Sunday, February 12, 2012

We Cannot Let Them Close Our Mouths.

Here's something worth coming out of hibernation for. If you're banging your head against the growing culture of intolerance and offence in India, please participate in #flashreads

What is #flashreads? #flashreads is a simple way of registering your protest against the rising intolerance that has spread across India in the last few decades. At any time on February 14th—we suggest 3 pm, but pick a time of your convenience—go out with a friend or a group of friends and do a quick reading. Mail me for selected readings, or feel free to pick your favourite passage on free speech, or from the works of any writer who has faced sedition charges, a book ban or other forms of censorship. 

Do you have to protest in this way? No, feel free to create your own way of protesting.

THE IDEA: To celebrate free speech and to protest book bans, censorship in the arts and curbs on free expression

WHY FEBRUARY 14TH? For two reasons. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. In GB Shaw’’s words: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”

February 14th or Valentine’s Day has also become a flashpoint in India, a day when protests against “Western culture” by the Shiv Sena have become an annual feature. In Chandigarh, 51 Sena activists were arrested by the police after V-day protests turned violent in 2011.
Our hope is to take back the day, and observe it as a day dedicated to the free flow of ideas, speech and expression.

Places where you might do public readings: subway and Metro stations, public parks, coffee shops, open areas in malls. If you’re talking about Flashreads on Twitter, please use the #flashreads hashtag.

If you have a blog, a tumblr or a website, an easy way to join in is to post Tagore’s poem, “Where the mind is without fear” on your site for a day, or choose any excerpt (posted below). 

Location: Lodi Gardens, Bridge Over The Duck Pond, Amrita Shergill Marg entrance; or pick your own location, anywhere in your city.

For more information or to see options for passages to read,  please visit 

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Amigos Para Siempre

In recent weeks, a particular playlist of favourite music that I've had on loop has brought back a flood of memories, vivid in my mind but softened by nostalgia. Like an out of body experience, the opening bars of particular songs transport me to a different time and place, and remind me of long-forgotten moments and the people (you know who you are) with whom I shared them.

So, people, since there's no earthly way to disassociate you from the music in my head, here's to you, and thanks for all the fish.

Comfortably Numb. Pre-ISC. Debdan, Dodo and I, who have been spending a lot of time "studying" together, are sitting at RadioVoice (in my memory, we're almost always at RadioVoice), across the road from home, waiting for notes to be photocopied. Doom is imminent, and we know it. Whatever happens next, we're hurtling towards some unfamiliar precipice, and life as we know it is over. Debdan perches on the edge of the table, and in an abandon-hope-all-ye kind of tone, sings Comfortably Numb at us (no, not to, at), while Dodo and I laugh uncomfortably.  

Goin' Wild For You Baby. Skiving off college and hanging out at Park Circus, surfing a tidal wave of tea, cigarettes, hilarity and empathy, in the grip of a love affair that has crept up on me sneakily, while I wasn't looking. Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez interspersed with a rare pep talk from Bubu. I've been looking for the Bonnie Raitt version of this song ever since. 

Kiss that Frog. Escaping from college to Tiru's to listen to music, drink tea and smoke on the sly on a balcony shaded by an enormous tree. Exploring his music collection while he pronounces my taste "quite good for a girl," a misogynistic slur that I forgive when I discover a wealth of music I don't have, including Peter Gabriel Live at Modena. It takes me a while to persuade him to loan it to me though. 

Oh, Happy Day. Sunday morning, Park Circus, chai from Aashiq's stall, From Every Stage blasting from the windows. Such fond memories. 

Wish You Were Here. Harmonising with Vittesh through the years, but most weirdly, in that little "literatura y artes" pub in Cusco, where we really were the best singers around! 

Rhinestone Cowboy. Nigel as troubadour, bringing his guitar and voice. Singalongs. And eventually, singalongs at Sonai's kiddie camps, with a whole bunch of kids singing "Sundeep Jain's scooter has a puncture in the tyre." You can't make stuff like this up!

Theme For A Dream. Lawrence Hall during break, Tina, Sherene, Kavi. Singing our way through school. And then, continuing to sing this our way at all kinds of inappropriate places, in front of all kinds of inappropriate audiences, especially to the total mystification of guests at Sherene's wedding. 

