Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Contests, prizes, send now!


The Poetry Slam and Flash Essay deadlines have been extended by a day. You can still submit!

SMS Poetry.

160 characters on the theme ‘anti-valentine’. SMS-ese allowed.
For details, go here.

Flash Fiction.

Short-shorts or micro-fiction contest. 300 words max taking off from the theme, ‘Tall Story’.

For details, go here.

Flash Essay

A new contest inviting incisive, crisp writing about ‘The Death of the Essay’. 500 words max.

For details, go here.

Poetry Slam

This one is more or less limited to poets in Mumbai or those who can make it to Mumbai on the evening of the 10th of Feb.

Five poems must be prepared for performance on a stage, of which four must relate to each of these themes: Name, Place, Animal, Thing; these must be send in by Feb 3, for a preliminary round of judging. The fifth can be any original poem of your choice but it does not have to be submitted as yet.

For details, and info about how this slam works (the format and rules are different from conventional slam contests elsewhere), go here.
For last year’s scoresheets, go here


An Open Book Pitch.

You send in a sample of your manuscript and a blurb. Representatives from publishing houses look at it. If they like what they see... you know the rest.

For details, go here.

For all contests, there is an entry form that you can get to through the links to the contests, (see above).

Deadlines for all contests: Midnight, Feb 3, 2008.

There are also these non-competitive events.

15 minutes for seven out of the nine days of the festival. The event mixes writing with performance. Each Open Mike session will have 6 slots of up to 2 minutes each. These slots are booked on a first-come-first-served basis every day.

15 minutes for seven our of the nine days of the festival. The event mixes the word with the visual arts. Participants submit 2-minute films via email. We will choose the best films should we get more entries than time permits us to show.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Recipe for January mornings

It's been a while since I returned to one of my passions. I return to it now, after a conversation with a friend who said that he didn't like his tea boiled - that is, didn't boil tea leaves or leave them to soak too long, lest the brew acquire a bitter edge. Which got me thinking.

This bitterness of being lefttoolongtostewinboilingwater is an apt metaphor, a fitting frame for a redemptive brew. Of course, a bitter edge. That's what I like best.

Chai in India is not so much brewed as cooked. Boiled until all tender flavour has been sucked out; boiled until it can give no more. The pan must be allowed to simmer until the first lisp of bitterness begins to wet the water. It has to be held to the flame until indelibly stained with fingers of ginger or cardamom. That is what makes chai 'special' : sweetness laced with bitterness. A darkness that hints at muddied gold. That's what makes it refreshing.

Haven't you noticed how bitter the young are? How warm, how sweetly bitter, and how unsure of balance?

Having said that, I have to admit that I am firmly opposed to the concept of a 'proper way' of making a cup of tea. I discourage recipes because they seem to argue along those lines: so much of this, so much of that, a pinch of something and a spoonful of something else... that's just not the right approach to chai.

Tea is something you linger over. The days when I get up and make my first cup myself are days that begin with wafts of troubled decision. Curling into tighter and tighter rolls of 6.30 am, 7 am, 7.30 am, ohforgodssakegetup am.

Shivering sock-less in a January kitchen, riffle through cabinets for a flat-bottomed pan with a black handle. Take in a bleak morning and curse architects who don't think of sunshine when making windows. Fill a pan with water enough. Spill a little. Crush ginger. Toss it into pan. Fumble for the lighter, turn down the flame.

Walk into the balcony or to the nearest window, open it. Let cool fingers of morning brush your eyelids and cheekbones. Shut your eyes. Shake your head from side to side. Open your eyes and fix them upon the nearest inch of growing-green. Stretch where you stand until your toes groan under.

Go back to the kitchen, turn up the flame. Add two spoons of sugar. Pause. Add another half. Pause. Add another quarter. Watch the water turn a little bit cloudy. Add half a teaspoon of tea leaves. Watch the water turn a deep wine-red, then very quickly, something close to chocolate. If there was a variety of chocolate reserved for royalty, it would be this colour. The colour of 'laal-cha'.

