The Week
transparent
Home     Columns    Last Word 
Columns
Last Word Nandita Das
Mapping women in media
I recently saw Margarita With A Straw; a film about a young woman with cerebral palsy and her journey of self-discovery. Among other things, it made me think of how the film effortlessly passes the Bechdel test—if a work of fiction features at least two women, who talk to each other, and about something other than a man. Globally, more than half the films fail this test and in India,...
Life is falling. Where are you?
Read any newspaper. Children are being diagnosed with diabetes, pulmonary problems and more. They are falling sick more frequently, and for longer periods. The youth are keeling over with heart attacks. More and more people are growing obese, while few are well nourished. And then, there are epidemics, such as the recent swine flu, that kill hundreds. Researchers point to pollution. Then, of...
Revolutionaries, revisited
The encounter with Pritilata Waddedar last month was followed by further exploration of the lives of Bengal revolutionaries of the early 20th century. We were fortunate to be present at the inauguration of a museum dedicated to another stalwart, Phanibhusan Dasgupta, in the memory of revolutionaries who had been exiled to Kalapani (the Andamans).The museum was created through the untiring efforts...
Living a daydream
As a child, my best friend and I would often daydream of a caravan that we would drive around the country and the world, taking pictures and writing. We had a foolproof plan that ensured enough excitement in life and would pay our bills. Of course, we assumed it would be easy to publish these! Alas, all wonderful dreams don’t make it to reality. But as they say, nothing goes waste. So while...
A bridge across the Pacific
Acronyms for people of Indian heritage, like NRI, PIO and OCI, have been all the rage in recent years. India's émigrés are a source of national pride, whether it is Indra Nooyi heading Pepsi, Salman Rushdie being feted in print, or Satya Nadella taking over as Microsoft CEO. But the first wave of migrants from the subcontinent in the 19th century has been forgotten: the...
Home truths
Conventional wisdom among middle and upper class circles will have us believe that people live on the streets because they are too damn lazy to work. That is why they beg, form cartels of beggars who maim for sympathy, use drugs or are alcoholic, and are generally bad souls who deserve what they get. Look at all those people given multi-storeyed housing in Dharavi or Kathputli Colony or wherever....
Whose language is it anyway?
Jashn-e-Rekhta, a two-day celebration of Urdu in Delhi, is what got me thinking more deeply about Urdu. Along with an overwhelmingly large audience of young people, I found myself at the venue from morning to night, listening to a stellar lineup of poets, writers, orators and performers. Having grown up in Delhi, I speak and understand much of Urdu and the rest I figure out because of the context...
Lady Pluck
The 17th Pritilata Waddedar Memorial lecture was recently organised at the School of Women's Studies (SWS), Jadavpur University, Kolkata, under the joint auspices of the school and the Biplabtirtha Chattagram Smriti Sanstha, an organisation devoted to the preservation of the memory of the Chittagong revolutionaries of pre-independence Bengal. Ilina spoke on the theme 'Women's...
Go soul-searching in Goa
I used to spend a bit of time in South Goa, not doing anything in particular, just riding a two-wheeler along the coast and hanging out in the cafés and on the beaches. Goa seemed different from the rest of India, and its self-conscious image of relaxation always reminded me of the Caribbean.Last month I went back for the first time in a decade—and how Goa had changed! There were...
My mother's signature
Central and Latin America have always held a fascination for me. Having grown up listening to Latin dance music and encountering the amazing colours, architecture and culture of Mexico in my twenties, I wanted to travel there to share my art and learn about theirs. I got my chance 20 years ago.My mother, Mrinalini Sarabhai, was the earliest classical Indian dancer to go to the Americas. In 1949,...
Dialogue, debate and dissent
This was before Fire was released in India, but that same year, in 1998, my father came home one day, terribly shaken. He had been part of a peaceful protest against the attacks on M.F. Husain and in support of freedom of expression. A group of hooligans tried to stop the march and hurled abuses at the 83-year-old eminent artist. My father, appalled at the hateful language, requested them to not...
