Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hubris, Ignorance or Just Plain Don't Care?

I have been a news addict since I was a child.

My father's job required him to monitor all media very closely, so we all grew up with obscene amounts of newspapers, reports, clippings, and then finally television news around us. Dinner conversations in my parents house often feel like policy debates - and there have been instances when a dinner debate has formed the nucleus of the country's major policy document.

A not so pleasant aspect of this news addiction is of course the constant awareness of bias and ignorance regarding India (and a lot of other countries) in "western" press. Some how media based in USA, UK and Europe has greater credibility, partly due to history and partly due to the economic, military and political clout of these countries. It also helps that the same countries come up with increasingly unbelievable rankings and reports on "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press."

Just think back to the WMDs in Iraq hysteria before that nation was attacked and you get the picture. Think back to the self-censorship of the western press regarding Iraqi and Afghan casualties. Or just think back to the level of attention paid to Mumbai simply because some of the victims were Western.

Yet its not just the "big" stories that get reported with glaring errors and free editorialising. The western media spends a lot of time and energy embedding value judgements into what appear to be "news stories." The result - and perhaps the motivation - is to subtly perpetuate a narrative, a stereotype, an idea that is more pleasing and acceptable to western powers, press and bulk of the readers/viewers. And in doing so, they choose to jettison the most basic qualities of reporting and the simplest of journalistic standards!

This morning brought home that realisation rather starkly. In the Times was a story about film-makers attempting to cash in on the Mumbai attacks and the public revulsion that such actions have unleashed. So far so good.

Except the story had serious factual bloopers: Filmmaker Ram Gopal Verma did tour the Taj, but not with his actor son, but rather with the now thankfully resigned Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh's son.

And we won't even go into the overly generalised, condescending bit of editorialising that declares: "There are, however, indications that Indian audiences who are more used to lavish musicals will watch films that examine terrorism from fresh perspectives." Really? Like we did back in 1996? Or should we go further back to Roja and Bombay?

As the cherry on top, the story also cites unnamed critics who say: "Indian cinema has a history of films that address current affairs but most dealing with terrorism have used real-life events as springboards for crudely nationalistic action movies, critics say."

Ahem: I guess the critics missed films like the Mani Rathnam trilogy? Or Gulzar's Maachis? Or Mission Kashmir, which not only linked terrorism in Kashmir to bin Laden well before 9/11, but included the acclaimed novelist Vikram Chandra as one of its scriptwriters? We won't even go into the range of politically complex, ideologically sophisticated and well researched films, including Sarfarosh, 16 December: All Forces Alert, Fiza, Fanaa, Rang de Basanti that have taken on terrorism in the past decade.

Sure the western press trots out the handful of Indian writers/novelists on its op-ed pages to provide the illusion of objectivity. But beyond all that, a little painful truth I learned as a child remains: the western press will print what it likes about India, especially if it feeds their own illusions about the country. Anything actually based in facts is a little too politically, ideologically, possibly even morally, inconvenient!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Fanatics Abound All Around!

When Salman Rushdie was knighted earlier in the year, I wrote a piece praising his work. I got a lot of hate mail for that: mostly from self-professed Islamists who threatened violence from behind walls of anonymity provided by the internet.

I have been writing about Mumbai now and again there is a spate of hate mail filling my inbox - this time from self-professed Hindu nationalists who threaten violence from the same walls of internet anonymity.

So once again - and this time for the "Hindu" nutjobs: I didn't back down on Rushdie and I won't back down now. Save yourselves the time you spend writing stupid threats and actually go do some reading and thinking about India, its history and its politics.

Meanwhile, one point to note: fanatics are not only to be found on all ends of the spectrum, but they also show the same lack of imagination when it comes to the depth of their arguments, and the rather banal ideas of violence they threaten. Good to know that there is a meeting point for fanatics of all ilk somewhere even though its marked by an acute absence of intelligence and imagination.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mumbai Aftermath: An Idea for Celebrating Eid

Since the terrorist began their rampage in Mumbai a week ago, I have grown sick of reading about how India stands at the verge of Hindu-Muslim "sectarian" or "religious" violence. Every British and American editorial attempts to explain why US and EU cannot act again Pakistan by linking the hypothetical ramifications of all action to a Hindu-Muslim war in India. It is time - I believe - to stop the hypocrisy and to really consider Indian in a fair, just and equitable fashion: and yes that means both Indian Hindus and Muslims. However, just this once, I would like to speak of Indian Muslims, partly because of circumstances but mostly because we are running up to Eid-ul-Azha or Bakrid next week.

For all of my life, I have watched politicians of all persuasions feed the victim discourse in the country. The secularlists will admit no fault on part of the Indian Muslims, even while there was ethnic cleansing in J&K and Mumbai became the earliest testing ground for jihadi violence. Meanwhile, the right wingers demand proof - again and again, and always insufficient - of loyalty to the nation from Indian Muslims. And over all of it looms the grim shadow of Partition, the one event that seems to be the monkey on our backs: Indian Muslims either live on apparently victimised minority margins or are viewed with suspicion for their apparently divided loyalty. Such has been the political discourse of my life time.

Yet in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, for the first time in my life, that discourse appears to be changing. The impetus comes not from the politicians but from the most conservative parts of the Indian Muslim community. There may be any number of motivations for it, but for the first time, I don't feel I am fighting alone - or for a lost cause - when I speak up against Islamophobia in Europe and USA, and on behalf of Muslim citizens of India.

A couple of days ago, the leaders of the Mumbai's Muslim community refused to bury the Mumbai killers on religious grounds. This - despite its PR value - is a significant theological shift as it puts into practice the oft repeated platitude of Islam being a religion of peace. The only reason for refusing the bodies has been the terrorist's violent and vile actions. Finally, the religious leaders of the Islamic community in India are walking the walk, as well as talking the talk.

And then the most stunning announcement that I can remember came today: The All India Organisations of Imams of Mosques (AIOIMs)has appealed that next week's Bakrid be celebrated in a sober way. That Muslims wear black ribbons and especially denounced the killing of Jews during the Mumbai attacks. The organisation has asked all muftis and imams to denounce the Mumbai killings - and especially the killing of the Jews at the Nariman house - during the Friday prayers.

It is supremely significant that both these steps come in the run-up to Bakrid. The festival marks the Biblical episode when God asked Abraham to sacrifice what he loved most. Abraham took his son, aiming to kill him as a sacrifice, but at the last moment a miracle saved Isaac and replaced him with a goat. Muslims celebrate that same miracle at Bakrid every year.

And this year - despite the sorrow and horror of Mumbai - marks a tremendous shift. The two decisions by Muslim religious bodies are unprecedented but welcome.

