Coping with grief

Today was Amma’s second devasam. It still seems odd to say those words. ‘Devasam’ was always something others did for their loved ones. That it would hit so close home is still something that I struggle with immensely. Appa and I were supposed to be together for the rituals. Thanks to the coronavirus induced lockdown, that didn’t happen.

It has been a difficult day. It’s been two years since Amma’s passing away and grief has been a constant companion. There are days when I feel I have stopped struggling with it and then there are days like this when it delivers a stinging pain in my heart and I wonder what to do with all this love that seemingly has nowhere to go.

I have often come across people saying that they ‘feel’ their deceased loved ones looking out for them. In the video below, Oprah Winfrey shares (from 1:35) how she coped post the loss of her pet dog Sophie. She now feels that she’s her angel and feels closer to her post her death than when she was alive.

I never really thought much about it earlier. But now, I feel it too. Of course, rational discourse dictates that death is final. And that it’s all over. I am not stupid to disagree with the former. But I am not sure if it is all over. I feel love cannot be contained within the physical confines of human existence. Love is transcendental. Amma loved me. I have been fortunate to experience it. But her love for me cannot just disappear/end just because she is no longer alive. The love in my heart for Amma cannot just be in my heart alone. It has to reach Amma wherever she is. In whatever form she is in right now. There is no way to “prove” any of this. This is something I feel deep inside my heart. It helps me cope. It helps me when I feel that Amma’s there looking out for me. My very own angel in this universe.

Jessica Dore is someone whose posts I follow very keenly on social media. She’s a psychotherapist who mixes Tarot, psychology and mysticism to help people in various forms of distress. Do follow her on Twitter and Instagram as she often drops truth bombs about human behaviour. Anyway, in what I think is a moment of serendipity, I came across this image on her insta stories. And it made me feel slightly better.


Amma, I don’t think you can ever be a tragedy. I think of you all the time. I know you are there deep in my heart. I love you and I miss you. A lot.

Also, thank you to all my loved ones that checked on me today. I deeply appreciate it. It helped me.




Gully boy and ‘class’

(This blog post is thanks to my conversation about the film with my friend, Koyel.)

I have a very intense love-hate relationship with Bombay. The city often gets on my nerves. A good distance from it is good for my mental health. One of the many reasons I don’t live there anymore. Bombay had a reputation of being a very friendly city.  Yea, to some extent, it is. But what gets hidden when we keep repeating this adage is the fact that Bombay is also classist as fuck. The rich and the powerful will judge you based on where you live in the city. And there is no escaping it. To see class in action, one just has to see how people who travel first class in local trains react when someone that doesn’t look like them enter the compartment. The South Bombay – suburbs divide is an oft repeated cliche again. But it would be hard to say it is not true.

I talk about Bombay’s ‘class’ problem in context of Ankur Pathak’s very interesting interview with Zoya Akhtar about her latest film Gully Boy.

Murad faces opposition from his father, his uncle, his impoverished state. But never any kind of communal forces. As a minority, I felt that his religion, would directly thwart his social and economic growth.

The thing is it’s about what you choose to say and how you would put it out. I want to make a film that appeals and makes sense to people on another level. There is a certain sense of fear, yes. The fact that they are minorities and it does bracket them in a lot of things that happen but that is not the film. The point is that you want to go in there and look at them as real people and not something else, not as ‘others.’ Class oppression has a wider spectrum, it is not just because you are Muslim. It would’ve made it just a Muslim story which it’s not. It’s not just about that. You have to take it thematically. Every film can’t be about everything.

People react because that class thing is very personal, the minute I had done something else, it would have been diluted.

You wouldn’t have felt this. It’s a larger narrative. There are passing things but that’s not what the story is. The class oppression is prevalent across the board.

There is much to disagree, especially her replies about the politics of her film. But I am going to focus on class because Zoya Akhtar insists her film is about class. However, her film betrays her claims.

But before I get into it, I want to share something about Zoya’s potrayal of hip hop in her film. I quote Pallavi Rao’s incisive twitter thread.

I also agree with her when she says Hip-hop, in this film, plays a liberatory role, but only for Murad. It doesn’t do anything for anyone else.