Let water bubble. Like a simmering strain of black blood or the colour of life bleeding into the fabric of spring, speckled by tiny flecks the colour of earth. Pile another spoon with tea-leaves, knock it against the side of the jar so half is emptied back, throw it into the water. Watch it rise up, up, up to the rim of pan but never let it spill.

Black-earth-flecks balancing on foamy bellies of bubbles.

Turn down the flame and dip the spoon once more into the jar. Decide to add another half-spoon. Decide against it. Decide, finally, to add just a pinch more. Just to allow the delusion of inching towards perfection.

Step out and look for the newspaper, wherever it happens to have landed this particular morning. Listen for the guttural growl of the dog who lives upstairs.

Go back to the kitchen with fingers numb from holding a chilled pot of milk. Pour. Stir. Don't measure. Just as colours melt into each other. The milk pushing into the rich, steaming river, muddying it. If it is the colour and consistency of ditchwater, add a little more milk. Pour and simmer until the colour turns to the colour of nothing else you have ever seen. Not chocolate, not caramel, not soil, not cloud, not wine, not milk, not toffee, not multani mitti, not wood, not bark, not coffee, not skin...

Perhaps, perhaps, a certain kind of skin. It is possible, but it should be no kind of skin you have ever seen. Just at that particular moment, when it has turned to a colour and consisency that can be best described as nothing but 'chai', turn off the gas and reach for the strainer. Swirl the pan around a few times and pour a cup out.

Take it outside with the papers, or to a windowsill somewhere, hold it between both palms, close to your gut. Watch the loopy fingers of December reach down and lick their lips, hover at the rim. Stand on tip-toe for a moment, shut your eyes for a moment. Allow the morning to taste it before your do. Take a sip. Find your own pace, here on.

Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Keshav Vishwakarma, RIP

Usually, I do not put any of my own poetry on this blog, but this is an elegy and I'd like it read.

This much is set, Keshav ji – can I call you Keshav?
I feel an affinity, an ease, that is hard to explain,
Considering we’ve never met, and now, never will
Yet I’m sure you won’t mind my speaking so plain –

This much is certain: you will get no memorial, no statue
No marble slab with metal plaque, saying,‘Keshav: martyr’
Nobody will say you died that we might live, or less poetically,
That you upheld a nation’s head, honoured our civilizational charter.

What you died for – were killed for – was too much an everyday thing
So you will not go down as a human rights’ champion
Nor the leader of a bunch of people with a cause
Nor a just warrior for the aggrieved, the downtrodden

Nobody’s going to write that you’re a victim of what we’ve become
Nobody’s spine with tingle with the dread of this fact.
At least, not beyond next week, when you’ll be a statistic -
For that’s the way people keep their minds intact.

Don’t mind, Keshav, it is not on purpose that
Nobody will write you a full-length obit, or
That only one paper bothered to go and dig up
Info on how you lived, and who you lived for.

Keshav, if you knew (did you?) what they’d do
Perhaps you’d have shut up and let it be
Some insults, a woman – it happens all the time
Harassment and women – like sand and sea.

You see, we women rarely bother ourselves
We’ve learnt to shut up and stay shut; some say
Our eyes are glazed with the cataract of silence
We’re told, to live safe, there’s no other way.

Keshav, stupid Keshav, what made you take on
The mantle of hero? It is not as if
Someone was looking, and those who were, looked away
(as they do). Did you think they’d help? As if!

Keshav, young Keshav (only thirty-five, good God!)
They’ll forget. Oh, they forget, they forget each time
They’ve begun to forget the mobs of new years past,
And Meher of Lucknow? Her too! This forgetting’s sublime.

Keshav, it’s true, I cried for you, but so what?
You burnt, you died, and those three will live.
Noone’s clamouring for a public hanging (women’s security
Isn’t 'national') so… yes, some sentence the court may give.

That is, if the police finds those three.
You actually thought they would, and you walked
After being set on fire – two kilometers!
To the police station and there, you talked.

What did you say, Keshav? What were your dying words?
Were you angry rather than scared? Or both?
That I can relate to; it’s the same with me.
That tremulous rage – frustration and fear both.

