Friday, December 31, 2010

If you can, if you want to, if you feel you must

Helping to spread the word around:

Members of the Christian Medical College Alumni Association, who have helped to support social activist Binayak Sen's family and his legal battles through private contributions, now propose to open up the fund to donations from the public.
The Binayak Sen Support Fund was set up in May 2007 through initial contributions by 10 alumni “to provide assistance, as necessary, for the safety and liberty of Dr. Binayak Sen, and for the welfare of himself and his family.”
The Fund's trustees are eminent haematologist Mammen Chandy, president of the CMC Alumni Association Sara Bhattacharji, in her personal capacity, and the former Physiology professor, P. Zachariah, who serves as the managing trustee.
Explaining the need to open up the fund for public contribution, Dr. Zachariah said: “All the expenses so far, to the tune of Rs. 23 lakh, were met mainly from CMC alumni sources. But the expected expenses from now on, perhaps to the tune of Rs. 50 lakh, are beyond our means, and [to meet them] calls for wider support.”
The fund can receive only donations in rupees, either in cash or from a rupee account in an Indian bank. Payments from the fund are only made through bank transactions.
Contributions can be made at State Bank of India branches to “Binayak Sen Support Fund, SBI a/c no. 30181020786” or through cheques/drafts payable at the same and mailed to Dr. P. Zachariah, c/o CMC Alumni Association, Christian Medical College, Vellore-632002.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Beyond absurdity

Words fail me. Insanity, travesty, shame etc are words that sprung to my mind. But how does one even begin to deal with this outrage called 'sedition' in the context of Binayak Sen?

Sample this: Mr Sen — who is out on bail after being in jail for two years for alleged links with the Maoists — was being tried under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. On the second day of the prosecution’s arguments, the public prosecutor attempted to prove that Mr Sen and his wife were part of an international terror network because Ms Sen had written an email to “one Fernandes from the ISI”. And what could this ISI be but Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence? But, as it turned out, ISI is the Indian Social Institute in Delhi, and Walter Fernandes its former head and a friend of the Sens. The court was also regaled with other suspicious bits from the Sens’ correspondence. “We have a chimpanzee in the White House” appearing in one of the messages indicated, according to the prosecution, that Mr Sen was using a code, as terrorists often do; and his wife addressed one of her correspondents as “Comrade”, as Maoists often do one another.

After all this craziness, which court would take the prosecution's case seriously? For god's sake, a police investigation team that not only mistakes the Indian Social Institute for the ISI but also presents it in court as evidence?!

For more details, read this. To sign a petition addressed to the President of India, go here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

If you have an opinion on paid news, now is the time to air it - direct to our lawmakers.

There is a parliamentary standing committee on paid news and they are inviting suggestions from the public in general and from experts or stakeholders especially.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How does Rs 240 crore sound?

How does Rs 240 crore sound? Good?

Yeah, am guessing. It sounds good to me. If it's in your bank account, it sounds very good. If it's even just in the national bank account, it still sounds good. It's good to just be in the vicinity of so many prefixed zeros, and hope that some of it will rub off.

Now how does Rs 240 crore a day sound?

Very good, eh? Lots you can do with Rs 240 crore a day. Even if you had a fraction of that, imagine the projects you could leap into with enthusiasm. Imagine how the roads might look, or the neglected garden you're always ruing, if even a tenth of that trickled down into your neighbourhood.

But it doesn't, you see. It could. But it doesn't.

Every day Rs 240 crore slips out of our reach - out of our country's borders and away from our collective arms.

Not so good, eh?

But it is true. Rs 240 crore makes its way out of the country illegally every single day while you and I sit around cursing high taxes, while also cursing the bad roads, the bad schools, the pitiful lack of maintenance of nearly everything.

The nation lost $213 billion (roughly Rs.9.7 lakh crore) in illegal capital flight between 1948 and 2008. However, over $125 billion (Rs.5.7 lakh crore) of that was lost in just this decade between 2000-2008, according to a study by Global Financial Integrity (GFI). These “illicit financial flows,” says GFI, “were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, criminal activities and efforts to shelter wealth from a country's tax authorities.”


In just five years from 2004-08 alone, the country lost roughly Rs.4.3 lakh crore to such outflows. That is — nearly two and a half times the value of the 2G telecom scam now exercising Parliament and the media. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) pegs the 2G scam at almost Rs.1.8 lakh crore.

The silence around this larger scam - at least in parliament - is natural. The media's silence is a little harder to understand. Surely, they must know that the two are linked. Scams means illegal capital, and this capital needs a safe place to bury itself and snooze warmly until the inhospitable, damp winds of change have blown over.

We can't stop one without stopping the other. And no, privatising everything is not necessarily the answer. One of the conclusions drawn by the Washington DC-based GFI is that: “High net-worth individuals and private companies were found to be the primary drivers of illicit flows out of India's private sector.”

Just so you know. Because, as this report says: the “total capital flight represents approximately 16.6 per cent of India's GDP as of year-end 2008... (and) The total value of (such) illicit assets held abroad represents about 72 per cent of the size of India's underground economy which has been estimated at 50 per cent of India's GDP (or about $640 billion at end-2008) by several researchers. This implies that only about 28 per cent of illicit assets of India's underground economy are held domestically.”

In layman's terms, this means that you send off your stash of untaxed (and perhaps ill-begotten) cash to another country. Then you have it sent back indirectly. Say, you buy someone a fancy new car in Mumbai or Delhi with the money. Then, of course, you sit back in impossible traffic, ruing what the terrible roads are doing to your pretty wheels, cursing the 'ghorment' for not doing anything to improve your life.

Think about it. Rs 240 crore a day. Driven out quite often by private companies and individuals.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Speaking of poetry

I have been reading Tabish Khair’s Man of Glass lately (am on my second reading already). The book has three sections – each one a kind of retelling of the familiar. The first is a modern take on Shakuntala. The word ‘adaptation’ springs my mind and is perhaps best suited to describe the way in which Khair chooses to interpret the ancient Indian tale. Shakuntala here is not a passive girl who takes up with a king only to be forgotten. She is a young girl on a bicycle who bumps into a stranger, a foreigner, and happens to dreams of another world – a ‘palace of progress’. Her struggle is not so much the struggle to be remembered, as to remember herself. Even so, the essence of the story remains what it always was – a young girl’s desire for something alien to her own culture, followed by her search for acknowledgement and acceptance.

The voice he uses in this series is practically conversational – I felt like I was listening to someone narrate Shakuntala in contemporary English – and yet, it takes nothing away from the poetry. Here’s a bit from a poem I really like ('Forms'):

“…She is enveloped

by rumours of the world out there, palace

she cannot enter unless she knocks hard and

someone within takes pity on her….

Paper becomes her life, forms

and applications, names shrink

to acronyms: GRE, TOEFL, GMAT.

This is the price of admission to the world:

Everything has to be slotted and numbered,

the spill of language sliced

to algebra of alphabets. Very soon

she will turn number in files

in embassies where her skin will stain

for the first time, in offices and universities

across the seas bridged by capital

and barred to human bodies like hers, except

when the kings of Moon remember their own need.

            But who is there to tell Shakuntala to remember

Those graves in Europe with names written as numbers,

To recall the danger when tragedies become news,

When prisoners turn digits, people become JEWS?”


The second section is a few transcreations chosen from amongst Ghalib’s well-known work and the third is a series inspired from Anderson’s fairytales (the Grimm and Anderson so many of us read as children). I have either forgotten or not read several of the original stories which Khair has chosen to interpret as poems rooted in our very troubled times. But I love them all regardless.

A sampler from the story of Thumbelina, told as the poem titled ‘Prayer’:

“Grant me a little child

I can hide

When the mullahs come home to pray,

When planes are birds of prey.


Smaller than my thumb

I can put in my pocket and run.”


If you are keen on poetry (or even if you can just about stand poetry), I’d recommend Man of Glass.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fragrance of peace

Irom Sarmila needs no introduction. But there's nothing like poetry to understand someone's politics. So here's a new collection of poems by the woman with the steel spine. 

'Fragrance of Peace' has been published by Zubaan recently. This collection of poems costs only Rs 125 and Flipkart is offering free home delivery. 

