Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Stepford comes to Pune

If Mumbai has it, then Pune wants it too.
Ok, we don’t have stable electricity, orderly traffic, or even a world-famous dabba-delivery network.
And our public transport sucks. But hey, there are more important things! And if Mumbai’s nanga-panga store mannequins are being recalled – we must dump ours too.
Apparently, Mumbai men have been spurred on by lingerie-clad mannequins to commit unspeakable acts against Mumbai women, and we Pune women had better be careful it doesn’t start here too.
Out with the mannequins!
The female mannequins, that is. No bad things will ever happen if the male mannequins stay on, continuing to grace city chaddi-banian store windows with their faux manhood. The most extreme public nuisance any male mannequin could ever have the power to inspire is a wrinkled nose and mild tremor of disgust from a woman whose glance happens, entirely by accident of course, to settle briefly on the slight swelling the male-mannequin sculptor might have indulged his mine-is-bigger-than-yours aesthetic to secretly pad into the underwear.
So, let the fibreglass men stay. They are not a dastardly danger. But the women have got to go!
Besides, we never did like them, did we? There’s something about a female store mannequin that calls to mind the Stepford Wife. Stepford, of course, is that fictional town in America where the men somehow developed the technology to convert their wives into robots. Ahhhh – what a perfect dream! A beautiful woman who scrubs and cleans the home, cooks delectable gourmet food, and drives the children (having skillfully produced one of each kind) to their tennis and taekwondo lessons, an unwrinkled brow and welcoming smile adorning her face all the while. She never, ever, feels angry or disappointed or tired or frustrated or bitter. And at night … ah, night! But alas, ‘decency’ compels me to stay silent on the subject of what transpires at night. Night, of course, is when the mannequins’ charm becomes most active. At night men, driven wild with desire by their shiny plastic skin, their coarse acrylic hair, and certain sharply-pointed body parts (which ‘modesty’ prevents me from naming), will be out lurking with intent to attack real women.
The Mumbai corporator responsible for setting off this chain of events apparently feels that scantily-clad female mannequins are an affront to dignity and are likely to deprave, corrupt, or injure the public morality or morals.
I agree!
Real women have soft, and often slightly swollen, bellies. Real women do not have mathematical proportions. Real women change their facial expressions frequently. Real women often look messy. And real women are frightened of mannequins.
Yes – that’s the truth. In 2009, Journal of Consumer Research published research which showed that a woman’s self-esteem is directly related to the kind of models they are exposed to. The researchers ended their paper by recommending that overweight consumers avoid women’s magazines.
Maybe if the BMC had been in charge, they would have recommended women’s magazines being banned instead. And maybe if those researchers had been in charge, they would have recommended that men inclined to commit crimes against women should be locked up so that they could avoid lingerie-clad store mannequins.
So, let’s not bring our sons up to respect women. Let’s not bring our daughters up to respect themselves. Let’s tell them that they don’t really need to work hard and be sincere – all they need is an MBA from one of our city’s ‘renowned’ institutes, and their lives will be fun forever. In fact, let’s not worry about garbage collection, water harvesting, cleaning up our river, or creating affinity for social justice or a rule of law. Let’s just remove female store mannequins. That should solve all our problems.
first appeared as If Mumbai has it, then neighbour Pune wants it too in Pune Mirror on 4 June 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Three-day laugh fest

