Cover pic for this post, an INR 500 note with a real photo of Gandhi instead of the one on the note, with the contest line above

Crossword – The Write Place | ‘If Mahatma Gandhi Was Alive Today’

Details of the Crossword - The Write Place contest on the topic, If Mahatma Gandhi was alive todayThis is my entry for the Crossword – The Write Place contest on the topic, ‘If Mahatma Gandhi was alive today’. You can find the details in the pic alongside. The contest ended yesterday. The Write Place is Crossword’s initiative to promote new writing talent.

I find myself raising my voice against a number of oppressions (animal cruelty, environmental destruction, human rights violations), and when sharing thoughts on my approach, find myself saying, “There are two ways of fighting for (or against) anything. There’s the Gandhiji way, and there’s the Netaji way.” By that, I mean that one way of fighting against any wrong is a peaceful, non-violent, dialogue-based way, and the other is an aggressive, militant, arms-based way.

An edited photo of Gandhiji and Netaji with a red line between the two of them

Don’t get me wrong; no way is the only way. Based on the circumstance and the demeanour of the opposition, we may need both. We certainly wouldn’t have attained independence without both leaders’ styles, or their efforts. And I’m not saying this to pacify followers of the two men and their approaches.

In my case, when it comes to campaigning for animal welfare, for instance, I believe more in talking to and influencing people (whether through my actions or communications). At the other pole are those who believe in using force to get the other party to subscribe to their point of view, be they the gau-rakshaks or militant vegans.

A composite image of Kannada actor-turned-politician, Ramya, and the statement she made about PakistanUnfortunately, nowadays, the aggressive way of protesting against something seems to be the most chosen way, if not the only way. An actor-turned-politician says that a neighbouring country is not hell? Chuck eggs at her. A scholar organizes the launch of a book by an ex-foreign minister of the same country? Throw ink on him. A writer talks about a long-believed sexual practice? Threaten him till he’s forced to commit “literary suicide”. And on a more frequent basis, the object of your affection rejects your proposal? Hurl acid on her, or even hack her to death.

In the online world too, things are no better. With the internet giving them the cloak of anonymity and social media giving voice to their opinion, everyone is now a social commentator and a virtual vigilante. At the first post that goes against their world view (though neighbourhood view is more like it), or a casual tweet made in humour, or even one to make a point, the various social media gangs (groups of like-minded people; pun intended, as they live mainly for likes) gang up to virtually beat up that person (rather than that person’s opinion) and often force them to retract their statement, or even retreat from the social space.

Why is this happening? As senior journalist, Shekhar Gupta, said when offering his viewpoint on one of those opinion hour shows, “People today don’t have patience.” (And so, he felt the need to articulate his views very, very slowly.) People indeed don’t. Movies today have to be hits within three days, and people want to have made it yesterday. In the mad rush to get “there” (wherever “there” is for you: gizmos, cars, apartments, international holidays, the corner office, your own office), people don’t have the time for others, much less listen to others. So, when they are forced to do so (like when blitzingly scrolling through their social media feed to be “updated”), they scan through a statement, don’t bother about its import, jump to conclusions, and begin firing up a tweet-storm, or in the real world, hurling abuses, chappals or worse at the person. And so statements like “Pakistan is not hell” get termed “pro-Pak” (even by the rules of English, I’m still failing to understand how) and heart-felt shares like wondering if the country is getting unsafe and therefore having you consider leaving make you lose face, not to forget various brand ambassadorships.

The truth is that change – true change – requires time and patience. The person with the other point of view needs time to understand that they are doing wrong, what they are doing wrong, think about what they can do to make it better, and then begin making the change. This may even take years, if at all. (Gandhiji first put forth the philosophy of non-violence in 1922, and we got our freedom a good quarter-century later.) But if you force the other person, they’ll go the opposite way, perhaps not to come back. If they do submit, it may not be from the heart, and may in their hearts continue believing one thing, but outwardly behaving in quite another way. In either case, the aggressor doesn’t win.

A woman feeding street dogs in an Indian city with kids watching in the backgroundTo give a self-example again, I urge people to be nice to street dogs, not by shouting at those who pelt them or demand their culling, but by petting and playing with the doggies in front of them. When they see me being loving to those furry four-legged creatures and those furries being equally gregarious in return (tail wags, paw touches, face licks), something begins changing. I see them looking in wonder, then breaking into a smile (from their feeling of fear and disgust of a moment ago), and I’m guessing going in their mind, ‘Hey, these street dogs aren’t so bad after all.’ It’s happened with quite a few friends and neighbours; that’s why I know this works.

However, time and patience are both commodities that seem in short supply these days. People are refusing to take that first amiable step (perhaps for fear of being seen as weak). And if the other does so, then they are seen as wusses and mocked. And so, things remain stuck.

