31 December 2008

Thinking man's theatre

I've been meaning to see this play 'When God said Cheers,' for the longest time. Finally, last night, I got around to indulging myself. The cast included the director/actor, Cyrus Dastur, a childhood friend and the greatly and rightly venerated Tom Alter. The play debates the philosophical existence of god and if he does exist indeed, is he omnipotent and omniscient as we've all been trained to believe, or is he, in the words of the equally venerated Woody Allen, 'an underachiever?'

The easy-to-relate-to setting of a chance meeting of an average Joe with god in a pub, is something that we could either scoff at or choose to believe, in order to get to the larger argument of his much-debated existence and much-maligned powers. The play was primarily in Hindi with English supporting the Bertrand Russell-like philosophies, which are best left untempered and in English. Both actors, Cyrus who played the mortal man and Tom who played god, had great energy which leaped off the stage, to cast an electric net over an audience that hopefully pocketed their prejudices for a short while and tried to see life from the other side of the river. For me personally, it was a secret personal triumph. I've often been accused of being irreverent about religion and even about god. I've resisted pandering to religious rituals and ceremonies and scriptures and while I think the bible or the quran or the torah or any other religious text has great literary value, to me they are sources of reading entertainment. I do not for one moment, believe that they can take away man's ability to be cruel or his desire to be kind. Surely we cannot be living in the world we live in and think these books have any power or sway in themselves. Religion is the most magical unlicensed weapon we have in the world today and god is the easiest guy/girl to blame. It's an old game, played out since the existence of man- whether you believe in evolution or not- the rules don't really change and neither do the results.

In an India which is deeply fractured by religions and gods and demons and finger-pointing so-called sages, this play is a breath of fresh yet prickly air. It's not easy digestion for the average Indian who consults his thirty thousand odd gods before he makes a phone call, nor is it easy to digest for a country whose Indian name's origin can be traced back to mythology.

If you are fond of thinking, go see it when you get a chance.

30 December 2008

A change of date

I think the 30th of December should officially be declared the last day of the year and the 31st should be a transitionary date. Like a no man's land on the calendar. Seriously though, think about it. The entire 24 hour period of the 31st is spent doing one thing only- preparing for the New Year's Eve craziness that most people are keen to experience. Like it's novel. Like it won't happen again every year. Like they're petrified of starting the new year on a dull note, because it may come to symbolise the entire year. Like they're too embarrassed to say they have no specific plans or no specific date because of course that denotes the kind of loser or social misfit or charity case that you obviously must be. Because of course, on January 1st the whole world will miraculously change and everything will be wonderful and Rhonda Byrne's stupid secret will finally be revealed. So in between all this, where's the time to reflect on the year gone by? Where's the need actually? If there is a need and you find that you do want to, I suggest the 30th of December. It's a calmer day and and less fraught with the expectation of politically correct sentiment. Less peppered with chimes of 'Oh do smile, darling, think positive thoughts and the new year will bring you great joys.' I don't have a problem with this. In fact I am quite convinced that it's important to say Happy New Year. After all, one can hardly say Sad New Year. One can but one won't. The only person who'd appreciate the irony of that would be Woody Allen and I don't have his email address or Harold Pinter and he's dead.

So today being 30th of December, I shall take my own advice. But I don't want to dwell on the year that went by. I want to think about what the year that went by will bring to the year that's arriving. Now a lot of you will think, oh dear, she's going to talk of depressing things. Of death and destruction. Of darkness and morbid news. And we don't want to be pulled down. Well, to those I say, fair enough. After all, it's perfectly acceptable to wipe out from memory the things you swore you'd hold dear and not forget because they'd scarred you with their gravity. After all, it's perfectly acceptable to join the band of fools who sing and dance and pretend at the stroke of midnight that a god they cannot see nor hear will make everything wonderful. And the more optimistic you are, the more you will hate being reminded of the impotent world you really live in. But let me relieve you. I'm not going to adjectivally depress you. And if I do, perhaps you have a conscience left. That's the news you'd want to actually celebrate.

As I write this:

-There are wailing mothers and orphaned children in Palestine who are being sacrificed to the altar of Hamas and Israel's military power. The toll has crossed 300.
-There are people in Bombay still mourning the loss of their loved ones a mere month ago in the terrorist attacks.
-There are people in Kashmir who braved the militants to come out and vote and are worried about what will happen to their families if the government in India will only use this election to cock a snook at Pakistan instead of directly addressing the battered populace's fears.
-There are men who are roaming the streets in search of a job so they can feed their families in so many countries in the world.
-There is a genocide taking place in the Congo at the hands of its own rebel armies.
-The Taliban is executing a renewed rash of bombings in Afghanistan and gaining ground in Pakistan.
-Saudi Arabia is 'rehabilitating Jihadists' by giving them further lessons in fundamentalism.
-Dangerous men like Putin are quietly stubbing out democratic freedom in the name of stability while his people starve.