I remember how much we wept when we left school! The thought of leaving each other forever was unbearably painful. Would it have helped if we could have looked 36 years ahead in time and seen ourselves happily posing together in front of the clock tower, striding up the slope from flag staff, inspecting the Red Fort dormitories that had been our bedrooms for so many years – and even, wonder of wonders, sitting and cheekily sipping tea in the HMs office? Perhaps not; it’s unlikely we could have identified with the glamorous aunties life’s benign transformation had wrought.
There were seven of us. It was not Founders, it was not a planned batch reunion. Some things just fall into place. We had contacted the HM a few days before – imagine, a Lawrence School HM on facebook! – and received a courteous invitation to lunch in the Senior School dining room. We were ecstatic, perhaps also a trifle giddyheaded, and it was like stepping into a wardrobe and suddenly finding yourself in a land as dear and familiar to you as it was peculiar and incomprehensible to others.
What pleased us most was the smiling welcome we got. Teachers, admin staff, students alike treated us like honoured guests. When we expressed a desire for chota buns we were indulged with a tray full, a second serving, and then a large parcel of that rare unmatched delicacy from the past. A teacher escorted us patiently around Girls’ School. Stately Nithya – we were children together, yes, 1977 was a good year – showed us around the archives.
What a surprise to find a friend and fellow OL, Rohan Sabharwal, living in school for a few months to set up a media cell! And what a delight to be mistaken for his batchmate – dear Rohan, abject apologies, but one day you will understand the CT of being thought two decades younger than you are! Yes – all the old slang came back. We were ‘dames’, we went to the ‘beach’, but sadly we never got round to ‘chroming’ on the banks. Time was short so we never ‘sent over’ or ‘chopped’ anyone but really, the tension between the strictly segregated sexes was flagrant – even to us at the far end of the hormonal spectrum.
A visit to school is not just an excursion into nostalgia, it’s also a pilgrimage, an offering of gratitude to the teachers who shaped the way we think and inculcated in us our attention to detail, and our constant striving for knowledge and concrete achievement. (Even the ones who unabashedly brandished their ugly sides at us surely gave us something good though at this moment I can’t think what exactly!) And we sang the old songs again, this time with an awareness of what they meant, and how these powerful words had implanted in us the power and the will to win! It was a 3-day Laugh Fest sincerely recommended to all.
first appeared in The Lawrencian Mar-Apr 2013

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quintessential entrepreneur

When Satpal Malhotra breathed his last on 23 July 2013, it was the end of a beautiful journey, notable in many ways. His life had spikes of drama and calamity, but it was consistent in certain features: high achievement both materially and spiritually, great love given and received, and the deepest commitment to responsibility.
SP Malhotra, as he was widely known, was born on 22 May 1927 and grew up in Rawalpindi, where his father ran a household goods store and flourishing auction business. When his father died, he was only sixteen years old, and he stepped bravely into his role as head of the family. His entrepreneurial abilities, evident even at this tender age, soon resulted in remarkable business success.
Sadly, fresh tragedy lay in store. The young Satpal lost his beloved mother when he was just nineteen. The following year, Independence and Partition put him and his family on the wrong side of the new border. Fleeing a riot-torn Rawalpindi, he arrived in Delhi, dazed and disbelieving at the turn of events, anonymous in the huge influx of refugees, penniless, and grateful to be alive.
After a few weeks of travelling to various places in India in search of a new home, he stopped looking the day he arrived in a small town which had much that reminded him of his hometown of Pindi. It was 13 November 1947.
Pune in those days was still a small, slow-paced town, well known for its excellent climate and cultured people. Satpal Malhotra, along with his little brothers Bahri and Harish, were among the early settlers who brought new dimensions to it. Most significant of these was the spirit of enterprise. Starting with nothing, SP Malhotra built up his company Weikfield in the dark era of India’s license raj. A landmark on the Nagar Road for decades, it was also a brand that carried sweet memories of family treats of custard and trifle to an entire generation.
SP Malhotra was the quintessential entrepreneur. The most inspiring phrase I heard from him, a man of wealth and position willing to face any trial of life with courage, was: “So what if I lose everything! I can always buy a cart and sell bananas.”
Above and beyond this was his love and commitment to his family. They were his world. His brother Bahri, the face of Weikfield and perhaps better known than SP himself, worked side by side with him with utmost respect and devotion. Through all the years and changes in his life, the memory of his love for his parents remained fresh in his heart. Perhaps it was this which took him back to Rawalpindi, to visit his childhood home. Perhaps it was this which made him a constant crusader for peace between India and Pakistan.
SP Malhotra is survived by his wife Rajinder, his sons Mukesh, Puneet, Ashwini, and his daughters Urvashi and Pooja. As a young bride, Rajinder reared SP’s little brothers as her own children. In his autobiography he writes, “Jinder came into my life with a quiet warmth which has continued to grow. As the years have passed, her magnificent inner beauty has also grown day by day. And she has stood by my side every step of the way, hardworking, self-denying, utterly practical, consolidating all that I have built, growing together from childhood to adulthood, and stepping gracefully and comfortably with me into old age.”
While SP Malhotra’s sons have ably multiplied his business and assets, his two daughters have honoured his legacy by achieving exceptional success in their chosen fields of education and art respectively.
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 6 May 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Survivors

