Friday, May 26, 2017

The war on dust

Sometimes I wonder, what would happen if we collectively gave up on dust. What if we just let the city sink under the dust for a whole month, or even a year?

The other day, I was out walking, and may have spotted a demo version of such an eventuality. The pavement lay fractured and unswept. Dust had settled in so firmly that although it was made of coloured paving blocks, everything looked a uniform shade of dull brown. It ran parallel to a divider which had been prettied up with some green plants. But, dust lay so thick on each leaf that the plants too wore a vomitous shade of dun. Sheets of metal lay around covered in grey dust. An old scooter was parked nearby, also covered in dust. The scene suggested decay, abandonment, despair, and it was infinitely depressing.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


A couple of decades ago, however, someone high up in the municipal corporation of Mumbai must have decided to try something new. Interlaced paver blocks were rumoured to be a better idea than concrete or tarred roads. Some people joked that the politicians who pushed for this change probably had relatives who had set up paver block factories. Who knows?

I have to admit that I was pleased to see paver blocks for totally impractical reasons. They made for interesting shapes and colours. I liked looking at the geometrical patterns unfolding under my feet, and a road or pavement or walkway could be terracotta red or yellow. I kept hoping that the authorities would get more inventive and ask for more colours to be embedded into the design – green, blue, black, teal. Why not? Just imagine, what if entire stretches of road could be made into designer works of art? Paver blocks could be set in different colours to make images or portraits. One could embed messages in the shape of words. At the very least, the street could tell us its own name. If we got really creative, we could leave capsules of history strewn about the city. Suburb by suburb, street by street, we could learn to remember where we were, and how we got here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Some questions for Mr Kejriwal

Just a few days ago, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend and like all good Indians, we discussed politics. Lots of breast-beating (metaphorical, of course). We discussed you: AAP as an alternative and you as the last round of ammunition in the nation’s democratic belt.

I had my doubts, but it was not on account of electoral setbacks. For a new political outfit, one without a lot of money backing it, AAP did alright in Punjab and Goa. You didn’t "lose" ’em because you didn’t have ’em to begin with. My doubts were about your values.

My friend argued, what do I know about your values? How could I judge?

I was judging you as I judge all politicians - through statements and silences, through action and inaction.

I noticed you doing good viz health and education, electricity and water. You are trying to fix a deeply unequal system and I respect that. But sometimes I wonder if you are committed to core constitutional values. Freedom of religion, speech, choice. Justice: social, economic and political. Equality. You talk the talk. Do you intend to walk it?

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Triple the Trouble

Women of all religions should worry. A majority government can change laws so that women no longer inherit land, widows no longer remarry, divorce is no longer permissible.

Already, some states restrict freedom of faith by preventing citizens from converting to other religions. Our freedom to eat and drink what we want has been legally curtailed.

No government has passed laws making inter-caste and inter-community marriage easier. The Constitution has been subverted repeatedly.

As far as Muslim women are concerned, ladies, you need to up your game and start fighting in earnest. Feel free to follow a set of civilian laws if you want, for no force is permitted in your religion. But if you follow religious law, learn to make it work for you.

Fight. But don’t just stop at triple talaq. That is a tiny problem. The big problem is independence.

Read this column on Triple Talaaq and Indian Muslim women's struggle to get rid of it:

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The TT and UCC conversation

I had shared some thoughts on the debate around Triple Talaaq and Uniform Civil Code with the newspaper Sakaal Times: 

- Women are not paid wages if they work alongside their husbands or within the household. So if a marriage collapses, they have no money or house of their own. This is true for Hindu women too. The right to inherit property for Hindu daughters is a recent development. It took many decades of fighting orthodox and conservative elements within Hindu society.

- Marriage and divorce are finally personal matters, and cannot be legislated beyond a point. What the state needs to do is to secure individual freedoms and offer greater safety nets for all citizens, regardless of religion or gender.

