20 February 2009

At Delhi's Alter - Profile


On the eve of the performance of his new play, City of Djinns, Trisha Gupta speaks to Tom Alter about theatre and cinema, Delhi and Bombay, and playing William Dalrymple.

Tom Alter’s first memory of coming to Delhi dates back to a family trip made during Eisenhower’s visit to India. The Alters had come down from Rajpur (a town just below Mussoorie) to see the Republic Day Parade. “It must have been either 1957 or 1959. Watching the parade was a big thing at that time. Seeing the US President was okay, but to see Nehru – even from a distance – was to see a god of our childhood.” The parade was grand, but it went on and on and on – and seven-year-old Tom had to go to the bathroom. “There was no way to leave the premises – so eventually I just went behind the stands and did whatever I had to do,” laughed Alter.

Delhi remained a permanent fixture through Alter’s adolescent years in Mussoorie, as the place where you could do all the things you couldn’t do in a small hill station. “I must have taken every single mode of transport possible to get to Delhi from Mussoorie – bicycle, bus, taxi, car, motorcycle, plane,” said Alter. Many of those trips to the big city were pilgrimages to attend sports events – Ramanathan Krishnan playing at the Delhi Gymkhana, Bishan Singh Bedi playing his first international match (which wasn’t a test match, it was the President’s Eleven against the West Indies), and the Durand Cup. Then his parents moved to Delhi themselves – they lived in the city from 1969 to 1980. “First they were in Alipur Road, later in Jangpura Extension. They lived in a house on Birbal Road,” reminisced Alter. “I loved Delhi. In fact I was reluctant to go to Bombay, because I loved Delhi so much.”

But go to Bombay he did. Bitten early by the film bug, Alter went to FTII Pune, and arrived in Bombay in the mid-1970s. “I came to Bombay with one passion, that was films. I was never a theatrewala,” said Alter. “But great theatre has just come knocking on my door.” He was part of the formation of Motley in 1979, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Motley’s first production, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story inaugurated what Alter remembers as “a tremendous five-six years” for the group as well as for him personally. “I was privileged to be able to watch Naseer and Ben in our production of Waiting for Godot, which almost became synonymous with Motley. Such brilliant performances. Around the same time, in the late 70s, I remember Om (Puri) in Udhwasth Dharamshala. When I think of him in that play, I still get goosebumps. That’s one person I really wish would do more work on the stage,” Alter said. He paused for a moment and then went on, “Who knows, maybe Om might read your piece – and think about it.”

Alter stopped working with Motley around 1986-87. “I think my last Motley play was Arms and the Man.” Work in cinema, which had begun with ?? continued. But by the early ‘90s, Alter was completely taken up with a different medium: TV. “It was a hectic time. “There was one day of the week – I think it was Thursday – when I was on TV on seven different shows on the same day,” said Alter. With the crazy shooting schedules that entailed, there was simply no time to do theatre. “That kind of innings comes only once in a lifetime. I loved it, but I probably aged by about fifteen years in that five-year period,” Alter said half-ruefully. The return to theatre has been, yet again, unplanned. In 1999 or 2000, Alter started working with some Urdu poetry written by an old friend called Idraak Bhatti. At first it was only him reciting the poetry. Then his old FTII buddies, actor Uday Chandra and Chandar Khanna, got involved as well, with various acts of their own. “Uday used to do a performance of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach. It was a one-man show. And Chandar brought in his recitation of Jayadrath Vadh, the famous Nirala poem, which he had been doing for years.” After the addition of background music, some English poetry and some Bob Dylan songs, Alter, Chandra and Khanna put the show together for a performance at Mallika Sarabhai’s Darpana in Ahmedabad, in September 2001. It was Mallika’s mother Mrinalini Sarabhai who suggested the name Trisangha: three things coming together. “Trisangha has been like a garden for us, out of which amazing things have grown,” said Alter.

