Thursday, February 23, 2006

Raj and my dilemmas

Ever since I met these women, I've been thinking about my 'bai'. The maid, the maidservant, the domestic 'help', the domestic worker, the kaamwali, the 'ponchhewali', the bai - the one woman we can't do without. Yes, we... all of us. All of us have complained about this woman. I did my share of cribbing. She didn't turn up on time. She didn't turn up at all. She borrows money all the time. She snoops. She gossips. She's asking for clothes. She's asking for more work. She is overpaid... Her name is, let's say, Raj. 

I do not have a close relationship with Raj. (She's my fourth, in a little over a year). Once in a while, she'll ask questions that I don't like answering, and my only defence is to start asking questions myself. Where do you live? What does your husband do? How many children? The usual... Raj tells me a story that's so familiar, I could just as easily have been talking to some other bai, in some other house, in some other city. Husband doesn't work. She doesn't mind... if he works, he drinks; if he drinks, he spends, and beats her. Sitting at home, he's quieter.... Brother-in-law works as a painter - no regular income... Three kids. One daughter who gets fits, fevers. The last time that happened, Raj took an advance on her salary. Since then, it's been one loan after another. For medicine. For her own landlords. For food. Turns out, she doesn't have a shack of her own. Not even in a slum anywhere. 

She used to live near a slum in Nehru Place. She even had a television set, some basic furniture. She could walk to work, or take a bus for Rs 2. Then, the slum was demolished. The television set was broken by the bulldozers. And Raj was moved far away - to some resettlement colony, where she pays rent. She tells me no house was allotted to her family. There is no question of finding work in that area - nobody can afford it. So, she spends Rs 14 every day on bus tickets. That's Rs 420 a month. If she brings her daughter along, it's twice as much. Raj must work in at least one house just to cover the cost of her commute! She needs to work for 3 others to be able to feed five other people (she always says 'five mouths to feed', I notice, never counting herself). Recently, she lost some work (I must admit that I have no sympathy for the latest; she claims to have quit work there, because 'all sorts of girls came... who knows if the man is even married to the woman...?') Now, my dilemma is this: I know Raj is paid the going rate, possibly more. We are paying her twice as much as some domestic workers get paid in Bombay.... but I also know she can barely survive. On the other hand, I cannot possibly afford to pay her more. I can give her small loans and forget about them... it's less than a good cup of coffee... but I barely make enough to survive myself. Yet, there's this core of disquiet somewhere inside me. Surely, all workers are entitled to minimum wages? Why isn't there a minimum wage for domestic workers? 

I ought to pay Raj a minimum wage. On the other hand, a minimum wage is based upon a day's work. A woman breaks stones under a hot summer sun, for eight long hours, and only then is she entitled to Rs 70 a day, (or Rs 80 or Rs 95, depending on which state she's in). How can I compare that to one hour of sweeping or washing clothes on alternate days? Besides, a day-wage labourer works on a given site all day, while Raj works at 4 different houses. Maybe she does make the equivalent of a minimum wage, from all sources. Maybe more. I could only think along minimum-wage lines if she was what we call a 'live-in maid', or worked in my house from morning to evening. There are very complex questions to contend with: How much is a fair wage? How much should a woman be paid for sweeping one room? What if the family lets her use a vacuum cleaner? How much for dusting? How much for sweeping everyday, and dusting once a week? How much for doing a thorough spring-cleaning once a week? Is this more difficult than the daily routine, or less? Which is why I am terribly interested in these developments

