Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reinventing myself, once again

Over the last 10 years, there is one question readers have asked of me over and over again: “When will you write fiction?”

My standard reply, “There are so many amazing entrepreneurs out there! As long as I still find it exciting to tell their stories, I will continue writing this genre ie non-fiction.”

But somewhere in my mind, a seed had been planted. I often tossed around ideas in my mind, but none was truly compelling. Besides, would anyone really want to read my fiction?

Then one day I got a request from a friend, to write ‘something’ – my choice – for a coffee table book he was releasing for his company (a PSU). Along with me, he had invited a few other Indian authors – all fiction writers. Initially, I thought I would contribute something in my usual style. But a part of me felt, it’s time to tell a new kind of story.

So, I allowed it to pour out of me. The 2000 word short story was published and that spurred me on. I wrote a few more such stories – as and when I was in the mood – and it was so much fun. I didn’t have to stick to the interview, double-check the facts, read the balance sheet or find out ‘industry mein is bande ki reputation kya hai’.

I could make up anything. Go back into someone’s childhood, go deeper into their psyche. This became something special and magical for me, but I kept it to myself.

I would wait for inspiration. Which was elusive. Then came coronavirus. For the first 30 days, I felt bored, irritated, lethargic and ‘ab kya karein’. Like countless other startups, MSMEs and large industries, my product suddenly went ‘out of stock’. Books are not essential items, you see, so you cannot buy them right now, even on Amazon.

But more importantly, when business is in lockdown and the economy in ICU, there is no point in publishing stories of entrepreneurs. In time, there will be. But what to do RIGHT NOW?

One morning, I woke up, and started writing… in less than an hour, I had my first short short story (600 words). I shared it with a few friends, who liked it. I posted on Linkedin, got positive feedback.

By that afternoon, I had an idea for another story. Which I wrote the next day.

And suddenly I was in a mode where I could write a story every single day. Sometimes, even two.As of today, I have written 29 stories!

I have decided not to wait to publish as a print book or ebook but to share them online: https://rashmibansal.in/.

Kicking off (what I hope!) is a new model in publishing. Do leave your comments / ratings as what a writer desires the most is knowing if her words have touched the reader.

Happy Lockdown Reading!

Monday, March 30, 2020

When the Saints Go Marching In

If you are reading this on a laptop, with high-speed internet, in your air-conditioned apartment… you are PRIVILEGED. Think about the migrant labour who is walking along the highway on an empty stomach… because of the lockdown.

Multiple messages like this have been shared on Facebook, twitter and Whatsapp groups over the last 48 hours. The agitated Indians sharing these messages are consultants, start-up founders, journalists, students. They are exhorting the rest of us to donate to various relief initiatives. And that’s a good thing.

But let’s go a little deeper. This is the same India which existed before March 25, when the lockdown officially started. An deeply India divided by the accident of birth and lack of opportunity.

Let’s take the start-up founder who’s going blue in the face today. May I know the profile of her employees? How many Dalits, OBCs, Muslims or even first-generation graduates are in supervisory and managerial positions at the company? ‘Oh, that’s not how we recruit.’ Of course, you don’t.

Every company want the most competent candidate, who can start performing at the earliest. Who has the time to train, to hand-hold and provide mentorship?

The journalist who is aag-baboola over injustice, and rightly so. Surely, he employs a driver and maid, uses the services of a dhobi and vegetable seller. Not to mention Amazon and Swiggy. Have you wondered where these service providers live? Visited one of their jhuggi colonies and taken a ‘bathroom break’ at one of their common toilets?

Every journalist wants a ‘good story’ and this doesn’t qualify. It’s simply stating the obvious, like ‘there is sand in the Sahara desert’.
Then we have the consultant, who wines and dines her American client at a 5-star hotel and pays the bill of Rs 12, 000 (for one dinner with drinks) via American Express platinum credit card. How about building a relationship by inviting the client for a home-cooked Indian meal?. ‘But that would look cheap’.

Every employee wants perks, which for some reason means ‘fancy’, ‘much too expensive’, ‘things I would not pay for myself’. It just makes the pain of being a corporate slave, a little more bearable!

As for our students, unki to baat hi kuch aur hai. Their parents are human ATM machines, who provide for anything they could possibly want. The ‘best’ education (in India or abroad) so they can get the ‘best’ jobs after graduating. As consultants, start-up founders, journalists. ‘My child has worked hard and earned it’.