Need I say more?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Kuch khwaab, and thodi si daadagiri

The title 'Dreams death' is nowhere as poetic as Gulzar's line (kuch khwaab sisakte rahte hain, kuch khwaab magar mar jaate hain), but this short docu film has enough going on. There's truth and pathos and empathy and Gulzar's swoon-inducing voice. Watch it here:

Before the film begins, you see a clip of Priyanka Chopra reminding viewers about a child's right to education. Applause-worthy. And she looks nice too! Now if only this tall, lissome Punjabi glamour-babe would read this:

Educationists add that often private schools get land, cheaper electricity and infrastructural support from the government. Add to this the tax exemptions they enjoy.

And then this: Ashish Diwedi, who was a part of the same school’s clerical staff till two years ago, says the school first volunteered to admit his children and a year later, turned around. “They offered me Rs.1 lakh per child to take my children out of the school,” he says.

It would be lovely if she could use a couple of her many media-ops (and let's face it: her whole life is probably one big media op) to address the parents who are so afraid of the whole nation getting a decent education. Perhaps she could tell them not to be so frightened of the poor, scared children who do indeed have a right to an equal education. Or perhaps she could just tell the private schools to start acquiring commercial land at commercial prices for their commercial enterprises, if they find the burden of nobility too heavy to bear.

After all, that land (and that water, or that electricity, or that road, paid for out of the whole nation's pockets) isn't theirs. Very few could afford it if the state didn't give it to the urban middle class/elite for a pittance. Nor, for that matter, can they really afford good teachers. Most teachers (at least, up until now) in India have had some sort of subsidized education or training or certification that was state-funded.

The great washed in India can barely afford anything as their own in any legitimate 'private' way. But they forget. Ms Chopra would do well to remind them. Just saying.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jairam-ji for Renuka-ji, after all?

Update on Renuka-ji dam project:

Just got another press release from the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan and it seems like Jairam Ramesh met the group on hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and assured them that the project would not be cleared by the Ministry of environment and forests.

But like they say, this is the ibteda. Therefore, aage, aage dekho...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Witness, the real movie.

So we all saw Slumdog Millionaire. Famous people took sides in the debate around whether Indian poverty should be milked by foreign peoples making Oscar-winning movies. Shouldn't we brown people have the first rights over our own poverty for whatever it is worth - all its spectacular sights and sounds and smells? Besides, it was a matter of izzat. Who knows what poverty and desperation is like, but really, we didn't need to be exposed to white people as being dirty and desperate, our kids blinded to beg, our little girls sold.

But whatever side of the debate we were on, we all agreed that the movie was good. What a story! A kid who has never been to school wins the Crore that has hundreds of millions swatting even when there are no exams to be cracked. And we all applauded loud enough when brown people won prizes given out by the same foreign people whose degree of comprehension and sensitivity we were doubtful of.

And then, of course, we forgot about it - the film, its story, what it was trying to talk about.

Slumdog Millionaire is not just about a poor boy who gets a million bucks and gets his childhood sweetheart at the end. If that was its core, it could easily have been a bank heist or a treasure hunt story. This is about a boy who 'wins' those bucks. Although he has not been to school. Nobody has even taught him informally. He has survived through his wits. And perhaps, life has finally opened a door - shown him a way to use all those hard-won scraps of information he stumbled onto along that dangerous survival track down which he was sprinting. That door was a show called KBC or Who wants to be a Millionaire?

But the main thing is, nobody believes him. Even the host does not believe that the boy knows what he knows, except for poor people in other slums, nobody believes he deserves to win. That story is a story of prejudice. Prejudice and disbelief lay at the heart of the narrative.

And though we have all seen the movie, it seems we never learn anything. We still carry around our prejudice and disbelief and barely concealed resentment at the fact that someone uneducated, someone who has been desperate and thus far unhappy, could have won something precious. Like a crore of rupees.

I don't watch much TV but I do read the news, and had heard about Rahat Taslim winning on KBC. She probably knew a lot of stuff I don't. For instance, while trying to write an article, I happened to need information about women elected representatives. I went online to google it, and happened to discover that Ellen Sirleaf was the first modern woman head of state in Africa. But I also came upon a website article expressing astonishment that a poor Indian woman should know this fact.

I am not bothered by the astonishment. Most of us would be, whether we admit to it or not. What bothers me is that somebody thought their astonishment important enough to put it on a website, and then to describe it in those terms: 'viewers balk at Rahat Taslim's 1 crore win'. Viewers balk, eh?

My first thought was that the writer did not fully understand the meaning of the word 'balk'. My next thought was that perhaps the writer didn't care. Perhaps, several readers didn't care either, because they did indeed balk at Ms Rahat's luck, even if luck was all she had.

Why is it still so hard to swallow that someone who had a hard life finally got lucky? When do we stop thinking of ourselves as somehow more deserving of windfalls than women who must sew clothes? Why do we never express such astonishment when middle class guys - people like us, or almost there - go on the same show and win, although we know quite well that we don't know many of the answers to the questions on the show? Just how deep is our prejudice?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Warmth to spare?

I'd just written about the gorgeous, frightening cold in Delhi.

If there's one thing you can do quickly to protect those who suffer winter rather than enjoy, it is this: donate some warm clothes.

Here's an appeal from Khoj.

'Dearest friends of Khoj,

It is that time of the year again and we need your help. Here is your chance to to ensure that Delhi stays warm during the coming winters!

Take out those sweaters/shawls/sweat shirts/shoes that you have been planning to wear since Christmas ten years ago and never actually did so. Add winter protection for Khoj to your winter shopping list. Share your winter warmth and we guarantee you will be contributing a smile to someone's face!

We look forward to all contributions, whether a single sweater/blanket or clothes by the dozen. We only request that they all be in wearable condition.

Send this message to your family, friends and colleagues at work. Each sweater counts!

Please drop all contributions to Khoj's office:
Khoj Foundation
409 3rd Floor, above RAO Travels,
Munirka, New Delhi

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Renukaji turns to Sonia-ji

Got this in a press note from the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan. I have not been following the dam issue in the Himalayas closely but clearly, all is not well.

The Renuka Bandh Sangharsha Samiti is on hunger strike in Renukaji against the Renuka Dam project which intends to supply drinking water for Delhi. The project was denied clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests but the state is just revising the project through reducing the height of the dam.

I am simply putting down below the campaign's fax copy, for those who'd like to and are able to do something with this information. Though I have to say I am a little shocked that they should choose to address it to Sonia Gandhi instead of Jairam Ramesh, who is only marked in the CC, along with Rahul Gandhi. I understand that Delhi is more or less run by the Congress government at this time and that a nod from Sonia Gandhi means more to the state government than a letter from a central ministry. But for every battle, small and large, people cannot go running with their petitions to 10, Janpath. It just isn't sustainable. Nor is a hunger strike, actually. Unless people can persuade their elected representative to starve through the winter session of Parliament. That might be worth a shot.

Dated: 15th November 2010



Smt Sonia Gandhi,

Chairperson, National Advisory Council,

New Delhi

1. In a victory for a safe ecological future and peoples’ livelihoods, the MoEF has rejected the Forest Clearance for the Renuka dam for the 2nd time, based on the massive scale of deforestation that will take place in the submergence area.

2. After the rejection of Forest clearance for this project recently state government is acquiring agriculture land forcefully where as land acquisition proceeding should be stalled till all clearances are granted[1].

3. Award for 447 Bigha land has been recently issued and land compensation Rs 7,22,00,000 has been forcefully distributed including three residential houses with out any R&R of Project Affected Families[2]. This land is having thick forest plantation, HPCCL (the developer) has counted 32640 standing green trees on this 445 Bigha of land.

4. Tree estimates in Renuka dam submergence area

The Renuka dam was initially proposed to be 778 mts high from mean sea-level. Consequent to the rejection of the Forest Clearance, the promoter has proposed to lower the dam height to 762mts. HPCCL is preparing for fresh forest diversion proposal and manipulating the count of standing trees at the site.

HPCCL has counted the trees only in Reserve forest and wild life area. As per their counting total trees are 1,51,439 at sea level of 778 mts. While the actual total number of trees is more than 2,50,000.

