Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
Phew! It’s been a hot summer in more ways than one. Besides slurping mangoes and sweating buckets, we Indians actually came out in droves and voted.
We often feel that we are a divided country. We’re just too big, too populated, and too diverse to actually feel like one nation. But this time there was something common amongst all Indians, across the length and breadth of the land. We were all totally fed up with our last Government. Everyone unanimously felt that enough is enough. Now why we were so fed up is another story altogether (more than a story actually, it can form a series of books). But it was a new experience to see everyone throw their vote behind one man. Congress made desperate last-minute barbs by calling him ‘chaiwalla’, and referring to a 56 inch chest, but in the end they had to put their tail between their legs and run for cover, because the people of India gave them a good, solid, well-deserved kick. It feels great that they’ve been squashed (for the present at least), like that lazy, disgusting cockroach that lurks in the corner of your kitchen.
Because of all this polly-tickle tamasha, one watches a lot of news these days. You can’t see a minute of news without hearing the name ‘Modi’. It’s the most used word after the phrase ‘India needs an answer’. If someone actually did a statistical tally, the word ‘modi’ would be occurring at the frequency of one per minute at a bare minimum, and even going up to twenty-seven per minute on a good day. Because even when people are not talking about Modi, they are talking about Modi. You can’t discuss anything without his name popping up. Government, corruption, dhoklas, Gujarat, Hindus, Muslims, kurtas, puppies, and everything connects to Modi somehow. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for become Brand No. 1. During the last six months or so, family/friends get-togethers could not proceed as normal. The room would be firmly divided into pro-Modi and anti-Modi factions. Everyone would be shouting their opinion without hearing anothers’. Each camp is firmly entrenched in its belief, and it’s impossible to budge them either way. There are spouses, siblings, parents and kids who don’t see eye-to-eye on this.
But we forget an important thing. We have to thank the Congress party. Why? If they hadn’t put up a goofy like RaGa, who knows, they might have got a bigger majority, and would not be shaking in their shoes today. Imagine if they had a smart, shrewd, capable leader. It would be terrible, because they might continue in power for the next sixty years, reducing India to pulp. Their miserable governance actually united this country, which otherwise can’t agree on which MDH masala is best.
As citizens of this great nation, there are several cards that are essential to our existence. Yes, you heard right—cards. These harmless little laminated pieces of paper, generously stamped by the Government and decorated with illegible signatures are our lifeblood. You aren’t truly an Indian until you have a bunch of these cards, squirrelled away somewhere.
Take that grand old patriarch of cards, known as the ‘ration card’. This has been around for decades. Are you likely to buy rice or dal at subsidised rates? I thought not. This little booklet doubles up as a proof of residence and practically a proof of citizenship, for when you need to acquire other cards and add them to your ever-growing collection. It is nearly impossible to get your own ration card. I was told by a helpful tout that my name must exist on my parent’s card, and it could only be transferred from there to a new card. Like blue blood, ration cards move from one generation to the next. Unlike blue blood, the transfer would come at a cost, said aforementioned tout, eyeing me greedily.
Consider the humble driving license, another innocent looking thing. Traffic police threaten to confiscate it if you get caught. Friends double up laughing when they see your photograph on it. Thus, it provides power for some and entertainment for others. To attain a driver’s license you should know how to drive. That is the general assumption people make, and it is wrong. Is the ration card used for ration? No. In a similar manner, the license is not proof of your driving skills. Many people possessing driving licenses do not know how to park, and why should they, when the license has much more important functions? It acts as proof of your residence (again) and identity (inspite of the hilarious picture where you resemble a tomato) when you want to apply for Passport, PAN card, Election card, open a bank account, close a bank account, board a domestic flight, prove your identity to a train ticket collector, and so on.
So once I was the proud owner of a driving license I decided to put my license to better use. I would get my Voter ID card, or Election card, or whatever they call the blasted thing these days. This is a precious one. If you possess it, hang on to it. At this time of year everyone is turning his or her cupboard and wallet upside down hunting it down. First-time voters like myself are trudging miles in the heat trying to track down where their card is. This is the card that connects you and me, normal, unimportant people, to the Prime Minister himself (or herself). This card can change our future (or so we believe). This card will improve our lives (that’s what we tell ourselves). My spouse and I are running from pillar to post, but the card is a coy damsel, dodging us at every turn. Still, we have to thank it for getting us into shape with all that chasing, as well as developing our Buddha-like patience.
