Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two points of madness

Two points quickly made themselves apparent in the wake of the recent madness that was the attacks on Mumbai, starting November 26th. One, people – articulate, moneyed, powerful people – are upset and frantic to ensure that something like this does not happen again. This, I understand.

What I do not understand are certain extreme, juvenile and surprisingly lazy demands from grown-ups who should be able to think through the consequences of their words.


Such a word, this one. We use it during cricket matches. We use it to describe a counter-terrorism operation. We use it to describe a terrorist strike. We use it to describe a verbal spat. We use it to describe separatist movements. We use it to describe non-separatist armed conflicts. We use it to describe breaking marriages.

War. On the front pages of the newspapers, everyday. Editorial teams putting together a checklist of things we should do to our neighbours. American politicians helpfully announcing in public that India plans to strike terror camps inside Pakistan (gee thanks!). Calls for compulsory military training... The rationale for these howls for war is that we are already at war and since we appear to have leads that point to a Pakistan-based terror group’s involvement, we should go invade the country. The ‘teach them a lesson they won’t forget’ rationale.

I sometimes wonder if this generation, the one that has not really lived through a real full-blown war, has begun to crave one. One of those things. Like disaster tourism, crisis tourism, the need to experience the thing physically. There was Kargil, but then Kargil was so far away. An inaccessible spot where the only people really threatened were the guys in uniform and the poor locals who had nowhere else to go. We saw the coffins on TV. We heard the boom-boom. But it wasn’t tangible, was it?

I remember asking my family about war once. I asked them for their memories because I had none. They all wrote back with faint, brushing encounters. The 1962 war. The 1971 war. My grandmother, knitting for the soldiers. Black paper on the windows. Windows tightly shut, dim lighting. Rationed sugar. Food rations. Strangers showing up at school to take kids away from the classroom, under the pretext of war.

And that was then. Before either nation had the nuclear option. Even if we don’t nuke each other, can you even imagine what a modern war would be like?

When the city was attacked by ten men with rifles and bombs, who were firing randomly, upon people of all religions and nationalities, we felt like the whole city was being held hostage. We hated the fact that other people died. But more than anything else, we hated the fact that we couldn’t go on living. That we were forced to be afraid. Afraid of eating out, taking a train, afraid of just being you and not knowing why you are a target. And if I was scared then, I am terrified now, when my country seems to be dragged towards the brink of war. Yet, I notice a glibness sneaking in, an easy, childlike enthusiasm for some fireworks. A 'War, finally!' attitude.

Can you imagine war, I want to ask people? Cowering inside your own house, perhaps feeling it shake, sticking black paper on windows, feeling like a target, day and night. Do you not understand the concept of ‘carpet bombing’ and ‘civilian targets’? Do you think that, while our soldiers are sent off to do battle at the borders, we will be able to sit around sipping coffee, making music, shopping at Linking Road? Do you think Bombay (or Delhi or any other major city) will not be a target? Can you imagine how afraid you will be then, because your kids are in school and you won’t know whether you should just pull them out until things are better, or what? Can you imagine contemplating a pleasant stroll down to the sea when there are bombers flying past, inches away from your bedroom window?

Three nights of a crisis, more or less in a limited part of South Mumbai, and we had an emerging black market for drinking water! And you want this country to go to war?

Who are we fooling about the real purpose of such a war? It is an extremely juvenile imagination that assumes that the extremist outfits based in Pakistan will be sending their cadre to enlist as jawans. It will be the same poor lot on that side, fighting because someone else has called for a war. It will be their little babies at risk. Their farms and schools and hospitals and hotels. And because we are such kindred cultures, they too will have people selling food and fuel on the black market. Probably drinking water too. And, I suspect, they will also try smuggling sugar across the border.

War, they want! War with who? The extremists across the border have been bombing their own country, for god’s sake! Those who came with bombs didn’t come in the name of a neighbouring country. They came from the nation called the lust for power, the nation of the psychologically damaged, whose leaders rarely sign up for suicide missions.

The truth is, people are calling for war because war is easily spoken of, and rarely experienced. All those people who are talking about aggressive action and military training, will they also agree to a compulsory stint in the armed forces? Will they let their children be put into uniform and sent off marching to lob a grenade or two across the border? Nobody minds getting a little toughie training. It adds to our sense of security. But just take a look at the composition of our armed forces. Take a look at what percentage of our officers come from the elite 1%, or even the upper middle classes. Take a look at the average soldier and what sort of options he had and why he signed up at all. He isn’t looking to save our collective backsides. He doesn’t lunch at the Oberoi and he sure as hell does not want to go to war. He’ll go if he has to, but I think he would appreciate it if we don’t sacrifice his head to humour a nation’s hurt ego.

And since we are on the subject of nations, there is that other point of madness: the calls for boycotting of elections, or worse, the notion that our cities and states are better off being ruled by CEOs. Corporates. Because ‘politicians’ are filthy so and sos, and we don’t want any of them.

If there is anything that scares me more than talk of war, it is this sort of talk that wants us to renege on our pledge to ourselves. To stop being a democracy. To turn into a theocracy or a collective of monarchies.

What on god’s earth is this ‘India’? A nation of what? A democratic nation? A sovereign, secular, socialist republic? That was the idea, yes. And look what we’ve done for over sixty years. We voted for religion. We voted for caste. We voted for sub-caste. We voted for class and privilege. We voted for whoever our parents or in-laws voted for. In short, we voted for ‘us’. That is, when we bothered to vote at all.

And now you have the gall to say: vote for ‘nobody’!

Why? Didn’t like your mug in the great national mirror called parliament? The Lok Sabha, the Vidhan Sabha, the city councils, the municipality: this is our face and if it smells like our unwashed armpits, it is because we like to bury our smuggy faces in our armpits so often.

I overheard a conversation in the train, recently. One woman telling another (in the first class compartment) that they should make friends with a third girl, who happens to work with the railways. Because, just in case they ever got caught ticketless, they could call her up and ask her to speak to her railways colleagues and get them off the hook. This is us. This isn’t our bureaucrats or our politicians. Us.

I am both appalled and wearied by the incessant chant, calling for heads to roll in the government, the police and intelligence. This blaming of politics and bureaucracy is just extremely lazy talk.

How blind are you that you cannot see that those heads are really ours? Our states, our cities already have CEOs. They are called ministers. The only difference between a minister and a corporate-style CEO is that the latter pretty much owns you, and you have almost zero power over him. He can fire you. You cannot fire him. Is this what we want India to become? A place where some rich dude rules us, can get rid of us, can silence us, and we cannot do anything to dislodge him?

If we don’t want this, then why do we keep saying it? Why have we gotten to the point that we cannot admit to ourselves that we are actually afraid of our responsibility in this great, big (and yes, flourishing) democracy?

We are, politically speaking, such an ignorant country that it makes me cringe to think of it. Forget elections. Many of us cannot even name our own prime minister and president and the local councillor or MLA. The vast majority of this country simply does not know! A lot of this has to do with illiteracy, yes, but a lot of it also has to do with not wanting to know. And it’s not just the poor and the illiterate. It is because anyone who can afford to takes pride in saying ‘Oh, but I am not a political person’. We want to cut ourselves off from the business of running a nation, or a city. We want the government to function like some sort of sub-contractual service provider. We don’t have leaders because we don’t want leaders. We wanted thekedaars; we got thekedaars!

Which is why I am doubly disturbed by this ‘vote for nobody’ campaign. Yes, I heard about 49O, and I know it is supposed to pressurize our political parties into choosing better candidates. But I am deeply concerned about the language used. To encourage people to vote in patterns that ensure that no clear winner emerges in any constituency is not a very healthy trend in a democracy. It is a lazy trend. It is lazy to just say ‘I choose nobody’ when you should be making an informed choice.

What is ‘nobody’? A ‘nobody’ is a negative. It is a political black hole, the kind that doesn’t do much for people who need light and gravity, both. Perhaps that is what they mean when they say ‘vote for nobody’. Perhaps this is our new face. A nobody face, which does not pretend to stand for anything and makes no excuses for its own ignorance or inaction.

And guess what, I too have had enough. I am tired of having to deal with a philosophy that seems to equate doing nothing with having done something.

We will not bother to vote. We will not bother to create lobbies that pressurize governments into listening to our demands, even in non-election years. We will not vote for independents, because we are suspicious of their non-political antecedents. We will not find out how democracy really functions in this country. We will not even give generously to charity. We will ignore the Bhopal gas tragedy victims and their demands for a proper clean-up job. We will not spend half an hour visiting a municipality office to register a complaint. We will not pay our unskilled employees decent wages. We will not show up at our candidates’ doorsteps, demanding to know what happened to electoral promises, to remind them of what happens when people take loans but don’t pay up. And we certainly will not vote for those who actually have given their lives to social work and bringing change.

Instead, we will pay bribes, kickbacks, commissions. Or else, if we have the connections, we will use a high-up functionary in the bureaucracy or government to bail us out when we get into trouble. And we will go on moaning about the state of the nation and how it can all be fixed if we just stop voting and start making war.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Mumbai, post.

