Thursday, April 21, 2016

Love, sex, marriage and polyamour

First published in +DailyO India Today click on this to read

A man learns at 55 as he did at 25 - especially when it comes to matters of love. Jairaj Singh - the editor of DailyO - taught me a new term "polyamorous" as distinct from polygamous or polyandrous in his fascinating piece.

In essence, polyamorous means having several sexual partners while remaining committed in a monogamous relationship - with the knowledge and/or permission of the partner.

It might sound like a repackaging of the '60s "open marriage" concept, wearing an extra wrapper of monogamy. Some may call it "cheating"- or, perhaps, nuance it a bit as "honest cheating" since it is done with the tacit consent of the "significant other". In the example cited, there is also a slightly strenuous attempt to distinguish it from a "one-night stand" by adding a dimension of "emotional connect".

It is often said marriage is an outdated institution - a format of human relationship that has not evolved over time. Successive societies have tried to tinker with its construct but haven't succeeded in changing the basic template. Yet, the subliminal urge to "beat the system" as it were has existed since time immemorial.

While society may view it otherwise, Darwinian social anthropologists find nothing unnatural about it. In his seminal book - The Red Queen - Matt Ridley brilliantly debunks the theory that marriage was devised for human reproduction. Apart from the "no brainer" of babies can be made even out of wedlock, Ridley explains how there are species which reproduce asexually. The real purpose of marriage, therefore, he argues conclusively is evolution - to keep the human genes a step ahead in the game. Ridley submits the apparently scandalous thesis - based on the solid foundation of Darwinian principles: we (both men and women) are designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery. Marriage, he asserts, is a "child rearing" institution and not, as generally assumed, a "child bearing" institution.

Coming back to the story of Mimi in Jairaj's piece - at a superficial level, it can be dismissed as a pragmatic understanding between partners caught in a long-distance relationship. Her insistence on "emotional connection" can be dismissed either as a mere excuse or simply a "turn-on" factor. In fact, Ridley himself talks in his book of how wit and intelligence are powerful instruments of seduction.

But, that's pure genetics. The point Jairaj's protagonist makes about how "we expect one person to be all things to us" hits at the crux of the issue. She explains, we want our partner to be "our lover, our spouse, our confidante, our saviour, our friend, our intellectual stimulant, our therapist, and how is that even possible? How can we impose so many expectations on one person without them falling short?"

At first, it might appear to be a modern day problem - where spouses have to often live apart for reasons like work or get little time to themselves due to either or both partners spending hours at work and in commute. In such situations, parallel relationships often develop to fill gaps which are not necessarily sexual to begin with. But as emotional closeness develops, these often naturally transgress into physical intimacy leading to complications.

However, living apart or spouses keeping long hours outside home whether on work or leisure is not a recent phenomenon. In earlier generations, it was mostly the male members who were away. That does not mean women did not have their share of polyamoury. But then, on either side, it was more a matter of passive acceptance or feigned ignorance.

I was discussing the same issue - before I read the article - with a friend from the advertising world a few days ago. He insightfully explained that three developments have changed the paradigm in recent times:
1. More women going out to and travelling on work;

2. Television (the "saas-bahu" serials);

3. cell phones and social media.

These three elements he feels have made women more aware and articulate about their own psychosexual needs. Many affairs (if one is allowed to lapse into that time-worn cliché) happen over cell-phones (WhatsApp and SMS) and social media. And, it is common for spouses to discover a cheating partner while scrolling down his or her smartphone inbox or while going through their Facebook account.

So finally it all boils down to "trust" as Jairaj's protagonist Mimi puts it. But, Matt Ridley contradicts this by saying "jealousy" is an essential ingredient of - not just heterosexual but also homosexual relationships. Then, where does it leave us - the age-old principle of "ignorance is bliss"?

Tagore puts it beautifully in his romantic classic, Shesher-Kobita (The Last Poem).

When asked if he will admit to his fiancée that he is having an affair with Labanya, Amit tells a young friend - "Yes, of course".

He asks, "what if she doesn't accept?"

To which Amit says, "then it will be my life-long mission to make her understand".


