What Silk Smitha taught me. What drinking taught me

An early encounter with the star whose place she would take. The difference between drinking with men and drinking with women. If you are Shakeela, everything is interesting.

A later publicity still of Shakeela, star of over 100 south Indian films. Photo by Olive Publications
Silk Smitha was always an inspiration to me. I have not found another actor to match the way she was able to fulfil physical beauty with the power of emotion. All she had to do was look, and the person she was looking at would melt like a candle. Many stars who are frontrunners at displaying their physical assets tend to be pretty poor actors.

She deserved to be one of India’s great actors, and it is because we treated her merely as a physical object that we deprived ourselves of films marked by great performances on her part. 

It was big news when makeup artiste Umashankar, who helped me take baby steps in the movies, decided to make a film.  This was publicised in the newspapers in 1994.  For me the news brought joy and anxiety, because sometime earlier, he had told me that if he ever made a movie, he would give me a prominent role in it.  My anxiety was related to whether he would remember his promise and keep it.  At the same time, I was reluctant to meet him and directly ask him for the opportunity.  However, all my anxieties were swept away when he walked into my flat one day and announced, “I’m going to make a movie.  And you have a significant role in it.”

I held those words close to my heart, because, by then, I had grown to love my work before the camera so much.  I requested him to get permission from my father right away.  Those were the days when I was shooting for the serial “Nancy”. But when the opportunity came to work in the movies, I was keen to pursue it. I felt I was moving closer to a career in the movies. I was determined to work in this film. It was Umashankar’s affection for me that granted me this opening.

The movie was being made under the banner of the reputed production company, RDS Films, with R D Shekhar as producer. “Playgirls” was its name.  I set off for AVM studio, praying that I would get a role.  My first task was to meet the producer.  If he felt I suited the role, I would get it.  I wondered whether Umashankar had told him about me, and that I would do a good job if I got a chance. I was wearing a very tight skirt and top for my interview.  I reached AVM Studios on time.  The producer looked at me from top to toe at our meeting.  I felt he was looking at me not with his eyes, but with the lens of a camera.

“What is your name?”

“Shakeela.”

“Okay.  You come to the shoot tomorrow,” said the producer.

That was my screen test.  I’d always heard that the screen test to get a chance in the movies was a really serious matter. I was intrigued that my screen test had been so simple, but this also increased my confidence.  I believed that they could see the mark of a movie actor in me.  I sensed that this easy opportunity was the opening of the doorway to a life in the movies.  When I left the studio, I felt that I had been on the grounds of a temple where great actors had worked, and I was overcome by emotion.  So many movies, so many actors had lived and died here.  Even now, so many great actors come to work here.  And in their midst, there was me, a small Shakeela.  Yes, the camera was coming closer to my life as well.  That was a day on which I felt really thrilled.  I captured the setting, AVM studios, with my eyes and heart.

When I returned from the studio, Umashankar told me, “You are playing the role of Silk Smitha’s young sister.”  It took me a while to understand what he was saying.  Because all I had wanted was some role in the movies, I hadn’t expected such a good role.  My mind began to spin like a reel of film.  The characters that she had played rose up before my eyes.  Her face, large eyes, beautiful body, captivating lips – I remembered them all.  And I examined myself.  Was I capable, or worthy, of acting with a famous actor like Silk Smitha?  If I was, I felt I had received the best gift of my life.

I came back home and shared my excitement with everyone.  I could barely sleep that night.  I built castles in the air about what it would be like to be introduced to her, work with her, eat a meal with her.  I wondered how she would treat me on the sets. I felt she would greet me like a younger sister. I was meeting her for the first time.  I was overjoyed at the thought of the good role and the opportunity to work with Silk Smitha.  Thinking of these great strokes of luck, I somehow managed to get through the night.

