Saturday, October 27, 2007

A brief contextual history of the blogger, in the light of Islam (ism?) and literary spats

I grew up with nursery rhymes. My mother says that I had begun to recite four-line rhymes (and was very annoying, am sure, but she doesn't say that) by the time I was two. These were politically incorrect rhymes. Like "Ten little nigger boys".

I didn't know what 'nigger boys' were. I only learnt the rough meaning when I began to read some American Literature, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Even then, while it had entered my juvenile brain that black people had been oppressed unfairly and that white people back then didn't like them, it still didn't enter my head that 'nigger' was not an acceptable word. I saw a few movies and read more books, where there were plenty of references to the word - black people calling each other 'nigger'.

It was much, much later, when I used the word once in conversation, that some NRI-type student - freshly politically sanitized in the USA - told me that it was, indeed, unacceptable. You can't say it.

But, I protested, they say it.

Yes, he said, they can. They're it. You can't say it. It's offensive.

---

I grew up thinking of myself as 'mozi'. Not Muslim. My mother hardly ever used the word 'muslim' to refer to our family. We were 'mozis'. Actually, she hardly ever referred to us as anything at all. She just made sewaiyyan twice a year, and gave me glass bangles to feel happy in. But there was no escaping it, was there? In this country, with this name, with that festival, you had to be something.

Similarly, she never called a Sikh, a Sikh. She called them 'surds'. It was apparently a Delhi thing. A college girl thing that clung to her and all her sisters over the years.

But, I digress. Where was I?

Yes, so we were 'mozi'. I didn't realize that meant anything much. Except that we also celebrated Eid. We celebrated Diwali and Holi and Christmas too. But there was one vital difference between us and the others.

They celebrated only Diwali and Holi. They did not celebrate Eid.

Over the years, it slowly, very slowly sank in: we weren't like the other kids in the colony. We dressed up in our shiniest best on Diwali, took our firecrackers to our friends', made a common pool, watched the lights, gorged on sweets. Ma put on a silk saree and went to visit other people. She also waited at home, knowing other people would come, and laid out sweets. Some namkeen too, because they would be tired of sweets by then.

But on Eid, we celebrated alone.

Almost. There was one other muslim family in the colony. Mujib bhaiyya's family. He was my brother's classmate. His sister, Nusrat, was a year younger to me. (She died one summer in a road accident, during the summer vacations) My mother had little in common with their mother, but twice a year, we'd go to their place for lunch. I still remember that their rotis were tougher than I was used to and Mujib's elder sister would tear them up into morsel sizes for me, laughing at how plump I looked but how my fingers had no strength at all.

Still, after Eid and before, I was like all other kids. And towards middle school, my friends had started asking curious questions about Eid, asking me to bring sewaiyyan the next day in my tiffin.

My mom said, just ask them to come over.

Apparently, they'd been waiting to be invited all these years. They came over.

The next Eid, they didn't show up. Apparently, because I hadn't extended a formal invitation. I remember thinking, you don't need to invite me over on Diwali; I just come to wish you, don't I? But I didn't say it. I just made it a habit, telling them to come over.

--

The first unpleasant memory associated with being 'mozi' came in.... the fourth standard?

The memory is a vivid one. I was at the 'matka' - our school didn't have fancy filters then; we just drank from an earthen pot, using our palms as a cup - with Rimjhim, a junior in school. (She was a very pretty girl and would ask her fan-friends to tie her shoe-laces, when they came undone on the playing ground.)

She said, you're Pakistani, aren't you?

I said, no. Of course not.

She said, no, I know that you people are Pakistani.

Even then, I knew that I was not Pakistani. I was such an overt patriot that I cringe to think of it now (had saare jahaan se achha by heart - the whole six verses). But in that instant, looking at her face, her smugness, the authority with which that child of eight (I think) spoke, I also knew that there was nothing I could say or do to win this particular argument.

