Square Peg. Impressions of an exile. India. 1.

I see that I meant to write this on 17 October, soon after arriving back in Aotearoa but got occupied otherwise. So many times I ran the text of this intended blog through my head and edited it such that I could write short, sharp stuff rather than ramble on-which I tend to do.

Many times, in the weeks after I came back to Auckland, I caught myself just standing in my living room, in the silence that surrounds my house, staring at the little artefacts scattered, nah strategically placed all over. The shells from various Auckland beaches, the mini papier mache Eiffel Towers and Arc De Triomphe from Paris, the Ganeshas from Bombay and Banares, clapper board from Berlin, the books, Tibetan paintings from McLeodganj, the $30 couch from Salvation Army, the ‘donated’ television set on which I cannot watch TV One or TV2…I still do not have a proper coffee table and I dine Indian style crossed-legged on the floor. They all spoke to me. About my journey so far in life. That I am finally at a place where I can be comfortable with myself.

It took me a long time to figure out that I was/am a misfit. I was a curious child, always asking questions and not very happy with the answers. Consequently angry and disobedient. Hence bad. Not in a ‘black sheep’ way but someone who apparently needed to be firmly on a leash and kept within the patriarchy. Life was meant to be an education (a formal, school type education-for which I am very grateful), a job, a career making money, then marriage and kids. Until the day you die. No wonder I was a misfit. Going back home I am still a square peg in the round, all-sucking, Indian hole.

It took me a long time to figure out that it does not have to be like that. To get over the guilt of not thinking like everyone else, to reach this space and place that no one, not even me, thought could be a reality. Now I have to justify living this space; the unshackling and the so-called lack of responsibility in my life. I try to be blase and so does everyone else back in Bombay but the sub-text is too obvious to ignore. Then I just meditate to keep me calm.

Come back, they say. India has changed. You can be as free as you want. Be single, do live-in, shag around, whatever. As if this is what matters. What about the enquiry of existence? Or challenging the existing? Blackberry in one hand, vodka in another, designer mini dress  and preparations for karwa chauth. How is that a change? In a parallel universe I live this life. With straightened, bottle-blonde hair.

Not that I am not a misfit in New Zealand. Here I am a dark-skinned ‘ethnic’. Always classified as Indian-not that I mind it because I do not have to justify this or anything else. Such as being single, living on my own, working in mainstream media. No one tells me I ask too many questions or why can’t I be like everyone else. That is the difference. Palpable freedom with inherent responsibility and respect for choices. Of course it is not without problems, this society. It is still conservative and closed and racist and not as egalitarian as it makes out to be. But I am not judged by the money I make, the car I drive, the clothes I wear or the caste and religion I belong to. I can fully participate in the civic, democratic process without affiliating myself one way or the other.

It is true that I don’t do structure very well. Not structure imposed on me anyway. Because I work with the structure of the universe. Because nothing really is unstructured. That is where I fit in, in the bigger picture. For all my square peg-ness. New Zealand lets me be and I will go back to India only on my own terms. In conjunction with the universe.

What I learnt this year

Today is the last day of 2008. I am going on a road trip by myself. Something I could’ve never done in India. I have travelled to Sikkim by myself in 2000 and went to Varanasi this year but the concept of driving my car through rural New Zealand can only happen in New Zealand. Speaking in relative terms, how safe is this country? Very. It is more than a month now since the terrorist attacks on my hometown Bombay. As I have mentioned many times before, the name Mumbai conjures up a singular, parochial, ultra-right-wing Hindu patriarchal identity that reduces the people of the city into disposable humans. That is what the ruling class have done to India. That is what the business class is doing to India and that is what the communists are doing to India. The Congress party, the current government of India is a namby-pamby American slave. The right wing, the Hindutva brigade pay obeisance to Hitler and think nothing of creating mayhem just to ‘cleanse’ the country. The communists have no practical socialist agenda and don’t really offer space for dialogue or solutions. (Mind you I am a lefty, if I have to be placed within a spectrum I will lean towards socialism. And no it is not dead. The marketing machine has lost its mojo.)

