January 23, 2012

Sardonic Verses

Ever heard of Gajnipur? No? Nor had I, until a month ago. That's when I received an invitation from the organizers of Gajnipur Film Festival. Gajnipur, apparently, is the capital of Gajnistan, a newly carved out state, named after its popular film actor, Gajnikant, endearingly referred to as Thalaivar (Chief) by his ardent fans. Although I am a movie buff, I had no idea why the organizers would choose me from the millions of movie buffs from around the world. Damn you, Google!

As I sat in my cabin shivering in the wintry cold of Yosemite, it suddenly dawned on me. Could it be because I wrote in my blog an irreverent, but scholarly criticism of the wildly popular song on YouTube®, Thalaivali Di? The song was composed and sung by Gajnikant himself, but was a poor copy of the even more popular Tamil film song, Kolaiveri Di. I had slammed several of the verses in the song for their sardonic humor, and to the discerning, for being clearly misogynistic. My blog got 500 hits that day, at least 100 times the normal traffic from my wife, daughter, son-in-law, brother, and me. Yup, that must have caught the eyes of the dissent and freedom loving organizers of the Gajnipur Film Festival.

Should I go? I was tempted, if not for the several eye-candies in the festival lineup, certainly for some mouthwatering plates of authentic Idli and chutney, my favorite dish from that region. I RSVP'd yes, confirming that I'd attend the festival.

A month later, it was time to pack my bags.

The phone rang. It was one of the organizers of the Gajnipur Film Festival. "I am sorry to disturb you, sir," he continued in an agitated voice, "but there's some trouble brewing here about your visit. Not anything that we cannot take care of, sir, but we just thought that we'd alert you."

"What sort of trouble, may I ask?"

"Sir, it seems that you have criticized Thalaivali Di in one of your blog posts, and that has upset many Gajni fans. They are demanding that your visit be canceled".

"Hm.. what do you recommend? Should I?"

"No, sir. That won't be necessary. We have taken adequate precautions and we are confident that we can handle the situation."

"Okay, let me know if things get uglier. Meanwhile, I am looking forward to the Idlis... er... festival, you know."

"We are excited about your visit, too, sir". I hung up, loaded my bags, and drove to San Francisco International.

Not knowing what to do after arriving at the airport 3 long hours before my flight as required in the post-9/11, 8/7, 7/11, 11/7 ... world, I turned on my newly minted 4g iPhone. Flipping through the sites, I landed at BNN-GBN Live. To my shock and awe, I noticed my photo in a side-box.

"... but, Mr. Giri, he has hurt the sentiments of thousands, perhaps millions of Gajni fans with his unwarranted criticism of Thalaivali Di, hasn't he? What do you say to that?"

"Well, Mr. Raj, I think that he has been punished enough for that. After the order was issued by the Thalaivar Fan Club to that effect, I hear that Gajnistani restaurants in the US have refused to serve him Idli, one of his favorite dishes. His blog has been blocked here in Gajnistan, and several other friendly states have followed suit.

The fellow has suffered enough, don't you think? It is time that we, free-thinking, liberal intellectuals that we are, should forgive him. Of course, we should show some spine, too, and stand up for the right of any movie-goer to like or dislike what they see or hear. Why should Gajni's movies and songs be an exception? It's all about votes and the forthcoming elections; everyone knows Gajni's fans are a formidable voting block."

"So, you are saying that he does deserve to be punished for what he wrote, but now that he has been punished, we should move on... hold on sir, we have one of your colleagues here on screen now. Mr. Cheta Nair, do you agree with Mr. Giri?"

"No, I don't, Raj. Giri is wrong, and I say this not to offend him, but because I have a right to disagree. The fellow who criticized Thalaivali Di .. what's his name... I have not heard of him before, nor have I read his criticism... disagreed with millions of Gajni's fans? Is he crazy? He should take a tip or two from me about marketing his blog!

I am not a Gajnistani, but in Gajnistan, you cannot offend the sentiments of so many people who absolutely love Thaivar's Thalaivali Di. Naturally, people are outraged. He has no right to do that and he cannot get away with that so easily. The fellow should be banned from Gajnistan for ever, if you ask me."

"Cheta, haven't you hurt the sentiments of Gajnistanis when you made those derogatory remarks in your book... Three Dishes, right... about their favorite breakfast food, Idli? Shouldn't you be banned, too?"

Before Cheta could answer, my phone played the ringtone of Thalaivali Di. Yes, even though I had criticized it, the tune was catchy, and made a few young and pretty heads glance at me approvingly, a rare, but welcome attention as I aged gracefully past 60.

"Sir, you have been identified and targeted", a robotic voice said from the other end.

"What ... er... who is this?"

"Sorry, sir, I cannot reveal my name, but I am the head clerk of the undersecretary to the joint-secretary, reporting to the Deputy Minister for Internal Security of the Government of Gajnistan. We have partially confirmed intelligence and no-intelligence reports that your presence at the Gajnipur Film Festival may pose a potential threat to your personal safety, and possibly several of your unnamed supporters who may also be attending the festival. Although we may deny this warning tomorrow, you are advised to stay away from the festival, and not visit Gajnistan at this time."

"Well, what kind of a threat, may I ask?"

"Sir, we have reports that a couple of medium pace bowlers, who are already disgruntled by their exclusion from the national cricket team, have been hired by Thalaivar Fan Club to hurl chutney on your face at the festival. Your sticky mustache and beard apart, what if the chutney accidentally hits a fan, a ceiling fan, I mean? We cannot allow celebrities, especially our actresses, to have their faces garnished... er... tarnished by chutney for no fault of their own."

"... but Article 171 of your constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Is it not your responsibility be protect me and the rest of us from these chutney chucking thugs?"

"With all due respect, sir, you don't seem to have read our constitution thoroughly. The Constitution of Gajnistan has been amended hundreds of times since it was drafted five years ago. Our legal experts have told us that Article 412, Section 3.1, Sub-clause 44(c) supersedes Addendum MCLX-B, Clause (h) which severely restricts Article 171, rendering it meaningless. Who knows, Article 171 may be entirely deleted by the time I come to work tomorrow!

The recipe for chutney, however, has survived the test of time for thousands of years. You, above all, should know that Idli and chutney are way dearer to Gajnistanis than some abstract, Western concept like freedom of speech. No, sir, we cannot afford to waste bucketfuls of chutney, and what'd Idli be without chutney? In a few days, you'll return to the cold comfort of your Yosemite residence, but we are the ones who'll be left here to deal with a serious Idli and chutney situation on our hands."

Well, he had a point there, I must admit. Should the Idli and chutney situation turn ugly while I am there, then the whole point of my trip would become moot. I called the Gajnipur Film Festival organizers to tell them that I was canceling my visit, and headed straight to my friend Ramanujan's home, the only place in South Bay where I could still get a decent plate of Idli with chutney.

Any resemblance to recent events surrounding Salman Rushdie's canceled visit to the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival is intentional. Other than that, all characters and events appearing in this work are fictitious, and any resemblance to real events and persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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