Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Italian Connection

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Painter Lucia Pescador showcases her work as she admires Indian art

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai
Even though Lucia Pescador is conversing in the air-conditioned lobby of the Residency hotel, as soon as a glass of cold water is placed before her, she drinks it down in one gulp and wipes her brow. The May heat is getting to everybody including this 63-year-old painter from sun-kissed Italy; she has come to Mumbai to exhibit her paintings at the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery.
When asked about her reactions as a first-time visitor, she says, “Mumbai is an amazing city: the colours, the physical objects, the statues and the markets, especially Crawford market. There is an atmosphere of antiquity about the city, which you can sense through the wonderful architecture.”
As for the human element, the Milan-based painter says, “The people are calm and gentle and not very conscious of a social status. That is what I miss in Italy. It is only in the towns and villages that people are simple.”
Pescador looks like an ordinary person, wearing a flowing white cotton jacket over a red blouse and black trousers. But when you look at the feet, a hint of the quirky artist comes through: the shoes are made of red netting and her socks have alternating bands of red and green.
During her week-long stay, Pescador went to see the paintings of Jivya Soma Mashe, the pioneer of Warli tribal art in India. “I found his work interesting,” she says. “To appreciate art, you don’t need to know any language.”
Pescador does not speak English, so she takes the help of Cristian Castelnvovo, a photographer, with blue eyes and dark curly hair, who has come to India with his girlfriend, Caterina Corni. She works for bCA galleries, which has brought Pescador’s paintings to Mumbai, ‘as a bridge between continents’.
Earlier, the bCA organised ‘Namaste India’, where the works of 50 Indian artists were showcased in different locations in Italy. At the same time, prominent Italian artists, Azelio Corni and Pino Ceriotti, have had showings in India.
As for Pescador’s work, there are 42 paintings in the gallery. In all her paintings, she has used paper as the base, because, she says, she loves the feeling and touch of it. “I use paper which is already used,” she says. “That helps me to convey the memory of a culture.” It seems to be some kind of accounting sheet, because the columns and the figures come through the painting. In one, an old music score is used.
She has deliberately used her left hand, “to avoid the precision that comes from the right hand.” There are sentences written in Italian on the paintings and it looks like a childish scrawl, which is what happens when a right-hander tries to write with the left. The paintings are on simple objects: submarines, firs, armchairs, pianos, darts, a ship and vases.
When asked about the reactions of visitors and artists to her work, she shrugs her shoulders and says, “We could not communicate with each other but I could sense the positive vibes.” In the visitor’s book, K. Rajesh from Goregaon writes: ‘This space is too short to appreciate your works.’ On the other hand, V. Hiremath is terse: ‘Unusual graphics.’ When I am viewing the paintings, Jovita Fernandes, a bespectacled banker, in a green salwar kameez, takes a walk around and gives her impressions: “I like the paintings, but I could not understand a few. They seem to be done on old paper: so are they old paintings or recent ones?”

Voices from across the border

A group of eminent Pakistanis, from Karachi, talk about their experiences in Mumbai

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

There is an air of palpable energy at the Taj President restaurant amidst the clatter of knives and spoons on plates. At first glance you will not notice any difference among the guests, these could be Indians from anywhere, till a man shouts into a mobile phone: “I am from Pakistan”. Yes, a 33-member delegation comprising captains of industry, politicians, academicians, journalists, fashion designers, publishers and artistes, all from Karachi, are in Mumbai to explore areas of mutual interest. Mumbai and Karachi have ties going past for decades, undoubtedly helped by a sea link, till Partition and the wars snapped it forever.
This visit has been organised by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA). In the few days they were here, this eclectic group of achievers interacted with a cross-section of people. Here are some vignettes:
Going ga-ga
On the bus on the way to the Bandra Kurla complex for a talk on the ‘Vision of Mumbai’ by MMRDA Metropolitan Commissioner T. Chandrasekhar, there are cries of excitement when Marine Drive is sighted. Photographs are hurriedly taken through the glass-paned window. At Chowpathy, Gul Sadia, SAFMA coordinator, says, “Wow, this is where you get the famous bhelpuri. I remember there was a Hindi song which goes like this: Chowpathy jayengi aur bhel puri khayenge.
First-time visitor Aamed Mahmood, a journalist, says, “The hospitality has been great. There seems to be no difference between Karachi and Mumbai.” But he points at a jhopadpatti through the window and says, “You will never find slums with nullahs in Karachi.”
During the speech by Chandrasekhar, the unusual thing is that within half an hour, the first question is asked by a member of the Pakistani delegation and this carries on throughout the speech, quite unlike an Indian audience who would have waited till the speech ended, to ask questions.
One who stands up is Anwer Pirzado, a writer, who looks resplendent in a red Sindhi topi. His question is simple: “Sir, I want to know about the USA in Ulhasnagar.”
“A USA in Ulhasnagar?” repeats Chandrasekhar.
“Yes, the Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association,” says Pirzado, to widespread laughter. An unfazed Chandrasekhar promises to find out more details.
In the afternoon, during a tour of the Mumbai Educational Trust building at Bandra, at the canteen, leading industrialist Jameel Yusuf says, “Oh, how I miss the chai I used to have in my college canteen.” The guide is too busy talking to pick up the indirect hint.
In the lift, while travelling between floors, social activist, Uzma Noorani, says, “The heat is the same in Mumbai and Karachi. The only difference is that Mumbai is very humid, while Karachi has a lot of dust.”
Earlier, during a break, she steps out and smokes a long thin cigarette, the likes of which we have not seen in Mumbai. “Oh, these are Pine cigarettes, which are imported from Thailand,” she says. “They are cool and light.”
That evening, when some of them return from shopping, Babar Ayaz, a journalist, holds up a bag from Crosswords. He has bought Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown and a book on Jinnah. “The prices of books are much lower than in Pakistan,” he says. “The paperback editions also arrive here sooner.”
Hard truths
On the bus, the next evening, on the way to Hotel Mayfair for a dinner with R.R. Patil, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, I am sitting next to Taj Haider, a founder member of the Pakistan People’s Party. He tells me about one of the many rackets that is going on in Pakistan. “Sugar is retailed in Mumbai for Rs 18, yet we are buying it from here at Rs 32 per kg and it is sold in the Karachi market at Rs 40,” he says. “Why is there this discrepancy in the prices? Surely, people on both sides are making money while the poor suffer.”
He also tells the story of how on the Shahra-e-Faisal Road in Karachi, there are four hospitals and yet whenever President Pervez Musharraf travels on it, the road is blocked. “Just last week, a 19-year-old girl, who had burst her appendix, was being rushed to hospital by her father but the police held them back for 20 minutes, till the president passed,” he says. “The girl died before she could reach the hospital.”
At the function, there is a mood of bonhomie and wisecracks. When Raheela Tiwana, the deputy speaker of the provincial assembly of Sindh places a topi on Patil’s head, he says, “I am wearing a topi, so now I can easily go to Pakistan.”
Thankfully, the speeches are short and it is time to party. When Kavitha Murthy’s troupe belts out golden oldies from Eeena Meena Deka to Roop Teri Mastana, the Pakistan delegation goes into a frenzy of dancing. It is interesting to see that nearly all of them are mouthing the lyrics. It would have made Bal Thackeray happy but not if he had known that all of them referred to the city as Bombay.

