26 August 2008

Film Review: Mumbai Cutting

Bombay Eleven

Read the Tehelka piece here. And the longer version below.

Bombay has always been the metropolis of choice for Hindi cinema. As any self-respecting Indian film-goer could tell you, when watching a Hindi film, if the locale was urban, it was safe to assume that it was Bombay. Strangely, though, films set in Bombay weren’t always interested in the specificity of the city. Film scholar M. Madhava Prasad suggests that this may have been because ‘Bambai’ was always invoked in opposition to the village, as “the generic metropolitan other”. While other cities were too specific, Bombay somehow managed to be “Bombay plus The City”. But having to bear this burden of symbolic city-ness meant that it was only in the 1970s, with a film like Deewar, that Bombay came into its own on screen, with identifiable locales, language and street culture.

Since then, of course, there’s been no looking back. The fetishization of “Bambaiya” speech, specifically through films set in the underworld, has been the cinematic obsession of our times. The gritty realist gangster flick created by Ram Gopal Varma continues to thrive, while giving rise to comic riffs that play on our underworld fascination, like the Munnabhai films. Varma and his Factory have also been responsible for a series of tributes to Bombay as the city of cinematic dreams: Rangeela, Mast, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Naach. More recently, films like Life in a Metro have sought to rediscover a “middle class” Mumbai of office romance and failing marriages.

Mumbai Cutting makes this showcasing of Mumbai a self-conscious venture. Produced by Niyati Shah of White Cloud Films, the film consists of eleven shorts, with Mumbai as the common thread. Several films seek to capture something quintessentially Bombay by recourse to public hangouts: bars, cafes, clubs. Ayush Raina’s Bombay High revolves around the kind of seedy neighbourhood bar that probably doesn’t exist in any other Indian city – where small time gangsters share space with an after-office group that includes women. The only thing identifiably Bombay about Jahnu Barua’s badly-named Anjane Dost is an Irani Café that’s seems meant to serve as both locale and premise: but surely the meeting between strangers can happen in any city, anywhere in the world? Then we have Rahul Dholakia’s stylishly-shot Bombay Mumbai Same Shit, with Jimmy Shergill as a rich brat whose nocturnal wanderings weave the nightclub and the pavement together.

The two women directors, Revathi and Ruchi Narain, place women at the centre of their narratives. In Revathi’s tightly-edited Parcel, Mumbai appears as a series of insurmountable hurdles to a Bangladeshi woman en route to the Middle East – Sonali Kulkarni in a stellar performance. Narain’s quirky, part-animated Jo Palti Nahi Woh Rickshaw Kya shows an NRI woman’s relationship to Mumbai’s pleasures – and dangers – as mediated by auto-rickshaw rides.

Despite the genuine effort to depict different locations and social classes, several shorts end up recycling Mumbai clichés – mafia, the monsoon and local trains – without doing much with them. Sudhir Mishra’s The Ball has a child witness the gang murder of a man during an evening cricket match. Shot predictably in the thick of the city’s Muslim neighbourhoods (under the JJ flyover, going towards Bhendi Bazaar), the film never transcends its gimmicky opening. Manish Jha’s And it Rained, about two people brought together by the Mumbai monsoon is ambitiously dialogue-less, depending instead on Euphoria’s Jiya jaye na track, but ends up feeling like a music video. Kundan Shah’s Hero (also without dialogue) does better with its take on the daily battle to get on the local train: Deepak Dobriyal (of Omkara fame) plays the flagging commuter with an exaggerated Buster Keatonesque comic automaton-like quality that nearly works.

But for the large majority of Hindi film buffs, Bombay is not a lived space whose traffic lights and nakabandis we negotiate every day. It’s the mythical Bombay of mafia dons and glamorous starlets that we’ve seen on screen all our lives. So while some of these latter shorts are extremely watchable, the two that really succeed are the ones that set out, self-consciously, to play with the Bombay of popular lore and filmic memory.

The first is Anurag Kashyap’s Pramod Bhai 23, which does a brilliant job of showing you this mythical Bombay as it lives in the mind and heart of a 12-year-old juvenile delinquent. Mushtaq lives in a world defined by knowing someone who knows someone who knows Chhota Rajan, a world marked by traffic light encounters with a lady in dark glasses who’s definitely “Karan Arjun ki Ma”. The second is Rituparno Ghosh’s Urge, a gentle tongue-in-cheek look at Bombay’s place in the popular Indian imagination. The humour owes a lot to the self-referential treatment – the family seems straight out of a TV serial (clues are provided: the mother whines about having to give up her “last two serials”), and the Stardust-reading police inspector is clearly inspired to play detective by watching Bombay films. It is this ability to view the city bifocally, to see how the mythical Bombay feeds off the real one (and vice versa) that makes Mumbai Cutting a true benchmark in the long line of Mumbai films.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 34, Dated Aug 30, 2008)

25 August 2008

Living Image: Old Delhi in literature

An essay for Time Out Delhi, on changing literary depictions of Shahjahanbad over the last century:
Photograph by Abhinandita Mathur
“Anything about which one knows that one soon will not have it around becomes an image,” wrote Walter Benjamin. While Shahjahanbad is nowhere near disappearing from the face of the earth, the death of its spirit has been much lamented in twentieth century writing, and there is no doubt that much of the throbbing, pulsating life that coursed through the city’s veins at the start of the century no longer exists, except in memory.

The creation of New Delhi in 1931 relegated Shahjahan’s once-magnificent city to the status of “Old” Delhi, which came to be perceived increasingly through the developmental lenses of “congestion” and sanitation rather than as an organic settlement with its own vision of what a city is. But even as political power and cultural patronage moved bag and baggage to New Delhi’s tree-lined avenues, the bustling galis and kuchas of the walled city – and the quieter bungalows of the Civil Lines – became for many a writer, a window into a “more authentic” Delhi.

Among the earliest twentieth century literary attempts to document the disappearing life of the walled city was Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940). Set in the period 1911-1919, Twilight draws on a fund of memory to fill out a portrait of life in Delhi in loving ethnographic detail: the pigeon-flyers and the kite-fighters, the kababchis and the kulfi-sellers, the beggars and the healers, the poets and the qawwals. It is a love song to a dying world – a world that may have been feudal, flawed and untenable, but whose ideals one still cherished, whose purity one admired, and whose once-incandescent beauty was not easily forgotten.

Certainly, for someone who helped found the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Ali displays very little enthusiasm for the transformations of modernity. Instead, we read of the “grating noise” of trams, of engine smoke blackening the evening sky, of Chandni Chowk being disfigured by the demolition of the central causeway and the cutting down of shade-giving peepal trees, and most painful of all, the death of the old culture: “The richness of life had been looted and despoiled by the foreigners, and vulgarity and cheapness had taken its place. That relation which had existed between society and its poets and members was destroyed”.

Glimpses of a similarly conflicted relationship with a once-glorious but colonised past and a decolonized but forever corrupted, inauthentic, present appear in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day (1980). Moving between a 1970s present and a 1940s past, Desai’s allusions to “Old Delhi decadence” conjure up a contrasting vision of New Delhi as a place “where things happen”. But Desai allows for no easy choices. Hyder Ali and Raja, who represent Old Delhi, with their poetic flourishes and delusions of grandeur, are treated with as much ambivalence (“verses that… had thrilled her then with their Persian glamour”) as the diplomat Bakul’s smug efficiency (“smoothed” by “the bland oil of self-confidence”).

Desai’s Old Delhi, interestingly, is not the walled city but the Civil Lines, a European enclave of sprawling colonial bungalows to which upper-class Indian families started moving in the 1910s and 1920s. The Civil Lines of Clear Light, however, is a much lonelier place than the one remembered by Sheila Dhar (Raga’n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life, 1995), whose barrister grandfather spearheaded just such a move of her Mathur Kayastha extended family, from “the congested lanes of Chailpuri in the old city” to the “spacious and elegant” houses whose new Anglicized lifestyle awed relatives visiting from the walled city. “It was noted with envy and admiration that breakfast in these households consisted of eggs, toast and jam, instead of vegetable bhujia with paratha, and that even the women had begun to use spoons, though only little ones, to eat.”

And yet, for all the billiards, bridge and Scotch whisky that had replaced chess, ganjifa and keora sharbat, Dhar’s sparkling memoir of her 1940s childhood reveals many connections to an older style of Delhi life. The ustads who first taught Dhar classical music came from the walled city – Mohan Baba from Neel Katra, Bundu Khan from Suiwalan – and family outings were planned as if from Sheher – “walks by the Jamuna, trips to the Qudsia Gardens, picnics at Okhla in the mango season”.

By the 1950s, however, the separation between the old city and the new was complete. Madhusudan, the narrator of Mohan Rakesh’s seminal 1961 novel, Andhere Band Kamre (translated as Lingering Shadows [1993]), rents a room in Qassabpura, but spends his waking hours in Connaught Place, wondering whether he will ever live in the style of his friends Harbans and Nilima, in their Hanuman Road bungalow “with paintings on the walls”. For Thakurain, his landlady, Connaught Place is a distant “outing” – she excitedly remembers having gone there once, “on Independence Day with Thakur Saheb.”

