The enlightened call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results.

— Krishna in The Gita

The mind is everything. What you think you become.
— Buddha

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Thoughts on New Year

So the year 2010 draws to an end and here we go again, looking starry-eyedly at a brand new year as if it is going to be dramatically different from the outgoing one, and all for the better, of course.
I’ve never been big on celebrating New Years Eve (I even play down my birthday except for some extra prayers thrown in). So this year it isn’t going to be different unless I’m dragged out of the house. I do wish Happy New Year to everyone I bump into at least in the first week of Jan, but it is more after fashion than anything else.
Now don’t brand me a pessimist or a wet blanket. Because I am not. I really marvel at the enthusiasm people can muster on such occasions, but I wonder if they wake up and find the first morning of January any different from the night before. Not that I begrudge their joy or optimism, it’s just that I seem to find nothing momentous attached to one particular day of the year.
As for resolutions, well, when I used to be a naive young thing, I used to make them every year about various self-improvement “projects” like being regular with exercise, getting more organised and so on, until I realised the foolishness of it. Nowadays I believe firmly in the cliché -- ‘no resolution is the best resolution’. If you badly want to do/start something you wouldn’t wait for the New Year.
Having said that, 2011 promises to be different. I do feel that it’s bringing a lot of good things my way. Only time will tell whether I am right or not.
So here’s wishing you all a great New Year. May all of you be peaceful and happy.
So long.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha is supposed to be one of the most read novels in the 20th century, but I had never spotted it on the bookshops in Dubai or India. So I leapt at it when I saw it in the classics section of Barnes & Noble in Pennsylvania during my recent trip there. I had picked it up for my daughter though, not for myself. I had read the book years ago and for some reason I had always thought that I remembered it too well.
But I was mistaken. Back in Dubai when I started flipping through the pages I realised what a remarkable book it was. All the more because it was written much before Indian philosophy became fashionable and familiar in the West.
Published in the 1920s in German and translated into English in the early 50s, Siddhartha became intensely popular in the West during the Swinging Sixties and afterwards. At the heart of the novel lies the spiritual quest of a young man named Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy who is dissatisfied with the ritualistic life led by his father and other elders. He leaves home and spends months with wandering ascetics who have attained extraordinary mental and physical powers, some of which are now imbibed by him. But the true seeker that he is, it means nothing. What he wants is the annihilation of the “I”, the ego.
At this point he hears about Gautam Buddha, who he hopes will be the answer to his quest. But when Siddhartha comes face to face with Buddha, he realises even the great master can’t lead him to enlightenment and that he had to find his own path.
In the period that follows, Siddhartha falls in love, earns money and becomes a typical householder. Only when old age creeps on him does he again feel the urge to seek the Truth. What Hesse tries to show is that self-denial and instruction alone don’t lead to enlightenment. What matters is learning through one’s own experience.
If you can plough through the awkward translation and keep yourself focused on the narrative then Siddhartha is illuminating. The author’s grasp of Hindu philosophy and its ultimate quest – the destruction of ego and self-realisation – is impressive.
Ironically, Hesse himself never set foot in India. His love for India was derived in his childhood through his father and grandfather, who worked in India as missionaries. Later he read the German philosopher Schopenhauer (who maintained that the world is a mere reflection of our consciousness), and the Gita is said to have made a lasting impression on him. At the same time he was also deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy. The cumulative effect of all this can be seen in a highly nuanced but instructive Siddhartha.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

People's balladeer

So music maestro Bhupen Hazarika has bequeathed all his property to Kalpana Lajmi. I read the report with great interest.
I don’t know much about Hazarika’s family life; his career was at its peak in the pre-internet, pre-tabloid days. But I know he and Lajmi have both been living together for more than three decades now, despite a whopping age gap of 28 years. His ex-wife, Priyamvada (a Gujarati woman of Ugandan origin he met while in Columbia University) is settled in Canada and son Tej, a writer, is an American citizen. I don’t know how they took the news, but going by the interviews of Hazarika and Lajmi, they all seem to be on good terms.
Lajmi was 17 when she fell in love with him and ever since she has stuck with him through thick and thin, despite his mercurial temper and drinking problem, and is credited with revamping his career and nursing him in his old age. She seems to be incredibly in love with “Bhupso”, as she fondly calls him, despite folks on both sides not having accepted their relationship.
Here in Dubai I don’t get to read much about him. Last time when I had visited Assam, I was told that he had collapsed on stage during a function. Well, he is 84. What can you expect?
Bollywood buffs know him for the music of Aarop, Rudali, Ek Pal, Saaz and Gajagamini. But, like me, if you grew up in Assam (or Bengal) in the early 80s you’d know what a prodigious talent he is. In his velvety, crisp, baritone voice he has sung about love, personal tragedies, integration and social justice. At times his songs are like parables -- the famous O Ganga behti ho kyon? was addressed to Indira Gandhi. His style varies effortlessly from folksy to tribal to modern.
And that’s just his music. He is a poet, actor, journalist, author and film-maker of the first order. Take just one segment of his career and you can compare it with the best in the field.
He is a PhD in Mass Communication from Columbia University and a recipient of the Lisle Fellowship from Chicago University. It was during his stay in the US, he met Paul Robson, whose influence proved to be everlasting.
Just listen to some of his Assamese or Bengali songs on YouTube and you will be hooked. The saying that music transcends language was invented for Bhupen Hazarika.
I fervently wish he is awarded Bharat Ratna, and while he is still alive.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Filial bond

I don’t normally have more than a passing interest in what’s happening in the UK politics. But this time, the Labour Party leader’s election was different. With two good-looking brothers in the fray, it was an unusual battle and one difficult to ignore. David Miliband (45), former foreign secretary, and his brother Ed (40), ex-energy and climate change secretary, were the two favourites to succeed Gordon Brown.

