Saturday, February 27, 2010

Man doesn't eat dog...

But he eats his 10,000-euros winning ticket. That too, on a Ryanair flight.

It is for news like this that I live on. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

Night at the Gandhi Opera

There were three very good reasons for Sid and I to attend Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, which opened at the English National Opera last night. It was based on Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where he developed, honed and polished his philosophy of non-violent protest.

First, as Indians, Sid and I are well-versed with the life and times of Gandhi. So for once, we would already be one up on the rest of the English audience as far as cultural references went. (Besides, it meant we would not have to buy the booklet explaining the Acts. A few pounds saved there!)

Second, the opera was sung in Sanskrit. And even though 15 years of complete non-usage has rendered my Sanskrit extremely rusty, I felt my chances with Sanskrit were far better than Italian or French.

Also, Sid has a great pair of opera glasses which he, very disrespectfully, has been using to watch cricket. I felt we needed to restore its dignity.

Besides, I must admit that somehow felt that if I watched an opera about a subject close to my heart – Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violent protest – then all that high-pitched singing would transform into sweet music and I would find myself moved to tears. Thus, I would prove that I am truly cultured ala Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman.

(Sorry, I could only find an Italian version of the youtube clip. But I am sure you got the point.)

It didn’t work.

Despite my best efforts to connect with the music, it just seemed like a lot of dignified and pious howling. Besides, it might as well as have been Italian or French for all I got of it. The music seemed to be based on mainly on repetitions. But apparently, that was a part of its magic, it was minimalist. Besides, there were "slowly metamorphosisng textures" to it according to The Independent, but Sid and I were too untutored to get them. And though the music seemed very heavy to Sid and I, it was only because of our inability to appreciate its “nobility, seriousness and purity”, as the NYT put it.

If I still enjoyed my night at the opera, it was mainly because of the totally trippy stage activity that accompanied the singers. The act was full of acrobats, aerialists, gigantic puppets, and lots and lots of innovative use of newspapers. At one point, as Gandhi sang away contemplatively in front behind him a huge six-armed puppet made out of newspaper stabbed an equally mammoth puppet made out of wicker baskets with wooden swords (see the rather sad image above).

Watching the mayhem through Sid’s excellent opera glasses thoroughly restored the pair’s respectability.

Note to Girish: The opera was a part of a trilogy on millennium men by Glass. The other two are Einstein and the Egyptian Pharoah Akhnaten. I am guessing Glass hasn't read your blog entry on the great pharoah .

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

War Horse: a theatrical Avatar?

A simple question that Sid and I ask each other after watching a film, play or art show is: “Was there anything you didn’t get?” Our attempts to figure out what we didn’t get invariably lead us to new insights, ideas and notions about life around us. And to us that is the value of the artistic experience: of course, it is about the visual, but it is also about discovering something new about the way we view the world.

It is in the latter that War Horse – the most successful theatrical production in the history of the National Theatre, which has since moved to the West End – sorely disappointed us. Yes, it was visually spectacular: the life-size horse puppets, the recreation of war, the scene when a tank thunders on to the stage were imaginatively conceived and stunningly produced. But what about the story to the benefit of which this spectacle was created: it was a simple, predictable children’s tale about the enduring love between a boy and his horse that survives the miseries of the First World War. It neither presented any new ideas about the human-animal equation nor about the war.

I would understand if the audience were mainly children. But the average age in the packed, admiring theatre last night was between 40 and 60. The play has been a huge commercial success and even enticed the Queen – well-known for her love for horses – into dropping by. It is set to hit the New York Broadway later during the year, and it is rumoured that Steven Spielberg has bought its film rights.

In a way, War Horse reminded me of Avatar, where the story played second fiddle to the visual experience, but no one minded. As we watched Avatar, I could practically predict each scene before it happened. Is that ok? Does focussing their time, energy and money into producing a cutting edge visual experience absolve the makers from giving us a complex, multidimensional storyline?

