Friday, April 27, 2007

The man from Melbourne.

He began by asking for directions.

So many of them do that, that I almost didn't bother to turn my head towards the voice. And yet, it is not a nice thing not to give somebody directions, even if they are strangers, male, and even if it getting dark and you're walking alone.

So, I stopped when he said, 'Excuse me, do you know this area?'

'Yes. This is Lajpat Nagar' and I walked on.

He fell into step beside me.

'And where does this road go?'

'Lajpatnagar market in this direction, and if you go in that direction, there's Jangpura.'

Yet, he did not leave my side.

'And so... do you live in this area?'

I sighed. Any moment now, he would want to 'make friendship'.


'So... do you live in Delhi.'

My first instinct was to turn on him, tell him to get lost, not to follow me, yell at him. But one corner of my mind was asking me not to. Yelling would only confirm fear. Besides, perhaps, yelling was not called for. Relax, you can handle this. R.e.l.a.x.

Walking at a regular pace, I quickly swept the lane with a glance - some shops still open; some people still around.

He spoke again. 'So... where are you from?'


'Oh? I live in Australia.'

I suddenly wanted to laugh (but didn't). He was speaking in English, with an accent that bordered on American. The sort of accent I've heard often in Jaisalmer, mostly in the mouths of waiters who work in hotels frequented by American tourists. What did he hope to achieve by telling me where he lived, anyway?

'In Melbourne,' he offered.

I didn't say anything.

'So...where are you from?'


'Where are you going right now?'


No need to be rude. Just say 'no' nicely, if he asks.

And he asked. 'Would you like to be friends?'

Well, at least, it wasn't 'I want to make friendship'.




He kept walking beside me. Still, I told myself, there was nothing to be afraid of.

He said, 'But I want to be friends... I like your hair.'

And I couldn't resist saying, 'You choose your friends on the basis of hair?'

'Er, no. I mean, I like everything about you... your walk. Your looks.'

The accent had dropped off entirely by now. I've would've asked him his exact street address and phone number in Melbourne, but this was not the time. There were no rickshaws or autos in sight and I was beginning to worry.

'Do you work here?' he persisted.


'Where are you going?'


'Can I walk with you?'


Still, he continued to walk with me. And still no rickshaws to be seen.

'Why you don't want to be friends?'


The last few shops were downing shutters. The street was deserted.

'Can I have your phone number?'


Just when I thought there was no alternative to fury and bitter words, an auto appeared. And the man from Melbourne, melted away.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lest we forget

Poetry, it is said, is called into service when other, words fail you. When newspaper reports, essays, stories, conversation itself fails. Poetry speaks the unspeakable.

Gujarat. Five years ago, it turned into a word for which I have no words. Now that it is a time to remember, lest we forget, I turn to poetry. Hindi poetry. Or call it Hindustani poetry. There is a collection of poetry in two volumes, titled 'Das Baras - Hindi Kavita Ayodhya Ke Baad', a compilation of contemporary poems about the identity, about poetry, about writing and speaking up, fear, denial, love. The tragedy is that you could easily replace 'ayodhya' with 'gujarat'.

(Am putting up two poems; I can find no English translations on the web, and so am attempting rough translations myself. Let this be my way of remembering.)

Against Forgetting - by Manglesh Dabraal

Not the first, always the second
Second life, second light, always the second darkness
Because I am the second, not the first, each time the second
The first is always absent, always forgotten
The first is always lost, always missing, shifting places
I am the second, in the memory of the first, always taking his place
The first is always pulled down, destroyed
I am, like the remaining rubble, the second
The first is burnt, dead, always a corpse
I am the second, rising from the ashes of the first
Answering to the rollcall in his stead I am, I am, I say
I am the second, a foggy shape of the first, a feeling of the first
For I am not the first, but the second
The scream of the first, the grief of the first, the love of the first
An eternal calling out to the first, a second.


No poem is mine - by Bodhisatva

They wanted to measure
the depth of my eyes
with a trishul
my heart
with a spear.

