclaimed. Feted while he was beautiful, and immersed into the sea amidst much pomp and revelry. Only to be thrown back by the relentless waters, stripped of his veneer, where he lies unnoticed and unclaimed, his hand still raised in blessing on an indifferent people.

God... But only with your paint on!

2012

(Re-blogged from:  The Cook, The Baker and The Clay Boy Maker)

So the Christmas week finally draws to an end and the lights on the tree shine brighter as they get ready to bid an adieu to a year that’s gone by.

And 2011 proved to be quite a year – one that saw the end of tyranny in certain parts of the world and yet a continuation in so many others. Places where the superpowers of the world didn’t think it worth their while to intervene simply because it didn’t make logistical (read – monetary) sense. Human life is after all quite dispensable.

And then in my own country India, poverty continues unabated in some quarters, largely unseen and unreported, while political games continue to be played on issues like reservation based on caste, class and religion, while the large numbers who need to avail of benefits continue to live lives mired in abject poverty… or die trying to get themselves out of debt. Where political parties trade insults about corruption, and yet don’t deem it fit to clean up their own houses. Where crimes against women and children continue unabated while our lawmakers look on in apathy, feigning ignorance, some of them active participants in such offences.

And yet in keeping with the high traditions of the hypocrisy rampant in our society, we refrain from educating our children about their bodies, terming it unacceptable. Ironic isn’t it that sex education is taboo, but rape often results in some of the lower courts letting rapist off if they marry their victims.

All this while we worship a plethora of female goddesses and yet have an abysmal gender ratio of Male to Female births.

So as this year draws to an end I thank God and the angels and saints and the powers that be, for being there for me in myriad forms. For holding my hand through the toughest times, for protecting me and holding me in the comfort of a faith that has remained unshakeable through immense challenges. And I would like to say that, “I continue to trust in your direction for me, and I place myself in your loving care this year as always. And while it may not always seem that life is kind or rewarding, I know that in the greater context of things I am richer for all of these experiences”.

To my family and to the good friends who’ve stood by me, steadfast and patient, as I have ranted and raved on about things relevant and irrelevant, and I know I have, I must say – “Thank You! You know that I love you and that I’ve got your backs too,”

To all those who’ve stayed on the fringes of my world, taking the form of casual friends, acquaintances, colleagues or just people I’ve had the opportunity to encounter through social networking, or through the pages of this blog. “Here’s wishing you all that’s good, with the hope that life shall continue to enrich us as we go along, whether we encounter or continue to encounter each other in some way or in any way at all.”

So to everyone out there, here’s to 2012, and to peace, love, joy, good health, common sense, generosity, good conscience, tolerance and most importantly in a world that views most things in terms of monetary value, here’s to good jobs, money and a mortgage free life.

And in tribute to the immortal Robert Burns…

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

Chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne…

Chasing Durga

It’s Dusshera today… Vijayadashami, a festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and… a woman among other things.

And ironically in India despite the plethora of goddesses that we worship and honour – our women are not accorded the status that’s rightfully theirs under the law. I won’t say a right that’s theirs by birth since often even getting there is a challenge in itself.

Yet we claim to be an evolved society, with a history that goes back many thousands of years – and through it all we’ve learned in part to idolize certain women as deities – real and mythical, placing them in spots from which they dare not step down even if they desired. And then we also treat our women – wives and daughters, and everyone else’s sisters in particular with contempt – as though their taking birth is in itself an offence which we’re compelled to tolerate.

Makes you step back a second and think… doesn’t it?

If the Shoe Fits

How much does it cost to air- express a pair of shoes?

Mayawati’s perplexed at the unnecessary attention being given to her footwear. And they aren’t even Blahniks for crying out loud. Talking about Maya’s shoes, the poor woman was hauled over coals earlier this year when some lackey in her security detail wiped the dust of a pair of them.

What’s the big deal? Haven’t you people heard of chivalry or is that a concept alien in our part of the world? Walter Raleigh… Queen E the First ? Jogs the little grey cells eh?

And now there’s more on her footwear… come on give the woman some leg room. With the number of times she ends up sticking her well shod foot in it… its no wonder she keeps running out of them.

Cats–o’–Nine Tails–n–Nine Lives

(This was supposed to be a tribute to that doughty dame Sheila D, but then Anna stole her thunder.)

Anna Hazare’s at it again – cracking his whip and Sheila Dixit has nine lives.

I can’t help but mention them in the same breathe given the penchant that they have for courting trouble.

But the thing that draws me to them is that they’re both on mercy missions. While one is out to save the country from the corrupt Congress led UPA, let alone the fact that a lot of those who’ve jumped on his bandwagon aren’t exactly painted white… The other lets a podgy faced murderer out on parole… because Tihar doesn’t stock his brand of Scotch?

Talk of magnanimity.

Speaking of which, I’m compelled to take another look at these two beacons… One, whose claim to fame has been linked on and off to several politicians of varying political affiliations, including a certain heavyweight of the Maratha clan. And the other, equally diminutive in size and as hard-nosed as they come, who readily courts controversies like they’re best friends, and then wipes her slate clean… Poof!

I recall her saying that girls in Delhi should stay home if they don’t want to be attacked!

Never a thought about tightening security or making the police force accountable, huh… Sheila?

But Sheila’s got enough on her plate, and apart from fending off insulting references to her name from a land far away, she had work to do, like playing proud hostess to the CWG in 2010. Now, you can’t really grudge her for wanting to be house-proud, can you? So what if she over-stretched her budget a bit and some of her decisions came under the scanner. It was all in a day’s work, until that Puneri loud-mouth messed things up and turned the spotlight on everyone, forcing that gentle and honest Manmohan to institute a Committee to probe into all those allegations of corruption against his buddies.

So in the name of transparency, the Shunglu Committee socks one to Sheila… But the old girl sticks on, her posse, honest Manmohan included, firmly behind her. As one of her party-men later said, at least she was smart enough not to leave a paper trail. Which takes me back to the time when I was little and when even kindergarten kids knew that leaving a trail meant that you could find your way back home… as could everyone else who followed it.

So while Kalmadi sits in Tihar, pouring over ‘The Dummies Guide to Alibi’s’, rolling out the red carpet for our anti-corruption crusader who happened to drop by, and making plans to sign up for a lesson or two from that great man himself, Sheila stays, firmly entrenched to hoist another tricolor, on another Independence Day.

Does the woman have luck on her side or is it the company she keeps?

They say politicians have tough hides… if you haven’t got one when you’re elected, pick one up on the way out of your first session of parliament. But even that luck runs a bit thin at times and you’re compelled to call in for reinforcements, the kind that scratches your back if you scratch theirs. The kind that helps you out of sticky situations, like the time when the Auditor General of India went on record stating that the dear lady was involved in bungling crores of rupees in power privatization (apparently close to twelve thousand five hundred crore… no small amount that) and the Public Accounts Committee of the Delhi Legislative Assembly proposed a CBI inquiry into the allegation, which died a very quiet death even after being approved by the Assembly. Or the time when as the Chairperson of the Delhi Jal Board, she was held guilty of corruption by the Loyayukta, in the awarding of contracts, with a recommendation that the PMO take action…

We’re still waiting Mr. Prime Minister.

But talking of Lokayukta’s and corruption and the penchant that our politicians have for wiggling out of sticky situations I wonder if Anna Hazare is wasting his time and ours. After all the man does claim to be the voice of civil society, ergo, my representative, so I have a right to question, criticize and appreciate, in equal measure or as I will. So… while I’m glad Anna’s doing his bit to stir up the unconscious masses, shaking them out of their apathy and giving them a purpose, I would like to state that it would have been better for him to have pursued his agenda in a more legitimate way, by following the law, ensuring that we work within the legal framework, instead of exhorting the masses to break the law, and sanctioning what can be termed as sedition by some of his coterie.

How about following due process, or as we Indians prefer to call it – ‘Procedure established by law’ – the law to which we are subject, or haven’t you heard of it Mr. Hazare?

Which prompts me to inquire whether Anna Hazare is the sole repository of all that is moral or is his brand of tough-speak tinged with autocracy that pillories and stifles all those who oppose his methods? Is there space in his politics and I term it such deliberately, for those who have a contrary view?

