What Bollywood can teach you about India: Khoobsarat Edition

” I love it. If you watch it once you will watch it every day”- Google Reviews

“A modern day fairytale, loosely based on the Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy of the same name, helmed by Sonam Kapoor? I dreaded going into ‘Khooburat’, plagued as I was by dark thoughts of Kapoor’s previous botched attempts at carrying off real characters, which ranged from the terribly twee (‘Aisha’), to the mercifully short (‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’). One of the most pleasant surprises of ‘Khoobsurat’, I’m happy to report, is that Kapoor is not half-bad.” – The Indian Express

Here we are again, dear sweet readers! I am deeply sorry for the delay in posting, what can I say, life happens and sometimes chronicling it is an impossibility. In the months and months since my last post, I sped around India, and the world, my first novel debuted, my brother got married, lots of things happened.

But also, I watched a movie, and I have some THINGS to SAY about it! So let’s get to that, shall we? Now, in the past I have introduced you to many a leading lady of Hindi cinema. We’ve had our Alia time, our Katrina time, and even our dear Deepika time (congrats on your wedding, Deepdeep, but the fact that I was not invited STINGS). We have had some fake stars that no one cares about, aka the cast of Calendar Girls (but I care about you, ladies! Especially Ruhi Singh, who played my beloved Mayuri, the real hero of that movie). Now, we have someone in between! Are you excited? I know I am!

Meet Sonam Kapoor.

Sonam is all kinds of interesting, not as a human individual, god no, one has only to read an interview with this woman who talks about reading Jane Austen like that is some kind of accomplishment and not, perhaps, the most accessible English novelist in the world, call me when you scratch the surface of Jude the Obscure, Sonson, but in what she represents.

You see, Sonam is the daughter of a very famous person, which in and of itself is also sort of whatever, that’s just luck of the genepool, right? But Anil Kapoor, who contributed to 50% of Sonam’s DNA, has a knack for business, specifically of the film kind. In fact, the whole family is a film dynasty, founded by Sonam’s grandfather, Surinder Kapoor, who moved to Mumbai on the advice of his famous cousin, Pritviraj Kapoor, father of Raj Kapoor, star of Bollywood’s golden 50s and 60s films. Surinder, however, became a producer, paving the way for his children and grandchildren to become Bollywood royalty, which they are! Which is lucky for our Sonam, because if she had been trying to make in on her talent alone, well, let’s just say there is always law school, right?

Most of the Kapoors work in cinema, and while it seems that the talent of the family has diluted over time, Sonam has become really good at being famous for being famous, which really is a talent, if you think about it! She’s sort of boring, and basic, but she is also tall, and fair, which in India means she is pretty, and I think they are careful to underfeed her, because she is quite thin. She likes fashion, or so she claims, although her unbearably Indian-basic wedding dress suggests something else:

She shows up at Cannes a lot, but has never had a movie that actually….made it to Cannes. That’s actually probably all you really needed to understand Sonam, actually. Or, you could just read this quote:

“For some people, the highlight of their entire month could be going out and eating a pizza or watching a movie at a multiplex, and here I am visiting four countries in a month. So, in that way, movies have made me socially aware. I now know how simple people live their lives.”

Oh, Sonam. #simplepeople

All this is to set you up for this movie, which was produced by Sonam’s father and her younger sister, Rhea, and another guy named Siddarth Kapur who spells his name as Kapur not Kapoor because WHY????? He is not related to the other Kapoors, but it’s still weird. Khoobsarat, a Kapoor cacophony, was conceived, created and cast out upon the public purely as a vehicle for Sonam, who carries the movie like an ungainly swan charging around Rajasthan with the spirit and grace of a drunk toddler. It’s pretty fun. Let’s get into it.

First and foremost, for all its flaws, this movie ups our jobs for women in India! Remember, we had sex slave/farm worker, doctor, calendar girl, actress, model, visual artist, electricity company worker, and whatever the hell Deepika decided to do with her life in Chennai Express. Now, we have physiotherapist! You hear that, ladies? You got options!

Meet Mili Chakravarty, who people call Dr. Chakravarty despite the fact that most physiotherapist do not actually have doctorates. But let’s assume Mili does, she is so spunky and fun, why not? Do you catch that Mili is spunky and quirky and fun? Well, if you didn’t, don’t even worry about that, because nothing, and I mean nothing in this movie is going to be repeated to you more than that.

Look! She wears glasses! She works with cricket players! When all else fails, she pulls a guy’s leg and he is all better! Isn’t she great????
We begin with Mili in her job as team physiotherapist, which I guess is a thing, to the Kolkata Night Riders (DUMB name), despite the fact that she lives in Delhi, and the team is in…Kolkata, as the name might suggest. Sigh.  Her colleague asks her to go treat some king in Rajasthan, who we later find out is kind of paralyzed? Which doesn’t seem like a physiotherapist situation so much as a spinal nerve damage issue but hey, I’m not the doctor! And neither is Mili. BURN.
Her colleague wants Mili to treat the King because he keeps delaying his honeymoon and has no time and this makes no sense but the whole point is just to show us that Mili is sad and single and free to go to Rajasthan.

I like to imagine that this is actually nuanced commentary on inappropriateness in the workplace. But it isn’t. There is no nuance here.

Lesson number 1! There is no nuance here! And anyone can be a doctor in India. You, me, anyone, just put it right there in front of your name!

Then we see the family Mili will be visiting. First, the queen, played by the incomparable Ratna Pathak Shah, who is wasted  on this movie.

We are supposed to think she’s a dick because she side eyes her maid, but I just think this she is a gorgeous woman with standards. Get it together, maid!

We also see her son, Vikram, who is played by the dreamy-as-hell Fawad Khan. Fawad Khan is….everything.

The man sings, dances, acts, has a clothing company, plays the guitar AND the drums, and is very very good on the eyes, if ya know what I mean. He also is Pakistani, and India banned Pakistani actors from working in India after the recent surgical strikes at the boarder, but probably also because Fawad Khan isn’t fair to all Indian male stars because he is better than everyone. I mean, seriously.

This guy gets it. That is the look everyone ever has had on their face while looking at Fawad Khan.

This is the look you have on your face when Fawad Khan can’t act in India any more and you know life is no longer worth living. Also, that guy looks like the Lorax, right? Right. Lesson two! The Lorax is real, and he lives in Rajasthan.

Much like Shah, Khan is also wasted in this movie.

Vikram has a fiance, but she is mostly silent, soooooooo, cool. He meets a college friend who is weirdly insistent that she is going to leave Vikram. WHO WOULD LEAVE HIM? HE IS BEAUTIFUL.

Look at that look on her face. She gets it.

And then we have the king himself, played by Aamir Raza Husain, who is a benevolent wine-soaked downer. One thing I like about this movie is that they consume a lot of wine, and I get that. The king wears lovely dressing gowns and doesn’t care about his physical well being:

And they have a daughter but oh my god that subplot is so worthless no one cares. She’s always late for dinner, she doesn’t matter, it’s fine.

Anyway, Mili lives with her family in Delhi and her mother wants her to get married. That is also the beginning of every story about a girl from Delhi ever, probably. THAT is some Jane Austen shit, SONAM!

Mili calls her mother by her first name, which shows us how cool and modern she is, but also Mili lives at home at the age of twenty-whatever despite the fact that her job is in Kolkata so…..yeah.

Anyway, Mili heads up to the palace in Rajasthan, because this movie is also an ad for tourism in Rajasthan, and is awed by it, and takes photos like any Delhite would, and because Mili is a barely functional human being, instantly disrupts the household. She is weird and judgmental and like, eats a bunch of drumsticks by hand or whatever, and the queen is not amused.

 

My husband would love it if we lived by this rule. Although Mili quickly establishes that she is the worst, I am with her, this is weird. Who doesn’t talk when they eat? Lesson number three! In India, it is rude to talk when you eat, apparently?

Sidebar: Why, when trying to show a woman has a personality in a Bollywood film, is the instinct always to make her terrible? Why does she have to be mean, annoying, and weird? Why can’t she be cool? I know so many cool Indian ladies. Why can’t she, like, be a civil rights advocate, or an environmentalist, or fighting for educational equity? Why can’t her rebellion be, like, against labor issues? Why can’t her thing be that she is outspoken…about the slums? Why is she always just a low key jerk? Sidebar OUT.

Mili goes to bed in her delightful room which she drapes scarves all over because….why? Why did she pack that many scarves? How much did Mili pack? She has SO many outfits, and enough scarves that she can cover her room with scarves and STILL HAVE MORE SCARVES TO WEAR. Was her bag just scarves? This film is such a mystery. Lesson number four, bring all the scarves you own while traveling. You never know when they will come in handy!

Mili goes outside and the power goes out, because that is a real thing in India, rolling blackouts, and then she goes back inside but to the wrong room just as Prince Vikram gets back and goes to bed. They do this whole “in the same bed but they don’t know” thing that is about as realistic as a jelly-bean rainstorm, and then they realize they are in bed with a stranger and do the whole “but who are YOU” crap. It’s tedious. Mili continues to be the worst:

LIES. He looks like the prince of everyone’s DREAMS, Mili! She concludes that he is a snob because he is a perfectly normal human and he concludes that she is insane because she very clearly is, and then we get a montage in which Mili wears a multitude of outfits and nothing really happens.

Mili is very into print mixing and I am NOT here for it.

But seriously WHAT DID THIS WOMAN PACK? She is there to do a JOB, but she packed for, like, an offensively Native-American themed beach vacation. She also does yoga on the lawn at night which….okay. Whatever.

Vikram scolds her for her clothing like a man who has never been sweated all over by a guy with a man-bun and shorts and nothing else in a Manhattan yoga class. Vikram! Come on! That said, her taste is appalling.

Anyway, the more important PLOT thing is that the King won’t work on his legs, or whatever, the actual issue is never really explained, but he doesn’t want to get well because….we will get to that, so Mili is bored and thinking about leaving this stuffy palace when she decides to get drunk with the staff at night.

Man, I hope this sounds better in Hindi.

She drinks, she dances, she hears the sad story of how the king hurt himself in a car accident which killed their older son and if they are royalty wouldn’t this have been in the papers and how come there are no photos or paintings of that guy and like, we don’t ever really know his name so he is clearly a narrative device, right? Cool. Cool cool cool. Maybe he is like the son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and he isn’t REAL.

Oh boy.

Mili wakes up hungover and with a new appreciation for these poor little rich people. She hatches a new plan for how to trick the king into getting better, by pretending she doesn’t plan to help him at all. It’s this kind of logic that bars her from her doctorate.

Her clothing in this movie is a SITUATION.

ANYway. She runs around in more insane outfits (seriously, how much did she pack? Are her parents sending her stuff? Is she a compulsive shopper? That is the REAL story here) and the king lets her have the run of his wine seller. Love him. Lesson number four, when in Rajasthan, try the wine! She talks to Vikram about why she is single:

Oh, lady. That is something your mom and your friends tell you before you do so major work on yourself and get it together and then everyone is like, oh thank god. Anyway, Mili and Vikram share some wine and a moment, despite these two actors having literally no spark, it’s like trying to start a fire under water. Whatever. Mili is more into her scarves right now, anyway.

