Sunday, June 17, 2018

Feed the nation's heart

The way to a man's heart, they say, is through the stomach. The way to keeping a nation's heart healthy is also sort of through the stomach. As long as people can invite each other to a meal in a civilised fashion, there is hope that their politics will remain civilised. The tradition of iftaar parties hosted by political leaders and prominent office bearers such as the President of India, has been part of an attempt to enact this civility. 

The most important iftaars are not hosted by Muslim leaders. They are hosted by those who neither observe Ramzaan nor celebrate Eid in their own homes. By hosting an iftaar, they merely indicate that they are mindful of Muslim citizens, that they are willing to share in their joys. The unspoken implication is that their sorrows and fears will not be dismissed. 

Some politicians put on a white cap, often associated with Muslim men, or a checkered scarf for that one evening and there has been criticism of such symbolism. After all, if you are not going to make the socio-political environment any safer for the minorities, why bother with caps? Even so, the wearing of the cap and scarf signals that the wearer is willing to listen, that he is willing to imagine the grief and loss caused through political (in)action. It signals that he counts diverse threads in the warp and weft of the fabric of his motherland.

When a political party, elected leaders or the President refuse to host an iftaar, they signal the opposite. The message that goes out is: We don't care; you are irrelevant
When a leader is happy to be photographed in every sort of headgear with the sole exception of a white cap associated with Indian Muslims, a message goes out: You will be isolated and rejected. And when senior ministers fail to show up at an iftaar hosted by our First Citizen, the signal that goes out is: You will be dishonoured

In contrast, politicians invite themselves over at the homes of Dalit citizens. Food and caste taboos remain strong in our nation and, despite legislation forbidding discrimination, we continue to hear of upper castes refusing to eat food cooked by Dalits, or refusing to use the same plates and glasses. Eating a meal cooked by Dalits is a way of signalling: I reject caste taboos.

Bringing along food packets, or food that the unsuspecting host cannot really afford to provide, to the home of a Dalit so that cameras can duly record the meal, is an insult. Still, the trick is played because it is worth playing. The signal that goes out is: We will make efforts to keep Dalits on our side, even if we do not disrupt caste hierarchies.

Political symbolism is not empty of consequence. When, instead of being content with not eating meat or eggs themselves, our leaders insist on serving only vegetarian fare at official dinners (hosted at taxpayer expense) they’re sending out a signal that they will control what other people eat, regardless of democratic norms or the will of the majority, which is largely meat-eating. 

Dinner diplomacy is daily business for those who meet representatives of other nations, businesses and their own party workers. Whether they want to or not, they deal with differences of culture, food, dress, even of faith. Parties like the BJP, widely perceived to be pushing a majoritarian agenda, do have Muslim or Christian members, after all. And for a party as rich as this, it is no great burden to host one iftaar. To do so would signal mutual respect. At the very least, it would be a polite nod at peaceful coexistence.

In rejecting iftaars altogether, our current leadership is sending out the worrying signal that does not believe in the possibility of friendship and peace. Differences that cannot be observed, cannot be celebrated, cannot be worn on your sleeve and on your head, can only be reduced to sharp points of pain. Each of us knows what pain and rejection does to the heart. We must be careful with the heart of the nation.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Driving to devastation

 When I was little, I remember reading a story, or perhaps a play, where an Irish family is considering migrating to a new land, America. Moving across the ocean, with little prospect of ever coming back, is daunting. One of the characters is reluctant. But one young man insists: at home, there is nothing. Even if they survive, he says, all they can look forward to is potatoes. More and more potatoes.

This little scene got stuck in my head. I couldn't understand why somebody would object to a steady diet of potatoes. Could one ever have too many potatoes?

I didn't understand because I had never had to live a potato diet. No bread. No corn. No rice. No lentils. Just potatoes, morning and night, day in and day out. And sometimes, not even that – not even a boiled potato.

It was only recently that I finally understood, once I started reading about the great Irish famine of 1945. It was also called the great potato famine, because the big disaster was a failure of the potato crop. A potato blight meant that suddenly, the vast majority of people had nothing to eat at all. An interactive map released by the Queen's University College, Belfast, shows that between 1841 and 1851, along the west coast, nearly half the populuation was wiped out.

How could this happen?

The answer lies in a complex mix of bigotry, oppressive feudalism, and imperialist policies.

By the eighteenth century, England's rulers were largely Protestant. England also controlled Ireland and Scotland in direct and indirect ways. Certainly, the Irish and Scots had their own distinct language and culture. Ireland also had a significant Catholic population that faced discriminatory laws. Catholic could not own property or join the army or hold public office.

Many of these laws were repealed before the famine. But land ownership was deeply skewed against the tiller who was being squeezed tighter and tighter. They worked for very meagre wages in exchange for being allowed a tiny plot of land on which they could grow the food that would feed their own families. The only thing that would grow abundantly on small plots was potatoes.

The big lords often lived far away, in cities. They neither knew nor cared about the difficulties of their tenants. They appointed middlemen to deliver their share of money. These middlemen further divided and sub-let the land in a way to extract maximum rent.

Already, vast tracts of land had been cleared to make way for cattle, to feed the diary and meat needs of England. But the poor did not own this cattle. And once they had been made paupers, their landlords evicted them and flattened their little huts.

Worse, there were laws that kept the prices of food artifically high. Cheap grain imports were not allowed but traders kept exporting grain and livestock. Through the worst of the famine, as millions perished, hundreds of thousands of gallons of butter left Ireland.

This is how we ride up to famine: because there's money to be made that way.

This story is familiar to Indians who know about the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Millions died. There are many similarities – a diseased crop in one season, absentee landlords, marginal or landless farmers, a steady export of grain, imports being either disallowed or diverted.

With reference to Bengal in 1943, we speak of imperialism and racism at work. But the truth is, any shade of difference is enough – a different language or accent, a different religion or sect – once you set out to create inequality, institutionalise it, and to profit from the devastation of others. 

