Friday, September 30, 2005

The realm of the brew

Having spent four days in Chhattisgarh, doing what I do - consuming substantial quantities of chai - I realise what a grave mistake it is to give up control in the realm of the brew.

Chai is not the sort of thing you drink because it is a nice brew with many variations on the theme, and you're fond of it. Or because it helps you relax. Or because you need a caffeine fix. Or because you're socializing politely amongst people who don't drink.

No... chai just is a bit of you. Like blood. Or, like a steel rod fixed somewhere between your joints. It gets internalised, as gradually as bone and ligament, as inevitably. It becomes a large part of you, and you get so used to it, you can no longer function without it.

Chai is personal, intensely so. As personal as touch, and you feel as bereft and vulnerable without it as you would without your underclothes. Very few people can quite make it so it exactly fits your gut, your tongue. Very few people even realise what they're doing wrong when they're making it. And you can guide them but you cannot imbue them with your gastronomic sensibility. Their hands will often err on this side of sweet or that side of milky.

Such is my take on chai.
And for me to get bad chai - day after day, morning after night, theme after varied theme, in office after office, on railway station after station - is a relentless assault upon all five senses, which I bravely endured, for three days, without a word of complaint. But when I began to feel like there was a thick powdery-solid layer of milky chai drying itself on the back of my tongue, my resolve died. On the night of the third day, I buckled and asked the hotel to send up some hot water in a flask, tea bags and cubed sugar.

But my travails were yet to end. Room Service mixed up orders, and sent me milky tea instead. And, for the first time in my life, I SENT IT BACK to the kitchen. Never before have I summoned a waiter, induced just the right amount of icy disapproval and restrained irritation into my voice and said, "Take this away, please!"

And having said all this, I apologize.

Sorry, Rajdhani train.
I like your chai.
I like the little satchets of everything and the flasks of boiling (give or take 35 degrees C) water.
I like being able to hold my tray on my lap, a cup held awkwardly between my knees. I like being able to use only half a satchet of sugar and perhaps no milk powder at all. I like tea when it is weak, suggestively sweet-bitter. I like being in control.

I promise you, Rajdhani train, I will never EVER complain, even when my knees get scalded. Just don't give up on the flasks, please.

Skirts, skin and tarnished images

A few days ago, I read a column by Pamela Philipose where she says "we confront one of the most assiduously cultivated fears in traditional societies: the fear of female sexuality as a potential destabiliser of ways of life and social hierarchies — not least those governing men and women. The fear is an old and familiar one and is especially associated with unattached women...."

It got me thinking. What, really, is it about short skirts and culture?

Have we forgotten our own culture so completely? Are we really so out of tune the reality of what comprises India? I'm thinking of the adivasi women in Bastar, right now. They wear one short piece of cloth round the waist and another thrown round the shoulder. When they work in the fields, the upper cloth is thrown off entirely. When they carry babies, another bit of cloth is added, as a sort of sling.

Not that I didn't look at them. In all honesty, I did notice their bodies - the deep-brown skin, the bare breast, the stringy calves. But I found myself looking at them in a more whole, a more integral, sort of way. I looked at withered wrinkled skin. I looked at young, supply skin. I saw grey hair. I saw toothy smile. I saw a breast. I saw swollen stomach. And I found I could not look at them as objects - I could not longer look at parts of the body without looking at the whole woman.

Or man. Because the men also wore only a single short piece of cloth round the waist. And after a while, you stopped looking at the fact that so much skin was visible. You only saw the worry in the eyes, the lines on the forehead.

Of course, it is also true that they more they are exposed to life outside the forests, the more ashamed they seem to be of their bodies. The women have begun to wear blouses under their two bits of cloth. Some even wear full-length sarees. Nylon, invariably - cheap and entirely unsuitable for the weather. As you drive closer to urban centres, you find the women covering up more and more, some of them even covering their heads and hinding their faces when they talk to you.

The sight always leaves me incredibly sad.