Did you wonder, as you walked, if you’d actually die?
Did someone tell you, it was your own fault?
Did they say, why couldn’t you guess at
The demons-in-waiting? That you should, by default?

That’s what they tell us; that’s how we go on.
They tell us all the time and that’s how we know
No alone. No dark street. No panga. No sharp words.
No smart clothes. No reds. No smiling. Nono.

Where did you study, Keshav? Which school?
Which blighted, mind-altering, twisted-soul place?
Who taught you? Or forgot to? What kind of friends
Did you have that they tell you the rules of this race?

This race. These people. We. Our nation.
Women. Children. Cosmic pawns playing parts.
What shall I say? Keshav, should I say something like,
You’re a hero and will live in our hearts?

Oh, who cares? Heroes! I bet you’d rather just
Have been alive and maybe all heroes feel that way
To live! That would be nice, they must think, but
They go ahead and die if they must, anyway.

Not that it matters to you any more, Keshav
The writing of this. Any words. Anything.
You were burnt alive before you were properly burnt
And maybe you never did care of what poets sing.

I’d bring you flowers if you had a grave.
I’d build you a statue, if I had a piece of land
I’d write in big letters – ‘Look! This is our shame
And this our pride. This murder is man.

Listen, Keshav, it is too late, but listen.
Wherever you are, lie in peace, now it’s over.
And know that you stepped up higher than man.
(And lower than man… even God sank no lower)

I’ll spare you the platitudes about how you are free
Or how, in heaven, the apsaras long to kiss you
But this fight you’ve fought, I’ll fight to the death
But Keshav, brother, in the meantime, we’ll miss you.

- Annie Zaidi, Jan 17th, 2008.

Friday, January 18, 2008

More number plates

Two men - probably in their twenties - in a car.
Number DL9 CP 1579.

On the night of January 9th, Wednesday, about 9.30 pm, this car slows down as these two men see a woman sitting in a blue cycle rickshaw. They follow, from Defence Colony market towards the Lajpat Nagar railway gate. They lean out of the window. The man driving asks the rickshaw-puller, 'Kyon, kya scene hai?'

Awkward, the rickshaw-puller turns to look at his passenger. This is me, sitting stony-faced, and he guages the situation for what it is. He keeps pulling, casting sidelong, frightened glances at the car. I mull over the possibility of fighting back. There is plenty of traffic about and I am not alone. But this is a cycle-rickshaw and a car makes it vulnerable.

One man, middle-aged, in a car.
Number UP 16 Q 1298.

On the night of January 9th, Wednesday, about 9.30 pm, this car slows down a the man sees a woman sitting in a blue cycle rickhaw. He begins to follow, on the road leading to the Lajpat Nagar railway gate, and he peers out of his window, repeating 'come' and 'do you want to come?'

The rickshaw-puller kept turning to look at me. I sat, stony-faced, crossed every finger I had, and held my peace. Ordinarily, in this much traffic, when the going is slower than it would be if one walked, I would just get down and walk about hundred meters and would be home. This night, I didn't. Instead, I requested the rickshaw-puller to stay with me, stuck in this mini-jam for a good fifteen minutes. He agreed wordlessly, head bent, and dropped me to my very doorstep. Out of sheer gratitude and relief, I paid him twice the fare we'd decided on.

I had no camera or I'd have taken pictures and put them up in the '(UN)WANTED' section. I did have a phone though, and eyes and a quick thumb. Here are the car numbers.

This is my personal FIR. World, are you taking down my complaint?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Am flattered that the Economic Times took a passing interest in me and my little book, though we don't really belong in that article. The article makes it sound as if my blogging had anything to do with the publishing of the book, which is not quite true. When I wrote those poems, and put the book together with Gynelle's help, I was not yet a blogger. When we handed it over to the publisher, I was not a blogger; and when we signed the contract finally, I seriously doubt that the publisher even knew of my blog.

And oh, I did not write a 'book on poetry'. I wrote some poems. There is a difference.

