Thursday, March 31, 2005

Thumri, indulgence and nothing in particular

It took me a long time getting comfortable with this idea, but here it is: I like filmi music.

Despite all those music appreciaion courses, all that exposure to western classical, all the firang tapes mommy stocked up on - my tastes remained stubbornly proletarian. Some would even say, I have the musical inclination of a sadakchhaap.

But years of attending live concerts - including small-town 'orchestra parties' - led me to discover this facet: at concerts, I can enjoy Hindustani classical (especially vocal), or fusion, or jazz, or folk... anything but film music, pop or hard rock.

That said, I can get around to describing a Muneer Khatoon performance, at the IIC. Though I feel most unequal to the task, considering I don't know my Bhairavi from my Durbaari.

Muneer Khatoon (or does she spell it 'Khatun'?) is from the Kirana gharana, and was in Delhi to sing Hori (Holi) and Rasiya Thumris at a program, organised by Hindustani Awaz (a one-woman army led by Rakhshanda Jalil).

In keeping with the Hindustani classical tradition, where one must sing compositions relevant to the season, the lady would sing only Rasiya and Hori raags (I think), sung only in Basant (spring). Muneer Apa refused to sing a Kirana because those are sung only during the rainy season.

As it turned out, like the festival itself, the music of Holi is about fun, teasing and taking liberties with the object of one's affection. Finally, Muneer Apa was persuaded to throw in a ghazal; she closed the evening with 'Kaun si voh surat hogi...', the part that I liked best of all. The last line is still ringing in my ears - "Uthh jayegi mayyat meri; Tum na uthhaanaa, zahmat hogi." (Rough translation: 'my coffin will be lifted/I will die, anyway; why trouble yourself?')

What I love about Hindustani vocal is the overwhelming earthiness. You can't escape the rustic simplicity; you can't miss the roots. You could be singing of the Lord, but there's no 'lordliness' to the raag - just some longing, pleading, cajoling, complaining... like the old, old clay-footed love-stories of every age and race.

And of course, I developed an immediate soft spot for Muneer Khatoon, because she's a native of my birth-place. Her plain silken sari, her strong eastern-UP accent and her less-than-elegant attempts to clear her throat of the last vestiges of phlegm - I was transported straight to our old ancestral house near Chowk in the old city, where pigtailed grandmothers in gharaaraas would live out their cloistered lives, smoking bidi and chewing paan.

But Hindustani classical (Thumri, in particular) must be approached with a sense of quiet.
I cannot enjoy it in a rush. I've got to arrive early, wait for the singer to arrive. I must get up a few times to make way for a dozen octogenarians, limping and happily expectant.

Then, I let myself slip into a Thumri-induced trance. One must sit still, so still, until the blood begins to move and stop and lift and waver on, guided by the singer's voice. One waits, until the polite clapping turns to a genuine round of applause, and then into a series of requests and wah-wahs.

It's like... maybe this is bad analogy, but it's like soaking in a scented bubble-bath, you know? You're there - thinking of nothing in particular, wanting nothing in particular, letting the sense of indulgence sweep over you, letting yourself sink beneath waves that are not waves, beneath layers of something nearly tangible, but it stays on you only as water stays, as fragrance stays... it stays, yet you know it cannot stay.

PS - We have Tabla maestros, Sitar and Santoor and Shehnai and Guitar and Drum maestros... why don't we have any Harmonium ustaads? Do we? Is there anyone made famous by the humble harmonium?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The downside of up-n-down

Not far from Rishikesh, there is a village called Chorpani (so called, because of the stealthy streams; in this particular valley, the water seems to disappear and reappear in mysterious ways).

It is hard to find Chorpani

[We drove through road-less stretches of dry river-beds, sparse but seemingly never-ending forests, with fat, old trees growing at the most inconvenient spots, making it impossible for a car to push in further. We lost our way twice and there was no option but to keep driving for several kilometres, because there was nobody to ask. Not one man, woman or child. Nothing but desolate, dry, rough earth.
We finally saw a couple of horses, grazing and assumed, wrongly, that civilization was not far off. When we finally spotted a village cut into the green waist of the hills, we parked the car in the riverbed, and walked another half kilometre up, to ask about the Bhotia settlement. There, we met an ageing woman, who was pleasant enough, but (just our luck!) turned out to be deaf-mute...

Finally, we did reach Chorpani (never mind how) and met the people we had come to meet - the Bhotia.

The Bhotias are a nomadic pastoral tribe; every year, they descend from the upper reaches of the lower Himalayas, to Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. Most belong to villages along the Indo-tibetan border; the word 'bhotia' itself refers to the original Tibetan migrants.

