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We the People of India- Chapter 9. Jo Jahaan: Go to Pakistan!

In school, I was the oddest combination of red hair, black eyebrows, red spectacles, black braces, red socks and black shoes there ever was. Naturally, I had no hot friends. The hotties ruled the world and I was a far spec in it. At 13, these weirdos were beautiful, well-groomed and soaked in the manicured romanticism of the 90s: clear skin, pony tails, neck-tied sweaters, the works. There were only two ways to befriend a hottie. You could be a hottie yourself, or you could submit your services to a hottie’s tribe depending on your skill set. I was not the former and my teenage self-dignity did not allow me to be the latter, with the result that I had no social life in school. What I did have was a lot of time and nowhere else to go but the library. I loved the library. I wore my nerdy-ness with pride even though it was a function of social ostracisation. I suppose that’s how most childhood nerds are born. Pushed away by real people, we find refuge in the make-belief world of books; hotties and tribes be damned.

The lone anomaly in our perfectly primitive and factionalised society was Jo. Jo looked like a hottie but chose to be nerd. She read books, and took painting lessons, and played hockey – all the while enveloped in sparkles of hottie dust. Oddly enough, neither the hotties nor the nerds seemed to mind her anomalous existence. Everybody loved Jo. I spent some time with her because she was close to Dots, one of my only two friends at the time. I liked Jo. She always made an effort with me, never-mind my dichromatic existence and lack of conversational skills. We weren’t close or anything though, we never kept in touch after school.

Leaving school was a sudden social awakening for me. I lost the braces and the specs, began paying attention to the colour of clothes I put on, bagged a couple of fancy jobs and, finally, made ‘a bunch of’ friends. It took me fifteen years but I eventually concocted my own brand of hottie powder and would have gladly faced off, highlighter-for-highlighter, with any of the school hotties. The occasion even presented itself when Dots’ invited me to her wedding-cum-school-reunion in Assam last year. I went for it all blow-dryers blazing only to discover that the hotties had by now become specs in my world. It was disappointing to have my moment of vengeance undercut by a lack of opposition, but deeply satisfying that my childhood story had come a full circle with an eloquent moral lesson in the end: every mare has her share. A lesson made more obtuse by the fact that only the kind princess had survived. Fifteen years on, Jo’s beauty and charisma had blossomed. She was more outspoken than I remembered her, even a bit blunt, but it only made her more alluring. She had chosen a career in art and word was she was good at it. She lived in her own one bed-room apartment in South Delhi, had a hunk of a boyfriend. Her life was what it was meant to be: perfect.  

Jo and I spent a great amount of time together during Dots’ wedding week.  I suppose we were bound by our common disdain for the erstwhile hotties and our common love for Dots. We took our ‘team-bride’ responsibilities seriously, choreographing dance numbers for the whole family, dressing Dots’ up and down for each of her eleven (true story) pre-nuptial ceremonies, hand-making an Assamese mural at the wedding pandal (altar) with thousands of morsels of rice after the artists engaged for the job disappeared. By the time the wedding day came about, we were pooped. We only had enough energy to dump Dots at the pandal and make our way to the bar. We were neck-deep in a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye when Dots’ grandfather found us hiding behind a tree with our fourth cocktail in hand.

He was pissed that we were drinking while the wedding ceremony was underway and insisted that we go back to the pandal. I tried to pacify him with a diversionary conversation about careers. Indian parents love that topic. They thrive on giving their two bits of unsolicited advice. I told Grandpa that I was thinking of moving abroad in search of a better job, to which Jo added ‘same, same!’, explaining that her parents were intent on shipping her off to Canada, to which Grandpa declared ‘you can always go to Pakistan’, to which the conversation came to an end.

At first, my drunken mind couldn’t make any sense of it – Jo’s chin up, Grandpa’s chin up, cold stares, silence. What the hell was going on?  

And then it dawned on me. Jamilia Jahaan! That was her real name, wasn’t it?

She was a Muslim. This was a Hindu wedding. Grandpa was merely echoing a rhetoric that had become commonplace in new age, communalised, India: India belongs to the Hindus, it has no place for the Muslims, the Muslims should leave and go to Pakistan.

Embarrassment broke out in beads of sweat on my forehead as I realised what had happened. I fumbled to make amends, ‘But home is where the heart is, isn’t it? Jo, India will be devastated if you cheat on her with Pakistan!’ and then I guffawed as if this whole conversation was a ridiculous joke.

No one laughed with me. ‘No no – we are very happy here without you folks, you can leave anytime’, Grandpa wouldn’t give up.

I wanted to punch him. This is the girl who made your grand-daughter’s wedding the stinging success that it is, you foolish, bull-headed, man! I calmed my throbbing, far from sober, mind and turned to placate Jo. Too late. She was walking away from us. I called out to her fast-receding silhouette in vain. Staying back just long enough to give Grandpa one long, icy, stare, I ran after Jo.

But I didn’t find her. Not then, not later that night at our guest house, not early the next morning at the airport on my way back to Delhi, not in Delhi. I called her number and left messages on all her social media pages. Nothing.

After two months of suspense, Dots called to say Jo was leaving for Canada. I got Dots to get her address from somewhere and showed up at her house.

She looked upset that she was leaving. ‘But honestly, is there even a choice?…People here are just crazy’.

‘Please don’t tell me you are leaving because of what he said that night. He is a senile man who doesn’t know his ass from his face. Are you really going to let one doddering old dodo change your life?’, I urged.

Do you honestly think this is about him? This is about everyone, everywhere, all the time! I turn on the TV, I read a newspaper, I meet a client – it is always the same. There is always one fanatic waiting to tell me how Hindu he is and how Muslim I am… I have never felt more Muslim than I do now!’ she said.

I knew what she meant. We had hit thirty without any consciousness of religious identities in our lifetimes. But all that had changed in just a couple of years thanks to divisive right-wing propaganda in Indian political discourse. Religious identity now dominated every social question: what to wear, what to eat, what to say, who to vote for. Why? Well, because, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim. All day, all night, and all the time in between. Hindu-Muslim over dinner. Hindu-Muslim at work. Hindu-Muslim at the movies. Suddenly, people had become acutely aware of their own religion and the religion of every other person in their lives. Just as well. The economy was going to shit anyway. Religious identity gave them a sense of security where resources failed.

I felt terrible, strangely responsible, that Jo was leaving. The kind princess being uprooted from her fairy tale and dumped into a Shakespearean tragedy by people who worshipped the same gods as me. And there was no assurance I could give her. Were things ever going to get any better down here? Maybe not. Maybe our kind was destined to sink in the quicksand of communal hate. Maybe emigration was Jo’s only hope to a truly self-determined and equal life.

We said goodbyes and I left.

The whole thing made me uneasy though. For me, it turned back time. I felt like I was back in school, helpless in the face of factionalised politics and contests for tribal superiority. Everything was the same, only the tribes had changed. I buried myself in work, hoping once again to find respite in books from the complicated world outside. With each passing day, I became more of the recluse I had been as a kid. Ten months went by this way.

Then last Sunday I opened the door to an insistent door-bell, ready to blast my head off at the intruder and found Jo standing on the other side. She wore a white T and her hair was an odd shade of blonde. Such a foreigner, I thought.

She hugged me, went straight to the living room and sunk herself into the couch. ‘I went. I tried it. It sucked. I missed the boy too much… and you guys… and meri Dilli (my Delhi)!! I missed meri Dilli!! … You said it first. Home is where the heart is. My heart is in this city, right here’, she waved her hands at the room, ‘hang them all!…If they have a problem, they can go to Pakistan!’

I reached over and gave her a long, long, hug. She laughed and patted my back, as I sobbed uncontrollably.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the People (series): Not old and cold, just White and Wise (Chapter 7.)

Seriously though, where are the oldies? We’ve been crying ourselves hoarse over kindergarten lessons in moral science – ‘don’t be a bully’, ‘don’t call them names’, ‘love thy neighbour!’ – and the people who taught us all this stuff are nowhere to be seen. Its a Curious-Case-of-Benjamin-Button with dads and uncles avoiding us like kids on a never-ending sulk as we youngsters try and cajole them into behaving like responsible adults. From steering dinner-table conversations with political ‘fun-facts’ to sending ‘must watch!’ videos on whatsapp groups we’d rather exit, we have tried every your turf, your rules, no cheating, way possible to engage Generation X in the struggle for a free and secular India. We have reasoned, argued, and even pleaded with the Xs to join the younger generations on the streets, waive a flag, raise a slogan. And we have failed. That’s right. Time for us to accept as every parent must at some point in their parenting life-span: we have tried, we have failed, and we really don’t know what else to do.

The marvel of old-India’s apathy to the mayhem that confronts the country has been the subject of young-India’s daily tea-time conversations for several months now. There seems to be a general consensus that it all stems from bottled-up resentment over the partition (India-Pakistan) which likely dominated the childhood of the present old-folks and left deep scars of Hindu-Muslim animosity in their minds. Unfortunately, the birth of an independent India was so married to the ideas of equality and secularism that it was considered distasteful to talk about classifications like ‘rich and poor’, ‘upper caste and untouchables’, ‘Hindu and Muslim’ in public. Particularly those who aspired to belong to the elite classes by birth, education or money had to conform and keep a lid on their resentment against the ‘other community’.

But all that’s gone now. Politics and the internet have normalised hate in our daily lives and the educated, middle-aged, Indian, man is beyond himself with relief. He can vent all he wants, to whoever he wants, about whoever he wants. And who can argue with him? He received the lordship of his household at birth and he really couldn’t be bothered with what his kids think because ‘you weren’t there when we were partitioned so don’t you tell me right from wrong.’

After expectantly searching a crowd too many for someone senior to lead the way at protest marches, preamble readings, door-to-door campaigns, I had given up on the entire lot of oldies. I had accepted their all-knowing indifference as a deliberate political choice and decided not to waste any more tea on the subject.

You can imagine my surprise then at stepping into a McDonald’s last Tuesday – expecting to meet the rumoured ‘power-house’ of the door-to-door awareness campaigns on India’s controversial citizenship law – and finding myself waved at by a very enthusiastic old man. He was wearing a white blazer, a white shirt and beige pants. His receding hairline was all white and combed to perfection. Too old, I thought, as I continued to look around for other probable suspects. He stood up and strode across the room to me with surprising deft, ‘Beti, are you here for the awareness campaign?’. The wrinkles on his face danced as he spoke. His front two teeth were missing.

