Saturday, 25 March 2017

TVF's Arunabh Kumar, International Women's Day, Buzzfeed And The Growing Business of Feminism


You see, when it comes to India (or just the world in general), sexism isn't uncommon. It's the sad heartbreakingly disgusting state of the nation, but we find solace in feeble and seemingly apparent spurts of progression. The internet today, unfailing comrade of the millennials, is a shining reflection of the people who sustain it. It's largely a progressive medium if you look in the right places. Racism, discrimination, bigotry, sexism, antisemitism - the vicious wyverns of our prejudiced pasts dissected with blatant aplomb in this virtual realm. Them, the harbingers of unattainable justice, trying to change the world one viral post at a time.

It was gratifying to embrace progression on a medium conducive to it. Television soaps still had its women unctuously doting over the men of the house and Bollywood still had its demeaning female acting sensually frolicking roles. The internet, spurned by the emergence of progressive web series creators, was the haven for liberal samaritans.

Or so we thought.

It's a shock to watch The Viral Fever burn in flames of its ignominy because it stood for more than just great content. It was the voice of the progressive youth - with shows that openly challenged antiquated traditions and resonated within the hearts and minds of the hopeful. Resonation is important, for it truly bridges the gap between the audience and the creator. Through Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, we vicariously lived out our dormant romanticism, machismo and versatility. They resonated it with us, and we designated them to positions of importance.

So we did with TVF. An entertainment company that was about to launch its women-centric show 'Bisht, Please' this month. It isn't however, as we based on fallacious premises, a belief in progression. A desire to cause change, revamp mindsets and awaken the traditionalists. It isn't even a facade.

It's just business.

A business of feminism. Headed by honchos who openly, lecherously gape at women but jot down the words 'progressive' and 'liberal' on their meeting room bulletin boards when planning themes for shows. These are not progressive men, these are just closet traditionalists who know that progression sells.

What if there was some credibility to Arunabh Kumar's innocence (even though there can't be so much coagulated smoke without some fire) - thereby raising the question why people would find the need to conjure up fake molestation stories and thereby getting it answered by the fact that it sells.

Buzzfeed will happily shame any person found guilty of sexism (and rightly so) but would share a "10 Surprising Porn Habits By Indian Viewers" in a heartbeat. Another similar pseudo-progressive site would defame the photographer who looks to make some sweet rupee by snapping unflattering pictures of Bollywood actresses (and rightly so), but would happily share "20 Times Ranveer Singh Made You Thirsty AF".

Business. Just good ol' business.

On Women's Day, you see less celebrating the existence of women in our lives, without whom we would truly be nowhere, and more comparisons between the genders. Rega Jha, editor of Buzzfeed India tweets out (to paraphrase) "Let's celebrate women's day by appreciating things men do better than us: genocide..."

While I'm sure (positive!) that it was all in jest, a barrage of retweets later the purpose seems to be murky. The trivialisation of issues in the quest for high-impact potentially viral content. It's the decision between wanting to shout "Thank you to all the women" over "All men are dogs!". The decision between what's good appreciation and what's good business.

A trifle of transient fame; a little transitory cyber notoriety. The essence of Women's Day lost to the business of feminism. Somehow, it seems that on days like these it's not the activists who sleep peacefully after spreading awareness but rather the jewellery stores that cashed them ousside howbow dah special promotions. A good day of business.

In midst of it all, us, flitting around from one false mascot of change to another - hoping and praying for progress but somehow, rather surprisingly, getting nowhere.

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Saturday, 4 March 2017

The 'Not Bad' Tale Of My Driving Instructor


If I were to promise you a world hitherto unseen, unheard and unfelt by a mere shift in seating position, kind of like the blog version of a red and blue pill, would you believe? Surely, the sights and sounds of this mundane reality are unfazed by angles - my pet monkey (if I had one) would look equally happy devouring a banana (if he had one) if I viewed him from the balcony of my villa (if I had one) or the passenger seat of my car (as you must've guessed, also if I had one).

Yet we wage a constant battle between presumption and reality. I woke up to the vicissitudes of the road in November by changing my regular position in motor vehicles by just one seat. Strapped into the driver seat of a fuming, faltering and clearly-agonised-by-every-movement Nissan Sunny, I was abruptly shunned into a novel perspective. It was a world I was ignorant to, an unspoken dialect that was previously illegible - the gush of gratitude when that toothless truck driver gave me way and the rush of rage when that spineless bus driver flashed his headlights at me. 

