Tuesday, April 30, 2013

where blame lies

There's a new app called 'Trial by timeline'. Amnesty International (New Zealand) offers to make a quick calculation of what crimes you might be guilty of in how many nations, based on what you've been sharing on Facebook.

I was found guilty of 'socializing with an unrelated male', consuming alcohol (based on party photos where, in fact, I was not drinking). 'Suspicious activity' included two poetry events (which I did not attend though I had RSVPed 'yes') and demanding the right to express myself. I was also guilty of listing my gender as female. Finally, I was found guilty of being on Facebook. In at least 40 nations, I could be beaten, lashed, tortured.

As the virtual baton smashed down, splattering yellow on the dark screen, I flinched. So, today, you could say I'm feeling grateful. I have some freedom. At least, it is not a crime to be out with an unrelated male in India.

And yet, there are fathers killing daughters for doing just that in India. Husbands. Brothers. Boyfriends stabbing women who don't want to marry them. Strangers or mere acquaintances throwing acid on women who don't want to get sexually involved with them.

I've been thinking a lot about what legal freedom means if it is not backed by cultural freedom. What does it mean to say 'I am free to choose my profession', for instance? Some careers require that I be out late at night, like journalism. In Delhi, the state's knee-jerk reaction to attacks on women was to ask employers to drop off women who work after sundown. I know that this kind of rule automatically makes me a liability for the company. If it is a small firm, it will try to avoid hiring women. Then what does my freedom mean?

But right now, we're outraged at toddlers being raped. Not just in schools or buses, but in our own neighbourhoods. In homes. Still, we refuse to recognize that this is a culmination of a process we have allowed for centuries – denying grown women their natural sexual and economic rights. We refuse to see how violence is tied to freedom. Governments, religious leaders, corporations – they only inflict violence because it benefits them.

Mutilated and maimed bodies are not helpful to society. What does help is fear. A state can terrorize women by telling us that we deserve to be flogged if we talk to male friends. A state can also terrorize us by telling us that it is helpless to prevent attacks, which we ourselves have invited in the first place.

For too long, we've tolerated violence against women under the guise of 'culture' or religion. We tolerate schools that refuse to talk about sex but persist in segregating spaces in the hope of quelling all sexual curiosity. And we tolerate politicians who publicly blame women for sexual assault.

Not just tolerate, we elect them to power. Politicians say what they do because they believe they are expressing 'common' or at least majority sentiment. In a democracy, it is hard to argue with this belief. If we have elected such men (and women), then the majority of India must find it convenient to blame women – their sexuality, the very fact of their existence – for horrific crimes.

And now that toddlers are being targeted for sexual crimes, we no longer know who to blame. But out of habit, parrot-like, we go on blaming women's bodies, their female-ness. Because if we didn't, then we'd have to acknowledge that blame lies elsewhere. Perhaps, with doomed millenia-old battle to own women? Perhaps, with our tolerance of any act that damages women's freedom?

First published here

How I came to writing

This post was written as a special essay for the AuthorTV blog.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. And this wasn’t because creative writing or writers weren’t valued in my family.

My maternal grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi, was a scholar and Urdu poet. His day job was to serve the Indian bureaucracy in one capacity or the other, often in posts that were related to communication or culture. On a small civil servant’s salary, he brought up seven kids of his own, as well as a series of long-term guests who stayed with the family whenever they needed to. Actually, I should say that my grandmother, Safdari urf Shehnaz somehow stretched his small salary almost to breaking point.

By the time I was born, Grandpa had retired, but he continued to work with the Urdu Academy in Lucknow. And he wrote.

Grandpa wrote from about 4:30 am to 8 am. Then he went to work. He returned at about 5:30 or 6 pm, and then wrote again until dinner-time, which was about 9 pm. He had, effectively two full-time jobs. I did not yet know this, of course.

He had a study and his books lay in stacks on open, metal cupboards. He had a large writing desk, the drawers of which were filled with paper, pens, ink, pins, stamp pads, letterheads – his grandchildren stole from him quite often.

Because we messed around with his papers and stole his ink and paper, we had been warned against playing inside this room. But the more it was forbidden, the more I wanted to. So, I would go in and climb on top of his desk when he wasn’t around.

