Monday, February 28, 2005

Bihar is beautiful

Shekhar Gupta, in the Indian Express, last Saturday, echoed some of my sentiments about Bihar (though I disapprove of the headline 'Stirrings in a Hopeless Land'... who's hopeless? Not the people of Bihar, definitely!).

Bihar is beautiful.

Well, not all of it. The killings aren't pretty. The Ranvir Sena or the Maoist extremists and other private armies aren't pretty. The breakdown of infrastructure is sad. (When I drove through the state, I finally understood the phrase - gaddhhe mein sadak - meaning, the road in the potholes. There was no road! Only a series of disjointed potholes. The drive would have been easier if there had been a kuchha dirt path, instead of a badly constructed tar-road).

But for all that, Bihar is pretty.

I loved the way the women held their heads high; unlike Rajasthani women, their faces are open. Their shoulders are thrown back, as if they cannot be shamed into submission. Worked to the bone, perhaps, but not cowed down.

I loved the way the mud huts blended into the landscape - brown, small, self-contained - like the people themselves. I loved the morning glories blossoming wild on the rooftops. And the way the pumpkins and Torai creepers wound their delicate tendrils on thatched rooftops.

I loved the little puddles and the small village ponds, with the ducks in them. The fields beyond, lined with mustard, ready to burst into sunshine colours. There's a vulnerability to the landscape here, mixed with a malleable optimism. I love the dark stretches that show no sign of having known the human touch. I love the fact that high speed-breakers are built on a road, which cuts across fields, with water-pipes running underneath the speed-breaker. I love their bright rickshaws.

There's a lot to love about Bihar, really.

But, as Shekhar Gupta mentioned too, most people bad-mouth the state without ever having visited it. Bihar apparently stands as a byword for the worst in India - a total breakdown of law and order, a messy political wrestling-pit, infrastructure in a soup, flight of talent and a total lack of confidence.

I'm not saying, things are great. I'm sure every person who's been to Bihar has his/her own favourite horror tale that he/she recounts with great relish at social dinners. I'm also sure these are true stories.

But things are equally bad in other parts of the country. Bihar doesn't deserve so much negativite publicity. My friend Reshu's daddy, Manoje Nath (who is also a cop) points out, the average Bihari is a prisoner of his own image. He lives and works in Bihar and deals with the worst the state has to offer. And if he can find beauty and hope in the place, the rest of us should just shut up and help, instead of cribbing about the place and its people.

Man(un)kind

The recent Hindu-Sikh riots in Raipur district (two teenaged cousins eloped with two Hindu boys; hence the rioting) got me wondering all over again... How is it that women can be, simultaneously, a source of such dangerous fear and the guardians of male 'honour'.

I'd like to know how it all began. Who was the first man to stand up and say, "If my daughter decides to have sex without my permission, my honour gets sullied."

And how was it that the rest of mankind bowed their heads and nodded grave assent. So much so that whole communitites now burn, rape and kill each other, if a woman happens to fall in love with someone who was born into a different religion?

I still get gooseflesh when I recall - I often do recall - a news report I'd read some nine years ago - a widow (I forget her name) lived with two young children and her old mother. She fell in love with a muslim guy from the neighbouring village. Knowing it would be impossible to break with tradition in the region, the two eloped and got married.

The village wasn't satisfied with their self-imposed exile. The Panchayat (all men, incidentally) had the widow's two young kids confined to a hut, held hostage until their mother returned. The old mother was tortured and later succumbed to the injuries, I think.

Word spread. The widow and her lover returned, to trade their lives for that of the children. The lover was hacked to death and strung up on a tree, so all may learn a lesson. The widow was first stripped, then gang-raped, then killed.

The panchayat's honour was thus avenged.

Now, I keep wondering what will happen if these two teenaged girls are found and brought back to Rajnandgaon, Raigarh. Will more blood be spilt?

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a need to kill women when things are going wrong. Almost every other month, I hear of some 'witch' being burnt or lynched or thrown out of the village.

In Bongaigaon, Assam, I remember eating dinner sitting across Nirila, a very active activist who refuses to venture forth after dark. Her sister-in-law had recently been hacked to death, after being branded a 'witch'. Witch-hunts and subsequent killings are a monthly occurrence, in fact. We just hear about the ones that get reported.

What is it that makes women such convenient targets? And why does it continue in 'civilized' nations? Right from Joan of Arc to Sati, Phoolan Devi to Bhanwari Devi, Harpreet Kaur, and now these two teenagers in Raigarh... it just goes on and on.

Taxing times

The media is terribly unfair to our politicians at this time of the year.

I've been listening to, and reading, commentaries and analysis for the last two days, and I just can't figure out what they want.

Laloo Yadav comes up with a decent rail budget that does not burden the ordinary rail passenger any further and they dismiss his budget as 'populist.'

What, anyway, is so wrong with being populist'?
A minister who is taking 'populist' measures is simply giving the people what they want. Right?
A minister has been given the power to take these measures by people who believe that he/she will take decisions based on what they want. Right?

A minister has no business taking economic decisions that affect the lives of a hundred crore people, if he/she does not have public sanction. Budget, therefore, have to be populist.

I, for one, don't swallow that claptrap about taking 'harsh decisions that are necessary... even if it meets with public opposition, at this point of time.' It smacks of authoritarianism.

It's like saying - "The people of this country are idiots. They don't know what's good for them. We'll have to give them a few bitter pills (which may be sugar-coated, lest they resort to open rebellion, in protest) but once swallowed, these bitter pills will be good for the national economy's health..."

Which is a very stupid line of reasoning. They don't know better. No one knows my needs better than I do.

I travel in trains and I know I don't need fare hikes. And oh, I would like air travel to become much, much cheaper. I don't mind competition in that segment. If, by allowing FDI, or by relaxing norms so entrepreneurs are encouraged to set up more indigenous airlines, air-fares can be brought down, I want the government to make that sort of decision.

I don't want cooking gas to be more expensive. I don't care much if petrol prices are hiked. If you can afford a car, you can afford the fuel. If you can't, switch to public transport, or bicylces. Good for health, too. Or car-pool.

On the other hand, it does bother me a little if deisel prices go up. Most tractors and other farm equipment needs deisel. Farmers will either have to bear the brunt, or will pass on the cost to the end-customer (highly unlikely, in this country). Food - and the processes involved in producing and distributing it - should never be expensive.

I rather like Chidambaram for his budget - at least, as much of it as I've heard so far, and can understand the relevance of. I like the fact that he's made tax exemptions for those make less than Rs 1 lakh p.a., and especial concessions for women and senior citizens.

I like the fact that he's imposed a small cess on those who withdraw more than Rs 10,000 from an ATM (at least, that's what I gathered from the annoucnement) in a day. If you're the kind of guy who withdraws that kind of money on a daily basis, you can surely afford a couple of bucks as cess.

In fact, I think all the big malls and five/seven-star hotels should have a built-in tax. You pay ten percent extra on all goods that you buy anywhere that's glass-fronted.

Tax the cigarette-gutka guys. Tax the liquor guys. Tax the luxury car guys. Tax all who can afford it, I say. For now, PC, hum tumhare saath hain.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Ethics and the schooling we should've got

Being a small-town journalist can be a bit of a drag.

I've never been one myself, of course. But I have been in a city-based tabloid and I know how frustrating it can be to devote your mind and your pen entirely to the events and people of this one given area. If you're in Bombay, you cannot spend too much time being interested in, say, Marathwada or Vidarbha.

Can you imagine how much more annoying it is to have to report on the developments of a rural district?

Of course, all media can feel restrictive. Now that I work for a national news magazine, I could well sulk because I cannot report about the subcontinent, or Asia. Or the world. One might want to report about inter-galactic developments next... there's no end to wanting.

But being a journalist in small towns comes with its own unique set of problems.
In Raigarh, I was introduced to the small-town journalist's ultimate nightmare - landing a job with the 'franchise' media. Reporters told me that they not only write/record/shoot/investigate, they are also responsible for collecting advertisements for the newspapers they work for.

Jansatta, for instance, operates, not through a bureau but (the horror) a 'franchise'. It has but one functional journalist for the Raigarh edition.

This young man feels helpless as hell. "I need the job, but this is so unfair. How can I investigate or expose anyone if I have to go and take advertisements from their hands, the next day? Besides, at times like Diwali, I don't get any reporting done at all. I'm just a salesman, then."

Vinay, a stringer for Sahara Samay (MP/Chhatisgarh) , is better off. He told me, "I don't have to bring in ads, thankfully. But it is horrible for my friends in the newspapers. When we started out in the profession, we had promised each other 'no compromise, no withdrawl (from the truth)'. But how can we avoid compromise in this set-up? "

Incidentally, while in Raigarh, an annoying local businessman (claiming to be an activist of sorts) told me off. He said I was not a good reporter. "You're a nice girl, but you don't know how to investigate. It is no point asking questions. You should have let me take you to the collector's bunglow after working hours. You should have flattered him a little, bloated his ego and then pried his secrets out of him."

I pointed out that I had no hidden recording devices, and that I would not quote someone without his permission. I also pointed out that even if he did talk off the record, I couldn't quote him, since reporters have to protect their sources.

This revelation was met with blank stares and assorted 'oh!'s from all those in the room. Which reminded me of the journalism school I attended: XIC, Bombay.

The whole class unanimously resented one module - Ethics in Media. But now (sweet, sweet retrospect), I realize why all journalists need that module.