In one of the book’s most devastating scenes, Madhusudan writes a newspaper feature on “the streets of Delhi” whose mention of Qassabpura’s dilapidated houses results in the Municipal Committee threatening to pull down Thakurain’s home. Old Delhi was no longer about poetry and music, or even delusions of grandeur – it was a dirty, congested, “breeding ground for epidemics”, full of houses of “the sort that should be condemned!” Rakesh’s novel coincided with the 1962 Delhi Master Plan’s schemes for “decongesting” Shahjahanbad and its declaration as a notified slum.

Even nostalgia, if it existed, now served as an excuse for demolition. Jagmohan followed up his Rebuilding Shahjahanbad (1975) with his infamous attempt to “clear” sections of the old city during the Emergency. It was not until the 1990s, with William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns (1993) and Krishna Sobti’s magisterial Dil-o-Danish (1993) that Old Delhi began its slow return journey to being a site of history and romance, leading to an increasing interest in it as “heritage”.

It remains to be seen what writers in the 21st century will make of a city that must now negotiate a path between preserving havelis and thriving trade, a path that will hopefully allow for both cycle-rickshaws and the Metro.

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2 Issue 4 (Jan 25 - Feb 7, 2008)

The Romance of the Single Screen

The demolition of Chanakya Cinema, December, 2008. Designed by PN Mathur (Photo courtesy Ram Rahman's blog)

My first memories of watching films in Delhi are rather hazy. I remember watching Masoom and crying, and being taken to see a film in which Rishi Kapoor sang a qawwali. If I really dredge the depths of my memory, the image that floats up is from when I was about five – an expedition with my father, to watch a ‘children’s film’. What I remember is not something from the film (it must have been in English, which I barely understood at the time), but the morning sun, a crowd of people and a poster with a picture of a girl and a dog, propped up at the entrance to a hall that I am convinced was Chanakya. The year was probably 1982.

Chanakya remained centrestage in my movie-going life through the 1990s, though Priya provided stiff competition. School expeditions to Priya were where a whole generation of girls were weaned into expressions of undying love by Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. (The Terminator probably didn’t do as much damage to the boys.)

Last winter, I happened to be in Delhi when the NDMC managed to wrest control of Chanakya from its long-term leaseholders and decided that it would be demolished to make way for a mall-cum-multiplex. “Last day, last show at Chanakya!” said the city supplements. A friend and I showed up to say our farewells. We weren’t the only ones. Tickets were sold out. A huge crowd surrounded the hall – strangers smiling at each other, middle-aged men swapping memories with twenty-somethings. We finally bought tickets in black. Going out with a bang, I remember saying, with a tinge of something like pride.

But going, all the same. Most of the halls that people remember from the seventies and eighties have either gone, or shrunk: from the great, hulking, comfortable beasts they once were into unrecognizable glossy creatures with tinsel wings that shimmer in the night. I was young enough to celebrate the transformation, once: in my first year at college, I woke up at seven on a Sunday and braved a full-scale Delhi stampede to get a free ticket to the first-ever show at the city’s first-ever multiplex – PVR Saket, where once had been Anupam. But I didn’t quite realize then the shape of things to come. Within a few years, the multiplexes increased in number as well as clout. They managed, for example, to get rid of the clause that had required them to sell a small percentage of tickets at low prices (in PVR Saket in 1997, any seat in the first two rows was a joyful Rs 7).

I left Delhi soon after. When I came back, Alankar, my mother’s old favourite from long-ago Defence Colony days, had become 3Cs and Eros, where I had watched many an evening (while casting sidelong glances at the “morning show” posters) had disappeared. Where the hall had been was nothing but a crater – and the name. Like thousands of others, I mention Eros every time I give directions to Jangpura, where I now live. It strikes me that Eros is but one name in the vast geography of a city marked by absent cinema halls. Think of the hundreds of times you’ve jumped into an auto and pronounced tersely, “Savitri”, or perhaps, “Kamal ke paas”, or “Archana-wale road par”, with no need to say another word. Sometimes I wonder if the ease of that communication, that common language of the city, evokes an earlier time when cinemas were spaces that the middle class shared – if sometimes grudgingly – with the working masses. Everyone knew the difference between Regal and Rivoli and Odeon and Plaza, even if they were all in Connaught Place. In contrast, there is something untranslatable, incommunicable, about the difference between Citywalk and Square One – both are merely “Saket wale naye mall”. One reason why the autowala thinks they’re indistinguishable might be that he will never see the inside of either. But perhaps the real reason is that they are no different.

My nostalgia for the old halls isn’t blind – they were (and the survivors still are) cavernous, often dirty and predominantly male. Seediness came with the territory. You didn’t need to be bunking school or watching an A-rated movie to feel transgressive: if you were female, just being in a cinema alone was enough. The first time I went to watch a film alone was during IFFI 1996. I caught a bus from college to Sheila to see Sai Paranjpe’s Papiha, and bought a front stall ticket. It was an innocuous, feel-good tale about a forest officer amid tribals – but I will never forget the rousing reception I got from the men around me when the lights came on. Another memorable time I took a cousin and an unsuspecting French friend to watch a Govinda film at Stadium Cinema. The hall had clearly seen better days, but we were intrepid, and the tickets were Rs 20. It was only when a worried-looking ticket checker set about finding us seats with his flashlight that we realized a) that only a third of the seats were unbroken, and b) that there no other women in the audience, let alone foreign ones.

Multiplexes, for all their cookie-cutter aesthetics and ridiculously overpriced snacks, probably do make life easier for women who can afford them. But most single-screen cinemas in Delhi seem to be going the Stadium way: interesting variations include Imperial in Paharganj, which now fills up every night by showing 80s multistarrers for twenty bucks a ticket, and Moti in Daryaganj, which has tied its fortunes to the rising Bhojpuri tide. Some few have managed to survive the transformative years without losing their identities completely – one model is that of Priya, which keeps afloat because it’s part of the PVR family. But another model is Delite, now divided into Delite and Delite Diamond, its wooden panelling and illuminated, jewel-like ceiling clearly a labour of love for its owners. The neebu pani and samosas and photos of Dilip Kumar visiting the hall in its older avatar make people describe it as retro. Yet the place is as far from being a museum as possible, with the crowds rolling in every night. Clearly there is a space for something that’s beyond the multiplex – why aren’t there more people seeking to fill it?

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2 Issue 8 (July 11-24, 2008)

17 August 2008

Sham-e-Awadh: Book Review

Author : Ed by Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Publisher : Penguin
Cost : Indian Rupees 395

Most readers probably expect exactly what this anthology of writings about Lucknow delivers. There are tales of nawabi delicacy and decadence, accounts of British depradations and melancholy twentieth century laments on the decline of everything – architecture, music, dance, language, manners – that had once made the city famous as the repository of cultural refinement. Yet, Sham-e-Awadh leaves you with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Perhaps the problem with the book is precisely this failure to depart from expectations. Piece after piece goes down the same well-trodden paths, as if what can be said or thought about Lucknow is circumscribed by some pre-existing narrative outline. This is particularly true of the attempts to sum up what has happened to Lucknow in the twentieth century. Veena Talwar Oldenburg herself never seems to look at the present city except to look for survivors from its gentler past. Neither Mrinal Pande’s take on the new political culture forged by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, nor Nasima Aziz’s description of the grand double wedding of the sons of magnate Subroto Roy manage to go beyond evoking the predictable shock-and-awe to actually tell us something we don’t already know.

Oldenburg’s elegiac proclivities make the historical sections much more substantial – the eminently readable extract from Flora Annie Steel’s 1897 novel (On The Face of the Waters, set in 1850s Lucknow) is a revelation, as is Carla Petievich’s all-too-brief glimpse into the sexier, more colloquial side of Urdu poetry, rekhti. There are several individual portraits that provide revealing insights into the city – especially Michael Edwardes’ affecting little account of Hazrat Mahal (“the Rebel Begum”), and Saleem Kidwai on Begum Akhtar’s complex relationship with Lucknow.

But even here, the book seems incomplete, since Oldenburg uses her editorial privilege to give us not one but two of her own accounts of Nawabi Lucknow and chooses to include nothing at all from Abdul Halim Sharar, who spent his childhood in the Lucknow of Wajid Ali Shah and produced an account of the city’s life and culture that is unrivalled in its detail. Trisha Gupta

Published in Time Out Delhi and Time Out Mumbai, 2007

Book Review: Two Sisters

Two Sisters
Rabindranath Tagore
Rupa & Co, Rs. 95

This tale of two very different sisters, published in 1933, is one of Tagore’s last novels. The elder sister, Sarmila, is a type who appears often in Tagore’s literary universe – the grihini, or housewife, in whose seemingly prosaic world lies the possibility of poetry. The younger sister, Urmi, is more attractive, but also flightier – she embodies the new educated woman. Sarmila is devoted to her husband Sasanka, and when she falls ill, calls in her sister to help keep her household in running order.

The novel proceeds to unravel the complex web of desire and guilt created by Urmi’s arrival, while providing an effortless portrait of an Anglicised, Bengali world where “the pursuit of medical science” vies for attention with tennis matches and sitar classes. Simultaneously, psychological character study and sharply ironic social commentary, Dui Bon is written with an enviable surety of touch, always perceptive and never heavy-handed.

