Monday, May 04, 2015

A new anthology is out

For over two years now, I have been looking for and reading Indian women writers across genres as part of my research for a new anthology, which is now out as 'Unbound'. Here's the cover and (below) some links to interviewswhere I try and explain the processes, choices and motivations that drove me as I put together this manuscript.

From a piece about the book in the Bangalore Mirror:

"It was also important to challenge the way 'Indian' women are represented in popular culture. Motherhood is a minefield. Food is life itself. It is very boring to think of women and food only in one framework: woman preparing food at home. It is also an inaccurate portrait. I wanted to present a more authentic collage through the extracts I chose"

From an interview with Verve magazine:

8. Which are some contemporary female writers you admire?
“Oh, many, many, many! You will note that about half of the writers included in the book are indeed contemporary writers. I have, however, left out very ‘new’ writers – those who’ve started getting published only in the last 8 to ten years. This was a conscious decision because, sometimes, you are blown away by a new book but within a year, the new voice is already fading from your consciousness. Substance has to be balanced against style. A work may or may not have lasting value, but it is difficult to judge that in the short term. In my (limited) experience, it takes a distance of at least 10 years for me to be able to judge a piece of writing in isolation, to look at it against its own light, not against the light of all the other writing that surrounds it.”

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Book review: City of Spies

Decades have passed since the 1977 coup in Pakistan but the forces unleashed as a result have had such a devastating impact on the nation that it still continues to struggle with the legacy of the “Zia” years. Pakistani artists and writers have recalled those years of military dictatorship, the growing influence of the secret service, the bypassing of democractic and human rights, and the ensuing chaos. Sorayya Khan’s City Of Spies is another addition to the memory file.

Read the full piece here 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Registered Post: a short story

It was 7.30 in the morning and my alarm hadn’t gone off when Suhail showed up. I was still in my nightie when the bell rang and I was just looking for a dupatta to throw over my chest. But Shahryar said he’d get the door, so I settled back into bed. 

A whole minute passed. The silence outside was making me nervous. Nobody who comes to our door in this town leaves without saying a word or two, even if it is just salaam, ram-ram, or I’llshowyoubitchjustwatch. Milkman, postman, courier, goons sent by the other party after I’ve had a good day in court. Everybody has something to say. 

Read the whole story here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A stained culture of menstruation

Despite advertising hinged on 'change' and girls growing wings, I still see women – some of them educated women in metros – who are embarrased about taking a used (wrapped up) sanitary napkin to the dustbin. I've seen women concealing it in the folds of their dupatta or saree pallu. I've talked to women in small towns who don't throw sanitary napkins in their dustbin at home; they walk instead to the end of the lane, and drop them off on a huge anonymous garbage dump – preferably very early in the morning so nobody sees them. We still do not have a sensible disposal system.

Read the full piece here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Ode to the Ordinary Muslim

Sometimes I look to you, minority citizen, to understand what it means to have faith in the motherland. 
There was a time when many of you could have left India. Hundreds of thousands did, after all... But you did not go. You stayed.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On writing, getting published etc

I often get approached by aspiring authors who want to know how to get published, and what my own experience has been like. So I thought I should collect my thoughts into a single post that will serve as a response to all questions that I am able to answer. Treat all advice, however, as general advice. Each writer has a different journey and therefore different points of view on the publishing process.

1. Finish a manuscript. There are no fixed rules about how long/big a book has to be, but you have to know that you will be satisfied with a book of 'this' particular length before you take it to a publisher.

2. Edit the manuscript to the best of your ability. Format it properly, check grammar and spelling.

3. Send a query letter directly to a publisher. You will know of most publishers if you are a reader (and if you are not a reader of books, I don't know what you are doing trying to become an author).

4. Most publishers have websites. You just have to run a google search. Many Indian publishers these days do encourage you to query directly, so send an email. Try and make sure your email has complete sentences and full words instead of sms-ese.

5. Find an agent if you are confident that you will get a good advance. India has very few literary agents but Siyahi and Writers' Side are two examples. For foreign agents, you will have to again send out query letters. I am afraid I don't know anything about finding foreign agents. I don't yet have any agents myself.

