Friday, August 29, 2014

The Evil That Men Do. (We Indians are like that only.)

True tale. No names.

This story about masculine hegemony is from the seventies. It was told to me a while back by an erstwhile colleague from one of the ad agencies I worked for in those days. He happens to be a friend I am in off-and-on touch with even today. He was one of the two witnesses to the event.

Q: Why am I telling it now?

A: Because I came across it recently.

Q: Who does it concern?

A: One of my late (in every sense of the word) bosses for whom I used to have and still have tremendous respect as an advertising professional. He was highly regarded in the Indian and international Management Studies circles as well, by the way.

Q: Can I vouch for the veracity of the “story”?

A: I can vouch for the credibility of the source. Also, in the light of what I had heard on the workplace grapevine at that time but discarded as idle gossip, probability dons the sinister cloak of possibility. Moreover another friend with whom I have lost touch used to be a frequent head office visitor to the Bombay office around the time the event presumably took place and used to lodge at the boss’s apartment situated in a tony locality of the city. He too had dropped hints in passing about the dysfunctional family life with the head of the family always at loggerheads with his wife but a doting father to his daughter who was schooling at an upper-crust day school.

Q: So what is supposed to have happened, for Pete’s sake?

A:  The boss used to travel a lot on work and also his teaching engagements. One evening, the car picked him up at the airport and on its way back home took the Tulsi Pipe Road (now Senapati Bapat Marg) route. This road runs parallel to the Western Railway tracks. This was much before the three flyovers were built. All along the road were makeshift hutments out of some of which hooch was sold and flesh trade was plied. In other word, it was hardly the road on which to stroll leisurely after sunset. As the Big Man’s car was speeding along the not too brightly lit road, there suddenly flared up an altercation between the boss and the missus who had gone to receive him at the airport. Things took such an ugly turn after a while that the boss asked the chauffeur to stop the car and ordered the missus to step out. She had no alternative but to obey. No sooner had she stepped out of the car than the boss asked the chauffeur to start the car and head home. As to how and when she managed to reach home, my informant had no clue.

Q: So what’s the point of the tattletale-ing excursion?

A: If you’re expecting an outburst dripping with angst about clay-footed idols, perish the thought pronto. The only probable moral of the story to my way of thinking right here and now is expressed eloquently by Shakespeare’s famous words (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene ii, Line 190):

“O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down…”

Though averse to joining in community breast-beating and dirge-chanting, I shall make an exception in the present case and include myself – purely for old time’s sake − in this group mourning the fall from grace of a well-heeled, highly educated, cultured (or, gentrified?) Indian gentleman holding a top well-paying job in a leading ad agency and residing in one of the poshest pockets of Bombay (now Mumbai) because he behaved exactly like a denizen of the shanties abutting the Tulsi Pipe Road once his male ego and authority were challenged in the presence of witnesses. When the shanty dweller drove his wife out of their hovel, she was still allowed to remain in a familiar neighbourhood and could probably find a temporary refuge with a friendly neighbour until things cooled down. The boss’s missus was abandoned in an unknown, totally alien and most likely dangerous territory to fend for herself – a situation straight out of a Hollywood noir of the early fifties (Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Widmark, remember?). Good grief, Charlie Brown! Can we not tell the Red Baron to fly his Sopwith Camel real low and mow down such scum from the face of the earth?

False middle-class values. Don’t we all cling to them even after half suspecting how very hollow they are just because they seem congruent with the current benchmarks of belief and behaviour? They make us pose like judges even in matters where we have no jurisdiction, so to speak. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, who will step up to fling the first stone?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mirror, mirror on the wall. Whose statue is due for a fall?

I’m not much of a “let’s have one more statue” guy, no matter whose or how tall. (In my humble opinion, the proper place for statuary and paintings is a museum.) What intrigues me, though, about Dr Kusoom Vadgama’s objection to one more Gandhi statue in London is the reason she uses as a prop: the inscrutable ol’ man’s obsession with sex and, particularly, his making much younger close relatives of the opposite sex the guinea pigs of his experiment with celibacy. (Once again, in my humble opinion, a simple one-too-many-statues objection would suffice.)

The Gandhian credentials of the currently irascible Kenya-born, Illinois-educated, London-based and musically inclined Optometrist and Historian are impeccable. That she has suddenly woken up to Gandhi’s cryptic sexual behaviour and preference for naked female companionship of young relatives is therefore a bit puzzling. The insensitive, self-righteous, eccentric and erratic old man had no qualms when logging in reports of his experiments in Harijan.

The other thing that intrigues me about the good Doctor is that, in spite of her historian’s insight into the worldwide feminist movement, she merely mentions Gandhi’s use of young women who were close relations as “guinea pigs” in his maha yagna (his fanciful nomenclature for "brahmacharya"/celibacy experiments). Dr Sushila Nayyar, his physician, personal masseur and off-and-on bed sharer, once told Ved Mehta that "brahmacharya" was a latter-day invention of Gandhi to ward off criticism of his interaction with his female intimates. Earlier, before Nayyar in her late teens went to medical school, she used to be his bed mate for reasons of nature cure.

One reason for Gandhi making Manu and Abha his bed mates could be easy accessibility as also their willingness to serve him no matter what. The other, most likely, was the power he knew he had over them as the patriarch of the family. Patriarchy and masculine hegemony, as is well-accepted by now, are the main culprits responsible for the continuing subjugation of women in India. Incest − and paedophilia − are the pathological (deviant) offshoots of patriarchy. Normal men tend to be protectors while deviant men, predators. Sometimes, a patriarch may inadvertently cross the line between the two roles back and forth harbouring ambivalent feelings towards women.

