Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dilli Dilwalon Ki

What explains Delhi’s neurosis? Let’s face it, what happened on that bus is just a reflection of the city’s social structure. Discussions around laws and punishments and all that are great but if anybody thinks those rapists on the bus rationally considered what they did (“Sirf saath saal ki saza hai, rape kartein hai” vs “Oye, yeh sab mat kar. Capital punishment hai. Inko next stop par utaar dete hai”) they are deluded.

Anybody who’s been in Delhi for even a little while knows how it treats its women. And it’s not just confined to its women: Delhi is angry towards everyone. It’s an angry, rude city teetering on the brink. And this behavior cuts across classes. The same rage that drove those people (poor, Hindi medium types to gang rape and torture the woman saw a Jet Airways pilot (rich, English-medium type) purposely run over a restaurant manager in the middle of Khan Market, last year.

 Historically, Delhi hasn’t been a city so much as large cantonment. Francois Bernier, Aurangzeb’s French physician recorded that when the Mughal emperor moved out from Delhi, the city’s population reduced to a quarter of its original. So much so that Urdu—meaning cantonment in Farsi—was used as a metonym for Delhi, a fact that eventually gave the language its name—the language of Delhi. . Rana Dasgupta says, in his Granta essay on Delhi, “Delhi is a city of traumas”. Nadir Shah, 1857, Partition, 1984, historically, Delhi is used to violence like perhaps no other Indian city.

Of course to connect today’s Delhi to any sort of historical Delhi might be a mistake. Or rather, using the plural “traumas” is a mistake. Delhi is a city of one trauma: Partition. Maybe a large part of Delhi’s neurosis stems from the fact that almost all of its population has, at best, spent one and a half generations in the city. The history of Delhi might be a 1,000 years old but the history of Delhi-ites is only 66 years old. It’s unfair that Bombay is called a city of immigrants—Delhi is. Also, people migrated to Bombay for money. It was a leisurely migration. You boarded a train, disembarked and then started your job. You maybe still had family back in the village who then gradually moved as well and you became a Bambayya family. Delhi’s, on the other hand, was an instant wholesale migration under the threat of death. Within months, the entire population of Delhi had been changed. Could this have somehow seared itself into Delhi’s consciousness? Could the violent uprooting have engendered a violent society?

What about Delhi’s disconnectedness? Delhi is unique as an Indian city in as much large swathes of the city have no slums. Go to a Calcutta or a Bombay and the slums and five-star hotels rub up against each other. Not so in Delhi. This of course does not mean Delhi does not have slums. The city has managed to preserve its colonial character in as much there is a sharp spatial distribution of population by class. The slums are there is East Delhi neatly hidden away from the South and West Delhi-ites. That’s where the drivers and maalis live. This disconnectedness married to Delhi’s rootlessness makes for an explosive cocktail.

Maybe these factors, at some subconscious level, make every man in Delhi feel he can randomly comment on a girl's breasts, mow down a pedestrian or just be plain rude to the next guy who asks him road directions. Or maybe not. Delhi does certainly have a problem. That much is easy to see. Finding out why it has the problem: not so easy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chai, Autos and Sher Shah Suri


Nothing good comes of having your status as capital snatched from you by Delhi. As a Calcuttan I know the pain. Of course, my city’s had it relatively easy when you consider the fate of Sasaram in Bihar. That’s where Afghan warlord (what a useful phrase: right from Bihar in the 16th century to the US invasion in the 21st) Sher Shah Suri had his capital, as ruler of Bengal and Bihar,  before he overthrew Humayun and moved shop to the Purani Qila in Delhi. Unlike the Afghan warlords of today though, Sher Shah was a pretty impressive ruler. He introduced the rupiya which was the predecessor of the modern rupee. More interestingly, he introduced a small denomination coin called the dam which probably gave rise to the English phrase “I don’t give a damn”. The administrative set-up introduced by him was so impressive that Akbar copied liberally from it and Sher Shah’s ideas therefore ruled India for centuries after the man’s death.

