Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lest we forget.....

They said she was barely four months old when they first saw her. The great wave had tossed her into a bramble shrub. There were thorns in her hair and scratches on her face.

Of her parents, there was no trace. Two days later, they found her brother who had sought shelter with a neighbour.

Today, Abhinaya is everybody’s darling. At the Cuddalore government orphanage, she is the prima donna. She is perhaps the most written about tsunami orphan in Tamil Nadu. When I first saw her, she was so fascinated by the camera of the photographer who accompanied me that she would let out a loud joyous cry every time the flash bulb popped. A child’s simple joy and behind it the greatest tragedy of our times.

One feels apologetic to write about the tsunami by simply saying, `Two years have passed….’

For me, it was a personal journey of self-discovery that took me to every godforsaken tsunami hamlet in the State, relentlessly looking for scraps of human dignity among survivors. My well-intentioned, but still-born blog notwithstanding, one day I hope to come terms with those memories which, for all of us journalists who were doing the rounds then, will be a curse we will have to bear till the end.

How does one come to terms, for example, with the memory of firemen pulling out from the sand near the Marina the bodies of six boys, who had been buried head first, and who had been playing boisterous street cricket when their lives ended?

Or a rescue worker in Cuddalore quietly carrying what appeared to be a white gunny sack and when you drew close, you found it was the wave-bleached body of a five-year old girl in a lace frock?

Or the surreal scene at the Velankanni shrine where, under all that Christmassy-glitter of the little coloured lamps strung across the shamiana, nearly two thousand bodies lay? Some of them had come from as far as Orissa and had to be buried almost immediately because their corpses had started falling apart.

Or the memory of the bleakness in eight-year-old Vigneswari’s eyes when she said her wave-dead father--a fisherman in Nagapattinam-- had promised her a gift for her birthday but now she did not have anybody who would ever buy her a gift?

Or the Christ-like stoicism of fisherman Victor in Akkaraipettai who, though both his children were still missing, had gone around collecting food packets to feed other frightfully hungry children?

Or the memory of the mass grave in Kanyakumari’s Colachel? We had been told there was a children’s’ grave inside the compound of the parish church and Father Stanley had pointed us to beyond a closed gate. We reached there and found just a raised Cross on a simple, cement platform. We looked around in vain for the graves when somebody informed us that we were already standing on them.

A cold shiver shot through us. Underneath our feet, behind the cement platform, lay the bodies of nearly 150 children. They had all been brought there to rest by their parents who had held decomposing son-flesh and daughter-flesh in their hands and still retained sanity to give them a decent burial.

All one can do now is crave the blessedness of forgetting….

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Federer and friends

Were it not for the jostling, pushing, shoving, screaming, ranting--in one word, playing true to form--media men, it was almost impossible to believe that a celebrity had come visiting. Federer, however, retained poise and grace and was more than willing to play from the heart in Cuddalore.
Children, it seems, are closest to his heart and the man had the humility to admit he can still learn from them. One almost thought one would see a replay of the Brad Pitt episode, but was glad that this time the mediamen were less paparazzi-like and not so celebrity-hung up.
All they had wanted was to do their job--capture Federer and girlfriend Miroslava `Mirka’ Vavrinec with the tsunami kids--and get out but were not allowed to as the UNICEF seemed to think every newsperson was a paparazzi and did their darnedest to keep the national media away while allowing Reuters and AFP free run.
It was then that all hell broke loose and one almost feared for Federer’s safety as the policemen (some of whom admitted they did not know who it was they were supposed to be protecting) seemed to enjoy the free-for-all. ``We will not let Federer get out of Cuddalore", yelled one scribe while another vowed he would snatch the Reuters/AFP cameras and break them to pieces.
"You are trying to sell photographs of our kids to newspapers abroad to grease your slimy fingers and raise money,’’ one said.
Finally, all was well that ended well. Am not a Federer fan at the best of times--am more the Stefan Edberg/Pete Sampras kind, with a dash of Agassi--but must say the children were taken in by his transparent earnestness and touching honesty and responded with a spontaneity only kids can muster.
``Do you speak Tamil?’’ one asked, "Have you seen Rajinikant movies?’’ another wondered and "Will you buy me a mithai?’’ one cajoled.
Little Abhinaya--by now almost iconic among the tsunami orphans, more about her in the next post--blew him a kiss and Federer was thrilled to bits.
Managed to get some cute pix. Will post them soon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The strange case of Santhi Soundarajan

