There were no mermaids rising out of the basement. In a poetry class long ago, Emily Dickinson had promised there would be. I had believed her then just as easily as I didn’t wonder about their absence now.My maudlin soul assumed it was because the seabed was dotted with angry, moving spots of red.


Hundreds of them.

The mermaids were no doubt hiding; I was braver because I was being carried deep into the sea by a much-in-love husband.

It wasn’t as romantically suicidal as it appears though your perspective on life, love and land changes dizzyingly when your feet are not on the ground and your eyes are not looking at the sea from its shore but the other way round. Chandipur or Chandipur-on-sea, if you want it to sound more syrupy, looks different depending on where you are looking from, when you are looking and who’s doing the looking.

There are no golden sands and aquamarine crashing waves at this forgotten little seaside on the magnificent Orissa coastline that is over 480km in length. Even from a few feet away, you have to strain to hear the sea. The tall casuarina trees that are scattered all around the semi-circular beach make more welcoming noises than her. But she is unbothered about everybody except the moon—for she is a tide beach and listens exclusively to what he dictates. Here, on this stretch of her journey, she is satiated. She neither shimmers nor dazzles but her sleet-grey ripples mildly slap around your feet and minute waves follow—you would be forgiven if you, like me, thought they were simply too shy to do anything else. Around 16km from the town of Balasore, Chandipur might be a familiar name for some because of the Integrated Test Range (from where ballistic missiles are test-fired) located on a heavily guarded section of the beach. But as a seaside resort, it is one of those clichéd “hidden gems” that travel writing is littered with, never mind if they really exist in the real world. Often looked upon as a poor cousin of the more popular Puri beach or Gopalpur-on-sea, the tide beach is mostly frequented by residents of Balasore, surrounding towns and villages who, if you care to ask them, speak of it with great affection, as one would about a loyal companion of many years.

Indeed, if you visit Chandipur in the right frame of mind, it will inspire enough affection to last a lifetime. If you don’t go looking for Goa, Chandipur will reveal to you a beauty that will break your heart just a little, not too much. When the sun rises and all you can see of the water is a thin line of shimmer below a horizon that’s no more than an orange arc, you might look up at the stately trees and the many eye-deceiving patterns they make in the light of dawn and wonder how you could have thought just the previous day that it was the dullest beach you have ever seen. To gush a bit more, it is just the kind of place to realize that love is no friend of yours, but sigh, you still have the blues… Gary Moore, the British blues singer who died earlier this year, wouldn’t have been too unhappy to strum his iconic number Still Got the Blues on Chandipur’s bleak shores.

Blues might easily come to mind when you take a walk along its edge but the colours here are more monochrome— the brown of the sand flows into the grey of the sea, which, in turn, blends into the slate of the sky. Here is a space that can easily transport you to your deepest self if you give it half a chance. Here is where you can get on with just being yourself, without the distractions of rationality. Chandipur’s unaffected innocence makes you want to recollect your own memories of a wide-eyed childhood even as you bend down every second minute to collect the multi-hued starfishes, seashells and crab claws left behind for you by a sea that believes in retreating to rejuvenate. You clean them carefully, determined to display all of them in your living room; they even survive the bumpy train journey but you reach home and forget all about them.

But forgetfulness is not a quality that will be appreciated by the slate-grey maiden of Chandipur. She might retreat every day but she never forgets to return. Twice every day, she puts up a performance for her worshippers. At appointed times, the waters recede nearly 6km and that is when you can exorcise all your suicidal tendencies by walking into the sea. When the tide comes in, she returns, as sedately as ever, thus graciously allowing you to always be a step ahead of her while you walk back to the shore.

To walk so far into the sea is to experience an introspective moment, whatever sort of disbeliever you are. There is a strange tranquillity that comes with walking towards the horizon—maybe it is the mixture of colours and the quality of light or maybe it is just the sheer feeling of liberty. Whatever it may be, what it effectively does is capture, for a short time, the kind of abandon one might feel if one is unafraid of death.

Which is why, when you return with the sea, with the sun setting behind you, you feel strong enough to pursue the unexpected and believe in the unlikely—mermaids included.

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 24.09.11. Find it here: http://www.livemint.com/2011/09/23213831/Orissa-Chandipuronsea--The.html?h=B

If you happen to see the snide comments, lame SMS jokes and sniggering tweets about Bol, you would probably think Pakistanis hate the movie. But as Arsalan says, rather insightfully for a 16-year-old, it is just more evidence that Shoaib Mansoor’s second offering has touched more than one raw nerve.