And here lies the crux of the issue. Each of us is working hard — the student, the start-up, the corporate employee, the journalist, the migrant labour. Some earn more. A LOT LOT more.

Is it only getting what we deserve? Or do we need fundamental changes? Such as:
- Higher minimum wages (eg Rs 5000 more per month to your bai, with weekly off).
- Good quality, low-income urban housing (slum redevelopment that actually delivers).
- Government schools that function (and so well, that your child attends one).
- Garbage-free cities (so we don’t aspire to be Europe, America and Singapore).
- Eradication of tuberculosis (which, alone, kills 3000 Indians a day)

Well, that list can go on. And on. Just reading it an alarm bell goes off in my brain ‘nahin ho sakta hai’. Not in my lifetime, which is the next 30 years.

But then, a small voice whispers, if we can mobilise the administration and civil society to ‘act as one’ and defeat the coronavirus, we can do it again. Poverty too is a virus, an insidious but clearly visible one. If the amount we read and researched about corona could be transferred to understanding and taking decisive action against poverty — imagine the results!

It may require drastic actions, which affect your lifestyle and mine. Is your privileged bum prepared to get off its armchair and do what it takes? For an India which is more equal, more dignified, with more opportunity and mobility, can only be built on blood and sweat, redistribution of income and creation of solid public goods.

And a moral backbone which remains upright, in times good and bad.

Read my latest book ‘We are the Champions’ for the inspiring stories of children from ‘the other India’ who are changemakers in their communities.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bungle in the Dangal

Like the rest of India I too - finally - watched Dangal. I laughed a little, cried a little, felt inspired and uplifted. Then, as I walked out of the theatre, I googled ‘real story Geeta Phogat’. As expected, the makers had embellished the original story. To create more tension, more drama. But the journalist in me couldn’t help wondering, “Is this correct?”

Some are relatively minor changes. The real Geeta Phogat had shoulder length hair during the Commonwealth Games. The Geeta Phogat on-screen has symbolically chopped it off. Chalega.

But what about the coach on-screen who is depicted as a complete duffer, an obstacle in Geeta’s path? The real coach was actually a competent fellow and there was no ego clash. What’s more, Geeta Phogat did not fail in all her international outings. And in the final match at the Commonwealth Games 2010, she easily overpowered her Australian opponent 1-0, 7-0 to clinch the gold.

But the poor coach had to become a villain, so that Mahavir Phogat aka Aamir Khan could play the hero. Well, you might say - don’t crib about that. Isn’t it great that an actor of his stature picked up a story like this and made such a great film out of it? It’s all about empowering women and it’s about a sport other than cricket. Bhai thoda bhool-chook maaf.

How does this compare with biopics made in Hollywood? Well, it turns out the accuracy level is as as 41% low in a movie like The Imitation Game (which I quite enjoyed) but a respectable 89.9% in Bridge of Spies (also a great movie). But none of these films is blockbuster mass-market variety, which is what Dangal has achieved.

So I guess in the movie world - anything goes. As long as the larger purpose is served. The real Milkha Singh never looked back during that fateful race nor was Mary Kom in the ring fighting for the world championship while her son was fighting for his life. But the audience lapped it up right - toh phir this is the formula that works. Facts must wrestle with fiction and ultimately... the stronger narrative prevails.

The original story was inspiring enough but now we have the super-inspiring version. This is how myth and legend must be born. Hanuman went to fetch Sanjivani booti for Lakshman. Arey ek chhota sa plant laana kaun si badi baat hai. So some ancient storyteller - predecessor of the modern movie maker - tweaks the story. Now Hanumanji carries back the entire mountain…

Now if only I could use that trick in my next book. And turn some boring young fogey of an entrepreneur into Superman!

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Difficulty of Being Good - in Journalism

I saw a superb movie today called ‘Spotlight’. It’s the true story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper who chased a story which everybody was trying to cover up (as is the case with every great story!). In this case, the villain of the piece was no less than the Catholic Church.

The efforts of the Spotlight team revealed that parish priest John Goeghan had been sexually abusing young boys and girls for close to three decades. What’s worse - he was just one of more then 70 priests who were indulging in such behaviour and getting away with it. With the knowledge of the highest officials in the Catholic Church.