First published here:

Monday, June 11, 2018


I've enjoyed reading and reviewing two books this past month: Tabish Khair's "Night of Happiness" and Intizar Husain's "Day and Dastan", translated by Nishat Zaidi and Alok Bhalla. Here are links, please read the books.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A bit of heaven

There have been times when I've been asked what city I'd like to live in for the rest of my life. What sort of neighbourhood, what kind of streets, what shape of home?

I've never been able to come up with a good answer. The answers I do give sound unreliable even to my ears. Do I really want to be stuck in a big city? Do I really think I'm a small town girl? Is there anything worse than the sort of city which is neither metropolitan nor cosmopolitan, nor even eternally familiar?

It's a tricky question. What does your corner of heaven look like?

I find it easier to imagine my corner by eliminating the things it most certainly wouldn't have, if I had my way. I know that I wouldn't like my share of the sky eaten up by concrete. I know that I would not want plastic bottles and food wrappers in the vicinity, and if they were thrown, then – since we're talking of heaven where anything is possible – I'd like some sort of technology to be put in place that the thrown bottle or wrapper would fly right back to the hand of the thrower and attach itself there. The more one tried to throw a piece of rubbish into public property, or someone else's property, the more adhesive the rubbish would become.

In my corner of heaven, the air would not be corrosive. And the groundwater would not be poisoned or cancerous. Industries would not be set up in the vicinity, and if they were, then the owners of those industries would be required to put down roots in that same corner, so they might breathe that air and drink that water and bathe with it too.

All surfaces in this corner would not be covered over with concrete. If there were bricks or tiles, then gaps would be left for the rainwater to seep back into the ground. The streets would not flood each time it rained, and there would always be the assurance of water lying deep and clean a few metres below the surface of the earth.

I also imagine that a patch of heaven would be the sort of place where you don't have to clean out the gutters before every monsoon. And if you did have to clean and desilt, that it could all be done in a coordinated, collective manner. That one team didn't have to pull out massive globs of silt mixed with sewage, which they then left out in piles on the sidewalk, at regular intervals. That those piles would not have to wait for days until some more paperwork got pushed around and someone else was hired for this leg of cleaning.

An ideal city, a dream city, would not only be clean above all things, it would also be clean through small and big acts of collective responsibility. People who cleaned would have a chance to live in the little patch they cleaned themselves, so that they too had a stake in it. And people – a able-bodied adults, that is – who never cleaned private or public spaces would have the least right to live in the cleanest parts of town. In such a city, there might be embedded the principles of heaven.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Not quite highway robbery

One of my enduring memories from the first time I visited Melbourne is walking around looking for lunch and spotting a compact row of bright blue bicycles that were neatly stowed on the sidewalk.

The first question that popped up in my mind was: “How come everyone here rides the exact same bicycle?”

A moment later, I felt sheepish. I realised that it was a bike rental system. Precisely the kind of system I wish upon all cities. At home, of course, it is unlikely to work. First of all, there are no cycling lanes. When the national capital, Delhi, tried to create a cycling track along one stretch of BRT (a rapid bus transit lane) a few years ago, it was promptly hijacked by motorcyclists and auto-rickshaws. A few small cars tried to squirm in as well. Cops had to be stationed there to catch and fine three and four wheeled drives. It never was possible to fine scooters and motorbikes – because they insisted that they interpreted the bicycle symbol for the lane as a 'two-wheeler symbol'. At any rate, the BRT system was dismantled and the exclusive bicycle track vanished. Currently, bikes ride on the pavements.

Secondly, there's a good chance the bicycles would get stolen. We'd need to station cops or guards to make sure people paid rent and returned them.

I wanted to ask my friends in Melbourne: “How come your bicycles don't get stolen?” But it felt like a foolish question. Maybe they had some technology to track down stolen bikes. Or perhaps, bicycle theft simply wasn't worth the trouble and the risk of prosecution.

In India, of course, bicycles are useful, not just as a vehicle but also a potential source of scrap metal. And there are a great many people who take great risks for very little gain. That same year, there was a robbery in my uncle's house. One of the employees' bicycles was stolen at night, despite high boundary walls all around. The local security guards' bicycles had also been stolen a few nights before, so they had been keeping their eyes peeled. The thief was soon caught red-handed. He had made the mistake of returning to the same street to steal some iron rods that were lying outside a house.

Anything that's sitting on the road, or even just inside one's own property, if it's easily accessed from the road, is likely to tempt some desperate citizen. Iron rods aren't worth a lot of money – definitely not worth time spent in prison – and yet, people try to steal them. Metal drain covers are stolen sometimes. Dustbins aren't spared either. In Mumbai, I have seen elevated metal bins with their bottoms cut out. Metal tumblers are often chained to free drinking water outlets, so people don't walk away with them. Tumblers in train toilets are chained to taps. The taps in public toilets get stolen too.

I once lived on a street where the slabs of stone that covered an open drain were stolen. That monsoon, we were all wading through overflowing sewage.

I don't know how much a slab of stone costs. Nor do I know what it costs to cover drains. But one thing I do know: wading through sewage is an experience that diminishes your self-esteem. And thinking about the man who steals drain covers for a living, being caught and put in jail does not make you feel any better.

First published here:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What More Does a Girl Want?

This poem had appeared in The Narrow Road, about a year ago.

What more does a girl want?

·        notebooks. new, with hard covers so the pages don't get torn from being carried in an overstuffed haversack in which pens of five colours sit with lipstick, eye pencil and leftover lunch rolled into a plastic bag that the grocer still gives her in defiance of the government ban.
·        dreamboats. princes from neon fairytales. more Tangled less Rapunzel, more Brave less Cinderella. maybe even Shrek. green ogres are okay if they have bothered to install solar heating.
·        accent. only one. it should mark her as someone who is from somewhere. a potpourri of place and race but with a distinct lilt and lisp. an aural scar of having tried and failed at belonging.
·        a ghost. tripping over the ankles of night, clanging chain dragging a four-poster bed by its left foot (note to self: do not repeat, find ways to make new, new. break old ground and
bury the dead).
·        photo frames. papier mache. jazzed up with gold paint and tinsels from a stationery shop right outside the school where the principal as good as spat once at her family's good breeding.
·        laundry basket.
·        nylon rope.
·        pepper.
·        radio.
·        sad horses that appear mysteriously outside the grocery shop that sits nervously beside a wine shop and does frantic midnight business in fried peanuts and triangular Amul cheese cubes.
·        silver shoes.
·        neon shoes.
·       sensible shoes that assure you she is no hurry. she has walked so far, so so so far to be here,
with you.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Trolling via road nomenclature

The naming of streets is a tricky business. In the old days, streets got their names off occupations. There could be named after a Baker, a Butcher, a Shoemaker. Or, after prominent landmarks, like Church Street. In India, we have our own versions, such as Chikoo-wadi, Parathe-wali Gali, Dariba Kalan or Chandni Chowk.