Those of us who thought vultures were becoming extinct, needn't have worried: seems they have morphed into camera-toting newsmen, feeding off the last morsel of flesh. Vultures, may they forgive us, are noble birds and, am sure, have more finesse in them than what was on display when Santhi surfaced at the Tamil Nadu Secretariat.
Was not there myself but colleagues said Santhi, praise be to her, retained her composure and did not break down, even when the questions grew carrion-esque: ``The tests said you do not appear to be a woman....so what are you?" and "How does it feel to be called not-a-woman?"
And the headlines reeked of rotten flesh too: ``State government stands by shamed Santhi"/``Dude looks like a lady"/ "Middle distance runner caught in middlesex controversy"
There was even more blood-letting elsewhere: ``Indian runner Santhi Soundarajan has failed a gender test. Could this be a cause of global warming?" somebody asked on Yahoo!answers.
What were not asked were questions about the politics of testing for gender and personal identities.
Does "having more Y chromosomes than you are allowed" make one less of a woman, though Santhi was born a woman, lived a woman and almost never underwent a sex change surgery? If, as one vernacular daily claimed, she had never attained puberty, is she gender-challenged? For laughing out loud!
And pray, what exactly are `secondary sexual characteristics of a woman?' If a battery of gynaceologists, endocrinologists and hemotologists decrees that one is not woman-enough because of a fluky chromosome, then does it negate all those painful years Santhi went through, overcoming hellish odds, to get where she is? For pity's sake, and this in the age of post-Germaine Greer?
Somewhere along the way, there were helpful hints too: that Santhi could be the victim of malnutrition as she grew up amidst a very Indian poverty that suppressed certain gender manifestations. Santhi could most certainly not have competed with men and won, so how does one set standards for being a woman athlete? So, what happens if, for example, a male athlete fails a gender test (there are NO such tests for men, one is told) and is told he hits neuter-ground?
Amidst all this, Santhi has found support at home turf.. When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi,before honouring her, asked her if her conscience was clear, Santhi replied with a simple, yet profound, `Yes.'
A lesser woman would have crumbled.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dolce vita!

Caught Russell Crowe in action in Rome....or rather a pathetic apology for him. A gladiator with a tattered gown, whose only sustenance for the day was a haggard cheroot which he kept drawing on whenever he could take a break from being killed.

A sobering snapshot just outside the awesome Colosseum. A reminder of how history pays, even today. When the boy in the picture had his fill of the sword and moved away, the man turned towards us and offered to get killed by us too. The kill would have cost us ten bucks. We move away, deeply insulted.
This is how Rome reinvents history, in very public spaces where Euro-wary tourists attempt to take back home vignettes of one of the world's bloodiest arenas. Sinatra would have loved the situational humour.
Elsewhere in other remote and forgotten corners, you find illegally-staying-on Bangladeshi hawkers littering pavements like discarded confetti. In one of the world's most culturally alive cities, the disowned migrant exists in a closed-out corner where neither tourist cameras nor the long arm of law can reach. The law knows they are there, but doesnt bother too much: the big city feeds on their horribly underpaid services for peddling its time-machine-ness.
But then there are the smart ones too: we come across one such, a Pakistani Big Boss who runs an umbrella store in one of the streets leading to Roma Centrale. Almost all of them under his employ are fellow Asians and living on in Rome illegally as unlike other European cities, the policia here leaves them alone. Every morning, they fan out across the city, selling everything from umbrellas to salted acorns, returning home at night to the memories of families that exist in an unreachable corner of the world.
You search in vain for their smiles, but find instead only the dark misery of a bottomless cavity.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Um...Hmmm...a blogger's block and why I am running out of excuses

