The High Road

Okay I am freezing as I type this so I am going to make it worth my while. And yours, dear angry-feedback reader at Bluber (cab service company name concealed for privacy). Your job must be tough enough without me dumping another poorly written poor review on you. And so, I am going to try to make it worth your while as well.

So here goes: The cab stank of marijuana.

2

Something he should probably have thought of.

Like, enough to leave me coughing from delayed second-hand smoke level, stank. The cabbie had the windows rolled down when I boarded, so I assume he wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fragrant interiors of his car either. Which brings us to the question – was it the driver who relished the herbs or a previous occupant of the cab?

I tried hard to stare into the eyes of the former the entire journey to discern any signs of crimson through his rear view mirror. He might be confused about my degree of interest in his eyes so if he has given me a 5 star rating, we all know where that came from.

However, to be fair, apart from some suspiciously slow-mo blinking, I have little proof to go by. Unless you count the under speed limit driving and complete absence of road rage, which, frankly, for any self-respecting Indian driver, is pretty damning evidence of a DUI.

1

This test would’ve been much easier if we had Stop signs in India

To give the man the benefit of doubt though, I do suggest you also check up on the trail of cabbie feedback my predecessor in the Bluber is leaving elsewhere in their wake. If (s)he is consistently getting 5 star ratings, we all know where that is coming from.

Which brings us to me. Right now. In the backseat of this car, inhaling a mixture of banned substances and B.O. Typing this review on my mobile with shivering fingers on a cold winter night, with my windows rolled down rather suicidally – in part, to keep my access to oxygen open, and in part, hoping to sober up our man Mr Sunil here.

As tempted as I am by this under-speed limit driving sans references to people’s mothers and sisters – and believe me this level of gentlemanliness is unprecedented in my past experiences, not only with cabbies, but nearly the entire male race – I cannot help but worry about Mr Sunil’s reaction times in case of Indian-style driving by our less-gentlemanly brethren around us.

I would, therefore, urge you to include instructions for Bluber drivers to not indulge in substance abuse, nor allow substance abuse by Bluber customers to go unreported in your training manual. Because, apparently, that was not obvious already.

***

PS: I request you not to Nihalanize this situation and ask how I recognize the smell of marijuana in the first place. I have functional olfactory senses. And I live in Delhi. Near IIT Delhi, to be precise. Case closed.