Being based in Mumbai means that most of Alter’s work on the stage is with Mumbai-based groups. But he has also worked with groups from Delhi, most notably with M Sayeed Alam in Maulana Azad, a play written and directed by Alam himself. “Playing Azad was an honour for me, a gift. To do a play on such an amazing man – and I think it’s the most beautiful original script – which runs for two and a half hours, with no interval, and just has one man talking on stage… It got good reviews, but I think Maulana has not, as a play about the ethos of twentieth century India, got the credit it deserves.”

Sayeed Alam returns the compliment. “I was looking for someone who had a command over Urdu, and so the choice was really between Naseeruddin Shah and Tom. In 1998, when I was writing the script, I happened to see Shatranj ke Khiladi, in which I felt that he was more comfortale in Urdu than Saeed Jaffrey, for whom it is a mother tongue!” saisd Alam.

Having worked in both cities, does he feel there’s a difference between the theatre scene in Mumbai and in Delhi? “I think people working in theatre in Delhi are if anything more passionate about it than in Bombay. The young talent in Alam’s plays – and now in City of Djinns – is humbling.”

City of Djinns is a theatrical adaptation of William Dalrymple’s celebrated portrait of Delhi, first published in 1993. Part travelogue, part history book, Dalrymple’s book weaves engaging accounts of different periods in Delhi’s history into a first-person narrative based on his own experience of the city. Since the book is 350 pages long and contains literally hundreds of characters, any attempt to stage it must necessarily involve choices about what to keep and what to leave out. Among the characters who have been retained are Mr and Mrs Puri, from whom Dalrymple rents a house, Balvinder Singh the taxi driver, BB Lal the archaeologist, Ahmed Ali the author of Twilight in Delhi, Shamim the calligrapher and his brother Ali who run a photo studio in Old Delhi, Begum Hamida Sultan and Nora Nicholson, the English lady who stayed on after independence. “The Nora Nicholson character is played by Zohra Saigal, so naturally it’s an important part in the play,” said Alter.

Dalrymple spent time in Delhi towards the end of the ‘80s and in the beginning of the ‘90s. “The book is a document of the time. He talks of how difficult it was to get a phone connection, or bring a personal music system into the country. Things have changed so much since then,” mused Alter. “If in 1990 someone had said that you could have 65 channels on TV, that you could buy Levis jeans, or talk to America for 3 rupees a minute, I wouldn’t have believed them.” And yet, Alter feels, there are many things about the city that haven’t changed as much as some people would like to believe. “Many people feel that Delhi has become sophisticated, and that people no longer talk the way Mrs. Puri did – talking about foreigners “making seven flushes in one night” and so on. But there are still so many Mrs. Puris in Delhi – lovely, earthy characters who speak English exactly in that way,” he said. Alter disagrees with people who think that Dalrymple makes fun of many of his characters. “It is not done with malice. Just like we make fun of the angrez in every second Hindi film.” While he believes that Dalrymple’s book has only gained from having “an outsider’s perspective,” he has a quibble with its claim that Urdu is dead in Delhi. “That’s absolutely wrong. Urdu may no longer be the language of the ruling classes, but there are lakhs of people here who live Urdu.”

As does Alter himself. Which is part of the reason why Rahul Pulkeshi, producer of the play, had no doubt that Alter was the man for the part. “To play Dalrymple, we needed someone who was white. But the play is about Dilli, history, tradition, ghazals, Sufis – we needed someone who could represent all these things. And who better than Tom?”

Published in Time Out Delhi, March 2007

The sounds of a vanishing world - Theatre Preview

Trisha Gupta finds that Telugu theatre in Delhi has a long and interesting history.

Minutes away from the madness of the ITO intersection, in a relatively-quiet lane behind Azad Bhavan, a group of sari-clad women are gathered in a large, rather bare room. There is no colour, no ornamentation; nothing except the faded remains of a Rangoli pattern painted on the mosaic. Two women pace the floor, gesticulating as they speak, while two others listen attentively. One woman is playing with a child, while an older, bespectacled woman sits on a chair, occasionally interjecting, a stapled sheaf of handwritten pages in her hand. The script of a play.

