Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Commonwealth Games Theme Song

At least one person connected with the Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010 has finished his task on schedule - the ever dependable AR Rahman, who was entrusted with the task of coming up with the CWG theme song. (So even if the athletes have no track to run on, at least they are now assured a good song and dance show.)

Of course, the humble Mr Rahman did not only finish the song "Swagatham" but has also made it available on Soundcloud for people to listen to:

CWG Theme Song by arrahman

Now, MumbaiBoss - a website I follow - has given it a thumbs up. But you can also have your say here:



Cricket Scandals: Or why I continue believing in sports

Hall of Shame
Sid & I returned from Italy yesterday to all the hullaboloo over the Pakistani Cricket scandal. My first thought, as I glanced at the Daily Mail front page in the airplane, was "Thank God, it was Pakistan and not India." For considering that corruption is a way of life in both countries, it could have just as well been. We too, after all, had a cricket captain Mohammed Azharduddin banned for life from playing the sport for admitting to having fixed three ODI matches. Today, he is an honourable member of the parliament in India.

I stopped watching cricket after it emerged that the South African captain Hansie Cronje and a few others had thrown matches against India in 2000. I had been one of those idiots who had emotionally invested herself heavily in one of those thrown matches, breathlessly hanging on to every ball as it was played. So  when it emerged that the match had been coldly fixed in advance, my relationship with the sport was forever broken. After that, no matter how hard I tried, I could never feel any emotional involvement with the game.

And yet, just as my cynicism towards sports in general was cementing with this lastest scandal, a fellow blogger posted a video on his latest entry that reminded me how - when played right - sports is the closest thing to transendence we will ever feel. With its mix of sweat, blood, talent, dreams, courage and imperceptable chance, it touches something so unbearably human inside us. And the video is not even about a win, it is about a tragic loss: that of the athlete Derek Redmond's in the 1992 Olympics.

Derek Redmond - May your tribe increase.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A discourse on first impressions: Or how my grubby one-bedroom apartment redeeemed India

A friendly fruit market in Wroclaw
I wrote to Girish that I had been to Wroclaw (pronounced Rotslav for some reason) in Poland over the weekend and had found the Poles the friendliest and most unassuming people I had ever met. He replied that after his Vietnamese friend got beaten up by some racist thugs in Warsaw, he developed an aversion to the place and people and had never felt like visiting it.

That made me think of the danger of parachute travel, where we swoop down on a place, hang around for a day or two, and leave with very decided opinions about it. Often, we only get a first impression of the place, and good or bad, it forever colours our view of the culture and people in question.

Because I had my only racist experience in Greece, the country will be stamped as racist in my mind. And because the Poles in Wroclaw were friendly, I'll always recommend it to others. However, isn't it possible that the friendliness of the people in Wroclaw had more to do with it being a non-touristy, small town than anything necessarily Polish, and our experience in Rhodes was an isolated, freak incident?

Unfortunately, we never really think about all these possibilities, do we? We visit the country once, and our experiences determines what we will think of it for a long time until perhaps other experiences colour them over.

But that makes me think, that by corollary, isn't it also true that as I visit different countries, I am leaving behind a trail of first impressions of Indians in the minds of the people I interact with, especially in countries that Indians do not frequent?

Maybe that is why the Phillipino landlord of the guesthouse in Amsterdam that we stayed at had insisted on telling me about a horrible Indian woman who had stayed with him once. Apparently, she was American-Indian and had refused to enter the establishment on the grounds that it did not have a reception. Having checked into a "proper" hotel next door, she had then insisted on coming over for breakfast every morning at the guest house and brag about her doctor-daughter who apparently owned a six-door car and lived in a mansion in the US. I wasn't exactly sure why he told us the whole story, but I couldn't help but feel that I was somehow responsible for her behaviour.

I tried explaining that perhaps her rudeness had nothing to do with she being Indian. Maybe, she was just a rude, silly woman, and rude, silly women live everywhere. When that didn't help, I added that Sid & I didn't have a car at all - let along a six door one - and lived in a rather grubby one-bedroom place in London. The last seemed to have redeemed Indians in his eyes, but only just.

The things I do for my country.

On competitive Indian mothers:

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Orientalism Paradox: Or do everything I write, I write to prove the British as bastards?

How about we settle for mutual critcism
Andrew is writing a book about British travel accounts of Egypt in the nineteenth century. I am reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is all about how prejudiced, supercilious and ill-advised such seemingly-innocuous nineteenth century British accounts of the East were. Together, that should have made for a rather volatile session over coffee last week.

But we are civilized people so we didn’t explode. We just grimaced.

Now, here’s why I love and hate Syed at the same time.

Said's argument is not simply that the West criticises the East based on prejudice, poor information, and with the intention to dominate. His argument is that all criticism of the East by the West will always be based on prejudice, poor information and the intention to dominate because it already arises from the position of the dominant. If you are already the stronger one, you will want to maintain that position – and hence, everything you say will be to that end, and hence suspect.

