1984

I recall the day, October 31, perhaps a tad more vividly than the scores of news anchors, some of whom I suspect were either my age – 11 years, 3 months and 16 days – and some, whom I believe would probably have been a fond wish in their parents’ hearts. It was quite bright and sunny – the kind of day textbooks said represented autumn. Delhi, three decades back, actually had four distinct seasons, and the skies were actually a deeper shade of blue than the pale grey we are now accustomed to.
Sometime, post lunch, there was a call for a general school assembly – Springdales School, Dhaula Kuan – wherein the announcement of Indira Gandhi’s death was made and a mandatory two-minute silence was observed. After that, school was dismissed, much ahead of its closing time of 2 pm and school was closed for 1 week.
In hindsight, one wonders whether the school authorities at the highest level had some inkling or inside knowledge of the disturbances that were soon going to rock the country’s capital and other cities across India, especially those governed by the ruling political party at the Centre.
The next morning, November 1, was a weather-wise clone of the preceding day. After a leisurely breakfast, hearing some sloganeering, I ventured forth near the bedroom window, which overlooked the main street of our rented accommodation in West Patel Nagar. A passing DTC bus, filled and packed to the rafters with young men, went cruising past, in the direction of the local police station, about 500 metres from our house.
The slogans were distinct, in Hindi: “Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” (we shall avenge blood with blood). It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the reference to blood was of the slain prime minister.
Again in hindsight, that a bus belonging to a government-run service could be commandeered such brazenly, and would have had to pass by the police station on its way, but not stopped, seems, to say the least, a trifle bizarre in a democracy.
I remember my father, a few years older than what I am now, in his typical rush of blood, going charging to the window and shouting and daring the men before being pulled inside by my very worried looking mother, who immediately shut the windows and bolted the doors.
Then, it was quiet for a while. Only for a while.
The hind part of the house, overlooking the service lane, also gave an eagle’s eye-view of the main road – smoke was billowing out of a few shops and a bus, which had the name tag ‘Singh Travels’ on it, was being furiously ransacked before being set aflame. The irony came out later: the bus was owned by a non-Sikh. So much for the spirit of vengeance!
What I saw with my own eyes was a free for all being indulged by young boys and men with sticks in their hands, breaking the shops’ shutters, decamping with the expensive goods. Of course, it wasn’t that all shops were being targeted – only those which we knew whose proprietors owed allegiance to a certain faith.
In hindsight, the mob quite obviously had prior knowledge of who owned which shop.
Back on the main street, the front of the house, a growing din could be distinctly heard. Shoved behind the curtained window by my mother, even as dad was examining just what possible household goods could be used as weapons of offence and defence, I caught a glimpse of a swarm of armed men, till as far as I could see, led by a man I recognised as the owner of the neighbourhood fruit juice shop.
It was just as well that we had never availed of his home-delivery services, for his furious inquiries about the ownership of a Fiat car parked in the driveway was stonewalled by a neighbour who claimed it was hers and had parked it in front of our house due to paucity of parking space at her residence.
I wonder what would have happened if those quirks of fate hadn’t intervened – had we availed of his home delivery services that would have familiarised him with our residence, had that lady not had the presence of mind to falsely claim that our car was in fact hers…would I have been writing this piece?
Of course, there was another twist that probably saved us and many others. Among the row of houses across the service lane, was the residence of a retired Sikh army officer, who owned a ready-made garments showroom in the front part of his bungalow. Based on hearsay, this is what happened: when the mob attacked his shop, the gentleman beseeched the crowd that if all they wanted to do was to ransack his shop, they were more than welcome, but if they so much as cast a glance at his residence, he would be forced to put to use his licensed .303 calibre rifle on them.
Taking it as a dare, the rioters decided to call his bluff and barged in to the house, only to be greeted by bullets, which is when rumours that Sikhs in the vicinity have not been disarmed spread and the mob quickly retreated and dispersed.
In hindsight, one is a more than a bit puzzled as to why licensed firearms and swords were collected by the local police authorities? After all, it wasn’t the Sikhs who went on a rampage through the streets of Delhi.
It’s close to 29 years – passions appeared to have cooled down, especially for those of us who didn’t personally bear the brunt. For those who did bear the brunt, several of the survivors have moved on – either physically or metaphorically. At the end of the day, fighting for justice doesn’t really light the kitchen fires and fill up hungry bellies.
Funny thing is, while Qutubuddin Ansari became the face of the Gujarat riots, where incidentally 1000 people died, compared to over 3000 in 1984, the defining image of 1984 riots continues to be smouldering shops and a burning bicycle – as if no humans were torched alive. Where exactly was intrepidity of the media? Perhaps in mourning along with Jagdish Tytler.
As for me, I rose to become a wishy-washy sort of a guy, venturing into journalism, where the cardinal rule is never to let your emotions get the better of you. But sometimes, the passions get better of your senses. The rage rises, the blood boils when blatant lies are paraded on prime time news by an accused, and one wants to have a go at the other community. Perhaps that rage is born out of the impotency felt by an 11-year-old reared on heroic tales of valour of religious icons.
But every time reason starts to take a flight and generalisations come home to roost, I am reminded of that Hindu woman neighbour, a mother of three daughters, whose lie about our car probably saved the day for us.
The anger subsides, and my sanity survives for another day.

