School For Girls

Everything I read or write these days seems to be Heavy. It’s almost like everyone’s lost the ability to just muse about small things. Everything has to be about ebola or Hamas or ISIS or something. So here’s a lightweight ‘It Happened To Me’.

One of the things appealing about Seattle to me was that I have family here. Among the clan is my little cousin, who just turned thirteen. She’s been born and raised in Seattle. She’s incredibly social and can talk to anyone on their level, be they nerdy like me or chatty like my mother or with her very young cousins or her old grandparents.

While walking around, I came across this small one-storey building, with bright yellow walls and ‘Wexley School For Girls’ on it in ornate calligraphy. There was also a whole bunch of graffiti on one of the yellow walls. It seemed like a cool school, and I assumed in this city that was home to grunge, this school was supposed to exemplify it or something. I was intrigued, and snapped a picture on my tablet.

Later that day, I was with my cousin, and she was telling me about school. “I saw this school today”, I interrupted. “It’s called Wexley School For Girls. What kind of a school is it?”. She said she didn’t know, and had never heard of it. She didn’t even know there was a school in downtown Seattle. “It seemed like a cool kinda school, the one where you didn’t have rules or something”. “What kind of a school doesn’t have rules?” she asked. I put it down to her going to a strict Catholic school. Besides, American kids don’t know freedom like we did or something.

I pulled my tablet out and showed her the picture I’d taken of it. “Oh. Looks cool…”, she said, looking at the graffiti. Then suddenly “Hey, why is there a naked woman there?”.

I got shocked and pulled the tablet away. Given how sheltered American kids in my experience were, I freaked out. And sure there was graffiti of the naked woman there, among all the other scrawls and drawings.

“What sort of a school for girls is this place?”. I was angry by now, waiting for my tablet to connect to the WiFi. “How is this place even allowed to exist?”. I was pissed not only at the school, but also myself for subjecting the little girl to this.

And then I googled for Wexley School For Girls.

Turns out, it’s an ad agency.

Not a school.


Posted in Attempts at Humour, Priya's Travails, Seattle, travel | Leave a comment

Bombay to Bangalore – A comparative study of the writings of Hussain Zaidi and Agni Sridhar

The movie Aa Dinagalu  came highly recommended. Saw it on a list on Reddit, and it had been coming up in conversation every now and then.

I watched it, and loved it.

The title, literally Those Days, seems like one of a mellow tale of student days. Instead, you’re treated to the film version of two of the most landmark events in the history of Bangalore crime. The best part? None of it was even made up. Not the industrialist who hires rowdies to keep his son off of a girl of another caste, not the rich kid who takes it as a personal affront and decides to off the city’s biggest don.

I couldn’t get enough.

I watched the ‘sequel’, Edegarike. It has the same people. But a different story. More intense on the mindblerg.

I decided to read the book it was all based on. Agni Sridhar’s My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. I devoured all six hundred pages of it in a day and a half. I had never, ever read such a juicy, fast-paced, erudite book before.

The closest anyone’s come to to writing about organized crime in India other than this has to be Hussain Zaidi, who has written extensively on the Mumbai underworld. Those books are infinitely more famous than Agni Sridhar’s, given they have been the basis for movies like D, Company and Shootout at Lokhandwala and its sequel, Shootout at Wadala. I devoured those books too. But it felt like there was something missing, something not quite up my street.

And Agni Sridhar hit that spot.

Think about the Bollywood depiction of the Underworld, and Dons. Gangmembers are always introduced in a cloud of smoke. They are always nuzzling the muzzle of a gun. Cussing. There are cool camera angles, and music. Oh and some vamps, who almost always dress like fisherwomen and have paan-reddened lips. And they call each other Bhai all the time. And even the songs aren’t complete without bhai dialogue in them.

That’s the gangmembers. Then there’s the policemen. Poverty-stricken, with families, and corrupt. The one honest cop is either as evil as the gangs or he is off’d in the first thirty minutes.

And the Don. They are all based off of someone’s impression of Dawood. The Don is usually Quiet. Not quiet, but Quiet. All you see of him is one look, one nod, one wave of the hand. And maybe a nasal voice. They mess this up with Don Corleone sometimes, and you get Sarkaar. In that, the Don does everything silently. He manages to communicate everything from an execution order to intense desire in one look. It was fascinating when Brando did it, but when Amitabh Bachchan does it, it is plain overdone.

