All posts by anonandon

Someone in Indian Advertising Has Been Reading Freud

I just watched a hand that is presumably attached to a woman give a bottle of deodorant a hand job:

This was sent to me a few weeks ago but I got creeped out by the red nails and abandoned the video. Mistake. Because there’s a lot more than nails at play here.

The deodorant is called Cobra, which gets stroked to the point where it, well, loses its head and squirts. In case you didn’t find the shape of the bottle and the name of the deodorant suggestive enough, there’s also a squiggly line running down the bottle (“a la dorsal de penis”, as a friend put it, “because a little French sounds sexier”), some bubbling up in the bottle itself and then, finally, a spray.

Perhaps someone could take a bottle and place it on Freud’s tombstone.

 

Let The Right One In

The poster for the upcoming Bollywood film Mary Kom is out. We don’t really do biopics or care about any sport other than cricket, but Kom is one of those rare stories of Indian sport that isn’t all sad. Most of our atheletes are tragic heroes, broken down by misfortune, an uncaring government and a society that considers sport a waste of time. Kom, on the other hand, is successful, happily married and dash it all, she’s even got a bronze medal. Which is why there’s a movie being made on her life, with Priyanka Chopra playing Kom.

You might notice that Priyanka Chopra doesn’t look like Mary Kom. Those Bollywood watchers who are sensible and intelligent have been ruing how Chopra, who doesn’t look like she’s from Manipur from any angle, was chosen for this role. Today, when the poster came out, those laments surfaced again. Couldn’t the filmmaker have picked a Manipuri actress to play Kom’s part? We’d get all huffy when the few Indians characters in Hollywood were played by Mexicans or body-painted Caucasians, but here we are doing much the same to our own people. But is it actually better for the film to have a non-Manipuri actor because her fame will make the project seem attractive to a wider audience? How many people would pay to see a film about boxing starring a nobody? Does it matter that Kom seems delighted that Chopra, prosthetics and all, is playing Kom in reel life?

These are all serious questions.

I, on the other hand, can’t get over the fact that Priyanka Chopra has Kom seems to have the same make up that the vampires had in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

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And unrelated to Kom, there’s more of Sirius and her horcrux quest here.

Why India Doesn’t Need ‘Feminism’ A La Buzzfeed

I really am growing old. I’ve spent half an evening wondering whether something I saw on the internet is worth ranting about. Once upon a time, I’d have written five froth-around-the-mouth rants in this time, and not until the morning after would it have struck me that just maybe I should have thought about whether this thing that’s bothered me is worth a rant or five.

The thing in question is this list on Buzzfeed: “46 People Told Us Why They Want, Need And Deserve A More Feminist India.” Honestly, the reason I’ve dithered about writing about this is that it’s Buzzfeed. Is it really worth typing out a rant on something you saw on Buzzfeed? Surely there are better things to do with my time?

Look, I totally agree that there is a haloed place for cute hedgehogs, kittens and inane quizzes. If you’ve zoomed in on “Awww” as your most mature response to the world at large, then don’t venture beyond fluff. On the other hand, if you’re going to talk about feminism, it seems like a good idea to know what the word means, for starters. Once you’ve wrapped your head around the definition, how about applying a modicum of logic to the post that you’re concocting?

Buzzfeed asked people in India why the country needs feminism.

Because of course India’s the only place that needs a feminist, nay pop-feminist, intervention. Buzzfeed’s homeland of America, for example, is a *shining* example of how patriarchy and prejudice have been crushed to smithereens.

But anyway, the point is that Buzzfeed wants to know about feminism in India. Who is best placed to provide a succinct and comprehensive understanding of the nation? A group of city slickers who reek of privilege and exclamation marks. The only diversity in Buzzfeed’s list lies in the spelling and grammatical errors.

There are certain places where being simplistic can be forgiven as long as the intentions are good and the execution isn’t godawful. In Mills & Boons, for instance, and Bollywood films. However, if you’re going to talk about something as misunderstood and misrepresented as feminism, that too in a country as complex, complicated and muddled in patriarchy as India, then the last thing you want to be is simplistic. Plus, you’ve got 46 people, many of whom have written personal essays on those placards, so really, there’s no excuse.  That’s a lot of people and a LOT of words.

