Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Great Pink Scooty Mystery

There’s a strange trend I’ve observed on our roads for some time now. I don’t know you if you’ve noticed it too. But everywhere I look, I see balding middle-aged men on Barbie-pink Scootys or their equally girly violet counterparts. The roads are filled with them. They seem to be all around me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve seen more greying, pot-bellied gentlemen riding these scooters than the young women the two-wheelers are apparently targeted at. (This is not me gender stereotyping. I know for a fact that young girls are supposed to want these scooters from those ads of Priyanka Chopra/Preity Zinta driving around on them, hoodwinking silly men and basically going ‘Woot woot! Girl power means pink bikes!” or words to that effect).

So how do we explain this phenomenon? One answer could be that these are old dads and uncles and grandpas borrowing their daughter/niece /granddaughter’s scooter at a pinch. Maybe they live in a middle-income, two-scooter household and some other member of the family (a virulently anti-pink brother, for instance) has made off with the staid grey Activa, leaving said old man with no choice. Could be. Maybe that explains some of the sightings. But I’ve seen too many cases for this to be the sole explanation. I mean, could there really be that many stranded old men in our city going pink against their wishes purely out of desperation? I think not.

Then there’s the look on their faces. I’ve seen men forced into embarrassing situations deemed too ‘feminine’ for them. I know how they react. Like the man forced to be at a sari blouse fitting with his sister. Or the newly-wed husband forced to buy feminine hygiene products for his wife at the local convenience store. Or the man who has to to put on his girlfriend’s fluffy pink bathrobe after a shower. Whatever. The bottom line is, they squirm. They shrink within themselves. They mumble. They fidget. They sweat. And they always, always avoid eye contact. But these old gentlemen, they’re different. They sail past confidently, back ramrod straight, head held high and if you stare, they look you straight in the eye as if to say, “That’s right biatch, I’m ridin’ pink. You got a problem with that?”

I don’t think these fine upstanding gentlemen are on these scooters as a last resort (or as part of some sort of mass expression of latent homosexuality — even Freud would agree that’s somewhat unlikely). No. I think they’re just riding the family scooter, bought by them to be shared with wife and kids and extended family, and that the old guys are proud to be on their shiny pink/purple purchase. And I’ll tell you why.

These grey-haired gents are a product of old India, India in the time of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and the License Raj, India pre-Westernisation and globalisation and all those other big words. They grew up in a time when wearing pink or purple or any other colour of the rainbow didn’t make a man any less of a man (evidence: any of our good old Sambar Westerns or any desi film post the black and white era and pre 1990, for that matter). This was a time when two guys holding hands on the streets didn’t mean they were gay, just best friends forever (and ‘gay’ just meant happy). Gender-specific colour coding was unheard here of back then; it’s really mostly a Western concept — pink for girls and blue for boys and cursed are those who cross the divide! — that’s seeped into Indian society slowly since the economic liberalisation of 1991, along with McDonalds, cable TV, Loreal and Levis jeans.

Not buying the theory? Look out the window and tell me how many guys of age 30 or below you can see riding one of these bubblegum-coloured scooters.

I rest my case.

And I’ll tell you something else. I applaud the old guard for it. I think this colour coding business is silly. I don’t see why, for instance, the toy section for little girls  has to be painted over in a sea of blinding pink (and this coming from a girl who made her room so pink in her teens that her dad felt nauseated stepping in). What I mean is, it’s a choice. If you like bright pink, good for you. Even if you’re a 45 years old and a father of two. That was the M.G.R. way. If you don’t, ditto. I say, good for these guys, sticking with the old way that’s rapidly being lost to us. Like the men who don’t let the safari suit die, the middle-aged male lover of pink lives to fight another day in modern India, through the Scooty Pep. You go guys!

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How to… be a clock-watcher

1.    The expert clock-watcher doesn’t just rely on any old clock on the wall of the office/school/college, etc. Who knows when it was last synchronised with Greenwich Mean Time? No, any clock-watcher worth his salt relies only on his own perfectly synced watch (checked once a week for perfect time and its batteries changed at the merest hint that it’s losing even a second or two). After all, absolute accuracy is essential to ensure you’re prepared to bolt at 4.59.59 p.m. on the nose.

2.    There’s a lot more to clock-watching than just the passive tracking of the time – preparation is key. You must work with single-minded devotion towards being ready to leave as the clock strikes that all-important hour – paperwork neatly put away (whether complete or not; out of sight is out of mind), your bag packed and ready to be slung over the shoulder at a moment’s notice, and finger poised on the shutdown button of your computer (it has to be pressed at that final instant and not a moment before; otherwise you just seem lazy).

3.    Such clockwork-like precision can only be achieved by organising your entire workday down to the last minute, and then sticking to the plan with complete ruthlessness. Regular mortals complain about delayed meetings/classes and longwinded colleagues/professors; nothing short of a raging tornado outside is going to stop a clock-watcher from keeping that deadline. People who get in your way do so at their own risk – you’ll just have to mow them down on your way to the exit gate (apologies can wait until 9 a.m. tomorrow).

