Friday, August 21, 2015

Challenge. Accepted.

When you troll people on Twitter you find amazing things.
I found an open invite to the Godawful Poetry Fortnight curated by @zigzackly.
I don't write or perform poetry and I just spent the evening listening to people who do.
Obviously these are two qualifications I needed to begin poeming.

Follow the trail of embroidered beards
and cultivated disinterest
Find yourself 
In the hipster capital of the Capital
Mind the jazz
It has
A beard of its own

Leaning rhymes
Against the bass, a double
A couple
Which you are no longer
Part of
This place of beards & poetry
You know it

You had one once
A beard
with a poem
With a text you've been missing lately
"Delhi seems extra rapey tonight,
Call me when you get home safely."


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Post Colonial Rage

For the last 6-8 months I have been working on a TV series about India's colonial past - how the British Raj came to be, then un-be and everything in between. It's an international co-production, where the most incompetent dolt turns out to be, not Indian as the stereotype may suggest, but in fact a British gentleman.

Over the months, while the rest of us have made goof ups, his messes have been of exemplary (yet always polite) fucked-up-edness. Yet he has managed to slip under the radar and deflect most of the blame upon us.

I don't think any of us on the crew is particularly thirsty for revenge from British imperialists or has a Tharoorian hankering for payback for the centuries of physical & psychological violence, thievery and plunder they inflicted on our people. For most of us patriotism is reserved for cricket matches or grumbling in long immigration lines at Western airports.

But there is a moment, nestled between the volley of angry emails going back and forth between Delhi, London and Singapore, where the forces of history collide and the man's incompetence is finally brought to light, less than a week before broadcast on August 15th. He gets his comeuppance. And from the most atavistic (albeit immature) depths of this Indian woman, cc'd in on every blame-bomb, emerges: a vengeful giggle.

Peace be upon us brownies. Happy independence day.
Brownies on Elephants circa 1930: Pretending they own Stuff & Freedom

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Little Sandhya is four and barely taller than the tables of the Reading Room, where she has been making a drawing for the last 20 minutes.
Now, volunteers are telling her it’s 6pm. Time to wrap up. But Sandhya’s not going to leave without signing her name on her masterpiece – a hut and mountains, with a shy sun peeping through.
A volunteer steps in to write her name but Sandhya’s not having any of that. “Mai khud likhoongi” – I will spell it myself.
Alright, says the volunteer, go ahead (it may be pertinent to note the hint of scepticism the volunteer feels, looking at this wisp of a child).


The volunteer is impressed (and not a little bit ashamed of her earlier skepticism). The four year old has got it almost right and her mistakes are delightfully on point.
A ‘b’, which is nothing, if not an inverted ‘d’.
And ‘g’, which let’s face it, sounds a lot like ‘d’.
As the volunteer corrects Sandhya’s spelling, the child leans in with full concentration and one knows, in that very moment, who is learning from whom.

There is a wonderful program - no, a growing library movement - that's bringing the joy of language, literature and expression to kids that may otherwise not get that learning in their early lives. If you are in Delhi and would like to see, volunteer, donate, read or even be hall monitor for a day, reach out to the good folks at Deepalaya Community Library Project.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Cultural Imperative Song

You should get married.
You're 36 you should get married.
You're overweight you should get married.
You can barely make rent you should get married.
Your job is stressful you should get married.
You have subclinical hypothyroidism you should get married.
Kashmir, Palestine, Yemen, Syria you should get married.
You burned the dal you should get married.
Your parents are going to die one day you should get married.
Your friends' marriages are in trouble you should get married.
People will think you're a lesbian you should get married.
You won't be guaranteed happiness but you should get married.
The share market is falling you should get married.
That'll be Rs.500 you should get married.

You're married you should have babies.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Playing Dice

I was raised by a man, whose love translated into elaborate soliloquies on physics and the wonders of the material world. As kids, we were initiated into Newtonian mechanics, the idea of multiple dimensions beyond our conception and the Einsteinian insistence that God “does not play dice”.

Strict causality was my father’s life philosophy. He imparted it to us via physics and through his deep suspicion of ‘randomness’. A+B must always lead to C. It couldn’t, for example, result in ‘oooo what a pretty flower’. His world was – and is – ordered into neat little compartments, each one precisely labelled according to content and function.

