Wednesday, August 31, 2016

So They Say. But They Lie.

They say the heart is made of flesh and bones and blood.
How then, when it breaks, can it shatter like fine glass, into a million irretrievable pieces? 
Why then, does the red blood cut through the bones and fall from numb eyes, like the rains of July?
People that talk of my fortitude? What would they know? They lie. Oh, how well they (and I) lie.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Censor Regime: Filter Coffee Column

Read it here on Kindle magazine, or see below.


In the first few days after I came to London, postcards that said Britain is not an island were still hanging around here and there. It was a blue and red drawing, more like a child’s scrawl. It wasn’t everywhere, like the Leave pamphlets were, for they tell me, the people here, that they never thought they would need to flood the country with Stay literature. It was so obvious what was good for the country, they thought. How wrong we think, about everything sometimes.

That we are free. That you can be who you want to be. That you can write what you want. Even when it says so in the Constitution. Who cares for that old book these days? Not our governments, it looks like.

In the state of Kerala, it must be the Karkidakam month already. In our parts we call it Kakkada masa, at the end of which we eat a sweet kheer made with the Aati leaves which bleed a light purple into the dish. Last year around this time, a previously unknown fringe outfit called Hanuman Sene forced a well-known writer called Dr M M Basheer to stop writing a column in Malayalam for Mathrubhumi, one of the highest read dailies in Kerala. Karkidakam is also called the Ramayana month, and several newspapers were getting writers to comment on various aspects of the epic, Dr Basheer being one of them. He apparently got several threatening calls, asking him what authority he had to write on Rama, being a Muslim himself. He had already written five out of the six installments the newspaper had asked him to write. The fact that Dr Basheer is a well-respected critic and has previously written on Ramayana seems obvious, and thus irrelevant here.

The last time I had had a friend check, he had stopped answering all calls. This incident was then the latest in a series of attacks on free speech and those who exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of expression. The Kannada writer Dr M M Kalburgi had been murdered a few days ago then. Unable to withstand the political vendetta against him, the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan had declared that he would never write again, that Perumal Murugan the writer was dead now. Since then, I have lost count of the number of incidents where this fundamental right has been snatched away from the citizens of my country.

I sit in a distant land and hope to build a bubble that insulates me from the happenings of the world. We like to fool ourselves on the best of days. Last week though, when there were three terror attacks in three days in neighbouring Germany, another in Kabul, the ‘coup’ in Turkey, Kashmir, the official announcement of Trump as the Republican Party candidate for US presidency and so much more, it was impossible here not to be depressed. The bunch of us here, in this place I am living in, a jolly bunch, us all, usually sharing food and swapping stories from our homelands, we were quiet that day. One talked about how she had to hold back from giving her son an old frat scarf of the Palestine symbol, when he went to university, because with his ethnic background, he would be all the more a target than usual. Children in Texas are legally allowed to bring guns to university. Read that sentence again. Legally allowed. We in India aren’t allowed to eat when a class is underway. Another friend wondered what it would be like when his three year old son grew older. He wondered if he should never leave the remote northern European country he lives in. We wondered if we should have children at all. We wondered where this was heading. We wondered if we should just retreat to the villages we all grew up in, isolate ourselves, build our bubbles and hope the bombers don’t find it worthwhile to obliterate our little homes. It was a selfish thought that quiet evening. We weren’t sure what to say or do or think.

Are there any answers? I desperately hope so, at least for the sake of the beautiful children I know and love, for the sake of the child I might one day have, or not. But right this minute, for all the troubles of the world, the terrorism, the mindless ‘lone wolf’ attacks, the quiet attacks by our governments to prevent us from speaking, writing, creating, hoping, there seem to be no answers. Allow me to apologize for this grimness, for being so without hope. We all try, desperately to be cheery and hopeful and grateful for the privileges we, those that read and write here in these pages, have. For we have the power of the word, at least to write somewhere, anywhere. Most times it doesn’t seem enough. You do your best but it just gets worse, this world.

The other day, the Madras High Court squashed all the criminal charges against Perumal Murugan. In desperate times, I stop to notice little things, that it is still called Madras. That city is a firm favourite, and will always only ever be Madras for me. Murugan is free to write whatever he wants, I don’t know if he still is though. Udta Punjab, a movie we were supposed to see just before I left, but didn’t, released too, with just one cut. In times like these, like a drowning man holding on to a few stalks of grass, I hold on to these things, by no measure small judgements in the face of the crisis the present government is hoisting upon its people.

Here is what you can do. Buy every banned book. Watch every movie that is controversial. Write, even if just on a Whatsapp group, how much you hate what is going on. Read the alternative press, for Arnab Goswami is never going to tell you what you really need to know. Watch videos that small groups are making, about mining or something else. Be subversive, of please be subversive. Being an activist is not really a career choice you make anymore. Hashtag the hell out of these things. Every drop counts. For if you are not free, especially intellectually free, there really is no point to anything.

