26.4.15

Drops of life

“It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things.”
― Nicholas Sparks


There's no water. The overhead tanks were being repaired. By the end of the day even the lone bucketful was depleted and only a couple of jugs could be filled. The jugs became a symbol of all that a daily routine, and life, represents. I became suddenly aware of even drops being wasted.

Strangely, I also became conscious of sweat. In this humidity there can be embarrassing perspiration. However, I'd let the beads of sweat remain on skin; it's as though they were replacing water.

Bath was a towel dipped in water to clean up, followed by lots of wet wipes. If you can't have bread...; the awareness of being elite comes soft-footed. It comes as bottled water and as images that make you cringe, even if momentarily, about the many who walk miles to get just one bucket, about those who have to pull and tug into wells, who have to wait before water taps in a queue, who collect water near rivers where flotsam coats the liquid, who bathe in any collected pool of muddy water, who sometimes die because their thirst was unquenched.

These are images for us. For them, it is life.








20.4.15

A time to build...

There is incessant hammering at home and, although I have still not become numb to the sound, it provides a background score to the thud of chunks of wall falling, of debris being shoveled into sacks.



It is one thing to start from scratch and quite another to watch what you have lived with being stripped down to bricks, the beams holding up much as they did when you were sold a home. You watch, a lump in your throat, as your favourite spot in the enclosed balcony becomes rubble and a misstep could take you straight to the ground several feet below.

It is only when you look at the vestiges that you realise just how fragile you really were. If all it takes is a hammer to break those vitrified tiles, then you have been living precariously all along. Surely, the weight of a hammer is not exclusive to it. There are heavier things, things that fall with a thud, or even a whisper, and cut through the few inches of space you stand on.

Today, the whole bathroom is brick. It is dry. No water, no tears. The door is gone, and I have to avert my eyes lest it appear that I am being voyeuristic. The brick body looks vulnerable, its skin patchy. Right now I can hear scraping sounds. Either something is being scraped away or scraped over. One cannot tell. Perhaps it isn't all that different, for as I have experienced these past few days one is about the other. Build-break-build-break-build.

Every few minutes, I have to get up from wherever I am to check less on the progress and more on how much needs to be broken. Creation needs blank space. It is difficult to shed a tear without being caught out.

I spoke with a friend, and said I could not go anywhere. "This is ridiculous," he said. "Are you applying the plaster?"

No. It's not about my role in the scheme of things, but about my absence. It would mean a lot. I keep quiet.

Things have to be shifted or moved out. This is where the heart tugs really hard. I had to decide, and I decided to part. They too got covered with soot and flakes of old plaster.



The roll-top desk was hardly being used as a desk. I had picked it up from Chor Bazaar, the market of thieves. "Antique, antique," the guy who ran the shop told me as I touched its smooth edges.

"Rubbish," I said. "This is new."

"I can give old look," he assured me, grinning all the time.

"No. Just polish it."

The wood was tough, and it had many little crannies to put things into. I brought out all of these, and left it with mere memories.



Then came the red sofa. It was not the main sofa, it did not get a place in the heart of the living room. This was an add-on purchase. I know, it is ridiculous that anybody would consider a whole sofa as an add-on. I did. Am not sure whether I fell in love with it, but there was something nice about it. It felt right.

But it had become an occupier, and had to go. In the crevices there might be a few hair pins left, one hopes with the scent of pine-infused shampoo.

I had to move out small stools, and a garden table too. What was a garden table doing inside an apartment? I don't know. I kept is propped up against the wall, and it looked like a painting on an easel. A finished painting unreclaimed.

These bits and pieces were wayfarers, and like wayfarers the journey could not have been endless.

Once again I go to check on the work being done. There is dust everywhere I touch. In a corner are two seashells I had picked up. They aren't broken. Yet.

16.4.15

Peeling the layers: Gunter Grass


Günter Grass reminds me of Salvador Dali, which is really less about their art and more about the perception of it. They are bracketed as the weird even if that weirdness is explainable as epitomising a deeper concern.

The comparison is essentially a non-sequiter but somehow this was the memory visual that came to mind as I sat to pay tribute to Grass who died on Monday at 87. Grass always seemed just short of old in the pictures, much as he never looked quite so young in the photographs of youth. It conveys an image of a seasoned man, a man who lived well, contemplated hard but not too hard, and then wrote absurdist lines that got their authenticity from intent rather than expression.

“Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper."

For one with such a sense of urgency, he delayed in confessing about being part of the Nazi Waffen-SS as a teenager. I am not sure if one should look on it as a confession; it was more in the nature of another dare. After all, he was not really a participant in Nazi crimes, and even if he was there are no traces left behind.

Perhaps this too was art as accusation, of remembering in order to be accused, for it might lead to not merely personal catharsis but also a collective one. Spectators of historical events that result in torture and concomitant guilt become a part of it by the mere expedient of being there.

Grass used his history well, and it is rather amazing how he came across as quite the opposite of what he had once lent his voice to. Terms like liberal, Left-leaning, even anti-Israel became his calling card. The latter is especially noteworthy. He wrote a long poem 'What Must Be Said' where he eent on to talk about Israeli warheads "capable of ending all life":

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.


