Thursday, May 26, 2011


The world is falling apart, one designer fly at a time. So terrorists be damned and babies be burped while they wait their turn, for how could we talk of anything else this week. Everywhere you look, there’s someone hobbling around with his trousers around his ankles, with the world playing judge and jeery jury. Running their hardest aft er fig leaves in this week’s races are champagne socialist Dominique Strauss- Kahn and Man-U super star Ryan ‘oops-I-said it’ Giggs and bringing up the rear are a bunch of old boys from the Turkish parliament caught with their hands in the hicky-jar and the gnarly old Austrian oak and his maid of dishonour.

It is unfair of course to compare these apples, oranges and avocados to each other for who is to say which is lust and which is love, illicit though it may be, and which mere perversion. But I have sinned, as have you, and you, and you, and so I would not be the one to cast the first stone. Strauss-Kahn deserves the 25 years and the sharp edged slice of medieval justice (if you catch my drift ) to relieve him of his misery, if he is the preying sexual brigand circumstances make him out to be, and the world’s apology if found not guilty. The Turks got more than what they paid for if you ask me and as for Giggs and the Governator, it really is a private affair and we really have no right to point any jealous fingers at them. We don’t know what their married lives have been like. We don’t know if they were happy or unfulfilled. We don’t know if there was love, within or without the marriage. But yes, what we do know is that there was betrayal, and there were lies, and it is that, and that alone that deserves condemnation, not by you or me but by those affected by those lies and the betrayal.

But what is it that spurs people, apparently happily married people, beautiful and the not so beautiful people, successful people and ordinary people, mothers, fathers, leaders and teachers, to commit acts of unbridled passion that are doomed to start with sex and end in lies at the least and a tape (video, audio or if you are really unlucky, yellow crime scene tape) of some sort at worst? Is it the joy of the chase, or is it the ‘heat’ of the moment? Is it a sense of power or is it the fear of losing power? Is it old love or new lusts? Is the lure a forbidden fruit, or is the seed a fruitless marriage? Well, the truth in this matter would depend on who is speaking it. Research shows that as far as types go, no one, which means neither you, nor me, nor our grandparents (if still young enough) or our grand-children(if they are old enough) are, are likely to be or have ever been, above an adulterous thought or two.

We are a polygamous species feigning allegiance to monogamy. It’s a bit like a Jewish family leaving their eight year old son and sixteen year old daughter with a well behaved baby-sitter named Adolf Hitler with the belief that they’ll find ‘nothing wrong’ when they return. Such is the nature of this beast.

The human race is like a buffalo calf kicking for dear life between the jaws of a lion called evolution tugging at its legs while a pair of crocodiles called history and religion is chewing away at the head. Evolution keeps pushing women to seek rugged, strong and masculine genes, the kind you might find at the end of Salman Khan’s cheek swab, when she is looking for a suitable mate to have a baby with. But when it comes to rearing that baby and nurturing her family, she prefers the gentle, caring and communicative type, like the metrosexual Khan who is all heart and epiglottis instead. Left to evolution’s own devices, men would have been too busy spreading their seed far and wide to realize that the above dichotomy could leave them cuckolded. But then along came religion to plot with history and before you knew it monogamy had becomes God’s decree.

Wedding vows may well insist that we are to be together as man and wife, in love and life, today tomorrow and forever. But science reveals that when we are in love, the brain ‘suffers’ from a certain degree of serotonin depletion and no matter how deep the professed love, serotonin levels return back to normal in about two years. In other words, the brain tricks us into falling in love with a suitable mate for only about as long as enough genetic matter has been exchanged to further life and then the partners are, from a chemical standpoint, ready for the market again.

So that might explain the itch and escapades, but what do we do if we want to stay together in spite of evolutionary biology and cerebral chemistry holding their ground? I do not know about the levels of serotonin in my system today but what I do know is that the woman I have been with for the last sixteen years of my life, thirteen of them aft er exchanging vows, is still the woman I want to see when I wake and is still the woman whose hand I want to hold when I go to bed. And when she is away from me, her face is still the one I see when I close my eyes and smile. But does that mean I’m oblivious to the primitive, almost involuntary evolutionary tremors that emanate from the epicenter of my being when I’m in the presence of appropriate stimuli?

I would be lying if I said I was, and the truth is, so would you.