In a pivotal scene in the end, Murad tells his father that he gets so many likes on his videos. That he has people telling him how they love that he is portraying their lives in his songs and how much they value that. That even if he dies, he would still matter. Because his art has made a difference to the lives of so many people. But there is not a single scene where that is shown. Not one! The film would have been so powerful had it delved into how his music made a difference to the lives of the Dharavi residents. Instead, multiple instances are shown where he is in contact with people who are richer than him, who are his enablers as far as his career is concerned- MC Sher and Sky. He faces no classist problems in his career. Mind you, this film is set in 2018 and it’s about a man, who is Muslim, poor and lives in the slums of Dharavi. And he only meets kind people in his professional journey? No microaggressions? Wow! I am sorry to say, this can only come from someone who has never faced microaggressions because of lack of class privilege. The insults thrown at him at the rap battle events exist solely as a plot device for him to showcase his talent. It was pretty amateurish to say the least.

His problems are all either with his family, that one friend (played by Vijay Varma) and with his girlfriend. There are two scenes where Murad tells Safeena and Sky that his reality is different from theirs. In return, the richer (in comparison to Murad) Safeena is shown to give him her iPad and Sky offers to produce his music – which is not particularly a bad thing but then doesn’t really live up to what Zoya says about her film: that it’s about class. It isn’t. It’s a very wishy washy look at it. In her interview, she also says:

There is an interesting connect with Sky and him. She is a privileged person but she is conscious. She has a bleeding heart. She lives abroad but loves her city. There are things about it that bother her. They are equals because they are musicians. Art is very neutralising. You can just sit there and connect and everything else is irrelevant.

Ha ha! Try asking a folk artist from a smaller town to go and play at BlueFrog, for instance. Let’s see what happens! Class differences can permeate in very insidious ways. To show characters treating class differences as being irrelevant without showing any challenges faced by them in process is living in a fool’s paradise.

As a filmmaker, you choose a gaze. Like for Dil Dhadakne Do, I was looking at it from the outside…….It was an outward gaze from the dog’s point of view, like a human study.

In Luck By Chance it’s like a fly on the wall, like an insider.

With ZNMD it was more like you’re in the car with them, you’re on the journey with them, you are hanging with them.

With Gully Boy, it had, had, had to be inside looking out. It’s their story told from their point of view. That’s the only way it would work.

I agree with her when she says that the gaze of a film like Gully Boy had to be ‘inside looking out.’ However, that sadly isn’t the case. Her class identity hugely influence and ultimately betray her intention. The gaze of this film is very upper middle class. For instance, in the scene, where Murad and his father argue about his career had such a bourgeois feel to it. I found it to be very similar to the struggles Madhavan’s character had with his father in the film 3 Idiots. (The former wanted to be a photographer as opposed to his father, who wants him to be an engineer because photography isn’t going to pay his bills.)

The film doesn’t have any liberatory politics. To reduce Murad’s struggle to just a simple rags to riches story, using hip-hop as a premise does such a gross disservice to the history of the genre. Her choice to ignore his vulnerability as a Muslim boy from a ghetto in the current hate-driven socio-political climate says so much. I strongly feel as Savarnas, our politics will always be suspect. The sooner we accept it, the better it is for all of us.

Happy birthday, Amma!

Dearest Amma,
Happy birthday to you! I am wishing you here for the first time. It is a bit strange because I would often chuckle when I’d see people wishing their mothers on FB when they were not on the platform at all. I wish I could wish you personally though. What would I not do for an opportunity like that!
I think of you all the time. The word ‘miss’ is so useless in terms of what I feel when I think about you, ma. I remember speaking to you over the phone whenever I would be out walking. It used to be our small routine. Now, I often find myself in tears whenever I walk. The last 6-7 months have been the toughest time of my life. With you gone, I have an Amma-shaped hole in my heart. I don’t even know what it means to live without you even though I have been trying to live a “normal” life the past 6-7 months.
Nothing has prepared me for your loss, Amma. I wish I can say I am coping well but then I would be lying. I’m a mess on most days. If only someone taught me how to navigate through this pain. But I am trying, Amma. I am. And I do have help from friends and family. But it is still so hard. Taking you away was life throwing a sucker punch at me. There is no come back from a blow like this. You just lie down in pain and shock wondering what the hell happened. You also wonder how can pain that is seemingly so banal is also such a transformative experience at the same time. You are never the same again. Ever.
When the birthday app informed me that it’s your birthday today, my heart leapt for a tiny milli-second before it sank once again. Grief has taken me to very strange places. Places I never thought I would ordinarily go to. But what does one do when someone you love so much just goes away to a place nobody knows. I often wonder where you would be now. Sometimes I wonder if you are with Paati, Thatha and Mama. I hope you are with them. In a moment of deep pain, a friend once told me that you are in a peaceful place now—a place devoid of pain. I don’t know what to believe but the thought made me feel slightly better. You deserve to be in any place happy and peaceful.
Paati would always call you the ‘reserved’ one. You were never the type to tell me ‘I love you’ ever. And neither could I for the longest time. However, I am so glad I overcame that awkwardness in your last months and told you how much I loved you. I am glad that I don’t have that regret. You see Amma, once you say it, it was so easy. I will always miss your love, innocence and kindness. You always said that you wanted to die without troubling anybody. I wish you had Amma. You went away too soon.
Amma, you have bestowed me with many gifts in my life. One of the best ones have been your gift of music. It’s because of you that I got interested in Carnatic music. It is because of you that I started learning it too. I am grateful for its presence in my life. It’s helping me heal. So. today, on your birthday, I will sing in your honour, ma. Wherever you are, I love you. I will always do.