That aside, a bit of good news that I'd been wanting to share for a while. I got my first royalty cheque a couple of months ago. It isn't much, but makes me very happy for two reasons. One, that it was my first royalty cheque. Two, judging by the number of books sold already, and based on my estimates of how much it costs to print a book of that size, I am reasonably certain that the book is not a loss-making venture. There are overheads, of course, but we (me and Gynelle) had worked to ensure that the text and illustrations went to the publisher as 'ready' as possible - she did the design; I did the proofing. So far as I know, the publisher didn't incur any other cost, barring printing and distributing.

So, while this tiny bunch of poems isn't going to make anyone rich, it will bring in a very, very small profit. Actually!

So, for godssake, will everybody stop saying now that poetry does not sell?

And for those who want to know, the book is available in several bookstores, especially Landmark. It also seems to be available abroad for anywhere between $4 and $8, even more in pounds (don't ask; have no clue why). Here, here, here and here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Womanhood, circa 2008, a.k.a. kis namaakool ne kaha hai ke kudiyo.n ka hai zamana?

According to the 2001 census, the population of India was 1,028,737,436 - more than a billion, of which 496,514,346 was female.

I (and all the other women I know) am a literate Indian woman, which means I am in the top half segment of the female population of this country - 53.7% female literacy according to the 2001 census.

In fact, I (and all the other women I know) am more than literate. Over 50% of girl students drop out after the fifth or eighth standard. Only 28,028,205 girls make it to the secondary exam level. Which brings me to the top... (help, if somebody can do a more precise job of calculating), roughly, 5.6%? Have I got it right?

Now, according to a story in India Today, "In 1950, there were 14 women pursuing higher studies per 100 males in India. The ratio is now 68:100 (Report of Consultative Committee of Parliament, 2006)." So, the ratio is definitely getting better, although the actual number of women who go on to become graduates is only 12,136,839.

If you add to this the figures for technical and non-technical education which does not amount to a degree (the total sum of which is less than a million), it can be rounded off to about 13 million.

Since I do have a degree, that would place me roughly in the top 2.6% of the women.

And since I (and many of my friends) also have some sort of post-graduate education, whether or not it amounts to a degree, and since many of us have computers and net access and a job, you could safely assume that we must be in the top one percent bracket of the women in India; possibly even the top half-percent.

Of the girls I went to college with, we've recently heard that at least two marriages fell apart because of dowry demands. Harassment, physical abuse, the whole shebang.

One of my batch-mates (she has an MBA degree) has recently filed for divorce after her husband broke one of her bones. And it wasn't the first time he'd hit her.

One particularly nasty episode a batch-mate told me about: one of our batch-mates had been in the process of putting her clothes on when her mother-in-law yelled for tea to be served to some visitors. A little delay, and the girl was dragged out of the bedroom and forced to serve tea to a bunch of strangers in that state of undress.

This is us. The top one percent.

In all these cases, it was only after a few years of staying put and wondering what to do and where to go, that these women finally left the marital house. All of us are in our twenties.

Now, let us go back to this story, where it says:

"You grow up being told that you can be anything, do anything. You get a good degree and get yourself into your chosen career. By your mid-20s, you are on a six-figure salary, forging a path in a male-dominated world. You own your own flat, you look great, you feel great, you sleep with men—experimenting physically and emotionally—before finding the right one.

You hit 30. By 35— because you can't spare the time now— you'll decide that you want babies. You'll move to your downtown apartment, be a fabulous mother while running a couple of successful businesses. Oh, and you'll write a novel. An autobiography.

Whether it happens to you or not, the truth— that you are free to live your life this way—is telling."

I couldn't help wondering - who is this 'you' that the story talks about. The Indian woman? The top one percent of women in India?

Like they say, nice story; tell me another.

Update: Have corrected some of the calculations in this post. And it does seem that piece was never written for Indian women in the first place. Look in the comments section for details.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dilip asks about why people are so afraid of conversion. I've been wondering for a while too. What is it about conversion that so frightens everybody? And what is my own take on it?

I began writing this as a diary entry, trying to extract sense out of loose ideas, so this is as personal as it is a comment.