Hope in the time of hate
The bombing of Palestine seems to have opened the floodgates on a new cycle of barbaric cruelty if we look at the world’s recent list of ‘current events’. It includes the public beheading of Coptic Christians by ISIS militants, the kidnapping and subsequent 'disappearance' of school girls by the Boko Haram, the heart-rending killing of children in Peshawar, and the...
For a saner, kinder world
There is a furore on in France about a new set of textbooks and their illustrations. Wanting to be politically correct, and also wanting to reflect reality, the new textbooks show a variety of family types: the heterosexual parents, gay parents, lesbians with the sperm donor, mixed race and mixed religion. People on the right are saying that this encourages ‘unnatural’ pairings and...
Goat's curd, Mr Viceroy?
The durbar, where the ruler could be seen interacting with visiting dignitaries, was replaced in India after the First World War by the tea party. The great Delhi durbar of 1911 was the last such state occasion. British monarchs and viceroys no longer dared to risk the public humiliation of a protest or boycott by nationalists, and a shared cup of tea offered something closer to parity between...
A liberal’s dilemma
I comfortably call myself a ‘liberal’ but today I feel the need to explore further this modern progressive outlook that has come to be so maligned. I am frequently attacked for making a plea to examine our biases and prejudices, to understand the ‘other’ and to try to go beyond simple binaries of identity. To be a liberal is to stand up against religious bigotry and...
Stuff sans fluff
The 'Cinema of Resistance' movement began in 2006 as a protest against glitzy film festivals. The CoR festivals were planned as a set of events—without mega-sponsors and mega-stars—across the country. They have been small, funded solely by enthusiasts, and giving space to new filmmakers and their low-budget films. The movement took wing in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, through the...
Bound by nothing
We are unbecoming, unhinged, undone, unencumbered. We are marooned in the moment, a collision of hard edges and soft tissue, of difficult bodies and sensational possibilities.” Thus begins the write-up of Australian screendance and performance artist Dianne Reid’s new collaborative work, Unbecoming.There are not many things in our daily lives that require raw courage. For me, one of...
Keeping faith
After the terrible shooting in Paris at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were murdered, it is easy enough to conclude that religious faith causes many of the world’s troubles. But just as we must stand against jihadist extremism in support of freedom of expression, so too must we hold the line in defence of religion itself, with all its ancient and...
Manto, my protagonist
I first read Manto in English, when I was in college and then a few years later, I bought the Urdu collection—Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and his insightful capturing of people, politics and the times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters. Saadat Hasan Manto...
Christmas in Kolkata
After many years, one is struck by the mood of general festivity that accompanies Christmas in Kolkata. Shops and streets in the main commercial areas are brightly decorated with festive symbols—a gaily decked up Christmas tree, the red and white coated Santa Claus, his trendy  sledge and the long-horned reindeer. Shops in Park Street are full of youngsters sporting reindeer horns, and...
World of good news
The news of the shootout at a school in Peshawar has devastated many of us. Even those among us who brace ourselves each morning to read about more mayhem and cruelty, more rape and thuggery, were shocked and deeply shaken. In fact this daily dose of bad news and disasters from around the world has put many people off reading the news till late evening. Surely there are good things happening...
Clarity, not consensus
When I was a child, we had a family friend who worked at a think tank. Unsure whether the tank might contain soldiers or water, I asked my father what a think tank was. “A lot of clever people sit down and think as hard as they can until someone has a good idea.” I am not sure if this is an accurate description. In my experience, think tanks or policy institutes spend much of their...
The hidden side of empathy
After a long hectic day, I look forward to telling bedtime stories to my son. One night I told him the story of the boy who cried wolf. But Vihaan wanted the ending to be changed! He didn’t want the boy to be eaten up by the wolf, because “then he would bleed and that would hurt,” he said, cringing with the felt pain of the boy. I smiled, proud of my son’s innate sense of...