I am all for workers being organised and I am all for perks and benefits in addition to the basic pay, but the leaders of this union need to take a very close look at the various options open to them, before laying down their conditions. The demands seem, to me, to be paper-thin, and give rise to even more complex questions: If I offer medical benefits - would that mean a built-in extra in the pay-package, as is the norm - or would it mean that I must reimburse medical bills for my bai and all her dependents. What if she has six children and an alcoholic husband? Am I responsible for ALL their hospital expenses? If I allow a weekly day off (I do, incidentally), am I also allowed to cut pay when an extra day is taken as leave? What if there is a dispute? Will I have to maintain an attendence register? Will the bai sign in and sign out everyday? What if she is illiterate? Do I educate her? Is this part of my responsibility? How much of a bonus do I give her? Based on what? If I give her a bonus, I have the right to stop giving 'baksheesh' on Diwali, and Eid, and Holi and every other festival, or don't I? What if the bai brings her babies along? What if my house is too small to allow for kids to play about in it, without disrupting my work? If there is no creche in my area, who is going to be responsible for the kids? If my bai brings her daughter to work and makes her do half the work, do I have the right to tell her off, or don't I? The daughter is hers but the house is mine and I hired an adult, not a child. Can I accuse my bai of promoting child labour? How can I fix 'regularised hours' when I don't work regular hours myself? If the employer leaves for work at 8 a.m., is it unfair to expect the domestic help to turn up at 7 a.m.? I think the union leaders and the workers will have to think long and hard, before formulating the rules they want for themselves, and perhaps they should allow for a certain flexibility that the running of a household requires.

Limerick fun

This lady has a delightful take on the news and I've been meaning to link to her newsmericks blog for a while now.

I would also like to point to a hilarious thread of limericking banter, sparked off by one of Aparna's posts, on the subject of the blanket-ban on sex in the nude.

It begins with Aparna's:

It seems clerics are hotly debating
The right and wrong methods of mating!
Some have decreed it rude
To enjoy sex in the nude.
'Be modest, use a blanket', they are stating!

And sample this refreshingly honest one, by Manish Bhatt:

On nudity, the clerics might soften
And the debates might continue off-on
I say, then I repeats
I don't mind them sheets
As long as I can do it often.

There's other fun stuff there. Do go look, if you're limerickally inclined..

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Kathgulab was not an easy book to read, and it is not an easy book to describe. At best, I can describe how I dealt with it.

I can only describe how I found myself translating each line, turning the words over and over in my mouth, whispering them back to myself in three different tongues, and wishing hard that others could also read this book, wanting to thank Mridula Garg for having written it.... Why had no one told me about it before?

That said, I have to add that it is not what I would call a 'narrative masterpiece'.
It doesn't tell a damn good story. It doesn't build spectacular or unique protagonists. It doesn't have any set pace. It meanders, goes off at tangets. It is more like a shape-defiant matrix, than a narrative. In fact, even the ways in which the paths of the major protagonists criss-cross... all too pat, for my tastes.

But what Mridula Garg may ignore, by way of plot, she more than makes up for, in dissecting desire. These are not stories of people; not just that, at any rate. These are stories of an internal landscape, of philosophies, the routes they found and were betrayed by, and then, these are stories of their times.
Our times.

Garg has chosen five major characters - Smita, Aseema, Marianne, Narmada and Vipin.

The book itself is divided into five sections. One for each protagonist. However, though all of them begin in the first person, the narrative invariably switches to third person. Not that this annoys the reader in any way.... in the case of Smita, in fact, Garg switches to third-person for a definite reason... 'it is easier to pretend it is all happening to somebody else, isn't it?'

Smita is the one who has memories of a kathgulab (wood-rose).
(Having never seen one, I found it hard to absorb the redolence of the first few pages, given over to the flower - the unusualness, the fragility, the eternity, the sudden flowering, the black-hearted seed.... I struggled at first, also because I read the book in the original Hindi, which one reads rarely. But by the time I touched the seventh page, I found myself tied to this tale.)

Smita's account - written in the same distracted vein in which it might have been conceived - is wrapped up in memories of a Kathgulab bush that she once grew. She has many memories... Memories that jumped between decades, years, across continents, between now and then and here and nowhere. Memories that are suspect - may not be memories at all. Smita is the one who chooses a plant for a best friend in a foreign country, and almost has a nervous breakdown when autumn gives way to the white tomb of winter.

Marianne tells you about intellectual rape. Marianne is the one who recognizes the essential unity of women across ages and times (she herself is all women), but also recognizes that each one is different. She is the one who discovers that creation is the real instinct, reproduction is but a manifestation of this instinct.

