Monday, August 30, 2010

More from THAT essay (does it never end?)

I abhor Sounding Serious, but the I-word has to come into this somewhere. Identity. What IS this Indian identity? What sets me apart from a Bangladeshi or a Pakistani? (I've been mistaken for a Mexican, too, but perhaps that's not strictly relevant to the subject.)

Precious little, on first examination. Not the national language, Hindi. Not any specific attire. Because our genes are the same, the product of several thousand years in this sub-continental melting pot. We share languages, traditions, cuisine. What then identifies the Indian? We should step outside ourselves for a while to ask, how does the world see Indians? How far are we from the standard shibboleths of mysticism and spirituality and exoticism? In the American media (what, is there any other kind?! You mean there’s folks out there Who. Don’t. Get. Fawx. TeeVeeee?!) the standard Indian is a nerd. Apu in The Simpsons and Raj Patel at Riverdale High. The software geeks who are “taking our jobs to Bangalore”. (A skewed perception, since the entire Indian IT workforce is less than 2 million out of a population of 1.13 BILLION.)

In Britain, where Patel may soon be the most common surname (indeed the most common Indian name across the world, from gas stations on Mid-western highways to pulp and insurance magnates in Kenya), India is sadly equated with balti cuisine and Bollywood rap. For the Japanese, India is the cradle of Buddhism. The French made Satyajit Ray a Chevalier of their Legion of Honour. Russia had a long love affair with Indian tea and with Raj Kapoor (though we hear that of late Amitabh Bachchan has gained ground). An Indian cannot, reportedly, walk the streets of Cairo without fielding questions on his proximity to Mr. B. Which is all very well, but is there such a thing as the Indian of the 21st century?

Much has been made of Messrs. Mittal and Ambani, their pre-eminence among plutocrats and their conspicuous consumption. About how India has Arrived because Tata have bought Corus and Jaguar. I agree that this is great news for the urban Indian who reads the financial papers. It means recognition in the international market, it means credibility for our skills and our goods. It means holidays in Latin America, gadgets from Singapore, mezze brunches in classy brasseries. And it means sweet damn all to half of India.

I could trade it all for evenings like the one I spent in a village in Howrah district back in the ’90s.

We were visiting learning centres set up under a scheme for functional literacy that employed volunteers. The teacher at the centre was a field labourer who had had to drop out of school after the 5th grade. This man, with a family of 9 to feed, gave hours of his time every evening so that his fellow villagers could learn to read and write. And insisted that we share his dinner before we left. Puffed rice, jaggery cakes and tender coconut water from his own yard. Simple fare that I remember 15 years later because the unthinking hospitality with which it was offered brooked no refusal.

Hospitality. To paraphrase O. Henry, they will pour their larder into you before they pour their lead.

At the height of the Khalistan movement, a friend in the police met some of the most feared insurgents. He shook his head in wonderment as he recounted their first offer – Duddh shuddh piyo jee, “have some hot milk”. Kashmir in 1990, the Valley in flames after the shooting of Ishfaq Wani, when a waiter murmured a warning in my ear as we sat down to dinner in the Circuit House. But in the same breath, apologised for the meagre fare during the month of fasting.

This can border on the farcical. On election duty in Sangroor in Punjab, I found that one candidate's election platform was a large trailer drawn by a Tata Safari. Loaded with CRATES of Solan whiskey and the charred remains of a poultry farm. His appetites were as large as his heart. For every sip he offered, he would take one himself; his day's canvassing ending only when he subsided into the trailer, snoring blissfully. At which point his nephew (on Safari with him, so to speak) would steer homewards. Steer a little erratically, since Said Nephew shared the family trait of appreciating the simple pleasures (or plai-years) of life. When it was pointed out that this amounted to soliciting for votes with promises of gain, the complainant was immediately rebuked and shushed by at least three other candidates, the largest of whom turned to me and said, with a dismissive wave of a huge hand, 'Wo koi nahin jee, bacche thod-di si jo pee pah lehnde so ki fark painda'. “What does it matter if the boys have a drink or two.”