The naming of streets after people is a relatively recent phenomenon and quite a politic decision. To name a street after a person, with the assumption of perpetual visibility, is to say that this person is significant, and must remain in public memory. And therefore, we have streets named after monarchs, politicians, scholars, artists and very prominent businessmen. Very, very rarely do we have a street named for an activist. There is of course, Mahatma Gandhi; several Indian cities have an M.G. Road by way of acknowledging the father of the nation. One could say he was an activist-politician. However, the more confrontational and anti-establishment an activist is, the fewer the chances that his/her name will be enjoined to a street sign.

Unless, of course, it's someone else's activist. Those are easier to champion.

Recently, Dutch activists went about “renaming” streets after Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager who was imprisoned for hitting an Israeli soldier. What makes it a fine act of diplomatic trolling is that one of these street named for Ahed leads to the embassy of Israel in Amsterdam.

I do not know whether The Netherlands officially supports such a renaming but, at any rate, the state seems not to be in a hurry to punish the activists who made the change.

Such trolling of another state via renaming of the street on which the embassy stands is not new. Iran did this masterfully way back in 1981.

Bobby Sands was a member of the Irish Republican Army which was opposed to British rule. Sands was in prison and had undertaken a hunger strike along with a handful of other IRA activists. He withstood the strike for 66 days before he died at the age of just 27.

In May 1981, news of his death filtered out to the rest of the world. He had many supporters, even as far as Teheran. The Iranian government decided to honour his memory – and stick their tongue out at the British – by renaming the street on which the British Embassy stood.

The UK officials, naturally, was not amused; they thought of the IRA as terrorists. So they responded by turning their backs on the new Bobby Sands Street. The front entrance was moved around to the back, so that the opposite street could be given out as their official address. Some reports suggest that, as late as 2004, the British were trying to lobby Iran to change the name of Bobby Sands Street.

Teheran seems quite adept at responding to other states in this manner. Saudi Arabia, with whom its relations remain fragile, was similarly taunted. The street on which the embassy stands was reportedly named after Sheikh Al-Nimr, a Shia cleric who was executed by the Saudi Arabia.

The USA also tormented its rival, the former USSR, in 1984 when it decided to name a public square after Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident who was put in jail. More recently, there have been moves to challenge Russia through naming a plaza after Boris Nemotsov, an opposition leader who was killed in 2015.

There seem to be fewer such challenges to the power of rival nations in India, nor public reminders of the abuse of state power. This is always a tricky thing to do, of course. Because once we do start reminding each other of the abuses of power in each other's backyard, we're going to start running out of streets to rename.

First published here:

Monday, April 16, 2018

A rough ride on the superhighway

At the turn of the millenium, the phrase “information superhighway” was tossed around a lot. I had no idea what it meant, even though my first job was at a web portal and the ante for speed of “breaking” news had just been upped to frightening levels. Still, we all threw that term around – information superhighway – as if we could see the thing.

In my head, it meant that the Internet was a smooth, multi-lane highway. The corollary was that older forms of information access and communication resembled bumpy village roads or narrow bylanes in unplanned cities. The unspoken consensus was that the superhighway was “better”. Who wants uneven roads that slow you down?

What we didn't know at the turn of the millenium was that a superhighway is only useful if it takes you somewhere you want to go. If it doesn't allow you to turn off at the right exit, then you may waste a lot of time and energy going back and forth until you find a way to get off the superhighway. It may take just as long to reach your destination, which may well be inside a narrow bylane. In information terms, this means that we waste a lot of time wading through data, following irrelevant links and active misinformation that travels very, very fast. It could even be that we absorb too much data but too little knowledge.

We do have access to a lot and our access is quick and often free. No library memberships or archive managers get in the way. What we have forgotten is the method and the grace of the slower road. The experience of walking down a street and being able to pause and ask a resident for directions, perhaps to the home of a person whose address you do not know.

There was a time I went looking for a young man in Punjab who had been caught trying to illegally migrate to a western nation (which meant, any nation west of the Middle-east, and which wasn't in Africa or South America). He was arrested, detained, and eventually deported. I did not have a phone number or an address. All I knew was the name of his village and his name, Bhupinder.

I remember going in a taxi, looking for his house and being unable to find it. I stopped several times and asked where I could find a young man called Bhupinder. Nobody seemed to know. Finally, I began to ask for the boy who went abroad but was arrested and deported. A couple of young men on a motorbike immediately said, “Oh! Pinda! You're looking for Pinda?”

The affectionate diminutive, Pinda, indeed described the man I was looking for. And he gave me his story.

Sometimes I wonder how I'd have done that story if I had gone to the village in a taxi equipped with a smart phone but no location pin. Would the driver have agreed to drive me around in circles, knowing that I didn't really know where to go? Worse, what if Bhupinder had grown up glued to a device and he didn't really have any friends who knew what had happened to him?

Sometimes, I wonder if, in our rush to get onto the information superhighway, we forget that we were not actually stuck in narrow gullies of information. We used to explore those gullies on foot or on bicycles, pausing often to pick up precision, tapping into a much finer web of knowledge and narratives, which is more than data.

First published here

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A martyr and a forever student

Two days after Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hung, another glorious martyr gave his life for India. Most of us have forgotten him and if we do hold on to the memory of his name, it is through a few colleges and an award for journalists. His values and his remarkable courage have faded from our minds.

