Thursday, August 31, 2006

Of eating, nevertheless

A friend had asked me, some days back, whether it was not difficult to eat.

I had just returned from Sheopur, having met starving kids. And parents of starving kids. And parents of dead kids.

Kids that couldn't stand upright. Kids that could only move very, very slowly. Kids that were too tired to cry. Kids that went hungry for the first three of four days of their newborn lives because the mother hadn't eaten enough. Kids who'd been so starved that when they were given food, their bodies rejected it.

And it should have been difficult to eat, after that. Such stories... you never quite escape unscathed.

Nevertheless, it was not diffcult to eat. On the contrary, I found myself eating twice as much as I usually do. Eating without complaint, eating food I dislike. Eating without stopping to think.

And finally, understanding what the ancients meant when they said that it is a sin to refuse food.
It is a sin to waste food. And it is a sin to build a society which creates conditions in which some of us starve.

And if there is some such thing as a day of final reckoning, a lot of district collectors, a lot of ration shop dealers, a lot of doctors, a lot of lobbyists, a lot of forest-produce-traders, a lot of people who destroy/buy forests, a lot of journalists too, are going to fry in the eternal fires of hell. Or maybe, eternally starve.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Elections and the media

A country cannot escape its politics. No individual, no organisation is free from the hovering aura of its national politics.

Naturally.

There is no reason why it should not be this way because, after all, it is the individuals, the groups that make up the bickering parties, the easily-(mis)led voters, the corrupt representatives. Yet, we continue to labour under the delusion that were it not for politics and politicians, we could set things right. That politicians (or/and bureaucrats, or/and corporates, or/and dweeby celebs) are 'them' and we are not like them.

But there is nothing like an election to remind one that one is, in effect, them.

Take, for instance, us. The media that loves to expose and criticise and sit in judgment upon the rich, the poor, the corrupt, the powerful, the unauthorised and the unaligned. The educated, not-quite-toothless, smug media that does not have as excuses such as illiteracy, misinformation, lack of opportunity to debate issues, etc.

Our elections ought to be ideal. Because we would be almost equal - both voters and candidates. The candidates would be one of us and, being a relatively small vote-bank, we ought to know what is worth knowing about these candidates. Since we are not unruly parliamentarians with criminal records, we need not fear having chairs thrown at us during meetings. Since we work in newspapers and magazines and television channels, we are painfully aware of what is really going on and what needs to be done.

The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) held their elections, a few weeks ago.

I am a member of this esteemed group. I became a member because I could afford to, because I was offered an opportunity to, and because I was curious to see where this road led.

For the first year of membership, this road led nowhere. A year later, the membership was renewed - without my having to do lift a finger. All I had to do was pay up - somebody else did everything else. At first, I was impressed. Things do not normally run this smoothly.

I should have known. Within a month of the membership renewal, elections came up.

Until now, I had never been to the DUJ office. I didn't know the address. I didn't know its office-bearers' names. I didn't know what they did, what they stood for, what they accomplished and why. Hell, I'd even forgotten that I belonged there, until it was time to renew membership.

But suddenly, I was reminded that elections are round the corner and I must, absolutely must, vote.

Somebody I know was standing for the elections. This undoubtedly good woman, with a great deal of energy and much resolve, took the trouble to give me a list of candidates that formed 'our' panel.

I asked what this 'panel' was. Turned out, it was almost like a political party. A given faction - in fact, most of them would have some political affiliations - would draw up a list of candidates for all the positions being contested and would corner voters like me, hand over the list, and expect me to vote for them, en masse.

This, naturally, made me very uncomfortable. Not only did I not know anybody, except this good energetic woman, on this panel, but I was not given any reason for voting for the panel except that it was 'ours' (am still trying to figure out what I have done or said that might have led these good people to believe I was on their side).

But wait, things got more interesting.

The same evening, I received a phone call from undoubtedly good woman2, from another faction, with similar-but-slightly-different political affiliations, offering me another panel. She is a nice, simple soul and so, I asked her for a list. Good woman2 took the trouble to have it couriered to me immediately.

Again, I was offered no incentive to vote for this panel, barring that it was 'ours'.

I felt gratified that so many people thought I was on their side; at least, they didn't think I was against them. I also felt somewhat relieved - I had two lists of candidates to choose from. The trouble was - I had no basis for choosing.

There was the option of voting with my feet and thereby, abstaining. But I was, like I said, curious. And also, in no mood to have to explain my absence to two good women of opposing factions.

Also, this was the time when I began to receive some rather delicious gossip about the media circus. There were reports of hooliganism at the press club. For those elections, I believe, some of the candidates were not even real journalists, but had somehow managed to acquire a press card. One woman was the victim of a smut-campaign. She was already an office-bearer but being discredited for potential re-election by allegations of tardiness (the lady made out her report; that report, somehow, disappeared, and when the big annual report was circulated, the relevant pages were left blank). There were also whispers of 'but oh, she drinks!'.

