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.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Repairing what's broken

Respect is hard. I don't just mean that it is hard to win the respect of others, or to hold onto your self respect. It is also hard to lose respect for people you've held in high esteem.

To see the names of men you looked upto, whose face, voice, writing were familiar, and then to hear stories of sexual harassment. Trousers dropped, unwanted touching, hints to female colleagues that they owed sexual favours. At such time, your instinct might be either to recoil or to disbelieve. To say that you never want anything to do with these men, or to treat women with suspicion: What (or who) is driving these MeToo stories?

I think it is time to reverse the question: What's driving men to denial? Why do they respond with defamation lawsuits instead of apologies?

The answer is loss of respect. Men may lose jobs in a few cases. But even if they continue their work, once named as sexual harassers, they may not command unstinting respect. The silence of women is a curtain that shields men from shame and mistrust. The accused men could pretend that they treated all women with respect, until some women dropped the curtain.

A society where women are not safe at work, on the street, at home, is not a healthy one. It needs healing. So, the question is: how are we going to heal ourselves?

First and foremost, we must stop investing in silence. Silence protects wrongdoers, be they corrupt politicians or sexual harassers. It allows them to go on doing what they do, emboldens them to do worse. Silence makes victims feel isolated. Silence ensures that justice is never done. It disables freedom and hobbles democracy.

I've learnt several things through watching the MeToo movement unfold. I saw that women who work in media, both news and entertainment, are among the first to speak up because they know how and where to tell stories. They belong to solidarity networks and associations. Some of these associations are female-only, which helps if the broader professional association refuses to act on their complaints.

81 percent of India works in the informal sector. Most women can't even prove that they were ever employed, much less that they were harassed or assaulted by a particular supervisor. Women who work in garment factories have told reporters that they are not safe; there are no committees even when there is a regular workplace. Construction workers, agricultural workers, mine and quarry workers would have said MeToo if they could. So, the second urgent step is to set up formal associations for each sector and ensure that the leadership is 50 percent women.

I've also learnt that people can be predatory whilst being fine writers or ethical journalists or fine musicians. When we re-evaluate our opinion of a man, we can collectively pressure him into fixing his behaviour, making amends. We don't have to pretend that his work is rubbish in order to do this.

But how to we get men to behave? Well, for starters, we could handle them a bit like we've handled girls for centuries. By frowning on their attempts to cross the lines of propriety, by pulling them aside and whispering that everyone is watching. By saying that if they go on like this, nobody will ever want to hire them or even marry them. By calling upon them to preserve their own self respect, because if they don't, others can't treat them with respect either.



Sunday, October 07, 2018

Grave matters



Grave Matters

The paths of glory, a poet has said, lead but to the grave. What the poet may not have imagined is the path that leads to the actual graves of famous writers.

Certainly, Thomas Gray would have had some experience of inglorious pathways. Nineteenth century England was no stranger to rubbish dumps and the poet would certainly have corresponded with the occassional turd, an open sewer, or a bit of bone sitting quietly in narrow alleys. One must go down such a lane to reach the grave of Meer Anees, one of the most celebrated Urdu poets.

This part of Lucknow is not unlike the ailing heart of several grand old cities in India. The streets are narrow, the houses crumbling, and infrastructure is rather hit and miss. To visit Meer Anees, you'd make your way to Chowk, and then to a small, elegant mosque called Tahseen wali masjid. You'll find a book shop at street level (and dark whispers of a campaign to force the owners out of business through the persistent dumping of rubbish above) and then a lane as narrow as the waist of a beloved, though less perfumed. You'd do well to send word to the descendants of the poet before you found the grave.

Anees was buried on private land and though a considerable tomb has been built, it is encircled by a metal fence and the door leading to it is locked. Apparently, “anti-social” elements had begun to frequent the place, so locking up was the simplest way to keep them out.

What made me really sorry, though, was that there wasn't a signboard in sight to point tourists and lovers of literature in the right direction.

On my first visit to London, I had very little money and not much time to look around. However, I was determined to take in a visit to Charles' Dickes' house. The writer shaped more than my literary tastes; he also gave me a moral view of the world and, in that sense, his work finds a home in me. Even so, I wanted to see one of the houses he had lived in. It was listed on the tourist map and there were at least three street signs pointing the way. But more than three were not permitted by the city and, much to my dismay, I realised that a fourth sign was desperately needed.

After wandering in circles for an hour, I nearly gave up. No passersby helped; many seemed not to know who Charles Dickens was! Eventually, I stopped to buy water at a department store where a schoolboy came to my rescue.

In India, we tend not to preserve writers' homes as living monuments. The houses are inherited by families who can't always afford to preserve them. Even so, it would be useful if the state put up a few signs that informed and encouraged visitors who came looking for the city's cultural heritage.

At any rate, a culture that celebrates poetry is neither built in stone nor buried in stone. It is found half lying in a bright yellow kurts, smoking a cigarette with the mosque to his left, garbage dump to his right, and couplet by Anees on his ready lips.

