Monday, June 24, 2013

Waste not, want not

The other day, I had to throw out a kilo of potatoes. I bought a bunch of vegetables, took them home and put away some inside the fridge. Potatoes and onions were placed on the shelf as usual.

Three days later, a luxuriant layer of white mossy fungus had appeared. So I threw away the potatoes, which were still inside the plastic bag. Of course, I felt guilty about wasting food. But I felt even worse because one corner of my brain had warned me: “Take the potatoes out of the plastic bag; wash and dry them or they might rot.”

This small bit of advice is part of a larger wisdom about food handed down to us – to women of my generation at least – by our mothers and grandmothers. But then we went to hostels and found jobs before we learnt to manage our own meals. Or, we allowed hired workers to take over the kitchen. Partly through neglect and partly because we cannot be bothered, we no longer apply that wisdom.

Some of us may have learnt the science behind food management – how air and moisture is trapped inside plastic, how fungus grows in dark moist places, how fruit can be ripened naturally. We may even retain this knowledge from school text-books. But we forget to apply it. We forget that it is one of the most important kinds of knowledge a human being can have. 

And this forgetting is costing us. Not just as individuals who are struggling to cope with food inflation, but as a nation where every other person is malnourished. Even Pope Francis has said that wasting food is akin to stealing from the poor.

The world produces more than enough food – four billion tonnes of grain. But 1.3 billion tonnes, one-third of the food produced, is wasted each year. Both developing and developed nations are responsible. Lack of good storage facilities or transport infrastructure are to blame, but so are unimaginative and wasteful lifestyles.

A recent series of articles in Tehelka pointed out that rural Indian households very rarely waste anything. Even peel and straw is used as fodder. But more and more Indians live in cities and they know very little about growing, storing, preserving or recycling food. Besides, supplying to people in urban areas isn't easy. Our current situation is so bad, we're losing 25-40 percent of India's fruits and vegetables. The food waste burden could be an appalling 100 kilos per urban household.

There's another kind of loss happening. The head of the United Nations panel on biodiversity, Zakri Abdul Hamid, had pointed out that the loss of diversity is intensifying the nutrition crisis. There are 30,000 edible plants around the world but we usually cultivate only 30 crops. Which means that every time there's a minor shift in ideal weather, soil or water conditions, and a crop fails, many more people are likely to go hungry. Animals are at risk too – 22 livestock species are on the verge of extinction because animals are being bred with the single purpose of extracting milk and related marketable produce, not because they are sturdier and more likely to survive in tougher climate conditions.

I can't help wondering how we got here – how is it that modern, fast-urbanizing nations are not aggressively promoting food management knowledge? Is it because managing food is low-paid or unpaid work? Or because many generations have never grown a single potato on their own? Or because people who can neither grow food nor care to experiment with dietary possibilities are the ones who control the economy?

First published here

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Decent Thing To Do

I've often heard it said that you come into this world with just your body and you leave the same way. Which is to say, don't get too attached to what you have. But as long as you live, you need certain things. Your desire to live is proportional to how much you have – money, work, love, support, freedom.

Indirectly, our laws acknowledge this fact. That's why every society eventually has to allow for divorce in some form. No culture can deal with mass unhappiness for too long. This is also why governments have to enforce minimum wages, the right to work, or unemployment doles.

In a humane culture, allowances are made for those who have suffered. People who are under extreme stress – say, they lose their livelihoods, or their health, or have been emotionally abused for too long – may lose their desire to live. Sometimes, businessmen kill themselves rather than adjust to a life of poverty. Some farmers kill themselves because they cannot bear to lose their land, or their dignity. Some people kill themselves because they feel trapped in an unhappy marriage and see no way out.

In a decent society, alternatives are created. Farmers don't have to lose their land if they lose a crop. Being homeless and jobless doesn't have to translate into you becoming easy targets for violence at every street corner. A divorce doesn't have to translate into abandonment by your own family.

In an indecent society, you are forced to stay alive because others do not want to acknowledge your pain, nor do they want to look for long-term solutions. It is easier to criminalize suicide. Or call it a 'sin' against God.

But criminalizing doesn't help (and God, obviously, doesn't care enough to intervene). If someone is deeply unhappy and starts feeling powerless, that person will quit. Even animals stop eating if they're unhappy. 

But suicides make the rest of us feel guilty or upset. Everyone has troubles. If people just quit whenever we feel pain, what happens to the family? To the nation?

Besides, families (and governments) invest in individuals. Even from a socio-economic perspective, suicide is such a waste of resources. So we try to prevent it, or locate the source of a suicidal person's pain. A decent society looks for reasons why people feel hopeless. An indecent society looks for a scapegoat, a convenient target on whom we can collectively turn. We make laws about 'suicide abetment'.

A twenty-five-year-old quit because she saw no hope of ever finding happiness. She was hurt, possibly assaulted, but did not talk about it openly. She may have thought nobody would believe her and her career wouldn't survive, or that she herself would be blamed. She did live in a society where any hint of liberation is seen as an invitation to sexual violence. Where 'bachelors', especially artists, are not welcome as tenants. Where elected representatives get away with shaming rape victims. Where, despite alarming statistics about child abuse, schools refuse to allow gender workshops. Where officials conduct virginity tests before allowing weddings. Where, if she survived the suicide attempt, she could be punished by the law.