And yet love between soul mates, if you happen to have found yours, you would know is neither shaken nor touched by these tremors and there is a method towards sustaining this madness. Lets exchange notes on that in the weeks to come but until then, here’s an old Taoist thought to keep you company…

Sex is like fire burning on a cold winter night. Ignore it and it’ll wither, leaving you cold and dead. Fan it too much and it’ll burn your house down. But nurture it, acknowledge it, celebrate it and control it, and it’ll keep you, warm, happy and comforted… perhaps it will even be the light…

Until next week, chew on that Dominique…


Thursday, May 19, 2011


Last week, I had promised you an insight into the mind of mindless murder and the one man who I think is among the few who understand it best. However circumstances and some friends with a small measure of editorial influence have been insisting that I let the sombre stories rest a little and write a short series about the other end of life... birth and bits of before and after. So with due apologies to those of you who might have been expecting the story I had promised and an assurance that it would follow right after, I begin this series with one from the archives that I had written long ago... To prepare the ground if you will, for what is to follow...

Discussing delicate matters like bedroom bonhomie isn’t one of my strengths. You know, reining in vanity while holding up modesty etc. But these days it’s nearly impossible for me to get through a conversation – any conversation – without everyone, and I mean everyone, asking me “Why haven’t you had a kid by now?” From neighbourhood fruit sellers and eunuchs, ‘well-meaning’ family and friends to hitherto delightful students, they’ve all engaged me in seemingly innocuous conversations, and as soon as they sense an unsuspecting mind and a weakened guard, thrust the question in my face. Without a heartbeat of a chance to parry, I’m left feeling the way the great Julius might’ve been feeling when he said ‘Et tu, Brute…!’ Worse, even as I’m struggling with the idea of a dignified response, I can almost read the unsaid remainder of the said question in inquisitive eyes that wonder, ‘or is something wrong?’. Well, I hope to God nothing is, but can’t a happy twosome take its time growing up? Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is, are we, both I and my lovely partner, responsible enough to be able to parent a child – a child who will, for better or for worse, share, shape and influence the world in some respect?

It is perhaps a better time to be born than ever before. Cities, unless they’re swimming on oil, don’t get ransacked too often. People, irrespective of colour or gender, can enter parks, hotels and the parliament, at least in theory and usually come out alive and finally the commies are finally on their way out. But good tidings aside, perhaps the world really could become a better place if we demanded more of the two groups that determine our future more than any other – our leaders and their parents; well, not just theirs but every parent and parent-to-be. Electing a government and having a baby are two most vital public decisions, and while one can rectify one’s mistakes every four or five years in case of the former, mistakes in the second case could haunt both parents and society for a lifetime or more.

Feral children, brought up by animals, display disconcertingly wild, animal-like characteristics and behaviour. They prove that higher mammals, more so primates and human beings, are creatures of instruction far more than instinct, and for our innate humanness to surface, we need a humane environment. And yet, murderers, rapists, paedophiles and even the criminally insane are free to rear children. Many such children will follow in their parent’s footsteps for they know no better. Look around you and you’ll see examples of individuals with the patience of a monkey with mange and the intelligence of a pea waddling past, precocious little lives in tow, and one can only live in hope that the kids would grow to be an improvement on their parents.

An instance that I can’t wipe from my memory is of a couple and a child I happened to observe at the veritable mecca for Delhi bongs – the Shiv Mandir. A closet idolater, I was waiting at the parking lot for my parents when I heard a child calling for her mother. She was sitting in a car, with her father, waiting for the mother to return. The child, not older than three or four years, apparently preferred her mother to her father for she kept calling out for her. After asking her to pipe down a couple of times, the father, without warning slapped the little girl across her face. Shocked, the poor kid started bawling loudly, only for her to be shouted at again and threatened with a rejoinder. I was almost about to intervene when thankfully, the mother returned. Obviously, formal education, financial resources and the lack of a criminal record aren’t enough to prepare one for parenthood. While counselling students, I’m struck by how some have become nervous, insecure wrecks because their parents would demand the world of them, while their only form of encouragement has been to tell them how their sister, neighbour and everything else alive on Earth and Mars was better than them.