Like everyone else, I watched Kabali too. After long I was looking forward to a Rajnikant film and its associated frenzy.  I was expecting a typical masala movie (I had NO prior idea of Pa Ranjith’s filmography). But then Kabali was something different. It is a film about a Malaysian Tamil man, a labourer, who rises  to become a leader of the Tamil community and eventually becomes a don.

When I was watching the film, I thought that it was very interesting that the film had Ambedkar references throughout. To have Rajnikant’s character talk about the importance of dressing up well in suits was powerful but so were the subtle references to people living in an Ambedkar colony in Chennai. But post-interval, I was bored and restless. Moreover, the gory violence put me off.  I also felt that the character of Tony Lee (villain) was no match to the persona of Kabali. Meanwhile, I remember coming out of the theatre a tad bored wondering how the film would have turned out if it was tightly edited. I promptly came back and posted my opinion on FB too. I felt my opinion being validated since many people on social media echoed my views about it being a poor film.

However, I was curious to know about Dalit community’s reaction to the film. So, I started looking up the profiles of members of Dalit community that I regularly follow on social media. Everybody seemed to be going gaga over the film. They spoke praises about how Rajnikant’s powerful dialogues about Ambedkar. Nobody spoke about the fact that the film was slow; that it gets boring after a point of time. They also vented their anger against the mainstream media and people from savarna communities for dissing the film. It was puzzling for me as I wondered why they weren’t seeing what I was. Turns out it was I, who couldn’t see.

To explain my point, I am taking the liberty to share a Facebook post of Gaurav Somwanshi, whose public posts I follow.

“I won’t stop talking about ‘Kabali’, get used to it or unfollow/unfriend. I felt the full power of a metaphor, a symbol, an icon, all of that I felt it while sitting in the houseful theatre of Aurangabad watching a Tamil movie in theatre for the first time and witnessing the moment when all the theatre fell dead silent on hearing Rajnikant speak of Babasahebs name. Assertions are common all over the country but one may not be necessarily aware of the ones from other places, like many of us are still pleasantly surprised over Gujarat’s fight back.

So was Tamil cinema for many of those present in the theatre in Aurangabad. And symbolism had recently been introduced to the Marathi audience via ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ and had caused immense churning of repressed minds with their arrival on the theatre, mine included, but ‘Kabali’ was something else altogether. The comparison isn’t just because both movies have shown caste realities and is made by Dalit/bahujans but because of their timing too.

In ‘Fandry’ and ‘Sairat’ you would see the icons of Babasaheb and Phule couple at the backdrop of a scene where something is happening, and you were supposed to make out the contrast. This was in itself something new to the audience. Because what we see on our home walls and our colony streets rarely ever makes to the theatre or the TV screen, if ever. And now it did.

But still. I wrote in my marathi review of Sairat then that art can be a mirror but also a hammer, and the ‘entry’ of caste realities into the movie world need not always be the victim route, but also the heroic route, the struggling route, the conquering route. I felt that absence strongly.

Until, ‘Kabali’.

When Rajnikant says that dialogue about the politics of wearing Dhoti and Suit by Gandhi and Babasaheb respectively and the rebellion contained in the act of wearing the suit, oh my god. Yes, just oh. my. god. The theatre was so overwhelmed that there was pin drop silence and then exchange of smiles to strangers to my right and left and back (shocked faces made my smile even broader).

The analogy of crabs not wanting others to succeed, the dialogues on claims to equality hurting them, the indefatigable spirit carried in Thalaivar’s suit, Babasaheb’s portrait in a reformative school and Buddha in the classroom, and so many more, all of them made me come out of the theatre a more positive person, with more faith in the movement than before, and also the desire to get my suit ironed.

