Discovering a Fondness for Nehru

Indian_Prime_Minister_Jawaharlal_Nehru_with_Denmark_Prime_Minister_H._C._Hansen_in_a_Bumper_Toy_Car_-_Copenhagen,_Denmark,_1957Growing up, Pt. Nehru was one in a long list of people about whom you had to cram up information to be able to write essays in exams. He was a man who featured in the books about general knowledge and in those about great men of India. I think you were supposed to feel some sort of fondness for him, because this great man was after all “Chacha Nehru” and he supposedly loved children. But so did many other adults around you, and they were far more accessible than this long-dead man. He was a man whose photos patriotic characters in old Hindi movies kept in their houses. He was the first prime minister of India. His birthday resulted in a holiday. And yes – he was the man after whom my school was named (Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya). Great man, like I said.

Somewhere during my early adult life, this greatness of Nehru faded from my consciousness. I did read his books. Like I read so many others. But it took much more adulting to start appreciating the man.

It took a lot of reading and traveling to realize how badly many other countries decolonized in the 20th century had done. It took looking at Vietnam, at Cambodia, and at African countries in the grip of autocrats to realize how far-sighted a man we had in our first prime minister, who focused on strengthening democracy, and not on trying to turn his immense popularity into autocratic power. Something he could have done. It took a prolonged stay away from home, exposure to language chauvinism in my country, and the hopeless language policies of some other countries to appreciate the open-mindedness of a man who got Urdu added to the 8th schedule of constitutionally recognized languages after retorting to a Hindi chauvinist friend of his that Urdu “is my language, the language of my ancestors.” It took shedding of a lot of simplistic notions about life, politics, and society to admire the vision of a leader who wasn’t bogged down by the immediate challenges of a newly independent nation and invested in building the institutes of science and technology. It took confronting the cringe-worthy behavior of petty politicians, who rise to power far too often, to admire the statesmanship of the prime minister of a country who power, and even survival, was doubted by all, but who could garner international respect and attention despite that. It took dismay at the utter lack of vision our current leaders display to appreciate the vision of a man who thought of Non-alignment movement back in those days. It took being face to face with the apathy of many regimes towards persecuted refugees to understand the heart of a man who offered refuge to Tibetans, even if he wasn’t in a position to fight China over them (and many Tibetans hate him for that!).

It also took time to understand that the man sold in the books as an infallible great man was after all human. That even if he recognized thirteen languages, including Urdu, in our constitution, he did make a strong case against recognizing every “dialect” of Hindi as a separate language, an idea that reflected in the “Hindi belt” language policy and has done irreversible damage to many languages by subverting them to “standardized” Hindi. That he could have done things differently in Kashmir. That despite his generous and inclusive idea of India, a lot of people were left out of its ambit – you can start by thinking of everyone displaced and ill-compensated for the large projects he championed and of people who continue to suffer for the sake of such state-backed projects even today. That there are a lot of problems our country has that can be traced back to him.

However, with every realization of all the things that were wrong with him, I also realized that so many things that are right with our country can also be traced back to the same man.

It took extensive vilification of this great man by our current regime for me to appreciate him as a visionary leader. It took a certain dear leader and his puerile pettiness for me to discover my fondness for Nehru.

Own Poetry Hindi


राहों में चलते-चलते
कुछ मज़ेदार शक़ल के,
जो कंकड़-पत्थर मिले
हमने उठा लिए।

कभी कहीं किसी की
नज़रें मिली पारखी,
उन्हें अलट-पलट के
हीरे बता दिए।

हमसे तो ना बना
उनका मोल-भाव किए,
जो दाम दिया उन्होंने
ले हम आगे बढ़ गए।

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Own Poetry Hindi

ख़ून की मांग

ख़ून के बदले ख़ून
मांग तो मैं भी लूं,
लेकिन वह ख़ून लेने
मैं तो जाऊंगी नहीं।
तो किस मुंह से मांगू
जो ख़ुद मैं लाऊंगी नहीं‌‌‍?