The morning of the elections, I got two reminder phone calls. When I finally made my way to the DUJ office, it seemed like a circus out there. The lane outside was a throng of anxious candidates and hanger-abouts, banners and pamphlets fluttered about and gol market's pillars were covered with the less-than-delicious mugs of 'independent' candidates. As soon as they discovered that I was there to vote, they rushed up, thrust pamphlets into my hands and yelled 'vote for me!'.

One oily, greasy man joined his hands in a 'namaste', dipping his head a few times, grinning his 'I am your candidate' grin. I made up my mind NOT to vote for him. Just like that.

One man managed to add another line - 'Vote for me. I'm young. I want to change things. These old fogies won't let us young people bring any change.'

I would have liked to ask him what he wanted to change, and how, but by this time, I was spotted by faction 2, claimed as 'our' voter, and whisked to the registration desk. There, faction 1 awaited me. I was winked at, told 'you know what to do, don't you?' and my back was patted encouragingly.

Briefly, for about two and a half seconds, I was stopped at the grimy staircase, to say hello to the chairman-candidates of both factions. I wanted to stop and chat for a bit - ask them what their differences were and what they wanted to do. At the very least, I wanted to extract a promise that they'd do something about the spitting and filth at the press club.

But there was no time. Next thing I knew, I was in a room with a voting sheet in my hand, sitting in a corner with my face to the wall, staring at name after name. Names that meant nothing. I might as well have played akkadbakkadbambebo. In the general tradition of secret ballots, I won't say whether I did, or didn't.

However, later, I spoke separately to both good women, asked them why this was such a random exercise. Why weren't the candidates introduced to the members beforehand, with definite agendas and goals? Why wasn't there at least a website with such information?

I was told, summarily, that the DUJ is an active body, that it holds protests about relevant subjects, that it is my own fault that I have not found the time to join them at any such protest. However, if I wished, I would be put on the mailing list and sent newsletters etc.

So far, all I've got is a brief note mentioning the names of the winners.

No vision. No agenda. No promises. No outlining of plans. And the press club probably still stinks.

Who was it who said something about people getting the leaders they deserve?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Things I have learnt about life from auto-rickshaws.

1] Sticking to a principle means having to fight.

On an average, I haggle with ten auto-drivers every day. I insist they use the meter. They insist that their meters are not working.
They say: "Vaise, aap kitna dete ho, madam?" (How much do you pay, otherwise?)
I say: "Vaise toh meter se hi chalte hain, bhaiya. Meter se Rs 38 hota hai." (Otherwise, I pay by the meter. It is Rs 38)

It is the same locality, the same route. I know exactly how much I should pay. I usually end up paying Rs 40, because no auto driver worth his CNG will ever return small change.

So, they say: "Madam, aap 50 de dena." (Madam, give me fifty.)
I say: "Kyon? 38 banta hai, 40 de denge, zyada se zayda." (Why? It should be 38. At most, I'll give you 40)

They shake their heads and look away.
I walk away, and on to the next auto. Which also says that the meter is not working.
"Vaise, aap kitna dete ho madam?"

... Usually, I keep moving from auto to auto until someone finally agrees to use his meter. Or agrees to be paid Rs 40, which is fair enough, assuming his meter really isn't working.

2] There is no such thing as a small mercy forthcoming.

Like I said, small change isn't returned. Ever. If the meter says Rs 36, no auto-driver gives back Rs 4. If the meter says Rs 41, you will hand over a fifty-rupee note and will be given back only Rs 5. The auto-driver will invariably say: "Aur chutta nahin hai." (I don't have any more change.)

If I had a piggy bank into which I could put in all that small change due to me, I could have bought myself a new pair of shoes every month.

3] Restraint, restraint, restraint

The desire to search the person of the auto-driver, to check whether he really doesn't have any chutta is overpowering sometimes.
The desire to say "Accha? Meter kharaab hai? Chalo mechanic ke pass chalte hain." (Really? Your meter isn't working? Let's get a mechanic to look at it.) is overpowering sometimes.
The desire to carry around a smal tool kit and immediately begin to take the auto's meter apart, is overpowering.
The desire to take the autodriver straight to the RTO office, and complain about his eternally non-working meter is overpowering.
The desire to take down the numbers of all the autos who claim that their meters are faulty, and give a list to the traffic police, is overpowering.

But I exercise restraint. In the interest of keeping the peace. In the interest of my own time and sanity. Exercising restraint and not complaining to the cops about the cheating, overcharging, lying, arrogant, (arghghh) auto-walas of the city may or may not be good for the civic health of the city. But it is good for me.

4] People who can take advantage of you, will.