Jai Bhim to Pa. Ranjith.”

I don’t know of any film (with an exception of Fandry and Sairat) that talks about caste and Dalit assertion in a way that Kabali does. I should confess that I have a poor knowledge of Indian language cinema in general. So I might be wrong in this regard. But then it’s hard to ignore the dominance of privileged caste and class narrative that surrounds Indian cinema overall.

It hit me that while I kept cribbing that the film was slow, boring etc. the people from the Dalit community were seeing something different. As I read more, I learnt more. Scores of people were seeing themselves on the big screen, in a heroic way, maybe, for the first time. They saw a massively popular star mouthing lines that were not merely dialogues alone. They saw symbols that they grew up with on screen with a huge star legitimising it. They saw their lives and values being echoed by a film- something that others saw as well. Maybe for them, it was not a mere Rajnikant film. It was a film that held a mirror to their values, their struggles, which was being legitimised by a popular star. It CANNOT be a mere film for them, no? Also, most importantly, this film was made by members of their own community. This was a story being told by one of them.

What happens when one sees oneself being depicted on the big screen? What happens when we know the way we’re being represented is being seen by others as well? What happens when we know others are ‘seeing’ us the same way we’re seeing ourselves? The reactions of the Dalit community answer these questions. To see and to be seen on such a large scale can be exhilarating. To have one’s experience validated through mass media can also be cathartic. Especially when it has been systematically ignored and stymied by our popular films.

Watching Kabali has been a humbling experience. It’s a reminder that my Savarna Brahmin background permeates into my unconscious and that there are some things I will never understand. While I still think that the film was stretched in many places, and that it was boring, it doesn’t matter. Especially when I see that the film is doing something bigger for a lot of people. That’s a hallmark of a good film too. And we all need to acknowledge that.

Some other pieces I’d recommend reading: Dhrubo Jyoti’s response

Can one be proud Brahmin?

I wrote this short note three years ago. However, I think the issue stays the same, my dilemmas stay the same. Increasingly, I have come across many discussions on Twitter about sexual violence against Dalit women. While there has been anger and outrage against the issue (and rightfully so!), the issue of caste implication in the violence against Dalit women seem to make many people (read Savarnas) extremely uncomfortable. In this backdrop, I see many of us talking about how Brahmins are ‘unfairly’ targetted. I am compelled to reshare an already old post because I feel strongly about this. Disclosure: I happen to belong to the Tamil Brahmin caste. And my blog post is a small attempt at deconstructing my own privilege. Read on:

This post made me revisit a dilemma I have had for quite some time now. I will revisit my dilemma later on. First of all, I want to respond to this post. In this post Rahul Pandita, a journalist, talks about his Brahmin-ness and wonders why he should not feel proud about his Brahmin roots and culture.

It is important to understand the caste hierarchy. Brahmins, as we all know, occupy the topmost position in the hierarchy. Their position that they enjoy and have enjoyed over a period of years is also based on severe oppression of lower castes. Simply put, one is not a Brahmin just like that. The position of that of a Brahmin cannot be without oppression of others. To put it very simply, Brahmins became possessors of knowledge purely on the basis of exclusion. Because of the position they enjoyed, they could conveniently exclude people who were non-Brahmins and their power also could be sustained by centuries of exclusion. It still continues. I haven’t seen many non-Brahmin priests. It is still the domain of Brahmins. So what are we saying, when one says, “I am proud of Brahmin culture.” Can we be proud of a culture that has evolved under conditions of having oppressed such a large majority? I definitely don’t think so. Culture cannot be devoid of politics. Culture that evolved then was also an outcome of political economy of that given period. Thus, it cannot be viewed in isolation of this historic background. It is important to know and understand under what conditions the cultural practices originated from.

Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri Pandit. Their history of displacement has been very painful to say the least. It just appears to me that he has taken recourse to his culture as a response to being a victim of displacement. Taking recourse to one’s culture is a very common way of connecting to one’s roots especially in the face of physical displacement. The history of caste oppression of Dalits has been happening across centuries and cannot even be compared to the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. Their history of oppression existed long before the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits. That is why I think Kashmiri Brahmin culture cannot be contextualised without taking into account the centuries’ old oppression of the Dalits.  Feeling sorry for the Dalits is futile if one doesn’t take into account that their condition is very deeply connected to the Brahmin culture.

