Wednesday, March 09, 2022

On coverings of face or head, and the cultural value of uniformity

A good school or college teaches students to see people for the good or harm they do rather than focus on their skin, surnames, hair or tiffin-boxes. No society can hope to emerge from the dark pit of ignorance if it refuses to allow experiments with appearance, habits, even cultural values. What is ignorance, after all, but not knowing? Knowledge comes from seeing, listening, recognising, interpreting. A mulish refusal to allow difference is rooted in an irrational fear of knowledge. If uniform rules lead to the denial of education, the best academic response is to discuss the role of uniformity as a cultural value.

That schools and colleges should refuse to accept a covered head is distressing. Even more distressing is their argument broken down: you are only acceptable if you show exactly as much skin or hair as we demand. This is as good as saying: you have no right to govern your own body. This is a dangerous idea to put into any institution, private or public, and especially dangerous for women if endorsed by the state and courts of law.

Those who use the ‘uniform’ argument to keep Muslims out of educational institutions have struck a double blow. The first blow lands on the rights of Muslim students while the second lands upon the hearts of Hindu students whose capacity for critical thought and solidarity is being squeeze-shrunk out of them. They are being taught that it is okay to reject someone based on their appearance, that it is okay to bully or hate those who are different. Worse, it pushes forward the idea that cultural identities are fixed and citizens have no right to multiple or overlapping identities.

There have been some mal-intentioned arguments on social media, based on pictures of girls with and without the hijab, seeming to make the argument that if a girl can show her hair in one location, among one set of people, she has no right to cover herself in another location. The dangers of this argument are so great, and so obvious, that I am amazed at how little pushback there has been from women’s groups across the country.

Some thoughts triggered by hostile reactions to masks and to hijabs in recent weeks. Read the full article here: 

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

 From an interview with Mint about cities and my new novel, City of Incident:

With City Of ... I had started with just little flashes of incidents (in Mumbai) that I remembered, little scraps of detail that I saw/read somewhere, sights that haven’t quite left me, things I have been carrying around for years and have never forgotten. And I was unable to make sense of them, vis-a-vis my own relationship with the city and its people. With this book, I was aware that I needed to tell a story, that it had to capture the essence of all these little things—for me they are memories, but in literary terms they are just images. I wanted to construct a sense of what it means to live in a city, where so many things happen—small and big tragedies.

More here:

Monday, February 07, 2022

An interview about the latest book, about cities and loneliness and some thoughts on literary ethical

I was interviewed by Chintan Girish Modi this week about my new book. One question in particular led me to think deeper around a topic that I had been debating internally for a while, so I put down my thoughts at some length.

Q. What are some of the ethical questions that you grapple with while writing about people whose lives are available to you through observation but far removed from your own experience? For instance, people who sleep on pavements and under bridges.

Annie - I have been reading around the question of cultural representation, ‘voice’ and debates about who should write what. I run the risk of writing an essay in response to your question, but this is as good a time as any to put down some reflections and fears.

The first aspect of this question is: Should one write of what/who one sees, or should one only write about what one has personally experienced? I have to say that I disagree with the notion that one should only write what one experiences. People are told ‘write what you know’, especially when they are just starting to write, because they may not have an instinctive, immediate capacity for vivid or plausible description based only on imagination. But if we all only wrote what we have personally experienced, we’d only churn out diaries and memoirs. Where does that leave fiction? Science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction would be absolutely impossible under such conditions.

Besides, the point of literature, especially fiction, is to transpose. The writer transposes herself by building up characters in a world that may not be based on lived experience. Even if it is ‘real’, the writer could have experienced only part of it. If it is conjured, that world is unexperience-able. If it is a combination of real and conjured, the writer herself neither knows nor does not-know. She can only try to capture feelings the way one tries to capture images and memories.

Even within a narrow range of experience, within the same caste, class, religion, gender, it is impossible to represent or experience another life. You may think you ‘know’, but do you? My grandmother’s life was very different from mine though we have the same gender, class/caste background. I observed her, but her experience was not mine. Should I not write about her? I believe I should. Even if she has told her own story in her words, I should still try and make sense of her as a character from my perspective, maybe even try to make sense of my own self as a character seen from her lens.

The second part of the question is about assumptions about knowing. Do we ‘know’? To answer that, we must dip into philosophy, spirituality, neuroscience, and this is not a suitable venue for such expansions, nor am I a scholar of such breadth. To a writer, the more relevant question is: Can we know through reading and writing? Can we know each other’s hearts? Can we at least try? And my response is to try.

The third part of your question is about the person observed. We all observe people whose lives are far removed from our own. There’s little question of an ethical dilemma if the gaze is reversed, say, if a homeless man were to write about a woman riding in a bus one hot afternoon. So, this question is not about who observes; it is about who writes. In theory, anyone. In practice, not everyone.

So, I disagree with the framing of the debate though I agree that it is important to discuss who is allowed what in our society. The shape of the argument must clarify its true ethical intent: everyone deserves a voice. Everyone deserves to be able to read and write. For this, we have to argue that everyone deserves housing and cultural materials. Food, clothing, shelter, but also books, performances and internet access. In countries that do have such a vision, there are public libraries equipped with computers; people can use them for free. There are high-quality, free performances in public spaces like parks or town squares.

The fourth part is the core of the debate: equity. The ethics question arises not because of who is writing but because of who is not writing, not getting published.

I’ve considered this debate by imagining myself in the position of one who has limited cultural access. If I become part of a very tiny minority in another location, and I can’t find a publisher for my work, or don’t have the time to write fiction, or can’t find a publisher that publishes in my language, do I want others to not write about women like me? My answer is: if they can write with empathy and insight, then they should. However, I also want an environment conducive to me writing in my own language.

I also imagine the alternative: what if writers actually stopped describing lives outside of their experience? Nirala wrote about Kulli Bhat. Kulli Bhat should have been able to write about Nirala too. Should Nirala have refused to describe what he was seeing and hearing, and limited himself to writing about his own family? What would be gained from that moment in time, in literature, in our country’s consciousness, not being written? Kamala Markandeya wrote Nectar in a Sieve, about a farmer couple and their distress. The farmer should have written too. But would we be better served by Markandeya writing only about upper or middle class, English-speaking women?

There is obviously a vast difference between stories based on observation and what emerges from lived experience. This is a difference between Markandeya or even Mahasweta Devi’s work, and that of Manoranjan Byapari or Baby Halder. But I don’t think it is a good idea to create rules about who should write about what. It is bound to boomerang. If we say that white people can’t write about black or brown lives, can we argue that black and brown people do have the right to write about white people or their motivations? Or are we only allowed to write from the perspective of a victimized/colonized person? Such rules are easily hijacked by those who are politically and socially powerful, and used against those who are trying to right the balance of power. There is a danger of writers who write about class or caste divisions being silenced on the grounds that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, because they cannot possibly have experienced both (or all) sides of the divide.

In an oral literary culture, cultural equity is easier to achieve. Ali Khan Mahmudabad, in his book Poetry of Belonging, writes about mushairas where unlettered, working class poets participated alongside upper and middle class poets. Publishing and, even more significantly, distribution equity is much harder to achieve. So we must advocate for publishing those who want to write but can’t access literary organizations. We must ask for free libraries too.

When we strike a blow for equality, we must be aware of how the blow lands, and whether it has the desired impact. Is the blow landing on the shoulders of writers of fiction, instead of shaking up governments and leading to policy changes? We have no comprehensive data about the income/caste/gender profile of writers in India. We still need permission from the censors to enact a play, permission from the police to perform on the streets. But I notice that the more inequality increases in the world, the more people focus their critiques on artists and their individual choices instead of turning on structural inequity, patriarchy and state policy.

What power does a writer have, after all, except powers of observation, comprehension and empathy, and a certain felicity with language? You write about what you see or know, about what matters to you, what moves you, what you feel is important. That is the core of a writer’s ethic. Or, my ethic anyway.

The full interview is available here:

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Happy Basant


I was looking for a bright yellow photo to post on social media for Basant Panchami. Among my saved photos, I found this one. I am in a hotel room, on a research trip to Sirohi in 2019, for my book 'Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation'.