Which is why I think that if Mahatma Gandhi were around today, he may not have been able to make a difference, the way he did back then. Given the current climate of intolerance, people would abuse him, mock him, troll him, call him pro-Pak or anti-national. Some could get real aggressive, tie him up and lash him. And why, just like they did back then, even shoot him dead. Or seeing the way things have turned out, maybe Gandhiji would just shoot himself. Or starve himself to death, given his preference for the non-violent path. Either way, if Mahatma Gandhi was alive today, he… wouldn’t.

Cover pic for this post, with a pic of Indian orphanage kids in the top right, of mixed-breed pups in the bottom right, and text on the left

Ire | How About Adopting a Different Attitude?

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentaryMy new piece for The Hindu thREAD, juxtaposing our attitudes to adopting children from orphanages with those from adopting animals from shelters. Unfortunately, the attitudes seem the same. Anyway, the thREAD piece has some edits. Below is the original piece.

This piece on thREAD

Ad for a fertility centre in ChennaiFertility centres seem to be coming up faster than, erm, babies. I turn a corner, and there I spot a spanking new facility. I turn a newspaper page, and here I come across an ad for a newly opened centre or a new fertility department of an existing hospital chain. All promising “the joy of motherhood”, or some warm copy and visuals to this effect. The existing centres, not to be left out in the BYOB (beget your own baby) race, seem to be devising more creative ways of marketing themselves. Outside one centre, I spotted a huge banner featuring scores of kid pix. It couldn’t have been all those kids’ birthdays the same day, for that’s what the banner looked like: individual studio pix, with images of balloons and candles dotted across. So, I gathered – as my transport whizzed past – that the facility was celebrating its own birthday. And I guess what better way to celebrate a fertility facility’s birthday than by showcasing all the birthdays they’ve helped cause, right? And in last week’s paper, things seem to have gotten expectedly commercial. One ad talked of different packages (Basic, Standard, Premier), and another of easy EMIs. And you thought bringing up baby was the expensive part.

I find this both intriguing and amusing. Amusing, because, heaven knows, lesser babies is this country’s leading deficit. Also because some folk seem to have taken our PM’s call for Make in India quite seriously, and are determined that at least in this department, we’re going to sock it to China.

And intrigued (and to be less flippant) because, someone like me, who isn’t too hot about either marriage or moppets, can only wonder at the boom of these baby-promising places. Some reasons seem fathomable. Couples are not able to beget due to some “problem” with either or both of them, age-related issues (with the increasing tendency of couples to marry later in life, once they turn their attention from the rat race to the brat race, they find themselves fighting against the bio clock), and on the same lines, lifestyle-related complications (longer work hours, shorter off hours, the resulting stress and exhaustion) leading to love-making complications.

A less brought-up reason is the lack of compatibility. Some researching shows that one in three marriages is ending in divorce, and within three-four years of getting married. Before they get to that, though, some couples, as a last resort are turning to that old gem: ‘Maybe a baby can fix things?’ But are perhaps not bringing up that other gem: Maybe the problem is not in the bed, but in the head.

Foreign-looking couple (with their backs to camera) holding a child outside an Indian fertility centreSome more researching throws light on another reason, or trend. Many of these centres have a large clientele of foreign nationals, especially from European countries, where population isn’t a problem, or rather, “under-population” is a problem. And where money isn’t a concern, being the developed world and all. (One such friend once told me their government incentivizes them to have kids, such as through educational subsidies.) And I guess where they are not able to, with the money they have, they can just fly down to a third-world country to fulfil their baby dreams.

Children posing outside an orphanage in IndiaWhich leads me to the biggest wonder: why aren’t these folk looking at… adoption? With the number of kids we know of in orphanages and adoption centres and the appalling conditions and illegal practices in quite a few of them, instead of paying so much to bring forth a new life, why not pay nothing to give a home and a new life to one of these kids, and the same joy to yourself?

Foreigners are up against a lot when doing so, having to go through a litany of checks. But Indians? Ah, the good old attitude of “log kya kehenge” (what will people say) and “pata nahi kiska bachcha hoga” (don’t know whose kid it would be) – a prostitute’s, a destitute’s, a druggie’s, an alcoholic’s, a trucker’s, a foreign tourist’s? And then of course, there’s the Great Wall of Religion. And you know, in our country and especially in these times, you can’t argue against what’s in the holy book(s).

Bollywood actress, Sushmita Sen, with her adopted daugthersAnd of late, some people we look up to in some ways don’t seem to be helping much either. Things looked promising until a decade or so ago, when we had two Bollywood divas, Raveena Tandon and Sushmita Sen, choosing to adopt even when single, sending out great signals in pre-Twitter times. (Raveena later got married and had two children with her husband.) But of late, the fertility centres seem to be winning. A few Bollywood biggies (SRK, Aamir K, Farah K) and a couple of “mediums” as well (Sohail K and, most lately, Tusshar K) have in recent years all chosen to have kids through surrogacy. Considering four of these are men, you can’t help but wonder: good old male ego?

