Saturday, October 21, 2017

The lulled street

I've been racking my brains for the English equivalent of 'sannaata'. More precisely, to try and translate the idea of 'sannaata' on the sadak, or the streets.

Silence and solitude do not convey the same meaning. Nor does emptiness. Nor does desolation. Some dictionaries define the word as a 'lull', or a place lacking in sound, or lacking in people. This last, or perhaps a combination of these definitions, serves to explain the emotional meaning carried by 'sannaata'.

It can be a silent moment in a place devoid of people. Or a sannaata can descend upon a roomful of people. In either case, it is a hush burdened by the sense of a lull, a pause before something else happens. It is the sort of silence that's uncanny rather than peaceful. It makes you nervous. If you are walking, you feel an unreasonable urge to quicken your step. If you are in a car, you glance about right and left, looking for – what?

This sannaata is what defines certain streets at night. Think of sannaata in an urban context and you can imagine yourself on a dark street. Perhaps there is a lamp or two, but the light spills down the road, leaving either side untouched. In the crevices of the pavements, between the shadows cast by narrow lanes is – what?

You can hear your own feet, either tick-tocking or flop-flopping. You can hear the faint rurr of a distant engine and you try to guage whether it it coming your way or moving further. You aren't sure which you prefer. Sometimes you hear shuffling steps around the corner. That those feet keep moving is your safest bet. If they pause, the lull deepens. If the silence is broken now – what?

In every small and big town, such a sannaata routinely falls upon dozens of wide and narrow streets. Some places, it arrives as early as nine. All windows are shut, all blinds are down and cars locked.

Sometimes it waits as late as two o' clock in the night before it shows up and it slinks away before dawn. Mumbai is perhaps the only city in India where this is evident, and not just in the heart of town but even in its most distant suburbs. There is a reason it is called 'the city that never sleeps'. People sleep, of course. But trains, auto-rickshaws and cabs keep at least a handful of people on the move until nearly two in the night. There are a couple of hours after, nothing and nobody seems to move. At this time, every movement seems fraught. At this time, you aren't sure you want to be out on the streets on your own.

Then, there's one golden hour before dawn. A cycle bell starts tinkling. Some animal – dog or cow or goat – responds to the shift of time. Some woman with her head covered, barefoot, walks somewhere with purpose. You hear a temple bell or the azaan from a mosque. The sannaata lifts.

There are also certain towns and suburbs where it never seems to lift. Even in bright daylight, in the middle of a weekday, with dozens of people in sight and car-wheels crunching past at regular intervals, you feel it – the silence, the lull. The very air seems stretched, as if waiting for something to go wrong. You can't wait to get off the streets and into a safe room, and then fill up that room with sound – television, music, or the ping-ping-ping of back and forth texts. There are few places like this in India, but if you've visited a gated community, you might know what I'm talking about.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A little bump in the road

One of my favourite travel stories is from a reporting assignment in rural Rajasthan. For trips into rural areas, I'd usually have to hire a large vehicle like a Sumo or some other kind of jeep since there were either bad roads or no roads at all. Then there would be some areas where we'd have to abandon the jeep and walk.

On this particular trip, we were on no-road terrain. Yet there was a sign planted firmly on the ground. “Speed breaker ahead.”

I noticed and laughed at the irony. How could there be a speed breaker if there was no road? But I was wrong. Sure enough, there was a speed breaker. A mighty one too. It seemed at least a foot high and was solid concrete. The contractor tasked with making that road may have had a twinge of conscience, or else, he was given to dark humour. He certainly did put some of the money where it belonged – in concrete.

If there's one thing that almost everyone agrees upon, it is that there's money in contruction. Well, contractors and builders might disagree, perhaps with good reason. There may not be as much money in it for them as it appears on paper because there are several payments to make, not all of them legal. Even so, modern living requires a whole lot of concrete, tar and steel.

Examine budgets for our 'public' projects and you will likely see that the lion's share is given to construction. Huge stadia and sports complexes, flyovers and metro stations, airports and promenades and roads of course. There are offices and guest houses and toilets too. Throw in the odd school, college or hospital. All of this infrastructure is necessary, of course. We need railway stations and roads and schools, so we rarely question the expense. Trouble is, we also don't look very closely at how much is spent on actual construction, and how often the work needs repairs.