The story was happening right there, in front of everyone’s nose, but people chose not to see it. To bring such stories out of the Cave of Shame and the Cloak of Cover-Up is the dharma of the professional journalist.

The work these reporters did is what we call ‘old-school journalism’. They started with a single lead (Geoghan), then went backward and forward. Found people willing to speak on the record and off the record. Did actual running around and legwork. Finally they got documentary evidence to back it all up (which is always the hardest part)

To do this kind of journalism you need a great editor. Someone who will be your taskmaster and cheerleader - rolled into one. In this case, that editor is Marty Baron. He sets the ball rolling by asking the team to look into the Geoghan case. As they unearth more and more dirt, the editor stands by them, and gently nudges the direction of the investigation.

It’s not enough to focus on the priests, he says. The bigger story is ‘the system’. If the cardinal knew about it and turned a blind eye - now that’s the real crux of the problem.

So the team scrambles to get the crucial evidence which can prove this. Yes, it’s going to take more time. But the editor understands that - a great story is never done in a hurry.

To run such a story you need a publisher with balls of steel. You might lose readers, you might lose advertisers, you might upset powerful people. Well, the Boston Globe ran the story anyway - hats off to them!

Finally, it’s the reporters themselves who get consumed by what they are reporting. They are sad, they are angry, they feel guilty (how could we not know earlier?) These emotions are channeled into the pursuit of the story, the determination to do whatever it takes.

There is also an element of fear - having worked months on this story, what if the rival paper gets a whiff of it and publishes first? That is a professional hazard which keeps reporters on their toes. In the movie (as in many actual newsrooms) the journalists appear to be married to their jobs.

You do it because you want to make a difference. The Spotlight team got that elusive satisfaction which every journalist craves for. The paper went on to publish more than 600 stories about the Catholic Church abuse scandal and hundreds of victims came forward, not just in Boston, but around the United States.

As I watched the events on screen unfold I thought - there are so many stories happening right under our nose, just waiting to be told. But where are the editors with nerves of steel? Where are the publishers with spine? Because when you have these two necessary elements, there will be enough reporters willing to do everything it takes to unearth the story.

At present, journalism - like every other profession - is going through a crisis. Owners of media have decided their customer is not the reader but the advertiser.

What they forget is that without readers - very soon - there will be no advertisers.

So don’t just grumble about how newspaper brands and trusted editorial faces have ‘sold out’. The way to register your protest is to stop buying those newspapers, stop watching those channels.

Stop consuming junk news, which is just as bad for your health as junk food.

For the last one year I have stopped subscribing to newspapers and I have no cable TV connection. I am not ‘missing out’ on anything. In fact, I am much happier starting my day without a heavy dose of paid publicity. And I am certainly much calmer ending my day without the shrill voices of TV debaters ringing in my ears.

It is my contention that if just 50 buildings in Mumbai with residents in ‘SEC A’ category stop patronising the media which they moan about for 6 months- it will have an impact.

Owners will say ‘the market is sending a signal’ and clean up their act.

We will then have reporters chasing the stories which need to be chased.

We will get the journalism we deserve.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Playing your part

I watched the play ‘Wooster and Jeeves - Perfect Nonsense’ at NCPA earlier this evening. The newspapers report this is the first time a ‘major West End production’ is touring Mumbai.

Well, I am guessing that is for two important reasons:

1. P G Wodehouse still enjoys a cult following in India.
2. This production rests on the able shoulders of just 3 actors playing 9 different characters.

The piece de resistance was the scene where the same chap performs as a man and a woman simultaneously (imagine a Victorian style Ardhanarishwara).

I quite liked the play though I think you would enjoy in 2X if you were a Wodehouse junkie in college. There are 4 more performances at the NCPA this weekend - though tickets are expensive (starting at Rs 2000) it is certainly cheaper than going to the West End :)

Years ago, when I was in London for 2 months on a fellowship, I used to buy the cheapest tickets available and watch one show every week. Many of these productions were big-budget, high-end musicals. A couple of years ago I also visited New York and saw some Broadway shows glitzier and more spectacular than anything in London!)

Over the last 6 months I finally got around to watching several plays, right here in Mumbai. I realised the trick is to
1. Buy the ticket on ‘Book My Show’ in advance (then you feel, I must go!)
2. Do not wait for company - a good play can easily be enjoyed alone.

