Monday, April 27, 2015

Why Hindi soaps are the bomb

A friend asked me today whether I was aware that Hindi soap writers were paid thrice as much as Bollywood screenplay writers. She said it in a disdainful tone.

I think writing for Hindi soaps requires heck lot more imagination than say, certain movies. I mean, giving new voices and new conflicts to those cliched cardboard idolized characters for years who barely even step out of their cocoon and have to go through various stages of life looking like their young decked-up self can be no small feat. It must take a toll on the writer.

I recently got lured stumbled upon an episode of Saath Nibhana Saathiya, the show on Star Plus that’s been on for eons and honestly I assumed had been over eons back. The timid, docile, once-illiterate Gopi Bahu was sent to jail for a decade for killing her evil sister. (I had to look this up. So much effort!) You’d think a woman like that would sink into irreversible depression and lose all sense of self-worth and dignity. Not our Gopi Bahu. Our GB is like the mother of dragons; returns with a swagger, bangs and some crackling zingers. Her attitude, confidence and the ability to cut naysayers to size are so refined, Hilary Clinton could take a cue from her for the 2016 presidential election. You’d think GB had returned with an MBA from Yale, not a decade long jail term for murder.

She makes it home but alas, the coochie cooing will have to wait. Husband now lives with a girlfriend and surprise surprise, she's not the first 'other woman' in his life. The pig also almost married someone else. But hey he’s still Ahem-ji ok ok?

She tries to impose herself on him with her new Yale jail returned self.
“Hey baby I’m back. Kisses?”
“Shoo shoo.”

If there’s one thing you learn in b-school, it’s persistence. So she keeps at it.

Ahem-ji is sick of being wooed by two women he doesn’t deserve in the first place so he berates GB. When all else fails, GB resorts to the ultimate weapon of men destruction – sindoor.

Ahem-ji romances the girlfriend in full public view, dishing out trite periodic insults at GB, while GB lovingly has to engage a bottle of sindoor, her only ally in testing times. Hey producers, why don't you get the poor wifey a battery-operated er bottle – you know the kinds that talk back, to keep her company?

GB is determined to win husband back, come hell or high water.
She’s like, let’s do this no, hun?
He’s like, no dice.
She’s like, don’t make me say the s-word.
He’s like, whatevah. I get plenty already.
She’s like, eww perv. I meant sindoor.

He gets so vexed he does something crazy amazing. He asks GB to explain what sindoor means to her while a dozen onlookers nervously bite their lower lips in anticipation. GB gives a huge sermon, no points for guessing, on the magical powers of the colored powder. It's just what the bugger wanted. Sly! Women – do not, I repeat, do not fall into this trap. He lunges forward, grabs the bottle and jumps back to the tile he’s been assigned in the living room. Then as the camera rolls and the cacophony soothing background music ensues, he creates a divider in his house with it in a high tension sequence. Brilliant, no?

This is Rekha, he declares cockily.
Wait, I thought she’s Mansi, GB can’t even keep track of the girlfriends.
Lakshman rekha, you illiterate women, he roars. "If you really value sindoor, you'll never step on this rekha and try to shag shack make up with me."

The episode ends with Ahem-ji and the girlfriend staying on the other side of sindoor ki rekha happily ever after in the same house while poor GB had to buy new sindoor pronto since he used it all up. Dawg.

To Dante's Hell

My short story originally published in AntiSerious magazine.

Starbucks. San Francisco. A sluggish Friday afternoon. A sugar-free non-fat cappuccino and momentary lapse of control that leads to a Cheese Danish (read 420 stubborn calories and food coma).

Fogged brain refuses to process a single word from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that has been checked out thrice from the library and returned each time without so much as even a perfunctory glance. This is my final chance before I give up on my elitist pursuits. I venture into it and learn it’s about an unnamed man in post-Apocalyptic hell of an unending nuclear winter running into cannibals who, get this, don’t even chase him. Please. As if that would happen. So the novel is promptly traded for a fashion blog on the beloved smart phone.