The pity of it is that we went through some nine months of 'ethics' training without absorbing too many ethics of the field ourselves. We weren't sent out into the field much. We were not taught to make up our own mind about where we would draw the line and how to fend off pressure, by asserting the right to have a conscience.

We were simply shown rather pathetic films about what disastrous consequences unethical reporting can have; one particular film was about a teenaged girl having sex with her teacher and then being chased by a local television reporter, who got the kid to admit it, on camera. The story was aired, and the kid attempted suicide...

Much pathos... but, frankly, the film had very little to do with teaching us the right way to go about making ethical decsions in the course of our work.

For instance, I don't chase kids who have sex with teachers. I might, if there's a question of rape. I might have been sent to cover such a story if a teacher had been arrested for statutory rape. But in the ordinary course, I have other strange, ethical decisions to make.

A friend of mine did take a conscience call, whilst she worked at the tabloid, despite intense 'performance' pressure from our editorial bosses. She had stumbled upon the story of a young girl who'd attempted suicide. Her mother went down on her knees, begging my friend not to write the report; the girl's sister was scheduled to get married in a few days. The wedding would probably be called off, if the groom's party found out.

My friend went back to office and said 'I don't have a story today'.
Of course, she got flak for it. A daily tabloid, especially an afternoon paper, has an insatiable appetite for this kind of story. Besides, not coming up with any story invites ire and penalization at KRA-time (whatever KRAs stand for... I'd much rather forget).

I had a similar decision to make about whether or not to cover a double-suicide:
A boy and girl were in love; they expected family opposition. They gulped down a bottle of poison, or phenyl together. They were in hospital... what business did I have, asking them the 'why, when, how' of it all?

However, I reported the story. In this particular instance, with not too much guilt. I had no clue whether I should have had any, though.

I'm not happy about this kind of report. But my bosses told me, the city wants to know! Suicides, rapes, scandals, corruption - people want it all. But is public curiosity a good enough reason?
And how much prying is too much prying? That is a question I don't have any answer to, even after five years in the profession.

I suppose I will just have to take conscience calls at each publication, each story. All the same, a manual of some sort - ground rules for journalists, maybe - would help. A manual you can quote from and use as a shield against misguided editors, maybe.

A third-class trip

After years, I traveled 'third class' in a train.

Of course, technically, the third class no longer exists on Indian railways. There's a first, a second, a third air-conditioned, and a sleeper class. But what my mom refers to as the third-class dabba is actually the general compartment, which the unreserved passengers lunge, shove, stampede and/or claw their way into.

This is a dabba that one does not step into if one can help it. (I have vague childhood memories of being swept into the general dabba, once, when tickets could not be confirmed. I fell asleep reading, sitting on top of a suitcase. I was too little to care). However, last week, I was forced to take refuge in a general compartment for three hours, because my tickets were confirmed only from Bilaspur onwards.

I must admit that my little heart trembled when it first beheld the crowds waiting to scratch and elbow and press their way into the already-crowded dabba. It didn't help knowing that the train was coming in from Bihar and Jharkhand.

However, once inside the dabba, it really wasn't so bad. There was no place to sit (or stand). But I was accorded the woman-privilege and a greying family of six (crammed onto a seat meant for four) shifted, snuggled and cramped together, until a six-inch gap had been created for me.

[This is what I love about the poor in this country - they lesser they have, the more they are willing to share. I have never been offered a seat in air-conditioned classes. Whenever I have waited for a TTE to confirm a wait-listed ticket, I have always had to stand in the corridor, lugging heavy bags. Not one man, or woman, has invited me to sit down for a bit, catch my breath...]

To their infinite credit, the lack of space notwithstanding, the men - Biharis all - did not take any advantage of this crush, to misbehave. When one man began to topple over in his sleep, almost on my head, he was shaken awake and told to shift elsewhere, by other male passengers. I didn't even have to complain.

In stark contrast, Bombay - that mecca of single, independent, working girls - leaves much to be desired. Whenever I have travelled in the general compartment, I have been reduced to tears by men who milk the space crunch for whatever it is worth - a feel-up, a pinch, a squeeze, a shove, a grope....
The inevitable male trump card in Bombay's local trains is - "If you don't like being touched, you should travel in the first class."

North-Indian - those of the 'cow-belt' - men are a much-maligned species. All sorts of things are said about them - the leery gaze, the hands that they can't keep to themselves, the obscene language...

But I have usually found them to be fairly courteous, in an earthy fashion, and often genuinely concerned about young girls traveling alone.
They may be nosy. Ill-mannered, maybe. Old-fashioned, I suppose.
But north-Indian men are not really out to hurt you. They are no more agressive than south-Indian or west-Indian or north-east-Indian men, at any rate.

If you don't believe me, try traveling in a third-class dabba in a train passing through Bihar. You just might go back for a second ride.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Being India

This is probably a puerile thing to say, but it is hard being India.

It is hard to hit that just-right note: somewhere between self-contained and all-enveloping.

It is hard to know when we're ignoring our neighbours and when we should shut up and mind our own business.
Step back and refuse to take sides, or leap up and get our teeth broken against a rock-solid power bloc?
Punish those who don't like us, and make no secret of it, or ignore petty annoyances and keep smiling, trying to make relationships work?

It is hard to strike the right balance of power in the subcontinent, so that we neither come across as a bully, nor upset regional power equations by being sullen and withdrawn.

It is hard to decide when we're being 'assimilatory' and when we're subject to the 'porous borders' sickness.

It is hard to choose between welcoming desperate refugees and sending back foreign nationals who don't belong here. It is hard to decide who belongs here, in the first place.... Pakistan and Bangladesh were once a part of this country. People who left, often did so against their will. If they wish to return, do we have a right to stop them?
If Kashmiris want to leave India, should we let them? Do we have a right to send in forces to any part of the country and insist that the people living there stay within this republic?

If Nepal doesn't like our big brother attitude, should we snap ties and cut off supplies (like Rajiv Gandhi once did, it is rumoured, to teach them a lesson and remind them of their dependence)? Should we continue feeding them - both royalists and maoists - with arms and sugar, to enable them to fight the good fight, as they see best?

Should we stand up for the rights of veiled women, if a group like the Taliban returns to the subcontinent? Should we issue a statement on the ban on music, in some provinces of Pakistan? Should we ever have offered to help Sri Lanka crush the LTTE? Should we allow the US military to set up base in the region?

Should we arm-twist Bhutan into having a more open border?
Should we invade Burma and enforce democracy?

Should we give aid to any of our neighbours, seeing that our own kids are starving? Is it any better though, if our kids are fed and warm, while kids living across the border starve? Whose kids are they anyway? Where do kids belong?

Should we allow anyone from the medical fraternity to leave the country before they've put in five years of free service? Should we insist that super-specialty hospitals have a 50:50 quota arrangement - milking the rich and subsidizing the poor?

Should we insist that all schools and universities follow a regimental schedule, pre-defined syllabi and universal examination systems? Why not allow them to form their own systems?

Should we follow a no-visa open border policy for all our neighbours? Why restrict it to neighbours then?
Does any country have a right to stop anyone from entering, and even staying on, in any country?

What is a country anyway?
Countries change all the time - cultures change, geography changes, politics change. If we cannot be sure what makes us, how do we decide what we must do in order to stay intact? Especially since we know that we will not stay intact, as such, ever...

This is hard - being a country. It is very hard being India.

Automaton - 2

The second in my Delhi auto-walla series:

So, there we are, on Teen Murti Road, looking for an auto to take us to Mughal Gardens, at the President's estate. It couldn't have been more than a couple of kilometres, and no auto-walla was willing to take us by the meter.

One saggy-jowled fellow finally agreed to take us for 20 rupees "Meter isn't working, madam."

It wasn't fair, but he was asking for only 10 percent more than the metre fare wouldn've been, and we weren't in the mood to haggle, so we hopped on.

Near the Parliament, he stopped and said he could go no further. The auto wasn't allowed further, he claimed.

Before I paid him off, I mentioned to him that he should get his meter fixed.

Pocketing the money I'd just handed over, he grinned a charming grin, "Where's the point, madam? I not going to do this long. In fifteen days, I'll be driving an Indica."

I suddenly regretted having paid him his ten percent marked-up fare.

And now, of course, I am furious because once we began to walk to Mughal Garden, we walked and walked and walked. And (huff, puff) walked, all the way round the central secretariat, and some five circuitous kilometres later, to Mughal Gardens.

There, all the autos our tired ankles desired were lined up, right outside.
And to think the auto-walla is driving his own Indica by now...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Kathmandu, August 2003.

[This is something I had written ages ago, as a diary entry of sorts, when I worked as a sub in Kantipur TV.]

It is nine at night.

I lean in and stick my face in the window and ask the cabbie "chakrapath jane?", awkwardly aware that my syllables don't round and separate themselves, like they should, in Nepali. The cabbie nods. I get in, wave to my friend, then lose sight as the car wizzes down Thamel - the main tourist sub-district of kathmandu.

This is the first time I am alone in Kathmandu in a cab. At night. This trip has turned out to be restrictive. The ceasefire was called off within days of my arrival, ensuring that there was a curfew in many areas, after dark.

I peer into the dark, fast-emptying streets and notice I am one of very few women out. None are alone. But it doesnt matter. I recognize the street where I'm staying. Only 20 mins or so, I tell myself. Outside Thamel, the streets are empty, except for the sleepless Khate-bachha (street urchins) and the uniformed men with guns.

