Thursday, March 14, 2019

A splendid road


If you run an online search for good roads in India, you might come upon a question someone asked on Quora: Why aren’t the roads in India as good as the roads in Pakistan?

It is, like all things India-Pak, a touchy question that draws spirited responses from both sides. People have posted pictures of the best, smoothest highways from across the two countries. There are photos of rain-washed vistas, Marine Drives, sun-kissed or snow crusted mountain roads. There was Mumbai’s famous sea link and the distinct curliques of the Lahore ring road. All these roadways looked quite splendid and it took me a while to figure out the secret of their beauty – it was the fact that there wasn’t much evidence of traffic. In other words, roads look great as long as they aren’t being used.

I’ve been thinking ever since about the beauty of modern cities, and our ideas about it. In every pretty picture posted of a great road, there is little or no vehicular transport visible. The photos suggest quiet, openness, easy access. Looking at those photos, you feel you could go anywhere at all, and nothing could stop you.

Where motor vehicles are visible, they have been carefully framed so that you see just one truck, or a handful of cars seen from a distance on a road that, in South Asian cities, would most likely be choked by a few hundred cars at any time of the day.

The more impressive photographs are taken aerially. But who among us ever gets to look at our roads from an aerial perspective? What we see of our own roads is, in the day time, a sea of car bumpers, and a moving river of light at night. If you want to live the fantasy – open, empty, wide road, smooth enough that you want to gulp it down – you have to be out between midnight and dawn, when you can hardly see anything of the city.

Apart from emptiness, there is one more thing that makes roads appealing: nature. Trees and flowers, lakes and canals. Water in any form immediately improves the picture. So does a touch of green hanging overhead. Roundabouts and road dividers look positively cheery when blooming with bright pinks and yellows.

Trees and flowers can make any street corner look appealing. Put an untarred road next to a big, green park and chances are, you won’t notice the quality of the road’s surface.

Just looking at such photos should tell us how to make urban lives beautiful. We need to plan the city around water, and to create large waterscapes in and around the city if they do not occur naturally. We need to limit motor transport. Above all, we need trees.

It goes without saying, of course, that trees and flowers cost time and money to maintain. It also goes without saying that this sort of expense is not spared in the enclaves of the rich, although a lot of this beauty is funded by ordinary citizens. Delhi is beautiful in late winter and spring, but much of this beauty is limited to the corridors of power – the diplomatic enclaves, the President’s residence, the ministerial bungalows.

On another Quora thread comparing India and Pakistan, commentators have truthfully said as much, that village roads in both countries are mostly bad, that expressways on both sides look much the same, and that the roads serving “VIP houses” are excellent. There is little need to say more. The beauty and limited access of VIP enclaves contains every other truth.  



First published herehttps://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/empty-roads-look-nice-but-trees-and-flowers-make-them-look-better-even-if-they-are-potholed-and-untarred/article26508097.ece

Friday, March 01, 2019

"ईश्वर को एक भारतीय नागरिक के कुछ सुझाव"

केदारनाथ सिंह की आज बहुत याद आ रही है। ये कविता आज ख़ास सुनने का मन किया।

"ईश्वर को एक भारतीय नागरिक के कुछ सुझाव"

ईश्वर, अगर दुनिया फिर से बनानी हो
जिसमें देर हो रही है
तो मेरे कुछ सुझाव हैं

अधिक नहीं , बस पांच या सात

सबसे पहले
अणु बम को पृथ्वी से उठा कर
रख लेना स्वर्ग में
स्वर्ग का तो शायद कुछ न बिगड़े
पर हम पृथ्वी वासी
एक भयानक दुःस्वप्न के आतंक से
उभर जायेंगे

पैसे को दुनिया से ले लेना वापस
और हवा को बना देना
उसका विकल्प

बदल देना ब्रम्हांड का जर-जर पहिया
और अपनी पुरातन घड़ी को
मिला लेना पृथ्वी की धूप घड़ी से

यहाँ शहरों की गलियाँ अब पड़ रही हैं छोटी
इसलिए कुछ ऐसी जुगत करना
की पृथ्वी के बच्चे
कभी कभी क्रिकेट खेल आएं
चाँद पर

भारत का सृजन अगर फिर से करना
तो जाती नामक रद्दी को
फेंक देना अपनी टेबल के
नीचे की टोकरी में

बनारस को रहने देना
वरुणा और गंगा के बीच के दयारे में

पर दिल्ली को ?

यहाँ बहुत धुंध है
यहाँ से उठा कर
यमुना और क़ुतुब समेत
रख देना कहीं और
ताकि केंद्र को मिलती रहे
हाशिये की रौशनी

इस उलट फेर में
बस इतना ध्यान रहे
मेरा छोटा सा गांव कहीं उजड़ न जाए
और दलपतपुर चट्टी की बुढ़िया की बकरी
लौट आये घर

सुझाव तो ढेरों हैं
पर जल्दी-जल्दी में
ये अंतिम सुझाव

इधर मीडिया में
विनाश की अटकलें बराबर आ रही हैं
सो पृथ्वी का कॉपीराइट
संभाल कर रखना

ये क्लोन समय है
कहीं ऐसा न हो
कोई चुपके से रच दे
एक क्लोन पृथ्वी

   - केदारनाथ सिंह
*

For those who cannot read Hindi, you can listen to this poem and some others, recited here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SeyClsVuOc

Friday, February 22, 2019

A town painted red, and blue too.

Odisha was in the news for a good reason recently. It was named best state for promotion of sports at the Sportstar Aces Awards, on account of Bhubaneswar having hosted three successful international events – the hockey World Cup in 2018, and the Asian Athletics Championships and the Hero Super Cup in 2017.

I am sure the state has invested in training infrastructure too. Certainly, Odisha has invested time and money in making sports more visible in the capital city. I was Bhubaneswar recently for a literature festival and found that commuting an aesthetic experience. Long stretches of street-facing walls were covered in murals.