#insolidarity #foe #everyotherfoerelatedhashtag

On the Centenary Year of Mysore Sandal Soap: In BLink

I have been a journalist for a long time now. Too long, I think sometimes. I have dealt with my share of difficult people and seen the lengths to which bureaucracy can go to - paid my dues to the devil, you could say. But nothing and no one has been as strange as this story. While I understand why they might want to be so cagey, given some previous bad experience they had, it was such a pain in the backside getting them to give me perfectly safe, positive information, which was all that this feature was about. Anyway, I did not enjoy writing this story, but well, it is done now.

Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published July 23, 2016.


For some silly reason I hope the heady smell of sandalwood will waft in, like a theatrical breeze, when I walk through the gates of Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KS&DL), the erstwhile Government Soap Factory in Bengaluru. It obviously doesn’t, though there are a few precious sandalwood trees, enmeshed to protect them, growing within the compound. The manufacturing unit is in another building and the administrative block I find myself in has standard government office d├ęcor. The dull whirr of a fan on the ceiling and samples of sandal products on shelves in the offices of senior staff, that’s all.

It is the centennial year of the state owned company, started by the then Maharaja of Mysore, Nalwadi Krishna Raja Wodeyar and his Diwan, Sir M Visvesvaraya in Mysore in 1916. World War I had halted the export of sandalwood from the state and something needed to be done about the excessive reserves of this fragrant wood. Thus, the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory was started to extract oil. Two years later came the iconic Mysore Sandal Soap, the flagship product that has a nearly monopolistic presence in the sandalwood bathing soap market.

It is the only soap in the world that uses pure sandalwood oil, claims the company. This has helped the brand get the much coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag, protecting it from imitations. There is no lack of people wanting to cash in on the Mysore Sandal brand though, A Ravi Shankar, assistant general manager, Export, Marketing, MID told me; the company ends up having to file law suits now and then.

The story of this soap starts with the WWI, via a set of sandalwood infused soaps that the Maharaja got from abroad as a present, inspiring him to send a scientist called S G Sastry to London to learn the ropes of the perfume and soap trade, and arrives a hundred years later to occupy about 20 per cent of the South Indian market. Nationwide, the market share stands at 7-8 per cent, Ravi Shankar told me, quoting these numbers from 2013, the latest that they have. Increasing this market share, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the country and exports is what they are working towards, Dr Shamla Iqbal, Managing Director, KS&DL told me.

Being a government owned company, a budget for advertising and marketing is limited, she admits. Ten years ago, cricketer M S Dhoni was appointed as a brand ambassador, but it ended the company suing Dhoni for alleged breach of contract. After a long legal battle, Dhoni won the case against the company. There are only models employed to pose for the ads now, pretty women seeming to writhe around, all eyes on the golden coloured soap, in standard soap advertisement style. The GI status has helped, said Dr Iqbal, but said it was hard to quantify the premium value this status accords to a product.

Outside of Karnataka and some parts of south India, Mysore Sandal soap gets mostly treated as a gift item, a luxury, an occasional indulgence, despite its market standard price. Within the state, it is perceived as a product favoured by the 40+ year olds. Dependable, nostalgic, loyal, traditional are the terms that come to mind. It is an image that has endured, and is one that the company hopes to change. “We want to popularize Mysore Sandal soap among the youth, and in the northern and eastern states of India. We are trying to figure out a social media plan as well,” Dr Iqbal said. Though the product line includes liquid hand washes, incense sticks, different kinds of soaps, etc. it is the sandal soap, in its classic packaging that remains the signature product of the company. A new centennial soap was introduced earlier this year, but without much advertising, remains not so visible on supermarket shelves.

Interestingly, the production figures show an increase in numbers, even as the amount of sandalwood that’s available in the state is on the decline. The fragrant ambassador of the country, as sandalwood is called, is grown in the border regions between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Ravi Shankar told me that the odour from the trees grown here is very different. “Though the trees are grown in Australia, Kenya and elsewhere, the quality of sandalwood from them is different. We buy sandalwood in open auction, just like the other licensed buyers,” he added. KS&DL remains the largest buyer of sandalwood, and the only government company. What intrigues me is that the second largest buyer is supposedly a gutka maker in northern India. That sandalwood is added to gutka is news to me. But that’s another story for another day.

The availability of sandalwood has been reducing every year. To counter the decline in supply KS&DL has initiated a ‘Grow more sandal’ programme for farmers, with rather inexpensive saplings and a buy back policy. Despite these hiccups in raw material figures, Ravi Shankar said that production figures increased 13 per cent and 15 per cent in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. During the same period, the sales value increased 15 per cent and 17 percent respectively, as per retail audit.

Large numbers of export go to the Middle East, some small quantities to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Australia and the rest of the Western world. “Buyers are mostly Indians settled abroad,” Ravi Shankar says. Foreign markets are attractive as well, but the company, in its 100th year, is more interested in increasing its overall market share within the country. What it has going for it is the purity of sandalwood it uses, most others use synthetic versions, I am told. “Sandal (soap) is my monopoly, and it is the reason we still exist after 100 years,” was how Shankar summed it up for me.