Category Archives: The India Diary

Desires of the undesired

I watched Margarita With A Straw last night, and it’s still on my mind. Most frequent moviegoers will acknowledge that that is quite a rarity in today’s times. Margarita is beautiful. It is the story of a girl with cerebral palsy, and her experiences as she explores her sexual desires. It is natural, understated and heartfelt. At the center of the film is Kalki Koechlin, who shines like a thousand stars in the role of Laila. Laila, who is restricted to her wheelchair and has speech impairments, is out there. She’s in Delhi University, she’s in New York University, she’s doing a creative writing program, she’s hitting on men, she’s dancing with her family and in a NYC club, and she’s also dealing with layered relationships – with her caring parents who get a little overprotective at times (for good reason), with her friends, with her crushes, with her partner. Sounds familiar? Absolutely! It’s about what you, I and everyone “like us” go through. We’re just able to enunciate our sounds better and walk on our feet.

Margarita, apart from being an endearing work of art, is also important in many different contexts. First, while its protagonist is physically challenged, the movie treats that as a fact and as a backdrop. There have been good films in India about physically and mentally challenged individuals – Gulzar’s Koshish back in the 1970s explored the marriage of two deaf-and-mute people; Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was a take on the travails of a child with dyslexia; Bhansali’s Black was about a girl who was blind, deaf and mute. All of these were beautiful movies and important in their own right. But they were essentially about the disability of the protagonist. The disability wasn’t a mere backdrop, it was the story. Margarita, on the other hand, has a most natural way of dealing with the disability. The fact that Laila goes to class every day on a wheelchair, or she makes music and performs in concerts, or the fact that it does not take a lengthy dramatic scene between her parents to decide that she will go to NYU – all of these could be happening in any home. The adjustments her limitations call for – such as her father driving a Matador van that can hold her wheelchair, the peons carrying her up a staircase when the elevator stops working, are also weaved in effortlessly, without arousing any sympathy in the audience, and yet presenting an alternative way of life.

Second, Margarita is about sex and sexuality – and not in a way that most Indian movies understand those subjects. There are no full-busted women coming out of water, or hot men doing peekaboo of butt-cracks. It breaks paradigms all over the place – a girl, a physically-challenged girl at that, is attracted to men and women along the way, and explores that side of her. In a country and an industry where the concepts of sex, women, and homo/bisexuality are bigoted and convoluted, Margarita is the most human telling of this undeniable emotion that makes us living things.

Third, Margarita is important because, yet again, it has proven that good cinema does not need male superstars. In recent years, Bollywood’s women have taken it upon themselves (of course backed by a small bunch of great directors and writers) to cleanse the stinking industry, that sees disgustingly artless and regressive movies starring 50-something actors in 20-something roles make Rs.100 crores in opening weekends. Movies such as English Vinglish, Queen, Kahaani, Lootera, Highway, NH10, Mary Kom and now Margarita will change that slowly and steadily. If this trend continues, in five years’ time, we may be able to get rid of the senior citizen brigade thriving on teenage buffoonery. Hopefully, the girls will also serve as a lesson for the new boys (Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, etc).

English Vinglish Movie Stills

queen nh10

Last but not the least, Margarita is important because it will do well internationally. It will win prizes, be screened at film festivals, and be talked about. It will finally present India as a place where specially-abled people CAN go to college, CAN have friends, CAN have supportive parents. It will also open up to the world a country of understanding fathers and male friends, empowered women making their own decisions, and a sensitive and cultured society. Of late, India has been in the international news for its crime against women, attacks against minorities, and culture policing. This film will work as one of the many little things that will reveal another side of India. We may not want a Western stamp of approval on everything we do, but that does not mean we would like to be known to the world as barbaric and criminal. The American boy in the film asks Laila – do I have to marry you if I kiss you? We’ve all had to answer such idiotic questions – a Dutch professor once asked me in the middle of a viva voce if I was treated specially in India because my surname signified my ancestors were priests. Hopefully, with the likes of Margarita, we can do away such eye-roll moments.

One last thing – superlative works of art always remind us of other good works. I’d like to mention two here. One is the film Amu, made by the same filmmaker as Margarita. I don’t think it got a big release back then, and many might have missed it then. Do watch. The other is a book called Trying To Grow by Firdaus Kanga, that is a beautiful autobiographical account of a physically-challenged boy growing up and exploring his sexual preferences within the confines of a Parsee family in Bombay. It isn’t that readily available. I had read an excerpt of it, and had placed an order for the book at Singapore’s National Library. They promptly got it for me. Even today, it costs a bomb on Amazon, or is only available as used copies. It is imperative that we preserve such alternative literature. This one already seems to be hitting oblivion. But times have changed. Margarita will stay and be remembered for a long time to come.

