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Thursday, July 22, 2010

New Delhi: Under Construction

CP: outer circle
Okay this is not the worst view, but take a careful look at the flooring and the scaffolding in the background. Tiles being replaced, pillars being rebuilt, roofing being refurbished...and this is the least of it. Most of CP is much worse. Drive on the roads, and more often than not you find yourself in a bottleneck because of construction on either side. Walk, and it's worse, you might fall into one of the several ditches (in Connaught Place you have to step over several, sometimes walking over precariously placed planks to cross a wide one).

Three months to go and nowhere near complete. The news of the day is that the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi will witness a spectacular display of fireworks costing the exchequer some Rs 40 crore. A show up in the sky might distract some from the unfinished work on the roads! Having just returned from a trip to Delhi, I am left with a sense of disenchantment and deep worry. Is this the face we are to present to the world? What has always been a favourite city is now in the throes of a seeming transformation (fortunately, the nicest parts of Central Delhi have been spared) to accommodate the Games, the events, the people and the vehicles. My friend's colony in Central Delhi has had to close one of its main gates to allow parking on that side of the street, while students in Delhi University have had to do without recreational facilities for more than two years in anticipation of a Games makeover to their grounds. While the Metro snakes southward in a promising advance of mass transit, the sidewalks on the University campus have disappeared (hopefully, only temporarily) to give way to wider roads to hold more cars. And when the rain comes down, as it does with regularity in July, not only does it provide relief from the muggy heat, but also spawns rivers of free flowing mud.

In short, the road to the Games is a capital Mess.

But maybe, as sometimes happens in our charmed country, by some miracle that defies bad weather and corrupt contractors, the work will get finished and New Delhi will put up a good show.  Most residents won't be around to see it. They've been advised to leave the city during the two-week enforced break and leave it to the visitors--so that parking and water both remain in plentiful supply!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Harley-Davidson in Hyderabad

The rapid proliferation of Western brand names on Indian streets is nothing new; it's been happening since the beginning of the "LPG" era (thanks to my mass comm students who taught me that acronym for liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation). Coca Cola, Pepsi, Levi's, etc. And more recently, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, and other such motorables. But this morning as I was driving to work I saw one that threw me just a little bit--the iconic motorcycle company, Harley-Davidson, has a showroom in (where else?) Banjara Hills! While one might say that the VW Beetle is as much a style and attitude product as the HD, the latter belongs to a culture that somehow feels a bit out of place in the rarefied corporate environs of main street Banjara Hills. Okay, accepted, the motorbikes perhaps got very bad rap based on mythologies created by Hollywood, of biker gangs and Hells Angels being the primary HD clientele, but that too is an image that is hard to wipe out of the imagination, which often turns into memory. And my own imagination -spiced memory cannot rid itself of images of leather-clad, chain wielding gangs of long-haired tattoo-armed men looking for vacant car lots and junk yards in which to to commune. But clearly, at an Indian price tag ranging between close to Rs 700,000 and 3.5 million, those who buy these bikes in Hyderabad are not going to be looking at raising dust storms on outer ring road! And truly speaking, Harleys have had more to do with the police force in the US than with violent biker gangs (largely a creation of cinema). I have friends who are devoted Harley owners, and who use their heavy bikes to explore the countryside and seek "wholesome" outdoor adventure. In fact, the more recent HD ads note "millions of Harley Davidsons, and not a leather jacket in sight." To be honest, neither of the two HD owners I know wears leather or has a tattoo, and one is a smiling grandfather who rides with his lovely wife and a group of friends on weekends, just to feel the wind on their faces and the sun on their backs!

So it's time to set aside my erroneous and imagination-rich ideas and accept that Harley Davidsons are just as likely to be ridden by the youngsters populating the glass palaces in Hi-Tec city as by forty-somethings who once idolize Peter Fonda. In fact, market research shows the average age of a HD biker is now 46, compared to the late 20s of three decades ago! Perhaps that's where the money is...but it's also where the imagination is!