Yes, and a reason why I am unable to sustain the initial momentum I started out with on this blog.
To blog or not, is a question that every blogger has to grapple with sooner or later. I guess mine is now.
My blogger's block is growing by the moment and believe me, it aint no fun to see others racing ahead.
I guess it happens to most of us most of the time. In my case, just put it down to a whole U-turn my life took in a short span of just six months....a new responsibility, a new person in my life, a whole new role which I try my darnedst to make sense of.
Will be back soon (though no one seems to be missing me as yet--sigh!) with a bigger, better, brighter me. And knowing me, soon may just as well be tomorrow!
I sign off, for the moment, in peace.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Home is where etc, etc: A Srirangam story

Went home after what seems like an eternity. Went to Srirangam. A place I hold so close to my heart that it has withstood all my bravura about being a failed atheist.
Never knew a homecoming would turn out to be a soul-therapy. All it needed was for me to take one look at the steamily dirty Cauvery to get this all's-well-with-the-world-and-god's-in-his-heaven kinda feel. Human floatsam and jetsam can never ever sully a great river. And she is the greatest there ever was...
Be that as it may, it is the town itself that gives me this time-machine experience every time I set foot there. True, one sees the same semi-cartoonish vertical vertigo that every little town goes through: where there were once sprawling naalu-adukku houses complete with a mitham, thinnai, vennir-ul and saami-room, all you now have are ugly pigeon holed apartments.
The real surprise of the town, however, lies protected in the womb of the temple, inside a small shrine near the sanctum sanctorum, around the magical-realist legend of Surathani, the daughter of Sultan Malik Kafur (1310-1311 AD) of Delhi.
Without sounding docu-drama-ish, the legend of Surathani (or Bibi Nachiyar as she is known) is perhaps one of the best examples of `secularism' (oh, that awfully-bandied, vilely-abused word!) that is cast in stone in what is considered to be the foremost Vaishnavite shrine in the country.
In a nutshell: when Kafur's men invaded Srirangam, they raided the ancient temple and carried with them the idol of the main deity--Ranganatha--as war keepsake to Delhi. So entranced was Surathani by the beauty of the idol that she refused to part with it. Following an appeal by devotees, Kafur decided to return the idol to Srirangam, but had not reckoned with his daughter who followed the idol all the way down south. Upon arrival, she prostrated before the sanctum sanctorum and died almost immediately. Till today, she retains her Muslim identity in an all-Vaishnavite temple and accepts only rotis as prasadam.
Not that the legend--or what we know of it today--is blemish-free.
But then what is a legend without some leeway?
A few years back, when I recited this legend to a gender studies researcher from the University of Pennsylvania--who had come down all the way to Tamil Nadu to do, of all things, a research piece on Avvayar--she chortled: ``Sub-ordination of the feminine! An extension of the Andal, Meera, Radha etc, etc concepts to a Muslim princess to prove the superiority of a male Hindu god.'' Hunh?
Maybe the Surathani legend was a construct of patriarchy, maybe the princess herself would have been none too happy to be thought of as a dim-witted, obsessed thulakachi.
But, the legend doesnt end there: thinking his daughter had been done to death by the devotees, an enraged Kafur once again ordered the invasion of the temple and what followed was perhaps the bloodiest period in the temple's history: the deity himself had to go underground, the temple was shut up and 13,000 devotees died in protecting the temple from the invaders. For nearly six generations, only a ghostly sliver of glory.
Sounds familiar, doesnt it, this vengeance-is-mine twist to the tale?
Whatever, when all else has been reduced to rubble and dust, legends will still rule the world and perhaps the princess will have the last laugh...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Stung by the camera

Even at the best of times, am no admirer of kamikaze-style television journalism, having seen at disgustingly close quarters the near-cannibalism of some members of this tribe. If you have ever seen a chirpy young, brilliant-smile-in-place teevee anchor ad lib her piece into the camera minutes after she has tried, in vain, to grab a `byte' from a mother who has just buried the bloated corpse of her child with her own hands, then you too would know what I mean.
Am speaking of post-tsunami Nagapattinam and have no intention of sounding holier-than-thou. You've gotta been there, is all I can say.