How is it that we can undo, or try to, everything that represents colonial slavishness, except when it comes to our minds and our ideas of morality?
We change street names, city names, institution names. Why can we not go back to dressing the way we did in pre-british times? Why is it that we never, ever, hear a politician stand up and demand that women stop wearing petticoats under their sarees, since that is what 'Indian' culture dictated? How is it that school uniforms are never cotton kurtas, especially for boys? Why are we so afraid of being, and appearing, 'native'?


And just when I'd fimished fuming about Sania Mirza and her silly talk of forgiveness for short skirts (I could tell her that 'Allah' doesn't care. He/She made her pretty much nude, and didn't blindfold Himself, while doing so... like the song goes, "Pardah nahin jab koi khudaa se, bando.n se pardah karna kya?"), I come across this Khushboo controversy.

Poor Woman.
All she did was say (according to reports) that pre-marital sex was okay 'provided safety measures are followed to prevent pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases' and that 'No educated man today would expect his wife to be a virgin.'

And for this, they burn effigies, and file lawsuits?

According to the report, "The women's wing of PMK, an ally of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, filed a civil suit in a metropolitan magistrate's court seeking action against the actress under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.... 'Khushboo has tarnished the image of Tamil women, making them hang their heads in shame,' the wing's central Chennai district leader Deepam Jaikumar said."

Right now, it is I who am hanging my head in shame on behalf of all the women of this country who are watching this happen and not daring to say "But of course! We agree with Khushboo".
On the other hand, I'm not feeling too sympathetic towards Khushboo either. Who asked the silly woman to go crying and apologizing on television? If she has the guts to feel something, she should have the guts to stand by it. If she - with her money, her police protection and her ability to get people to listen - gets cowed down this once, so will all those other Tamil women who agree with her. And I can bet there are a whole lot of them out there.

Speak up, you!


Speaking of tarnished images, here's some more furrowed brows on that account.

Stupid, stupid people. Did they think the dance-bar-ban would really settle down quietly, like so much dust?

Morena and the modi*

On our way to the villages in Morena's rural regions, I muse, "Six lakhs each, eh? Multiplied by seven. Are the stakes that high in this sonography game? And how much more must the doctors be making? I mean, the village people can't afford that much, can they?"

"They can't. Not any more. But earlier, the sheer volumes made up for low prices. Rs 2000 was the going rate for revealing the sex of the foetus. The landed farmers could afford that much."

"And now?"

"Now, the business is shifting towards Agra, Gwalior, even Bhind. But the rates are higher there. Maybe Rs 5000. Maybe more. At least, rural folk think twice about gettign a test done - the travel, lodging and boarding expenses to and fro, the tests, the bribes... often, they get a sonography done in bigger cities and come back to Morena's small government hospitals to get an abortion. It works out cheaper."

"And those who can't afford it?"

"The very poor anyway don't bother. Also, the poorer ones are often lower caste or tribal. They don't mind having daughters."


She explains, "Some of the lower castes here are not so much into dowry. And even if they are, marriage is not sacrosanct, nor a one-time affair. If, for instance, the bride's parents find out that the girl is being mistreated, they will bring her back home, and soon set her up with someone else. That way, the girl's got more of a chance at surviving, even after birth."

"And dowry rates? For the average person, not very highly educated, let's say."

She says, "Guess."

I can't imagine, but I venture a number, anyway. "10 lakhs?"

"Haha! No, more like 35 lakhs in the city. For the average guy. For an IAS, or a doctor, don't even ask."

I don't ask. I don't want to know.
But the math begins to fall into place.

Later, in the village, I ask a woman why she is not educating all her daughters. She is barely forty, has seven daughters, of whom one has been given up for adoption. There would have been ten, but three girls were aborted.

She says, "5 lakhs, if the girl is illiterate. But if you educate her, you have to give more. How much can I give?"

I look at six of her seven daughters. The youngest is a newborn babe, flies buzzing around an open eye-wound. The eldest is about sixteen, combing out her hair because I'm going to take photographs. If she were a boy, she'd have been out with her father, handling the bullocks, managing the fields. I ask her if she will become a farmer, and spare her mother any future attempts to have boys. She lowers her head and does not reply.

Dowry means she will not study. Which means she cannot manage her own land easily. Which means she must be married off to somebody else. Which means she needs a dowry. Which means she had better stay uneducated. Which means...

