Sunday, October 15, 2017

A little bump in the road

One of my favourite travel stories is from a reporting assignment in rural Rajasthan. For trips into rural areas, I'd usually have to hire a large vehicle like a Sumo or some other kind of jeep since there were either bad roads or no roads at all. Then there would be some areas where we'd have to abandon the jeep and walk.

On this particular trip, we were on no-road terrain. Yet there was a sign planted firmly on the ground. “Speed breaker ahead.”

I noticed and laughed at the irony. How could there be a speed breaker if there was no road? But I was wrong. Sure enough, there was a speed breaker. A mighty one too. It seemed at least a foot high and was solid concrete. The contractor tasked with making that road may have had a twinge of conscience, or else, he was given to dark humour. He certainly did put some of the money where it belonged – in concrete.

If there's one thing that almost everyone agrees upon, it is that there's money in contruction. Well, contractors and builders might disagree, perhaps with good reason. There may not be as much money in it for them as it appears on paper because there are several payments to make, not all of them legal. Even so, modern living requires a whole lot of concrete, tar and steel.

Examine budgets for our 'public' projects and you will likely see that the lion's share is given to construction. Huge stadia and sports complexes, flyovers and metro stations, airports and promenades and roads of course. There are offices and guest houses and toilets too. Throw in the odd school, college or hospital. All of this infrastructure is necessary, of course. We need railway stations and roads and schools, so we rarely question the expense. Trouble is, we also don't look very closely at how much is spent on actual construction, and how often the work needs repairs.

In recent months, there has been a lot of heartburn about road repair complaints, especially about potholes. Bad roads are inconvenient to say the least; they are also a health hazard. The risk of injuries to the neck and back are real but cannot easily be proved to have been caused or exacerbated on account of a rough ride. Instead of focussing on good, long lasting construction, or even examining the reasons why roads have been crumbling so easily in recent years, political outfits have responded with aggression. Then the aggression and the resultant outrage dies down, and it's back to business. There are no assurances that things will be any different next month, or next monsoon.

It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to build lasting structures. But it is only possible if we have good information.

Society is not made of concrete, but units of information. Building things, making complaints, making laws, seeking justice – all of these processes rest on information. This is also why information is either witheld or given out very reluctantly. And this is precisely why citizens must keep demanding it.

Ideally, accounts of city and state – all expenses paid out of taxpayers' pockets – ought to be uploaded online as well as easily accessed in print at the local municipal and state government office. We ought to be able to see maps, who built – or didn't build – a road, what they bid, how they split cost and profit, also which official inspected the work and gave it the final thumbs up. This information sits in files like a caged animal. There is no good reason why it should not be set free to serve as a public watchdog.


First published in The Hindu

Thursday, October 12, 2017

After the floodwaters receded

A lot of floodwater had entered the apartment while it was empty last month. Lots of damage to clothes and papers.

I opened an old suitcase filled with my documents accumulated over two decades. Letters from hostel friends, a childhood autograph book given away by an aunt, passbooks, employee contracts, printouts of early short stories and poems that I was trying to get published, the first credit card I was offered, banks' & insurance companies letters, bills and accounts for reportage related travels, recommendation letters to support my applications to fellowships or universities, the first few acceptances from publishers, diaries in which I'd made notes for writing my plays.

This record of life emerged sodden, mouldy and falling apart in my hands.

I took one last look at everything to see what could be salvaged. A decade ago, I'd have tried to save the "official" stuff first. Perhaps my own creative work. Now, I found I could toss all of that with no regret (why was I holding onto it anyway?).

The poems were awful. I ripped them them at once. I was very amused by a cover letter I'd written to a publisher. So full of faux confidence, so earnest that I am too embarrassed to share it here.

What I did save were the rejection letters. Polite and encouraging. I'd have saved the recommendation letters too but they tore as I opened them.

I tried to save the letters from friends, girls from college. But most were too wet, or the ink had run and faded. I will not say who wrote what, but it broke my heart to read the scraps that I still read.

