Sunday, 8 October 2017

A crowd extra, a guest appearance, and a rainstorm

Scene one.

A basketball tournament in St Xavier’s College. The traditional season opener for the game in the city. All the best teams in Bombay would play. Among them, several from the Nagpada area, nursery of many greats of the game. For the Bombay Central YMCA, one of the players is a fair-skinned man. You look closer, and yes, it is that guy who seems to always play the white man in Hindi cinema. On court, he plays the hard, fast game that that corner of the city specialised in, asking, and giving, no quarter on account of actor status or age (he was a bit older than most of the other players, barring a few India team veterans). In the half-court messing about before the game you, with several other undergrad students who take shots at the basket while the teams are getting ready, have actually passed him the ball a few times, attempting not to be too star-struck and never being so gauche as to ask for an autograph.

One game stands out a little clearer than the others in that distant memory. The Xavier’s Sports Club, a team of the best players in the college and some ex-students who continued to play the game, had its strongest line-up in years. Among them, Joe, an American and Marco, a German. In front of a partisan audience, the home team played out of their skins. There were fouls galore, including one where a Bombay Central player rolled in agony clutching his dislocated shoulder, and when the ref paid no heed, got up and continued the game. The roughness of the game extended to the gamesmanship: the Nagpada lads were fluent cussers — one had heard that even the fair-skinned actor liked to catch opponents off-guard by letting fly in fluent Urdu — and the Xavier’s boys were no slouches either. At one point, Joe, one of those tall, burly corn-fed Americans, stood chest to chest with the actor. “You have a big mouth,” he said. The reply didn’t miss a beat: “Not as big as your stomach.”

(The sports club lost eventually.)

Scene two.

A recording studio. You are a rookie voice-over artist. Perhaps because of your name, you’ve been called in to read the voice of a British pilot. An accomplished actor who happens to be fair-skinned is doing an American pilot’s voice.

You struggle a bit, not knowing whether to aim for posh or street. You don’t do too well, and are miserable. In the loo, the actor, who has delivered all his lines on the first take, and then offered variations — you remember now that that was the only time, before or since, you’ve heard him speak American — offers a few comforting words, with no trace of an American accent. You stammer a thank you and try to do better. You manage, and you leave with an even warmer spot in your heart for the man.

Scene three.

A poetry reading in an art gallery. Several of the city’s best-known poets are reading. The host has kindly invited a few unknown poets in too; you are the least accomplished of them. Before the reading, you discover that that actor is here, and will be on stage too. Your heart sinks: how do you measure up to that guy? But then, you say to yourself, if you goof here, no one will remember with this star around.

You meet briefly before the performance. He is greying now, with some wrinkles around the eyes. He is adjusting his boots. He looks up, says something like “You have an unusual name.” You, not star-struck at all, no, no, manage to come up with the fantastically original “You too.” Strangely, the earth does not open and swallow you.

He is the only one not carrying paper. (This was before smartphones.) He recites several Urdu couplets, and a poem he wrote as a young man. Then he reads a poem you have encountered, by a Delhi poet. It is one word, one syllable: rain, repeated many times. You have dismissed this “poem” in your mind; you had put quotes around the word when dismissing it. You don’t remember now how many times that single word is repeated, but it’s a lot. The actor gives every repetition a different inflection, now booming like thunder overhead, now like the wet mist caressing a hillside cloud, now sharp and cold and piercing, now mad fury. You have never been so glad to be comprehensively outclassed.

End notes.

One day, you tell yourself many times, you will talk to this man properly and try and learn a bit. One day, perhaps you will interview him. But that never comes to pass.

You wouldn’t have remembered these little cameos I made in your life, but thank you, and Godspeed, Tom Alter.

[In The Hindu]

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Candles in the wind

In a world where bad news is in no short supply, in a profession where atrocities are on the daily news list, some tragedies hurt more than others.

Journalists of almost every leaning were jolted when Gauri Lankesh was murdered; here was a journalist killed, gunned down, not in war zone or in some troubled but remote part of the country, but in cold blood, on the doorstep of her home in one of India’s busiest metropolises. We shouldn’t have been more distressed by this atrocity than by the assassinations of so many others in our profession but, what gods there may be forgive us, we were. We said to each other, This could have been you. Or me.

