Society

The Battle of the Bastards

Monday’s Game of Thrones episode, The Battle of the Bastards, has been hailed as one of the best episodes in the entire series, and more importantly, the battle sequence has been described as one of the greatest battle scenes in television history.

Ramsay Bolton employed tactics which would involve Jon Snow giving up his advantageous, defensive  position; Jon Snow fell for it. He charged forward, alone, as Bolton slaughtered Rickon and Jon Snow’s army was forced to follow their commander, straight into the trap laid by Bolton. Bolton’s archers released arrows, encircled Jon Snow’s army with rows and rows long spears and shields as Jon Snow’s army became trapped between that and the mounds of corpses.

Cinematically, the battle scenes were amazingly shot, each and every shot very artistically and mindfully built- but to my mind, it just brought one poem which I had studied in my literature course. The poem was written by Wilfred Owen, one of the greatest English poets of World War I, and was titled Dulce et Decorum est.

The poem is named after the old Latin saying Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori, which translates to meaning, it is a great honor to fight and die for your country. For is that not how they make people go to war? Is that not how they convince that this is the right thing to do, that this must be done, that our country must be defended and the other attacked? Do they not tell us that there is pride and glory in laying down our lives for something that is much bigger than us, than our circles of friends and families?

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge

This is how Wilfred Owen begins to describe the soldiers of the Great War- like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed and coughing like hags. They were all ‘drunk with fatigue’ he said, before Owen sees his comrade dying in the poisonous gas. ‘Guttering, choking, drowning’, Owen said, his comrade was simply dying, helpless, in the most pathetic way possible.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Not much glory in gargling from ‘froth-corrupted lungs’, ‘obscene as cancer’ and in ‘vile, incurable sores’, is there?

This is exactly what the Game of Thrones episode showed. As Bolton’s army collided with Snow’s, man fell against horse and there was absolute chaos; heads went flying about, horses maimed, limbs cut off as Jon Snow went about in utter confusion, trying to distinguish friend from foe, killing those who attempted to slaughter him. Blood poured in every direction, arrows rained upon men as swords were wielded without knowing what they would destroy. As Snow’s army was encircled and trapped, Jon Snow got trampled beneath the ensuing chaos buried under heaps of corpses and flailing soldiers who attempted to run and defend themselves. With difficulty, he emerged from within the riot of bodies, covered in blood and grime, only to stare at death in the face.

That, then, is perhaps the reality of wars and battles; not pride, not honor and definitely not the sweet taste of glory- just a bunch of ragged limbs, barely functioning, arms outstretched, trying to gain a semblance of reality, a perspective about the senselessness, all around.

Image Source: blogs.wsj.com

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Punjab of the Popular Imagination

There is a stereotype for the people of Punjab that is known across the country; perhaps no other stereotype is as stereotypical as this one. And so that stereotype has played a major role in depicting the entire state of Punjab in the popular imagination, as we know today. Most people know Punjab through the veil of that stereotype, thanks to how it influenced the popular imagination.

That Punjabis are loud-mouthed. That they have a tendency to utter and blabber what they actually feel, that they wear their heart on their sleeves. That they may say things that might not sound great, but they have their hearts in the right place.

The most famous symbol for Punjab is the Golden Temple, which stands for peace and serenity such as you might have never known before; the beautiful temple made of gold which stands shining as much in the night as in the day.

Punjab is also known for its food; oh, the food. The dollops and dollops of butter that they use, the scrumptious choley they cook, the beautiful way in which they cook their chicken, the makki ki roti and the sarson ka saag of course. More than the food, they are known for the generosity they extend with the food, the langars, with the belief that food is meant for everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

Punjab, oh, if anyone were to ask me, Punjab is a riot, full of colours, and bhangra, and generous, kind souls, and delicious food, green fields, lots of sunshine, big houses, giggly girls, outspoken men, but a good place, overall a good place.

So I liked Udta Punjab- it swooped in and destroyed the Punjab of the popular imagination and replaced it with a much grueling reality, which hasn’t really been done properly before. We have Amrish Puri romanticizing Punjab as ‘home’ which is, although ever so humble, irreplaceable and Shah Rukh Khan coming in and sweeping away the bride in the mustard fields of dear Punjab in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. Skip that, we have two of the actors in Udta Punjab, Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan, who when last worked in a movie together glorified the very stereotype we just spoke about.

The overbearing, kind-hearted, all-knowing patriarch who gives the way for love, giggly, supportive relatives who like to stuff guests with food, colorful clothes and bhangra sequences, the beat of the dhol which sets everyone in action- Punjab for beginners.

