Friday, March 30, 2007

He, who ferries.

His name I know well. He repeatedly told me - Ramji - and repeatedly told me not to forget.

I'd only wanted to get away from the shore, not a guided tour. But the boatman was determined, now that he'd struck a deal, to give me the complete package. At all the ghats, each nuzzling the next, he'd tell me the name, the name of the king, queen, pundit or merchant who'd financed it. The information slipped off my ears like water off his oar.

At one point, he mentioned Narad, the mischief-making god.

'A couple should never take a dip together at this point. If they do, they're sure to fight. Narad makes sure.'

At another, he told me the whole story of Raja Harishchandra. I listened as if I hadn't heard it before.

At yet another, he stopped and ordered that I take a palmful of water and sprinkle it over my head. Every few ghats, he'd direct me to fold my hands in prayer, at the very least.

At one point, he used the phrase - 'our Hindu brothers...' and caught himself.

He asked my name. I told him.

He repeated - 'Naini, is it?' and I did not bother to correct him.

Then he wanted to know about my brother, my mother, my father, my work, was I married, why not, and why was I in a white saree?

Exhausted, I turned his questions round on him - how many years has he been a boatman, what did his father do, will his son do the same, are his daughters in school, why was the eldest married so young?

When the talk showed no signs of ceasing, I asked him to let me take one of the oars.

With no hesitation, he agreed, making space for me and spreading his red gamchha so my saree wouldn't get wet.

And finally, there was silence.

Except that he clicked his tongue impatiently each time the oar slipped from my hands, and made encouraging noises whenever it seemed like I was finally getting the hang of it. Fifteen minutes later, the wind was against us and my muscles were protesting.

'This is hard work,' I said.

He cocked his head and stopped rowing for a moment, as if thinking this over.

'Yes, I suppose it is.'

The minute I returned to my passenger status, the commentary and questions started again. He was saying something about a curse by Shiva, so that there must be an eternal pyre, some loved one turning to ashes, forever, at a certain ghat.

And he was also admonishing me.

'Didi, next time you come, you must come with Jijaji.'


'Don't wait any longer...time enough.'


'And when you come with Jijaji, make sure you ask for Deepak Maajhi. Actually, my name is Ramji, but the boat belongs to Deepak Maajhi.'


'Didi, shall I tell you something? When I first saw you, I was a little worried. Especially when you said you wanted to be alone. We get suspicious because people who want to go alone will often jump off the boat. And you... in your white saree... I thought...'

'That I wanted to commit suicide?'

'Hehe, no, but we worry. We're poor boatmen and the passenger is our responsibility.... you must not wear white... Once, there was a man - must be ten years older than you. He also wanted to go alone. I took him, and at the end, he was so pleased, he promised to buy me my own boat. He gave me a phone number and asked me to call up after six months.'

'Did you?'

'It has been only four months. I will call. My own boat will cost Rs 30,000-35,000.'

'Didi, you will not forget my name, will you? You will remember Ramji?'

'Yes, I will.'

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

He, who asks nothing

I didn't ask his name, but now, I wonder. In Benaras, this man was unusual. He was one of those who had a chance but didn't ask for my name.

It ought to be easy - anonymity in a city of millions, which also has millions of visitors, domestic and international. A city used to faces of all colours, tongues of all timbre, wardrobes of all vintage. Why should it care what I am called?

My silence is precious to me. Especially in strange places where talk is no obligation, where there are no acquaintances, when I know I must listen and talk and listen and ask and listen all through the next few days... Why should the town care what I'm called?

But in Benaras, they all ask.

Starting from the garrulous pre-paid auto-driver at the station, who wanted to know not just my name but my surname, my address, my work-place, my knowledge of Delhi's roads, my family, their names, etc. In exchange, unasked, he offered little factoids about himself - his name, the number of years he spent in Delhi, the number of siblings who live in Delhi, their addresses, their professions, his parents, his parents' sickness, his return to Benaras, the kind of car he used to drive, his philosophical take on old parents and responsibility, his kids, their exams, his plans for the summer, holidays in Delhi and Mumbai and if he can afford it, Goa.