6. There is some good advice, from those who are clearly more experienced than me, here :


I recently talked to Cosmopolitan (India) magazine about how I got published. Here's the Q and A, which might be useful to some readers:

1) What made you take to writing? What were some of your motivations, aspirations, goals etc? Anxieties, concerns too?

A - I do not recall ever making a conscious decision to 'take to writing'. I wrote a bit in high school, but mainly essays or my speeches for debating contests. As an undergraduate, I used to participate in all extra-curricular activity - song, dance, drama, fashion show. The college had an extempore (on-the-spot) poetry contest and I participated, and to my surprise, won. I began to take writing a little more seriously then, mainly because of the encouragement I received by my English Literature teachers. Soon I began to co-edit the students' magazine. By the time I finished college, I knew I could write decently, and didn't know if I could do anything else. I had no clear ambition or, indeed, motivation. But I did write quite a lot of letters, diaries, poems. Mainly to express myself, I think. Nor did I have many anxieties in the early years. I had the arrogance and confidence that very young people often do. I think I needed it knocked out of me, and that happened very quickly when I moved to big cities and my reading widening to include contemporary Indian writers who was clearly leagues ahead in terms of both creative expression and basic knowledge of the world, society, culture and so on.

2) Did you start by getting feedback from your inner circle? How did the aspect of support and encouragement from family/ friends play out?

A - I rarely sought feedback in college, though I did show my poems to close friends. It was only a couple of years after college that I began to think about what I could do to get better. I began to read a lot more contemporary work from India as well as translations from everywhere else, that it began to sink in that perhaps I was not ready yet. I began to seek peer review groups and found a couple of places online. 

Friends and family are reasonably supportive, though I do not show my work to them while it's in process. Unless these friends happen to be writers themselves. We've had well-known writers in our family before (my maternal grandfather), and in any case cultural growth has always been encouraged in my family.

3) Were there steps involved? A progression? author conventions & seminars...networking...print? Would you recommend that to aspiring writers?

A - Yes. Like I said, I wrote a lot of letters and essays initially. I began working for newspapers and magazines and wrote almost daily from the year 2000 onwards. At home, I would try to work on fictional stories though none of them came to fruition. In addition, I blogged a lot, from 2005 on, and was offered my first book deal on the strength of those posts.

I don't think seminars or writer conventions helped in the publishing process. I am not good at networking and when I attend, I do so in a quiet way. However, it is always good to hear other writers speak of their ideas, and be introduced to new kinds of writing through such seminars. Writers come in all kinds of personalities, so what they take from a gathering of writers depends on what they came looking for.

4) What's the best way to pitch/ put together a proposal and make oneself stand out in the clutter?

A - I wish I knew. I've rarely attempted book proposals, and when I have, I have not been successful. I prefer to just write the whole book and then try to get an editor interested in the manuscript.

5) Could you please dwell on the writing process itself? Timeline, schedule, any experimentation involved? Learnings from the process? What was particularly fulfilling/ frustrating? What to guard against?

A - I like to experiment with genre. I want to try and write in as many kinds of ways as I can, so I give most genres at least one shot. I also get rejected a lot, and some of my work is a failure even in my own estimation. My main learning is that you've got to keep at it. 

I don't have a fixed schedule, but I try and write regularly, and I read regularly too.  

What's most fulfilling is when I've finished something - a poem or a story - and it is just where it needs to be. For now, this is the best it can be. The feeling that I've said what I wanted to say in the genre I chose. Most frustrating is not being able to do this - to start something and then not finish it as I'd hoped.

6) How would you summarise the publishing and writing industry in India currently? Is it a good time for first time writers and is there a general openness towards new voices? In your opinion, what are the challenges first time writers are likely to/ can potentially face in this setting?

A - There is a fair degree of openness. But this is not a good time for everyone in a commercial sense. Writers whose voices are very experimental, or who do not translate easily for foreign markets must be content with very small print runs and very few readers. The Indian English market is very crowded, and there is not just a lot of intellectual laziness and creative stasis, there are also a lot of below-average writing available at a very low cost. It is easy to be lost in the crowd.

7) Do you think it's tenable to be a full time writer in the Indian context? How do you manage it? Tips on how to follow one's calling and also keep the roof up?

A - Not easy if you're a fiction writer. Impossible if you're a full time poet or playwright. I have thus far made a living from journalism and related media formats. But I continue to struggle, so I really should not offer anyone any advice.