Krishna Kripalani’s translation, Two Sisters, was first published in 1943, two years after the author’s death, and has been reissued by Rupa as part of their Rabindra Rachanavali series. Many Tagore translations are now old enough to be in the public domain, enabling these paperback editions to be made available very reasonably: Mashi & Other Stories, for example, is priced at Rs 95, and Dak-ghar (The Post Office), Tagore’s richly symbolic play about an imaginative and lonely boy, at Rs 50.

The reader might object to the clumsily literal, old-fashioned English of the translation (“…she was afraid lest Sasanka should again after his bath get engrossed in work and Urmi’s day be rendered fruitless for want of his leisure”), but that would be quibbling, at these prices. In fact, this literal quality pushes the reader to imagine the Bengali that lies just below the surface, occasionally breaking through to reveal its presence – and that, as the German theorist Walter Benjamin famously said, is what translation should always strive to do.

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2007

14 August 2008

Remembering the Revolt

On its 150th anniversary, I map the trajectory of the Revolt of 1857 in Delhi. (A piece written for Time Out Delhi, in May 2007)

Mosque Picket, Delhi. Felice Beato, albumen print, photographer’s ref D3, 1858-59, 253 x 304 mm. This Mosque was strategically at a vital position, approximately the centre of the Ridge, thereby covering the most vulnerable segment of the British camp. The complete absence of human life suggests that the photograph was taken after September 14th 1857, when the Mosque was abandoned.
If you know where to look, it’s easy to find the Chauburja Mosque. Hemmed in by a veritable forest of greenery, just inside an iron fence that sets that section of the northern Ridge apart from the Delhi University Campus, it’s like a surprise present that declares itself by being gift-wrapped. What’s harder to do is to recognise it as the same place as the one in the picture above. The Chauburja dates back to either 1354 or 1373, the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq. Lucy Peck, an expert on Delhi’s monuments, suggests that it was originally a square tomb and was only later converted into a mosque with “plain late-Mughal decorations”. But for any viewer in the know, the real impact of this image is inseparable from its status as a “Mutiny photograph”.

Felice Beato’s photograph of the Chauburja was taken during the photographer’s now-legendary visit to India in 1858 to document “the Mutiny”. It now lives out a quiet afterlife, along with several such remarkable images, in the archive of the Alkazi Foundation. The caption for this picture (as provided by the Foundation) reads, “Mosque Picket: This Mosque was strategically at a vital position, approximately the centre of the Ridge, thereby covering the most vulnerable segment of the British camp. The complete absence of human life suggests that the photograph was taken after September 14th 1857, when the Mosque was abandoned.”

In Beato’s image, the mosque still has three of its four burjes (domes), though a few cannon holes seem to bear witness to its role in the recent violent events. But what gives the image its sense of utter desolation is not so much the cannon holes, or even the plaster and stone facing that has fallen away in patches, throwing open to the elements the structure’s inner core of rubble – though these are part of it. It is the total isolation of the structure; the way it emerges, solitary and clearly unused, out of a largely barren rocky landscape.

Beato arrived in India straight from the Crimean War, where he had been engaged, along with Roger Fenton, in the creation of some of the first photographic images of an ongoing war. Images that were something like a precursor to the “live footage” that, at the beginning of the twenty first century, we have come to both greedily expect and cynically disregard. As far as the 1857 uprising was concerned, however, Beato arrived too late to be able to actually capture the events as they took place. Not easily dissuaded, he went from Lucknow to Delhi to Kanpur, in each place assiduously “setting the scene” so that he could recreate something of the immediacy of history as it happened. Beato’s most famous image, ‘Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2000 Rebels” is a stunning instance of this procedure – he actually ordered the exhumation of half-buried corpses so that he could pose the skeletal remains in the courtyard of Sikanderbagh. The photograph that resulted clearly achieved something of Beato’s desired effect – it was later wrongly captioned in London, suggesting that it had been taken on the very day of the assault in Sikanderbagh.

But the four human figures in the foreground of the mosque look anything but spontaneous. They appear, in fact, laboriously positioned (and how long they must have had to remain still, in those days of long exposure photography) – deliberately inserted into the picture to provide human scale as well as to depict some of the natives, now suitably subdued. The two turbaned men in the front look up at the mosque with what? Admiration? Awe? Or simply indifference? We cannot see their expressions. Beato’s carefully composed image successfully incorporates the now-docile natives – but it cannot so easily determine what the natives see.


It is impossible, today, to view the mosque from the position of the two men in Beato’s picture. For one thing, if you get that distance away from the structure, you will probably be standing outside the fence that separates the now park-like Ridge area from the road. For another, it is surrounded by shady trees, whose branches hang low over the single remaining dome and occasionally swing dangerously close to your head as a large female monkey swoops down to gather up her unprotected infant. Monkeys, in fact, own the masjid. There is a whole colony of them that seems to live here, whooping and chattering and clambering all over it. And there are many more, all along the path that leads from the Chauburja to the Flagstaff Tower, picking the lice from each other’s heads with an uncannily human look of concentration. The atmosphere is simultaneously junglee and domestic.

It is hard to believe that this fenced-in park, with its odd combination of leafy greenery and tarred pathways, families of monkeys and families of evening walkers – many of whom carry stout sticks to ward off the unwanted attentions of said simians – is the same stretch of the Delhi Ridge which historian Percival Spear described as “bare, a stony furnace in the hot weather, and a mirror of heat for civilians and soldiers on either side.” It becomes a little easier to imagine if you read Lucy Peck, who points out that the Ridge in the nineteenth century was covered in nothing more than low scrub – afforestation began only in the twentieth century.

Flagstaff Tower, Delhi. Felice Beato, albumen print, 1858-9, 254 x 304 mm. The Delhi Ridge lies between Flagstaff Tower and Hindu Rao’s House. European survivors of the Delhi massacres assembled in the Tower in May 1857. The building still exists, and has not altered in appearance since this photograph was taken. It is now within the campus of Delhi University, close to the Vice-Chancellor’s residence.
The low-level, sparse vegetation was also the reason why this high point of the Ridge was a perfect site to locate a signal tower, which is what the Flagstaff originally was. High visibility apart, Spear argues that the Flagstaff, firmly planted at the top of the most difficult terrain in the region, was a concrete symbol of British determination to remain in possession of Delhi. The reason why the tower was one of Beato’s chosen sites, however, was the fact that during the course of the fateful day of May 11, 1857, it had become the gathering point for all the British families that had managed to escape with their lives from the cantonment and Civil Lines.

“The single interior room of the tower was only 18 feet in diameter, windowless and stuffy at the best of times; at the height of the hot season it was like an oven,” writes William Dalrymple in his detailed account of the day’s events. Many of the women massed inside were sent up a suffocating interior staircase, and several fainted, partly from lack of air and partly from the shock of the news that their husbands, brothers or sons had been killed. The young Florence Wagentrieber, one of those present, later described the scene, “There was not a tree near the tower to shelter it from the hot sun… the heat was unbearable, and the children were stripped of every garment.” Eventually, realizing (as Dalrymple puts it) that “this isolated tower was quite indefensible, and that to mass the women and children in such a spot was to invite a further and much larger massacre than that which had already taken place within the walls of the city,” and shocked by the appearance of a creaking bullock cart filled with the bodies of British officers who had been killed earlier that morning, the gathered crowd piled into whatever carriages they had and set off on the Grand Trunk Road towards or Panipat, Karnal and Ambala.

The British returned to the Ridge a month later, after defeating the rebel troops at the battle of Badli on June 8. The troops started to march from their camp at Alipore, 8 miles north of Delhi, at 1am. According to Zahir Dehalvi, an attendant to Bahadur Shah Zafar who was watching from the city walls, “When the English reached the cantonments, they saw that all the entrenchments were completely quiet. So they went up and occupied these posts, burnt the rebel camps and turned the abandoned cannon towards the city.” By 5pm that evening, the Ridge was in British hands. But they soon realized that though their intention was to besiege the city (and they had partly succeeded), they were now themselves besieged.

Not having the numbers to actually capture the city, the British had no option but to remain where they were and “somehow to cling on and endure whatever the rebels threw at them until such time as relief came.” Apart from the daily bombardment from the city, conditions on the Ridge were terrible – water was scarce, sewage arrangements minimal, and the rotting corpses of men and animals led to an epidemic of flies. Charles John Griffiths wrote of the lack of shelter from the unrelenting heat, so that many of the troops “died from apoplexy and sunstroke, their faces turning quite black in a couple of minutes.”

As you look around Flagstaff Tower today, at the neatly-planted rows of trees in every direction, it seems only natural to wonder whether the 1912 Town Planning Committee’s decision to thus domesticate the Ridge had something to do with the traumatic four months the British spent camped in the inhospitable, treeless expanse that it then was.