A ravenous student was reborn. Taking his place in the passenger seat was an instructor who was perpetually unsatisfied. I was young again - a little child tottering and slipping on his odyssey towards learning to walk. He took my hand and led me on an asphalt path of discovery. The road is a great leveller of fate, I would posit ruefully, as I made a gleaming, whizzing Range Rover Evoque swerve out of the way of my wailing, whining and clearly-in-astronomical-distress Nissan Sunny. 

"So bad." 

My instructor would sigh. He would lean back, close his eyes and soundlessly mutter incantations, leaving me in the driver seat of a faltering, flailing Nissan Sunny under the inarguable impression that he solely relied on higher powers (over my nascent driving skills) to get us out of the cacophony of Oud Metha road. 

I knew - I just knew. My suspicions were confirmed when he added a beaded necklace to the mix, constantly running a finger down the beads, murmuring to himself while I changed lanes. 

"So bad."

These words were all that drowned the radio - the theme song of my tutelage. So bad. I foresaw a 'so bad' before I made the turn. I foresaw another weighted 'so bad' much before I entered the freeway. I would randomly hear those words in the middle of Eminem's greatest tracks. I would hear them before I crossed the road, on foot. I would nonchalantly dismiss the theatrical jitters of horror movies, yet if I were to hear the words 'so' and 'bad' randomly strung together in everyday conversation, I would start to sweat. Trepidation would bend me over, convulsing like a fish out of water (to the horror of the aunty I was just discussing my marriage eligibility with), drowning me in the engulfing terrors of driving ineptitude. 

With time it took the role of an unrelenting impetus. Emboldened by the hunger to seek approval, I would constantly learn, unlearn and practice - until there came a glorious, fateful day when I (in my objectively humble opinion) executed a perfect manoeuvre and glanced hopefully at his placid visage.

"Yallah, so bad."

Preposterous! How could anyone criticise the elegance of that action? I would sputter indignantly; I would bombard him with questions, daring him to 'so bad' my determined efforts once again.

But he did. I spent weeks perfecting my near perfect movements, but 101.6 So Bad FM was all that resonated within my pleading, beseeching Nissan Sunny. There were times when I made a blatant gaffe and abashedly avoided his probing gaze - him soundlessly taunting me to question once again and me trying to reduce the tally of 'so bad's that was a perpetually accumulating glistening heap.


We had our moments in the sun. There was a time when a Chevrolet Corvette tried to bully its way into my lane, and me being the descendent of the regal blood of Mankhool, heir of the nobility of Bur Dubai, would stubbornly assert my priority over my lane with my frantic, frenetic Nissan Sunny. My instructor stepped in, admonishing me to go out of my way to give the Corvette some leeway because in his opinion we were meant to respect a 'good car'.

"Tayeb, but what if it's a Nissan Tiida?"

He made a violent spitting motion and chuckled merrily.

Needless to say, at the next given opportunity, I made no qualms about not giving way to a Tiida, viciously spitting at the startled driver.

Also needless to say, my instructor wasn't pleased.

It took a few weeks (read: months) (truthfully read: years) but there came a day when (once again in my humble opinion) I moved seamlessly through the fumes spittin' bedlam of horns, sirens and thundering engines. My hands blended in with the steering wheel and my foot forged its sweet analogous relationship with the pedals. I twirled my moustache, puffed up my chest and looked at him with burgeoning pride, internally pleading for my first word of praise.

He avoided my gaze and casually ruffled through his papers, determined not to give me the satisfaction of having attained his stamp of approval.

"Not bad."

Not bad? Not bad?! In a frustrating tangle of 'so bad's and 'not bad's, I became a citizen of the road. For one of the last times in my life, I was in the hands of a teacher and I was out to serenade to the swan song of my student life. Yet, I never got my 'good'. 

He would never dote, praise or look mildly happy with my improvement. His temporary lapses in demeanour would occur only when I failed, for it seemed that he restrained a modicum of confidence in his student that would emerge when questioned by an external authority. He would take extra hours and work through a diseased liver to give me classes. Yet, I never got my 'good'. 

Once, to deliberately mess me up into countless sleepless nights (I know, I just know), he uttered 'not bad but not good'.

Alas! Unable to get the didactic nod from my teacher, I passed all tests immune to the vagaries of external examiners. Their certified and publicly valued stamp of approval was nothing compared to the informal and unacknowledged stamp I never got. After years of car lifts, public transport sagas and guilty car rides, I was liberated to be confined in the white lines of the road. Yet, I still never get my 'good'.