HPCCL is currently recounting trees to the lowered height of 762 mts. so that number presented to the MoEF would be much less.

Trees in private land have not been considered for forest clearance case and not counted which is atleast more than 13 lakhs.

Initially, a tender was awarded on 16-3-2007 to a contractor to count the trees in private land. His estimate of 17 lakh trees on private land was uncomfortable for HPCCL, which raised objection to his survey. His contract was terminated with a payment of Rs 6 lakhs.

Our estimate is that the total number of trees in the proposed submergence area is more than 15 lakhs. HPCCL has sent proposal for forest clearance mentioning only 1,51,439 trees but it is compulsory to include private /deemed forest under FCA 1980 for clearance.

5. NAC Chairperson’s Concern over Productive Lands and and a brief on Agro-Horti-Silvi-Cultural Wealth of Renuka Submergence Zone

In light of the recent debate on the Land Acquisition Act 1894, we want to point out that the Renuka dam project will also drown 376 hectares of agricultural and 60 hectares of horticulture land (according the R&R plan), producing food and commerce vital to the people of this country.

"New industries and infrastructure cannot be built without acquiring land. This is obvious and there is no argument about it. But land acquisition must be done in a manner that it does not result in the loss of large tracts of fertile and productive agriculture land." Quoting Ms Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson, NAC The Indian Express: 9th of September 2010

In the light of the statement above, we would like to point out some very important features of the land under submergence by the planned Renuka Dam in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh where land acquisition process is being conducted forcefully by using urgency clause of LAA 1894. The Renuka Dam will drown an area of 1630 hectares of prime agricultural and dense Shiwalik mix forest land (according to the R&R report from HPPCL), to supply drinking water to Delhi.

According to official records, the total cultivated area in the district of Sirmaur is 70,000 hectares, which is under great threat when any forest and contiguous agricultural land are submerged. Sirmaur’s agricultural land is characterized by a mixture of cash crops like tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and peas, as well as floriculture and horticulture such as peach, pears, mango, citrus fruit, pomegranate, apple etc, as well as ecologically sustainable subsistence agriculture with families growing their own maize, wheat, and rearing livestock.

The low lying areas which are on the Giri river bank and are marked for submergence in the Renuka dam and are the only flat agriculture land with excellent productivity, good soil quality, irrigation, ground moisture. The important feature of agricultural
land here is that it is extremely diverse, with multi cropping and mostly 3 crops a year being grown.

The per Bigha income from growing tomatoes is Rs. 40,000/- per season, Ginger, a crop that made Sirmaur famous as one of Asia’s significant ginger producers, is almost a biological geographic indicator. Families also invest in floriculture as a commercial activity, and have a variety of fruit trees such as mango, litchi, pomegranate, jamun, and pears, amongst other things.

It is evident in this area of Sirmaur’s abundant and thriving agriculture, that fertile land is found in low lying areas slated for submergence, while most of the rest of the land in the district that is not under submergence, is not as productive.

Additionally, the dam submergence area is slated to drown 642 hectares of dense mix Shiwalik forest land, that has been reason enough to deny the project forest clearance. Parts of the Renuka wild life sanctuary are also being acquired for the dam submergence area.

Forest land is the supporting structure for fertile agricultural land. Without forests, lands do not remain moist, winds are not broken, and the whole ecology and balance of a region is destroyed.

It is in light of these facts; we would like to point out that the Renuka dam severely endangers the food producing farmers of the Giri Valley of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh. The dam will also impact the local climate as well as affect climate change, cause deforestation and destroy bio-diversity.

People of the area are resisting against the acquisition of agricultural and forest land for the last three years, they are opposed to this Dam. We have noticed that the GoI is considering the view of local communities that are opposing Dams and Hydro-projects in Uttrakhand and the North East, and we urge you to do the same in Himachal.

6. We would also like to point out another reporting by the Indian Express epaper, that said: “Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has taken up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demands for a review of all hydro projects in the region and a “moratorium on any further clearances for hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh” since “these are bound to be the subject of agitation” in Assam.”

It is a scandal with green cover which needs to be abandoned and a complete enquiry instituted on how institutions have colluded to hoodwink the decision makers.

We urge you to intervene in the matter of the Renuka Dam and save the beautiful Giri valley and the lives of local farmers by completely scrapping the project. To emphasise this demand. Renuka Bandh Sangharsh Samiti is sitting on hunger strike on 16th Nov 2010 on the eve of Renuka Mela. Chief Minister of HP is coming for opening the fair and the communities feel that it is the appropriate time to inform the Government of its misdeeds.


On behalf of

Renuka Bandh Sangarsh Samithi

Himalaya Niti Abhiyan

Environics Trust


Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment, GOI

Shri C.P Joshi, Minister, Panchayat Raj, GOI

Shri N.C Saxena, Member , NAC

Shri Rahul Gandhi, General Secretary, AICC

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out. Cold

I've been missing Delhi quite a bit these days. Missing the warm sweet potato-n-lime snack sold on leaf-plates. Missing the mysterious mornings when you feel as if all the misty apprehension we carry within our souls had somehow been scooped out and set loose upon the streets. I miss missing heaters. I miss my teeth chattering. I miss monkey caps. I miss rubbing my hands together and feeling the wind cut a rivulet across my eyes as I returned from work in an auto.

Winter makes all of us who have lived north of Mumbai nostalgic. For the fog. For the chill. For 'heaty' snacks. For good gajak and warm naankhatai and smoking little fires on each street. For mufflers on faces. For electricity in hair.

But then, I'm just a northerner in the sense that I'm north of Mumbai. I do not miss places where water freezes in taps and all hotels and restaurants shut down for four long months. I am not from places where schools have a very long winter break instead of a proper summer vacation. I'm not from the hills and certainly not from Leh or Ladakh.

I've travelled quite high in the hills in November but that was in a good year. A year where people had homes, even if the freezing water made pipelines burst. A year unlike this one, where people are living in tents.

I cannot quite imagine how, even though a friend has sent photographs of the way people are still living, post Cloudburst in August this year. He sent back a link to some photos, with a simple message in October: 'Please help them'.

I saw the photos and kept thinking, but this is September. The smiling faces of mothers and children - what do they look like right now? What's happening right now in Leh?

I wish the mainstream media was telling me more about how the state is handling the housing and clothing situation in areas affected by Cloudburst. I hope things are under control, but having seen how bad things can be in Delhi, I wonder if there is any reason to be so optimistic.

If there was one thing I did not like about a Delhi winter, it was the sight of homeless people out at night. It made the city heartbreaking, shocking and frightening. I was shocked and outraged the first winter I spent living alone in an unheated room in Delhi. Some nights were so cold I couldn't sleep. And then I'd see the rickshaw-pullers, curled up under a thin blanket, on a less-than-three-foot long seat.

I'd read snippets in the papers, of course - inside pages, single column, maybe two inches worth of news - about so many dozens dying in 'cold waves'. Such items appear regularly in newspapers in north-Indian cities. Each summer, there's a 'heat wave' and each winter, a 'cold wave' that rises up and snatches away a few dozen people. The papers rarely mention that these people were homeless, or that they possibly provided cheap, essential services to the city, such as transportation or public hygiene. There isn't enough room and anyway, it is understood. Why would anyone die of the cold if they weren't too poor to be able to deal with it?

It made me do one of my first stories for Frontline (appended below) in 2004. It also led me to visit a 'raen basera', an impossibly romantic Urdu word that describes an impossibly inadequate service to deal with this kind of crisis - homelessness in a Delhi winter. Sad, smelly and ill-equipped though the night shelters are, they're there.

With the massive migrant/refugee influx into most (state) capital cities, it is time India began to invest a little more time and money in creating more night shelters. They are as important as hospitals and serve the same purpose - they save lives.

"As the icy fingers of winter send deathly chills down Delhi’s spine, people have begun to hug themselves tight, as if their clothes were a good-luck charm offered by destiny. But for tens of thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of homeless people out on the streets of the national capital, there is no good luck charm and if they had a destiny, they’d gladly set fire to it to warm themselves.

Over the years, Delhi’s population has gone up, and with it, the numbers braving the fatal north-Indian winter. Cold waves are an annual feature, as are the dead bodies found in the foggy morning.

