A Letter to Arundhati Roy

Dear Arundhati,

I couldn’t get through your first book because I was too young when I picked it up and your English was too you. They don’t teach that kind of grammar even in English-medium schools. They didn’t even tell me ‘English-Medium’ meant that the medium of instruction was English. For many years I harboured a deep, unspoken irritation that my parents didn’t bother to send me to an English-Large or English-Extra Large school. Why Medium? Is there is a test I can take? I will take it, I swear. I will ACE it. Just let me.

Anyway. I’ve read several of your essays now. And interviews, etc. I’m writing to request you take a few minutes to give some advice to a young writer who is at best feeling lost and at worst has become lost.

I’ve only really had two struggles in my life till now. School was a breeze. I always won all the competitions. I was obedient. I managed to cultivate Reading as a hobby. (I’ve picked up the capitalizations from you, I hope you don’t mind. And the parentheses also. Flattery? No – arrey I happen to write like this too, I’ll send you my plays as proof!) I found two incredible girlfriends. The second one is now my wife. We’re happy, as far as it is possible to be happy in the grotesque world you so mercilessly keep reminding us of.

So eventually the struggles have simply been struggles of two great migrations. I moved to Singapore from Delhi when I was 15. Then I moved to Mumbai when I was 24. Both moves were traumatic and exhilarating in their own identity-defining ways. But I’m telling you this because both moves prompted me to write my two plays.

The first – The Good, the Bad and the Sholay – we staged in Singapore, and I had my own sudden and unexpected moment in the sun just like you did with God of Small Things. I mean, honestly, nowhere near the same scale, but it felt huge at the time.  Still does, on floody Mumbai days. Felt also like now only death will end my story. My solace was a little speech that Elizabeth Gilbert gave on TED – she said don’t worry you’ll write even better things, so I believed her.

The second play – A Fistful of Rupees – (I know, I know, I’m sorry about the names! I was particularly tired that evening, and after that it was too late) we’re now staging in Mumbai and around. The play is a small eyebrow-raise to the people who profess to love Mumbai (and India). My move back here from Singapore was difficult only for this reason. All the people I talked to told me glorious tales of golden, sagging clouds like giant ball sacs from which wealth rained like non-stop spunk into the laps of the talented, skillful population, just as long as they kept working it long enough. In fact, Mumbai is a shithole like no other. I’m sure you know. From Antilla to Dharavi on the economic spectrum, there is no respite here for anyone. No one is happy. No one has the time for that beauty you keep saying exists. Writing the play was my only reprieve. I wrote it angry, directed it slightly less so, and am now touring it like I was never angry in the first place. So I guess it helped.

There’s a tremendous energy in Mumbai though, egging you onwards towards ‘success’. There is a definition of it lurking in the rat-infested shadows here, but I never seem to be able to completely see it, just like the rats. The second play was runner-up in the Sultan Padamsee Playwriting Awards, so that felt like success, but it wasn’t, really, in Mumbai’s eyes. Success looks closer to directing a Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan in a multi-crore super-duper extravaganza hit-blockbuster type thing. But you know, with heart, not just aiweyin. With substance also. Both things. Commercial, but with heart. Thoda thoda everything. That’s the Bollywood genre, na? Full Thali, with dessert also. Must have a happy ending, just like those famous Bangkok massages.

It’s an odd situation now, in my brain. There is a roof over my head, but there isn’t much money in the bank. My moral and academic life is vibrant, I think. I’m reading your new book, for example. I’m learning to read Urdu. I’m writing a lot (though what I write isn’t what I want to write too much of the time). But in my head there is still a need to be successful that plagues me – despite the fact that I don’t have a clue what that might mean. I just don’t know what it is. Something in your description of success, about the pursuit of the freedom to behold and rejoice in beauty, something made sense, but not entirely. Something is still not clicking into place, mentally speaking. I’m suffering from acute Bombay.

Still. I’m living here. I hate the city, but I’m making lovely, precious friends. I want to have kids, but I don’t want all this for them. You have to be quite sadistic to bring new people into this. I’ve opened a production house now, hoping to make meaningful films and all. Pat on my own back. But there isn’t any money for that yet, so I’m currently writing Punjabi dance numbers in the hopes of networking and insane virality and resultant unimaginable popularity and affluence.

I don’t know what I’m asking, to be honest, so I won’t waste more of your time. God knows you could’ve written another searing essay by now that the world needs. But if you could send through a couple of sentences of a little something, perhaps it would help. Or it would just bring me joy, so that’s also worth your time, maybe?

Thank you for all your writing.