They say
I must not love and
I must set my home alight
like a diya and perform an aarti
for them
and I must sacrifice my wife and kids to them
and sing their praises.
They say
I must salute them. Or
even better, not say anything at all,
give up my tongue in exchange
for the badge of life
and go about, happy. Or
better still, dig my own grave
and settle down in it
along with all my dreams.

They are dear to Khudaa
They are beloved to Bhagwaan
They are pure.

They make offerings to the sun.
The sun becomes theirs.
They bathe in the Ganga
The Ganga becomes theirs.
They run the country
The country becomes theirs.

I am asking, over and over
sleeping and waking, they keep calling me
an outsider
Does that make me one?

They want me to leave
my land, my possessions
my full moon
my sown fields and
the country dissolved in my blood.
They want me to say
that the Ganga is not mine
this country is not mine
But then,
the sunshine is not mine
the full moon is not mine
no poem is mine.

Monday, April 09, 2007

He, who weaves.

They opened the door reluctantly. I stepped inside the house hesitantly, prickling with the knowledge that I am not very welcome. Siddique sahab was aware too, but pushed ahead anyway. 'They need to speak up. Their ideas of diginity are secondary to the battle for survival.'

But how hard it is! Half-remembered stories came back to me - about the landed rich of the area who grew so poor that everything in the house was sold, and there was nothing to eat, but the old man of the house would still step out in his sherwani. Of people starving to death but nobody knowing because they would not speak of it.

It is not easy to speak of hunger. Especially for those who once had enough. The weavers of Varanasi once had enough. Now, they describe their handlooms as a sort of living grave.

The analogy is curiously fitting, you realise, when you see a 'workshop'. The looms are fitted into a hole in the ground. Take away the loom and it does look like grave.

The ground floor of the home of the Ahmeds had once been a busy place. There were four looms. There were employees. Nizam Ahmed took his sarees to the mandi, where customers and traders from near and far awaited the weavers. They were paid on the spot. Then, somehow, things changed. The 'mandi' no longer existed. Traders began to claim that the benarasi saree no longer sold. There was no demand. They could not afford to pay so much. The weavers, pushed to the wall, began to accept lesser and lesser. The sarees that once fetched them Rs 1500, now go for Rs 600.

The Ahmeds had shut the workshop up for the day when Siddique sahab knocked on their door, but they unlocked it for us to look inside. One loom had been dismantled long ago. Two lay silent as death. Only one was still strung with anticipation, looped with silk and silver and golden threads.

The son, Riyaz slipped into position and started work. The father brought out a bit of graph-paper on which a design was printed. This design can be the border or the 'booti' of the saree. The more elaborate the border design, the harder the weaver has to work.

I was somewhat awed to see what it takes to actually make a saree, a zari border, the simplest booti. The loom was strung and overhung with what looked like cardboard streamers with holes punched into them. Turned out, these bits of cardboard represented the border design. Imagine that each pixel on the design graph had to be represented in a linear fashion. Thousands of dots go into a pattern. Thousands of holes have to be punched into cardboard and strung together, and finally attached to the loom, with thread passing through the holes at the appropriate places. It takes weeks to just set up a handloom, if you're going to create a new, exclusive design. (This part of the contraption was invented locally, it is said.)

The hard work begins much earlier, though. Silk has to be acquired, skeins organised, rolled into spools etcetra etcetra. This too takes weeks, and is usually done by the wives and daughters of the weavers (it goes without saying that they are not paid and their labour is never taken into account).

And here, the young weaver's son sits, legs dangling in the mud floor. His fingers work swiftly, his eyes rarely the fabric that he creates, line by line by line. With a sort of awed fascination mixed with a tight-rolled terror in my heart, I watched. The endlessness of it. The spool moving from right hand to left and left back to right, the wooden loom making a dull racket, as rhythmic as a heartbeat. It would be easy to slip into a sort of trance here. And line by line by line, the fabric is created. Silk thread seems to be melting under his fingers. He pauses just an instant, replacing the silk with silver, then gold, then silver, then silk. And while I am talking to his parents, his grandmother, while I am listening to them speak of families mixing poison in roti and feeding it to hungry children, of widows of suicides making a barren living by cutting off the tiny rough edges on the underside of the embroidered fabric, of weavers not yet taking to crime of any sort - except one incident when a man snatched a bag of food from a passerby in the market - my eyes and ears stayed with that live loom.