If yes, then I have been needlessly lambasting Bollywood for all these years. Bollywood films too create an extravaganza of songs, dances and drama for the benefit of binary, moralistic tales. I put down their success to us Indians not being particularly demanding viewers.

But apparently, that is what works commercially world over. Just the tableau in the West is more sophisticated.

Hidden among the rave reviews of the play is a piece by Michael Billington of the Guardian, which asks the same question as I do.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Quibbling over Kipling

The BBC News today carried an article about Rudyard Kipling and his ambivalent Indian legacy. It was accompanied by an audio clip of the journalist in conversation with Kipling’s biographer Andrew Lycett and the Indian novelist Arvind Adiga on the subject.

The article was spurred by the reluctance shown by Mumbai Municipal authorities in converting the bungalow in which Kipling was born into a museum in his honour. Yes, Kipling was an imperialist. But he also introduced India as a legitimate subject for English literature. Shouldn't that be acknowledged?

Adiga’s response is quite apt: most Indians think of Jeffery Archer when they think of English authors. They don’t think Kipling. The general Indian reader is neither very discerning nor very political. Besides, the India that Kipling wrote about – a world of forests, animals, villages and mysticism – is fast disappearing. So Indians simply don't spend that much time thinking about Kipling and his connections.

I tend to agree with Adiga. The Raj lives on in the minds of Britons much more than it does in the minds of Indians. For most of them, the matter is simple: Raj was something that happened in the past, it was taken care of by our grandfathers (with great dignity may we add), so what is the next Bollywood film release please…

And yet, there are two very good reasons why the bungalow shouldn’t be converted into a museum dedicated to Kipling.

First, we Indians make the tackiest museums ever. As the former editor of the Around Town section of Time Out Mumbai, you can take it from me in written. Kipling would squirm inside his grave at the offerings of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in his honour.

Second, the bungalow in question lies in the heart of the leafy compound of Sir JJ School of Arts, an institution associated with some of the greatest Indian artists. A Kipling museum will sit there completely without context. His connection to that bungalow is tenuous: he lived there for a few years in his childhood. On the contrary, the connection that many Mumbai artists have with the institution is far deeper and meaningful. If the bungalow has to be converted into a museum – how about a public space for Mumbai artists?

As for Kipling, we can put a plaque: Also, Kipling was born here.

Here's a wonderful travel piece by AA Gill on how if you are searching for the Raj, don't go to India.

Fun Brixton-style

A shopkeeper in Brixton promoting the neighbourhood to Sid and I: Sunday is all shanti shanti. The fun is on Friday night, Saturday night. You can sit and see a lot of drunk men getting arrested.

No, he was not being ironic.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Passport to Paradise

Passports have become a bit of an obsession with me ever since I left India. I find it amazing how much of your respect and dignity is tied into your passport. If you are the proud owner of the right passport – ie, British, EU, American, and Australian – you can skip in and out of most countries at will regardless of your job, income, education or marital status. But if you have the wrong passport – ie, any non-white country passport – you better be working, have a healthy bank balance, be reasonably well-educated, definitely married, and preferably have your return tickets plastered on to your face before you even dare venture into the visa offices of most countries.

But no one earns his or her passport. A quirk of fate (or an errant grandmother, according to this blog) may be all that it takes.

Which is why, I have a totally different take on the current political stand-off between Britain and Israel. As the political blog Pickled Politics points out, the British government’s reaction to Mossad agents using fake British passports to kill the Hamas leader in Dubai is utterly overblown considering its timid mumbles over Israeli bombing of Gaza in December 2008, which killed over 1,500 innocent Palestinians. The author of the blog appears baffled by Britain’s bluster about human rights and international law in this case. But what he probably doesn’t understand is that British government isn’t protesting over the human rights violation or the breaking of international law by Mossad. It is only and plainly worried about the undermining of British passports by the Israeli Secret Service.

If British passports can be seen internationally as easily faked, then what is to stop countries from insisting upon prior visas for British passport holders before entering their borders? After all, in 2009, UK decided to stop South Africans from entering the UK without prior visas because it felt that the South African passport system was too weak, ie, SA passports could be easily faked.

