The auto driver who doesn’t like journalists

Last Saturday I went to the other side of town, to Malleswaram. On the way back I could not find a bus so I had to take an auto. I live in south Bangalore and the distance is quite a lot. It was a long way home and as it happens under such circumstances, almost inevitably, the auto driver and I got talking.

The election fever has overtaken us all and so I asked him if he would vote. Yes, he said. We got talking about political affiliations. To my surprise, he said he would vote for the AAP. As I recall, I think he got Kejriwal’s name wrong (I think he said “Aggarwal” – but that is beyond the point because he was aware of what had happened in Delhi). We, the urban elite, have always thought of AAP as a mostly urban-upper-middle-class phenomenon so that conversation was a myth-buster.

Anyway, towards the end of the ride, the driver mentioned that he was cautious about opening up with his passengers these days. Considering that we had just had a long conversation, I found it a bit odd so I asked him why. The other day, he recalled, an incident happened when he dropped a lady at Malleswaram. I asked him further. “Well”, he said, “she got talking just like you. About life, social issues, politics etc. And when she got down, she asked me if she could take my picture. I was hesitant but she took one and left”.

The lady was a journalist. The auto driver claimed that she asked him questions, got him talking and recorded the conversation without telling him about it. A few days later (or the next day, I do not know) an article was published with his name (and he claimed it carried his picture too) in Bangalore’s Deccan Herald. “My friends saw it and they were laughing at me. I kept telling them – I never said all that”.

I told him, in a way that he could understand, that for a journalist to do that was wrong. He didn’t need much convincing – he already knew that. More than the quotes, which he said weren’t true anyway, he was hurt by the fact that his name was published in a newspaper without his consent. “But I don’t want to do anything about it”. I told him that I can take this up with Deccan Herald. He agreed but later he added, “Sir, I just don’t want my name anywhere”.

I went home and searched for his name at Deccan Herald’s website. I found him quoted in a story, just as he had mentioned. I did not find his picture there (thus, I can’t say if Deccan Herald carried it in the print version).

The next day, I posted a series of tweets – some of them mentioned his name and the link to the article. I was wrong to do that – in my bid to highlight the lapse of ethos, I committed the same mistake I accuse Deccan Herald of – quoting the auto driver despite his reluctance. Moments later, I deleted those tweets. I have taken care not to mention his name and the article link on this post.

What I did was though was this: I tried to contact the author of the article on twitter. I haven’t heard from her. Maybe I will. I also tagged Deccan Herald’s twitter account on my tweets about it (those tweets that I decided to keep) and somewhat conveniently, I haven’t heard back from them.

Apart from the obvious lack of ethos evident here, my only question is this — would this journalist dare do the same thing if she met, say, a CEO of a company? Or anyone who held more influence than our auto driver? Someone who won’t be as helpless and won’t hesitate to go public about it? Would she record the conversation without telling, snap a picture when done and then run the story despite knowing that it is not OK to do it?

Because out there, an auto driver doesn’t want to ever talk to journalists.

Katra Katra milte hein

I have always loved Gulzar’s poetry. Maybe during my days of growing up, it was the melody that caught my attention (after all, Gulzar’s best came with great melodies rendered by Pancham). I loved the songs because of the music but as I understood the songs more, I found that his lyrics made the songs more beautiful; so I often ended up looking for songs penned by Gulzar.

Two days ago, when I found out that Gulzar was to be in conversation with Prasoon Joshi on the morning of 28th September (today) at the Bangalore Literature Festival, I thought this isn’t something to miss. I made it to the lawns of Crowne Plaza a few minutes late. Gulzar sa’ab and Prasoon Joshi were discussing, what I thought was about the linguistic element and etymology in the nazms and poetry. Then Gulzar sa’ab talked about how he would insist on using a word in his works so that not only it fit into the narrative but also would serve the purpose of preserving the word (Since, well, using an uncommon word is actually a way of not letting it go in time). An example he used was the Urdu word, “mukhtasar”. Coming back home, I notice that the word is used by him in a song penned by him, “Tum Pukar lo” (“mukhtasar si baat hai, tumse pyaar hai”) sung by Hemant Kumar for the 1969 movie, Khamoshi. At that moment, it made me think of another movie, directed and lyrics penned by Gulzar himeself, Ijaazat.