‘Christians are discriminated against’
Roland D’Souza is the only Christian in the delegation. An electrical engineer, he is an active member of Sheri, an advocacy group on environment and urban planning.
Excerpts:

Tell me something about your origins?
My grandfather was from Goa and went to Karachi in 1900. At that time, Goa was under Portuguese rule while Karachi was under the British. My father was born in Karachi in 1930. I was born after it had become Pakistan.
Have you suffered any discrimination as a Christian?
I have had no problems since I come from an educated and economically better part of the minority community. It is the poor people, in the rural areas or the slums who get discriminated against and have a tough time. You must have heard about churches being bombed and Christians being killed.
How do problems crop up?
Minorities suffer more in societies where economic conditions are bad. If everybody has their stomachs full, people tend to not worry about others. But when your stomach is not full, and you feel somebody else is stealing it, you look around for a scapegoat. Although the minorities constitute only 5 per cent of the population and Christians are about 1.5 per cent.
Do you think things will improve?
In most societies, the law would descend on the people who indulge in discrimination and do something about it. In places like Pakistan and India, the law does not do much. For instance, during the [2002] riots in Gujarat, a woman had to chase it up before the law started moving. In Pakistan, if something is done against the Christians, nobody does anything about it. The law is not implemented at all.

Interview/Sajid Hasan
‘Feroze Khan should not have been banned’

Sajid Hasan is an actor/director/writer/producer and a compere. He is also the first Pakistani actor to work in an Indian television serial, Tanha, in 1997 on Star Plus.
Excerpts from an interview:
What was your experience of acting in India?
When I came here in 1997, it was a bad time because my government was against the trip. In Mumbai, Bal Thackeray was in power. In fact, we had to come in disguise. But I am sure he knew about my arrival. So I am thankful to Thackeray because he allowed me to act. I think one side of him is political while the other is creative.
How come you have not come again?
I wanted to but Kargil happened. And then the ISI was making my life miserable at home. But things have changed. Pervez Musharraf is a much more open person. He knows that change will happen whether you want it or not.
How difficult is it to be an actor in Pakistan?
Muslims have never had any a high opinion of artistes. So, in Pakistan, we are marginalised. Our film industry is very small. We make about four or five films a year, most of which are flops. In five years, one picture does well.
What do you think of the ban on Feroze Khan?
I was against the ban on Feroze Khan. He had a right to say whatever he had to say. Individuals should not be banned. It was a knee-jerk reaction. Freedom of speech is an integral part of progress.

The Mumbai-Karachi sea link

Will it work?

Writer Anwer Pirzado has come up with the idea of restarting a ferry service between Karachi and Mumbai, which was discontinued around thirty years ago. “There are two ways,” he says. “One is through the high seas. Another option is to go through the creeks. There are 17 creeks, near the mouth of the Indus river. By avoiding the high seas, you can avoid typhoons and other dangers.”
Recently, a six-member delegation from the shipping ministry went to Pakistan to discuss the modalities for a revised shipping protocol. This would remove many constraints regarding movement of Indian and Pakistan flagged vessels between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan government has issued licenses to three shipping companies to operate the service.
The delegation’s views
FOR

It should be started without any loss of time because both are historic cities and have had cordial relations for a long time. Karachi was part of Mumbai Presidency till 1936. Till April, 1947, we were affiliated with Mumbai University. So, interaction among people was there. We should encourage this, because both the cities can complement each other in many areas.
Dr. Mohammad Ali Shaikh, educationist

I have heard a lot about the sea link when I was a child and I think it should be revived. Anything that will increase people to people contact between the two countries is welcomed.
Hoori Noorani, publisher.

It is economical and faster to travel, if there is a ferry service.
Dr Jhabbar Khattak, chief editor of a Karachi newspaper

When I migrated to Pakistan as a child, I remember I went on a ship to Karachi from Mumbai. I have some memory of the journey. It should be revived.
Taj Haider, politician

Against
Before a ferry link starts, you have to open up consulates. Now, people from Karachi have to go all the way to Islamabad to get visas while people of Mumbai will have to go to Delhi to get visas. The maximum number of people who come to India are from Karachi and it takes ages and umpteen visits to get a visa.
If licenses are given and consulates are not opened, I am sorry it does not make sense at all.
Jameel Yusuf, an industrialist

REMINISCENCES
Mumbai to Karachi
“We were keen to see Karachi”

Gul Nagpal
Mumbai
I went on a ship M.V Dwaraka from Mumbai to Karachi in the sixties. It belonged to the now defunct British-owned Mackinnon Mackenzie Company. I was the chief photographer of the company. Dwaraka route was from Mumbai to Karachi and onwards to Dubai. We left Ballard Pier at 5 p.m. and reached Karachi by about 8 a.m. the next morning. In the early morning, I could see the Lord Shiva temple on the Manora island. I don’t know whether that temple still exists. I could remember seeing the searchlights on top of a lighthouse. Most of the passengers were on the deck, keen to see Karachi. There were quite a few labourers from Kerala who were on their way to Dubai.
At Karachi port, they said Indians were not allowed to disembark. But I am originally from Multan and I speak good Punjabi. The captain vouched for me. I told them my childhood friend, Maqbool Aziz, lives near the port. They issued a temporary pass for a few hours. I was able to meet my friend. It was the one and only time I met him. I don’t know whether he is alive now or not.
(Nagpal is a photographer.)

Karachi to Mumbai
“We were part of the great migration”

It was in 1948, when I was 14, I sailed from Karachi to Mumbai. The passage by sea was a regular one in those days, with most ships leaving from Keamari Bunder.
Keamari was very pretty; it was like the Gateway of India. It was a popular spot for families, with boat rides and food stalls. It also had ghats where Sindhis would do puja.
My first sea journey was to be my last—we were part of the great migration to India. The journey did not take very long; we set off in the early morning and reached in the evening. I remember that the Government of India had arranged the ship for us at a subsidised cost; we were provided food en route.We disembarked near Ballard Pier… and took our first steps to a new life.

Monday, May 22, 2006

20-20 Vision

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Eminent people talk about what advise they would give their 20-year-old selves