Fast and spurious
Hearts bleed for the scandalous deaths of women following mass sterilisation at Bilaspur, even as controversy mounts on fixing culpability for the tragedy. Several weeks after the events, there is still no clarity on the immediate cause of the deaths—there are reports of sepsis and of spurious and contaminated drugs. Although the inquiry report submitted to the health ministry indicates...
Toasting the town
It is rare in India to have social classes mixing for pleasure. Whether it is in a political rally or in a wedding, in theatres or at films, in circuses or in shops, the classes remain apart. Cinemas and theatres have differential pricing that ensures this. In political rallies, the who’s who are seated in demarcated enclosures. So it was a thrill for me to see, every night for 12 nights,...
Claiming the past
The debate over the nation’s future is nothing compared to the current kerfuffle over its past. Political rivals are making spirited attempts to claim their version of independent India’s history is the correct one. The argument goes like this: ‘Is your idea of India the same as my idea of India? If not, you must be wrong—and probably wicked, too.’On a recent TV...
Lessons at home
I am onto my third month at Yale and surprisingly my experience has been as much about motherhood as it has been about the fellowship. As I sit down to write after an evening of trick-or-treating on Halloween—a first for Vihaan and me—I feel a sense of joy and fatigue. We went house to house, with a bag, to be admired for Vihaan’s spotted cow costume and rewarded with mini...
Healthy deliberations
The Cochrane Collaboration is an international not-for-profit organisation that consists of a network of over 31,000 people from more than 120 countries, who collaborate to promote evidence-informed decision making on matters relating to health and health care policies. Since 2011, Cochrane has been recognised as an NGO in official collaboration with the World Health Organization.Cochrane’s...
Bringing up mother
Dhaniben faced the surveyor with some trepidation, playing with her infant nervously. They were in a semi-built slum deep into the labyrinth of Vasna in Ahmedabad. The surveyor had a long list of questions to understand Dhaniben’s levels of health and hygiene and the current practices regarding maternal and infant health, menstruation, hand washing and similar issues.We were about to embark...
Webbed with technology
I love new technology—and all the things we can do that were impossible only a decade or so ago. It amazes me a smartphone can be so clever and sleek, and I can stand on a street, lost in a strange city, and geo-locate myself to the place I want to go. Technology opens up creative possibilities for governments to reach their citizens, and vice versa. I like the remote cleverness of my...
The colour of prejudice
It hasn’t been all that long since we woke up to the horrific news of a mob that attacked three men of African origin in a metro station in Delhi. They had allegedly misbehaved with some women. Even if true, this response was nothing but racist. Many in the mob gleefully filmed the ‘show’ and put it up on YouTube for us to see. I endured it with an open-mouthed shock in the hope...
Forgotten legacy, forlorn reality
Since 1991, September 28 has been observed by the toiling people of Chhattisgarh as the shahadat diwas (day of martyrdom) of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary labour leader of the region. Niyogi was killed—shot in his sleep—at the height of the movement of unorganised workers in privately owned industry around the industrial town of Bhilai in central Chhattisgarh. It is widely...
A Polish delight
They were not Polish concentration camps. They were German camps, situated in Poland, as transporting people to kill them was expensive. And we were a country they had taken over. They killed all intellectual Poles too, besides the Jews,” Ada, our new friend, says emphatically. We are driving from Warsaw to Gardzienice to attend and perform at the India Festival to celebrate 60 years of...
A lifetime of fellowship
This is coming to you from a charming 19th century mansion-turned-office in New Haven, a university town in Connecticut, USA. I am here for the Yale World Fellows Program, a thoughtful course on leadership, where eminent Yale professors and practitioners from varied backgrounds interact with us, a cohort of 16 fellows. Among us are the likes of a prominent Syrian Arab Spring activist, a...