In most small hotels in central and western India and many parts of the north too, especially in district headquarter towns, small-ish hotels are the only option available to travellers. These tend to be usually business travellers rather than tourists or researchers. In such places, if you want tea or breakfast, you have to call the reception (if the room phone works) and ask for one of the employees to go to a local dhaba and fetch something to eat. The only option is poha (unless you want samosa or jalebi first thing in the morning, which I don't). You see my feet in the photo because I was sitting on the bed and eating. There was no table to eat at.

Here's to research, to travel, and to poha (although the featured poha in this photo was a sad little dish; I prefer it with lots of peanuts, potatoes, and even shredded chicken in mine).

Meta gaslighting

I've written recently about my struggles with Facebook, its 'security' viz logins, and it restricting me from commenting on posts. Over the last week, I have been carefully trying out the identity-confirmation-via-comments option. It is confusing, disorienting and as one of my friends here pointed out, rather creepy. Even so, the option does not work and the gaslighting has reached 'meta' proportions. Even when I choose my own comments, FB/Meta insists that I am wrong.

I attach below a sample (took screenshots finally, though this has happened for three days consecutively). I have clicked only my own comments; the rest are either not mine at all or at least not made in recent months. The 4 options I clicked were the correct ones, but... So, clearly this is either some major glitch, or Meta is getting into the business of convincing me that I did not say what I did, or said things which I didn't.

Now I am torn between saying that I am going to go off FB altogether and fighting this nonsense. At any rate, there's no way of getting away from it unless I also quit WhatsApp. It's going to be tough. Just putting this out there for the record. 

Saturday, January 29, 2022

City of Incident: More reviews

"Sight and insight; every episode, and there are twelve interlinked ones, appears at first glance a stand-alone narrative even though the blurb advises us they are interlinked. But the interlinks are subtle and demand of the reader the embrace of that same cinematic gaze that defines the telling of this novel: the reader has to remember that a the plastic bag will reappear as a defining moment in the emotive core of other protagonists inhabiting this city whose wn core is defined by the precincts of the railway line at one end and high rise apartments at the other. In between the skywalk on which the dispossessed make their homes as ladies in their clackety-clack heels pass by. For Zaidi, this contrasting scene of poverty and middling affluence is not the site for social realism, breast-beating about the iniquities that plague the city. They are the locations of illusions, of yearnings, and glimmers of redemption from love denied or a life despised."

"Haruki Murakami once asked, “Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves.” Zaidi posits a painful answer to this question, unflinchingly marking the social divisions that proliferate her web.

Some of these social markers inevitably crisscross – like gender complicating class relations. Zaidi also pays attention to how these divisions are uniquely manifested in the space of a city, which is as merciful as alienating in its bequeathal of anonymity."

- A review of City of Incident by Gayathri Shankar in

"This sense of something just beyond — something nameless that is tantalisingly within one’s grasp, but recedes as soon as one stretches out a hand to it — unites Zaidi’s characters, all of whom labour under different forms of constraint: everyday constraints imposed by class, patriarchy, age."

- A review by Gautam Bhatia in The Hindu

"City of Incident captures the aspirations and losses of a bunch of people irrespective of their socio-economic status—there’s a trinket seller, a bank employee, a policeman, a security guard, etcetera. Most of them are unhappy in their own ways, some more than the other. As an author, Zaidi doesn’t provide her characters with many dialogues. She sets the stage simply by establishing the scene and ruminates on the peripheries that carry it forward."

"This is where people meet; this is where they fall in love and this is where they settle down. Those riding its trains, buses and ferries have their dreams too, though mostly unfulfilled. That is a given. But one cannot brush them aside or push them under the mildewing carpet of memory."

- A review by Ganesh Saili in The New Indian Express

"The narration is lively and attractive. The story is not to delve deeper into the lives but to understand the merging of the city, its color, and the people’s psyches."

"A diverse cast of characters — a cop, a bank teller, a security guard, a fragile woman having an affair, her lover, his ex-wife… — show up and, one by one, reveal parts of themselves: their thoughts, their observations, how other people see them, how they see other people, a significant life-altering incident. The local train runs in the backdrop."

Several other reviews on Goodreads: 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The heart of the republic

Freedom is not simply a matter of being fed. The technical lack of a cage also does not define freedom. She may be trained to perform on stage through a judicious mix of fear, pain and food, but a lioness balancing on a chair and being ridden by a clown cannot be called free.

Hunting and killing also do not necessarily translate to freedom. A lioness must also be free to not hunt and not kill when she chooses. One who is expected to tear into a gladiator, or an unarmed Christian convert, is no freer than the human she will kill.

Freedom, then, is a form of self-determination. Being able to make one’s own choices is vital to the process of achieving it, and inhabiting it. And what is the republic if not a human attempt towards self-determination?

Some thoughts on the republic, freedom and Born Free today in the Indian Express: 


A first review for City of Incident

"Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed.

The universality of her characters is also played out by the ordinariness of their roles. Community, caste, and religion are not the identifying features of these stories. These scenarios can belong to anyone. It comes as a shock to the reader to realise this. Everyone has a story to tell. This collection proves it as long as one is prepared to look beyond the nameless faces and make the effort to understand."

A review by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Another extract from my new novel, 'City of Incident':

Another extract from my new novel, 'City of Incident' has been published and is free to read on Do buy the book either online or in your favourite local bookstores.

This woman is so transparent, the evil eye cannot fall upon her. Perhaps the evil goes right through her body, falling on the person standing right behind her in queue for the renewal of a second-class pass.

Not that she travels second class. She travels first class, bindaas. Who can challenge her? She wears sleeveless tops and big dangly earrings, just like a college girl. She has an office job and a faux leather handbag with a Hello Kitty clasp that she polishes once a week with Brasso. Nobody would look at her and say that she doesn’t look first class. Besides, in the terrible crush of the morning, no ticket examiner dares enter the compartment. No commuter could be expected to reach into her purse to extract a ticket or a pass. All arms are trapped, pressed, and pinned down by a dozen other arms and shoulders. All the ladies must suck in their bellies and squash each other’s breasts as they make their way from seat to aisle to door. There is safety in such crowds.

Even so, she is aware that luck is on her side. Night after night, she travels in the first-class coach when it is near empty. In four years, not once has any ticket examiner shown up and asked to see her ticket.

Read more at:

Monday, January 10, 2022

Strange little security problems

Something odd has been happening with Facebook/Meta for me. Since I've not given FB permission to take all 'cookies', and since I do not accept the prompt asking me for permission to use my display picture instead of my password, it has been putting me through a 3-step login security process. Ordinarily, I wouldn't mind the extra security, but this has been disconcerting lately. First, I sometimes find that the security code shows up as wrongly. Second, I keep getting the message that this 'device' is not recognized, no matter how many times I log into the same device, and clear 'security'. 

Third, and most disconcertingly, I am offered the option of clearing security by identifying my own recent comments. A few times, I do so successfully. More often, FB informs me that my choices are incorrect even when I can swear those are the only correct choices possible. Worse, this has the effect similar to cognitive dissonance: I see a generic comment like 'many happy returns' and sure, that could be mine, but also, maybe not? Did I, or did I not, remember to wish a particular FB friend this year? It makes me very uncomfortable too, seeing comments made by other people on the walls of mutual friends, people I don't know and whose comments I would not otherwise have read.

A fourth reason I have been annoyed is that FB keeps telling me that my access is restricted when I try to comment. I am then prompted to click 'disagree with decision', which I do. I am also encouraged to go figure out why this is happening, but when I go to the relevant page, I see 'no violations'. There is no explanation for why my reach or access should be restricted when there are no violations. There is no clear and easy way of figuring out why these things happen, and I am getting very sick of 'disagreeing with decision' each time I have to say congratulations, or happy new year, or even respond to someone's comment on my own page.

I know, logically and through reading investigative news reports, that we users of social media have very little control over what we see, or how it impacts us. Knowing doesn't make it less distressing. We have all noticed already that posts involving links, or things that are shared, get little or no traction. The whole point of being on social media is that you get to share stuff that matters to you. Photos matter little to me, sharing ideas, articles, etc matter a lot. So this limited reach for 'links' is doubly infuriating. 