In Delhi, the autos have showed me this great truth of life. In times of distress - when streets are flooded with sewage-water, for example, or on national holidays - no auto-wala will want to take you anywhere, and if he does, he will ask for twice or even thrice as much as he should.

This lesson came home to me strongly on the day it rained so hard that I had to wade knee-deep in my colony. I counted 27 autos who refused to take me. After that, I lost count. Finally, I was forced to take an old man who overcharged me by only Rs 15.

5] The very young are very rash

Boys who look no older than sixteen or seveteen drive autos in the city. Usually, they drive too fast, brake too hard and generally seem to be suffering from the delusion that they're driving a racing car.

6] Some older men never grow up

See point 5.

7] Never trust anybody.

I clearly remember this encounter with an auto-wala two years ago. He was a friendly fellow and was supposed to take us to Mughal Garden. Instead, he dropped us off at Parliament, saying that the gardens are five minutes away. (It turned out to be a good forty-five minute walk). In exchange for this favour, he not only overcharged us, but while dropping us off, he also told us that he would not need to drive an auto very long. He was going to buy himself a car. (I still can't afford one).

8] There's always somebody who can take you where you want to go. Just don't give up.

Stay calm and go on looking. That's the rule. As long as I don't get angry, I feel fine. All I need to do is to remind myself that there is no need to get angry. If one refuses, another will come along. If nine refuse, the tenth one will agree. If ten refuse, the eleventh won't.

Corollary to that: The darkest hour is before dawn.
Just when you think there's not a single auto-wala in the city with a heart or a shred of virtue, you will find one.

9] People will try to use your generosity against you.

Often, an auto-wala will say: "Madam, zyada kahan maang rahe hain? Gareeb aadmi hain. Sirf 5 rupaye hi toh... aap jaison ke liye 5 rupaye kya hai?" (Madam, I am not asking for too much. We're poor. Only Rs 5 extra... what is 5 rupees for the likes of you?)

I usually smile and say: "Main 5 rupaye kam doon toh chalega? Nahin na... aapko phir 5 zayada kyon diya jaye?" (If I give you Rs 5 lesser, will that be okay? It won't... so why should you get Rs 5 extra?)

10] There's always a Plan B

Not getting an auto doesn't mean much. It simply means an inconvenience. Even if a thousand auto-walas refuse to take me to work, refuse to use the meter, refuse to charge fair rates, I still have the option of getting into a bus. The bus stop is a couple of kilometres away. I might have to walk under a hot sun. But I have the bus as an option. Or, I can take a cycle-rickshaw to the bus stop and take a bus from there. It's a little less convenient, but it's an option and a cheaper option at that. As long as I remember that I have the option, I can stay calm about the lying, cheating, harrassing, (arghgh) auto-walas.

Lesson - Never forget Plan B.

11] Life isn't always about getting there; it's about the ride too.

So often, I am focused on keeping an eye on the meter, on the route, on the traffic, that I forget that it is a nice day outside and it is fun to be sitting in this little rounded box-like thing on wheels, zipping over flyovers, with a rash young man at the wheel. Some days, the air is freshly washed; some evenings, there are honeysuckles draped over a wall near a traffic signal; some nights, the city is twinkling, buzzing, whirling; some mornings, there's a fize drizzle and everything is like a soft-focus slow-motion movie from the Yash Chopra stable.

Some auto rides are worth themselves.


More on autos -
Auto-maton 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A fitting poem for our times

A strange problem
- Kunwar Narain





I have a strange problem these days —
The power to hate with all my heart
Is ebbing by the day
I want to hate the English
(They ruled us for two centuries)
But Shakespeare sidles up
To whom I owe so much
I want to hate the Muslims
But Ghalib stands before me
Tell me, is it possible to stand up
To him?
I want to hate the Sikhs
And Guru Nanak fills my vision
And my head is bowed
And this Kamban, this Thyagaraja, this
Muthuswamy…
A hundred thousand times I tell myself
They are not mine
They're from some place far South
But the heart does not rest
Till they are made mine
And that lover
Who betrayed me the first time
I'd as soon kill her as look at her!
I do see her, but
Sometimes she is a friend
Sometimes a mother
Often like a sister
And I drink from the cup of love, and am still
All my days
I wander like a madman
In search of someone I can
Hate with all my heart
And ease it for a while
But precisely the opposite happens
Somewhere, sometime
I find someone
I cannot help but love
Day by day, this disease of love is growing
Rooted firmly in the fantasy
That one day my love
Will show me Paradise.

(Translated from the Hindi by Pratik Kanjilal)

[Note - Thanks for the poem, Smriti L. I return to it often]

Monday, August 14, 2006

An answer to that 'what is it...?'

Two things in the last week gave me part of the answer to some questions I've been asking myself lately.

One, thanks to Josephus, was this extract from an article by Robert Pape who is the author of the forthcoming book, Dying to Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It.