On the Uniform Civil Code:

The problem is not that the Modi government wants Uniform Civil Code but that they want Muslim marital laws to be the same as Hindu upper caste/ Brahmin laws. Even the laws governing Hindu marriages are actually not reflective of all traditions. After all, divorce was freely available and common among many tribal communities that broadly fall under the umbrella of ‘Hindu’. The British had to legislate and codify laws only because upper caste Hindu groups did not allow divorce, or widow remarriage, etc. Polygamy and polyandry, both are a part of Indian cultural history.

You can read the interview version here

Friday, April 28, 2017

Walkway with a view

I have a fantasy about cities of the future. I’ll be walking on air. Well, almost.

I’ll be high up, fifty feet above street level, using my own two feet, safe in a sort of cocoon. Say, a glass tube or a tunnel with skylights to let in fresh air and sun.

Perhaps there will be art on the walls, or posters. Perhaps, I’ll break into a little shuffle or tap dance if nobody’s watching. Perhaps I’ll have music plugged into my ears and will not have to worry about the frantic horns of approaching buses and cars. Who knows, maybe I will even be reading and walking simultaneously.

In this fantasy, I am free of all the things I like least about cities. Too much vehicular traffic, petrol and diesel smells, fumes, not being able to see the few tree tops that still remain, having the sky blocked out, being forced into a more sedentary lifestyle than I want, and incessant noise. All of that will probably still exist, but it will be downstairs. Cars are welcome to their jams, their air-conditioned traps, their symphony of horns. I’ll be floating above them.

To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been dreaming of such futures if I had not already lived this dream in a tiny truncated fashion. Skywalks have showed me how pleasant a city could be if only one hovers above street level.

They got a lot of bad press when, a few years ago, Mumbai ended up with a clutch of skywalks. They were made supposedly to ease traffic around its suburban railway stations, but civic activists, journalists, urban design experts — everyone opposed them, and for very good reasons.

It is true that the skywalks made construction contractors a lot of money at taxpayer expense. It is true that they are philosophically flawed, for they are based on the assumption that pedestrians should expend greater energy climbing up a huge flight of stairs, just so cars have it easier.

It is true that our skywalks are not accessible to wheelchairs or to people who have knee problems (sooner or later, we’re all getting there). It is also true that they don’t get pedestrians very far either. At best, they help you get across a couple of crowded streets near the railway stations without a mishap. Nobody gave much thought to the potential destinations of citizens who choose to walk.

However, it is not true that skywalks aren’t used enough. One design element that works in their favour is that the skywalk is linked directly to railway overhead bridges, so commuters need not descend and then ascend an extra flight of stairs. In fact, some skywalks get so crowded during rush hours, I have to deal with over-takers and elbowers. The wear and tear — broken tiles, crumbling steps — is more proof of how frequently they’re used.

I do have two complaints about the design. First, they need ramps rather than staircases. Second, they need to be much longer, with exit ramps near markets, cinemas, public parks, hospitals, and post offices.

Still, skywalks may afford me only a five-minute walk but those five minutes are pleasant.

I can amble, or read my twitter feed, or talk on the phone without getting killed. Noise levels drop. Some skywalks even have a couple of benches, and I’ve seen elderly men reading the newspaper there, or students sitting down to chat. Some young people pause on their way to the station, their elbows resting on the railing, staring down at the street, or at the distant horizon.

Walking above street level changes your view of the city. One skywalk sits next to a madarsa and sometimes I see small boys on the upper floor, trying to learn to sit still and read.

Another skywalk runs above a parking lot that’s bursting with motorcycles. Motorcycles clearly bought for very short runs; for longer daily commutes, owners park them and take a train. Another skywalk runs down a busy market. Clothes, bags, shoes. I can’t see them clearly, and yet, when they are not at eye level, I can see these objects for what they are. I see them as glitzy, impractical, or just too uniform. They excite my curiosity but do not tempt me.

A little distance brings greater perspective. I am also able to look at people on the street below in a calmer way. Pedestrians executing a fine dance, twisting their torsos whilst in motion so as not to slam into others, drivers who take foolish U-turns and block the flow of traffic, teenage girls with babies on their hips, kids competing to sell bunches of roses that are utterly devoid of fragrance: all of them existing because of and besides each other.