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There is nothing cute about Mumbai locals

A recent short video on Mumbai’s local trains has been doing the rounds, with people sharing and re-sharing the video to celebrate the “spirit” of Mumbai. The video shows people running, pushing, pulling, shoving, hitting to get on local trains. It goes on to portray several emotions of people traveling by train, and finally ends with a catchy alliteration of a tagline – Struggle. Survive. Succeed. The aesthetic train beats and spurts of Indian music render the video a sleek cinematic quality, and manages to make the viewer feel upbeat about local train travel. If you’re wondering what to make of it, this blurb on helps you decode the message:

This short film … beautifully captures the spirit of Mumbai & provokes us to wonder, What can the city of Mumbai teach us? The answer is eloquently portrayed that without struggle there is no success. What an amazing thought to start each day with!”

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14th July 2013 marked the last day of the telegram in India, a 163-year-old service known for its speed and brevity back in the day. Thousands of people must have been intimated of the news and happenings that may have changed their lives. News of births and deaths, acquisitions and losses, prosperity and destruction, countries becoming independent and being divided into two – events that shaped history and decided destinies must have been reported in short sentences punctuated by “stops”, quite literally.

As the telegram service came to its end, newspapers and social media went berserk announcing it. People, who are usually quite exhausted by the endless queues in India, voluntarily stood in line to send their last telegrams, however redundant they might have been. From the telegraph office in Mumbai, more than 3,000 telegrams were sent on the last day! And when the staff member announced the closure of the service at the end of the day, she broke into tears.

Is it not true then that as much as we applaud our progress in technology and services and ease of living, we still crave times when life was simpler? Or maybe it is because these are symbols of our childhood, of our years gone by, embossed with fond memories, only to be reminisced, never to come back again.

While the “death” of the telegram has caused much hue and cry, there are so many other things that have died their slow deaths without ceremony. Maybe because they have been replaced by jazzier substitutes, we do not miss them that often. But when the mind goes back to them now and then (and rarely nowadays), there is undoubtedly an instant tinge of nostalgia in our eyes and a happy smile on our lips. This post is dedicated to a few such symbols of my childhood days.

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The Life and Times Of India

Though turning the pages of the newspaper and poring over every little detail is soon becoming passé (or already has), I continue to do it – yes, and every morning. It is part of my DNA. My parents do it every morning, and that’s what I’ve woken up to since childhood. So, in spite of the deluge of news on the internet, it does not feel like home until I have a newspaper at my doorstep that I can pick up and glance at through sleepy half-open eyelids, then sit down with my cup of coffee in one hand and the paper in the other, and systematically turn the pages to read what I’ve already heard on television the night before.

Reading the newspaper in India is a grim affair. The last thing you want to do first thing in the morning is read about the 16th case of gangrape in Haryana in a month (5th in a week, thanks to our Hindi-heartland brothers who are overwhelmed by their own machismo every single day), Anna Hazare doing cartwheels on Arvind Kejriwal (yes, a most disturbing sight; treat it as a metaphor), massacre of natural resources through one scam after another, political rhetoric, failing infrastructure, the potent rise of the “mob”, baby girls being thrown out of flyovers and smashed against walls, and of course, Kareena Kapoor’s wedding date and Karan Johar’s new man-crush. But ever so often, there are these little news items in one of the nondescript middle pages cozily tucked into one corner not exceeding hundred words, that make the whole Herculean effort worthwhile, and dissipate the pall of gloom, finally adding color to the paper.

No, these are not stories of little children smiling, nor are they stories of the blind playing orchestra, which, by the way, are all very cute and do make you smile. These stories that I refer to now are the quirkiest occurrences that one would only imagine happens in the whackiest of cinema. I have to admit that these are sometimes fatal, and it does take a pretty dark sense of humor to smile at them, to look at the “joke” that is so subtly smeared all over the “fact”. In a bizarre way, these are also stories that one can only think of in India – one of those “it happens only in India” moments. The world is a strange place with strange people doing strange things, and if there were a competition, India would definitely be on the podium, and might I say, would even bag the first place!

So here are five such stories that have made it to this article because they are either very recent or have simply stayed with me due to their sheer oddity. Disclaimer: Not for the cute-seeking or faint-hearted

  • Lady police officer is stationed on Juhu Beach to maintain law and order on the day of Ganesh idol immersion (a day when there are thousands of people on the beach to celebrate the religious ritual). She goes to a public toilet to relieve herself. Someone runs away with her gun. #Faith-in-God-to-watch-over-belongings
  • Man passing through Aarey Colony (a forested area with just one road for traffic to pass through) on a motorcycle. A leopard appears out of the bushes. The man stops the bike. The screeching sound of the brakes is good enough for the leopard to turn around and run for dear life. #Role-reversal
  •  A 20-year-old man living in a Bombay slum decides to sweep the slush caused by the rain the night before out of his tenement. In the process, some of the slush makes its way into the neighbor’s “territory”. The neighbor and his wife (named Anguri – meaning “flavor of grapes”) come down to fight it out. This results in a heated argument. At some point, Anguri decides that the only way to conclude this fight would be to squeeze the man’s testicles. She does just that, and long and hard enough for the man to drop dead on the spot. #Grape-juice-power
  • A couple in Bhubaneshwar go to the zoo for a relaxed stroll in the afternoon. Man and wife have an argument, midway through which man decides enough is enough. Result: he takes off his shirt and trousers and jumps right into the lions’ den. The lions feast on him till the zoo authorities are able to save him. #?-??-???
  • An 18-year-old boy is ditched by his girlfriend. The jilted lover, in his depression, decides to commit suicide. So, bag strapped to his back (possibly with stuff he’d need in the after-life), he walks up a busy flyover to the highest point. He first throws the bag down (yes, the belongings getting There first is very very important). Bag lands on the roof of a car passing on the road below. Driver of the car stops and gets off to inspect the thud. To his utter bewilderment, he finds the man fall on the roof of his car from the flyover with an even greater thud (sorry buddy, bag betrayed). Police arrest man for attempted suicide. Driver sues man for causing dent on car roof.
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Mary Kom Vs India