When bad guys were the protagonists in Satya, it was new and refreshing. Now it’s the same old grind, same old glorification of gore and violence. It feels fake after the third or fourth time. The roles get written as chores, not as a genuine feeling in someone’s heart.

The books are insightful. You’ve never heard of half the crazy things that happened. The stories are exciting. They touch on politics, history, social dynamics, and are just plain fun. But it’s obvious they aren’t Hussain Zaidi’s own perspective. They are dramatized versions of stories someone tells him, and they seem to tell him the Bollywood masala versions of those stories. And you kind of empathize with him putting those stories out there – he’ll be bumped off if he doesn’t, it feels like. After all, in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he very conveniently skips Dawood’s sister Haseena Parkar who died only recently.

Contrast with the Kannada versions. The movies are based each on one incident in the book. And they get as de-glam as they get. No convenient camera angles, minimal swearing, no women showing tons of skin. No flashy gangsters. And best of all,  the most it goes to ‘silent don’ is Atul Kulkarni gently telling the hotheaded male protagonist, ‘Anger must always be a positive emotion’.

And yet, at something as benign as ‘I’m Sridhar Murthy, Advocate’, you find your hair stand on end.

The book…. the book is something else. I don’t have enough words for it, but I’ll try. First of all, hardly anyone gets into crime solely because of poverty. Rowdyism is not glorified, but at the same time not vilified either. The tone is very matter-of-fact. You hear shady stuff about everyone in Karnataka public life and politics. Most of the rowdies even have day jobs. And cult nicknames as well.

Various con schemes are elaborated on. Violence is not the first resort, and killing is certainly more plotted than actually carried out. And, heck, the police even keep their integrity and power for the most part.

And that, everybody, is the difference between a crime novel written by the fanboys of a Don, and one written by the Don himself.

Agni Sridhar survived the rule of two dons of Bangalore, Kotwal Ramachandra and Jayaraj, and was second-in-command to Muthappa Rai, before couping him out of town and pretty much being the Don. Until finally he decides he has enough and reforms. And starts the tabloid Agni.

The other difference between Agni Sridhar and Hussain Zaidi? Sridhar studied Law. His bag on stakeouts had two ‘long’ swords and two books. He read extensively. He moved in the same circles as Lankesh (one of his first arrests was for beating up Gowri Lankesh’s stalker) and counted among his friends professors at Bangalore University. Hussain Zaidi… in a talk he gave once, he said reportage is not about the writing ability, and that he didn’t know to write in English when he first came to Mumbai. As much as we like to think that doesn’t make a difference, it does.

It’s not about the language. Agni Sridhar’s book was translated from Kannada. But he is a born raconteur. The tales are told matter-of-factly. Each bit is narrated with so much insight and understanding. Though it is a first-person account, it has a third-person detachment to it, none of the dramatization or strong emotion.

It’s a good read, a fun read. More so if you are from South Bangalore. The nooks and corners I grew up around, they were used for shady meetings upon shady meetings. A restaurant a stone’s throw from where I lived was planned by Muthappa Rai to be the scene of Sridhar’s murder.

He speaks out against Kannada tabloids glamorizing rowdyism when in reality it wasn’t anything like that. And how it led to him eventually starting his own. There’s tidbits on famous journalists like Tejsaswini Gowda and HR Ranganath. And pages about Ravi Belagere. And about how he tried convincing BC Patil to stick to policing and not do movies. A ‘senior’ Swamiji at Siddaganga Mutt paying him to ‘off’ the ‘junior’ Swamiji.

Preying on and extorting homosexuals in Krishna Rao park in the ’80s. Roughing up couples around Bugle Rock and robbing them. Using a fake currency racket as a front and conning people.

And the best ever twist? Sridhar gets into a life of crime because Kotwal’s men broke his brother’s leg for no reason. The brother on the other hand studies well and becomes a cop. Such a successful cop that even in 2012, there were issues about posting him to Kumaraswamy Layout police station as his ex-don brother was living in the same area and was involved in several land deals.

The movies are made by Sumana Kittur, who seems an out and out bold village girl, the sort that Sridhar seems to respect a lot (He says that glowingly about Tejaswini Gowda). Given her background and how quickly she got taken under Sridhar’s wing when she gets to Bangalore, it feels like he’s been ghost-directing the movies anyway. And doing a better job than RGV and Mahesh Bhatt put together.

