Monday, May 30, 2005

Making a God

Speaking of poster-art and what it represents, one of the posters got me really curious.

This was a poster of some goddess that, at first glance, looked like any other - red saree trimmed with gold, lots of gold jewelry, a golden crown, six arms with each hand bearing different objects; she was fair-skinned, smiling a soft, amused smile...

I assumed she was Durga/Lakshmi/Saraswati, until we noticed that she rode, not a tiger or lotus or swan, but a black goat!

And one of the objects she held was a bottle - unmistakeably, a bottle - and you could argue that you have all sorts of things sold in bottles, but it looked like a daaru (alcohol) bottle to me.

Which makes a lot of sense, I think.

Because this is a predominantly tribal area, and goat-grazing is a very common occupation. Besides, the majority of people here are reputed to have a great fondness for daaru.

I guess, somewhere down the line, the tribal self-image, and the locals' idea of divine benevolence and joy, sneaked into the homogenized pantheon.

Which brings me back to the belief that people make (and arm) the Gods, and not vice versa.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Aspirations on the walls

While sitting at a restaurant, a bunch of us got talking about poster-art and what it symbolizes.

What does it mean: that this particular restaurant-owner, for instance, should have posters of Swiss cottages on his walls?

Does it mean he wants a home like the one in the photograph?
Does it mean he wants to go to Switzerland?
Or does it just mean nothing... did someone gift this poster to him and did he put it up on his walls because he didn't want to offend the gift-giver?

Chewing on that, we then noticed the other poster - an antelope-couple (well, they had antelopes' antlers, but also had a deer's spotty skin... so it could have been a hybrid), standing in the middle of a river, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

One pal suggested that the scene had aspirational value. After all, Mount Abu was very close. This guy probably got it from there.

But Mount Abu, from what I remember of it, is pretty much a honeymooner's paradise (throw a stone, and you'll hit a honeymooner. Throw another stone, and you'll hit another honemooner. If you keep throwing stones... you'll soon have a mob of honeymooners chasing you with pickaxes.)
In any case, the coupling deer could now be explained: Honeymoon... Mount Abu... It fits.

On the other hand, what does it say about the owner of this place, assuming poster-art = aspiration.

That the owner wishes to honeymoon in the foothills of the Himalayas?
That he wishes to be in the middle of a river, when he is honeymooning in the foothills of the Himalayas?
That he wishes to couple with a horn(y)ed, hybrid animal, in the middle of a river, whilst honeymooning in the foothills of the Himalayas?

At this point, all of us turned to look at the guy manning the counter at the restaurant, and burst into the kind of hysterical giggles we had badly needed to giggle, after Chapi.

Absurdism in Chapi

While criss-crossing Chapi's sun-burnt hills, we came across a neat little railway phaatak, where a neat little sign-post stood, warning us of a 'speedbreaker ahead'.

We were sure that the signpost was either stolen property, or else, a sarcastic comment on some road-construction project, abandoned before it could begin... probably the doing of a villager, who had an unsual sense of the absurd).

There was no road in sight for miles; there was no question of having a speedbreaker.

But when we eventually stumbled, over rock and dust, to the phaatak, we realised that the sign was in dead earnest.

Sure enough, there was no road - not even a kuccha dirt-track; but, there was this handsome, tarred-dambarred, two-foot high bump of a speedbreaker, nestling against the railway track.

And I'm still wondering if it could be the doing of a sarkaari contractor with a sense of the absurd?

Pick one village

Any village.
Pick one village. I picked Chapi.

Chapi is in Rajasthan, in an area that has seen drought for seven years or more.

When you enter the limits of the revenue village (as opposed to the smaller, far-flung hamlets, within the scope of this village), you see large pukka houses, painted in garish greens and blues and even orange. You see narrow lanes, like it were a mohalla, and you see a railway track. You see a bus stand, and off the highway, passing jeeps that ferry you to the next village, for four rupees.

Then, walk... and walk... maybe an hour or so.
You will meet a group of labourers working working on a check-dam site. They've worked for six days and this is the first time in three years that any government-sponsored drought-relief project has been initiated... in this particular hamlet, at least.

Those who work on this site - shovelling dirt, carrying stones up and down an incline, digging into the hard earth - have never yet been paid. Any money they've made had been made by migrating to neighbouring districts in Gujarat, or else, by selling wood that they've chopped down in the forest. (After paying off the forest officials, most probably, for most of the villagers complain about how they aren't allowed to enter forests anymore: "They say it's not our land." "They say it's against the law.")

Then you walk another hour or two. Climb the low hills, make your way between thorny bushes and scrub forest... you will probably meet someone like Phugli.

She is sitting with a bunch of her friends, waiting to be paid. It is pay-day in Chapi village. Those hwo have worked 6 days on another check-dam site are wating to be paid.

Try making conversation with Phugli.

"What scheme were you working under?"
"I don't know."
"What is the daily wage rate here?"
"I don't know."
"When was the last time anyone got paid in such a project?"
"I don't remember... never found work before on such a project."
"How much are you expecting to be paid today?"
"I'm not sure. It should be six days' worth."
"What is your BPL status?"
"What is BPL?"
"Do you have a white card? A yellow card? Have you seen yellow and pink ration cards? What colour is your ration card."
"Do you know what colour-coding represents on ration cards?"
"I don't know."

When you tire of this, make your way to the sarpanch's (village headman) house.

There, you will see him, sprawled under a tamarind tree, a warm breeze rising up the hills and making his white dhoti flutter.

His charpai is surrounded by... how many? count... eleven women in dark, nylon sarees (Cotton is too expensive), with their faces entirely covered, are squatting on their haunches. When you appear, their fingers will work a slit in their ghoonghat, from where they'll watch you, trying to make sense of your tattered Hindi-Marwari dialect.

You will ask if you can speak to the sarpanch. Ask him whether he keeps a watch on proceedings on pay-day.
He will say "Yes, of course."

Pay-day is happening in the background, already. You have already heard the names being called out from the muster-rolls, and cash being disbursed by the sarpanch's secretary. You have heard this through the sarpanch's snoring.

The sarpanch's secretary, incidentally, is a woman. A confident type, with Paliwal for a surname (you forget the first name, because she lays so much stress on the last). She has had to clear exams to get this job.

She travels from village to village - making payments, maintaining records... she is not in a ghoongat. Just when you begin to admire the secretary for having broken free of a fuedal morality and crushing poverty, she will reveal, "Don't think I'm a villager! I'm like you girls... I was educated in Banswara... I'd rather be posted in town, but you know how it is."

The villagers are getting grain-coupons and some cash. Rs 56 each. But each one is being paid Rs 55 only.

You will finally pluck up the courage to ask what's happening to the remaining one rupee... it must mean a lot to those fathered here, who've had only six days of work this year.

One of the officials on the nigrani committee (a watchdog-type group) will laugh and say, "Well, we deserve something for sitting out here in the heat, and doling out this cash, don't we?"

Perhaps, your friends will protest, "You get paid to do your work. This money belongs to these people who have stood breaking stones all day in this summer heat."

Paliwal will click her tongue, "Oh, don't pay any attention. That was a joke. We don't have one rupee coins. We will just give out fifty rupee notes to be divided amongst fifty workers each.... you can wait and check, if you like."

You will glare at the officials, and exchange frustrated glacnes with your friends. You know that even if the missing rupee is paid up today, you will not be around to ensure the fairness, next pay-day.
One rupee each, filched from three hundred workers, is Rs 300. For a single pay-day, on a single project, that's a neat little 'extra icing' on the various committee's cake.

Outside, on the charpai, the sarpanch will have sprawed back to his full length.
He will talk to you, a taunt lacing his tone, "Hey, why don't you get us another project like this. We need some work worth Rs 15 lakhs around here. Talk to the government for us."

"Really? Why should we get you work? Isn't that your job? You're the elected representative of this village."

"Yes, but I'm telling you, aren't I?"