Anyway, after crying my heart out over what happened in Bombay on 26-27 November, I deliberately did not write a blog about it because I did not want to blubber on about what wrong the politicians are doing. They are easy fodder. I am interested in what the educated middle class Indian thinks, what the media thinks and what we are going to do about it. It is easy for me, sitting here in Auckland to comment about Bombay/India. I might not have been able to do it if I still lived in Bombay.  So I waited anbd watched. There was the typical reaction. ‘We need more security’; ‘attack Pakistan’; ‘politicians are real terrorists’ etc. The media plays an interesting role in India. Rubert Murdoch’s Star network set the ‘standard’ by having an insidious, right-wing agenda for an aspirational middle class that only blames politicians. Now the others have adapted that too. There is a lot of shouting on Indian television.  And place only for elitist analysis. The Times Of India I find particularly fascinating. When I was little my grandfather inisted on me reading TOI because I could improve my English. Now I cringe when I read it online. It is a habit I find hard to break , sadly. So I cringe and carp about the language and the agenda. TOI is so subtly right wing that if you blinked you could miss it. There is talk of Shining India and success and all the trappings a growing middle class needs to feel separate and superior to the poor. The subtext is all ‘them’ and ‘us’. There has not been an analysis of the attacks or why they happened.

Fortunately, the Indian middle class seems to be waking up. Candlelight vigils and protests are the trend for the moment. A trend, my cynical mind says. Politicians have screwed up the country, they all say. What about us, we the people? Do we abdicate after voting each year? I agree the ruling classes have deliberately made it difficult for the common man to obtain information, there is lack of transparency, lack of proper process or dialogue and I will go even so far as to state that illiteracy is a desirable condition for politicians because the illiterate and poor can be manipulated. But then so can the educated middle class. Manipulated to believe that it is always someone else’s fault. Why hasn’t anyone spoken about the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots in 1992-1993 that led to the bomb blasts on 12 March 1993? We made our country vulnerable! We continue to keep it vulnerable with the socio-economic disparity, religious differences, intolerance and patriarchy. LK Advani, at his age,  should be practicing vanaprashtashram not spreading hatred. I am sorry to say but ek pair kabar mein (one foot in the grave) and he is dying to become the Prime Minister of India.

The way we have created our society, the myth about ‘respecting our elders’ does not permit us to ask sane questions or challenge notions-which is why Indian youth rarely fall out of line. Which is why, as a middle class, it took us one horrific incident to begin to take responsibility for ourselves. The way we let the rich and elite rule us, the media mould our minds that we have not yet learnt the art and craft of serious, critical discourse. Can we talk about introspection? Can we see how we consume and maintain populist sentiment because it is ‘safe’? Can we see how repeated talk about ‘security’ has blinded us to the cracks within?

Out of all the writings that came out after 26/11/2008, this essay by Arundhati Roy encompasses all the issues and why India should not be enslaved to America and why we need to start talking about our problems, not leave them to the rich, elite or political class.

I cry for my Bombay. I see her decaying and dying. Her ‘spirit’, as the politicians so love to say, is nothing but the helplessness of a people bound to earning their living in the face of hardship and recession. There is no space or place for them to seek counselling, to express their emotions-then it all comes out in riots and mental illness. I cry for this state of paralysis.

But through it I only see hope. Maybe we Indians will learn to take charge on day, to challenge, to see tangentially, to counter politicians and the media, to be able to laugh at ourselves, to constantly introspect and not feel ashamed about it. I hope.

That is what I learnt this year. For something good to happen, we first have to experience something horrible. And of course that the world is connected no matter what. If we don’t want more attacks on Bombay we have to think about how the Israel-Palestinian issue can be sorted. Because everything has a trickle down affect.

Happy New Year (and more blogging from me, inshallah.)

Frogs In A Pond-1

Raj Thakeray has done it again! We, the Marathi people, dither between agreeing with the ‘Mumbai-being-taken-over-by-the-North-Indians’ idea and abhorring the methodology of getting rid of them. Before I pontificate there are a few things to clear. My current city of residence is Auckland, New Zealand. I choose to live here. My hometown is Bombay/Mumbai. I am a daughter-of-the-soil. Hardcore. My grandfather was born in Bombay in 1899. He was a municipal corporator in the Bombay Municipal Corporation in the first post-independence elections. There is a street junction named after him. My father was involved with the Sanyukta Maharashtra movement. I was born in Bombay/Mumbai and have lived almost all my life in the family home at Girgaum (where my grandfather lived since 1928). I also spent some years in Dadar. Both Maharashtrian enclaves. Most of my family and friends live in Bombay/Mumbai. Serious, white collar middle-class. Yes. Mee Marathi. I belong to the state of Maharashtra; I am a Bombayite, Mumbaikar. But it is only one part of my identity; of who I am. In this post-globalised world, where mobility and migration are taken for granted, I am many things; I have multiple identities.