It was no point examining conversions into Islam. At least, not for the purposes of the blog-world because I would immediately be confronted with 'but your own community...' and for all I know, there may well be biases I have not yet discovered. So I begin with other religions. For instance, there was this whole business of deras, which threated law and order and communal harmony in Punjab and Haryana.

Watching the Baba, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in action on the day of a 'jaam-e-insaan' (the cup of humanity) ceremony, I remember thinking that this is as close to conversion as it gets. Without formally asking you to renounce a birth-religion, Dera Sacha Sauda was asking you to drop your given surname and adhere to a set of rules to live by, while preaching at elaborate ceremonies, even putting you through a formal initiation/adoption of faith ritual involving imbibing flavoured milk.

And there had been an outburst of violence even then.

However, for the purposes of this discussion, I chose to dwell on Christianity since I do have some experience with institutional religion there.

I went to a convent where the nuns did subtly hint that they'd like us to conform, though not convert, keeping other religious rituals or symbols low-key. There was a much-anticipated pre-Christmas party, and we had to sing hymns every single at dinner-time, say grace and also 'Our father...' and we didn't mind very much. Just one more set of rules in a long list.

Any spark of talent was encouraged, and attempts were made to guide talent into preferred channels. For instance, if you acted or wrote, they may well ask you to help with the nativity plays. I'd been asked, too, to participate in the plays that were put up as part of the Christmas celebrations and I remember being mortified, briefly. Not because it was a nativity play but because of the preachiness of the scripts.

By way of illustration, I first had a bit role as an aborted (adult-sized) foetus, for which I had to wear a frock and come running to my 'mother' after she dies and goes to heaven. It was an anti-abortion stance that left me deeply uncomfortable. The next year, in recognition of my increased involvement with the dramatic society, I was one of the central characters in the Christmas play. The role was not that of Mother Mary, but the character was called Mary who had heard of The Virgin and the impending birth of Jesus. In this play, I was supposed to be, first, pregnant, then, in danger, then, beaten up, and finally, dying in my husband's arms. Since we were an all-girls' college, my 'husband' was a girl too. All through the rehearsals, as I lay 'dying', we shook with laughter. It was a terribly written script (by a priest himself), and the tragic finale - 'Oh, Joseph, our baby!' and 'No, my darling wife, you cannot leave me! Noooooo! - was an inevitable explosion of mirth in our teenaged mouths.

Finally, I resorted to an old trick: Amrutanjan. I rubbed some of it around my eyes seconds before the scene and proceeded to cry copious tears, shaking with laughter all the time. The author-priest later came up to congratulate me on such a 'heart-felt' performance.

This story doesn't have much to do with conversion. It has more to do with memories, which make me shake my head and smile now. That's what it was like, in the convent. I don't remember anger. I do remember a mild sort of resentment amongst some of the students, that the nuns weren't open to other religions, and that the few concessions they made were made on the assumption that there might be trouble if they didn't allow this much. We did have a pre-Diwali party. There were special meals for Shivratri, so we could break fast at midnight. The nuns probably would have been amused at any show of resentment - they were nuns! And they were already appeasing the students in many ways. Appeasing the majority even though theirs was a minority institution offering us a highly subsidized, considering we did live fairly comfortable lives in the hostel. It was clean and well-maintained, if not luxurious and we got four meals a day. They didn't need to appease another minority, of course. So there were no special provisions during ramzan, and no celebrations for Eid. But my mother told me that it was too much to expect nuns to be wholly secular. They'd given their lives to the cause of the religion, after all.

I remember being angered by the rumour that one of the Christian girls was being pressurized into becoming a nun. She had apparently told her close friends that she was being asked to go into the convent by her family, and the college nuns weren't exactly discouraging them. It shocked us, though it only came to us as a rumour. We also heard that many of the students from Kerela had become nuns at sixteen because they didn't have any money to do anything else. That angered me. I remember thinking - why couldn't the nuns just have given them shelter and money for education, without taking away their right to colour and sensual pleasures?