Growing up in this ethos, I too acquired a Newtonian outlook on life. And like this brand of physics, the rules seemed to work in my context, keeping my surroundings functional. There was great comfort in knowing that things follow from what came before, that every action had a specific consequence and that one could predict outcomes rather confidently. But I never learnt about the realm where these rules fall apart.

My father never taught me about quantum theory. I would see the Feynman Lectures on his bedside table but was never initiated into what it was all about. I learnt about Bohr and Heisenberg in school but never had a sense of what their theories implied in a larger sense. The grounding I had in classical, deterministic science was never shaken by the new consciousness of an unpredictable universe. Nor did it occur to me to wonder why my father left out such an essential chapter in the history of physics.

It is only now as I sit in my own home, separate from my father’s that I conjecture why that is. I wake up every morning in a panic, with every muscle in my body wound up tight, for reasons I don’t understand. I lie in bed in the pre-dawn hours, trying to dissect this anxiety and shortness of breath. I’m not afraid of ghosts or monsters. I’m not afraid of being single, female and living alone. I’m not afraid of what the world will think of me. I am afraid of something entirely different.

My father and mother were the essential cogs in the wheel of causality that kept my day-to-day existence functional. They were the A+B that allowed my life C to operate with precision and structured consequence. I have enjoyed the freedom that comes from having systems in place, with rules to follow. But at some point I began craving something more.

Now I am in my own home with no one else to set the rules. I have no pre-determined formula, no A+B=C. I can predict nothing beyond what I know of my self and my nature. The world I live in now is fraught with randomness and for the first time I begin to guess why my father never taught me quantum theory.

It was perhaps about fear and the unknown realm of worst-case scenarios. The terror of knowing you are at the vortex of all things uncertain. That bad things happen to good people and things go wrong in spite of best intentions.
Because, chance.

I try to breathe through the panic but it doesn’t always work. So last night, I turned to physics again and found this buried in the biography of Albert Einstein – a nugget explaining the shattering idea of uncertainty in the quantum world:

It is impossible to know, Heisenberg declared, the precise position of a particle, such as a moving electron, and its precise momentum (its velocity times its mass) at the same instant. The more precisely the position of the particle is measured, the less precisely it is possible to measure its momentum…
…The very act of observing something... affects the observation. But Heisenberg’s theory went beyond that. An electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it. This is a feature of our universe, he said, not merely some defect in our observing or measuring abilities.
The uncertainty principle, so simple and yet so startling, was a stake in the heart of classical physics. It asserts that there is no objective reality – not even an objective position of a particle – outside of our observations.”

I allow this theory into me, not how a physicist might approve, but as the daughter of my father. I allow Heisenberg’s theory to show me a path out of panic to a place where chance is not necessarily a bad word.

In this world that I build, observation, or the way we are compelled to look at things around us, determines their nature. Just by our seeing, they acquire shape and form. Perhaps there is an objective reality somewhere out there – but I can’t reach it today. Neither could my father.
Perhaps we never needed to. Because what we missed was more relevant: the factor of our influence and the awareness that our personal power can impart to an idea, its reality.

The next time I meet my father I might ask him why he never told me the full version of the anecdote. Did he know it at all? Did he choose not to tell me? Or was it something he simply could not comprehend?
When Einstein said that God did not play dice, why did my father not tell me of Niels Bohr’s reply?
“Einstein, don't tell God what to do.”


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Make It Count

Big horror happens and we reel from the impact. Or we think we do.
We believe our hearts bleed so much for those who suffer that we can't wholly comprehend it.
We allow the terrible events unfolding outside to make us feel safe and grateful on the inside.

We tweet, blog and weep in our private corners.
Our sympathies are real, they express solidarity with an honesty of intention that eases our own anxieties just a little bit.
Nothing can help, even the tiniest thing helps.
How do we make sense of it all? What can we do?

We cling to hashtags and social media outpourings. Against our best instincts we look and re-look at photographs. We read and re-read grisly testimonies.

But how do we make it count?
Last evening, I fell asleep with the heavy knowledge of what happened in Peshawar, of what takes place every day in Syria, Iraq, Kashmir, Manipur, my own hometown of Delhi and too many other places on this planet. I wondered what I could do to make the horrific knowledge count.

