Friday, April 24, 2020

A new short story

Here's a new short story, recently published in The Charles River Journal.

The story is called 'Jhimmi'. It was written after I began reading reports about young lovers in India, barely out of college, and the outcome of their loves. I was struck by the strength of their love, their courage, their big hearts. Above all, that: their sheer heart. Their circumstances or fates are secondary after all.

Read the story here: Jhimmi - a short story by Annie Zaidi

Saturday, April 18, 2020

No capes

One thing is clear. No heroes wear capes. They wear makeshift masks, often just a kerchief folded over and tied around their noses. Slender protection against the virus that can kill with so much as the touch of a doorknob, or passing through a room in which someone else has coughed. And they take their chances with death, because they must feed their families, but when they discover that the neighbours need vegetables, they bring some for them too. Adding at least four kilos to their already heavy burdens. Men who don't have big cars. Men who don't own the apartment. Men who need not do this, for it wasn't expected of them. To agree to spend an extra few minutes at the grocer's, to spare another family an outing that would expose them to greater risks - it may not be the same as going to war, but when life and health is at stake, it counts as heroism. Above all, it counts. 

Thinking of a madarsa during the lockdown

I walked away that afternoon with a heavy heart. When I looked around the building, I saw an open terrace where laundry was drying, and large rooms shared by several girls. This was not very different from the hostel I lived in as an undergraduate. It was just much poorer.

In college, I lived in a hostel administered by nuns. It was very strict. We were not allowed to step out without written permission nor receive visitors other than families. Meal timings were strict, as were bath times. The very taps were locked up and warm water rationed in winter. We were well fed, of course. Each of us had a bed to herself but we certainly didn’t have six feet of space between beds.

The madrasa was one tenth the size of the hostel I lived in, perhaps smaller. It didn’t have a vast campus attached or the real estate to allow sports. It certainly didn’t have the money for lessons in art. It probably didn’t serve pastries on Sunday afternoons.

I think of those little girls now, during this harsh lockdown. If, instead of four hours, the Prime Minister had given them four days’ notice, they still wouldn’t have been able to go home.

Read the full article here:

https://www.thehindu.com/society/how-can-a-poor-madrasa-magically-conjure-up-many-more-rooms-in-the-midst-of-a-lockdown/article31366116.ece

Thursday, April 09, 2020

A lockdown letter from where I am


My eyes barely left my phone screen. It was like being in a tunnel where the roof has fallen in, our collective hands bloodied from trying to dig out despite a lack of tools. All tunnels have ends, of course. Perhaps it will be three months, not three weeks. Or three years. Everyone says to brace yourself. On the other end of the tunnel could be a mess of an economy and millions of starving people with low immunity. And who knows what the spring harvest was like? How much were farmers able to store? Was the government able to procure enough grain?

It became impossible to read or write about anything outside of this. My mind turned circles around words like decency. Dignity. Equality. It returned to warm spots of memory—places blue and burnt sienna, sprawling libraries. It also sprang towards terrifying stories of famine from the last century.

For some reason, I also kept returning to the image of a maze: the Bhoolbhulaiya in Lucknow’s Bada Imambara. It is full of sunlight glancing off honey-tinted stone walls. People must have had a taste for perplexity back in the day. Perplexity can be charming, unlike the grim certitudes of a tunnel. Not everyone makes it out though. I caught myself thinking of a chakravyuh—a military formation whereby you are encircled and trapped. With surveillance and restricted mobility becoming acceptable in the name of public health, was this the beginning of something more dangerous, more discriminatory than a virus?

Read the full text here: 
https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/04/08/letter-from-mumbai-covid-19-coronavirus/ideas/essay/

Friday, April 03, 2020

Re-use, reduce, recycle

There's been this saree tag doing the rounds on Facebook. I was tagged too. I am not in a mood to post happy pictures. However, since many people here have spare time for reflection or experimentation or learning new skills, I'd like to tweak the tag and focus on how to shift our culture away from relentless consumption, especially of cheap garments. Excessive mass production of clothes means under-paid workers and a very polluted planet.

A lot of our habits of consumption come from our inability to refurbish and repair cloth. You can put it down to lack of time, but the honest truth is the most young people nowadays don't have the skills. There is zero respect for artisans' skills (because we consistently under-pay them and get away with it), and so middle class kids are not taught to sew, mend, dye, embroider, starch. We certainly do not know how to make paint or dyes. I was lucky to be taught the basics of sewing as a schoolgirl, and because I was interested, I also began to experiment a little with the sewing machine a few years ago. However, I didn't know much repair work and I didn't know how to dye.