The tradition of hospitality is not limited by India’s boundaries. Out on Long Island, the man behind the counter at a Dunkin’ Donuts forced cakes and coffee on me, then refused to accept payment because apne mulk ke hain aap, you are from my country. In Barcelona, I bargained over curios with a Sindhi shop-lady who would not give an inch or a peso, but pushed two boxes of sweets into my hands as I left. “For your baby”.

Hospitality. In the simplest form, placing humanity above the self.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Us and them

It was a constant of my schoolday mornings. The tea tray, the newspaper, the voices slightly tinny as they poured forth from the old National cassette deck, my father unconsciously beating time on the chair-arm to “Sajani sajani kunja maajhey” and occasionally trying to instruct me on the finer points of the young Rabindranath’s budding genius in Bhanushingher Podaboli. At that age, I took the “Thakur” part of “Robi Thakur” very literally – I thought Rabindranath was actually a minor member of the Hindu pantheon. (This view may actually hold true in Bengal at large and Nandan in particular but is sadly absent in the rest of India among those exiles from true “kaalchaar”¸ the “non-Bengalis”.) What stuck in my 7-yr-old mind, however, was the fact that Robi Thakur’s first published work was not in Bangla but in Maithili - “Baba, was Rabindranath a khotta?!” My young mind was shocked that The Man himself had condeigned to write in any language other than Bangla.

After all, we Bangalis are the chosen ones. Can any other language compass the thoughts of our greatest literary genius?

I grew up. My attitude changed. But not, alas, the Bangali mind-set. Not the sweeping dismissal of all other ethnicity as O-Bangali. Nor the loving epithets – Khotta, TNetul, Pnaiyya and of course the ubiquitous Maaru. Even today, ten years into the 21st century, the educated and supposedly liberal Bangali who prides himself on being a global citizen can be dismissive, even pejorative, about “other” Indians. Granted, this parochialism is not violent, nor even xenophobic in the manner of Maharashtra or Assam. The Bangali does not seem to support political organisation on the lines of linguistic identity. The “Amra Bangali” party has had some limited electoral success and entered a Legislative Assembly, but in Tripura, not in West Bengal. Yet in some sub-stratum of the general conscious, independent of “Proutist” ideology, there persists a nagging resentment of the O-Bangali. This is of course most frequently voiced against the ethnic group that seems to be the most prosperous, the Marwaris.

I cringe when I hear the term Maaru. Even when it is used in jest by one of my Marwari friends. Because they are paying the price for prosperity. The community is not new to Calcutta. A friend of mine – Calcutta born, mostly Calcutta educated, proud of his roots in Mymensingh – received his come-uppance in a conversation some years ago, when one of Calcutta’s best-known citizens mentioned gently “My family has lived in Calcutta since the 18th century. Perhaps in another hundred years we’ll be accepted as Bangali”. In another well-known and oft-vilified Marwari family, known for their proximity to a previous Chief Minister, the present generation studied Bangla and not Hindi as a second language; at home they converse in Bangla, a rule made by the patriarch 40 years ago. But of course, they are only Maarus. They waste their time making money and what is worse, they buy out the houses of old Bangali families instead of letting them live on in genteel poverty in their old decaying mansions. Most reprehensible.

What about the community whose very names most easily set them apart from the Dhars, Bhars and Bhattacharyas? One of Calcutta’s most visible and successful Anglo-Indians, son of a grand old man who has represented his community in the State Assembly and in Parliament, told me that his proudest achievement is not that he is known across 5 countries, but that he was at one time goalkeeper for Rajasthan Club on the Calcutta Maidan. Anjan Datta’s nostalgia on celluloid may harp on how they are different from the Bangali mainstream, but they are for the most part “simple fish-eating Bongs.’

Perhaps these attitudes do not intrude upon personal interactions. One of my closest friends from school is a Sikh. On 31st October 1984, after walking home through the disturbances, I called him to find out if his family was safe in their Gariahat home – five floors of burly Sardars perched above a petrol pump, terribly vulnerable to arsonists. Chuckling at my concern, he told me that their neighbours had taken it upon themselves to throw a cordon round their house until the trouble subsided. A heartening story, and one that supports my hypothesis that Bangali parochialism is rarely violent.