8 - What was the response to your first book like and what's in the pipeline?

A - There were decent reviews when 'Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales' first came out. I'm not sure how much it's sold but it did go into a second edition, which was good news. I'm trying to work on a novella and also editing an anthology for next year.

9) Any general pointers/ insight that you'd like to share that's not been covered in the questions above.

A - General advice - read. Read constantly. Those who live in the world of words must be familiar with the landscape. Reading is what you want others to do, when you write. You better know the worth of what you're offering before you expect anything from readers. 


If you're looking for more details from my own personal experience, here is another interview:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Thela aur thithak: kuch yaadein

I have been searching online for the English translation of "thithak" – "baulk" comes closest but it does not quite capture the mix of emotions – hesitation, surprise, confusion, discomfort – represented by the Hindi word "thithakna".
Thithakna is what happens to regulars at a roadside chai stall whenever I stop by for a cup of tea like the men do – alone, sipping slowly, looking at the passing traffic, street signs, posters pasted on walls.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Gulab hooks reviewers

"Gulab is restrained, ephemeral, delicate. Her characters leave much unsaid; there are telling silences and crucial pauses. Her prose is sparse and minimalist. All of which suits the subject matter - the mysteries of the paranormal - perfectly."
- The Hindustan Times

"The story unfolds like a Bollywood movie of suspense and thrill from the 70s, urging the reader to keep at it, even though the ending doesn’t do much to dissipate the anxiety. The plot, rife with unexpected twists, is fitting for stage production or even a Bollywood script, and in the form of a novella, it provides the reader a perfect adrenalin rush."
 - The Kathmandu Post

"Annie Zaidi's Gulab is a near-perfect ghost story and one of the things it does so well is achieving this balance. It is perfectly paced and uses its ghost shrewdly and sparingly."
- The Sunday Guardian 

"Zaidi makes brilliant use of the sense of disorientation that comes from an unacknowledged sense of loss, coupled with an unfamiliar location, a strange language and self-assured strangers. Bit by bit, she tugs away at all that Nikunj knows—his memories of Saira, his belief that he’d gotten over her, his ideas of life, love, fidelity and death—till he stands naked, confronting only the reality of himself and his perceptions."
- Mint

"There is a whirlwind of conversations, heated exchanges, physical fights and helpless sobs as the tempo builds and the mystery deepens. It’s nothing sort of a roller coaster ride, smooth one minute, scary the other and in between pregnant with foreboding."

"It begins with a darkly comic, almost absurd response to the idea of courting the supernatural with its everyman ordinary hero. And it ends with a chilling and seductive struggle as Nikunj is drawn to the magnetism of a dead woman’s charms."
- The Asian Age

"There’s more fun watching a ghost movie than reading a scary book. But Annie Zaidi’s novel, Gulab, ticks all the right boxes for an entertaining read. To start with, the book is all of 184 pages, it is a love story, it has a ghost, it has intrigue and a twist in the tale."

"From the very beginning we know what to expect from the story, yet the simplicity with which the author has woven monologues and dialogues, built up suspense and created situations keeps you hooked.
What binds the narrative together is the 24-hour time-span within which the story takes many unexpected turns." 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

In a new anthology

I have a new graphic short story in this great new anthology of feminist speculative fiction Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean. It is targeted at young adults, but can be enjoyed by all. 

The reviews are great too! 

'A Cross-Continental Flight of Fancy', by Maegan Dobson Sippy at New Indian Express

'This Anthology of Short Stories Takes an 'Alternative' Approach to Women Empowerment' by Debesh Banerjee, at Indian Express

'Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean: Feminine Tales of Unity' by Nuvena Rajendran, at Deccan Chronicle

'An Anthology Dripping with Collaborative Alchemy', by Aditya Mani Jha at Sunday Guardian

'For the Girls Who Mess With Boundaries' by Kareena Gianani, at Mid-Day 

'It's a Woman's World' by Karan Bhardwaj, Daily Pioneer

Press Trust of India, at NDTV and at Economic Times

'High As the Sky, Deep As the Ocean' by Sravasti Datta, at The Hindu

'Book Review: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean ' by Bijal Vachharajan, at LiveMint
My story was extracted in Scroll

Unsweetened greetings

What does it mean to "indulge" in a food culture that has made sugar and grease the norm?
Today, you can get a bar of cheap chocolate for ten rupees. You cannot buy any fruit (except bananas) for that price, nor a bajra roti, boiled peas, boiled potatos. Cookies, full of sugar, salt, fat, are available for less than that, as are deep-fried chips and colas, where the main ingredient is sugar. You can get salted butter cheaper than a litre of whole milk.
How has this happened to us, and what are we going to do about it?
Read on:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Governance, Dear Santa, governance!

