Saturday, August 26, 2017

A new digital anthology

I have put together a new digital anthology: a set of 11 essays about famous Indian ladies (who also happen to be married to famous Indian gents). You are can buy it for just 80 Indian rupees via the Juggernaut app. There will be no print edition for this, so go ahead and start reading at once.

Here's a little preview with my introduction to the collection that offers some context to the book:

And here is a brief extract from one of the essays, about the unparalleled Asha Bhonsle: 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Inside a rape story

A rape story

Annie Zaidi

It's not science fiction and it's not the nation's growth story. It's the rape story we are all living inside of.

In this rape story, your female/male/trans body is owned broadly by the state but specifically and practically by your father, and next to him, your elder brothers, and next to them, your uncles and your younger brothers. They decide who to hand over your body to. This new person now has rights to access your body, its seed and its fruit.

Sometimes money exchanges hands in this story. The new owner of a female body takes money in addition to control over your body because he will now have to feed, maintain, clothe your body. Because its old owners have paid heavily and are unlikely to get back what they paid, they no longer want to take responsibility for your body should you return, broken and fearful.

In this rape story, there are rapists but some of them are designated defenders of public law and order. And there are victims but it is imperative that they not be called rape victims, else the rape would have to stop. So the victims are called public enemies. This is vital in order to ensure the stripping off of their clothes, the kicks to their groins, the stones and sticks thrust into their bodies, whip lashes on their haunches and legs, electric shocks to their private parts, their damaged nerve endings, their never-mending fractures, and other inventive humiliations such as the forced ingestion of faecal matter and urine, and the photographing and filming of all this so that the humiliation is made eternal and the prospect of future dignity near-impossible.

In this rape story, rapists can retire and live comfortably on public money, some of which also comes from the victims themselves, their families and communities.

In this rape story, a court of law can decide whether or not two bodies who have met are locked into a rape like scenario, even if the two bodies themselves have screamed themselves hoarse that this is not rape but love.

In this rape story, a body ceases to be a child-like body if its owners have bartered it away too soon to whoever would take it.

In this rape story, the name of romantic/sexual love is overwritten with rape, and in the name of familial love, rape is offered on a platter decorated with symbols of divinity and all the holy blessings mother earth bestows such as grain, sugar, turmeric.

In this rape story, a court of law – and the state with all its given power and resources – cannot give a safe refuge to a body fleeing rape. Such bodies are always returned to their owners with the tacit knowledge that they will be bartered or destroyed.

In such stories, it is also essential that ideas be propagated about body worth in such a manner that the body always has the least control over what is done to it. Ideas such as how the value of the body decreases with use, rather than increases. Ideas such as how the body is fickle and greedy and deserves to be punished further if it has been hurt in the past.

There is no word for the pain of smiling for photographs after having survived violence and pain in some room of the house. In this story, the fact of having stood beside your rapist and having smiled into the camera cancels out rape.

Force is the pinnacle of aspiration in such stories. To reject the wishes and desires of one body, or a state of bodies, or the greater majority of bodies in a nation, is seen as glorious. To impose upon another's body the wishes of a handful of bodies that have acquired money enough buy off the bodies of other service providers, is seen as glorious and morally correct.

In this story, rapists occupy positions – they manage businesses, sell bouquets, guard apartment complexes, melt steel, run city councils and state departments. It is assumed that businesses would not run, homes would not be guarded, steel would not melt and states would be ungovernable were rapists not permitted to do what they do. It is assumed that victims are dispensible for they run nothing and own very little. They are needed to make new humans, but that purpose can also be achieved via rape and thus, this story continues.

All these stories are told and re-told, and enacted and reviewed every day, everywhere. These stories sometimes nauseate their listeners, and often their tellers. But these stories are never nullified. Thus, a rape culture is constructed that we all live inside of.    

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Rift on the Road

There they were, coming apart right in front on me. A man wearing a moustache, walking fast, turning around to spit out angry words. A harsh, loud, “Get Lost! Get away from me!”

