Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Bombay Blues

The sky was brooding grey as we sat sipping organic tea at a corner table. Bombay monsoons had set in and the rains were relentless. Three friends and I had braved the flooded roads to brunch at the Pali Village Café.

We admired the chic chromatic interiors, the emerald green walls and the shimmering fairy lights that hung above us. Conversed guardedly about Thukral & Tagra’s edgy art, vintage documentaries and recent holidays.But our tête-à-tête was under the threat of turning political when Arjun pointed out, ‘There is no beef on the menu.’

Eating beef had become a punishable offence in Bombay. Fines and jail time awaited those who transgressed. But I told myself not to carry on the conversation about bans, given my opinionated flourishes. Arjun was gifted at the art of neutrality and could discuss India’s bizarre political scenario without batting an eyelid. In me though, it provoked furies.

I was there for a simple and merry meal with friends. So I didn’t bring up the right-wing BJP government’s sacred policy on cows. Nor did I mention that cow protection had top priority in BJP’s manifesto.

We ordered lamb kibbeh and asparagus stuffed aubergine rolls. And looked around the elegant room. Two expat women whispered to one another in French. Across us sat an insouciant artist, indie actors and hipster thinkers. We were among dreamers and wanderers. Ambient lounge music pirouetted in the cold air.

Life was not so bad after all, I decided, with or without braised beef.

Some personals were exchanged: Ro announced that she was marrying her American boyfriend and I said that I was contemplating having a baby. Books and films were discussed. The smutty rains acknowledged.

Then came the thorny issues.

‘They’re planning to replace the Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s chief,’ Ro said, her brows raised, ‘Only she can raise the funds the museum needs. But she’s too liberal for them.’

Ro had little patience for political interference in cultural institutions. But Bombay swarmed with far-right groups. The MNS and Shiv Sena took it upon themselves to stop all forms of modernity, including fashion shows and art nouveau, because it didn’t comply with Hindu values. Replacing the museum’s chief was on those lines.

The situation was gloomier in other cities and states. Teju mentioned the distorted histories that were taught in Gujarati schoolbooks, impressing Hindu chauvinism and prejudice against Muslims in pliable young minds.

‘The educational system must be independent of politics,’ Teju asserted.

I agreed with her and pored over the menu. Pan seared John Dory, flax seed crusted Norwegian salmon, red snapper… I shall not let the country’s political situation bother me. Middle path, I reminded myself, the Buddha’s way. I didn’t want to burst the apolitical bubble I had hid myself in. I didn’t want to untangle the moral knots in my head just then, but there was no way around it.

The Hindu nationalist government was slowly saffronizing the arts and academia. Books and films were being banned, officially and unofficially. Academician Wendy Doniger’s well-researched book, The Hindus, An Alternate History, was accused of misrepresenting Hinduism and burnt by radical Hindu outfits close to the ruling BJP. Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan’s book suffered the same fate. Theatres in India showing a Bollywood movie, PK, were attacked because the film was considered to offend Hindu sentiments. Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s Daughter, was banned as it was purported to show India in a bad light.

At IIM-Madras, a student group was banned for criticizing Modi and Hindutva. At the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the government appointed a parochial BJP member as the chairman. FTII students protested the selection for its overt ideological bias. But BJP leaders dismissed them as anti-Hindu naxals masquerading as students.

Freedom of thought and expression was being curbed.

‘Looks good,’ I mumbled unimaginatively as a waiter brought our appetizers.

A brief silence settled on our table. I eyed the chalky white plates and the delectable food. Teju texted.

Ro broke the quiet saying, ‘We discussed this last week.’ Her kohl-lined eyes opened wide as she tucked a few strands of short black hair behind her ears.

Teju and Ro exchanged a knowing glance.

‘Arjun has some interesting theories about it,’ added Teju, putting her phone away.

Arjun had not said much that afternoon. Only a sly smile appeared and vanished as we recounted the bans.

‘What theories?’ I wondered. A resurgent ideology of Hindi-Hindu supremacy was taking hold. Far-right Hindu politicians freely invented utopian narratives of the past that suit their purposes. A return to a mythical Hindu Rashtra was touted as a panacea for all socio-economic problems. Was there another way to see this?

‘But one can also gain from such absolutism,’ Arjun provoked, tilting his glass of water towards us.

I cut a piece of lamb, tentatively dabbed it in some creamy sauce and waited to hear the ensuing argument.

‘This resurgent ideology has made people look for a new aesthetic,’ Arjun announced, ‘A classical Indian aesthetic that borrows from foreign cultures on equal terms, not under colonization.’

‘Who decides what’s classical and “Indian”?’ I found myself ask, bristly.

I’m a native Tamil speaker and attempts to homogenize Indian culture bother me.

