Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Little green aliens

The crazy Mexican invader Krishen refers to was a plant that was deliberately brought to our desert (tossed out from an airplane, apparently). Perhaps, it was done with good intent. Some researchers and/or administrators may have thought: “Hey, some greenery is better than none. Why don’t we bring in this super-tough Mexican shrub?”

And so they did. This new invasive plant took root, sure, but even goats wouldn’t eat the toxic stuff and it was near-impossible to get rid of.

Now, years later, we are making the same mistakes — introducing new plants without due caution. But this time we are not talking about a dot of green in a desert. We’re talking about our bodies.

A fairly intense battle for our dinner tables lies ahead with genetically modified crops angling to get a foot in. And the government seems to be willing to facilitate the process, although India’s experience with Bt Cotton has already proved that GM crops do not necessarily change things for the better. There are serious concerns now because it is hard to prevent GM contamination. Odisha, for instance, had already said a firm ‘No’ to Bt Cotton, but hasn’t been able to stop it from spreading. How do you control every seed, every breeze?

Hundreds of activists, farmer groups, former civil servants and politicians have signed a petition to the prime minister, demanding that the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill be scrapped and ‘a Biosafety Protection statute’ be introduced in its stead.

The protests are getting louder since Parliament’s upcoming winter session may spell make-or-break for Indian farmers. The Seeds Bill, 2004, and the Pesticides Management Bill, 2008, might get passed.

Read full piece here

aka Mera pyaara sukumar gadha

The next time we met, he talked about history. About long swathes of grass. About what it might be to look at the sky without tilting your neck backwards and how it might be if clear pools of liquid existed at the venue of our thirst, so we didn’t have to push our tired bodies to the faraway ponds. He talked about taps and knowledge and fences. It is hard not to love one who talks like this. Although, I should have realized at this point that he was a donkey.

This is from a short story that has recently appeared at the excellent Pratilipi

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The killing of Valsa

The sequence of events seems hazy at this point. About fifty armed men showed up in the village. Some reports say she was killed in her sleep. Others say that some old women tried to protect her by hiding her under mattresses, but all houses were searched and after Valsa was found, she was either shot dead, or hacked to death (depending on which newspaper you read).

She was in Bachuwari, Bachwari, or Pachuwara village (depending on which newspaper you read) for twelve years, living first with the headman’s family and then with another family, or perhaps she lived alone (depending on which paper you read). But there had been death threats, allegedly by the coal mafia. Some say that she was already being protected by some village residents. Clearly, she had needed more protection than she had.

The saddest part of this tragedy is that it was Sister Valsa who had been arrested when she demanded proper rehabilitation. In 2004, the police had filed a case against her for ‘blocking the road’ just at the time when a fire broke out in Pachwara. She had managed to get anticipatory bail in 2007. But she was arrested as soon as she left the court premises, and had to be let out on bail once again.

I heard the news of her killing on an e-group. An activist who had known her and worked alongside her in Jharkhand mentioned that the Kerelite nun had gone riding into town in the back of a truck to file a police report against the timber mafia. She had wanted to do more for the people she had sworn to serve. Teaching was no longer enough. She wanted justice.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A man's worth: dowry redux

‘So what are you worth?’ I asked.

‘Rs 50 lakhs,’ he wrote back.

I tut-tutted: What was Rs 50 lakhs these days? Too late to ‘improve’ himself, he moaned, but he’d make sure his unborn sons grew up to deserve more respectable dowries.

It was all a joke, of course. The ‘dowry calculator’ was doing the rounds on Facebook and I urged a friend, a business journalist, to get himself ‘valued’ for the marriage market. The application is intended a cheeky jab in the ribs, an exasperated joke aimed at people who still give and take dowry. We’d like to shake them up and say, come on, who does this dowry crap nowadays?

In fact, it’s been a long time since I heard money and marriage mentioned in the same breath. Brides-to-be discuss zardozi, colours, new linen. When shaadi season comes around, newspapers are full of articles about beauty treatments and wedding planners. Bridal wear trade fairs aggressively advertise themselves, and yet, nobody talks about where the money will come from. Who will pay for the impossibly solid gold jewellery, the band-baaja-baraat? 

