On Winter and Change

Some enterprising merchant in Koramangala, Bengaluru, has tapped into the zeitgeist and put up a banner at an outdoor market where the pretty young things like to shop. Below neatly drawn sweaters in various styles is written “Winter is Coming” in a friendly font.

The hawker of woollens is not quite right. Winter is already here. That particularly delicious, sharp nip is in the air. The Tabebuia Rosea trees are topped by pink clouds. The stray dogs look shaggier, their winter hair growth giving them mullets and manes that would be the envy of ‘80s white male pop stars.

Tell old Bengalureans that winter is here, and they scoff. This is not Bangalore (still Bangalore, not yet Bengaluru for them) winter, they say.

The breezes are so refreshing this time of year, you say, making another stab at camaraderie. These are not the real Bangalore breezes, they mock.

The same sentiment is repeated across state borders. Back in Kerala my mother complains how it’s not a Thrissur winter either. The “Palakkad-an” wind, those special, cold gusts of air that blow down into the belly of Kerala from the top of the Western Ghats, arrives later and later each year. The same wind was blowing, she never tires of telling me, when I arrived mewling and red-faced into the world three decades ago.

It used to tickle me, standing in the garden in Thrissur, to think that this particular breeze was caressing the tops of trees in Ooty, Coonoor, Mettupalayam and Palakkad before arriving here, where it shook the mango trees in first blossom or the feathers of the red-rumped bulbuls twittering among the branches of the neem tree.

More than a decade ago, I’d stood one December morning in the Shakthan Thampuran Market and watched the same wind blow the tarp off a fruit stand. A man scurried after the blue sheet, now riding the air waves, a surfer on top of the town. It escaped his clutches and the fruit merchant had to look for a replacement. I like to think that sheet that got away managed to take a full bird’s eye view of Thrissur town: the stillness of the Vadakkunathan temple at ten in the morning, the grace of the Puthan Palli, the posh houses of Kuriachira, the tea- and toddy-sodden intellectuals at the Sahitya Akademi. At the end of its gadding about town it would have settled down for a peaceful life among the storks and other migratory fowl wintering in the endless green fields in Puzhakkal.

That wind is less ferocious now. Just like the winters in Bengaluru that disappoint the older generations of city dwellers and the newer ones who’ve moved here with high hopes of that “Bangalore climate”. Instead, we have choked roads and shoving matches in the morning as people try work off their frustrations. Garbage piles up. Mosquitoes proliferate. Mundane murders and odd fetishes fill up the city pages of the newspapers. An auto driver is killed by a friend who apparently can’t stop talking to the police about how he did it. A couple of techies are arrested in HSR Layout for keeping snakes as pets.

And yet, like a sad Thomas Hardy who, whilst gazing at a winter landscape, is reminded of joy illimited by an aged thrush, I too find something to cheer the soul. Not far from my apartment, for most of the last decade, a festering garbage pile had plagued the neighbourhood. Repeated complaints to local leaders, assorted government busybodies and the residents had failed. Sometimes the pile would be cleaned up, only to reappear, like a wart that refuses to go away. A few days ago, however, a number of citizens, inspired by the ‘Disruptive Positive Anarchy’ of The Ugly Indian group, had cleaned up the pile and in its place put a row of potted palms. As of writing, the pile has not returned.

Sure, winters are changing. The Bangalore and Thrissur of old are going to be memories that we’ll never relive. But some changes, with a healthy dose of disruptive positive anarchy about them, could go a long way in making up for that loss.


A Camel in the Land of Elephants

So this past Monday, in the midst of the wettest monsoon Kerala has seen in more than twenty years, I was successful in finally making it to the Lulu mall in Kochi. 

We’d tried to get there on Sunday. Well, it was a half-hearted try – and like most half-hearted tries by my family to cut through crowds at shopping Meccas around the world, it failed miserably. The traffic was backed up from Edappally all the way to Guruvayoor, and possibly to the Arabian Sea beyond it.

This, then: the Lulu Hypermarket on a Monday afternoon in July. Streams of people going in and streams of them coming out. Few buying anything, many out to gawk at the khubus machine which was happily churning out puffed up flat bread that the men at the counter were deftly feeding into blue and red plastic packs. Most of the gawkers didn’t want to buy the bread. There was more fun watching it being made.

Near the khubus counter, chillers filled with ready-to-buy cakes (black forest, nougat, pineapple, chocolate) stared out appealingly at the shoppers. Each had a garish pink or green plastic knife attached to its little tray. I didn’t see anyone buy a cake. Perhaps the weather outside did not make for pleasurable cake eating.