Love and pairi pona,

Shiv

PS: Please don’t read anything else on this blog without asking me first.

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To: Friends of the Castiko Space

4th June, 2019

Dear friend,

By now, you may already have heard that Castiko is moving out of our beautiful home at 121, Aram Nagar 2. If you haven’t, please consider this as us letting you know. We’re moving out. It’s the end of a brilliant, iridescent chapter in our lives. I hope the Space meant as much to you as it did to the people who made it come alive.

This is going to be a short letter of thank you – and a brief note on the future.

Thank Yous

Thank you Nitin, Aakash, Rochelle, Jacques, Nipun, Bhaskar, Shubham, Kamini, Ashima, Malvika, Devyani, Asheesh, Madhav, Nidhi, Nishant, Manish (both of them), Preeti Bua, Shambhu, Sameer, Soniya, Lourdes, Sonika, Veera. Thank you all for being part of this journey with me and creating a magical, open space where nothing was perfect, but artists still generally managed to have a great time. I’ve never been so out of my depth, and yet so  at home. I’ll write longer paeans about specific glorious achievements and epic failures, but in another post.

Thank you to all the artists and friends who called it home well before it had even come together properly. (Loop 2020’s bizarre rehearsals started before we even had any furniture!) So many people created their beautiful, hilarious, heartfelt, powerful art works at space. It’s because of you that the Castiko Space had this mythical “vibe” that everyone seems to love. Thank you for doing what you do, and being who you are.

Special thanks to three people. Susan – thank you for being my friend through all this. Thank you also for making 75: the place we first envisioned The Castiko Space! Dheeraj – thank you for your friendship and guidance. There’s always been a problem at Castiko, and you’ve always got a solution somehow. And Maanavi – I’m sorry I put you through all that I did! Thank you for bearing with it all, and pushing and challenging me throughout.

Crazy Visuals from The Castiko Space

What next?

We tried many things with The Castiko Space, but always, our hope was to make it an arms-wide-open space for artists. We tried to keep the prices low and the spirits high. We greeted everyone who stepped in with a huge smile. That, I think, was our biggest achievement. Aram Nagar is a paradox: it is where so many of Mumbai’s best and brightest hang out, yet all the spaces around are, understandably, closed-door offices of studios, production houses and casting directors. Aram Nagar needed, and still needs, an open-door, public, free-to-use, community arts oasis. And The Castiko Space experiment proved that it can be done, and viably so. Maybe the next great step forward would be for spaces to start sharing resources, calendars and community, and more vividly establish Aram Nagar as an abstract ideal, composed out of many spaces, full of opportunity and excitement, but an ideal that is far larger than the sum of its parts.

The Castiko Space’s values, spirit and community shall continue online, and we hope to help support whoever feels they can use that platform. We don’t have a physical performance/rehearsal venue for now, but that might change soon again. In the meantime, Castiko is moving to another premises in the same neighbourhood, where actors are still always welcome to chat about the Castiko app. More on that soon.

I don’t know yet what 121’s future looks like. I hear some good friends and fellow artists are taking it over. I’m sure they will share their plans for the space with you in due course.

At this point, I can’t help but slide into hapless nostalgia. Can you help me with that? If you can take out a minute, please drop any photos/videos you might have taken at The Castiko Space in this shared album.

I’d also love to hear from you about your favourite memories, things we did well, things we could’ve done better… Do please take the time to write to me – I’ll make sure I also share your message with the whole team. 🙂

Let’s celebrate!

6th and 7th of June, 8pm onwards, I’ll be at The Play Shed, playing some nice music and we’ll order in some food too. If you’re around, come by, say hi! These things are fleeting, so I’d love to have a moment with you to smile.

Onwards, then!

In Response to the Empire Debate

I wrote this article in response to the above “Empire Debate”, and it originally appeared on NewsYaps.com

You may wish to watch the debate first, but it’s not essential. (In fact, it could be even more fun to read first and then watch the video.)

The motion they were debating was: “This house believes that the Indian Subcontinent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism.”

After years of post-colonial theorizing, nostalgia, historiography and head shaking, it comes as at least a mild shock that the motion was phrased in the positive. It’s a “quaint” discussion, as William Dalrymple put it, because most of humanity hopes that we’ve left our colonial tendencies far behind. And yet, despite the resounding victory for the opposition speakers, I felt they failed to address the most pressing concerns.

The omission of partition – with the devastation that it has caused, economically, morally, socially, culturally – was certainly a huge mistake by the opposition team of Dalrymple, Nick Robins and Shashi Tharoor. Maybe they were trying to give lesser-known examples, but that is only an insufficient consolation.