Conclusion: Until the West is a dominant force around the world, it has no business criticising the East. Thus, the Middle East, India and China are free to behave the way they want. Voila!

For a wonderful account of how this frees us Indians of any responsibility, read Girish Shahane’s latest column on Yahoo.

Unfortunately, as much as I love Syed, he has created a peculiar problem for me.

If I believe Syed’s argument that everything lies in positioning, then don’t I come to Britain from a position of victimhood, that of poor little Ms once-colonised-Indian-me. And can a victim ever be objective about the oppressor? And if not, wouldn’t all my criticisms of Britain always be based on prejudice, poor information, and the intention to prove the British as absolute bastards? And thus, automatically invalid?

Only, I’d like to keep my right to criticise Britain – its horrible food, labyrinthine bureaucracy, piss-all weather and an obsession with peculiar creatures like Katie Price – and be taken seriously.

So Syed will have to retire to the back end of my book shelf. I'll reserve my right to criticise anything and everything about Britain. And Andrew can write all the travelogues he wants about Egypt.

From the horse's mouth himself:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Work of art: Or why I love reading Bollywood film reviews

Birds of prey
No matter what Indian filmmakers may say about Bollywood films coming of age – we all know they haven’t. They are still as silly as they come.

But here’s why it is important to keep Bollywood a going concern. Because they lead to such pricelessly funny reviews. Like this one of the latest Bollywood release in India, Lafangey Parindey (translated as “Loafer Birds”, told you silly as hell).

The thing is that if you are an intelligent person and have to review a completely absurd product, the only way you can survive the process is by developing a sense of humour. If most things about the film suck – the story, the characters, the acting, the plot development, the editing – the only way to get any joy out of the work is to make fun of it. So actually, the worse the film, the better the review.

Of course, that can happen with films elsewhere as well. Every now and then, silly British films come up that lead to incredibly funny reviews. But Bollywood film reviewers have an edge over others for three reasons.

First, they get so much more practice. After all, as is famously known, Bollywood produces more films a year than any other film industry around the world, most of them silly.

Second, everyone in the know – the reviewer, the filmmaker, and the audience – takes it for granted that sense has no place in the film. So you are relieved of any responsibility of looking for it in the film. Your sole responsibility is to make sure that the audience enjoys your review.

Third, you know that your review will have no effect whatsoever on the fate of the film.

So you are free to have as much fun with your review as you want without any kind of responsibility or ethical dilemmas. Slowly, as your skills get more honed, the reviews become works of art in themselves.

So, if I was a book publisher looking to come out with a book on Bollywood that intelligent people would enjoy – I would forget the films and focus on the reviews.

At the risk of self promotion, here are a couple of Bollywood film review that I had fun writing: Namastey London & Shaadi Se Pehle.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On Style: Or does homelessness lie in the eyes of the beholder

Taken from the Style Scout blog
Trolling through the English-Life Mattters website, I came across The Style Scout, a sort of Sartorialist-for-adolescents blog. I was completely perplexed by the picture that greeted me: see, the man in sad green cardigan on the side.

Now, if I met this guy on the streets, my first thoughts would be: “Oh, poor soul, do I have some pennies to spare!” I mean, to me he just looked homeless and starved. He even has a dog to complete the look.

But, obviously, the look was constructed and considered stylish enough to be featured on the blog. Apparently, he is “very grandma-chic meets sporty” according to one of the comment.

Obviously, I was missing something.

Then I realised I was being “so first-gen” (as Sid calls all the first generation Indian immigrants).

You see, the thing is that in India everyone looks generally poor and badly dressed. Life is too hot, rushed, crowded and painful for most of us to worry about how we look. So if somebody wants to stand out – he/she dresses well. Because if you turned up in holed cardigans and cotton Bermudas, you won’t be seen as a stylish wannabe-arty-person-only-masquerading-as-a-homeless-man, you will actually be taken for one and shooed away. On the other hand, if you regularly turned up in uncreased clothes, neatly blow-dried hair and make-up in place, people will be enthralled. For it is indeed a difficult look to manage with a four-hour commute in a breathlessly-packed train everyday.

On the other hand, as I am slowly learning, in the civilised world it works in reverse: the more holes in your cardigan, the better. Because if everyone is dressed in their Sunday best all the time, what better way to grab eyeballs then to turn-up in your Monday night pyjamas.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Foto8 Summershow 2010: Or why I'd give Poulomi's exhibition a go

Best Ear Cleaners by Nick Cunard
Poulomi messaged excitedly on Tuesday. Her photo was being displayed at the foto8 summershow exhibition at the Host Gallery, and she wanted me to come for the opening. “There’ll be wine, canapés and lots of industry people,” she said by way of enticement. I didn’t go. Because Sid came back home looking rather miserable, and I didn’t want to leave him alone to noodle soup and bbc iplayer. (What to do? I like Sid, he’s nice to me.)