You see, the reason why British government wasn’t terribly worried about the death of 1500 Palestinians was that it didn’t obstruct the travel plans of British tourists. Mossad’s latest antic could. And that is why, in the humble opinion of this Indian passport holder, Gordon Brown has got his undies in a knot.

If the author of Pickled Politics thinks I am exxagerating, he should read what happens when you have a wrong passport, here and here.

Criminal Mind Games

For the past few days, the British media has been obsessing over Mossad’s use of fake British passports to facilitate the encounter of a Hammas leader in Dubai. The matter is now being investigated by UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency, which in turn, makes me wonder if there is also something like unserious organised crime in the UK.

Which brings me the other obsession of British media: violent crime. Today again, the honour of the front page mention on the BBC news page goes to a stabbing in Bradford.

When I first came to London, reading the papers made me feel that I had somehow landed in the crime capital of the world. I would walk around expecting to be violently stabbed, knifed, bludgeoned, gunned, or murdered in some other equally ghoulish way. (By the way, this wonderful vocabulary on different forms of violence was a new phenomenon too.) There were neighbourhoods I would refuse to enter and the very sight of hoodies would set me scurrying in the opposite direction.

But then I found myself thinking: hey, I come from Mumbai – a tiny island city with 18 million mostly poor and desperate people and the most ineffective police force on earth. But I happily skipped about town there without a care. So why all this terror here in London? A little research proved enlightening. For 2007, a staggering 32,318 murder cases were reported in India. In comparison, a piddling 648 homicide cases were reported in all of England and Wales for 2008-09. Small change, I'd say. Clearly, I was far safer in London than in Mumbai. So why was the media so gleefully attentive to every crime?

Then, I figured it out. It is the relative rarity of violent crime that makes its reportage so sensational and pervasive in the British media. Every violent crime gets rarefied front page mention. In turn, you land up feeling that you are surrounded by crime. By contrast, in India violence is so commonplace that only a lucky few incidents even reach the far left corner of the fourth page. By corollary, the newspaper reader is lulled into a false sense of security. Aal izz well, as Aamir Khan would say.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Skip away Skippy, Appu is here.

BBC iplayer has just uploaded a documentary on the Australian television series Skippy The Bush Kangaroo that was played between 1966 and 69 world over. We had to watch it instantly, Sid being Aussie and all that.

No, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for Skippy. The bush kangaroo was not a part of my childhood, or my parents’. Yes, Skippy was played in more than 126 countries. No, India was not one of them. Yes, it was watched by more than 300 million people. No, that didn’t include any Indians.

The first reason is obvious. There was no television in India in the 1960s. Television only came to India in 1972 so we were never meant to catch the phenomenon in real time. But what about recordings? Sorry, even when we did get television, it was government-controlled, and the government chose to protect our pure eastern minds from nasty western programmes about kangaroos doing funny things with kids. The first western programme I watched was Bold & the Beautiful in 1994 when cable television was finally allowed to operate in India. (Of course, one can argue that it is also a fine programme about a bunch of funny creatures jumping and humping about.)

But don’t feel sad for us. We had our own home-grown – and may I add grander – fix of kids-in-the-wild programming. Appu aur Pappu was a television serial broadcasted from 1987-88 on late afternoons every Sunday. Pappu was the son of a forest officer. Appu was his pet elephant. Together, they foiled the plans of poachers and smugglers, rescued stranded travelers lost in the jungle, befriended tribals, helped wild animals in peril and had other adventures. And boy, did we love our Appu! Believe me, if you think that the dumb kangaroo was the shit, wait till you see what a clever elephant can get up to.

Of course, it was a copy of Skippy. But then, Skippy was a copy of Flipper, an American television serial than ran between 1964 and 67 about the son of a Chief Warden of a marine preserve who befriends a dolphin, and how they together save the world.

But there is one difference. Sid’s Skippy was carefully documented, archived, turned into a cultural reference point, and is still being discussed in documentaries 40 years later. Why? Because it had a marketing machinery behind it. I can't even find a wikipedia page on my Appu to prove to Sid that he was for real.

