Why can’t I simply want a car?

Kisi ne theek kaha hai, sau sonar ki, ek lohar ki!

Around the world, across professions, ages and sections, women are working hard (understatement) to promote gender equality, trying to discourage sexist comments and messaging in numerous media and platforms. And then, here comes a brand with its set of ads that flushes all efforts down the drain in less than 5secs!

Seriously, Cars 24 had all the opportunity and potential to promote their brand as gender-neutral. Just using women to highlight their features would’ve sent an encouraging msg that we can buy cars on our own. But, but, buuuuutttttt…

I’m sure it’s a bunch of raja betas sitting in their cosy corners thinking: “Idea! Let’s target women. What would they do on our site? I know I know, wish that this UI could be used to find husbands!”

Don’t know how these loud-mouthed women agreed to be part of this. Worse, to think that someone probably got a raise for rolling out this shit!

When will people realise and accept that women too can simply want to buy a car.

The Yudhishthir Predicament

Over the last couple of years, I’ve increasingly found myself relating to this intriguing character from the Mahabharata, the eldest (legitimate) son of King Pandu and Kunti, and the rightful heir to the Hastinapur throne.

I say intriguing because although he was the king and eldest son, the epitome of virtue, benevolence and tolerance, Yudhishthir comes third in terms of popularity after Arjun and Bheem. He earned their adoration and respect, and will always be revered as Dharmaraj but the guy was honest to a fault! So much that it even irritated his brothers at times.

The name Yudhishthir means ‘the one who is stready in war’ and this is not just with reference to the Kurukshetra war. Yudhishthir fought a war within himself, or in other words faced the infamous Shakespearean ‘To be or not to be’ question, at every step of his life – to aspire to become future king of Hastinapur or not; to return to Hastinapur after the lakshagraha incident or not; to marry Draupadi or not; to play the game of dice or not; and finally, to wage a war or not.

Come to think of it, the alternatives to each of these decisions were indeed the easy way out. Imagine if he’d decided to usurp Dhritarashtra immediately after Varnavat? End of story? Or what if he’d refused to play the game of dice? At that point in time, these were simpler choices and yet, Yudhishthir took the path of higher consciousness.

It’s a similar situation I’ve found myself in multiple times in the recent past: Do I play the game of office politics or not? Should I quit a toxic work environment or hang in there for the money? Do I accept a mediocre job given the desperate pandemic situation or wait? More recently, should I hold one accountable for breach of contract or let it go and move on?

In the Star Plus version of the Mahabharat, Shakuni keeps saying, “Jo dharm ki raah par chalte hain unke saath bohut adharm kiya jaa sakta hai (one who walks the path of righteousness, can be easily persecuted.” I’m beginning to believe the man. Every time I’m faced with an ethical conflict or what I call as the Yudhishthir predicament, I let out a long groan of no, not again!

Like I said, picking the vengeful, cunning option or awakening the gadadhari Bheem in me has always seemed like the straightforward, instinctive thing to do. I mean, learning the nuances of office politics does seem effortless compared to say, learning Data Analytics.

For the major part of last week I was contemplating taking legal action against a client. Then, after a couple of conversations with loved ones and weekend indulgences, I opted to let go after taking one last, sincere shot at negotiations. It’ll allow me to sleep peacefully I am told again and again. Going by that logic, I argue, those who choose the road of unrighteousness don’t sleep too well. Then again, it’s Kaliyug so I’m not sure about that anymore. The Dhuryodhans of the world seem to be doing okay and in fact, getting a kick out of doing what they do.

Nevertheless, having survived for 40+ years on this planet – half of that as a professional – it seems I’ve settled into the Yudhishthir way of life. I do catch myself cautioning others to be smarter, not trust people blindly, watch out for the politicians in office and either steer clear or learn to beat them at their own game. But it’s evident to me now that the Yudhishthir predicament is a challenge in itself. Whenever one arrives at such a crossroad, it’s goddamn hard to take the moral high ground.

Of Celebrities and Soft Targets

Over the last few weeks, every news and conversation has revolved around the pandemic. But amidst shortage of medical facilities and growing Covid fatalities, some headlines have shocked me. Like the PM addressing rallies and praising the large gathering, the Mahakumbh in Haridwar going ahead, and the prestigious Central Vista project taking off.

