Monday, June 28, 2004

Jaipur glam girl is south's sex symbol

This is a story that I wanted to pen for the paper ever since I moved to Jaipur from Bangalore. My magazine writing teacher, an out-of-this-world personality, put me through to this story. It finally ran in Sunday's edition of Hindustan Times in Jaipur. She can be viewed on

A few years back she did not step out of home beyond six the evening. That is, well, history now. Today, she feels that showing her cleavage is “normal”. This is the story of the metamorphosis of Kiran Rathod, originally from a conservative family in Jaipur, into a world where oomph and the come-hither look form essential survival instincts. The girl from your city is, arguably, the queen of Tamil cinema today.

After a brief presence on screen with Yaadein and a Coca-Cola commercial, it was a chance encounter with AVM Limited, one of the oldest Tamil film production houses, that sent her neckline plunging as she forayed down south. She was launched in the mega hit Gemini and it brought her an instant award for the best debutante in the 2002 Cinema Express Awards.

“Showing the cleavage is not vulgar,” she says. “I think exposing to an extent is normal and I know my limits,” insists Rathod, who deflated the notion that most films down south are mainly exaggerated frames of sexuality. “I also acted in Anbesivam with Kamal Hasan and it was critically acclaimed,” she adds.

Rathod has performed in nearly 15 films, three of them are in Telugu and one in Malayalam; the rest are in Tamil. She dabbles in Tamil but her voice is still dubbed by a single lady for all her films. “I think it is the glamour feel to me that has clicked here. All my roles have had that feel,” Rathod says.

When Rathod decided that she would move to the south, a land most here associate with the loincloth-donning and marble-mouthed people, her family debated its implications. Her father strongly opposed the idea. “We were concerned about our social standing initially and her lifestyle. People did not say anything explicitly to us but it was, nonetheless, odd. But we have adjusted now,” says her mother Anita Rathod, currently with her in Mumbai. “She was adamant about it. Moreover, there is more vulgarity in films being produced from Mumbai,” she adds.

C-Scheme is still home and so is the rest of the city. But, firmly entrenched there, Rathod wants to continue to “rule” the Tamil cinema industry for another five years. “That is why I am now looking for more performance-oriented roles,” she says. “I do not want to be a showpiece,” Rathod adds.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Headscarves and Mannequins

Here is the link to a picture I came across on a photoblog by Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian expat in North America. The picture portrays the oddities an outsider to the Islamic Republic might experience. It shows mannequins at a store with headscarves on them. Moreover, their heads are sliced because of "Islamic laws that prohibit making identical statues to humans". Can't wait to get to Iran!

Friday, June 25, 2004

The Power of Bollywood and India's "Soft Power"

If only we were more serious about tapping the enormous goodwill that Indian films, mainly Bollywood, have generated in West and Central Asia. I was reading a piece on BBC on how the filming of "The Rising" has bowled over Aychi, a tiny village in Tajikistan. The reporters say that many locals can sing numbers from Hindi films without knowing their meaning. It's like me singing hits of Fairouz or the Gipsy Kings.

Stakeholders, especially the Ministry for External Affairs, should exploit this "weapon of mass attraction". In a world full of terror diatribe and skewed priorities, films, music and the arts will surely give us a breather.

Even American policy makers have realised that much of America's goodwill, whatever little it has left, comes from Hollywood and its enormously popular pop culture worldwide. Books, songs and films out of America have inspired so many worldwide. It is a pity that their power is still neglected.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A flea market for canines

I am still trying to convince myself that I turned 23 yesterday. Sometimes I wish I could freeze the ageing process... Anyway, while I do a little bit of introspection, here is a piece I did on a kutta mandi in Jaipur:

It was her second bidi in five minutes. Roop pulled them out of a packet carefully tucked inside her floral blouse. “Why do you bother us,” she yelled in a hoarse voice when she realised that a reporter was in their midst. “Let us live in peace.” With a yellow-striped dupatta that hid most of her features other than a heavily disfigured nose, she came across as an intimidating personality.

Nearby, an emaciated Doberman sniffed at an empty milk packet. Puppies, their eyes hardly open, wailed from pits where they were stocked for potential customers. And more dogs, many of them disease-stricken, were chained to their cots – waiting to be sold off. There must have been more than fifty dogs at the camp.

A member of a nomadic tribe from Haryana but based in Jaipur for 10 years now, Roop and her family members have been selling dogs, some of which, they claim, are pedigree. The tribe camps on Jhotwara Road and their hutments are known to locals as Kutta Mandi, a place for dogs at dirt-cheap prices. “We are poor and uneducated. This is the only way we can feed ourselves,” said a taciturn Arjun, the leader of the gang. A mongrel will sell for as low as Rs 100 but the price of a “pure” German Shepherd can go up to Rs 1,500. No papers are produced here to prove the pedigree.