I look at her little sister, who is about ten, and still attends school. I mumur, "At least, one... you will study, won't you? At least, one of you?"

She grins, not understanding.

I tell myself, maybe she will, after all.

[* Modi, in the Morena dialect, means girl]

The honourable Rustom Singh-ji of Morena

Did I ever mention my pursuit of the honourable Mr Rustom Singh, MLA, state minister for health, ex-cop and self-acknowledged polygot - or at least, bi-got (I really didn't intend the pun... no really, I swear), wearer of berets and moustaches?

So, there I was, at about 6 pm, in Morena, waiting for a chance to speak to the honourable state (cabinet) minister of public health, who happens to be in the town, which is also his constituency.

He is sitting in the front row of the pandal, waiting to ascend to the stage, along with some fifteen other gentlemen - local heavyweights all - at a function organised by the Nav Yug Manhar Gware Vaishya Maharaj Mahasen Samaj (okay, so I might have got the order of the words wrong, but I swear all these words stood, juxtaposed with themselves, up on the banner above Mr Rustam Singh's head).

And I am listening to the doyens of the Gware samaj buzz about business against a backdrop of hit-filmi sangeet, while watching the little cherubs of the Gware samaj dancing to win prizes in a freestyle, pop-sy dance competition, to an audience of semi-silk rustles of the semi-ghoonghat-bearing matrons of the Gware samaj, trying to ignore the persistently-consistently booming voice of the Gware Samaj emcee.

Just below the stage, four men stood with long wooden poles on their shoulders, strung with hundreds of marigold garlands.

The emcee invites, one by heavyweighted-named one representative of the Gware Samaj, up on the 'stayz' , to garland the honorable Rustom Singh-ji, MLA. (He broke the monotony by ordering some others to honour the slightly-less-honourable-but-equally-garland-worthy Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji, rival politician from the same constituency).

First, Mr ABC-ji, local doctor, was invited, to marigold-garland Rustom Singh-ji. Then Mr BCD-ji, local marble-quarry owner, was invited, to marigold-garland Gajaraj Singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr CDE-ji, local independent-candidate-who-lost-the-election, was invited to garland both Rustom Singh-ji and Gajaraj singh Sikarwal-ji. Then Mr DEF-ji was invited.....

This went on. And on. And on.

The emcee enthusiastically goaded spectators - mostly restless children wearing lipstick and rustling mothers impatient to watch their children perform - to 'Hands Together!' for ABC or PQR personage, and "Swaagat kariye".

The emcee took a two-minute break from coordinating the 'swagat' brigade, to allow a lamp to be lit in front of the photograph of Maharaj Mahasen, who was also garlanded in marigold, incidentally. Then, everyone went back to their seats, and the marigolden-swaagat recommenced.

A sole note of confusion crept into the proceedings, when Mr GHI who was supposed to garland an old freedom fighter also sitting on the stage, ended up garlanding Rustam Singh-ji instead. Poor Mr emcee could only mutter, between the marathon garlanding: "Oh? Er... yes, yes. Aap bhi stayz pe aaiye. Swaagat! (you're also welcome.)"

With a morbid kind of fascination, I stayed tuned in.

I have never seen so much marigold, barring weddings. I never never seen 'swaagat' on this scale. Such endurance, such enthusiasm for garlanding political necks, such a lengthy list of 'community-leaders', I have never seen!

When the Mr A-Zs of the Gware samaj were run through, the emcee began inviting the Mrs ABCs of the community. However, there were much fewer women being invited up on the 'stayz'.

Then, it was the turn of the local boys - 'the youngster generation' - to take up the baton of this marigold marathon.

Finally, the emcee invited honorable mantri-ji to speak, thus: "Not a sound. I tell you, not a sound out of you all! The honourable mantri-ji will speak now."

The mantri-ji returned his compliments, by beginning his speech, thus:
"First of all, I want to admire the compere. He is truly, really, totally charming. His voice is so attractive. He is so natural. His English is wonderful... and I am impressed; you see, I speak both English and Hindi myself. I am impressed at his English. So wonderful. He is a truly attractive compere... what is your name, young man? Ah! I must congratulate the Gware community for having produced such wonderful younger generation...."