A little piece of the flaky pastry, as if on cue, duly sticks to the side of my lower lip. Tough luck, I tell it. It’s a lazy day.  I let it stay put and move on.
The blog post is quite intriguing. Gothic bride. Dark shades of silk, cascading ruffles, corsets, bold designs, deliberate dark circles all around the eyes, mile-long fake lashes, black lipstick, steampunk hair and raven feathers. Who knew that category had crawled out of the spooky, fantasy-laced Halloween world and turned legit and socially acceptable? And who are these people who throw these weddings? The last ‘out there’ wedding I had attended was where the newlyweds rendered a version of Macarena replete with romantic eyeballing of each other in ornate desi outfits. Then they did a repeat and coaxed all the eager aunties to join in. The aunties lip-synched and shook their derriere a bit much making for splendid photo ops as I cheered through my Patron-affected speech and vision.

I’ve been such an Alice in the Goth world that I’ve not taken note of the erudite crowd that now occupies the adjacent table. Two young men, three young women and one parakeet – or so she sounds like, accompanied by an older gentleman. I scan them because I’m still working on my cappuccino and its peak rush hour and my cross-fit class doesn’t start for the next thirty minutes. (And that’s about as much effort I’m willing to put into my excuses.) Okay I scan them because I hear Lisbon and Madrid and Monte Carlo and a bundle of what looks like travel literature and I’m ready to call my travel agent and take off with them if they’ll just let me. I’m an avid traveler, did I mention? They discuss flights and train stations and points of interests that include a whole lot of churches while I let the lukewarm, bitter liquid coat my throat. Soon it’s time for them to disperse and while the rest shoot for the door, one of the younger men in a blue cardigan and black skinny tie approaches me.

“May I?” he asks, pointing to the chair across from me. Sure I would love to travel with them. Not going to lie. But this is way too fast. I am a conformist at heart. Perhaps they were a group looking to expand, I reason. He takes my pursed lips for an affirmative response and sinks into the chair.
In a completely appalling move, instead of a hello, he points at my lower lip. How lewd. I’m ready to give him a piece of my mind when I remember the pastry flak. I brush it off sheepishly and straighten my back.
“If you have a couple of minutes,” he says solemnly, pulling out one of the brochures. Gosh, don’t let it be Paris, please. That’d make this the most clich├ęd story ever. Group met me at Starbucks and asked me to go to Paris with them. Yikes. Not that these things routinely happen to me. Could I bring my kid along? I grab the leaflet from him, silencing my thoughts. The Gospel Of Jesus Christ, it reads. The leaflet cover features a lovely image of Christ with his right hand raised, light rays reflecting from it. I narrow my eyes to read the title again.

“Are you a Hindu?” he asks nonchalantly, giving me no time to warm up to the subject. Yes I am. A practicing one too. I nod weakly because I’m trying to gauge where this is headed. Multitasking is not one of my strengths.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to heaven?” he tosses the million-dollar question at me, just like that, the blue in his cardigan bouncing off his luminous grey eyes. 
As if an eternal spot at heaven for me is simply contingent upon a resounding 
“Perhaps you can share the founding principles of Hinduism and I can tell you why you may want to think about…” Conversion? He is unrelenting. I was studying Gothic brides a few minutes back. I’m not prepared for this conversation. Plus, I can never defend religion at gunpoint. Founding principles? I blank out and my mouth goes dry. So I do the next best thing and make an excuse about someplace I have to be. He coaxes, I resist. It’s a tug of war. I eventually rise, gather my belongings, and politely part ways.
“It’s the only way to avoid going to hell.” He calls out. I gasp. To some, it could perhaps be a mild insult but to me, the mention of hell invariably causes the images of afterlife by the famous 14th century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, to float all around me. Naked sinners in hell being devoured or stabbed by devils, rivers of blood flowing endlessly, birds feasting on their dismantled flesh; perpetual suffering. It is disturbing, infuriating. My left brain tells me he was perhaps just a novice but my right brain is exploding with overreaction. I jump into the car, unsettled, and begin to drive. I slam my breaks at the next signal when the novel I was reading earlier falls off the passenger seat. I pick it up and it induces this vision; I see the same young man in blue cardigan in place of the unnamed protagonist. I see him in the same post-Apocalyptic hell of an unending nuclear winter. Just like in the novel, he’s starved, frozen, and he’s running into cannibals who, for once, (Lord forgive me for saying this) chase him. They chase him hard. And it doesn’t end well for him. Must be what they call poetic justice, a little voice pops in my head. Somehow I instantly feel better. I laugh at my puerility and drop the book off.

The Ivory Charm

My short story on Kanchenjunga originally published in the Northeast Review journal.