Recently, there has been a website that has been famously frequented by many Tamil Brahmins. It is called the TamBrahm Rage. It is a site where Tamil Brahmins collectively make fun of all things Tam Brahm. When I checked out TamBrahm Rage, I experienced mixed reactions. When I go through Tam Brahm rage, I feel an acute discomfort when I see people laughing at all the jokes and the rituals. That is because I often wonder if they are just mocking or actually being critical of the entire thing. But even as I say this, I also laugh at the same jokes that that I am being critical of right now. That is because I think there are some things I have no control over. For instance, my upbringing. And it does have a major influence on things I do relate to. All my life, I have seen all these practices happening all around me. It has been an inevitable part of my growing up and my reality. I have never bothered to join the innumerable Tam Brahm groups on various social networking sites as I find it absolutely ridiculous to talk at a platform where the main reason of association is that of being a Brahmin. But then, I do frequent Tam Brahm rage sometimes because it does consist of some (of the many) questions I asked in my childhood which were left unanswered. Many of which are also ultimately responsible for my disregard to Brahminism as a whole.

The issue of personal identity is a very complex one. While I don’t consider myself as a Brahmin per se, I am one by default, in terms of my upbringing; in terms of certain privileges I have enjoyed being one. While I consciously do not associate myself with the identity of being a Brahmin and its associated rituals, I wonder if I can be away from it at all? Ideally I would want the destruction of the entire caste system and the annihilation of caste identity.  But then, I also wearily sometimes wonder, is it possible?

Can one really separate culture from the oppressive conditions it thrived in? Carnatic classical music has been a preserve of only Brahmins till now. This clearly means that Brahmins would have isolated everyone outside of their community in the spread of the art. No wonder we only have Brahmin performers ruling the roost. But then, I love Carnatic music very much. I often wonder where I stand. I often wonder if I can ever enjoy it without these confusions in my head.

Recommended readings

  1. A primer on caste privilege:

My thoughts about Americanah

Image courtesy: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s FB page

Some time last year, I happened to see ‘Good hair’ at the Vikalp screening at Prithvi theatre in Bombay.  The documentary was eye opener because I never knew about the million dollar hair styling industry that had only the African American women as customers. It showed various ways by which black women tried changing the way their natural hair looked using techniques like relaxing, hair weaving etc. It was an introduction to a world that was unfamiliar to me. It made me wonder when was the last time I saw a black woman in movies/sitcom/music videos etc with her original nappy hair.

The documentary made an impact on me as I kept thinking about issues related to body image. I talk about this documentary now because I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In one of her recent interviews while promoting Americanah, she spoke about how ‘Hair is political’ for her. And I was fascinated. I really wanted to know how she incorporated this issue in her book. I first came to know of Adichie when I saw her talking about the dangers of a single story. I was quite impressed with her speech and made a mental note that I need to read her books.

The story in Americanah is mainly about Ifemelu and her life in Nigeria as a school girl to her life in the United States and her subsequent journey back to her home country after 13 years. Adichie also fleshes out beautiful romantic relationships that Ifemelu shares with Obinze (her first boyfriend), Curt and Blaine. Ifemelu’s relationships with these three men form a crucial portion of the book.

Hair forms an important part of the story. A lot happens at the hair salon where Ifemelu goes to braid her hair. While she doesn’t think much about her hair in Nigeria, it attains focus of her attention in the US. Adichie is delightfully political and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she weaved her politics while narrating the story of Ifemelu. It is an important book because Adichie makes a political statement about loving one’s body when there is a billion dollar industry that tells you not to! The story resonated with me because we, in India, also face similar body image problems, especially since we have social traditions and a huge industry constantly telling us that, “You are beautiful only if you are fair-skinned.”

Nigeria’s unsettling political climate affects Ifemelu’s life deeply and becomes a major reason why she ends up going to USA for her further studies. Questions about identity owing to migration in our globalised world form a major part of the story. Adichie has spoken a lot about how she became black and African only when she went to USA. It is interesting because it highlights how Africa is homogenised when it is in fact a huge continent filled with people belonging to different nationalities, ethnicities, tribes among others. Also, the African-American community in USA trace their origins to slavery in the US whereas people belonging to different countries in Africa don’t necessarily share the same history. That they belong to the same race is the extent of the commonality they share. However, the common racial identity ends up bundling all the black people as African-Americans and the character of Ifemelu constantly tries to fight this imposition. Even though Ifemelu isn’t an African American, she becomes one purely on the basis of the discrimination she faces like the other African Americans. She ends up speaking a lot of about race but also reiterates her own identity of being an American African by starting a blog and writing extensively about it.