She goes with Vikram to meet the seller of a palace who is the Lorax from the plan and has a dope jacket on, and that palace is CLEARLY the Amber Fort in Jaipur and not for sale. The guy is like, want to fire a gun? No one should give that woman a gun. He does anyway. Sigh.

Again with the horrible print mixing. But I can’t fault the Lorax. He doesn’t want Vikram to cut down trees, er, buy his palace. Then why are you SELLING it, Lorax? Come on, man!

Oh, god, and then this whole thing happens in which Mili is kidnapped, which does not seem on brand for Rajasthan’s tourism campaign which is clearly the real hero of this film, but whatever, and Vikram saves her, and the kiss which makes no sense, and then it’s like:

Ugh, that hat. That is some sad Etsy right there. They decide to forget the kiss ever happened, after all, he has a fiance (or does he???? She has no lines and no one ever meets her and she isn’t THERE, maybe she is a ghost! That would have made this a much more interesting movie. Lesson number five, sons, and fiances, might be ghosts, be alert.) But Mili is sad, and in that sadness wears the only normal clothing combination she wears in this whole movie:

The king has decided he does sort of want to walk again, which…again, don’t care. No one does. The daughter wants to be an actress. The queen wants to be in a better movie. It all keeps going on. A sad song plays.

Ugh, how does Mili SLEEP with all that shit on her bed? Again, she is the worst. She is never not the worst. She even print mixes her PAJAMAS.

They are awkward. About as awkward as her chiffon vest over a t-shirt.

Vikram plans his wedding. The look on his face is the same look my husband has while thinking about clothing shopping/buying/etc, so that felt real. But the point is he would be loving that brocade if MILI was his bride.

No, he wouldn’t. It’s not a great brocade. Sorry, bro.

Vikram and Mili go back to the Lorax, he’s doing well, and Vikram extends to him a deal in which they are partners and he can stay in his palace because Mili, a genuine asshole, has made him a better man. It makes no sense but the Lorax is happy so I’m okay with it. Then they get drunk! I love how much wine they drink in this movie. It’s magnificent.

Mili and Vikram stumble around like people who have never had a drink before, and decide to stay the night.

This scene is whatever but the ROOM, my god. All of the interiors are awesome in this movie when Mili isn’t covering them with scarves from her magical suitcase that contain legions.

For some reason Mili’s parents come to visit her (at her JOB? BOUNDARIES) which is super weird, and much like their child, they are the literal worst. The mother, Manju, chastises the queen about how she lives her life IN HER OWN HOME, and somehow the queen restrains herself from having these people torn limb from limb. We are clearly supposed to think they are fun and cool and the royals are stuffy but…they are the literal worst, so….I do not! Anyway, Mili comes back during all this and it turns out the daughter no one cares about has run away which…no one cares about and the queen blames Mili, the weird rude person who covers her beautiful home with horrible scarves, and Mili’s mom is a dick like her kid:

These people need to make like the Jordan Peele film and GET. OUT.

Except for the fact that she is clearly color blind.

Mili confronts Vikram and he tells her it isn’t going to work between them because she is an emotionally unstable nutjob, ahem, I mean, because they so different.

Mili looks at him like he is saying crazy-talk, not a very real and legit statement. Then she and her horrible parents leave. She doesn’t even get her stuff! What about her scarves, her beautiful scarves? The point is, she is gone. Happy ending? Nope. There is more.

Mili is back at home and we can see that her print-mixing tendencies run bone deep. I like the idea that the extremely wealthy Kapoor family was like, what do middle class people like? Colors that clash. Always. Yes. Nothing says middle class like clashing color. Lesson number six! Nothing says middle class like colors clashing!

Sonam tries to cry but it is clear that someone just dumped some saline solution on her face. Also, Mili has the room of a 16 year old girl.

Vikram can’t take it anymore because….no reason. They really don’t set this relationship up well. He goes and breaks up with his ghost fiance who is very chill about this and has her OWN palace so she will be fine.

I feel like maybe they were setting up a sequel or something with this line. It’s just so weird. But maybe it’s all a part of her ghost life!

And then Vikram comes and finds Mili at a paintball space thing in Delhi and proposes. So….yeah. That’s this movie.

The obvious best and most realistic part is when Sonam wears this sweater proving that she, and Mili are Punjabi AF:

That is some North India realness right there. I saw like five dudes in a version of that sweater the last time I was in Amritsar. Lesson number six! North India is an ugly sweater parade. Get into it.

And there you have it! Six lessons, one new job for women, and you got to learn about Sonam Kapoor, a woman who launched her own lifestyle app a few years ago and once called Aishwarya Rai Bachan “an auntie from another generation”. Oh, Jesus. She IS Mili, isn’t she?

Advertisements

Nothing became him in life like the leaving of it: To Brother Cadfael, Rest in Power

Today is the anniversary of my cat’s death. It is also, coincidentally, the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, and she loved cats, so I guess that makes sense. But my grandmother passed away years ago, and while I think of her often, it is my cat who I am thinking about most today.

I wrote the following essay a few weeks after we had to put him to sleep and wasn’t ready to share it. But I am now. So here it is: 

On Saturday night, fueled by sadness, loneliness and Old Monk rum, I sat in my apartment, a two bedroom with tiled floors and open windows and under the ever-whirring fan with a large gecko watching me curiously, I cried and screamed like a wounded animal for thirty minutes.

Part of me was worried that someone might hear me and be bothered by it. After all, it was past midnight, and I was screaming loudly. I’m a loud person, but I still didn’t know that I could scream that way, that grief could pour out of me like water from a faucet but sound like a waterfall. It was the Niagara of screams, pounding and unending. When I have read the phrase “the scream torn through her” in the past I enjoyed the image, but this time I felt what it was like, to feel like your voice was tearing through your body.

No one did hear me. Or if they did, they didn’t mention anything.

Our apartment building is in a complex, like so many in Indian cities. Our complex was created by Saraswat Brahamins, who can trace their community back to its ancient roots at the now non-existent Saraswat river, where they worshiped Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Now most of the community lives in South India, but migrants to Mumbai have created this and other apartment complexes. It’s a very nice place to live, and I like it here. But it is not my home. It will never be my home.

Home is an ephemeral term for adults who left the nest but haven’t built their own. Instead of birds, we are more like hermit crabs, trying out shells to encase our fragile lives, hoping that the next one, and the next, will be all we need, but suspecting that we might want to move on, try other places, sooner or later. I would like a nest. I would like permanence. Sometimes I think maybe that’s a bad thing, that I am static, unyielding, ill-suited to adaptation. Sometimes I defend my desire for roots, for a home, for a real sense that I can invest in a space in a big way, to know that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are all in one place, and all safe. There is danger, I feel, in movement. I would be one of those hermit crabs that people think is just a shell, if I could, so still and unmoving would I be.

We don’t really know our neighbors. And if we had stayed in New York, we wouldn’t have known them there, either, probably. Most of the world does not know it’s neighbors and if India is any standard from which to judge, knowing one’s neighbors probably carries as many problems as it does whatever small town Grovers Corners charm we city folk deride and long for. Knowing one’s neighbors means being judged by them, being accountable to them, and perhaps it is for the best that we don’t know our neighbors because if one of them did hear me screaming my lungs out on Saturday night they might have said something and I would have had to apologize and explain and all that. And I’m happy I didn’t have to do that. I suppose. It is exhausting to explain things.

When I was first planning on coming to India, I told lots of people about it. My parents told lots of people about it. But now when people ask me about it, I find myself feeling excruciatingly tired immediately. It’s just too much to explain. How do I quickly encapsulate the crushing pulse of humanity, the constant oppression of heat and overwhelming need and pervasive scent of sewage and finding charm in what is charmless but also somehow charming and the woman who threw a brick at a cat a foot from me and the guard who walked me down the street to help me find where I was going and the girls who stared at me and giggled and the sweaty sweaty street cricket/dancing/praying/existence and the toddler I saw sleeping on the pavement? And the man who watched me walk down the street, masturbating furiously at a bus stop? And the flowers? And the dust? And chickens everywhere? Can you explain how your city is? Can anyone? To do it justice, to balance it all out, it would take forever, and I have become increasingly terrified of doing India a disservice, of doing my life a disservice, of representing myself as happier or more unhappy than I actually am, or of painting the worst, of confirming what people already think and suspect and fear, or of contradicting them fiercely so their first world guilt muscle gets a work out.

Because, perhaps, I am so rooted in being rooted, I am rarely able to see the adventure in movement. I tried, I really did, I asked my husband if we would have adventures, if this would be an adventure. He scowled and said that he wasn’t Mowgli, and while I understood him, that made some part of me very sad. It is better that he is practical and funny, but oh, if only he had thought of this as some great adventure, perhaps I could have to. But as our departure date came closer and closer, all I could really think about was everything I was leaving behind. My friends, my family, long evenings of wine and Thai food, really good pizza and really bad pizza, libraries, excellent art museums, theater any night of the week, affordable sushi, expensive ramen, biking around Philadelphia, walking around Brooklyn, the secure sense of knowing what I was doing and how to get places, arguments over subway lines, cherry blossoms meaning springtime, drinkable tap water, social services, a social life. I guess I didn’t really know, honestly, everything I was leaving behind, I couldn’t really imagine, and I wanted to give Mumbai the benefit of the doubt, I wanted to be excited. Have adventures. I have had adventures, I suppose. I have. I’m very lucky. I tell myself that all the time.

The only thing about my life, other than of course, my husband, my relationships, very important things that have no physical matter and matter very much, that I could bring with me, really bring, in its completeness, was my cat. And now he is gone.

Hence the screaming.

I acquired Cadfael because he needed a home, and my mother had become a stop on the underground cat railroad, by virtue of the face that we had, at the time, a large garden behind our house in Philadelphia, and she would put food out for passing felines. She was and is insistent that they told each other to find a good meal at her house, but I think cats are too selfish for that. Still, someone alerted Cadfael to stop by for dinner, which he did, with frequency. Skinny, covered in sores, he was extremely friendly even after the food was finished, and I knew, feeding him one night, that he must be somebody’s baby. His lack of microchip and my mother’s own full house of cats meant Cadfael came home with me, carried in my arms, he was that gentle. He hid under my bed for a month, coming out only to eat, until a cold meant I stayed home from work and we bonded over our mutual need to sleep 20 hours a day. Even when I returned to normal, he decided, I suppose, that I was an honorary cat and he could keep me as his pet. And so he came with me to Brooklyn, and then, eventually, India.

Getting him to India was horrible, and it became the sole focus of all my moving-related stress. I thought of nothing but his paperwork, his official USDA approved vet visit, and his vaccination history, which looked different from an Indian cat’s and therefore caused some concern. I couldn’t give him up, you see. I couldn’t do it. He was the only thing I could really take with me, and I had already given up too much. He was home, he was my home, no matter the apartments and movement from place to place, he was home. He was my nest.