There are army fatigues every hundred yards or so. The men bunch together on the sidewalk or peer into the cars, as they slow down. Often, across the road, they place barricades, blocking the road. Red STOP signs with instructions for drivers - "When you are stopped, switch on the light inside the vehicle. Show identification...." so on.

My cab-driver has to switch on the light at least five times, while the policemen (or is it the army?) peek into the cab, looking for god-knows-what: Maoists, bombs, ammunition, kidnappers...?

It is annoying after the first two times; yet, each time, my heart skips a beat.
I do not know why.

Maybe that is how premonitions feel.

At Chakrapath, the driver turns to me, asking me where I want to go.
I say, "Maharajgunj".
"This is Maharajgunj."
"Oh! Er... which side is the new bus park?"
"That was the turn we missed."
"That's where I need to go."

We drive on in silence.

And then, once more, the police must check the cab. The driver switches on the light. They poke their heads in, through the window.

I stare back, silent, waiting for them to wave us on.
But, somehow, they do not.

A squat-faced, slightly oily-cheeked cop taps on the cabbie's door.
He barks rapidly in Nepali. I do not understand.

The cabbie says, "Maharajgunj."

The cop barks out another question and the cabbie turns to look at me. The cop now turns to me and repeats his question. I look helplessly at the cabbie.

He looks away, equally helpless.
The cop repeats his question, tapping at the window. Another cop joins him and a third strolls over, leaning against the bonnet.

Finally, I murmur, "Dai (elder brother), I do not understand Nepali."

The cop stares at me as if he did not understand Hindi. Then, he exchanges glances with his colleagues. "What are you then? Indian?"

I nod. He nods a few times, almost as if reaffirming some long-held belief to himself.

"Where are you going, all alone at this time?"
"I stay near here."
"Where?"
"Maharajgunj, Chakrapath."
"But you've left Maharajgunj behind."
"It's on the road where the bus park is."

The cabbie grows defensive. "That's what she said. She told me to move against the new bus park."

They turn to me. "So, where do u stay?"
"Close by."
"With whom?"
"A family."
"Why are you here? why did you come from India"
"I'm a journalist."
"This is the first time in Nepal?"
"Yes."

I wait. They do not wave us on, though. They stare at me.

"So what are you doing now?"
"I'm going home."
"Where's home?"
I swallow and remember that I do not have the exact lane or house number. "It's near a school. There are two schools and there's small lane off the main road... I recognize it, Dai."
"which school?"
"Academy Boarding High."
"Academy? Never heard of it."
"It's very small."
"So you live in the school? Are you a teacher?"
"No. I live near the school. I'm not a teacher. I'm a journalist."
"So then... what this about a school?"
I suspect these men are drunk, but I have to keep talking. "The area.. it has a few schools. There's also a Kantipur School close by."

The second cop mutters, "Ah. Yes, Kantipur school. I've heard of that."
The third cop too, "Yes, yes. But that's in the opposite direction. where do you think you're going?"
The first cop again. "Why don't you have anything... nothing written down?"

I swallow the knot of panic rising in my chest.
I am carrying no identification. No i-card. No passport. No letters. Nothing to show I'm not a Maoist or an illegal drug peddler.

The men bark at the cabbie. He shrugs and looks at me. I don't understand.

The second cop - I notice vaguely that he has a small moustache, the kind that's very rare in Nepal - speaks, "Why don't you get down and pay off the cab?"

I swallow hard. "But dai... how will I get home if I pay off the cab? There aren't any other cabs around here."

The first cop is belligerent. "You get down! We'll have you dropped."

It is the last thing I want to do. The cabbie looks helpless. Now, I'm sorry for him.

I try to talk my way out, "Dai... really. I can't come with you. I'll just take this same cab on."

"But you don't know where you stay. How will you? Come, get out now."

I take a deep breath and step out, still clinging to the cab-door like it was a life-saver. "Dai, I know where to go. I think we took a wrong turn but please let me go now."

"What are you doing here anyway? Why did you come to nepal?"

I am half-exhausted, half-irritable and very frightened.
"I work here, dai. I can find my way. Really."

"do you know the time?"

I realise I am not wearing a watch.
The cop shows me his steel dial. "Nine-thirty! In Kathmandu, girls don't stay out alone at this hour."

I can only whisper. "I realise that."
"This is Nepal."
"Yes, I know... I got delayed."
"We'll have you dropped later. Come with us now. Pay off this cab."
"Dai, really... you don't need to take the trouble. I'm fine in the cab."

The other cop leaning on the bonnet comes close, a fourth cop joins the group, all staring at me.

Hemmed in, I am beginning to struggle with my tears, "Dai, please let me go."
"And who will be responsible if something happens to you? How do we know, if something goes wrong... you're a foreigner, you know..."
"Yes, I understand that. But I will be ok... please dai, I'm getting very late. They're waiting for me at home."

The cops exchange a few brief words, a few gestures of the chins, and then, "How will we know if you're ok? Come with us to the police station; we'll drop you."

"Dai, Please let me go." I am practically in tears now. It is hard to speak without choking, and my eyes are swimmy.

More nods and low whispers flit round me.

"Give us your details."
"My details?"
"Name? Number? What's the number of the place you live?"

I fish out my diary, aware that they are aware that I don't have the number by heart. Inside my fingertips, there is a soft pounding that's turning into a tremble. I fumble with the diary, a very touristy thing with recycled paper and only one page filled with numbers.

I read out the address and number. The first cop asks me for paper. I begin to tear out a page from my diary but my fingers are trembling and I can't write clearly. He reaches out and snatches the diary from me.

He glances over it and then rips out half a page, taking the pen from my hand. Then he leans over and snatches my book to rest the paper on. while he writes.
"What is your name?"
"Ji?"
"Your name?"
"Annie"
"What?"
"Zaidi".

He writes down "Jedi."

I repeat the number. He takes it down and repeats it twice. I take my pen and diary back.
"And what's the name of the people you live with?"
"Jaiswal...can I go now?"
"I will call in fifteen minutes."

They turn to the cabbie. "What's your cab number.... ok, take her, and if you can't find her place, bring her back here within half an hour."

I slide back into the cab, almost falling in relief.

Then, the first cop leans inside and begins again, "What are you doing out alone? Come out, I will drop you back. Come with me."

But the third cop pats his arm and says, in Nepali, "Enough. Let her go."

He turns to the cabbie and waves him on. The cabbie turns the key in the ignition and I breathe.
Later, I am apologetic. "I'm sorry about the wrong turn."

The cabbie is silent. When I recognise the lane and ask him to turn, I notice the meter: a rocking five hundred rupees!

I sigh and empty my wallet. Just enough, thank God. I thank the cabbie and don't ask him for my change.

And I swear never, ever, to go out in Kathmandu alone, after dark.

Annie Zaidi, August, 2003.

Note for the president

Kalam saab,

It is that time of the year again.

Spring is nipping our noses, with chilly winds morphing into sprinkly drizzles. February, love, and new-sprung life are everywhere in evidence... and Mughal Gardens are open to the aam junta.

Yesterday, we, like thousands of other wide-eyed citizens, decided to take a stroll round your estate (well, it's our's really; we're the taxpayers).

First off, I really must tell you to get the security guards, the ones stationed near Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Parliament, to stop playing tricks on unsuspecting young girls who ask for directions.

Don't get me wrong. Nobody misbehaved. On the contrary, they were extremely polite (some of them - the ones in black glares and black band-galaa coats - were kinda cute, in fact), but they did send us off through god-alone-knows which tedha-medha route.

We walked and walked and walked - all the way from the Parliament House to Central Terminus to Central Secretariat to the Church Lane and finally, decided that we had better follow this bunch of young college kids (who also seemed lost) who looked like they were going towards Mughal Gardens too.

With aching feet and a horrible thirst, we got to the place. Only to discover that we weren't allowed to take pictures! How mean is that?!!

I mean, we walked five kilometres and we aren't even allowed to snap ourselves against the flowers? Allow us our memories, will you?

And though it's only women cops, we don't particularly like being felt up. Twice! We don't want to bomb you. It isn't much point, you know. Those who do want to hurl bombs will target the parliament. Or 10, Janpath. Or 7, Race course. Why Mughal Garden, of all places?

And oh, please do make allowances for people who pop in, don't like what they see, and want to go back.

We just aren't allowed to turn back!
Once you get inside, you HAVE TO FOLLOW THE ARROWS. The return routes are cordoned or barricaded off. From herb garden to flower garden to rose garden... long garden and circular garden... to spiritual garden (the last one was distinctly eerie, by the way. I kept thinking of evil tree-resident-spirits instead of God).

It's like being told "So you want to see Mughal Garden, eh? Now you're here, you bloody well see the whole damn garden!!"

And pray, what do you expect people to do when it rains?
It did, actually. We didn't want to get wet but where was the option? We just had to keep walking, rope to rope, arrow to arrow.

The herbs were interesting but need to be tended better. And maybe you'd like to wait a little to open the gardens - the gladioli and tulips hadn't really bloomed. And why do roses have names like Granada and Oklahoma? We'd like a little guidance, maybe some horticulture guys or botanists who show round visitors and tell them more about what they're seeing.

I couldn't help commenting on a lone specimen called 'Mother India': almost ominous, it was a single, dangerously thin plant with one bud, which looked tightly-closed, as if scared and not really ready to blossom.