First published in The Hindu 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On public theft practised as parking

Worse, every car sitting out on the road is a thief of opportunity. There could have been a fruit cart sitting there instead and it would boost the nation’s employment. There could have been a little bit of public art sitting out there instead, which would make the city a more aesthetic experience, or a more politically conscious space. There could even be a series of roadside kiosks that could be put to multiple uses – a phone booth, rain shelter, a flower pot, tree, donation booth, pop-up night school. Why not?

In our cities, we police public space through a moral lens distorted by class. People who park their cars on public land are treated as hapless victims: After all, what else can a car owner do if he/she does not have access to a garage? Poor things, forced to park outside. Anything could happen to the car, no? The government should do something to fix this parking problem. Tsk tsk!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the road, a watermelon

There's a photograph I love to think of. A moustachioed farmer, dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti, is running down the highway with a giant watermelon, twice as large as his head. It was taken by the photographer accompanying me on a reporting assignment in Madhya Pradesh. We were driving towards a village and just ahead of us was a truck loaded with watermelons and a few farmers.

A sudden brake and some of the watermelons rolled off. The truck stopped, the farmer got off to retrieve his watermelons. In the photograph, the farmer is grinning. He must be on his way to the market to sell his crop. He must be looking forward to getting a good price for those giant melons.

I was reminded of this photograph last week when I heard about another set of farmers who grow potato. In some parts of the country, there are farmers who are getting as little as one or two rupees for a quintal of potatoes. That's right. One or two rupees.

At first I thought, this must be a misprint. It seemed impossible. Clearly, it seemed impossible to the farmers too. In Punjab, some of the farmers reportedly offloaded their stock on the roadside. Threw it all away. And who can blame them? It must cost thousands of rupees to get the crop to the mandi and then to come away with so little that they can't even buy a bus ticket back home!

I picture those potatoes rolling down the highway. Or perhaps, not rolling but just sitting there, glaring at the traffic with tiny, fertile eyes: ineffectual speed-bumps for a nation that's getting ahead of itself.

It would be a very different scene, of course, if the farmers started sitting on the highway. Or perhaps they will come into big cities and block the major roads. There was a time, in 1988, when farmers did just that. They came in their tractors and with their cattle. They slept there and shat there for a few days. The bureaucrats and the politicians were quite displeased but also thoroughly shaken. In an essay about the history of Jantar Mantar as a site of perpetual protest, Neha Dixit has written that it was this grand event that led our rulers to confine all protests to one particular spot, Jantar Mantar.

This is, of course, an effective way to destroy the spirit of public protest. To be tucked away in one little corner of the capital, surrounded by dozens of other citizens with serious grievances, is to be rendered invisible. It is the very opposite of what people had set out to do.

I also recall the World Social Forum of 2004, in Mumbai. It was very colourful and, for a young journalist like me, quite an educative experience. Yet political activists – many of whom had been organizing people's movements for decades – looked on with a sort of indulgent amusement. By the time the forum ended, I understood why. All the causes, the slogans, the singing and dancing, the shows of solidarity were confined to a couple of square kilometeres in Goregaon. None of those voices reached even as far as the main road, just outside the venue. It did not lead to any heated debates in Parliament about the urgency of policy change.

Mumbai also has another of those carefully curated sites of perpetual protest – Azad Maidan – where residents, office-goers, children don't really notice the grief and rage of those who come to protest, and nothing gets disrupted. The city doesn't so much as blink, not until a few roads get blocked.

Naturally, keeping people off the road is crucial so cities – and the powers that be – go on functioning as they did before. So all governments use the police to control them. They enact laws which require us to take permission from the police before hitting the road. Oddly enough, the state rarely bothers to ensure that people are actually not on the road. The difference between the phrase 'sadak pe aa jaana' (to be reduced to living on the road) and 'sadak pe utar aana' (to descend upon the road) is the difference between the fears of ordinary citizens and the fears that govern our rulers.

The former is a universal, yet deeply lonely fear. It is the fear of the potato farmer who may have no option except to move to a big city, and sleep, squat, beg on the road or sit there trying to sell whatever strength he still has. He could, of course, descend upon the road, claiming it with his feet, his voice, and demand that the traffic stop and confront him with human eyes and ears. He could, but will he?