I looked for prime time panel discussions, op-eds and social media commentary questioning these moves. There were few and from known sources. Our media merely reported facts and when the foreign media criticized it, our people got offended. “Don’t interfere in our internal matters” was the collective response, which quickly and conveniently changed as soon as their leaders announced financial aid.

No sooner had the condemning of these acts gathered momentum, the government agencies got to work and the standard operating procedure was set in motion. This involved shifting focus from the government to other soft targets placed specifically for this purpose, celebrities! Bollywood actors were called out for posting photos of anything that’s not related to Covid, for sending virtual hugs instead of cheques, and (surprise!) the BCCI was attacked for continuing with IPL.

In India, actors and sportspersons have always been held to a higher standard than the rest. They are “expected” to step up and speak up at crucial points in time. Not that those who do so are lauded. Instead, their intentions are challenged. When Akshay Kumar donated money to Gautam Gambhir’s NGO, he was accused of being a BJP servant since he only cared for Delhiites. When Abhishek Bachchan shared some kind words, he was asked to do more (read money). Salman Khan’s pledge to provide food for front-line workers was called a publicity stunt since his film’s about to release. Australian cricketer Pat Cummins’ donation led to Virat Kohli and other Indian players being trolled for not following suit.

People seem to have forgotten that they all have been doing their bit over the last one year and they are currently doing what they know best as well, i.e. cricketers are playing cricket and giving the nation some sense of normalcy. But alas! How can they continue to participate in the “glamorous and cash-rich” IPL when the common man is suffering? So what if the tournament is being held behind closed doors and inside bio bubbles making these players the most secure section of the population at this moment? So what if this is one of the few businesses that are keeping the wheels of economy turning? That discontinuing IPL will not make any positive difference to the current situation, instead take away the one source of joy and relief that people have, is totally lost on the armchair critics. Perhaps they’re waiting for some more celebrities to commit suicide due to depression to discuss the importance of mental health again.

You’ll also notice that the expectations from these men and women are rather superficial – donate money or Tweet gyaan. It’ll simply take an announcement that BCCI is making a donation from the IPL earnings to stop the wagging tongues.

Lest we forget, the success of these actors and cricketers is their own. Whether it’s BCCI or Salman Khan, they can choose to spend the money they’ve earned in any manner they see fit. They don’t owe us an explanation. The other guy (he-who-must-be-named), however, is in that position because we put him there. The money that’s being used to “redesign” Delhi and win elections is ours and we need it now more than ever. He definitely owes us an explanation and I dare all to redirect their questions towards the real perpetrators. If you can’t, at least don’t add to the negativity and misery. Keep calm and enjoy the IPL.

The Writers’ Woman Character Conundrum

“Women can have a career and a family,” says Pooja Bhatt’s character, Rani in Netflix’s Bombay Begums. These are her words of wisdom to her associate, who refuses to take on a lucrative position because she’s pregnant and isn’t sure if she can handle both.

I agree that this statement needs to be reiterated time and again. Most women around the world still struggle to balance their homes and careers, and coming from a character who has just been made CEO of a large bank and posed for a perfect family portrait, it’s sure to carry some weight. There’s just one problem though, Rani – the second wife of a millionaire, stepmom to 2 indifferent, foul-mouthed teenagers, and CEO of a bank that needs a major overhaul – doesn’t have a great career or a “happy” family. She’s struggling to stand up against her male peers. Her first big initiative as CEO comes from a need to fend off a blackmailer. Her marriage is not exactly made in heaven. She’s also having an affair and it’s not clear if it’s because of her marriage or despite it. And amidst all this there are the pre-menopausal symptoms that she is in denial of. So, what career? What family?

Bombay Begums is the latest addition to a list of Indian web series that claim to break the idea of an “adarsh nari”, give them a voice, and bring their dilemmas and struggles to fight patriarchy to the fore. But what it is, is another shallow portrayal of the so-called modern woman, in a so-called modern city. It’s yet another failed attempt to showcase real emotions and battles. Another piece of confused, cosmetic writing that needlessly complicates issues and unnecessarily paints all the female leads in various shades of grey. Yet again I cringe, roll my eyes and shake my head thinking why? 