I wasn't the only one interested in the Bhotias, though.
A rough track - one we missed, unfortunately - had been cut into the forest, by the spanking new wheels of spanking new cars. Cars from Delhi. Cars drom Dehradun. Cars belonging to people who had come all this way to buy Himalayan pups. These puppies were going for Rs 1300 each. In Delhi, they'd probably be resold for anything upwards of Rs 10,000.

But I hadn't come to buy puppies. I'd come to meet this nomadic tribe - now dwindling, by the year.

This branch of the Bhotia come down from Neilang and Jadung, and stay for the six winter months in Chorpani. They have done so for generations. This is their life - graze cattle, sheep and horses... Make woollens... go back in the spring. They do not remember any other way of living.

But now, fewer and fewer families come down to the plains. Many come down as far as Harshit-Bhagori, but no further. The main reason, it is claimed, is that the children's education suffers.

The administration has been encouraging most nomadic tribes to settle down. Many officials claim that the Bhotia want to settle down so their kids' can get a stable schooling.

What they do not mention is that the Bhotia are remarkably well educated for a nomadic tribe (for any tribe!) We met young housewives who'd cleared their intermediate (Std XII) exams. According to them, this is hardly rare. Most kids, girls included, do finish their schooling.

This is no longer possible. Earlier, there used to be a teacher who'd come from Rishikesh to teach the Bhotia children in the winter months. For the last five years, there's been no teacher.

Some say the teacher just stopped coming to their temporary settlement. The tribe's elders insist that the administration withdrew the government-appointed teacher.

No teacher, no school.
Of course, the tribe is forced to do a rethink about their annual up-down migration.

Now, as long as the Bhotia just stop coming down to Chorpani, the administration in the plains can stay happily oblivious to their migratory existence.

However, their sheep will not survive bitter winters in the border villages, when it snows and there's nothing to eat. Within the decade, the tribe will be reduced to desperate poverty.
So, they will have no choice but to keep moving, bag and baggage, further down the slopes. But here, they will have no land to till.

From experience, the tribe's elders know that they will not be allowed to graze in reserved forests. Even if they are granted licenses, it would be ecologically unsound to allow grazing in the same area, year after year, all year through. And if they were allowed to move from one area to the other, as nomads within the forest, they would meet the same fate as the van gujjars did, in Uttaranchal. Eventually, they'd be forcibly evicted.

And the Bhotia kids would not have any education at all, then. Because their old hill-village school would have shut down, and within the forest, they'd keep moving, making it impossible for a town-teacher to come and teach them.

Possible solution: Appoint nomadic teachers who migrate with the tribe. Or hire one of the tribe members as a government teacher. In fact, RLEK, an NGO, has proved that it can be done. The government only has to replicate this model for nomads in forests, hills, and all other inaccessible students. But that, of course, would not have occured to the administration.

Monday, March 28, 2005


Came across this quote:

"There should be a limit, even to the means of keeping ourselves alive. Even for life itself, we should not do certain things..."


And found myself nodding in agreement. Even for life, even for livelihood, even for the most primal of instincts - survival... there are limits.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Delhi passes the test

Delhi's pretty much passed the test, as far I'm concerned.

When I moved here, from bombay, five months ago, I was told the most horrifying tales of abuse, eve-teasing and violence, in Delhi.

Everybody had a horror story - somebody's neighbour got mugged right in front of his house in a government colony ("Government colony, can you believe it? If govt servants are not safe... who is?"). Somebody's neighbour's mom got carried off ("A big car stopped, pulled her inside.. and whizzzzz! An aunty, can you imagine?"). Somebody else's sister got felt up in New Friends' Colony; somebody's gold chain was snatched in a bus near Janakpuri.

Delhi was painted as this woman-ravishing monster - a male city, in short. ("It's no place for a woman". "People have no respect for women in Delhi". "Women have no security; you won't survive." "Don't travel in a bus". "Don't wear a chain.")

Again and again, I was told that men in Bombay somehow value women more; that it's a cultural psyche thing; that the cultural psyche of Delhi's menfolk makes them such, that they are always on the lookout for female victims.

Coming from Bombay, I'll admit I miss certain freedoms - trains, late-night trains, women's compartments in trains... but that is more about facilities than freedom.

In five months, I've never once been felt-up. Not even in the much-maligned buses.
(The first time I was felt up, in fact, was on my first trip to Bombay; I've never forgotten, nor forgiven.)

I had to watch the way I dressed; but then, I've always had to think about how I dress, in Bombay too.
I often subjected myself to frumpy clothes, while I worked as a reporter in Mid-day, because I never knew when I'd have to visit a police station, a hospital, a slum, a crowded bazaar... besides, I travelled everywhere by local train and railways stations aren't really the right scene for halter-tops and mini-skirts.