The Year of Entering Adulthood: A New Year Letter to my Nephews

Dear Shrey and Ayush, 

This year is a big one. I know, I know. Too much pressure already. You don’t need me to remind you of that. You know it from your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and teachers. Oh – and from all the coaching classes you have been attending for years while keeping your (and your parents’) lives on hold. JEE in all its complications and variations, which I can no longer keep track of, is staring you in your face.  

But I am here to tell you that JEE isn’t the reason that this year is a big one. The real reason is what happens after that, whatever be the result. It is the adulthood and all the freedom and responsibilities, all the euphoria and heartbreaks it brings. But first, let’s get JEE and its results out of the way.  

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Here is the real shocker. It doesn’t matter which way the results go, life is not going to be easier after that. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Even if you do well and get into an institute and course of your choice, life is going to be far more hectic and competitive than it has ever been. There will be many more exams – of the academic kind and of life itself – many more scary possibilities of failures. On the other hand, if you don’t do well then you would think that you are starting your career from a position of disadvantage. But that’s not the actual problem because there is a silver lining. It’s a pretty thick lining too. And it is something like this: there isn’t just one way to success and happiness in the world. There isn’t even just one definition of success. You can have your own definition of success and you can follow your own path towards it. You can even decide that success doesn’t matter in the first place. The real tough part is that you will have to figure it out for yourself. And this you will have to do even if you start with a great JEE rank. 

So, all the best. Do well by all means. It’s never going to hurt. But let’s talk about what happens after that. 

A disclaimer here. It is tempting to want to tell you all; to pour all my experiences of the extra eighteen years I have over you into your heads at once, so that you have a head start in life. But what this experience has also taught me is that it is impossible. Nobody lives somebody else’s life. So, I must remind myself (and perhaps your parents too) that you will live life at your own pace, you will have your own existential questions and you will answer them in your own ways. Everything I say here is just one of the many possibilities. Treat every advice I give you as a part of a toolkit. You may decide to use or not use a tool from that kit based on your judgment of its suitability. With that being clear, now I can proceed to the crux of this letter. 

The best and the worst thing about adulthood is that your decisions will have to, increasingly, be your own. There are, perhaps, only a limited number of career, personal, spiritual and moral options available to all of us. But by combining them in our own ways, and most importantly by infusing our own selves into it, each of us creates a unique life for ourselves. This life is not independent of the rest of the world. So the life you have known till now, the lessons you have learnt till now, your parents and your family will continue affecting, shaping and supporting your decisions. But the other influences will be larger as will your own conscious role. It will no longer be enough to listen to those who are supposed to know better. The world changes fast these days. Soon enough, you will find yourself in territories your parents have never chartered, nor others whom you have grown up looking up to. Their experiences and choices may not be suitable for you. You will find yourself facing questions you can’t bring back home to be answered. Your life will have aspects that your loved ones will not understand. You will have to find new people to look up to and new people to solve your problems with, and the ways you have learnt till now may or may not be helpful. 

The world from here on will be as narrow or as wide as you have stomach for. When you meet people who are different from you, you may dismiss them as irrelevant. You may be awed by them and try to emulate them. Or you may find the differences unbearable, even contemptible. I suggest not to adopt any of these attitudes blindly. I suggest openness. I also suggest caution and patience. Not everyone who is different from you is worthy of awe or contempt. True to the old wisdom, not everything that glitters is gold. At other times, something that challenges your existing ideas of right and wrong, of good and bad, and changes those ideas may be the best thing to happen to you in your life. At yet other times, there are simply different ways of being – without any of them necessarily being better or worse than the other. Don’t feel the need to assign positions for every way of life based on some kind of prestige hierarchy. Learn to live with the differences. Learn to enjoy them, cherish them, even. Change your opinions, reject the stereotypes you have in your heads. You don’t have to feel guilty about changing. Just know why you are doing so. You will have opportunities to break down your older biases and expand your horizons. You will also have access to temptations that are best avoided. When you encounter something different and don’t know at first how to react to it, start by respecting it, not by rejecting or condemning it. Then take your time to understand, then decide. 

When you are struggling with decision-making and when you don’t know whether doing something means being open to experiences or succumbing to temptations, remember this golden rule about taking decisions. The right decision for you is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. Most of the time, the consequences not worthy of being lived with are not difficult to know if you apply your cool mind to the question.  

