The Great Indian Monsoon Trick

Back in the day, June was about two events: school re-opening (always on 13th), and arrival of the great Indian monsoon.

The catharsis monsoons provide is much like a revolution. Months of heavy heat and yellow dust finally give way to thundering, dark skies, gusty winds, perceptible drops in temperature and finally, rain. Dull brown transforms to glistening green-blue. Oppressive ennui melts into gutters overflowing with rain water. The smell of earth in rain makes you stop and inhale. And.Inhale.And.Inhale. Inhale the romance. Just to clarify, my paean to the monsoons is simply me being Indian. Kalidasa wrote Ritusamhara in praise of Indian seasons way back in 5th century CE, royal workshops over hundreds of years churned miniature paintings with lightning bolts, dancing peacocks and lovers in trysts. Rains seep through and soak classical, folk and popular music and art. Indeed Indian children grew up learning rhymes like Ye Re Ye Re Pausa, Tula Deto Paisa; a Marathi rhyme where a child is bribing rains to make an appearance. [It’s another thing that english medium children like me also learnt Rain Rain Go Away, Little Johnny Wants To Play, never questioning the absurdity of the rhyme in rain deprived India where children, parents and grandparents wait eagerly for the rains precisely to play *in*them.]


Monsoons are to Mumbai what winter is to Delhi. The incessant downpour (never a drizzle) can dampen many a faint heart. It is not like Mumbaikars like the omnipresent damp ceilings, swollen, peeling wall plaster, constant dripping outside, fungus infested leather shoes inside, water logging, trains stopping, or tragically wilting biscuits. Mumbaikars dislike all of the above. However miraculously,  an ingrained affinity

img_4334for the monsoon despite all its rigours is the litmus test of a true-blue Mumbaikar. I firmly believe that the wild, slate grey Arabian Sea has a role to play in that. If I’d get a penny for each time I played hookey from college while it was raining just to walk along Juhu beach, eat vada pav watching the crashing waves of Marine Drive, sing songs sitting on the rocks of Versova Beach, head for picnics (yes) to Madh Island, I’d have enough to afford a 2BHK in Andheri. I’ve waded through knee deep water just for fun, celebrated rainy day holidays and religiously bought rainy shoes and gum boots, both of which were utterly useless in the face of ferocious MumbaiMonsoons. (this is an absolute favorite song on the season and my city.)


Dehradoon, a hill town nestled up in the Himalayas where most of my summers were spent, puts on the most dramatic son-et-lumiere shows to showcase its monsoons. The lightning and thunder take on a booming entity of their own in Doon valley where trees sparkle anew with the rains. Of course, with the first thunder-clap you can be sure the
electricity will be out for 3-4-5-6-who knows how many hours, but who cares? I remember sitting in our veranda making paper boats to sail in little rivulets that cropped img_4336up magically everywhere in this hilly town. Those rains that bestowed upon us hard, heavy hail were deemed extra special because that was the closest we ever got to snow. (Hail surprisingly tastes just like ice was what we re-learnt every year.) Steaming ginger tea, nani’s  piping hot pakodas, samosas and rain dances on terraces.


Any passage on monsoons would be incomplete without mentioning Kerela – the place where the monsoon is born. The exact shade of emerald-green that the tea estates of Munnar glimmer with when freshly drenched is indescribable. As is the havoc that rain infused breeze wrecks on your senses when it carries fragrances from spice plantations of black pepper, cinnamon, coffee, cardamoms. The swollen fierce rivers that flow in all their might, the leeches and mosquitoes that dance in great delight. The waterfalls that appear suddenly everywhere, the backwater boats that take you there.


My heart doesn’t do calisthenics when it rains in New York. There’s no magic. No petrichor. No kids dancing. There’s no feeling of deliverance with rains – and that’s borderline unsettling, alienating almost. And maybe that’s why there is something visceral about how much I miss India, and its incredible monsoon..starting June 13th.

Navigating Parenting

thinkingman4A few days back my nine year old casually declared that he doesn’t believe in God. “There is no place like heaven, so where does God even stay? It’s all a wash.”

I did not (could not) reply immediately, busy as I was turning his words back and forth, up and down in my head with wonder. A need to comment responsibly stemmed from the fact that I am a believer. Don’t know how it happened, having grown up in a pretty non conformist household with an atheist mother but here I am,  a believer. Not rabid though, far from it, I don’t follow the numerous rituals my religion calls for, don’t visit the temple every month- or even six- but I believe in the divine and I do find comfort in God.