Unlike Broadway or West End, where theatre is an organised industry, in India it’s a ‘trial by fire’. Tickets at Prithvi theatre sell for as little as Rs 150 so it’s clearly not something people are doing for the money. What we lack in spectacle we make up for with sheer passion and acting talent.

In fact, I find some of the plays I like best are the ones where one actor plays several parts, or even all parts. Here are some such productions which I recommend highly:

1. 9 Parts of Desire directed by Lilette Dubey
- a play about the effect of the Gulf war on the lives of Iraqi women. Ira Dubey is brilliant in this one-woman show where she plays 9 different characters. These characters are women who actually existed, from Layal, the artist who survived by painting portraits of Saddam Hussein to Umm Ghada (mother of Ghada) stays in a deserted bomb shelter where her entire family perished. It is a hard-hitting play but not ‘heavy’.

15th & 16th Jan at NCPA Experimental Theatre, 730 pm

2. Kambhakt Bilkul Aurat by Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley Productions - Again, you will see just one actor on stage performing an entire story, with minimal props and sets. That takes real talent! The actors are Heeba Shah, Loveless Mishra (chhutki from Hum Log) and Seema Pahwa (badki from Hum Log)

Of course, the stories themselves are so good - coming from the pen of famed Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai. One of the stories was ‘Lihaaf, for which Ismat was charged with obscenity (she successfully fought and won the case back in 1942!). I do think the story is quite radical even for today - hats off to her!

Keep checking BookMyShow as performances keep happening. If you are lucky you might even catch part 1 of this production called ‘Ismat Aapa ke Naam’ where Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak perform a story each.

3. Einstein by Motley Productions
- Naseeruddin Shah plays Albert Einstein as an old man, reflecting on his life, work and legacy. This play can be quite inspiring for kids, as the stage Einstein talks about how he had speech difficulties and teachers thought he was a difficult child for asking too many questions. In fact, his father was quite keen that he become an electrician!

You also get a glimpse of how tiring it was in later years for Einstein to play the part of a ‘celebrity’. Constantly invited to give interviews and makes speeches - by people who scarcely understood science. It also looks into the guilt which the scientist felt because his work contributed to the making of the atom bomb.

Naseeruddin Shah actually looks like Einstein and only an actor of his calibre could carry off a 75 minute long solo performance. It felt a little bit long but still worth a watch. No show scheduled at present but I am sure it will come back.

While movies get reviewed by hundreds of people, it’s hard to find out which play is worth watching. If you’ve seen something you liked please do share :)

For every 2 movies you watch, I suggest you also watch 1 play. If more of us do that, we might actually have a viable theatre ‘industry’ - right here in Mumbai. Though sometimes I feel we already have a thriving film and television industry. Perhaps theatre should remain that last bastion where passion rules over commerce.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Mirror, mirror on the wall

There are some mornings when I wake up feeling like shit. I know there is only one option before me - which is to ‘snap out of it’.

A psychologist once administered a lengthy test to me, which included staring at inkblots, and pronounced - you have a 'depressive personality'. Meaning I am not, by birth, a shiny happy sunny person. But that doesn’t mean I cannot be happy. It just means I have to consciously work for it.

After experimenting with numerous forms of healing and self-development I have come to one simple conclusion: my state of mind must be in my control. No matter what the circumstances, what the trigger, what the ‘other person said’.

We go to university and get degrees in different subjects but the one area that remains a mystery to most of us - often till the very end - is the human mind. Baar baar bure khayal aate hain… what can I do? As if thoughts are magical beings which dance around in our heads without our consent.

Well, the best way to explain this is that the human mind is like a computer system and thoughts are the software. Many of us have installed faulty software (thoughts which do not serve us well) and hence the system is malfunctioning.

The installation often happened when we were children. We watched our parents and teachers and learnt to be criticise ourselves. We felt alone and unwanted on the playground. We felt ashamed of ourselves. Unworthy of love.

It is amazing how almost every problem in the world can be traced back to the need to be loved and yet feeling - ‘I am not unlovable’. Whitney Houston performed an amazing song called ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The greatest love of all.. is happening to me.
…learning to love myself.. it is the greatest love of all.