According to media reports, in 2002, beat constables found 3,040 corpses during the winter. Of these, no less than 400 had died in a cold wave.

However, as far as the establishment is concerned, the winter threat to the shelterless isn’t worthy of a long-term policy or plan. The government has done precious little to build a comprehensive policy for urban homelessness, or even conducted a proper census.

Paramjeet Kaur, director of AAA (Aashray Adhikaar Abhiyaan), an NGO focusing on housing rights, says, "According to our survey in 2000, there were 52,765 people out on the streets. But we missed at least half. Currently, 12 shelters are run by MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi). 10 of these are only night shelters, and about 2,500 people can be accommodated. All of them are pay-and-use, with Rs 6 for 12 hours’ occupancy."

Last year, about 70 deaths were attributed to winter, a marked improvement over previous years. This was possible because a network of NGOs was working in collusion with the municipal corporations of Delhi (old delhi) and New Delhi. Religious institutions like Sacred Hearts Cathedral and Bangla Sahib, and educational institutions like Zakir Hussain College and Zeenat Mahal School, besides a few municipal schools, opened up their doors despite the extra load on water and sewage facilities.

According to a report based on the consultation ‘Space for the Homeless and Marginalised in Delhi’, organized by Action Aid India and the Slum and Resettlement Wing of the MCD in July 2003, the total homeless population in India is no less than 78 million (based on the 2001 census). The report says, "This problem was more acute in the three metros, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, which put together were reported to have 78% of the houseless population."

Even the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) admits that at least 1% of the population is homeless. This means that no less than 140,000 shelterless people. Incidentally, this figure does not include those who sleep in carts, rickshaws, or under flimsy plastic-sheet roofs. Compare this to the fact that Delhi’s night shelters cater to only about 2,500 people, and one wonders what the government supposes the rest should do during the harsh Delhi winter.

Lalit Batra of the Hazard Centre, another NGO working for housing rights told us, "At least 1 lakh jhuggis (slums) have been demolished since 2000. In Yumuna-Pushta alone, we estimate that roughly 30-50,000 have been rendered homeless. Only 30,000 were rehabilitated. The trend is that only 25% get accommodation after evictions. There is no way but for homelessness to rise."

The paradox is that the state does not seem to be making use of the resources that are available. In September 2004, there was a conference of ministers of housing from all the states and union territories, organised by the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation. According to the agenda report: "it is the ultimate goal of the National Policy on Housing and Habitat, 1998, to provide the basic need of shelter for all, but until such objective is achieved, it is necessary to provide some kind of shelter to the absolutely shelterless urban poor, particularly street children, destitute women and migrant labourers etc."

In keeping with this commitment, the scheme of night shelters for the urban homeless was introduced in 1988-89. According to the government, the scheme was supposed to progress as per demand. This means that the states would put forward proposals, which would then be sanctioned by HUDCO. By July 2004, HUDCO had sanctioned 99 night shelters across India. Maharashtra, which faces one of the worst situations of urban homelessness, has been sanctioned 40 shelters. Delhi has been sanctioned zero.

Also, under the scheme of ‘shelter and sanitation facilities for footpath dwellers in urban areas’, Delhi had been sanctioned zero, as of March 31, 2000. Almost every other state (including a much-maligned Bihar) has a better record of putting forward proposals for the urban homeless, which were accepted.

According to the same report, the National Slum Development Programme has sanctioned Rs 14,053 lakhs to Delhi between 2000-04, of which the entire amount has been listed as ‘unspent balance’. In short, Delhi has the money. It is not being used.

Women and children, the most vulnerable groups out on the streets, have practically nowhere to go. The only shelter within New Delhi limits has also been taken away. Palika Ashray Grih was a shelter that catered specifically to women, and was run by AAA. But the shelter was taken away by the NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) just before the onset of winter, rendering the inhabitants homeless again.

Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, UN Commission on Human Rights, agrees that the government has no definite policy on housing in Delhi. "Historically, we have a grave crisis of housing. Every time the municipality demolishes slums, the vast majority are rendered homeless. We believe this is a violation of human rights. During the recent brutal eviction of women from Palika hostel, there were several human rights violations."

Palika Hostel was the first initiative by the NDMC towards a women’s shelter. On October 16, 2004, the women and children were forcibly evicted, many of them sustaining injuries during the whole procedure.

The women set up tents right outside the building and continue to sit there on a relay hunger strike. However, on November 5, NDMC officials pulled out the tent poles even as women and children were sleeping inside. The AAA team intervened and has since met the Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, sent telegrams to the Prime Minister’s Office, contacted the National Commission for women and complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NDMC and the chief minister’s office directed that the women be shifted to Nirmal Chhaya, a home for destitute women. But the women refuse to move because the complex is often mistaken for a detention centre and is even known in common parlance as the ‘women’s prison’, being situated next to Tihar Jail. Besides, it is a short-stay home and has no provision for housing women over 45 years of age.

Officialdom, meanwhile, does its pass-the-buck trick. Frontline spoke to various departments, all of which claim that the problem is not theirs. According to Nisha Agarwal of the Slum and Juvenile Justice wing of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi), "We have 24 children’s homes. The primary job is to look for the street children’s original home and families. They are brought to us through the police, concerned citizens and NGOs etc. Night shelters are not our mandate. That is MCD’s baby."

She added that night shelters are part of the poverty alleviation scheme of the government. "There are 17 or 18 night shelters maybe. They open up another 17 or so during winters. Last year, we helped MCD cope with the severe winter. We helped monitor the shelters but we don’t really have the budgets or the staff to cope."

Madan Thapaliyal of the NDMC told us, "We are not equipped to run shelters for the homeless population. We don’t have the infrastructure to cope. From December 15 onwards, we will give some extra night shelters. We make arrangements on the requirement of the central government. The responsibility belongs to the state’s welfare department."

Jitendra Narain, Director of the department of social welfare explains that, in a letter to UK Vohra, Secretary, NDMC, he had mentioned that though Nirmal Chhaya was available to the former residents of Palika Hostel, the timing was incorrect for proposing to shift them, with winter being round the corner.

Rashmi Singh, joint director in the department of social welfare, says that the right place to go and ask questions would be the urban development ministry. "We will not shrug off responsibility, because anything to do with social welfare is our business. The census doesn’t even give us the right figures. The secretary of this department had estimated 10,000 homeless people for Delhi. Yet, there is no formal survey." She clarified that the problem has to be tackled through a collective effort. "MCD has 17 night shelters and 7 converted community centres during winters. The development commissioner’s office sets up temporary camps. We have one short stay home for women, Nirmal Chhaya. YWCA has some facilities and there’s Bapno Ghar for women. NDMC has old age homes. Some NGOs are supported by us, round the year. But we cannot usurp the government’s role and mandate for urban homelessness. The Urban development ministry is the nodal body."

Miloon Kothari believes that although "nobody takes responsibility for the poor, but from a legal perspective, according to the NDMC Act of 1994, the NDMC is responsible. Any municipality of the world has to take up responsibility."

Ultimately, help had to come from non-government quarters. Paramjeet Kaur believes that unless more NGO’s, volunteers and civic organisations come forward, this year will be difficult. "Last year was a big achievement for us. We managed 43 shelters, 23 of them temporary and 20 buildings. We had support from MCD’s mobile health unit. How this winter turns out depends on how many volunteers come forward. It is not an easy task managing thousands of lives round the clock, especially those who have health problems. In winter, chronic diseases get aggravated. Every night, we’re on the vigil. Electricity and water is required. Blankets and bedding have to be washed. AAA is also trying to get them (homeless people) organised. We have helped the elderly form a group called Varishtha Nagrik Sangh. They have applied for old age pension and will now apply for ration cards. We run a food and health care program. They are issued ID cards and can stay free."

Kaur adds that the solution is not hard to find. "The state government needs to open up spaces. NDMC has only one shelter at Nizamuddin. You can’t bar certain zones. Delhi has the infrastructure. We only need to make multipurpose use of existing government buildings. Spaces over parking lots are available. Community centre buildings and Baarat Ghars can be used. We have shown MCD and NDMC that this isn’t a wasteful venture. After years, MCD actually made a profit in the year when we ran five community centres as night shelters!"