I was rather impressed myself, but I began to tune out.

Another, much more interesting conversation is happening at my shoulder. A young boy is shaking hands with my companion, a local activist working to counter female foeticide in the region.

He tells her, "Didi, you're doing good work. These people... they deserved it."

He is referring to the local campaign against doctors who perform sonography tests, without finishing the accompanying legalities. I discover that the boy is a cousin of a local radiologist, one whose clinic was on the blacklist, and whose license had been temporarily suspended, that is, until honourable Rustam Singh-ji took over the state public health portfolio. (My report, here and here).

The activist asks, "Is it true that the clinics had to pay up to get their licenses back?"

The boy shrugged, "6 lakhs. Pakki baat hai (it's a certainty)."

"All pooled in?"

"Hah! 6 lakhs each!"

"And it went to?"

The boy smiled a slow smile and nodded at the stage, where the honorable minister was poking public fun at his fellow-garlanded heavyweights, the ones who lost the last election, at any rate.


I wait to meet the honourable minister.
He has told me that he will speak to me after the Gware samaj function. After the function, he tells me he will speak to me after the dinner. After his dinner, he tells me he will speak to me after he has visited a colleague.

I wait for him at the circuit-house, hoping that he will eventually return here., before going back to Bhopal.

9 pm. I wait. 9.30 pm, I wait. 10 pm. I wait. 10.30 pm, I wait.

And then, a flash of whirring red-light topped ambassadors and the screech of tyres. Armed bodyguards and circuit-house karmchaaris rushing to put on their white caps, and bend their heads, by way of swaagat.

He doesn't arrive alone. There are at least 30-35 men with him. I sit my ground. I mean, a white-linen covered sofa. I'm not going away, I firmly decide.

After bantering with half the crowd, accepting compliments and flowers, turning down a marriage invitation and blessing those who touch his feet with a half-wave of the hand, he turns to me.

"Yes, madam?"

The honourable Ruston Singh speaks to me in English (sort of), throughout, despite my attempts at switching to Hindi, to spare both of us our individual linguistic pains.

When I ask a particularly uncomfortable question, he says, "I am only speaking to you in English because you're from Delhi. You Delhi people - you are all English. You see, I am equally comfortable in both languages. English and Hindi. I can even speak in our Morena-dialect. But you will not understand our moda-modi language."

I assure him, I will. Then, I add, "Actually, I'd prefer it if you speak in Hindi."

He leans back into the sofa, sighs with relief and promptly does so.

I promptly ask him more uncomfortable questions. Like how it was that the sonography-equipped clinics got back their licenses after he took over the public health portfolio in the state.

He denies it. "As a matter of fact, the licenses were suspended only when I took over. I master-minded the raids you see. You think the administration could do anything without my wanting it to?"

The activist accompanying me points out that the dates don't quite correspond - the raids happened, the licenses got cancelled, he took over as state health minister, pleas were filed, the directorate of health reinstated the licenses.... in that order.

At this point, the honourable Rustam Singh-ji lost his temper and raised his voice, all the while continuing to bless, with a half-wave, those who continued to touch his feet. "You know nothing! What do you know about Morena?....... But I have given you enough time. I have other things to do."

While another devotee dived towards his feet, the mantri-ji stood up, adjusted his beret, and stalked off into the cool recesses of the circuit-house.

I remain seated on the white-linen covered sofa, taking notes furiously. Taking down every single word.
[Cont, in the next post]

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


I have new links (see right panel).

Suhail, Quizman, R. and Anand were long overdue.

V and R are new bloggers, but old friends. Biddin' ye welcome, Ladies.

And I have bloglines.
Though I like visiting each blogger's url individually, as a sort of profound ritual, there are finally too many blogs and too little time.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sleepy, sleepy Noida

It is a hot Sunday afternoon in Noida's Sector 62.

I am dropping off, in a cab, while my friend J waits for a real-estate broker to turn up and show us some rented accomodation.