In recent months, there has been a lot of heartburn about road repair complaints, especially about potholes. Bad roads are inconvenient to say the least; they are also a health hazard. The risk of injuries to the neck and back are real but cannot easily be proved to have been caused or exacerbated on account of a rough ride. Instead of focussing on good, long lasting construction, or even examining the reasons why roads have been crumbling so easily in recent years, political outfits have responded with aggression. Then the aggression and the resultant outrage dies down, and it's back to business. There are no assurances that things will be any different next month, or next monsoon.

It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to build lasting structures. But it is only possible if we have good information.

Society is not made of concrete, but units of information. Building things, making complaints, making laws, seeking justice – all of these processes rest on information. This is also why information is either witheld or given out very reluctantly. And this is precisely why citizens must keep demanding it.

Ideally, accounts of city and state – all expenses paid out of taxpayers' pockets – ought to be uploaded online as well as easily accessed in print at the local municipal and state government office. We ought to be able to see maps, who built – or didn't build – a road, what they bid, how they split cost and profit, also which official inspected the work and gave it the final thumbs up. This information sits in files like a caged animal. There is no good reason why it should not be set free to serve as a public watchdog.

First published in The Hindu

Thursday, October 12, 2017

After the floodwaters receded

A lot of floodwater had entered the apartment while it was empty last month. Lots of damage to clothes and papers.

I opened an old suitcase filled with my documents accumulated over two decades. Letters from hostel friends, a childhood autograph book given away by an aunt, passbooks, employee contracts, printouts of early short stories and poems that I was trying to get published, the first credit card I was offered, banks' & insurance companies letters, bills and accounts for reportage related travels, recommendation letters to support my applications to fellowships or universities, the first few acceptances from publishers, diaries in which I'd made notes for writing my plays.

This record of life emerged sodden, mouldy and falling apart in my hands.

I took one last look at everything to see what could be salvaged. A decade ago, I'd have tried to save the "official" stuff first. Perhaps my own creative work. Now, I found I could toss all of that with no regret (why was I holding onto it anyway?).

The poems were awful. I ripped them them at once. I was very amused by a cover letter I'd written to a publisher. So full of faux confidence, so earnest that I am too embarrassed to share it here.

What I did save were the rejection letters. Polite and encouraging. I'd have saved the recommendation letters too but they tore as I opened them.

I tried to save the letters from friends, girls from college. But most were too wet, or the ink had run and faded. I will not say who wrote what, but it broke my heart to read the scraps that I still read.

One of you had written to scold me for failing to write back with thanks and acknowledgement after you couriered a diary as a gift. You said you had covered a wall with thermocol sheets to pin up photos of all of us girls, to remind you of happiness. You wrote to say your parents said they had to get you married off before you turn 25, and you were afraid you'd be house-bound and "roti pakao-fying" all your life and never be anything more.

One of you wrote to say, you were not sure if I was welcome to visit in your in-laws' house. Friends were not encouraged.

One of you wondered, if one can leave a boy who has not hurt you, did you ever love him in the first place?

One of you wrote to say, you couldn't afford to write to me too often, the postage was too expensive. It was that or skipping a meal. One of you wrote to say you liked reading what I sent you, and how could I dismiss my own writing as 'just journalism style'? It was most certainly not just that!

One of you, a junior, sent a type-written letter, full of spelling errors. You warned me against my own friend. Your reason for warning me was that this friend had visited college after we'd graduated and hung out with some other girls, but ignored you. You looked for affection in her eyes, and did not find any. According to you, this was a serious character flaw.

One of you sent me a birthday card with the image of a child on it, white kid with blonde hair, saying that she reminded you of me.

One of you sent me a card saying 'I really miss you'. It was wet and stuck so badly, I couldn't even open it to see which one of you sent it.

From Agra, Jaipur, Haridwar, Belgaum, Allahabad, Kanpur, Delhi, the inlands arrived. Your handwriting, your decision to write your name and return address, or not to. Girls fresh out of college, filling up every inch of space with words.

Sometimes you wrote on pages torn out of a ruled notebook, and sometimes especially bought stationery. You used red ink and blue, almost never black.

