Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Water irresponsibility

Will we ever, I wonder, learn to use fresh water responsibly? Watching taps run continuously while a man shaves or a kid brushes its teeth, I can only cringe, and ask myself “does it really take so much extra effort to turn off the tap when it is not being used?”

In fact, this is just another example of how little attention we pay to things around us, on a daily basis. Most of the people I see routinely and unconsciously wasting water are far from callous or unfeeling as a rule. In most cases they are even better than average, more sympathetic, feeling, thinking individuals. Why then this complete lack of thought where water use is concerned?

Well, its part of a larger malaise. Based in the “taken for granted” sense of entitlement of the HAVEs, the same mentality that makes middle class and affluent Indians waste food on a daily basis, makes them waste water. After all, “I can afford it”. I can buy all the food I want so I can throw away or waste masses of it everyday, I have round the clock running water so I can afford to let it run down the drain as much as I want. So who cares if I am wasting world resources in a criminal manner? So what if half the world dies of starvation and thirst? “I can afford it”. So, a couple I know actually takes pride and brags about the 1300 litres of water they use EVERYDAY!!!! To them, its an example of how clean they are, and how well off, that they can afford to pump that much water into the tanks each day.

To me, its just criminal wastage. Fresh water is already a fast depleting resource. Add to that the very thought of the people who don’t have access, and its pure crime to waste so much of it. And I am not even talking about women in The Thar who walk twelve kilometers to get water for their families. Most people don’t have the imagination or the empathy to even dream of how tough such a life must be. I am talking about people you can see around you everyday, your domestic help, slum dwellers, pavement people. Fresh, clean water is as inaccessible to them as an easy life or the gravy train.

Its strange that Indians seem so hell bent on wasting water, when traditional Indian methods of water use are actually quite conservation oriented. Bucket baths waste a lot less water than showers or bathtubs, washing clothes and utensils in a pond is much less wasteful than what my bai does with the constantly open tap while she soaps and rinses each vessel. Ponds and lakes also allow water to seep down and percolate into the ground water, another advantage of such systems.

Urban living has changed everything though, and the privileged members of rural societies have followed their leads. Because villages are so LS and so “poor y’know”, the whole focus of urban life is to get as far away from rural systems and lifestyles as possible. So, showers are de rigueur, and water bodies are just so much landfill waiting to happen so that someone can build another multi-storied complex. On the other hand, we neither care enough, nor seem to know enough, to adopt urban methods of conservation. Something as simple as turning the water off while we run the razor over the chin, brush up a storm in the mouth, or lather up while bathing, is something that doesn’t even seem to occur to us!

Overhead tanks routinely overflow and the excess runs straight into the gutter for minutes at a time, (have myself watched it happen for 40 mins in one case) before the pump is switched off. The common staircase, lounge and foyer areas in many residential societies are regularly washed with running water piped over them, when a good stick-mop, wielded well, would do just as good a job. Car owners encourage drivers to use a hose or buckets upon buckets of water to clean the cars when a hand held moistened wipe would give the same results. And no, we don’t recycle water. We do not store kitchen runoff to water the plants, we prefer to hose in good fresh water direct from the overhead tanks.

At this rate, water running out is not such a far off eventuality as most of us seem to think. And, (as I said in
Harvesting rainwater may solve some of India’s water problems) world war three may not be so far away.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Typical Situation in these Typical Times …

An embarrassment of riches, that’s what most magazines would have you believe, is the age we are living in. Everyday I read about what a great age this is, the huge number of choices we have in everything, in fact, some people are even starting to agonize over “too many choices”. A recent article in my favourite magazine spend two pages wondering if shopping was going to become traumatic soon, with one having to decide between so many options.