And we turn to the young boy who didn't want to take responsibility for her happiness, nor did he know how to cure her pain. This is the safe thing to do, after all. Because if we acknowledge where blame actually lies, we'd have to admit that our current way of being deserves to be smashed. Rapists would have to be punished. Women would have to be set free. And our society is not decent enough to allow this.

First published here

Monday, June 17, 2013

Reclaiming Magadh

One of the best things about reading a good book is that it makes one want to rush out and buy everything else by the writer. It makes us hungry for more. On that count, 'Magadh' and its translation by Rahul Soni scores high.

I was introduced to the work of Shrikant Verma only in 2009, when some translated poems from 'Magadh' appeared in Almost Island, the literary journal that has now published the book in English translation alongside the original Hindi.

When one first encounters Verma's pointedly sparse poems, the impact is electric. His unfussiness forces the mind to focus on the cacti of dilemmas and questions that never quite leave. These poems are about history, violence, direction, vision. They grapple with the attempt to reinhabit a place. But what is this place? Where does this path lead?

Perhaps he spoke for a generation that witnessed the crumbling of independent India's Constitutional ambitions, when he wrote: “There is pity in no one/ There is shame/ in no one/ No one thinks/ Those who think once/ don't think again.”

But Verma does not mention 'India' or 'Delhi'. He mentions Kapilvastu, Ujjaini, Magadh, Kashi, Mithila. He speaks of an Amravati that belongs to everyone. The book is populated with soldiers and amended laws, corpses and courtesans, ill omens and confusion, the unpleasant prospect of descent and ascent on staircases that don't care. The enemy is unarmed. Rulers are absent. “There are/ no rulers/ Those that were there/ thanks to liquor, stupidity and laziness/ are/ no longer/ worthy/ of being called our rulers/ What do we do then?”

Indeed, what?

In 'Wailing from the Inner Chambers', the poet asks: “...why this sorrow?/ When/ everyone/ says/ what happened/ was right, / why this repentence?”

The poet has dated the poem as being written in 1984, but he may as well have written it in 1992 or 2002. Most of Magadh was written in 1979 and 1984 and though the horrific events of the Emergency era or the Hindu-Sikh riots are not mentioned directly, the allusions are unmistakeable.

In 'The Customs of Hastinapur', Verma writes: “It isn't the custom to listen in Hastinapur – / those who hear/ are either deaf/ or have been appointed/ to turn a deaf ear”. The poem 'Kapilvastu' seems to refer to the new emphasis on us being a 'young' nation and the preference for younger leaders, starting in the 1980s. We can guess at the troublesome political coteries that would have made Verma write: “Being young/ only means/ that no one old should be in Kapilvastu”.

Yet, Verma is not mourning. He seems more interested in the people, those who mourn (or don't). He rejects the idea of an equal grief after a battle (or a riot). “I say/ it is not possible/ One-sided the murders/ One-sided the victory... One-sided the dharma/ One-sided the shame/ The number of dead on both sides/ is not the same”.

Reclaiming 'Magadh' for a new generation of Indian readers was necessary and Soni's translations go a long way to enable this. He communicates both the wiry frame and the lean flesh of these poems for readers in English.

The grammar and syntax of Hindi allows for a stronger rhythm, some of which is inevitably lost in translation, but Soni makes up for the loss by focusing on alliteration. Many poems also bear internal rhythms of meaning. Very few words are used. Entire verses are repeated. But then, a single syllable changed holds weight. Soni's decision to stay faithful to the original enjambment, as far as English grammar allows, also helps to retain some of the grace and nuance of the original poems.

There are things that are untranslate-able perhaps. For instance, the word 'anarth'. It means the lack of meaning, but it also hints at horrors to which no voice can be given. Yet, it is used in a poem that is about writing, giving voice. In English no word comes to mind that can convey both meanings so easily. The translator plays it safe and goes with the former meaning rather than the latter.

Besides, in Hindi, because there is no capitalization of names or the beginnings of sentences, meaning becomes ever more fluid, harder to pin down and yet, twice illuminated. Soni has worked around these difficulties admirably, though, and rendered 'Magadh' twice as readable.

Publisher: Almost Island Books
Rs 399

This review was published in DNA

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why not kiss and make it right?

Imagine being dragged out of your home at midnight, being beaten up and shamed publicly. 

Imagine that you have not beaten anyone else, done no violence, no economic fraud, nothing. All you've done is fallen in love, and decided to live with someone. And for this, you were punished by someone who claims to speak for everyone.

This is what happened in Balrampur district. The woman was separated from her husband and had begun to live with another man. This couple was reportedly dragged out of their home at the middle of the night. They were beaten, heads shaved, faces blackened, paraded around the village. The village 'pradhan' is another woman but she neither intervened nor reported the assault. Her own husband allegedly led the attack. 