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that, if my reach is further restricted, please know that I have not violated anything. Or, if I decide to deactivate the account myself, as I have done before, don't be too surprised. I have zero desire to live in the metaverse and a sub-zero desire to embed fb/meta deeper into my life.

I do maintain this blog/site, and while it is no longer so active, I shall be making more of an effort to keep it updated viz my work.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

An extract from City of Incident

Here is an extract from the first chapter of City of Incident. Please read, and then please go find the book and buy it and read the whole thing. 

They carry knives, some of them. He has seen them squatting on the train floor, chopping up beans and shelling peas into plastic bags while on their way home. It is more likely one of these ladies who carry a knife while travelling than an urchin who doesn’t even have a bag to hide it in.

What else could a woman use? A hairpin, possibly. A thin, black metal hairpin. He had scratched his forearm against one such pin and had been startled at the sliver of blood it drew, for he hadn’t noticed any sharp objects on the cluster of heads surrounding him. Or perhaps it was a needle. Those are quite sharp too and the ladies do knit and crochet in the train. Or a safety pin. Yes. That is just the sort of thing a lady might do if she was sitting by herself in an empty coach. Her restless fingers would take a safety pin to the teal-blue rexine. Stick it in. Gouge. Rip it up with a wrench and a twist of her wrist.

More here: 

New book

I have a new book out. A novel about 12 characters in a metropolis, seeking balance, love, repair. 

Please buy it, ideally at a bookstore, but if you can't go out on account of the pandemic or if you want a soft copy, it is also available in both formats online. Link below. 

Buy on Amazon:,aps,205&sr=8-1

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Some more thoughts on freedom

Squeeze your lids over your irises, until the inner mirror fogs over, and say the word ‘freedom’. What image do you see?

I see a keen blue and bale upon bale of cottony white sky. Freedom to me is an unbroken expanse, full of light, full of beauty and unlimited potential. Like the sky, it is unfailingly present. Like the sky, it is simultaneously universal and particular, and forever in need of watching. It changes each hour of each day, and my slice of sky can grow black and thunderous even as it remains blue for another citizen in another town. Yet, the sky is comprised of the same materials everywhere.

What of freedom: what is it made of? 

In an article about the dangers of a philanthropy-centric approach to pressing problems rather than a rights-based one, political philosopher Gwilym David Blunt had posed an interesting question: ‘Let’s say a kindly benefactor offered you a better standard of living than that which you currently enjoy, or can realistically aspire to, and credibly promises to treat you very well. The only condition is that they would own you. Would you accept the offer?’

I know I would not. And yet, why? What is it about this word — freedom — that I am willing to pay for it with my life? Why did our ancestors pay the ultimate price? Thousands were executed in 1857 and in the 90 years that followed, tens of thousands lost precious years of youth and health as they were jailed, exiled, stripped of their properties. The word gulaam, slave, was used to describe the status of India before we won Independence in 1947. It is a question still worth asking: what made us feel enslaved?

Some thoughts on this question and what comprises freedom in this new essay in The Hindu

Friday, July 30, 2021

ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में: भगत सिंह और दत्त

'Bhagat Singh aur Dutt' another poem from 'Zabt-shuda Nazmein', also filed under 'anonymous'. I found it particularly interesting because of the way the author switches emotional register while addressing tyranny: now warning against the scorn of future citizens, now calling upon the tyrant (state) to cease his (its) tyranny, now placing hope in divine intervention, now defiant of all outcomes. The poem mentions Bhagat Singh upfront in the title and 'Dutt' probably refers to Batukeshwar Dutt, who had thrown bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly along with Bhagat Singh. 

The reference to 'Das' is probably Jatin Das, who was also jailed for his role in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. In 1929, when this poem was written and published in 'Bande Matram', Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were all on hunger strike, protesting against prison conditions. Das died in jail. Bhagat Singh was executed. Dutt was sentenced for life, but released a few years later.

'Bhagat Singh aur Dutt'

Sakhtiyon se baaz aao, hakim bedaadgar
Dard-e-dil is tarah dard-e-la-dava ho jayega

Bais-e-naaz hain Dutt, Bhagat aur Das
Inke dum se nakhl-e-azaadi haraa ho jayega

Tu nahin sunta agar fariyaad-e-mazloomaan, na sun
Mat samajh ye bhi magar bahra khuda ho jayega

Zom hai tumjhko ki tera kuch nahin sakte bigaad
Jail mein gar mar bhi jayenge to kya ho jayega

Yaad rakh mehngi padegi unki qurbani tujhe
Sarzameen-e-hind mein mahshar bapa ho jayega

Jaan bahaq ho jaaein gar shiddat se bhookh aur pyaas ki
O sitamgar jailkhaana karbala ho jayega

Khaak mein mil jayega is baat se tera vaqaar
Aur sar aqvaam bhent neecha tera ho jayega

Degi ahl-e-qaum ko dars-e-shahadat inki maut
Bachcha-bachcha hind mein dard-aashna ho jayega

Zaalim-o-jabir sab apni maut mar jayenge aap
Dahar se mafqood jor-e-naravaa ho jayega.


 'ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में' में से एक और उर्दू नज़्म। किसने लिखी है ये मालूम नहीं, किताब में 'नामालूम' लिखा हुआ है।

'भगत सिंह और दत्त'

सख़तियों से बाज़ आओ हाकिम बेदादगर
दर्द-ए-दिल इस तरह दर्द-ए-ला-दवा हो जाएगा

बाइस-ए-नाज़ हैं दत्त, भगत और दास
इनके दम से नख़्ल-ए-आज़ादी हरा हो जाएगा

तू नहीं सुनता अगर फ़रियाद-ए-मज़लूमाँ, न सुन
मत समझ ये भी मगर बहरा ख़ुदा हो जाएगा

ज़ोम है तुझको कि तेरा कुछ नहीं सकते बिगाड़
जेल में गर मर भी जाएंगे तो क्या हो जाएगा

याद रख महंगी पड़ेगी उनकी क़ुरबानी तुझे
सरज़मीं-ए-हिंद में महशर बपा हो जाएगा

जाँ ब-हक़ हो जाएँ गर शिद्दत से भूख और प्यास की
ओ सितमगर जेलख़ाना करबला हो जाएगा

ख़ाक में मिल जायगा इस बात से तेरा वक़ार
और सर अक़वाम भेंट नीचा तेरा हो जाएगा

देगी अहल-ए-क़ौम को दर्स-ए-शहादत इनकी मौत
बच्चा बच्चा हिंद में दर्द-आशना हो जाएगा

ज़ालिम-ओ-जाबिर सब अपनी मौत मर जाएंगे आप
दहर से मफ़क़ूद जोर-ए-नारवा हो जाएगा।

 - ये नज़्म 'बंदे मातरम', १९२९ में छपी थी.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Zabt-shuda nazmein: 'Muqaddama Saazish-e-Lahore ke Aseeron ki Avaaz'

This is a poem from the Urdu collection 'Zabt-shuda Nazmein'. Perhaps on account of censorship or fear of reprisals, many poets wrote anonymously. This poem has been credited to 'Namaloom' (anonymous) in the book. It was first published in 'Payaam-e-Jang' in 1930. The Editor, Narayan Singh 'Musafir', had written by way of introduction: 'This poem was read aloud by Comrade Prem Dutt, an accused in the Lahore conspiracy case, during his trial; then the other accused would also join in and start singing it'. I have transcribed it into Nagri and Roman, both versions below: 
"Muqaddama Saazish e Lahore ke Aseeron ki Avaaz"

Bharat na rah sakega hargiz ghulam-khana
Azaad hoga, hoga, aata hai vo zamaana

Ab bhed aur bakri mil kar na rah sakenge
Kar denge zaalimon ka ab band zulm dhaana

Khoon khaulne lagega hindostaaniyon ka 
Is past-himmati ka hoga kahaan thikaana 

Bharat ke hum hain bachche,bharat hamaari mata 
Iske hi vaaste hai manzoor sar kataana