You'll see mini-skirts and large numbers of belted pelvises in Bombay - but that will be in colleges, in discos, in happening cafes...
and guess what? I see pretty much the same in Delhi's discos and 'young' hangouts like the PVRs - the backless tops, the bare arms, the exposed navels.

In Delhi, I've had people stop and ask me if I wanted a lift. But never has anyone tried to cart me off in broad daylight.

Maybe, I've just been lucky, so far. And I won't tempt fate by saying Delhi is a great place for women to be out in.

Now that it is Holi, I've been coming to work everyday, and I have not yet (lest I speak too soon) been hit by a single water balloon!

In Bombay, I remember how awful the last two Holis were. I was hit, not just with water or balloons or colour, but also with chunks of ice! And the sharp, thin edges of ice would cut deep into my shins.

As for colour, not only would I get splattered during Holi, but also during the ten-day Ganpati festival, Navratri, and even Shiv Sena's victory processions!

Here, the cops have been patrolling the streets all day long. There have been no major reports of misbehavior either.

So, even if this city hasn't acquired a distinction yet, Delhi has scrounged up passing marks in my woman-safety test, this season. Reason enough to celebrate, eh?

Friday, March 25, 2005

The tribal soul

Speaking of land and Chhatisgarh, I was told (off the record, strictly) by some government officials that much of the tribal land in this region was acquired for as little as Rs 5.

Or even a yard of plain cotton cloth. A lungi, here. Half a bottle of country liquor, there.

Liquor always works. Especially in election time. One bottle buys you the votes of a whole family.

Which I have always found wierd, since elections are a secret ballot affair. We have the option of accepting bribes from every party and voting for none.

The tribals, however, have an unfortunately exalted sense of honour; they actually stick to their end of the bargain.

The local acitivists were having a hard time cracking this nut, so they had to work out a new code of honour for the tribals. It is something like this - "Each bottle you get during election time is not really an advance payment for the vote you are about to cast. It is the local politicians' compensation/fine for having neglected you for the last five years."

That way, the tribal soul is not burdened with guilt, as he casts his vote for a new candidate, somebody promising and independent.

The more I meet, and hear about, tribals in the forests, though, the more I want to live like them.

Imagine being upright as if there was no option but to be upright. Imagine being laidback (what we crazy urban people call 'unambitious' and even 'lazy') to the extent that you're happy with a yard of cotton, a bottle and a wage of five rupees a day, collecting tendu and mahua. Imagine drinking from the rivers and lolling about in hilly meadows, with your cattle and your sheepdogs and wild horses...

In my next life, I want to be a tribal. The warring kind, though. The kind that shoots arrows at people who want to enter my territory.

Some efforts come free

The rest of my story will follow later, but I simply must blog this -

A public notice was issued by the Water Resources Ministry, in Chhattisgarh, and distributed as pamphlets in Rabo Village, Raigarh.

A dam is being built on the Kurkut river, except that the villager won't let it be built. There are fears of displacement and pollutions and much resentment since the dam is being built by a private company, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd.

The pamphlet states, among other things, that (I translate) "The people who are rendered landless, when their land is submerged by the dam, will be given barren land that is left over from the construction of the dam, and free efforts will be made to make this land cultivable."

The notice also says, a few bullet-points earlier, that none of the residents of Rabo will be displaced be the dam.

So, you see, even though your land will be submerged, your little mud hut that might be standing a few yards away, will not be. Therefore, 'you' are not being displaced.

Also, will someone please stand up and explain: what does the sarkar mean by 'free efforts'?

What efforts? Who will make them? The private company? The government? Which department? What happens if these efforts fail? Will only the 'efforts' be 'free' or will the land be free as well? And what happens if there are no 'leftovers' to toss around as sarkari largesse?

And finally, somebody explain to me - who drafts such documents and how are they distributed without someone checking for bizarre statements like the one above?
Hasn't anyone in the government ever heard of subbing?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Self-restraint in Punjab

C*S*F has been discussing conflict-reporting (though I wonder, since more than eighty percent of all reporting involves conflict of some sort, with potentially dangerous repurcussions for the people involved, why should the term be applicable only to war?) and what journalists should or shouldn't write about, in sensitive situations... and I found this exceptional example of self-restraint by a journalist, who writes in a Punjabi newspaper in Jalandhar.

He told me this -

There is a certain belt in Punjab where a lot of conversions have been happening. Mind you, none of these are forced conversions. Nevertheless, the traditionally-oppressed castes have been turning to the church for spiritual succor... and maybe free medicines, as well.