The ATM, the lone one visible for miles around - a mildly disconcerting phenomena in modern ATM-every-100-yards-cities - is sleepy.
The dusty road is sleepy.
The half-constructed buildings are sleepy.
The play-school - daringly painted in blues, reds, yellows (?) and whites - is a sleepy reminder of where our country's future architects and dress designers acquire their unforgiveable aesthetics.

The homes across the half-mile wide roads look more dead than sleepy. Not a child plays. Not a bird sings. A leaf moves, reluctantly, goaded by a sleepy breeze. No cabs, no autos zip past. One cycle-rickshaw trundles past, on an average, every half hour. A zigzagging row of sleepy buffaloes trudges past.

I am, understandably, sleepy.
J is, understandably, depressed.
"You could commute...?"
"Need a car."
"Could buy."
"Need money... have loans."

Now, I'm mildly depressed too.
No car, no money. No broker in sight and no access to the happening malls we'd heard so much about.

Suddenly, J begins to count - '2, 4, 6, 8... that's 50 grand.'

I say, "What?"
"50,000 rupees... on the road."
I stare, then roll down the windows and stare harder. "Where?"

She nods at the row of ambling buffaloes, "Amit Varm'a post on the cost of buffaloes, remember?" (For the life of me, I cannot locate that link, despite an hour of googling. Amit, help?)

As I try to picture us - stealing buffaloes, a young cowherd, brandishing a lathi, in hot pursuit, while we try dragging the beasts to the nearest car showroom, attempting to exchange our loot for a second-hand Maruti....
we collapse into giggles.

Two of the buffaloes turn to us and amble over. J squeals, "roll up the window, roll up the window."
I don't. "Maybe they overheard, and are coming over to negotiate a deal."

We giggle louder.

If I wasn't giggling, I'd have described the vision in my mind - in glassy, air-conditioned splendour, these dark beauties regally wallowing in a specially-crafted mud-pond. But we couldn't stop giggling.

And then, the sleepy Sunday afternoon in Noida is not so sleepy after all.

Monday, September 19, 2005

'Other persuations' and the girl child

I was doing some background research for an article, and came up with the following snippet from First Report on Religion Data (collected during the 2001 Census):

Of India 's total population, seven years old and above, 64.8% are literate... Christians, at 80.3%, and Buddhists, at 72.7%, follow the Jains in literacy rates. The lowest literacy rates are among people of 'other religions and persuasions', at 47%.

States such as Punjab , Haryana and Gujarat depict a distinct bias against the girl-child regardless of religious affiliation.

Similarly, religion seems to have little effect on attitudes towards women. Christians down south have a better sex ratio - so do Hindus and Muslims. But the Christians in Punjab have a shamefully low child sex ratio ratio of 870 girls /1,000 boys .

Surprisingly, this 'other persuations' category of people, i.e. those who don't want to report their religion, records the highest child sex ratio of 976/1,000 across the country....

Interesting, no?


And, on a related note, found this through a CJP press note -

The Citizens for Justice and Peace and Women’s Centre, Mumbai have in a joint intervention application sought to become party respondents to a petition filed in the Bombay High Court challenging the constitutionality of the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Act, 2002 (14 of 2003) along with The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sec Selection) Rules, 1996.

The petition filed by one Shri Vinod Soni and his wife in early 2005, is on the grounds that as father of boys they have the fundamental right to a balanced family and therefore choose to select and conceive a female baby.
Recent media reports however have shown that the petitioner couple have admitted to not having much knowledge of the petition but had actually been asked to become petitioners by medical practioneers interested in the continuance of practices that result in the select elimination of girl babies.

Oh fie! Aren't you ashamed of yourselves, Mr and Mrs Soni!?

Friday, September 16, 2005

Not all bad

A few months ago, I was added onto the mailing list of this network in Delhi, where members, apparently, are keen on changing the system. On lowering power tariffs, and lobbying for rollbacks. On wiping out corruption. On making us all think laterally.

Now, I don't know what their politics is but I'd take bets on the fact that they're largely middle-class, if not fairly well-off. They're educated and they have net access.

