Sunday, October 28, 2012


“It is quite amazing when someone who is supposed to know you better than any other human being, someone who is supposed to protect you, care for your dreams and desires, can shatter those dreams so completely, so seemingly casually, and for such a reason.” She agonized.

It seemed strange to her that economics would be the decider, especially given her history of making major life changes based on emotions and values with zero attention paid to money. Someone who can give up millions a month in salaries just to have quality time, someone who can “make do” with a 10th of the income, making sure the family, the relationships, and health, gain primacy, someone who basically has never cared a damn for the little green pieces of paper, suddenly has to hear that those pieces of paper are the reason she cannot have her single greatest Desire in life. Seems strange even coming from someone who knows her a little bit, and frankly dumbfounding when coming from someone who has known her most of her life, someone who presumably knows just how much this means to her.

She can remember back to when she was all of twelve yeas old, and starting to figure out who she was and what she wanted from her life. As far back as that she knew this was what she wanted, and as much of it as remotely possible. She would manage, make do, make the adjustments necessary in her life, lifestyle, and behavior, to accommodate this great Desire of hers. Over the years it had only gotten more crystallized, and had become the bedrock for her personality. This was who she was. Her name, her nickname, her entire identity had become bound up, to so large an extent, with this one Desire of her life, this one mission, this meaning that she sought to give to herself.

Life, as it does, threw her its share of curves as she grew up. She had her highs and lows, as does everyone, some more than others. Through the manic highs and the abysmal lows, through the paradise and the hells, through self destruction and therapy and pharmacology, this was one of the things that held her together, one of the essential parts of her personality, of her deepest heart, that managed to survive. There was never even the slightest question in her mind of relinquishing this Desire, of giving up this hope, of letting go of this need. That would have been like letting go of the very base of herself, of becoming someone she wasn’t, of discarding who she so deeply, so fundamentally WAS.

Then, things got better, after a lot of bad times, the OTHER appeared. Things became almost magically, miraculously OK. (Maybe she should have been warned then? Things that seem too good to be true so often are. But she just didn’t see any signs.) The oh-so-long felt agony, the indecision, the loathing of self and everything else, the desire to opt out, all faded nicely into the background, confining themselves to the merest of rare occasional twinges. She had a good run with that, years and years of calm, placidity (is that an entirely good word? She wondered), stability (highly over rated she always thought), adjustment, and all those other desirable states of mind the mental health faculty keeps harping on about. Good things, she supposed, although it did cause all of her creative juices to dry up for a while. Apparently she could not make art unless she was in conflict, or unhappy, or something.

That lasted a while, and the universe gave her the tiny little part of the Desire that she saw as the first step, the foundation of her empire of Desire, the first installment of the many, many to come. Then, things started sliding again, though the process was subtle enough to completely avoid being noticed. The next step, the second installment, kept being put off, further and further, for one reason or another. There were major moves, life upheavals, just wasn’t the right time, trying but not managing to, trying other avenues, and so on and so forth. By the time she noticed what was happening, it was six years too late. Still, one must try to correct one’s mistakes whenever one notices them, so she took a good try.

It wasn’t meant to be. Physically and emotionally devastated by the attempt, she gave up the idea of achieving her Desire through the regular method. The alternative seemed to be something only she was interested in. the OTHER had neither the time, nor the inclination to be frank, to bother with such things. Maybe one installment was enough for the OTHER, maybe the idea of the alternative path was not a welcome or comfortable one (although the OTHER claimed to have been interested in the alternative for years before they had ever gotten together), or maybe the OTHER just could not be bothered to make so much effort for something that didn’t matter so much to them. She had to keep trying, for the sake of the first installment if nothing else, for she could see how essential it had become for the first one. Whatever the OTHER’s reasons for reluctance, it fell completely to her to pursue the matter, to try as hard as she possibly could.