The book is mainly about the middle class society in Nigeria. The similarities between the middle classes in India and Nigeria are striking, especially in terms of aspirations, values etc. Also, Nigeria forms a major part of the book, almost like an important character. Adichie talks about her country with lot of warmth and love. Her observations about Nigerians both in Nigeria and the USA are laced with wit, irony and compassion. Before this book, I knew precious little about the country. Sadly, I only knew of Nigeria in context of email scams. I thank Adichie for changing my mental image and triggering an interest in her country.

I am sure Americanah will be taught in universities to introduce students to the complexities of race and gender. I loved reading it. There were such delightful moments that I couldn’t stop tweeting about it even when I was reading it, because I badly wanted to express and share the joy I felt. Americanah might be the story of Ifemelu but it also gives a glimpse of the kind of person Adichie would be. She seems to be the kind of person I would love to have conversations with over endless cups of chai. In one of her interviews, she mentions that she teaches writing in Nigeria. Now that is one class I would love to take!

A Tamilian from Bombay reacts to the trailer of Chennai Express…

If someone asks me where I am from, I always say I’m from Bombay. Quite often that never seems to satisfy people. It is always usually followed by “But where are you actually from?” While I have lived most of my life in this city, the questions don’t end until I tell them that I’m a Tamilian from Palakkad, Kerala. Incidentally, I have never lived there.

Growing up as a Tamilian in Bombay is an unremarkable experience in a way. Being a cosmopolitan city, one assimilates easily and you don’t grow up feeling different from the rest. However, even as I say this, the fact that my roots are not from this place has always been pretty clear. Every summer vacation, most of my south Indian friends (including me) went to our respective “native” places; a place of our roots. It was subtle but clear that culturally we were different from the original inhabitants, the Maharashtrians.

Having grown up in a place where I only spoke my mother tongue at home, visits down south would always be interesting. For instance, I remember whenever I went to Chennai, it would always hit me that I couldn’t speak to my mother in Tamil to strategise with her before striking up a bargain with the shopkeeper. That’s because everyone spoke in the same language. It felt weirdly nice to have people speak in the same language (more or less) we spoke at home. It is a different feeling. You don’t get to experience that in Bombay. While Bombay is still home, I feel quite at home in Chennai culturally even though I have never lived there.

I recently happened to watch the trailer of Chennai Express.

On the day of its release, the trailer was widely shared on social media. However to say it disappointed me would be an understatement. My first reaction to the trailer was that of anger. What stuck out like a sore thumb was Deepika Padukone’s godawful Tamil accent. I mean it takes special talent to exaggerate an already prevalent stereotype.

Anyway, out of sheer anger I tweeted saying, “I wish Tamil film makers stereotype everything Hindi and show it in a Tamil film. I’ll go first day first show.” One of the responses I got to this tweet was, “Hey! But we do it too.” This remark initially stumped me a bit. But now that I think about it, my tweet is reflective of my poor knowledge of Tamil films.The same twitter user, who is also a Tamilian, later told me (in response to my tweet) that this isn’t an ‘us vs them’ issue with the ‘us’ being the Tamilians and ‘them’ being the ‘north’ Indians.

While I pondered over her statement, I realised it is not the same for me. It’s a bit complicated. During my childhood, I grew up on a very (un)healthy dose of Bollywood. A Govinda number has more resonance for me than a typical ‘tappangoothu’ song. My knowledge of Tamil films is pathetic to say the least. While a lot of my south Indian friends regularly watched the latest of Tamil and Malayalam films, I hardly ever did. While I am culturally a Tamilian, my pop-culture influences come more from Bollywood than Tamil films.

In a typical Bollywood fare, Tamilians have always been represented as the quintessential buffoons who struggle to speak in Hindi. (Remember Mehmood from Padosan?) That I still get the ‘Oh! You speak very good Hindi for a South Indian’ comment, is reflective of how deeply rooted the stereotype is.

One would be hard-pressed to see a lead character play a south Indian in a Hindi film. It is quite rare. They are at best, ‘side’ characters. So, one can never see a South Indian character like us being shown in Bollywood apart from the stereotypes, of course. Somehow the trivialised part of representations of Tamilians never irritated me this way. It was more of a matter-of-fact acceptance of the phenomenon (sad, I know!). However, despite an absence of my ethnic presence in an industry like Bollywood, there are other things have resonated with me. Especially the Bambaiyya lingo, which one sees in many films, is the one that I still speak with so many people. It is one of the things that strengthens my bond with Hindi films.