Sadly the singer herself died 25 years in a bathtub after an overdose of cocaine… Obviously struggling with issues of self-acceptance and self-love.

Our modern society, and in particular advertising, is based on the idea that you need to ‘have something’ or ‘do something’ or ‘be a certain kind of someone’ to feel worthy and feel good.

‘Use 7-in-1 Blah Blah Cream because you are imperfect in not 1 but 7 ways’.

‘Eat sugar-free Blah Blah Biscuits because you are ugly and fat’.

‘Buy an expensive handbag with some French guy’s initials on it to be a part of the club’. (the club of people who are insecure about themselves)

Self-esteem, self-acceptance and self-love cannot be bought. You have to create this within yourself,. Through introspection, through awareness and by reprogramming all those faulty programs.

Where can you start? Take out 1 hour each day for your personal self-development. To identify those bugs and to fix them.

There are many ways I can recommend - from yoga and meditation to reiki, panic healing, pranayama - all of which require a certain level of training and commitment.

But if you are willing to at least take a baby step forward I can recommend just 1 method: affirmations.

An affirmation is anything we say or think. A lot of what we say and think is quite negative and does not create good experiences for us… We have to retrain our speaking and thinking into positive patterns if we want to change our lives.

These are the words of Louise Hay which revealed a new way of living to me - several years ago. I understood a piece in the puzzle of ‘what I have to do’ to be happy and stay happy.

Buy the life-changing book ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ by Louise Hay. Read it and do the exercises - what the author calls as ‘mirror work’.

Also access Louise Hay’s free guided meditations on Youtube. My two favourites:

You Can Do It:

Change your Life Forever:

Listen to these at least once a day for 30 days. You could do it while commuting, during lunch hour or even just before going to sleep.

Will things really change? Is it that simple? The truth is things may not change but how you feel inside does change. And that makes your experience of the same world around you very different.

Try it because you deserve it. It’s the best gift you can ever give yourself.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

All that glitters...

This morning @AnantRangaswami, Editor of CNBC Storyboard tweeted: The only display ad in today's @EconomicTimes. Confounded by the media planner. This was what he was referring to:

In fact, I found the choice of media quite clever and tweeted back: @AnantRangaswami @EconomicTimes why confounded. It's the readers of ET (mostly men) who pay for jewellery purchases!

Pick up any in-flight magazine (80% of air travellers are men) and they are full of jewellery advertisements. Each necklace looks like it weighs 3 kilograms and the earrings are nothing less than 1 kg each. You would imagine we are all princesses living in the Mughal era!

The lust for jewellery in the year 2016 is entirely based on 2 factors:

1. The rational motive: To find a parking spot for one’s black money. (a jeweller whom I recently met in Gurgaon shared that 75% of his clients pay cold hard cash and do not want proper bills).

2. The irrational motive: To show one’s status and wealth - although there are many other ways to do that in the modern age.

In fact, at most weddings women are happily wearing absolutely blingy, 100% fake costume jewellery citing security reasons. Aajkal zamaana itna kharab ho gaya hai…

The real thing lies locked up in the bank locker, possibly completely out of date and out of fashion.

I have nothing against jewellery - I too own some heirloom pieces handed down to me at the time of marriage by my mother-in-law. But the important word here is ‘few’.

Buying your daughter or daughter-in-law multiple big fat sets is a waste! Yet every single day you see it happening.

Brides are practical birds after all - if pitaji and sasurji are feeling generous, why to object! Behti noton ki Ganga mein haath dho lo...

Grandmothers often talk of jewellery as stridhan. Well - a gold biscuit is a more sensible form of dhan than a kundan ka haar. Then there are shares and mutual funds. Even property.

But kya karein - we have our traditions.

Actually, I feel that girls from modern Indian families have already received the greatest form of dhan - which is a good education. They are fully capable of buying their own jewellery - the kind they can actually wear everyday.

But no, the act of buying jewellery has been equated with ‘love’ and ‘romance’. Thanks to a modern day advertising success story called De Beers.

If your husband buys you a diamond on your birthday or anniversary - it means he loves you.

Now if he goes for this Tanishq scheme and buys the same diamond at 20% off… it could mean ki unke pyaar mein bhi kuch kami hai ! *wink*

So think before you leap. The most precious jewel a man can give you is his heart. Do you have that or do you just have a collection of stones?

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