“That is how we react here when something affects us very much,” he adds candidly when I ask him about the jokes going around about the dialogues concerning a eunuch in the movie. A college student from Karachi, Arsalan has seen Bol twice and intends to see it once more. Embarrassed about the movie’s less-than-slick production values but proud that it has now released in India, he is worried that Indians might not like it. “It is not like a Bollywood movie you know, but I salute ShoMan (a popular moniker for Mansoor) for making such a movie.” 

The pride about the movie among young urban Pakistanis, the second one made by the highly respected but reclusive director of the much-feted Khuda Ke Liye, is palpable. Bol has not just brought reluctant families back to theatres but also seen a glitzy Bollywood-style premiere in Karachi, a city that is today being torn apart by ugly sectarian violence. That a grand premiere could be held amid such gloom was itself a cause for great cheer for many. There is wide-eyed wonderment on Facebook and Twitter that a ‘Lollywood’ film actually managed to beat the collections of formidables like the Shahrukh Khan-starrer My name is Khan and Salman Khan’s movie Ready in its first-week collections in Pakistan. Danish Mughal, the editor-in-chief of a popular Pakistani music website Pakium.com, says Bol has been one of the hottest topics on his website, and indeed there are heated discussions on each post about the movie, with youngsters from even smaller cities like Sialkot, Multan and Faisalabad openly discussing the merits and demerits of birth control and arguing heatedly about whether Islam accepts alternative sexuality and women’s empowerment.

These, in fact, are the very issues the movie takes up through the story of an intimidating, ultra-religious Hakeem who lives in a dilapidated mansion in the heart of old Lahore and spends most of his time terrorising his many daughters and abusing his wife for not bearing a son. Much to his horror, when a boy is eventually born, he turns out to be a eunuch. The rest of the story is about the struggle between the values of the father and those of his immediate family, the initially tentative and later bold attempts at assertion by the daughters and the inevitable fate of the eunuch son in an atmosphere of shame, hatred and exclusion. Its star attraction is of course the Pakistani pop sensation Atif Aslam whose debut movie this is and who tweeted recently that he agreed to act in the movie without remuneration simply because he thought it would bring youngsters to the theatres and spur them to look under the carpet. But like Lubna Aslam, who is no relation to Atif but is just happy to share a surname with her favourite superstar, tells me, she went to see Bol “only for Atif” but when she came out, he was far away from her thoughts. Critics though have accused Bol of taking on too much and trying to say too many things, being too didactic and flitting too quickly from one taboo topic to the next and thus tiring out its viewer.

Such criticisms though seem to be cutting no ice with fans like Danish who says he is glad that the movie is preachy. “Yeah, all it does is wag its fingers! But it showcases the rights that are being violated in conservative Pakistani societies… that cannot be entertainment eh? It has triggered discussions on the road, in colleges and in homes about issues like women’s rights, and how we treat our own people. I cannot stress enough how positive it has made us feel. It has empowered us to talk openly about such issues.” He seems to be simply echoing the sentiments behind the movie’s single-line promos such as ‘Pakistan ke liye Bol’Islam ke liye Bol’ and ‘Beti ke liye Bol’, which created quite a stir when they were first aired.

The fact that Bol is not set in culturally distant Mumbai or Delhi but is a movie that takes its life from their very own social and cultural milieu has perhaps ensured that young Pakistanis identify with its theme more closely and respond to it passionately. As Roshanay Asif Sheikh, an A-level student from Lahore, says, the movie has compelled her to think of the torture and pain some sections of the society are subjected to and provoked her to stand up for her rights. She believes the movie brings to the fore the many misconceptions about Islam, much like its predecessor Khuda Ke Liye did and she and her friends mostly agree with the view of Islam projected by it. “Eunuchs are seen as a shameful part of our society and such discrimination is a hindrance to the success of our nation. The movie has made my thoughts about such vulnerable groups more clear and I am grateful for that.” Amr Kashmiri who plays the pivotal role of Saifi, the eunuch, says despite fears about how his character would be received by the public, he agreed because he was convinced that it was a unique opportunity “to speak up for a community of people who are not even considered as human beings here”. He says the audience response to his character has pleasantly surprised him. “I was really happy to see that Saifi evoked such sympathy – obviously there were many who could relate to his trauma but could never articulate it openly.”

If all this sounds a little too earnest and idealistic, it is only a reflection of the state of mind of the young urban Pakistani society, small thought it might be, which is itching to change, is willing to digest such bold depictions of taboo topics and, more significantly, able to absorb perceptions different from those that they generally see around them. It seems they are ready and eager to speak and this is perhaps why a movie that solemnly urges its viewers to ‘speak up’ has caught their collective fancy.