He loved India. My husband firmly believes that he was Indian at heart, despite his disinterest in spices, because he adapted far faster than I did. Our apartment here has one large marble windowsill, which stays cool and gave him the perfect viewing point from which to scream at passing wild green parakeets and crows. At night, swarms of moths fell prey to his hunting paws, and a baby lizard met its end in his stomach. He snoozed in tropical splendor, like the British Babus of old, and charmed cat-averse guests who proclaimed him as “chill”, a popular epithet in these parts.

His cancer came on him quickly, depriving him of his favorite pass time, other than sleep, eating. Taking care of him was exhausting, and it terrified my husband and I in different ways, but all towards the same conclusion. My head swam with concerns, monitoring his behavior, checking in a thousand times when I wasn’t with him, trying to ignore the sinking recognition that he just. Wasn’t. Getting. Better. There would be no better. Quick on that understanding’s heels was the terribly selfish thought, and what about me? What I will I do when he’s gone? How will I cope with the loneliness, now sharper and more painful than ever, the loss of my comfort, the loss of my home? I hated myself for thinking about that, hated myself for focusing on myself when he was in pain, lying there, submitting to my clumsy attempts to feed him through his neck tube without a protest, without even a scratch at the tube, looking beyond me into the palm trees outside our windows, where the birds he loved to hate chattered away.

The cancer was inoperable. He was 14, almost 15, a high school sophomore, a senior citizen cat, and there was no way to explain to him what was happening, or ask him what he wanted, if he wanted to try to fight with chemotherapy. I pictured him in mini live strong bracelets on each leg, for a grim kind of laugh, but we knew what we had to do.

I grew up with animals, but as a child I was spared the unpleasant reality of their passing. As children are. But I’m not a child anymore, and so I woke up early on a Saturday morning, and gently placed Cadfael, more alert because of his steroid treatments but six pounds lighter than his usual self and weak, drooling because of his tumor-swollen tongue, into a plastic basket we used as a cat carrier, swaddled in towels to make him comfortable. We took an Uber to the vet clinic, and I murmured to him, crying, as we crossed our neighborhood. The rains were petering away, but it was a wet day, and I wanted to protect him from getting wet, wanted him to be okay, to not be scared, to not be in pain. I wanted this to not be happening. I wanted him to be whole and complete and stay with me forever and I wanted to protect him like I promised him I would. But I couldn’t.

Everyone told me that I had given him the best life possible, because I had, I think, and who would have said otherwise, at a time like this, but what did that matter? My pain isn’t, wasn’t, isn’t guilt from mistreatment or negligence. Its loss, the hole in my heart I knew was coming. The last of everything, the last time to scratch him under his chin, to tickle that spot on his back he loved, to brush him and marvel at how much he shed, to hold him in my arms and feel that solid warm weight, that sense that I was holding something that was mine, something unchanging, something that couldn’t be destroyed or altered by distance, by living far from home in a place that I worry, sometimes daily, might someday make me very unhappy, and what will I do then? What will I do then, without him?

My husband couldn’t watch him pass, and I don’t blame him for that, I really don’t. But I had to be there. I couldn’t let him be alone, without someone who loved him. I had to keep my hand on his back, holding on to him, as the efficient poison infiltrated his bloodstream, as he slipped forever away from me. I owed him that. I had dragged him across the world, and I had to be with him as he left it.

The clinic that had treated him and put him to sleep didn’t have cremation facilities, and so, what could be more Indian than this, we packed his body up into his plastic basket, and ordered up another Uber, transporting him to South Bombay where an animal hospital established by Parsi benefactors in 1883 would charge us about 20 USD to cremate him. This was, to me, absurd, as absurd as death itself. Sitting with my cat’s dead body next to me as we navigated Bombay traffic and a sudden deluge of rain, giving him the funeral procession so many Hindu bodies themselves have, carried on stretchers to be cremated, seemed to me insane, bizarre, completely surreal. But we did it. What else could we do? We arrived at the place, a serene oasis in the midst of the maximum city, and looked around in wonder, as Cadfael’s dead weight hurt my arms. My husband smiled, and said that Cadfael had brought us somewhere amazing, and I didn’t disagree. I wandered the remains of an old chemistry lab, smiling sadly at stray cats who dotted the area, snapping photos of the original Parsi benefactors’ marble busts and the photograph of Jesus with animals taped all over it.

In the crematorium area, all of the accoutrements of Hindu cremation sat out on the table, but I did not anoint him with oils or powers. I could not bear to touch him, and I’m Jewish, anyway. Instead, I handed him over, asking for the ashes. We were informed that it would take time for them to cool, so we took a trip to a nearby mall, where I studied container options at Muji, the first and only one in Mumbai, googling things like “how can you tell how much ash there will be when you cremate something?” (the rule is a cubic inch to a pound, fyi. Thanks www.funeralurns.com!). And hours later, all that was left of Cadfael, my comfort, my love, my friend, my home, fit into an expensive glass container with an airlock lid from Japan, by way of India.

And for the most part, I am okay.

And then, sometimes, I am not. And I scream and cry into the night. If Cadfael was here, he would look at me, upset that I awakened him from his 8th nap of the day. He would come to me, comfort me, or maybe just close his eyes and go to sleep again. But he would be there.

And now he’s not. And I am far from home.

Oh My Goddess

 “Doorga Pujah…..is the grand general feast of the Gentoos, usually visited by Europeans by invitation, who are treated by the proprietor of the feast with fruits and flowers in season and are entertained every evening while the feasts lasts, with bands of singers and dancers”. -“Important Historical Events”, 1766, J.Z.Holwell

For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe..  –Tapan Raychaudhuri

People ask me a lot, well, not a lot a lot, but more than one time, what is the best thing I’ve done or seen or visited or eaten in India. The first day of a new year feels like as good a time as any to reflect back on the best of things, because of course the worst of things (cough not my president cough cough) is depressing and I would like to put that behind me, although politically we will have to wait until we take back the House. But I digress….

Moving on back to India, I’ve been thinking a lot about the year, and the experiences I’ve had over the course of it. And I would say that even though we’ve all just survived the “holiday season”, it’s actually a little anti-climactic to celebrate Western holidays here in the East, because, um, obviously, geography. Sure, we threw a Hanukkah party, and I spent the evening…telling people what Hanukkah is, and Christmas was a thing that happened, and Mr. India and I watched a movie as I knitted the sleeve of a sweater on New Years so, pretty much living the dream, over here. But it was all a little, well, low energy, I guess. Part of it is the weather, I must say, because it doesn’t really change (NO, Mumbaikers, slightly cooler evenigns where the low is 70 not 80 DO NOT COUNT). The truth is, the real festival season here is the fall, and this was the year I finally have the chance to witness Durga Puja in Kolkata.

When I first moved here, we landed right in the middle of the clusterfuck that is Ganesh Chaturthi. Held during some of the most unpleasantly hot weather Mumbai experiences all year, this holiday celebrating the egalitarian everyman god, Ganesha, has a fascinating history, but the current reality is oceans of worshipers who fill the streets parading their statues of the deity, carrying them out to the literal ocean to immerse the statues in the water. Mr. India and I got caught in the hordes on our way back from a movie, and it was like being a salmon, swimming upstream, as we walked in the opposite direction of millions of Mumbaikers trying to get home. My point? Ganesh Chaturthi is a whole situation. It’s a mess, people, a total mess.

But Durga Puja, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, not just because of what it is, but because of what the rest of the country is doing during it.

First of all, let’s talk about the origins here. Durga Puja is the original YAAS QUEEN. This has no basis in historical fact, but just go with it, okay? Durga is a badass goddess. Her ride is a lion, her many arms hold weapons, and she’s the central deity in Shakti Hindusim. She has her own epic, the Devi Mahatmya, in which she saves the world from the evil water buffalo demon, Mahishasura, and yet this is a country with a falling female employment rate in which marital rape is still legal. Remember this ad campaign? So I say India, and hell, the WORLD, needs Durga more than ever, right? She is the pussy that grabs back. She is the power that creates and destroys the universe, if you believe in that sort of thing, which millions of people here do, apparently. So no offense to Ganesh, who seems like the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with, not me, of course, I dislike beer, but, you know, the average male voter, but I’ll take the badass Queen on the back of the lion, thanks.

Now, like many holidays here, Durga Puja takes place over a period of several days, and it is regional, largely, with massive celebrations on the Eastern side of the country, specifically the Northeast, with an explosion of celebration centering in Mr. India’s hometown of Kolkata. Durga Puja takes place over the course of another holiday, Navaratri, which also nomially celebrates Durga, in some traditions, while for others they are celebrating the triumph of Rama over the death of the demon, Ravana. Which, hey, obviously also something worth celebrating. But while areas that celebrate Navaratri, like Gujarat, in which this holiday is a BFD, honor the event of good triumphing over evil with fasting, strict vegetarian diets, and abstention from alcohol, over in the Eastern part of the country, Durga is hailed with a less, um, abstinent joy. People who think that Diwali is a time for excess have clearly never seen the city of Kolkata alight with Durga Puja splendor. Johnny Walker Black Label pours through the streets like monsoon floods (which also pour through the streets, obviously) and the sleepy city becomes a 24 hour playground. Women dress in new silk saris daily, their best gold adorning every limb, flowers twining through their hair. Men presumably also do something special but who cares. There are celebrations for unmarried girls and married women and a thousand goats bleat sorrowfully to their deaths to celebrate the mad call for mutton the echoes in every home. But all of that is just, well, the human element. Because what Durga Puja really gives visitors is a taste of the divine.

In every neighborhood, on most streets, down dark alleys and in public parks, the citizens of Kolkata have built pandals, elaborate structures made of wooden frames, covered in cloth, which in the hands of these master craftsmen become dazzling palaces, Mesoamerican temples, a circus tent, the whole world. Each one houses the goddess, for she has thousands of homes in the holiday held in her honor. Surrounded by her retinue, and always depicted literally physically crushing the demon whose death saved the world, she is beautiful, powerful, serene, eternal. She reminds me of the Sabbath bride, who graces our homes for Shabbat, who brings with her rest and calm and reflection and joy. Durga brings this to Kolkata and the surrounding areas, a period of lightness, of extreme happiness, of dazzling art that is by it’s very nature ephemeral, built to live for seven days and die. All of the statues of Durga will be immersed in the river. Her offerings will be fished out and composted, her palaces broken down and remade into something completely different the following year. The artists of Kolkata will work again, imagining new homes for their goddess, new realities for her to call her own.