A lot of the art focused on hockey, especially around the Kalinga Stadium. Apart from dynamic images of players in the middle of a game, there was a lot of conceptual art around hockey sticks. One of my favourites was a mural that shows large black ants winding their way around a stick. Another artist had flashes of lightning – or was it a blue pulse? – rising off the stick, as if to suggest an electrifying game.

Mural art has picked up in several cities but the murals in Bhubaneswar struck me as particular. Figures of athletes in motion brought a sense of dynamism to an otherwise quiet street. There was something of their spirit up on the walls, something akin to enthusiasm.

In another part of town, walls have been painted with flowers. Giant blue morning glories are painted such that it seemed the homely flower was demanding its due. There were a few Frida Kahlo murals too, and one I especially remember of the famous artist's face crowded in by a crush of flowers. It was almost as if flowers were emanating from her. Her hand was across her mouth, as if she was trying to hide it, or hold back a laugh, or simply posturing in a manner that could be seductive if you want to see it as that. Or, aghast at such riotous beauty.

There’s another whimsical mural where the artist has painted the feet of an Odissi dancer in motion. The adjacent wall has the eyes of the dancer, dancing with fun, with astonishment, full of rasa.

Looking at those murals made me wonder whose mind and heart was behind them. Who loves morning glories so? Who wants to make Bhubaneswar dance with its eyes?

The murals made me think about how under-utilised public space has been so far. While interiors and a few expensive homes are decorated well, as per the owners' tastes, the side of the wall that faces the street is considered nobody's personal property. Individuals rarely invest in their maintenance.

I grew up looking at urban walls covered in posters, advertisements for everything from black magic to underwear, films to political parties Then, a few years ago in Mumbai, a tiny corner was transformed through the efforts of an art collective that calls itself the Bollywood Art Project. It took nearly a decade for other public spaces to open up, especially suburban railway stations. In Delhi too, there are a few walls covered with graffiti and artwork. By and large though, our cities remain overwhelmingly grey.

Perhaps it is time our city councils and state governments start funding the creation of murals. India barely supports her artists and it is time citizens got access to a glimpse of art through the year, every year. This would serve to keep us interested in each other's imaginations. It would also make commuting a lot less dull.


First published here

The young and the political

We all maintain an internal list of things that happen to people out of luck. Things too awful to contemplate: hunger, arrest, getting beaten or stripped naked, being declared an enemy of the state.

How does a literature graduate with no political ambitions end up in jail? How does the son of an urban trader wander from the political right to the left? Is rebellion picked up on campus like a virus or is it seeded in the cradle? Questions like these led me to meet students and political activists who have taken political positions that they, or their families, could not have foreseen.

... One of the things common to aspiring activists was that they are inspired by each other. Chandu, Umar Khalid, Jatin Goraiya, all were inspired by Bhagat Singh. In turn he was inspired by boys like Kartar Singh Sarabha, executed by the British in 1915 at 19 for participating in the freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh kept a photograph of Sarabha in his pocket and made a point of garlanding it during organisation meetings.

Chaman Lal, a retired professor who has authored multiple books on the subject, believes Bhagat Singh’s “greatness” lay in his being a thinker and organiser as well as a revolutionary. He courted arrest after throwing a bomb into the Central Legislative Assembly and used court appearances, newspapers and every opportunity he got to argue his cause. He read hundreds of books and maintained notes on what he read—Wordsworth to Marx, Thomas Paine to Omar Khayyam, Plato to Gandhi, until they took him off to the gallows.

Bhagat Singh also wrote extensively about the state of the nation, imperialism, exploitation through capitalism, and religious faith. He forbade his parents from petitioning for mercy on his behalf. He went to the gallows with the cry of “Inquilab Zindabad” on his lips.

His family owned enough land for them to be comfortable. True, the country was under British control and Indians were second class people. Still, there was more to gain by finishing his studies and securing a comfortable position from where he could take on institutional racism. It is worth asking: how did a boy born into relative privilege end up on the gallows?

Read the full essay in Fountain Ink magazine

Monday, February 18, 2019

The ‘M’ in Aligarh, the ‘H’ in Banaras and what’s at stake

Days before being slandered as a university of terrorists, Aligarh Muslim University was in the news for a letter written by the local unit of the BJP’s youth wing to the vice chancellor. It sought land for a temple on campus and threatened that, permission or not, an idol would be installed and a temple built.

My first response was to wonder if the youth wing of the BJP would support the construction of a mosque and church on the Banaras Hindu University campus, where students of all religions have enrolled. There is nothing wrong with allowing prayer space for all faiths as long as both universities are held to the same standards.

AMU and BHU are two strands of Indian self-definition, separate but inextricably linked and a comparison of the two is a useful way to understand our polity and what has happened to our country.

Both universities are in Uttar Pradesh and were established – BHU in 1917, AMU in 1920 – with an emphasis on identity. Founder Madan Mohan Malaviya had been clear in his objectives when he chose to insert “Hindu” into the name of the university and insisted upon religious instruction. In Students and Politics in India (1975), Anil Baran Ray writes that in 1915, some members of the Imperial Legislative Council expressed apprehensions that the proposed university would widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims, or foster separatist tendencies. But Pandit Malaviya argued that “religious instruction, he asserted, far from producing narrowness, liberates the mind and promotes brotherly feelings between man and man.”

How might it have turned out for India if Pandit Malaviya had dropped the word “Hindu” and been content with just Banaras University. Perhaps those who were setting up AMU would have been content with just Aligarh University?

Soon after independence, the government proposed to remove “Hindu” and “Muslim” from their respective names. In 1951, education minister Maulana Azad sought the opinion of both universities. AMU was initially amenable but BHU was not, so Azad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to quietly drop the matter.

Then, in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government proposed to rename BHU as Madan Mohan Malaviya Kashi Vishwavidyalaya. The Jana Sangh and the RSS, which had rooms on the BHU campus since the 1930s, encouraged students to agitate. Ray writes, student organisations linked to the Sangh claimed that “the attack on the ‘Hindu’ name of the university was only the beginning. It would be followed by cutting the ‘shikha’ (top knot) and sacred thread worn by Hindus and by idol-breaking and mass conversion”.