Do read Girja Kumar's BRAHMACHARYA Gandhi & His Women Associates. In this book based mostly on Gandhi’s writings. “… the so-called Mahatma comes out as manipulative, pathologically obsessive about sex and sin as well as power-crazed. His logic sounds circuitous, serpentine and often self-contradictory and specious, at times even inane. He apparently played God with the lives of those close to him. He was too intrusive and interfering.”

I have noticed that when it comes to writing or talking about the Father of the Nation, even normally sane and balanced people lose their nerve. They start to tread overcautiously as it they were walking on eggshells. Finally the ex-Gandhian good Doctor has spoken the so far unspoken. That’s a good beginning, methinks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In search of lost time: Remembrance of Govindas past.

I am talking here of the late forties to the early sixties, mind you. Life lived at and observed from the third-floor terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. Govindas in those days were straggly, motley cavalcades of (mostly) domestic servants (“rama gadis”) working in South Bombay and a sprinkling of textile mill workers all of them belonging to friend circles (“mitra mandals”) of migrants from the Kokan region. They lived in low-rent tenements (“chawls”) in South and Central Bombay, for instance, in Girgaum (Thakurdwar, Mughbhat), Tardeo, Worli, Byculla, Parel and Lalbaug (what was collectively called Girangaon or Mill Town) using a single room as an all-bachelor, all-expenses-shared chummery sort of communal living space. Some of them worked in shifts in the mills; in their absence those not working at that time used the room to rest. For recreation, these groups sang in bhajan mandals, danced in groups and even rehearsed for plays. Out of these extracurricular pastimes arose the Govinda troupes, the Gauri-Ganapati dance groups and amateur play-staging groups. These migrant workers also went to the local gyms (“akhadas”) and played group sports like kabaddi and kho-kho. I remember watching a group rama gadis clad in colourful waists and shorts waving red handkerchiefs and dancing in honour of Goddess Gauri on the spacious terrace of 233 Khetwadi Main Road in (most probably) 1949 and 1950. The Mankars then used to host a three-day Gauri sojourn at that address, you see.

Gokulashtami, the day the Govinda groups went around breaking dahi handis all over town, was a day no domestic servant or mill worker went to work. A typical Govinda troupe used to have twenty to thirty members who danced, pranced and swayed to the music played by a sanai player and a tasha beater all the way to the handi they had been invited to break. The signature tune was “Govinda alaa rey alla”, a kind of a playful warning about the Govinda approaching to plunder the handi. The handis, hung at a reasonable height, were “sponsored” by the residents of various localities, building or housing society – not by politicians or the local mafiasos. Naturally, the prize money did not run into lakhs or thousands. The top figures were at the most in hundreds. For the troupes, it was a labour of love.

A major attraction for the spectators crowding the balconies and terraces to watch the show was the opportunity to drench the Govinda pyramid with buckets of water once the handi was broken. Water wasn’t scarce in Bombay of yore. In anticipation of the Govindas, a few extra buckets would be dutifully stored on the morning of Gokulashtami. My guess is that the drenching custom must have been an offshoot of the story about the Gopis (dairy maids) of Gokul who loved Krishna, the divine toddler, with their heart and soul devising various playful and harmless ways to stop him from stealing the butter stored in the handi in the kitchen. The dancing group ritual resembles the warkari cavalcade of devotees merrily singing the praises of Vithoba and dancing with glee all the way to Pandharpur before the advent of the ekasashi (the eleventh day of the full moon cycle) in the months of Ashadh and Kartik. All this is a part of the vaishnav bhakti tradition as far as I can tell.

Come 1963 and one of my fellow residents in the Khetwadi neighbourhood forever changed this erstwhile subaltern celebration of the Krishna legend into a boisterous garish commercially-fuelled parody of its earlier avatar having completely stripped it of its original innocence. That was the year when Manmohan Desai’s Bluff Master featuring the Govinda signature tune suitably distorted to fit the mould of crass Hindi film lyrics was released. So bent was Desai on fully exploiting (what he probably shrewdly sensed to be) the commercial potential of the song that he hired Shammi Kapoor, the quintessential pucca Punjabi munda, to star in the movie and inject crude Punjabi machismo in what was earlier sung as an innocent and playful ditty celebrating Krishna’s childhood pranks.

The release of Bluff Master had caught the tide of fortune at the floods. Soon, everyone and his uncle (politicos and mafiasos included) wanted to ride the Govinda Alaa  bandwagon to stay in the public gaze. The same logic swelled the sponsorship coffers for the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs (community celebration of the Ganesh festival). The latter got a further fillip when Hum Se Badhkar Kaun hit the cinema halls in 1981 featuring the hit song “Deva Ho Deva”. In fact, such was the popularity of this song, that its inclusion became de rigueur in the Ganesh festival and immersion musical repertoire. Now handis were hung at daunting and competitive heights as the prize amounts continued to balloon. Also, the practice of Bollywood celebrities visiting various Ganesh pandals became a part of the routine with media groups footing the bill and making full use of the photo opportunities.

The next decade saw the advent of motorized Govindas (no more dancing cavalcades, thank you!).They operated like hard-core hit squads swiftly moving from one target handi to the next in order to maximize the day’s “take” with the prize money offered by some handi sponsors already hovering around a lakh of rupees or more. The hit squads had their own portable music systems playing Bollywood hits at ear-splitting volume. In the clamour and glitz and glamour, who would recall the Govindas of the past? And, by then, who cared in any case?