The only answer I could come up with was to wake up.
To not make it about things that happened Over There but wake up to what I am complicit in Over Here.
Every moment that I am intolerant, or so wounded that I lose the ability to empathize.
Every time I see a child, a grown up or an animal in distress and do nothing.
Every time I allow injustice to happen in front of my eyes - no matter how tiny or how big.
Every time I am blind to injustice because my privilege allows me to be.
Every time I choose my comfort over doing what my heart knows is the right thing - I am complicit.

We wonder how men can look into the eyes of an innocent child and shoot point blank.
We must also wonder how we look at a shivering beggar child at a traffic stop and roll up our windows.
We wonder what makes people so ruthless they can set fire to a teacher in front of her students.
We must also then wonder what allows us to look away when we see a woman being molested in broad daylight.
These horrors are not equivalent, I know, but it is where we can begin to make them count.
Otherwise it's all empty, like a headline, a status update or a hashtag.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Short Story

Prime Time
The sweaty newsman adjusts ever so slightly before returning his swiveled gaze to the guest. He clears his throat and tries again:
“Until as recently as last year, the Party had no presence in the northern states. Now, of course, the story is very different. It’s projected to take nearly 60% of the seats. And they’re saying…Shardaben, they’re saying this remarkable turnaround is largely thanks to you.”
“Yes. It’s true that we are in a strong position in the states you mentioned. But you have made an inaccurate and inadequate assessment of its precipitating reasons.”
“Really? Word on the campaign trail is that ‘Shardaben is ruthless’.”
Her face breaks its inertness. A smile stretches out her lips but its ambitions are cut short before it can reach the eyes:
“Well, Surjeetji, you are not entirely wrong. When it comes to the Party’s interests, yes, I am ruthless.”
Shardaben is a simple woman. She may have risen up the rungs of power but she lives close to the ground. A single bed & bath arrangement suffices, with a kitchen, where no home-cooked meal has been made in a very long time. She’s happy with whatever she’s offered on the road, while campaigning from village to village. It’s no false humility. It’s how the Party has trained her from when she was 14.
Lately, she’s been thinking a lot about the early days, when her father sent her off to the Party’s training camp. “Let your loud mouth be someone else’s problem now.” Within her first week in residence, she’d picked an argument with a team leader ten years her senior. Unlike him, she believed that technology and tradition didn’t have to be at odds. But those were the days before computers, when television was just a string of movie songs, sandwiched between news of what the Prime Minister had eaten for lunch that day. Simpler times, yes, but she’d always been prescient about the age to come. And although some in the Party will snigger about the reasons for her success, it was this prescience that attracted the attention of Sardar.
Vallabhbhai Dalal – ‘Sardar’ to Party insiders and over-familiar journos – recognized her opinions for what they were. Brave, not brazen. He’d approached her nearly 15 years ago, after the opening session of the Party’s annual sit-down. She’d been relegated to maintaining the Party blog. He happened to be one of her few readers.
Sampath hands her the phone as she rushes out from the schoolhouse, where she’s just ended a village meeting. She slips into the comfort of the air-conditioned car just as Sardar’s commanding voice greets her. He asks her for a recap of the meeting, she makes it quick. She can tell there’s other business he’s called for.
“Yes. It’s going well, teams are doing well here…Tomorrow? But Sardar I don’t think they can manage alo--…yes, yes. I understand…Of course, I’ll be there.”
Sampath is already sweeping his hand across the excel sheet before him. In the next ten seconds, she’s going to ask him to squeeze a trip to Delhi into a schedule that has no squeezing room left. But he will get it done somehow, with a fearsome combination of efficiency and devotion. He has never known anyone like her. He has watched her – always from two paces behind – as she’s charmed the Youth Party into allegiance, wheedled with Party seniors, cajoled industry leaders and torn down detractors with a singular, fell swoop. Every time men have tried to fence her in, she’s broken through. Perhaps, he thinks, because her anger looks like no one else’s. In all his years as her shadow, he has never understood all of her.
“Yes Deviji”
“Leave Giridhar in charge here for the next few days.”
“Yes Deviji.”
“Delhi tomorrow.”
