Thursday, April 27, 2006

Life, One Scribbled Note at a Time

Snippets, because I'm lazy:

Bloggers are cool. At least the ones I run into. First, I got to meet Urmi, our resident chocolate expert and gourmand at large. And what followed were some amazing conversations and meals, and now I get to vicariously partake in Kasama Loha-unchit's amazing Thai meals through her. Then Sudipta found me and a very good thing it was, because she's super fun and a great cook. And she's right in my hood! And then yesterday, I finally met up with Adagio, and gosh, I grew up around a bunch of physicists, but none were ever as engaging and interesting as him. Intellectually astute and fun, some people have it all! So yay for us.

Em likes Himesh Reshammiya's music. Now Em is no musical pleb, his interests range from Pergolesi, Bach and Rachmaninoff to Pink Floyd and System of a Down. But we were having dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant, and the background music caught our attention. It was hard to pin down, and had such a melange of styles, Indian Classical music, traditional Arabic sounds, techno, and funky pop beats. It was catchy, and Em thought it sounded pretty cool, so I had to ask the owner about the CD. Turns out, the song was from Reshammiya's Aapka Suroor album.

And I agree with Em. Reshammiya's voice may remind you of a cat with a cold, but there's no denying that his sound is very refreshing. And I don't buy the "his songs are repetitive" argument, because I've heard a lot of them and most sound different (except for the common factor of Himesh's voice). And as for the music snobs who turn up their noses at anything that catches the fancy of the masses, I'd tell them to toss it. After accumulating enough trauma for a lifetime listening to a succession of live garage and underground bands in clubs, each sounding exactly like the other, I've become pretty sceptical of the alternative and non-mainstream label. There's just interesting music and not interesting music, period. And my spectrum of interest happily accomodates Emma Kirkby's performance of Hildegard von Bingen's hymns and Himesh Reshammiya's "Tera Suroor". Here's someone who seems to agree!

In news that has me conflicted at all levels, apparently the saviour du jour of Bengali cinema, Rituparno Ghosh has been signed on by Planman Motion Pictures to direct a movie. Planman, as many members of the Indian blogosphere know, is run by Arindam Chaudhuri of IIPM, whose adventures have been well documented over the last year, and even figured twice on this blog, here and here.

Now lord knows the West Bengal film industry is severly cash strapped and needs all the help it can get. Which is why I bite my tongue and hold my peace as Rituparno ignores talented Bengali-speaking actors and actresses and casts folks who cannot speak Bengali to save their lives in an attempt to attract pan-Indian attention and finance. And lest anyone thinks I'm being ethnocentric, let me assure them that I'd be happier to see the likes of June Maliah and Priyanka Trivedi, both not ethnically Bengali but consider Bengal home, rather than Soha Ali Khan, who is nominally Bengali but speaks the language haltingly and with a pronounced accent.

With the background of the sorry state of Indian Bengali cinema, I can sort of understand why Rituparno would let Kiron Kher get away with the travesty of claiming the National Best Actress award for a role in the film Bariwali where her dialogues were dubbed by a Bengali-speaking actress. Kiron had the nerve to claim that she spoke all her dialogues in the film, which is hilarious, because anyone who saw the film can clearly figure out that:

a) the voice is not Kiron Kher's voice
b) the dialogues are spoken by a native Bengali speaker, which Kiron is not, and certainly not spoken by someone who learnt Bengali in six months, which Kiron claimed she did.

It is easier to place all this in perspective when you find out that Kiron's husband Anupam Kher ponied up most of the film's finances. But then why blame Anupam and Kiron, when Bengali filmmakers should be grateful for any money that comes their way to make anything other than out and out commercial over-the-top films. Even if it comes from Arindam Chaudhuri's Planman Motion Pictures. However, I do draw the line at mafia funding of the kind seen in Bollywood films in the past. But I don't think the likes of Dawood and Abu Salem would be lining up to finance Bengali films with artsy pretentions any time soon.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

In Which Rude Delhi Gives it Back to Those Ones

I'm irritated about the fact that I'm such a sucker for trolls. I'm one of those persons stupid enough to bite flame war baits every single time, which is why I try to avoid internet troll hotspots. But this time, the irritation is both personal and academic. And it is this Outlook cover story that triggered it all. The cover headline screams "Rude City". The lead article is titled "Mean Streets...All HQ, No IQ". The accompanying collection of sound bites is titled "Why Delhi Sucks".