And finally, when you've digested all this, the 30th will be done and dusted. We'll all shake our heads together in universal sympathy like a flock of idiotic sheep watching a tennis match and then move on to the 31st, worrying frantically about the colour of the nail-polish and dinner reservations.

Oh yes, almost forgot. Happy New Year.

26 December 2008

A strange Christmas

I haven't had Christmas in India for a good many years. So I was naturally curious what it would be like in 2008- a year that's been so fraught. I remember a few Christmases from childhood, in Bombay, with the city in the seventies and the early eighties still quite proud of its oddly scattered Jesuit heritage. There are specific parts of Bombay like Bandra and Byculla which have concentrated Christian populations and everywhere you went, you could see the gaily-decorated puny little Christmas trees and stringy lights and the smell of marzipan, sugar and cakes emanating from old-fashioned Agas. In those parts of Bombay, Christmas so very much resembled the little unfashionable English county Christmases. Pure, simple and really about Christmas. Lots of carol singers, belonging to various churches. No horrid mall Santas or kids shrieking about the latest gadgets that they 'demand' Santa bring them or worse, the cynical ones screaming to their unsuspecting friends and siblings that 'there's no goddamn Santa, okay!'

This year we had an old-fashioned home-bound Christmas. Like the ones in the seventies where Mount Mary's Church in Bandra was filled with the Goans and the Bombay Christians and their visiting relatives in outfits that could bring on blindness but with their faces wreathed in smiles that didn't come from money or glamour but from the sheer joy of being in hallowed gothic halls with loved ones and hymn books in hand. I remember those well. (All convent-schooled kids do). And although I don't go to church and I wasn't even in Bombay this year, it was a happy, contented Christmas. With friends and family and tons of food and simple presents without conspicuous designer labels and all kinds of to-ing and fro-ing. We simply ate, chatted, ate some more, drank some more, chatted some more and realised that we mostly disagreed about everything, chased kids about the living room, ate some more and marvelled at our stringy lights. Every year, Christmas is about international flights being booked to gather the scattered members of an insanely hyperactive family in one place that everyone agrees upon. Lots of skiing, lots of exchanging of ridiculously expensive presents and everyone with their requests of their favourite foods. It was such a breather this year to trim the irrelevant nonsense and just focus on the 'school Christmas' version that I remembered so well, growing up. Before the unreal life set in. And it's exactly as wonderful as I remember. Whenever a table is presided over by a mother who cooks up a storm for the people she loves, wherever there are kids with their untainted lives still intact, wherever there is mutual respect and genuine affection, that's good enough for me. I don't need a Harrods hamper or a Rockefeller Centre tree.

And just as Boxing day was coming up (this, we take seriously and usually have our packages ready on Christmas eve) I heard that Harold Pinter had died. It was strange to hear that. He was one of the few playwrights who I'd seen, met, heard and performed in his wonderful play 'Betrayal.' As have many of my theatrical fraternity in many countries. And I wondered what kind of Christmas Pinter's family would have. It's somehow appropriate that he died at Christmas time. It's hardly likely to be forgotten and in his vein, quite a dramatic exit. Happy Christmas Mr. Pinter. After all, it was a life well-lived.

11 December 2008

The Times of English

I am a habitual reader of the Times of India. People who are addicted to the Times or the Guardian in the UK or the New York Times in New York, will understand what I mean when I say there are certain addictions which rival coffee and cigarettes.

But what happens when you feel over a period of time, that the joy and the high your morning addiction gave you, is slowly turning acrid in your mouth? Is slowly giving you reason to doubt? Should that particular marriage be allowed to die? Should you stay and fight? Should you accept the inevitable, be unfaithful and find that there’s no succour outside either? I don’t know; these aren’t rhetorical questions. I really hope someone can help me find an answer.
For the past couple of years since I've been in India, the one thing that I was looking forward to, was the crackling, crisp sound of my favourite newspaper with my morning cuppa. The morning cuppa did not disappoint.

First I began to notice spelling mistakes. Then I began to notice major grammatical errors. Then I began to believe that some of the reporters and editors needed simply to go back to school or grab a copy of the Wren & Martin and devour it.