It makes me sad, and frankly a little disappointed, that no one has bothered to think about what “kind” of choice we have today. What we seem to have, from what I can see, is a range of options, allowing you to choose between many types and brands of only the “popular” products. This applies to every field, every walk of life, and every possible case where you may need to buy anything. And what it essentially means is that people like me, the ones who are not so fond of the “popular” stuff, and periodically (even routinely) look for “off the beaten track” things, are left totally high and dry.

Something as basic as shopping for food is a clear case in point. Of course, things are much better now, compared to the dark ages when packaged instant soups were a new idea. But the predominance of one kind of food, or the makes for it, is clearly due to the “popularity factor”.

The middle class Indian consumer has suddenly woken up to the existence of “other” kinds of food (for breakfast and ‘tiffin’ if not for a meal) than the age old staples like idli and dosa or puri and paratha. Mainly achieved through a dogged advertising for Kellogg’s, followed up recently by something horrendous called “instant pasta” (a la Maggi), the trend has resulted in a sudden increase of interest in PASTA.

However, this still does not mean that’s we have a good choice in pastas, or makes thereof. There are barely two or three brands available, a highly overpriced “international” one and some competing, cheaper, but not all that great, local brands. A couple of brands are even stocking the supermarket shelves with heretofore unheard of things like pre-made pasta sauce (mainly tomato based), brine preserved olives, olive oils, and capers.

But pasta is, more or less, as far as it goes. Although a tiny minority of stores offer Ragu, and a few have interesting vegetables (nothing more exciting than broccoli or gherkins though), by and large, if you want to experiment with food, you better be super rich.

Cheeses have made shy, tentative, baby steps into the retail scene. In places like Pune, partly because of a huge non-Indian population and partly because of a generally higher level of “tish”ness in most educated “yuppy” middle class types, things have always been a little better. Cheeses are good, cheaper than other cities, and easily available in a large variety. I think nothing of ordering yak cheese on toast at the German Bakery, or buying very, very good Emmental, Gruyere, or a robust goat cheese at the nearest ABC Farms outlet. But the rest of the country isn’t that fortunate. Recently, some chain supermarkets like Spencer’s have begun stocking processed, packaged, cheeses that go by names like Emmental or Brie, but the quality is anyone’s guess, and the pricing is frankly exorbitant. I can walk into Dorabjee’s and buy anything from balsamic vinegar to fresh cold cuts, and a million other interesting things to set my culinary imagination on fire. Less fortunate are the people who fancy good food, but must shop at Spencer’s or Big Bazaar.

When I walk into one of the many MEGASTORES for anything else though, even in hip old Pune, chances are I will be disappointed. I walk into a CROSSWORD outlet for a book I want, and not only do I not find it on the shelves, but I am in for a horrendous time. The so called book advisors, fancy name for useless counter sales people, are not just uninformed but completely incompetent. You give them the name of the book…. Total blank… author…another blank…fumble with the computer, and then…”sorry ma’am it’s not in stock”. You can supposedly order books, and they will be nice enough to get them for you. Don’t believe a word of that. The books I have ordered at Crossword, and other such stores, and never received, would fill a room!

In the past, even as recently as six or seven years ago, the pavement dwelling, second-hand bookstores usually has something to pique my interest. Now, they too, not surprisingly, have gone the way of the bigger stores. While you will find hundreds of GRISHAMs and COELHOs, choices in the matter of any offbeat title or author have become severely restricted to the point of nonexistence.

It’s the same scene with music too. One of the branches of Music World in Pune exemplified the fact by having “helpers”, or whatever they are called, not even knowing what a CCR was when I asked for it. Everyone wants the hip-hop and the bubblegum pop that is everywhere these days and the tweeny “hip” sales people have never even heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival. White Snake? Spandau Ballet? Don’t even think about it! And here I am still in the realms of fairly mainstream music, in a global sense, just going back in time. If you have any hope of finding a contemporary offbeat or underground artist still remaining in your heart, that’s just plain ridiculous. It’s NEVER gonna happen.