I am no admirer of the UPA government, and have strongly voiced my opinion against them repeatedly, but they are at the end of the day a democratically elected government, one that has remained in power through successive elections… and can very well fall out of power in the next. But there is a process, a mechanism by which governments come into existence, and fall out of favour. It would take the loss of support in Parliament, perhaps some cash-for-votes orchestrated by some of your new found allies Mr. Hazare, and an unwanted and very expensive mid-term election to give the people a fresh opportunity to choose the next government – unless you Mr. Hazare and your band of merry men and women plan to come forth as dictators to the teeming masses.

Maybe that’s what people want.

Someone informed me today that the autorickshaw-wallah’s in Delhi have joined the anti-corruption crusade. This barely a day after one of them insisted I pay him fifty rupees when my fare came to thirty, all because there weren’t too many autos on the street on August 15th. Which makes me wonder if people really know what they’re fighting for, or is it the mob syndrome, like what happened in London recently. One person picks up a stone, soon its five, then ten, and finally the whole street… and we descend into anarchy.

The newspapers the other day carried an article about Mayawati crying about her inability to proceed with various development projects in the State of U.P. because the Centre has not released its promised funds to her cash-strapped state. So, what about the new bungalow you’re constructing Maya, because the old one was ‘unlucky’, or would you like to talk about the colossal waste of funds on all those statues and monuments of self-glorification… Oh, wait a minute I forget you have a word for that kind of ostentatious spend. It’s called ‘gifts’.

Mr. Hazare it seems does prefer to take sides, keeping his guns trained on the office of the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary, targeting the UPA while he side-steps all that’s going on around the country, even the Karnataka sham, which makes me question his political intentions, and marvel at the audacity with which he stays steadfast on course, while the mob he has whipped up into a frenzy hysterically follows, insulated by numbers, threatening to crush the voices of dissent that rise up against them.

As for Sheila, all she can do is count her many lives and hope that she hasn’t run out of them.

A Coloured Opinion

Danny Boyle showed Mumbai’s dirty underside to the world in Slumdog Millionaire, right down to its unwashed undies, and we didn’t like it. I recall Amitabh Bachchan raising hell and bitching out Boyle. Weren’t you the man who routinely played the poor guy who got slapped around by the system and bashed till you had watered down crimson paint streaming down in rivulets from various orifices in your body? The one who said that the poor were treated like the scum of the earth and had to stand up in rebellion… You said it and we loved you for it. But that was okay, we’re Indian and only we have the right to parody our own or tell it like it is… No white man’s supposed to do that. And making money out of displaying our poop and dirt is simply adding insult to injury. Getting the Oscar for it is akin to stabbing us right in the gut.

I was upset with Bachchan for bad-mouthing Boyle. I live in Mumbai and know it to be a merciless city for some. That beggars are maimed here, and in other parts of the country deliberately to increase their earning capacity is nothing new. A news channel had conducted a sting a few years ago, and a couple of doctors who performed these amputations on perfectly healthy men were caught and hopefully charged. But the world is a hypocritical one, and even though Chris Rock has free rein to splatter the side-walk with the N word, my five-year old nephew in America has to learn to be politically correct and not call people thin or fat.

“Excuse me, how much horizontally challenging content is in this milk… 1 per cent or two?”

I dread the day but it isn’t far off.

So now Freida Pinto goes and shows us for the bloody hypocrites that we are. She’s spot on… and even though the poor girl doesn’t have the required acting chops and probably never will, she does look amazing, beautiful, brown-skinned and saying it as it is… That people in India are fascinated by white skin.

It’s true… We gape at it when it alights from a flight at the international airport, we paw at it, molesting it at every opportunity we get, and no matter how dark brown we may be, we want to produce children that are fair-skinned, or acquire fair-skinned brides for our coffee bean coloured sons… God save the girl if she happens to produce a dark-skinned daughter.

Yes… we’re brown skinned and we hate it.

Much of our advertising budgets are spent on feeding into the psyche of the Indian man and woman, into that dark skin phobia. It’s nothing new, and everyone wants to make a buck. After all… a soap is a soap… is a soap… unless it can make you whiter.

My mother fair and light-eyed, recalls the visitors who came home or to the hospital or see us when we were born, my siblings and I. The old aunts and relatives who came to have a look, and would surreptitiously move the fabric that bound us, just to make sure that our hands and feet were as fair as our faces. What on earth did they think… that my mother had spent the entire morning applying foundation on our faces? But then the penny dropped… my dad is darker skinned, so they were curious that we seemed fairer.

So Freida gets a thumbs-up from me, and though after reading the reviews I refused to see ‘Miral’, I am actually contemplating buying tickets to go see ‘The Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. (I only hope she doesn’t have a big role.)

Kalmadi’s Chronic-ills (Chapter 1 – How to Plead Memory Loss and Get Away With It)

Suresh Kalmadi’s lawyer is busy working on his defence. In fact, I have a feeling that he was at it even prior to the Commonwealth Games, what with all the allegations flying around so hard and fast and the government having to parry them. And then the games opened, and Kalmadi put his foot in it, or did he… by referring to Camilla as Princess Diana.

Come on now Mr. K. You couldn’t have been serious. I mean, that didn’t even qualify as a faux pas. It would be more in the realm of a colossal blunder… and that’s assuming it was an honest mistake. But then again, that’s what we lawyers term as ‘laying the groundwork’.

That politicians tend to suffer from memory lapses isn’t something new. But now the DIG of Tihar Jail says that Suresh Kalmadi has been diagnosed with dementia. All too convenient isn’t it, and rather well-timed. Two months out in the boondocks and a person can survive, imagine that they’re on safari maybe. But a month more and reality begins to hit home, especially since they’re without all their creature comforts, no iPad, not even a laptop and they can’t even use the cell phone to call in for some take out, without having to treat the whole barrack.

I suppose life in jail is hard for those living off ill-gotten wealth. Why, even a desi don like Pappu Yadav wants his air conditioning. And Pappu’s an old-fashioned, straightforward sort of man right from the heartland of Bihar, with old school values and from a time when chest pains and obesity related ailments were enough to get a guy an air-conditioned suite at AIIMS. But time isn’t being kind to Pappu who’s back in Beur, in the mother country, with the jail doctor refusing to give him a fake medical certificate even under threat of death, and to compound his woes, the authorities go and install cell-phone jammers.

Can’t a guy do an honest day’s work anymore?

He misses Tihar and Delhi and Sheila aunty.

But now even Tihar is playing tough, and post Manu Sharma’s jaunt to the pub, even Sheila’s been lying low, playing by the rule book, which recently tweaked its medical policy.

The deal is now pretty simple if you’re a big gun in the hallowed precincts of Tihar.

  1. Clutch your heart and they’ll give you an antacid.
  2. Faint and they may just take you to the spanking new in-house facility.
  3. Collapse and you’d better be having a heart attack, because that’s what it’s going to take you to find your way to one of those air-conditioned suites at DDU or LNJP or AIIMS.

Speaking of spanking new in-house facilities, you’d think these guys would be grateful, being spared the muggy ride out. I simply cannot understand the resistance… Perhaps there’s something about hospitals that I’m unaware of?

… And don’t tell me it’s the custard?

Whatever it is – the fact is that chest pains aren’t doing it anymore. And what was once Pappu Yadav’s heartburn has been forced to take the uncharted road towards Suresh Kalmadi’s dementia.

But I’m seriously impressed. What better way to get out of jail, and feign complete ignorance about all your transgressions, than by picking a condition that has so many facets to it, it’s still an enigma to many. And that it is in a relatively nascent stage of awareness in India is just peachy.

What really jars in my mind however is the DIG, Tihar, R.N. Sharma’s sudden justification that Kalmadi’s family had mentioned that he was suffering from dementia in the medical history submitted to the jail.

When was this medical history submitted Mr. Sharma… before or after the dementia declaration?