Kwarteng Kwasi raised an interesting point – he argued that we couldn’t just stay focused on history alone to evaluate this motion. That India had a colonial past may have been bad for them, he argued, but it certainly has led to a competitive advantage over, say, China and will undoubtedly lead to more economic opportunities in the future. Although Robins easily dismissed Kwarteng’s question as being out of point because the motion is specifically phrased as pertaining to the past, I believe that it is still quite important.

Here’s his argument, phrased as a question: will having a colonised history turn out to be better for us in the future, compared to not have a colonised past?

There are two ways to tackle this question. First, we ask – what would India have looked like had we not been colonized? In this line of thinking, one might try to extrapolate from pre-colonial conditions, bringing them logically into the present. You might point out that Mughal, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi heritage was far beyond the modern narrow understanding of human rights; that while Britain advanced by fighting nature’s elements, Hindustan’s technology, architecture and science advanced to live with, appreciate and admire them; that Indian sub-continental culture, sophistication and social calibration operated on far more intimate human truths than the clunky “decision by consensus” governance and legal systems the British were evolving. Or, you could argue the exact opposite of all the above… All these are mere conjecture – we can’t possibly hope to predict such a complex society’s future accurately.

So then, let’s ask a slightly more explosive question, but one that is rather easier to answer. Would we have better future prospects had we colonized Britain instead? Statistically, this is easier to answer – look at any of the colonial powers. The argument from economics is elementary: Hindustan, with her natural richness, having vast hordes of Europeans to force feed her exemplary goods at exorbitant, monopolized prices? India’s share of global GDP would certainly have boomed. What’s more, the world would’ve been speaking Urdu, or Tamil, or Sanskrit, or Bengali, or all four. Children in Manchester’s schools would’ve been reciting Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi. We would’ve hosted a debate like this one in the Lal Qila Diwaan-i-Khas, talking about how the now grossly impoverished Londoners are way better off because they speak the global Indic languages, because they have wonderful economic prospects in the future. The debate would’ve been in Urdu.

The future argument is futile, and reeking of the same kind of twisted consequentialist ethics that led to colonialism in the first place: that eventually India seems to be bouncing back and making the most of our horrendous past is not a credit to Britain, but to India and her deep wells of post-traumatic courage. These consequences must have no bearing on our judgment of past wrongs.

Instead, what we can bring to the table is a softer, more delicate appreciation of what humanity lost as a whole due to the crimes committed by British imperialism. Dalrymple mentioned this in passing: we hurt the soul of India, and by extension, the soul of humanity.

As Britain was experimenting with democratic structures, India too was experimenting with what Rabindranath Tagore called social “calibrations”. There was a widespread recognition of the spiritual side of human life, that had little thirst for commercial gains, and that asked people to look inwards for its peace. There was precious little top-down intervention – social life was being regulated by the ebbs and flows of human interaction. The English, on the same question of how to live life in such a state of social and cultural flux, looked towards a machinery. In other words, they didn’t invent democracy – consensus and discussion are as old as language. They found a way to mass-produce it.

The colonial powers were run on these machines of great efficiency. But in the process of scaling up, solidifying, clarifying, and putting down rules, we’ve lost something crucial: that justice is after all personal and subjective, not systematic and objective.

Kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza Ghalib, aur kahaan waaiz,
Par itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha ke hum nikle.

Translation: The door of the bar and the Preacher are very far apart from each other. But, all I know is that when I left the bar yesterday, the Preacher was on his way there.

Humanity today is suffering from it. Vast communities in India, from Kashmir, to the Naxals, to the Zomia – those who disagree with the Constitutional, with the Mainstream, or National, are marginalized, brow beaten and subjugated by nationalists, patriots… zealots. And as India will inevitably master this machinery, and outwit other nationalist machineries around the world, you can expect the imperialism of Indians to dominate the coming century.

So when Dalrymple says colonialism hurt India’s soul, this is what he means. He is referring to the premature, violent termination of an experiment in humanity that was ongoing at the time – cast aside for another, more menacing ‘national’ machinery, supplanted with fears of racist. Who knows what we could’ve discovered, and how profoundly humanity could have benefitted.