"That's rich! We do the hard work and you get all the votes... that's not happening, brother."

"But the villagers need the work."

"Sure, go and lobby for it. Fight for it. Sit at dharnas. Raise your voice until th government is forced to listen. Come with us, at least."

"Naaah. I'm not coming. I have... to do... some work."

As you go, you will take another look at the faceless women under the tamarind tree, and will be tempted into saying, "Tell me something, sisters... how do you manage to lift stones, with your ghoongat this long?"

They will break into a gaggle of giggles. "We don't cover our faces when we work."

"Then why do you cover your faces now?"

"It is the rule."

"Why? If you feel no shame while showing your face to strangers, when you are working, why shy away from your own people, in the home?"

"There is the sarpanch..."

"He is like your mai-baap, isn't he? Like your own mother and father... what's there to hide from your mai-baap?"

The sarpanch will half-arise, taut with anger. "This is the rule here. Women will cover their faces. That is that!"

One of your friends will take your arm and whisper, "Come. Let us leave."
And you will.

Telling Comments

One of the most telling comments I've heard recently

At a public meeting in Banswara, during a performance (a scathing musical attack on corruption at the grassroots - starting from the sarpanch and the patwari and the block officer, to the collector, constable and politician) Shankar Bhai stopped singing and asked his audience, "Who's the happiest person in your village? Who's the 'best-fed'?"

And a tribal sitting at the back of the crowd called out, "The aanganwadi worker!"

The Aanganwadi worker -
She who controls the kitchen, and the medical supplies at the aanganwadi centre.
She who could stand between life and death.
She who often fails to do her job.
She who must struggle and face ruthless violence.
She who rightfully takes pride in being such a nucleus of power.

We (the government, if you like... but it's still the tax-payer's money) pay aanganwadi workers under the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme), to improve the health of vulnerable groups like infants, pre-schoolers (less than six years old) and pregnant and/or nursing mothers.

The aanganwadi worker's duties include organising at least one meal a day, vaccination, referring women and kids to the hospitals and orgainising check-ups, helping with teaching the pre-schoolers (whatever they're supposed to know before they enter school... I wouldn't know what this means, though) general health and hygeine education etc.

Those who wanted a basic minimum of health and nutritional security for the poor in this country, gave us the aanganwadi worker.

That the poor of this country should say that this worker is the happiest, 'best-fed' of them all, is a telling comment...

Another telling comment, heard at the same public meeting -

"Why do they speak of work for 100 days in the year? Do they think our bellies are vacation for the remaining 265 days?"

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Kali-bai, soul of the story

Every story has a soul.

No, really, it does.
We don't know when it's not there, but when we go 'Hmm...well-written story', there's a 90% chance that the writer has touched this soul (else, he/she is such a great writer, that he/she can cover up the lack of soul with sparkling wit and crafty narrative... but that's rare, for a reporter)

Most of the time, I look for a person - that one person who can remind me of what this is all about - who must the story speak for, and why.

Usually, the 'soul' gets a one-line mention in a story of a thousand words. Sometimes, that one line is chopped off, at the desk.
Sometimes, I don't bother to include this one person in the story at all - names are not always relevant.
Sometimes, it is not in a face or name, but in retrospect, in regret, or a second-hand tale.

It is not easy to find the soul, though. Not in a day.
Nor does it guarantee that you'll have produced a brilliant report, the very Pulitzer-winner, when you're done. For all the soul I may put into it, I've written many shoddy stories, and been hauled up for them. It is quite possible that I get carried away by the soul of my piece, and forget to pay attention to craft, flow and space-constraints.

All the same, I look for it...

While I worked for a daily tabloid, I must have seen this story-soul once, for every twenty reports I filed. Maybe less frequently.

While I worked for a glam-mag, I never saw it at all. Not once, in one-and-a-half years.

When I freelanced, I stopped searching. It was too dangerous to go about looking for reasons to write, when you got paid by the word.

But now, I cannot write until I have seen it. This soul is like the margin that I set my mind against, before I crank up the word-machine.

On the yatra, it took me four days to find it.
I talked to dozens of people, but I was unhappy (and nervous, because I knew a boulder-sized writer's block was rolling its way into my system); I just couldn't find my 'why' and 'what for'...

Then, I met Kali-bai.

The moment she took up the mic on a makeshift stage in Banswara, and she began saying that the women of her village do not have enough land to shit on, much less till...
I found it.

[And guess what? Got hauled up for filing a shoddy report!! Ah well...]

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Meeting Bhanwari Devi

This was something I’d waited for, for many years.

While staying in a sanstha (what do you call that in English?) on the outskirts of Jaipur, as I set out to hunt down a cup of morning chai, I got a chance to speak to Bhanwari Devi.

I don't think I'll ever forget the scene; it's like a postcard in my head - five women sitting on a charpai, lips sticky with extra-sweet-all-milk tea, gossiping in a shady grove, under a just-dawned sun.... Bhanwari Devi is a beautiful woman, despite the the dry wrinkles around the eyes, the tightening round the mouth, the depth in her eyes - that mixture of resignation and calmness and bitterness and resilience and determination on that face. It is a face that's been lived.

It is my second guilty cup (the EGA campaign yatra is very hard-pressed for cash; poor people have donated a rupee, two rupees, anything they could afford... given to the yatra, so the activists could eat, drink chai and get on with their work… therefore, my guilt at a second cup.)

I have always wanted to ask Bhanwari Devi many questions. Now, sitting beside her, I find that there is nothing to ask. No, nothing I want to know. I do not want to know how she coped... I do not want to ask whether she ever wanted to set fire to the law-courts, or considered nuking the universe... I don’t want to know whether she’s healed, or whether she still has somebody’s love and loyalty in her life… anybody’s?

I just want to sit here and listen. She speaks very little about the past… she's laughing as she recalls how frightened she’d been when the fat ladies from Delhi came to visit her - "One social worker, she was so fat, I got scared. I refused to meet her. But Roshan didi persuaded me… she was good to me, Roshan didi."

For a minute, as her eyes fill up, we sit silently wondering - where is Roshan didi now?

Then Bhanwari began telling us about a young girl who had come to interview her, recently. On her way, the girl was attacked by a man from the same village.

The girl fought back; she fought long and hard. Eventually, hearing her screams and sounds of a scuffle, a villager - also a woman - rushed to the girls’ rescue. The man fled, and rape - as defined in legalese - was prevented.

The girl was hurt badly, nevertheless and it took a while before she could speak, and find her way to Bhanwari’s house.

A furious Bhanwari Devi was all set to file an FIR, but was immediately deterred by… oh, by just about everybody. Some said, "Ladki ki zindagi barbaad ho jayegi" (the girl’s life will be ruined) and some said it would mean the beginning of a hellish experience, not the end.

Bhanwari Devi was not one to let the matter go, however. She immediately collected the villagers and got the girl to identify her assailant. Then, the rapist (near-rapist, if you like) and his family went down on their knees and begged that the police not be called.

So, the village panchayat collectively decided that Bhanwari Devi could punish this man as she chose.
To begin with, all the women took off their slippers and gave the man a sound beating. Then, he was made to address the girl as ‘sister’ and swear off any further attempts.

Later, I heard Bhanwari Devi talk of aanganwadi workers and their abuse of the government rations. "The small kids are given gruel that even dogs refuse to eat. What’s the point? It is better to let the mothers cook the ghugri (gruel made from ‘daliya’ and ‘gur’)".

While I was busy admiring her - still fighting for the right in her village, for people who made her go through such hell - someone else tells me that the same villagers have been giving her grief about drawing water from wells, or getting flour from the atta-chakki.

Thirteen years down the line, almost nothing’s changed. And yet, Bhanwari Devi finds the courage (no, not courage; the humanity, the large-heartedness) to keep up her social work, to talk of rights and change and laws...

