Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why Should Politicians Be Khadi-Clad?

It isn’t easy if you want to look like a policeman even for a day. You have to get a khaki uniform stitched — and God alone knows where you can get those stars and the badges and, above all, the cap from. Ditto if you want to look like an Army or a Navy officer. Even a lawyer, for that matter. Unless you are friends with a film ‘extra’ who can guide you to the shop that rents out stuff for shootings.

But to look like a politician, all you need to do is walk into the nearest Khadi Gramodyog store and buy yourself a white kurta and a pajama and, perhaps, a waistcoat. Go home, change, and there you are! — a politician. If you want to look like a hardcore Congress politician though, you may have to don the Gandhi cap, though one is not sure where you get them. Interesting question: where do you get Gandhi caps? And why are they called Gandhi caps? Gandhi, at least in the pictures we see of him, never has a cap on. Except in the few pictures of his younger days when he had just turned into a political activist from a lawyer. (According to a friend, the Gandhi cap is a khadi replica of the prison cap worn by all black convicts in South Africa during those days).

In any case, even Congress ministers and politicians hardly wear those caps these days: they have discarded the cap just as they have discarded Gandhi’s principles. Sitaram Kesri was perhaps the last Congressman to faithfully don the cap till he died a few years ago. He had prostrated and placed the same cap, as a mark of loyalty, at the feet of Narasimha Rao when the latter was the Prime Minister. The occasion was Rao’s birthday. But when Rao ceased to be the Prime Minister, the same Kesri forcibly replaced him as the Congress president. Soon after, Kesri himself was forcibly removed to make way for Sonia Gandhi. He died a heart-broken man.

With his departure, the Gandhi cap went completely out of fashion. It doesn’t matter much because the Gandhi who Congressmen worship today is not Mohandas but Sonia. Wait, this is not yet another column on dynasty-bashing. It is about khadi being the uniform for politicians and why I think it is time they discarded it.

The khadi, during the freedom struggle, was a symbol of economic independence. It made perfect sense for politicians, who were the torch-bearers of the struggle, to wear khadi. But today the word ‘politician’ evokes general hatred. People identify it with greed, lust and selfishness. And bearing the brunt of the hatred is the khadi uniform: anyone wearing it is considered to be evil and scheming. The villains in most of the present-day movies, Hindi or Tamil or Telugu, are khadi-clad. The khadi-clad, pot-bellied man is often the object of ridicule in cartoons and comedies.

To shed the ‘evil’ image, they need to shed khadi. They should learn from IT minister Dayanidhi Maran. He dresses up like any other office-goer who knows his job. Such an image instills confidence in people, who have lost faith in the khadi-clad breed which only knows how to seek special privileges or make empty promises.

By the way, what do you or your dad wear to work? Shirt and trousers. That’s the common Indian’s attire, described in the common man’s language as ‘shirt-pant’. Then why should politicians, who are supposed to be representatives of the common man, wear something different? Wouldn’t their constituencies identify more with them if they wore a shirt and a pair of trousers?

But then, we practice politics of symbolism. We cling to symbols even when they lose their relevance. Khadi was relevant then, but today India is no longer a nation nursing the bruises from the freedom struggle. Today it is considered as an emerging superpower. At a time when the art of dressing is an industry in itself, why should politicians stick to something that is reminder of a bygone era and something that inspires only cynicism? They too should dress up to inspire confidence — in themselves and in the people. They should learn to look cool.

The new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, is in news these days because of his clothes. Recently, when he went meeting heads of states across the globe, he kept his alpaca-wool pullover on. Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin, as Presidents of their respective countries, did not wear dark suits when they visited the Taj Mahal. They just wore T-shirts. Even Musharraf was dressed rather casually, in a Chinese-collared shirt, during his summit meeting with Atal Behari Vajpayee in Agra.

One reason why they looked cool is they are trim. Clinton worked out, Putin is a judoka, while Musharraf is a former commando. Indian politicians, who often sport a generous paunch, might not look so cool in a T-shirt after all. But that’s the point: why can’t our politicians have trimmer tummies and fit into T-shirts and inspire the nation into being fit and healthy?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Waiting For V-Day

I had been noticing the man -- let’s call him Mr. X -- in the gym for nearly two months now, but it was only the other day that we got talking.

After the usual I-am-so-and-so information was exchanged, he shot a question at me. ‘‘Are you married?’’ No, I replied.

Mr. X (his eyes getting wide): ‘‘What? No?’’
Me: ‘‘No.’’

Mr. X (eyes getting wider): ‘‘Why? How old are you? 28? 29?’’

Me: ‘‘I am 35.’’

Mr. X (the sockets not allowing further expansion of the eyes): ‘‘What?! You are older than me?! And you are not even married. I have a four-year-old daughter!’’ Then he added: ‘‘Don’t you think it is high time?’’

In India, once you are on the wrong side of your 20s and still not married, it is common to attract such concern from total strangers -- you may meet them in the gym, in the bus, in the train, in the bars, at the workplace. And their concern is usually genuine. ‘‘Beta ab to shaadi karle, teri maa to kuchh aaram milega (Son, it is still not late. Get married now. Your mother will get some rest).’’ That’s the advice I have always received from elderly women in the train during my trips to (and from) the North.