I was not yet interested in his work, and I couldn’t read Urdu. But I have a vague memory of opening and shutting boxes, peeking into drawers. What did I find there? What did I know of his work?

Nothing. Nor did the other adults in the house. My mother and her siblings also read. But mainly in English because they went to English medium schools. Some of them could fuddle through Urdu texts, and while they did appreciate the sound of it, they did not have the felicity of language to really enjoy a book in Urdu, or buy much literature. It must have been sad for Grandpa, but there it was.

All I knew about him was that he was a respected man. He was also a very tired man. At night (later in life, in the afternoon) he would lie down and want a gentle massage before he could fall asleep. His children did this when they were younger. Now it fell to the grandchildren, and we were awfully lazy and easily bored. It was hard to make us stay beyond a couple of minutes.

Except, he told us stories. As long as we pressed his back and limbs, he would keep drawing out a narrative. The wonderful thing about Grandpa was that he wasn’t afraid of diversity. And I don’t mean that in a clichéd ‘all Indians are brothers and sisters’ sense. He didn’t try to tell us stories from the Urdu world, to which he must have had greater access. He knew that we read Tarzan and Phantom and Mandrake the Magician stories. So he told us stories about Phantom.

These were not stories he himself had read in comics. He just told us whatever story happened to pop up in his head, and allowed Phantom to be the protagonist. I have to confess that I don’t remember any of these stories. But then, I don’t remember any of the Phantom comics either.

I also have a dim memory of cooking up stories when I was very little – Five? Six? Seven? – and telling them to cousins who were close to me in age. I didn’t try to write anything down. My cousins tell me some of these were quite shocking and I have no idea where I came up with the ideas. Perhaps, from forbidden films that I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of.

It couldn’t have been books because my reading material was rather tightly monitored. For children, comics and Enid Blytons were allowed. Besides, I wasn’t much of a reader yet. I liked things to be read to me, especially rhymes. But it was taken for granted that I would learn to draw my entertainment from reading, or films (TV was still a new beast and did not give off any subtle scent of art).

To be honest, I would rather have watched TV, or films, than read. But when I was eight, I had a rather serious fracture. I was bedridden and hospitalized for a long time. I suppose I must have been bored, or in pain. I don’t remember all that.

What happened was that my mother began to buy books rather recklessly, going far beyond her limited means as a school teacher. I remember the books clearly – it was the Noddy series by Enid Blyton, brightly illustrated. I read rather fast. Soon, I was reading a book a day.

Mom couldn’t afford to keep buying a new picture book every day. She bought a couple of slightly more complex books. The more I read, the better I got at reading and comprehension. Within months, I had graduated to reading other Blyton books, like the Secret Seven and Famous Five series. There were some Russian books too. I remember When Daddy was A Little Boy. There was Heidi, which was being read to me initially because it was a fat book with a small font.

Even at home, I remained bedridden for some months. So, a TV set was allowed into the house. Mainly because mom felt guilty, and there was no way of helping me pass the time if mom had to hold down a job as well. There was only Doordarshan yet, and though I did end up watching a lot of programs – including Chaupal and Krishi Darshan – there wasn’t enough to keep me hooked. Books were more fun.

It took me nearly nine months to get back on my feet. But those nine months changed my personality completely. I was a firm ‘reader’, and I read quickly, almost indiscriminately. So hungry was I for reading material that I read my older brother’s text-books (only the Hindi and English literature ones). I didn’t understand a lot of what I read. At ten, I was on Charles Dickens. At thirteen, I was attempting Victor Hugo (and failing), at fourteen James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (and failing). It frustrated me to have to give up, but I did return to these books when I was older and in the meantime, I went around swallowing anything else I could borrow from anywhere. I was reading almost every waking minute. Except when I was watching TV.

TV was controlled for a long time in the house. After cable TV arrived, I was only allowed to watch about an hour a day, and I could choose what to watch. I preferred Hindi shows (such as Banegi Apni Baat) and films to American soaps (like Santa Barbara), but I saw anything and everything if given a chance. On Sundays, we could watch cartoons and animated He-Man type of shows in the morning, and a movie in the evening.