If I have made it sound too complicated and tough by now, don’t worry. It’s not like there isn’t any help available. Reach out for help. There is no shame in asking for help. If friends, seniors, counselors, family members don’t work, reach out to me. 

Now some specifics. 

Wherever you land, but especially if you land in a good place after school, you will hear this new golden truth (and it may come as a surprise in the beginning). That grades and academic performance don’t matter in life. Like a lot of things you will hear from now on, it is simultaneously right and wrong. Good grades are never going to hurt you. At the same time, closing yourself to every other life experience while trying to chase that perfect 10/10 can close too many doors for you. The right decision, as I said earlier, is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. One rule of thumb is this. If you are not putting in your time and effort in academics, be very clear about what exactly you are doing with the time and effort saved. Is it something productive? Is it something that is teaching you important life skills? If so, pursue it by all means. If, on the other hand, that time is being spent in just being cool, perhaps you will not be happy with the consequences. Bad grades with nothing else to recommend you are not a good thing in life. 

The question of what to do with your life may haunt you more often than you like. The answers may not be obvious, easy or immediately available. When that happens, remember not to descend into nothingness. Remember to hold on to something that advances your learning. Attend classes regularly, if you can think of nothing else. Or do something else. Just keep learning. Always work on polishing at least one life skill that can sustain you in the worst of the times. Then you will do well in the best of the times. Life skills can be unconventional. Even spending time on video games can help you learn some, especially if you are also figuring out game design and development in the process (great career!) or finding your way into professional circles (unconventional, but great career if it works for you!). 

It will be easy to succumb to the hectic activities around you. But make time for things that are important. Make time for reading, for traveling, for trying out new experiences, for keeping in touch with your family. Make time for whatever is important to you. Because remember this. When something is on priority, you make time for it. Not having time means it was not your priority. So don’t fool yourself with the excuse of not having time. 

And do you still need some more academic advice? I will give you some before it starts sounding uncool. Unless you find yourself falling into the category of those geniuses who know everything already, the easiest way to get through the academic system, even in the toughest and the most competitive of places, is to attend classes. After that you can use all the time you have for whatever else you want. 

And now, I will rein in the temptation I had referred to earlier. I will not try to tell you all. Rabindranath Tagore had said in his book Gora: 

To offer instruction on any question before it has really arisen in the mind is like giving food before one is hungry  it spoils the appetite and leads to indigestion. 

So, I will stop now. Reach out when you are hungry. Reach out when you have questions. 

Happy new year and all the best. 


Movies · Time Pass

The Nostalgia of Antakshari

Does no one play antakshari anymore?

antakshariPlaying antakshari is one of the simple pleasures of life I miss these days. It is the remnant of times when you didn’t have 24/7 entertainment available and had to find ways of entertaining yourself. Perhaps also a remnant of times when people’s sphere of interests were limited and similar. Evening family gatherings in the inevitable absence of the treacherous electricity, cousins getting together during weddings and functions, and the attempts to enliven those homesick evenings in the school hostel – they are all associated with a lively game of antakshari. And who didn’t like Hindi movie songs?

Even though I call it a simple pleasure of life now, boy, was it a complicated affair? Rules were difficult to agree on. Are the “non-filmi” songs allowed? If allowed, just how far are you allowed to go? Can you go beyond the Hindi language? Albums? Bhajans? That classical song you learned in your music class? School prayers? Folk songs usually sung during weddings and functions?

And even after those boundaries were established, how would you know you were staying within those boundaries? Endless debates:

“You can’t sing that. Aye maalik tere bande hum is a school prayer, not a real song.”

“Idiot! It was sung in a film first. You school picked it up from there.”


“That song doesn’t start with ‘ha’.”

“What does it start with, then?”

“‘na’. It’s ‘Na jaane mere dil ko kya ho gaya…'”

Does an obscure sher before a song count as the beginning of a song, or is it to be ignored as a dialogue? What about all those “ho ho” or “aa ha aa ha aa ha” before the songs? Are Gulzar’s songs even songs?