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

My first stop is former four-time world billiards champion Michael Ferreira. In Ferreira’s air-conditioned den at his house in Bandra, Ricky the Doberman, with sleek brown skin, sleeps languidly under the master’s feet. On the wall on one side is the framed certificate of the Padma Bhushan. And, of course, there is a picture of Ferreira holding the World Billiards championship trophy after his win in Malta in 1983.
In his sixties, Ferreira, who is reclining on a sofa, radiates energy and magnetism. Asked what he would tell his 20-year-self regarding a career, he says, “Follow your heart because it knows your dreams and passions. My dream was to be the best billiards player in the world. And even if there was no money in billiards, I plunged in.”
He has had a highly successful career, so the gamble to concentrate on sport turned out to be right. So what is the philosophy of this champion? “You have to be true to yourself and work hard,” he says. “There are no free lunches in life.”
He gives an example: In some places in India, he says, there is a superstition, that when there is no rain, they bring out a guy to play the flute. “So, in one village, they got two flautists to play,” he says. “So the first fellow played and nothing happened and he stopped. The other fellow said, ‘Let me try.’ So, he played the flute, and played and played some more. And it started raining. The villagers came to him and said, ‘It is astounding that both of you are outstanding flautists. Yet, why is it that when you played, the rains came?’ The flautist replied, ‘I played until it rained.’ So the lesson is simple: you have to keep practising, keep sticking to it. That is what brings success.”
When you talk to Anita Dongre, 42, fashion designer, you get the feeling that she is completely satisfied with her life. Nevertheless, she has advice for her younger self on the choice of career. “By the time you are 20, you should pretty much know what you want to do,” she says. “If you have still not discovered what you want to do, it is not too late. There are a lot of people who have graduated at 20 and later discovered what they wanted to do.”
Even though she has been happily married for 16 years, she has a word of caution about relationships: “When you are in a relationship, and at any time you have some doubts, for heaven’s sake, please wait and don’t take the plunge into marriage.”
One who has plunged the depths of his art for decades is painter Jehangir Sabavala. On the fifth floor balcony of his apartment, off Altamount Road, the view is great: tall buildings all around, the sea on one side and the traffic-clogged road far below, but, surprisingly, there is no breeze. But fans in the balcony help alleviate the sultriness. At 83, Sabavala is a spry man, who smiles easily, speaks softly but clearly, and his politeness is endearing.
On his choice of career, Sabavala says, “As an artist and painter, I would hesitate to tell my twenty-year-old, to plunge in, seeing what a struggle it has been for me. You need an intensity of work and dedication, to achieve a niche in your field, so I would say, ‘Think hard’”.
Earlier, when I had met his daughter, Aasreed, and asked whether she painted, she said, “One painter in the family is enough. It is such a tough profession.” So I ask the tenacious Sabavala his philosophy: “Learn to accept everything in life. If there is a wall, try to find ways to get around the wall, rather than bash through it. Because the wall will always defeat you. You do the best you can, but finally, everything is pre-destined. The older I grow, the more certain I am of this.”
One who has a certainty about him is veteran adman and theatre director Alyque Padamsee. But it is a strange experience to talk to him on the phone. Padamsee is in Kolkata for some work and any question is met by the phrase, ‘Just a minute’, and it would actually be followed by a minute of silence, as he crafted an answer. On what he would tell his 20-year old regarding a career, he says, “I would advise the young Padamsee to look for a career he could fall in love with. Nothing short of that.” On what pitfalls he should avoid, he says, “Pretty women, pretty women, pretty women. Give them your heart but never your wallet.”

TAXI-ING TIMES

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Cab drivers and customers seem to be at loggerheads, like Nana Patekar and John Abraham in Taxi 9211. Here is a peep into the lives of Mumbai’s charioteers
Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

“You won’t believe this but yesterday from 9 am to midnight, I did not get a single customer,” says Eric William (60), a taxi driver from Malad. “Today, from 8 a.m. to lunch-time, I managed to get only one.” William has come to Mahim, because of a customer and is about to have lunch in a restaurant when I befriend him. He is of slight build, with greying hair and teeth stained brown by too much smoking.
“There are 60,000 taxis now and 1 lakh autorickshaws,” he says. “So we get fewer customers.” Because of this, drivers tend to overcharge, especially in the suburbs. He gives an example: “If I were to take a passenger from Malad East to West, it will take around 45 minutes because of the traffic jam. Now, if I follow the meter I will get around Rs 45. But the petrol consumed in one hour, costs much more than that, so I will suffer a loss.”
The spotlight has fallen on taxi drivers ever since Taxi 9211, starring John Abraham and Nana Patekar, received critical praise and ‘word of mouth’ buzz, among the multiplex crowd. In the film, Patekar plays Raghav Shastri, a Mumbai taxi driver who locks horns with a rich industrialist’s son, Jai Mittal, played by Abraham, when the latter hires his cab.
However, drivers are none too pleased with the portrayal. Says Munir Ahmed, a young, wiry driver, stationed in Mahim: “No taxi driver will refuse to return a key which a customer has lost, the way Shastri repeatedly does to Mittal.”
Rajat Aroraa, who wrote the original story of Taxi 9211, smiles when he hears this. “Shastri is psychotic,” says the thirty-year-old in his flat at Kandivili. “He is not your average driver. He has done 23 jobs in 15 years and takes his anger to an extreme level. He does not represent the community of drivers at all.”
Driver Mohammed Ustad says the sequence where Mittal keeps throwing five hundred rupee notes on the front seat, to encourage Shastri to drive faster and faster, is unrealistic. For that, Aroraa gives the writer’s explanation: “Suppose, a Tata or a Birla has to travel in a cab and needs to reach a destination within a stipulated time, I don’t think he would have a problem shelling out five hundred rupees notes.”
The official response
One afternoon I go across to the Mumbai Taximan’s Union office on Lamington Road. The room, which I enter, is long and narrow, with three desks placed side by side and at one end, two desks are placed horizontally. There is a garlanded photograph on the wall: it is of the late M.H. Bhaji, a former general secretary of the union. Above a shelf there are dusty files, piled one on top of the other.
Among the people in the office is Shahid Pathan (45), who looks like a villain from a James Bond movie. He has four front teeth coated in a gold-like colour. It happened a few years ago when his taxi hit a bystander, near Tardeo, albeit very gently. “An incensed crowd surrounded me and beat me so badly I lost all four teeth,” he says. “A friend took me to a dentist who made these false teeth.”
The good thing about speaking to these drivers at the union office is that you realise they are aware of the public’s perception of them. “We know that customers get very angry when we don’t agree to go to a certain place,” says Gokul Prasad Tiwari, a driver. “They should understand our situation. After a 12-hour stint, if I am in Vile Parle, and I want to return to Malad and if the passenger wants to go to Bandra, I have no option but to say no. We are also human beings.” On the oft-repeated charge that drivers overcharge, he says, there is always the rate card. “They can check that if they want to,” he says. And as for meter tampering, Tiwari says the RTO should do random checks.
Senior assistant secretary, Valerian Lewis, narrates the familiar, though genuine woes of drivers: “Drivers face constant harassment from the police and the RTO (Regional Transport Office).” As we talk, drivers keep coming in and money is collected and receipts are given. “We liase with the RTO to get licenses renewed and release impounded licenses,” says Lewis, explaining the presence of the drivers. “If a driver is arrested, we go to the police station and get him released.” All this is done for members free of cost but you need to pay the annual fee of Rs 120.
Pathan suddenly jumps up and says that most drivers have a problem with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) cars. “The car gets much hotter than those run on petrol,” he says. “You can have kidney problems and headaches, and my hair has turned white. The body gets extremely hot.”
It seems to be a valid complaint. Because a day later, when I meet a group of drivers near St Michael’s church at Mahim, all of them concur about the damaging effects of CNG. Says Mohammed Rizwan Khan: “Because of CNG, the skin gets dry and you feel itchy. Our health is being ruined.”
The Southie driver
Outside the Borivili railway station, amidst the black and white taxis, is the lone white and blue Cool cab. Standing next to it is owner cum driver M.T. Damodaran, who is originally from Kerala. Wearing a white safari suit and black shoes, the vice president of the Borivili unit of the Mumbai Taximan’s Association says the biggest blow for him and the other drivers has been the closure of the dance bars.
“We would get customers from Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Baroda, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad,” says Damodoran, who has the numbers of 150 customers on his mobile phone. “They would come only to see the dancers and would hire the cabs for the full night. We would charge Rs 1000 for waiting 8 hours. This was a good source of income and now we have lost it.”
The other drivers, standing around, also bemoan the nearly Rs 1000 they have to spend every month on repairs because of the potholed roads. “Even to repair a puncture nowadays costs Rs 40 and, you know, sir, the price of petrol and CNG has gone up,” says Shetty, one of the drivers, as drops of perspiration roll down his face in the noonday heat.
Customer talk
Asked to analyse the type of passengers they get, Mohammed Rizwan Khan says, “Most customers have big egos. The moment they sit in the backseat, they think they own the cab and the driver. Some of them take us deep into the chawl, where there is no place to turn and we have to reverse all the way back.” Says Iftikhar Ahmed, “We prefer neutral passengers, but most of them try to impose themselves on us.”
So what do customers think? K. Bhatia, 76, a semi-retired businessman, wearing a natty brown cap, on an evening walk in Mahim, says the meters on most taxis are unreliable. “Whenever I go to the airport, the charges are always different,” he says. “So, obviously, most meters are tampered with. Most drivers are rude, and lastly, the cabs are rarely maintained properly.”
Software engineer, Himanshu Rana (29), who is sitting on a cement ledge outside the Infiniti Mall at Versova on a humid Wednesday night tells me this story: “A friend’s girlfriend wanted to go to a distant place. She asked a driver and he quoted a very high rate. She asked whether he could reduce the rate. He said no. As she was walking away, he shouted, ‘If you are willing to come, I can take you without any charge.’”
End game
To do this work day in and day out, despite the excessive pollution, traffic jams, heat, dust, unruly cops and passengers must be tough. “No driver enjoys this work,” says Abbas (29), waiting outside Mahalaxmi station. “We are doing it so that we can earn some money.” Majid Ali, a 25-year veteran, who is having tea outside a shop in Bandra, tells me that if I gave him a better job, he would leave the driving immediately.
But there are others who think otherwise. Says Damodaran: “Since, most of the taxis are owner-driven, the great thing about this job is that we do not have any bosses. We can work when we want. We can take a break when we want. There is no better job than this.”