I want to meet this kid, too

The mood changed when Anita, one of the other activists from Delhi, began to tell us about the brave kid who’d made headlines. "She was barely thirteen or fourteen… comes from Bihar. There was a huge furore in the local papers when she bobbitized a man, when he tried to molest her... her panchayat told her to keep up the spirit."

Apparently, this kid had carried an ordinary blade - the kind you might use in a razor, and which children often use to sharpen pencils - ever since she grew up to realise the dangers inherent in just being a girl.

Afterwards, she reportedly said, "Let any son of a *&%* try anything with me… I’ve been waiting a long time."

All of us laughed and applauded her with cries of ‘Shabaash!!’ (well-done). I'm wondering what her name is, and what she's upto these day.

I came back to find this report... at first, the report made me a little uncomfortable because I don't think 'womanizing' is a good enough reason to chop off a man's organ. Later, in a more detailed report in the Asian Age (which I cannot find the link to, on the web) it was reported that the husband had also doused his wife with kerosene, threatened to burn her if she didn't behave, and ha been in the habit of regularly beating his wife.. in which case, I guess she was perfectly justified.

Please meet... 2

I didn’t have to ask her her name. I knew where to look for it.

Pinki comes from Bara district, in Rajasthan, where getting a girl’s name tattooed on her arm is a very common practice. Often, she also bears the name of her husband, or father. Pinki chose to get her brother’s name inked in, alongside her own.

She’s just answered the standard 8th exam; fought hard to stay in school. She’s the only one in her village to have done so. Right now, she is working with Sankalp, to help organise the rural youth.

"So, what next?" I ask her.
She shrugs. "The senior high school is 10 kilometres away from my village. I don’t have a bicycle…. I guess I’ll walk. But I don’t know… even my brother hasn’t studied this far."

Later, Pinki reaches out to stroke the denim on my knees.

"We don’t wear jean-pant in my village." She looks very unhappy.

I bite back a smile. "Really? Why is that?"

"People… talk."

"What sort of talk?"

"They’ll say - ‘Oh look, look… so-and-so’s daughter is dressed like a man'."

[We laugh, but I'm wondering - "Dressed like a man? How long, since I thought of ‘jean-pant’ as man’s clothing? Did I ever?"]

Aloud, I say, "Does it matter - that you cannot wear jeans? I’m allowed to, but I don’t like them much… What difference does it make?"

Pinki looks away. "But you can…"

So, I say, "Then, let people talk. Slowly, they'll get used to it."

She looks at me strangely, slowly. Neither of us bring up the subject again. And I'm still wondering what's going on in her head. And what will happen, as a result.

[I've promised myself that next time I see Pinki, and if we’re in Delhi, I’ll see that she gets a chance to taste the forbidden denim.]

Please meet... 1

As soon as we reach Jaipur, we immediately join a public meeting in a garden. There, I am accosted by PhoolChand, a greying man on crutches, carrying a massuer's kit, and peppering every fifth sentence with the chant of 'Jai mata di'.
He catches hold of my sleeve and draws me aside. He points to a badge worn by the activists - it says 'har haath ko kaam do...' (Work for every hand...) - and asks, "This billa (badge)... if I wear this billa, what will it do for me?"

Stupidly, I stare at him. "Excuse me?"

He repeats, "Jai mata di, but what will your billa bring me?"

I try to explain, "By itself, nothing. But it's a symbol. There's a campaign on for introducing an employment guarantee law..."
I try explaining the provisions of the draft bill to him, but he is convinced that the group gathered here is a political party, asking for votes, albeit out-of-season, instead of activists and journalists.

He interrupts impatiently, "This shouting-vouting won't get anything done, Jai Mata Di... Come, sit with me. Do some timepass with an old cripple. Come, sit here on the grass."

As we sit there, on the lawns, he opens his bag and begisn showing me some old, laminated documents. They are official papers - Phoolchand, son of Danku, from UP, lives in Company Bagh in Delhi, age 60 in 2001...

He tells me, "I have a railway permit. See? This one was given to me. But the railways authorities refuse to let me travel. They throw me out of train compartments."

The document says that Phoolchand, being handicapped, is allowed to travel with one companion. However, it says nothing about a travel permit.

So, I tell him, "Baba, this is not like a rail pass. It says you can travel with a companion. That's all."

He 'pshaww!'s and says, "If they don't let me travel, why and how will they let my companion travel? I tell you, the police will not let me sit in trains. And I am a travelling massuer, Jai mata di... I have been all over the country, crutches and all. Delhi, Kashmir, Jaipur; Surat is my next stop... but the police will harass me, I know."

"But, baba, you need a ticket, first."

He snorts. "Look at this paper. It says, my address is: Company Bagh, New Delhi. Do you know what that means? It means I am homeless. I live in a garden... how can they throw a homeless man out of the train? If I don't have a home, I WILL travel, don't they know?"

Convinced that the virtue of buying railway tickets is quite lost on Phoolchand, I change the subject and ask him if he supports the 'Right to Work' cause.

He isn't happy with the question. "I don't beg. I work my own way through life, Jai mata di. If you like, I can give you a rupee. I can give you ten rupees too."

"That is alright, Baba. Money is not the issue; won't you lend your voice to the cause?"

He grins slyly. "Ah, but what's in it for me, Jai mata di?"

"Nothing; nothing for you, Baba... Jai Mata di!" I say, and watch him pick up his crutches and leave.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

More MPs like the PM, please

If anyone says one word against our PM, Dr Manmohan Singh, after reading this, I will personally beat them up. (Why can't we have more people like him around?)

Reminds me of an interview I did with Mr Karanjia, that grand old journo who'd founded and edited the Blitz, for many, many years. (He's past 93, I think, but still comments on the country's political affairs, and is still heart-wrenchingly good-looking).

At that time, he'd said, "The single largest contribution that Sonia Gandhi has made to this nation, is that she stepped aside and placed Manmohan Singh on the Prime Minister's chair. If it wasn't for her, there was no way an honest and quiet worker, an intelligent and non-corrupt man like Manmohan Singh could have made it to the top post, in India... this is what Sonia Gandhi should be remembered for, through our history..."

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Things I learnt during the Right to Work yatra

That Activism can be fun:

None of the activists were over-earnest. None was bent on converting you (oh well, alright. One guy was very argumentative... but one out of forty isn't so bad).

I learnt that singing folk songs with biting social commentary, dripping with rustic sarcasm is a lot of fun. Talking puppets are fun. Beating a dhol and walking through fields, chanting 'Inquilab Zindabad' can be fun. Sloganeering grows on you, too.
Street plays are fun. Revolutionary poetry is fun. Finding wisdom and talent in unexpected bodies is fun.
Sleeping under the stars is fun. Eating raw mangoes straight off the trees is fun.
Waking up shivering-cold in the night, in an Indian summer, is awesome.

That a pyjama cord is a vicious creature, with a mind of its own:

A pyjama cord cannot be trusted. It WILL double-knot itself at the precise moment when you must relieve yourself.
It possible, it will do this when the electricity has gone off, or when the bulb has fused, or when it is a moonless night and you are under an open sky.

Also, forest-cover and dense vegetation WILL disappear from the landscape at the precise moment when you must relieve yourself.
If the pyjama cord can have its way, it will get double-knotted when it is dark AND where there is no forest-cover.

Stick with elastic, on future travels.

That I love listening to people's stories:

Stories of battles within the soul, of wars fought underground, of being in jail, stories of heartbreak; stories of books written; stories told through painted windows and mud walls, stories that are being made as I watch; stories I am triggering off by saying the things I am saying, knowing that the words and images are being filed away as memories, but not knowing how they will be used....

That cynicism is a heavy burden:

I think I offended Preeti, one of the activists on the yatra, last week, by saying that nothing would really, really change. That we might fight and win, but there would always be exploitation and injustice in human society. Power might change hands. Control might shift to a new class, a new caste. Property may be redefined... but someone, somewhere, would always suffer. History is my witness....

Preeti was upset, because I wouldn't admit that the world would one day wake up dewy-faced, brimming with overwhelming love, stripped of all pain... She believes things would change. She was working for the change.