During the Q&A session, I used my arms well by raising them as high as I could and got the microphone. Apparently then, Gulzar said that the time was up and he won’t take any more questions. I was stopped midway. Then he had a change of heart and allowed me to continue.

I started by saying that I was his great fan and carried him all the time in my iPod. This was followed by cheers from the audience that went for a long time. To which Gulzar sa’ab replied: Ab mujhe maloom ho gaya ki mera size kya hai. (Now I know what size I am!). This was then followed by a longer cheer from the audience and the applause never seemed to end.

Anyway, my question was related to their just concluded talk of preserving words, the one I mentioned above. So in Ijaazat, I think before the song “Katra Katra”, Naseeruddin Shah is talking to Rekha and explaining: “Maazi ko Maazi na banaya toh..” before Rekha interrupts him and asks, “Maazi?”, implying that she does not know the meaning of the word. Now considering that this is a movie, I found this very peculiar. Why would the screenplay writer make the actors of a movie explain words to each other in the movie? I mean, couldn’t Gulzar make it simple by using, “Jo beeta hua hai usse beet jaane do” (which Shah eventually says, clarifying “maazi” further) instead of insisting to use the word “Maazi” and then making Shah explain the meaning of the word to Rekha? By doing that, Gulzar was reaching out to the audience, maybe breaking the fourth wall indirectly, trying to make them understand “maazi” and wanting them to remember it forever. I did not have the opportunity to be so elaborate with my question as I am here but was that Gulzar’s way of preserving a word, by insisting on using it where he could, in his own movie?

Gulzar sa’ab’s first response was almost dismissive. He said something to the effect that this he used to do often during his younger days. It was not about preserving a word but just using it, where he could. The second response, and I did not see this coming from Gulzar, was that he almost reprimanded me for using an English sentence in my question. That while I had used chaste Hindi in my first few sentences and conveniently gone to English in the last line perhaps irked him (as it would, to any purist). My world came to a standstill, I thought I heard lots of laughter and I was told later that I was on the giant screens while asking the question.

Which I think, was fine. I did not get to explain that I wasn’t really used to talking to intellectuals like him, least of all in front of such a huge audience. On the bus ride home, this event captivated my mind. I concluded that while only a few hundred got an opportunity to listen to a great man like Gulzar sa’ab, only 3 of them had today got a chance to talk to him in front of such matured and educated audience. And I sincerely believed that my question to him had substance. It wasn’t stupid.

Toh, Gulzaar sa’ab, kam se kam aapne hamari hansi toh udaai. Baakiyon ko toh woh bhi naseeb na hui.

“Gaon mein koi choota bhi nahi hai”

Friday morning, August 23, I was taken aback hearing about the rape of a journalist in Mumbai. Social media was abuzz with people in shock that such a crime could still happen after all that we had witnessed a few months ago in Delhi.

The first thing that we need to change is the mindset that city X is safer than city Y. Maybe it was true 20 years ago. Not anymore. There are various reasons to it.

The first reason I can think of is the unprecedented migration that has been happening in India over the last two decades. I do not have any data to support it right now but it seems plausible that with the growth that has taken place in our cities over the past 15-20 years, we have witnessed people, of all classes and professions, moving around across the cities for jobs. Bangalore has software engineers from Delhi and Bombay while the security guards that I have met have mostly migrated from the east. Delhi has migrants from Tamil Nadu just as it has people from Bihar. The typical one-city guy, that stereotype is no more. Everyone is everywhere.

Secondly, the behavior of our society which I believe reflects our morals (or the lack of it) is more or less the same. Reason being that our morals, across geographies, have that common ground. Haryana and Tamil Nadu, states that have had little in common in terms of culture and language have witnessed numerous cases of honour killings. Moral policing in a town of, say, Uttar Pradesh, is more or less of the same brand that exists in the southern port city of Mangalore.

The only exception to the above two reasons could be India’s North East. Look closely and you will find the reasons — their culture is more open, a boy and a girl holding hands is not a social taboo. And largely, the movement of people for jobs from the rest of India to the North East, it is safe to assume, must be negligible (It has been mostly, east to north/west/south but not vice versa).

