Sunday, April 29, 2012

The privacy hype

In my book, privacy is a feature of youth. There is vulnerability when you are young that demands some kind of a protective filter around the young life. Privacy might also be critical to the professions of stealing, spying, politics or the building of a financial empire. Celebrities certainly need to guard their personal spaces with ferocity, considering its commercial potential. It can also happen that an exclusive family culture will presuppose a very private closeness.

But it has stopped bothering me as much, this paranoia for privacy.

I used to be a fierce closet person, too proud to share my private world with anyone but those closest to me. In the Advertising Agency I worked at, they called me the “locked jaw”. I could talk about books, ideas, events but try and get me to admit to one original, emotional thought from the deep recesses and I would turn “touch me not”.

Some of this stemmed from a sense of loyalty to people in my immediate radius. Some came from diffidence at what people might think or say. A bit of it was born of my own basic sense of fair play and belief in positive thinking. Why vent or bitch or criticise, was my internal logic! It did not seem there was much to gain by reinforcing any conflicts or self-doubts. At some level in my mind, it was also an admission of personal failure to air difficulties or speed-breakers, thus.

Over the years though, all through the milestones of becoming a wife, a parent, a professional, a citizen, I have seen and experienced enough to begin to realize the authentic oneness of being. There really is, barely a soul out there, who has had it easy in her lifetime. A mixed blessing has been and will be the universal signature tune of all human melodies. Ups and downs, highs and lows, heartbreak and ecstasy, ebb and flow are the paths life pretty much follows for everyone.

Was there a weak phase in your life for instance, when you felt you needed someone the most and they abandoned you emotionally?  You are not alone.

Were you ever dropped off in a strange city to find your way back home by your new family? You are not alone.

Did you pour your life into a child who fixes you with an angry glare today so your blood feels it has turned white?  You are not alone.

Did your educated and outwardly progressive husband yank your hair before chasing you around the dining table? You are not alone.

Have you ever felt claustrophobic and friendless in your seemingly ordered, outwardly peaceful existence? You are not alone.

Do you yearn sometimes for someone to hold you by the hand, look into your eyes and say, “I see you? You make a difference. You matter!” You are not alone.

Are there moments in your life, when you sit down and imagine what it would be like to run away and hide someplace far off? You are not alone.

There is this common human legacy of pain and aloneness that is truly egalitarian in nature, sparing none, infecting equally. And once you have absorbed this immutable, the self-created, psychic, emotional and mental walls of privacy begin to peel off, one layer at a time. And it is just as well because there is help out there.

A recent college reunion comes to mind. There we were, the six of us, meeting for the first time as a group, after 1983. We travelled in cars, sat around dining tables, hung out in homes; there was no need for any pretence. Each of us had been through our private hells and heavens but in recalling those years, there was oneness, a sense of acceptance and belonging which was ultimately very empowering.

We live today in a world obsessed with privacy but the truth is it is not even practically feasible anymore. Picture for one moment, the airport body scans, the online personal data storage, the chat rooms, the social network sites….what privacy are we talking about?

So reach out and hold a hand, reach out and shake a shoulder, reach out and wipe a tear, reach out and belong! 

There is great liberty in the loss of privacy.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Middle class

This one is the latest whipping boy of TV anchors and panelists

It was the Anna phenomenon that threw the Indian middle class into the limelight. For the first time since 1947, a swathe of humanity lifted itself up and marched into the Ramlila grounds and the waiting TV cameras. Until that moment, the lot had remained invisible; they did not vote, they did not agitate, they did not terrorize, they did not steal, they went about their business quietly and stayed off the national radar.

The one thing that fuelled and jettisoned them was the phenomenon of liberalization. While the visible India was busy looting the exchequer and wheeling and dealing and living it up, the middle class was adding to its investments in real estate, their children’s education, savings plans and personal entrepreneurship. The prospect of a dispensable income, a comfortable life style and future security were factors driving this relentlessly working mass of humanity. Through all this lifetime of drudgery and thrift, their glue and anchor remained the family unit. Needless to say, one generation’s drive prompted a saga of growth and opportunity and evolution for the successive progeny.