I hope she reads this some day, because I'd like her to know that I won't stop working for change, either. It's harder this way - this belief that in the long run, it's a losing battle.
Cynicism is a personal burden; it doesn't stop me from fighting. Cynicism is the price I pay for an inability to celebrate next week, next month, next year, instead of sulking about how every world and every age must fight for the right to live, all over again.

So cheer up, Preeti. I don't agree with all you say, but I'll stand by you when you're saying it.

Menu mirth

One of my favourite timepass activities while traveling on work is to look at menus in small-town restaurants, even if I do feel a little like an elitist bitch, for being so amused at the quirky-yet-solemn titles and self-important dish-names.

There was one particular menu (Kwality restaurant near Teenkune, in Kathmandu) where we copied down whole sections, it was that funny!

The menu at Tarun Hotel in Shivpuri district, was giving it some tough competition, though.
There was 'Cerlec' under the American Breakfast section.
The 'A-LA-CARTE' included omlate pluffy, made of geera-chilly, with the alternate option of 'harf-fry with teast'.

Staters (sic) include Takkat ka Khazana. And though Shivpuri has neither river nor stream for miles around, there is a section called 'Machhuaron ki taaja pakad' (fishermen's fresh catch).
On the same menu, there's China-town, and Angrejon ki saugat, inclusive of rost chichen (sic).

But one dhaba in Dungarpur district takes the cake.
We staggered in, after some eight hours of walking about in the hilly-desert sun, took one look at the menu and began debating whether to stay and pay, or to skip lunch altogether. Just when we had decided on the latter course, the waiter brought us a fresh set of menu-cards - at least 15-20% cheaper.

We ate. And we grew wise.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

fakiri legend - 4

Count your blessings

I hear that a new kind of fakir is emerging in Punjab: the foul-mouthed fakir.

These fakirs are treated like any other sufi murshid, or a holy man. The curious thing is that the only blessing they give their devotees is abuse!!

Yes, I said, abuse. The maa-ki, behen-ki kind of abuse.

The devotees calmly accept this abuse as 'prasad', or a blessing. There's a system at work here, whereby swear-words get entangled with numerology, so that the grateful, abused devotee will count furiously on his fingers, attaching a number to the abuse, and try to guess at predictions or divine omens from this number.

There have even been reports wherein, a certain fakir called out 'Saala Behenchod!' by way of blessing.
The confused devotee said, "Baba, I have two sisters... which one was this abuse directed at?"

(And I totally swear that I am not making this up.)

So saith, Dr Aloo-bomb

While researching a story on the resurgence of sufism in Punjab, my journalist-friend Kali introduced me to a certain college professor, whom he described thus:

"When we were kids, we used to buy a lot of firecrackers at Diwali. We'd burst all our smaller crackers first - the larhi, the anaar, the rockets. We'd save the biggest and best for the last - the Aloo-bomb."

Dr Seva Singh burst out laughing when he heard himself being referred to as a large, noisy firecracker, named 'potato', of all things.
However, after hearing him out, I am left with little doubt that the title was a fitting one - for all his gentleness and jollity, there's enough explosive material in his head to set a town or two afire.
He's a retired professor, living in Kapurthala, who has done a lot of research on Indian philosophy and saint-literature, in particular. When I began asking him questions about Sufism and why people are so drawn to it, especially in Punjab, he shook a few foundations upon which I had based my assumptions of faith and a resurgent secularism.
This is a small part of the gyaan he gave me (the rest is too incendiary to put down in writing):

"In the tenth and eleventh centuries, as other warrior groups rose to power in Asia, the Islamic empire began to collapse. At such moments in history, whole civilizations withdraw from the physical realm and turn to mysticism and spiritualism. Fleeing from war and persecution, thousands of caravans trooped into India, from Baghdad and Persia. They came via Punjab, which was a tribal area. Being cut-off from other large empires on the subcontinent, Punjab already had a more equitable social environment. It was full of sadhus, nagas and other non-vedic spiritual people. People from Tamil Nadu, Bihar and other distant states had already started migrating here, as far back as the thirteenth century - not because of work, but to escape the oppressive vedic caste systems."

"At that time, in Punjab, there was little industry and little agricultural prosperity. The Turks and Persians had brought new technologies to India. They brought irrigation techniques and spindles and looms; the cloth industry grew and flourished; paper was introduced. New professionals came into being. Trade improved."

"The first Sufi saints, like Baba Fareed and Shah Hussain, were crucial because they gave India a new ethical code. India has had three great urbanisation phases - the first was in Sindh (Harappa), and then there was Buddha’s time and then, when the Turks came in, about the thirteenth century. With urbanisation, there comes social upheaval and revolution. You break bonded labour. You break caste barriers. People in urbanised set-ups gain confidence and escape feudal oppression."

"Sufism isn’t so important as the period that gave rise to the Sufis. The times that let them flourish, made them acceptable to the public. These were people who wanted to live with truth and self-respect."

"However, our century is not a century of urbanization. Sure, towns are turning into cities and villages into towns but these are neither important centres of trade and industry nor learning. These are simply crowds - huge masses of people living in a space. That’s all. Caste and religious divisions are getting worse, deeper entrenched in cities than they ever have been, throughout history."

"Don't believe that the resurgence you see is a return to the roots of Sufi mysticism, with reflections on injustice, the sorrow of human society, property laws, taxes, caste-based oppression and so on."

"Bulle Shah may be known as a sufi saint now, but he was as much against Sufism as an institution as he was against all other forms of institutionalized religion, against all priesthood. Now, sufism is also institutionalized."

"Whenever there’s an economic crunch, when there’s frustration and insecurity, and the apoliticization of a society, its people turn to spiritualism. India has no ideology to hold onto; only rough caste-based political power equations. People may have more money but they have no mooring, and are afraid to lose the little they’ve gained. They are turning to mysticism or to religion because they want some sort of anchor."

"Don't think that this trend is true of sufi dargahs alone. The crowds are increasing at kumbh melas and at gurudwaras too. There is no sufi thought here. Anyone who wants to go back to the roots of Sufi philosophy, anyone who tries to raise the spectre of Sufism that defied tradition, norm and priest, is either dismissed or shouted down. Only those philosophies and teachings are accepted which serve to strengthen institutionalized religion. The true Sufi word - the words of rebellion, the words of revolt against the system, the words of rejection of an unfair system - those words of Sufi saints like Bulla and Kabir and Fareed have been buried."

"The Sufis spoke of equality, the loss of caste, of religion, even your own name... Yet, go to any Sufi dargah and look at the kind of groupism and factionalism that exists at sufi shrines - so and so was the Pakistani-Sikh. That one is a Balmiki. This was a Chamar and that was a Qalandhari and this was a Baghdadi."

"This is a mark of regression. And it is being encouraged because people feel safe in small, familiar groups. People nowadays will romanticise Sufism, but will not let it become an agent of change. This so-called resurgence amounts to cultural appropriation, nothing more."

And when Dr Singh had stopped talking, I thought, rather sadly, of a couplet that goes something like (beg pardon if I'm making a mistake with the exact wording) -

"Yeh akhiri but bhi chhin gaya
ab hum bhi musalmaan ho gaye..."

["Now that my last idol has been snatched away
I am finally made a musalmaan"]

But no, actually, I'm not so shorn of idols, after all. I'm quite happy to find my idols amongst wise old professors who have the fighting spirit of an Aloo-bomb.


Often, I've been asked whether I'd consider settling down abroad (of course, no one is referring to Burma, Kenya or Mexico, when they ask this sort of question. If you want to migrate, you're supposed to want to live in places like the USA, the UK, Australia, maybe some of the European nations, the UAE, even).

Usually, I have the same answer - I don't want to live in a country that has no cobblers.

I have this theory about society and repairing - a country is known not only by its leaders and its working-men, but also through its repair-men (or women).

