Friday, December 28, 2012

Tweaking our food, making us pay?

There have been some interesting developments in the tweaked food department.

Maharashtra has admitted that cotton yield is likely to reduce by nearly 40%. Bt Cotton has allegedly ‘failed’ in more than 4 million hectares of land. A report sent by the state agricultural department to the Centre says that the estimate of the net direct economic loss to cotton farmers in the state will be in the vicinity of Rs 6,000 crore, but that actual losses are much higher because with Bt. Cotton, the cultivation cost also rises.

Naturally, farmers aren’t very happy. According to Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti, about 5 million cotton farmers from Maharashtra want Rs 20,000 per hectare as compensation for the failure of Bt Cotton failure. The question of who should be coughing up the money is an interesting one. One certainly hopes it will not be the government, because that actually just means you and me – the taxpayers.

Some reports also say that a ‘consortium of farmer organizations’ is demanding the right to cultivate GM crops. Some new reports quote S Jaipal Reddy as saying that Andhra Pradesh has actually benefitted from GM crops. And Maharashtra, where such massive losses were reported, has set up a committee headed by a nuclear scientist, Anil Kakodkar, to advise the government on field trials of GM crops. It is interesting that the state already had a committee that included agricultural scientists or academics.

So far, Bt cotton has been the only GM crop allowed in India but private corporations have been lobbying to bring in GM rice, tomato, wheat and so on. Bt Brinal was attempted too, but the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had stopped the release in 2010.

A parliamentary standing panel had also released a report earlier this year where it criticizing Bt cotton and GM food tests. The panel had reportedly been sent 467 memoranda and 14,862 documents, and evidence from 50 organizations.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court does not ban open field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops even though the TEC (Technical Experts Committee) recommended a ten year moratorium on field trials. The TEC was set up after a petition was filed by Aruna Rodrigues and the NGO Gene Campaign to stop field trials until independent experts have assessed the risk of GM crops’ corrupting traditional seeds.

About a hundred scientists and several farmers groups also wrote to ask the Supreme Court to accept the TEC’s interim report. But then, the committee itself was modified to include a state-appointed person. As it is, India has been crying hoarse about the purity of its exports, after the European Commission suspected genetically modified organisms (GMO) contamination in our Basmati rice.

But the Centre has told the Supreme Court that we need GM food to feed hungry people. “India is unlikely to meet the target of cutting the proportion of hungry people by half if recourse to advanced and safe biotechnology tools are not adopted,” the government affidavit said.

This, despite the fact that the godowns are overflowing and there are farmers clamouring for the state to acquire foods – more than just wheat and rice – to ensure a minimum support price. The Supreme Court had, in fact, asked that the government open its godowns rather than allow citizens to starve. Clearly, the Court is aware that overflowing godowns exist. Perhaps, the government could look at those? 

In any case, I wish the government would decide who pays compensation to farmers if GM crops fail, or they contaminate non-modified crops, or if they damage our health. I’m hoping it will not be me.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The brutal question

