Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In gratitude, and regret

I cannot fully express the nature of my regret at not having done this post before. I had meant to, as soon as I walked out of the hall after watching Club 60. But it was late, and over the last month, I was always either too sleepy, or too distracted by my own struggles to stay afloat, to stay hopeful. Next thing I hear, Farooque Shaikh is gone. And though I never met him, I would have liked to say 'Thank you', especially for playing Dr Tarique Shaikh. This post is not about the actor. It is about the film.

I cannot, with any sincerity, say that it is a flawless film. It is not. I was half-afraid actually, that I might be bored. It gave off 'sincere' vibes and such is the Hindi film industry's track record of sincerity in recent years, it is often accompanied by boredom and predictability. Still, I had little choice.

I have decided not to pay cinema halls for encouraging bad cinema. I especially stay away from 'big' films with 'stars' when they seem to offer nothing except a thick account of expenses. I stay away from stereotype and misogyny and re-makes. But I had not taken my mother out for a movie for a long time and Club 60 seemed to be the only film I could watch without compromising my newfound principles.

So we went out. One multiplex theatre had pulled the film off the screen, although a show was still being advertised in the papers. We went to another multiplex.

The film started. I was surprised at the outset - there was a very brief, fast-paced treatment of the events that led to the tragic death of Dr Saira and Dr Tarique Shaikh's son. No zabardasti ka melodrama. The drama of grief, after all, lies in the way people struggle to live, despite their losses. And the film allows this struggle to be a dignified one.

But what surprised me what that the film turned out to be actually quite entertaining. I was laughing, my mother was laughing, and none of the jokes were derogatory even if there was a hint of naughtiness in the scene. The music was lovely. We actually enjoyed all three ghazals.

But the real reason I am writing this post is that after a long, long, long time we saw characters who had 'Muslim' names, but who were allowed to be just human. They were doctors. They were allowed to live in a normal upper class home with a dining table, at which they eat parathas.

The couple is allowed to enjoy the sea breeze without an azaan somewhere in the background. The lady is allowed to wear silk sarees or salwars with no fuss. She is allowed to be who she is - a highly skilled professional - instead of being reduced to a bundle of token symbols or rituals that add up to a visual and aural portrait that screams 'Muslim'. She is allowed to love her man and demand love from her man.

And their problems are human problems. A dead child. Depression. Work. Friends. Leisure. Club memberships. They don't sit and 'pray' in times of trouble. They roll up their sleeves and try to act. And when they make friends with people from other cultural backgrounds, they don't feel like a misfit. They can go to parties and ask for a soft drink instead of alcohol, and that's that.

How hard is it to write and make films where people of a particular community are people and not slaves to communal identities? It must be very hard, indeed, for this one film has come after such a long time. But it came, and I am glad I saw it. And that's about all I want to say.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Low drama, low conflict

For a while now, I have been thinking about the need for 'drama' in stories, especially scripts. It is taken for granted that for a film or play to work, there needs to be a steady escalation of drama. That conflict must be established early on, that we (or rather, the audience) must be worried about the fate of the principal characters, and that the level of 'difficulty' in these characters' lives must rise, reaching a 'climax', after which there is a resolution.

Of course, it is taken for granted that we are talking about a particular moment in time, or rather, a phase in someone's life. It could be 24 hours or one night (eg - Gateway of India, starring Madhubala), or a few months (most films we watch), or over twenty years (eg - Amar Akbar Anthony). Very occasionally, the story may span two or three generations (eg - Jasmine Women, or Gangs of Wasseypur) wherein it is understood that the protagonists change, and our investment in their future might shift at any point.

Which means, we pick out a slice of someone's life, a slice that is full of difficulty, and further dramatize it for the purposes of... well, for the purpose of drama. Because what else do people want from storytelling, right?

That is what we're taught by books, by theatre and film practitioners, and in most of the entertainment options we've had. This is not wisdom I wanted to challenge. Until recently.

I read a short story a few months ago (I'm forgetting the story title and the author's name) and was left a bit unsettled at the way it ended. It was the story of a man and a woman who are in bed and perhaps trying to figure out what they will do with each other. They are not a married couple. I'd assumed that some form of marriage or a commitment angle would work itself into the story. There must be conflict, because one of them will not agree to the other's terms. There would be tears or resentment, and eventually, they'd make up or part ways forever.

But the story never left the bedroom. There was a vague discussion, skirting the edges of disagreement. No major drama though. There was an assumption of desire, and a call for truth. And then what? Well, nothing. That was it. The writer allowed the characters to stay untroubled. There was no violence, not even of the emotional kind.

And it left me stumped. Because I'm conditioned to expect 'high' drama. In stories, there's a lot at stake: life, limb, sanity, social security. My reading and watching life has prepared me for troubled situations escalating to fever pitch, usually ending in violence. If not blood and gore, then at least a kidnapping-rescue situation, a gentle-slide-into-fatal-disease situation. At the very minimum, an I'm-going-to-die-without-you situation.

I still remember the face of my little niece as I was trying to tell her a story. I'd created some animal characters and set up a chase. My niece was about four years old then, and she was not liking the dangerous direction my narrative had taken. She interrupted me twice, and each time, added bits to the story to 'save' the protagonist. She wanted things to be 'alright'. The problem was, I did not know how to tell a story in which things were just alright for everybody.

I realize now that this is not because I am so aware of the wrongness, the tragedy and danger in people's lives. 'Real' life is fairly dull. People are bored, but not bloodthirsty. Many of them accomplish things without coming to grief. Are those stories not worth telling?

I clearly remember being bewildered by this film Happy Go Lucky . It is the story of a school teacher who is very optimistic. From the first scene on, I was expecting that character to come to grief. Why else would you make someone so cheerful, right? I was so sure that her cheerful, trusting outlook would be destroyed (or at least, severely tested) that I got really tense, biting my knuckles in the dark theatre. But although she is walking about at night, alone, she comes to no harm. 

Then she meets a nice-looking man. I thought "Ah! Now comes the conflict!" But no. The man likes her back. They get together. All is well. So then?

So then, I felt a bit annoyed. I thought, 'What kind of film is this? Nothing really happens.' But then I calmed down and thought some more. It is not that 'nothing happens'. There's a lot happening in every scene.; I wasn't bored at all. I was actually very involved with this character and her life. The thing was, nothing bad happened. Sure, some people were mean to her. But I felt pity for them, not for the protagonist. She was fine, handling everyone's stress quite well.

The best part is, three years later, I remember every other scene. That actress, her smile, her eyes, her ability to trust, to not be overwhelmed by sadness, to wait for happiness. So now, I must admit that it's a good film. A memorable film! 

What was the script doing? It was not escalating the drama quotient. It was negating the need for a drama quotient. Not every story needs drama, and not all dramas need to end in either tragedy or comedy.

These days, I am more and more convinced that 'high drama' does not lie at the heart of entertainment. Most people are actually looking for happy sights and sounds. We fear death and destruction - ours as well as other people's. That's why so many people prefer watching 'hulka-phulka' cinema. When we watch 'action' films, we prefer violence that has no resemblance to real physical violence. It is not messy. We do not feel the pain or guilt that is inevitable in real life. When we watch thrillers, we want to walk away with something at the end - a sense of justice, at least, and restored normalcy. When we watch romance, we want to melt and have faith that people actually want - and get! - each other.