Now, this is a region that has been an RSS stronghold for decades (pre-independence, perhaps). Shiv Sena shakaas have been mushrooming in many a small town, in this belt.

In one part of south Jalandhar, there was a distinct leaning towards the BJP-led NDA, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. However, the NDA made one huge mistake: it brought up the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin.

The electorate's mood changed almost visibly.
Result? The Congress candidate won the election.

Our Punjabi reporter, however, refused to write about this change in the elctorate's mood.

He says, "I knew the damage it could cause. The RSS-Shiv Sena guys would immediately link it to the conversion trend. Not that they didn't notice - they will bring up the issue in their own magazines and pamphlets. I decided not to add fuel to the fire."

He further told me that it is easy to draw the obvious conclusion. What people will not talk about is the fact that more than half the population in this belt has left for foreign shores - working in the gulf or Canada or wherever else - and nearly every family has members living abroad. The drama about foreign origin is, for these people, a complete farce.

Besides, this is the same region that was home to the Ghadar movement.
These people don't give a hoot about 'foreign origin'.

But that is not my point - my point is that this reporter knew who delicate the situation was. He knew his people - the RSS-ization, the conversions, the deliberate breakdown of non-Brahmanical Dalit traditions, the centuries-old caste conflict. He could foresee the impact of a story about the surprise result during the elections and he exercised self-restraint, how it would be manipulated.

He says, "I knew and the RSS knew what had happened. They will play it up in their own magazines and speeches. I did not want to add fuel to the fire."

And he didn't.

We, the 'mainstream' urban journalists, scarcely have the option.
We don't ask probing questions; we don't know what questions to ask. We don't get the lowdown on socio-political equations. We don't see all sides of the story. We wouldn't know where to look. Very often, we don't bother to look.

So, we don't foresee a thing. And exercising self-restraint, therefore, is a joke.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Not the people's language

Lesson learnt today: Using the people's language has nothing to do with using a certain language.

I appreciate the kind of trouble NGOs take over their publications - little pamphlets and fifty-page booklets brought out in three or more languages - in the general interest of information dissemination.... I really do.

But I fail to see how they can fail to see how utterly pointless it is, if they're going to use the kind of language they do.

An example:
Shaasanaadesh Praavidhaan Kriyaanvayan

This is the title of a Hindi booklet about the Tehri Dam, published by the Uttaranchal-based NGO, Matu.

Now, I am pretty good with Hindi. It is my mother tongue, almost. I've studied in three states that had Hindi as the state language. I had an unheard-of (in my school, at least) 82% in Hindi, in CBSE's Xth standard exams. I read Hindi literature. I'm fairly quick when perusing Hindi newspapers (though some of our reporters seem to think that using non-multisyllabic words is a crime inviting the death penalty).

But for all that, I don't understand Shaasanaadesh Praavidhaan Kriyaanvayan.
Not even the title!

And even though Uttaranchal has a lot of education to its credit (Tehri boasted a literacy rate of over 93%), I fail to see how a farmer in the hills would understand the meaning of the word 'Kriyaanvayan'.

Here's another example: Pashchimi nimaad ke anjad paramparaagat jalstroto.n se aadhunik vyavasthaa tak ki kahaani aur vikalpo.n par sujhaav.

That was the tag-line of 'Kasbe Ka Pani', the title of which is deceptively simple.

When I'd read this line aloud, three times, it finally made sense. But I doubt if the guy on the street, who's got a living to make and a family to feed, will bother to struggle with a dictionary.

Forget the locals; I'll bet anyone a hundred bucks that at least 50% of the bureaucrats in India will neither know how to spell such words, nor know their meanings.

Since it is my job to gather information, even if it comes in the form of suspiciously alien tongue-twisters, I translate sentences like these, first to myself, and then for my readers.

But it's high time the NGOs who print alternative literature did a reality check.

It is not enough to print literature in Hindi, or Tamil or Marathi or whatever language you think is the language of the people. If your purpose is to reach out to people - inform them, raise issues that affect them and get them to participate in the struggle to save themselves... well, 'talk' to them.

Sure, it might look shoddy to some. When you write as you speak, the words lose formality. They cease to be the language of pundits. That's when they become a dialogue with the people.

And that is the whole point, isn't it?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Honour and sacrifice in the hills

Just a curious observation:

When I was traveling up to Tehri (where they've been at that dam(n) project for the last forty years), I noticed a series of 'inspirational' quotes painted on the hillsides, or else, engraved on metallic plaques and nailed into the sides of the cliffy roads.

One of these says -(I translate) 'Give your life to your country and your society'. Another says, 'Honour lies in scarifice.'