More importantly, who will pay the price for it, in case nobody wants to foot the bill?

It is tempting to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much. But one morning you open the newspaper and you know who pays the price. They just found the charred body of the 25-year-old niece of a Congress MP from Secundrabad.

Once you start keeping track, dowry deaths become impossible to ignore. In June, I read reports of a 28-year-old in Basti (UP) being burnt alive; in Motihari (Bihar), a pregnant woman and her infant daughter burnt alive; in East Delhi, a 20-year-old set herself ablaze, leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter; in two separate cases in Bangalore, a 20-year-old killed herself and a police constable’s wife hung herself; and in chilled-out Goa, there is much consternation because of four dowry-related cases (two of them were murders) reported in less than a month.

It is also tempting to believe that it doesn’t touch us – educated, professional women. When I first asked my friends, they just shrugged. But the more anonymity I promised, the more stories came tumbling out.

Seema* told me that a few years ago, she was ‘seen’ by a young man who worked in the merchant navy. The boy’s parents were both academics and the family was ‘well-placed’. Everything looked set. But Seema’s uncle put a spanner in the works, saying, “This is too easy; something’s wrong.”

The family decided to put his hunch to the test. Seema’s father told the ‘boy’ outright: “We invested in her education but I’m a government servant. I can’t afford to give her anything. Our daughter will come to you with two new pairs of clothes. I just thought you should know this.”

The young man went home. Later that night, he called back to say that his mother had ‘collapsed’ after hearing such bad news. The match was immediately called off.

Another friend Preeti* didn’t fare so well. Her dad began setting aside money for her wedding when she was very little. It infuriated her but he just said she would need it one day. And sure enough, she did. “No demands were made,” says Preeti. “It’s a lot more sophisticated than that. But at the engagement, my mother-in-law casually said: ‘Whatever you give her will be put out on display, like, say, a washing machine’.”

Preeti’s father bore all the expenses for the wedding, and also forked over cash to buy new furniture although she was moving into a furnished house. Despite this, Preeti says her mother-in-law taunted her for years because she didn’t have gold bangles.

Someone else began to make disparaging remarks about the ‘north’ and said that things were much better in the ‘south’. So I began to look for dowry stories from south India. In an online forum, I found a curious anecdote about Bangalore. The writer mentioned a techie who was being interviewed for a new position. Things were going well until “this guy (…) was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA… He told the group head: ‘Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry’.”

It may be hard for some of us to imagine why an educated girl would meekly hand over Rs 1 crore to a guy who made a one-day pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. But others might wish that it was as simple as that – making a one-time lump sum payment and buying life-long love and peace. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

As Gauri Sharma, a human rights activist, points out, dowries are not paid once but several times over. “At the ‘first’ Diwali, Holi/Lohri, Karva Chauth, fancy gifts are given. In many families, the first child is delivered at the girl’s parents’ home. I know someone who just gave birth. Her husband asked her to tell her parents to pay the hospital bills! So they paid although her dad was a retired gentleman. And it didn’t end there. When she was going back to her marital home, her mother sent gifts for her husband’s entire family, plus more jewellery. I asked her mother: ‘Why?’, she just said: ‘Beta, it is riwaaz’ (tradition).”

Yes, that loaded word, tradition. It makes us put up with too many things that do us no good, and often, there’s murder to pay for it.


Hard fact: According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009, there were 8,383 dowry deaths reported to the police. These include murder and suicides in cases where the wife has alleged that her husband or in-laws have been pressuring her to ask her family for cash or other assets.


A bit of fun: Wondering how much India’s most eligible bachelors would be worth in the marriage market? 

Well, if you use the Dowry Calculator, not all that much. Whoever made the application must think that match-making aunties will not look at cricketers, politicians or actors as worthwhile investments in the marriage market.

I tried to calculate Rahul Gandhi’s dowry but there was no professional category for ‘politician’. So I chose ‘self-employed’. I also don’t know if he gets a salary as an office bearer for the Congress party, but as a Member of Parliament, his salary is supposed to be Rs 1.3 lakh a month (plus benefits). He went to Harvard so I put that down, and googled his approximate height (unverified).

The calculator says: ‘Dream dowry amount still eludes you’ and valued him at Rs 50 lakh. 