Six-muffins-in-a pack, plastic boxes of croissants (plain, cheese, zatar and chocolate), cinnamon rolls and chocolate doughnuts. Signs saying Ramadan Kareem hanging over large bottles of Vimto (on offer for Rs. 250 or thereabouts).

You close your eyes here and listen to the music on the PA system and the chatter around you and you could be anywhere: Dubai, Muscat, Doha. You open your eyes and you see the same faces you might see in hypermarkets in any of those cities. Then, you realize, these faces (and the bodies they belonged to) have that fresh-off-the-plane look that NRIs wear like coats. They were probably in Dubai or Muscat or Doha a few weeks before in Lulu Hypermarkets just like this one.

And yet, here they are: taking time off their summer holidays and making journeys of three hours and more over potholes in the rainiest of months in a season of rain just to see what they see every weekend of their lives back home in the Gulf.

Why do this? 

To marvel at the khubus machine? To think: how did he get this done here, negotiating pesky customs officers and town planners and municipal busybodies? How did this man build this obtrusive beige cuboid that sits, alien, a camel in a land of elephants?

When we leave, the crowds are making their way in by the hundreds, shrieking and laughing and marveling at this conceit that packs in its bowels the light and air and objects that really don’t feel like they belong here.
All these bodies, all these footfalls. The conjurers of this can claim a success.

But, but: all those khubus-machine-gawkers don’t really pay for the pleasure. And parking in Kochi is almost impossible. What was once free, is no longer so. Pay to park your Innovas and SUVs and other gas guzzling metal whales. 

The camel, seeing the elephant and soaking in the rain, is shedding its skin, slimming its humps. Give it a few years. It will be trumpeting with its slowly sprouting trunk.


On slumbering monsters and introspective liberals

The rapacious monster that lurks beneath Indian towns and cities, its long-winding appendages that lie quiet and biding time beneath the villages, reared its head for a brief moment last week. Its pulse, so slow for the better part of the last decade, raced and its maw opened briefly. That hungry mouth, a passage to the heart of darkness this country knows so well, was denied its prey. It rolled a bit, within view, a Jaws monster torpedoing under the waves. And it sank, returning to the depths.

In living rooms and in teashops and outside newsagents, those who’d trembled at seeing it again - that unwelcome, unwanted shadow citizen of this country - whispered thankful prayers.
Walking in Bangalore on Monday evening, one could almost hear the relieved sigh. The monster’s shivery touch seemed banished, for the moment. Spines un-chilled. Flesh un-crept.


And then, on Thursday, I read this.

I read it again. What was I missing out? Why did this magazine publish it?

Kavita Buggana, the author of the piece, has a Muslim aunt who went to book readings and spoke Urdu well and married a Hindu man. And that aunt, when one reads the piece, had transmitted her perceptions and prejudices to her niece:

““You should have seen his father. He was so different; a scientist, an artist, well-travelled and well-read. My cousin was like that, too. Suddenly, 10-15 years ago,” she swept the air with her wrist, “poof — he got the beard, the cap.””

Buggana goes on to wonder about the man’s “overt declaration of religious identity” that “was a jarring rebuttal of a treasured family culture”. In Buggana’s mind, clearly the “Good” Muslims are people like her aunt who is part of a family where “Islam meant an ancient culture of poetry, fine art and subtly-flavored cuisine — a blend of the Hindu, European and Persian ethos”.

She then proceeds to ponder why the man made her uncomfortable. Only she doesn’t ponder long and she doesn’t follow through on this train of thought. She doesn’t attempt anything to overcome her prejudices. At least she doesn’t describe any such attempts in her piece, because the essay inevitably goes into 9/11 (because anything that is written about Muslims these days has to shove in a 9/11 angle) and the prejudice she, as a brown woman in the West, faced.

She then concludes how, once more, her view of Islam is tempered by her book reading attending, play watching aunt. For Buggana, all the weighty concerns she touched upon in this essay, melt away by eating a nice meal.

How good it would be, you think, if everything just melted away with the consumption of food. 

The breathtaking shallowness expressed in this essay leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Islam, for this woman, is epitomized by her aunt. An aunt who is the “liberated” Muslim woman, who is able to criticize the bearded cousin. The bearded cousin, harmless, just makes both women uncomfortable. What has he done to them? Nothing. They just think he doesn’t fit in their perceptions of what a Good Muslim is. And besides, the curry is too good and that’s what a whole religion is traduced to: tasty food. Food that the majority of Indian or any other Muslims might find alien to their own local cultures. 