Try looking up Appu aur Pappu on youtube at your own peril. Whatever turns up - I can assure you - had nothing to do with my childhood. And if you have any doubts about elephant intelligence, here is BBC saying boo to you.

Here's the Indian take on Skippy:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rain in London

It was supposed to have been a miserable day in London - all piss and drizzle all day.

But I was happy. I've always loved the rain. It is not because I spent 15 years in Mumbai where it doesn't just rain -- it pours, storms, floods, leads to utter madness and then we are all let off early from work.

No, it is something in the air when it rains that reacts with my molecules and puts me a good mood, ready to face anything - umbrella wars, traffic jams, water puddles, car splashes, humidity, frizzy hair, and clothes getting plastered to my skin.

Mummy says it is because I was born in Zambia where it rained every day, all 365 days of the year. But Mummy also says I have curly hair because I was born in Zambia. Clearly, Mummy's Zambian theories cannot be trusted.

If anyone has theories about why rains make me happy, feel free to drop a line.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The mysterious reappearance of the zero-rupee note

The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of the zero-rupee note printed by an Indian NGO called 5th pillar to shame the corrupt Indian bureaucracy. It has been reported on by the British, Australian and Indian papers. I can trace back the news to a press realease by the World Bank on December 29, 2009. From there on, it seems to have gone viral.

Only, this initiative is not new. The NGO 5th pillar tried the same campaign in 2007, and it was reported in the Times and few other sites. In fact, the poignant story that the World Bank’s press release begins with – of an old woman in Chennai desperately trying to get her land title from some government office – had also been mentioned in the Times article in 2007. For whatever reason, it has taken the NGO nearly three years to get its campaign noticed, though it is now presenting it as a new initiative.

I don’t think the campaign will go anywhere beyond the sound bytes. And the reason why I believe so is a conversation I’ve had time and again with friends in India. Yes, they don’t like paying bribes. But they like following rules even less. Bribery is an easy way to enjoy the exhilaration of breaking rules for a small price. When you can pay a smallish bribe and get away with anything – speeding, getting papers falsified, jumping queues, getting taxes exempt, gaining government contracts easily – then why get rid of the system. I’ve actually had Indian friends here look back with nostalgia to the culture of bribery back home that made life so simple. Pay a bit of bribe, and get hassle free, quick service. (Indian government officials can be unusually resourceful in finding ways to get your work done, once they have been properly remunerated.)

So 5th pillar might as well save its rupees, I'd say. It isn't just about people being happy to ask for bribes. It is also about people being happy paying bribes.

PS: No, I've never actually paid a bribe to get any service. But maybe, that is why I never got any service.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Empire Strikes Back - with a few borrowed footmen

Refusing to judge the current exhibition at the Charles Saatchi Gallery by its rather gimmicky title – Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today – Sid and I decided to make it our Valentine's outing. And I must say it was fun. It had the works fo 26 different contemporary artists, which together presented a colourful mix of different genres: from small, delicate works to huge paintings and installations. It is ironical and a little sad that in all my years in Mumbai, I never came across an exhibition with such a huge, varied mix of contemporary Indian art as I did today in London.

However, I am as curious as Girish to know why did they bung in three Pakistani artists into the exhibition on Indian art? Was it because the curator simply thought that the term “India” can stand for the whole subcontinent? And even if it did – which it doesn’t – is he trying to say that there are only three artists in Pakistan producing the quality of work comparable to their Indian counterparts, and hence worth exhibiting in the space?

Another tendency that I find a tad troublesome is categorising foreign born and bred artists as Indian artists simply on the basis of their Indian lineage. One such artist is 28-year-old Ajit Chauhan, who was born in Kansas, US, and now lives and works in San Fransisco. The exhibition includes a work composed of 160 old record covers from the 80s (see above). Chauhan has painted over the faces on the covers, which was funny in a disturbing sort of way, but had no connection to Indian popular culture whatsoever. I don’t think his name rings a bell in India, he has never exhibited his works there, and none of his works that I came across over the web refer to India in any way – so why is he a part of Indian Empire striking back? At least, the works of Chitra Ganesh, Shezad Dawood, Schandra Singh refer to India or their own Indian origins in some way. But I can’t say the same of Yamini Nayar or Ajit Chauhan.

