being brown


Through the looking glass


Last night, I whimpered into my pillow before falling asleep, the last dregs of a copious weeping session induced by the final episode of Daam. While I cried for the story mostly, I also cried for the end of another great dramatic tale from across the border. ( No, I don’t mean Sweden, even if I do now live in Norway. I mean the only border of any significance to my people, a border that only exists in its reiteration). Pakistani dramas ( now a genre of its own) have taken over my life. And I want to write about a few of them.

Note: These are not reviews. They don’t analyse the filming in all its technical splendor. They do not regurgitate the plot. These are just my reactions. Also, they are not the only ones I have liked. They are a selection of some of the best.



Sanam Saeed plays Fiza, a top notch ‘bitch’. She is shrill, rich, spoilt, always gets her way, and whines if she doesn’t. She is always manipulating relationships, always suspicious, always insecure. Her acting is so good, that at the very first instant you know she is trouble. You know she is here to create mischief. You know that the plot will not go ahead without her.

And yet, she is incidental! The plot could have been written without her. The ultimate bitchiyapan ( ever since I heard the word ‘boriyat’, an urdu noun form for boredom, I believe I can coin words), if you will,  is not hers. The climactic turn in plot is provided by her ‘very nice’ cousin, played by Aamina Sheikh, someone you sympathise with from the get go. But with Fiza, Umera Ahmed (the novelist who wrote the story on which this show is based) tells us that what makes a ‘bitch’ a ‘bitch’ is not her underlying ‘bitchiness’, but circumstances.

It doesn’t matter how the protagonist, played by Sanam Baloch, acted.  That she did a good job is incidental. Aamina Sheikh’s and Sanam Saeed’s acting, on the other hand, take this plot forward. Supported by fantastic caricatures by Behroze Sabzwari and Farah Nadir, this drama is nowhere without these people.

What I loved about this drama, is that it drives home the point that a ‘do over’ is almost never possible in relationships.



Another Umera Ahmed classic, this one is perhaps my all-time favourite. A woman’s virtuosity is often called into question in Indian and Pakistani cinemas and dramas. Of course, in most cases, these are false allegations and the hero emerges unscathed, much like Sita undergoing the fire test of purity to allay Ram’s suspicion.

Qaid-e-tanhai turns this notion on its head. And asks, “ok she hasn’t been virtuous. So what?” Savera Nadeem (Ayesha) and Faisal Qureshi (Moiz) play the lead roles in this drama. The story is a flashback to a time when the two loved each other and were married to each other. A series of unfortunate misunderstandings drive them apart. Both of them find succour in other lovers’ arms. But only Ayesha bears the cross. Implicitly, Umera asks, why only she?

Again executed by a fantastic team of actors, the plot is carried forward by the brilliant work of Saba Hameed who plays Moiz’s mother. Instrumental in creating the rift between her son and daughter-in-law, she is aided by a script that demonstrates the power of suggestions and subtle persuasion.

Meri Zaat Zarra-e-benishaan


Umera Ahmed, as you can see, is my favourite writer. The script is the star of this show. And, ofcourse, Samina Peerzada.

This script establishes the credibility of Shakeela Abbas (played by Samina Peerzada) as a god-fearing, upright woman. Once this is established, the plot takes its own course. Its easy for her to accuse Saba (played by Samia Mumtaz) of infidelity; easy for the accusation to be believed without evidence, easy for lovers to split, for parents to give up on their child, for gross injustice to slide down the slippery slope of circular reasoning.

Saba is upright and honest, but most of all she is wise and forgiving. She has some of the most beautiful monologues ever. My favourite would be her monologue to her father, when he says he will not forgive the people who lied about her. She says, and I paraphrase here, “you have come back to me once you found that I was falsely implicated. Parents stay and support their children EVEN if they have committed crimes. Where were you, when I needed you the most? The people who lied about me, I wasn’t their child. I don’t have any complaints against them because they don’t owe me anything. I was your child. And you have failed to do your duty by me.” Samia Mumtaz (who incidentally, is a relative of Zohra Sehgal) does her role more than just justice.

But the star of this show is Samina Peerzada. Her character development, aided by the fantastic script, bring to life a woman driven by jealousy, burdened by virtuosity, overcome with an incontrollable cunning, consumed with the drama of false indignation and finally, propelled to death by fear of retribution.  I have seen so many dramas since, with her essaying critical roles, but this, by far, is my favourite performance.

Fawad Khan, for whom my country’s brethren ( and more so, its sistren) are going berserk, is just the tip of the iceberg. Plumbing the depths of Pakistani drama would reveal far greater treasures than Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan.

