Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ek red colour ki love story

A poetry film. A bit of an experiment with cityscapes and words. The script was 'found ' in the sense that the story was constructed around images or situations that already existed and inspired a line or two of poetry in my head. Watch if you can. Like if you like.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unbecoming India

I’m currently reading a book that spans the 1920s-60s. It reveals a lot about some of the men who organized and led the freedom struggle – Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari, Nehru and Vallabh bhai Patel. And I’m wondering what these men would do if they knew that, in the sovereign land for which they went to jail and organized strikes and suffered attempts on their lives, two young girls would be arrested for questioning the legitimacy of a bandh. That a doctor’s clinic would be destroyed because a politician died of old age. That this politician would be a man accused of unleashing mayhem and murder upon citizens, and that he would never be punished properly for his crimes, but instead that his dead body would be draped in the national flag.

When India came into being as a republic, we chose to be democratic, sovereign and secular. We were no longer just a landmass upon which hundreds of millions lived, but a notional place of dignity. We knew what it was like to live without freedom, equality and justice. And we wanted to stop suffering, just so that someone else could get richer.

When we say we wanted freedom, it wasn’t just that we wanted rulers who had the same skin tone. We wanted the freedom to choose what was good for us. Because often, what was good for Indians resident in India was not profitable for colonial masters. But when we protested, our leaders were thrown into jail for a range of crimes that ranged from disturbing the peace to treason.

And now? Well now, Dayamani Barla has been in jail for over a month. In 2006, a case was filed against Barla when she was part of a group that blocked a road, demanding NREGS (national rural employment guarantee scheme) job cards for some villagers. She was charged with rioting, criminal trespass and so on. The case was reopened and she was arrested in October this year. She managed to get bail but was immediately arrested in connection with another case. According to a statement issued by other activists, police officials refuse to tell ‘for technical reasons’ what laws Barla is supposed to have broken.

Wondering why an old case reopened, and what was Barla up to? Well, she’s been standing with the farmers of Nagri village who refuse to let go of the 200-odd acres of land the state government has earmarked for a law university and a new IIM.

It is not that the villagers of Nagri wish to pose an impediment to educational institutions. They have said that there are other pieces of land around, which are not being cultivated and therefore more suitable for construction. This land, they say, was acquired in the 1950s, and even then, most villagers had refused the pitiful compensation on offer. For decades, nothing happened. Then the state decided to build a new university, and so it destroyed the standing crop belonging to the farmers. And now, Barla is in jail.

Consider the irony of Barla, an award-winning journalist-activist, being lodged in the Birsa Munda Central Jail. It has been named for legendary freedom fighter Birsa Munda who died in Ranchi jail, it is said, under mysterious circumstances.

I wonder what our freedom fighter-leaders would say to Dayamani Barla. What would Gandhi say? What would Vallabh bhai Patel say? What would Subhash Chandra Bose say?

And I wonder too – how different are we from colonial India where people could be parted easily from land or salt, and leaders jailed for encouraging us to break the law if it hurt people and livelihoods?

First published here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Get rid of that damn purdah

Here’s a question I have long wanted to ask of our security providers. I understand the need to scan bags and jackets. But how do you explain those monstrous curtained cubicles created especially for women?

Police, security agencies, mall owners, government, someone, explain! What do you think is being accomplished? Women fliers or cinema patrons are checked by other women. Purses or backpacks have already been searched outside, or put through scanners operated by men. Then, we walk into a makeshift cubicle with black fabric walls, or else, horrid rubber strips for curtains (which are probably never washed and make me worry about dust and infection), so that we may have hand-held metal detectors passed down the length of our bodies. And we step out again.

What part of the process needs to be ‘private’? We are not being strip-searched, after all. So, why do we need to go behind a curtain?

I feel upset because there seems to be an assumption that anything to do with a woman’s body must be concealed. It is almost as if the very idea of women having women’s bodies must be embarrassing and that, if we must be touched by anybody – even if it is a female cop – it must be concealed. As if a woman being touched for any reason at all is a horrible thing. But that doesn’t stop the security checks. It just puts us into a temporary purdah, so nobody can see what’s being done to us.