First published in TheHindu

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some body poems

I've written a few poems around the theme of the body over the years. Some of them have been published by Antiserious, a literary journal devoted to things that are actually quite serious, but through a not very serious approach.

Here is one, and the rest can be read in the link below:
Dream: Blackbird
Your hair is big like a preying bird’s
nest. You do not bother to smile
as I sit there like a supplicant, trying
to show you something. A PDF file?
My laptop is charged, prepared
for scrutiny but you are busy
plucking blackbirds out of the sky.
Your manners are beautiful. No feathers
stick out the sides of your mouth.
I’m thinking there must be tiny bones
piercing your graw — ribs or claws or
a twiggy neck scratching your tongue.
You spit nothing. You eat them whole.
I tell myself this is a dream and maybe
you have learnt to swallow thorns
from fish-eating Bengali neighbours.
In my dream, I try to imagine
your neighbours and somehow I know
these are the only neighbours you saw
that year you flunked and had to repeat
a class and learnt what failing was.
I think I will never meet your neighbours.
My heart pounds and in my dream, it turns
into a jack-in-the-box collapsed into my ribs.
There are no birds left in the sky.
I hit shut down and wait to hear
that microsoft windows sound.
I wait for some words but you look
at me as if you know how this will end.
Your eyes are black and feathery.
Your eyes are talons and I, a blackbird
cascading into the heart of the sun,
my eyes squeezed tight against vertigo.
Even so, I want to fall into the nest of your hair
so you can pick me up, swallow me whole.
You can. But will you?
I am a black morsel inside your mouth.
I am fine-boned and plump with hoarded fear.
You can. But will you?
My jack-in-the-box heart is powder
against your tongue, my wings are locked
between your teeth. God! I am so tiny!
There are things I want to tell you.
I am tiny and weak. I failed an exam once.
And I cheated in an exam once.
I had pure veg neighbours once
whose little girl constantly fought
with her mum and liked to eat the boiled
halva my mother sent across in a steel plate
with paisley embossing on its rim.
I want to say, we used to eat fat desi chips
with red chilly powder sprinkled on top.
I want to say more. Something about
why I am here and how hungry I am
but I am a tiny morsel in your mouth
and your teeth are grinding.
(C) Annie Zaidi
More poems here:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On consent and colleagues

I wrote this about sexual consent in the context of colleagues, with a few helpful tips for people (men in particular) who are attracted to someone at the work place and want to act on their desire. 

"Let me also say that I'm well-acquainted with the messy mish-mash of fear and hope that is the human heart. I know people often seek to meet a crush using work as an excuse. "Bahaane-baazi", as we call it. “Can we collaborate?” “I've an idea I wanted to bounce off you.”

Women do it too. I've done it myself. But if a colleague is not interested in you romantically or sexually, s/he will politely sit through your bahaane-baazi meeting, and things will go no further. And that's fine too. Women colleagues have desires too, but they know enough to back away politely when confronted with what looks like a rejection.

I just want to tell you, male readers especially, that we – women who work in offices, work all hours, who go out to meet strangers in cafes to see if we can work with them, who go to meetings in offices that are actually converted residential apartments, who can never predict whether there will be other people in the office or not – are neither sexless nor available. And that you have no idea what it costs to manoeuvre a path to dignity."

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Mayawati's Purse

मायावती के जुड़ी एक बात है जो मुझे थोड़ा परेशान करती है, उनके पुतले के हाथ में टंगा वो लेडीज पर्स.
जहां इतने नेताओं के पुतले बनते हैं तो उनके हाथ में फूल माला होती है या किताब. कभी हाथ उठा भी रहता है मानो देश की जनता को संबोधित कर रहे हों. तो क्या मायावती के पुतले के हाथ में कुछ और नहीं हो सकता था? कोई ऐसी चीज जो संवैधानिक हक या आजादी का प्रतीक हो?