I am not particularly keen on jumping into this particular fray, but I read their mails now and then, in the hope that someone may have something really interesting to say. This is what one particular gentleman recommends:

"...let us take a oath that we will stop working for system right from today.
instead of garao (sic) of politicians we should concentrate on public servants.
See the following Irony
If you are public servants not only you are taked (sic) care in your life but also after life by taking care of your family and children as well and housing and foodany (sic) thing even in most cases telephone or free electricity or railway passes as well.
but you are free man and common citizen you are not even allowed to work freely or start a school or hospital or some other scocial cause work but only hointerences (sic) in form of rules and regulation, forget the loafty Slgans Like Roti Kapara Aur MAnkan (sic) but bebare (sic) if they kew (the public servants) will come and take that away as well.
hencee (sic) start
*Scrap the constitutiom
Garao of dishonest public servants and force them to resign..."

The rest is probably an angry outburst. But 'scrap the constitution'? Where did that one come from?

Incidentally, I've found that going into a sarkaari office is not necessarily an unpleasant experience, even for the 'free man and common citizen'.

I had been postponing applying for a PAN card for some time now, and when I absolutely HAD to, I was carrying a little extra cash... I was so sure I'd have to bribe a little, or fight a little, or brandish a press card, or all three.

I got a form ready, which I stupidly filled with blue ink, though the instructions specifically mentioned 'black ink only'. The passport photograph I carried along was too large (again, stupidly ignoring instructions about getting a stamp-size). I wasn't carrying any glue, either. I didn't even know how to check the area code for my own Delhi region, and had left those sections blank.

In anticipation of stupid first-timers like me, they'd set up a desk where glue, a black pen and a razor-blade (to cut a passport photo, so it fits the relevant column) were available. A chart was pasted outside the door, to help us identify regional codes.

There were long queues; the officials accepting and stamping forms were harried and impatient, because EVERY third person would either mess up their forms, or leave them incomplete. But they kept working, and working fast, without screaming or asking for bribes.

I was sent back to fill a new form and I internally groaned, thinking the counter would shut down in fifteen minutes, since it was already 12 noon. But they officials kept working until the appointed lunch-hour, and even beyond.

To my enormous surprise, I finished the process in fifteen minutes flat. A couple of weeks later, the pan card arrived by post.... And when it did, I remember a distinct feeling of gratitude, and sheepishness, for assuming that every other sarkaari worker out there is lazy and corrupt. Mentally, I apologized.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Auto-maton 5.

There are auto-rickshaws available right outside my office building. But I am resigned to a five-minute walk before I find one that uses the meter. I refuse, barring emergencies (or when a movie is about to begin in exactly 30 minutes), to haggle with drivers.

The drivers outside office have begun to recognize me: meter-wali sawari.... I am, to them, the passenger who cannot be wooed without a meter.

Everyday, they'd ask me 'Madam, kahaan?' (madam, where?)
And everyday, I'd say, "Kahin bhi... jahannum bhi jaaon, meter se chaloongi' (Wherever I go, even if I go to hell, I'll insist on the meter)

Often, I'd lose my cool. They would say 'But we're only asking for ten rupees more.'
I'd say, 'Would you accept five rupees less? Why should I lose ten rupees, then?'

Very deliberately, I would march off, sulkily, waiting for a driver who used the meter without a fuss.

Imagine my surprise when, the day I was struggling to haggle with rick-drivers at CP, an auto brakes to a halt barely inches from my toes. A grinning driver leaned out and invited me to sit inside, while switching on his meter with a flourish. The pock-marked face (is that politically incorrect? Not meant as insensitive, but merely a description), the tiny eyes and leathery skin were familiar. It was the same man who refused to use the meter everyday, outside the office.
I smiled and thanked him.

A few days later, I found myself similarly stuck, near Mandi House. And there was Mr Grinny-Marked Face, again to my rescue. Since then, he's become like my commute-knight. I see him and I know I won't have to haggle.

Last week, I hailed him, but he was busy chatting up a friend, over chai. Nevertheless, he took me to another auto-driver and sternly told the latter, "Daily ki sawari hain. Meter se...' (She's a daily passenger. Use the meter.)

On Saturday, I was forced to haggle again. It was late at night and Mr Grinny-Marked Face was nowhere to be seen. So, I argued, I marched off, I came back, I haggled. But ultimately, I gave in, taking the only auto available. Just as the auto swung away, I noticed a very visibly angry Mr Grinny-Marked Face stamping behind us.