We in India have always cherished our Muslim heroes: Shahid Hameed, APJ Abdul Kalam, Mohammad Azharuddin, Shahrukh Khan. We have clung to these heroes when we run out of arguments for our secularist democracy. Yet there has always been a dark side: political leaders like Farukh Abdullah who presided over ethnic cleansing, and the obscurantists who took to streets at the time of the Shah Bano case, and the self-professed liberal secularists who have done as much damage to our social fabric as the Hindu fundamentalists. Through it all, the Muslim religious and political leadership has been lacking, and the community has been forced to turn to obscurantists, opportunists, ideologues and idiots for guidance.

This is why these two decisions by Islamic religious bodies are so important for us as a nation. For once, the religious, the most conservative parts of the Indian Muslim society have taken a clear stance: India over religion! India before Islam! India over history!

It is time to acknowledge, respect, appreciate that step. And to support it with all our strength.

Here is an idea: Bakrid commemorates a miracle based on sacrifice. In the Bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice what is dearest to him. In response, Abraham takes up his son Isaac as sacrifice to the divinity. At the last moment, having tested Abraham's faith, God replaces Isaac with a lamb, acknowledging the spirit that drives Abraham's sacrifice.

Given AIOIM and the religious trusts stance on the Mumbai massacre, there has already been a sacrifice made by religious leaders of the Indian Muslim community. Theologically, they have chosen to challenge all the major contemporary orthodoxies by refusing burial to the terrorists. Make no mistake: this seemingly small decision pits Indian Muslims against all major theological schools of the Islamic world. How ironic that once again the Indian Muslims have been called to prove their devotion - this time to the nation-state rather to God - and once again the bulk of them are willing to repeat Abraham's sacrifice.

It is sentimental to talk of Abrahamic miracles in this day and age. But perhaps Mumbai has given us that opportunity and perhaps the need for such miracles. This year, let us honour that choice. How about if every Indian Muslim who celebrates Eid in a "sober way" puts a candle in their window on that day?

And what if the rest of India honours that choice of a "black" Eid, by lighting a similar candle in our windows, regardless of our religion.

After all, at the end of Abraham's sacrifice, there was unity and celebration. Perhaps this is the year, ALL Indians can commemorate the Abrahamic sacrifice, and be joined in the unity that results from such faith!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Mumbai Aftermath: Rats Play Even Before the Pyres Finish Burning

There are days when even the most law-abiding citizen feels the need for vigilante action. There are days one wishes that we could react with bullets rather than ballots. Today is one of those days, when I fervently wish there would be mobs lynching some of the political rats that are prancing about on the embers of the funeral pyres of the soldiers and victimes of Mumbai.

The reason for my anger is the overt lack of concern that our politicians are displaying:

1. Deputy CM of Maharashtra started it by stating that "in a big city there are a few small incidents."

2. The Maharashtra CM Vilarsao Deshmukh compounded it by visiting a wrecked Taj in company of his film star son and a film producer/director. And then in a sickening act of effrontery, he proceeded to harangue the media for questioning his (lack of) judgement.

3. And as if that were not enough, Kerala CM Achutanandan insulted Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan's bereaved family. In fact I am so disgusted that I refuse to repeat his sickening remarks in this blog.

And of course the above list does not even include a sneering Muqhtar Abbas Naqvi, an opportunist Narendra Modi, a vile Amar Singh and of course the usual jerk Laloo Prasad Yadav.

In a just world, these politicians would be tried and punished for sedition. Yet in the world as it stands today, they not only go unpunished but in fact continue speaking with no sensitivity, concern or intelligence.

In a just world, these seditious rats would be hanged by citizens right at the Gateway of India as a lesson for all others.

In disgust: Satyamev Jayate.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

In Sorrow and in Hope

The carnage in Mumbai appears to have come to an end. I still hold my breath as its painful to wait for the news of those who may have died in the Taj. I am still too shaken, angry and upset to write anything coherently. Words fly around my head but never long enough to hold a full thought.

Yet a few thoughts on the past three days:

1. Sorrow at watching the Taj in flames. The building is not only a symbol of Mumbai but also of self-reliance, nationalism and growth for all of India. After all, it was built to negate British racial laws. It broke my heart to watch it burn - and so glad it was saved.

2. Anger at watching the carnage, at the knowledge that its once again our loony hate-filled neighbours who are obsessed with harming us.

3. Pride at our forces. I am always surprised at how gentle our army officials appear - one smiled this morning and said, "smiling is what you need to ensure morale."

4. Sorrow for those killed. Especially Gaj Singh, whose body was flown back to Dehradun. I feel pride in my hometown but sorrow too as it seems that convoys bearing our brave dead never seems to halt for long.

5. Fury at the Israeli officials who were quick to claim anti-Semitism because "their" victims were not prioritised; and even quicker to criticise the forces. You ever try living in a civil, democratic open society, a society that is NOT a police state? And ever manage a crisis that involved bringing out hundreds of hostages in multiple locations? All I can say is: Shut Up Already!!

6. Finally, hope. Regardless of what western media says about "sectarian" tensions in India, I take courage from the fact that Islamist fanatics could not find even two dozen people out of a population of 150 million Indian Muslims to behave like blood thirsty barbarians. That says good things about us.

Jai Hind!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Deja Vu: "The Change We Need"

Last night, watching the US elections unfold, I was reminded inexorably of the very first South African elections on that country's long march to "liberation."

I lived in Johannesburg for the year preceding the historic 1994 elections that finally ended apartheid, signalled most importantly by universal franchise, and brought Mandela to office.

In the run-up to the election day, there was disbelief, suspicion, and fear. Amongst the Afrikaaners, there was complete conviction that the "blacks" would rise to loot and pillage once apartheid ended. My Afrikaaner boss explained in all seriousness that "it was a long African tradition that house servants would rise up across the land in a pre-planned attack to kill their white masters in their sleep."

On the other end of town, and that is where I spent an awful lot of my non-working hours, there were people hoping against hope that change would indeed come: Xulus, Xhosas, Bustars and so many others: a rainbow coalition of people hoping to finally be able to exercise their right to vote, to count as human beings. And they were afraid too, and with far greater reason. They had lived through the Soweto riots, the police beatings and secret killings, the "morality" laws and ridiculous race determined employment and education laws.

On election day, they told me again and again, they would go to the polling stations. But they were convinced that the SA army, police - at the time still overwhelmingly Afrikaaner - would be ready to gun them down at the poll booths. Yet there was a steely determination: that they would march to their deaths if it were needed in order to insist on their right to vote.

Newspapers were full of interminable copy about potential rioting and violence that would erupt on and after election day. And yet when election day came there was nothing more than an incredible stoicism as millions lined up to vote, most for the first time in their lives. And when the news finally broke of ANC victory, there was joy, tears, disbelief that change had indeed come to the land.

