Journeys can turn out to be strange sometimes. I recently went on a 20-day trip to USA, and yet the thing I want to write about is an animated movie I saw on British Airways’ in-flight entertainment during my return flight. The movie is Zootropolis and after looking it up after I came back it turns out it was released this year itself but I never heard about it.

While at the start it seems to be clearly about a woman’s struggles in the face of stereotypes enacted by a rabbit cop Judy Hopps, it grows into something more – about misguided biological determinism, about spreading fear and believing that some are ‘savage’ by nature simply by being born into a particular category. It is an apt reflection of the times we live in. Especially the times that USA is going through now. The film touches on diversity, hints at affirmative action and that the ‘oppressed’ may not always be innocent.

Perhaps due to my recent encounter with New York City, the metropolis that Hopp gets to be a cop in, Zootopia, seemed to reflect NYC itself. The teeming city where everyone seems to be living together, but there are little corners of exclusivity – the Tundratowns and the Little Rodentias. Reminded me of the likes of Chinatown, Little Korea and Little Brazil that the NYC tour guides talked about.

I also found interesting the concept of the ‘predator’. When Judy initially leaves her parents’ carrot farm to be a cop in the big, bad city, her worried parents try to hand her all sorts of protections, versions of pepper sprays and tasers. All with a fox on the cover. As I said, the film does initially seem to be about feminism but it turns out to be something bigger. The predatory fox may himself have been preyed upon, and while in the metropolis the lion and the sheep may work together, it is only a veneer hiding distrust and suspicion, that can easily be used to divide and conquer. The whole movie is an interesting way to comment on our world (even the sloths as government employees!) without being preachy and requiring adult supervision.

Oh and there’s also a sexy gazelle pop star (It’s Shakira). Go watch it!

PS: Full marks to British Airways’ in-flight entertainment during all of my flights to and fro.


The home, the commute and the streets

There are more things in heaven and earth Delhi Metro, that you can protect women from.

There are more things in heaven and earth Delhi Metro, than you can protect women from. (Picture source)

Sometimes a single journey can tell you a lot about society’s, in this context Indian society’s, view of women. A journey from my home to a friend’s house using three different modes of transport revealed conversations and encounters that give an idea of how women are seen. And it was not just the male gaze that was guilty.

The most illuminating was a conversation in the Metro where three women were talking among themselves. One was talking, the others were mostly listening. This woman, sporting red bangles that suggest being recently wed and a mangalsutra, was comparing two girls in terms of the number of ‘rishtas’ they were getting. Because clearly a woman’s worth depends on how many men want her. She then went on to tell the others of a ‘ladki dekhna’ experience where the would-have-been bride had said, with a lot of ‘attitude’ apparently, “Main nahin poocchungi main inko pasand aayi ki nahin (I won’t ask whether they liked me or not).” The woman relating this story imitated that girl’s sing-song tone at least twice. Apparently, it was still hard to digest. She then went on to talk about how the girl was short and had a crooked face.

Her further words revealed something about herself and the level of importance attached to her health and well-being. She mentioned to her companions twice how she often feels tired and weak and discussed with them the possibility of getting off early from work. As the train approached Rajiv Chowk and I readied to alight, I saw the three of them gathered around eating oranges in the train and not caring that some of the fibres flew down to the floor. One can of course say that Indians as a whole lack civic sense, but I wondered if they would have tolerated this on the floors of their own houses. God forbid, if the girl with ‘attitude’ had let that happen.

To get to the Metro, I had taken a cycle-rickshaw. There was an argument en-route on the rickshaw driver taking a route I feel safe on. He got angry on having to pedal extra due to the route I wanted and shouted at me. In that moment I lost my temper and shouted back. The act of shouting was something I felt proud of. Having grown up hearing from my mother to not let things get out of hand on the streets (Baat aage mat badhne do) I felt this was a rare moment, fuelled by a fever that had perhaps switched off the worrying about consequence section of my brain. But, I wondered, why is shouting back a rarity with me? Why am I required to be submissive? Sadly, it is a trick that works sometimes.

My experiences of being a woman travelling alone did not end as I got off the Metro. To reach my destination, I took an auto. One whose driver wanted to get chatty and did not stop trying to make a conversation by asking questions. Some quite pointless ones. I was immediately suspicious, followed by the realisation of how the multiple rapes and cases of molestations on the streets had made trusting anyone a risk, even if he might just be a chatterbox and nothing more sinister. My hand went up to fix my neckline and I called up my friend for the ‘I am on my way’ call meant to let the auto driver know that someone knows where I am so don’t get any ideas.