I got ready very early in the morning.  A car stopped in front of my flat – the car that was to take me to the location of the shoot.  I stood up straight, with pride.  A vehicle had come to take me for my first movie shoot.  I prayed to all the gods.  As I came down the stairs, I was setting the stage of my dreams.  I imagined my face on the big screen, a secure future for my family, good roles that any actor would be delighted with, the fame that would accompany these roles, actors who had gone before me – for a moment, all these flashed before my eyes. As the car drove away, I gazed outside. Tomorrow, I would be known as a film star in this street, my street.  Wouldn’t people try to peek into my car? My mind kept sailing on the ship of my desires.  In any case, I’ve never been miserly in the matter of dreams.  After all when your dreams touch the sky, your achievements may turn out hill-high!

As soon as I reached the location, the makeup artiste came up to me and handed me a wig.  He also gave me a skirt to wear. At first, I couldn’t quite take it in. I held it up and asked him, “What is this?  Is this long enough?” “It’s long enough,” he replied. And he held out a pair of stockings.  I was seeing tights for the first time, and didn’t know how to wear them. I listened to the costumer’s instructions, went to the bathroom, and struggled into them somehow. I felt the clothes I was wearing didn’t suit my figure, and felt uncomfortable. I felt ashamed to step out in them. The tiny skirt and tights. I suddenly felt an unexplained sorrow. Acting was my daily bread now but I was crying inside. Then I reminded myself that all I needed to do was act, and composed myself. 

I looked around the location. My eyes were seeking out Silk Smitha.  I was longing to see her, sit by her, speak to her. But that wasn’t going to happen right away. The enchantress was resting in a glass-walled air-conditioned room, her feet up on a chair. She paid attention to no one, and no one went up to her. What if she didn’t like it if I walked up to her? If she was thinking about something, wouldn’t my interruption be a nuisance?  I damped down my wishes. That’s when I was informed that my first shot was going to be with the beautiful wonder called Silk Smitha. My first shot ever, in my first movie.  I panicked. I wondered how she would treat me. I prayed for the courage to face the camera in her presence. When I thought that the most blessed moment of my life was due any moment, I sweated.

The assistant director called out to me, “Shot ready. Please come.”

I walked behind him.  The scene involved my offering coffee to a just-bathed Silk Smitha, swaying down the stairs in her still damp clothing. Smitha walked down the stairs and her walk left me wonderstruck.  She knew exactly how to present her body in the most striking fashion. As every cell from the tips of her toes to her face reflected the walk that she was aiming for, I froze at the thought that I was expected to act alongside her. I quickly collected myself and stood ready to do my bit. The shot called for me to say, “Akka, coffee,” and hold out a cup of coffee to the bathed, towel-in-her-hair Smitha, who would then slap my face.

I was new to the manoeuvrings of the movies. I stood at the ready at the bottom of the stairs, the filled coffee cup in my hand. I could see the panties that Smitha was wearing very clearly. She was wearing a skirt that was even shorter than mine. I was convinced that this was an oversight. I was afraid that no one else had pointed this out to her. In my naiveté, I quickly called out to her, “Excuse me, madam, I can see your panties.” I was doing what I thought was the right thing.

The director and others gestured for me to keep quiet as the room froze. In the hush, people stared at me and glanced at one another. While I stood there, convinced I had done the right thing.  But I couldn’t understand the stillness that had followed my pointing out that Smitha’s skirt was too short.  All I had done was draw their attention to what was clearly an error. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. In a moment, everyone grew active again. I felt that Smitha had given me a ‘look’.

“Well, it’s her business,” I thought, and kept quiet. But my gaze remained riveted on Silk Smitha’s underwear.  It was as if I could see nothing else.

The shooting resumed. Silk Smitha came down the stairs again in her damp short skirt. I waited for her downstairs in my own short skirt and top, holding the cup of coffee. “Action!” shouted the director.

Akka, coffee…”, I offered the cup of coffee to Silk Smitha.

Smitha delivered a stinging slap.  Just as the scene called for.  The sound reverberated around the room.  I was stunned. My mouth turned dry and I sweated.  My cheek burned with the pain.  I couldn’t understand what was going on.  Silk Smitha had just slapped me, with my younger sister Sheetal and the entire unit looking on. My eyes overflowed spontaneously.  Forgetting everything around me, including the camera, I broke into sobs. I couldn’t absorb that slap that I had received in front of the whole unit. And then Silk Smitha tried to hug me.  I couldn’t understand anything.  I couldn’t figure out why this woman had hit me.  As I relived the slap again and again, I broke into fresh sobs. Angry, upset and emotional, I ran off the sets. I was afraid I would fall to the ground in humiliation if I continued standing there.