It’s the same reaction I had when I saw Four More Shots Please! Bhaag Beeni Bhaag, Guilty, Out of Love or Black Widows, although I must confess that these stories are still better. There are honest and with a sense of purpose. Then I watched Aarya, The Test Case, Criminal Justice: behind closed doors and Mirzapur, especially season 2 and I thought finally, writers and makers are looking beyond the stereotypes, sex, lies and vulnerabilities and etching out women characters that impact and influence the storyline. But when I saw Bombay Begums I wanted to bang my head against a wall! The only character you relate to or feel for is the prostitute-turned-business woman, Lilly, who’s determined to make the most of her horrible situation and turn her life around. The others seem hell-bent on messing up their own lives and for no particular reason.

Time and again I come across the same superficial, one-dimensional characterization of women across series and channels. If a small-town woman has moved to a big city then she must have only picked up bad company and habits. An ambitious, career-oriented woman must be gay, bi or having an affair with her married boss. Either writers are living in the wrong society or simply don’t have an imagination or for that matter, access to the right sample size. It’s the writers who have managed to look beyond this frivolousness that have given us an Aarya or a Captain Shikha and God knows we need more of these because women can have both a fulfilling career and a loving family. And we can get them without compromising on our dignity and integrity.

Review: It’s 3 on 3 for Amazon Prime!

Inside Edge, Four More Shots Please! and now, Mirzapur. The second seasons has successfully taken all these productions and story lines to the next level! Like the other two originals, Mirzapur 2 is worth the wait as well. It’s crispier, less noisy, gripping and immersive till it all comes to a head in the finale episode, with a couple of twists of course!

Most will talk about Ali Fazal and Divyenndu’s acting prowess but the performance that stands out for me is Vijay Varma’s. His character calmly and casually creeps into the main narrative. The absolute last-minute realization that he’s a major player in S3 gives the season the edge and viewers a “whoa!” moment. Well done Excel/ Ammijaan!

Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7, streaming on Netflix, is a movie based on the infamous 1969 trial of men charged with conspiracy and intention of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention ’68. But there was a sentence that one of the accused, Abbie Hoffman, utters that reflects how, those who raise their voices against the powers that e, are treated even today: “Give me a moment, would you my friend? I’ve never been on trail for my thoughts before.” It could well have been The Trial of the World Million, set in 2019/20. This is a must-watch. Take a bow, Aaron Sorkin!

Review: Thriller lovers will enjoy this one

The Raikar Case, a web series on Voot Select, is an edge-of-the-seat thriller about family, love and skeletons in the closets. The story revolves around the affluent Raikar family, whose youngest son is found dead. The police rule out suicide and when they start investigating the family members, dark secrets slowly start to spill out.

The narration is gripping and compelling no doubt. The audience is never really sure of the culprit or the motive till the very end. But I do have a couple of problems with the writing: 1) The ambiguous ending with no clarity or certainty of a second season. I’m old school and like to see the bad guys suffer the consequences of their actions. So, meh!

2) It beats me as to why writers and makers across the board are still so unsure about how they sketch their women characters. They’re either stupid or negative. We are a lot of other things also you know – smart, knowledgeable, ambitious yet ethical. I am yet to see a “new-age” series that shows a well rounded female protagonist. Why is that so hard? It’s especially irritating when the makers have got the female casting spot on. Parul Gulati and Ashwini Bhave’s performances stand out.

Nonetheless, it’s a good watch with a good mix of suspense and twists.

Travelogue: Enchanting Egypt!

Peaceful, intriguing, adventurous… these are the words that come to mind when I’m asked describe a land that was home to the gorgeous Queen Cleopatra. I was lucky to have experienced its beauty before the civic turmoil: In November 2010. The November to February period is the best time to visit Egypt, weather-wise. It will be about 40 degrees C, no doubt, but you only feel it when you step into the desert.

