Same old story

It doesn’t matter if you can afford the house. It doesn’t matter what kind of a person you are. If you’re a Muslim, there are several people who don’t want you living next door.

This was highlighted once again when actor Emraan Hashmi was blocked from buying a flat in an upscale Bandra building allegedly because he is Muslim.

And it’s not just about people refusing to sell houses to Muslims. Many won’t buy Muslim-owned property either.

My family owns land in Panvel and about a decade ago we decided to sell it. We placed an ad in a newspaper and got several inquiries from potential buyers. One of them called my father and showed great interest. But, as soon as he heard we’re Muslims, he slammed down the phone.

This was around the time my father had applied for a credit card from a multinational bank. In time, a rejection with ‘Muslim self-employed’ scrawled across the envelope arrived.

I called up the bank and even went to its office. On learning that I was a journalist, its executives said they outsourced their background checks to other agencies and refused to accept any blame. An executive called and apologised to my father and offered to issue a card immediately. A team from the bank landed up at the office of the newspaper I then worked for and expressed regret.

I always thought that money — if nothing else — would break down barriers. After all, property dealers and credit card companies stood to earn great amounts. But I was stunned that they’d rather let that money go than do business with us.

As for the rejections by potential landlords and flat sellers, I’ve had my share of them too.

In October 2005, my wife, then two-year-old daughter and I shifted back from Pune and were hunting for a home.

We decided to look at houses in Vile Parle and Santa Cruz first because they seemed affordable. We may as well have not tried.

Brokers would hear our names and give us the “frankly speaking, you’d be better off elsewhere” line.

Some brokers took us dutifully to housing societies. Usually, the flat owners would be polite and give us a tour of the house. But many of them, as soon as they heard our names, took the broker aside and whispered something in his ear. The expression on those flat-owners’ faces was enough to tell us the deal wouldn’t go through.

One of them even told my wife flatly: “We won’t give you our house because you are Muslim.”

Most other times, as our broker gave us a knowing look, they’d smile sheepishly and say: “We’d love to strike a deal but, sadly, building residents object to non-vegetarians.” The ‘non-vegetarians not allowed’ line, we were told later, is the one most commonly used to keep Muslims out.

We gave up after a while.

Death’s calling card

I spent the few hours I got at home in the last few days hugging my daughter and telling her that I love her.

 

Staring at death and grief non-stop for over three days has amplified what I feel for those I cherish.

 

As I write this, the anti-terrorist commando operations across Mumbai have just ended. But the cloak of fear still covers us.

 

There’s no gainsaying that Mumbai’s spirit will never be broken.

 

But, like New York after 9/11, will the city I love ever be the same again? Will I ever again visit the Sea Lounge at the Taj without glancing over my shoulder? When I look out across the harbour from there, will I ever feel the same mix of serenity, joy and pride? Or, will there also be an amalgamation of pain?

 

When I walk through Colaba Causeway, will it still be as much fun taking in the sight of hawkers, the Victorian structures and the presence of the colonial ghost? Will a drive past Machhimar Nagar, where the terrorists landed in their dinghy, conjure up the same memories — of my childhood, when I passed it every day on the way to school, hoping to spot a catch of fish or whales that would get beached there from time to time?

 

It’s like 1993 all over again. I remember the day after the serial blasts that rocked Mumbai then. We drove by the Worli blast site and saw entire facades of buildings ripped away. Fans, blades crumpled by the heat of the bombs, stood like tragic sentinels to the memories of lives that had been snuffed out there.

 

A cold, icy hand grips my heart as I try to think of what it must have been like at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on the night of November 26 as two men walked in and dispensed death. I saw a photograph of one of the gunmen, the crazed look in his eyes. Could he have belonged to any religion at all? What faith could his heart have held?

 

At this moment, I am overwhelmed by fatigue, drained emotionally. The chronicling of a tragedy does that to you. I should know — in my increasingly long career as a journalist, I’ve brought out far more editions on such horrific events than I would have liked to.

The God of all things

The statue of Mother Mary ooposite the church.

The statue of Mother Mary opposite the church.

I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.

 

 

 

 

Mother Teresa

It was an unusually windy day at the Mount Mary Church in Bandra, the suburb of Mumbai where I reside. I am a frequent visitor there, climbing up the steps to the statue of the Virgin opposite the basilica. There’s usually a fire burning in which candles are lit as offerings.

It is not unusual to see people in distress, praying for solace and a solution to their problems. So, I didn’t cast a second glance at two women who had their heads pressed to the grate before the statue. Eyes closed, hands clinging to the iron bars, they were immersed in their prayers.

As my daughter and I folded our hands, suddenly a beautifully tragic and haunting song poured out from one woman’s lips. I guessed it was a South Indian language and the only word I could understand was ‘Maria’.