The world has seen brothers in politics before, such as the Kennedy brothers in the US and the Kaczynski twins in Poland. But the Miliband brothers’ story makes a great copy for journalists nonetheless. Born to Polish migrants, they went to the same school, took the same degree in the same year and joined the cabinet at the same time. David became Tony Blair’s policy chief and Ed was a speechwriter for Brown.

But the negative energy that dominated the Blair-Brown rivalry is conspicuous by absence here. “David is my best friend in the world. I love him dearly,” Ed said during his campaign. “There is no way I’m going to take lumps out of him either on the record, off the record or behind the scenes.”

Yesterday it emerged that Ed had beaten his elder brother by a wafer thin margin of 1 per cent. I was watching BBC news and saw an emotional Ed bear-hugging a visibly happy David.

Perhaps a lesson here for our Ambani brothers? It's possible to be business or career rivals without sacrificing the filial bond.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Art of giving

40 American businessmen, led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, have pledged to give away half of their fortune to charity. Who says the rich are spoilt, self-centered and want to grow only richer?

And we may dislike many things that stand for America, but when it comes to philanthropy I feel they win hands down. From the time of Benjamin Franklin, Americans have always displayed a philanthropic trait. It has been pointed out that American “voluntary associations” have their roots in the colonial era when people got together to solve their own problems or raise funds rather than rely on a government based in far-off England.

In comparison, India glaringly lacks such a tradition. Whatever charity work the rich undertake is slapdash and whimsical. Correct me if I am wrong, Mukesh Ambani is building the world’s most expensive private residence in Mumbai, where the mushrooming slums stick out like an ugly reminder of the rich and poor divide, but I haven’t heard his name being associated with charity and philanthropy, in a way the names of Bill Gates’ is. India’s charity contributions apparently account for only 0.6 per cent of the GDP, as compared to 2.2 per cent in the US.

The reason, I feel, is that we Indians not only want to secure our future and our children’s, but also the next few generations’! Compare this attitude with Warren Buffet’s saying, “I want to give my kids enough so that they could feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

How do I look?

My daughter is coming home for vacation and I have my job cut out for a month. Apart from watching films, eating out, visiting bookshops and art galleries, shopping and socialising, listening to endless prattle about her boarding school, I’ll also have to be the Glamour Girl.

Because in the one month that she’ll spend in Dubai she’ll subject me to scrutiny like “a blue scarf with a blue shirt?”, “Ma, you need to urgently lose 5 kg, you’re looking F-A-T,” “oh God, not pink lipstick at your age!”
At 15, she’s a young woman in her own right, who thinks she can teach her mother a thing or two about fashion. It’s fine by me, all this newfound confidence or sense of fashion or whatever. It’s also a fun way to cement the mother-daughter bond. At her age I remember handing a few tips to my female relatives about the right sari or jewellery.

But there is a difference, isn’t there? While we all took interest in looking good, the present generation seems to be rather preoccupied with it. Mercifully my girl is no airhead and has a lot of meaningful interests to keep her grounded and well-balanced (hopefully), but in general I do see a trend among the young people that is tilted heavily in favour of looking good, whatever it takes. Shopping, primping, gymming, dieting…And if you are older and can afford, it’d be chemical peel, botox, surgery…

There is this young Lebanese girl in the gym I’ve joined. She has an hourglass figure and oozes fitness. She’s also the one who works out the hardest. The other day I asked her casually why she needed to put in so much effort. “My stomach is fat, my arms are fat,” she said. I was like which stomach, which arms? To convince me she lifted her T shirt a bit, pinched her stomach, which was flat and hard like an orthopaedic-mattress, and said, “See? All this has to go.”

What has to go? The skin? Give me a break!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

In praise of Rumi

The day I've died, my pall is moving on -
But do not think my heart is still on earth!
Don't weep and pity me: "Oh woe, how awful!"
You fall in devil's snare - woe, that is awful!
Don't cry "Woe, parted!" at my burial -
For me this is the time of joyful meeting!
Don't say "Farewell!" when I'm put in the grave -
A curtain I tis for eternal bliss. _ Rumi

While cleaning out my office drawers the other day I came across an old write-up of mine on Rumi, a personal favourite. I had written it on the occasion of his 800th birth anniversary three years ago. Anybody has read him?
To the uninitiated he’s the best-selling poet in the US, apparently more popular than Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson!! He’s the one who founded the order of the whirling dervish, which is considered a mystical order, despite their song and dance routine, a no-no in Islam.
Jellaluddin Rumi was a 13th century Persian sufi poet, but he was actually a preacher, a Moulânâ to the Persian-speaking communities of Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of India and Pakistan.
Although Rumi had found a captivated audience in the West since many years, thanks to the translation of his poetry by Prof Coleman Barks, his relevance has grown manifold post Sept.11.

It’s because despite being a preacher of Islam, he speaks of universal love. In his own words: "I am not a Jew nor a Christian, not a Zoroastrian nor a Moslem." Writing prolifically in an era savaged by battles and conflict, he spoke of nothing but love in his poetry:
The outcome of my life is no more than these three lines:
I was a raw material;
I was cooked and became mature;
I was burned in love.

He was born in Afghanistan and was a traditional Muslim cleric until he met Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish. Shams is said to challenge Rumi's religious perspective. One account says: On an autumn day, Rumi was sitting by a pool along with his disciples and books. Shams, whom Rumi didn’t know till then, came along, interrupted his discourse, and pointing to the books asked: “What are these?” Rumi replied: “This is some knowledge you wouldn’t understand.” Shams threw all the books into the pool and said: “And this is some knowledge you wouldn’t understand.”

A knowledge-proud theologian was challenged by a mystic. Soon, Shams became Rumi’s mentor. The love in Rumi’s poems essentially speaks of his love for God. To him the entire universe is suffused with the spirit of God.
Those who are interested in reading him I recommend Deepak Chopra’s The Love poems of Rumi.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The great dumbing down

I’m reading Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King. I had tried to read Bag of Bones, but don’t even remember at what stage I had left it unfinished. This one is better though, quite absorbing, but not something you can call “literature”. I can well understand the uproar that was created when King was picked out for the annual American National Book Foundation's award for "distinguished contribution".