Ganesh Shankar ‘Vidyarthi’ was just 40 years old when, on March 25th, 1931, he was killed while trying to rescue people during a communal riot. Mahatma Gandhi had described it as a “shaandar” (glorious) death, one he envied. In this respect, he was not a man who followed in Gandhi’s footsteps. He was the man who showed Gandhi the way.

Read the full article here:

Monday, March 26, 2018

A rough road to development

There's a conversation I often play back in my head. I keep wishing I could back in time and argue properly.

I had gone to an area where there was some conflict between business interests and the interests of local residents, who felt that the factory was not to their advantage. So I went to discuss their concerns with one of the managers and he sort of snapped at me. He asked, “What is development?”

Without waiting for an answer, he declared, “Development means, a man has food, and a hundred, five hundred rupees in his pocket, right?”

He patted the front pocket on his shirt as he said this, and I was so puzzled that I could not come up with an adequate response. It was only later that I started to be shocked at the poverty of this gentleman's imagination, the narrowness of his vision.

What he was actually saying was this: villagers would (perhaps) get jobs at the factory and therefore they ought not resist factories/ big businesses; they had no right to expect more from a changing nation than their continued survival.

I bet this same gent would have a totally different view of “development” for himself. He already takes for granted his food, clean and plentiful water, a few hundred rupees in his pocket, a home to shelter in, gas, education, healthcare and comfortable transport. For his own class, “development” would imply access to high quality higher education, preferably subsidised by the state, state-of-the-art medical facilities, organic chemical-free food, perhaps free museums of art and generously proportioned libraries.

He knew that the basics are not available to most villagers. If I'd prodded him, he'd have shrugged and said: “Well, that is the state's responsibility.” Or, he may have added: “But we are doing something about that; we set up a school and dispensary.”

He would have side-stepped the question of how the factory implies “development” if they suffer water, air, ground pollution, and the fact that they would be at the mercy of a private firm for health and education access.

If this is all “development” means – food on your plate, money for clothes and other essentials – then development can just as easily be attained through farming practices that have been in place for a thousand years. After all, ancient Indians did eat a wide variety of foods. They did have clothes and some coins in their pockets.

The question is: how have we “developed” over the last thousand years? In a nation where millions are hungry or have no resident doctor within a two kilometer radius, what is the meaning of cement and steel factories, of petroleum and cars? What is the meaning of electricity and anesthesia?

The answer to that is: we have developed erratically, unequally, unjustly. There is no doubt that electricity and anesthesia are vital developments. There's no denying that the poorest people also want roads and buses. The dispute is about what development costs us, individually and collectively, and who pays the price through natural resources and taxes, direct and indirect.

This word “development” is used arbitrarily because it gets a lot done. It wins elections. It describes aspiration. It helps suppress crimes against rural and forest-dwelling communities. It flattens out all arguments in favour of ecological preservation. It twists our public discourse away from other important words such as “rights” and “health” and “freedoms”.

If I could meet that gentleman again, I'd say that development has multiple meanings but none of those meanings involve throwing rural or forest dwelling people under a road-roller whilst pocketing a fat profit.

First published here:

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On Kedarnath Singh

It is difficult to describe the experience of finding a poet who speaks to you intimately, whose words reach inside you, drops pebbles into the lake of your mind, casually strolls through your bloodstream. I borrow the latter image from the poem “Surya” from Zameen Pak Rahi Hai(listen to the poet’s recitation), where he describes the sun as the only thing his people can trust.
Kedarnath Singh has had an immediate, deep impact on me. Many of his contemporaries are among my favourites, but Singh’s work has a quality of stillness infused with drama that resonates with my own sensibility. Emotion plays out with a seemingly artless restraint.
The full article here:

Friday, March 09, 2018

Something Approaching Home

I'd been told the village I was headed to would be twenty-five or thirty kilometers from the kasbah where my family home was. I could take a bus, they said. Well, two buses. Or a series of auto-rickshaws.

It didn't sound so bad. What was thirty kilometers? I had forgotten though; thirty kilometers in metropolitan cities is a whole different kettle of fish. Mumbai's local trains maybe akin to a tin of sardines but I don't have to be in the tin for longer than an hour. On rural Uttar Pradesh roads, it's like having fish pressed into a series of tins over the course of two-and-a-half or three hours, and being shaken violently all the while.

The auto-rickshaws I found were modified vehicles. They are smaller than tempos, which seat eight or twelve people, but slightly longer than the three-wheelers in metros, and not much wider. The passenger seat can properly seat only three, but four adults are squeezed in. The driver's seat is replaced by a long seat. Here too, four adults sit, including the driver. Behind the front seat is affixed another narrow seat. Here perch another four passengers, facing the four who occupy the, well, the seat that's originally meant to be the passenger seat.

Behind the passengers' seat, there is a narrow space where two tiny seats are affixed, facing each other. Two adults sit there. Two more passengers are taken on and they sit on the strip of metal that serves as the body of the vehicle at the back, which is open to the elements.

That makes for sixteen adult passengers, every one of them more patient and in better humour than me. I'd begun to crib as soon as four passengers were found, telling the driver to get moving. He politely ignored me until he had all sixteen wedged in tight.

There is an equally tight budgeting system for local auto-rickshaw drives, and equally narrow profits. I paid just twenty rupees for the longest stretch of my journey. Most others paid ten, or five. There was one passenger who got on and off mid-way, travelling a distance of two or three kilometers. She paid only two rupees. Or tried to. The driver cursed and humiliated her - “You think you can get into a vehicle for two rupees?” - and made her fork over another rupee. She parted with it reluctantly.

It has been years since I last saw someone haggle whilst trying to hold onto her dignity for a rupee. In Delhi and Mumbai, both passenger and the cab or auto driver routinely shrug off a few rupees for the lack of change. No wonder, I thought, people move to Delhi or Lucknow or Mumbai. This, the heartland, the homeland, squeezes you too hard.