A girl followed, a few steps behind. Skinny fit jeans and pointy heels. She murmured something I couldn't quite hear, but I caught her tone. It was half-way between placatory and indifferent.

I slowed down until both could overtake me, allowing them a chance to get away from this fraught moment with a modicum of dignity. It was a moment in which two people, held together by God alone knows what force, were coming apart at their own seam. There was no way of knowing whether this moment would decide the rest of their lives or whether it was a scene that played itself out frequently in this relationship. Perhaps he did get away from her. Perhaps she got him in the end.

It is funny how so much of our private business, even our inner lives, spills out into the streets everyday. The most private conversations are conducted in full public hearing. On the sidewalk, in trains and buses, and more recently, inside shared cabs, I overhear – and politely pretend not to be overhearing – dozens of young people fighting, flirting, or just making the sort of ordinary confessions that they may never make in the hearing of friends or colleagues. If they're not together, then they're walking about, phone pressed to their ears. A girl giggling about how many holidays she's already planning, and inviting a boy to come visit her even though she does have a flatmate, but it will be okay. Or a young man, walking in tight circles on the sidewalk, saying “Hmm.... Um... Uh-huh?” for a good forty minutes. Or a middle-aged woman shouting into the phone, “No, don't call me! Don't call me. And don't come crying to me when she's chewed you up and spat you out.” Or a young man saying, “Oh, shut up and wait up. You know you don't have to go just yet. Don't act so pricey.”

In Indian cities, these conversations acquire an additional bittersweet flavour given that there is such risk associated with love. Most citizens have very little privacy at home. Certainly, single individuals having their own bedrooms is very rare. But even if they do have bedrooms, they don't always feel free to express themselves with other family members listening in. And so, they take their most difficult conversations outdoors. In Mumbai, I've often spotted many young people talking outside a residential building. It is a reasonably safe place to hang about and they do not particularly care if strangers can hear them.

I sometimes wonder if outdoor public spaces are not essential to the safe enactment of intense private emotion. Perhaps it is easier to act with restraint, to remember that one must not behave like a possessed demon or throw things at each other in the presence of other people who do not particularly care how this whole affair turns out. And how much easier it is to walk and talk, side by side, without having to look at each other's faces. One need not be felled by a smile that does not quite reach the eyes, at least not immediately. One can catch one's breath even as one is being disembowelled. One can hurry away, like that moustachioed man hurrying away from the petite woman, crossing the road so that the rift is manifest.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A new poem

If (with Kipling's blessings)

If you can measure yourself
with the eye scales of the woman
who survived your enemy

If you can hold the woman
you had leaned into until she warmed
and, looking into her eyes, say
why you are afraid

If you can walk out of the shadow
of your father's failing,
your mother's distress,
and then if you can turn to the cleansing heat
of summer sun and make a vow
to care a little less

If you can make flowers flower
on poisoned land
and kiss every fruit

If you can shut up
about a woman's dress when
you do not hope to wear it

If you can mutely nod
when women speak of what is done
in your name

If you can say,
never again!
and mean it

If you can stare deep into the well
of your heart and drink
up your twisted truths
and speak, though aflame 
with shame

If you can build the grand things
that feed your hate

If you can cook the animals
your ancestors ate

If you can smile at neighbours
who will not cease their cry of 'apart! apart!' 
and invite them in every weekend
for their antidote of art

If you can build a school
where all-all-all is the norm

If you can build a storm shelter
for lovers on the run

If you can take the place of sons
murdered for the wrong hat
or those mothers stripped and paraded
for living with their pride intact

If you can learn to dance 
just because no one dances
any more

If you can sing the song 
of the weak when their throats 
are too sore

If you can hear the howls outside
and step out, 
armed or not

If you can turn away from 
those videos of the naked 
and the harmed

If you can rally against those 
who trade off your will
for wealth 

If you can force your vote to translate
into water, hope and health

If you can let the gods be,
One or many or all,
let them speak from themselves 
from above

You will have learnt to be a man, 
my brother, my friend, my love.