When this reporter first walked in, the tribe members shoved a photo album that contained pictures of their dogs – all healthy ones – on a leash. “What would you like,” asked Arjun, sensing a buyer. “A Doberman or a Boxer? Or a Pomerian?” The tribe claims that they buy the dogs for as low as Rs 50 and look after them but animal rights organisations tell a different story.

“These people have to struggle to feed themselves. How do you expect them to look after the dogs,” said Rakhee Sharma, who works with Help In Suffering (HIS). “Most of these dogs are sick and end up dying there only. A stray dog can at least feed itself but not these dogs,” she added.

Controversy has long hounded the tribe, who have also been accused of stealing the dogs. “Many of my friends from C Scheme say that they steal pups,” said Sujeet Sharma, a German Shepherd owner. “They sure do not deal in pedigree dogs. They pass off mongrels as pure bred ones,” he added.

But that does not bother Arjun and his kin. “Go and write that we deal in stolen dogs,” he shouted, in unison with other members of the tribe.

(Some names have been changed on request)

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Lingua Fracas

I wish people were a little more serious and dedicated to languages. Here is a piece I wrote for Chaya, a bilingual (English and Hindi) magazine that my friends from the American Institute of Indian Studies and me put out. It is straight from the heart, this piece on the English language and me:

It never was my birthright. Neither was it my mother tongue. But fate would have it that I would be born in a former British colony, one that was in many ways colonised to the soul, and that my parents would be affluent enough to send me to an English-medium school.

Circumstance has made the English language inseparable from me. It has intimately bonded the two of us. But am I less of an Indian if I choose to pray in English and not Bengali—my mother tongue? Does it make me a foreigner that I penned my first love letter in English? And would I feel more at home in Pembrokeshire than in Jaipur, just because most of the books on my shelf are in English? I think not.

A language, like one’s faith, must be a personal choice; like faith, it is unfortunately also a platform for prejudice. Nothing hurts me more than to see “privileged” English-speaking Indians denigrate vernacular languages.

Lately, many young Indians have begun looking at accented-English speakers as “cool”, as the guys who are “in”. This attitude is especially flawed and offensive since for most of these speakers the language remains largely a professional acquisition; although they speak the language, many of them have not even sampled the rich body of Indian writing in English.

English is shaped by its daily usage in the mushrooming nouveau-riche corporate offices of India’s large cities, and is deemed only a passport to professional and financial stardom. English is treated impersonally and abused, learnt not for the love of the language but for the financial gain it entails. Worse, many of these English speakers are no longer comfortable reading and writing in their mother tongue, whatever that may be.

How many students actually “choose” to study English Literature at universities in India? Only a handful. And not only English—other language and literature courses as well are calling out for attention, with only uninterested and apathetic students on their rolls. On most students’ lists of priorities, these courses appear far below other, more “career-oriented” subjects; in India, the Humanities have always been overshadowed by scientific and engineering programmes.

Few youngsters are in love with languages today. How many, for instance, would care to find out the various words from South Asian languages that have been officially included in the English language? And how many are interested in the etymology of any of the words that they use daily? For them language is still, unfortunately, only a survival kit.

As a journalist I use English as more than a mere instrument or simple medium of communication. All my ideas and expressions stem from this language. It has been my childhood friend and is now my life partner. Nothing gives me such a thrill as browsing through a list of unknown words, or delineating the nuances of a set of synonyms.

English words still hold a certain magic — one I have yet to fully discover — and they have made me the writer I am today. What I admire in English is the way it continues to grow on me. As much as I would now feel orphaned, unable to share anything in my heart without this language, my attachment to it can only grow stronger with the passage of time. English remains in my heart, embedded in myself, irreplaceable.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

In Bangalore but still hooked on to Rajasthan

Greetings from Bangalore! Am here for my reunion and, quite obviously, I have had loads of fun getting together with my friends and catching up with each other's lives. Many have already decided that they would no longer be associated with journalism per se in another five years from now! Not me! Anyway, here is a piece I did on a premiere of a Rajasthani film "Oji Re Deewana":

It was almost as if they were drugged on her. Anaesthetised from their daily woes, the crowd's whistles refused to die down till Neelu danced on the stage. The worn-out speakers at Minerva were belting the title track from her latest and 46th film, Oji Re Deewana. And many from the audience, which comprised largely of daily wage labourers, trooped into the aisle for a quick boogie. It was utopia in a ramshackle hall.