What distinct mannerisms would you attach to a Sindhi person?
Hindu Sindhis settled in different parts of not just India but many countries in every continent. They have assimilated into these communities so well that few have retained the distinctive mannerisms that came out of Sindh. I doubt there are many who even remember the once-famous bhundo, a hand movement that denoted a terrible, irrevocable curse!
One generalisation I could offer is that many Sindhis are extremely emotional, quick to expressions of joy and sorrow often so overwhelming that it obscures their communication. However, despite rising easily to anger, they abhor violence.
Can you give us some insight into Sindhi literature?
For centuries, Sindh was a land of wandering mystics. Some of their poetry and music lives on, embodying the romance of human existence. One of the most famous is Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Contemporary Sindhi writers, both in India and Sindh, continue to be dedicated to secular ideals and passion for their land. A recent book I’d recommend is a collection of short stories, Unbordered Memories, translated by Rita Kothari.
Do you think their distinct history has an impact on their community in India?
No, in fact it is almost all forgotten. It was glimpses of this fascinating past that led me to expand what I started as a family project to a mainstream book.
What can be said with respect to their business acumen (They were pretty much stable economically, even after they were displaced).
Most of them were left absolutely penniless when they migrated after Partition. It was dedication to their single-minded goal to get back on their feet that led them to explore every opportunity that came their way. This tremendous energy emerged as enterprise and creativity. Backed by unrelenting hard work, it led to success not just in business but in every area they worked – the bureaucracy, the corporate world, and the range of professional fields.
Tell us something about your culture. How do you keep in touch with your culture?
My brother and I are an ethnic minority so rare that there were just two of us! Our father was from another community, and we grew up in a tiny, isolated place in a third region. We went to boarding school and grew up to be goal oriented, achievement oriented, attentive to detail, welcoming of challenges, and to crave new exposure and learning. I keep in touch with ‘my’ culture by reading, writing, travelling, and staying in constant touch with my friends. After writing my book, I realised that many Sindhis of my generation, even those with direct exposure to Sindhi culture, feel equally alienated from the community.
Is the Sindhi culture facing a silent erosion? Are the traditions still given importance in Sindhi families?
Sindh is a geographically isolated province, and was exposed to many races of invaders which influenced the creation of a unique culture. The capricious course of the river Indus bred a people equipped to deal with swift change.
At Partition, most of the Hindus who settled outside Sindh were leaving the province for the first time. In their new homes, nobody could understand their language. They had to learn to write in the opposite direction to what they were used to! From that raw, vulnerable position, Sindhis have integrated so seamlessly into the communities in which they live that their magnificent feat lies forgotten. I would call it a deliberate dissociation, not a silent erosion. Few passed on their language and traditions. Those who have worked to revive them have often done so with primarily political agendas. Few have been successful. The only exception is that many Sindhi homes continue to cook a few traditional staples.
Tell us about Sindhis who you idolise
My first role-model was Dr Hiru Bijlani, one of my mother’s younger brothers. From a simple family background, he rose to eminence materially, intellectually and socially, with nothing but hard work and enterprise. What I admire most about him and have always tried to emulate is his commitment to the extended family – a very strong Sindhi characteristic.
Another Sindhi I admire is PP Chhabria, founder and chairman of Finolex. When I worked with him to write his memoirs, he was 78 and still thrusting ahead in business with enormous new projects. An epitome of humility and straightforward communication, he rose to his position with no money, no contacts, and no education. One of the things I remember about our association is that this extremely busy person with so many commitments and responsibilities never made me wait even five minutes for an appointment.
A younger Sindhi high on my list is Nandita Bhavnani, writer and researcher on the Sindhis – an extremely capable and helpful person without whom I would never have been able to write my book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland.
Another Sindhi I idolise I have never met, but read about in an email written by a reader I don’t know and forwarded to me by the person who gifted her my book. She apparently grew up in Calcutta and wrote about a Sindhi sari seller, soon after Partition, from whom her mother bought beautiful saris. He was a very nice, soft-spoken person and her mother would offer him a cup of tea when he came. One day he said, to her mother’s surprise, that this would be his last visit. And then it all came out. He was a skin specialist and had left Sindh with his wife and mother with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Trading in saris and living simply, he had now saved up enough money to buy a practice with a leading Calcutta skin specialist. I believe there are hundreds of thousands like this gentleman – unseen, unheard, the gems of society.
Are there sub-sections in the community? How different are they and what are their traits?
The two main divisions are Amils and Bhaibands. In previous times, the Amils were educated and worked in the administration while Bhaibands were committed to family businesses. Although these distinctions are still drawn, after Partition, any number of Amils went into business while their Bhaiband counterparts were getting educated and taking up professions. Besides this, some Sindhis identify themselves with the towns of their ancestors and are Shikarpuri or Sahiti; from Ubauro or Larkana; some are Bhatias from Thatta, and so on. Across the board, they tend to be hard working and focused. Sindhis also tend to be highly socially competitive and each of these sub-communities invariably considers itself far superior to all the others.
Can you give us an insight about Sindhis living outside India and Pakistan?
They are integrated, essential part of their communities, and their contributions are immense. While they may have originally settled there for business, future generations are integrated into mainstream life and work in a spectrum of occupations.
Tell us about Sindhis in arts and literature.  
Sindhis are an extremely creative people, and they used this trait to build beautiful new lives for themselves after Partition. The third and now fourth generations have ventured into the arts. Many have underplayed their Sindhi-ness, perhaps because they do not feel particularly Sindhi, or perhaps to avoid the stigma that dogs the community – despite all their contributions in education, healthcare, philanthropy – of being single-mindedly shrewd and calculating. As a teeny-meeny example: Ekta Kapoor, Karan Johar, Anand Patwardhan – all have Sindhi mothers.
This interview was given to Society magazine and parts of it were used in the cover story in the May 2013 issue.

Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland reviewed in JetWings magazine

Loved, Lost, Revived: A book review in JetWings magazine on 1 May 2013

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Interview in The News, Pakistan by Rumana Husain

Q 1. What are your observations about the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF)?
I enjoyed it very much and found it on par with similar events in Jaipur and Hay-on-Wye in terms of content, infrastructure, location and general feel. One difference I noticed was that every session ended in a political discussion.
As an Indian visiting Pakistan for the first time, I was struck by the enthusiastic participation at all levels – there was a strong sense that this festival was important to those attending. It made me wish that more people in the world could see this side of Pakistan.
Q 2. Your book documents ‘a lost homeland’ for the Sindhi Hindus who migrated to India at the time of Partition. How did you go about gathering information and researching a place you had never visited before?
To me, growing up with a Sindhi mother and Sindhi relatives, Sindh did not actually exist. So when I started talking to my mother, it was like exploring a dreamland. Looking back, I think it’s good that while I was writing I did not have the perspective I now have, after visiting. I may not have been able to keep the new ideas out and that could have diluted my stories.
Q 3. Many of those who migrated to India never turned back to visit Sindh. Surely they could not have remained emotionally removed and alienated from all their friends and acquaintances (Hindus and Muslims) who stayed behind in Sindh, even if they claimed to have ‘moved on’ upon their migration to India after August 1947. Your comments please.
As a child with a Sindhi mother and grandparents, I never (ever!) sensed that an enormous part of their lives was so completely masked. That is partly due to my insensitivity, but also because they turned away from it so resolutely. They never spoke of it. There was no visible yearning for what they had lost; not even plain descriptions of the place which I have now realised was so very special.
In the process of writing this book, however, I did meet people who spoke of Sindh with longing. They did indeed remember the ones they had left behind and still missed them, even now. All the time I was writing this book, I had a feeling of searing regret that I could never ask my grandparents about how their lives had been back then, what they had gone through, and how they moved on and became the people that I knew.
On the other hand, as someone who has, at an individual level, left my past behind more than once, and moved on fully focussed on the future, I wonder whether it is a skill I learnt from them – or just the ability of ordinary human beings to adapt to changed circumstances.
Q 4. You visited your mother’s and grandparents’ hometown, Hyderabad, in Sindh. How was that experience? Did you feel any connection with the place? What were your general observations about Hyderabad? Did you visit any other place in Sindh?
If anyone had told me this was going to happen as recently as two years ago, I would never have believed it! This was the most unlikely – and most important – journey I have ever made, somewhat like a trip to the moon, or a visit to Harry Potter’s Platform Nine and Three-quarters. Yes – I did feel a connection with the place, and the keen awareness of being the first person in the family to go back. I was thinking of my grandparents, my mother, her siblings and cousins all the while, wanting to share the experience with them.