The Feminism of Dangal

As late as I was on the scene, I watched Dangal last night. Possibly the last movie of 2016 that I will watch in a theatre (barring a miracle that results in me making it for an unearthly-timed afternoon show of La La Land), and definitely the first one of 2017. And what a way to ring in the new year it was!
dangal
I have enjoyed several movies that came out last year, and strongly believe that Bollywood is evolving and how. As we live and learn, movies that we 90s kids swooned at and swore by seem increasingly cringeworthy in respect of their treatment of female characters, even the purportedly stronger ones (think Simran and Anjali). Movies of today, on the other hand, are decidedly making progress in the right direction. And while Bollywood stars and starlets still avoid the F word like the plague, the moviemakers are definitely getting more and more feminist in their fresh brand of storytelling.
At a time like this, when mainstream art and culture are still evolving, I fear we do a huge disservice to the cause with acerbic op-eds nitpicking minor aspects on which, in our opinion, the artists daring to lead this movement, failed. This is not to say that higher standards must not be aspired to. This is just to say that this new species of storytellers must be respected and acknowledged for the gumption it takes to make art that is socially accepted and commercially viable without pandering to the follies of our legacy.
To me, Dangal is a shining example of what we need right now from cinema on three critical accounts: it is, one, essentially a feminist story told in a way that, two, makes it popular among the masses and, three, makes money for its producers. A movie that pleases every purist among us but is watched by few others is pointless. A movie that is a commercial blockbuster but reinforces the misogyny of the masses is a bhai flick.
Two girls, born in a rural household in a State infamous for its misogyny, are disappointments to their family even before they take their first breath. If their journey to becoming the pride of their nation on an international platform is not a feminist story, I don’t know what is.
1480012222735-dhaakad-song-from-aamir-khans-dangal-bollywoods-anthem-on-women-empowerment
So what if the dream was their father’s to begin with? Worse outcomes have come out of parental pressure than international gold medalists. Which, by the way, is not an outcome possible without the next generation growing to own the dream whole-heartedly as their own. Offer this supposed liberation from their father’s dream to Geeta and Babita Phogat and I’d be willing to bet a 5-pointer at their hands they won’t be pleased.
So what if the word ‘nation’ appeared in the vision of Mahavir Phogat for his daughters? I am eternally perplexed by the notion that feminism and nationalism are divorced concepts. If a woman fights in the army for her nation out of her own choice, isn’t that a feminist?
Who decided that the feminism of someone who graduates from being destined to be a child bride and expected to be a boy-popping machine, to becoming an international sportswoman in track pants, is second in class to that of a business suit clad marketing executive or a skirt wearing videographer?
I am not one for extremism in any garb – be it nationalism or anti-nationalism – and I am all for the Phogat women and their father, who led the way for many more girls of Haryana to dare to imagine a future beyond traditional roles slapped on their fate by society. The first to tread a new path are the ones who face the most challenges.
“Idhar tauji apni duty kar rahe thhe, udhar gaon vaale apni.” 
We urban folks who think we’re sick of the ‘log kya kahenge’ syndrome ain’t seen nothing yet. Not until we experience the intrusiveness of life in a rural community. It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. In rural India, it literally is the village that acts like a family raising a child. And then, like all families, feels entitled to an opinion on how these children go on to live their lives. Mahavir Phogat must have faced all the hushed and loud criticism shown in the movie, of the way he was raising his daughters.
For standing up to that criticism (or even, for sometimes ignoring it), Mahavir Phogat is a feminist. For not succumbing to societal pressure on his journey of incubating his daughters’ talent, he is a feminist. For facing all the challenges that come with being ‘different’ in any society at any time, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For, after having choosen their father’s dream willing as their own as adults, working tirelessly towards it with such dedication against all odds, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For not giving up in the face of setbacks in an environment characterized by general apathy towards sports in general, and sportswomen in particular, the Phogats are feminists.
dangal-1
Theirs was a story worth being told. And for telling that story in a way that earned the story a mass appeal and set the PayTM registers ringing at the box office, Dangal, to me, is not only the best, but also the most feminist movie of 2016.

How my daily commute is the Ultimate Test of humanity. And how we’re all failing.

They say a great pain has to be the driver behind great art. Well, my feet hurt like hell. So here goes nothing. An ailing spouse whose hacking cough brought on by a too-cool-for-sweaters syndrome keeps you up 2 nights in a row. A bipolar housemaid who resigns and then responds next week to an ad for the vacancy thus created (true story). A 24×7 job that kicks all popular notions of “sarkaari naukari” in the gut. A pair of lovepigeons that just wouldn’t stop shitting, birthing, and that thing that comes before birthing, in your precious balcony. Yes, that’ll about do for a particularly artistic morning. Which brings me to where I am. Standing in the Delhi metro on my way to work. Admittedly, it is no Mumbai local (which is my personal favorite definition of purgatory). But we in the Delhi metro, have our own jostling body odours,  edgy tempers, and seasonal flu germs feasting on a human buffet of respiratory tracts. And, yes, feet trampling on feet. No prizes for guessing I lost on that elusive prize of resting one’s buttocks. Some days, though, the battle for the buttock rest just doesn’t seem worth fighting for. Correction. Make that most days. The non-existence or eventually fated breakdown of a queue foretells a stampede a la zombie attack as soon as the doors slide open. People shove, push and race mercilessly, unmindful of women, children, senior citizens and (I swear this happens) even people on crutches along the way. PA announcements pleading people to “Please allow passengers on the train to alight first” might as well be airing war cries, for all the good they do. The man who sits on a ladies’ seat is treated like a dog, the woman who makes him get up is eyed like a bitch. Makes you wonder if it is all that hard for us all to be humans.

Being Human(?)