According to another, similar application (, Rahul Gandhi would not get any dowry at all.

Ranbir Kapoor does better. Since ‘actor’ or ‘artist’ was not listed as an option, I listed his profession as ‘family business’, and his skin colour as ‘wheatish’ (can do with some Fair & Lovely). Turns out, he’s worth Rs 65 lakh.

Cricket is also not mentioned as a ‘profession’, so while checking out Virat Kohli, I put down ‘self-employed’. But since he plays international cricket, it seemed fair to say that he works in ‘any country more developed than India’. He too was valued at Rs 65 lakh.

[This story was first published by Elle (India) in September 2011].

Friday, November 18, 2011

Paying for marriage, and how!

I find it hard to understand dowry in this great city where millions shove, spit and battle loneliness. That fellow whistling in the air as he rides the footboard on a train, scrutinising a girl in the next coach—is he wondering if her dad will pay for a Honda? Probably. How else do we explain dowry?

Over the past year or so, I’ve been forced to think a lot about dowry. Much has been happening. Someone came up with a computer application called The Dowry Calculator. Girls were undertaking sting operations against greedy grooms. People in Bihar have been kidnapping grooms. Sunita Singh has written an article about ‘pakarvah bibah’, in which she says that between 1995 and 2000, about 845 grooms were kidnapped, of which 556 were forced to marry at gunpoint. There was a film about it, Antardwand, which won a national award. There were screenings of Kundan Shah’s Teen Behnein, based on the suicide of three sisters who can’t deal with the whole dowry-marriage mess.

Someone on my Twitter timeline retweeted a sad brother who said his little sister, a bride of two months, was killed for dowry. Last week, a journalist emailed me the story of her maid, who is getting her computer-skills-enabled daughter married. The maid must cough up a ‘reasonable’ dowry—Rs 50,000 cash and 10 gm gold, demanded outright—and fund the wedding.

Meanwhile, the Big Fat Indian wedding continues to be glorified on TV and in cinema. Nobody seems to wonder who pays for all that jazz. Usually, the bride pays. Sometimes, she pays with her life.

... Perhaps the real problem is that nobody has a real problem with dowry. Not until the violence escalates. Not until you ask for more than someone’s ‘swechha’ permits. In fact, my generation of women is in shock about the fact that dowry harassment isn’t just something that in-laws do. It can also be something you do to your parents.

My friend G mentions a cousin who had a love marriage. The groom’s family was hostile at first; when they relented, their blessings came with a price tag. G recalls that the bride’s mother felt so betrayed at a daughter demanding her own dowry that she went into depression and required therapy.

Linking modern dowry to the disinheritance of Indian women, (Madhu) Kishwar has argued that most women do not want a dowryless wedding, lest ‘their brothers end up with an even bigger share of family resources’. But parents who bring up daughters as their sons’ equals must be wondering: where did they go wrong? Grandmothers in Kerala must be wondering: why are well-qualified girls paying for grooms?

Read the full piece at Open

Monday, November 14, 2011

Promises, promises

Your MP (member of parliament) is not responsible for water, sanitation or gardens. S/he can spend Rs3.35 crore on your constituency every year. But it is not her/his job to ensure that sewage isn’t leaking into drinking water.

Parliament’s basic job is national policy. This may translate into roads and drains, yes. For instance, new laws can force urban residents to start composting or rainwater harvesting. But to make that happen, MPs have to attend parliament. As our representatives, the least they can do is the actual representing. But are they doing it?

There had been a very promising trend started by a group called MumbaiVotes. Their ‘Promise vs Performance Report’ tracked six MPs from Mumbai between 2009 and 2010 by collecting data from parliament, direct interviews, and compiled media reports.

They told us that Eknath Gaikwad has 99% attendance. Gaikwad and Sanjay Nirupam are classified ‘livewires’ (over 90% attendance); Milind Deora and Sanjay Dina Patil are ‘healthy’ (80-90%); Priya Dutt is a ‘ghost’ (less than 70%). Gurudas Kamat was not included because, as a minister of state, he would be judged by different standards.