I went back to him, one last time, equipped with the plastic card that was the certified fruit of my labour and desire. I asked him one last question, completely unrelated to my tenure as his pupil, expecting another traditional 'not bad' that would set me on my way, away from the last dregs of my student life. Just one more 'not bad' to latch this box of memories, and I would merge silently into the tumultuous tangle of daily traffic.

"Do you like the Mitsubishi Lancer?"

I knew what was coming; I was prepared for it.

"I like you, habibi."

I looked into those eyes to see pure, genuine pride and I knew.

I just knew.

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All characters in this anecdote are purely fictional and any semblance to actual events or people, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Unheard Voices Of Tehran


"Iran good?"

I'm abruptly distracted from my increasingly ravenous glances at Tajrish square by the mangled and rather limited English of my reticent companion. He i- actually never mind about him just yet, as his time will come near the end of this piece. In retrospect, I take immense satisfaction with my retort since these questioning words were uttered midway through my rendezvous with the historical lands of Persia. Sans several ingredients, the complete concoction of experiences was yet to be stewed and stirred. But I was able to, rather miraculously, accurately encapsulate the taste of the cooked Persian stew (a steaming Kashk-e Bademjan) to my hitherto silent chaperone, and in turn prognosticate the rest of my trip.

In early December, as I tentatively broke the news of my travel to Iran to family, friends and foes alike, I was predictably greeted with histrionic exclamations fraught with dread, despair and denial. A decade of accumulated bias and media-projected negativity had fostered in our minds - even mine, regrettably, as I was the hapless by-product of the what the agenda-driven media wanted to thrust down my gullible gullet.

It seemed to the people to who loved that imminent danger was in my fate, as I was willingly venturing into a pit of peril; consciously acquiescent of an innocuous dance with impending doom!


But who do I blame? Myself or the consistent images I was fed of an Iran caressed with maleficent licks of violence, hatred and prejudice?

"You will get shot."

A decade of projected bias and negativity weighed down upon me, aided and abetted by the baggage of my dear ones.

A decade of projected bias and negativity, and in just two days I had fallen in love, helplessly and irrevocably, with the people of Tehran.

My initial encounters were exacting, as my knowledge of Farsi was negligible and so was their English. Yet there is a certain art of understanding without speaking in common tongue, and I found that when the limitations of spoken word lurk over two individuals, the sublime and elementary language of the heart adopts precedence. The magic of love - immortal, omnipresent and omnipotent - hovers eternally, waiting to be summoned.

In a day, with my laudable amelioration of rudimentary Farsi, our conversations start to sustain. I have also, to my mild surprise, found an unlikely icebreaker - Bollywood. Young and old, rich and poor - the magnetic power of an excessively extravagant genre of cinema was palpable. Hungry for some form of communication, I break out some of my choicest Salman Khan impressions to delighted chuckles. A youth from the land of Hindustan romping to Bollywood classics! My exoticism tantamount to theirs for me. 

An intriguing union of cultures, and hearts.

Several middle-aged men tip their hats to Amitabh Bachchan, while a cigar-enamoured cabbie is flummoxed when I inform him that Salman Khan had just turned 51. I’m guilty of ruining his life at that moment, as he stutters incoherence amidst the unrelenting Tehran traffic, now aware that the newfound knowledge that his supposedly timeless icon was double his age would effectively result in transient insomnia. 

The fanaticism is unbound by age, I tell you, as a wizened veteran limps up to me and croaks, “Vyjayanthimala!”, his finger quivering with the antiquated theatrical fantasies of his yesteryears.
A towering security guard whose face crinkles into a smile as wide as Talbiat bridge and he booms, “Govinda!” (at which point we both high-five) and then croons, 

“Aishwarya Rai!” 

At which point, both of us put our hands on our hearts, collectively and momentarily losing ourselves in lustful fantasies of a classical beauty, as you do. 

Danger and prejudice is what I feared, hospitality and love is what I found. Not a gun pointed to my head, but a cupid's arrow aimed at my heart. I was welcomed a brother, an exotic traveller that had graced their doorstep. In a quest for the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini, Google Maps decided to forsake our bond of trust, having not acquainted itself with the alleys of Persia, and led me dead centre at the end of my journey in a jewellery store. The chuckling, sadistically amused jeweller (once again in the magical language of unspoken word) beckoned me to stay, rest and feel at home. 

