Saturday, November 30, 2013

The rare poem of hope: Swiss Lace Blouse

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Questions of light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Once upon a witch

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

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

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

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

First published in:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jet Blues

Dear Jet Airways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me tell you what else I saw.

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 09, 2013

Love in (and upwards of) Simla

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

Tweets by @anniezaidi