Saturday, April 30, 2005

Lower down

I was ten years old when I learnt one of my earliest lessons in my Std V Social Science book (Civics - Part 1) - 'women are equal'. The first page of that book introduced me to the preamble of the Indian constitution. There it said, quite clearly, that no one shall be discriminated against, on the basis of race, caste, sex, religion.....

There's a lot I forgot from the Std V Civics - Part 1 book, but I clearly remember the bit about how, professionally, women have never been treated on par with men (the author blamed the British Raj for creating unequal wages... and for droughts, famines, communalism, partition, the population explosion), and how, it is not just a fundamental right, but also a moral duty, to refuse to settle for anything less than equal wages for equal work.

It just struck me today, I have never got round to writing the business of unequal wages for women, though I saw it and heard of it, every single village and town I went to - simply because it was so commonplace, and simply because noone's complaining.

In Assam, I heard, men get paid Rs 50 for a day's worth of hauling bricks and building roads. Women get paid Rs 40, or Rs 35. Men working in tea estates get Rs 50, and if they're lucky, Rs 60, even if they're just helping in the 'laboratory'. Women get paid Rs 40, for standing out in the sun, heavy baskets on their heads, plucking leaves.

In Bihar, women get paid Rs 40, while men get Rs 50, for exactly the same kind of work in the fields. In Chhatisgarh, women get Rs 35, while men get Rs 50, for collecting forest produce. In Delhi, a live-in domestic maid gets paid Rs 1000 to Rs 1500. A manservant gets at least Rs 2000, sometimes more.

(It's a different story that most families don't want live-in maidservants. Maids get pregnant, you see. So, the woman comes in to work at 6 am, does everything from making that first cup of bed-tea, to washing your lingerie, but must leave after dinner's done, to sleep out on the streets, or in some shanty-shack where she has no privacy, and where, of course, she's going to get pregnant.... and we won't give our maids the benefit of three-months' paid maternity leave, do we?)

And yet, everyone I meet talks about it so matter-of-factly... "Men, they get paid Rs 50. Women, they get paid Rs 40."

There you are! As if, it were some indisputable, inexplicable vagary of nature. Like summer's hot and winter's cold. And just as there is no point fussing about how the temperature drops in the latter half of the year, there is no point arguing about the wage rate difference between the sexes.

The sad bit is, it's not just women who work in the fields, or the forests, or in factories, or in the newsroom. Surveys indicate that journalists - we who have voices; we who have the public ear - suffer from the same indignity, the sdame crippling professional discrimination, as our maidservants do.

Finally, it doesn't matter whether we work with water or words, we're not equal. Anywhere. Not in Japan, not in Korea, not even in Norway or Sweden.

And all because we take the inequality in our stride - like the heat of summer and the chill of winter.

A rose in the neighbour's garden doesn't smell as sweet

And since we are on the subject of women, and it being a subject that I find hard to get off:
Apparently, there's an ancient Indian saying that investing in a girl is like watering the neighbour's garden.

I found part of a report on the Asia and Pacific Forum on Poverty (the page was refusing to open up as a link, last time I checked, therfore am just quoting some statistics from it).

Some 61% girls are kept out of school (Don't let them study... remember, the neighbour's garden?). Also, although they're genetically tougher, 18% more Indian girls die before the age of 5. (Don't feed them... it will be such fun watching the neighbour's garden wilt up and die)
300 women die each day, in childbirth or through pregnancy-related causes. That's one woman every five minutes. (But why should we care? It's the neighbour's garden.)

But the most startling statistic of all -
31.5% women are tortured at some point.
23.6% are molested.
11.6% are raped.

Even if we allow for unreported rapes, I think these are very curious figures.... Does this mean, then, that there are many more women being tortured, just for the heck of it? Not necessarily raped, not even molested... but just tortured.... why? 31.5%? One-third, nearly?

I'm trying to apply the 'neighbour's garden' logic here, but my imagination fails me.

Come back, Sagar Sarhadi

Something I forgot to mention in that post about how I feel on rail-Shatabdi journeys:

All my life, I've known that Hindi films, their dialogues, their characters, their love-stories, have nothing to do with life. Real-life romance is not like this. We all know that, right?


There I am, sitting on the railway platform, trying very hard to concentrate on what Margaret Atwood has to say about women's bodies, except that some guy is playing a tape titled "All-time romantic songs... Latest and Best."

It also has dialogues, this tape, including "I (echo) LOVE (echo echo echo) YOU (echo echo)!"

A while later, this guy switches to the soundtrack of Silsila, one of my favourites, also replete with dialogue, and spoken poetry. "Tum hoti toh aisa hota, tum hoti toh vaisa hota..... mohabbat hai, mohabbat hai, mohabbat hai" (If you were here, it would be like this; if you were here, it would be like that... we're in love; we're in love; we're in love...).

Memories, of an insufferable kind of celluloid mush from the last millenium, come flooding back. I listen to Kabhie Kabhie, and Silsila, both romantic movies that I actually liked, at some point. But... life isn't like that. Much as I admire Sagar Sarhadi (and I adore him for having written Bazaar, apart from Kabhie Kabhie and Silsila) I don't believe we can live out the song, dance, and socially-acceptable 'The End' of our films.

And surely, no one really does the things our Hindi films show us. I don't even think anybody 'feels' those things. Nobody I know feels like declaring 'Mohabbat hai'.

Then, I get onto the train. And sitting next to me is a woman, decked up like a new bride - red bangles, very obvious sindoor, sequined kurta, shiny sandals - and beside her, a very bored young man. The new bride tries to occupy herself first with a Cosmopolitan, then a Filmfare, and then, simply with the face of the young man.