Aamir Khan holding Darsheel Safary in 'Taare Zameen Par'Aamir perhaps lost out the biggest opportunity to walk his earnestness talk. Sure, he was open about his surrogacy. But just imagine if he had emulated his character from Taare Zameen Par, taking under his wings (though in a different way) a lesser-blessed kid. He could have helped a zameen par taara get back to the aasmaan (helped a fallen star get back to the sky). But I guess these are the pressures of stardom: star kids cannot be called star kids if they are not the star’s own, right?

Now, for someone who’s already said he isn’t too hot about kids, why am I going on about this? Well, I may not like babies, but I love their four-legged versions, animals. (And animals, if it hasn’t been said enough times already, are indeed kids: as innocent but with more hair.) But I see the same attitudes prevalent here. No, not that animals are going to fertility clinics in case of problems on the jungle bed between Mufasa and Sarabi, or Raksha and Rama. But it’s about people’s attitude to bringing home animals from pet shops and breeders versus adopting one from a shelter. So, they continue to buy Persian cats and Afghan hounds and house them in climes they are not meant for. I mean, don’t you get the anachronism by the names itself: a Siberian Husky in Scorching Chennai?

Dogs at a shelter in IndiaWhy do they do it then? The same attitude of what will people say. “How will it look if I get a shelter-residing dog into my sea-facing penthouse?” “Ew, only a shiny Golden Retriever will do in my gleaming silver Merc.” And to be stand-up snarky, “Oh, the irony of feeding Pedigree to a dog without one.”

And so they continue fattening unscrupulous pet-shop owners and animal breeders and perpetuating puppy-farm cruelty. A puppy farm, or puppy mill, in case you don’t know, is actually various kinds of cruelty in one. It involves keeping breeding dogs captive or caged when they aren’t breeding, which is very little of their miserable lives. Before that, it involves having them constantly pregnant, leading to a range of problems, from malnutrition to floor-hanging mammaries. And when their pup-producing days are over, they are either cast off on the roads or bumped off. New-born pups don’t have it much better either, neither the ones who make it to the pet store nor those who don’t. Those who do, have been pulled away at birth from their mom, resulting in separation anxiety (for both), and are brought packed like sardines, resulting in stress and fatigue. The ones who don’t make it to the store, because they are unhealthy or abnormal, thanks to the assembly line-like churning of pups, face a fate similar to mom’s. Suddenly, you’re seeing the cruelty behind the cutie in the pet-shop cage. Blood Doggies, anyone?

Composite image depicting the various kinds of cruelty in puppy farms / mills

Even when enlightened, people don’t care, or worse, don’t want to. On my morning walks, I sometimes meet this man with this Lhasa Apso (bad choice again for the climate, but then most foreign breeds are) named Fido. Last time, though, Fido wasn’t to be seen. On querying, he told me that Fido had passed away after an incident of food poisoning. After expressing my remorse, enquiring about the details, and commiserating over the loss of “his son” (his words: “he was like a son to me”), since I know the way these things go, I ventured, “So, you plan to bring home another dog”? He went pat, even before Fido’s soul could have reached animal heaven, “Yes. I’ve already paid for it. It’s a Beagle.”

Even as I was sighing at the idea of “paying for your son”, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity. I proceeded to inform him about the cruelties of dog breeders, that he could consider adopting one from a shelter (without having to pay, that too), and that if he really wanted a Beagle, he could go for a Freagle, a Beagle that has been freed from an animal-testing lab and is up for adoption. (Why, he could even call him… Freedo.)

He looked at me like I had just revealed it was I who had poisoned Fido. We parted, with him offering that he’d think about it, but I dare feel that since the money’s been paid, the deed’s been done. And the next time I see him on my morning excursion, there’ll be alongside him a fresh little Beagle pup, and not a thankful shelter-housed indie. Because attitudes, unlike animals b(r)ought home, are not so easy to change.

Some people ask me why I campaign for animals such. My usual reply is, “Because for most humans, animals are at the level of trash.” With our attitude to want “our own” child at any cost (Basic, Standard and Premier, no less), rather than give a home to one from an orphanage, our outlook toward less-fortunate younger human beings seems no better.

One of my many street-dog friends, Johnny, when he was smallSo, have I walked the animal-love talk and brought home a shelter dog, or two, myself? I have a standard reply for that too. If I do so, my love for my 47+ and counting street-dog friends (plus two street cats and eight ledge-perched pigeons) will get divided. The dogs will also get jealous on each other and the different species fighting with each other. And there are only so many kiddie fights one can take – even if they are of the cuter, furrier kind.