A cobbler makes them re-usable: the things we had once liked and wanted to have.
A cobbler extends the life of something that has served us well.
A cobbler represents what my country is all about: a cobbled-together entity, a much-damaged, worn-out thing that is sometimes ugly, with mis-matched bits of leather or different colours of thread, but which functions in its own way and is made more interesting with age.

I like to think that we are a culture of repair - we sew things, we patch things, we try to undo damage, we cling to the old and try to keep the old going as long as they will serve our purpose, without embarrassing or hurting us...

We're a country with cobblers.
And I refuse to move to any place that does not allow us our cobblers, our repairers of damage.and breakage.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

No child's play

My morning paper tells me that an anganwadi worker's arms were chopped off, when she tried to dissuade a man from marrying off his minor daughters.

And while this makes my soul go numb, I can't help wondering if we're going about 'progress' the wrong way.

This was pretty much what had happened in the Bhanwari Devi case - a local volunteer with the Saathin movement was gang-raped, after she complained about child marriages.

The rape still makes me angry, but to think that child marriage should be so vital to local communities that they are willing to kill and rape and burn, to be allowed to continue the tradition.... maybe we're going about tackling social change using the wrong methods.

I do not approve of child marriage. And I especially have no desire to see twelve-year-old girls bearing babies of their own, and dying at nineteen, or younger... although in most communities, the girl is NOT sent to her husband's place until she's mature. That is what the concept of 'Gauna' or 'Gohna' is all about - more like a betrothal and delayed consummation, than marriage, per se.

But perhaps, sending in an outsider (which is what most social workers are) to motivate villagers directly, or through local volunteers or anganwadi workers, might not be such a great idea.

I try and put myself in those villagers' shoes - suppose everyone I know gets their kids married off pre-puberty?

Suppose I know that if I don't follow suit, I'll be scolded by the priest, shamed by my peers and have a lot of explaining to do to my own family?

Suppose I run the risk of excommunication?

Suppose I actually believe that daughters should be married as soon as possible because they don't belong to me anyway, and that if I wait too long, their lives will be ruined, and I will sin against them, and against my duty as a father?

Just suppose... you are that person.

Would you take kindly to an outsider telling you that you must not marry your girls until they're 18, or 20, or 25? Would you not ask them who they'd be married to, because all the grooms will be taken already? You wouldn't be worried about the greater good of society nor care about reducing maternal mortality rates in this country. You would be worried about finding a groom for your girl, right now! Or tomorrow. Or in five years.

Why, even my family is more worried about getting me married off, sooner rather than later, than about social institutional change, or the greater good of womankind!

We do not like our ideals and our ideas about marriage being messed with. We think it should be a matter of choice - something full of love and driven by love and ending when the love ends, perhaps. But it is not and never has been this ideal for most communities, for most of the centuries we've known of.

It is and probably will remain a socio-economic arrangement, and as long as people believe they have a right to make their children's decisions for them, marriage will remain a parental duty and parent's privileged tool of bargaining.

If we can allow separate sets of laws, for instance the Muslim Personal Law - if we can resist a Uniform Civil Code, and find excuses for doing so - for one group, why not for another? No, that doesn't sound right... that is not what I want to say.

What I want to say is: People are short-sighted. People are clannish. People are conservative and people are not going to change simply because you tell them that it is time to change.

I am aware that there's a flaw in all my arguments. I am also aware that there will be total chaos if we let people form fifty different sets of personal laws - though lawyers will have a field day - and we will contend with a whole new bag of vicious social practices.

But we've got to find other ways of doing this social change business. Other than sending in lone women whose heads we've filled with ideals, but whom we can offer no protection against a violence they don't deserve.

There has to be another way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

fakiri legends -3

We've all heard the now-famous song from Rabbi, 'Bulla ki jaana main kaun?' (Bulla, I do not know who I am..."
This seems to be a recurrent sufi theme and here's a true story:

Wali Allah was a mast fakir (which is to say he was eccentric; he often went about naked, and was often chased or beaten or stoned by the villagers.)

One day, he was being chased by a hostile mob; as he ran, he jumped over a wall.
Behind this wall, some little boys were hiding, eating stolen mangoes. Scared by the mast fakir's sudden appearance, the boys called out, "Who? Who is it?"

The scared Wali said, "That's what I don't know... That's just what I don't know!"

I was told this story by one of those little boys who has now grown up, fellow-journalist and author, Kali.

Kali tells me that this was one of the rare occassions when the mast fakir spoke at all. For some reason, years ago, he'd stopped speaking. He would only let out little whoops, and hoarse cries. Yet, those who know him say that he could express everything that he needed to, through his whooping - sorrow, joy, pain, hunger, love...

And Kali has written a short story about this, saying that every one of us needs to have one such Wali Allah in our lives - someone who doesn't need words to communicate.

----- ------ -------

The Colonel and the gun

At Machhliwara, there is a small dargah (right next to the police station) which houses the tomb of Baba Bedi Shah. He was once Colonel Bedi, serving in the British army, when he turned to Sufism.

One fine day, a soldier in the British army approached Baba Bedi while he was telling his prayer-beads. Looking at them, he said, "What's that?"

The Baba pointed at the soldier's gun and asked, "What's that?"

The solider asked him, "Why do you go around with these beads?"
The baba said, "Why do you go around with a gun?"

"Because my officer asked me to" said the solider.
"And my master bids me to carry these beads," said the Baba.

"But what can you do with beads?"
"What can you do with a gun?"

The soldier raised his gun and shot down a bird in mid-flight. "That's what I can do with a gun."
The Baba touched his beads to the fallen bird's feathers, healed her and let her up to fly off again. He said, "THIS is what I can do with my beads."

------ -------- --------

A lesson in Humility

There was this sufi saint (whose name I wasn't told because the guy who was telling the story had forgotten), who had a favourite disciple called Zayed (or was it Junaid?). The disciple pretty much expected to be named successor to the saint, and this, the saint as aware of.

So, the master called him and asked, "What will you do if you get my 'gaddi' (seat) and what if you don't?"

The disciple, with a touch of arrogance, said, "Well, if I get it, I will thank God. And if I don't... I will bear with it."

And the master said, "Then, what difference is there between you and a stray dog, who thanks God when he finds some food, and bears with his hunger, if he does not?"

I assume the disciple was suitably humbled, but I don't know what became of him, afterwards.

fakiri legends - 2

The story of Inayat Shah and the grave-digger.

According to sufi tradition, once a pir lays hands on you, you belong to him. Once he holds your hand, he will never let it go...

Right next to Inayat Shah's tomb, lies the tomb of a grave-digger. However, once this grave-digger was a robber.

The story goes:
Being such a popular saint (Bulle Shah's master, no less!), Inayat Shah had a grand funeral. Several of his devotees were rich men and they brought dozens of dushalas (shawls) or kafans (shrouds) - rich silks and fine satin, embroidered with gold and studded with gems.

The funeral was being observed, silently, by a grave-robber.

At nightfall, the robber dug up the grave again, and began pulling off the rich shrouds, one by one. He ought to have been content with a few, for they were precious enough, but his greed wouldn't let him rest. So, he pulled and pulled and pulled. Until there was only a single piece of cloth left, covering the dead body of the pir.

As the robber reached out to take that last shroud away, the pir caught at his hand and said something like, "yaar, ek to chhod de" (Friend, leave me one, at least).

The robber stood transfixed.

Not because he'd been touched by a ghost, but because he realised what it means to have a pir hold his hand. Once a master lays hands on you, tradition demands that he never let go. It is both a blessing and a mark of acceptance.

So, the robber decided, to respond to this gesture, he would stay here with the pir, all his life. He became a grave-digger instead of a robber, and was buried alongside the pir.

And devotees, in keeping with tradition, will bow at this tomb first, and later go on to the master.

fakiri legends -1

All fakirs, sufis, pirs have at least one special legend associated with their name, that makes them the pride of the deraa, where they're buried and revered.