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Dear Men, AND Women, let’s ‘rape’ our mindset

Candle flame

Let me at the outset clarify the use of the word rape, lest it generates another controversy – rape here is a metaphor for brutalization, and not the physical, legally defined rape.
I recall an incident from within my family, several moons, or rather full moons ago. My elder sister, then a student of architecture, was insistent on participating in the college bhangra (Punjabi folk dance, generally performed by men) performance. “But girls normally do gidda (another Punjabi folk dance, performed by women) – can’t you participate in that?” queried the female head of the household, whose own upbringing had been quite at variance with the liberal mindset of our paternal side.
It was a stand-offish argument between my sister and my mother – the result of which, as I recall, was my sister not participating at all in either performance as a protest. Of course, there is every possibility that both of them will now gang-up to crucify me for revealing family secrets.
The incident stayed on long enough in my memory – 23 years is a long enough time measurement unit – as it highlighted the variance between the two household heads in our family, my father and my mother. The former, now deceased, brought up in an environment where the women in the household were not the supporting cast but the main lead while the latter, raised in tradition, where only the XY chromosome was fit enough to carry the family legacy.
The death of the 23 year old physiotherapist has raised several questions – safety of women in public spaces is foremost, and then there is the debate about mindsets. But exactly where does this mindset originate? Quite obviously, from our traditions and culture.
We have two epics both of which perpetuate the culture of the male viewpoint being the only one worth upholding. We celebrate a festival in honour of a man who first asked his wife to undergo a fire test to quell rumours that she had been ‘defiled’ by her abductor. Even after she passed that test, she was ultimately abandoned because another man wasn’t convinced.
On the other hand, her abductor, whose effigy is burnt with religious fervour on an annual basis, did indeed commit the crime of taking her against her will, but still did not force himself on her even when she was in his captivity.
There is of course the incident which precipitated the abduction – the cutting off of the nose of the abductor’s sister by the younger brother-in-law of the woman mentioned above. Did her alleged misdemeanour of asking the man to marry her invite such drastic retribution? And can crime against one woman justify another crime of abducting another woman? Yet, we have since millennia perpetuated and glorified these mythological figures as the epitome of an ideal man, husband and son, and celebrated them through festivals.
The other epic, a war tale, wherein one woman is betrothed to five brothers, not quite with her consent is another example of the patriarchal mindset that we are currently decrying. It may be noted that while the husbands in this case went and got married to other women, despite having a common wife – Bhim and Hidimba is one example, Arjun and Subhadra is another – the common wife didn’t have such privileges.
And then there’s the mindset that while a mistake by a man can be settled through a verbal duel or through recourse to law, a mistake by a woman deserves the retribution of a sexual assault. Duryodhana, mocked by the woman above for failing to notice a pool and accidentally falling in it, deemed it fit to disrobe her in public.
Yes, mythology comes in the realm of make-believe and faith has a lot to do with it, but the question that needs to be asked is, just what is it that we are putting our faith in.
We have a festival of Karva Chauth, wherein wives keep a day long fast for the longevity of their husbands – glorified through popular entertainment options like TV serials and movies showing wives going to the extent of touching their husbands’ feet at the time of breaking fast. Really now, just how regressive can one get. In fact, the lyrics of one particular Bollywood movie song, set around this festival went thus: “तेरे हाथ से पी कर पानी, दासी से बन जाऊं रानी (From your hands when I drink water to break my fast, I am so blessed that I become your queen from being your slave/servant). Really ‘blessed’ lyrics.