The other day, I went shopping for veggies at the nearest supermarket, and found it almost empty. The girls employed there were kidding around with each other. I heard the word ‘terrorist’. One girl told another she’d set the terrorists after her friend. The other one alleged that she was one herself. Light laughter. Odd, somehow. Perhaps, necessary, somehow.

Yesterday, I’d stepped out with my own bag and a laptop, boarded a train and opened a book. My station arrived, I got off and ten seconds later, wondered why my shoulder felt light. I’d forgotten the laptop in the Ladies compartment.

In a mad rush, I turned back. I had no way of tracking down that same train even if I did follow it in the right direction. The train had started moving by then, so I jumped into the nearest compartment. I almost fell. A stranger reached out and grabbed me at the door, pulled me inside. Others asked me to sit down, catch my breath, relax. I was too worried to step away from the door.

Five years ago, I would have worried about somebody walking off with my laptop, about losing all the writing I’ve done over the last few years. Yesterday, I worried that somebody would notice an unclaimed bag and panic. I worried that somebody might call the cops and the machine might be either dismantled beyond salvaging, or that I would be called in to explain, and who knows if an explanation would be explanation enough.

A couple of days ago, a friend had told me about riding in an auto-rickshaw whose driver wasn’t in the mood for rules. He jumped a traffic light. The cops stopped him, asked for his papers. They asked him his name. Turned out to be a Muslim name. More questions. Many more questions. They wouldn’t just let him got with a fine and a warning.

A woman lives in our building. Introduced herself as ‘Nisha’. My mother, out of old habit, asked for her full name. She said, ‘Oh, it’s a long name, you won’t be able to pronounce it’. Turned out, her real name was ‘Badr-un-nisa’. Not that hard to pronounce, my mother said. If you’re familiar with it, Nisha said.

Another friend mentioned how, as part of a citizen’s initiative, she walked up to the nearest cop on duty and thanked him – the entire police force – for what the cops had done. He laughed in her face and said, why, because this time it was the big hotels, and all you rich people were in danger? He didn’t think our gratitude would last. So much cynicism, I thought, at a time like this? Odd, perhaps, but necessary, perhaps.

Yet another friend had minor shrapnel cuts on her chin. She had been out there with the other journalists, on the streets for two and a half nights. There was no food and drinking water was being sold on the black market. Spirit... city spirits.

Yesterday, I fretted and tried not to think unpleasant thoughts until the train stopped at the next station. I got off and ran back towards the Ladies compartment. The laptop was where I had left it, apparently untouched. Five years ago, I wonder if it would have been left alone.

By the time I found it, got hold of it and stepped down, the train had started moving again. I almost lost my balance. Once again, a stranger’s hands, and I didn’t fall, after all.

On my way back, in the compartment next to mine, a bunch of young women were talking rather loudly. One woman was asking if TADA was a place, because people were always being ‘put in TADA’. Somebody else said it was a special kind of jail. Another was explaining that it was a law. Somebody said something else about Tada-Bida. Light laughter. Odd, somehow. Perhaps, necessary somehow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The incomprehensible and the uncomprehending

Couldn’t sleep last night. Though I’d heard the news, I didn’t switch on the television until yesterday. I just didn’t want to see. It wasn’t until afternoon that I finally saw. The empty streets, the burning hotels, the blood, the bodies, the funerals, the speculation. There was nothing to do but wait to hear something else.

Couldn’t help thinking of my grandmother. She used to say that not a leaf moves but for the will of god. No wind dares blow, no water dares fall, no tree dares grow but for the will of god. It is hard to deal with, this idea.

It is hard to deal with the idea of a god whose will is terror. Or a god whose allows violence along with all the other things – poetry and passion, stories and films, dance and song, flowers and fashion. It makes no sense.

Many of my friends would say, the idea of god doesn’t make sense. Amongst the many messages I got last night, there was one that said ‘if the world had followed Darwin and Dawkins, and there was no god, we would have been much safer today’. The other messages were more to the point. Some mentioned madness. Most just asked ‘are you ok?’

Yes, I’m safe.

I too sent ‘are you okay’ messages. Scrolling down my phone list and scanning names, I was reminded of the time I had sent out similar messages, when the last blast had happened in Delhi. And before that, when I was in Delhi myself, and the blasts had happened in Bombay, I had sent out such messages. And before that, there had been blasts in Delhi and I had gotten such messages. I had had a cruel thought once – thank god I don’t have close friends in Kashmir or Guwahati. A pointless, frustrated thought. Friends, cities, fear. There’s no containing them. They go everywhere, and you take a little bit of them with you everywhere too.

And everywhere, the same questions: who and why and what for? And throughout, this constant thought in my head: why don’t they get it? There’s an awful pointlessness to these attacks, which I just don’t get. Worse, I am convinced that ‘they’ don’t get it either. Whoever executes these things, I don’t think they fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish.

Terror is one of those words that seems to have exhausted itself. Terror. Terrorist. What does it mean? It means a bomb going off. It means men with rifles. It means people prepared to die so that they are able to kill. And I keep thinking, surely, they can see this – that this is all they are. People who are taking the risk of dying, just so that other people also die. People planning to kill so efficiently that they plant bombs in hospitals, where the dead are likely to be rushed. Which will ensure that more people die.

Random people. They don’t know these people. These people don’t know them. A random date and time, some chosen venues, and then its blood and funerals and fires. And television crews, and grief and more talk of the spirit that will keep the city going, because a spirit cannot be killed.

I don’t know what they want, these terrorists. I don’t know yet about their religion, their top guys, their financiers. But I do know that they’re somewhat dim. Stupid, at some level. They might know how to put together a bomb. They might know how to stay under the radar of international intelligence services. But you’ve got to be dumb not to see that whatever larger plan the terror groups had in mind when planning this madness, it is not going to work.

I don’t think they’re listening but I want to tell these people that if your plan is to make people succumb to your vision of an ideal state, you’re going to fail. If your plan is make people culturally orthodox, you’re going to fail. If your plan is to show off, to show the world how powerful you are and how a whole nation is quavering because of you, you are also going to fail. Because you will, in a few more hours, end up as a helpless corpse, dependent on the mercy of the security forces to be even granted the dignity of a shroud.

If your plan is to do something memorable, then too you will fail. It will not take two days for the headlines to change. Already the news channels have taken to expressing concern about the cancellation of cricket matches. You will be utterly forgotten, except perhaps in the nightmares of the hostages who saw your faces. Because people want cricket, not nightmares.

And if your plan is to make a nation any less democratic through your violent, undemocratic means, you are going to fail.

Can you not read the signs, damn you? Do you not even read the newspapers? If terror could truly change people, then we would not have had a promising voter turnout in Jammu and Kashmir. That was a sign. To me, it signified that people had chosen their destiny. Nobody knows yet what they chose, and whether or not the people of Kashmir really want independence, but right now, they have shown the finger to violence by choosing democracy. They have chosen to say, we’ve had enough of fear and ruthlessness, enough of being spoken for; we want to be heard now.

This isn’t about the spirit of the people. It isn’t about people feeling secure either. I see all this terror and am just exhausted. I am not feeling spirited, not at all. Yet, the only desire I have right now is to be able to get all dressed up, step out of my house, catch a train, walk into a café, chat with friends, make plans, talk about books, watch a good play. And I will. We all will. Like we did after the last blast, and the blast before that one, and the one before.

If the frequency of the blasts is going up, and if there are annoying security checks even at hotels and cinemas and shopping complexes, well, we’ll go through the checks and go on living. There will be music and travel and art and blasphemy and new religions and old philosophies. There will also be territorial wars and faith-based conflict and bias and sycophancy and illegal immigration.

What kind of brainless twit cannot see that people do not change so easily? That no number of blasts can cure people of the desire for normalcy and fun. For beauty and passion and laughter. For money. And also for justice and truth.

These are the things people live for. And often, die for. If you try and take these things away from them, sooner or later, they turn upon you, disown you, destroy you. Or if they cannot do that, they exile themselves. They either leave or die fighting. Sometimes, they take years to make up their minds, even a couple of generations. But at no time in human history have the forces of violence been able to succeed in ruling people too long.

I just wanted to tell you that. Terrorists, whatever your big bosses are telling you, they’re wrong. You’re going to fail on every single count. Because you have not read enough history, or even enough religion. If you did, you could so easily have been the person you really want to be. The person everybody wants to be.

You could have been a martyr, if you joined the army or the police. Because that’s what’s happened, see? People are pouring out on the streets to pay their respects and to touch the dead bodies of the cops who died. Not yours.

You could have been an average young guy standing at VT station, waiting on the platform for his girlfriend to arrive. You could have seen her eyes light up as she got off a train, and you could have been happy. You could have danced!

You could have packed your bags and trotted off to a foreign country, perhaps. You could have sold flowers at a street corner. You could have made enough money to set up a flower shop. You could have learnt the names of all the flowers that have ever bloomed. You could have learnt to tell the difference between mogra, chameli, juhi and nargis with your eyes closed. You could have known how blessed this earth is, if you allow it to be. And you could have even looked forward to sinking into this delicious earth, which gave you a lifetime of fragrance and an impossible riot of colour.

