What “Me Too” means for the Few Good Men out there

I’d like to begin this post by recounting a conversation I had with some colleagues over lunch recently. The conversation began with all of us sharing our worst work travel stories. Inevitably, a female colleague eventually shared a story of feeling concerned for her safety on a tour.

She told us about the tour when, after a late night flight, she found out that the host organization had made stay arrangements for her at a shady hotel where she felt very unsafe. No electricity, low boundary walls, doors that didn’t lock very well, a singular caretaker who looked like he might be drunk. She felt unsafe to the point that she insisted on changing hotels at 2am. The story made me share what I do in situations like these – and insensitivity of corporate and government travel agents ensures that this happens every now and then. If I feel unsafe staying in a hotel and have no option to change, I latch the door from inside (because locks can always be opened from outside with the hotel master key) and I move a table or chair to block the door. It may not help much if shit happens, but it makes me feel not-uncomfortable enough to fall asleep at night. 

When I said this, there were five other people at the lunch table. Four women and one man. Four hands immediately shot up in the air when I said this, and they all said – “Me Too!” We were all fairly surprised to see that what we all thought of as our own personal paranoia, was actually a fairly prevalent practice among women travelers everywhere. Of course, no one was as shocked as the singular man at the table. I will never forget the look on his face. He was so shocked that for a while he legitimately insisted that we were all bluffing. The idea that someone will feel scared enough on a work trip to blockade their hotel room door with furniture was absolutely alien to him. 

That was a moment of truth for all of us – a reminder of the very different planets men and women inhabit. Not on Mars or Venus, but on this very Earth itself. 

Our male colleague said he couldn’t believe this happened on all those work trips he took with us. I said I couldn’t believe he didn’t already know it did. All the other women on the table said, “Me Too.”

 

What is “Me Too”?

The social media trend running all over Facebook and Twitter over the last week, in case you have been living under a rock, was that of women putting up two words on their posts: “Me Too”. Posting these two words essentially marks their attendance in the list of “women who have suffered sexual harassment in their lifetimes” – which, as the campaign proved, pretty much translates into “every woman ever”.

 

Why is “Me Too” important?

A conversation between Seth Meyers and three female writers of ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ – Amber, Ally and Jenny – about the Harvey Weinstein scandal best describes my views on the Me Too campaign:

Amber: Seth, how did you feel when you heard the allegations?

Seth: I was disgusted and shocked. How did you feel?

Amber: Well, I was disgusted and not shocked.

Ally: I was disgusted and shocked that it took so long to become a story.

Jenny: I was disgusted and shocked that people were shocked.

Women, everywhere, are not shocked by the numbers of women that shared that they had been sexually harassed by men at some point in their lives. Men, everywhere, were.

And that is a problem. Most men are not aware that “women who have been at the receiving end of gender based violence and discrimination” translates to “every woman ever”.

That, to me, is the power of the “Me Too” campaign: To make men notice and realize the humongous percentage of women they know and care about, who have been at the receiving end of gendered violence or harassment. Men who care, but are simply not aware. Men who are aware, but simply don’t care. Men who are aware and care, but are in denial. Men who actively try to understate the all-pervading active misogyny that is like a bad debt burden or a genetic disorder modern day society has unfortunately inherited from its past.

It is a fact that most men, good men, well-meaning men, men who care – like my colleague in the story above – are simply unaware of the world women inhabit. They don’t know what it means to live with rape anxiety every moment of everyday. My male colleagues don’t realize that when we work late at the office, I hold my pee in because I am too afraid to walk down the dark deserted corridor that leads to the office ladies loo. But my female colleagues know it instinctively – because they do too. My father is going to read about the hotel story and positively freak the hell out, but my mother will likely not be surprised – because when she travels, she feels it too. My brother was enraged beyond words when I told him about a harassment incident that happened to me as a child, a full two decades after it happened. His girlfriend practically shrugged and said, “me too”.

These are all Good Men – the best men I know, in fact. They live and breathe with us day in and day out. How is it that we have still not been able to convey this very real part of our lives to them? How is it that the Good Men are still oblivious?

And this is why “Me Too” is important. Because of the Few Good Men.

There are some men who will never change, who cannot be convinced or converted. Goalpost Shifting, Strawman, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominen, Ad Populum, Arguing by Example – the number of logical fallacies deployed by detractors to debunk the blatant fact that life is tougher for most women than it is for most men is unparalleled. By extension, these folks deny that this is a situation that needs to change. Many of these happen to be men. For people who wish to create a safer world for women, these are not the men we need to start conversations with – it is simply not a productive use of our limited energies. No, the Good Men are the ones to focus on.

 

Who are these Few Good Men?

Good Men are those who are truly touched by campaigns like “Me Too”.

Good Men are genuinely horrified by every reminder of gender-based violence faced by women around them everyday.

Good Men don’t turn a blind eye to this reality, even though it is a deeply uncomfortable one.

Good Men listen. And even though it is really hard to relate to something so alien to their everyday lives, Good Men try to empathize.

Good Men do not try to minimize the lived experience of half of humankind as “one-off instances”.

Good Men do not ask “what was she wearing” or “why was she there” or “who was she with” or “was she drinking” – they ask “what did we do as a society that gave him the audacity to do this”.

Good Men don’t see women speaking out about their experiences as “attention seeking” (yes, I saw that one too).

Some exceptionally Good Men see these posts and actually apologize on behalf of men everywhere. They pledge to do better themselves and rekindle our faith in man-kind.

Good Men don’t start with #NotAllMen, they want to do something to put an end to #YesAllWomen.

The Good Men are the ones who are going to be our partners in creating a better world for everyone. 

 

So what should the Good Men do now?

I took the liberty of making a list of some of the things I could think of that the Good Men can do to help getting out of the house a less unpleasant experience for the women around them.