It is no secret that India’s growth rate spiked and so did her international image.  From a dowdy, meek, terribly diffident and nice body language, Indians made the ballistic switch to designer wear and attitude, going so far as to begin to wear their provinciality with a panache, some of it stoked by the “Dabangs and Piplis”  from Bollywood. Nowhere was this metamorphosis more evident than on the cricket field where the polite guys of yore had transformed into cocky, finger waggling images of defiance.

Today, when this newly confident middle class is blamed for being selfish and impervious to its social responsibility, I wonder at this surprising and misdirected demonization. In his recent interview with Barkha Dutt on NDTV, Javed Akhtar trashed the trending “anger” of the middle class, calling it a very self-oriented and self-focussed concern. He said the educated and professional India was supporting the Anna movement for her selfish reasons and that no one was actually bothered about the deprived and the poor. It is another matter and perhaps Javed Saab is not aware, that a sizable number of this reviled middle class’s children are choosing to shun dazzling salaries for social activism, based in no mean measure upon a sense of security provided by the consolidation efforts of their parents.

It would therefore not be far fetched to say that this segment’s “selfishness” in fact makes up the stable, productive, sane fabric of India. They are the class that harbour and nurture the “value system” of the nation. 

India’s middle class has had no help from any quarter. They are entirely self-made. They are also the component of India’s population that stand the most to lose, with the greatest value at stake. It is their hard earned prosperity that struggles to survive in the shadow of bribes and corruption and it is their peace of mind and a good night’s sleep that thrashes around under the ever present cloud of a national guilt over India’s disadvantaged.

The simple question to ask: Is it the people’s selfishness or the policy paralysis that got us the Standard and Poor “junk rating?” The key to improving our SP rating is simple; clear the long pending Parliamentary Bills, enforce our phenomenal laws, stop robbing the state coffers and leave the rest to India’s middle class. Rather than vilify the golden goose, the country ought to work to make it easy and possible for more Indians to come into the fold of this enterprising and ambitious section.

Aaja aaja jind shamiyane ke taley
Aaja zariwale neelay aasmaan ke taley
Jai ho! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

State secret

The metal rimmed anti- glare aviator frames a visage that has already been claimed. Not by the Ray Bans company, no, but by an entire world of course mates, colleagues, unit officers and the service.

It is a dazzling world of comaraderie and esprit de corps, light enough to keep you in a giddy, happy and bubbly cloud. There is a self-perpetuating culture of complete denial of any trials or tribulations that has you smiling through the ride on the merry-go-round. It is after all, life in a community thriving on decorum, mutual trust and an equitable life style.

There is a condition though! This world of uniforms and protocol precludes any startling non-conformity. You have got to align yourself with the mores. A ripple here and there will be absorbed but a storm; now that would be tough!

Against this public bonhomie and cheer, there are private lives in progress behind closed doors. It is feasible that he walked out of the bedroom door, pillow under one arm, on the baby’s first night home; early morning briefing to attend. It would not be unusual for him to have more in common with his Squash buddy than he has with you. Have there been long walks he would not open up during, about his world away from home, in the guarded, restricted entry area? Do you remember coming home from late night parties that ended in deep slumber for him and matchsticks in the eyes for you?

You can tell. There are signs. Lying around the house will be some rolled up towels, arranged alongside the bedclothes. These are to ease out strained necks, courtesy their heavy duty helmets. Are there strange, cylindrical, blue wooden boxes stacked in the store? A supply of narrow, orange coloured towelling scarves? There most certainly will be a monkey cap on the bedside during the winters, such a turn off in bed but his Achilles heel is in the ear!

The indications run into the social hours. Look out for a pair of hands, simulating motion in the air with hand paddles and adroit wrists. An involuntary flexing of the neck muscles; a row of four deep glasses to work around the bar closing hours; mess bills that have not been vetted; a lofty disdain for financial planning and future projections; the ability to be content in the moment and a strange, juvenile devil-may-care charm!!

Is it a state secret that the man flies a fighter plane?