You could have been one hardworking carpenter whose children and parents you have now taken away. You could have been a family man, patiently waiting for a train to go home for Bakr-eid, shiny tinseled fabrics folded neatly into your bags, thinking of the delighted little girls who would fight to sit in your lap and the quiet approval of a wife whose eyes hold the promise of heaven.

You could have been that man. But you are not going to be any of this, because you didn’t trust humanity. Because you didn’t trust in your own god. The one whose will decides how nations will grow and which way the wind will blow.

And guess what?

If your plan is to enter heaven, once again you will fail. Because there is no god – not even a strict, forbidding one – who takes into his bosom such scum who plant bombs in hospitals. Such scum who open fire upon anonymous old couples. Somebody so brainless, or so indiscriminating, that they don’t even stop to find out who they’re killing, and why. My mother says, god does not even reserve the right to forgive. He has said that only those you have hurt have the right to forgive you, and if they do not, then you cannot step into heaven. And nobody in this city is going to forgive you.

Don’t allow yourself the solace of thinking that you’ve done something very macho here. If all you can bring to this world is a death threat, you’re such a loser. A mosquito can do that. It is true that I am helpless against you (and the mosquitoes) or the havoc you cause in intangible, psychological ways that are may do worse things to us in the long run. But it is also true that in the long run, we are all dead.

So while I am alive, I am willing to go on trying to build the sort of world I want to live in. Who knows, if there is a god, then perhaps it is god’s will that my will be pitted against yours. And I think I am going to win.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tagged, again

I don't like personal tags much, but have been tagged by a friend and have not been able to shake off blogging ennui, so here goes. I'm not tagging anyone else, but please feel free to take the tag forward if you want it.

The Rules: People who have been tagged must write their answers on their blogs and replace any question that they dislike with a new question formulated by them. People who have been tagged must tag at least 6 people to do this quiz and those who are tagged cannot refuse. These people must state who they were tagged by and cannot tag the person whom they were tagged by. Get it? Now spread the love.

If your lover betrayed you, what will your reaction be?
No idea. Probably nothing but a whole bunch of tears.

If you could have a dream come true, what would it be?
Peaceful surroundings, plenty (of food and water and time, if nothing else), pen-paper, laptop, a room of my own, and a positively lovely, very liberal man who doesn't complain and thinks that this is his dream come true, too.

What would do with a billion dollars?
Invest. Buy a house, set some aside to take care of food bills for the rest of my life. Build my mother a room in our ancestral village. Maybe even try a little organic farming. Put the rest into scholarships for students and artists.

Will you fall in love with your best friend?
Best friends are usually women, so, I seriously doubt it. If said best friend is a man, and isn't already attached, will tell him. Even if it means risking the friendship.

Which is more blessed: loving someone or being loved by someone?
Being loved is blessed. Loving can be sheer hell.

How long do you intend to wait for someone you love?
Depends on whether he's asking you to wait, wants you to wait. And what exactly I'm waiting for.

If the person you secretly like is attached, what will you do?
Nothing. Try and stay in touch, be a friend. Sort of.

If you could root for one social cause, what would it be?
RTI. The right to information is something basic which can be used to tackle a lot of other ills.

What takes you down the fastest?
Kindness. Humour. Confidence. (Oh, alright, good looks too).

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Don't see more than a month ahead. Try not to.

What’s your fear?
Stopping to believe in anything, not even myself or my own work.

What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is?
Bluesprite is steady, emotionally honest, insightful and somebody I can relate to very easily.

Would you rather be single and rich or married and poor?
Married, poor and in love with someone who loved me, preferably, but if love is not an option, then single and rich.

If you fall in love with two people simultaneously who will you pick?
Not likely. But if it does, then whoever is less aggressive, more committed and has fewer stereotypical expectations from me as a woman.

Would you give all in a relationship?

Would you forgive and forget someone no matter how horrible a thing he has done?
I very rarely forget.

Do you prefer being single or in a relationship?
Prefer being single to being in a bad relationship or one that I don't really want. Relationships are too much hard work so they better be worth the trouble.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Mera-wala pink

When I was a kid, my favourite colour was red. I still remember a red silk dress I had, with thick silver trimming all over the bodice and sleeves. And if you're a close friend of mine, you'll probably have heard my little story about the huuuge tantrum I once threw in Hazratgunj, Lucknow: it was all about wanting a pair of red shoes.

I don't know at what point I stopped saying that red was my favourite colour, and when I went through a shifting spectrum of favourites - 'white' and 'black' and 'sea green' and, at one point, 'lilac'. Pink, however, was never my colour.

Nevertheless, there was a lot of pink in my wardrobe. And I didn't have a problem with that. Pink was just another colour - it was nice. Lots of other girls wore pink and I was told it suited me. That was all. I never really thought about it much until I grew up and heard phrases like 'baby blue' and 'baby pink'.

It was the women's magazines, I think, that started me off on this coloured gender association. Magazines like Femina and Cosmo would educate me about which colours to wear in which season, and what men were supposed to wear and what not, and what look marked you out as what type, and what colour to paint your room when you started to plan a family.

Knowing that it was a 'girl' colour didn't make pink my favourite. What did happen was that my brother stopped wearing it. And he gave up red too. And bright yellows. Actually, by the time he went to college, my brother's wardrobe had been reduced to shades of blue, white and black.
Still, I never paid close attention to this 'pink'ing of the female half of the globe until recently, when I bought a pink and white shirt for myself, and suddenly realised that it was the only pink item of clothing I had bought for myself over the last six years.

Then I began thinking about why. It isn't as if I have anything against it but there's something in me that's sort of turned off by a certain kind of pink. Not hot pinks. Not pale, rusty pinks. Not shades of maroon. Just the particular shade of pink that's typically associated with girls - the shade most men would not be seen dead in. Maybe that was my feminist streak rebelling against the stereotype.

Perhaps, it's all psychological. I did get quite exasperated when one of my landlords had the entire barsaati whitewashed pink, when he realised that his next tenant would be a single woman. I do not particularly like powder blue, but insisted on his repainting a room blue instead, just to make a point.

At any rate, all this got me obsessing about colours. I noticed colours on walls, on cars, on street signs, at cafes, corporate furniture, logos, banks, advertisements, electronic goods.And I noticedthat pink doesn't really figure in our world. There are no pink cars in showrooms. Over the last few years, I have spotted only one baby pink Ambassador (it reminded me of a giant,upturned cradle for some reason) near a shopping complex in Delhi; it had a laal-batti on top, so perhaps, it belonged to a woman sarkaari official.

I'm assuming that the cars are not pink because the assumption is that women won't be the ones buying the cars, even if they do drive them. Car colours are therefore mostly greys, whites, blacks, blues, and a couple of 'safe' ones like red and yellow, which men wouldn't mind being seen in. I noticed too that there are almost no 'pink' sign-boards. No pink cafes. No pink computers. No pinks on bank doors or cheque books. And even goods that are traditionally handled by women aren't really available in shades of pink. Not many pink refrigerators or washing machines or even mixer-grinders, for instance.

Where I did find pink was for services that were exclusively for women. There's a taxi service in Mumbai that's supposed to be especially for women. And sure enough, it had a pink thing going - the cars had a pink line painted somewhere and the female chauffeurs wore pink uniforms. More googling revealed that similar women's only taxi services in the UK and in Russia and almost everywhere else also had pink names and pink themes.

In small towns and villages where there is no conscious, generally accepted gendering of the colour spectrum, you see a lot more pink. Men wear pink turbans. Walls, doors and windows are painted a very pink shade of pink. Pink-n-gold parandis glitter around rear-view mirrors in autos and cycle-rickshaws. The horns of cows and bullocks are painted pink and so are many shop signs, and the nails of several men with big moustaches.

What is clear is that pink is seen as a women's colour in many places, and it is also clear that wherever this prejudice prevails, pink seems to vanish from the public eye. And I'm not surprised. If something is defined as definitely, exclusively meant for one group of people, the other group is made uncomfortable by it. In a world where everything must sell, nobody can afford to alienate customers. But of course, the final clincher is the fact that women never are alienated - or so the market assumes - by typically male colours/contours. They rarely protest at things always being blue or black or grey. They don't mind things not being pink. In fact, if they're like me, they may even wrinkle their noses at pink, perhaps sub-consciously resenting it.
Now, having thought all of this out places me in a weird situation. What do I do about pink? Get more pink? Get rid of it? Ignore it? And what do I do about blue? What does a modern feminist do?I don't know, of course. But for starters, I've bought myself a new pink toothbrush - a first in over a decade, (I refer to the colour, not the newness of the brush). Maybe I'll find a few answers in the sink some morning.

Written for Ultra Violet

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hurry up with that story now

Quick Tales.

That's the name of a writing contest that could win you Rs 19,999!

Here's the rules and here's info about the prizes. And here's something about the judges.

