Why you should give a shit about Toilet Ek Prem Katha

I must begin with a disclaimer that this is not a totally unbiased review. But then again, which review really is. I suppose when you buy into any review you are first agreeing to buy into the reviewer’s lens of looking at life.
So let me declare upfront that I am a major toilet lover. My said love for toilets has grown to insane levels over the past 2 years, when, as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission team, I spent the better part of my waking hours working on getting toilets to everyone in our country, and getting everyone in our country into toilets. And so, my review of a movie with the word ‘toilet’ in its title is bound to be far from objective.
That said, let us dive in to this (unpaid) advertisement of a review for TEPK.
You must watch Toilet Ek Prem Katha. I won’t even pretend to do a pros and cons analysis here. Except the pros. Pandering to this age of listicles, here is a list of 5 reasons you must watch TEPK:

1. Because Potty Jokes!

When you book a ticket for a movie dealing with a social issue, you pretty much expect humour to have gone down the toilet. Thankfully, when the social issue is toilets, there is always potty humour to the rescue. And TEPK leverages this abundantly.

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My favorite thing about this movie is that it will go down in history as a comedy film.

It is easy to make a dark and serious film about a dark and serious issue. The makers of TEPK, especially Akshay Kumar, have done a great service to this issue, however, by choosing to tell this story through a mass entertainer. The movie has all the makings of a mainstream Bollywood hit – songs, dances, action, romance, Sunny Leone – but my favourite part is its riotous humour.

Watch TEPK for the stomach ache this movie will give you laughing!

2. Because (Bhumi Pednekar)/2

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Bhumi Pednekar, or at least what remains of her since we last saw her in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, is awesome. (And I am not just saying this because the lady is my new personal weight loss hero.) What a star she is. Only 2 films old and already lights up the screen every time she is on it. Bhumi will make you fall in love with Jaya – the girl who dared ask for the toilet.

While Jaya falling for her stalker in the first half is no-doubt an opportunity lost for an iconic character (some behavior change needed within Bollywood on that front), my favorite Jaya dialogue in the movie comes after the interval. When asked who she holds responsible for her woes, she does not blame her spineless husband, or her headstrong (and very wrong!) father-in-law, or the villagers who have rallied against toilets because of their reluctance to break old habits. She blames every woman who will step out of the house again, tomorrow morning, lota in hand, to answer nature’s call. Topper Bahu, as she is scornfully called by the villagers who cannot fathom this insane demand of hers, truly essays the role real women of rural India are playing today in the Swachh Bharat movement.

We have all seen and heard enough of the narrative that portrays women as the poor abla naaris who get molested when they go out to defecate and who have to put nature’s call on hold till its dark outside due to a lack of toilets in their homes.

Jaya, and thousands of Jayas of India, have turned that narrative on its head. They play, not silent victims, but leaders in this movement of change. Refer this physically challenged lady sarpanch who made her village ODF, and this pregnant tribal woman who got her hands dirty and built her own toilet instead of waiting for a man to rescue her, and this absolute star of a woman who went to the extent of mortgaging her gold jewelry to get herself and ladies around her a toilet. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of a man’s support – none of these things are stopping these women champions in our country today – a fact that TEPK brings beautifully to light through Jaya.

Watch it for Bhumi. And for all the women she plays.

3. Because Liquid!

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Fellow fans of Pyaar ka Punchnama (part 1) would feel my enthusiasm for this one.

Sorry, Divyendu Sharma, you are a fine fine actor, but you will always be Liquid to us. Perhaps it is not possible to pay a higher compliment to an actor, than when a character they play becomes their identity to viewers.

Liquid stars in TEPK as, well, Liquid. His name is different, of course, but his character is just as in-your-face hilarious. His comic timing is perfect as always, and his dialogues are pure gold. As a result, not one line delivered by him goes without receiving an uproarious laugh by the audience.

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Watch the movie for Liquid Returns, PKP fans, especially those who, like me, jilted PKP2 because how dare they make a sequel without Liquid!

4. Because “Duniya Chali Mars Pe

TEPK is a wonderful mirror to our increasingly sanskaari samaaj, which is turning sanskaari in all the wrong ways. A lovely dialog from the movie is, “Sanskriti ko toh aapne bas Sanskrit bana ke rakh diya hai.”