So, she is in hospital in critical condition. There are injuries mainly on her face and stomach. The men who attacked her were armed with iron rods. And we are talking about the need for closed circuit TV cameras.
We are not asking what part of hitting a woman on her face is about sexual desire? What part of a woman’s body deserves to be damaged, ever? And we are not asking, because we are not allowed to talk about sex or desire. We are especially not allowed to talk as children and teenagers, when our values are being formed.
We are, however, allowed to talk about how much the victim of the assault is to blame.We are even allowed to shout at the police: Why can they not prevent rape? Even a court makes unthinking remarks like, “We are at a loss to understand as to how the bus could evade surveillance for 40 minutes.”
Why is this so difficult to understand? If you saw a bus move on the roads for 40 minutes, would you be surprised? Why would the police suspect a moving bus? What about cars? There have been cases of women being dragged into moving cars. There have been cases of men kidnapping women, locking them up in homes and repeatedly raping them. Should the police barge into every house, looking for rape victims?
And how many places can we afford to do this? It is easy to focus our outrage on Delhi, because it does have one of the highest number of reported rapes, or Haryana, where the report card for gender violence is abysmal too. But Jabalpur has a higher number of rapes as a percentage of the population. What does that tell us?
There are four major parts to the problem. One, women do not feel safe reporting the crime because they are not sure if the police will treat them with respect. Two, most rapists do not go to jail and they don’t stay there long enough. The National Crime Records Bureau records that rape convictions are down to 36 per cent. A murderer is much more likely to get convicted than a rapist.
It is true that very few rapes are investigated properly and even fewer are reported. It is also true that police personnel often treat thefts – or even public protests – with a greater sense of urgency than sexual violence. It is also true that the police is grossly understaffed and that many rapists are men who are acquainted with the victim. Therefore it becomes impossible for the police to ‘prevent’ a situation where rape might occur.
The only thing the police can ensure is that if a rape has occurred, the victim doesn’t hesitate to rush to the nearest police station or hospital.
The third part of the problem is that we discriminate between the kinds of women who get raped or molested, as if their clothes, or sexual habits, or the time of day was the criminal, instead of the men who attack them.
The fourth and most significant aspect of the rape crisis is that our male population is trained to think of sex as an experience that is divorced from the body and mind of another human being. 
We direct our outrage at the police, or the government, because we like to shift the blame. We do not like to acknowledge the fact that a large part of our population is potentially criminal in their thinking about sex.
The first two problems are fixable to the extent that we can introduce a new module in police training, with some basic counselling built in, so every cop – including constables – is taught to deal with rape correctly. We can insist that hospitals be located near police stations, and every hospital, including PHCs (primary health centres) have an emergency rape kit. We can get our home ministry to approve these measures.
But none of these changes will prevent rape unless we fix ourselves as a society. It is idiotic to expect that policemen, or lawyers, or judges can prevent rape if we cannot prevent people from thinking that any kind of sexual violence is justified or forgivable.
Can we fix people’s thinking? I believe we can. There are communities in this world where rape is almost unheard of. How do they manage it? They manage by ensuring gender justice as far as possible. Men and women both work and have equal access to property or natural resources. They have sex when they want it. They marry when they can afford to. They have children. They walk away (or run away) from a relationship if it is making them unhappy.
No man claims a right to a woman’s body indefinitely just because a ceremony has been conducted. No woman is so poor or so afraid of many men inflicting violence upon her body that she tolerates violence from one man. Nobody is ostracised or penalized for wanting to have sex. 
Can we hope to build such a society? I want to believe that we can. The alternative is too brutal to believe.
First published here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Imagine this procedure

Imagine this situation. You go to work. In the evening, you say goodbye to colleagues. You come home. And you find someone waiting for you.

This someone wears khaki. This someone says he’s a cop. This someone begins to ask you questions about where you’ve been, who your friends are, do you know so-and-so? You say, no. He says you must come to the police station. You ask, why? He does not tell you. He makes you get into his car.

You still don’t know who this someone is. He wears no name tag. He does not volunteer any information about which police station he’s attached to, and when you will be coming back.

Now, imagine you’re a woman and you have a small child in your arms. You catch a train to attend a conference. Next thing you know, some people come into the compartment,claiming to be railway policemen in plainclothes. So far, you have no clue you’ve been arrested. But you find yourself at the local CBI branch office.

You are questioned for links to armed rebel outfits. You say you have no links.

They take you to the women’s police station for the night. The lock-up room is guarded by a man. You’re prevented from using the toilet. You still have your child and colleagues with you. The next morning, you are questioned alone. You are pressurized to sign a document. Then you’re taken to court and your ‘confession’ produced as evidence.

It could happen so easily. If you’re an activist talking about land rights or forest rights or water rights, this imaginary scenario must look frighteningly real.
On the December 8, 2012, something like this happened in Ranchi, leading to the incarceration of Aparna Marandi, according to Baby Turi, head of Jitpur panchayat in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. Baby says she was picked up along with Aparna and her four-year-old son, and Sushila Ekka. Baby and Sushila had not signed confessions and were released on the 10th. Aparna, fearing for her life, signed a confession and went to jail.