Ok, I get it, sort of. Trashing a city allows you to be daringly politically incorrect while avoiding charges of being a bigot. "Why Delhi Sucks" just does not have the same ring or the same provocative potential of say, "Why Bengalis Suck". But strangely, despite the fact that I'm a nostalgic, parochial fool when it comes to Delhi, it is the shoddiness of the cover story per se that really gets to me. I'm a scholar of urban studies, and at earlier stage of my life as a PhD student, I had even considered writing a dissertation on 19th century Delhi. I still research urban development and urban spaces, and hence from that academic position, most of the writing on cities in the Indian media appalls me.

Despite the fact that the Indian media is overwhelmingly based in urban areas, and concentrates on news that occurs in urban areas, there is a severe lack of understanding of how cities grow and evolve, what impacts urban space, how urban political consensus is formed, how urban logisitics works, what is our vision for our cities, etc., etc. Instead, what we get are a few well-worn cliches - Delhi is rude, Bombay has traffic jams, Calcutta has terrible work culture and Bangalore's infrastructure is in shambles. And these cliches get repeated ad nauseaum in article after article till they lose whatever information value they might have originally possessed.

Ok, not to be a pessimistic whiner, there are exceptions. I thought the stories done by CNN-IBN and earlier by Outlook on religious and ethnic discrimination of tenants in Bombay were very competent. Last Sunday a Hindustan Times story on fast food restaurants in Indian metros mentioned that because Bombay and Delhi have different zoning laws, restaurants are allowed in residential areas in Bombay but not in Delhi. A-ha! Now that's something I didn't know of, so very nice indeed. But merely for the purposes of illustration, not to compare, something along the lines of stories in LA Times and LA Weekly in Los Angeles, and NY Times and Village Voice in New York would do wonders for awareness about our cities.

Addendum: Here's one more interesting journalist to be optimistic about. And ironically she writes for Outlook! These are a set of some very competent pieces written by Chitvan Gill, where she brings a finer, more complex understanding to what ails the modern Indian metropolis. She's obviously someone who is well aware of urban debates, though this probably makes her writing a little less accessible to a lay reader. But she's definitely worth a read.

But back to the Outlook piece, because I'm itching to do a hatchet job. So the lead story begins with a quote by the Delhi media's favourite dial-a-quote academic, JNU sociologist Dipankar Gupta. Now Dipankar Gupta is a fairly fine scholar, but not exceptionally so. One of the prime reasons why he pops up all over the place is because he's a bit of a hottie, and having a TV friendly face does help. So anyway, here's what he has to say:

Delhi’s grown from sleepy town to metropolis, incorporating a rural population of independent and aggressive small landholders over whom the urban influence is still very shallow.... Delhi is also the seat of power; everything here is a power play...negotiable and up for grabs. Even among the educated, who’ve been to the right schools, the first instinct is to break the law.


That does not make any sense whatsoever. Almost every Indian metropolis made a very recent transition from sleepy town to metropolis. Even Bombay, which made the transition earlier than most others. And Delhi has had an unbroken history of an indigenous urban culture for nearly 500 years now, ever since Shahjahan decided to abandon Agra for good and shift base to Shahjahanabad.

And do not miss the condescension to small landholders "over whom the urban influence is still very shallow". Without even defining what it means to be urban in the Indian context, we've already decided whom to exclude. Very fine academic insight indeed!