As someone not very socially adept otherwise, antakshari worked for me. I excelled at it. I could pull out my special reserve of old Hindi movie songs to challenge the opponents of my age and win the approbation of the elders. For many of those songs, I knew nothing about them other than the first couple of lines, just enough to use them in this game. Years later, when I saw the picturization of some of them on YouTube, I was aghast. My mental model of what those songs should have looked like on screen was wildly different.

Two of my latest memories of playing antakshari are almost a decade or more old.

We played it in Lucknow, after our wedding, with a group of cousins. We stayed up almost all night. I and a younger cousin-in-law were pitched against each other, I with my repertoire of old songs, she with her collection of the latest ones. Almost nobody could challenge any of us on the correctness of our songs. We couldn’t challenge each other either. I had no idea that the songs she was picking up actually had any lyrics. And she didn’t know anything about the ones I was picking up.

Before that, I had played antakshari with my colleagues at Google, during a bus ride for a company offsite. The game ended when my own partner accused me of making up the songs I was singing! The song that triggered this betrayal went like this:

Ganga maang rahi balidaan
Yamuna maang rahi qurbani,
Aaj watan par jo mit jaye
Wahi hai sachcha hindustani.

Even today, I can’t find this song on YouTube or any other online sources. So, I can’t prove that I wasn’t making this up. I may misremember the lyrics, I definitely misremember the tune. But the song is real. I had heard it on Doordarshan – some old black and white movie.

At Navodaya, our teachers would rather have us play antakshari with Hindi poetry – not with those inappropriate “filmi songs” that corrupt the young minds. But poems were easy to run out of. And too academic. We always had other plans.

Whatever reserve of older songs I had, the first line of attack always consisted of those cringe-worthy, tacky songs of 90s. I suppose it is always the ones you grow up with.

With the light social gatherings focussed on parties and serious ones focused on books, antakshari has been pushed out of my life. The cosmopolitan nature of my friend circle also means that not everyone is a Hindi movie song buff. God knows I am not a language chauvinist, but antakshari doesn’t lend itself to language egalitarianism without spoiling the fun!

But if we do ever have a face-off in antakshari, do be prepared for songs like “dulhe ka sehra suhana lagta hai” and “roop suhana lagta hai, chaand purana lagta hai”. And remember “ho gaya hai tujhko to pyaar sajna” doesn’t start with “ha” and “sandeshe aate hain” starts with “ho o o o”, and hence with “ha”. Also, try not to descend into “Maine Pyaar Kiya” antakshari sequence.

Feminism · Thoughts

क्या #MeToo का जवाब भारतीय संस्कृति है?

ट्विटर पर #MeToo ने कहर मचाया हुआ है। कुछ लोग खुश हैं कि आख़िरकार हमारे समाज का भयावह चेहरा सामने आ गया है और आगे कुछ बेहतर होगा। कुछ लोग बहुत ही परेशान हैं और इन सब आरोपों के सबूत ढूँढ़ते फिर रहे हैं। कुछ लोग #MeToo में भाग लेने वाली महिलाओं को ग़लत साबित करने में, उन्हें गालियाँ और तरह-तरह की धमकियाँ देने में व्यस्त हैं। लेकिन थोड़े लोग ऐसे भी हैं जो कि बड़े आत्मसंतुष्ट हैं। ये संस्कारी लोग हैं। नहीं, नहीं, मैं आलोक नाथ का बिलकुल भी मज़ाक़ नहीं उड़ा रही! ये वे लोग हैं जिन्हें भरोसा है कि दुनिया में जो भी समस्याएं हैं, वे इसलिए हैं कि हम भारतीय संस्कृति से दूर होते जा रहे हैं। इसलिए उनका मानना है कि जो ये यौन शोषण और उत्पीड़न की घटनाएँ सामने आ रही हैं, वह भी इसलिए हैं कि हम अपने संस्कारों से दूर होते जा रहे हैं।

तो इसलिए मैंने सोचना शुरु किया कि क्या भारतीय संस्कृति के पास वाक़ई #MeToo का जवाब है?