Six hundred years later though, Sasaram is yet to get over the rejection of being passed over for Delhi (that three hundred years later, yet another empire would use Bengal and Bihar as stepping stones to capture Delhi is something that we will get into—to use an Ayesha Jala phrase, Bengal has always been a “milch cow” for Delhi). The town is, to not put too fine a point on it, in shambles. It’s congested, ugly, has no power or water and, most egregiously, has no good food. All you get in restaurants is a really bad Punjabi/Mughlai pastiche: Do-Pyazas, Mattar Mushrooms and Dal Tarkas. (I don’t mind Punjabi but India’s self-destructive obsession with it baffles me.) The only exception to this was the chai I found at a roadside stall quite by chance. It was boiled just the right amount with not too much milk (the bane of chai in small town India). And while it was too sweet for my comfort, a little bit of cajoling and a small white lie (“I have diabetes”) later I had them brewing me a fresh sugarless pot.

Sadly there is no place to enjoy that chai in comfort. The town centre is a seething mass of chaos: Cars. Samosa shops. Banana vendors. Autos. Children. Lorrys.

The bloody autos in Sasaram insist on putting in the shrillest horns they can find and then blow them CONTINUOUSLY as they pass through. In spite of all this effort though, they are pretty much blown out of the water when a lorry passes through blowing its shrill horn CONTINUOUSLY. 

The day I visited, just in case there it wasn’t chaotic enough, there was an RJD politician berating Nitish Kumar for, interestingly, being a casteist. “Doesn’t a poor child of a forward caste feel hungry”, thundered the man on a very loud mic to make himself be heard over all the noise. Shoe on other foot and all that I thought through my headache.


Unfortunately, going through the town square is a must in order to visit Mr. Suri’s impressive tomb. Placed in the centre of an artificial lake, the first thing that strikes you is its lack of ostentation. Pretty is not a word you would use to describe the tomb. More like spartan, rugged or muscular. If the Taj Mahal were Chitrangada Singh, pretty and elegant, Suri’s Maqbara is more Schwarzenegger. The closest structure it reminded me of are the tombs in the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, the Sasaram tomb of course being far more impressive and has far fewer rich Delhi-ites jogging around it.

Made of sandstone, the tomb’s pretty big, around 150 feet high. It stands on a square platform which leads down to the water in the form of steps. The domed chamber itself is octagonal and has entrances on seven sides the eighth being a Mehrab sort of wall niche.

The chamber is surrounded by a pillared verandah of sorts decorated by the usual graffiti you find at monuments.

The abusive: Maadar Chod, Gaand, Ch**th

The banal: Sasaram

The romantic: Rohan hearts Pinki

The forever alone: Ayub (whoever he is, hope he finds that special someone to carve his name along with)

The most interesting piece of "graffiti" though is a stone plaque put up by the British in 1882 which boastfully proclaims that the tomb was repaired by the British Government.

The chamber houses a number of graves the largest being Sher Shah’s. Oddly, none of them point towards the Qibla. Interestingly, Suri’s grave has been mazaar-ified. There’s a rich red-rimmed green chadar spread over it which is in turn covered with small change (the highest denomination note was a 20). The guard later explained that this wasn’t because people weren’t generous but it was because it’s tough to keep an eye on things all the time and some people have frisky fingers. There were also a couple of chaadars on the wall in case you wanted to do a bit of spreading yourself “all free of cost”, said the guard in a tone which was to indicate he expected to be tipped.

While I’ve seen this happen elsewhere (Mehrauli and Hauz Khas for example) the tomb of so un-religious a man being turned into a mazaar confused me. So I asked the guard, Bindeshwar Singh, to explain. Tall and strapping with a handlebar moustache to die for, he listened to my question, looked at me as if I was retarded and asked me whether I wanted to put some money on the grave. I turned down this invitation to tip a long dead emperor and asked him again. In what was becoming a worrying trend he again replied with a question:

“Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?” 

Not wanting to colour his answer, I prevaricated and mumbled something unintelligible.