The scene would be interesting enough in itself – a play being rehearsed by an all-female cast – but it becomes even more so when it’s in Telugu. The hall, in fact, belongs to the Andhra Vanita Mandali, an organization for Andhraite women in Delhi, and the rehearsal in progress is for a play called Savitri Sawal, to be staged this fortnight by the Dakshina Bharata Nata Natee Samakhya. Apart from Savitri Sawal, a comedy that draws on the Savitri Satyavan myth to poke fun at modern middle class life, the DBNN will also present a more serious play, Repati Satruvu (Tomorrow’s Enemy), about the problems of old age.

The DBNN (often referred to simply as the Samakhya) was founded in 1958 by five young men who had arrived in the capital to study acting at the then-new Asian Theatre Institute, which later became the National School of Drama. Of the five men, three were from Andhra Pradesh, including the young Kuppili Venkateswara Rao, who had already founded well-known theatre groups in his home state: the Navya Kala Mandali in his hometown Rajahmundry, and the Rasana Samakhya in Vijayawada, where he was then working as a clerk in the railways. Now armed with theatre scholarships from the government of Andhra Pradesh, K Venkateswara Rao and his friends K Prasad Rao (also known as Cinema Prasad) and ‘Radio’ C Rama Mohana Rao borrowed money to get to Delhi. Once here, the trio started watching theatre with a passion and dreamt of staging Telugu plays in Delhi. K V Rao’s reminiscences of those days include a story about how he watched a Bengali play directed by stalwart Shambhu Mitra at AIFACS. “I went backstage to find out the expenditure incurred for the production. When told that it was Rs 380, my throat (became) parched… I came back without a word,” he wrote.

The problem of money was solved by a combination of generous patrons and self-imposed thrift, and the Samakhya staged its first play, Narasuraaju’s Naatakam, in 1959. Plays were rehearsed everywhere, from houses where they were driven out by irate landlords, to Delhi’s myriad tombs. It was the Andhra Vanita Mandli that gave the group its first – and lifelong – proper rehearsal space. “There is no doubt that having this space has helped the group a lot,” said Anuradha Nippani, regular actress and ex-General Secretary of DBNN.

In the first decade of its existence, the Samakhya produced an astounding sixty plays. The enthusiasm of the 1950s lasted well into the 60s and 70s, with new talent being recruited from among the streams of Andhraites who continued to arrive in the capital in search of government jobs. “My father-in-law came to Delhi in 1946. Over the years, he brought his three brothers as well as his two brothers-in-law,” said Nippani, who grew up in Andhra Pradesh and only came to Delhi after marriage. Despite the fact that there are now some 16 lakh Telugu speakers in Delhi, NS Kameswara Rao, one of the group’s veteran members and director of Repati Satruvu, points out that Andhra theatre no longer has the kind of support it once did. “In the 70s and early 80s, our shows in Kamani and Shri Ram Centre ran to packed houses. We took our plays to neighbourhoods, Janakpuri and JNU alike. In 1979, we staged the first Telugu street play in Delhi. Participation has certainly decreased since then, both of actors and audience,” he said. Rao traced the dwindling numbers to the screening of Telugu films in Delhi, which started in 1984. “It is not only the case with Telugu theatre, of course. Until fifteen years back, people would at least go and watch films in a hall. Now, they only sit in their drawing rooms and watch on a small screen.”

The Samakhya continues to do at least two plays a year. “We always do original plays, written in Telugu. Usually they are socially relevant, about contemporary themes,” said Nippani. The diasporic context also plays a role in their choice of scripts. “Like last year, we did a play foregrounding the Telugu language, about a family who go abroad and forget Telugu,” said M Kusuma, who has been active in the Samakhya and the Vanita Mandli for some forty years, and is directing Savitri Sawal. “We have only one young person, Kritika, who is acting this time,” Nippani points out. “What we need is for more young people to show an interest. But theatre takes so much commitment. And even my own children don’t really speak Telugu.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, September 2007

14 February 2009

A Little Bit Of Magic - Photography Review

Richard Bartholomew’s poetic sensibilities animate his stunning photographic collection, says Trisha Gupta

ONE COMES away from the exhibition of Richard Bartholomew’s photographs at Photoink Gallery, New Delhi, wondering whether it should really have been entitled ‘The Critic’s Eye’. It’s true that Bartholomew was best known as an art critic. But he was also a curator (running the first museum of Tibetan art in Delhi and serving as Secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi), a poet and a painter. And it’s his poetic and painterly sensibilities, and his documentary skills, that really animate this stunning photographic collection.