In a city where nine or ten people die on the tracks every day, falling from or being knocked down by trains or being hit while dangling from a coach overburdened to a ludicrous degree, one more senseless rail tragedy shouldn’t have penetrated our callused souls. But we’ve all travelled those trains at some point, even those who, like this writer, can now afford four wheels and a guaranteed window seat. As the city’s business district migrated north and split up like so many amoeba, many of us work or have worked in Lower Parel or thereabouts, and have exited the local trains at that railway station and, shoulder to shoulder with the MBAs and the office assistants, battled our way out of the sardine cans, through the scrum on that pedestrian bridge and out into the dubious charms of the erstwhile mills district, on our way to the upcycled godowns and shiny glass towers where, amidst the banks and MNCs and upmarket watering holes, our publications, now freed from the need to house printing presses, send out the news and views in bits and bytes.

We stay unflustered, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We call and WhatsApp our colleagues and chivvy or are chivvied for ground reports. We monitor the social media channels, looking for more information. When the grim list comes in, we scan it quickly for familiar names and then breathe a sigh of relief and go back to the newsgathering, a little ashamed of that relief. We point our cameras at the stray shoes left behind knowing how powerful the image will be, we hit the record buttons on our phones and stick them in the faces of the weeping, we go to hospitals, overcome our human tendency not to bother the distressed and ask people in hospital beds questions, we edit, trimming lines for greater impact, spellchecking copy typed with one finger on cellphones, scouring our memories and the web for background material the reporter is too busy to include in her copy. We plan the questions we will ask of power tomorrow.

It’s the job. It’s not as soul-battering as being a first responder or an emergency room medic. It’s just news. We file, we move on.

As we send in the story about the twentysomething chartered accountant in her first job or the lifelong best friends who were on their way to the Dadar flower market to buy offerings for the gods for their community puja, we let the thought surface, This could have been you. Or me. And then a photographer sends in a picture of candles lining that pedestrian bridge, a small bunch of marigolds among them. A homage to those who died. It’s silly. It’s symbolism. But then, some of us, we break down and cry.

[In The Hindu]

Thursday, 11 February 2016

How Zuckerberg got the blues

The campaign to save the Internet was led by many ordinary citizens. A thank-you note.

Success has many parents. And now that the Save the Internet campaign has got a happy ending, there is no doubt that many will clamour for a share of the credit. And they would not be wrong, for it was a campaign of, by and for people like you and me, ordinary citizens.

That said, there are some names that rise a little higher from the crowd. (What follows assumes you have followed the net neutrality versus zero-rating debate in these pages and elsewhere.)

One of them is the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Regulators and government bodies in general have not exactly been known for being au courant with technology and its advances, or for — gasp! — actually wanting to know what citizens think. Past heavy-handed efforts at censorship, such as back in 2006 when our government ordered the blocking of entire second-level domains when it meant to silence a few third-level sites, had India’s then fledgling social media world alternating between giggling at their cluelessness and screaming blue murder outrage about the loss of their precious blogging platforms.

But, led in no small way by the Ministry of External Affairs, who were the first members of the babucracy to dip their official toes into the online world, India’s administrators are now very much a part of the social whirl. And TRAI, to its eternal (or until next week) credit, made a huge effort to reach out and make it if not the best possible public consultation, then at least a better consultation than has been done before. Writer Raghu Karnad made the point well in a Twitter discussion: “I don’t see a lot of kirana dukaanwalas [owners of small shops] being interviewed about FDI in retail.” If there’s one thing to take away from TRAI’s course of action during this debate, it is that I don’t think India’s Internet policy will be created from an ivory tower again. And while it could get better — reaching out in multiple Indian languages is one small example — it’s good to see India showing the rest of the world the progressive way ahead.

Sharing credit with TRAI is the Save the Internet coalition. (Disclosure: this writer helped with small parts of the group’s first campaign and was privy to its discussions and strategies.) This ragtag band, using nothing more than their brains, well augmented with legal knowledge, tech skills and social media smarts, changed the course of the debate and made sure that telecom providers and platforms like Facebook weren’t controlling the narrative. Possibly their biggest contribution to the discourse was the way they carefully studied TRAI’s questions and framed lucid replies that were also legally sound. The group frequently insists that it is a collective, and no individuals are heroes, so I will respect that and not name individuals. Those who were and are part of the group and have chosen to be identified can be found on the website.

A crucial amplifier of the net neutrality point of view was the comedy collective AIB. Those always irreverent young men have a huge and very influential following. So when they, taking a cue from American comic and host John Oliver, released a video that made the case for net neutrality, many celebrities shared it, and it got seen by a lot more people than the Save the Internet coalition could have reached on its own. AIB followed up their initial video in April last year with a couple of more videos later in the year, and each time their contribution shot adrenaline into the movement.