The fact that education minister M.C. Chagla was Mohamed Ali Currim Chagla did not help matters. Torchlight processions were organised at night. Students from Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, and Lucknow showed up to lend weight to the agitation.

Despite the government’s decision to postpone the Bill, students continued to agitate. Ultimately, they had their way and BHU retains “Hindu” in its name.

1965 was also the year Chagla set off ripples among Muslims. In the Lok Sabha, he denied that AMU was founded by Muslims and that it was a minority institution. Ali Yavar Jung, the Vice Chancellor, countered by pointing out that though it was a “national” university in the sense that there was no discrimination, it was created primarily to secure an education for Muslims “in their religion, philosophy and traditions”.

An essay in Frontline magazine records that the Congress party issued a whip to its members in Parliament “to secure the passage of the Amendment Act of 1965 which completely deprived the university of its autonomy. It, however, allowed a free vote on the proposal to change the name of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).”

The question of minority status was settled in 1981 – or so we thought. It was raked up again in 2005 and continues now with the government arguing in court that it is not a “minority” institution. Meanwhile, there is no denying that Muslims, even those who have nothing to do with AMU, see this as an assault upon their civil rights. Muslims all over the country attend Catholic and Jain institutions; they go to BHU. However, AMU represents cultural freedom. It is a space where their names don’t raise brows, where they can wear jeans or a fez and loose pajamas with equal ease.

Since the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Indian Muslims have experienced great social isolation. They find themselves pushed into ghettos. They worry about their safety and future prospects while surrounded by shrill political rhetoric and hate speech. However, Aligarh in particular has always been kept on the boil.

In 1978, after a serious riot, journalist Suchitra Behal wrote in India Today that AMU was “a perpetual thorn in the side” of people whose names figured prominently in course of the riots. Witnesses swore that the President of the local unit of the Janata Party had been “personally directing the loot and arson” during the riot. Besides, seven young Muslims were shot dead but no Hindus died of bullets fired by the Police Armed Constabulary. “How do the PAC bullets recognise only the Muslims?” Behal asks. “How long can such a tenuous and uneasy peace be maintained?”

The peace did not hold. So far, riots had been confined to the town; students were protected. In 1979, for the first time, students of AMU were dragged into the communal riots. After deaths and police firing, the university had to be shut down.

Students have got into violent confrontations for one reason or the other ever since but matters reached a new low in May 2018. Former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, was visiting campus and being conferred with life membership of the students’ union. The guest house he was in was approached by men, allegedly affiliated with the Hindu Yuva Vahini, shouting slogans. Shots were allegedly fired. When student representatives went to the police to lodge a complaint, they were beaten with lathis and tear-gassed.

This week’s fracas involved a team from Republic TV followed by students affiliated with right-wing groups, some of them carrying guns. The police responded to a complaint about alleged anti-national slogans by charging 14 students with sedition.

At this juncture, we must recall Nirad C. Chaudhuri. In an essay about AMU’s history of political interference, AG Noorani quotes Chaudhuri, who grew up disliking Aligarh for he saw it as the cradle of the Islamic revivalism in India. “Under the teaching of Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Vivekananda most of us had become Hindu revivalist, but were not on that account prepared to concede to the Muslim the right to his revivalism, because we regarded our Hinduism in its revivified form as nationalism, and reformed Islam as anti-national.”

Chaudhuri also noticed that the academic standards at AMU were fairly high, and said, “If loyalty to the Islamic way of life has given this stability to the academic life of Aligarh, it would be madness to take it away or try to destroy that loyalty.”

This dual standard continues to rent asunder the fabric of India. The “Hindu” student – at least, a student affiliated with right wing political or cultural outfits – at BHU, AMU or anywhere else can be regressive, discriminatory, even violent while laying exclusive claim to a patriotic agenda. The Muslim student, no matter that he focuses on his studies, is unarmed or even a victim of violence, is constantly suspect. Worse, he dare not count on the state machinery to do the right thing.

In the context of Aligarh, Nirad C. Chaudhuri had said that Hindus and Muslims can come to terms only if the two ways of life are recognised to be equally valid and good. I can do no more than echo him.


First published in Arre: https://www.arre.co.in/politics/aligarh-muslim-university-banaras-hindu-university-terrorists-students-sedition/

Friday, February 15, 2019

A new mobile fantasy


I don't know what made me think of pedal-boats. Perhaps it was the whiplash of January rain. Perhaps it was the feeling of being cramped and under-exercised. Recently, I began to think of how much fun it would be if cars could run on a pedal principle, the way boats can.

It would also a good way to hold onto an old motor vehicle, especially one whose body is more or less fine but which isn't going to fetch significant money in the used car market. What if the body was retained, the tyres re-aligned and fixed up to connect to peddles that the driver would use?

When I said this out loud, I was politely informed that it was an impractical idea. One would have to do a whole lot of furious peddling to get anywhere, and even if one did have the muscular stretch to push the car a few kilometers, one would hold up the rest of the traffic.

I personally think it is a sensible idea. Certainly, it is more practical than burning up gallons of fossil fuels, bankrupting the planet, causing the air of all our cities to become toxic, and making little kids sick.

A car-cycle wouldn't hold up traffic just as bicycles don't. Fossil fuelled motors could be given one dedicated lane. If cities can conceive of bicycle or bus lanes, we can also conceive of car-cycle lanes. It would cut down fossil fuel use. It might even help cultivate a culture of sticking to dedicated lanes if vehicles that look like regular cars and just as big were to occupy a wider pedal lane.

I looked up the idea online and found people were thinking along similar lines. In North Carolina, USA, there exists a hybrid vehicle called ELF (Electric, Light, Fun). It's a tiny three-wheeler, a bit like our battery rickshaws, except the tyres are more like bicycle tyres and it is pedalled by the driver. News reports suggest it can do 20 miles an hour. It is also fitted with a solar panel that powers an electric motor, which can push speeds upto 35 miles an hour.

