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:

https://antiserious.com/annie-zaidi-inheritance-2-esophagus-street-poem-1053e679856c#.8io9wib18

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: http://hindi.firstpost.com/politics/mayawati-statue-with-ladies-purse-nk-16978.html 
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