In a story, things must happen. In life too, things happen. But must those things be violent? Does every sadness or disappointment have to lead to depression? Why are we so very reluctant to tell stories of normalcy, of dull aches and quick recoveries? Why are we not more vigilant, more resistant, more open to what a good story is, and how it must be told?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Other loves and lives

Had recently reviewed 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' for Time Out. Sharing the text below, with some personal additions.

A brief anecdote first: I had wandered into a tiny bookstore in Lokhandwala where I frequently drop in, just to browse. I had no intention of buying anything that day. I was picking up books at random and reading the first couple of pages before putting them back on the shelves.

And then I found a book that I didn't want to put back. I was fifteen pages in. The staff was starting to give off cold vibes. So, I did put the book back in its place and moved off to another section. Half an hour later, I had returned to the book and opened it somewhere in the middle of another chapter. I still wanted to go on reading. So I bought the book. Only to realize that I already had a review copy of the same book waiting to be read at home.

I ought, therefore, ought to state upfront that 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' is a good read. The publisher's description of the book – 'a travelogue, a memoir, a satire and a feminist critique of Muslim women's lives, interwoven with the author's own ongoing struggles as a Muslim woman' – proves to be correct. It is indeed all of that, but it is not weighed down by the sort of presumptuous rhetoric one might expect.

Critiques of Muslim women's lives, however honest, can get tiresome. What helps this book is the fact that the author is poised to speak from a position of complexity and nuance. She begins by laying bare this complexity – the overwhelming love of a happy childhood, the power of the memory of such love, modern education, changing ideologies, political upheaval, power games over pizza. Oppression is never a simple process, and freedom never an obvious choice.

Allowing the reader to look at this intimate portrait of her own life and the force that led her to break with convention, Gandhi turn to her subject – love. She sets out to examine the ways in which Muslim women seek love, demonstrate love, or resign themselves to living without love. She populates the book with a cast of characters from Bangladesh and Pakistan, both nations she used to live in, and India where she now lives.

These stories are 'alternate' in the sense that Gandhi has chosen to write about Muslim women who do not quite fit into the stereotype. Ghazala is an educated, independent Christian woman in Pakistan who has converted to marry an already married man. Laila is training to be the first Lady Health Visitor in her village in the NorthWest Frontier Province. Firdaus is a writer and Reiki healer, in her seventies. Nahid is a teenaged telemarketer in Allahabad. Tara is single at thirty, hoping for a better job in Dhaka. Ayesha is a journalist-activist-poet, still single in her late thirties, and living by herself in Ahmedabad.

Almost none of the women interviewed seem to be wholly, passionately in love with their current partners (except Nusrat and QT, who are a lesbian couple). Gandhi approaches romantic love from the fringes of society. Marriage and motherhood are not at the heart of these women's lives. This allows a wider range of ideas about love. One of the most straightforward lines comes from Nisho, a transgender dancer in Hyderabad (Pakistan). She says, “Love is like cream in milk. Love always rises to the top.”

The author constantly reflects upon politics, sufism, language. She describes a mugging in Karachi (her chain was robbed by two men on a bike, one wearing a burqa. There was apparently a ban on two men riding bikes after a bomb attack). She describes railway stations, dargahs, her own impatience with certain people. These diversions from the core theme are not uninteresting, but they do leave lesser room for a wider, more inclusive cast of characters.

The title suggests that the book speaks of Muslim women in general, althought it is limited to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Muslim women are culturally as different from each other as women from other religions, so one cannot help but wonder how their lives and loves are different from that of a Chinese or Indonesian or French Muslim woman. A greater emphasis on geographical or cultural representation might have been useful. Alternately, the title could have mentioned that the book is limited to the subcontinent.

The main triumph of the book, however, is that it allows a range of Muslim women to speak of emotional hunger, of disappointment, of politics and money. Religious identity is neither irrelevant nor all-important. Gandhi has done well to neither ignore it nor be intimidated by it.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Poem in Cordite

A poem published in Cordite.

 "Sometimes I wonder if..."
Sometimes I Wonder if

our whole world is a third world
a step-sister left behind in the galaxy’s
cinderella story

ugly cousin earth spinning on her heel
raging at the cosmos’ beauty

defective pieces of swept-up stardust from factories that abuse labouring angels
offal from a flourishing inter-galactic trade, we who want nothing more than to be saved
and nothing saved but us
our unwatched backs, our shaken wombs
like all rejects, we spill mother’s secrets
to anyone who listens
anyone holding out his arms
anyone who promises toffee and lies
about how nice we look

mesmerized by metal and muscle
we ask strangers to swing an axe
into the sun’s gut
we watch

at night, we whisper to each other –
we were not made weak and small for nothing we can slide into mother’s cracked skin and hide inside her burn-red belly until it’s over
we are fated to drink the sap in her marrow we can grow a tangle of nerves and veins until
each one is inside each one
and no one can live without killing
and no one can kill without dying
thus, we can survive.

flowers in armpits, we fantasize
about another galaxy –
no factories, no fence-sitting angels
with halos of barbed wire
no greater muscle than our own

we pour yellow and black and red earth
on our eyes until the dream is solid
as earth’s bones

we cry for this place
tucked behind the knees of the galaxy
gurgling in the crook of the sun’s elbow
a place scorched clean.

in her sleep
our planet grinds her teeth.

[This is an edited version of the poem published in Cordite magazine]

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The rare poem of hope: Swiss Lace Blouse

 'Swiss Lace Blouse' was the 'poem of the week' at The Missing Slate recently.

One fine morning
I will open my eyes.
Every bone will yell (Let’s get out!).
My feet will feel up to the slush
and the mirror will not go hushed
as if it doesn’t know how to break
the bad news.
The newspaper will have
nothing about dead babies
nor photographs of sexy Kapoors.
I will take a bath before noon.
The street will rapid blink
at my doughy belly, its ten thousand
eyes will wink.
Cap-sleeved innocence of lazy arms
will shout (Life is good! Life is sweetly plump!).
I will bring out my neat ironed faith
in a day when skies are blue
and all yesterdays
that went wrong come back
to apologize.
When life is a warbling lark,
when life waits like old lace,
and too many stars have fallen out
of the night, when I want to shout
(I’m here, world!
And I’m not afraid!)
for that day
I save this blouse.
Annie Zaidi

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Questions of light

I don't know if I've mentioned this booklet, published by Vikas Samvad two years ago. It is really just a reporter's diary, but it came from me wanting to take a closer look at the places and people I had been reporting about while writing for news magazines.

As is the case with many reporters who are based in cities, I traveled into villages only when there was some crisis unfolding and I could never stay more than a couple of days. Even then, I stayed in the nearest small town, looking for some lodge or hotel within the budget the magazine afforded me. There was never enough time to talk to someone at leisure, not bothering about taxi bills or trains to catch or deadlines to meet.

When I quit full-time journalism, I went back to the group that had helped me source stories before, and asked if they'd help me stay in a village for a week or two. They first sent me to Chutka, a village that had been displaced before - to make way for Bargi dam - and was once again facing the prospect of displacement due to a nuclear power plant proposal.