But l am also a loyal friend so I diligently registered my footprints at the exhibition the next day.

What took me by surprise was that 15 of the 153 works of photojournalism on display were shot in India – meandering between Kashmir, Rishikesh, Varanasi, Bhopal, Rajasthan, Ahemdabad, Jharkhand, Mumbai and Goa. No, no, they were not shot by Indians, silly heads, only shot in India. There was only one photograph actually taken by an Indian, and the honour went to my friend, Ms Basu (pronounced Boshoo, thank you.)

Now, I dislike whining postcolonialists enough to agree that yes anyone – Indian or otherwise – has the right to come to India, take our pictures, and display them in London galleries. And they should be allowed to shoot what they think is interesting, and celebrate it as such. What I was interested in was what I, as an Indian in a London viewing these images, should get from them? Do they observe and single-out things that I as an Indian – born and bred in India – do not or cannot notice myself?

The first image of India that caught my eye was of the ear cleaners of Rishikesh? Oh no, I thought. Aesthetics aside, haven't I seen ear cleaners being shot and documented (as a lovely, quirky anachronism) by other Indian photographers already?

Next came the train ride. Ok, nice enough shot but as social documents go the great Indian railway journey is a bit overdone, I think.

The three shots of Bhopal Gas Victims. Well, at least it keeps a controversial, unresolved issue in the limelight.

I began to get intrigued when I found myself face-to-face with a black-and-white close-up of a school girl from Varanasi – her face tightly framed by her ungainly woollen scarf. Shot by Kathryn Obermaier, the portrait reminded me of how I used to dress with no sense of fashion whatsoever when going to school – hair tied in tight plaits, red ribbons, long skirts, long socks, oily hair, tight woollen scarf and a deadly scowl. If I looked anything like her than I was absolutely lovely in my unassuming ugliness. I’m glad such innocence lives on.
Courtesy: Poulomi Basu

Poulomi’s photograph of the women of the Indian Border Armed Forces as they trained before being deployed to the line of control between India and Pakistan stood out too. Who would know, if it wasn’t for Poulomi, that such a battalion exists. Yes, a battalion of women soldiers in a country where women are still being burnt alive for dowry! Nice contradiction, isn’t it? I couldn’t help but wonder what went through those bodies and minds, and Poulomi’s image gave a glimpse.

I also loved Helen Rimmel’s portrait of Azim Tuman, the chairman of the houseboat association in Kashmir. Houseboat Association? Houseboats? I can’t remember the last time, I thought of beautiful things when someone mentioned Kashmir. And yet, the remnants of those old, beautiful, half-happy things perhaps lay scattered all over the valley and pop-up in photographs like this one.

The others included images of illegal mine workers in Jharkhand (that cesspit of India), ganges (a bit ho-hum), and a couple of intriguing shots by Shiho Kito.

So shot by Indians or not, I'd say the exhibition does give an intriguing glimpse into India.

The exhibition will be on till September 4 at Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y OTH.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In memory of Satyavrat Redey

My uncle died.

Normally, I wouldn't be so put out for I have a great many number of uncles – Indian family, what to do? But Baba Mama, as we all called him, was one of the precious four I actually cared about. Now I am left with three.

Come to think of it, he wasn’t even my uncle. Technically, he was my father’s uncle, but I appropriated him once I discovered how cool he was.

He was the first in our family to step outside India (he lived in Germany in the 1950s to be exact), first to become an engineer, first to travel around Europe, first to see the Mona Lisa, first to marry a career woman, first to live in an Indian metropolis, first to own a car and take my Dad out for a spin, and the first to get on to the computer and the Internet. Nothing was too new, too radical for him.

But the absolute crowning glory of his achievements was that he offered me my very first glass of wine, red wine.

I was 17 or 18, and guess what did I do? I promptly added ice cubes to it and gulped it down.

I hope he didn’t die thinking that I still drink my wine with ice.

To Mami, Vipul and Vaibhavi:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Dinner Party: Or have I turned into Mrs Dalloway?

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am.
I got up yesterday in a frenzy. It was the day of the dinner, and I hadn’t even got the chicken. And the blender was broken, so I needed to pick one up from Argos.

I knew that the cashews were there, but I wasn’t sure there were enough mushrooms. We had the right number of serving bowls, but I was one frying pan short so I had to make the mushrooms first, and only then get on with the chicken. Sid had scrubbed the bathtub, and had bought the wine and the spinach so that was done. But should I get flowers for the house as well? 

It was at the flowers that the frightening realisation struck me – I had turned into Mrs Dalloway!