                                                       * * *

Within the city, too, the months of June, July and August 1857 were a miserable time. Unlike the British, who at least had an unceasing supply of food and provisions, and were in a position to pay good prices for them, the citizens of Delhi suffered greatly from shortages. The large numbers of troops now massed in the city greatly increased the demand for foodstuffs and other goods, but their salaries were irregular and insufficient. As a result, there were constant complaints of civilians being looted by bands of soldiers, often based on the convenient belief that the citizen concerned, who had supplies of money or food, was a British sympathizer. For the mercantile class, both Muslim and Hindu, wrote Percival Spear, “the whole period was a long nightmare of forced loans, extortions and domiciliary visits, of insult and indignity… (while) the clerical class, mainly Hindu, tinctured with the new learning and British sympathies, lived in fear of denunciation as ‘friends of the English’.”

On the morning of September 11, the British marched down from the Ridge and advanced on the city in four separate columns. The Kashmiri Gate was the site of the first successful breach in the city walls, and thus became the emblem of the British takeover of Delhi. In November 1857, Governor-General Canning offered “a tribute of admiration and thanks to the brave soldiers… who accomplished the desperate task”. But the commemorative plaque that currently stands outside the gate was placed there by Lord Napier, the then Commander in Chief of the forces, a full twenty years afterwards, in 1876. It is not clear why the inscription took so long to come up, or why it was set up in 1876. Historian Nayanjot Lahiri has recently suggested that it may have been occasioned by the visit of the Prince of Wales to Delhi in January 1876, or more likely, as part of the preparations for the first Imperial Assemblage, which was also held in the city in 1877.

The Kashmiri Gate, Delhi. Samuel Bourne. Albumen print, photographer’s ref 1357, 1865, 231 x 292 mm. The Kashmiri Gate was built in 1835 by Major Robert Smith. In early 1857, it was made into a double gateway. The epic assault on Delhi began from this quarter in September 1857, and the Gateway became an iconic image of British victory over the ‘rebel’ forces.

The Imperial Assemblage of 1877 – a grand gathering of British officers and Indian princes to celebrate the fact of Queen Victoria having taken the title Empress of India in 1876 – marked some important shifts in British policy towards the city. The beautiful Zinat-ul-Masjid and the Fatehpuri Masjid at the western end of Chandni Chowk, which the British had turned into barracks and a bakery, respectively, in the immediate aftermath of 1856 as a way of punishing the citizenry (especially the Muslim citizenry who were seen as being predominantly responsible for the Revolt) were re-opened for public worship during the Assemblage. Together with the Jama Masjid, which had been re-opened for worship in 1862, however, the mosques were only handed back to the Muslim community on the condition that they would be maintained “in good repair”.

The irony of the British stipulating conditions for the upkeep of mosques that they had, only two decades ago, nearly destroyed and then used to house Sikh soldiers or rented to Hindu and Jain merchants as shop premises, was surely not lost upon the locals. But the British policy on the mosques needs to be seen not as merely outrageous, but as symbolic of a much wider shift, from destruction to conservation. The very fact that the Jama Masjid, or any of the other symbols of past Mughal grandeur, was not entirely demolished after the Revolt; that it remained to be photographed by someone like Samuel Bourne, came to be, for colonial viewers of these photographs, a sign of British generosity, of the colonisers’ inherent “civilisedness”.

Samuel Bourne, albumen print, 1865, 210 x 294 mm.
This view shows the desolate surroundings of the Jama Masjid. In the immediate aftermath of the Uprising, the Jama Masjid was almost destroyed as a mark of Imperial supremacy. The building was eventually desecrated by the British soldiers billeted there, and the prayer halls were used as stables for cavalry horses.
We are not an inherently memorializing people. We do not have a plaque at Kashmiri Gate declaring that it was, after the Revolt, the route through which thousands of Delhi’s citizens – “women who had never seen the outside of their zenana walls” – were stripped of all their money and jewels as they sought to flee the city. We have no signs that might tell you that the Jama Masjid was once, in that summer of 1857, the site for the massing of freelance jihadi fighters from places like Hissar and Tonk, or that the standard of jihad set up in the Masjid by one Maulvi Muhammad Sayyid was ordered to be taken down by Zafar that same day, to put an end to “such a display of fanaticism.” Or that in the immediate aftermath of 1857, there was a full-fledged campaign calling for its destruction. “There are several mosques in the city most beautiful to look at. But I should like to see them all destroyed,” wrote the soldier Hugh Chichester to his father. “The rascally brutes desecrated our churches and graveyards and I do not think we should have any regard for their stinking religion.” Some of the city’s loveliest mosques, like the Akbarabadi Masjid, and several grand palaces were actually levelled. The destruction of the others, and indeed of much of the city, was only prevented by the intervention of John Lawrence.

Looking at the Jama Masjid today, you’re unlikely to think about British “generosity”. Perhaps that amnesia is only natural, a measure of how happily distant that time is for us. But Bourne’s image, with the desolation of the open space forcibly cleared for 70 yards around the mosque, should at least serve to remind us of how close we came to not having it at all.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 1 Issue 4, May 2007

Is IT a bird? Witchcraft and the Computer Course

An essay I wrote in January 2002, some months after finishing a Social Anthropology degree at Cambridge, and in the immediate wake of a visit to Ganesh Devy's then-nascent Tejgarh Tribal Academy in Gujarat. 

The Azande of Sudan, immortalised by EE Evans-Pritchard in that wonderfully unselfconscious, "The-Tagawawa-are-my-best-friends" way that anthropologists still had in 1937, lived in a world in which witchcraft was all pervasive. Witches could be men or women, and had the hereditarily-acquired power to do harm to a person or his family, psychically. Those who suffered misfortune could try and find out who was responsible by consulting one of several oracles. The most common oracle was a chicken, who was fed a reasonable quantity of poison called benge and given the name of a possible witch. The truth or falsehood of the accusation was then established by whether the fowl lived or died.

The tribal world, if at all such a gross generalization is possible, is populated with a host of spirits and forces that are capable of having a powerful influence upon human beings. Some are usually associated with seriously deleterious effects on mind and body, while others might be rather more beneficial in their impact. In no way do I mean to suggest that only tribal people believe in ghosts and spirits, but it so happens that I recently spent a few days discussing these things with some adivasi students in Gujarat, and time and again in those conversations I found myself making, with a passion that I never realised I could invoke in the service of modern science, a case for rationality, (as opposed to belief in the ojha's powers or jhaadh-phoonk techniques).

I had gone to explore the possibilities of working with a Baroda-based organisation that has set up a first-of-its-kind Diploma in Tribal Studies. It's a two-year course, with a theoretical and a practical side to it. The idea is for adivasi students to be trained in development survey work in villages and introduced to some development jargon - so that the classroom is the constant site of discussions in which terms like Needs-Based Approach, BPL Families (Below Poverty Line families), Microcredit Mandli and so on, are bounced back and forth with as much faith and vigour as in any self-respecting TISS project report. The other parallel motivation is to provide exposure to viewpoints and theoretical perspectives that the students may not have had a chance to engage with before.

Already, at the academy, ideas for the preservation of traditional Rathwa medicine jostle with government schemes which rest upon doling out large quantities of additional vitamins and minerals in tablet form each month. There is a tradition of Pithora wall painting in the region, which the Artists' Cooperative is trying to preserve. The three-day ritual performance which culminates in the creation of Baba Pithoro might, they have realised, be a difficult thing to market. So they sell large expanses of cellophane-protected muslin, stretched taut on wooden frames. Caught behind the cellophane, whole forests teem with life. Peacocks and mynahs and raucous green parrots fly above the horses of Indralok, scarlet and green, their hooves kicking up the dust. To me, though, they seem constrained. In a way that they didn't on their mud wall in Malaaja village. But these seem like unsolvable dilemmas, and I decide to leave them alone for the moment.

Then the next day, fifteen young men -- graduates in Gujarati and sociology and economics, who have lessons in basic linguistics and computers, and have set up committees to deal with sickle-cell anaemia patients -- started talking to me about bhoots and prets who carry off children and daayans who bewitch families. One speaks of the ojha who cured him of an undiagnosed "weakness", another of a local Rathwa tribal ritual specialist, the badhwo - in the same breath as the 'modern' medical system: injections, haemoglobin counts, hospitalisation. And suddenly, I find myself shifting -- slowly, but surely, from the supposedly value-neutral anthropological position -- to that of the scientific, anti-superstition rationalist. The process alarms me slightly.

So when I come home, I find myself turning the pages of notes I wrote as part of a long-ago course on the anthropology of knowledge. Anthropology, right from its early Fraserian avatar, has been interested in what it saw as 'irrational' beliefs and practices: the world of gods and demons, magic and witchcraft.

{Often, the domain that the anthropologist describes as magic or witchcraft does not exist as a category in the minds of those who practice them. Evans-Pritchard makes clear, for example, that Zande magic, though it may be systematic, is not theorised or systematised by the Azande themselves. If the category is of the anthropologist's making, then there must be anthropological criteria that make certain practices or beliefs magical. Behaviour which seems not to be effective in the realisation of its apparent goal, or a belief in powers or beings whose existence is not substantial, can be classified as magical. Already, we have stepped beyond mere observation of behaviour into defining what its goals might or might not be.}

Three kinds of explanations have tended to emerge for such beliefs and practices. There have been those who categorise magic as ineffectual behaviour, based on mistaken or illogical belief systems: the so-called intellectualists (Fraser, Tylor, etc). The problem with a strong form of this position is that those who practice witchcraft also perform tasks that involve fairly complex abstract reasoning: the same 'primitive' who believes in voodoo also builds real houses, using techniques that are fairly complicated.