The most accessible images are his portraits of some of India’s famous artists, or of his family. One recurring composition is the artist with his painting: a pose in which we get an intense Ram Kumar, a gesticulating FN Souza, a quiet Biren De, and then Bartholomew himself. More unusual are the photographs of painters socialising: groups of serious-faced men in dark suits, thick-rimmed spectacles and precisely-held cigarettes, which would not have seemed out of place in a Calcutta boxwallah’s office. Then there are a remarkable set of images of his wife Rati and his sons Pablo and Robin: bathing, drying clothes, sitting around, but most often sleeping or reading. This is a domesticity in which books and cameras are ubiquitous, even if people sleep on the floor. It’s also, of course, an extremely unusual portrait of motherhood: Rati always has a book and a cigarette, even as she lies comfortingly close to her sleeping child. There is an intimacy to these images that is both startling and warming.

The same affectionate yet perspicacious eye captures Delhi, the city in which he spent 42 of his 59 years, after fleeing Burma during the 1942 Japanese occupation. But even as he records the city’s life as everyday experience, his gaze remains oblique, picking out the detail at the edge of the frame that both counters and sets off the central image. In one photograph, a man stands poised on the edge of a flat-roofed governmental building while construction workers below lift malba, and a man cycles slowly to work. In another, an umbrellaholding man picks up his pyjamas as he wades carefully through a crowded street.

Some of the most striking images are from Bartholomew’s travels in the US in the 1970s. The human body, here, is framed against the landscape of consumer capitalism — not held by the environment, but divorced from it. But here, too, some of the most haunting images are ones that seem least dramatic at first glance. The girl at the Metropolitan Museum is a study in serenity — until you find that the culture-gazer is herself being looked at, by a baby in a pram. The woman with a suitcase, striding purposefully away, turns out to be barefoot.

The best thing about the exhibitionary form is that choices and placement conduct a magic dance of their own. When a plane flying over Delhi’s fields reappears over an American cemetery, one image becomes bound to the other. It is such unexpected secret connections that make Bartholomew’s oeuvre a little bit magic.

A Critic’s Eye is on at Photoink Gallery, New Delhi, until February 28

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 7, Dated Feb 21, 2009

Dev D - Film Review

Sight for Sore Eyes 


FILM: DEV D
DIRECTOR: ANURAG KASHYAP
STARRING: ABHAY DEOL, MAHI GILL, KALKI KOECHLIN, DIBYENDU BHATTACHARYA

There is no weepiness in the Anurag Kashyap universe. There is drama, but dramatic tension, rather than being expressed, is almost always sublimated in drink, drugs, or — most powerfully — dancing. Among Dev D’s showstopping scenes is when Paro, rejected by Dev, is marrying a suitable businessman: Kashyap cuts rhythmically between Dev, drinking himself into a stupor, and Paro, in bridal finery, dancing her sorrows away in deliberate abandon.

Despite the film being visually stunning, full of standout setpieces in locales stark and psychedelic, Kashyap’s greatest strength is his characterisation and dialogue — and thankfully, he knows it. In Dev D (played to understated perfection by Abhay Deol), he has created a flawlessly updated version of our most famous hero: one who doesn’t hesitate to ask his long-distance girlfriend to send him a “bina kapdon wali” photo of herself, but has a lot of trouble dealing with the possibility of her having a sexual history. Smaller characters are equally well-etched, like Dev’s father, who, having realised that the lovely Paro isn’t going to be his bahu after all, delivers one of the film’s best lines: “London ja ke tera taste kharaab ho gaya hai: whiskey chhodke vodka peeta hai, asli auraton ko chhodke sookhi-sookhi lakdiyon ke pichche bhaagta hai.