Before I go any further, I must tell a small story here that a friend shared with me a few months ago. He had gone to Goa on a holiday. One of those days, in the mornings when the beach was deserted and the shacks were just opening up, a shop-helper sort of a guy was opening a shop. Mornings in Goa beaches are usually sane, with less crowds and all. A few foreigner tourists, all women, were walking by. This guy, suddenly exults, gives a smile and positions himself to be ready for a series of “high-fives”. The ladies obliged, perhaps smiled too and moved on. After the ladies had left, this guy, happily proclaimed something to the effect – “Back in the village I never get to touch a lady and here? wow!” (“saala wahan gaon mein koi choota bhi nahi hai!”).

I hate generalizing but it seems that to me, people who do the ghastly crime of raping a woman, have tendencies like this guy had, only magnified a few times.

To be honest, I am a little surprised that all the “change” that I am hearing about on social and traditional media has something to do with the law, or the Government, or the policing. No one is looking at what could be driving a 20 year old guy to commit this ghastly crime. It is almost naive to think that a law or a stronger police force is the ultimate answer to this menace.

A few months ago, I was at the Bangalore town-hall to witness the protest and the candle light vigil that happened just after the Delhi rape. People demanded justice and justice for them meant that the state give capital punishment to those six men. With the Mumbai rape, people may still ask for a similar punishment as the outcry right now suggests. There have been equal (if not more) calls for a more stringent law that would deter someone to commit this heinous crime. While I think that a strong law is the need of the hour, I also believe that giving someone death for this crime would not really bring about the change we want, in the long run. If that had to work, our society must have learnt its lessons after the Delhi rape case. It has to be a combination of a stringent law AND a social change.

The social change that I talk about here is about not making a deal out of a boy and a girl holding hands. To not look at young, unmarried couples in contempt. To make it reasonable for a young unmarried couple to stay together. The urban society that we are so used to may have learnt to agree with it but there is a lot to India than just the few big cities. It is only when our villages and small towns come out of long held social but irrational beliefs would we be able to see a real change in our society.

Maybe then that guy in Goa will stop raising his hand for high-fives everytime he saw a group of white women on the beach.

On the other side

Sometime during 2000/01 in Indore, Dainik Bhaskar, the Bhopal based newspaper (which also had an Indore edition) held a series of media events that were open to the public. During that week, many prominent media personalities visited Indore. Suddenly the otherwise quiet town was in focus (or it was made to look like that to us, anyway).

In my late teens then, I had never seen anything like it. One like minded friend, Girish Sekhar (who was already disillusioned with our netas then and later joined the Army – always ahead of his times, Girish Sekhar) and I decided to make the most of the opportunity. We wildly hunted for passes that were freely available but required traveling to another part of the city, trying to get into as many events we possibly could. Indore’s public transport was pathetic then so commuting was a major problem. We did manage to get a pass to the event at the infamous Sayaji Hotel, one of the town’s few five star hotels. It was the stuff we could only dream about — hearing top media people speak at the best hotel in town, for free.

Loitering in the hotel after the event as if we had always belonged there, Girish pointed me out to a man walking in the lobby, who seemed to be returning from the rest room. “I’ve seen him somewhere – I just have”, exclaimed Girish. I had the same gut feel and of the two of us, I turned out to be the assertive kind. I walked to the man, all confident and ready to speak the clichéd line: jee, aapko kahin dekha hai (Sir, I have surely seen you somewhere). The man looked at us, broke into a smile and said: aapne mujhko Zee TV ke kaaryakram, Ru Ba Ru pe dekha hoga (You must have seen me in Zee tv’s program, Ru Ba Ru).

That man was Rajeev Shukla. Down to earth, introducing himself to a bunch of nobodies in a Five-star hotel lobby. Of course, he was much thinner then though his moustache, almost gone now, loomed thick when you looked at his face. he broke into a smile often and when he spoke his pure hindi, you could swear that you had never met a more modest man than him (I also realize now that he may have been a MP then).

In the late 90s, Rajeev Shukla, someone who started his career as a journalist went around seeking answers from people in power, on national television. In his usual head wobblling style while stating things matter-of-factly, he would ask uncomfortable questions in chaste hindi that made way for more uncomfortable answers. His website claims that “he interviewed eminent personalities ranging from political leaders like Congress Chairperson Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Ministers Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mr I.K Gujral, the then President Mr K R Narayanan, Benazeer Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Dalai Lama to film celebrities and sport stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan”.

Come to think of it, maybe that is why Girish recognized him and was happy to meet him. Because here was a man that made it very uncomfortable for the same people that we had grown to get disillusioned from, and in a way we could all admire not just from a distance. We could bump into him in an expensive place and he talked to us in a way that we could understand. He was one among us.