True crime fiction’s got a long way to go in India. For now, the ones that are going to be popular as hell are going to be Hussain Zaidi’s, because they are so influential, and about Mumbai. But Agni Sridhar’s account is better than any I’ve ever come across, a true first-hand account. Zaidi says he’s the first one to put together an account of the Mumbai underworld, and I still wish there had been someone as sharp as Sridhar to write about it than Zaidi who simply compiles accounts.

Read them all. But start with Zaidi and move on to Sridhar. Start with the movies and move on to the books. You’ll appreciate them all well that way.

Posted in Bangalore, movies, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vote for the funny fellas at Mindry.In.

I’ve been a longtime fangirl of anything that Mindry.In comes up with. I love the sense of humor that Harish and Arjun from there have, and would love to see more of it out in the world than just as private jokes and videos shared among a few thousand of us.

You remember Rashmi Bansal? She’s come up with this pretty nice concept. Publish a couple of chapters of a book on a blog, have people vote on it, and the ones with the most votes get published as physical books. Nice, no?

So Arjun and Harish have their book, India 2020  – Exodus to Utopia up there. It’s a really good book, a really nice and complete history of India, its politics, politicians, movies, sports and whatever else there is to summarize about India. Being the modest South Bangaloreans that they are, they are shy to promote themselves. Irrespective, do a good deed, and read the book here.  It won’t be entirely unselfish of you either, because those are some damn funny chapters excerpted out there. Do read, and do vote for their book.

This book in bookstores would make a lot of folks very happy. Help them  get there!

Posted in Attempts at Humour | Leave a comment

Thoughts about Indra Nooyi having it all

Indra Nooyi, as is usual for women in any position of power, talked about having it all and how she doesn’t have it all. One telling anecdote was when she came home after being anointed CEO of PepsiCo and her mother asked her to go get milk because no matter what she is professionally, she is still a wife and mother. You can read that and other gems in this article here.

Some thoughts…

* If my parents read this article, they’d probably say ‘See? She’s the CEO and still listens to her mother. You, hardly a stripling, talk back to us’, only half jokingly. Yeah, talking back to your mom is so easy, someone still in school can do it.

* Why would you care what your mother thinks when you are the CEO of something? Unless you are Rajinikanth in Mannan, that is. I don’t mean in the “hurr durr I’m the boss” way, but you’ll have a little magnanimity to empathize with what people say if you got that high up? At least enough to not have it affect you enough to put it in a book years later?

* My parents ask me to run errands. Me being the lazy non dutiful daughter whine and wriggle out of them. That’s likely why I’m not CEO material.

* Was this very unlike her usually supportive mother that she was shocked? In which case you must have a large enough heart to forget this bit which is insignificant compared to her large body of supportive actions. If this was her mother’s usual attitude, she should have developed a thick skin by then. Either way, offering this incident without context seems very unfair to her mother.

* For every such Lucille Bluth mom, there are a hundred other mothers who for the entire duration of 10th to 12th make sure their kids never have to do any chores other than prepare for exams and entrance exams.

* Given the sort of misogyny I saw at NITK, I can’t help feeling her husband being an alumnus is somehow connected to not having it all. No, that’s actually being very unfair to male NITK alumni. But… You my get my point.

* What is this having it all? Girls of my generation dreamt of full time jobs because financial independence and freedom from having to play dutiful daughter in law were things our mothers didn’t have and made it a point to tell us so on every available occasion. We aren’t all CEOs (yet), but we sure don’t think the joy of parenting makes up for lost professional opportunities.

* Would staying home have made Nooyi a better mom? Judging by her mother, I’d guess no.

* My mother sacrificed career for family. But I was a latchkey kid for more than a few years. How? Because my mother was away taking care of my dying grandfather. I wouldn’t see her for days at a stretch. Yeah no, not all those who opt to be stay at home moms are able to devote full attention to their children.

* Oh, and my father sacrificed career for family as well – he turned down several opportunities involving travel to be able to take care of his ailing parents. Why, several male friends of mine want to drop lucrative careers in the West to go back home and take care of their families. Somehow these sacrifices never find a mention anywhere.

* Somehow, the only people I find feeling guilty about not being good mothers are urban, racially privileged, upper middle class women in first world countries. For my maid back home, she doesn’t have the luxury to think twice to leave her kids behind with her parents in their village while she and her husband toil in the city.

* Why is dinner mother’s responsibility? Make the kids help? Several of my mornings were spent whining while cutting vegetables before getting ready for school, while my mother complained about the tomatoes not being chopped fine enough. Others I grew up with did similarly. These women CEOs seem to pamper their kids silly.