In a time where the scriptures are quoted to justify the most ridiculous of stances – whether it is open defecation or the efficacy of Hanuman Chalisa in ghost extermination – TEPK depicts hilariously how the reciters of scriptures often bend their interpretations to retrofit them to the mood of the week.

Right from Frame 1, which shows this side-splitting wedding, TEPK never really eases on the satire on our so-called values that are inflicted on an unwilling disadvantaged majority to serve the interests of a handful.

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Watch TEPK if you think double standards and sheer logic-fails in the name of sanskaars is an insult to both logic and sanskaars.

5. Because Toilets!

Okay I am probably more excited about this last one than you. So let me draw a thoroughly presumptuous character analysis of you based purely on the fact that you are reading this article right now. Which gives me 2 data points about you: You are an English speaker and you have access to an internet connection. Here goes the extrapolation from there:

  • You are a city dweller who has never really known a life without a toilet.
  • You probably think that that one time you had to poop in the open that one time on a trek was an experience of a lifetime.
  • That story is probably your best party story to tell friends over drinks.
  • You will probably be found fondly reminiscing about that experience with your grandkids in a few decades.
  • And you probably think that everyone who does not have access to a toilet is a poor downtrodden person living in abject poverty.
  • You are probably imagining a crying malnutritioned kid with a visible ribcage even as you read this.

So far so correct?

I am sorry if I am wrong here, and even more sorry if, more likely, I am absolutely right and you hate me for it now. But the reason I may be right is that this was also me until I started working with the Swachh Bharat Mission a little under 2 years ago. The reality, as I have discovered now, is really surprising. Here are just some of the fascinating things I have learnt in this time:

Did you know that there is a village in India which is called the chaar choodi gaanv – meaning the four bangles village, a reference to the logo of Audi. Every family in this village owns at least one Audi. And every morning, the family sits in their air-conditioned Audi to drive to the village outskirts to take a dump.

 

Did you know that many families that have toilets use them sparingly, or not at all, out of fear of ‘who will clean it’? It is usually the women of the household who have to maintain a toilet, and often the entire family wistfully imagines the good old days of rampant casteism when certain communities would have done this job without complaint.

 

Did you know that there is a village in Rajasthan where every family owns an average of 13 cars, every house is a multi-storeyed pucca structure with lavish interiors, and yet no house has a toilet?

 

And did you know that many rural men think it is manly to go out for defecation, many women think it is their only time to gossip with their girl friends, and many people find a toilet too constricted when compared to the open air arena where they usually do their business with natural ventilation?

 

At the same time, were you aware that over 1000 children die in our country everyday due to diseases that spread due to open defecation, such as diarrhea? This is equivalent to 2 jumbo jets full of small children crashing every day. Imagine if one such accident actually happened – imagine the hue and cry, the media coverage, the demands for resignations of Ministers. And yet, this happens quietly on a daily basis and we hear nothing about it.

The two points I am trying to make here are that (1) open defecation is a problem that goes beyond just the ickiness of shitting in the open, and (2) that it is not always people who don’t have a choice that practice it. There are many in our country who choose to defecate in the open. TEPK tells us the story of one such family.

And this, to me, is the most important reason you should not only go watch TEPK, but why you should tell all your friends and family to watch it. Send you driver, your housekeeper, your cook to watch the movie with their families – fund their tickets if you have to. Drive business towards this film. Make it a commercial success, so that more mainstream actors and filmmakers start telling such stories, until there are no more stories like this left to tell in our country.

My salute to this film crew and to everyone who buys a TEPK ticket.

Watch it because you give a shit!

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HIMMF: Sarah Silverman, A Speck of Dust

HIMMF is a new series of blogposts I recently started. I have been struggling with the review format for a long time, feeling torn between my (usually) strong opinions on most of the content I consume – books, movies, TV shows, plays – and the knowledge that my opinion barely qualifies as amateur whining of a passive couch potato when compared to the humbling amount of time, effort and creative genius it takes to produce the simplest form of content. And so, more for writing practice than anything, I decided to go ahead with HIMMF – How It Made Me Feel – a series where I will air to the Universe what I felt when I read a book, watched a movie, or ate a shameful amount of ice cream while spending a shameful chunk of my limited time on this planet watching a TV series on Netflix. My first post on the movie Phillauri is here.

All that out of the way, here goes nothing. HIMMF. To whomsoever it may concern.