आगे पढ़ने के लिए फर्स्टपोस्ट हिंदी की वेबसाइट पे जाएँ: 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Gulab, now in Tamil

Gulab, a novella I wrote that was published two years ago by Harper Collins India, has been lucky enough to find a Tamil publisher in Anangu, an imprint of a journal devoted to feminist themes and literature.

I am very pleased, of course. Cannot find a link to it but am told people can buy it online on this site: ). In the meantime, here's the cover:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

एक छोटा सा लेख, औरत और जिस्म के बालों के सन्दर्भ में

हिंदी में अब ज़रा और आत्म-विश्वास के साथ लिखने लगी हूँ।  कविता या नाटक लिखने में कभी कोई ख़ास हिचक नहीं हुई मगर, हाँ, गद्द्य लिखते हिचकिचाती थी।  अब नहीं।  उम्मीद है, कॉलम अब नियमित रूप से लिखती रहूँगी।

ये रहा एक छोटा सा लेख, औरत और जिस्म के बालों के सन्दर्भ में:

वैक्सिंग से केवल लड़कियों की देह के बाल ही नहीं टूटते

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Of the pavement

I've started a new column for The Hindu focused on the road. Here's the first:

There’s a phrase in Hindustani, ‘paidal-haal’. A pedestrian state of being. It is a metaphor, but it doesn’t suggest ordinary or unimaginative as it does in English usage. ‘Paidal-haal’ implies vulnerability and difficulty, a reduced state. Who, after all, chooses to go on foot if he can afford a set of wheels? And, if he can’t afford wheels, any wheels, why then!

The implication is that wheels make life easier. A car is better than a bicycle, three wheels are better than two, a four-horse chariot is better than a bullock-cart, and your own two feet are precious and must be used sparingly.

Friday, February 03, 2017

From the mud pits

Wrestling is a sport I've gotten interested in and have been following for over a year now. I wrote two longer essays around wrestlers, especially in north India. The first was about how the sport has evolved and is riding a new wave public attention, and the second was about girls and sport, with some interviews with female wrestling champions.

The reason I'm so interesting in wrestling in particular is that it seems to me to represent the growth and evolution of humanity itself. It is one of the oldest sports and has existed in one form or another in all ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, the Persians and of course, Indian. Here's a brief comic I wrote about it:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some poems

Five conversations I can no longer bear to have in person


Remember what a bugle meant?
Flag pennant colours


We grew up watching the same films,
you know what I’m talking about: a battlefield

shields snug against shields, swords tingling
with unshed blood and bones stiff with knowing
they could lie bleaching under a foreign sun
and if there was any loving yet to be done
it was left too late.

The king and his nearest kin, fighting men all.
A bugle on someone's lips waiting for his call.
A sky purpling like a bruise, grasses whispering
to bare ankles of kisses imagined, love unconfessed.
Men looking into the black eyes of the end
and then: now! aye, now!

Flags, stabs, missed throws then night’s relief,
Send for allies. Count the fallen.

The fight was not equal but a decent war had rules.
Dawn to dusk, that was one.
And none but men fighting face to face dared
speak of honour.

A torn chest was battle,
a dagger in the back was not.
A king who dared not lead the charge
waged no war.
He was a traitor looking for a back turned
in trust.

There was loot and rape and slavery but
every foot soldier knew:
the spoils of war are not war.
My friend, you say it is the same
old thing though we both know,
with every battle skirmish coup,
the soldier changes, the enemy is new.
Even so, come walk with me.

Count the dead and missing, let us see
what weapons they brought to the field
what vengeance you wrought.
Let us gauge how badly who lost
this thing you call a war.

Is it loss enough to settle the score
on your ancient ledger?
Do the math, my friend,
and when you are done,
sound the bugle for battle’s end.



There she is.
Creeping around my backyard.

Came indoors with her kittens once.
Just like that!

Just hangs around swatting at pigeons.
Doesn't bother the rats.

I had to take rabies shots once.
Five shots, and for what?
Trying to save her worthless spawn.
We're not friendly, no.

I see her crouched on my garden wall.
Sometimes I hiss until she turns her head.

Our eyes meet but it's not
like hi-hello.
More like, yeah, I’m here
you're there.

She’s got her ways that I don’t like
but what the hey! She’s got her life,
I’ve got my life.