After numbing me suitably, the auto-wala tried taking me to a different hotel. I insisted that I already had a booking.
He wanted to know how much I was going to pay per night.
I told him and he clicked his tongue and offered to get me a cheaper deal.
I protested and insisted that I had a booking.
He began to insist that I look at the alternative hotel.
I refused.
He insisted.
I pointed out that it wasn't right - to get someone to make a reservation and then not show up.

He said he'd get a commission if he brought me to the other hotel.
I refused.
He sulked.
Too bad, I thought, and went on to where a booked room awaited.

Later in the evening, at the hotel, when I expressed a desire to visit the Annapoorna temple, the travel desk summoned this rickshaw-wala.
All he said was, 'sixty rupees' and didn't speak again until we reached the place.
A constable blocked our path, saying rickshaws were not allowed into the lane. I got off and started walking, but within a minute, the rickshaw was at my side again, asking me to sit.

I asked him how he got past the cop. He told me - by paying ten rupees.

Outside the temple, he waited while I pushed through the two-way crush of the narrow Vishwanath lane and when I returned, too soon, he asked if I wanted to go to the ghats.

'I don't know... Is there anything nearby?'

He pointed towards the Ganga.

Nothing to do and a little daylight still clinging to the sky: I stepped down to the ghats and was swallowed by a sequence of cries and whispers in three languages - all offering to sell something, ask something.

I wanted to sit alone, in peace, but there seemed to be no way of escaping except into the river. A boatman beckoned; we struck a deal so that I would not have to share the boat.

The rickshaw-wala saw me go, and said nothing except that he'd be at the stand (a parking lot for cycle-rickshaws).

When I returned - having recounted my name, birth-place, family details etc to the garrulous boatman - he stood waiting at the shore.

He asked if I wanted to wait for the maha-aarti.

'Is it was worth waiting for?'

He shrugged. 'People come to see it.'

I sat down on the steps. A boy stopped by, selling tea in tiny kullads, as small as diwali diyas, for Re 1. He asked me my name. A boy of about twelve came up, selling booklets. He asked me my name. I sighed, and told him. A young man of about twenty parked himself on my right. He asked me my name. I smiled, and did not tell him.

Noticing a protective shadow hovering on my left, I turned to find the rickshaw-wala standing there, making no attempt at conversation.

I told him he could sit down if he wished. He did so.

A few minutes into the aarti, the smoke got too much for me. I stood up and followed the rickshaw-wala out to the stand and rode back in complete silence but for the rough sound of wheels rumbling over stones, through potholes, and the swishing of the pedals in the dim dusk.

Back at the hotel, I paid him almost twice the amount agreed on. He accepted with a wide smile. And did not, god bless him, ask my name.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Another book, another contest

A must-read, and a please-acquire book. And not just because I was included. These are 21 stories written by South Asian women under 40. I'm particularly kicked about the fact that this anthology breaks several stereotypes about 'women's writing'. There's a graphic short story, a detective story, an internet story, a prostitute story (except there aren't any hearts of gold), a tender killing story.... Worth reading.



Toto Funds the Arts, Delhi Chapter, invites entries for its flash fiction contest. The winner will get a cash prize of Rs. 3000 and two runners-up will be awarded Rs. 1000 each. A public event will be organized for the winners to read their stories along with an established author.

Submission Guidelines

  1. You cannot be older than 30 on June 1, 2007. Include a statement confirming your date of birth and that the story is original and unpublished.
  2. The contest is limited to young Indians residing in Delhi and NCR. No NRIs, please.
  3. Only one submission is allowed per person.
  4. The story cannot exceed 500 words.
  5. Entries can be either sent by e-mail to or by snail mail to:

    TFA Contest, D/377 2nd Floor, Defence Colony,

    New Delhi 110024.

  1. The deadline is 20 April 2007. Please mention your name and contact details separately, not on the entry itself.

Friday, March 23, 2007

She, who provides


Everything I thought it might be, it seemed to be. But who knows... I did not go out much.