Unfortunately, like all fundamentalists, Raj Thakeray believes in the concept of a singular identity. He also believes in fanning the insecurity of his own people to enable his rise to power. How visionary is that? To generate fear in your own people; to take them backwards and create hatred for other people because they are ‘taking over’? Why just him, the government of Maharashtra has abdicated its responsibility towards its people in the name of populism and with an eye on the next state and Lok Sabha (general) elections. Raj wants power, the government wants to get back into power, they both want to eliminate Uddhav Thakeray from the race…so why not sacrifice Mumbai Aai, Mother Mumbai? She does not have a voice anyway. I am intimate with many of those bang in the middle of this madness. All sons and daughters of Maharashtra. The lone voice of sanity I spoke to and who can possibly take action is also relatively helpless because there are forces she cannot control. Such an emotive issue this is. If I was in Girgaum at this moment the discussion would be all about the bhaiyyas who ran away back to North India. Jai Maharashtra!

Instead I am going to try and analyse the problem. Purely from the point of view if being a migrant, from being a Bombayite and a generally opinionated person 🙂 It is very complex from my p-o-v and not just about North Indian migrants. It is about the Indian democracy, the bureaucracy, the attitude of the Indian public to democracy; it is about caste, community, culture, aspirational values, money and the Indian politicians.

In a crazy, chaotic, multilingual, multicultural democracy like India where Indians can travel to and live in any part of the country it becomes more complicated. There are bound to be tensions and problems within the diversity and between people of different states. Such is the structure of India.

Those North Indians that come to Bombay are ready to do any job and work any number of hours and anywhere in the city. They come because there is absolute poverty in their states. Maharashtrians on the other hand rarely travel outside Maharashtra. I generalise here because even within Maharashtra there are regional differences. The Kokanis, those from Vidarabha, from Pune-side etc etc.  But we Maharashtrians are relativey unambitious, unadventurous, keeping our heads down, nine-five kind of people. Many of us are lazy too. And we complain a lot. On the positive side we have great wit, humour, theatrical traditions and we are a progressive, socialist kind of people who treat women well. Of course there will be friction.

Then there is the lack of infrasctructure in Bombay. The state ignored her, the centre ignored her and the people-the locals-the sons and daughters of the soil showed no sense of ownership. That Bombay has problems of gigantic proportions is not new. How much can one milk a strip of land made from seven islands along the Arabian Sea? There is no place for expansion, there is the Land Ceiling Act (now repealed) and greedy politicians who don’t love the city. Rarely have the people of Mumbai protested against all this. Oh there have been bandhs and rail rokos and other kinds of mob protests against the ruling government (and mostly instigated by Shiv Sena) but not a civil discussion about how things can change/should be changed. Democracy in India is about ‘civil disobedience’ and this civil disobedience is about riots and vandalism; about beating up people. We lack a sense of history and heritage as well.

That money rules Mumbai is also not new. How many Maharashtrians can afford a place in their own city? How many Maharashtrian ‘developers’ exist? (That Raj Thakeray and Manohar Joshi are developing the Kohinoor Mill Compound in Dadar is interesting-wonder who many ‘marathi mansa’ will be able to afford flats there?) Besides the city has always been built ad hoc. None of the old textile mill compounds now being developed have allowed for green spaces or to accomodate redundant textile mill workers and their families-who incidentally are part of the mobs that Raj incites. They look at the highrises and resent the outsiders. It is human nature. Even I get irritated at the Marwaris that are now buying the chawls in Girgaum and converting them to ‘vegetarian only’ building societies. Only because they have the money to buy prime South Bombay land.

Also we Mumbaikars have rarely tried to own our city. It is always someone else’s fault. The bhaiyyas now sell fresh fish door to door because the native fisherfolk of Mumbai don’t do it any more. Their young ones are now at university. That is just how the social order changes with time. When the Shiv Sena was ruling the state after the 1992-93 riots, ‘the boys’ were given licences and permits to run their street food stalls. Pav Bhaji, Vada Pav, Chai…the staple diet of the man on the street and employment for ‘the boys’-the locals. All Mumbaikars know and I have it from the mouth of those-that-pay-obeisance-to-the-Thakerays ‘the boys’ rented these food stalls to others (South and North Indians) and are back to being unemployed. That is how the social order is maintained ya? Through laziness. So that ‘the boys’ can hang out at the galli nakas and be ready to beat up anyone at the drop of a hat. Now that is hard work!