Cover pic for this post, featuring silhouettes of the spires of various religious places of worship against an orange backdrop, with the text 'Verses? Versus' overlaid

Ire | Verse to Worse

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentaryThe Muslim fanatics will lynch me for not knowing the verses,

The Hindu, on just knowing my name,

In the end, even / especially non-religious me may be hacked to pieces,

Because in the end, all religions are the same.

 ∞

Inspired by the Dhaka attacks, this is similar to another one I’d written sometime back, proving that things don’t seem to change much…

Composite cover pic for this post, with a pic of the Chennai floods on the left and a leopard near a Mumbai residential colony at night on the right, with the text 'Living in Fear... Across Cities'

Ire | A Tale of Two Cities’ Fears

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

My new piece on thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment on perspectives, comment and such, on the fear psychosis of sorts in two Indian cities. Curious? Read on. (Though my blog post has slightly additional content.)

This piece on thREAD

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In the recently released Phobia, Mehak, Radhika Apte’s character, an artist, is molested by the driver of the cab she’s returning in late night from her art show. Resulting from that trauma, Mehak develops agoraphobia, a fear of being in perceptibly threatening places. She is panic-stricken and feels paralysed at the thought of just stepping out of the apartment door. Even when her boyfriend moves her out of her home to a rental, he has to drug her to do so. (Mahek is compelled to move out as her sister, who she is living with and is married with a son, begins fearing for how Mahek’s mental state and her resulting actions will affect her child and thus also begins getting exasperated with Mahek.) However, her condition doesn’t necessarily improve in the new place, and she sweats and palpitates like, um, crazy for a simple activity of putting out garbage bags.

Chennaiites seem to be in the grip of a similar fear presently. That of the rains. The moment they feel the drop of a drop (for the past few weeks, the city’s been intermittently receiving off-season, convective showers), images of horror and feelings of misery rush into the collective psyche. Thanks, or rather, no thanks to the floods of last year.

People walking to safer places during the Chennai floods of December 2015However, as someone who’s stayed here only for a few years, my reactions – and I don’t mean to be insensitive in the least bit – seem to be more like those of people around Mahek: puzzled at the mass fear, so to speak. During the rains / floods too, I was baffled first by the amount of rain the city received (a city that I had heard has only one season, hot, or three: hot, hotter, hottest) and then by the reactions of both the city and the people: anguished, broken, crushed. And this isn’t because I stay in a part of the city that seems to have better civic amenities. Or because I wasn’t able to see the effects in the other parts; when the lights came back two days later, on TV, we finally got a sense of the plight all around. So, before you seem baffled in turn by why I was bewildered by the city’s and the citizens’ what-I-initially-considered “magnified” responses, and therefore come across as callous and uncaring, let me share why.

I have stayed in Bombay / Mumbai for the longest time, and before that, in Calcutta / Kolkata or pretty long too. Two coastal cities, just like Chennai, but that receive a lot more rain than Chennai, so much so that in both metros during monsoon, there are occasional floods, or at least regular water-logging.

In Mumbai, people’s reaction to the rains moves along with the months of the monsoon. May end, when people have been burnt to the bone, but sense the first rumbles of the clouds, hearts begin fluttering in anticipation, much like the office-goer’s at Friday 4pm. When the first rains hit (usually around end May or early June; this year, they are set to debut around now), those hearts, and people to who those hearts belong, begin dancing. They rush out, drench in the first rain, on Marine Drive, at Juhu, or just in the compound. Everyone feels like a merry Bollywood couple. Young, old and wet alike, they hum classic rainy songs, brim with poetry, and talk of quaint things like “the redolent petrichor”.

A month later, the mood is, well, May-December. After four weeks of grimacing through slushy streets, wet clothes, wetter shoes, soaked shirts and skirts, sitting or standing next to other soaked shirts and skirts in the local or metro, the Mumbaiite is already begging for a reprieve. And Nature responds in true Nature-ishtyle, by giving them… July. When the rain is at its most belligerent and leads to the breakdown of most civic machinery, especially on one day Made in Hell. This is either mid or late July; 26/7 is another beleaguered date in Mumbai’s long list of such dates, and similar to Chennai’s 1/12.

A local train and people in deep water during the Mumbai floods of 26/7 2005Train services and trees collapse, people are stranded in offices, on roads, at stations. Or take hours to get back home. When they finally do, all they want is a comforting hot bath. Only to find there’s no electricity. By which time, they are cussing the corporation in ways that would do the Delhi Sardarji proud. The next day, of course, everything is considered off: offices, schools, colleges, services. Sounds the same as what happened recently in Chennai, right? (See, I told you I wasn’t being insensitive.) And this occurs year after year, without fail. In fact, if it didn’t, people would think something was wrong with Mumbai, or with Nature. But the next-to-next day, the city, as has become hoary to say by now, “bounces back”. Everything is back to normal, or some semblance of it.