Dear Santa,
Compliments of the season. I don't usually write, but I've been a very good girl this year. Worked hard, met deadlines, paid taxes, filed returns. So I feel entitled to a few things. Besides, the Indian government seems to like you and Christmas a great deal. They're upping the celebration ante with this Good Governance Day thing, which is sort of providential. Good Governance is just the thing I wanted. So, please, get the Indian government to do the following:

Interview: Esther Freud

Mr Mac And Me, set in 1914, neatly blends fiction with history as it tells the story of a young boy with a twisted foot and a talent for drawing, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish artist and architect who did actually live in a seaside village during World War I. In fact, he stayed and drank at the pub that later became a house where Freud lived. It was this small fact that got her interested in his story, she says. “Someone told me many years ago, did you know Mackintosh came to this village a hundred years ago, and people were suspicious and they thought maybe he was a German spy? And I thought, wow, amazing story! But it had nothing to do with me. But when I discovered that he had stayed in the house I lived in, then I thought, hmm, maybe there is something in it for me.” 

Freud believes that most writers need an “in” into a story; for her, it is a personal connection with her material. “It doesn’t have to be autobiographical. But something that’s enough to make it feel like it’s my story. I didn’t feel like I could just go to Glasgow and start researching Mackintosh. I mean, why me? But when I think that the man who lived in my house designed the Glasgow School of Art, then I want to go and look at everything he did.” Eventually, she was so fascinated with the man and his work that she looked for a way to insert a mini biography of Mackintosh into the novel even though the story spans just about a year.

Read the rest of the article here:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What do you know,

We can be buried on land or at sea, or burnt, or left to the vultures. We can turn into dust and manure, or we can line the digestive tracts of some other species. Finally, we will return back into the elements, just as we were created from the elements through a series of magical – if scientifically explicable – processes of nature. We accept this, and still, the question remains. The “me” that was neither skeleton nor synapse, where does that go?
There was a time when I would have unequivocally said, “Nowhere!” 
The spirit is probably an electrical impulse. You may survive in the memory, or in the DNA, of the living. But no dead person has access to our living rooms, living habits, living bodies. If legs have decayed, on what does a spirit walk? If tongues and vocal chords have decayed, with what does the spirit speak? Dreams, failures, injustices, anger – all of it ceases. I was sure of this. 
Then, I was no longer so sure. 

This is from an essay I wrote about certain strange/inexplicable/paranormal experiences originally published in 'What The Jaguar Knows We Don’t Know': The Kindle Biannual (2014). Link:,-can-you-explain-these

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An interview with poet Vijay Seshadri

Seshadri, born to Tamil- and Kannada-speaking parents, did not study Indian literature or the epics, but as a teenager in the US, he did engage with mythology and some of the ancient scriptures, as he had opted for Religion as one of his classes in school. That was when he first, he recalls, read the story of Yudhisthir and his journey to heaven. “What reading Indian mythology gave me was a taste for the imaginative and the fantastic. Indian stories are so imaginative, so wild. Like the stories from the Bhagavata Purana. I’ve always had an attraction for the imaginative, even among writers.” 

And what about his love for poetry, where did that come from? “There is no such thing as poetry out there,” he counters. “You fall in love with a poem. So I fell in love with certain poems. As the number of those poems kept growing, my interest in the art grew.” 

In the early years, though, Seshadri thought he wanted to write fiction. He made an unsuccessful attempt at writing his first novel, and, he says, out of the failure of that came his early poetry. As his appreciation of poetry grew, he also found encouragement from his professors for his own poems. However, his vocation did lie in the realm of storytelling. There is a definite narrative running through each poem and much of it is, mercifully, quite accessible. 