One of you had written to scold me for failing to write back with thanks and acknowledgement after you couriered a diary as a gift. You said you had covered a wall with thermocol sheets to pin up photos of all of us girls, to remind you of happiness. You wrote to say your parents said they had to get you married off before you turn 25, and you were afraid you'd be house-bound and "roti pakao-fying" all your life and never be anything more.

One of you wrote to say, you were not sure if I was welcome to visit in your in-laws' house. Friends were not encouraged.

One of you wondered, if one can leave a boy who has not hurt you, did you ever love him in the first place?

One of you wrote to say, you couldn't afford to write to me too often, the postage was too expensive. It was that or skipping a meal. One of you wrote to say you liked reading what I sent you, and how could I dismiss my own writing as 'just journalism style'? It was most certainly not just that!

One of you, a junior, sent a type-written letter, full of spelling errors. You warned me against my own friend. Your reason for warning me was that this friend had visited college after we'd graduated and hung out with some other girls, but ignored you. You looked for affection in her eyes, and did not find any. According to you, this was a serious character flaw.

One of you sent me a birthday card with the image of a child on it, white kid with blonde hair, saying that she reminded you of me.

One of you sent me a card saying 'I really miss you'. It was wet and stuck so badly, I couldn't even open it to see which one of you sent it.

From Agra, Jaipur, Haridwar, Belgaum, Allahabad, Kanpur, Delhi, the inlands arrived. Your handwriting, your decision to write your name and return address, or not to. Girls fresh out of college, filling up every inch of space with words.

Sometimes you wrote on pages torn out of a ruled notebook, and sometimes especially bought stationery. You used red ink and blue, almost never black.

Reading these letters, I fretted. I too must have written letters. Sent them back to Agra, Haridwar, Allahabad. Pouring my heart, my circumstances, my whims out on paper. All that honesty, locked into ink by my own hand. Do I want the girl I was to still exist? I am certain I will not recognize her and her sentiments any more. Just as I don't recognize that girl who wrote awful poems and wanted them published (good lord above, thank you for the rejections!). But who knows? Another ten years, and I might be desperately looking for that girl, for clues to her head, her times, the tangible objects she touched.

Phones, Whatsapp, reveal too little. Paper, even a blank sheet of paper, says fifteen times more than a stupid Whatsapp forward. Send letters. Use the post. Paint cards. Send them. Even if you're just tearing them up ten years later, it's a more life-affirming process than hitting 'delete' on the phone.





Tuesday, October 03, 2017

दिल्ली, जामिया और बनारस की लड़कियों के नज़्र (वीर रस जैसा कुछ )

तोड़ दो पिंजरा, फोड़ दो भांडा!
यही न कह कर थे बहलाए?
रहना भीतर, यही भला है?
समझो अब असल अभिप्राय।

बात ये है, उनसे न होगा!
स्वयं ही सब कुछ लेना होगा
सुनो, सड़क बना लो डेरा
वख़्त न देखो, शाम-सवेरा।

समय की नंगी तलवारें हैं
सर पे लटकी, तुम्ही पकड़ लो!
समय अब नहीं कवच किसी का
तुम्ही समय के सर पे चढ़ लो!

छत सर पर अहसान नहीं है
बाप, गुरु, भगवान नहीं है।
सुनो, जो अबके हट गई पीछे
कर ली जो अब आँखें नीचे

घुट जाओगी, पिस जाओगी
अंधी गली में रह जाओगी।
नानी-दादी भी तो लड़ी थीं
पिंजरा तोड़ा, तब सँभली थीं

किसी की चिता पे न जल मरना
अपने पक्ष को साखर करना,
किया उन्होंने, अब बारी तुम्हारी
बात को समझो, जंग है जारी।

गुड़िया गूंगी सबको पसंद है
रोटी-चौका मुफ़्त कराएँ
दूध का क़र्ज़ मानते सब हैं
पूछते हैं, पर कैसे चुकाएँ?