And all the way up to New Tehri - while I saw, from thousands of feet away, the ruins of a once-beautiful town, Old Tehri, looking like a bedraggled ghost, struggling to it's knees... though, who knows why?

And it seemed so ironic.
If dams are good for the country - as the administration claims they are; anyone who's anti-dam is also branded anti-national, in the same breath - then these people have, indeed, given up their lives for their country.

Giving up lives is not about death. If you give up everything that comprised your life - your house, your garden, the marketplace, your favourite rock by the rivers' edge, the school, your memories, your ancestors' graves and finally, your livelihood, your farms and your grazing grounds and your little shop - then, you have given up your life, have you not?

And what honour have we given the people of Tehri? Or the people of Narmada, or those who lived where Bhakra Nangal now sits, sprawling?

We have not even given them new lives, to replace the ones we took away.
No new jobs. And often, no land. In places like Dehradun, those who were displaced by Tehri and resettled near Dehradun, at the site of the Jolly Grant airport, are once agains being uprooted.
They are, practically speaking, giving up their lives a second time.

And what honour will we give them?

And you know what I thought was the most ironic bit of inspirational wisdom up on the hills?
"Anger is the enemy of awareness."

And I thought: Not so. Not always. Anger is also an offshoot of awareness.
Anger comes from hurt. And the awareness that you've been cheated, lied to. That there is so much injustice around us, and that we don't know. Many of us don't want to know.

Organised anger is sometimes a friend of the people.... if only you can muster enough anger, in time.

PS : I don't know whether all dams are bad, or whether Tehri dam will lead to any good at all. Or at least, will lead to enough good to justify the drowning of Tehri and the subsequent hardships.
But standing there, looking at the ruins, the edginess of the people who might be displaced, the beauty and natural poise of the farms, the calm in the hill people's eyes... it felt wrong.
All wrong.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Why is this so hard?

When I begin a story - before I write it, before I set out to investigate it, before I even open my mouth at the edit meetings - I check out the issue on the internet.

Now, as I try to write (tear my hair out in desperation with a Jupiter-sized block jamming up the fingertips, is more like it) about the issue of Rabo Dam on the Kurkut river in Chhattisgarh, I realise how hard it is to write about that which hasn't been written about before.

The only google reference to a 1000 MW dam on Kurkut river was about a question asked in parliament - something about what's happening to that big project which was to be built by the Jindal group in Raigarh.

I have NOTHING to take off from. I have no 'line' to follow, no media reports to fall back on, by way of helpful corroboration. I have nothing to refute, nothing to pit myself against...

I have a massive case of writer's block.

Which is wierd.
I ALWAYS deliver.
I don't remember the last time I didn't meet a deadline. I don't remember the last time I took more than two hours to churn out a thousand words. I know my editors will not carry anything more than a thousand words and I have enough information and documentation to begin a book, if I feel like it.

Why is it so hard?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Spend like the Buddha

It's interesting to think of the economy in Buddhist terms.

After all, The Middle Path does lend itself admirably to something that India has been struggling to achieve for the last five decades and more: the impossible Golden Mean between private initiative and public enterprise, between the right to make profit and the duty to share resources, between those two big C's - capitalism and communism.

Reading about E F Schumacher's theories had me wondering if it could actually happen. Could we strike that right note, balancing materialism against meditation, nightclubs against nirvana? Could we spend like Gautam Budhha would have?

I suppose we could. After all, millions of rich (relatively speaking) foreigners are constantly looking for the means to chuck it all and find a new way of life; they go seeking high in the Himalayan ranges and low in the African wilds. Thousands of people give up the pleasures of the world to live like hermits. Vipassana, Art of Living, Osho ashrams... what are these, if not an attempt to find that fine balance?

But, like my friend S says, she's seen too many Buddhist monks shopping at Woodland and Nike outlets, to believe in such theories... what to do, eh?

One more day in the calendar

Ok, it may seem as if the blog is turning into a rabidly feminist one, but I can't stop grinning about THIS.

I've long held this firm belief that EVERYTHING comes down to economics (except, maybe, love... but I refuse to discuss 'love' on this blog) and if we're going to do ANYTHING at all about un-skewing the sex ratio, it's got to be a financially smart decision.

I don't know if Rs 1 lakh is incentive enough. But if only we could wipe out the dowry negative, this positive just might tilt the balance a little bit.

Somebody in the AP government needs to be thanked.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

According to legend, in Kalyug, the Ganges, north India's holiest of rivers, will dry up, disappear or become invisible somehow. The disappearance of Ganga Maiyya, as we northies refer to her, will be a clear sign that we've entered a dark, dark age.

At Tehri, the invisibility has become visible - the water appears to be disappearing into aquifers, underground, instead of filling up the reservoir (at least, so says Sureshwar D Sinha, of Paani Morcha).