The two women, then, retain their flawed assumptions of Islam and there’s no corrective, no dawning of realization at the end. There’s no breaching of their fossilized views of acceptable Islam and its good practitioners. Because, you see, the “Muslim” curry is too fragrant. 

Of course, it’s not just these two women who hold these views of what makes a Good Muslim. Plenty of the book reading attending, play watching crowd think like this. They will fight for the rights of the bearded and the hijab wearing, yes. But they would not want them in their social circle. They would prefer if they, with their visible expressions of religious devotion, were out of the way, on the fringes of the world in which they inhabit. Planets on different orbits.

The well-read, left leaning liberals who are that magazine’s readership can only permit certain kinds of Muslims into their world: part of or products of inter-community couplings, those who are cuddly Sufis, those who don’t recite the Qur’an unless to show they speak and understand Arabic and give erudite commentary on the Suras. Shias and Sunnis are acceptable so long as they don’t pray visibly, say inshallah in a non-religious manner and as an elegant ending to a wish, drink and have a sizeable library at home to show they are not uncivilized savages and totally fight for the right causes and not questionable ones. For these liberal, broadminded Indians, when it comes to Islam, syncretism is the preferred way to go.

So keep the burqas at home and mothball the hijabs. Shave off that beard. If you want to be accepted by liberal India, hew to what they think is the idea of a “Good” Muslim.

Oh, and don’t forget the curry. NEVER forget the curry.


The Leperous Cesspit that is ICICI Bank

Some fine day in December 2006, the stars were aligned wrong and chance made me an employee of a company that only did its banking business through the cesspit of financial shenanigans that is ICICI Bank.

For six years, I managed to keep my stuff out of trouble with ICICI bank - I took a risk averse approach. I didn't take any loans and used my debit card with care. I only used swipe style ATM machines, not the ones which swallow the card.

Then, last Wednesday, June 6, I made the mistake of using an ICICI ATM that swallowed the card. I did this because all the other machines only gave out Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes and I wanted notes of a smaller denomination.

I had started my descent through Dante's circles of hell.

First came the problem of communicating with the bank employees. For some reason, ICICI bank employees are happier communicating in Hindi than English. For me, it's the other way around. Those hurdles somewhat navigated, I managed to understand the details of the arduous process of getting back my card:

First, call customer care and block card.

Then, pray to all the saints that you will get the card back.

I let two days go by. On Saturday, I called up to ask where my card was. After all, for it to travel from Koramangala to MG Road in Bangalore, it would not take more than a day.

I was wrong. The cretin who answered the phone suggested that the card had been misplaced. That's right, folks. In taking out the card, taking it to the branch manager where the ATM was located and then going to MG Road, it would be better to ask:

How the fuck could it NOT be misplaced?

I grew hot and bothered and wrote an angry email.

I was then called up in the middle of the afternoon by a polite ICICIcretin who told me that actually, my card had already been dispatched.

Oh, I said. So why did SaturdaymorningICICIcretin say that it had been misplaced?

SaturdayafternoonICICIcretin suggested it was because SaturdaymorningICICIcretin didn't know his elbow from his arse.

And to prove it had been dispatched, SaturdayafternoonICICIcretin gave me details of courier.

Good, I thought. They might be using a Blue Dart or a DTDC or something along those lines.

Pah! Please. Blue Dart? DTDC? The Khayaal Aapka bank only uses the best of the best because its Privileged Banking customers such as myself should get the BESTEST service.

So what's the renowned courier company's name? Hand to Hand Couriers.

Come again?

Hand to Hand Couriers, located in only one place, namely, Lalbagh.

Getting such stunning reviews on the internet as the following:

Very BAD....my consignment has been returned by them. They didn`t called me ever. When I called him and requested again and again to send my consignment once again, asked to give the delivery person contact no. also to manage.. but all my request has been refused in ONE word."NOT POSSIBLE", no cooperation, nothing, very rude. Don`t know why ICICI bank has chosen such a bad courier service.
Twice experienced the worst service and response to my consignment is that "Address not found" and courier returned to ICICI Bank.

Amazing that this courier couldn`t find my address whereas I have others mail received correctly. like Blazeflash, Dtdc, Bluedart etc
Oh and it's impossible to open this illustrious courier company's website to track your courier because it's been marked as "This site can be harmful to your computer" by Google. Classy, no?