Cars are re-purposed in strange ways, like cutting them up into halves, pulling out seats and turning them into furniture that's unlikely to appeal to anyone except motor fanatics. If we could instead use car bodies to make pedal mobiles, it would solve many problems. People may like to bicycle around cities, but must sometimes take along older people or children. A car-cycle would be good for them. There could be a dual pedal system too, as in boats, so the physical work can be shared.

It would be useful for bad weather. A bicycle, or even an auto-rickshaw, exposes you to rain and cold winds. India's summer sun makes bicycling an unpopular idea. A car-cycle would protect you from sunburn and keep you fit. You would no longer need to pay for gym memberships, nor would you have the excuse that long commutes interfere with workouts. The car would be the gym!

It is worth attempting, especially on campuses and in industrial parks where car use should be limited in any case. I, for one, would be up for a test drive.


First published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/how-about-upgrading-our-pedal-power-endeavours-to-the-level-of-cars/article26183637.ece?fbclid=IwAR0y-BMfIrMgZIP8Vy5ZHxeu8XqSI0iXkndQ0AxyxKwpj_El8lQUrIoVT2w

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Will she, won't she? Maybe?


It had begun at Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral, when pictures of the grieving family were published in every newspaper and magazine across the country. Through the shock of his assassination, there was an urgent need for a transfer of leadership that would minimize conflict. Drawing room conversations veered towards the next generation. Young Priyanka drew a great deal of attention, with her striking resemblance to Indira Gandhi. Ever since, the question has hung in the air: Would she? Could she?

Over the next three decades, the country, particularly north India, has waited to see if she would step forward, particularly since her brother also took his time settling into his role as leader of the Congress party. In Rahul Gandhi, his tentativeness was seen as a weakness. In politics, not making a grab for power at the first given opportunity, to think of consequences, to reflect upon one’s capacity for conflict and relentless scrutiny, is viewed with suspicion.

In Priyanka, however, her reluctance has helped solidify the anticipation around the role she would eventually play. People hold women to different standards of responsibility. That she is married and has children explained her decision to absent herself from overwhelming political duties, and it may have won her additional approval from the conservative corner...

Read the full article here: 

Saturday, February 09, 2019

A mobile fantasy


I don't know what made me think of pedal-boats. Perhaps it was the whiplash of January rain. Perhaps it was the feeling of being cramped and under-exercised. Recently, I began to think of how much fun it would be if cars could run on a pedal principle, the way boats can.

It would also a good way to hold onto an old motor vehicle, especially one whose body is more or less fine but which isn't going to fetch significant money in the used car market. What if the body was retained, the tyres re-aligned and fixed up to connect to peddles that the driver would use?

When I said this out loud, I was politely informed that it was an impractical idea. One would have to do a whole lot of furious peddling to get anywhere, and even if one did have the muscular stretch to push the car a few kilometers, one would hold up the rest of the traffic.

I personally think it is a sensible idea. Certainly, it is more practical than burning up gallons of fossil fuels, bankrupting the planet, causing the air of all our cities to become toxic, and making little kids sick.

A car-cycle wouldn't hold up traffic just as bicycles don't. Fossil fueled motors could be given one dedicated lane. If cities can conceive of bicycle or bus lanes, we can also conceive of car-cycle lanes. It would cut down fossil fuel use. It might even help cultivate a culture of sticking to dedicated lanes if vehicles that look like regular cars and just as big were to occupy a wider pedal lane.

I looked up the idea online and found people were thinking along similar lines. In North Carolina, USA, there exists a hybrid vehicle called ELF (Electric, Light, Fun). It's a tiny three-wheeler, a bit like our battery rickshaws, except the tyres are more like bicycle tyres and it is pedaled by the driver. News reports suggest it can do 20 miles an hour. It is also fitted with a solar panel that powers an electric motor, which can push speeds upto 35 miles an hour.

Cars are re-purposed in strange ways, like cutting them up into halves, pulling out seats and turning them into furniture that's unlikely to appeal to anyone except motor fanatics. If we could instead use car bodies to make pedal mobiles, it would solve many problems. People may like to bicycle around cities, but must sometimes take along older people or children. A car-cycle would be good for them. There could be a dual pedal system too, as in boats, so the physical work can be shared.

It would be useful for bad weather. A bicycle, or even an auto-rickshaw, exposes you to rain and cold winds. India's summer sun makes bicycling an unpopular idea. A car-cycle would protect you from sunburn and keep you fit. You would no longer need to pay for gym memberships, nor would you have the excuse that long commutes interfere with workouts. The car would be the gym!

It is worth attempting, especially on campuses and in industrial parks where car use should be limited in any case. I, for one, would be up for a test drive.


Published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/how-about-upgrading-our-pedal-power-endeavours-to-the-level-of-cars/article26183637.ece

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Park at your own risk


There is a rumour afoot that the authorities – in Delhi at least – might do something about parking norms, like insisting that people park only on their own property. If enforced strictly, this could bring welcome relief. Doubled parked streets are starting to be the norm in most cities and I see cars and private buses parked on public property as a theft of valuable space.

This does not, however, solve the problem of parking once you leave your property to go somewhere else, which is the whole point of having a motor vehicle. If you're going to a commercial spot, hopefully, there is a parking lot nearby. It is much more troubling when you go visiting people. Many highrise residential societies put up notices saying: “Visitor Parking Not Allowed”.

This is so much the norm, particularly in Mumbai, that we no longer think to challenge it. I didn't even know that, according to existing norms, at least 25 percent of the parking space in housing complexes was reserved for visitors. The notices forbidding visitor parking, then, were not quite legal. However, societies often have little choice because many builders diverge from the blueprint and sell off the space meant for visitor parking.