Sailing along the River Nile is truly the ideal way to enjoy Egypt. Most of the city tours between Aswan and Luxor happen either early in the morning or at dusk. The sunny times are spent at the cruise, either swimming, relaxing, partying, or relishing the buffet spreads, except when you’re visiting the Valley of Kings (Luxor), which houses the tombs of Egypt’s emperors including the young Tutankhamun. It’s a sight to behold! Another highlight of the cruise is the crossover from Upper to Lower Egypt (or visa-a-versa, depending on where you’ve boarded) through the Esna Lock. The technology, the experience, and the wait… sheer fun!

Back on the mainland, Egypt’s major cities are explored by road in a day. Egypt’s ancient capital, Memphis, its current capital, Cairo and the Pearl of the Mediterranean, Alexandria. But naturally, Cairo is the most bustling and vibrant of Egypt’s cities. Apart from regaling at the legendary Giza Pyramids, going on camel rides around them, walking through the huge Egyptian Museum, and shopping at the Papyrus art galleries.

Memphis is where you will see the “first attempts” of the great Giza Pyramids, the stepped Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara (the Memphis necropolis). Within the Memphis museum is a 10-meter long statue of Pharaoh Rameses II. Plus, if you’re looking for some exquisite Egypt carpets to adorn your living room walls and floor, your search is sure to end at one of Memphis’ many carpet factories!

Alexandria is the country’s second largest city founded by Alexander the Great, located along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Its historical, yet modern ambience will amaze you, especially if you’re one of those travellers who loves to learn about a city’s history and culture amidst its ruins. The coastline of Alexandria is striking blue, while the city is all white, making it a photographer’s (and of course, a painter’s) delight.

The many fascinating stories of Egyptian civilization – its kings, queens, beliefs, mysteries, and their uncanny resemblance to Indian culture – are unveiled in the various monuments along the River Nile. Be it the Philae Temple in Aswan, the Edfu Temple or the Colossi of Memnon, each of these has a parable attached to it. What’s most inspiring is the care with which each of these sites has been preserved, resurrected even, by the Egyptian tourism authorities and its people.

There’s something for every kind of traveller in Egypt. You could plan a family outing, a romantic getaway, an adventurous expedition, or a cultural quest. Egypt is truly a world of wonder!

Travelogue: When in Goa, you gotta eat!

Candid warning: This piece is for those who love to eat; for those who love to eat meat.

It’s not that veggies will starve in Goa. Of course, not! There’s a decent spread for them in every restaurant (popularly called shacks). But that really constitutes about 20-30% of the menu card. And the waiter (sometimes the owner of the shack, himself) smiles widest when you settle down and ask him: “What would you suggest in non-veg?”

You have to, however, truly and fully settle down every time you step into a restaurant in Goa be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. In Goa, words like ‘quick serve’ and ‘eat fast’ are not used in the same sentence. They expect you to find a table, relax and enjoy your meal for at least two hours. Soon you will realise that 75% of your expenses when in Goa comprised food bills.

And since you are spending that much on food, you might as well try their specialities and relish every bite, isn’t it? Read on to find out what are some of Goa’s yummiest dishes and make sure you ask for them when in Goa next.

Chicken Xacuti
This is one of Goa’s most popular dishes, loved by tourists and locals alike. You can make this in Fish and Prawn as well, but chicken sells most. Best enjoyed with white rice, the aroma of chicken in rich coconut curry cooked in a variety of roasted spices, will reach you before the dish. Goans take their food rather seriously. When they say ‘variety of spices’, the range includes coriander seeds, sesame seeds, cloves, jeera, methi seeds, khus khus and much more. It’s a yummy medley.

Prawn Balchao
It’s the Goan prawn pickle that can be prepared, stored and served with boiled rice or appams. Balchao, in fact, is a method of cooking the finely blended, spicy sauce. The sautéed prawns (or fish or pork for that matter) is added much later. Naturally, this dish is also easy to cook and is one of the most sought-after Goan recipes on the World Wide Web.   

Pork Vindaloo
Did you know that this fiery dish does not have any ‘aloo’ in it? The name is a combination of its two main ingredients – ‘vinho’ for wine (it’s mostly vinegar though) and ‘ahlo’, which is garlic in Portuguese.  It’s a traditional Goan preparation, spicy, tangy, rather oily, but when mixed with hot rice, it’s heavenly!