Silly Point ?


Cricket came back into my life through two Facebook posts. The first, the Chris Gayle controversy regarding sexist overtures to a reporter on live TV. Second, I was reminded of Rahul Dravid’s birthday. Cricket after so many years.  There was a time when I was a cricket enthusiast; nay, a time when I was cricket-obsessed. I remember many a temper tantrum that I staged just to be allowed to watch a match and not study for my board exams. All to no avail, of course, crumbling against my mother’s steadfast resolve to make a high school graduate out of me yet. In Vasco da gama, the spot on the street outside my house on F.L. Gomes road was notorious for motor accidents. Once, I was so engrossed in watching a match, that when the noise of a car crash blasted through the window, I ran to see what happened, and, at the window, I waited patiently for a replay to be telecast.

Truth be told, I would have liked to play the game. But my family was anything but sporty. My father didn’t enjoy the game, neither playing it nor watching it. My mother loved watching it and knew a little bit about the game thanks to older brothers who were cricket aficionados. But I don’t think my parents would have known what to do if either of us, daughters, had exhibited prodigious talent in sport. May be, out of this consideration, we didn’t! My school in Mumbai did have somewhat of a sporting culture. But girls played volleyball or badminton. Cricket was the exclusive preserve of the boys. Fast forward to Vasco da gama, Goa, I had entered that horrible part of adolescence where boys played and girls preferred to sit and talk about everything all the time ensuring their dupattas were in place. I enjoyed gossip, ofcourse.  But keeping dupattas in place meant not too much running around with balls. Another girl, PS, also demonstrated an interest in cricket. And it was at both our initiative that we played cricket. We played cricket inside our classroom; the bat was a broken piece of desk; the ball was a densely crumpled paper; and the wicket was in the aisle between two rows of benches. PS, me, and some other girls joined in. But it was a very constrained sort of game we played. Why didn’t we go and ask for a bat, ball, and stumps like the boys? Why didn’t we play in the massive grounds that were part of our government school as the boys did? It never occurred to us.

Chris Gayle’s comments were definitely in poor taste. But it is one man being an ass to one woman, albeit on television. Sexism in sports, though, has deeper roots. Sample this reaction by ICC CEO David Richardson, who said “Despite Chris Gayle, 40 per cent of viewers of ICC cricket tournaments are female. Our strategy is to use the T20 format to attract the females the world over to watch them,” I find it sexist that you need a different version of the game to attract female viewers.

Sexism ensured that my obsession took other forms. I remember taking a small interest in the cricketing careers of our class boys. There was SC who was a promising pace bowler. I read sport magazines and learnt a lot about the game by reading (my family understood reading!). In language class, we were given writing exercises; writing letters to public officials, friends, family etc. about something specific. All my letters were addressed to Pakistani bowler Saqlain Mushtaq or to Indian batsman Rahul Dravid. I still remember my friends’ (Sam, Sha, RTB, Shi, Swap and Sim) farewell gift to me in Mumbai in 1997 was this larger than life poster of Rahul Dravid (RD). My father, generally disapproving of my obsession, was the first to buy me a Sport Star issue because it contained a RD poster. Soon my room was inundated with posters of Azharuddin, Jayasuriya, and many of RD. I also decorated my grandparent’s room in Bangalore with posters of RD. I once told my grandmother how much I loved RD (not least to shock her, I guess), and she coolly turned to me and asked, “so is that the new heartthrob these days? In our days, it was Lord Mountbatten.”


My pocket Rahul Dravid that I carried with me everywhere I went.

I particularly remember RD’s first One Day International century. Playing against Pakistan, India lost that game in Chennai. The highlight of that game was Saeed Anwar’s 194 runs ( a record at that time). Chennai’s magnanimous crowd applauded the game and the winners with a standing ovation. But two little adolescent hearts beat for RD exclusively. Yours truly was watching the game in Goa. The other, Cousin R, was fortunate to watch that game live in Chennai. Cousin R, like me, was obsessed with RD too!

Sometime in 2000, after my move back to Mumbai, it all fizzled out. I stopped watching cricket just as suddenly as I had started it. I did like Irfan Pathan for a brief period, but not particularly for his bowling action 😛 Funnily enough, I forgot all the technical stuff I learnt about the game during that period as well. But I still remember the heartache I felt everytime I saw Rahul Dravid fielding bravely at Silly Point.