I have now forgotten the verse he sent up into the overcast afternoon. But another will serve just as well: 
Ahtiyat-e-jism kya, anjaam ko socho Anees
Khaak hone ko ye musht-e-ustukhwan paida hue

Worry less about this body, Anees, think of what comes after,
This bag of bones was meant to be ground into dust.


First published here: https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/grave-matters/article24982723.ece

Thursday, October 04, 2018

The in-law as threat


Growing up, I never heard anything about who belonged in the kitchen. My mother didn't stay any longer in the kitchen as was necessary. She put food on the table though. And books in the library. When she visited home a couple of times a year, she remembered to take small gifts of cash for her own mother.

My grandmother was in the kitchen a lot. She never went to school but even from her, I never heard anything about women and kitchens. She was hoping I'd become a doctor or a bureaucrat. Future in-laws were never mentioned. In all my years of schooling and college, none of my teachers – male or female – ever hinted that girls belonged in the kitchen.

Still, now is a good time to think about kitchens and women's place. At this fine moment in our nation's history, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat and current Governor of Madhya Pradesh has been telling female students that they must cook tasty daal to appease their mothers-in-law. In fact, they may as well start right away by helping out in the hostel's mess kitchen. While she was at it, she also advised girls not to cut their hair short, else the in-laws wouldn't let them into the house.

These threats about in-laws' acceptance are real to a young girl. She knows she is not welcome, beyond a point, in her parents' home. She may be needed by a husband – for sex, for labour, for the care of the elderly – but the home is not one she owns. It is place she occupies cautiously, taking nothing for granted. One wrong move and she will be accused of breaking up a family. One wrong haircut and she might be turned out. Anandiben Patel's reminder to girls of their tenuous position in the world is not the last thrashing of a dying philosophy. It is the ogre of patriarchy crushing the few heads that are starting to hold themselves higher. Instead of reminding young girls of the hard battles fought over the last two centuries by our foremothers – for the right to own and inherit property, to not be the legal property of fathers and husbands, to be educated, to earn and enter professions formerly barred to them – Ms Patel seems to be saying: There's no climbing out of the abyss of the past. In the kitchen, without a wage, is your destiny.

I'm not sure what Anandiben makes of the government's official campaign to “save” daughters (that is, not kill them before they are born nor immediately after) and to educate them. Perhaps it is with her blessings that the Barkatullah University, one of the bigger ones in the state of Madhya Pradesh, announced a three month 'Adarsh bahu' (ideal daughter-in-law) course, allegedly to “prevent families from falling apart”.

Such courses are polite reminders of a woman's “place”. This place is nowhere secure or familiar. Nowhere she's mistress of her destiny. Instead, she must first imagine a future in which her life is organised around husband and in-laws. Then the university offers her training so she may bend to a politics intent on stealing her freedom and the fruits of her labour. A 'bahu' is many things but above all, she is a worker in a job that she cannot easily quit. The most common advice given to a bride is to work hard and pose no challenge to members of her marital home. An ideal daughter-in-law fits in like sugar in a cup of milk.

There is no such thing as an ideal damaad (son-in-law), of course. No university teaches sons to adapt to in-laws; they don't have to live with them or meet the expectations of strangers. They visit like honoured guests. The men who do live with their wives' parents are often derided, either because they are not earning enough to move into an independent home or because they must do what women do: adjust, fit in, not call the shots.

In every family, there is potential for friction, for stress and emotional harm. But who carries the greater burden of trying to avoid friction by ridding onself of one's own personality and constantly pleasing others? Indian women, especially married women, commit suicide in great numbers. Over 36 percent of the world's female suicides are Indian.

That's worth thinking about as our leaders ask young women to please in-laws and future husbands, what are they asking? Older women, especially who have themselves drunk deep at the fount of power, ought to have the grace not to tell younger women to toe the line. Instead, they ought to be telling them to chase dreams, to grow into the fullest possible version of themselves, to not shy away from conflict, to not bend backwards for anyone, lest they break.





Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Umr aur prem pe ek lekh

यूँ तो प्रेम का मामला हमेशा नाज़ुक ही होता है, लेकिन कुछ प्रेम कहानियाँ इतनी नाज़ुक होती हैं कि जैसे ही उनका ख़ुलासा होता है, प्रेमियों की समझो शामत!

हिंदुस्तान में, अगर जाती या धर्म का फ़र्क़ हो तो परिवार और समाज के लोगों को तो तकलीफ़ है ही, प्रेमियों की जान को भी ख़तरा है। अगर केवल आर्थिक स्तर में फ़र्क़ हो तो लोगों की नाक-भौएँ चढ़ जाती हैं। जिसके पास पैसे ज़्यादा हों, उससे और उसके परिवार वालों से हमदर्दी  भी जताई जाती है। और अगर उम्र में बहुत फ़र्क़ हो, तो प्रेमियों का मज़ाख़ उड़ाया जाता है। 

इसका हाली उदाहरण है अनूप जलोटा और जसलीन मथारू की जोड़ी। ज़ाहिर है, मज़ाख़ जलोटा साहब का उड़ाया जा रहा है क्यूंकि उम्र ज़्यादा है। कहा जा रहा है, दोनों में 37 साल का फ़र्क़ है, सो प्रेमिका बेटी की उम्र की है। मगर मज़ाख़ में एक तरह की इर्षा भी झलक पड़ती है, के देखो! जवानों से बाज़ी मार ले गया! 