Too, too, old, I thought. Baby boomer? Totally, must be 80 or something. ‘Yes uncle, are you Trivedi?’ (name changed for anonymity)

‘Yes yes, come. Let’s get something to drink while we wait for the others’, he said.

As we slid into a nearby table and waited for our drinks, this man told me that he was an IIT professor with some intense specialisation in physics. He had been a professor for thirty years, held an emeritus position for another five, and had recently retired. He had also taught at a US University for several years along the way, but he had felt compelled to come back to India because – this is where I nearly choked on my strawberry milkshake to keep from laughing –  he believed that India had far more scientific potential than the States.

Later that evening, I followed him and some other volunteers into Delhi’s impoverished neighbourhoods, down by-lanes nestled in the shadows of the city’s dazzling gated colonies. He approached people with a friendly smile, spoke about this policy and that and patiently countered fiction with fact. Most conversations ended with him patting backs or shaking hands and handing his audience little yellow booklets. Some times he got into yelling jousts and had to be pulled away. Either way, he walked on. No tea breaks, no sitting down. Just a bit of pulling the blazer closer and rubbing the hands to keep warm. On and on, hour after hour, street after street.

‘Power-house’ was not an apt description for this man of zeal and purpose. It may have even been an insult. After four hours of keeping up with him, I was exhausted to my bones. I could tell from his gait that his half-a-century-older legs were nowhere close to yielding. The pain shooting up mine had long overtaken my pretensions of youthful tenacity. Defeated, I bent the knee, ‘Professor, I think I will head home now. I have some legal work to finish’.

‘Oh, accha beti, we will wrap up here as well I think. Just let me say goodbye to this last gentleman’.

Fifteen minutes later, he was still exchanging booklets. I put my aching foot down, ‘Professor, I think I will be going now. Do you want me to drop you somewhere? I have a car.’

‘That will be so kind of you. Thank you’.

On the way, he offered me one of the little yellow booklets he was carrying. ‘A few of us professors got together and wrote this. It has some facts and quotes describing the richness of India’s religious co-existence’. This time my laughter gave way, ‘Professor sir, you have probably noticed that there are hardly any people from your generation in this movement. You must have seen the partition. You must have been around when the Kashmiri Pandits were expelled from Kashmir. How can you still believe in India’s harmony after seeing all that in your lifetime?’

He responded without a beat, ‘I believe it when I see you kids! I see you and I feel happy that we succeeded in shielding our children from the hatred of our times… Our only responsibility now is to give you the future you want. You are fighting for peace, for freedom, and I will die defending your right to have it… We must all believe in a better future, beti…otherwise, our past will have no meaning!’ His eyebrows reached for his forehead and his hands slapped his knees as he spoke. His face lit up with pride.

I wanted to hug him. I had the feeling that I had run into the sheltering arms of a loving grand-parent from an unfair parental onslaught. Why are you spreading fake news and don’t tell us about history and you kids think secularism is fashionable and where were you when the Kashmiri Pandits were forced out of Kashmir and have you heard Mr. X’s speech calling for a third partition and have you seen that video of women taking money? A lump welled up in my throat. I turned my gaze away from him and stared at the road ahead.

He placed the yellow booklet on my lap. ‘We will be meeting day after to discuss printing some more material for awareness campaigns. Tum aana beti, varna hum buddhe toh baatein hi karte reh jayenge’. He giggled, showing all of his deserted gums. I smiled back.

He got off in a market place. ‘I will try to engage a few people here and then walk home. You carry on’.

I left him standing on a pavement, white and wise, yellow booklets in hand.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the People (series): 'O captain, my captain!' (Chapter 6)

Judges were like celebrities. Every intonation they uttered was of consequence – it had to be studied, deciphered. Everything they did was perfect, wise and oh so sharp.

I remember the first time I visited the Supreme Court ten years ago. I was fresh out of law school and all I wanted was a piece of court action. I started out in the Delhi High Court, where my only task was to buy time for my senior if a Judge took up our case before he made it to court and seek an adjournment if there was no chance of him showing up at all. It sounds boring, but I cannot tell you how much fun it was just sitting in a courtroom for hours and watching the drama unfold case after case. At lunch-time, I would head to the canteen and catch up with other juniors, all of whom had the same job-description as me. We would spend our entire lunch gossiping about this judge and that: how she scolded this lawyer, how he cracked that joke, how she always came prepared, how he never read a brief. Judges were like celebrities. Every intonation they uttered was of consequence – it had to be studied and deciphered. Everything they did was perfect, wise and oh so sharp. Even when they were wrong, they could not be too wrong. One always found excuses like ‘he wasn’t in the mood to listen today’ or ‘he just got stuck on that issue’ or ‘he doesn’t have much experience on this roster’ because how could s/he actually just be wrong or biased or ignorant?

At the helm of this celebrity-hood were judges of the Supreme Court, and I was just one in their billion fans both inside and outside of the legal fraternity. That first day when I had to assist my senior in the Supreme Court, I sacrificed my daily dose of gossip and snuck into Court 1 – where the Chief Justice of India sits – at lunch. It stands right under the cupola that characterises the Supreme Court building, on the first major landing of a wide, endless, staircase leading up to the court complex from sprawling lawns. Nobody was there in court, not even the Court master. I sat in the front row facing the Judges’ pedestal and looked around, overwhelmed. The ornate dark wooden interiors, the towering straight-backed empty chairs in front of me, the image of Ashoka’s lions on the walls behind them with the words Yato Dharmastato Jayah – ‘whence justice, thence victory’ – inscribed beneath them, the portraits of two famous Justices adorning the walls. Grand, so grand. I remember saying a silent prayer: God, let me argue a case here one day.

We, the 20, 30 and 40-somethings who are arguably the future of the legal profession are blissfully ignorant of the questionable ways in which this very court compromised the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the mid-70s…

In the ten years of practice that followed, I put my legal skills to profitable use and travelled the world thanks to work. But my dream to argue a case in the Chief’s Court persisted, undiminished by other successes. For me and for uncountable other lawyers of my generation the Chief’s Court has always been the physical manifestation of the one thing we all hold dear: the Indian Constitution. That supreme law which binds our vast and unwieldy country together into one prosperous, secular, democratic, civilization. We, the 20, 30 and 40-somethings who are arguably the future of the legal profession are blissfully ignorant of the questionable ways in which this very court compromised the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the mid-70s. We were too young to experience the horror of Indira Gandhi’s emergency (1975-1977) or appreciate the many battles our legal fraternity fought to protect the Constitution, only to lose them in the infamous Habeas Corpus case. In that historic decision, the Chief’s Court ruled by a majority of 4 to 1 that Indian citizens did not have the right to approach courts for the protection of their key fundamental rights: equality, life, liberty, and the right against arbitrary arrest and detention. Justice Khanna was the only dissenter and he paid for his dissent dearly when he was subsequently superseded to the office of the Chief Justice of India at the behest of Indira Gandhi. We have read about these things, we know they happened, but we don’t see traces of them anywhere. Our consciousness has only registered the strong Court of the 80’s and thereafter. The Court which preserves the constitution’s inviolable basic structure, protects the man on the street from all political encroachments and brings down governments for corruption scams. The emergency has always been a tiny black blip in the Court’s long and glorious history in our minds.

…someone would have rushed to the Chief the day after masked goons brutally assaulted JNU students as the Delhi Police stood by and watched. But no one did.

Always, up until now. Now the prestige of the Chief’s Court is quickly dissolving in my estimation. I suddenly see the Supreme Court more clearly. I see a Court which found one community guilty of destroying another’s place of worship in ‘egregious violation of the rule of law’, but did not restore the victim’s religious integrity. I see a Court which accepted that the indefinite suspension of internet services by the executive is an impermissible infringement of the right to freedom of expression, but did not strike down the violative executive orders. I see a Court refusing to put a stop to the daily infringement of the fundamental rights of people who just want to tell their own government that they disagree with some of its policies. Evidently, there are others who see the Court the way I do now. Otherwise someone would have rushed to the Chief the day after masked goons brutally assaulted JNU students with the complicity of Delhi’s Police. But no one did.

From wanting to earn my place in the Chief’s Court, I am forced to read the Preamble of India’s Constitution it the court-lawns as a reminder of the principles it is bound to protect.

From wanting to earn my place in the Chief’s Court, I am forced to read the Preamble of India’s Constitution in the lawns outside as a reminder of the principles it is bound to protect. I am reminding myself of a few things too: of the emergency, of the Habeas Corpus case, and of the reason why the sole dissenter in that case, Justice Khanna, is one of the only two Justices whose portraits hang in Court 1 today. The other being Justice Kania, the first Chief Justice of India.

I want to believe that the Court I have admired all my lawyer life has learnt from its past experiences. That it will never again be a handmaiden for political gimmicks, that it will never again damage the fabric of India’s Constitution, that it will never again let Indian citizens out to dry. The moment of reckoning is not far. On 22 January 2020, the Chief’s Court will commence its hearing of the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. I will know soon enough if I am just an optimistic fangirl who needs to accept that her favourite movie star is nothing but another sad guy in a bar. I know it will break my heart, and mine will be one in a billion.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the People: All rise, the Hindustani Hindu (Chapter 5)

Will the real Hindu please stand up?!

The events of last week have been so emotionally topsy-turvy that I cannot help but start with them. I was at AIIMS the night those wounded kids from the two warring factions of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) trickled into the trauma centre’s emergency ward one by one. There was enough blood, tragedy and politics in that scene to last me a lifetime.

A lot has already been said about the identity of the perpetrators and their politico-religious motivations. I am not going to talk about them today. Let’s blur the perpetrators out of the hospital scene for a moment and focus our attention on the victims. Who are these people – collapsed on beds, slumped into wheelchairs, bandaged on the forehead, fractured in the limbs? What is their religion, their politics, their agenda?