Among other things, they demand that the official recognition of winter’s duration be increased. MCD and NDMC make arrangements only after December 15. Since winter sets in earlier in Delhi, the government, they argue, should extend facilities from mid-November until Holi. Most activists agree that the homeless have no voice since they do not have votes. They are trying to rectify that by issuing ID cards and helping the homeless to vote.

This year’s general elections saw 500 homeless people on the electoral rolls, of which about 150 voted. They look forward to the day when the shelterless people of this country - all 78 million and more - get organised into a formidable vote bank. The government will have no option but to sit up and take note.

[A slightlyedited version of the story appeared in Frontline magazine in Jan 2005]

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Not ikebana, at any rate

The easiest thing to be is a cynic. And I have often behaved like one. I continue to do so (my mother will be nodding her 'aye's at this) even now - constantly shrugging off small attempts at change, constantly asking 'when has it ever been any different?'
Perhaps, it is even wise. Perhaps, the total compounded wisdom of the world comes down to this: 'When was it ever any different? What makes you think things will change this time around?' I don't know if it makes any sense to go on thinking we can - I can - change anything at all. But then I read this:

In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson – a thug prone to threatening to “crush” entire elected governments – with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved”, using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”

It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hoardes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.

Imagine! A bunch of people - probably not a very large bunch - stood around in a public place to let powerful people know that it wasn't okay - this, whatever was happening, it wasn't done, they weren't going to stand for it. And a nuclear war didn't happen.

Change isn't just about the things you accomplish at the end of a day, or a month, or a even year. Change is also about preventing bad decisions. Too many of us don't show up for protests when it really matters because we think nothing moves. But so often, nothing moving is a good thing.

The odd thing is, change can be wrought in so many small, painless ways, it is almost surprising we don't bother. Take this business of censorship. A few years ago, I remember being in Delhi and attending a show of the play, Line. I forget the name of the theatre company but I think it was a show supported by the First City foundation (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), which does support a lot of cultural activity in the capital. So far, so good.

The script, however, was not an easy one for the average conservative Indian audience to digest. There was sexual content and not of the comic, innuendo-laden type to which we are safely inured. It wasn't particularly brutal sex either. But it was discomfiting. Perhaps, that was the point of the play? We didn't have a chance to find out.

Mid-way through the performance, somebody was discomfited to the point that they asked the group to stop. The director stepped up and apologised and told us, the audience, that the rest of the performance stood cancelled.

Now, this was the point we could all have stood up and gone home. It should have been easy. The play wasn't bad and I don't usually walk out of a performance, but that wasn't the point. None of us had invested enough time and money into attending this show for us to make a fuss about it. The money wasn't the point either.

We - the self-nominated liberalati, culturati, media people in Delhi - stood in the foyer, uncertain. What should we do? Should we just go? Should we... ask somebody? We asked a few questions. Neel, one of the producers, told us that somebody (I can only assume that it was somebody important enough to call off the show) found the play offensive.

That was when we all stood there. Just stood a little longer than necessary and said, no, we want to watch this. Let the full show be performed. I am not very sure who spoke to whom, and when the decision was reversed. But reversed it was. The show went on.

At the end, I have this to say: My sensibilities were slightly offended. I got the point of it but as a woman, I found the premise of the lone woman character and the way the script used her sexuality... well, problematic. The script left me and my friends feeling mildly nauseous. But if a performance of Line was to come to my town, and was to be disrupted again, I would once again be willing to hang around in the foyer. I should be. Because today it's Line. Yesterday it was Sakharam Binder. Today, it is Arundhati Roy. Yesterday, it was Gandhi. People have to have their say. And we have to let them, no matter how strongly we disagree.

And for god's sake, we have to stop thinking that what we think, or do, will not matter. Particularly those of us who are in the business of thinking and expressing. NSR puts it best, as usual:

The best writers in every age have also been deeply engaged citizens, and to ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting. What we’re really asking, when we pose the question of a writer’s responsibility, is for writing to be like bonsai-growing, or ikebana: a strictly ornamental occupation that challenges nothing, shakes up nothing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


It has been about six months since the last book came out. And I've been doing a fair bit of thinking about the writing life, about what it means to me to have 'become a writer' and what greater toll this way of living will exact. Still trying to figure those things out.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking about what a writer's responsibilities are, and what I might owe to whom. To that, the answer right now seems to be - not much, not to anybody much. A debt to gratitude to friends and family, of course. But that is the sort of debt we all owe. We cannot live without piling it up, and we must perforce pay it in the same coin - with support and time and affection.

But as a writer?

I'm not quite sure if I owe anyone anything simply by dint of what I choose to do. Nor do I assume that anyone owes me anything. Society doesn't owe it to me to allow me to make a living, writing what I choose. The government or cultural institutes don't owe me support. Readers don't owe me their time or attention.

But the most precious thing about having a book like this out and available (mostly) in the market is that people I don't know at all have read it and liked it, and said it transformed them. They have written back in, tweeted back in, looked me up on Facebook and sent messages.

I was already feeling a little giddy when one of my oldest girl friends, someone who avowedly reads only for 'time-pass' and usually romances or historical novels, began to read Known Turf. She was doing me a favour, really. Showing support etc. But a couple of months ago, she called to say she was surprised that I had actually spawned this thing. "It's the best thing I've ever read," she said.

Perhaps she was over-generous. After all, we have known each other fifteen years. But I will never stop feeling grateful for all the feedback from strangers who said I made them think about themselves, India or womanhood in new ways.

One such stranger tagged me on Facebook to do a list of 15 writers who influenced me or touched my life. 'The ones you carry with you in your head. The ones who shape your thinking and your dreams.'

It is really hard to think of those writers off-hand. I've been asked that questions by interviewers a couple of times and I find myself fumbling suddenly. Really, who are my influences? I've been reading since I was six years old. I ought to have a hundred! But when it comes to the crunch, my mind blanks. So I thought this is a good time to do a sparse list.

So I did the list, and since I was meaning to post something about writing in general on the blog, I figured I'd do a more detailed note here. Here's my essential influential 15:

1. Nissim Ezekiel

A poem called 'Beauty' was in my school syllabus but I cannot find it on the internet now. It jolted me into actually paying attention to poetry, instead of memorizing and led me to realise its power. If someone can find it, please send it to me.

2. Charles Dickens

Began reading his stuff when I was 8 years old - too young to understand much except the barebones plot. But his protagonists were often children and that helped. I read and re-read those books in college and understood a bit more. But I swallowed the subtext even in my childhood. I think it is just embedded within me now.

3. Hardy Boys/Franklin W Dixon (who didn't really exist).

Mysteries, adventure, high school romance. But I just couldn't fathom how Chet allowed Joe to date his sister. In India, where I grew up, boys would beat up anybody who tried to make their sisters into 'girlfriends'.

4. Jane Austen

The Karan Johar-Yash Chopra of her time. Everybody secretly likes.

5. Walter Scott

Historical romance. Still a bit of a sucker.

6. William Shakespeare

To be or not to be. All the world's a stage. One can go on and on and on.

7. Arun Kolatkar

Jejuri turned wheels inside me, opened so many windows in my head, I'm still reading and re-reading.

8. Agatha Christie.

Murder made everyday. I hadn't thought of killers as real, ordinary people who lived in respectable families and had mundane causes for wanting to kill, not until I read her. Never outgrew that style and genre either. Still love murder mysteries.

9. P. Sainath

Everybody Loves a Good Drought. One book that really did change my world view.

10. John Donne

Busy Olde Foole... allowed me to think of poetry as fun, and sexy. Not depressing all the time. He taught me to have fun with poems.

11. Arthur Miller

The Crucible. All My Sons. He said things.

12. William Golding

Lord of the Flies. Still get scared when I think about it.

13. Paash

Politically charged love poetry. Plus, what he lived like is an integral part of what his work is like. It changed the way I thought of poets and their task in the world.

14. Margaret Atwood

The primary way in which she influenced me was to make me very envious.

15. Salman Rushdie

I think he had the same influence on me that Marquez and magic-realism has on many young readers, except that I was introduced to Marquez at a later stage in life.