Lately, I've heard a lot about the sufi legends. Most of them are myths, and not rooted in fact, but the symbolic value is tremendous, revealing the guiding principles of the saints. Here are some:

The story of Bulle Shah and Inayat Shah's ears
Inayat Shah was Bulle Shah's murshid (master or guru). Now, one of the founding principles of Sufism is that there is no caste, no clan, no heirarchy. Therefore, when you came to a pir, you lost your caste.

Baba Bulla was born a Syed (amongst Muslims, that's like being a Brahmin), and perhaps, some vestige of pride at being Syed-born had remained in his heart. One day, when he knocked at the door of his murshid's house, the latter called out 'Who's there?'

Bulle Shah replied, "It's me, Syed Bulla".

This incensed Inayat Shah so much that he banished his disciple from sight, ordering him never to show his face again.

Bulla, like most sufi disciples, loved his murshid so much that he felt he couldn't live without him. He longed to win back favour, but failed in each attempt. Once, when he could no longer bear it, the poor man decided that if he couldn't look at his murshid, he should be able to touch something, even if it was just the master's bath-water.

So, when Inayat Shah was taking a bath, Bulle Shah stood outside the house, and put his head in the drain, to receive the master's blessings in this way. He didn't realise that the drain, unfortunately, was blocked by his head. And Inayat Shah, thinking that a stone was clogging up his drain, took up a big stick and thrust it through the drain-hole. The stick met with Bulle Shah's head, who promptly collapsed.

However, the murshid was not one to forgive so easily. Bandaged and cleaned up (I'm assuming), the penitent Bulle Shah was banished again.

This time, Bulla was determined to succeed. He went to the colony of the Kanjaris (dancing girls), who were renowned for their dance, song and musical talent. Here, he began to take lessons in singing and music. Day and night, he would practice.

One day, Inayat Shah sent one of his serving boys out on an errand. The boy happened to pass by the Kanjari colony, atthe time when Bulle Shah was singing. Transfixed by the magic and unbearable pain in the voice, the boy came close to the source, and then he found himself glued to the wall.

Inayat Shah, meanwhile, waited and waited. When the boy didn't return, he plucked off his left ear (so goes the legend), and sent it to find the boy. The left ear found the boy, but was equally transfixed by the voice. So, the ear found itself glued to the wall of this house.

When the left ear failed to return, Inayat Shah sent his right ear on the same errand. And though the right ear also found the left ear, and the boy, it was just as helpless against the power of Bulle Shah's voice. So, the right ear, the left ear, and the boy, stayed glued to the wall.

The day passed and night set in. Finally, Bulla stopped singing and the spell broke. Sheepishly, the boy, the left ear and the right ear, returned to the master.

That is not the end of the story, though.

Bulla was training as a kanjari because there used to be a tradition: each year, at the Urs festival, a great durbar would be set up. The sufi saint of the time would sit on a high chair and a new dancing girl, who had not yet performed in public, would stand before the master. Her nose-ring (symbolic of both honour and virginity) would be tied to a thread, one end of which would be held by the saint.

The new kanjari would sing, and if she was any good, the master would give the thread a tug, and the nose-ring would come off. If not, he would let go of the thread, and this was treated as a rejection of her skills.

So, Bulla dressed himself up as a new dancing girl at the Urs. Then he struck up a song, which said something like, "My lord (the Punjabi word used was 'khasam' which could mean a master, a husband or the lord), the thread of my life is in your hands; do not let it go."

Finally, Inayat Shah's heart melted and he accepted Bulle Shah once again, and passed on his own mantle on him.

Outside the Pak embassy

Six in the morning when we stepped out of the house - me and aunt - to stand outside the Pakistani embassy. Aunt needed a visa.

But already, it might be too late.
Some have arrived at 5 am, and some have spent the whole night outside. We are almost the last to join the queue. The visa counters don't open until 8.30 am, though. I make my ritual trips to the tea-stall, while my aunt plonks down on the pavement with the rest of the women.

Now, I see that the subcontinent will not be denied its colourful character in any area - not in posh areas like Chanakyapuri, not near embassies, nowhere.

We - resigned-looking Indians and Pakistanis, a few Afghans, and some bewildered firangs - are already forming that little slice of a cliche called 'India'.

Men sitting on their haunches, a little apart from the women (though newly-weds will sit close, sometimes feeding eath other little morsels of coconut). Women suckling babies in full public view, and later, unpacking food baskets. Peddlers carrying tea, fresh-fruit, coconut, chana jor garam, sweets... painted tin trunks, cloth bundles, henna-dyed hair, dry chapatti-with-mango-pickle, families stretched out on bedsheets, with picnic-baskets... silver anklets, dyed beards, burqas, turbans, kohl... and of course, separate queues for men and women.

All kinds of visa-seekers here. A new bride, with the henna fresh on her feet. A middle-aged sardarni with a harelip. An old, old crone, who can hardly stand upright, conversing with my knees. An old man in a wheelchair. One wearing a sweater (in Delhi, in May... Incredible India, it is!)

I suddenly become very aware of the fact that I am the only woman here, wearing jeans and a short top. The rest are either in Burqas, or at least full-sleeved salwar-kameezes.
I think, "I should've known; this is the Pakistani embassy. I wish I hadn't. Now everyone will stare."

To make matter worse, these are fitted jeans, torn at the thigh, pockets ripped off the butt...
for a moment, I am seized by a familiar wave of rebellious anger. "Let them stare! It will do these dakhiyanoosi lechers some good."

Immediately afterwards, I am ashamed; nobody is staring at me. Not one man.
They all sit quietly, staring at the ground, or buying sweets for their kids, or talking to the next man in the queue. They couldn't care less about me and my jeans.

Across the road is the Australian Embassy. There are big notices out on the pavement - "Do not sit here". But the whole pavement is dotted with Indians who have asked someone else to keep their place for them, and are taking a picnic-break under the trees.

They are shooed away by a guard (and he is good-looking, I note; probably has a lot of mixed blood in him - some Palestinian, perhaps, and some European mixed with Indian... the things you notice, when you forget to bring a book!) but the crowds collect again.
Again, he shooes them away, and again, they return. Three times, this happens. Finally, the guard disappears. The crowds stay.

Somebody tells us that senior citizens will have a different counter; somebody else calls out, "Arre, buddi-buddiyon! doosri line banaa leejo!" (Hey, all you old women, move into another line)

I watch, fascinated, as some middle-aged women, obediently move apart, having decided that they are 'old women', while other crones - bent and toothless - struggle with the decision. Many don't know how old they are, exactly.

By 8 am, the sun is high and a couple of little arguments have broken out as somebody tries to jump the queue. It all ends peacefully, with the women sighing and saying, "We all suffer... God sees to all."

By 9am, my head is starting to spin, a knot of pain forming in my heels.

I begin picking out the accents, trying to place them. The woman to my left is Gujarati. The one to my right is Delhiite - very definitely urban, strong Punjabi influence. The other two in burqas, near my aunt, are from UP (Gorakhpur?) and Bihar respectively. Further off, I hear an Allahabadi tone... the accent drips with paan and surreptitiously smoked beedis.

One woman is wearing the traditional Sindhi dress - frock-like kurta and loose, flapping trouser-pajamas. It is beautifully embroidered. Three Bohri women. Someone wears a dupatta with Fulkaari work on it - it's just coming back into fashion, but this is the real thing, probably made by hand. And it probably came with the woman's dowry, twenty-five years ago.

The men's clothes intrigue me too. One man is wearing an Aligarh-style sherwani (In Delhi, in May?!) . A bunch of them are definitely Afghani - shaven heads, pointy ears, mid-length beards, carefully combed... definitely Afghani. A couple of Khomeini-style caps. A few sardarjis.

And that one is definitely a tribesman from Pakistan - Baluchistani? - with that short Pathan suit and hand-woven headcloth. He reminds me of the Giant in Jack-and-the-beanstalk, with a reddish beard, and unruly hair. I am siezed by a childish desire to pull his hair. But he isn't smiling, and looks strong enough to break me in half, without having to try.

