Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of Mary Poppins and Cynicism

When I was watching Mary Poppins for the first time, I couldn’t help but think about how sexist and elitist parts of it were: the way the man of the house treated his wife, the women who worked in his house as domestic helps, his children and those who served or worked for him.

And I found myself wondering if working or studying stuff like gender and society, masculinities of violence, peace and conflict studies, empathy training and such else woke the cynic in me. If not the cynic, it has at least made me look for these signs in anything I read, see or hear.

Does that make me much of a cynic? The prototype of Oscar Wilde’s ideal “who needs a cynic who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing?”.

I must admit it alarmed me for a moment – I began to wonder if I was losing my grip on looking at entertainment for what it is without giving it a complete analysis in my mind – sometimes verbally if suitable company would ferment the debate than to shut me up. But the fact is, I haven’t lost my grip, even if I say so myself. For starters, I am conscious of the fact that most movies, literature and entertainment outlets are heavily reflective of undercurrents that prevail in social settings of every kind. In some instances, they are undoubtedly exaggerated or drawn with more vivid imagination than what may prevail in reality. Admittedly, there are elements in entertainment and media that perpetrate certain undercurrents themselves – things like body image by relying on photograph enhancing tools to engineer bodies.

But the fact is, seeing these movies, reading these books and witnessing these streams of entertainment shouldn’t be a passive exercise. If we’re watching a patriarch or a matriarch boss about in his house, we should be sensible enough to see that it’s wrong. No one has the right to command another on account of gender. If we’re watching an elitist run over – or even steam roll – his underlings, it is a flagrant wrong that many of us are guilty of, too. We need to use these points of display of our society as looking glasses, as means that will help us look within to see the flaws that are gaping inside of us.

Maybe this is a cynical take on things, or maybe it comes across as that. But in a world where it’s “okay” to rape a girl when she is drugged and post photos of it on Facebook to where Steubenvilles are painfully and uncontrollably commonplace, where husbands can rape their wives and abscond, to where everyday sexism continues to take place, entertainment shouldn’t be taken so lightly. Especially when it borders on every chink in the armour of the global society.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

In fond memory of Kaul Uncle

He was old, and I doubt I could ever identify him as being any other way. Short, frail and bald, he wore glasses. He had a sharp nose, and a commanding voice. The skin on his face had many lines that dived in and out of the pits and hollows that age had carved. The lines interlaced and wove an intricate carpet of stories, memories and truths. He would enter a room and chant “Hari Om” to anyone who occupied the room – and in a raspy whisper, he would clear his throat before beginning to speak about anything.

It’s been eight years since I first saw him. Kaul Uncle, I knew him to be. Or at least, that’s how he was introduced to me.

My grandparents had told me about Kaul Uncle. They told me that his story was like theirs – the loss of what they once called home had bound them in a bond – one that only a similar standpoint can suitably explain and relate to. 

Nestled in the industrial heartland off the Capital, NOIDA became his home – or as he chose to put it – temporary stay. The first time I met him, my grandfather was the beaming backdrop for the meeting. Thatha, my grandfather, introduced me to the kindly gentleman. He went on to tell Kaul Uncle that I was training to be a lawyer. 

Kaul Uncle asked me what laws I wanted to work with. Would be a tax lawyer like my father? 

I said I wanted to work with Human Rights, and Humanitarian Law.

He raised an eyebrow and leaned close to me and asked me, “Humani-wha?”

“Humanitarian Law, uncle. The law that governs conflicts, states of war, and places of war.”

“Hm. And what about places where there is militancy?”

“I suppose in some ways, that too, uncle.”

“Why do you want to work in this field?”

“I don’t know, uncle, I guess I was influenced by studying the Second World War, and the Holocaust.”

“Never again. That’s what they said, right?”

“Yes, uncle.”

“Hm. Do you know who Kashmiri Pandits are?”

“Sure. Pandit Nehru was one, wasn’t he?”

“Hm. But do you know what Kashmiri Pandits faced in 1990?”

I didn’t know. I didn’t. I was in my third year at law school, and I still didn’t know. I didn’t understand it then, and I didn’t choose to make an effort either. Call it churlish or insouciantly stubborn – but either way, I made no effort to engage him in a conversation when I had every moment to. But Kaul Uncle understood my silence.