Interview/Kanchan Ganpat Gawde
‘I love driving’
She is the only woman taxi driver in Mumbai. At her home in the Tardeo police compound, with her broad-shouldered physique and confident voice, Kanchan Ganpat Gawde (46) has a dominating personality. Mother of two sets of twins, (three girls and one boy), she has been driving for the past 14 years.
Excerpts from an interview:

How did you decide to become a tax driver?
I love to drive a car, but I could not afford to buy one. Can a traffic policeman’s wife buy a car? My husband’s friend suggested that I should become a taxi driver. That way, I could fulfil my hobby of driving a car and earn a living at the same time.
Do customers react differently when they see that the driver is a woman?
To be honest, I am so involved in the driving, I do not note the reaction of my customers. But over the years, I would wonder about society’s reaction. So, sometimes, I would ask my husband, whether what I was doing was a good or a bad work. He replied, ‘There is no good or bad work. Work is work but when you do it, one should do it with the heart and soul and ignore what people say’.
Have customers behaved badly with you?
So far, nobody has behaved badly with me.
What are your working hours?
I work from 7 am to 6 pm and do long distance trips to Panvel, Vashi, Navi Mumbai, Borivili, Virar, Mulund and Thane.
Is it is advantage that your husband works in the traffic police?
Not really. It is just like in the movies. After the villain runs away, the cop arrives (laughs loudly). To be frank, my husband is so strict that if I do a traffic violation, I am sure he will book me.
Lots of drivers I spoke to, complained of police harassment. What are your views?
The police are not deliberately harassing the drivers. They are just doing their jobs. They have to follow the orders from their superiors. If you do wrong, the police will have to penalise you.

‘When I acted, I talked from the soul’

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times
Interview: A.K. Hangal/actor

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai
At A.K. Hangal’s modest apartment in Santa Cruz, he says, “Last week, when I had gone to Delhi to receive the Padma Bhushan, there was another big function where I received an honorary membership.” Then he opens his black wallet, takes out a laminated card of the Press Club of India and says, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Now I am a member of your profession.” At 89, his mind is razor sharp and he moves around easily, a much-loved thespian, who has acted in 250 films.
Excerpts from an interview:
How does it feel to win the Padma Bhushan?
When I first heard that I had received it, I could not believe it. Unlike most people, I was not trying for it. I never thought I would get it. But someone phoned me from Lucknow and told me, “Mubarak, mubarak.” I told him, “Don’t joke, how can I get the Padma Bhushan?” Then I read about it in the newspaper. What really gladdened me was when I heard it was an unanimous decision.
It’s been a long journey for you: from Peshawar to Karachi to Mumbai. How would you describe it?
It was full of events. I started out as a freedom fighter as well as an artist. In Karachi, I was jailed for two years because of trade union activities. Then I migrated to Mumbai with only Rs 20 in my pocket. I joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association. I am its chairman today. I took part in campaigns like the Shreyas Maharashtra Andolan, to divide states on linguistic lines. And then I was dragged into films and have had a long career.
What is the secret of good acting?
If you want to be a good actor, you have to be a good human being. I also had to work very hard to look natural on screen. I had to analyse the character; see from which class he came from, what was his historical background, which community he belonged to; what was his economic status?
To have a better understanding of human beings, you also have to mingle in society.
Are you happy with the films that are made now?
Every age has its products. People change, the situations change, and this is reflected in the films. Now, there is a different kind of acting.
What kind?
When I acted, I talked from the soul of the character. Today, many actors talk with their muscles (laughs loudly). It is more body now than soul. I am not blaming anybody. Society has become shallow. Everybody is chasing money. Consumerism rules. Very few people are interested in reading or philosophy or the deeper aspects of life.
When Amitabh Bachchan was in Lilavati hospital, O.P. Nayyar was also hospitalised at the same time. But nobody went to meet Nayyar. What could be the reason behind this neglect?
Because Amitabh Bachchan is famous while Nayyar is not.
But Nayyar was famous at one time?
That was a long time ago. Supposing I am very busy today. That means, I am useful to many people. So if I die, they will all come for my funeral. But if I am unemployed, no one will come, except my family and some friends. It happens in every profession, not only in the film industry. So why cry about it? This is human nature.
Bal Thackeray called you ‘an anti-national’ when you attended the Independence Day celebrations of Pakistan in the city. Do you feel bitter about what happened?
He gave the order to boycott my films; he asked that I should not be given work, and halls where my films were being shown were attacked. At midnight, I used to get threatening calls. I was unemployed for two years. My wife died, my son’s wife died, I was in hospital, without any money. I was in big trouble during those days. He forgot that I worked with his father in Shreyas Maharashtra Andolan. I was a freedom fighter before he was born. But see, where he is today, and where I am. I am not against anybody. Why should anybody be against me?
What was the reaction from the industry?
There was plenty of private support but no one was willing to speak out in public because they did not want to antagonise Thackeray.
What does the word ‘hangal’ mean?
I belong to a Kashmiri Pandit family. Hangal means stag (a deer).