She twists her fingers around her dupatta, and her dupatta round her fingers, and she gazes up into his face. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. Half an hour. ONE HOUR! And still, she gazes up at his face.

I guessed, at some stage, her back begins to ache. And so, she twists herself round and pulls her feet up on the seat, and continues to gaze, determinedly, up at his face.

And then, she says, "You're not lying to me, are you?"

And he says, "Um-hunh. Swear!"

Then, she takes his hand, places it on top of her head, and says, "Swear?"

As she goes back to gazing at his face, I whisper an apology and make my peace with Hindi film scriptwriters. Come back, Sagar Sarhadi. All is forgiven.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Blood-ties, half-husbands etc

Met a Pakistani fashion-journalist the other day, and Mohsin and I turned out to be related.

["My grandmother belonged to Allahabad..." What? Yours too? Mine too! What part of Allahabad? "The place is called Daayra-Shah-Ajmal.." Whaaat? Mine too!! Mine too... what family? "There was this family of four brothers..." Aiiieee! Whaaaat?!! "Yours too? No!" Yes! "Oh my God!" OH my God!!]

When we were done shrieking and squealing about re-discovering blood-ties etc, some very interesting conversation happened.

Some tales that Mohsin told us about the night-life and partying scene, especially in the fashion and entertainment fraternity, are just too wicked too tell. Besides, since he's a writer, apart from being a remarkably uninhibited and scream-riot-funny man, he will probably compile the best of these anecdotes into a book that will shock, tickle, turn-biases-on-their-head, in India; it will also have half of Lahore rooting for him and half of Islamabad baying for his blood (and fetch him a fatwa in both countries).

However, we got round to discussing the issue of 'four wives permissible' in Islam. Mohsin says that the Quran says that you can only have four wives if you can keep all of them happy, treat each one on par with the other, and that this is pretty much impossible (apparently, the Quran says this last bit, too).

Now, the 'four-wives' rule was created at a time when men died in large numbers, during clan-wars; the remains had to be rationed out carefully. (Men, in any case, die easily enough, even without having to go into battle. They die if they're born premature. They die of eating too much if they get enough to eat; they commit suicide if they don't. They die if they're widowed. They die earlier than their widows... and to think, women are called the weaker sex.)

The current situation is very different, now that the sex ratio tilts the other way. There are fewer women, per man. For instance, in some districts of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, the sex ratio is close to 700-odd women for every 1000 men, or even worse. It is only fair, then, to refashion our rules.

To begin with, I think women ought to be allowed to keep one and a half husbands each.

'One and a half' men isn't easy, in practical terms. But here are the options -

1] We could ensure that each woman has one permanent husband, and a temporary one.
(a) Of course, this might not be very fair to the poor man who doesn't have a permanent job. So, the 'temporary husband' could be a rotating post, where the man can take his freedom after a year of service, and leave, if he chooses.
(b) Else, he could take up another such temporary position with another woman (two such temporary-husband positions ought to be counted as a single permanent post).

2] The second husband could be brought in via a short-term 'contract' marriage (called Muttah, and already sanctioned by our religion).

3] Yet another option is to permit one husband and one lover. That seems reasonably like a 'one and a half man' situation, to me.

4] And oh, we could also break it up into three half-husbands.... though I'm not really sure how/if it would work in our favour.

I could go on and on, but perhaps a major conference of learned, liberated women should be convened, where we begin by defining 'husband', 'half-husband', 'lover', 'boyfriend' etc, and decide the rights, duties and terms of tenure, of all categories.

And then...

Dude, where're my SMSes

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has apparently issued a press release saying that India now offers the cheapest mobile tariffs in the world.

The release also says that the "mobile subscribers base increased from 33.6 million to more than 52.1 million during the year (2004-5), thus adding 18.5 million mobiles."
There are claims that Mobile Tariffs have gone down by 35% and that TRAI had bagged the Asia Pacific Regulator of the Year Award 04. TRAI, incidentally, is also an ISO 9001:2000 certified organization, now.

Somebody tell me this - why does my cell phone suddenly switch itself off, or enter standby mode, without my permission, and where do all the SMSes disappear, leaving my inbox full of 17 'no content' messages. How? Why? And will TRAI arm-twist Reliance into being a little less difficult about billing info, or will it not?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Lessons from LIFW, 2005

Disclaimer: I'm not a fashion person.

I don't know what the next hot colour for the season will be, nor the going trend in the sequined world of hemlines and necklines. I don't even know the names of the new models anymore; it's too tiresome to bother finding out.

But I did go to the Lakme India Fashion Week, on the last day, and caught the 'grand finale' show. Why did I go at all? Because filmmaker friends beckoned. Also, I was curious. I've attended fashion shows, but nothing at any of the previous LIFWs.

So, I sneaked in. And when I say 'sneak', I mean it. It was a very cloak-n-dagger affair, since I hadn't bothered to acquire a media pass (I hadn't done so because I had no intention of covering the event and I know that our magazine would never publish anything about LIFW ... unless, and this is a very remote possibility, President Chavez was chief guest at the Grand Finale, instead of Shahrukh Khan, or if someone dedicated a designer collection to Che Guevara or was inspired to create a Fidel Castro line... but like I said, a very remote possibility).

Since I didn't have a media pass, and it was the media and only the media - and of course, special corporate invitees - who were allowed to enter ('photographers and camera crews first, no camera assistants allowed'), one of my friends who did have a pass (colour-coded green, for media), though she is not a journalist - actually, most of those who entered on media passes were not journalists, and those who were journalists, often didn't have passes in their own names - very generously gave it to me, saying "Oh, I've seen plenty..."