But I loved it how Udta Punjab brought about a new Punjab in the popular imagination, the Punjab of drugs. Corrupt policemen, dirty politicians who’d do anything to win elections, youth wasting away in syringes lying in abandoned fields, girls being forced to go on drugs, families which coalesce and support the men in their family to keep a girl locked up rape her turn by turn.

The people of Punjab here were cunning and sly, not loudmouthed and outspoken.

The picture painted was the opposite of serene; in fact, the only way Alia Bhatt could figure having some peace in her life was through staring at the board of Goa through her window and imagine diving into the ocean.

And the food? Udta Punjab broke all notions about Punjab’s food when they showed Alia Bhatt hungrily gnawing at the leftover chicken bone her captor left lying around.

Although I did feel that Abhishek Chaubey could have depicted the drug problem as a more generalized phenomenon, affecting people of Balli’s age, as opposed to concentrating on individual stories, for the problem affects people at large. It is a sociological ill, not an individual one, and hence, would have been much more appealing.

And yet I am happy to see a new Punjab, away from the Punjab of the Popular imagination, for we must know, and all the four actors’ performances show it as well as it could.

My God

I’ve heard people talk of God

In the great blue sky and sitting in our souls

In the sun and the river

And always, always in the food we have

Serve him, they say, serve the God

And he will be there for you

He will stand by you, and help you

And bless you and make you prosper

And rich

And healthy

And shower you with all that you could need

For you are his child

But you serve him

And you serve him well

You do as per his will

And his purpose

The purpose

He made for generations of humans

For we are all his children

And we are meant to seek his guidance

And he asks us

To abide by his good

And his bad

And your duty, as bid

So shine the light

Take the torch

Enlighten the ignorant

And fulfill the purpose

For it is the will of God

The God who knows all

And Judges all

And creates all

And that is God, they say

That is your God, they say

That is everyone’s God, they say

 

But I feel it in my heart

A different God

I feel it in my veins

In my morning thoughts

When I live a new day

I feel my God

In the love that I bear

For the beauty around

In the people I choose to love

In the people I’m born to love

In the art that I love

The words that spring from love

In the music that moves me

And the pictures that hold me

In rapture, of its creation

And so I seek my God

In the art that I make

In the words that I make

In the tragedies of life

In death’s unflinching gaze

I find my God

In the security of family

In the eyes of that boy

In the desire of my own heart

Which seeks to do some good

This is my God

This, right here, is my God.

 

 

The Jungle Book: So What Makes You As You Are?

I watched The Jungle Book, and as is my habit, went on to read its reviews. Personally, I found the movie to be very interesting, but for its original story that hails from Rudyard Kipling, not because this particular adaptation was so great. The 3D effects were spectacular, but I was a bit surprised to note the lack of humor in the movie- I certainly felt that there was a lot more scope for a few jokes. Compared to the other animated greats like Tangled, How To Train Your Dragon, and The Incredibles, the Jungle Book fails quite sadly.

Of course, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been read, understood and interpreted widely in terms of postcolonial theory and imperialism, for Kipling was the unfortunate author of the poem The White Man’s Burden. But the aspect of the story that I found much more captivating were the results of the nature and nurture effects, which goes back to the old argument concerning the development and growth of any being- what is more influential, the genes or the environment?

In the figure of Mowgli, the debate is personified quite literally. Left in the jungle at a very tiny age when his father is killed by the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli is almost adopted by the panther Bagheera and from then on, raised by a pack of wolves, and called a ‘man cub’. But Shere khan is determined to hunt Mowgli down and finish him off, for he is sure that the ‘man cub’ will grow up to be a man and be the natural enemy of animals as all humans are, for he believes that the true nature of a man cannot be taken away from him.

Shere Khan has a point-Mowgli might have been raised amongst wolves but he struggles to be one like them, lagging behind as his brother wolves sprint on and the wolf elders try again and again to teach him how to live and behave like a wolf. He is constantly reprimanded for using his ‘tricks’- using to his advantage his separated fingers and agile grip to move around and operate stuff that four- legged mammals possibly could not. He is regarded warily by everyone in the jungle, for quite obviously, he walks on twos instead of fours.

But on the other hand, Mowgli is more a creature of the jungle than he was ever of the human world- he speaks the language of the wolves, the panther, the bear, the tiger and the king of the Bander-log. He runs and climbs faster than any human is probably capable of, having been raised among animals. He’s uncannily adept at picking fruits, berries and honey off heights. But more importantly, he identifies himself with the world of the jungle, rather than the world of the humans, and so, is dismayed when he realizes that he will have to go to the human village in order to survive the menace of Shere Khan.