* Upper East Side moms seem to palm off child rearing to nannies and don’t seem to die of guilt. Why can’t West Coast CEO moms do the same?

* What annoying child calls her busy mother for permission to play Nintendo? My sister and I did as we pleased, played rough, broke vases, spilled food, but knew enough to clean up before our parents got home. And finished our homework and studied for tests because Amma and Appa would whoop us if we messed up. There was one family friend whose kids wouldn’t let her have a moment of peace. In the days of landlines, when their mother would visit mine, they would repeatedly call whining about the second born wanting to poop, about the first born drinking juice from the fridge…. I know not all children are easy. But at least try to train them?

* What stupid school is this her daughter goes to where mothers are expected to come in every week? How annoying and embarrassing it must be to have your teacher and mother meet in front of all your friends every week.

* If this and other articles are to be believed, everyone before this generation was born to twenty year old stay at home mothers who made dinner every day. My great-aunt worked in the sessions court, her sister in law was some high ranking government official, another great-aunt was a surgeon… And after her husband’s death, my great-great aunt was a cook and nanny in America and South East Asia while her sons stayed with relatives in India…. There were several other ladies who had to work after their husbands suffered poor health or passed away. And my family isn’t even one of those ones where all the women are overachievers and liberated. We were just a lower middle class family trying to get by. These jobs were out of necessity. And they managed fine with husbands and children. Maybe not as fine as we’d like, but certainly not how much Slate, the Atlantic and Salon want us to worry about these decisions.

* If you’re a woman reading this… Chances are, you’re doing just fine. You can rise pretty high in your career if you want, you can have children when you want, and most likely your family will be proud of your achievements. Yeah, you’ll hit a few roadblocks, you’ll be discouraged, you’ll come across misogyny, but overall, there isn’t anyone out there conspiring for you to fail. You can go about your life without much worry. Feminism has a long way to go, but several paths have already been cleared for us.

* Indra Nooyi is an old dingbat on the verge of retirement. Her mother is from an even earlier generation. Are you really going to let a random incident between two ancient relics affect your perception of where women stand in this country, and disregard the miles of progress we’ve made in the sixty years of Nooyi’s lifetime?

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English, August – A Decade Later

Earlier today, I was watching Kevin Spacey’s Shipping News. It’s about a guy who moves to Newfoundland and builds a new life after his wife’s death and his parents’ suicide.

It reminded me of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. Strange, because English, August is quite the reverse. It’s about existential crisis encountered on moving to a new town and a new job. The protagonist is also very, very cynical, quite unlike Kevin Spacey in Shipping News, who is just trying to put behind the demons of his past, and the movie is themed on rebirth.

The book had a strong, strong grip on me in college. I bought it just before I moved to NITK on a whim, because I liked the title and Rahul Bose on the cover with a frog. It was one of the few books I’d brought along with me when I first moved to Surathkal. I read it cover to cover, over and over again. It riveted me in a way nothing I’d read before had. Why, I even mentioned it on this blog more than a few times as a book that has influenced me a lot.

When I started at NITK, I was a cynical big city girl who’d seen and read way too much to be happy in a small town. Back then, I hadn’t yet understood that I was really a loner and that rooms full of people weren’t where I naturally thrived. I missed my friends, boys and girls who shared my dry sense of humor, were outraged at the same things I outraged at, liked Tamil movies but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Rajinikanth-starrer…… the works.

So August Sen appealed to me. Surathkal felt to me as desolate as Madna, and the attempts people made to have a life there felt fake to me, like the semblance of a social life felt to August. I felt little if any passion for things. The cynical way with which Agastya regarded the people he met seemed a good, almost defensive way to understand the horde of new people I was meeting without having to get too involved. Like how August had cleared the IAS exam and was stuck in a rural area wondering ‘now what?’, I was wondering if I was cut out for engineering after clearing the AIEEE. The ladies at the GB Mess were analogous to Vasant and his terrible cooking.

Things changed a lot since then. I realized I could love computer science. I fell in with a group of people with whom I could be myself, and today, though most of them don’t keep in touch with each other, I keep in touch with all of them.

But what did not change was that every year or two for the past decade, I’d move to yet another desolate place without charm and fun people, where everyone around me stayed friends because there was no one else, where there were fun things the people I worked or studied with wouldn’t do because it was infra-dig to them, but instead try to create a substitute world of their own that somehow was never as fun as I’d like. I’d always feel cloistered, and always feel like it was a temporary situation and I didn’t want to waste time getting comfortable because, what was the point, I’d have to do it all over again. There was an air of helplessness and inability to change my life situation.