For the sake of my blood pressure levels, I can’t go through all of them. However, again for the sake of my blood pressure levels, let’s go through a few just so that I can get this out of my system.

BF-FEM1

 

While I’m glad that this young lady has wrapped her head around the idea that fairness is not necessarily a virtue, did it not strike either Buzzfeed or her that discrimination on the basis of skin tone is a different -ism? Arguably, feminism would have issues with the fact that this woman’s first association with femininity is loveliness, i.e. conventions of beauty and the tendency to privilege a woman’s physical appearance over everything else.

BF-FEM2

 

Actually, a daughter is A PERSON. She is neither an asset nor a liability. People are not valuations that belong in balance sheets. A daughter does not belong in a ledger. Neither, for that matter, does a son. Here’s an idea: STOP THINKING OF PEOPLE AS THINGS THAT CALCULATE NET WORTH. Because when you do, you’re objectifying people. And rumour has it, feminism doesn’t approve of such behaviour.

BF-FEM3

 

Look, I’m glad this guy wants to be a feminist. Really, I am. But for the love of god, he’s put khap panchayats — a system of socio-political administration — with item numbers and “pursuing a woman against her will” in the same sentence. Khap panchayats are incredibly powerful and regressive village councils that have played a critical role in maintaining caste-based prejudice in large parts of India. Item numbers are random song sequences that are inserted into films to titillate men in the audience. I’ve no idea what “pursuing a woman against her will” entails, but whatever it is, I’m going to say it has little in common with either khaps or item numbers.

BF-FEM4

 

Yet another dude, yet another random cliché.. First of all, women are not half the population. They’re much less. On top of that, what is this assumption that all Indian women live in fear? This is the sort of idiotic generalisation that I expect from some ill-informed, cloistered person in the middle of the American/ European nowhere. More to the point, if indeed all of us Indian women are cowering in terror, then what the country needs is better law and order and more police for starters. Even if the police are patriarchal bastards, if they do their job, then there’s no reason for women to be afraid. On the other hand, if the police become feminists but don’t do their jobs, I doubt anyone will feel safe.

And then there are gems like this:

BF-FEM5

 

 

I don’t even. Seriously? “Rickshawalis”? Or the one that said, “Because it’s 2014.” Thanks for letting us know. We were totes confused and wondering, “What year is it?” Is there a prophecy I missed that promised The Advent Of Feminism in India in 2014?

What is all this, a nonsense rhyme?

One young mother says on her placard, “India needs feminism because I’m part of the half that brings life to this world; and I’m proud of it!!!” Be still my beating heart. A semi colon! And three exclamation marks. But let us set aside the battering my English has taken while going through the list — someone actually wrote “shudn’t” — what is the connection between her personal sense of self-respect and why India needs feminism?

There’s another placard that declares women make the best bosses and that, apparently, is why India needs feminism. Let us ignore the fact that it was men thinking men make the best bosses that led to unequal pay and a host of issues that we’re still trying to counter, not just in India but all over the bleddy world. That uterus-curdling list has one woman saying “even Indian have the right to choose if, when and whom to marry.” Even Indian women. I hope all you Indian ladies became puddles of gratitude after reading that. Another gem: the woman who feels “messing with women is what keeps a family and a nation from growing”. Precisely what she means by “messing” is anyone’s guess.

It’s amazing — 46 placards and not one in a language other than English. Not one from someone who isn’t all glossy and hip. Buzzfeed’s crazy, break-the-mould moment was allowing a placard in which a woman said Indian needed feminism because “I shouldn’t be judged for giving up my career for motherhood: the most important job of all.” Howzzat for, like, mad diversity? (Not good, in case my sarcasm isn’t showing.)

The worst thing about rubbish lists like this isn’t just the spelling — “shudn’t”? WTF? — or the abysmal grammar, but that now these 46 people (and perhaps a vast number of readers) think that these half-baked notions of feminism are valid and awesome and cool. When in fact they are idiotic, ill-informed and little more than click bait. The only thing this blasted list has achieved is bursting a few blood vessels in people like me. Joy.