I have only been outside of India for two-and-half-years, but already I feel a little doubtful commenting on the daily politics and cultural happenings back home. The subjects are so complex and tied into so many everyday realities that unless I am experiencing them up, close and personal, I don’t want to pass judgments on them. And I am aware that the longer I stay out of India, the more tenuous my connection with the country will become. But in turn, I hope to build new connections and understandings of the cultures and people I encounter outside of India.

Just like I wouldn’t want to pigeonholed as some kind of representative Indian writer, if I am not living in India, I wonder how comfortable Chauhan feels being branded as a contemporary Indian artist.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Holm & Away

The only thing to be said about Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holms is that it ends with the very frightening threat of a sequel.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Year through a Kaleidoscope

The World Press Photo Awards for 2010 have been announced. Started in 1955 by a group of Dutch photographers, the annual award has become the most coveted in the field of photojournalism. The winning entries are also exhibited across 45 countries through the year so as to maximise the opportunity for people to view them no matter which part of the world they live in. This year the tour will cover countries ranging from the usual suspects such as The Netherlands, Germany and the US to such far flung corners as Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Ukraine.

One reason why I never miss going through the catalogue of winners each year (in person if possible, otherwise over the internet) is because it is like looking at the world last year through a kaleidoscope. Some events you couldn't help but know of, others may ring a bell, and then there are those that come as a complete surprise. For example, the drought in Kenya last year, a photo of which won Stefano De Luigi the first prize in the contemporary issues category. Or the rioting in Antananarivo, Madagascar in February 2009. Antananarivo? When? Where? What? But now, I will probably look it up.

The photos will be exhibited in Edinburgh, UK between August 3rd and 28th. (And in Perth from 20th March to 18th April, Brisbane from 5th to 27th June, Sydney from July 9th to August 3rd.)

You can hear one of the jury members discuss the winning image here.

Food for Thought

After months of relentless bad press and political stand-offs, it took one frizzy-haired 35-year-old Australian and her campaign, Vindaloo Against Violence, to restore the image of Australians as friendly, warm people always ready to embrace something new – including lots of new Indians in their country.

It all started on the hot night of January 20th in Melbourne. Mia Northop, a digital media designer, and her architect husband were driving to their neighbourhood curry restaurant in Flemington. The conversation turned to the recent attacks on Indians in Melbourne, and Mia recounted a report she had read that day about Indian businesses, particularly restaurants, suffering because their main clientele – the Indian student community – were reluctant to step out after sunset. What a shame it was, she felt. Then suddenly she said, “What we need is a flash mob – thousands of people going to an Indian restaurant at the same time to show their support!”

The comment was meant in jest but a germ of an idea had formed in Mia’s mind. Why not, she thought. It would give out such a powerful message. The following Friday, she tentatively broached the idea before a few friends she was having dinner with, and they loved it. Mia made up her mind to go ahead with it.

In order to send the message out, she decided to use the medium she knew best – the digital media. In the past, she had often used the internet, particularly the social media, to promote products and services for companies. Now she would use it to promote a cause closer to her heart. She spent the weekend building a simple, easy to navigate website in blue, green and white inviting people to an open event cheekily called Vindaloo Against Violence. The message was simple enough: As an Australian, show your solidarity with the Indian community by eating at the nearest Indian restaurant on February 24. Then she posted the event on Facebook, created a twitter account for it, and cross-referenced them to the website she had built.

Mia believed that the attacks on Indians were the work of a fringe in Melbourne. Most Australians she knew felt a strong repugnance to these attacks. And yet, they had no way to voice their views. The Australian prime minister and the police chief seemed to be speaking for all of them. But given a chance, she felt the silent majority would take the opportunity to show that they cared for the safety of the minority communities.