Almost two decades later, I cannot forget. She was a child and I have forgiven. But I have not forgotten.

---

Over the years, I learnt not to speak of religion in public.

My mother never mentioned her religion when we traveled by trains - going to Lucknow to visit our grandparents twice a year. She hardly to talked to anyone, anyway.

I have vague memories of my mother silently sitting through a conversation in which other co-passengers spoke of how muslims should be killed. She wore sarees and no purdah, so they assumed her was one of them.

I was too engrossed in my Agatha Christie novels to know. Later, between adults, I heard hushed whispers recounting the conversation.

---

I still don't tell anyone my religion when I travel. Recently, in the waiting room at Gwalior, a young Punjabi girl - a schoolteacher - plonked herself down next to me, noticed my laptop and decided she wanted to get to know me.

She asked me, what are you?

I said, a writer.

She asked, no, but like, what are you?

I said, I told you... what do you mean by what?

She said, like, I am a Punjabi Hindu.

I said, like that, I am nothing.

She asked, what's your name?

I said, Annie.

She said, are you Christian?

I said, no.

She said, but how can that be? It doesn't make a difference to me, what you are, but you must be something.

I said, I am - writer, journalist... woman.

She said, but your family must be something?

I said, no.

She said, but everyone is something... born something.

I said, I don't know.

She said, what do your parents say you are? What are they?

I lied. I said, if they were, they never told me, and I never asked.

She finally shut up.

---

We never fasted during ramzan as children. My mother didn't either. We went through a brief phase when we dabbled a bit in roza-keeping. I did too. But by that time, I had outgrown the phase in which I said the namaaz.

My grandmother used to call my ramzan 'kutte ka faaqa'.

People who fast but do not pray are likened to starving dogs.

I laughed. I liked the idea of 'kutte ka faaqa'. I still do.

---

When the Babri masjid was brought down, I was still a schoolgirl, and not very interested in newspapers. Nobody even told me that it had happened. And I don't know if I would've felt particularly dismayed if I had heard: mosques didn't mean much to me. There were places where women don't enter (in most places). I had only gone to dargahs and imambaras so far. I hadn't even heard of the Babri Masjid.

Since I watched Ramayana and Mahabharata every Sunday on Doordarshan., I knew more about Ram and Krishna than I did about mosques or Babar or Mohammad. Nobody had ever told me that I should know more about one or the other.

The idea of a secular nation hadn't meant anything until then, because it had never been challenged - on a notional, national scale - until then. But that year, the riots broke out.

I wasn't affected, but my brother was a young college-going fresher. In Bombay. Panic struck as we struggled with telephone lines and reassurance.

For the first time, the word 'riot' meant something to me.

---

We still didn't fast. We still didn't pray in Arabic.

---

I went to college in Ajmer. It was a convent, and so I went to kneel in the chapel when feeling particularly devotional. Or went to beg favours from the khwaja at the dargah.

We all wore shalwar-kameez with dupatta, in college. I was the only girl in the hostel who did not wear a dupatta that first year. And was teased and ragged about it quite often. Eventually, I wore dupattas because it was the fashionable thing to do.

We were not allowed to walk about in shorts even though it was a girls college and there were no men at all except the watchman. We weren't allowed to step inside the mess if we wore shorts, pajamas or short skirts. We were discouraged from wearing sleeveless clothes.

I finally told the warden as nicely as possible that my mother herself made all these sleeveless kurtas and really, my people didn't mind.

She told me there was no point, I'd achieve nothing except getting a tan.

I laughed and told her I could afford to get a tan.

We were warned against going to the dargah. We were warned against hanging around outside in Ajmer. We were warned that if we met boys outside, the nuns would find out and we would be thrown out.

In third year, a girl went outside to meet a boy and stayed out beyond the stipulated time. The nuns found out. She was thrown out.

---

I was already a journalist when Godhra and the Gujarat riots happened.