Par example: ‘Mr. A was invited to the marriage of Miss B with Mr. C.’ Oh really? Mr. A moved in with them and lived out the long years of marriage beside the couple in a parallel universe, did he? Or did you mean that he was simply invited to the wedding?

Then the blatant Hindi insertions, or rather Hinglish, in an entire headline of an ENGLISH newspaper. I have nothing against Hindi and I think it’s a beautiful language that belongs in a Hindi newspaper. Unless there is no direct or indirect or clear translation into English, what the hell does an editor mean when he allows an entire headline in Hindi such as ‘Chalta hai nahin chalega’ (For the benefit of my non-Hindi speaking friends: This lackadaisical attitude won’t do anymore) on the front page of an ENGLISH newspaper? Do you really think doing that is an explanation for moving with the times or being 'with it?'

I can’t even begin to account for the number of sentences that are begun as intelligent, coherent, complex sentences which end up without predicates, without making complete sense and abuse the term ‘phrase’ beyond reason.

Then there is the matter of actual matter. I am willing to light a fire here. I would like to ask what message the voice of your country sends out, when on the front page, right-hand side column, there is an apparent survey or poll that asks a question such as: Should we sacrifice Kashmir to buy peace for the rest of India? I hope to God it’s an ill-fitting, poor joke of a rhetorical question and not a serious one. But yet, there is an actual percentage below the question: 24% Yes and 74% No. And 2%? Think it’s bloody ridiculous that you even asked this question and refused to answer? Why not SACRIFICE the child you like the least or gets into the most trouble at school and keep the quiet, obedient ones? Why not SACRIFICE the wife who nags you and get a new, submissive one? Why not SACRIFICE the parent who is disabled and dependant and keep the one who can still write you cheques and baby-sit for free?

I am loosely associated with the fourth estate myself and have ample respect, faith and belief in the freedom of it. In fact, it is imperative for survival as the true guardian of a fundamentally free society. We all know that. But as that pillar, do we not hold ourselves up to any standards anymore? Is it so hard to sell as many copies while endeavouring for perfection?

I remember a time when the Times was held up as almost a parallel beacon for the learning of fine English. I remember with pride, cutting out an article, taking it to school and presenting it for vocabulary class. And then I remember dear old Nissim Ezekiel saying, tongue-in-cheek: If you want to learn correct spelling, read the Times of India.

So what should we say today? If you want to lower your English language standards, learn incorrect grammar, destroy your ability to spell correctly and offend common, intellectual and emotional sense under the guise of the ‘freedom of the press’ please continue to read The Times of India?

There are still a few valiant soldiers who write for this paper and bemoan the loss of good English. Could I please ask them if they’re willing to raise their voices a little higher so that our standards don’t skin any lower?

09 December 2008

Christmas is cancelled

The papers are full of it, in India. No, not that Christmas is cancelled but with the painful useless details of how much progress the government/intelligence agencies/any random person with an opinion, is making on the Bombay terror attack. In between all the mud-slinging and the sage nodding, the pretty people in Bombay have all been heard asking, in surreptitious tones and stage whispers, what's happening with Christmas and New Year's Eve? Are the usual parties on? What about the five-star hotels? And the clubs? Are we DOING anything this year? It's not a bad thing, mind you. We can hardly stop the days from turning and festivals from happening. But in light of everything that's happened, people aren't sure whether it's tasteful to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ or worry about the exact moment the Gregorian calendar announces the new year. It's amusing and at the same time points a subtle finger to the fact that we really just don't know. We don't even know if we're still officially mourning. We don't even know if it's okay to be happy. We don't even know how long we're supposed to stay sad. We don't even know if it's safe to celebrate. We don't even know that there are supposed to be rules about this. It's really ironic, that in a sense, we're about as capable as the intelligence agencies we are happy booing. They don't know. We don't know. Of course it's not a simplistic similarity because their not knowing has cost us many lives. And our not knowing will probably save us a few bucks.

Nobody wants to admit that it's not because we're short on cash, considering the global downturn or that we're trying to be superficially sensitive or that we're a little of both, that we aren't as crazily enthused the upcoming holidays this year. By now, conventionally, there would have been a frantic scramble for the Bombay gym passes or what have you. The unwillingness to admit that we're more than a little scared and the willingness to disguise it as the politically correct thing to do, nevertheless has created an atmosphere of 'We don't know if we're having Christmas this year.'