(c) Annie Zaidi

Monday, July 24, 2017


People had forgotten, he muses, that it is also possible to read through one’s ears. After all, that is how most of us begin to receive stories—listening to our grandparents. Jameel Gulrays was counting on people’s ears rather than their eyes when he started to read aloud Urdu stories on a dedicated Youtube channel. Just about a year and a half later, his channel has over 1,300 subscribers and his work has grown into a movement called Katha Kathan, which includes several other readers and stories from many other Indian languages. The no-frills homemade video series has grown into live performances at venues such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai; a Delhi chapter has been launched in recent weeks.

Despite its rapid growth, Katha Kathan was rooted in quiet grief and regret...

Read the full article about Jameel Gulrays' initiative to promote literature in Indian languages other than English here

Sunday, July 16, 2017

In a narrow lane

A narrow lane requires a great deal of adjustment. It can be something minor, such as needing to twist your torso as someone approaches from the opposite direction. Or it can be something big, like having snatched a chain or purse, and making a run for it, and then realising that you’re being chased and you do not have much of an escape route. It could also require a major adjustment on the part of police personnel. In Delhi, according to news reports, 70 cops will be expected to ride bicycles to patrol areas where cars cannot go. In Kolhapur too, there is a plan to get cops bikes, so they can get into narrow lanes. These are interesting developments. For one, it will be a refreshing sight to see cops on bicycles. It’s been a long time since I saw such a thing. In fact, I believe I have never in my life seen such a thing.

Some thoughts on narrow lanes and what they encompass, read the full column here:

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Of, by, for ourselves

I recently led a discussion on democracy at the immensely successful Community Library Project, at the Deepalaya/Shiekh Sarai library in Delhi. Here are some further thoughts about why, published on the project blog:

Of, by, for ourselves

It’s the simplest, cleanest, easiest to remember definition of democracy: Of the people, by the people, and for the people.

These days, I often think back to my school Civics book. On the first page was printed the preamble to the Constitution. I have to confess here that I often feel guilty for not having read the full text of the Constitution yet. Some day, I tell myself, I will. But for now, the Preamble alone suffices. The very first line reminds us of what we set out to be as a nation:

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC…”

And so it goes on to justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and our other rights and freedoms. But here’s the key thing: we the people. We gave unto ourselves these rights. We gave ourselves our own sovereignty and our democracy.

I wonder sometimes if, in our everyday political discourse, we have not forgotten that democracy is not a gift that anyone bestows upon us. It is not a handout. It is of our own making, and if it to survive, then it must be re-made, re-constituted every single day by as many of us as possible.

One of the ways in which we renew a democracy is to engage with it. Not just about political events or elections. Democracy is much bigger than one election, or even 29 + 7 elections.

Democracy is a cultivated habit of thinking and choosing. Choice is also not just a question of choosing the better party, or the best candidate. It is also about choosing the best systems, and allowing ourselves to seek modifications in the electoral system when it serves our Constitutional ideals better.

India is known as the world's largest Democracy. This is on the basis of the sheer numbers of people who participate in the elections. We are also a nation of people that love discussing elections and politics. Yet, we have very little discussion about whether the core democratic principle – of the people, by the people, for the people – has been upheld. For instance, if our elected representatives push through decisions that are actually opposed by the majority of the population, or if the core values of equality and social justice are threatened by certain decisions, what can citizens do?

The response is: wait five years and punish the politicians. One of the major definitions of a democracy is that citizens are able to change their government. But what happens if the next lot also does the same thing? Or, what happens when the same people return to power via new alignments?

Also, how exactly does the democratic edifice hold up? Elections give us a Parliament, the state Assemblies, the Panchayats and municipal corporations. But the average citizen does not experience Parliament directly. How does democracy filter down the average citizen?

These are questions that any committed democracy must engage with, and with that hope, I had gone to Deepalaya with some notes on Democracy/Loktantra. Organised by the Community Library Project, the discussion was open to men and women, boys and girls above 18. Those who joined the discussion included teenagers, mothers, a grandmom, activists and library volunteers.