Yes, we do get a lot more Hollywood movies now than we did 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s still just a tiny bit of the popular stuff. Even a cursory look at the Oscar nominations every year is enough to show anyone what didn’t make it here. And the Oscars are VERY mainstream! Indie films, shoestring budget experiments from the present or the past are NEVER gonna hit the plexes. Not only that, you will not hear about them either, or find them in any store.

The only reason I get to even hear of interesting non-mainstream writers, poets, musicians, films, and film makers is thanks to my equally crazy and equally non-mainstream brother who just happens to live in Chicago. And, much as we like to think we are becoming another America, THAT’S the difference. While you are equally flooded with the mainstream and popular stuff there, you actually have a real choice, and real access to the “other” if that’s what your heart desires. No such luck in the spoiled for choices India of the 21st century I am afraid. Here, for people like me, it’s either put up with the crap or shut up about it. If it weren’t for the once a year supply of books, music, and films, and the frequent “didi you MUST see/hear/read this!” that I get from crazyuddie, I would die of intellectual starvation!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Of ritualistic torture and sadistic priests

Recent events have made me re-realise why I hate organized religion and crystallised, cast-in-stone rituals so much. The recent death, and the aftermath of that death, of a member of the family clarified the hate and disgust I feel at the blind following of “so called traditions” at the cost of human emotions and pain.

A man has lost his wife, his partner, someone he presumably cared a great deal for, with whom he had two children and a life. Two kids, an eight year old, and a four and a half year old, have lost their mother. The bottom has, literally, fallen out of their world. The last thing any of these people need is for some sadistic priest or a bunch of incredibly cruel rituals, to keep rubbing their faces in their loss. They are going to be very, very aware of what they have lost for every moment of the rest of their lives.

Yet, the Hindu religion, (not sanatandharma, but what has come to be practiced today as Hinduism), completely refuses to let them mourn, and heal, in peace! The Islamic or Christian funeral rites, with the burial-as-soon-as-possible-after-the-death-and-that’s-the-end-of-it ethos suddenly seem much more humane. Whatever public mourning and ritualistic behaviour is expected is only for a day, and then people are left alone to deal with their loss.

For the Bengali Hindu family, however, bereavement is not so simple. First of all there is the absolute horror of the “mukhagni”. Now, it is traumatic enough for an adult, to have to set fire to the body of someone they loved. How much worse for a child or an adolescent? Why is the community still practicing this tradition? And I don’t mean the orthodox stick-in-the-mud followers of everything that is prescribed. I am talking about a family that emigrated to Singapore, where the man is a shippie who has roamed the world, the woman dressed in pants and tights, they partied, they led fairly “untraditional” lives. So, why the insistence on “mukhagni?”

Personally, an electric cremation seems a lot better. Not only is it more environment friendly, what with so many less sandalwood trees to chop down, it eliminates the necessity of the man or the child having to set fire to the pyre. Its emotionally much less traumatic, and a lot less inhuman. But, that does not seem to occur to very many people, even in this day and age. We still do things just because “this is how they have always been done”. “Etai niyom” is the last and final word on the subject.

Just such logic is behind the following of the twelve days of Ashouwch. Bad enough that the family is dealing with loss and displacement, bad enough that the future looks too dark to even think about, on top of all that, they have to give up their daily routines! Psychologists will be the first to tell you that in times of trauma and upheaval, routine provides solace. It makes you feel as if some part of your life, at least, is still under control, and normal. And what does Tradition dictate? That the family give up cooked food, eat only boiled stuff, not go out, not work, sleep on mats, walk around without footwear, and a myriad other routine destroying things.

In an age when death came usually after long illnesses, attended to at home, by the family, these rules gave the family a much needed rest after the death. When contagion could only be avoided by quarantine, these rules made sure you were confined long enough for the infection to become powerless before you went back into social intercourse. Today, when hospitals do the work, and contagion is no longer such an issue, these rules merely end up disrupting normal life further, creating more trauma.