Why can’t the female and male actors in such serials and movies put their foot down with the film makers and tell them that they will not portray women in a manner that seeks to perpetrate the notion of them being underlings to men? Or is the lure of lucre too much to resist?
We have the tradition of ‘mundan’ or tonsuring the head of a new-born. The basis for that tradition is that a new born’s hair is unclean as he/she was in the womb of a woman for nine months – the womb of course being associated with a woman’s menses, which themselves are considered unclean, to the extent that even today, many households forbid menstruating women from entering the kitchen during their periods as it would ‘defile’ the food.
It’s not just the men, even women – educated elite, who have successful careers – believe that a woman is unclean during her periods and must consequently refrain from even performing daily prayer rituals. If God, in whose honour the prayers are intoned, made woman, as he did man, then surely He can’t consider His own creation unclean.
Reality check, dear all: this humanity exists because of a woman’s periods, so if a woman is unclean, so is the entire humanity.
Mindset change however is not that easy. In 1997, during the run-up to the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, a well-known MNC FMCG company, while promoting its dental care products, produced an advertisement that I would say was ahead of its times. The TV commercial was about a young, independent woman with a career, single and happy in her life and how her father too had come to accept her independent choices. The toothpaste brand connect was with her smile, as a sign of happiness.
It was a great ad, a good concept but was inexplicably taken off the air after being aired a few times, probably because it directly challenged the notion that a woman could be happy while not following the traditional route of marriage and having kids. And I guess somewhere the MNC felt it could lose its loyal customers. Incidentally, that FMCG company is today headed by a woman – a first for the company and the sector in India.
There is certainly no brief that women are to be deified – they are as human as men and make their own share of mistakes. But a mistake or a crime by a woman is no reason to sexually harass her. If you are infuriated by a woman driver talking on her cell, it doesn’t give you the right to call her ‘randi’ (whore/prostitute) – she’s at best an idiot.
It’s not just men whose mindset needs to be vandalized – women too are guilty as much. A senior lady colleague once cast aspersions on another’s character – much younger to her – just because the younger colleague was unmarried and going through some difficult time personally. “This is what happens when you don’t get married on time,” the older XX chromosome opined. With the matriarchs perpetuating these kinds of beliefs, will you really blame their sons when they demonstrate their distinct disdain for women or their viewpoints?
One can only hope and plead that the next time you see your daughter ‘sitting like a man’, or ‘talking like a man’, you won’t admonish her and ask her to ‘behave like a woman’.

PS: And I can only hope I am not arrested for writing this piece, or attacked by a mob of religious zealots.

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The middle-class has no country

So, petrol prices shot up by Rs 7.50 per litre in one go, as the government, compelled by the rupee depreciation and with immediate politics out of the way (read parliament session), showed it has Dutch courage when the going gets tough. While there have been understandably groans of protest from the people we bracket as middle class, others joining the chorus include those whose monthly pay bracket would read like a mobile phone number, at the very least.

They however, need not worry, except for the lip service they feel compelled to pay as a faux sense of solidarity. Come to think of it, a few thousand bucks extra as monthly fuel bills, when your earning capacity is either in a few or several hundred thousands, is like a bothersome house-fly buzzing over sweetmeats. It’s an irritation, but certainly not fatal.

