Jan 182015

My blog on Charlie Hebdo shootings, in DNA on 8th January 2015

Is the price of offending nutcases, death? How far do you hold your silence? Who all are you supposed to be scared of? Can you really blaspheme against a religion you don’t follow?  If you don’t believe in God, or you don’t believe in the story of the origin of the universe in terms of religious reference points, if you don’t believe in a ‘One God’ theory and are joyfully polytheistic, if you like beef, if you laugh at idols, if you question the Virgin Birth, if you don’t believe that Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet— are you committing blasphemy or going against religious beliefs?  What if they are not your religious beliefs? Are you supposed to follow the religious dogma of religions you don’t follow? And why?

There is this extreme religious fundamentalist arrogance that looks at the world and expects it to be reordered as per the dictates of someone’s interpretation of a ‘holy book’. And the reason the term holy book is in quotes is that there is no one holy book for all the people, and there never will. Every time, we give in to any section of population whose sentiments are ‘hurt’ by some depiction or the other, we are not just giving up on the essence of religion, but the essence of a Secular Democratic Republic. The job of the State is not to assuage offended egos, and self appointed guardians of morality, religion and God, but to protect the rights of the individual whose right to express and expression is threatened.



Some of the illustrations in Charlie Hebdo

The ruling against the representation of the Prophet was to prevent idolatry (which is considered to be taboo in Islam).  However, when people, who are neither followers ofIslam nor of any religion, are killed by terrorists for physically depicting the Prophet, this is the most primitive form of idolatry behaviour possible. A human sacrifice to an angry God.  No God, no religion asked for this. Self appointed guardians of religion, who are possibly borderline psychopaths, are setting the agenda and expect the rest of the universe to follow out of fear.

Expecting people who do not follow a faith to follow the taboos of a faith is not just nonsensical, it also interferes with other people’s freedom to religion of their choice. I have been hearing voices on social media, op-ed pieces in respected newspapers on how restraint is needed in expression. This piece from the Financial Times especially hit hard–

Financial Times later changed this to a version that did not include the word stupid. Actually, Charlie Hebdo is not being stupid. They are exercising their freedoms.

There was an inexplicable quote by a woman I really admired as a school girl, Kiran Bedi –

Why provoke is a good question but maybe a better question is why do some people get provoked while most of the world doesn’t. And, why are we supposed to give up our freedoms for these whiny, attention grabbing types? And how long do we live in fear, and for what all?

We live in a world where anything can cause offense. The fact that you eat meat can cause offense to a vegetarian; the fact that you as a woman demand control on your body may cause offense to an orthodox religious type; the fact that you interpret the scriptures can cause offense to those who believe in a comic book version of the religion. There is no end to those who get offended and throw a hissy fit that says ‘pay attention to me and my views, I am important’.

Every time we give in to buy peace, we forget one thing – peace cannot be purchased. And peace purchased to assuage the anger of a psychopath carrying a gun, is temporary fragile peace. You will do something else tomorrow to offend him and cause him to raise the gun again. This is not about religion. This is about domination of all spaces in society and making them comply with a twisted vision of reality.

It needs to stop now. Peshawar and Paris are the clarion calls to stop appeasing bigots of all shades.  And, finally I will end with a quote attributed to Charab – the cartoonist who was murdered yesterday by terrorists-

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”

Mar 182014

Anand Bhate is a disciple of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi. And a fabulous singer in his own right. I first heard him sing for the film Bal Gandharva, where he was outstanding. I have been trying to scour the shops and the interwebs for more of his music, unfortunately there isn’t too much. I wish there is a way of recording every classical artist and make them available freely, because i am quite convinced the more people hear classical music, the more it will get heard .. (if that makes sense)..

Here is a fantastic rendition of Teerth Vitthala composed by Namdev, one of the leading lights of the Bhakti Movement in Maharashtra. The oneness with Vitthala comes through in every line of the song. I have heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sing this live in concert. I was moved to tears at that point. This rendition is interesting because it manages to bring out the familiar with a distinctiveness that is unique. And Anand Bhate is still young – an average classical music singer reaches his peak in his early 50’s. It is going to be a musical trip when that takes place


Feb 122014

My column in @DNA last week

My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.

Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”

India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of  Muslims. More recently,  in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.

Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.

There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.

The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?

Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them  — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real  as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.

Sep 222013

view from the 12th floor

(Mumbai from the 12th floor of India Bulls)

I physically miss Mumbai when i am away from it. There is something about the city – the sheer energy, the sheer buzz, the lack of pretense. that is missing elsewhere. Maybe people from other cities will express similar sentiments about their city. I suppose they would. Often, one hears the statement – the Mumbai you grew up in is very different from the Mumbai today – but so are you :)

In the last 15 years or so, Mumbai’s gloss has been losing its sheen. It is looking tired and tarnished. There are those who blame the transition from Bombay to Mumbai for the issues, there are others who blame ‘outsiders’. Maybe both these statements are right – afterall the people who are making them are highly regarded in their own circles. And, political correctness aside, these are comments that most of us have heard every day. Not just in Mumbai but elsewhere too – the nostalgic remembrance of days gone by – when people knew their place. Where people did not yet comprehend that they were equal citizens of a Republic. Where ‘outsiders’ were fewer and in their little enclaves (one could call them Ghettos, but they weren’t Ghettos, at least not then)


 (Bandra Fishing Village, Mumbai)

Some of my classmates, when i was in school,  lived in the slums. Some had mothers who worked in homes as maids, others had fathers who worked in the mills. I remember one whose dad was a taxi driver. At school we were told, don’t get expensive sweets on your birthday, to distribute. Others in your class cannot afford it. We used to take in those boiled orange sweets (Parle) – remember those?

We used to attend each other’s festivals. Haldi Kumkum, for example was a multi cultural, multi community event. Women would go to other people’s homes (with reluctant kids in tow) – communicate, chatter, complain about their husbands, exchange notes about their kids. This was not so long ago.

  (Gudi Padwa – Girgaum, Mumbai)

Somehow, while we maybe right about other reasons, including corruption, bad policing, the dying mills, influx of outsiders, de-gentrification of Bombay, i wonder if the reason is even more basic – we have stopped forging deeper social bonds. Attending each other’s festivals, participating in little joys. Somehow we seem to have moved into our little ghettos – those ghettos might be gated towers where people of a single economic background live (as a friend pointed out – how do you see us little people from up there) , or they maybe sprawling chawls where Ambedkar Nagar is very clearly demarcated from Kumbharwaadi (who look up at the buildings and wonder about the life). There are separate schools, separate hospitals, separate colleges. It is almost as though we have said – so what if you can vote the same as us – you are not us. we don’t want you and we don’t want to intermingle. And they say to us, who the hell are you – you can’t even speak one Indian language properly, you can’t even pronounce your names correctly – what on earth do we want from you!

the bead seller_
(Many strands, each separate – how do they come together? Kala Ghoda – Mumbai)

Even the Sarvajanik Ganpati – started by Tilak to both bypass British rules & to foster a sense of community are now little ghettos. There is a Ganpati every 500 metres, each organised by a separate entity. A festival that brought us so much joy has now become one more thing to be endured, as competing groups of strongmen &  extortionists collect money with veiled threats, take over  pavements and streets, and create general chaos and mayhem. As our maid pointed out “wasooli cha dhanda zaala hai”. She doesn’t send her daughters to the pandals. We no longer go.  no longer pray together. I miss participating in the aarti – i used to know all the stanzas at one point in time, but i can no longer bear to go. The piety has gone. It is now about Hindi film music and Bollywood dancing. Not that i have anything against either, but religious events are about sharing and participating, a disco is about dancing.

The fabric of society is woven, thread by thread, event by event, occasion by occasion. We are just not creating enough threads that holds everything together. And somehow, in this city where women had a great say, where the first working women made their mark, where women brought their sons up to be good men – women have been edged out. That ability of women to reach across class, across community and talk to a sister under the skin, that has been severely dented. Maybe, that is what needs to be nurtured.