Fun fact: from the eighteen-odd people who had their MLCs (medicolegal cases forms, for serious injuries) drawn up that night, more than half had Hindu names. I spoke to a few among them. They were resolutely polite and calm despite all the madness in the hospital, patiently dealing with endless CT scans, X-rays, nurse enquiries, doctors, lawyers, journalists, without so much as raising their voices. When you meet that kind of Hindu, you wonder who the hell that crazy person vowing to kill everyone and yelling at you through your TV screen is.

They were resolutely polite and calm despite all the madness in the hospital, patiently dealing with endless CT scans, X-rays, nurse enquiries, doctors, lawyers, journalists, without so much as raising their voices. When you meet that kind of Hindu, you wonder who the hell that crazy person vowing to kill everyone and yelling at you through your TV screen is.

It is as impossible that these two people belong to the same religion as it is natural for them to show up on different sides of the communal dialogue. One defending harmony, the other inciting hate. One fighting for justice, the other meting it out instantly on the street. One getting the stick for all its compassion, the other ruling the roost for all its anger.

Let me introduce you to the first Hindu, the Hindustani Hindu. She is far removed from the second. In fact, she is quite an unusual breed.

The Hindustani Hindu: the underdog and her Hindustan

She is out on the streets of India in protest, but don’t mistake her for an ordinary protestor. The world in 2019 saw countless citizen-agitations for all kinds of reasons. In Chile, people first struck out because of a hike in subway fares. In Egypt, because of  corruption. In Hong Kong, because of a law which enabled extradition of criminal suspects to China. Everywhere, people fought for their own rights. Their own economic, political, societal, betterment. Not our Hindustani Hindu though. What has brought her to the streets is a concern that her Muslim sisters will become ‘illegal immigrants’ under a newly introduced Indian law which secures favourable citizenship for Hindus like her. She is fighting for the freedom of another, against a system that is designed to favour her.

Everywhere, people fought for their own rights – their own economic, political, societal betterment. Not our Hindustani Hindu though…She is fighting for the freedom of another, against a system that is designed to favour her.

She has been slow to come to this point of dissent, but don’t compare her to the Nazis in Germany. When Hitler introduced the Nuremberg laws and reserved citizenship for the ‘German-blooded’ alone, the Germans barely retaliated in support of their Jewish neighbours. But that’s not our Hindustani Hindu. She is up in arms in every visible way. She is in public places across states, even those with a near-90% Hindu majority (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu). She is in the courtyards of leading universities, even those with traditionally apolitical stances. She is on TV amongst journalists, actors, politicians, even those who have held their silence for the last six years.

Many of her kind are yet to take a stand, but don’t misread that for her marginal presence in the country. This is her Hindustan. The one that chose secularism even after being partitioned on religious lines. The one that has peacefully harboured federal states with Muslim, Christian and Sikh majorities ever since. The one that has been crying out ‘Jai Hind’ to the blue skies above JNU’s gates, drowning out the voices of ‘Jai Sriram’ for a week now.

Many of her kind are yet to take a stand but don’t misread that for her marginal presence in the country. This is her Hindustan. The one that chose secularism even after being partitioned on religious lines...

There are millions like her. Some of them are torn between their pride in Gandhi’s inclusive Hinduism, and a rhetoric which keeps reminding them of the past: the partition of Pakistan from India, the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, Hindu-Muslim riots… Some of them are scared: they don’t want to lose business, jobs, friendships, over a fight which seems far removed from their comfortable lives. But all of them are awake, alive to what’s going on around them… and making up their minds.

India’s tomorrow: the aggression of a Hindu and the resistance of another

Contrary to popular opinion, the fate of India does not depend on the aggression of the Hindutva Hindu but on the resistance of the Hindustani Hindu. Will she and her kind be able to rally around the Gandhian idea of an India which derives its political and economic strength from the unity of its diverse people? Will they refuse to right the past by doing more wrong? Or will they sit back and watch their country disintegrate into smaller and smaller fractions of minorities, backward classes, women, homosexuals, liberals?

Contrary to popular opinion, the fate of India does not depend on the aggression of the Hindutva Hindu but on the resistance of the Hindustani Hindu.

In a sense, India is at the same precipice she left behind 70 years ago. The same choices which troubled our Hindustani Hindu then haunt her again: love or hate? grace or revenge?

India waits with bated breath for her to make the right decision, as do her wounded kin from the hospital beds of AIIMS.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the people (series): 'Naari, Naari' and 'Bharat Mata' (Chapter 4.)

If you are even half-way unconvinced about the obsession with women’s issues in India these days, I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes at the title of this post. What’s all the fuss about, right? Take the on-going anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) / National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests for example. Yes alright, women are participating in large numbers in the protests all across the country, but aren’t men coming out in equally large numbers? Why is nobody focussing on that? Why does every public discourse have to turn into a version of the #metoo movement these days?

I’ll tell you what I know of the last seventeen days as a lawyer, and you can answer these questions for yourself.

Friends, parents, the fear of leaving them behind

It all started on the Friday before last, 20 December 2019. I had a Friday night plan as usual: to cozy up in a blanket with my girlfriend, drink chai and gossip. I mean I would have loved a glass of wine if it were handy, but it wasn’t. And there was no way in hell we were braving Delhi’s frostbiting cold to get one at a bar. We were a cup of chai down, socks kissing the oil heater at the foot of the bed, nearing snugness coma, when I got a call. A girl I knew from law school, asking if I could help with some anti-CAA / NRC protestors who had been detained at the Daryaganj Police Station. I looked at my watch. It was 9.30 p.m. – well beyond curfew time for a girl in Delhi – and Daryaganj was 40 minutes away. It had been a hotbed for protestor-police clashes for a week now. The idea of going there at this time was crazy. But I had volunteered to help and this was my first call. I couldn’t back down now. With mortal effort I shoved off the blanket, wore boots, bundled into my car and hit the road.

As I left behind the still-alive traffic of South Delhi and drove past the bright lights of Central Delhi into the lifeless, lightless, streets of Daryaganj, I began to miss my parents. Had I told them enough that I loved them?

The messengers of courage

There was no car in sight now. Only police jeeps. I glanced at my phone hoping to find comfort in virtual reality. And there was. I had received a few messages asking if I needed help in getting to Daryaganj. One was from a girl who practiced at the Delhi High Court with me. The others were from numbers I didn’t know. I tried to relax. People knew where I was. If something happened to me here, someone would find me.

When G-maps showed me that I was 2 minutes away from the Daryaganj Police Station, I found a parking and got out. Putting on my lawyer robe and neck-tie, I walked towards the station with my hands in the air, my bar council id flashing in one of them. ‘Lawyer! Lawyer!’, I shouted as I crossed the police barricades. Just outside the station gates, there was a small crowd of about fifty people. At the tail end were a few cowering civilians, probably families of the detainees. Past them were media people with cameras and mikes in hand. Right in front, with their faces pressed against the iron bars of the closed station gates were ten lawyers, mostly women and a couple of men, demanding that the cops open the gates and give lawyers access to the detained. My messenger from the Delhi High Court was among them, I didn’t know the rest. So, this is where the messages came from. I smiled to myself. I have never been happier or more relieved to see my black-robed kin.

Naari, Naari- women taking charge

As the night progressed, the women took charge. It was a woman who browbeat the cops into granting access to the detainees, a woman who inspected the detainees when the cops relented just enough to let any one lawyer in, a woman who pacified the relatives of those detained, a woman who facilitated the release of detained minors to their families, a woman who took some families home in the wee hours of the morning. They stood together, stood tall, stood unafraid, from 7:00 p.m. on a cold Friday night until 6:00 a.m. on a misty Saturday morning, in the trouble-ridden heart of Delhi’s agitated veins, to ensure the safety of a few helpless strangers whose lives were of no personal consequence to them.

 I would have written this off as a chance occurrence. But then Mishika Singh went and organised a lawyers collective to provide free legal services to the protesting millions, which has been in operation 24-hours-a-day for seventeen days now. Rebecca John went and represented the detainees en-masse before magisterial courts to seek their release. And Indira Jaising went and led the charge against police atrocities on protestors before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India. For every woman named here, there are a dozen others I am thinking of whose efforts cannot be adequately described in the short space of this blog.

I have no choice but to conclude that the world rests on the delicate shoulders of the girl-tribe.

The big deal about it…. Jai ‘Bharat Mata’!

Now here’s the big deal about it. The legal profession is heavily skewed in favour of male advocates: there is a jaw-dropping margin between the number of men and women who are senior counsel, judges and enrolled advocates. Let’s just say women constitute less than one-third of the country’s bar. And yet, today we are three times more present and active in protecting the man on the street and his fundamental liberties.

Why? The question has been nagging me for a while now. Maybe there is something in the victimisation of college students, minors, poor people, minorities, that brings out a strong protective instinct in women. Throughout the animal kingdom, the female is fiercer when it comes to protecting its brood. Maybe we can sense instinctively that whatever is going on here will change our homeland forever? It could also be that somewhere deep in our conscience we identify with the plight of the vulnerable, harassed, and voiceless in Indian society. After all, we are one of them.

What difference does it make? Well, women don’t approach anything from a position of privilege. They don’t give orders, they help out. They don’t expect to gain anything, they just get the job done. They don’t lead, they build consensus. And that makes all the difference. The on-going contribution of India’s legal fraternity towards protecting the life and liberty of its citizens will forever be remembered for its sheer selflessness and humanity. A humanity that is reflected throughout the anti-CAA protests as female involvement takes centre-stage, whether it is the protests at Shaheen Bagh, Jamia, Mangalore, Jaipur or elsewhere.

With each passing day, I am becoming convinced that the identification of India with the Mother Goddess in the words “Bharat Mata” is not a testament to our historical or mythological past but a prophecy for our future.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the people (series)- Pathan Bhai and his coat (Chapter 3).

I was born into a life of luxury. My father was an officer of the Indian Police Service, which was quite the job to have until the early 2000s in India. About a million people sit for the qualifying Indian civil services exam every year, of which a mere thousand make the cut. Basically, you have to be one in a thousand to get in. But once you’re in, you become part of an elite circle of babus (bureaucrats) who run the country. Your life is laid out for you – all your bills are paid by the government, you have enough manpower, cars, utilities, to sustain a small village, and people generally look up to you.