Nothing happened to my immediate family. I was in Lucknow when the news broke and missed much of the madness on the ground. When I returned, it was just an overwhelming barrage of words that didn't seem to register.

I do not have a single coherent, logical memory of this entire time. Those two months are a blank in my head, even now.


---

After the Gujarat riots, I remember visiting a friend in Pune who was doing her MBA at Symbiosis. We were hanging out with a couple of her friends - sitting near Khadagvasla, talking, joking.

We started talking about taboos and I happened to quote Mark Twain.

'You know what they say.... Holy cows make the best hamburgers.'

My friend didn't get it and asked what that meant - 'holy cows?'

A young man in the group cut in and said, very soberly, 'It's a joke. Against us Hindus.'

My jaw fell.

---

A year after the Gujarat riots, visiting a friend, I found myself saying that for the first time, in this country, I have begun to wonder where I belonged... if I belonged. Why was I made to feel like I didn't?

She wisely pointed out that perhaps I should think, then, of where else I would belong.

There was nowhere else. You just belong where you belong.

---

When the Bombay serial blasts happened, one of our relatives was badly injured. Very badly injured. She worked in an office with lots of glass. The glass shattered. Splinters.

Shatters. Splinters.

---

When the bombs went off in the local train last year, the panic was a personal one.

I have college-going cousins who use the local trains. I have close friends who use the local trains.


---

A young writer friend wrote about her experience in Nizamuddin. She had gone there and decided to buy a burqa. She's not muslim. The article was an exploration of her own desire to buy something that is clearly an identity-marker for the 'other', something she is not and something that is not considered desirable for her.

When she read the piece out in a small gathering of aspiring writers, an older woman decided to initiate a discussion about Islam and gender, Islamism, and the conversation immediately turned to terror and 9/11.

Apropos of nothing.

---

The same older woman came back to the next gathering with a poem. About bombs and veils and the need to stand up and take a stand against this sort of thing. Terror. For the sake of our freedom.

---

You may have heard about Martin Amis. And how he's decided that he doesn't like Islamism very much. Terry Eagleton has decided that Mr Amis is a racist, an Islamophobe, and a lot of other things, besides.

Emily Hill has said some other, more mixed, things. Such as "Amis’ literary reputation, meanwhile, has gone the same way as the World Trade Center."

The spat is a very public one and perhaps, an ongoing one. It doesn't particularly perturb me. It doesn't surprise me either.

The Hindu carried an edit piece outlining Mr Amis' views: “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? To say: ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.’”

Hill's article explained further: "Islam, in Amis’ view, ‘is a religion that’s having a nervous breakdown’. And Islamism is a variation on a death cult – an ‘ideology within a religion, a turbo-charge, steroid version of murderous belief’. He made some interesting points about suicide bombing, describing it as a ‘paltry’ act, signifying nothing but a ‘besplattering’ of the self. What the Islamic world needs, he said, is dramatic progress: ‘Martin Luther, John Calvin… religious wars, then Enlightenment, then you enter the modern world 300 years after that.’ He argued that it is the Western world that is giving Islamism its power to commit atrocity, even helping to legitimise that atrocity, by trying to ‘understand it’."

---

In some ways, he is right.

We will have to pay the price. I don't think it is fair. I don't want to pay the price. But I will.

I will suffer a little bit more for being born to a Muslim mother (who never used the word muslim, and who wore silk sarees on Diwali and first taught me how to make baatis out of cotton-wool for the diyas, and how to make valentine's day cards, and how to bake a cake for Christmas) because of the idiot fatwas and the crazy bombings. I could well be strip-searched if I traveled abroad and if that happens, I will grind my teeth and bear it.


Oh, yes the larger muslim community will pay the price alright. Is there an alternative?

---

Amis says the community has to get its act together. That parents have to teach the children. Sometimes, I wonder... what sort of writer is he if he doesn't know that nobody has ever been able to teach anyone anything, especially if it's about non-violence. Gandhi tried and failed.

