30 April 2017

Hating or loving Dangal?

A few days I had an email conversation with a friend of mine on the movie Dangal. She said she hated the movie for the following reason:

Mr Phogat, played by Aamir Khan, foists his wrestling dreams on his daughters. While the girls go on to excel at the sport, this does not take away from the fact that Mr Phogat is undoubtedly a patriarchal figure, who actually may need therapy over his unresolved issues, my friend says.

I could understand her line of reasoning, but I presented some counterpoints:

If you switch wrestling with, say, academic excellence, which would certainly ring a bell with most of the audience, then you would not have a movie. (Actually, academic excellence may be the wrong term. It's just acing the exams that we are after.)

For, that's what it is about: your parent making your career choices for you and making you bring their dreams to reality. 

Yet, there's also a few other things to consider here: there comes a point in the movie where the girls realize they are privileged for having wrestling as a career option as compared to a life of domesticity. Here's where they stop pushing back and own their father's dream. Of course, you may ask what choice do they have? 

But if we do find joy and meaning in what we are doing, does it matter so much how we came unto that choice? Does it matter that there were other roads (worn out though they maybe)?

Thing is, yes if Phogat weren't in rural Haryana, he should have been consulting a shrink. Or, if he was asking his daughters to ace the JEE exams. But because he is in rural Haryana where female-male ratio is one of the lowest in the country, the choices he makes for his daughters definitely make him swim against the mainstream, and thereby qualify him to be a hero. 

Yes, he is making the decisions for his daughters, but would feminists be happy if he were not to? That is, if he were to just accept that wrestling was not for his daughters and married them away? 

If you remove the particular circumstances of a story, you end up with a controlled environment. But then all human reality would more or less be the same, removing perhaps the necessity for art and its criticism.

Dangal can be looked at from the alternative education viewpoint, too and you would arrive at much the same points and counterpoints. Phogat’s way of parenting is very much mainstream, parent-led rather than being child-led.

But does the outcome justify the means? Again, this is not an easy question to answer. For, if it were just mainstream academics that the father was pushing the girls into, the answer would be straightforward enough. However, in rural Haryana, if Phogat hadn’t exposed his girls to another possible world for them, they would have hardly had a chance at life, much less sporting excellence. How would the girls know what they had in them if their father hadn’t shoved them into the akhada?


But does that validate the rat race Indian parents enter their children in, with the justification that they know what’s best? Hardly, I’d say. Still, this movie does pose some tricky questions.

Life, and living it

This is a post I wrote in 2008 and never published. My grandmother (Ajji) lived five more years. Among the people whom I have seen pass away, she and Jyoti Sanyal are the ones who still live fresh in my memory. 

Ajji was a remarkable woman. She once gave me her definition of beauty: "When you have two hands, two legs, and all other organs given by God in perfect shape, what else can you be but beautiful?" She was the kindest, most loving woman I have known. And, her love for children stayed intact after the many years of bearing and rearing children. 



Ajji is standing beside me, peering into my laptop. I ask her if she wants to try her hand at the computer. She doesn't say anything, but comes closer, grinning. I type out her name in very big font. She reads out each alphabet, puts them together mentally, and says with a wide smile, “LAKSHMI.” She stumps me with her life spirit each time I see her. She always has been, all these years. Then, she asks if I can take pictures from the laptop. I say there's no camera attached.

“Oh, I wanted you to take pictures of me,” she says. Am a little surprised, but I just tell her that I can take pics from my mobile. “Oh good, then you must take pictures of me. You'll need it ... later ... give a copy to your mom here..., you too take a copy and go. Aamele bekaagtade (you'll need it later),” she says.

I understand, but only a moment later. My stupid grin disappears. I feel empty in the stomach. My mom is raising her voice over the din of the music am playing, and explaining some recipe to me. My eyes cloud over. I look at ajji, she's still smiling, standing beside me. I tell her I'll take her to a studio. She likes the idea.

My phone rings .... work calling. Ajji moves away.

Life's incredibly beautiful, isnt it, thanks to death?

19 February 2017

Too loud a solitude



Sometime ago when I heard about Ann Morgan’s journey through the world through books, I was fascinated by the idea. Apart from the cost of the books, I can’t see another affordable and authentic way of seeing the world. Of course, it can be argued that one book or one author can’t possibly tell you all there is to tell about one country. But think of it like this: when you meet someone from a distant land on a train or bus, you’re grateful for that opportunity – at least I am – to have been able to peep into another world and other lives. You don’t think of complaining, “Hey, not fair that I only got to meet one person from xyz country?”

I have decided to follow in Morgan’s steps and for those countries that I have no idea where to look for books or authors, I will follow her even in the books she has read. I think there will be a lot of such countries.

So, Too Loud a Solitude is my first step in this world tour. It’s written by Bohumil Hrabal in Czech and translated by Michael Henry Heim. Coincidentally, there’s a thread of commonality between my choice of the book and my renewed interest in waste management: the protagonist Hanta’s job is to compact waste paper. (There are accent marks missing from his name that I know not how to reproduce.)

Of course, the last thing that Hanta wants to do is to send fine books to their death. He’s been saving books from the paper compacter throughout his career of 35 years and has ended up with a stash of nearly two tons of books at his place.

Quaint things happen in Hanta’s life. Like for instance, the misfortune of his girlfriend who always seems to get faeces on her dress at the most public of moments. Or, how the kind, absent-minded philosophy professor routinely mistakes Hanta for his employer, an older man, when he has his hat on.

I keep looking for clues to the politics and culture of a place when I’m reading fiction. In Hrabal’s book, it comes in the form of the new-age paper compacting machine and its eager attendants – the Brigade of Socialist Labor – that Hanta feels threatened by, what with its inhumane vigour and its un-reading, uncaring staff.

Hanta is scandalized to see them drinking milk at work: “But the biggest shock came when I saw the young workers shamelessly guzzling milk and soft drinks – legs spread wide, hand on hip – straight from the bottle… think of drinking milk at work when everyone knows that even a cow would rather die of thirst than touch a drop of the stuff!” But his heart breaks when he sees them put in bales and bales of books without stopping for a moment to think about the thoughts and words they crush with their machine.

Soon, he finds himself replaced with these men from the Socialist Labour group. He has nowhere to go and roams around the city, guzzling down beer after beer. Finally, he decides to compact himself in his machine with his beloved wastepaper.  

I loved what he has done here by showing capitalism under the guise of socialism. The doing away of any appreciation of art is, of course, given here, but it also shows a disconnect between even man and the machine.

To Hanta, there’s no way you can travel to Greece without having read about Aristotle or Plato or even Goethe. So relevant in our times of consumerist culture where we flit about from land to land, ticking off places from our bucket list.

There never was a greater lover of books than Hanta, for he chose to be a wastepaper handler just so he could lay his hands on books. “…just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth…”


As I read the book, I become very conscious of the fact that I too am holding a book in my hand and hope that I will never be callous enough to toss it in amidst waste paper. Hrabal renews my gratitude to authors who enable time travel, who pack their thoughts into words and share them with us, who lay bare before us beauty as well as misery. For, “real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”