I found out about the rule only in recent months, after it was reported that the Maharashta government is altering it. The 25 percent allocation was no longer seen as practical and is being slashed to five percent. Whether even five percent will turn out to be practical is anybody's guess.

Not all the problems associated with parking are about space though. They are also about an attitude of entitlement once you acquire a vehicle.

In April last year, there was a bloodbath: it started out as a family feud, turned into a parking squabble, and ended with two men and one woman dead. Jaspal Singh and Gurjeet Singh were reportedly quite well off. They lived in a large bungalow but obviously, there are only so many cars that can be parked outside a house. Between them, the two brothers owned as many as nine cars. One night, the brothers got into an argument about who was going to park where. According to news reports, brother smashed the other's car, who then attacked him with a kirpan (dagger). Other family members got involved, as did the gun-toting personal security officers accompanying one of the men. The latter opened fire.

This might appear to be a typically Delhi story: too many fancy cars, too much money at stake, too much aggression, fragile egos. But it could happen even to those who do not have as much money, and don't even have cars. Earlier this year, a 19-year-old was reportedly beaten to death as a result of a parking dispute in Delhi's Sultanpuri area. This one was about a scooter. In Mumbai too, last year, there was more than one ugly fight that ended with calamity across various suburbs – Chembur, Powai, Amboli. In one case, a security guard assaulted a biker. In another, a couple beat The year before that, another death had been reported, this time that of a retired army Major. Another report was from Thiruvananthpuram.

Based on the details mentioned newspaper reports, a lot of these fights seem to start the same way. Someone's vehicle is blocking someone else's way, either on purpose or inadvertently. An apology and a little patience would suffice to avert bloodshed. What we need, perhaps, are kiosks selling apologies and patience at all petrol pumps.

Published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/what-can-be-solved-with-a-little-patience-or-a-few-words-of-apology-sometimes-snowballs-into-blood-spilling-brawls/article26059461.ece

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Unacceptable, but so very accepted

If I was a builder who built a sub-standard building that collapsed and killed a few people, or if I was an engineer who inspected and certified such a building as safe, I would be arrested. If I was not very rich, I would probably do some jail time too. I think it is also safe to assume that the state would chip in and offer compensation for the deaths. It does so in cases of accidents, fires, or bridges falling.

Funny, then, that a city should simply shake off responsibility when its own municipality is directly responsible for the safety and maintenance of the space. The failure to maintain roads can, and does lead to deaths. But somehow, these deaths do not lead to an outcry, or calls for justice and affixing of culpability, the way a building or bridge collapse death would.

The Hindu reported recently that, between 2013 and 2017, close to 15,000 Indians had died in accidents caused by potholes. Other reports suggest that the government has admitted to over 9300 deaths and 25000 people being injured because of potholes over the last three years. Our Supreme Court has described this situation as “unacceptable”.

Mumbai, with its nearly five month monsoon spell, is especially vulnerably to pothole-related damage. In July this year, a young motorcyclist was killed when his bike fell after hitting a pothole. Just days before, two other pothole related incidents were reported, one involved a pedestrian and another a mother-of-two whole was riding pillion on a bike.

Earlier this month, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) flatly refused to pay compensation to victims of road accidents, even if these deaths were caused by potholes. A corporator had demanded compensation, in response to which, the BMC said that the roads were the responsibility of the contractors.

In November, a woman and a six month old baby were reported killed when the bike they were riding pillion on skidded on a potholed road in Dadar. The family of four on the bike was thrown off and crushed by an oncoming water tanker. Oddly enough, the police thought it fit to arrest the tanker driver, but not to take any action against those who are responsible for filling potholes on the roads.

The BMC has not responded well to criticism of its handling of the pothole situation. When radio jockey Malishka spoofed the “Sonu” song, calling it the “Pothole Mix”, changing the lyrics to describe the mess the city is reduced to during the rainy season – potholes, water-logging, traffic and stalling of trains. The Shiv Sena and its corporators responded with outrage, suggesting that she be sued for 'defaming' the municipal body. Eventually, the BMC did send a notice to the RJ's mother, for “dengue breeding” at home.

Perhaps the corporators need to take some lessons from Mumbaikar Dadarao Bilhore. In 2015, his teenage son died in a pothole related accident. By June 2018, the grieving father had managed to fill up 556 potholes. He did express the hope that the BMC and MMRDA would look at people and be inspired to do a better job.

Mr Bilhore has shown that it can be done quickly and efficiently. It is, nevertheless, a great tragedy that heartbroken citizens should have to do a job for which taxpayers are already paying municipalities and their contractors. Perhaps the courts need to do more than say “unacceptable”.


First published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/road-accidents-do-not-seem-to-raise-the-same-chorus-of-clamour-other-tragedies-befalling-the-general-public-do/article25879817.ece

Sunday, January 06, 2019

How far to Auschwitz?

There is a curious object available online these days. “Hitler Germany” is a cheap plastic electric extension board. The company selling it is called Freedom Fashion. The strip costs between Rs 199 and Rs 399, after an appropriate discount. Someone noticed the offer and wondered aloud on social media if we should be reporting it. But what would we report? A gadget plugged into fascism?

This is a strange moment in time: close enough for us to recall gas chambers but far enough to forget gas chambers don’t happen without a lot of people wanting them, prepping for them...
Read the full essay here

https://scroll.in/article/906024/how-far-to-auschwitz-why-we-need-to-read-lidia-ostalowskas-watercolours-to-look-for-an-answer?fbclid=IwAR1ofL--7RfB7n-0FvAVdWZZULKC53suadGeef3QkbqZs-DBZ_x6-3JyWuQ

Monday, December 31, 2018

Odd end

So, starting this year (2018), I had begun to feel nervous about saying things out loud/in public. This wasn't just the nervousness of saying politically incorrect things, or things that would make me lose friends. It was the nervousness of thinking, will I trolled for this? Will I be called names and will my ancestors' chastity be called question? Worse, will I have to defend myself from state institutional over-reach (people filing complaints or policemen acting on their own initiative). Would I waste precious time battling such over-reach? Would I become unemployable?