(दरअसल मैंने अभी सोचना नहीं शुरु किया है, काफ़ी समय से सोचा हुआ है। लेकिन कुछ लोगों को शायद अच्छा लगे कि उन्होंने किसी को भारतीय संस्कृति के बारे में सोचने पर मजबूर कर दिया। इसलिए ऊपर ऐसा लिख दिया मैने।)

तो क्या भारतीय संस्कृति #MeToo का जवाब हो सकती है? कई पहलू हैं। एक-एक करके विचार करते हैं।

यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः

ऐसे कुछ-एक श्लोकों के साथ हमारा दावा यह होता है कि भारतीय संस्कृति नारियों की पूजा करती है, वह उनका अपमान नहीं कर सकती। अब इसपर शास्त्रीय बहस हो सकती है कि जो लिखा गया उसका क्या मतलब है? और क्या-क्या लिखा गया? उन सबको मिलाकर उस ज़माने के समाज की क्या तस्वीर बनती है। लेकिन मैं इस शास्त्रीय बहस में नहीं जाना चाहती। बस एक तुर्रा छोड़ देती हूँ कि जरा यह सोचिए कि नारियों के लिए खास कर के ऐसे श्लोक लिखने की आवश्यकता ही क्यों पड़ी? कई अन्य श्लोक भी हैं जिनमें नारियों को खुश रखने की गुज़ारिश की गई है। क्यों करनी पड़ी ये ख़ास गुज़ारिश? शायद इसलिए कि नारियों की हालत उस समाज में भी अच्छी नहीं थी।


लेकिन अगर मेरे तुर्रे से आप सहमत नहीं भी है तो कोई बात नहीं। क्योंकि तब क्या था इससे मुझे फ़र्क़ नहीं पड़ता है। आज श्लोक सुनकर किसका पेट भरता है? और पूजा किसे करवानी है? ढोंगी बाबाओं को अपनी पूजा करवाने का शौक होगा। एक आम इंसान को, स्त्रियों को भी, आम जीवन में सुख, शांति, खुशियाँ, स्वतंत्रता, सम्मान और जीने का हक़ चाहिए होता है। किसी जीते -जागते इंसान को देवी-देवता बनाना और पूजा के कमरे में बंद कर देना उसके साथ नाइंसाफ़ी ही होगी। भ्रूण-हत्या करने के बाद, ज़िंदा रहने दिया तो क़दम-क़दम पर उन्हें पीछे खींचने के बाद, उनके आने-जाने पर रोक-टोक लगाने के बाद, बाहर निकली तो उन्हें शर्मिन्दा करने के बाद, श्लोकों में नारियों की पूजा कर के हम कौन सा धमाल मचा देंगे?

नारियों की पूजा करने से नारियों का कोई भला नहीं होता है।

संस्कारी भारतीय पुरुष नारियों की रक्षा करते हैं।

क्यों करनी पड़ती है रक्षा? आप कहेंगे कि आज-कल ग़ैर-संस्कारी लोगों से करनी पड़ती है। लेकिन संस्कृति तो पुरानी है ना? और जिन जगहों पर सब पुराने संस्कारों वाले लोग रहते हैं, वहाँ ये बात और भी ज़ोर-शोर से कही जाती है। क्या दर्शाता है यह हमारे समाज की स्थिति के बारे में। पहली तो यह कि स्त्रियाँ सुरक्षित नहीं है। दूसरी यह कि उन्हें अपनी सुरक्षा करना सिखाया नहीं जाता।

इस विचारधारा का परिणाम ये होता है कि अगर कोई पुरुष नहीं है उसकी रक्षा करने के लिए तो ये मान लिया जाता है कि नारी खतरे में पड़ेगी ही। तो ये नारी की गलती हो जाती है कि बिना पुरुष की सुरक्षा के उसने कुछ किया या कहीं गई। नारी को सब शर्मिन्दा करते हैं। उसपर हमला करने वाले को कोई शर्मिन्दा नहीं करता।

यह कैसा समाज है? क्यों नारियों को इस विशेष सुरक्षा की ज़रूरत है। कितने भारतीय पुरुष आज की तारीख में प्रशिक्षित योद्धा हैं? आम पुरुष तो नहीं है। तो जहाँ इन पुरुषों को अंगरक्षक लेकर चलने की ज़रूरत नहीं पड़ती, वहाँ नारियों को इसकी ज़रूरत क्यों पड़ती है? आज के ज़माने में ज़्यादातर पुरुष युद्ध कर के अपनी रक्षा नहीं करते। उन्हें भरोसा होता है कि इसकी ज़रूरत नहीं है। समाज के नियम और देश का क़ानून उनकी रक्षा करते हैं। देश का, समाज का जो क़ानून इन पुरुषों की रक्षा कर सकता है, वह स्त्रियों के लिए काफ़ी क्यों नहीं है? और अग़र नहीं ही है तो बनाओ उसे और मजबूत।

