Thursday, January 10, 2019

Unacceptable, but so very accepted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published here:

Sunday, January 06, 2019

How far to Auschwitz?

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

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

Monday, December 31, 2018

Odd end

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Double sighted

Double sighted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published here:

Monday, December 17, 2018

New book out now

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

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

Please go forth and purchase: 3 Plays by Annie Zaidi

Friday, November 30, 2018

A traffic legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hairy stuff

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

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

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

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

These paragraphs are extracted from a longer column I wrote about hair art and self-image for GQ India magazine. Link here (you may need a subscription):

All that art

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

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

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

This is an extract from a longer column published in GQ magazine. Link here (behind a paywall):

The evolution of a man

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

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

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

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

This is extracted from a longer column I wrote about how gender roles have evolved over the last two decades. Link here (behind a paywall)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Not letting it slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call out brokers too, and builders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to add to this list.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Movies: a lost mania?

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

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

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

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

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:

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:]

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:

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):

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:

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.

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