The point is, the difference between
your politics and mine is
the cat lives.



I will not make the cut-us-and-do-we-not-bleed
argument (can you imagine the horror
if one of us failed to bleed from a cut?)

My argument is, we also bleed
when our own brothers cut us.
And you bleed when your own
cut you (and quite often, they do).



Let us make a balance sheet. First, make two columns:

X Ancestors                                               Y Ancestors

1. were folk from north or west of the indus  1. were folk from north or west of the indus
who mated with eastern and southern people    who mated with the eastern and/or southern people 
who were perhaps overcome by force.             who were perhaps overcome by force.
your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but     your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but
they settled down, and were either unable to    they settled down, and were either unable to
destroy the people native to this land or were   destroy the people native to this land or were
reluctant to. they learn to know and love.          reluctant to. they learn to know and love.
the races slowly mingled and became              the races slowly mingled and became
doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,         doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,
weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words       weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words
are evidence that every heart beats                  are evidence that every heart beats
to the same drum.                                            to the same drum.

2. broke temples that housed different gods     2. broke temples that housed different gods
but also took from them new shades of faith.       but also took from them new shades of faith.
they built palaces and forts, ships and ports,        they built new mosques, and some temples too
step-wells, temples and some mosques too.         and gardens, canals, tombs, forts, step-wells.
they learnt from new rival-allies new grace        they learnt from new rival-allies new graces
of gates, domes, dress, song.                              of pillars, dress, speech, song.

3. waged war                                                   3. waged war
a lot.                                                                    a lot.

4. had, then lost                                                4. had, then lost
empires                                                                empires

5. wrote poetry, mused on nature                       5. wrote poetry, mused on nature
and the substance of divinity                                 and the substance of divinity

6. made allies, if not friends, through women     6. made allies, if not friends, through women
and wombs, laid claim to land                               and wombs, laid claim to land
and river and the pulsing strength of wrists            and river and the pulsing strength of wrists
that could wring necks, if they chose to.                that could wring necks, if they chose to.

7. died in wars they didn't understand.               7. died in wars they didn't understand.

8. changed with time.                                        8. changed with time.
sometimes they did time in refugee camps.            sometimes they did time in refugee camps.
often they spent hours waiting in line                     often they were welcome nowhere else and so
for low-cost housing lottery forms.                        they huddled in madarsas and mosques
they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea              they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea
and a terror of never being safe.                            they tried moving out somewhere safe but were met
they raged as new ladders disappeared                  with five seconds of silence across a phone line
into the bog of ancient laws, unyielding                 after they told the real estate broker their names.
as ice. often, they tried to get away to a new         often they lay awake in bed and sometimes were shamed
land where they thrived but found they were          by how much they longed to be warmed
now the wrong sort of other.                                  by the touch of the other's hand.

these kings, those queens, yours and mine
were pawns on the chessboard of time.
we were knights falling off the high horse of fealty
and going down in heavy armour
into the red dust of a nation's history
arms flailing like windmills trying to stave off
a suspicion.

soon all argument will be reduced to broken tiles
all fortresses will be ruins for lovers to tangle in
all temples, mosques, chapels, monasteries will have no part
to play save that of a hospice for bursting hearts.



We have come to ask for your infant son.
We need him to lay a new black tar road.
We heard that's how smooth roads are done.

Good roads require sacrifice.
It’s only fair we all take turns.
Makes things nice and uniform.


why/why not?

We hear the electricity department cannot
function without petrol bombs being lobbed
into lanes holding up so tight,
no husband-wife can make love or fight
without hearing a neighbour sucking her tongue
in disbelief.

We hear the street is to burn like a box of matches,
one house setting off the next.
Thus everyone pitches in.

We were hoping your house could
volunteer as the nerve center
to set alight our common discontent.

Surely you have no objection?

why/why not?

Would you send your sister please
down to the corner where men sit down to compare
the circumference of chests and
debate whether biceps are worth more
than a spine
and whether holding peace is a criminal act
and if you can define crime as that
which was not covered up in time.
In short, the stuff of which nations are built.

why/why not?