Most dog breeders refuse to sell a puppy to a family that would not have time for it and yet no one asks parents if they would have time for their child. Rootless children, brought up in the company of maids and drivers often end up looking for family amongst strangers and happiness in substance abuse. From obesity and alcoholism to mangled pavement dwellers, the price of alienating children from their moorings could be high. Talking of pavement dwellers, their children make some metro crossings look like open-air crèches. Of those that survive the streets, some will grow to be labourers if lucky, others, drug pushers or worse. Maybe nature and Socrates have a point when they speak of only the alpha’s right to procreate. Even without taking things as far, shouldn’t we remember that a human being is far more potent than any hand gun or car, and if a license is imperative to guard against their misuse, shouldn’t there be any to ensure a child’s, and the world’s future? As for yours truly and matters of the family… soon enough, friends, soon enough… just in case someone takes the above too seriously


Thursday, May 12, 2011


I was very young, perhaps no more than 10-years-old. It was a dark moonless night but the house was lit up like a new bride. I was running down the stairs with my younger cousin to see the fireworks that we heard crackle near by when we saw my uncle rush in through the gate. He ran up the stairs towards us and told us to turn back and run indoors that very instant. He was wearing a white silk kurta and his ‘special day’ gold buttons and… and then I saw it. That splash of deep red that had soaked the left side of his kurta. There was too much of it to be betel juice. This was blood…

Once he had herded us inside on the first floor, he told my parents and his wife to not let us out. But they weren’t listening. My aunt was screaming hysterically at the sight of all that blood on him and my parents rushed to his side. It was only then that he seemed to realise the condition his clothes were in… “No, no… this isn’t mine. Aamar na… It’s Madhob Babu… (our neighbour in Chittaranjan Park, the capital’s Bengali ghetto)”. His words were coming out in spurts, just like the crackling of what I now know must have been automatic weapons, in the lane outside. “They shot at him and sped away on a scooter… he stumbled towards me and I held him and helped him walk all the way to his house. He was alive… but he was bleeding a lot.”

It was the night before Diwali. Chittaranjan Park was like one big fair ground. Every park and lane and square was celebrating Kali Pujo and the inky blackness of the night was punctuated with the sights and sounds of crackers and sparklers heralding the day that celebrates the victory of good over evil. Devotees, families, boys and girls, and the children, they had all congregated in these pandals spread out across blocks, immersed in prayers, passions and play when a bunch of Sikh terrorists armed with assault rifles rode in on a scooter like the very arms of Hell and snuff ed out lives and homes with the casual flick of a trigger. While screams of shock and agony rent the now still night, the killers disappeared into the darkness, leaving in their wake scores and more dead and dying. Some lay on the streets, some in ditches where they fell while they tried to escape while others had been shot even as they tried to run into their homes. I still remember my parents recounting a sight from that night of a little girl bleeding and wailing in her festive finery, as she lay by the side of the road in the cold and dead arms of her parents. These weren’t strangers. These were kids I would meet at the bus stand. These were people I would greet on the streets. Amongst the dead was an elderly man who would distribute chocolates to every kid he would meet on his way back with his dog from the milk booth every morning. Who could hope to gain from such a terrible crime? It could not be the work of a soul even remotely human. These killers were inhuman devilish fiends without a trace of humanity in their beings. They and their ilk deserved nothing more than complete annihilation and extermination!

So I heard in the aftermath of that night, and so I believed.

Then, about two years ago, I met a senior photo journalist who happened to work for a while with the magazine you now hold in your hands. He was a battle scarred veteran. In the last three decades, whenever some momentous shit managed to hit the fan in this country, you could bet your last film roll on the possibility that this man was right under it, getting the world an eyeful of the action. While traveling for stories, especially on those long dull drives back from wherever we had wandered, he would recount stories from his days covering every moment that mattered – The Babri Masjid incident, Operation Blue Star, the assassinations, explosions and immolations, the Mandal agitations and so on… On one such occasion, he told me of this time when he was working in Amritsar. It was during the time when insurgency in Punjab was at its strident worst.

A large number of militants were holed up inside a building and the Punjab police commandoes had surrounded the area. In his capacity as a media photographer, our raconteur enjoyed some sort of a ‘media immunity’ which allowed him close access to such situations. While this life and death struggle was playing itself out, he and two of his colleagues wriggled their way into the house. The militants didn’t mind the publicity I guess, or perhaps he knew them since two of them were renegade policemen, but whatever the reason, our man was allowed to take all the photos he wanted as long as he stayed out of their ‘sights’. As bullets rained down from both ends, the photographers ducked and duck-walked their way around the rooms till one of them stumbled over something. The others looked at the bullet riddled walls, the broken windows and their fallen colleague who was now trying to check if he had damaged his camera. And then their eyes fell on what he had stumbled over – a corpse.