And oh, there's a sign that says 'Go Slow' (we're walking, remember?) and a speed limit of '30'. Cruel joke, that.

And oh! Lots of signs saying 'Walk only on the footpath'. I briefly considered making a nuisance of myself by refusing to cross the road, because the road is a road and not a footpath, is it? But there were so many guards with guns around; I thought the better of it.

Do try and set up a few seats on the laws, so people can sit and rest. And do allow cameras.
And for God's sake, have someone put up a few more paper-signs pinned to the street corners, along the way, to help hapless touristy people like us.

A little historical context is also in order. Do tell - why is it called Mughal Garden? And do remember to remove that hideous yellow signboard with a note that welcomes visitors, referring to itself as 'lovely', signed off as 'Mughal Garden'.

I mean, please, spare us: it's not even half-cute... not on the President's Estate.

And oh, that turkey was a nice touch. First time that I saw a live turkey, ugly neck and all. But why can't you get a few more birds. I was hoping to see some peacocks.

Do get someone with taste to work with the flowers next year. The plants are pretty but they look like a 'farm', not gracefully 'arranged'.

In contrast, the little gol-chakkars (green islands or whatever you call them) near Panchsheel Marg, Chanakyapuri, Teen Murti etc, are exqusite! The green hands working there must have excellent taste, and an eye for colour and pattern. Hire them. Steal them. Borrow them. You can. You're the persident.

PS - It's a nice estate, you know.... Can't help wondering if you have tea, sitting in that little elevated, wooden shelter with love seats in it (the one after the herbs, but before the long and circular)? I'd like to, someday. Haha! Just kidding.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Raped by the media?

Explain to me somebody - why do we insist on not revealing the name and face (identity) of a rape victim?

Because we're concerned that life will be made hell for her, afterwards? That she might be further traumatized by the attention, pity, whatever... or targeted by the accused and his sympathizers? That she might be spared humiliation by her immediate community, our social mores being what they are? That her family might be spared?
Right?

Now, somebody explain to me why a 12 year old rape victim was interviewed by NDTV, barely a day or two after the crime?

The child had been raped twice over, and was made to describe the whole ghastly experience.

The face-image was blurred beyond recognition, true.

But her family members' faces weren't. The local police was interviewed as well. They mentioned the accused - her tuition teacher, and his friend. The village and locality was also mentioned.

If anyone who might know the poor girl watched that program, they would be left in no doubt whatsoever about the victim's identity.

I, for one, would like to know who this reporter was (some guy; I didn't catch his name and I didn't want to watch a re-run of the report) and what gave him the incredible desire to hear it all, and shove a camera in the child's face.

I'd like to know who the programming head was, for this particular program. And the guys who edited it and didn't say a word.

And, I'd like to know - do the bosses at NDTV really approve?

I hope not, because, really, we don't need this kind of report. It is like being subjected to a second kind of rape - a kind of media-rape.

I refuse to believe that my people are that hungry for sensational news. This country does not wish to see her daughters' trauma filmed for broadcast. Spare us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Questions for Renuka chowdhary

I'd like to see travel and tourism in India grow.
I'd like to see people visit us, and go back, wanting to come back. I'd like to see my people make money, through service-related industries, and not through back-breaking labour on tiny land holdings that don't need the extra hands anyway. I'd like to see more employment generated through the travel business.
And I'd like to ask the tourism minister, Ms Renuka Chowdhary, a few questions, if only she'd let me.

Last year, in 2004, the tourism ministry announced that they've met the self-set target of 3.5 million visitors into India. Self-congratulatory press conferences were, therefore, in order.

According to 2003 statistics, India saw a 27.5 percent growth in the numbers of visitors coming in from abroad. For the same period, foreign exchange earnings grew at 23 percent. Lonely Planet mentioned India as one of the Top 5 holiday destinations (from a list of 134 countries).
In short, it was a good year.

While the tourism ministry enthusiastically pats itself on the back for meeting tourist inflow targets, this growth could well be a carryover from the previous government's efforts. [Correct me if I'm wrong, Ms Renuka, ma'am, but the Incredible India campaign was not your brainchild, was it? It was the previous NDA government's initiative, wasn't it?]

Here are some of the questions I had wanted to ask madam Renuka -

Why was the 'View the Taj Mahal by moonlight' idea such a fiasco?
No foresight? Or just too much trouble making it happen?

What's happening on the rural tourism front?
Has she been to the interiors of Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and other states, which are not necessarily perceived as having great tourist potential?
Has she not seen how hospitable the people are and how clean their homes, and how incredibly pretty their villages? Does it not strike her that any tourist (domestic or foreign) would fork up substantial sums to live with the villagers as one of them, for a few days?

What's with the light and sound shows at monuments, in the evenings?
Sure, they're there. But tourists aren't allowed to enter the monument complexes in the evenings.

Why do momuments and musuems have a 'camera fee' when 'photography is prohibited'?

What's being done to cater to the domestic tourist?
There are as many as 5.5 million Indians who fly abroad. Even Indian travelers don't seem to want to invest in home pleasures. Domestic tourism, in 2002, grew at only 15.6 percent.
And why will they?
Where are the low-end hotels that are safe, clean and culturally-enriched as well? Why are there half a dozen seven-star or five-star hotels in a radius of five kilometres and almost no two or three-stars for miles around?

What about cruising?
We have such a huge coastline, but almost no luxury cruises will stop here, except for a day, when they absolutely HAVE to. India just doesn't figure as a destination. And yet, sailing is one of the cheapest and extremely viable forms of travel, for no hotels are needed. We only need to develop ports, build jetties and reassure foreign players about security. shouldn't that be on the agenda?


Where is our priority list?
Do we have one?

If her ministry's doing such a great job, how is it that India's share is still stuck at US $ 2.9 billion, which is only 0.62 percent of the global pie?

Africa has seen a decline in tourist inflows, but still had 694 million. The gulf countries had 30 million. France has 77 million. China has 36.8 million. Mexico, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan, Italy, Germany... you name it and 'it' is ahead of us, who are stuck a figure of 3.5 million.

Incidentally, what parametres are used to judge growth of tourism?
According to Gautam Chaddha (who heads Turin, a global cruising company), the definition of 'tourist' needs to be sharpened.

"India has adopted a model whereby every foreign arrival is deemed a tourist.There are plenty of NRIs or people of Indian origin who are coming into the country, but not spending time of forex as 'tourists. There are thousands of people who arrive on business, or to study or to research. They don't count as 'tourists'. We shouldn't get carried away by the figures."

Besides, he explained, India has had a good year or two. That may be because we've been more visible as a country - IT, BPOs, markets and so on.
If we judge this 'growth' on the basis of previous graphs, this sort of high is bound to slip into a low, in a year or so. India's growth has always been cyclical and there have been no major changes in a decade.

According to Chaddha "There is a curiosity about Brand India. But there are almost no repeat visitors. This is such a huge country - it really is incredible. You can't compare India to any one country.. maybe to Europe as a whole. We have so many Indias within India. But no one comes back a second time. We have to ask ourselves why."

Indeed, Ms Renuka, why?

Our elusive madam minister Renuka

Renuka Chowdhary, minister for tourism, needs to be briefed about her job anew.

She needs to be reminded that she's around to ensure tourism 'develops': i.e. grown from point A to point B, where point B represents a higher notch on the graph, leading to larger 'tourist' inflows and greater income accrueing from tourism.

She also needs to be told that, although development, like justice, needs to be 'seen to be done', it must first be done and then tomtommed.

Ms Renuka is one of the most 'visible' tourism ministers we have. She's here, there and everywhere - from Bollywood extravaganza to cultural hoo-haa, from inaugurating exhibitions to Sariska, where the tigers are not to be found.

But she is not available for comment about the immediate future of Indian tourism.

I have been trying to reach her for an interview since November last year, when her ministry issued a release stating that India had touched a landmark figure - 35 lakh (3.5 million) visitors!

The tourism ministry had set itself a target of 3,500,000 foreign visitors and the target was met. Which sounded like good news, at first glance, and I was keen on exploring an upbeat story: was Indian tourism finally getting its act together with the 'Incredible India' campaign?

However, Ms Renuka remained elusive.
I made several phone calls, seeking an appointment, but 'madam is busy'. always.

One day, I went across to the ministry office, sweet-talked my way in, without an appointment and parked myself in the offices of one of her secretaries. I refused to move until I was granted an appointment, if not an audience.

The gentlemen working in the ministry politely offered me tea, biscuits and books to pass the time, for 'madam is in a meeting'. Tea and biscuits down, I twiddled my thumbs. 5 pm turned to 6 pm and 6 pm to 7 pm, and I fretted about missing the last bus home.

Madam, meanwhile, breezed past - out of her office and straight into a car that whizzed her off to a high-profile function. I watched her whiz past, but before one could say 'Madam', madam was gone.

I, unfortunately, am not of that breed of journalist that runs after a politician or film-star or an undertrial or any person-of-the-moment, microphone and notebook in hand. I don't believe I have to. I don't believe politicians deserve to be spoken to, if they wish to avoid the media.

So, I did not give chase.

I wrote out a note, requesting an appointment, or at least, a confirmation that she would be willing to answer my questions on email, through fax or on the phone. I also requested her to tell me if she would prefer to let the Media (Public) Relations guy or someone else in the ministry handle the interview.

There was no response from the ministry.