A reticent, velvety darkness still loomed over when Mohanchandra Pradhan—fondly referred to as Vakilsahib or Pradhanji by loved ones—stepped out of his bungalow on a prematurely frozen October morning. The previous day’s snowstorm had cast a white blanket over the lofty Himalayan peaks guarding Rangpo, a secluded hill station in Sikkim.
            “Chotu,” Pradhanji called out to the servant boy, hurriedly stepping back in, his spine stiff from the fleeting exposure to cold. “Bete clean out the pavement quickly. I mustn’t be late.” He blew air in his cupped palms, rubbing them together to generate heat and placed the hands over his ears first, then his cheeks. It wiped out the tilak on his forehead from the early morning puja.
            The boy brought out plow and shovel and gingerly moved ice off the walkway, his face safeguarded in a monkey cap. Pradhanji stepped onto the hand-pulled rickshaw that had been waiting at the gate, his knees numb despite three woolen layers and a shawl, and directed him to the bus station. It was a twenty-minute ride through the town, naturally landscaped with the majestic, snow capped Kanchenjunga, alpine meadows, waterfalls, passes, valleys, perennial rivers and glaciers. Pradhanji had spent a lifetime here. Each solitary ride through it brought a sparkle to his eye.
            The rickshaw pulled up in front of the bus station terminal where Pradhanji boarded a bus to Siliguri. It was circa 1965. An old acquaintance of Pradhanji from Siliguri had organised a regional farming convention and had insisted Pradhanji attend. The convention was an outdoor one set up in an outsized farm with myriad tents filling up the space. Farmers and vendors had gathered from the state to sell a wide assortment of plants and plant-derived products. Pradhanji was overwhelmed, a little lost even, never having been to an event of this magnitude. His acquaintance took Pradhanji on a quick tour and dropped in at a corner tent where a farmer was assertively selling petite apple trees to onlookers. “My friend owns a lot of land in the north,” his acquaintance disclosed unwarranted information to the farmer, pointing at Pradhanji. The overenthusiastic farmer jumped at the opportunity, spoke in one breath and divulged all he knew about apple farming. Pradhanji felt framed by the two men. A bout of discomfort followed. He wanted to turn away.
            “These are specialty trees, dai. Wild apples, but not crabapples. Gooliyo. Mitho. They’re much sweeter.” The farmer badgered with his sales pitch. “They’re from Lachen. Our people say they’re so sweet because they’re ripened by the sunrays that Kanchenjunga reflects. I can guarantee that they would bear 140–150 kgs of fruit per year way before maturity.” He coaxed Pradhanji into trying a sample, his eyes bright and expectant.
            Reluctantly, Pradhanji acceded to the offer and picked up two freshly cut slices. “Badhiya!” He uttered, savoring them. “These are as sweet as Imarti.”
            “Told you, dai. These are specialty trees. You won’t find them easily.”
            Intrigued, Pradhanji bought fifteen apple trees and brought them back with him to Rangpo, buying extra tickets for the entire last row in the bus, stacking them against the back of the bus, constantly safeguarding them.
            Having recently inherited extensive farmland, Pradhanji was scouting for ideas to put it to good use. The living space he had more than sufficed his and his family’s needs. So he involved a cultivator friend and had all the pieces of land inspected. The friend handpicked the most fertile land for the apple trees and taught Pradhanji how to plant and care for them.
            Even though still young and not spread out enough, the apple trees bore fruits the next spring. The farmer evidently hadn’t overpromised. Within the first month of fruit bearing season, Pradhanji reaped about ten kgs of apple. They were the brightest ruby red, the color of pomegranate, juicy yet taut, delectable, just like the sample one he’d tasted before. The word spread rapidly across certain neighbourhoods in Rangpo. First came the neighbours, then the relatives, then his son’s classmates; it was an endless loop. Pradhanji was ecstatic. Motivated by the joy he could share via homegrown produce, he had several other fruit trees planted in his orchard.
                  One fateful morning when Pradhanji reached his orchard, the sight he was confronted with startled him. About half of the apple trees had gone missing. Pradhanji winced. Being in denial, he scurried through the endless strip of land to see if they been miraculously shifted spots. No such luck. Pradhanji sprinted back to their original spots, his face jerking in random directions, trying to fathom it all. Upon closer inspection, the trees seemed to have been carefully uprooted. In a town he considered his extended family it was hard to imagine anyone resorting to this lowly act. Crimes, big and small, were almost unheard of in Rangpo.