However, I’d decided by my final year at NITK, that English, August‘s effect was me was akin to cannabis, and decided I shouldn’t be letting it affect my world view so much. I had gotten comfortable with my armchair cynicism so much that I wasn’t motivated to break out of the rut it had gotten me into, much like the lethargy and complacence that marijuana smokers say come with some strains. I decided no matter how boring or irritable or terrible the situation I was in, I would have to at least attempt to add some value to my own life from it, instead of twiddling my thumbs.

I took my dog-eared copy of English, August (which by then had had its spine broken), home and relegated it to the back of my bookshelf. I could have chosen to take it along with me when I moved to Irvine, but I didn’t. I relived Madna over and over again, and each time it made a little more sense than the last, and affected me even lesser. I wasn’t looking for my Delhi in my Madna anymore, and I wasn’t looking for my Dhrubo in every person I met. The phrases from the book I remembered like the lyrics to a Rebecca Black song didn’t anymore spring to mind and make me laugh. I learnt to find joy in every city I lived in, and finally gained enough control of my life to not have to go to cities I knew I wouldn’t be happy in, because no matter how hard I tried, I can’t get the better of the loner city slicker in me who feels most comfortable with the anonymity of crowded public places and hidden bookstores.

So, I did move on from the rut my cynicism got me into. The cynicism itself though…. I like to say I’m in the throes of Cynicism 2.0. I have a genuine appreciation for honest efforts and emotions. I don’t really believe what people say about themselves anymore, no matter how honest, because people don’t see themselves the way I would see them. And I’m cynical and skeptical about my own words as well… I don’t assume what I’ve just said is unique to me anymore. My cynicism has been tempered with a healthy pragmatism and bias to getting things done.

I wonder what my life would have been without English, August though. I mean, what would have happened if I’d picked up Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey that day instead? I wouldn’t have taken it to NITK for sure. Would I have been more of a pessimist or less? Would I have been able to cope with the disappointment and disillusionment as well? I don’t know.

So after I was done with the uplifting Shipping News today, I googled, as I’d done occasionally over the years, for ‘watch online english august’. I’ve done this in the past for other Indie movies, and have managed to find and watch most of them, but English, August? Nope. No success. I’m even willing to pay for a DVD But all there is this teasing line on Dev Benegal’s blog  and no follow up.

I really enjoyed watching Road, Movie and wonder what a younger Mr. Benegal did with my favorite book, how he communicated the feeling of desolation and being misunderstood as well as the book. I like Rahul Bose a lot and wonder what he was like early on in his career. And the rest of the cast don’t agree with what I’d imagined the characters to look like, to the point where I’m really interested with the director’s interpretations of them.

Do I want to watch the movie? Ten years ago, I really did want to. Then for a while in the middle, I didn’t, because I didn’t want to ruin the book for me. But now, I’ve gone back to really wanting to, because not only do I wonder how such a philosophical journey is communicated in a film script, but also because I wonder if it all will still make sense to me.

I’m kind of afraid it will.

Posted in analysis, Flashback, movies, Priya's Travails, Reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The False Dichotomy Before Her

I just got done watching The World Before Her. It was a nice accompaniment to being confined indoors on a warm summer day and doing chores and my nails and hair.

Anyway. This documentary. It tries to show two supposed extremes in India, one half in a Durga Vahini training camp, and the other in one for Miss India contestants.

The documentary for the most part doesn’t judge much, and I must give it credit for that despite the leading questions posed to those in the Durga Vahini camp on occasion. We are introduced to Ruhi Singh, a Miss India contestant, and Prachi Trivedi, a camp counselor sorts for Durga Vahini. We’re taken through their families, their pursuits, their views, and all that.

It’s a documentary worth a watch for differing perspectives, and for forming your own.

The Miss India contestants bit, nothing really surprised me, possibly because not long ago I used to be pretty addicted to America’s Next Top Model and similar ones on Channel [V]. They are fun as expected, demeaning as expected (There’s one part of the contest where the contestants walk covered in a sheet with only their legs exposed, so that the judges can find the ‘best legs’), and dangerous as expected, with girls in their late teens getting botox injections…. actually, I’m not sure if it was all botox. One bit was some chin-plumping serum, which is totally not the same as botox, but, yeah…. you get the picture.

