Monday, 29 June 2009

1860 vs. 2009

Yesterday, protests were held by the gay community in a bunch of cities across India against Article 377. Drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1860, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. In the past few weeks the government has been making the right noises about abolishing/modifying the article. There have been voices of dissent against the change from various politicians on the grounds of religion, Indian culture and that it will increase paedophilia. If this government does indeed change the article, it will be a miracle. Indian politics is not the politics of democracy. It is the politics of vote banks. But then so is all democracy. The question that will decide the fate of this article will not be a question of right or wrong, it will be, 'Is the gay vote big enough, bigger than the vote of the hardliners who continue to live in 1860?'

Friday, 26 June 2009

Death of a Celebrity

Michael Jackson is dead. The radio announced it to me while I was driving this morning. He had died too late for the morning papers to report it. I switched on the TV once I reached home. The news was still fresh then and the news channels didn't have much too show. A photograph of him being wheeled out of the ambulance. Lots of archival footage, mostly his music videos. A ticker at the bottom, someone (important) saying he was a part of America's cultural DNA. Another ticker, 'SMS my MJ moment to so-and-so number. Charges Rs. 3 per SMS. (No death is big enough to stop business.) Slowly, the channel (NDTV 24X7), began to get some fresh stuff. The clinical announcement to the media about his death and cause of death. The media badgering a lieutenant about why the police were at his residence. Then someone (close to him), talked about how lonely he was, how he drew strength from his fans' affection, how there was darkness in the corners of his heart. Fans dancing like him on the streets, carrying his pictures. Fans mourning him. 'The first time I saw him, I wanted to sing like that, dance like that, marry him. That didn't work out though.' 'I lost respect for him after the Neverland thing.'
That thing, what was that thing? What made him do what he did? The nose job, the white skin, Neverland, the children's toys... Psychologists have an explanation, I am sure. As a layman, one wonders what was it that he, the man who seemingly had everything, was trying to get? A lost childhood, acceptance into a community that he thought was superior, what?
Celebrities, it seems to me, begin to believe that their image in media is the 'real' them. And fed by a bunch of sycophants, a bunch incapable of giving an honest opinon that a person like you and me can get from a friend, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, they seem to start living and believing the lie. While I was in college I worked part-time in a Bollywood trade magazine. One day the editor-publisher-owner of the magazine showed me a note from a fading superstar congratulating the producer of the latest superhit movie. "He only writes with gold ink!" he pointed out with awe and pride. Later the same superstar had to vacate his plush sea-facing bungalow because of income tax-related problems. Earlier this year, he stopped a bunch of teenagers and asked them, "Do you know who I am?" They didn't. I guess there are enough celebrity-gone-wrong stories. Today, one ended. And we can go back and enjoy his music just like the good old days.

More Kashmir

Last week I called Mushtaq, the driver of our van in Kashmir, to check if he had received the photograph I had sent him. In the two weeks before I called him the media, especially the electronic one, had been overflowing like a burst sewer about the riots in Kashmir after two young women were found dead near the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) HQ in a town called Shopian. The women had been raped before they were killed and dumped in a shallow stream.
Worried by the media reports about the continuing violence in Shopian that had lasted for more than a week 'paralaysing normal life' (a favourite media phrase) and by friends who kept telling us, "You are lucky you returned before this happened", I made some inane comment to Mushtaq that went something like, "There has been some disturbance in Kashmir recently, no?" Mushtaq laughed and said that everything was normal (outside Shopian) and he was with a group of pilgrims in Sonmarg because the Amarnath pilgrimage had begun. "Today there was an avalanche and three pilgrims were killed and the route has been shut."
But then, why was I surprised? Only a few days before I called him, 'Mid-day', a popular afternoon newspaper in Mumbai had spent all but four pages on two stories: 1. The defeat of the Indian cricket team in the 20-20 world cup including scoops like what individual players' coaches had to say about their wards being made scapegoats etc. 2. The cover story was about Shiney Ahuja, an upcoming Bollywood actor who had been arrested for raping his maid servant. The last article by a 'film critic' was incredible: It analysed the reason why unlike Salman Khan (booked for driving over four people while he was drunk and for shooting a deer from an endangered species) or Sanjay Dutt (booked for possessing an AK-47 assault rifle before the '93 Mumbai bomb blasts), Shiney's career would be over because of this criminal case. The reason? Because, Shiney Ahuja is a minor star and doesn't have the fan following of a Salman or Sanjay?!
But then, why was I surprised? Even before we left for Kashmir, at least one friend and his family dropped out because Kashmir wasn't 'safe'. This, despite, a close friend having vacationed in Kashmir with his family the year before. Other comments from various acquaintances are equally telling: "Oh, bring me an AK-47 as a memento," On the fruit vendor's picture on this blog, "Looks like he will pull out an AK-47 from behind the fruits, doesn't he?" On the shepherd's picture on this blog, "Shit! Can't but think of the taliban when you look at people like these."
But then, why was I surprised? On our first afternoon in Kashmir we had gone along the boulevard adjoining Dal Lake, stopping the van at every shikara boarding point, trying to find out the shikara that would take us to our houseboat. We stopped at one point for a slightly longer time as Mushtaq made enquiries about our houseboat. Suddenly, an angry CRPF soldier, he must have been barely twenty years old, came up and started abusing Mushtaq for stopping for too long on a VIP road...
And, on the outskirts of Srinagar in the middle of a moss-filled pond, there is a board:
Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


