Friday, February 23, 2018

Gaddhe mein sadak

A few days ago, I had decided to visit my ancestral home in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As the taxi neared our destination, I was re-introduced to that sardonic phrase: Gaddhe mein sadak.

It is hard to translate. The nearest phrase I can think of is ‘road-pocked hole’, an inversion of ‘pot-holed road’. It has been a while since I had encountered such a road. People often threw the phrase around in places around Delhi or capital cities like Lucknow, but the first time I truly understood what ‘gaddhe mein sadak’ means was in Bihar, over a decade ago. One hour out of Patna, it became apparent that I wasn’t travelling on anything resembling a road. The surface had been washed away entirely, leaving a series of uneven pits. Whatever remained of the tar road appeared like garnishing, sort of like chopped walnuts on top of a bowl of lumpy kheer.

Now, in Uttar Pradesh, I was confronting a similar road. It came as a bit of a shock after the highway, which is quite smooth. Too smooth, in fact. The driver had been complaining that the new method is dangerous. Tyres slide too easily; braking the vehicle takes longer. Apparently, the new roads being constructed are made of cement rather than tar. It is being said that some of these new roads are entirely concrete. There is no under-layer of pebble or brick. Drivers, he said, are concerned about such highways since everybody moves at higher speeds and being able to brake quickly is vital. But then, who consults drivers when road construction is sanctioned?

This time around, I personally felt the pain and danger of the too-rough road that connect various towns and villages. Whatever bits of tar and pebble yet remained create uneven edges. My foot turned over one such edge, I lost balance and next thing I knew, I was hopping around with a sprained foot for the rest of the week.

Along the way, I also discovered the unexpected benefits of traveling in over-packed tempos, which are the primary mode of transport in these parts aside from state transport buses.

The thing is, the road is awful beyond description. In a relatively empty auto-rickshaw or tempo, you’re swung about and shaken wildly no matter that you’re holding onto something for dear life. Your neck and spine is at risk. Your head gets bumped hard against the metallic frame of the vehicle. You could be jerked forward so that your knees smash into the floor of the tempo.

However, when there are six or sixteen (I counted; there were sixteen people. I will write more about how that went another day) in the tempo, you are all packed in so tight, there is no longer any question of anyone moving. I found myself safely squashed between two elderly ladies on right and left, four ladies seated across and sundry gentlemen and children in front and on the back seats. No matter how bad the road was, however the tempo lurched about, my spine was as upright as it would have been in a straitjacket. I suppose that was something to be grateful for.

First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/on-the-razors-edge/article22807230.ece



Thursday, February 22, 2018

Maulana Azad and azaadi

Today is Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's death anniversary. I knew very little about him, except that he was one of the tallest leaders of India's freedom struggle. While researching something else this year, I came upon a booklet, a convocation address delivered by JP Narayan in 1966. Here, he describes Maulana Azad as 'father of speech', and speaks of the wonders of his oratory thus:

"At this point, my mind goes back 46 years to a memorable day in January 1921, when at a vast concourse of men in Patna, I listened enthralled to a stormy petrel of the Non-Cooperation Movement, who though young in years had magic on his tongue. His name quite appropriately was Abul Kalam Azad. Incidentally, at the same place there was also held in a corner an over-flowing meeting (there were no loud-speakers then) addressed by another young man, about whom all that was known was that he was the upcoming son of the great Pandit Motilal Nehru. It was the fiery words of the 'father of speech', however, that had set fire to the waters of the Ganga that flowed pacidly by."

Maulana Azad was President of the Congress, in 1941, when he was arrested after the Quit India movement was launched. I have been looking through newspapers of the time and what I found remarkable was not just that so many people were willing to court arrest towards the cause of independence, but also that so many of them found creative responses to news of the leadership being arrested.

Maulana Azad was arrested on January 3, 1941, at 5:15 at the Allahabad railway station. He was expected to leave by the Toofan Express and stop at Lucknow or Allahabad en route to Calcutta. The details of his itinerary had already been published in the newspaper a day before, so people as well as the British government knew exactly where to find him. He had also sent a telegram to Acharya Narendra Deo, asking him meet up in Allahabad.

Once news of his arrest spread, a public meeting was held in Aminabad Park in Lucknow. One Mr Hariprasad Saksena moved a resolution: “This meeting of the citizens of Lucknow offers its respectful congratulations to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on his arrest and assures him the country stands behind the Congress.”