Except that one evening, for someone told me that the city's patron goddess is Annapoorna - the grain provider. The goddess of food. And prosperity. But no prosperity or happiness is possible without food, after all.

And I was here to investigate hunger, after all. It was only fitting that I look up the goddess that fills bellies, for someone told me that nobody sleeps hungry in Benaras. Its holiness was built, he said, upon the hunger of those who flocked here, knowing that here, the virtous, the freshly-rid-of-sins were anxious to give.

I wanted to look up this mother-goddess. Perhaps, because it is so hard to understand what has gone wrong - has she stopped providing, she who provides?

I went prepared for security stress. It has been just over a year since the blast at the Sankat Mochan temple and anyway, you get frisked and your bags get searched almost everywhere you go, these days. So, I took nothing but some money and my phone. However, after a half-hour rickshaw ride, a ten rupee bribe to a cop (paid by the rickshaw-puller, without my knowing), and a fifteen minute walk down the narrow Vishwanath lane and reaching the entrance, the police said - 'Phones not allowed'.

And suddenly, the desire to see her was gone. Annapoorna, I'm sure, would understand.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A book, a book!

Finally, it's out there.

Update: It is definitely available in Landmark bookstore, Gurgaon (and in Chennai and Mumbai, I hear). I spotted it, unfortunately, under 'Quotations', right next to 'Psychology', instead of in the poetry section. It made me fret, but I felt foolish about fretting personally, so got a cousin to get the shop assistants to correct the mistake. But in case anybody goes there and can't find the book under 'poetry', you know where to look.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dilli mein raat bhar baarish, phir se

When words begin to curl up in the corners, and meaning begins to drip off the blurry edge, you know it has rained all night in Delhi.

Adhchini, Gurgaon... the words patter with a sweetness, a slippery clayey texture that hadn't been there before. And to your ears, 'gurhganva' is firm, a vagabond word with tight calf muscles and a checked vest. Gurh-gaanv-aa. Gurhganva. The word is like the sweet, heady smell of the first light shower on a hot afternoon in a dusty town.

But that is left behind. In Devnagri, the word asserts itself firmly on the metal chest of a bus - 'gurhganva'. Not Gurgaon. Not glass. Metal. Rust. Rain.

Over the awful rev and roar of Dilli's sarkaari bus, there is a sound like a cross between a tyre bursting and a string of firecrackers muffled in cotton. There is such a blinding flash that for a minute, you think there are cameras around. Then you look at the sky. At ten in the morning, it was like before dawn. Dark and full. There is no threat, just a certainty. Firecrackers muffled in grey wool sky.

The bus driver changed the music from haryanvi folk to trance. The sky roared. The music hammered down as hard as the waters.

With each little lurch, water filled up in the ridges of the windows and spilled. Spilled.

All thoughts slipped and spilled into each other. All shades of green turned melty through the refractive window-seat. The word 'subz' floated through your head. That's the shade. 'Subz'. That it is not a shade, is meaningless. All meanings are melting.

The driver changed the tape again.

Ae door ke musafir, humko bhi saath le le
hum reh gaye akele....

I look at him closer. Wet hair. Plump. Joking with the boy-conductor.

The gear-stick is covered in scrunchies. Girls' hair scrunchies. An entire rainbow of them. Red, pink, blue, lilac, green, neon. A sticker of five film actresses in a row, holding up filmfare award trophies, with a little ditty below:

"Titli udi, bus pe chadi, seat na mili
driver bola - aaja mere paas; titli boli - hat badmaas."

In felt pen, there's another curliqueing bit of text: 'Love is God'.

And Rafi sings:
"Mere haathon mein tera chahra tha
jaise koi gulaab hota hai..."

Orange, velvety flowers have falled into a heap of fallen yellow leaves.

In the nursery, potted flowers stand ruefully straight. Resigned to the battering of the night, but all the fuschias, scarlets, pinks are coloured a deeper shade, as if a drop of meloncholia has fallen into their pollen hearts.