Sarah Silverman is a stand-up comic I have somehow followed rather intermittently, over the years. But I have always loved what little of her work I have seen so far. Recently, while indulging in our staple dinner-diet of Seinfeld reruns with the husband, I screamed in delight when I noticed that she featured in one of the episodes as Kramer’s girl friend. The husband, of course, having mercifully not devoted as large a chunk of his life as me to YouTube stand-up videos, looked befuddled and started scanning the room for rats. Which only made me laugh harder, seeing as we already have a cat and dog in the house, and a rat would really have completed the family photo.

So when Sarah Silverman’s stand-up special came out on Netflix, I instantly downloaded it. And there it lay, for several months, eating up precious phone memory space, while I staunchly refused to delete it and accept defeat in the face of not being able to find a decent one hour chunk in my life to devote to it.

Enter Jet Airways, flight 9Wwho-gives-a-shit, from Delhi to Lucknow, that was supposed to fly me from Delhi to Lucknow one fine evening. Only it actually landed in Lucknow in the middle of the night after a mind-numbing 3 hour delay and a harrowing 1.5 hours spent sitting cooped up in the plane while it stood adamantly on the runway. Seriously, they did not even have the decency to taxi around and make a show of movement. I have never seen such enthusiasm for a taxing flight in my life as when the pilot turned the engines on towards the end of this wait. The passengers literally applauded. I must say the sense of sarcastic humour was downright impressive, especially when considering that half the flight was full of Delhi-types, and the other half UP-vaale. That is a typecast, yes, but, as Sarah Silverman says in the special, it is a horrible stereotype… based on facts.

Here is how binge-watching comedy has made me a better person though. Every time I feel the urge to criticize how I was treated on a flight, my brain switches to this genius video of Louis CK, and I shut up and sit down and appreciate the miracle of human flight like I was taught to by The Master.

Back to me on the stationary aircraft. Trying to appreciate the miracle of human flight like a good girl. And admiring the even greater miracle of my co-passenger’ atypical behaviour. Mind you, at this point, we are surrounded by Delhi-boys with their steroid-pumped biceps bursting out of their tight t-shirts and tiny brains floating in pools of testosterone in their bloated heads. And there they were, defying laws of physics, sitting good-naturedly in their seats, spectacularly managing to not have indicated even once so far that the pilot or crew members engaged in sexual relations with their family members. (The ‘good-natured’ bar is really low for Delhi-boys, yeah.)

I suppose it certainly helped that they were distracted by the arduous task of flirting with the air hostesses. Or, at least, their version of flirting. Which largely involves making Netflix-worthy jokes such as “Madam, aaj Lucknow pahucha toh doge na?” while their unibrow dances suggestively. And which I might have considered harassment, if the air hostesses were not Delhi girls themselves, laughing their heads off at said non-jokes of said flirters. To give them the benefit of doubt, may be it is in their training for emergency situations. Here is how that training manual goes in my mind:

“When faced with an inconvenienced Delhi-boy – hereafter referred to as The Subject – always act like he is the most hilarious man on-board. Laugh at The Subject’s jokes, however hard you have to grit your teeth for it. Incentives will be offered on a per-bad-joke basis.

Keep The Subject calm with assurances that you can’t wait to listen to Honey Singh in his Audi and impress Mummyji with your round rotis.

There are two doors to your front and two doors behind you in the aircraft. Upon landing, when The Subject tries to take you up on that offer, smile and tell him to not let any of them hit him on his way out.”

The whole ridiculous display had me tittering to myself, which, I am sure, the Delhi-boys took as further certification of their undeniable charm. And since all of this was keeping them from throwing punches and asking people if they knew who their fathers were like little angry lost orphans, I wasn’t complaining either.

Hilarious as the non-flirting and its undue reciprocation was, it reminded me of that 250MB space of actual entertainment lying on my phone. I thank Sarah Silverman deeply for providing me with an alternative source of humourous entertainment in these extenuating circumstances. Bonus points to the Special for providing a worthy escape from the non-food the airline seemed to be serving as compensation for the delay.

And so, I kid you not, I watched the entire special right there on the runway. Time well spent.

SarahSilverman_Netflix

There are no two ways about it: Sarah Silverman is a comic genius. For starters, it somehow felt humbling to see her walk on stage with her cues written on a notepad. This is the first stand-up I have ever seen where the comedienne came with notes written on a paper. And the fact that such a senior and experienced stand-up comic did that made me feel really warmed up to her somehow.