These things go beyond the physical safety stuff that goes without saying. Keep doing those things anyway. Drop a lady home if it gets late in the night. Or at least make sure she gets a cab and gets home safe. If you are two people vying for the same public transport in the evening, let the lady take it – she might never reach home if she misses this one. When you see a man’s hand roving around a lady in a bus, put yourself between the man and the lady. When you spot a man lechering at a woman, tell him off. When a woman rebukes a man harassing her in public and the man answers back trying to legitimize his behaviour, don’t just stand by and enjoy the tamasha unfolding, speak up. Basically, always be the buffer between women and the creeps around them.

Since you are the Good Man – you already do all of the above. And we thank you for that.

I am writing this to bring up the subtle things that even the best of men sometimes miss out on. Things that you can do in our everyday life to help create a safer world.

Admittedly, we could use more women doing the following as well. But this post is just for the men, because it is a sad reality of our social conditioning that everything is taken more seriously when heard in the lower register of a male voice.

So here goes:

Forward with care

When you get a WhatsApp forward with a gender-based joke that paints women with stereotypes likes nagging wives, gold diggers, bitchy, catty, bossy, friend-zoners, mother-in-law haters, daughter-in-law haters, haters of all fellow women, husband dominators, irrational, over-emotional – do not forward these jokes, we beg of you. Do not award them with smileys and thumbs ups. If the sender is someone you can be frank with, tell them how the stereotype perpetuated by this jokes are used as justifications by sexual harassers. Men who rape, kill, and mutilate women feel justified in doing so because women, to their mind, are one or all of the above. At the very least, every seemingly harmless joke fuels this perception of women in our collective societal mindset. And at the very worst, it makes a man who was rejected by a woman feel justified in throwing acid at her face.

Be aware of Double Standards

Watch out for changes in your perception of the same quality when seen in men and women. E.g. is a man keeping his foot down for something he believes in being “assertive”, and a woman doing the same being “bossy”? Is a man lashing out at someone without reason “having a bad day today” and a woman doing the same “being really bitchy today”? Be mindful of these perceptions in your own head. Watch out for them in your everyday language. Speak out when you see it in other men and women. These subtle things add up and systematically encourage misogyny around us.

Don’t fund the misogyny industry

Don’t pay to watch movies that feature men harassing women in the name of love, passion, or comedy. Don’t buy tickets to movies that use the objectification of women as a selling point. Discourage others around you to drive business to such movies, and help Bollywood accelerate its long overdue process of growing the hell up.

Don’t buy products that advertise themselves by painting women as mere objects of male desire. Trust me on this – no woman out there is going to fall in love with you over your perfume or your shaving cream. And products that perpetuate this notion are adding to men’s misplaced frustration and rage against us women who happen to live outside hair gel ads.

Don’t raise rapists

Resist the urge to keep a compulsive hawk eye over all movements of the women in your family, to the point of suffocating them. We know that “hope you will not get raped” is every family member’s wish for us. But if the boys were watched instead and “hope you will not rape” became the new Indian family motto, rape would magically vanish overnight.

Teach the Children

Notice subtle cues that we give our children that train them in gender stereotypes. Don’t just gift cars and Operation sets to boys, and princesses and kitchen sets to girls on their birthdays. Take equal responsibility along with your wife for your household chores. Do traditionally female tasks like cooking, cleaning, managing the maid, changing the diapers. Do them publicly and with pride. Remember – children don’t learn to do what you say, they learn to do what you do. And everything you do is absorbed like a sponge.

Notice what happens at Every. Office. Meeting. Ever.

Your female colleagues at work are constantly struggling to get their ideas noticed, put their point of view across, and do simple things you take for granted like being heard at work meetings. Notice when this happens. Next time a woman in your team makes a point at a work meeting, notice how often it gets drowned out because someone talks over her, or a man repeats her idea and gets credit for it, or everyone simply ignores that she spoke at all. This happened at Obama’s White House, so be open to the idea that it might be happening around you as well. And when you do spot it, stop it. Make an extra effort to draw the attention of the meeting to the point made by a woman, even if you do it by expressing a disagreement. We don’t need your endorsement for all our ideas. But your help in getting them heard would mean a lot, and it would encourage a lot more women to find their voice.

Help make workplaces safer

When you see men objectifying women co-workers – whether it is a compliment for ‘the beautiful saari she wore yesterday’, or horror at ‘that bright red lipstick’ that endangered samaaj ke sanskaars, point out how male dress code is never a point of conversation in the gang. We come to work to do our jobs – help us be treated with basic respect and professionalism. In a world where even the British Prime Minister is not safe from objectification at the workplace, imagine the plight of us common women.

Help us not be reduced to objects of male entertainment, curiosity or virtuosity. Help your male colleagues keep their opinions about our attire to themselves – over time it will encourage many more women to join the workforce and discover the power of financial independence.

In conclusion

Most importantly, when you watch a woman stand up against any of the above, support her. Understand that it takes a disproportionately large amount of courage for a woman to speak for herself and her rights in a male-dominated room. It means that she has either gone through intensive internal turmoil to find her voice. Or that she has undergone some traumatic external experience that taught her to speak up. Or, in most cases, a combination of both. Don’t wait until later to tell such a woman how she was very brave, in private. Don’t think it to yourself. Don’t just rave about it with your wife later that night when you are telling her about your day.

Speak up then and there. Be vocal and loud and public with your support for a woman who showed the guts to speak out. Repeat and endorse what she just said in your lower voice register – sadly, it will make others take notice of the merits of her point.

And finally, if you are a company travel agent or hosting a work trip from a partner organization, please please please book us on better hotels.

 

Can I get a “Me Too”, ladies?

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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!

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

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!

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!