Remember the written word
When I was researching the biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, a decade or so back, I globetrotted to many places in search of people and documents that could illuminate his varied life. In Trinidad, in England, in the US, in Argentina, I collected scrappy letters, diaries, photos and even school reports from his teenage years as a student in the Caribbean. When I reached India,...
Moving testimonies
We were fortunate to be able to view filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s installation at a group showing of contemporary art at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi last week. Named The Lightning Testimonies, the disturbing eight-channel video installation explores the often repressed, always sensitive and newly urgent subject of sexual violence against women in the Indian subcontinent.The issue of...
The power of one
I have written in this column earlier about my American friend, brought up in the hippie culture of the 1960s and flower power, who found all his friends join jobs they disliked and companies or enterprises that went against the anthems of that generation—to be good, kind, generous and sharing. Not wanting to completely abandon all that he truly believed in, he started a company to...
The lives of others
Earlier this month I had a strange experience: I spent an evening in a graveyard with a group of people I did not know. Some of them seemed familiar because they are public figures, like the presidents of Germany and Ireland, the British and Belgian prime ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the future monarch Prince William, his wife Kate Middleton and his brother Prince Harry. I was one of...
A telling story
Though you will read this almost a month later, I am writing it now on my way back from Broome, a place I didn’t even know existed till a few days ago. At times, things fall into your lap and you lap them up, because they are irresistible! Out of the blue, an Australian producer approached me to write a script about an Indian woman’s journey in Australia. There is a lot more to it,...
Cup of starvation
There is a common perception that the condition of workers in the organised sector is, in general, better than that of their counterparts in the unorganised sector. In the case of the tea plantation sector, which is the largest employer of organised primary sector workers, this impression is further reinforced by idyllic pictures of women plucking tea leaves against a green background.All,...
Melting pot and masala chai
Last month I, one of Gujarat’s tax payers, paid for the purchase of 3.6 lakh books that spread non-science, non-history, non-Sanatana Dharma and non-most other things like geography, medicine and geology. They also spread a dangerous swapna lok. Yes, I am referring to the nine books, eight of them authored by Dinanath Batra, of myth and fiction that the Gujarat government has distributed to...
For future reference
The future usually looks stranger and more distant than the past. If I asked you how the world will be in 2050, you might come up with outlandish sci-fi ideas—flying cars, families living on Mars, a virtual reality government. But if I asked you to go back in time an equivalent distance to 1980, the world looks thoroughly familiar—Indira Gandhi has come back to power after the...
Some home truths
I remember, when my son was tiny, writing about my fears of having to answer questions regarding the many paradoxes he would witness. For instance, I wondered what I would say to him when he would ask me, “Mama, why doesn’t didi (the nanny) sleep on a bed like ours, or eat with us at the table?" But today, I am even sadder as he has asked me no such question. He is almost four...
More power to energy
I am obsessive about sustainability. Have been for many years. In 1996, having preached it to all and sundry I decided to try my hand at organic farming. I bought a barren piece of land, ruined by long-term overuse of chemical fertilisers, and set out to see if I could make it verdant. I asked architect friends to design a small house for me there that would use passive cooling and could run on...
Hip hop to holy war
You might not have heard of Brother Abu Bara al Hindi. A few years ago, neither had he—the young man was still called Abdul Raqib Amin, a rowdy fan of football and hip hop, whose parents came to Scotland from Bangladesh when he was a baby. Amin seemed unremarkable until, in the words of a former friend, “He went abroad and came back with a beard, the whole Al Qaeda costume. It was a...
Salute the real woman
These days there is an overarching prominence of the electronic media. In a country with poor literacy, fast-changing access to information technology (reportedly, there are more people who have cell phones than access to toilets) and lack of means of wholesome recreation, this should not raise eyebrows. What should, however, is the blatant commodification of women’s bodies in movies and...