You can’t prevent people from making Mumbai their home. You cannot change the name back. There is no point crying for the past or even romanticizing it. The past was not perfect, nothing ever is. But we can forge a future – a future that is better. And, while there needs to be a fix on infrastructure, and corruption, and the builder’s lobby, and employment – there is also that little thing that we can do – reach out and form ties. Learn the language, learn multiple languages, attend each other’s festivals, reach out – or am i expecting too much?


Mar 042013

My column in today’s DNA

Budget for women: They need real help not gender apartheid

In the last budget before the next General Elections, the Finance Minister Mr.P.Chidambaram could not rock any boats. Nor could he undertake the kind of massive spending cuts that were required to bring down the deficit. What he did do was to announce a plethora of schemes, aimed at women, the youth and the poor, which is hoped, will have an impetus on the economy and propel it into growth.

Some of these were good – such as including as CSR a company’s incubation of a project in an academic environment; some were ‘about time’ – such as index linking investment in Government bonds (so that the value of your investment does not get eroded with inflation) or a focus on skills development; some were business as usual – welfare spending that needs to be undertaken to stave off revolution. There weren’t too many shocks insofar as taxation was concerned –a 10% surcharge for a year on Tax for the richest 42,800 people who have declared earnings of over a crore a year, a 5% increase in surcharge for companies, and that was pretty much it. It was a budget designed with an eye on the polls. It wasn’t the Pranab Mukherjee kind of spend today, figure tomorrow budget. At the same time it was also not the kind of budget that took steps at either increasing the tax base or radical steps in terms of cutting spending. It was a budget that hoped that investments in key areas would pay off and the multiplier would kick in.

What was interesting about this budget has been its focus on women as a separate segment of the population, not just as part of the household, but as an individual with her own needs and requirements. There were two specific initiatives that looked at women as people who step out of the house and go out – to study, to work. The intentions behind both these have been to help make the situation of women in India better.  But would they?

The first initiative, which Mr.Chidambaram has tentatively named the Nirbhaya fund, and  has a 1000 crore allocation is aimed at keeping woman safe and secure. What could be possibly be wrong with this?  The primary role of the State is to provide security to all its citizens, including women. While one appreciates that something needs to be seen to be done, one cannot but help wonder, if a separate fund mandated by the budget is the solution. And questions arise – what happens when the fund runs out? Is this a readymade excuse for politicians, bureaucrats and police – ‘we could not do anything because we did not get funds allocated from the Nirbhaya fund’. Security has to be an integral part of the services provided by the State. You can increase the budget for security at large, with an emphasis on keeping women safe. But, is it prudent to have a fund exclusive aimed at “safety and security” of women?


(woman, rural Maharashtra)

The second initiative is India’s first Women’s Bank, with a 1000 crore capital, staffed predominantly by women for a mainly female clientele. The existing system despite having a number of women in command positions has not been very women friendly, even in urban areas. Go into villages, and you will see this compounded, many times over. Women don’t get loans because their husbands have defaulted. There is harassment, financial jargon, and general lack of service. Lack of literacy, and financial literacy keeps women from accessing credit. These issues exist and are very real. But, is the solution to get the existing banking system to treat women as a priority sector, incentivise the opening of women only branches, women only officers in existing branches to serve women entering the banking system for the first time – or is it dealing with women as ‘separate but equal’? A sort of gender apartheid. Also, there are other issues such as access to credit from the rest of the financial sector. Would women curtail their dreams based on the Women’s Bank financial capacity? There are those who believe that this sort of a bank will help women from traditional households to access credit. But so will a woman’s only branch of an existing bank. Many PSU Banks (SBI, Syndicate Bank, Indian Bank) already run women’s only branches.

Good Intentions are a great idea. And, it is reassuring to know that the Government is thinking of women and their welfare. But what is needed is real equity, real equality, and real inclusion. And these may not be possible if we instead of fixing what is wrong with the system, we create new spaces exclusively for women. Inclusion cannot happen through exclusion.