Why is the situation such that an inherent distrust of men is a survival strategy? Finally, reaching my destination, the auto driver decided to prove my suspicions right by asking if I was a resident of the area. I was able to tell him that he was asking too many questions, but somehow didn’t have to courage to look him in the face. I had also taken the precaution to get off a little distance away from my actual destination. But the question remains, Why do I need survival strategies on the streets of my own city and country? And why does the girl with ‘attitude’ have to hide her spunk and pretend to care what others think of her?

Bulleya pahuncha 2015 wich



Makeh gaya, gal mukde naheen
Bhawain so so jummay padh aaiye

“How dare he!! He is insulting our sacred place and hurting the sentiments of billions of Muslims across the world”

Breaking News: Someone, somewhere has issued a fatwa

Ganga gaya gal mukdi naheen
Bhawain so so gotey khaaiye

“Gasp! Just because Hinduism is so tolerant, these outsiders think they can insult it howsoever they want!! Ganga is our sacred river. He has hurt the sentiments of thousands of Hindus across the world”

Breaking News: Case filed in random court by some obscure organisation nobody heard about before

Gaya gaya gal mukdi naheen
Bhawain so so pand padh aaiye

“Buddha attained enlightenment there! His is a message of peace. We have a number of white people here for our validation”

Breaking News: Petition and representation, some group manages to meet the CM

Bulleh Shah gal taeyon mukdee
Jadon main nu dilon gawaaiye


Padh padh alam fazal hoya

“insulting our religious scholars!!”

Kadee apnay aap nu padheya ye naeen

*umm…err… *

Ja ja warrda mandir maseetey

“Aha!! He is attacking all religions! He is a western agent, out to damage the secular fabric of our country. Has no respect for our ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. We are united against western culture.”

Breaking News: Various religious leaders have decided to show up on TV together, are going to meet someone important

Kadi mann apne wich vadeya nai

“but, but we do charity also no”

For those of us who still get the message in these mad times, here is a beautiful rendition. As long as we still have our words and our sur, perhaps there is hope. Perhaps.

Maharashtra and Manto

Maharashtra-Day-2012-Wallpapers 422395-SaadatHasanManto-1345052891-747-640x480

I visited Delhi’s New Maharashtra Sadan recently and it brought back to mind the state I had been living in till just over a month ago. It also made me wonder about the duality that is Maharashtra. A place that gave birth to both Ambedkar and Phule and Godse and the RSS. A state at once prosperous and glut with sugar and yet one where cotton farmers can’t find reason to live one more day. From Maratha warriors to a language whose writers can write as if they’re swordfighting. There are pieces of its history that both the Left and the Right can get nostalgic about. The state that means ‘great state’ is certainly a study in contrasts. And then there is Mumbai, again despised and coveted at the same time.

How does the same city nourish both Manto and the likes of Thackerays, Memons and Dawood Ibrahims of the world (the last is famously sleeping as I type this). And what would Manto have said of the turn of events that the country he moved to sent a bunch of boys to wreak havoc on the very city he loved and lived in?

But if I am thinking of what Manto would say about X event in his old home, I will need to go further back. I will need to start with the riots, the ’93 blasts, the many blasts since and the persecutions that led to the creation of a Shahid Azmi. Or perhaps I would have to go back even further to the underworld of the 70s, the making of the Haji Mastans and Dawood Ibrahims and the shootouts and encounters of the past years?

I think I’m beginning to see how the city that nourished Manto also created the Thackerays and the Dawoods… After all, what would Manto write about if both his countries weren’t such absurd places?

PS: Food (drink?) for thought. What would Manto have thought of Old Monk? Both cheap and safe at the same time

Freedom at Midnight

FIRST-PAGE-OF-STATESMAN-AUGUST-15-1947It was after 12 in the night. It was now 15 August, 2015. As I lay on my bed, waiting for sleep to creep up, the ceiling fan overhead whirled the air around me. As I had the time, I started talking to the air.

“It’s post-midnight,” I said into the dark room, “It’s been exactly 68 years since the night we are said to have made our tryst with destiny.”

Continuing her playful whirl along the fan, she replied, unconcerned, “Yeah, it was quite a speech, and quite a celebration after that in this city. But then I’ve seen many speeches and many celebrations”

Then she gave a sarcastic laugh, “Delhi didn’t know what it would see in the coming months. Not that others did.”

I was curious now. “Why? What was it like here  in the coming months?” I asked. “Uggh,” she said, sounding disgusted. “So many people! Do you know the number of sweaty, blooded and tired people I had to flow over. They settled wherever they could find a space. And then I had to flow over their camps and those tents. I could feel the desolation riding with me. Good thing I don’t stay in a place for long,” she huffed.