That is also why I am now disillusioned by the same Rajeev Shukla who now, among holding other powerful positions, is also incharge of The Indian Premier League. And who, despite everything that has happened, has mostly been mum about the latest scandal that has rocked BCCI’s premier tournament. Wouldn’t the Rajeev Shukla I met in 2000, the man who looked for accountability from the most powerful people of his times, be outraged with this silence by now?

Maybe this is how life comes a full circle. Maybe this how it is on the other side.

Chequered Pasts

For the last 9 months or so, I had been working on a story involving background verification industry, résumé fraud in the Indian IT sector and the state of technical education in India. The story took a lot — it is the toughest writing that I have ever done, and so finally I am glad to be able to write this that it has been featured in the Reportage section of April’s issue of Caravan magazine.

You can access it online here.

I want to thank the editors at Caravan who I had the wonderful opportunity to work with in the last 9 months. It was one heck of a learning curve. I feel the magazine is filling an important void in Indian journalism and at the same time has a pivotal role to play in the years to come. It has been rightfully compared to the likes of The New Yorker. I am just a part time writer who is always on the lookout for a good story, so for them to give someone like me an opportunity (again) means a lot to me.

Thanks to the few people who have inspired me, who continue to inspire me with simple things like what they do in their everyday lives. To close friends who have reviewed countless times the drafts that eventually landed at the Editor’s desk. To friends who have genuinely felt for me — forever in my heart, come what may. They know who they are.

There were a lot of “takeaways” from this experience and I probably would write them down as a separate blog post but for now, let me just say that I would be happy to return to regular blogging.

More later!

On The Tales From Firozsha Baag

“A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry is one of the finest (probably only surpassed by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) Indian literary novels ever. There have been very few books that have touched my heart as it did. I was new to Bangalore, in 2005 and was looking forward, with a book in hand, to getting lost in the myriad of lanes that the city had to offer.

A writer friend I constantly look up to, once suggested that “Tales from Firozsha Baag”, Mistry’s debut, was a great book and his personal favorite. I had the opportunity to read the book over the last couple of months. As it turns out, as debut books do, this one not only gives enough hints of the great writer that Mistry would turn out to be but it is a masterpiece in it’s own right. Here’s a small para I loved for the sheer prose of it, describing the Bombay local train scene in all it’s essence:

The suburban local was at the outskirts of Bombay; they would arrive at their destination in forty-five minutes. The ’17 Standees Allowed’ by the scratched and peeling sign had already been exceeded by the crush of Sunday morning commuters, but not to the extent of a weekday train: as yet, there were no roof-riders or window-clingers. In the sky the sun was higher than the when the train left Bombay Central. The heat began to strengthen rapidly now, seeming to feed on itself, growing more oppressive with every breath. From metal straps hung the standees, listless, upraised arms revealing identical damp patches under sleeves of shirts and blouses. Overhead, the fans turned ineffectively, whirring and rattling, their blades labouring with feeble rotations, trying to chop the air thick with heat and odour, scattering it around unelessly in the compartment.

The book is a collection of eleven short stories set in the 1980s about people living in a parsi colony in Bombay. The stories are intertwined while each story has a main subject/family and at least a few characters from other stories make appearances in each story.

As any good book would, this takes a little time to pick up even though the stories by themselves are distinct. But then again, with Mistry, it is not so much about the story but the beautiful prose that he weaves with his simple tools that comprise mostly of words. At times, the stories have an element of shock, but are mostly amusing and sometimes even funny but the common thread that binds them all is the pettiness that was the common ingredient that every middle class family in Bombay must have had in the 1980s — something I could relate to, for I grew up near Bombay at the same time and have seen the city at close quarters.

Consider for example, the story called Squatter in which Nariman Hansotia, a man popular with kids of Firozsha Baag for telling stories tells the story of an imaginary cricketer named Savukshaw, the greatest cricketer who played during the times of greats like Umrigar, Contractor and Farokh Engineer. Savukshaw, who gave up cricket for cycling, before he became a pole-vaulter and then a hunter could never find happiness in his life. Eventually Mistry, with Nariman at his aide, tells us about Sarosh, living in Toronto for ten years and yet not being able to balance himself on the western commode. So Sarosh, throws himself a challenge and what follows is a funny account of an Indian immigrant’s life in the first world.