Last night, I felt a strange sense of deja vu: Yes there was more money on display at the elections and at the victory celebrations. People lining up to vote were far better dressed, far more affluent than the millions that I had observed years earlier. The fireworks, the lights, the clothes at the celebrations come at a price that I can not even begin to imagine.

But much was the same. First, the images of long lines along poll booths, reports of people waiting for hours to cast their ballot. The determination of voters who were going to make their voice heard over the din of history. And then that Obama victory speech. The myriad faces filled with joy, tears, disbelief.

Even some of the words in reports as disparate as Salon, Huffington Post and NYTimes are achingly similar. "Hope", "change", "never thought it would be in my lifetime," and of course, "an African-American in office."

It is indeed a momentous day for America, to have elected its first minority president. Let us not doubt that! Just as it was a historic day in South Africa when Nelson Mandela celebrated an ANC victory in the Joburg CBD.

But call me a cynic. Or may be I am just getting old (what a thought!). But I have clear memories of the shining moment of hope and how it was shattered in South Africa. How "change" was blocked and subverted by corporate interests - and yes, many of those are American corporate interests. How despite that historic vote and an African in office, nothing changed in the daily lives of the people who had participated in the electoral process with such optimism. How despite the best intentions, Mandela could do little to bring any real change to those men and women who had looked to him to lead them to a new reality.

And I look back to past Democratic administrations: under the Democrats, America still went to war to serve corporate interests regardless of morality and justice. And it was a Democrat Secretary of State that told the US Congress that "half a million dead children" was an "acceptable price" for serving US interests. Finally, it was a Democrat administration that put "extraordinary rendition" in place.

Yes, the 2008 US elections are historic. Yes, yesterday was a breathtaking demonstration of human will harnessed to political purpose.

But will it mean change? I sincerely hope so! Unfortunately the cynic insists on speaking its mind. And I am reminded of that 1994 day of hope, when millions had hoped for the "change we need" and have since been disappointed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Election Angst: "Blood in the Streets"

Okay first of all, full disclosure: I have never been a huge fan of Erica Jong. When I had to read her for a university class back in the 1980s, I managed to horrify and anger the lecturer and my American classmates by pointing out that her "iconic" book was one superficial, self-obsessed diatribe about middle-class angst("wouldn't it be fabulous we had real suffering but we don't, so lets use up half the amazon whinging about all the things we didn't quite suffer from"). For me, and I have had little reason to change my mind, it was also a brazen display of an incredible sense of entitlement.

Needless to say, it was not a nice class and I was sent to coventry by every self-defined feminist on campus. The episode did however teach me the value of choosing where and when one opens one's big mouth. A lesson that I obviously ignore on a regular basis! In the subsequent years however, I have felt vindicated as the self-indulgent, victimology has erupted into our most popular genre.

At least, I have thought, we can look back at Jong as a pioneer of some sort. Until this morning when Jong took on a new role: of a doomsday prophet! Or perhaps in her own mind, of a new Cassandra.

In an interview to the Italian Corriere della Serra, she predicts the second civil war and rivers of blood in America, should Obama lose: "Ne riparleremo mercoledì prossimo quando, se Obama perde, scoppierà la seconda guerra civile americana. Ci sarà il sangue per strada, mi creda, e non è un caso che il presidente Bush abbia richiamato dall' Iraq un contingente di soldati che sotto il comando di Dick Cheney saranno impiegati nelle strade contro cittadini americani qualsiasi."

Now I have no doubts that the past two American elections have been less than exemplary exercises in voting (see last post!) , but "rivers of blood"? A second "civil war"?

What worries me about Jong's statement is that it builds on an implicit racial narrative that has haunted America since the nation's inception. The fact that it emerges not just from nasty Republican campaign ads, but also from a member of the "liberal elite" makes the narrative that much more frightening.

I wish the Corriere journalist had asked Jong some follow-up questions: Would these "rivers of blood" flow if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic candidate? Or are these "rivers of blood" and civil wars reserved for the country's first black presidential candidate? Who would begin the violence that would result in bloodshed? Would Bush's loyal soldiers shoot down immaculately coiffed, designer clothed "liberals" for rioting in the streets?

Already from across America, there have been news reports about towns and cities gearing up for "riots" should Obama lose, based not on any factual consideration but a general "fear" that his "supporters" will revert to violence. Not a day goes by without some mayor, police chief, random city official, declaring that they are "prepared for any eventuality" in case Obama loses. Regardless of whether he loses fairly at the ballot or the election is again "stolen," the unspoken fear is that angry "voters" - a codeword for African Americans - shall take their anger to the streets.

It is the newest spin on an age-old narrative and one that is to be expected from bastions of racial conservatism. But when a self-identified "post-racial" liberal begins to use the same images and words, one begins to wonder just how long before race stops being a weapon of fear.

The fact that this fear-mongering appears to be emanating from a self-defined liberal denizen of the country makes it all the more worrying. And sickening!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Modest Proposal: With Apologies to Mr. Swift

I was back in Delhi just after the 2004 US elections. In the taxi from IGI into the city, I ended up with a rather voluble Sikh driver. After enquiring after my family, job, marital status, income (usual Indian-style small talk), he asked a question that stumped me. "Madam," he asked, and you know things are going to go bad when a sentence starts with that - "why can't the Americans get their voting machines to work? We had 100% electronic voting and if the machines can work here in India, then why can't the Americans make theirs work?"

I didn't have an answer for this half-literate yet world-savvy driver from Ludhiana back in 2004, and I have to confess, I still don't have a reasonable response. Even in a country of its size, India's 2003 general elections were a logistical exercise of mind-blowing proportions, involving a voter list nearly three times the size of the US one; elephants, trucks, trains and airplanes ferried voting machines and election officers to remote parts of the country to ensure that citizens could exercise their fundamental democratic right; and in a country of innumerable political parties and unacceptable levels of illiteracy, people turned up to use voting machines to cast their ballots. Forget computers, a nmber of these voters had never had seen anything powered by electricity. Yet they turned up in hundreds of millions to vote, and while there were anomalies, there wasn't an election blooper of the scale that America has indulged in over the past decade.

Another American election is now less than a week away, and I am still stumped: why is this so difficult in America? Already, even during early voting stages, voting machine goof-ups are being reported and discussed widely. A significant percentage of the citizenry and press are terrified that these elections shall be "stolen" regardless of how they vote - a state of affairs not to be seen even in the worst day's of Laloo's Bihar.

Here is one suggestion for the world's "most powerful democracy": Why not outsource the American elections to the people who know how to run them properly? Bring in India's Election Commission - hell, we can even give you a good price - to run US elections for the future. The EC will bring in machines that work, monitors who actually can spot and report voter fraud, and even ethical codes for campaigns including limitations on hate speech and incitement to violence.