A version of this article was published in Daily Post India on 11.09.2011. View it in pdf form here:

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The very English Dickens was an excellent Bollywood scriptwriter at heart. And just as it is fashionable in some circles to sneer at Bollywood films, it is similarly quite the in-thing in academia to be disdainful of Dickens. 

His many detractors have often accused him of being theatrical, ponderous and shallow and blamed him for his melodramatic style and stereotypical characterisations. But nearly 200 years after his birth, Charles Dickens remains the celebrity British writer he was during the Victorian era. Much to the consternation of his critics, his books are still widely translated, read and adapted into plays and cinemas, and most significantly, his novels remain rich texts to dip into if you are looking for illuminating historical parallels of our times. 

It is perhaps because of this very quality that Dickens remains relevant in a century ostensibly vastly different from his own. Even his staunch admirers admit to Dickens writing bad prose every now and then. They do not deny that he was full of dramatic flourishes and his style came most alive when his characters’ emotions were in the high octave. The kinder of his critics compared his writing to a Wagnerian opera, with its ability to sustain both the grotesque and the grand in the same note. But even they couldn’t fathom his immense popularity; their puzzlement was akin to a conservative classical musician fretting about the adulation a less-gifted pop star inspires. 

Dickens was indeed the Victorian rockstar, his unrockstar-like looks notwithstanding. One of the few writers who enjoyed great fame during his own lifetime, he not only captured people’s imaginations, but also, astonishingly, made money out of his writings. In a fascinating biography, Jane Smiley describes him as the first ‘name brand’; a great citizen and public figure who became sour and cranky in his private life simply because he couldn’t handle his celebrity status.

Scratch the surface and it is not difficult to understand why Dickens enjoyed such fame.

Dig deeper and you will comprehend why Dickens’ stature is even better than it has ever been; why cheap pirated versions of most of his novels are still available with every decent roadside book-seller; and why his readers still regard him as a warm friend able to articulate their blatant emotions and secret desires much more tellingly than they themselves ever could.
Dickens’ appeal is easily explainable. He wrote about people from the humblest of backgrounds struggling (and often winning); he invested a rare empathy in the troubles of everyday living and brought forth both its intense difficulties and simple joys in all its operatic sentimentality. To read about your own doubts and misgivings, fears and joys in the exalted writing style of a Bleak House or a David Copperfield was emotional catharsis for many. Dickens’ greatest characters were the unknown. He never cared much for the kings and queens leading sparkling lives. Instead, he wrote about the clerks and the travellers; about unsuccessful doctors and impoverished young boys. His heroes were foolish and brave; his villains were fate and circumstance. 

Much more complex is to comprehend why a Victorian writer makes such profound sense in the 21st century. In novel after novel, Dickens talks hauntingly about the psychological and spiritual impacts of urban life. Witness how he makes teeming, seething, dirty, ugly, Victorian London a living, breathing character by itself. Scholar Peter Ackroyd famously called Dickens the best biographer London could ever get. In his personification of Victorian London, he provides us with a great parallel to our own messy 21st century cities; in creating characters such as Arthur Clennam of Little Dorrit, he lays bare what crass materialism does to unsuspecting souls. Through a prescient novel such as Bleak House, he bemoans how greed and degrading morality affects fortunes and dictates love. His writing resonates with us today precisely because of these insights he wittingly or unwittingly provided. Whatever he was not, he was a brilliant social commentator who could see through the damaging effects of unhindered capitalism and criticise unsparingly the collapse of friendships and relations in the quest for more riches and more everything.

Which is why, despite its theatrics and its stereotypes, his writing transcends centuries, languages and cultures. Not surprising then that there are great expectations from the celebrations that have already begun to mark the bicentenary of his birth in February next year. Co-ordinated by the Charles Dickens Museum, a series of events across the world have been planned under the banner of ‘Dickens 2012’. A retrospective of Dickens’ films and plays will premiere at Southbank in London before being taken on a world tour while several exhibitions, conferences and reading groups have been charted out, including a major audio-visual exhibition of the author’s works at the Museum of London.

Brought to life will be not just the chair and desk that Dickens wrote most of his works on, but also rarely seen manuscripts of his novels, handwritten by the author himself.

The commemoration promises to be grand and hyperbolic. Indeed, it is apt that it should be so for such a celebrated figure; for a man who was no stranger to grandeur, both in his life and his work. 

Dickens would certainly have approved.

This was published in Deccan Herald on 04.09.2011. Find it here http://www.deccanherald.com/content/188152/as-popular-ever.html