Or may be this is how humans are programmed. May be our garb of humanity (by which I mean the notion that humans are capable of sensitivity for fellow beings) is a tenderly balanced house of cards, on a table of convenience. When the going gets tough, the people get rough. All it takes is a set of well-aligned disincentives. Pit high demands against limited resources and voilà, humanity becomes passé. Makes you worry about the future of the planet. Is this is a worldwide phenomenon or a special characteristic of Indians alone? I have commuted to work everyday for months in the London underground. I have seen orderly queues on the platform, patiently waiting for passengers aboard to alight first. For real. Crowds perform the role of a social audit, shaming any commuter who attempts to break this decorum. Is that a deeper cultural difference? Or is it just some cold demand-supply logic at work? If Indians were given enough seats, would they behave better? If Londoners were made to compete for a handful of seats, would they turn on one another too? There are exceptions, of course. Reassuring exceptions. The man who stands up for any visible lady standing, even at the other end of the compartment (My husband, by the way. #ProudWife.) The young girl who leaves her seat for an old lady. The lady who lets a woman carrying a child rest awhile. But there is still the majority that chooses to look the other way. Which pisses off the ones who don’t. During rush hour, squabbles and even fistfights are not uncommon. The male equivalent of cold stares and dirty looks in the ladies compartment.

Whose elbow is it anyway?

Whose elbow is it anyway?

***

What can we do about this?

 

A. Shaming the transgressors, London style: This strategy almost never works, given that one is almost always outnumbered by said transgressors. Which makes civil behavior the real transgression from the norm. Indians also have the amazing ability to react to shaming with aggression rather than shame. I should know. I once got yelled at by a guy for asking him to not throw a banana peel on the platform.

 

B. Gandhigiri:  Hum jahaan khade hote hain, line vahin se shuru hoti hai. Credits to Shri Bachchan for making civilized behavior uncool. The husband discovered the Gandhigiri way after strategy A failed spectacularly in the face of these everyday “heroes” on the platform. He started offering them the place in front of him in the queue. Day 1: He tried it on two men. One mumbled a sheepish apology, and took his place at the back of the queue. The other proudly accepted the offer, glad that the world was finally giving him his royal due. 50% success rate. Better than A, but unsustainable across people and time. Plus, an added risk of driving an aspiring Gandhian to violence.

 

C. Enforcement: The presence of security guards at every door of the incoming metros makes Rajiv Chowk the most orderly metro station in Delhi. Which is not an accident, as Rajiv Chowk is the most populous station of Delhi, with footfalls comparable to your average airport. If the Indian crowd were left to their own devices, things there would descend to a riot in no time.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi's "orderly" pride.

Rajiv Chowk: Delhi’s “orderly” pride.

But is it reasonable to expect security at every station? Would we happily bear the fare hike it entailed? Worse, what does it say about us as a people that it takes burly guys with whistles and sticks to make us behave like civilized adults?

 

D. (Cultural) DNA: What is it about Indian – or indeed human – nature that it takes so little to make us behave like savages? One could say we are biologically wired for natural selection. Survival of the fittest. That could be an acceptable argument if we were playing The Hunger Games. But how come these basic instincts start dictating our behavior even when the stakes are as small as a buttock rests?

***

Is there a systemic solution to this? More sophisticated urban planning? Fines and punishments? Awareness and behavior change campaigns? Design solutions for public transport utilities? Better moral education at school level, inculcating a sense of empathy, compassion for our fellow beings or even basic civility at an early age? Or will nothing less than whistles and sticks work on us? Everyone likes to park their behinds. But let’s not use that as an excuse to trample on our own humanity. Trust me, it looks nothing like my feet.

An Honest Indian’s 10 Books List

The Facebook Fad of the season is “10 Books That Changed My Life”. Also known as, “Look How Intellectual I Am!” It is a great way to show your friends and family how you have read – and more importantly, finished reading – books that many of them secretly started reading but could never finish on account of falling into a deep pretentiousness-induced coma midway.

1. That Booker one.

I read the preface of that once. Gave me an inferiority complex I see a therapist about to this day.

2. Oh, I know that one. VS Naipaul wrote that.

Yay India! (and the people India drives away!)