I have always dismissed their advice with a smile: for me, nosey neighbours are one of the hazards of long-distance travel. But the other day, when Mr. X asked, ‘‘Don't you think it is high time?’’ it set me thinking.

Okay, it did please me immensely when he mistook me to be 28 or 29, but who am I kidding? I am 35 - the age when people remain single only when ‘‘something is wrong with them’’. Is something wrong with me? Or have I simply missed the bus? Or am I getting worked up unnecessarily? I don’t know.

People in India get married primarily for one of these three reasons: 1. Persuasion by parents, which stems partly from reason No. 2, which is ‘‘what will people say’’; and No. 3. Out of love.

But youth, in its arrogance, refuses to recognise any reasoning: it only follows its instincts, which are often basic in nature. Then, one day, life pulls the rug and you stumble into the threshold of middle-age. The world suddenly turns upside down. Till the other day, pretty young women were not willing to associate with you in any way till you promised marriage. Now, women -- young as well as older -- are willing to associate with you only if you don’t propose marriage. ‘‘Can’t we be just friends?’’ they tell you - exactly the stuff you told those young women in your younger days.

The arrogance might have deserted me, but hope hasn’t. We live on hope, or dreams - dreams peddled by Hollywood, Bollywood and the several other Woods that obsess the nation. And there are many stars in these Woods who are happily single in their 30s and who marry 25-year-olds even at 41.

So I am giving myself one last chance this Valentine’s Day-eve, desperately stirring up hope that some secret admirer will emerge on that magical day and ask me: ‘‘Will you marry me?’’ It that happens, you won’t ever see me using this space again to talk about romance and marriage.

If that doesn’t happen, you still won't see me doing that. For the day I had the conversation with Mr. X, I promptly registered myself on Very soon, I might bring home someone whose hobbies are ‘‘knitting, cooking, interior decoration and indoor games’’.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Thoughts From Kerala

Like the immigration officials who presume you are a terrorist before they fork out answers that may prove you to be otherwise, I presume every new Hindi film is bad till our in-house reviewer ‘Baddy’ Rangan puts his stamp of approval. Still I end up watching movies of my choice only on DVD, that too months later. The theatre is not my scene: I still tend to look over my shoulder every time there is clapping or the screeching of a car, realising only seconds later that they are part of the sound effect.

But for some reason I wanted to catch Rang De Basanti in the theatre — first day, first show. Maybe I was too taken up by the promos. But watching an Aamir Khan movie on the first day, first show is like asking for the moon. “Sold out,” a friend told me when I asked about the possibility of getting tickets. Then luck intervened in a strange way. I got to watch Rang De Basanti: first day, first show. For on the day of its release, I found myself in Trivandrum, where getting tickets for a Hindi movie is rather easy. The balcony was full, but I effortlessly found a seat in the Middle Class. For Rs 27.

The star cast on the porch of the theatre read like this: Aamir Khan, R Madhavan, A R Rahman. I guess no one else matters much here. Inside the theatre, paper bits went up in the air rented by screams the moment Aamir’s name appeared on the screen. Another round of applause burst through when Madhavan’s name showed. And the crowd went berserk when Rahman’s name appeared. After the first two rounds of applauses, I leaned to express my amusement to my companion — a young engineer, very proper and ladylike. And even before I could whisper to her, Rahman’s name appeared and she cupped her palm around her lips and went: “Vooooooooohooooooooo!” I left her alone after that.

The no-smoking-in-public law in Kerala seems to be only on papers. Of course there are menacing cops who patrol trains looking out for possible offenders, but once you are in God’s own country, you are free to smoke almost anywhere. The young men at the theatre puffed away without care — an act that would instantly attract a rebuke from policemen in a place like, say, Chennai. In fact, most of these men just stopped short of bringing their cigarettes inside the theatre: they put them out while handing their tickets to the doorman. But I have seen them smoke inside the theatre too. I was in Kannur about five years ago — the time when actress Shakeela was a rage. I had only heard of her, but never seen any of her movies. Curiosity led me to a theatre which was playing Naalam Simham (Fourth Lion). Soon after the film began, lights popped up from various corners of the theatre, and soon I was watching Shakeela through a haze of smoke. “This is the bidi capital. People have every right to smoke here,” a local friend later told me.

There is also a link between cigarettes and communism, if you believe writer John Steinbeck. In his book In Dubious Battle, the protagonist, a dedicated Communist Party worker, always remembers to carry cigarettes because he sees them as an effective tool to initiate conversation with a potential convert: “Here, want a smoke?” No wonder most old-time communists were/are smokers. E K Nayanar was a smoker. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is one. CPI veteran A B Bardhan smokes, so does CPM’s Sitaram Yechury.

Talking of Fourth Lion, there is a movie playing at the moment in Kerala called Lion, which has local star Dileep as the hero. Lion comes on the heels of Tiger, which had Suresh Gopi as the hero. What next? Panther?