Hurry up with those entries, and maybe you can join this writing community if writing communities is what you're missing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Perfect faces, national poisons

Good news is, my brother has had a baby girl (on the 18th). She’s premature so is being watched closely but seems healthy. Everyone’s collective prayers seem to have been answered and I am now officially an auntyji.

Tomorrow, I shall distribute sweets. But two days ago, I was on a fast (though I had to interrupt it with a glass of nimbu-pani after getting light-headed and shaky in a very public space)

Coz the bad news is, in another city (where I also happen to have family) babies are born who have perfectly formed faces, but with the rest of their heads missing. The bad news is, we know who is responsible - one big, rich corporate giant who hasn’t paid for what could perhaps, if you were so inclined, be called a mistake. A giant that goes on making money, manufacturing and selling chemicals, in this very country where over 2o,000 have died.

I have to confess, there is a part of me – only a tiny part, I hope – that wants to forget. Like the prime minister, his cabinet, his planning commission and his advisers, and a succession of chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh have forgotten.

But I often think of those two other little girls I love – my little cousin sisters in Bhopal. They don’t live where the gas victims live. They don’t drink or bathe in that poisoned water. At least, I hope they don’t. Their parents, not native Bhopalis, don’t have 1984 as a constant backdrop to their negotiation with this country.

Like most families, we know what it is to lose children. And know that millions of rupees won’t compensate, certainly not Rs 1 lakh. Most people know how hard it is to forget one lost child – a grave somewhere, whose location you cannot forget, a toy not used enough, small clothes, a name that will no longer fetch a response. They know the lifelong ache of it, and the thousand and one curses one hurls against destiny or God or whoever took away that child, or gave a newborn child less than complete health.

Except that God didn’t. A certain corporation, led by people who make lots of money, did. And perhaps, several governments were conspirators – for not demanding the extradition of Dow's top bosses, not insisting that they show up in court in India, for not fining, insisting on a thorough clean-ups, insisting on appropriate compensation, and rehabilitation, and if need be, arresting and jailing them.

We all know that Dow wouldn’t have gotten away with this in its own country. We all know that, even if it went bankrupt and even if it never invested another cent at home or abroad, it would still have been made to pay and clean up and none of its future projects would be allowed to function unless they adhered to stringent safety norms and environmental clearances. Yet, in our country, they have gotten away with it and continue to make profits. And we sit back and let them.

Funny, about patriotism, isn't it? We get into fights with people in cinema theatres who don’t stand up for the national anthem. We file petitions if someone puts their feet up on a table which has a replica of the flag on it. We are so concerned about our ‘Indian culture’ that we cannot stand the sight of a short dress or a couple holding hands in a park. And for 23 years, a multinational chemical has been poisoning our people and we have not batted an eye. For 23 years, our mothers have given birth to deformed children. For 23 years, little girls have bled much before they reached puberty. For 23 years, we have settled for see-through lies, instead of justice. And we’re such patriots, aren’t we?

Perhaps it is just that, in tiny ways and large ways, we want to forget. Forget disasters and death. To get on with it, to move on, to make money and celebrate. And I wonder if, in this, we aren’t co-conspirators. What, after all, is a democratic government if it is not the will of the people? If the people chose not to forget, if the people remind the state that they have not forgotten… would a whole generation have grown up simmering under the knowledge that a huge injustice had been done and their own government was complicit?

Some people go on reminding. They travel on foot to Delhi. They sit, even now, without food or real shelter out on the street – reminding. Saying, let there be justice. 23 years is too long. One more day is too long. There are children drinking poisoned water. There are mothers giving birth to children, doomed to be unhealthy. One more day is too long.

But their hunger seems to have bypassed the state just like the hunger of a million others. And yes, I decided to fast in solidarity for a day, but who knows what it means? I could fast for a hundred days longer and so would a dozen others, but a dozen isn’t good enough. Perhaps, the hunger of a thousand would count. Or ten thousand, perhaps.

The thing is, I don’t know what else to do except sign petitions and fast and join protests and light candles. What should one do to bring about a justice that not enough people want?

It isn’t a good sign when I – who have not suffered a fraction of any kind of sorrow, loss or ill-health that the Bhopalis have – if even I cannot believe in my own government’s commitment to justice... And what’s worse, I cannot even bring myself to believe that even if this government goes, that the new one will live up to any commitments it makes. I am especially horrified that Dow has been allowed to set foot India again, in at least four different locations (at least two in Maharashtra), for different products and services, and through different subsidiaries. Some of these tie-ups are with very, very rich and very powerful corporations in India – the sort of corporations that could buy out a whole cabinet, if there was money enough involved.

I don’t know what to think or do. I really don’t know if Dow will ever be penalized the way it deserves to be. But if it isn’t, it will be one more sign that our democracy isn’t a healthy one. Some toxic poison has, perhaps, crept into its bloodstream and has messed it up genetically, so that generation after generation of leaders, businessmen, lawyers, judges – all have this twisted ability to turn a blind eye to justice.

Modern masques

Friday, July 04, 2008

Offered without comment, a bit from Salman Khan's blog:

When I return home from shooting everyday, as a routine, I first spend time with my two champions, whom I’ve named Myson and Myjaan. They are my life and I am passionate about them. While I do not humanize them I dislike referring to them as dogs or my pets. This is because they are a part of me, my family and they share my every joy and sorrow. They understand me completely and there is such a big bond, such a rapport that I share with them that it moves me beyond words. The best time whenever I get a Sunday off is the time I spend being with them. Myjaan is far smarter and naughtier than Myson, she always insists I pet her first and creates a big fuss if I get to Myson before her. They are also my sounding boards, they ground me and help me to think.

When I go on long outdoor stints and cannot take them with me, I speak to them on the phone. I have an amplifier system installed at home, so that they can hear me loud and clear…and I can feel them close with the sounds that they make. (emphasis mine). My domestic staff tells me that they recognize my voice and respond to it.

Hmm. Well, I had heard of people doing weird things like trying to make babies coo into phones before they can speak. Who knows... some day, when I have a dog of my own....

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

People, people!

Went to watch Aamir, this weekend, with my brother because I'd heard good things about it overall. The story, very briefly, tracks 24 hours in the life of an ordinary middle-class, educated man called Aamir. An ordinary, middle-class, educated, Muslim man.

This post, though, is not about the movie. It is about watching the movie.

So we get ourselves food and coffee and settle into a half-full auditorium. There's a woman sitting next to me, and next to her, her male companion. Fifteen minutes into the movie, she starts to talk.

It began as a staccato hum of whispers, which I shrugged off as the usual desi jahalat when it comes to auditorium behaviour. The hum rose in tempo and volume. Half an hour into the movie, she starts complaining quite loudly, "Bakwas film hai. Kya hai ye?"

I shrugged it off. Bad manners combined with bad taste, very likely. But did she walk into "Aamir" expecting a campus romance with chiffon sarees? Perhaps, her male companion had talked her into it and she was determined to let him know how much she resented it.

At the interval, she proclaimed: "Not even one hour and the interval. It won't even last two hours."

After the interval, she talked right through - to her companion, on her phone. She laughed at the protagonist as he wandered about the city, hounded and harassed.

She said, "Bombay mein aisi jagah kahan hain?" Her companion whispered something back and she laughed. "Haan, bas in log ki hi."

And a few minutes later, she said: "Kaisi film hai... isme sab musalman bhare pade hain."

Let me translate: "What sort of film is this? It is full of muslims."

Finally, I turned to her and told her I'd appreciate it if she continued her conversation after the movie had ended.

But you know, I've heard of many unlikely reasons for people not enjoying a movie. But this was a first. Oh well, one lives and learns. But people and prejudice... What do you do? Wonder if Raj Kumar Gupta knew he'd come up against this sort of attitude in the theatres?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bits and pieces from the day

Fellow journalist Sourabh Gupta has been blogging at Matiyaburj. He's been doing some quite vivid postcard-posts from Bombay. Go look.

And I found this absolutely lovely poem that somehow fit my mood for the day. Here's a sample:

"It seems to me," said Booker T.,
"It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?"
"I don't agree," said W.E.B.,
"If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I'll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook.

And the full version's here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Modified rats smell too

I've thought and thought about food. Food crisis. Food prices. Ways of growing food. Intensive? Manual? Organic? What about access? Is it fair to push for organic when so many people are so short of food and why does everybody keep saying that organic farming techniques will bring down overall production? But what if they're right? But how will we know if we don't try the alternative?

All those questions, to which that latest, scariest addition is the question of GM food. Safe? No? How unsafe? Does it keep you alive? Does it warp your genes? Why isn't the government taking some sort of stand on it instead of saying one thing ("we don't let in anything until it's been proven safe") and doing another (allowing field trials, ignoring violations of trial procedures, ignoring research already conducted in other countries).