Calibrating my response was important because having my son tow my line of thinking just because I birthed him is not my cup of tea. In fact, I take a disproportionate amount of pride in the independent thought process he displayed. Think about it, how many Democrats have Republicans for children? Or how many hardcore hagglers have their progeny getting ripped off when shopping? I’m sure there are some, but they don’t constitute the norm. What cannot be overstated is the influence parents exert consciously or unconsciously over their child’s life choices. So I laboured yet again on an interesting, unending debate I often have in my head. God vs Science. Fear vs Self Belief. Unknown vs Known. Fate vs Action …and so it went till it dovetailed (as it always does without fail) into concepts of Karma, Dharma, Moksha, Kismet, Universe, Circle of Life, Meaning of Life…

Needless to say, I still don’t have a cogent enough response for him. But after all that rumination I know that I will encourage him to draw *his* conclusions based on *his* life experiences, *his* knowledge of the world and *his* ability to process religion and philosophy. How exciting, I can’t wait to write more about about our discussions going forth.

Plus he’s only nine; for all you know one day he may run his own religious cult in Utah!

 

Feminism and Nirvana

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Prologue: Someone on Twitter airily noted “Maybe feminism isn’t the ultimate nirvana for all women. I think we should trust individuals to make the best decision for themselves. THAT is freedom.”

 This is my answer not just to him but many others that think like him, unfortunately.

Imagine:

You are a man, father to an adorable little boy, about to have another baby and your father says, “God willing it won’t be a boy again; we will be blessed with a girl.” You look at your little son, smiling at you from a corner of that room. He was born male. Big fault. Whose? The one who birthed him of course. You.

An ambient reality is that your country doesn’t allow sex determination before birth. Boys are killed in-utero because they are, boys. But the really incredible part is that nobody dwells much on it. This gristly fact just sits there, gathering dust in the very rooms it should be dissected and discussed.

As a little boy, you are told to cover up modestly, to never sit legs apart. Knees together or crossed. You adapt quickly because rebukes drench you hard and relentlessly like tropical monsoons. You laugh, but with a hand fluttering over your mouth, daintily. Such a modest butterfly! Holding books against your chest as you walk to school is second nature. Are you subconsciously shielding your breasts? Whatever the reason, you never learn to carry them quite like those carefree girls – you know, dangling to the side? You “run like a boy”, “walk like a boy”, and that’s a funny way of doing things. See, girls run and walk differently, correctly; the way God intended things to be. You and your sex my boy, just didn’t get the memo.

You must learn to cook at an early age because it’s the No. 1 skill for a boy to possess. Soon it’ll come as handy as a smartphone is and let’s face it, those smartphones sure are handy! You, the little b(r)other, cook for and serve your elder sister who doesn’t enter the kitchen because she needs to concentrate on more important things like sports and school. She also needs more milk than you.. actually make that more food in general. She’s the girl. You’re the boy. Remember.

Like waves lapping beaches in myriad ways unfailingly, you will be reminded of your sex and its place in society by The Agreement .Whereas you (the second sex) will be in agreement with all societal considerations (The Rules or Traditions) applicable to your gender. For societal good, for civilization, for the earth to keep spinning it is agreed that you and your lot are where and how you were meant to be. Internalize. Embrace. Never forget.” And whereas you, my boy, will sign this Agreement without reading because (i) When every male around you is blindly signing up, it can’t be all that bad (ii) Understanding lengthy agreements takes far too much time and effort (iii) Who reads agreements anyway?

You may or may not attend school. You may or may not graduate. But that is not important. A pre teen you is walking down the street when your building watch-woman whistles as you pass by. Shocked, scared, confused and angry you continue walking, heart beating fast. On an early morning walk in the neighborhood park with your buddies, a middle-aged woman bares her goods, licking her lips, looking you in the eye. What to do? Run I guess. Returning from school, a driver from in a parked car calls out to you. You look. She is masturbating. Sigh, run again. In a crowded train someone presses against your privates. Who was that? Couldn’t even see! Groped under the garb of Holi revelry. Scream? Can’t share your shame. How embarrassing. How scary. Mostly though, how scarily routine.

You could panic but this is benign “adam-teasing”. “Cat-calls” are girls being girls. Those calls from dirty talking-hard breathing women may make you want to disappear off the earth, but everything passes. The trick is to overlook it all. (The real trick is to internalize that girls can overwhelm, overpower. They *are* stronger.) We won’t teach girls how to behave but you, we control. Remember that in the end, YOU, the boy, are inflaming these passions.  Ensure that doesn’t happen. Take control.