Before the puzzled Chennaiite wonders how, this isn’t all because Mumbai really has some “never-say-die” spirit (in fact, with all that the city’s endured over the years, Mumbaiites feel that statement is a cruel irony), but also because, due to its location on the country’s west coast, which receives the south-west monsoons, the main rains in India, it has built a largely decent and decently working drainage system, despite the burgeoning population. The lack of which, many admit, did Chennai in during the Rains from Hell. As also the unmindful construction of buildings in low-lying areas and marshlands. And of course, faulty coordination and decision-making when it came to the matter of that dam-water release. All of which have given many a Chennaiite many a horror for many a month at the sound of not many a rumble.

So, does Mumbai have nothing to flinch about then? Nope, many a Mumbaiite has a phobia too.

If Chennai has been witnessing large-scale unauthorised construction due to its emergence as a software and manufacturing hub, its firm position as the South’s film capital, and thus the constant influx into the city, and therefore the need for massive new commercial and residential spaces, Mumbai’s tale has been no different. After it finished reclaiming land from water (the city was built from seven islands and now even has a sea link connecting some of them) and then claiming the air (high-rises), the city, due to similar reasons of being a financial, marketing, and glamour capital and thus having non-stop immigration, has been devouring land, like a super-starved T-Rex. And after eating up most of legit land, it’s been turning its attention to… the forest.

Builders, unscrupulous and unknowing alike, aren’t just building close to forest land, they are also building on it. I myself have stayed in a few such places. One complex, built on official forest property, had a long fence put up by either the builder or the residents, demarcating the “residential space” from the “forest land”, as if to give the complex legitimacy. (After a long-drawn-out proceeding, the owners – mercifully, I was a tenant here – had to pay compensation to prevent their flats from being razed. And this is proving to be more the norm.) Another area, very rapidly developed, where I actually was an owner, has been created by carving a big, long road through what was earlier considered a jungle and enveloping the city’s national park. It still has signposts urging people to watch out for crossing animals. In other areas, buildings and complexes are coming up either on hills or by breaking down hills. At this rate, Mumbai may soon need another mode of transport: ropeways.

Now, when you build on land that was earlier the animals’ and thus enter what was their terrain, the animals, devoid of an exclusive territory, are (apart from many dying as a result) forced to enter what is now “your terrain”. And I’m not talking wild pig, snake or fox here, but… big cat.

A leopard photographed at dusk, with the lights of a Mumbai suburb in the backgroundSo, if every year, the whole of Mumbai has to bear the brunt of brutal rains for one day, every two-three years, for a month or so, the people living in these encroached areas are seized by big-cat fear. One day, someone spots a leopard, or worse, claims a leopard attacked and killed a child or small-sized adult, and everyone, obviously, begins panicking. Wildlife authorities are called in, people are warned not to go out alone in the dark, residents are advised to keep their surroundings clean (the big cat comes for street dogs, who are found near dumps, as its food source is getting rapidly depleted in the rapidly disappearing jungle), banners with messages on reaction and action points are put up. When the fear reaches crippling levels, typically with numerous sightings (though many of these might be unfounded), there is pressure on the officials to “do something”. What they typically do is set a live-animal trap for the cat. If it works, they go release the animal into deep jungle or a distant forest area. (This typically doesn’t work; there have been cases of leopards that have made their way back 100+ kms, as they are known to be the smartest of the big cats and, like all beings, prefer their own territory.) The people seem satisfied though.

During that month or so, though, people are understandably super-paranoid. A former colleague who lived close to my place told me she would jump on seeing a branch shake at night. In the same area, when returning late through a 750-m straight, dark stretch with buildings on one side and forest on the other, I would be nervous myself, not knowing if the two lights in the distance are a small car’s or a big cat’s. And so I would take the auto right up to the building entrance, asking the autowaala to wait until I had gone in. In this other area, when I had visited an animal shelter during the period of a “big-cat strike”, the director told me a leopard had come a couple of nights (smelling potential prey), walked up and down the boundary wall, but had gone away, as the shelter had made sure all the small animals were locked inside. And when leaving my building for work one morning, I heard a clutch of young mothers exchanging fearful notes (at that time, two leopards, a male and a female, had “struck terror”, something like The Ghost and The Darkness), with one lady exasperating, Yeh kahaan se aaye hain??” (Where have they come from??) The animal lover (and somewhat expert) in me retorted, in my mind, ‘The animals could be saying the same thing about you…’

One city afraid of water from above. Another of cats from around. What they really need to fear – in case it isn’t clear already – is rapid, rabid, unthinking, unplanned growth. Mull over that while I go check whether that slow, gaining sound outside is a growing drizzle or a growling feline.