Another crucial ingredient was the support of the Indian start-up world. Vijay Shekhar of digital payments company Paytm set an example. Initially a supporter of zero rating (which privileges some chosen Internet sites over others by giving users free data to access them), he changed his mind and used his influence to reach out to others too. Eventually, several hundred entrepreneurs such as Nandan Nilekani stated their support for net neutrality. And politicians stuck their necks out too: Biju Janata Dal MPs Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda and T. Satpathy, and All India Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien. The CPI (M) passed a resolution last year opposing violations of net neutrality, with party leader Sitaram Yechury vocally supporting the concept. Even Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi spoke up, which was worrying for net neutrality supporters: in today’s polarised world, his stand could have meant National Democratic Alliance fans reflexively opposing whatever he said. News coverage abroad helped mould opinion too. Notable among the influencers was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web but did not patent it so the world could benefit; when Sir TB-L speaks, people listen.

Have we forgotten anyone? Oh, yes. Facebook. The social media platform’s holier-than-wow advertising campaign and lobbying efforts to evangelise their FreeBasics offering, not to speak of their cack-handed effort to take a leaf out of the Save the Internet campaign’s book by asking their users to petition TRAI with a ready-made email (only neglecting to have their email text actually answer the questions TRAI had asked for responses to) backfired rather spectacularly. So, thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s a nice blue thumbs up for you.

[In The Hindu]

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A thin boy in a wheelchair

My brother was disabled. I talked about him to friends, maybe referred to him only in broad terms in work environments, and very rarely wrote about him. When I did write about him, I was asked — both by people who knew me at the intimate-at-a-remove level that social media has made common and by those who have my family and I knew for decades — why I had never done so before.

The reasons are not that easy to explain. But I’ll try.

(A caveat: I speak only of places we’ve lived in and visited: Vizag, Secunderabad, Madras, Bombay and New Bombay, Ooty. Other people’s mileage may differ.)

John’s disabilities were cerebral palsy, mental retardation (what is called a learning disability now, but those words still appeared on his medical files and were the ones used by our family doctor to refer to his handicap) and a heart disease.

The heart condition did not manifest visibly, but the palsy was, of course, clear to see. His legs were stick thin, bent a little. More so his right leg, which thanks to muscle atrophy and a hip joint that disintegrated, was bent a little more and could never straighten. Because he had the use only of one hand, he was unable to support his body evenly when sitting. So as he got older, his spine curved more to the right. His right hand was small; he had very limited control over it: just a little movement at shoulder level and the ability to twitch two fingers. It mostly would just be folded, palms and fingers hanging. When he was younger, before the curvature became pronounced, he could manipulate his own wheelchair by propelling the left wheel and then reaching over to propel the right wheel. Later, this became impossible, and he needed extra support on one side whenever sitting up. Another manifestation of his palsy was in slurred speech. He also had a pronounced gagging reflex, so we were never able to clean his teeth properly, and he couldn’t gargle, so he wound up losing all his teeth eventually. There was a slight squint in one eye. He couldn’t wink, though he did, in his words, ‘wink his eyebrows,’ basically a theatrical blink. One side of his face was more mobile than the other, so except with a wide grin (which resulted also in a ‘wink), his smiles were always lopsided. We tried to teach him to read and write, but he could not. He could count reliably up to three, sometimes five.

In brief, he was visibly disabled.

In close interaction — with our friends, our neighbours — he was often talked at or talked around or talked about rather than talked to. Sometimes this is awkwardness: people didn’t know if he understood and would ask us, his caregivers, about him. Mostly these questions were on the lines of ‘what is wrong with him?’ and ‘was he born like this?’ Our answers would then inevitably provoke pity. They would see the disability, recognise that it handicapped him, but they so very rarely look beyond the condition at the person.

The thing is, if you could get past the slurred speech, the retardation was not immediately evident in conversation. In the subjects he could talk about, he was always coherent, though sometimes approaching topics from very different perspectives which needed patience to figure out.

(All John’s favourite people always talked to him, never condescending, but adjusting the topics of their conversation to him, as some people have the gift of doing naturally with children. You know who I mean, that favourite aunt or uncle who you were hugely fond of as a child and who will always be special to you, the one who always talked to you straight, never made you feel like a child.)