मैं सोचती हूँ, क्या होता अगर 65 साल की औरत, ख़ास कर भजन गाने वाली या प्रवचन सुनाने वाली कोई देवी जी, 28 साल के किसी बेहद खूबसूरत, तने-कसे बदन वाले आदमी का हाथ पकड़ लेती? 

एक-आध महीने की बात है, प्रियंका चोपड़ा का भी मज़ाख़ उड़ाया गया था क्यूंकि निक जोनास के साथ मंगनी की है। ख़ैर, यहाँ तो 10 साल का ही फ़र्क़ है। औरत की उम्र ज़्यादा हो तो लोगों को तीन या पांच साल भी बहुत ज़्यादा लगते हैं। मैंने अपने दोस्तों में, पढ़े-लिखे और काफ़ी हद तक आज़ाद ख़्याल लोगों के मूँह से 'क्रेडल-स्नैचर' जैसी अजीब संज्ञाएँ सुनी हैं, यानी पालने से बच्चा चुराने वाली। चाहे छेड़ने के लिए कहा हो, मगर आज भी युवा पीढ़ी की नज़र में भी, 30 साल की लड़की को 25 साल के लड़के पे नज़र डालने का हक़ नहीं है। 

आप कोई भी अख़बार उठा लें, शादी के इश्तेहार पढ़ें।  अगर 'लड़के' की उम्र 28 है, तो उसे 21 से 28 के बीच की 'लड़की' चाहिए। अगर 38 है, तो 25 से 35 के बीच की लड़की चाहिए और अगर 48 है, तो 30 से 45। 

कुछ लोग इसको औरत के बच्चे पैदा करने की उम्र से जोड़ते हैं।  मगर सच ये है: आदमी अगर जीवन की संध्या में हो, दूसरी शादी कर रहा होता है, तब भी ये असंतुलन नहीं बदलता। आदमी 60 या 65 का भी हो, चाहिए उसे 45-55 की औरत। मैंने आज तक ऐसा कोई इश्तेहार नहीं देखा जहां 60 का आदमी 55-70 साल की औरत की तलाश में हो। तलाश तो बहुत दूर की बात है, कोई इसकी कल्पना भी नहीं करना चाहता।   

कुछ हद तक इसका प्रमाण आपको फ़िल्मी अभिनेता और उनके किरदारों में भी दिखेगा। 50 साल के अभिनेता 23-24 साल की अभिनेत्रियों के साथ परदे पे प्रेम करते नज़र आते हैं और इसे स्वाभाविक माना जाता है। अभिनेत्री 40 की हुई नहीं, प्रेम कहानियाँ ही ख़त्म! 

शादी-ब्याह के मामले में 10 साल ज़्यादा नहीं माने जाते। बड़े-बुज़ुर्गों से ये भी सुना है कि मर्द-औरत में 10 साल का फ़र्क़ ठीक है। ठीक इस लिहाज़ से मानते हैं कि आदमी कमाएगा अच्छा और लड़की जितनी कमसिन और अनाड़ी, जितनी अनुभवहीन, जितनी परतंत्र हो, उतनी आसानी से पति और उसके परिवार के क़ाबू में रहेगी। यही 10-12 साल का फ़र्क़ भयानक लगने लगता है जब आदमी की उम्र कम हो। पत्नी या प्रेमिका अनुभवी हो, अपना अच्छा-बुरा समझती हो, ख़ुद पैसे कमाती हो, उसे आदमी के पैसों और उसकी दुनियादारी की ज़रुरत न हो, ये किसी को मंज़ूर नहीं। 

हमारा समाज दर-अस्ल आइना नहीं देखता। हर अधेड़ उम्र का आदमी, और अक्सर बूढ़ा आदमी भी, जवान औरत को देखता है तो उसकी नज़र में हमेशा ममता नहीं होती। बाज़ार में, रेस्टोरेंट में, सिनेमा हॉल में - आपको उनकी कामुक नज़र मिलेगी। अधेड़ उम्र की औरतें अगर उसी आज़ादी से, उसी आत्म-विश्वास के साथ, घर से बाहर निकलतीं, और ख़ूबसूरत जवान उम्र के लड़कों को देखतीं, तो उन्हें खूबसूरती और जवानी ही नज़र आती। ममता उमड़ पड़ने की संभावना कम है। ये बात अलग है कि हमारे समाज में औरतें अधिकतर पहल करती नहीं हैं; बदतमीज़ी भी नहीं करती हैं; नज़र पे ज़रा पर्दा पड़ा रहता है। चाहे उम्र का जो पड़ाव हो। और जहाँ नज़रें मिलने की संभावना है, वहीँ प्रेम और शादी की भी है।  