No hope. The law, the social attitudes, the mentality of the people with power in the alternative scenario, all conspired to deprive her of any possibility of achieving her Desire through these alternative channels. One tiny window was left open, one last shred of hope, one last reason to keep trying, but unfortunately for her it was something the OTHER must follow up on. And she was beginning to be more and more sure that the follow up would not happen. And she was right. The whole body language, the attitude, the lack of drive of the OTHER was a clear indication of the reluctance to do this. She kept needling, and it didn’t make a difference. Eventually she simply gave up.

As she withdrew more and more into her shell, backing up from the agony of false hope, and somehow trying to gain control over this gnawing need, the almost obsessive want, she made efforts, for the first time in her life, to achieve the state of numb zombie existence she had rejected in the past. Now she aspired to be that blank, a blankness she had fought in her past, that she had ripped apart just to be able to FEEL. Now, feeling only meant more pain than even she was able to handle. Plus, with the first installment being her responsibility, she knew she could not afford a breakdown. Nor was “opting out” an option any longer. The only choice left was to stop feeling. She withdrew more and more, attempting to block things from affecting her, from making a difference. Some people noticed, and commented, some didn’t, but she began to go blank letting the pain sink to the bottom, rising up only in silent midnight weeping fits, or curling up when she was alone.

Eventually, the OTHER began asking. The change had become noticeable enough to penetrate even the masks and party faces she put on habitually these days. Every time the OTHER asked, she changed the topic, or denied it, or tossed it away lightly, not wanting to get into a crying fit, or a shouting match. Even arguing seemed more effort than she could manage these days, and she could not remember the last time they had had a fight. She just let it all slide, curling up within herself with her pain, unwilling to let anyone see, ask, analyze. Maybe love was ebbing, maybe it had just become too much effort, or maybe things had just become too much to take. What was left was to keep going through the motions, keep feeling only the nice things, and to bury the agony deep enough to ignore.

Still, the OTHER kept at it, asking, and asking, and commenting, figuring out at least some of the unhappiness lurking behind the forced smiles visible all day, until matters came to a head. And what are the reasons for the reluctance? Nothing much, merely doubts about economic capability 10 years down the line. After a lifetime of knoqing, and half a lifetime of togetherness, this is what she got. Her deepest Desires, her need, balanced on a MAYBE, never mind what that does to her, her mind, her heart, and the relationship. “Can anyone be that unthinking?” she wondered, “and can anyone ignore what this is doing, and will do, to the US? What it is doing, and will do to the first installment?”  maybe those things don’t matter to the OTHER so much, or maybe the danger is really unfelt and unappreciated. She, on her part, can feel the drifting, the distances growing, the pain starting to become more than the love can support.

The shell beckons, walls begin to sound more safe than restrictive, and feeling and emotions seem to be overrated. Maybe it is time to become reformed, to join the average humans, to become typical – typical woman, typical partner, typical. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Two evenings of theatre

One of the greatest (and rare) pleasures of being in Kolkata, no matter how short the stint, is the still vibrant theatre scene in the city. Taking advantage of the amazing theatre groups, great plays, fine halls, and extremely affordable (even dirt cheap) tickets is something I make a point of doing every chance I get. In keeping with this tradition, I have watched a couple of plays in the last few days. Interestingly, the experiences were vastly different.

The first play was more expensive, at 100 rupees a ticket, and by a hot, in, theatre group run and directed by a currently well known actor. The play was William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, albeit in Bangla, and the group was Kaushik Sen’s Swapnasandhani. As can be imagined, I had some really high expectations from it. Being familiar with the rich theatre culture in the state, and the history of experimentation and adaptation, I expected an interesting evening of a creative rereading or at least an adaptation of the original. Instead, what I got was a line by line, scene by scene, act by act, straight-forward staging of the original play, only translated into an archaic, old fashioned, over formal Bangla. Frankly… disappointing.