My reaction to the trailers of Chennai Express interested me and intrigued me for many reasons. I kept wondering the deeper reasons for my anger. Because this isn’t the first time that communities were being stereotyped in Bollywood.

This pondering reminded me of this concept in philosophy called ‘othering’.

“Othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an ‘other'”

To put it simply, othering refers to a phenomenon, when we isolate something (people, culture, habits etc) as different from ourselves. When one’s worldview becomes universal and superior, anything that differs from it becomes the Other. (More here) (More examples of othering concerning gender) When I saw the Chennai Express trailer, my Tamil identity reacted. That something which is a close part of my life can depict my own ethnicity in such an awful way irritated me to no end. In my moment of anger, I became the other.

While I have seen many characters being stereotyped, for the first time, I ‘felt’ it. I felt disappointed that a milieu, I feel culturally quite at home with, made fun of my ethnicity. It ‘othered’ people like me. No longer was I a member of the dominant cultural landscape of Bollywood. I am the ‘other’, I’m the Tamilian, different from anything Bollywood. The film managed to trigger a sudden sense of other-ness that I didn’t consciously feel at this level before. (Thanks, Shobha)

Migration is a tricky thing. One needn’t live in America to experience confusion as far as one’s identity is concerned. Experiencing migration within India generates multiple confusions too especially since there is so much diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, regions etc. While for many, the cultural loyalties in terms of Tamil film industry and Bollywood will be very clear, for many people like me, it isn’t. And such instances of stereotypes will constantly challenge these absolute categories and make us wonder— Where do we really belong?

Kai Po Che and forgiveness

I recently happened to see Kai Po Che.  The film had a strong impact on me as I was deeply moved by some scenes in the film. However, I would like to state that I do have major problems with the politics of the film per se. (Please read these two very well argued articles on this topic.) But this is not what I wish to talk about right now.

The film is about three friends —Omi, Ishaan and Govind— and how their friendship gets affected owing to certain events that happened in Gujarat in the last decade viz. the Gujarat Earthquake, the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent pogrom of Muslims that took place.

The three friends and their entrepreneurial dreams is what forms the crux of the film. While Govind is the money-minded ‘Baniya’ of the group, Ishaan is an angry young man who is all heart. Omi, I thought, was someone with no striking characteristic to his name. But the fact that he was so regular and his transition as someone who has definitive views against the Muslim community was very deftly shown. Omi ends up becoming the financier for the trio’s entrepreneurial endevours and thus finds himself embroiled in the workings of the Hindu party in return. That’s a quid pro quo since his uncle, who is the leader of the party, is the man who lends him the money.

In the end of the film, Omi ends up losing his parents to the Godhra train burning incident.  He also ends up witnessing his uncle’s death, when the latter is all set to kill a Muslim man in the riots that followed the Godhra incident. Blinded by grief and rage over the loss of his parents and his uncle, all Omi wants is to kill; someone, anyone, who is Muslim. And he runs after a young Muslim boy, whom Ishaan tries to protect. After a brief tussle, Omi ends up having control of the gun and when he presses the trigger aiming for the boy, the bullet finds home in Ishaan’s body and he dies on the spot.

The scene where Omi accidentally shoots Ishaan, and the scene after that—Omi’s shocked face and disbelief—stayed with me for a long time. Even after coming out of the theatre, I couldn’t forget his eyes and the shock! It was a powerful scene.

Omi goes to jail. His eyes portray deep sadness even as Govind comes to receive him after his release. Omi’s life post his release from the jail, by the looks of it, is surrounded by everything related to Ishaan—the business in which all of three were partners, Ishaan’s sister who also happens to be Govind’s wife, their child who is named Ishaan and the Muslim kid he tried to kill (whose life Ishaan tried to save) who has become a successful cricketer! Ishaan is also shown as being forgiven by his best friend, Ishaan’s sister.

The film made me think deeply about forgiveness. I am sure there are many people who choose forgiveness as a way of dealing with difficult situations in life. (Please read this excellent piece on restorative justice.) Forgiveness, as a friend of mine always points out, is not to accept what the person did was right. It is a process of having no bitterness about it. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the process of forgiving the self. Omi does get punished by law. Omi is shown breaking down in front of Ishaan’s sister. He also gets forgiven by the main people concerned but is he able to forgive himself? Out here, the punishment by law seem rather feeble considering the humungous task that lay in front of him— forgiving himself.