... jaise joi gulab hota hai...

Outside, the puddles are deep. A girl in pure white lifts up her salwar half-way up her calves. Her friend, in rani-pink, follows. They stop and look at each other and their smiles stretch from horizon to horizon.

Titli udi...

The auto-driver slows down near Nehru Park and his head is turned so that he's looking at the grass, and he takes his time rounding the roundabouts.

You breathe. Each breath is crisp and wild and slow. You shiver and think: This air does not belong to now. It is the air of February, and has been dragged back, howling and lashing, by the crackling skies of a strange hot week in Delhi.

Dilli ke is lamhe mein, kisi ko koi gham nahin hai. Raat bhar, din bhar, baarish hui hai.

And there is no sorrow possible in a moment that does not below to now.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A quiet kind of heroism

Once you've put into writing the truths that have hammered your life - your commutes, your streets, your nights, your finances - into a spreadsheet of fear, you're changed.

You take a solitary walk all around a PVR complex, and you get a cup of coffee on a night so cold that the mists rising from your lips and the cup mingle and waft into a drizzle, and you look for an empty bench and when you find it, you sit and gaze into the hazy throngs of young people - up and down, arm in arm - knowing that curious stares are hemming you in, but you sit, hands wrapped around a toosweet-toohot cup, unhurried, because you'll be damned if you can't do this; a stranger with big moustaches heads towards your bench but when you fix your eyes on him, he changes direction - for you sit bang in the centre of the bench, feet stretched, head at rest, in a wet bubble of falling night-sky - and you go on sitting there, looking at nothing, spotting a familiar boy hurry past with an unfamiliar girl clinging onto his arm, and when the coffee is gone and the sky is still, you get up, toss the cup in the trash-can, breathe deep, and walk away.

[Blank noise blogathon entry, 2007]

Monday, March 05, 2007

Born (not quite) Free (but getting there)

On an impulse, I went. I had not yet received a brief, or permission, to cover this exhibition. But because the teachers - Mioi and John - had come to invite me personally, because I was surprised by the deceptive joy, the intimate ache of the photos (photoshopped out of all symmetry, unfortunately), I went to the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts.

It was almost closing time, the watchman almost didn't let me in; the few boys playing ball in the lawn did not understand my language; feeling foolish, I nodded and smiled until Mioi arrived.

They'd brought some musical instruments along. Drums. And long lathi-like sticks with ghungoos attached to one end. When I looked curious, they put on an impromptu performance for me. Mioi and one of the students, Jayaram, picked up a lathi each, a thumping took up my heart, and they danced. Dhhum! and chham! Teacher and student facing each other, smiles too wide to be mere performance, eyes squinting with the fun of it, Mioi quickly growing breathless, laughing.

There's a lot I've forgotten about the Born Free School (Bangalore) and the exhibition they brought to Delhi last year. But the dhhum and chham and those smiling eyes... I often re-live those. And the thing John said, about this country. 'Everything - everything! - is poisoned with a little shot of child labour'.

Here are some of the things I wrote about the students at the Bornfree Art School, rescued child labourers themselves, who have undertaken a pledge to free other working children. [I no longer have the photos but here's linking to a site, with pictures of some of the people I'm referring to below]

Eleven-year old Jalalli used to be a cowherd once. Though he now studies the arts and does not need to mind cows for a living, he retains a fondness for all things bovine. That much is evident from his choice of photographic subject: cows; but since the project was supposed to focus on child labourers, Jalalli ended up capturing child-cowherds on camera.

His photographs, and those credited to dozens of other former child labourers, are now part of 'the History Expedition', a traveling exhibition put together by the Bornfree Art School, Bangalore. The school combines art and activism. Rescued child labourers are slowly brought back into the mainstream fold of education, but the process is initiated through art - through music, dance, theatre, sculpture, crafts and now, photography. Some of the crafts were also on show. Baskets and decorative bamboo plates were covered with prints of ancient terracotta coins. Several of the products carried short stories like the ones from the Panchatantra, except that the stories had been edited and rewritten to avoid derogatory references to people or animals.