Critics had reacted in sheer horror: how can you put King in the same league as Edgar Allan Poe, Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller, the earlier recipients of the award? If popularity is the yardstick of literary achievement, why not give the Nobel Prize to JK Rowling, they suggested tongue-in-cheek.
In that context, haven’t the reference points in culture shifted globally in favour of the more popular as against what’s complex and original?

Sometime back I had an interesting conversation with Nisha Sudhir, a Bharatnatyam dancer living in Dubai. She said that her 12-year-old daughter Ruchi had been learning classical dance and was quite a fine dancer. Suddenly she lost interest. One day she told her mother in a fit of rage that it was “a waste of time"; that she’d rather learn something more "modern" like ballet.
"I was aghast," Nisha said. "I had never thought that my daughter would dismiss Bharatnatyam for not being modern.
"When I was growing up in Bombay in the 70s, almost everyone in my group was learning something or the other, be it dance, music or painting. But none of my daughter's friends is into anything serious. All they do in their spare time is to listen to pop music or do Facebook."
Nisha put her foot down. "If she had told me that she prefers ballet to Bharatanatyam, I’d have considered. But not ‘modern enough’?” And from where did she pick up this love for ballet? She might have seen a couple of programmes on TV, that’s all.”

Nisha’s experience isn’t isolated, I bet. Our children are beginning to look and sound more and more similar, and have (similar) aspirations shaped and moulded by the entertainment industry and the tabloid ethos. Can’t blame them really. They are growing up in an era when oversimplification of culture has resulted in the disappearance of the sophisticated and refined. Once there was a fine line between the arts and entertainment, between culture and carousal. Today the appeal of mass culture is so strong that the distinctive flavour of regional and national cultures are becoming marketable exotica.
Britneys and Beyoncés have their places in society, but haven’t they all but elbowed out Brahms, Bach and Beethoven?

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Daane daane par likha hai...

Sometimes the most ordinary situations can drive home profound truths. A friend, who lives in Bur Dubai, often walks about two kilometres in the evening to reach the creekside to feed atte ki goliyan (tiny balls made from wheat dough) to fish.
She claims it’s one of the most satisfying activities she can think of.
Last evening I decided to join her, never mind the choking humidity. She led me through the narrow corridors of Meena Bazar and the charming old souk. By the time we reached the spot, near Bank of Baroda, I was soaked in sweat. “Never mind,” my friend said brightly. “A little trouble to make the fish happy.”
She handed me some of the wheat balls that she had carried from home and instructed me to throw them one by one over the railing at the creek water below, where I could see shoals of small, black fish. Next to us was a Filipino gentleman, engaged in the same activity.
I was a bit worried whether it was illegal to feed fish with homemade atte ki goliyan.
But my friend pooh-poohed the thought by saying “we are engaged in a noble cause.”
So there we were, gently throwing the balls one by one at the eager fish that would gobble up the feed in the twinkling of an eye. It was a nice experience indeed, meditation-like, to stand quietly by the water feeding the fish and watching them glide and swim in the water.
Next I saw were some pigeons trying to scoop up the stray wheat balls that had landed on the wet embankment. But no sooner would the pigeons catch the balls in their beaks, the damp wheat would slip out and fall into the water to be gulped down by the fish.
When I pointed it out to my friend, she wisely remarked: “Daane daane par likha hai, khane walon ka naam.” You’ll get something only if it’s meant for you.
Truer words were never spoken.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Three cheers for Ratan Tata!

As a member of the much-maligned media today I’m indulging in a spot of “citizen journalism”.
Sometime back a friend had mentioned that he had received a wonderful chain-email about the yeoman’s service done by Ratan Tata for Mumbai blast victims. I had asked him to forward the mail but he had accidentally deleted it.
After doing a bit of research on the Net I found out that other bloggers have already been there, which means some of you might already be aware of it. Still, such inspirational tales must be told and re-told, and discussed about. So I’m pasting the entire post from the blog “Small Strokes.”
Spread the good cheer, the heart of India is still beating and Ratan Tata’s corporate culture has done us all proud. Wish other business houses would take a leaf out of him; philanthropy is sadly missing in Indian corporate scene.
Here is the post from Small Strokes:
Ratan Tata is the chairman of Indian Hotels who own the Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai, which was the target of the terrorists last year. Hotel President a 5 star property also belongs to Indian Hotels.
The following is really touching.
* All category of employees including those who had completed even 1 day as casuals were treated on duty during the time the hotel was closed.
* Relief and assistance to all those who were injured and killed
* The relief and assistance was extended to all those who died at the railway station, surroundings including the “Pav- Bha ji” vendor and the pan shop owners.
* During the time the hotel was closed, the salaries were sent by money order.
* A psychiatric cell was established in collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences to counsel those who needed such help.
* The thoughts and anxieties going on people’s mind was constantly tracked and where needed psychological help provided.
* Employee outreach centers were opened where all help, food, water, sanitation, first aid and counseling was provided. 1600 employees were covered by this facility.
* Every employee was assigned to one mentor and it was that person’s responsibility to act as a “single window” clearance for any help that the person required.
* Ratan Tata personally visited the families of all the 80 employees who in some manner – either through injury or getting killed – were affected.
* The dependents of the employees were flown from outside Mumbai to Mumbai and taken care off in terms of ensuring mental assurance and peace. They were all accommodated in Hotel President for 3 weeks.
* Ratan Tata himself asked the families and dependents – as to what they wanted him to do.
* In a record time of 20 days, a new trust was created by the Tatas for the purpose of relief of employees.
* What is unique is that even the other people, the railway employees, the police staff, the pedestrians who had nothing to do with Tatas were covered by compensation. Each one of them was provided subsistence allowance of Rs. 10K per month for all these people for 6 months.
* A 4 year old granddaughter of a vendor got 4 bullets in her and only one was removed in the Government hospital. She was taken to Bombay hospital and several lacs were spent by the Tatas on her to fully recover her.
* New hand carts were provided to several vendors who lost their carts.
* Tata will take responsibility of life education of 46 children of the victims of the terror.
* This was the most trying period in the life of the organisation. Senior managers including Ratan Tata were visiting funeral to funeral over the 3 days that were most horrible.
* The settlement for every deceased member ranged from Rs. 36 to 85 lacs [One lakh rupees translates to approx 2200 US $ ] in addition to the following benefits:

a. Full last salary for life for the family and dependents;
b. Complete responsibility of education of children and dependents – anywhere in the world.
c. Full Medical facility for the whole family and dependents for rest of their life.
d. All loans and advances were waived off – irrespective of the amount.
e. Counselor for life for each person
1. How was such passion created among the employees? How and why did they behave the way they did?
2. The organisation is clear that it is not something that someone can take credit for. It is not some training and development that created such behaviour. If someone suggests that – everyone laughs
3. It has to do with the DNA of the organisation, with the way Tata culture exists and above all with the situation that prevailed that time. The organisation has always been telling that customers and guests are #1 priority
4. The hotel business was started by Jamshedji Tata when he was insulted in one of the British hotels and not allowed to stay there.
5. He created several institutions which later became icons of progress, culture and modernity. IISc is one such institute. He was told by the rulers that time that he can acquire land for IISc to the extent he could fence the same. He could afford fencing only 400 acres. He also made a condition that the TATA name should not be used (ironical in a country where half the roads and buildings bear Gandhi tag although they may not even have seen them)
6. When the HR function hesitatingly made a very rich proposal to Ratan – he said – do you think we are doing enough?
7. The whole approach was that the organisation would spend several hundred crore in re-building the property – why not spend equally on the employees who gave their life?
This was not covered by any news channel. The channels are busy showing cast politics, Sania Mirza’s wedding, Shahrukh Khan’s wedding. But these stories need to be told to the nation.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Are we too PC?

Yesterday I was waiting for a friend at a public parking in Dubai’s Karama area, when I spotted a man of exceedingly short stature. He couldn’t have been more than 3-and-a-half feet. He was obviously an Indian and in his 50s. From inside my car I watched him walk across the large parking area, accompanied by another man. His companion was talking and laughing. But the face of the short man was expressionless, as he scuttled along, trying to keep pace.
I was intrigued. It isn’t everyday that you see someone like him in Dubai, that too an expat. Later in the evening, when I was dropping off my friend, I spotted him again, this time in front of a hotel. There he was, in uniform, with a turban to boot, ushering diners into the hotel. He was employed as a doorman.
I had this strong urge to go and talk to him, and do a write-up on him. Where was he from? Since how long had he been working in Dubai? Did he have a family back home? How did he get along in a world where everybody towered over him? What were his fears and insecurities?

But I didn’t, of course. Who knows what he’d think about a nosy journalist trying to get a story out of his deformity. Even if I was able to convince him, I could still be seen by my esteemed readers as patronising. It could be just my imagination, but in these politically correct times we all walk on eggshells, don’t we?
The sardarji jokes are still doing fine (bless the stoic and heroic race!) but aren’t we becoming less open, far too cautious and even less fun because we won’t be caught dead doing or saying something deemed unacceptable?
Ask Obama. Poor guy called a female (oops! ‘woman’ ) a TV reporter "sweetie" by accident and had to apologise. After all the US has been on the forefront of political correctness, where people of his ethnicity are no longer ‘negroes’ or ‘blacks’ but ‘African-Americans’ or ‘people of colour’ (but not ‘coloured people’, mind you).
It was in America that ‘crippled’ was found degrading and changed to ‘handicapped’, which became ‘disabled’ overtime and was replaced by ‘differently abled’ or ‘physically challenged’.
The PC overdrive has spilled over to all areas of life. Check out the demise of male-centric usages and terminologies. ‘Chairman’ has been replaced by ‘chairperson’, ‘stewardess’ by ‘flight attendant’, ‘fireman’ by ‘firefighter’. Check out too, overwritten stuff like ‘when a man or a woman finds in a situation like this, he or she may…’ instead of ‘when somebody finds…he may’.
I’m told that in some overly politically correct circles it’s a no-no to ask someone, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?", as it implies they are exclusively heterosexual. So you should ask, "Are you dating anyone?"
I remember reading somewhere that had the moon landing happened three decades later, Neil Armstrong would have to rephrase his famous statement: “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong would have to say, the writer quipped, ‘a man or a woman’ and ‘humankind’. How lame!
Political correctness was introduced in the ‘70s to make way for more tolerance and inclusiveness. But I guess the opposite is now true; we are becoming less tolerant and more touchy. Or may be I’m a bit old-fashioned. You know, Reality Impaired...
PS: In case I’ve hurt anyone’s feelings by using the word “short” above, I’d like to replace it with “Anatomically Compact”.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Big is beautiful

The new Volkswagen Beetle ad has me grinning from ear to ear. The cleverness of it, and the message it gives..
For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the ad, it shows an ultra-thin glamorous woman (the type who subsists on lettuce leaves and water) gorging on a sumptuous feast. Next you see is a shot of the curvaceous New Beetle, followed by the Volkswagen logo and the message CURVES ARE BACK.
Of course you may take umbrage for blatant sexualisation, but boy, it works!
The ad has been launched in India by DDB Mudra and this is what Bobby Pawar, its chief creative officer has to say on the new positioning: “The Beetle was launched at a time when everyone was running towards size zero and anorexia. With this new commercial we are trying to show that people actually desire curves.”
As if we didn’t know…
What’s Marylin Monroe without her curvaceous body and a pout that says she is proud of it? But that was THEN, you said? That means you haven’t been noticing. Hollywood these days is full of full-figured women like Drew Barrymore, Queen Latifa, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johanson and Kate Winslet, who wear their curves unapologetically. May their tribe increase…
And what about curvy divas like Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Beyoncé? The latest buzz in the fashion industry is that designers are hiring plus size models. One name I can think off-hand is Crystal Renn, one of the most sought-after plus size models.
And here’s the icing on the cake: according to a study conducted by scientists at the Universities of Pittsburgh and California, curvy women are cleverer.
And perhaps happier. Have you even seen any of those waif-like models smiling? To me they always look sulky, sulky and distant and morose. How can a life of self-denial put a smile on your face? But I feel a big woman (or man) is almost always jovial.
Need another excuse to gorge on butter chicken?
Here’s wishing happier days to all the women in the world who hide their curves under tent-like dresses, who have spent a lifetime battling negative body image, who have gone through punishing diet regimens to try and whittle themselves down, and millions of young girls suffering from bulimia. Please remember, the curve is more powerful than the sword.
Well, it’s not me who said that but the bodacious Mae West, but just the same.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Confused over coffee