मांग लो अब वो सारी चीज़ें
हर वो हक़ जो पाते हैं भाई
स्वर न दबाओ, ज़ोर से चीख़ो
यही न्याय है, यही भलाई।

कहेंगे वे, व्यर्थ है लड़ना
पत्थर की दीवार से भिड़ना,
भिड़ जाओ तुम, कह दो घर पे
खड़ी हो तुम स्वयं के दर पे ।

शुल्क की तुम चिंता मत करना
जान-मान का सौदा न करना
जहाँ सुरक्षा, घर तो वही है
घर का अर्थ कुछ और नहीं है।

कुर्सी भाषण फ़ोन कचहरी
नौकरी प्रेम धूप सुनहरी
चाँद रात असीम वाई-फ़ाई
अपना समझो जो हाथ आये।

भरो ख़ुशी दोनों हाथों में
खुशियां तुम्हारी क्यों कोई छीने?
ख़ुशीयों से न घबराओ तुम
यही विरासत, यही हैं गहने

गरजे बरसे गाली धमकी
शब्द मात्र हैं, कहो, और लाएँ!
असल बात है बस हक़ वाली
हक़ पे आँच न आने पाए।

ज़ेवर कोई बेच आएगा
कपड़ा-लत्था कहाँ तक ढोगी?
हक़ ही सब कुछ दिलवाएगा
रहेगा जब तक जीवित होगी।

नर बन जाते हैं नरेंद्र
मादा का कोई इंद्र नहीं है।
सब इन्द्रियाँ खोल कर देखो
शक्ति का बस केंद्र यही है।

सुषमा ममता वसुंधरा हो
अटल अधीर दिग्विजया भव।
शक्ती की ही परम्परा हो
चंडी प्रचंडा शमशीरा भव।

सुनो नाद गत-भावी कल का
नहीं हो तुम जो घट गयी घटना।
तोड़ दो पिंजरा, फोड़ दो भांडा!
अबके तुम पीछे मत हटना!

- annie zaidi

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Capital Shit

I was brought up short the other day at the entrance to the housing complex where I live. There was a fat little cake of slowly dessicating shit. It had already been there a few days.

I see open gutters everyday. Before or during the monsoon months, they are cleaned out. There are little piles of filth decorating the length of the street for days; perhaps the somebody who was paid to clean the gutter has not been paid to carry away the filth. When it does get carried away, it must go... where? A dumpyard? A river?

All calls for a clean India have thus far been focussed on littering, sweeping of the streets and open defecation by human citizens. What doesn't often get mentioned is open defecation by stray animals, including cows, bulls, dogs and rats.

Now the thing is, we aren't going to be able to get animals to use a commode, not that I can foresee. And our dear leaders have been enthusiastically pointing out the great benefits of animal potty, especially bovine – that it makes for great fertilizer, that it can be turned into cooking fuel or mixed with building material and so on.

I have no argument with that. True, potty does make for great organic fertilisers. However, could it not be that fresh bovine potty also exposes humans – or other animals? – to infection just the same as human potty left lying on the streets, on beaches, and in the pretty fields of sugarcane? Conversely, is it not true that human beings are capable of generating a fair bit of fertilizer themselves?

I am not an expert in faecal matter, nor agriculture. But it does seem to me that human beings are far too squeamish about properly addressing their own excrement. There was a time, scholars say, when a 'crock of shit' was a valuable commodity. Centuries ago, people in Asia were trading in human waste. Someone was collecting human exrement by the bucketful and selling it to farmers as manure. Europe had its nightsoil collectors too. Then came the era of modern indoor toilets and the flush system, and all potential manure went into the nearest river, which sadly was the population's main water supply.

That's something to think about, isn't it? If there's one thing our country doesn't lack, it is human excrement. Should we really be in such a hurry to flush it down a drain at a time when we know that it is likely to add to water pollution? Shouldn't we also be trying to figure out alternatives that don't involve large scale piped sewage transportation?

Currently, most – over 70 percent – of India's sewage goes untreated. Besides, there are several leaks in pipes. The recent horror of toxic froth engulfing parts of Bangalore is also linked to the problem of millions of tonnes of sewage going into the lakes.