Each generation rebels. One generation migrates, the other becomes too liberal, the next one too conservative. One wants to slash at roots, the next one wants to find them. It has always been like that. And each generation has suffered. How can any muslim parent prevent a child from turning fanatic? Does Amis seriously imagine that muslim mothers preach bloodshed at home? Or does he seriously imagine that muslim children are any more or less obedient than kids anywhere else?

I don't blame my mother for me. And if I ever have children, I hope I won't get blamed for them. I don't blame terrorists' families for them. I don't blame the white parents of children who attack black children. I don't blame the black parents of children who attack white children. What will blame achieve?

I think that it is funny that Martin Amis should not understand. Writers know these things. But, I don't blame him either. What will blame achieve?

---

For a moment, I wondered if Amis has close muslim friends. I am convinced that he has never loved a muslim woman. He can't have. Love twists your mind around, even against yourself.

---

I'll concede that the community (but which community?) has to get its act together, for there are identities beyond religion, and sooner or later, they will assert themselves. Already, they do. Shias kill Sunnis and Sunnis kill Shias. Kurds. Various clans and tribes in many, many African nations. Genocide is not always about religion. And religion is also not always about religion.

Religious wars, did Amis say? Yes, we are having religious wars.

Breakdown, did he say? Yes, the religion is having a nervous breakdown.

-

I think muslims (and non-muslims) need to let their hair down and have fun. I think they need to stop attempts that seek to turn them into a homogeneous mess. To be many other things besides muslim; to refuse to be tacked down to that awful phrase 'muslim community'. To prove that there is no one 'muslim community'.

The community needs to stop being a community, a vote-bank, a lump or a mass. It needs to reject responsibility thrust down our throats if it is based on identity.

Sure the community that isn't a community needs to change. It needs to laugh at itself and its fracturedness, and its idiosyncrasies. It needs universities and investment in culture and art. It needs to run about in the sun and plant shady trees and fragrant flowers and respect all sexes.

---

I have never read anything Martin Amis has written. (I might now, seeing that there's so much fuss). Even if he had been one of my favourties, what difference would it make? I don't break bread with him. He does not come to my place to talk about poetry. Like we say in Delhi, saannu ki?

---

Yet, there is this business of Islamophobia.

You see, I don't like most organised, violent groups, especially if all members come from the same religion. I am afraid of fanatics. I don't like aggression or imposition.

I don't like most preachers. But I see the need for priests and preachers. I am annoyed by tradition. I follow tradition. I break rules. I know the rules. I don't like violence. I am surrounded by violence.

Am I Islamist? Am I Islamophobic?

Do I hate myself because I do not like organised religion, and yet, cannot find a way to break out of ties that depend on religious ritual?
Do I hate myself because I do not identify with organised religion?
Can I bring myself to hate those in my family who like the organised part of religion and who want to go strictly by the book?

What does faith have to do with any of this?

My faith is closer to sufi. Are sufis muslim?
Sufis did not like mullahs and mullahs did not like sufis. Are sufis Islamophobic?

My faith is selfish. My faith often does the disappearing trick. My faith is tender and fragile and unbreakable. It is plastic. It is solid. And I cannot bring myself to feel enthusiastic about ramzan. But I do not like Lord Ram or think of him as either a god or as 'purushottam'. I do not like the word 'Ram-janmabhoomi'. Does that mean I am Hindu-phobic?

I am scornful of young, Israeli tourists who flock to places like Manali or Pushkar, stoned out of their minds, rude to the locals. I pity these young Israeli tourists who have just finished serving in a compulsory army and who seem not to know what to do with themselves, or where to go, barring to the places where others have gone before them. Am I an anti-semite?

I pity Palestine too, and all the young people there. I pity those who live on the border. I pity their fear. I empathize with their fear.

During Durga Puja, I had gone to C.R. Park and offered 'anjali' to the Goddess. What does that make me? Secular?