And the HD showroom in Banjara Hills...well, I guess in a couple of weeks it will be just another sign joining the blur that borders my drive to work!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Frankly grey


I’m just back from a wedding in the city of mandapams and katcheris, and of marriages made as a result of discussions over good strong decoction kaapi. I’m also just back from one of those weddings, this one of course not decided by the exchange of yellow and red dotted jadakams (horoscopes) but by the meeting of two young minds that had grown up together. The wedding is incidental to this post, however, which bears upon matters much more trivial. But the wedding provided the context, the backdrop, against which my determination to not be lured by the promoters of “youngistan” was sorely tested.

You see, I’ve entered the “grey zone” in the past year or so, having decided not to give in to increasingly strident voices in advertising that urge one to “stay young” and buy into the cult of youth, that treats ageing as a pathology to be aggressively tackled and stayed at any cost. The cult of youth comes with a huge price tag, hung innocuously on off-the-shelf goods like anti-wrinkle cream and hair colour (remember the young girl who tells her sister—“Safed baal! Didi, my life is over!”) as well as more visibly on hoardings that advertise brow lifts and anti-ageing treatments that “keep you looking young”.  Those who are allowed to turn grey are no longer the parents, but only the grandparents who are safely in their seventies and eighties with no hope of a “life” as the youthful copywriters imagine it. Those in the middle zone—the 40s, 50s and 60s, must look young if they are to partake in that “life” in any way!

So, here I am, pushing the half century (very hard) and like Clarissa Vaughn in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, very decidedly and “defiantly” grey. And strangely enough, I meet with a subtle disapproval, not unlike that meted out to outrageous piercings and tattoos sported by those much younger. Comments range from a fairly even “Oh, so you’ve decided to take the gracefully ageing route?” to “You seem to be really busy, you’ve gone quite grey!” (implying that I do not have the time or the inclination to take care of my appearance). I’m still not totally immune to these reactions that vary from the said disapproval to pity but I do take refuge in my mental images of the stately and still beautiful and very grey Nafisa Ali and many other silver-haired women I know, and stick to my guns, usually responding with no more than a smile.

My greyness is as much a cultural and political statement as it is a matter of convenience. I have no quarrel at all with those who choose to “stay the grey” with L’Oreal or Revlon or even good old kali mehndi and tea leaves, in fact I admire how they look. But I myself do not have the patience or the perseverance to check my roots week after week and ensure that they are adequately covered with the right dash of colour—not too black, not too brown, just the right shade in between. But there’s another side to the story. And that’s the argument that holds in the long run. Why have we as a race privileged youth above all other stages in life? The market is geared to their appetites and whims, often sacrificing good taste and good values in order to pander to their tastes in everything from the texture of fabric to the storylines of soap operas. They are the big consumers, so everything fit to be consumed is directed at their wallets and their eyeballs and earlobes.

Of course, the youth cult is nothing new; now it just has a bigger machine to fuel it and sell to it. And there are more places where it can be worshipped. I haven’t yet been able to find a nice, stylish coffee bar where the music is muted, the magazines on the tables are cerebral, and there are people of all ages, maybe just as many with salt and pepper hair as those with gelled spikes. Or a bookstore where I am not pointed to the spirituality section just because of the color of my hair!

I know a lot of really “cool” people, many of whom have radical and very progressive opinions and lifestyles, and who have chosen to let the silver spread through their hair without resistance. While we talk about getting past superficial judgments based on how we look and dress and speak, what about avoiding judgments based on the level of grey in one’s hair?

The wellness industry has expanded its horizons by making age a pathology, and moving closer to the beauty industry so that the margins between the two are now blurred. Is Botox a treatment for nervous tics and muscular spasms or is it a means of erasing lines and the signs of age? Is a brow lift a means of treating a potential threat to vision or is it a way of defining the eye so as to prettify it? But these and other such treatments take us into another area all together, a totally different ball game.

Of course, another way of looking at this is to say that we now have more choices; we can choose to look the way we feel, and we have the means to make our inner selves visible. If I have the inner vitality of a 25 year old, why can’t I do what it takes to look as close to that age as possible? If I feel young, why can’t I do what it takes to look young?

But my point is, why should I look young in order to prove to someone else that I feel young? Today, I look in the mirror, and yes, I confess, I am a little alarmed at the rate at which silvery glints in my hair are increasing; but a moment later I turn away, and I forget how I look. I am what I feel; I am what I think; I am what I like to do. And all you need to do is to talk to me to figure out if you can relate to the person I am…not the age I am at!