“The media was silent. You must have been a baby. But stories will come to you as they come to many. You may go in search of them now, but you won’t understand them or remember them. Someday, when these stories come to you, I want you to remember this old man. I want you to read them with my voice in your ears, my face in your eyes, and my memory in your heart. I want you to remember and know that there were many, many Kaul Uncles who faced the same thing. I want you to remember, and to work for this Humanitary thing you said, with these truths in mind.”

I nodded, mostly because it felt like the right thing to do at the time. Today, I realise the value of what Kaul Uncle said – and the weight of those words is rising as I type this.

Years later, I would read Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots. I would weep, and weep, and weep. I would cross January 19, 1990, after reading the book, and my heart would feel heavy. I would wonder why the world was so silent about this – and about the many stories that turned the snowy white hinterlands of Kashmir blood red. I would realise that Kaul Uncle was a Kashmiri Pandit. I would realise that Kaul Uncle was a prisoner of his memories as he was forced out of his home in the massive exodus of January 19, 1990. I would realise that that date would haunt me - because I had seen the face of what no one told me, until I went looking for answers. I would see the threads of the Holocaust and the occupation of Palestine and Gaza, the civil war in Syria and the cycle of violence in the DR Congo tied tight with the threads of Kashmir. I would find eyes, faces and whole identities carrying the indelible mark of a painful truth, and many painful stories.

I would remember Kaul Uncle.

I would cry.

About a year ago, Kaul Uncle passed away. What can one say? How does one right such a wrong? This isn’t about returning a home, or a return to home. This is about destroying a whole lifetime. A lifetime that lived in the hope of a return that never came.

 “My story is not about the loss of material goods; it is about the pain of carrying memories” 
- Rahul Pandita, Our Moon has Blood Clots

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A step forward with compassion.

I could start by saying that 2015 was a year I hate. But that wouldn’t serve any purpose: as Izzedin Abuelaish titled his book, I shall not Hate. In retrospect, it was a tough year. But it also had its silver lining, quite like most dark clouds do. Losing loved ones, dealing with depression and physical ailments that pushed me down like a line of falling dominoes. At the same time, building new bonds and finding friends and loved ones in unexpected places and times in life were powerful highlights.
Here’s a look at 2015 through many different lenses.

In Books:
What else would a bibliophile throw up first? 2015 in books was a fantastic year. Selfishly speaking, I got to publish two non-fiction eBooks, one fiction book and contribute to an anthology that came out two weeks ago. In terms of the books I read, the two that stand out most are Perks of a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa. I’ve never cried more for books like I did for these two books. Chbosky’s is a marvellous tome in coming-of-age-fiction, that brings everyday skeletons in the closet right before your eyes to deal with. Susan Abulhawa’s tapestry of truth is an unparalleled narrative of a people who have been wronged in the longest conflict since the end of the Second World War.

This was also the year that I made a foray into the world of Graphic Novels, investing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Gav’s Zen Pencils and Joe Sacco’s Gaza. I haven’t read them yet, though, but just holding these books is an experience in itself. I’ve also consciously made an effort to look into 2016 with more lighter reading interspersed with heavier reading – really just to drive myself out of a state of pall.

In Movies:
For me, there were many memorable movies made this year in Hindi cinema, save for Piku. Aside of the potty humour, Piku helped me process a lot about loss, letting go and being in the moment in life. There were profound moments in the film that still remain with me, and will perhaps go onto shaping the way I look at things and approach situations. That’s a good thing, I guess. So far as English cinema goes, Spy stands out in my memory – Melissa Mc Carthy is my role model in so many ways. She taught me to be fiercely independent and invest in myself enough to care for who I am, however I am – warts, dry and scarred skin alike. I also ventured into watching some old movies this year – the most memorable of which would be Schindler’s List, The Book Thief, My Fair Lady and Roman Holiday. Christmas time rung in Jingle All the Way and Home Alone – my very own idea of vintage films that will always remain on my list of favourites.