लेकिन अनूप जलोटा साहब से उम्मीद है, वे भजन गायें, प्रभु और माता की चौकी में मन लगाएँ। संपत्ति हो तो बच्चों के लिए छोड़ जाएँ। अकेलापन काटने को दौड़ता है तो अपनी उम्र के आस-पास किसी महिला से शादी कर लें। लोग कहेंगे, कोई बात नहीं; बुढ़ापे का सहारा हो गया। ख़याल रखने को भी कोई चाहिए इत्यादि। प्रियंका चोपड़ा साहिबा से भी यह उम्मीद है लेकिन उनके लिए 'आस-पास' की खिड़की और संकुचित है।  

किन्तु प्रेम? उम्र का लिहाज़ नहीं करता। प्रेम किसी चीज़ का लिहाज़ नहीं करता। जात-धर्म का नहीं। गोत्र और दर्जे का नहीं। हमारे यहाँ लोग हर उस चीज़ से डरते हैं जो दूसरों को (और ख़ुद उन्हें भी) निडर बना देता है। एक बार 'लोग क्या कहेंगे' का डर दिल से निकल जाए, फिर इंसान को किसी धर्म या झूठी रस्मों के खूँटे से बाँधना मुश्किल है। शायद इसलिए समाज में प्रेम को बांधने की कोशिश ही है। कभी धमकी दे कर, कभी मार कर, कभी मज़ाख़ उड़ा कर।


[ये लेख बीबीसी हिंदी ने ज़रा एडिट कर के छापा है: https://www.bbc.com/hindi/entertainment-45556594]

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bus ladies

A few months ago, I had the good fortune of being invited to the Women of the World Festival, held in Brisbane this year.

Because it focusses on women – as artists, creators, activists, change-makers, musicians, amateur wall-climbers – it also hires mainly women. It is no longer unusual, of course, to see women hosting and organising events, marketing and managing ticketing counters and so on. However, it is still unusual to find women chauffeurs. What's rare is the sight of a woman driving a mini-bus. What's rarer than that is to board a bus and expect a woman behind the wheel. In Brisbane this year, I had this rare experience.

Around the world, at cultural or artistic events, the people who are driving guests to and fro the venue are often volunteers. They inhabit the city and would like to participate in its cultural life. Perhaps they get a little stipend too, but they are not professional taxi drivers. They are students or aspiring managers or just people who have a bit of spare time on their hands.

Even so, the first time I found a young woman at the wheel of a mini-bus, I was pleasantly surprised and I also thought that she must be an unsual woman. Maybe she has experience handling big vehicles. Then I realised that all the volunteers were women and they were all driving these huge vehicles. So I got talking.

Some of them turned out to be students at one of the local universities. They also had other jobs. None of the ladies I talked to drove big vehicles regularly. This was a new experience for them. They admitted that it looked a bit daunting at first, but also said that they felt confident handling the vehicle after the first day. They were cheerful, besides being good, careful drivers and I couldn't have felt happier or safer out in a strange city than knowing that the bus I was waiting for was being driven by a woman.

Back home, of course, this is not an experience I have had. I did bump into a female auto-rickshaw driver once in Delhi, but that was nearly a decade ago. I take hundreds of rickshaws every month in cities like Delhi and Mumbai but I have never again found a female driver. A few years ago, I found myself in Rohtak, and I spotted a few pink share-rickshaws. Curious, I hired one all by myself. It was driven by a young teenaged boy but a saree-clad matronly woman was seated up front beside him, on the driver's seat.

I asked whether the rickshaw was actually the woman's and she confessed it was given to her under some state scheme, meant to encourage women's employment. The boy was a family member, though, and she said she let him drive it most of the time.

I can't help thinking how different our world would look if, every time we hailed a cab or waited at the bus stop, we wouldn't know whether the hands on the wheel were going to be men or women. What if there was a fifty-fifty chance? And what if women didn't have to announce their presence on the streets by painting everything pink every time they got behind the wheel?


First published here: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/getting-behind-the-wheel/article24744774.ece

Thursday, August 16, 2018

With gratitude, some good news

A script I wrote recently, Untitled 1, has won The Hindu Playwright Award for 2018. I am glad and grateful and feel very lucky. 