I had always been an enthusiastic tea drinker. So when I was forced to give up tea for medical reasons, it was only natural that coffee became my hot brew. “Coffee?” asked my tea-drinking friend, P, who needed some convincing that I wasn’t doing it for the snob value of coffee over tea. “Thought you knew coffee causes bladder cancer,” he pronounced sagely.

Well, I know P to be a conscientious eater and a bit of a know-all when it comes to these sorts of things. To give you an example, once when I was mulling over Atkins diet, this is what he told me, “Eating six eggs a week is fine, but if you go for the seventh one, your heart attack risks go up by 23 per cent.” Oh no, he wasn’t making it up. He was quoting from a Harvard study! Check the Net if you don’t believe.

Naturally, I decided to do some research on coffee and came to the conclusion that caffeine was indeed thought to induce colon bladder cancer. But the latest studies were more heartening: a coffee drinker enjoyed some protection against liver damage, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer's, gallstones, depression and maybe even some forms of cancer.

In fact a Time magazine article titled Measuring IQ Points by the Cupful said coffee heightened one’s mental performance.
I sent the link to P, who commented, “hogwash!
But just when I was thinking I was getting brainier and smarter thanks to two cups of coffee per day, came the new research finding last week that it was indeed all myth—coffee doesn’t even make you alert.
"Although caffeine consumers feel alerted by caffeine, the effect is actually only bringing you back from caffeine withdrawal-induced, low-level alertness,” said a widely reported study originally published in the reputed Neuropsychopharmacology journal.
More galling was the fact that P laid his hands on the report before me and promptly sent an sms…

I’ve decided to stop trying to keep abreast of these so-called research and studies about food, nutrition and health are making us more confused. Hardly a day goes by without us reading about some breakthrough study which is contradictory to the previous ones. Consider these samples:
* Vitamin supplements are extremely beneficial/
It’s a waste to consume vitamin supplements.
* Eggs are bad coz they have cholesterol/Eggs are ok coz they have good or neutral cholesterol.
* Milk is excellent for health and helps fight osteoporosis / The combination of calcium and protein might set off osteoporosis.
* Moderate drinking, esp wine, is good for heart/Even low to moderate drinking is bad for heart.

All these studies have been conducted by reputed institutions and published in prominent health journals. Is it just me, or you guys are confused too? Is some lobbyism at work here? Or are the researchers looking at things through a narrow prism?
The best guide in these matters, I think, is good ol’ common sense, wot say?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

A question of career

Yesterday I called up a friend of my daughter’s who is studying in Dubai to enquire about her Class X board results and was happy to learn that she had scored 86%.

She has joined the science stream and wants to study Environmental Science. That was indeed a pleasant surprise. Because I know her parents to be quite stereotypical in their thoughts and outlook, and had presumed that she’d be under pressure to pursue a more conventional career. ‘Your parents ok with that?’ I asked. ‘Yes auntie, absolutely,’ she replied.

My own daughter, who has done well in the boards wants to have a career in Physics, Quantum Physics to be precise. So no question of “trying for” IIT, MBA or any such thing.

My cousin’s brilliant younger son is in 10th standard and is going to appear in the boards next year, but he already knows he wants to join the Arts stream. He fancies a career in Fine Arts. This is quite startling coz he’s a boy after all (his elder bro is gunning for IIT). When I spoke to the parents they said, ‘No question of forcing. I know it’s a gamble but he is a born artist.’

Are these cases exceptions or is that the norm these days? Have we—hardworking, middle class people become more relaxed about the career our kids are going to have?

What a change from our times!

‘Beta, badi hokar kya banogi?’ What do you want to be when you grow up—I bet we all faced this question as kids. But to me it always amounted to an existential dilemma, as if I was expected to summarise my entire adult life planning in one pithy reply. Unlike my younger brother, who knew he wanted to be an engineer ever since he stopped wearing diapers, I was totally clueless as to what I was going to do with my life for the first two decades of my life! Since both my parents were teachers, it was even more troublesome for me because they had a lot of expectations from their “intelligent” daughter.

“Doctor,” I’d say sometimes; “Engineer” at other times. But by the time I finished tenth I realised science wasn’t my cup of tea, no matter how well I had scored in the board. So it was Arts for me, to the disappointment of my parents, relatives and teachers.

“You are shutting out all the profitable career options,” one teacher said. But no way was I going to mug up Chemistry formulae and dissect cockroaches and frogs. “Ok, take Maths at least,” my father urged, and I did. But still I had no idea what I’d DO. “Lawyer,” I started saying now. But soon realised “Lecturer” got more approving nods. But which subject? I was bored to tears by Economics, Maths was getting tougher, and Philosophy and Political Science were ok but too bookish.

One day I remember, a distant cousin of mine had come down from Delhi. She was a ground staff with Indian Airlines but quite poised and self-assured, and to me she smelt of, well, aeroplanes, although, to be honest, at 16 I hadn’t seen the inside of an aircraft. So to the inevitable question that cropped up during our dinner I found myself saying, “Air Hostess.” Trust me I have no idea why I said so. Stewardressing was a glamorous profession those days; it still is, but the spark of inspiration was probably provided by my sophisticated cousin’s presence. No one spoke except for her who mentioned something about entrance test and training.