So. Cover yourself head to toe, like a beautiful pearl protected by the oyster. Only loose fitting clothes, nothing too tight or short. Wear a burqa actually, that’s the best; an ingenious way to stay sublimely secure. Cover up, it’s what your father does, your uncles, your grandfathers, your neighbors, the men of your city, your country. They guard their modesty like that dainty pearl. It’s their choice. Hell, men fight for this restrictive lifestyle *because* it defines their identity. By the way, Dolce and Gabbana now have a line of designer burqas. So sexy. You can have your cake and eat it too! (note: just don’t say sexy aloud.) Don’t look up, walking down the street, come straight back home from school. Don’t step out in the evenings. Don’t talk to girls in class, girls only want one thing and it is bad, bad, bad (note: just don’t say what it is aloud.)

First period? Can’t cook on “those” days, can’t enter a temple. Can’t even water Tulsi (what the holy basil) Defiled every month now on, you will stay in your territory, a territory marked by others. Dirty. Soiled. But hey young man, don’t lose heart. The beauty business loves you; it wants your skin radiant and hair shiny. Just that things aren’t ever good enough. Sigh. But keep buying; your confidence depends on it. Only when you are confident will you get that wife or job, you know the one where the prospective wife or interviewer are enamoured by your aforementioned radiant skin and shiny hair. Hope you’ve seen advertisements that clearly demonstrate how impeccably colored nails matter more than credentials. Learn that self-esteem is rooted in appearance, not ability. Keep buffing your nails, ego and self-worth, staring vacantly into space at fancy beauty salons.

You (are asked to) fast regularly; it’s good for you. Not so for your sister because fasting is a Boys-Club special. Monday for Shiv ji, Thursday for a good wife (most important), Saturday for Shani Maharaj. Of course you do it, it’s what your father, uncles..et al. do diligently. Tradition. From the day you were born little boy, your parents have been buying (at least) one piece of jewelry every year. No one said dowry planning was easy, plus the wedding is an expense borne by the “boys side”. Sigh. Boys are such expenditure while girls rake in all the cash. Obviously everyone wants a girl! But first things first, when the girl’s family comes to “check you out”, cook up a storm. Walk like a dream whilst they listen to a litany of your skills. Always be bashful; never look anyone in the eye. If all goes well, you’ll catch yourself a big fish. Life’s mission accomplished. By the way, should anything go wrong with the marriage, you cannot return to your parent’s. “Paraya dhan”, you never were theirs anyway. Your “kumardaan” has happened, you’ve been given away, donated, you dispensable, bothersome creature.

You move in with your in-laws after marriage. As a newly wedded groom, you *must* sacrifice. Everything their way. Plus, wear one million chudas, chudiyan, sindoor, bichhu, mangalsutra et al. Basically even an alien in space passing swiftly past the Earth, sitting inside her spaceship should be able to tell you’re taken. Your wife on the other hand needn’t participate in such symbolism. Her marital status is no one’s business. Each year just like those dashing heroes in movies, you must fast an entire day, without water, for your wife’s long life. So what if she doesn’t fast for you? She married you, its enough. All of the above is your choice. Your father, grandfathers et al did it all too. It is To Be Continued..

When you get pregnant, everyone (including you) will wish for a girl. While the baby will carry forward its mother’s family name, you, the father will carry the baby. For 9 months. Months filled with nausea, vomits, pains, gazillion visits to the bathroom, blood checks, ultrasounds, weird food cravings and that penultimate manna from hell – labor. The baby is born with you at your parents’ and the birthing expenses are borne by them too. But again, the child will bear the mother’s family name because, The Agreement.

Mostly you aren’t allowed to work outside the house. That is not a man’s domain. If you do work, you must manage career and home equally well. It is acceptable for a woman to be ambitious, but not a man. Anyway, you live life kingsize because what does a househusband really do? Keep the household running by restocking refrigerators, keeping hot chapattis ready, doing the laundry, looking after children and their homework etc. Boring stuff. No big deal. Especially rearing children. Any fool can do that. And that’s what you are, always have been and always will be. A fool. A helpless, disenfranchised male.

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Only that you really are a female. But the absurdity of patriarchy hits so much better when the tables are turned.

For ALL the women out there, don’t follow The Agreement blindly. Feminism is an ideal, and it is one worth fighting for. Equality and equal opportunity. Freedom from patriarchy and patriarchal baggage that all of us carry unknowingly or unknowingly.

Nothing is perfect, this isn’t a perfect world. But it can be bettered. I got lucky and have a good deal going, but age and experience have shown that blinders off, what’s out there is scary. I feel it my duty to call out bull shit when it’s smeared on my sex ritually, condescendingly, knowingly, unknowingly.