To me, honestly, Durga Puja represents what is the saddest and the most beautiful thing about Indian craft culture, it’s ephemeral nature. This is a country where clay cups are carefully crafted only to be filled with a dollop of milky tea and then crushed as the owner drinks the last drop. People decorate their homes with elaborate images made of colored sand and flower petals, like building ice sculptures in the desert. Beauty is something to be made, destroyed, and made again, like the universe itself, which, according to many mystics, Jewish and otherwise, is willed into being and destroyed each moment of the day, each millisecond of eternity. Maybe that is as close to divine as we can come, perhaps it is the height of arrogance to try and build to last. I have always been an advocate of older is better, not people, mind you, but stuff. Patina is my passion, and here one can weep daily looking at the way historic object has been destroyed, or stolen, or sits in disrepair. I am not saying that transient is better, and I still want to preserve history everywhere I go, but if living here has given me anything, it has at least given me an appreciation for the temporary, an eye for it’s beauty, part of which comes from it’s very temporariness. It is beautiful because it is fleeting, because it was not built to last, because it represents planning and labor and care, and because it is gone in a moment, moving on for the next thing of beauty or ugliness to take it’s place.

And because it s a goddess who reigns over all of it, the creator of life, a woman, I have faith, perhaps, on a purely intellectual level, of course, don’t worry, rabbi, that it will be remade, again and again. That each year will birth new things, that she is strong enough to take the pain of destruction and suffer through the trauma of creation time and time again. That she will rise beyond the devastation and the million hands tearing down her home each year and inspire them to build her newer, better places in which to dwell. That she will be the product of her pain, but not the slave to it. That she will come back every year and slay the demons and save the world. Because that is what women do. #metoo

So, yeah. I think the holidays were a little bit of a letdown, this year. But, like, after that, honestly, what wouldn’t be, right?

Home pandals of Bengali Babus.

Durga and her pals as circus folk.

 

 

 

A friendly neighborhood pandal.

 

All the world’s a circus.

Have the best year, people. Perhaps 2017 in some ways was destructive, yes, but I believe we can rebuild. In Kolkata, they do it all the time.

 

What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Bareilly Ki Barfi

I had rather be first in a village than second at Rome. -Julius Caesar

Ah, small town life. How we all, in our own ways, idealize and vilify it in equal measure. There is something about the idea of small town life as being simple that we idealize, even as we scorn the inhabitants for being simpleminded. I could say this started with the industrial revolution, but we all know it goes back further than that. From the fables of Aesop, praising the virtue of the country mouse over the flashier vainer city mouse, to Greek plays, in which the road holds dangers that the city avoids, there are those who have stood for the country and it’s villages, and those who have advocated for the city, and it’s concentration of people. With Our Town on one side and every Dickens novel ever written on the other, we know that the stereotypes about each geography are both truth and fiction, limited in their scope and generalized in their content. And yet we continue to categorize the world in this way, enjoying our geographic biases. Certainly as an urbanite I have little patience for the small town, although that doesn’t compare to my distinct loathing for that most American invention, the dreaded suburb.

But I too see the limitations of a town, or village, as many Indians would call it, and my association with villages, especially here in India, is lack of educational access, caste restrictions, limits in technology and sophistication, and a certain, shall we say, conservative attitude towards women. Of course, this isn’t really fair, after all, I’ve never even been to an Indian village, and it’s a generalization that doesn’t take into account the diversity of this massive country. But it is an opinion that I have absorbed from books, movies, and Indian urbanites, who are often quick to define their lives in comparison to village existence.

Of course, that knife cuts both ways. In the 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the village is idealized by the female protagonist’s father, even as he enjoys his first world NRI existence in a suburb of London. That movie was nothing new, in fact, it was one in a long line of Bollywood movies embracing the idealism of pure unspoiled village existence, with its rosy-cheeked maidens and sweeter pace of life. The village is innocent, a place of virtue and kindness, in a harsh world it is a bastion of values the modern age has no time for anymore.

Or at least, it was. Small town life in India is a popular topic in Bollywood right now, but in an aggressively more complex way than its earlier representations. A new spate of movies about small town life are eager to unveil characters who are more dynamic than their clodhopper counterparts of days gone by, characters who rebel against their circumstances not by moving to the big city, but by staying where they are and refusing to conform. And that is the sort of thing Bareilly Ki Barfi seems to be trying to do. A recent movie with a spate of strong reviews and countless gushing facebook posts, it tells the story of a small-town girl with a big personality looking for love. But what can it teach you about India? Well, we’re about to find out!

But, before we jump in, it’s vitally important to note that this movie ups our jobs-for-women-in-India options by not one but TWO, putting it up there with Calendar Girls  and Dear ZindagiAnd if it’s anything like either of those movies, well, strap in folks, it’s going to be a long ride! I joke. No, not really. But Bareilly Ki Barfi adds to our list with a seamstress, nice, and a complaints handler for an electrical company! What? That’s creative, right? Nice! Dream big, ladies, and someday you could be…a cog in a bureaucratic wheel fobbing off customers with ill-crafted lazy lies! Well, it’s that, model, doctor, actress, sex slave addict, costumer or cinematographer. Take your pick.

Okay, so our story takes place in UP, in the town of Bareilly, just like the movie title. Wow, really stretching your creative muscles there, guys. A girl named Bitti lives with her loving but exasperated parents, who just want her to get married, already, she’s already like, 24! Bitti, however, is a rebel, Dotti, a loner! She doesn’t want to conform to some idea of an Indian bride! She smokes cigarettes! She drinks! She eats NON VEGETARIAN FOOD! We call this meat in America, but like so much in India, it must be defined by what it ISN’T, not what it is. Lesson number 1! To be a non-conformist in India, you need to rebel in SUPER conventional ways. Bitti wants to do her, guys, can’t you accept that? They can’t, and neither can a suitor who comes to call and inquires about the state of Bitti’s hymen. Bitti claims she is no longer a virgo intacta, just to get a rise, and out he goes, off to find a more chaste maiden while Bitti’s mother cries.

This is Kriti Sanon, who plays Bitti. Looking at Kriti, a tall slim toned starlet with well moisturized hair and skin, it’s a clear as the nose on my face that this young woman has had the kind of regular access to dairy, vitamin d, regular training sessions and kale that no village maiden can claim. There is no way this girl has lived on a staple fricking diet or done anything like 20 years of housework. She sticks out of this movie in much the same way, say, I would. If she’s a small town girl, I’m a small town goat.

Lesson number 2, there is a subset of small town/city people who have all the larger urban amenities, and you can tell who they are by their height and beauty!

ANYway. Bitti with the good hair who is a pretend villager decides to run away, but has no reading material for the train to nowhere, so she buys what is clearly a self published novel. Bitti, first of all, I carry at least three books with me on any given trip, prepare, lady! And second of all, you grab this nonsense when you could be reading about Malala? Get it together, Bits. But she LOVES it, you see, because it’s all about a rebel, a loner like herself, who watches English movies with her friends and wont be tied to yesterday’s morality, man!

So Bitti is, like, in love. With herself? Maybe sort of? This is actually kind of weird. No, she’s in love with the author because she thinks he wrote about her, or someone like her, or maybe because it’s proof that someone else likes her exists in the universe, although again, this is like a theme in Bollywood now so she could like, know this from other sources? I don’t know, it’s the film’s premise, just go with it. She wants to meet the writer! He knows her soul!

Lesson number 3, your sense of discontent in the world is probably because you’ve never met anyone like you or heard that they exist. Once you find your doppelgänger, you will be A-Okay!

So she goes looking for Pritam Vidrohi, the novelist. But TWIST! He wasn’t the novelist at all! In fact, the real person who wrote the novel is a guy named Chirag Dubey, played by Ayushmann Khuran, who wrote the novel about his bad breakup with Bubbly. Chirag, her name was Bubbly. You had a lucky escape. Be grateful! But no, instead he went all emo, drank a bunch of whiskey, and wrote a first draft of a novel, which he published. If you ask me, this is reason enough to assume Chirag is a total idiot because if you think your first draft is worth publishing then you don’t deserve to live.

Ayushmann also looks like a person who has had the benefit of a varied nutritional palette and dental care, but at least he backs up his fitness by working out in random low-rent local gyms. Way to keep it real, Khurana. Lesson number 4, just because you live in a small town is no excuse not to keep it tight! Get huge, Chirag!

But whatever, Chirag wrote his little diary entry of sadness for Bubbly, and then made his friend Pritam, played by Rajkummar Rao, publish it, because, well, he says it’s because he doesn’t want to ruin Bubbly’s reputation with his work, but like, what’d you write in there, buddy? Is this a burn book? Or do you just know your first draft sucks because FIRST DRAFTS SUCK? Lesson number 5, it is perfectly acceptable to publish your first draft of something in India. This might account for the current state of Indian fiction. BURN.

Anyway, Rajkummar is my father-in-law’s name! And like my father in law, Pritam is lovely. He’s also a coward, unlike my father in law, so he runs away from the town because, again, wow, you know, this movie is enjoyable to watch but when you start really looking at it the logic just falls apart like a cashmere sweater that’s been visited by logic-moths. Wikipedia describes this plot point as “Vidrohi agrees but gets so scared of the possible future scenarios, that he leaves the city without telling anyone.” I…have no idea what that means. ANYway, he leaves and becomes a sari seller, sorry, mom, he’s sari.

So Bitti finds Chirag, who runs a printing press, and hangs out with his buddy, Munna, the bookseller, played by Rohit Choudhary, who wears a series of increasingly ugly sweaters, all the time. Bitti tells him she wants to meet Pritam. Chirag explains that Pritam is shy, but tells Bitti that she can write him letters, which she does, and he responds, blah blah Cyrano blah.

So Chirag obviously falls in love with Bitti, because they are the two best looking people in this town. Bitti…seems fine with Chirag. I’m going to be honest here, Kriti Sanon really adds very little to this role. Look, she’s fine, she’s very pretty, she sticks out like a giraffe among deer, but she’s just executing it, she’s not bringing anything amazing to the table. So it’s sort of hard to tell if Bitti likes Chirag or not, because Sanon runs around this movie in perfectly tailored kurtas over jeans, doing her best village girl Holly Go Lightly, and whatever her thought process is it has taken a backseat to looking the role.

Anyway, these two run around the town and have an amount of freedom to drink and smoke alone and wander around old shrines at midnight just the two of them that I had always heard was wildly restricted in small town India, but I guess that’s all an urban myth?

Lesson number 6! Small town India is WAY less restrictive than, say, Delhi, where a young woman would think twice about rolling around after dark with a dude she hardly knows.

But Bitti still wants to meet the writer of her favorite novel (Bitti, you know what, maybe if you read a SECOND novel you might see there’s more out there. This is a girl who like, reads The Fault in Our Stars and wishes she had cancer, know what I mean?) and becomes angry with Chirag because he wont connect her to the Pritam of her dreams. Additionally, Bitti’s bummer parents are unhappy that this novel has made their daughter feel that her behavior is normal, sigh, so Chirag decides to kill two birds with one stone. He will produce Pritam but make sure he’s a total asshole so the parents will be vindicated and Bitti’s feelings crushed. That way she will turn to her good friend Chirag, who has loved her all along! Wow, this is some toxic masculinity right here, my friend. Lesson number 7! In order to make someone fall in love with you, you should crush their dreams and feelings for someone else, and then stand, waiting, for them to accept you as a decent fallback plan.