4.    An important part of clock-watching is learning to carefully mask the actual act of, well, watching the clock. Only a wet-behind-the-ears newbie makes the mistake of obviously staring down at his watch dial (or cell phone) repeatedly (and longingly) in the middle of the boss’s speech. Very gauche and a big no-no. A master of the art knows that the watch glance must happen within a split second, in the middle of a perfectly innocent action such as rearranging your hair or opening a folder.

5.    And finally, the experienced clock-watcher never reveals just how aware of the time he is. If someone asks for the time, an instant response of “Two fifty three p.m. (and 45 seconds)” is a bad idea. Instead, make an elaborate show of blinking vaguely, frowning, checking the clock / wristwatch / cell phone etc. and answer off-handedly, “Around 3-ish?”. Then you can go back to working studiously – and watching the clock, of course.

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Book launch: Penguin Classics Library

Photo: R. Ragu

Kamal Hassan doesn’t often do book events, but this was a rather special occasion. It was the inauguration of the Penguin Classic Library in Chennai and one classic in particular – ‘Stars from Another Sky’ by the legendary Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto – was being showcased for discussion.

“I’m here quite simply because I’m Manto’s fan,” said the actor and filmmaker to the packed audience at Landmark. “I came to know of him only later in life, but it was a very important find for me – I found myself in finding him.”

In conversation with National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Kamal revealed how he was strongly influenced by Manto’s powerful collection of stories on the partition, ‘Mottled Dawn’, while making ‘Hey Ram’. “That’s when I became his blood brother – or ink brother, perhaps,” he said. “I believe that if I’d been there, I’d have been just as troubled by it all.”

Indeed, the actor said that he would have chosen that book to showcase Manto’s writing rather than ‘Stars’, a collection of bluntly honest, irreverent essays on Bollywood stars of the 1940s such as Ashok Kumar, Nargis, etc., which he felt showed the “lower side” of the writer.

But even if one considered these essays ‘yellow journalism’, they were probably the most stylish example of it ever seen, said Rangan: “Although this is a salaciously written book, he’s still very much the writer… we should all aspire to such yellow journalism!”

So continued the lively discussion between the two fans of Manto, including brief readings from the book (that drew gasps and laughter from the audience), a beautiful Tamil translation of one of his Urdu poems read by Kamal in his inimitable style, and discussions on everything from censorship and film criticism to translation from regional tongues and politics in Tamil cinema.

One might argue that the point of the event – the inauguration of the Penguin Classics range of books, consisting of 1,200 titles ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to the works of R.K. Narayanan – was somewhat lost in the midst of all this.

But the standing-room only crowd didn’t seem to mind, hanging on Kamal’s every word, clapping vigorously at his every witticism, and eventually surging out behind him as he left, hoping for a quick handshake or picture.

And it would be safe to say that at least a few of those film buffs will return to read the works of this great Urdu writer, and quite a few others will be drawn back to see just what other hidden gems the Penguin Classics shelves – soon to be up at Landmark – hold in store for them.

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Book launch: Patrick French’s ‘India: A Portrait’

Photo: K. Murali Kumar

What makes India tick? What makes it the way it is today? Those are some the questions that British historian and author Patrick French tries to answer with his latest book on the subcontinent, ‘India: A Portrait – An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People.’

“The idea is very broad – this is not a book I felt ready to write until recently,” said the author during the launch of the book at British Council recently. “After ‘Liberty Or Death: India’s Journey To Independence and Division’ (1997), I got diverted by the biography of V.S. Naipaul, and I realised that unless I did this book now, I would lose the moment.”

‘The moment’, of course, is this period of rapid social and economic change that has seen India, in all its complexities and contradictions, evolve into a global power that, to quote from the book, “may be the world’s default setting for the future”.

The backbone of the book is a series of fascinating portraits of people across India, from Mayawati to Dattu, the Adivasi wine cellar master, and the launch event too was filled with a number of lively stories, such as the time French spent trailing the famous Dabbawalas of Mumbai and his interview with their “extraordinarily grumpy leader.”

But most of the evening was spent discussing the central issue of the book – India as it is today, all that’s wrong with it and all that’s right.

“I think the trajectory India is on gives many reasons for optimism,” French said during his discussion with Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications. “There are terrible inequalities and disasters, but there’s also a dynamism and sense of possibility. People aspire to things now that their parents and grandparents couldn’t.”

Indeed, his tone was so upbeat throughout – even in the midst of discussions on nepotism in politics and the growing gap between the rich and the poor – that it prompted an audience member to remark during the question and answer session: “You sound more optimistic that most of us (Indians) are!”