At the end of the twelve days of “uncleanness”, as if the death of your loved one is somehow a fault, a sin you must be punished for, there is the even more inhuman tradition of the “shraddh”. The man, in this case, sits down in front of a portrait of the deceased wife, decorated with garlands, and with enough incense burning to set off a dozen fire alarms, to complete the final rituals. Enter the sadistic priest. “Take a few minutes to picture her in your mind, think about her” he says, as if the man has been able to stop thinking about her, and picturing every word, every smile, every gesture of the woman who was his companion in life for one single moment in the last twelve days!

Then begins, and continues for hours, a drone of mantras that no one understands (maybe even not the priest himself, who is repeating by rote), mispronounced and meaningless in this day and age. A lot of food, clothing, bedding, etc is GIVEN to the ancestors, (read taken home in the bag by the priest) and the man is looking home and more haggard as time passes. He’s obviously had little or no sleep in the past few days, what with worrying about his future, mourning his loss, and wondering how to manage two kids and a demanding job all by himself.

On top of that, before he has had time to even imagine recoving, he has been required to put up with people coming in all the time to “offer condolences”, asking all manners of nosy questions which have only managed to make it worse for him. As if that was not enough, he is also in charge of planning and arranging a “shraddh bhoj” where a number of connected and unconnected people will be invited, and fed to the gills, supposedly in memory of the deceased. So while the poor man is dropping from exhaustion and muttering a lot of Sanskrit he understands nothing of, he is also constantly being asked for instructions by various decorators, caterers and sundry other people responsible for the feast!

My man, and my family, has strict instructions. If they waste time and energy on this, I WILL come back and haunt them for all eternity. Calculate how much this would cost, and take that money to an orphanage. Much better for the “shanti” of the “atma” in my opinion, and definitely better for the mourners (who will know they did something worthwhile in the person’s memory instead of just blindly following traditions) as well as for society in general (imagine how much good work could be done if all the money spent on shraddhs every year in India was to be channelised into social work instead).

Then comes the really awful part of the whole day. The son, the eight year old child, is made to sit down and perform certain rituals. As the kid is trying to deal with a totally unfamiliar language in which he has to repeat mantras, he has to perform strange actions, like fold his hands and point them in various directions and so on. As a result, quite naturally, he is embarrassed, and looks at his cousins and smiled. At this point, the sadistic priest tell an elder relative, sitting right there... (with mock pity) “He doesn’t understand it yet, he will soon. He will know what it is to lose a mother”. This to a child who will, for the rest of his life feel his immense and unimaginable loss at every turn! not surprisingly, the child's face fall, eyes fill, and the fleeting moment of lightness he had snatched from twelve days of hell fades away fast.

Then we have a repeat of the whole rigamarole of meaningless mumbling, and then the kids, including the four-and-a-half year old are forced to do a “pranaam” at the garlanded, incense infested photograph of their lost mother. To me, that’s just plain cruel and sadistic. The priest, obviously through making a living off other peoples’ grief, has long since lost all empathy and human fellow feelings. How then is having this person preside over some vague procedures that no one even GETS supposed to help? What is he doing, in the final reckoning, smoothening her path into “heaven” at the cost of torturing and traumatizing the people she left behind, and presumably loved?

Thanks a lot but no thanks, is all I can say. Chuck me in an “electric chulli”, give the money to an orphanage, and have a party with my loved ones. Drink yourself silly if that helps with the grief, get together and celebrate my life, talk about the good times with people who cared about me and whom I cared about. For pity’s sake don’t waste time effort and money on feeding a bunch of people whose first action, as soon as they leave, will be to criticize the “arrangements” and the “deceased”. And do not traumatise and torture my man and my kids with stuff i dont believe in performed by people who didn't know me and couldnt care a hoot about me!