A women’s meeting held in Zenana Park also congratulated Azad on the arrest. Elsewhere in Lucknow, students observe a two minute silence to protest the arrest. In Cawnpore (Kanpur), 10,000 students went on strike. Bareilly, Sitapur, Ghazipur, Agra, Meerut, Moradabad, Nainital saw strikes and all these were just reports flowing in from UP. The Benaras Students Federation took out a Prabhat Pheri and congratulated Azad on his arrest. The principal of Rameshwari Girls College declared a holiday in protest and the girls observed a five minute silence. 

In Ghazipur, one Chowdhry Girija Prasad Singh, an honorary magistrate and a big zamindar, tendered his resignation from the magistrateship in protest against the Congress President’s arrest, and also surrendered his gun license and the gun.

I am intrigued by these little details because it is here that we find the keys to our freedom. It wasn't won in a day and it wasn't won by a handful of people. It was won through everyone committing themselves to it and standing up for it in their own way.

Maulana Azad lived to see a free India, lived to serve as its education minister. He oversaw the establishment of free primary education, subsidized higher education and the establishment of highly regarded institutions including the IITs. Leaders like him were needed then and are needed now.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No lovers of rules



If there is one trait of our citizenry that betrays itself visibly on city roads, it is our tendency to try and bend the rules just a little bit for very minor or even no gain at all, and being willing to generate total chaos along the way, even to pose great risks to our fellow citizens in the bargain.

On the major roads of most Indian cities, there will always be that one guy who will try and drive in reverse for as long as half a kilometre just so he can avoid driving forwards a couple of kilometers and then taking a U-turn. There's a good chance that he will ultimately waste twice as much time doing so because he cannot reverse very fast, and if he does, he is liable to get into an argument or worse, a physical confrontation, which will slow him down even further. But he'll take his chance anyway.

We all know that person who will try to turn a car around a full 180 degrees bang in the middle of rush hour, causing a traffic jam that lasts anywhere between ten and twenty minutes. Then there's the person who will overtake from the right at high speed, full aware that it isn't really safe. Or the person who will stop the car in the middle of the road and just sit behind the wheel, chit-chatting with a friend or saying lingering goodbyes.

People who live abroad and get used to driving in countries where there are fewer opportunities for bending rules, return and find that they can no longer drive on Indian roads with any confidence.

Trying to manoeuvre in narrow spaces is not a bad thing in principle. But there is a difference between driving like it's an adventure sport, where you primarily risk your own life, and traffic adventures where everyone else's life is at risk.

Now take seat belts. I am surprised that I continue to meet drivers who will not wear a seat belt or a bike helmet for safety reasons, but will pull it on as soon as they see a traffic cop.

Sometimes I wonder if this is because we are generally disrespectful of other people's lives and limbs, or whether we just like authority figures. I would like to think otherwise.

My own brother refuses to drive until everyone's belted in, and often he will not allow a cab to drive away until he's seen me belted in at the back, especially if I'm travelling on an expressway. But the honest truth is, I find that I too can be stupid sometimes. I find myself resisting a seat belt when I'm in the back seat. The only reason I wear the seat belt as a front seat passenger is that I don't want someone else to pay a hefty fine on my account. My own bodily safety ought to matter more to me than somebody else's money and, in principle, it does. Yet, in practise, it doesn't.

Sometimes I wonder if my resistance comes from an ingrained resistance to following too many rules. Or if we are all just teenagers on the inside, sulking about being told what to do for our own good.

First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/on-following-traffic-rules/article22668561.ece

Monday, January 22, 2018

The street as a potato



The street is an eternal shapeshifter. It transforms quickly, urgently, and then collapses back into its grey, rough stillness at nightfall.

It turns into a theatre when a group of people start performing an act. It turns into an art gallery when people paint or draw rangoli designs around the time of festivals. Sometimes pictures of gods are drawn and it even turns into a sacred site.

Very often, it also turns into a site of contested power. Indeed, nowhere is power contested and victory rammed home as forcefully as it is on the street. Look around and find in plain sight several clues as to who can seize control over the street and pays the least price financially and emotionally. However, people who are not powerful also use the streets in creative ways, whether or not they're allowed to.

Recently, some people expressed their dissatisfaction with the state government by dumping great sackfuls of potatoes on the streets of Lucknow. One of the dumping spots was on a road leading to the chief minister Yogi Adityanath's residence.