Meanwhile, what has emerged from the entire CWG fiasco however is that Suresh Kalmadi is and continues to be a real piece of work. But there’s a part of me that would still like to believe that he’s not the low life people say he is, as much as I’d like to believe the Sports Minister, Ajay Maken’s statement that Kalmadi can’t escape the law even if he has dementia. Well Mr. Maken… I don’t think you know too much about the law or is it more a case of throwing scraps to keep the hounds at bay. Something, anything to throw them off the scent?

Whatever it is… and more importantly, in deference to the growing number of people who are actually afflicted with this condition, I’d like to believe that Suresh Kalmadi is actually suffering from dementia. Just as much as I would like to believe that pigs can fly and that Idi Amin was a victim of prejudice when the Nobel Committee overlooked him for the Peace Prize for his role in Entebbe.

Do You Have a Dog, Sanjay Manjrekar?

It rained this morning. Not much… just a wee bit. But after a couple of days of fairly heavy showers, traffic snarls, and delayed trains, I was glad. My mum had her cataract operation scheduled for around 10 am, and I was in a rush to make it in time to take her to the clinic.

My drive took me past the SNDT signal at Juhu.

Early morning traffic can be beastly in Mumbai, more so when it rains. And on a Tuesday, it’s usually hellish. Even a drizzle is often enough to throw things out of gear, and of course our roads are a (bleeping) mess. Bitch and moan all you want to your corporator at the LACC (Local Area Citizens Committee) Meeting, if he/she is nice enough to attend, and they’ll give you the standard, much rehearsed promissory answer that they’ll “look into it”. But then the monsoon comes and goes, and after you’ve spent a bundle on your car or on your clothes, depending on whether you drive or take an autorickshaw, you get the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation aka the BMC’s usual response – that they simply weren’t prepared for this monsoon… which makes me want to revisit my old geography books, though I distinctly remember learning that the monsoon was and still is a yearly phenomenon in Mumbai, except occasionally, when it fails, and then the municipal corporation imposes those water cuts and jacks up the water bill.  But even then, even when we’ve had one of those bad monsoon seasons, it still rains, even if it’s the odd drizzle or the occasional shower once every 10 days… if my memory serves me right. I can’t recall a year of… well… nothing.

“So what’s up with the promises?” I ask my corporator, when I meet him post monsoon, and he ignores me amidst the myriad voices that crop up, yelling out their grouses and turns to some ‘Sandra from Bandra’, who he knows voted for him since she was in his campaign party and asks her if the drainage system down her road, which he did have cleaned, works fine, and she gives him a smile that would make Jesus blush.

So yeah I’m on the pot-holed road, in my car, and I reach the SNDT signal and the first thing that strikes me apart from that lovely picture of Radhe Gurumaa in all her come hither splendour, is a large hoarding from some Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) lackeys wishing a certain ‘Asif Bhamla’ a very happy birthday. You can’t miss it… it’s huge, and it’s all there.

Happy Birthday to you...

And then just below it, a much smaller one, with the same greeting, to the same birthday boy, from another set of admirers, of obviously more humble resources, and from perhaps way down the pecking order.

So I whip out my phone and take a photograph as I wait patiently at the signal, and then I spot another banner across the road, but no… not directly opposite, because that spot’s taken by Mr. Nitesh Rane and his Swabhiman Sanghtana… so this one had to move a few paces down.

Now isn’t that nice? I think to myself, so much brotherly love and camaraderie and space sharing. After all it is everyone’s road isn’t it? Around Andheri – Lokhandwala all you get to see is hoardings from and of some guy called Baldev Khosa… oh … and his son too… at least on a couple of occasions.

And I go back fondly in time, to the relatively recent past, to February of this year, and to the Mumbai Mirror’s “No Chamchagiri On Our Walls Please” initiative, and to Sanjay Manjrekar and his maali, and to Mr. R. R. Patil, Maharashtra’s Home Minister, who incidentally belongs to the NCP and to his assurances that he would request his party workers and leaders to exercise restraint while putting up hoardings. And the fact that for a short while after that I didn’t have to crane my neck to peer through the banners to get a glimpse of the few trees that happened to still be there, along the side of the road as I drove by every day.

And I wonder…

“Do you have a dog, Sanjay Manjrekar?”

“Does he have a birthday coming up sometime soon?”

If ‘Azad’ means Liberty… then what happened to you Ghulam Nabi?

I thought the word ‘azad’ meant liberty… freedom. But a certain politician of the same name has recently come forth or rather retreated a million steps with his display of utter backwardness. I think a name change is in order.

What’s Kashmiri for pea-brained?

I’d like to know what you were thinking when you made that speech Ghulam Nabi, that too at a convention on HIV/Aids. Or perhaps as your party will be quick to point out, you were misquoted and meant that men should not have sex with women, after all what better way to curb instances of STDs than practicing complete abstinence. I’m with you on that one. Besides you’ve said that this ‘disease’ has come to India from developed countries, and while I know people like you would like us to be perennially under-developed, you’ve probably been bunking history class. No wait… someone tore down the library, burnt all the books and defaced all the statues, lopping off penises and breasts at will. After all we are Indian. We only rape our women and men behind closed doors.

So barely a day after the second anniversary of the Delhi High Court judgement that sought to decriminalize homosexuality by reading down that archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, our politicians do it again. After all don’t our governments have a penchant for miscasting their lead players?  I mean we have Manmohan Singh as P.M. on a string… I could go on but I like old Manmohan and besides I like to hear him speak. His soft, lilting voice can lull you into a deep slumber. Power nap just got a whole new meaning.

Anyway I doubt we can really blame the government, after all it’s a tough choice to make, choosing between aging sycophants and young thugs… oops… I meant turks, intent on their Swiss bankrolls. Besides we can’t always get lucky and get an Anbumani Ramadoss, who in 2008 as Union Health Minister went on record at the International Aids Conference in Mexico City, when he said; “Section 377 of IPC, which criminalizes men who have sex with men, must go”. But then that was an anomaly, a time when we actually got it right, appointing someone qualified for the job. A doctor as health minister… surely that was a first. It’s kinda like Sharad Pawar leading the BCCI and now the ICC. But then it’s so easy to forget that cricket is actually a game.

So it was strange for me to see the papers this morning, just a couple of days after I had written an article on Section 377, primarily to make the gay community – many of whom think that the section has been scrapped – wake up and smell their banana flavoured condoms. Guys it’s still on the statute books, nothing’s changed, so stop clamouring for marital rights along the lines of New York and put away those boas and silver hot pants. This is India… and it’s time to stock up on those ‘Get out of Jail Free’ cards.

The Picture of Simi Garewal

“If this girl can give a soul to those who have lived without one, if she can create the sense of beauty in people whose lives have been sordid and ugly, if she can strip them of their selfishness and lend them tears for sorrows that are not their own, she is worthy of all your adoration, worthy of the adoration of the world.”

Wrote that great master of wit and scourge of the witless, the incomparable Oscar Wilde, in his only novel…

So I turned on the TV the other day and a familiar face came into view. A woman whose acting skills were as much in doubt as the proverbial casting couch which spawned many of her generations brightest stars. So forty odd years down the line from her last known role in Karz, the lady has evolved. Still dressed in widows or virginal white, depending on her mood of the moment, linked inextricably with the lives of countless stars, colleagues who outshone her in her day, many of whom are now jaded or glitter with occasional spurts of brilliance as all dying stars do, before they get sucked into the ignominy of black holes, she now stands brighter than them all, refusing to bow out.

So she holds them up to the light, for those flickering minutes, kind and gentle, graceful even. I should speak kindly of her therefore, of her grace and her poise and her gentle prodding and extrication of facts and fiction, and of her voice, soft, bordering on the sensual, none of the grating raspiness of tone like Barbara Walters, flattering, prodding, coaxing her guests to reveal all what Devyani Chaubal had already and rather ungraciously pried out and splattered over tabloid pages decades ago.

I remember a particular episode a few years ago, one of those where she’d interviewed that fedoraesque superstar of yesteryear about the men in her life. Draped in a Kanjeevaram, tastefully bejewelled, the fedoraesque star spoke about the men in her life, from the superstar who had used and dumped her cruelly, and whom she still loved, to her relationship with her famous father, and the long conversations they’d had. Oh… wait a minute… conversations they’d had when he was… well… dead. It seemed manic. She seemed manic. But with her voice soft and gentle, the lady in white clucked like a mother hen guiding her brood across a crowded street, matching that of the superstar, extricating all that she could, matching her, intonation for intonation, while the star drawled on, her eyes distant, spaced-out, as though… and the camera pounced, lingering over those moments.