The elderly woman on my right laughed and bantered a lot though, and kept trying to strike up a conversation. I kept saying, apologetically, that I didn't understand. She spoke a Bhojpuri so far removed from Hindi that it may as well have been Bangla or Marathi. She asked where I was from. I caught the word “ghar”, home, and understood. I said, my family belongs to these parts, actually.

The elderly woman gave me a sideways stare. After a while, she resumed her one-sided conversation in Bhojpuri. I gathered that she was trying to tell me the names of the crops standing in the fields on either side. I told her, I know a mustard field when I see one. She let out a small laugh that suggested she didn't think I knew anything at all.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Gaddhe mein sadak

A few days ago, I had decided to visit my ancestral home in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As the taxi neared our destination, I was re-introduced to that sardonic phrase: Gaddhe mein sadak.

It is hard to translate. The nearest phrase I can think of is ‘road-pocked hole’, an inversion of ‘pot-holed road’. It has been a while since I had encountered such a road. People often threw the phrase around in places around Delhi or capital cities like Lucknow, but the first time I truly understood what ‘gaddhe mein sadak’ means was in Bihar, over a decade ago. One hour out of Patna, it became apparent that I wasn’t travelling on anything resembling a road. The surface had been washed away entirely, leaving a series of uneven pits. Whatever remained of the tar road appeared like garnishing, sort of like chopped walnuts on top of a bowl of lumpy kheer.

Now, in Uttar Pradesh, I was confronting a similar road. It came as a bit of a shock after the highway, which is quite smooth. Too smooth, in fact. The driver had been complaining that the new method is dangerous. Tyres slide too easily; braking the vehicle takes longer. Apparently, the new roads being constructed are made of cement rather than tar. It is being said that some of these new roads are entirely concrete. There is no under-layer of pebble or brick. Drivers, he said, are concerned about such highways since everybody moves at higher speeds and being able to brake quickly is vital. But then, who consults drivers when road construction is sanctioned?

This time around, I personally felt the pain and danger of the too-rough road that connect various towns and villages. Whatever bits of tar and pebble yet remained create uneven edges. My foot turned over one such edge, I lost balance and next thing I knew, I was hopping around with a sprained foot for the rest of the week.

Along the way, I also discovered the unexpected benefits of traveling in over-packed tempos, which are the primary mode of transport in these parts aside from state transport buses.

The thing is, the road is awful beyond description. In a relatively empty auto-rickshaw or tempo, you’re swung about and shaken wildly no matter that you’re holding onto something for dear life. Your neck and spine is at risk. Your head gets bumped hard against the metallic frame of the vehicle. You could be jerked forward so that your knees smash into the floor of the tempo.

However, when there are six or sixteen (I counted; there were sixteen people. I will write more about how that went another day) in the tempo, you are all packed in so tight, there is no longer any question of anyone moving. I found myself safely squashed between two elderly ladies on right and left, four ladies seated across and sundry gentlemen and children in front and on the back seats. No matter how bad the road was, however the tempo lurched about, my spine was as upright as it would have been in a straitjacket. I suppose that was something to be grateful for.

First published here:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Maulana Azad and azaadi

Today is Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's death anniversary. I knew very little about him, except that he was one of the tallest leaders of India's freedom struggle. While researching something else this year, I came upon a booklet, a convocation address delivered by JP Narayan in 1966. Here, he describes Maulana Azad as 'father of speech', and speaks of the wonders of his oratory thus:

"At this point, my mind goes back 46 years to a memorable day in January 1921, when at a vast concourse of men in Patna, I listened enthralled to a stormy petrel of the Non-Cooperation Movement, who though young in years had magic on his tongue. His name quite appropriately was Abul Kalam Azad. Incidentally, at the same place there was also held in a corner an over-flowing meeting (there were no loud-speakers then) addressed by another young man, about whom all that was known was that he was the upcoming son of the great Pandit Motilal Nehru. It was the fiery words of the 'father of speech', however, that had set fire to the waters of the Ganga that flowed pacidly by."

Maulana Azad was President of the Congress, in 1941, when he was arrested after the Quit India movement was launched. I have been looking through newspapers of the time and what I found remarkable was not just that so many people were willing to court arrest towards the cause of independence, but also that so many of them found creative responses to news of the leadership being arrested.

Maulana Azad was arrested on January 3, 1941, at 5:15 at the Allahabad railway station. He was expected to leave by the Toofan Express and stop at Lucknow or Allahabad en route to Calcutta. The details of his itinerary had already been published in the newspaper a day before, so people as well as the British government knew exactly where to find him. He had also sent a telegram to Acharya Narendra Deo, asking him meet up in Allahabad.

Once news of his arrest spread, a public meeting was held in Aminabad Park in Lucknow. One Mr Hariprasad Saksena moved a resolution: “This meeting of the citizens of Lucknow offers its respectful congratulations to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on his arrest and assures him the country stands behind the Congress.”

A women’s meeting held in Zenana Park also congratulated Azad on the arrest. Elsewhere in Lucknow, students observe a two minute silence to protest the arrest. In Cawnpore (Kanpur), 10,000 students went on strike. Bareilly, Sitapur, Ghazipur, Agra, Meerut, Moradabad, Nainital saw strikes and all these were just reports flowing in from UP. The Benaras Students Federation took out a Prabhat Pheri and congratulated Azad on his arrest. The principal of Rameshwari Girls College declared a holiday in protest and the girls observed a five minute silence. 

In Ghazipur, one Chowdhry Girija Prasad Singh, an honorary magistrate and a big zamindar, tendered his resignation from the magistrateship in protest against the Congress President’s arrest, and also surrendered his gun license and the gun.

I am intrigued by these little details because it is here that we find the keys to our freedom. It wasn't won in a day and it wasn't won by a handful of people. It was won through everyone committing themselves to it and standing up for it in their own way.

Maulana Azad lived to see a free India, lived to serve as its education minister. He oversaw the establishment of free primary education, subsidized higher education and the establishment of highly regarded institutions including the IITs. Leaders like him were needed then and are needed now.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No lovers of rules

If there is one trait of our citizenry that betrays itself visibly on city roads, it is our tendency to try and bend the rules just a little bit for very minor or even no gain at all, and being willing to generate total chaos along the way, even to pose great risks to our fellow citizens in the bargain.