The acting, of pretty much everyone other than Kaushik himself, was average, or less than average, with Lady Macbeth – probably the most complicated, demanding, and interesting of the characters – being played by a current “serial” actress in a shallow, filmy, and nyaka way. This in itself would have been enough to ruin my enjoyment of the play. Add to this some very unimpressive acting by the rest of the cast, boring costumes, and ho hum sets, and the whole thing just wasn’t worth the ticket price. Also, it was frankly too damn long! At over three and a half hours, most of the scenes were stretched painfully, and the only ones really worth the time were the ones with the witches, and even in those half the time you couldn’t hear what they were saying.

All in all, I yawned though the entire show, and walked out with a headache and a sense of lost time and wasted effort.

And then, there was “ja nei bharote” -- ticket price Rs 40. Based on episodes from the Mahabharata, this “what India doesn’t have” was an all around pleasure. Manoj Mitra is a stalwart of Bengali theatre, and a renowned actor of Bengali cinema, and has been for decades. Whether it is the superior experience on stage and on camera, or simply better thespian ability, he comes across as a much more effortless and natural actor than Kaushik. Happily, most of the other actors were close, if not equally good, in acting ability. The play itself, Mitra’s take on the injustices in the Mahabharata, is worth spending two hours over even on its own. And no…these are not the traditionally thought of injustices like Karna. The unthinking as well as premeditated injustices and tortures physical, emotional, and mental – perpetrated on so many of the characters, especially the women, is something that traditional examinations of the epic never pay attention to.

It was great to see the re-imagining and re-reading of this most canonical of our canonical texts, the most epic of our epics. Mitra’s light touch made some very strong and pertinent points, through laughter, and kept me entertained while making me think. The issues raised, the alternatives suggested, and the parallels drawn were quite fascinating and fulfilling. Overall, an evening well spent.

It is what I expect from theatre. Don’t just show me the narrative as is, as I have seen it a thousand times in many languages. DO something with it. Twist it, break it, rethink it, ruin it, transform it, transport it, adapt it --- SOMETHING! I would much rather watch a Maqbool than a straight forward Macbeth, and I definitely enjoy the brain-food that a Ja Nei Bharote provides, even if some scenes could have been shorter, or some people less histrionic. THIS is good theatre!   

Friday, October 5, 2012

The FDI circus continues

The madwoman is on a rampage again. Ever since last night’s announcement of increasing of FDI to 49% in insurance, and a possible corresponding raise in the FDI cap in pension, she has gone on a complete rampage, egged on and supported by such massive well wishers of the “common man” as BJP.  

It is pertinent to remember at this point that the BJP, in its avatar as the NDA government, was the most avid and vocal advocate of financial reforms and FDI, and it was partly over reforms in pensions that they lost power in the first place. So what is this about face really about? Is it a populist attempt at garnering some share of the amm-janta-who-have-no-clue vote bank? Or is it envy, at the UPA managing to push through some unpopular, though much needed, reforms when they were unable to do so? Or is it part of some much deeper political game where toppled governments and early elections are supposed to give them back the lost throne?

Whatever the motivation behind the strident anti reform chorus, it is not helping to improve the overall situation. What with an abysmal fiscal deficit, rampaging inflation, and a staggering debt burden in the midst of a global financial meltdown, we can’t exactly ignore the fact that we need serious infusions of cash and hundreds of thousands of new jobs to get us to some kind of sane level where the economy actually functions and maybe even grows. So, where is this cash, these jobs, going to come from? It sure as hell won’t suddenly materialize out of thin air, neither are the billions already spent on fruitless social programs by the government suddenly going to bear fruit for no reason, especially since the billions have already gone well into various pockets of the various babus from the top of the rung all the way down to rock bottom. In short, things being as they are, the only way to breathe some life into the economy and to infuse some much needed lifeblood, is to throw investment options open to foreign players. Provided, of course, that the BJP, and other political parties, ever let it happen.