This dumping of potatoes was a pointer to the plight of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest potato producers in the country. The cost of production and storage is higher than the price at which the state offers to buy the crop from farmers.

This isn't the first time farmers have dumped crops in sheer frustration and as a means of protest. Potato farmers in Punjab had dumped their produce on the highway last year, and earlier, in 2011 too. But this may be the first time a state government has responded with aggression rather than solicititude.

The Yogi government seemed to view the potatoes on the road as a personal insult and a consiparacy. The state police swung into action to find the 'miscreants'. Police officials reportedly tapped 10,000 phones, viewed hours of CCTV footage and finally arrested two men, accusing them of trying to 'defame' the state and of being linked to the opposition party.

It is funny that a government should be so shaken by a pile of potatoes lying about forlorn on the road. If indeed it was just a case of two men playing political pranks, and if potato farmers are not facing any sort of crisis, then where was the harm in letting the piles be? The poor and hungry (and there are millions of them) may have taken some away. Stray cattle (of which there are also a great many) might have eaten some. At best, the state could simply have sent out a team to clear the defamatory pile. It would have been a lot cheaper than taking police personnel away from their actual job – crime investigations, filing and following up on FIRs, ensuring faster justice through the lawcourts, patrolling and so on. Those defamatory potatoes in Lucknow have cost the taxpayer very dear.

At any rate, the state responded to potatoes on Lucknow roads with alacrity but pointedly ignored the potatoes dumped along on village roads. Other newspaper report suggests that in villages too, farmers have been dumping the crop, letting potatoes rot where they lay. Cold storage and transport Are too expensive and the state government had done precious little to help them avoid huge losses. None of those farmers are being especially evasive about who they are. In fact, I'm guessing they wouldn't mind coming to the capital city to dump a few more sackfuls. The only thing stopping them is the cost of a ride into town.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

A true Badshah of the people, after all

I have just finished reading a biography of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan by Rajmohan Gandhi.

I started by wanting to share some snippets from the first chapter but as I read, I found that I wanted to share almost every page of the book. This is not possible (for copyright reasons). So I'm putting down a little that I've learnt about the man known as the 'Frontier Gandhi'. 

As a schoolgirl, I didn't even properly understand what the 'Frontier' was and its significance in the geo-politics of the Indian Subcontinent. Reading this book, I realised that we forget just how hard won our freedom and our democracy is. 

All we know about the freedom struggle is the names of some leaders and patterns of political behaviour created in the 1930s and 40s. We are also told very little about the 'struggle' meant for those who do the struggling. 

MK Gandhi and leaders like Nehru, Patel, Ghaffar Khan went to jail. But what does it really mean to go to jail? What was the big deal about being treated like a political prisoner vis a vis being a "seditionist", subjected to worse treatment than thieves and murderers?

Here are some things I've learnt about Ghaffar Khan, also known as Badshah Khan and Bacha Khan: 

Badshah Khan's beloved first wife died after her firstborn son fell gravely ill. The family says that she wept in prayer, and offered her life to the Almighty in exchange for that of her child. And so it was. He remarried but his second wife too died in an accident. He never married after this. 

He was first arrested protesting against the Rowlatt Act. He was arrested, put in fetters and, because he was unyielding and clearly unapologetic when he was produced in court, he was sentenced to remain in fetters. Six months in fetters and he gained life-long scars around his ankles. His 90 year old father, Behram Khan, was also put in prison for three months, although he was not an activist and had shown up at a political meeting only because he was so concerned about his son's anti-British stand.

Before his arrest, and after his release, Badshah Khan's focus was education. He raised the standard of a school he had set up, and also began to tour the region, talking to Pathans. He was arrested once more and this time he spent a significant period in solitary confinement, in a cell where the toilet was overflowing with excrement. He was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment.

“He was given filthy food, ordered to grind twenty kilos of corn each day by rotating a heavy stone chakki, and abused by lackeys of prison officials. Again and again, he was invited to find relief through petty bribing, an apology or a surety... At the jail in Dera Ismail Khan the superintendent was an Englishman who only knew English, the jailor was an aged and inert Muslim, and the deputy jailor, who was the prison's real boss, a Hindu called Gangaram. Badshah Khan described Gangaram as 'a veritable rogue'. In his autobiography, he would say about Gangaram: 'In order to extract bribes he made the prisoners fight among themselves and supplied young boys to the prisoners'....”