So that's it at this point.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ghaghra feminism

I have a great love for Ila Arun, specifically the pop numbers she did in the 1990s. One of my earliest memories of serious desi pop is 'Vote for Ghaghra', and one of the naughtiest is 'Nigodi kaisi jawaani'. Today, that's what I want to talk about: Good, unapologetic, plugged-in pop.

'Vote for Ghaghra' is one of our best political songs and certainly the only one I can recall in the post 90s cable era of Indian television. What song before or since has mentioned a chief election commissioner (T.N Seshan)? I instantly fell in love with it for reasons I found hard to articulate as a schoolgirl in Rajasthan. But more than a decade later, I still remember half the lyrics.

When a fellow-writer happened to holler back to the pop songs of that time, I was reminded of the song and began to try and decode why I like it so much. I played it over and over on Youtube and found that each viewing-listening session brought more pleasure. I had forgotten the slightly bizarre opening frames and sounds (a baby crying, then grinning) but by the end, it all made a kind of kitsch-sy sense. Finally, I think I know what makes this song such a great piece of work:

1 - The words. It is called 'Vote for Ghaghra'. The lyrics proceed to explain why by telling us a story. It ends by saying 'mardaan ke aage niklegi janaani' (woman will surpass man). If there was ever an unashamed, riotous, simply stated feminist manifesto in desi pop - haminasto haminasto haminast.

2 - The narrative. It tells the story of a village woman who is happily eating cucumbers in a field when along comes a politically-connected young lout who tries to molest her. She thrashes him. He tells her who he is. She laughs at him. He swears to get back at her, and he does too. He files a case against her!

The cops arrive; she is beaten and arrested. But in prison, she uses her charms to seduce the 'thandedar' (jailor) and - one assumes - gets him over to her side. The truth is leaked to the press. Press and politicians woo her. Other bad men try to bribe her, threaten to kill her (one is left to assume that this is because she has filed a counter-complaint, or told some uncomfortable truths).

Through all this, the woman stands firm. And she is rewarded by getting an election ticket. Since she is now singing 'dilli sheher mein maaro ghaghro jo ghoomiyo', one can safely assumes that she has won the election and her skirts are flying low, swirling brightly over the center of power in India - Delhi.

3 - The visual politics. Look at the video carefully in the Indian patriarchal context. When the powerful lout threatens the village belle, he twirls his moustache, a symbol of asserting your masculinity. The funny thing is, in the video, the lout does not really have a moustache! This adds a layer of incidental - or perhaps, intended - irony, because it immediately makes the fellow laughable, claiming qualities and power that are not his own.

When the belle wins over the police officer, his uniform cap is on her head, as she dances. This is a symbol many films and 'item' numbers have used later. It immediately communicates that the guardian has his guard down, that she is toying with the power the nation vests in men of uniform, so she is taking control in some way.

Lastly, ghaghras swirl as elections are fought, votes are sought, and 'Dilli' is evoked. Dilli has been the seat of power in the Indian subcontinent for centuries now. People marched to Delhi, rallying under the cry of 'ab dilli door nahin' (delhi is not far), and they continue to do so. Similarly 'ghaghra' has been a symbol of feminity for centuries. Skirts and bangles - these are the ultimate symbol of womanli-ness and an implied vulnerability, weakness/powerlessness. When a woman wants to insult a man, she might tell him to wear bangles, or a ghaghra (as the heroine does, in this film song). But Ila Arun is singing of making the ghaghra an election symbol, fighting under the banner of a female garment. Which means - taking the seat of power with womanliness.

4 - The physicality. Note, I do not use the softer, more popular pop word 'sensuality'. This video is not sensual. It is bawdy, funny, wild, mixed-up, physical, sexual. Arun sings: watch my choli, watch my tongue, watch my chunri, watch my ghaghra. And ghaghras fly. Wrestlers wrestle in very tiny saffron langots (underwear?). The camera zooms in to bare pot bellies. The women, and Ila Arun herself, wear traditional cholis where the emphasis of design, cut, embellishment and colour patterns is heavy on the breasts. The belle is not afraid of using her body to woo the cop (and sounds like she is proud of it) and the singer makes distinctly erotic sounds while singing out that part of the story.

[For the same reason, I also like 'Nigodi...' It is breathy and doesn't shy away from husky, blatant expression of desire, placed in the unrevealed bosom of a middle-aged domestic worker. It is desire that likes itself.]

5 - The innocence. You must have noticed the girl in the really short black skirt, gyrating along with another young fellow. There is very little connection between this visual and the rest of the song. The micro-mini was probably tossed into the video because it was India and it was the 90s and cable TV was all over the place. India was waking up to bare legs on TV and shorts and minis were de rigueur if you wanted to catch eyeballs.

Interestingly enough, a decade and a half later, this is still de rigueur. Films, 'items', pop albums - they are full of young women in really limited clothing. And not just one. Usually, there is a horde, usually around one 'hero'. The trend veered towards blondes lately and will probably shift away at some point. But the profusion of bare, gyrating skin on TV nowadays makes this early video look innocent. Note how the young 'modern-urban' couple do not even look into the camera. They are not trying to seduce the viewer. They are just doing their thing like the rest of the dancers in dhotis and ghaghras, looking quite silly, of course, and very happy.

Also, the baby begins to made sense after you view the video four or five times. There are all kinds of non-adult visuals tossed into the mix. There are little girls swirling in their little ghaghras, but they are not sexualized (unlike the kids in present-day dance shows). They are just dancing like little village girls do. There is an old sadhu who pokes his elbow-rest at the camera. Ila Arun preens in her dark glasses like any village woman just back from a tour of the big city.

6 - The visual theme. Spinning. The act of rotating and revolving.

You don't see too many videos in India that actually have a theme going. We totally do not see videos that are intelligent in the way they choose to interpret the lyrics. 'Vote for Ghaghra' works with: '...ghaghra jo ghoomiye... ae ghoomiyo, ae ghoomiyo', but it doesn't remain stuck with swirling skirts, or spinning dancers. Everything is ghoomo-fying.

Ila Arun's fingertip. Dancers' hands. A barber rotates the head of a client getting a massage. Wrestlers move round and round, locking each other in a grip. A leg of chicken rotates on a spit, embedded as a photo in a newspaper. The camel's jaw works in a circular sort of way. Turbans are turned round and round. Lights and shadows slowly move across bodies on the screen. Dancing laddoos. When you have seen it a dozen times, you actually begin to look at the ghoomiyo theme as representing something larger. Everything moves as the world itself does.

7 - A brief list of things to pay attention to: The camel, especially when he eats the newspaper. The moustaches. The turban spinning. The goggles. Ila Arun adjusting the flower garland on her bosom while she stands beside an elderly politician. Ila Arun in a white tee over a ghaghra. The images reflected onto the dancers as a moving shadow around 3 minutes and 38-40 seconds into the video.

For me this song means a feminist high. It mixes up a dozen different elements but it is bold and ambitious and colourful and it places a mature woman bang at the center - visually and contextually - of things. It celebrates her sexuality, even her bravado. It allows her to say 'no' and to punish unwelcome advances. It gives her a backbone. And it gives her a happy ending fixed on her own future, not about her relationship with another man.

I am sick and tired of songs doused in, and set ablaze by, what look like 16-24 year old blondes (or dark girls who want to be the blondes they grew up watching on MTV), dressed in clothes that are cut to reveal skin but have little else to recommend the style aesthetically. The girls all have almost the same measurements. They gyrate and twist in the same predictable way. They all pout. They all stare at you in a seductive, mock-tigress stance.

You might understand what I mean if you watch these videos back to back - first watch 'Choli ke peechhe' (Ila Arun's voice accompanying Neena Gupta on the screen), then Arun's Nogodi, and then a newer remix of 'Resham ka rumaal' which Arun has also sung (but her voice is not on this video). The first two don't have a dull second. I wish someone would tell music video (and film item number) directors that the latter is boringboringboring. The last time a gyrating number was even slightly fun, they had to put in a buffalo into the mix.

There's no accounting for tastes of course. But as a woman, I prefer cholis and ghaghras to buffaloes. They have my vote.