Feel at home! Ensconced in the shadow of Talbiat bridge, Khoone restaurant welcomed me into its homely interiors, replete with fancy teapots, dishevelled bookshelves and flowery curtains. I asked for a menu and was blatantly refused because as the waiter assured me, ‘Khoone’ meant ‘home’ in Farsi and I was to feel completely at home. No one asks for a menu at home, and hence I didn’t get one. 

I must say, I did resist the insurmountable urge to point out no one asks for the bill at the end of the meal at home either, but such impudence was unwarranted in a haven where prejudice was shed at the doorstep.

As I wandered through the bazaars of Tehran, drowning myself in the musical cadence of verbal Farsi, there were sights, colours, sounds, smells and mostly, voices, that the world paid no attention to. In the family of nations, Iran had been boycotted because it refused to comply with a certain domineering uncle's whims. 

An entire nation left behind at the orders of Uncle Sam.

Hatred.

Blatant, steaming hot hatred. Found in just one place - a den of darkness. 

As I walked past a skeletal simulacrum of the Statue of Liberty, it was evident that Uncle Sam was no longer welcome in what was once his home - the former US Embassy in Tehran, now commonly referred to as the Den of Espionage.




Scalding, coagulated hatred. 

The former Embassy, now a miniature museum, welcomed visitors to view rows of contraptions intended for decoding, transmitting and pulverising confidential documents. A machine which they touted tapped into all the telephone lines in Iran, including the government’s. Walls now covered with anti-American murals, painting corridors that once nurtured surreptitious whispers. 

A covert, devious den of espionage. An affirmation that none of the hostages were harmed in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Wistful reminiscence of the lives Uncle Sam had taken in vengeance. 

On a huge canvas, a lifeless corpse of a bloodied child. Crude symbolism for the lives lost in the Iran Air Flight 655, which Uncle Sam impassively shot down without apology. The words below the dripping blood of the lifeless corpse, as haunting as death itself -

‘What sin did he commit?’

Who am I to comment on right and wrong? Good and evil? Ben Affleck’s Argo depicted the same event with different filters, and I’m being asked to discern one bias from another? All I know is that, in this particular tussle and all others, poor men suffered the brunt of rich men’s quarrels. This eclectic motley of Iranian humanity, bullied and ostracised from the world at large, had a voice no one wanted to hear anymore. 

Uncle Sam runs the house and Uncle Sam decides who stays in the family.

One of my newly acquired Iranian friends with whom I gelled with over a mutual love for rap music (and who was also an underground DJ) said tha-

Actually, stop. 

Are you struck by a thought? 

I was.

Did you ever think of an Iranian DJ? In fact if you jump back a couple of paragraphs, was it minutely fathomable to imagine a homely restaurant, amused jeweller, Bollywood fanatics, rap aficionados or a clandestine DJ in the purported war zone of Iran? Yet, here they were in their hugging, kissing, laughing, welcoming, Govinda-mimicking, Tupac-extolling and remixing glory. 

An eclectic motley of Iranian humanity that has remained unheard; painted a dark shadow of bigoted hatred.




"Iran good?"

…all of which brings me back to the question in the beginning of this piece, the mildly curious eyes of my laconic friend and the answer I unknowingly, yet truthfully, ended up giving. His face, gruff yet affable, bears the resigned look of a man succumbed to the monotony of life. He seems well-off and judging by the briefcase and suit he’s heading to work. He would have headed to work, uninterrupted, had I not approached him a couple of minutes earlier asking directions to the Tajrish Metro Station. His English vocabulary was on par with my Farsi, and the magical wands of unspoken words were brandished once again. 

He took a detour from his usual path to guide me to my destination, even though it might’ve made him slightly late for work. I was engulfed in the dynamic colours and rich cacophony of Tajrish, and as a result, our journey was primarily marked with silence, until I was reminded of his presence by that fateful trip-defining question.

I gaze into his eyes, and maybe it was just the gratitude of a helpless astray man guided to light or a prophecy for the ages, but there was no other word I could’ve uttered but -

"زیبا!"      

(“Beautiful!”)

A question he asked in English and an answer I give in Farsi. A consummation of the cultures of Hindustan and Persia, one step towards Tajrish square at a time.

He grins. Heads bow down once again, and we continue our mute odyssey. I have an inkling he had more to say on the topic but was limited by more than just the impediment of spoken word. His voice, much like the desolated ruins of Takht-e-Jamshid, the unearthly murmurs at Naqsh-e Rustam and the innocence of the 66 children on board Iran Air 655, would remain perennially to the world at large - ignored, ostracised and unheard. 



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