One chieftain of the village that supported our family while I was growing up was our cook, Pathan Bhai. A stout man with red wisps of hair on a balding head, a big belly, and a tinkering laughter that never failed to charm its audience. He always wore a white Pathani salwar kameez (suit), which he would dress up on special occasions with a blazer jacket made of shiny threads and ornate Indian motifs. I loved everything about Pathan Bhai. The way he fussed over every minute detail at breakfast, the way his clothes smelt of spices and curry when I hugged him, the way he wound up all the house-help to sit through my make-belief English classes as we played ‘student-teacher’. He was always my most attentive student – taking notes and clapping his hands at the end of every class – never mind his illiteracy.

I loved everything about Pathan Bhai. The way he fussed over every minute detail at breakfast, the way his clothes smelt of spices and curry when I hugged him

Pathan Bhai came into my dad’s service when I was three years old. In keeping with protocol, our house-staff would undergo an overhaul once every two or three years. But Pathan Bhai stayed with us for more than ten. Every time talk of his rotation came up, my dad and Pathan Bhai would harass the administrative authorities with repeated requests to let him stay on a little longer and the authorities would eventually relent. And so it was that I was cradled on his knee, spoon-fed under his watchful eye, dropped to my school bus on his cycle and, eventually, left teary-eyed at the doorstep of a residential school in his white Maruti car at the age of thirteen.

I was cradled on his knee, spoon-fed under his watchful eye, dropped to my school bus on his cycle

Sometime after I moved to the residential school, Pathan Bhai finally accepted his transfer to another police officer’s house. I kept in touch with him through letters for a few years but eventually hostel-life consumed my adolescent world and I lost track. Somewhere in the middle of my time at University as a young law student, I got news that he passed away. This was the first time in my life that I experienced the loss of a loved one and it shook me in a profound way. I remember crying for days and feeling terrible that I was entirely absent in his old age. It felt as though I had lost the opportunity to return his love and affection when he needed it most. I never got around to calling his wife or daughters to share their grief. I was embarrassed I hadn’t kept in touch and conscious they may not remember me. I told my mom to convey my condolences and left it at that.

I remember crying for days and feeling terrible that I was entirely absent in his old age. It felt as though I had lost the opportunity to return his love and affection when he needed it most.

It’s been nearly ten years since Pathan Bhai’s death. I got myself a career, a husband, and a small business in the meantime. Why am I thinking of Pathan Bhai today? Because today I chanced upon a picture of a model in a white Pathani suit and an embroidered blazer jacket. My husband and I stepped out this morning to shop for New Year’s eve and decided that we also needed new Indian outfits for the upcoming wedding season. My husband doesn’t like to experiment so we went over to his only couturier’s studio. As my husband went to the trial room with a few hangers he liked, the couturier handed me a look-book on the latest in men’s fashion. I got to the image of the Pathani suit and blazer and I couldn’t move past it. I stared at it for a long time before turning to the designer waiting beside me. ‘What about this one? Do you think this will look nice on Amar?’, I asked.

The designer, an otherwise enthusiastic boy in his mid-twenties, paused for a moment, ‘umm… I mean ofcourse our Amar has great Punjabi genes, he looks good in everything! But if I were him I wouldn’t go to a party these days dressed like that. People could think he is a Muslim or something, or mistake him for a Pakistani, no? It could be quite embarrassing.’

… if I were him I wouldn’t go to a party these days dressed like that. People could think he is a Muslim or something, or mistake him for a Pakistani, no?

The designer’s words struck me like a slap in the face. I felt flushed and red, and words escaped me. I was surprised to feel tears stinging the corners of my eyes. Calm down, please don’t start crying here, I scolded myself. To my relief, I saw Amar walking towards us. The designer’s attention was now on him. Oblivious to our conversation, he saw the opened image on my lap and asked, ‘what is this? It looks cool.’

The designer explained that the model was wearing a Pathani suit – a popular outfit amongst the Muslims in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan although it is understood to have originated in pre-partition Punjab. He dutifully went on to repeat his concern for my husband’s public reputation.

Amar laughed and said, ‘Pakistani bol ke toh dikhaaye koi!! (let someone call me a Pakistani and show me!) Let’s not spend our energy worrying about what some random-s will say. I like it, do you have a sample? I want to try it.’

I looked up at him. His eyes clouded with genuine concern as he saw my face. ‘Are you ok?’, he asked as he reached for my hand.

‘Yes, yes. It’s fine. I am fine. I think something got my eye’, I stuttered.

‘Let’s try this one last thing and then we can get some coffee, ok?’, he said.

‘Sounds like a plan’, I smiled.

We ordered the Pathani suit with the jacket and left the studio. Over coffee, I told Amar the story of the cook who brought me up.

My memory of Pathan Bhai is a lot of different things. It is the red of his hair and the white of his clothes and orange of his curry. But it is not the green of Islam

My memory of Pathan Bhai is a lot of different things. It is the red of his hair and the white of his clothes and the orange of his curry. But it is not the green of Islam. Even if I try to colour it so I can’t, if only because my childhood had no consciousness of Muslim and Hindu, Green and Orange, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. I am sure there are millions of Indians like me who can’t quite recall the religion of all the good people who have influenced their lives. If they can, they can’t remember it ever meaning anything, until now. Now the world wants us to find some meaning in these distinctions, to turn back time and emboss religious consciousness in our experiences of the past. How will we do it? How will we remember people by their clothes? How will we manipulate the memory of our cooks, drivers, tailors, neighbours, teachers, friends? On what parameters will we call them out as foreign, ‘Pakistani’, and make ourselves more Indian?

It is an impossible ask, from an impossible world.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the people (series): Shahrukh Khan and Butter Chicken (Chapter 2.)

My husband and I went on a resolutely romantic movie and dinner date last Thursday. It was resolute because this time we decided to keep our phones switched off throughout. Depending on which face of the coin you like these days, this could be seen as a freedom-enhancing or freedom-diminishing move. Either way, it worked well for us. We ended up holding hands throughout the movie, paying attention to every nuanced flavour in our meal and telling each other stories of our childhood.

We made an important discovery that night. We had one family ritual in common growing up despite being brought up in different parts of India: the movie-cum-meal ritual. It turns out that all middle class families across the country were doing the exact same thing on public holidays in the 90s! Going for a movie and getting a meal at a good restaurant afterwards (or before, depending on the of time of the movie).

It turns out that all middle class families across the country were doing the exact same thing on public holidays in the 90s! Going for a movie and getting a meal at a good restaurant afterwards (or before, depending on the of time of the movie).

I listened to my husband with fond nostalgia as he spoke of those elaborate excursions. Standing in line to get to the ticket counter, feeling helpless as the display-board behind the cashier’s head turned from ‘open’ to ‘house full’ without inching any closer, spying around for tickets in black with the stealth of a criminal mastermind. And then that joy of actually bagging enough tickets for the whole family, of collapsing into uncomfortable last-row seats, of surrendering mind and body to the star on screen and his (her) fantasy world.

As a teenager in the 90s I was in love with Shah Rukh Khan. The boy with anything-but-camera looks and a musical voice who had captured the imagination of millions of young Indians as a 20-something commando in the tv-series Fauji (soldier). With soldier-like bravado, Fauji found its way to the spotlight in ’89, defying heavy-weight theological dramas like Mahabharat and Ramayana that ruled the roost at the time. That was the beginning of Shah Rukh Khan’s legend. His success was unfathomable, incomparable, and writ all over the 90s – Deewana (1992), Baazigar (1993), Darr (1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), Dil toh Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). It carried him well into the 2000s. There were others who rose to much fame and adulation alongside him – Aamir Khan, Salman Khan – but Shah Rukh was above competition. He had ‘transcend(ed) movie-star status to something else’, as David Letterman put it recently.

That Shah Rukh Khan movie and that meal. Those were my best days. For the more ‘pouff-pouff’ among us, going out in the 90s could have meant Chinese or continental food. But for the remaining majority – me included – it was always and unflinchingly good ol’ Butter Chicken, sometimes with daal makhaani and Naan: the holy trilogy of the quintessential Indian gastronomical experience. The right mix of tangy and sweet, with its glorious orange-red hue and thick, creamy, texture, a good Butter Chicken can uplift any mortal chicken-eating spirit. Not surprisingly, it occupies a place of pride on the dinner table of every Indian household celebrating anything at all. One could fall-back on a Tandoori chicken or biryani for the sake of variety, but that’s only so as not to overdose. Tandoori chicken and biryani are to Butter Chicken what Aamir and Salman are to Shah Rukh: really good plan Bs.

That movie with Shah Rukh Khan in it and that meal… it was always and unflinchingly good ol’ Butter Chicken, sometimes with daal makhaani and Naan: the holy trilogy of the quintessential Indian gastronomical experience.

Shah Rukh and Butter Chicken. They really are birds of a feather when you think about it. They are present in the happiest memories of my childhood, and of my husband’s, and of god knows how many other 30-something Indians. They have both become world-famous. In fact, they both personify the things India is known best for in the world: Bollywood and curry. Don’t tell me you have never come across a foreigner exclaiming, ‘Hey, you Indian? Shae Rookh Kahn, haaahh?!’ or ‘From India? I love Butter Chicken and Naen!’

Who would have thought that Shah Rukh and Butter Chicken would have so much in common? But they really are birds of a feather when you think about it.

There is one more thing that they have in common though. They both have foreign origins. Neither Shah Rukh nor Butter Chicken belong to India alone. Shah Rukh’s dad lived in a Pakistani town called Peshawar, his grandad was an Afghan (Pathan). Fable has it that Shah Rukh’s dad joined the movement for India’s Independence at the tender age of sixteen and was the youngest freedom fighter at the time. He left his home-town to settle in Delhi before the partition. Khan himself was born in Delhi in 1965. Butter Chicken’s grandfather also lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in pre-partition India. His name was Mokha Singh and he ran a sweet-shop called Mukhey da Dhaba. It was here that one of his employees, a Punjabi by the name of Kundan Lal Gujral, first came up with the recipe of Butter Chicken and eventually took over the reins of Mokhey da Dhabha, renaming it Moti Mahal. When India was partitioned, Mr Gujral moved to Delhi with Butter Chicken and Moti Mahal in tow. Over 70 years later, India’s first Moti Mahal – the restaurant which still serves an astounding Butter Chicken – stands proud and tall in Daryaganj, Old Delhi.