They rolled it over and saw a young Sikh man. He must’ve been in his 30s. It was winter but his body was still warm… and riddled with bullet holes. “They got him this morning” said one of the terrorists even as he kept firing at the cops. “He would sit up nights and cry…” continued the militant between rounds. “He just couldn’t get over all the kids he killed one crazy night in Delhi. It was the Bengali colony massacre… our elders had told him not to go that day. But he was a mad man those days. He and his accomplices killed anything that moved that night… it was chhoti Diwali I think. But it was the children that haunted him. The elders rebuked him for killing the children but he just wanted revenge.”

The police commandoes had stopped firing. Maybe they were considering other maneuvers or waiting for reinforcements. One of the photographers prodded the militant and asked “Revenge? Revenge for what?”. The militant scanned the fields outside and then said “Pinta (the dead terrorist) used to stay in Kalkaji, right next to the Bengali colony. He was a regular guy who went to college, played hockey, and watched movies. But during the anti-Sikh riots, a horde of blood thirsty fiends, surrounded his house and set fire to it. He never told me what happened to the women of the house but he would talk about how he saw his father, uncle, brothers and even his old grandfather being pulled out of their home by their hair and beard. Those b@#...rds put car tyres around their necks and set their beards on fire. His elders ran around in circles as they went up in flames, screaming in mortal pain and those Hindus just stood around and cursed them even more.

Pinta was at his neighbour’s place when this happened. They stopped him when he tried to run to his family’s rescue, thus saving his life. But he saw it all. His world was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. But Pinta had recognised some of the rioters. They were from the neighbouring Bengali colony. And since that day he burnt for revenge. When he came to us for training, this was all he wanted to do. He was discouraged by the elders here but he would have none of it. But killing the kids that night really aff ected him… he couldn’t get over that.”

The siege ended when cops killed a few of the militants and the rest surrendered. The photographers had their pictures and that was that as far as the story went. But for me it was an epiphany. Th at nameless fiend from all those years ago suddenly had grown a face and a family and a lot of hurt and anger. So it wasn’t just black and white after all…

Last week when I heard that the ‘world’s most dangerous man’ had got his comeuppance in Abbottabad, I was a little taken aback with the jubilation that followed his death.

Perhaps here too, we were missing the wood for the trees.

I wanted to know the truth. What is it that drives a usually sane and normal person into a frenzy of bloodletting? Why should anyone want to blow himself up as well as a whole lot of strangers he has never met? I had to ask someone who would know and I knew just the man. A friend of mine happens to call one of the country’s top investigative brains father. This man had dealt with militants, separatists and bombers of all hues and hurts, and succeeded and he had answers that left me stunned…

So until next week, judge if you must but judge with care, lest you judge someone unfair…


Thursday, May 5, 2011


“I am happy… Without question, I am happy about his death!”, he said with a calm confidence that belied his years. I was surprised. I wondered if he was saying that because he was worried about how I might judge him if he said he wasn’t.

Zuhaib is a cousin of mine through a marriage or three. He graduated recently, and in spite of the ten years or so between us, we have become rather friendly. He is really mature for his years and I am not, so we always manage to find a happy middle ground whenever we meet to talk away the hours. And between talk of Cristiano Ronaldo’s twinkle-toed switch and Stanley Kubrick’s creative twitch, we always find the space and time to squeeze in a chat about religion. Now, he is Sunni Muslim and I’m a Hindu, and yet we manage an easy discussion, even a debate, about the goods and quaints of the faiths we were born into. So when we met last evening, and talk veered toward Osama’s death, I just had to ask him how he might have felt about it, as a citizen of the world… and as a Muslim.

Monday morning television made for confusing viewing. I heard of the operation in Abbottabad from a friend and fumbled through to CNN for confirmation. And confirmation came from the much barracked Barack, no less. I felt numb. Messages celebrating the killing poured in and I saw the crowd dancing on the streets in front of the White House, on the streets of Georgetown and in New York city. And yet I didn’t know what to feel. Osama had wronged the world. There was no denying that. And yet, does a death, even if it be the death of the man half the world calls the greatest villain since Adolf Hitler, warrant celebrations? And that, notwithstanding the fact that many in the other half of the world think of him as the greatest hero to have ever picked up a gun for a cause since… er… since… John Rambo, I guess (I couldn’t think of a historical figure who comes anywhere close to the gory glory of Osama’s methods).