Compare that with the average middle-class earner, whose take home does not even touch the six-figure mark – a few thousand rupees increment in fuel expenses, when there is little by way of an increment in take home pay, is certainly a kill-joy, if not a downright killer.

Every developed country in the world today needs the rich Indian, or the rich Chinese, or the rich whatever – people who can invest millions in dollar terms, in exchange for which the citizenship of the beneficiary country is theirs for the taking, fast tracked in a space of a few months.

The message is clear – if you are unhappy with your government, don’t bother changing the government, simply change your allegiance to a new flag. That the rich owe their loyalty only to their wealth is a given – and one doesn’t see any moral turpitude in that. Invest $500K and you can get a Green Card. Invest $5 million, and in 6 months you can get an Australian citizenship (how many would like to be citizens in that decidedly racist country is another argument altogether).

What, however, of the middle-class? Where does it go and seek succour, a la Eduardo Saverin who had no qualms in giving up his US citizenship for a Singaporean one to save millions of dollars in taxes.

Squeezed at home, by both the government which leaves damn little for them on the table, and literally so, and by their employers who cite the current economic blues as reason enough to deny even the basic increment to make up for the increased cost of keeping body and soul together due to inflation, the middle class has been reduced to the state of being wet grain caught in the midst of the traditional Indian stone wheat grinders, awaiting their turn to be ground to a fine powder that will ultimately feed the avarice of the political and business class, specimens of which have been asking for bailouts while living a life of good times.

Is there then any country for the middle class, people whose only contribution is that they pay their taxes on time and live their lives in boundaries defined by law, rarely if ever stepping out its precincts? Where do the 3.3 crore tax-payers, give or take a few hundred thousand who are the HNIs, go to live a decent life?

They obviously don’t have the wherewithal to buy a citizenship to one of the more developed economies where at least the basics of daily life are a given. Nor, do I suppose, have the banks come out with citizenship loans, which would allow many of us to pay for acquiring a citizenship on an EMI basis.

Why is it that the much touted austerity measures that the respectable FM talks about are applicable only top-down from the middle-class, instead of bottom up? Isn’t it amazing that a country of nearly 122 crore is sustained and run on the taxes gleaned from the income of a few crore?

We are being sold a dream of the long run, when hopefully, some day, India will be on an equal footing with the major developed economies of Europe and North America. But as noted British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose name is dropped in gay abandon by the powers that be, said nearly 90 years back, in the long run, we are all dead. He sure is, and if our economist PM truly believes in following the adage, we shall surely be too, much sooner than our time is due.

Truly, unwanted abroad and uncared for at home.

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Strangers in the night

There was still a little under an hour to go to strike the time when Cinderella’s coach usually metamorphoses into a pumpkin, as I trudged back to my night shelter, dragging one foot after another. Most shops had shut, save for a fruit vendors who were wrapping up the last purchases of the day. Traffic, though light, was pretty much there in your face, and unlike last night, when I made my way home in pitch-black darkness because of a power cut, the road tonight was pretty well-lit.

It was then that I saw him, this man, walking opposite to the direction I was taking, followed by a stray dog, trying to shoo him away without much success. The dog, probably hoping for a morsel to come its way from the man, who obviously didn’t have anything to offer. As we crossed each other on the road, the dog halted for a split second, and noticing my heavy shoulder-strapped bag, decided to take its chances with yours truly.

Having been around dogs – both the two-legged variety and the four-legged traditional ones – one can make out the symptoms of hope and happiness. The tail wags, the I-am-the-cutest-dog-in-the-world expressionistic mask is worn to perfection, all in the hope of either being petted or being fed.

I stopped for a while, not sure what I was supposed to do. Say hello doggy? Should I sit down with it on the side-walk – two perfect strangers, sharing each other’s loneliness and singularity, watching the last few stragglers of humanity pass us by in a bid to reach home, unable to of course speak a common language.

Maybe, I did get the dog’s intentions wrong – maybe all it wanted was just that, a little bit of my time. My eyes searched up and down the road – there wasn’t a single other stray dog in sight, which lent credence that it wasn’t so much as food for the body, as much as it was food for the restless spirit.