It needed Times Now TV's Dhanya Rajendran to change that perception. It needed her kind of guts, presence of mind and sensitivity to try and crack the web of nepotism and cheapstaking that one of the oldest universities in the country seems to have fallen prey to.
Where others where thrusting cameras through bedroom keyholes, DR dared to turn it on to an issue that involved the future of lakhs of students.
Not that the varsity suffered a major shake-up after this. If anything, the wheeling-dealing seems to have only gone underground and more acrimonious. The behemoth bungles on.
But then, in the likes of Dhanya rests the future of teevee journalism. And I have never felt prouder in calling anybody `friend' than I do her.
Her stunner may not have created the kind of ripples that one would legitimately expect it to: had this been, say, the Delhi University or even a third-rung north Indian university, then hell-breaking-loose would have sounded quite mild. Despite a high-level DVAC probe and two
employees in the slammer, Dhanya's painstaking work seems not to have made it to the big league yet.
All the more is the pity. But then, she's still around...

Does getting hate mail mean....

...you have arrived? If so, then friends, fellow-bloggers and all ye those who have cared to stop by in the past few months since I stumbled onto the infinitesmous blogosphere: ergo, yours truly is truly here and how!
A particular gent (why am I so sure it is a gent? I simply know, that's all) seems to have been so comprehensively offended by my post on Kushboo and the moral police that he has been shaken and stirred enough to fill my comment box with spite-posts at regular intervals. And he seems to have inspired a couple of others too--or is it him doing the Anniyan-thing?

Have never really believed in comment moderation on a blog but the venom and gross savagery in those posts has pushed me into doing something I intensely dislike. Would like to know of any other such experiences. Quo vadis?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

In my thirties and loving it...

Dunno if it is my presence that is causing them to behave this way but at least thrice in the last weeks, different sets of individuals on different occasions have wondered aloud if there was life in the thirties.
It is almost as if just by crossing the thirties threshold you have somehow abdicated your right to enjoy life. He may be just about pushing thirty, but friend and colleague Sudhish Kamath has this hangdog expression on when he sighs: ``Just eleven months to go...''. If you didnt know him better, you would have thought he was syndicating his own epitaph.
And then there is this friendly neighbourhood Anupam Kher-type upon whom I tripped one day during my morning jog. Still think it was his irritation at the way I outran him every time he tried to get in my way but he simply had to have this parting shot: ``You are thirty plus now, in a few years you will become like me (shudder! shudder!) and then you will know...''
Still again, there was this saturnine blop across the face of a fellow swimmer when she learnt I was thirty plus (somehow, me thinks, it is this plus thing that makes it even more rib-crunching) and still single: ``I am two years younger than you and my daughter is already in Std. II. What have you done with your life?'' she asked, trying to out-Hagar me.
My life, eh?
And thankfully, I am in good company: even super-successful Shashi Tharoor has had to console his fiftying genes by telling himself, ``Fifty is the new forty.'' And where does that leave me on a comparative scale?
Arundhati Roy understood when she said, ``Thirty is a viable, dieable age.''
Honestly, what is wrong with thirty? Me thinks the number has this beautiful pebble-smooth roundness about it, and suits my Meanwhile personality just fine: I can safely let myself be turned on by both Dustin Hoffman and Aggie Goldsmith.
And you dont have to worry about whether twenty is too early or forty is too late: the thirties offers you a range of possibilities for a range of things, don't ask me what.
What thinks you, reader? Wanna bet on thirties?

Monday, February 27, 2006

We are like this only...