We drove in from Kotri, on the same bridge that my mother and uncle described to me when I interviewed them for my book. But they had described a great, gushing, river quite different from what I saw. I knew things would be different – the world has changed, no place is the same as it was 65 years ago. But a lot was the same too – the ruins of the fort on the hill are surely the same that my mother could see from her childhood home. We ate rabri at Gadi Khato and surely that couldn’t have tasted much different back then! My great-grandfather was station master at Hyderabad railway station some time between 1900 and 1906. We were received with great courtesy by Sagheer-ud-Din, the present Station Superintendent. I could see furniture in an inner room that must have been there in my great-grandfather’s time.
Zulifiqar Halepoto hosted a reception for us in his home and invited a number of writers and it was an honour meeting and interacting with them. I was tickled at their amazement that someone who grew up in a tiny, isolated place far away in south India had written something this book!
My husband and I turned vegetarian a few years ago and are quite used to travelling to places where meat is the main food and happy to eat bread with a side dish. But they had taken a lot of trouble to prepare a vegetarian banquet and we were very touched.
Q 5.  This was your first ever visit to Pakistan. Before arriving in Karachi for the KLF, what did you expect the city to be like? Did it seem similar or different to what you expected?
 I had been told that Karachi is just like Bombay. In fact I saw nothing of the crowd, grime, and bustle which to me characterize Bombay. I felt it was more like Delhi or even my city Pune, in terms of being spread out and laidback, and all the flowering plants. I was thrilled to see how beautifully your heritage buildings are maintained and impressed by the standards of efficiency and aesthetics at the new dining places. But taken one scene at a time, most dominant was the impression of never having left home.
Q 6. Your husband and daughters accompanied you here. How did they find Karachi and Pakistanis in general?
They absolutely loved it! One of the things they noticed with surprise is that there is more courtesy on the Pakistani roads than we are used to. The road engineering design is better than in an Indian city.
The impact of Bollywood means that you know our pop culture but we know nothing of yours. So we had no idea that our short kurtas would be outlandish and we should instead have been wearing long ones with plain front and print at the back! It also meant that our friends knew the tune of the Indian national anthem. (We made sure we became familiar with the Pak one too!)
It was a new experience to be in a country where organised religion is relevant for non-political reasons. And we were surprised to learn that muggings and killings are more common occurrences than sexual assaults.
The girls met and became friends with politically inclined people who wanted to be part of the system – not that common in India. In general we met young people who were more politically conscious than privileged youngsters in India tend to be.
I should also say that there was a list of places we had planned to visit – but we never got round to because the focus was on spending time with newly-made friends. And we were so overwhelmed with affection from them that there was a tangible pain of separation – I believe ‘partition pangs’ is the technical term!
Q 7. You are a writer, author, columnist, artist, mother, wife… do you have to juggle a lot in order to balance all these roles? What is a typical day for you back at home in Pune?
No juggling really – my priorities have always been very simple and it’s only now that I can spend all day reading and writing, or travel whenever I want. When my children were growing up, and in the years my father was ailing, I did my columns and painting commissions strictly when they didn’t need me. I always boast that my biggest career achievement is that when the school bus came home, I was always there!

Monday, January 28, 2013