This, right here was, nature versus nurture, but with convincing arguments for both sides- this embodiment of the debate is precisely why I find Mowgli so fascinating.

Let’s go back to our general daily life to understand what can be regarded as a more influential factor. For Abhishek Bachhan, while having given a couple of stellar performances in Guru and Yuva, could not be said to have possessed the greatness and the larger-than-life aura of his father Amitabh Bachhan? Rahul Gandhi, with generations of political blood behind him, hasn’t really displayed the political cunning and ambition that was expected of him. Sunil Gavaskar, one of the greatest cricketers in the world, never could bring his son even close to the success in the cricketing world that he himself had achieved. These are the examples which not only had great, professional genes, but also bustling environs where their skills could flourish.

To the contrary, we have countless examples which defy odds- Shah Rukh Khan did not have the acting lineage and business acumen that many of his contemporaries did but yet he went on to become India’s star. We are all aware of Modi’s chaiwallah story, how he became the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy from being a mere chaiwallah at one point of time. J.K. Rowling’s is another rags to riches story, where she went on to write the world’s most popular and highest selling book series, while living on the state’s allowance, being as poor as one can be without being homeless, with a child to take care of? It was certainly not the conducive environment that resulted in their dazzling success- then were their parents hidden geniuses that managed to pass on their abilities? Perhaps not- perhaps there are other factors that are in play. Yet it cannot be denied that talent can rise in the unlikeliest of places.

Many years back, Virginia Woolf wrote of Shakespeare’s sister- a sister that he never had. She wrote about his hypothetical sister, who might have had Shakespeare’s genius, but would have died anonymous and unknown because her talents would never be allowed to flourish and develop in a world so stifling to women. She wrote that if a woman is to write, she must have a room of her own and adequate money that would provide her with the comfort to write. A room of her own, she said- the private space free of anybody to introspect and write.

Psychology partly made the answer for me, if not fully. From what I understood, the biological genes set the extreme limits, but the human will and determination is free to exercise within those limits. With a healthy and happy environment, the children do have higher odds of leading more satisfied lives. We cannot possibly overreach our genes, but the limits do give our environments enough scope to lead lives as we would. For not everybody had the comforts of a private room, yet great writing is known to have come up from the messiest of places. For people are known to have survived on lonely islands, swum great lengths and eaten fellow human beings if the time called for it- yet they couldn’t escape the confines of their own biology.

This is precisely where Mowgli becomes so relevant- Mowgli, as a human being, cannot help but use his fingers and limbs because he simply can. But he can easily climb trees and run extremely fast because he had been taught so; he can speak the language because he grew up conversing the language. In the end, he is the most content in the ‘Mowgli way’, his own way of living comprising a mix of both human and animal behaviors. And that is what we must strive for- limited as we are by our own generational advantages and disadvantages while becoming more and more like our parents every passing year, we can always learn from the past and forge a new to the future,  to be set as an example by others.

Fleeting Thoughts on Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921)

I saw Kapoor and Sons over the weekend and was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a really heartwarming and insightful movie (I also watched Ki and Ka over the weekend but more on that in the next post). Much had been spoken about Rishi Kapoor’s makeup which was apparently done by the same people who did Brad Pitt’s in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it really was quite brilliant.

I didn’t find Alia Bhatt’s role to be very significant, so I won’t be mentioning her much; Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan were serious eye candy, and it’s worth going to the theatre just for them. In fact, I had a dream last night starring a very good looking guy bearing a striking resemblance to Fawad Khan. Ratna Pathak and Rajat Gupta were their usual genius selves, and everybody all together came out to form a very fun group.

It is the story of the Kapoor family when the dadu, Rishi Kapoor gets a heart attack, so Fawad Khan and Sidharth return from London and New Jersey respectively to the small town of Coonor in Kerala. Old family banter ensues as we observe a family that doesn’t seem very different than ours, and slowly secrets unfurl.