To top it all, we have Madame Bannerjee, screaming herself hoarse and threatening dire consequences like no confidence motions. She’s always been notorious for reacting first and thinking later, for basing political decision on emotion rather than rational thought, and – more recently – for being unashamedly populist. Given the fact that she had to break the leftist stranglehold of 34 years in the state of West Bengal to come to power, one understands the motivation behind her obviously successful pandering to mass sentiments. However, all she is doing now, is being is obstructive, obtuse, and frankly destructive of the very state she was given – with a lot of trust and hope – to try and improve, to drag kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

For some reason, she has decided to be more left than the left she defeated. This seems strange to normal, not knowing anything, people like me. After all, wasn’t she brought in to REPLACE the left because their system was NOT working? Presumably then, people want you to be everything they were not? So, in my limited logic, it seems that what people want for Bengal is more industries, more jobs, more open market, more opportunities for earning, given that those are the exact things that the left government systematically eradicated over the 34 years of their reign. However, she seems to have gone the opposite direction.

Instead of encouraging industries and laying down the red carpet to Indian and foreign investors, throwing open retail markets, and basically doing everything she possibly can to bring in the moolah and the jobs, what she’s actually doing is the exact opposite. Having begun her march to power on the back of the Singur/Nandigram controversy, she seems to have assumed that “revolutionary” posturing and pig headedness are more important than governance, especially in the run up to the municipal polls. So, neglecting the glaring problems at home, and the questions being raised about mismanagement and unnecessary delays in funding and completing projects of essential infrastructure and so on, she chooses to pay more attention to, and invest more time in, proving her revolutionary mettle on the national scene.

As for her own state, she is driving away whatever investments had already been inked, like Haldia, and talking of closing down even existing domestic retails chains like Spencer’s and Reliance and More, thus depriving a whole section of semi educated but presentable young men and women of decently paying jobs. She is rabidly anti FDI, supposedly to protect the common man when both farmers and the man on the street stand only to gain from the changes big chain retail can bring in, from contract farming, better prices to the farmer, better prices to the consumer, better quality, huge number of jobs from front office to back end operations, to better infrastructure to cater to the needs of these investors. So who is she trying to protect? Either the middlemen and business interests who pumped in money for her rise to power are being given their pound of flesh, or she is reacting in her usual irrational, emotional, knee-jerk way without any real thought or concern for the overall welfare of the state. Given the approaching municipal polls, where she desperately wants to establish a majority, the choices make political sense, maybe, even if they are unproductive and harmful in the long run.

As for the UPA, its sudden passion for reforms is suspect in itself. Had they made these moves soon after they came to power, one could have given them uncomplicated applause. Given that they choose to do this so late in the day, with the 2014 elections on the far horizon, in the middle of general public outcry and disgust over some of the greatest scandals and scams of our independent history, the whole thing smacks of a roman circus. Looks like a case of give the public, and the market, a feel good lollipop of reforms, and they will forget about all the indecision, inactivity, and the scams. Also, given that their numbers in parliament ate precarious at best after Mamata withdrew her support, things become murkier still. The cabinet has passed the reforms, well and good, but these are early days. The bills have to be passed by Lok Sabha, marginal possibility, and the Rajya Sabha, which is almost impossible.

Seems to me like the Congress is playing one of its age-old games. The bills will fail in parliament, and the party will go to the polls telling Johnny public “look, we tried, we want to make changes for you, but these allies, and this strong opposition, they didn’t let us succeed! So the next time give us a clear majority so that we can push the reforms through without hassle!”  God help us if the public takes them at their word! For now, all one can hope for is that some of the parties will see sense and help make these reforms a reality. Because we really can’t do without them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Driving across the country can be so much fun!

My entire insane family is totally addicted to wheels. No, we are not car freaks in the ordinary everyday sense of the word. We don’t want expensive or phoren cars, and we don’t speed or drive rashly in the city. We are NOT that kind of car freaks. Instead, we drive small cars, a Wagon R, an Alto, an 800 Duo, and we drive well within the city speed limits, preferring to take our time getting from point A to point B. we also follow the traffic rules, yes, even when no one is watching, even in the middle of the night, even on totally empty streets!