This was the first time I was going into a village with a desire to just figure out how these things were playing out, and what I found surprised me, educated me, distressed me. It wasn't the difficult questions of environment or health or 'development' that worried me so much as the constant undermining of democracy at every step. It was also very scary to see just how hard people have to fight to hang on to their rights. It's a wearying battle. But they fight it. And mainly, they fight peacefully.

The wonder of this, and the simplicity and justice of the solutions that people themselves come up with, went into a diary that was printed as 'Who Will See the Light?"

Recently, it has also been translated as 'किसके हिस्से आएगी रौशनी?'

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Once upon a witch

Here's another poem. It comes from having watched the Hindi film Ek Thi Dayan, and its sadly confused take on the subject.

The idea seemed promising: a growing boy, fed on a foolish diet of myths about what witches look like and what their motivations might be, turns against his stepmother. The consequences are tragic. The film, however, is a failed promise to itself. It blunders along its twisted plot without giving pause to speak for - or even a proper look at - the soul of the 'witch'. I was also a bit distressed by the film's refusal to challenge any 'evil' stereotypes in a nation where women continue to be killed if they're branded 'witch', although everyone knows that this is usually about property or personal vendetta.

What I did find interesting, though, were the brief glimpses into passionate relationships, and the powerful feelings of jealousy evoked in the minds of those who compete for a beloved's affections. A couple of dialogues grabbed my attention particularly, for they made me think of the torturous emotions that accompany sacrifice, and the human need to intercede with destiny, the human willingness to go to any lengths for a small portion of happiness and love. That led me to the writing of this poem:

The witch did not lie.
When it’s all down to hair and skin and promises
of dust-to-dust,
when she has suffered you cracking her open
in each pore,
she finds the nerve
to confess.
The witch cannot lie.
Love is the devil and it brooks
no small sacrifice.
It has to be your morsel of innocence –
the one who needs you most, the one you can kill for,
you give up.
The witch seeks the devil’s advice.
He knows what it means to lose it all.He knows about pride and falls, twisted ankles, broken wings.
He knows where to escape to when the beloved
is within.
The witch crawls about the floor
in wracking nights. She clings to windows and prays
to all the gods she knows to save her from this thing
convulsing her soul.
But done is done is done!
Now plain to see – her eyes! her feet! –
the twisted signs.
The witch howls.
She cut out her heart and set it afloat.
She cut out her eyes and buried them below
the foundations of your town. She returns every night
breathless, blind, whispering
a mantra to bring you back.
But you are sea.
You are wind.
You are beloved.
You are free.

First published in: http://northeastreview.com/2013/10/04/annie/

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jet Blues

Dear Jet Airways

There are some things you just don't do. Such as telling a passenger who has shown up with a confirmed ticket, three whole hours ahead of an international flight, that the flight is overbooked.

If a flight is overbooked, it is your problem. You are in a fix and you must extricate yourself painfully, expensively. You don't get away with it by saying: “This is the norm. All flights on all airlines are routinely ten percent overbooked.”

I don't know of if airlines are 'routinely' turning away passengers with a confirmed ticket, bought weeks in advance, by citing IATA rules (which passengers are not expected to be familiar with. I don't even believe that those are the rules.)

But what really, really upset me was not the nonsense about being overbooked as much as the lack of integrity I was subjected to.

On the morning of October 26th, 2013, I showed up at the international airport in Mumbai. The lady manning your check-in counter took a look at my printed ticket and said, “Madam, please wait. I will call you soon.”

This was unusual but I shrugged. I waited. She told me to sit down because it might be more than a few minutes. I sat down, began to read. This lady did not call me, did not even look at me, for over half an hour. Then, worried, I went up to the counter again, and this time, she informed me that the flight was overbooked and that I could not fly today. That I would have to wait one day.

A whole day! Not an hour, but a whole day!

I had never heard of such a thing, so I told her this was ridiculous.

She began to say 'routine' 'regulation' 'mentioned on website' etc. I told her that 'Overbooking' cannot possibly be the norm. You're supposed to place people on stand-by in case of cancellations. That is the norm. And I was not a stand-by passenger. How could the airline refuse to take me?

So this lady told me to go talk to her supervisor.

I said, “No. YOU talk to your supervisor. This is your problem. This is not my problem. I should not have to go running about the terminal, luggage in tow, looking for your supervisor.”

There was another gentleman passenger at the next counter, similarly perplexed. He too had been told that he could not fly. He said he could not possibly wait because he had already made group bookings for a hotel in Kathmandu. He would lose that money. Who'd compensate him?

It turned out that the airline was actually offering him a compensation of rupees four thousand. I, of course, had not been offered any compensation at all so far. But still. I wanted to laugh. Could an international airline seriously expect to get away with this sort of mess by tossing out Rs 4000? What kind of hotel does one get around the Mumbai airport for that amount?

The expectation, I suppose, was that passengers will grumble and sulk but will not put up a fight. Quote any random regulations and they will not challenge you. But I was furious. Furious, not only at the prospect of missing a flight, being inconvenienced for two whole days, having to cancel proffessional commitments etc, but also at being treated shabbily.

So I said that I would not tolerate being treated like s**t and if this flight left without me, there'd be hell to pay.

Finally, a supervisor showed up. She tried to placate the other gentleman with the same spiel about IATA rules and how he'd come too late. People were being checked in on “a first come-first served basis”, she claimed.

I said that I was there a whole hour ago. How come I wasn't checked in? At least half a dozen passengers approached the check-in counters and were given boarding passes though they arrived after me.

She kept repeating that she could do nothing, the airline could do nothing etc etc. So I began to shout.

I HATE shouting and it was one of the first few times in my life that I deliberately raised my voice. I said that I would sue the airline. Your supervisor said I could go ahead.

So I said, “Great. Would you please give that to me in writing? That I am welcome to sue Jet, and that the management is okay with that?”

She sort of humphed, and left. I was still shouting at nobody in particular. I found myself saying things like I've been on enough international flights to know that this is not how things are done. They cannot possibly tell me to turn around and go home and come back the next day.

I shouted until I was in tears. At this point, the lady at the counter told me that it's okay. Could she have my passport?

She was checking me in. I was feeling mainly relief, so I mumbled about how nothing ever gets done without shouting and screaming, and quickly collected my boarding pass.

If that had been all, Dear Jet, I would not have posted this note publicly. As it is, I have waited two weeks because I wanted to think this over carefully. I was upset, but I was also willing to forgive and forget. After all, mistakes happen.


At the departure gates, I expected to find a big crowd. Now, the flight was overbooked. Right? I was given to understand that I was being turned away because I was one of the last to check in. “First come, first served”, that's what I was told.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the waiting area was half empty. Imagine further my surprise to see that I was one of the first few to board the plane. I also could not help noticing that several of those who came in much later were caucasian passengers.

Imagine, Dear Jet, what this looks like to me.

I'm not making any allegations yet. It is possible those passengers had checked first. It is possible they were in the loo, or cafe, or the shops. Maybe they were driven by early morning shopping impulses.

Still. I'm asking you to imagine what it looks like to someone who was told she could not board this “overbooked” flight. It feels like a social push-around. I found myself brooding on my appearance, my accent, trying to compare it to those who were waved in without any fuss. Was it my desi get-up? Shiny jootis, red-silver imamzabind, inexpensive luggage, non-NRI accent? What?

I finally came to the conclusion that I must have looked powerless. After all, I did sit down and wait submissively for half an hour, just because your counter staff told me to. If I had been less educated or less observant, I'd have waited indefinitely.