  1. The Portrayal of Family: All families fight. Even the ones containing two boys as good looking as Fawad and Sidharth. Nothing can change that. What you can change is your patience level- the movie helps us see ourselves in a critical light, and reminds us that it would all do us well to shut up once in a while and do things for the other person.
  1. The film sadly comes off as giving the message that you’ve got to love your family no matter what- that’s a bit problematic. By idolizing the unit of family to that extent, the movie sweeps over the murkier aspects of the individuals. Like seriously, the fact that Rajat Gupta had been cheating on Ratna Pathak for a long, long time is not okay, and definitely not something to be forgiven. It should have been shown that it is okay to walk out of a family as well, if the family cannot treat you right.
  1. But hey, they do show that all family members make well-meaning mistakes, that their intention was never to hurt, and intentions, however misguided, do count.
  1. The ending was remarkably good- there is no happy ending, and it isn’t shown as if anything is solved or sorted. There is, however, a step towards acceptance.
  1. In this film, as is done in many others, death is used. In art, the use of death to make people realize, to make them regret, to bring them together, to make them forgive- it is an easy way out. To do all this over a passage of time because you just come to accept a person, that is the more difficult path.

All in all, a very fun watch which raises enough larger questions on the nature of this life. I couldn’t stop crying in the second half; S. couldn’t stop laughing. At me, not at the movie.

You might also be interested in reading my thoughts on the movie Masaan.

Picture source: Koimoi.com

Why Anushka Sharma’s Revenge in NH10 is Totally Believable

NH10, Anushka Sharma’s production debut, has a lot up its sleeve, if only you’d care to look- perhaps I can go so far as to say that it is one of the best Hindi thrillers in recent years. An urban Gurgaon couple, headed for a romantic getaway further up in Haryana, witness an honor killing and are chased by the killers, across the barren fields on a fateful night. As has been noted by critics, Navdeep Singh borrows generously from British horror thriller Eden Lake yet makes it his own-the urban-rural divide, the misogyny and patriarchy prevalent in urban and rural India, the social commentary weaved through and through. Yet one aspect of the movie that wasn’t completely embraced by the audience was Anushka Sharma returning to finish off her husband’s killers after running from them all night- surely, any life-fearing person would run to family and friends and seek help from police in the comfort of daylight? Wrong. In any other situation, I wouldn’t have believed that the wronged wife comes back to kill five men- except for this one.

  1. Girl had sass

Anushka Sharma, playing the character of Meera, has been depicted as a very brave character right from the beginning. Returning late from a party one evening, she makes a lurch and escapes when faced with an extremely dangerous situation, when most of us would have been paralyzed by fear. At her office meeting when a male colleague remarks that she might be getting undue appreciation in lieu of being a woman, she calmly gives a fitting reply. While stuck in the fields and running for their lives, Meera never loses hope, not even when her husband is injured and she has to run not only to save herself but also to save her husband whose condition may have been getting worse by the minute. A brilliant scene shows her successfully outstripping Satbir and the gang for some time at least by climbing on top of a hill, and when they notice her there, she actually throws stones down at them, while hurling abuses!

 

  1. In a Volatile State

 The movie not only presents bad omens and builds up the storm for the context, it also does the same for Meera: she is already jolted into a volatile state when attacked while returning alone from her party. From then on, she has rising paranoia and is touchy, always ready for defense- the couple also get a gun license and purchase a gun after the first attack. No doubt that the presence of a gun always keeps you on the edge, ready to spring into action. It was her uneasiness that kicked her survival instincts into action, and therefore the first attack which created this uneasiness, is a genius addition to the story.

 

  1. Exceptional Survival Instincts

 No, Meera was not the one to cow down- in every instance of the movie, she has been shown to have killer survival instincts. In the first attack as she is cornered with two men on a bike in the front and a car on the back who then break her window, she makes a brilliant move, instantly reversing and speeding ahead. She stabs the senior police officer in the eye after realizing he too was harm in one swift move. At sarpanch Ammaji’s house when getting beaten by Ammaji, she again shows brilliant survival by grabbing the child by the neck and threatening to throw him in the well if they don’t leave her.

 

  1. No Exaggerated Killing

 She doesn’t kill any of the killers in a gory manner- except the last one, Satbir, who was already injured and not exactly a threat at the moment. She runs down most of the other killers, and her stabbing of the senior police officer too was quite natural.

 

  1. Nothing to Lose

 As the night progressed, she slowly became a woman with nothing to lose. Everything she had held dear in the world, her husband, was dead, killed in a horrible way by Satbir and his gang; she was prepared to stake whatever was left to her. She became a woman with nothing to lose and that fact empowered her.

 

  1. The Big Trigger

 What triggered her rage was not that they had killed her husband; no it was when she noticed the writing on the wall that she gave a scream of horror. The killers had written in blood, ‘raand saala’ on the wall- they had not only killed him but also defaced his body and the circumstances of his death. Meera couldn’t stand it, and that was what set her off.