Narmada is the domestic slave. The orphan. The one who is so fascinated by a word like 'jhenp' (embarassment) that she thinks it would be nice name for a daughter. The one who knows when she is being used, and will no longer let herself be used - not even by the newspapers. She, for all her lack of education, sees the irony of people refusing to give a beggar-child a coin, but spend happily enough on books or papers that tell stories of destitution.

Aseema has a violent streak - the overwhelming desire to beat up every man she meets. If not through her karate chops, then using her sharp tongue, her rationale. She refers to her father as 'haraami number 1', and her brother as 'harami number 2'. (Gradually, she demotes her poor father to 'harami number 25', as life introduces her to newer forms of masculinity). She is the one with the courage to set her own aspirations free - change her name from Seema (boundary/limit) to Aseema (the one with no boundaries).

Aseema is the one with the clarity to see that the urbal 'liberal' feminists have a vested interest in limiting poor women's formal education (who'd do the dishes, then?)
And Vipin - the only male protagonist, and the only one who is not a 'haraami', even Aseema is willing to concede. The man who believes that if there is anything which is eternal, all-emcompassing, indivisible, formless, complete - it is pain. Sorrow, then, is his God. And he spends his life escaping this divine ideal: no love, no marriage... But then, he wants a baby, after all. And for that, he needs a woman.... a young woman at that.

For me, all these characters and their stories are significant because the questions they grapple with are my questions. Faith, human nature, gender, rights, instinct, children... eternity, divinity, memory, inevitablity.
Kathgulab confronts these... no, it bring you to these questions... and leaves you there. At your own personal crossroads.

The Oscars represent...

"....a long-standing myth that Hollywood is in the business of making great—and original—movies.
This illusion, like all successful deceptions, requires misdirecting the audience's attention from reality to a few brilliant aberrations.

Take this year's Best Picture nominations: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Munich, and Good Night, and Good Luck. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing to do with the real business of the Hollywood studios. For Hollywood to choose them as a public display of its virtue is almost as absurd as international oil companies presenting awards to avant-garde artists who happen to paint in oil...."

My feelings exactly!

Read the whole thing here

A lesson in writing

Came across this article, about clean water legislation in the US... I'm not writing about it because the law or the environment interests me, but because I like the way this piece is written.

Look at how the writer begins on a personal note... he's talking about grandmothers!

"The great comfort of visiting the Supreme Court is that nothing ever changes there, so there is nothing to see..... Duck in to "watch" an oral argument, and you have that cozy familiar feeling of visiting your grandma: Close your eyes and you know just where the porcelain ballerina is, which is why today's visit feels like a trip to grandma's, except for some reason the couch is on the roof...."

By the end of this paragraph, the reader (speaking for myself) is won over. At this juncture, the writer could go on to discuss the most irrelevant law on earth, but the reader would listen; because our sensibilities have been softened up, made receptive.

Then, just as swiftly, the writer goes on to explain, in very simple terms, what the law is about, and what the crux of the present legal argument is.

How I wish people wrote about laws in such familiar, easy-going ways, in India. I have not seen many legal correspondents describe the ambience or debate the procedure of the courtroom.
How much do we really know about the Supreme Court? Our apex judicial body is a stranger to us. Words like 'judicial activism' are tossed around. There are interviews with newly-appointed and outgoing Chief Justices... or with retired judges heading special commissions of enquiry (which I cannot understand, by the way; you retire because the government believes you can no longer perform as well as you used to, right? Then, how is it that the most serious crimes - genocide, state-sponsored human rights' violations, multi-crore scams - are entrusted to the care of these retired people?)

Our newspapers and magazines carry reports, true (well, some of them are true), but...
but where's the texture, the sensousness of the report? Where's the person behind the column, and the persons he/she's coming across, writing about? I see journalists in newsprint. But where have all the writers gone?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bittersweet victory

"Early last year, 1,600 women, all of them health workers at two Cumbrian hospitals, won the biggest ever equal pay deal: a total of £300m. At a time when the pay gap between men and women is actually growing, the settlement should have sparked a clamour for equality. Instead, there has since been an eerie silence.... the ramifications of it just too enormous - what would happen if it triggered equal pay claims across the whole of the public sector?"