She’ll Be Coming Down The Mountains When She Comes

Chadar Trek Jan 12th-19th 2014

There is something unstoppable about a river tumbling down the mountains. Its clear waters tripping over itself as it frantically makes its way to the plains. A river is helpless against the lure of gravity. I am reminded of that tale from mythology when Ganga, furious at being called down from the heavens by King Bhagiratha, descends with such great force that he fears for Mother Earth. He prays to Lord Shiva. And Lord Shiva comes down to take Bhagirathi (another name for the Ganga), in all her fury, and she gets lost in his locks. He then leaves her out through a strand of hair and that little sliver of water is what is now known as the Alakananda. It took divine intervention to stall a river coming down the mountains. The Zanskar too, similarly, comes down the mountains, tumbling over rocks and pebbles on its way- unstoppable. And yet, every winter it stops itself in its tracks, it would seem. It freezes over and if you listen closely, you can still hear the gush of the mighty river underneath the sheet of ice.

The Chadar from up-above. Photo Courtesy: Mahesh Nalli
The Chadar from up-above. Photo Courtesy: Mahesh Nalli

When Chi told me about the Chadar trek in late 2012, I was ecstatic at the thought of walking over a frozen river. The river Zanskar freezes and a sheet (chadar) of ice forms where once flowed water. But lack of finances ( the bane of my life) determined that I wouldn’t join Chi and CAP in their frozen river trek in Feb 2013. It so happened, CAP couldn’t go that time either and Chi came back with stories. Stories of ice cracking below the feet, of overnight snow being dusted off tent-tops etc. Stories that we listened to wide-eyed but CAP and I knew we had to do it to believe it. Finances improved, but January 2014 started looking like a transition period, with jobs coming to an end. Prospects of going to the Chadar trek dimmed and with that, so did I. So one evening in late October, after work, I went online and booked the Chadar trek. I sent CAP a message that I had done it and expected her to be by my side. She replied with a thumbs up. It was then that I was introduced to Gudiya, CAP’s friend from another life. The three of us prepared for what was going to be the wildest, most terrifying and funnest thing we had all ever done.

The following is a retrospective recounting of this trip and what it meant to me. It is in parts, and each of the link below will take you to each part. To protect the privacy of the characters, I have used monickers. While it may not be a very informative travelogue in the strictest sense of the word, its my reading of my travels. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. But to enjoy the trek itself, sign up for the Chadar trek now!

‘ Dying in the Himalayas is not a bad way to go at all’

“Hello, Ice!” or is it ‘ices’?

‘What you do with two hands, I can do one’

‘And we shall overcome’

The mighty mountains and a clear river

Book Review on The Sense of an Ending

Check out my book review of The Sense of an Ending here

Little English School Girl



The year was 1927 or 1928. Or was it 1929? Not too sure. A little girl, not more than 8 or 9 years old, was playing outside her home in Kumbakonam, a small town south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Her hair was drenched in warm coconut oil and held in two tight braids. Two flamboyant ribbons were generously tied around the two braids into large sloppy bows. She wore a cotton long-skirt and blouse, that ubiquitous little-girl attire, Paavaadai Choka. It was evening. Suddenly, her father emerged on the road outside and she ran to the gate to greet him. Affectionately, he placed his hand on her shoulder and braced himself to field all the questions his little girl launched at him. As they conversed, they both moved inside the house. He sat down to a snack of freshly prepared hot idlis that his wife had brought from the kitchen. The little girl sat on his lap, regaling him with school stories until he finished his snack.

After having poured her heart out, Ambuja ( for that was the little girl’s name) ran away to resume her play. Her father, an English professor in a college in Kumbakonam turned to his wife and gave her the news. He had been transferred to Patnam. The word itself meant city, but those days that meant only Madras, now called Chennai. At dinner, the couple broke the news together to their children. While the younger boy was too small to understand, Ambuja was delighted. The big city, at last! Oh and she will learn English. Kumbakonam had only Tamil medium schools those day and she was in one. Her Tamil was good but being her father’s daughter, she had this strong urge to speak English like him and have conversations like him. This move to the city meant getting admission into an English medium school and her dream seemed that much closer.

Her mother, too, had dreams. Moving to the city meant some lifestyle changes. Changes for the better, mostly. Oh how she would dress this precious first-born of hers so that she could go like an English child to school. No more these long skirts and tops that everybody in villages wore. She would choose the finest cloth and stitch her daughter the finest frocks with lace and satin ribbons.

That summer was a busy one. Ambuja’s mother was preoccupied making a whole new wardrobe for her daughter. On a Professors salary, there were times that she felt she was going overboard. But a little chat with her husband would usually set it right. Ambuja’s father did not want his daughter to want for anything and a little something here and there that might require a small sacrifice from him was something he would gladly do. And so it was that the frocks were stitched, gowns bought, and matching socks and shoes and hair-clips sought.