And I am hoping that my commute-knight will give his biradari-brethren a sound verbal lashing on behalf of the 'daily ki sawari'.

Auto-maton 1, 2, 3, 4

Of darzis and the mohalla

Last week, for the first time since I arrived here, I saw why Bombayiites insist that Delhi is a small town gone crazy.

Never in Bombay, for instance, would a neighbourhood darzi (tailor) take the liberty of slapping my shoulder hard, lightly clouting me on the head and scolding, “You talk too much, girl!”

Yes, yes, such things still happen in Delhi.

Master-saab of Islam Master Tailors seems to have decided that, by virtue of having measured me, made me two kurtas, ruined one of them and lightened my purse by some six hundred rupees, he has acquired the right to treat me like a naughty niece, who might have played on his knee when she was in diapers.

The thing is, whenever he sees me, I am busy chatting on the phone. Anywhere else, he'd wait for me to finish my (rather long) conversation, like all polite, mind-their-own-business clothing-professionals in big cities.

But not Islam Master-Tailor’s master-saab.

He took the liberty of whacking the back of my head and scolding me for being glued to the phone like it were a lifesaver. Not once, not twice, but three times.

Then he took the liberty of asking me who I was, who my father was, where we belonged, where that town was, why I didn’t live there, why I lived away from the family and ‘Oh, that explains why you’re always on the phone, poor thing!’

This gentleman is an old guy with a big white beard, white cap, Aligarhi pajamas (the very loose kind that hover a safe six inches above the feet).

He is the ‘tailor-master’, as opposed to mere tailor; master-saabs in north India are the guys who cut your cloth, and thereby wield tremendous power: The power of the scissors over cloth – will it flatter, will it cling, or will it be destroyed beyond redemption?

The master-saabs are also the ones who decide if you will get your new dress on time for the party, or not, whether your blouse gets precedence over that of Mrs Khanna during the Diwali rush-season or not.

Right now, instead of being offended, I find myself getting wistful, and entirely forgiving him for ruining the blue-n-white kurta, blaming myself for insisting on a western-Indian fusion design that he’d probably never seen before.

My other darzi – a much younger man who will stitch a plain kurta for a blessed Rs 70, but needs the assistance of a sample fit, most likely - is a prude. I don’t know his name yet, so I just refer to him as the padosi-prude darzi.

[He reminds me of my tailor-master from the hostel-era. He would cut a perfect fit but would always pretend to forget the measurements for necklines and hemlines. Despite my telling him I wanted eight inches of neckline, he’d never allow me more than six-and-a-half inches of bare neck, until I kept sending it back for alterations...

And then there was my friend G’s old tailor in Allahabad, who would stand a respectful three feet away while measuring her, and would not press the inch-tape close to her well-endowed bosom, never allowing his hands to touch her. As a result, all her kurtas would hang loose round the bust.]

As for my padosi-prude darzi, he ably converted a pink saree into a salwar-kurta, but it was handed to me with an admonishment – “You didn’t get a slip attached to this one?”

I mumbled, “er… not needed.”

Very sternly, he told me, “This is very transparent. You need a slip.”

I sighed, “I’ve got one at home. I’ll wear that.”

“Hmm. Please do. You can’t wear this without a slip.”

I meekly nooded, “Of course” and fled, praying that when I did put on that kurta, he’s not keeping an eye out to check for the non-existent slip.

Now, I think of how much I miss that female darzi in Munirka.

True, she never slapped my shoulder, scolded me or told me to wear slips. All she did was giggle hysterically when she realized that she’d ruined a silken shirt. She ironed the ensuing mess, in front of my own eyes, handed it back to me, and asked for eighty rupees for the favour.

Now, this is the sort of stuff that cannot happen with boutiques, with small-time fashion designers, with high-end tailors in higher-end suburbs. Not even with the elite darzis of yore, who served the nawabzadis. They were always polite, always careful not to give offence.

This is the sort of stuff that defines our small towns; the mohalla that gives you the overbearing, familiar tailor who treats you like he's got some rights over you. It gives you your darzi.