And yet, we are the biggest car freaks I’ve ever met! How so? Well, there is absolutely no other form of transport that we would rather choose, no matter what the distance, than a car. On any holiday, any kind of travel plans, we are likely to just head off in a cavalcade of small cars rather than fuss with buses, trains, flights and such. We all find it a lot more comfortable, and flexible, and we enjoy the freedom of being in control, stopping where we wish, not stopping if we don’t wish, choosing our own route, and so on. Plus, we really enjoy driving. So, long drives have a whole new meaning for this family!

For example, when a huge move was planned, all the way across the country to Kolkata, instead of sitting and looking at railway timetables and things, we sat down for a family conference. Our family unit, my parents, my man and I, and our two-year-old daughter, were about to move from Pune to Kolkata. Democratic to the core, our major family decisions have always been made via family conferences, even when we were little kids, so having one now, for such a major move, was the obvious course of action. Ideas were batted around, as we tried to decide whether taking a flight was a better idea than trains, how to handle the packers, and more. Should someone go with the stuff? In their truck? What about receiving the stuff? If we sent off all the stuff too early, how were we to manage the last few days? And if we left on the day we sent the stuff, we would get to Kolkata too early, way before the stuff arrived, and then how would we manage? That was a problem for sure. Pretty soon, from all this brainstorming over how to manage, the simplest, easiest, and most likely for all parties to agree with solution soon came up. “Let’s just drive!”

 To many Indians, especially of my father’s age, who are living in India, this would be an impossible, unimaginable trip. Drive two thousand four hundred kilometers across the country! With two senior citizens! And a tiny little kid! I could imagine any number of people, my friends as well as those of my father, having heart attacks at the very thought! For Indians of my father’s generation, the famous and infamous midnight’s children, this is not a very surprising attitude. Cars are comparatively new things for them, things they met pretty late in life. Born at the time of or growing up around independence, they were witnesses of the changes India saw in the following decades.

They saw the country go from the “Mother India” type, chiefly agrarian, mostly village based country – to the growth oriented, urban minded, raring to be a world community member, nation it has now become. Yet, in the initial years after independence at least, the change was quite slow, and old habits really died hard. However, with economic growth picking up pace and becoming much more rapid and e-controlled in the 1980s, people like my dad, basically middle class, recently upwardly mobile, and firmly urban, began to be able to own cars. Loans became easier to get, and cheaper to pay off, and a new spurt in the automobile industry gave people like my crazy old man a much wider choice in models and types.

This was when my family’s own love for wheels, and for the road really began. With as many as seven people jam-packed into a miniscule Standard 10 (more or less the equivalent of a VW beetle), or eleven people (8 adults) in a Maruti Omni (a smallish minivan), we began to drive around and travel South India by road. One of our more infamous and wild trips included the four of us – dad, mom, bro, and I – driving from Chennai to Bangalore in the middle of an actual cyclone, while the little car kept side-slipping in the gale force winds and the massive torrents flowing across the roads kept trying to wash away our little metal box on wheels with them! We kids inherited this insane love of the road from the oldies, in a most natural way, having grown up practically IN cars. And we have been lucky, both of us, to find partners who share that love. Not surprisingly, the third generation of the clan, my daughter is now being taught to revel in the complete freedom and convenience that “let’s just take the car and head out, and forget about all this ticket-wicket!” can give to travel, and my brother’s kids are very likely to learn the same!

So, with a detailed route mapped out, and with stopovers tentatively planned, we headed out on our long trip, Christmas morning, really early in the morning. The plan was to go via Hyderabad, rather than via Nagpur because – as we have seen – the roads down south are so much better, the streets much safer, and we really wanted to take advantage of the brand new Golden Quadrangle – a perimeter like stretch of six lane highways that are still under construction, in an attempt to make India much more easily navigable by road. The Pune Hyderabad stretch we had done many times at this point in time that we were very familiar with it, and we covered easily in roughly nine hours, in spite of a longish stop for lunch in the middle of the 590 km.