The wind seemed to caress the words and carry them up to the heavens, even as the other woman’s soft sobs wafted across the prayer area.

I stood rooted to the ground as the woman continued singing and the wind swirled around us.

Time seemed to stand still as the teardrops fell from the women’s eyes.

My daughter and I stayed on for a few moments before leaving, casting glances behind as the women disappeared from view, the song staying with us.

I had gone to the basilica to work out something that was on my mind — a feeling of loss and shock that I needed to deal with. I wasn’t let down — I realised that my problems were a trifle compared to what they could be, to what millions face every single day.

I am not very religious, but the perspective those women offered was enough to unburden me.

I had gone there to pray for myself. I walked away with a silent prayer for them.

Inspiration, perspiration

This blog is my first guest article. It’s written by Reeta Gupta, a dear friend of mine who’s also somewhat of a business pioneer. In 2000, Reeta and her husband Dheeraj launched Jumbo King, a vada pav (a quintessential Maharashtrian food – a thick mashed potato savoury stuffed between two halves of a bread) chain, Mumbai’s first such franchisee-based business. Currently, she runs Wowfactor, a successful public relations firm.

 

Mumbai needs flyovers. Mumbai needs affordable housing. Mumbai needs better drains. Mumbai needs better politicians. Most of all, Mumbai needs inspiration.

 

Actually, every city in the world could do with some.

 

By inspiration, I mean training on how to use the mind to make life better.

“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere,” Albert Einstein once said.

 

The Dalai Lama, Isaac Newton, celebrated author Robert Kiyosaki, and our own iconic industrialists have been incredibly positive people who have believed in the power of the human mind and its power to create.

 

A book called The Secret by Rhonda Byrnes claims that one per cent of the population earns 96 per cent of the money. If this is true, then there is surely something these people know that the other 99 per cent doesn’t.

 

Apparently, these ‘secrets’ have been passed down the generations of the wealthy since 3500 BC and have been embodied in a 1910 book called The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles.

 

According to this book, ownership of money and property is the result of doing things in a certain way. Those who do things this way, whether on purpose or accidentally, get rich. Those who don’t, no matter how hard they work or how able they are, remain poor.

 

Every cause will produce a commensurate effect. Therefore, any man or woman who learns to do things this way will infallibly get rich. In fact, it is widely believed that royalty kept these secrets to themselves, never allowing their subjects to learn of their power.

 

The problem of global warming was rechristened as ‘Global Cool’ recently, which bought a smile to my face. This was calling the natural laws of the universe into action. If you say warming, you get more of warming. If you say cool, you get more of cool. The optimist in me says that somebody will discover a substance that will absorb all greenhouse gases and make the world a safer place.

 

Coming back to Mumbai, our city does have indomitable spirit. There are a rich few here too who know the secret but decoding it for the masses and ensuring that the power is passed on is the job of a true leader.

 

All such inspirational books are not telling people how to get rich because that’s not what everyone wants either. Some want respect, some want fame. Just as Lage raho… decoded Gandhi for today’s children, maybe an inspired filmmaker could decode these powerful thoughts.

 

I remember a distinct mention of this in the Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster Om Shanti Om where the protagonist says repeatedly, “Agar dil se kuch chaaho toh poori kaaynath tumhe woh dilaane mein jut jaati hai.” (If you desire something with all your heart, then the entire universe devotes itself to uiting you with it.)

 

As Wattles rightly said: “The poor don’t need pity, they need inspiration.”

What is freedom of expression?

pen.jpg

I found myself of virgin territory last week. I have been asked to address a gathering of Muslim writers, lawyers, professionals and intellectuals on freedom of expression and the broadcast regulation bill.

While I have taught a couple of semesters for Mumbai University’s Bachelor of Mass Media degree programme at a college in Bandra, I have never really given a speech to an audience like the one mentioned above. While my students have been far from undiscerning, I am particularly jittery about the speech. For one, I don’t really know much about the broadcast bill and freedom of expression is something I’ve so taken for granted, I’ve never really thought about it.

But the invitation has set the mental wheels turning. More than anything else, what’s got me thinking is where do we draw the line with freedom of expression? Are we — and should we be — allowed to say whatever we feel like? In that case, wouldn’t sedition, pornography, insulting religions other than our own be par for the course?

Should we then limit the freedom? But a limited freedom is a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?

My own view is that while readily accept that all freedoms come with a ‘conditions apply’ tag, we tend to forget that with freedom of expression. In countries like the US, that freedom is stretched to the very limit, sanctioned by law. So, you can burn the flag, wear it on your underwear, have legitimate pornography businesses and even racist outfits like the Ku Klux Klan have a voice.

In India, we tend to be a bit more careful. Don’t forget, India is not like every other country. It is much more diverse — and sensitive to social and religious slurs — than a country like the US, which has centuries of democracy behind it, allowing it far more elbow room on an issue like expression.