It’s lazy to think pop feminism doesn’t need to be well thought out, that it must be simplistic and that it won’t do anything more than skim the surface of complexity. Because frankly, if you can’t think of ways to use popular platforms like Buzzfeed to talk about feminism, prejudice and other socially-relevant ideas, then it’s a bloody shame. However, when you do it as badly as this Buzzfeed list, then you’re doing no one and nothing a favour. Sure India’s (read: Mumbai’s) youth sound like fools to anyone sensible who read that list, but Buzzfeed doesn’t come across as much smarter or wiser. #MFEO

(And you thought I was too old for hashtags.)

The Life of a Film Reviewer

Because it’s been too long since I put up gifs and because the films lined up for me this week threaten to be very unpleasant viewing.

WHAT I WISH WAS MY PREP RITUAL BEFORE A PRESS SHOW OF AN UPCOMING RELEASE (particularly if it’s Bollywood):

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HOW I ACTUALLY FEEL BEFORE A PRESS SHOW:

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HOW I FEEL AFTER MOST PRESS SHOWS:

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HOW I WISH I FELT EACH TIME I HAVE TO WRITE A REVIEW:

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HOW I ACTUALLY FEEL EACH TIME I HAVE TO WRITE  A REVIEW (particularly for a film I didn’t enjoy):

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Cops and Smokers

There’s a word in Bengali, mejaj. It’s one of those words that’s annoyingly difficult to translate. In English, depending upon how it’s being used, it could mean ‘mood’ or ‘arrogance’ or a bunch of other things. The French word ‘fier’ is perhaps a little closer. Mejaj is a tangle of pride, temper, rebelliousness and shrewishness. While mejaj is good in small doses, it isn’t good for either men or women to have too much of it. Of course, it’s much worse to be a woman with mejaj. Men can still carry such traits.  Women become daunting, which is why in films, the mejaji women are usually reduced to caricatures of characters. They’re military-general-like characters who bark orders, are usually lonely, constantly fuming and destined to be brought down a peg or two. Even when they manage to command some admiration, it’s mixed with a certain contempt or snark. Because having mejaj  means you’re the shrew that must be tamed.

Someone recently described me as one with an immense amount of mejaj, or bhishon mejaj. They casually tossed it into conversation, as though it’s obvious, saying that if they were going to get into a fight, they’d make sure I was on their team. I was rather taken aback. Mejaj? Me? Really? Because as far as I can tell, I’m the last person you want in a fight. Unless it’s a contest of who can keep their mouths shut longest or (conversely) say the most inane thing, I can’t see myself winning.

Mejaj  — minus the sneering curl — is the word for the lady cop who has of late been at the Turner Road-Linking Road signal in the morning. Cap, sunglasses, crisp khaki uniform and an awe-inspiring ability to yell at anyone even nudging the traffic rules, let alone breaking them. The first day, I noticed her because she started blasting an autorickshaw driver for having edged past the traffic signal before the light turned green. “Can’t you see? Are you blind or are you stupid? What the hell are you doing, moving, when it’s a red light? Useless!” It wasn’t a warning as much as an explosion. After about a minute, she tossed one last “Useless!” at the driver and then strode off in the opposite direction, to yell at someone else.

Now that was mejaj and it was beautiful to watch the expressions on the (male) drivers faces. My auto rickshaw driver whispered, “She’s crazy!” but carefully made sure he was in the right lane and behind the line. I grinned. The lady cop had moved on to someone else whom she didn’t just yell at, but she yanked their driving license out of their hand. The rider wasn’t wearing a helmet. “You think the roads are the place to be macho?” she asked him. “I’ll show you macho.” I’ve no idea what she showed him, but I’m pretty certain that at least for a couple of weeks, that man is going to wear his helmet. Especially if he’s crossing the Turner Road-Linking Road signal.