Now most of the people I know, even the ones who do drive to places further than Lonavla or Mumbai, could never imagine being out on the road, with two women and a small child, without rock solid reservations for all the stopovers. We however, knew that India has, finally, made enough progress that technology would solve the stopover accommodation issue for us. Driving into the city, and all the ones after that where we wished to stay over, we simply called the information service Justdial, a version of which is now available in most of the larger and some smaller Indian cities, and asked for phone numbers of hotels in Hyderabad. A large bunch of names and numbers soon arrived to both the laptop and the cellphone, and all it took was a couple of calls, and we were soon driving to our first night of well earned rest.

The next morning, bright and early, in keeping with our grand road trip plan of “leave early, take frequent breaks, and stop before it gets too dark”, we started the next leg of the journey after a quick but filling breakfast. This was a new stretch of road, a stretch we hadn’t done before, and the plan was to get to Vijaywada that day. On this stretch, we noticed other changes in the overall travel experience on Indian roads. Now tea and snacks by the roadside, in the dhabas and little hut-shops have never been a problem on any Indian highway. However, when we began our nomadic, independent, self driven style of travelling, actual meals were not really so easy to come by at the road side. We have had many misadventures in trying to find lunch on the road, ranging from super yummy but super small Tamilian “meals ready” places, to really awful shacks where we only ate because we had to, otherwise we would all have passed out from starvation! As for “facilities” that was a whole different adventure leading to a lot of familiarity with roadside hedges and farmlands! This trip, I realized that more Indians are on the road than they were even ten years ago, and as a direct result of that, fuel stations on the highways are now little islands of fun and convenience. There are parks for kiddies with fun things like swings, slides, and assorted other treats. There are little stores selling biscuits, chips, snacks and things. There are restaurants serving meals, as well as all hours of the day fast food. And, best news of all for the fastidious and the ladies, there are well maintained and clean restrooms.

As the trip progressed, as we went through city after city, and got on to the super highway, my daughter pointed out something we were all seeing but maybe not registering consciously. “Do you see how many private cars there are on the highway now?” and it is true. Where we had habitually been among a small minority of people travelling long distance in our own cars, most of the people we saw on the roads were in buses, shared semi public transport like Tata Sumos, and Tempo Trax, or just truckers. That was no longer the case. A lot of people were on the road in private cars, often self driven versus the “let’s get a professional driver for the long trip”. It seems to be an indication of not just the changing economic climate, but also of changing attitudes, especially among younger Indians for whom cars are no longer a new thing, Indians who have grown up riding in, and driving, their parents’ cars, and who can afford to buy their own cars at a much younger age than their parents could have even imagined in their lifetimes.

This trip showed us that Indians are definitely travelling a lot more, and not just by car. Whether for business or pleasure, the increased fluidity of the new Indian populations is a large part of why travel has become so much easier now. There are now really good hotels, at very decent prices, even in the much smaller cities, as we found in Berhampore, Odisha, for example. Where we had pretty traumatic experiences of quite horrific hotels even 10 yrs ago, in our many cross country jaunts, when trying to find a decent place to lay our heads, finding a comfortable, clean, and safe hotel, in almost any budget, is no longer a problematic issue when seeing the country by car. Roads overall, at least the important roads, are also better maintained, and the introduction of toll highways has made driving in India much smoother, and much more of a pleasure. Some stretches are even good enough now to do a 120 or 150 KMPH on, cutting down the time between stopovers significantly.  There are highway patrols, and helpline numbers visibly displayed on the fringes for the traveler, and, best thing of all, the help-lines actually work and help arrives quite promptly. In the same spirit of change, hotel employees are no longer surprised or shocked to have unannounced arrivals of an entire family disembarking from a car, looking for a room for the night.

All in all, things have really changed on the Indian highways. As a result of all these positive changes, we managed to drive into our own parking spot, in our own housing complex, early on the night of the 28th of December. With long lunches, more than 12-hour stops every night, and frequent bathroom breaks for the little one, we still managed to get from Pune, Maharashtra, across the widest part of India, taking the long way round detour via Hyderabad, to Kolkata, West Bengal, a distance of over two thousand and four hundred kilometers, in four days of driving! It would have taken twice as long even a decade ago.