As I ran home, I was sure that my life in the movies had come to an end. I had upset the shooting schedule of a very popular star.  I would receive no more opportunities.  I felt that it was okay even if I had no more options, I did not want to continue acting if I had to compromise my dignity. By the time I reached home, I found that several members of the unit, including the director, had already reached there in a car.

I was in no mood to listen. “Why did she hit me?” I demanded.  “I don’t need to put up with the beatings of any bitch. I will manage to live, even if I have to marry a menial. What business did she have to hit me?” I babbled angrily.  I stood fearlessly before them, making it clear that I didn’t care if I never acted again. While they kept trying to calm me down and persuade me to return. “This is the movies.  If you don’t get your timing right, these errors will occur. You are feeling upset because this is your first experience.  Come back with us to the sets as quickly as possible.  Everyone is waiting for you there.  Time is money in the movies. Remember that.  It’s not that we can’t find anyone else to do your role.  We understand how inexperienced you are and that is the reason we have followed you and tried to coax you to return.”

“I’m in no shape to come back today.  I’m very upset.” I sent them back.  I wasn’t mature enough at the time to distinguish between acting and real life. Later, I felt guilty that I hadn’t remembered that I was working in a sex education film. In any case, I didn’t go back to the sets for two days.  I was being stubborn.  Then, giving in to my father’s urging, I decided to go back.  Then I remembered that even though she had hit me in front of the entire unit, and I had fled crying, Silk Smitha hadn’t called me or said a word to console me.  My anger flared again.  I went back to the unit, but reluctantly.  I sat in a corner, ignoring everyone.  As soon as they saw me, the director and other unit members came running and greeted me with a lot of warmth. I was due to act a scene with Smitha at 10.30 that morning. As soon as she saw me, she ran to me, gave me a hug and kissed me. I hadn’t expected such a move from her. I tried to shrug her off. But she wasn’t about to let me go.

“Leave me alone, what do you want with me? Let me go,” I said loudly.  My anger was still raging.

“Let it go, Shakeela. I did what I did to make sure the shot went well. Otherwise, why would I treat you like that? I have no anger towards you, I didn’t even know you before that shot. I didn’t do it on purpose.  You felt bad because this was your first experience,” she said.

“I don’t want to hear all this. Even if the movie gets an award, I will still have received the beating. My pain will be the same. And in front of all these people? It’s because you are a big star that you behaved like that. Leave me, akka,” I said, and flounced away. I felt the sweetness of victory at that moment. But Smitha was watching me with a smile as I walked away.

That day, as I walked away, I felt proud that I had asserted my individuality in front of the whole unit. But later in my movie career, when small blunders occurred on the sets, I would feel that I hadn’t been fair to Smitha.  Her hug and kiss had been an expression of some affection that she had felt for me.

After my shots, I went to my room to rest. I kept wondering how Silk would treat me in the future. I had arrogantly dismissed her expression of affection and walked to my room. I was very anxious as I awaited my next scene.

Every day, Smitha would stop shooting at 12.30pm and come back to the sets at 3 ‘o’clock. She only ever left the sets after informing the director and her co-workers. But she would always return on time. I learnt about how punctual she was on the sets. I was uncomfortable, thinking I would have to meet her in the afternoon, and wondered how I would interact with her. When she hugged me, I should have just said I was fine. Then I would have been able to continue to work with her smoothly. I sat in my room, unsure of what to do. Then someone came to my room and said that Smitha was asking for me.

As soon as I heard this, I ran to her room. I had so longed for her to reach out to me. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got to her room. She had set out a box of different kinds of chocolates for me.  She said, “I got these as a gift. But please take them.” That’s all she said.  But her expression was very loving. She didn’t take her eyes off my face.  I understood that the chocolates were not someone’s gift, and that she had got them for me. She must have been reluctant to say this openly, and that was why she pretended that she was just passing on a gift that she wasn’t going to use. She was sitting with her legs crossed, casually shaking a leg.  My anger towards her melted like the chocolates she was offering me.  I felt sorry that I had annoyed a big star like her. I didn’t know what to do, and stood with bowed head before her.