One of the best female characters, Anushka Sharma has definitely paved the way for more female leads in this genre.

Happy New Year, Said the Doorman

Suited up

He holds one hand in the other

Standing in attention

Instructions memorized

Professional attire

Surveying, judging

Who is for real

And who isn’t

Who has the money to enter

And who doesn’t

Cover charge, he says crisply

Six thousand.

He mocks those who exhibit outrage

And welcomes those who reach their wallets

Behind the grubby streets and the dirty walls

The shiny board rests

‘Rooftop Restaurant and Bar’

He looks up in pride

Thrilled to witness the party

Gleaming shoes and red lipsticks

Luxury bags and fitted clothes

Expensive cigarettes in the pocket

The moneybags behind the imported liquor

He smiles, warm and courteous

As the music blared

And the glasses clinked

As notes were counted

And cheers heard

So he looked onward with pride

Noticing an aberration

Something that didn’t quite fit

Gangly boys, with teeth so yellow

And faces so dirty

With feet so strong

That they never felt the midnight chill

Needed no fur or leather to keep warm

Just a patch of blanket

To hide their syringe

And the unkempt bellies

And oh the dirty hair

Which turned light brown

Similar to the people who could enter

And he looked at those two again

In annoyance

Shooing them away

As they poked those who went inside

Asking for money

Nothing less than ten

Mocking them if not obliged

And he shooed them away

Once more

Cursing under his breath

About irritants

And rodents

And pests

And filth

And spoiling the landscape

And troubling the good folk

With their poverty

And their degradation

And so

We say

Happy New Year.

 

Picture source: GB Times

What does it mean to be traveling in India?

A single or a couple of women taking a trip in India comes with its own volley of problems, as every step of the way throws up a new challenge. First of all, you cannot do the most travel-esque thing: hitchhike. A method tried and tested for travel experiences that remain unforgotten, in a country where the news is full of horror stories about crimes against women, it is a privilege only accessible to well-built, thrifty men, as we give up dreams of our very own Motorcycle Diaries. Or so common sense will tell you.

Worries begin as night falls- while big cities are notorious for their crime rates, small cities have that eerie sense of abandonment post nine pm, of perhaps police being not so readily available, of people misconstruing your purpose, of stumbling across barren land and little connectivity. As women, we choose to spend the extra cash, but not compromise on safety- we try to stay in downtown areas, tend to peek in buses to check the male-female ratio before hopping on, and generally beware of accepting any unsolicited help. We take extra care about where we stay, about the homestays we pick, about the hotels we decide on, as often enough one hears horror stories about hotel staff mixing with local goons to harass you.

And then of course, for the cherry on top, there are always judgy uncles and aunties who are only too happy to show you your place. In our train back to Delhi, a middle aged couple was surprised to find that the two of us girls were out by ourselves, asking us whether we were too fond of adventure, their eyebrows raised so high up that they threatened to get lost in the hair on their head. Of course, there are many, many of us who do go out on our own, who do hitchhike, who do take trips while staying on a tight budget- but a general middle-class consensus remains, that for a woman to travel alone in India, without an external support system, is just not safe. I do not suggest that these problems for women are exclusive to India- but perhaps I may suggest that they exist more so in India?

A night in Jodhpur and all of us sat together, conversations taking us to places unexplored. A French girl traveling to other states of India after a three-month long stint in Leh, a German out to experience the whole of south and south-east Asia, another German with similar travel plans, an Indian guy bagpacking across the entire subcontinent with a goal to know every corner of all our twenty-nine states over a period of one-and-half years- and of course, us two girls, our travel plans seeming increasingly tiny in front of their ambitious ones.

Suddenly though, the equation changes- there are foreigners amidst us who have their own set of problems. They don’t know the language, they stand out for their differently coloured skin, and are obviously not so aware of the culture of a place- additionally, in a country like India, where culture can vary so greatly every few hundred kilometres, it can get all the more confusing.

They begin to relate their experiences, one of which happened right in front of us- some of the locals extremely keen to take pictures with these whiter skinned people, simply walk up  to these foreigners and stand next to them, asking their friend to click a picture. It is bizarre; the French girl exclaims that it does not make them feel like celebrities, that it makes them feel like zoo animals. That is the gap- it wouldn’t be the locals’ intention to make them feel like zoo animals; perhaps they just act out of curiosity, and do not find any other way to express themselves since they cannot speak a language common with them.