"Researching my book, which covered all 462 suicide bombings around the globe, I had colleagues scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and biographies of the Hizbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. We were shocked to find that only eight were Islamic fundamentalists; 27 were from leftist political groups such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union; three were Christians, including a female secondary school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.

"What these suicide attackers - and their heirs today - shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation."

(Pape, 'What we still don't understand about Hizbollah,' The Observer, August 6, 2006)


The second was an AFP picture accompanying this article, which I cannot find online, so let me describe it for you.

The picture was that of a man's hands sifting through the rubble. To one side is the downy head of a newborn baby, resting on the forearm of the mother, who is still buried beneath the post-bombing rubble. Take away the rubble and the picture would be beautiful. If only, you could take away all that rubble.

When I first saw that picture, I closed the newspaper, folded it and put it away on the shelf where the raddi is stored. It seemed urgent not to look at it, to forget it as quickly as possible.
Three days later, after reading that mail about Pape's research, I went back to look for that picture and cut it out.

Because, while it is important to forget some wrongs, it is imperative to remember the consequences.

Offered (almost) without comment

I was much amused by this particular piece of newspaper-work. Who would have thought that the pesti-cola issue should have birthed, of all things, an NGO?

One that calls itself Centre for Sanity and Balance in Public Life and claims that the cola issue is a waste of the nation's time.

Of course. All that fuss about fizz.... A little toxic sweetened fizz never killed anybody. And as for ground water, land, and the battle for the earth's resources, why, what's there to fight about? They belong to whoever has the most money, don't they? Juski bhains, uski laathi. Usi ka makkhan, usi ka tabela.

A certain Mr Asthana who has started this group dedicated to sanity and balance, believes that we should concentrate instead on 'core issues'. The core issues being "the Ayodhya temple issue, security in Hindu temples where stampedes kill people, the social evils of lotteries, and the use of text messages by television and mobile phone service companies to make money."

Of course. Why waste Rs 6 sending a message to channels, say, during the Bombay blasts, or during floods, wondering if friends and family are alright, or just expressing your opinion during a televised debate? Rs 6 could buy you a bottle of cola, after all.


In another vein,

I was a little bothered by this BBC headline - ' Indonesia to execute christians'

That the people who are to be/were executed are christians may be factually correct. But it wouldn't have hurt to say 'Indonesia to execute rioters'. There is not much wrong with the rest of the story; it goes on to elaborate that the accused were convicted for masterminding attacks on their muslim compatriots, and that Europe isn't too happy with the verdict.

But that headline sort of clinches the mood of the story - reinforces the fact that christians are being executed, rather than communal rioters. And the media has no business doing that.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Bubli (why the ban was necessary)

Bubli (14) comes from Saharanpur orginally, but grew up in Delhi. Her mother left the father to marry another man, but the latter didn't want her anymore, especially not her kids. The family ended up in the capital, dependent on relatives.

When Bubli was about 11, she was sent off to work in a house in Madhuban Chowk, where the mistress was called Shammi. There were three daughters in the house, two of whom were in school. One was working at the airport, maybe as an air hostess. This girl was called Chandni (a pet name) and didn't look any older than 18 or 19. This brat ended up tormenting the little maid with the viciousness and ease that belied her youth.

Bubli recalls standing ready, with Chandni's make-up. "Holding her compact. Her liner. She had blue liner and black. Different shades of lipstick. Each day of the week, she expected me to know which shade she was going to use. If I held out the wrong one, she hit me."

I asked how she hit her. With her hands? Objects?

Bubli laughed a little as she said, "With anything that came to hand. Slaps, kicks. Kitchen things. Brooms. It could be anything."

Apart from serving as a very literal kind of handmaiden, the girl did all the cleaning, washing dishes, clothes, cooking, running of errands and so on. The daughters of the house didn't lift a finger. "When Chandni went to bathe, I laid out her clothes. I had to handle everything. Even her underwear. Plus, she had day shifts and night shifts. I had to sit up for her, day or night. Couldn't go to bed until she left the house. It could be 3 am or 4 am. When she returned, I had to press her feet. She made me massage her whole body. Then, I had to get up at 5 am again. When the elder one left, the younger sisters would begin ordering me about."

Bubli began imitating their high-pitched screaming. "Bring me this. Bring me that. Go give this notebook to that house. I told you to go there first; that is more important. Go to the bank, deposit money, withdraw money."

For some reason, after a while, they stopped sending her out to the bank. Taking her out for treats was not even thought of. I asked whether Shammi, the lady of the house, or her husband ever hurt her.

Bubli shook her head. "The father was out of town mostly. He never hurt me. And the mother would only hit me by chance."

By chance? How do you hit someone 'by chance', I asked.

She smiled sheepishly. "Well, once in a while. If she got angry."

In stark contrast, Chandni would to beat up the child every chance she got. Matters came to a head the day the juice incident happened.