The Bear Necessities. Walking down Calcutta roads, arm in arm with Mona, singing and dancing, alternating on the Baloo and Mowgli parts, while our companions pretended not to know us. Happiness!

You've Got A Friend in Me: Toy Story at Nandan, with Sonai. The first of many treks to watch animated films followed by sandwiches at Atrium, or pizza at Rooftop. :) 

The Phantom Of The Opera: Padma and I, in my 7th block home in Bangalore. Phantom on around the clock, while we attempted to hit those high notes, and much abuse and reluctant awe directed at Sarah Brightman each time we failed. Long nights of Russian coffee, conversation and calm. And the occasional Yahoo grin.

Fragile: Dodo introducing me to Sting, oh so many years ago! India A vs. India B, and "what's a differential equation?" on the eve of our ISC Maths exam. Ambling around the military camp, and the horns of Dodo's perpetual dilemma - should he take the Garia mini, or try his luck with the Gariahat-Howrah?

I'm off to listen to more favourites, and revel in some more nostalgia. But as a bonus for reading through this entirely personal post, here's Comfortably Numb to get you started on your own musical associations. Enjoy!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanks for all the fish...

In keeping with the season, here's a list of things I'm thankful for - both big and small, meaningful and mundane.

1. Agatha Christies in a lamplit glow on chill, thunderous evenings.

2. Mangsho - cooked the Bong way, super-jhal, with lots of alu.

3. Places to go, places to see!

4. Peppermint tea

5. The sheer random luck of being alive, here, today.

6. S and S, my rocks, the people I turn to for comfort and succour, or just to talk, for never failing to yank me out of the blues. And for making me laugh, whether intentionally or un.

7. PG Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Tolkien, A.A. Milne, Jack London, Michael Crichton, Ruskin Bond, Roald Dahl, Saki - not necessarily in that order.

8. Coffee. You are my lifeline.

9. The Internet. Viva!

10. My family, for supporting my wildest decisions, encouraging me to take the road less travelled, being there when I need them. They're still learning how not to ask the wrong question at the wrong time, but they'll get there!

11. Dogs. And, in particular, Baloo, the joyous, the curious, the ever young-at-heart.

12. Bookshops, music stores, coffeeshops, pubs.

13. Rationality.

14. Possibilities. :)

Thursday, November 05, 2009


1. The Buddha walked into a pizza place and said, "Make me one with everything."

2. Why can't the Buddha vacuum in corners?
Because he has no attachments.

3. How did Darth Vader know what Luke was getting for Christmas?
Because he felt his presents.

4. An ethics question: If you cloned yourself, then took the clone up to the top of a tall building, stripped it, and pushed it off, would it be
a. Murder?
b. Suicide?
or c. Just another obscene clone fall?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Calcutta - Kolkata

Being back in Kolkata is like walking in uber-slow-motion, neck-deep through molasses. Everything is so excruciatingly slow. Traffic inches along. People plod. Dust drips onto everything. The city sags in the April heat. Women sit in doorways near the local school, waiting for their children. Or plod, sweating flakes of talcum powder, to the local bank, where officials have, over years, mastered the art of making each transaction last decades. Customers wait, mute and uncomplaining. Everyone waits for everything. For CESC to deal with cable faults (apparently their monitoring systems don’t alert them to these – they find out only once irate customers start calling). For the cable company to deliver the channels it’s supposed to. For electricians, plumbers, carpenters, who arrive days after they were due. Because if you live in this city, you know the secret to survival here: acceptance of one central idea: "eikhaney tho erokom-i hoy" - this is the way things work here.

I didn't grow up in Kolkata, but in Calcutta, a less bonglicised, more cosmopolitan, livelier, more interesting scape. I went to the best school in the universe, had the coolest family on the planet, and spent all my time with the most fun friends ever, in this most astonishing of cities. Calcutta was the celebration of every festival - Diwali and Pujo, Christmas and Eid. Calcutta was the annual book fair, the Dover Lane music festival, English and vernacular theatre. Calcutta was Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Herbie Hancock, Kishore Kumar and Frank Sinatra. Calcutta was winter mornings at the zoo, and tea and contemplation in the monsoon. Calcutta was coffee houses and bars, jazz and blues, the enlightened, liberal left, a city of artists and writers, musicians and movement. Calcutta was the unquestioned cultural centre of the universe.