Read more:

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

How an Indian woman dresses

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before 'western' influences hit mainstream sartorial choices): Exhibit 1

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes, indulging in a traditional Indian indulgence (before 'western' influence on Indian culture): Exhibit 2

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before 'western' influences hit their sartorial choices): Exhibit 3

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before 'western' influence): Exhibit 4

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before 'western' influence): Exhibit 5

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (hard to say whether this is before, after or despite 'western' influence): Exhibit 6

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before/after/despite 'western' influence): Exhibit 7

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (most likely before any significant cultural influence barring her own tribe, given the confidence of her stance and lack of shame about her body): Exhibit 8

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before/after 'western' influence?): Exhibit 9

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (before/after 'western' influence?): Exhibit 10

Indian girl wearing traditional Indian clothes: Exhibit 11

Indian girl wearing traditional Indian clothes: Exhibit 12

Indian couple wearing traditional Indian clothes (probably only for a special festive occasion and not the clothes worn in their daily lives): Exhibit 13

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (almost certainly despite 'western' influence, given the source of the photograph): Exhibit 14

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes: Exhibit 15

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (obviously, donned for the stage): Exhibit 16

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes: Exhibit 17

Indian women wearing traditional/modern/contemporary Indian clothes (and their own comfortable, traditional method of draping): Exhibit 18

Indian women wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 19

Indian women wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 20

Indian woman wearing traditional Indian clothes (and traditional woman's hat): Exhibit 21

Indian women wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 22

Indian women wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 23

Indian women wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 24

Indian women wearing traditional Indian clothes (obviously, donned for a stage performance): Exhibit 25

Indian woman wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 26

Indian woman wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 27

Indian child wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 28

Indian women wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 29

Indian woman wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 30

Indian woman wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 31

Indian women wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 32

Indian women wearing traditional/modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 34

Indian women wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 35

Indian woman wearing modern Indian clothes: Exhibit 36

Indian woman's figure representing a 'yakshi' wearing what once must have been 'normal' clothes for a woman in some part of the Indian subcontinent: Exhibit 37

This is for all those who want to tell women what Indian culture is, or isn't, or what our great 'Indian' tradition and culture expects women to wear or not wear. Take a good hard look. We have worn all sorts of things depending on climate, comfort, and available technology. Also, depending on our desire. OUR NEEDS and DESIRE were reflected in OUR CULTURE. We exposed various parts of our bodies at all ages, at various times during our shared history and geography. And we will continue to do so. Learn to live with that.

Consider this a brief tutorial, those of you -- Yesudas, Madhu Kishwar, Mohan Bhagwat, Mamta Sharma, and politicians affiliated to a range of parties including the currently ruling BJP (Goa CM and Madhya Pradesh CM), TDPNCP, TMC, CPM -- who have directly or indirectly suggested that 'western' influences on our clothing lead to assaults on our persons. You seek to confine us to Exhibit 24, 29 or 34 in the name of 'safety' and 'Indian' cultural values with no sense of the history or reality of Indian women's clothing. The truth is that none of these women were or are safe from sexual assault or harassment, with the possible exception of Exhibit 37. And that is because she is cast in metal and cannot experience an assault even if it is aimed at her body.

[Photos sourced from the internet. All sources linked to at the mention of the relevant exhibit]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A deliberation on song, sexiness, and the filmy mahila

It could be that I'm blinded and deafened by the deliberate sexiness of the new Bollywood. But I often feel like feminine desire as depicted in film songs these days has all the charm of the high headlights on a speeding truck. Which makes me wonder how far we come in our representation of women. 

I keep watching old Hindi film songs and what I come away with is a gentler view of women's desire. Take the lovely innocence of 'mausam mausam, lovely mausam'. This song, perfect for rainy afternoons, stars a very young Padmini Kolhapure. The way the song has been directed and choreographed leaves me feeling content – as if this is how a song of adolescent love ought to be. There is a sense of gentleness and safety, an implicit trust. (It also strikes me that I cannot tell whether the director was a man or a woman, and this is a wonderful thing.)

Or, take a song like 'O phirki-wali'. It has royalty (he is dressed like a prince) chasing after a girl who sells phirkis. Obviously, the power balance is tilted against the girl, and yet, in the video, it is the girl who has power. This power does not come from physical strength, or class or caste. It is rooted in her ability to say 'yes' or 'no', and more significantly, in the man's ability to take 'no', or to negotiate towards a playful 'maybe'.