And then after five arduously long seasons of rendezvous’, or were there more… for it seemed to go on and on, with reruns and more reruns, we thought we’d seen the end of her and moved on to other things.

But now she’s back, with a new crop of young desirables, her trademark white now tinged with the hue of the evening, a subtle splash of fawn or mellow grey, hinging on silver. Her hair neatly in place, every strand accounted for, generously doused with enough hairspray to make the fire department send her a safety notice. In her late sixties nudging seventy, she looks the same as she did three decades ago, as she parries with those young enough to be her grandchildren… looking impeccable, youthful, as though she’s drunk of the fountain of eternal youth and will never change.

While in some dark attic somewhere lies a picture… shrouded.

Spring-cleaning the Self and Shelves

I’m off to meditate.

Ten days of peace and harmony being put through one of those old clothes-wringers. The manually operated ones that have to be stopped every now and then, just to rest the tired arms of the operator, before he or she starts again, slowly turning those handles while the cogs creak and the clothes squeak. It’s sadistic.

So you get a couple of moments where the cool air courses through every fibre, and then it starts again, that slow wringing out. I’d much prefer the dry cycle on my washing machine, no human intervention apart from flipping on a switch and turning a couple of knobs. Sure, it pauses, but just to cool off, but when it goes… it goes and then everything is wrung through. Dry as the Sahara in summer.

Speaking of the weather I’m glad the rains are here. But it also means I’ll have to dust down the book shelves and turn out my cupboards, putting in little dehumidifiers just so that the mould stays away. Which makes me wonder how much I’ve collected since I last sat down to meditate. And I’m not talking about those daily sittings, the fifteen minutes or half hour breaks in between the insanity of a Mumbai day. It’s those 10 or 30 days of silence, of observation, of introspective emptiness and realising rather sagely how much refuse one has accumulated and the passage one has to take, the rocky road one has to travel towards getting rid of it.

But its not all bad. There are incredible moments as well. Moments of understanding and of revelation… of everything arising to pass away. The good and the bad, the nice and the not so…

Anicca.

I used to be a regular at meditation centres… the quintessential dhamma bum. It’s a rite of passage. You’re born. You go to school. Then get a job. Work sixteen hour days. Make money. Party hard. Quit that job. Shave your head, grab your bowl and sit in contemplative silence. It’s enlightening. I’ve done that.

But its been five years since I last took time out to meditate and in the interim, I’ve changed, collecting so much mould and lichen, I need airing, a firm brushing… a sloughing off.

And my washing machine is on the blink.

Angela’s Ashes and Ear-less Bunnies

There’s a cute little ear-less bunny somewhere in Fukushima.

Damn those nuclear power plants and the Curie’s, Bohr’s and Rutherford’s of this world, the whole bleeding lot. If it wasn’t for science, we’d have no progress and no nuclear fission and we’d have bunnies with ears.

Okay, so I’m a pacifist and there’s nothing wrong with that. No! Not one of those bleeding heart sorts you’d want to throttle on sight, just the no first strike sort. No shoulder rubbing with the Mohandas Gandhi’s and Mandela’s of the world. I’m not proffering any cheeks.

Now Germany’s decided to nuke its nukes, and no one really cares. In fact I believe the guys at Greenpeace are planning a protest. They just can’t seem to accept the fact that they’ll have to knock Berlin out of their date-books. Life’s a bitch called Angela I heard one of them whisper, stretching his legs and folding up his tent outside Jaitpura, as he marked a huge red cross over Germany.

Yeah… life sucks!

By the way, I’m thinking of taking a trip to Japan. I like the Japanese, besides I haven’t been there and I believe the air is good. Okay I’m not really being honest here because I don’t know any Japanese people to like them, but I contribute quite significantly to their GDP, so I wonder if that gives me de facto status of any sort. I also like the fact that they’re such a stoic lot, controlled, tightly wound up. So when the tsunami struck I was surprised to see them thrown, but they recovered soon enough and in a couple of seconds, almost as soon as the waters receded. And the world watched in admiration as they stood in serpentine queues, calmly reading their newspapers as the hours ticked by… only to be told that the store had run out of whatever it was they were in that queue for. Then they’d move to another store, and another long line and patient wait… only to hear the same thing at times. No pushing, no shoving. I suppose that’s an attribute reserved for this part of the world.

They didn’t even flinch when those nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daichi blew, one after another, and the authorities lied through their teeth, downplaying the incident for the world, and it made me wonder if it’s because they’re no strangers to nuclear disaster. But this time the ghost of mushroom clouds past decided to stay away, WWII was bad enough, and once is certainly enough, even if ‘Tora Tora’ or ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ had you believing that they were the bad guys. It was a war for crying out loud, and there are always sides, it depends on which side you’re on… and then there’s Switzerland. But the world has changed a bit, and bad seems to have gone Middle Eastern… and there’s still Switzerland, only its neutrality isn’t the only thing in focus. So in fact nothing really changes. It just shifts around on its axis.

Axis… Well.

So Nuclear technology is seemingly the life-force that vitalizes the planet… too many Hollywood films about the sun dying on us, we’ve got to have alternatives. But there’s always the risk of something going wrong… we’re human and extremely fallible and God just likes to mess with us. In reality we ought to backtrack but we don’t, spreading the accessibility to and dependence on nuclear power as a cheaper and more viable energy source, when what we really should be doing is relegating it to the back burner, to be shelved. And then there’s nuclear warfare and arsenal that everyone wants to stockpile on, and no one wants to give up. The United States would do well to lead by example, but the progeny of Little Boy and his cousin Fat Man just won’t go. They’ve dug their heels right into that hard sand of the Nevada desert.

A friend in Japan tells me that the air around the Fukushima reactor gets a regular infusion of radiation from the broken down plant, and the winds carry that toxic air far. She and her neighbours shut their windows and doors, but she’s not moving anywhere even though she can. And she isn’t even Japanese. I guess resilience is contagious.

So this is the third major nuclear disaster, on land, after Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and though there were no direct deaths reported from the first and the situation brought under control, it exposed the dangers of radiation, with several reported cases of cancers being attributed to it and then brushed aside. And then there was Chernobyl in the erstwhile USSR, where the number of casualties depends on whether you’d like to believe the official or unofficial count, and I’ll leave the report on the effects of radiation from that one to the experts.

But India’s a hard nut… we’re a tough lot… from combating incursions from outside, to throwing microphones and knocking each other out cold in Parliament, we’ve seen it all… and survived. Then the UPA government led by that tough bird Sonia and her man in waiting were desperate to show their stripes and decided to go forth and ink a 123 Agreement with the United States. No! That’s not an arms deal… Those generally tend to bypass us, heading straight to Pakistan, unless we’re having a good day.

The 123 is one of those treaties where the US flexes its nuclear clout and dictates who can play in that exclusive ‘no dogs and wogs’ club. And suddenly the door opens a chink, and we rush in euphoric, ceding supervision over our civilian nuclear facilities to the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency), which the Reds weren’t having and hammer and sickled their way out of the government. But the UPA stood, buoyed up by other bed-friends, while their detractors bitched and moaned and screamed the ‘C’ word. Get your heads outta the gutter people… I’m talking about corruption here. So we did good and one good turn naturally deserved another, so the IAEA gave us the nod and Uncle Sam… or was it George, asked the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to waive us in… right through those plutonium gates.

Ho Hum and Bah Humbug!

Hey! don’t go off into flights of fancy. It’s purely for civilian purposes.

So we finally get endowed with that dubious distinction of being the only known country not to have signed the NPT to trade in nuclear tech…Great. Pats on the back and pass the laddoos please. Pappu pass ho gaya! And I’m wondering if the US has suddenly gone all loving on us or is it a question of economics, you know the kind of largesse that’s typical of Uncle Sam, who wants his share of the billions that India’s nuclear power plants are expected to generate. Nothing comes for free. Or am I just sceptical?