As restrictions fell away, as I graduated and then found a job, I could have returned to TV. I still do watch TV occasionally – in hotel rooms when I travel alone – but I have given up a cable connection at home. Not because I disapprove but because it is an easy distraction that clogs up the imagination if you don’t take regular breaks from the visual bombardment. I often wonder if people who only watch (TV or films) and do not read end up re-creating rather than creating.

Perhaps, I am wrong. Perhaps, my imagination is not really expanded but circumscribed by my reading. I don’t know. But I do wonder what would have become of me if my leg had not been broken, and then messed up for such a long time. What would have happened to me if that hospital room had a TV set and 24 hour programming on 200 channels?

I cannot say. But I do think that I wouldn’t have become a writer, not a very good one anyway.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Heartwards ho!

"Love Stories # 1 to 14... enters this terrain with such assured grace and insight, the reader is completely absorbed in the experience of the characters, scouring the depths of loneliness that come with being in love, and without it...  The tone here is always compassionate and the feeling you get at the end of the book is uplifting."

From a brief review-cum-interview with Sakaal Times.

And this interview, also for Sakal, was done with Smriti Ravindra for "The Good Indian Girl".

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Trauma on the stand – when do we stop putting rape victims on trial?

Had done this piece for Femina magazine in 2010. Posting it here now because it is still relevant.

It isn’t hard to picture – a raped woman seeks justice but is humiliated and harangued further as her ‘virtue’ is called into question. It sounds like a tacky 1980s Bollywood film plot, doesn’t it? The great tragedy is that if they didn’t get anything else right, in this one respect, filmmakers did stay close to the truth. Despite theoretically sound laws and a string of empowering judgments from the highest courts in the land, a rape trial in India remains a deeply traumatic experience for Indian women and their families. An Indian rape survivor continues to be examined by misinformed doctors. Her past relationships, real or alleged, continue to be dragged into courtrooms. She continues to face threats of further violence.

Unscientific, unusable, unnecessary.

Starting from the moment a rape survivor picks herself up and goes to a hospital, her trauma multiplies if she is made to undergo a ‘finger test’, which is supposed to assess whether the victim is a virgin or ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’.

Describing it as ‘unscientific, inhuman and degrading’, a recent Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Dignity on Trial’ points out that the finger test has no forensic value. It is also legally irrelevant since the Supreme Court has ruled that a woman’s ‘habituation to sexual intercourse’ is immaterial. Yet, earlier this year, the Delhi and Maharashtra governments introduced a new forensic examination template for rape survivors which seek details about ‘hymenal orifice size’.

The report found at least three government hospitals in Mumbai, “including one where more than a thousand rape survivors are examined every year” continue to conduct the test. As if that wasn’t enough, they found that survivors make “grueling trips from one hospital or ward to another, and receive multiple examinations at each stop. Medical workers frequently collect evidence inadequately or insensitively, and it may then be lost, poorly stored, or subject to processing delays, rendering it unusable.”

While the ‘finger test’ is technically irrelevant, it does impact trials. Courts do make comments about the victim’s character. In a 2009 rape case, the Supreme Court made remarks like: “the prosecutrix appears to be a lady used to sexual intercourse and a dissolute lady.”

Veena Gowda, a women’s rights lawyer, points out that law is a subjective field since it manned by people, usually men. “Look at the whole thing of getting a rapist to marry his victim,” she says. “It is a patriarchal society’s way of morally resolving the issue. It still looks at rape as a violation of a woman’s ‘purity’ instead of violence done to her.”

V for Violation, V for Violence

India’s popping economic muscles have not done much to curb violence against women. Between 1990 and 2008, rape statistics showed an increase of 112 percent. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 21,467 rapes were reported in 2008, but most researchers believe the figures are much higher since most women don’t go the police. Of the limited number of cases where the trial is completed, the conviction rate is only 26%.

Against this constant dissection of her morals, it takes a woman almost super-human courage to trust the judicial system and get the rapists punished. Monica Sakhrani, a criminal lawyer and a teacher, believes that the construction of rape law is slightly problematic since it hinges on a women’s consent. “It puts the woman in the dock. You start looking at who she is, where she comes from. Her relationship with the rapist is questioned. But the man’s behaviour is rarely in the dock unless the victim is a child, or the man is from a lower class.”