They say time is the big healer but how can you heal from the finality of death of a loved one, especially if you have killed the person. How can you forgive yourself after doing something like this? It was a mistake his friend died. But the friend died! Death is final. Death is irreversible. How can one live with this burden? Seeing those final scenes, especially those, where he ends up going to all those places, meeting all those people connected to Ishaan, I kept wondering how he could do it.

I believe guilt and the inability to forgive self is one of the toughest things one can experience. But can self-forgiveness be even possible in a situation like this? What can you do when you know you have been the one to make the irredeemable mistake? How do you forgive yourself? Should one even try? Does one even deserve self-forgiveness in a situation like this?

I don’t know. I have no answers.

Originally published here:

My paati’s birthday

“Hi Paati,” I said over the phone. “Wish me! It’s my birthday!”

“Happy birthday Kanna,” she said.

“Will you sing Happy Birthday for me?”

“Oh paadarene..” (Translation: Sure, I’ll sing)

And she sang. The whole song! Thanks my cousin, who kept helping her with the words she forgot. Paati is my 81-year-old grandma and one of my most favourite people in the world. Some months ago, her health deteriorated very badly. She was put on a ventilator. The doctors were not hopeful and we thought she would leave us forever. To see my paati helpless in the hospital, poked with needles all over her body is an image that I will find it very difficult to wipe off my head. It was one of the first times that I have had to deal with the possibility of the death of a loved one. After a particularly depressing hospital visit, I remember, all of us in my family, sitting around, talking about making arrangements for her funeral. There were so many things that had to be done. Trying hard not to choke, some of us clinically went about discussing the arrangements. Suddenly, S, a cousin of mine, after prolonged silence looked up and said, “We are all sitting here making arrangements for paati’s funeral. What if paati decides to change her mind? What if she says—Screw you all making arrangements for my funeral! I’m coming back!” A short silence followed the statement before all of us broke into a big laugh, inspite of ourselves. And guess what! Paati did exactly that! She came back! Surprising one and all.

While, she is back with us, her memory has gone for a toss! Her ability to remember things that has happened recently has really suffered. For instance while she might remember me, she will forget if I visited her. Every time I speak to her, she complains about how I haven’t visited her. This, when I have easily visited her 3-4 times in as many months. However, this memory loss of hers has resulted in some hilarious situations. When my cousin and her husband came to visit, she pointed to all of us (her granddaughters) and asked if he (my cousin’s husband) is interested in any of us! You see, she wanted to set him up with one of her grand daughters. She completely forgot that they were married just a little over two years ago! The entire house roared with laughter, while my paati had a sheepish grin on her face 🙂

I visited my grandmom a few weeks ago. It was a small family reunion. The reunion was followed by a dinner at a hotel. For the first time in many years, paati accompanied us! Owing to her ill-health, she had hardly stepped out of the house in the recent past. She was more than happy at the prospect of going out with everyone. In the hotel, while she enjoyed the food, she couldn’t remember why we were there in the first place. For some reason, somebody told her that it was her birthday and started singing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song! All of us immediately joined the chorus. A musician in the hotel also joined the merriment! I don’t think I can forget the look on my paati’s face! The initial puzzlement gradually metamorphosed into joy resulting in her gorgeous toothless smile! She was overwhelmed! I wanted to freeze that moment.

Why am I sharing this today? I am sharing this because this memory occupied my mindspace for most part of my birthday that was yesterday. The image of my paati looking happily bewildered, a tad confused followed by a huge toothless smile listening to all of us singing happy birthday to her, remains etched in my memory. I think it is THE best birthday party I have ever attended!

Quite often I go through this phase wondering about the general pointlessness of life, existential angst if you will! I have often wondered about the pointlessness of celebrating birthdays too! There has also been a general reluctance in wanting to ‘celebrate’ in the recent past.  But I have come to feel that the seeming pointlessness can also be very weary. The existential questions have no easy answers and I doubt if there will be any. Given that, I have come to a conclusion that pointlessness does not mean I should not have fun. I am going to exploit all reasons to have fun. Personally, this is what birthdays or any festivals ought to be about. Lots of love, laughter and fun and of course food! On my birthday I want to celebrate my paati’s presence in my life.  I wish her more and more of such happiness. And thanks to her poor memory now, I think she is going to have many more such birthdays! Love you paati.