But time flies and we’re in 2011 and the earth rumbles and tectonic plates shift somewhere under the sea off the coast of Japan sending gigantic walls of water inland, and the nuclear conscience of the world hits the panic button. Meanwhile Angela Merkel looks at those terrifying images and shudders and turns off seven N-power stations. Seven with one stroke, just like that boy in the fairy-tale. Wear that on your belt! And everyone’s stunned at her sudden U-turn, when just last year, she and her coalition buddies were quite emphatic about keeping them all, including the ageing, run-down ones, up and running until 2035.

So what gives?

I guess it was the bunny.

Chalo… Chale… Jail Bharein!

I last visited Arthur Road jail in 2009. Shantaram had stayed there once, a guest of the Mumbai police, but there weren’t any stickers proclaiming the news, the kind you see on autorickshaws nowadays, promoting B grade films. But Ajmal Kasab’s still there, that boyish maniacal killer, who even the pacifists among us want to see hanging from the end of a very short rope. So security was naturally tight, but it still wasn’t the fortress it has become today. And Swati Sathe was in charge. A formidable woman, she wasn’t in uniform that day. Dressed in a salwar kurta you still wouldn’t mess with her. Her detractors can forever hold their peace and their RTI forms, but I liked the woman. She came across as matter of fact, didn’t gloss over anything, and though she parried our queries like a seasoned campaigner, she was friendly. I guess when you’re not in attack mode there’s no reason for her to go there either.

The inner courtyard area just outside the kitchen was full of under-trials waiting for us… legal aid clinic, that’s what they were told it was. A few of them had no clue what it meant and most of them didn’t know that they had the right to a lawyer. A few looked dazed, wondering what they were doing there and a couple of them cried for home, which brings into focus the old debate, apropos the Miranda, which I think is necessary to implement in a country like India, with its large swathes of illiterate populace, who routinely get hauled up on frivolous and often trumped up charges, and they often just blab out their innocence or guilt, mostly guilt, anything to get away from that stinging arm of the truncheon wielding law. So we need the Miranda, and the netas can call it what they will… Godbole or Godse, or name it after Rajiv Gandhi for crying out loud. There’s nothing left in a name nowadays anyway.

We interviewed a few of the men, most of them there on petty charges, nothing glamorous, though they wouldn’t let us near Emile Jerome, housed in a separate barrack at the time, with Abu Salem and the newly incarcerated Saji Mohan… they have paid counsel, seemingly some of the best. So we got the so called riff-raff, some of them with that air of… ‘Yeah, so what, I’ve been here before and I know your kind’, the lumpen elements, who viewed us with suspicion and amusement. But most of them were first timers. “Watch-out and be careful”, Swati Sathe said, as we deposited our bags and her men let us in through the inner gate and to that unfortunate bunch, some young enough to be called boys. The charges against most of them weren’t even framed, though their little name tags carried the sections under which they were arrested, some appeared to be trumped up charges, or so it seemed from their account of the events, and they appeared to be a largely naïve lot, most of them, and not hardened enough to be putting it on. Among them a young boy from Pune, a student, who had defaulted on his rent. He spoke English, the only one from that lot, dressed in jeans and a T shirt, he wore slippers that were a couple of sizes too big. The police had hauled him off barefoot. He had fallen foul of his father, he told us, but was now desperate to get in touch with him, this errant child with his scraggly beard. Only this time his dad had had enough, and wouldn’t bail him out. So there he was, in Arthur Road… growing up, waiting out his appointment before the judge.

And then there was a young boy from West Bengal, working in an embroidery unit, picked up on chain snatching charges… the chain was found he says, in the woman’s purse, right before his eyes, but the police were suppressing the truth. Though that’s not always true, it is at times, with quotas to be filled and packed jails to stuff, more often than not the police round up helpless innocents because they haven’t a clue, and someone has to be caught after all. It’s about the numbers.

So now there’s a call from a certain segment of the population to jail bharo, and I wonder… Where? Arthur Road presents a far prettier picture than many of the jails in India. I dread to think what a jail in the M.P. heartland or one in Bihar looks like. In our overcrowded jails, where there are often 400-600 packed into those holding cells meant for a hundred. Where they are compelled to sleep sitting, or pushed tight against each other with no room to breathe, and where tuberculosis or HIV are what you get as parting gifts when you leave.

Enthusiasm is great and I’m all for it, well fed and on my Japanese therapeutic mattress. So how about a debate, or perhaps an argument, even a holler, a zillion signatures campaign, a morcha, a few candle-lit vigils where we’ll wear white or black and get our colours mixed up. And then file a couple of RTI applications and even a few frivolous PILs if we can round up the money for the fine. But jail! A cell filled to capacity with a hole in the ground for a potty. That’s a different deal entirely. It isn’t romantic, and you could get your hair ripped out of your scalp by someone who doesn’t like your nose or suddenly has an urge to do you in.

Jails in India are grossly overcrowded, and the jail manual needs to be updated, to present a more realistic picture. Seriously updated, not just moving around a few commas here and there. Besides, those jail manuals need to be out in the public domain, for all to have access to and not just for internal circulation. But then our bureaucrats love taking those trips to Utopia… so they dream on, envisioning jails with large yards like those in ‘Prison Break’, and so while the jail may actually have capacity for 500, they are stuffed with thousands, and jail wardens like Swati Sathe lift their hands up in desperation, “we have no choice, we just get the numbers thrown at us” she said, bemoaning the fact that they had no option and not enough space in which to house them.

Jail reforms almost seem oxymoronic, the two seemingly at cross purposes, but necessarily bed fellows. So there weren’t any worms in the flour for the rotis that day as we peered into it, and the rice looked decent enough, bubbling away in huge pot, with that Maharashtrian staple, usal, cooking in another, I tasted some of it. Not bad I thought… Ehhh… pass the salt shaker please. But then again I don’t eat it every day. Besides I wondered if that was the regular fare, or if what they got every day was a more watered down version with wormy rice slopped in measured quantity onto a thali…

“Please sir, can I have some more?”

Chalo… Chale… Jail Bharein!

(Come… Come on…  Let’s fill our jails!)

Waiting to Exhale

As a child I hated hospitals. So when an old family friend met with an accident I baulked at going to visit him, but he was fond of me and I of him, so I eventually went, with my brother in tow and carrying a large basket of flowers. He’d just been moved out of the ICU to a room and we didn’t have his room number, so we searched, from room to room, down corridors smelling of ether and cheap disinfectant, and then I caught a glimpse of an old, white haired man lying on a bed in a room and walked into it.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity all around.

“Hey, Uncle Nap”, I called out, loud and cheery through the din. But neither he, nor did anyone else turn to look.

And then I heard it… the gurgle. You read about it in books and watch it mimicked in movies, but hearing it in person is something else. He gurgled again, slower this time but distinct and loud, a sound that hasn’t quite left my ears and then there was nothing, except the voice of the doctor yelling that he had lost the man. I dropped the bouquet of flowers and my brother caught me before I hit the floor.

When I came to, my brother told me it wasn’t Uncle Nap. We eventually found him in another room, his leg in a cast, eating his pudding.

Saw a film on TV the other day titled, ‘How to die in Oregon’. Thought it was a dark comedy looking at the title… It wasn’t. But it made me wonder if taking one’s own life, when in the throes of agonizing physical and emotional despair can be termed as dying with dignity? And I wondered what was  so undignified about lying in a bed, hooked up to machines that helps you breathe easier than you normally can, and on medication that helps ease your pain?

Dying isn’t easy despite all that I’ve been raised to believe. It’s never easy to let go… attachment our biggest bane and we forget the part about death being glorious, wonderful and a pathway to greater glory… provided you’ve been good. If not, you’re condemned to being slow roasted.

