Saturday, April 15, 2017

On public theft practised as parking

Worse, every car sitting out on the road is a thief of opportunity. There could have been a fruit cart sitting there instead and it would boost the nation’s employment. There could have been a little bit of public art sitting out there instead, which would make the city a more aesthetic experience, or a more politically conscious space. There could even be a series of roadside kiosks that could be put to multiple uses – a phone booth, rain shelter, a flower pot, tree, donation booth, pop-up night school. Why not?

In our cities, we police public space through a moral lens distorted by class. People who park their cars on public land are treated as hapless victims: After all, what else can a car owner do if he/she does not have access to a garage? Poor things, forced to park outside. Anything could happen to the car, no? The government should do something to fix this parking problem. Tsk tsk!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the road, a watermelon

There's a photograph I love to think of. A moustachioed farmer, dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti, is running down the highway with a giant watermelon, twice as large as his head. It was taken by the photographer accompanying me on a reporting assignment in Madhya Pradesh. We were driving towards a village and just ahead of us was a truck loaded with watermelons and a few farmers.

A sudden brake and some of the watermelons rolled off. The truck stopped, the farmer got off to retrieve his watermelons. In the photograph, the farmer is grinning. He must be on his way to the market to sell his crop. He must be looking forward to getting a good price for those giant melons.

I was reminded of this photograph last week when I heard about another set of farmers who grow potato. In some parts of the country, there are farmers who are getting as little as one or two rupees for a quintal of potatoes. That's right. One or two rupees.

At first I thought, this must be a misprint. It seemed impossible. Clearly, it seemed impossible to the farmers too. In Punjab, some of the farmers reportedly offloaded their stock on the roadside. Threw it all away. And who can blame them? It must cost thousands of rupees to get the crop to the mandi and then to come away with so little that they can't even buy a bus ticket back home!

I picture those potatoes rolling down the highway. Or perhaps, not rolling but just sitting there, glaring at the traffic with tiny, fertile eyes: ineffectual speed-bumps for a nation that's getting ahead of itself.

It would be a very different scene, of course, if the farmers started sitting on the highway. Or perhaps they will come into big cities and block the major roads. There was a time, in 1988, when farmers did just that. They came in their tractors and with their cattle. They slept there and shat there for a few days. The bureaucrats and the politicians were quite displeased but also thoroughly shaken. In an essay about the history of Jantar Mantar as a site of perpetual protest, Neha Dixit has written that it was this grand event that led our rulers to confine all protests to one particular spot, Jantar Mantar.

This is, of course, an effective way to destroy the spirit of public protest. To be tucked away in one little corner of the capital, surrounded by dozens of other citizens with serious grievances, is to be rendered invisible. It is the very opposite of what people had set out to do.

I also recall the World Social Forum of 2004, in Mumbai. It was very colourful and, for a young journalist like me, quite an educative experience. Yet political activists – many of whom had been organizing people's movements for decades – looked on with a sort of indulgent amusement. By the time the forum ended, I understood why. All the causes, the slogans, the singing and dancing, the shows of solidarity were confined to a couple of square kilometeres in Goregaon. None of those voices reached even as far as the main road, just outside the venue. It did not lead to any heated debates in Parliament about the urgency of policy change.

Mumbai also has another of those carefully curated sites of perpetual protest – Azad Maidan – where residents, office-goers, children don't really notice the grief and rage of those who come to protest, and nothing gets disrupted. The city doesn't so much as blink, not until a few roads get blocked.

Naturally, keeping people off the road is crucial so cities – and the powers that be – go on functioning as they did before. So all governments use the police to control them. They enact laws which require us to take permission from the police before hitting the road. Oddly enough, the state rarely bothers to ensure that people are actually not on the road. The difference between the phrase 'sadak pe aa jaana' (to be reduced to living on the road) and 'sadak pe utar aana' (to descend upon the road) is the difference between the fears of ordinary citizens and the fears that govern our rulers.

The former is a universal, yet deeply lonely fear. It is the fear of the potato farmer who may have no option except to move to a big city, and sleep, squat, beg on the road or sit there trying to sell whatever strength he still has. He could, of course, descend upon the road, claiming it with his feet, his voice, and demand that the traffic stop and confront him with human eyes and ears. He could, but will he?

First published in TheHindu

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some body poems

I've written a few poems around the theme of the body over the years. Some of them have been published by Antiserious, a literary journal devoted to things that are actually quite serious, but through a not very serious approach.