One of the areas of shadow in most political conversations is global suffrage history. I felt quite strongly that we cannot fully grasp our system, its strengths and weaknesses, unless we look at how other people have enacted their own versions of democracy and what it leads to. So we traveled the distance from ancient Greece and Rome to England to India and Australia.

We had very little time (just about an hour), but we talked about half a dozen key aspects of democratic systems – limited forms of suffrage/disenfranchisement, party funding, preferential voting, protest votes, distance/postal votes, and the role of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy. 

It was an invigorating hour, edged with questions that spilled over into tea. I am hoping those conversations are spilling out further, out of the library and into the suburb, and out into the city, and further, and further.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Just thinking

शायद आप में और मुझ में इतना ही फ़र्क़ है, जितना सपना और स्वप्न में। या शायद इतना, जितना सपने और ख़्वाब में. इतना फ़ासला नहीं, जितना अच्छे और बुरे सपने में होता है. रत्ती भर का फ़र्क़ समुंदर नहीं, जिसे एक सांस लेके पार न किया जा सके।

The difference between me and you is the difference between 'Sapna' and 'Swapna'. Or the difference between 'Sapna' and 'Khwaab'. It is not the difference between dream and nightmare. This fine shade of difference is not an ocean; it can be conquered with a single breath.

#SundayMorningMusing (#okitsafternooniknow)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Of Salt and Water

Awadh’s distinct culture was the result of generations of cooks, dressmakers, perfumers and masons transforming their art in response to royal patronage. The cuisine, therefore, is different from Mughlai fare. Kababs go beyond being skewered on a grill. Galautis are made to melt in the mouth and kakoris nudged further towards tenderness—if you can imagine that—often by chefs who’ve devoted their lives to perfecting just one item. Qila Mahmudabad’s kitchen still boasts a nonagenarian naanpaz, who specialises in breads. There were innovations not only of the palate but also of the imagination, evidenced by winter desserts given names like lab-e-mashooq, the lips of the beloved. The merits of the food, however, would only be discussed tangentially, Ali Khan tells me. One might say, for example, “Aab-o-namak munasib hai”. The salt and water are just right.

What would we be if we did not romance life? Take pleasure in its offerings of fragrance, music, poetry, food?

On that note, lunch beckoned. I had skipped breakfast. To enjoy food fit for nawabs, I’d decided, one must exercise a degree of restraint...

This is from an article about visiting Mahmudabad and some other places nearabouts. Read the full article here:

Monday, June 05, 2017

Running off track

It’s a pleasant idea to contemplate—a track that runs like a divider down the road, protected by metal obstructions on either side and shaded by trees. For someone who believes in cycles over motorised transport, it would be a beautiful sight to behold. I beheld such a sight recently in Lucknow, but sadly, only in brief fragments.

One shady stretch of cycling track would run down the middle of a road, but it would come to a rude halt at a roundabout or at the cross-roads junction. It was as if whoever had designed and built the cycling track had suddenly run out of patience with the idea that cyclists need clear passage and protection against heavier motor vehicles. Confronting a roundabout, the designers seem to have thrown up their hands and said, I can’t do this, man!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A new poem

Talking of Flowers

There was a poet who said once
your talk is the talk of flowers.

He said it in Urdu of course,
so perhaps this is not what he meant.

To talk of you is to shed flowers
from my mouth is also
what he might have said.

To talk of you is to talk of scented
creatures grinning up at the morning
plush with themselves and the aching
to be witnessed and named, dancing
in their skins, coaxing seed
up and out.

The panicked response of still life
to someone's riotous need to mean
more is to think of you.

The brief and the tender,
the easily sold and binned,
the easily crushed
and not even through malice,
is to think of you.

To feel sun and dew
on skin cracked raw,
to quaver as roots fling themselves out
of ankles and affix you to earth
is to think of you.

To speak of you is keep watering
the snowdrops long after spring.

To speak of you is a rosewater rinse. 

To speak of you is to soak jasmine
garlands overnight in a bucket.

To speak of you is to tear
open a marigold and eat its
cushioned ovary.

To speak of you is to swear
never again then again be stained
by the taste of sugared roses
in betel leaf.