And what then, Jet? You'd have sent me home and never compensated me for lost time, stress, the nuisance value and wasted work opprtunity, nor the good people who had already spent money for bringing me to Kathmandu.

So, I decided that you need to be told this, and you need to be told publicly. I don't want you to punish any particular member of your staff, but I do want you to think about how you treat passengers.

Let me tell you what else I saw.

I noticed a passenger, someone who struggled with Hindi, asking a question. One of your staff at the departure gate did not answer; he was bruque to the point of being dismissive. He was polite with me. He wished me a good morning, but he did not wish the Nepali passenger right behind me, someone who was wearing inexpensive clothes and did not speak much Hindi.

I also noticed that although you're doing this international flight, your flight attendants did not seem to speak much Nepali. This is perhaps not a legal requirement, but it ought to be. It is vital that you have one person on board who is able to communicate safety instructions. The person sitting near the emergency exit did not speak English or Hindi too well, and your attendant was neither able to explain to him what would be required nor made any attempt to get him to exchange seats with a passenger with whom they could communicate better.

I'm not saying that you're the only airline with a problem. But you're the airline I've flown with, and I don't want to have to stop flying with you.

So treat this as well-meant advice. Deal with us as paying customers upon whom your livelihood depends. Shiny jooti-wearing women. Tired non-English speaking mothers dragging bawling kids. Greying men with un-branded baggage. Men in dirty synthetic fleece jackets and cheap baseball caps. All of us.

We pay your bills. Don't lie to us. Don't mistreat us. And don't make us scream and shout to claim a service we've already paid for.


Saturday, November 09, 2013

Love in (and upwards of) Simla

The landscape is grim—a mix of rock and mud that yields at the slightest provocation. But the wind does extraordinary things to it, cutting and smoothing over the rock-face until it seems as if a hundred thousand faces or feet are waiting to emerge from the mountains. You imagine that you see a furrowed brow, a nose, a set of giant toes. In fact, there is a story about how an invading army from Tibet had been scared off by the locals, who stacked up hundreds of human-shaped rocks over the peaks, fooling the enemy into thinking they were fatally outnumbered.
But from Tibet also came monks and kings who created the beautiful monastery in Tabo. Proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chos-Khor monastery is over a thousand years old and contains a treasure-trove of Buddhist art. There are nine temples and the walls of each were once covered with paintings that tell episodes from the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. They’ve been recently damaged due to ecological change. The 1975 earthquake left cracks and the increase in rainfall has destroyed large swathes of the paintings originally done by Kashmiri artists. The Archaeological Survey of India’s attempts to restore them have been poor, but whatever remains is stunning. There are a thousand ‘Medicine Buddhas’ painted in the main temple, and there are also references to ‘Past, Present, and Future Buddhas’. You don’t know the difference.
Outside the temple, a row of matrons will smile, curious without being intrusive. They will ask: Where are you from? Where are you going? Answer honestly. You aren’t sure.
I travelled in Himachal Pradesh, looking for omens of love and romance along the old Hindustan Tibet road. Here is the full essay in Conde Nast Traveller magazine:  http://www.cntraveller.in/story/knocking-heaven-s-door/

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Madness Around

Have often thought about sanity, the people we consider sane, and the forces that push some of us beyond - into that other place in the head. Some of those thoughts are compressed here, in another story for The Small Picture in Mint.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A new single read

I have a new short story out. It is the story of a man who has almost nothing to live for, except the fact that a woman called Noora still lives.

Available only online so far. Rs 21 for the e-single (as single short stories are sold now for readers who use, erm, readers). You can get it here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On testing the way the wind blows

A few days ago, former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Kumar Modi reportedly tweeted: “Advaniji has failed to gauge the public mood”. He said LK Advani should have declared Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the coming general election.

It is no secret that 'Advaniji' had held prime ministerial hopes for over twenty years, and now it’s too late. His brand of politics has been sharpened to rapier point by younger men. So he has had to finally endorse Narendra Modi at public rallies.

Let us, for a moment, forget who is less suitable between the two men. Instead, let’s examine Sushil Modi’s lobbing of unsolicited 140-character chunks of advice at 'Advaniji'.

On the face of it, this sounds like good advice. In a democracy, elections are a reflection of public will. If people are discontent and thirsting for change, they’ll let you know. And it is true that a politician ceases to be significant if he disregards the electorate. A good politician is aware of, and sensitive to, the public mood.

But the problem with Sushil Modi’s advice is that it reduces leadership to mere politicking. It takes away from a politician the right to be a leader. It expects a politician to bow to ideas that please a sufficient number of people in order to win an election, and trample upon truth and Constitutional rights lest he/she is punished with powerlessness. In effect, it reduces a leader to an unthinking, spineless slave of the majority view (or whatever passes for the majority).

I don’t know if Advani’s misgivings about Narendra Modi’s leadership are moral. I doubt this. But I also think that our leaders owe us a personal moral compass. We need them to stand up for their own beliefs rather than just kowtow to the ‘public mood’.

Where have all our true leaders gone? This is our constant complaint. We imagine governance as a ship lost at sea. We think of politicians as wicked pirates (except they’re not fighting fit). But we forget what goes into the making of true leaders.

Think of the men and women whose names went into history textbooks for steering modern India through her independence struggle. MK Gandhi survived (and ultimately fell to) assassination attempts, not by the British but by Indians, who did not like his ideas on caste or religion. In nineteenth century India, notions of pollution-purity were the norm. Most leaders were upper caste and most of the country was illiterate. If public approval was all they sought, they would never have endorsed universal suffrage.

Inter-communal marriage was very rare in the 1920s. But Aruna Asaf Ali chose to risk public antagonism for the sake of her own values. Leaders like C Rajagopalachari risked political exile when they walked away from the party they helped to build.

It is not the job of a leader to be the public. A leader represents us, yes, but he/she must work for more than public approval. The job description includes upholding the Constitution; enforcing laws; making laws for a future; rejecting what is unworthy in our present; making justice a broader, more humane reality.

Sometimes this means being in conflict with the majority. If 51% of India wanted that 49% be turned into landless labourers with no access to drinking water, should a leader care about ‘public mood’? What if it’s 65% and 35%? What if it’s 78% and 22%? When does it become right to allow ‘public mood’ to dictate political decisions?

A good leader is someone willing to work to reshape popular ideas, redirect public energy and risk public displeasure. As far as gauging the public mood goes, any politician can do that.

[A version of this was published in DNA]

Friday, September 20, 2013

More than a database of grief

There is a stockpile of shared grief within each of us. It threatens to render the taste of life ash on our tongues. Each riot, every famine, each genocidal attack, racist attack, each horrific moment of hate. The maps of the world, of our place in the world, of our identity are marked by pain. And we go on. That is the thing. Without knowing why we suffered, or how to learn to trust again, we go on.

Survival is an instinct but our individual and social can matter only if we let go of past pain and find fresh reserves of trust, veering more and more and more towards the side of justice. And trying not privilege the grief of one race, one religion, or one gender over the other.