Later, after the guests left, all hell broke loose, about me wanting to be an air hostess “to clean people’s vomit and trashing jootha (leftovers).”

Mercifully, by the time I finished 12th I knew that I’d major in English literature. So for the next few years it was assumed that I’d be a lecturer. Little did I know that after PG I’d stumble into a profession that I had never dreamt of…after all, three odd decades ago a journalist was just a penpusher.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Pay it forward

Just imagine walking into a restaurant on a weekend morning for a scrumptious meal which has already been paid for by a complete stranger!

While driving around town yesterday I was listening to the BBC radio and this is what they were talking about. After a week of depressing news it somehow cheered me up. Who said genuine charity doesn’t exist?

This restaurant is situated in Washington DC and is run by Polo Club, an Indian restaurant, which operates normally on other days, except on Sundays when it offers a taste in generosity for anybody who walks in. No prior reservation is required.

* There are no prices on the menu. All you would be given at the end of a lavish meal is a bill of $0.00 with a footnote that reads: "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay it forward for those dine after you."

* The meal is Indian (and I presume, vegetarian), with no alcohol.

* It is run entirely by volunteers.

* Diners may eat entirely free or if they like, leave some money for the next person. A new twist to “It’s on me”, eh?

An initiative of the nonprofit Charity Focus, originally the project started in California and they have plans to open similar joints in Chicago, Maryland and Virginia. The idea is to establish “giving back” in every city in the country.

Incidentally, the name of the project is, you guessed it, Karma Kitchen!!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Kites doesn’t soar

A couple of days back I was reading somewhere that a British woman (Dubai resident), who had lived in India as a child, was eagerly looking forward to watching Kites. “I’m planning to drag my friends with me,” she said. “They feel Indian films lack substance but this one is going to be different.”

I wonder whether she watched the film and regretted doing so, at least dragging her friends. Because I watched the film yesterday and was mighty disappointed.

First the good bits…It’s well-produced, has a real exotic appeal, Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan are extremely impressive, the choreography is outstanding, the stunts are well-executed and there are some unexpected twists in the clichéd plot.

Having said that Anurag Basu doesn’t quite deliver. The biggest flaw is the script itself, written by Basu on the basis of a story by Rakesh Roshan, who has also produced the film.

The film tries to give us everything: romance, action and even comedy, but none of it, I’m afraid, is worth crowing about. The story is about two gold-diggers with sad past, Jai and Natasha, both of whom are scheming to get married to the siblings of the richest but a very brutal family who owns casinos in Las Vegas.

But their schemes fall off and they fall in love with each other inviting the wrath of the family headed by Kabir Bedi (who makes no impression whatsoever) and his son (newcomer Nick Brown, who doesn’t do badly given his two-dimensional role). The rest of the film can be summed us in thus, chase, romance, chase…

I’m not going to tell you any more lest I spoil it for you. But as an avid fan of Roshan and Basu I was let down. On the whole the film looked like a bad cross between a B-grade Hollywood movie and a B-grade Hindi movie, without any emotional core whatsoever.

The film was supposed to be a romance, if I’m not mistaken. But where is the chemistry between the lead pair? Was the rumoured affair between Roshan Junior and Mori just that, a rumour, you know, a publicity stunt? They look extremely good together—Rhithik is getting more handsome each year and Mori’s vulnerability and earthy charm are irresistible. But that’s it. The inability to speak to each other should have brought a different kind of chemistry to the screen (remember Ek Duje Ke Liye?), but in Kites, despite the smouldering looks, bare bods and exotic locales, the romance doesn’t quite take off.

Should you see the film? Yes, you should. Because if you go to the theatre leaving your expectations behind you might be able to enjoy it better than I did. Basu and Roshan tried to do something different and I think they deserve kudos just for that.

Oh almost forgot…Kangana sizzles in her short role. I love this girl—she manages to better herself each time.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Afraid of ageing

Life is full of surprises…

The reason why I’m starting off with this tired cliché is that a very dear friend of mine has gone and dyed his hair all black. So what, you said? Well, he is a couple of years shy of 60 and hold your breath, bald except for a fringe of hair ringing the bald patch.

I know he’ll read this post and will be livid but I don’t care. I’m equally angry with him. I know I have no right to be. After all, it’s his hair, his decision, his bald head. But somehow I’m feeling so let down.

While we’ve all fallen victims to the Dorian Gray syndrome here was a guy who had been carrying on getting old as if it was the most natural thing on earth! Sometimes if we made fun of his grey hair he’d take it on his stride. “So what? Pak gaye to pak gaye…” You know, you age and your hair turns gray.

Secretly we admired that, at least I did. Even though I dye my hair and wage a daily (preventive) battle with wrinkle and tummy fat I had always found my friend’s attitude liberating. Ah, to be able to sport the ravages of time on your chin and say I-don’t-care!

And he is a smart dude, well-read, suave and articulate. The grey hair, instead of taking anything away from him did wonders to his personality.

And then there he goes, dying his hair black. Now he looks, well, your average bloke who sports jet black hair at 60. A narcissist like everyone else…

My rant may be unfair, after all we all do what we do for a reason and we have a right to do so. I just hope to get used to seeing my friend in this new avatar.