Its a logical proposal: After all, the Americans trust Indians to design their military software and manage sensitive health records and financial data. So isn't it logical to rely on that same efficiency to manage their elections? God knows it would be better than relying on the idiots who ran 2000 and 2004 processes.

Of course there is a caveat: given the economic crisis, the Indian Election Commission just might to be too expensive for the Americans. In that case, perhaps, its time to ask an old and tested resource: Bring in the UN election observers. They may not manage the elections, but they will sure file a lot of reports on the violations. And no better time for it: there are a few hundred out-of-work election observers in Zimbabwe who are looking for a new assignment!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hypocrisy or Just Plain Ol' Hubris, You Betcha!

For the past few weeks, western media has been running stories on how "Hindus are driving out Christians" in India.

New York Times (never the best of sources, but widely read in that country) ran a headline screaming "Hindus Threat to Christians - Convert of Flee." Lets not forget this is a country where the presidential candidate can malign the opposition with the mere suggestion of being Muslim. And when the fury whipped up by the suggestions gets overt, and some voter declares that the opposition candidate cannot be trusted because "he is an Arab," what does the good ole American war hero respond? Not with a lecture about secularism and democracy and human rights of Arabs. McCain came back with how Obama was a "decent family man." As if Arabs cannot be decent family men! And then the clincher - "he's not!" He's not Arab? He's not Muslim? Why does this matter?

Why am I bringing this up? Well, USA is also the same country that periodically issues reports on "secularism" in India! This is also a country that makes a great song and dance about not issuing a visa to Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi, ostensibly for his Hindu Nationalist stance.

Now I am not defending Modi but the hypocrisy generated by the US is quite breath-taking. Palin's speeches are not that different from Modi, and the responses from her Bible-bashin, good ol' American followers is one that you wouldn't find even in the most illiterate village in Gujarat: calls for "kill him", "traitor", "off with his head." And all this for the opposing candidate, not some vague, nebulous enemy within. Lets put this in perspective - how about Advani whipping up the same frenzy about Sonia, with calls for killing her emanating from BJP supporters? Or how about audience jeering "kill him" for Advani at Mayawati's rallies? I can just imagine the headlines that New York Times would publish then.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the pond, BBC et al have been running similar stories. But then thats Britain for you: empire chala gaya, attitude nahin gaya! And the worst drivel comes from the second/third generation "British-Asians." (Indian press take note as they race to adore any firangi-with-Indian-name/skin).

The Guardian's Randeep Ramesh came up with this week's particular gem, and he wasn't even talking of politics, simply films (but how can you be a self-respecting western journalist without throwing caste into any and all discussions about India! Ramesh - discussing the film Omkara - declares: "Whereas 17th-century audiences in England could make sense of the Moor's existential angst, 21st-century Indians could not countenance an "untouchable" leader – a true outsider in society – preferring instead to make sure he had Brahmin blood."

Umm Mr. Ramesh, ever heard of Mayawati? Or the DMK? Or much of the UP legislative assembly? Or much of the Indian parliament (compared with the Oxbridge crowd that runs the British one). The whole point of the "half-caste" in Omkara - set in rural UP - is that he cannot call on any particular "power" base, including that of Dalit politics. In modern Indian polity, he is the ultimate outsider.

So why do I bring this up? Well, when 70% of the Muslim children in a developed country with a welfare state live in povery (UK statistics), any lectures to India (or any other country) smack of imperialist idiocy. And when presidential campaigns in the "world's greatest country" recycle fears articulated by Hollywood's greatest racist creation ("freed" slaves stuffing ballot boxes in D.W.Griffith's Birth of a Nation/McCain and Palin's smearing of ACORN), and the local media gags itself, then all finger-pointing at India becomes not only hypocritical, but even the veneer of virtue slides right off. Frankly boys, clean up your own houses first!

Meanwhile, why is it that the Indian mainstream media isn't willing to talk about this and instead continues to run completely idiotic articles about how Indian democracy can learn from the Americans?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New short story

After a long absence, due as usual to travel and writing, I am back again with an update. The Drawbridge carries a short story of mine in its latest issue. The issue is available in its broadsheet version at select UK bookstores. A sample of my story, Diplomatic Immunity Fatigue, can be found on the Drawbridge website.

The one lesson I learned from the story: don't piss off the cartoonist. Valuable if slightly obscure lesson there!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Keep an Eye Out for This One

Early in the year I wrote a piece that combined a whole lot of my favourite things: politics, cinema and the United States of America. As writing assignments go, it couldn't have been better.

The collection has been put together by James Atlas - the legendary thinker, biographer, editor, publisher - and brings together a host of opinions on America.

More importantly, I have just received news that the anthology is now available for pre-orders at Amazon. The collection features a whole host of fabulous writers from around the world. In fact, the list makes me feel just a tiny bit awe-struck and humbled (not that it will last long!). But all in all, one collection that merits pre-ordering, even if you don't read my contribution to it!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Krishna's Travels Continue...

Continuing travels around the world, With Krishna's Eyes, is now available in Italian.

From a completely aesthetic point of view, I am intrigued by the differences in covers that the novel seems to generate in each language and country. Is this because countries have different visual demands vs a somehow more universal linguistic desire? Why do covers change so drastically from one territory to another? One would not expect the same for a music album or film publicity after all. So what changes in case of a book?

All these questions, and no real answers!

Friday, June 06, 2008

At the Turin Book Fair

Back in May, I was at the Turin book fair. It was an interesting trip and far more fun than I had expected thanks basically to my Italian publishers Cargo/Ancora del Mediterraneo. But it wasn't all wine and song! So here goes the link for an televised chat in which I participated (this was the work part of being at the fair).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Update from Sunny: By Popular Demand

I am rather touched to receive emails from readers of this blog - frankly I didn't know I had any who were not family and friends - asking for an update. So first of all apologies; I have indeed been remiss. Secondly an explanation: I have been travelling partly to promote translations of my novel, With Krishna's Eyes, and partly for pleasure. And you will all recognise, for me that means limited access to the net.

For the moment however, I am posting a photograph of the French cover of the novel. I am not quite sure if I like Aishwarya on the cover (would personally have preferred Sush if they really wanted a Bollywood babe!). But it did make me remember a curious little fact about writing the novel. I had been working in film production when I began writing the novel, mostly for friends. And then began my doctorate in cinema towards the end of it. Somehow all that cinema leaked into the book so much so that at one point I found myself fantasizing who would play the characters if I turned the novel into a movie. So by the time I finished the manuscript I had a wish list of sorts in my head.

There was really no option for Baba. Had to be the great AB - and yes! I grew up in the 1970s and he is the towering old man of Hindi cinema! Just as Chachaji had to be a slighly roughed edged SRK - mad, romantic, affectionate but with a bitter edge, in a guest appearance of course.