‘Most north Indian states speak Hindi,’ noted Arjun, ‘So it makes sense to evolve a Hindi-based aesthetic.’ And as his lips curled into a smile, he said: ‘Of course, regional languages should be given their due…’

I abhorred the connotations of the word: regional. India is a land of many national languages. Nobody had the right to laud one language over another. But I said nothing.

‘This situation,’ Arjun conceded skittishly, ‘Is not ideal.’

‘Fascism, more like,’ Ro avowed the exercise and folded her arms.

‘There will be a reaction to it. It will prompt radical ideas,’ reassured Arjun.

It was impossible, I realized, to meet friends and not quarrel.

This glorious age of polarized opinion commenced in the auspicious month of May 2014. The Modi wave had swept India. It was a time of pomp and nationalism and pride and spectacle. Crowds swelled to watch (the now Prime Minister) Narendra Modi speak in his charismatic best. To a country riddled with inflation, poverty and dissent, Modi offered economic magic with a good smattering of Hindutva. His party, the BJP, won 31 percent of the vote share.

All well for the system of democracy, a grand showing.

More than a year hence, Modi’s flagship campaign, Make in India, still excites businesses at home and abroad. In-bound investors sign agreements everyday and set up industry in India. Millenials are on an ascendant patriotic surge, India’s being given the respect it deserves in the international arena. But, but… I found myself getting into one of my flourishes. How could a country elect to its top post someone who had been accused of overlooking the genocide of thousands of Muslims in the state of Gujarat?


My apolitical bubble had burst by late afternoon. I was defiantly thinking away as I stood by one of Bandra’s artsy nooks waiting for a taxi.

Modi was good for India, it seemed. He understood that India needed 7-8% growth to create jobs for its billion population. The markets loved him. He vowed to do away with red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency, and took steps towards it.

I heralded a black-and-yellow and asked pointedly, ‘Chembur?’

‘Huh,’ the driver nodded and adjusted his skullcap.

I got into his utilitarian taxi. There were no overhanging monstrosities or satin curtains inside. Only his driving permit was pasted to the windshield. A lone string of prayer beads hung from the rear-view mirror.

What did he think of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, I wondered. Far-right BJP leaders were fostering a notorious exercise: the re-conversion of Muslims back to Hinduism as a way to eradicate terrorism in the country. The radical RSS Chief claimed that all Indians are Hindus.

Bringing up the 2002 Gujarat genocide was seen as passé. Especially since the courts found nothing against Modi. But Gujarat is his bastion. He and his right-hand man Amit Shah, now the BJP’s chief, prudently built an empire around industry and Hindutva. In their rise to power, they made flaming hate-speeches and promoted the RSS’ intolerant ideology. And when radical Hindus took up arms to kill Muslims in 2002, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, is said to have ordered police not to interfere. Many victims, whose families were burnt alive, who were raped, await justice. But witnesses have backtracked, died or gone missing since.

The taxi driver was quiet as he gingerly maneuvered the car among throngs of pedestrians and bikers and cart-pushers. I didn’t know enough Hindi to ask him his opinion on the matter of Hindutva, nor did he seem like one who’d answer.

Image courtesy: Instagram @sarrahm53
As the taxi sped towards home I watched the watery sun. The sea-link shimmered in the evening light. Behind it, tall, metallic buildings rose to the sky. For a minute I was caught up in the glamor of the curated urban landscape.

Bombay’s high-octane pulse never died down. Its inhabitants unabashedly flaunted their wealthy aesthetic and partook in the indulgences life offered.

Like a bolt, J_’s sure-shot voice entered my head.

‘All this nonsense Congress socialism and austerity won’t do for India,’ J_, a friend, said before the 2014 elections, ‘Indians want fast economic growth and only Modi can deliver it.’

Politics was the only topic of conversation in the sultry months of March and April 2014. There were (many of) those like J_ who were pro-Modi, and some others, like me, who were baffled by the ideological dilemmas the elections threw up. 

‘Look at what he has done with Gujarat. The state contributes to 7% of India’s GDP. He will replicate the Gujarat Model and bring enormous investment into India.’

‘But he did nothing when Hindu mobs raped Muslim women, killed children and burnt their houses, he simply let it happen,’ I’d thundered, as J_ sang praises of NaMo.

‘The Muslims deserved what they got,’ J_ fumed, ‘They raped our women and stole our power. This is a Hindu nation. They can live here as minorities if they please.’

I’d touched a personal chord, and didn’t know what to say. There he was, a person I’d known for three years, a twenty-seven-year-old who ran his family’s garment business. He lived a normal life, partied every weekend, binged on beer and slobbered over lost love. But I’d never have guessed he’d say that.

‘They’ll destroy the secular fabric of this country,’ I voiced my dread, ‘The idea of India will be lost.’

‘Secularism is a Nehruvian idea, not the idea of India,’ J_ said, ‘Anyhow, no party in India is secular.’