I reproduce here, without comment, an unparalleled collection of gems which friend and fellow blogger, Mehul Kamdar, has sent in. Have to wonder, though, if anybody has ever put forward something similar in Yankee-ish:

This is a collection of leave letters and applications written by people in various places of India ...
1. At Infosys, Bangalore, an employee applied for leave as follows:
Since I have to go to my village to sell my land along with my wife, please sanction me one-week leave.

2. This is from Oracle Bangalore, from an employee who was performing the "mundan" ceremony of his 10 year old son:

"as I want to shave my son's head, please leave me for two days.."

3. Another gem from CDACLeave-letter from an employee who was performing his daughter's wedding:

``As I am marrying my daughter, please grant a week's leave.."

4.From H.A.L. Administration dept:

As my mother-in-law has expired and I am only one responsible for it, please grant me 10 days leave."

5. Another employee of HLL applied for half day leave as follows:

:"Since I've to go to the cremation ground at 10 o-clock and I may not return, please grant me half day casual leave"

6. A leave letter to Mindtree Consulting:

"I am suffering from fever, please declare one day holiday."

7. A leave letter to a headmaster:

"As I am studying in this school I am suffering from headache. I request you to leave me today"

8. Another leave letter written to another headmaster:

"As my headache is paining, please grant me leave for the day."

9. Covering note with a resume to a shipping company:

"I am enclosed herewith..."

10. Another one:

"Dear Sir: with reference to the above, please refer to my below..."

11. Actual letter written for application of leave at Ranbaxy

"My wife is suffering from sickness and as I am her only husband at home I may be granted leave".

12. Letter writing:

-"I am in well here and hope you are also in the same well."

13. A candidate's job application:"

This has reference to your advertisement calling for a ' Typist and an Accountant - Male or Female'...As I am both for the past several years and I can handle both with good experience, I am applying for the post.

Whatever, I still think any of Mehul's contributions pale before this one:Leave letter from student to teacher: ``Dear Madam, as my grandmother is suffering from romantic pains and my grandfather is no more, I have to take care of her. So, please grant me, etc. etc," Yes, you guessed right: the leave-seeker was of course speaking of granny's creaking joints: rheumatic!!!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Meanwhile....a reader's choice

A reader who says he stops by my blog every now and then has taken offence to my use of the m* word in one of my posts. The word does not need to be stated explicitly in that context when the word `self-pleasuring' would have served the purpose equally well, he says. ``Unless you want to go in for mere shock-value, I suggest you use the more tactful word,'' he says and has even threatened to stop reading my blog if I persist.
Since this is a very embryonic blog---only 368 hits in nearly three months, my merciless clicks counter tells me--that can't afford to lose any of its readers for now, I bow in deference and the word stands immediately replaced....

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A V day story

Under normal circumstances, I wouldnt have been caught dead blogging a V-day story (which is why, just to save face, I am doing this a day after).

But stranger things have been happening to me these past few weeks that make me wonder if....

Does love begin with a Chinese nose job? Or does being the world's most cantankerous millionaire also make women want to fall suicidally in love with you? I wouldnt have bothered to find out for I believe The Bard wasnt too far off the mark when he made the sanguine Prince of Denmark famously say, ``There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.''

So it was when I found my cynical edge getting blunted when a friend told me about another friend whose friend (well, you get the picture) had just been through this extra-ordinarily ordinary love story....

It all began (where else?) in a chat room where A accidentally stumbled upon C (an aspiring documentary film-maker) who was pouring his heart out about how his (self-confessedly) brilliant film on teen pregnancies was languishing for want of takers. They got talking, day after day, for nearly a whole year, without either exchanging mobile numbers or photos.

According to C, it was the singular most beautiful experience he had ever been through in his lonely 28-years and anonymity must have guaranteed a certain degree of intimacy. Very soon, he would spend the whole day in anticipation of the golden hour--5.30 p.m.--when A. would log in.

