Oct 26, 2010

Freedom to Choose

For as long as I can remember, I have always hated those sleek black phone covers people protect their expensive BlackBerrys, Iphones and Nokias with. I have never used one of those and enough people have commented on my decision. You use a phone, it will gradually wear away; to try and protect against the inevitable seems futile. Somehow, it reeks of a lack of courage, the inability to color outside the lines, to explore the moon. Very few people can do these things and they change life forever for ordinary mortals like us. Galileo did it, Thomas Cromwell did it, Ayan Ali Hirsi is doing it now. Therefore, it is imperative that we allow artists and free thinkers all the freedom that there is. Sure, there will be those with hidden agendas, there will be those in the pay of political parties who will sell their art to push forward their narrow, vested interests. But in due course, people will learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

What saddens me is the rise of the Hindu extreme right, as a kind of reaction to Islamic fundamentalism. I adore Rohinton Mistry & see no reason why his books should be banned from the Bombay Univ curriculum simply because they carry insulting notes about Balasaheb and the Shiv Sena. This is like saying a mother will stop loving her child if others say bad things about him/her. Followers of the Shiv Sena and fans of Balasaheb will stay committed no matter what an author writes. I know this, for despite everything, I still possess a certain degree of respect in my heart for the late Bengal CM Jyoti Basu. In matters of liking or rejecting someone, the intellect often falls short.

So, no, the book shouldn’t be banned. Nor should Ms Roy be stopped from dropping her two cents (if she's arrested, she'll claim martyrdom for life). Let people be. As it is, there are too many rules to follow and too less space to navigate our lost ways. 

The Bill of Lading

It serves as a badge of inclusion,
Endower of titles,
In a world full of labels,
It helps avoid confusion.

We got it when we were young,
You and I both were taught to use it with care.
You settled here, never crossed the mighty ocean,
I voyaged to Tahoe and Hana and set in motion.

Ancient curses and cursed passions.
I’d heard of those from her,
Seen her wither and die,
Didn’t heed her warning cry.

Travelling to foreign shores,
Without a bill of lading?
I was called to settle the scores,
And pay the dues of mating.

I met the captain, just a while back
A kindly man, but not one to go slack.
He read the penalty, imposed the fine,
It was unreasonable, I gasped,
It was payment in blood, for a glass of wine.

I couldn’t protest, you were not around,
I paid in full, head hung in shame,
What once seemed pristine,
Is now steeped in blame.

You smiled smugly, in silk robes replete
The impostor had been ousted,
The ancient curses calmed,
The rites of passage are now complete.

Oct 25, 2010

Magical: On Gulzar Saab & Vishaal Bharadwaj

Disclaimer: Long boring post on Gulzar, Vishal Bharadwaj, eroticism in Hindi film lyrics & such like.

To say I don’t watch much television would be an understatement. I don’t watch it at all. The reason primarily being two-fold: between my daughter & my maid, the household average TV watching duration is fairly high, and all programmes include too many ads in between.

But this Friday night, I sat glued in front of the TV for a full hour watching the latest episode of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee TV. The celebrity judge for this week was Vishaal Bharadwaj and even Johnny Depp would have been kept waiting had he come calling for me that evening. He didn’t. Lucky Johnny.
Anyway, everyone who I discuss Hindi music with knows I am loony about VB, RD, Rafi, Madan Mohan and Rehman in the Hindi film music pantheon of deities. I remember my first brush with VB's music – Mai – from the children’s film ‘Makdi’. That would be about 7 years ago. A little girl I knew had just lost her mother and we were watching the film together at Jo’s place and the song came on. As the song ended, there we sat like statues, tears streaming down our faces, furtively wiping them, embarrassed beyond words. I’d not heard of VB before and I was hooked for life. It also mattered that after Satyajit Ray, this was the first guy I knew of who’d script & direct his films, compose the music and even sing in them!