Here is the announcement of the prize: 



And here is an interview with some detail about themes and characters in the play:

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Or, how I learnt to think

My grandfather was once in jail.
As a kid, I’d pronounce this with a little flush of pride. My grandpa! Way back in 1939.
As a young man, my maternal grandfather became involved with student politics and wrote rousing poems, neither of which the British government cared for. A warrant was issued. He went underground, but was eventually arrested.
I know nothing of his jail stint except that he wrote more Urdu poetry and learnt the Hindi (Devanagari) script. I did ask once if his mother was mad at him for getting arrested. She was upset, he said, mainly on account of the family’s reputation. His marriage had been fixed, but after his arrest the girl’s side broke off the engagement. Clearly, not everyone thought it was such a fine thing to go to jail – not even in the name of the freedom.
My pride rested on the fact that Grandpa was a political prisoner. So was the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the tallest leaders of India’s freedom struggle. Some were charged with ‘sedition’, causing disaffection towards the government, but that didn’t stop them. They courted arrest, confronted police batons and went on hunger strikes. They emerged from jail with their heads held high.
Then came freedom. On 15 August 1947, at the stroke of midnight, politicking was no longer quite the same. Inquilab Zindabad – ‘Long Live the Revolution’ – became a fraught slogan. My grandfather was no longer so political. The sedition law stayed on the books.
ONE OF MY earliest memories has me standing under a dilute sun at morning assembly in school, feeling nervous and weepy. Every day we stood in neat rows, sang a prayer, recited a patriotic pledge wherein we swore that all Indians were our brothers and sisters, after which our hair, nails and teeth were inspected by the class teacher. That particular morning, in 1984, we were asked to stand for one minute’s silence to mourn Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Read the full essay here (Note: the 1941 mentioned in the link is actually 1939; I had written the essay long after my grandfather's death and did not recall the year precisely, but have since gone back and looked in the archives, and found the correct year, hence the change in this post):

https://griffithreview.com/articles/dangerous-little-things-turning-political/

One pedal man


There was something odd about the way he wore the rubber slipper on his right foot. It was half off all the while he kept his foot pressed to the pedal.

The other odd thing was the way he pedalled the cycle rickshaw. He would pedal only with his right foot. The left foot was balanced on the pedal but it did not move and so, the strain of pushing the rickshaw forward came in half cycles, which served to double the effort he had to put into it since it broke momentum and didn't let him ride lighter.

I sat in his rickshaw a bit reluctantly. A young man, probably in his late twenties, he was the thinnest, most undernourished rickshaw puller I'd seen in a long time. He also seemed not to want to make even the most cursory conversation, choosing to communicate in gestures. I told him my destination; he held up two fingers in response.

It was a two-minute ride and all along, his half-worn slipper was bothering me. Finally, while getting off, I asked him why he wore his slipper the way he did. He didn't respond and I hurried away into the station.

What are the chances that one will end up hiring the same rickshaw, the same day? In a big city, very few. It is even rarer that one will remember a rickshaw-puller whose face one has not had a chance to look at properly. After all, one sees only his back and he doesn't get to look at his customers through the ride.

I was returning very late that night. In the dark, I didn't think I would have recognised him. But there he was, the same thin frame, one of his hands waving madly at me to come to his cycle-rickshaw instead of the autos. Silent, but waving very insistently. And again, his slipper was half off his right foot.

Again, I noticed that his manner of pedalling was odd: a series of half cycle pushes forward. Finally, I asked him why he was pedalling like this. He told me; he had hurt his left leg a while ago, so he tried not to use it.

I paid him and then spent a week thinking about him. It is true that I am relieved that nowadays, in cities like Lucknow and Delhi, there are more e-rickshaws than cycle rickshaws now. I feel guilty, especially when elderly or clearly undernourished men pull a cycle-rickshaw, but it is also true that I can see that the elderly or undernourished citizen is the one who needs the money most desperately. I'd rather give it to him than to the auto-rickshaw driver. Even so, this was the first time I had sat in a rickshaw pulled by someone who had had an injury and was probably still in some pain.

He had been chewing paan or tobacco. He had been spitting too. And for a handful of minutes, I had watched him go about his life, pedalling hard, pushing his body to its limits so he could make a bit of money and exist in this world. A honest living, after all.

I am still thinking about him and his rickshaw, and a city where a young man like him gets others to their destination safely, at minimal cost. What is the meaning of being accommodating in such a world, and what is the meaning of trust?


First published here:  https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/a-two-minute-ride/article24564601.ece

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Why novels and printed books exist in the age of Netflix

Consider the difference between watching a film in a foreign language and trying to read a book in that language. The film will still give away a lot, but the book will give you nothing unless you’re willing to work hard to interpret the words. It is you who bring words to life.
A book is an extraordinary intellectual and emotional pact between writer and reader. Cinema can seek a response, but it is a more passive exercise. Once you sit down to watch, images and words unfold. You can leave the hall or turn off a gadget, but the creation is what it is. When you return to the same film, the actors will still be wearing what they were wearing. If the girl wears a yellow hat in a book, it may be a bonnet or a fedora or a wide-brimmed floppy hat. It could be canary yellow or the colour of daffodils, and it might be edged with white lace. And if you don’t know the meaning of “hat”, you may imagine the girl wearing a yellow scarf.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A button jab worth of equality


One of my favourite experiences while traveling in more developed nations is the button you can press whenever pedestrians want to cross the road.

I love those buttons affixed to poles at every crossing. They makes a pedestrian feel like she's something too. Something resembling a human citizen rather than a scurrying insect trying to get out of the way of unseeing, unstopabble metal beasts. It makes you feel like your life is a little bit more valuable than ten seconds in the lives of people who happen to be in cars. It reminds you that you are equally human and the fact that you're using your own two feet to get around makes you more deserving of consideration, not less.