Defense lawyers often imply that familiarity with a man automatically translates into consent. Even police statistics say that in 91% of rape cases, the victims knew the accused. Monica illustrates what an impossible situation this creates for women by referring to the infamous Jalgaon case of the 90s. “In 2000, the Bombay High Court acquitted a man in a case where the girl was 17, since she had gone to the man’s house. The assumption is: ‘What do you expect when you go to the man’s house alone?’ So if you can only expect sex, then they assume consent was given.”

The New Guard for a Newer Generation

Despite current problems, Monica doesn’t despair. There have been progressive judgments and the women’s movement had its successes. Since 2005, a woman’s sexual history is no longer admissible in court as evidence in rape cases. A survivor can also hire lawyers to assist the public prosecutor. This is a huge step forward since prosecutors are underpaid, overworked and rarely trained to deal with gender violence. Besides, they might have prejudices about what kind of woman gets raped. A ‘watching advocate’ allows the victim a voice.

Women’s collectives are helping the government draft a new definition of sexual violence. Currently, the assumption is that the worst kind of violence is penetrative. Rape laws are restricted to penile-vaginal penetration. Sections 354 and 509 of the IPC deal with anything ranging from ‘obscene’ singing to fondling of breasts – everything encompassed by ‘outraging a woman’s modesty’.

Aruna Kashyap, who researched and authored ‘Dignity on Trial’, says defining the law in terms of modesty is very problematic for it presumes women are modest. “Ideas of good girl and bad girl need to be challenged. The law should protect women’s rights. You also need doctors, police, prosecutors and judges to be trained to grow aware of these rights.”

Sadly, even minor girls aren’t spared the moral posturing as was shamefully evident after a nine-year-old Russian girl was raped in Goa. The state’s Deputy Director of Tourism, Pamela Mascarenhas went on record to say: “walking on the beaches half-naked is bound to titillate the senses.”

There have also been instances of the finger test being performed on girls as young as six. Maharukh Adenwalla, who has often worked as a watching advocate for minors, says children face court procedures they don’t always understand. Many children don’t yet have the language to explain what happened. She recalls a cases where a 10 year old was raped. “She testified when she was 13. There were three men accused and each had his own lawyer. Each lawyer cross-examined the girl. She was in the witness box for six days and just couldn’t understand why they were making her out to be a liar.”

Truth and Trauma

Any woman would be shattered by the allegation that she is lying about the brutality she suffered, but defense lawyers often badger even children. Anuja Gupta of RAHI, an organisation that works with survivors of child abuse, has heard horror stories about children being made to stand on benches to give testimony, like they were being punished.

The law has little understanding of trauma, according to Anuja. “Victims cannot retell the story in a clear, sequential manner. The story might change. That is the nature of trauma. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But judges aren’t trained to deal with trauma.”

RAHI is part of a collective that sent suggestions for criminal law amendments to the home ministry. The collective wants rape laws to include ‘persons other than women’ so adult men and transgendered people can seek justice too. It also wants the children’s section to be gender-neutral.

In the meantime, a first progressive step forward would be to do away with the finger test. CEHAT (Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes) has come up with a rape toolkit called SAFE to collect forensic evidence and conduct medical examinations.

Padma Deosthali, a senior researcher at CEHAT, says their chief concern is treatment and evidence collection. “We intervene in rape cases reported in three hospitals in Mumbai. More than 50% cases are of non-penetrative assault. The other issue is that hospitals ask for police intervention. Their primary job is to provide treatment and follow-up care. The victim’s injuries may show up later and are an important part of the evidence.”

Another major gap is our lack of a witness protection regime. Padma says she was horrified while visiting a six year old victim in hospital. “The mother of the accused came into the ward and threatened the victim’s mother, saying ‘if your girl hasn’t been raped yet, we will ensure she is raped later’. In India, most rapists have easy access to victims and parents.”

The law needs to protect and assist people who report violence. Finally, it also needs to address sexual violence within marriage and amongst sex workers. In both instances, consent is taken for granted. But even here, change can be wrought.