"Chandni asked me to bring her some juice; there was the juicewallah with a thela passing the street below. By the time I went to stop him, the juicewallah had left. She said, "You can't even get me a glass of juice?" and then, suddenly, she lost her temper and began to beat me like crazy. She beat me till I bled. Coincidentally, that very day, my mother came to visit. I told her everything and she wanted to take me away, but Chandni stopped her. She accused me of stealing Rs 10,000 and said that until I gave back this money, I couldn't leave. I was glaring at her, but what could I do? I told my mother to go, because she didn't have the money. Next time my mother came, they locked up the door leading out to the stairs so I couldn't even see her outside. Later, the activists came with the police. They took me away, heard my story. There were a lot of cameras, but they wouldn't let me speak to the media at first. I was taken to court where I told the big judge everything. He asked me if I stole. I said, no, and he said it was alright. They sent me to Nirmal Chhaya (the government place for destitute women) for a few days, then to this ashram."

And what happened to the evil miss?

Bubli giggled, "Chandni ran away. Or so I heard the cops saying. They said she was absconding, but they'd get her, sooner or later; I don't know what happened to her."

The other lady sitting with us, told me later, of how angry the child gets sometimes. "She is learning beautician's work, now, along with the other girls. Sometimes, she says, she wants to see Chandni standing there, holding her make-up, serving in exactly the same way as she was made to."

The girl has her ambitions sorted out, for now. "When I came here, I didn't know the alphabet. Now I can read and write a little. They're also giving us beauty parlour training, and tailoring. But I want to be an activist. I don't want to be a beautician. I'm only learning so I can train others. For free. The destitute ones. The homeless ones you see on the streets. But one day, when I grow up, I'm going to open an ashram like this. For girls." She paused, and then added, "Well, mostly for girls. I don't want to see any girl treated like I was. But both my brothers, they're also at mukti ashram."

It was only much later, when I started sorting the photos from that visit, that I realised - when she laughs, Bubli gets soft dimples around her mouth. And she laughs easily.

Sukku (why the ban was necessary)

Over the last few years, Rs 50 has become a sort of benchmark for expenditure, for me and other friends who aren't exactly rolling in it. Because Rs 50 is a cup of coffee at a cafe like Barista or Costa.

When picking up cotton fabric at Lajpatnagar, or new earrings, when seeking membership of the Delhi Union of Journalists, when deciding between waiting for a bus or taking an auto, when tempted by a colourful glass bauble: expenses are tested against this standard - if something costs me the equivalent of two cups of coffee, it's justifiable.

Do I hesitate before walking into a cafe and blowing up Rs 50 on a cup of coffee that isn't half as good as the filter coffee at office?

I usually don't. Most of you reading this, don't.

And yet, most employers hesitate before giving Rs 50 as a yearly raise to the people who wash their dirty coffee cups. Or their dirty underwear.

Rs 50.

We walk into a store, pick up a nice pair of heels for Rs 700, at a monsoon sale, and count ourselves lucky. We wear fancy heels maybe twelve times in a year and then get bored. Or the fashions change. But what if a cobbler asks for Rs 50 to mend a pair of shoes? How many of us have paid a cobbler Rs 50? Ever?

The price of a cup of coffee.

Sukku (10) comes from Gadgaon, Jharkhand. In her village. The job was supposed to be entail 'playing' with someone else's kids. But a little prodding revealed that Sukku, about 8 or 9 at the time, also had to wash clothes. and dishes. For all of this, the family paid her a grand sum of Rs 50 per month.

For some time, my cup of coffee is going to be coloured by that little fact called Sukku.

I asked her whether they gave her food.

They did not. "What do you think, they said - We'll give money also, and food also?"

Sukku went to work at 8 am and stayed till 4pm. An eight-hour work-day. She doesn't even know the mistress' name. all she knows is that she took care of a boy called Rohit and a girl called Kamla (both less than 3 years old). One comfort was that they didn't beat her.

She worked for a year. But before that, things were harder. She used to go to the brick kilns. "I lifted bricks on my head. Five bricks at a time. Don't know how much money I got. I never saw any. They'd give some food in the afternoon."

Sukku has never been to school. If she did, she could have got that one afternoon meal for just attending classes. That much is her due. If we wanted, we could make sure she gets her due.

Sohail (why the ban was necessary)

Suhail is 12. Remember Bubli? He's her little brother.

He's not a shy boy. When he speaks, he looks straight into your eyes. He speaks with calm confidence and is determined to go back to mainstream education as quickly as possible. "I'm going into the 4th standard now. Am preparing for entrance tests and will go to regular school now."

And before this?

"I worked at a doctor's house before this. His name was Raman Khanna. It was in Madhuban Chowk. I cleaned the house, washed his car, did the dishes, helped in the kitchen. Also, cleaned shoes and looked out for the kids, delivered tiffins. They gave me their leftovers. The wife would gather up all that was left on their plates and give it to me."