Now enjoy the video

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Night snippet from sleepless city

It was past one in the night. I stood outside the old building with a couple of other women. The night shift security guards stood nearby.

One woman clicked her tongue and stared into the distance when talking about tomorrow. The day of the Ayodhya verdict. It is enough to say 'The Verdict' these days. Everyone understands. Everyone in our generation at least.

The other lady began to point out the street where she saw flames rising against the horizon, in 1992. Someone else mentioned hacked limbs. Earlier in the day, many people around me had mentioned a hospital. Let there be a hospital in Ayodhya instead. I had nodded to myself, silently. Yes, let it be that way.

Then the security guard said: "Arre, but for that one masjid broken, so many hundreds of temples have been broken since then... around the world."

I did not say 'since when?' Or 'who was talking about temples and mosques?' Or anything else. I got into the cab and went home.

Who knows what this verdict is about? It doesn't seem to matter much to me or to others of a similar class and cultural background - temples, mosques, who cares? Is this too a class issue then?

And what of the younger generation - the ones who do not remember 1992? Those who don't know where Ayodhya is, or what was broken down, or who was responsible and who could have stopped it - even they have opinions on the subject. Sometimes guarded, sometimes just innocently communal. Us. Them. The usual.

Makes me wonder about the young people who went berserk across the country in 1992-93. Did they know where Ayodhya is? Did they know the name of their prime minister? Makes me think of the young men I met in 2002, just before Godhra and the Gujarat riots. They too wanted to go to Ayodhya - take along bricks and their bodies, build a Ram temple. All between 18 and 30, making applications to the Bajrang Dal, thinking they were being carefully hand-picked for something really important.

Did they know where they were headed?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A poem in Cha

Not about cha, which too may happen some day. But for now, 'Diaphragm' is in Cha magazine. Link to the:  poem.

And a piece where the online journal is mentioned.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A verdict, a crime, aggression and infamous almonds.

1. How to respond to people asking me to 'be careful' in the light of the Ayodhya verdict. How is one to be careful, in this context? Any suggestions?

2. Yesterday afternoon, at a signal. The sun warm again now that the rain is gone. The autos have been difficult as always, but still. Somebody finally was willing to ply. Struggle, thy middle name is Mumbai, I remind myself.

I glance outside. On the pavement to my left, a young man sits, legs splayed, head lolling forward onto his chest. A piece of thick white and blue plastic covers his head and shoulders, and is bunched up all around him. He is very still. Ill? Drunk? Exhausted? Drugged?

The signal hasn't changed to green. I glance out at the man again. Another young man walks past. He carries a stick, or is it a metal prod? Some piece of junk furniture perhaps or broken machine part. From a distance, it is hard to tell. This fellow walks past the sleeper, once, twice. He pauses, prods the sleeper with the stick. There is no response. He bends at the waist and chucks the sleeper under the chin. Grabs his chin and waggles it hard. There is no response.

For a moment, my heart skips a beat. Is he dead? Is he that ill? The traffic light has changed from red to yellow.

Then the young man with the stick, still bend, touches the sleeper's chest. I think he is feeling for a heart-beat. He is not. His fingers reach into the sleeper's pocket, right in front of his shirt. From that pocket, he takes out a note - ten? twenty? hundred? - and straightens up.

The traffic light has changed to green. I consider, for a brief moment, the wisdom of raising some kind of alarm. But the auto engine has come to life, car horns are blaring all around. Traffic is moving between me and the pavement. I lose sight of the two young men for a few seconds.

Then I spot him again - the young man with the odd stick. He is walking away. I can clearly see the currency note in his hand. He holds it lightly, casually, looks straight ahead. The sleeper is still. Legs splayed, head lowered to his chest. Traffic moves, and so do I.

3. There's petty theft. Then there's highway robbery.
‎'The Geneva centre of housing rights and evictions reckons sport to be one of the biggest displacers of humanity, perhaps second only to war. In two decades some 2 million people have had to make way for Olympic stadiums and "villages"...'
Sports. Who'd have thunk?

The commonwealth games reports of undoing and mal-doing have begun to elicit 'Oh no! Now what?' kind of response from us Indians. But people in Britain are concerned too. They are hosting the Olympics in 2012 and according to this writer. Also, he says: 'There can be no other state activity that dares such presumption. No arts activity, no theatre or rock festival, no adventure project or charitable fund-raiser would demand such colossal subsidy. The nearest parallel in cost per week is probably the military invasion of a foreign state'.

Made me think about sport and war.

Ever since I was a child, I was taught to think of sport as an 'alternative' to war. Nobody specifically said it, or maybe they did too. I don't remember clearly. But people who turn combative on the sports field were cheered, as opposed to kids who get into random fights on the playground. This seems to be a maxim that holds good all over the world. Movies, books, educators - they all recommend that 'aggression be channelized', preferably into some kind of artistic expression, or competitive sports.

Is that what the channels lead to - violence of a slightly different sort? Is there no way of looking at aggression and chauvinism as just that, and sport as just that. Play. Fun. Something you do aside from work, something for your body's needs. Something that is not about national egotism and international bullying.

4. On a happier note, I was thinking that there should be a retweet option on blogs too. There is always good old-fashioned linking, but when I read this blogger's thoughts about Munni Badnaam, I just wanted to retweet this extract.

K- I can’t find any white people on the internet! I Googled ‘where can I find white people’ and it was phail.

S- I can’t believe that didn’t work.

K- I KNOW! The internet must be broken. I also Googled the English translation for MunniBadnaamSong. Did you know that Munni Badnaam Hui means ‘Munni goes infamous’?

S- Is that the right translation?

K- It was on the internet so it must be true. Munni goes infamous.

S- Is that like going hungry? Is the song about famine?

K- Could be. Or it could mean she is becoming criminals.

S- Like Bandit Queen.

K- I actually thought the song was about almonds. Doesn’t ‘badnaam’ mean almond?

S- I think that’s ‘badaam’.

K- That’s not the same thing?

S- Apparently not.

K- Why not? Sounds same only. Munni Badaam hui. Munni Badnaam Hui. See? Same only.

Ok, we’re going to end this conversation right now.

Maybe ‘badnaam’ is a bad almond. Maybe the song is about food adulteration.

S- Either we end this conversation now or the phone becomes lodged within your nasal passages with great force and violence.

K- You’re really mean. And I didn’t even put the song on also.

S- Hang up now. For your own good only I am saying.

By the by,

S- Shut up your face and hang up.

K- By the by,

I’m not kidding.



S- Did someone die? Because I can’t think of any other justifiable reason for you to be calling me at this time unless someone is dead or the Americans have finally invaded our one number country.

I want to know something. In the MunniBadnaamSong,

S- You have got to be kidding me.

K- There’s this line that apparently means ‘Became cinema hall for you darling’.


K- I’m curious to know if that is a sexual metaphor or is it symbolic of the fascination that our country has for the cinema combined with the objectification of Woman or is it a reflection of the fatalistic outlook of the common man?

S- Why don’t you go fuck yourself?

Read the whole thing. Caused me much amusement on this late, strange night.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A little madness

You may have heard about the Madness Mandali. I heard (about their poetry-art project), I wanted in, it seems I am in. Mixing poetry with art/photos etc it is a great concept. I'm pretty excited and impatient to see what happens to my poem when an artist works with it.

In the meantime, in case you want to know more about Madness Mandali: "Most of these groups are made up by youngsters, all with day jobs, who also double up as artists, sound engineers, actors, photographers, etc. However, there are also a few celebrated artists, for whom public art is a medium to enhance their creativity."
So very young, but so very cool.

According to the article, the Mandali is "also geared up to go public with art exhibitions, impromptu music sessions and street plays." I hope they do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

People who give

People are talking about giving this week. I've got a couple of calls from people wanting to give, wanting advice about who to donate to. I am not going to point you towards any one NGO.

Today I want to talk about a different kind of giving. The kind that involves years of involvement, stretching your own resources almost to bankruptcy, nights spent staring into the void, longing for creative inspiration.