But are we becoming extra age-conscious, even at 60?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Ethnic wear

Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi has caught my imagination for two reasons. Firstly because by being inducted as the first Muslim minister (that too of Pakistani origin) in the British cabinet, she seems to have done the impossible in post-Time Square climate, a fact that says something about her accomplishments, whatever they are. The youngest member of the House of Lords, she was apparently conferred the title of Baroness of Dewsbury three years back, on the recommendation of David Cameron. “Humbling” is how she described her latest achievement.
Secondly because she happens to be the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant mill worker and yet made it to the highest echelons of power in a white, Christian UK, without trading her salwar-suits for Western outfits. Now that is what I call gall and confidence.
Another woman I really admire for the same reason is Usha Uthup, the Indian pop diva of the ‘80s whose oomphy voice was all the rage of the night clubs despite her uber traditional image: temple-border sari, huge bindi and flower on her hair. In fact, the bindi had become such a part of her image that I remember Uthup saying in an interview that if by chance she decided not to wear it, she would be promptly reminded, “Madam, you forgot your bindi.”
Atta girls! To my mind these women have really done a Gandhi…remember the “naked fakir”?
Whether it’s the sari or the salwar-suit or the abaya, I feel ethnic dresses have a charm and elegance of their own. I don’t know if the abaya is a symbol of repression, I‘ve never analysed the issue too closely, but to me Emirati women look utterly feminine and graceful when they sashay around in their flowing abayas, designer or not. Ditto for Emirati men, who absolutely rock in kanduras. By the way, whatever happened to the Indian dhoti!?
With more and more people going for Western wear even when there is no need to, I feel the ethnic attires will be confined to museums within a century, at least in India. It’s due partly to the influence of Bollywood, which is blindly aping Hollywood dress code. The only exception that comes to mind is Aishwarya Rai, who is seen in a sari more frequently, even though for reasons best known to her she didn’t wear one at Cannes. Rani Mukherjee and of late Vidya Balan are two other Bollywood stars who show a preference for the six-yard wonder.
I think Indian politicians, both men and women, do a better job of this though. Doesn’t Rahul Gandhi look cool in his crumpled kurta-pyjama?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Some thoughts on silence

Raghunandan Sharma, a friend of mine has just returned from the Kumbh mela in Haridwar. He enjoyed the experience like millions do every year, but was upset about one thing, the festive spirit of the mela. Jubuliant crowds, mikes, lights, decoration, the works. “It looked as if the entire town was decked up for a wedding,” he rued. “The peace that you expect on such a religious occasions was totally missing.”
Well, if you don’t get peace in the foothills of the Himalayas, where else do you?
I wondered whether others also felt like Raghu, because we are all getting so desensitised to noise and distraction that lack of silence no longer surprises us.
Just take in your surrounding noise for a moment…Mobiles sounding off, traffic noise, construction sounds, white noise of electronic appliances, the chatter of radios and TVs at home, clanging of keyboards at office.
Study after study has shown the health problems related to surrounding noise levels…elevated hear rate, high blood pressure, surge in stress hormone levels, fatigue and irritability. Children exposed to noise have poorer learning skills, and teenagers walking around with iPods and MP3s are at risk of having their hearing ability impaired.
But what I personally worry about is the inner noise within us that has risen due to this constant outer noise and distraction (calls, smses, mails and social networking), depriving us of inner silence, which we so badly need and yet don’t realise. Being deprived of silence and stillness means losing touch with our inner being, our true self.
Yet we seem to be doing so little about it. Since 15 years, April 25 has been observed as International Noise Awareness Day, but I wonder how many people even know about it.
Well, I don’t know how we can reduce the noise levels. Not running cars and trains, shutting off the gadgets and generally cutting oneself off is certainly not practical.
What we can perhaps do is squeeze out some silence out of the constant distraction, by increasing our “silence quotient” to counter the outer and inner noise. We can’t all retreat to a Himalayan ashram or escape to spas, but we can surely nourish silence through meditation, or by taking frequent trips natural surrounding. In Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle gives some wonderful instructions. One of them is to observe a plant or power, how totally they are immersed in being. The other advice he gives is to be aware of the silence behind the noise…
But the trouble is, as some psychologists have pointed out that we might have already become so used to noise that silence may actually frighten us. What about the television or the radio that chatters in the background or keeps us company?
'Be still,' Jesus said, 'and know that I am God.' And many seers and philosophers in the East have gone a step further: ‘Be still and know that you are God…’
For being still and silent is to be one with the source of our being.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Shakespeare was wrong!

Our names are no accidents, numerologists claim. I wouldn’t discount that. In India we believe in naming a baby according to its star or the moon sign, so to that extent our names seem to be predestined. However, the astrological name mostly remains in the horoscope and a person goes by the “real name” chosen by the parents or close relatives.
Most of us have no issues with our names. I guess we just learn to live with it just the way we get used to our height or the colour of our hair. But this post has been prompted by the fact that my daughter, Yashodhara, dislikes her name. The complaints started as soon as she stepped into her teens. Initially I never took her seriously always insisting that the name has a nice ring to it and a beautiful meaning—bearer of fame or glory. More importantly, I had chosen the name after Budhdha’s wife, a resilient, wise woman, thanks to my memories of my maternal grandmother reading Maithili Sharan Gupta’s Hindi poem Yashodhara.
But all this has cut no ice with my daughter who now insists on being called “Isis”, with her friends and some teachers happily obliging. After all, compared to “Isis”, “Yashodhara” is quite a mouthful. Now that she’s in a boarding school in India, the issue has taken a backseat, but I can feel it ripening in the background.
After reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake I’ve been preparing myself for the sad eventuality of my daughter going the Gogol Ganguli way, who changed his name to Nikhil as soon as he turned 18.
“Would you like Tina instead?” I asked her once, in a reluctant effort to meet her half way. Tina, by the way, happens to be her astrological name, which I thought was still better than the alien-sounding “Isis”. “Ti-na? Is that a name?” she replied, rolling her eyes in mock horror.
Sorry Shakespeare…there's a lot in a name.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Proud to be a woman