The History Expedition is as much a cross-country documentation trip as it is an exhibition. About 15 children and five adults wove their way across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa on bicycles and on buses. 4040 kilometres, 3000 hours of film, and 25,000 photographs later, they had seen just about every form of child labour conceivable - from child prostitutes to stone-crushers, four-year-old housewives to cotton-pickers.

A photograph, titled 'sweet violence', shows a young girl making sugar in Bidar. Another, titled 'Haya!' shows a smiling boy whipping himself to collect money. 'Dead dolls' captures a row of albino baby girls, made to sit on the street like live curio exhibits, while passersby threw coins at them.

A little girl, bare-chested, carries a heavy statue of a deity on her head. Two children pose as scarecrows in a field. A gaggle of pre-pubescent girls with mangalsutras round their necks, drawing water from a well. A child selling spider-man masks. A faceless figure holding up a sickle against a deep, blue sky.

It is hard to believe that the pictures have been created by mere children who have probably never touched a camera before. Colour and expression have been captured with truth and often, with a sense of fun that might have been impossible in the hands of an adult. There is little attempt to dramatize the agony of the toiling children; there are more smiles than screams, but the whole picture is unsparing.

Muniyappa, a former ragpicker, commented on one of his own pictures where he found a six-year-old water-seller, crying. "The only water she has, is the tears in her eyes." Muniappa was very upset when he met the girl, who would walk three kilometres everyday, barefoot, to fetch water, which she could sell for a mere Rs 5.

John Devaraj, an artist who founded the school and accompanied the children to Delhi with the exhibition, pointed out that the photographs were as much about the artists as the subjects. "Our artists are all former child labourers. What you see now is the victims writing their own histories through other child victims."

Jalalli, for instance, went from suckling milk straight from the herd's udders, to being bonded to a tea-stall owner in Bangalore - not because his family had incurred a debt, but because a software engineer, a regular customer, disappeared without paying a Rs 100 bill.

Prashanth, a fourteen-year-old, has been taking pictures of water in brilliant hues of yellow: but look beyond the spectacular colours, and you notice child-fishermen. Prashanth himself used to sell flowers once, but life was no bed of roses. "The owner of the flower-shop used to hit me with a pair of scissors. Each time I made a mistake, he'd hit me on the back of my hands. So, I ran away and became a ragpicker".

Devaraj laughs as he recalls the nickname given to the boy. "They called him 'brass-boy'. He would steal anything made of brass."

Jayaram, a teenaged boy whose body is marked with scars and other signs of violence, shyly admitted that he used to steal too; in fact, he stole from the police! Laughing, he chose his words carefully, "I worked in a bar and restaurant first, and then, well, you could say that I worked with the police." Actually, he would pilfer bullets, which he would sell by the kilo, for their metal content.

Although Jayaram has been in lock-up before, he is rather proud of his most recent arrest. While taking the photo 'Dead Dolls', he and a schoolmate, Raju, were arrested by the police. They were handcuffed and paraded through the streets. But Jayaram feels vindicated. "This was the first time in my life that I was handcuffed for doing the right thing."

These young artists are acquainted with the dangers of challenging the adult world that employs children, and taking this road trip has taught them what they didn't already know. For instance, they found children working in puffed-rice factories where sand has to be heated at temperatures of 1400 degrees. Many get hurt and some, like thirteen-year-old Tariq Ali, die. Similarly, the silk industry likes to employ small children, who are used as cocoon cooks, more or less.

They also discovered that Bangalore, which likes to call itself the 'rose capital of the world', employs hundreds of little girls to pluck about 2100 tonnes of roses, everyday.

In Bijapur, they found - and photographed! - a policeman roughing up a child prostitute who appeared to be soliciting clients near the Gol Gumbaz. These girls were neither rescued nor rehabilitated, but simply driven away each evening by baton-wielding constables.