Yup, that’s right. Shah Rukh Khan and Butter Chicken are Pakistani by descent.

I think about this and I wonder what the fate of my childhood would have been if only one of these two had actually made it to India and the other had been turned away. Say, if Shah Rukh’s Muslim dad had no choice but to remain in Peshawar. How damaging would that have been to the romanticism of Indian movies in the 90s??!! Shah Rukh would have been the Badshaah (king) of Lollywood (Pakistan’s film industry) today and I would have had to grow up watching Aamir and Salmaan’s movies. Oh wait, Aamir and Salman also have foreign, Afghani, antecedents. Err… I guess I would have had to fall-back on Govinda?

I wonder what the fate of my childhood would have been if only one of these two had actually made it to India and the other had been turned away. Say, if Shah Rukh’s Muslim dad had no choice but to remain in Peshawar and Butter Chicken’s Punjabi dad had moved to Delhi.

The other way around would have been just as stomach-quenching, if not worse. I can’t imagine a world without Butter Chicken! Only Tandoori chicken and Biryani??! Oh wait, tandoori chicken was also invented by Mr Gujral, the Punjabi dad of Butter Chicken. And Biryani came from Persia / Iran. Good lord! Would I have had to live my life on Rajma Chawal?

Fancy that! An India without my favourites. Would it even be the India I know today, with all its grandeur and diverse, pluralistic, heritage? What would we become if we were left with only Govinda and Rajma Chawal to gloat over? To display to the world as symbols of our identity? To write blogs about?

But that wasn’t the country I grew up in, thank god.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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We the people: Rahat Indori and his tribe, Making India Great Again! (Chapter 1.)

Mein Mar Jaaoon Toh Meri Ek Alag Pehchaan Likh Dena

Lahoo Se Meri Peshaani Pe Hindustaan Likh Dena

(When I die, write of my identity as a unique one; Use blood to smear my forehead with ‘Hindustan’)

These are the words of Rahat Qureshi, also known as Rahat ‘Indori’ after he took on a surname to identify with his city of birth, Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, India (https://twitter.com/rahatindori/status/1046958595760447488?lang=en). Don’t fret if you haven’t heard of him. You would have to be an Indian of a very specific taste – a love for Urdu poetry – to know who he is. Within a small circle of those who understand, know, or love, Urdu poetry though, Indori is a sensation. Probably one of the most influential poets of his generation.

My Urdu is just above the please-just-speak-in-Hindi level but I have been trying to work on it for the past few years. I think my mild interest comes from my Punjabi inheritance. My paternal grand-mom is from pre-partition Lahore, now in Pakistan, where she did her B.A. in Urdu. I guess she has been whispering Urdu sweet-nothings in my ears since I was born. I would have appreciated it if she had sought my consent before whispering anything in my ears but we all know that Indian parents don’t give a shit about things like ‘consent’ when it comes to their kids. They would have evil spirits knocked out of you with a mystic’s broom if they ever heard you utter the words ‘child rights’ or some such. And so it happens that as a grown 30-something, I have a natural affinity towards a language I barely understand.

In the past couple of years, I have attended a tidy number of mushairas (literary conclaves) where Indori has recited his poems. Most of these mushairas have been a stately affair with some very powder-nosed people, somewhere between 200 and 500 in number, sitting in organized rows of chairs with their pashmina (Kashmiri sheep-wool) shawls wrapped around their shoulders. At every good recitation there would be a polite waah waah (cheer) here, a slow clap there. I came into this elite community with aplomb, congratulating myself for my refined taste. I would make sure that my waah waah was appropriately timed to match theirs, these finely-manicured, finely-dressed, higher beings. Particularly with Indori, the waah waahs would peak on his anti-establishment jibes. He is known as the master of political satire. To fit into his audience, you have to catch the political undertone of his seemingly innocent couplets. I have been able to do that in the last two or three mushairas with a sense of pride for my intellectual and cultural ascension.

these mushairas have been a stately affair with some very powder-nosed people, somewhere between 200 and 500 in number, sitting in organized rows of chairs with their pashmina (Kashmiri sheep-wool) shawls wrapped around their shoulders.

Yesterday, I made my way to another such mushaira, patting myself on the back for being constructive on a weekend. I was a little perplexed when I saw a large queue of people waiting to get in and a separate counter for registration. It was a public place. Maybe more than one event was going on at the same time? There were lots of college-kids in the crowd. Maybe they had come to see some celebrity. I made my way past the entry point after a long-drawn half-hour in the queue. As I followed the signage directing me to the mushaira, I realised that everyone was headed in the same direction as me. I was very curious to see this celebrity now, was he at the mushaira? The narrow passageway opened up to a panoramic view of the site of the performance. There stood twenty-maybe-thirty thousand  people, packed into the space of five tennis courts. My head started spinning at the sheer number of bodies – old, middle-aged with families, youngsters, kids – in front of me. Seated on the floor, standing in the aisles and all around the seated audience, pushed up against walls, elevated on staircases in neighbouring buildings, dangling from trees. In the unforgiving chill of a Delhi December evening with a dense cloud of mist hovering just above their heads, these people stood waiting. For what? For who?

My head started spinning at the sheer number of bodies – old, middle-aged with families, youngsters, kids – in front of me. Seated on the floor, standing in the aisles and all around the seated audience, pushed up against walls, elevated on staircases in neighbouring buildings, dangling from trees.

The mushaira had eight poets, each took 20 minutes on the mike. For a near three hours they held their spots, only disengaging to get cups of tea or food from the stalls nearby to keep themselves warm. They heard every poet with enthusiasm, clapped above their heads at every clever innuendo, cheered into the skies at the end of every couplet. It was as if they were one with each poet, as if they understood every syllable of every word. Indori was the last poet to take the stage. As he walked to the mike it became clear to me that this was the celebrity they were all here to see. They roared their approval with every pause of his breath, every intonation in his voice, every play of his words.

I stood watching them in silence, spellbound by their madness. Who were these people? Were these the Djinns that Dalrymple (https://twitter.com/search?q=city%20of%20djinns&src=typed_query; https://www.instagram.com/williamdalrymple/?hl=en) had written about when he described Delhi over a decade ago? They had appeared out of nowhere and they were claiming this lost art-form, this fading language, this dormant culture like it had been theirs all along. Suddenly, and not without a dent in my ego, it dawned on me that Urdu was no longer for the pleasure of a select few. It was becoming what it had always been: the language of the masses.

Were these the Djinns that Dalrymple had written about when he described Delhi over a decade ago? They had appeared out of nowhere and they were claiming this lost art-form, this fading language, this dormant culture like it had been theirs all along.

But how? What had brought about this sudden jolt in the popularity of mushairas? What had changed in recent times to evoke this forceful show of solidarity towards Urdu? Why were all these people here, in the thousands, in the cold, on a weekend, to support Indori? There was no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian in the crowd. They were all one and the same, bound by a common heritage. I felt like I was witnessing a rebellion, of the silent masses against an unspoken enemy. No speeches from pulpits, no banners, no slogans.  Everybody knew why they were here and nobody felt the need to discuss it. When Indori climaxed into couplets on Hindustan and the sisterhood between Hindi and Urdu, live screens all around the arena showed images of people in tears, people hugging each other, people joining their hands in prayer.

There was no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian in the crowd. They were all one and the same, bound by a common heritage.

Whoever this enemy is, I think we owe him / her / it a debt for reminding us who we really are as a people. In a short span of time, this enemy has revived in our consciousness all the things we hold dear – our history, our constitution, our freedom, Nehru, Gandhi, Ashfaqulla Khan. All the things that make us one of the greatest, most dynamic and inclusive, civilizations on earth.

So, thank you, Mr Enemy, for making India great again.

(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)

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The international Indian

The anecdotal image of an Indian guy nodding his head with a wide-toothed smile is not a cliché for nothing. It properly captures how an Indian-born desi (local) treats the rest of the world. Ever calm, ever smiling, ever agreeable. We are forever timid and obliging in a foreign environment. This could be a function of the many adversities we face back home, the gruelling competition we have to trump to get ahead, or just our colonial hangover. Whatever the reason, we behave as if we are not convinced of our own merit in bagging a foreign job, as if we need to do something extra to justify our presence in a foreign place of work. Ever grateful to our employers, colleagues, god, karma, for just letting us inhabit ‘foreign’-space.  

We are forever timid and obliging in a foreign environment. This could be a function of the many adversities we face back home, the gruelling competition we have to trump to get ahead, or just our colonial hangover.

On my first day of work as a counsel in an international office, my colleague asked me to hand-deliver a parcel to the law firm next door. He was sincerely surprised when I politely refused. What reason could I, his equal at work, a practicing Indian advocate, an LL.M. from Cambridge, possibly have to not be his courier-boy? I didn’t bother spelling out the prejudice in his presumptions for him. I just put it down to a one-off lapse in judgement, an acceptable margin of human error, and put my mind to something else.

Of course I was wrong. That was the first of many peculiar expectations singled out for me by my colleagues in the years that followed. Whenever anyone at my level took leave, it was a given that I would cover for him / her. When there was some administrative work no one was willing to do, it was a given that I would do it. No one asked for my opinion on work allocation, office-outings, business-lunches, all that stuff. I didn’t object. I worked for European bosses and had European colleagues. They were bound by culture, etiquette, even language in some cases (French, Spanish). And I was on an island of my own. I was the only brown person in the office and the only Indian in the whole building. I wanted every one to like me, I didn’t want to ruffle feathers over small things. I realised that my brethren elsewhere in the world had conditioned people to think of Indians as the hard-working, no-fuss, up-for-anything, lot. In some ways, I was proud of that legacy. I took the extra responsibility as tacit acknowledgement of my value in the work-place (as if earning the job and keeping it like everyone else was not good enough). I never disagreed, I never challenged authority, I never picked a fight. And if other people did that, I stayed a mile away. Always walking the Nehruvian non-aligned tight-rope and agreeing with all viewpoints in discrete measure. Everybody’s comfort-corner, coffee-buddy, agony aunt. I got everyone to love me, and I loved work.