They also analyse ‘questions’, which tells us how active MPs are in parliament. Do they bother with research? Are they are trying to expose policy flaws? None of Mumbai’s MPs did well, though Gaikwad asked 426 questions, way above the national average of 135. But it seems like he was focused more on raising questions than on what his queries would achieve... Every politician has a personal manifesto, where he promises to do this or that thing for his voters. So all six MPs were sent a questionnaire, demanding a progress report. Kamat, Dutt and Gaikwad did not bother to reply.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keenan&Reuben&Manu&Babla &, &, ?

In Howrah, Manu Ram and Babla Bera were stabbed for trying to protect a 14-year-old schoolgirl. To borrow the words from an oddly-named NGO website, ‘eve teasing is an inseparable part of every girl’s life causing much avoidable mental agony to her. This in turn adversely affects her family and her friends’ (sic).

It not only affects family and friends, it also leads to tragicomic situations where people assume that any girl who is approached by any boy needs to be rescued! Last month, an unfortunately headlined item — ‘Eve-tease dilemma for cops’ — informed us that, in Patna, some people beat up young men. “The girls were celebrating a friend’s birthday when some boys approached them with birthday greetings. It was quite obvious that the boys and the girls knew each other. Some residents saw them talking and thought it to be an incident of eve-teasing and attacked the boys.”

Justice for Keenan and Reuben is necessary, but the outrage seems deflected so that, as usual, we blame institutions and not ourselves. The police have already arrested at least four people. Assuming the murderers are convicted, will we be satisfied? Will there be no more Keenans and Reubens?

As far as I’m concerned, the question to ask is not how such molestation-related murders could have happened in Mumbai, but why this happens so routinely in India.

It happens because millions of men do not respect women’s bodies. It happens because parents don’t teach their sons that there are proper ways of approaching the object of their (sexual) desires. It happens because boys are not taught to take ‘no’ for an answer. It happens because we have fostered a demonic culture where women have no control over their sexuality: they must either be given away to men in a pre-approved, community-sanctioned fashion, or they might be attacked. In such a culture, a woman is seen as fair game unless her protector-men — husband, boyfriend, brother, father — can physically beat off all assailants.

The full piece is up here

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Accepted murder, proscribed fun

... this collection was written to address a specific aspect of young women’s lives – the ‘goodness’ factor, with specific reference to south Asia. A story like Sujata does not qualify. Sujata might frighten us, but her morals/virtue are not being questioned (except by Kulin and he’s such a sadist that his accusations are easily overlooked). That’s the funny thing about our culture. It accepts, even condones murder if a woman is trying to save her body, but it doesn’t accept a young woman wanting to have some fun, using her body the way she likes.

The above extract is from an interview with Out of Print, which published my short story, Sujata. The interview focuses on writing technique and editing habits. But the sentence I've put up here is something I particularly wanted to highlight in the context of the story and our new book, which is full of stories about good Indian girls.

You can read the full interview here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

God (probably) doesn't need your anger

I was too taken aback at first to ask what wasn’t right, but he told us anyway. “This thing about gods, insulting god, it isn’t right.”

What I wanted to do, then, was roll my eyes. Instead, I found myself getting anxious. But I wasn’t about to be cowed, of course. So I told the angry young god-defender that this was between us and gods; we’d settle our own scores.

He went off and stood around sulking for a bit, and complaining to the nearest person who was too polite to protest. But until he left the venue, I remained anxious, mostly on account of the young performer whose work had given him offence.

What I found surprising was that the poem should be offensive to anyone who was concerned about the gods. If anything, the poet had already taken offence on their behalf, and written about how inappropriate it was that people who are not powerful in any way should be allowed to bear the names of Them, whom we worship. I personally didn’t care so much for the poem, but that was because of its slightly unkind irony — poking fun at the most fragile amongst us. It was almost as if the god-defender had randomly latched on to the few stray words, and decided that name of the gods should not be taken in vain.

Accusing someone of having insulted the gods (or a faith) is the easiest way to make him (or her) a target for violence. And in our country, it is also the most difficult violence to punish. And so, when faced with accusations of having insulted someone’s religious faith (or caste identity), we panic. Unlike our political/economic/ecological beliefs, we do not really defend our religious ideas. We take for granted that everyone owes them respect. And we do this by seizing upon divinity.

Say the ‘god’ word and all arguments are silenced.

Read the full piece here.
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