To the casual passer-by, he was just a thin boy in a wheelchair. (I use ‘boy’ advisedly; though he was older than me, he looked at most 20 right through his adult years.) But, in all the cities we lived in, John would attract curiosity in public spaces. At its best, it would be mild double-takes. Sometimes — often, yes, often — it would also be that gawker nudging a companion, inviting the companion to gawk as well. Sometimes it would be open pointing and loud remarks.

I’ve heard, often, in different places, the word in the local languages for ‘mad’. All this made me furious when we were children. It continued to cut deep even when I became an adult, even though I would tell myself that these behaviours were just a result of poor education about mental disability in this country, that one couldn’t blame individuals for cultural mores they’ve imbibed.

Even so, when in casual conversation, on social media, the anger still boils up in me when I hear the suffix ‘-tard’ as an insult, when I hear people laughing about spazzing out.

It enrages me that this world, this country, this city, does so little to make a more accessible, more caring planet for those whose bodies aren’t ‘normal’, whose minds will stay, always, childlike. And that needs more space than this page will allow. So let me not go there. Let me get back to the personal.

Over time, I reached a point where I don’t want to explain any more. I didn’t want to be angry. I definitely didn’t want concessions. That last is also partly why I haven’t spoken publicly about my brother; one didn’t want to be seen as seeking attention, or seeking pity, or largesse from the state or society.

All this I’ve heard this from friends who have family members with learning disabilities: all you want is acceptance, for your loved one, for your family. You want the world to just be okay with the fact that this is just another person's ‘normal,’ that it doesn’t need pity, or sorrow.

You don’t want the attention. You’re not brave, you’re not extraordinary. You’re not a saint, heaven knows. This is just your life. This is his life. This is our life. You would do the same, but these just don’t happen to be the circumstances of your life.

All we want, the families of and caregivers to people with disability — I deliberately do not try to speak for people with disability, because I do not know that world — is to not be ‘special’. To not be a symbol for courage. To not have our loved ones be the disability.

From where I sit, your fight against the financial circumstances you have risen above, or the loss of a parent early in life or of a child, or a bad marriage or broken heart or rebellious children, they are all strange to me, perhaps. Are you a hero? I don’t know; perhaps you are. But it could be just that you are playing with the cards you have been dealt.

There is no divine plan, I’m sure. This isn’t happening to you or me ‘for the best’.

It is what it is.

You live the life you find yourself in, the best way you know how.

[In The Hindu]

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The idea of Bombay

People like me, people who came of age in the eighties in middle-class urban India, grew up in a different India. We were something of an in-between generation. Our grandparents lived through the transition from colony to nation; our parents grew up in the years of nation building. We grew up taking independence and a certain degree of development for granted, without having all the gadgets, the conveniences, the consumer goods, and the general first worldness that the young of today were born into.

We also grew up with messages of unity in diversity surrounding us. We were all one, despite our religious and cultural differences, advertisements and pre-movie short films (and when TVs came into our homes, Doordarshan) told us. Ek, Anek, as a particularly cute animated short put it.

And while even our young minds knew there was an element of propaganda here, we chose to believe in it, or at least to subscribe to the notion that that was the way things should be.

To stripling me, Bombay pretty much exemplified this. After living in Visakhapatnam, Secunderabad and Madras, none of them small towns by any means, I was now in a true metropolis. The neighbourhood where we lived, the kids in my school, the markets, the buses, the trains, most of all the trains: all of this city teemed with diversity; it was like living in a Films Division short.

I grew up with more friends whose families had come here from various parts of India—one, two maybe three generations ago—than those who could claim centuries of city-born ancestry. Quite natural in a city that didn’t really exist as a city before hunks of its hills were toppled into the gaps between islands to make new land. We celebrated each other’s holidays and high days with gusto, visiting each other, sending across sweets and savouries to each other to better share the joy.

When you visited relatives back in the ‘native place’ during the summer holidays—in this city of migrants, everyone seemed to be from somewhere else—your Bombayness was acknowledged with gentle proscriptions along the lines of ‘You can’t do X here; this is not Bombay.’

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the city was immune to communal and religious divides, that caste and class lines did not exist—it would be beyond childishly naive to suggest that—it was just that it felt like we were living in a country that was trying to rise beyond those schisms and, more important, in a great city that was leading the way in that effort, a city that had always been a pioneer in progressive thought. (Remember the Quit India movement? Remember where it was launched?) In Bombay, one could believe, the place you were born in, the god you bowed to, the language you spoke, the food you ate, none of these would stop you from making it as long as you were willing to work hard.