As laws were made or amended to allow the state to act with greater authority viz people's communication, private and public, my nervousness grew. Was it enough that I did not comment myself, but only RT-ed someone else's tweet? I felt guilty too, for feeling nervous. And I was also afraid of saying that I felt afraid.

As a way of dealing with all this, I began to maintain a private log of things I could not say, things I was afraid to share or retweet. It was a sort of diary. Today, I had to decide whether or not I'd keep it going. I've decided next year will be different. Not because all fears have evaporated but because fear doesn't get you anywhere much. Where it does get you, is backed against a wall in a blind alley, and you become an unwilling magnet for everyone else like you - similarly nervous, similarly backing away, ceding the public space.

The answer lies not in silence, but in finding new and creative - civil! civic! - ways of saying the things that must be said. Doing brave things without bravado. Hoping 2019 will be about that. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Double sighted



Double sighted

After years, I hopped onto a double decker bus. I'm not sure why I say “hopped”. Hopping was as unlikely as gracefully waltzing in. A more accurate thing to say would be that I lunged desperately at the bus and that, somehow, I didn't fall. That I was forced up the stairs and onto the upper deck because there was nowhere else to go. That I managed to sit for ten minutes, surrounded by weariness and careful impassivity, until someone shifted and the possibility of a seat emptying broke the spell.

Trying to keep my own face impassive, feeling the crowd thicken, breathing in infinite disappointment and anxiety, I felt as if I had to grow another skin at once. A skin thick enough to prevent an osmosis of mood and mein.

Those who stop taking buses and trains forget what the city feels like for most. I do use public transport a lot but have stopped commuting during peak hours. That evening, I hadn't planned on boarding a bus, but it was after five and Cuffe Parade was spewing out line upon line of office-goer. Since no cabs were free, I went to the bus stop and thought: I've done this; it's not all that hard. Besides, Mumbai's BEST services are really quite decent, and so on.

It was hard. The bus was so full that if I kept my seat on the upper deck, I'd never make it down to the lower deck when my stop arrived. There were people crammed all the way up the steps. So I went down to the lower deck, and discovered I had nothing to hold onto. No grab rails or strap-hangars where I found a spot to stand. With the bus braking and lurching every few seconds, it was near-impossible to keep my balance. Yet, the near-impossible was achieved through sheer force of will and several muscles working in tandem. It was a militant form of yoga.

Now I was forced to remember why I had sworn to myself that any life plan – anything at all – had to be better than this. Surely, my life couldn't be reduced to a degree of stiflement so that I'd rather risk my life standing on the footboard than being squashed on all sides by a crowd, even if that crowd is all female? I wouldn't be reduced to the sort of pettiness that makes the most generous spirits lunge at seats and argue about who is entitled to sit down first?

As the bus turned towards the promenade, I caught a glimpse of the setting sun glancing off grey water. It was a tiny hint of mercy. For a minute, I breathed easier. Then I found anger. This wasn't just bad, it was much worse than it used to be. The slow bleeding of the BEST has meant fewer buses, older buses, never enough buses on busy routes. Taking away chunks of fairly profitable public sector companies – such as electricity supply – and handing it on a platter to private firms has meant that public transport can't be subsidised the way it was. The continual focus on cars has meant more roads, bridges and sea links to cut down on traffic time, but never any dedicated bus lanes.

Outside the bus, I spotted foreign tourists taking selfies. I wondered whether they thought of this as a good city. Of us, as a happy people. Look at us! Smiling through it all even as we hang off the sides of a rickety bus. Look at us, coping. Suddenly, I wanted to shake a fist at someone.


First published here: 

https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/a-ride-on-a-double-decker-bus-in-mumbai-gets-the-author-thinking-about-public-transport/article25717732.ece

Monday, December 17, 2018

New book out now

So, three of the plays I've written over the last decade have been published in one volume.

This includes the first full length script I ever wrote 'Name, Place, Animal, Thing', which was shortlisted for The Hindu Playwrights Prize in 2009, and 'Untitled 1', which won the same prize in 2018. The third script is a radio drama, 'Jam', which was the regional winner of the BBC International Playwriting Competition, 2011.

Please go forth and purchase: 3 Plays by Annie Zaidi


Friday, November 30, 2018

A traffic legend

Can’t say I wasn’t warned. Friends who’d been to Dhaka before told me not to make elaborate plans; the traffic wouldn’t allow me to get around much.

I thought, but traffic is pretty bad everywhere. Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru... How much worse could Dhaka’s traffic be? Well, let’s just say that it lived up to its reputation.

I was participating in the Dhaka Literature Festival and discovered that the tiniest commute required a few hours of traffic time. It took an hour to drive a stretch that one could walk in 20 minutes. When the car did move, it didn’t move smoothly. Other writers, especially those who were not used to the chaos of the Subcontinent, were made nervous by the jerky, forward-sideways style of progress. Coming from India, I knew there was little danger at those speeds.

However, speeds are not always so slow and there is always some danger. Dhaka discovered this in recent months, after an accident led to a major political confrontation. The city was brought to a standstill by teenagers, after two school students were killed through rash driving and several were injured.

Accidents are a major cause of death in South Asia. India reportedly witnesses 400 fatalities every day, and road accidents are one of the top 10 causes of death in the country. But in Dhaka, something else was brewing. Students weren’t just protesting the deaths of two kids. They were also reacting to everything else that’s wrong on the road. Nobody observes any rules; there’s no lane discipline. There aren’t enough state-owned buses. Private transporters, many of them politically connected, don’t train drivers properly. Most bus and car drivers are very poorly paid and have no job security. Many of them don’t even have licences.

Children were trying to shame the police into doing their job. They turned out in school uniforms and set up ‘check points’ where they checked licences, scolded traffic violators, demanded that the traffic cops take action. Soon, the movement got bigger. University students joined the protests and now the government became anxious. College students tend to be more politically aware.