'Where do you buy your lovely saris from?’
It’s a question we women hear everyday, or something like that. Where do you buy your clothes from? Your shoes? Your lingerie? Your grocery?
But when Meera Sanyal, ABN Amro (India) head asks such a question to Naina Lal Kidwai, the first Indian woman graduate from Harvard and HSBC country head on a national TV programme, it goes beyond the realm of the mundane.
Because, if Meera wanted a straight answer for her question (she got it though…”handloom saris”), she would probably have been discreet and not chosen a platform like NDTV’s Your Call. But what Meera was actually doing was making a statement about herself and women like her—super-achievers who reached the top not because they are women but despite being women. She was telling all those women watching the show ‘c’mon you don’t have to be ashamed of your femininity.’
What a lovely message, from one of India’s high profile bankers! (Incidentally, Meera had also contested as an independent candidate in India’s last general elections). She was looking absolutely gorgeous herself, all decked up in a pretty sari, and at the same time being generous in her compliment to another woman.
Well, looks like to be successful a woman doesn’t have to be one of the boys anymore. Instead, you can succeed like a woman—with elegance and quiet confidence.
Bring out those frilly skirts and saris!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Dial H for Hitchcock

According to The Independent of London, some of the dozen-odd silent films by Alfred Hitchcock have been restored and will be made available for the public in 2012. That’s a long wait but I bet it’s going to be worth it.
Recently I watched Shadow of a Doubt with a friend. “It has to be Hitchcock’s simplest film,” commented my friend, who has watched the film before. But I couldn’t agree. The storyline is simple no doubt but the psychological layering and the emotional stakes make it complex enough, taking it much beyond a thriller. Now it’s firmly on my favourite H-list, along with Rear Window, Rebecca and Dial M….
The opening scene itself gives away that our handsome New York guy Charles Oakley has some truly dark secrets. So when he arrives at his sister’s house at Santa Rosa, we have more than shadow of a doubt that he isn’t what he makes himself out to be—a successful businessman with charming, velvet-smooth ways. But the unsuspecting Newtons and the friendly (typically American) Santa Rosa community welcome him with open arms.
If there’s one person who's more thrilled than anyone else at Charles’s arrival, it’s his bored teenaged niece Charlie. She is particularly fond of him and is proud of the fact that she has been named after him. The emotional thrust of the film comes from the fact that the young and sensitive Charlie will have to discover the true character of her beloved uncle and keep the secret to herself lest her mother never recovers from the shock.
This poignant underpinning, as well as the device of using the innocent and sensitive Charlie as a foil to the sinister Charles, gives the film its soul.
I have never analysed Hitchcock’s techniques. To me his greatest achievement is the apparent lack of any studied method. His shots appear to be straightforward, the scenes and settings simple, the stories often moving in a linear fashion, but you always sense that there’s something lurking in the shadows or under the table...
Next on my list is To Catch a Thief. Shall keep you posted.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Weight(y) issue

Recently I travelled to India to spend two weeks with my parents and now most of my clothes don’t fit. The downside of Mom’s cooking!

Now I’ve started doing Surya Namaskar in the evenings too, after coming back from work. I know at least one person who obtained her size 0 figure with SN. Kareena Kapoor! Of course she does 50 rounds and I can barely reach 10. My aim is a modest 24, equivalent to 1 hr’s rigorous workout.

One can never be too rich or too thin, but I’ll be happy to remain size 16. Since I eat sensibly, dieting would mean starving myself, which is a no-no. So the only other way is to sweat it out.

I wish I could rope in a fitness trainer or resort to body-sculpting or whatever. Anything that GUARANTEES weight loss. Isn’t it surprising that the rich stand a better chance of staying thin, a fact Monica Ali’s protagonist in Brick Lane observes in the context of the UK. But isn’t that generally true?

Since when did we start obsessing with body weight? As a teenager I never found it to be an issue, whereas my 15-year-old daughter is sooooo conscious. I suspect it started with the expansion of the electronic media, the images of anorexic celebs constantly reminding us how fat we are, and therefore how ugly.

But there is one place in the world where fat women rule the roost. It’s Mauritania, in Africa! I had watched the interview of a young Mauritanian woman on Oprah a year or so before. Apparently, among the white Moor Arab population obesity equals to sexy and young girls are sometimes force-fed to gain weight.
I know, I know…sounds like heaven.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Confessions of a technophobe

Last Friday (weekend in the UAE) I attempted two impossible things. One was this blog and the second thing was I decided to be active on Facebook.
The first was relatively easy. The template was there and I just uploaded the first post, leaving the details for the next weekend.

As for the fb, the account was opened two years back by my cousin, Archana, an fb fanatic, saying it was fun and simple, and that “even you can handle it.”
But for two years I managed to ignore the friendship requests.
Last weekend, on a sudden burst of enthusiasm I reactivated my account, accepted the requests and sent out some of my own.

Soon fb messages started pouring in on my yahoo inbox—I could read them, sweet and welcoming—but try however I might, wasn’t able to reciprocate. I clicked on the link, on the photos and all the possible places but my messages wouldn’t go. Now I’m waiting for the weekend so I can rope in somebody for a demo. Meanwhile, I’m sending smses like crazy: “sori 4 nt respnding on fb. Will do on wknd.’

Technology really gets my goat. Anyway I feel most of it is superfluous and will rebound on us. Just an example, ten years back we never felt the need to be accessible 24 hours, but now we do, even while driving on the fast lane.

But I fear more for the next gen that they might be badly out of touch with real people and situations. A recent Reuters report vindicates my dread: American college kids get real withdrawal symptoms if they are denied the Net and social media.
Scary thought, isn’t it?

Friday, 23 April 2010

First Step

Did you know that more than two blogs are created each second of each day?

I came upon this bit of info while launching Actually I had been trying to select the URL, and realised that whatever name I typed, it’d have been invariably taken.

A quick Google-search and I stumbled upon some eye-popping statistics: the blogosphere is doubling about once every six months or so.

For a procrastinator like me (and a technophobe to boot) there couldn’t be a worse dampener. 200 million blogs and still counting!! At this rate we’ll all turn into writers, with no readers. It’s like we are all trying to speak at the same time…

What the heck…there are still lots of eyeballs left.

It’d be nice if some folks stumble onto this space and stay on, either because they like what I say or totally dislike, showing me an alternative way of looking at things. After all, life is a lifelong learning process.
That's all for today. I'll be writing 2-3 times a week, perhaps more.