In Lifestyle:
I think I led the unhealthiest of lifestyles for the most part of the year – indulging in a lot of soda and junk food and not really eating on time. But one of the things I’m most grateful to for learning this year, is the art of Mindfulness. Reading the Buddhist Bootcamp and Thich Nhat Hanh helped me tremendously, and taught me the art of being in every moment, and enjoying it to the fullest. I began to learn to imbibe and reflect on things around me, and to comprehend things from a place of empathy. I can’t say I accomplished it as well as I wish to, but we’re all works in progress. I also began to doodle extensively, making piece after piece nearly every day for a while, until I was able to feel the invisible load of unsolved mindspace lifting once and for all.

People around me:
It was a mixed bag, this year. I lost my grandfather in November, and although in a way something that we knew was inevitable, it was still a difficult thing to deal with. Thatha’s passing meant the end of an era, and with it, a traditional and a beautiful bond that I wouldn’t ever share with anyone again. I also sadly lost a friend this year, her passing left me with a sense of guilt at not being regular in staying in touch. There were more instances of friends passing, of neighbours passing, of acquaintances passing, and of loved ones of dear friends, passing. In retrospect, 2015 was a busy year for The Grim Reaper.

But on the flip side, I made some lovely new friends this year, and some are now really close friends – friends I cannot go a day without talking to. Special shout outs to Anusha Kousik, Deepika Ramesh, Kaavya Pillai, Mahgul Kunary, Megha Narayan, Megha Venketasamy, Pavithra Charan, Priya Balan, Ramya Rajaraman, Roshini John, Shabnam Manati Khadija, Sriniketa Sritharan, Sujani Dwarak, Sushma Soma, Sriram Ayer, Vinay Ramakrishnan and Ziauddin Iqbal.
My eternal support systems – Ashay Abbhi, Arjun Krishnan, Chintan Girish Modi, Dominique Vidale-Plaza, Deepti Menon, Jane Shahi, Natasha Latiff, Neeti Jaychander, Nidhi Shendurnikar, Paola Brigneti, Salma Noureen and Sashankh Kale continue to be immense powerhouses of love and energy in my life that words are both inadequate and absolutely useless in expressing my mind. I’m grateful to note that Deepika Ramesh and Sriniketha Sritharan are also right up with these lovely souls I just mentioned.  

Work was perhaps one of the best things to happen to me this year. Right from working on Red Elephant - with many plans of action implemented, dispensing aid to Nepal and Chennai’s flood victims, collaborating with Maya Azucena and having her as our Goodwill Ambassador, and with Sayfty for a year-long legal-rights-awareness campaign; to adding more on the writing side, this has been a good beginning for what I hope would be a good future. I closed A38 down, though, because it wasn’t holding fort as well as I would have liked it to – the sheer magnitude of the work that it took to keep something that had already sunk, alive, was both tiring and an unwise drain on resources. I got to be a VVLead Fellow this year, which let me take a trip to Johannesburg, but I couldn’t go because of Thatha’s passing. I had the opportunity of being nominated as one of the Axis Bank Burgundy Women at the Digital Women’s Awards in Mumbai, in November, and that was pretty surprising and beautiful. The Dove’s Lament was among the top five books to make the Muse India Young Author Award shortlist, which was pretty unexpected and moving all at once.

What do I want from 2016?

It’s hard to define what I want from 2016. But I guess what’s important at this point in my life is to acknowledge, accept and respect myself. Whether it is in mind, body, spirit or soul, I want to respect my existence, my story, my journey so far, and everything there is in the future. I want to be able to learn that everything that happens, happens, and the things I can change are things I will not shy away from changing. I want to feel my anger, but creatively. I want to make a change, but I want to know and accept that this change cannot happen unless and until it starts from within. I want to empathise, I want to stop looking back on my life with anger or grief at what could have been but did not be, and what I should have done over what I did. I want to find peace in the knowledge that hindsight is always 20/20, and that the future is much more than what I want for it to be. I want to go on my own soul boot camp. I want to learn to be bereft of expectations of every sort. 

And 2016, for me, would be about this song.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


"Hi Thatha!"

"Hi, Thatheee!"