The thing about music is that it works best in partnership. The union between two artists is more perfect than any earthly relationship the mind can imagine. I think VB has found that union with Gulzaar. Gulzar writes, VB imparts the melody; one imagines, the other conveys. How else are you going to explain the magic of:

“Khwab ke bojh se, kapkaati hui,
Halki palkey teri, yaad aata hai sab,
Tujhe gudgudana, satana, yu hi sotey hue,
Gaal pe teepna, meechna, bewajah besbab.”

Can anything beat the sheer romance of fluttering eyelids (palkey) heavy with the weight of dreams (khwab ke bojh se)? If you’ve read the poetry of John Donne you’ll note the same fusion there of the erotic with the innocent as in the above lines. Two lovers and the strange intimacy that allows a man to tickle (gudgudana) and trouble (satana) the woman and pull her cheeks (gaal pe teepna.) This is beyond sex, this is comfort.

Speaking of eroticism, Bryan Adams and his ilk need to take a few lessons from Gulzaar. Though catchy and fine, there isn’t really any imagination in ‘The only thing that looks good on me is you.’ Frankly, I’d feel like a muffler or something if my hubby ever claimed that. Eeeks. But listen to a super sad song like ‘Mera kuch samaan, tumhare paas pada hai’ and you will notice how deftly he mixes eroticism with the poignancy of loss. Everybody knows ‘Mera kuch’, so there isn’t much sense in talking about it. The couple have separated; the man has moved on; he has shipped the stuff she left behind to her current address. The song is her letter reminding him of those things that he has missed. It even begins with the actual reading of the letter. What got left behind is something you will figure out as the song proceeds. There is no sadder song, I have heard, nor one sung more achingly. Of the many things she refers to in the course of the letter, she makes special mention of:

'Eksou solah, chand ki raatey,
Ek tumhare kandhey ka til.’

One has to have loved a man with moles on his shoulder to fully realise the languorous pleasure of the 116 long moonlit nights, and the hollow emptiness in the heart at their ending.

Gulzar is also the guy who wrote in ‘O sathi re’:
’Tere kohre badan se, sil jaungi re,
Jab karvat lega, chil jaungi re.’

This is also one of those countless gems he worked together with VB. This is again a love song, interspersed with beautiful rhyming between ‘sil’ (stitch) and ‘chil’ (scrape). When you have merged yourself so seamlessly with another, what hope remains of escaping unscathed? Delightful.

But not all of Gulzar is sad. He also writes lines like:
‘Aisa koi saga nahi, jisko thaga nahi’ and ‘Teri baato mein kimaam ki khushbu hai, tera aana bhi garmiyon mein loo hai.’ These lines are funny, effervescent, tongue in cheek and bring a smile.

Finally, a word about ‘Kaminey’– the song, not the film. This is my anthem, something which sustains me when I fret and fume. It takes something beyond talent to deploy an abusive word like Kaminey, subvert it and invest it with so much poetry, so much dignity. The dignity lies in the realization that all our desires are self-defeating, illegitimate, and endless. We pass all our time cribbing about life (Iski jaan kha gaye, raat din ke giley) and don’t even realize the futility of such desires,

’Meri aarzoo kaminey,
Mere khwab bhi kaminey.
Ek dil se dosti thi,
Woh huzur bhi kaminey’.

When you haven’t managed to overcome your desires, you will seek antidotes for fulfillment. Most of them are delusions, fake, and imitations of the thing you craved. Thus, you start of with wanting the moon in the sky, and in the end, console yourself with a lantern hung high above:

Kabhi zindagi se maanga,
Pinjere me chand la do,
Kabhi lalten (lantern) deke,
Kaha aasman pe taango.’

I could go on and on. Genius leaves behind such impressions that often you don't even realise how incomplete our lives would be without its gifts. Such moments help us recollect that.

Oct 20, 2010

An Obituary

When Maureen Dowd does sarcasm, it's enough to make even a Saifina shrivel in embarrassment. I suspect not too many men like her writing. She is scathing, bitter, understandably angry and cursed with a keen mind. Uhuh, we don't want those qualities in our women, thank you.