I, on the other hand, am the precise opposite of Ms. Lady Cop because my first instinct is not to charge, but to apologise. This is because I’m usually convinced that I’m in the wrong and while I’d love to call this the effect of patriarchy’s cruel brainwashing, the fact is this conviction comes from having been in the wrong more times than I’ve been in the right. See below for example.

Three policemen have been stationed near the office because there have been a few cases of chain snatching. The neighbourhood shopkeepers tell me that there is indeed less petty crime since the cops showed up, which is excellent news. Contrary to the horror stories you usually hear about the police, I’ve usually found the ones in Mumbai to be helpful rather than problematic and it sounded like the ones who had been posted near my office were the good guys.

So, the other day, I got out one afternoon to buy myself a cigarette. I lit it at the cornershop where I’d bought it and then started walking back. That was when one of the policemen approached me.

Police: Excuse me, ma’am, you’re not allowed to smoke.

Me: Excuse me?

Police: The cigarette. Please throw it.

Me: You’re saying I can’t smoke a cigarette on the streets.

Police: No ma’am. It’s not allowed.

Me: It’s against the law?

Police: Yes, it’s against the law. You can’t smoke on the street or on the pavement.

Me: So where can I smoke?

Police: In your office, maybe. Is this your first time in Mumbai?

Me: What? No. I live here.

Police: How long?

Me: Nine years.

Police: You’re from India?

Me: Of course I’m from India.

Police: Please throw the cigarette away. I don’t like it.

Me: So where do I throw this? [showing barely-smoked cigarette] I’m quite certain there are laws against littering.

Police: You can throw on the road. It’s ok.

[I tear off the burning bit of the cigarette and litter, keeping the unsmoked part of the cigarette in my hand.]

Police: Thank you. See, I don’t like women who smoke.

Me: Sorry?

Police: All this women drinking and smoking, I don’t like.

Me: You don’t like women smoking?

Police: No, I don’t like.

Me: I love women who smoke and drink.

Police: But that is you. You cannot because it is the law. But also, I don’t like it so I requested you to not smoke. It’s not nice.

Me: That’s your opinion.

Police: No, it’s the law. You can’t smoke.

This entire conversation took place on the road, with me holding a torn cigarette in my hand and the cop and I wreathed in determinedly polite smiles as we talked. There was another policeman who I think told my policeman to let it go. But my dude was having none of it. It was entirely polite. Every word was absolutely courteous. It was also intensely adversarial.

He kept saying he doesn’t like women smoking and drinking. I kept replying that it was his opinion and mine was that I totally deserve a post-lunch cigarette. I’m not sure how exactly we ended it, but it involved a lot of smiling and me walking away. Because I was in the wrong. The law in Mumbai is actually against me. I remembered this late, while smiling and arguing with the cop. (Later checked with a colleague and she confirmed it: Two years ago, laws were passed banning smoking in public places. At the time, the police were quite thorough about stopping people — men and women — but most had lost interest in it a long time ago. “You’ve got yourself a protector,” my colleague said. “Yay.”)

Walking back to the office, I tried to figure out what the hell had happened. Had I just been harassed? Was that sexism or a needlessly dilligent policemen? Why on earth did he ask me if I was Indian? What difference would that make? Had no one else (read: a man) been smoking? I was in the wrong, but why had I been the one to be caught? He hadn’t left it at a warning. He’d made me do what he wanted, which was stop smoking. I’d let him make me drop my cigarette, just because he doesn’t like women who don’t smoke and drink. I didn’t even know his name.

I went back, past the policeman, back to the cornershop and bought myself another cigarette. I didn’t light it but I held it between my fingers. Then I walked back, determined to get a look at the name tag on his chest. When I passed him, I smiled at him. He also smiled at me, and gave a pointed look at the cigarette in my hand. I smiled wider and leaned towards his chest. “By the way, could I see your name tag?” I asked, suddenly very aware of how much bigger than me this man was. He had a uniform and muscles. I wondered if he was a Salman Khan fan. He leaned towards me to show me his name tag: Vilas Phagwade. He was still smiling, wide.

The other policeman muttered something to him just then. Vilas Phagwade asked me, “Can I ask something? Where do you work?”

