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: ). 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?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

In other words, mera gaon mera des

Did you hear the news from Amsterdam about 'scum villages'. Apparently, there are 13,000 complaints of anti-social behaviour every year and now now there's a plan to create separate camps where people who are making a nuisance of themselves, or behaving in ways deemed 'anti-social' can be sent away. Families might live in caravans or be granted very basic housing while being monitored by the police.

The question is – who decides who is a nuisance to whom? There is much scope for injustice and the targetting of individuals who represent a moral/political minority, and it is a pity that Amsterdam is considering going down this slippery road. Reports say that municipal officials could identify offenders deserving of a “compulsory six month course”. Which sounds a lot like 're-education' and reminds me of non-democratic states and penal colonies.

There's a fine line between being anti-social or not wanting to follow every law in the land, and actually harassing others who might be forced out of their own homes, since they ae unable to confront or retaliate in equal measure. What makes the situation more dangerous is the politicians' attitude. One leader has been quoted as saying: “Put all the trash together”.

To think of, or describe, citizens as trash or scum is not healthy. It damages the human spirit. Which is why this whole business of 'camps' for the anti-social makes me uncomfortable.

And yet, in another corner of my head, there is also this fantasy – what if all the 'misfits' could petition the government to be allowed to set up their own villages? A bit of land where they could live by their own rules, without police interference?

We all want to pack off people we don't like to some place where they can live with their own sort. That's what ghettos are. But what if India was divided on the basis on behavioural preferences rather than linguistic or religious heritage? The only law that would apply to all would be against physical assault, murder and enslavement. At 16, children could decide whether they wanted to stay put with their parents, or start traveling to look for a colony where they share the values of the local residents.

There was an online test doing the rounds a while ago. It figured out where you 'belong' based on your values and personal politics. It turned out that many of the people I like and love 'belong' in Sweden or Norway. These are tolerant, liberal, non-violent people who believe in social justice, gender equality, freedom. Yet, none of us is trying to quit India.

Perhaps we all dream of a place in India – a village or town – where we could apply for domicile on the basis of our personal values. For instance, a colony of atheist artists who cultivate land – what would it be like? And why not have a colony of misogynists where all misogynists can live happily ever after?

If only the government could do a nation-wide psychological survey to figure out who wants a zero tolerance approach to sexual violence? Who prefers a soft apologists' approach? Who wants the freedom to harass man, woman, child or animal with no serious consequences?

I can imagine such a survey: “Whoever believes in dowry, stand in this line. Whoever believes in purdah, stand in that line. Who does not believe in legal marriage or inheritance? Raise your hand.”

If only we could all find our nearest soul-citizens, and then go off into our own scummy villages where our own rules apply... That would be something, eh?

First published here

Monday, July 08, 2013

Tech it up

Recently, I had to apply for a new PAN card. It was a relatively painless process, despite a few weeks' delay on account of a misplaced cheque. But what made me feel better through the whole business of following up on the application was that there was someone I could reach. The fact that I could send and email and actually get a response, that I could call a helpline to understand the problem and an executive told me what to do – this made me feel less frustration. And when the application was processed, I was sent an update via email, telling me that the card had been dispatched and would reach me soon.

Interactions with the state have become slightly smoother because of newer technologies. You don't have to waste precious time standing in queues, watching the defensive faces of government employees who are responsible for either blocking or expediting your file. Now citizens can apply online for a few basic services and receive updates on mobile phones or via email.

This is a major relief, of course. Many communication problems can be resolved if the technologies push deeper into the countryside, and are made available in more languages. But the first step is for the government to decide to use technology to make life better, simpler, more fair for citizens.

Even with existing knowledge, much can be done to improve the average citizen's relationship with the state. CCTV cameras are constantly being used to check crime. Video-calling and conferencing is connecting families across the globe. There is no reason these should not be used to monitor village schools and hospitals, so teachers and doctors cannot absent themselves so easily.

In fact, the failure to enable things like tracking files online through government departments is making us more vulnerable to corruption. We should be able to see why municipal clearances for various projects are granted or denied. We should be able to report violations of the illegal use of public space to the concerned state department.

Citizens should be able to reach the administration without wasting time and money travelling to block offices. Even if they're illiterate, or don't have personal laptops or uninterrupted power supply, it is possible to enable a video-call using a combination of solar energy, a public media centre and the internet. They should be able to make a phone call to complain if their pension are delayed.