Let there be light

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A photographer makes erotic lampshades that are a feast to the eyes and some more

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

At David de Souza’s exhibition of erotic lamps at Tranceforme, the lifestyle store at Worli, one is immediately struck by a lamp designed in the form of a pointed penis, with two large testicles on either side. The name of the exhibit is pasted on the floor. As I read it out aloud, “The seven inch penis,” de Souza corrects me immediately saying: it’s 7 feet. “We are so used to blurting out our size all the time,” I say, not very truthfully, to explain my faux pas but he laughs sportingly.
De Souza, dressed casually in Bermuda shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals, shows me a lamp, called ‘the zipless fuck’. It is made of fluorescent acrylic and lets in ultraviolet rays, if placed near a window, allowing it to work in the daytime, as well. Small openings in the acrylic resemble the vagina. When I step back and look at it, the overall form suggests a phallus. At the bottom, in front of the lamp, the book, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong is placed, in a standing-up position. “Jong had coined the phrase, ‘the zipless fuck’ in the early sixties and it became a catch phrase for women during that era,” says de Souza. “It still has a ring to it.”
Another lamp, called ‘Switch Bitch,’ is a stainless steel and brass beauty that also has a literary allusion. This lamp, inspired by the Roald Dahl book of the same name, has a copy of the tome placed at its base. The interesting thing is that the nipples are the switches. So, you feel a little unreal when you tweak the switch and get no reaction at all.
Next, De Souza leads me to another design that mirrors a fertility goddess. “I have been inspired by Russian sculptor Mikhail Chemiakin’s sculpture, which I saw in Manhattan,” he says. “It had 49 breasts on a single pole.” de Souza’s creation is somewhat similar, but thankfully, with a lesser number of breasts.
Just beside it is a lamp made of Absolut vodka bottles, and is called ‘Absolution’. “This is my tribute to the world famous Absolut ad,” he says. “I collected some bottles from Chor Bazaar, friends contributed some and I asked a few hotels to give me their empties.” Asked why the name, ‘Absolution’, he says, “It means forgiveness: ‘Forgive me, for I am drinking’.” Incidentally, most of the pieces were made at the fabricator’s workshop.
A biochemist, de Souza switched to photography 15 years ago and made his mark as a commercial photographer. This project was birthed when Purvi Parikh, (the owner of Tranceforme), spotted some lamps designed out of junk at de Souza’s home. She asked him if he would do a show of lamps. Since de Souza frequently photographs nudes, he suggested an exhibition of erotic lamps and Parikh agreed. “These are great lamps,” she says. “Of course, it cannot be put in everybody’s homes. People need to have a certain size of home and a certain type of furniture to go with it.” The sizes and sensibility are not the only prohibiting factors—the prices are pretty steep, as well. The lamps start at Rs 15,000 and go up to Rs 55,000. Being titillated can be quite expensive.

‘People live in fear in Gujarat’

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times
Interview/Dionne Bunsha


Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

The 2002 riots in Gujarat was one of the most searing events in post-Independence India. Rightly, books on the event have continued to be published and the latest is Scarred (Experiments with violence in Gujarat) by Dionne Bunsha. A journalist with a fortnightly news magazine, Bunsha, based in Mumbai, travelled often to Ahmedabad, during and after the riots to follow up on what was happening there.
Excerpts from the interview:
What is happening in Gujarat now?
Although everything seems to be back to normal, there are a lot of refugees who are unable to go back home. There are a lot of witnesses who are unable to file their statements because the police is unwilling to take down names of people who have been responsible for the riots. Police officers are unwilling to challenge the authorities. The only person who has actually spoken out is Additional Director-General of Police R.B. Shreekumar and he has been harassed. He said Chief Minister Narendra Modi had called a meeting where he said the Hindu rioters should not be stopped. But nobody has taken that forward. It is a state where people live in fear.
You said the riots etched deep faults in Gujarat’s social landscape. Can you elaborate?
The cities are ghettoised, in terms of housing. There are lots of Muslim children who cannot go to school outside the ghettos. People are denied jobs purely because of their religion. After the riots, there was a kind of social and economic boycott of Muslims and that still exists. There is no attempt to bridge the divide in any way.
What is the psyche of the Muslims?
They want to live a normal life, without any restrictions. They are constantly reminded of who they are.
Do they want to take revenge?
No. They just want to get on with their lives.
What is the mindset of the Sangh Parivar?
They have an in-built prejudice against Muslims. I have interviewed the leaders, the actual planners, of the riot, and ordinary people who comprise the crowd. And each one is different. People in the crowd are just normal human beings, who are just pawns in the game. For the leaders, the violence had a political agenda, because the Assembly elections were close at hand.
What was the reaction of civil society to the riots?
Within Gujarat, there were a lot of organisations that got together under the banner of the Citizen’s Initiative and provided relief. The national media played a very important role in alerting people to what was happening in Gujarat and even got a lot of international attention to the issue. But within Gujarat, on the first few days of the riots, the Gujarati press was very provocative. They had played this role in earlier riots, also.
Are Gujaratis communal minded?
Not at all. Of course, you provoke people but you use communalism as an excuse.
What happened to Zahira Sheikh?
Many people accuse Zahira Sheikh [of the Best Bakery case] for turning hostile. But the pressure, not to testify, which is put on any witness, is immense. All of them receive threats and it is very difficult to live facing that. Yet, there are so many witnesses who have testified, despite all the pressures. For the Best Bakery case, the stakes became too high for the Gujarat government, and Zahira got caught in the middle. She is just a pawn. It is easy to pass judgement by saying she sold out. But considering the odds under which she was operating, and the powers that she was fighting, it became too difficult.

The Milky Way

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

For this retired photographer, food for him is only milk

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

When you look at Deepak Choksi, (65), you will realise there is nothing wrong with him. A retired photographer, he has pink cheeks and broad shoulders. But Choski has one oddity: he has only drunk milk all his life and has never eaten solid foods. Unlike most children, who move from milk to food, Choksi remained stuck on the liquid. “My parents went to temples and churches and did all sorts of pujas, but nothing could make me eat food,” he says.
Sitting next to Choksi is his sister, Bharti Shah, who has come visiting. “When he was small, my mother thought he would start eating after some time and so, we did not bother too much,” she says. “But slowly, we realised there was something wrong when he continued to drink milk.”
Today, Choski’s schedule goes like this: at 6.30 am, he has two glasses of milk. After half an hour, he will have one glass. An hour later, he will quaff two more glasses. Then after another half an hour, another glass. And this goes on throughout the day. “I drink two and a half litres every day,” he says. The interesting thing is that he does not have pure milk. It has to be mixed, fifty-fifty, with water. Sugar and, sometimes, spoonfuls of Bournvita are added, by maidservant Pooja. Choksi’s wife, Panna, died ten years ago of a heart attack. He now lives with newly-married son, Sameer, a sub-broker and daughter-in-law, Elisha at their first floor apartment in Girgaum.
When he is not drinking milk, Choski drinks water, sometimes with Electral, to get energy. When he sees food, he has no reaction. If you put a piece of chapatti in his mouth, after half an hour, it will remain there. “My father does not know how to chew or swallow,” says daughter Jayshvi, who lives nearby, and is visiting with her son. If Choski comes across non-vegetarian food, especially when it is being cooked, he has a vomiting fit.
Asked about what could be the possible reason for the milk addiction, Jayshvi says that the family’s guru, Narendra Ghor Maharaj, studied the horoscope and said that in Choksi’s previous life, a sage was eating food and her father, in a drunken fit, kicked away the plate. “Thereafter, the sage cursed my father and said that in his next life, he would not be able to eat food,” she says. On a more realistic plane, his physician of many years, Shirish Shah says it is a behavioural problem. “I could not find any physical reason,” he says. “Choski is a healthy man although he suffers now and then from anaemia.”
Jayshvi looks with affection at her father, who is reclining on an easy chair, and says, “From childhood, we accepted him as he is. My brother and I eat normal food.” Choksi’s face suddenly crunches up in pain and he says, “I sometimes ask God what sin have I done that I am condemned to suffer like this. Why was I not like other children?” The question, sadly, is six decades too late.