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I have climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-spilt clouds-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of-wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space.
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December 1941 

Sunday, April 22, 2012


A 24 year old Indian student was shot dead near the Boston University in USA early on the 19th April. He was a grad student from Odisha, nearing completion of his degree at the University’s School of Management. As the news went live on transcontinental wires, my thoughts flew to his parents and the excruciating process they would have been through to send their son to Boston, in the first place.

With news of the tragedy all over the TV screens, it would have been tempting to view it as an isolated case, but for the fact that in the recent past, there have been similar reports involving violence with students of Indian origin on American campuses. Is there a pattern, a trending of any nature, one is compelled to wonder? Nothing in the cyber space or on the electronic and print media seems to suggest any specific thrust to these unfortunate incidents thus far. One waits and watches, more so if your child also happens to be living and studying in that part of the globe where these knells issue from.

During the international parents’ orientation at Princeton University on 31Aug 2011, security came up informally but strongly over interaction and tea. My Romanian student volunteer described the campus in terms of being an orange bubble that most students rarely stepped out of in the typical term. She also assured me that the open driveways and walking paths were covered with cameras. The most they had received email alerts about were raccoons in the extensive foliage!  She furrowed her brow and surmised that indeed there had been a warning over a strange man of eighty five years, having been sighted on the leafy campus but she was quick to add that she could easily have outrun this dinosaur, in the unlikely event of any encounter happening.

I summoned my impressions of the campus as I sat watching news of the Boston University tragedy on NDTV. There were trees, plenty of ivy growing on ancient walls around Princeton’s historic grounds; the six residential colleges were spread out on a 500 acre campus. Two things had struck me over those three days of being on campus. There were bubbles within bubbles, students moved in tightish clumps, seemingly oblivious to others around them although, I remember seeing cheerful, chatty gatherings as well. The front doors of the residential spaces made an impression on me for appearing to be sound, air and water proof, they did shut with quite a clanky, heavy and final sounding click.

In the evening, we were with her on Skype. The connection was poor and I struggled to keep the rising panic down as her flickering image and shaky voice ebbed in and out. There was an urge to bring up security concerns but a decision was taken to touch upon it via email. It is anyway a standard question and she has consistently maintained that she has not felt threatened in any manner whatsoever. In fact, in her nine months living in Serbia and moving around Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia, she said she had felt safer than she did back home in India!

There has been a dramatic increase in the percentage of Indian students on American campuses from 1 to 3 % to nearly 13% now. There are bound to be concerns. 

Is there a gun culture on American campuses, for one? Does the recent global economic shift lend itself to a social pathology? Do the Indian students go well prepared to take care of themselves in spaces that are obviously challenging them in risky ways? 

Friday, April 20, 2012


Come June and my once chubby, toasty, gurgling, burbling baby will be joining the Indian workforce.

This will be the grand finale to five long years of mandatory work at the leading law school of the country; five long years away from home, evolving in her own world of events and people; five long years of self-analysis, self-awareness and self-direction.  It truly will be that momentous pause, the hard earned intermission in the reel of her life and ours.

There has been frenetic discussion and engagement lately, over her future plans, through all of which, snapshots have lunged at me, unbidden, unsought…there we are, her father and I, purchasing a Kurlon mattress for her. I recall our walk about town, buying the green blanket and other domestic necessities. It seems as close as yesterday; we were at the Officers’ Mess and preparing to leave for the law school orientation day. I have a clear memory of her school structure, the gate, the library, the canteen and most of all, her room. How we agonized over the upper berth being too close to the ceiling fan and its debilitating effect on her predisposition to cold. There was the cell phone to organize, the bakery we checked out, the chemist that stocked her specific shampoo!  

A pair of baggy grey Capri, black T-shirt and her heavy hair looped in a loose pony… that was my last image of her as we bid that first goodbye, on way to the airport for the flight back, without her. I had such a crushing sense of leaving behind an entire chapter of our lives together, the terrifying realization that while we kept a hound’s nose for her security at home, here we were, leaving her behind in a strange place, completely on her own; the tears refused to stop.