It was true that no party was secular. The BJP extolled Hindu nationalism, Congress claimed to be secular, but appealed to radical Muslim vote banks. Congress even offered sops including the prevention of author Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Lit Fest.

‘Congress isn’t violent though. It doesn’t provoke communal riots,’ I found myself saying, ‘BJP spearheaded Babri Mosque’s demolition in 1992. It supported the Bajrang Dal during anti–Christian attacks in Orissa and Karnataka in 2008.’

‘Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family bear the blight of 1984,’ J_ pointed out, ‘When Sikhs were massacred by Congress cadres the party did nothing to stop them. Is that not genocide?’

A 108-year-old party, the Indian National Congress played a crucial role in the Indian independence struggle. But over the years, the left-of-center party turned corrupt and sycophantic. It solely relied on the Gandhi-Nehru family to produce leaders and became mired in political scandals and controversies.

‘Modi’s regime will be dictatorial,’ I feared. 

‘Congress is no stranger to totalitarianism,’ J_ butted in, ‘Indira Gandhi gagged the press and jailed thousands during the 1974 Emergency. She forced the poor to undergo mass sterilization. Remember?’

I was flummoxed.

‘Modi will pull millions out of poverty,’ J_ assured me, ‘Give him a chance.’

Prime Minister Modi rose to power in an atmosphere of anti-incumbency. Coalition politics and economic disaster had sealed the fate of the incumbent Congress as early as 2013. Modi promised miracles and the Indian masses believed in the messiah.

Bachao,’ someone shouted outside my window and jolted me out of my thoughts.

A beggar woman in a torn sari stood clinging to the taxi. She carried a dirty sleeping child in her arms. Behind her was a sea of corrugated tin roofs and pilfered electrical wiring, one of Bombay’s many slums.

‘Help me. We have no food,’ she moaned.

The taxi driver’s eyes were dutifully focused on the traffic signal. He did not acknowledge the beggar woman pounding away at my window. It was my problem to handle.

I consciously averted my gaze from the woman’s piercing eyes. Fabian guilt overtook me as I did it. But I had been in situations before when I rolled down my window and had people grab money out of my purse.

Another moral knot in my head: should I worry about the freedom of speech or about people starving?  


The sun set behind Bombay’s neon skyline before I got home. My husband was on a business trip abroad and I had the evening to myself. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was in no mood to write.

Image courtesy: Instagram @probi3
Propping myself up on our heirloom couch, I flipped through magazines. Read some articles about Modi’s performance after a year in office.

Economic pundits and corporate leaders were disappointed in his performance – he wasn’t able to push through market-oriented reforms or pro-growth policies. Congress politicos congratulated themselves, pointed to the economic meltdown and said no party could reverse inflation easily. Everyone conceded that it would all take time. Economic waves and tsunamis were not easy to create.

The truth was: Congress and BJP were not dissimilar in economic strategy. They did whatever suited their politics. BJP had earlier opposed foreign investment in retail, but later became pro-investment. Congress was socialist in the 70’s. It metamorphosed and opened up India’s markets in the 90’s. Socialism, communism, capitalism, all intermingled in India, and no party could claim any one economic ideology.  They championed whatever suited them.

If there was internal peace and stability, perhaps, the country could improve it socio-economic parameters. But in a political democracy that holds first-past-the-post elections, polarizing populations is directly proportional to polarizing votes – and this is beneficial to any political party that claims to represent the majority.

India is, statistically, a Hindu-majority nation. And the BJP represents most of them. Democracy, is, after all, the rule of the majority ideology – however prejudiced it may be.

Like the British Empire, Indian political parties divide and rule. Ah. Postcolonial inheritances. Is Westminster-style democracy the problem? It throws up crooked politicians and spotty policies.

A gust of wind blew through our twelfth floor apartment and violently rustled bunches of drenched roses in the balcony.

I hurriedly shut the windows.

Despite setting up states and constitutions, historical prejudices seep through to the present. Islamophobia has spread like the black plague in Europe and far-right politicians are using it to their benefit. Racial discrimination is rampant in the States.

No democracy in the world can boast socio-economic equality, except Scandinavian countries. But are those countries open to immigrants. Are they diverse societies?

And what of all those countries where the revolution happened? Are the proletariat in power in China and Russia? 

There, I was working myself up, getting into one of my flourishes again.    

What was the point of my rambling on? Utopia was called utopia for a reason.

I poured myself a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and sat by an open window in my bedroom. Nightlights glimmered in the distance.

            True freedom is freedom from all ideology, the Buddha’s way.

Stop thinking, I told myself. Breathe.

The rain spluttered outside my window, split and splat. I took a swig of wine and listened to the rain beat itself into a rhythm. Got in bed and let the soft taffeta sheets cocoon me in comfort. I slipped into my apolitical bubble and slept.


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