Now, Virginia Woolf’s unfortunate Mrs Dalloway is no one’s my literary heroine exactly. The weak, silly, snivelling woman had given up the chance of a life with real love, adventure and the struggles that accompany them for a cushy life organising parties and wondering about flowers in London. 

Ok, so my party was small and informal with only Esther-the-Lawyer and Leo-with-an-Afro (and recently turned free market supporter) coming over. But I was married, jobless in London, and worrying about flowers, mushrooms and the colour of the table mats. Did that mean that I, too, was a weak, silly, snivelling woman? Had I given up on real love, adventure and the accompanying struggles?

The thing is, I grew-up with rather fuzzy ideas about feminism. There was never much discussion about it at home or school, but I picked up enough from popular culture to know that housework – the unholy trinity of cooking, cleaning and washing – was deeply uncool and needed to be avoided at all cost. Of course, there were other elements too – being financially independent, intellectual pursuits, being an equal decision-maker in the relationship. But I determinedly decided that those could only be achieved at the cost of housework. Any man who expected me to cook, clean or wash was not worth my time.

To give credit to my parents – lovely people – they did argue that it was a conveniently lazy form of feminism that I had adopted, but at the end they just shrugged in resignation and let me go ahead with my funny experiments with life.

Sid did not expect me to cook, clean and wash. But once it wasn't expected it of me, I discovered was that I actually enjoyed cooking and cleaning (maybe, not so much washing). I love good food and  a clean house, and the easiest way to get them is to cook and clean yourself. It doesn’t have much to do with either feminism or working, because even during the months that I was working – May, June and July – I would return home looking forward to the next hour in the kitchen. I find chopping therapeutic, I love the whoosh vegetables make when I slide them into the hot oil, and the changing aromas of food as it moves through the different stages of cooking mesmerise me. Most of all, I love eating what I cook. And if I can eat it on a well-laid out table, with nice wine to accompany it, and some flowers in the house – so much the better. 

Yes, I must get a job and be financially independent. (I know I am shortchanging myself there.) But that is mutually independent of cooking and cleaning. I can be a feminist and still love cooking, cleaning, throwing parties and arranging flowers.

And I always leave the dishes for Sid to do at the end. I wonder if Mr Dalloway was as obliging.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Baffled by brands: Or is Louis Vuitton pulling a fast one of us?

Grand signature design: Mud brown with LV squiggles?
When the lady at her little shop in Portobello Market pointed at the Elspeth Gibson London label on the nice tweed skirt, she expected my eyes to light-up. Never having heard of Ms Gibson from London, I only stared back in incomprehension. Unfortunately, I don’t think the fact endeared me to her and I suspect she bumped the price up of by another £5 just to punish me.

But here's the thing: why should I have heard of Ms Elspeth Gibson from London? She only makes skirts – nice skirts, I agree, but skirts nonetheless. She doesn’t set the tax rates, and she doesn’t decide how my taxes will be spent. And yet, it is socially unacceptable for me to admit that, no, I had never heard of her before today.

Perhaps, it is my legacy of growing up in a socialist India that I don’t know, understand or care for brands.

I like to buy things, nice things. But I want to buy them because they are well-made, and look good on me or my house. Not because cleverly-made advertisements - with not just a little help from feminist icon Carrie Bradshaw - tell me that they are fabulous, my life is worthless without them, and that just to own them will prove to others that I have fabulous taste, or at the very least, lots of money.

Unfortunately, most people are buying into brands precisely for those reasons. And I can't help but feel sad for such people.

Even if I bought into the whole advertising spiel, I still don’t get the obsession with Louis Vuitton, the luxury leather goods brand. Its grand signature design comprises mud brown backgrounds with LV squiggled all over it. From my perspective, that is ugly and somewhat loud. Sid says the idea behind having such an obvious signature design is instant recognition. No one should miss that you are carrying a Louis Vuitton accessory.

But what I can’t miss is that everyone is bloody carrying a Louis Vuitton. In cars, buses, shops, streets, I see men and women flashing their mud brown LVs: young women, old women, fat women, thin women, gay men, straight men, and white, brown and black men and women. So either the market is glutted with clever fakes or this exclusive club is bursting on its seams.

Agreed it is ugly, but at least there are no squiggles
If it is the former, it’s the brand’s fault fair and square. Instead of trying to sell itself on genuinely clever, hard to copy, detailing, Louis Vuitton tried to sell itself on the basis of its one loud, easily recognisable – and thus equally easy to reproduce – patent design.

And if it is the latter, than it has hard-sold itself so much that I am no longer setting myself apart by spending my money on Louis Vuitton.

Either way, from my perspective, this brand is pulling a fast one on us. 

But then again, what do I know. I am just a hick little child of socialist India.

Who says it better than Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous - "Lacroix? Fabulous. Thank You!"