That was Thatha, for you. He could talk to you about anything. ANYTHING. Locomotive engines. Why the Sky appears blue. The name of the little plastic thing at the end of your shoelace (aglet, by the way). Why shells have the sound of the sea in them. What the meaning of Mimamsa is. What the Das Pumpenhaus was in its original days as the Das Pumpenhaus. He would beat you hollow - even if you had a doctorate in it, and this is no exaggeration. He, is (was?) my grandfather.

I bid goodbye to him the day before yesterday. And it poured in Chennai, poured so much, that all that sounded in my mind's ears was, The heavens weep when great men die.

Ever indulgent, Thatha didn't mind me styling his hair. 
He was a man of honour, and a man of his word - so much so, that there are people today in Kolar Gold Fields (where he was a CAO at the Government Hospital under the British regime and after for a while), who say that the fires in their house burn only because of his bounty and kindness. He was a man of leadership and charisma - he hoisted the first flag of Independent India in Kolar. As a child, his knowledge of geography in a school for boys in Triplicane, Chennai, baffled his teacher - enough to give Thatha the moniker, simhakutty, or lion cub. His English teacher learned words from him. Once, in his English class, the teacher asked him what a cross meant, in a manner that a teacher would, to quiz his students. Thatha stood up - and this was when he was in Second Form, perhaps the equivalent of Class 6 / 7 in today's structure - and said, "A Crucifix". His teacher blinked and asked Thatha, "What is a crucifix, pa?" From that day on, Thatha had to come to school to teach the boys in his class one new word.

Thatha was an incredible soul. He lived life the way one should: independently. He would sleep at 8:00 PM, wake up by 2:30 or 3:00 AM. Make his own coffee, leave the house (even in the biting cold on wintry days) in the morning on his Kinetic Honda to buy milk. If we were in the house, he never returned without candy, sweets or lollipops. He would spend an hour reading the paper, and I would learn the news of the world from him. He would spend his day at work - crunching numbers, doing honourary work for the municipal corporation of Indiranagar, Bangalore and writing notes copiously. He would bind his own papers by hand - using a native paste of home-made gum for it. He taught me how to type with such precision that I wouldn't have to look at the keyboard. He taught me how to do three things at a time, and not drop any ball. He would make a beeline to a little garden at the end of the road in our street in Indiranagar, Bangalore, where he would spend an hour with a few of his friends, chatting about politics, life and whatnot. Old men's Rendezvous, he loved to call it.
We would spend hours debating anything and everything. He was a staunch Congress fan. I would refute him just for the sake of refuting him and to see his eyebrows wiggle when he debated me. I would flap his large ears and he would benevolently indulge me, and say that he was named dhonnai kaadhu, (ears like the make-shift cups made out of dried banana leaves) as a child. He could identify any raagam in seconds. I once challenged him and played song after song on YouTube - and by the end of half an hour, I was running out of raagams to play for him.

Home is not a place. It is this. 
Between Bangalore and Chennai, Thatha made trips a couple of times each month - all to wage a legal battle on his own money and time for a company he once served. Each trip he made, he was never empty handed. Boxes of wafers, chips, biscuits, clothes and toys - every single time. One year, my brother shrieked and cried for a toy that had caught his fancy, and my parents had delayed buying it for him. The next day, Thatha stopped by at Egmore, the store where we had seen it, and bought it for him. When the "new Pizza Corner outlet" opened above Punjab National Bank - a bank which I will always associate with him - he ran to buy us Pizzas, because we loved them.
A few years later, came a time when I would insist that I wanted to be a doctor, he told me that I would become the President of India. I laughed at him, laughed so hard till my sides ached. He smiled at me and said, "Now you won't understand. But when you become the President of India, we will see what you tell me." In my childish tongue, I told him that I wanted him to be with me when that happened. I did a rudimentary calculation. He would have to be a hundred when I was old enough to qualify to be the President. Thatha was quiet for a while, before he said, "We will see. Maybe they will relax the rules by then. I don't want to wait for so long." You didn't stick around, Thatha, you didn't.
One smile, and that solved everything. 