Some even walked up to the stage and handed over cash to her. Even babies were not spared. They kept coming in one after the other into Neelu's arms. The leading actress of Rajasthan's cinema industry, and ageing some might add, seemed their best bet for a ticket to fantasy land.

Vinod Kumar, who works at a dhaba, took an off on Friday to see Neelu's newly released film. "She fights very well on the screen and her dances are also enjoyable," said Kumar, thoroughly enjoying himself. Asked to recollect his favourite dialogue, Kumar replied, "Tu meri payr ki jooti hain". That is what Neelu had in store for Billa, a notorious screen character, in one of her films.

In one of the scenes from her latest film, Neelu stands towering and stern like a deity. Her reel husband is sobbing on his knees. But a moment later, the two hug and begin sobbing incessantly. That is why the actress, fans said, is a treat to watch on screen. She switches with ease between busting villains and weeping her heart out. Or even performing comic roles, they added.

"She embodies a true Rajasthani woman. There is no vulgarity in her films," said Waqueela, one amongst the audience. "She does bold roles and has a good hold on rural aspects of Rajasthan," said Suresh Khandal, the still photographer for the film. "She is Rajasthan's Sridevi," he added.

Decked in heavy gold and a blue sari, Neelam spent much of Friday shuttling and dancing between two halls where her film was being screened. "Artistes do not have any age," she said, rubbishing criticism that she is too old for limelight on celluloid. "I made my debut in 1982 when I was 11 years old. And with the love and blessings of my well-wishers, I am still going strong," she added.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

A chat with leaders of the Scout Movement in Afghanistan

I always had a real soft corner for Afghanistan because of all the trauma it has been through and also for its exceedingly beautiful and warm people. So, when I heard that leaders of the Scout Movement would be in Jaipur, I knew I had to speak to them. Here is the article that ran in Hindustan Times:

Abdul Rauf Saboor stretches his arms wide open and with a gleam in his eyes, he responds, “Thoooo much happy!” It probably is a tempered reaction from someone who has just resumed doing what he loves most after a gap of more than two decades.

Saboor, here for a scouting management workshop, was passionately involved in the Scout Movement in Afghanistan, which began in 1931. Fearing an imminent Russian invasion his work came to a standstill in 1978. The Soviets eventually trooped in a year later. “Because they were not a member of the movement, they gave it the name of policemen,” he says in broken English. “After that because of the war and the Taliban, we could not continue our work,” he adds.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Saboor is rediscovering his lost love. Only that he now has the added responsibility of ensuring that the movement regains its lost stature. Saboor is the director of the Afghan Scouts, under the Ministry of Education, and has a fiercely daunting task on his hands. “We have to start from zero,” he says. “Even the government does not have any idea about the movement,” he adds.

It does not have an office and even the uniforms of the delegates are privately made. But the early signs of its growth are showing. The movement has reached 18 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces. “We will move out as the security situation improves,” says his friend and scout leader Gul Ahmed Mustafa Pure.

There are presently 22,650 members in the movement, of which an encouraging 7,000 are girls. Their activities mostly include maintaining schools, ensuring that they are kept clean and that drinking water is easily available. But with no support from the government, the leaders are paid just about 2,000 Afghani rupees each month. “The director of the Asia Pacific region visited us in July this and said that they would help us,” says Saboor, who like his friend made a living out of teaching all these years.

The two could pass for any other Afghan. They speak English haltingly and are crazy about Hindi films. “I love Vinod Khanna in Rajput. Each Afghan family has hundreds of Hindi film CDs,” says Saboor. And if you ask him if he likes India, he replies with a stare, “Why not?”

The two have big plans for promoting the movement in their country and building a better Afghanistan. “Boys and girls are equal in our movement,” says Pure. “We now want to use the youngsters in developing Afghanistan into a united and beautiful country,” he adds.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

An interview with two Israeli cardiologists

Here is a piece I wrote on two leading cardiologists who were in Jaipur for a workshop. They work at Chaim Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital in West Asia and had some interesting insights into heart care and the road ahead:

Being at the forefront of preventive cardiology and coronary care is not their only claim to fame. Michael Schechter and Y Har-Zahav also work at the biggest hospital in West Asia. In fact, the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv is like a “monster”, as Schechter would say. A 3,000-bed hospital, it also has a five star hotel and shopping malls within its premises. “It’s like a city,” Schechter said.