'Ground Zero', was written for The Small Picture which appears in Mint, beautifully illustrated by Prabha Mallya.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Saying it with the body

There is something about a rally or protest that announces itself even when it is not announced audibly. Like girls walking down the street in rows two or three thick, a fantastic array of colour and style. You stop to look. When you see the first fifteen or twenty, you wonder if it is for a festival. When you see fifty, and none of them conforming to any particular dress code, you know it is a rally.

You see that some of the girls are wearing clothes that would be considered outrageous on the street even in a foreign country where skirts, leggings and shorts are the norm. Then you see a girl wearing nothing but a thong (or a g-string; it is difficult to tell from a distance). Another whose breasts are bare except for her nipples. A few brave men too.

Only after hundreds have walked past, you see the placards. It is a Slut Walk in Melbourne. But you no longer need placards to tell you what this is about. Girls wearing next to nothing march beside girls in frilly frocks down to their ankles – they said what they had to say with their bodies. Mainly, that bodies are what they are. Clothes are what they are. What they are not is an excuse for violence.

Witnessing this Slut Walk reminded me that flesh has its own power. Not just the power of sex or seduction, but the power of truth. To bare oneself as a statement of fact: “This is what a woman looks like. So?” To wear their womanhood on the streets was inconvenient (for one, it was just too cold and windy) but it is not a call for violence.

                                             [Photo courtesy Nicolas Low]

Watching those women put to rest certain doubts for me, personally. In India, there had been several debates about Slut Walk – its viability or lack of cultural sensitivity. Did it make sense in a nation where little girls are raped everyday, and where women are often raped in front of their families?

Finally, I think it does make sense. Because people all over the world are frightened of the power of the human body. They are also afraid of those who veer from the norm, for there is power in both – conformity and non-conformity. And all human societies are based on power struggles.

Since it is easier to gain power through attacking a woman walking down the street than to lead an army, or build a fortress, or even just to fight a court case against neighbours, that is precisely what happens. That is why, in India, a bunch of village 'elders' can order an eight-year-old to marry into the family of her rapist. Because it is easier to impose further punishment upon her and her family than to punish the rapist, or risk annoying his family.

And that is why a bunch of criminal men can attack a group of women in Mangalore, because they are at a resort. Because it is easy to do so. Because they can argue that women going to resorts of their own volition, for whatever purpose, is akin to prostitution. Because they claim to speak for India when they say such women deserve to be hurt. They do this because the rest of us are too frightened of the body, of its truth, to challenge them.

We find ourselves shamed by our body, again and again, because we fail to speak up for it. But watching those women in Melbourne, I was finally convinced that the only way to reclaim this power of the body is to stop denying it.

First published here

Monday, September 09, 2013

Legislating filial love

A few months ago, I read about a law that makes it mandatory for Chinese citizens to visit elderly parents. 

My immediate thought was that this is an unimaginative, if not un-implementable, law. My next thought was — have matters really come to a pass that the state must legislate family relationships? 

Then I remembered that India had also passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, in 2007. It asks children to maintain a ‘normal’ life for parents, but didn’t mention emotional needs. In China, parents have been suing children for neglect. Some reports mentioned ‘ill-treatment and abandonment’, others refer to ‘filial piety’. So, the government is saying that their ‘daily, financial and spiritual needs’ should be met by grown children. In theory, it’s a reasonable expectation — children should visit aging parents. They should call, and Skype, and express affection. But if they do not want to, can a law make them? Even in India, few parents have the heart — or the physical energy — to drag negligent offspring to court.

It is impossible to seek affection legally. And I am not sure it is a good idea to force young (or middle-aged) people to pretend at love. Besides, if affection is being made a legal construct, perhaps lawmakers should also consider the truth of family life. Not every parent considers the emotional needs of a child. Many parents assume they’ve done their duty if they just cater to physical needs, and make him/her employable. It is foolish and unjust to expect that all children will grow up to lavish affection upon all parents.

Indians are like the Chinese when it comes to family expectations. In one report, a Chinese woman was quoted as saying that in their culture, parents invest in children as a support for their old age. I can imagine lots of Indian parents expressing similar views. But I cannot imagine that children like being treated as some sort of emotional-social security plan.

In the Chinese context, everyone is pointing fingers at the one-child norm. It is estimated that by 2050, every third Chinese will be a senior citizen. But the problem of more and more old people and fewer young people is a global one. 

There was another report from Japan, where it is estimated that by 2020, the market for adult diapers will be larger than that for baby diapers. 

India already has 100 million senior citizens and by 2050, every fifth Indian will be old. Not only do we not have universal pension coverage, most pensions are too small to allow an aging, ill person to survive independently. 

Most Indians cannot afford the basics — clean water, safe housing, a varied diet, decent education — even for small children. Steady jobs are hard to come by. 

‘Parents’ emotional needs’ are low on the list of priorities. And though that is not a justification for the abuse or neglect of the elderly, we must not forget that there is also an emotional cost for children — to know that there are ways to keep parents alive and healthy, but not the means.

So, what should children and parents and the government do? For one, we can start investing in the future instead of waiting to reach a point of crisis. Senior citizens need an upgrade of skills in middle age. They need access to legal aid to ensure their property is not taken away. They need regular events and public spaces where they can meet other people of all ages, and they need community-supported retirement homes and hospices. Even if those are not ideal choices, the choice must exist.  

First published here

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Some thoughts on a 49% (or 4.9%) view of democracy

Last week, I’d mentioned the Majority and its role in keeping a democracy healthy.

Our rulers are decided by a majority vote. It could be just 51%. This is frustrating for the 49% who voted against. But still, elections are a much better way of deciding power struggles than building armies and turning each others’ homes into crematoria.

What, then, happens to the 49%? 

If your representative loses, the assumption is that your values, your financial interests, your ethnic group have a smaller chance of flourishing.

In a country like ours, an electoral minority is often confused with a caste or a religion, but it could also be a tribe, a region. It could be any group that will not be able to influence decisions on the strength of its numbers.

But if you keep feeling neglected or exploited, you begin to look for ways to create a fresh electorate, one where you are not such a minority. Hence, new states. Like Telangana. Or Gorkhaland. Or Uttarakhand. One of the reasons people who live in remote hill villages demanded a separate state to be carved out of Uttar Pradesh was that they were never heard in faraway Lucknow.

Sometimes, people find that a geographic separation has not worked out. So, they make demands that are directly linked to an ethnic group. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, there were reports from a World Adivasi Day function held recently, that many adivasis felt they’d be better off with an adivasi Chief Minister. Yet, in a state where adivasis are not a numeric majority, this is difficult.

As for minorities, well, there’s a majority even within the minority. This group always finds itself trampled upon by those who claim to represent them. You might survive (depending on your wealth and education) but you find yourself constantly pushed into the minority corner, unable to participate in law-making.

Eventually, you’re going to ask what these words should mean to somebody like you -- nation, independence, culture, law.

Consider linguistic minorities. Hindi became the national language because it was the single-largest language in India. Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, even Bhoti-speaking people found themselves swept under the carpet of ‘Hindi’.

Governments correspond with barely literate citizens in a language that even I am flummoxed by although I’m firmly, fluently Hindi-speaking. Those who do not speak the Hindi that a ‘Hindi-speaking’ state uses are not even acknowledged, forget being included in consultations with officials.

Or, consider how India got saddled with marriage laws that were followed only by upper-caste Hindus. Or why there is so little room for the wisdom of communities who lived quite happily (am assuming a lot here, but happy in the marital context being construed to mean a system that is tolerated and passed down over generations) through different marital practices, including polyandry.