According to my sources, there are no fewer than 73 dams being built on various rivers, tributaries of the Ganga. There could be more. There's Tehri on the Bhagirathi. There are many more envisaged hydel power projects on the Bhilangana, the Bhagirathi etc. The dark age, then, is round the corner...

On a side-track:

One of the reasons that William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali is such a favourite with me (actually, I don't have a list of favourites. I do have a blacklist, though - the books I read and hated or never did finish, they were that boring, and which I consider my moral duty to warn the world against) is that it is such a curious translation of the Hindi word 'Kalyug'.

I always knew what Kalyug symbolizes - destruction, chaos, breakdown of all recognizable social and moral structures. But I somehow didn't associate all this with Kali. I'd always think of Lord Shiva when I thought of destruction. That the origin of the word Kalyug should be Kali...

But on second thoughts, why not?
Shiva has it made. It is Kali who needs the chaos, the breakdown of norms and mores. The Goddess has reason to complain. And it is perhaps time that she came into her own. And if it's going to be a dark-goddess-age after all, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe the Ganges will disappear because she's had enough of being pure and maternal. It is tiresome being worshipped for all the wrong reasons, isn't it?

A liberal and a libertarian

Not that I needed an online quiz to tell me this - but it seems I am part-liberal, part-libertarian in my politics.
In fact, they say I'm exactly half-way between these two ideologies. (Or do I mean philosophies?) Here's my score.

The good thing about this quiz was that at least I figured out the difference between liberal and libertarian (They sound so alike... I'd never have known).

And oh, I got this one off Dilip D'souza's blog.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Home country

I think a lot about my country, when I travel on assignment. Especially of what a 'home' country means.

Lately, I've been given the option of leaving. Of going to the US or Canada. Or some other place, where work visas and nationalities are easier to come by.
I refused. Mostly because I had no clue if and when I could return to India. I didn't even know why it was so important to return.

Last week, in the train - from Dehradun back to Delhi - the answer came to me in the shape of an old woman who boarded the train ahead of me. She was wearing a salwaar-kameez with a cotton dupatta draped over her greying head.

In a fraction of a second, without having to think about it, I knew that this woman belonged to Himachal Pradesh, or perhaps the lower reaches of the hills in Uttaranchal. I knew it in the way her dupatta rested on one shoulder and curved up to her head. I knew it in the cut of her kurta.
Don't ask me how; I just knew.

I know a Haryanvi shirt from a Rajasthani choli. I know a Lakshmangarhi choli from a Kutchhi choli. I know the Rabari tribe from the Garasiya tribe by the colour and trimming on the women's skirts.

I know a married woman by her ivory bangles and the shape of her anklets. I know how a young girl may flirt with her sister's husband, and how a man may not marry his 'cousin-sister'. I know a South-Indian accent from a North-east Indian Accent and a Bengali accent from Bihari accent.

And I am afraid that no matter how many years I spend elsewhere, I will never know such things about another land; and unless I know all these things, how can any country feel like home?

Aman and other treacherous thoughts

In the context of women's day (belatedly, I know... but like I said, I'm going to claim the whole damn calendar) I can't help thinking of the motherhood instinct. And how complicated we've managed to make something as simple as birth.

I'll admit I feel like a traitor to the cause of woman-ism and all that, but I do find this fuss surrounding childbirth very annoying.

The only child I've seen who's been born without any fuss, as the proliferation of a species should be, is Aman.

She was born at home, by candlelight, the birth attended by her father, Dr Sunil Kaul, who runs this NGO called The Ant, along with his wife, Jenny. Based in a remote-ish corner of Assam, there were few facilities available to the couple at any rate.

Jenny laughed as she told me of the one time she did visit a gynac in her final month of pregnancy, just in case there were complications. "The gynac? That woman first scolded me for not having come before. Then she ran a stethoscope on my stomach and then she told me everything was alright. Just like that!. Sunil and I laughed our heads off."

So, they decided to have Aman at home.

Sunil is an MBBS doctor, incidentally, though not a practising one.
Jenny told me that half-way through her labour, there was a power cut. It was very early in the morning. And very dark. Sunil began scrambling for candles and that's how Aman was born - in candlelight.

She's adored by the whole bunch of activists there, is never fussed over, is pretty, very chirpy, eats most things...

Every healthy female creature manages to give birth in the wild. And look at us: Women!

With all our check-ups and sonographies (and now, sex determination tests, too) and baby-books and pain-relief, we can't do without doctors and half a dozen nurses attending us... and then we want hospitalization and convenient c-sections....