Tinsel Town’s Tenuous Ties

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Despite widespread philandering, marriages in Bollywood survive for various reasons

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

Actress Deepti Naval sips a cup of tea at the Oceania cafĂ© in Hotel Searock at Bandra on a cloudy Wednesday morning. I am meeting with her to talk about marriages in Bollywood, which has come into the spotlight, following the suicide of actor Navin Nischol’s wife Gitanjali.
Naval, who is dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans and leather heels, had been married to director Prakash Jha for six years “on paper but we lived together for just one and a half years.” After that, Jha moved off to Delhi while Naval remained behind in Mumbai. There is a daughter, Disha, (18), who flits between both parent’s homes. “When I was younger, I wanted more attention,” she says, explaining the reasons behind the break-up. “It was difficult for me to understand the things that drove him. We parted without a single scene of shouting at each other. It was traumatic, not at the time of the break-up, but afterwards. If I had married Prakash ten years later, when I was more mature, I would have made an absolute go of it.”
But she says she has no regrets and that is obvious from her easy smile and glowing face. “Today, Prakash and I are the best of friends and have a wonderful equation,” she says.
There are other couples who have a good equation: Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan; Rishi and Neetu Kapoor; Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore; Anil and Tina Munim; Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi. “It is not that they have all had smooth marriages,” says Tabassum, former actor and television host. “There have been rough patches but that is there in every life.” But some marriages have failed to survive the rough patches: Boney and Mona Kapoor; Randhir and Babita Kapoor; Rajesh and Dimple Khanna; Saif Ali Khan and Amrita Singh, to name a few.
The problem in Bollywood is that men and women are thrown into close proximity because of the nature of the profession. “It is natural when you are in the company of your ‘beautiful’ co-stars, the forbidden fruit syndrome comes into play,” says director Mahesh Bhatt, by phone from Goa.
Says an effervescent Pretti Jaiin, at a Barista outlet in Versova: “If a husband and wife are working in Bollywood, both would be meeting good-looking people all the time. The possibility of getting attracted elsewhere is that much higher, and the chances of the marriage surviving is difficult.”
So what happens when a wife discovers that the husband is sleeping around? “Some wives do not want to jeopardise the sense of security, the emotional link, the children, the property, the lifestyle and the power,” says Bhatt. “So, they prefer to deal with a philandering husband rather than opt out and choose a life of oblivion and a scaled down lifestyle. Some wives hope that the erring husband will come to his senses.”
Jaiin feels most wives develop an apathy after a while. “Initially, they might have fought over the philandering but after a while, when the husband does not stop, they just get tired,” she says. “I have seen pain in the eyes of a lot of married women in Bollywood.”
Naval tells a story of the wife of a philandering star, who was intelligent and independent. If she wanted, she could have walked out but she didn’t. “For a few years I lost respect for her but later when I matured I realised she was wiser,” says Naval. “Because, to destroy a family, to let the children let their lives go haywire, was too much of a price to pay. Wives stick around because they feel they are the fulcrum of a marriage. To shake the institution just because her husband is having an affair is not worth it.”
So, it is clear marriages in Bollywood are under different types of pressures, as compared to other marriages. “In normal marriages, there is so much of sharing with each other,” says Hema Malini. “Right from the time you get up and have tea or coffee together, then you send your husband for work, wait for him to return and then go out in the evenings. My brothers and their wives have such good marriages. I don’t think this happens in Bollywood.”
So what is Hema Malini’s advice to a young woman who is planning to get married to somebody from Bollywood? “Wives should try to be better looking than the heroines the husband is meeting all the time,” she says. “When he comes home, she has to be nice to him, no fighting or nagging, so he is no longer interested in going out anywhere. There should also be unconditional love, which young women don’t seem to have these days.”

‘Viewers are accepting interesting subjects’

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained fim Hindustan Times

INTERVIEW/APARNA SEN


Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

“My throat is hoarse, I can’t seem to talk any more,” exclaims Aparna Sen, as she finishes a clutch of television interviews and, immediately, another batch of microphones are placed in front of her. She takes a long sip of water, clears her throat, remains silent for a few moments and is soon ready for the next round.
Her seventh feature film, 15 Park Avenue, starring Rahul Bose, her daughter Konkona Sen, Shabana Azmi, Waheeda Rahman and Soumitra Chatterjee, has just been released. It deals with a girl who suffers from schizophrenia and the strange relationship she has with an older half-sister.
This is Sen’s 25th year as a director, her first film being the critically acclaimed 36 Chowringhee Lane. Apart from winning national and international awards at film festivals, she has won the Padmi Shri and the Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cine Central Film Society.

Excerpts from the interview:
Which is more exciting: acting or directing.
Directing. When you are acting, you are interpreting somebody else’s vision. But when you are directing, it is your vision. You obviously have been excited about it; otherwise, you would not go to the trouble of directing it.
Where do you get your story ideas?
From life. You might notice something and at that time, you might not think about it and then it comes back to you after three months. It is a magical thing.
How has Satyajit Ray influenced you?
He has influenced me and a whole generation of filmmakers the way a parent influences a child. He was the big figure. The point now is not to imitate him and that has been my endeavour.
How have you evolved in 25 years of directing?
Earlier, I was more concerned with everyday reality and stories that were set within it. But now, I am getting more interested in other kinds of realities, like at the end of 15 Park Avenue, there is a transcendence, a kind of surreal leap where you go on to another plane of reality.
15 Park Avenue is a street in Calcutta. What is the significance in the movie?
There is no Park Avenue. That is the whole point of the movie. There is a character in the film who searches for this address. Whether it exists or not, and which plane of reality it exists, that is the point of the film.
You have mentioned that this is your most honest film. What do you mean by that?
It is based on a real life person, whose identity I cannot divulge. But that person looks for an address.
You are lifting it straight from reality.
You never lift straight from reality. You are inspired by a real life incident and then your imagination takes over.
How different is this film from the earlier ones, like Paroma, Yuganta, Sati and Mr and Mrs Iyer ?
Every film is different from each other.
You try to find something different?
No, I don’t have to try. If you are trying to be honest, if you are trying to be true to the character, the artistic vision in the film, then it is bound to be different.
15 Park Avenue explores an urban sensibility. Will it appeal to the general public?
I hope so. Obviously, our kind of film is not for the general audience who go to the mainstream Hindi cinema. Although, more and more, the dividing line between mainstream and the so-called art film is blurring. Nowadays, viewers are accepting interesting subjects. It is an exciting time and all kinds of films are being made. And I think that is very encouraging.
Working with an actress who is also your daughter. Does it lead to conflicts?
There are no conflicts. We are very close.
What are your future plans?
I want to make a comedy that I have already written. I have also joined a Kolkata TV channel as a creative director and I want to make something of it.