That changed in 1992. The demolition of the faraway Babri Masjid that December brought riots to Bombay. For those of us who lived here through those times, there was a chill in the air far colder than the city’s puny winters could ever bring. Men shaved off their beards lest they be mistaken for Muslims. Nominal Christians who weren’t the most regular of churchgoers made sure their crosses were visible. Nameplates that had names easily identified as being from the wrong community were taken down, leaving behind clean rectangles on otherwise weathered walls and doors. The first mentions of vegetarian housing societies came up. People talked softer in trains and busses for a while. Those riots, the ones that followed in January ’93, and then the bomb blasts that March, they killed many innocents. And they also delivered a mortal wound to Bombay’s belief in its invulnerability from the small-mindedness lesser towns and cities were plagued by. When the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition that came to power in the next state elections renamed the city Mumbai, it was just a literal ending to the idea of Bombay; that city had already become something else.

Mumbai is still a resilient city. As we sprang back from the riots of ’92 and ’93, so did we recover, quickly, from the cloudburst and floods of 2005. We survived the body blows of the multiple blasts that ripped apart local trains in 2006. We got through the full frontal terror attacks of 2008, the seventh sad anniversary of which we marked two days ago. Yes, even then, we stopped what we were doing and stayed home and watched our televisions, but we were soon back at work, a little quieter, a little more thoughtful, a lot more fearful, but what does one do, livings must be earned. Each time, we went back. We regained our swagger and our style.

Mumbai, like Bombay, has no time to spare, where distances are measured in minutes and hours, not kilometres. It is still a place that rewards hard work, where fortunes can be made from humble beginnings.

Mumbai is a more crowded city than Bombay ever was, but that was inevitable; gold-paved streets are magnetic, but an island only has so much space in which to grow. And this has meant that we pay ludicrous prices for the cubes of air we call our homes, that we spend precious hours just getting to and from our places of work, that our open spaces are threatened, that builders can buy politicians and bureaucrats will conspire. (For me, it’s meant that my family had to move out of the city, to its little sister across the creek. Once it was called New Bombay, then the municipal signboards welcoming you to the city were blackened with tar and a new name was painted over it in rough letters: Navi Mumbai. That name become official too. Just history repeating itself in a different geography.)

Mumbai is still a safer city for women, for children, for the aged, than most others in this country. It is still a home to the arts and culture and sport and entertainment and all the fine things that are worth working hard for, the better to appreciate and enjoy them.

We live more comfortable lives, certainly, than most of India. We can take our electricity for granted most of the time. And though we panic about the water levels in our lakes, we somehow make it through each year until the monsoons arrive. Our air is far from clean, but the sea breeze bails us out most days, blowing away some of the smog.

And yes, we’re richer. And yes, we have so much that more developed countries have, the big brands and the High Streets, the glass towers and the luxury cars. Heck, we may not be Shanghai yet, but we have our very own suspension bridge.

But in the Mumbai of today, it has become okay to talk of the Other.

Bigotry is now legitimate; it no longer speaks in whispers, it is loud, it shrieks on our streets, shuts down shops, and sometimes the whole city. It does not want you to live in its buildings, it does not want you to cook your way, dress your way.

In this unsentimental city, hurt sentiments take centre-stage more often these days. (And we, the media, cannot absolve ourselves from blame for providing a steady stream of the publicity to the publicity-seeking hurt sentiment that comes our way.)

Again, don’t get me wrong. Just as it wasn’t a total free thinker’s paradise when my generation was growing up, it certainly isn’t hell in which we find ourselves in our middle age. Things are undoubtedly and demonstrably worse in other parts of India and, yes, the world.

Mumbai still is, and regularly proves itself to be, more progressive in its thinking than most places. In Mumbai, hard work still rules, and good ideas can still find a home. In Mumbai, you can still say what you believe, and be sure that no one will try to kill you if what you say offends them… Reasonably sure, that is. I can still casually call the city Bombay, as an old friend can do, without more than the odd idiot on Twitter scolding me Perhaps one day louts-for-hire may gherao this newspaper’s office if their paymaster’s delicate feelings are hurt by something we say, but this newspaper will still come out the next day, and its journalists will still walk the streets unafraid.

But here’s the thing. Today, liberal voices are more hushed; free speech advocates now censor themselves. This can only be a bad thing in a city founded on free movement: of people, of goods, of money, of ideas.