Delhi changed everything. Rather, the prospect of Delhi changed everything. Till date, she doesn’t know exactly when Sardar’s ambitions took root, but two years ago he began to speak of expanding the state model to a national one. And then one day, he called her into his office and told her: CM Dalal to PM Dalal. Would she lead his campaign? It wouldn’t be easy. There was a lot of ground to cover in an incredibly short time. In a Party full of dinosaurs, only she understood that this war would be fought on a completely different battlefield.
The early morning car ride through Delhi’s crisp hot heat gets her blood going. While she has enjoyed being a big fish in the mid-sized pond of state-level politics, Delhi is an ocean and she can’t wait to swim in its deep waters. No pond scum here, just sharks.
She closes her eyes and wonders what Sardar could want so urgently. She knows that when she reaches the Party headquarters, he will already be surrounded by a hungry group of hangers-on (she despises these new weeds that have sprouted up overnight). She also knows his gaze will slice through the cordon and home in on her as she walks through the door.  He will ask to speak to her alone and the herd will disperse. He will keep it short. In all their years together, they’ve never indulged in closed-door meetings like the kinds that exist in her rivals’ filthy imaginations. Besides, Sardar is not one to lecture endlessly on ideology or governance philosophy. He isn’t here to teach or convert. To be in the same room with him, is to be primed and ready for whatever he throws at you. No meeting between them has ever lasted more than 15 minutes.
Shardaben opens her eyes and looks out the window. As the car zips over a flyover, her gaze falls on the massive billboards that fly past.
Sensua Innerware – Because Only You Know the Real You’.
“What does that even mean?” she wonders. The woman in the advertisement is dressed from head to toe, but coquettishly, in a see-through gown of net. Beneath it, clearly visible, are a satin-lace bra and matching scarlet panties. It’s clever: dress her up just enough to leave her undressed. Shardaben looks away, unconsciously straightening the pleats of her sari. No matter how a woman is clothed, men will always wonder what she looks like unclothed. Even as the billboard falls away, her hands stroke the sari’s starchy fabric imagining what satin-lace would feel like on her fingertips.
Nothing about being banished from home at 14 was easy. But thirty years on, Shardaben knows it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. The Rashtriya Dharmik Sanghatan was no place for a teenage girl and so, she believes, the perfect one. It broke down her ego (‘aham’) but built up her mind (‘buddhi’).
At camp, none of her tantrums or self-important rants were indulged; each one earning her punishments called ‘maun vrats’ or periods of imposed silence that lasted anywhere between an hour to several days. Gradually, she learnt to present ideas respectfully yet with impact, so that people wouldn’t just hear her but actually listen.
The same ideas that had made her, her family’s problem child, were now embraced by the Sanghatan. They were valuable to the Nation, they told her, she was valuable to the Nation. Studying history, geography and literature had never been much fun in school, but here it was all part of a common goal. Every Dharmasevak & Dharmasevika was bound in an unspoken bond of allegiance. It was a lesson she carried with her when she left the Sanghatan to join its more politicized sidekick, the Party.
She would always be grateful to her father. Because this razor-sharp strategist, whose quiet confidence Sardar relies so much on today, was born the day Pitaji abandoned her lost and fuming, at the threshold of the RSD.
Ten minutes later, she walks out of the meeting with Sardar with mixed emotions. The job seems simple but with big ramifications. It’s guaranteed to make her a household name within minutes of prime time broadcast. But, as both she and Sardar know, it could either make her or destroy her.
“You are the Party’s ‘Deviji’,” Sardar had told her, “Now it is time for you to be the Nation’s ‘Mother India’.”
By saying these words, he has placed a huge responsibility in her lap, one she’s not sure she wants. Of course, every Dharmasevika is groomed to be the custodian of traditional values, the erosion of which she has witnessed with silent rage over the last decade. Now Sardar wants her to build a roadmap that will return those values to the Nation. But she’s in two minds. As someone constantly disparaged for breaking convention and trespassing into the territory of men, she questions her suitability for the job.
However, the orders have been given. She asks Sampath to delay her return to the districts. Instead, she will now meet with the more active cadres of the Sanghatan and begin delegating tasks within the Party. Organizing morchas doesn’t happen overnight. There are party workers to be summoned and briefed; there are agendas to be set and messages to be spelt out. There are posters to make, routes to chart and slogans to be engineered. Most importantly, there’s an opponent to be picked.