My memory of her first visit home and the subsequent return are the sharpest. From then on, the arrivals and departures merged into one serial flash. She was growing up in multitudinous ways, acquiring her own, personal frames of references and traversing both her inner and outer milestones. The rapidly growing separation montage filled up with safely reached messages, touching base on health and money and the all well calls. I began a daily good night message ritual that gave me a reassuring sense of connection. Come to think of it, there shall be no more exits and entries from the NLS gate soon though, no more cocking of the ears every time Bangalore figured in news within earshot.

It is time to celebrate. The small, compact, struggling bundle I held in my arms is setting sail into the real world. The skin on my arms still feels her trusting, wriggling weight. My ears will always resonate with her baby chatter. To me, her abiding visage will be the tiny, freshly massaged and scrubbed Bushka lying next to me, mouth half open.

It is with pride that I wait to see her start out on her first, completely independent chapter of life. And what is charging at me is Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull; when he discovers the technique of flying, he says, “How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”

Time to fly Bushka! It is time to fly!!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not me

I feel woolly in the head, often times a day. It’s a light, airy feeling, of a benevolent happy detachment, if pushed to analyse. Those are silent, reflective moments I break free in, to float away from the immediate so I can observe the circus in action, all around. I watch the cast, you and me and those others, going about our businesses, as though with the complete certainty that we are here for keeps, alive for eternity. 

And then my eyes catch sight of the inanimate world around, more powerful for its relative permanence of existence.

I see the tables, the buildings, the roads, the trees…they all existed before my arrival and will outlive me by years. It is odd how my thoughts turn to a world I did not inhabit while watching movie songs of the 50s on TV. Where was I? The world pretty much was alive and kicking without me and will endure long after I am gone.

And yet, paradoxically, it is omnipresent, the sense of misplaced arrogance in human interaction and engagement, all of it reflecting our seeming belief in the chimera of personal immortality. I am banging out this post on my laptop at this instance, secure in the knowledge that I will be around for a while, to continue posting, to continue teaching, to continue family affairs. I call it the “not me” syndrome. Every one of us is infected with this one. It is Mother Nature’s way of ensuring we can go on with the tough business of living, secure in the belief that it is “not me” Lord Yamaraj has come calling for. Not this once, at any rate!

And so we go trampling over, ignoring, hurting, dismissing at times; acknowledging, engaging, appreciating on rarer occasions. Misfortune falls on other folks, not me. Disaster comes calling on strangers, not me. Acts of omission are foreign features, not mine. Not me. Not me. Not me.

This reassuring self-deception is one of destiny’s beautiful sleight of the hand. It is the anaesthesia that numbs us just about, so that life can be gotten through in one whole piece.

I can’t even begin to imagine the heart break of all our grand ventures, fantastically laid plans, massive egotistic trips; all of it hinging on such transitory and brief human voyages.
It is just as good that we have this voice in the head sibilating, “Not me!”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Public policy

One of the things that tears at me is the guilt that the girls may be growing up more alienated and cynical about the government of the land they were born in, than I ever was.

It was enough once upon a time to have the government take care of economics and national security. On the infrequent occasions we ever spotted the leaders on the international stage, they appeared dignified and in control. The public intellectual spaces were filled with the literate renditions of editors and academicians. The country’s citizenry was not nearly as energetic and critical as it is today.

Democracy was spoken of as a gold dusted legacy, bequeathed us by lofty visionaries. We uttered words such as republic, people and common good with a hushed reverence. I was certain there was no feasible form of government other than the God given government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Along came the concept of self-fulfilment; the flighty but compelling notion of realizing personal potential and to the fullest at that. Like the dormant Sierra Blanca prodded to life, an array of brand new "quality of life" issues spewed forth in full public view. Environment protection, a participatory democracy, the pacifist agenda, gender sensitivity, welfare state, human rights, arms reduction, energy renewal, terrorism management, nuclear policy; a whole lot came to be expected of the government and of each other. The powers had to keep the fuel prices down, prevent earthquakes, assure us jobs and food security, make us proud citizens of a world power and keep the enemy out.