With the heat, differences melt.

All of us cover our heads and murmur about how awful to have only two officials sitting there, only between 8.30 and 11.30 am
("Why can't they hire a few more people to deal with the flood of visa applications?"
"Because they don't want to give so many visas, silly!"
"Then why don't they say so?"
"It must be like this in the Indian embassy in Pakistan, isn't it?"
"God watches over us. We all suffer.")

All the women abandon small, irritable children to their own devices - spanking and soothing, by turns. All the children want ice-creams. All of us want to sit down.

I've been in the sun nearly five hours; it is getting harder by the minute. And all of it seems so stupid to me. I begin to fret, "They know people will be standing out in the sun for ages. Why can't they make some provision? What sort of system is this? Who makes these systems? Why can't we have an open border? When will we have the visa-on-arrival system?"

And, as I always do when I'm frustrated and tired, I begin to wonder what the system would've been like if it was created by women.

What sort of world would it be, if run by women? What sort of governments? What foreign policies? What kind of visa process? What institutions? What shape of buildings? What weapons? What wars would we fight? How? What would God be like, then? And what would be the meaning of duty and sisterhood and motherhood and marriage?

But it is too hot to think about the answers.
It is too hot to think.

I am about to sit, when an Indian guard (or is it a cop?), in khaki, comes up to us - a long tilak on his forehead, wielding a lathi. He asks everyone to stand up.

The men do so. The women stay put.

The Gorakhpuri has a sharp tongue. "And why should we get up?"

Tilak-in-khaki threatens her with the stick. "You aren't allowed to sit here. Get up."

Gorakhpuri wouldn't get up. "What's it to you?"

Tilak-in-Khaki looks helpless. "It's the rule. You have to be in a queue."

Bihari pipes up, "We are in queue. Our places are being kept for us."

She is joined by Gujarati and a couple of Burqas. All very pointedly, firmly, sit down.

The guard turns to those of us who are still standing. We all nod: Yes, we're keeping their places for them.

Tilak-in-Khaki is angry but doesn't know what to do. So he leaves, beckonging to two women-in-khaki. The women-in-khaki float about but do not disturb anyone. One woman-in-khaki floats across the street, and leans on the wire-fence outside the Australian embassy. She begins flirting with the good-looking guard...

I want to sit down, but I notice that two old women have crept close, sitting there because my shadow protects them from the sun. I do not sit down after all...
and though it is too hot to think, perhaps, I am beginning to see some of the answers.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Punjab - 3

Often, on this trip, I have been introduced to people as: "Saddi Annie... intelligent kudi"

This was usually said in a tone of wonder - as if I were a circus animal performing a particularly clever trick. As if I was a rare butterfly - that thing, the intelligent girl... ever seen one?

This happened so often that I began to wonder whether Punjab really had such a dearth of women they could be proud of? And then I remembered... what women? The child sex ration in Punjab is as low as 793.

------ ----------- -------------

Later, I was introduced to this generous lady who invited me into her home. When she went to lie down in another room, she handed me control of the remote, saying "Watch TV."

I quietly picked up a book and switched off the television.

The lady saw this, and frowning with worry, she asked, "Are you getting bored?"

I said, "Of course not. Why?"

"You aren't watching TV?"

I said, "No, I'm reading."

"Oh... you're intelligent..."

Later, when I did get around to watching TV - some very raunchy remix videos on 'etc' - the lady comes into the room, looks at me, looks at the television, takes hold of the remote control, switches to Discovery, and leaves me to watch my 'intelligent' channel.

I tell you, it's no fun being an intelligent kudi.

------- ------------- --------------

In Samrala, where I'd gone to visit Lal Singh 'Dil', the great revolutionary poet in Punjab, his neice dropped in to see me.

Word had spread like wildfire, in the whole mohalla, that a young girl from Delhi was in town. First the women of his family, then their daughters, then the neighbours and then the neighbour's friends... all of them peeped in to look at me.

Once, when Dil was too drunk to talk cohorently, I slipped downstairs to talk to his neice, Kuljeet. A pretty girl with smooth wheat-cheeks and a slim, compact body, her only negatives seemed to be a restless high-pitched voice and a sulky mouth.

She took my hands in hers and said, "Take me with you."

"What? Where?" I asked, bemused.

"Anywhere. With you. I want to do something other than sit at home... take me to Delhi."

"But what will you do in Delhi? I work."

"I'll sit and talk to you. Can't you hire me as your assistant? I want to see the world."

I smiled and shook my head, no.

I tried explaining to her that she needed to do something with her own life, here.
She said, "I thought of nursing... but there isn't enough money for the course fees."

It turned out that Kuljeet had dropped out of degree college, after the second year. She had fallen sick during the final exams and then, had simply lost the motivation to continue. She's done some embroidery and sewing courses, but was sick of them.

"But that won't do at all." I scolded. "You MUST finish your degree. Then you can get a good job. You could begin right here, or go to Ludhiyana. You could teach, study further, work with an NGO, join a Punjabi newspaper..."

She said, "I don't want to study. My parents keep asking me to finish my third year. But what happens then? They will just make me sit at home. Why bother?"

I said, "You must try, at any rate. The degree will be the first step."

But Kuljeet's eyes had already dulled. She smiled vaguely. I was already feeling guilty, as if, after letting her see how it was to be free, like a bird, I had clipped her wings.
I couldn't take her with me. I knew I couldn't stop her family from imposing its will on hers, either. I couldn't do anything for her, except tell her to fight back.

I said, "Kuljeet, it's never easy for girls. Even for me, it wasn't all smooth. One step at a time... One freedom at a time... one battle a year."

She bowed her head; we sat silent, a long time.

Then she finally said, "If I call you, will you remember me?"

I said, yes, I would.

"And will you invite me to your wedding? I want to look at you when you're a bride."

I said, yes, I would.

And then, we said goodbye.

Punjab -2

I forgot to add this in my last post, but it was the thing that surprised me most.

You get better Punjabi food outside Punjab!

I'm not kidding and I'm sure the true-blue punjabi puttar wants to lynch me right now, but fact is fact: I've had better rajma-chawal, better chhole-kulche, better stuffed parathas and curds, better maa-ki-daal elsewhere.

[PS - If you're a paratha person, and if you're in Ajmer, go to JaiHind restaurant somewhere near the market opposite the station. Ask for Gobi/Mooli (both, preferably) parathas, with yogurt lightly sprinkled with whole zeera, roasted. Assuming the old kitchen hands haven't quit... I would have said, it's the best paratha outside of Punjab... but now, I know better.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

In Punjab - 1

All I'd seen of Punjab, until a week ago, was the city of Chandigarh (and then, all I had seen of it was the rock garden, and a dharamshaala, where I tried taking a bath after 8 'no bath' days of trekking, but the water ran dry in the taps....)

My ideas about Punjab were mostly gleaned from media of some sort - news about big farmers and low sex ratios, books about the green revolution, Daler Mehndi's pop-bhangra on television and Bollywood with her images of romance in mustard fields, with a 'Mehndi lagaa ke rakhna' kind of gusto.

The real Punjab came as a mild shock. Where were the lungis and the paranda-swinging kudiyaa.n? Where were the arrogant sardars with big lathis and hearty guffaws? Where were the achingly beautiful mustard fields?

Here are some of the things I discovered:

It is NOT the most lush farm-land in the country.
Not by the looks of it, at least. I've seen more green meadows in Lonavla, more trees in Mussourie, more forest in Madhya Pradesh and more mustard in Bihar. And maybe I'm biased, but I think the prettiest farms belong to eastern UP (of all the states I've seen so far, it's my favourite... mustard fields, wheat fields, rice fields, haystacks, cottages, pumpkins, soothing green, and the rich, rich earth.)
There were stretches so dry and barren that they forced me to remember that this was once a harsh land. Harsh enough to give us Bulle Shah's harsh words, and the kind of desperation that would have led to mutiny, murder and mass migration, through it's long history. The kind of desperation that drove more than 300 debt-ridden farmers to suicide.