Chirag and Munna (I think Munna might be into Chirag, guys, I think he might be pulling a Chirag on Chirag! I would love to see this movie through his perspective, it’s all ugly sweaters and longing for his friend) go looking for Pritam. Here is where the movie takes a turn, because as we learned, Pritam is played by the adorable Rajkummar Rao, not to be confused with my father in law, who is also adorable.

So they bully Pritam into coming home with them and becoming a douchey bully himself. Hmmm, I wonder if this is going to backfire on them? Nope, like everything else in this movie, it’s clearly a foolproof plan. Munna and Chirag are total dicks to Pritam, threatening his nice job at the sari shop, intimidating him into submission, and given that they’ve already sort of derailed his life once, this seems like outside of enough, but I guess we are supposed to find it lovely and charming because it’s in the name of love? Sort of? Even though Chirag clearly sees Bitti as a Bubbly substitute? Lesson number 8! You can literally do anything in India if it’s for love. Maybe later in the movie they will murder someone. Doesn’t matter. It’s for love!

So they change Pritam’s hair and get him a leather jacket because lesson number 9, you want to be cool? Look no further than the Fonz.

Look at Munna’s sweater! Maybe he’s Barielly’s sole hipster? I don’t know, he’s an enigma, I love him.

So they bring Pritam to meet Bitti, who is totally offput by his dickish behavior. Her friend Rama is into, though, oh, honey, no. But then, just when Chirag, who I at this point genuinely have begun to dislike, thinks he’s free and clear, Pritam meets Bitti’s parents. And they love him! He’s confident, he gives great shoulder massages, he isn’t the perpetrator of an active deception, what’s not to love?

He know’s how to tie a sari, he lends people his cool glasses, he’s great! And look at that, Bitti got another book, maybe now she can…nope, she’s not moving on, cool.

So Chirag does the reasonable thing…nope, no he doesn’t, he tells everyone Pritam is a divorcee, which is a big no no in small towns, and big cities, in India. Lesson number 9, divorce in India is still taboo which COME ON INDIA GET IT TOGETHER.  Pritam tells Chirag that he’s into Rama, but when he tries to make a move on a group boating trip (Oh, Pritam, no) Bitti and Rama reference his shameful divorce, and he realizes Chirag is sabotaging him (Honey, he’s BEEN sabotaging you, he sucks! Get the net!) And he vows to steal Bitti from Chirag for real for real. Guys, Bitti is a human person, not an umbrella. You cannot steal her. She is a human.

Lesson number 10, in India, women live in medieval Europe and can be “won” be feats of strength in competition. Sigh.

So Pritam brings his A game. And once again, Pritam is adorable, so it’s A+.

 

They eat snacks! They fly kites! Bitti seems happy! Chirag is angry and resentful and a total doche, and Munna stands by his man, and there are like, five scenes where Chirag and Pritam confront each other and Chirag is worse every time. Is the point of this movie for us to really hate one of the protagonists by the end? Because if so, that is WORKING!

Oh, there is also this like, weird moment that gets cut off, pay attention to that, it’s going to have a major implication on the end of this story.

Don’t you hurt Rajkummar Rao, you douche! But he DOES.

So ANYway, we FINALLY get to the end of this movie, Chirag decides that if Bitti really loves Pritam, he will allow her to marry him. REAL NOBLE, CHIRAG! He keeps trying to tell her how he feels and then…not doing so, because she’s like, pretty and happy with Pritam?

Okay, once is fine for that sort of thing, but it happens like four times.  I don’t even know.

But he writes a letter for Pritam to read to her at their engagement ceremony, I guess? I don’t really know. All the logic has fallen away, now, its all gone. This movie has spent it’s logic budget. Lesson number 11, there is only so much logic in any given Indian story. You gotta spend wisely!

Pritam claims his voice is too hoarse to read the letter, so he makes Chirag do it. I really wish that Pritam was actually an evil genius and that this was payback for Chirag’s eons of douchery, but alas, it is not. It is a highly contrived way to show that OH MY GOD BITTI KNEW THE WHOLE TIME PRITAM TOLD HER! She knew that Chirag was deceiving her, and she was…cool with it? The whole time? And presumably she knew what Chirag said to Pritam about how pathetic and worthless he was? Because while Pritam was fooling Chirag, Chirag was…being 100% honest! And really thought the guy he forced to run away from home, then run back home, then pretend to romance his sort of girlfriend, is a pathetic loser who deserves nothing? Cool. Cool cool cool. Great guy you’re getting, Bitti. Whatever, man, you two deserve each other. Lesson number 12, while choosing a mate in India, pick the person who has actively treated you and others around you in the worst way possible. They’ve probably got all of it out of their system, now, right?

And then they dance!

 

Her parents can finally be happy!

Actually I think this dance scene happens earlier but NEVER mind, assume they dance, it’s the end of a Bollywood movie, they dance. Lesson number 13, everything, from court cases to marriage plots, will end with dancing. It just does.

And there you have it, a glimpse at small town life with a set of actors who have clearly lived their entire lives in large cities, with a side of torture porn for Rajkummar Rao, if you like that sort of thing. I’m not going to lie, it’s a deeply charming and engaging movie, as long as you can turn your brain off while you watch it.

But it does beg the question, what happens the NEXT time Bitti likes a book? I can’t wait for the sequel where she follows William Dalrymple around the Jaipur Lit Festival!

 

 

Southern Comfort

What the heroine said to her friend, or What the heroine’s friend said to her
May you live long, my friend!
Has not the ancient adage that if one does
good in this birth, no evil will come, has
failed?

We did not do anything with hatred
for him to pass through many chilly
mountains, where
red-eyed wasteland warriors, with tightly
curled hair like that of ram horns that cover
their napes, chew sand to control coughs,
carry powerful, small kindling and bows,
and seize butter churning rods that reveal
foam, and capture herds of cattle with
calves from protected places, as their
leather slippers hide their steps and creak,
move the herds to their homes in the huge
forest with vast spaces, and like a boat
in the wide, huge sky, the hot sun with
its bright rays burns in summer, and the
swirling winds cause many mature flowers
of the dry-trunked, murungai trees to drop
like rainy season’s hail.

-Akanānūru 101, South Indian Poetry translated by Vaidehi Herbert

What is it about the Southern part of some places that makes it so damn laid back and friendly? I mean, the American South is defined by some big negatives (the Confederacy and all that goes with it, from then to now, oh, and by the way, if you haven’t read or seen Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s speech about removing confederate memorials, you should go ahead and do so right now, I’ll wait, no problem), but there are also positives, like amazing food, friendly people, warm sultry weather and a lushness of life. Having grown up with parents who took me to historic American cities like Charleston and Savannah, I saw a very elegant and stately version of the South, and it’s one I love even today. Is that a little Scarlett O’Hara? MAYBE. But frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn. Oh, come on, it had to be done!

Here in India, there is a lot to see, of course, because it’s a massive country, duh. But because of my current research for my new novel, as well as a general areas of my interest, I’ve spent a lot of tourist time in the north of India. Some of that also has to do with the fact that the north, specifically Rajasthan, is the only area of India I’ve been to that seems well set-up for tourism, and some of that has to do with the fact that a lot of the traveling I’ve done here has been when people have come to visit.

One of the things that is difficult about India, for me, is that it’s not really a great idea to travel alone, especially if you are a woman. Is it possible? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing it. But spending so much time here, and seeing the way women on their own, be it in that moment or in their lives, are treated with suspicion or worried over ad nauseum, has discouraged me personally from wanting to get out there on my own. I actually really like traveling alone, and I’ve done a lot of it. It’s deeply satisfying to face travel challenges and overcome them, it’s exciting to figure things out on your own in a new place, and it’s empowering to make all your travel decisions and get all the things you want. No going with the group, no compromising for other people, just you and a ton of art museums and historic sites. I mean, if you’re me. I honestly have no idea what other people do when they travel…

But here, with the language barriers and the dangers and the general lack of preparation for tourism that makes navigating anything outside of hiring a car and a guide for the day a little bit of a struggle, I have avoiding going solo. So when people come, I have the opportunity to try out new places, and I’ve been pretty lucky in the fact that a lot of my friends have chosen to explore different parts of the country. And so when my friend Sarah came recently, and expressed an interest in going south, south we went, and I got to maintain my “Taj Mahal only once a year” vow. What a life I’m living….

We decided, what with the monsoons and all, that we might as well lean into the rain and go somewhere that is well served by a vigorous soaking. So we headed to Kerala, the small state tucked up into the side of the Malabar coast, filled with remnants of the Portuguese who once invaded and conquered, in search of cheap spices and a way to screw the Venetians (but I mean, WHO ISN’T?). Once in Cochin, a significant port for centuries, and the one time resting place of Vasco de Gama (until they moved his remains back to Portugal because he would be DAMNED if he spent eternity in a colony, COME on!), Sarah and I walked (a novelty in India, but it’s actually super pleasant!) to the old synagogue which once housed a thriving Jewish community. Strolling around, fending off a thousand offers for guided rickshaw rides of the tiny city and offers for kashmir scarves, we instead enjoyed street art, spice shops, and Chinese fishing nets, as well as goats. Goats, they are the pigeons of India, except that there are also pigeons.

Then, we took a terrifying (although, honestly, at this point in my life, with so many car rides in India, how does one even gauge terror anymore?) car ride up into the Western Ghats and despite this nature special I missed most of the cool animals and instead spent some time with a bunch of trees. We had Ayurvedic massages and sat in a sweat box from the 1930’s and enjoyed air that was pure of pollution, while people all around us were insanely nice. I mean, this place was seriously pleasant. From the lovely woman who taught our cooking class, who got us the hook up on coconut vinegar (IS THERE SUCH A THING? YES!) to the amazing tea plantation nestled into the hills where we looked out and thought, yep, that’s what tea looks like, certainly, it was all gorgeous, but more than that, it was so pleasant. Look, life in Bombay is great, but good God, I think the South might be just magnificent.

The only problem? Kerala is a dry state. And yet, our hotel had wine! So maybe if I just live in hotels I could, like, make that my life? I could afford that for a little bit, right? A few months, at least? I mean, seriously, you gotta try that chicken…

And now, to the photos:

The former resting place of De Gama.

Making friends wherever I go.

Seriously, just very kind locals.

Take your son to work day.

The Kerala Folklore Museum is a graveyard of objects and it’s bonkers.

Worshipers come in all sizes.

Local dancers in light make up.