This thing about bicycles and sidewalks and the constant dismissal of pedestrians as a component of street traffic – it's basically a class problem in India. There are hierarchies in developed nations too, but the class groups aren't watertight compartments. Those who drive cars also ride bicycles and also take long walks. Those who walk to work may well possess cars, choosing to drive only on weekends. People may drive to work but prefer to walk to restaurants or clubs in the evening.

In India, class is a visible phenomenon. Usually, the pedestrian is at the bottom of the heap. She, or he, does not own any motoring assets. And so, what right have they to expect that they can actually cross the road safely? And if they do cross, they must do so at their risk, and only after a patient wait at the traffic lights. They certainly don't get to control how long they must wait, or how much further they have to walk before they can find a proper zebra crossing and a traffic light?

Those who ride bicycles often cannot afford motorcycles or scooters or cars. Cyclists are mainly men running errands, not doing it for pleasure or exercise. Errand boys, tradesmen, freelance professionals may be carting packages as heavy as their own body weight. They could also be young students from middle class families but increasingly, in bigger cities, students take buses, trains, or rickshaws.

The adult middle class cyclist is an anomaly in India (I know of only six such among several hundred friends and acquaintances). I also remember the time when one of them was barred from entering a complex where discussions and arts' events are hosted. He was riding a bicycle and clearly didn't fit the security guards' image of someone who deserves to access art or join interesting conversations about society. It wasn't until he began to argue in English that class privilege was re-established and the guards relented.

Nowadays, some states are talking of barring cyclists and cycle rickshaws from major roads. There is not much noise about this, so I am guessing that most middle class people would prefer it that way. Or would they?

There must be a knot of worry in upper class hearts about bad times. What happens if they cannot afford chauffeurs to ferry kids to school and drive retired parents to hospitals? Will they have to find worse ways of making more money to pay for cars and fuel and chauffeurs, and houses with more parking space? What if all investments backfire? Will the kids die, trying to cross a road?

Surely, even the elite must prefer the idea of a country where such questions weren't necessary.



Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The making of a river goddess


Somewhere in the Haryanvi village of Mughwali, there is a little acquifer. That is to say, there is a hole in the earth, bricked around, and a circlet of still water. There's a frog paddling in it.

Nothing about this image suggests “river”. As farmer Jarnail Singh points out, a river is that which flows; this is groundwater. Others disagree. This water, they insist, is the same river Saraswati, the one mentioned in the Rig Ved. Built around contestations of what it is, what it can achieve and what's at stake, is a 20 minute documentary film, “Searching for Saraswati”, showing tomorrow (July 10) on the New York Times website.


Read the full article on The Quint

Sunday, July 08, 2018

On trolling and rape culture

To call it filth is to dress it up. To call it a disgrace is to lend it grace. Let us call it what it is. It is the manifestation of minds so steeped in rape that it is rape that drips from the tips of their fingers onto the screens of their smart phones.

The meaning of rape is a not-yes. It is not waiting, not listening, not looking for a shade of nuance between yes and no, or I'm-feeling-trapped, or what-might-be-the-consequences-of-this-decision? The meaning of rape is forcing people to do things they do not want to do.

Anyone can do it. Sometimes it is done by mobs, sometimes by friends, sometimes strangers ganging up on one who is not able to protect himself. Or herself.

An unsavoury, undemocratic political culture builds upon rape culture and vice versa. It preys upon the vulnerable and seeks to attach blame to its victims. Just as rape or sexual harassment are assaults upon a person’s physical and emotional autonomy, attacks are launched upon citizens who demonstrate an independent spirit, or exercise the smallest vestige of power, as our Minister for External Affairs, Ms Sushma Swaraj, has regretfully had to discover.

Friday, July 06, 2018

On literary loans and Bollywood

When does a borrowing turn into a theft?

The answer is obvious – ask before borrowing, and do not go about saying that the goods are your own property. There’s no way of returning borrowed words. The most we can do to avoid insinuations of robbery or mal-intent is to publicly credit the source.

With creative artists, credit is not a straight business. We respond to poems with fresh verses, and build upon foundational myths; we wrench a new politics, a deeper insight out of old tales. With film songs, crediting is especially tricky since much of popular Bollywood music borrows heavily from folk songs and the great Hindi/Urdu classics.

Recently, a very hummable song from Baaghi 2 was being discussed on social media. ‘Allah mujhe dard ke qaabil bana diya’ borrows in two ways. The first is a clean “lift” of one couplet:

“Betaabiyaan samet ke saare jahaan ki
jab kuchh naa ban sakaa to mera dil banaa diya”

This couplet is credited to Najmi Naginvi on Rekhta.org, though it is also often credited to Jigar Moradabadi. The latter is a more famous poet and one of his famous ghazals certainly uses the same meter, rhyme and refrain. Sample this:

“Laakhon mein intiḳhaab ke qaabil banaa diyaa
jis dil ko tum ne dekh liyaa dil banaa diyaa”

The second way in which the Baaghi 2 song borrows is by taking the structure and similar ideas from Jigar. In the tradition of Urdu poetry, this may not be considered outright theft. There’s a phrase for it: ‘zameen udaana’. Translated loosely, it means, to take the ground in which a poem is rooted. Another poet may take the same rhyme and refrain, and create something new. However, the full verse borrowed is nothing but theft.