To speak of you is to speak
of beds on wedding nights
fields of mustard
a song with a mandolin in it
and a honeymoon suite occupied
by one.


(C) Annie Zaidi

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

5 Newspaper Headlines Re-Written for Greater Clarity

A set of five poems inspired by newspaper headlines in recent times.

Five Newspaper Reports Re-written for Greater Clarity

1.  All Eyes on HSC Results

how many eyes are trained
on the higher secondary exam results,
hard to say but eyes are slitted sleek
with yesterday's failing

eyes follow monkey eyes gibbering
through a bazaar, rubbing neon
out of the black lids of night

eyes are fixed upon a street gone
grey with too much going away

lost foundlings blinded by concrete,
eyes wait on the road divider
holding the skeleton of a bunch of red roses
that grazed the shin of a passerby
who looked but saw nothing
except a flower pot that he used
as a spittoon

eyes are intent on sum assured
insurance plans and a new toffee car
bought by a semi-friendly neighbour
with good skin

eyes are wildly careening between
yet, most days they are fixed upon
the luminous face of a PhD guide
who won a gold medal for every exam
he ever sat and comes to uni in blue fleece
and real leather sandals.


2.  Nation Outraged After X gangrape in Y town 

forty one percent of the population
recalled other instances of mutilation,
murder along with the caste and age
of various name-changed victims.

twenty point five percent of the population
silently measured their hemlines against
newsprint inches devoted to the said crime.

roughly thirteen percent of the nation
was looking at a girl of eighteen
crossing the road.

an unknownable fraction of the nation
was buying bottles of acid.

zero point five percent of the nation
roared about state culpability and blocked
two arterial roads that led to a jam that will
occupy the front page tomorrow.

the rest of the nation was busy watering
money plants, relieving itself
between stalks of sugarcane,
changing diapers and being rocked
to sleep.

less than one percent of the nation
had the stomach for details of intestine,
perineum, bladder, womb and the neck
of a girl who swung from a tree
that did not belong to anyone in particular.


Call us Munna.
A single name will do
for both, and for either one.
No, we don't have school names.
Who went to school?
BA-MA-Doctorate in
loading-unloading, huh?
About that red carpet,
there was actually more than one.
Twenty feet long, each one and six feet across.
Before all this loading rolling unrolling
there was the weaving.
Carpets, yes, much nicer than this junk.
No, don't ask how long that was.
There was no calendar in the room.


4.  Year on, dead couple not forgiven

Forgiveness is a trick,
a dirty one played by children
who have not learnt to wipe
the green stain of love from their eyes
after they have been thrashed.

Forgiveness is an exposed brick house
with no boundary wall to stop the man
who answers the call of a she-wolf
wearing a plaited rope of debt for an anklet.

Forgiveness is lovers hacked
for their art of caress undress 
the exhumation of soul from under flesh.

Forgiveness is a foreign thing.
A denim jacket with rivets thing.
A plastic tweety bird ring that nobody 
in the village had ever bought and 
if the young had any thought of such things, 
they'll think twice now.


5.  Two Palestinians Shot Dead After Attacking Israelis

Two people armed with knives
were killed after they (separately)
rushed towards (different groups of) Israelis
armed with guns.

Two people set out from home (or whatever
remained of that feeling called home).
It is unclear if they kissed anyone goodbye
but preliminary imaginings indicate
they held that thought awhile.

It is unclear if their homes had been bombed
or if any children died in the shelling.
It is unclear whether they rebuilt or relocated
and if they had, whether they were bombed
a second time.

It is clear they had access to kitchen knives.

It is clear they rushed towards wielders of guns.

It is clear the guns would be used.

The colour of their skin is clear.

Their olive trees, their pets, their throaty
mother tongue, their last words were
not so clear.


(C) Annie Zaidi

Friday, May 26, 2017

The war on dust

Sometimes I wonder, what would happen if we collectively gave up on dust. What if we just let the city sink under the dust for a whole month, or even a year?