All we had to do was wait for a slight diversion - a very, very old man, leaning heavily on a walking stick, trying to climb stairs and arguing with the security guards - and slip in, flashing the green colour code. Nobody bothered to look at the photo on the card.

[I think there's a potentially-booming business opportunity at future LIFWs. A color-xerox stall set up just outside the venue, a few talented forgers, transparent cellotape - to restore torn invitation cards, so they can be reused by invite-less juntaa, and a vending machine that supplies you with rude-witty things to say to snooty people who are making themselves obnoxious.]

The organisers, by the way, were being exceptionally rude to some of the mediapeople, who had been patiently queueing up outside, for almost an hour.

I personally think that the media would do well to boycott a couple of high-profile events - maybe one whole LIFW - to put the organisers in their proper place. And to teach supercilious PR hoity-toities a very basic lesson - when you invite mediapeople, you treat them like GUESTS, not like they were dumb animals who will 'sit' when you yell 'sit'.

I should not comment upon the collections at the Grand Finale, by Varun Bahl and Monisha Jaisingh (ok, I have to say this - why did Ms Jaisingh have thick, long-sleeved coats and jackets, and satin-brocade pants, as part of a 'Summer Collection'? Somebody tell her that Indian summers necessitate tiny quantitites of white muslin, and nothing else).

I did learn a few lessons at that show, though.

1] I finally know what mommy meant when she said, "They're clotheshorses, baby. And they get paid... you needn't bother."

2] I also finally understand what my aunt in Lucknow meant when she said, "No one wants to touch a skeleton... Eat!"
Thin was not very attractive, off the ramp. Even on the ramp, I thought, there was something to be said for flesh. Just a little bit of weight, a few undeniable curves... that's the stuff a turn-on is made of. Katrina Kaif's butt. Yana Gupta's bust. Case in point.

3] Find your own gait to swing by. Imitation is graceless.

4] Don't look down your nose, on the ramp, unless you have a nose like Nina Manuel's.

5] Don't walk with an out-thrust pelvis, unless your hips don't exist, like Shivani Kapur's.

6] DON'T slouch.

7] Don't bother trying to look like Sheetal Mallar. Just... don't bother.

8] Don't wear stilletoes unless you've had 100 hours of practice. And don't wear knee-length boots. Only Carol Gracious ought to be allowed to wear those.

9] Don't wear flimsy designer-wear if you're a mediaperson at LIFW. You end up looking SO wannabe.

10] If you are a woman and you weigh more than 80 kilos, do NOT wear flowing black tops with uneven hems; SLAP the next designer who tells you that black pants will make you look slimmer. Nothing will make you look slimmer.
However, if you want to get noticed (and don't we all?), then flaunt it, fat and all... Hey, you can only flaunt what you've got, right? And believe me, in a sea of skeletons, it's flesh that stands out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Rajdhani, ever after

Two months ago, I had written out a cribby-fibby post about how the Rajdhani is an inconvenient, boring train.

I had said that Shatabdis and Rajdhanis are great if you're an antiseptic traveller and want to cut down your range of experience to an indifferent minimum; or if you're the kind that prefers to be in an airplane, except that you can't afford it.

Me - I don't like the Rajdhani.
It cuts me off from the world outside - the world of screaming hawkers, the smell of tea in clay kullars, the silence of sleepy railway stations where there are neither hawkers nor coolies, but a lone passenger, and only an uneven row of whispering trees to cordon the platform off from mustard fields...

Besides, I detest having to eat at fixed intervals, especially when they wake you up at the insane hour of 6 am for bed-tea (have you any idea HOW difficult it is to make tea, using little satchets of everything, and boiling water in a flask, when you're too groggy to remember that you cannot sit up straight without banging your skull against the berth above. I got some boiling water on my knees; the poor man on the berth across spilled it all over... er... much above the knees) and then again at 7.30 am, to serve you stale powdery cutlets for breakfast.

To make matters worse, waiters call out 'shoop-shoop', but end up giving you cups of an orange liquid that you assume is tomato soup, until you discover it is Fanta.

Besides, they keep playing instrumental versions of popular Hindi film songs and it drives me up the wall! Not the music, but not having the words. I keep trying to guess at the words and it is maddening when I can't remember.

But that was two months ago.
After the last journey I took, I was positively nostalgic about Rajdhanis and Shatabdis.

In other, older, slower trains, the 2nd-AC dabba is completely neglected. No chai-wallah comes to feed my humble addiction. No water-bearer comes, offering rebottled 'mineral' water. No interesting food. No fruits. No books, or comics. Not even any really loud, nosy families.

This time, there were no waiters to complain to, either. Only a surly attendant who seemed to have memorized a single line to handle all queries and requests "ye suvidha toh nahin hai" (this facility is not available). No facility for buying water, unless you got down at the next station. No facility for an extra balnket. No facility to recharge your cell phone.

There is a death-like silence, with all the curtains drawn to protect a frighteningly large hunger for privacy, through the better part of the journey. The outside is shut out completely, in all air-conditioned compartments, but in these 2nd-AC dabbas, even the inside seems to be shutting you out.
And in turn, you want to shut yourself in, even beyond the privacy that curtains offer. I like watching people, but found that I didn't want to, this time. The slightest whisper seemed like an intrusion and the most cursory glance felt like an insult.

The whole train seemed to say, "You want isolation? You got isolation. Now, don't bother the rest of us."

What would I not have given to have been in the third-class dabba instead... I have traveled unreserved before and have only pleasant memories of those journeys - sitting on somebody else's steel trunk... playing antakshari with total strangers... admiring the teenage punjabi girls' bangles, exchanging comics with boys who didn't speak English (mommy frowning disapprovingly because I wasn't allowed to read Hindi comics unless she's given them the all-clear), being thrilled because one got winked at by handsome young firangs, who actually didn't carry suitcases, just one big bag, strapped to their shoulders... imagine!?