The film brought into focus a law in the US state of Oregon that allows people suffering from terminal disease which gives them six months or less to live, to take their own lives, supervised or assisted by a physician. The provisions of the law are rather stringent to prevent misuse, and dictate that the patient has to make the request to terminate his/her life, in person, to a physician, with two witnesses required to co-sign the request in the presence of the patient. The patient can of course, at any time, rescind the request. The attending and consulting physician’s diagnosis and prognosis are vital in considering the request, and the patient should be capable of making a conscious and voluntary decision to end his/her life by taking the prescribed lethal dose of medication. So basically while the physician actually does not pull the plug, he/she helps you while you do it yourself, informed, guided and counseled. It apparently gives you control over your own life or what’s left of it and got me thinking about what I would do if I knew that my life, if consumed by a terminal disease, wasn’t worth prolonging. If I knew that every subsequent moment of my existence would be wracked in excruciating pain, with no hope except that of death.

Watching the film made me wonder what would drive a person to seek death prematurely and I wondered if I would have it in me to end my own life or the life of someone I love, on so-called humanitarian grounds. Fortunately I’ve never been faced with that dilemma. And though I find it fascinating, I realize that I would find it extremely difficult to take that road.

I cannot however stand in judgement of someone else’s decision, whatever it may be.

The film also brought into focus the question whether dying with dignity should be equated with suicide or not, and whether there’s a difference, moral and ethical between active and passive euthanasia. My Christian upbringing dictates that suicide is a sin, and encompasses within that term the taking of one’s own life by whatever means, regardless of the circumstances. And then I’m a lawyer and the law in India views suicide as a crime, that is, if you’re unlucky enough to survive. Ironic isn’t it, given that you want to die because the world around you doesn’t seem worth living in and you fail, even at that and then the law terms you a criminal. That’s criminal!

My years of meditation have brought me to a place where pain, suffering and loss are the flip side to joy, happiness and gain, the one useless without the other. I lost my best friend when I was five, and then I lost another two over the years, three in all, one from illness, another in an accident and the third to suicide… all before I stepped into adulthood. I’ve also learned through meditation not to fear death, to look at it just as it is… as simple as inhaling a breath of air only to let it out again, inhaling and exhaling, just that and nothing more… watching everything arise, only to pass away. It has to happen, one day or another. You’ve got to be prepared… just make sure you have clean underwear.

But then again it’s all intellectual and while I’ve meditated on death, decay and disintegration of the self and have tried to be equanimous through illness and pain, I have yet to come face to face with my mortality in a tangible sense. I am not walking the path that some of those who chose to take these decisions walk. And while I may say that too much of one or too little of the other ought not to be a measure to determine the continuation of life, this isn’t only about me and my thoughts and views.

Watching people who suffer from ailments, diseases or conditions that consume them painfully is tough. I watched my grandma die of cancer. It was painful, with God, prayer and her family her only refuge. Equally painful would be watching someone consumed by demons that plague their minds with despair that’s so overwhelming, it chokes them, prevents them from being wholesome and shuts the windows of hope, clogging every crack in the door with darkness. It is difficult to draw the line, difficult for me at least to differentiate between physical and mental disease that’s so consuming, it gives you no hope, and makes it difficult to differentiate between euthanasia, passive or active and suicide. If you permit the one, you should permit the other… that would be logical.

‘How to die in Oregon’ followed Cody Curtis as she dealt with her impending death from liver cancer, a journey towards death that was painful and imminent, and her decision to terminate her life, with the support of her family and friends. While the film was sensitive, choosing not to show Cody’s final moments, it made you listen in as she sang songs with her family, laughed and hugged them, before she finally drank the concoction of Seconal that her volunteer doctor prepared, and her life ebbed away. She seemed at peace.

It is a Buddhist belief that when the body dies, karma continues, determining the nature of one’s subsequent birth. Karma is the link in the chain, the continuum of life and living, until there’s nothing to work out… until you are fully liberated. The moment of death is therefore all important, and the state of mind at that time of special significance. Dying in acceptance of death, with peace and calm is said to ease the way. So I wonder if making a conscious decision with awareness to terminate one’s life is preferable to dying in terrible agony with nothing but pain and despair, at times unconscious, hooked up to machines that live for you when you are no longer able.

The film also brought to mind the Aruna Shanbaug euthanasia debate and how I felt following the proceedings of that case, the religious and so-called ethical versus the legal and the logical. A part of me, wanted the Supreme Court to have granted Pinki Virani’s petition as next friend of the almost vegetative Aruna, lying like an injured, traumatized animal that we would have put down on humanitarian grounds. But she lies condemned, for as long as her body holds out, twisted and bent on her hospital bed, uncomprehending and incomprehensible, cared for no doubt and admirably so by her former colleagues and the generations that have followed, keeping her fed and alive to die another day, every day.

I wonder what would be more humane.

So the debate goes on, whether one has the right to take one’s own life. I’m sure it won’t be long before the law in India changes as well, given that the Supreme Court has legalized passive euthanasia… so our law makers have their task cut out. But first please revoke Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Jezebel Curse

I am no misandrist. In fact some of my best friends are men, though given the content of this piece I run the risk of being pilloried. But I’ll take it on my chin.

The truth is woman have it tough.

It’s a man’s world and so it’s natural I guess for women to get the rough end, though I would not like to paint all men with the same tar brush. My dad’s a good guy and I’ve been lucky to know some really nice men, but they’re a rapidly diminishing lot. It’s the scum sucking sort that abound, and every now and then you’ll bump into a few, just to keep your short-term memory refreshed.

Living here in India we’ve been lucky. Lucky to have seen a lot of powerful women, across various fields and through generations. For a country that’s largely patriarchal, we’ve had great female role models, women who’ve been powerhouses in their own right, not merely essaying roles as the wives of famous men. Come on… we were among the first to vote a woman to the most powerful office in the country and yet the sad truth remains that we do have a dismal female to male sex ratio, one that gets skewed more and more towards producing male offspring.

So who’s responsible?

Women in India are their own worst enemies, is what an American friend told me once, quickly adding that it was the same back home. It’s an old story she said, passed on from generation to generation, perpetuating the stereotype of the man being the bread-winner and hence entitled to a larger share of everything. Yes… gender discrimination happens around the globe. And in many southern states in America and in some north eastern ones as well, a woman’s place is spent between the kitchen and the bedroom of their home, with sixteen being the minimum marriageable age for girls, and some states dropping it down further to fourteen or even thirteen, if Mamma and Papa give their consent.

It’s essentially the same everywhere.

So are women at fault for perpetuating these injustices on themselves? I have my own take on it… I feel that often when you’re pushed into a corner, like many women are, you make it your home. It’s a question of survival, coupled with ignorance and illiteracy and is what has enslaved nations, communities and peoples over centuries. Times they are a changing they say, but for many of the world’s female population it looks like time has just stood still, taking a few leaps back in certain sub-Saharan nations and in some countries in the Middle East or in places like Utah or New Hampshire and in villages in Haryana.

It’s been that way from time immemorial, going back to that sixth day and the creation of that insufferably lame first guy, who as the story goes, traded his rib for a woman, who stole an apple which he ate and enjoyed. Then, feeling slighted at her ingenuity went and ratted her out to the big boss… typical. And then they get chucked out of Eden… but he wanted out anyway… so he’s not complaining. All alone he was, Adam, in that idyllic paradise of a place, then he cops a deal and gets a woman… and the Lord says to him, “go forth and multiply”, but wanted to watch… and Adam couldn’t go forth and so it stayed platonic. But Adam was desperate, so he pouted and then feigned hunger and poor Eve desperate to please came up with some ingenious plan to keep her man happy, but it back-fired on her and got them booted out.

Now they’re out and no one’s watching so they finally do go forth and multiply and produce…what else… but sons, who eventually grow up and also have to go forth… and Hell, now I’m confused and knocking on Darwin’s door because there’s no other woman around except for their Ma… but they do end up populating the earth.

I think it’s time to retire Oedipus.

Seriously Eve… If I were you I would have made off with the serpent.

Further down the biblical track and there’s King David, who’s like the beloved of God and a peeping tom… or so it reads on his rap sheet.  So this one time he looks across the wall and sees Bathsheba, his neighbour Uriah’s wife bathing in the garden… The minx! And he got a rise out of it. But Shoot! She’s married! I suppose David was honorable in some weird way or maybe she just gave him the bird and told him to vamoose. Whatever it was, the fact was that she and he weren’t going to happen, at least not while Uriah was around. So David sent him off to be killed, coveted her… whether with or without her consent hasn’t been chronicled, and then danced his way naked, right into God’s forgiveness, while everyone wagged their finger at that shameless and clueless Bathsheba.