There were beatings too. More severe in winter, since the boy found it harder to wake up early. Can you imagine being dragged out of bed, dragged by the hair, on cold mornings?

I notice, Suhail has shaved his head now.

"The doctor would hit me. When he left for work, his wife would begin. She too used a stick. The doctor threatened to stop my food. And he did. Often, I'd go without food. I didn't get the money anyway. My aunt took it. I didn't have a single penny. They said I didn't clean properly, but it wasn't my fault. The door faced the open street. I cleaned in the morning, but by afternoon, everything would be dusty again."

Like his sister, he wasn't allowed to go home. "They wouldnt even let me step out of the house. Threatened to break my legs if I went out. Once, the doctor hit me on my nose. It bled for three days. They said that if I screamed loudly, they'd hit even harder. Once, I thought of hitting back, but they were so big. I was afraid they would kill me and nobody would even come to know. I used to cry softly, cry for my mother."

The inexplicable harshness of the middle class with respect to servants shows up in different ways. With Suhail, it was the curious situation where he was made to sleep under the employers' bed, and in later months, in the kitchen. This, despite the fact that there were six rooms in the house.

I asked whether he was ever given treats or gifts, but in the one and a half years that he worked there, he was not given even one pair of new clothes.

I was not surprised when Suhail said that he wanted to become a cop.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sneha (why the ban was necessary)

Sneha (name changed) is now 14.

She is one of the first I speak to. We're sitting in one of the classrooms at the mukti ashram, where she was brought two months ago. The fan creaks overhead. The sun blazes outside. Nothing moves. She keeps her hands clasped in her lap, head bent, sitting on the bench next to me.

One of the caretakers/teachers is sitting across us, encouraging her to speak, keeping a discreet eye on me. "It's okay. You can tell didi. Speak freely. She won't even tell anyone your name."

Even so, it takes a few minutes for her to begin.

"I was in Jharkhand before. An activist brought me here. I used to work in the village before this. I worked on the farm. Before that, I studied till the 7th. I have a mother and three sisters. My mother works on the fields. The sisters are working too.

"I went to Aurangabad for a year. I was about 11 or 12 then. The contractor took me. She used to take children for the brick kilns too. She said, she'd take me to a place where I could study further. But they made me work. Dishes, floors, clothes, cooking. I got up at 5 in the morning. There was no studying. There was 6 people in the house. They used to beat me. The man of the house, the husband, didi, he to exploit me."

Didi stops tapping her pen against the desk. Not knowing how to react. Sneha used the Hindi word for 'exploit'. Shoshan. How does one ask - what kind of shoshan?

"Didn't you know anybody? Other girls who worked in houses?"

"I didn't know anybody in the city. I had no friends. They didn't let me step out of the house. Not even to the market. It was a small, cramped house. A rented one."

"Did they never take you out? On special occassions?"

"They never took me out. The mistress would beat me. She'd use her hands. It hurt a lot. My mother came to visit but they wouldn't let me meet her, at first."

Sneha falls silent.

The other lady coaxes her. "You can tell this didi. Look beta, you have to tell the truth about such people. So we can catch them and make sure they don't do the same things to other children." To me, she says, "That couple was shameless. They'd begin doing things, half-undressed, right in front of the child."

Sneha tries again. "I used to sleep on the sofa outside. That time, the mistress came out of her room and told me to go and sleep on the bed, because she wanted to sleep outside, on the sofa. I went inside and lay down. The man thought I was asleep, and he came to me. I sat upright. The mistress, she must have heard me crying. But she didn't come into the room."

She pauses a long while. "But I sat up. I didn't let him. I didn't lie down again. I didn't sleep all that night. I went away to my sofa."

"And the maalkin?"

The child looks down and doesn't say a word.

The other lady sighs deeply. Sneha isn't telling the whole story, but I don't want to hear it.

I change the subject, asking her about how she managed to get out.

"When my mother was allowed to see me finally, she stayed over. The husband tried to do the same things to her. She got worried and tried to take me away, but they wouldn't allow it. Then, the activists came with her and took me home."

The last question is about how the rest of the family treated her during that year in Aurangabad.

"They behaved with me like people behave with servants. What else?"

What else, indeed?

Budhiya (why the ban was necessary)

Budhiya isn't sure of how old she is. She looks up at me with a half smile and clear, light-brown eyes. Hazel? Amber-hazel? Her brows are exceptionally fine. The other girls have been using her for class-practise, I realise. (They are taught a beautician's work).

I ask, "But you must have some idea. 10? 11? 8? 9?"

She tilts her head and thinks this over, before settling on 9, for some reason. She looks closer to 8 or maybe, 7.

We do the usual preliminary background of questions.

