Sunday, March 31, 2013

Listening to the Help

A few years ago, I’d hired a domestic worker who looked like she ought to be past retirement. I had just moved houses and couldn’t afford to pay the lady who used to work for me before. But before I’d had a chance to scout for another ‘maid’, this lady showed up at my door. Gray hair, slightly stooped at the shoulders, not even bothering to look around the tiny two-room ‘house’ she was offering to clean. But she obviously needed the job.

I asked if she’d bring in a relative. That’s often how it works — an older woman negotiates, then passes on the job to her daughter or daughter-in-law. But she wanted to do the work herself.

I felt guilty about having her work so hard, so I tried to share the household work. Also, concerned about hygiene, I laid down some rules – Don’t use a broom to dust books; don’t use the mop to clean the mirror; wash your hands after swabbing floors. I bought a new cake of soap, and told her that it was for her.I cannot forget the way she looked at me that day. At first, I thought she was offended. I was starting to apologise when she caught my hand and took it to her forehead. In broken Hindi, she began to express gratitude.

She didn’t use the soap much to be honest. But she began to grin at me frequently. Slowly, it sank in. She had expected to be told what to do, but she did not expect me to think of what she needs. Decades of working in Delhi’s ‘kothis’ (middle-class bunglows), and she had never been bought a fresh cake of soap.

I’m thinking of her today because I’ve been reading about a public hearing organised by Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union, focused on women who work in the unorganised sector.

For decades, domestic workers have been trying to get organised so they can claim basic labour rights. This is difficult, partly because most domestic workers have multiple employers, and partly because there is no proof that they work in such-n-such home for x number of hours. There is no guarantee of a bonus. Holidays are ad hoc, because most employers will not agree to a day off on weekends. This means the worker just takes time off whenever he/she needs it. It also means that she could be penalised or ‘scolded’ for such holidays.But most of all, they worry about their future. There is no hope of ‘promotion’ and most of them (the women at least) seem to want to retire at the age of 50. This is what came up when about 30 women addressed a panel at the recent public hearing.

Nearly 250 domestic workers attended. Some came from around Delhi and some from Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh too. They wanted a minimum wage, adjusted against inflation. They told stories of being brought from villages by ‘agents’, who do not let them quit jobs or return home so easily. A resolution was passed asking for a new law to protect domestic workers’ rights. This would mean fixing wages according to the number of hours worked, allowing maternity leave, weekly and annual vacations, and insurance.

Whether a new law is needed, or whether an amendment needs to be made to existing labour laws to cover domestic work with its specific employment problems, I cannot say. But I can say that I do not want to watch a stooping, greying woman mopping floors again. She deserved to retire with a pension. We all do.

Published here

Thursday, March 28, 2013

More Q, more A

Another interview with Dial-a-book:

Farhan: Did you peek into the life of lovers when writing this book? Did you need to make any research before writing this book?
Annie: Not ‘research’ really. I did not go looking for lovers and their stories. I observed what was unfolding around me and then played it out different in my own imagination.

Monday, March 25, 2013

On my feet

I’ve been trying to walk at least a couple of times a week. I don’t walk myself breathless but I do try to walk in lieu of a motorized commute, so I don’t waste time or non-renewable fossil fuels.

Now that I walk, I remember again how hard the city is for pedestrians. Most pavements are so narrow, two adults cannot walk abreast. If someone walks from the opposite direction, one of you must step off the pavement. There is very little shade or green cover. Besides, the pavement is broken in many places. At times, it nosedives into a ditch for no good reason. And of course, you get the worst of the pollution, which is ironic and annoying, given that you’re doing your bit for a cleaner environment.

Even if you ignore the noise and fumes, walk past an empty stretch of land and you must deal with garbage. Piles and piles of it! Every time I walk past such a dump, I wonder what might happen if such a huge mound of rubbish was piled in the centre of the road – in the paths of the cars and trucks. Would it not be cleared for months? Could it be that the municipality (or whatever private party owns the empty stretch of land) doesn’t know about so much accumulated garbage? Has nobody complained?

But the only people who are affected by the filth are either people walking past or the homeless who actually sleep on the pavement. And who would act upon the complaints of the homeless?

All these problems sully my pleasure in the walks. Still, I walk. And I find myself taking road risks because sometimes there isn’t any zebra crossing or a split in the road divider for over a kilometer. The other night, I was walking with a friend. At a busy crossing, two cops waved the traffic this way and that. 

We waited patiently, hoping they’d notice. The cops did not hold the traffic up for pedestrians. Finally, I gestured angrily at one of the cops. He indicated a lapse (which lasted about three seconds) in the rush of oncoming cars, and gestured that we could run across. We did so but I couldn’t help snapping at the cop.

Recently, we learnt that in Mumbai, the majority of people injured in road accidents – nearly 57% – are pedestrians. Older studies showed that in most Indian cities, about one-third accident deaths are those of pedestrians. Here’s another statistic: between 1981 and 2001, the human population of six metropolises went up 1.9 times, but the motor population went up 7.7 times! Another decade later, studies indicate that the motor population increase is 9 times that of people population increase.