Cornered by my persistence and forced into answering Singh told me: “See Saheb, it is very simple. This man, Sher Shah was a man favoured by the fates. Uski taqdeer achhi thi. He was the most powerful man in India. Did he or did he not become badshah of Hindustan? If so what is wrong if people ask wishes of him. If he had so much power during his lifetime maybe he can still spread some of it around.”

I nodded. This was sound logic; couldn’t argue with it.

“Look at his pitaji’s tomb (Sher Shah’s father’s tomb is located about a kilometer from his), would anyone do prarthana there? Of course they wouldn’t. He was a nobody.”

(Bindeshwar was right. I visited Hasan Khan’s tomb after that and it’s far from being treated as a religious place. In fact, children were using the courtyard to play cricket.)

Turning down yet another offer to tip Sher Shah Suri and impressed by Bindeshwar’s theory of the fundamental relationship between power and religion I headed back to the city—I could hear the autos of Sasaram beckoning shrilly to me.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bollywood Blackface

Unless you’re a wiki-whore, most Indians would be unaware of what Blackface is all about.
“Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.… White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation."

Of course, anybody who watches TV sees Blackface in action pretty much every day with those fairness cream ads. The ‘before’ picture is invariably a blackened-up fair model who, post application of the cream, become quite the gori.

In itself, the act of Blackface in those ads are quite different from the original purpose of Blackface which was to ridicule a weak, racial minority. Of course, the fact that it ridicules the majority, i.e. brown skinned Indians doesn’t say much for our sense of self esteem but that’s another story.

Who the fuck buys the fact that Genelia D'Souza was this dark? She's an actress for god's sake. You see her on screen everyday

The 1983 Rajesh Khanna starrer Souten though can’t claim any such high ground.  The 80s were a horrible time for Bollywood. Tacky production values, ridiculous plot lines, bad music and clich├ęd lyrics—it was pretty grim. Souten lives up to everything expected from an 80s film with an extra cringe-inducing bonus—Blackface. In the movie, Rajesh Khanna’s character, a rags-to-riches shipping tycoon, has an assistant, Gopal, who is an "achhoot" played by Shreeram Lagoo (who was an Anna bhakt much before it became fashionable).

Having an ‘achhooth’ character though presents its own set of problems. "Achhoots" don’t look like the Rajesh Khanna’s of the world—tall, handsome and charming. So what is to be done?

Why this is Bollywood sirji. Our name is inspired from where? Hollywood! So where from will we take the inspiration? Yes, sir. The one and the same.

So they blackfaced poor Lagoo in order to make him a more "convincing" "achhoot". So when he is kicked around by Khanna’s wife while simultaneously bowing and scraping to her, everyone knows what’s happening and all is well with the world. Khanna being the hero of the fillum and all doth protest, but, you know, not too much. He does have marital problems with his wife (played by Tina Munim) but none of them have much to do with the fact that she is a FILTHY LITTLE BIGOT. Interestingly, Khanna has a little fling with Gopal’s daughter (Padmini Kolhapure). Of course, if the hero of the film is fucking you, Dalit you might be, but being a kali-kalooti is out of the question so she is spared her father’s sooty complexion.

Bollywood has had a very interesting relation with Indian society’s great other schism: religion. It has been extensively portrayed and while the portrayal has had its chinks at least there is one. Caste on the other hand can claim no such honour. Very rarely do we have Dalit characters in movies and if they are they are pathetic worms like Gopal in Souten surviving on the munificence of fair, upper caste types like Khanna. The post-Mandal phase of caste-based realization in politics seems to have skipped cinema altogether. This is somewhat unsurprising given that while each dalit has one vote, not many would be able to afford one ticket at a cinema hall for a new film. For all its mass-base, when it comes to caste,  it would seem, Bollywood still maintains quite a few elitist biases.

P.S: Someone asked me how and why I was watching Souten in the first place. The answer to that is that I was surfing and came across it on some channel and actually saw Lagoo in Blackface. After that I was hooked. Sadly, the execrable seems to have a very tight hold on me when it comes to TV at least.