3. Arundhati Roy ki book?

I didn’t read that because of our irreconcilable ideological differences (Also, referring to a dictionary 5 times per sentence was too much heavy lifting those days.)

4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

Pulled a muscle once picking this up at a bookstore. (Speaking of heavy-lifting.)

5. Which one is this? French hai kya?

*googles to make sure this shit actually exists and you’re not just making up words by this point*

6,7,8. Bong authors writing about eating Bong food and thinking Bong thoughts.

In Bengal.

9,10. Regional language books.

When did these become cool? How come I missed the memo?

{insert disclaimer about how 10 is too small a number to do justice to what an obnoxious pretentious twat you are}

 

So, it was about time some wrote this. Here is An Honest Indian’s 10-books List:

1. Harry Potter.

Okay just Chamber of Secrets. But I read that before the movies came out. I so hipster!

2. The Shiva trilogy.

Okay just the back blurbs. But I definitely plan to watch the movies. (Hrithik Roshan may play Shiva. READ that in ToI. Does that count?)

3. You Can Win.

‘Nuff Said.

4. One Night at a Call Centre. 

Erm, a “friend” recommended it.

5. Khushwant Singh ki non-veg jokes vaali book.

Tee Hee.

7. That book 3 idiots is based on.

8. That book Kai Po Che is based on.

9. I watch TVF videos.

That’s like AIB-for-intellectuals, no? Surely that counts.

10. Chacha Choudhary, Pinki, Super Commando Dhruv, and Agniputra Abhay.

Judge me, and a volcano will erupt somewhere. You know what I am talking about.

It might have escaped your notice, so let me helpfully point out that I skipped a number there. Congratulations. Now you know what honesty in an Indian looks like.

I tag my therapist.

image

To Babu or not to Babu, That is the question. – GradStory

Wrote for GradStory about the career choice of becoming a public servant. 

gradstory.in is a great idea whose time was long overdue. Here is the site in the words of the founders: “Our mission is simple: to create a platform for experiences to be shared. Gradstory is an organic website that allows graduates, young professionals and successful individuals to share their stories. Our endeavor is to allow you, our readers, to make informed choices about the future.”

And here are my humble bureaucratically-incorrect two bits on life in bureaucracy: http://www.gradstory.in/career-paths/upsc/

Distance Makes The Heart Go Monster

A long distance marriage is not easy. In fact, the only thing tougher is probably a short distance marriage. 

Let’s face it. Marriage is not easy. I am just 3-months old in the business and even I know that.

image

Once upon a time, my husband and I were happily unmarried and in a long-distance relationship. Topics of our long chats on the phone usually ranged from the romantic weather in either of our cities, to world economics, to congratulating ourselves on being a couple that discusses world economics. So erudite. Cut to being in a long-distance marriage and our conversations are now shorter, more to-the-point, and about dinner. 

Did you eat?

No.

Y u no eat?

I will, now.

Okay then, talk to you later.

Yeah. Bye.

It is not that the courtship period was all rose-tinted. We used to drive each other up the wall even back then. But that was usually because of a mismatch in our views of deep stuff, like the meaning of life, or what the next UPSC reform should be. (Like I said, so erudite. What an obnoxiously smug pair we were.)

Today, this is a sample conversation that gets the passions running high:

Me: Did the maid come today?

Him: Yes, but she didn’t clean.

Why not?

I told her she can clean on alternate days. Our house doesn’t get so dirty everyday anyway.

Say whaa…?

Oh, and I gave her that Rs 10,000 advance she was asking for. She promised she will pay back.

I am trying that Jedi choking thing right now. Do you feel any difficulty breathing?

His boss famously said to him on getting our wedding invitation, “Women change after marriage.” It is a prized part of his arsenal to be used whenever I go astronomically ballistic. So, obviously, I hear it on a weekly basis. This, when I am 2000 kms away from all the funny smells that I know will welcome me back home.

But all is not lost. Every now and then, some politician will say something uncharacteristically stupid. Or one of our seniors will spout a particularly deep insight about Life, the Civil Services and Everything. And, BSNL call drops notwithstanding, we will find ourselves entangled in a long animated conversation about it. (Sometimes, my Husband The Geek will even point out exactly how long, down to two decimal points.) 