Songs, sexual freedom, history, progress - everything can be held hostage under this heavy blanket of ‘majority’ or ‘mainstream’. Hundreds of millions among us must abide by someone else’s morals, someone else’s ideas about prosperity, someone’s version of the truth, because the minority view will be crushed. And those who do the crushing will escape, unpunished.

The majority or mainstream turn arrogant if they stay powerful for too long. They speak in the name of ‘all’, take liberties with common resources, or hurt others. This is possible because their representatives protect them, in lieu of electoral fealty.

Does this hurt the nation? 

Well, that depends on who gets to define ‘nation’. If the idea of India belongs to each citizen in equal measure, then yes, it hurts. To be a free citizen is to have the freedom to live by your values, legally practice your culture, but not be allowed to impose this on anyone else, not even on your family.
First published here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Do we really want justice?

If we were to make a list of the most urgent problems in India, I can safely bet that ‘politicians’ would be on everyone’s list. They might even top the list. They are on my list too.

Corruption is endemic. We are defeated by it in every way imaginable. And while politicians or bureaucrats are definitely not the only ones guilty, it is actually important to focus on political leaders. Not just because India is represented by politicians, but also because they reflect our own aspirations. They are our face in the mirror — a face bloated out of all recognition but still, there’s no denying that the politician’s face represents the majority.

This is key: Representation. It is why ministers are called upon to resign when something goes very wrong. Say, a railway accident happened and the fault lay with faulty equipment or over-worked drivers. The rail minister may offer to resign, as a way of saying: ‘I am in charge and a systemic failure is my failure’. If it is clear that another group of people are responsible, they must be punished instead.

If we fail to punish politicians in a democratic way, our democracy sours. When we fail to question politicians about why they act in ways that are contrary to the electorate’s values and aspirations, we are building a society without accountability.

If we do this over several years, then there is little doubt that this is what we actually want for ourselves — we do not want to be punished for corruption; we do not want to be held accountable at our jobs; we recognise that we ourselves would divide people on the basis of caste and religion because it suits us to do. We would inflict violence upon other citizens when we think we can get away with it, and that is why we do not really cry out against politicians. Because far too many of us are guilty of the same acts of commission and omission.

This is part of the reason why I was very pleased to hear that Sajjad Kichloo, Minister of State (Home) had resigned in the wake of the violence that broke out recently in Kishtwar, Jammu and Kashmir. Kichloo may or may not have ‘felt’ responsible. After all, the army was called out in a few hours, a curfew was imposed, and hundreds of people were not killed.

Still, there were allegations that the state police did not do its job. And so, the minister shouldered his responsibility and the J&K government promptly ordered an inquiry. Therefore, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has every right to ask — what about Gujarat 2002?

There was evident mismanagement at least, if not a deliberate pogrom. One can ask the same question about Delhi, 1984. In fact, one should ask and one is asking. What about Bombay 1992? What about 1993? Who resigned? How long did it take for someone in power to take responsibility?

Surely, someone should have resigned. Surely, a good leader does not promote and reward trouble-makers? Surely, such leaders don’t deserve to be re-elected?

But if we continue to insist that this is good leadership, if we continue to elect such men and women to office, then that is a way of saying that we are electing what is us. At least, the majority of us. That the twisted face in the mirror does not just wear our face like a mask. That face is our face. That soul is our soul, and it does not crave justice.

Which leaves us with this awful question — if not justice, then what do we actually crave?

First published here

Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting out of the cage

By now, you would have read some reams about what stops our great nation from being truly free etcetera. 

I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that were written before 1947 or set in the ‘Colonial’ era. These books have been breaking down the neat constructs of schoolbook history. We’d been given to understand that the British sailed east (like the Portuguese and French), saw that India was rich, began to wage battles against ‘our’ kings and began to rule India.

But the truth was slightly different. For starters, there was no ‘us’. There were hundreds of kingdoms, all part of a power hierarchy. A kingdom could be ‘sovereign’ but it might have to pay tribute to a bigger, more powerful kingdom. That was the only way to stay ‘independent’. It was the only way a king or queen could stay on the throne. If kings or queens were devoted to citizen welfare, they would also sign peace treaties to save people from violence and total economic ruin in the course of war. Our ‘foreign invaders’ could be Bhutanese (from Assam’s perspective), Maratha (from Bhopal’s perspective), or Tibetan (from Spiti’s perspective).

But Britain gained in power to the extent that almost all kingdoms – despite racial and cultural differences – suffered. Taxes were heavy; wealth was leaving the subcontinent. Now, there was a common enemy, racially different and blatantly discriminatory. So enough people – even the rich – could say: ‘Quit India’.

It took a long time but Britain did quit India, politically at least. And ‘India’ was born. But that didn’t mean we stopped trying to enslave other citizens.

There was a recent news article about a domestic worker from Jharkhand, a teenaged girl, who was beaten and starved for three days by her employer. Does this not sound like a slavery? The teenager survived but imagine her situation – she doesn’t speak any of the three main languages that most neighbours would have spoken; she had no money and circumstances at home were probably desperate enough for her to be sent to Mumbai in the first place.

Another report from Kanpur. A husband asks his pregnant wife to undergo a sex-determination test for the foetus. She refuses. He pours acid on her private parts. Now think of the wife’s situation – perhaps she has no money or property; if she had walked out on her husband before, she would face the risk of attacks from other men. The police and legal system being what it is in our country, she couldn’t have hoped for timely intervention in any case. Does this not sound like a slavery-enabling system?

It has become fashionable to dismiss M.K. Gandhi and his methods of non-violence, non-cooperation, and self-reflection. But there is a reason Gandhi chose these tools in the struggle for freedom. What was being done to us by imperialist forces was violence. Indians were not necessarily being locked up in a cage, or whipped. Those might be our mental images of slavery. Our main shackles were economic and psychological.

We could not make decisions for ourselves, nor controlled natural resources. If we tried to, we confronted physical violence. Which is exactly what is happening to hundreds of millions of Indians today. If one can’t make decisions about how resources will be used, who to have sex with, and whether or not to have babies, how can a citizen be called free?

This is why the question of “women’s freedom” needs the same answer, the same tactics. Non-cooperation. Non-violence. De-conditioning. If freedom means anything to us, we must struggle as if we struggled for India, in the name of humanity and justice.

First published here

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Flushing for karma

I was slightly jealous when I read about this Kerela initiative – 'e-toilets' at government medical colleges. These toilets are called Eve's Own for they will reportedly have napkin-vending machines, incinerators, automatic sensor taps, fans and lights that auto-start when you step in. Plans include sensitive doors that open only if the water tank has enough water.

Of course, it is a pity that these are restricted to medical colleges. There is no reason why all public toilets should not be woman-friendly. Even if they're coin-operated, it would be a huge improvement from current washrooms where coins are no guarantee against dry taps, broken door latches, flooded floors, and worse.

Curiously enough, I have often heard it said that “women's toilets are dirtier”. Usually it is women who say this. Having not been in a men's toilet, I cannot compare but I have been to offices and restaurants that have no separate male and female toilets. I found there was very little difference in levels of cleanliness. This must mean that women are either not that much dirtier, or that they become more careful about toilet habits if they know that men will be witness to these habits. Or, men are cleaning up after women (hey, the world is full of wonders!)