Whenever anyone at my level took leave, it was a given that I would cover for him / her. When there was some administrative work no one was willing to do, it was a given that I would do it. No one asked for my opinion on work allocation, office-outings, business-lunches, all that stuff.I never disagreed, I never challenged authority, I never picked a fight.

But don’t we know that ignorance is a short-lived bliss. It was inevitable that someday the universe would call me out for tiptoeing around my own life and demand that I choose my place in the world: stand up for myself or let the world push me along.

One of my colleagues was disgruntled because the boss-spot he thought he deserved went to someone else. That someone else, our new boss, was a French mother of five. Mr. disgruntled was determined to make the boss’ life difficult. He disagreed with her in office meetings, hardly ever gave his work on time and challenged every small decision she made. She grew more insecure with every successive confrontation. What followed was mood swings, caustic team discussions, and just general bickering on her part. It was becoming more and more difficult to get work done.

One morning, I knocked on the boss’ door to discuss some cases with her. I was virtually invisible under the dozen files I was carrying. She saw me and then she un-saw me like I wasn’t even there. I strained my muscles to reach out from underneath the files and finally managed to knock. She waved her hand dismissively. It was clear she was in a bad mood. I went back to my seat.

An hour later I tried again. Same door, same files, same Herculean feat of managing a knock. This time she nodded for me to come in.

Me: ‘I have a few questions on 621/2011. I thought I’d run them past you before I finalise the memo’.

Boss: ‘Just send me an email. I don’t have the time to deal with every small query you people throw up.’

Me: ‘Umm, ok. I can do that for some of them, but the others I think it would be more constructive to discuss’.

Boss: ‘The last time I checked I was the one who took that call in this office’, sighs, ‘shoot’.

Me: ‘Ok, so I think we should go into their loan transactions a bit. I have a hunch they have been siphoning-off money to sister concerns with fabricated documents’.

Boss: ‘You don’t need to discuss that with me. If you think the transactions need to be looked into, just look into them and come back to me when you have something more than a hunch. I am surprised you haven’t started work on this already’.

Wow, this isn’t going to be easy, I think.

Me: ‘Ok…I also wanted to know if we should address any issues concerning execution at this stage. We have not been able to get complete information regarding their assets online’.

Boss: ‘If you need to address it, address it. I’ll just remove it if I think it is unnecessary’.

We were not getting anywhere. I tried a third question, she promptly found a reason to berate me about a job half-done and lost her temper. I listened to her for about ten minutes, then gingerly collected my things and with a muffled, ‘I’ll come over with the rest later’, showed myself out.

She was not done. She followed me out of her office, throwing wild gestures and loud words at my back. None of which I could understand. She was speaking in French. As I turned the corner to my desk, I could see her surrounded by a bunch of my colleagues. She continued to speak, and I could tell from the apologetic side-glances some of them sneaked in my direction that it was all about me, and it wasn’t good.

She followed me out of her office, throwing wild gestures and loud words at my back. None of which I could understand. She was speaking in French.

As I continued walking towards my desk, a meek inner voice sprouted out of nowhere- *maybe I need to do something about this?*

The International-Indian-me: *Just ignore it. This woman is crazy, it isn’t like you saying something is going to make her less crazy*.

Unidentified-small-voice-me: *But she is deliberately showing me down in front of the whole office! She is talking about me, in front of me, in a language that I don’t understand. She wants me to feel inadequate, like I don’t belong here*.

The International-Indian-me: *Maybe, but what’s the point of picking a fight over small shit. If you say something now, it could damage your relationship with her forever*.

Unidentified-louder-voice-me: *but if I don’t say anything now, she is going to think this is ok. I might as well cower in my cubicle for the rest of my life then. Everyone will think of me as a push-over. That will damage my relationship with her and all the rest of them*.

….if I don’t say anything now, she is going to think this is ok.

I stopped walking and turned around. ‘If you have something to say about me, I’d rather you say it directly to me in a language that I understand’, I said quietly as I met her eyes.

A blanket of silence stifled all the noise around me. I could hear the photocopier’s buzz from three rooms away.

My boss’ jaw nearly reached the floor.

I saw her eyes recover from the initial shock of my words and narrow as she evaluated the situation. She couldn’t afford to back down, that would make her look like a light-weight in front of everyone. She couldn’t afford to deny the charge either. Almost all those watching knew French and they had heard her talking about me. If she denied it, it would look like she was afraid of me and that would make her an even bigger coward. Last but not the least, she couldn’t afford to switch to English and continue to badger me. That would be an admission that she had in fact been bitching about me deliberately in a language which excluded me – an open act of discrimination that could cost her her job. The organisation that I worked for was a no-nonsense kind of place. It would have axed anyone accused of racial bullying in a milli-second. The Europeans take political correctness seriously, my organisation was no different.

She tried a fourth approach. She knew I craved social approval. She tried to embarrass me into submission, ‘it is nothing that concerns you. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that’s its rude to interrupt other people’s conversations?’

Ordinarily, this would have embarrassed me. I would have thought that I am making a spectacle about something these people think is silly. I would have receded into my shell, probably offered her an apology. But my unidentified inner voice had developed an identity of its own by now and it was past repression. Even the International-Indian-me was beginning to see that this had something to do with my survival in the office.

… my unidentified inner voice had developed an identity of its own by now and it was past repression. Even the International-Indian-me was beginning to see that this had something to do with my survival in the office.

‘No actually, no one told me that. What they did tell me though was that it was rude to talk about people behind their back. So why don’t you just tell me what you were saying. I think I would benefit from discussions about work. I miss out on them all too often ’cause I don’t understand French’.

Done. Called her out. Took the punt.

The silence lasted longer than I had expected. My bravado was beginning to fade rapidly. Gosh! Am I about to lose my job? All those long years spent at university, weekends spent in the library, days spent away from home, for nothing? I would never get a job as good as this one. Maybe I should quit the law entirely and do something else. Interior décor? Fashion design? Baking?

Finally, she spoke, ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. Why don’t you come over and join us. We were just discussing the way forward in 621/2011’.

I saw the crowd around us exchange glances, felt the eyes on my back as I walked towards my boss, and heard the quiet amazement with which everyone trickled back to work. I reached where my boss stood and picked up from where I had left off: issues concerning execution in 621/2011.

I saw the crowd around us exchange glances, felt the eyes on my back as I walked towards my boss, and heard the quiet amazement with which everyone trickled back to work.

I stayed in that office for another year and it was the best year of my entire working life to date. When I left, they hired another Indian girl to take my place. And when she left, they hired another Indian girl to take hers. What that tells me is that mine was not an insignificant victory, however small it may have been. That the others who followed me fought, and won, their own battles. That we have all, collectively, claimed our rightful, meritorious, space in that office. I am sure we are not alone in this. I am sure there are many, many, other Indians across the world who are slowly but surely, little by little, claiming their own space as confident, qualified, cultured, equals.

It is about time though, isn’t it?

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The big lawyer, the small lawyer and the crowd

Every day in the court room in the life of a junior lawyer. Losing the battle and loosing the war.

Monday mornings are a busy affair in the Delhi High Court. As a matter of routine, new cases come up for their first hearings on Mondays (and Fridays). Given the angry, ever-offended, disposition of our society these days, the Monday case-list inevitably runs from ceiling to floor. And everything must be dealt with in court-hours because court-hours don’t change for god himself. It will be 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with an hour-long lunch break, thank you very much. May the heavens protect you if you are the counsel standing between a judge and his time off. Net result: you have a case-brief running into 3000 pages, which has taken you all of last week to prepare, and 5 minutes to make your case before a judge. Its either foot through the door or case out the window.

I am in Court early on one such Monday. I just have a small matter to mention to the Judge before he takes up his case-list for the day. This is a common practice in court: lawyers can mention any small issues right after a judge is seated so that nobody wastes unnecessary time once the court gets down to business. I only need an adjournment of my case to another date (yes yes, all the stories you have heard are true and ‘adjournment after adjournment’, or as they famously say in Hindi ‘taariq pe taariq’, is a thing). But I am conscious it’s a Monday – the courtroom will be packed and there could be lots of other lawyers who have matters to mention. So, I am here early, at 9:30 a.m. I am the first one in Court and the first in line to mention my matter.

I stand facing the judge’s bench and listen with disinterest to the rising murmur of conversations behind me as people crowd into the modest court room. Gladiators pour into the arena, waiting for the flag to drop, the beast to rush in and the crowd to swoon. I can hear a little snigger here, a loud guttural laugh there. I imagine that the girls sniggering are interns, talking about a guy they’ve been crushing over at work. I imagine the guttural laugh is from one of the gladiators. He is holding a flock of junior lawyers captive with an anecdote from ‘the old days’. He probably woke up at 6:00 a.m. this morning, dressed himself immaculately in black and white, and was in his office by 7:30 a.m. to be briefed by his juniors for this case. That would be the first time he would have heard of this matter. Somewhere during the briefing, he would have had a eureka moment and made up a whole new argument hinged on three cases which were nowhere in his brief. His underpaid, overworked, juniors have probably been in a flurry ever since, printing new material, re-organising his papers, re-drafting their summary note.

I smile to myself and look across to the spot above the judge’s high, currently empty, straight-back chair. The clock says 10:25 a.m.. 5 more minutes to go.

I decide to revise- for the tenth time – what I am going to say in my 2 seconds of mentioning. I am quite sure I will get the adjournment but I want to make the most of my time in court. I want to use every moment of speaking time to get better at court-craft, make my delivery smooth and clear.

A hand thuds down on my shoulder and that guttural voice is now in my ear, ‘young lady, would you mind taking a seat as I have a matter to mention’.

I turn to see the gladiator. He has white hair, an upturned nose and a barrel moustache disdainfully drooping down to his jawline. The twenty-five lawyers lined up behind me have clearly been similarly bullied into letting him ahead.

I have been standing here for an hour just to get the first shot at the mentioning and I am not willing to relent just yet. ‘Well…’, I begin in an even voice.

But the space around me quietens down the moment I utter my first word. All I can hear is them thinking: what does this fledging, young, woman have the nerve to say, in that voice, to him?!!  My confidence slips away. I move out of his way and slump into an empty seat nearby.

The scene is so pregnant with the injustice of his condescension and the meekness of my submission that it forces him to say something.

‘Oh, did you want to mention a matter as well?’.