“I don’t see how that’s any business of yours,” I replied, stretching my smile to its widest. He was about to say something else, but I thanked him and walked off.

What I probably should have done during those conversations is yelled like the lady cop (I’ve been waiting for years to call someone “useless”). Instead I smiled and smiled some more. I didn’t raise my voice. I did lose my cigarette. When asking Vilas Phagwade his name, I panicked at the idea that he might think I’m hitting on him.  Finally, I walked back, that smile still plastered on my face, holding on to the memory of his name, the slight nervousness in his smile when he asked where I work, and the fragile satisfaction that I’d had the last word, not him. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not mejaj. That’s as tame as it gets.

But it was a few days after this incident that I was described as one with mejaj. I wish I had actually done something to earn that label. Except, of course, I haven’t. I’m as conforming-to-norm a human being as you can find. I am proof that you can smoke, drink and have a tattoo and yet be entirely conventional. When faced with a misogynist cop, all I can do at that moment is smile. A colleague had once told me, “It’s great how when you say it, the rudest things actually become polite and acceptable.” Ok then.

In other news, I wanted to punch the bejesus out of my uterus this month thanks to the world’s most painful set of cramps, which is why Sirius Black has taken a bit of a detour. She’ll be back on track tomorrow, when I put up the next part (hopefully).

Tourist ahoy

One of the most comforting things about being a tourist in New York is that it’s a city full of outsiders. As an elderly Indian gent told me, “I’m thinking the blond white man is a local and will be able to tell me how to get to the address I’m looking for, but then he turns around asks me for directions. To the subway. Do I look like I know the way to the subway?”

He was wearing a peaked cap, a coat, a tweed jacket, a sweater. To be fair, this is not the look you’d necessarily associate with New York subways. But apparently, the reason the blond gent asked the brown gent for directions was because the brown gent didn’t have a camera round his neck. I have to say, that’s a pretty good basis for telling a tourist from a local. The first time I came to New York, I spent approximately a week with my head tilted back, eyes and mouth open wide. The next week was spent with my eye glued to the camera and my finger clicking the shutter button as fast as the camera allowed. There are many occasions when I am grateful for digital technology in cameras; this was one of them.

It’s been ten years since that trip and this is the first time since then that I’ve stayed in the city for a longish stretch. I’m happy to report that I have developed some measure of restraint. I have only 100 shortlisted photos of Central Park. I remember one entire memory card was crammed with Central Park photos during that first trip.

Though, now that I think about it, maybe restraint isn’t really it. Ten years ago, I didn’t expect any good photographs to come out of my camera so I clicked away uninhibitedly. If it looked decent to the eye, I’d shoot it, uncaring of whether it would look as good or similar in the photograph. Now though, I have some…artistic vanity. I want the photos to be interesting and when possible, good. My editing process begins even before I’ve switched the camera on. Is this worth spending battery power on? Haven’t I got a shot like this? How many images like this have I seen? It’s inane to do this cud-chewing over photos because, really, it’s not like I’m a real photographer. I’m not exhibiting or selling this stuff. It’s just a hobby.

(Though that said, given some of the rubbish photography shows I’ve seen and how abysmally the writing has gone of late, I should probably try to sell my photographs. For one thing, I have more of them than I do coherent words.)

So yes, a month with my new Olympus — which is a beautiful, brilliant goddess among cameras — and here’s some of my haul.

Oh, and there’s a little more of Sirius here.

New York Ramble

I’m sitting with my cup of tea, in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s snowing outside. Snow that’s turning to slush at first contact, but it’s still snow. White and swirly and cold. However, snow in April is not the oddest part of this trip.

A few years ago, I’d timed a trip to New York with The New Yorker Festival. A friend who lives in Manhattan (no less) heard the events I was attending at the festival and told me, “Next time you hear of stuff like this, let me know? I’d love to go.” I remember looking at him like he was a bit of an idiot. How could you live in New York and need someone in India to tell you about what’s happening at The New Yorker Festival?