We’ve spent too long discussing it already. We have become so jaded with the horrors of our British past that we choose levity over seriousness – not as a means to reconfigure the past, but to cope with it better. We fall back on economic analyses, leveraging their ability to anaesthetize the most horrendous of acts. One can understand, from the point of view of the British government, how this must be an essential PR exercise to mollify India’s painful memories. I can see why they did it, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Beyond all the words (the never ending words) are simple truths that we can feel in our gut, that make the gut itself contort in morbid disbelief. I feel that truth in my heart. It permeates in the communal paranoia that is bursting India’s veins, it explodes to the surface in our distrust with our neighbours, it makes its ugly head visible whenever we battle our own inherited racial inferiority complexes. This is our truth now, our heritage.

And so – I’m unnerved by the speakers’ levity. The whole exercise was an insult to the baggage that a million families now carry. No, the audience wasn’t ‘convinced’ that our colonial past was a gross injustice to humanity, and a blot that will forever mar the fabric of human history. Far from it. The British among them would perhaps go home and say, over a cup of tea – “Well, doesn’t look like India enjoyed our company then. Too bad.”

Patterns: Smallness

Hey friends, those who actually read my blog (thanks!) – I’m starting this new post type to more…accurately represent how I think. But I need your help.

I think I’m not alone in this tendency – my mind naturally frantically tries to find echoes of a new idea in all its various corners. It’s as if I don’t know how to compartmentalize; when I hear something in sport, I think – what does that mean for politics? For economics? For history? How can I understand everything from every perspective?

So, patterns emerge. I start to see some uniting factor, some commonality across disciplines, domains, parts of my brain.

But most times, this energetic rewiring of the brain happens within minutes, sometimes seconds. And it disappears soon after, and if I try to explain to myself how a particular idea from Medicine has ramifications in Marketing, I can’t anymore.

So, to capture those few moments of discovery and revelation, I’ve started to write these…poems? I don’t think they are poems. But my attempt is, in that moment, to capture what is going on in my mind succintly, trying to make my fingers keep up with my own mind’s furious pace.

After the fact, I will go back into the text and hyperlink the various ideas to sites/pages/videos/images that I’m referring to, or explain what I’m talking about. What I hope to do is to have links to a diverse set of pages, thereby, hopefully, to create real links among a diverse set of ideas.

So – can you have a look at this first draft? Tell me what you think, if it needs more explanation, or less, or if you have any ideas about how I can better communicate/capture this? I was thinking diagrams, but how do you make diagrams in wordpress?

Have fun reading, clicking! I think it’ll be pretty entertaining.

Patterns #1: Smallness

Small communities have typically been easier to manage,

Morality and health flourish,
When people know each other,
They police themselves, guide the whole
They don’t need an external … –
Well, CCTV is a symptom not of increasing crime,
But of a weakening social structure,
Because cities have expanded beyond what
Police can handle,
Technology (as always, hmph)
Has a great panoptical solution:
Put cameras where you can’t be.
It is just like in the classroom.
Teachers shout themselves hoarse
In huge classrooms of 40,
When Sugata tells us how a group of 4,
Can teach itself so much better,

Otherwise how would a huge flock of birds
Fly in sync? In a pattern?

Why do we need a government,
When humans, like birds, are in pursuit
Of some basic needs: food, shelter,
Migration during winter –
We keep trying to grow larger and larger systems
That are clunkier and stupider,
Need more and more checks and balances,
When all of it can be captured,
In the small, interpersonal,
In simple interaction rules that self-organize
Self-govern, always work,
And have continuous,
In-built,
Learning:
Like those learning organizations that preach,
Lesser top-down control, and more autonomous work groups,
Flatter hierarchies,
Knowledge sharing but never centralization,

Like programmers now use Java
So it’s platform-independent,
So they create value in their own groups,
Which is transferable on any platform,
Without the need for a central control.

Is it control we seek?
Are we growing this web of systems,
So we have better control?
Or is this inflation of bulk
Just an indication of our ever-loosening grip
On our own destiny?
And instead of making smaller and simpler principles of living,
We seek bigger, more efficient enforcement systems.
It’s an evolutionary arms race equivalent, but in personal life
People : nations :: police : army,
We are forgetting the basics,
And solidifying the huge.

And more and more,
We will feel,
That in this gross unnecessary web,
We will keep outsourcing our tactile experience,
Of humanity,
Which perhaps has always existed
In the everyday expression:
In the kind gesture, the MRT seat gladly given up,
In the love for God or another human being.
In the smallness, where we still guide our own ships,
For ourselves and our communities,
And we depend on our own understanding,
Of ourselves and each other
To govern us.
Governments by the people for the people of the people –
Should’ve meant we don’t need any.
We ourselves are it.
Because while Constitutions can be amended after
Tedious (rigorous) bureaucratic process
They cannot be evolved,
Like the human mind, and heart, and soul,
Which change with each new experience,
Forever more mature than they were in the previous instant.