Then there are some instances which are not so funny, some which are just plain awful. Foreigners raped on the beaches of Goa, raped while they are on drugs, robbed as they try to ask around their way, fooled into things much more sinister. It is not just limited to foreigners; as the two of us girls walked around in Pushkar, a bunch of local guys begin to follow us, asking us which country, which country. When we do not answer, they try and push each other on us, so they may accidently brush against us and every time that happened, the whole group would cheer.

There are smaller problems as well- imagine leaving a valuable bag at some place you visited, some table you sat at, in the excitement of the day, imagine accidently leaving it behind at a shop, a restaurant or in a taxi. I make this statement without referring to any stats, because there can be no reliable stats for such a thing- you’re just less likely to retrieve something you left behind or lost in India as opposed to in other touristy countries. It is easier to find something you left behind, or dropped on the way, in a country like Singapore, or Germany or Switzerland.

But why? Is it because people are more dishonest here, more deceitful? No, maybe not; maybe the problem is that we don’t have the kind of systems in place that will facilitate the search of a lost item. We don’t have effective Lost-and-Found management at tourist places, we have police who are overburdened and have better things to do than find your lost wallet and they have no problem even telling you so- it is perhaps because the system doesn’t support us that individual acts of such assistance are more rare. Of course, experiences are always subjective- you could have lost your bag in Singapore, never to be found again, and found a lost one in Punjab. But on an average, I would not pick up a wallet lying on the road and make an effort to report it to the police if I know that it’s going to take away too much time from my day and earn me additional jeers from the authorities themselves.

These are among the many factors that make traveling in India not just dangerous, but consistently difficult, and that is a terrible shame, because India, with its endless history and multicultural demographic has monumental potential. Every state has so much to teach you, with effects of an increasingly globalizing world palpable on the local population, that traveling in India can be one of the many great experiences of your life.

But as the night went on and the Jodhpur air cooled down, we began talking about the other side of India, the side beyond the gruelling heat and inconvenient transport, the side beyond the dilapidated histories and the forgotten lives. The side which sheds light on the warmth, the brilliance and the beauty of cultures which believe in communities, in helping each other out, in looking out for more than just yourself.

They relate experiences and instances where the generosity of the people has exceeded anything that they have ever witnessed- the simple gestures by which the locals welcome travellers in their homes, the way they ask them to sit and have a meal with them, to share their food and understand where they come from. I hear that and I can’t help but agree- seeing a baraat passing by the main road from our balcony, all of us rushed down to witness it as the groom and his family pulled us in with them, made us dance, and asked us to come along, to be a part of their festivities, to share their happiness. They asked us, as we stood in our dishevelled hair and random pyjamas, they asked us to come along.

When our German friend caught an auto in the middle of the night to buy cigarettes and upon reaching the shop, realized that he had no money on him, the auto guy generously offered to purchase them for him. When in the train, the judgy uncle-aunty who disapproved of our trip, also made an extra effort to visit us and check whether our unconfirmed seats got confirmed. A couple of years back, while on the train from Goa to Delhi, we befriended an old, sardaar uncle who never fails to call and wish me on any festival, who never fails to wish me on my birthday, more than two years after we met him that one time.

There is something about this country that makes traveling here an absolutely maddening and an absolutely heart-warming experience. The range of people you will find here, there is little chance that you will find it anywhere else. Perhaps its still not too clichéd to say that here you will find that something else too, maybe a method in madness, a beauty in disarray, but it is something that works.

 

 

Money Can’t Make You Work

Marlo Stanfield, an unbelievably young drug kingpin in the city of Baltimore, is caught in a multi-million dollar drug bust. Behind the drugs lies a trail of murders and black money, pinning him responsible for all these crimes, something that can ensure that he stays in jail till the day he dies and yet have years and years left in his sentence. His snarky lawyer is able to cut a deal for him that allows him to walk free with all that money, and let his subordinates take all the blame. Guilty of a drug conspiracy and more than two dozen murders, Marlo Stanfield walks away with more money than he can possibly spend in ten lifetimes. It is nothing new; with democratic legal systems, it happens all the time.

Now imagine this.

Jimmy McNulty, a police officer who has caught several murderers in his service to the police, puts his career at stake by misleading his superiors into allocating funds to their department, funds that will catch Marlo Stanfield, funds that do catch Marlo Stanfield and his associates. But once Jimmy McNulty’s fraud is caught, he is fired, and could possibly face a criminal charge.