Having spent about two weeks in New York in a domesticated fashion and not as my usual touristy self, now I see why he’d said what he had. I’ve managed one trip to one museum and one hour at a photography fair in the time that I’ve been here. Whereas usually my New York days are filled with walking and culture-vulture-ing, these past weeks have been all about commuting, groceries and domestic chores. I haven’t even read a book. Finding time to wander around Central Park every now and then has felt like a victory of sorts.

For the first week or so, it was actually sort of amusing to live this life. I felt like I was watching myself, like in an out of body experience. This is also how life can be — filled with invisible, bland business that leaves you without a free moment and teaches you little more than patience and the awesome cooking potential of a low flame. But after 10 days, the restlessness kicked in. Where are my words? No, groceries are not as important as cultural spelunking. Yes, writing is work even when what you’re writing isn’t something that’s going to be published right here right now. Yes, it demands time. And no, I don’t have any to spare. I feel like someone who cuts themselves. For every day that I don’t write, there is a thin slash; a set of tally marks that are keeping count of the things I haven’t done.

A novelist I had once interviewed told me that their greatest fear was that one day, their “fiction tap” would go dry, that they’d turn the faucet and there would be nothing. They told me that I had it easier with non-fiction. “Things are always happening, after all.” But it isn’t really enough for things to happen. Your work needs to take note of what is really happening in the midst of all the noise and clutter and chaos. For me, writing has been like exercising a muscle: the more you work the writing muscle, the easier it becomes to write. (I may have come up with this definition to feel marginally better about having no actual, physical exercise in my life, but never mind that.) When I say easier, what I mean is that you take less time with the paraphernalia that’s essential to writing. The words take less time to get strung into sentences; the structure of a piece comes together quicker; the point of writing something reveals itself with less coquetry.

At the recent AIPAD Photography Show, I saw this series of photographs by Stanley Forman. It’s titled “Death Fall” and they’re probably very famous, but it’s the first time I saw them. The five photographs were lined up one next to the other. You could perhaps have ignored the first few, but the last one is impossible to walk past unseeingly.

Death Fall by Stanley Forman
Death Fall by Stanley Forman

At the time that Forman took the shots, he didn’t really know what the photograph would be. “I didn’t even look at the next frame, I didn’t know exactly what I’d got. I knew I had shot them coming down, I didn’t realise how dramatic it was until I had developed the film,” he told the BBC. But his eye and his camera were focused perfectly to capture that fraction of a moment when the mother and son were literally suspended between life and death;  the terrible, balletic movement of their fall. You could call it luck, but that’s not really the reason. It is, at best, a small part of making that amazing photograph. The reason Forman got those shots was that he was practiced. He could click without having to think too much about focus and frame because those things registered almost instinctively as a result of him having clicked and clicked and clicked countless times.  

The snow has gone past ready-to-melt fluffiness. I can hear it fall now — sharp, occasional ticks against the window and the metal strips of the fire escape. I have a notebook with scribbles of a chapter of Sirius Black’s Mumbai adventures and a camera with photographs that need downloading. I should write, I could download the images. Instead, I’m listening to snow fall and the filtered fragments from the television show that my neighbour is watching. She’s watching The Office, the American version. I’m reasonably sure I heard Steve Carell. What I’m thinking about though is Irene, my neighbour, who has worked for a bank for the past 35 years and who can hear me walking in my apartment. That’s how I’ve met her. She knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, but could you please walk softly? I can hear you walk in my apartment.” She also asked if I work at a restaurant. “You come home awful late.” She has not spoken to me in Spanish, which is what a lot of people in Spanish Harlem have done. (I just say “Gracias” to everything.) Irene wakes up every morning at 6 because she needs to reach work by 8am. I’m wondering if she’s fallen asleep with the television on or if she’s awake at 1.28am. She just turned off the television, which means she was awake. I wonder whether I kept her up. Perhaps she could hear me tapping on the keyboard (a thin wall separates her bed and my desk). When I go to sleep, I will step carefully, on my tiptoes, just to make sure my tread on the wooden floor doesn’t wake her.    