Let’s not hurt the sentiments of numerous other Indian cards by ignoring them. The PAN card is the easiest, friendliest one of the lot. The Gas Cylinder Card is again a very important creature in the card ecosystem. Housewives value it more than oxygen, and with good reason. For who even breathes real oxygen these days, with all the pollution around us? LPG gas is something we can’t live without, for our rozi roti depends on it. Have you seen a household without a gas cylinder? It’s usually falling apart in chaos. For a short while the Gas Card was hitched with that new kid on the block, the Aadhar Card. This made us all run around like headless chickens. But now that the two cards have got divorced, we’re all breathing easy again.
I hear you ask, why was I seeking a ration card to begin with? Well, let me explain. To provide proof of residence for my learner’s license, which would lead to the driver’s license, which could be used as proof to get an Election Card, which I could vote with to change the government which has created this system, and usher in a new government with their own new crazy system for us to adjust to all over again.
One of the greatest inventions of tropical countries is the afternoon nap, or siesta. The nap has always had a grand tradition in our own country, and with good reason. After a hot, humid morning in front of our computers, or at our desks, we desperately need some shut-eye, so we can spend the rest of the day once again staring at the computer screen. While the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru have forgotten this noble habit, the nap is still kept alive and kicking (or shall we say, snoring?) in the smaller cities and towns such as Pune, Mysore, Ahmedabad, Surat, and of course in the hill-stations as well. Here, the shop shutters come cranking down by 2 pm latest. The shop owner will gleefully inform you, “Madam, ab toh band hai. Panch baje khulega.” You may grimace, stamp your feet and curse but to little effect. The afternoon nap is as sacred as the morning puja.
Nowadays, there are extremely annoying nap-killers. The biggest one is the courier man. Once in a blue moon you get a free afternoon to yourself at home. It’s a lazy Saturday. A heavy lunch sits comfortably in your tummy. The bed beckons. You’ve just laid your head on the pillow, your eyelids drooping, your mind sliding into la-la land, your toes snug under the blanket, when TINGTONG! The bell will scream with mind-numbing shrillness, shattering your last shred of sanity. With utmost difficulty you crawl out of bed, drag yourself to the door on all fours, just about manage to stand, and open it. There stands a grinning beast, wide-awake at the unearthly hour of 3 pm, holding your envelope. He greets you with, “Sign please!” while you dream of greeting him with a heavy object over his head. You scrawl some illegible signature, write down any random phone number that enters your half-dead head, and crawl back into bed. But now, the moment has been soured. Sleep eludes you, and you realize you may as well make yourself a cup of tea.
There are other, smaller nap-killers as well. The street dogs, who come to life at precisely 3 pm and 3 am everyday. These creatures have an inbuilt alarm clock that lets out a volley of barks. Then there’s a neighbour’s wailing baby. And yet another neighbour’s ambition to drill walls, cut tiles and hammer nails only in the middle of the afternoon. There are the teenagers on the sixth floor who fancy themselves Aerosmith and practice the electric guitar with admirable dedication and alarming tone-deafness.
Another nap-killer is the modern Indian mall. These urban monsters spring up in every neighbourhood, and stay open morning to night, ruining age-old good habits like napping. People who would have been dreaming between the sheets are now marching around in circles staring at shops. What a waste of a perfectly good afternoon. Afternoon naps have been known to have real health benefits, increase productivity, and better the mood. These nap-killers have no sense of responsibility. Hopefully, the next political party that rules India will have afternoon-naps high on their agenda. It will be discussed in Parliament and the Nap Bill will be passed, that will ensure the protection and enforcement of the Humble Afternoon Nap.
Today I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. A lovely, moving film, based on a short story by James Thurber. It touches many topics, directly and indirectly. Millions of people spend their lives behind a desk, never striking out on their own, never taking a risk, living lives of soul-crushing anonymity. But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. No ma’am. The movie shows the death the printed version of Life magazine. From Life in paper, it becomes Life dot com. Behind that not-so-smooth transition, many lives (pun unintended) are turned upside down by the heartless, relentless march of technology. It takes many people to make a magazine, or for that matter, any published material. Most people never understand the pain, handwork and joy that go into creating something, especially something that will be printed. Because print has an air of finality. It can’t be coded to make a correction later. There is no option to upload a new file. Written in ink equals written in stone.
Because of print’s highly demanding nature, there are many different people, each a vital performer, involved in the art of printing and publishing. Did you ever guess that there is someone like Walter Mitty, sitting in his dark room of negatives, sifting through hundreds of little images? He knows them like old friends. There is someone who colour corrects, sharpens and touches up every single image you see in any publication worth its ink. There is someone who composes the pages for print on the offset machine. Each of these people are small cogs in the larger machine. Individuals with expert, specialised knowledge. Unless you work directly with them, there is no access to that amazing tradition and well of knowledge. They never get much credit. The magazine always stands between them and the viewer, like a wall.