Urooj-e-kamyaabi par kabhi Hindostan hoga
Bahaar aa jayegi us din apna baagbaan hoga

Chakhayenge maze barbaadi-e-gulchin ko 
Jab apni hi zameen hogi aur apna aasmaan hoga

Shaheedon ki chitaaon par lagenge har baras mele
Vatan par marne walon ka yahi namonishaan hoga


'ज़ब्त शुदा नज़्में' किताब में से एक और नज़्म। इसे किसने लिखा है ये मालूम नहीं, किताब में 'नामालूम' लिखा है।

"मुक़दम्मा साज़िश ए लाहौर के असीरों की आवाज़"

भारत ना रह सकेगा हरगिज़ ग़ुलामख़ाना
आज़ाद होगा, होगा, आता है वो ज़माना

अब भेड़ और बकरी मिल कर न रह सकेंगे
कर देंगे ज़ालिमों का अब बंद ज़ुल्म ढाना

ख़ूूँ खौलने लगेगा हिन्दोस्तानियों का
इस पस्त-हिम्मती का होगा कहाँ ठिकाना

भारत के हम हैं बच्चे भारत हमारी माता
इसके ही वास्ते है मंज़ूर सर कटाना

उरूज-ए-कामयाबी पर कभी हिन्दोस्तान होगा
बहार आ जाएगी उस दिन जब अपना बाग़बाँ होगा

चखाएंगे मज़े बर्बादी-ए-गुलशन के गुलचीं को
जब अपनी ही ज़मीं होगी और अपना आसमां होगा

शहीदों की चिताओं पर लगेंगे हर बरस मेले
वतन पर मरने वालों का यही नामोनिशां होगा।  

    ये नज़्म 'पयाम ए जंग' में १९३० में छपी थी। एडिटर नरायन सिंह 'मुसाफ़िर' ने नज़्म के ता'र्रुफ़ के तौर पे लिखा था: 'ये नज़्म कॉमरेड प्रेम दत्त, मुल्ज़िम साज़िश-ए-लाहौर, अपनी सीधी आवाज़ से मुक़द्दमे के समाहत के दौरान पढ़ा करते हैं. बादा ज़ाँ फिर तमाम मुल्ज़िम मिल कर गाते हैं।

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

A play read, at last

 When I first began work on my own, as a freelance writer, I had decided to give myself permission to write in any genre, form or style without thinking of whether it would lead to an income, or even a publishing contract or a performance. 

Not having a daily job, being free of the compulsions of form and word restrictions, I was also finally free to really think about all the things that I'd gathered over eight years of being a journalist and an observer of society. I had done some stories around children who worked as domestic workers, and while many were ill-treated and had to be rescued by social organisations, I had also observed many children growing up as employees in middle class families and not being "abused" (I use the quote marks with some deliberation, to suggest the ambiguity of familiar behaviour). Some of these kids were sent to school, or at least, were given the option of studying, usually at a government school or a cheap, private school. They ate what their employers ate, most of the time, and some of them even had a room with a modicum of privacy. Some were scolded or hit, or prevented from going out without permission, but in many Indian families, parents tended to treat their own children in similar ways. 

Those who grew up within a household of which they are a part, face a quandary. If they were good students, they might seek their employer's help to go to college, or they might want to marry and settle into families of their own making. However, their choices would be restricted by whatever ideas their employers had about deserved freedoms. In large cities, space is at a premium. Where would a young domestic worker go if she wanted to date someone? Could she afford to marry for love and/or to quit her job? 

On the other hand, where would a middle-class girl go if her parents disapproved of her lover? Apart from having a better education and a chance to find a well-paying job, is a daughter's situation so different from that of a domestic worker? Who is allowed to make mistakes, and what does nomenclature have to do with self-image?

Questions like these had been revolving around in my head for a few years and they led me to write a play, Name, Place, Animal Thing. The script was shortlisted for The Hindu playwrights' prize, and that gave me the confidence to keep writing plays. This particular script was never staged or professionally read, though. Now, nearly 11 years later, it has been read (and read very well!) at the Almeeda Theatre in the UK

A recording of the reading is up on YouTube, and is free to watch for a few days. Please click on the link below to watch.


I noticed months later that Maryam Philpott had written about this performance. Here's an extract from what she writes, and a link below:

"When men appear in this fascinating story, they create lane-changing momentum in the pace and direction of the play and Nancy’s life. Her severe Uncle Malik represents the established social order, the old world that seeks to confine Nancy within a religious and political structure that sees marriage as the ultimate outcome for a woman. Malik’s personality and belief in his absolute righteousness defines the play, motoring the action that, prior to and during this story, shape his family so completely – especially the haunting presence of his daughter lost shortly before Nancy took the same treacherous path.

But other men provide direction as well, not least Nancy’s ineffectual rubbish collector husband who appears more than once to demand the return of his wife as property and to plead his cause, while a clothing salesman’s alluring patter charms the homely women of the play in a variety of ways. What is clear is that none of these men have the best interests of the womenfolk in mind and, young or old, these men prioritise their own happiness and sense of propriety such as it is with fateful effects."

The full article here:

Friday, May 21, 2021



ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों की राह में
अभी नमूद-ए-ज़िन्दगी बसी ना थी निगाह में
अभी दरीचा-ए-सहर खुला ना था
अभी फ़सूं-ए-तीरगी मिटा ना था
सुकूत में ज़माना था
अभी गुज़र रहे थे हम जवार-ए-रज़्मगाह में
ये किसने लाश फ़ेंक दी जवानियों की राह में

ये ख़ून-ए-इश्क-ओ-आह था
ये शाम-ए-ग़म का अक्स था, ये एक इन्तबा था
सितमगरों के तरकशों का तीर था
मगर बारह-ए-मस्लेहत
अभी ये सख़्त चुटकियों के पेच में असीर था
के अब गुज़र रहे थे हम नुमाइश-ए-सिपाह में
हुजूम-ए-इश्क-ओ-आह में
ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों क राह में

हमीं इसे कुचल ना दें अभी यहीं
ये रौंदने की चीज़ क्यूँ बने अमानत-ए-ज़मीन
नहीं, नहीं!!
बढ़े चलो, बढ़े चलो, कुचल भी दो
ख़ज़ाँ का ग़ुंचा है ये लाश हाँ इसे मसल भी दो!
मगर ये किस की लाश थी के बेड़ियाँ
पड़ी हैं अब भी पाँव में?
ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों की राह में?
सितम की धूप छाओं में 
बढ़े चलो, बढ़े चलो, कुचल भी दो 
ख़ज़ाँ का ग़ुंचा है ये लाश हाँ इसे मसल भी दो
ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों की राह में?
ये मौत का मजस्समा डरा रहा है देर से
लहू में तर-बतर है सर से पाँव तक
जमे हुए लहू में है मेरे ही ख़ून की महक
कोई अज़ीज़ तो नहीं?
मगर, कटे हुए सरों में कुछ तमीज़ तो नहीं
कोई भी हो अज़ीज़ है
कि इस जरी ने जान दी है जश्न-ए-रज़्मगाह में
ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों की राह में?

ये दौर अपने आश्रम को छोड़ कर 
ये अपने टूटे झोंपड़े से अपने मुँह को मोड़ कर 
ये ज़ुल्म-ओ-जौर की भरी कलाइयाँ मरोड़ कर 
निकल पड़ा 
अँधेरी रात थी मगर ये चल पड़ा 
कोई भी हो अज़ीज़ 
के इस जरी ने जान दी है जश्न-ए-रज़्मगाह में 
ये किसने लाश फेंक दी जवानियों की राह में?

- अली जवाद ज़ैदी  (लखनऊ 1943) (From  तेश-ए-आवाज़, page 48)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Notes on a Loveless Land

When the traffic light turned red, kids would dart up. Peering into the auto-rickshaw, tapping at the cab window, they offered a dozen roses for a hundred rupees.

“Okay, fifty... Thirty! Only thirty, Aunty!... Didi!”