Finding Vivian Maier

A woman walks around with a camera around her neck and a child by her side. Some 50-odd years later, a man buys a box of negatives for about $300. They’re not precisely the kind of photos he was looking for, so he stashes the negatives away. Then one day, he pulls them out and starts looking at them. He likes what he sees so he checks the name of the photographer: Vivian Maier. Like all good people of the 21st century, he Googles her. There’s nothing.

That’s really where the story of Vivian Maier begins — with the amazing fact that the only proof of her existence are the photographs she took. This sort of traceless life is as fantastical as unicorns today. No matter how delicately and quietly we may try to tread, we leave footprints and reflections in a digital universe that is fast becoming as real — if not more so — as the physical world we inhabit. We photobomb pictures unwittingly; we appear in comments; there’s a mosaic portrait that’s being put together no matter how far you retreat from the virtual world.

Not with Maier. She lived for 83 years, worked as a nanny and caregiver, travelled around the world, met hundreds of people, and yet even now, there are only two things that can be said of her with any degree of certainty: she was born in New York and she took photographs.  And this is after the chap who found her negatives has bought pretty much all she possessed, researched her life and made a documentary on her.

Finding Vivian Maier by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel reminded me a little of Searching for Sugarman. Both of them begin with only works of art that offer few clues about the artist behind them, and in both, the filmmakers embark on a fact finding mission. Finding Vivian Maier isn’t as craftily-told as Searching for Sugarman. It’s a more straightforward, chronological account of both Maloof’s efforts to find out who Maier was and Maier’s life. At regular intervals, his interviewees remind us that Maier is a tough nut to crack. She didn’t talk about herself much. She locked her room and didn’t let anyone enter. Genealogists despair at how little information there is about her family. All of which is, no doubt, meant to make you admire Maloof all the more for having persisted despite museums like MoMA politely rejecting his offer to donate Maier’s work to them.

When you look at Maier’s photographs, there seems to be little doubt that MoMA made a big mistake when they passed on this collection. It’s also pretty obvious that Finding Vivian Maier is partly Maloof’s attempt at legitimising a body of work that he is now selling and showcasing at different galleries around the world. Maloof doesn’t hide the fact that he’s making money from this project, but to be fair, he is the one who found the negatives, scanned them, printed them, framed them etc. etc.

(All these photos are from the blog that Maloof set up for Maier’s work back in 2011.)

But never mind Maloof. What about Maier? Maloof found people who had hired her, children (now adults) who had been in her care and pretty much anyone who remembered seeing her. There’s a lot that comes out. Maier was a hoarder — she collected newspapers, badges, receipts and a lot of rubbish. She was fascinated by morbid headlines and creepy places. She created a false identity for herself by adopting a vaguely European accent. Later, she pretended to be “a sort of spy” and gave a false name to people. Some of the children she took care of were fond enough of her to rent an apartment for her when she grew too old to work. Others accused her verging on abusive. The only thing that everyone agrees upon is that she always had a camera around her neck.

It seems Maier was born in New York and that the Maier family wasn’t particularly close-knit. However, the one person Maier held on to was her mother, French-born Marie. It’s almost as if she tried to become her mother. Not only would Maier go on to fake a hint of a French accent, she told people that she was born in France. Maier would also go to the village in France where her mother’s from and meet that side family a number of times, both as a child and as an adult. Her mother was a photographer too. There’s a lovely but fleeting moment in Finding Vivian Maier when a doddering cousin of Maier’s brings out a camera. Maloof thinks its Maier’s but no, it’s Maier’s mother’s camera. The one time that Maier tried to get her photographs out of the boxes and in public, she wrote to a photo studio in that little French village, asking if they would print postcards of her work.

Finding Vivian Maier doesn’t offer the ride that Searching for Sugarman did, but it’s fascinating to realise you can have so many little pieces of a puzzle and still not see the entire picture. By the end of the documentary, we don’t really know whether Maier was a nice woman, whether she was a good friend, what her favourite colour was, if she had a history of abuse, if she was an abuser. Did she begin as an eccentric and end up to be completely cuckoo in her last years? Why did she wear men’s clothes? Did she like the work she did or was it just a means of enabling her photography? Even her fascination for her mother’s French background is conjecture. All we have are her photographs and the only thing they tell us about Vivian Maier is that she was a helluva photographer.