Friday, August 13, 2010

Policing the poll: Or an update on the great Indian passport debate

Courtsey: The American Culture
Two day ago, I wrote a blog about how Sid says that Indian passports should be divided into two categories: Passport A & B – with one having more rights than others.

I put up his very undemocratic sounding idea up for a democratic vote, and much to my surprise – four people actually voted. The result like most things Indian is complicated. We have a tie with two votes in favour and two against.

Now, one vote I know is from Sid – trying to rig the poll in his favour. But I have no idea who the other three are.

Please stand up and identify yourself. The comment floor is yours to say why you think it is a bad or a good idea. I swear you won't have Sid running after you with a stick!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bring on the Biryani: Or how I saw journalism get its mojo back

Inside the toilets of Dishoom
I have never really believed in the power of journalism. Of course, I had heard of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and had even dutifully watched All the President’s Men during university years, but five years of working as a journalist cured me of the notion that anything I wrote changed the world by even one-tenth of a percentage point.

My cynicism was cemented by the fact that Nandini – the film critic of Time Out Mumbai – would keep sending me to review Hindi films. They would invariably be terrible, I would invariably say so in my reviews, and they would invariably go on to become major hits.  Alright, so film reviews weren’t exactly in league with investigating the president, but if I couldn’t even get people to change their taste in films, how was to convince them to change their leaders.

So I entered my thirtieth year of life convinced of my own powerlessness. And then, Guy Dimond and Dishoom happened.

Now Guy is the food critic of Time Out London, and Dishoom is a new restaurant on Long Acre Road which claimed to be on the lines of a Bombay Irani Café. Last month, while I was doing an internship there, Guy asked me to accompany him for the restaurant review hoping that my Bombay days would come in handy in affirming his views on the place. We sat, ate and concluded that the Berry Chicken Biryani – the signature dish of most Irani cafes in Mumbai – was too dry, and really that ought not to be so. Then he wrote the same in his review, and we all forgot about it.

So imagine my surprise last week, when I was there with a few friends, and we found the whole recipe to be changed. When I quizzed the manager about it, here’s what he said: “some reviews said that the biryani was too dry, so we decided to change the recipe!”

Change the recipe? Change it because of a review? A review that I was – in whatever small measure – a part?

If I could get a restaurant to change its recipe, perhaps, I could change people’s tastes in films. Perhaps, I can change people’s minds about their leaders. Perhaps, I could change the world.

I am ready. Now, if only someone would hire me to start upon the project.

With its Biryani fixed, I would consider Dishoom a very welcome and much needed-addition to Central London. It has a contemporary décor, a cool vibe, an eclectic menu (with no Chicken Tikka Masala in sight), and reasonable prices (if you consider about £30-35-for-dinner & drinks-for-two reasonable). No longer will I have to go all the way to Southall or Wembley and suffer the terrible restaurant décors in order to enjoy a good Indian meal with friends.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Malaysian Malaise: Or should we have a passport A and passport B for Indians?

I was in throes of misery last week when I found out that Malaysia had scrapped the Visa-on-Arrival facility that it extended to Indian citizens. Not that I blame them. After all, 40,000 Indians had abused the system and disappeared into the netherland of Malaysia. Naturally, the Malay aren’t feeling terribly welcoming towards us.

But what I want to know is this. How many Indians visited Malaysia in the same period and did not flout the visa regulations? I am sure that the figure was much higher than the much-maligned “40,000” figure. But now, all those people who kept to the right side of the law, including myself, will be penalised.

Is that fair? Will I always have to answer for the actions of my lawless compatriots? Does my good behaviour account for nothing?

Sid says he has the perfect solution to the problem. 

The Indian government should have a two-tiered system of passports. Everyone is granted Passport B to begin with, which is like our passports as the moment – with no visa-on-arrival facilities. But if in the next five-to-ten years, they rake up an extensive travel history without flouting any visa regulations, they should be upgraded to a Passport A, which will be allowed visa-on-arrival facility. 

After all, if someone’s objective is to go AWOL in America, they are not going to wait five years, visit the country several times, get their Passport A and then do it. They will probably do it the moment they are granted their very first visa on their Passport B.

Now Leo-with-an-Afro (see followers) says this will amount to grading of citizenship into Class A & Class B, and as much as he would like it, he cannot support the idea. But Sid says it amounts to rewarding good behaviour because everyone has to start at the same level – and then, whether they move up or not will depend on their own actions.  According to him, the problem in India is not just that bad behaviour goes unpunished, it is also that good behaviour goes unrecognised.

As for me, I am undecided. But I so do want that visa-on-arrival…

Have your say:


The blue bits are the travel option available to a non-visa holding Indian. For a closer look, go here. (Remember to remove Malaysia out of the blue bits now.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ms Rich visits India: Or why we Indians are not achieving spiritual nirvana

There are principally three things that people in the West associate with India. First, of course, is its poverty. There is no running away from that. Second is Indian cuisine, or curry food as it is popularly called here. For all its accomplishments, it is lamb curry and paneer tikka that our great civilisation will be forever remembered for. The third, peculiarly, is spirituality.