I was confused because while we were celebrating the death of a terrorist who plotted and planned the death and destruction of thousands of innocents, there were homes and lanes and towns and whole districts in every part of the world, from London to Lahore and from Kuala Lumpur to Kashmir, where there was silence and anger; where a father or a widowed mother would hold a 10-year-old child close and say, “Osama, that man of God whose name you carry has been killed by American terrorists. He was a prince who could have lived in luxury. But he heard God’s voice in our cries. He was an educated man but he put down his books and picked up a gun… for us. He traded his life in a palace for the hardships of battle… for us.

He fought them like David (Dawood) fought the giant and brought them to their knees. The cowards killed the Sheikh while he slept but promise me that he did not die in vain… Promise me that you will live up to your name and avenge each drop of his blood that was shed… promise me that you will fight for our honour, for human dignity, for our rights, just like the sheikh did all his life”

Many homes in many countries would have heard these words being spoken as news of Osama’s death poured in. But I wondered if that was typical. Journalists were reaching out to separatist leaders and religious figureheads as well as to the common man in an attempt to understand what the people Osama claimed he represented felt about his death. The reactions ranged from outright condemnation to religious leaders blaming American policies for his admitted excesses. On the other hand, during the course of my interviews with militants and separatists, I had begun to see a human side to the Kalashnikov toting wild eyed mercenaries. I had begun to see them for what I now believe they are – men, women, oft en even children, who are hurt and angry; who believe they have no one and nothing left to turn to; who mistakenly believe, that the blood on their hands is the work of God and that it is something they believe in with such passion, that they would not regret their losses, of limb, life or love, in the pursuit of their goals. Speak up if you think I’m wrong but I think it takes a good heart, perhaps a bitter one too, but definitely a good one, to embrace death with pride.

Was Osama such a man? Was it empathy, or perhaps even compassion, for the oppressed Muslim that fuelled his passions? Was he a good man who fell victim to geo-political circumstances and the well modulated rant of a charismatic cleric? Or was he a misanthropic bigot tempted by a sense of history? And who is the real Osama – the feted war hero of the Russo-Afghan wars, or is it the man who plotted the murder of thousands in cold blood? And is an Osama any different from a Che Guevara or some other such freedom fighter or revolutionary? They all killed for a cause they believed in… then why is one a pop icon while the other a pariah?

Well the last one is easy. A Che Guevara never targeted civilians and non-combatants the way Osama did and as for the rest of the questions, perhaps it’s a case of the elephant and the blind men. But before I forget where we began, let me tell you what young Zuhaib made of the moment.

“I am happy… Without question, I am happy about his death!,” said Zuhaib. And no, he did not say that because he was worried I might take him to be a sympathiser if he didn’t. “I am glad the man was killed,” he continued, “… because not only did he deserve to die because he killed innocents, knowing fully well that even killing one innocent civilian is tantamount to a crime against all of humanity, but also because of what he did to me, as a Muslim. Before Osama, the faith had an aura of tranquility, civility and even tolerance. But aft er 9/11, every Muslim is a potential suspect. We are looked at with suspicion and skepticism and we cannot escape it. Even when people see me entering a mosque, I see the skepticism in their eyes. And I’m not just blaming non-Muslims.

I too am guilty of having lost faith in my fellow Muslims. Today, if I’m stopped near a mosque by an elderly gentleman and asked a few innocent questions, instead of being touched by his kindness and warmth, I would eye him with suspicion and wonder if it’s the first step in an attempted indoctrination. If tomorrow, a Muslim lad wants to rent my house, I would be extremely suspicious and might not even let it out unless I was 200 per cent sure that man is above suspicion. And I have become so wary of being seen with the ‘wrong kind’ that I actively avoid interacting with people I don’t know, especially if they ‘look the type’… you know, with the traditional beard and skull cap. It’s wrong, and it’s unfair, but that’s what even I have become, though I am every inch a proud and sincere Muslim… This is what an Osama has done. He destroyed faith in the faith and so I am glad he is dead.”

I nodded. Osama’s death was no victory. Inconsequential in real terms, it only has symbolic significance, as our reactions to it underscore the civilisational fault lines of the day. But yes, it definitely was justice. Delayed, diff used and perhaps one that matters only as much as a pacifier might to a hungry child but it was justice nevertheless…