I follow her columns and she cracks the whip at the obstructionist right-wing loonies like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck & Rush Limbaugh quite regularly. It usually makes for funny reading. Today's piece is poignant. It is not simply about Palin and her cronies. It mourns, rightly so, the passing away of a way of life, of a set of values, of a breed of people. What i especially liked about it is that she has chosen a controversial and much mocked at figure like Marlyn Monroe to make her point. It takes a special kind of empathy to discover the woman Monroe was beneath the layers of make-up and dolled up poses she struck, and it surely takes a special kind of interest to try to unravel the truth about people before you write them off. Read this piece. I'm sure you'll love it as much as I did.

Oct 15, 2010


Describing his cousin Lucy Partington’s memorial service in the summer of 1994, Martin Amis writes, “I had never experienced misery and inspiration so purely combined. My body consisted only of my heart.” One must read this line again and again to fully ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘understand’ what Amis is saying. Most of our moments of supreme grief and joy affect the heart and accelerate its beating. However, there are those rare moments or incidents when it is only the heart that exists – taste, smell, vision and intellect disappear. We  tend to casually dismiss such states as ‘has taken leave of his senses’, but I think these are the moments of pure inspiration, moments when you are completely removed from the earthly and very close to the Him. I define Him as all that is good within me, all the potential for good that resides in me & all the good that I will do before I depart from here. If that is the definition of Him, such moments definitely act as a bridge between Him and us. Wordworth in his Tintern Abbey and Ode to Immortality refers to something similar. 

Coming from Amis, whose work has always been subject to the most vicious attacks on account of its cold callousness, narcissism, and a lack of emotional depth, these words sound strange. Perhaps that is why critics panned his 2000 memoir ‘Experience’ in which the above line appears. It would seem Amis Jr’s colourful past and his proclivity for hasty brawls, casual flings and peculiar brand of masculine humour has endowed upon him the status of a perennial rake: one who cannot feel deeply, one whose life cannot be changed forever by specific events, one whose restless flitting from one interest to another must remain a lifelong yoke. An alternative seems unacceptable. Yet the above line speaks of exactly the reverse.

It is also interesting to note that Amis’ midlife crisis which was partly triggered by the discovery that his beloved cousin Lucy was one of the victims of the sadistic killer Fred West, the discovery of his daughter Delilah Seale, and his father’s death sowed the seed of a great upheaval and change in his life. His attitude to life and more particularly women changed. It put it succinctly – he discovered the healing power of love, the purity of love without ego, which constituted the ‘transfiguring experience’ at Lucy’s memorial service. Women who once served as badges of achievement, now became his healers and redeemers. 

In an odd way the life of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz speaks of a similar transformation. Rumi and Shams stayed together for only 2 years, but the impact of their meeting left an everlasting impression on Rumi and resulted in nearly 70,000 verses of his best poetry which are collected in the  Shams-e Tabrizi and Massnavi (Mathnawi). In a universe ruled by randomness, it would look unlikely, if not almost impossible, that two such contrasting characters (a wealthy nobleman and a wandering, mystic) could come together and find joy. I find this oddly humbling too. It reminds us that it is impossible to know where your next inspiration may come from or who will become the conduit for your transformation.

Oct 7, 2010


Yesterday I died for the last time,
I'd been dying for ages, 
The burial was complete.

Did you know, unfinished burials are the cause,
Of restless spirits and incomplete dreams,
Of resurgent desires & desperate claims?

He who came before, did the deed,
You were kinder, you wove the shroud,
With loving care and great heed.

Cleansed my soul, purified my lust,
Taught me to rest, and scraped the rust,
You held my hand in those precious last moments, 
You held my gaze, but it still rained in torrents.

You taught me to love the soil,
You told me, it needn't be the end.
Peace and calm would end the strife,
As you led me to the afterlife.