Bombay was all about differences coming together and somehow working. Bombay celebrated its differences, made the most of them and like some medieval alchemist, it conjured up success and growth. One couldn’t expect any less from a city that was imagined up out of seven islands and lots of swamp and sea.

But maybe that’s a lot of poetic tosh, born of too much brainwashing by the Films Division in one’s formative years.

Perhaps the Idea of Bombay began to die before the name did. And perhaps now, while it still gasps for breath, it’s really past hope and we should let that idea go. That would make me sad.

There’s a part of me, though, that doesn’t want to believe that: the part of me that still calls the city Bombay, as if using that name would conjure it back into existence. Who knows? Maybe there are enough of us, and if we all thik about it really, really hard..?

[In the first Mumbai edition of The Hindu]

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Mousetrap - 147

unseen dharamsala
Dharamsala, quiet little place that is, has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to its most famous resident, the Dalai Lama. You see, after he made his escape from Tibet, the Indian government shunted him around a bit before giving him a place of residence in Upper Dharamsala, also called McLeodganj. Mcleodganj was a sort of hangout for army officers and their families in British times (there’s a cantonment nearby, in Forsytheganj), but, so I’m told, became pretty much a ghost town after independence. Other Tibetan refugees flocked to the place, and it became the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Little Tibet, as some call it, also has a library, monasteries, schools and cultural centres that attempt to keep the culture alive. This site is part of a larger photo-project, an ‘international arts project for workers and refugees to describe their lives through photography.’ The site introduces eight Tibetan refugees, and links to their blogs. It’s a look into the live of a dispossessed people through their eyes and words.

Wired How-To Wiki
Wikis epitomise the whole user-generated content revolution. Sites like Wikipedia and its offshoots are abuzz with activity, generating volumes of content, some of it downright dubious, some of it of questionable value, especially for fogies like your columnist. Where we we? Where are my dentures? Ah yes. This wiki has a more specific focus: it’s a how-to site, with a tech slant. Naturally considering that its parent, Wired magazine, is an iconic geek publication, one that has chronicled the rise of the web and grown with it, and features some of the best, most lucid writing on tech topics. The site offers ‘projects, hacks, tricks and tips you can edit.’ It isn’t all geeky though. Amidst advice on adapters for electronic devices and building servers, you’ll also find ways to reset a dislocated shoulder, alternative ways to lace your shoes (there are 43,200 of them, would you believe?), or bar tricks. There’s a bonus: a small section of how-tos written by Wired staff.

Are you a CA?
The ‘CA’ that your columnist uses in the title doesn’t stand for Chartered Accountant. The ‘C’ is for Certified, and the ‘A’ refers to the, um, tail-end of your digestive system. Also known as the the A*****e Rating Self-Exam (ARSE), it is a set of 24 questions set in the work environment, by the writer Bob Sutton, part of his promotion for a book. If you’re enough of a, erm, navel-gazer to be reasonably sure of your own status on this important question, try taking it as if you were someone else: a colleague, perhaps. or your boss.

Clean Journeys
Responsible Travel
It’s summer. You’re off on vacation with the spouse and the brats. But have you thought about the impact of your vacation on the planet? This site has listings for 270 tour operators all over the world, with n array of activities and countries. It’s not just for the well-heeled westerner or the global traveller. We desis and impoverished columnists have some choices too. There are 181 India holidays listed as of this writing. Not solely travel agents, mind you. There are less-known things like self-catered holidays and volunteering opportunities. And there are loads of user reviews of the listed holidays to help you make up your mind. Have a good trip!

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 4th May, 2008.

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Thursday, 1 May 2008

Siteseeing - 18


When teh interwebs were still young, my webpage proclaimed the intention to get to know people around the world, so that when I finally had enough money to backpack around the world, I’d have places to stay, friends to hang out with who’d point me to the good, cheap food, the cool places to go, and so on. Having the foresight of a new-born puppy, I didn’t start a dot com, and here I am earning my holiday fund, peanut by peanut, writing for this travel mag.. Never mind. This company takes that basic concept and adds a fee to it, to save you the trouble of actually making new friends. It operates in just seven countries in Europe as of this writing: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK. And you can choose to ‘live’ (€25) ‘eat’ (€15) or ‘go’ (as in ‘go see stuff,’ (€15) like a local by registering on the site and stating your requirements. The site will then link you up with pre-vetted locals. Or you could choose to search for what’s on offer and make up your mind when you see something you like. The company’s also open to people volunteering to sign up as locals, by the way. Though there’s no mention of any plans for this part of the world. Hm. Perhaps it’s not too late..