On the major roads of most Indian cities, there will always be that one guy who will try and drive in reverse for as long as half a kilometre just so he can avoid driving forwards a couple of kilometers and then taking a U-turn. There's a good chance that he will ultimately waste twice as much time doing so because he cannot reverse very fast, and if he does, he is liable to get into an argument or worse, a physical confrontation, which will slow him down even further. But he'll take his chance anyway.

We all know that person who will try to turn a car around a full 180 degrees bang in the middle of rush hour, causing a traffic jam that lasts anywhere between ten and twenty minutes. Then there's the person who will overtake from the right at high speed, full aware that it isn't really safe. Or the person who will stop the car in the middle of the road and just sit behind the wheel, chit-chatting with a friend or saying lingering goodbyes.

People who live abroad and get used to driving in countries where there are fewer opportunities for bending rules, return and find that they can no longer drive on Indian roads with any confidence.

Trying to manoeuvre in narrow spaces is not a bad thing in principle. But there is a difference between driving like it's an adventure sport, where you primarily risk your own life, and traffic adventures where everyone else's life is at risk.

Now take seat belts. I am surprised that I continue to meet drivers who will not wear a seat belt or a bike helmet for safety reasons, but will pull it on as soon as they see a traffic cop.

Sometimes I wonder if this is because we are generally disrespectful of other people's lives and limbs, or whether we just like authority figures. I would like to think otherwise.

My own brother refuses to drive until everyone's belted in, and often he will not allow a cab to drive away until he's seen me belted in at the back, especially if I'm travelling on an expressway. But the honest truth is, I find that I too can be stupid sometimes. I find myself resisting a seat belt when I'm in the back seat. The only reason I wear the seat belt as a front seat passenger is that I don't want someone else to pay a hefty fine on my account. My own bodily safety ought to matter more to me than somebody else's money and, in principle, it does. Yet, in practise, it doesn't.

Sometimes I wonder if my resistance comes from an ingrained resistance to following too many rules. Or if we are all just teenagers on the inside, sulking about being told what to do for our own good.

First published here:

Monday, January 22, 2018

The street as a potato

The street is an eternal shapeshifter. It transforms quickly, urgently, and then collapses back into its grey, rough stillness at nightfall.

It turns into a theatre when a group of people start performing an act. It turns into an art gallery when people paint or draw rangoli designs around the time of festivals. Sometimes pictures of gods are drawn and it even turns into a sacred site.

Very often, it also turns into a site of contested power. Indeed, nowhere is power contested and victory rammed home as forcefully as it is on the street. Look around and find in plain sight several clues as to who can seize control over the street and pays the least price financially and emotionally. However, people who are not powerful also use the streets in creative ways, whether or not they're allowed to.

Recently, some people expressed their dissatisfaction with the state government by dumping great sackfuls of potatoes on the streets of Lucknow. One of the dumping spots was on a road leading to the chief minister Yogi Adityanath's residence.

This dumping of potatoes was a pointer to the plight of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest potato producers in the country. The cost of production and storage is higher than the price at which the state offers to buy the crop from farmers.

This isn't the first time farmers have dumped crops in sheer frustration and as a means of protest. Potato farmers in Punjab had dumped their produce on the highway last year, and earlier, in 2011 too. But this may be the first time a state government has responded with aggression rather than solicititude.

The Yogi government seemed to view the potatoes on the road as a personal insult and a consiparacy. The state police swung into action to find the 'miscreants'. Police officials reportedly tapped 10,000 phones, viewed hours of CCTV footage and finally arrested two men, accusing them of trying to 'defame' the state and of being linked to the opposition party.

It is funny that a government should be so shaken by a pile of potatoes lying about forlorn on the road. If indeed it was just a case of two men playing political pranks, and if potato farmers are not facing any sort of crisis, then where was the harm in letting the piles be? The poor and hungry (and there are millions of them) may have taken some away. Stray cattle (of which there are also a great many) might have eaten some. At best, the state could simply have sent out a team to clear the defamatory pile. It would have been a lot cheaper than taking police personnel away from their actual job – crime investigations, filing and following up on FIRs, ensuring faster justice through the lawcourts, patrolling and so on. Those defamatory potatoes in Lucknow have cost the taxpayer very dear.

At any rate, the state responded to potatoes on Lucknow roads with alacrity but pointedly ignored the potatoes dumped along on village roads. Other newspaper report suggests that in villages too, farmers have been dumping the crop, letting potatoes rot where they lay. Cold storage and transport Are too expensive and the state government had done precious little to help them avoid huge losses. None of those farmers are being especially evasive about who they are. In fact, I'm guessing they wouldn't mind coming to the capital city to dump a few more sackfuls. The only thing stopping them is the cost of a ride into town.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A true Badshah of the people, after all

I have just finished reading a biography of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan by Rajmohan Gandhi.

I started by wanting to share some snippets from the first chapter but as I read, I found that I wanted to share almost every page of the book. This is not possible (for copyright reasons). So I'm putting down a little that I've learnt about the man known as the 'Frontier Gandhi'. 

As a schoolgirl, I didn't even properly understand what the 'Frontier' was and its significance in the geo-politics of the Indian Subcontinent. Reading this book, I realised that we forget just how hard won our freedom and our democracy is. 

All we know about the freedom struggle is the names of some leaders and patterns of political behaviour created in the 1930s and 40s. We are also told very little about the 'struggle' meant for those who do the struggling. 

MK Gandhi and leaders like Nehru, Patel, Ghaffar Khan went to jail. But what does it really mean to go to jail? What was the big deal about being treated like a political prisoner vis a vis being a "seditionist", subjected to worse treatment than thieves and murderers?

Here are some things I've learnt about Ghaffar Khan, also known as Badshah Khan and Bacha Khan: 

Badshah Khan's beloved first wife died after her firstborn son fell gravely ill. The family says that she wept in prayer, and offered her life to the Almighty in exchange for that of her child. And so it was. He remarried but his second wife too died in an accident. He never married after this. 