Some people said, the flowers are so cheap because they’ve been stolen from graveyards. Anyhow, it was possible to buy cheap roses on the streets of Mumbai. At a roadside florists’, wrapped in cellophane and bunched with a sprig of delphinium or myrtle, a dozen cut roses could be had for a couple of hundred rupees, but you could pay as much as five, six, seven hundred on Valentine’s Day.

One of the odd things about the roses sold on the street was that they did not smell like rose. They did not smell of death either. They smelt of a vacuum.


February 2017, Mumbai: Churchgate, a train station that reportedly serves hundreds of thousands of passengers on weekdays, had been the chosen venue for the re-branding of February 14 as Matru Pita Pujan Divas. Mother Father Worship Day. Commuters were greeted with billboards with an idealized image of a family: Mummy and Papa sit on chairs while two teenage children kneel on the floor. Boy’s head on father’s knee, girl’s head on mother’s knee. They were careful to keep the sexes apart even within the confines of a tiny nuclear family. ‘Valentine's Day’, appearing in small font in a corner, was crossed out with an X. For more information, we were urged to visit

Headlining this advertisement was the face of Asaram Bapu, a religious leader with millions of followers that had once included the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Asaram – Asumal Sirumalani before he acquitted the suffix “Bapu” or father – was the ‘Godman’ who, after the horrific gangrape of Jyoti Pandey ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi in 2012, declared that the victim too had been at fault. To avoid rape, he said, we should address would-be rapists as “brother” and beg them to stop.

In 2017, Asaram was already in jail, accused of raping minors. The allegations against him left a bloody trail with witnesses dying as the cases dragged on in court. In at least one case, a teenager was raped because her parents were in the habit of obeying the religious leader without question; they allowed him to take the girl into a room alone, so he could ‘heal’ her unobserved. Now, there was his face, at one of Mumbai’s busiest railway stations, instructing citizens to reject Valentine’s Day, and to plug the love-shaped hole in our souls with worshipful obedience.

In April 2018, Asaram was convicted for the rape of a minor and sentenced to life in prison. His lawyers said they would appeal to a higher court. In September 2018, he sent a mercy petition to the Governor of the state of Rajasthan. Millions of followers were reportedly praying for him. Some prayed to him, bowing to his image as one would bow before a deity. In January 2021, he was applying for temporarybail in another ongoing rape trial. Weeks before, police officials in Uttar Pradesh had allowed a religiousfunction within the Shahjahanpur jail premises, including a banner featuringAsaram’s face.

Meanwhile, Asaram’s son Narayan Sai, who also lived as a self-styled spiritual leader as his father did, was also accused of rape. In April 2019, Narayan Sai too was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In October 2020, he was discovered to be in possession ofa mobile phone inside prison.  In December 2020, he was granted furlough by the Gujarat High Court.

Something else had happened in February 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photograph appeared in a newspaper advertisement that promised the formation of “Anti-Romeo” squads. The Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were around the corner and the BJP election manifesto included the promise of creating such squads that would police thepresence of young men outside girls’ colleges.

Commercial outfits took their cue and shifted tone. On February 14 that year, there were commercial advertisements in the newspaper asking readers to show love to their children, rather than to their partners.

In 2017, there were reports of men affiliated with the Bajrang Dal, a religious organization, assaultingcouples in many different parts of the country. There were no further reports about whether these men had been arrested, and whether or not the state was pressing charges against them.

One of India’s largest and most populous states, Uttar Pradesh voted the BJP to power. The man picked to be Chief Minister was a monk, Yogi Adityanath, and one of the first things he did after taking office was the “Anti-Romeo” squads. Each squad would have one police officer of sub-inspector rank and four constables. News reports quoted members of the police force as saying that they intend to “cleanse” the city. Young couples hanging out in parks and shopping malls were described as “offenders” who would be “punished”.

Some of the cops reportedly told journalists that they could tell a “Romeo” from the look in his eyes. It was an odd sort of claim to make. No cop claims to be able to tell murderers and rapists by the look in their eyes. What look is this that betrays itself so easily? Could it be the undisguised look of love? 


Much before February 14 turned into a battlefield for the heart of India, for me, the day had been truly associated with parental love. It was my mother who taught me and my brother to cut red velvet paper in the shape of hearts and make cards on February 14. It was just one of the many creative things she did to make our lives a bit less dull. Still, even as a child, I was aware that this festival was different from religious or nationalist celebrations. You didn’t give Valentines to all and sundry; you chose the recipients of your affection. 

Until the 1980s, Valentine’s Day celebrations were limited to a handful of families in India. In the 1990s, global commerce began to nudge us more insistently in the direction of chocolate, flowers, diamonds, red faux-velvet cushions, stuffed teddy bears holding red heart-shaped cushions, jewellery shaped like a golden teddy bear holding a little diamond heart. Restaurants began to advertise date nights with special décor. By the late ’90s, political and right-wing groups began to react sharply, decrying these tokens of romance as being foreign to Indian culture. In Mumbai, the charge was led by the Shiv Sena, which had risen to power riding on nativist sentiments.

In February 2001, for the first and only time in my life, I bought flowers for a man outside my family. The office was paying. I was a cub reporter working with Mid-Day at the time and the Sena was warning against Valentine's Day celebrations in Mumbai. Stores and restaurants were warned against changing décor and a few shopfronts were smashed. During an editorial meeting, it was jokingly suggested that a Valentine be sent to Balasaheb. Bal Thackeray, Balasaheb to supporters, was the Shiv Sena Supremo at the time. The editor said to me, go do it.

So there I was, buying flowers and a giant Hallmarks’ style card, which I had inscribed with messages from young people across the city. On my way to Balasaheb’s residence, I struggled to keep the nervousness off my face. I was trailed by a staff photographer, visibly more nervous than I.

We didn't expect to make it past security. Half a dozen men sat clumped together at the gate and they asked what we wanted. I said, we were here to meet Balasaheb. Somehow, the men didn't connect the flowers I held with Valentine's Day; they just asked if we had an appointment. I said, no, but we’d like to try our luck. They shrugged and waved us in. A member of the staff answered the door and informed me that Balasaheb was taking his afternoon siesta. I breathed a sigh of relief, handed over the flowers and card, and fled. 

The next day, the newspaper published a photo of me standing outside that door alongside a story of how young people wanted to send across the message that they just want to live and love in peace. I never went back to meet Balasaheb. I was too afraid. I still am, even though he has been dead a few years. The Shiv Sena has not publicly reversed its stand on Valentine’s Day and anti-love rhetoric has since entered the political mainstream.

Over the last few years, a WhatsApp forward has been doing the rounds in India. It shows an image of Bhagat Singh, an instantly recognisable freedom fighter executed by the British colonial government in 1931, accompanied by a scoldy message saying that it was on this date Bhagat Singh were martyred but all you want is to celebrate Valentine's Day. This was a patent falsehood. Bhagat Singh was executed on March 23, not on February 14. 

I considered sending a response to the person who sent me the message, pointing out that, as per legend, Saint Valentine was also a sort of martyr: he risked his life doing what felt right in defiance of the establishment. Surely that was worth celebrating? I didn't bother though. I was afraid of being dismissed as “westernised”, or worse, a Macaulay-putri. A daughter of Macaulay. One whose mind has been colonised.

Meanwhile, Pakistan once again demonstrated that it was India’s sibling nation. In 2017, the Islamabad High Court issued a diktat against celebrating Valentine’s Day in response to a petition arguing that it is against Islamic teachings. The judges did not see fit to remind the petitioner that Islam defines marriage as a contract by mutual consent, and that there’s no religious injunction against the purchase of teddy bears, heart-shaped balloons, or roses. 


Inside the safety of my own head, I build arguments. What is so ‘foreign’ about roses? 

Heavily fragrant, blood red desi roses are woven with jasmine into a sehra, a flowery veil worn by bridegrooms at weddings in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Roses are woven into wedding garlands. Rose petals are strewn on the bed for a couple’s first wedded night together. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru used to wear a red rose on his jacket. Rose petals are showered over the heads of leaders during political rallies. Rose gardens exist in several Indian cities. Roses are cultivated in household gardens and potted in balconies.