Then there are the symbolists - who provide an 'expressive' explanation of magical practices. As Peter Winch argued with regard to the Azande, the oracular revelation is not a matter of intellectual interest, but a tool which is used to decide how to act. Therefore, the question of refutation or confirmation does not arise. Winch's question is: does someone who presses the notion of witchcraft to its logical conclusion (and finds inconsistencies) necessarily act more rationally than the Azande (who do not)?

He argues that something can only appear 'rational' or 'irrational' to someone in terms of his understanding of what is and is not rational. Winch, in effect, suggests that Zande magical rites and practices express an attitude to human life, and a recognition that life is subject to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these. This position has been taken also by others who draw a contrast between scientific explanation and magical analogy: the former can be judged true or false, the latter only legitimate or 'felicitous' - or not.

But does a strong form of relativism, a la Winch, tell us anything about rationality? If magic is an expressive ritual -- like kicking a chair when one is angry -- then belief, at least in the propositional sense needing rational approval, is not germane to the explanation of ritual/magic action. Yet, rationality is measured with respect to beliefs, coherence, consistency of thought and so on. Magic may have expressive and performative elements, but if it has any claims to an impact in the material world, then can it be considered a different type of thought from say, science?

Critics of the strong relativist position, like Robin Horton, point out that such an assumption of 'difference' would prevent anthropologists from making a studied culture intelligible to their own at all. Horton argues that western anthropologists, afraid to be seen as 'inegalitarian' or racist, have insisted therefore that much of what seems like theoretical thought in non-western cultures is actually thought of quite a different genre, with goals quite different from those of explanation, prediction and control.

Horton's argument is that science and magic are not so far apart. The opposition between them is not that between common sense and mystical thought. In fact, both explain the world in terms of underlying uniform laws. Both are forms of theory used to explain what common sense cannot: action at a distance. Magic is not used as a substitute for a theory of natural causation, but works as an explanation for particularity -- 'why did my son fall ill? In Evans-Pritchard's terms, beliefs about witchcraft and magic form a closed system - 'a web of belief' which insulates those who lived in it from anomaly. Thus, apparent falsifications - a mistaken prediction or an ineffective cure -- can be explained by bad materials, fraudulent practitioners, broken taboos or occult interference. Such 'secondary elaborations' help to preserve the truth of magic.

Horton argues that scientists, too, practice secondary elaboration in their explanations, citing bad apparatus or otherwise imperfect conditions as reasons for anomalies, or tagging caveats onto their theories to make them fit the evidence better.

Horton's conclusion: that it is wrong to think of magical thought as anything less than scientific. What is not scientific, or strictly rational, in magical thought is the fear of abandoning theory - the'closed predicament' in Popperian terms. Whereas magical thought and practice is hedged round with taboo, and believers react with fear when it is questioned, Horton argues that scientific thought is constantly actively challenged: a continuous critical monitoring of theory takes place.

But I do not know if 'science', when it appears as a solar lantern in an adivasi village in Gujarat, or even in the computer centre in Tejgarh Tribal Academy, is indicative of, or subjected to, a greater degree of critical questioning, than say, the spirits of the badhwo's dream-world or the bhagat priest's cure for jaundice. There is really not much difference in the faith that the badhwo asks the adivasi to place in his ritual incantations, and the faith we would rather he places in say, the power of two yellow tablets a day to keep him from fainting in the fields at noon.

Regardless of the particular effects of each, the point I am trying to make is this: seen from the point of view of the woman in Malaaja village, the workings of both processes -- traditional medicine and modern science - are equally hidden from view. And offered to her in quite the same way, from above, to be accepted unquestioningly.

All over India, and all over the world, perhaps, there is this sudden great desire to learn computers. In these days of IT, the computer course, from Bareilly to Belgaum, has come to represent a hotline to information that is knowledge that is power -- and of course, money. 'Computer course' : most potent symbol of the modern age, of science, of technological advancement - the word is almost magic.

There will be computers, too, in Malaaja. But having access to the tools of modern science does not change how people think. The astronomer who believes in Vishnu's creation of the world, the state trading associations which perform yagnas to ensure that stock prices will rise, all of us who read the Sunday newspaper horoscopes and feel that slight sense of apprehension -- or happy anticipation -- perhaps none of us subscribe to a single, coherent belief system. People often have views that are inconsistent with other views that they themselves hold -- and they may argue for different views at different times.

What then makes my belief in Bejan Daruwalla's predictions for heartbreak this week, or whatever, different from Veereshbhai's belief in the ghost who is the cause of his household's misfortune? Is it just that I have more choices, greater access to a greater variety of preventions and cures? Perhaps what is crucial is that we do not merely dole out the bounties of science, but attempt to spread that elusive thing -- its spirit. The spirit of critical enquiry, to which both the badhwo and the sarkari dawakhana must be subjected, so that one is not merely substituted by the other.

Published on the website 'digitaltalkies.com', January-February 2002.

Alwar: The Nearest Pavilions

A piece published in Outlook Traveller magazine in February 2002.

Don't miss it. Take the Delhi-Jaipur highway: it's the first kingdom on your left.

City Palace, Alwar
"Vahan milk cake accha milta hai," mused a friend, "Baki kya hai Alwar mein?" "Alwar, haan?" said another, "Jao, jao, you must go. Alwar needs some tourism." I left for Alwar, somewhat unsure about the possibilities offered by this description. The remark turned out to be a premonition of sorts.

According to my hurried Google search of the night before, Alwar was, around 1500 BC, one of Rajasthan's oldest cities, part of the ancient territory of Matsya Desh. The Pandavas are believed to have spent 13 years of exile in the area, referred to in the Mahabharata as Viratnagar (modern Bairat).

In today's Alwar, though, tourism is in the air. Every hotel offers "cultural programmes" (a mix of ghoomar, bhavai and kachhi ghodi folk dances). I emerged to find a picturebook "Rajasthani scene": a white-haired old man in a bandhej turban, squatting on the terrace, smoking a hookah. Zahoor Khan Mewati turned out to be the head of a family of musicians who are the sole players of the bhapang: an instrument that makes a cheerful rhythmic sound, somewhere between a twang and a splash. They are now all Radio, TV and Filmi Artists, and Zahoor Khan listed the places he's performed at since New Year's Eve: Samode Palace, Lake Palace, Pragati Maidan.

Later, I was struck by his name, as I read about how the city passed from the founding Kachhwahas of Amber to the Nikkumbh Rajputs and the Bada Gurjars, before falling into the hands of the Khanzadas under Bahadur Nahar Mewati, who converted to Islam. The conversion seems to have been shrewd realpolitik: the Mewatis curried favour with the Tughlaqs in Delhi, while continuing to ally themselves with other Rajputs. Mr B from the Rajasthan government tells me that Alwar's Kayamkhani Muslims used "Hindu" marriage rituals till recently. "Yeh sab problem nahi thi na tab," he says wistfully.

The fort, known as Bala Quila, 1,000 feet above the town, is a grand edifice, but crisscrossed with wires and poles. It has functioned for years as a Police Control Room, and the policeman on duty glowered at us as we barged into his bedroom-cum-transmitter station uninvited, to point at the fading frescos on his ceiling. (Officially, you still need the SP's permission to enter.) Used by the Mughals as a base to attack Ranthambhor, it was a stopover for emperors. Babur and Akbar stayed overnight, and Jahangir lived out his exile in the now-ruined Salim Mahal. Not until 1775 did the Lalawat Naruka thakurs, led by Pratap Singh, capture the fort. It was this dynasty that the British invested with the title of Maharaja in 1803.

The relationship soured quickly though, and Maharaja legends are a dime a dozen. The Maharajah of Alwar just before Independence was notorious as a sadist, believed to have poured kerosene over his polo pony and set the poor animal on fire. The next is renowned for being always surrounded by pet tigers who ate out of his hands. Post independence, the family jumped into party politics: the present prince, Jitendra Singh, whose mother was a Congress MP, is now MLA.

Post-Independence governance has also taken over the architectural glories of the 18th century City Palace, which now houses the offices of the District Collectorate. Walk in through a narrow paan-stained balcony, and marvel at the architecture that doesn't let on at all about the sheer scale of the courtyard'until you're in it. The tapping of typewriters, a slow whirring of the wheels of government, is strangely juxtaposed with the mirrored grandeur of the Sheesh Mahal. The musty inner chamber nearly choked us with a century of cobwebs. But through the clouds of dust, in the dim torchlight, a beautifully etched Ram and Sita came glitteringly alive above our heads.


Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri
Behind the City Palace is a beautiful stepped tank locally known as Sagar, completed by Maharaja Vinay Singh in 1813 AD. The exquisite sandstone and marble Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri here was built in memory of the devoted mistress of Bakhtawar Singh. Of course, she earned Maharani status only in death, after becoming sati on Bakhtawar's pyre. Along the bank is a row of temples, now part of the houses of the Rajguru families assigned to them. A curious housewife invited me in to see her Gopinath temple, then insisted on showing me round her newly-built pukka rooms. Who was the priest, I asked. She seemed surprised: her sons, of course! And is that what they do for a living? Now she was shocked: "Nahin nahin, ek engineer hai, doosra B.Sc. kar raha hai."