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2008.

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A midsummer evening’s dream

Act One
Grizzled narrator ambles in, props butt against large black cube, the only prop on stage.
Narrator: Back in the day, I appeared in a musical, and got to see a few Bombay theatres from what has always been the right side of the proscenium for me. Later, performance put aside, I did reviews, visited pretty much every theatre in the city. And, despite my early pash for stages large enough to swing a cat (or Cats) in, I fell madly in love with little Prithvi, the first of its kind that I’d ever set foot in. One day, I said, one day..
Editor, off-stage: Get on with it, dammit!
Narrator: Enough about me. A little background to, heh, set the stage?
Lights fade.

Act Two
A clock face is projected on to the backdrop, its hands spinning backwards. Dissolve to sepia-tinted vignettes. A rich, warm voice, Naseerbhai for choice, speaks..
Father Time: In the 1940s, Prithviraj Kapoor strode majestically across our silver screens. He was also actor-manager of his touring theatre group, Prithvi Theatres. And he founded a film dynasty: his sons, Raj, and then Shammi, moved quickly from stage to massively successful film careers. As did the youngest, Shashi; but not before falling, hard, for the beauteous Jennifer, lead actress of Shakespeareana, the travelling theatre company led by her father, Geoffrey Kendall. The story goes thus: at the now-defunct Royal Opera House in Bombay, Shashi peeped through the curtains at the audience, and saw “this fabulous looking girl who looked Russian.” Shakespeareana had the next run after Prithvi vacated; so she was at a loose end. Shashi worked up the nerve to first ask Jennifer out, then propose to her, and eventually, despite initial parental disapproval, marry her.
In 1975, the couple set up the Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust (the patriarch’s died in ’72) and then, in ’78, Prithvi Theatre, on land the old gentleman had once leased, intending to set up his own theatre.
A voice from the audience chimes in. Spotlight on pretty lady sitting on the steps near the exit.
Sanjna Kapoor: I remember a peculiar L-shaped building completely unsuitable for theatre. My grandfather eventually used it to store costumes! The trips out to Juhu were wonderful; I played on the beach with my dog while my mother pored over plans with the architect. Prithvi opened when I was ten. I used to fall asleep in the sofas in the last row! I turned sixteen during the first Festival my mother organised.
She ran Prithvi until she died in 1984. Then my brother Kunal, and Feroze Khan, kept it running smoothly. I apprenticed under them, learnt a lot, and in 1990, I joined in.

Act Three
The narrator saunters back into the spotlight like he owns the damn thing.
Narrator: Prithvi is a ‘little’ theatre, seating 200 on three sides of a ‘thrust’ stage that places the action intimately close to the audience. Despite its tucked-away-in-Juhu location, convenient only for residents of the not-too-far-flung western suburbs, almost every actor of consequence who has set foot in the city has passed through its green room, every theatre lover in the city has applauded here at least a few times. Prithvi also hosts workshops, exhibitions, films, music, and poetry. Integral adjuncts are a wee bookshop, and Prithvi Cafe, hang-out not just for the after-theatre crowd and off-duty actors but also for the suburban folk acquiring cool cred over coffee. Sanjna, fortified by two strong theatre bloodlines and a deep love of the stage, has kept it going—and growing—against the depredations of weekend movies on TV, 24/7 channels, video (and VCD, LD and DVD) libraries, and if that wasn’t enough, multiplexes, malls and downloadable entertainment.
The spotlight shifts again, to the last row, where Sanjna sits, smiling..
Sanjna: I don’t fall asleep in the last row anymore. At least not lying down! (She continues, more seriously..) We have kept Prithvi affordable, both for the players (charges go as low as seven rupees per ticket sold, basic lights and sound free) and audiences (you get 50 rupee tickets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Sponsorship has kept us going. The Trust, a non-profit, is building up its own corpus. Donations are welcome; you’ll find details at We have great plans for the thirtieth anniversary. I don’t want to let out too much just yet, but it will be a mix of local, national and international theatre, and I wish my days had thirty-six hours!

Curtain Call
The narrator stands on the black cube, beating his chest, Tarzan-style, and simpering coyly. Simultaneously. Obviously we’ll need a virtuoso performer.
Narrator: Recently, an old, secret dream came true: I was centre-stage at Prithvi. Not quite in the way I dreamt of, all those years ago; it wasn’t a play, it was an evening of poetry, and I was the obscure newbie reading with a half-dozen luminaries; and no, it wasn’t packed to the rafters with screaming groupies. But they clapped. And it was sweet, so sweet.