Reading these letters, I fretted. I too must have written letters. Sent them back to Agra, Haridwar, Allahabad. Pouring my heart, my circumstances, my whims out on paper. All that honesty, locked into ink by my own hand. Do I want the girl I was to still exist? I am certain I will not recognize her and her sentiments any more. Just as I don't recognize that girl who wrote awful poems and wanted them published (good lord above, thank you for the rejections!). But who knows? Another ten years, and I might be desperately looking for that girl, for clues to her head, her times, the tangible objects she touched.

Phones, Whatsapp, reveal too little. Paper, even a blank sheet of paper, says fifteen times more than a stupid Whatsapp forward. Send letters. Use the post. Paint cards. Send them. Even if you're just tearing them up ten years later, it's a more life-affirming process than hitting 'delete' on the phone.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

दिल्ली, जामिया और बनारस की लड़कियों के नज़्र (वीर रस जैसा कुछ )

तोड़ दो पिंजरा, फोड़ दो भांडा!
यही न कह कर थे बहलाए?
रहना भीतर, यही भला है?
समझो अब असल अभिप्राय।

बात ये है, उनसे न होगा!
स्वयं ही सब कुछ लेना होगा
सुनो, सड़क बना लो डेरा
वख़्त न देखो, शाम-सवेरा।

समय की नंगी तलवारें हैं
सर पे लटकी, तुम्ही पकड़ लो!
समय अब नहीं कवच किसी का
तुम्ही समय के सर पे चढ़ लो!

छत सर पर अहसान नहीं है
बाप, गुरु, भगवान नहीं है।
सुनो, जो अबके हट गई पीछे
कर ली जो अब आँखें नीचे

घुट जाओगी, पिस जाओगी
अंधी गली में रह जाओगी।
नानी-दादी भी तो लड़ी थीं
पिंजरा तोड़ा, तब सँभली थीं

किसी की चिता पे न जल मरना
अपने पक्ष को साखर करना,
किया उन्होंने, अब बारी तुम्हारी
बात को समझो, जंग है जारी।

गुड़िया गूंगी सबको पसंद है
रोटी-चौका मुफ़्त कराएँ
दूध का क़र्ज़ मानते सब हैं
पूछते हैं, पर कैसे चुकाएँ?

मांग लो अब वो सारी चीज़ें
हर वो हक़ जो पाते हैं भाई
स्वर न दबाओ, ज़ोर से चीख़ो
यही न्याय है, यही भलाई।

कहेंगे वे, व्यर्थ है लड़ना
पत्थर की दीवार से भिड़ना,
भिड़ जाओ तुम, कह दो घर पे
खड़ी हो तुम स्वयं के दर पे ।

शुल्क की तुम चिंता मत करना
जान-मान का सौदा न करना
जहाँ सुरक्षा, घर तो वही है
घर का अर्थ कुछ और नहीं है।

कुर्सी भाषण फ़ोन कचहरी
नौकरी प्रेम धूप सुनहरी
चाँद रात असीम वाई-फ़ाई
अपना समझो जो हाथ आये।

भरो ख़ुशी दोनों हाथों में
खुशियां तुम्हारी क्यों कोई छीने?
ख़ुशीयों से न घबराओ तुम
यही विरासत, यही हैं गहने

गरजे बरसे गाली धमकी
शब्द मात्र हैं, कहो, और लाएँ!
असल बात है बस हक़ वाली
हक़ पे आँच न आने पाए।

ज़ेवर कोई बेच आएगा
कपड़ा-लत्था कहाँ तक ढोगी?
हक़ ही सब कुछ दिलवाएगा
रहेगा जब तक जीवित होगी।

नर बन जाते हैं नरेंद्र
मादा का कोई इंद्र नहीं है।
सब इन्द्रियाँ खोल कर देखो
शक्ति का बस केंद्र यही है।

सुषमा ममता वसुंधरा हो
अटल अधीर दिग्विजया भव।
शक्ती की ही परम्परा हो
चंडी प्रचंडा शमशीरा भव।

सुनो नाद गत-भावी कल का
नहीं हो तुम जो घट गयी घटना।
तोड़ दो पिंजरा, फोड़ दो भांडा!
अबके तुम पीछे मत हटना!

- annie zaidi
Tweets by @anniezaidi