Paranoid Android

This happened last evening: I’m standing outside office on the dark lonely but traffucked street that runs by Alliance Francaise, trying to hail an auto. I see a guy in a white maruti 800, yawning and at the same time, driving towards the pavement. Everyone has had a long day, I think to myself. 

Next minute I see the car next to me. There’s a bearded guy in a black tee waving frantically asking me to get in. WTF. My god, the guy’s grinning AND waving. *blink blink* WTF. It’s strange the ways your brains has all these thoughts buzzing around for that fraction of a second: I could get a lift till the signal. OMG, what am I thinking. That guy could be a rapist. Why is he so persistent.

Then it strikes me. That’s my friend, Nakul. Absolute horror to serendipity in 30 seconds. 


Standing on that stretch of the road always leaves me afraid, vulnerable and defensive. I don’t want to stand too close to the edge of the pavement while I’m hailing a rickshaw because I don’t want a guy on a bike to grab my boobs or mow me down while he attempts to beat the traffic by driving ON the pavement. I shouldn’t be distracted by my phone while I hold my bags close so that nobody has easy access to my body parts. And god forbid, somebody tries grabbing the phone while I’m busy ensuring I stay aloof and my body, defensible.

Nakul makes for a good anti-climax, a friend remarked.

Yup, that. I don’t like being on my guard all the time. I don’t want to think the worst of every man who passes by. It also makes me very angry- when these very real fears are dismissed as paranoia, the workings of an overactive imagination, when good intentions are almost always overshadowed by the what-if. On my worst days, I wish upon them nothing more than what I go through: why must I alone be full of fear, be up for grabs every time I’m out in public. Y'know, I just want to hail an auto-rickshaw and go home. Why must something as mundane as that be so hard, so agonizing?

Fatima Bhutto on falling in love with Karachi


Karachi is a city of 16 million people. Or 18 million. Or 21 million. No one is really sure.

It is a monster city, a mega city.

Until 1960, it was Pakistan’s capital – the landing point for millions of refugees who moved with the fractured tide of Partition in 1947 and brought their families and their language, Urdu, to the erstwhile twin city of the Bombay Presidency. Exploding with refugees, within five years of Partition, it went from a coastal fishing town of around 4,00,000 citizens to a city with more than a million people.

Karachi is a city of migrants; those who have sought refuge in the city of lights include Parsis, Bene Israel Jews, Anglo Indian Presbyterians and many more, some of who have since fled and some who remain.

It is a city that exists in the unfolding of its shadows, beneath the smoky haze of food vendors pushing tin carts of food, bun kebabs made with spicy minced meat with stray feathers caught between the sticky patty and bun.

It exists in the buses painted in wild fluorescents and piled high with travellers who hang off the doors and windows. In these, you see a parting in the seating – a separate section for women, built like a cage, cordoned off from the rest of the bus by steel and metal.

When there is electricity, Karachi glimmers: there are the green lights of the mosques, the pink, blue and yellow fairy lights that adorn the beloved Sufi shrines, the impatient red of traffic lights that cannot hem in the crush of motorcycles and rickshaws, the naked bulbs that light the dark unpaved paths of the city’s bazaars.

Otherwise, when there is no light, when the city is enveloped in now-standard 12-hour power cuts, Karachi hums in darkness.

Three years ago, I was supposed to be writing a book about this city – my home for the last 20 years. By the autumn of 2010, I began to spend my time in archival libraries and museums and interviewing a motley crew of Karachiites – from the scientologists who have infiltrated the city’s jails (who, understandably, don’t like to be known as scientologists, so they hide behind the cover of a health NGO curiously led by the principles of L Ron Hubbard) to South Korean evangelicals, urban planners and transgender rights activists.

But it wasn’t the right book for me. As I isolated myself, I lost feeling for the idea of documenting my renegade city. I spent my mornings in the company of a book that tore at my heart. It was not the city I grew up in, it was not the city I loved from my father’s tales.

It is a different place now. Like with love, when you know, you know. And I knew I had fallen out of love with Karachi.