So of course, with my confidence sky-high, I called up ICICI bank again because they were not responding to my emails.

The MondayafternoonICICIcretin first suggested that I wait, then suggested that I wait some more, then claimed he didn't have any information.

At which point I demanded to speak to his supervisor.

MondayafternoonICICIcretinsupervisor had the following to say - after making me wait 10 minutes on the phone:

The courier had not yet been dispatched. This, despite me having a mail from ICICI Bank with the dispatch date (June 8, 2012) and an airway bill number.

Now MondayafternoonICICIcretinsupervisor said that I might get it tomorrow. Or day after. Or when Octomom delivers another set of octuplets.

This is the bank that wins customer service surveys, people.

When this is what the great nation of India has to exhibit in the "Innovative Banking" category, you wonder how we can fail.

I am off to consult a horoscope chart to figure out if I ever will receive this damn card of mine.

And to curse the loins of ICICI Bank. May they be impotent forever.


Mango Season

I was slicing up the season's first mango a week ago and remembered I'd written this for a friend's blog years ago. It still holds true today:

Mango Season

When I was studying in Kollam, the Easter holidays were the ones we (who had no time to go home as the distances to be crossed were too much for the four days we got) would spend time under the mango trees. We would find stones, long sticks and bougainvillea stems long and strong enough to bring down even the most reluctant mango. It was an exercise in fun, an attempt to exorcise the loneliness each one of us felt.

The mango trees were so many on campus- there were three within our hostel periphery, a very benevolent one in the Chemical Engineering department's courtyard and of course, the parrot-nosed mangoes outside the Electrical Engineering department.

The latter was the most difficult to pluck from since the hawk nosed Head of the Electrical Engineering department used to regularly prowl around the tree and the corridor that ran next to it even on Easter Sunday.

The mangoes were raw and sour. They had to be. The ripe ones were inevitably infested with worms and pests. We couldn't possibly eat them, but Tashi, the enterprising Bhutanese would skin those too, chucking out the offending worm and sprinkling them with red chilli powder and salt before scarfing them down.

Simmy, a friend and room-mate would sigh and insist she wanted to be a worm in her next life so she could nestle in a mango. I am sure that if she does become a worm, she will be the worm with the widest smile.

We became sick after eating too many of the fruit. But the sickness would pass and we would be back under the trees, plucking the mangoes and storing them in plastic bags to ripen.

Now we have scattered into four corners of the country and abroad, it seems strange that this Easter, here in Powai Bangalore, there will be no  mango trees to stand under as Simmy the brave pulls down those mangoes and at the same time brushes off the red ants that have crawled up her legs.

I confess to never having loved that college much. Time and distance haven't made me more affectionate towards it, but there is a lot of love for the fruits that were eaten, the friends I made and the places I've walked with those friends.


Writing Room Bursary Win for In The Medinah

The extract from my novel-in-the-works, In The Medinah, did not make the wonderful people at The Writing Room barf into their oatmeal and they've awarded it their first bursary! You can head over to their lovely blog to read the extract.


What I Learned at IIT

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

I must admit that the first couple of weeks I was terrified. I’d heard so much about the institute as a child that certain ideas about the place were embedded in my mind. Everyone, I was convinced, would be a genius at their work. I’d be lost in a rarefied world. I wouldn’t understand them. I’d flunk out.

That was not what happened.

There were geniuses, yes. But there were also people like me, who could be termed competent.

I went to the design school, so we were not on the same plane as the rest of the campus. Booze and pot circulated at parties. Couples formed and split. A certain mattress on the terrace of the department became notorious for not just the filth on it, but also the convenience it offered for a quick lay during project all-nighters. Antonioni and Bergman were screened in the lecture hall rather than structural mechanics presentations.

There were inevitable complaints – students were not of as good a quality as previous batches. (How do they explain this and this, I wonder?)

These complaints (about my batch and the students after us) - stressing that we were more undisciplined and truant than those who’d gone before - are something every generation grumbles about.

So what, then, to make of these emails that have surfaced in The Hindu?

IIT Madras professors were venting the following in late March:

“Students' feedback at the forum seems to have bothered professors quite a bit, going by what one of the professors M.P. Maiya, chairman, council of wardens, suggests. “For the next open forum, if at all there is one, we must get the questions screened by responsible students first”, he says, in order to ensure no “insulting or embarrassing question” is raised. He says this, referring to ‘I am 21 and what is your (read Warden, CCW, DoS, Director) problem if I have sex with my girl friend or whoever it is in the hostel room?' and questions like that.”