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This note won’t be complete without stating that I don’t appreciate the brand of feminism that treats men like pariahs. Some of the staunchest feminists I know are men, just as some of the most regressive and aggressive women haters are women. Lets not give the world any more reasons to distrust feminists and feminism.

This One Is For My Love

Music is like water.

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It quenches the soul, cools scorching days,

Calms frenzied minds, plays heart’s candy,

Powers the being;

Music sustains.

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Lullabies to dirges,

Music remains.

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Walkmans to discotheques,

Bhimsen Joshi to Pink Floyd,

Soothing ghazals to brisk songs of protest;

Iceland to Tahiti,

Music remains,

Ever so personal.

Ever the universal.

*****

Expressing what words cannot –

Hope, anguish, elation, hunger, freedom.

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Music captures – and – music sets you free.

*****     *****     *****    *****    *****      *****

Discovering a Classic

This post is about art and aesthetics. Magic, music and movies. …or maybe I don’t know what I am really writing about. There is this kernel of an idea that’s been niggling at me for the last few days; so here I am, typing away, trying to stitch together a tapestry of random occurrences over time. Maybe towards the end, we’ll discover together what I was trying pin down all along.

Let me begin where it began for me..

As a good ’90s grunge-child, Smashing Pumpkins was a band I adored. Siamese Dreams was mind-bending, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness took the trip further. One song in particular, “Tonight, Tonight” captured my imagination – mostly because of its fantastical video. I loved everything about it: the idea, the flickering-faded-vintage vibe, surreal settings within a distinctly steampunkish faery tale atmosphere. I often say that while it is nearly impossible for me to respond to what my favourite song is, it is easy to name my favourite music video – Tonight, Tonight.

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The genre of steampunk mixed with fantasy and sci-fi grew on me to a large extent because of Tonight, Tonight. A few steampunk paintings and art projects of mine find root in this adoration. Boxes of gears, watch faces, goggles, stamps and moulds always lie at home, waiting to be made into something to befittingly steampunk-cool. Books are borrowed from the library to dig deep into this genre. It may well be my never ending love story.

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Watching Hugo for the first time about six months back, I saw faded, sepia visuals spookily similar to those of my favorite video. The feel was that of steampunk on speed. Things I had first seen in a 1996 music video now popped-out from a 2011 movie – a movie that was a period drama depicting the 1930s.  And so, even before the film was through, I was researching it and this led me to Georges Méliès and his iconic A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans la Lune).

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Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) is a classic black & white and color (hand painted) silent film by the french director Georges Méliès. Méliès, and hundreds of his films long lay erased from public memory ravaged by the brutality that is rapidly changing times (and generations.) Fittingly, this temporary memory lapse was cured by time too. Today Méliès is revered, is considered a genius, and this 16-minute film of his is widely regarded as one of the most important works of film history.

Based loosely on two popular novels of the time: Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ and H. G. Wells ‘The First Men In The Moon’, Le Voyage Dans la Lune was the first to use science fiction as its theme even as it incorporated special effects that were state-of-the-art at the turn of the 19th century. Considered groundbreaking by many a student of cinema, this surreal work is absurd, dreamy and magical. It is poetry in the guise of science fiction and it reveals Méliès’ innovative work not just in its special effects but also in hand-tinting, backdrops and costumes.

The color version, considered lost for several decades, was found in 1993 in Spain, albeit in a desperate condition. In 2B4Qyd-YIEAEUUF5.jpg-large010, a complete restoration was launched, so that a new set of audience could experience its charms. And so it remains..the moment when the capsule lands in the Moon’s eye has become one of the most iconic and frequently referenced images in the history of cinema.

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In all of this, what struck me most is how profoundly Méliès and his piece of art has inspired (and continues to inspire) the creative mind. I’m sure there are many, many more instances, but here are the ones I came across even while I wasn’t seeking them out actively..

  • There is Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s homage to Méliès.
  • The video Tonight, Tonight which ends with a poignant “S.S. Méliès” written on a steamboat.
  • My paintings, some of which occupy homes other than mine, all unknowingly inspired by Méliès!
  • Then there is the french band AIR (another one of my favourites) that put a contemporary spin on the classic movie by composing an original, modern soundtrack for it. The soundtrack made its debut at the Cannes festival 2011 no less, playing alongside the newly restored, colored print of the movie on show for the first time.
  • Spurred on by their work on this short movie, AIR decided to develop the project into a full album. AIR’s Nicolas Godin explained of their new album, A Trip to the Moon, released in 2012: “It is undoubtedly more organic than most of our past projects. We wanted it to sound ‘handmade,’ knocked together’, a bit like Méliès’ special effects. Everything is played live … like Méliès’ film, our soundtrack is nourished by living art.”
  • tttmAnd then just last week I saw this ad while leafing through the New York Times. It’s an ad for the auction of “The Copy of the First Animated Film Poster”, a poster of A Trip to the Moon and its auction was expected to earn between $225,000-$275,000.