Her hunch turned out to be absolutely right. Within days, the event had gone viral over the internet with her facebook event registering over 10,000 visits and over 7000 people confirming their participation. Many left messages showing their support for the cause and with helpful tips on good Indian restaurants. Several people have begun planning smaller events – book readings, women organising hand-tattoo nights, Bollywood themed events and outings – to combine with the Indian food. Northop was particularly touched by one email sent to her by an old woman from a tiny country town in Victoria telling her how the people in the town had decided to organise an open-air Bollywood film show to follow the Indian dinner. Her simple urge to get people to eat at an Indian restaurant had tapped into the community feel of the town.

Her event quickly caught on with the Australian media, with all major newspapers reporting it. More importantly, it got a liberal mention in the Indian media as well. After more than a year of bad press, Indians were finally seeing the other Australia – one inhabited by easy-going, conscientious Australians who want to distance themselves from the country’s fist-heavy, gang-happy fringe. In turn, Northop received several emails from Indians showing their appreciation of the gesture.

Indian food, believes Mia, was the best way to get Melbournians together. With its great weather, abundant space, and lively street life, the city has always had a rich restaurant and cafĂ© culture. All Melbournians consider themselves proud foodies. In turn, Indian cuisine with flavourful curries has caught on in almost all countries that Indians have migrated to. It seemed like a perfect combination to bring all Melbournians – Indians and otherwise – together.

Though, India has always been a part of Mia’s life – her mother was always fond of cooking Indian curries and tandoori chicken, several of her friends and former boyfriends were of Indian origin, and she is a regular practitioner of yoga – she doesn’t consider herself an Indophile. Her initiative was more driven by her concern that the world was getting the wrong impression of Australians. She says, she would have started the initiative if the violence had been targeted at the Sudanese, Lebanese or Chinese communities too. She just wanted the rest of the world to know what a marvellous place Australia was to live in.

With her initiative set to be a resounding success, Mia is now wondering where she will eat on February 24th. Perhaps, after all the madness of the month, it will be a quiet dinner at her local Indian restaurant in Flemington, Taste of India.

If you are still undecided on where to eat at on February 24, try this lovely vegetarian Indian restaurant called Nirvana Vegetarian Cafe on 486 Bridge Road, Richmond (03-9428-408). It is run by my friendly, talkative mother-in-law and the food is great. On the other hand, she might try to convince you to see light and turn vegetarian.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Flash in the pan

I wrote a 150-word story for a flash fiction contest by Mslexia Magazine and then discovered that the deadline is tomorrow. And no, they do not accept email submissions. All submissions are to be sent by post with SAEs.

In my defence, I discovered the magazine today itself.

Anyway, the theme was “harness” and I’ll let my esteemed 17 followers to be the judge.

Breathless, Paul felt the walls of the tiny train toilet of the great Indian railways cave in on him. Damn India, damn its hot gassy curries, and damn Emily for insisting on this trek. His stomach was going to explode. And yet, he couldn’t fucking shit.

It is one thing to talk of journeying through India on trains in the candlelit warmth of a Chelsea restaurant. It is another to find yourself precariously squatting on a toilet pot in a thundering train trying hard not to rock over. But Emily couldn’t understand what was the big deal. She bloody loved India!

Paul took a deep breath harnessing the last dregs of strength inside him and started contracting his intestines with all his might. He must keep pushing. He must.

A tiny joke-of-a-turd plopped on to the metal below.

Paul accepted that he and Emily would never make it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Spain, Spain go away

And this is why, I won’t be visiting Spain.

Because it is not enough for the Spanish Consulate - or its outsourced arm in England, the VFS application Centre - that I have my husband’s employment contract to show them when applying for a visa. They want a letter from his employer addressed to the Spanish Consulate stating that he will rejoin the company at the end of the holiday. Never mind, that he is Australian and doesn’t even need a visa to enter Spain. I, his Indian wife, do – so he must get a letter.