He was first arrested protesting against the Rowlatt Act. He was arrested, put in fetters and, because he was unyielding and clearly unapologetic when he was produced in court, he was sentenced to remain in fetters. Six months in fetters and he gained life-long scars around his ankles. His 90 year old father, Behram Khan, was also put in prison for three months, although he was not an activist and had shown up at a political meeting only because he was so concerned about his son's anti-British stand.

Before his arrest, and after his release, Badshah Khan's focus was education. He raised the standard of a school he had set up, and also began to tour the region, talking to Pathans. He was arrested once more and this time he spent a significant period in solitary confinement, in a cell where the toilet was overflowing with excrement. He was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment.

“He was given filthy food, ordered to grind twenty kilos of corn each day by rotating a heavy stone chakki, and abused by lackeys of prison officials. Again and again, he was invited to find relief through petty bribing, an apology or a surety... At the jail in Dera Ismail Khan the superintendent was an Englishman who only knew English, the jailor was an aged and inert Muslim, and the deputy jailor, who was the prison's real boss, a Hindu called Gangaram. Badshah Khan described Gangaram as 'a veritable rogue'. In his autobiography, he would say about Gangaram: 'In order to extract bribes he made the prisoners fight among themselves and supplied young boys to the prisoners'....”

Thanks to his attempts to contain the corruption in jail, Gangaram complained and had him shifted to Lahore jail. This turned out to be good for Ghaffar Khan. He met other political activists and people of all religions. He read the Gita and Guru Granth Sahib along with the Quran.

“At the previous jail, he had lost fifty five pounds, contracted scurvy and lumbago, and damaged his teeth.”

His mother died while he was in jail and his family didn't have the heart to tell him. He found out through a newspaper.

In another section, Gandhi writes about Ghaffar Khan having started a newspaper. Pakhtun, was written in Pakhto or Pushto. Its topics were varied and in one piece of commentary, a woman called 'Nagina, a Pakhtun sister' writes:

“Except for the Pakhtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but ardent in suppressing women. Our hands, feet and brains are kept in a state of coma.... O Pakhtun, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”

“Many early issues carried these lines by Badshah Khan's son, Ghani, now fifteen years old, whose name, however, was kept out:

If I a slave lie buried in a grave, under a resplendent tombstone,
Respect it not, spit on it.
When I die, and not lie bathed on martyr's blood,
None should his tongue pollute, offering prayers for me. 

"Impatient for items from the son, his father, Ghani would recall in the future, sometimes sent 'a letter abusing me that I could not write ten lines for my country and that I was a disgrace to the nation and so forth'. The result would be another column entitled “Nonsense”, signed by 'The Mad Philosopher'."

In 1930, after Salt tax defiance and the Qissakhwani Bazaar massacre (like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, unarmed and peaceful Pathan protestors, perhaps as many as 300, were killed by British fire). Badshah Khan was already under arrest. Now Pakhtun was banned... The younger son, Wali, just 14, was almost killed in the ensuing crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgars. The KK office was burnt down.

In 1934, Badshah Khan (as well as his older brother, popularly known Dr Khan Sahib) was released from jail. But within a few months, he was re-arrested on the charge of sedition. He was sent to Sabamati jail where he was to sleep on the floor, in a solitary cell, and warders were instructed not to talk to him. Then he was sent to Bareilly jail, again in a solitary cell. He was unused to the hot summer of the plains and his body broke out in boils. Finally he was moved to Almora jail where he “completed a garden that Jawarharlal Nehru had begun.”

When Jawaharlal Nehru offered to increase funding to the Peshawar Congress Committee, Badshah Khan responded: “Panditji, we do not need your carry your load, we shall bear ours. If you want to help us, then build a girls' school and a hospital for our women.”

In later chapters, Dr Khan Sahib and the Khudai Khidmatgars come to power through elections in the Frontier (NWFP), despite the best efforts of the British to prevent this, and to prop up the Muslim League instead, hoping to drive a wedge between the KKs and the Congress. However, this unity could not prevent Partition. Despite Badshah Khan's appeals, British India was partitioned and the Pathans were fated to go with Pakistan. The details of how this was achieved are heart-breaking, for this is a tale of not just betrayal, but also a pointer towards how different our joint histories might have been if only the British establishment had not been so meddlesome, so determined to divide South Asians along religious lines rather than regional and linguistic lines. If only they had been a little more humane, genuinely democratic, before their exit from the Subcontinent. Consider the fact that while Dr Khan Sahib and Badshah Khan were prevented from campaigning and travelling in the Frontier province, the Muslim League people were free to do so. That was anti-democratic sabotage by the British, who wanted to curtail a peaceful Pathan who spoke of unity rather than more aggressive Muslim leaders who preferred disunity.

When Badshah Khan tried to speak of the dangers represented by the Muslim League, when he tried to seek autonomy, when he tried to speak of protecting minorities, he was accused of being a Hindu, or a Hindu agent.

Badshah Khan (and his brother and the sons) was jailed again, and again, and again, in independent Pakistan, both by elected and military rulers. His newspaper was banned. His social service center shut down. When he was not in jail, his movements were severely restricted. Ultimately, he was allowed to travel, but not to India or Afghanistan. Yet he never gave up on peace, nor stop speaking truth to power.

When he went to Cairo, he managed to slip into Kabul, where he was treated well by the king. And finally, he visited India too. In 1969, the Indian government made an offer, asking him to stay here. He refused, saying: “Even if I live in India for a hundred years, it will have no impact. No one cares here for the country or the people.”

On another occasion he said, (about Indian politicians) “It seems as if you think that to clap, give or hear speeches and get photographed is work.”

Bless his soul! If he could see India now, what would Badshah Khan say? Well, I suppose he would say the same thing that he said in 1970:

“I am no friend if I offer false praise.”

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially if you have an interest in South Asian history and the freedom movement. It is very lucid, well written too.

Sarcasm on a bumpy road

Journalists quoting chauffeurs, cab or auto-rickshaw drivers has become a bit of a cliche. After the last election, there was a fair bit of eyerolling about it and part of agrees: it would be nice if political ideas were formed outside of a car.