Thanks to his attempts to contain the corruption in jail, Gangaram complained and had him shifted to Lahore jail. This turned out to be good for Ghaffar Khan. He met other political activists and people of all religions. He read the Gita and Guru Granth Sahib along with the Quran.

“At the previous jail, he had lost fifty five pounds, contracted scurvy and lumbago, and damaged his teeth.”

His mother died while he was in jail and his family didn't have the heart to tell him. He found out through a newspaper.

In another section, Gandhi writes about Ghaffar Khan having started a newspaper. Pakhtun, was written in Pakhto or Pushto. Its topics were varied and in one piece of commentary, a woman called 'Nagina, a Pakhtun sister' writes:

“Except for the Pakhtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but ardent in suppressing women. Our hands, feet and brains are kept in a state of coma.... O Pakhtun, when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”

Also: 
“Many early issues carried these lines by Badshah Khan's son, Ghani, now fifteen years old, whose name, however, was kept out:

If I a slave lie buried in a grave, under a resplendent tombstone,
Respect it not, spit on it.
When I die, and not lie bathed on martyr's blood,
None should his tongue pollute, offering prayers for me. 

"Impatient for items from the son, his father, Ghani would recall in the future, sometimes sent 'a letter abusing me that I could not write ten lines for my country and that I was a disgrace to the nation and so forth'. The result would be another column entitled “Nonsense”, signed by 'The Mad Philosopher'."

In 1930, after Salt tax defiance and the Qissakhwani Bazaar massacre (like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, unarmed and peaceful Pathan protestors, perhaps as many as 300, were killed by British fire). Badshah Khan was already under arrest. Now Pakhtun was banned... The younger son, Wali, just 14, was almost killed in the ensuing crackdown on Khudai Khidmatgars. The KK office was burnt down.

In 1934, Badshah Khan (as well as his older brother, popularly known Dr Khan Sahib) was released from jail. But within a few months, he was re-arrested on the charge of sedition. He was sent to Sabamati jail where he was to sleep on the floor, in a solitary cell, and warders were instructed not to talk to him. Then he was sent to Bareilly jail, again in a solitary cell. He was unused to the hot summer of the plains and his body broke out in boils. Finally he was moved to Almora jail where he “completed a garden that Jawarharlal Nehru had begun.”

When Jawaharlal Nehru offered to increase funding to the Peshawar Congress Committee, Badshah Khan responded: “Panditji, we do not need your money...you carry your load, we shall bear ours. If you want to help us, then build a girls' school and a hospital for our women.”

In later chapters, Dr Khan Sahib and the Khudai Khidmatgars come to power through elections in the Frontier (NWFP), despite the best efforts of the British to prevent this, and to prop up the Muslim League instead, hoping to drive a wedge between the KKs and the Congress. However, this unity could not prevent Partition. Despite Badshah Khan's appeals, British India was partitioned and the Pathans were fated to go with Pakistan. The details of how this was achieved are heart-breaking, for this is a tale of not just betrayal, but also a pointer towards how different our joint histories might have been if only the British establishment had not been so meddlesome, so determined to divide South Asians along religious lines rather than regional and linguistic lines. If only they had been a little more humane, genuinely democratic, before their exit from the Subcontinent. Consider the fact that while Dr Khan Sahib and Badshah Khan were prevented from campaigning and travelling in the Frontier province, the Muslim League people were free to do so. That was anti-democratic sabotage by the British, who wanted to curtail a peaceful Pathan who spoke of unity rather than more aggressive Muslim leaders who preferred disunity.

When Badshah Khan tried to speak of the dangers represented by the Muslim League, when he tried to seek autonomy, when he tried to speak of protecting minorities, he was accused of being a Hindu, or a Hindu agent.

Badshah Khan (and his brother and the sons) was jailed again, and again, and again, in independent Pakistan, both by elected and military rulers. His newspaper was banned. His social service center shut down. When he was not in jail, his movements were severely restricted. Ultimately, he was allowed to travel, but not to India or Afghanistan. Yet he never gave up on peace, nor stop speaking truth to power.

When he went to Cairo, he managed to slip into Kabul, where he was treated well by the king. And finally, he visited India too. In 1969, the Indian government made an offer, asking him to stay here. He refused, saying: “Even if I live in India for a hundred years, it will have no impact. No one cares here for the country or the people.”

On another occasion he said, (about Indian politicians) “It seems as if you think that to clap, give or hear speeches and get photographed is work.”