Last year, I decided to teach myself. I upped and went to the market one day and bought some dyes, and a giant pateela (of the type you cook biryani in). I threw in some faded clothes that I would otherwise have given away. Because I had no instruction (except youtube videos) and because I didn't know enough about fabrics (what sort of cotton can take what kind of dye etc), I did make a mess of almost everything I attempted. However, this saree turned out okay enough for me to wear out to an event. (I do wear the ruined clothes too, within the house).

This saree was a cream organdy with applique booti work that had a tinge of maroon. My mother bought it in Lucknow, perhaps in the early '90s when organdy was still popular. She wore it until the hem was discoloured and fraying. The stiffness had also gone out of the fabric. Then, after some intense washing in the machine with multi-coloured clothes, it was marked with pink and blue splotches. So I decided to dye it a dark pink.

What I learnt through doing it is that, dyeing fabric is much harder than it looks. It is physically hard, being near a hot boiling vat for that long. If you use chemical dye, there are fumes (I didn't know better and will try to find organic dyes in future). One also needs a stick or stirrer of some kind and I didn't have one, so I used the broken leg of a chair. The stirring was hard too, and you have to be cautious to dip and move the fabric along carefully so that the colouring is even.

I actually did a shoddy job in that the fabric did not take the colour evenly. But that's not immediately obvious to anyone who isn't looking too closely. I wore it to work (a book event) and hoped nobody was looking too closely. If they were... well, you would have thought that I was wearing a faded old saree and that would be an absolutely correct deduction, of which I am not ashamed.

The blouse is old too, also belonged to my mother. It is also at least 20 years old and the fabric is fine.

I don't know if I'll wear this saree often, because I don't wear any sarees too often, but these five yards have served us very well. Perhaps I'll cut it up and turn it into something else later. A scarf, a dress, a curtain, a shirt, a dishrag?




In turn I've tagged friends who have successfully turned sarees into something else, or refreshed fabric instead of throwing it away and buying new stuff. Consider yourself tagged if you feel like it. And reduce, re-use, re-cycle.

Photo courtesy the TATA Litlive festival. I'm afraid I don't know the photographer's name. Happy to credit if you raise your hand.

P.S.: If you're wondering at my expression, this is me looking at Shanta Gokhale and wondering when I would grow up to be as lovely, as spirited and as smart as she is.












Thursday, April 02, 2020

When hunger is the tragedy...

My mother attempted to buy vegetables last week, right outside the gates of the housing complex, and she witnessed police officials preventing sales. A cart or basket had been overturned. Vegetables lay crushed in the dirt. She saw desperate folk picking up the damaged food when they thought the cops were not looking. Her recounting of this brief experience triggered something within me. That, and reports of migrant workers – suddenly out of work, hungry, and trying to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot.

I began to think of ‘The Song of Famine’, a long chapter embedded within a travelogue written by the French traveller Pierre Loti. India was published in 1901, just after a major famine had affected many parts of the country, Rajasthan in particular.

In the city of Jaipur, Loti documented what he saw:

“Servants lead tamed cheetahs belonging to the King through the streets. These are led on slips so that they may become accustomed to crowds, wear little embroidered caps tied under their chins with a bow…But there are also many hideous vagrants— graveyard spectres like those lying at the rampart gates. For these have actually dared to enter the rose-coloured city and to drag their skeletons through the streets. There are more of them than I should have thought possible…horrible heaps of rags and bones lying on the pavements hidden amongst the gay booths of the merchants, and people have to step aside so as not to tread upon them. These phantoms are peasants who used to live in the surrounding districts. They have struggled against the droughts which have brought destruction to the land, and their long agony is imprinted on their incredibly emaciated bodies. Now all is over; their cattle have died because there was no more grass, and their hides have been sold for a mere trifle. The fields which they have sown are only steppes of dusty earth where nothing can grow, and they have even sold their rags and the silver rings that they used to wear on their arms and ankles so that they might buy food…They thought that people would take pity on them, and would not let them die, and they had heard that food and grain were stored here, as if to resist a siege; they had heard, too, that every one in the city had something to eat. Even now carts and strings of camels are constantly bringing sacks or rice and barley that the King has procured from distant lands, and people are piling them up in the barns, or even on the pavements, in dread of the famine which threatens the beautiful city on every side. But though there is food it cannot be had without money…”



I began to read this chapter again once pictures and videos began to emerge of migrant workers and their families trying to leave cities after A sudden lockdown was announced to combat the ongoing Corona virus pandemic. People are heading back to villages where they hope to be fed. Perhaps they could live off the fruits of the land, if they have any, for a while. Perhaps they could shelter in a hut that’s not in an overcrowded slum. At the very least, if they die, their families will know what happened.

Read the full article here:
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