Amit explains: people like to bathe at home and also to swim in the lake. Both are necessary - one utilitarian and the other romantic. Even if you have a well-appointed living room, in life, sometimes you need to step out into the garden and get a breath of the fresh air. Someday - hopefully - she will appreciate this "truth" herself.

Mimi's midnight swim in the pool with her one-night lover may have been a bit of this and that. As the wit at the neighbourhood pub said: "If children are entitled to their childhood, why not adults to adultery."

#Love, #Relationships, #Polyamoury

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lost in translation

Article first published in +Medium (click here)

Every-time I pick up a book of acclaimed international authors, ho have won global recognition, sometime the Nobel or other prestigious literary awards from around the world – be it Murakami, Pamuk or Kundera – even Marquez – a feeling of regret besets on me thinking of the many Indian language (now fashionably called “bhasha”) authors who have lost out due to the sheer lack of good translation.

Tagore himself has been the victim of some terrible translations (often his own – which sometime were worse than what others did for his works). Some would believe owed his Nobel largely to his friends W B Yeats’ advocacy (Read: Why was Tagore so neglected ? By Ian Jack). The older translations are as stilted as the so called “Anglo-Indian” authors of earlier years. For example, Radha Chakravarty’s transcreation of Shesher Kobita is way superior to all previous ones.

In the post Tagore era – only in Bengali itself – there have been some phenomenal writers and poets who could have easily turned heads across continents – Bibhutibhushan (author of Pather Panchali – that Satyajit Ray made a world phenomenon with his debut film), Tarashankar, Buddhadev Bose – even a Samaresh Basu, Sunil Gangopadhyay. My heart aches when Bengali youngsters quote Neruda but haven’t read Sakti Chattopadhyay.

People refuse to believe Sankar (Mani Shankar Mukherjee)’s Chowringhee – which many think was a take of on Arthur Hailey’s best-seller Hotel – was actually written and published (in 1962) a good 3 years ahead of Hotel (1965). Now translated by Arunava Sinha – it has caught attention of the world – receiving laudatory reviews in international publications like The Economist, Independent and others.

I am sure – there are several such undiscovered gems and jewels buried deep in the archives of other Indian languages. It is only recently that serious translators like Arunava (Sinha) and Vivek Shanbhag (Kannada) are emerging – who can do justice to the originals. Competent translations is only the first step. But, they have to be marketed too. One must acknowledge the contribution of commissioning editors like Chiki Sarkar – who brought translations of Indian language writers under the radar of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins India and other major international publishing houses. The challenge, however, lies elsewhere. One is not sure – about the quality of writing happening today in the regional space. Present generation prefer to write in English because of wider marketability and many low hanging prizes – not just the Booker.

Still if works of the old masters – many of them nothing short of classics – can travel beyond the Indian shores it would be a great tribute – even posthumously – to Indian Language literature.

Friday, April 15, 2016

God as a partner in crime

Poppy Cultivation and Amoral Gods !!

Article first published in +Medium  (Click here to read)

Indian God’s have traditionally been indulgent towards criminals and the corrupt. There are enough stories of deities – whom Dacoits would routinely visit for blessings before going for a hunt. Equally, spiritual leaders and religious missions are not known to discriminate on the colour of money or the character of the donor.

Visited the temple of Sanwaliya-ji near Chittorgarh off the highway to Udaipur. The idol is a form of dark-complexioned Krishna – a favourite God in these parts of the country.
Poppy is the principal cash-crop of this rather affluent region of Rajasthan adjoining Neemuch and Mandsaur the main poppy cultivation belt of Madhya Pradesh. Though poppy farming a licensed – there are enough avenues to beat the system for a thriving contraband trade beyond the officially declared produce.

Poppy-traders treat Sanwariya-ji their protector and benefactor. It is an open secret – poppy traders make the Lord a divine “business partner” committing a certain percentage of their annual earning to Him. Hence, Sanwaliya ji is often referred to as Sanwariya Seth (as “owners” of a business).
This probably explains – at least to an extent – the rather pragmatic attitude Indians have towards corruption (if not crime, as well). It is seen simply as a means of “livelihood” – to be pursued in a dispassionate and detached manner.