I’m not bemoaning the rise of digital media, far from it. I love the internet, and all the information, entertainment and cat videos it houses. I’m only wondering if we are losing a entire generation of people, and with them, the knowledge and skill they had, for all time. That knowledge is of no use to us, for sure, but their stories deserve to be told. Walter Mitty tells us one such story. You can see Life online, with more photographs than ever before. But if you hold a Life magazine in your hands, you will see so much more. Behind each image, you can see a quiet person, staring at photographs for hours, checking their quality, so that you gasp wow!, and turn the page.
Jaipur is one of India's most historic cities. Amer Fort is a fabulous place to visit, and the old Pink City is fascinating. There are so many forts and palaces of India that leave one speechless. One can imagine what a rich country India must have been, not just financially, but artistically. It's a pity most modern urban architecture has lost these artistic sensibilities, and also the very useful practice of using materials that work for the climate, instead of against it.
At Amer Fort one can walk, ride on an elephant, or drive up to the fort itself. I highly recommend walking, as it gives you a chance to truly admire the place. Watch out for elephants showering you with their sneezes!
Some interesting films came out of India, back in the day of one national TV channel. Whatever your age, you'll never grow tired of watching these. The last one, 'I Am 20', shows how much has changed, and at the same time, how little has changed.
The last few months have been particularly adrenaline-pumping. I finally learnt to drive. Forget bungee-jumping, driving is the best way to keep all senses on high alert. I went to a driving school for a few weeks. Then I took our own Maruti 800 for a spin. All went well till I tried to park it back in its stable. I drove into a wall. Although it was slow, and the faithful steed was unhurt, it is slightly traumatic to be responsible for such things. So, I took a few extra driving classes from one of the instructors of the driving school. To protect his identity (since he is not supposed to take extra classes independently) we will call him Mr G.
Mr. G is a saint among the driving teachers of the world. Teaching is truly an art, and he has mastered it. Ironically, when he drives the car himself, he is quite rash. But when he teaches, he calms the nerves and unruffles ruffled feathers. Nothing fazes him, and his patience knows no limits. Golden words he frequently repeats while driving are:
"Aaram se jaao. Sabko jaane do." When you're learning driving, you need to hear this every five minutes.
"Brake frequently, accelerate occasionally." Opposite of most of the population. It's completely fine to fall back in traffic and let everyone overtake. They're in such a crashing hurry, yet they will be next to you again at the next signal.
"Left lane mein raho." Let all the honking Audis and screeching Sumos whiz past unhindered. Of course sometimes, the left lane is very perilous. There will be numerous cyclists and two-wheelers flitting about like annoying mosquitos, there will be massive vehicles coming full-speed on the wrong side of the road. And they will glare at you as if you are wrong.
"Clutch ko pyaar se chodna." Now if you've never driven a Maruti 800, you have no idea how sensitive a clutch can be. It's a temperamental damsel. Leave it too quickly, and it will just ditch you completely, make the engine die, and leave you frantically re-starting your car while the world honks madly. Don't press it hard enough, and the gear-box won't co-operate.
"Foot on break." This is a real pearl. Twice, I accidentally touched the accelerator instead of the brake. It's enough to add a few grey hairs on your head. As well as scare the crap out of others.
"Always watch the signal, not the traffic." In Pune, it's so common for people to break a red signal that if you stop, you're treated like an idiot.
"Night-driving main bahut careful rehana." After sunset, people go mad on the road. They are more rash, more aggressive, more death-defying. Add to this badly lit roads, and vehicles without proper lights, and you have a lethal cocktail. But Darwin was right, we humans adapt and evolve very fast. After five minutes of night-driving my bat vision instantly developed into cat vision.
"Driving main foresight chahiye." Schumacher could not have put it better himself. You have to anticipate that the crazy bus-driver is going to cut you sharply, the trucker is going to brake suddenly, the rickshaw guy is going overtake from the left and then turn right, the clueless pedestrian is going to saunter across the road, the Swift is going to try to race you, the SUV is going to bulldoze you, and everyone is going to give you that utterly scornful look of 'pathetic learner!'
"Tension nahin lene ka." Best advice in the world when you're sweating buckets, struggling to get into first gear after braking suddenly to avoid killing that old lady crossing, while a rickshawalla yells at you in Marathi.