Old words, new meanings
I am fascinated by the ever-shifting relationship between words and what they mean. But it is worrying when their connotations vastly differ from their actual meanings. One of the most contentious in recent times is secularism. It has acquired a negative implication that even the framers of our Constitution could have never imagined. Its rather noble dictionary meaning, originally used in...
Living a lie
Travelling through the tribal regions of central India like Chhattisgarh, one is struck by the independence and visibility enjoyed by the women in public life there. Unlike women in many other parts of India where the culture of exclusion and seclusion seems to prevail, women in Chhattisgarh are articulate, visible and play a major role in all aspects of livelihood. They have a strong knowledge...
The dread in our hearts
I write this as an artiste and a woman. In both these capacities, I feel I am under siege. Of all the photos of victory and coronations that have flooded the media for months, the one that stands out, the one that haunts, is of the two young girls hanging from a sacred mango tree. But they were not the only girls to be raped and murdered, brutalised in life as well as in death.There is no dearth...
Indian fundamentalists
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. When I travelled through India earlier this year on behalf of THE WEEK, taking the nation’s political temperature in advance of the general election, I did not anticipate the scale of the BJP victory. It was clear then that Congress was heading for a fall, that predictions of a stunning result for the Aam Aadmi Party were wide of the mark, that regional parties...
Echoes from within
I am often clueless about what I am going to write till I start typing. But as the first word comes out, I know I am veering towards things that disturb me, and at times those that inspire. Either way, it ends up being a serious piece, though I keep hoping to write something in a lighter vein. But sitting atop a hill, surrounded by tall trees and lush coffee bushes... in the midst of...
Goodbye comrades
In the last one month, the democratic movement in India has lost two important leaders. Sunil from Kesla in Madhya Pradesh left us on April 21, and Mukul Sinha, activist-lawyer from Ahmedabad, passed away on May 12.  Sunil’s was a remarkable life, spent quietly. Son of an eminent Gandhian economist, he himself studied economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, before...
The art of change
She was a striking 78-year-old woman, toothless but with a merry grin and a hearty laughter—the head-woman of a cluster of villages in the tribal Sabarkantha district in Gujarat. We were at the wrap-up meeting of a seven-year project to empower women. Called Parivartan, it had started off in 30 villages, where locals auditioned as performers and trained over many months as actor-activists....
Bloated poll-time promises
The comedian John Oliver ran a recent segment on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, asking the citizens of the US why they were taking so little interest in the biggest election in human history. He played some entertaining clips comparing the talking (or shouting) heads of Times Now with those on Fox News, including an elderly American who inquired why he should be bothered with events taking place...
Quest for the True North
Last month I experienced a rather rare academic stimulation and the reflections have lingered on. For the first time after my little son, Vihaan, was born, I left him for so long, to attend a 10-day course at the Harvard Kennedy School. It had been ages since I last sat in a classroom on campus.The theme of the course was global leadership and public policy. My peers, almost 70 of them, were all...
Sorry state to glory state
The recent attacks on poll personnel and security forces that accompanied the elections in Chhattisgarh have raised many questions about the prevalent political and social discourse. In one incident, security forces are reported to have boarded a Sanjeevani (108) ambulance after election duty to return to their base, only to have the entire vehicle blown up in a land mine blast. In another...
Rwanda's forgivers
Five women from Rwanda, all awarded the Unesco peace prize in 1996, stood tall and with pride tinged with immense grief. I was there in Paris to perform my piece on violence, V For..., for the award ceremony. The women had just spent two years after the horrendous genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus-8,00,000 people were raped, hunted, murdered, burnt, tortured and rendered homeless. The women...
Yours unfaithfully
In his 1995 book Trust, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that economic prosperity tends to flourish in societies where business relationships can operate informally, on a ‘my word is my bond’ basis, while backed up by law. Both parties are able to work on the assumption that, for example, goods will be delivered and paid for. In societies where an individual has strong...