Meena Seshu, who works with commercial sex workers through SANGRAM, remembers, “When I began work with the sex workers, even murder was not reported. If they tried to report violence, the police wouldn’t even put it in the diary. They’d take money from both parties and call it a ‘negotiation’. Now sex workers are organised, and violence does get reported.”

Marital rape is almost never reported though. Married women might talk of husbands ‘using force’ or ‘not listening’ but they don’t go to the police.

It might take years before India finds a way of investigating marital rape. For now, Veerappa Moily must answer the activists who wrote to him saying: “Change in the structure of humiliation which typifies rape trials is not possible unless medical jurisprudence textbooks and procedures are changed.”

Indeed, Mr Law Minister. If you cannot prevent rape, stop the public humiliation of women and children. You owe the nation that much.


Things to remember about rape law and investigative procedures:
- Courts have held the finger test ‘obsolete’ and ‘violative’ of your fundamental rights.
- Victim’s sexual history is inadmissible as evidence.
- Women cannot be taken into custody after sunset and before sunrise.
- When women are arrested or interrogated, a policewoman must be present.
- There are legal precedents allowing a delay in reporting the crime.
- In cases of statutory rape, there are legal precedents for hearings in a judge’s chamber, or for a screen to be placed between the victim and the accused.
- If a child is involved, the law has provisions for the defense lawyer to put questions through the judge, who will address the victim in a non-threatening way.
- A rape survivor can hire her own lawyer to assist the prosecution

Monday, April 22, 2013

Homeless, again and again

There's a petition going around, from 'Shaheena' who could not write her exams recently. Her mother couldn't pay the school fees, because her mother couldn't find a new job after their house was demolished. This was in Bangalore, where a slum was demolished and several thousand people rendered homeless to make way for a new shopping mall. The kids are either in makeshift tents or on the footpath.

There's been another such demolition in Mumbai recently. Some homes in Golibar, Khar (east) were demolished illegally. Illegally, yes. At stake are over a hundred acres of land on prime property (near the domestic airport), and the Golibar slum rehabilitation project. Some private land was reportedly acquired by the builder. But the consent letters, according to the residents of Gurukripa Society, are fraudulent. Signatures were forged; dead people's names were used. And according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), no objection certificates were not obtained even from the defence ministry or the central excise department. However, the local police did not file an FIR until the court ordered it.

Some residents and activists had asked the Union housing minister Ajay Maken to intervene. Maken wrote to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, asking that residents not be evicted until the question of permissions and rights was resolved.

But Chavan ensured no such thing. Activist Medha Patkar had been on a hunger strike for nine days before he decided to visit and offer some assurances. But looking at what happened in 2011 and then again in December 2012, it is hard to feel reassured.

After the 2011 demolitions in Golibar, there were reports about a young girl, Tejashree Mistry who scored 93.64% in her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exam despite having had to study 'surrounded by debris and discord'. I wonder about Tejashree now. Does she live somewhere safe? Is she going to college?

Observers believe that several schoolchildren from Golibar whose homes were demolished are traumatized. Some appeared for their final exams but left their answer sheets blank. I wonder what's going on in their heads. Do they already see the deep fissures in our society and are they already disenchanted?

In Mumbai, slum clearances and rehabilitiations are hotly debated. People who can afford non-slum apartments believe that slum-dwellers do not deserve 'free' housing, for they resell the flats at a profit before moving back into a slum.

The truth is that often, people move back into slums because the 'rehabilitation' buildings are not habitable. They cannot afford the maintaince. There's no water, no elevator. Besides, they have to try and live near their place of work because they can't afford long commutes.

People will migrate for work. Or they might be forced out by famine and war. If they cannot afford to rent a place, they will live on the streets. They will try and get a brick wall instead of a piece of plastic. And none of us has any moral right to tell them to leave.

Housing will remain a prickly issue, until the population stabilizes and every single individual has a house of her/his own. That is a goal worth aspiring to, but meanwhile, we cannot punish those who had very little to start with.

Before there were laws to govern the sale of houses and the separation of land into public and private, all we had was access to the earth. Everybody picked a corner and began to build a life. It is grossly unjust to tell someone that just because she/he was born too late, they have no right to a safe corner of this earth.