Over the Special, she covers a wide range of topics, from abortion laws in the US to her experiences at camp, from sex to fun facts about squirrels, from a near-death personal experience to religion. All of it is intelligent humour, and all of it is super funny. A lots of segues through the whole thing, with her asking the audience repeatedly to put a pin in a topic she’s talking about to circle back to another related story they need to hear first. While the segues felt a bit disconcerting at times, they give the whole thing the feeling of a friend telling you a funny story, and realizing midway through the story that they haven’t told you another story from the past that you need to know to understand why this one is funny. It would seem that the notes ultimately didn’t help her keep track too well, after all. Or that the segues were actually flowcharted in those notes, in which case it would seem that she is an even greater comic genius that I originally estimated.)

My favourite part, ironically, was not actually a part of the Special at all. It was a cellphone video shot by her friend right before a life-saving surgery she had, which plays during the end credits. In the video, she is drugged for the surgery, and explains Brexit beautifully to prove to the doctors that she “isn’t high enough”. If half the people in the world understood political issues half as lucidly when sober, as she did when legitimately “high enough” on anasthesia, we would have much less suffering around us. And, borrowing a joke from her set, America would not be becoming great again right now.

All in all, an hour very well spent. Highly recommended if you are on a humungously delayed flight and trying hard to not be thankless by complaining about… you know what, Louis CK, screw that. I appreciate the miracle of human flight. But, God dammit, I will not let you take away from me my right to crib about human taxing on the runway. And as for you, Jet Airways, on my flight before this one, a guy’s seat was wet with the pee of the last passenger’s kid. And it is a little tough appreciating the miracle of human flight when flying in the wetness of human urination.

Let me end with an open letter to Jet Airways.

 

Dear Jet Airways,

I like you. I am a frequent flyer, which is basically fancy-speak for frequent air-polluter. But I am hoping that that is a good thing in your books anyway. I am writing to draw your attention to a quote by Ms Silverman, who puts it so beautifully in her Netflix Special when she says that we are all specks of dust sitting on a speck of dust hurtling through the Universe. To which I would like to beautifully add that I prefer to do my hurtling sitting on a pee-free speck, if that is all the same to you.

Unless you would like to offer me some extra frequent flyer miles and an upgrade to compensate for my troubles (and to pull this post down). In which case, we can probably work something out. Because while we may all be flying specks of dust and all that, the speck flying Business Class is definitely the more comfortable one.

Wink Wink Nudge Nudge,

A Non-Contributing Zero

HIMMF: Phillauri

HIMMF is a new series of blogposts I am starting today. I have been struggling with the review format for a long time, feeling torn between my (usually) strong opinions on most of the content I consume – books, movies, TV shows, plays – and the knowledge that my opinion barely qualifies as amateur whining of a passive couch potato when compared to the humbling amount of time, effort and creative genius it takes to produce the simplest form of content. And so, more for writing practice than anything, I decided to go ahead with HIMMF – How It Made Me Feel – a series where I will air to the Universe what I felt when I read a book, watched a movie, or ate a shameful amount of ice cream while spending a shameful chunk of my limited time on this planet watching a TV series on Netflix. So here it goes. HIMMF. To whomsoever it may concern.