The pictures in the History Expedition are poignant but the subjects do not beg for sympathy. There is a heart-breaking note of defiance in their smiles, their happy acceptance of the moment, their trust in the camera. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the photos were taken by children like themselves. Yet, the photographs evoke outrage and bewilderment at the sheer scale of the problem - it appears as if there is not one single industry or product that does not involve children.

Devaraj was unsparing in his critique. "The bricks in your house, the milk and sugar in your tea, the roses you buy for your wife, computers, other gadgets, the kumkum on your forehead, the puffed rice in your bhel-puri, bananas, tomatoes, spices, silk - everything is poisoned with a little shot of child labour."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Demand and Supply

A comment on my last post prompted this question: why should we expect the world (the world of manufacturers- advertisers, at any rate) to care about women's intellectual/sartorial/physical/financial needs, as long as they can induce us - through promises, false or...well, legal - to buy what they're selling?

In an ideal world, this question would have been different. In an ideal world, manufacturers of cosmetic products would not tell lies, and nobody would try to suppress research. But this is not an ideal world and profit is god.

In such a world, should the simple rules of demand and supply apply?

If there was, for instance, a huge demand for child sex workers, would it be acceptable to allow their supply? What if the children themselves agreed to be sold: maybe they're poor and hungry?

If there was a surge in the demand for, say, shark meat, and sharks were endangered, would it be acceptable to hunt them until they disappeared?

If all children want to learn, but not all have family resources, should we simply cater to those who can afford to pay?

If there's a famine, should only those who can pay, eat?

Demand and supply are not sacred, in my opinion. If manufacturers or suppliers or even buyers lack a conscience (for the lack of a better word... call it a moral compass, a set of ethics, a soul, whatever) we have to act in ways that lead to minimum damage for most people.

Some may argue that it is unfair to compare famines with women's magazines. I can only quote Steinem, again. The art of behaving ethically is to act as if everything you do, matters.

To come back to women's magazines and advertiser 'inserts':

Do advertisers have the right to dictate where their ads will be placed?
I'm not sure.
Do they have a right not to advertise in magazines that have fashion advice for non-supermodel-sized women?
Does that mean that one has to look elsewhere for funding?
Is it okay to expect that women will pay higher prices for 'niche' magazines with something other than nauseating articles about the charming benefits of brazilian waxes?

Magazines (all media) are information. Are a source of knowledge, a shared cultural space and a reference point and a means of opinion formation and are - however lightly - looked up to as a source of truth.

Just like it is unethical to suppress news - no matter how unpalatable it may be to advertisers or readers/viewers - it is unethical to suppress a certain kind of reality. Even if it is something like the need for different sizes to suit different shapes. Or the fact that you age, get wrinkles and die. The constant suppression of myriad realities leads to distorted reality. It is not for nothing that anorexia needs psychological treatment. The victim no longer has any sense of truth about his/her own body. Large numbers of women no longer have any perspective on shape because they are force-fed a constant visual mush of super-skinny women.

Should we assume that all women who want an alternative will find it?
I still have not found one. There was a time when I no longer found Femina and Cosmo amusing, and wanted other magazines - something that was about women, and not cars or sports or celebrities. I still can't find an alternative.

Am I willing to pay for an alternative? Yes.
Steinem brought out Ms magazine, for instance.
But do I have access to it? No.
If I order imported magazines, will I be able to afford them? No.

Forced into a situation where I must choose between the crap the advertisers want me to see or no magazine at all, I take the latter. Do I think it is right?

As a consumer, I would much prefer it if advertisers simply had no control over editorial content. As a consumer, I expect this, actually, from non-fiction media.

The advertiser does have a right not to advertise at all, or to specify the size/length of the ad. But I am not convinced that the advertiser should have a right to decide what sort of article the ad appears next to.

Does this require that media and marketers re-think the way they do business, or that media reorganise its formats, and develop a common code or something?

From a media perspective, I know this is very, very hard to do. But I also know that, often, we buckle not under pressure, but because of our fear of pressure. That we don't even put up a fight.
Is that a done thing?
In my opinion, No.
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