Dadiji was a tough one because in my head I can't imagine the actress who could play her but Deepti Naval seemed to pop up a lot as an option. Alongside, oddly enough Tanuja - who, personally I think, has been the single most under-rated actress in Indian cinema.

Krishna had to be someone new - fresh faced and unknown, not someone hugely glamorous but also not behenji-ish. Some actress who could do contemporary urban Indian; someone sligtly vulnerable but tough. An early Rani Mukherjee or even a Preity Zinta in her Dil Se moment. Or a Vidya Balan today.

Not surprisingly, my favourite character of all is Damayanti. In a way, the story grew out of her character. She is also the most difficult one to visualise. I suppose Waheeda Rehman in her Kabhie Kabhie days would have been perfect: with the same grace and glamour that I visualised for Damayanti. But for logistical reasons, I would have loved Madhuri before she got the frozen, wind-tunnel look (WHAT A SHAME!). And weirdly enough, coming back to where we started: I think Sush - given a director like Gulzar - could pull off a brilliant Damayanti. She has that sort of uber-cool, urban-but-trad look while also projecting an inner steel.

Oh well, kisi din paisa hoga...ya, at least interest hoga. And a director who would love to make the film. On the condition of course that while the cast and crew is totally negotiable, Santosh Sivan shoots the film! I can just visualise my favourite bits of the novel rendered by Sivan's lens. In fact, another secret: in my head the novel rolled out like a Sivan-shot film for a private showing.

So there you go...but for the moment, just the uber-glam French cover! Meanwhile, I truly wish I could some day grow up to be as cool as my French disembodied self.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

How NOT to spin: Chinese government surpasses its own idiocy

So completely convinced are the idiots (read bureaucrats) in Beijing that the world can be manipulated by untruths that only need be uttered with authority that they have surpassed themselves.

After bussing in Chinese protesters to various capitals around the world for the Olympic Torture Relay, and assigning shoppers to "picket" Carrefour stores in China, they now have chanced upon the apparently fool-proof weapon of media spin: accuse the Tibetans of having links with the Al-Qaeda!

In fact the main propagandist of Beijing, Xinhua, has now revealed that the Dharamshala-based Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) is the "armed spearhead of the 14th Dalai Lama group."

Not content with that nebulous accusation (guess they learned from Bush Jr and his playpen at Guantanamo), Xinhua insists that the TYC has become a terrorist organisation" and has "also sought mutual support from international terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaida and East Turkistan groups." The information is apparently attributed to Liu Hongji, expert at China Tibetology Research Centre!!

My first thought: Goebbels must be writhing in his grave at Mr. Hongji's incompetence. My second: what a bunch of idiots!

And finally: It appears true that the more oppressive and brutal a regime grows, the greater the farce it becomes. For now, I await the moment when the Beijing regime is brought down to the sound of Buddha's laughter....

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Propaganda doesn't mean truth

So 10,000 Chinese protesters descended on Sydney to declare that Tibet was Chinese, that there were no human rights violations, that everyone who speaks for Tibet are "liars." Well, looks like the Chinese do a good job of lying themselves:

Apparently these lovely Chinese soldiers aren't just playing dress-up. They put on the robes of Tibetan monks to cause disturbances and riots. Wonder if those "terrorists" Beijing has been arresting do the same?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Torture Relay: The Delhi Farce

Well, its gone off without a hitch according to the very silly, preening Suresh Kalmadi. Of course no one wants to remind him of exactly "what" it was that went off without a hitch.

Lets see: 15000 armed paramilitary sealing off central Delhi to protect the torch of shame being paraded through 2.3 kilometres of a barren Rajpath. Yes, that did go off without a hitch, if we forget the following:

1. The absurd spectacle of a single Tibetan protester trying to unfurl the Tibetan national flag being bundled off by twelve or fourteen policemen.

2. The Rajyasabha not being able to reconvene after lunch as the MPs were unable to reach the Parliament building.

3. Cost to taxpayer - in loss of working hours, funding for an extra Republic Day security etc - ABSURD.

4. The sickening spectacle of Chinese national flags being waved at India Gate, with the farcical Olympic cauldron hiding the far more significant Amar Jawan Jyoti. But then perhaps we should not expect the party of the Emergency, Bofors scams, missing PoWs, to care for the dignity of the fallen soldier.

So while Suresh Kalmadi claims that the world was watching and he has ensured that we have not been embarrassed, guess what? Things looks quite different from beyond his tunnel-of-shame vision. The image of the Chinese embassy surrounded by rolls of barbed wire makes a stronger visual point of that country's oppressive nature.

And after the farcical relay in Delhi, the only place for the "sacred" Olympic flame (any ideas why a regime that prosecutes all religion suddenly is talking of sacred anything?) is a government provided cage, one that replicates the brutality of the Chinese state, and ironically reinforces the point that the Beijing torch symbolizes imprisonment, oppression, lack of freedom.

A word of thanks to all those who refrained from participating in the relay: Bhaichung Bhutia especially deserves a salute from all those who believe in the freedom of conscience. Kelly Dorjee whose gentle statements revealed not only the immense compassion of Buddhism but also an intense belief in individual freedom of expression that a democracy guarantees. And of course, to that old warrior - George Fernandes - who continues steadfastly to fight for a cause that much of the world has forgotten.

Finally, our immense gratitude is due to the Tibetan exiles in India. They followed the directive from their leader to not embarrass their hosts - us, Indians - by engaging in violence. The Delhi protests were peaceful and heart-wrenching, all the more powerful as symbolic acts of conscience as they contrasted with the massive machinery of the state guarding the torch of shame.

This has been a day of moral victories indeed - for the Tibetans who continue to struggle for their freedom, and for us Indians who asserted our right to satyagraha and democracy despite the cupidity of our leaders. And it has been a day of shame for our leaders who would do well to heed the message of on banners today: Azad Tibet, Surakshit Bharat!

Jai Bharat! Jai Tibet!

Stop the Torture Relay: Its not just Tibet, its all of us!

As the old line goes, its time for all good men to come to the aid of their party!

Lets see what we have by means of trouble: Our snivelling quisling lot in government have - not surprisingly - bent over backwards to accomodate Chinese authoritarianism.

Our defense minister who can only cringe and cower when he informs the parliament of the number of Chinese incursions into our national territory finds the strength and courage to roar when he has to "warn" the Dalai Lama that "he is a guest."

The grand signora of Indian polity who evokes the ghost of the familial past has conveniently forgotten the legacy of her grandfather-in-law and chosen the most ignonimous moment in the career of her cherished mum-in-law. Under her direct command, the political party that had illustriously revoked the Fundamental Rights of the Indian Citizen back in 1975 has chosen to show its courage to do the same again. As we go into the day of the torture relay through Delhi, the Himalayan states bordering China have had basic rights to public gathering circumscribed by our Emergency-backing weaklings.