Phillauri

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I had given Phillauri a miss in the theatres when the terrible reviews came out alongside it’s release. But the trailer had definitely piqued my curiosity. So when I saw the movie had released on Hotstar, I made sure we dedicated one lazy Sunday evening to the home screening of the movie. (Shoutout to Airtel for the most amazing 4G network in Delhi – streamed 1.2GBs from my phone where the home wifi and the mandatory middle class JioFi connection failed spectacularly.)
Am I the only sucker who absolutely loved this movie? My Punju DNA and a recent Amritsar visit must’ve added to the effect, but I am also talking about the whole lovers-reuniting-after-a-century theme. Something about it that the hopeless romantic in me completely falls for everytime. It is sad that Bollywood hasn’t got the beyond-lifetimes thing right since Karz (okay may be Om Shanti Om in the middle. And yes, my bar is that low). Until Phillauri, of course.
**SPOILER ALERT
The climax scene when the lead characters reunite over the sea of spirits of the innocents who were mercilessly and needlessly murdered in Jallianwallah Bagh, I must admit I cried like Indian cricket fans across the country did, around the same time last night. Something about that place, that setting, the very real possibility that many such love stories ended abruptly that terrible day, and the thought that if ghosts do exist then there really must be many wandering the Jallianwallah Bagh, waiting for their unfulfilled tasks to achieve fruition, much like the Phillauris. Pass the tissues, please.
 SPOILER ENDS**
Another angle in the movie that I am an absolute sucker for – the strong female character. I am talking about Shashi, of course, and not the mopey bride-to-be who admittedly shows some decent strength herself, within the limited confines of her I-exist-to-get-married-to-my-highschool-sweetheart life frame. But Shashi, what a character! What a wonderful portrayal by Anushka Sharma, of a female artist and the pointless shit they had to face in the simple act of creating their art back in the day. (Thank God we have moved past this shit now.) And the role of Diljit Dosanjh as the drool-worthy Casanova who still knows an artist of greater calibre when he sees one and knows how to treat her with due respect, well ahead of his times.
Speaking of giving credit where it is due, especially to female artists, a giant kudos to Anushka Sharma who is telling us amazing stories through in her producer avatar, starting with NH10, and now Phillauri. Following her company Clean Slate Films with bated breath and googly fangirl eyes for what she does next.
And, finally, the music – oh, what a beauty! ‘Sahiba‘ has since been playing on loop on my phone ever since it was done streaming the movie for me. Even as I type this, the song is playing in the background and I am seeing Diljit Dosanjh crooning in front of that amazeballs giant microphone, which gives you real old-timey feels.
All in all, if you missed this movie because of the way-off reviews, or work, or life in general never giving you enough time to do all the theatre movie watching you want to do (or, as in my case, all of the above), do catch it now on TV or Hotstar. A work of art worth every second you spend with it.

 

PS: Fun trivia about this film. The CBFC wanted a scene in the movie cut because it showed the character Kanan reciting Hanuman Chalisa to ward away Shashi’s ghost and she doesn’t budge. The reason, and I love this part, that Hanuman Chalisa is a sure shot solution to ghost infestation and the movie inaccurately portrays it as being ineffective against one. So many incepted levels of idiocy there that it makes me laugh and cry for humanity everytime I think of it. Watch this movie, if for nothing else, then to piss off Mr Nihalani and his band of enlightened brothers.

Why a recent cover story of HT Brunch is problematic

This story was published in DailyO in February 2017, right after this issue came out. Re-published here in its unedited form.

 

I am an ardent reader of HT Brunch. Every weekend, I look forward to their latest edition to devour from cover to cover. As an engineer myself, I absolutely adore Mr Rajiv Makhni’s tech column. Ms Seema Goswami’s thoughts of the week always make for a fun and interesting read. Mr Vir Sanghvi’s rude food is always enlightening (I only wish it was sometimes accompanied by an English translation alongside the original Greek and Latin!).

Point is, it is a great magazine and makes for a wonderful showcase of everything that is new and young and worth knowing about in modern culture. Which is precisely why, I was highly disturbed to see their cover this Sunday.

This week’s cover story of HT Brunch is about the women’s football team. Normally, this should be a story that would fill one’s heart with pride for our girls, and pride at being a woman oneself. Normally, this should be a story I should want to recommend to all my friends who are parents of little girls and are looking for a bedtime story to read out to them – a story that would make them believe that anything is possible and any dream they dream that night can become a reality if work hard for it. Normally, this should be a story of grit, determination, blood, sweat and sheer girl gumption.

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But the moment I picked up the issue, I saw from the cover image itself that this would be no normal story. The cover image showed two photographs of the sportswomen – one, with them in their jerseys, posing with footballs, and the other, with them posing in fashionable clothing, wearing a ton of makeup, and high heels. The first photo was tagged “3k views” and the second “301k views”. Below the images was written in bold lettering, “It must be the make-up!”

My heart sank as I took in the monstrosity that was this cover image.