‘Yes, actually’.

‘Oh’, and then he turns away.

That’s it. That’s all the thank you or sorry I get for giving up the spot I have been holding onto for an hour. I am so angry that there is a cloud of yellow orange light in my head and I can’t think straight. I have no words.

But now, the judge has entered the room. All rise. The judge sits. The flag drops. The gladiator is at his best, tearing the air apart with the clean blow of his words. The show goes on. And I am lost in the crowd. I have no energy to stand up and elbow my way through the clamour to get my adjournment. My two seconds of glory never come. I just sit through it all and leave after mentioning time is over.

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Oh, why must you question?

In today’s ‘post-truth’ world, discussing a social issue is as important as believing in it

‘No means no!’ she exclaims.

A quiet descends over the gathering. Some uneasy shifting. I can feel my beer warming up in my hands. Someone makes an attempt to change the subject but I pursue, ‘yes it does, but how far does that take us? Does that mean that every kind of romantic pursuit must be abandoned at the first sign of rejection?’

My colleague rolls her eyes and goes on to enlighten us: of course, that is what it means! Every woman must know right from the start who she likes and who she doesn’t like. When she knows she doesn’t like someone, she must emphatically say the word ‘no’ and the guy must stop doing whatever he is doing: talking to her, pursuing her, making love to her, whatever, because ‘no means no!’

That’s some circular logic, I wonder. ‘No means no’  because, well, ‘no means no’. I sip my beer and look around me. It’s an airy night on our rooftop. We’re all sitting in a circle with our chosen poisons in hand and listening to music. My husband and I are entertaining some colleagues from his law firm. We’re all lawyers here: educated, practicing, doing well for ourselves. Somehow the conversation had steered to the ‘#metoo’ movement. Someone marvelled at how it had taken everyone by surprise. To which someone asked whether it would survive in this limitless, disorderly, war-path. These musings were brought to an abrupt end by the war cry of our now red-faced companion, ‘no means no!’

I can see that my first attempt to talk about limits has not gone down well. I try a different route. Is every accusation a dead-end conviction? Are we agreed that the moment an artist is called out for being a predator we are to shut him out and discredit everything about him including his art? Does this mean we must stop watching his movies, listening to his music or reading his books?

I am unsuccessful. Nobody responds. My opponent’s face has turned from red to crimson. All the other women in the circle are looking equally annoyed. I know what they are thinking: why must she question a movement that is so important to thousands of women across the world? haven’t we suffered enough already? The men are also annoyed, nobody wants to ruin a good evening with all this talk about social issues.

So weird. On the one hand we are obsessed with sloganeering. On the other we don’t want to ruin a good evening talking about what the slogans represent.

On the one hand we are obsessed with sloganeering. On the other we don’t want to ruin a good evening talking about what the slogans represent.

The word doing the round these days is ‘post-truth’: nobody really knows the truth about anything because information in the public space – media, internet, social media – has uncertain, often not credible, origins. Competing accounts exist in today’s India about almost every event or occurrence with members of the polity free to consume any version of the truth that agrees with them.

We get lost in this maze of information with no roadmap. It is an avalanche that hits us every day and numbs us, leaving us capable of retaining only the loudest or most sensational forms of expression. Screaming news anchors, superlative tag-lines, sexual or violent hashtags. So, when we think of the ‘#metoo’ movement, we remember ‘no means no!’ and since all the rest is a blur we don’t bother to analyse it.

But what is the sense in caring about anything as a society if we don’t care about the same thing in the same sense? If your version of ‘#metoo’ is not my version of ‘#metoo’ then maybe we are actually a ‘#methree’, a ‘#mefour’ and a ‘#me100,000’ and nobody is listening to us because we are all saying different things. Like John G. Saxe’s blind men of ‘Indostan’ who groped different parts of the elephant and couldn’t make head or tail of what the creature was.

If your version of ‘me too’ is not my version of ‘me too’ then maybe we are actually a ‘me three’, a ‘me four’ and a ‘me 100,000’ and nobody is listening to us because we are all saying different things.

Discussions are the only way for us to navigate the elephant of information we are all too small to singly tackle. They are the Robin to the socially upright Batman who slays real-world jokers. It might be a little unpleasant to talk about sticky things in social settings. It might even make us look like idiots for not knowing enough. But how bad is that compared to actually being idiots and not knowing enough about the things we care for? We all read different things, track different sources for our information, follow different influencers. If we compare notes we inch closer towards figuring out what’s actually going on. If we don’t, we cede territory to un-informed self-righteousness. Basically, in today’s world, discussing a social issue is almost as important as believing in it.

Discussions are the only way for us to navigate the elephant of information we are all too small to singly tackle. They are the Robin to the socially upright Batman that slays real-world jokers.

I think these thoughts as I sip my beer and sulk. The conversation has now moved on to Alia Bhatt’s impending wedding and everybody seems pleased. Bollywood, our favourite delusion, our superhero Halloween costume for trick or treat, saves the world yet again.

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Chairperson Sir, the Claimant is under-confident

I look around the room and I am ready for it. Ready to save our client some serious money by getting the Judge to stay the encashment of the client’s bank guarantees until the dispute is decided. The Judge / arbitrator sits languidly at the head of a long narrow table, old and white, with an indifferent expression on his face. The man who has the luxury of coming unprepared to a hearing like this and doling out decisions worth millions of dollars. The counsel on both sides will stop at nothing to please him (and he knows it) but he will keep up pretences of the highest professionalism so that he keeps getting appointed by the parties to resolve other commercial disputes / arbitrations.

The opposing counsel sit facing each other along the length of the table, each watching the other with hawk eyes. My boss and I are on one side and five men – some counsel, some client – on the other. My boss turns to me, ‘I will deal with the legal issues, you take the factual ones’. I nod without expression but my inner self has erupted into the Macarena. Yay! I get to speak! Ofcourse I am up for it. I drafted the 100-page Statement of Claim from scratch, I know each exhibit by the back of my hand, I spent hours putting together the compilation of past cases on the issue involved. I am feeling so grateful to my boss for throwing me this crumb! I know chances like these are hard to come by. Most seniors don’t permit their junior counsel to speak at hearings. You have to wait till you are grey to get a crack at it. I will make sure he will not regret it. I will ace the facts, we will walk out with the order we want, and this story will do the rounds of office till kingdom come. The young girl of thirty who defeated opponents twice her age, impressed a retired Supreme Court Judge and got relief worth millions for her client.

I am trying to keep a serious face as we begin arguments. My boss goes first, he speaks crisply and with impeccable clarity about the legal baselessness of threatened encashment. He is just about five sentences in when the judge stops him. The Judge turns to look behind him and for the first time I notice a thin, frail, woman with a notepad seated in the shadows away from the table. She wears a look which says she’d rather let the ground beneath her feet swallow her whole than be subjected to the gaze of the eight lawyers now looking at her. I wasn’t aware the judge had made arrangements to transcribe the hearing (as he should have done but as I simply presumed he had forgotten to do as is common in short hearings of this kind).

The Judge asks her, ‘have you written that down, Seema?’.

‘Writing sir, will take some more time’, she responds.

I roll my eyes. How silly of me to be so quickly impressed. Clearly she is not a professional stenographer but someone from the Judge’s staff who has been roped in at the last minute.

We wait in silence. She takes another minute and with a ‘done sir’ shows him what she’s got.

He sighs, ‘this won’t do…’. He looks around the room and rests his eyes on me.

‘You, can you transcribe while the other counsels speak?’.

I don’t miss a beat, ‘sure sir’.

So what if I am a qualified lawyer in two countries with a double scholarship from Cambridge and top-notch international experience on my CV. I am a young, well-dressed, well-spoken, girl. Nothing about my age, appearance or gender gives credence to my status as a ‘serious professional’. I cannot possibly have anything of substance to add to the hearing. That is for the grown-ups.

These presumptions were carved out for me the moment I became a lawyer and I have internalised them over the years. I am not at all upset about the Judge’s demand. I am in a room full of people of another gender and twice my age. I am feeling that I should justify my presence here with more than just my qualifications and experience. I am happy at being presented with the opportunity to do so by transcribing the proceedings.

‘If I may, Your Lordship, she is a counsel on this case. She will not be in a position to do this’.

What? Who? I turn my head to look at my boss who is seated beside me and is now addressing the Judge. What is the need for this? I wonder. This will just make the Judge unhappy and reduce our chances of getting a favourable order. He turns to me with a look that says, ‘let me handle it’ and I slink into my chair.

The Judge is visibly peeved, ‘I am not asking her for the moon, surely she can do a simple transcription’, he says. Condescending smiles everywhere.

‘Yes, she can, but she is here to represent her client not transcribe the hearing, which I am sure can be done by someone with lesser qualifications’.

The Judge snaps with impatience, ‘unfortunately we don’t have anyone with lesser qualifications’. More smiles. ‘We won’t have any transcription if she doesn’t do it. Are you happy with that?’

My boss pauses, and then, ‘it is not ideal, Your Lordship, but perhaps we could adjourn until tomorrow and find someone to do the job’.

Long, sullen, silence. The Judge looks threateningly at my boss. My boss avoids his gaze and focusses on some object beyond the table. His face bears no expression at all.

After what seems like an eternity, the Judge gives up, ‘alright, lets continue without transcription for now, we will cover some ground and leave the rest of the arguments for tomorrow’.

I can barely believe my ears. Did they really spend five minutes of precious hearing-time discussing me? Did the Judge really give in? Was I, a fledgling junior, worthy of the dignity of a professional?

If I wasn’t there I wouldn’t have believed it. After the hearing was over, my boss and I walked out in silence. I am sure he forgot all about it the moment it was over, but I relayed that short exchange over and over in my mind. This man had risked his rapport with the Judge, the outcome of his case and his relationship with the client to do right by me – a nobody, someone of no consequence in his life, someone he barely knew. And I had done nothing at all to stand up for myself. I was struck by his sense of propriety and shaken at the realisation that I had fallen prey to the very prejudices which were working against me.

Ever since that day, whenever I catch myself giving in to peer pressure or succumbing to societal notions of who I am or who I should be I take a moment to straighten my back. I go back to that hearing room in my mind and it pushes me to do what is right for me. After all, if he could stand up for me then, why can’t I stand up for me now? I am sure he had no inkling that his small resistance to a small injustice would have such a profound impact on my life. Then again, maybe he knew all along.