Attachment is a loaded word. However, when he did explain his Nazi past, he attributed it to the black and white charm of the newsreels. Such creative license did not wash with all literary voices. John Updike was not too kind. He wrote: “Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can’t be bothered to write a novel. He just sends dispatches to his readers from the front line of his engagement.”

He has a point, except that at worst it could be called niche writing. If it were dispatches, there would have been no room for experimentation with language and analogy. And one cannot just take away from Günter Grass' idea of the world and for it. In his own words:

“I shall speak of how melancholy and utopia preclude one another. How they fertilize one another... of the revulsion that follows one insight and precedes the next... of superabundance and surfeit. Of stasis in progress. And of myself, for whom melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin.”

4.4.15

Voices and Choices


She was articulate, but helpless too. "My having a love child is a scandal, but X as a celebrity is considered bold," she said.

This was her cathartic moment. I was meeting her for a theme-based feature story; at some point she just let out her frustration. I gently told her that the famous often become gossip items, even as they might feel emotions similar to anybody else.

"I am not talking about them, or even X, but how society sees it. They may gossip, but she is still invited to the big parties she always was, she continues with her work and, why, she has more work today. She is not shunned. I am."

X was a well-known person who had a child out of wedlock. The father was an even more famous person. They were, and are, what constitutes the beautiful people of high society. The woman sitting before me (let us call her M) was stunning, but did not belong among the beautiful people. She was a professional, had a fairly visible social profile, but was not a celebrity. And she had a child without marriage. For that one aspect, her whole life became subject to scrutiny.

She had exercised her choice. So had X. In fact, hers was the braver decision because she made a private choice and did not cling on to the man because their terms of engagement had been clear. X, on the other hand, had a public deal and the child was subsequently made into a bait. Yet, both these women had decided what to do with their lives. Why was the response to their choices then so different? M and X had similar friends. What made people react differently to the two women?

All this happened several years ago. I was thinking about it after the Vogue-sponsored empowerment video 'My Choice' became a huge talking point.

Women's empowerment seems to be treated like a marketing gimmick these days. It does not surprise me that some people think it has enabled a debate on feminism. This Swarovski version of feminism does suit certain sections of society because the people featured in it either mirror them or are what (or where) they'd like to be.

There has been much discussion already, both for and against. What bothers me most, besides the jejune script, is the emphasis on the body. I find it distasteful not because the body is something to be shirked, but because it has to be accepted as a normal part of one's being. The mass media objectifies it not only for brand endorsement, but also the self-conscious attempts at 'celebrating' it. We can celebrate a sculpture, not human flesh.

Unfortunately, the social media is incapable of grasping nuance, so those who critiqued the video were seen as the flip side of the rightwing coin. Some Hindutva groups did indeed question it but on moral grounds or how it was the result of western influence.

Criticism is not as uniform as praise. People have issues with a subject for more varied reasons than when they appreciate something. For me, the emphasis on choice makes it seem like it is an abnormality. There are several self-contradictory statements too.


You are my choice. I am not your privilege. The bindi on my forehead. The ring on my finger. Adding your surname to mine. They’re ornaments. They can be replaced.

Fine. But why have them at all? And who are these ornaments for? Him, right? So, she will replace one set of ornaments for another, but it will be an adornment for him, whoever he is.

My choice. To be a size zero or a size fifty.


And to show a pregnant woman as a large size? Besides, it is not always a choice. Some women (and men) become obese and then suffer from debilitating ailments; some lose weight rapidly and suffer too (I won't even go to malnutrition).

My choice. To come home when I want. My songs. Your noise. My odour. Your anarchy. Your sins. My virtues.


Why do her songs become his noise? Is that what she wants? Or is it what he tells her, or she imagines he would tell her? What is she asserting? How does her odour become his anarchy? I mean, give it a break! Would her deodorant then be his discipline? If his sins become her virtues, then are her virtues his sins? This is so much poppycock. As regards asserting that she will come home when she wants, it sounds less like empowerment and more about a teenager raising hell over curfew timings.

My choice. To have sex before marriage, to have sex outside of marriage. To have no sex.

The response to this has been the most widespread. Some have said it is licentious, others have stated that men should then claim similar choices. That is the reason I think it is problematic: this seemingly bold pronouncement would free men to not only do their own thing even when they are in a committed relationship but also use it to bully their partner when they might wrongly suspect her. How two adults choose to conduct their relationship is a private matter and intensely personal. Some people choose fidelity too, but the moment it becomes a pulpit statement it comes across as moralising.

As for celibacy, Mahatma Gandhi chose it; his wife Kasturba did not. She accepted it later. Would this be her choice?

It would be unfair to pick on Deepika Padukone for she is only a medium here. But, given that this is largely Bollywood, how come she or even the director did not think it fit to show women demanding more, if not (why not, though?) equal pay? The entertainment industry for all its liberal values refuses to see women as being financial assets on par with their male counterparts.

It is everybody's right to have an opinion and voice it. What is rather troubling about such promotional concern is that it is not meant for lasting impact. Go viral, bask in it for a few days and then move on to the next cause, preferably about women. Because, whether it is a woman's body or her spirit, there are infinite possibilities to exploit her.

Yes, she is infinite. However, her spirit does get caged when she is made to mouth bad clichés.