 

 

What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Dear Zindagi Edition

 

“The youth is different from that in the industrial world in the sense that it has not yet fully gone through the process of individuation — it retains family and community ties — but it is different from the previous generation/s in the hope, expectations and aspirations that mark India’s youth of today”. -Suhas Palshikar, political scientist and director of Lokniti in a 2017 article in The Economic Times 

Hello, friends! It’s been a while, I know, since my last edition in this series, and I’m sure you’ve missed it terribly, although probably not as much as I have. Indeed, watching Indian movies and gleaning their myriad lessons is truly one of the happiest parts of my life. How else would I know that calendar girl is a real profession, that you can get over addiction by tying a scarf around your waist, or that the best way to find love is to leave your grandfather’s ashes on a train? Let ALONE learning how time travel works, it’s like, screw you, H.G. Wells, all you have to do is be a Vedic mathematician and the time, it flies! India. It’s a magical place.

So here we are again, with a film that was in fact very popular in India when it released a few months ago. The name does give one pause, of course. Dear Zindagi, or Dear Life, sounds like a rejected title for a Judy Blume novel, but lots of people really liked it, which made me think that maybe I would like it too. It’s about things that are interesting and important to me, like mental health (the day my therapist told me we could have skype sessions when I’m in India was on the top ten list of days of my life) and the struggles facing young women in society (women? I love women! I even AM one!) and millennial (I have to say, I do like a lot of these things that millennials like according to this business insider article that was CLEARLY WRITTEN BY AN OLD WHITE DUDE, although who DOESN’T like gourmet pizza? It’s delicious!). The movie features Alia Bhatt, the ultimate Indian millennial actress, a precious butterfly mixture of Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Kristen Dunst in her youth, with a little Zoe Kazan thrown in for fun. It’s been hailed as a heartwarming in-depth examination of one young woman and her life, and the fact that a woman is at the center of the story and it’s not a romance is quite revolutionary in India (OH MY GOD INDIA COME ON YOU HAD A FEMALE PRIME MINISTER STARTING IN 1966 GET IT TOGETHER), so what could go wrong?

Of course, some reviews had some stuff to say, like “Dear Zindagi should have been a much better film. What we get instead, in spades, is bumper-sticker self-help notes which are strictly boiler-plate.” (Shubhra Gupta of The Indian Express) but hey, what does she know? She probably doesn’t even understand about the significance of the sweater vest in Punjab or ANYTHING. So anyway, let’s DO this thing!

We open our story in Singapore, where Kaira, whose nickname is Koko for absolutely no reason, is working on a film. Hey, I wonder if maybe her dumb nickname is why she will end up in therapy? (Spoiler alert, it is NOT.)

Kaira, God love her, is many things which I will unpack as this movie goes forward, selfish, foolish, often totally inexplicable, but I can put all that aside because SHE UPS OUR NUMBER OF CAREERS FOR WOMEN! In fact, this film actually has TWO jobs women can do so it is a double whammy win. Kaira’s job, however, is sort of ill-defined because they keep calling her a camera woman when it is very clear that her actual job is cinematographer. Why be so ambiguous, Dear ZIndagi? Camera men in Bollywood are swarthy dudes who get paid less than four dollars an hour. Cinematographers are artists who go to film schools. There is no way little miss Faux-fia Coppola over here is a damn camera man. Lesson number one! Jobs are ambiguous and amorphous in Bollywood.

Kaira, because she is pretentious as hell, wears glasses with clear glass in them to seem more serious on set. You know what might actually get people to take you seriously, Kaira? A whole pair of pants. One of Kaira’s many unexplained neuroses in this movie is her inexplicable devotion to jeans that are more hole than pant. Perhaps it’s a statement about the fragile fabric of reality? Lesson two! Jeans are metaphors and should never be whole. LIKE KARIA’S SOUL.

So anyway, Kaira is supposedly a brilliant filmmaker because she is shooting a movie or something in which a guy is begging a girl to forgive him after cheating on her for the upteenth time and she stops the shooting even though the ENTIRE CREW IS READY TO WRAP so she can do one more take with the actress gazing longingly at a passing dude while her cheating beau hugs her. Everything thinks this is the most brilliant thing since sliced bread. I think that kind of adjustment is the director’s job, and in a real shoot Kaira would be a huge douche who delayed shooting for a shitty idea that was not in her purview. But what do I know? See, the point is, Kaira is spirited! And spunky! And totally disrespectful of other people’s time! Also, Kaira was brought in to shoot ONE SCENE OF THIS MOVIE? How is that a thing? I never want to see this movie. It looks AWFUL. Lesson number three! Being an asshole on a movie shoot in Bollywood will take you places.

On the way back to Mumbai in the Singapore airport, which by the way is amazing and it has great food, Kaira and her crush, Raghuvendra, who is played by Kunal Kapoor, who is like, twice Alia Bhatt’s size, hang out, and Kaira opts for a coke instead of a drink, and neither of them eat any of the amazing food offerings the airport has for travelers. Pfftt. Singapore is wasted on these people.

It is clear that these two have slept together, and Kaira is all weird about it, which makes sense, they work together, and Raghuvendra, or Ragu, for short, is pretty thirsty. Girl, I get it, he is a stage five clinger, making hitting it and quitting it hard. Lesson number four! Guys in India are needy. 

Back in Mumbai, Ragu is all, call me and Kaira is all, whatever, bro. I totally respect her brushing this guy off. What I do NOT respect is what a dick she is to her maid!

Kaira literally gets into her house, throws all her shit on the floor for her maid to pick up, and starts opening all these PRODUCT PLACEMENT eBay boxes because she’s quirky and cool and that means she buys a bunch of useless stuff no one needs. I guess being a camera woman pays EXTREMELY well because Kaira lives alone with a maid who is apparently at her beck and call in a GIANT apartment in the most expensive city in India and she can spend all her money on eBay items. Lesson number five! Mumbai is like New York, reasonable in movies alone.

She also goes around tipping her own belongings over because I guess that’s her design scheme despite the fact that a woman who makes about as much as one of those eBay items has gone to a lot of trouble to make stuff look nice. It is at this point in the movie that I start to wonder if the secret message here is that millennials are assholes. Lesson number six! Millennials are assholes.

And that’s when Kaira takes a photo of her food! Which I also do sometimes, yes, but movie, are you reading my MIND? Kaira is on a date with her restaurateur boyfriend, who she has ostensibly cheated on? But I don’t know how exclusive they are, so you know, it could be an open thing. Kaira, who doesn’t care about this dude despite all the free food he makes available to her, observes this little scene:

This policy means Mr. India would NEVER attend this restaurant. Kaira asks her boyfriend to bend the rules for this group, which I think is included in the movie to make her seem empathetic and observant, but really it just shows that millennials are rule breakers with no respect for institutions or their traditions.

Kaira’s boyfriend, who dresses appropriately like an adult, is sad she doesn’t want to be with him. YOU’RE DODGING A BULLET HERE, GUY!

A fair amount of this movie is Alia Bhatt dancing artistically in her apartment or wherever. I personally do dance around my own apartment, of course, but I don’t ask other people to WATCH it, and my cat usually leaves when I start. So I’m not, like, thrilled by this. She also has a bunch of Polaroids on the wall like it’s 2007 not 2017 and anyone still uses Polaroids. I guess this is more evidence of her being quirky or whatever, but given that she works in film you would think she’d be a little more tech evolved. Lesson number seven! Polaroids are still a thing in India.

Kaira goes shopping with her friends, who include Fatima, our SECOND job for women, i.e. costume designer, who is played by Ira Dubey who looks so much like her mother it’s straight up frightening, and Jackie, who has no job, and is played by Yashaswini Dayama, and these two dudes, one of whom is gay, which is progressive, I guess? The gay one talks about therapy, which intrigues Kaira. No one asks that guy about what must have been a fascinating and difficult struggle to understand and accept your sexuality in a country where homosexuality is still straight up illegal. Obviously Kaira’s shit is more important, duh! Lesson number eight! The problems of a straight pretty girl are a lot more important than anyone else’s shit. 

Later, Kaira complains about having to visit her family in Goa and about how her mom wants to cook for her all the time. Yeah, that sounds like a REAL drag, Kaira. I mean, her mom is right up there with Joan Crawford, AM I RIGHT?

Kaira and Jackie go grocery shopping and Kaira gets all mushy because she sees a jar of Ragu sauce and it reminds her of Ragu the human. I did not think she liked this guy, so this was confusing for me, but I guess she does, because she buys the jar. Kiara, Marcella Hazan’s pasta sauce recipe is far superior, yo! Later, her maid serves her the pasta like DAMN Kiara, that’s a heat and serve situation, be more entitled why don’t you? Lesson number nice! Buy food items that remind you of the person you want to bone. It totally strengthens your bond!

Back at work, in a Canadian tuxedo, Kiara dodges calls from her landlord and shoots a music video. Her landlord informs her that he only wants to rent to married couples, which does totally suck and is a thing that happens in India, but her response is that she therefore has to move in with her parents in Goa instead of, oh, I don’t know, LOOKING FOR A ROOMMATE? Trying to find another place? Crashing on someone’s couch? I guess for Kiara its giant solo apartment or NOTHING.

It’s nice of her friends to help her pack. Kaira really doesn’t seem like a very giving friend, so it’s nice that her friends at least are decent people. Also she calls her friend Fatima “Fatty” which I think is just very dick. Fatima is pregnant, by the way, and I feel like that nickname will NOT age well.

Ragu tells her that he wants her to shoot a whole movie for him in New York, which is very exciting for her, but when she finds out that the director is Ragu’s ex, she gets understandably weird about it. That, however, does not justify the fact that she dances this weirdness out by listening to her own music over her headphones while dancing in a club. Lesson number ten! You can bring your own music to a club in India, it’s not odd or anything.

I can think of few more pretentious things, and I literally attended an Ivy League university.

Later, however, Fatima informs Kaira that Ragu, who is now in New York doing prep for the movie or whatever, I’m not sure this movie knows how other movies work, is engaged. Damn, Dear Zindagi! He left Mumbai about a WEEK ago. Couldn’t he just be like, seeing someone? Kaira is very upset by this, despite the fact that she seemed REALLY not into him, but I guess the point is that’s like her way of being into a dude? Her way of being upset involves eating a chili and blaming her tears on that (um, girlfriend, you were crying WAY pre chili but sure, nice try) and breaking a bunch of jars of Ragu in a supermarket and then leaving cash at the register as she storms out. Just so you know, a jar of Ragu retails at 495 rupees or about 7.50 USD at the current exchange rate. WASTEFUL!  Lesson number eleven! Indian millennials are wasteful and rude. 

So, because she has no other (or literally a hundred other) options, Kaira reluctantly moves back to her parents palatial home in beautiful unpolluted Goa where her father has a job set up for her shooting a local commercial. WHAT A DRAG. She is strangely rude to her parents who seem very nice and very proud of her and her career choices:

And who defend her from annoying Indian Aunties and Uncles who harass her 25 year old self about getting married:

And like, serve her wine and stuff. Obviously this situation is torture for Kiara, and she can’t sleep a wink in her beautiful bedroom in her beautiful home and whines about wondering whether she should take the job shooting the movie or not. I….honestly thought that would be off the table when Ragu realized Kaira wasn’t going to sleep with him again, so it seems frankly naive that she thinks that’s still an option for her, but okay, fine, I guess her talent is just TOO MUCH TO IGNORE.