Bless his soul! If he could see India now, what would Badshah Khan say? Well, I suppose he would say the same thing that he said in 1970:

“I am no friend if I offer false praise.”

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially if you have an interest in South Asian history and the freedom movement. It is very lucid, well written too.


Sarcasm on a bumpy road




Journalists quoting chauffeurs, cab or auto-rickshaw drivers has become a bit of a cliche. After the last election, there was a fair bit of eyerolling about it and part of agrees: it would be nice if political ideas were formed outside of a car.

Yet, I also undersand that taxi and auto drivers are a reasonable indicator of public sentiment as far as governance goes. Three big issues that have traditionally affected Indian elections are bijli-paani-sadak. Electric supply, water supply, motorable roads. This might be changing, especially in rural areas where farm income, debt and employment are have become urgent questions. But in cities bijli-paani-sadak remain some of most important issues, along with housing and food prices.

Auto-rickshaw drivers are likely affected by shortages and inflation like everyone else. But they also have the advantage of being outdoors a lot, listening to several other people in public spaces. They can access to a wide range of viewpoints and listen in on conversations. Some of the drivers also develop a rather unique style of political commentary.

The other day, I was in an auto-rickshaw and the ride was a very bumpy road. I exclaimed at one particularly bad stretch of road. The driver responded by saying, “Isn't this great?”

I thought I had misheard him. But he said it again. “This road,” he said. “It's terrible. Isn't that great? It's good for everyone.”

I wasn't sure what to make of him. So I cautiously pointed out that it wasn't so great for the human spine.

He let out a short laugh. “So? Aren't you happy for the nation?” he continued. “Everyone gets something to do if the roads are bad. If you hurt your back, you are supposed to go get a massage. That helps the economy too.”

I said I had to disagree. Back injuries can last several years, even incapacitate a person, put them out of work and so on.

I couldn't see his face but I imagine that at this point he was rolling his eyes. “That's I'm saying,” he said. “It works out for everyone, doesn't it? Before I picked you up, I was going to stop near the pheriwalas (cart vendors), some friends of mine. I just wanted to call out a greeting and remind them of how awesome life is these days. They're still paying hafta (protection money), and they're also being told that they'll soon be driven out of this area.”

My destination had arrived. I got off the rickshaw. The driver said, “Madam, I was joking. You understand?”

I said, I understood. Then he said, “Do you know the latest? Some of the municipal engineers don't come to inspect the roads after the repairs are done. They sit comfortably in their office. The contractor takes a photo of the potholes he claims he has filled, sends it over Whatsapp, and he gets his work approved.”

Before I could get out of the way, a much bigger car, an SUV, swung dangerously close and honked sharply. I turned around to glare. The driver, a woman, wasn't looking at me. She was glaring at the auto instead.

After he was gone, I wondered what he would say to the next passenger, how he'd say it. Perhaps he would say, “Isn't it great that so many people are buying big cars these days? It's the best thing to happen to a city. Now, if you had had an accident back there, think of how many people would have benefitted. What? You don't want your country to progress?”


Monday, December 25, 2017

To the language of love, with love

Here's a twist on the Ship of Theseus paradox. The original paradox is this: if a ship has been restored or fixed after having all its parts replaced, is it still the same ship? Now what if a ship was taken apart, its rusty parts polished, its software updated and the whole thing re-assembled and manned by a new crew. Is it still the same ship?

A decade ago, Urdu was a cultural vessel that looked the worse for repair. Lovers of the language spoke of it ruefully, as if it was headed for the shipbreaking yard.

Mushairas (public poetry recitations) were organised in a few cities but tucked out of sight of the cultural mainstream. A generation educated in English medium schools couldn't even read the posters advertising the event. Besides, Urdu wasn't necessarily their scene. College fests had jazz and hip-hop rather than ghazals and qawwalis. The new leisure was gaming and memes, selfies and social media, Netflix and trying to chill. Couplets and metaphors?

Actually, yes. Couplets and metaphors.

Enter the new Urdu. The old ship has got a fresh coat of paint, new steel joints and a robust crew.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Riding with ladies

Last week, I was very upset with Kirron Kher for shifting blame onto a gangrape victim, suggesting that she shouldn't have gotten into a share auto-rickshaw when three men were already seated inside.

The day after she made the statement, I found myself getting into an auto-rickshaw with three male passengers and one male driver. This is actually fairly common across small and big cities in India. The suburb I live in currently is quite far from the centre of town and there was a time when sharing a rickshaw was the only mode of transport available. Cabs were unheard of. Sexual assault was also unheard of.