Nobody’s got anything against chocolate either. On festivals like Diwali, Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi, even conservative families exchange boxes of chocolate in addition to Indian sweets, which are harder to prepare and more expensive. On birthdays, schoolkids distribute chocolate rather than traditional Indian sweets.

The most conservative Indian families have nothing against furry teddy toys; diamonds are perfectly acceptable too. The objection, therefore, is not to Western cultural motifs. All the symbols associated with love, even in commercialised formats borrowed from the West, have been embraced warmly by Indian families so long as these motifs are divorced from individual love. It was, therefore, love itself that was being denounced as ‘foreign’.

How so? In my head, I argue: what are you going to do with the body of evidence that is ancient Indian love poetry? Ignore cultural influences brought into India by the Arabs, Turks, Persians, Mongols, Abyssinians, Portuguese, French and English, but you must contend with ancient verses in Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil. The Sangam era literature is full of romantic dalliance and transgression. Ancient Indian poetry describes soft, rounded bellies and breasts; eyes were likened to lotuses, rainy seasons and absent lovers; parrots and clouds carried messages to the beloved.

If conservative groups are troubled by the foreignness of Valentine’s Day symbols, they should find it easy to counter. Arrows tipped with marigold flowers could be exchanged instead of greeting cards. They could write Sanskrit verses on palm-leaf stationery. They could offer paan (betel leaf rolled with sugared rose petals) instead of chocolate.

The Hindu pantheon is vast. It includes Kama Dev, the god of love and desire. His consort, Rati, is a goddess associated with beauty. Why not celebrate a Kama-Rati festival on February 14, instead of worshipful obedience to parents? Any politician who wished to counter Western cultural influence could have put up a show of spirited defiance and initiated a Kama-Rati festival on February 14. He, or she, could invite all members of Parliament and state legislatures to join in the celebrations. If foreignness was the bogey, it was easily beaten. The true bogey, however, is the sort of love that comes with sexual consent.

Politicians could, if they chose to, take a leaf out of the playbook of The Indian Lovers Party (ILP), a political outfit based in Tamil Nadu. It believes in the right of citizens to marry whoever they like, and also lists global warming as one of its chief concerns. It exhorts lovers to plant trees on February 14. The party’s manifesto includes the promise of a gold ring to babies born to “lover couples” on Valentine's Day. The founder, Kumar Sri Sri, has said that he formed the party on February 14, 2008, with a view to remove the sufferings of 300,000,000 Indian lovers, though it is not clear how he arrived at this figure.

The ILP party has never won an election though. Kumar received less than 5,000 votes in the 2014 general election and only about 3,000 votes in the state assembly elections. The party symbol is, predictably, a heart. There is an image of the Taj Mahal, the Mughal tomb widely recognized as a monument to love, ensconced within a heart, pierced by a symbolic arrow.

At the time of writing this, the party’s website appears to be defunct. There is no word on whether or not the party intends to continue its electoral campaigns. Journalists do not seek serious commentary from the party’s founder or members on the legislation and constriction of marital choice, or on state-funded institutions interfering with Valentine’s Day celebrations.

In February 2013, multiple colleges in Hubli, Karnataka, decided to ban Valentine’s Day celebrations on campus. There had been attacks by miscreants in previous years and, instead of upping security and insisting on the rights of students to express love on this day, or any other, the college administrators decided to clamp down on non-violent students. 

In February 2018, Lucknow University, one of India’s largest and oldest institutions of higher learning, issued an order that students must not come to the campus on February 14. Officially, it was meant to be a holiday for Maha Shivratri, so there would be no classes, no cultural activities, and no exams. However, parents were warned against sending their wards to college on the day. Students who showed up were threatened with disciplinary action

In February 2020, female students of the Mahila Arts and Commerce College in Amravati, Maharashtra were made to take a peculiar pledge on February 14. They were made to swear that they would not have a “love marriage”.


In the course of a creative writing workshop, I had once asked students to write about something that troubled them. One young woman wrote a story about a bright, compassionate teenage couple that gets expelled from college after the security guard sees them holding hands.

In co-educational schools, it is not uncommon to have boys and girls sit on separate sides of a classroom. Some high schools impose rules like asking boys and girls to use separate sets of staircases. One of my workshop students told me of a school that had installed a glass partition in the classroom with boys seated on one side, girls on the other. No touching, not even by accident. 

The student who wrote a story about the kids expelled for falling in love resolved the conflict through suicide. She was not being dramatic. It was perfectly logical, given the lived experiences of millions of young people. Of the reported suicides in India, the single largest cause is the amorphous term “family problems” (32.4%), while “marriage related issues” (5.5%) and “love affairs” (4.5%) are other major factors. These numbers suggest that far more people kill themselves for the lack of love, or an inability to look forward to a joyful family life, than on account of poverty, unemployment or indebtedness. Girls under 18 and young women under 30 years of age figure in higher numbers than older women, and“housewives” comprise the largest group that died by suicide, followed by“students”

Hundreds of young people are killed if they do not obey their families in matrimonial matters, though there is considerable underreporting of such crimes. While 356 cases were documentedas ‘honour’ killings between 2014-16, only 30 such murders were recorded in 2018, and 24 cases in 2019. However, there is no record of murder if neither family reports it to the police. Consider the case of the high school student strangled allegedly by her family in Bihar in April 2017. She had been trying to run away with a schoolmate when they caught her. Her killers were going to set her body on fire and were prevented from doing so only because the police showed up just in time. Once the body was destroyed, all evidence of crime would go up in smoke. It was unlikely her family would even have reported her as missing.

Each week brings fresh accounts of such murders. In December 2020 alone, three suspected cases were reported in the newspapers. A young man of 27 was hacked to death in Kerala. He had married a young woman against her family’s wishes. Reports suggested the couple had been in love as schoolmates and had finally decided to get their marriage registered in September. They were both Hindu, but of different castes. In another case, a woman of 24 was shot dead, allegedly by her own family members in Uttar Pradesh. Same religion, different castes. Reports said, her family didn’t agree to the match even though their relationship had lasted eight years. In June, the couple married at a temple. By December, she was dead. In the third instance, in Bihar, a boy of 16 was reportedly hacked to death and his body dumped in a river. He had been in love with a girl of another caste.  

Such murders are reported from all over the country, usually as brief items on the inside pages of the newspaper. The reports offer sketchy details such as the ages of the victims and their community affiliations. In many instances, there is murder even before young citizens have made a definitive choice. In April 2017, a boy of 19 was beaten to death in Jharkhand simply because he seemed to be interested in a girl of 15. It wasn’t clear that they were romantically involved or whether they simply wanted to get to know each other. Reports said that it was the girl who had called, asking the boy to come and meet her. The boy was Muslim, the girl was not. In another such case from Uttar Pradesh, in July 2016, a boy of 14 (or 16, depending on the newspaper you read) was killed for developing a relationship with a neighbour’s daughter. Different religions. The parents made no allowances for natural affinity and empathy and a childhood spent in friendship.

One doesn’t need to to fall in love across religious lines to attract violence. In October 2016, a boy of 20 and a girl of 16 were found hanging from a tree in the state of Odisha. He was Hindu, reportedly backward caste. She belonged to one of the scheduled tribes, which are broadly accepted as being within the Hindu fold, though their religious practices are different. The boy’s father insisted that it was not a double suicide, as was suggested in the early days of the investigation. 

Some killings are neither about religion nor endogamy but complex exogamy rules. In 2020, a young woman was killed for marrying a man of the same gotra. Reports said the parents drove 80 km with her body in the rear seat of their car, before dumping her unceremoniously into a canal.

Other killings are on account of regional or linguistic differences. In May 2017, a young woman's parents entered her home with a stranger who shot her husband dead. She was Hindu, north Indian. Her husband was Hindu, south Indian. The daughter had already signed away all claims to wealth that she may have inherited. Yet, her family could not bear to let her go and seek her own happiness.

What these cases have in common is the parents’ disrespect for the sexual choices made by their children. However, if elders do not violently prevent a match, they themselves are at risk of being killed. In 2017, an elderly couple in Bihar was lynched by a mob after their grandson eloped with a girl from another caste.