Perhaps, the government was afraid that opposition parties would capitalise on the student agitation — and there is a lot to be agitated about — or perhaps the leadership just didn’t know what to do with their demonstration of anger. The outcome, anyway, was the police aggression. Some ‘clashes’ were reported, but some of the violence was allegedly caused by youths affiliated with the ruling party. Photos and videos of the attacks were a further embarrassment for the government.

Again, instead of engaging or promising appropriate action, the state tried to stifle all criticism. Photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested and charged with making ‘provocative comments’ after he shared a video on Facebook and talked to Al Jazeera about the reasons for the protests. He’s out on bail now, but the charges haven’t been withdrawn.

All that time I was stuck in that infamous traffic, I chafed. Why are we obsessed with motor transport in over-populated cities? Why don’t our governments move to fix problems before the tipping point arrives? Why don’t we incentivise cheap, eco-friendly modes of transport like bicycles? Someone cribbed about cycle rickshaws slowing down Dhaka’s traffic, but that isn’t true. The sensible thing would be to create dedicated cycle and cycle rickshaw lanes to streamline flow, and to make sure that students and the poor don’t get hurt.

All it would take is for the leadership to be open to dialogue, to not panic in the face of criticism, to not suspect people’s motives. They elected you, after all. Didn’t they?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hairy stuff


Some of the braids draw inspiration from nature: crabs, flowers, rain that comes cascading down over the ears. But many styles also document the way in which human effort in one field, like engineering, leads to inspiration in another, like fashion. Hair is fashioned into shapes inspired by suspension bridges and skyscrapers, which became common only after buildings started to get tall in the late 1960s. 

I was astounded, not just on account of the time and labour involved in creating such hairdos, but the fact that this was everyday fashion. Many young women wore fantastic styles on the street and to work, which is how the photographer spotted them. Other styles were created for special occasions like birthdays and wedding parties.

There is no denying, of course, that hair is linked to economic status and power. If you’re wearing an elaborate style, chances are, you had help with it, and if you maintain complex styles on a daily basis, chances are you need help very often. If you can’t pay a professional to do it, you most certainly have help within the family.

Still, it must have really mattered to each individual for a culture to invest so heavily in hair. I cannot think of a parallel in India. Even the wealthiest and most fashion conscious among us do not wear the nation’s architectural or engineering triumphs on our heads.

These paragraphs are extracted from a longer column I wrote about hair art and self-image for GQ India magazine. Link here (you may need a subscription): https://www.gqindia.com/content/hair-culture-body-image/

All that art

I stopped to stare at another of Tiepolo's paintings, “The Finding of Moses”. The story is that Moses was a foundling. He was rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. The Pharoah’s daughter would have been a brown woman and if Moses was of the Hebrew people, it is likely that he was brown too. Tiepolo paints them as white. The other women too are generously bosomed white ladies. There are two slightly darker faces in the painting. One, a figure in red, hangs a little to the back, holding a spear and is possibly a guard. Another is a dwarf with moustaches, possibly also a servant or guard. 

Things change over time. As geopolitics shifts, art and representation changes. There is another painting called “The Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema”, dated 1904. Here, many of the people in the painting are brown and black haired. Does it matter?

The question has found fresh currency with the release of Beyonce and Jay Z’s new release, “Apes**t”.

This is an extract from a longer column published in GQ magazine. Link here (behind a paywall): 
https://www.gqindia.com/content/beyonce-jay-z-carters-apeshit-music-video/

The evolution of a man

I attended a girls' college where most of my batchmates were bouncing between three or four options – MBA degree, teaching with a B.Ed degree, hotel management, and air hostessing. Anyone who dreamt of travelling the world and living independently wanted to be an air hostess. None of us dared dream of becoming commercial pilots. A couple of girls wanted to be in the armed forces, but they assumed they would have to quit after five or ten years.


The funny thing was, even as we thought of getting jobs in multinational firms or in hospitality, we tended to focus on “decent” jobs rather than occupying positions of power, or demonstrating leadership. None of my friends ever said that they wanted to take over their family businesses or become CEOs. None of them said they wanted to own an airline or a chain of hotels. None of them said they wanted to be Vice-Chancellors of universities. Our dreams were smaller and always, at the back of our heads, was the thought that we would probably have to get home from office before our future husbands did.

Life, however, has a way of upchucking all assumptions about the self and the world. A year later, I was a journalist, pulling long hours, going everywhere alone, often at night, and being surprised and shocked at how systems, cities, countries worked. I couldn't possibly have returned home to cook for a man who worked ten-to-six, and I didn't want to. Yet, I do recall saying to my boss, a male editor, that it was a woman who was responsible for bringing up children. He mildly argued that a father was equally responsible but, clueless fool that I was, I insisted that mothering was central to parenting.

Now I blush to think of how deeply entrenched the bias was inside my own head, and in families as liberal as my own. In the years since, a lot of things have changed.



This is extracted from a longer column I wrote about how gender roles have evolved over the last two decades. Link here (behind a paywall)https://www.gqindia.com/content/new-roles-play-21st-century/

Monday, November 19, 2018

Not letting it slide


At a literary conversation (about a year ago?), the audience expressed fear and helplessness about violence, rifts in the citizenry, prejudice. I remember saying, there are ways to counter it. I don't know yet but we've got to think about ways so we all feel less helpless.

I thought about it and wanted to post this on Gandhi Jayanti. Belatedly, here are some suggestions for those who wish to do something.

Food and diet habits are at the crux of a growing attempt to control and limit freedoms. Women's bodies and 'purity' of clan is another major zone of control. Both of these are linked to perpetuation of caste, class, and deepening prejudices.

One simple thing middle class people can do is say 'no' to school restrictions. Write to schools and tell them that you reject restrictions on eggs and meat in tiffins as well as canteens. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that they teach freedom and choice; they do not have to impose the dietary preferences of one group over the rest. Students have to learn to deal with differences. Parents have to learn too.