Back in college, I recall discussions where girls would swap tales of toilet adventure. I myself recalled how my mother always carried a bedsheet when we went on outdoor picnics. Others mentioned moms who usher kids to the edge of railway platforms, urging them to just 'go'. One girl mentioned that she had witnessed saree-clad women relieving themselves whilst standing upright. This had quite an impact on our youthful imaginations – the possibility of doing such a thing had not struck us before, but in an emergency... Of course! One can and one should!

Over the years, I had my share of fury and frustration. As a young reporter who was always on the move, this was anxiety number one – how far was the nearest loo? I remember times when I was out on assignment in residential colonies, and there was not one public toilet in the area. I waited hours before an option presented itself, then I'd be lucky if the door was not locked. If there was running water, I felt positively blessed.

All Indian women are familiar with this sort of panic, regardless of whether they are 'working' women or not. For one, there is no guarantee that there is a toilet even in the house. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 3), only 26 percent of rural India had access to sanitation. A Unicef report estimates that 54 percent of India does not have access to clean, safe toilets. Hundreds of millions live in mortal terror of – at worst – an attack by human or animal or insect, and – at least – the fear of infections. Things are not much better in cities where there are no semi-discreet woods or rocks or fields, so you could just go under the open sky.

Life is hard enough without having to worry about how much water you can afford to drink before you step outdoors. Many women endorse glassy air-conditioned malls just for their promise of usable toilets.

I have personally lived with the panic for so long, it has made me a believer of sorts. I worry a lot about toilet karma these days. If it is true that what goes around comes around, I better be careful and leave a toilet as clean as I want to find it. So help me god!

First published here

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Down the drain... Back again?

Did you hear about the contamination levels of waterfronts in Mumbai? It's worse than it used to be. The beaches are filthier. And what's more, much of the contamination is faecal matter. Yes, shit mostly.

Before you start blaming the hundreds of thousands of people who must squat on the beach – although there is that problem too – consider the facts. Mumbai generates 2677 litres of sewaage, every day. Of this, only 774 million litres is treated. The rest just goes into the sea.

Perhaps you have heard of men dying in sewers while trying to clear blockages. Sometimes, people die just breathing the noxious air around a manhole. There was a news report about the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation wanting to install a ventilating system over manhole covers, after three people died from the poisonous gases wafting up. There was another report about a seven-year-old boy dying after he fell into an open drain in Mehrauli, Delhi.

India has hundreds of open drains in each city, and there are hundreds of cities. It is high time we began to ask – how is it that we invest hundreds of billions in aircrafts, even space-craft, but are unwilling to find clean, efficient technologies to fix the overwhelming toilet and sewage problem?

How is it that we continue to flush our filth into rivers that form our drinking water supply? In Pradip Saha's documentary 'Faecal Attraction', a dual question is posed to the citizens of Delhi – where did they think their water comes from, and where does the shit go? 

Some respondents sheepishly admit that the answer to both is probably the river Yamuna. Others, including young and educated citizens, seem to think that once they flush the toilet, the sewers carry their shit to a mysterious location, a convenient 'somewhere else'. As the documentary shows, sewage usually flows into water bodies like rivers, lakes, or else, groundwater.

India generates 38,000 million litres of sewage a day. 35 major cities account for over 15 million litres. The government can treat only 12,000 million tonnes, about one-third of the total. The Central Pollution Control Board released a report called the ‘Status of sewage treatment in India’ a few years ago, which said that the problem was likely to magnify to unmanageable levels very quickly.

In one interview, Bindeshwar Pathak (founder of Sulabh Sauchalaya) was quoted as saying that, even if we halt the development of our cities, it would still take India 3000 years to lay safe sewer lines leading to centralised sewage treatment plants. Only 269 towns (out of 7000) have treatment plants. Experts suggest that a large part of the problem is that we depend heavily on the state, and the state itself banks on a centralized system of sewage treatment. Basically, this means that we are not responsible for our own shit.

I can't help wondering why we don't look to our glorious ancient culture when it comes to sanitation? Thousands of years ago, the Indus Valley civilization had invested in sewage systems. Humanity is as much about shitting as eating or procreating, after all.

Nobody likes to embrace shit, of course. But we simply can't go on if we let it flow into rivers and seas. There are other, better ways of treating sewage. The technology exists. And every cooperative housing society, every bunglow, every town ought to invest in it, just as we invest in security systems and water filters. We cannot eternally outsource the problem of sewage to the government. We need to start seeing it as part of our own struggle to build a decent life for ourselves.

First published here

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Starting with One

I read about two people recently who undertook tasks that seem to require the patience and courage that's beyond most ordinary citizens. Imagine creating a whole forest! Imagine being an extremely vulnerable self-appointed guardian of a forest!

That's what Hara Dei Majhi is. She guards a wooded hill called Kapsi Dongar in Sinapalli, Odisha. According to a magazine profile of the brave woman, Majhi took on where her husband, Anang, left off. He had started planting trees on a barren patch at the foothills, even at the cost of foregoing wage labour or income through forest produce. He was too busy nurturing and patrolling the forest. He was killed by timber smugglers in 1995.

Ever since, Majhi has been protecting the forest herself, though in later years she also began to involve other villagers through the Kapsi Dongar Vana Surakshya Samittee.

The second story was about a man called Jadav Payeng from Assam. He created a forest, starting from scratch in 1979. According to another article, Payeng had witnessed the aftermath of flood as a teenager, and decided to do something. He began by planting bamboo on a sandbar, brought red ants to improve the soil, then introduced other plants. Wildlife followed naturally. The forest is called the Mulai woods and is reportedly home to birds, deer, rhinos, even elephants.

What both stories illustrate is that change – public change – often begins with an individual. Nothing ever gets done unless something shifts within one human soul. Somebody decides to do something by becoming a person who is not afraid to be the only person doing this, whether it is planting trees on an island or fighting off timber smugglers.

Who wants to risk their life if there's nothing in it for them? But that's exactly what some people do. Others may join the campaign, driven by a sense of communal duty. Or the awareness that everyone benefits from their efforts.

So much of our common benefits are owed to a few people who are fighting to give us whatever little forest cover India has. They gain little themselves, except what everyone living in the area might gain. And yet, most of us are too thick-headed and short-sighted to do our bit, even though it is in our own best interests.

A recent World Bank report has said that the cost of environmental degradation in India is about Rs 3.75 trillion a year. That would be about 5.7 percent of India’s GDP (gross domestic product). The degradation would include not just air pollution – though that is the most obvious contributor to the damage – but also water and soil, as well as forest and cropland degradation.

We pay the price with our health (not to mention hospital bills). Still, most of us do nothing to reverse the damage. We neither plant trees nor fight to save them. And this ought to surprise us. An illiterate woman, armed with nothing but a stick, can save a forest. A teenager can create a whole forest. Why is it that our college degrees, our awareness of World Bank reports, our relative affluence – none of it arms us with courage or initiative?

Perhaps the difference is that Majhi and Payeng acted as individuals, doing whatever needing doing. Courage and passion are not mass emotions, after all. A 'system' or a government can only reward initiative or bolster courage where it already exists. If only there was a way of teaching ourselves how to be more self-centered when it came to taking responsibility for change, rather than just focussing on how much we suffer because of nobody else will work towards this change.