Shooting an ad for her dad’s friend’s hotel, which is apparently the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone, Kaira stumbles upon a mental health conference, in which bad boy therapist (that’s not a thing) Dr. Jehangir Khan, play by Shah Rukh Khan, for some Khan on Khan action, dazzles the crowd with his laid back pearls of wisdom. Kaira is drawn to him, probably because they share an affinity for torn jeans.

Kaira is intrigued. So she goes to talk to Dr. Khan, who wants people to call him Jug (ummmmmm, why?) about her sleep issues which quickly becomes about her man issues, and her concerns about this project and how it could be great for her career, but back for her sense of self care. Kaira only recruits others to care for her, so this idea is laughable, but Jug is there for it. Jug is a more patient person than I, which is why he is a good therapist and I wouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, Jug is also a really BAD therapist in that he does not abide by any of the professional ethical boundaries he is supposed to maintain, and also, THIS IS NOT HOW THERAPY WORKS. Lesson number twelve! Therapy is whatever you want it to be in India. All things are therapy! The wind is therapy! Everything!

Anyway, Jug tells Kaira that she doesn’t have to take the hard way, there is no virtue in that path. He uses a weird extended metaphor about climbing Everest, which resonates with Kiara for whatever reason, so when Ragu comes and visits her, because I guess he is ALSO wildly independently wealthy and can afford a last minute trip back from New York to Mumbai and then to Goa in the middle of his shooting prep just so he can, what, make a girl he slept with feel okay? Tell her he’s found another cinematographer? We may never know WHY he came, because Kiara interrupts him with her nonsense and tells him that SHE is rejecting HIS movie so take THAT! I really wish he had had a chance to be like, oh, honey, no, that was a verbal offer in a club one time, no contract, no job, I came here to talk to JACKIE because we are in LOVE (oh, right, Jackie is like also in Goa with Kaira? No idea why.) But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Kaira feels victorious, but she still can’t sleep, so she returns to Jug for more totally unprofessional sessions. Also, every time Jug says something, she repeats it to everyone in her life and they all talk about how brilliant it is and it’s so so smug on the part of writer/director Gauri Shinde that I want to hit her in the face. Hey, Shinde, how about you let the AUDIENCE decide if something is brilliant or not?

Also, they have this whole conversation about how relationships are like chairs and you have to try a bunch to get the right one. This to me was like oh god gag me with a spoon but to be fair, in India I guess this is like a radical idea that ladies might need to sleep with multiple people/date multiple people/meet men who are not their direct relatives more than one time before settling down, so well done, I guess, Dear ZIndagi. Lesson number thirteen! It is a revelation that you can sleep with more than one person and not be a big dumb slut.

Jug, like, takes Kaira to the beach and stuff, and nothing makes sense. He pretends that the ocean is chasing him and I’m just like, dude, for real? Kaira, here’s a hint, when seeking out help with your mental health, do not enlist someone who has some fairly clear mental health issues himself!

Kaira goes out with Jackie, because again, Jackie has no job and apparently just followed her friend to Goa (sidenote, what is Jackie is in love with Kaira? I would love that. It still wouldn’t be a JOB, but it would be interesting. Maybe she should talk to a therapist, but not Jug, because again, he’s totally worthless). At the bar, some COMPLETE AND UTTER DOUCHEBAG starts singing, loudly, with a guitar. I legitimately hate this guy. If I was in a bar with this guy I would break a bottle and go for his neck. Guy, people are DRINKING HERE.

Initially Kaira’s face reflects my own feelings, probably because Alia Bhatt, in her position as Indian Jennifer Lawrence, seems fairly cool and like someone you could throw down on a dry white wine with.

See those dead eyes? That is what my face would look like if this happened to me. But then because of the plot or whatever they make poor Alia Bhatt look excited or what the fuck ever despite how insanely douchey this man is.

Jackie and Kaira introduce themselves to this asshole instead of leaving and getting drunk in a bar that doesn’t let random dudes just SING and disturb patrons with their nonsense. Lesson number fourteen! In India it is socially acceptable to disturb an entire bar of people with your bullshit singing.

The guy, whose name is Rumi, Rumi, for fucks sake, mansplains to Kaira that there are multiple types of music.

Instead of politely excusing herself to go to the bathroom and throw up, hoping that this horrific excuse for a human being will be gone by the time she leaves, Kiara agrees to go to a beach to listen to MORE of his music. Kiara, that’s how people get MURDERED. Jackie is nowhere to be seen, because I guess she doesn’t care if Kiara dies. I’m not NOT with you, Jackie. So far she has been the literal worst as a friend, and not awesome as a person.

I guess Kaira is actually 16 and an idiot, because she is like delighted by touching this dude’s guitar despite it being a clear metaphor for his penis. Kaira, I’m begging you, do not touch Rumi’s penis. When he asks you to make poetry with him, RUN AWAY.

When she talks to Jug about it, her big complaint is that Rumi plays too much music all the time. I mean, it would have been nice if she had identified him as a solipsistic disturber of the peace, but fine, screw it, I will take this. Jug makes fun of opera, like an asshole. Hey, man, they don’t come to where YOU live and tell you you’re a terrible therapist! I’M doing that! Then Kaira breaks something in Jug’s office. My therapist does not have so much stuff in her office which is great because I would totally break things, I’m a massive klutz, so I feel you there, Kaira.

NO. YOU SHOULDN’T. THAT IS WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE. COME ON, MAN!

Kaira and her friends get drunk but act like they are high. This scene does nothing for this movie. It’s like Alia Bhatt dancing around, but less energetic. Then Kaira has a date with Rumi, who makes her wait to let the wine breathe all of two seconds, which isn’t how wine works, and then tells her she has to buy PInk Floyd’s first album. Um, WHAT? That’s not like an obscure music thing, that’s just like a general thing. That’s like saying, you need to listen to this little band out of Liverpool, it’s a group of four guys and they spell beetle wrong, they will BLOW YOUR MIND. Come on, now! Also, he’s not even playing her Pink Floyd, he’s playing her something else, and he’s like singing off key to it. Granted, he made her fondue (I mean, you melt chocolate, it’s not exactly biryani, here, but dude, you’re an asshole. I TOLD YOU, KAIRA! She understandably hates all this, and splits like a banana.

Back in therapy, Kaira complains about Rumi some more, and it’s like Jesus, Kaira, use him and loose him already! Jug talks her through her feelings or whatever.

Sigh, I’m with you Kaira, and so is everyone else. However, you aren’t IN a relationship, you had a couple of non-dates with a psedo-musican. That’s not a relationship, that’s like a long weekend in college. Anyway, Kaira shades towards some abandonment issues, which I guess is her real thing, and Jug is like:

Great. How about you actually do a decent job as a therapist? No, then? Cool.

 

Kaira visits Rumi on the beach because I guess that’s his main occupation in life and there are these people juggling with fire behind him and this is actually one of my many versions of hell and he stops playing, ostensibly to make Kaira happy, and the crowd, which includes a white woman with dreadlocks, NOPE, is literally like, no, don’t stop, you are so amazing! Shut up, crowd. He plays on. Kaira gets closure on her non-relationship. Pieces of me die. This is like Indian Girls but less interesting. And Girls isn’t that interesting. Lesson number fifteen! Many people in India according to this movie have HORRIBLE taste in music,

Meanwhile, Jackie and Kaira skype Fatima who is about 7 months pregnant or so so I guess they have been in Goa THAT LONG? Jesus. Jackie has a new boyfriend (imaginary, I hope, I’m still rooting for this Jackie Kaira Sam and Diane thing to spark) and Kaira doesn’t know. Kaira is pissed that Jackie didn’t tell her, but to Jackie’s credit, Kaira actually might be the most selfish person in the world, so she probably DID tell her and Kaira forgot.

They have a fight which quickly resolves and means nothing and doesn’t advance the plot forward. Cool.

Kaira, in yet another pair of ripped jeans, comes to meet Jug, presumably for their session, but he’s fixing a bicycle for a pair of pre-teen boys who are not having any of Kaira’s nonsense. Boys, I feel you. Also, why is Jug fixing a bicycle during their session? Doesn’t he charge by the hour? That’s KAIRA’S time.

Then they do their session on bikes. THIS IS NOT HOW THERAPY WORKS.

Wow. Way to drop knowledge, Dr. Obvious. Where is your medical degree from, the school of hard knocks? His dime store psychology, however, is just Kaira’s price, because she flashes back to being a small child and then declares she just wants to be free from all this. Free from…your pampered life in Goa where you have no expenses or responsibilities? Yeah, girl, you seem REAL hemmed in.

Kaira then falls off her bike and Jug tells her her time is up. You would sue for this shit in the States, I’m telling you.

 

Kaira’s parents have a party for her brother’s homecoming, and also I guess it’s a set up for Kaira? Ugh. But one woman asks about Jackie, cementing my lesbian theory! Yes!

At the dinner that her mother lovingly cooked, her mom is like, why aren’t you eating? which is weird because Kaira was actually eating in this shot. I feel like they are shading towards some eating stuff in this family, and Kaira’s mother is heavy-set, and at some point Kaira is like, you just want to make me fat!, which is a really dick thing to say, Kaira. But anyway, people start talking about how Kiddo, Kaira’s brother, who has no other name, damn this family is bad with nicknames, was such a good baby, and Kaira was a mess. I understand that this is annoying, but it is one of those things that adults like to do, however it sets Kaira off, especially when her uncle? potentially? Is all sanctimonious and it’s like, dude, do you even HAVE children? If so, where are they?

I feel ya, Koko.

And Kaira explodes, and reveals that she is in therapy. Therapy is in fact a really big deal in India. I’ve told people I’m in therapy in a very offhand flippant way (see, earlier in this very post!) And I can always see Mr. India wince very slightly, not, I think, because he feels some kind of way about me being in therapy, but because he is anticipating what the other person is thinking. I have actually had people ask “what is wrong with you?” when I mention it, to which I obviously reply, nothing, I’m amazing, that’s why I’m in therapy! But it is socially stigmatized in big ways, and there is this idea that therapy is for people with severe mental health issues. Not that people actually talk about mental health here. As in so many cultures, emotions in India are supposed to be overcome by sheer acts of willpower, and being affected by grief, being addicted to something, suffering from depression, these are all moral failings, weaknesses.

Kaira is doing that finger spinning “I’m crazy” thing. She storms off and Kiddo goes after her and she decides she needs to deal with these issues. Quick, to Jug’s magical house of bicycles and feelings!

Finally, FINALLY, Kaira’s sad sad traumatic story of trauma that explains all her shit neatly tumbles out of her mouth like a waterfall. It’s convoluted and dumb but basically her parents moved to the US to start a business and left her with her grandparents when she was like 5 or something, and she was sad and wrote them letters and they never answered and then they visited and she overheard them say they couldn’t afford to take her with them and they never answered the letters but then they had her BROTHER so obviously they could have A kid just not HER and then she deliberately failed second grade or whatever so they came back to Goa.