Now it strikes me that, perhaps, this is how others view conversions. Why can't the preachers and priests help poor tribals or dalits or whoever they're helping, just like that? Help them for the sake of helping them, without bringing in Christ or conversion? And why cannot Muslims and Sikhs do so too? And why must Muslims who marry outside the religion insist on a kalma and a nikah, or a renouncing of the other's faith? Why can't we just accept, as is?

For the same reason, I suppose, that it matters that one wants to be accepted, as is. Reasons of identity and self.

Community is an extension of the self. That's why all communities have something in common. Religion. Nationality. Language. Race. Ethnicity. Continent. Surname. Dialect. Demograph. Something!

Some point of contact, which allows the 'I' to become 'we'. Living in a building makes you part of the residents' association. Living in a city makes you urbane; at least, it gives you a domicile certificate, a ration card, an identity, things you use to define yourself. Like music lessons. Like a guitar gang. Like history or gender studies.

Each choice you make, whilst surviving in a community, is a choice that defines you and what you have at stake in that community.

Conversion is problematic for many, I think, because it represents an opt-out. A de-choice. A negative option that says, 'I don't like this group that has, so far, counted on me for definition and which I have used to define myself. I'm going to another one.'

Like a politician leaving a party after a lifetime of commitment, for a new one. Or a divorce. Or a youngster running away from home. Or somebody giving up citizenship of a nation. Or somebody asking to create a new nation/state. Those are people we call extremists or separatists.

Separatists are problematic too. They too seem to be opting out of the thing which is defined by them and has thus far defined them.

I also remember our 'gangs' in college. We were teenagers with not a clue about how things really worked in the real world. Ours was a small world with high walls, many rules and few visitors. A world of college magazines, dance contests, drama contests. And we participated and fought as groups which we liked to call 'gangs'. There was the Ratna-Tanu group, which had as its members a bunch of girls from Kota, from the same school, a few others who got along well with them. There was a bunch of day-scholars we called the 'Laal-garara' gang, ever since they put up a dance item to the tune of the pop song 'laal garara', all dressed in - what else? - laal gararas.

Loyalties were strong. Rivalries too. We talked with all but it would be intolerable if one of 'us' started hanging out too often with members of the other gang. Friendships were tested sorely. It was noticed, if you didn't share a table with your own group members. To desert your gang was a form of betrayal that, in snide, small ways, was punished... A taunt. Being barred from a gossip session. Not being asked to join a dance.

So, the self, finally.

Those who are afraid of conversions are, perhaps, afraid of losing a little bit of themselves. Afraid of losing that point of contact, which makes it simpler to relate, to be part of, to claim somebody as a part of you.

Society is constructed around ritual, around community of one kind or another - maybe just common interests - around a set of practices and events that give us our daily life, our motivations, our sense of normalcy and joy.

This could mean an evening satsang for some people. A Sunday morning mass for some. A literature festival. A gambling den. The Friday namaaz. Decorating a Christmas tree, lighting clay lamps on Diwali, attending college, participating in a television reality show, going to a club, trekking in the hills, meeting friends at a cafe, joining a gym.

Not all of these are the same in the demands they make of others. The Friday namaaz is very much a prayer-meeting, but it is also an individual act of faith for each person who shows up at a mosque. Another person could be sitting alone in a cafe, asking nothing more than to be served on time, and that the waiters don't spit into the coffee. Yet another person could join a gym for a purely individual reason - losing weight, getting a six-pack. Even so, in all these cases, we are forming and conforming to norms laid down by a group.

When I say I need to lose weight, I am allowing society to speak through my tongue. I am saying that I need to be accepted, liked, wanted, by others with whom I form a group. Those who do not form part of any group are the people we feel most threatened by. For instance, nomads have always been treated with mistrust and often humiliated by those who are 'settled'. Maybe because the nomads appear to reject something we believe is essential, a social essence, at the core of us.

Each time an individual whom we believe was 'ours', 'on our side', or a part of us, sends out the message that he is, in fact, not a part of us, we feel diminished. Perhaps, we are diminished. If everybody leaves a music group, it is disbanded; it ceases to exist. If everybody leaves a certain denominational church, it becomes forlorn and poor and less powerful in the region. If people stop queuing up outside a college to gain admission, it loses prestige value. If people stop coming to a satsang, the satsang is no longer a throng, a throbbing place of vitality and reassurance.