And further:

"Union hierarchies may be reluctant to follow the example, but not veteran employment lawyer Stefan Cross, who..... offering to take no-win-no-fee cases for women who feel they've been failed by their unions. "I scratched my head trying to work out why unions were taking such a bizarre and intransigent position: they were lining up with the employers against women"."

Read the whole story.
It ends with a lawyer saying "It's the best buzz in the world."
Somebody kidnap those lawyers and bring them to India!

Not quite the deal I want

When I was growing up, I was given to believe that - as a girl - I'd got the best deal possible, being born into Islam.

Which other religion allows divorce? Allows remarriage for widows and divorcees. Makes sure that women get an equal share of the property. Provides for 'meher' which would permit a woman to either invest the money, or survive for a while, after a divorce. It even allows 'Muttah' ceremonies, a temporary alliance. And guess what, you actually need a woman's consent, before she's married off.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

It took me the last decade to discover how things really workd.

Sure, divorce is permissible, but only if the man is asking for it. A woman has to opt for a 'khula'. (And I know of several mullahs who think khula is not an option.) I have attended a few weddings. Nobody sits down with the bride and tells her of her rights. No mullah thinks it fit to tell the girl that - if she hates the man - she can exercise her right to 'khula'.

Muttah, of course, has been reduced to a 'shia thing'. Even amongst Shias in India, it is spoken of in whispers, redolent with contempt. Try asking for a six-month contract marriage, and see if the family agrees. See, if fact, if you can find any well-known maulana to officiate at a muttah ceremony. You'd have to bribe them to sign the papers. [It is interesting to note, in this context, that as far as I know, (correct me if I'm wrong) any children born of a Muttah arrangement remain with the wife.]

As far as property is concerned, I come across people who say that they've already spent the daughters' share of the property for her wedding and her dower. They don't ask the girl, of course, whether they should spend it thus, or not.... In any case, find me 100 muslim women in any Indian town who got an equal share of the family property, and I'll eat my words.

The insititution of meher has also been turned into a cruel joke. For one, it is hardly ever handed over at the time of the ceremony - which would enable the wife to invest it, save it, use it to develop her own business or something. If it is given at all, it is given at the time of divorce. But, the amount decided on remains the same, not accounting for inflation in the interim period.

No one seems to be agreed on how much of a meher is justified and fair to both parties. For instance, three generations ago, my grandmother's generation settled for no less than Rs 51,000 as meher. This would be some 70 years ago, when a small family could survive on as little as Rs 25 a month. Now, I hear of educated, 'well-settled' urban families refusing to pay even Rs 14,000. In fact, I know of one maulana in UP who refuses to officiate at weddings, if the meher is more than than Rs 31,000.

How long would Rs 31,000 last, if a woman finds herself out on the streets one stormy day?

(May I add, at this juncture, that such maulanas do not have an upper limit on their own income and are known to jet-set round the world, all expenses paid. Nor have I eer heard any maulana insist on low-key celebrations so that the bride's family is not burdened; nobody sees it fit to enforce the rule that it is the groom's family which must make all the preparations for the wedding.)


Even if I were to ignore these anomalies, and put them down to faulty implementation rather than irrevocable laws that have outlived their use, yet, there are some things that bothered me intensely.

One, that men were allowed to have four wives.
Second, that although divorce was permitted, the children remained with the father.
Third, that women were supposed to observe purdah.
Four, adoption is not allowed.

My grandpa explained the first away by pointing out that it became inevitable in those times - war was a permanent reality of those times and there just weren't enough men to go around (not to mention that with their weak immunity systems and their penchant for hunting down disaster wherever it lurked, many boys just didn't survive to a reproductive age). He said this would happen in all societies wherever the gender ratio was upset.
And he was right, perhaps.

However, by those standards, now that the gender ratio is not skewed against men, it is high time the laws changed.

Now, I have nothing against polygamy. I'm all for men having four wives, or a dozen, as long as I have the same rights.