Damn, Alia Bhatt is an ugly crier. But her hair looks so nice all curly! She should never straighten it.

Look, that does sound sad and sort of shitty, but I’m sure they had their reasons, and they mostly seem economic, and most people are just doing their damn best, and why have you never TALKED to these people about this? Lesson number sixteen. Don’t ever talk about anything with the people involved. Just don’t do it! It’s a trap!

Obviously as a therapist Jug advises Kaira to talk to her parents and gives her some strong tools to do so, RIGHT? WRONG. He’s like, that is awful, but you should let it go! Just LET IT GO! Thanks, FROZEN, for the sage advice. Why not say hello to life? Wow, that’s basically THE MOVIE TITLE! It’s all coming together NOW!

So somehow instead of talking to her parents and trying to re-start a healthy relationship with them, Kaira just sort of wanders away in an outfit that looks like a transparent patchwork curtain.

Then she dances around again. This movie really thinks that Alia Bhatt dancing around is a lot more compelling than it is.

There is nothing more India than the fact that she’s putting this in dirty muddy water.

This is not how the rorschach test works. Jug, you are terrible at your job.

So anyway she runs around and like enjoys life for the first time and finally gets a good night’s sleep and gives her mom flowers and looks at baby photos with her dad and whatever and has this cake baking scene which is so clearly romantic I don’t even understand why this movie isn’t going there:

No, INSTEAD it’s going to a place where Kaira has a crush on Jug. NOPE. I’m not dealing with this. This is total nonsense. I don’t care about this. NOPE. Do you think that in any movie Shah Rukh Khan signs on to, it’s in his contract that a woman must fall in love with him? Is that part of his rider, like, coconut water, vegan chocolate mousse, in-trailer gym, at least one love story?

Jug cancels a session and Kaira is pissed. This movie wont end. They take a boat ride together. Kaira wears a full-length kimono coat thing over jean cut offs. It’s horrific.

No. They wont. They will never get sorted because that’s being a human, recognizing that whatever you came from will live in you forever. Jug is the worst therapist ever. Jug then tells her that their next session will be her last. Um, okay, I guess? I mean, that is a thing that happens but you would think he would at least refer her to someone else.

Kaira and her brother talk about her work, and how she’s “done sulking now”. She will clearly never be done sulking, her personality is half-sulk. Then Kaira says the dumbest thing she’s said this entire movie:

Never in the history of the world has that actually happened. It is official. This movie does not know how movies work. Lesson number eighteen! In India people will fund your short film. Come here, everyone I went to graduate school with, I know you’ve got some nonsense all ready to go!

Kaira expresses her feelings for Jug which I refuse to deal with because this is such a stupid plot line that it doesn’t deserve my respect. You know what did this story well? In Treatment. That’s what did this well. Gabriel Byrne would sneer at this, and he would be right to do so.

So NOW you have professional ethics? What a fun surprise.

Kaira ugly cries again, but then she laughs, because she’s HEALED now, she’s all BETTER and that means she can finally be with a MAN which was the whole POINT even though they pretended that it wasn’t. Lesson number nineteen! Mental health is all about getting you ready to get married.

And then she makes the WORST. SHORT. FILM. EVER.

I guess it’s about a Portuguese solider who was a woman but pretended to be a man and did that for over a decade but clearly couldn’t commit to CUTTING HER DAMN HAIR? ARE YOU SERIOUS?

Everyone claps at her giant screening for this 45 second short film that someone else funded apparently (bet they regret THAT) and says how amazing it was. Yet again, Dear Zindagi imposes its sense of what is brilliant on you before you have a chance to say hey, that was really pretty shitty, wasn’t it?

All of Kaira’s ex boyfriends show up for no reason, including this dude, and that weird awful uncle is like “she couldn’t have done this without you” which makes no sense at all, but let’s stop expecting logic from that guy, his name might as well be “patriarchy”. Ragu is gracious but I’m pretty sure Kaira could have shot this short film out of a damn closet, so whatever.

Then she meets a furniture maker who is dressed in head to toe black like she is and the movie ends and we can all heave a sigh of relief that even if she’s not CURRENTLY married or attached to someone, she will be soon!

Wow. Nineteen lessons, two jobs for women, and a complete and total disregard for how mental health actually works.

Still, I mean, in a country where people actually ask me what’s wrong with me when I tell them I’m in therapy, I guess it’s better than nothing? (IS IT THOUGH?) Yeah. It probably is.

But not by much….

 

 

 

Cool Story, Bro

‘There is an elasticity of the air in these mountains, and a freshness, … exercise gives all the pleasant glow of an English walk on a frosty morning.’-.T. Pearson, an army surgeon who arrived in Darjeeling in 1839

When you feel, below, dead-beat,/Overpowered by trying heat,/Worn by day, at night no rest;/ Then, ’tis surely manifest,/That you should at once take train;/ Come above, and health regain —-Keble JA. Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems: A Souvenir. Calcutta: 1908

It should not be surprising to me by this point, and yet, it actually is, to find an area of India that looks totally unlike any area of India I’ve ever seen before. And yet, come to think of it, in other very big ways…it’s really actually not.

Let me backtrack a year and some change. Speaking with a French woman at the Mumbai Film Festival within the first few months of arriving in Mumbai, someone who had lived in multiple places in India, I asked her what she thought of the other cities she’d seen. She paused, in that wonderful way the french have, and then gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. “All the Indian cities I’ve seen, they all really look the same.” she confided, much to my dismay. At that point I hadn’t actually been anywhere in India outside of Mumbai, and the idea that everything would look like Mumbai was, well, troubling to say the least. There are a lot of nice areas in this city, by Indian standards, but again, I didn’t really know what Indian standards were at that point, and the idea that everything would be a badly connected open construction site with luxury high rises towering over slums and the odd goat meandering around was troubling, to say the least. Of course, now I know that Mumbai is a cosmopolitan paradise compared to every city I’ve seen in this country, which, by the way, is a whole other kind of troubling, but I digress.

The point is, as I traveled to other cities, from Bangalore to Hyderabad, from Kolkata to, horror of horrors, Delhi, I realized with a sinking heart, the French woman had been correct. All Indian cities do look, for the most part, like other Indian cities. They are, at least, all the ones that I’ve seen at least, populated with the same little stalls selling the same (in my opinion completely disgusting) masala flavored Lays chips and chewing tobacco and sodas. The people dress the same, the streets look the same, the cows are either more or less in number, but they don’t really change in appearance. In any given Indian city that I’ve been to, you can find someone burning garbage somewhere, in an open-flame kind of situation that would be shut down in a Western city in no time flat, you can find a decent amount of livestock with no apparent owners (except for goats, people seem to hang on to their goats and you know what, GOOD FOR THEM, what are all these animals doing RUNNING AROUND WITHOUT OWNERS?), and regardless of the intended architectural style, you can find a whole lotta cement.The character, then, of the Indian cities I’ve visited, is no immediately apparent in its appearance, and can give the traveler who is passing through the sense that everything in India looks and is like everything else, so you could wake up in Kolkata and fall asleep in Hyderabad and not know, really, the difference.

But the Northeast, at least, is something truly different to my eyes. And I’m not the only one, historically. For decades Darjeeling was the favorite holiday spot of Colonial administrators, desperate for cooler climes and clearer air after months in muggy Kolkata. After a long back-and-forth with Sikkim, then an independent nation, the East India Company negotiated a deal to lease Darjeeling as a sanatorium for their delicate troops, and eventually acquired the land for themselves. Soon, overheated British officers and their wives and children would flock to the tea estates and colonial society of Darjeeling, enjoying their daily cuppa and the restorative breezes. These days, however, Darjeeling’s charm is largely built over, at least, to my weary eyes. But I still understood, looking around, how once it was a bit of a paradise, while now it is an overgrown ill-tended to town, but hey, the landscape is still pretty!

Settled in the mountains, Darjeeling is a gateway to the newly acquired Sikkim, a state in India on sufferance, uneasy in its political status, but stunning in its landscape. From there, heading North, you can hit the Himalayas, or just look at them from Gangtok, a city on a hill with views of the mighty Kanchenjunga, which Sikkim shares with Nepal. Here, you are surrounded by trees, otherworldly landscapes with new plants at each elevation, misty mountains peeling back condescension to reveal rocky valleys and intrepid yaks. Here, in between the trees and moss, the cuisine shifts from spices to herbs, from curries to soups, and from farmland to the spoils of the forest. We dined on nettle soup and ferns sautéed with yak milk cheese, and momos, everywhere. What is a momo, you ask? It’s a dumpling. Why don’t they just call it a dumpling? Who the hell knows, it’s India, I’m letting it go.

It’s like a different world in Sikkim. Even Gangtok itself, which has so many of the trademarks of an Indian city, is also somehow a bit different. For one thing, it’s built over a series of hills, so you end up burning up your legs on long steep switchbacks. For another thing, this is the land of the Buddha, and monasteries are everywhere, with prayer flags fluttering around every corner. All the fresh mountain air makes you forget about the smog and smoke of other Indian cities, and the scrupulously clean streets speak to a citizenship that cares deeply about their region.

As we drove up and down, from Darjeeling to Gangtok, we noticed a curious theme on all of the many roadsigns. Each one, like a member of a UPenn fraternity, started it’s message with “bro”. Bro, Drive Slow, Save Life. Bro, Army Territory. Bro, Educate A Woman, Educate a Generation. Bro, Reach For Your Dreams. I did not make any of these slogans up. They are all things we saw along the way. Don’t believe me? Check out this fan favorite:

Bro was with us all throughout this trip. Bro told us not to use the horn, a useless piece of advice apparently because no one followed it. Bro told us our hearts were cut in facets like diamonds. Sometimes Bro was practical, asking us to slow down, pay attention to the impossibly curvy roads. Sometimes Bro was playful, like we passed an area called “Bro Camp”, which we could only assume was some kind of popped-collar Polo scented summer program. Bro was often inspirational, encouraging us to be our best bros possible. Because bros stick together, you know?

Later, we realized that BRO stands for Border Roads Organization, but by that point,  bro? It was far far too late.

So there are a thousand and one ways that the Northeast is wildly different for me than the rest of the India that I have seen thus far. Momos and bros. What more can you ask for?

Now, some photos:

High on the hill was a lonely goatherd.

Fermented millet with hot water is about as boozy and bizarre as it sounds.

Let us dispense with the pheasantries, shall we?

The many faces of momos, from my less-than-expert hands.

Quite well said. #buddha #positive #atleast

Glacial lakes abound.

Misty mountain dogs.

Making friends, influencing people.

Thank god I didn’t wear that same pair of wool horn covers, I would have been so humiliated.

#streetstyle #fringe #sikkimswag

These girls came up to us and we thought they wanted a selfie but they wanted 20 rupees. Little grifters….

The Himalayas!

Darjeeling, or at least a calm part of it.

 

 

Sikkim on a cloudy day.

The Northeast, bro. You gotta go.