Therefore, one sees this apparently contradictory phenomenon of persons leading a fiercely austere lifestyle and following religion to an extreme (vegetarian diet, teetotaller, puja, prayers, fasting, rituals, pilgrimage, visiting to temples and disciples of spiritual gurus) being corrupt to the core. They would engage in activities (adulterating food or unsafe constructions) that could potentially take human lives – yet consider themselves purer than those who eat meet of drink alcohol.

Whether this has its roots in our concept of Nishkam Karma - is a matter of debate. But, it can be argued – for a thief and a dacoit it becomes very much a part of his vocation or Dharma. One can, perhaps, extend the same logic for the Poppy cultivators – who are a product of an imperfect economic system and inequitable regulatory regime. But, I would draw a line – where people operate out of sheer greed to harm fellow human beings. And, I do believe no God will permit that.

A flight too far

Travails of the domestic flyer at modern airports 

Story first published in +Medium (Click on this to read)

Modern International Airports are purposefully designed like huge shopping malls aimed at seducing passengers — hanging out before flight departures — to eat, buy and otherwise spend money. While landing and airport usage charges pay for the operations, commission on shop, spa and restaurant sales are the real profit engines. That’s the revenue model on which commercial airport run. Hence, the unending walks to the boarding gates.

This works for long haul flights with early check-in and extended lay-over. But, for domestic or short-haul (as in Europe) — this can be a real pain as it increases pre-boarding time — to provide for the distance from check-in to the gates. Bulk of Domestic traffic comprise Business Travellers for whom time is at a premium. Much of that is wasted . Even if they treat the run to the plane as a substitute for their morning constitutional or evening run, the distance to baggage claim and, sometimes, the wait for bags to arrive on the belt becomes excruciatingly frustrating. And, all this is sheer torture for senior citizens — as our airports are far from “old age friendly” with buggies and wheel-chairs usually difficult to find.

That is why smaller city airports for domestic and short-haul flights make sense. In India — budget airlines like #Indigo6E did well to stay back in the old terminals in Delhi and Mumbai — while ‘full-service’ players like Jet have moved to the newer T3 and T2 respectively. Perhaps, from the airlines’ point of view it helps to have common ground and commercial infrastructure. Besides, Jet and Air-India have greater number of international connections and code-share flights — for which a common terminal is the way to go.

However, for the domestic passengers it can be a killer. Delhi T3 — it is still manageable as the Domestic Departure section is more sensibly designed. Though in Delhi too one has to commute a long distance from Security-Check to the Boarding Gates it is far more easily negotiable. The shopping area is much smaller and there are mechanised walk-ways all along. Availability of buggies and wheel-chairs are also better. But, Mumbai T2 is another story. It’s a forced tour of a “museum” — that becomes tiring after the first experience. There are no conveyor walkways till much after the shopping arcade. In adopting international designs — architects forget the fact that — the ordinary air-travellers in India are less fit than in Europe, Americas or even other Asian countries. Besides, we “Desis” travel with much heavier hand (cabin) luggage — beating the 6 kg limit with impunity — making it a punishment of sorts.

So, the bottom line is — I will think twice before taking my next flight out of or into Mumbai’s T2 — unless I have hours to kill (and lot of money to blow up) at the airport. That means — what’s #Indigo6E’s gain will be #JetAirways’ and #AirIndia’s loss. Not that they care, really.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

When Acche Din is a Test-Tube baby

Travelling through other India (Bharat) one notices the explosion of 2 sectors — #Education and #Healthcare. Even in remote #Haryana or #Rajasthan there are bill-boards along the high-ways advertising schools (invariably “English Medium”) and coaching classes for Engineering and Medical Colleges. Apart from general hospitals — there is the interesting phenomenon of mushrooming “Fertility Clinics” (crudely called “Test-tube baby Centre) in the “rurban” areas.

Both are good developments per se (questions about quality notwithstanding) also indicate the rising aspiration levels of people — for which I would give credit to Television — the General Entertainment Channels (GEC) rather than News TV. And, this is — perhaps — one area where Soap Operas do play a positive role beyond peddling fairness creams and shampoos. For these changes (both education, healthcare and even maternity / fertility clinics) — cannot happen unless the women of the house are aware and concerned.