The media quickly strapped up and came out in full regalia to report this transition. From that broadcast beaming on, I was never sure ever again if Aqseer and Asawari were indeed growing up in a world as twisted as the media made it out to be. It bothers me today that they have to see a lack of civic community spirit, a paucity of social trust. I do not want their public consciousness to be imbued with distrust, contempt and cynicism. I would rather they not be forced to either resign themselves to the mess, settle for the least of the evils or set out on the warpath with the sound of bugle.

I would have them believe instead, in the power of change. The power of public opinion is like the sleeping python, I want to tell them, the deadly menace a promise only until the coil unfolds and begins to hiss. As enlightened citizens of the country, they would do well to be prepared to tell their government to spend their money with responsibility, represent their interest and behave in a trustworthy manner. It is only a myth that the present form of government cannot be restructured. Other democracies have been talking for years in terms of limiting serving terms and balancing budgets, shifting power to the states and setting up electronic citizen meetings, for starters.

May the young therefore be, utterly sophisticated citizens of the world today? May they have so strong a sense of ties to their country and community that between a prayer for the nation and a reshaped public policy, they settle only and only for the latter! 

Monday, April 16, 2012

News cynic

Inertia is a lot more than an inevitable, insipid physical phenomenon. It can have a definitive effect on the directions our lives take, unbidden and well hidden under the busy layers of daily living. It is quite possible that years may slip past, marching along to music that was little more than the blahs! And then, unexplained, unplanned, quite out of the firmament, there will come a bolt. Voila! A book, a chance conversation, a quotation on some bulletin board, a meter of a poem, some bit from a blaring song and there is a click! A curtain rises, the fog clears and the vantage point shifts.

For half my life I had been a fan of the Indian media. It was the fourth pillar; their brand of investigative journalism the only fearless feature of a toady and mangy milieu. The admiration began with Arun Shourie and the fiery paper that Indian Express was under his executive-editorship. It was almost as though he pioneered the scandal and corruption exposes. Then came Nalini Singh’s “Ankho Dekhi”. I had a fascination for “Newstrack”, the news video journal. Those were the days of Khushwant Singh’s Illustrated Weekly and Doordarshan’s mannequinesque news readers, laden with Lakme foundation and the flower in the hair.

Staid, lumbering and a trifle bland, it was understood that barring the likes of DAVP (Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity) and Doordarshan, the media would function as a watch-dog of democracy, creating awareness among India’s illiterate multitude and fulfilling the responsibility of social development. Those were simpler, if poorer days. The country was not caught up in any great creative spiral and there was a semblance of faith in the distant leadership. I would go so far as to say there was a delusional sense of security that things were being taken care of.

The leaves turned soon and how. The red light came on for me rather late in life, thanks to a continued, if naïve faith in the purpose and power of media. It was with General V K Singh’s saga, the vicious denouement of the Armed Forces in press and on TV that the bile rose into my throat. The hate speeches on panel discussions instead of informed debates, the haranguing of the Chief by anchors who became judge, jury and executioner, the complete disregard for decency and maturity in reporting….my decade long media inertia melted in the blasé heat of breaking news and inflammatory headlines.

I no longer watch news with a sense of awe struck pride. Mine is a jaundiced scrutiny. I am looking for shoddy research, the stakeholder’s slant, tailored views or just plain mischief.

Our media is growing to be the biggest challenge to the idea of a nation, is what I have come to increasingly believe.

There are issues.  Is media ownership ever going to be a public trust like it was meant to? Is there going to be some degree of self-regulation on any channel or publication? Is the media accountable to anyone at all, other than the TRP ratings? Is it promoting a public sphere? Is there doctoring of the news going on for vested interest holders? Are the news people creating an atmosphere of suspicion, rather than trust in the democratic institutions of the country?

TV news has had an unfettered run for far too long. It is time perhaps to bring in what they have been holding at bay all this while: the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Power Point

It does not happen often. When it does, everything is right with the world. For hours later, I feel a sense of levitation and there is a lightness of being. It is as though I am where I am meant to be. There are no doubts, no hesitation, only a total sense of control and conviction.
But first, an admission!