Eventually an FIR was filed, which is how we read about it in the newspaper. But judging from the newspapers and TV channels, it would seem that the only thing occupying the collective mind of this nation is cricket. As if it really matters that people bet money on sports. As if it really does not matter that Indians can be beaten and humiliated for being in love. As if people's freedom to live with who they like is of no consequence. As if cricket matches alone assure us dignity and personal liberty.

I can imagine that we all have different views on morality. I can imagine that some of us might be moved to tears by cricket, and that most people toe the majority line when it comes to sexual freedom. But I fail to understand why we want to ignore the most pressing issues of our times.

I suppose a large part of our indifference comes from the fact that this incident was reported from a village. We like to think we are secure in our urban bubbles, where 'people like us' live as they like. We like to think that we will not have goons barging into our homes at midnight to thrash us.

There was another development reported recently, which was also largely ignored by most media houses. Turkey was witnessing a wave of protests that's described as unprecedented. The government, although democratically elected, responded with panic and brute force.

People were fighting to protect fundamental freedoms – their right to public space, and the right to kiss. Before the protesters took to the streets, there was a unique protest. Kissing had been disallowed in public spaces, and people began to stage 'kiss protests'.

It was the natural thing to do, perhaps the only thing to do. If you believe in your right to kiss, or to gather for protests, or to drink in bars, then you must do it. 

You must do it until it becomes ordinary, so much a part of your culture that it is ridiculous for anyone to be offended by it.

Indians, young Indians, especially suffer horribly from 'public morality'. Some bans are ridiculous but official – like a ban on mannequins wearing lingerie – but most of the time we suffer immoral, illegal attacks. Under the guise of offending some random group's sense of 'decency', we could be harassed or arrested. Young couples are often beaten up in parks, promenades and beaches. They often have to pay off the offended 'decent' citizen to avoid violence.

And I have never understood why we do not defy more often. Why do we not protest? Why do we not hold hands,or hug, or kiss until it becomes such an ordinary sight that nobody bats an eye? Until the only indecency remaining is the indecency of harming a couple in love.

First published here

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Monday, June 03, 2013

Schools spell trouble?

Schools have been in trouble lately. Hundreds have been derecognized. Thousands of them stand accused of fleecing us – all of us taxpayers, not just parents – of crores of rupees. There is talk of how the fate of millions of students hangs in the balance.

I have to confess that I find these developments slightly amusing, because schools are where we are supposed to learn basic democratic values.

Take this week’s report about 600 schools being declared ‘bogus’ by the Maharashtra government. It began in Nanded in 2011 when the then collector Shrikar Pardeshi asked for a survey of schools in the district. It turned out that about 30 % of enrollments were fake. Then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asked for a state-wide survey and at least two million ‘bogus’ enrollments were detected.

The interesting thing is that several of these schools were controlled by politicians affiliated to various political parties. Now this should not really be surprising to anyone who understands the new Indian economy. There is money to be made in education. And politicians like to control anything that makes money. They get even more powerful as they make decisions that enable them to make more money. According to the state’s own website, Maharashtra set aside Rs 26,443 crore (Rs 13,670 crore for elementary and Rs 12,773 crore on secondary education) for the year 2011-12.

What is at stake is not just children’s education, but also their health. The Indian state aids schools through cheap land, grants for teachers’ salaries. Funds are allotted for mid-day meals, which is imperative for a nation where half the child population is malnourished. There are special funds for residential schools for adivaasi children. Hence, the scam: set up schools and apply for aid, then claim larger and larger grants based on the number of students and teachers. The state-wide survey also discovered at least 12,000 teachers’ names on fake payrolls.

One way of dealing with such scams, of course, is to stop aiding schools. To make education a thoroughly private enterprise – by those who can afford to offer the service, for those for who can afford to buy it. But the problem is not just politicians or scamming ‘educationists’. Unaided schools are also turning out to be a problem.

Take recent reports about Billabong International High School in Thane. The institute reportedly served a legal notice to parents protesting a fee hike, demanding Rs 5 crore against defamation. But the parents did not pull their kids out and enroll them in other schools. They’re heading for the law courts instead.

In recent years, there have been many school fees-related protests across India. Delhi, Coimbatore, Aurangabad, Kanpur, Jammu, Bhubaneswar. Parents form groups like the Forum Against Commercialization of Education. They demand ‘transparency’ and proof that teachers are indeed well paid. They want politicians, activists and the judiciary to intervene although it’s none of the state’s business. After all, the parents chose unaided schools that set out to be expensive and exclusive.

So what do they want? Good schools, of course. But there is also a definite attitude that education shouldn’t be a free-for-all bazaar, that people deserve ‘quality’ education, even if they cannot afford it.

People often conflate ‘quality’ with how much money they’ve coughed up and this is obviously a problem because the best teachers aren’t the most buyable. But what does this attitude among the upper and middle classes tell us? I think it tells us that we all recognize the fundamental principle of the right to education. Assured of ‘quality’, we might even prefer state-run schools for which we pay a modest fee via taxes.

First published here
Tweets by @anniezaidi