Even so, pedestrians and cyclists account for at least 30% of all trips on city streets. But, according to a 2008 study that surveyed 30 Indian cities, only 30% of these streets have footpaths. What these statistics add up to is the fact that millions of Indians face injury or death, walking on roads crammed with cars and bikes. They do this not because they are stupid or suicidal but because they don’t have an alternative. 

Whatever little safety could be expected by walking along the edges of streets is also taken away by double parked cars.

And so, I’m very pleased to hear that someone has announced an ‘Aam Nagrik Rashtriya Footpath Yojna’. It isn’t a ‘yojna’ (scheme) really, in the sense that it has no funds. But it has a mission – get a share of the road and reject a transport policy that favours cars over pedestrians and cyclists. Naturally, I’m walking on their side.

Published here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Figuring out the short

From a recent interview with other writers, on short stories:

Yashodhara : What do you personally find most challenging about writing a short story?

Annie - The ending. I usually write short stories with a single image or character as a starting point. I begin to work my way through the story from this character's perspective, or an event I am trying to explain. But I often don't know what to do with this character and how to let go of her/him.

Altaf - Beginning with a sense of infiniteness, to let the reader settle in, and then quickly bringing the end into focus. This is always hard. Only when I have fully exhausted a theme in my head do I decide to make it a short story. Otherwise, it would be a novella or novel. Knowing that what one has begun must quickly end, this makes the whole exercise seem futile in a way. Conflicting impulses: the impulse to write, but also the impulse to stop writing.

Y : And on the other side, what do you like best about this format?

Annie - I like the freedom of being able to work on a small scale. It is like zooming into a small corner of a large painting, and realizing that you don't have to see the whole picture in order to make sense of it.

Altaf - I like that I can put a short story at the service of a larger theme. I try to avoid writing random stories in isolation. This way, if I ever decide to throw these shorts together, they can read like a coherent whole.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Delhi, after December

I suppose I had to revisit Delhi in order to recover.

I didn't even know that I had any recovering to do. When I heard of the gangrape-murder of December 16, 2012, I must confess that I didn’t feel shock. 

Anger, yes. But I read of brutal rape frequently; fresh reports poured in every day. After 'Nirbhaya' died, I tried to put my anger to work. I joined campaigns. I pledged to reclaim city nights. And I carried around a knot of resentment that I wouldn’t acknowledge.

Whenever anybody talked about how unsafe Delhi is, I was quick to leap to its defense. I've lived a few years in Delhi and those were good years. Years of personal and professional growth. No worse than years spent in Mumbai or any other town. But secretly, I felt angry at Delhi. How could I say I love a city that allows such terror? How could I talk of ruinous, scorching beauty, of balconies and terraces, of silver and cycle rickshaws? Every beautiful memory was scarred by December 2012.

So, I stopped defending the city. A part of me accepted quietly that no place in my country was safe, that I would never feel safe again. I accepted that if change did come, it would probably come too late for women of my generation. I signed the petitions and stood with the placards. But I stood with gall in my heart.

But last week I was in Delhi again. I sat in a small garden, reading a book. An older woman walked past. She maintains the garden, dotting it with bursts of bright spring flowers. I half-heard a friend telling her son the names of flowers. Almost physically, I felt my internal pall lift. I began, once again, to feel safe.

At a metro station, on the platform, I saw a young couple. The girl reached out, touched the boy’s face. And I felt safe. I stepped into a general coach instead of the pink one reserved for women. I noticed that several other women took the option of travelling in the unreserved coaches. Men of all ages boarded, and they stood at a respectful distance if they could help it. And I felt safe.

One afternoon, I stood at a chana-kulcha stall on the roadside. There were mostly male customers. Initially I hesitated, wondering if everyone’s stares would make me uncomfortable. Then I felt defiant and placed an order. I asked the vendor to hold the butter. He half-smiled, said, “Anything you want, madam.” And I felt safe.

I asked men for directions, and they directed me carefully, willingly. I asked men for food and I was served with a garnish of wit and charm. The knot of anger circulating in my blood stream began to melt. The city restored my sense of normalcy, even my self-respect.

I cannot explain how my self-respect was tied up with Nirbhaya and other women who are raped, killed or mutilated. Perhaps my anger came from humiliation. It was as if my countrymen were reminding me that I wasn’t an equal human being. And no matter how many cities I moved, no matter what I did for a living, I couldn’t win against that attitude.

But now, enjoying Delhi instead of being afraid of it, my ache has been blunted. I feel calmer, safer. So, to the home ministries of all states wanting safer cities, I say: Give us night buses. Give us gardens and well-lit trains and well-behaved men. Don’t sequester us. Don’t pamper us. Let us enjoy the city. And we will create our own feelings of safety.
Published here

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The connection

I’ve subscribed to updates from CGnet Swara, a portal that uses technology quite effectively to offer a basic media platform to people in the Central Gondwana region, which would be mostly rural areas.

Some days, I go over each post – a schoolgirl’s poem, a folk song, a litany of corruption and its horrifying results. Some days, I cannot bear to listen.