Here is one, and the rest can be read in the link below:
Dream: Blackbird
Your hair is big like a preying bird’s
nest. You do not bother to smile
as I sit there like a supplicant, trying
to show you something. A PDF file?
My laptop is charged, prepared
for scrutiny but you are busy
plucking blackbirds out of the sky.
Your manners are beautiful. No feathers
stick out the sides of your mouth.
I’m thinking there must be tiny bones
piercing your graw — ribs or claws or
a twiggy neck scratching your tongue.
You spit nothing. You eat them whole.
I tell myself this is a dream and maybe
you have learnt to swallow thorns
from fish-eating Bengali neighbours.
In my dream, I try to imagine
your neighbours and somehow I know
these are the only neighbours you saw
that year you flunked and had to repeat
a class and learnt what failing was.
I think I will never meet your neighbours.
My heart pounds and in my dream, it turns
into a jack-in-the-box collapsed into my ribs.
There are no birds left in the sky.
I hit shut down and wait to hear
that microsoft windows sound.
I wait for some words but you look
at me as if you know how this will end.
Your eyes are black and feathery.
Your eyes are talons and I, a blackbird
cascading into the heart of the sun,
my eyes squeezed tight against vertigo.
Even so, I want to fall into the nest of your hair
so you can pick me up, swallow me whole.
You can. But will you?
I am a black morsel inside your mouth.
I am fine-boned and plump with hoarded fear.
You can. But will you?
My jack-in-the-box heart is powder
against your tongue, my wings are locked
between your teeth. God! I am so tiny!
There are things I want to tell you.
I am tiny and weak. I failed an exam once.
And I cheated in an exam once.
I had pure veg neighbours once
whose little girl constantly fought
with her mum and liked to eat the boiled
halva my mother sent across in a steel plate
with paisley embossing on its rim.
I want to say, we used to eat fat desi chips
with red chilly powder sprinkled on top.
I want to say more. Something about
why I am here and how hungry I am
but I am a tiny morsel in your mouth
and your teeth are grinding.
(C) Annie Zaidi
More poems here:

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On consent and colleagues

I wrote this about sexual consent in the context of colleagues, with a few helpful tips for people (men in particular) who are attracted to someone at the work place and want to act on their desire. 

"Let me also say that I'm well-acquainted with the messy mish-mash of fear and hope that is the human heart. I know people often seek to meet a crush using work as an excuse. "Bahaane-baazi", as we call it. “Can we collaborate?” “I've an idea I wanted to bounce off you.”

Women do it too. I've done it myself. But if a colleague is not interested in you romantically or sexually, s/he will politely sit through your bahaane-baazi meeting, and things will go no further. And that's fine too. Women colleagues have desires too, but they know enough to back away politely when confronted with what looks like a rejection.

I just want to tell you, male readers especially, that we – women who work in offices, work all hours, who go out to meet strangers in cafes to see if we can work with them, who go to meetings in offices that are actually converted residential apartments, who can never predict whether there will be other people in the office or not – are neither sexless nor available. And that you have no idea what it costs to manoeuvre a path to dignity."

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Mayawati's Purse

मायावती के जुड़ी एक बात है जो मुझे थोड़ा परेशान करती है, उनके पुतले के हाथ में टंगा वो लेडीज पर्स.
जहां इतने नेताओं के पुतले बनते हैं तो उनके हाथ में फूल माला होती है या किताब. कभी हाथ उठा भी रहता है मानो देश की जनता को संबोधित कर रहे हों. तो क्या मायावती के पुतले के हाथ में कुछ और नहीं हो सकता था? कोई ऐसी चीज जो संवैधानिक हक या आजादी का प्रतीक हो?

आगे पढ़ने के लिए फर्स्टपोस्ट हिंदी की वेबसाइट पे जाएँ: 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Gulab, now in Tamil

Gulab, a novella I wrote that was published two years ago by Harper Collins India, has been lucky enough to find a Tamil publisher in Anangu, an imprint of a journal devoted to feminist themes and literature.

I am very pleased, of course. Cannot find a link to it but am told people can buy it online on this site: ). In the meantime, here's the cover:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

एक छोटा सा लेख, औरत और जिस्म के बालों के सन्दर्भ में

हिंदी में अब ज़रा और आत्म-विश्वास के साथ लिखने लगी हूँ।  कविता या नाटक लिखने में कभी कोई ख़ास हिचक नहीं हुई मगर, हाँ, गद्द्य लिखते हिचकिचाती थी।  अब नहीं।  उम्मीद है, कॉलम अब नियमित रूप से लिखती रहूँगी।

ये रहा एक छोटा सा लेख, औरत और जिस्म के बालों के सन्दर्भ में:

वैक्सिंग से केवल लड़कियों की देह के बाल ही नहीं टूटते

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Of the pavement

I've started a new column for The Hindu focused on the road. Here's the first:

There’s a phrase in Hindustani, ‘paidal-haal’. A pedestrian state of being. It is a metaphor, but it doesn’t suggest ordinary or unimaginative as it does in English usage. ‘Paidal-haal’ implies vulnerability and difficulty, a reduced state. Who, after all, chooses to go on foot if he can afford a set of wheels? And, if he can’t afford wheels, any wheels, why then!