Still in the shade

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times


Handicrafts, made of bamboo, are yet to catch on

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

Lata Medar sits on the floor in a room in Boiwada. There are stacks of paper toasters, plates, placemats, trays, lampshades, dustbins and hairclips, all made of bamboo, placed at one side. She belongs to the Medar community as do her colleagues Rupa and Vijaya. With the help of the NGO, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), they have set up a co-operative to make and sell bamboo products. So far, there are only five volunteers even though when you step outside, there are 200 families of the Medar community living nearby. The Medars, who are originally from Karnataka, have been bamboo weavers for generations but they only make fish baskets. The community fell into hard times when plastics entered the market in a big way.
“It is a conservative community,” says Rohit Shinde, field convenor for Chaitanya. “The womenfolk are supposed to stay inside. It was with great difficulty that we managed to convince the parents of these girls to send them here.”
Before these girls started making these products, they received training from the Industrial Design Centre (IDC) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai. “They are trained to make bamboo strips in uniform size, using small gadgets like width sizer (a small machine),” says Prof. A.G. Rao of the IDC. “Following that is the treatment of the bamboo. This is done by boiling bamboo strips with borax, boric acid and alum. The idea is to prevent insect attacks and fungus.” Training is given on the use of moulds, which can give exact shapes and they are also taught quality control. “For example, if a strip is bad, they will not throw it away,” says Rao. “The whole product becomes a waste, because of the poor quality of just one strip.” They learn how to estimate the materials required for a product and how to use colouring with natural dyes like haldi, katha and tea. “We have also introduced them to the concepts of packing, modularity, transportation and costing,” says Rao.
The products have been kept in shops in Colaba, Dadar and Bandra. “The sale has been consistent,” says Bejoy Davis, programme co-ordinator for YUVA. “People have liked the products.” Asked about what problems the cooperative faces, he says the cost of the products are high because it is made by hand. “It is only a small segment of the population that accepts bamboo as a handicraft option. But in places like Colaba, people are not worried about the price but the quality.”

Rao has been involved with the propagation of bamboo craftsmanship for the past 20 years. He has travelled all over the country conducting workshops where tool kits and other supports are given to the participants. As he takes me around the workshop where various products are up on display, I express shock at the prices he mentions: Rs 150, Rs 200, Rs 300, all the way up to Rs 800. Seeing my reaction he says, “Nowadays, people don’t mind paying Rs 200 for a pizza. We should not look at handmade things as a cheap alternative. It has to be seen as a cultural asset. If we pay low prices, these craftsmen will not survive.”
Suitably chastened, I nod quickly in agreement. “What we are finding is that the market is there but we are unable to supply the requisite number of items,” he says. Rao tells the story of how, for a seminar, an official wanted a supply of 1000 bamboo pens. “We did not have so many pens in storage.” On another occasion, when he was in America, he met an Indian businessman who sold gift packs of perfumes. The professor suggested to the businessman he could put the perfumes in bamboo baskets. The businessmen agreed and immediately placed an order for 2 million baskets. “I looked at him amazed and he said that I had a lot of ideas but I needed to organise myself first before canvassing for orders,” says Rao, with a smile. “The irony is that sometime earlier, I was in Tripura and the craftsmen were complaining they had no orders and here I had an order for 2 million. So this is one gap, which has to be bridged.” To that end, he is planning to set up a company and like most people, he realises that salvation lies abroad. “There, they value handmade work,” he says. “In Europe, they no longer want industrial, mass made products. The world over, they are looking for bamboo items. Small countries like the Philippines, which is just the size of Orissa, exports $1 billion worth of baskets. We need to innovate and organise ourselves.”

Killing her softly

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times

Social stigma prevents women alcoholics from seeking help

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

Terry Lewis is 74 years old but her face is unlined, and she looks years younger. It is difficult to believe that she has been an alcoholic for nearly 40 years. We are sitting in her spacious drawing room in Bandra, dominated by a wooden bookcase placed against one wall, with the obligatory TV set on one shelf. There is a sit-out, from where you can see a lawn and a couple of coconut trees.
Here is her story: Terry married an Englishman, when she was 20. “Michael was a regular drinker,” she says. “But I did not like the idea of drinking. But, as the saying goes, when you can’t beat them, you join them.”
Her late husband, who was 23 years older to her, was a senior manager in a multinational firm and moved in a social circle where everybody was drinking. “So I started to drink regularly,” she says. The childless couple lived in various parts of India and over several years Terry’s drinking deepened and she slipped into alcoholism. When they finally settled down in Bandra, Terry had got into the habit of imbibing from the morning.
“When Michael was in the kitchen, I would go around the corner to the cupboard where the booze was kept and have a swig,” she says. “Most of the time, it was straight from the bottle.”
Michael would plead with her to stop but to no avail. It was a friend who persuaded her to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting and it was there she met Lynette, who was 30 years younger, and a recovering alcoholic. “She was like a fairy godmother to me,” says Terry. “She would phone me in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, enquiring about me. She would take me for the meetings. You get the strength from the meetings and you come back and you don’t drink. But it was Lynette who gave me the courage to finally beat the addiction.”
It has been fourteen years since she has stopped “but it is still one day a time. I don’t think an alcoholic is ever sure. Because alcohol is ‘cunning, powerful and baffling.’ The fear of slipping is always there.”
Terry’s is a rare story, which had a happy ending. In Mumbai, there are hundreds of cases of women alcoholics, but nobody knows about them because to be labelled as an alcoholic is such a taboo in Indian society. As Terry says, “If you say a woman is a heavy drinker, it is accepted. If you say she is a boozer, it is accepted. But the moment you say, she is an alcoholic, there is a stigma attached to her.”
Lynette knows a lot about the stigma. “In my work with AA, I came to know of so many upper middle class women who are alcoholics,” she says. “The reasons are simple: either the husband is having an affair or is so consumed by his career, he ends up neglecting his wife. Or the wife is just bored. And they all took to drinking and became addicted.”
She tells the case of three high-society women, whom she tried in vain to bring to the AA meetings. “There was a lot of denial about the alcoholism,” she says. “The families did not want the women to come for the meetings because of social fear. Instead, they wanted us to go to their houses to talk.” In the end, all three died of alcoholism.
Lynette also spoke of the widespread alcoholism among actresses in Bollywood; they are unable to seek treatment for the fear of a scandal. “In fact, one actress committed suicide, while she was drunk,” she says.
One evening, I go across to meet Vivek, a long-time member of AA, at his office in Dalal Street. (Incidentally, the AA in Mumbai has just entered its 50th year of service in the city). “Women alcoholics come from all sorts of backgrounds: from the very rich to the poor,” he says. “Most of the time, they do their drinking indoors.”
Agrees Dr Shilpa Adarkar, of the De-addiction Centre at KEM hospital. “Mostly, they are introduced to drinking at home by their husbands,” she says. “Sometimes, they drink indoors with a female companion. The problem is that a woman’s constitution is such they develop a dependency faster than men.” (see box)
The treatment at the centre includes a detoxification process that lasts between seven to ten days. After that, there is group therapy and patients are encouraged to go for weekly meetings, where they are taught coping strategy and how to handle inter-personal relationships.
“Alcoholism, like tobacco, is a gateway drug,” she says. “When you imbibe them, it ensures your entry into the world of drugs. Modernisation, and an increasingly hectic social life, has led to a rise in drinking, especially among young women.”
Asked what advice she would give young women, she says, “I would tell them drink is not a necessity, like water, air and food. When you take your first drink, just remember that. Nobody can predict who will end up as an alcoholic. So, the best way is to say no to the first drink.” (Some names have been changed)

The roller coaster that is Mumbai

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times

Americans who live in the city go through a gamut of emotions

Shevlin Sebastian
Mumbai

I meet Nina Woodard at the lobby of The Hilton and, straightaway, I can see that Mumbai, and India, has seduced her. She is wearing a pink salwaar kameez, with a bindi at the centre of her forehead. With her fluffy red hair, she could easily pass off as an Indian, since hair colouring has become a rage these days.
However, Mumbai took a while to grow on her. “Everything was so overwhelming. Too much sight, too much sound, too many people, too much colour, too much everything,” she says. “When I later read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, his description of the first impressions of the city was exactly what I felt. But when you step back and look at everything on an individual basis, that is when you begin to enjoy the place.”
The Californian Woodard, who works in the Indian branch of a US based firm, moved to Mumbai five years ago and plans to stay on. For her, the most attractive feature of the city is the people. “The smiles, the relationships, the kindness, the big hearts,” she says. “People will go out of the way to ensure that you have a pleasant experience.”