Thatha is one of the foremost reasons I walk, today. I was born with a condition in my feet called club foot - my feet were turned inwards. He stood in a queue for half a day, just to get me an appointment with one of the most renowned orthopaedics in the country. Today, each step I take, I take in his name, with gratitude. The day I started walking - and mind you, thanks to his and my mother's unstinting intervention, I had my milestone spot on, on time - as he once told me, three years ago, he was the happiest. He made me run and captured the moment from behind the lens.
Thatha and I, doodling
We had our own little inside jokes. We would talk of drinking alcohol until we were drunk silly, making slurry speeches as if we were veteran drunks. Reality: we were tee-totallers. We would sing Kalyana Samayal Saadham together - and even sang it together last week, I the first line and he the next, all the way until we would imitate the laughter in the song. He loved soda of any kind. Once, my brother and I had gone to the store at the end of the street to buy something for home. We were walking back, with a sneaky bottle of Sprite in hand, only to see Thatha walking up to us from home, with a bottle of Mirinda in hand. We admitted defeat - our trick wasn't as sneaky as we thought it was. But before we knew it, Thatha smilingly told my brother and me, "Let's drink it all up before we go back home." Three little rascals.
Where are you?

When Patti was hospitalised, two Octobers ago, he was her barometer. At the 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM visiting hour window, he was dressed impeccably, and ready to see her. If we so much as delayed taking him along, he would trudge up to the doorstep and promptly announce that he was going, himself. At the hospital, he would walk two flights of stairs, just to see Patti. The day she passed on, two Novembers ago, he cushioned the blow for us despite his obvious pain and grief. And today, two Novembers later, he joined her, flying as a free soul.

People said he was old, and it was time for him to go. People said it was inevitable, and that I should not make a big deal out of it. True, it was inevitable. True, age does bring one closer to what is destined for them. True, it might have been time for him to go. But love does not come with an expiry date. It comes, instead, with the guarantee of immortality. I know I will carry this love I have for my thatha and patti beyond my time, beyond the day I will cross the veil and be welcomed with open arms by them.

Somewhere in the distance of my mind, I see a memory. Eleven years ago, my mother, brother and I had visited them in Bangalore for the winter. We had to leave because  as it always happens, the mundane ways of life forced themselves into a place of priority. That night, they came to drop us off at the City Railway Station in Bangalore. When we got off the car and told them to go home, and that we would move onto the designated platform, they watched some vagrant sidle up to us and follow us. We were unaware, but the vigilantes in them awoke. Unbeknownst to us, while we ran like marathon runners, the two of them held hands and walked behind us. We had settled down in the platform, only to turn around to see Thatha and Patti, holding hands and walking gently. They had come to see that we were safe. Amidst tears of grief, poignancy and the un-verbal-ise-able pain that being moved brings, we said goodbye, assured them we would be safe, and let them leave.
Be happy, always. 

Today, that memory is vivid. I see the two of them, turning around and walking on a railway platform. But this time, they are the ones taking a train. And their train is going far, far away. It's hard to say goodbye. There is a selfish little secret wish to want to run to them. But I can't. And so, I watch until I can see the train. I watch until my tears are a curtain. I watch until the winds blow and whisper their names in my ears. I watch, until I know that they may be nowhere, but they are everywhere.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A letter from Me to You

Dear You, 
It doesn't matter if you are a man, a woman or a transgender. 
It doesn't matter to me, what God you worship or if you worship none at all.
It doesn't matter to me what language your tongue first learned.
It doesn't matter to me what religion you follow, or if you follow none at all.
It doesn't matter to me what size you are, what shape you are and what your physical attributes are.
It doesn't matter to me if you earn six figures, three figures or none at all.
It doesn't matter to me what caste, race, creed, or ethnicity you belong to.
It doesn't matter to me who you choose to love: a man, a woman, or neither. 
It doesn't matter to me what land you come from or what borders your government has drawn to claim as its own land. 
It doesn't matter to me what your skin tone is.

What matters to me is that your veins carry the same red blood that mine does. That your stomach feels the hunger that mine does. That your tongue can get as parched as mine can. That your heart beats like mine does. That your lungs breathe like mine do. That your mind yearns for shelter, food and safety for yourself and your loved ones like mine does. That your heart loves like mine does. That you dream, like I do.
It doesn't matter to me how you were born: because regardless of what we may be conditioned to see as imperfect, YOU are perfect.
And in that, I am you. You are me. 
And in that, there is so much peace in WE.
Yours Sincerely,