To rest people’s minds a bit, let me resort to the words of several wildlife campaigners in these “leopard-infested” areas in Mumbai, who now rather than aiming to remove the big cat from its territory are attempting to educate residents that it’s possible to “live with leopards”. They say, “If you’ve seen a leopard once, it’s seen you 20 times by then. And yet, it chooses not to do anything (to you).” I can’t resist adding, who really is the better species here?

Check out this link: Living with Leopards in Mumbai

Rainbow flag with the text 'Voices Against 377'

Ire | 377

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

377 ways to hound the LGBT,

377 ways to harass them,

377 ways to scorn the queer community,

377 ways to suppress them;

Its definitions seem so old and antiquated,

Feels it was written 377 years ago, or earlier,

And so pervasively, perversely is it implemented,

Forget an article, it feels like the entire anti-gay grammar.

Article 377 in the Indian Constitution criminalizes sex “against the order of nature”. By definition, that also includes oral and anal sex, but is routinely used by the police, other institutions and many people to discriminate against the queer/LGBT community. However, there is now talk – again – of “reading it down”, to decriminalize “unnatural/queer/LGBT sex/relationships”.

A duckling looking at a duckie (squeegee) curiously

Ire | Authentic, Oh!

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

A few days ago, one of my best friends had come down from Mumbai, just before the first great deluge came down upon Chennai. It was a last-minute trip. He had decided to take off for the longer Diwali holiday they get in non-South India (he has his own set-up, so he could take that call at the last minute), but didn’t want to spend it in Mumbai. We got onto fervent discussions on the phone, but after much volleying of ideas (“let’s go to Pondy”, “at least Mahabs”, “Crocodile Bank at the very least”), we decided to spend it in Chennai: it was his first time in the city, there’s much to take in here itself, and in providence, the rain didn’t let us go beyond either.

'Authentic' stampWhile finalizing the plan, he gave me his wish-list: places he wanted to go, things he wanted to do and foods he wanted to eat. I heard him out, told him what’s doable (we had only three full days, plus the rain), and included a few of my suggestions. He assented. And added, actually, kept on emphasizing one thing, “I want to do, experience, eat, take in everything AUTHENTIC.” He said this quite a few times, ensuring I got it. I did. Or thought I did.

For after landing here, the number of times I heard him mention that word, and the number of times he stopped wherever he spotted that word (authentic Chettinad cuisine, authentic Malabar restaurant, authentic Ayurvedic massage – apparently, no one is offering anything else), was more than all the drops of water the city received since then. Plus, before and after touring the city with me, he would research all the tourism sites and ask all his friends and acquaintances here, there and in-between for recommendations and then keep tossing them in my direction.

Aiming to be the good host, I would help him check off the ones we could (we went to a popular Tamil restaurant for ‘authentic Tamil sappadu’, and he was beaming), educate him on the ones he was informed incorrectly about (‘Life of Pi’ and Alia Bhatt’s house in ‘Two States’ were shot in Pondy, even though the latter mentioned Chennai), find a balance for the ones we didn’t agree on (we decided to go to a mass-appeal multiplex rather than a single-screen for Kamal’s latest movie, as I was fairly confident neither he nor me would be able to handle the fan frenzy – or hear the dialogues – in a ‘thara local’ single-screen theatre, where he actually wanted to go for “authentic Kollywood megastar mania”), and after discussion, struck off the ones we just wouldn’t be able to do (“that cultural centre is too far from here; we won’t be able to do anything else today if we go there”).

Poster of ABC TV series, Quantico, featuring Priyanka Chopra handcuffedBy the middle of the second day though, realizing the extent of his zealousness for the authentic experience, I was beginning to feel exasperated. (That’s why I’ve titled this piece after ‘Quantico’ – I was beginning to feel as constrained as Priyanka Chopra in the series’ poster.) Plus, I seem to have made a woeful discovery: ‘researchie’ is the new ‘selfie’. That is, researching on a place and what to do, eat, wear, buy there is the new vacationing scourge, after the annoying and now-thankfully-getting-banned-in-many-places selfie. People seem to be leaving nothing to discovery, chance and serendipity anymore. There are sites and apps springing up by the minute, offering all this info, and of course, all those discounts – and the attitude seems to be: “I don’t want to miss a thing.” He kept on telling me of a particular street-side tiffin centre he had read about, of which visitors had been “raving and ranting”. After clarifying that you can’t both rave and rant about a place, at least the same person can’t, I told him but no one here does (rave, that is). But he insisted. And we went. And mercifully, it was closed due to the rains, Diwali or both. Else, my friend would then have ranted and ranted.