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2008.


Sunday, 27 April 2008

Mousetrap - 146

One World
Pangea Day
Pangaea (to use the spelling everyone not American uses) is the name scientists give to a supercontinent, one of many in the earth’s history of drifting continental plates, a single landmass that existed some 200 to 300 million years ago, from which the continents we know today broke apart and drifted away. Pangea Day is on May 10th, and will be celebrated with a 4-hour programme (starting 11:30pm, IST) of live music, short films and talks. It will be broadcast live from six locations (Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro) to a worldwide audience via TV, the web and cellphones. (For readers in Bombay, you can apply for a free invitation via the site.) It doesn’t stop after the show, though. The site promises to help people participate in community-building activities around the world, aside from making many of the performances available.

Did the Earth Move for You?
Paleomap Project
While we were researching the first few lines in the previous item, we found this fascinating site. It is a history site with a difference. It’s not about which branch of humanity slaughtered more people than others and hence got to write the books. Nope, this webmaster’s goal is, to put it mildly, huge: ‘to illustrate the plate tectonic development of the ocean basins and continents, as well as the changing distribution of land and sea during the past 1100 million years.’ So you get fascinating full-colour maps, animations showing the continents drifting around like flotsam in a Bombay monsoon flood, and, taking it many millions of years in the future, showing what the world could look like then.

Split Ends
Darn Divorce
Despite the best efforts of the guardians of our Glorious Culture, many in this country are realising that in some circumstances, a divorce, tough as it is on all concerned, is really the best path to choose. Well, as this blog says, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It is a ‘collection of random thoughts and news on the Dreaded D-Word. Some content may appear silly or cynical, but in no way am I undermining the distressing effects of divorce…’ There’s a lot here that could be useful; links to advice and articles, and some fun stuff too. Worth a look if you’re coming out of a split, or are affected by one.

Off Line
Shutdown Day
Another internet meme landed in your columnist’s inbox this week. The question being asked on this site is whether you can survive a full 24 hours without your computer. The idea is to use the time you normally spend in front of the keyboard for other things, like getting outdoors and communing with nature, playing sports, or just doing things with people you can touch and feel. As the site says, just ‘remind yourself that there still exists a world outside your monitor screen.’ Kind of ironic, that the message is being passed around online, no? When is this happening? It’s on the 3rd May, just around the corner. The day I have to file the next edition of this column. You think the editor will buy it and we’ll get paid leave? Watch this space.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 27th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Mousetrap - 145

As spoken in..
IDEA - The International Dialects Of English Archive
Two weeks ago, this column pointed to a site that served up a menu of common English words with their pronunciations in different parts of the world. This site, an archive that was started just over ten years ago, at the University Of Kansas in the USA, as ‘a repository of primary source recordings for actors and other artists in the performing arts.’ It is a sort of collaboration with the university’s Department of Theatre and Film and a global network of associate editors. It features recordings of one of two passages in English, with ‘both English language dialects and English spoken in the accents of other languages’ covered. You can download and play them for free.

Spare the rod
How Many Five Year Olds Could You Take in a Fight?
Another wee diversion—we need a life, yes?—dedicated to friends who swear they will never, ever, ever have children. Your results ‘are based on physical prowess, training, swarm-combatting experience, and the flexibility of your moral compass.’ But not to worry. All you’ll need to do is answer the questionnaire. But you’ll still need to steel yourself. The reward: a banner to display on your own site, with the number of brats you could take on filled in. (No real five-year-olds were harmed in the writing of this column. Promise. We love kids.)

Human Body and Mind - Sleep
As the good folk who put this page together will testify, your columnist has weird sleep patterns. The poor wee things get their copy in the pre-dawn hours if they’re lucky; otherwise it slides under the door just as the page needs to go to press. And one of the ways we keep tabs on our state of sleep deprivation is a li’l game on this microsite on sleep (part of the Beeb’s excellent Science & Nature section) which lets us shoot tranquilliser darts into virtual sheep as they gambol across the screen. It’s a test of reaction time, one of many tools and tests featured here that are designed to help you improve your sleep and your understanding of it. You can also get a personalised sleep profile, figure out your circadian rhythm, find out what foods keep you awake, read articles and more. See ya next week. We have sheep to put to sleep.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 20th April, 2008.

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