There is so much talk of 'filth' and its impact on public health. Municipalities that are quite well funded, as Mumbai is, display filth and faeces in every suburb. But 'open' defecation is not the only problem. The bigger problem is that much of the waste goes into the sea, or into one of the half dozen rivers that have since ceased to flow.

Would it not make more sense for us to make good on all that human shit? If there was gold in it once, there will be gold in it again. Surely, we just have to invest a tiny bit in making technology work for us rather than just replicating technologies fixated on the flush?


On the season of raunak

There are days, running into weeks, when the city dresses up. In a general way, of course, you could say that big cities are always dressed up and showing off. Bright lights and neon define the modern urban experience and separate it from life in small towns and villages.

Here, most streets are lit through the night. Here, there are billboards of the glowy sort and shiny names scratched onto the skyline. Here, glassfronted stores show off their wares long past our bedtimes. Step out after sunset and the whole city appears to be floating in a dozen shades of light. It is this that brings “raunaq” to cities, or at least the illusion of it. Raunaq literally means lustre or brightness but it implies more – beauty, grace, freshness, an indication of well-being.

We grow immured to this everyday raunaq. So, come dress up season, we must find fresh uses and hangings for light. My favourite decorations are the canopies of lights that follow you down the length of the street. At such times, I brush away the guilt of too much electricity wasted and allow myself to grow warmed by the idea that the city is collectively celebrating, and that even those who are not celebrating and who may not be able to afford such lighting for their own homes can enjoy the beauty and symmetry of the lighting.

The season usually begins before Diwali and goes on until Christmas and then the end of the year celebrations. Some streets will be capped and strung with lights but there will also be lights outside shops, malls, draped around trees and the balconies of apartments. You don't have to celebrate any of these festivals or go to any parties. Just take a walk outside and you may find yourself sucked into a sense of joy, or at least the calm self-assurance associated with the rhythm of ritual. Turn your head this way and that and in every other window, there are tiny, colourful fairy lights blinking right into your eyes. It is hard not to be moved a tiny bit. If not joy, you could at least nudged towards wistfulness and a sudden longing to call friends.

In Mumbai, though, the festivities begin earlier in the year. There are the ten days of Navratri and Dussera. Many suburbs are lit up all then days and a few will keep the decorations going until Diwali. Even before Navrati, there is Ganeshotsav, or just 'Ganpati' as many people here refer to the ten day festivities. There will not be as many streets lit up. But there are pandals on every corner, and sometimes even two or three on every street, with lighting, bhajans, flowers, incense, the clash of manjiras. Sweet shops appear to swell and spill onto the pavements with displays on tables and not one shop seems to lack for customers. This is a different sort of raunaq.


From August to December, it is almost as if the city skips from celebration to celebration. Barely have the drums and aartis for Ganeshotsav faded out that the lights for Navratri start to go up. Children and teenagers have barely stopped swinging the garba sticks covered in shiny paper when all the streetside shops start to sell kandeels (lamps) made of paper and embroidered cloth. And even though you do not need any more lamps, and even though this may not be your way of celebrating, the raunaq will rub off on your clothes and hair. As long as there is no rancour of exclusion, as long as cities and celebrattions hold open their arms to all, we can all be brushed with the grace and brightness of the season.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A new digital anthology

I have put together a new digital anthology: a set of 11 essays about famous Indian ladies (who also happen to be married to famous Indian gents). You are can buy it for just 80 Indian rupees via the Juggernaut app. There will be no print edition for this, so go ahead and start reading at once.



Here's a little preview with my introduction to the collection that offers some context to the book:


And here is a brief extract from one of the essays, about the unparalleled Asha Bhonsle: 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Inside a rape story

A rape story

Annie Zaidi

It's not science fiction and it's not the nation's growth story. It's the rape story we are all living inside of.

In this rape story, your female/male/trans body is owned broadly by the state but specifically and practically by your father, and next to him, your elder brothers, and next to them, your uncles and your younger brothers. They decide who to hand over your body to. This new person now has rights to access your body, its seed and its fruit.