That is not possible, my mother tells me, because then nobody would know who was having whose babies. How would you know who the father is?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the matter.

Islam is unfair to women simply because it assumes that it actually matters who your father is. It is built on a patriarchal, patriliear premise.

I could easily say "Why do men need to know? None of their business...", but clearly, the men would not agree. Which is why polyandry is unacceptable in most modern societies.

Many tribes have a tradition of polyandry, which is where the legend of Draupadi springs from. There are several civilisations where both polygyny and polyandry are practised, and no, there is no great bloodbath as a result. No social chaos.

The children?
Why, they belong to the mothers, of course!

And that is the key to my second grouse.

This is not about taking each other to court, and deciding who would be a better parent. This is not about allowing visitation rights, or even about property disputes. This is simply a rejection of the woman's claim on her children.

(Of course, this is not just limited to Muslim women. Some of my Hindu girl-friends are trapped because of the kids. But they do have the option of fighting it out in court. As long as the current religious laws exist, Muslim women don't have that option.)


Which brings me to adoption.

If adoption was permitted, if children could take on the name of the adoptive father, or even (gasp!) adoptive mother, then the whole edifice on which your marriage laws are based, crumbles...

If an adopted child can inherit your property, take on your name, then he/she is as good as a from-the-womb child. There would be a large percentage of people who would adopt, because they want kids, but not a marriage. And if this trend caught on, it would soon cease to matter who gives birth to whom.

Which would also explain India's laws which do not permit a single man to adopt. There's a built-in assumption that a man needs a wife. In many western countries, single women aren't permitted either.

And yes, I meant what I just said: single women/men are not permitted.
When a country frames a law (and continues to accept that law) saying that a man/woman are not allowed to raise a child alone, that is as good as saying that it does not approve of a person's single status. (After all, there's no law against widows or widowers raising kids by themselves). By default, this translates into social pressure, a denial of parenthood, an unhappy singledom.


And finally, there's my anger about the purdah. Or the hijaab.

Grandpa, that kind soul, tried to explain that away too.
He told me - Think of the desert. Think of how people in Jerusalem dressed. Look at pictures of Mother Mary. She could have been a Muslim, right? EVERYBODY was fully covered, head to toe. Everybody had a head-dress, even the men.
He was right, perhaps.

That doesn't explain why the Book has special injunctions for women. Why does it insist that we dress 'modestly', while making no such provisions for men?

My Grandpa, poor man, tried to take a liberal view of 'modesty'.

He said - in western cultures, modest clothing is very different from what we think appropriate. A bikini is perfectly appropriate for a beach, for instance... but they would think it scandalous if a woman went to work in a backless choli.
He was right, again.

But now that cultures are morphing, the worlds are shifting and values are transcending geography, why must we be bound to the modesty of a desert?

Besides, men in desert lands have long abandoned their head-coverings and their flowing robes. They don't get shot in the knees for wearing jeans, do they?

In my opinion, if protection of women is the issue here, why don't you just put a chastity belt on the men? Wouldn't that make more sense?

This is where religion kicks us in the stomach.

You don't get any answers except "The religion says so, so it must be done!"
You cannot argue: religious laws are immutable. The books cannot be rewritten and you cannot play prophet.

And that leaves you in the nowhere land of bitterness, disillusionment and an irrational desire to round up all the mullahs and maulanas in the world, and force them to live in a woman's body for the rest of their lives.... the thought brings much comfort, you know.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I've been watching the cartoon tamasha for several days now, and not blogging about it because I was afraid to.

I was tempted to say a lot of things - to say that this was just the sort of reaction that would confirm the stereotype about the 'Islamic world'... that muslims were already isolated enough as a group - and just look at that term 'Islamic world'! As if muslims occupied another planet. As if this earth, this society wasn't theirs.

To say that, for God's sake, don't be reactionary. Don't stamp around and get worked up so much that your kids go blowing themselves up. Don't go burning embassies, or next thing you know, another country will get invaded. Spare your fellow-muslims the 'fundamentalist' tag.