It doesn't have so much of the 'Harrrippaa!!' culture, after all.
I'd thought the people would be loud. Over-fond of their food and drink... But the average Punjabi was soft-spoken, even shy. Many people were thin. Many were vegetarian! The girls were not made up, nor strung about with jewellry, as I'd expected. All the flashiness, the loudness - it belongs to the Punjabi in Delhi, or Chandigarh, perhaps.
And many were into reading literature, including poetry. Incidentally, many a regional publisher and writer-in-the-making turns up a snub nose at Shobha De. "That! That is not literature; that's... that's...ahem! We don't care how popular that kind of work is; we don't publish those books over here."

Daler Mehndi is forgiven. Almost.
Because he has a 'classical base', the musically-inclined Punjabis find it in their hearts to forgive him. He was, however, described as a 'jiggling tandoor'. (I am not lying!)
Rabbi Shergill is not forgiven. He is accused of using Bulle Shah's words and killing them with his 'Oye, non-sense!' rhythm.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is revered. Someone described the lowest note struck by Nusratsaab thus:"That 'saaa' of his... that 'saa' weighs a quintal!"

There are many drug addicts in the Doab region.
Much narcotic-laden young blood. Even in the villages, where money flows but not as easily as one would imagine. Many, many chemical-dulled eyes look at nothing, because nothing makes sense anymore, or nothing brings hope or solace.
It is one of the most worrying trends for both the police and the state's activists. One of the latter tells me "What do you expect? There's no vision. There is no work. And there is a lot unearned NRI money flowing in. And a lot of narcotics too."

Again, the 'Bhaiya-Bihari' madness...
Everywhere I went, I heard "There are many UP-Bihar people here now... cheap labour". Always with a hint of resentment. Always with a blind eye to history.
Never 'desperate labour'. Never 'we need the labour'. Never a word about the fact the Punjabi contractor and landowner builds ugly, cramped, unhygeinic buildings for these poor labourers AND charges rent for it.
Always, 'These outsiders... cheap labour."
For there are no jobs for those Punjabis who will no longer become the cheap labour they need. So, many must live off money sent by brothers or uncles working abroad. And they resent it. Scary situation. Explosive situation.

Jalandhar has culture. And newspapers.
Not the capital, Amritsar, but Jalandhar. Here, they have dozens of newspapers (I'm told, the combined circulation of Punjabi newspapers is at least ten lakhs. There are about 15 literary magazines.... can you beat that? And dozens of publishing houses). Here they have big libraries; and sensitive poets, and writers from the villages.
Close by, in Ludhiyana, you have the Punjabi Sahitya Academy. And night-long theatre festivals (8 pm to 5 am!!) that not even Delhi or Bombay can boast of. And yes, people turn up to watch.

The IB has their Godmen
The Intelligence Bureau hires local 'saints' or 'holy men' or 'swamis'. The IB is known to offer cars, arms and bodyguards to holy men, cutting across all religious barriers, and use them as spies or informers. Those who have skeletons in their cupboards would to do well to guard their tongues.

Kabir, and not Guru Nanak, should be considered the real founder of Sikhism.
Some intellectuals say that Nanak had all his teaching from Kabir.
I was told "The same things Kabir says, but in a diluted version... and these Sikh Gurus were politicians; not real saints at all. Gobind Singh lived like a king - many women, feathered turban, hawking, hunting and fine horses - and he even tampered with the Adi Granth. He wanted to alienate the sikhs from the muslim mughals, but not from the Hindu kings, and so he got the critical anti-Hinduism parts of the holy book removed, and cut it down to what we now recognize as the 'Granth Sahib'."
Hmmm... (I didn't say that; I'm just quoting.)

The Turks brought us our charkha.
Gandhiji used the charkha (spindle) as a political symbol and a rallying force - as a tool and a weapon. And he got his point across. But the charkha, I now learn, is not Indian in origin.
The Turks brought the charkha to India, via Baghdad, through the Khyber pass and the old trade routes. The charkha revolutionized the economy of the Punjab (which then stretched from Rawalpindi in Pakistan, to what is now Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, right down to the borders of Delhi). It gave India new professionals (weavers, dyers, printers, tailors). It gave India a reputation for fine cloth and gave the women a little more independence.

Then, the British brought their machine-made cloth, looking for a dumping market. And there went all the charkhas and all the weavers. I never heard this while reading about Hastings in school history (WHAT are the texts' authors doing?!), but it seems (sir) Warren Hastings was dragged to court in Britain, for his policies, which led to an unforgiveable scale of destruction, amongst the weavers.
The case dragged on for ten long years, but the magistrate finally said something like "you have caused the earth of Sialkot to turn white with the bones of the weavers".

It is said that most weavers were beaten up. Some had their fingers cut off (especially the ones who wove fine muslin in Dhaka). Some simply, slowly, starved to death.

For when you take away a man's livelihood, his means of work and the right to work, you take away his breath. You might as well cut off his hands. You might as well hang him. It would be quicker, and kinder.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Automaton - 3

I have cribbed, time and again, about auto-drivers in Delhi, but finally, one of the tribe has redeemed the clan.

I was on my way to the Caferati read-meet, in Defence Colony, which is exactly five minutes from my new place. I hopped into an auto; the driver - for once, somebody who neither haggled nor leched nor insulted - asked me for directions, since he didn't know the way himself. I received directions over the phone and told the driver to look out for a petrol pump on his left.

It so happened that we never saw any petrol pump on the left. So the guy just kept going straight. We went ALL the way over two sets of flyovers, and I found myself in Lodi Road, which I only became conscious of when I saw the India International Centre building.

I let out a yell and scolded the driver, "Where the hell do you think you're going? This is Lodi Road!! Defence Colony was... was... well, way back... back there."

He turned around and very politely said, "But madam; we still haven't seen that petrol pump."

It was only now that I noticed him really - soft-spoken, an almost educated accent, a grey uniform and clouded dark eyes, gentle and downcast.

I cleared my throat and said, stiffly, "Well, you'll just have to turn back now." while trying very hard to not sound like I was completely lost.

The guy turned right back, brought us back to the point we'd started from, drew up near a matronly lady and suggested, "Maybe we should ask, madam?"

So, I stepped out and did ask. The driver listened quietly to the directions, followed them very precisely, managed to get me to Defence Colony, took the various twists and turns we had to take, because I had forgotten the house, yet again, stopping to ask for directions every hundred yards.

By this time, I was just grateul to have reached the place, and was willing to pay up any amount quoted; after all, the fault was mine.

And when I finally asked him how much I should pay him, the driver shrugged and said, "As much as you think fit."

I persisted, "But still.. I don't know how much to pay, since we weren't using the meter."

He shrugged again, "You decide."

So, I paid him double the sum we'd agreed on, and did so happily, without gruding him a single paisa, and to hell with the meter. Without argument, he accepted, and left.

I do have to rant against buses, though.

All morning, I've been cursing the bus conductor who did not return my change. I had handed him a hundred rupee note and he told me to wait for the change. I waited half an hour, but the change wasn't forthcoming. In the subsequent rush to get off the bus, I forgot to ask for it too. My fault, I suppose. But even so...

I am suspicious because this isn't the first time. Many a bus conductor in Delhi 'forgets' to return my change. Curiously, I've yet to meet a bus conductor who forgets to charge me. Or any other passenger. Their memories (to give the devils their due) are razor-sharp.

They remember precisely which passenger got a ticket made (that is the term - though I've never understood it... tickets are always 'made' or 'cut' in Delhi; though actually, they should be 'torn') for which destination - who gets on at what stop, and buys what ticket, and must get off where, and how much extra must be paid because you forgot to get off at your own stop - they remember EVERYTHING.

Except, how much they owe you. That, they often forget.
Tweets by @anniezaidi