So I wander closer home, with all our Sati’s and Savitri’s bending back and forth as per the whims of their mighty lords to whom they’re tied for seven lifetimes, when one is often just too much and think about poor innocent Sita abducted by that wily villain who had a beef with her husband, but was otherwise quite the gentleman and didn’t mess with her. So yeah she gets rescued… and I’m thinking why rescue the girl if you’re going to doubt her chastity and make her walk through fire, especially when you know what they say about lie-detectors. So yeah she almost gets tossed out of the window… well, metaphorically speaking and gets saved by a Copperfield stunt and no one thinks about asking her husband to take a test. Oh no! Even the thought would be sacrilege… after all it’s never about the dude…

So much for the olden days.

Then we leap-frog into the 21st century and see that nothing’s changed and women are still commodities, objects to be traded and trafficked in or just used and thrown away, unless of course you have a strong and ‘open-minded’ man around you or unless you’ve been labeled feminist, with its accompanying disdain. Yes, we’re in the 21st century, surrounded by the Kobe Bryants and Tiger Woods’ of the world and Schwarzenegger sleeps with the help and everyone looks shocked except for Shiney Ahuja and his wife who jumps up yelling… “Didn’t I say the maid did it?”

So people gasp and ask… “How could that ungrateful wretch do it to poor Maria?” The wretch in question being the maid, according to everyone… except Jane Seymour. Poor Maria, who comes from a family where infidelity should be inscribed on the family crest on her maternal side of the family, and Arnie and Mildred, both immigrants, desperate to be accepted, bad accents notwithstanding… knowing they’ll always be on the outside. I’ll bet it was tough for the big man living with the ghosts of all those Kennedy’s roaming around with nothing of his own to write home about, no great legacy except for corny lines in a few over-rated movies. No Monroe’s, no Mary Jane Kopechne’s of his own, just some two bit starlets and the odd hooker or two… nothing to get him a notch in that belt… so a little rumble in the sheets while the missus was away and now at least he has a son to show for it. Hold that belt up high Arnie…

Meanwhile Maria’s contemplating divorce and Mildred’s in hiding, hoping that the hoopla dies down soon… so she can have a moment to think and decide who to sell her story to… Aah… She may as well. Now that she’s out on her fanny and has an extra mouth to feed… and he won’t be back.

Seriously…if boys will be boys, I think it’s time girls took charge as well. And while I’m no admirer of infidelity and believe that a woman who has sex with a married man should be held morally accountable. More often than not, they get all the flak, while the man who has not merely a moral but also a legal responsibility to stay honest to his spouse gets away with nothing but a slap on the wrist.

So good on you Mildred! Squeeze it for all its worth.

And Maria… here’s hoping you get the best divorce attorney his money will buy.

There’s no going gently girls… It’s time to bury the Jezebel curse.

Angels and Demons

Charlie’s Angels are in the sub-continent. At least two of them are. While Hill with all her experience and love of things Pakistani gets dispatched to soothe that favoured friend and ally, Jan gets sent to India.

Charlie’s sent the girls to do what they do best after his boys went in and wrecked the place… They’ve come, pacifiers in hand. The boy wonder with his recently rediscovered Gaelic roots, (and no that’s not what you put in a Neapolitan… That’s garlic… chopped fine or coarse, depending on how you like it, into that nice thick tomato sauce that goes onto the base) … has picked up a lesson or two from his friend Muammar, sitting in his tent many miles away. Or was it Michelle’s idea? Well whatever it was, you’ve done the right thing this time Barack. Chicks kick a%$@

So Hillary’s in Pakistan, enjoying the warm weather and the toothy lascivious grin of her friend Asif who wonders why all the women he fancies look equine. That’s what you get for 10% m’boy. Anyway Hillary’s a Pakistani girl at heart, part of the fold, winning their hearts when she overlooked her man’s foibles in the tradition of ‘boys will be boys’, a given in that part of the sub-continent. So Hill’s across the border pacifying a nation wronged, soothing troubled waters, handing out a few gifts and holding a press conference where she leans into the microphone, and says that there’s absolutely no evidence that anyone at the highest level of the Pakistani Government knew where bin Laden was…

Duh!!! I want to say…

Faintly reminiscent of one white haired man looking squarely into the camera and stating, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Oh… By the way, what… which Pakistani government are you referring to Hill? Those toy boys in their fancy western suits, with their coiffed hair and wide grins or the real rulers, you know… the ones in crisp army fatigues and berets, standing alongside their long-bearded and turbaned friends, gleaming M16s standing side by side dusty Kalashnikovs? Those guys who had a military training facility bang opposite OBLs residence? I’m a little lost here.

That Pakistani democracy is an oxymoron is evident. The country sits perennially on a powder-keg waiting to explode. I empathize. I know it’s tough leading a nation whose only asset is its geographic position in the sub-continent, one that America uses to its advantage to keep the other nations in the region in check. It’s tough for those who claim to be in power in that country – Juggling the army, the ISI and all those religious heads, while trying to hold on to their own is no mean task. But now everyone’s pissed, the Army’s mad at having their b%$#@ chopped off, and the Taliban is pissed as are the clerics who hold the pulse of the common man. Pissed at their soil being defiled to take out a brother, pissed at being humiliated and pissed that India gets to wag her finger and say that hated line… “We told you so”.

I empathize.

So Hillary goes to calm the enraged beast.

India meanwhile gets Janet Napolitano, US Secretary of Homeland Security and not the pizza… that’s Neapolitan, with that nice garlicky tomato base I mentioned earlier… thin crust please! This one reminds me of Mayawati lost in a Texan fairground… re-homed and groomed. So Janet’s here in India to read out some lines from a script, lays a wreath at some memorial and promise something that isn’t hers to give anyway… a crack at that offspring of a failed Pakistani-American union going by the name of David Headley. Meanwhile the Indian Home Minister spews some of that rhetoric about Pakistan and terrorism that that we’ve all got accustomed to, and which we know he’ll do nothing about… in the futile hope that maybe Janet digs guys in veshti’s and will give him her ear.

Duh!!! I say again…

Why?

Eulogy on the Death of the 25 Paise Coin

Another one goes into the annals of history. Re-born in 1968, a modification of its earlier avatar, the 25 paise coin is finally being euthanized, this time for good and I’m running for cover. At a year older, I feel ancient and vulnerable. Is it time to go gently into that good night, I ask. My contemporaries, materialistic and greying, are too wrapped up in their iPads and MacBooks to sing a dirge or even spare a thought for that little round bit of alloy that kept us fed during the short recess in school, back in the 70’s. I know my memory is a bit hazy so I can’t really recall how much a samosa cost way back then, but I’m sure it was around 25p or less. At 25p for those crunchy delicious triangles filled with veggies from the Saint Joseph’s Convent ICSE canteen, they were the most popular of all the snacks on the menu, and then our school amalgamated with its SSC sister and someone killed the cook and those samosa’s never tasted quite the same again. But there was still plenty that 25p could get you.

But I grew rapidly and moved out of the world of 25 and 50 paise coins, going to college where legal tender was in the form of coupons because someone somewhere was hoarding coins and when we emerged out of that fiasco into the world, it was changing. Liberalization was the new watchword. India was getting into the big league, where foreign exchange didn’t really need to be regulated anymore and had to be ‘maintained’ and the Reserve Bank of India changed its outlook from the dismal khaki to an American green and TRIPS didn’t mean that you fell, though it did lead to entanglements.

The 25p meanwhile survived her poorer cousins, even after inflation kicked in again and again… battering the poor and middle classes, though of course we ought not to complain when we are doing fairly well for a ‘developing nation’. Take a look at Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo… Besides who says we’re not in the midst of perennial civil strife….ever watched a session of Parliament?