In the face of a situation so contrasting wherein a drug dealer walks free and a police officer is fired for bending the law in trying to catch the drug dealer, one can wonder what inspires people to take up certain jobs. What can inspire you to be a police officer, with salaries that can barely sustain you, when you witness first hand how much money lies in being on the other side of the law? What inspires people to take up certain professions that seem too dangerous to us? What can inspire you to be poor policeman, when you can be the rich criminal?

It is simply the difference between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.

A difference that is underrated and overused, the one with the very thin line in between.

The difference between right and wrong.

It is this which convinces me that money is not the motivational factor, that it is not even close. Some people work for money, yes, but there are some things that can drive people in a way money never can. Marlo Stanfield, despite his millions, despite a fortune that can be spent without heed, is unable to leave his drug dealing. He is unable to quit. Just like for McNulty, it is not about the money, for Stanfield too, it is not about the money, but the thrill of the game.

Money is something that is needed to function in a society, money is something that is needed to buy our comforts and our luxuries.

But money cannot make you work.

That is where money fails.

Today I Cannot Write: The Legacy of our Colonizers

Writing about not being able to write is a common theme in literatures across the world. In modern terms, it is the writer’s block, ‘the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing’. I attempt to relate the Indian experience of writing in English, and how subtly yet profoundly it is affected by the legacy given to us by our former colonizers, in the form of the ‘universal’ language, brilliantly beautiful yet irreparably hurtful.

On a trip to China two months back, I was chatting with a few associates, and they complimented me, telling me how good my English was, that it sounded just like standard English, that it had very little accent. I looked at them quizzically- but obviously- we studied in English medium schools, I studied English literature, we talk in English more than half the time. If a language is in use so much, why wouldn’t we be good or fluent in it? We never went around complimenting each other in India on our English. And so they asked, do you also speak English at home, with your family? No, I said, not so much- a little bit, but not so much as outside home. Aah, they said, so it is your social language. You use it, they explained, in your social circles, and at your workplace.

Another time, another place. As school children, we went for an exchange to France, and again they had conceded, your English is very good. No, we French, we are the best in everything you know, we are the best country in the world, America comes second yes, but France is number one- but you guys oh, you guys definitely speak better English. Do you also speak it at home? No, I had said, not at home no, not English- our social language.

It can be stated safely, I am presuming, without reference to facts and stats, that for most Indians across the country, and by most I do mean more than ninety percent at the minimum, English is not their mothertongue, it is not their first language. Sure, we might have been conditioned to learn words like cat and bat, recite Johnny-Johnny to twenty smiling relatives, to say goodnight after dinner, but English was not our conversational language, at the beginning it was not. When I  got hurt, I never went to my mother saying look mommy, I got a boo-boo; no, I went to her saying mamma ek balti khoon nikla hai. I lost one bucket of blood- obviously an exaggeration there, but boo-boo, no it never came to my mind. English is not a language that our families gave us- it was a special gift by a special government, for its dutiful citizens, a passcode into the world. Our families gave us Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi, but English, our country gave us English.

English seeped into our lives like a language does- it came in the guise of how it became cooler to listen to English music when we were thirteen, how our teachers would say we’ll be punished if we talk in Hindi at school, how claiming you understood every line in an English movie without subtitles gained you impressed looks, how we were given the choice to drop Hindi after class eight and take up any other foreign language. It seeped into our lives, disguising itself as our compulsory subject, how you could pick maths or physics or history, you could choose to study economics or psychology or accounts, but English, everybody had to study- it was the compulsory subject, whether you chose science or commerce or arts.

And so, how could it not seep into our writings? I was thirteen and it was the first time I attempted to write a fictional story on such a grand scale. The story was quite thrilling honestly, and some days I still wish I had made something of it- a terrorist group took over a school, deploying a terrorist each in every classroom, as the children fought back using their pencils and compasses, chalkdust and water bottles, stationery stuff of a school life. But I struggled- I struggled and I struggled, not because I did not know the story or wasn’t able to write it; I struggled because I could not name my characters. The Indian names all around me, the names of my friends and teachers, my own name indeed, did not sound real enough for an English story. It just did not seem authentic.

Matt, I named a character, because Matt sounded English; Matt seemed like he belonged in an English story. And my terrorist group, they called themselves The Jungle, yes, and their head was called The Lion. And when I was faced with the eventuality of choosing Indian names, because an average classroom in India is not filled with Matts and Lizzies and Ashleys, I tried to pick Indian names that could sound as un-Indian as possible. It wasn’t due to any personal aversion that I harboured for Indian names; it was simply the sound of such names, sounds which never fit in English books, in all the stories that I had been made to read in school, all the books I had bought from the bookstore, all the TV shows that I watched, Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana- these stories never had an Akshita or a Shreya, an Aditya or an Anuj, names which were very popular at that time, names which were all around us in person, but never in the books we read.