It isn’t enough that we are married and I have my marriage certificate in original and photocopy to prove it. They want Sid to write a letter stating that he will financially support me through the holiday.

And this is what did it for me: It isn’t enough that I have a travel insurance which covers the medical expenses. They want me to go through the forty page document, find the clause that states that if I die in Spain while on holiday, the insurance will pay for the repatriation of the dead body, photocopy the page and give it to them. So the Spanish government doesn’t mind paying for the dead body of people with the right passports, they do in case of those with the wrong passports. I decided that even Antoni Gaudi isn’t worth all the trouble.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mad Women

I finally got around to watching Mad Men on BBC iplayer: The critically-acclaimed American television drama about America in the early 1960s, as seen through lives of the men and women working for an advertising agency in New York. It recently entered its fourth successful season.

As I saw the first three episodes online, I found myself wondering that shouldn’t the show really be called Mad Women? Of course, most of the big-shots at the firm are chain-smoking, chain-philandering sexist men. But it is the women behind them – the wives and secretaries – who are all raging schizophrenic.

Think about it. Yes, they are all extremely ambitious. But all their ambitions must play-out through their husbands’ careers. Yes, they are meek around their husbands and bosses. But they are so passive aggressive. Yes, many have jobs. But none – except one, Peggy Olsen – have careers. Yes, they run immaculate households. But they must pretend that their husbands take the call on important decisions. They are beautiful, smart, intelligent, and opinionated. But they never question their role as the supporting cast in the ups and downs of their husbands' lifestory.

Just watching the show made me feel suffocated. Ambitious or not, meek or not, good housekeepers or not: at least, we are free from pretentions today. So fine, I may have my quibbles with feminist literature, but thank god the movement took place when it did.

Another reason for watching the show is the gorgeous period detailing - especially the office. The wood panelling, the colours of the upholstery, the clean modernist lines of the furniture and the abstract paintings on the wall - they were such elegant times. And how beautifully everyone dressed up. No one was trying to rebel against their own goodlooks. The show's worth a peek just for that. The last three episodes of Mad Men can be watched here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

America vs Austria

I gave in practically the same documentation to both the Austrian Consulate as I did to the American one.

The same bank statements, the same travel history, a letter from a relative ready to sponsor me, the same residential permits to the UK and Australia. It was my first application to both embassies and I was interviewed by both.

The result – Austria gives me a 6-day visa and America a 10-year one.

Why is it that Austrians are scared that I will abandon my Australian husband, my UK and Australian residencies, and run away to Austria to live as a fugitive but not the Americans?

Osian's - going, going, not gone yet?

Last week I met Aqdas Tatli, who is doing an MA in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, and over dosas had a robust debate on whether art is art or is it just another commodity. (If he doing his master’s in art business you can imagine which side of the debate he clearly stood.)

Soon after, I read this great article in Forbes magazine about the woes of Osian’s, the world’s second largest art fund started by Neville Tuli in my humble Mumbai. It is threatening to go belly-up thanks to Tuli’s wild gambles leaving several high-profile investors left moaning. Tatli is making a presentation on Osian’s in his class (and I am hoping to sneak in).

But my point is, yes, art is a commodity. But isn’t it a consumer-durable kind of commodity? You must buy it because you like it, appreciate it, enjoy it and get some pride out of it. You don’t buy it because it will someday make lots of money for you. That said, it does carry a chance with it that someday it might turn vintage, and make a pile for you in the process.

Can we equate art to an investment commodity? The success of both art and financial instruments as an investment depends on some solid predictable indicators interacting with some unpredictable ones. In case of financial instruments such as shares and bonds, the predictable economic and physical indicators such a healthy capital investment, a balance sheet that makes sense, business plans that are clearly based on the prevailing business, political and economic environment are in tension against unpredictable elements such as wild human behaviour, natural disasters, accidents etc. In case of art, the predictable factor such as the marketing machinery behind an artist interplays with unpredictable elements such as current fashions, tastes and the artist’s creativity and ability. But I do think, that in case of the latter, the balance is deeply tilted on the side of the unpredictable indicators.