भारतीय संस्कृति नारियों को सुरक्षा नहीं देती। पुरुषों को उनका रक्षक बनाकर वह इन सवालों से अपने हाथ धो लेती हैं। और जो पुरुष उन्हीं नारियों का शोषण करते हैं, उनके साथ हिंसा करते हैं, उन्हें भी अपनी ज़िम्मेदारियों से मुक्त कर देती है। बल्कि उन्हें अप्रत्यक्ष रूप से ही सही, बढ़ावा देती है, कि करो नारियों पर हमला। एक नारी ने बिना किसी पुरुष का सहारा लिए कुछ करने की कोशिश की है। तो उसे सबक सिखाओ और अपनी जगह दिखाओ।

और ऐसा नहीं है कि जिन पुरुषों को रक्षा की ज़िम्मा दिया गया है, वे ही भक्षक नहीं बन जाते। मुझसे बहस करते समय आप उन्हें ग़ैर-संस्कारी बता कर उनसे पल्ला झाड़ लेंगे। लेकिन तब भी असल जीवन में उन पुरुषों को भी कोई सज़ा नहीं देता। स्त्री को सब चुप करा देते हैं।

तो माफ़ कीजिए। पुरुषों को नारी की सुरक्षा का ज़िम्मा देकर भारतीय संस्कृति नारियों की रक्षा नहीं करती। बल्कि वह यह मान लेती है कि समाज नारियों के लिए सुरक्षित नहीं हो सकता। वह उनकी सुरक्षा की ज़िम्मेदारी लेने से इंकार करती है।

संस्कारी भारतीय नारियाँ ख़ुद को खतरे में नहीं डालती।

वे आधुनिक, कामकाज़ी नारियों की तरह पुरुषों से अकेले मिलने नहीं जाती, शराब नहीं पीती, इत्यादि इत्यादि।

कुछ समस्याएँ हैं इस तर्क में। एक ये कि जो नारियाँ ना बाहर काम करने जाती हैं, ना शराब पीती हैं, वे भी सुरक्षित नहीं हैं। अगर आप संस्कारी वातावरण में रहते हैं तो अपने आस-पास की घटनाओं पर भी थोड़ी गहरी नज़र डालें। ना ही आधुनिक समाज में सारे हमले शराब पी हुई स्त्रियों पर होते हैं। और शराब हो भी तो अगर एक शराब पिए हुए पुरुष के साथ कोई बदतमीज़ी नहीं करता, तो स्त्रियों के साथ करने की भी कोई वजह नहीं है। इस तरह के तर्कों को विक्टिम-ब्लेमिंग कहते हैं। यानि कि अपराध की ज़िम्मेदारी पीड़ित इंसान पर डाल दी जाती है, बजाय अपराधी के ऊपर डालने के। ऐसे तर्कों का एक आधुनिक, सभ्य समाज में कोई स्थान नहीं है। जो संस्कृति नारियों के हर काम में, हर बात में ऐब ढूँढ़ना चाहती है, उन्हें खुल कर जीने देने की बजाय उनके पैरों में संस्कारों के नाम की बेड़ियाँ बाँध देना चाहती है, वह #MeToo का कारण है, उसका समाधान नहीं। जेल में बंद होकर सुरक्षित रहना किसी का सपना नहीं होता। हमें घर में, सड़कों पर, ऑफ़िस में, बाज़ार में, बस, रेल या मेट्रो में, पार्टियों में, यहाँ तक की शराब वाली पार्टियों में, कहीं भी स्त्री-मात्र होने की वजह से असुरक्षित महसूस करना स्वीकार्य नहीं है।

जिस संस्कृति के पास इसका समाधान हो, वह अपना डंका पीटे। अन्यथा #MeToo को स्वीकार करे।