In a TV commercial for a newly launched brand of water purifier a soap opera star spouts the benefits of the brand. As the commercial draws to a close (thankfully), a super appears at the bottom of the screen. It is, for a change, in Hindi written in Devnagri script:
जाने-माने कन्जूमर डुरेबलस और अपलायनसेस के आउटलेट्स में उपलब्ध.

Kashmir - A Sign

We get off the highway at an impossibly named place called Bumchawa to reach Matan (pronounced mutton), where a spring flows down from the mountains and is captured in a series of tanks. We are there because the guide books talk about its hot water springs. The heavily guarded campus houses two places of worship, a Shiva temple and a Gurudwara. It's a hot morning by Kashmir standards and the water in the tanks is quite chilled. We ask the man selling roasted horse gram and puffed rice about the hot water. "When the weather gets cold," he replies, "the water gets hot. And vice-versa. That is the miracle." We buy horse gram to feed the holy fish in the main water tank. You drop a grain into the tank and dozens of fish jostle and attack it. Outside and elsewhere in Kashmir, a tourist drops in and dozens of porters, horsewallahs, shikarawallahs, sledwallahs, Kashmiri costumewallahs, souvenirwallahs jostle and attack to secure a meal. 
Where the water overflows from the last tank into a channel, women sit around and wash clothes.

Kashmir People 7

Ghulam Nabi is a light-eyed elderly gentleman who works as a head waiter at Ahdoos in Srinagar. The two people who I have asked about a place to sample Kashmiri cuisine have both pointed to Ahdoos, a seventy-year old restaurant on Residency Road. Our driver repeatedly points out that the name of the road used to be Maulana Azad Road but everyone refers to it as Residency Road since a big hotel called The Residency came up. The restaurant is spacious and the waiters helpful. When I ask Ghulam to decide the menu for us, he does an intricate calculation in his head and suggests that we order two portions of three dishes, two mutton and one chicken. We ask him about Kashmir's famous Wazwan cuisine. "Wazwan is the marriage cuisine," he points out, "A total of twenty-two dishes are prepared, twenty-one mutton and one chicken." Someone in our group mentions that we had some Wazwan food elsewhere. Ghulam's eyes darken. He painstakingly explains the difference between the real Wazwan recipes and the imposters. "Restaurants hire Nepali cooks to save money," he says, "The Lehebi (I hope that's the right spelling) Kebab here is made by pounding the meat and not grinding it in a machine or by mincing it with knives. Merzwan is a spicy preparation with chillies." The food is excellent. Every other meal we had had so far pales in comparison. And we have eaten well. Because of various people scaring the hell out of us, we had chosen to add dinner to our hotel packages everywhere. Luckily we never had to regret it. Unlike most packages where the hotel sets out an 'Eat it or leave it' buffet, the waiter in charge of our table would ask us at breakfast about our choice of food for dinner. And prepare it separately for us. Ditto for the rest of the groups. (Of course there were Gujarati groups who travel with their own cooks and kitchens and ate the same food they ate back home, but to each is own.) Bashir, the manager in charge at our hotel in Srinagar, when confronted with cooking a local turnip-like vegetable called nalcol (?) for a vegetarian in our group, frowned with worry and said, "But it takes three hours to cook!" He cooked it nevertheless and even the carnivores took a second helping. Ghulam Nabi seems to be in physical pain when he talks about the bastardisation of cuisine and the short-cuts in preparation. But then, cuisine is culture, when one vanishes, so does the other.