Friday, December 16, 2005

Singapore soliloquies

City of lights....and what lies beneath

Me back after a long absence. I know this may sound like I am boasting, but I have been zipping around (boy, does that sound good!) quite a lot and, I must admit, seemed to have lost the steam I started out with when I got blogging for the first time.
However, a couple of things happened (of which, more later) which have made me keen to get back on.
So, here goes.
First things first. Singapore (from where I got back a few days ago) is not a city I expected too much from
when I got a chance to jazz down there. My earliest memories of the city (``We are an island-nation-city-State'', my tour guide Carol informs me) were from the movie Ninaithalae Inikkum (in which a horribly bell-bottomed Rajinikanth tries to help a pathetically-mustachioed Kamal Hassan woo a short-haired and snappy Jayaprada in all the ways a woman would not want to be wooed) and that is saying much. A few years back, one of my neighbours showed me a woe-begone letter from a relative in Singapore which spoke of a pauper's life in Midas land. So, to cut a long story short, I was prepared to pick holes even before I set foot.
Singapore did not disappoint. It was everything I always thought it would be. Much too organised, much too governed, much too muchness of everything. Our car effortlessly touched 100 plus on the
superbly oiled roads, the cars were the gleamiest ever you would find, the buildings an architectural symphony of cement, concrete, steel and glass, glass, glass....
But then where are the people? In this city, touted to be Asia's richest and most futuristic, the buildings clearly have been allowed to overtake humans. Inside the befuddlingly vast shopping spaces on Orchard Road, for example, you try to look among the slim-waisted, hi-haute women to search for somebody with whom you could bookmark your memories of the city.
And then you find her....thirty-eight-year-old Valsamma, tightly-oiled bun, dirty saree hem peeping out of a fast food counter overall, silently and devoutly wrapping up tacos for Chanel-scented women who would have cared nought had they known that the Nagercoil native has been working here for nearly three years, earning a measly Rs 10,000 a month (of which Rs 4,000 goes for rent for a one-room apartment she is sharing with a Malaysian coolie), hoping to whip up enough to put her twelve-year-old daughter (growing up with grandparents back home) through medical school a few sweaty years later...
Singapore could not care less. It wouldn't want you to know the Valsammas existed, though. Every effort has been made to ensure that visitors breathed in opulence and breathed out the electronic baubles that choke the shelves of Mustafa's.
To know more, you would have to visit, what else, Little India. Finally, here I breathed free, surrounded by the sights, smells, sound and the utter (dearly loved, dearly missed) chaos. Serangoon Road is serendipity indeed, a nucleus of the promise that Singapore holds for the thousands of Vasus, Christophers, Shantis and Serenas....
Suddenly, it all makes sense. At the Night Safari, chef Mohammed (who worked for three years at Hotel President, Chennai) rustles up a quick vegetarian meal for me when he is told I am hesitant to choose anything from the 67-course buffet as I do not know what went into which...The hotel I am staying in takes special pains to ensure a copy of the overseas edition of The Hindu is delivered to my room every morning...Ricky, our driver, smiles when I tell him my car would crumble if ever I tried to top 60 plus on Chennai roads and says, ``But I am sure that has made you appreciate life more than I do...''Little acts of kindness from totally unexpected quarters....a city is after all, what its people make of it.
At Sentosa Island, after a high-decibel teen beach party, I try to make eye-contact with a Tamil-looking conservancy worker (his name badge simply identifies him as Cleaner 1) who is picking the litter off the sands where the rich kids have tossed them. He avoids looking at me, as if just by doing so, he could keep himself out of trouble's way. Does he have an ailing mother, alcoholic father, unwed sister back home who are depending on the few dolllars he earns cleaning up trash on a distant land?
I would never know.
I remember how, a few years back, I stood entranced when a blues musician strummed away on a guitar on a Toronto sidewalk. After five minutes of goosebump-inducing music, he held out his tattered hat and said, ``A few cents, please?'' There was such cool poise--SUCH DIGNITY-- in his voice. He was not asking for alms, but payment for services rendered. A great city is made out of the pride it makes its lowliest feel.
Will Valsamma ever be able to wrap her tacos with the same pride? I would never know. I never stayed long enough to find out.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sex and the city: Part I