And I thought, motherhood was an 'instinct'?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Out with the muzzle

A friend's father had once said, of the bosses at Kantipur, Nepal's biggest media organisation, "For the owners of such a big media group, they've got a very small heart."

One could easily say the same about the top guns at BCCL/TOI, as they go about persecuting one poor blogger who spoke his mind... if only they would put in the same kind of research and investigative skills into their publications.

Following a legal notice from the TOI's lawyers, Mediaah!, the first and probably most widely read media (watchdog) blog in the country, has downed the shutters, for now.

Do sign this petition, and do your bit to protest the muzzling of small voices that dare to critisize powerful mainstream media bigwigs.

In the meantime, the posts that BCCL/TOI deems offensive are here. Many thanks to the anonymous angel who saved them and posted them.

Do savour.
Do spread them round.
They're the vaccine for many a plague.

Too young

For the first time in months, I find myself wishing I could do a 'soft' story.

I know I shouldn't be wishing such things. There are stories of systemic betrayal of the masses; stories of mass anger, mass defeatism, mass migration, massive manipulation, massive misuse of funds and abuse of power - there are stories on each hill and in each village that we're all too busy or too callous or too world-weary to bother writing about.
These stories need to be told. And I opted to try and tell them.

But it is exhausting all the same - watching the dispossession and displacement caused by 'development', the resentment ensuing, the awful mangling of relatively sane cultures, in the attempt to homogenize...

Today, I wish I could write syrupy odes to pine trees in the mist, instead. I wish I could write of how good it feels to be wrapped in rough, handwoven fabric. Or how cold the rain was and how rough the ride over dry riverbeds. And how I wish this were a trip with no purpose attached.
But I'm too young to want to have no purpose.

I was in Uttaranchal recently, with an old college friend, also a journalist. She said something that I've felt deep in my bones for the last two years. She said, "In two years, I've become so cynical that there is no positive feeling left for my profession... I should have been this disillusioned after fifteen years... not when I'm so young."


I should have felt this way after fifteen years. Ten years, maybe.
I'm not supposed to be looking at every single creature with suspicion and wonder: what's in it for him/her? Not yet.
Not when I'm just learning what this world is all about, and what it means to be out in it, on your own. Not when I'm supposed to be fighting back all the conviction and bravado that my youth and idealism can muster.

And I'm not supposed to be able to see that it's a losing battle! I'm too young.

I'm not supposed to wish this 'civilization' would self-combust, because there's no other cure for it. I'm not supposed to be content with soft stories. I'm not supposed to allow myself to wallow in a morbid cynicism that shrugs off all responsibility to change the world.
I'm too young...

Women's C-phobia

A little late in the day, considering 'Women's Day' has come and gone, but my friend J, sent this to me and I'm linking to it, here, because it's really interesting how more and more of my women-friends are reacting to commitment in exactly the same as men did.

More and more women I know say the same thing: But I'm happy being single... I've got some money, a lot of friends, my own pad... I mean, look at me!

And of course, they all believe that men are good fun. Men make for interesting conversation, are often brimming over with sparkling wit, and if they enjoy dancing... who could ask for more? My girl-friends really do like men.

But, like they keep repeating: "Imagine living with the same man for years and years? Imagine belonging to this one guy? Imagine being married!?"

As for me, I just think it would be infinitely amusing if we could have men's magazines, with men dressed in satin bedsheets on the cover, and with agony uncle columns inside, where men write in asking for advice on how to get their girlfriend of five years to tie the knot.

Typically, the agony uncle would simper sympthetically and say, 'Give her time. Don't let her feel like she's being pushed into a corner... you know what the female ego is like, don't you? ... but finally, don't waste the best years of life on someone who isn't even sensitive to your needs... it is important to move on..."

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Whole Damn Calendar

The high-pitched paeans for women (so lovely, so accomplished, so smart... let us salute them) are all over the newspapers. Again.

As a rule, I am all for dedicated 'days'. Friendship Day. Rose Day. Wear White in the Rain Day. Don't drink Coffee Day. Be Nice to Rude, Senile Neighbours Day.

But Women's Day, I do NOT like.

It suggests that women are something out of the ordinary. And that one must make a special effort to recognize their worth. Like it wasn't somehow okay to be a woman (especially a successful/professional/happy/independent woman) all round the year.

On International Women's Day, Africans will salute the Angolan women. China will reward her workers.

I have no clue what India is planning for her women. I sincerely hope: nothing.

Ever thought of why we don't have a Man's Day?
Of course not.
Why not?
Because they don't need one day. They've got the whole damn calendar!

This is one reason why I don't approve of reserved seats, special queues, and the 'women and kids first off the sinking ship' attitude.