What Baby and Aparna have in common was that both their husbands — Damodar Turi and Jiten Marandi — were arrested in 2008 and accused of Maoist activities. According to a statement by Damodar, who is the state convenor of the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan (Peoples’ Campaign against Displacement), when he was arrested, no FIR was filed. He was tortured and made to sign a statement. At a press conference, Maoist pamphlets were put on show, along with the allegation that these were recovered from the NGO’s office. As for Jiten Marandi, he is still in jail. He was acquitted by the High Court, but is still kept in jail through the Jharkhand Crime Control Act (2002).

Whether Jiten or Damodar or Aparna are guilty of a crime, or have Maoist links is a separate question. A far greater danger to ordinary Indians is posed by the police contempt of procedure.

The police needs to do its job, but it seems as if increasingly, the police needs policing. There are reports of such gross violations from every state, and surely, we can’t afford to send human rights’ defenders chasing after every cop in India. And yet, we have to know who is arresting whom and for what. A citizen deserves access to a lawyer before s/he signs anything.

Perhaps, this it is even possible with newer technologies to start monitoring police activity. Perhaps that is the only way to make the police comply with procedure. Because if we cannot trust our own police force, where does that leave us?

First published here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

what price, shopping?

I hear it’s the wedding season. Which means a lot of people are shopping without dropping. In any case, the new Indian middle class no longer waits for festivals or weddings. Shopping is weekend entertainment.

This is possible partly because of an abundance of low-priced readymade garments. Another big change is that we now shop for labels. We no longer pick out our own style. It is enough now to know that we’re buying into a name that is internationally known. Hence, streets offer ‘reject maal’ or copied samples of fashion trends in Europe or the USA. Malls are packed with ‘labels’ and most are not frightfully expensive.

Ever wondered why? Of course, labour is cheap and plentiful in India. But still, ever wondered — how cheap exactly?

The average monthly wage for garment workers in Bangalore is Rs4,472. And it’s not like the owners of the factories are proudly publicising these wages. We only know because of the National People’s Tribunal, organised as part of a campaign by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. According to the report, Rs4,472 is only 43% of what the worker’s family actually needs, given that they pay for rent, food, water, children’s education and healthcare.

India’s textile industry is supposed to be worth USD 55 billion. Reports say that two million people are employed in readymade garment units; 80% are women. Now, testimonies from 250 garment workers reveal low wages, overlong work hours, sexual harassment and work conditions that amount to “bonded and forced labour practices”.

As for safety, most units are a disaster waiting to happen. One such disaster happened recently in Bangladesh , the second largest exporter of readymade garments. A fire broke out in a factory near Dhaka, and this certainly wasn’t the first such incident. This time, 112 people died. Some tried to jump out from the eight-storey building. The guards did not open the main gate even after smoke emerged from the building.

After the latest fire incident, garment workers in Bangalore staged a candle light vigil, demanding safer working conditions. News reports quote workers as saying that buildings pose a safety threat; there’s only one door and no emergency exit.

Part of the responsibility lies with international brands who buy from such factories, but it is a telling fact that at the Tribunal hearing in Bangalore, with the exception of Swedish firm H&M, no other global brand showed up. Nor did the India suppliers.

And we shouldn’t be surprised. If they can’t fix fire hazards in Bangladesh, what makes us think they care to invest in safety in India? It is India’s responsibility to ensure that the rules are followed.

But then, workers say the Karnataka Labour department doesn’t even recognise their trade unions. In any case, the department doesn’t have a good track record of intervening on behalf of labour. Take the Bangalore metro project. Some accidents led to a group of students asking a question in 2010: who is responsible for safety at Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) sites? The BMRCL did not reply. In 2011, the students approached the Karnataka Labour department, which shifted responsibility onto the Ministry of Urban Development. In September 2012, the Ministry just asked the BMRCL to respond.

So, what kind of faith do we expect garment workers to have in the department that’s supposed to protect their rights? Will the state do its job?

And what about us, the shopping hordes? Through their testimonies, the women who create our inexpensive pleasures are talking to us, telling us what really goes into these clothes. Are we listening?

This piece appeared here.

After I sent it off, I found another update on the Bangladesh fire incident. Apparently, Wal-Mart chose not to invest in upgrading infrastructure at factories to make work conditions more bearable and safer.