The implication is that wheels make life easier. A car is better than a bicycle, three wheels are better than two, a four-horse chariot is better than a bullock-cart, and your own two feet are precious and must be used sparingly.

Friday, February 03, 2017

From the mud pits

Wrestling is a sport I've gotten interested in and have been following for over a year now. I wrote two longer essays around wrestlers, especially in north India. The first was about how the sport has evolved and is riding a new wave public attention, and the second was about girls and sport, with some interviews with female wrestling champions.

The reason I'm so interesting in wrestling in particular is that it seems to me to represent the growth and evolution of humanity itself. It is one of the oldest sports and has existed in one form or another in all ancient civilizations, including the Greeks, the Persians and of course, Indian. Here's a brief comic I wrote about it:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some poems

Five conversations I can no longer bear to have in person


Remember what a bugle meant?
Flag pennant colours


We grew up watching the same films,
you know what I’m talking about: a battlefield

shields snug against shields, swords tingling
with unshed blood and bones stiff with knowing
they could lie bleaching under a foreign sun
and if there was any loving yet to be done
it was left too late.

The king and his nearest kin, fighting men all.
A bugle on someone's lips waiting for his call.
A sky purpling like a bruise, grasses whispering
to bare ankles of kisses imagined, love unconfessed.
Men looking into the black eyes of the end
and then: now! aye, now!

Flags, stabs, missed throws then night’s relief,
Send for allies. Count the fallen.

The fight was not equal but a decent war had rules.
Dawn to dusk, that was one.
And none but men fighting face to face dared
speak of honour.

A torn chest was battle,
a dagger in the back was not.
A king who dared not lead the charge
waged no war.
He was a traitor looking for a back turned
in trust.

There was loot and rape and slavery but
every foot soldier knew:
the spoils of war are not war.
My friend, you say it is the same
old thing though we both know,
with every battle skirmish coup,
the soldier changes, the enemy is new.
Even so, come walk with me.

Count the dead and missing, let us see
what weapons they brought to the field
what vengeance you wrought.
Let us gauge how badly who lost
this thing you call a war.

Is it loss enough to settle the score
on your ancient ledger?
Do the math, my friend,
and when you are done,
sound the bugle for battle’s end.



There she is.
Creeping around my backyard.

Came indoors with her kittens once.
Just like that!

Just hangs around swatting at pigeons.
Doesn't bother the rats.

I had to take rabies shots once.
Five shots, and for what?
Trying to save her worthless spawn.
We're not friendly, no.

I see her crouched on my garden wall.
Sometimes I hiss until she turns her head.

Our eyes meet but it's not
like hi-hello.
More like, yeah, I’m here
you're there.

She’s got her ways that I don’t like
but what the hey! She’s got her life,
I’ve got my life.

The point is, the difference between
your politics and mine is
the cat lives.



I will not make the cut-us-and-do-we-not-bleed
argument (can you imagine the horror
if one of us failed to bleed from a cut?)

My argument is, we also bleed
when our own brothers cut us.
And you bleed when your own
cut you (and quite often, they do).



Let us make a balance sheet. First, make two columns:

X Ancestors                                               Y Ancestors

1. were folk from north or west of the indus  1. were folk from north or west of the indus
who mated with eastern and southern people    who mated with the eastern and/or southern people 
who were perhaps overcome by force.             who were perhaps overcome by force.
your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but     your ancestors were ambitious, restless, but
they settled down, and were either unable to    they settled down, and were either unable to
destroy the people native to this land or were   destroy the people native to this land or were
reluctant to. they learn to know and love.          reluctant to. they learn to know and love.
the races slowly mingled and became              the races slowly mingled and became
doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,         doctors, farmers, hunters, cooks, singers,
weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words       weavers, drum-beaters, saints. their words
are evidence that every heart beats                  are evidence that every heart beats
to the same drum.                                            to the same drum.