Missing ethical compass
When the Tarun Tejpal story was being played out in 70mm and 3D throughout the country, I was once again left asking myself where the truth was in a story of molestation between two adults who knew each other well. If there were no witnesses, how would one emphatically accept one person’s word against another? What if both were drunk? What if there were other mitigating circumstances?A...
The invisible stories
Last month I coughed more than I breathed. And in that state I had to travel to Delhi to honour a commitment made to Khabar Lahariya. I tried excusing myself but their insistence and my desire to keep my word gave me the strength to travel. Though it left me physically tired, I came back energised. And I want to use this space to tell their inspiring story that may not otherwise reach you.When I...
Forgotten songbird
This year, on May 19, our aunt Amita Sen would have turned one hundred. She died in 1940, six days after her 26th birthday. Neither of us ever met her; however, she had been a significant presence in the family, even for those who entered by marriage. Amita’s life story is important to recall today, not only because we share the family’s pride in the remarkable achievements of her...
Breaking United Kingdom
The United Kingdom may be facing partition later this year, when the people of Scotland vote on whether or not to become independent. As so often in history, the larger power, in this case England, is not taking the idea too seriously. But it may be in for a rude shock if separation becomes a reality. In terms of population, we would not be losing too many of our fellow citizens-a little over 8...
A dramatic experiment
When someone ventures into a new terrain, there are always questions and also admiration for the brave. The more the world plays safe and becomes straitjacketed, the greater is the need for innovations. And they are exciting even when they are not revolutionary and simply deviations from the well-trodden path.Cineplay is one such experiment. It is a new form that cinematically captures theatre...
Health care heroes
The Medico Friend Circle (MFC) recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary. A small group, it is not very well known except among those who share its passionate commitment to pro-people alternatives in health care.The members and fellow travellers of the MFC have contributed their own, often meagre, resources (no sponsorships allowed) for the publication of a bulletin that contains their...
Figures tell a tale
Anywhere one turns today, the Gujarat Growth Model is being flaunted. Be it in the print media or on television, in debates or on hoardings, the development of Gujarat is getting five gold stars. Most of the readers of this magazine, too, buy into it. So it is time to look a little beyond the hype and into the actual statistics of this model. (All the figures quoted in this piece are from...
An attack that never happened
A blogger from an obscure web site recently landed an unlikely scoop about Operation Blue Star, the bungled military raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Using official documents released accidentally to Britain’s National Archives, Phil Miller revealed that an officer from the Special Air Service, an elite special forces regiment, had visited Delhi in February 1984 to draw up a...
Anna, Mina, Barcelona
I write this on my way home after finishing the second and final leg of the film, Traces of Sandalwood (working title), directed by Maria Ripoll. We shot the film over the past few months in Mumbai and Barcelona. I cannot help marvelling that the two cities that seem so different have many common threads. For one, both never sleep—although the Catalans do love their afternoon siesta, which...
Baul of fire
It is that time of the year again when rural Bengal (both in West Bengal and Bangladesh) comes alive with the Baul melas. It coincides with Makar sankranti, which is celebrated by preparing a variety of pitha (rice-based sweets and savouries) at home and also by taking part in Baul gatherings. Birbhum and Nadia in West Bengal and Kushtia and Jessore in Bangladesh play host to the best Baul...
transparent
chef's choice  |  Hemant Oberoi
Thou shalt not eat....
Mankind has seen so much change from BC to now. Adam and Eve lived on apples. Our ancestors lived on whatever was edible in the form of herbs, plants, vegetables, animals and fish to satisfy their appetite. Human ...  »
freewheeling  |  Derek O'Brien
Rooting for the Muffler Man
Watching Arvind Kejriwal’s speech at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan shortly after he was sworn in as chief minister, I was glad he tempered the overenthusiasm and too-keen ambition of some of his Aam Aadmi Party ...  »
transparent