There is even a subtle distinction between the Calcuttan and the “other” whose roots lie upcountry. The Calcuttan used to be the most reluctant to leave his city, the most convinced that his life was best between Dum Dum and Garia, the one most likely to refuse an assignment in Purulia or Jalpaiguri. This was succinctly summed up by a colleague in the IPS when he said “WE are the real Bangalis, we have worked all over Bengal. YOU are only a Calcuttan.”

In one respect there still exists a disconnect that nobody will openly discuss. In my experience, this is more common among a previous generation and, strangely enough, more common on the city fringes, in the suburbs rather than the truly rural areas. The same “cultured”, supposedly educated Bangali who declaims the poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam is perfectly capable of asking, “Is he Bangali or Mussulman?”

The wheel seems to have come full circle, though. A certain class of Bangali is most likely to deride paati Bangali attitudes and lampoon “Bong” stereotypes. Good or bad, they have positioned themselves outside the narrower Bangali identity in favour of one that is more pan-Indian. Is this a sign of growing cosmopolitanism?

(This was in the Bengal Post, where I am allowed to faff on any given Monday. And they pay me for it!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The sum of the parts - Pt 3

It takes more than a journey to comprehend this country. The British had this tradition at the turn of the last century, the Grand Tour. The closest Indian equivalent may be in the civil services, where officers in training are sent around the country on “Bharat Darshan”. In our year, possibly like every other year, everybody wanted to go to Goa. Our group went instead to Jammu and Gujarat, to Bombay and to Bangalore. We watched sunset over the Arabian Sea from the deck of a frigate, tiptoed down border trails in Akhnoor in the dark before the dawn, ate Vadilal ice-creams and thalis beside the highway near Ahmedabad. For thirty days the sights of India washed over us in waves. At the end of it all we listed all the places we hadn’t visited, the sights we hadn’t seen even in the States we passed through – the step wells of Gujarat, the mustard fields of Punjab, the brooding citadels of Mandu and Orchha, the ruins of Hampi. Thirty days was never enough to see a tenth of this bewildering variety.

We did, however, get a feel of the people. Because we rode the rails. Through long nights and longer days, lulled by the rattle of the wheels, we spoke to people. To Indians. A studious Sikh accountant from Ludhiana, so different from the stereotype of the bluff Sardar. A group of feisty old ladies from Surat, travelling down to Bombay to run a sale. The homesick young sailor going up from Vishakhapatnam to Kanpur, looking forward to his mother’s cooking. In hindsight, that young man personified two of the strands that bind together this crazy sprawl. First, the armed forces, where discipline and uniformity blur the differences between regions and races. Second, the railways, that uniquely Indian melting pot where the diverse ingredients are tossed together.

The iron horse had more than an economic impact on the process of “nation-building”. Besides opening up the Indian hinterlands to trade, the railways broke down the divisions in society and opened up their minds. An aphorism from 19th century Bengal has survived – Jaat bhanglo teen Sen – Keshob Sen, Wil-sen aar ishtisen. Loosely translated, three Sens demolished the barriers of caste – Keshob Sen (the Brahmo reformer), Wilson’s Hotel in Calcutta where people of all castes ate together and the ishtisen or station, where people were thrown together in the adventure of travel. Travellers from Theroux to Iyer have vouched that a second-class railway carriage on a long journey is the best way to understand the soul of India. Also to share biographies and genealogies, prepare strategies for the sowing season and the stock market, plan a holiday with (recent) strangers who are suddenly good friends and find a suitable boy for the neighbours’ distressingly modern daughter.