Or one could keep thinking about Lend Me Your Light, where the lives of three friends, one of them, the narrator, the other being his brother and the third, a friend, keep crossing each other’s at intervals. Nothing much would have come of it if only the three would not have spent their childhood together. The story depicts how, in the 1980s, the Indian Youth reacted to the hopelessness surrounding the times. But then again, it is not so much about the story but in this case, it is the difficult questions that Mistry asks his readers by way of the characters he beautifully crafts, at will. It is this rush of emotions that these subjects feel and you, the reader, would find yourself inevitably attracted to these viewpoints, almost agreeing to one of them, and maybe taking out time, thinking and answering these uncomfortable questions, looking out ways to possibly ensure that your well-thought of answers that you mumble quietly within the vicinity of your head are somewhere heard. It is what any well told story should do to you, and this one most certainly qualifies for one, as it continues to dwell, this story of three boys growing up to men, living in different lands — Toronto, New York and a small village in Maharashtra but returning home to Bombay with a different set of emotions each time.

Or maybe I could also talk about the last story, if I can call it that, because Swimming Lessons has distinctive details about the author’s own life (More on that later). Here Mistry goes back and forth between the central character of the story who grew up in Firozsha Baag but finds himself in a Toronto apartment while his parents wait for his letters in India. The Toronto version of events turn out to be about his daily experiences where he recounts his childhood with minute details while the events that happen with his parents (presumably set a little in the future) talk about letters that his parents keep receiving only to find, inevitably to his father’s disappointment, a standard paragraph on weather from their son in Toronto who refuses to divulge details about his daily life without asking any in return until one day they find that their son, in a clerical job with an insurance company in Toronto, is also a writer and has written a book of short stories on his childhood experiences of Firozsha Baag! (Mistry was a banker until he started writing in his late 20s/early 30s)

The story is a joy to read with segments of hopelessness coupled with antidotes on what could become a writer, coming from the father’s perspective who is much delighted now that his son has found his calling in writing. And now, with the way of his father’s dialogue, Mistry conveys to us some theories that are heartening to hear for any aspiring writer. Consider some excerpts:

all writers worked in the same way, they used their memories and experiences and made stories out of them, changing some things, adding some, imagining some, all writers were very good at remembering details of their lives.


Father explained it takes a writer about ten years time after an experience before he is able to use it in his writing, it takes that long to be absorbed internally and understood, thought out and thought about, over and over gain, he haunts it and it haunts him if it is valuable enough, till the writer is comfortable with it to be able to use it as he wants; but this is only one theory I read somewhere, it may or may not be true.

Ah no, I am not much of a writer but I can see why I keep remembering the past so often. Maybe I miss it so much and that I try to relive the experience by writing about it and talking about it in fine detail, as much as I can, as much as I can afford and as long as I have an audience. Maybe I should start using my memories of growing up on an island near Bombay to good effect. Anyway.

So the stories go on but with Squatter, Lend Me Your Light and Swimming Lessons, Mistry saves the best for the last. I wish I could mention more stories but that would be telling too much. Like the taste of filter coffee, the stories linger on long after you are done reading it.

Protests in Bangalore

Today evening, in Bangalore, there was a silent protest and a candle light vigil at the Town Hall. It was heart warming to see a lot of men turning up. There were banners mentioning the Delhi gang rape and the 23-year old woman, whose death has shaken up our souls and there was at least one banner asking for the death of those responsible but there were also banners that asked for changes at the social level. Not capital punishment, not a new law but a change in ourselves — in how our society, and its men treat women.

I guess this was quite unlike the protests in Delhi, where they have been mostly attributing justice with the killing of those six men. I personally believe that though capital punishment may calm public’s anger over this heinous crime — it is social change that will eventually prove to be the catalyst for everlasting betterment of our lives.

Unless we ask for that social change, things may be the same. And for that change to happen, we may not even need to take the streets and blame the Government (as we have become used to doing it for sometime now). So the answers to most of the the evils that ail us may not be on the streets but in our own backyards. We just need to look.

Here are some of the pictures that best describe the emotional scenes there at the Town Hall.

(PS: My blog’s template does not allow big pictures to be displayed properly. You may please click on the pictures to see them in their entirety)



This was unlike of the other messages

I hope he is inspired