I see more of present-day Alwar the next morning. The shutters are still down in Choori Wali Market but the chaiwallah in Baans Wali Gali offers us tea. At Tripolia ("three ways", though there are four), a crowd of worshippers waits to scoop up the charanaamrit flowing out of the famous but tiny Shiv temple. "Saare Baniye dukaandaar subah yahaan aate hain," says our guide. "Aur haan, Tripolia mein shooting hui thi Neelkamal picture ki." Kidar Sharma's Neelkamal (1947) famously transformed Raj Kapoor from clapper-boy to hero. Just off Tripolia we meet another hero. He is weaving his way dangerously through the gali, on a bicycle laden with milk cans, whistling. Until he sees us and the camera, stops, slicks his hair back and seats himself expectantly on the parapet to be photographed. Ajay Kumar reveals he's only a part-time milkman: in wedding season, he's a photographer himself.


We spend the day driving through Sariska's deciduous scrub forest, marvelling at the number of medieval ruins that dot the landscape. Clumps of bamboo and date palms grow in the shade. The gentler slopes are covered with purplish dhok trees, while the craggy quartzite Aravalli ridges rise along one side.

The ruins of Bhangarh

We arrive at Bhangarh. Since the ASI provides no information about this Protected Archaeological Park, I return to my website. Built in 1631 by Madho Singh, brother of Amber's Man Singh, this perfectly planned town was abandoned "due to reasons clothed in Mystery". There is certainly an air of enchanted slumber about these stone streets: the gnarled banyans twine possessively round the remains of the walls, crushing them in a fiercely silent embrace. In the magnificently carved Khajuraho-style temple, a deep kund gurgles with water from a natural spring - and in the ruined fort on the hill, the langurs are king.


The silence echoes at Kankwari too. The neem trees rustle in the courtyard, and the only other sound is of the pigeons fluttering. Dara Shikoh was imprisoned here by his brother Aurangzeb. The fort is magnificent: bastions and courtyards and a double crenellated wall that runs down the steep hillside, all the way to the lake.

We return to the jungle before dusk. Heading up from Bhairon Ghati, forest guard Devi Prasad whips out his walkie talkie, "Call aa rahi hai sir." The harsh sound of the sambhar, followed by the sharper, shorter call of the langur, and then the raucous peacock: the scene is set for the arrival of the king of the jungle. And yet it is not solely his domain. Even as we wait in our jeeps with bated breath, jackets rustling, a Gujar couple walks past nonchalantly, the woman swinging a shiny new milk pail.

The movement has stopped. We drive on, with not much hope now of tiger-spotting. Three jackals run across the road. The driver's sharp eyes spot a rare owl, only its bright eyes visible in the velvety darkness of the tree hollow. After two hours of commentary on the woes of wildlife watching, and suggestions for improvement ("I think we should have a tiger tied to a tree, aur jeep se usko dikha dena chahiye. Yeh to bahut disappointing ho jata hai."), we return to the Sariska Palace, which offers "brave- hearted visitors" not only rides on horseback, but a Tiger Trail on foot, accompanied by mashaal-bearing attendants. I wonder how many brave-hearted tigers will come within a 50-mile radius of men with flaming torches.

I return to Delhi, laden with milk cake. With forts, forests and palaces, I know there's plenty to see in Alwar. But does it really "need some tourism"? I'm still not sure.

Keys to the Kingdom:

Getting there
By rail: The Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Jaipur/Ajmer (daily except Sunday) leaves New Delhi at 6.15 am, and stops at Alwar Junction for two minutes at 8.32 am. The Intercity Express, Jaipur-Amritsar Express and the Varanasi-Jodhpur Marudhar Express also stop at Alwar. The 150-year-old Fairy Queen does Delhi-Alwar twice a month in season, but is part of a package tour that doesn't allow you to see anything but Sariska.

By bus: Regular buses depart for Alwar from Bikaner House in Delhi. By car: Driving to Alwar from Delhi (170km) takes only two hours on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway.

Where to stay
RTDC Hotel Meenal (Ph: 0144-347352) is a respectable mid-range place, charging from Rs 400 for tidy double rooms. A veg./non veg. thali costs Rs 55/70. Hotel Aravali (Ph: 332316, 339354) is a comfortable "two-star" near the PWD Rest House (Ph: 2886), and just next to the station. Rs 500-1,500 for a double. Apart from the recently built, swimming pool equipped Rithumbhara (Ph: 886279), there are Hotel Mayur (Ph: 337222) and Konark Guest House (Ph: 70564). Also a number of places on Manu Marg, including Hotel Alwar (Ph: 700341), whose proprietor Umakant Rustagi (aka Bubbles) is a character worth encountering. (If you're enthusiastic, he'll supplement the Dawat menu with some fabulous bajre ki roti, dollops of white butter and knobs of jaggery.) Doubles for Rs 500-1,000. You can also find out about the Paying Guest Scheme for tourists (from the Tourist Information Bureau, Nehru Bal Vihar, Opp. Purjan Vihar Garden; Ph: 21868).

What to eat

Prem Pavitra Bhojanalaya (also known as Prem Hotel): Run by the Beniwal brothers, near Alwar's Old Bus Stand, the Bhojanalaya offers great vegetarian food, including a fantastic stuffed parantha breakfast, with achaar, followed by kheer and hot gajar halwa. The dahi vada is to die for. There's also Mahaveer Bhojanalaya (Ph: 20168), as well as a South Indian café opposite Gopal Cinema (Ph: 23217).

In Alwar, you must eat milk cake. There's a whole area near the central Hope Circus called Kalakand Bazaar. Also called Punjabi Mava, the sweet came to Alwar with Partition refugees from Dera Ismail Khan. (Try the deliciously granular reddish-brown bhuna variety.) For a very affordable hot breakfast if you're up early, try the Mathurawale samose and kachori around Hope Circus, where three street vendors do brisk business for a couple of hours in the morning.

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, Feb 2002 issue

8 August 2008

The Politics of Toilets

In her fascinating 'ethno-sociology' of the artisans of Varanasi, academic Nita Kumar writes, "Men often told me that one aspect of the overall friendliness and convenience of the city was that they could urinate wherever they liked. This, I realized after months of unwilling observation, was not an exaggeration." Hilarity apart, Kumar's wry observation points to a serious - and largely unaddressed - issue: public access to toilets.

And this is the subject of Bombay-based documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra's quixotically titled film, 'Q2P'. The film uses the question, 'Who has to queue to pee?' to make visible the connection between the pleasures of roaming the city streets and access to public toilet facilities. It is a connection that has been largely ignored even by those who recognize that women's access to public space is a crucial part of the campaign for gender equality. Men, as we all know, can go anywhere, anytime.

The film focuses on Mumbai, placing the abysmal state of the city's toilets within the larger glittering vision of its future, in which there is no place for the poor - except as users of a mass rapid transit system that would remove them from the city as soon as the day's work is over.

In its quest for an accessible, clean, women's toilet, the film takes us through a variety of locales and into conversations with different groups of urban women. We travel to Bombay Municipal Corporation schools, where toilet facilities are often non-existent, or so bad that girls and teachers (90 per cent of whom are women) try their best to avoid using them. They drink no liquids all day and often suffer from stomachaches and urinary infections. Then we visit a beauty-training institute where the girls first giggle and insist they've never needed to use a public toilet ("Aisi naubat hi nahi aayi"), but finally admit they're too embarrassed to search for one if they do feel the need.

Vohra talks to men in a small Udupi restaurant, who speculate obligingly - and to hilarious effect - on the reasons why there's only a toilet for men behind the restaurant, and why there are few women's toilets in the city in general. Because women's loos take more space, suggests one, while another dwells at length on the polluting effects of women using the toilet: they have to sit, so close to the ground, you see... And what would happen if women were to start doing what men do all the time - pee in public, anywhere, everywhere, asks the filmmaker. The answer is only half a joke: "Kya hoga? Tehelka!" ("What will happen? Pandemonium!")

She takes us to one public toilet after another, the camera moving from the promise of a 'ladies' sign to the disappointment of discovering that the whole complex is, in fact, in use by men. You don't really blame them, these men who emerge into the morning light, still dripping from a bath, tightening insecure towels round their waists in the face of an unexpected camera. Using a public toilet for your daily ablutions shouldn't be an act that bespeaks privilege. And yet, in the crazy world of the Indian city, isn't that exactly what it is?

The film also makes a detour to Delhi, which also allows for a brief meditation on the division of the city into two - earlier a colonial separation, now concretized into an NDMC-MCD (New Delhi Municipal Corporation-Municipal Corporation of Delhi) divide. The 42.78 square kilometer NDMC area, which has the most wonderful well-maintained public toilets, is occupied by the city's (and in this case, the country's) VVIPs. It is, in the remarkable words of one NDMC official, "the drawing room of the country". But if one part of the city is the drawing room, what - the film asks - does that make the other part?

Away from these 'drawing rooms', large parts of the population live in slums or on the pavement, without access to toilets in their homes, or even to affordable public toilets that have anything like a good sewage system, running water or ventilation. They must perforce carry out these activities in public.