"I come from Gargaon. I'm the second of five sisters. I played with other people's kids. Ma took the money. Don't know how much I made. But I got food there. I worked 5 am to 12 noon. They didn't beat me. But they did yell at me. Once, when I couldn't make the daal properly...."

Daal?

I asked, "What were you doing making daal? I thought your job was to 'play' with the kids?"

"Oh yes. But I also cooked and washed dishes."

I looked at her, only part-believing. Can this little mite cook? What?

"I can cook aloo baigan, dal-bhaat."

Budhiya doesn't know where exactly she worked for over a year. But she is very glad to be at the children's ashram. "3 months ago, Manohari brought me here."

"Who's Manohari?"

"She's an activist. She lives in Ranchi. She brings many kids here."

"Don't you miss home?"

"Home? No. Papa would beat me at home... sometimes. I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I already know my tables. And counting, adding, subtracting."

She begins rattling off the tables in Hindi. Two ones are two; two twos are four.

I stop her. "What is the best thing about being here at the ashram?"

This time Budhiya does not hesitate at all. "Daal, aloo, chana. That is the best thing here."

I looked into those clear amber-hazel eyes, not knowing whether to smile or cry. "You like chana very much?"

"Yes, I like chana. And I like fruits. They give us fruits here."

And I think, Budhiya is going to be very beautiful young girl some day. What a pity, her father won't know.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Why the ban was necessary - 2

Sister Leona of the Domestic Workers' Forum is also a lawyer. She keeps a notebook which is covered with inky squiggles detailing cases of maidservants who were raped, beaten, otherwise abused, or placed in a situation from which they had to be rescued.

"We survey the field and have a team of animators. They check for non-payment of dues and exploitation reports. If they're beaten or not paid, with the help of the police, we rescue the girls. If they want to continue working, we get them registered and placed properly in a safe home. We also meet each Sunday after mass and give them a chance to tell us if there are problems. Have also started self-help groups amongst the girls in rural areas to give them an option to not migrate. Also training them in marketing and other skills. Teach them to read and write and give them other non-formal education. At least 100 distress cases each year in Delhi. In June alone, we rescued 15 girls approximately. At least 3-4 turn out to be rape cases."

She starts flipping through the notebook, talking all the while.

"Once, we investigated the case of a mother and child. The mother came looking for her son, and was placed in a home herself and her daughter was placed elsewhere, against her wishes. The mother was trapped. She couldn't leave the household and the agent was nowhere to be found. Coincidentally, he happened to get arrested in a rape case elsewhere and the agency was closed down. The agent is in jail now. But there are many hundreds of placement agents. They have to be registered, but many aren't. Also, they often use saints' names and put religious pictures on the walls to help create the false impression of piousness and security. Many of the girls are tribal christians and they get taken in. Often, it is the placement agent who first rapes the girl."

She flips a few more pages.

"In May-June, there was the case of Akash placement agency. The agent had raped two of the three minor girls he brought down. The case is in Rohini court."

Another page flipped.

"In Jaipur, there was a government official's son, accused of rape. They've been threatening me, asking me to withdraw the case, wanting to reach a 'compromise'. We refused, because the girl also wanted to see him punished. She was raped 4 times and when she got pregnant, forced to undergo an abortion. She was kept locked up inside the house."

A few pages later,

"Another 14-year-old was raped in Lal Quarter."

The page turned.

"And one 17-year-old was killed. They said she got burnt by accident or committed suicide, but when we went there, we saw that only her lower half of the body was burnt. Her hair was not even singed, which would not have happened if she's burnt herself. We suspect she was raped and murdered, and burnt, to cover up the evidence. It was a rich family... we didn't get police support so couldn't get enough evidence together."

And turned again.

"An 18-year-old was kicked around badly by her employer. He was an army officer."

And again.

"One 12-year-old was locked up by her employers in Lajpatnagar. When we went to rescue her, they claimed she wasn't in the house. Wouldn't let us come in. We stuck around, sat on the stairs outside, and kept saying that we just wanting to meet the girl. Somehow, we managed to persude them to let us step inside. Then we said, we're taking her away. The employers said that if she was leaving, she had to leave all her old clothes and even a battered old suitcase, which had been given to her. They even refused to give her a glass of water before she left, and refused to pay her. They sent her off without one rupee."

A 12-year-old. Taking away her old hand-me-downs. People who own kothis in Lajpatnagar.

Why the ban was necessary - 1

Mr Chaurasia is an old man. His old man's voice shakes a little as he tells me the story of Ashraf.

He was seven years old when they found him, but he'd been only six when he was brought to live in the household of a certain IAS officer. Officially, the little boy's only task was to 'play' with the toddler of the house. A sort of companion. Except that soon, the baby was going to a creche, and Ashraf was washing dishes and playing nursemaid, in the evenings.