The family moved to madras just in time for the start of the new academic year. Due to her excellent grades, Ambuja had no problem getting admission in school. And then it was time for first day of school. Mother and daughter were excited. With a gleam in their eyes, they went about getting ready for the school in Patnam. After getting ready, they both looked with satisfaction at the mirror in front of them. Yes. That reflection was exactly what they were both aiming for. She looked like a little brown English school girl. With confidence oozing from every pore, mother and daughter set out to school.

Mother left Ambuja at the door of her class room. She strutted into her class and sat at a bench only to discover everyone else around her in the much maligned Paavaadai Choka, their hair, oil-drenched and in two plaits and simple sandals on their feet. ‘Why! They all looked like the village girls!’, she exclaimed in her head. And then the distressing thought struck her that this might not be an English medium school after all. She knew her father would set everything right. But how could he make such a terrible mistake, in the first place. Her mind was so full of these thoughts, she was hardly able to concentrate on the lesson taught.

But she was a good student, so she forced her mind away and towards the lesson. To her surprise the lesson was in English. She didn’t understand a word. Miserable! How was she to keep up her good academic run if she doesn’t understand a word the teacher said. And worse, everyone else was responding in English. All these girls in their long skirt and blouse, looking no different from the village girls, were actually speaking impeccable English, with the teacher and also with each other.

Ambuja, a vision in her lacy frock and socks and shoes, was, by this time, almost in tears. As she felt the other students’ eyes boring into her, her consternation increased. She wished she could sink into the earth. But no such luck! She gulped back her tears and somehow, managed to survive her class.

Back home, in a fit of rage, she threw her school satchel one direction and kicked of her shoes and socks in four other directions. She burst into an inconsolable volley of tears and sunk into her mother’s arms. Her mother calmed her down, at last. Together they decided, not for them this show and pretense. And when her father came home, she asked him to teach her English. He gathered her in his arms and said, ‘ oh why not! We will start today.’


Ambuja is my grandmother. May be I should say ‘was’, because she passed away in January this year at the age of 91. Nothing deterred her on the academic front after this. At the end of that school year, she received a prize for getting the highest overall percentage across all the classes. She not only mastered the English language but read novels and books in it until almost two years before her death when her faculties began to fail her. The last book she read in our house perhaps this was the last book she read ever- was Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’. She and I had a quiet and hilarious conversation about it after. But that is for a different blog post. 🙂

I wasn’t around in 1927 or 28 or 29. I have liberally used my poetic license. And I dare say, my mother too, whom I heard this story from in the first place, has used hers. Needless to say, this is only an attempt to capture my grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of those times.

The Curious Case of Cousin R and I

Cousin R and I were born a month apart to a pair of sisters under the vigilant supervision of my grandmother. So Cousin R was my first peer ever and perhaps, the first person I felt older and therefore, indulgent, towards. All this meant that Cousin R and I have a very special relationship. The most outward manifestation of this ‘specialness’ is the seemingly unprovoked mirth that the two of us burst into when we meet. Lasting for minutes (sometimes hours on end), just a suggestive nudge would send us into peels of laughter that we cannot recover from for days. Infact, we have discovered that there are only two ways to check such outbursts; putting large distances between us and the absence of the other from our memory. Both solutions are rather tricky because the more we tried either, the more intense the memory of the other became.

A couple of weeks ago, Cousin R and I decided to make a hurried visit to Amritsar since I was in the neighbourhood. As we had booked Tatkal tickets from Delhi, our berths were in different corners of the compartment on the Golden Temple Mail. This train had already spent 24 hours enroute from Mumbai and much of the other births were occupied. We sat on one of the seats and waited for the TC to come and give us a birth near each other if possible. A large, curious lady sat opposite us, so evidently spoiling for a chat.

Aunty ( using the term of respect for any older woman in India, we called her Aunty): Yes yes! Sit here . sit here. Can you imagine otherwise???? What if a sardar comes and sits here!!!!

There was something so comical about this comment and the way she said it, both R and I smiled. This should be fun!