And here's Mukul Kesavan holding forth:

Contemporary life in great cities is documented in close, loving, obsessive detail by writers and by filmmakers, its neighbourhoods are invested with magic, not just for those who live in them, but a wider world beyond. That has happened to London, to New York, to Mumbai, to Calcutta, but not to Delhi. We need to ask ourselves why


Thank you Dr. Kesavan, for letting me know that all the works of Bhisham Sahni, Nirmal Verma, Rajendra Yadav and Krishna Sobti amount to nothing. Poets like Gulzar whose Delhi nostalgia oozes forth in songs like "Logon ke Ghar Mein Rehta Hoon" and "Kajra Re" amount to nothing. Filmmakers like Romesh Sharma (New Delhi Times) and Pankaj Butalia amount to nothing. The creative outpourings of Jamia Millia's MCRC amounts to nothing. Oh right, you're not aware of any of them, because their medium of expression is Hindi/Hindustani, a language that sort of flies under the radar of Delhi's resident intelligentsia. And then over chais and samosas they can have their whinefest over why there is no creative documentation of the city, splendid!

The reason why I concentrate on the quotes by the academics is because the main article is just so poorly written that it cannot even be dignified with comment. Fudged facts, hyperbole, lack of even a shred of nuance, it is a pathetic reflection of what passes for cultural commentary in contemporary India. I look in vain for some insight, some causality, some background to what is being described, how did things come to such a pass, how to fix responsibility, etc. But the article flits from one shock value fragment highlighting Delhi's rudeness to another without pause, breathless with delight at finding yet another piece to fit into the convenient narrative.

Ultimately though, what strikes me is how pointless this sort of article is for any sort of constructive thought to emerge. So now that we've established that Delhi is indeed a nightmarish, impossibly rude, post-apocalyptic city, what do we do about this? Depopulate the place, raze it to the ground and start anew? There's historical precedent for that, the British did something similar after 1857, angered by the city's resistance to British forces. Or do we do require residents to take etiquette lessons and anger management courses? How do you encourage civic pride and responsibility, when the city's intelligentsia happily pours scorn over the rest of the unwashed masses, while presumably being above it all and very suave and urbane themselves?

How do we fix the city's apathy to high culture performances (never mind that an organization like SPICMACAY began in Delhi, and Delhi has its own well established gharana of Hindustani classical music). Indeed, try squeezing in to the Nizamuddin Dargah during the Urs celebrations, when qawwali performances mesmerise audiences for hours on end. One of the biggest and most consistent patrons of Indian classical arts are the Shri Ram family, the most well-established business entities to emerge from Delhi. The yearly performance of the Ramayana at Ramlila Grounds in Delhi plays to packed audiences, who stay up all night to watch a story they've known all their lives. That's living, breathing, dynamic cultural expression, but perhaps it does not fit into what our chattering classes would like to think of as "culture".


What we are left with then, are a bunch of silly soundbites, some by established intellectuals like Gerson da Cunha, whose statement, though hyperbolic, is something I can still sort of nod in agreement with. Girish Kasaravalli's statement is a personal impression I can certainly understand. Lutyen's Delhi can be a bit visually confounding, because there are rows and rows of white bungalows without any landmarks between them. The other commentators though, are not so cerebrally gifted. There's Shobhaa De, flogging whatever's left of her 15 minutes of fame when she wrote bad sex in her books in pre-cyber savvy India. And Jogen Choudhury, whatever his artistic merits, makes disgusting, rude comments about people from Punjab, UP and Haryana, which just goes to show how "cultured" he really is.

And now after reading this entire piece, it seems almost as if I was consumed by the cover story for days, which is not true. I wrote out the post in two sittings, and between them, I attended two amazing Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations. The first was in the church as usual, and after the boys bungled our post-midnight dinner reservation, we randomly got invited to someone's house party. This person turned out to be a fellow student from our university, a very warm and hospitable host who kept plying us with food and wine. We stayed on till nearly 4:00 a.m. talking and laughing, oblivious of the time.

And today we had a grand Easter picnic, with lots of friends and acquaintances, and the cutest old couple ever. When the weather got a little chilly the old man, ever attentive walked off to get a jacket, which he proceeded to lovingly wrap around the woman's shoulders. There it was, all my desires for the perfect relationship summed up in one gesture: companionship and regard in old age.

So as you can tell, I've already started losing interest in what I wrote, because ultimately the Outlook article is more comical than anything else and my attempts to seriously analyze it make me look like a Don Quixote charging at the windmills. But I typed all that nonsense up and my fingers hurt dammit, so read it if you must.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Match

Carrying on from the marriage theme in the last post. Mostly because my daily existence does not inspire even a creative squeak. It's hard to muse over laziness and its discontents ad infinitum. Hence, I need to take up little slivers of incidents and stretch them into reflections on love, life and samosa (and zero inspiration for PhD may be because I haven't had a decent samosa in soooooo long *remember, sigh and drool*).