Yet, I also undersand that taxi and auto drivers are a reasonable indicator of public sentiment as far as governance goes. Three big issues that have traditionally affected Indian elections are bijli-paani-sadak. Electric supply, water supply, motorable roads. This might be changing, especially in rural areas where farm income, debt and employment are have become urgent questions. But in cities bijli-paani-sadak remain some of most important issues, along with housing and food prices.

Auto-rickshaw drivers are likely affected by shortages and inflation like everyone else. But they also have the advantage of being outdoors a lot, listening to several other people in public spaces. They can access to a wide range of viewpoints and listen in on conversations. Some of the drivers also develop a rather unique style of political commentary.

The other day, I was in an auto-rickshaw and the ride was a very bumpy road. I exclaimed at one particularly bad stretch of road. The driver responded by saying, “Isn't this great?”

I thought I had misheard him. But he said it again. “This road,” he said. “It's terrible. Isn't that great? It's good for everyone.”

I wasn't sure what to make of him. So I cautiously pointed out that it wasn't so great for the human spine.

He let out a short laugh. “So? Aren't you happy for the nation?” he continued. “Everyone gets something to do if the roads are bad. If you hurt your back, you are supposed to go get a massage. That helps the economy too.”

I said I had to disagree. Back injuries can last several years, even incapacitate a person, put them out of work and so on.

I couldn't see his face but I imagine that at this point he was rolling his eyes. “That's I'm saying,” he said. “It works out for everyone, doesn't it? Before I picked you up, I was going to stop near the pheriwalas (cart vendors), some friends of mine. I just wanted to call out a greeting and remind them of how awesome life is these days. They're still paying hafta (protection money), and they're also being told that they'll soon be driven out of this area.”

My destination had arrived. I got off the rickshaw. The driver said, “Madam, I was joking. You understand?”

I said, I understood. Then he said, “Do you know the latest? Some of the municipal engineers don't come to inspect the roads after the repairs are done. They sit comfortably in their office. The contractor takes a photo of the potholes he claims he has filled, sends it over Whatsapp, and he gets his work approved.”

Before I could get out of the way, a much bigger car, an SUV, swung dangerously close and honked sharply. I turned around to glare. The driver, a woman, wasn't looking at me. She was glaring at the auto instead.

After he was gone, I wondered what he would say to the next passenger, how he'd say it. Perhaps he would say, “Isn't it great that so many people are buying big cars these days? It's the best thing to happen to a city. Now, if you had had an accident back there, think of how many people would have benefitted. What? You don't want your country to progress?”

Monday, December 25, 2017

To the language of love, with love

Here's a twist on the Ship of Theseus paradox. The original paradox is this: if a ship has been restored or fixed after having all its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? Now what if a ship was taken apart, its rusty parts polished, its software updated and the whole thing re-assembled and manned by a new crew. Is it still the same ship?

A decade ago, Urdu was a cultural vessel that looked the worse for repair. Lovers of the language spoke of it ruefully, as if it was headed for the shipbreaking yard.

Mushairas (public poetry recitations) were organised in a few cities but tucked out of sight of the cultural mainstream. A generation educated in English medium schools couldn't even read the posters advertising the event. Besides, Urdu wasn't necessarily their scene. College fests had jazz and hip-hop rather than ghazals and qawwalis. The new leisure was gaming and memes, selfies and social media, Netflix and trying to chill. Couplets and metaphors?

Actually, yes. Couplets and metaphors.

Enter the new Urdu. The old ship has got a fresh coat of paint, new steel joints and a robust crew.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Riding with ladies

Last week, I was very upset with Kirron Kher for shifting blame onto a gangrape victim, suggesting that she shouldn't have gotten into a share auto-rickshaw when three men were already seated inside.

The day after she made the statement, I found myself getting into an auto-rickshaw with three male passengers and one male driver. This is actually fairly common across small and big cities in India. The suburb I live in currently is quite far from the centre of town and there was a time when sharing a rickshaw was the only mode of transport available. Cabs were unheard of. Sexual assault was also unheard of.

Many nights I'd be dead tired, having travelled nearly an hour in the over-stuffed ladies compartment of the local train, loathe to enter another crowded space. Auto drivers simply refused to use the meter in those days, so I'd often pay three passengers' fare just so I could travel alone. Even so, I'd have to argue with the drivers before they would let me hire the auto as a solo passenger. Things have changed now and the autos have fallen in line with meters. Even so, if I try to hire an auto solo, it takes twice as long to get home.

Many drivers are reluctant to take a solo passenger and not just because of the few extra rupees. They like the ease of working set routes without having to go off the main roads. Besides, there are too many passengers waiting. In the monsoons and in the sweltering summer, mosquitoes hovering overhead and around everyone's feet, the wait is particularly galling. People get annoyed if they see drivers taking solo passenger.

Still, male passengers seem to understand if a woman doesn't want to share. They may feel insulted by the insinuation that a potential co-passenger doesn't feel safe with them. They may feel she is over reacting, or ultra orthodox, if she doesn't want to sit next to men. But they don't usually say anything.

Female passengers also seem to prefer travelling with other women. They don't say anything, but there is quiet relief in their eyes, a relaxation of their posture, small smiles exchanged as three women tie up to share a ride. I suppose there is similar relief in my eyes too.

Every so often, I think of Kathmandu. The memory of shared tempo ride, in particular, is vivid in my mind. Me and my friends got into a tempo. Most of our co-passengers were male. The driver was missing. A moment later, the door opened on the driver's side and a woman got behind the wheel. A woman wearing a traditional blouse and saree and bright red lipstick. I was the only one gawking.

My friends informed me that this was not an uncommon sight. Women were starting to drive shared tempos in Kathmandu. Fourteen years later, the startling delight of that moment hasn't faded. The presence of the women tempo drivers had brought me a great sense of safety in that city, despite the curfews and sporadic reports of violence. It even brought me joy, though I could not manage to ride in autos or tempos driven by women most days. Still. It was enough to know that they were out there, lipstick on their mouths hopefully, and a fun song playing on the radio.

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