But long before the idea of chronicling a lost city was born, I had started writing a novel,The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon.

City of Sperms: About a village called Delhi

Like a rich man’s son, Delhi is a beneficiary of undeserved privileges. That is at the heart of Bombay’s contempt for Delhi, says Manu Joseph

He is a large amiable boy who smiles at breasts as if they are acquaintances. He suspects he is good looking, and he probably is, especially when he is quiet. A pretty white girl walks into this London pub and he nudges the elbow of a friend. As his eyes follow her to the far corner, his face assumes a sudden seriousness. He then takes her pictures with his phone camera. He tries to meet the eyes of any woman in the pub so that he can flash a smile. He has heard that white women are broadminded. “I like to hear white women scream under me,” he says. A Bengali sitting beside him says he must become a midwife then. Everybody laughs. He stares at the Bengali who is a much smaller man, and he slaps him a few times. Others now rise and try to drag him away. He growls, not metaphorically but really growls. And he says, “I’m a baaad guy, I’m a baaad guy.” He is, of course, a jat from Delhi whose matrimonial ad had once said, accurately, that he is from a good family. He has travelled the world. He studied briefly in the First World, even. There are thousands like him in Delhi, the natural habitat of a kind.

Delhi is a vast medieval town of indisputable botanical beauty, spectacular red ruins, Sheila Dixit, and other charms. Its women, rumoured to be high maintenance as if there is another kind, take so much care of themselves that one would think the men are worth it (but they make a gesture that suggests puking when asked to confirm). Space is not compressed here. Everything is far from everything else. There are real gardens where you do not see the exit when you stand at the entrance. It has sudden small parks that in Bombay would have been called, ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Mini Forest’. Homes have corridors, and they are called corridors, not half-bedrooms. Yet, Delhi has a bestial smallness of purpose.

Those men there who drive the long phallic cars, sometimes holding a beer bottle in one hand, there is something uncontrollable about them. Even for a man, it is hard to understand their mutation. What is the swagger about? What is the great pride in driving your father’s BMW, what is the glory in being a sperm? And what is the great achievement in stepping on the accelerator? It is merely automobile engineering—press harder on the pedal and the car will move faster. Why do you think a girl will mate with you for that? It is somehow natural that the contemporary version of Devdas, Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, would be set in Delhi, where a man can debase himself because life does not challenge him, he has no purpose, whose happiness is a type of sorrow. This motiveless Delhi male, you can argue, can be found in Bombay too, where not all BMWs are hard earned. But that’s not very different from saying Bombay, too, has bungalows.

Like a rich man’s son, Delhi is a beneficiary of undeserved privileges. That is at the heart of Bombay’s contempt for Delhi. Bombay is a natural city, like all great port cities of the world. It was not created. It had to arrive at a particular moment in time, it was an inevitability caused by geography, shipping and shallow waters. Bombay eventually earned its right to be a financial force through the power of enterprise, which created a system that allowed, to some extent, anyone to stake a claim at wealth through hard work. That culture still exists. It is the very basis of Bombay. That is the whole point of Bombay.

But Delhi as a centre of power is an inheritance, a historical habit. An unbearable consequence of this is the proximity of easy funds for various alleged intellectual pursuits which has enabled it to appropriate the status of intellectual centre. It is a scholarship city, a city of think tanks, of men who deal in discourse, debates and policies. And of fake serious women who wear the sari the other way and become leftists, nature lovers and diurnal feminists.

Delhi, often, confuses seriousness with intelligence and humour with flippancy. People will not be taken seriously here if they are not, well, serious. There is much weight attached to the imagined sophistication of talk, of gas. It is a city of talkers. There is always The Discussion. When you are in Delhi, you have to talk, and then they talk, and they appear to be solving an enigma, they seem headed towards achieving some revelation. But then, you realise, they were peeling an onion, an act that leads to more peels and at the heart of it all, there is nothing. Delhi is an onion. It is a void-delivery device.