I have not bothered to go back and seek an interview. Like I said, I don't believe I have to chase politicians if they don't want to field the press.

I still have a story, though. Which I will post as a separate post, in a while.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It's not our films, really

An appendage to the last post:

Often, the people who demand that Hindi films be banned in 'their ilaaqa', do not dislike Bollywood fare.

But they do dislike the people who represent 'Hindi'.

They don't like being imposed upon by a Hindi-speaking-people dominated central government. They don't like watching their own familiar culture disappearing. They don't like the idea of the music associated with a mother tongue, fading like the dreams of the poor who speak it.

Which is why in Bongaigaon, the Prakash cinema hall closed down.

The ULFA extremists (for lack of a better word) have long been muzzling on theatres in Assam, at least in the areas they control. No Hindi films. No Bollywood.

In Nepal, there is a growing demand for a delay in the release of, if not an outright ban on, Hindi films, to allow the local industry to prosper. In most cities, the demand was disregarded, because there wasn't much anti-Bollywood sentiment.

But, in some areas, there are other voices that want a similar ban, for different reasons. They don't want to be reminded of their dependence on India. They don't want to be reminded of how their own culture is fading, and that the new pop culture is being shaped by exposure to Hindi films and Hindi television soaps.

Most of all, they don't want to be reminded of how great an influence India is, and how much of a Big Brother it likes to be, in the subcontinent. They can't change the situation, but they sure as hell can blow up cinema-theatres that screen Hindi films.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Why Bollywood faces hostility

The strange case of the Hindi film industry is symptomatic of all that is wrong with our (not the government or administration, but the public) approach to problems.

Instead of attacking problems at the root, we hit out blindly at anything else that appears to be in the way. In fact, we hit out at anything else that seems to be doing well. If an immigrant is making money in our city, throw them out. If we can't beat the competition, burn down the competition. If we can't make more money than Hindi film-makers, let's ban Hindi films.

Most regional cinema is extremely hostile to Bollywood (and when I say regional, I also include the film industries of other countries in the subcontinent, like Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh). This is not because Bollywood turns out so much trash (actually, so does Hollywood and Lollywood and all woods everywhere. I don't see why Hindi films should be singled out for so much trash generation).

The film industries from other neighbouring countries and our own states are hostile because no one wants to watch their films. That is, since they have the option, people seem to not prefer a Kannada or Telegu or Nepali film, over a Hindi film.

Result?
Hindi films are more or less flourishing. At least, in comparison. And local cinema is often floundering, struggling for survival.

And the reaction?
The regional film-makers scream 'foul' and begin pressurizing theatre-owners to stop screening Hindi films. Or to at least delay their release by a week or two, so that movies made in other languages stand a chance. There are stand-offs. There are protests. There are more losses in all related industries. Theatres shut shop. Jobs are lost. Nobody wins.

I will not go into the other, more pertinent, issue of regional cinema not producing enough work of quality. I will not bring up the issue of regional film-makers producing films that look like bad copies of popular Hindi films. I will not even say that maybe there's nothing very wrong with the aam junta prefering bad Hindi films to good, 'social-theme' Marathi or 'sensitive' Bengali films.

Let's just focus on the problem at hand - regional cinema is being edged out of the business.

Hindi cinema may or may not be responsible. After all, there are places where theatre-owners have not screened Hindi films and audiences have just refused to turn up.

If budgets are the problem, the regional industries ought to ask the states' relevant cultural deprtments for more grants.

If theatre-owners are refusing to screen regional movies, that is a real problem.
The Maharashtra government did resolve this partially by insisting that at least one show in each multiplex be that of a local-language movie (I'm not sure whether this applies to Marathi films only, or to all regional films). In fact, Marathi actors agree that the local industry has been mis-using government subsidies (making movies in Marathi just to can avail of the subsidy; making a film in Rs 5 lakhs and swallowing the remainder of the Rs 10 lakh subsidy, etc).

Last year, Shwaas ran for several weeks in Bombay (moving from one multiplex to another). It got nominated for the Oscars as well. It found its own niche audience. I don't know how much money it made, but I, for one, was glad to see it being screened.

There's optimism. There's hope. There's energy in Marathi cinema, today.

Marathi actors agree that it might change the way the industry has been reacting to Hindi films. They might start making better stuff themselves rather than just complaining of step-motherly treatment. If a movie is good enough, the Hindi cinema guys will be queueing up for remake rights, or will dub the film into Hindi.

All I can say is - amen!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The separate in separatism - 2

Mizoram is one of the few states in the north-east (or indeed, anywhere in the country) where internal conflict was 'successfully' resolved, twenty years after it first began to give grief to the central administration.

I haven't been to the state myself, and nor was I born when the insurgency flared up, around 1966, I believe, but from all accounts, the 'putting down' of the rebels in Mizoram was a brutal business.

Activists recall, with much unconcealed distaste, the whole business of ensuring 'peace' after the peace treaty was signed (in 1986) by the Mizo National Front.

This rebel outfit, incidentally, started out as an NGO, called the Mizo National Famine Front, providing relief during the terrible Mautum famine of 1959.

Laldenga, the leader of the MNF, started out by demanding complete sovereignty for Greater Mizoram, but later piped down and settled for separate statehood (Mizoram was carved out of the hill districts of Upper Assam).

Laldenga, they say, was smart. He realized, (or so they say) after two decades, armed resistance wasn't much help. The army would always be bigger and stronger, and always on their trail. The rebels would always be running, living underground and their people would continue to suffer, on account of both.

So, he signed the peace treaty. And became Chief Minister of the newly formed state.

After the agreement, the army moved into Mizoram and 'brutally' (not my words, the locals says so) broke up all the clans and tribes. Villagers were rounded up, sent to temporary camps and then broken up and sent off to different corners of the state.

In the process, many families were ripped apart. Insensitive, we'd say. But, the army likes to point out, very effective.

The community, you see, was essentially a tribal one. The clans held together, and allegience to the clan was more important to them than the sovereignty of India. The smashing of social system quashed the movement very effectively, and prevented quick regrouping and reorganisation.

However, despite being uprooted, the Mizos have done well. The state is sometimes referred to as a 'model state' nowadays.

It is said at least one-third the population lives in the capital city, Aizwal. And one-third of the working populace is in some form of government service.

Notwithstanding the breaking up of the clans, the traditional social system is in place in rural areas, even now; as far as I'm concerned, it is a model system indeed.

This is based only on hearsay, but this is what I've heard -
In times of crisis, like a famine, a person goes to the immediate neighbour, for help. He is welcomed and lives with them, as long as they can support him. When, and if, this family also runs out of supplies, they go to the next household. This pattern continues. If it so happens that the whole village faces a food crisis, they send a message (a smoke signal, in ancient times) to the neighbouring village. This new village will support the crisis-struck neighbour (a whole village, imagine!) until the crisis blows past.

In short, people came to each others’ help. (The Mizos are known as a close-knit society, with no class or caste discrimination, and despite it being a patrilinear system, the women enjoy tremendous freedom.)

If all this is possible with clans, I'd say we should introduce the clannish sentiment all over the country, instead of smashing the system and renting the clans' socil fabric!

PS - I can't help but wonder - if the central government had the ability to send in troops to crush armed rebellionsand to break up clans, why could it it not use the same troops to provide relief during the great famine (and now, during floods in Assam)? The MNF would never have been needed...

Friday, February 11, 2005

The 'separate' of separatism - Part 1

The north-east, they say, lacks for patriotism.

I'm not about to go into who this 'they' is. I've heard it said enough times by enough people to dump them all under the 'they' category.

India is a weird shape. (Not that a lot of other countries aren't, but I am interested in this particular country) The seven north-eastern states - Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland and Manipur - are sort of concentrated in one arm, geographically distant from the mainland, and surrounded on all sides by other countries.

Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and so on, 'they' are not worried about, for none of these countries would dare to attack us - the subcontinental giant. They are very worried about China though.

China, they fear, has its greedy sights set on north-eastern India. I have heard people say things like, "China is just waiting for the right moment to strike... The local people are of Tibeto-Burmese, or Mongolian, racial origins. Their sympathies are anyway likely to be with anyone but India... As it is, the whole region is separatist... all the states want to break up further... very clannish culture. If given a choice, they won't stay with India... so many of them already say 'we are naga' or 'we are bodo, we are not Indians'... we shouldn't let them get away with it."

This, they say, is one reason why it is in India's interest to keep the north-eastern states a little... well, let's just say, cut-off.

What 'they' mean is that the north-east had better be kept under-developed, the underlying assumption being that if the people of north-east India become self-sufficient (instead of being heavily dependent on central assistance) and develop confidence on their own ability to survive without mainland help, they might leave...
So, let's keep them where they are - no roads, no railways, no jobs, no industries, no great educational institutes, no dreams. Because, 'they sa, "Develop it too much and we might as well hand it to china on a platter."

I tried, vainly, to make them see the fault-lines in this argument. This is the surest way of ensuring that, sooner or later, all seven states will get disgusted with the central administration and the other states' ability to accept them as an integral and important part of India.

I already hear activists in the northeast say that the locals have no respect at all for a central administration that treats them as second-class citizens.

Consider this - Most major banks will not give loans to the north-east farmers.

Why?
Because, in most tribes in north-east India, the land is jointly owned. It belongs, not to an individual or a family, but to the village or a co-operative. This land is not accepted by banks as collateral. Therefore, no collateral, no loan.