No, we didn’t sit together, though it did follow me for a while before it gave up on me too and charted its own path, maybe with someone else – I never bothered to check.

But aren’t we humans also equally opportunistic – nothing bad about that but when someone else becomes a step in the ladder, then you wonder whether you were just an opportunity cost for that person.

A houseguest said something that left me quite amused, something to the effect that she had managed to create such a “good” impression about herself with the local elders that her word would be counted more than mine, in case there was any conflict of interest between us.

Upto that point,I had treated her, my houseguest, with a mild indulgence bordering on annoyance – from that point onwards, all I saw her was as prickly heat, an irritant, which this houseguest had become. My amusement and mirth at her arrogance quickly turned into irritation, at her assumption – I had absolutely no intention of creating a situation where it was her word against mine. In any case, when a person refuses to acknowledge your presence publicly, you know that you are nothing but an opportunity cost for them. And the worst kind are those who brag about what they were, either professionally, or personally – this one just full of how she was a head-turner!

Yeah right, I said to myself when she disclosed that – my head hasn’t turned even once since the time I’ve known her, which is not more than a few days. But yes, I did turn – her that is, out of my house, asking her to make alternative arrangements now that she’s got the opportunity she came to this city for.

Cruel? Maybe, but I refuse to be your opportunity cost especially when you try to put on that smarty-pants act with me.

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Difficult Times

So here I was, brooding over some personal incidents over the past week, mulling over the validity of some home truths in this day and age, watching a movie on the life and times of King Arthur.

Time was, when respect begot respect and honesty was the best policy, and while I don’t know whether I can change my spots at the ripe old age of 38.83, I am veering around to the view that I am fast getting outdated by sticking to those clichés.

Time also was when all that was needed for a woman to be impressed by a man, or for a man to impress a woman, was to be the swashbuckling swordsman who saves the damsel in danger, from ruffians, highwaymen, robbers, attackers or men with lust. And the woman would fall right into the ‘trap’, kiss the hero, though it wasn’t certain they would live happily or not.

Of course, time also was that a man falling in love with the queen could be charged with treason, the sentence for which is still, I believe, the final curtain call. Which was the amusing part of the movie – the only crime was a passionate kiss and acknowledgement of mutual love that had the two culprits being tried in an open court. But I guess, if there were certain privileges men of those times had, in terms of wooing women, they also had certain responsibilities, and what in today’s day and age may be labelled as unethical, at the maximum, could invite the death penalty during those times.

So, were those times good? Or the times we living in better? I don’t know – I personally can’t recall living in that era! And if I were to believe in the karmic theory of the soul traversing through many generations, well, I guess I’m sorry to report that the mind’s slate been wiped cat-licking clean.

My personal two cents: times may or may not be better, or good, or easy or difficult, but people certainly are difficult. Understanding people has become more and more complex by the day, forget about by the generation. Simplicity was prolific in those times, I guess. Emotions were simple, people were simple because their needs were simple, life was simple because in any case, it didn’t offer much by way of material rewards, and you only miss something when you have possessed it.

Though I doubt if life was easy then also – simple, maybe, like eat, sleep, breed, pillage and plunder. Not easy though, especially if you were the one being pillaged and plundered.

Today, of course, increasing complexity of the material world has somewhere percolated deep down into our respective DNA, and got embedded there so firmly that it is the new DNA inside each one of us. Is that good, or bad? I don’t know – never claimed to have all the answers and hey, I am still searching for answers to a few of my own questions.

Maybe, if I ever get answers to my own questions, provided I find them before my time runs out, I could probably tell you whether it’s good or bad. If my time runs out, as it eventually will, and I don’t get my answers, well, just carry on regardless – you have done well in life so far, am sure you’ll do just fine.

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Facing destiny

Destiny can play strange tricks on the mind, making you deviate from your chosen course of action, and many men, over the course of centuries, have succumbed to their destiny, literally. What is it that makes a man leave a pre-determined path and embrace and accept his destiny, many a time knowing all too well that nothing but certain death awaits him on the path of destiny.