I was also tempted to not say anything and pretend it had nothing to do with me. Because I do not subscribe to the view that Mohammad, or any other prophet (or God or Goddess, even if they are depicted nude - should not be drawn or painted or sculted or whatever. In fact, if anyone did a brilliant nude sketch of Mohammad, I'd buy it... that my personal faith tells me, even Mohammad would buy it!)

But then, I am not of the view that religion is a given.
Rules can and should change. Books - even if they come fluttering down from the heavens, page after sacred page - can and should change. Islam is not given to me. OR to you. It is ours to keep, to change, to mould, to metaphorose into and out of, to make it personal, to reject what we think is false, as strongly and as unhesitatingly as we reject 'false gods' (whatever they be).

So, I took two long weeks to take a look at the offending cartoons.

I found them... tasteless. Not offensive, no... after all, something can only be offensive if you allow yourself to get offended. But something can be in poor taste.

And I'm not just refering to the moral/social aspect of taste. After all, a cartoon is meant to be funny. A cartoon is meant to raise laughs. What, I ask, is funny, in this? Or this?

A cartoon in a newspaper is meant to be something else too - apart from humour, it is supposed to say something about our world, our times. It can take a dig at the rich, famous, powerful, popular, or anybody who's in the news for the wrong reasons.

I am just very curious about why this editors of the Danish newspaper thought it important to test 'free speech/expression' through Mohammad. He is one religious figure - one of many. But it very very rare for any publication anywhere to depict religious figures as terrorists, even in a mock-serious vein.

I am not about to say idiotic things like 'why didn't they try Jesus or Moses cartoons and we'd see how many people laughed.' ... It makes no sense to say such things, because what's done is done, and it would be disastrous to publish more tasteless - and possibly incendiary - cartoons, just to make things equal.

But I would like to know why the newspapers editors picked Mohammad. What was going on in their heads? Were they trying to prove a point? To whom? To the 'Islamic world'? What did they expect - roses on Valentine's Day?

And if the intent was merely to shake things up a little, shake people up, generate some debate around freedom of speech and expression, why didn't they do a little research and find out how free speech had been throttled in various countries - both east and west, developed and developing? They'd have had many other figures to lampoon, and could at least have saved themselves the ugly tag of 'racist' or 'communal', which is a term the Indian subcontinent is only too familiar with.

To those who're protesting themselves hoarse around the world, I'd like to tell them a little story my mom told me when I was little:

Mohammad was not universally loved when he was alive; not even by the Arabs. Where he lived, he was often abused and threatened. There was one woman, in particular, who hated him and took great joy in insulting him on a daily basis. Whenever he walked past, she would bring the garbage can to the balcony and would empty the contents on Mohammad's head.
Mohammad would say nothing. No shouting. No abuse in kind. AND he continued to take the same route everyday.
One day, the woman did not show up to thrown garbage. Nor the next day. Nor the next.
Mohammad began to worry.
So one day, he climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of the house. Then he asked, 'You didn't throw garbage on my head today, so I thought I'd come and ask if everything was alright... is your health fine?'
As it turned out, the lady had indeed been sick. And as it turned out, again, the lady was won over in a way that no amount of screaming and shouting would have achieved. Needless to add, the garbage-assaults stopped.

I don't know if the story is true. I don't particularly want to know. For me, what is important is that I have been shown a way - an example has been set. You can either do as the prophets did, live as they lived, or you can scream and burn and beat your breasts because somebody else is being stupid.

[This is an interesting article citing the position some journalists in muslim-dominated nations have taken.]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


I have a new pastime since going to Punjab: turban-watching.

All these years, I've grown up thinking that there are two kinds of Sikh turbans - one for the boys, one for the men.

The boys would have turbans shaped like an overturned bowl with an orange on top of it.
The men wore something that reminded me (in profile) of a submarine rising up out of the sea, or ( frontal view ), of crossed swords, in cotton sheaths.

Now, I notice that there are at least a dozen variations on the theme.

There's the turban that is more like a boat than a submarine - flat along the upper edge, and rounded on the lower edge (covering the ears).