“Shaligram Tiwari, another faculty member, goes further and brings parents into the picture. “I apologise in stating that parents do not have enough education to recognise moral values,” he says. He suggests “generating enough fear towards wrong-doing” among students and “handling them harshly”, clarifying that “Of course, the good and academic students will naturally remain unaffected.”” 

“…parents do not have enough education to recognize moral values.” 

That particular line reminded me of a conversation I had with a classmate during my third semester in Powai. He roomed in a hostel with a high number of undergrads and casually informed me that a girl in our class had gained the reputation of being a prostitute among these freshmen.

How could they say something like that, I asked. Why would they even think that?

They see her around Hiranandani in her shorts, so they just assume it, he replied.

These boys formed this opinion of women in shorts with the freedom to roam where they wanted not because their parents didn’t have enough education to recognize moral values. They formed this opinion because their parents sent them to places like Kota for two years where they are forced to cram for the IIT-JEE. Those two years, spent away from their parents and where they do nothing but solve calculus problems and mug up on thermodynamics, force them to grow in only one dimension. They do not develop critical thinking. They do not know how to interact with society. They do not learn how to interact with the opposite sex. They don’t understand that women should be treated as equals. They lack nuance and sensitivity. Their rigid moral code becomes even more ingrained.

After the fishbowl of places like Kota, they are herded off to cities like Delhi and Bombay – where women wear shorts, express opinions in class and smoke and drink. That this is a culture shock to these boys would be an understatement. The only place that they might have seen girls expressing themselves would be in Bollywood movies, where things like shorts and smoking and drinking are visual shorthand for vamps and prostitutes.

When small town, middle class India meets the big city for the first time, it is inevitable that there will be wide agape stares and rumour mongering. What doesn’t help these boys (and let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of the student body at any IIT is male) are the professors and deans and hostel wardens they meet on campus. Those in authority on campus are overwhelmingly male and middle class, most from orthodox families themselves. They, too, find female students who wear western attire and swim in the campus pool for pleasure and date and have pre-marital sex offensive and unnerving.

In 2005, during my last semester in Powai, a professor leaked a female student’s emails to his whole department. He insinuated that she’d managed to grab her seat at IIT through corrupt means – that she was give the answers to the JEE beforehand, cheated her way through semester exams once she got there and was therefore an unworthy candidate to get her BTech degree. That professor, too, like the students from IIT-JEE cram towns like Kota, couldn’t understand that Indian women are individuals with their own desires and minds. He couldn’t understand that this girl could exercise her free will in a democracy, that she could have sex with her boyfriend and go where she pleased. So he tried to make her an object of ridicule by leaking her private emails. He didn’t quite get the response he was hoping for – the backlash against him was loud and furious and the girl in question got her degree.

Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh and Narayana Murthy can rant on about the quality of the students and the IIT-JEE coaching plague. But they won’t mention the other elephant in the room, the one that also contributes to “diluting” the “IIT brand” – the ossified faculty and administration. The faculty, which instead of encouraging new ideas, wants to stick to old ones. The faculty that would prefer to act as moral policemen when they should be progressive mentors.

I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this post:

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

And I have to answer: no. At least not until a fine Sunday morning in April 2004. I was going out of campus with my friend and we met a professor from our department at the main gate where men stood selling palm fruit. Since he was my friend’s professor, he talked to her for some time. Eventually, he turned his attention to me.

“I’ve seen you around the department,” he said. “What’s your name?”


“That’s an interesting name. Is that short for Saudamini?”

“No, it isn’t. It’s just Saudha.”

“So your parents didn’t want to name you Saudamini?”

“No, they didn’t.”

“It’s a strange name. What does it mean?”

“It means blackness in Arabic.”

“Oh.” There was a pause.

Then he asked, “But why did your parents…” he trailed off. “What’s your last name, then?”

“Kasim.” It struck him then. His wrinkled face crunched up and he blabbed: “Oh I have plenty of relatives in Pakistan.”

I think of the silence that ensued then as one of the worst moments in my life. That this IIT professor could only think of someone with an Indian Muslim heritage in context with Pakistan enraged me. There was that subtext in that defensive claim of his: I do not recognize you as Indian enough to be a compatriot of mine.

This, then, is what the IITs are and continue to be: a place where the faculty is stuck in a time warp into which they wish to draw a generation of students who cannot understand them, or their “traditions.”