And I have learnt to love the darzi.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Empathy is about imagination.
The ability to put on someone else's shoes. The ability to be, in your own mind, somebody else. Somebody, perhaps, that you are lucky you're not.

I have been preoccupied with women. In particular, missing women. The reports of growing foeticide, especially in relatively prosperous districts, make me angry.

That it should be happen is bad enough, but what really bothers me is the thought that the mothers let it happen - that there are at least a million women out there who agreed to, if not actively opted to, kill their girls - born or unborn. Mothers who are not facing starvation-level poverty. Mothers who, possibly, were neither unmarried nor raped. Grandmothers who pushed their daughters-in-law into getting rid of granddaughters.

I fail to emphathize, because my imagination completely fails me.

I heard all the usual arguments - we're all products of a given social environment. We're all made by society. We're all blah-blah-blah. But we're all also women.

What happened?

In college, all of us - every single girl - wanted a baby girl. And I went to a very conservative college, all-girls, small-town, where we had many reasons to resent being born women. Yet, nobody wanted boys.

Some of us might have referred to baby boys as an afterthought, as something that might be nice because, well, the family/world, needed to be 'complete'... But in an either/or situation, whoever wanted boys?!
Not us!

All of us wanted somebody whose hair we could braid. Somebody who would wear little pink booties, and insist on trying out our lipsticks. Somebody who would use dupattas to play dress-up-as-mommy. Somebody who would be sassy and smart and would shake her hips to item numbers, exactly like we did. Brave replicas. Better replicas. Somebody who would give meaning to the bizarreness of human procreation.

In fact, even the men we knew wanted daughters. They wanted daughters who'd play football, wear baseball caps, drive race-cars and beat up all the boys. Nobody I have ever known really wanted anything but a daughter.

What happened?

So maybe not all women grew up like us. But I'm sure they too wanted baby-girls.
Girls who would cry if you didn't get them new party frocks. Wilful, ambitious girls who would bully, charm, weep, work their way to Head-Girl type glory.

What happened?

And I try to imagine...

Suppose you get married. Married to a man who might play happily enough with a little girl, but who don't necessarily respect the mother. Married into a family where your decisions are not your own. Married after your own family incurred huge debts. Married into fear and insecurity and the monster called 'ever after'. Married and not allowed to support your old parents.
Married and hating it.

And then, suppose, you think of a baby girl.

You think of pink booties and party frocks (but don't leave her alone with the uncle from Kanpur) and college ('but maybe she should take up home science'?) and first love ('If I see you with that boy again, I'll break both your legs'?) and the first job ('be back before dark'... 'no party-sharty after 8.'). You think of wedding costs, loans, match-makers. You think of you.

You read reports and watch television... Rape. Trafficking. Harassment. Mutilation. Acid-attacks. Honour. Bride burnings. Stoning. Veiling. Wailing.... everywhere, in every country. You think of how easily it could be your daughter's turn.

And then, perhaps, you don't want this world for her... but you don't have the courage or the means to build an alternative world where she will not live out a predestined tragedy.

And I begin to understand. I begin to see why - for all our claims of wanting baby girls so much that we've even thought of what names we're going to give them - we don't want daughters.

We don't have the courage to stand up to the 'baba-not-baby' pressure, because we don't have the courage to live our own lives... We'd rather live with the void. We'd rather stay scared, than run scared.

I understand our collective lack of courage.

For we're products of our limited-limiting environments.

We're terrified of what will happen to us if we break all the rules, and who will stand by us, and who will feed us, and who will hold us if everyone we ever knew disowns us...? We're petrified by the thought that we will not have the guts to stand by our daughters if we let them grow up as we wanted to. And we know we will not forgive ourselves if they live our lives.

I cannot yet empathize, but (God forgive me) I understand. Without forgiveness for being able to, I understand. Ridden with guilt at being able to, so easily, I understand.

Please meet...

...each other.

Those of you who are in Delhi, that is, and wish to meet each other.

There's a blogger meet happening in Delhi on Sunday, September 4, 2005.
Details available here.
I'm sure it will be a lot of fun. I may not be around myself, but will hear all about it, I hope, from those who do make it.
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