A soldier for instance – eulogised in Hindi cinema as the blustering patriot in love with the country, addicted to a higher social calling. Bunkum, every bit of it. I have always had my doubts about the jingoistic patriotism thrust upon our soldiers to feed our popular perception. A soldier fights to die or to win because that’s his destiny, and he accepts it, without complaint – that is the real source of bravery. Yes, adrenaline too plays its part, for caught in the throes of a passionate combat with the enemy, the love for life can make you embrace death.

But just what is it that makes men give up their planned course of action? Is it just a headstrong attitude, a rush of blood? Nah. The rush of blood happens much later, in the final attempt to conquer the summit. It’s a recognition by men faced with a choice that they will never be truly happy till they give in to the desire of one final fling with destiny, no matter what the consequences.

It’s a recognition that deep inside, having fought destiny all through their lives, it has become part of their DNA and no matter how much you try to ignore the voice of your DNA, you will eventually capitulate. Sometimes, to fatal consequences, sometimes to life altering consequences. Sometimes, to celebratory consequences, sometimes, to a lifetime of repentance.

Every man who risks heeding the call of destiny, also knows somewhere in his heart, that it could lead to the end-game of his life – whether metaphorically, or literally. He also knows that avoiding destiny could also mean a lifetime of avoiding your own gaze in the mirror, and knowing that, can wreak havoc with the mind.

So be it, to each, his own destiny. As I await mine.

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The other side of the coin

It started out as a discussion in the edit meeting and my colleagues, all hardcore Mumbaikars, unlike me who’s an expat, were chorusing about the travails of daily commute on the auto-rickshaws in the city. It’s the usual litany of complaints against the autos – refusal to ply on specific routes, overcharging, faulty meters….the list continues.

Now I come from a city where autos and their drivers are tough breed – refusal to ply short distances, charging arbitrary fare on the pretext that the meters don’t work, refusal to ply certain routes because they don’t get any return fare from that area, or overcharging to compensate for the lack of any return fare as if it were the passenger’s fault and of course, little help from the Aapke liye and aapke saath Delhi Police who following the letter of the law say complaints against autos need to be made at the nearest police station, and can’t be taken cognisance of on the roadside. I can personally vouch for such an instance – being stranded on NH1 around the time when Cinderella’s coach was to turn back into a pumpkin.

So even though as denizens of two mutually antagonistic cities I could empathise with their grudges against auto drivers – and to be fair, it’s not just my colleagues who’ve suffered, other residents in this city have a bagfull of complaints, and not just against the autos but also against the cabs – there is an unreported side too.

One of the complaints from commuters against the auto drivers is their propensity to make a few bucks extra by not returning the balance amount under the pretext that they don’t have any ‘change’. I am not doubting the veracity of those who’ve had such an experience, but at the same time, one can personally vouch for having come across several instances when auto drivers have willingly foregone a few bucks since they did not have return balance amount, accepting fare less than the metered amount. So say, if the fare totalled Rs 33, they have settled for Rs 30 when I have handed over 40 bucks as they did not have the balance amount of Rs 7.

And it’s not just one instance – there are several such instances I have had over varying distances and fares. Additionally, considering I have a fixed route from my residence to the suburban train station daily, I have become familiar with the meter reading and sometimes, when I have noticed the meter reading increasing at an unusually rapid pace and brought it to the notice of the auto drivers, they have without any grudge acknowledged the fault by saying that I could pay what I regularly pay for that route and not once has there been a complaint by any auto driver that I had short-changed him.

Which is why I also decided not to grudge a couple of rupees extra if the auto driver doesn’t have the requisite balance amount and the nearest rounding off figure was on the higher side rather than on the lower side. So, say, if the fare came to Rs 28 or 29, and one pays up 30 bucks, if the auto driver doesn’t have any ‘change’, I have let it be and let him keep that one or two bucks extra.

After all, they also let go of a few extra bucks when they are ‘short-changed’.

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