This is hardly new. The use of public spaces in India for washing, changing, urination and defecation has long attracted the attention of the outside observer. For one 19th century lady traveler, it was "a perpetual source of wonder and amusement to see the unembarrassed ease with which employments of a most personal nature are carried on in the most crowded streets." And the venerable V S Naipaul observed in 1968 that "Indians defecate everywhere...They never look for cover."

But neither the lack of embarrassment assumed by these commentators, nor historian Dipesh Chakrabarty's more recent reading of these uses of public space as "a refusal to become citizens of an ideal bourgeois order" takes into account the fact that, for the people concerned, no better option exists.

A more grounded academic position is taken by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who says that "shitting in public is a serious humiliation" - something done under duress. He talks of a project that built hundreds of toilet blocks in Pune and Mumbai - under the combined auspices of Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an NGO, and National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, an association of slum and pavement women - since 2000. Appadurai argues that participation of the community (especially women) in the design, construction and maintenance of toilets, as well as the innovative Toilet Festivals (Sandas Melas) help "resituate this private act of suffering and humiliation", making it the scene of "technical innovation, collective celebration and carnivalesque play with...officialdom".

While Vohra's film makes no mention of the project, it does take us into a Mumbai slum, where we are introduced to Raju Bhai, who builds private toilets. "Everyone wants a 'real' home, with a separate drawing room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom," he says. "If all of this is impossible, at least slum-dwellers can have their own bathroom." Whatever we might think of the long-term implications of constructing these unauthorized toilets in unauthorized structures, listening to his grateful (female) clients does raise an uncomfortable question: does the very principle of community toilets deny the fact that everyone should be able to have a toilet at home?

These are difficult questions, and have no easy answers. But it is clear that toilets do provide a prism through which to look at the inequalities of caste, class and gender that underlie the Indian city. Pushing toilets to the forefront of public discussion might be one way in which to bring these inequalities to light. And 'Q2P' certainly demonstrates that without this happening, the risks and pleasures of what Kumar's Banarasi interlocutors call "ghumna phirna" (walking about) will continue to remain the preserve of men.

November 26, 2006
Women's Feature Service

New Dilli Darshan: On the Metro

Saturday afternoon, Pragati Maidan Metro Station. Swarms of people walk the long ramp from the recently-inaugurated station to the actual entrance of Delhi’s largest exhibition ground, where the India International Trade Fair is on. But I’m not headed that way. Today I’m off to see a Delhi different from the one I live in. No, no secret destinations – I’m just taking the Blue Line a bit further west than I usually do.

The Pragati Maidan platform looks out over Appu Ghar, Delhi’s original amusement park. Down below, I can see the famous Bumper Cars, red and yellow and blue. I only ever rode them once, in 1984, with my colony-best-friend Pooja Oberoi, whose dad stood in a very long queue to get us into what was (certainly for Pooja and me) the most important thing about the Asian Games.

The train starts to move. We pass the stupa-like Supreme Court dome, cross Tilak Marg and go underground. As we enter Connaught Place, I am dismayed to hear many voices around me whisper to each other, “Let’s go, it’s Rajiv Chowk.” It looks like Mani Shankar Aiyar – and what an autowallah I met last week called Delhi’s “rajnitik bukhaar” – have won out. The imperial grandeur of the old name seems to be finally crumbling before the political tokenism of the new.

Above ground again, we head past the once-legendary furniture haven of Panchkuin Road (the Metro has ploughed through, leaving shops on both sides unglamorously cramped). The city looks different from up here, less daunting than Delhi usually is at ground level – though perhaps more inscrutable. We cross Videocon Tower and the unmissable giant Hanuman, eternally covered in scaffolding. I’m determined not to get off anywhere I’ve been before, so I ignore the temptations of Karol Bagh and sit tight, all the way to Rajouri Garden.

The signs have been beckoning from a long way away. Sushmita Sen, wrapped in a fetching pink bathrobe, sitting atop a Carmichael House bedspread. As we pass the ad, the girl next to me turns to her boyfriend and announces knowledgably, “It’s an ad for Rajouri.” And indeed, as you exit the Rajouri Garden Metro stop, there’s Sushmita again, announcing the City Square Mall. One of the many malls and multiplexes that have sprouted along the Metro route, City Square is superbly sunlit under a vaulted glass roof, and even has a green patch outside where some employees are catching their lunch, looking almost like the government clerks at New Delhi’s roundabouts – except these have yellow uniforms. Inside, there are a zillion people under 25, most of them hanging out at the inviting-looking Café Terrace. But my companion makes some snobbish wisecrack about Mexican made in Rajouri, so we share a very fulfilling chaat platter at the kitschy-cool Khaaja Chowk instead.

I had thought of taking the train all the way to Dwarka Sector 9, a full sixteen stops away. But on the way to Rajouri, I’ve been waylaid by the idea of Shadipur. Not by the huge DTC bus depot – that you can see from the train. But because I’ve always wanted to go looking for Kathputli Colony, that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction locale which Rushdie put to such magical use in Midnight’s Children. So I take the Metro back.

At Shadipur, the giant concrete pillars of the overground line tower incongruously over a vast and dusty expanse of tired-looking buildings. The third rickshawala we ask agrees to take us to the colony of puppetteers. Our rickshaw hasn’t even stopped when a man rushes up to us, yelling, “Kutta chahiye, kutta? Dog?” Baffled, we assure him we don’t want a dog, only to walk into a raucous party of dhol players in bedraggled costumes. But when in doubt, walk briskly. Especially if the path is strewn with piles of garbage, and the air thick with flies. As I ask after a Bhoole-Bisre Kalakar Trust I’d once heard of, a tall young man comes up to us. Have we been sent by Rajiv Sethi, and would we like to meet the best puppeteer in the colony? We haven’t, but we would. So we follow him to the house of his uncle, Naurang Pradhan Bhat, once the toast of the Festivals of India. We’re back in the eighties again.

The old man sits hunched up on a charpai, a bidi clenched in his wizened fist. He doesn’t do shows anymore, but his son Lala does. And his kathputlis are amazing. There’s a Jogi, an evil Jadugar, the beautiful Anarkali, and the incredible shape-shifting Behroopiya. Each has a painted wooden face, painstakingly-sculpted moveable joints and specially-stitched clothes. We watch as Lala’s young apprentices make the Jadugar walk, turn cartwheels, and slither menacingly along the floor. Then it begins to get dark, and I ask them the way back to the Metro. Lala tells an apprentice to take us back to the main road. Then he grins. “Bas vahan se toh Metro hi Metro hai, uske peechhe peechhe chalte rahna!”

(This is the unedited version of a piece that appeared in Outlook Traveller magazine's December 2006 issue.)

Fairy Grandmother

It's not far from Delhi to Alwar, unless you take the world's oldest serving locomotive

Photo: Ramesh Lalwani

It’s not the Palace on Wheels but they’re still selling the Maharaja idea. Or so it seems. There is a turbaned waiter with tea and coffee, a reception committee complete with marigold mala and tilak, and a red carpeted anteroom in which to wait for the train’s departure. We are met by the coordinator of the journey from the Ministry of Railways, an eager-beaver type. He informs me that he has received countless letters from NRIs in Boston and immigration officials in England, to say how very much they enjoyed their trip. As if on cue, the NRI computer engineer from Dallas, on the train en famille, announces that he “simply loves train journeys”. The train guard tells me how he has to push back the milling crowds of humanity that congregate at the water-filling stations to see the 150-year-old steam engine puffing into the platform. The build-up is complete. The stage is set for a long, leisurely – and inevitably anticlimactic – journey on the Fairy Queen.

I learn, for starters, that the Queen was never a princely train. She began her career on the Howrah to Raniganj line of the East Indian Railway in 1855. Which figures, because at Gurgaon Station our imperialist engine makes an unscheduled stop for the sole firang passenger, who seems to have missed the train. He arrives, bemused and breathless, poor man, having been taken first to New Delhi Station and then the Rail Museum. Eventually we move on. Lunch is served. Sweet corn soup with cheese straws. Slight controversy about the cheese straws being picked up by hand by the serving waiter. NRI family unhappy. I gobble down my kaali dal and mixed sabzi because I want to get off at the next station and travel in front with the driver, on the engine. I stand there, two Mother Dairy mishti dois in hand, feeling awkward. Finally I persuade the driver and Assistant No 1 to take them. Assistants No 2, 3 and 4 continue to shovel coal into the red-hot insides of the engine, and the smoke emerges, billowing past my nose to form a no-doubt picture-perfect image, as we chug steadily through the mustard fields. The feeling is exhilarating.

In the distance, a rusty tubewell emits a steady stream of water into the green genhu field. A girl in a vivid yellow odhni stands on tiptoe to reach up into a tree with a twig. Women sort freshly dug-up onions by the side of the tracks. Thelas piled high wait at level crossings, a herd of goats runs helter-skelter at the shrill sound of the whistle. At every station where we stop to fill water (which must be heated by burning coal, to create steam that will then push the pistons of the engine) there is the ritual cleaning to be gone through. As Girish put it, it’s like trying to go on a long journey with a baby elephant. You have to pet it and feed it and groom it and coax it…the cajoling takes the form of six grown men, some getting underneath the engine to clean up the constantly accumulating muck, some climbing on top to polish the dark metal to gleaming glory.