Let us not have Ladies' specials, not until they introduce special seats for men, on which I'm not allowed to stravel. Nor a Ladies Only queue, unless you can have a Gents Only queue as well, where I am not allowed to stand.

There's nothing more galling than the realization that I am part of a group that needs this day of celebration. This leg-up. This day on which you will be honoured. It is a constant reminder of the fact that I'm not quite equal, not yet.

I don't want to be the first off a sinking ship. I prefer to be mundane and not the least bit worth a day of celebration.
I want the whole damn calendar!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A filmi patriotism

I've spent the last two hours thinking of something I could post up here, but can't come up with anything new (my introduction to bloggers' block, I suppose). This is something I wrote on our 57th Independence Day. It was first posted as an exercise on Caferati's message board.

Patriotism, to me, has always been associated with music. And I'm not talking about the kind of music that comes from a traditional raga or an uplifting symphony. The concept of India – as mother, as an ideal worth dying for, as home – was taught to me by Hindi filmi songs.

The 15th of August is that time of the year when I allow myself to wallow in a soggy kind of jingoism, as crooned out by Bollywood’s best playback singers.

I mean, we can’t seriously be expected to believe that Hindustan Hamara was really the best place in the whole wide world, and that we are all bulbuls in a fragrant garden. But come Independence Day, and it seems alright to feel like a ‘bulbul’ in some sort of contemporary Eden, even if it is a wee bit overcrowded.

My earliest memories of Independence Day are redolent with warm, boondi-laddoo in brown paper-bags, and a lot of songs from Hindi films (the only pan-national obsession, rivalling cricket in its ability to cut across all boundaries of state, caste and community).

Independence Day was about waking up to the sound of drumbeats, watching the Tiranga unfurl and a loudspeaker croaking out Mere Desh Ki Dharteeeeeeee.

Mere desh ki dharti’ was ubiquitous. It was inescapable, on the 15th of August. I knew it by heart.

I also knew all the others – ‘Ye Desh Hai Veer Jawaano Ka’ and ‘Kar Chale Hum Fida’ and ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon’, which always brought a jagged-edged lump to my throat. I continue to bawl, discreetly, when I hear ‘Aye Mere Pyaare Watan’ (though I've never understood why it should affect me so much - the song is supposed to be about a Kabuli-wala, singing about Afghanistan, not India).

When our teachers ran out of classic, black-and-white era songs with which to stir our patriotic little souls, they brought in colour-celluloid ones like ‘Aapas mein prem karo, desh premiyon’ and ‘Bharat ka rehne wala hoon’. After those were exhausted, we would sing poems written by the progressive writers during the freedom movement, such as Saare Jahan se Achha, and even Ye Mera Chaman.

Thus, patriotism became inextricably linked with film songs.

However, Bollywood disappointed my generation in the desh-bhakti department. Too many repetitive images of war-torn borders, bleeding soldiers and not a single definitive patriotic song.

Independence Day itself seemed to turn into an old woman, going senile, repeating tales of past glory and lost love, which she’s told everyone several times over. I wasn’t listening anymore.

Until I heard the title song from Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. (The film was badly made, but all is forgiven, on account of this one song.)

This song tells me who we are, and refuses to be apologetic about it. It neither gloats, nor escapes into historical half-truths of being the Golden Bird of the East. It neither asks me to die, nor to return to a fading culture of khaddar dhotis and blood-red sindoor.

Like it says... Thodi humme sachaai hai, thodi hai baimaani

It admits that we lie. But we also tell the truth....
We sell people old goods in new packages. But sometimes, we will also offer an umbrella to a stranger, on a rainy day.... We want love, but we also want money.... A little innocence; a little fraud.... Some tears; a few dreams.... Some helplessness, some carelessness and lot of madness.

If that isn’t the India I know, what is?
And like the song rightly points out, for all our hurts and disappointments, we’ve still got hope on our side.

Happy 57th Independence Day!

Quite poppy

They're talking about drugs on NDTV's website. Something about how there's a 17 percent growth in opium production over there and how India bears the brunt by getting more addicts.

I really don't know how to react to a story like that. I suppose it ought to be a matter of concern if my country has more junkies than it did last year. But, strangely, it does not worry me much.

All those people out there, who are into dope, probably know what they're doing. It's their life; it's their decision; it's their money (I hope)...

I worry when I see six-year-olds doing brown sugar. I worry when I see four-year-olds sniffing glue.
But I don't know if it's an issue of national concern.

Besides, we've got opium aplenty in Barabanki, Kanpur and Lucknow. We've got enough dope coming into Delhi and Haryana from Rajasthan. And that poppy smiles in nearly every backyard in Bhatinda.

Why point fingers at Afghanistan?
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