Then there is the question of writing in English itself- any story in the world, to make itself legible and publishable, dictates that it is narrated in a single language, barring its interspersion with foreign words or phrases, it is essential that the narration must be in one language. And then again it happened: my story had a grandfather, and how do I justify that he spoke such perfect English?  I had never seen any grandfather to be so fluent in English. My story involved a squabble with the domestic help- how many women who swept your house everyday, did the dishes and cooked the food, raked the leaves and collected the garbage, how many of them spoke in English? It was a conundrum that I just could not, and still cannot, sometimes, resolve. If everybody in the story spoke in English, the story did not sound real, it did not hold true; my characters lost grit.

“Fiction must stick to the facts,” Virginia Woolf once said, “and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” So how do we deal with it? Something about it doesn’t sound real- a lot of Indian characters speaking in English, and a lot of names, did not sound real, did not sound genuine. Yet we have to deal with that fact. I try to think of what language do I think in, maybe that will give a clue- but as soon as I try to determine my thinking language, I immediate forget what I’m thinking. My thoughts escape me, forever elusive. I start counting in Hindi, and then stop after a point, realizing that I do not know the counting beyond a certain number.

With the advent of internet technology, however, and the increasing realization of our globalized times, and the past few years when Indian fiction has erupted, it is easier to make peace with these facts. It is easier to relate the Indian experience in English because the experiences are made more common, more popular, normalized to a huge extent in the books we read and the articles we keep scrolling through our social media websites.

And yet there is a split- a split which all writers writing in English must face, whose mothertongue is not English. The split in the self- personally, for me, the split in my Hindi self and my English self, in my home life and my public life, in my personal language and my social language. This split in myself in two languages is my hindrance- it is because of this split that today I cannot write.

A lot of Indian writers have dealt with this Split in incredibly creative ways. Anuja Chauhan frequently uses Hinglish words for an urban novel, which I feel is the strength of her style. Her style doesn’t pose, as terms like yaar, arre, bhai, and toh among others become as commonplace in her stories as they are in real life. Amitav Ghosh uses unique narrative styles to find his way around relating this Indian experience in English. Arundhati Roy placed The God of Small Things in small town Kerala, where English is definitely more prevalent than the rest of the country, and even she uses Malyalam phrases and words frequently in her novel. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions narrates theMahabharata from Drauapadi’s perspective, a retelling of the epic- the theme of the story is so poignant and powerful that it automatically posits itself as outside normalcy and we never need to connect it to contemporary reality. As for Tagore, I will never be able to understand how he does it- he places his stories and themes of suffering in such beauty that even his translations never seem to have undergone it.

However, the fact arises that one way or the other, we must deal with it, whether it may be by alienating our subjects or adapting contemporary usage of English as a language in a way that is relatable. The only other language that I know, Hindi, I am ashamed to admit I am not so good at anymore- I can speak it well, but read it much slower in comparison to English. As for writing, I’ve been out of practice for years- it is my fault and the fault of so many others around me, the fault in our system, and hilariously so, the fault in our stars. And it is a beautiful language lost to me.

A lot of post-colonial writers talk about this as well.  Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o renounced his usage of English as colonialist and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe talked about writing in English, but in a way that made it your own, away from the classical, traditional English. That is what we have happening in recent times- new words are added everyday, curated and abbreviated by their context, especially with information technology. All countries which underwent colonialism go through the same experience.

On the other hand, think of countries like England, America and Australia. English, there, is the mothertongue for the majority- people of all classes speak it. The dialects and the slangs vary, but primarily, it is easier to represent that community in writing, because the Split is not present. Then there are scholars who argue against homogeneity and for multilingualism-  Aijaz Ahmad makes a case for multilingualism, that we are all capable of learning multiple languages, fluently, and using them in our day to day lives, and it is only the system which teaches us that we need to have a primary language.

But today, I cannot write, not because I don’t know the story or I am unable to write- but because I face a split in myself, I am unable to understand how to represent this uniquely Indian experience in a language that seems inadequate for it. With the ghost of a language that refuses to go away, and another language that is always inside me but never truly feels mine, I must struggle to reconcile with this Split, finding new ways everyday to sound acceptable, in both worlds.

This post first appeared on mirrorfect.in