Then, there's the type that's like a large muffin - round, a gently mound at the top, leading to a tight slope down the sides.

And the whole-cake turban. Which is perfectly round and rather flat-topped, with the ears exposed... some of the girls also wear something like this.

Then, there's a twisted-but-firm turban that makes me think of a large croissant.
The taller ones are often seen on the priests at the Gurudwaras.... They remind me of a tea-cosy. (You can tell I'm hungry right now, can't you?)

There's also the roughly-wound, loose-limbed turbans that several men in the villages wear. This is my favourite turban, incidentally. There's a certain casual ease about it, a certain lack of attitude, an unself-consciousness. These are often in checked, cheaper fabrics, and are often worn by working classes - agricultural labourers... cart-drivers... cattleherds.
(Rather telling, isn't it, that I can't find a single picture to link to, through I've trawled through the google image search for over an hour).

Somebody called Paipa Ram

In Jodhpur, or an hour's drive away, I met a man called Paipa Ram.

Paipa Ram has Silicosis. Certified Silicosis... That's a very hard thing to have, you know... a lot of people in a lot of mines have Silicosis, but being a certified victim to a fatal, industry-specific disease is a special thing. That's why I went to meet him.

But what I found, on that racked body, was more than just a respiratory disease. He had deep wounds, and small round scars, all over his back, lower chest and stomach.

When I asked how this happened, he answered me with a slow rocking laugh that soon turned into a long coughing session. "Keelein", he finally gasped out.

Keel. Iron nails. The large kind you hammer into walls to hang pictures upon.

'Keelein?' I stared at him, looking every bit as dumb as I felt.

That set him off again. He laughed and coughed, and coughed and laughed, until all I could hear was that rasping cough and mirthless noise against a backdrop of an awful, dust-laden silence.

It turned out, he suffered terrible pains in the abdomen, and his belly was slightly swollen, though the rest of his body was very thin. So, the local medicine-man punctured holes in his body, with hot iron nails...

I stared horrified, as Paipa Ram pulled up his vest and showed me the various puncture marks.

When I found the words, I turned to his friend, who was a little more educated, and a member of the mine-workers' union. "Why don't you go to a good doctor? A hospital?"
He simply told me that there is no doctor, no hospital.

There isn't even a primary health centre in this region. There is nobody to deal with one ordinary tummy-ache. Who would deal with Silicosis? Who would certify a certain death? Who would try and stall it?

Paipa Ram doesn't expect to live. He said as much. When he told me that he was going to die, I remembered with a sudden stab of guilt, that man called Ram Jiyawan.
This is how Ram Jiyawan looked.

Following the story, some activists who were traveling through Shankargarh, stopped to check on him. They called me back later to tell me that Ram Jiyawan is now dead.
Dead. And I feel the guilt that does not belong to me.

Jodhpur is rumoured to have 7500 mines, large and small, legal or illegal. And Jodhpur is only one mining of the state's districts. Besides, these are only sandstone quarries. The dust is damning here, but not as bad as silica quarries, where respiratory disorders settle in after a decade. And nothing as bad as the quartz mines, where people die within two or three years, even if they've been exposed to the fine silica crystals, for only a couple of months.

In Gujarat's quartz factories, most of the workers are migrants. Tribals from Madhya Pradesh. From poor regions like Jhabua who are so desperate that they continue to work, ignoring the fact that at least 400 of them have died in recent times. Local doctors and activists have been surveying these workers who go to work in the factories of Balasindur (Balasindhur?) and Godra (Godhra?) are known to employ mostly migrants - for about Rs 300 a week.

No local Gujarati labourer would work for so little. And no tribal has enough, to be able to refuse this money. Not even when they know they might die.

Oh yes, there are medical reports. There are post-mortem reports. There is evidence.
But there is no conviction. And there is no action by the state. No enforcement of safety norms, nor any compensation for those who work in such hazardous industries.