No, I am not talking about writers or artists, though they too do live and create in this mould sometimes. I am talking about inventors. Not the kind who work out of research labs in universities or those who make presentations to get their research funded. I am going to talk low-income, even desperate researchers. People who poured their time into projects that had little hope of realisation. People whose projects were a personal problem-solving mission. And for that reason alone, their work is powerful and relevant. Their inventions really are the children of necessity, and the story of how and why they made stuff is a compelling read.

Take the example of the man who found a way to cut generator noise and collect carbon particles released by diesel engines at the same time. He didn't do it because he was overly bothered by global warming, but because he needed to use a generator in his own workshop, in east Champaran, Bihar.

"My workshop was just opposite a school. Since we faced frequent power cuts, I had to install a generator. This resulted in noise and air pollution, which affected school children and neighbours. Everyone was up in arms against me. They even filed a case against me in the court."..."It was difficult to move to a new location for me so I started thinking about ways to control this pollution," says Virendra.

That was how Virendra Kumar Sinha's pollution control device got made. It can be attached to generators or other diesel engines, and it allows carbon deposits to get collected, which can even be re-used (to make shoe polish, for example).

Pandharinath Sarjerao More from Ahmednagar has a similar story. He was a farmer who knew that onions could make a grown man cry even before they became onions.

Onions saplings have to transplanted after they are eight weeks old. It takes a lot of time and a certain amount of skill, which
makes it especially hard for small and medium farmers who cannot afford to hire enough people to finish work on time. So he set about making a machine to do it and his experiments were almost fatal.

"In the year 2000, Pandharinath, on a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, was sitting devotedly and listening to bhajans (devotional songs). A line in a bhajan by Saint Tukaram meant 'paras also cannot make gold without touching iron'' struck (sic) in his mind."

It took him 43 days and Rs 18,000 to build a semi-automatic working model. The tractor-drawn unit not only transplants onions, it can also add fertilizer and create furrows for irrigation. And he doesn't even want to patent it!

More was 66 when he won the national innovation award and according to the website, he wants to share the technology rather than lay restrictions on its use. If that is not one of the highest forms of giving, what is?

What I found particularly touching while reading his profile was the bit where he is quoted as saying:
"Chetanwadi dimaag mein jad bhi bolne lagti hai,pyaaz ka paudha bhi mere se bolne laga tha... (Even inert things communicate to aware minds, the onion plants were talking to me…)"

There's Kanak Gogoi from Guwahati, who won the NIF award for being a ‘Serial Innovator’ This school drop-out has made hover crafts, amphibious crafts, a rumble strip for generation of electricity, a gravitational bicycle. In fact, he made an air gun when he was a student in class six!

One of his most usable inventions is a ‘gravity operated cycle’, which can “harness the repeated downward movement of the rider on a spring-loaded seat. This would charge a spring that would release the energy and make the cycle move without much pedaling.”

He also has a ‘Kanso hybrid car’, without gears that runs on solar power as well as fuel.

But he began by selling milk in Jorhat and doing odd jobs at mechanical workshops. He read up a lot, worked in a mechanical workshop, struck out on his own, tried getting into the transportation business, and failed quite spectacularly. But he went on inventing things.

And he's not the only serial innovator on the list. There's a dozens of people like him and Uddhab Bharali, who is credited with innovating eighty-five engineering devices of which thirteen have found commercial applications.

One of his inventions is the 'Arecanut Peeler', which he made after being "annoyed by the injuries caused while peeling the areca nuts manually." His machine can peel 100-120 nuts per minute now.

Mansukhbhai Raghavjibhai Prajapati is reasonably well-known since the mainstream press has covered him. But what I found interesting was his personal journey. He quit studies after high school, went to work in a factory but an eye injury forced him out of work. He tried setting up a tea lorry on the highway, and then worked in a tile manufacturing unit. That's how he learnt pottery, and how!

He actually won the NIF award for earthen products, the most famous of which is ‘Mitticool’, a clay refrigerator that does not need electricity. With the help of Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) in Ahmedabad, he researched and experimented for three years and in 2005, Mitticool was available for Rs 1500!

Soon Mansukhbhai developed a better version with more storage room. And he also made a non-stick tava since his wife wanted one. Only, he made it of clay and it took “about a year of research, and after making and breaking almost one lakh trial tavas, he succeeded in developing the non-stick coated earthen pan using Azo Noble, another food grade non-stick material like Teflon.” Costs Rs 50-100 and consumes less LPG, apparently. He’s also worked on a clay cooker, thermos, and is working on a fridge fitted with a reverse osmosis unit to filter drinking water.

C Mallesham’s story is very touching.

He’s from a family of Pochampalli (silk saree) weavers. “Before weaving these patterns on loom, hand winding process of yarn has to be pursued, called Asu. This process involves moving hand, over a space of one meter up and down around semi-circularly arranged pegs, 9000 times for one sari, demanding high concentration and accuracy. On each peg one has to wind four times before moving to the next peg.

This work, Laxmi, his mother would do. Her hands ached. So in 1992 he decided to invent something to make the job easier. He used up his wife’s money in the process, took loans he could not return, annoyed his own family and listened to neighbours’ taunts. He had to leave home, live alone as a migrant worker in Hyderabad, but he never gave up. In 1999, he cracked it and returned to Malleswaram with a ‘Laxmi’ machine that worked!

A saree could be made easier, it took one-third the time it used to take. Once, people used to tell him that his mother wasn’t the only one who suffered – trying to make him quit his crazy project – but now he was making life better for all the mothers of Pochampalli weavers. And he didn’t stop. He kept improving the design so threads could be adjusted and noise levels reduced. Do go read his story to see how his device has changed hundreds of lives in his community.

One of my favourites is Muruganantham, from Coimbatore, inventor of the ‘Mini sanitary napkin making machine’. Here’s how his profile on NIF tells it: “Once the innovator noticed his wife going to the toilet with an old cloth. On his enquiry, she said it was not an issue related to the concern of men. He surmised that she was using the old cloth as a substitute of sanitary napkin. When asked as to why she was not using a regular sanitary napkin her answer was a revelation to him. She said that if all the female members of the family were to buy sanitary napkins, then they would have to cut down on the family budget for milk every month.”

He got napkins tested in a lab and found out that they use wood fiber. He got the material from Mumbai first, then developed his own de-fibering unit. Then he made other machines for the forming and sealing of napkins. Finally, he added UV sterilization.

Entrepreneurs and SHGs have already begun to sell pads at very reasonable prices, like Rs 15 for a set of 10 pads.

His system can produce over 900 sanitary napkin pads per day. That’s not all. After he saw ATMs dispensing cash to customers, he developed a sanitary napkin dispenser with a coin slot.

Next time you spot a pack of cheap napkins with names like ‘Free Style’ or ‘Be Free’ in the local market, remember to doff your hat to Muruganantham.

One reason I've done this post and poached so liberally from the NIF website (and I doff my hat and deeply salaam to you, madams/sirs, who profiled the awardees), is that we often forget that science and manufacturing is about people - by and for ordinary people.

A schoolgirl who made washing machine-cum-exercycle so her hands were free to hold books. Other kids who made herbal mosquito repellents. A 76-year-old who recycles natural fibre to make match-sticks. No logging, no wastage! A school-boy who made a tea-making machine since his mom was ill and he wanted to avoid using a wood-fueled chulha, but almost had his invention destroyed!

These are people with injuries, people with loans, people with hearts that ache for their own family members and communities. People who then stake their all to create something new, DESPITE their families and communities.

These are brave, brilliant people and they have given the world wonderful things. Things that reduce pollution, things that empower women, create jobs. Things that save lives or cause someone's spine to bend at a less brutal angle. Things that should be aggressively marketed and widely available. But who's going to do it?

Where are the marketing whizzes? Where are the logistics' managers? Where are the intangible innovations, where are our tertiary sector geniuses?

Maybe we will find those people too. Maybe not.

Let me leave you with thoughts of Janakiram from Dindugal. He did not invent anything tangible but he used his eyes. He noticed that birds who attacked a grape crop were wary of honey bees. Voila! So, he set up honeycombs near a grape farm. Shahad ka shahad, angoor ka angoor!

Chew on that, people, and go read up all about the wonderful inventions by hundreds of people across the country. It has kept me up all night and I've only mentioned a few award-winners in this post. But each page has stories of triumph, survival, and quiet heroism.

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