Anyway, so I was woken up from my precious Sunday slumber by my aunt who called to inform me of the existence of yet another eligible for marriage Bengali man who has graciously consented to deign to look at my photograph. So make haste and email your photo pronto...oh no, not just any photo, but....mmmmm.....you know...the decent kind. The one in which you wear decent clothes (preferably Indian) and gaze longingly into the camera, and perhaps an obliging friend can photoshop and airbrush your mug to within an inch of its existence.

I really have nothing against my aunt informing me about eligible men, besides the fact that she lives in the Midwest and invariably forgets about our time zone difference when making calls. "You sound sleepy, o ma, did I wake you up?" Duh!!! I've also figured out that 9 times out of 10 she only calls me to inform me about some overeducated Bong man she had encountered who she thinks would be oh so perfect for me. She is an amateur matchmaker ("ghatak" in Bangla, my cousins in India have nicknamed her "ghatkali champion"), and has also tried to set up several other cousins of mine and my mother's as well.

Efforts to get me married off are super fun for me, and spice up my otherwise entertainment starved existence. My parents never obliged. They barely mentioned marriage a bunch of times in the last few years, and then after being informed of the boyfriend, duly asked for pics, and then indicating approval, have more or less left the matter alone.

I know I can put a stop to all this by telling her about my boyfriend, but I really don't want to do that unless I have to. There are two reasons for this deception:

a) It would involve a long-winded explanation which I am loathe to provide. Said aunt is a bit of a gossip and chatterbox and wouldn't rest till she gets down to the last details, like his high school grades and his shoe size.

b) This is too much fun, I wouldn't want to stop it, and maybe I should tell my parents not to discuss my boyfriend with her :).

This time, she came up with a prize catch. A PhD holder who works at NASA, no less! The NASA tag seems to command a premium in the Bong marriage market, I've heard it mentioned approvingly several times before as well. This is hilarious, because I have acquaintances who've worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, who'd never believe that working at NASA helps land chicks. That pick-up line doesn't work.

Last time around, she had found a man, raised in Bengal, who was temporarily in the US for a Post-doc. Initially she had tried to set the fellow up with a dazzingly accomplished cousin of my mother's (let's call her DD) who was raised in the US. Now DD isn't averse to the idea of an arranged marriage, but definitely wants a Bengali-American. When I asked my aunt why she had suggested this fellow, who was obviously not what DD was looking for, she snapped, "Well, it doesn't help to be picky, does it? And she's over-the-hill, she should take whatever she can get". DD was 33 at the time.

For my aunt, women are selling in a buyer's market, and we beggars can most definitely not be choosers. But as she finds out often, this is not how the real world works. She once tried to set up a beautiful and quite vain cousin (call her BK) of my uncle's with a man severly challenged in the looks department. The only excuse was that BK was divorced and hence should be grateful for whatever she gets. BK had married a hottie of a first husband, and was in no mood to lower her standards. This resulted in an embarassing fiasco, where the man travelled all the way to India to meet BK, only to be rejected on the spot.

I've often been tempted to play along more fully, but for the fact that my aunt will not be amused when she finds out I'm taking her for a ride. So I've considered sending an ironic photo of me in traditional garb, radiating domestication and "I cook perfect maachh shorshey on weekends" look. But the last thing I'd want to do is play a joke at the expense of men who are seriously looking for a wife. I've friends who've either gone through or are going through the process right now, and you don't need a scumbag like me to make it any more uncomfortable than it is.

Seriously though, if I did want to be set up with someone, I'd pick a close friend or parent's recommendation over that of a relative who knows me quite superficially. I remember how when I first met my boyfriend, my friend Becks sat me down and told me exactly why she thought we should go out with each other. It was very sensible advice, given by someone who knew me as a person as well as what was missing in my life which could be complemented by S's interests. This was much more valuable than the CV rattled off by my aunt, detailing academic and professional accomplishments.