Last week, I'd mentioned a protest in Delhi, where activists demanded solar energy. They wanted to emphasize that many alternatives are available to the human race to generate electricity, and reports said that they had connected their bicycles to a sign that was lit up as the activists pedaled.

Indeed, there are a dozen possibilities. In Tambaram municipality, methane gas was drawn from sewage and used as cooking gas for local residents. A bio-methanation plant has reportedly been set up to treat sewage generated from public toilets, which serves the dual purpose of ensuring sanitation and reducing the use of kerosene or LPG in kitchens. The state of Chhattisgarh is reportedly trying to use satellite imagery to curb illegal mining and transport of minerals.

In other nations, gyms have used exercise equipment to generate electricity. Magazine reports have mentioned music festivals that experimented with bicycle-powered concerts, and bars that make customers pedal up the energy needed to create their cocktails.

If we'd snap out of our overwhelming dependence on huge grids powered by coal or hydro-power, every district would have a shot at energy independence, we'd use natural resources better, and we'd all be one step closer to de-centralized democracy.

First published here

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Un- comical adventures

My second graphic story for Mint's 'The Small Picture' had appeared a few weeks ago. This one is about the trials and heartbreaks of home-seekers, particularly single people, in Mumbai.

Here's a link:

Friday, July 05, 2013

3 new poems in Big Bridge

I have three poems in the new anthology of Indian poetry at Big Bridge:
'Cine Sestina'
'City, Twilight'
'Lifer Giving Advice to New Convict in Female Ward'.

Read here.

After the suffering

About a month ago, I'd read a critique of the report of the Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) on hydropower projects in the Upper Ganga Basin and Ganga River. The report was submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. It came in for sharp criticisms from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), which claims that the report is biased in favour of large hydropower projects.

IMG stated that 69 large hydropower projects in the Upper Ganga basin already exist. But, apparently only 17 are operating and 14 under construction. SANDRP points out that the report has even included projects which were officially dropped.

Another criticism is that the report doesn't bother with science. It says “the distance between two hydro projects should... ensure that over-crowding is avoided” but doesn't define over-crowding. At the same time smaller distances between projects are justified if gradient is high. I quote from the SANDRP critique: “if gradient is high, for the same distance, the river will have less time to travel than if the gradient were low. It is in fact the 'time of free flow' that is a crucial... for river to regenerate itself. So if the river were to have the same amount of time to flow between two points, with higher gradient, river will require more distance.”

IMG wants six rivers to stay 'pristine' but also recommends projects on these rivers. There are other serious problems. It wants to implement projects on a stretch of the Bhagirathi that has already been declared eco-sensitive. It is also interestting that none of the non-government members in the group (3 out of 15) have endorsed this report (those who are interested in details can read the full critique at

The question now is – after the tragedy in Uttarakhand, after over a thousand have lost their lives, will the ministry of environment change its attitude to large hyropower projects, or not?

A lot of India's messing about with Himalayan rivers is on account of our hunger for electricity. But it has always confounded me why India doesn't work harder to minimize the burden by turning to our greatest resource – the sun.

Whenever the question of solar power came up in previous decades, one heard excuses like how it is too expensive, how it cannot be supplied off-grid easily, how it is 'unfeasible'. But it's nowhere near as unfeasible as it's made out to be. I've lived in houses that use solar-powered water heaters. I've been to villages where people are denied grid-connectivity but with a solar power unit, each home could at least charge mobile phones, torches, and light a bulb at night. Why is this dismissed or scoffed at?

Many states are now giving solar energy a bit of a push. Kerela, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat have taken steps to introduce solar panels on roof-tops. Every town has its own climate to factor in, of course. But Delhi has a better chance at capturing solar energy than Kerela and it is high time greater efforts were made. In fact, Greenpeace organised a 'bike-a-thon' recently. Reports say that bicycles were generating electricity, lighting up the message: “Switch on the Sun”.

Delhi has had plans for solar-powered households since 2011. This year Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit finally launched a project whereby reportedly 1,257 solar panels generated power from the roof-tops of the discom BYPL.

I believe that should a time come that hydropower is not available, alternatives will spring up overnight. Every home (starting with the richest) and every state will make provision for its own supply. The tragedy is that it hasn't happened already.

First published here
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