And here I was, in my silent, air-conditioned isolation, as if observing a rich woman's purdah! With time to read, time to retreat, time to think and tease out ideas to their logical lengths... but with no inclination to do so.
Nobody smiled. Nobody asked me any questions that it was none of their business to ask. A baby cried somewhere, but I couldn't see its face. An old man fought with his old woman, but not loudly enough for me to eavesdrop. Nobody spoke a word to me. I spoke no word to anybody.

And I hated it. Each minute of it, especially those three occassions when the attendant would suddenly fling back the curtains, to mutter "Food?". It felt like being the unsuspecting victim in a B-grade murder flick.

Somehow, it is always like this in the 2nd-AC compartments, in all trains, whenever I'm traveling alone.

Next time, I'll just take a Rajdhani. And I will drink Fanta and Appy and 'Shoop', with unstinting gratitude. And if I don't remember the words to a song, I will turn to the passenger in the next seat and ask if he/she wants to play antakshari.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Was reading Riverbend's piece on the hostage 'rumour' in Iraq, and felt a kind of cold fear I haven't felt in a long time.
I know the media is twisted and manipulative and often used for unscrupulous means... but this? Go see for yourself.

Morality impact reports

Of all things, they (a certain brand of local activist) are worried about dams leading to 'bad character' amongst tribal women. They actually seem to invest a great deal of time in ascertaining the impact of a dam on the moral climate of the region.

When I last spoke to a certain activist about the impact of constructing dams in the hills, he lowered his voice and said, "Madam, I felt ashamed to tell you this but the worst thing of all is - our women are losing their character. They have begun to go to the houses of these construction engineers and other big people on the site. And there is a distinct (he said, in a gasping whisper) prostitution-trend."

And then, the real issue: "Madam, these engineers are all Biharis and other such outsiders. Imagine, our women going with these Biharis!"

This guy went on to give out dates, times, number of women being snooped on, and how he could prove that the moral climate was changing for the worse.

I held my peace, though I was sorely tempted to ask him if he knew what the going rates were and whether the women were getting a good deal... but I needed the guy to keep talking... move on from with the moral climate of the dam-site, to the environmental impact reports.

Racism/regionalism apart, what really bothers is not that the local women are perhaps selling their bodies, but that the men should snoop around, 'report' the movements of the women to others and then collectively pass judgement on 'character'.
If these men had spent as much time and energy investigating the movements and motivations of the local administration, police and the officials in the ministries of environment and power, they'd probably have enough evidence to file a PIL and get a stay order on the dam.

I know, I know, everyone has an opinion on prostitution and everyone wants some form of coercive law hemming women into 'acceptable' moral codes...
But it doesn't stop bothering me: the presumptousness of it all!

Friday, April 15, 2005

Chai etc

Today, I'm going to be frivolous and (thus absolving myself of all charges of 'earnestness') talk about chai.

I have finally discovered why I didn't have any special feelings for chai, until recently: it was because I grew up in Rajasthan!

On my last trip to Madhya Pradesh (I was in one of the Rajsthan-bordering villages), as I settled down with a cup of hot tea, I almost threw up. And the memories came flooding back!
My childhood distaste for that sweet-salty brackish liquid that most grown-ups I knew drank in alarming quantities, and which, to my relief, I was not allowed to drink until I turned 18.

When I did turn 18, I never touched tea voluntarily. Brewed with tulsi and black pepper, the concoction was often forced down my throat when it (the throat) was sore. But how could anyone actually like that brackish, calcium-laden, salty brew? Or so I thought.

It was in Bombay that I discovered the joyous addiction called chai... Darjeelings, Nilgiris, Assamese brews, hibiscus, rose, mints, lemons, cinnamons, masala, gingery, milky, without...

And in Lucknow, I was introduced to the vast potential of this brew, the high talent associated with creating variations on the theme.... the angrezi chai, the desi chai, the soporific chai, the wake-me-up chai, the keep-me-up chai, the keep-hunger-at-bay chai, the let's-talk-at-leisure chai, the we've-got-guests-coming-over chai, the majlis' pink chai, the old-woman's chai, the baby-indulgence chai, the diabetic chai, the insomniac chai....

I love chai. But when in rural Rajasthan, or Madhya Pradesh, or any place where my soap refuses to turn foamy in the bath, I refuse to drink chai.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Grandmothers, Grand Dames

I saw Zohra Segal, on stage, the other day, and am feeling maha-khush.... simply because I've been able to see this wonderful old lady (she's at least 92 years old!!) on stage. What was even better was that she was performing with her real-life sister Uzra Butt, who'd gone over to Pakistan, during the Partition.

Aik Thee Nani is one of those rare plays that is written for a specific actor. In this instance, two old actress-sisters. It's about two old sisters, one from India and the other from Pakistan, meeting after several years and the consequences thereof.

Written by Shahid Nadeem, and directed by Maheeda Gauhar, the play is about a certain family, but it is also about the distortion of history and the cultural repression, especially for and of women, on that side of the border. Of course, it all sounded so familiar, that it migth as well not have been set on that side of the border. All the issues - regressive forces preventing women from building fulfilling careers, objecting to girls entering the world of performing arts, using religion to oppress the artist and the self-appointed custodians of culture harassing ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives - are as pertinent to India as they are elsewhere.

The performances were all great. I was laughing but also feeling the familiar fear of knowing that this is my own reality, half a step removed. And of course, I wished and wished that we had some fresh-as-mints grandmothers around, who could sort out the culture police in our own country.