First published here

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The rare theatre review

Which makes it just a wee bit more special. Also, it helps that it's generous.

"Zaidi's writing is as fluent and unfussy as ever, as she takes on slapstick and dramatic intensity with equal ease. So Many Socks is just another day at the office, then, for one of our most versatile writers. Be it fiction (the recent Love Stories #1-14), reportage (the superb, hard-hitting Known Turf) or poetry (Crush), Zaidi's style is pliant and yet immediately recognizable. On the night, the cast, too, was impeccable, with Bhavna Pani delivering a memorable performance as Tashi's mother. In a priceless moment early on in the play, we get to see how Tashi's parents met."


Monday, April 15, 2013

The other corruption

Anna Hazare is on a 'jantantra' (democracy) yatra these days. A nationwide tour that intends to last 18 months and aims to overthrow the current government. And I'm wondering what this really means. What will blow in after the UPA blows out? Anyway, I agree with Hazare on one point. He talks of a mass movement as the only solution to the rot in our system.

I agree, because part of the corruption is rooted in the masses. Besides, there are two kinds of corruption. One is the sort that gets protested, usually linked to the government – loot of public money and/or natural resources.

The other is the corruption of silence – watching someone else fight but refusing to do anything to help him.

One reason I'm thinking this is TA Rajendran. I hadn’t heard of him until after his death. Rajendran had started a newspaper called 'Nawab', where he exposed all kinds of corruption, until he began to be called 'Nawab Rajendran'. But he was arrested, beaten up, and eventually had to shut down the paper. All his life, he fought against corruption, filing Public Interest Ligitation cases (this was before the RTI act), including some against the former Chief Minister, K. Karunakaran.

And yet, he did not even have a home or a fixed address. It seems that people would write letters to him, with the Kochi court as his address. For all his 'popularity' Rajendran died poor, in 2003. And he was powerless to revive or sustain an independent newspaper.

I bring this up now since there's an ongoing debate about media ethics. The Election Commission of India has made moves towards controlling ‘paid news’ through a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC). It is supposed to work at both state and district levels, at least during the next polls in Karnataka. Similar committees have been formed in Haryana and Gujarat.

The problem is that corruption is built into our media systems. TV channels and newspapers depend on advertising from governments and private businesses. This ensures profits, small or large, but it also means they cannot survive without advertisements.

The alternative is that citizens pay enough for news editors and journalists to remain independent. I don’t know how many people see news as necessary to the functioning of our society but most Indians don't pay enough for news. Subsidies on newsprint and real estate don't cover the cost of news gathering and distribution. One or two or five rupees does not cover it.

That's why independent papers and websites shut down. People who run them have to pay rent, eat, sleep, commute, send kids to school. It is too much to ask that they work towards truth when society doesn’t seem to value it.

Sometimes I think, corruption is like bullying. A bully hits someone. He (or she) gets away with it. He does it again. Others notice. They also start bullying the smaller kids. Teachers could interfere, but the bullying kids are possibly rich; their fees enable salaries. The victims' parents don’t interfere for fear their child might be penalized or ostracized. So the bullying continues.

One way to fix this is, a large number of parents start protesting. But they must also follow this up by supporting teachers who do intervene, those who stand up for justice. This means putting your money where your mouth is and paying their salaries, if needed.

The same principle applies to media. We cannot have real democracy if people like Nawab Rajendran suffer violence, trying to exposing corruption, while the rest of us subscribe to newspapers filled with advertisements, devoting ourselves to the private lives of film actors.

An edited version was published here.

Monday, April 08, 2013

The first blow

Heard about the six year old in Punjab? Daddy used to burn him with cigarette butts. The parents were trying to get divorced and Daddy had custody of the child.

I'm thinking of that kid, wondering what would have happened if he had not described the torture to the court? What the violence have escalated? What if the kid had decided to run away? What if he could not find his mother and, like millions of other children, ended up begging. Or scavenging at garbage dumps. Or working at food stalls.