Then, suddenly, a knowing silence. We both can hear the other silently grinning.

And for just a euphoric little while, we feel unmarried again. 

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

A Tale of Two Cities

Those who are in my social / social media circle would be painfully aware by now that I have been managing a sustainable transport campaign over the past few months. The aim of our campaign is to spread awareness about non-motorized and public transport. But I can well imagine and understand that some of my unwitting audience may have felt irked by the incessant promotion I did. If you are one of those people, I apologize for the bother. And I am writing this post for you.

This is the story of two people whose paths never crossed, but who are inextricably linked now in my memory.

***

When I first began this campaign in late 2013, I reached out to sustainable transport activists across the country hunting for stories of successful initiatives for us to document and showcase. That was how I “met” (and by “met” I mean exchanged emails with) Kadambari.

kadambari

Kadambari Badami was around my age, and had been doing some amazing work in making the streets of Chennai more walkable for the communities living there. I did not know her personally, but found her enthusiasm for my campaign encouraging.

Here is an excerpt from the very first email she wrote to me:

“Dear Mahima, This is a wonderful initiative on the part of DD News! We would be happy to participate and help put something together. Do let me know what we can do.

Warm regards,

Kadambari”

Last week, Kadambari passed away in a road accident in Bangalore. I had never seen her, nor met her, but somehow it felt like losing a friend.

***

I got married recently. Like most others, my big fat Indian wedding too was a celebration with friends and family coming together to shower their love and blessings on my husband and me. Having lived away from home for the past 10 years, it felt like homecoming. I was rediscovering my own family members – the people some of my cousins had grown up to become, and the people my elders had always been, little known to me. I realized my family was a heady mix of interesting people and swore to stay in better touch.

The day after the wedding, my Mamaji (maternal uncle) met with a fatal road accident on his way to work. He had danced with us the day before, had participated enthusiastically in the wedding rites, had blessed us. And suddenly all we were left with were memories. He was my mother’s youngest sibling.

mamaji

He is survived by his wife – one of the strongest women I have ever had the honour of knowing, two beautiful children, and lots of love.

***

Death is a reality. Our love for someone may be unlimited, but their time in this world is limited. When faced with our mortality, we must accept it as the way of nature. But what we must never accept as natural is untimely loss by agents of our own creation.

It may seem like progress to us when we buy a shiny new car. It may seem like development when a new flyover is inaugurated in our city. It may seem like welcome respite when a road to our workplace is widened. But what all this really does is make roads unsafer for us and our loved ones.

The “average car occupancy” in Delhi is just above 1 person per car. A bus can carry around 60 people in it. Imagine the street space one bus takes on the road. Now imagine the street space 60 cars take.

street space

To make space for these 60 car users, the government builds big flyovers and wider roads. Which makes these roads even more unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists and car users themselves.

The common Indian does not, unlike car manufacturers, have a lobby to fight for him or her.

***

I usually do not share matters of personal joy or grief on public fora as a matter of policy. But I thought there was a lesson here. A variety of them, in fact: “Our time is limited. Live life to the fullest. Love unconditionally. Forgive and forget.” The choice of lesson you take away from this is entirely yours.

Here is the lesson I took away.

I try not to be the reason behind another car on my city’s roads unless absolutely unavoidable.

I now try to walk or cycle over short distances. I take the bus to work everyday. It is not easy. Sometimes, after a long day, as I wait at a bus stop endlessly and find myself wistfully thinking, “I’d have been home by now if I had gone by car.” When I walk, I have to deal with the dust, the pollution, the thoughtless bikers on the footpath and the occasional shoe bite. I find myself fantasizing about joining the people sitting in air-conditioned cars whizzing by.

When these thoughts make an appearance, I tell myself, “May be, me not taking the car today saved a life. May be it was my life. Or somebody’s loved one’s.”

And I find my commitment renewed.

Rest in peace, Mamaji and Kadambari.