My only grouse was that the resolution of the climax was too pat. It was too smooth to ring true.

Happiness and liberty, however momentary, extract a very high price from individuals. This play was like a pretty snapshot from an album - one moment of perfection, drawn out from the inevitable caravan of troublesome events.

The play was organised by SANGAT (South-Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers), JAGORI and the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. And many thanks for the invite, Ms Jalil.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rights of passage

Wierd things happen in our law-courts...
Take the example of 'T. Nirmala and another Vs. Sub Area Commander-A.P., Bollarum, Secunderabad and others'

There's a petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh filed by the residents of some locality in Secunderabad. Apparently, they'd been using a road that passed through a 'defence' area. They'd been doing this for ages, without being hassled by the army.
The problem arose when the army wirefused to allow them to repair this road!

My regulatory update from Manupatra tells me that "The question for consideration before the High Court was, whether long and extensive use of the road would confer any rights in the petitioners qua the right of passage through defence land... The Andhra Pradesh High Court, dismissed the writ petition, it was held that the petitioners had no vested rights and as such they cannot claim passage through defence land as a matter of right."

What I say is, they should never have offered to get the road repaired... typical case of 'neki kar, dariya mein daal' (this does not lend itself to translation; I shall not bother).

And if 'long and extensive use' does not confer any right to passage through any piece of land (there's no such thing as 'defence' land... all defence property is essentially public property, and therefore should be taken back, if required), what does?

But I suppose, that is the problem with the modern legal outlook as far as 'rights' are concerned. Peasants have no rights over the lands they till. People have no right to employment. Lovers have no right to make love. Fishermen have no right to use rivers. Tribals have no right to use forests. And those who have always lived and worked on the streets, have no right to live or work on the streets.

Me like blog

Discovered another blog I like: PS' take on the Big, Bad Land, Jesustan, the Master Race, and more. Go read.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Good news from Jharkhand

After much heartache as I watch scheme upon well-intentioned scheme falling into the dust and
bleeding through it's noble nose, an e-mail from Jharkhand makes me smile with relief.

A questionnaire was sent to teachers in 23 government-run schools (or those aided by the central or state sarkars). The results were compiled as a survey and here are the highlights:

The Good news -

95.45% schools have mid-day meals in place, and 100% have cooks, (so the argument that teachers are tied down by kitchen duties, clearly does not stand).

The kids have plates (paper or leaves or steel) to eat in, all provided by the govt or the school itself.

There has been a distinct growth in enrolment since mid-day meals were introduced, in more than 82% of the the schools surveyed. For girls, there's been a 42.76% growth across categories, and a 23.97% for boys (these are my calculations, based on data... so excuse the arithmetic, if there's been a mistake).

Almost 96% of the teachers say that the children's interest in school has increased. There are more kids are staying back after lunch, and even turning up around the lunch hour, though they miss morning classes. (Which I have no problems with. What's important is that they're in school, getting fed; getting educated is secondary.)

In 96 almost, there was no opposition from 'Upper Castes', and even in the few instances that there were hostile murmurs, there was no caste-based segregation of students, nor were the meals cooked separately.... but there was no answer to the question 'what can be done to solve the problem, if it arises?'

In nearly 96% of the schools, there were zero reports of children falling sick after eating mid-day meals and 0 (zero) % of the villagers want the scheme to be stopped. Every last teacher surveyed also wanted the scheme to continue. despite claims of the local administation, to the contrary.

The bad news -

80.77% of the students are still overwhelmingly male.

69.57% of schools don't have toilets. (which might explain why girls are reluctant to attend).

There are drinking water facilities in only 30% of the schools, and often, the water source is either too far away, or unfit for consumption. Since most kids are eating with their hands, this becomes a huge problem at lunch-time.

The discomfiting news -

In the majority of the cases, the grain comes to the school (more than 78%) but no one has any answer to the question of 'what happens when and if there is a shortfall of grain?'. There is no help from panchayats it seems and many shrugged off the category as 'not applicable'.

The recurring expenses on oil, pulses and cook's salaries and fuel/firewood come to almost Rs 8310; where is this amount supposed to come from, if the state allocation isn't enough? I raed of one school in Karnataka that sorted it out by growing and sellng veggies.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Thakur Baba ki jai

Thakur Baba is one God that most of my friends would like to align with.

Thakur Baba is a local diety of some kind and I saw a couple of shrines dedicated to him. The offerings consist of beedis, cigarettes, joints (they are lit and tossed from passing cars and trucks, before the idol) and alcohol of all kinds.

Our taxi-driver (a non-smoker, incidentally) told us, amid much giggling, that this particular God favours a state of perpetual intoxication.

It is also believed that an old tiger lives hearabouts. But, our taxi-driver said, "He doesn't talk. He just sits there, being uncommunicative."

Squatting with the swine

In some villages of Rajathan, I hear, women who must lift their ghaaghraa in the open, face a whole new menace: pigs.

When the women go out, at dawn, to squat in the fields, the impatient and hungry pig-population of the village follows. And being impatient and hungry pigs, they don't usually wait for the women to finish and leave before they come up, a-licking their hairy snouts.

On occassion, the pig topples the woman over, while she 'shoo-shoo'es away helplessly.
When feeling particularly vicious, the pigs have been known to break a leg, twist an ankle or two, and even rip open a thigh.

Mid-sqaut, women are forced to get up and run for their lives.

In fact, the pigs have smartened up to our rustic toilet-habits; the moment they see someone headed to the fields, lotaa in hand, they begin to give chase.