I was reminded of the third today when I came across the book Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich, an American journalist. According to its reviews, the book is about how – overwhelmed by her fight with cancer, loss of job, and having her Manolo Blahniks chewed by her cat – Ms Rich decides to move to India in order to master Hindi. What follows is, quite naturally, her spiritual self-discovery in Udaipur (with some divergences into the science behind learning a whole new language). The book has just arrived in England, even though it was launched in America last year, where it quickly (and dare I say, predictably) made it to Oprah’s list of summer reads. And if Eat, Pray, Love is anything to go by, there will be a film to follow in a couple of years.

Ms Rich is not alone. I’ve met several people over the last couple of years for whom India represents some kind of mysterious spiritual awakening waiting to happen. The notion is further aided and abetted by a whole Eastern spiritual industry comprising massage parlours, yoga classes, meditation centres, healing foods, and of course, books about spiritual journeys to India.

I once asked one such spiritually-minded Canadian, what exactly he meant by wanting to visit India to experience its spirituality, in what way did he think that Indians were more spiritual than the rest of the world. What I gathered from his incoherent mumble was Indians are “non-materialistic unlike the west”.

Now, let me get one thing clear. It is rather difficult to be materialistic when there isn’t much “material” to go around. Just because a lot of poor people make do with whatever they can, doesn’t mean that given the opportunity – that is money and access to shiny goods – they won’t give in to material pleasures. They will, and they are in increasingly larger numbers, if my last trip to Inorbit Shopping Mall in Mumbai was anything to go by. I don’t think my Canadian friend would have found much spirituality-in-action there.

Sometimes I wonder if celebrating India’s supposed spirituality is West’s way of dealing with its poverty. Because they can’t understand how people can continue to live, work and thrive in such deprived conditions, they make themselves believe that Indians must have some kind of super-human spiritual armour to keep them going. Indians don’t have money because they simply don’t care for it – they are too busy enjoying spiritual nirvana.

Now I lived for twenty-three years in India, but let me assure you, I wasn’t enjoying any spiritual nirvana. Nor could a single person out of my extensive network of friends and family be strictly described as spiritual. Yes, they pray to God quite diligently, but mostly it is a tit-for-tat arrangement: I’ll pray, and you nust get me that seat in an engineering college/job/pay packet/car and whatever else is the latest at Inorbit Shopping Mall. That is not spiritual, non-materialistic, meditative or other-worldly in my dictionary of self-attainment.

But still women like Ms Rich arrive in India and promptly achieve enough self-fulfilment to write books on it. Perhaps, we Indians are just not trying hard enough!

Here is a trailor to my favourite spiritual journey through India, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Gay Pride Parade: Or going pink on Princengracht

Amterdam has greeted us with the gay pride parade, which will start today at 2pm on Princengracht (the Prince's canal).

No, we didn't plan this. In fact, thanks to the parade we couldn't find any reasonable accomodation and had to rent a small apartment and pay double the price. Oh well, it is lovely and next to the canal and I shouldn't complain.

Think I will leave you guys with the American-Indian comedian Russell Peter's take on Gay Indians and Gay Pride Parades (I am sure that most of you must have seen it already):

Friday, August 6, 2010

Amsterdam: Or the story of a dominatrix, bakery and a dress shop

Red, red, red in Amsterdam
Sid & I are off to Amsterdam for the weekend.

Amsterdam, oh Amsterdam! I lived there for six months, and I know that I will never live in a city more full of quirks than it. What with its canals, bicycles, tilting houses, motor boat travels, coffeeshops, weed smell everywhere, and a university and red light district standing side-by-side in perfect harmony.

Last year, I had written a blog on an artwork on the red-light district in Amsterdam. Now I am tempted to quote out of it - to explain why to live in Amsterdam means rewiring your brain to a new way of life.

"All tourists to Amsterdam religiously take a tour of its notorious red light district. And are dutifully awed by it. No matter how much you have read about it, how world weary you are, how primed you are for the experience: the reality of Amsterdam's canal-lined sex lanes will leave you overwhelmed. It is the shopping arcade of prostitution. Women of all ages, colours, sizes and catering to all kinds of festishes are casually displayed in windows like candies for your pick. Nothing is left to the imagination including the price of the experience: 50 euros for a mere hump, another 5 for moaning, another 10 for a caress, another 15 for her to kiss back, more for some oral... you get the picture. It is in-your-face, unashamed, unsentimental and utterly commercial. And it will leave you awed.

I was awed.