Traffic Ab Bus Karo campaign videos are available at http://tinyurl.com/abbuskaro. Apologies, once again, to those who felt spammed during the campaign. Now you know why I had to do it.

***

Update: Please take 6 mins of your time to watch this wonderful video about how the road-fatalities-ridden Amsterdam became among the safest, greenest, most livable cities in the world.

See if you think that there is something you can do to make this happen in your city:

The Humble Cycle

Urban transport planning in most countries, including India, often ignores the cycling or walking man in favour of the swanky car driver. Here is a two part documentary I recently made on this subject. Apologies to the non-Hindi speaking crowd since the programme is basically in Hindi. However, most of the important interviews are in English (with Hindi subtitles). So there should be something for everyone here:

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

Comments and feedback welcome. Do share with people you know who would / should care about this issue. And pretty much anyone who uses roads!

Venice of the East

Alappuzha, nicknamed Allepey, is a small district in Kerela. With settlements along the banks of Kerela’s famous backwaters, and with the waterway being the primary mode of transportation for the locals, Allepey truly is the Venice of the East.

The backwaters and canals running through the middle of Allepey form the lifeline of the localites, who have set up their homes, shops, and various commercial establishments on the banks.

Another loving nickname attributed to the town is the “rice bowl of Kerela”. And true to its two famous nicknames, most of the population here is engaged in either rice cultivation or the houseboat manufacturing and service industry. The houseboats of Allepey are an experience of a lifetime.

Made out of a local coir body on a metal skeleton, the houseboats of Kerela are different from those of Kashmir in that they move. In fact, a ride up the canal to the mouth of the sea and back can take as much as an entire day. On board, the houseboat is equipped with every modern day housing comfort imaginable. There is a fully furnished air-conditioned bedroom complete with a television set, a well-stocked kitchette, and a deck that doubles up as a living room.

Here is the photo-feature about a trip down an Alappuzha houseboat:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

References:

The Elixir of the Gods

That is what Japanese lore calls it. A large proportion of India’s population is addicted to it. My parents cannot function without it. The public sector, in particular, seems completely dependent on it – to think, to celebrate, to mourn, to socialize – right from beginning of a day at work, to the end of a long day.

Any number of times, any number of cups – no Indian worth the name can have enough of his daily tea.

It is a great social leveler too, come to think of it. The industrialist and his consultant discuss business over a cup of green tea served in ornamental silverware sitting in the coffee shop of a fancy 5-star hotel, even as the construction laborer bonds with his co-workers after lunch over his daily glass of cutting chai at the roadside tea stall outside.

This is the story in pictures of the place your cup of heaven probably hails from. Situated in the Idukki district of Kerala, Munnar is a hill station on the Western Ghats, whose name literally means “three rivers”, referring to its location at the confluence of the three South Indian rivers of Madhurapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundaly.

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, being a source of 28% of the world’s production. 23% of this share comes from the hills of Munnar – second probably only to those of Assam. Some of the plantations are located at an altitude of 2200m above sea level – which makes Munnar the world’s highest located tea cultivation region.

The tea plant is actually a species of tree, which can live for around a 100 years. When left to grow, it will reach a height of 12–15m. The plants, however, are regularly pruned to a height of around 1m for effective plucking. Due to constant plucking, the bushes are permanently kept in the vegetative phase, ensuring sustainable harvesting.

The Munnar tea plantations trace their history back to the British era when the East India Company owned much of the tea plantations of the region. Post-independence, the ownership has been taken over by Indian private companies such as Tata Tea and Kanan Devan Tea Plantations Company Pvt Ltd. To the delight of tea lovers and tourists, Tata Tea recently opened a Tea Museum which houses curious photographs and machinery, each depicting a turning point that contributed to a flourishing tea industry, as seen today in the region.

For those not heading in that direction anytime soon, here is a brief story in pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

References for more information on the Munnar tea plantations:

http://munnar.in/php/teaEstates.php
http://www.world-unite.de/en/world-learner/tea-plantation-munnar-india.html
http://www.keralatourism.org/destination/destination.php?id=191979895
http://www.kdhptea.com/Environment.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munnar