Everyday, the toddler was given a glass of milk. Maybe twice a day. Maybe thrice. One day, the household baby left some milk undrunk, in the glass. Perhaps this was what happened everyday. Perhaps it went into the sink everyday. But that one day, Ashraf - the six/seven-year-old nursemaid-cum-servantboy Ashraf who'd probably never tasted milk since the day he was weaned - decided to drink that leftover milk. And was caught doing so, by the lady of the house.

What followed is fairly commonplace. Some slapping around, some kicking; a rod/chimta/iron kitchen implement was taken from the stove and the boy was branded with it. When the IAS officer returned from work, he did his little bit to teach the boy a lesson he wouldn't forget. The result was that the next day, Ashraf was burning with fever. Perhaps, the IAS chap panicked. Perhaps, they just didn't want him anymore. The boy's family was sent for and Ashraf was taken away.

When they saw what had happened, the family was enraged. His mother went to the polie station. A complaint was not filed. Eventually, Mr Chaurasia's organisation - Bachpan Bachao Andolan - was contacted. They created a ruckus. Went to the police. Went to the NHRC. Ruffled feathers.

Ashraf's story was not remarkable. Is not remarkable. It is played out in our cities and homes all the time. But what made it significant was that the NHRC and the BBA began to lobby with the central government, to issue orders that no government employee may employ a child (less than 14 years of age) as a domestic worker. It didn't happen easily. It took two years. Many states agreed to issue such notifications before the centre agreed. But agree, it did.

That notification - it doesn't mean much in numerical terms. Government jobs account for a negligible percentage of the working population. But it accounts for a stand. A beginning. More than a decade ago, the government conceded, through that order, that children should not be employed in households. That it is not safe. That the risks are too large. The work neverending. The exploitation uncontrollable. Having made this concession, what prevented the government from passing a law along the same lines for the rest of the country? Surely the government did not believe that government servants alone are capable of brutalisation?

However, that is a question of the past.

The last week changed all that. The government, once, was pressurized into taking a stand. Children are no longer permitted to undertake domestic work - dishwashing, sweeping-swopping, child-care, elderly-care, laundry, ironing, cooking, etc. I don't yet know whether or not domestic work will now be included in the list of occupations that are forbidden to child labourers, legally. But for now, it is enough that the ban has been put into place.


Now, to the implementation of it.

Experience should tell us that that will be where the real battle lies.

Mr Chaurasia laughs, mirthlessly, when he tells stories of trying to track down boys and girls who've been trafficked, or lured under false pretences, from poor tribals districts. He says, "Employers are afraid - they will be orphaned for the lack of a slave.They even take their dogs out for a walk but not their maidservants. They're scared that if they might be lured away with better offers. They don't even allow their servants to step outside the house. Neighbours sometimes witness the cruelty and call us but they don't give testimony. They have to live in that area, next to those people."

BBA activists would hear reports of abuse and would hang around the neihgbourhood all day, hoping to meet the boy or girl, to ask whether he/she'd like to go home. "We'd wait at the milk booth, near vegetable vendors, parks... not one glimpse! They just weren't allowed to step out."

Shanti's experience confrims this. Now fifteen, about a year ago, she went from her village in Jharkhand to the capital, Ranchi. She'd studied until the 5th and wanted to study further. "But the school had 110 children and no teacher. I dropped out. There was one aunty who took me to Ranchi, promising that I'd get to study there. But I ended up working. Only working. They also had a two-year-old kid. I did all the housework and took care of the child. There was no money. No clothes. Sushila - the aunty - she would beat me. Gave me leftovers to eat. My cousin brother was staying in a hostel in Ranchi. After six months of this work, I got in touch with him and he brought me back to the village."

Shanti was lucky. Also, she wasn't as young and as vulnerable as some of the others are. People who are taken to different states where they don't know the language, don't know a single soul in town, don't know who to turn to for help. When they do not return for months on end, when no money is sent home either, the parents come looking. But do not know where to look. There are no records, no contracts, no addresses. Sometimes, even the children's names are changed. The children themselves are not given any money. Not even enough to make a phone call home. They certainly aren't given education enough to write home. If, by some stroke of luck, the children are found, they're not permitted to meet their family.

Last week, I spoke to a few of these children. Each one had a story. A disturbing one. I am letting them speak for themselves.

Never again (one hopes)

I wrote this about a month ago.

And am so, so grateful for this.

While working on the story, I was appalled and ashamed to the point of exhaustion. That adults - an educated moneyed class of adults - could be so... so.... what is the word? Brutal, yes. Cruel, yes. But something else. Something beyond cruel. It takes more than mere cruelty to do what was done to Sonu.

With this ban on children under 14 working as domestic help, we can begin to start ensuring that nobody else turns into a hazy mark of guilt on the fabric of our convenient domestic lives, the way Sonu did.
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