Do cops or mall-owners seriously think that women want to curl up and die at the thought of being brushed down with a metal detector? I very seriously doubt if shoppers or fliers are ashamed of being made to undergo a mandatory security check. Does being felt up make us conscious? Perhaps. But it would make anyone conscious, men too. Why do you assume that men’s embarrassments are meaningless?

And if security staff needs a private area to conduct an intimate search of our shopping selves, then there ought to be one for men. If it is not appropriate to examine women’s bodies in full public view, it is also not appropriate to conduct such examinations of men’s bodies in front of women, right?

This has bothered me for years now, but most of us don’t see fit to make a noise about it because it isn’t a big enough issue. But actually, I do believe that it is symptomatic of a larger problem – that of shaming women and, at the same time, making them constantly conscious of their physical selves. It is like a message is being sent out – keep those bodies under wraps, even as someone pokes and scans and metal-detects the life out of your bones. Under no circumstances must anybody notice your body.

There is something very absurd and very frightening about a society that cannot accept one simple fact: women have bodies almost the same as men, and that a body – or having things done to these bodies – is not something to be ashamed of.

I personally am a firm opponent of purdah in any form for this reason. The assumption that women’s bodies – even just the hair, or the face, or the legs – lead to violence is a false one. It is an unjust, cruel assumption and if we want a truly equal, peaceful world, then this idea must be ripped out of all minds. And I don’t know if we can change all purdah-loving cultures immediately, but we can throw out those meaningless, bizarre curtained cubicles out of all public areas. And we should. This very night.

First published here

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Buy, buy, buy

Here's the new book out there. It is called Love Stories # 1 to 14. There are (obviously) fourteen stories of love, some of it dead, some undying, and some of it involving dead people.

Readers, friends, detractors (especially you), curious onlookers, I would encourage you to pick up a copy.  I will be doing signings in some stores, wherever I can get down to the task without bankrupting myself. But in the interim, you could head to the nearest bookstore, or your favourite bookstore if you have one. If you're more likely to shop online, please do so. Some stores are offering very generous discounts.

Look at this 26% percent off at Infibeam, 19% off at Bookadda, and 14% off at Flipkart.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Growing figures

So it is being said that India’s economic growth is “likely to drop to 5.7%”. The report pointed out that the current growth is lower than the 6.5% figure from last year, and 6.7% in the “crisis-hit 2008-09”.

For the lay citizen, these percentage points and ominous hints of a ‘slowdown’ or a crisis are meaningless. We experience a crisis economy in three terms: Is it hard to find jobs? Is food scarce? Are essential services (like public transport and healthcare) accessible?

Politicians and economists like to bandy about figures, but don’t answer these basic questions. It is like being assured that a child is growing just because her weight is increasing. It could also mean the child has a hormonal problem. If 5 or 6 or 9 per cent growth is not leading to employment and improved public services, it means that our national child is sick.

I recently read a magazine profile of the current chief minister of Gujarat, where there is a fair bit of growth. There are MoUs being signed; industries are being set up. Then why are more young people registering themselves at unemployment exchanges? Why are so few jobs created in the private sector? Why are children malnourished? Narendra Modi might prefer not to answer these questions, but I don’t understand why economists are not explaining.

We’re only a developing economy. Our average could fall to 4 or 3 per cent and we’d still be ‘growing’ faster than the developed ones. The Eurozone economy had zero growth in the first three months of 2012. This was true of France as well. But are children starving in France? I don’t think so. And France has universal healthcare for all her citizens.

What is a ‘healthy’ growth number anyway? It is said that Germany alone is staving off a bad recession. But the German central bank forecast a growth of just 1%. Studies also suggest that 8 out of 10 Germans want a new economic order. ‘Growth’ as a numerical concept is no longer acceptable. More Germans believe that more income is not necessarily leading to a better quality of life.