The stations in Rajasthan don’t have very much water, and the Queen’s underslung water tank needs regular refilling. At one station, Khairthal, the hose pipe is dragged to a house facing the tracks…and there’s a line of people all along the route. The men are in front, the boys elbow each other out of the way, the girls stand a little apart from the crowd, curious but hesitant to push their way in.

We arrive at Alwar Station to be swept into a waiting bus. After having endured the tremendous discomfort of a non-air-conditioned train ride, we must, of course, be compensated by being shepherded into a freezing AC coach, complete with disco bhangra. Main puttar Punjab da, tu Punjab di rani… (to which she says, in rolling American accent “Give me a break!”) “Is this Rajasthani music, then?” ventures the British tourist. “Quite…energetic, isn’t it?”

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, Feb 2002 issue.

Thoughts on watching Such a Long Journey

BOMBAY WAS CENTRAL, HAD been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black waters to flow into our veins…

Salman Rushdie,
The Moor’s Last Sigh

It may seem strange to begin with Rushdie when one is one is writing about a film based on a Rohinton Mistry novel. But Bombay, mother-of-cities, in a country where the iconic importance of ‘motherness’ cannot be over-emphasized, is central to both. Crowded and solitary, luminous and dark at the same time, multicoloured urban alternative to a khadi-clad Village India, the city is the setting for much of Rushdie and Mistry’s fiction.

One such work is Such A Long Journey, the first novel written by Bombay-born-and-brought-up, Canadian author Rohinton Mistry. Made into a film in 1998, with Stella Gunnarson as director, the film recently premiered in India at a UTV-Canadian High Commission screening at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi, as a prelude to its commercial release at PVR Anupam cinema, starting 2 March, 2001.

The premiere was quite an affair. Coffee and strawberry juice, cheese sandwiches and pineapple pastries were followed by forty minutes of speeches. The Canadians clearly wanted to use the occasion to bolster their cultural ties with the Indian government, which was represented on stage in the green silk-clad figure of Sushma Swaraj. Produced by the Canadian multinational media group UTV, in collaboration with the British Greenberg Trust, with an all-Indian star cast, the film is as densely packed with subcontinental spice as any self-respecting Tikka Masala.

The premiere itself was preceded by the Canadian High Commissioner proudly announcing the arrival of the age of total collaboration: the short TV animation (shown before the film) looks quite Canadian, (he said), but was drawn largely by Indians, while the feature film, which looks so totally Indian, was in fact produced entirely by Canadians. He seemed almost triumphant about the ‘invisibility’ of origin, as did Sushma Swaraj, who echoed his sentiments about joint ventures between India and Canada. All of them said exactly the same thing, (though in different words - and very different accents): how a film no longer has to be made in the same country as it is written, or watched in the country it is about; the media has transcended language barriers, the boundaries of the nation state, what a great and good thing the media is…And so it is, I thought.

But then the film began, and there was something about it that made me wonder. Whether it was the titles in a Nastaliq-ized Roman script, or the sense of the city as an unceasing assault on the senses, from which the characters must protect themselves, I don’t know. But I had the strange sense that there was almost too much “India” in the film for it to actually be Indian. There is a chaotic madness about all the images of the city: crowds and dust and dancing in the streets, which combine with a political backdrop that is all intrigue and secret assignments, power that does not need to show itself. All images, in fact, that the Westerner thinking of the East would immediately identify. But, the assumption seems to be, never identify with.

The film centres around Gustad Noble, a Parsi bank clerk, the epitome of quiet middle-class gentility, trying to lead an honest life amidst the corruption and squalor of 1970s Bombay. Gustad wages a constant battle to keep the city’s madness at bay: to prevent the crowds and the corruption, the dust and the disease lapping his doorstep from overflowing into the fiercely guarded space of domesticity that is his home. Time and again, the film foregrounds the classic opposition between the private and the public, the inside and the outside. The city is quite explicitly the space of unmitigated chaos, filth, disease and latent violence. In one scene, an old Parsi doctor who is meant to be diagnosing Gustad’s young daughter Roshan, goes into a long monologue about the malaise that has the city in its grip. Pollution and sickness, crime and disease: these are analogies that recur in many writings about the city.

“You laad-sahibs,” he said, contemptuously sending a long jet of bright vermilion sputum towards my bare feet. “You live in the city and know nothing of its heart. To you it is invisible, but now you have been made to see. You are in Bombay Central lock-up. It is the stomach, the intestine of the city. So naturally there is much of shit.”

Salman Rushdie

The Moor’s Last Sigh

The idea of the inner city, the working class district into which the genteel middle classes do not and cannot go, is something that emerged in Victorian England: the seedy London opium dens into which Sherlock Holmes goes disguised as a beggar, Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist where young boys are inducted into the art of pickpocketing: these are places (and people) that evoke the simultaneous horror and pity of the middle classes. Rushdie’s take on the bowels of the city, however, is not simply middle class horror. It is the gaze of one who has “been made to see”, and has been able to stomach the sight, with not a little help from a sharp sense of humour.

Such a Long Journey, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat unable to deal with what it sees. There is an ever-growing sense of foreboding, and an increasing helplessness, as the household is suddenly catapulted into a series of bizarre events. It is not just the city that is in chaos. The time is 1971, the country is in the grip of Indira fever, and the Bangladesh war is about to begin. A letter from Gustad’s old friend Jimmy, followed by a parcel full of money, which must be deposited surreptitiously in the bank, results in Gustad’s reluctant involvement in some rather murky dealings. His daughter Roshan falls mysteriously ill. His wife Dilnawaz (Soni Razdan), anxious to return peace and prosperity to the household, gets into a web of black magic and necromancy, hoping to transfer the ill will dogging her family onto the unsuspecting local idiot, Tehmul.

Gustad’s effort to close his doors against the winds of the city and the nation has, at best, ambivalent results. The house remains in a state of perpetual darkness - the blackout paper on the windows has kept out every trace of sun since 1965. The black-papered gloom of the present is juxtaposed with the past, which Gustad dreams of in sunlit swathes of gold.

And outside his golden daydreams, the world is spinning faster than he can handle. “Wheels within wheels, Dinshaw, wheels within wheels,” as Gustad says to his friend at the office.

Conversations at various points in the film confirm the sense of bewilderment at the passing of a world: new manners, new people, new names that are turning a well-loved, familiar world into an alien one. Names are so important, says Dinshawji. If the names were wrong, what happens to the life I led? Was I living the wrong life?

The baffled torment of the question sets the mood of the whole film, and one gets the sense that Mistry fully shares Gustad’s pain and bewilderment. The meeting with the taxi driver who is actually an agent for RAW (part of the Indian intelligence services), first in a shop in Chor Bazaar, in a dingy back room, and then in a room in a brothel, seems to force an interaction between two worlds very different in class and manners, where Gustad is distressed at worst, and uncomfortable at best. One dominant image is that of Gustad in the local train at peak hours, his well-scrubbed white shirt conspicuously clean amidst the colour and grime of the crowd: almost iconic tie-wale sahib, as one sex worker calls him.

The film configures the state in two very different avatars: at one level, there is the state as secrecy and surveillance, almost Foucaldian in its ability to inspire fear; at another, there is the state as bureaucratic inefficiency: a misguided Municipality that wants to tear down the wall outside Gustad’s house. The municipal bulldozers are forced to withdraw before the onslaught of a large group of citizens – sex workers and politicos, with the middle class represented solely by the Parsi doctor, but in the fracas that ensues, a stray brick falls on Tehmul’s head, and he dies.

Tehmul’s role as receptacle for Dilnawaz’s black magic, continual object of humiliation and simultaneous pity, and his eventual death, give the narrative a strange undercurrent of moral/religious wrongdoing, punishment, and final redemption. Everything that matters is under siege: familial relationships, city, morality, the entire order of things; middle class faith in the nation is shaken at every step, and an all-enveloping darkness threatens to overwhelm us. At one point, Gustad actually articulates the idea of “a test set by god” which he has failed. Religion, then, is also treated in two very different ways within the film. Gustad’s quiet faith – expressed in individual prayer, seems meant for the audience to identify with, while those who gather to pray, en masse, to the painted deities on Gustad’s wall, are almost caricatured. An all-too-easy dismissal of the faith of the ‘masses’ – or just another lament for the passing of an idealised age?

“In Bombay, as the old founding myth of the nation faded, the new god-and-mammon India was being born,” writes Rushdie. But for Rushdie, India seems to survive. However ludicrous, however insane his created world seems, there is a certain intimacy, a fondness for it, which always comes through. Mistry’s vision, though equally soaked in nostalgia, is almost entirely pessimistic. Certainly the film left me with a feeling of distance – one is made to identify so completely with Gustad and his sorrows that it is very difficult to see the city or India as a place that one can be close to, let alone be fond of. The film is a perfect example of an increasing body of cinema that consciously presents itself to the world as Indian, and looks Indian, because it is easy to look it – but it is undeniably a view from the outside.

The piece above was published online on www.digitaltalkies.com in early 2001.