Dhan-ta-naaaan Nana Nana

What a number! No, I mean it! I love the song! It’s peppy, it’s fast, it’s foot tapping, and best of all, its got my favourite combination of voice and lyrics – Sukhwinder crooning his heart out to Gulzar’s amazing verse. Good Hindi, good music, good singing. Now if only the rest of the film was as impressive.

Yes, I finally saw the much awaited (by me at least) Kaminey. Midnight show at the nearest multiplex, low priced tickets, (thank god,) and a bunch of fellow Vishaal fans; should have been the ideal recipe for a great night. There was only one hitch. Vishaal let us down.

It’s a good film. Much better than most Bolly fare. Technically it is sleek, cinematography is good, camerawork is nice, but that’s not enough to lift it out of the levels of “good” into the realms of “great”. And while this may not be a problem (I mean who wouldn’t want to be “good”) for other film makers, and their fans, I personally felt very much let down. After all, from previous experience, I have come to expect something more along the lines of international greatness from Vishaal. And this time…I didn’t get it!

Shahid was good, but no metamorphosis a la Langda Tyagi. He is merely GOOD, which he has shown ample signs of being already. So where, one couldn’t help but wonder, was the trademark Vishaal touch which transforms even competent actors into amazing thespians? He has managed somewhat with Priyanka. Heretofore never more than the regulation Bollywood Hottie with not much to do in most of her films, she has done quite a fabulous job at the “theth Marathi mulgi”. For a Punjaban to get the tone of the language down the way she has, (and I know from experience that getting the tone right is half the battle), is commendable.

The characters were half-hearted. None of them had enough screen time to develop into complete human beings for the audience. There seem to be no back stories to explain any quirks in their behaviour, and a lot of good actors are wasted (especially the three Bengali brothers). Even with the two characters Shahid plays, there seems to have been less than enough attention paid to make them rounded enough, and there are things that have been WAY overdone. Most of all the whole lisping versus stammering thing. Its overdone to the point of tears sometimes…and what begins as a smile at “main f to f bolta hun” disintegrates, by the end of the film into winces.

It also takes away from Shahid’s performance, because you can almost see how much of his attention is focused on getting the respective speech impediment straight, leaving that much less of himself to give to his acting. Priyanka’s brother, the “reminds-me-so-much-of-Raj-Thackarey-virulent-chauvinist” bhope bhau, is another character who, by the end of the film, ceases to ring true. His far from convincing metamorphosis into a wannabe gangster grasping for the diamonds is, frankly, excessive and too sudden. Not to mention the seriously badly done, very very wannabe, tarantino like shootout at the end, where (unconvincingly) everyone suddenly walks into the fray with blazing guns.

Vishaal is good, even great, but this has proved that he is no Tarantino. The almost psychedelic, hopped up on acid, mind fuck of a Tarantino gun-fight ending is something no one else seems to be able to duplicate, not even Vishaal; not even with the big budget and all the tech toys he had at his disposal this time around. My question of course is, why try? Shouldn’t Vishaal of all people, just by virtue of the fact that he is himself better than average, have been able to recognize the impossibility of replicating such a scene? After all, as a writer, good or bad, I certainly recognize the impossibility of doing a Rushdie, as a poet I recognize the sheer pointlessness of trying to do a Plath or a Sexton, don’t I?

When one has found one’s voice, one’s style, it tends to come through in pretty much all one’s work. Experiment or not, that doesn’t seem to have happened in Kaminey. The quintessential Vishaal style, the understated but very effective voice, that I am so fond of, seems to be completely absent from this film. Post half-time, especially, it was more a torture, than a pleasure, to sit through Kanimey.

Came out angry and disappointed, with the only redeeming factor of the entire evening being the low priced tickets. If I had had to pay the full multiplex price for this, I would have thrown something or hit someone. Vishaal, apparently, has recently stated that he doesn’t ever want to make another film like this. I heartily hope that he doesn’t. At the end of the day, was Kaminey DHAN TA NAAN? Na na na na!