The other day, I was out walking, and may have spotted a demo version of such an eventuality. The pavement lay fractured and unswept. Dust had settled in so firmly that although it was made of coloured paving blocks, everything looked a uniform shade of dull brown. It ran parallel to a divider which had been prettied up with some green plants. But, dust lay so thick on each leaf that the plants too wore a vomitous shade of dun. Sheets of metal lay around covered in grey dust. An old scooter was parked nearby, also covered in dust. The scene suggested decay, abandonment, despair, and it was infinitely depressing.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


A couple of decades ago, however, someone high up in the municipal corporation of Mumbai must have decided to try something new. Interlaced paver blocks were rumoured to be a better idea than concrete or tarred roads. Some people joked that the politicians who pushed for this change probably had relatives who had set up paver block factories. Who knows?

I have to admit that I was pleased to see paver blocks for totally impractical reasons. They made for interesting shapes and colours. I liked looking at the geometrical patterns unfolding under my feet, and a road or pavement or walkway could be terracotta red or yellow. I kept hoping that the authorities would get more inventive and ask for more colours to be embedded into the design – green, blue, black, teal. Why not? Just imagine, what if entire stretches of road could be made into designer works of art? Paver blocks could be set in different colours to make images or portraits. One could embed messages in the shape of words. At the very least, the street could tell us its own name. If we got really creative, we could leave capsules of history strewn about the city. Suburb by suburb, street by street, we could learn to remember where we were, and how we got here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Some questions for Mr Kejriwal

Just a few days ago, I was having a cup of coffee with a friend and like all good Indians, we discussed politics. Lots of breast-beating (metaphorical, of course). We discussed you: AAP as an alternative and you as the last round of ammunition in the nation’s democratic belt.

I had my doubts, but it was not on account of electoral setbacks. For a new political outfit, one without a lot of money backing it, AAP did alright in Punjab and Goa. You didn’t "lose" ’em because you didn’t have ’em to begin with. My doubts were about your values.

My friend argued, what do I know about your values? How could I judge?

I was judging you as I judge all politicians - through statements and silences, through action and inaction.

I noticed you doing good viz health and education, electricity and water. You are trying to fix a deeply unequal system and I respect that. But sometimes I wonder if you are committed to core constitutional values. Freedom of religion, speech, choice. Justice: social, economic and political. Equality. You talk the talk. Do you intend to walk it?

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Triple the Trouble

Women of all religions should worry. A majority government can change laws so that women no longer inherit land, widows no longer remarry, divorce is no longer permissible.

Already, some states restrict freedom of faith by preventing citizens from converting to other religions. Our freedom to eat and drink what we want has been legally curtailed.

No government has passed laws making inter-caste and inter-community marriage easier. The Constitution has been subverted repeatedly.

As far as Muslim women are concerned, ladies, you need to up your game and start fighting in earnest. Feel free to follow a set of civilian laws if you want, for no force is permitted in your religion. But if you follow religious law, learn to make it work for you.

Fight. But don’t just stop at triple talaq. That is a tiny problem. The big problem is independence.

Read this column on Triple Talaaq and Indian Muslim women's struggle to get rid of it:

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The TT and UCC conversation

I had shared some thoughts on the debate around Triple Talaaq and Uniform Civil Code with the newspaper Sakaal Times: 

- Women are not paid wages if they work alongside their husbands or within the household. So if a marriage collapses, they have no money or house of their own. This is true for Hindu women too. The right to inherit property for Hindu daughters is a recent development. It took many decades of fighting orthodox and conservative elements within Hindu society.

- Marriage and divorce are finally personal matters, and cannot be legislated beyond a point. What the state needs to do is to secure individual freedoms and offer greater safety nets for all citizens, regardless of religion or gender.

On the Uniform Civil Code:

The problem is not that the Modi government wants Uniform Civil Code but that they want Muslim marital laws to be the same as Hindu upper caste/ Brahmin laws. Even the laws governing Hindu marriages are actually not reflective of all traditions. After all, divorce was freely available and common among many tribal communities that broadly fall under the umbrella of ‘Hindu’. The British had to legislate and codify laws only because upper caste Hindu groups did not allow divorce, or widow remarriage, etc. Polygamy and polyandry, both are a part of Indian cultural history.