A railway carriage would also be the best place to face the stereotyping that moulds regional identities. The burly Sikh, bearded and turbanned, ever-ready to break into an energetic bhangra after a meal of tnn-ddoori chik-ken, good-humoured and good-hearted but typecast as the simpleton - India’s version of the Irishman or the Polack. An image that needs re-thinking after the Khalistan movement in the ’80s, or in the light of the achievements of Hargobind Singh Khurana, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Paramjit Singh Dhaliwal. The fish-eating, emotional, argumentative Bengali, wordy and quick-tempered but a physical coward. The Gujarati money-bags who would sell his family for a profit. The “North-Eastern” student, a catch-all categorisation that ignores the distinctions between the Manipuri Bishnupriya (Vaishnavs) and the Baptist from Mizoram, let alone the differences between the 16 major tribes and 64 sub-tribes of Nagaland. Is this merely an attempt to fit people into categories, or is it symptomatic of the emphasis on sub-regional identities? Shall we see in India a replay of what is happening in Georgia and in Moldova, a continuous process of differentiation and division?

My generation was fed the line of “unity in diversity” long before “India shining” became a catch-phrase. I have problems with both. The diversity is self-evident, but the unity seems more tenuous with each passing year. Some years ago I was in Manipur on government work and became used to the term "you Indians". Even "going to India". It stirred déjà vu. Then I remembered Kashmir in 1990. These words, the attitude, were chilling echoes of a chilling fortnight in Srinagar all those years ago. That's some unity. Consider the Jarawa tribesman in the Andaman Islands. He may not even KNOW about India. His home is closer to Thailand than to the Indian mainland. In case I've failed to get the point across, the idea of "India united" seems to fall well short of a consensus.

Three major wars, a few dozen separatist movements, schisms along the lines of religion and of culture, huge differences between town and country. More importantly, separate Indias for the haves and the have-nots, a situation that has led to insurgencies that run from the Nepal border to the fringes of Tamil Nadu. Make no mistake, the Maoist movements are insurgencies, and the future of the Indian polity will depend upon whether these are addressed as a disease or as symptoms of a more fundamental illness. A secular federation where the greatest visible divide is between two of the world’s major religions. A union where the northern half of the country still lumps together four distinct cultures, languages, traditions as “South Indian (or as “Madrasi”, from the time of the Madras Presidency under the British). Where is the unity?

It’s some kind of miracle that this country still holds together after 60 years.

It’s time we realised that there is no such thing as an average Indian.

Because it’s time we stopped dealing in stereotypes.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Part of a part (of a big book) - Part 2

The down-side of the Indian experience is that it leaves us a little jaded for the rest of the world. James Elroy Flecker’s lush verse drove me to the gates of Damascus. And to disappointment, because I have seen the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri and there can be no comparison. The giant dome of the Hagia Sofia is slightly less awe-inspiring when one has seen the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur. Everywhere one goes, one has to fight the inner voice of Mark Twain’s hayseed who’d been there and seen that.

It’s not just the diversity in the culture, nor even the weight of 5000 years of history. The sheer physical differences are sometimes difficult to comprehend. In the 50 Celsius summers of Vizag or Bhopal birds drop dead from the sky, at the same time that soldiers in the upper reaches of Leh need fuel to melt their drinking water. Every school-going child in India is aware of the contrasts from west to east, the sere stretches of the Thar desert (a friend from Bikaner told me he had never seen rain till he was four!) and the sodden slopes of Cherrapunji. The Himalayas, which beggar description even when seen from a hundred miles away, or from a porthole at 38,000 feet. The festering mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, heavy with tropic heat and the ever-present terror of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The boulder-stippled, sinewy ravines of the Seonee river in India’s heartland, flowing through the tawny meadows and shape-shifting trees of Pench. The Sergio Leone landscapes of the Rann of Kutch and the Victorian propriety of pensioners’ colonies in Mushobra.