Kashyap’s Paro — an unapologetically passionate woman who gives as good as she gets — is at the film’s core, and the long-limbed Mahi Gill brings to the role a heartbreaking feistiness. Even with a broken heart, Paro remains the strongest of the three characters: the stubbornly self-destructive Dev seems to need a lot of mothering (which, oddly, both women seem happy to provide), while Chanda hides a deep vulnerability.

The Chanda section is where the film flounders a little. Much as you want to like her, Kalki Koechlin, as the half-firang schoolgirl Leni, is hard put to do justice to her wildly overwritten opening journey from a posh South Delhi colony to Paharganj. Too much happens too soon to feel anything but vaguely synoptic, and by the time you get to the patriarchal Punjabi family home and find Kalki holding a copy of Alberto Moravia’s Contempt with Bardot on the cover, you’re too tired to wonder why. But these are small quibbles with a film that represents an undeniably remarkable vision, somehow both as deep-rooted as necessary, and utterly fresh.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 7, Dated Feb 21, 2009

8 February 2009

Theatre Spaces: Akshara Theatre

Published as part of an occasional series on Delhi's theatre spaces, in Time Out Delhi. 

Most people in Delhi know Baba Kharak Singh Marg for its long line of emporia selling handcrafted goods from various Indian states, or the Hanuman Mandir. But very few are likely to know that it’s home to what is arguably Delhi’s most charming theatre. Or rather, theatres – there are two.

The plot of land on which Akshara now stands, including the original bungalow, was allotted by the government to dancer-actress Jalabala Vaidya and her husband, playwright-filmmaker Gopal Sharman, in 1972. “We had been contracted by the Royal Shakespeare Company to take our production, the Ramayana, to Britain, and we needed a space to rehearse and to perform. The house was leased to us as nationally eminent artistes, and we sought permission to hollow out a portion of the bungalow and build a 50-seat theatre,” says Jalabala Vaidya.

They got permission, and the indoor theatre was built in the same year – 1972. “We opened with a political satire, Let’s Laugh Again, in which we took the actual words of politicians and made them into a script. It was studded with these bon mots. And we charged tickets. In the beginning we found we weren’t getting audiences, because we weren’t inviting people. So Gopal started to design advertisements, beautiful ads but in the smallest size the newspapers would accept, which was 3cm by one column width.”

It helped. “People started to bring their own cushions and sit on the steps, because all the seats would be full,” says Vaidya. In the mid-80s, they succeeded in getting Akshara registered as a cultural society. In 1998, the indoor theatre was expanded to accommodate 100 people, and an outdoor theatre with 300 seats was constructed at one end of the garden. “The French and the Malayalis have often done shows here,” says Vaidya.

Until 2004, Vaidya and Sharman still performed frequently. Nowadays, the theatre is used for occasional performances by the children who’re part of Akshara’s Deeksha Program. Every Friday and Saturday, children between the ages of 5 and 15 come to Akshara to receive training in theatre through a combination of yoga, poetry, music and actual acting. “In February, the children did two plays – Rudyard Kipling’s The Butterfly that Stamped, and The Train To Darjeeling, which was written by my daughter Anasuya,” says Vaidya. “I’m now trying my level best to encourage young people to use the theatre. In March, a young group of university students did a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? We have our own technicians, so the lighting and sound will be professionally done, and we would only charge the actual costs – electricity and so on. I only want that they should be open and innovative. And that they do the play for a week, at least.”

Getting there: Follow Baba Kharak Singh Marg in the direction of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Slow down when you see the sign for Gate No. 4 of the hospital. Akshara Theatre is right next to it.

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2008

Shakahari Shahjahanbad - Food Review


The walled city abounds with vegetarian khana, finds Trisha Gupta.