Of course, “this best of all possible worlds” perspective is easy to maintain in school, with relatively little direct interaction with the outside world. Through the last 14 years, as my connections with other cities have grown, and my time in Calcutta decreased, the fiction has been increasingly harder to maintain. Kolkata has steadily decayed, so that each time I turn around to take a look, it is just a little greyer, a little duller and more provincial, while cities I once abhorred as soul-less cultural vacuums – New Delhi springs to mind – have grown and greened and prospered. The Calcutta of my childhood has vanished, with neither bang nor whimper. Which makes me wonder, did it ever exist, except in my mind?

I left Calcutta in the summer of 1998. In 11 years, I’ve moved around a fair bit, and through it all, at some deeply-buried emotional core, I have always thought of it as “home” – the city I know so well that I could walk around blind-folded, the city I love so fiercely that it brings tears to my eyes. Then, earlier this year, I decided to take a sabbatical in Calcutta. Except that it was Kolkata. And it drove me up the effing wall.

It isn’t just the decay – after all, great cities decay and are reborn. Or the fact that pollution has actually caused weather change – Calcutta no longer sees the violent, refreshing norwesters for which I remember waiting excitedly. It’s so many things that I don’t even know where to begin. The steady un-greening of the city. The complete disdain for traffic rules by ALL SECs (justified by the entirely unreasonable explanation of “everyone does it, this is the only way to survive here”, and by the somewhat more offensive “you won’t understand, these foreign ideas don't work here"). The bottles, cans and plastic bags thrown carelessly from car windows onto streets. The apathy. The make-a-fast-buck mores on display in banners that urge ill-informed students who have failed class XII board exams to “save a year” by enrolling with some seedy college, unrecognized and unaccredited by anyone. The ludicrousness of a government that, attempting to ban the polluting, 2-stroke-engine auto-rickshaws, managed to “stop” only 60 of them, across the city, when autos remained running, in defiance of said rule.

But I think, more than all the physical manifestations, it is the perspective of Calcuttans that is the most worrying. In all civilizations comes a time when paths diverge around one word: change. Those that embrace change move on. Those that don’t, fall back. In Calcutta, change is a distinctly dirty word. Old is gold, none of your new-fangled rubbish for us, thank you very much. Couple with this, the peculiarly Calcuttan lip-curling sneer of disdain for other cities, supported by empty pride in the cultural achievements of previous generations. (And I cringe to think that I was once the poster-child for this kind of thinking.) The rallying cries of “Tagore” and “land reforms” (an achievement in itself, but subversive in the way it draws attention away from how little else has been achieved in three decades of uninterrupted rule by a single party) are alive and strong. And, worst of all, nobody seems to be interested in what goes on elsewhere. For too many people in Kolkata, so sure are they of their superiority that there is no elsewhere worth knowing about.

But all of Calcutta’s claims to fame are dead. Culture? Delhi has book fairs and music festivals. Bombay has Kala Ghoda. New York celebrates every damn thing on the planet. Cosmopolitanism? Count the non-Indian people in other cities, and then let’s talk. Industry? Sure, at one point in the dim past. But now, between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress, any hope of real economic development in the next 30 years has been successfully scotched. Congratulations, West Bengal, you just shot yourself in the foot.

I am a product of a particular Calcutta space-time, and proud of it. I grew up in the most fantastic city in the world. But – and I begin to realize this only now – perhaps that city was fantastic because it was fantasy, a child’s view of a gentle jailer, a fond mother’s insistence that her criminal child is better than anyone else. And even as this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine, there’s no getting around it: Calcutta, your day is done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Baloo: 1996-2009

Baloo chose us.

We had heard about someone who had a litter of Labrador puppies she was desperate to find homes for, and persuaded ourselves that we would only go to see them, nothing more. There was no question of us bringing home another dog - Bagheera (our rather ferocious and uneven-tempered Boxer) wouldn't stand for it.

And then, as we walked in to a room, this one puppy, pushed around by all the others, toddled up to us, looked up and smiled - and just like that, the decision was made.

That was the summer of 1996. We've had 13 years with the happiest, smiley-est, gentlest, most joyful of beings. And now, suddenly, she's gone.

We try to focus on the fact that she lived a full and joyous life, that she didn't suffer much or for too long at the end, that she went peacefully, in her own bed, that she was our best beloved. But there's a hole in our lives, an ache in our hearts, and the world feels darker, full of tears and untamable grief.