2. broke temples that housed different gods     2. broke temples that housed different gods
but also took from them new shades of faith.       but also took from them new shades of faith.
they built palaces and forts, ships and ports,        they built new mosques, and some temples too
step-wells, temples and some mosques too.         and gardens, canals, tombs, forts, step-wells.
they learnt from new rival-allies new grace        they learnt from new rival-allies new graces
of gates, domes, dress, song.                              of pillars, dress, speech, song.

3. waged war                                                   3. waged war
a lot.                                                                    a lot.

4. had, then lost                                                4. had, then lost
empires                                                                empires

5. wrote poetry, mused on nature                       5. wrote poetry, mused on nature
and the substance of divinity                                 and the substance of divinity

6. made allies, if not friends, through women     6. made allies, if not friends, through women
and wombs, laid claim to land                               and wombs, laid claim to land
and river and the pulsing strength of wrists            and river and the pulsing strength of wrists
that could wring necks, if they chose to.                that could wring necks, if they chose to.

7. died in wars they didn't understand.               7. died in wars they didn't understand.

8. changed with time.                                        8. changed with time.
sometimes they did time in refugee camps.            sometimes they did time in refugee camps.
often they spent hours waiting in line                     often they were welcome nowhere else and so
for low-cost housing lottery forms.                        they huddled in madarsas and mosques
they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea              they suffered heat, cold, waves of nausea
and a terror of never being safe.                            they tried moving out somewhere safe but were met
they raged as new ladders disappeared                  with five seconds of silence across a phone line
into the bog of ancient laws, unyielding                 after they told the real estate broker their names.
as ice. often, they tried to get away to a new         often they lay awake in bed and sometimes were shamed
land where they thrived but found they were          by how much they longed to be warmed
now the wrong sort of other.                                  by the touch of the other's hand.

these kings, those queens, yours and mine
were pawns on the chessboard of time.
we were knights falling off the high horse of fealty
and going down in heavy armour
into the red dust of a nation's history
arms flailing like windmills trying to stave off
a suspicion.

soon all argument will be reduced to broken tiles
all fortresses will be ruins for lovers to tangle in
all temples, mosques, chapels, monasteries will have no part
to play save that of a hospice for bursting hearts.



We have come to ask for your infant son.
We need him to lay a new black tar road.
We heard that's how smooth roads are done.

Good roads require sacrifice.
It’s only fair we all take turns.
Makes things nice and uniform.


why/why not?

We hear the electricity department cannot
function without petrol bombs being lobbed
into lanes holding up so tight,
no husband-wife can make love or fight
without hearing a neighbour sucking her tongue
in disbelief.

We hear the street is to burn like a box of matches,
one house setting off the next.
Thus everyone pitches in.

We were hoping your house could
volunteer as the nerve center
to set alight our common discontent.

Surely you have no objection?

why/why not?

Would you send your sister please
down to the corner where men sit down to compare
the circumference of chests and
debate whether biceps are worth more
than a spine
and whether holding peace is a criminal act
and if you can define crime as that
which was not covered up in time.
In short, the stuff of which nations are built.

why/why not?

So then? How do you propose
to contribute to the nation?
Going about your business?
Waiting for a tax deducted salary cheque?
Wearing the clothes you've always worn?
Eating whatever you can hold of?

My friend! My friend!

This funny attachment to your own misery
These charred remains of youth
Your desire to grow old
Your ability to reproduce
Keep fasts

Surely you know
there is more, much more a patriot must do?
And if we do not volunteer you, then


(C) Annie Zaidi

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Wheels on my mind

Last year (summer of 2016), I had the good fortune of travelling abroad the Deccan Odyssey, a train that travels around Maharashtra to sites of artistic and historic significance such as Ajanta and Ellora, and also to two wildlife reserves, Tadoba and Pench. An essay about the experience was written for Conde Nast India. A brief extract here:

How many years did it take to just prepare the mud plaster surface? From how far away were the paints sourced? How does one go on painting, knowing the work may not be completed in one’s own lifetime? Walking through the monks’ bare cells—nothing here except a flat slab of rock to sleep on—felt like walking through a place of surrendered ego. Thinking of their calm acceptance of mortality, and the need to create beauty under all circumstances, filled me with a sort of hush. As much
 of a hush, anyway, as is possible at a popular site of tourism in India. At both places, I split from the group in search of silence and was struck, not so much by what the centuries left unchanged, but by the inevitability of change. Buddhist philosophy changed, drawing from both Tibetan and Hindu mythologies. Kings and nobles changed religious affiliation—Jain, Buddhist, Shaivite— and that decided what temples would be built. The hills themselves have been worn down to their present squat solidity. No destiny, not even one cast in stone, is set in stone.

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