And though it happened way back in 2000, it was not until today that I read about how biologist Arpad Pusztai from the Rowett research Institute in Scotland was treated:

"The 69 year old Hungary-born Pusztai, who had been working at the RRI for 36 years, was removed from service, his research papers were seized, and his data confiscated ~ and he was prohibited from talking to anyone about his research work. All this for having spoken "all of l5O seconds," he says in a programme called World in Action on Granada TV in August 1998, about his findings on the effects of GM foods that ran counter to the prevalent scientific dogma that they were safe. He had also expressed concern that the testing procedures to establish the safety of GM foods may not be adequate.

Pusztai's controversial experiments, which he carried out in collaboration with his colleague Stanley W.B. Ewen, for over30 months between 1995 and 1998, comprised the use of GM potatoes expressing the gene for snowdrop lectin called Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (GNA) as feed to rats. (Snowdrop is a small white flower that hangs from a bulb and blooms in spring; lectin is a protein normally obtained from plants that have antibody characteristics.) This, he found, resulted in impairment in the condition of the rats. This was a surprising finding for Pusztai, because in six years of work with the lectin itself; he had found no toxic effect when it was mixed with feed as a protein supplement. But when genetically expressed it showed health effects.

Even before his work was published, based on incomplete information and data, it was denounced at various levels, including the Royal Society and the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology. Also, a campaign was unleashed in the media to discredit Pusztai. But it was a slap in the face of critics when Pusatai's paper got accepted for publication in The Lancet. This, in fact; prompted a senior biologist of the Royal Society to threaten The Lancet's editor with dire consequences.

You know what they say about smoke? It usually alerts you to a fire. And I personally am inclined to smell very large rats when people threaten editors with dire consequences.

You can read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Unheard of

The unheard of came slamming into my sleep. Last night, for the second night running, I woke to thunder and flashes of lightning - after a strange dream that someone was flashing a torch in my face, on and off, on and off. And the sounds of a susurrating piece of plastic, sliding from one end of the terrace to the other. It was like listening to a god howling through a gag.

It's rained! In May. And not the odd shower, but rain enough for an umbrella. Rain enough to bring muddy marks of slippers into the bedroom. Rain enough to have to watch out for cars whizzing past.

Rain so chill that when I woke up again, feeling cold and had to switch off then fan. And then, woke up again, feeling cold, so had to bring out a blanket, and stepped out of the house in a light-winter shirt. In Delhi. In May. Unheard of.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Just linking

A friend's taking a renewed interest in his blog

A new blog by economists on development economics.


Look who's in Jesustan again!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An Annoucement

Jasmeen, the founder of Blank Noise, will be in Delhi this week and would like to interview people who have been involved with the campaign in this city. Each interview will take approximately 5- 10 minutes and will be about you and your experience on the streets. Interviews will be with both male and female Blank Noise members/ volunteers/ supporters.
She requests you to take a few minutes out this week to met her.

What and why?

This is a video based project that interviews men and women on the streets of various cities- Delhi, Lucknow, Chandigarh/ Ludhiana/ Agra, and Kolkata. It will hopefully also reveal and spell out the various realities that exist in public and how they influence each other based on their gender and socio economic background.

Jasmeen is looking for sound assistants and camera people to help with the shoot. Anybody who can volunteer their time, and is interested in shooting, assisting and traveling with Blank Noise after May 20t, please get in touch immediately.

Blank Noise volunteers with friends, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, uncles, fathers, neighbours- anyone you might know who would be willing to talk about eve-teasing/street sexual harassment, please bring them along.

For everyone interested in participating in this project please get in touch at the earliest possible. right now! blurtblanknoise@gmail.comwith BLANK NOISE VIDEO in the subject line.

Friday, May 09, 2008

mothers, flowers

Update: A photo of one of her paintings.

This Mother's Day, my mom (Yasmin Zaidi) is paying a Floral Tribute to her own mother who passed away last year. She's having an exhibition of pretty detailed oil paintings - of flowers - in Pune. (Details below) Those who can go see it, please do.

"Mother's Day - A Floral Tribute" begins on Mother's Day, Sunday, 11th May 2008, at the Corinthian's Club, and will go on for a few weeks. Be there for the opening at 11 AM, if you would like to meet the artist.

Yasmin Zaidi has been drawing and painting for nearly forty years now. She has always had a keen eye for colour and composition and an enduring love of nature, which dominates her painting.
However, she has not needed to retreat into the wilderness to transmit this love onto canvas. She has sought, and found, beauty in small gardens in crowded suburbs, bouquets of cut flowers and wild trees fighting against the overbearing concrete in urban spaces. She considers the creation of anything beautiful a "co-creation with the Creator".

The artist comes from a family that has had a close association with various forms of art. Her father Padma Shri Ali Jawad Zaidi was a poet and a scholar; her daughter is a journalist and poet, and her grandfather also painted, though not professionally.
Some of Zaidi's early poems were published by various newspapers and journals and she has painted for and written a children's alphabet book. Her long career in education meant spending at least two decades imparting her painting skills to young and eager students. Post-retirement, she has picked up the brush again and has been painting full time and much of her recent work has been almost exclusively centred around flowers.

Monday, March 24, 2008


I know. I have been quiet a long time. Part if the reason was that things were down and up and upside down for the last few months. I had quit Frontline, taken up another job and promptly ran from that place, biometrified and petrified through an endless series of rules that, well, didn't make for wonderful journalism. The break was put to good use. I attended the Kalaghoda Arts festival, chilled with family for a week and caught up with myself.

Lately, I started work for Tehelka and have been dividing time between the features' desk there - mostly editing and page-making rather than reporting - and my own desk (bed, table whatever) at home, trying to put together something longer, and hopefully, more insightful. Have felt the need to not blog for a bit, and have, therefore, not blogged.

In the meantime, readers of this blog are entreated humbly to have patience and keep coming back to read, in case I have something to say. In other words, don't go away!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oh, for such readers of magazines!

Came across an interesting link, which makes me wonder if Kenya is the print journalist's idyll.
"To answer this question, outsiders must pay greater attention than they have yet to a key factor in the unfolding crisis: Kenyan politics. Politics in Kenya is almost the national pastime. Everyone, young and old, has an opinion to share. Everyone who can reads at least two newspapers a day, and can recount the detailed background behind political headlines that stump the casual browser.Most Kenyans will tell you that their politicians are corrupt. But at least until this last week, they would do so with the rueful relish of Americans who tell you their pop idols are strung out (again). And Kenyans follow their politicians' every move with the attention Americans reserve for celebrities, even giving them affectionate nicknames (Raila Odinga is "hummer"; Kalonzo Musyoka is "wiper"). When a new tabloid hit newsstands this past year, it was quickly forced to back down from its pledge to feature only idle gossip and lifestyle concerns. Consumers weren't buying it, and so politics soon entered its headlines, along with everyone else's."

Mahabbatin ke naam

A few months ago, I'd come across a piece of writing that was not just well put together, but also encompassed a very interesting thought: the concept of love, eternity and grammar in Arabic.

"At the heart of all things is the germ of their overthrow", it says, quoting from Adhaf Soueif's The Map of Love. But the author was, at the same time, talking about language. About the word 'enquilab' which means 'overthrow' (or revolution, as we interpret it) which is derived from the word 'qalb', which means 'heart' or the core.

Isn't that fascinating? That, buried within a revolution is a heart, and that the heart of anything contains the seed for the overthrow of that thing. Or all things.

The essay goes on to talk about words of love, what they really means, the fine shades of difference between them, and what god might have enjoined upon those who believe in god.

Do read.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Have had a delightful time at Kalaghoda. Since I spent very busy eight days there, attending workshops, sitting on panels, listening to panel discussions, drinking far too much tea and coffee, hanging out with friends (many of them from Delhi, actually), eating toast sandwiches and drinking sugarcane juice off the streets, commuting, and helping with the contests, my mind is one big blur. The festival blog, however, has a lot about what was going on, both in prose and photos.

In the last post, I had linked to some contests. Here is a set of links to those who made it to the final shortlist (I'm simply copy-pasting from the Caferati site). Go read.

Flash Fiction -

SMS Poetry -

Flash Essay -

Poetry Slam -


Here are the winners:

Flash Fiction -

SMS Poetry -

Flash Essay -

The Poetry Slam final was a live event, and we don't have recordings, alas. The top 3: 1. Mukul Chadda, 2. Tarun Durga, 3. Arka Mukhophadyay)

We also had an Open Book Pitch, where people could submit sample manuscripts and publishers would dip into them and express interest, if they felt any. Happily, at least one-fourth of those who pitched attracted some publisher's eye. You could go look at that list, here:

Congratulations, winners. And may many more of you win, in the future.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Contests, prizes, send now!


The Poetry Slam and Flash Essay deadlines have been extended by a day. You can still submit!

SMS Poetry.

160 characters on the theme ‘anti-valentine’. SMS-ese allowed.
For details, go here.

Flash Fiction.

Short-shorts or micro-fiction contest. 300 words max taking off from the theme, ‘Tall Story’.

For details, go here.

Flash Essay

A new contest inviting incisive, crisp writing about ‘The Death of the Essay’. 500 words max.

For details, go here.