Write letters of protest. If you have the option, withdraw your children from schools that do not respect your own choices or your child's right to experiment with theirs. Insist on sending whatever you want in tiffin boxes. Teach your kids how to talk about food diversity.

Suggest to your employers, if they maintain “pure” vegetarian canteens, that they should consider allowing separate counters for eggs and meat. Nobody HAS to eat meat, but is discriminatory to assume that all employees will be vegetarian, all the time.

Campaign for literature produced by marginalised groups to be included on syllabi, starting at the primary school level, all the way up to University. Are children reading Ambedkar and Maulana Azad alongside Gandhi? Are they reading Urmila Pawar alongside Margaret Atwood, Shakespeare alongside Mohan Rakesh? Is the fiction list inclusive of translations from various languages and regions?

Check out the school and college libraries and ask if the admin will not acquire or encourage more diverse readings. Send letters of disapproval and approval. If schools can't handle the extra work, then offer to organise readings in extra-curricular time.

Organise events in each others' homes, and invite your children and their friends. Talk about the difficult stuff.

Make days like Gandhi Jayanti, Children's Day and Ambedkar Jayanti really count. For far too long, we've reduced Gandhi to his half dhoti and his spectacles. Kids are dressed up in his image, ironically enough, by spending more money. If anything, Gandhi was against wasteful expense!

I didn't have 'My Experiments with Truth' as school reading. The book wasn't in the library. Someone – a retired Brigadier Sahukar – once gave me and my brother money as a gift, asking our mother to buy books. She bought us 'My Experiments with Truth' and Nehru's 'A History of India'. We hadn't even heard of Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, not even through college, although I did study Sociology as a subject. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody recommended it.

We don't need token school holidays. Prepping for such days means prepping for life in India. Dressing up in wire framed glasses and dhotis is okay for six year olds. It isn't enough for 10 year olds or 16 year olds, who are on the cusp of voting.

Start campaigns to get discussion groups going and workshops that encourage critical thought in government and municipal schools. Gandhi, whatever his faults, examined ideas and changed his mind when he was persuaded. It's the least we can do to honour him. The same applies to other leaders and thinkers we have been honouring only through lamp-lighting and garlanding of photos.

Parents need to use platforms such as parent-teacher meetings to talk about bias and prejudice. Start the conversation. Don't be shy to ask the school what they do to ACTIVELY foster diversity and understanding of different cultures. Ask how many kids from different backgrounds – economic, religions, castes – are admitted. Point out the dangers of insulation. Don't be afraid that your kids will be asked to leave. If they are, you are really just saving your kids.

At job interviews, ask prospective employers if they are investing in diversity and multi-culturalism. Ask, why not?

Build pressure to de-segregate apartment complexes and neighbourhoods. Talk at RWA and Cooperative housing society meetings. Write letters. Write anonymously if you are afraid that you will lose your own housing.

Ask if there's a policy of not accepting tenants or buyers from various communities and ethnicities, or if there's a policy against single people.

Also, ask whether this separation of elevators for 'staff' or 'service people' is not akin to racism and very, very close to untouchability, which is against the law. If you are already aware that there is such segregation, then say that this makes you uncomfortable. Say that you don't buy their arguments about 'hygiene'. Instead of calling out random strangers or celebrities on twitter, call out the uncle-ji and bhabhi-ji upstairs.

Call out brokers too, and builders.

Resenting loss of freedom and tolerance is pointless. Send out positive messages, and do so publicly. If you are looking for tenants, or putting out ads on property sites, say specifically that you will not discriminate.

Actively support single men and women. If you have problems with their choices, focus on spelling out those problems, rather than shifting blame onto their personhood. Say you don't want noise. Say you don't want to hear from the cops. Don't say “no visitors or parties”.

If neighbours or your own landlords complain about parties, learn to keep your chin up and say: Then don't celebrate kiddie parties or religious festivals because those events also involve visitors and noise, and you are not obligated to trust that the neighbour's brother-in-law as a decent or trustworthy person.

Build consent as an active rather than passive practice. Teach girls emotional and financial responsibility as much as you teach them to be safe. And teach boys the same.

Campaign for social conflict becoming a module at the high school level. Pretending that conflict doesn't exist, only fuels more conflict.

Build a debate about social and economic development, what existing systems are costing us, and what alternative models look like. Make that conversation mainstream. Talk about how much things cost in the short and the long term. Put this information out everywhere. Not just on social media. Put it where the schools are, where the PTA is, offices, wherever you can.

Start campaigns against parental interference in registered marriages. People who choose not to marry in traditional ceremonies should be able to walk into a registrar's office and, without any notice period or any fuss, be able to do it instantly. Build pressure for the law to be changed accordingly.

Stop interfering with your own kids' romantic aspirations once they attain legal age.

Start campaigns to equalise marriage age. There is no logic to the minimum age of marriage being 21 for boys and 18 for girls. The implication is that boys need to study or work a bit more before they can support a wife. This is discriminatory and embeds notions of inequality in marriage. Both need to be 18 or both need to be 21.

Please feel free to add to this list.






Saturday, November 03, 2018

Movies: a lost mania?

India went to the movies though, despite the rats, the torn seats and the hazards. We went because it was a now-or-never situation. If you didn’t watch the film in the hall, you’d likely never watch it. Television networks rarely bought films for broadcast. Besides, most people didn’t have television.

In the new millennium, things changed. Thousand seaters were knocked down and small multiplexes were built. TV networks began to show a lot of mainstream films, sooner and sooner after a theatrical release. Then came the Internet – YouTube, illegal torrent downloads, Netflix – and things have come to such a pass, movie-goers shrug off a new film thinking: Well, it will be out somewhere, sometime.

So, what does it mean, going to the movies? Timepass on the weekend? Overpriced popcorn? What does it mean to really want a film?

For film-goers like me, the magic of the movies unfolds just one week of the year. We attend a festival like MAMI in Mumbai and we transform into the desperate, passive-aggressive, sneaky audience of filmmakers’ dreams.

Tweets by @anniezaidi