Chennai, it seems, has suddenly become the most preferred destination for journalists from all over the country. In the last one year or so, this has become a very sex-y city indeed. Add to it a liberal a la carte' of filmy glamour and there is pretty much nothing else you will need. Your soaring circulation figures will tell the rest of the story. Little surprise then that tabloid journalism has well and truly arrived in the city.
First came the Sankaracharya story--a more perfect potboiler one could not have asked for--with its
cornucopia of religion, sex, films, murder and revenge. A journalist friend who had come down from New Delhi could not stop rubbing his hands in glee: ``This should keep us going for at least six more months.
Till now, the south (India) has been having too good a press while Mumbai and New Delhi earned the reputation of naughty metros. Time you got your due!''
Not that we did not have this do-you-know-who-did-it-and-how-with-whom style of reporting earlier. A magazine like Kumudham, for example, combined patches of serious reporting with kiss-`n-tell stuff. However, with the arrival of the eveninger Tamil Murasu on the scene, even that fig-leaf has been whisked away.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that in two out of the three instances of moral policing that have rocked the city in the past few months, the daily has played an agenda-setting role. In the Kushboo case, it initially lost the initiative to India Today and Thina Thanthi but made sure it caught up resoundingly.
In the Park case, it virtually taunted the police into raiding the hotel with its `What are you going to do now, Mr.Commissioner?" poser. So it was that Kushboo ended up skewered on the crosswires of an unholy, even cannibalesque, media feeding frenzy.
Be that as it may, is Chennai `having its due', as my journalist friend put it? In a city which is home to the world's most hang-it-all-out film industry, is sex-talk suddenly getting more open ( with all this talk of pre-marital sex/virginity/AIDS control/safe sex, if you block out the context, you could easily believe yourself to be in Bangkok and not in thayir sadham/filter kapi-loving Madras-going-on-Chennai)?
And what about this incestuous link between the `new morality' (which, the NDTV informs us, is what has taken over Chennai) and that insidious western import, keyhole journalism?
Even as I write this, Tamil Murasu has outdone itself this evening: in its latest caught-on-camera act, it has a woman journalist posing as a customer to nab a male prostitute (``I like rubbing bodies'', he says in a video clipping aired on Sun TV). The stated motto: to show that male prostitution is alive and well in Chennai. What you saw on the screen: the prominently displayed video-grab of the website offering male prostitutes (in case you did not want to miss the name).
What we read: women are asking for it these days (remember the ``Is this gender equality?'' poser which accompanied the daily's photograph of a lip-locked couple at the Park Hotel?). Tag to this the Anna University Vice Chancellor's quip that ``inappropriately'' dressed women are a threat to campus peace and
the vexatious petitions in various legal fora against Kushboo (one even said the petitioner had lost his mental peace because of her and that she was a threat to law and order) and what you see is not a city that is newly discovering its under-the-bedcovers identity but a schizophrenic metropolis torn between its wanting-to-go-global avant gardeism and a tortured socio-political legacy which preaches the one-man-one-woman ad-wobble foisted by polygamous male political leaders.
And so, more sex please, we're Tamils....

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Oops, that S word again!

Suddenly, everybody is talking sex in Tamil Nadu. Whichever place you go, there seems to be no escape from the humongously under-rated S word. More than a month after actor Kushboo unwittingly (?) rode the tiger, it is as if people cannot stop talking about whether or not PMS (pre-marital sex!! no punning intended) is part of Tamil culture.
Ironical indeed, coming from a population which has been almost single-handedly raised on a staple diet of bawdiliciously lewd Kollywood lyrics which foregrounded PMS in all its
here-today, gone-tomorrow suggestiveness. Remember *Kalyaanandhan kattikittu odi polaama's' `thaaliayadhaan kattikittu pethukalaama, illa pillai kutti pethukittu kattikalaama'? (For the uninitiated, this translates something like `shall we tie the knot before begetting children or shall we beget children before...well, you get the picture). Now, go beat that in the PMS stakes! And to think that this was the song on every Kandasamy, Munusamy and Palanisamy's lips till not long ago...
Well, what has gone wrong...(or is it right)? Just this: sex sells and nothing sells like sex.
And more so, when a woman is caught at the wrong end of this bottomline. It WOULD be interesting, wouldn't it, to see how the circulation figures of those vernacular dailies which spearheaded this new talkathon changed in those days they published the latest episode of the burn-Kushboo-at-the-stakes soap opera.
I should also tell you perhaps of the double whammy I have been facing ever since this thing surfaced. People think just because you are a woman journalist, they can ask you questions they would not have dared ask another woman. They expect you to
have too thick a hide that you are supposed to answer even the most supercilious questions with a smile (``You ask others uncomfortable questions...what's with you when you are faced with some yourself?'')
A few days back, I received this rather interesting series of SMS-es from a male journo who-- don't hold your breath--belongs to the liberal Left. ``What is your stand on the Kushboo issue?,'' the first one wanted to know. Too tired by then of having repeated the answer ad nauseum over the past few days, I nevertheless messaged back. The next one was more direct: ``Do you approve of PMS?'' Another reply sent. Then came the bouncer:
``Would you do it yourself?'' Oh, well?
So, that's it much for this libertarianarism. All it means is this: a woman is nothing but the sum total of her sexuality. As long as she is perceived to be liberated, she is game for anything and you can hit her where it hurts most. She asked for it, didn't she, so don't leave her alone, just spear her till she moans in pain. Then put her on show and watch the audience self-pleasure itself and climax.
In the end it is all about communal self-pleasuring....

To begin with....

Never imagined I would get into this as quickly as I seem to have done. Where do I start? How do I go on? In a littany of voices, how I do raise mine loud enough to be heard? One thing though...they forgot to put in a `stop' button when they made me. So, here I am, in a corner of my own, trying to collapse the world into a single illuminated computer screen, revving up for something which I am yet to snatch on to, but terribly, wonderously, Potteresquely, excited...