With every instance of diminished allegiance, every threat to their existence, all those who have something invested in the identity of the group, that is, their own identities and maybe even their livelihoods, are upset.

This is especially tricky when livelihoods are bound up with identity. Who is always at the forefront of the crusade for 'cultural nationalism' or 'religious revival' or 'spiritual renaissance'? Those who gain the most power/prestige/money/related benefits from a people's allegiance to a given idea or ideology.

It is not a mere coincidence that political-religious right-wing groups in India are always invoking the ghost of conversions. It is not for nothing that god-men go preaching lies about how that 'other' has been 'stealing' their women - who are not just members of this group, but also banks (in their eyes, at least) for the future.

Priests (of all religions) stand the most to lose if they lose their group. They lose their jobs. Religion is the touchiest part of the conversion spectrum because religion is, and always has been, so closely bound with politics and money. Many a church is rich. Sadhus, 'sants' and mahants are often rich, if not directly then through their ashrams. Maulanas are often rich. Those that are not rich - those are the ones who care least about what group you belong to, where you came from, what you call yourself and whether you can spare anything at all besides your heart. These are sometimes nomadic fakirs, and in secular terms, fakirs of temperament... And who has ever sought a fakir's views on conversions?

In Hindi, there is this brilliant phrase: 'peyt pe laat', which refers to a snatching away of livelihood. (Translating it as 'a kick in the stomach' is not quite the same thing). Religious leaders do not have the humility to admit that conversions are a loss of business, a kick in their collective stomachs. And so they raise questions about motive, about god, about cultural and spiritual pollution, about appeasement, about 'them' and 'us'.

[Atheists are too few in number to matter. It is easier to tackle those who seem to want to believe in some kind of god(s), and either win them back or bring more into the fold, than those who don't want anything to do with you and will certainly not pay you for the privilege.]

As for the 'us' reacting to 'them'... each time a group is confronted with loss, it reacts with fear and bitterness: loss does that to you. If they've taken one of us today, will they take more tomorrow? Will they take over? Will 'we' as we know ourselves no longer exist? 'I', as a set of functional organ parts may survive. But is that all I am? What am I? An Indian and a Hindu? Well, then, is India not an ancient land, the only country - barring Nepal - where Hindus are in a majority? Are we going to let them change that? Are we going to be ruled by someone who is not one of 'us'? Are we going to be diminished, bit by bit? Are we... are we.... are they...?


is a terrible thing. An awful thing that sucks out your mind's balance and leaves you teetering on the edge of an imagined void where the only escape seems to be to hit out at the force that you suspect may have led you here.

Collective fear is a thing beyond awful. It has the power of a mob, with none of the rationale of an individual mind.

A collective fear is near-impossible to assuage, for it is rooted outside the human frame. It is rooted in an intangible, amorphous, shifting thing called 'community'. You can go upto each member and gently brush away the shards of fear from their minds, but by the time you are done with one, the others have acted to undo it all. The collective exists in its commonalities. Therefore, common fears. When nothing else binds you, fear will.

And it does.

Update: One commenter seems to either have not read, or not understood this post at all. So, to spell it out clearly, I am not against conversions. Just because I understand (I think) why people oppose them, does not mean that I am against them too. People have the right to change religions like they change clubs, like they walk out of bad relationships, like they shut down a business or end their own lives. And just like you cannot stop someone from advertising their products or soliciting customers for sundry services of mind or body, you cannot stop a priest from converting someone.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

thela aur thel

Was invited to do an essay for Blogbharti, for their Spotlight series.

Here it is.

And since it is related to chai, here are the rest of the links as well.

Chai 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pledge in the new year

We sent wishes. Didn't we?

May the moon charm you and the sun warm you. May your lips be assaulted by laughter. May the year bring health. Jobs. May you... may you... may the new year bring....

And the new year brought.