Why this should be a problem, I cannot understand. All land is actually jointly owned. I mean, the land I may possess today, could just as easily be taken away from me, if the government chooese to make a few constitutional amendments. After all, thousands of people were deprived of their lands when the zamindari system was abolished.

So, what happens if, say, a communist government comes to power? Do banks refuse to accept land as collateral in communist-run states like Kerela and West Bengal?

Consider this too -

Victims of militant violence in Manipur get only Rs 10,000. Victims in Jammu & Kashmir get Rs 2 lakhs each (so I hear, but I have yet to corroborate this). Why the difference? Life comes cheaper as we move east?

And this -

Many north-eastern states are making do with currency notes so badly torn you wouldn't recognize them. One, two and five rupee notes - many of them clinging for dear life to several strands of cello-tape - are still doing the rounds. Often, a single five rupee note is comprised of four different bits torn from what used to be four different notes.
The two and five rupee coins (the latter usually referred to as the 'paanch ka dollar' in rural India) are yet to find their way into the distant parts of the states.

The reason - the Reserve Bank of India says it is too expensive transporting coins to the north-east.

Agreed, maybe it is too expensive. But what kind of socio-political signal do you think it sends out to those seven states?

As one of the activists puts it, "Until recently, one-third of your states were in the north-east, but there still aren’t enough railway tracks. There are so few trains. Travel is expensive. No new industries are being set up. The old handicrafts are more or less dying out. Anyway, it isn't economical because people in UP and Bengal are willing to do the same kind of work at dirt-cheap wage-rates. People here are called lazy.... They’re laidback, that's true. But they're not lazy. Just because they're not willing to work as cheap labour at exploitative rates, you ignore them as a part of the resource base. You stop creating employment opportunities for them... are you surprised that there's no love lost between them and the centre?"

Me, I'm not surprised.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Disabled and angry

Javed Abidi, convenor and spokesman for the Disabled Rights Group, sounded more than a little rather annoyed, when he addressed the press conference (at the Indian Women's Press corps), the day before yesterday.

He ended the press con saying, "What do they expect us to do? Start stoning? Burning buses? Throw burning tyres... like other minority groups, who've been neglected too long? Why do minority groups have to be driven to the point that no one listens until they burn buses?"

Point!
Taken.

Though I am familiar with access problems for the disabled (I am still known as the wheelchair girl, amongst the journalist fraternity in Bombay) and have written about the issue, I was surprised to learn that there are 70 million disabled people in the country.

Of course, official estimates are much lower. More like 2.19 crores or 21 million approximately. Or maybe 18 million odd, depending on which version of the NSSO surveys you choose to believe.

This time, Abidi was angry because almost ten years have passed since the law (Persons with Disabilities (equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation) Act, 1995) was enacted and not much has been accomplished.

Apparently, there's a special bus in Delhi. But, Abidi says, "Where is this bus? On which route? Tell me - I'm dying to sit in this bus.... if only they'd reworked five buses each year, by now, we'd have had fifty different routes accessible to the disabled."

And oh, in nine long years, all of four buildings have been audited, by the concerned ministry.

The issue of disabiled rights itself has been made a prerogative of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The weird thing is that the ministry is also responsible for appointing the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD).

Now, this office - the CCPD - has a watchdog role.

Guess who it's got to watch? Yes, the ministry of social justice...

So, Abidi is justified in saying that the chor is appointing the kotwal. "The ministry is playing games. First, for three years they failed to appoint anyone. We complained to the then Prim Minister Vajpayee. They picked up the under-secretary from the ministry and made him the CCPD."

This man, a bureaucrat, didn't do much watch-dogging, according to the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. The conflict of interests was inherent. He was, in due course, transferred.

The next appointee was Uma Tuli, who led an NGO (Amar Jyoti) that is the direct benefiaciary of the ministry's disbursements. Conflict of interests again. One-third of her funding came from the source she was supposed to be barking at. I assume she did not do a lot of barking.

And now, the post is empty again. Oh, the ministry did advertise for the post - in the Employment News.

Abidi is very distressed about this last fact. He thinks it "demeans the dignity of the office of the CCPD... whcih has a mandate from the Parliament." (I don't think so. I think all offices, which you enter not through an exam or an election, but a selection board, should be advertised in papers, in the interest of transparency, if nothing else. But that is just my opinion.)

However, Abidi did say two very interesting things.
One - "A law won't get up and walk. a law doesn't say 'implement me'. You need people to say that."

Two - "The Prime Minister's office should have a disability advisor. Several countries in Asia-pacific do. We are a vast pool of human resource.... why make us sit on dharnas and join rallies. They are a waste of time... come out of the 'charity' approach."

He added that this was not just a welfare issue. It was a financial issue. A labour issue. A railway issue. ALL the concerned ministries should be involved.

Point again!
No issue is solely a welfare issue.

All issues in this country are finance issues, labour issues, human resource issues and just about the business of every ministry on the face of Indian governance.

Unfortunately, our ministries have the passing-the-buck habit. "This subject does not come under the purview of this ministry... take your complaint to the ministry of social welfare."
A polite way of saying 'bugger off to the next department... this isn't my business'.

What I did find terribly interesting was that the NCPEDP has prepared a Shadow Report, to counter the sarkari report prepard by the ministry.

Now, this is something the opposition should be doing. In other countries, most ministers have 'shadow ministers' in the opposition. Playing watchdog is their role. And in their interest!

In India, this is left to activists and civilian groups. However, even that is a start, I'd say.

Make those shadow reports - for every ministry, every department, every official scheme.
Use these reports - distribute them to the media. Show them the other side of the mirror.

Shadow reports are a terribly good idea. In fact, if you asked me what the real story here is - I'd say it is about groups that shadow a ministry's performance on every front.

I was sent to this press con 'go check out... maybe there's a story'. To my eternal disgrace, let it be said, I came back and said 'Not yet.. let's wait until they do something more than make demands.'

Why did I do this?

Because, for one, I knew a report about shadow reports would not be carried. Not even considered a decent story.

Two, because everyone, everywhere is making demands. Almost every ministry and every government office is beseiged with 'a list of demands'. What right have I to publicize one, while I ignore others?

We're supposed to cover things that happen. And until we get to the stage that the media begins to campaign actively for new ideas (opposition shadow reports, for instance), we'll just have to wait until people DO things. Even if it amounts to wasted time, by way of a raasta roko or a bus-burning.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Education's tryst with the 'Honourable' Patna High Court

Primary education in Bihar has had an unfortunate tryst or two with the state-level judiciary. But when the Director, Primary Education, Bihar, refers to the Patna High Court, he never omits to prefix it with a super-emphasized 'Honourable'.

Dr D.S. Gangwar grins when we ask him why the court is so very Honourable. "Well, if you don't mention that it is an honourable court, you might get hauled up for contempt of court."

When the frivolities are dispensed with, we realise that the repeated emphasis on the Honour of the state's judiciary, arises from a worrying situation.

To begin at the beginning, Dr Gangwar explained, enrolment in Bihar is very high. Naturally. Larger population. Bihar has 1,33,000 teachers already. There are 2 crore kids in Bihar, in the 6-14 age group.

"There are 71 students per teacher in Bihar, though the national average is about 40. Enrolment is a problem because we cannot sanction more money to hire more teachers. There is no more money."

The Patna High Court came into the picture when the department of primary education advertised that it would formally appoint 35,000 new teachers. In the meantime, the central government had also sanctioned another 80,000 teachers under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan scheme.

In 2003, when the department released the job advertisements, more than 16,00,000 people applied.

According to Dr Gangwar, "the selection criteria was such that the applicant must be intermediate (Class XII) pass. Those selected in the written exam would be sent to teacher-training institutes. The problem is this - there were several unrecognised training institutes in Bihar that were not functioning properly. We had de-recognised most of them in 1991. But those who have obtained certificates from these defunct, older, pre-1991 teacher-training institutes have built up a lobby. They went to court against our selection process....

"This was rather unfair, because we had allowed a provision for them. We said - those who already have teacher-training certificates could skip the training part of the process, assuming they can clear the exam, at least. But the lobby insisted that only those who already held certificates be considered for selection."

The long and short of it was that 'The Honourable Patna High Court' quashed the department's rules and the selection procedures.

The department decided to dig in its heels and fight back. They went to the Supreme Court and the bench there stayed the High Court order.

That, however, is not the end of the story.
The department of primary education has another grouse against the Patna High Court.

Apparently, there are several para-teachers - under the Panchayat Shiksha Mitra scheme, these are community volunteers who assist a primary teacher. They are appointed by the panchayats and get Rs 1500 as salary, from the central government.

However, the disgruntled lobby (one bureaucrat calls it the 'teacher mafia') of the old, defunct teacher-training-certificate holders went to the Patna High Court again.

They wanted that they, primarily, should be selected as para-teachers, instead of community volunteers chosen by the panchayat....

And guess what? The Honourable High Court, yet again, did not throw this lobby out on its defunct ear.

But, in the meantime, until this judicial battle can be resolved, no new teachers are being appointed. There are already 71 kids per teacher, on an average - an insane, unmanageable number by any standards.

Thanks to the newly-initiated mid-day meal scheme throughout the state of Bihar, these numbers are likely to climb higher. Can you imagine: a lone teacher struggling with a hundred screaming, squabbling, perpetually hungry six-year-olds...?

Education? Bah!