The lyric credit for this song on the official T Series channel on Youtube is listed as ‘Arko’. Neither Najmi Naginvi nor Jigar Moradabadi are mentioned anywhere. Interestingly, ‘additional vocals’ are credited but there is no room for the original source of the song’s theme, words, or its lyrical structure.

This is not unusual for Bollywood. The famous song Dillagi ne di hawa, thoda sa dhuaan utha, in the film Dostana, includes a line “Ankhon ka tha qusoor churi dil pe chal gayi”, which is from a ghazal by Jaleel Manikpuri, also sung by Mehndi Hassan.

The question of originality is tricky. In Urdu poetry, there is a longstanding tradition of paying tribute or treating a great master's work as the starting point from where you push off your own lyrical boat. There are even ‘tarhi’ mushairas where a new generation of poets is given an existing line of verse and asked to create a new poem around it.

Gulzar, one of the greatest contemporary lyricists, is rooted in this tradition. He often builds upon a single phrase by an old giant, such as ‘Zeehal-e-miskeen, makun taghaful' by Amir Khusrau, and ‘Jee dhoondta hai phir vahi fursat ke raat din’ by Mirza Ghalib, or changes a ‘Thaiyya thaiyya’ by Bulleh Shah into ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’. However, these verses are centuries old and there’s no dispute about their authorship. 

He did run into rough weather when he modified the first two lines of a poem by a near contemporary, Hindi poet, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena who died in 1983. Gulzar had changed ‘Ibn Batuta/ Pehen ke joota’ to ‘Ibn Batuta/ Bagal mein joota’ for the film Ishqiya. True, the rest of the poem was totally different but it can’t hurt to list Saxena’s poem as a source of inspiration, since he is not as well known as Gulzar.

There is a long tradition of poets being called out by other poets if their borrowings become apparent. I was speaking with one of the young, upcoming voices in Urdu poetry, Abhishek Shukla, who tells me that even Ghalib was accused of borrowing ideas from Persian writers; a scholar called Yagana Changezi has pointed them out in a text called Ghalib-shikan. There are several such anecdotes about similarity of verses, and there may well be an authentic ‘khayaal ki takkar’, an accidental collision of ideas. Shukla says it has happened to him too and he is happy to acknowledge the similarity of the couplets in print as well as on social media. But some poets hide behind ‘takkar’ when caught shoplifting.

There’s a story about Firaq Gorakhpuri at a mushaira, where he heard a younger man recite his (Firaq’s) couplets. Firaq asked if those verses were indeed his own work, and the young man said, yes. But, starting to realize that he had blundered, or belatedly recognizing Firaq, he took refuge behind ‘takkar’. Firaq reportedly said that it is possible that a bicycle collides with another bicycle, or with a horse-carriage, or even a car. But what are the chances that a bicycle will collide with an aeroplane?

In another instance, Khumar Barabankvi was hearing his own ghazal being recited at a mushaira by a younger poet. When he stopped, Barabankvi said aloud: Young man, you may as well read out the last two couplets too.

If a poem is going in print, it doesn't hurt to add a footnote or use quote marks or italics for a borrowed verse. For film songs, however, it is incumbent upon the lyricist to mention it in the credits. If it is a tribute, it is evident only to the well-read who are familiar with the original. In a cultural context where most people do not read poetry but do listen to film songs, to not credit the line is very problematic.

However, within the film writers’ community, nobody wants to confront unpleasant questions such as the nature of creative pursuit, and who deserves how much? Finally, it all comes down to a writer’s personal work ethic. Varun Grover wrote a song based on Dushyant Kumar’s Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai and has acknowledged it. The official Zee Music Company channel on Youtube mentions it. Grover also did the hard work of running about to get permissions from the late poet’s descendants to use two lines, and he reached out to the publishers too. Many others don't want to do the work.

The other problem is that producers are parsimonious when it comes to writers. Even if the sums of money required are small, they are reluctant to pay it. I would not be exaggerating if I said that major production houses hesitate before paying writers even ten thousand rupees, but don’t bat an eye before coughing up two crores for filming the song.

In the internet age, due credit is a peculiar nightmare. One lyric website lists the very famous poem, “Ye daag daag ujala, ye shabgazida seher' as written by Gulzar for the film Firaq, while the actual poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz is listed as 'singer' (http://www.glamsham.com/music/lyrics/firaaq/yeh-daag-daag-ujaala-yeh-sabkajida-sehar/949/2312.htm).