“Well they had a tough time in Punjab and Bengal! They had just lost everything…”

“Don’t even remind me about Punjab and Bengal,” she said, now sounding a little scared. “Do you know how much blood I had to flow over in those places? Those scents stick to me, you know. All those celebrating just a little while after that speech were now scattered. The wells were filled with women who had jumped in. The only men who followed were the ones who came out with the women who had jumped in last. It was the same in Bengal an year earlier. Blood, mud, muck, shining swords and daggers. I was smelling of rust for days!”

“Yeah. It was so hard for YOU. Perhaps you should have taken a vacation,” I snarled.

She didn’t get the sarcasm. “Oh really! Where? Gone with the sahibs to the ‘vale of Kashmir’ perhaps? I saw the same thing there. More betrayal by neighbours, more bloodshed, more looting and more rapes. I could smell the testosterone in me!” she said. She sounded like she would retch now; I felt the same too.

Perhaps she had finally sensed my mood. Still not sounding entirely concerned, she said, “You are usually asleep by now.”  I finally snapped. “You think I can sleep after you telling me all that!”

I had finally made her laugh. It was a bitter laugh though. “Oh honey, you have no idea of humans’ capability to sleep, no matter what happens. Do you think all the people I told you about stayed awake at night, thinking about what they had done? You might see me as cavalier and unconcerned, but what I saw then is not something I hadn’t seen before or haven’t seen since then around the world. The bunch who were victims once become the perpetrators when they get their hands on the daggers! It will keep happening, mark my words”

I had heard enough now. I turned to my side in a huff and closed my eyes. It was not going to be a good night’s sleep. A daag daag ujala awaited me too.

Tears in a crowd

women-tearsA few days ago I saw a girl crying silently in the ladies compartment of the local train that I was in. She was crying into her mobile phone in full public view of a fairly occupied compartment. Mostly, when the phrase in full public view is mentioned, the next words expected are, ‘but no one did anything’, which is true here too. The compartment just let her cry quietly.

If this was a crime in progress and no one did anything it would be considered a shameful thing and perhaps a launching point for a study into the bystander effect. In this case, however, I found it a nice surprise that the other passengers just let her cry quietly. In this city, with a continuing battle for spaces of one’s own, it seemed that in the middle of that crowded place, the girl had her own bubble to get her feelings out. As they were strangers, none of them would rush to comfort her, or to ask what happened and later perhaps pass judgment on it. They would just let her be.

Big cities are notorious for their unconcern about one’s ‘fellow man’ (or human being), but this unconcern also sometimes turns into a way to let a person be with his or her private thoughts when most of one’s time is spend in school, office and long commutes or at homes where everyone will be present at the same time.

Looking down from up in the air

At the airports I often wonder at the two dichotomies of femininity that present themselves there – policewomen and airhostesses. I have been scared of and found myself intimidated by the policewomen more than once. But it is their job to seem like that, I tell myself. They are stern and their voices and demeanour intended to intimidate you into order, so that you don’t jump line and stay behind the yellow strip while they frisk the other female passengers. They are intended to maintain order, and in a way so are the airhostesses, but the latter’s job requires a demeanour that is soft and courteous, intended to make the traveller return to the airline perhaps. They have the harder job, in my opinion, by trying to maintain order while appearing likeable. The policewomen, on the other hand, have no such compulsions.

However, the policewomen too are there because of their sex. If there were no women passengers, there would probably be no policewomen at the airports. There would still be airhostesses in the sky though, you can guess the reason why.

PS: As I am on the subject of airhostesses, I can’t let go of the opportunity to plug this heroic airhostess. Some of the details might have been exaggerated with time as people do with heroes, but I think she is still worth remembering – Neerja Bhanot.

Minding my tongue

You know how they say a man is known by the company he keeps. I would add that the company one keeps slips out with the words one speaks. Your choice of words slowly starts showing who has been having the hours of the day with you. The choice of words, which two do you put besides each other in a sentence and what thoughts you express will all reveal the influence of those you have been spending most time with.
It is a funny thing, language. Sometimes you won’t even realise that you are speaking the words of those with whom you may not even share a word. I realised that while talking to my mom on the phone one day when I referred to something as ‘mere bajoo mein’. The Bambaiyya lingo, as they call it, was slowly creeping up my tongue. Now I have reached a situation where the words ‘magajmaari’ and ‘syaapa’ both form part of my internal monologue.
Sometimes, you can be reminded where you are by parts of a language that are not even words. The prime example of this is the unique way in which I have seen Mumbaikars calling out to strangers. The funny kissy sound or that weird hissing that I had sworn I’d never use, but ended up doing in a train anyway. It is as if the whole city hasn’t heard of the phrase “excuse me”! As usual, the city’s small incomprehensions keep me laughing…

Snapshots of my commute


On the platform – Mute man and woman chatting most excitedly in their own language. In between the conversation, she makes him have some water from her bottle, later forces a small pouch of peanuts into his hand. Meanwhile, flies continue to prance around and I try to catch some glimpses of them by pretending to look in that direction. Not staring etiquette versus curiosity.