Many nights I'd be dead tired, having travelled nearly an hour in the over-stuffed ladies compartment of the local train, loathe to enter another crowded space. Auto drivers simply refused to use the meter in those days, so I'd often pay three passengers' fare just so I could travel alone. Even so, I'd have to argue with the drivers before they would let me hire the auto as a solo passenger. Things have changed now and the autos have fallen in line with meters. Even so, if I try to hire an auto solo, it takes twice as long to get home.

Many drivers are reluctant to take a solo passenger and not just because of the few extra rupees. They like the ease of working set routes without having to go off the main roads. Besides, there are too many passengers waiting. In the monsoons and in the sweltering summer, mosquitoes hovering overhead and around everyone's feet, the wait is particularly galling. People get annoyed if they see drivers taking solo passenger.

Still, male passengers seem to understand if a woman doesn't want to share. They may feel insulted by the insinuation that a potential co-passenger doesn't feel safe with them. They may feel she is over reacting, or ultra orthodox, if she doesn't want to sit next to men. But they don't usually say anything.

Female passengers also seem to prefer travelling with other women. They don't say anything, but there is quiet relief in their eyes, a relaxation of their posture, small smiles exchanged as three women tie up to share a ride. I suppose there is similar relief in my eyes too.

Every so often, I think of Kathmandu. The memory of shared tempo ride, in particular, is vivid in my mind. Me and my friends got into a tempo. Most of our co-passengers were male. The driver was missing. A moment later, the door opened on the driver's side and a woman got behind the wheel. A woman wearing a traditional blouse and saree and bright red lipstick. I was the only one gawking.

My friends informed me that this was not an uncommon sight. Women were starting to drive shared tempos in Kathmandu. Fourteen years later, the startling delight of that moment hasn't faded. The presence of the women tempo drivers had brought me a great sense of safety in that city, despite the curfews and sporadic reports of violence. It even brought me joy, though I could not manage to ride in autos or tempos driven by women most days. Still. It was enough to know that they were out there, lipstick on their mouths hopefully, and a fun song playing on the radio.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Slavery (Or why there's so much drama over a girl choosing a boy)

At 18, you are expected to bear children, keep them healthy and craft a judicious citizenry. You are expected not to die in the process. At 22, you can renounce the world. At 13, you can stop eating food. That's not illegal.

At 18, you are expected to be sensible of human, civic, democratic rights. At 25, you can enter Parliament and make laws that govern the land. When you take an oath to uphold the Contitution, you are expected to be equal to this task.

But at 25, you are not deemed fit to choose the man you sleep with or your personal divinity. Indian girls and women, never let yourself forget – the men who rule your nation think you are old enough for sex and childbirth at 18, ONLY as long as you don't get to choose your mate.

There was a time they thought it was okay to have you handed over to a stranger at 12; the law did not see it fit to impose an upper age limit for the groom they picked out. They married you off at 8, or 9, or 12, or 14, or 18, because they wanted to pre-empt you making your own choice.

There are polite ways of saying it. That they are tradition-bound. That they did their best for you. That life is hard and match-making complicated. That they want you to be safe and the neighbourhood is rough. That you don't know enough about the world. But under the polite veneer remains the hard, cold diamond of truth – they want you stripped of choice. The corollary sounds worse: they want you to have sex as per their command. If it sounds ugly, it is.

Since I am not feeling polite these days, I will put in it simple words: this is slavery. A person who does not get to choose her/his sexual mate is a slave.


A dry solution

I had been in the hills a few weeks ago, wandering around with a notebook. One afternoon, I went to a little restaurant on a highway and drank coffee milky enough to sate a calf. Honestly, I would have referred a bench on a roadside dhaba. The only reason I had come to the restaurant was because it was attached to a hotel and was therefore likely to have a bathroom.

A lot of our decisions are governed by the question of functional bathroom access, especially for women. The 'functional' aspect is the tricky part. One of the biggest challenges to Swachh Bharat is the lack of water. People are being chased off roads and beaches, fined, and publicly shamed, and one man has been killed for protesting against such shaming. But no humane government can possibly expect people to use toilets without a reliable and affordable water supply.

This is a big ask. We have desert landscapes in India and water supply is a perenniel problem even in major metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Yet, the government has not seen it fit to look for ecologically sound solutions, even when the solution is right under its nose and waving frantically.