This story is told and retold by the men of the village, peppered with loud guffaws. And women activists, though appalled, helplessly laugh, as hard as I did, when they first told me.

The trouble, of course, could extend to men, as well. Except that men, being bigger and in possession of stronger, better exercised vocal chords, manage to shout, shoo and throw things at the impatient pigs.

Women dare not scream in their bare-bottomed condition, while men couldn't bother with being discreet.

Now, will someone from Sulabh step in and help? These women urgently need pukka toilets, and plenty of water.

The growing legend of Rambabu

Six months ago, on Diwali in fact, the top cops of the district were huddled at the police mess in Gwalior, and swore that they would get Rambabu Gadariya - dead or alive.

The gadariya gang of dacoits were a very sore point with the cops at the time, since the Bhanwarpura massacre was fresh in public memory and there was tremendous political pressure to arrest or otherwise get rid of the dacoits.

Six months later, the only 'achievement' the cops have is the encouter death of Prakash Gadariya. This one, it is rumoured, had broken away from the main Rambabu-led gang and had been considering surrendering, anyway.

Rambabu, in the meantime, is going as strong as ever.

Recently, he kidnapped a local businessman from Shivpuri - a rich fellow, some say he's a crorepati. When he realised that this guy was sick and on medication, the Gadariyas sent an emissary to the businessman's home, to collect his medicines. That's not all; when they heard that his wife's health was deteriorating because of all her worrying, they also got him speak to his family on their cell phone. In fact, since the cell-phone signal was weak, they got him atop a tree, so he could talk in peace.

Of course, the Gadariyas got a handsome ransom, and of course, they didn't get caught.

Some rumours suggest that Rambabu had a wife who was raped and killed, which was the real reason for his turning into a dacoit. Some claim that it was his sister (there is little evidence to support this line, though police records do suggest that one of the Gadariya cousins' wives eloped with a local lala, whom they later killed).

Off-record, I have also been told that when they were in jail - the gang had surrendered once - the Gadariyas had demanded that they be given ghee on their chapattis. Later, the gang 'escaped' while they were being taken from one jail to the other.... [it's a different story that there are plenty of insinuations about how the cops intended them to escape. For one, they were being transported in, of all things, a public bus! And none of the accompanying cops was hurt, during this grand 'escape'.]

There's many a young woman who's heart secretly yearns to meet this bearded, dreaded man. In fact, some even hope they will be carried off by him. Unfortunately, the Gadariya gang does not touch women. They touch her feet, and give her a token gift of cash, whenever they come across a woman.

The more Rambabu avoids them, the more women hereabouts are intrigued. They want to understand his psyche, they try to explain his seemingly senseless killings, and somehow, to protect him.

And so, the legend of Rambabu grows.

Dai-less in MP

Another bizarre MP story:

Apparently, in some tribal hamlets, a dai (mid-wife) and only the dai, is allowed to cut the umblical chord.

Even if a birth is not attended by a dai, the newly-delivered baby and the just-having-delivered mother stay connected, until some dai arrives from a neighbouring village or a health centre. If it takes three days, so be it....

However, there just aren't enough mid-wives to go around (on record, there are 493, in one of the districts that has 608 villages... I can bet anything you like that there aren't as many on the ground).

In fact, in September last year, a pregnant woman had to be taken to the district hospital, 70 kilometres away, perched on a bicycle. She delivered twins there, one of whom died. After they returned to the village, the mother died as well.

Little wonder then, that maternal mortality in this state is as high as 398. That's almost 400 women dying for every 1000 births.

In fact, 2005 is supposed to be the 'Make every mother and child count' year, says the World Health Organisation. But as counts go, it seems to be more a body-count than anything else. According to the WHO, world-wide, half a million women die during childbirth each year. And that one million kids are left motherless. These kids are thrice as likely (three to ten times as likely, actually) to die before they are two years old.

PS: On second thoughts, I do not want to be born as a tribal in my next life.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

No shoes please

In Pichor (Madhya Pradesh), there's actually a custom in some tribal villages where the women are not allowed to wear shoes. Nor slippers. No footwear.

Under the blazing sun and in the freezing winter, they're expected to walk barefooted. Any woman who breaks the rule is punished by the panchyat.
This rule, though, applies only to the married women. A daughter is treated on par with the son, but not the daughter-in-law.

One young bride decided she didn't like this rule. And when punished by the panchayat, took flight. And found refuge with a local women's rights organisation.

As reports filtered out, word reached the saffron ears of the then-CM Uma Bharti. The sanyasin wrote an angry letter to the district collector.

There was a huge hullabaloo immediately, with the district collector arriving in the village, with some 65 pairs of shoes. He gifted one to each woman that he could find, telling them to wear shoes wherever they like.

However, I hear that these shoes were duly wrapped up and tossed into a corner of the thatch-roofs, the tribe's ladies plod on, barefoot... and life went on.

Pop goes the ceiling

I love it when I see women at work.

[By work, I mean, women doing something other than washing dishes, suckling babies and drawing water at a well or a handpump, or feeding cattle. Not that this isn't important work, but firstly, most of these tasks amount to unpaid labour . Secondly, this is the sort of work women are expected to do, and taught to limit themselves to. Which only makes me angry.]

Zigzackly tells me he recently saw a woman bus conductor in one of the state transport buses in Mumbai. I've lived in that city five years without seeing that miracle happen, and hearing about it now gives me a huge thrill.

I get a huge kick out of watching girls working the petrol pumps in Delhi. Or driving cabs and rickshaws. Or even waiting at tables in restaurants. Simply because they weren't allowed to, all these years... the sweet tinkling sound of sundry glass ceilings being smashed....