Kotha No. Chauvan or Brothel No. Fifty-Four has its very own website. Its actual location, though, isn’t as high-tech. It’s a dusty, hastily constructed two-story building that looks eternally stuck in the middle of an earthquake. The girls often joke that if the cops don’t get them, the shaky ceiling beams will. It’s just one of the over hundred establishments in the city’s nefarious red light area but it’s gained quite the reputation.
Shardaben zeroes in on it, when one of her party workers draws attention to the cyber-buzz built around it. The website is blocked by the Party headquarters’ firewalls, but she’s managed to find enough blog posts written by who she imagines are pimply boys holed up in engineering college hostels. Disgusting.
She still marvels at how much public consciousness has changed in just the last 12 months. Forces opposed to the values that made this country great, had steadily gained momentum. It had all come to a head last December, when a dastardly act of violence tipped the scales. A high-caste village panchayat, not far from Delhi, had ordered the rapes of nearly 15-20 women from the lower castes. Call it a sign of the times but, instead of getting lost in the inner pages of the newspaper, the horrific crime hit the headlines. It led to a spontaneous uprising that stretched from north to south & east to west. It spread from villages and small towns to first tier cities and big metros. Young, old, rich, poor - in the months following the incident, everyone joined in demanding an end to the toxic systems that the Nation was founded on. It was an unprecedented display of anger that even Shardaben, famed for having her finger on the pulse of the public, had not anticipated.
It ripped apart the Party. How could it hold on to the beliefs planted by the Sanghatan, when citizens were questioning their very relevance in the 21st century? Only Sardar was able to straddle the two worlds and bring order to the chaos. ‘The nation Vs. the Nation’ he tweeted, ‘We must not lose.’  Shardaben had been struck by his clear vision. That day she picked a side and hadn’t swerved since.
“Sampathbhai, take note. Distribute the details of this location to the workers. I will speak to them myself in the evening.”
“Yes, Deviji.”
 “And call the networks and tell them – Day after. 3 pm.”
“5pm will be better for them, Deviji.”
“5pm, then.”
“Yes, Deviji.”
At 3pm on the appointed date, nearly 200 protesters armed with sticks, bricks and inflamed passions assemble silently, a few buildings down from Kotha No. Chauvan. Work hours are just beginning, so Shardaben is sure they’ll be heard loud & clear.
At 4.30pm, the camera vans arrive, crews pouring out and positioning themselves across the street from Kotha No. Chauvan.
By 7pm, there is no Kotha No. Chauvan left. It’s no longer perpetually mid-quake and has reached its logical conclusion. The mob has reduced the building to shambles and its inhabitants to tears.
At 7.15 pm, still throbbing from the excitement of what she has effected, Shardaben gives an impassioned speech to her mob of marauders. It’s a call to restore the Nation’s modesty to the bosom of its women and to ensure there’s no room left for anyone who insists on infiltrating with immoral ways.
By 8pm, every major news broadcaster is ready to air the clip as breaking news.
But Shardaben never quite makes it to prime time in the way she’d hoped.
Because at 8.30pm, just as she’s bidding her troops goodbye and getting into her car, the enraged madam of Kotha No. Chauvan throws a pair of bright scarlet, satin-lace panties straight at her. The ever-vigilant cameras pick up the precise moment the panties land on Shardaben’s face and immediately uplink it to their studios.
By 10pm that night, Shardaben’s tryst with destiny has become a continuous loop of humiliation, with the excruciating visual flashed repeatedly on every news channel in the land: A face embossed in scarlet satin-lace, with pointed nose and agape mouth clearly visible through the silky soft fabric.
In the days that follow, Shardaben retreats from public glare. The last time she visits the Party headquarters embarrassed silences greet her. No doubt there are wisecracks too, but she doesn’t slow down long enough to catch them. Sardar continues to maintain his deep respect for her but asks her to step back from the campaign. “I have faith in you, Deviji, but the Party cannot afford another misstep at this stage. I don’t need to tell you that the media is ruthless.”
Lying low in the Party reminds her of ‘maun vrats’ in the Sanghatan. So she returns to her single bed & bath arrangement and tries to settle back in. Only Sampath visits her now. He doesn’t have much to say but he often presses her legs just like he did in those long campaign days. On the really bad days, when she shuts her eyes and refuses to speak, he talks about how she will rise up again, his own strong hands rising higher & higher up her, until her breath quickens and she lets out a deep & tortured gasp.
What Sampath doesn’t know is that sometimes on such days, she grips firmly in her fist, a pair of bright scarlet satin-lace panties.
(May 2014)