If you’re a standard-issue New Delhizen, you can be forgiven for thinking that all people eat in Old Delhi is kababs, qormas and kulfi. Because that’s what most often appears when swish South Delhi hotels or Delhi Tourism in its occasional bursts of enthusiasm decide to showcase “Purani Dilli ka Khana”. But as all self-respecting Sheherwalas know, Shahjahanbad has some of the best vegetarian food in town. And no, we don’t mean chaat – these are substantial meals, many of them under Rs 50 per head.

Whether you seek solace in Dilli-style bedmi-aloo, buttery Punjabi, or homestyle Marwari sans garlic and onion, the Walled City will not disappoint. Almost before you enter the old city, in the midst of the auto parts market opposite St James Church, is a little shop whose board reads “Makhan Lal Tika Ram - mltr”, but which has for years gone by the name of Mitthan ki Bedmi. Strictly speaking, it’s a sweetshop, but it has a tiny balcony into which you can cram yourself (along with about seven other people) and eat mltr’s fantastic bedmis (Rs 7 a plate). Served with a mixed aloo-chhole ki sabzi and a lovely khatte aam ki launji, two of these are a meal. Add a glassful of creamy, cold lassi, and you’ll even stop thinking about the heat.

For Punjabi food, the most famous eatery in the area is the deceptively nondescript Kake di Hatti, near Fatehpuri Masjid. “The food is simple, but rotis are fresh from the tandoor, and something as simple as cucumber raita is memorable for being perfectly-spiced,” said customer OP Bhuwania. And the dal makhani here (Rs 30) is legendary. “People who know it come all the way from Gurgaon to eat it,” declared owner Gurdeep Singh, whose great-grandfather started the shop 62 years ago. If you arrive before lunch is ready, make a meal out of dahi, achaar and any of the eleven kinds of stuffed parathas on offer. (They’re infinitely superior to the overrated greasebombs at Parathe-wali Gali). More “fancy” than Kake di Hatti is the double-storeyed Shakahari, next to Chawri Bazar Metro Station. Filled with feasting families on a weekday night, Shakahari’s restaurant-style north Indian food clearly has a devoted local clientele. The urad dal fry (Rs 45) and baingan bharta (Rs 43) seemed excessively chilli-laden and oily to us, but people at the next table seemed to love it.

Our top vote, however, goes to the Marwari-style ghar ka khana on offer at several bhojanalayas – no-frills eateries characterized by spotless tables, large stainless steel thalis and phulkas hot off the tawa. Try Sony, New Sony, Brijwasi or Adarsh Niwas for an extremely satisfying meal. The Rs 45 thali at New Sony, for example, offers unlimited dal, aloo-tamatar and chapattis, along with a limited helping of the day’s sabzi and either a raita or a sweet dish. Located more or less on the corner of Nai Sarak and Chandni Chowk, New Sony is managed by a genial old Marwari gentleman and his middle-aged daughter, both of whom remain perpetually perched behind the counter and keep up a constant flow of largely unnecessary instructions to the various young men serving the food. But as long as they also keep up a constant flow of that phenomenal tadke-wali dal, who cares?

Adarsh Niwas, 483 Haider Quli Corner, below Andhra Bank, Chandni Chowk (2398-7576). Daily 10.30am-6pm (lunch), 6-11pm (dinner).
Brijwasi Bhojanalaya, 376 Chandni Chowk, near Kucha Ghasi Ram, (2397-1376). Daily 10am-4pm, 6pm-11pm.
Kake di Hatti 654 Church Mission Road, Fatehpuri (98109-09754). Daily 7.30am-12.30pm
Makhan Lal Tika Ram, 1259-60 Bara Bazar, Kashmere Gate (3255-9415). Daily 5.30am-10.30pm.
New Sony Bhojanalaya, 5568 Nai Sadak (2393-6143). 11am-4pm (lunch), 7pm-11pm (dinner). Sundays closed.
Pandit Gaya Prasad Madan Mohan, Gali Parathewali, Chandni Chowk. Daily 11am-10pm.
Shakahari, 3624/9 Chawri Bazar (2327-7366). Daily 12-4pm (lunch), 7-11pm (dinner).
Sony Bhojanalaya (2398-1331, 2396-0281)