Having said that, do I support full freedom to say what we want to? Yes and no. I believe, like virtually all of us, that we should be free to criticise the state, express an opinion on where we are going as a nation, speak up on national issues, etc, I don’t think we should allow someone to put images of our gods on toilet bowls and bathroom slippers, as we have seen in the West. I have even seen pornographic interpretations of our deities and I don’t think any person of any faith would feel good about that.

If I sound like my thoughts on the matter are not fully formed, that’s because they aren’t. I’m shocked at myself for how much I’ve taken this freedom for granted. As a journalist, I should have done better, thought more about it. My speech is scheduled for February 3. I have no idea what I’ll say, but, till then, much of my mental space will be occupied by it.

What will I come up with, finally? Watch this space.

What the Nano will mean to Mumbai

34665377.jpg 

The Rs 1-lakh ‘people’s car’ is finally here.

Ratan Tata has kept his promise and India can’t stop marvelling.

It’s not what we all thought it would be — an autorickshaw with four wheels, a souped-up scooter, a sputtering, crawling contraption, a disappointment…

It’s a car. Smartly designed, powerful enough, full of high-performance promise (certain aspects of it make the Maruti 800 pale in comparison), roomy, if short on luggage space, and a price tag that will make you smile. And, hey, it’s cute too.

 So what does it mean to Mumbai?

How often have we seen a family of four holding on for dear life to a scooter flirting with death amid cars high on Speed and drivers low on common sense? How often have you seen a mother trying to get herself and her two children back home intact on a peak-hour suburban train or civic bus? None of these guys could ever hope for a modicum of comfort or safety while travelling in this city.

The Nano changes this. The lower middle-class has an option now. It gives them a chance to not put up with rude, whimsical bus conductors, train ticket clerks, rickshaw drivers. It gives them a chance to get home safe to their families. It gives them a chance to move up the ladder from being Mr Nobody to being a car owner (in this New India, car ownership is often used as a barometer to judge whether you have arrived or are just another loser). It gives them a chance to not remain a mere footnote in the India story.

The Nano has empowered them.

So, I don’t buy the argument that it will merely add to already alarming pollution levels. It conforms to every emission standard. In any case, where are the naysayers when gas guzzler after gas guzzler enters the premium segment?

I laugh when they say the Nano’s guaranteed to screw up the traffic even more. Perhaps they should turn an eye to those families who own more than one car per member.

The Nano may prove to be a great leveller then when it hits the road. Is that why there are so many people alarmed by it?

This car, I suspect, is a paradigm-changing event for India —  in social terms, industrial terms, in terms of price standards, and the way Indian industry and innovation is viewed across the world.

Sorry if I sound like I’m gushing, but I really do believe it. I believe it will rank alongside such historical markers of modern India like the introduction of economic reforms in the early ’90s, the 1983 World Cup win, India’s first ‘people’s car’, the Maruti 800, the rise of our IT dominance and the Sensex crossing — and staying above — 20,000.

Take a bow, Mr Tata.

  How the world viewed Nano

Mumbai’s New Year shame

On December 31, 2007, two non-resident Indian couples walked into the plush JW Marriott hotel near Juhu Beach on the city’s western coast. As they left the New Year’s Eve party just after 1.30 am, a gang of drunken youth leched at one of the girls. She let fly with some choice abuse.

That’s when the horror began.

The youth edged closer, threatening her and her companions. The snarling, menacing gang lunged at the girls, fondling them, pinning down their dates. They jeered and hooted as the terrified, bawling women screamed for help. It never came.

More passersby joined in the ‘fun’ even as someone ripped the skirt off one of the girls.

A couple of Hindustan Times photographers — Satish Bate and Prasad Gori — managed to capture the horror on film. They tried to help, but couldn’t do much. Just then, they spotted a police van and flagged it down. A cane charge dispersed the mob and the stunned couples were whisked away to Juhu police station.

But, no complaint was filed the police decided to do nothing. Tracking down the molestors would have been too much trouble.

The next day, the city woke up to pictures of the horror splashed across the HT front page. There was outrage as police chief DN Jadhav said it was no big deal and that the media was “making a mountain out of a molehill”.

HT then decided to file a complaint as witness to the horror and marched to Juhu police station. They met a wall of bureaucracy. The police argued over whose jurisdiction the case fell under, taking five hours to register a mere three pages of statements.

At the time of writing, the police has been forced to take action, hunting down the molestors and arresting them. Only, now it’s the politicians’ turn to shame the city. The Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray and his cousin Raj, who heads a rival party, are each claiming that the men arrested are innocent and that Maharashtrian culture would never allow them to commit such an act.

Each, of course, is trying to convert a crime into votes.

I wonder whether it’s a bigger shame than the crime itself.