Sometimes money exchanges hands in this story. The new owner of a female body takes money in addition to control over your body because he will now have to feed, maintain, clothe your body. Because its old owners have paid heavily and are unlikely to get back what they paid, they no longer want to take responsibility for your body should you return, broken and fearful.

In this rape story, there are rapists but some of them are designated defenders of public law and order. And there are victims but it is imperative that they not be called rape victims, else the rape would have to stop. So the victims are called public enemies. This is vital in order to ensure the stripping off of their clothes, the kicks to their groins, the stones and sticks thrust into their bodies, whip lashes on their haunches and legs, electric shocks to their private parts, their damaged nerve endings, their never-mending fractures, and other inventive humiliations such as the forced ingestion of faecal matter and urine, and the photographing and filming of all this so that the humiliation is made eternal and the prospect of future dignity near-impossible.

In this rape story, rapists can retire and live comfortably on public money, some of which also comes from the victims themselves, their families and communities.

In this rape story, a court of law can decide whether or not two bodies who have met are locked into a rape like scenario, even if the two bodies themselves have screamed themselves hoarse that this is not rape but love.

In this rape story, a body ceases to be a child-like body if its owners have bartered it away too soon to whoever would take it.

In this rape story, the name of romantic/sexual love is overwritten with rape, and in the name of familial love, rape is offered on a platter decorated with symbols of divinity and all the holy blessings mother earth bestows such as grain, sugar, turmeric.

In this rape story, a court of law – and the state with all its given power and resources – cannot give a safe refuge to a body fleeing rape. Such bodies are always returned to their owners with the tacit knowledge that they will be bartered or destroyed.

In such stories, it is also essential that ideas be propagated about body worth in such a manner that the body always has the least control over what is done to it. Ideas such as how the value of the body decreases with use, rather than increases. Ideas such as how the body is fickle and greedy and deserves to be punished further if it has been hurt in the past.

There is no word for the pain of smiling for photographs after having survived violence and pain in some room of the house. In this story, the fact of having stood beside your rapist and having smiled into the camera cancels out rape.

Force is the pinnacle of aspiration in such stories. To reject the wishes and desires of one body, or a state of bodies, or the greater majority of bodies in a nation, is seen as glorious. To impose upon another's body the wishes of a handful of bodies that have acquired money enough buy off the bodies of other service providers, is seen as glorious and morally correct.

In this story, rapists occupy positions – they manage businesses, sell bouquets, guard apartment complexes, melt steel, run city councils and state departments. It is assumed that businesses would not run, homes would not be guarded, steel would not melt and states would be ungovernable were rapists not permitted to do what they do. It is assumed that victims are dispensible for they run nothing and own very little. They are needed to make new humans, but that purpose can also be achieved via rape and thus, this story continues.


All these stories are told and re-told, and enacted and reviewed every day, everywhere. These stories sometimes nauseate their listeners, and often their tellers. But these stories are never nullified. Thus, a rape culture is constructed that we all live inside of.    

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Rift on the Road

There they were, coming apart right in front on me. A man wearing a moustache, walking fast, turning around to spit out angry words. A harsh, loud, “Get Lost! Get away from me!”

A girl followed, a few steps behind. Skinny fit jeans and pointy heels. She murmured something I couldn't quite hear, but I caught her tone. It was half-way between placatory and indifferent.

I slowed down until both could overtake me, allowing them a chance to get away from this fraught moment with a modicum of dignity. It was a moment in which two people, held together by God alone knows what force, were coming apart at their own seam. There was no way of knowing whether this moment would decide the rest of their lives or whether it was a scene that played itself out frequently in this relationship. Perhaps he did get away from her. Perhaps she got him in the end.

