Monday, May 28, 2018

Not quite highway robbery


One of my enduring memories from the first time I visited Melbourne is walking around looking for lunch and spotting a compact row of bright blue bicycles that were neatly stowed on the sidewalk.

The first question that popped up in my mind was: “How come everyone here rides the exact same bicycle?”

A moment later, I felt sheepish. I realised that it was a bike rental system. Precisely the kind of system I wish upon all cities. At home, of course, it is unlikely to work. First of all, there are no cycling lanes. When the national capital, Delhi, tried to create a cycling track along one stretch of BRT (a rapid bus transit lane) a few years ago, it was promptly hijacked by motorcyclists and auto-rickshaws. A few small cars tried to squirm in as well. Cops had to be stationed there to catch and fine three and four wheeled drives. It never was possible to fine scooters and motorbikes – because they insisted that they interpreted the bicycle symbol for the lane as a 'two-wheeler symbol'. At any rate, the BRT system was dismantled and the exclusive bicycle track vanished. Currently, bikes ride on the pavements.

Secondly, there's a good chance the bicycles would get stolen. We'd need to station cops or guards to make sure people paid rent and returned them.

I wanted to ask my friends in Melbourne: “How come your bicycles don't get stolen?” But it felt like a foolish question. Maybe they had some technology to track down stolen bikes. Or perhaps, bicycle theft simply wasn't worth the trouble and the risk of prosecution.

In India, of course, bicycles are useful, not just as a vehicle but also a potential source of scrap metal. And there are a great many people who take great risks for very little gain. That same year, there was a robbery in my uncle's house. One of the employees' bicycles was stolen at night, despite high boundary walls all around. The local security guards' bicycles had also been stolen a few nights before, so they had been keeping their eyes peeled. The thief was soon caught red-handed. He had made the mistake of returning to the same street to steal some iron rods that were lying outside a house.

Anything that's sitting on the road, or even just inside one's own property, if it's easily accessed from the road, is likely to tempt some desperate citizen. Iron rods aren't worth a lot of money – definitely not worth time spent in prison – and yet, people try to steal them. Metal drain covers are stolen sometimes. Dustbins aren't spared either. In Mumbai, I have seen elevated metal bins with their bottoms cut out. Metal tumblers are often chained to free drinking water outlets, so people don't walk away with them. Tumblers in train toilets are chained to taps. The taps in public toilets get stolen too.

I once lived on a street where the slabs of stone that covered an open drain were stolen. That monsoon, we were all wading through overflowing sewage.

I don't know how much a slab of stone costs. Nor do I know what it costs to cover drains. But one thing I do know: wading through sewage is an experience that diminishes your self-esteem. And thinking about the man who steals drain covers for a living, being caught and put in jail does not make you feel any better.


First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-mumbai/not-quite-highway-robbery/article2389864.ece3

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What More Does a Girl Want?

This poem had appeared in The Narrow Road, about a year ago.


What more does a girl want?

·        notebooks. new, with hard covers so the pages don't get torn from being carried in an overstuffed haversack in which pens of five colours sit with lipstick, eye pencil and leftover lunch rolled into a plastic bag that the grocer still gives her in defiance of the government ban.
·        dreamboats. princes from neon fairytales. more Tangled less Rapunzel, more Brave less Cinderella. maybe even Shrek. green ogres are okay if they have bothered to install solar heating.
·        accent. only one. it should mark her as someone who is from somewhere. a potpourri of place and race but with a distinct lilt and lisp. an aural scar of having tried and failed at belonging.
·        a ghost. tripping over the ankles of night, clanging chain dragging a four-poster bed by its left foot (note to self: do not repeat, find ways to make new, new. break old ground and
bury the dead).
·        photo frames. papier mache. jazzed up with gold paint and tinsels from a stationery shop right outside the school where the principal as good as spat once at her family's good breeding.
·        laundry basket.
·        nylon rope.
·        pepper.
·        radio.
·        sad horses that appear mysteriously outside the grocery shop that sits nervously beside a wine shop and does frantic midnight business in fried peanuts and triangular Amul cheese cubes.
·        silver shoes.
·        neon shoes.
·       sensible shoes that assure you she is no hurry. she has walked so far, so so so far to be here,
with you.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Trolling via road nomenclature

The naming of streets is a tricky business. In the old days, streets got their names off occupations. There could be named after a Baker, a Butcher, a Shoemaker. Or, after prominent landmarks, like Church Street. In India, we have our own versions, such as Chikoo-wadi, Parathe-wali Gali, Dariba Kalan or Chandni Chowk.

The naming of streets after people is a relatively recent phenomenon and quite a politic decision. To name a street after a person, with the assumption of perpetual visibility, is to say that this person is significant, and must remain in public memory. And therefore, we have streets named after monarchs, politicians, scholars, artists and very prominent businessmen. Very, very rarely do we have a street named for an activist. There is of course, Mahatma Gandhi; several Indian cities have an M.G. Road by way of acknowledging the father of the nation. One could say he was an activist-politician. However, the more confrontational and anti-establishment an activist is, the fewer the chances that his/her name will be enjoined to a street sign.

Unless, of course, it's someone else's activist. Those are easier to champion.

Recently, Dutch activists went about “renaming” streets after Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager who was imprisoned for hitting an Israeli soldier. What makes it a fine act of diplomatic trolling is that one of these street named for Ahed leads to the embassy of Israel in Amsterdam.

I do not know whether The Netherlands officially supports such a renaming but, at any rate, the state seems not to be in a hurry to punish the activists who made the change.

Such trolling of another state via renaming of the street on which the embassy stands is not new. Iran did this masterfully way back in 1981.

Bobby Sands was a member of the Irish Republican Army which was opposed to British rule. Sands was in prison and had undertaken a hunger strike along with a handful of other IRA activists. He withstood the strike for 66 days before he died at the age of just 27.

In May 1981, news of his death filtered out to the rest of the world. He had many supporters, even as far as Teheran. The Iranian government decided to honour his memory – and stick their tongue out at the British – by renaming the street on which the British Embassy stood.

The UK officials, naturally, was not amused; they thought of the IRA as terrorists. So they responded by turning their backs on the new Bobby Sands Street. The front entrance was moved around to the back, so that the opposite street could be given out as their official address. Some reports suggest that, as late as 2004, the British were trying to lobby Iran to change the name of Bobby Sands Street.

Teheran seems quite adept at responding to other states in this manner. Saudi Arabia, with whom its relations remain fragile, was similarly taunted. The street on which the embassy stands was reportedly named after Sheikh Al-Nimr, a Shia cleric who was executed by the Saudi Arabia.

The USA also tormented its rival, the former USSR, in 1984 when it decided to name a public square after Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident who was put in jail. More recently, there have been moves to challenge Russia through naming a plaza after Boris Nemotsov, an opposition leader who was killed in 2015.

There seem to be fewer such challenges to the power of rival nations in India, nor public reminders of the abuse of state power. This is always a tricky thing to do, of course. Because once we do start reminding each other of the abuses of power in each other's backyard, we're going to start running out of streets to rename.

First published here: 
http://www.thehindu.com/society/trolling-via-road-nomenclature/article23583525.ece
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