The news that even before the sun had a chance to dawn upon the first day of the new year, that two women - escorted by men - were molested by a mob of about seventy men.

Exhibit 1 of the year. Mumbai must be reeling. It reels rather regularly, this safe city of ours, no? Especially over the last few years, when photographers have been around to record her shame. The pictures have ensured front page fear where the news would otherwise have been a 'briefs' item or a single column somewhere.

I've kept that article open on a different window all day. Returned to it several times, trying to understand.

Is there a language with which one discusses this sort of problem? Some anthropological jargon? Some special gendered lens through which one can peer and begin to develop a perspective?

Where do I begin? With this, that I've never much been taken in by the 'safe city' bilge? With reminding myself of myself in Mumbai, of my friends there?

Or do I conjure up a remembered image of the Gateway of India?

That time I'd walked there with a male friend and he'd been sitting right beside me and how, within minutes, a bunch of men had begun to appear all around, to my right and left, and behind, crowding us in, and how their hands had begun to touch and I could only feel appalled that it should happen in a male friend's presence in broad daylight! And the fear of what it would be like if I had been sitting there alone. And how I have never, since that day, sat down to just look at the sea at the Gateway of India.

Perhaps, I should begin differently. Perhaps, I should talk of class, instead, and lifestyle divisions.

That there are people who stand outside... outside... looking in. That there are five-star hotels and parties and tickets that the average citizen cannot afford. That they stand out there, looking in, waiting, and when the party-goers step out, as they must at some point, then... then what?

What shall I say about this, then?

Shall we try to look at this as a migrants problem, then? As a problem of single men, throbbing with sexual desire and unable to touch the beautiful rich women they do desire?

Shall we try to look at this as a cultural problem, then? As a problem of men who have never partied with single women, never sat down and had a drink with them, never danced with them, never picked them up from their homes and safely dropped them off, never ever seen them up close - the sort of women who wear slinky, western clothes and go partying at night?

Shall we try to look at this as a western influence problem, then? As a problem of women who go out partying with men, drink with them, dance with them, step out into the fresh air at night?

Ah! It's beginning to sound easy, isn't it? It is beginning to sound like something we know, have heard, can believe. We know this beast.

This beast does not seem to understand that sex is a two-way street. It seems to think that the female of the species does not have a will of its own, does not deserve one. This beast is not empathetic. It only knows what it is, and it is not a woman.

This beast... how well I know it.

This beast says, don't. Don't, if you want to live. Don't, if you want to be safe. This beast stands breathing hard over our heads while we live fractured, fractioned lives wherein we build ourselves smaller and smaller cages to curl up and die in, unmolested.

And the thing is, that it really is a battle between us and the beast. At least, for me, it is. It is us or the beast. So, in a way - a rude, blistering, numbing way - it is time to pick up the cudgels and renew the pledge.

Because I had a nice new year's eve, you see. I had a nice time sitting at home with a few old friends, laughing and gossiping about the old times. Unafraid young women because they were home, locked in from the big, bad world. Women who kept glancing at the clock after eleven at night, and rushed home soon after midnight hugs and wishes, because they would not risk driving by themselves any later than that. Women who spent twice as much as they needed to - taking taxis instead of autos, because that's the price you pay for wanting to be out in the evening. Women who were clothed head to foot twice over since it is a cold winter night, but would have worried nevertheless.

And today, I renew my commitment to Blank Noise.

Because I will not expect it, and will not accept it.

I will not stop buying 'provocative' clothes. I will not be modest. I will not behave. I will not treat the night as a na-mehram I cannot be seen with. I will not change my stride to side-step the maps of our molestation. I will not call a violation by any other name. I will not make unwanted rules for myself.

I will crush the beast where I see it. With a stare, with a slur, with a scream, with a camera, with an alphabet at a crossing, with a pamphlet, with a map, with a voice, with a can of paint, with anything that comes to hand.

I will take the sun AND the moon, the day AND the night, the sky AND the sea, the daily grind AND the parties. I will take my rights as a citizen and nothing less.

Dear Stranger,

Will you help?
Tweets by @anniezaidi