He would have survived perhaps. Amin Sheikh did survive, though he must have suffered more than he cares to put into words. His book, 'Bombay Mumbai. Life is Life. I am because of You', is a memoir of growing up on the streets and railway stations in Mumbai, is a surprisingly generous, optimistic one. He mentions the 'bad things' that happened to him, and loomed darkly over his little sister. But he chooses to dwell mostly on the fun he had with the other kids, and the people who helped him along, in small ways and big. Those who fed him, or taught him a new skill, showed him ways to stay alive, took him in and prodded him further.

Sheikh now runs a travel company called Sneha, after 'Snehasadan', a home for rescued street children. He managed to get a little bit of schooling, found a series of jobs – as a shoe-shine boy, a newspaper vendor, a chauffuer, an errands boy, and eventually was placed in a household where he was treated more like a family member than an employee. He picked up some English, expressed his desire to travel and acquire taxis so he could go up in the world. He saved hard, and eventually did make enough to support his family in ways that he says he hadn't imagined.

Of all the events that shaped Sheikh's life, one fact sticks in my head. The violence he first experienced was at home. It's not like he could not find his way home, or that he did not try to return after he ran away the first time. But the violence continued.

Hunger, sexual abuse, loneliness, disease – that little child was willing to brave it all but he did not want to take beatings from his mother or step-father, or abuse from his employers and their customers. His younger sister too felt the same way.

It is easy to dismiss feelings by saying things like 'children don't even understand...' but surveys supported by our own government show that the majority of children between 5-12 are physically and verbally abused.

When a child puts up with violence at home and the pressure to bring in money for the family, she/he must also feel emotionally betrayed. From strangers, you expect so little protection or loyalty. And once you leave the family home, at the very least, you are free to suffer your own choices. The illusion of a safe home, the fig leaf of 'parents always have the child's best interests at heart' takes away even this smallest of freedoms. So of course, kids run.

There are no recent surveys but older data suggests the number of street kids in Indian cities is over 4,00,000. It could be as high as 8,00,000 too (Unicef estimates run into millions). And lakhs of kids are going to keep running unless we can start building a nation where violence within the household is not tolerated and every family can afford to feed itself without forcing the kids into jobs.

First published here

If you want to buy Amin Sheikh's book, the ebook is available on Amazon 

Friday, April 05, 2013

Subhanallah, Chashme BUDDOOR (1981)

It's the freshest thing I've seen all year. And I'd seen it at least three times before and maybe a couple more times in bits and parts. But so far, I'd only caught the film on cable TV, and I had never seen the first ten minutes.

This time I was milling around, eating too much cheese. Impatient for Chasme Buddoor (the 1981 Chashme Buddoor, the funny one, the original one, the one that could pull off both, unself-conscious and self-conscious humour, and romance, and still stay watchable) on the big screen.

And then I was in my seat, sitting through the trailer of Yamla Pagla Deewana 2 and glad, sort of, because any poor iota of curiosity you may have felt was successfully squelched (although I did think that this was a less annoying trailer than the trailer of Chashme Baddoor, the new version, where the only novelty hinted at was shorter skirts).

Once the film began, I was surprised at how much I was laughing. Surprised that, despite the huge potential for feminist discomfort in this sort of story, I was not made uncomfortable by the jokes. Watching the film with grown-up eyes, I was noticing more and more cleverness in the script and the vision of director Sai Paranjpe.

For instance, two of the male characters, Jomo and Omi (Ravi Vaswani and Rakesh Bedi), are always chasing women in overt, slightly offensive ways but they never succeed in wooing anyone. They chhedo-fy any woman they see, not discriminating on the basis of class or colour or body shape. And it is obvious to the viewer that the reason they never succeed is that their approach to women is all wrong. Following, whistling, passing comments, showing up without an invitation, offering lacy kerchiefs as bait – such 'woo-ing' is not just annoying, it is doomed to failure.

The writer-director makes it clear that women are not likely to be won over this way and she is able to do so with a sense of fun. The boys don't always get slapped. They also get taken for a ride by some of the women.

However, given the right circumstances, romance does blossom. A chance encounter is important but equally important is behaviour. And mutual attraction. For instance, when Neha (Deepti Naval) meets Siddharth (Farooq Sheikh), he comes across as a decent chap. He is a bit awkward, but not unduly shy. He's educated, hard-working, and considerate about her feelings. He will not let her touch a dirty towel even if it is only so that she might wash it. And he's not pompous or dishonest.