First published here

Monday, July 29, 2013

On good and bad poetry

There is an art gallery called MOBA – the Museum of Bad Art – where the motto is “Art too bad to be ignored”.

I went to the website to check out the collection. I was intrigued. But a corner of my mind was also truly anxious. Anxious for the artists who find their work featured in such a gallery. It is all very well to say the work is being 'preserved' and 'celebrated' but who can stomach their work to be called 'bad'? What would it feel like to walk into such a gallery and find on the walls a shred of your own soul?

To my relief, I found that much of the work was listed as Anonymous or Artist Unknown.

I still had gooseflesh though, just thinking about the people who run this thing. They unapologetically use the phrase 'bad art' even though the curator has been quoted in Wired magazine as saying: “The paintings are all inspired, genuine attempts at something. There's a lot of passion in them, but something ran amok. As a result, they need to be seen.”

So, then, this is not 'bad' art at all. It is simply art that doesn't quite transcend the artists' limitations. It fails to be stunning. But it remains compelling (check out some of the portraiture, or the 'noods' online: http://www.museumofbadart.org/collection/ ). In fact, it is better than a lot of art I've seen in mainstream, popular art galleries. Besides, somebody is putting time and money into a 'bad art' project. Thousands of miles away, I'm staring at 'bad' paintings, trying to tap into the energy that fired the artist. I actually like a lot of what I saw.

So, what makes these paintings collectible and viewable if they're neither good nor bad? And what would be truly bad art?

Perhaps, bad art would have to be something you can ignore. It neither offends nor grabs you. It disturbs nothing, triggers nothing, causes you to wonder about nothing. Art that can, at best, be described as the sum of its materials – canvas, colour, representations of live creatures or abstract shapes. Art that does not seek to speak. Not only does it leave you cold, you suspect that even the artist did not care to submit her/his soul to the canvas.

Now, just replace 'painting' with poetry. I think, the principle holds.

It is true that I write a fair bit of bad poetry myself. I write across genres and poetry is the thing that pays least. My soul has to be hurting. My mind has to be exhausted, flying, longing to be centred and stilled. At such times, I write a poem. If I'm lucky, if I work hard and long, it turns out okay.

Occasionally, I also write for practise. Art doesn't like dabblers. Your muscles get flabby. Your eye stops 'seeing'. There's a reason for phrases like 'being out of touch' or 'losing touch'; you must keep touching what you don't want to lose. So, I make myself write sometimes even if I don't want to.

Usually, I end up discarding such poems. A stray line or two might be 'working'. I try to salvage them, using them as a diving board to work into new poems.

I destroyed much of my early work. A decade later, I could see what it was – emotional outpourings punctuated by enjambment. As if line breaks could convert a diary or blog post into art. Still, those were good practising years. Some poems escaped being awful. Some were mediocre – some metaphors, some alliteration, a few nice leaps of logic. Maybe five poems over the first five years of writing were good enough to keep in my file.

But I wanted to write better and I went looking for feedback. I joined peer review writing groups. In groups like Caferati, poetry used to dominate. There were many people writing and sharing poems. At one stage, I used to spend several hours a day reading, re-reading, carefully phrasing my critique.

Much of what we shared was bad poetry. And I don't mean 'bad' in the MOBA sense. I mean that these were poems that could easily be ignored. There was nothing to distinguish metaphors and similes. They did not disturb, trigger, cause wonder, or delight. They were a loose collection of impressions and memories. 

Most writers simply do not read and write enough to know that you have to sweat over the lines until the page is slick with meaning. The reader does not want to witness your labours. The reader must be left with only a vague memory of salt.

The reader must be able to see a tar road on a rainy night and start thinking 'sky'. You must pull it off without saying 'sky' or 'night' and if you can help it, not even 'road'. Everyone knows the sky is full of stars. Everyone knows stars shine. Where's your 'art' if you're just going to tell me the sky was dark and the stars were shining and you were driving and the road was shining too?

Knowing this, of course, does not preclude me from the gallery of bad art. I still write bad poems. I put words on the page, trying to capture something – who knows what? Hopefully, something I didn't capture in the last poem. Hopefully, something nobody has captured before. Something that is mine to capture. Something that cannot be ignored.

This was written for Raedleaf, a site devoted to poetry.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Because the mausam is indeed awesome

I shudder in anticipation of every Mumbai monsoon. But anticipate it, I do.

Here's an attempt to capture some of the swirly-ness, giddiness, the stillness, even happiness I experience every time I am out in the pouring rain in this city, so cleverly illustrated by Jasjyot Singh Hans.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Where it comes from, where it goes

The other day, I came upon a strange comment thread on a website. Somebody had posed this question: are villages an asset for India or a liability?

At first I just laughed. What kind of question was this? But then, I also read an item of news from Odisha. Apparently, a herd of elephants had wandered into Rourkela and were reportedly nudged back towards the Saranda hills. But, according to locals who live in villages on the outskirts, the herd was simply pushed out a few kilometres out of the city and the elephants were still destroying houses and crops. There were complaints that the administration seemed to care only about the lives and property of those who lived in the main city.

Could it be that somewhere in the collective city-dwelling urban subconscious, we are actually convinced that villages don't matter? Could we actually be that clueless about our own lives and our economy?

Grain and most vegetable and fruit comes from villages. Much of our diary produce and meat too. Our homes are built of cement and steel, or stone and wood – all of which are mined or made in rural or semi-rural areas. Our clothes – the good ones, anyway – are made of cotton or wool, for which we depend on farmers and shepherds. Much of the cheap labour that builds cities and provides essential services is drawn from villages. 

One could go on. Water, coal, herbs, medicinal extracts, and ultimately, power.

And what do we send to the villages? Manufactured goods, of course. From shampoo to tyres. Modern medicine, perhaps – if one can get a doctor to live in a village. Technology, perhaps. But the side-effects of industrial activity and modern urban lifestyles are also imposed upon villages.

Recently, matters reached a head in Kottayam district. For years, Kottayam town had been dumping its waste on the outskirts. The residents of Vijayapuram village were demanding an end to this system because they had to tolerate tonnes of garbage in the vicinity, and the dump was a breeding ground for diseases. Besides, the water in their wells was getting contaminated. When the municipality failed to listen, a rally was organized. People went to the dumping yard and forcibly locked it up.

In this instance, the protest got some media attention because the result was immediately felt in the city – garbage began to pile up in Kottayam. But there are thousands of villages affected by urban waste, industrial effluents, or because a disproportionate share of resources is taken away with no resultant benefit to the locals.

For instance, Sundargarh district in Odisha. The people who live near the mines are complaining that they don't have enough water for farms and that water is taken away to a factory several miles away. In Goa, villagers in Pissurlem were reportedly complaining about industrial waste being dumped in open spaces.

How many of us who live in cities know what happens to our waste – where does it go? 

The garbage collector takes it, and that's that. We don't want to know if there is a system that ensures nobody else is made miserable or sick on our account. We don't even want to know if we ourselves are getting sick because of bad waste disposal practices, and whether there are alternatives.

Sometimes, I wonder how citizens and administrations would react if villagers began to drive up to cities with tractors piled high with personal, agricultural and industrial filth, and dumping them in any open space they saw? What do you think might happen?

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