It is funny how so much of our private business, even our inner lives, spills out into the streets everyday. The most private conversations are conducted in full public hearing. On the sidewalk, in trains and buses, and more recently, inside shared cabs, I overhear – and politely pretend not to be overhearing – dozens of young people fighting, flirting, or just making the sort of ordinary confessions that they may never make in the hearing of friends or colleagues. If they're not together, then they're walking about, phone pressed to their ears. A girl giggling about how many holidays she's already planning, and inviting a boy to come visit her even though she does have a flatmate, but it will be okay. Or a young man, walking in tight circles on the sidewalk, saying “Hmm.... Um... Uh-huh?” for a good forty minutes. Or a middle-aged woman shouting into the phone, “No, don't call me! Don't call me. And don't come crying to me when she's chewed you up and spat you out.” Or a young man saying, “Oh, shut up and wait up. You know you don't have to go just yet. Don't act so pricey.”

In Indian cities, these conversations acquire an additional bittersweet flavour given that there is such risk associated with love. Most citizens have very little privacy at home. Certainly, single individuals having their own bedrooms is very rare. But even if they do have bedrooms, they don't always feel free to express themselves with other family members listening in. And so, they take their most difficult conversations outdoors. In Mumbai, I've often spotted many young people talking outside a residential building. It is a reasonably safe place to hang about and they do not particularly care if strangers can hear them.

I sometimes wonder if outdoor public spaces are not essential to the safe enactment of intense private emotion. Perhaps it is easier to act with restraint, to remember that one must not behave like a possessed demon or throw things at each other in the presence of other people who do not particularly care how this whole affair turns out. And how much easier it is to walk and talk, side by side, without having to look at each other's faces. One need not be felled by a smile that does not quite reach the eyes, at least not immediately. One can catch one's breath even as one is being disembowelled. One can hurry away, like that moustachioed man hurrying away from the petite woman, crossing the road so that the rift is manifest.


Thursday, August 03, 2017

A new poem

If (with Kipling's blessings)

If you can measure yourself
with the eye scales of the woman
who survived your enemy

If you can hold the woman
you had leaned into until she warmed
and, looking into her eyes, say
why you are afraid

If you can walk out of the shadow
of your father's failing,
your mother's distress,
and then if you can turn to the cleansing heat
of summer sun and make a vow
to care a little less

If you can make flowers flower
on poisoned land
and kiss every fruit

If you can shut up
about a woman's dress when
you do not hope to wear it

If you can mutely nod
when women speak of what is done
in your name

If you can say,
never again!
and mean it

If you can stare deep into the well
of your heart and drink
up your twisted truths
and speak, though aflame 
with shame

If you can build the grand things
that feed your hate

If you can cook the animals
your ancestors ate

If you can smile at neighbours
who will not cease their cry of 'apart! apart!' 
and invite them in every weekend
for their antidote of art

If you can build a school
where all-all-all is the norm

If you can build a storm shelter
for lovers on the run

If you can take the place of sons
murdered for the wrong hat
or those mothers stripped and paraded
for living with their pride intact

If you can learn to dance 
just because no one dances
any more

If you can sing the song 
of the weak when their throats 
are too sore

If you can hear the howls outside
and step out, 
armed or not

If you can turn away from 
those videos of the naked 
and the harmed

If you can rally against those 
who trade off your will
for wealth 

If you can force your vote to translate
into water, hope and health

If you can let the gods be,
One or many or all,
let them speak from themselves 
from above

You will have learnt to be a man, 
my brother, my friend, my love.

(c) Annie Zaidi

Monday, July 24, 2017

Storytelling

People had forgotten, he muses, that it is also possible to read through one’s ears. After all, that is how most of us begin to receive stories—listening to our grandparents. Jameel Gulrays was counting on people’s ears rather than their eyes when he started to read aloud Urdu stories on a dedicated Youtube channel. Just about a year and a half later, his channel has over 1,300 subscribers and his work has grown into a movement called Katha Kathan, which includes several other readers and stories from many other Indian languages. The no-frills homemade video series has grown into live performances at venues such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai; a Delhi chapter has been launched in recent weeks.

Despite its rapid growth, Katha Kathan was rooted in quiet grief and regret...