And I can't help wondering... why is the state so silent? Is it not the responsibility of the state government to intervene in some way? The Gujarat government? The Madhya Pradesh government? The central government? Somebody?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Kali ghodi dwaar khadi

The Kalaghoda Gazette for those who can't be there, or those who were there but still want to read about it, or those who just generally like blogger's take on things, this is a wonderful space to check out, for the duration of the Kalaghoda Festival... Pity this is only a limited edition Blogette.

(The title of this post, incidentally, is a Hindi film song, also a traditional thumri number; the kali ghodi arriving at your doorstep represents a bridegroom's baraat arriving, to take away the bride, but in sufi literature/music, it also represents the beloved/God arriving, to take over/take away the devotee's soul.)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Questions, questions

How do you react to a man who is lying in hospital, minus three limbs?

How are you supposed to look when you step into the government hospital's trauma ward? Are you supposed to look extra-cheery, or deferentially sombre? Are you supposed to sit down beside him, and talk of the incident, in great detail, or are you going to stand awkwardly, say commiserating nothings and then go away, because... what can anyone say anyway, under the circumstances?

And what do you do when the man begins to sing? When you can see he's still a relatively young man, with only the first few lines forming on his forehead. A still-young man with a lean, tanned body, eight children, a strong sense of pride, and a strong, singing voice? What do you say when he sings an old pheri-wala's song: a woman's song, telling the bangle-seller to go away and peddle his wares elsewhere, because the man is dead, and his wife cannot buy these bangles.

How do you react when you meet his daughter, a girl who was gang-raped when she was still a schoolgirl? What sort of questions are you supposed to ask?

There was one part of me that didn't want to meet these people. That part was hoping that they'd (whoever 'they' were) protect the girl from people like me, from a city-dwelling mediaperson who arrives with a camera and notebook and asks intrusive questions.

But ultimately, there was nobody to protect either of us - her from my questions, or me from my dilemmas.

So, I sat there in the brick-paved courtyard of the office of the CPI (M-L) Liberation (incidentally, the only political outfit who has been supporting the family and spearheading the subsequent protests), across from the girl - now married, and carrying a baby in her arms - and her mother.

The winter sun was a little too harsh, and we were squinting at each other. At first, I just sat there, pen and notebook in hand, unable to begin. The first few questions were asked by the human rights' team who was visiting the place as well. I just took notes silently, and when, during a lull in the conversation, they all looked at me, I could only ask, "How old is the baby?"

Slowly, we began to talk.
Not of the rape. Only of court decisions, appeals, convictions, testimonies. Only of the pressure from the rapist's clan to withdraw the case. Only of the consequences of her father's fight, which led to his losing both arms, and a leg. And she told me she was not going to change her statement, not for love or money - "I'm not going to sell my father's faith."

And my mind wanders to Zaheera Shiekh and her ever-changing statements.
And back again to this girl - A baby to think of. A marriage to build. A father in hospital, incapacitated for life. Seven siblings. A mother who has already suffered a paralytic attack on one side.

Where does the courage come from?

And later, writing the story, one corner of my mind was telling me leave her out of this. Don't quote her. Don't use her real name... but she's already stronger than that. She's been strong enough to stand up on a stage, during a protest rally, and speak of the rape and the aftermath. She doesn't need me to protect her anonymity. She wants justice, not anonymity.

This once, I was rescued. I was spared from grief and tertiary guilt through the courage of this man and his daughter. But I will face the same dilemma a thousand times. One corner of my mind will always heave an extended sigh of relief when I do not have to deal with the victim. When I do not have to confront the ugliness of the human race, in the form of damaged lives, bitter memories. When I do not have to ask myself questions to which there are no answers.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Salescows and such

Prakriti has some very interesting perspectives on salespeople and cows.

There is a huge cow in Jind, a large town in Haryana, which enterprisingly enters all shops on a particular street in the evenings, literally makes all the right noises, gets food, chomps it calmly, and then moves on to the next shop.... She was the best salesman (woman? Cow?) I saw on that visit, and I met quite a few. She got what she wanted, most of the times on a push, gave a feeling of satisfaction and happiness to the ones she raided, AND gave a boost to a totally third industry, generating goodwill all along the chain.

What is truly impressive is that this is not a post, but an official sales report. Do read it here.
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