Because Indian democracy is crazy the way it is and the bureaucracy and politicians deliberately maintain the divide between them and the ‘common man’, the regular citizen is unable to engage with the powers-that-be. On the other hand we common citizens merely vote and leave the rest to the government thinking it is the government’s job to make things happen. It is a bad situation. And then we have those that are the frogs in a pond. Those who never get the bigger picture because all they want is power and money. Like all Indian politicians.

(There’s more to come in another blog.)

Ode to the known and unknown.

Or, staying true to yourself.

Vijay Tendulkar passed away on 19 May 2008. He was (is) an icon/pillar of modern Marathi literature and theatre. Every Maharashtrian I know has spoken about him or his work only in awestruck tones. Even the Sainiks (Shiv Sena members/followers of the Thakerays). Growing up in hardcore, conservative, Marathi-speaking Girgaum, Mumbai in a family that loves its culture, with a grandfather who enjoyed movies, a grandmother who had memories about watching sangeet natak (musical plays) shows during British Raj and parents who not only attended Marathi theatre performances but also took the kids along the influence of these arts was unavoidable. I am not sure how much I have learnt/know 🙂 but every time I go back to Bombay I make it a point to see a play or watch a Marathi movie. It is like a proud and silent acknowledgement of the continuum of my language and roots that Maharashtrians patronise in spite of varying political ideologies and the North Indian/Punjabi hegemony on all popular Indian culture. But I digress.

I saw Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal in a rare season, with a lot of its original cast (Mohan Agashe as Nana Phadnavis!), many years after it had been first performed amidst controversy and Bal Thakeray’s usual windbag threats about riots because he deemed the play insulting to brahmins/upper castes. I was enthralled. This was much more than mere storytelling, rather, this was superb storytelling. Mainstream Hindi cinema and Indian films in general use songs and dances to advance a narrative, based as they are on traditional folk theatre but in Ghashiram Kotwal the style was so unique, so multi layered, so ancient and yet so modern, just like the Mahabharat and Ramayan were intended to be, that my little brain, my subconscious, decided that this is what I want to do, to be. A storyteller. When Tendulkar wrote Kamla and Kanyadaan he pissed off a lot of his communist colleagues, those fighters for democracy, equality and against all things capitalist. It was not kosher to call investigative journalists and Dalits anything else but saviours of the world and victims. Then in Sakharam Binder he took a swipe at power structure amongst liberals and how women can be enslaved in the name of liberalism . Unfortunately I have not yet watched a performance of this play. Many of his other works continue to haunt me. I remember feeling uncomfortable, not understanding how my mind had been moulded to fit the workings of a patriarchal society or that do-gooders get attached to their do-gooding which negates all the good intentions they had or that ‘victims’ seek equality but often don’t know how to deal with it or that one can become accustomed to being secondary.


A couple of weeks ago I heard a radio documentary on Chico Mendes. He did what he did before green-ism and environmentalism were fashionable middle class consumerist statements. So you drink chai latte at Starbucks and vote Green dahling! Anyway, I sat in my car parked on my street, reluctant to go into my warm flat because I was riveted. Chico was a leader who fought for his people, for their right to tap rubber and to save the Amazon rainforest yet he was also superstitious and completely human. He knew the enormity of what he was doing yet remained true to his roots. He was trying to save the world without the haute couture and cosmetic endorsements. Without economists with World Bank agendas.


I sort of knew Vijay Tendulkar through his work but did not know about Chico Mendes until I heard the radio documentary. They both had one quality on common. They were FEARLESS. Tendulkar had the ability to make both sides of the political spectrum uncomfortable. He spoke the truth, he analysed human behaviour and society, that no one was infallible and no one completely right. And who knows what Chico might have done or become. More than a song by Paul McCartney?

This probably reads really soppy but I feel small when I look at the work and the qualities of Vijay Tendulkar and Chico Mendes. The only thing I can manage is to be true to myself,. I think. At the cost of and risk of making The Man and The Saviour mad at me and thrive in the discomfort of it all. That then would be my ode to these great humans.