The Durga Vahini stuff is a lot less expected, but not how you think. In fact, you learn all the fearmongering is actually true. There’s a clip of a woman social activist giving a speech asking all the girls in the camp to stay home and not be ‘modern’ focusing on ‘career, career, career’. There’s a bit where they interview this fourteen year old who says she is proud of not having any Muslim friends. And, oh yes, they are taught to shoot and fight and break bones.

The bits I found very leading however were the ones where Prachi’s father admitted to beating her to discipline her. And Prachi herself laughingly recounts an episode where her father branded her with a hot iron rod when she lied as a child. It’s very easy at this point to go all ‘Hurr durr backward people’. I’m surprised the perspective is lacking here. Until not very long ago, corporal punishment for children was very much acceptable. When I was in school, this rather insane teacher was very pissed with this classmate of mine, and hit her a lot. And hard. Hard enough for the girl’s earring to fall off. We all hated that teacher after that. But did anyone do anything? No. The teacher continued to teach. The classmate’s parents, both leading doctors, didn’t intervene. Life went on. Was it wrong for the teacher to hit a student like that? Obviously. No one says otherwise. But corporal punishment wasn’t frowned upon until recently. I strongly doubt you should be using that admission to make a point.

Likewise with Prachi’s parents saying she needs to get married, because a woman is complete only after she becomes a mother. If you ask around, irrespective of social class and gender, you’ll get the same answer from way too many people. Is it wrong? Of course it is. No one can dictate when someone is complete or not. And how wrong is it? Probably not very,  because people who say things like this don’t necessarily go about abusing childless women as much as they probably feel sorry for them. The impression the documentary seeks to give, of a traditional girl fighting marriage, feels misguided. You talk to any girl around Prachi’s age, and she’s probably having the same argument with her parents off and on. And it doesn’t mean anything.

There’s the other thing where Prachi is asked if she would ‘kill for Hinduism’. And obviously she says ‘Yes’. But what does ‘for Hinduism’ mean? Would she kill someone for reciting a mantra wrong? Would she kill Selena Gomez for making the bindi a fashion statement? Would she kill someone converting to Islam with full clarity of mind? Would she kill someone desecrating a temple? I assume here Prachi is thinking something like being a victim of communal violence or something similar, given she isn’t already out on the streets committing murder Anniyan style.

I didn’t like these easy, lazy ways of building impressions.

I’d be interested in knowing other stuff. Did any of the beauty contestants face corporal punishment as a child? How many of their families are supportive? What are their ambitions? How did they end up wanting to be beauty queens? It’s easy enough to know why Prachi works for the VHP, but what did she study in school? Was she a good student? What are her ambitions? Of course she says her life is the VHP, but surely she must have some interests beyond that? Where do all the girls in the camp come from? Are they of limited opportunity that Durga Vahini sounds fun? What do they do with all the stuff they learn? How much does the hatred for other religions sustain? How does it manifest? What would they do if they came across an elderly Muslim gentleman in trouble? Are they taught to fear ‘Islam’ as a concept, or for every Muslim in the street?

What did the girls in the camp think of that speech where the lady told them their place is in the home? How many of them take it seriously? How many of them make up names for her behind her back and laugh about it? What are all these girls’ ambitions? Do they like studying? Do their parents want them to study further? What will they do with their newly-acquired rifle shooting skills? Do they plan on joining NCC? Do they know about NCC? What about the alumni? What do they feel about their experiences in Durga Vahini years later? What do they do now? Those saree-clad ladies who expertly shoot rifles, do they go to gun ranges and practice for fun sometimes?

We all know what different people think of beauty paegants, but what do people outside think of the camp? Do they like it that their daughters made new friends, and were more energetic and healthy? Are they concerned that their daughter started hating on people of other religions? Would they recommend it to others?

I sure would like to meet this Prachi Trivedi. If nothing, I just want to tell her she doesn’t have to be that confused. At the end of the documentary she says she is perpetrating a system which subjugates her and women like her. But… y’know, the system isn’t that limited. She can actually be an agent of change and reform within the VHP, especially in a position of power like she has over thousands of impressionable girls. And a bootcamp like that for girls is actually such a great idea.

I mean, seriously. I hated doing drills and marching in the hot sun in those heavy regulation shoes, so I played truant and dropped out of NCC in school. More than a decade later, I kind of regret it, because I don’t really have the enthusiasm for physical exertion the way others do, and heck, I don’t even know to shoot a gun now and have to pay for lessons at a gun range. All I mean to say is, it’s kind of cool to learn all those things, and in India we don’t usually get to, and even less so if you aren’t economically privileged. So stuff like this is great, and there should be more such places where there is a clear emphasis on physical fitness. Besides, it is pretty badass to see a saree-clad aunty teach kids about guns and bullets. I like that simply because it breaks stereotypes of what a girl who knows to shoot looks like.