“What I’m trying to get away from is this sense of fatalism about India,” he explained. “It partly comes from people imposing ideas from elsewhere on India; the only way you can learn some things is by talking to a lot of people.”

And his project, so to speak, continues with the website theindiasite.com, which has additional information that didn’t make it into the book, as well as stories and reports on India added on a daily basis. “I’m hoping it’ll go on to become a collaborative and self-sustaining effort,” he said. “We’ve already had 150,000 hits in the last couple of weeks.”

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Interview with… Roberto Calasso

A book on Indian mythology, written in Italian in the 1990s by a leading scholar and publisher from Florence, translated to great acclaim into English, then into Hindi, Malayalam and now Tamil.

That’s Ka for you, a remarkable work of scholarship on the stories of the Vedas and the Puranas that’s been on quite a remarkable journey. Naturally, its author Roberto Calasso, who was in Chennai recently for the launch of the Tamil translation of Ka, turns out to be a pretty remarkable man himself.

“It started very early, really,” he says, referring to his love of Indian mythology, adding casually, “Just like one gets interested in Russian literature as an adolescent, I started reading these texts, and it went on from there.”

‘These texts’ include everything from the Rig Veda (“the most difficult and mysterious by far,” he says) to the Brahmanas, which are the focus of his latest book, L’ardore (which refers to the act of tapasya). He began by reading translations but has since learnt Sanskrit, just like he studied ancient Greek in order to be able to read those great old mythologies (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, one of his earliest and most well-known works, is a retelling of Greek mythology).

“Myths are the original form of storytelling and a way of knowledge – certain things you can get only through stories,” he says, his passion evident. “A mythology is like a large tree of stories and it’s essential to get inside its branches. It’s can be very illuminating, a way of giving account of the vast net of elements that make up the world.”

Not surprisingly, he draws parallels between the two mythologies with ease (between the stories of Helen of Troy and of Saranyu, for instance, or Shiva and Dionysus), but cautions against making direct connections. “These stories have specific elements in common, and one can understand one mythology better through another (myth can be a lingua franca), but it’s not helpful or even possible to talk about direct influences,” says the author who is also heads Adelphi, the literary publishing house in Italy.

What is of concern to him is that these great storehouses of cultural knowledge not be lost. “It’s really quite depressing to see how little people take advantage of what is available to them, both here and in Europe,” he says. “It’s not just about knowing something of the past; these are things that can be used even today.”

Which is why the current spate of translations of Ka in India is heartening to him – first by Raj Kamal Prakashan in Hindi in 2005, then in Malayalam by DC Books, and now by Kalachuvadu in Tamil. “I’m particularly happy it’s in India, the most important place for this book to be read,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Tamil culture – about which too little is known, even in India – so being published in this language is significant to me.”

For Anandh K., who did the translation to Tamil (from Tim Parks excellent English translation), it’s been a challenging yet fascinating journey. “It took me nearly seven years – as long as it took him to write the original!” he laughs. “Many of these stories are familiar to us from our childhood, but revisiting them through the eyes of another, who was looking in from the outside… it was a journey into the realm of my own subjectivity. He’s brought to them a whole new perception.”

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Year of the Ear Muff

PhotoL K. Ananthan

If there’s been a style statement this winter in Chennai, it’s been the ubiquitous ear muff. You’ve probably seen it perched snugly over the ears of men and women, senior citizens and toddlers alike as they wait for buses, whizz by on bikes or make their way on our streets. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing – veshti or sari, jeans and jacket or school uniform and Keds. The ear muff, it seems, is the perfect accessory.

“I sell about 10 or 15 a day, for Rs. 10 a piece,” says Hassan Mohamed, who stocks ear muffs at his little roadside stall in Tiruvallikeni (they lie nestled amidst those other staples of Chennai winter attire – the monkey cap and that wonderful invention, the cap-and-muffler-in-one – and, a little disconcertingly, underwear).

An elderly gentleman shopping nearby adds disapprovingly, “Some stalls sell it even for Rs. 15.” But, he assures me, you can get it for much cheaper in Parry’s Corner. Hassan nods sadly, “Yes, they sell many more there.”

He’s one of five others who sell ear muffs on that single stretch of road, and you’ll find sellers just like him everywhere from Mylapore market to Pondy Bazaar. Sometimes you’ll find the muffs hanging on the hawker’s arms as he sells them at street corners and at other times dangling jauntily off conveniently placed lampposts or poles.

“They’ve been very popular because there’s been so much pani (mist) this winter,” says Venkatachalam, whose muff-ware is lodged on one such lamppost.

Like most of the muffs in vogue this year, his too are all in camouflage patterns (to survive the urban jungle, perhaps?) and in highly unlikely colours at that (what exactly does bubblegum pink-and-white camouflage protect you against anyway?). But it’s been brisk business, and you can feel Venkatachalam’s pain as he adds wistfully, “We’re reaching the end of the season now; we’ll hardly sell any from now on.”

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