Just so there is no doubt - these are the very states whose parts are claimed by China as "inalienably" theirs. What happens next? Does the UPA coalition surrender Arunachal, Sikkim, Siachin and Uttarakhand to China in order to keep "prosperity, peace and economic development" in Delhi? Where does Tibet end and India begin? How far backwards shall our government bend in order to please a murderous, oppressive regime?

This is no longer about Tibet or the Tibetans - who, just for the record, have shown their gratitude in blood, by fighting India' wars, right from 1971 through to the Operation Blue Star and Kargil. This is about all of us!

A little lesson in history: There was a time not too long ago that the freedom of public assembly had been revoked, alongside freedom to express dissent. That was during the colonial era. And when that ruling against public gathering was threatened, a massacre followed. The Jallianwala Bagh!

Is that how far we have come? Is that all our ancestors fought for? So that the freedoms we inherited could be circumscribed at will by the very leaders who claim to uphold the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru?

It is time to remind the deluded denizens of 7 Race Course - along with his master-handler at 10 Janpath - and their Bengali Communist moshai facilitators, that the legacy of Gandhi/Nehru remains. And it is not locked in with the power-hungry delusional handful who claim the surnames but rather those who live and cherish the principles of participative democracy.

It is time tomorrow for India to show its colours - democratic, free, rich with the legacy of political action. If you are in India, if you are in Delhi, go stand in support of the freedom torch. Go demonstrate against the torture relay. This is not about Tibet. Its about all of us. To ensure that the party that claims it brought us freedom does not sell our liberties to an authoritarian - albeit prosperous - neighbour.

Jai Bharat! Jai Tibet!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Torture Relay: Taking Apart Some Spurious Arguments

While Beijing has succeeded in stage-managing enough happy photo-ops for the Olympic torture relay, the tamasha has neither ended, nor has the issue been addressed. The apologists for China are already claiming that “pushing it into a corner” will yield no results. These are the same sages who claimed that “rewarding” China by handing it the Olympics would incentivize the genocidal nuts leading the country to improve their human rights records and provide greater freedoms to its citizenry. It’s a bit like using the Olympics to incentivize Hitler into not building gas chambers!!!

In the past few weeks, I have had lots of emails telling me that “sports should not be politicized.” Should not be? Which planet do these people live on? Sports have ALWAYS been political and none more so than the Olympics.

One of the vocal supporters of the current torture relay has been Siegfried Eifrig, who even at the ripe old age of 98 has been granting TV interviews arguing that “sports should not be political.” Bet few of us remember Mr. Eifrig’s illustrious past.

Eifrig is the “Aryan ideal” who ran the last stretch of the very first Olympic torch relay for the 1936 Berlin games. Photographs and the creepily memorable Leni Reifenstahl film show Eifrig proudly bearing the torch through Berlin streets lined with innumerable Nazi flags and cheering brown shirts. Makes me wonder how photographs of Ravi Shastri bearing the Beijing torch shall be viewed by generations that follow us!

Lets be honest here, the Olympics are not about sports but nationalistic pride. That is why the medal tallies are sorted by nation-states and not individual sportspeople or events. Moreover, the moment a sportsperson puts on the national uniform to compete in ANY sports (yes, this includes cricket!), they are no longer some idealised apolitical apogee of physical prowess. Wearing a uniform means that they are no different from soldiers of a nation-state Albeit, of course, less violent!

So lets have no more spurious discussion of how the Olympics are apolitical. Or indeed how rewarding a murderous, brutal, oppressive regime will somehow incentivize it to changing its policies. NO dictator in history has ever been rewarded into benevolence. And so will be the case with China.

Lets make sure that the torture relay gets the “tunnel of shame” it deserves.
Jai Bharat! Jai Tibet!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

San Fran, Over to You

The torture relay managed to survive the Paris hurdle on Monday and has made it to San Francisco, the city that has - since the Vietnam war - embodied contemporary participative democracy.

Over in Beijing, officials are still spouting their propaganda, talking of how people "love China" and blaming the outpouring of disgust, anguish and anger seen in Paris and London on a "handful of Tibetan separatists." And their citizenry who can not access basic information on the Tiannenmen Square massacre from within the nation on is suddenly not only well-informed but apparently able to hit the web to defend the Beijing regime! And they talk of British imperialism and the Opium Wars to defend their government's shameful record on human rights in Tibet and elsewhere. Just for that, this shameful spectacle has to be brought to an end.

However, beyond China's abysmal human rights record and its brutal occupation of Tibet, we who are citizens of democratic nations have a vested interest in bringing this horror-filled theatre of the absurd to an end. Here are just a few of the many reasons why the tor(ch)ture relay must be stopped RIGHT now:

1) There is NO tradition of the Olympic torch being carried about as a symbol of peace, harmony or anything else. The Greeks never had the torch carried down for the Olympics. It a publicity stunt that was created by the Nazis for the Berlin Olympics and revived by the Australians for Sydney 2000. And now the Chinese have mounted a massive spectacle to demonstrate their hegemony over oppressed people.

2) There is no reason why the Chinese government should be allowed to use the taxpayer's money in democratic states to justify its brutality - which is EXACTLY what happens when MY tax pounds are used to mount that horrible spectacle on Sunday in London.

3) The torch relay has broken all norms of representative democracies by allowing a bunch of thugs of the Chinese government to function with impunity in countries that value democracy and freedom of expression. I saw them go after protestors in Trafalgar square - something few of the media followed - using brute force. Would we allow Mugabe's thugs to stifle protestors against his regime? Or the Ayatollah's goons to attack protestors in London, Paris etc?

4) The spectacle of elected governments playing along with China's brutality undermines democracy and sovereignity where the torch is relayed. Why was the Met taking order from the aforementioned goons? Why did the same thugs determine to ignore the Parisian mayor?

This is not an IOC torch. This is Beijing's political PR stunt. This is not sports, its politics pure and simple. And its time to end it.

We in London set the bar. Paris took it a step further - thankfully with the help of its elected representatives. San Fran, its now up to you! Put out the torch! Tell the world leaders that bending over backwards to privilge the greed of big business and Chinese interests over democratic principles is not acceptable.

March tomorrow. In peace, but with vehemence. Stop the torch if you can! Or at least shout loud enough to shatter the glass walls of the towers of hubris where Chinese leaders dwell. Stop this sickening spectacle with which we are being to collaborate.

In Peace. For Tibet and All of US! Bod gyal Lo!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Stand Up and Be Counted: Its NOT just Tibet!

In the tumult of the past two days, reams of newsprint and acres of webspace have been devoted to the protests against the PR spectacle of the Olympic torch going through obstacle courses of protesters.