And Nizam Ahmed was saying - "This saree will take us 15 days to make. I know I will not sell it for more than Rs 600."

Saying that it is not that the weavers don't want the market to change. "Tell us what the demand is like and we will meet that demand. Tell us what the international market wants, what people in Bombay and Delhi want. We will make it."

And Siddique sahab was telling me of how, when he visited weaver families and stayed overnight, they would often ask him to go and sleep in a neighbour's house. It took him weeks to realise that he was being sent away because the family had no food and so, sent him to the house that could provide dinner for a guest.

And I was wondering - how hungry do you have to be, before the hunger becomes official?
Weavers - about 5 lakh of them - living like this. And this family is better off than many others. In rural areas, artisans have simply taken to lifting mud at construction sites. Weaving brings nothing. There is nothing to weave.

But I am glad I came here. Glad that I was given a chance to see what six yards of Banarasi means. Glad that I can finally see the hope and time and blood and skill that go into line upon line of expensive weave.

I do not buy benarasi silk, and if I did, the temptation to buy cheap, to beat down the price would be great. But ever since I walked into that workshop, my attitude to clothes has changed. I can do with one good Benarasi saree; nobody needs fifty. If it cost me a month's salary, I'd happily pay up; I now know that it is worth every paisa.

I've begun to wonder if our inability to judge the true value for things has something to do with the fact that we don't have a clue about how they're made. We don't see fields. We don't have the stain of soil on our toes. We don't look at the sky with aching eyes and have terror sieze our soul each time cloud passes us by, each time the earth develops another crack. We don't know how each fibre is drawn out of our fingertips as a wheel turns between our knees. We don't know how yarn must be rolled over and over and over until the wrist turns into a numb machine, and we don't know of the pleasant shock of having one inch of silk and glittering thread forming suddenly a border, in such glamourous contrast to the cardboard festooning our heads. We don't know how things are made.

And so we stand at bazaar stalls, haggling about why a pair of leather jootis costs two hundred rupees, haggling about why a dupatta should cost three hundred, haggling about how a painted wooden doll can cost one hundred.

I wonder how much we'd think these things were worth if we had to make them ourselves. I wonder what price we'd put to a silk saree if we were born into the Ahmed household in Varanasi.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A personal LoC

A line of Control. A dress. A word. A slut.

It is not an easy admission to make, but I have used the word 'slut' whilst referring to another woman. And I have regretted using it.

In fact, I regretted using it within ten seconds of it having escaped my lips. It wasn't about what she wore. I wore less. It wasn't about make-up. She used none. In retrospect, it was about anger, and a shade of envy.

This is about four years ago. I was sitting around with a couple of young male friends. They were talking about the difficulty of getting girls to attend parties. They asked me, half joking, if I could get them through to some girls.

And stupidly, sanctimously, I shrugged and said, 'I don't know any girls who'd go out partying with strangers. Well, maybe I know one. She's a bit of a slut.'

The boys reacted unexpectedly. They exchanged glances and one said, 'Shhh. Don't ever use that word for a woman.'

My humiliation has rarely been so complete as it was in that instant.

What had been going on in my mind? Did I disrespect girls who went out with boys too soon? But I too have hung out with men, when introduced through other friends. What did I disrespect about the girl?

It took years for me to figure out what and why. I envied the girl a little. She did what she wanted. She seemed not to be afraid of being judged by her family or other people like me. It is a different story that a lot of her recklessness and defiance was rooted in her fear of being judged by her own city-bred peers, of not 'fitting in' in glamourous circles. But I did not judge her because of her fears; I judged her because of mine.

There was another reason why I was so flippantly moralistic. The man who shushed me had not been paying enough attention to me. And I craved his attention. I wanted to win his approval, somehow. To show that I was better than those 'easy' girls he hung out with. After all, all my life, I had been told that men like girls who play hard-to-get; that they respect girls with the hands-off approach.