Chicken Cafreal
Onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, chilli, and fresh coriander leaves… this juicy chicken dish has it all to give your meal the perfect, delicious start. The green tandoori-like chicken fry is an all-time favourite in Goa, introduced (like most things Goan) by the Portuguese. It’s served with all the usual decorations – garlic bread, sautéed veggies, etc. – but you’ll hardly notice them on your plate. Truth be told, couple of minutes later you won’t notice the chicken pieces either.

Fish Fry
If it’s Goa, there has to be a fish item in the hot seller list. No meal seems complete without it and the chefs (or your host if you are visiting a Goan family) serve you nothing less than the best. The only confusion, if any, would be about which fish to net, mackerel, pomfret or may be a kingfish. Whichever the eventual choice, this is one tender, crispy preparation that always warrants a repeat order.

So, there’s your mini Goan menu card that you can refer to next time you’re in the coastal area. Because George Bernard Shaw once said: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”

Travelogue: Singapore is a traveller’s delight!

Ask anyone who has visited Singapore and they’re sure to describe Southeast Asia’s hi-tech city-state in superlatives – greenest metropolis, busiest port, shoppers’ paradise. It’s all true! It is one of my most memorable holidays, mostly because we were part of history – the first Formula One night race, in September 2008.

Of course, the must-see-must-do list for Singapore is unbelievably long, even if you aren’t going there for a specific event. From museums, heritage centres, religious sanctuaries, to wildlife and spa retreats, theme parks, and the finest of wine and dine destinations, the bustling cosmopolitan promises to keep you busy. You can get around Singapore with great ease considering the highways and expressways form the arteries of the island. You can reach most places by simply hailing a taxi or taking a ride in the hop-on-hop-off buses. The latter is most ideal if you want to take in Singapore’s splendour, driving past Padang and the colonial edifices like the Parliament House, and the City Hall. You must visit the famous Thian Hock Keng Temple, and steer into sprightly Chinatown.

If you want to spend time amidst Singapore buds and blossoms, the Botanic Gardens are a sight to behold, especially the National Orchid Garden. Or take a stroll through Little India’s streets that are packed with stalls selling a variety of Indian goods. Most specialty restaurants here (located near Race Course Road) serve rich and spicy Indian food. This is one place in Singapore that gives ample choice for the veggies. For meat-eaters, fish head curry is a hot-seller.

Little India is the proud owner of the Mustafa shopping centre. Make sure you’ve had your tummies’ full before entering Singapore’s chief discount store. Because once in, chances are you’ll lose track of time and your meal. Top-end electronic gadgets, branded garments and accessories, FMCGs and fresh fruits and veggies; Mustafa has it all, and at unbelievably cheap prices. When done shopping, and night falls, you can catch a bus round the corner and head to one of Singapore’s favourite wildlife retreats – the night safari just outside Singapore Zoo. A ride in the world’s first wildlife night park is a journey you will never forget.

Dinner time is also the best time to get a great view of the Marina Bay and the Helix Bridge, overlooking the Central Business District and home to the 8.6-metre-tall original statue of the Merlion, Singapore’s mythological creature that is part lion, part fish. The Bay area is Singapore’s entertainment centre, lined up with some of the finest pubs, discotheques and restaurants.

The other huge attraction in Singapore is Sentosa. This island resort is a world in itself and can be reached from any point in Singapore via rail, road and sea, and then the cable car to take you to the main land. Once there, you are handed a map that tells you how to reach key corners like the beaches, underwater world, dolphin lagoon, butterfly and insect kingdom, the Sentosa Sky Tower, and another giant Merlion, to name only a few. The musical fire and water (the world renowned Songs of the Sea) show in the evening is one you cannot miss. Resto-bars are aplenty on Sentosa, so you can get off the island having satisfied all your “leisure-tainment” needs. In Singapore, you can attend a business meeting, grab a scrumptious meal, take a leisurely boat ride/ swim, go on a night safari, shop and chances are you’ll still have the whole evening left to indulge yourselves.  

Sitting in the return flight and browsing through a tourist guide, you may realize you’ve covered only 2-3 things mentioned in the catalogue. Fret not, two more days in Singapore and you would have still felt the same.