On the west bank of the Hooghly in Bengal, a thirty kilometre stretch is a lesson in the history of colonization. Bandel Church was built in thanksgiving by a shipwrecked Portuguese trader, and the Marthomite cross is testimony to its origins. Chinsurah, farther down the river, was a trading post for the Dutch. Some of the older residents of Chandannagar, just south of Chinsurah, still hold French citizenship and receive pensions from the French government. The Institut de Chandernagore on the Strand still runs classes in French and has a library of books on France. In French. More relevant, perhaps, is the institution of Lords Bakery, which may be the only authentic boulangerie within a thousand miles. Travelling farther down, Rishra, once a German trading station and indigo factory, still has a neighbourhood called Alemaanpara. Srirampur was Frederiksnagar under the Danish East India Company, before the arrival of the two Williams, Carey and Ward. By the middle of the 19th century all these towns were under the rule of the Viceroy of Her Majesty’s Government in India. All except Chandannagar, which remained a French territory until ceded to India in February 1951. This anomalous enclave also played a part in India’s freedom movement – as French territory, it was a haven for the young revolutionaries pursued by the British Govt. in India. Memories of five countries from the Continent, all to be swamped by a sixth.

Bloodlines of the earliest recorded invaders live on in remote pockets of the Himalayan foothills. The village of Malana in Himachal Pradesh is closed to outsiders. The locals claim descent from the Greek armies (more probably Seleucus’ men than Alexander’s) and have their own distinct religion. The language of the Drukpa, a polyandrous tribe in Ladakh, is different from the regions surrounding them, and it is surmised that they too (like the inhabitants of Nuristan across the border, famously celebrated in The Man who would be King) are descended from some wandering arm of the Greek forces. Ladakh itself, marked with chortens, fed on thukpa and tsampa, is a little echo of Tibet. In the ’80s, the Sports Authority of India picked boys from the obscure Siddhi tribe in Andhra Pradesh to train them as distance runners. Turned out they were relying on genetics, because the Siddhis are supposed to be descendants of Ethiopian warriors brought over by the Nawabs of Hyderabad.

They were all here once. India holds them still.


Saturday, August 07, 2010


Around the time Mr. Amitabh Bachchan started a blog, I visited it a couple of times. And on one occasion saw a spirited (and verbose) defence of Sarkar Raaj, which I found awful. Not least because the Queen of Equine Giggles featured in it.

So I commented on his blog. Except that he (or his Blog Manager) did not see fit to publish it, let alone reply.

Today I found the comment in an obscure folder. It has no relevance any more, since the film in question is long gone. So in keeping with my dictum of irrelevance, here goes ..

Mr. Bachchan

We grew up on your films. 30 years on, "Daawar Saab, main abhi bhi phNeke huey paise nahin uthata" or "Saala nautanki" are phrases we use in conversation. Is there one line in "Sarkar Raj" that is as memorable?

Most of us have our own selection of favourite scenes from your films, scenes that have stayed in our minds so clearly we can tell you the colour of the wallpaper on the sets. Is there one scene in Sarkar Raj that deserves such recall?

Ram Gopal Varma has made some very good films, from "Rangila" to "D". "Sarkar" was a decent take on "The Godfather", mainly because it didn't try to fix what wasn't broke and did a fairly straight riff on the original. "Sarkar Raj", sadly enough, has no template or plot to carry it through the interminable backlit shots and the endless pans across silent faces. Not even your eloquent eyes, Mr. Bachchan, can carry a film which doesn't know what it wants to say. The denouement where your character Subhash Nagre lays out the plot seems very contrived, something like the forced "surprises" in Abbas-Mustaan's "Race". The plot - such as it is - just does not hang together.

Even the area that has been RGV's strength hitherto, the delineation of the characters, sags in this film. Why would Shankar Nagre suddenly let Anita so completely into his life? And why would the rest of the Nagre family accept it? Why would a man-manager as good as Shankar totally alienate Chandar? Why would he need to differ with the father he idolises?

It doesn't work, Mr. Bachchan, it doesn't fly.

Sadly enough, RGV underestimates his audience's intelligence. He makes the characters spout long justifications of their actions and explanations of the plot. This is such a sad contrast to his earlier films with their tight editing and minimal dialogues.

In the final analysis, much as I have admired some of RGV's earlier work, I cannot forgive him for the criminal waste of resources, to wit, you and Abhishek (1). Even Tinnu Anand made better use of your persona in "Shahenshah" though that had an even weaker plot premise.

Your audience deserves to see you in better films, Mr. Bachchan.


(1) - Yes, if anybody actually reads this, I might catch some flak for mentioning Bachhua there.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The sincerest form of flattery

Coffee break. Blog browsing.