So then? How do you propose
to contribute to the nation?
Going about your business?
Waiting for a tax deducted salary cheque?
Wearing the clothes you've always worn?
Eating whatever you can hold of?

My friend! My friend!

This funny attachment to your own misery
These charred remains of youth
Your desire to grow old
Your ability to reproduce
Keep fasts

Surely you know
there is more, much more a patriot must do?
And if we do not volunteer you, then


(C) Annie Zaidi

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Wheels on my mind

Last year (summer of 2016), I had the good fortune of travelling abroad the Deccan Odyssey, a train that travels around Maharashtra to sites of artistic and historic significance such as Ajanta and Ellora, and also to two wildlife reserves, Tadoba and Pench. An essay about the experience was written for Conde Nast India. A brief extract here:

How many years did it take to just prepare the mud plaster surface? From how far away were the paints sourced? How does one go on painting, knowing the work may not be completed in one’s own lifetime? Walking through the monks’ bare cells—nothing here except a flat slab of rock to sleep on—felt like walking through a place of surrendered ego. Thinking of their calm acceptance of mortality, and the need to create beauty under all circumstances, filled me with a sort of hush. As much
 of a hush, anyway, as is possible at a popular site of tourism in India. At both places, I split from the group in search of silence and was struck, not so much by what the centuries left unchanged, but by the inevitability of change. Buddhist philosophy changed, drawing from both Tibetan and Hindu mythologies. Kings and nobles changed religious affiliation—Jain, Buddhist, Shaivite— and that decided what temples would be built. The hills themselves have been worn down to their present squat solidity. No destiny, not even one cast in stone, is set in stone.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Announcing the inaugural Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation

Today (Dec 6) is my grandpa's death anniversary. This year also marks his birth centenary.

Ali Jawad Zaidi was born on March 10, 1916. He was many things, many good and wise things, but I see him as a thoroughly modern man. He was sensitive, erudite, hard-working and always trying to move the world in tiny degrees through his scholarship, his gentility, his innate goodness. He was a man open to change, not only in accepting and standing by the choices his children made, but also through examining his own cultural conditioning. He was broad-minded, simple in his habits and very open to joy.

As a writer, he was prolific. Those interested can read up more about him here ( He was a poet, a freedom fighter, a scholar. He could work in English, Urdu, Hindi and Farsi. His was a mind (and heart) not constrained by one tradition. He was steeped in the Urdu tradition, the north Indian Ganga-Jamuni culture and he believed it was important to hold on to your 'mitti', but he could also venture far from that mitti and keep returning. He could make up Phantom (comics) stories to tell to his grandchildren. It is his openness and his commitment to scholarship and multiculturalism that I want remembered most of all.

We (the Zaidi family joins me in this) want similar literary efforts to endure and be encouraged. As a very small step in this direction, we initiate the first Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation. I hope there are many fine entries. I wish my grandfather was alive to judge them himself. I wish he was alive just for my sake.


Translators are invited to submit translations into English of a single (published) Urdu short story to with 'Jawad Memorial Prize Submission' in the subject field.


The contest will open tonight, Dec 6, 2016 and close on Jan 30, 2017.

The winning translation will get INR 10,000 in prize money. The runner up gets INR 5,000.

The original story in Urdu must either be free of copyright claims (65 years after the death of the author) or the translator must obtain the Urdu author's permission before submitting the story.

There is no word limit but please understand that this is a short story prize. Anything over 10,000 words is considered a novella, so please avoid stories above a certain length.

The judges will not be announced beforehand. Submissions will be judged blind, so please do not write your name anywhere on the document submitted.

The document must be an attachment with either a .doc or .rtf file. The author's name must be mentioned in the document, but not the translator's name.

The translator's name should be mentioned in the body of the email.

The winner of the prize will be announced on March 10, 2017.

The decision of the judges is final.