Poetry Slam

This one is more or less limited to poets in Mumbai or those who can make it to Mumbai on the evening of the 10th of Feb.

Five poems must be prepared for performance on a stage, of which four must relate to each of these themes: Name, Place, Animal, Thing; these must be send in by Feb 3, for a preliminary round of judging. The fifth can be any original poem of your choice but it does not have to be submitted as yet.

For details, and info about how this slam works (the format and rules are different from conventional slam contests elsewhere), go here.
For last year’s scoresheets, go here


An Open Book Pitch.

You send in a sample of your manuscript and a blurb. Representatives from publishing houses look at it. If they like what they see... you know the rest.

For details, go here.

For all contests, there is an entry form that you can get to through the links to the contests, (see above).

Deadlines for all contests: Midnight, Feb 3, 2008.

There are also these non-competitive events.

15 minutes for seven out of the nine days of the festival. The event mixes writing with performance. Each Open Mike session will have 6 slots of up to 2 minutes each. These slots are booked on a first-come-first-served basis every day.

15 minutes for seven our of the nine days of the festival. The event mixes the word with the visual arts. Participants submit 2-minute films via email. We will choose the best films should we get more entries than time permits us to show.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Recipe for January mornings

It's been a while since I returned to one of my passions. I return to it now, after a conversation with a friend who said that he didn't like his tea boiled - that is, didn't boil tea leaves or leave them to soak too long, lest the brew acquire a bitter edge. Which got me thinking.

This bitterness of being lefttoolongtostewinboilingwater is an apt metaphor, a fitting frame for a redemptive brew. Of course, a bitter edge. That's what I like best.

Chai in India is not so much brewed as cooked. Boiled until all tender flavour has been sucked out; boiled until it can give no more. The pan must be allowed to simmer until the first lisp of bitterness begins to wet the water. It has to be held to the flame until indelibly stained with fingers of ginger or cardamom. That is what makes chai 'special' : sweetness laced with bitterness. A darkness that hints at muddied gold. That's what makes it refreshing.

Haven't you noticed how bitter the young are? How warm, how sweetly bitter, and how unsure of balance?

Having said that, I have to admit that I am firmly opposed to the concept of a 'proper way' of making a cup of tea. I discourage recipes because they seem to argue along those lines: so much of this, so much of that, a pinch of something and a spoonful of something else... that's just not the right approach to chai.

Tea is something you linger over. The days when I get up and make my first cup myself are days that begin with wafts of troubled decision. Curling into tighter and tighter rolls of 6.30 am, 7 am, 7.30 am, ohforgodssakegetup am.

Shivering sock-less in a January kitchen, riffle through cabinets for a flat-bottomed pan with a black handle. Take in a bleak morning and curse architects who don't think of sunshine when making windows. Fill a pan with water enough. Spill a little. Crush ginger. Toss it into pan. Fumble for the lighter, turn down the flame.

Walk into the balcony or to the nearest window, open it. Let cool fingers of morning brush your eyelids and cheekbones. Shut your eyes. Shake your head from side to side. Open your eyes and fix them upon the nearest inch of growing-green. Stretch where you stand until your toes groan under.

Go back to the kitchen, turn up the flame. Add two spoons of sugar. Pause. Add another half. Pause. Add another quarter. Watch the water turn a little bit cloudy. Add half a teaspoon of tea leaves. Watch the water turn a deep wine-red, then very quickly, something close to chocolate. If there was a variety of chocolate reserved for royalty, it would be this colour. The colour of 'laal-cha'.

Let water bubble. Like a simmering strain of black blood or the colour of life bleeding into the fabric of spring, speckled by tiny flecks the colour of earth. Pile another spoon with tea-leaves, knock it against the side of the jar so half is emptied back, throw it into the water. Watch it rise up, up, up to the rim of pan but never let it spill.

Black-earth-flecks balancing on foamy bellies of bubbles.

Turn down the flame and dip the spoon once more into the jar. Decide to add another half-spoon. Decide against it. Decide, finally, to add just a pinch more. Just to allow the delusion of inching towards perfection.

Step out and look for the newspaper, wherever it happens to have landed this particular morning. Listen for the guttural growl of the dog who lives upstairs.

Go back to the kitchen with fingers numb from holding a chilled pot of milk. Pour. Stir. Don't measure. Just as colours melt into each other. The milk pushing into the rich, steaming river, muddying it. If it is the colour and consistency of ditchwater, add a little more milk. Pour and simmer until the colour turns to the colour of nothing else you have ever seen. Not chocolate, not caramel, not soil, not cloud, not wine, not milk, not toffee, not multani mitti, not wood, not bark, not coffee, not skin...

Perhaps, perhaps, a certain kind of skin. It is possible, but it should be no kind of skin you have ever seen. Just at that particular moment, when it has turned to a colour and consisency that can be best described as nothing but 'chai', turn off the gas and reach for the strainer. Swirl the pan around a few times and pour a cup out.

Take it outside with the papers, or to a windowsill somewhere, hold it between both palms, close to your gut. Watch the loopy fingers of December reach down and lick their lips, hover at the rim. Stand on tip-toe for a moment, shut your eyes for a moment. Allow the morning to taste it before your do. Take a sip. Find your own pace, here on.

Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Keshav Vishwakarma, RIP

Usually, I do not put any of my own poetry on this blog, but this is an elegy and I'd like it read.

This much is set, Keshav ji – can I call you Keshav?
I feel an affinity, an ease, that is hard to explain,
Considering we’ve never met, and now, never will
Yet I’m sure you won’t mind my speaking so plain –

This much is certain: you will get no memorial, no statue
No marble slab with metal plaque, saying,‘Keshav: martyr’
Nobody will say you died that we might live, or less poetically,
That you upheld a nation’s head, honoured our civilizational charter.

What you died for – were killed for – was too much an everyday thing
So you will not go down as a human rights’ champion
Nor the leader of a bunch of people with a cause
Nor a just warrior for the aggrieved, the downtrodden

Nobody’s going to write that you’re a victim of what we’ve become
Nobody’s spine with tingle with the dread of this fact.
At least, not beyond next week, when you’ll be a statistic -
For that’s the way people keep their minds intact.

Don’t mind, Keshav, it is not on purpose that
Nobody will write you a full-length obit, or
That only one paper bothered to go and dig up
Info on how you lived, and who you lived for.

Keshav, if you knew (did you?) what they’d do
Perhaps you’d have shut up and let it be
Some insults, a woman – it happens all the time
Harassment and women – like sand and sea.

You see, we women rarely bother ourselves
We’ve learnt to shut up and stay shut; some say
Our eyes are glazed with the cataract of silence
We’re told, to live safe, there’s no other way.

Keshav, stupid Keshav, what made you take on
The mantle of hero? It is not as if
Someone was looking, and those who were, looked away
(as they do). Did you think they’d help? As if!

Keshav, young Keshav (only thirty-five, good God!)
They’ll forget. Oh, they forget, they forget each time
They’ve begun to forget the mobs of new years past,
And Meher of Lucknow? Her too! This forgetting’s sublime.

Keshav, it’s true, I cried for you, but so what?
You burnt, you died, and those three will live.
Noone’s clamouring for a public hanging (women’s security
Isn’t 'national') so… yes, some sentence the court may give.

That is, if the police finds those three.
You actually thought they would, and you walked
After being set on fire – two kilometers!
To the police station and there, you talked.

What did you say, Keshav? What were your dying words?
Were you angry rather than scared? Or both?
That I can relate to; it’s the same with me.
That tremulous rage – frustration and fear both.

Did you wonder, as you walked, if you’d actually die?
Did someone tell you, it was your own fault?
Did they say, why couldn’t you guess at
The demons-in-waiting? That you should, by default?

That’s what they tell us; that’s how we go on.
They tell us all the time and that’s how we know
No alone. No dark street. No panga. No sharp words.
No smart clothes. No reds. No smiling. Nono.

Where did you study, Keshav? Which school?
Which blighted, mind-altering, twisted-soul place?
Who taught you? Or forgot to? What kind of friends
Did you have that they tell you the rules of this race?

This race. These people. We. Our nation.
Women. Children. Cosmic pawns playing parts.
What shall I say? Keshav, should I say something like,
You’re a hero and will live in our hearts?

Oh, who cares? Heroes! I bet you’d rather just
Have been alive and maybe all heroes feel that way
To live! That would be nice, they must think, but
They go ahead and die if they must, anyway.

Not that it matters to you any more, Keshav
The writing of this. Any words. Anything.
You were burnt alive before you were properly burnt
And maybe you never did care of what poets sing.

I’d bring you flowers if you had a grave.
I’d build you a statue, if I had a piece of land
I’d write in big letters – ‘Look! This is our shame
And this our pride. This murder is man.

Listen, Keshav, it is too late, but listen.
Wherever you are, lie in peace, now it’s over.
And know that you stepped up higher than man.
(And lower than man… even God sank no lower)

I’ll spare you the platitudes about how you are free
Or how, in heaven, the apsaras long to kiss you
But this fight you’ve fought, I’ll fight to the death
But Keshav, brother, in the meantime, we’ll miss you.