It is on the back of this “aspirational India” — more than promise of “Acche Din” — that Narendra Modi sailed through the 2014 elections. But, in my view, Education (HRD) and Health have both under performed in his government. The Health Minister has been invisible and dormant (have not understood till date the political compulsions for replacing Dr Harsh Vardhan with J P Nadda) — giving a free-leash to Yoga Gurus and Ayurveda entrepreneurs — offering cures from fertility (Putra Jeevak Beej) to aids and homosexuality. On the other hand, the HRD Ministry has been made dysfunctional by its “controversy a day” Boss Woman— who I still consider to be extremely capable and effective. But, her strength obviously lies elsewhere (and that is no jibe at her academic qualification or the lack of it).

Two dominant constituencies — who tilted the balance decisively in favour of Modi were Youth and Women. Losing them — could be lethal as the Bihar Elections recently demonstrated.

Piece first published in @Medium.Com click on this to read

Friday, April 01, 2016

The 'Poriborton' of Mamata Banerjee

The reinvention of Mamata Banerjee - from Street-fighter to CM 

Article first published in +Mint Click on this to read

A very well connected top Bengali political journalist had narrated this to me. He went to see Pranab Mukherjee – then a full-time politician – before the 2011 West Bengal elections. As he is close to both Pranab-babu and Mamata Banerjee – the journalist took the liberty of asking Pranab Mukherjee if he thought Mamata will be able to make the transition from a mercurial fire-brand opposition leader to Chief Minister easily. It seems – Pranab-da had told him then, “why not – people grow and mature on the job and Mamata is a quick learner”.

This short conversation reveals as much about Pranab Mukherjee’s astute political instincts as Mamata Banerjee’s native political intelligence. It is this street-smartness that has brought her to a position – when she is looking almost invincible as she is seeking mandate for a second term.

Come to think of it – it is the Left which never got out of its agitation mode and refused to govern – at least for the better part of its 32 year rule. By the time they realized the mistake – Nandigram and Singur had already happened and it was far too late for any course correction. Mamata on the other hand was baptized by fire – as it were - in Jangal Mahal followed by the Hills. She tackled both with a combination of political stratagem and shrewd administrative intervention.

From day one, Mamata Banerjee has tried to provide governance while continuously learning on the job. She recalled one of the brightest – among the few remaining Bengalis in the IAS  from the centre to be her Chief Secretary and gathered around her a bunch of competent officers – a good balance of experience and (relatively young) age. Perhaps, the biggest mistake of CPIM had been to make the police and District Administration subservient to the local party bosses. In the case of Trinamool – while insisting on alignment Mamata ensured the strings of administration were tied firmly to the CM’s office.

Non-politician professionals who were drafted in to the party before the elections – were advised to focus on their respective portfolio and keep their own counsel without becoming (TV) Camera hungry – as some of them were wont to do.

This apparent tendency to concentrate power with one individual may sound familiar. But, without getting into value judgment, that’s the way Indian Democracy seems to work these days. Therefore, it would be unfair to pick on Mamata and label her as a Dictator. Sure she has an autocratic -“I know best” - streak, one can call her impetuous but not imperious like some of her female counterparts in other states.

After BJP came to power – there were apprehensions about another extended period of confrontation between the centre and the state at the cost of West Bengal’s development. But, Mamata turned it into a game of dynamic tension generally loaded in her favour. She played a carefully calibrated strategy – keeping up a façade of hostility with BJP - while flirting intermittently with the third front but maintaining a distance from Congress all along. Her class act was obviously deftly steering the TMC ship out of troubled waters in Saradha – without even a spot on her starched white cotton saree. Madan Mitra was simply a collateral casualty.

If by turning the heat off on Saradha, BJP hoped to reach a compromise with Mamata  – it was disappointed.  But, even though BJP didn’t manage to get her consent on the Land Bill, on other legislations – that had no negative political implication for her - she didn’t side with the Congress just for the sake of opposing the BJP.

How she tackled the fall-out with Mukul Roy through this interregnum can be a case–study even for more seasoned politicians. That Mukul is back burying all speculations about his joining BJP or forming his own party and now campaigning jointly with – wait, hold your breath – her nephew Abhisekh is testimony of her entering the league of Jayalalitha, Nitish and Mulayam.