Recently in Jaipur for an Indo-Israeli workshop on cardiology, the two doctors are the first from Israel to travel to India for an exchange at a professional level. Schechter is a leading researcher on how to accurately predict heart attacks and undo the damage done to the endothelium. Whereas, Har-Zahav specialises in performing angioplasties and angiographies on patients with a transplanted heart.

Currently, using high resolution ultrasound probes it is now possible to observe closely the damage done to the endothelium and predict “very precisely” coronary attacks. “We are now working on finding exactly what medicines and facilities can stop and undo the progress of the disease,” said Schechter.

“Next, we want to begin working on small machines, like use a PDA and wave light, to measure the endothelial function. This will enable us to take the set up to every home and benefit the people,” he added. Contrary to what most would believe, a check up on this costs just about $ 100 dollars. “Indians do deserve much better medical services at lower costs,” he said.

Excited about coming to India, the two doctors said that the two countries could learn a lot from each other. “India could benefit from Israel’s developed emergency care services and we could use India’s traditional herbs for cardiac rehabilitation,” added Schechter. Asked if people in the region suffered more from cardiac problems because of the incessant violence, the doctor acknowledged that it did stress the people. “When Iraq launched scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War, studies found that heart attacks had gone up by three times,” he replied.

“But often the media exaggerates the sporadic violence in the region. It just happens in pockets and we lead ordinary lives,” Schechter added. Also the chief cardiologist of the Israeli Red Cross Society, he added that cooperation with Arab doctors was also active at their hospital. “I am a firm believer in people-to-people contacts and as a doctor I treat all my patients, irrespective of their politics, as human beings,” he said.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Tel Aviv gets Unesco nod

Tel Aviv, for many a city of sun, sand, sea, cafes and little else, has finally featured in the list of the Unesco World Heritage sites. A celebration of its original Bauhaus architecture, which was brought in by the immigrant architects from Europe who were trained in that style. Click here for the article.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

A man out of this world

Here is a profile I wrote recently for the paper:

If he were married, Sheoram Yadav’s grandchildren could have taught him his school lessons today. Almost 70 years old, Sheoram has been struggling without a break since 1969 to clear the secondary school exam. He claims that his slow handwriting betrays him each time. “It has always been like this for me,” Sheoram says.

But others nearby inform that he concentrates too much on the one subject that fails him that he trips on another the next time. In 1995, he had made it but for mathematics. “I failed in it in my supplementary paper. It is one subject I dread,” he adds.

However, his determination seems to have only strengthened with each failed attempt. “I want to pass on my own, without adopting any unfair means or asking the authorities for grace,” says Sheoram, who appears as a private candidate from the Government Higher Secondary School in Tasing village.

Till he makes it, Sheoram has vowed to remain a bachelor. “You can’t study after marriage,” he says. Instead, it is squalor and solitude that keep him company. Having sold off most of his land to finance his studies, he lives in a dilapidated haveli. He has leased out his remaining land and has a few cattle to support him. If you ask him why he is so obdurate, he will reply, “It is education that distinguishes animals from humans.”

But time seems to be running out for Sheoram, a resident of Khori village in the Alwar district. Despite his imposing frame, he is frail with a voice that quivers and eyes that incessantly water. Hard of hearing, speaking to him means yelling into his ears and, at times, still failing. He comes across as a quirky character, one that would dovetail with ease in Malgudi Days.

Some claim that he is a celebrity of the Behror tehsil but closer home he is a laughing stock of the villagers. “We have asked him so many times to give up but like a senseless person he doesn’t,” says Shriram Yadav, one of his distant cousins. His study-cum-bedroom is dingy and dusty. Filled with rat-eaten and pale books, an oil lamp hangs by his bedside. He spends most of his day studying his updated set of books, reading newspapers and strolling in the village.

His results are due in another few weeks and villagers are hoping, like before, that he will finally make it. They prod him to throw a party if he does but Sheoram quips, “The government should finance my party because I have spent so much trying to pass the exam.” Sheoram claims that he spends nearly Rs 400 annually to achieve his elusive dream. He isn’t too optimistic of clearing the hurdle even this time but his grit is intact. “If I lose my courage, I would rather die,” he says.

Who, What, Where, Why, When and How

Being a scribe, I couldn't help but put that as the title of my debut on! Am a staff writer with Hindustan Times in Jaipur and this blog will offer a glimpse of my online and hopefully real life happenings.

This place will give you thoughts on my interests - reading non-fiction, writing, photography, jazz and world music, languages and films. Also Islam and West Asia, primarily contemporary Iran - its politics and culture.

It will also let you read some of my stuff that I work on for the paper. Our edition is still not online... lol!