- Annie Zaidi, Jan 17th, 2008.

Friday, January 18, 2008

More number plates

Two men - probably in their twenties - in a car.
Number DL9 CP 1579.

On the night of January 9th, Wednesday, about 9.30 pm, this car slows down as these two men see a woman sitting in a blue cycle rickshaw. They follow, from Defence Colony market towards the Lajpat Nagar railway gate. They lean out of the window. The man driving asks the rickshaw-puller, 'Kyon, kya scene hai?'

Awkward, the rickshaw-puller turns to look at his passenger. This is me, sitting stony-faced, and he guages the situation for what it is. He keeps pulling, casting sidelong, frightened glances at the car. I mull over the possibility of fighting back. There is plenty of traffic about and I am not alone. But this is a cycle-rickshaw and a car makes it vulnerable.

One man, middle-aged, in a car.
Number UP 16 Q 1298.

On the night of January 9th, Wednesday, about 9.30 pm, this car slows down a the man sees a woman sitting in a blue cycle rickhaw. He begins to follow, on the road leading to the Lajpat Nagar railway gate, and he peers out of his window, repeating 'come' and 'do you want to come?'

The rickshaw-puller kept turning to look at me. I sat, stony-faced, crossed every finger I had, and held my peace. Ordinarily, in this much traffic, when the going is slower than it would be if one walked, I would just get down and walk about hundred meters and would be home. This night, I didn't. Instead, I requested the rickshaw-puller to stay with me, stuck in this mini-jam for a good fifteen minutes. He agreed wordlessly, head bent, and dropped me to my very doorstep. Out of sheer gratitude and relief, I paid him twice the fare we'd decided on.

I had no camera or I'd have taken pictures and put them up in the '(UN)WANTED' section. I did have a phone though, and eyes and a quick thumb. Here are the car numbers.

This is my personal FIR. World, are you taking down my complaint?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Am flattered that the Economic Times took a passing interest in me and my little book, though we don't really belong in that article. The article makes it sound as if my blogging had anything to do with the publishing of the book, which is not quite true. When I wrote those poems, and put the book together with Gynelle's help, I was not yet a blogger. When we handed it over to the publisher, I was not a blogger; and when we signed the contract finally, I seriously doubt that the publisher even knew of my blog.

And oh, I did not write a 'book on poetry'. I wrote some poems. There is a difference.

That aside, a bit of good news that I'd been wanting to share for a while. I got my first royalty cheque a couple of months ago. It isn't much, but makes me very happy for two reasons. One, that it was my first royalty cheque. Two, judging by the number of books sold already, and based on my estimates of how much it costs to print a book of that size, I am reasonably certain that the book is not a loss-making venture. There are overheads, of course, but we (me and Gynelle) had worked to ensure that the text and illustrations went to the publisher as 'ready' as possible - she did the design; I did the proofing. So far as I know, the publisher didn't incur any other cost, barring printing and distributing.

So, while this tiny bunch of poems isn't going to make anyone rich, it will bring in a very, very small profit. Actually!

So, for godssake, will everybody stop saying now that poetry does not sell?

And for those who want to know, the book is available in several bookstores, especially Landmark. It also seems to be available abroad for anywhere between $4 and $8, even more in pounds (don't ask; have no clue why). Here, here, here and here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Womanhood, circa 2008, a.k.a. kis namaakool ne kaha hai ke kudiyo.n ka hai zamana?

According to the 2001 census, the population of India was 1,028,737,436 - more than a billion, of which 496,514,346 was female.

I (and all the other women I know) am a literate Indian woman, which means I am in the top half segment of the female population of this country - 53.7% female literacy according to the 2001 census.

In fact, I (and all the other women I know) am more than literate. Over 50% of girl students drop out after the fifth or eighth standard. Only 28,028,205 girls make it to the secondary exam level. Which brings me to the top... (help, if somebody can do a more precise job of calculating), roughly, 5.6%? Have I got it right?

Now, according to a story in India Today, "In 1950, there were 14 women pursuing higher studies per 100 males in India. The ratio is now 68:100 (Report of Consultative Committee of Parliament, 2006)." So, the ratio is definitely getting better, although the actual number of women who go on to become graduates is only 12,136,839.

If you add to this the figures for technical and non-technical education which does not amount to a degree (the total sum of which is less than a million), it can be rounded off to about 13 million.

Since I do have a degree, that would place me roughly in the top 2.6% of the women.

And since I (and many of my friends) also have some sort of post-graduate education, whether or not it amounts to a degree, and since many of us have computers and net access and a job, you could safely assume that we must be in the top one percent bracket of the women in India; possibly even the top half-percent.

Of the girls I went to college with, we've recently heard that at least two marriages fell apart because of dowry demands. Harassment, physical abuse, the whole shebang.

One of my batch-mates (she has an MBA degree) has recently filed for divorce after her husband broke one of her bones. And it wasn't the first time he'd hit her.

One particularly nasty episode a batch-mate told me about: one of our batch-mates had been in the process of putting her clothes on when her mother-in-law yelled for tea to be served to some visitors. A little delay, and the girl was dragged out of the bedroom and forced to serve tea to a bunch of strangers in that state of undress.

This is us. The top one percent.

In all these cases, it was only after a few years of staying put and wondering what to do and where to go, that these women finally left the marital house. All of us are in our twenties.

Now, let us go back to this story, where it says:

"You grow up being told that you can be anything, do anything. You get a good degree and get yourself into your chosen career. By your mid-20s, you are on a six-figure salary, forging a path in a male-dominated world. You own your own flat, you look great, you feel great, you sleep with men—experimenting physically and emotionally—before finding the right one.

You hit 30. By 35— because you can't spare the time now— you'll decide that you want babies. You'll move to your downtown apartment, be a fabulous mother while running a couple of successful businesses. Oh, and you'll write a novel. An autobiography.

Whether it happens to you or not, the truth— that you are free to live your life this way—is telling."

I couldn't help wondering - who is this 'you' that the story talks about. The Indian woman? The top one percent of women in India?

Like they say, nice story; tell me another.

Update: Have corrected some of the calculations in this post. And it does seem that piece was never written for Indian women in the first place. Look in the comments section for details.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dilip asks about why people are so afraid of conversion. I've been wondering for a while too. What is it about conversion that so frightens everybody? And what is my own take on it?

I began writing this as a diary entry, trying to extract sense out of loose ideas, so this is as personal as it is a comment.

It was no point examining conversions into Islam. At least, not for the purposes of the blog-world because I would immediately be confronted with 'but your own community...' and for all I know, there may well be biases I have not yet discovered. So I begin with other religions. For instance, there was this whole business of deras, which threated law and order and communal harmony in Punjab and Haryana.

Watching the Baba, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in action on the day of a 'jaam-e-insaan' (the cup of humanity) ceremony, I remember thinking that this is as close to conversion as it gets. Without formally asking you to renounce a birth-religion, Dera Sacha Sauda was asking you to drop your given surname and adhere to a set of rules to live by, while preaching at elaborate ceremonies, even putting you through a formal initiation/adoption of faith ritual involving imbibing flavoured milk.

And there had been an outburst of violence even then.

However, for the purposes of this discussion, I chose to dwell on Christianity since I do have some experience with institutional religion there.

I went to a convent where the nuns did subtly hint that they'd like us to conform, though not convert, keeping other religious rituals or symbols low-key. There was a much-anticipated pre-Christmas party, and we had to sing hymns every single at dinner-time, say grace and also 'Our father...' and we didn't mind very much. Just one more set of rules in a long list.

Any spark of talent was encouraged, and attempts were made to guide talent into preferred channels. For instance, if you acted or wrote, they may well ask you to help with the nativity plays. I'd been asked, too, to participate in the plays that were put up as part of the Christmas celebrations and I remember being mortified, briefly. Not because it was a nativity play but because of the preachiness of the scripts.

By way of illustration, I first had a bit role as an aborted (adult-sized) foetus, for which I had to wear a frock and come running to my 'mother' after she dies and goes to heaven. It was an anti-abortion stance that left me deeply uncomfortable. The next year, in recognition of my increased involvement with the dramatic society, I was one of the central characters in the Christmas play. The role was not that of Mother Mary, but the character was called Mary who had heard of The Virgin and the impending birth of Jesus. In this play, I was supposed to be, first, pregnant, then, in danger, then, beaten up, and finally, dying in my husband's arms. Since we were an all-girls' college, my 'husband' was a girl too. All through the rehearsals, as I lay 'dying', we shook with laughter. It was a terribly written script (by a priest himself), and the tragic finale - 'Oh, Joseph, our baby!' and 'No, my darling wife, you cannot leave me! Noooooo! - was an inevitable explosion of mirth in our teenaged mouths.

Finally, I resorted to an old trick: Amrutanjan. I rubbed some of it around my eyes seconds before the scene and proceeded to cry copious tears, shaking with laughter all the time. The author-priest later came up to congratulate me on such a 'heart-felt' performance.