You can read the interview version here

Friday, April 28, 2017

Walkway with a view

I have a fantasy about cities of the future. I’ll be walking on air. Well, almost.

I’ll be high up, fifty feet above street level, using my own two feet, safe in a sort of cocoon. Say, a glass tube or a tunnel with skylights to let in fresh air and sun.

Perhaps there will be art on the walls, or posters. Perhaps, I’ll break into a little shuffle or tap dance if nobody’s watching. Perhaps I’ll have music plugged into my ears and will not have to worry about the frantic horns of approaching buses and cars. Who knows, maybe I will even be reading and walking simultaneously.

In this fantasy, I am free of all the things I like least about cities. Too much vehicular traffic, petrol and diesel smells, fumes, not being able to see the few tree tops that still remain, having the sky blocked out, being forced into a more sedentary lifestyle than I want, and incessant noise. All of that will probably still exist, but it will be downstairs. Cars are welcome to their jams, their air-conditioned traps, their symphony of horns. I’ll be floating above them.

To tell the truth, I wouldn’t have been dreaming of such futures if I had not already lived this dream in a tiny truncated fashion. Skywalks have showed me how pleasant a city could be if only one hovers above street level.

They got a lot of bad press when, a few years ago, Mumbai ended up with a clutch of skywalks. They were made supposedly to ease traffic around its suburban railway stations, but civic activists, journalists, urban design experts — everyone opposed them, and for very good reasons.

It is true that the skywalks made construction contractors a lot of money at taxpayer expense. It is true that they are philosophically flawed, for they are based on the assumption that pedestrians should expend greater energy climbing up a huge flight of stairs, just so cars have it easier.

It is true that our skywalks are not accessible to wheelchairs or to people who have knee problems (sooner or later, we’re all getting there). It is also true that they don’t get pedestrians very far either. At best, they help you get across a couple of crowded streets near the railway stations without a mishap. Nobody gave much thought to the potential destinations of citizens who choose to walk.

However, it is not true that skywalks aren’t used enough. One design element that works in their favour is that the skywalk is linked directly to railway overhead bridges, so commuters need not descend and then ascend an extra flight of stairs. In fact, some skywalks get so crowded during rush hours, I have to deal with over-takers and elbowers. The wear and tear — broken tiles, crumbling steps — is more proof of how frequently they’re used.

I do have two complaints about the design. First, they need ramps rather than staircases. Second, they need to be much longer, with exit ramps near markets, cinemas, public parks, hospitals, and post offices.

Still, skywalks may afford me only a five-minute walk but those five minutes are pleasant.

I can amble, or read my twitter feed, or talk on the phone without getting killed. Noise levels drop. Some skywalks even have a couple of benches, and I’ve seen elderly men reading the newspaper there, or students sitting down to chat. Some young people pause on their way to the station, their elbows resting on the railing, staring down at the street, or at the distant horizon.

Walking above street level changes your view of the city. One skywalk sits next to a madarsa and sometimes I see small boys on the upper floor, trying to learn to sit still and read.

Another skywalk runs above a parking lot that’s bursting with motorcycles. Motorcycles clearly bought for very short runs; for longer daily commutes, owners park them and take a train. Another skywalk runs down a busy market. Clothes, bags, shoes. I can’t see them clearly, and yet, when they are not at eye level, I can see these objects for what they are. I see them as glitzy, impractical, or just too uniform. They excite my curiosity but do not tempt me.

A little distance brings greater perspective. I am also able to look at people on the street below in a calmer way. Pedestrians executing a fine dance, twisting their torsos whilst in motion so as not to slam into others, drivers who take foolish U-turns and block the flow of traffic, teenage girls with babies on their hips, kids competing to sell bunches of roses that are utterly devoid of fragrance: all of them existing because of and besides each other.