Aunty: Where are you from?
Me: Mumbai
Aunty: Oh ! Where in Mumbai? I am from Meera Road
Me: Kanjur Marg. Its near Powai.
Aunty: Acha. Good good. Where do you work>
Me: I work for an NGO
Aunty: Good good. Where is your office?
Me: Bandra
Aunty: Oh Bandra East?
Me ( a little confused that she should know where my office was): Yes.
Aunty: oh there’s a big ONGC headquarters there.
Me: Yes! I work very near that.
Aunty: How is the work atmosphere there?
Me (confused): In ONGC?
Aunty: yes
Me: how should I know?
Aunty: Arey you just said you work there!
Me ( through the corner of my eye I see that Cousin R’s body is convulsed with silent laughter): No no! I work in an NGO!

Cousin R couldn’t quite keep it inside. So she excused herself, saying she thought she spotted the TC somewhere and ran through the rest of the compartment hollering like she was the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre! I regained my composure ( distance between us, atlast!).

Aunty, unfazed, continued to talk.

On seeing a child near the door she said in Hindi, “ arey Sardar ka bacha dekho, sardar ka bacha’ ( Oh look, it’s a Sardar’s child, a sardar’s child) and proceeded to laugh helplessly. Cousin R, having returned from ‘seeing the TC’ couldn’t help herself once again. And this time she didn’t even try! She burst forth and I couldn’t help myself either. We both held our stomachs and laughed. Aunty, a little confused at our outburst, decided the best course of action was to join us and good naturedly, she giggled along. I apologized, lest she should take offence, “ aunty, we both are known for giggling. So please don’t take offence, we just find these situations funny and then once we start, we cant stop!’

As the night advanced, she kept up a constant flow of funny comments and we continued to laugh. She asked Cousin R what she did and when Cousin R said she was doing her PhD, Aunty smiled vaguely and said, ‘ these days girls are also studying a lot’. Cousin R and i were convulsed once again. Suddenly, she grew serious and shushed us saying, ‘ I am going to call my aunt in the US, so you be quiet.’ After a long conversation with her aunt in the US in which she reassured her about the latter’s son’/daughter’s marriage etc, she cut the call and we could resume our raucous laughter.

As I tucked myself to sleep that night, the giggles gradually fading as sleep took over, I racked my memory for a similar situation in the past, where Cousin R and I had been afflicted in public. What had we done then? How did we control our laughter even as people provided an abundance of provocation around us? In short, how do we travel together, normally, without making people feel that we were two run-aways from a mental hospital? I found no such memory. Cousin R and I have never travelled together, ever. Note to self: need to do more journeys with Cousin R.

The Bright Idea

Guest post by Rukmaja Varadan

Hundred years ago, life was different, especially for children, with less of parental ambition obstructing their freedom. Though this was the order of the day, even among them, there were parents who never ever scolded or chastised their offspring. So kids could act without fear and do things without the parental arm pulling them away from potential danger. This family in Chittoor was particularly non-judgmental , giving kids a free hand in their choices. A small chap, all of five, in one of the hand-me-down shirts of an elder sibling, as was the rule those days, covering all of him, stood at the doorway one day watching the traffic. Suddenly, he decided to go browse in the neighbourhood . As he left for the open, a few steps down the road, being very intelligent, he thought, for him to come back to his house, he needed some landmark. He thought for a minute a hit upon a bright idea. He pissed at his door step and ventured out , sure of himself. How he found his way back is a mystery but that he did come back is certain, for it was just the other day his centenary was celebrated on April 25th, 2012. His name? V.K. Narasimhan

V.K. Narasimhan is my grand-uncle, my grandfather’s older brother. A well-regarded and fearless journalist, he was, by all accounts, an interesting person. My grandmother, Rukmaja Varadan, his much younger sister-in-law, looked up to him.

On the occasion of his centenary, his son published a book, God’s own Marxist. Apart from containing VK Narasimhan’s own writings, the book included reflections by contemporaries, colleagues and relatives. My own father wrote his reflections on his uncle. And my grandmother wrote the above story. Interestingly, her anecdote didn’t find a way into the book. ( More interestingly, while it included stories by sons, sons-in-law, grandsons and nephews, it did not include stories by daughter, daughters-in-law, granddaughters or nieces). While the female voices were conspicuously absent, my grandmother’s story was excluded on two grounds. One that it wasn’t an anecdote that she could possibly have direct experience of. The other that it was talking about something as mundane as ‘pee’.

If it is simple squeamishness, as the second reason implies, it reminds me of Milan Kundera’s exposition on Kitsch, the absolute denial of shit, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Gods too, since they have mouths, will shit. Marxists too! To me this tale is not only about an intelligent boy using his creativity to solve a problem, but it is a charming tale of a young boy growing up a hundred years ago.

New Book Blog

Check out my new block on books I am reading or have read.

Wafting through the bookshelf