Read the full article about Jameel Gulrays' initiative to promote literature in Indian languages other than English herehttp://www.thehindu.com/books/a-moving-caravan-of-storytellers/article19325910.ece

Sunday, July 16, 2017

In a narrow lane

A narrow lane requires a great deal of adjustment. It can be something minor, such as needing to twist your torso as someone approaches from the opposite direction. Or it can be something big, like having snatched a chain or purse, and making a run for it, and then realising that you’re being chased and you do not have much of an escape route. It could also require a major adjustment on the part of police personnel. In Delhi, according to news reports, 70 cops will be expected to ride bicycles to patrol areas where cars cannot go. In Kolhapur too, there is a plan to get cops bikes, so they can get into narrow lanes. These are interesting developments. For one, it will be a refreshing sight to see cops on bicycles. It’s been a long time since I saw such a thing. In fact, I believe I have never in my life seen such a thing.

Some thoughts on narrow lanes and what they encompass, read the full column here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/tales-from-a-narrow-lane/article19209594.ece

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Of, by, for ourselves

I recently led a discussion on democracy at the immensely successful Community Library Project, at the Deepalaya/Shiekh Sarai library in Delhi. Here are some further thoughts about why, published on the project blog:


Of, by, for ourselves


It’s the simplest, cleanest, easiest to remember definition of democracy: Of the people, by the people, and for the people.

These days, I often think back to my school Civics book. On the first page was printed the preamble to the Constitution. I have to confess here that I often feel guilty for not having read the full text of the Constitution yet. Some day, I tell myself, I will. But for now, the Preamble alone suffices. The very first line reminds us of what we set out to be as a nation:

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC…”

And so it goes on to justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and our other rights and freedoms. But here’s the key thing: we the people. We gave unto ourselves these rights. We gave ourselves our own sovereignty and our democracy.

I wonder sometimes if, in our everyday political discourse, we have not forgotten that democracy is not a gift that anyone bestows upon us. It is not a handout. It is of our own making, and if it to survive, then it must be re-made, re-constituted every single day by as many of us as possible.

One of the ways in which we renew a democracy is to engage with it. Not just about political events or elections. Democracy is much bigger than one election, or even 29 + 7 elections.

Democracy is a cultivated habit of thinking and choosing. Choice is also not just a question of choosing the better party, or the best candidate. It is also about choosing the best systems, and allowing ourselves to seek modifications in the electoral system when it serves our Constitutional ideals better.

India is known as the world's largest Democracy. This is on the basis of the sheer numbers of people who participate in the elections. We are also a nation of people that love discussing elections and politics. Yet, we have very little discussion about whether the core democratic principle – of the people, by the people, for the people – has been upheld. For instance, if our elected representatives push through decisions that are actually opposed by the majority of the population, or if the core values of equality and social justice are threatened by certain decisions, what can citizens do?

The response is: wait five years and punish the politicians. One of the major definitions of a democracy is that citizens are able to change their government. But what happens if the next lot also does the same thing? Or, what happens when the same people return to power via new alignments?

Also, how exactly does the democratic edifice hold up? Elections give us a Parliament, the state Assemblies, the Panchayats and municipal corporations. But the average citizen does not experience Parliament directly. How does democracy filter down the average citizen?

These are questions that any committed democracy must engage with, and with that hope, I had gone to Deepalaya with some notes on Democracy/Loktantra. Organised by the Community Library Project, the discussion was open to men and women, boys and girls above 18. Those who joined the discussion included teenagers, mothers, a grandmom, activists and library volunteers.

One of the areas of shadow in most political conversations is global suffrage history. I felt quite strongly that we cannot fully grasp our system, its strengths and weaknesses, unless we look at how other people have enacted their own versions of democracy and what it leads to. So we traveled the distance from ancient Greece and Rome to England to India and Australia.

We had very little time (just about an hour), but we talked about half a dozen key aspects of democratic systems – limited forms of suffrage/disenfranchisement, party funding, preferential voting, protest votes, distance/postal votes, and the role of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy. 

It was an invigorating hour, edged with questions that spilled over into tea. I am hoping those conversations are spilling out further, out of the library and into the suburb, and out into the city, and further, and further.




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