First published in The Hindu 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On public theft practised as parking

Worse, every car sitting out on the road is a thief of opportunity. There could have been a fruit cart sitting there instead and it would boost the nation’s employment. There could have been a little bit of public art sitting out there instead, which would make the city a more aesthetic experience, or a more politically conscious space. There could even be a series of roadside kiosks that could be put to multiple uses – a phone booth, rain shelter, a flower pot, tree, donation booth, pop-up night school. Why not?

In our cities, we police public space through a moral lens distorted by class. People who park their cars on public land are treated as hapless victims: After all, what else can a car owner do if he/she does not have access to a garage? Poor things, forced to park outside. Anything could happen to the car, no? The government should do something to fix this parking problem. Tsk tsk!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the road, a watermelon

There's a photograph I love to think of. A moustachioed farmer, dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti, is running down the highway with a giant watermelon, twice as large as his head. It was taken by the photographer accompanying me on a reporting assignment in Madhya Pradesh. We were driving towards a village and just ahead of us was a truck loaded with watermelons and a few farmers.

A sudden brake and some of the watermelons rolled off. The truck stopped, the farmer got off to retrieve his watermelons. In the photograph, the farmer is grinning. He must be on his way to the market to sell his crop. He must be looking forward to getting a good price for those giant melons.

I was reminded of this photograph last week when I heard about another set of farmers who grow potato. In some parts of the country, there are farmers who are getting as little as one or two rupees for a quintal of potatoes. That's right. One or two rupees.

At first I thought, this must be a misprint. It seemed impossible. Clearly, it seemed impossible to the farmers too. In Punjab, some of the farmers reportedly offloaded their stock on the roadside. Threw it all away. And who can blame them? It must cost thousands of rupees to get the crop to the mandi and then to come away with so little that they can't even buy a bus ticket back home!

I picture those potatoes rolling down the highway. Or perhaps, not rolling but just sitting there, glaring at the traffic with tiny, fertile eyes: ineffectual speed-bumps for a nation that's getting ahead of itself.

It would be a very different scene, of course, if the farmers started sitting on the highway. Or perhaps they will come into big cities and block the major roads. There was a time, in 1988, when farmers did just that. They came in their tractors and with their cattle. They slept there and shat there for a few days. The bureaucrats and the politicians were quite displeased but also thoroughly shaken. In an essay about the history of Jantar Mantar as a site of perpetual protest, Neha Dixit has written that it was this grand event that led our rulers to confine all protests to one particular spot, Jantar Mantar.

This is, of course, an effective way to destroy the spirit of public protest. To be tucked away in one little corner of the capital, surrounded by dozens of other citizens with serious grievances, is to be rendered invisible. It is the very opposite of what people had set out to do.

I also recall the World Social Forum of 2004, in Mumbai. It was very colourful and, for a young journalist like me, quite an educative experience. Yet political activists – many of whom had been organizing people's movements for decades – looked on with a sort of indulgent amusement. By the time the forum ended, I understood why. All the causes, the slogans, the singing and dancing, the shows of solidarity were confined to a couple of square kilometeres in Goregaon. None of those voices reached even as far as the main road, just outside the venue. It did not lead to any heated debates in Parliament about the urgency of policy change.

Mumbai also has another of those carefully curated sites of perpetual protest – Azad Maidan – where residents, office-goers, children don't really notice the grief and rage of those who come to protest, and nothing gets disrupted. The city doesn't so much as blink, not until a few roads get blocked.

Naturally, keeping people off the road is crucial so cities – and the powers that be – go on functioning as they did before. So all governments use the police to control them. They enact laws which require us to take permission from the police before hitting the road. Oddly enough, the state rarely bothers to ensure that people are actually not on the road. The difference between the phrase 'sadak pe aa jaana' (to be reduced to living on the road) and 'sadak pe utar aana' (to descend upon the road) is the difference between the fears of ordinary citizens and the fears that govern our rulers.

The former is a universal, yet deeply lonely fear. It is the fear of the potato farmer who may have no option except to move to a big city, and sleep, squat, beg on the road or sit there trying to sell whatever strength he still has. He could, of course, descend upon the road, claiming it with his feet, his voice, and demand that the traffic stop and confront him with human eyes and ears. He could, but will he?

First published in TheHindu
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