Film writers would do well to stand up not only for their own rights, but also for establishing base rules and norms for writing credits. The merit (and income) of a lyricist is directly linked to an ability to generate fresh words and images, binding them into a succinct verse. If he (or she) chooses to give credit where it is due, he will only gain the respect of his contemporaries. Unless, of course, he is unable to write songs without the help of borrowed lines. In that case, what can other writers offer him except compassion?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Nikki and the Post Truth Juggernaut


One can’t help it. One feels good about an Indian (well, okay Indian origin) girl growing up to do big things. Nikki – probably a pet name that her family lovingly used, a word that in Punjabi actually means ‘little one’ – has grown up into one of the biggest, most powerful positions in the world. She is an ambassador of one of the most powerful, most heavily militarized nations in the world, deputed to the United Nations, the ultimate world body.
Now she’s back in the country her parents left, seeking greener pastures. But what is she doing here? She, who is neither the President, nor the Vice President, neither handling trade nor defense nor external affairs portfolios?
She’s said she’s here to make India-US ties stronger. So, she’s visiting religious places of all faiths, and meeting freed child slaves. And of course, she’s talking selectively of terrorism. Iran, Iraq, Syria. The usual parroting of trigger words like missiles, terrorists, and mentioning nations that are suffering the consequences of war, at least one of which was ruined under false pretexts by other former Presidents and Prime Ministers. The truth of America being lied to so that Iraq (the Iraqi people) could be destroyed, the truth about the defense business interests of former Presidents, the truth of growing neo-Nazi groups after Trump won the election – none of it has changed the way American representatives speak of other nations.
Haley is not talking about domestic terrorism, neither in India nor in the USA. When pointed questions are asked about international concern over the rise of extreme right wing groups of the non-Muslim type in India, she speaks instead of religious freedom. Possibly this is because the ‘T’ word can’t possibly be used for a country that isn’t Iran, or Iraq, or Syria. Or Libya or Egypt or Palestine. Iran is special, of course, because it is not yet at war, and it is essential to diplomatically isolate a nation before you can bring it to its knees and take control of its resources. Thus, the rhetoric about India needing to think about who it wants to do business with.
One understands. If Nikki Haley is going to run for President, she needs to talk the talk. She needs to breezily mention a personal interest in strengthening ties between the USA and India, while also talking tough – telling us who we can be friends with, who we must do ‘katti’ with.
The United Nations that is supposed to help prevent wars and minimize their human impact. The USA has quit the human rights council after a report commented on growing income disparity and poverty in her country. It has fallen to Haley to call the UN human rights council “an organisation that is not worthy of its name" and “a cesspool of political bias”. Who can blame her? There’s no way to counter truth except by saying that it is false. There is no way to hide poverty and income disparity except by calling the question “ridiculous”.
She needs to go on saying ‘wealthiest and freest’ even as black moms and dads get shot in their own backyards, cars, homes, and while kids of all colour get killed in schools, and while homelessness is rife, and statistics suggest that the minimum wage in all American states do not permit workers to rent a two-bedroom apartment, so either these wealthy and free families are squished into tiny homes or they’re going to have to stay childless. It is actually ridiculous given that America is wealthy and free.
Despite being the child of immigrants, Nikki Haley can’t afford to take a pro-migrant stand. Instead, she will draw a line between legal and illegal migrants and keep parroting the word ‘law’ as if the meaning of that word was somehow leached of its own meaning. The law matters, she says, knowing full well that war, persecution and hungry children recognize no law. Faced with the relentless murders of unarmed protestors, journalists, medical aides, and little children in Palestine, she is going to have to say that “no country would act with greater restraint than Israel”.
There will be no mention of the poverty line in India, which is actually the starvation line, or the fact that it is these conditions that push children into slave labour and women into sex slavery. Haley certainly isn’t going to talk about India’s socialist dreams and a model of school and university education in the 1950s and 60s that enabled her parents to study without going into debt, and then to move abroad. She is absolutely not talking about the great privilege of families in India where young people finish college and can afford to apply to foreign universities, or pay their way through legal immigration services.
At any rate, it is good to see that Haley can trot out phrases that don’t necessarily add up to truth. It is a trait shared by career politicians everywhere. The desi phrase for it is: baatein gol-mol karna. To turn words around into a ball of nothing, to make suggestions rather than commitments. She’s proved adept.
As for India, the questions nobody has seen fit to put to her as a representative of the Trump administration are the questions that will decide the future of India-US ties.


First published in The Quint: https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/nikki-haley-silence-speaks-louder-than-her-words-here-is-why

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Feed the nation's heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, June 16, 2018

Driving to devastation

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

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

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

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

How could this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/driving-to-devastation/article24143802.ece

Monday, June 11, 2018

Reviews

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

https://scroll.in/article/881020/two-novellas-reacquaint-us-with-the-finest-urdu-writer-of-our-time-intizar-husain

And this one too:

https://scroll.in/article/880258/this-novel-reveals-things-about-contemporary-india-that-cannot-be-proved-or-we-prefer-not-to-see

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

A bit of heaven




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Monday, May 28, 2018

Not quite highway robbery


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-mumbai/not-quite-highway-robbery/article2389864.ece3

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