If I am asked my religion when I go to temples, I lie and give them a Hindu name. What does that make me?

I don't like the idea of Pakistan. I detest the idea of religious states. Does that make me Islamophobic?

I want to visit Pakistan. I have family there. What does that make me Islamist?

Sometimes, I want to kill all the Taliban. If it were possible to kill a mindset, in one fell swoop, I suspect that I could be persuaded to kill. Am I Islamophobic?

What is Islamophobia?

What can you fear, if you don't know it? Or can you only fear what you don't know?

I know the fanatics as well as one can safely know them. I know them as they bomb the shopping complexes in my city, the trains in my brother's city, the dargah where I went, the cinema in a city I travel to for work. And knowing what they do, I know that they are ordinary young men with half an education and maybe only a little money, which is not any antidote to fear. Or hatred.

What does that make me?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Seen in Chandigarh

On the local cable TV channel, Bollywood songs and dances played with a running ticker offering various products and services.

One of them was from a certain 'vashikaran' specialist. He advertises himself thus: "Pyaar mein dhoka khaye ladka ladki turant milein. Khoya hua pyaar vapas mil sakta hai. Mobile number -...."


Seen in a 'tabloid' entitled Shopping & Lifestyle, distributed free in the Chandigarh-Delhi Shatabdi: An article headlined 'Pack up tips for your train trip'.

The first sentence says: "Packing for a rail trip is similar to traveling by air - you may have a little more room if booking a sleeper car but most luggage should be stored in baggage..."

The next paragraph says: "Bring along some snacks, toys and activities to keep children occupied..." and "Bring comfortable shoes and a change of clothing for each member of the family".... and "Bring headphones for a tape player."

I was, and am, amazed. Really. Somebody actually writes this stuff. Somebody might even be making a living writing this stuff. Truly amazing.

Friday, October 12, 2007

They do show up, you know

A few weeks ago, Jamia had organised an Indo-Pak mushaira.

Since I was heading towards Jamia in any case - to visit Qurratulain Hyder's grave - I decided to attend. The main draw, for me, was that Nida Fazli was one of the featured poets, but there was the undeniable anticipation of watching a real, live, mushaira with famous contemporary poets from both sides of the border. As it turned out, many other people had been just as eagerly anticipating just such an event.

I knew it would be a packed audience because, despite begging and pleading with the media relations office, there were no more passes to be had. The gentleman who picked up the phone very politely, very insistently let me know that the organisers were already nervous because they just might have distributed more cards than there were seats.

But what I walked into, that evening, was too much like a mob for my comfort. There was a crowd of about 300 students gathered outside the Ansari auditorium though I arrived half an hour early. The watchmen stood in a group to one side, allowing you past only if you waved your invite. As I stood in queue, listening to several elderly ladies arguing about how they definitely had an invite, they just couldn't find it at the moment, the crowds swelled and roared.

Once seated inside, the roar filtered in every few minutes. Cries of murdabad. Cries of angry, impatient, excited youth. Frightening cries. And from behind the empty stage's curtains, a firm, polite voice repeatedly requested the waiting students to go to the back, where the open-air audi was, and where a large screen had been set up, for those who did not have an invite. What I wish I could communicate here, right now, is the sweetness of that firm request. How, in Urdu, you can say 'Auditorium mein gunjaish kum hai.... hum jaante hain ke aap kitne mushtaq hain, kitne betaab hain' while sounding deeply... civil (?), and how you just cannot match that with a translation. "There's no space here" is just not the same thing, is it?

The announcement must have been repeated at least a dozen times, before some of the mushtaq-betaab crowd budged. Once some had budged, some more budged. Eventually, enough of them budged to dispel the organisers' fears and the program could begin. Some of the promised poets did not attend (Javed Akhtar was missing, for instance)

Nida Fazli was, well, Nida Fazli. His poetry was lovely in its simple themes and he was as direct as clear-throated as his verse. And while I'd read some of his longer poems, this time he concentrated on 'dohas' which were a revelation. (Today, incidentally, is his birthday.)