Even without opening the magazine, I felt let down by this publication that is supposed to be a herald-er of “what’s cool” and “what’s in” for the youth. Here it was, portraying women – sportswomen at that – in a light that reduces them to objects to be dolled up, and reduces their worth to “views” based on their looks and their make-up. I felt shocked that this horror passed the editorial process of the HT group. I felt shocked that, in this day and age, where feminism is finally becoming a point of discussion at family dinners, such a major magazine could still present a picture of women that sets their legitimacy as professionals back by decades, and reduces them to being pretty little things, valuable only because of their aesthetically pleasing bodies. While some in popular culture are making an effort to celebrate stories of parents encouraging their daughters in female infanticide-ridden Haryana to pursue sports, here is our national team being objectified on the front page of a leading pop-culture magazine.

The inside of the story offered no redeeming features either. It is frankly depressing that the magazine did not deem our national football team worthy of being covered by a sports journalist, and sent a beauty journalist(!) to cover their stories instead. The beauty journalist did what beauty journalists do – gave the ladies a makeover and spent time discussing their lip glosses, while their struggles and journeys as sportswomen went glossed over.

And then there was the utterly laughable section of the article where they brought in Mr Baichung Bhutia to comment on the girls’ makeover, because why would a woman dress up, if not for the approval of the nearest alpha male. It is a deeply awkward piece, where Mr Bhutia is clearly uncomfortable with what he is expected to comment on. Here is a picture of him in the magazine, where they have him shrug his shoulders in that “Who are these women and what did they do to my players?” kind of way. Not sure whether to laugh or cry at the self-goal there, pun unintended.

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I am sure Mr Bhutia must’ve felt far more comfortable talking about the game these women happen to play, and spoken about it at length as well. But here is the pearl of a quote the journalist picked and included in the article: “as a former FIFA chief once said, Indian women dance and move their bodies so well that they can definitely excel at football.” Downright educational to read Indian women’s sporting talent being traced back to gyration at wedding baraats. If this isn’t demeaning and belittling their respective struggles, and the hard work it must have taken to rise to where they have, I don’t know what is.

Someone I discussed this article with pointed out the responsibility of the women featured in the article and the role played by them in the angle the magazine chose to cover them with. To that, I can only respond by placing myself in their shoes. 20-21 year old girls, many of them from rural backgrounds, being covered by media professionals, cannot be blamed for trusting these ‘professionals’ to know their job. When I was their age, I was far behind them in terms of accomplishment (heck, I am a decade older and still far behind them in terms of accomplishment). And I cannot say with confidence, that if someone had asked me a decade back to put on some make-up and pose for a cover story in a leading magazine, I would notice anything terribly wrong with that.

Which is why I feel that the responsibility for the irresponsibility shown by the Brunch team here lies squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps shared, in part, only by history and the way women – even exceptional achievers like these girls – have always been portrayed. Unfortunately, that is where one looks at the media of today to move forward and bring about change. I sincerely wish the Brunch editors had chosen to play that role, instead of repeating and reinforcing the mistakes of the past for a shinier cover picture.

I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of Brunch with bated breath. I wonder if it will feature the men’s football team. I wonder if they will send a beauty journalist to cover the boys too. I wonder if we will read all about their favorite hairgels and exfoliating skin care routine in the story. I wonder if a senior female football player will be brought into the room after the sportsmen undergo a makeover to comment on how pretty they looked, and how Indian men are naturally good at footer, given the practice they get dancing at weddings.

I wonder if we will ever try to legitimize the achievements of our sportsmen by giving them a makeover and a thousand times more views! It must be the make-up!

To Babu or not to Babu

This piece was originally published on the website Gradstory in 2014, soon after the UPSC results for the year came out. Back then, I was a little under 2 years old in the civil services. Today, I am a little over a year old out of the civil services.

I continue to work closely with the Government of India in my professional capacity. I continue to be close with friends still in the trade. It continues to be a job I deeply respect and admire. And I continue to hope that, with time, more and more young and talented people will choose to join the services for the right reasons.20819120.cms_-520x245

Meanwhile, here is the article I once wrote from the other side, reproduced again in its original form, in honour of Civil Services Day 2017. Go (self-dabba-carrying) Babus! You know who you are.

It is that time of the year again. The UPSC results are out. Over a thousand new entrants make their way jubilantly into the bureaucracy of the country. Many will be publicly felicitated on this grand success of theirs. Village panchayats will put up pandaals to celebrate the good fortune. Local Godmen and goons will wash their feet with milk. (True story, happened with a colleague.) Much merriment and press coverage shall ensue.
Felicitation

Every year, around this time, as my Facebook feed gets inundated with these declarations of success, I wonder how many are thinking of this moment as the beginning of their life’s hard work, rather than as the culmination of it. If my personal experience is anything to go by, there are precious few.