According to the news report, "At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc., Target Corp. and JC Penney Co. At the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost,"

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: My dear Bapu

There are some things we know about modern India — that Mahatma Gandhi, or Bapu as he was fondly called, was the largest wave in the great tide of freedom sweeping across India between 1920 and 1947 and his chosen tools were civil disobedience and non-violent satyagraha. We know of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, and C Rajagopalachari. What most of us don’t know is that freedom fighters — even those who agreed with Bapu — were not a monolith. They did not think or act cohesively. They even worked at cross-purposes.
It is difficult to get a full sense of the past, the pushes and pulls and shoves that won us independence; the immense struggle against splintering; the fine muslin of emotional appeal and inclusion of dissident voices that was woven into khadi.This is one of the precious reveals of My Dear Bapu, a collection of letters, mainly between C Rajagopalachari (CR) and Bapu, but also including letters to Devadas Gandhi, who married CR’s daughter Lakshmi, and grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has edited this book.
CR and Bapu discussed khadi, temple entry for dalits, prohibition and dietary experiments. CR agrees with Bapu on abolishing untouchability, but doesn’t agree on separate electorates based on religion. Malviya seems to be aligned with orthodox priests and actually opposes Bapu’s fight against untouchability. Satyamurti wants CR thrown out of the Congress. CR doesn’t agree with CR Das. The Swarajists are a problem. There are pro-changers and no-changers and slow-changers.
It is oddly reassuring to know they were wrangling even in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Common ground had to be renegotiated on a daily basis, and this is deeply relevant to present-day readers who are disenchanted with politics itself. Through post and telegraph, friendships and rivalries and the freedom struggle is revealed. Bapu and CR explain themselves, argue about whether to fast or not, whether to drink milk or not, and with each letter, they grow more tangible to the imagination.
The first few letters are formal, but later exchanges are full of affection. They include details of how much cotton yarn is needed, but also accounts of grief. One of the most poignant threads is CR’s updates about his elder daughter, Namagiri (Papa), who fought off a long spell of illness and before she could her recover, lost her husband. Only a tiny glimpse of grief is afforded, and the reader is left to imagine how CR, a single parent, juggled family with constant travel, fund-raising, and jail stints.
The book is also charming for its literary asides — CR spending jail time translating epics, CR raving about Shakespeare and Morley; an 84-year-old CR refusing to visit the 90-year-old Bertrand Russell on the grounds that Russell was ‘too old’.
Another small joy lies in reading the footnotes, which introduce us to people who were part of CR or Bapu’s life, such as Thiru Vi Ka, Nageswar Rao Pantulu, Shankerlal Banker and Sadhu Surendra. A generation that barely knows Bapu is not likely to know Kelappan. It is easy to forget that it took many to implant the idea of Gandhi across the subcontinent.
It is also good to remember that men like Bapu and CR had a broad vision. Freedom was not just about hartals and burning foreign cloth. Freedom meant caring for your people. It meant taking responsibility for flood relief in Malabar even if it meant cooperating with the very government that had jailed them. In one letter, CR endorses Bapu’s statement to Reuters in 1931, wherein he seeks an India “where there shall be no high class and low class”, and does not distinguish being indigenous and foreign, as long as they don’t hurt the interests of “the dumb millions”.
We learn little of CR’s feelings post independence. Devadas died young and Gopalkrishna was too young to be burdened with disillusionment and systemic rot. But in his fine introduction, Gandhi writes of the time when CR fought the Congress electorally through a new political outfit, the Swatantra Party. It won most of the seats in Madras along with its ally, the DMK in the 1962 elections. “His newly elected MPs were to take their seats in the Lok Sabha. I asked him if he would not like to watch the proceedings from the visitors’ gallery. ‘It will be a sensation, Anna,’ I ventured. CR thought awhile and said, ‘It will be sensationalism.’ He went that year on a brief political Sabbath.”
CR’s erudition and Bapu’s keen, contesting mind are in fine display throughout, as is CR’s empathy and gentle reaching out to younger minds. The content of the letters alone make for an interesting read, but add the weight of history, and the new India’s aggressive polity, this book assumes greater significance.
First published here

Monday, December 03, 2012

Yohoho and an armful of force

A friend posted a note online saying how proud he was that India has never attacked another nation. It made me puff up with pride too. But I also wondered why – Is it because a billion people are pacifist, content human beings with no awful greed driving them? Or is it because most of our aggression is turned inward?