This story doesn't have much to do with conversion. It has more to do with memories, which make me shake my head and smile now. That's what it was like, in the convent. I don't remember anger. I do remember a mild sort of resentment amongst some of the students, that the nuns weren't open to other religions, and that the few concessions they made were made on the assumption that there might be trouble if they didn't allow this much. We did have a pre-Diwali party. There were special meals for Shivratri, so we could break fast at midnight. The nuns probably would have been amused at any show of resentment - they were nuns! And they were already appeasing the students in many ways. Appeasing the majority even though theirs was a minority institution offering us a highly subsidized, considering we did live fairly comfortable lives in the hostel. It was clean and well-maintained, if not luxurious and we got four meals a day. They didn't need to appease another minority, of course. So there were no special provisions during ramzan, and no celebrations for Eid. But my mother told me that it was too much to expect nuns to be wholly secular. They'd given their lives to the cause of the religion, after all.

I remember being angered by the rumour that one of the Christian girls was being pressurized into becoming a nun. She had apparently told her close friends that she was being asked to go into the convent by her family, and the college nuns weren't exactly discouraging them. It shocked us, though it only came to us as a rumour. We also heard that many of the students from Kerela had become nuns at sixteen because they didn't have any money to do anything else. That angered me. I remember thinking - why couldn't the nuns just have given them shelter and money for education, without taking away their right to colour and sensual pleasures?

Now it strikes me that, perhaps, this is how others view conversions. Why can't the preachers and priests help poor tribals or dalits or whoever they're helping, just like that? Help them for the sake of helping them, without bringing in Christ or conversion? And why cannot Muslims and Sikhs do so too? And why must Muslims who marry outside the religion insist on a kalma and a nikah, or a renouncing of the other's faith? Why can't we just accept, as is?

For the same reason, I suppose, that it matters that one wants to be accepted, as is. Reasons of identity and self.

Community is an extension of the self. That's why all communities have something in common. Religion. Nationality. Language. Race. Ethnicity. Continent. Surname. Dialect. Demograph. Something!

Some point of contact, which allows the 'I' to become 'we'. Living in a building makes you part of the residents' association. Living in a city makes you urbane; at least, it gives you a domicile certificate, a ration card, an identity, things you use to define yourself. Like music lessons. Like a guitar gang. Like history or gender studies.

Each choice you make, whilst surviving in a community, is a choice that defines you and what you have at stake in that community.

Conversion is problematic for many, I think, because it represents an opt-out. A de-choice. A negative option that says, 'I don't like this group that has, so far, counted on me for definition and which I have used to define myself. I'm going to another one.'

Like a politician leaving a party after a lifetime of commitment, for a new one. Or a divorce. Or a youngster running away from home. Or somebody giving up citizenship of a nation. Or somebody asking to create a new nation/state. Those are people we call extremists or separatists.

Separatists are problematic too. They too seem to be opting out of the thing which is defined by them and has thus far defined them.

I also remember our 'gangs' in college. We were teenagers with not a clue about how things really worked in the real world. Ours was a small world with high walls, many rules and few visitors. A world of college magazines, dance contests, drama contests. And we participated and fought as groups which we liked to call 'gangs'. There was the Ratna-Tanu group, which had as its members a bunch of girls from Kota, from the same school, a few others who got along well with them. There was a bunch of day-scholars we called the 'Laal-garara' gang, ever since they put up a dance item to the tune of the pop song 'laal garara', all dressed in - what else? - laal gararas.

Loyalties were strong. Rivalries too. We talked with all but it would be intolerable if one of 'us' started hanging out too often with members of the other gang. Friendships were tested sorely. It was noticed, if you didn't share a table with your own group members. To desert your gang was a form of betrayal that, in snide, small ways, was punished... A taunt. Being barred from a gossip session. Not being asked to join a dance.

So, the self, finally.

Those who are afraid of conversions are, perhaps, afraid of losing a little bit of themselves. Afraid of losing that point of contact, which makes it simpler to relate, to be part of, to claim somebody as a part of you.

Society is constructed around ritual, around community of one kind or another - maybe just common interests - around a set of practices and events that give us our daily life, our motivations, our sense of normalcy and joy.

This could mean an evening satsang for some people. A Sunday morning mass for some. A literature festival. A gambling den. The Friday namaaz. Decorating a Christmas tree, lighting clay lamps on Diwali, attending college, participating in a television reality show, going to a club, trekking in the hills, meeting friends at a cafe, joining a gym.

Not all of these are the same in the demands they make of others. The Friday namaaz is very much a prayer-meeting, but it is also an individual act of faith for each person who shows up at a mosque. Another person could be sitting alone in a cafe, asking nothing more than to be served on time, and that the waiters don't spit into the coffee. Yet another person could join a gym for a purely individual reason - losing weight, getting a six-pack. Even so, in all these cases, we are forming and conforming to norms laid down by a group.

When I say I need to lose weight, I am allowing society to speak through my tongue. I am saying that I need to be accepted, liked, wanted, by others with whom I form a group. Those who do not form part of any group are the people we feel most threatened by. For instance, nomads have always been treated with mistrust and often humiliated by those who are 'settled'. Maybe because the nomads appear to reject something we believe is essential, a social essence, at the core of us.

Each time an individual whom we believe was 'ours', 'on our side', or a part of us, sends out the message that he is, in fact, not a part of us, we feel diminished. Perhaps, we are diminished. If everybody leaves a music group, it is disbanded; it ceases to exist. If everybody leaves a certain denominational church, it becomes forlorn and poor and less powerful in the region. If people stop queuing up outside a college to gain admission, it loses prestige value. If people stop coming to a satsang, the satsang is no longer a throng, a throbbing place of vitality and reassurance.

With every instance of diminished allegiance, every threat to their existence, all those who have something invested in the identity of the group, that is, their own identities and maybe even their livelihoods, are upset.

This is especially tricky when livelihoods are bound up with identity. Who is always at the forefront of the crusade for 'cultural nationalism' or 'religious revival' or 'spiritual renaissance'? Those who gain the most power/prestige/money/related benefits from a people's allegiance to a given idea or ideology.

It is not a mere coincidence that political-religious right-wing groups in India are always invoking the ghost of conversions. It is not for nothing that god-men go preaching lies about how that 'other' has been 'stealing' their women - who are not just members of this group, but also banks (in their eyes, at least) for the future.

Priests (of all religions) stand the most to lose if they lose their group. They lose their jobs. Religion is the touchiest part of the conversion spectrum because religion is, and always has been, so closely bound with politics and money. Many a church is rich. Sadhus, 'sants' and mahants are often rich, if not directly then through their ashrams. Maulanas are often rich. Those that are not rich - those are the ones who care least about what group you belong to, where you came from, what you call yourself and whether you can spare anything at all besides your heart. These are sometimes nomadic fakirs, and in secular terms, fakirs of temperament... And who has ever sought a fakir's views on conversions?

In Hindi, there is this brilliant phrase: 'peyt pe laat', which refers to a snatching away of livelihood. (Translating it as 'a kick in the stomach' is not quite the same thing). Religious leaders do not have the humility to admit that conversions are a loss of business, a kick in their collective stomachs. And so they raise questions about motive, about god, about cultural and spiritual pollution, about appeasement, about 'them' and 'us'.

[Atheists are too few in number to matter. It is easier to tackle those who seem to want to believe in some kind of god(s), and either win them back or bring more into the fold, than those who don't want anything to do with you and will certainly not pay you for the privilege.]

As for the 'us' reacting to 'them'... each time a group is confronted with loss, it reacts with fear and bitterness: loss does that to you. If they've taken one of us today, will they take more tomorrow? Will they take over? Will 'we' as we know ourselves no longer exist? 'I', as a set of functional organ parts may survive. But is that all I am? What am I? An Indian and a Hindu? Well, then, is India not an ancient land, the only country - barring Nepal - where Hindus are in a majority? Are we going to let them change that? Are we going to be ruled by someone who is not one of 'us'? Are we going to be diminished, bit by bit? Are we... are we.... are they...?


is a terrible thing. An awful thing that sucks out your mind's balance and leaves you teetering on the edge of an imagined void where the only escape seems to be to hit out at the force that you suspect may have led you here.

Collective fear is a thing beyond awful. It has the power of a mob, with none of the rationale of an individual mind.

A collective fear is near-impossible to assuage, for it is rooted outside the human frame. It is rooted in an intangible, amorphous, shifting thing called 'community'. You can go upto each member and gently brush away the shards of fear from their minds, but by the time you are done with one, the others have acted to undo it all. The collective exists in its commonalities. Therefore, common fears. When nothing else binds you, fear will.

And it does.

Update: One commenter seems to either have not read, or not understood this post at all. So, to spell it out clearly, I am not against conversions. Just because I understand (I think) why people oppose them, does not mean that I am against them too. People have the right to change religions like they change clubs, like they walk out of bad relationships, like they shut down a business or end their own lives. And just like you cannot stop someone from advertising their products or soliciting customers for sundry services of mind or body, you cannot stop a priest from converting someone.
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