What attracts you most to the job a bureaucrat? Is it the power? The prestige? The under-the-table income? The government-sponsored car? The peon who hurriedly comes to open the government-sponsored car’s gate and carries your dabba up the stairs for you?

If yes, let me save you some long reading. This piece is not for you. Also, while I have your attention, I do not like you. Seriously. Do us all a solid, and carry your own damned dabba for once. Kthxbai.

Bureaucracy

Assuming that you are continuing to read on, you are either insulted and fishing for an excuse to hurl insults back at me, or belong to the camp that is attracted to this job for its contributive potential. You probably want to give something back to society and see the Civil Services as a means to that end.

You are among the precious few.

Welcome to bureaucracy. I like you.

And since I like you so much, here is a token of my appreciation – a heads up about the life you just signed up for:

#1 I just called you “the precious few”. That makes you a minority. 

Brace yourself  to know what it feels like

Brace yourself to know what that feels like.

Most people you will encounter in the coming few decades of your life (should you choose to stick around that long) define their existence by this day, this rank, these marks – and will continue to do so ad nauseam. Your unenviable job for the rest of your bureaucratic career is to walk the tightrope between living among them and not becoming one of them.

#2 The bad news: a new caste system awaits you here. The good news: membership is optional.

If you thought that you have made it and life will be a bed of roses hereon, welcome to the civil services caste system. We have many castes here – the IAS and the “IAS-allied” / the “home cadre” and the “have-to-learn-a-new-language cadre” / the “Group A” and the “Group not-A”, etcetera etcetera. Notice that all of these castes are sealed for life based on the subject’s performance in a fundamentally flawed examination (s)he wrote once upon a time – and are in no way a reflection of the quality of person they were or have evolved into since.

No offence, of course.

No offence, of course.

The identity associated with these castes – higher or lower – is a self-inflicted albatross most babus wear around their necks to their retirement. Some, to their grave. These are the often the ones that will demand your respect.

At the same time, you will come across some amazing people who have shunned the caste system altogether. You can recognize them as the ones that command your respect based on who they are, and not the office they occupy.

Who you wish to be is up to you.

#3 Never forget who you were before this day.

Just because you do, it will not mean that the world around you will ignore the caste system too. All your life, you will come across those who will either put you on a pedestal, or try to bring your spirits down because of your service, or your posting, or your cadre, or some other irrelevant tripe linked irrevocably to these marks you scored in UPSC all those decades ago.

Existential crisis could be a common occupational hazard

Existential crisis is likely to be a constant occupational hazard.

Develop a thick skin. Tune these voices out. Cherish your old friendships, stay in touch with the world you are coming from. Your roots will keep you sane.

#4 You cannot change the world single-handedly. But always be on the prowl for the small differences you can make.

It is easy to get frustrated if you seek to cure cancer on Day 1. Here is a reality check for the fellow romantics. This is just another job. Many out there are contributing more to the task of nation building than you are. And there are many problems here that you can do absolutely nothing about.

My advice – focus on what you can do. No task is too little. The beauty of being here is that small steps for a babu can often mean big leaps for the system. For instance, I am crazy about technology and paperlessness. I may not have cured cancer yet, but the few trees I have managed to save so far give me a decent night’s sleep.

Celebrate Small Victories

Celebrate small victories

This also makes it extremely important to have interests beyond this job. After office hours, I shell out bullet-pointed satire and advice no one asked me for. And I suggest you find something crazy to do too. This is going to be a long journey and you’ll need something to keep the seasickness at bay.

#5 This is just another job. You are not God. Stay humble.

At the very least, be nice to the little people

At the very least, be nice to the little people.

Among the many things we inherited from the British is the maibaap culture. When everyone around you treats you like a demi-God, staying grounded becomes a challenge. Never forget that you are here to serve the public and not the other way round.

I once met a senior officer who took this spirit to the next level. The nameplate outside her office read “Smt XYZ, Public Servant” instead of a heavyweight designation most bureaucrats derive such smug satisfaction from. She said the gesture earned her flak from her colleagues for “denigrating the stature” of her office.

And that is the sort of appreciation you can expect for your humility too.

Oh, I almost forgot. Congratulations on your grand success.

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.

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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.

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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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/