See more of Vivian Maier’s photography here. The site also has the trailer for Finding Vivian Maier.

Delhi Dallying

For her, Delhi is the city of love stories that weren’t really about love but were so inflamed with longing that just thinking about them makes her breath snag even now.

For me, it’s that beautiful, barbaric place where life stretches comfortably between old and new. Here, I’m both the curmudgeon of the present and the college student from another century. I like what I am here — a returning tourist. I don’t know the city, but I recognise it and it behaves with courtesy and the cool politesse.

She takes me on the Metro and we stand by the door, laughing and chatting and confiding. She points out the Qutab Minar to me. Once the train goes underground, even though I recognise the names of the stations, I can’t imagine what’s actually above ground, above me, in parts of Delhi that I once knew better than its auto drivers.

I remember when I was in college, I swanned around Delhi confident that I could get lost in the city, but I’d never be at a loss here. In the Delhi Metro, underground, at a station that I approach tentatively, I wonder whether I’m lost, at a loss or both.

 

She shows me a photo of an ex on her WhatsApp. I look at it, trying to figure out whether the face that I can’t quite see (bent head, looking away from camera, at a phone) may be attractive. She notices the time stamp under the name that she hasn’t uttered since their last night together a few years ago. “7.09pm,” she says. It’s now 7.10pm.

I admit to her that when I walk into Khan Market, it’s the old market I see even though there’s newness crammed into its every spare inch. I don’t know or care to notice the bars and cafes where you can still smoke indoors, the old place that has a new outlet, the new doorway for the old shop that’s been refurbished. Mine is the Khan Market of a book shop called Bahrisons; where clove cigarettes cost Rs 1 more than they do in other parts of the city; the Khan Market of orange sunshine cake at Cafe Turtle. She tells me that Bahrisons has a new shop that’s only for children’s books.

This is the city that she doesn’t want to leave and the one she hates coming home to — “this isn’t home, it’s a stopover. It is to me what that terminal was to Tom Hanks,” she says.

 

I tell her about the man, Ratan Singh, whose son retired about four years before he did. “I take after my father. He also looks very young for his age,” was all the explanation Ratan Singh would give for the fact that as far as government paperwork is concerned, his son is older than him. His son has a birth certificate. Singh knows the day he was born there was terrible rain and the tree that was a few hundred metres from his home was struck by lightning. That was a terrible year for crops in his village so his father went to the city, Delhi, to find work.

Delhi is the city where I argue with my not-so-distant family about The Hindus and Narendra Modi, where she keeps quiet so that no one at the table will really notice she’s on her phone and not listening to the debate about whether or not the gambling circuit’s hunch is on to something when it predicts that the Congress party will get only about 50-70 seats in the upcoming general elections.

Could you live here forever, she asks me. My first thought is that I’m not beautiful enough to belong in Delhi. I sort of managed to fit in when I was in the flush of youth, with my crazy skirts and kohl and energy. I’m tired now and settled in my uncool skin, utterly misfit with my drabness against Delhi’s dusty, sun-polished prettiness. Mumbai, with its bright blue tarp and hideous architecture, with its absent green and encroaching gray, its late night traffic jams and uncunning cabbies — it may not be mine yet, but its ugliness is as comforting as a hug from an old lover. I don’t know if she’ll understand what I mean so I beat all this down to a flat, simple “No” for her.

We laugh about how she was born in Mumbai and I was born in Delhi, but here she is and there I am. I ask her if she loves Delhi, after all the years spent here. She tells me she loves the sex she’s had in the city. I tell her sex isn’t the first criterion that comes to my mind when I’m thinking about whether I belong in a city.

“Really?” she says.

“Really,” I reply.

“So why do you love a city? Its infrastructure?”

I feel vaguely like someone agreeing to an arranged marriage when I say, “Well… yes” and hope like hell she’s too drunk to list all the things that fall apart on a daily basis in my Mumbai.