For all the talk of her failing to deliver the promised “Poriborton” - a counter-factual question would put the matter to rest: . Where would West Bengal be today – if the Left was had not been thrown out? I believe this is also the primary reason why people will vote her back to power. That is not to mean she would be re-elected only on a negative vote for the lack of any alternative. Truly she is the best bet for Bengal at this juncture.

In balance, Trinamool’s five year score-card though not spectacular is not below par either. If Modi government can complain of the burden of legacy – Mamata Banerjee inherited a much bigger mess systematically created over 3 decades of non-rule and misrule.  Not only was she handed over an empty treasury but - with dying industry and trade – also no ready solution to replenish the finances of the state.

Where Mamata tied chains around her own feet is Land Policy. She has to bite this bullet sometime if West Bengal has to be brought out of the ICU. Otherwise, a hundred Resurgent Bengal jamborees and road-shows will not bring investment to the state. However, if Mamata had tried doing it in her first term – it would have been political hara-kiri like Modi realized in good time on the Land Acquisition Bill.

On “Poriborton” Mamata has tried to “change” a lot since she came to power. Equally, it is also true that there are many things she has either not been able to change or chosen not to. In trying to beat the Left in their own game – she may have had to play by their rules. It can also be argued that some of it has been only relabeling – “lumpen-rule” by another name – with only the “price-tag” of corruption going up from ‘Politburo’ administered pricing to a ‘free-market’ model decided by local ‘Dadas’. But, by and large – statistics apart, which anyway tell a good story – even anecdotally Trinamool’s achievements are better than the average of other states in the last few years. One may question the valuation of her paintings – but at least she is not weighed in gold or garlanded with wreathe made of thousand rupee notes on her birthday.

On the communal harmony front – despite accusations of appeasement (unavoidable with a 30% minority population) - arguably West Bengal remains more peaceful than many other states. Of course, there have been sporadic incidents like Malda – where too it was quickly contained and not allowed to flare-up and spread.

Mamata Banerjee is undoubtedly the first Chief Minister of West Bengal after B C Roy who has displayed some concern for aesthetics. One can chuckle at her desire to turn Kolkata into London or scoff at the Trident Lamp posts now further embellished with white and blue LED creepers – but she is the only one, not even the urbane Communist Jyoti Basu, who has made genuine efforts at giving the city and state a visible make-over and face-lift. Her decision to shift the State Secretariat to Howrah for restoration of the historical Writers Building is a bold decision few others would have taken.

Never before has a Bengali Chief Minister tried to showcase and market the state. So be it the chic “Biswa Bangla” Boutiques selling  haute-couture Murshidabad Jamdani and Baluchari Sarees or packaging Nalen Gur in squeezable tubes, she has made a beginning. Similarly, Mango Festival in Malda or Gobinda Bhog (Rice) Utsav in Burdwan – does something to restore Bengali pride.

People can have a dig at her poetry and artistic talent or mock her   “culture” fixation and penchant for hanging out with actors, singers, painters. But, what she has done for older artists living in penury should shame her predecessors.

Ignoring controversy – felicitating the victory of a private cricket team (KKR) in IPL and in return getting its owner to be the Brand Ambassador for Bengal is typically Mamata. Bringing Lionel Messi for a friendly match in football crazy Kolkata or hosting India-Pakistan T20 cricket match after other states turned it down and getting Amitabh Bachchan to sing the National Anthem before the game may have many critics – but undeniably it does bring in a “feel good” factor among Bengalis – who had long forgotten to be happy.

Mamata may have her idiosyncrasies. But, the important point is that, she is comfortable in her skin. Therefore, she hasn’t (at least yet) felt the need to trade her trademark cotton saree for a designer Tangail and doesn’t bat an eye-lid while marching ahead in her Chappals on the banks of the Thames in London, leaving her sneaker clad minions huffing and panting behind in trying to keep pace with her.

Bad poetry or singing off-scale is a small price to pay for a leader who is sincere and displays a semblance of vision that has been missing for so long in the state.

Sandip Ghose is a roving media and marketing professional who looks at life from a right angle. Views expressed are personal and does not represent those of his employers. Twitter @SandipGhose