Often, young lovers lose hope when faced with unending disapproval and the prospect of a forced separation. In February 2018, young lovers from Jalna, a small town in Maharashtra, who had gone missing on Valentine’s Day were found dead a few days later, with a bottle of poison and a note affirming their love. The parents of the girl, who was 17, had filed a kidnapping case against the young man. In Assam, another couple reportedly killed themselves after celebrating Valentine’s Day together. Both were 26 years old.

In February 2017, a young couple in Kerala was harassed and filmed when they were out on a beach on Valentine’s Day. The mob humiliated the young woman and assaulted the young man when he tried to stand up for her. A few days later, he killed himself


Kerala does better than most Indian states on most human development indices. It has a 99.5 percent female literacy rate, the highest in the country, and only 0.9% of girls under 18 are already married in the state.

However, Kerala is also where young couples were caned by political activists in the presence of the police and journalists. The man who led the attack was 57 years old and had reportedly been arrested before for molesting a disabled woman. In November 2014, a Kiss of Love protest was initiated in Kerala to push back against several instances of “moral policing”, or more accurately, the harassment of men and women who happened to be out in public, either displaying some sign of affection, or taking a walk together, or even riding pillion on a bike. In once such incident, in 2013, a boy of 19 was killed in an accident after being chased by a mob of men, while his girlfriend rode pillion behind him. 

Both religious and political outfits in Kerala were threatening to physically prevent people from kissing or hugging during this protest march. The state police responded by arresting the advocates of love. 

Kerala was also where a student organisation initiated a website for inter-caste and inter-faith marriage: was launched in 2014, and was hacked within hours of the launch.

Kerala is also where a girl of 21 was detained by the cops on charges of child abuse. Her boyfriend was 17 and she had moved in with him. His mom complained that her son was being sexually assaulted since he was under the legal age for marriage, which is 21 years for boys in India. 

Kerala is where a student of homeopathy converted to Islam. Akhila chose to become Hadiya, and she went looking for love. She found it in Shefin Jahan, a Muslim man, and all hell broke loose. Her parents accused her husband of having links with the dreaded terrorist organisation, ISIS. They said she was brainwashed and didn't know what she was doing. The National Investigative Agency was involved. The matter went first to the High Court and then the Supreme Court. The Kerala High Court annulled her marriage and awarded custody to her father. She was 25 years old at this time.

The case was appealed and state investigators argued before the highest court in the land that this young woman was a victim of “psychological kidnapping”. She fought legally to recover her personhood and, in March 2018, the Supreme Court restored her marriage. However, in the interim, it also advised her to return to her hostel rather than her husband's home.

At one point, her father had asked members of Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre, a Hindu organisation, to prevail upon her. Hadiya accused them of “torturing” her and trying to convert her back to Hinduism against her will. Akhila/Hadiya's father claims to be an atheist.

In recent years, there have been blatant attempts by certain groups to prevent inter-faith marriages where the groom is a Muslim man by keeping tabs on marriage notices posted at the registration office, and sharing private information on social media, while inciting people to forcibly separate couples.

In March 2020, the Kerala state government announced that it would open ‘safe houses’ for inter-faith couples and when one such couple was threatened after announcing their declaration to marry under the Special Marriage Act, as is currently required by law, the state decided to stop a public display of such announcements.

At the time of writing this, was up for sale. The domain owner was offering it up for USD 997. 


The Indian Constitution is supposed to have sought inspiration from the Constitutions of various modern democracies. It allows us many fundamental rights and freedoms but it does not speak of the pursuit of happiness.

It is not uncommon to hear elders in an Indian family say: What is this nonsense about happiness? You think you can be happy? The purpose of marriage, they are likely to say, is not happiness; it is perpetuation of the self, with all its privilege and prejudice intact. Clans decide: who is chosen, how s/he should behave, how much money must be spent on the wedding, under what circumstances can the union be dissolved. Negotiations between clans are controlled by a complex schema of socio-economic hierarchy. Every group has been assigned a fixed place and nobody must attempt to rise above their place by mingling with their social superiors.

In such a social environment, love is a four-letter word. It is the freak gene in the body of the nation. A tic that can't be controlled. It will not do as Papa wants. It will not kneel to Mamma’s wishes. Maternal love and paternal love are lauded but these relationships do not entail mutual respect and equal rights. Love for the homeland is tolerated as long as its manifestation is limited to observances such as standing up for the national anthem, or saluting the armed forces. To ask citizens to think about what true love entails can be construed as treachery.

Riot is another four-letter word, often triggered by rumours that a girl was harassed by one or more boys of the other community. Young people are often dissuaded from loving relationships through threats that their union would lead to communal riots; it is understood that innocents get murdered and raped during riots.

The few who dare to dream of consensual sexual relationships run grave risks. There is the ever-present threat of murder of course, but there is also the threat of rape with no legal recourse. An increasing number of Hindu vigilante groups have taken it upon themselves to prevent legal marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men. They do this through setting up a network of informers in the courts where such marriages can be registered, as well as through infiltrating young people’s social groups to spy on them. There is no remorse and, with new legal ordnances in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh against religious conversions for or on account of marriages, they have been emboldened to not only prevent inter-faith marriages but to actively hunt down couples and report them to the police.

Reports suggest that volunteers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have “intervened” and “picked up” women who go to courts to get their marriages registered. They proudly declare that they intervene in similar ways every other day. One volunteer claimed that after forcibly separating the couple, they “get the woman married off to a Hindu from our own group”. He freely admits to using force, and that the girl did not consent. 

The opposite of sexual consent is another four-letter word. Rape is a crime in law, except when the perpetrator is married to the victim. The 2015 National Family Health Survey reports that at least 9 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 had faced sexual violence and in this category, 90 percent had been assaulted by a current or former spouse. Some reports even suggest that more women end up in hospitals with injuries suggesting sexual assault during India’s wedding season.

Rape is also a legal trick used by clans against consenting lovers. A significant proportion of rape and abduction cases have been discovered to be filed by parents of girls and womenwho elope and want to get married to men of their own choosing.

In such a climate, that there should be a group called Love Commandos is the hurrah of life. A volunteer-led group, Love Commandos offers support to couples who want to marry for love. They offer an emergency phone contact, and temporary shelter. Their website ( says that they do not intervene with parents. They place their faith in the Constitution and the law courts. They also make it clear that they do not cater to minors or unemployed youths. Which is to say, you cannot be clothed and housed and fed indefinitely.

What happens to young lovers who do not yet have jobs, as indeed most do not, when they are between 18 and 21 years old? How long can they hope to keep their bodies intact, without the help of their own families or clan networks? 

Much of India therefore sticks to cautious marriages where sex can be taken for granted (only by men) and affection is a chancy bonus. It prefers marriages that are hard to walk out of, with the shadows of two extended clans and millions of caste members standing at the door, not to mention the weight of jewels, houses and cars extracted as dowries. The Lok Foundation-Oxford University multi-year youth survey suggests that 93 percent of urban Indians have had arranged marriages. Only 3 percent of the respondents said they had a “love marriage” while a lucky 2 percent had a “love-cum-arranged” match, that is, they fell in love with the person their parents chose for them. 

Growing urbanization and new technologies have not changed social norms significantly. The rates of “arranged” marriage remained over 90 percent, regardless of whether the respondents are in their 80s or their 20s, and the overwhelming majority marry within their own caste.  What’s more, an overwhelming number of young people do not appear to be striving for change. A survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung suggests that 24 percent of Indians between the ages of 15 and 34 are “extremely patriarchal”, that 53 percent disapprove of dating, and 45 percent disapprove of inter-religious marriage. Another study, conducted by the University of Maryland, found that 74 percent of Indian women need permission from parents, husbands or in-laws to go somewhere, even if it is just to see a doctor, and 58 percent need permission to go to the grocery store. Only 5 percent of Indian women surveyed felt they had any real control over who they married.

According to the National Family and Health Survey of 2016, about 27 percent of Indian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were not yet 18 when they married. Even among those who were not legally underage, the question of choice was fraught. The new mean age of marriage for Indian women (Sample Registration Survey 2018) is about 22. This data suggests that girls are marrying later, perhaps gaining at least a school education if not a college degree. However, there is significant pushback on the question of choosing who to love.