My friend started sensing my brimming annoyance. Also, I had cast a very subtle (according to me) comment in his direction when we were getting a ‘quick authentic bite’. “You know, visiting Delhi (which I did last year) and going to a multiplex there is also an authentic Delhi experience, because that’s a Delhi multiplex, filled with Delhi people, and offering Delhi eats.” As we headed to T Nagar for saree- and dhoti-shopping (the ultimate authentic Chennai shopping experience) for his parents, by bus (the authentic Chennai commuting experience), after foregoing the autokarans (ah, we missed the authentic Chennai bargaining experience), he made a conciliatory effort, “I think I know what you mean. When people come to Bombay, they ask for SRK’s bungalow, where is Ambani’s building, where are the film shoots… and it’s not like every Bombayite knows (or cares), or that film shoots are happening in every gully.”

I seized the opportunity. “Exactly! When you go to Punjab, you don’t expect to see people doing bhangra outside the station. Just like you can’t expect women to be doing bharatnatyam at the airport here. In Gujarat, no one plays dandiya all the time, and in Kolkata, they don’t have rossogolla every minute.”

I continued, “You saw Kamal’s house in the movie, right? It was a regular modern house rather than those traditional houses with an open courtyard you see in movies made by outsiders, or set in rural areas. And Kamal and his son were having bread, omelette and soy milk for breakfast rather than dosa, idly and vada…”

Alia Bhatt in her Tamil-style house in a shot from 'Two States'

And my final… rant, “Tell me, how is having popcorn bathed in butter and accompanied by caramelized cold coffee in the city’s home-grown and numero-uno multiplex (which also makes that mannaesque cold coffee) not an authentic city experience? How is spending two hours chatting in a cozy city-only coffee shop chain any less a Chennai experience than having it at the roadside kadai? How is going for a dark (read: blind) exhibition tour that ends up opening your mind (after it’s rid the sleep out of you) not authentic since it is presently only in two other cities in India? And most importantly, which site or visitor will tell you about these?”

As the last-mentioned experience – the tour – proved to be his best experience here, he finally started seeing things differently. I was a bit worried I had been a bit too forceful with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. We’ve been friends for a long time, have had our share of arguments (and break-offs and patch-ups), and must confess, is more chilled-out than me.

Composite image of my friend and I at a couple of Chennai places during his recent holiday here

In the end, we did a bit of the site suggestions (V House, where we even did some meditation), a bit of my suggestions (that dark tour, and a rejuvenating reflexology session), a bit of spontaneous stuff (St Thomas Basilica and then a late-evening walk on the beach), and let go of several (saying you need to leave some stuff for next time). Just the way a great holiday always goes. Besides, holidays are always better with friends who are… authentic.

 

Poster of movie, Two States, featuring the in-love couple and their parents

Ire: Southie / Northie

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentary

Everyone from the four southern states is Madrasi,

Making no distinction between Tamilian, Telugu, Kannadiga or Malayali,

Everyone dresses in a dhoti, no, only a dhoti,

Baring the chest for everyone to see,

They all have idly-dosa with sambar-chutney,

And wash it down with mor, “what’s that, oh, salted lassi,”

They also can’t live without filter kaapi,

Along with that other staple, naariyal paani,

You wish for once they’d see things differently,

Beginning with how now Telangana is also an entity.

/

But the South behaves no differently,

Viewing everyone outside the five states as Northie,

There’s no West – the Marathi or the Gujarati,

“All Bombay, filmy, money-money,”

No East – Bengali, Odia, Jharkandi,

“We know Bengal, but what are the others, some festivity?”

No North-East: “Chinky!”

No North-West: “Same as Delhi?”

So, forget the real North, and Bihar, UP, MP,

“We already said – Northie!”

/

But all agree about Goa, which lies around Karnataka’s belly,

“Videshi… Pardesi… Now, let’s get there and party!”

 /

And what about Lakshadweep and Andamans in the sea?

“Wait, didn’t they get submerged by the tsunami?”

Sign-board for/on Halls Road in Chennai

Ire: What’s in a Rename?

Logo for Ire, the series on my blog for social commentaryA few months back, the city corporation again brought up the suggestion of renaming city roads presently named after Englishmen from the Raj’s time to names celebrating the heritage, culture and past luminaries of the state.Painted sign for Haddows Road in ChennaiNow, I am one to leave alone things that are not deal-breakers. Also, somewhere, I like the charm of the existing names: they ring of the same quaintness as the roads and also take you back to that time. Finally, if you change the name and can’t alter a thing about the structures on these roads (many of these have heritage buildings, which the authorities in fact need to keep the same way as originally), there ends up being a dissonance. (Case in point being Anna Salai, which was Mount Road earlier, but which has the same appearance as from the earlier name’s time, apart from of course the havoc caused by the metro’s work.)