“You can go now, Shakeela,” she said. “Please share these chocolates with everyone at home.  And please give them my regards.” I left with sorrow.

Nor did her love and courtesy end with that. She grew even closer to me. One day, she was leaving the sets when her car abruptly stopped in front of me, and she invited me to lunch. “Come, we can eat at my house today. And we can return together.” Even though she was an actress I had always been devoted to, I demurred.  Her face fell. She tried to persuade me. “Please come with me. We can have lunch together.”

“I need to tell my father,” I tried to escape. But my sister Sheetal came running up. She was eager to visit Silk’s house. She added her voice to prevail on me. Finally, Sheetal, and more reluctantly I, got into Silk Smitha’s car. The car sped off to Saligramam in Vadapalani. Smitha didn’t speak during the ride. We too stayed quiet.  But I could see her looking at Sheetal and me every now and then.

When we reached her courtyard, she invited us, “Please come in, this is my house. Welcome to both of you.” I felt my head spin when I looked at the house. It might have been more appropriate to term it a palace.  Everything had a royal appearance. It was a five-bedroom mansion, which must have cost about 25,000 rupees to rent back then. Every room was nicely decorated. Paintings hung on the walls.  I could see that the house reflected her dreams. And I understood how a star needed to live.

The joys and wonders didn’t end there for me. Smitha led us into the sitting room to rest, and then went upstairs to her room.  She came back in a short while, having taken off her make-up and bathed. I can still see that scene before my eyes. Taking in that vision coming down the stairs, I forgot myself. I clutched Sheetal’s hand and gabbled, “How beautiful she is! She is so stunning without make up. What a face! What a figure!  This is beauty.  This is the beauty of a woman.  Really, Andhra women are gorgeous, aren’t they?”

I was chattering, my eyes absorbed by the beauty of this star. Her clinging robe made her figure seem even more attractive. She noticed me wide-eyed, marvelling, and smiled. “Don’t get too excited.”

She led us to the rich feast that had been laid out for us. Smitha loved fish curry and fried fish, and in addition to these dishes, there were many more.  Just looking at the spread made us feel full.  Besides we were overcome by joy at the thought of whom we were sharing the table with. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. She chatted with us, getting to know us, and ate slowly, relishing her food. After the meal, she instructed her driver to drop us back at the sets. She told us that she would be back at 3.30pm When she was sending us back after this royal treatment, Smitha looked at me.  I didn’t know what to say and smiled my thanks.

Smitha got back to the sets at half past three. I was sitting to one side of the sets. As soon as she walked in, I automatically stood up in respect. She had reapplied her makeup, and appeared fresh in a change of clothing. Her punctuality and commitment to her work broke the horns of my arrogance and crushed them to pieces. I looked at her like a first-grade kid.

I still believe that she was an actor beyond compare. I consider it a great honour in my life that I was able to act alongside the Silk Smitha who awed us all.  I don’t know how many people will believe that this star who wowed us with her body also possessed a generous, loving heart. When I heard the news that that life was no more, I was stunned speechless. Such a great actress, someone who knew how to live so well.  But she must have experienced something that none of us could understand.  Perhaps she did not want to share her feelings with anyone. My mind still finds it difficult to accept that she committed suicide. I continue to remember her with devotion. Because my admiration for her acting abilities and her beautiful form will never die. I pray that no other actor will go through what she did.

Smitha’s suicide continues to remain an enigma. Her end came at a time when she was reigning at the pinnacle of her fame. The fact that the most skilled gossips have been unable to detect whether it was the disappointment of a lost love, or the frostiness of family relationships, or some other reason that underlay that death, adds to the suspicion. The mystery that surrounds the circumstances of tragedies of other actors like the national-award-winning Shoba and Vijayasree who sought refuge in suicide is echoed in Silk Smitha’s case.