I have to admit, I am pretty bland in a small group. The banter does not hold me; I am too serious a person, in thoughts and words to flow along with the easy and casual social snacking that goes on in your typical group. But put me in a one to one or better still, a one to hundred plus and…….

It was the 7th April, International  Woman’s day celebration at the Akshardham temple. I was one of the two speakers invited and the topic assigned to me for a forty five minute slide show was, “Wither our destiny? In our own hands or up there, in our stars? ” My brief included three simple points: the audience would be an all-women, mixed gathering; medium of interaction would primarily be Hindi and I could expect to address a strength of some 150 or so. There was also a concise concept note on the topic.

I began by fiddling. Now I take the look of any Power Point presentation I do, very seriously. The template, the colours, the text style, the entire package has to excite me. I like the slides designed around an audience appropriate theme. And that is precisely what I did the first few days of receiving the assignment. I played with colours and backgrounds and the objects on screen.  

One serious shut eye session of silence in order to visualize the recipients and the slides began to fill up. It took time and I laboured. Having enough to say has never been an issue; if anything, I have the disease of not knowing when and where to stop. There is always a frame I can give a border to or a table that can be made more arresting or text that can be highlighted…..I have to force myself to halt work.

It is what transpired on stage that I came away with, like all those other times. The thrill of connecting with others, the sure knowledge that they heard you, the certainty that something in the content or manner of what you said moved them, the bulls eye, decisive ‘ping’ of the confirmation that the presentation found its mark.

I value and cherish that experience greatly. It is perhaps the thrill of a human connect that all live performers describe as one of the greatest “highs” on stage. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Gift

I am the seventies generation. Childhood entertainment consisted of movies and Sunday trips to children’s park. Our eating out was made up of the occasional softie in Civil Lines after the matinee or a rolled newspaper cone of murmura and matar at the park, where our favourite swing was the concrete elephant you entered from the tail end and slid out along the trunk slide.

My memory insists that Nutties came in a plumper, richer, weightier version and that the choc-bar tasted heavenly, what with the thicker layer of brown guarding the languid nutritious creamy white, inside. It was only during a particularly extravagant stretch that one bought roasted peanuts with the accompanying packet of “masala” in the winters. Mangola, Fanta and Campa vied with milk-soda for our attention. The rare shopping for ready-made food articles consisted of hard core sweets such as jalebi or besan ka ladoo.

Another delicacy that springs to mind is the huge, pale green, juicy, slightly tangy “peru”, sliced in four quarters with a rusty looking knife that had obviously been busy during the day. A dash of “chatpata masala” and we would be walking off, the happier and the richer. Idli dosas came much much later, pizzas and burgers were iconic events and as for French food and Chinese fare, well, unheard of in those days.

But there was the first Phillips Turntable model, brought home triumphantly, one particular ambitious day in Allahabad. Not to forget the 33 RPM, 66 RPM and 75 RPM discs of “Shor”, “Khel Khel Mein” and “Caribbean Music”. We also went with Beeji for the religious rage of those times, “Jai Santoshi Maan”. The orange lick lolly cost 25 paise and homemade egg ball and sponge puddings were our manna from heaven. Golden red “paranthas” with mango pickle and a glass, not a cup, a glass of hot tea was my idea of a gourmet meal.

Dad would drive us to Kathak lessons and sit out that one hour in a Russian language class closeby. I was in College when he took us out for a family meal at a restaurant, just for the feel! There were the calling ons, the birthday parties, the Club evenings, the festival celebrations in the Officers’ Mess, the cultural shows and the picnics. 

It is now, that I am more than my life’s half way home, having done with my own active parenting, there is a break; long enough to muse over the phenomenal gifts our parents gave us.

The conclusion is that by far, the most precious, priceless, worth a King’s ransom gift they gave us was their love for each other. It is this mutual respect and support that found reflection in our happy memories. It gave us a tremendous sense of security to know that our parents were committed to and cared for one another.

That’s really it then. To all parents and parents to be; there is no greater favour you can do your kids than to love each other.