I get at least four calls a day with the same question: What are your plans for Christmas? What do you plan to do on New Year's Eve? And I say the same thing that everyone else does. I don't know. We all know that being in Bombay or indeed most places in India for Christmas, really doesn't mean anything because Christmas isn't really traditional in this country. So here's a random thought- how would it be to celebrate Christmas this year with some actual spirit of Christmas? You know, the old-fashioned way, where you sing carols (or listen to them on CD if you don't know them or your voice sucks) hang out with your family or friends, trade small, meaningful presents, make a toast and say things you mean and eat together and actually communicate with the people you care about. Instead of landing up at some hideous, vulgar party with trance music interspersed with some inexplicable version of Jingle Bells and air-kissing people you hate and doing just about everything that makes Jesus rolls his eyes.

And if we can manage that- an old-fashioned Christmas, with Nat King Cole blaring from a scratchy record, presents for children, gathering around a delicious table and remember that this year especially, it would be most appropriate to celebrate with love and rememberance- then perhaps when someone calls to ask what plans you have for New Year's Eve, you could say: I know what I'm doing.

If I take my own advice, I'll be happy to smugly report it.

05 December 2008

The Honesty of Failure

I've chosen a fairly dark time to give in to the trend of blogging. I'm not certain it's the thing for me but then, I wasn't certain that Bombay would ever be rechristened Mumbai. As the title 'The Devil's Advocate' suggests, I shall try to go against the tide. Nothing revolutionary about it in this been-there-done-that world. I've been listening to a lot of the shouting, chanting, moaning, mourning and in between that, a few sensible suggestions, brave motions and inspired speeches. Given that most people's emotions are at peak levels right now, this can either be the right time to actually accomplish something of value or it can be an opportunity for damage. Either way, an ACTION will occur, thereby satisfying people's need 'to do something.'

Most of us are fairly aware of what really happens in big cities. During the July 2005 London bombings, I remember friends suddenly huddling, discussing Muslim colleagues, people suddenly on the lookout for 'less cosmopolitan creches' (translation: where there aren't any Muslim kids) and things of that nature. In India, there were slogans of 'Pakistan Chor Hai' across the Plaza at the Gateway of India, on December 3, 2008. The protests reach the ears of the media, local and national governments. A few heads are rolled, only to be replaced by other useless heads. The youth brigade says we must take up cudgels, respond to the need of the hour, contest elections and make a difference. Ten years later, people are still talking about Hindu versus Muslim, women are still raped in police stations and policemen's widows are still begging for their compensation.

This may sound cynical but in sixty years, for every advancement that India has made, we have taken two steps backwards. Scour the Internet, the library or your old journals and you will be forced to admit this truth to yourselves. The fact is that we are our own worst enemy. Why worry about Pakistan and Bangladesh when we willingly surrender ourselves to the viciously charming demon we call religion? I realise that in a country like India where religion rules supreme, where a failing god is raised upon the shoulders of dead soldiers, this is a great offence. To actually come out and say, religion is a gun through which bullets are ceaselessly fired. Of course it is a tool. Of course it is abused. Of course it is potent. Is Pakistan to be blamed for what we do to ourselves? Is Pakistan to be blamed for the women we rape and parade in our streets? How would you distinguish to a mother who has lost a son in senseless communal violence from one whose son was killed by a bullet that came from a terrorist's gun? Isn't the former a worse thing? How will you tell a father that his daughter wasn't killed by a bomb but was burnt to death by her own husband for money?

Let's stop all this pretence. For once, let's be brutally honest. We failed. We failed ourselves and our country. We are gutless and we don't know the first thing about logic and courage. We don't. We think we are intelligent because we speak a couple of languages and can read signs on an Autobahn. We think we have the right to shriek because it's happened at our doorstep. We think we look pretty by candle-light and so we march on surrounded by pools of wax. We think we are in mourning for the people who have died. We are not. We are only assuaging our heaving breasts. We will not forget, maybe. But we don't really know what to do beyond the rage. Let's for once, be brutally honest. Honesty is the first step that lets you take stock and really think. Think about what you can and cannot do. Otherwise in ten years, we will all be back at square one. Shaking our heads in cynical disbelief that nothing changed despite the one thousand supposed movements and organisations. Take a leaf from the ones who work quietly. From the ones who soldier on and who correct their own prejudices before hammering the doors of a neighbour who won't listen.

I am not a solution-giver. Because I don't know what to do right now. But I can admit that. And I can tell you that sometimes it's okay to say I don't know but I won't contribute to the aimless noise.