Dearest artiste, you were a springtime.

* * *

I would never claim that alcohol is a great thing.  And I never force anyone to drink.  But I consume alcohol, in the company of men and women.  I am a chain smoker.  And I forget myself in the pleasure of these pastimes. 

I tasted alcohol at a very young age.  My father, Chand Basha, would bring home beer for his own consumption.  When he poured a drink, I would sidle up to him and ask him for some.  My father would resist at first.  But I would cry, and beg for some beer, and make a nuisance of myself.  My hapless father would then pour some beer into a little glass.  I would gulp it down and lick my lips carefully, and this made my father guffaw.  He then began to give me beer regularly.  The quantity went up from half a glass to a whole glass.

After I began acting in television serials, I once requested the producer, Mohanraj, to get me beer.  He was like a father to me.  He only ever addressed me as “Daughter”.  So when I asked him for beer, he glared at me.  However, once the shooting was done, he ensured that beer was reached to me.

Beer was the beginning.  I would drink beer, grow sleepy, and fall into a slumber.  By and by, I left beer behind, and began to experience the different flavours of alcohol.  Now I drink in the company of men and women.  I don’t like to drink during the day.  It is at night that I like to tipple.

For drinking, I prefer the company of women to that of men.  The comfort of drinking with women is not something one gets while drinking with men.  And with men, the experience often turns unpleasant.  Sometimes, I drink in the company of men who are close friends.  But once we start drinking together, friendships get destroyed. 

This is because they first become friends with me expressing courtesy and affection. However, no sooner do they down the first peg in my company than they assume the roles of advisors.  By the third peg, they begin to assess my acting abilities and move on to discuss my bodily attractions.  I have seen their eyes peck hungrily at my body with no compunction. As they finish the fourth peg, they stand up and say, I’ll be back after a pee. When they get back from the bathroom, they make sure that they sit down again – next to me.

It’s fun to watch them stand up to go the bathroom.  They stand up and fix their gazes on me.  They throw a lustful smile at my face.  They adjust their bodies as if to tell me that this is a virile body, take a good look at it. They clutch their waistbands and hitch up their pants and tell me they’ll be back in a moment.

The visit to the bathroom is a prelude to manoeuvring themselves into a position by my side. At first, I did not recognise this ploy.  It’s only when they get back from their pee that one sees the real nature of a man.  The beast in him claws its way out. His craving to touch and caress me, particularly my fleshy parts, becomes apparent.  Their banter takes on a lewd bent.  A few pretend to be sleepy.  A clear invitation to me to enter their bedrooms. 

I invite a man to drink with me in friendship.  But he misunderstands this.  I later hear that he boasts to his friends that Shakeela invited him out of her hunger for his body.  I feel sorrow that he has branded my amity as a hankering for flesh.

Some of my more ‘decent’ men friends try to be less obvious. What they do is hang around even after the party is clearly over. The poor things are under the delusion that once I’m a little high, I will invite them into my bedroom. So many scenes such as these…

It was after a few such experiences that I began to understand that the visit to the bathroom after the fourth peg was an excuse to come and sit by me.  After this, the moment my men friends expressed an urge to pee, I would bring the party to an end.  I found such scheming much more indecent than an open expression of desire for me or my body.  Even more saddening was their belief that if they could only get me drunk, they could get me to do their bidding.

Men use flattery and extravagant baits to invite me to their bedrooms.  Or try to stroke certain parts of my body to convey the same message.  And right there, my friendship with them comes to an abrupt end.  This is the reason why I no longer drink with men I feel any affection for.  Why would one seek out enmity with anyone?

I always find drinking with women companions enjoyable.  In their company, it is possible to slip away into a fantasy world.  I start drinking with my women friends and we quickly move on to music and laughter.  I prefer to drink in places marked by natural beauty, rather than in hotels.  Secluded areas where it is possible to laugh and sing out loud. At such times, I can hug my women friends.  Or dance with them.  With no problems.  If you hug a man so joyously, the movements of his hands will quickly douse any joy.  I might hug him merely in the joy of the moment.  But as the fire of lust spreads through his veins, his hands stray on my body and he tries to sneak in a feel of my breasts if he can manage it.