That was one reason I loved Kathmandu. Women drove these big, rusty tuk-tuks (a tuk-tuk is like a 12-seater tempo, here). And there were women security guards. And women extremist-Maoists. Women running dhabas. Women smoking bidis.
I loved all of it.

What makes me really angry, though, is women who take one step forward, and two steps back. Like the time when women trainee bus-conductors began to complain about how it was such a tiring job...Or like the reporters who pretend they can't finish assignments because it's a certain time of the month... Or like the woman auto-driver I found, in Delhi, who boasted that she drove all through the night, then promised to turn up in the wee hours to drop me off at the station, and then, didn't.

I can forgive men, somehow, for doing a shoddy job. But not women who break the mould. Not when they've got a whole generation watching them, wanting to follow in their footsteps, given half a chance. Not when they know - one false step, and there will the inevitable cacophony of 'See? We always said it's not a woman's job....'

Nevertheless, the day I notice that every fourth bus in Delhi is woman-handled, I shall pop a bottle of champagne and throw a party.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Taking Sides

I've debated often, with my own self too, the question of journalism overreaching itself and stepping into an activist role. After all, it means taking sides, doesn't it? And if I take sides... wither objectivity?

This story has taught me to shut up and take sides - the victim's side.

In Sidhi district, in Madhya Pradesh, a couple of years ago, a young (and, need I add, poor) woman was raped. She got pregnant, but the sixth-month-old foetus, somehow (fuzzy details about this), got aborted.
At the district hospital, the staff took the foetus, put it in a plastic bag and hung it at the foot of the mother's bed. And here, the corpse stayed, for two whole days!

When a women's rights activist came to visit the rape victim, the latter began to plead that the baby be given a decent burial, at least. The activist saw the plastic bag with the foetus in it, still hanging by the bedside, and immediately moved into action. But nobody at the hospital did a thing until the press was summoned.

When two local camera crews turned up, the chief doc (don't know his exact designation) panicked. Realizing that the situation was out of hand, he called an emergency meeting of all the doctors and nurses at the hospital and began to lamblast the whole lot - seeking accountability, pinning down blame...

Finally, it was decided that the child would be removed from the bedside and the last rites would be performed. However, the activist pointed out the burial couldn't happen until some samples of blood or hair/nails were preserved, to enable a DNA test to be performed later. This was important evidence to establish the rape.

The doctors, however, refused to take samples. There was no facility to perform the DNA test at the hospital. It turned into an awkward situation, with the hospital staff now wanting to get rid of the foetus (and the evidence) as soon as possible.

Finally, the baby - still in sealed plastic - was left outside the hospital premises, in the open air, with the victim's father standing guard, to ensure that a wild animal didn't carry it away.

It wasn't until the press intervened - asking questions, bullying and cajoling the doctors - that a post-mortem was performed and DNA samples collected. Obtaining a copy of the post-mortem report was a whole new battle. Also, one partially fought by the press.

As for me, all I can feel for those camera crews, those print reporters and those activists is gratitude - for working together, and for knowing that they were both on the same side.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Choli-art etc

One of the most annoying things when I travel through small-town India is the obsession with choli-art.
Every single restaurant and hotel will have a series of paintings of busty Rajasthani women with low-cut cholis and diaphanous chunris.

The sheer levels of ignorance about costume and lifestyle, apart - having lived amongst the choli-wearers of this country for nearly fifteen years, I should know - what's annoying is that all these women are fair-skinned, busty and sedately happy.

They are shown as peacefully gazing into the desert, with an old bearded, turbaned man playing a musical instrument, in the background. They are shown whispering coyly, amongst themselves. They are turning wheat into flour, on a very primitive chakki, or drawing water from a well, or walking gracefully with pots of water on their heads.

What bothers me is that this romanticization of rustic lives is such a mockery of the truth. Women in rural north-India are often in purdah. They wear thick cotton veils, or else their saree pallus are drawn over their heads and down to their shrivelled bosoms. With precious little to eat, there's precious little likelihood of developing a cleavage. And there's nothing thrilling about having to walk miles for water, or chakki-peesing (as Dharamendra so unforgettably put it).

On this trip, one painting in my hotel room disturbed me no end.

One of the women's bust had beem disfigured with red colour (gulaal?), made to look like a gash, with blood dripping down to her navel. There were two darker, pointy daubs, on the choli (meant to represent nipples, I suppose).

In another place, I'd have ignored it as just another disfigured painting. Here, it bothered me.

Madhya Pradesh has a badly skewed sex ratio. In some pockets of Morena and Bhind, it even drops down to 600-something women for every 1000 men. Infanticide, foeticide, every form of female-cide is rampant.

Also, Madhya Pradesh has one of the worst records of violence against women. One activist even told me that there were more rapes each week, than there were days in the week. As we spoke, she broke down as she told me of the 13-year-old rape victim who'd committed suicide in Shivpuri, recently.

This particular activist has worked long in the field, combating violence against women. She wanted to handle the case, before the victim killed herself.

The story was something like this:
The victim was from a so-called lower caste. Her mother had remarried, didn't have any children from her second marriage and the victim's step-father loved her mother and the kids unquestioningly. However, he couldn't change the fact that he was a poor man.

The victim was first harrassed and then 'kidnapped' (raped, really) by a local guy, who had political family-connections. The mother filed a report with the police, to prevent a tragedy, but to no avail. Finally, the girl was returned home, and a case was filed in court.

A lawyer, who often takes up cases relevant to violence against women (let's call her S) took up the case to defend the rapist. Sorry, accused rapist. S is not just an activist-lawyer, incidentally. She also holds a post, and is a member of the same political party, with which accused-rapist has family-connections.