In May 2018, one of India's elected representatives more or less advocated child marriage, saying that more young people are straying and there are “accidents like Love Jihad” because they aren’t married whilst they’re still too young to decide. The state of Madhya Pradesh is now contemplating new laws to raise the minimum age of marriage for women to 21. In theory, this makes for a more egalitarian system, since it removes the legal age difference between the sexes. However, there is no law in this state, or elsewhere in India, which specifically gives girls and young women the right to live separate from their parents, and to shun their guardianship in the event that they choose to form romantic or sexual partnerships before marriage.


A few years ago, I was out for a late-night stroll on the promenade with a group of visiting writers in Mumbai. They drifted off one by one, until there was just me and one other, a man. There was a police station across the road, so I had assumed that this was a safe spot. A group of cops was parked just a few feet away, enjoying the sea breeze and drinking cups of lukewarm tea brought by vendors who went about on bicycles well past midnight.

As we strolled past, the cops asked me to go home. I asked, why? They said, “You shouldn't be out this late. If something bad happens to you, you will blame us.”

I didn't ask why something bad would happen to me when the police station was right there, in plain sight, and uniformed men sworn to protect me parked just a few feet away. I went home without argument.

Another writer friend told me about the time she was kissing a young man and was confronted by cops in a Delhi park. They accused her of obscene behaviour. The phrase “chumma-chaati” was used. Literally, it means kissing-licking and is used with a note of disparagement. It happened years ago and she could laugh when she told the story. The truth is, she knew that she barely escaped being detained

An enquiry or suspension of cops in one district does not deter cops elsewhere. No government is willing to take a clear stand on the question of citizens’ right to public spaces, and the right to experience and express love. There is a broad, ill-defined law against ‘obscenity’ that can be stretched all the way from kissing to hugging to holding hands or eating an ice-cream on the promenade. The police and elected governments take their cues from what the majority chooses to punish.

In May 2018, a couple was beaten up by their co-passengers in the Kolkata metro rail for either “standing too close” or hugging. There were no further reports about the attackers, or about whether or not the state police prosecuted them for assault.

Also in May 2018, a Christian youth was killed in Kerala and his body tossed into a canal. He had married just a few days before. The girl was also Christian, but from an upper caste family. The girl was a legal adult, yet she was summoned to the police station where her family tried to forcibly take her back home, in the presence of the police.

Reports do not tell us that the police prosecuted the parents for trying to interfere with an adult citizen’s marital choices.


The state never talks of consent. There is no talk of seeking, and giving, sexual consent in schools and colleges. There is no talk of sexual consent in religious discourse. It is as if our leadership – not just politicians but leaders in faith, in education, even in business – finds the idea of female consent to be a dangerous one.

Instead, elected representatives talk of keeping women safe by “parking them at home” as if they were cars. They blame rape on Chinese food, or women for adopting “Western” clothes. Most recently, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh even suggested that all “working” women, that is, those who have paid jobs to go to, register themselves with the police so that they can be tracked wherever they go.

Where the state cannot control women’s choices legally, it allows extra-legal forms of control to flourish. It used to be that one could escape the stranglehold of the orthodoxy in rural areas by moving to cosmopolitan cities. That was one reason why Dr B.R. Ambedkar had urged Dalits to move into cities, to escape the stranglehold of local caste networks. However, there are reports of landlords refusing to lease out homes based on religion, caste, diet and marital choices. Singles, quaintly described as bachelors or bachelor ladies, are unwelcome too.

Some real estate rentals spell it out clearly: “families only”, which translates to married heterosexual couples, ideally with kids. Family is thus understood to be a unit where you are not free to choose the person you live with; it is a unit where you can be labelled appropriately. This is a form of housing discrimination that targets multiple groups, including sexual minorities, singles, people who choose to walk out of unhappy or abusive marriages, or couples who do not believe in legalizing their status.

There are other forms of indirect control over young people’s sexual choices. If you were a jobless young lover, your best bet of safety lay in a city where you could live independent of parental control. However, you’d have to live in a slum, and even that could turn out to be a costly affair. There is no unemployment dole in lieu of a minimum wage, no social security that can be de-linked from your family, no council housing that allows you to live without family support. You’d have no clean water, no guarantee of electricity, no easy access to a toilet. You might die of cholera or dengue before your own clan hunted you down.

A tiny fraction of the population feels free to marry who it will. The rest focus their energies on not letting anybody get above themselves in the social order. Even this tiny fraction barricades itself against the threat of disruptions of class via love. Clothes, address, furniture, accent, leisure habits, food choices give us away. Within the educated middle class, we hear barely disguised cries of outrage when a ‘pretender’ surfaces: someone who dresses better than her job ought to allow, someone who uses an ambiguous surname that doesn't immediately betray his religion or caste origins. When the discovery is made, those higher up on the ladder feel wounded. As if poverty or social ambition were evidence that the beloved had no feelings to begin with, as if no true love was possible between those who belong to different social strata. As if the very opposite were not true: those who look for surnames and house addresses that betray social origin are handicapped for love. 

One is not supposed to say things like this among friends. One raises a brow when one hears of affairs that involve the giving up of privilege, the giving up of inherited wealth, the giving up everything except the beloved. I have never heard such choices being lauded in public discourse or in private conversations.

Now, the country finds itself at a pass where not only are couples targeted for marrying someone their families disapprove of, but hanging out with friends across community lines can lead assault, lynching or arrest. In 2015, a bunch of students posing for a photograph led to a violent attack. In the photo, a young man sprawls playfully across the laps of four girls. One of other boys who also appears in the picture, sitting nearby, was Muslim. He was hunted down by a gang in Mangalore, driven to an isolated location and badly beaten, although there was no indication that he was involved with any of those girls. 

In May 2018, another Muslim youth came within inches of his life when he went to meet a girl in Uttarakhand. He was saved from a potential lynching by a mob because a police officer stepped in. The Sikh cop turned into an overnight celebrity. He appeared as a last spark of hope. His name and image were circulated on social media as representative of the best among us. The photograph that went “viral” showed the young man with his skinny arms wrapped around the cop.

In February 2020, a Dalit youth in Rajasthan was allegedly beaten up and his head partly tonsured when he went to meet a female friend from an upper caste family. 

By the end of the year, a 17 year old boy was first attacked by a group of people, then arrested under the new Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion ordinance. He had simply been walkinga female friend home. He remains in jail, despite the teenage girl and her mother’s protests that she was neither abducted, nor allured, nor had there been any intention to elope.

What are these young citizens’ thoughts on Valentine’s Day? Do they quake and crouch in terror? Drained of all hopes of love, do their beings fill up with the great rush of worshipful obedience?


The rhetoric against Valentine’s Day is kept alive by one group or the other. In 2020, ‘warnings’ were issued by the Hindu Sena in Coimbatore, and Delhi.

The Bajrang Dal has continued to issue warnings against Valentine’s Day celebrations, and continued to harass citizens in 2018 and 2020.

In 2018, the Hindu Kalyan Mahasabha had organized a ‘lathh puja’ or a symbolic worship of sticks, as a warning against Valentine’s Day.  The same year, the Bharat Hindu Front “married” a dog to a donkey, with some of the group’s members claiming that this sort of union was equivalent to people marrying across caste or religious lines. It was as bald a claim as could be that they do not see members of different castes or faiths as fully human, or members of the same species. There was no response from the State, asserting anything to the contrary. 

There is not one cabinet minister or leading politician from any national political party who has declared unequivocally that women are free to love whoever they choose, that those who defy their families deserve respect and protection, and that parents and clans will just have to lump it, else they will be punished severely. Our political leadership does not say to us that love is necessary, that life can be painful for the lack of it. Nobody stands up for the right to be out celebrating on Valentine’s Day.

The nation’s women continue to be exposed to furtive touch, irresponsible touch, unwanted, violent touch. They are never told that they must insist on consensual touch, always. They are never reassured that, for all its thorns, life can also bring roses. They are never promised fragrance and sweetness. Not even on one day of the year. 


 This essay was first published in Scroll:

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