The man is pursuing the woman, but not stalking her. She is fully aware of his presence. She is smiling. As a viewer, you get the impression that if the on-screen woman expressed fear, the man would leave. Even though he is a prince, he will not assume that she is flattered by his attention. That is what makes him a 'hero'.

Another reason I love the video is that it features a working class girl, who has all but vanished from popular culture. A few decades ago, we saw songs attached to women who did all kinds of work: 
the phirki-wali (
the flower-seller who can row her own boat (
the maalin (
the chaku-churi-sharpening girl (
the nariyal-paani vendor (
the farm hand (
the chai-wali (
and even the thief (

In these songs, the women's profession – an aspect of their lives which does not involve a man – is in the forefront. That they work, and that work means stepping out into public spaces, partaking of the social economy, engaging with strangers –  all this was reinforced.

This applies to working class male protagonists too. The factory worker, farmer, even the army jawaan are no longer at the heart of Hindi cinema. Now we have the industrialist, the pilot, the gangster, the middle class student, and sometimes the unemployed (or unemployable) youth. But for now, let us keep our sights trained on women and songs.

It is also true that more women professionals are part of Hindi film stories now: wedding planners, scholars, academics, bank executives. But in songs, they're usually depicted in a romantic or familial context. If film songs are intended as an expression of the inner life of a character, then what does the new Bollywood song tell us?

From the lyrics, we get the impression that characters are looking to be loved, or are upset at not being loved. The video often focuses on the woman's clothes, vibrant colours, interesting landscapes. But the visual contours of love, or lust, are cautiously defined. The woman is often depicted running (in front of the man or away from him), holding up substantial skirts. Or she stands about, waiting coyly, while the man approaches and makes a romantic or sensual overture. This is particularly true of lip-synced songs.

Watching them, I realize what I miss most is the 'forward' woman, and I am not alone. I went to a women's only college and I remember that the songs we girls enjoyed most were the ones where a female protagonist is flirting, seducing, wooing, complaining.

They allow the character to be a person, and not just a pretty object of desire. And the male protagonists were also allowed to sulk, or have a coy personality that required women to woo them. Look at Tanuja propositioning Dev Anand directly in 'Raat akeli hai'; or trying to get closer to a somewhat scared, Jitendra. 

Jaya Bhaduri is demanding some physical loving from a hands-off Sanjeev Kumar in 'Baahon mein chale aao'; Asha Parekh is teasing Shammi Kapoor under the guiseof seeking forgiveness; Asha Parekh is teasing Rajesh Khanna under no guise whatsoever, and is suitably punished for her pranks; Madhubala is manaao-ing a sullen Dev Anand; Jaya Bhaduri is manaao-ing a sulky husband; Mumtaz is asserting her intentions; a child-like Saira Banu is teasing the crochety Shammi Kapoor

The women have a greater degree of control in these songs, and the men seem to be decent human beings with minds of their own – they can be tempted, or not; they are sulky, upset, nervous, laidback. They were not eternally lustful, nor scornful of women who pursue them. The woman here is not a tease; she's doing the teasing. 

In the 1990s, there were a few instances of videos where female protagonists expressed desire towards 'tough' guys who seemed not very interested: Mamta Kulkarni doing a fine matka-jhatka job of wooing Salman Khan in 'Ek munda meri umr da'; and Raveena Tandon, sinuous in yellow, seducing Akshay Kumar in the rain. In recent years, the only song that struck me as allowing a full expression of female desire was 'DreamumWakeupum'; it is not only overtly sexy but the director also takes kitsch and the filmy-panaa of the fantasy to an extreme so that you see it for the fun it is. But since the 1990s, there were very few shy or bewildered 'heroes on screen.

Even when the song is romantic, my impression is that the women (or girls) appear more 'whole' in songs from the 1960s and 70s. 