In the train – An unexpected empty bunch of seats, on moving closer that’s because a suspicious looking paste of refuse is stuck to the floor, flies around it. Women around covering their noses is amusing. With so much filth around does this bother because of the proximity? The city doesn’t care much for cleanliness. Have seen a bus conductor drop extra paper from ticket roll on the bus floor itself. It’s not his bus after all. Back in the crowded train I wish for a back massage. As the station arrives, the crush of women behind me turns into the handbag pressing but not digging into my back. Perverse wish-fulfillment.

Off the train – On the overbridge I cross the beggar woman with wounded knees who has become a permanent fixture, with a soot-black baby next to her. Wonder if she can become a landmark, “Take a right from the beggar with wounded knees”. Couple of days ago a neatly dressed woman was talking to her, sounded like hope. The next day the beggar was at her spot but better dressed than usual and looked ready to go somewhere. Seemed like hope. Today she is back to her usual appearance, with the baby, and the extended hand.

Out the station – My head lowers on its own as I cross the station’s entry/exit. Is it my way of going pushing through the crowd? Out the station, dodging taxis and assorted fruit sellers, I ignore the usual coconut water seller as I am late. Late, late, why am I always late? Briskly walking on the footpath, snaking in and out when it is occupied I reach the crossing near my office. A two-wheeler passes with the pillion rider turning his neck 180 degrees to look at me. Yes buddy, why won’t you stare at a well-dressed woman? That is what we are for, isn’t it. I can’t do anything but make a face, hope he notes my displeasure and cross the road to finally reach the office. Daily breads have to be earned and rents have to be paid…

Via the tracks

Pictured: acceptable form of 'safe' travel

Pictured: acceptable form of ‘safe’ travel

My office was shifted a while back from the Western Line to the Harbour Line – the stepchild of the Mumbai suburban railway system. Looking back though, the journey from Bandra to Churchgate during non-peak hours gives you interesting things to see if you are observant.

First up is Bandra station itself, the huge slum cluster next to the station had a party for a few days at one point. At 4:30 in the afternoon. Hats off to you gentlemen, for butchering both my ears and Bollywood songs in one go. As much as I admire you for the party spirit in midst of huge garbage mounds, Mika is not the choice of singer for ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’. No, just no.

On the other end of my commute used to be Churchgate station, which during peak hours sees an improvised game of long jump as the train pulls into the station. Before it can stop, both the young and not-so-young men and women, make a direct jump from the platform to the window seat of the trains. I wonder why no one has thought of a pole to aid the jump and make the TrainOlympics complete.

When I first began taking the locals regularly, the vendors selling all sorts of knick-knacks led me on a mini-splurge. Among the mostly women vendors in the women’s compartment that I have seen has been one aggressive young saleswoman with the catchphrase ‘rozi ki kasam’! She was able to sell her mawa cake to people who just happened to look in her direction. Sadly, you don’t get that in MBA schools, only in the University of Hard Knocks that is this city.

Another enterprising vendor selling foldable hair clips had brought along a young model with long, flowing hair. The little girl, who must have been around 8 years of age, stood there patiently while the elder girl twisted and turned first her hair into the clip and then her neck from side to side to give a quick demonstration to spectators on all sides. Another business lesson – a good spectacle may not necessarily translate into sales.

The girl/woman vendor who got onto my facebook page though, was this homegrown beauty with caramel skin and nose held up haughtily. Her heart was clearly not into the bindi selling she was doing and she had an attitude you could sense even in her silence. She was a beauty, and she knew it. My afterthought on seeing her was a sadness that her lack of deference in this heartless city might just end up one day making her a tragic story in my newspaper.

Speaking of beauty and beauties, you find them in the most unexpected of places. On my post-midnight cab ride back, I have seen a spot that is probably a pick up point for transgender prostitutes, who I’ve only just realised I shouldn’t be staring at. The fact that they are in business shows the hypocrisy of a society that will have patrons of transgender commercial sex, but god forbid someone asks for recognition of different types of sexualities in the world.

Maybe I was looking around more when I first came to Mumbai, but it seems I find more transgenders in the suburban train system. From a statuesque hijra on an opposite platform who once caught my eye, to a transgender person dressed in feminine clothes whose sexy choice of outfit and hip-moving gait led to a rise in my own mood, and an eventual flip of my own hair — they will always stand out in the drab surroundings that the rest of the city and railway system is.