Consider recent news. Eight houses in a Dalit colony were set on fire by a mob in Tamil Nadu. But the attackers remembered to force open the steel almirahs and steal the gold jewellery before torching the houses.

Meanwhile, Mahendra Karma, a Congress leader in Chhattisgarh, survived a landmine attack. There have been reports of other explosive attacks on CRPF and police convoys. The Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh has been quoted as saying that, since 2001, Maoists have killed 5,745 civilians and 2,062 security personnel.

Other reports estimate that 1,00,000 people have been displaced because of the conflict between Maoists and the state armed forces and civilian militia like Salwa Judum, propped up by the state and encouraged by politicians like Karma. Which means that they moved to refugee camps and their homes were burnt down.
But still, business must go on. So the state government as well as the Centre continues to push projects in ‘Naxal-affected’ areas. Their development plans include airports (not likely to be used by forest-dwelling communities), factories (which will employ locals only in the lowest-paid jobs and probably on a temporary basis), and mining.

Perhaps you’re wondering what’s being done to offset the negative impact of such projects. It seems the Bhilai Steel Plant does have a plan to counter Maoists through its Corporate Social Responsibility wing. They plan to sponsor sporting and cultural events. I suppose, the assumption is that people will sing and dance and play games, even as their lives are being destroyed.

In any case, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) plans to build new airports at Raigarh and Bilaspur. The state-run Coal India also wants to double its production capacity in Chhattisgarh by 2017. But to do this, it needs a railway line to be established over the next few years. And a railway line also needs security. Almost every venture needs security. So Bhilai Steel Plant is reportedly funding the ‘construction of barracks’ for paramilitary forces. The existing mines have been depleted and there is more iron ore to be found in the Raoghat mines, but the CPI-Maoist is opposed to the project. Bhilai also needs a railway line to transport ore. If reports are to be believed, “more than 4,000 personnel, of elite paramilitary forces will be deployed to guard the railway construction site”.

Besides, there are other countries willing to jump in for a piece of the action. At a recent ‘global’ business meet in Naya Raipur, which the Chhattisgarh government had organized to bring in more investors, there was a remark made by a senior Russian diplomat. Alexey Mzarevlov reportedly said, “We can co-operate with the state government on security if they want. Russia has several years of experience in anti-terrorism measures.”

There was a Land Rights Cycle Yatra around Madya Pradesh recently. The activists went to Rewa district, Sangi village, and found that dalit and adivasi families have not had a ration card for twenty years. The elderly do not get pension. Land deeds have been drawn up but land has not been distributed.

I’m wondering if we need the paramilitary forces. After all, they get so much done – mines, railway lines, dams. Maybe they could also ensure that pensions arrive and mid-day meals get served in school.

First published here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ek red colour ki love story

A poetry film. A bit of an experiment with cityscapes and words. The script was 'found ' in the sense that the story was constructed around images or situations that already existed and inspired a line or two of poetry in my head. Watch if you can. Like if you like.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unbecoming India

I’m currently reading a book that spans the 1920s-60s. It reveals a lot about some of the men who organized and led the freedom struggle – Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari, Nehru and Vallabh bhai Patel. And I’m wondering what these men would do if they knew that, in the sovereign land for which they went to jail and organized strikes and suffered attempts on their lives, two young girls would be arrested for questioning the legitimacy of a bandh. That a doctor’s clinic would be destroyed because a politician died of old age. That this politician would be a man accused of unleashing mayhem and murder upon citizens, and that he would never be punished properly for his crimes, but instead that his dead body would be draped in the national flag.

When India came into being as a republic, we chose to be democratic, sovereign and secular. We were no longer just a landmass upon which hundreds of millions lived, but a notional place of dignity. We knew what it was like to live without freedom, equality and justice. And we wanted to stop suffering, just so that someone else could get richer.

When we say we wanted freedom, it wasn’t just that we wanted rulers who had the same skin tone. We wanted the freedom to choose what was good for us. Because often, what was good for Indians resident in India was not profitable for colonial masters. But when we protested, our leaders were thrown into jail for a range of crimes that ranged from disturbing the peace to treason.