In turn, she gives him a chance. She trusts him enough to give him an opportunity to meet her again (I will not describe how, because you MUST go watch the film). She acknowledges her desire too, when they both meet again and it is now evident that both parties are actually interested. Their mutual interest is key to the film. Everything hinges on this – that they like and trust each other.

This is one of the major reasons why I adore the film. The filmmaker is neither placing the burden of coyness on the woman, nor placing women in general on some pedestal of infallibility. Just like men, some are shy and some are 'chaalu' and some are neither.

I also wonder if there was a subtle point made about 'gaze' as well. Whenever Jomo and Omi are following girls, the women are often walking away with hips swinging wildly, exaggeratedly. This does not happen with Siddharth or Neha.

Another thing I love is the deliberate spoofiness of the scenes invoking Hindi film references. Most often, this is during Jomo/Omi-Neha scenes. The filmmaker is perfectly aware of how stereotypical (or just silly) Bollywood characters can be, and she exploits every one of those stereotypes for laughs. Through songs, through costumes, through dialogue. But when she is not being spoofy, she is also capable of using filmi tropes in a tender way. For instance, when showing how Neha is upset, whilst she is singing a sad song with her music guru.

The other things I love about the original Chasme Buddoor is the attention to detail, and when detail is deemed important. For instance, at one point, Omi and Neha are seated in a boat. She is wearing a gleaming white garaara (and it is a garaara, not a sharaara, as it should be in the Lucknavi poetic imagination), and the dupatta is kept in place on her head with the help of a hair clip. An ordinary black hair clip that shows up clearly on the white fabric.

I noticed that hair clip with a little shock. Then I realised that I have NEVER seen a black hair clip on the head of any Hindi film actress on any big-screen outing. Their dupattas appear to be super-glued to their heads. This small detail is unimportant, especially since the whole song is meant to be spoofy. But it totally distracted me because I began to think of how the mirage of perfection has become super important in modern films. The women's clothes are just so, their bodies just so, their breasts of a particular size and if not just so naturally, then silicon-ed up to that particular just-so size.

Neha wears her clothes the way an ordinary middle/upper class girl might. She dresses well, in both western and Indian outfits. She wears heels. And when she steps out, after her music lessons, she actually puts her sandals on again! This is an important detail. It deepens the scene – a hint of tradition executed wordlessly; in a blink of an eye, it adds to Neha's character and allows a better sense of 'place' within a film. But this is a director's detail. It's not a costume detail.

Similarly, the boys are all in towels when they are alone, or lungis with t-shirts (the same t-shirts they might wear outdoors). And they share clothes. But no dialogue is wasted, with one character asking to borrow the other's shirt. It's just done, more or less the way young flat-mates do in real life.

Another example – Omi is shown vigorously exercising in one scene, and that tells us how he feels about being plumper than the other two. He never says a word about wanting to lose weight. It is just suggested, which is enough to deepen his character for the viewer.

Yet another example – All the boys talk often to Lallan Miyan (Saeed Jaffrey), the neighbourhood paan-wala to whom they owe money for cigarettes. This includes Siddharth. But what's touching is that he actually talks to the elder man. He confides in him because he's a student in a new town and probably doesn't have anyone else to share his feelings with.

These details are signs of accomplished filmmaking, of course - embedded gently and absorbed intuitively. I was noticing them only because I have watched the film at least three times and also because it is so rare in Hindi film 'comedies' these days.

I could go on and on. There are a dozen things to say about why this film still feels so modern, so honest, so delicately balanced. But I should actually stop and allow you – whoever is reading this – to go and catch a show on the big screen. It's totally worth the money. Probably one of the cleanest romcom+buddy films you're likely to watch this year.

Just remember to watch the one with 'u' in the Buddoor. Book here.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

It's graphic!

I am SO excited about this: my first attempt at graphic storytelling!

It appeared yesterday in Mint's lovely section The Small Picture. So glad the Manta Ray people invited me to submit pitches, and that I did pitch and they approved my idea, and now I cannot wait to write some more.

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