Which is why, if I ever have any money to buy art I will follow the advice by a wise bald gentleman called Girish Shahane. Yes, invest in art but always buy something that you like. So that if its price doesn’t rise as predicted, at least you are left with something on your walls that you enjoy and appreciate.

South Asian art is making its presence felt in London at two venues. First, Saatchi Gallery has a huge exhibition on Indian and Pakistani art (paintings, installations, sculptures, you name it) entitled The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today. Second, the Whitechapel Gallery in East London has an extensive exhibition on 150 years of photography in South Asia. There’s your art for a bargain, oh Londoners!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Attending Tony Blair's grilling at the Iraq Inquiry

I went to the QE II Conference Hall on Friday afternoon to watch the questioning of Tony Blair live in the spirit of a political tourist.

Now, I am neither Iraqi nor British. I am Indian, and India cleverly refused to commit any troops to the Iraq War. I don’t know a single British/American/Iraqi who suffered personally in the invasion and its aftermath. My interest in the Iraq War had always been purely political. As the citizen of the world, I had always been appalled that Bush and Blair did what they did and got away with it. And now, I had won a ticket through a nation-wide lottery to attend Blair’s grilling in person, and hell, I was not going to miss the chance.

The sight outside added to my sense of bonhomie – there was a small group of protestors outside screaming “Blair Dies” which I thought was bit extreme but oh well.. he was their ex-prime minister, so who was I to judge. (It was actually “Blair Lies”, but the penny dropped later). Most ticket holders like me looked flushed and pleased with their luck… like me.

It was only when the questioning began that all else faded away, and the seriousness of what I was attending struck me. Here was a nation trying to understand how did it manage to get itself embroiled in a war not of its making, under completely false pretences, and with minimal preparation and are continuing to bleed both money and life into it seven years later? How did all their systems – cabinet, parliament, labyrinthine government departments, military, intelligence, and legal advisors – fail to predict how horribly wrong the Iraq invasion would go?

Tony Blair was of course the architect of Britain’s involvement in the invasion seven years ago. Not only was he the prime minister of Britain at that time, he actively convinced (coerced?) all the offices and advisors around him and the people of Great Britain that it was the right thing to do, the right time to do, and they knew the right way to do it.

Only it didn’t turn out to be the case. And hence, here he was sitting before a panel that made no effort to hide its accusatory tone, in a room full of people who had lost their family to Blair’s ill-gotten war, trying to explain his actions. Or as the Evening Standard later describe, “explain away” his actions. What Blair was at pains to point out that while he took responsibility for the decisions taken, he wasn’t alone in making those decisions. That other people supported him: his cabinet, the parliament, the attorney general, and for what it’s worth, the military generals. Everyone hated him for trying to spread the blame – for not coming out and spitting it, that he was responsible for it all and he was sorry about it.

But that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it? That Tony Blair lied to everyone, that nobody had the means to check his lies, that he manipulated their moral reasoning, that the rest of the cast (and the nation) is simply exonerated.

But if that were the case, what would be the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, where one man decides for the nation and takes responsibility for the action. I thought democracy gave other arms of the government the power to check the actions of a runaway prime-minister/president. Why didn’t the other arms exercise this power? Why did the attorney general Lord Goldsmith capitulate under pressure? Others had quit their job on the issue, why couldn’t he stand up to his views? Why didn’t the parliament try to conduct their own investigations into the issue instead of just blindly believing everything Blair and party dished out to them? That is what a parliament is there for.

If this inquiry is to be a success, these are the questions it must try to answer. (And, to be fair, that is what it is trying to.)

When I came out of the inquiry, the protest had only gotten bigger. Blair lies, Blair lies – the skies seemed to be screaming. Only, I wasn’t feeling the same bonhomie as before. I wasn’t a political tourist anymore. I was engaged in this debate.

Yes, Blair lied. But how is Britain going to ensure that next time a prime minister lies to its people, they don’t fall for it? And this is question that all democracies around the world – including India – must ponder over.