Unfortunately, the effect was opposite to the one desired. But the good thing was that I was immediately chastened, and flung into (a miserable soggy pit of) self-reflection. Here was a man I liked and, in an uncomprehending, instinctive fashion, respected. And whose respect I may have lost.

I began to think about why I respected him - not because he partied, not because he swore and provoked and argued. Perhaps, because he was one of the few men I'd met who was neither awkward around me, nor aggressively friendly. He seemed to ask nothing of me and never crossed any lines - physical or social. Never once did I fear either him or his morality.

Never again has the word slut crossed my lips, or even my mind.

In fact, when a bunch of us journalists were outside a restaurant, an acquaintance leaned over and whispered - 'See those girls? They're sluts!' - I was surprised.

The women being referred to were in tight jeans, skirts and halter tops, lots of mascara, no male escorts.

I asked, 'How do you know?'

'It's obvious.'

I simply noted that the clothes were very smart, and considered asking them where they shopped.

'See! They're waiting to get picked up,' she continued.

'Are they?' I said, in a deliberately bored voice, and turned away.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A retraction

About two years ago, I had said some things about provocation (in a post titled ' Provocation', which then led to some very provoked comments).

I go back to it now because I have rethought the sexes, gender, bodies, public space, and also because, I was asked to think of 'crossing lines'. When it comes to clothes - attitudes, lifestyles, whatever - what amounts to a line crossed?

With reference to clothes specifically, back then, I had said that bodies - male or female - attract attention, and often admiration. To quote myself, "We do not like the way this admiration is expressed. But that is something we have no control over. There will be whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, the works...And yes, I don't think we have a right to stop this expression of admiration."

Two years later, I apologize. I no longer believe that. I especially retract 'the works' and that last sentence.

I believe (I think) that there is only so much we can do to control other people's reactions but we can try to change the reactions, the public space, and the attitudes that lead to unpleasant reactions. And we have every right to seek such a change, albeit as non-violently as possible.

At this point of time, I no longer believe in any fixed rules with reference to women's bodies and men's reactions. There was a time when I was conditioned into thinking that the responsibility (and fault?) for these reactions lay with a woman. I no longer think so.

I continue to have very mixed views about what exactly harassment is and whether irritants like comment-passing, whistling, song-singing, staring should be classified in the same bracket as pinching, grabbing or otherwise touching without permission.

I am aware that most of the time it is not worth my while to react violently to any of the former and that I will invariably react with a spontaenous burst of violence to the latter. However, if I was fifteen, and being followed by a man who kept passing comments that seemed threatening or intended to humiliate, I'd feel differently. I now recognize that language (singing, commenting etc is part of a public, gendered language) is a tool of aggression and dominance, a tool of power play. If somebody calls your mother a whore, and you beat him up, most people would understand perfectly and stand up for you. If some random man on the street calls you a whore, and you feel insulted by it, and beat him up, I would understand perfectly (even if I don't think that there's anything wrong with whores).

I still don't wear certain clothes in public. And I recognize that this is not always because I respect other people's sensibilities but because I am afraid of them. Afraid of what they will do to me. I do not wear spagetti-strapped tops to the local market or a backless dress in a rickshaw, not because I'm concerned about how I'm affecting the men out there, but because I'm afraid that if some blighted idiot decides to insult me or touch me without my permission, I will find myself isolated, and humiliated even further by the idea that the fault was mine.

I stand by what I said about us wanting to attract admiration, and wanting it only from certain men/women and not from others, and that class and race are huge factors here. But I retract what I said about being prepared for the impact our bodies have upon these 'others'.

I think that men have a right to 'look' if we happen to be in their line of vision. But they do not have a right to assume that a woman is available (even if she is stark naked), or open to insults, or that she will appreciate their admiration and attention. Unwelcome attention will simply provoke defensive-aggressive behaviour. And every woman has the right to define her own boundaries of (un)acceptable behaviour, and to defend those boundaries as she sees fit.

Apologies to the sisters I offended by my opinions earlier. I stand corrected, and wiser.
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