That India is a land of milk and honey is what the school books had us believe when we were kids… a socialist ideology borrowed I presume from our closest allies at the time. And we were young and impressionable and relatively privileged, so we sucked it all up. Deprivation seemed far away to me when I was little, something that existed in another world, in another continent far away, with those “little brown babies in Africa” and a dowdy Ingrid Bergman out to save them. But reality would dawn, albeit briefly, on cab rides into town to visit my aunt and cousins or to go to the movies. Trips that took me outside the little borough that Bandra was in those days, with its beautifully empty streets and quaint little houses, and sometimes gave the curious me a chance to look out, at kids playing at street corners… running eagerly to cab windows that we hastily raised, their fingers full of grime and their noses running. But even those sightings were few and far between and forgotten as the cab turned the corner and it would be another five years or so before I realized that during that passage of time the land around me had turned arid, the milk had curdled and the honey adulterated. Life wasn’t as pretty as the school books said it was.

And still the 25p coin lived on, through those turbulent times of change, providing something and earning its keep. Why even today in many little Indian villages and towns you may still get something for 25p… and you can get a meal for 10 rupees or less in many places, though the bus ride to and from may cost you more.

Which brings me to the unfortunate truth, that we’re all redundant… something that we know, but omnipotence is so darn tempting, we tend to wander off into little flights of fancy. There comes a time for all of us to depart and leave we must, whether it’s a bad review report that costs us our job, or chasing a chambermaid flabby body on display that gets us the boot, or whether its simply death, which in its inimitable style often creeps up without warning, showing us the way out… We’ve all got to go. But for those who’ve served us well, a farewell seems in order, a little dignity, a few goodbyes, some kind thoughts and words and a solemn burial.

RIP.

Ashes to Ashes and the Mysteries of Modern Math

So a certain young politician has been making tall claims. Pythagoras would have been bewildered. And if Pythagoras is bewildered who am I. I sucked at Maths. Barely scraped through every time by the grace of my heavenly and earthly fathers.

I am really confused. Maths is essentially about conjecture and explaining the truth or falsity of it through deduction by mathematical proof. So how do you produce seventy-four out of thin air, state it as a fact with absolute certainty and then make it vanish? Dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return. Perhaps someone’s been good and gone to church.

But then again perhaps it was all a mirage. U.P. can get beastly in summer and for a young half-white boy walking the plains without his podiatrist, chiropractor and manicurist in tow, it can be tough. Parched and eager, the desire to please mummy foremost in his mind. Or perhaps as some lesser known courtier called Dwivedi said, it was all a mistake. It’s the damn media that never gets it right. This Dwivedi must be a closet bible thumper, conjuring up that eternal good versus evil tale of David and Goliath, right in the heart of U.P. Are you free Vishal? I hear Dolly Bindra’s eager to be cast… she’s getting a haircut.

I wonder why people lie. Is it something inherent in human kind or is it the fallout of ‘Politicitis’ -that convenient ailment that lists among its symptoms – lapses of memory and sudden chest pains. Or is it merely a question of keeping up with the Joneses, you know, the “if BO can make tall claims, so can I… and I have antecedents to back me up, besides the authenticity of my birth certificate is also in doubt… so BO can go suck his nicotine lollipop” syndrome. The unfortunate part for the young politician is that most of us Indians are an extremely politically savvy lot.

So here’s my advice, unsolicited of course to the boy with the tall claims. You are not your granny. She had balls that one, everyone else’s… squeezed hard. She could emasculate a nation, and those that managed to get away – her heir apparent sterilized. Besides those were the days of true autocracy and we’ve come a long way since then. So I think you could go back to school, take a Maths class and one on politics, and no cheating this time. And perhaps the next time you conjure up ash, with or without those seventy-four bodies in it, you can call it vibhuti… it’s a more marketable name and we’re suckers for God-men.

Of Poribartan and Bartans

So the chicks have won. Hawaii chappals are being sold at discounted prices. It’s the new “it” thing. Move over Blahnik.

Okay so I’m kidding, but seriously the chappal shod, terribly draped sari wearing fish-wife has stormed all over the hammer and sickle, wielding nothing but her rhetorical scythe which after years of tempering finally came good as it systematically mowed down her opponents to size…and tiny little bite size pieces at that. Oh she’s got a ubiquitous style that one, all pervading and ever ready to burst forth into a rant at something that’s got her goat… oops I mean hilsa…down to the last bone.

India is a land of mysticism and mystery, with a wonderfully rich heritage of kings and kingdoms. We feel safe with them, we like being ruled, having someone to look up to. So we’ve embraced the tradition of political families in much the same vein…from the Gandhi’s to the Karunanidhi’s to the Yadavs…you name it and each state has its own share of ‘khandaani’ politicians. In this milieu therefore it’s no small wonder that these women, with no familial political antecedents have come good, beating down bastions in some cases and reclaiming their thrones in others, while going by the familiar monikers of ‘didi’ (sister), ‘behenji’ (sister…again) and amma (mother)…but they’ve done it and didi has won my affection in the bargain, despite my deep resentment for her generally unkempt look. After all she didn’t send goons to convince the populace to donate to her poll effort. She took a brush to it, quite literally, painting and selling her artworks, and earning her party 50 lakhs. If an elephant could do it so could she…and sorry but I’m not referring to behenji here. So the diminutive didi did it fair and she did it good but now we’ve got to go far from the mongering crowd of 24 Parganas and Jadavpur, from the land of ‘poribartan’ and didi who once crooked a snook at industry and now has her quizmaster playing ‘Getafix’, urging her erstwhile targets back home, the ghosts of Singur desperately being exorcised by offerings of god-knows-what. But ‘poribartan’ it needs to be if West Bengal is to rise again, if change has to be wrought. I only hope it’s not done at the expense of the rail ministry. Methinks a cabinet reshuffle should be in order, just to keep things clean…Ah well…as clean as it can be.

But we shall move on, side-stepping the elephantine land of our other ‘behenji’ as we head south, to the land of the caped wonder and the mother of us all… Amma, super-mum, who rises phoenix like from the ashes, expensive Kanjeevarams cloaked by an that all encapsulating burqa like cape, aided by her all-consuming and burning desire to be one-up on her deceased mentor and the greedy foibles of her nearest opponents in power and a zillion Tams willing to immolate themselves at the drop of her… oh, never mind.

My mom’s maid is Tamilian, and she’s on leave. It’s a periodic thing you see apart from the shorter stints she takes to meet family and friends every year. This one’s her standard election holiday. Conscientious I thought at first, we fatted and decadent city dwellers would do well to imbibe some of that passion I thought again and then I learned that it isn’t her sense of duty that drives her to her home town to vote every election year. Or rather it is… albeit a misplaced sense, the duty to claim her share of the booty being doled out. So while the Election Commission plays blind-man’s buff in the region, after all, as they say…  you can’t really stop the people from expressing their love to our great political icons now can you? And then their cup naturally runneth over with such ardent outpourings that they would be deemed selfish if they didn’t spread some of that love around. Robin Hood take a hike…you’ve come into the wrong part of the woods.

So my mum’s maid is rich, she made a killing the last time around, with each political party trying to better the other. Forget the bartans (utensils), mixer-grinders and television sets being doled out like confetti. You get hard cash and in case you have a young daughter of marriageable age, a couple of tolas of gold as well. In fact the maid’s son just got a job in Mumbai, and she was relieved, so she wasn’t sure he’d be coming along… after all his boss refused to let him go, but then it would take him 10 months to earn at his job what he could make during that one week back home…so the job be damned. After all isn’t corruption called “bhrashtachar” in Hindi, which when broken down into its itty components is ‘bhrasht’ = debase, morally corrupt and ‘achar’ = pickle… a tasty condiment meant to spice up otherwise bland fare… Kinda fitting isn’t it.

So my mum’s waiting for her maid to return and expects a demand for a hike in salary, as befits her nouveau riche status. We are meanwhile contemplating a move to a cave in the hills somewhere far far away, where we’ll grow our veggies on a tiny strip of land that we’ll buy in some benami deal, away from free bartans and cries for poribartan, get a mule to take us to town to sell our produce after all with the petrol price going up, even the Nano refuses to start in silent comradeship and then we’ll do our own dishes, just in case the maid expects a Vaio in her Christmas bonus… Hai Amma.