That said, yes, there’s a lot that’s fucked up, and needs to change, and it is insane how much anything in the Sangh Parivar is reluctant to change and I wonder constantly about how to bring that about. But I also know that people who hold these stupid opinions usually don’t believe it all in earnest, and can actually be pretty decent, accepting people when you don’t talk to them about these things specifically. I mean, I know several evangelical Christians who went halfway across the world to spread the world of Our Lord, but when they are kicking back with a gingerbeer, they aren’t muttering about killing heathen religions and harvesting souls, they are mostly just good people who want to make a difference.

The World Before Her pretty much shows us that women nationwide are presented with a false dichotomy – are you Ancient or Modern? You are not necessarily progressive if you wear modern clothes and model for magazines. You are not necessarily backward-thinking if you wear salwars and sarees and go to shakha. You are not necessarily liberated if you are ‘modern’ and ‘urban’, you are not necessarily shackled if you are in a more traditional family. Hinduism doesn’t have to be subjugating, lack of religion isn’t necessarily liberating.  Just because your father wants you married doesn’t mean he isn’t a forward-thinking man. A girl sometimes just wants to break free of the things immediately tying her down, and sometimes she might choose to be a model to get out of that rut, and sometimes she’ll choose to go to shakha, or if she’s in the Red Corridor, she’ll become a Maoist. And the things she chooses to break out of, she isn’t even sure what they are, and they might not directly correlate with her choice. Prachi doesn’t feel like she belongs with other girls, and the way out of this in her case was Durga Vahini, where she can still have her respect and be more into physical activities. Ankita’s father sent her to a Buddhist monastery for eight years, and modelling gives her that feeling of being liberated. Ruhi considers Miss India an episode of fun before she has to inevitably get married (Though IMO it feels a little excessive to consider her words and impression gospel on that, given she’s only nineteen, and doesn’t seem to be from a family that’ll just force her into a marriage with someone who doesn’t care for her ambition).

If I take anything away from this documentary, it is that before I decide to jump to conclusions about some other girl based on her current station and ambition in life, I probably should remember she’s just a person trying to get somewhere, and usually a product of her circumstances, and rather than ascribing all sorts of notions to her and considering her an agent of feminism or an enemy of feminism or the sort who gives feminism a bad name, I should probably remember first she’s a girl who’s just trying to be.

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Degree of Confidence

Now that the BJP has won and all, I feel free to now be critical of it and keep it on its path. The nonconstructive opposition has been decimated, and it’s for those of us who wanted BJP in power for better growth and direction to provide the requisite opposition and criticism.

You know the reason so many people are so very Internet Hindu? You know, the abusive sorts? It’s because for a very long time the criticism to the Indian Right has been so biased, so skewed, so unfair. To maintain that balance, a lot of people would brook no criticism of the BJP or VHP or anyone. But I’ve noticed during and after these elections, that with the sort of confidence we’ve had with the victory, with the mainstream media now singing praises of Modi, there isn’t the need for fervent, passionate support anymore, and now that the BJP is ‘the system’, it is for us to keep it in check. And no, most of us don’t like everything the BJP does.

I realized a long time ago when I met Subramanian Swamy that politicians are vile chameleons, and above all, human, and should always be under our control, and never vice versa. This guy doesn’t really visit temples, and is really not very religious, but enthusiastically agreed for several pujas to be performed in his name. And then there were people spewing all sorts of idiotic religiosity in their speeches, and this man, who in his interactions with me, seemed sane and had a grip on reality and wasn’t one for such shallow thought, said nothing. Because these would be the people funding him, voting for him, and all that. Being in politics strictly limits your ability to say and do what you personally feel is right, and those pressures aren’t always conducive to all of us. Each of us needs to exert this pressure on politicians to do as we want, to balance out the other people doing the same.

Anyway. Smriti Irani now administers all our colleges, despite having only been to the school of life. I don’t begrudge her, who is to say what difficulties she faced in educating herself. But it doesn’t make me very confident about the state of education in India, given she has had very few opportunities so far to think about the quality of education in the country, the problems that students and teachers and universities face, to have a coherent vision of her own to implement in the next five years.