Nations like Greece are in trouble. But Greeks are looking for ways to deal with their crisis. What do we do when there is no money? Well, we look at alternatives. Say, I need a taxi ride and I can’t pay for it. The taxi owner gives me the ride ‘free’. But his children need Math tuitions. I can offer that service, so I do. An informal barter economy has sprung up in pockets of ‘austerity-wracked’ Greece. People manage with some community trust. We must work for our sanity, even if the basic food, clothing, shelter requirement is met.

But it was interesting to see how the Greece situation was reported. One headline said: ‘It has come to this’. Another said: ‘Cashless currency takes off’. Yet another article said: ‘Misery forces workers from cities’, which sounded so strange to me.

In India, we rarely hear of hardship forcing workers to quit cities. If things are bad in big cities, they are usually a lot worse in villages. Still, most Indians live in villages. They move because they can’t find work, or can’t access basic services. Distress migration has been a trend for decades now. And our economists didn’t seem to think there might be an economic crisis underway.

Another article I read quoted the writer Edward Abbey who said that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. We would do well to examine the growing child of our economy for symptoms.

First published here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

All our filth

I saw this film recently, A Royal Affair, set in eighteenth century Denmark, and based on real events during the reign of Christian VII. Across Europe, there were changes in people’s ideas about religion, science and civil rights. There was talk of peasants or ‘serfs’ actually having rights, like the right to not be tortured. There was talk of vaccination. And yet, the streets of Copenhagen apparently stank.

The royal council – comprised mostly of the nobility, mostly men with inherited property and titles – did not want to spend on citizen babies getting vaccinated. It took a lot to ensure routine garbage collection.
That was not the only nation where people thought public sanitation was a luxury they could opt out of. As late as 1910, in France, there was resistance to building a sewage system. Property owners, or so I’ve read, preferred to clog the streets with filth rather than pay to install new sewage pipes. It was bureaucrats who worked hard to create a decent sewage system. Someone has remarked that the streets could have been cleaned in ten years, but it took a hundred years because the educated, middle and upper class would not cooperate.

Now here we are, over two hundred years later, trying to figure out what to do with our endless tonnage of garbage and sewage. More and more paper and plastics are used as packaging material. More and more waste, much of it generated by the upper classes. Yet, most housing societies and commercial establishments do not invest in segregation or recycling.

The municipality in Bangalore has finally made segregation of garbage mandatory for homes and commercial establishments, starting October this year. But Bangalore’s hotels were opposed to the move. They thought it was not ‘feasible’, which is not true. It would only require separate bins and just a teeny bit of consideration.
They did say that garbage collectors would mix up segregated garbage, which is a real concern. Collectors aren’t trained properly in recycling and composting; the benefits are not clear to them. Hence, the Delhi High Court had to issue a contempt notice against the municipality’s sanitation department in Delhi for poor waste management. All the wet and dry waste collected was being mixed together again when it went into the landfill.

In Mumbai, there have been some feeble attempts. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation warned housing societies that they have to either start segregating garbage or pay fines. I don’t know how many were actually fined, but as far as I can tell, dustbins on the streets overflow with a mixed mess of glass, plastic and food. Which can only mean that either households are refusing to segregate waste, or that collectors don’t have separate bins and separate trucks for transporting wet and dry waste to different destinations.

It’s not so hard to do. I know that some residential areas in Pune had made it compulsory to keep wet and dry waste in separate bins. When the collector arrived in the morning, he brought two bins and that made his sorting task simpler. It also made it easier to convert waste into organic manure. There is no reason why segregation should not be mandatory in every town. Every housing society could have its own garden with its own manure-production unit. It could lead to an income for more people.

For once, the municipal authorities are trying to do the right thing. Perhaps they aren’t succeeding but the citizens – especially those who can afford dustbins – are equally responsible. We can clean up our streets in ten years, or we can take a hundred. Or we can wait for an epidemic.

First published here.
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