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Why I need to get over Kareena Kapoor Khan

Our celebrity obsessions are making us less human

My husband and I have been married four years now, we’ve been together for nearly ten. I can safely say that I am past the stage of being overwhelmed by the sentiment of our bond unless something fundamentally displaces my impassive disposition. That something fundamental was happening this morning as I skipped through the pages of our wedding album. I found it on one of my seasonal cleaning rampages, tucked away under a clutter of things with forgotten utilities. As I flipped through its pages, seated cross-legged on the living room floor, I smiled fondly at the silly poses we struck with our friends. I was in love with my wedding lehenga (Indian skirt), it was a beautiful orange and it shone like liquid gold that bright Sunday afternoon – just the way I had planned it. And then there was that sharara (Indian flared pants) that I wore for the sangeet, pink and silver with stripes all along the bottom.

My gaze lingers on the page with the sharara a while … I think I took inspiration (read: copied) the outfit from Kareena Kapoor Khan’s wedding wardrobe. Her wedding shortly preceded mine and I was obsessed with her pictures when I was shopping for my own trousseau. At the first fitting of my sharara, even I was taken aback at how closely it resembled something she wore for one of her wedding functions.

More recently, to-be-weds have taken the trend to the next level. It is a total rage to copy the exact wedding outfits of Bollywood stars and tabloids routinely track the trend. But who are we kidding, this is not even the tip of the iceberg of celebrity obsession. We have all heard stories of fans who tattoo their bodies with the names of their favourite stars, travel great distances to catch a glimpse, run onto football and cricket fields in the middle of active matches, write fan-letters in blood, turn their homes into storehouses of memorabilia, all for their favourite celebrity.

Too many people are obsessed in too many different ways. It is irrational and worrisome, sure, but is it also distracting us from the qualities we should aspire towards as human beings?

We are obsessed for many reasons – the infiltration of celeb gossip in our daily lives like never before thanks to the internet and social media, our urge to escape the increasing inadequacy of our own lives as divisive politics takes over our societies and we realise for the first time that we are amongst the millions being pushed down the social ladder on one metric or another (economic status, race, religion and so on), the artful manipulation of big corporates who invest in creating larger-than-life personas for normal human beings and then commercialize them to sell us things we really don’t want and clearly don’t need – everything under the sun from soap to surgery and foreign holidays to airline travel.

We are obsessed for many reasons …. our urge to escape the increasing inadequacy of our own lives as divisive politics takes over our societies and we realise for the first time that we are amongst the millions being pushed down the social ladder on one metric or another (economic status, race, religion and so on)

We should be worried for an equal number of reasons– our mental health is taking a hit as we spend hours glued to our screens, our sense of inadequacy is turning into stress and anxiety as we obsess about the lives of those who seem to have everything, we are becoming ideal consumers for corporates (and governments alike) who manipulate what we like and dislike by projecting those choices onto our celebrities.

I know all this and I know you know it too somewhere in your subconscious, even if you haven’t sat down and thought about it.

But a more peculiar question troubles me now. Do our obsessions make us less sensitive to the real world that surrounds us? If I were to split hair, I am not quite sure what it is about Kareena Kapoor Khan that impresses me so much. I could like her for her acting, but acting is her job like lawyering is mine and I am damn good at my job as well. It’s just that my kind of thing doesn’t catch eyeballs in newspapers. Then there is the fact that she looks great- figure, clothes, makeup, hair and all- and seems to have struck the perfect work-life balance. But isn’t that a function of privilege? I mean, if I was rich and in a space where I didn’t have to deal with any bosses or clients at all, I could totally spend time on myself- get the right expert advice for my skin, makeup, hair, outfits and hit the gym every day. I would happily spend all my time between flexible assignments with my husband and hire an expensive caretaker for my kid. All in all, I would be the most wonderful wife and mom, generous with her time, patient, loving, just everything. So, what else… ummm… nothing else. I know nothing else about her. Outside of the regular stuff which all of us deal with everyday within the limitations of what we can afford – work, grooming, fitness, family-time – there is nothing that I admire about her as a person. No personality trait that makes her special. No character-flaw that makes her human. I have no bloody clue. So why am I going crazy about a normal, hum-drum, person with lots of privilege and no personal distinction that I know of? Why is she the Woman of the Year (courtesy, Vogue 2018)?

Outside of the regular stuff which all of us deal with everyday within the limitations of what we can afford – work, grooming, fitness, family-time – there is nothing that I admire about her as a person. No personality trait that makes her special. No character-flaw that makes her human. I have no bloody clue.

In my real life, though, I know quite a few people with spectacular achievements. I know of a girl who opened up her one bedroom shared apartment to stray dogs in need of rescuing and actually saved a near-dead puppy, bitten and mutilated by the bigger dogs. I know of a brother-sister duo who lost their parents in their teens but made themselves into an entrepreneur-lawyer force to reckon with. I know of a mommy-cum-fashion designer who got kicked out of her high-paying job when she got pregnant, then bagged an even bigger gig and went back to sue her first employer, all the while birthing and nurturing her first born. Real stuff that I should be crazy about. I should track these lives, concern myself with the life-choices these people make, be curious to know what they think about politics and social issues. And here I am, falling all over myself for KKK, moving on a conveyer belt of humanoid boxes filled with useless information about people they barely know and have never met- what they eat for lunch, which parties they go to and who made it to the best-dressed list for the week.

There is some pretty amazing stuff going on all around us. Magical acts of generosity, perseverance, defiance – extraordinary  choices made by people living ordinary lives. Those are the stories to tell and admire.

This is not to deny that there is an intrinsic awe we feel towards fame. Everyone wants to be recognised for what they do at some level, however misguided that need for external approval might be. It is natural therefore to be drawn to someone who has so much of what we crave (at first blush). But we have to recognise the frivolity of this whimsical, irrational, and uninformed, attraction and choose our real inspirations more carefully. There is some pretty amazing stuff going on all around us. Magical acts of generosity, perseverance, defiance – extraordinary  choices made by people living ordinary lives. Those are the stories to tell and admire. If we haven’t noticed them because we have been too distracted chasing a fantasy then have we really lived our lives at all? Have we really understood what it is to be human in our time on this planet and revelled in the knowledge of belonging to this spectacular species? When our time is up and we close our eyes, will we have anything to smile about if not the remarkable people we knew and their remarkable effect on our life’s story?

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Dilli-waali Diwali

Delhi’s culture of networking to gain influence and success at its peak

 

My neighbourhood seamstress is a bundle of nerves this morning. She tumbles towards her chair as she balances her cup of tea and her cell-phone, all the while trying to pacify her agitated client on the other end of the line. Ending the call, she heaves her 55-year old Punjabi bottom into a chair that creaks in protest, wipes the sweat from her brow and says ‘ji, you have to give me some time. I have two lehengas and a sherwani (Indian clothes) to finish by the end of the week. Ohde baad vekhaangi (I’ll look into it after that)’. I nod my head in sympathy, ‘this must be a busy time for you aunty, koi ni (never mind), I’ll wait… but Diwali is around the corner so I need these by next week’, I push her. She sips her tea as I give her details of the three outfits I want her to stitch. We exchange timelines and money and I leave.

That evening over dinner my husband and I talk animatedly of the much-awaited turn of season, the many holidays winter will bring and the travel plans we have for them. ‘Everyone is getting hectic about outfits and things- Meenu aunty was quite hassled today. Should we do something for Diwali?’

‘Do you want to? Don’t we end up hosting people a lot and not getting hosted in return? Either people have just stopped entertaining others or we are not on the guest list,’ he says.

I give him a wide, wicked, grin, ‘maybe we should host the first party, that way we’ll be on everyone’s guest list’ we burst into giggles. Twisted thinking, funny to us, but also easily identifiable with the culture of the city we live in. Once the city of Mughals and English Imperialists, now of India’s biggest Babus: Delhi, the city where influence is everything.

The culture of a city thrives on the aspirations of its people: Paris thrives on cultural refinement, New York on extreme motivations and Singapore on stability (everyone wants to buy a house!). Delhi thrives on influence. Here, everyone wants to wield some kind of authority – political, social, monetary – over others. Two ways of doing it: either come into influence, or be close to someone who has. And thus begins the endless struggle to build networks of influence and show them off as a symbol of success. Live in the right part of town (preferably an exclusive and gated neighbourhood), be invited to the right parties, know the right people, the list is endless.

The million-strong legal fraternity of Delhi is perhaps the best illustration of its citizenry at work. It’s membership includes some of the most powerful families in the country and everyone is obsessed with being proximate to those families. No matter how competent an advocate or how bright a legal mind, s/he will not pass upon a chance to ‘accidentally’ encounter a member from ‘Los Sagrada Familias’ (the holy families) in court or outside of it.  The young scions of these families may have never won a case for a client, but they will have a constant stream of business from other lawyers who want to buy their way into select circuits. Clients themselves do not always object to this, knowing fully well that the right family name may carry more weight than the right qualifications in winning a case. The influential grow in influence, all the while preserving their exclusivity and lineage, in a city that refuses to acknowledge the professional merit of an outsider over the social connections of an insider.

It’s not like legal fraternities elsewhere in the world don’t place a premium on connections: ‘networking’ is a commonly accepted part of the professional etiquette and being ‘social’ is looked upon an asset. In fact, they engage in designated ‘networking’ events with the sole purpose of encouraging inter-personal connectivity. But you can’t name-drop your way into success there. Networking is just a fraction of what you really need to make it. It is not good enough just to know someone successful or powerful, much less the son, daughter, aunt, uncle, of such person. You need to be really good at what you do and really capable of adding value to the practice / business of others to be successful.

Back home, there is no rationality behind the frenzy of networking that consumes Delhi’s inhabitants. With Diwali around the corner, the frenzied will be at their socialising best, trying to get invited to parties, shopping for trending outfits, putting money aside for gambling on high-stakes tables – on and on – all to get closer somehow to the centres of power. At the end of it all, someone will win the prize of making that special new acquaintance with a potential invitation to a more close-knit affair in the future. The promise of a seat at the table of success.

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