There is something very significant about the choreography of love songs. We draw our ideas about love scripts from what we watch, or read, and we also feed our own ideas into the pool of popular art. The songs I like best show great 'engagement' between lovers. They look at each other longer – Raj Kapoor and Nargis in'pyaar hua iqraar hua' is the first example that comes to mind. They hold out their arms, hold hands, hug as Sanjeev Kumar and Suchitra Sen in 'tum aa gaye ho'. There is no doubt in the audience's mind that this is mutual desire. It is not one person reaching out, and the other person being reluctant or indifferent.

This business of depicting a woman's reluctance or indifference correctly is crucial, especially when we are struggling with a street culture that romanticizes feminine reluctance and worships male aggression.

In this regard, older film songs are more balanced. There are songs where romance is in the air, but the woman is not yet responsive, like 'Maana janaab ne pukaara nahin', 'Bekaraar karke humein yoon na jaaiye', or even 'O phirki wali'. Note that in the videos, the man follows the woman but his gestures never turn threatening. He does not touch the woman, until she does begin to respond. He might be playful but he is not aggressive. And he does not 'gang up' on the woman, ever.

Since the 1980s, there have been more songs and more where the camera follows the woman's body, focussing on curves and clothes, rather than feelings. One of the most annoying and boring examples of this was a song I stumbled upon. The director forces the poor actress into a white saree, places her in water, making her touch herself for a very long five and a half minutes. Yet, the director is not even brave enough to show her body through a wet white saree.

This poses an interesting contrast to Raj Kapoor, who found the courage to film the wet saree-no blouse song ( and the white-saree-under-waterfall songs (here ; and here That the latter video has millions of views and that viewers have noticed nothing but breasts is another matter. How people respond to a visual sequence cannot be controlled by the filmmaker. But his view of society, and of women, is communicated through the camera. I get the feeling that Raj Kapoor was not afraid of showing off his own liking of women's breasts.

I don't know how women in the 1970s and 80s responded to Raj Kapoor's wet saree songs (I'd be interested to know) but I personally don't mind them. Kapoor did not fail these characters by giving them nothing except breasts. To his credit, he made stories about men's conflicted relationship with women, and sexual desire, and society's exploitation of women's bodies. He even included a brief nude scene as part of the schoolboy's fantasy in Mera Naam Joker. In his time, he must have raised hackles but he have had the courage to deal with how people received his work.

Now just look at this song from the Sanjay Khan directed 'Abdullah'. It is an example of what can go wrong when the director is not careful about how women's sexuality is portrayed. Although the perspective is that of a bunch of villainous-looking Peeping Toms, the actress is depicted singing, frolicking in the water with girl friends. But the frolic is choreographed as if it were a performance, as if it were intended for consumption.

This is bad film direction. It suggests that the filmmaker was not thinking of the female character as a person whose voice the audience would hear. She was a distraction, a beautiful object. Contrast the 'Abdullah' song with the sexiness of Zeenat Aman in this beautiful rain-dance number. There is coyness and joyous sexiness, but there is also fun, and a definite engagement between the protagonists.

Viewers who complain about 'vulgarity' in songs are unable to articulate why they are uncomfortable with the imagery. Some of it may stem from a sexually conservative upbringing. But many of us are also complaining about 'objectification' and one of the things we instinctively sense is a lack of empathy.

The camera and the choreography tell us something that the video's creators will not – the song puts women at the centre of focus so they may serve a certain kind of fantasy. In this fantasy, the woman (or multiple women) have little agency, no special skills, no warmth, no hopes for her own heart. She's there, at best, seeking to draw attention to her beauty, and, at worst, drawn by the scent of a man's money or power.

We usually tolerate the kind of fantasy described above. But when repeated too often, it gets exhausting. And some days, when real world people talk or behave in ways that mirror that warped fantasy world – when I remember that some men would rather kill a woman than see her take charge of her life, her heart, her body – a film song can infuriate me. And on those days, I turn to youtube and begin to google old Hindi film songs for comfort.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

That other space

Gulab tests the limits that our mind sets upon a ghost’s powers. If you see her as a woman clinging to life, there is not much to fear. Yet: what if she wants to return to your life? 
And what makes you think you can make her leave?

Annie Zaidi brings her characteristically clear-eyed exploration of love to this beguiling, 
hair-raising ghost story.

Order it online. Or walk into the neighbourhood bookstore and ask. The book ought to be in stores over the next few days. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Impractical Education

This is the latest graphic story I wrote for the Mint.