And I find there is another Sad Old Bong.
Well, not quite.


But what were they thinking?!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The sum of the parts - 1

I have been published. And PAID. AND the Honourable Editor has said nice things about me in the foreword. AND I am invited to the book release on Monday.
Quite overwhelming.

Besides, now that it's published, it is fodder for the blog.
But Four. Thousand. Words. is FAR too much for a blog post.

So, children, you shall have it In Instalments (my editor for the newspaper column Admonishes me Sternly if I use these capitalisations. This is MY blog. Sucks to you, Ed!)

Instalment 1 -

Arsalan Meyehane. The sign in the Cicek Pasaj (Flower Lane) in Istanbul stopped me dead in my tracks. Not just because it appeared at the end of a long thirst-inducing walk. Not just because, thanks to Kemal Pasha and his proscription of Arabic script, it was in Roman letters. What struck me was the echo of India in this city on the cusp of two continents. Meyehane or bar is almost exactly the same as maikhana, that staple of poor Urdu shayari. And Arsalan is one of The Wife’s favourite restaurants back in Calcutta. Which set me to thinking Deep Thoughts about how the world is reflected in India. I retired to the meyehane to sluice my mental processes with raqi (which, alas, has no counterpart in India).

Minor irrigation yielded a flood of impressions. Travelling the world after three decades of travelling around India yields a continuous state of déjà vu. In the alleys of Aleppo, cobbled and cloistered, sometimes almost claustrophobic, I thought “I have been here before”. Shall I say / I have gone at dusk through narrow streets … That would be Benaras, the lanes of Godhaulia that rise and fall and eddy into uneven stairs, or break into sudden effusions of multi-coloured shops and garish lights. Lanes that lead you to an overwhelming question - the burning ghats on the river’s edge.

Or the winding lanes in Lisbon’s Alfama, where, in a yellow tram-car hurtling between friendly shop-fronts close enough to touch, I found echoes of Surya Sen Street in Calcutta. The Edwardian facades of old Calcutta came to mind again, and the Indo-Saracenic architecture of south Bombay, on a walk that took me down Piccadilly and up Oxford Street. A sleepy courtyard in Damascus, arches and pillars around a cracked pavement gently heaving like a summer sea, the dome of a mosque rising beyond the outer wall, could just as well have been in Lucknow.

Near Sao Paulo a church gleams white against a hillside riotously green, come to life from a photograph taken in the late afternoon sun near Benaulim in Goa. From the air force observation post on Laitkor Peak in Shillong, green meadows roll towards a hilly horizon, blurring into memories of a drive from Lancaster to the Lake District. Louvred windows look out on the lanes in Pondicherry that run towards the sea, with street signs still posted in French.

Kipling’s Kim, protagonist of one of the greatest road novels, is “little friend of all the world”. How apt for a book that is still one of the best accounts of India, for India itself is a little picture of all the world.
Three thousand years, waves of invaders, ripples of traders and millennia of assimilation; Greeks, Turks, Persians, the descendants of the Mongols, Portuguese, French and finally the British; a patchwork quilt of history that comes to life through the senses. A snatch of song in a nargileh bar that sounds eerily like Bangla adhunik – the same cadences, a similar tune, even words that echo my mother tongue. Curry and rice from a roadside stall in Bangkok, the aroma and the feel of comfort food taking one back to late winter nights at Khyber near the Delhi Ridge. The sudden explosion of a laugh in a smoky room, and the lattice-work above the arched doorway suddenly turns into Café Britannia near Ballard Pier.


Monday, August 02, 2010


... of riches.

Returned to Bloglines after some months. TWO THOUSAND odd posts from the blogs I (used to) read.

Which is not ALL that much, considering I've been away for at least a year.
Obviously I'm not the only blogger who had a fling with Twitter.
Or just gave up, now that blogs are so noughties.

But still - 2000?!

Then I saw the button. "Mark all as read".
There are some things one can learn from Twitter!

But of course

In the mail today ... "Daft National Policy".

Now I AM worried.