And now? Well now, Dayamani Barla has been in jail for over a month. In 2006, a case was filed against Barla when she was part of a group that blocked a road, demanding NREGS (national rural employment guarantee scheme) job cards for some villagers. She was charged with rioting, criminal trespass and so on. The case was reopened and she was arrested in October this year. She managed to get bail but was immediately arrested in connection with another case. According to a statement issued by other activists, police officials refuse to tell ‘for technical reasons’ what laws Barla is supposed to have broken.

Wondering why an old case reopened, and what was Barla up to? Well, she’s been standing with the farmers of Nagri village who refuse to let go of the 200-odd acres of land the state government has earmarked for a law university and a new IIM.

It is not that the villagers of Nagri wish to pose an impediment to educational institutions. They have said that there are other pieces of land around, which are not being cultivated and therefore more suitable for construction. This land, they say, was acquired in the 1950s, and even then, most villagers had refused the pitiful compensation on offer. For decades, nothing happened. Then the state decided to build a new university, and so it destroyed the standing crop belonging to the farmers. And now, Barla is in jail.

Consider the irony of Barla, an award-winning journalist-activist, being lodged in the Birsa Munda Central Jail. It has been named for legendary freedom fighter Birsa Munda who died in Ranchi jail, it is said, under mysterious circumstances.

I wonder what our freedom fighter-leaders would say to Dayamani Barla. What would Gandhi say? What would Vallabh bhai Patel say? What would Subhash Chandra Bose say?

And I wonder too – how different are we from colonial India where people could be parted easily from land or salt, and leaders jailed for encouraging us to break the law if it hurt people and livelihoods?

First published here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Get rid of that damn purdah

Here’s a question I have long wanted to ask of our security providers. I understand the need to scan bags and jackets. But how do you explain those monstrous curtained cubicles created especially for women?

Police, security agencies, mall owners, government, someone, explain! What do you think is being accomplished? Women fliers or cinema patrons are checked by other women. Purses or backpacks have already been searched outside, or put through scanners operated by men. Then, we walk into a makeshift cubicle with black fabric walls, or else, horrid rubber strips for curtains (which are probably never washed and make me worry about dust and infection), so that we may have hand-held metal detectors passed down the length of our bodies. And we step out again.

What part of the process needs to be ‘private’? We are not being strip-searched, after all. So, why do we need to go behind a curtain?

I feel upset because there seems to be an assumption that anything to do with a woman’s body must be concealed. It is almost as if the very idea of women having women’s bodies must be embarrassing and that, if we must be touched by anybody – even if it is a female cop – it must be concealed. As if a woman being touched for any reason at all is a horrible thing. But that doesn’t stop the security checks. It just puts us into a temporary purdah, so nobody can see what’s being done to us.


Do cops or mall-owners seriously think that women want to curl up and die at the thought of being brushed down with a metal detector? I very seriously doubt if shoppers or fliers are ashamed of being made to undergo a mandatory security check. Does being felt up make us conscious? Perhaps. But it would make anyone conscious, men too. Why do you assume that men’s embarrassments are meaningless?

And if security staff needs a private area to conduct an intimate search of our shopping selves, then there ought to be one for men. If it is not appropriate to examine women’s bodies in full public view, it is also not appropriate to conduct such examinations of men’s bodies in front of women, right?

This has bothered me for years now, but most of us don’t see fit to make a noise about it because it isn’t a big enough issue. But actually, I do believe that it is symptomatic of a larger problem – that of shaming women and, at the same time, making them constantly conscious of their physical selves. It is like a message is being sent out – keep those bodies under wraps, even as someone pokes and scans and metal-detects the life out of your bones. Under no circumstances must anybody notice your body.

There is something very absurd and very frightening about a society that cannot accept one simple fact: women have bodies almost the same as men, and that a body – or having things done to these bodies – is not something to be ashamed of.

I personally am a firm opponent of purdah in any form for this reason. The assumption that women’s bodies – even just the hair, or the face, or the legs – lead to violence is a false one. It is an unjust, cruel assumption and if we want a truly equal, peaceful world, then this idea must be ripped out of all minds. And I don’t know if we can change all purdah-loving cultures immediately, but we can throw out those meaningless, bizarre curtained cubicles out of all public areas. And we should. This very night.