I guess at the centre of this labyrinth… the thing I’ve been trying to pin down… is that great art is one thing, and one thing only

                                            …Great Art is Great Inspiration.

Shakti, my way

IMG_0481She lost her mother a little too early in life. I was a management trainee then..doing the rounds of a factory in Punjab when I received her call. She was strong and collected – well as much as she could have been under the circumstances – and heartbroken as I was, I couldn’t have been prouder.

So when she moved into her swanky new sea-facing home and asked me to paint something for her bare walls, what else could I paint but Ma….Shakti…..that primordial female cosmic energy blessing her everyday, keeping her strong, vibrant and crazy as ever.

This is my house-warming gift to her. This is my love for aunty, one of the sweetest, kindest souls I’ve had the privilege of knowing .

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Painting details: Mixed Media on Canvas – acrylics, modeling paste, stamps, metal and glass.

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Arundhati Roy: The Only Dream Worth Having

I don’t aways agree with what Arundhati Roy has to say. Her analyses sometimes seem rabid and her world-view biased. I don’t partake in her philosophy, at least not the way she would want me to.

But, I admire her, a lot.

I admire her guts because it takes courage to take a stand and then stand by it – especially when it falls in the wholly unpopular realm. I admire her intellect, her moral strength and her tenacity. I admire the fact that she questions status quo, that she is an outlier in the best sense of the word. More than anything, I love her way with words, her imagery. I love her writing.

Here is an excerpt I picked from an interview she did with Democracy Now! when she visited New York recently to speak about her new book ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’. I do not agree with her reading of the ‘Capitalist’ situation, well not entirely anyway, because I believe that Capitalism packs in itself the power to do good. It creates much more than it decimates or desecrates. But yes, decimate, desecrate and debase it does (also). However, the reason for this post is not an analysis of the interview. It is these few lines she reads from a time, when fresh in the throes of all the adulation that followed ‘The God of Small Things’, her friend made an observation…

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, it was—it was really the first—in a way, the first political essay I wrote anyway, after The God of Small Things, and it was an essay called ‘The End of Imagination’ when the Indian government conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998. In early May (before the bomb), I left home for three weeks. I thought I would return. I had every intention of returning. Of course, things haven’t worked out quite the way I planned.

Of course, by which I meant that India just wasn’t the same anymore. While I was away, I met a friend of mine whom I have always loved for, among other things, her ability to combine deep affection with a frankness that borders on savagery. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said, “about The God of Small Things — what’s in it, what’s over it, under it, around it, above it…” She fell silent for a while. I was uneasy and not at all sure that I wanted to hear the rest of what she had to say. She, however, was sure that she was going to say it. “In this last year,” she said, “less than a year actually—you’ve had too much of everything—fame, money, prizes, adulation, criticism, condemnation, ridicule, love, hate, anger, envy, generosity—everything. In some ways it’s a perfect story. Perfectly baroque in its excess. The trouble is that it has, or can have, only one perfect ending.”

Her eyes were on me, bright with a slanting, probing brilliance. She knew that I knew what she was going to say. She was insane. She was going to say that nothing that happened to me in the future could ever match the buzz of this. That the whole of the rest of my life was going to be vaguely unsatisfying. And, therefore, the only perfect ending to the story would be death. My death. The thought had occurred to me too. Of course it had.

The fact that all this, this global dazzle—these lights in my eyes, the applause, the flowers, the photographers, the journalists feigning a deep interest in my life (yet struggling to get a single fact straight), the men in suits fawning over me, the shiny hotel bathrooms with endless towels—none of it was likely to happen again. Would I miss it? Had I grown to need it? Was I a fame-junkie? Would I have withdrawal symptoms?

I told my friend there was no such thing as a perfect story. I said in any case hers was an external view of things, this assumption that the trajectory of a person’s happiness, or let’s say fulfillment, had peaked (and now must trough) because she had accidentally stumbled upon ‘success.’ It was premised on the unimaginative belief that wealth and fame were the mandatory stuff of everybody’s dreams.

“You’ve lived too long in New York” I told her. “There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. And sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors that I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less ‘successful’ in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.” “The only dream worth having,” I told her, “is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.” “Which means exactly what?” I tried to explain, but didn’t do a very good job of it.

Sometimes I need to write to think. So I wrote it down for her on a paper napkin. And this is what I wrote: To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”