Of Manhattan, Malala and Mowgli

Chintan Girish Modi shares snippets of a Mumbai life

Of Manhattan, Malala and Mowgli
You realise that you have been watching way too many episodes of ‘Sex And The City’ when you walk past a signboard in Mumbai that says ‘Manthan Group of Companies’, but your eyes read ‘Manhattan’. It is a spunky television show with identifiable characters and raunchy humour. On closer analysis, however, it reinforces stereotypes about class, race, gender, and sexual preference, much like most other American sitcoms I have watched. But, well, it does have an addictive quality that is difficult to brush aside.

I wonder who might be Mumbai’s Carrie Bradshaw, the sassy columnist from the show who is deeply involved in her friends’ lives - be it a bad hair day, a man that needs to be dumped, or a breast cancer diagnosis. She gets turned off by too much romance, does not mind getting a bikini wax for a hot date and gives brownie points to men who make good breakfast. There’s something about Carrie. You can try comparing her to Rachel from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. or Gabriela from ‘Desperate Housewives’ but they are just not the same.
In each of the children acting in the play, one could feel the courage of Malala

My world is completely different from Carrie’s - no parties, hardly any hot dates, and certainly no friends needing help with babysitting. I guess the only thing we share is that we both live in cities filled with people and loneliness. And perhaps a flair for this kind of pontification: “The best thing about living in New York is that you don’t have to sugar-coat your feelings.” And this: “I decided it was time to leave fear behind, and have some fun.”

Speaking of fun, I watched two plays recently - ‘Malala’ directed by Gerish Khemani, and ‘Jungle Book 2’ directed by Lokesh Rai and Swapnil Shrirao. Both were based on books - ‘I Am Malala’ by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, and ‘The Jungle Book’ by Rudyard Kipling.

The actors in ‘Malala’ were students and teachers from the Gateway School of Mumbai in Deonar, which serves children with a wide range of learning difficulties and sensory disorders. It was staged within the school’s premises, and I was happy to receive an invitation.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was less than generous in his recent remarks on Malala's Nobel prize
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was less than generous in his recent remarks on Malala's Nobel prize

I had some free time, so I walked around the school, just to see if something would catch my curiosity. I found an ‘Artist of the Week’ corner, which focused on one particular student, featured a brief artist statement and some of her drawings. Alongside, there was a printout of an interview with her conducted by the school’s arts therapist, Neha Bhat. It spoke of the student’s art practice, her interests, and her choice of materials to work with. Such an innovative way to celebrate a child’s talent! I hope more schools begin to do this.

The play began late but the content more than made up for the delay. In each of those children, one could feel the courage of Malala, a child like them who refuses to be wiped out by her challenges. In the book, Malala writes, “I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.”

I know that this is the very sort of thing that makes several Pakistanis boil with fury. They think that all she has done is to bring disrepute to the country. Of course, there is no denying the fact that Malala’s story has been co-opted by an imperialist, Islamophobic narrative. However, her suffering and her resilience are not yours or mine to pass judgment on.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an Indian spiritual guru who has caught the fancy of some Pakistanis as well, through his Art of Living courses, recently made a statement about how Malala has done nothing to deserve a Nobel Prize. Maybe. Maybe not. I wonder if he would, someday, ask the same question about Barack Obama. Now that would be something.

The play had an added significance for me because I watched it shortly after the death anniversary of Sabeen Mahmud who was gunned down in Karachi last year for speaking up like Malala did. Like many others did — in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh - to the annoyance of those who don’t like questions, for questions can unsettle, even topple. Tears welled up in my eyes as the girl who played Malala, defiantly declared that she would choose the path of non-violence, come what may. Had Carrie been sitting beside me that evening, she too would have been in tears.

The other play, set in a forest, was far from sombre. It had a bare-chested Mowgli in a red loin cloth, one that Carrie’s friend Samantha would have surely liked to take home. And an assortment of other animals, including human beings, who were hitting, pouncing, clawing, jumping, pulling, and hypnotizing.

I have never seen an audience so enthralled by the events on stage. The children were shouting out names of characters, snatching bananas out of the hands of monkeys, and laughing with wild abandon. Some mothers tried to get their kids to shut up. Others hid their faces when adults in rows ahead turned back to shoot them a nasty glare. I loved the chaos but was happy that I didn’t have a child to be responsible for. Oh my God! That’s so Carrie!

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer. That he shares his last name with a Prime Minister is purely a matter of coincidence. He tweets at @chintan_connect