Published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007

7 February 2009

Mangalore mistakes - ed/op-ed

Why has the debate occasioned by the incident of violence against women in Mangalore been labelled a debate about “pub culture”, when it is clearly about something else? When Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, which led the attacks, is quoted specifically as saying that drinking is fine so long as men are the ones doing it (“Bars and pubs should be for men only”), there’s no misconstruing what he means. Or which half of society he seeks to regulate. (“Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapatis?”— Valke again.) So we need to abandon the misleading “pub culture” tag and start addressing the real issue. Which, it appears, is much less about the general unhealthiness or amorality of consuming alcohol (however much Anbumani Ramadoss may wish to deflect our thoughts in that direction) than it is about the outrage large numbers of men in this country feel about the perceived emergence of a class of women, Indian in blood and colour, but so shockingly Western in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect as to think nothing of bonding over a beer, in public, with men who are not even their husbands (with apologies to Lord Macaulay). As Pramod Muthalik, president of the Sri Rama Sene, put it, “We took steps to protect our Hindu culture and punished girls who were attempting to destroy that tradition by going to pubs. We will not tolerate anybody who steps out of this code of decency.”

A cursory reading of the newspapers reveals two broad kinds of critical response to the Mangalore attacks. The first kind defends a woman’s ability to go to a pub and drink as an individual right. It draws on a notion of freedom, of a woman’s right to live as she chooses, which becomes tied up with the idea of a progressive society. Such a defence can sometimes take off in somewhat absurd directions, such as when Ramadoss’s declaration that India will not progress if pub culture continues is countered by Page Three nightlife aficionados pointing out that developed countries have far more developed pub cultures than ours, thus turning the public consumption of alcohol into an index of socio-economic advancement. In either case, such a response is not concerned with actually engaging those who associate women going out and drinking with a lack of morals and a loss of tradition. The second type of response takes the other side’s appeal to Hindu tradition more seriously, and seeks therefore to defend the consumption of alcohol by women as traditional. This kind of response ranges all the way from representatives of Mangalorean citizens’ groups pointing to a local tradition of women drinking, at least among the large fishing and toddy tapping communities, to a newspaper columnist describing how much ancient Indian women liked their liquor (including Sita’s preference for a particular sura called maireya). The appeal to a plural, multifarious, open-ended tradition is doomed to failure, if only because the last two hundred years of our history have worked to cement the move towards a singular, usually proscriptive one, which can be recognised as a “tradition” by the state, and in whose name outrage can be voiced. So while one might want to hold on to the hope that the Sri Rama Sene might be struck dumb if actually confronted with real-life Mangalorean grandmothers defending their right to toddy, the well-researched “traditionalist” argument is unlikely to actually help defuse the simmering moral conflict that seems to affect so much of Indian society today.

So what might a more helpful sort of response be? What are we, as urban, educated, self-professedly socially liberal people to do when confronted with situation after situation in which it seems that the lives we live are somehow out of joint with the country next door? Whether it’s the Delhi cops who book a (married) couple on obscenity charges for kissing in a metro station, or the villagers of Ghadi Chaukhandi near Noida’s Sector 71 who continue to express their outrage about “couples coming in cars... and doing disgusting things next to our homes” even as they defend their sons against rape charges, there is something going on which demands a more thoughtful engagement with class-based moral divides than we have seen so far. There is no question that some people’s violent attempt to bring into existence their version of a morally cleansed society is abhorrent and must not be tolerated. But it might be worth pondering over why it is the “liberated” woman’s body that ends up bearing the burden of festering class resentments in post-globalisation India. While defending our freedoms as women and as citizens to the bitter end, I suggest we start paying attention to the undercurrents of class that inflect so many of our urban interactions — interactions otherwise framed in terms of tradition, morality and especially, gender.

Editorial published in the Indian Express, 5 February 2009.