The most disturbing aspect of the whole saga is of course Chinese blindness and hubris that allows them to pass off London and Paris protests as works of a "minority," while claiming that the majority of the people support its brutal regime. Even more frightening are the news-clips of Chinese people - both in China and abroad - who don't question their regime's propaganda or care to find out why the world is not entirely approving of their government's behaviour. If there is an equivalent of the brain-washing a totalitarian regime such as the Nazis achieved, it must be China.

A few points need to be made, basic ones that have been drowned out by mainstream media looking for sell-able clips and photographs.

1. Most of the protesters are NOT a minority nor some sort of loony fringe, but rather members of democracies who pay their taxes, exercise their franchise, and now express their dissent in ways that are guaranteed by democratic states.

2. The police in London were generally quite controlled and disciplined, as warrants the law enforcement of a democratic state. The Paris police did seem to get a bit more rough but that is part of French gendarmerie tradition. But neither of the two police forces came anywhere close to the limited (by the Met) brutality the blue-clad "pretend athlete" Chinese thugs have engaged in (especially in London).

Finally, given that mainstream journalists get PAID to write reams, why has there been such sloppy analysis of the issues surrounding the torch relay and the pro-Tibet protests? On the other hand, everything I wanted to say regarding necessity and importance of the current protests has been said by one of my favourite bloggers in what counts as the logical expression of a critical, democratic mind (read the article here).

The protests are not just about Tibet, they are about the world we - and our children - will live in after the weakening of the American empire. They are about basic principles of democracy and expression - both of which we need to guard jealously against our own states (hence, London and Paris) but also against the growing brutal hegemony of the Chinese behemoth that crushes all dissent.

This is not just Tibet. It is all of us!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Torture Relay Must be Stopped!

Okay, so Tibet is a cause that is particularly close to my heart - I grew up in a hill town near Dehradun amongst Tibetan exiles. My father worked with the exiles and my first memories are of hot momos, sonorous chants, and apparently boundless affection that distinguishes the community.

I saw His Holiness for the first time when I was three and yet that memory lives in my inner eye with a clarity that is inexplicable. I have seen him since on other occasions, wondering how he carries a burden greater than any leader of any people: the responsiblity not only for the welfare of Tibetans - both in Tibet and abroad - but also the leadership of a struggle against an enemy so implacable and greater that any resistance must appear hopeless. And beyond that he must also protect and care for the soul of his nation. Yet he does all this with grace and infinite compassion, with a laugh as innocent and infectious as that of a baby.

Which is why I went out on possibly the winter's coldest morning to protest the PR spectacle with which the totalitarian Chinese regime hopes to drown the voice of Tibet. And I was not alone: thousands of Londoners turned up, complete with dogs, children, families, to show theirs. For our stretch, the protesters were mostly middle-class professionals (this was Nottinghill after all) but extremely vocal. Perhaps that was a good thing because the police were well outnumbered had there been a real intent for disruption. Naysayers suggest that the scuffles have let down the cause of Tibet. Instead, imagine that only 35 of the thousands of people who lined 31 miles of streets were arrested today. If that doesn't shout out peaceful protest, perhaps the world should listen harder.

Another point that needs to be made: much has been made of how politics and sports shouldn't mix. Well, China began the mixing and today was no different. Chinese "thugs" (for that is EXACTLY what they were) formed the inner most security ring around the torch. They wore the pale blue uniforms of the Olympics, disguising themselves as "athletes." Yet these were steely-eyed trained security men, working with horrific cohesion as they pushed out protesters during scuffles and "protected" the torch with something approaching religious fervour. The spectacle of the generally polite and helpful Met shoulder-to-shoulder with thugs of a totalitarian state can only be described as an extreme theatre of the absurd.

So what was the point? Well - the message was sent out loud and clear from London today: China cannot sweep its brutal oppression and steady annihilation of the Tibetan people under the rug by mounting a PR exercise. Even when the PR exercise is worth 30 billion dollars.

What happens next? Well, the message needs to be repeated again and again until it penetrates the Chinese self-delusion. That means EVERYwhere the torch goes, the scenes from London today must be repeated. Go out on the street, fly the Tibetan flag that is banned in Tibet, shame those celebrities who feel that a minute of TV time is more important that human lives.

Simon Jenkins of the Times called for a "tunnel of shame" for the torch this morning. Lets make sure that the tunnel of shame grows right around the world, until China is forced to listen. This may be last real chance Tibet has - if we look away again, it will be too late. Jai Tibet! Jai Bharat!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Tigress Gets an Outing...

Stories are weird beings. Sometimes they jump out, fully formed like Athena, from your head and take very little polishing. Or else, they seem to begin with a scrap of memory, or conversation, or just an image and feel like an interminable CPWD project. And those, like CPWD projects, even when they are complete, feel a bit spiky and ugly and a bit off. And then, sometimes, it seems that decades of memory, fantasy, speculation, experience and conviction, all come together to form a tight little knot. Something of the sort happened last year, when I wrote a tiny story about a woman suicide bomber.

Somewhere in the back of my mind were the horrific images from the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi - one reason Dhanu seemed like a good name for one of the characters. Then there were images from Mani Rathnam's Dil Se, all green and humid like memories of my childhood in the north east. And overlaid on the top of it all was the hegemonic discourse primarily from western media and governments that insists that suicide bombers are either deluded dupes, hate-filled fanatics or psychotic killers. No Hollywood or European director is going to a take a chance with a film like The Terrorist or Dil Se in the near future!

But more specifically there was a telephone conversation about the Aamir Khan-Kajol starrer, Fanaa! Some friends who had lived over two decades in the USA (and have returned since to India) called me up in distress and fury. How could a terrorist be shown to have a "love life," they asked. Wasn't this a mafia-run Bollywood pandering to the nefarious Middle East? Wasn't this threatening the Indian nation-state and indeed, all morality? Wasn't this sympathy for a mass-killer undermining the morale of our law enforcement officers and soldiers?

All their arguments were distilled from post-9/11 American media, with resounding echoes in the various European ones. In face of their passion, all my arguments sounded hollow, sentimentalist, pathetic even. I pointed to the ways the film echoed Mother India, that it was about taking a stand against "terrorism" even when it was at personal cost. That in India we walked a fine line that ensured that we didn't succumb to seeing any "other" as non-human. But to no avail! My friends remained angry and distressed. And I found myself wondering why they believed a "terrorist couldn't love anyone"!!

Perhaps it was that question that provided the final spark for the story. From nearly fifteen years of wondering and questioning why some people chose to kill by dying, a tiny narrative was born. It brought together every news report and book I had ever read about terrorism. And yet, strangely enough, it went back to those first images of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination with blood-soaked pinks and greens, of fragments of flowers in the midst of the charred horror. And to those initial identi-kit sketches of Dhanu in the newspapers.