In that restaurant in the hills, I noticed a local gentleman talking in Japanese. The gent sensed that my curiosity was piqued and struck up a conversation. Turned out, there was a Japanese delegation in India, trying to build business ties with various state departments. The fabled Bullet train is the result of similar business collaborations. However, it is a very expensive deal and one we don't urgently need. What we need very badly, and the Japanese can offer, are creative toilet solutions.

The gentleman said that one of the things his group has been trying to do is persuade our governments to adopt dry toilet blocks, especially in water scarce districts. I asked him how they worked and he jumped up to offer me a demo. He had the basic toilet out of its cardboard carton and set up in less than ten minutes. All it needed was a patch of land with a deep pit dug below. One would still need water to wash oneself but for flushing, dry materials like sawdust or sand would do.

I knew of dry toilets and have even used it once, in Australia. Instead of sawdust, mud and dry leaves were used. It felt weird, I'll admit, because of my cultural conditioning. Water feels critical, even for flushing. But think of it; those who live in hot or cold deserts must have alternatives. In fact, report suggest that nearly 40 percent of the world will be facing water shortages by 2050.

The Japanese-speaking gent sounded disappointed. Hundreds of millions of Indians do not have access to plentiful water. Thousands of crores are being spent on building toilets and promoting the idea of an open defecation-free India. But people can't use these toilets if there's not enough water. Bureaucrats and ministers, he said, have been approached. They say they're open to the idea of a pilot project with dry toilets, but refuse to pay for it, regardless of how urgent the need, regardless of how much cheaper or how eco-friendly the alternatives might be.

It is indeed disappointing that we can pay through our noses for a faster train in the name of progress, but can't be bothered to invest tiny sums of money in something as basic as a functional toilet.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

A wordy ride

I am not overfond of long car rides, especially not in cities. Most people aren’t. What’s called a ‘drive’ in other locations is ‘the damn traffic’ in a metropolis; you can’t even complain because the only reason you are stuck in it is that you are part of it. 

There’s just one thing that leavens my frustration at such times: words. There are the simple, romantic words of a film song on the radio, or a news report, or the RJ’s sophisticated chatter and the hesitant voices of strangers calling in with anecdotes or trying their luck at snap quizzes in the hope of a gift voucher. And sometimes, you get lucky and you find yourself in a cab with a driver who is both respectful and in a conversational mood.

I’m not much of a talker, and very rarely open such conversations. At least, I didn’t until last year. But one of the positive outcomes of app-based cab and rickshaw rides, such as Uber and Ola, has been that it has subtly changed the way I interact with the drivers of these vehicles. For one, they have a name. They are not anonymous service providers, not a generic lump of men or “cabbies”. Each one is a distinct man (sadly, yet to meet a woman), with a face and a name. This is how he sees me too — not just as a nameless passenger, but a person with a name and a distinct voice.

With the knowing of names, and the inevitable phone call as you try to guide the driver to your precise location, it is as if the first step has already been taken on the bridge of conversation. After this, you can either go ahead and take another step forward — “Hot day, yes?” “Mad traffic, eh?” “Why do people drive like that?” — or you can retreat into your own head and ask for the radio to be turned on.

The other day, I had a really charming conversation with an elderly driver. I had asked him to pull over for a minute near an ATM, and that somehow led to the second step on the conversation bridge.

His spoken Hindi was dulcet, and I couldn’t resist asking where he was from. I’d already guessed it would be somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Then he asked where I was from and I told him. He’d spent some years in Delhi, doing odd jobs, but then he was drawn to Mumbai by the glamour of the film world. The way life turned out, he’s been driving for 35 years, 34 of them spent in yellow-black taxis. Lately, his children had been objecting to his driving the rickety old kaali-peeli, and told him that he must either retire or move to an app-based company. He was reluctant at first, afraid that the demands of smartphones and electronic map reading would disqualify him from a job he’s done smoothly all his life. But then, it wasn’t so hard, after all, and he realised that he really likes doing the long rides, cutting clean across the city. Just the other day, he’d done 250 kilometres in and around Mumbai.

I asked how many kids he had. He said, “Seven. By God’s grace, six are graduates, and one is normal.”

I bit back my smile and, for a few quiet moments, reflected on the many meanings of ‘normal’. At the end of the ride, I told him that it was a pleasure meeting him, and I meant it. And he told me, likewise. I think he meant it too.

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
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