During the year, they may have even passed by each other in the market/bus stand/theatre (in true Tamil film fashion) but they would never know.

Then one day, they suddenly met. No lengthy preambles, no `shall I, shant I' fundas, just a simple `okay, lets meet.'

Now, after it is all over, C. wishes he had never suggested that: at least the beautiful fiction would have been alive.

Surprisingly for two people who had connected at the most psychic level online, the first meeting was a pathetic joke. They could never look at each other nor even know what to say to each other. So, an hour and three Cokes later, they decided to go back to where they were most comfortable with--the chat room--only to find that the magic was somehow missing.

Three months later, A. married. Two weeks after, they got back online and suddenly everything was as before. Last heard, C. is deliriously blissful: he may have lost the reality stakes but his luminescent illusion is alive.

When I heard this story first, I thought my friend was making it up. `Cyber adultery,' I remarked flippantly. But then one silent night, as I was driving back home, it occurred to me that I dont actually have to believe it. This story doesnt require a value addition in the form of third-party validation.

I dont have to meet either A. or C. to know if the story is true. In the end, it is a damn good story and that is all there is to it: a tale of bonding that has earned its right to exist due to its own sweet implausibility.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It's a woman thing

Never thought I would end up having to defend being both a woman and a cellphone user. It took a--till now unidentified--reader of my reports on the cellphone ban imposed by Anna University to educate me on why the VC is so evangelical about banishing those pesky little gadgets from anywhere near his vicinity.
Seems now like it is all about being female: A R Rahman wasn't too far off the mark with his number in the movie Indian, me thinks.
Beats Mata Hari any day, doesn't it, this slinky little seductress that snuggles so suggestively in the small of your palm?
Small wonder then that the VC wants all such feminine wiles out of his jurisdiction. Not for nothing did he put cellphones and female attire on the same footing when he, Canute-like, pronounced his diktat...
Makes sense also as to why he would have his men go on a midnight raid in university hostels...
As for me, I sent back my well-meaning reader a one-word reply that simply said `Aargh!'
So then, brace yourself for the Eve-ing of technology.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Help! An identity crisis....

This blog has trouble figuring out what it wants to be. Two months ago, it wanted to be a personal journal, kinda tell people about what it meant to be me, about where I went, who I saw,what I had for breakfast, about whether I preferred sundal-on-the-beach to coffee-at-Amethyst.In short, whether to tell the world how simply wonderful it was to be a journalist... In retrospect, all I can say now is OUCH!
I mean, who the hell cares? After all, it is not as if, simply by being a journalist, you get to wear a kind of magic spectacles that lets you see things in three/four/five-D when the rest of the lesser-evolved world has to stick to its broken fragments of looking glass. Sure, people still do think it is glamourous to be a journalist: I can tell by a certain look in people's eyes that, even when they are speaking to poor, sandpaper-skinned me, they are thinking Salam Pax. They imagine you get to go to exotic places all the time (with some poor infructuous schmuck footing all your bills), dine with the best, break bread with the powerful...in short, be all the things which their reading of John Grisham tells them journalists are. If only they knew...
Much as I wanted to, I figured I would wait a little more to let my blog be something of a kiss`n tell smorgasboard .
Then, I thought it could be made into a find-me-if-you-can Hyde Park kind of thing: you know, make it into a bulletin board for sounding off on everything that is going wrong but shouldn't.
Finally, it got to a point where my pomposity became too difficult for even me to swallow and so the idea died a deserved death...
Then someone suggested I make into a lonely hearts meeting point, where people could get together and just crib about why they never found better wives/husbands/bosses/dogs...
And I simply said, ugh...dunno if want to end up playing Freud everytime I logged in.

And so, finally, here we are...deciding where we want to get. May take me a couple of
days to make up my mind. But when we Scorpios finally do, we are pretty gung-ho about it.
Meanwhile, I am leaving you in much better company than mine....
Hearken to Calvin and Hobbes, ye folks, and ye shall never be alone...