I owe my education to the NIT act the Vajpayee government brought about. Will that sort of vision, to make elite institutions and a common entrance exam, and a credible second-tier for technical education, out of already-decently-run universities around the country occur to someone who has no sense of the system?

The most common argument is Bill Gates was a dropout as well. Well, he dropped out because Harvard wasn’t offering the sort of courses he wanted to pursue, and he wanted to switch from Economics to Computer Science, which I presume was still in its infancy at Harvard.

That said, if you average over dropouts and people who went to college, you are likelier to be a visionary CEO if you did go to college than if you dropped out. So if you want a visionary, you’re better off hiring someone who showed an interest for it and stayed in college.

The next argument is ‘Manmohan Singh was a PhD, and Arjun Singh and Kapil Sibal were also well-educated’. Yuh-uh, and who was pulling the strings? Who was setting the standards? Someone whose last shot at education was English classes. If you read Sanjaya Baru’s book, you realize that Manmohan Singh did have good ideas, and he needed someone like Baru to bully him into implementing them. His whole problem was the lack of a political base. And sycophancy.

So if your options other than Smriti was someone like Nilekani, you have a fair point. But that isn’t the case.

You can always pick the negative example of Sibal and Chidambaram to say political base AND higher education together also don’t make for good policies. But, we’ve all read Sibal’s poetry, and if you still want to vote for him after that because you still consider him qualified, that’s your problem. Seriously though, Sibal and Chidambaram, even before UPA, hadn’t particularly proven their visionary credentials. In a party like INC, you can be sure the people who rise to the top aren’t necessarily the most qualified. And you can also be pretty sure that an INC politician is more likely to be corrupt and less patriotic that the heart and soul that push and direct administrators won’t be present.

Even so, you can’t correlate education levels with bad administrative skills, and no, you cannot say higher qualifications are causative of bad schemes and bad administration. And it’s really a huge stretch to conclude from any of this that having someone who isn’t well-educated is a better option.

The other thing that makes Smriti a bad candidate for this is that she has very little proven administrative experience. She’s never been a minister before. She’s been a Rajya Sabha MP, yes, but also has two huge electoral losses to her name. She’s proven to be a competent spokesperson, and holds the same post in the BJP as Rahul Gandhi does, but hey, no one will wager that Rahul was in any way qualified to be anything, and President of Women’s Wing isn’t exactly screaming ‘Give her the MHRD already!’.

There’s another argument that ‘Bureaucrats do all the work anyway’. So yes, the minister doesn’t have to be an educationist. But they need to have either some vision, or the promise of a vision, or ground support that proves their competence, or some administrative experience that says yeah, they’ll be able to manage this. Smriti has none of these, at least not as much as her peers in the NDA.

When you exhaust all these arguments, the pro-Smriti folks will say ‘Give the rookie a chance, she fought valiantly in Amethi’. The question is, why should anybody? There are way more qualified people in the BJP, and appointing her over them makes no sense at best, and at worst, reminds us that ministerial berths are supposed to be rewards for loyalty more than stuff you get via merit, something we disliked deeply in the Congress. There are so many others. You could have given it to Maneka Gandhi, who has proven herself in the last government, or to Gopinath Munde instead of the half a dozen random portfolios he’s been given. Or heck, you could have given it to Najma Heptullah, and if you really badly wanted to have a Muslim for Minority Affairs, you could bring back Shahnawaz Hussain who has proven pretty competent. And to a big guy like Venkiah Naidu you give a relatively low-profile portfolio, wouldn’t it be smarter to have given him the MHRD and to Smriti all the Parliamentary Affairs, Panchayati Raj and all that?

So for those on the other side of the debate, yes, the arguments against having Smriti for MHRD are pretty solid.

The only competent reason I can see behind this appointment is that Modi wants to pretty much keep this to himself, go forward with his own agenda. He’s building loyalists here, who won’t have their own agenda in mind already, and will be open to, and more than willing to do as he says. So essentially, Smriti will be a Modi on the TV channels and a Manmohan in the office.

I don’t think Smriti will be absolute crap at her job. Or that Modi’s vision being implemented via Smriti would have terrible consequences for all of us. But it’s good to know what we’re dealing with, and to not have blinders on. It’s also good to point out things like this that make it seem like the BJP is going the INC way.

All I hope is, Ms. Irani, Mr. Modi, whatever the heck you do, make sure there are no unceremonious, controversial ousters at NITK or professors being forced to quit for speaking up about matters of national security.

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