Asgar Nadeem, a visiting Pakistani poet, presented a new one about sixty-year old travelers. Or possibly, travelers who had been on the road for sixty years and cannot find their way home.

"Musafir saath barso.n ke abhi tak ghar nahin pahunche...
kahin par raaste ki ghaans mein.... taarikh ki jadein khojte hain....
musafir saath barson ke bade pareshaan hain..."

(Travelers of sixty years have not reached home yet...
Somewhere along the way, they stop to look in the grass
for the roots of history...
these travelers of sixty years are very troubled....)

Popular Meeruthi warmed up the evening considerably with easy, jocular shers like "Raaz ab samjha jhuki nazro.n ka, jisko sharmili samjha, vo bhai.ngi nikli". The students were delighted. I was not, especially after he took pointless potshots at Mallika Sherawat's clothes. However, I do love funny poetry, and one of my favourites is Popular's take on a famous Zafar sher.

"mahabuub vaadaa kar ke bhii aayaa na dosto
kyaa kyaa kiyaa na ham ne yahaa.N us ke pyaar me.n
murGe churaa ke laaye the jo chaar "Popular"
"do aarazuu me.n kaT gaye, do intazaar me.n"

[Zafar's original was: "umr-e-daraaz maang ker laye the chaar din
do arzoo main kat gaye, do intezar main"]

The other highlight of the evening, for me, was the oldest poet who had turned up in a white sherwani, his skinny legs looking even skinnier and more bent in a white churidaar, a red rose in his button-hole, a scurrying walk, a cap tilted on his bald head, and a flamboyance that quite made up for the lack of brilliant poetry. He joked about how he'd been instructed to read poetry, but not something as old as himself. He read second-rate romantic shers, and then paused to state "saste sher zyaada chalte hain" (the cheaper verses are more popular) and go right on reading! He scampered. He lolled against the gao-takia. He almost rolled over backwards. He spoke loudly, interrupted when he chose, and gallantly insisted that the women poets also come up on stage to sit 'humare pehlu mein' (Which is not the same as sitting next to somebody, is it?) "Meherbaani kar ke zahmat farmayein", he said, and spoke of how he had not seen the white-haired Zahra since the 50s, and how very beautiful she was. Zahra, despite the coaxing, did not come to sit in his pehlu, but the much younger Kishwar, did.

I hadn't read much of Kishwar Naheed and the little I found on the net might be early work that does her little justice. Hers seems to be strong, feminine voice that knows the art of gentle combat.

Half-way into the evening, I decided to leave the auditorium and sit at the back, with the others who did not have passes. And there, awaited the real surprise. There must have been at least two thousand people there. Almost all young men, almost all students of Jamia. So this had been the roar that that demanded to be let in, to hear the poets live, instead of watching them on a television screen.

And of course, they made crude comments, especially when the women poets stood up to read. And of course, they were snide about the more serious shers. And of course, they treated romance with as much disdain as they could summon, but reveled in it nonetheless.

For all that, my only reaction was a befuddled 'wow!'. The very idea was overwhelming. Two thousand or maybe more! At a poetry event!

Outside Hazratbal.

Inside Hazratbal, a jaali-wall, a concrete veil outside which women and children kneel. Beyond this point, I am not allowed to go.

This concrete screen - covered in tiny scrawling hopes and inky laments.

God, make me pass my matric exam. God, make my mother well. God, get me a job. God, I want to be top of the class. God, keep us together. God, let him love me. God, do not separate us lovers. God, keep our enemies from us.

And from one little girls' pencil:

God, if you help me clear my exams with good marks, I will come back to give you eleven rupees. And if you help my father with his work and clear our debts and restore my mother's health, I will come back with one hundred and one rupees. And if you help us build our house.... And if my brother does well in his exams....