Some ask me what kind of alcohol I like.  I don’t tell them what kinds of alcohol I like and how I like to drink it.  Why do others need to know this information? This is useless talk that folks engage in because they don’t have other matters to attend to.  Yet others want to know how many pegs I drink.  Though I itch to ask what business is it of yours how much I drink, you lout, I try and control myself and remain courteous. One peg short of a half- bottle is what suits me.  After that I get high.  However, sometimes my careful calculations get upset.  But then I quickly fall asleep.

In spite of all their shortcomings, it is men that I tend to trust.  Women are not to be trusted.  It is difficult to detect their envy. Women have betrayed me more than men have. I have never come to grief because of the antics that men display in their drinking bouts.  Men are satisfied with talk laced with double entendres and displays of sringara.  Once they get high, they try to get matters rolling towards sex, but don’t actually attempt to assault you.

Women appear to be perfect companions. But eventually, they manage to unload all the blame on you, and pretend to be saints themselves.  If they need to, they have no qualms about betraying you.

Cigarettes came into my life the way alcohol did.  I once went to see Pooja Bedi shoot.  I find her very beautiful.  When I went to see her, she was relaxing in a chair, smoking a cigarette, looking very elegant.  Anyone who sees this actor smoking will be tempted to give it a try.  I began to imitate Pooja Bedi now and then.  And then smoking became a habit.  Today, I probably smoke more than she does. 

But now I am uneasy.  And it is my unease that has caused my smoking and drinking to increase.  Sometimes I think of liquor as a solace.  But this is only my opinion. Whatever gives us solace is important, if only for that moment when it does.

Although I say all this, I must make one thing very clear.  Once I don my make up, I don’t smoke.  I’ve never appeared before the camera after a drink.  But alcohol keeps me company at night.  Life flows forward in this manner. Different kinds of people, friends, smoking, drinking, acting… 

If someone seriously questions me about whether I have deeply thought about my life, I’d have to confess that I haven’t.  It’s true – I’ve never seriously thought about myself.  I am a piece of driftwood, going with the flow.  I bob gently or swirl furiously depending on the pace of the current of life.  Where do I have the time or the peace to think about myself?

This is an edited excerpt from the book Shakeela Athmakadha, to be published by Olive Publications.

Translated from the Malayalam by Meera Pillai

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    Experts estimate that 20 to 50 percent of water pumped into the water supply system is ‘lost’ due to unexpected reasons such as leakage.

  • What's making India's Second Biggest Wine Industry Cry?Fri 21 Mar, 2014

    The Karnataka Wine Board is facing considerable opposition to its audacious plan to sell locally produced wine at government-run vegetable stores. But the state's wine industry has more problems than a lack of social acceptance. For one, the Europeans are coming.

  • Why Everyone Should Go On The Malwa Kabir YatraThu 20 Mar, 2014

    For the last five years people have come from around the country to join a journey celebrating Kabir in Madhya Pradesh. The traditional satsangs are joined by new and old Kabir lovers, urban and rural performers and the merely curious. A photojournalist recalls the first yatra, a journey that began a new variation of Kabirophilia.

  • You may have heard that a 6 million ton Jindal steel plant has got clearance in Jharkhand. Here is what you didn't hearWed 19 Mar, 2014

    An eyewitness account of a farcical public hearing that wanted nothing to do with the public but just push through the big business agenda.

  • The Eight Myths About Exercise That Hold Indians BackTue 18 Mar, 2014

    Ever thought that an hour's exercise a day is enough? Or that lifting weights would make you look like a bodybuilder? After two incredibly successful books on nutrition, this expert has turned her attention to the science of exercise.

  • Better Than A Palace Is My HomeMon 17 Mar, 2014

    A decade ago in northeast Mumbai, 80,000 hutments were demolished in a bid to transform 'Mumbai to Shanghai'. The dissent born then is now the powerful Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao movement active in around 35 slum colonies, involving 25,000 families. And this year Medha Patkar, the woman who spearheaded the movement, may be elected to Parliament. What does the community think of this development?