Then why do we let –
Archaic, static, elephantine, Byzantine,
Systems, processes, machines, organizations,
Run us?
They’re too big,
And “growth” by it’s very nature is a negative value,
Especially if it’s just outward growth,
While the inner life remains stagnant.

How do we create a world,
Of simple truths and laws,
A world that would look a lot like physics,
Which perhaps is the only community
That still seeks unity,
That rewards the combining of ideas,
Or even better, the disproving of ideas,
The elimination of the superfluous,
Because they, still, know,
That the smaller, simpler version
Is the more beautiful one.

That’s what she said.

Song, and lyrics translation:

Happy New Year was So Bad, I Wrote A Review For It

OK! Ok, stop screaming! I know it’s my fault – I shouldn’t even have watched it! And I actually paid for that – I actually paid hard earned money to the people who made that movie.

Is it my fault then? Oh no! I’m… I wasn’t…trying to encourage… Oh no.

Ok very quickly, I’ll try to tell you what the story was. Spoiler alert: your appetite will be spoilt. There is not much story, therefore not much to spoil.

So – there is the inevitable daddy issue. Same thing yaar, Manohar Sharma (Anupam Kher in a cameo) is Charlie’s (SRK) dad. Manohar makes an epic, unbreakable safe for Grover the diamond guy to keep his diamonds safely. Grover steals said diamonds and frames Manohar, who is jailed. Charlie is a Boston University topper (lol), but traumatically only spends his time boxing and betting. He stalks Grover for 8 years (Aaath saal. Aaath saal. He said it eighty times. Aatth saaaaallllll. Itna time script likhne mein lagaa dete toh – never mind.)

Then, finally, opportunity comes. Grover has some expensive diamonds housed in this big Dubai hotel. The night the diamonds will be there coincides with the World Dance Competition. So, instead of using the incredibly easy cover of the melee of a dance competition and stealing the diamonds, Charlie decides to participate in the dance competition and steal the diamonds. No, it doesn’t make sense. You’re right. It doesn’t.

Also, they rig the whole selection process with sex-tape-blackmailing and hacking. But still, they get a dance teacher, because Deepika Padukone had already been signed and needed to be given a role. So she plays Mohini, who coaches the team for a competition they were anyway going to win. Good time pass, plus free romance angle. Plus, I mean she’s beautiful, so why not.

Anyway, baaki is history. They steal it, lots of really bad jokes along the way. Then Grover goes to jail and blablabla. Happy New Year to you too.

The most entertaining thing in the whole movie was the credits sequence. The crew seemed like they had a lot of fun! Accha ok guys, you had fun na? Then it’s ok. I don’t feel so bad anymore.

You see – stupid films are ok. Those I can handle. There are so many, and such funny ones too. You can watch Welcome and laugh like crazy because no one is asking you to take anything seriously. And a lot of Happy New Year was just that – gags, physical comedy, just ainvayi stuff which Boman Irani, Sonu Sood, Deepika Padukone and to a tiny extent Vivaan Shah really lapped up and had fun with.

But – yaar I was trying to get laughing when suddenly they showed Anupam Kher dead with a slit wrist in a jail cell. Then there was a really bloody boxing bout. Also a love story in which Mohini is practically harassed, several times, and she actually cries. And it’s so real until – there’ll be a spoofy line and it’ll all be forgotten. Arrey if you as filmmakers are schizophrenic, it’s ok! But don’t make the audience also lose their mind! It’s like every two weeks into the production they changed their minds. “It should be a comedy, yaar!” “Arrey but masala also is needed na baba.” “Fight scene, yes, fighting man! Boxing, punching, you know?” “But romance? Romance ka kya?”

Best part was – there was randomly a Modi duplicate in the middle of the movie, hailing Team India’s wonderful dance performance. “Acche din aa gaye.” Oh, the possibilities. The possibilities for interpretation just in that one scene. Oh man. I will leave that to the political commentators.

I will end with a sad, pained metaphor. If this was an Indian food buffet at a big five star hotel, I would ask to see the manager, point out that most of their food was recycled and stale, in fact there was a bit of a stench emanating from the Story Pulao. Every single dish had namak mirch kam. I would praise him wholeheartedly for the excellent presentation, because wow, those metal canisters were glittering and the name tags had great typography. Really made me want to eat something. But, what should I eat? The box?

Zero stars for an all-round waste of brilliant VFX, SFX, music, camera, editing and acting talent. Point five stars for please, please, please, make something good next time.