Of course, all this is a generalisation, but then generalisation is a form of truth. One of the most repulsive images I bear in mind of Delhi is a scene in JNU, when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez delivered a special lecture. It was like a rock concert and Chavez, who is a scion of the same imbecilic philosophy that once destroyed the great economies of South America, was the star. As students pumped their hands in the air and cheered him for his anti-capitalist calling, I looked at their faces. I knew those faces. They were from homes that once profited from India’s socialist corruption, and then from Manmohan’s revolution. They were hip. They would, of course, later join MNCs and chuckle at their youthful romanticism. That moment in JNU was despicable because it captured a meaningless aspect of Delhi’s fiery intellectuality, and also laid bare the crucial difference between intellectuality, which is borrowed conviction, and intelligence, which is creativity, innovation and original analysis.

It is for the same reason that the greatest misfortune of Indian journalism is that it is headquartered in Delhi. Needless to say, like in any other city, Delhi has astonishingly talented editors, journalists and writers, but there is a Delhi mental condition which is incurable—a fake intensity, a fraudulent concern for 'issues’, the grand stand. Readers, on the other hand, have many interests today apart from democracy, policies and the perpetual misery of the poor. But the Indian media, based in Delhi, refused to see it until recently and very grudgingly, when The Times of India proved it. It is not a coincidence that The Times Group, the most profitable media organisation in India, is based in Bombay. It is not a coincidence that the game changer came from here. In Bombay it is hard to convert air from either side of your alimentary canal into cash. You have to do something here. You have to work. It is appropriate that the National School of Drama, with its phoney distaste for money, is in Delhi. And commercial cinema is in Bombay.

It must be said though that in recent times Delhi has become somewhat more endearing. This is partly because of Bombay’s own degradation and its loss of modernity, and partly because of a remarkable cultural irony. Bombay’s films were increasingly becoming pointless because, like Delhi has those silver sperms in BMWs, Bombay’s film industry, too, suffers the curse of the privileged lads whose fathers were something. As actors with no real talent they could still survive, but some who did not look so good could do nothing more than remaking movies about love and parental objection. Then two things happened. The flops of the brainless boys from the film families gave opportunities to talent that had arrived from all over the country, including what is called North India. They were waiting, and when they got a chance they created a new kind of commercial cinema in which Bombay was not necessarily the focus. That resulted in the startling revelation here that Bombay is a culturally impoverished, rootless setting compared to Delhi. What films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Dev D have achieved as hilarious, poignant and self deprecatory narrations of the North Indian way of life, has changed Hindi cinema, probably forever. So Delhi is being seen a bit differently in Bombay, with some affection too. Though, the best thing about Delhi will always be its winter. When there is this mist. And you do not see its people.

New York, New York


The writer E.B. White famously defined, in 1948, the three kinds of New Yorkers: the native, the commuter, and the person from elsewhere who comes in quest of something.

Today there are three different kinds of New Yorkers: the people who act as if they were born here, who have a sense of entitlement about the city even if they arrived here after college; the people who are here and wish to be elsewhere, so toxic has it become for them; and the collection of virtual New Yorkers all over the world, in cities from Sarajevo to Santiago, who wish they were living in New York. These are the three New York states of mind, and what they have in common are longing and a quantity of delusion. It’s a city of dreamers and insomniacs.

They come because any newcomer stepping off the plane at JFK can find a place in the hierarchy of New York. If you look at a New York City restaurant, for example, the chef might be French, the people washing dishes might be Mexican, the hostess might be Russian, the taxi driver bringing the customers might be Pakistani, the owner might be British. They are not all equal. They earn different rates. But they work together, to get food to hungry people. It’s like the Hindu caste system: it’s not equitable, but everybody has a place.

What New York demonstrates, the lesson it has for its fellow rich cities such as Amsterdam or Paris or Tokyo, is this: immigration works. The city can use its immigrants, even the illegal ones. “Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders,” observed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported.” Each immigrant is an epic in the making. Enticed here by the founding myth of the city, he is seeking to escape from history, personal and political. For him, New York is the city of the second chance.

- Suketu Mehta on The City: New York