But I started living with the renaming idea, and am beginning to see some merits to it. The first positive is, it will no longer have Messrs Wren and Marten and all those English gentlemen turning in their graves.

Front cover of old copy of the Wren and Martin grammar bookWren and Martin first. Halls, Peters and Whites, among others, were not like the Joneses – they didn’t have their names ending with ‘s’. There needed to be an apostrophe between their name and the ‘s’, indicating that it was a road built/named in their honour and so their road – not as a possessive pronoun (the road didn’t belong to them; they had passed away by then, after all), but more as a commemorative pronoun, if you will. Now, the authorities at that time either didn’t know about the apostrophe (since it doesn’t exist in any of the Indian languages) or were the forerunners to today’s smartphone-wielding, micro-messaging millennials, who abhor the apostrophe (as well as giving a response longer than 10 characters and looking up from their devices). So, Hall’s became Halls, Peter’s became Peters, and White became red with disdain.

But the Raj gentlemen had it worse twice over. (Guess this was our way of getting back at them for two centuries of rule.) Since it seems only the tight-lipped Englishmen could pronounce their names and not the open-lipped “natives”, Graeme’s Road became Greams Road, Yeldham’s Road became Eldams Road, and I’m praying Cooks Road came from Cook’s Road itself and not some mispronunciation.

Annie Besant in her later yearsAnother reason for welcoming the name change is if it could address any possible misogyny of the past and any possible misunderstanding in the future. Misogyny: I can’t think of any places named after women except Besant Nagar (after Annie Besant; but because she was British, will that now change?). There is JJ Nagar, but that’s a recent renaming anyway. I thought the new name for Lloyds Road was a step in this direction, but history is obviously not my strong point, for I confused Avvai TK Shanmugam (the renowned theatre artist) with Madurai Shanmughavadivu Subbulakshmi (the legendary singer). And misunderstanding? Butt Road. Need I say more?

And then, I had a thought. A city’s roads and other infrastructure as well as residential and commercial areas often get their names from the people and their practices therein: Saidapet from Sayyid Shah, the Arcot general who received this land as a gift from the Nawab, Sowcarpet from the sowcars or sahukars (merchants) who came there from other parts of India, and Chromepet from the Chrome Leathers factory there. These names were also representative of their times. So, what if we do the same? Rename these places and structures based on people and their practices at present. If so, things will look something like this…

Since we no longer have potholes amidst roads but roads amidst potholes, and Ridley Scott could have actually filmed The Martian here: Ravaged Road/Ruinous Road

Because we are now so many people who generate so much bio-waste that it doesn’t just flow underground but above ground too: Sewage Street

As Indian men believe that a man’s got to go when a man’s got to go and don’t believe in waiting to cross the street to get home or to work: Chiruneer (Urination) Cross Street

Since Indian men (and ok, some women too, not to be biased) have other liquids they like showering on the roads: Spitting Salai

Continuing the, um, trashing, since garbage now overflows from and into every nook and corner: Kuppai Corner

Because water bodies now have almost every other entity apart from lotuses, fish and ducks: Dumpsters’ Tank/Eri/River

Since we have groups of smokers standing and chatting for hours on the footpath, or loner guys lying dead-drunk there for days, and when neither, then two-wheeler riders ascending to get one second ahead: Anti-Pedestrians’ Pavement

Some Chennai youth crossing a road in the middle by jumping over a barricaded dividerWe should even rename the zebra crossing, or remove it altogether, since no one seems to cross there, or rather only there. Suggestions: Zebra Crossing Anywhere/Idiot Crossing

Because this is essentially what parks and beaches become after some time: Kadhalar (Lovers’) Park, Romeo and Juliet’s Beach

As secluded stretches seem to be a hotspot for miscreant activities: Thiruda Theru (Thief’s Street), Aval/Eve-teasing Avenue

Close-up of two loudspeakers on an electric pole in a Chennai streetEarlier, it was just the festivals and the release of a big star’s movie, but now, thanks to IPL, ISL and any other ’ell I can’t recall right now, there are many reasons to celebrate – read, make noise – throughout the year. So, many of these areas can be called: Sathampet

And just in case you thought this list is benevolent to the rich and classy… For arranging for the home dog’s/dogs’ (note the uses of the apostrophe) walks but not the clean-ups after: Pet-Poop Boulevard

Info-pic, of man bargaining with Chennai autorickshaw driver with complaint information given aboveAnd finally, the people who rule the city and reign over its residents more than any politico or hero – the fleecing, overcharging, harassing, abusing, threatening autokaarans… They should have the entire city renamed after them: Cheatnai

You know, it’s a good thing we’re going with the historical and heritage names, after all.

Find out what ‘Ire’ is here – Ire: Here’s Presenting