Not surprisingly, the story as it was born, set itself in Sri Lanka. With its deep emerald woods. With rich silks and heavy perfumes. With a Black Tigress at its centre! And it distilled all that I had read and heard and watched for over fifteen years.

I have been saddened by some of the responses I have received for the story. It is not a justification of those who die to kill. It is not even a justification of those who kill. The story questions all of life that drives them to such a step. It is a step at understanding. Because as my grandmother always told me, "with understanding shall come the solutions."

The story, Tomorrow the Tigress Will Hunt, is out now in the new issue of The Drawbridge, along with a lot of other thought provoking writing.

I think its a sad story. And one that makes me angry. And its a story that needs to be told.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Aaja Nachle: Making Room for the Prodigal Daughter

Sometimes a film comes around that is groundbreaking. Yet it is often the film's very off-beat quality that supposedly all film critics crave that ensures that our hubris-ridden, utterly idiotic media buries it. Something of the sort happened to The Rising: The Legend of Mangal Pandey and Swades. And Indian media can take now great pleasure in having buried one of the most thematically interesting films of 2007: the Madhuri comeback vehicle, Aaja Nachle.

Aaja Nachle - logically - is considered la diva Dixit's comeback film. The media (and her most famous if oily fan - Madhuri par Fida Hussain) expected the sex-bomb of old lighting up the screen. What they got wasn't India's wet-dream girl but a woman so powerful and secure in herself that she is beyond even dreams of attainment for most men. Such was the immense power of la Dixit's performance. Of course, the permanently adolescent Indian men threw their toys out of the cot and insisted that if she weren't going to be their fantasy, well then they didn't want her at all.

But there seems to be a slighly more upbeat coda to this media-led funeral: made on a small budget, the film continues to run in small centres around the country and will most likey recover costs.

But what about the movie itself? Well, for the first time (as far as I can remember) in mainstream cinema, a film makes room for the return of the prodigal daughter. Madhuri's character, Dia - the story is told here in flashback - not only elopes with her white, American lover (oh horror!), but soon after divorces him, and raises their daughter by herself. Her scandalised parents cut off all contacts with her and move to another town, hoping to live down the "shame." Not too long ago, the conventions of popular cinema would have required that any of these transgressions be punished by Dia's death and humiliation. But this is the - ahem - new India - and in this shiny bright country, even prodigal daughters get a second chance.

Dia can not only come back to her hometown, but make peace with a jilted suitor, charm the local thug-politico, put up a successful theatre production, and in the process, find a potential new love. The NYTimes lamented that the film didn't provide a 40+ woman with more of a personal life. But then the film is not about Dia's personal life - especially in Hollywood terms, ie, her loves and lovers - but rather about her reclaiming a lost heritage - of a dying dance school, of a rejected childhood, of a lost past. The film in all senses is about Dia's return to her hometown, embattled but triumphant, angry but forgiving, and finally, accepted by those she considers her own. It is a measure of the filmmaker's courage that this is even deemed possible on celluloid.

Interesting - and often amusing - subtexts of the film include a clever critique of an ignorant young man (the suave Kunal Kappor barely fitting the role of the small town thug) destroying his own heritage in name of resisting "foreign culture;" a Cosmo-style solution for spicing up a boring marriage with a bit of experimentation; and a Cinderella-like transformation of the town tomboy-hoyden (played yet again by the ever-ubiquitous Konkana Sen). Yet there are more complex themes that resonate with the new India.

In this India, even a hereditary Raja sahib must win his elections, and run the risk of losing the next one if he doesn't provide all that he promises to his constituents. No Eklavya-style grateful, forever loyal peasants then in this view of the country. Played with great flair by Akshay Khanna - who once again reminds of his initial promise from Border as an actor - this local politician is not only fair but also tough. He can flirt and charm, but also engage in real-politik. And yet at heart, he remains a good man trying to bring change to his lost mofussil constituency - perhaps a growing indicator of pending changes in Indian polity and a bit of wish-fulfillment combined.

Now the problems with the movie - and yes, there are quite a few. For a film purporting to be Madhuri's comeback, the camera-work is noncommittal at best. In fact, rarely has Madhuri been shot with such lack of passion, with most shots seeming as if the cameraman Ritesh Soni was too scared to approach the diva. For all her career, the camera has adored Madhuri but in this film, the camera seems a little too overawed to shoot her.

And yes we know this was a small budget flick, but surely we didn't need the sets to be quite sooo tacky. Even small towns have their charming spaces - remember Umrao Jaan with the dingy, decaying interiors. Or Bunty and Babli with the dusty little towns as appropriate playgrounds for the mischief-making duo? Surely the art director should have been pulled up for this?

Second - Saroj Khan's pizzazz was missing in the choreography especially for Madhuri's numbers. With a folksy, peppy, musical score, this film was a perfect vehicle for another Madhuri-Saroj collaboration. But alas! Yes the choreography was interesting, quite stylized, even quite innovative. But Madhuri is not a Rani Mukherjee or Preity Zinta or Kajol. She can actually dance! Remember her in Devdas? Remember Maar daala or Chanak Chanak? Now compare her in Jalwa or the film's theme song. That athanni-chavanni hip shake could be achieved by any two-bit actress, why waste Madhuri on those? Despite its overt dance theme, Aaja Nachle does not capitalise on its greatest asset - Madhuri's ability to dance!
And finally, I know we live in a plastic age, but Madhuri, WHAT have you done to yourself? Obviously la Dixit can afford, and has the intelligence to select, a better surgeon than Aishwarya, but could we have laid off the botox just a bit? A re-done face meant that Madhuri's formerly mobile and expressive face lacked that famous magical ability to emote. Her eyes sparkled, and her smile was just as bright. But the brows remained uncreased, the eyebrows shot upwards in strange angles, and the smooth cheek never showed a crease. Compared to the devastating, harrowing beauty of Chandramukhi in Devdas, Aaja Nachle's Dia may be fresher but she is also utterly plastic. This may well be a reason that the camera never lingers on her face. Perhaps doing so would have exposed the extent of cosmetic work the diva has managed to get done.

Be that as it may, Madhuri reminds her audience why she is one of the greats of Indian cinema. That spot - in the pantheon of stars, alongside Madhubala, Hema Malini, Sridevi - is hers for all history. She also reminds us why there has been no replacement for her in the past five years, despite Rani's extraordinary acting performances, Aishwarya's plastic beauty, Priyanka's glamour puss routines and Priety Zinta's bubbly charm. There hasn't been a dancer in the industry since Madhuri. Not surprisingly then, Bollywood fans haven't found another dream-girl either.

All in all, Aaja Nachle is a lovely little film - more a pearl than a glittering diamond, but definitely deserving of a second, even a third viewing. If for nothing more than as a reminder of what a true screen icon can achieve. And of course, for the hope that in a 21st century India, even prodigal daughters may return home.