In Urdu. In Hindi. In English. In mixtures. The scripts vary. But always... God, love! God, health! God, money!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

that spiral of moving and losing

The other thing about this job is the hardening and having to watch out for it.

Last month, while making calls to some contacts in Madhya Pradesh, I found myself mouthing the words 'It is serious...? Did anyone die?' Even before I'd finished saying it, I was awash with shame: that I should be measuring a potential story against the number of lives lost?

But that is how we sell our stories, don't we? Not just to our editors but also to readers; in short, to ourselves - the literate, newspaper/magazine-buying middle-class. Who died? How many hurt? How many of them were children? And if nobody died, what's the noise about?

So, this is my current quandary: how does one sell starvation?

How do I sell it as an important piece of information that must be communicated to the world at large? How do I sell it before it actually kills some kids? How do I sell it if nobody certifies that hunger is, indeed, hunger? How I sell it if there are no compelling pictures of toddlers with protruding bellies and fading eyes? How does one photograph a starving adult?

How do you wear down an adult's self-esteem to the point that he admits to you - 'Yes, I am starving. I've been starving for a whole year. I have tuberculosis and I am going to back to work in the stone quarries because dying of tuberculosis or silicosis is easier than starving.'


The situation, you see, is serious. People have died. Children have died too. And if they are not dying this very instant, at the time of writing this, I am grateful, but I am not relieved.

I went back to Shivpuri this year. I've been going to Madhya Pradesh over the last two years, covering hunger in tribal villages. At first, I went after reports of kids' deaths filtered out, from Patalgarh. Then I went back, and found that things had improved marginally in Patalgarh - an anganwadi has been set up, and a school with mid-day meals. But in another village nearby, I heard of more deaths. And after that, more hunger on yet another trip.

This year, I went to visit another set of villages where there have been no deaths so far. At least, no children's deaths that are directly attributable to malnutrition. The state has been trying to introduce all sorts of schemes and programs to prevent starvation deaths. But hunger seems chronic, almost inevitable. This time, I began to understand - in part - why this was so. this time, I encountered displacement afresh.

Displacement is a funny word. A very inadequate word that conveys nothing of its meaning.

Displacement is not about moving. It is not about packing up and saying goodbye to the trees and the dust and saying hello to other people, other dust in a new place. It is not about losing touch with old friends, old customs. It is not about losing beauty and calm, mist and dew, wilderness and privacy.

Displacement is about losing a river. Losing access to clean, safe drinking water. Losing water for the fields. Losing land that is watered richly. Losing the fields that gave you grain. Losing the land that your herds grazed on. Losing your cattle. Losing the milk that came from the cattle. Losing the meat the goats ensured. Losing the sheep that gave you wool. Losing access to mud and wood that gave you shelter. Losing firewood. Losing the birds and the bees. Losing honey and herbs. Losing leaves that could be either plates or smokes. Losing hygiene. Losing legality. Losing the right to protest when somebody in a uniform and a jeep shows up to set fire to your home. Losing your walls and roofs.... what is left to lose?

No, really, what is left to lose?

With one stroke, with a single order, with a few meetings of committees formed in the state capital, all this is lost.

I had gone this time to visit displaced villages - villages that have been cleared out of forests we want to protect or 'reserve'. In this one state, there are 29 such areas that require people to move out. That require them to lose all the above-mentioned.

And they did. They lost all of that.


"Many changes over the past decade have pushed villagers who once had enough to eat into a spiral of food insecurity and the uncertain arms of the public distribution system (PDS).... Take Balharpur village. About eight years ago, its residents, most of them belonging to the Sahariya tribe, were moved out of the Madhav National Park and dumped upon a stony, non-irrigated tract of land near the highway....

While moving, the villagers set their cattle free near the Balhar Mata temple in the forest; they were certain they would not have access to grazing land in the New Balharpur village. And they were right."
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