But what is more amazing - and something you learn only if you live in Amsterdam - is how quickly, how unbelievably fast, you stop noticing the sex romp around you. It hit me two months into the city, as I was pedaling my way to the university early one morning. As I glanced around, I noticed a bored sex worker in dominatrix attire sitting in front of her window, perhaps waiting for a customer to walk in for a early morning quickie. Her window was in the basement of what looked like a respectable residential block, and was sandwiched between a bakery and a dress shop. The bakery had just opened and the smell of warm freshly baked bread was in the air. The dress shop had an hour to go before it opened. There was little excitement or sense of the forbidden anywhere - it was just another banal morning in Amsterdam with a sex worker, a baker and a university student (me) going about their lives in an everyday city street. And to me, it was priceless."

You can read the whole blog here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Toilet Troubles - Or how do I defend the poverty in India

Not quite jewel-crusted, but my toilet did have a flush
Yesterday again, the topic at dinner turned to the horrendous poverty in India – to be more specific, the way millions live without toilets, being forced to shit out in the open.

There were two Australians (including Sid), two Americans, a Newzealander and poor little Ms-Indian-Me at the table, and we had just finished the most amazing Indian meal at a restaurant near Leicester Square.

The comment came about rather innocently, as such comments usually do. I asked the Texan if he had ever visited India and his wife started a story about how he used to keep saying that he didn’t need to visit India because it couldn’t possibly be that different from Mexico City – loud, colourful, lots of poor people and great food – until he saw a documentary about how so many Indians live without sanitation. Then, he changed his mind.

I didn’t bother asking whether he was keener to visit India now.

I am never quite sure how to react to such comments – and they come up in conversation often enough. I don’t think they arise out of nastiness at all. People are just genuinely bewildered that such poverty can exist at all. And it is precisely because such statements are true that I feel at loss about how to respond.

The easiest thing would be to turn around and say, “Yes, 665 million defecate openly in India. But we always had a toilet at home. It even had a flush!”

A lot of Indians do that, they make it point to mention how back in India they had so many servants, and a chauffeur, and a huge garden with one gardener to water, another to weed, and still another to sing and dance to the plants.  I guess, they want to define themselves as far apart from the miserable minions that the West see in documentaries and films, as possible. I can see where they come from.

Only, then we immediately come across as evil, feudal and insensitive. After all, the general assumption is that if you are living in such luxury surrounded by such inhuman poverty – then you must be exploiting the poor. How could you otherwise, so casually, talk about having servants. The whole servant-structure is seen as rather exploitative here.

So what I really want to say is this: Yes, there is immense poverty in India. Horrifying poverty. But I am not ashamed of the poor of my country. I am ashamed of the caste system, the criminalised politics and religous riots, but not the poor. With or without toilets, they are no less human than those Swiss with their toilets that even clean the seats automatically.So whatever else you want to be overwhelmed by, don't be overwhelmed by the poor.

And yes, I was privileged, but I was not evil. I was just at loss about how to address a problem that is so immense and so overpowering. I was just one tiny Indian, earning a middle-class salary, trying to enjoy life while still hoping to do my bit to help the poor: pay my taxes, vote diligently, sign petitions, and occasionally join a protest when I thought something egregious had occurred. It was no more, no less than what an average European would do.

But it is too much, too complicated for a casual dinner table conversation. So I usually choose to just remain quiet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

France, Switzerland & Italy in a day - Or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the pasta

Trapped in translation?
Whatever else I had imagined myself doing in my life, it wasn’t this: having breakfast in one country, lunch in another, and dinner in third. But that is precisely what Sid and I did this Saturday, thanks to the excellent road connectivity of Europe and the marvellous ease of travel afforded by Schengen.

So we started our day with croissants in a village cafe on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border, then drove along the gorgeous winery-lined Geneva Lake in Switzerland and then through (and often under) the snow-capped Alps into Italy to finish the day with dinner in the lively town square of Turin.

I had already been to France and Switzerland (for my views on Indians in Switzerland read here) – but it was my first time in Italy. And less-than-24 hours in the country was enough for me to realise that every stereotype I had ever heard of Italians – was totally and completely true. Yes, they are indeed loud, friendly and colourful. Yes, they drive like maniacs. Yes, they are easy with their honks. Yes, they have the most divine food. And yes, they are not shy about roadside displays of affection – I mean those Italian men were really going for it with their girlfriends in public.

Considering that all other stereotypes had been confirmed, I was completely ready to encounter the ultimate Italian experience: the tourist trap. And when we sat down for dinner at a little taverna in the Latin Quarter of Turin – and the Italian lady started serving us all sorts of yummy things without us having actually ordered any – I thought this is it. I mean, when she asked in her very limited English “Apertifs?” and we nodded, I thought we would get menu cards. Instead, we got a wine for me, a beer for Sid, a plate of cold-cuts and cheese, and a basket of bread.