A postscript

As a postscript to the last post on falling sex ratios etc,

I am reminded of an old, popular Lokokti (Lok + Ukti = people + sayings = the things people say)...

It says that all the major wars of this world are fought on three counts - Jar, Joru, Jameen.

Jar/zar = gold, Joru = wife/woman, Jameen/zameen = land.

Which basically means that the source of all human conflict is money, women and property and/or life-supporting-generating resources.

As a woman, I was initially offended by this statement... we women do NOT cause wars! If we had our way, there would be no wars. We don't even like large-scale conflict... Can't they see that? Morons!

In retrospect (ah! the wisdom tooth has made an appearance), I realise that the reference to 'woman' or 'wife' is not a direct one. It probably refers to a whole set of values, attitudes, perceptions and investments that came laden with the word 'joru'.

Think about it - a joru or a wife is not just a woman.
She is property.
She is sex.
She is love (?).
She is the other half of an economic unit; a business partner too. So, she is wealth. She is human resource.
She is comfort and warmth.
She is a servant - cook, maid, nurse, gardener, fellow-labourer.
She is a mistress.
She is an ideal to be upheld. She is also something that can be kicked, when tempers are mercurial.
She is purpose: she is something to come back to; something to work for, fight for. She is something to protect and swear by.
She is a womb, that will bring your seed to fruit. She is the future.
And she will be the sum of your memories, when you are old.

Hmm... all said and done, I guess a wife is worth a war or two.

A moment of silence - Ortiz

A poem by Emmanuel Ortiz...
(sigh! I want to meet him some day; he's my newest favourite)


Before I start this poem,
I'd like to ask you to join me
in a moment of silence
in honour of those who died
in the World Trade Centre
and the Pentagon
last September 11th.

I would also like to ask you
a moment of silence
for all of those who have been
harassed, imprisoned, disappeared,
tortured, raped, or killed
in retaliation for those strikes,
for the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing...
A full day of silence
for the tens of thousands of Palestinians
who have died at the hands of
U.S.-backed Israeli forces
over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence
for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation
as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo
against the country.

Before I begin this poem:

two months of silence
for the Blacks under Apartheid
in South Africa,
where homeland security
made them aliens
in their own country.

Nine months of silence
for the dead in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, where death rained
down and peeled back
every layer of concrete, steel, earth and skin
and the survivors went on as if alive.

A year of silence
for the millions of dead
in Vietnam-a people, not a war-
for those who know a thing or two
about the scent of burning fuel,
their relatives' bones buried in it,
their babies born of it.

A year of silence
for the dead in Cambodia and Laos,
victims of a secret war ... ssssshhhhh ..
Say nothing ... we don't want them to learn
that they are dead.

Two months of silence
for the decades of dead
in Colombia, whose names,
like the corpses they once represented,
have piled up and slipped off
our tongues.

Before I begin this poem,

An hour of silence for El Salvador.
An afternoon of silence
for Nicaragua .
Two days of silence
for the Guetmaltecos .
None of whom ever knew
a moment of peace.

45 seconds of silence
for the 45 dead
at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence
for the hundred million Africans
who found their graves
far deeper in the ocean
than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing
or dental records
to identify their remains.

And for those who were
strung and swung
from the heights of
sycamore trees
in the south, the north;
the east, and the west...

100 years of silence...
For the hundreds of millions of
indigenous peoples
from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen;
In postcard-perfect plots
like Pine Ridge,Wounded Knee,Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers,
or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced
to innocuous magnetic poetry
on the refrigerator of our consciousness .

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut

A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence -

You mourn now as if the world will never be the
same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won't be.
Not like it always has been.

Because this is not a 9-1-1 poem
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about
what causes poems like this
to be written

And if this is a 9/11 poem, then
This is a September 11th poem
for Chile, 1971
This is a September 12th poem
for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977
This is a September 13th poem
for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New Yor k, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem
for Somalia, 1992.

This is a poem
for every date that falls
to the ground in ashes

This is a poem for the 110 stories; that were never told
The 110 stories that history
chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC,
The New York Times,
and Newsweek ignored

This is a poem
for interrupting this program.

And still you want
a moment of silence
for your dead?
We could give you
lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces
of nameless children

Before I start this poem
We could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit

If you want a moment of silence,
put a brick through
the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses,
the jailhouses, the Penthouses and
the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton's 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt
fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered

You want a moment of silence
Then take it
Now,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second
hand
In the space
between bodies in embrace,

Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all
Don't cut in line.
Let your silence begin
at the beginning of crime

But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.

[Emmanuel Ortiz works with the Minnesota Alliance for the Indigenous Zapatistas (MAIZ) and Estaciƃ³n Libre. He is a staff member of the Resource Centre of the Americas, the non-profit publisher of americas.org]

The 'Y' of a second-class foetus

Last month, there was a bit of a hue and cry (not enough, I'd say) about the falling sex ratio in some parts of India - incidentally, some of the more prosperous parts, like Punjab, Gujarat and even Bombay.

We don't like the fact that we have only 927 little girls for every 1000 baby boys. According to Dilip D'souza, its been as bad as the genocide in Rwanda; we, as a nation, have done away with the inconvenience of about 1 million baby girls - either in the womb, or as soon as they were born.

I am reminded of the movie, Matrubhoomi - a nation without women. One of the most fantastic movies to have come out of the subcontinent in recent years (not just because of its subject, but also the dark humour and the outspoken empathy of director-writer Manish Jha), the film takes off on an assumption that the men of this country will, someday, be scrambling and killing for brides.

It also brought home a very horrifying truth - that a limited supply will not necessarily lead to women being treated as precious creatures, being given extra care. It is more likely that they will simply be bought and sold like grain in the black market. They will be stolen and abused, with that much more viciousness, for the rarity of the experience.

All the same, after our ranting and breast-beating about 'missing girls' and skewed ratios, we (the media and/or concerned citizens) have shrugged and sighed and let go of the issue. The hue and cry has subsided into a sulky silence.

There has been some government intervention by way of a crackdown on pre-natal and ante-natal clinics - they're asking for birth records; a wildly skewed ratio there will be taken as a sign of guilt, it seems. They're also releasing spot ads on radio and plastering posters on walls in villages.

But as far as I can see, we still aren't thinking of solutions. We aren't thinking 'why', and we aren't digging up the problem from the roots.

Don't you ever wonder 'why'?
Is it dowry? Is it that girls can't light funeral pyres? Is it just deep-seated prejudice against the female of the species?

I don't think so.

Mommy always told me that girls have only themselves to blame for the 'male child preference', especially in educated, middle-class families.

It is the male child who shoulders the burden of finances. And everything in this world ultimately boils down to economics, doesn't it?

The boy brings home the bread. The boy brings home a bride, who will provide other services, which need not be paid for. The boy takes care of the old. His bride will serve the old and the very young.

The girl, on the other hand, is a drain on resoures.
She eats, plays, takes an education, takes a dowry, and finally, leaves the family-of-origin forever: never to shoulder any major responsibilities in her parental home.

A girl, in most middle-class families in India, is not an investment.

Other people have told me things like 'even a dog stays loyal to the hand that feeds it, as long as it lives.... a girl-child; she is not yours to begin with...'

So, if you can afford to, you had better have a girl, and dispatch her to her 'real' home as quickly as possible, with minimum damages (little expenditure on her education and a one-time dowry send-off, as opposed to an equal share in family property) .
If you can't afford it, well.... well then, you'd better not have any girls.

Mommy says that as long as we have girls who 'take, take, take'; girls who get married and don't look back; girls who don't fight for an education, milking it for every paisa it is worth; girls who do not plough back a part of their earnings to ensure their parents' security and well-being in their old age - we're going to remain second-class foetuses.

Of course, there are related issues as well. Issues like security and the bizarre concept of 'honour' and virginity.

Nobody wants a creature that must be guarded all the time. Nobody can afford it!

Imagine the amount of time our fathers and brothers waste, trying to keep tabs on the comings and goings of young girls, keeping track of suitors who might be unsuitable... The kind of suitors who would take the girl's virginity (leaving them with lesser to bargain against, in the marriage market) and yet, do not her off their hands.

But, like I said before, it is all about money.

When women earn enough to support themselves and their families, if need be, they are no longer a liability. They need not be taken off anyone's hands.
Their virginal status need not be bargained against, or for.
They need not marry at all, unless they absolutely choose to. And oh! Then, they could actually choose. They needn't settle for a 'settled' boy.
For all we know, the parents would actually fight to KEEP their girls!

There are tribes where this happens, even today. Warrior-like, men have to foricbly carry away the women they want to live with. In other tribes, they've got to pay compensation by way of property, cattle, money or all three, when they do manage to get a willing girl.

We have a history of wanting to keep our girls.
Our myths and legends are full of tales where women have the power to choose their mates (at Swayamvars, or during village/tribal festivals), and where women have to be carried away by force (which is not such a bad thing, I think, because that also implies that nobody's begging a man to take away the burden of a girl-child).

In cultures where these traditions remain alive, women play important economic roles.
Actually, women play important economic roles in all societies and cultures. It is only a very tiny segment - the educated, upper classes - that first allows, and then coerces, a girl to be economically dependent.

For, ultimately, it all boils down to money.

Monday, February 07, 2005

In response to 'What use is the media?'

Yesterday - a very wet, very wintry Sunday in Delhi... can you imagine? - I was drawn into one of those interminable debates about the purpose of journalism, by a young man who is entering the field himself.