Now I've never been a hard-core Tarantino fan. I've seen Pulp Fiction, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've watched bits and pieces of both Kill Bills, wincing as blood flew. But his last two movies have been wonderful, perfect movie-watching experiences. The one that really made me a fan is of course, that glorious piece of film-making called Inglorious Basterds. From the opening scene, it gets you in it's grip, and it doesn't let you go. It's story is perfect, and more importantly, it's perfectly told. QT knows what to tell you, what to show you, and when to show it to you.
Many people don't like Tarantino films because of their graphic violence. Indeed, they are not for the faint-hearted. If bullets and blood flying, people getting their genitals blown to bits, and dogs tearing people apart is not your cup of tea, don't venture into this territory. You've been warned. I'm not a fan of extreme violence. But I didn't seem to mind it in these movies. It's the tale of revenge, the story of how the oppressed rises up one day, and gives it back to the oppressor, it's the underdog becoming top-dog, and it leaves the audience cheering for more.
The best part is, it's not the scenes of violence that really stay with you. It's the other, far more subtle things that get stuck in your head. One of the best scenes in Inglorious Basterds is when Shoshanna, meets Colonel Hans Landa in the Nazi officers club, for the first time since he shot her family to pieces. Inglorious Basterds unfolds like a book, slowly, revealing a complex plot. At the end of the movie you are left wishing something like that really happened in World War 2.
Django Unchained is set in America before the civil war. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, it's plot and story is very simple and straightforward. Perhaps for this reason, some people may not like it, but this is it's chief charm. Django may have a simple story, but it makes up in the richness of its characters. They are endlessly entertaining. They are human, there is something that breaks each of them at different points. There are some traumatic scenes of violence such as a horrendous wrestling match, dogs tearing a slave to pieces, and other such scenes. But there are some remarkable moments. One is when Django's wife is brought out of the hot-box, where she has been kept as punishment for trying to run away. You will rarely see a film showing a naked, shamed woman, without showing nakedness or shame. Somehow, QT masters it. There is the terrible moment when the hot-box is opened, water is thrown on her, and several white men pull her out, and literally man-handle her. This could have been a very ugly scene, but it is heart-wrenching without being explicit. It shows the cruelty, but it handles it sensitively.
Another fantastic moment comes towards the end. Dr Shultz (Christof Waltz) is haunted by the scenes of the slave being torn to pieces by dogs. Until there he has maintained his strength, but suddenly, one senses the cracks appearing in his calm state of mind. He seems a character who can absorb many disturbing things, and he himself kills people without qualms, but this experience shatters something deep within him, and unravels him. If there is that one moment in life when someone can't take something anymore, this is it for him. It's a very telling moment. The audience knows that something in him has changed, and he is going to do something extreme, or crazy, but you just don't know what.
It's easy to underestimate the acting talent of Jamie Foxx, because he is a man of few words in this film. But as you watch the entire film, he communicates volumes without words. Experiences have toughed him up, but they haven't made him inhuman. He's a simple man, with a simple mission. His greatest strength is he learns fast. His greatest weakness is his love for Hildi, his wife. He can bear anything, but Hildi is his Achilles' heel. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect, charming, funny, kind but with a hard, cruel, hypocritical and almost psychotic core. His character is unveiled beautifully. Initially, you like him. He charms. Slowly, you fear and dread him. His unpredictability leaves one on the edge of the seat. Samuel L Jackson is brilliant as the faithful slave, serving a family since generations. He is so identified with his role of the servant, that he cannot believe that any black person can be anything else. He is the most annoying, cloying, racist person in the movie.
Of course, Christof Waltz takes the cake, as he does in Inglorious Basterds. In both these movies he is a ruthless killer, who is delightfully cheerful and practical about his work. But in Django, he is a softer, more interesting, more nuanced character. He is the most likeable, pragmatic, person, who takes life with a pinch of salt. If one wanted a traveling companion, one really couldn't ask for a better one. He is honest, brutal, and takes things as they come. Most enjoyable, even strangely touching, is the way he takes Django under his wing. Theirs seems like an unlikely partnership. But it's the best there is. It broke my heart when they killed him. I think I could have accepted Django' death easier than his. But it was a good ending.
Most amazingly well shown is the attitude that QT exposes, through the dialogues, the brilliant screenplay. The attitude that any oppressor has, he feels justified in his actions. He genuinely believes it is his birthright to oppress, to rule, to own. This belief is so strong, that even the oppressed believe it blindly. They deeply resent anyone who upsets this balance. Samuel L Jackson brings this to life. Black slaves resent a black man who is free, and who rides a horse alongside the white men.