I have been thinking for a while now about the inadequacy of our secondary and senior secondary school syllabi. As far as I can see, the syllabus informs teenagers about fairly complex natural, physical and chemical phenomena, formulae for equations and trignometric calculations that most of them will never use in their daily lives. But it leaves them totally unprepared for life.

The average school student is illiterate when it comes to survival skills, especially in urban areas where they do not have any opportunity to learn through direct observation.

The choice of studying Science, Arts, or Commerce is a significant life decision if we assume that this choice is to have a real bearing on how we live our lives, or how we can make a living. I took up Science and later, in undergraduate college, 'Arts' (which is really the Humanities and Social Sciences). But the curriculum told me nothing about how to live. All I had was an assortment of facts and formulations, decrees and interpretations. If I had not been lucky enough to have the money for a specialized degree afterwards, I would have floundered. If my family did not support me further, I would have sunk into poverty. At fifteen, I was being prepared for what could eventually be a career in, say, medicine or astronomy or biochemical engineering. But I was totally unprepared for supporting myself in case I did not have the resources or temperament to study towards the aforementioned careers.

A formal school education tells us very little about how to make a living from the land or how to actually - practically - tap into nature's resources. We grow up knowing nothing about sustaining life (or love, which is incredibly sad and goes a long way towards dehumanizing and de-sensitizing the populace). Why is this so?

I am starting to believe that a highly stratified (in India, this means stratified along class and caste lines) society has something to do with it. We take human labour and basic survival skills for granted because we expect someone else to do it for the higher ups, i.e. people who access to formal schooling.

This someone else would be a low-paid mazdoor, some unfortunate born with limited access to white collar schooling. Even if this someone wrangles some schooling out of the system, a secondary school certificate is not likely to lead to a white collar job. The only other way out of poverty would be entrepreneurship, which would mean a small investment of money or material assets. The poorest in India have been rendered landless either by the caste system or modern institutional 'development' leading to displacement. Worse, they often work under conditions that lead to health breakdowns with no compensating insurance or benefits.

The pool of labour might have shrunk, but it exists. And so, the rest of us survive without having any real survival skills. Growing hundreds of food crops, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, growing cotton, rearing silkworms, beekeepers, weaving, sewing, shoe-making, assembling machines, cutting wood, building houses, mining sand and stone, cutting and shaping metal, identifying medicinal herbs. We cannot do any of this.

Skills that define human civilization, skills without which we would not last a day, are denied to us. And we allow it because we see so little value attached to these skills in the current economic system.

I often wonder, what would it be like if we actually began to attach value to our own survival? Would we not be a different sort of India?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Still smouldering

The best thing about being able to look at a banned book in hindsight is that it also offers a kind of foresight.

The short stories – and a one-act play – that made up Angaaray are mundane stories in the literal sense. The book focussed on the everyday brutality suffered by millions of Indian Muslims in the early twentieth century. Economic despair, domestic enslavement, sexual oppression, hypocrisy practised under the guise of religion, the physical damage suffered by women who are not allowed to make childbirth choices – it is at the intersection of these truths that the four Angaaray writers placed this book.

What we have now is an English translation of the original Urdu manuscript that was published in 1932. There are five stories by Sajjad Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, a story and a play by Dr Rashid Jahan, and a story by Mahmud-uz-Zafar.  The saddest thing about reading the book today is that it remains relevant.

Read the rest of this review in TimeOut 

Monday, June 09, 2014

A bookish adventure

I stack books in double rows on each shelf so that an invisible row sits behind the visible row. Some shelves are three thick. I’ve also begun to stack books in horizontal piles on top of a row. Last year, I donated a boxful to a children’s library. But a donation cull is one thing; sentencing a book to death by drowning is another thing. To leave a book vulnerable is to say that the ideas it holds are insignificant. Which leads to a difficult question: what books are more significant than others?
There is no better time to evaluate a book than a physical crisis. A couple of years ago, the house was flooded again. As the water rose around my ankles, I decided to put on a pair of gum boots and get down to the dirty work of classifying books in descending order of ‘significance’. On the lowest shelf went the most ‘dispensable’ ones. I’m not naming names but...
Read the rest of the essay on trying to rescue books in a household flooding situation and thus assessing its importance, published in the new edition of Kindle mag. 
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