It so happens that the case was decided against the victim, and in favour of the rapist. Sorry again, accused rapist.

It is also rumoured that lawyer S got the victim to sign a document saying that she had run away from home of her own accord, that her family mistreated her and that she wanted to stay with the accused-rapist. The rapists' family threatened the girl, asking her to withdraw the case, and promising that her rapist would 'marry' her, and she might as well, because her 'life was ruined, anyway'.

The 13-year-old victim and her family triedto put things behind them, and decided to move away, to another area, another house. Here, some local boys started harrassing the child again. Again, she was 'kidnapped' (raped, really). Again, a police complaint was filed.

Guess who took up the case? Lawyer S.

I am not aware of the details at this point. No one was being forthright; no one knew, perhaps.

But at this time, the accused rapist (the first one) came back to this child and offered to 'keep her' in his house, because 'what other option did she have?'. He also accused her of being 'that kind of girl', because why else would this be happening to her, a second time?

Lawyer S wasn't being particularly helpful, I suppose.
So, this child told her mother she'd had enough. That there wasn't much to live for anyway. And then, she killed herself.

I've heard other stories. Gruesome, gruesome, stories that leave you feeling sick at the heart. Sick of it all.

And especially sick of choli-art.

Don't load them guns

In the bus, from Gwalior to Shivpuri, I saw this note painted up front:

"Please do not carry loaded guns in the bus."

It makes me feel postively deprived... no gun, no bullets, don't know how to shoot.

This is pretty much Daaku-terrain, the infamous Chambal, where I'd been six months ago.

This is the region that has more gun-n-ammunition stores (80 to be precise) than it has ration shops, or aaganwadi centres. This is where almost every other Thakur family owns a gun, and isn't afraid to use it. This is the land of the Baaghi, where people believe in taking their revenge and damn the consequences. The families take pride in the sons who defy the law, who 'went into the forests'.

I'm sorry for the bus drivers, though. Can't be pleasant, driving through dacoit-land, knowing that half the passengers are carrying guns. Suppose the bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere? Suppose tempers are running short? Suppose two fueding families or clans get onto the bus, both armed?

Hence, that respectful little notice, requesting passengers not to load their weapons, at least.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Dam lies

Dams, in India, must be one of the most lied-about things.

When I set about trying to see the truth behind the agitation at Rabo, and later, in Tehri, this was the first thing that struck me - how there are so many allegations of lies, hurled at each side, from each side.

The activists accuse the project's contractors and the administration of lying.
The administration accuses beneficiaries of displacement-related compensation packages (as well as claimants who're yet to be compensated) of lying.
The beneficiaries, the claimants, and the displaced, accuse the administration and government and the cops, and each other, of lying.
The government doesn't pay attention to either the lies or the allegations, and focusses on just fussing with paperwork and fighting lawsuits, while these dam things get constructed, anyway.

Now, I'm not an expert on dams, displacement (or even on lies) but to me, the worst business in this whole affair is the lack of transparency. Actually, it's a consistent, determined resolution not to share information with people, to cover up the paper trail... to avoid the truth, at any rate, even if you aren't telling bare-faced lies.

Everywhere I go, I hear the same story - 'the administration will not tell us the truth'.
The district officials don't announce public hearings on time, don't encourage people to attend, don't answer the questions raised, refused to meet worried locals, claim not to have access to relevant documents, although the files are sitting pretty right there, on their tables...

In short, the administration is hard to trust.
And if they don't want to tell you the truth, it stands to reason that they've got something nasty to hide.

For instance, the Jindals started work on the dam before they got all the all-clear from concerned ministries of environments, forests etc. They had only an 'in principle' clearance, which did not take into account the environmental impact assessment report. This is something the government conveniently overlooked while trying to soothe the tribals' ruffled feathers in Rabo.

The Raigarh administration claims the Rabo dam will benefit the locals, who will have water for irrigation. But they do not state, in writing, how much water will be made available, esp in the lean season, and what the tribal farmers should do, in case they need water and water is denied to them.

The Uttaranchal administration (according to what local activists tell me) once tried to hold jan-sunvai (public meetings) in Palamaneri and Lohari Nagpala, with exactly one person in attendance (and explained it away by saying - 'we did follow the rules').
Most of the people from the surrounding villages weren't invited. Or they were boycotting, in protest.

At one of these meetings, which the people attended, led by MATU activist Vimal (everyone just refers to him as Vimal bhai... don't know his surname), and demanded to see a certain file, one of the officials first claimed he knew nothing about it. Then, he dug it out from under the bottom of a pile, and made some silly comment about not understanding much, because it was written in English.
Vimal lost his temper, at that point, and demanded to know how the unschooled villagers were expected to understand the document, if the administration could not. (Though the NGOs aren't too great in the 'simple language' department)

In fact, Vimal has been accused of being a spy for the CIA, by the district officials. There were claims that the CBI is investigating him for espionage.

Vimal, while laughing away the suggestion, pointed out that they might have to sue the government for contempt of court. "In the Nainital High Court, there's a case going on. But the government representative fails to turn up each time we have a hearing. We are going to press for contempt of court now."

He also points out the lie of the claim that forests demolished would be replaced. "The Tehri Hydel Corporation was supposed to create 80,000 hectares of forest. and of course, this was not done."

And here's another great, big lie:
For the Bargi dam on the Narmada (built in the late 1980s) the government claimed that the project would submerge 101 villages. But 162 villages were ultimately submerged. Even the resettlement sites were submerged. Today, in Bargi, only 5 % of the command area is being irrigated.

The trouble is that the lie of Bargi dam on the Narmada has been uncovered 15 years too late…
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