It didn’t help when Sid recounted a story he had read of a Japanese couple landing up consuming fish worth €2000 in a restaurant in Rome without quite realising it until the bill arrived – the Italian waiter had been just a little too helpful, you see.

The only saving grace was that the two girls sitting next to us had been offered exactly the same food. Taking courage from that, Sid & I decided to just relax and play along. So we took our time with the wine and cheese, and tarried over the pasta and the icecream-in-chocolate sauce that followed. (No, we hadn’t ordered that either.)

Finally, when the meal was over – and the girls next to us had left – we decided to go up to the till, and check out the damage. I was fully expecting to fall back by a good 40-50 euros.

So we could hardly believe our ears when the lady pointed at the till showing €16. “No, no – we had some wine and beer too” – Sid actually protested. The lady just looked quizzical and said “ci! ci!” 

Part elated and part guilt-ridden at having so awfully presumed on her behalf, we paid our paltry bill and left.
You know those stereotypes about Italians – never believe them…

- If you do land-up in Turin and are looking for smashing meal for €16, try Rhumeria Vodkeria on Franco Bonelli Street.
- The comedian Eddie Izzard on Italians

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

CSI Reloaded - Or how England recovered a Rapahel

Madonna of the Pinks at the National Gallery
 This week's edition of The Times of India Crest carries an article by me on how the National Gallery in London uses highly speciliased scientific techniques to verify artworks - very CSI!!!

For example, this lovely work on the side is entitled Madonna of the Pinks. A renaissance-period work it was considered a copy of a Raphael and was sentenced to a century of obscurity in a castle far away in Northumberland. Then, while getting its 100-year cleaning someone noted its masterful execution and sent it to The National Gallery for a check-out. The gallery took out its electron microscope, infrared radiogram and mass spectometer to uncover the line drawings underneath.

Voila! Turns out that both the material of the line drawing and their style was doubtlessly characteristic of  the great master Rapahel himself.

The painting now owned by the National Gallery and is currently on display at an exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Recoveries. The exhibition displays more than 40 such paintings whose authorship was in dispute until super-sciences were used by the Gallery's laboratory to verify the claims and counterclaims.

Have you seen the Audrey Hepburn-starrer How To Steal A Million? It was the funnest film on fake art I've seen. Here's a trailer:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Brenton's Boleyn - Or how I met St Anne the Martryr

Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare's Globe (photo by Manuel Harlan)
Last Monday, Sid &I finally made it to Shakespeare’s Globe – a theatre built in the original Elizabethan style and dedicated to Shakespeare’s works. Unfortunately, it wasn’t staging any of the works by the bard himself, but a modern play by Howard Brenton called Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn-Henry-Elizabeth-Tudors -Shakespeare: get the connection?

I must say I was also curious to see Brenton's take on Anne, especially to contrast it against Hillary Mantel’s monstrous version, about which I had blogged before.

Now, I was expecting a reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the mistress-in-question. After all, you seldom write and name a play around the villain of the show. But what I was not expecting was to be confronted with St Anne the Martyr.

Brenton's Anne is pious with just that dash of sassy impishness to make her sexy and modern to the audience. Whoever comes in touch with her – her ladies-in-waiting, the courtiers, and above all, Henry himself – simply falls in love with her. Her decision to not have sex with Henry, whilst he was still married to Catherine of Aragon, is really borne out of piousness and honesty rather than cold calculation. And most importantly, she is driven equally by her evangelical zeal to save her soon-to-be English subjects (if only bloody blockheads would agree) from the Roman Catholic Church as she is by her great love for Henry.

But what really took my breath away, was Brenton's suggestion that it was Anne’s intention to expose Cromwell’s siphoning-off for public funds – “funds meant for schools and universities” – that got her so cruelly marked and crucified. What a charming touch – and so resonant with an audience just coming out of a horrendous expenses scandal in the British parliament.

But Brenton's portrayal was essentially a dishonest one because he refused to deal with what Anne’s actions meant to another older woman and her child. Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary suffered – and suffered grievously and publicly – because of Anne’s determination to have Henry and the crown. Even if her actions were all borne out her desire to serve the English people, surely, these darker consequences ought to have been addressed by any play seriously asking us to change our perception of England’s most famous mistress. But Brenton coloured Anne hatred of Catherine which just that touch of childishness – she churishly keeps calling Catherine a cow – to the audience  laugh affectionately with exasperation rather than seriously question her actions.

Now Shakespeare would have dealt with Anne’s character in all its darkness and still would have us still somehow see the humanity in her. Brenton in his place airbrushes the darkness away.

Brenton’s play might be staged at Shakespeare’s Globe -- unfortunately, Shakespeare he is not.

- For more on the play and how to see it.It is on till August 21.

- For top ten Tudor sights in London

- I may not be pleased with this version of Tudor history, but apparently Hitler wasn't too pleased with Michael Hirst's pop television version, The Tudors, either. Enjoy!