Variety is the spice
On a Wednesday, I go to the private residence of the US Consul General, Michael Owen, on Bhulabhai Desai Road. The sun-soaked rooms are spacious, with wooden furniture and large glass-paned windows with a panoramic view of the sea. On a low glass-topped table there is a coffee table book: Stephen Ambrose’s The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation. At the stroke of 3 p.m., in walks Owen, soft-spoken, impeccably dressed and gracious.
“Mumbai is a big and vibrant city,” says Owen, who has been in the city for all of six months. “The number of people I see every day is amazing. I am used to serving in national capitals where you meet a lot of people in government. But here, you meet people in finance, business, investment banking, entertainment and the arts. The variety is amazing.” (See interview below).
Few Americans can help but compare the metropolis to New York. Says writer Janet Fine, who has lived in Mumbai for more than twenty years: "Both cities have the same non-stop attitude. In one day, you can do ten different things that have nothing to do with each other. For example, you can go to a press conference and get hugged by Hollywood star Will Smith, visit the girls at the WECAN orphanage in Mahim, and later, party all night at a rocking art gallery opening and surburban restaurant celebration, without ever losing the Mumbai rhythm."
Agrees Jim Cunningham, the commercial consul at the US consulate: “There is always something happening in Mumbai. Indians are so hospitable, they don’t allow you any time to feel homesick.”
One group, who are far from being homesick, is the 23-year-old trio of Charles Greene, Sukhesh Miryala and David Aranow. They are working as executives, on a two-year stint, in the Mahindra Group. They look smart and upbeat in their tucked-in shirts and ties, sitting around a conference table on the fifth floor at Mahindra Towers at Worli.
Asked about the working environment in Mumbai, Harvard-educated Aranow says, “As undergraduates, I don’t think we would have got the same level of responsibility in an American firm. The office environment is much more friendlier than in New York.”
For these youngsters, the city has been a sort of a cultural shock, especially the social disparities. However, Greene says, he found the people are, for the most part, happy, “even though so many of them are living in poverty. They are friendly and go out of their way to help me. That was one of the first things that struck me. To see the cows on the street was also…different.”
His colleague, Miryala, of Indian origin, takes a deep breath and then waxes eloquent: “The great thing about Mumbai is the juxtaposition of traditional Indian culture along with a cosmopolitan and international feel. There is so much of arts and culture happening here. Rudy Guiliani and Anoushka Shankar have come visiting, as well as the Viennese orchestra. Mumbai is a global city.”

Not all roses
Of course, Mumbai’s flaws have not escaped their eyes. Says Nina Woodard, her clear brown eyes clouding up for the first time in the conversation: “The amount of poverty that one sees in the city is very disturbing. Now that I have been here for a while, I have realised it is disturbing for everyone.”
Across town, in east Andheri, I go and meet Louise Williams, (64). She is the founder and managing trustee of Love Humanity International, an NGO to empower children. In her house-cum-office, apart from paintings on the walls and potted plants on the window sill, there is an unusual feature: in a small alcove, lit by a lamp, there are pictures of Ganesh and Shirdi Sai Baba.
“The disadvantages of the city are the infrastructure, poor sidewalks, pollution and trash everywhere,” she says. “So many children are living in the streets. That is why I am here. I want to help and empower them.”
Williams also finds the suburban train travel stressful. “I almost broke my toe when somebody stepped on it when I was on a train,” she says. She narrates the story of her friend, Gail Presbey, an associate professor from the US who came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. “She was pushed out of the train at Andheri,” she says. “Thankfully, she suffered only a few bruises.”

Mishaps and adventures
Like all foreigners who live for a while in a tumultuous city like Mumbai, they have interesting experiences to relate. In her second week in the city, a friend of Woodard took her out to dinner. And because he knew she was fascinated with everything Indian, he asked her whether she wanted to try a betel. “Being new and not understanding it meant paan, I declined,” she says, with a smile. “And I watched him enjoy it. Then I asked to see how it was made and after I looked in, I asked, ‘Well, where is the beetle?’ Everybody laughed out loud!”
Miryala, who, amazingly, joined Mahindras on the ill-fated July 26 last year, was amazed at the ferocity of the rain. “I saw people wading in the water and I was shocked,” he says. “So I asked, ‘Does this happen every time it rains?’ But somebody replied, ‘I don’t think we have seen such a rain in a very long time.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I forgot to bring my swimming shorts.’ I thought I was going to have to swim home.” Which thankfully, he did not have to do, since he was staying at Tardeo.
Janet Fine also has an interesting story to tell: “When I first met my Indian dance guru, Kalyan Sundaram, my fellow dancers asked me to kiss his feet. And I literally went down to kiss his feet with my lips, when the others hurriedly pulled me up. I did not know I was just supposed to touch his feet.”

Interview/Michael Owen, US Consel General:
‘There is so much happening here’

What are Mumbai’s attractions?
There are so many different things you can do. I get invitations for dinners, receptions, art openings, screenings of films, seeing films being filmed, there is so much entertainment at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, plays and lectures.
Any negative impressions?
Like any large city, traffic is a problem. I had to go once all the way to Powai and I was able to read all the day's papers in the car. The air pollution is another problem. I’ve noticed that people at the consulate sometime have colds and sore throats because of it. It affects everybody, including long-term residents.

Your most interesting experience?
At the Ganesh immersion at Chowpatty, diplomats were supposed to stay in the viewing area. I told the police I would like to be there on the beach among the crowd but the police were not very happy. But I finally convinced them. So I went down with my wife and daughter. We were just standing there nonchalantly when all of a sudden I turned around and there was this huge group of people, with a big Ganesh idol, running directly at us. And we needed to move back in a hurry. Then the police said, "Now, it is time to go back" and so we had to go back to our viewing stand. But, it was a great experience.

Your views on the Indo-US relationship?
The relations between India and the US is very positive now and that is very gratifying to see. The number of Indians who want to go to the US for business or study is increasing. Also, the number of Americans who are coming here is also increasing. The level of interchange is excellent.

What benefits will accrue from President George Bush's trip to India?There will be blanket press coverage of the visit back in the US and it will raise the profile of India for the average American enormously. George Bush is coming with a number of private American citizens, many of them of Indian origin. I expect a lot of follow-up from this visit. It symbolises the way the relationship has grown and improved over the years.