Good luck and trust in the love of the word.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Objective type questions for the Prime Minister

There are several things the nation wants to know and is wondering if the Prime Minister is going to tell us any time soon. I thought I'd put down some questions like these below:
10. When corporations fail to repay loans, how will they be chastised?
[Seizure of assets/ Black-listing for future loan/ Touching them with a twig wrapped in flowers, like bridegrooms are touched by the bride's siblings]
11. If a corporation defaults on a huge bank loan worth more than 6 zeroes, whose money is still keeping them and the lending banks afloat?
[Middle class savings/ Tax payers/ Don't know]
12. When will Kalluri and his team be charged with sexual crimes against Soni Sori? What about justice for Madkam Hidme, and others in Chhattisgarh?
[Eventually/ Never/ When BJP loses Chhattisgarh]
13. Will garbage segregation at home be made mandatory?
[No, middle class will object/ Not enough dustbins / Yes]
14. How many BJP leaders and party workers wash their own toilets at home?
[10/ 1000/ Zero]

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In praise of literary festivals

I've mostly enjoyed literature and arts festivals and have learnt a lot through them. This year, I was invited to curate the Chandigarh Literature Festival. Here's the text of the speech I made at the opening:

Hello and welcome to CLF 2016. This is a literature and arts festival. It showcases books, screens and discusses films.

Over the last year or so, I've met a few friends who roll their eyes and say, what? Another litfest? Chandigarh has one? Two? Kasauli and Panchkula too? A few years ago, the joke going around lit circles was that, any day now, Gurgaon would have its own festival. Well, that happened too. Some people wonder aloud, do we really need all these festivals? I think that question is worth asking, and answering, every year.

You may have heard that India is incredibly book hungry. We are also hungry in a lot of other ways. A lot of people are hungry in the most literal sense of the word. At least one fourth of our population is below the poverty line, which is really the starvation line. More than half the nation is just about getting by without the basic, assured minimum – good diverse food, clean water, housing, medical aid, pension, terminal life care. A decent education comes just a little bit higher on the pyramid of needs. And books? Not schoolbooks, not books that help you pass exams, but books that allow you to drink at the fount of life, that let you grow into a fuller individual, someone who is better informed about human history and the human soul, books that can help you cope with a spiritual or economic crisis, books that attune you to the changeability of friends, of systems, of borders and moral boundaries, books that help you articulate the nameless terrors that have hounded you since childhood, books that let your mind climb into sky of possibility, books that comfort you when everyone else has failed you – how many Indians have access to such books?

Ten percent? Five? How many of us, once we have left school and college have access to a decent library? How many villages have a free or subsidised library? How many small towns have a good bookshop? How many bookshops in even big cities like Chandigarh? How many car showrooms? Even cities where there are a few good libraries tend not to have any outreach programs that would help fortify the connect between citizens and books. A library or bookshop is not a hospital, after all, where you go only when something is wrong and you need it fixed. They are more like parks for the mind – amusement parks, walking and jogging parks. They help create a fitter, healthier citizenry. Festivals are a step further along the same process of connecting books with citizens.

Those of us who are here today, we are a tribe. Some of us may not have other essential things – houses, cars or bikes, pensions – but we have books. Some of you may be thinking now, well I can afford to buy more books, but where is the time to read? Or you may be thinking, I don't read that much but I love stories. I want to engage with new ideas. I want to feel energised through knowing more, or being comforted by the beauty and balance found in two lines of a ghazal.

When we show up at literary events like this one, it is hard to say what we come looking for, what we hope to gain, how it will transform us. Yet, we know that words do have the power to transform. Our lives begin with a word – a name – and all the history that is attached to it. We become part of a larger community – a nation, a religion, a city, an organization – through stories. Then we keep writing and re-writing the narrative of who we are, where we are going, what we have to do.

Words and stories are not a luxury. They are critical to society. What is a luxury is our access to more complex stories. To be able to swap ideas, to challenge ideas, to hear people debating ideas in a safe and respectful environment – that is a luxury. A literature and arts festival provides that environment. This is why every town need its own festival. The arts need to expand. The bridges between the different arts need to be reinforced. For this, we need people to participate in the conversation around books.

This is what the Adab Foundation has been hoping to do over the last few years, and the conversations and readings you hear over the next three days are a step further along that road. I hope you will enjoy these discussions and participate in them. Welcome once again.
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