For him, the question was a newly pertinent one. This would be his first tryst with a mainstream media organisation, television news at that, and he was worried about the impact of his work. "Does it really make any difference to individuals... any meaningful difference?"

And of course, I said, "Of course!"

But this guy persisted; he asked me 'how' and 'why' and 'give me concrete examples'...
Do we impact individuals? Does that guy on the tapri where I sit, sipping chai, get impacted by my decision to make my living through journalism? How does my work affect his life?

Having been forced to think hard, I reiterated, "Of course!"

Look at a newspaper... any one of them.
About 40 to 60 percent of the space is taken up by advertisements or advertorials of some kind.
The rest is information.

It may not be about the guy on the tapri, or even be useful to him. It is information, nonetheless; and it is likely that at least half the buyers of any newspaper are interested in a given piece of information, even if they are neither affected by it, nor inspired, nor influenced, nor benefit from it.

The news can basically be good or bad.

If bad, it could be about a natural disaster (like the Tsunami); man-made horrors (like the Iraq war); administrative or political mismanagement (this would include dereliction of duty by government employees, failure to deliver on manifesto promises, failure to complete projects undertaken, scams, bribery, tax evasion); long-term failings (like violation of constitutional and/or human rights and failure to improve living conditions for the poor, oppressed and dispossessed); and finally, individual tragedies that amount to a certain degree of public grief (Amitabh Bachhan's near-fatal accident while shooting Coolie, or the death of MS Subbalakshmi or India not winning the Oscar for Lagaan.)

If good, the news could be about a personal victory that amounts to public celebration (India beating Pakistan during the cricket World Cup or Mike Pandey winning the Green Oscars); administrative or political accomplishment (Manmohan Singh becoming the Prime Minister, or PWD making world-class residential complexes, or the Delhi underground metro being competed); local initiatives by citizens and NGOs (the campaign for water-harvesting, or the formation of mohalla comittees, or the re-greening of a barren stretch of land); scientific inventions and discoveries (vaccines, fancy gadgets, new technology) and so on.

Often, the news is neutral; whether positive or negative, it remains to be seen. There is nothing good or bad about it, but we'd like to know, nevertheless. For instance, a new film is released; elections are held; an ambitious plan is made, to beautify flyovers in the capital; new sources of immigration are discovered; a new university is set up; an old institution closes down; sheep are cloned; bilateral talks are held.

The rest of the news is analysis of given situations - good, bad, ugly, colourless - in the country, the immediate vicinity, or across the globe. Some space is taken up by trivia and history. There are classfieds and there are special supplements, to cater to specific needs of education, career, environment, gadgetry, cars etc.

Other parts of a newspaper are interactive. In newspapers, there are quizzes, letters to the editor, writing contests and so on. On television, there are talk shows and the like.

So, back to the original questions - what are we doing for the average joe on the street?

We, the journalists, we telling him. We are giving him information. Which is tantamount to ammunition, assuming the average joe knows how to use it (even advertisements are information of a kind, and useful at that).

The guy on the tapri wants to know what's happening around him; probably, he realises it is important for his very survival, at some level. It is our job to give him enough information and explanation.

And what is the ultimate impact?

Well, look at the result of the almost-too-extensive media coverage of the Tsunami (there's been more aid than ever before; maybe, there's more than can be used right away)... Look at what happened when the Express carried out a media campaign against petrol pump allotments during the NDA regime.... Look at what happened when Tehelka did their sting operations. Look at what happened when Shwaas was nominated for the Oscars...

Everyone who was interested and could, did his/her bit - whether it was through contributions of time and money or through the casting of a single vote.

Oh yes, we have a job to do.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Mouthful 1

Came across some interesting stuff while researching my mid-day meal story (which incidentally, isn't appearing for a month now).

The US of A also has a mid-day meal project. They refer to it as national lunch something or the other, but it's there - in place and as compulsory as they come.
I find this terribly interesting. Usually, one tends to think that government-initiated welfare projects are the lot of the impoverished 'third world'. I know a majority of our swelling middle-class thinks that way. But what most people don't realise is that the real sign of progress and prosperity is this - welfare expenditure... Welfare schemes, made lawful and compulsory.

The US didn't get comfortable without their government spending on stuff like mid-day meals. (It's a different story that they still seem to be producing morons en masse... probably the result of being fed too many hamburgers and 'freedom' fries.)

And the USA isn't the only one. (A sad exception is the UK, where there was a parliamentary proposal to introduce free lunches but it didn't go through for all of the UK. Apparently, some politicians and parents believe there is a 'stigma' attached to free school meals. There were reports that some kids were being made to sit separately, if they availed of the facility... all I can say is "Shame!")

Finland has a similar scheme for free lunch in schools. So does Sweden. And literacy in Brazil shot up to 83 percent after they introduced mid-day meals in schools.

What I'm trying to get at is - welfare schemes are not a sign of poverty. They're the first sign of progress and prosperity.

And ensuring their smooth implementation, in each village and town, is the first sign that we, as a country, are finally waking up to the notion of progress, and committing ourselves to accountability in the system.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Rickshaws, rickshaws and then some

Rickshaws are one of the best thing about small-town India.

I love rickshaws (cycle-rickshaws, that is. When we north-Indians say rickshaa, we mean the ones pulled by a man on a cycle).

It must be related to childhood memories of Lucknow (why do we spell the damn city as 'luck-now'? It should be Lakhnau!)... Lucknow meant holidays, ice-cream treats, laughing aunts, riotous cousins, a noisier grandmaternal home-away-from-home.
Lucknow also meant rickshaws.

Bombay unfortunately has none. I missed them terribly for the last five years.
Delhi has them, but they're only allowed to move in small, restricted areas - like old Delhi, Pahargunj, Jamia, etc. (and now, the government wants to introduce licenses for the poor guys. Sheesh!)

What is nice about rickshaws is that they are indicative of a city's spirit and mannerisms, to a large extent...
Spirit and mannerisms? Okay, maybe not 'spirit and mannerisms'. But at any rate, the cycle-rickshaws in each town are different from each other, and I'm sure this difference is reflective of the town itself. Has to be, na?

Lukhnavi (I am going to spell it any which way I want to, ok?) rickshaws are... well, basic. A cycle, a seat, and often, a collapsible hood which you can put up to ward off too much sun, rain, or, simply a makeshift 'zenana', for those who're still in purdah.

Looks-wise, they're respectably ordinary. The seats are bound with plain plastic. The hood is mostly plain, painted wood. They're fairly comfortable, with enough leg-room. Three slim girls or two fat ones can easily sit on one. Four little/slim ones can be accomodated if two of them sit on the backrest of the seat. If there are more children, some of them them can be asked to stand on an iron strip, behind the seat (This is how we travelled when the whole extended family went to the zoo).

The rickshaws in Hyderabad are different.
The seat is low. So that you have to sit with your legs politely folded to the side (like we do, when we sit at Dastarkhaans) or with your knees drawn up to your chest (for reference, recall the publicity posters of the film Hyderabad Blues).

The ones in Jaipur are slightly higher. I have to struggle to haul myself up. Oftentimes, the poor, skinny puller has had to lend me a hand.

In (lower) Assam, your rump keeps sliding off the seat. The seats are, strangely, slightly forward-tilting. So, every hundred metres, you have to push your rump further backwards against the back of the plastic seats.
As a bonus, the Assamese rickshaw ride will have you seated in the lap of a film star. The seats are imprinted with the images of all the popular Bollywood stars. You can take your pick, and ride along happily with the illusion that your backside is being warmed by the arms/lips/torso/shoulders (depending on the size of the image blow-up) of your favourite matinee idol.

In Bharatpur, the rickshaws that move inside the bird sanctuary (only cycles are allowed inside, or rickshaws; no motor vehicles) speak of a neat geometrical mind. There is a square look to them. No hoods (you'e supposed to look at the birds, silly!), but a kind of iron grid, so you can stand up straight in them, to get a better look through your binoculors.

The best thing is, these rickshaw-pullers have been trained in some basic ornithology, so they can double up as guides, getting extra tips in the bargain. All of them wear a small pair of binuculors too, which you can borrow, when needed.

In Raipur, there's a plank of wood attached to the back of the puller's seat. This can serve as a luggage-rack if you need it to, but my guess is that it was put there to accomodate six school-kids, three on each side, facing each other.

The more prosperous of Delhi's rickshaw-pullers have a little radio tied to their handlebars. It helps keep boredom at bay if the pull is a long one.

But my new favourite is the Patna (and other parts of small-town Bihar) lot.
The rickshaws in Bihar are the prettiest I've ever seen. Each little vehicle is dressed up like a blossoming bride! The seats are of bright cloth, the handlebars are decorated with golden frills or pompoms or tassells. In fact, even the auto-rickshaw exteriors in Patna are glittery and decorative.

The hood and other parts of the wood-iron structure are covered in unabashedly gaudy, bridal finery - faux-silk cloth, criss-crossed with gold trimmings, and edged with gotaa lace and kiran.

These pullers really take pride in obtaining a rickshaw and they love dressing up their little mistress. The trimmings fade gradually, but not one rickshaw-puller will settle for a less glitzy exterior, or a simple hood-cloth.

It is almost as if these men were holding on to a semblance of beauty, some form of celebratory colour, in an otherwise starkly desperate life. And I love them for it.

(C) Annie Zaidi, Feb 2005

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