Everyone in India today knows Mary Kom. I woke up this morning to a full-page coverage of her love and family life on Times Life! (the exclamation point is part of the name of the supplement, it is not my embellishment). On the page are photographs of Mary showing her Olympics bronze medal to her husband Onler Kom, of Mary playing the guitar, and of her holding her son in her arms. I also read recently that a director was making a movie on Mary Kom. Though he claims he has been researching on her for years, “how very convenient”, I found myself thinking, “to announce the film when the country is celebrating her”. Mary Kom is clearly the new Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone, the new girl on the block; and she is probably the first Indian sportswoman to be celebrated and celebritized to this extent in a long time.

And for good reason! She is the most successful woman boxer India has had till date. She is a five-time World Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. She recently won a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. Even when she made it to the semi-finals, India erupted in joy. She was being written about in the papers, talked about on television. Her husband was being interviewed. Even her home state Manipur, a part of the country that does not find much presence in mainstream media, was being covered for the purpose. The only irony here is that Mary Kom systematically debunks every single dominant discourse and stereotype of India. Through her actions and accomplishments, Mary Kom has actually fought against the mores of the very country she hails from and represents.

mary kom

To begin with, Mary Kom is a woman; and yes I know I will be pounced upon for playing this card, but trust me, the “modern Indian woman” is not as liberated as her counterparts in many other countries are or as she would like to believe she is. She is still much more answerable to her immediate family and larger society than her male counterparts are; she still has to deal with immense expectations of managing a home with little (or no) help; she still has to choose a career path that fits into her married and family life; she is still unsafe on the roads and subject to lewd remarks and “elbowing” if not constantly running the risk of rape; she still loses out on promotions and office memos because she does not join her male colleagues for smokes or goes to their drinking binges on Friday nights; she still has to cover her head and sit in the corner as a newly-wedded bride if that is the tradition of her husband’s family (noteworthy because there are no such oppressive traditions for the bridegroom imposed from the girl’s side). Under such circumstances, where Mary Kom is today speaks for the prejudices she has had to fight, the discouragements she has had to take in her stride, the remarks she has had to swallow.

Then, Mary Kom is married and a mother of two – and that is not an easy resume to keep up with for any woman who has made it big in any country, especially in the one that she resides in. Her fight for excellence and her commitment to her sport is as much a struggle against society as against herself. When her twins were born, she took a two-year hiatus and had put on weight. No one in the sports community had expected her to come back to the ring, but she did, and how! For a country that feeds itself every night with ample doses of soap operas in which women wear expensive clothes and jewelry and cut vegetables in the kitchen and quarrel about which shelf belongs to whom, Mary Kom represents the few that are fighting their daily battles to keep their identities alive and build a legacy for themselves. Onler Kom, her husband, is as worthy of credit and an aberration as she is. He is a slap on the face of all those Indian men who reject girls because they are plump or dark, who try to be “progressive” by “allowing” their wives a job in the neighborhood school, who still negotiate the amount of money and jewelry the girl’s parents need to pay for the wedding (and these are the educated forward ones. I am not including the ones getting female fetuses aborted in this conversation).

Finally, Mary Kom is from the North East of India. She is from Manipur, the capital of which is Imphal (I mention this for the knowledge of my fellow-Indians who, in all possibility, skipped this minor detail in their geography textbooks). To broaden their knowledge, maybe they should look up the states in North East India and try remembering their capitals; maybe they should stop poking fun at the Mongoloid features of the people of this region and look into the mirror at their own double chins and pot bellies; maybe they should visit the North East to know the natural beauty of the region, the talent of its youngsters when they play the guitar or football, the state of infrastructure development and how it feels to live under repressive military laws such as the AFSPA.

Mary Kom’s success is a glorious occasion, for herself and her family. Her elevation to cult status by India is nothing short of a chance pe dance. The biggest testament to that is the fact that even while Mary Kom was in London winning her medals, migrants from the North East parts were being driven out of our major cities with threats of attacks against them. Television channels were reporting the victory of the star from the North East and the eviction of people from the North East in parallel; and sadly, no one stopped to ask what if every single of those young people being driven out was a Mary Kom-in-the-making?

Mary Kom, quite silently, has placed some pretty fat slaps on mainland India’s face. She, and the others from the region, should now gather to crusade for their brothers and sisters who are discriminated against, made fun of, driven out of mainland India. She should leverage her newfound cult status to stand up for the people who made her who she is, and hopefully a few sensible people from among the rest of the 1.2 billion will join forces with her.

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