Someone is seeking help in Dindori district because 70 percent of the adivasis from his area have migrated to Maharashtra in search of work. Since 2009, there is either no NREGA work to be had or wages aren’t paid. Someone else seeks help for a widow in Madri village. She hasn’t got her pension for eight months.

Someone calls to say that there isn’t a single state transport bus to his village. Someone called Bhadu Baiga went to work for a bore-well digging company in Chennai but hasn’t returned in three years. His wife is frantic and has filed FIR but needs help in making the police launch an investigation.

In Bijadhap, near the Bhoramdev sanctuary, someone alleges that forest department officials destroyed 15 homes belonging to people of the Baiga tribe.

Someone calls to say that the Chhattisarh Chief Minister had come to Bijapur for a rally and some adivasis were summoned to attend. But they complained that they were not given any food all day and were not transported back home. They had to walk back all the way, through jungles.

Someone went to the block development office in Chatra district and found that none of the officials were sitting there after 2 pm. A colony of construction workers in Rewa district applied for social security cards but didn’t get any. In Kharki and Pakhar villages in Jharkhand, NREGA cards have not been renewed since March 2010.

Every other call is a call for help and as you read, one message after another, you begin to wonder if anything will ever get fixed. How on earth are so many people going to get helped, and by whom? Will it really make a difference if I called up a district collector in Rewa and gave her/him a piece of my mind? Do we really believe that an ordinary citizen making a phone call or two can actually change anything?

But sometimes, it happens. Someone calls in to say, ‘thank you’. For instance, someone had reported that the public distribution shop in his village had been giving rations for just one month, while making people sign for three months’ supply. After listening to the complaint through CGnet Swara, the district collector ordered an enquiry. And the villagers received the rations due to them for three months.

And it gives me great hope to hear that. Because, sometimes, it really is a question of a word in the right ear. Corruption and bad infrastructure are major problems, and the press is a pillar of democracy only because it has the ability to talk about them, to spread the word. For the same reason, all those phone calls asking for help and intervention make sense. Mainstream media or even politicians might not be able to stretch itself far enough to keep track of problems in every village. But now they ought to be able to keep track at minimal expense. The national press could pick up a story and dig deeper, shout louder if necessary.

I wish every region would come up with a platform like CGnet Swara. There is no reason it can’t be done. After all, what good our great leaps in telecom technologies if we cannot achieve something as simple as connecting citizens with local officials?

Published here

Monday, March 11, 2013

The disappearances

Lately, I’ve been noticing photos of missing people circulating on social networking sites. Probably put up by frantic families or concerned acquaintances. It is difficult to imagine the ache of a loss that’s neither final nor explained. Why does someone go missing, how? What prevents him or her from coming back home? What physical or emotional anguish must he be suffering in the meantime?

These questions must run through the minds of those whose children – or parents, or grandparents – have disappeared. But imagine the fear and rage in the hearts of those who know that their daughter’s disappearance has something to do with the police!

A statement issued by an alliance of women’s groups says that Majoni Das, a teacher and women’s rights activist in Assam, has disappeared after being taken into police custody, allegedly due to “links with insurgent groups”.

Das wrote for a local fortnightly newspaper and also worked as a hostel warden in Jorhat. She had gone home to Sibsagar when the police summoned her. She sent messages to her colleagues, telling them this. According to her family, on February 8, two police officers (one of them was a woman) came to Das’ home while she was out. They left a message asking her to report to the superintendent’s office. On February 10, she set out to meet the SP of Sibsagar district, and hasn’t been seen since then.

One FIR has been filed in Jorhat by her employer, another in Demow by her family. The Sibsagar police allegedly told the family that Das has joined the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and gone off to Nagaland.

This merits a whole wormy can of questions. What kind of police force summons a woman to the station if she is suspected of being an armed rebel? And how did the police already know that she went to Nagaland? Who told them? And if they know, why are they not chasing her, since they were so anxious about calling her over for a chat? How long had they been waiting to pick up Das? And if it was important to detain or interrogate her, why did they not drive the short distance to Jorhat where she was working? They knew where she lived and worked, after all.

Das’ family is worried that this might be another ‘EID’ case. In Assam, there have been several instances of ‘Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances’. In some cases, people who went missing have been found dead later. Yet, the local police officers have not taken Das’ case seriously, not even for the sake of preserving their own reputations.

As it is, the north-eastern states have suffered tremendously due to various armed rebellions as well as counterinsurgency measures, including the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In Manipur, there are groups like the ‘Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families’ Association Manipur’ and ‘Families of the Involuntarily Disappeared’s Association Manipur’. In Kashmir, there is the ‘Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons’.

As for Assam, the website of the Assam Human Rights Commission lists a lot of ‘categories’ under which cases have been filed, including “illegal detention/arrest”, “police excess and negligence”, “mysterious death” and “mysterious disappearance”, it does not offer details of how many such cases were reported. It does say that of the 6,546 cases filed up until March 2008, at least 774 were cases against the police and 418 were cases of custodial deaths.

We can only hope that Majoni Das will be traced soon, that she will not become a statistic, and that the police will prove that her family’s worst fears are unfounded. 

First published here

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