First published here

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Buy, buy, buy

Here's the new book out there. It is called Love Stories # 1 to 14. There are (obviously) fourteen stories of love, some of it dead, some undying, and some of it involving dead people.

Readers, friends, detractors (especially you), curious onlookers, I would encourage you to pick up a copy.  I will be doing signings in some stores, wherever I can get down to the task without bankrupting myself. But in the interim, you could head to the nearest bookstore, or your favourite bookstore if you have one. If you're more likely to shop online, please do so. Some stores are offering very generous discounts.

Look at this 26% percent off at Infibeam, 19% off at Bookadda, and 14% off at Flipkart.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Growing figures

So it is being said that India’s economic growth is “likely to drop to 5.7%”. The report pointed out that the current growth is lower than the 6.5% figure from last year, and 6.7% in the “crisis-hit 2008-09”.

For the lay citizen, these percentage points and ominous hints of a ‘slowdown’ or a crisis are meaningless. We experience a crisis economy in three terms: Is it hard to find jobs? Is food scarce? Are essential services (like public transport and healthcare) accessible?

Politicians and economists like to bandy about figures, but don’t answer these basic questions. It is like being assured that a child is growing just because her weight is increasing. It could also mean the child has a hormonal problem. If 5 or 6 or 9 per cent growth is not leading to employment and improved public services, it means that our national child is sick.

I recently read a magazine profile of the current chief minister of Gujarat, where there is a fair bit of growth. There are MoUs being signed; industries are being set up. Then why are more young people registering themselves at unemployment exchanges? Why are so few jobs created in the private sector? Why are children malnourished? Narendra Modi might prefer not to answer these questions, but I don’t understand why economists are not explaining.

We’re only a developing economy. Our average could fall to 4 or 3 per cent and we’d still be ‘growing’ faster than the developed ones. The Eurozone economy had zero growth in the first three months of 2012. This was true of France as well. But are children starving in France? I don’t think so. And France has universal healthcare for all her citizens.

What is a ‘healthy’ growth number anyway? It is said that Germany alone is staving off a bad recession. But the German central bank forecast a growth of just 1%. Studies also suggest that 8 out of 10 Germans want a new economic order. ‘Growth’ as a numerical concept is no longer acceptable. More Germans believe that more income is not necessarily leading to a better quality of life.

Nations like Greece are in trouble. But Greeks are looking for ways to deal with their crisis. What do we do when there is no money? Well, we look at alternatives. Say, I need a taxi ride and I can’t pay for it. The taxi owner gives me the ride ‘free’. But his children need Math tuitions. I can offer that service, so I do. An informal barter economy has sprung up in pockets of ‘austerity-wracked’ Greece. People manage with some community trust. We must work for our sanity, even if the basic food, clothing, shelter requirement is met.

But it was interesting to see how the Greece situation was reported. One headline said: ‘It has come to this’. Another said: ‘Cashless currency takes off’. Yet another article said: ‘Misery forces workers from cities’, which sounded so strange to me.

In India, we rarely hear of hardship forcing workers to quit cities. If things are bad in big cities, they are usually a lot worse in villages. Still, most Indians live in villages. They move because they can’t find work, or can’t access basic services. Distress migration has been a trend for decades now. And our economists didn’t seem to think there might be an economic crisis underway.

Another article I read quoted the writer Edward Abbey who said that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. We would do well to examine the growing child of our economy for symptoms.

First published here.

Monday, November 05, 2012

All our filth

I saw this film recently, A Royal Affair, set in eighteenth century Denmark, and based on real events during the reign of Christian VII. Across Europe, there were changes in people’s ideas about religion, science and civil rights. There was talk of peasants or ‘serfs’ actually having rights, like the right to not be tortured. There was talk of vaccination. And yet, the streets of Copenhagen apparently stank.

The royal council – comprised mostly of the nobility, mostly men with inherited property and titles – did not want to spend on citizen babies getting vaccinated. It took a lot to ensure routine garbage collection.
That was not the only nation where people thought public sanitation was a luxury they could opt out of. As late as 1910, in France, there was resistance to building a sewage system. Property owners, or so I’ve read, preferred to clog the streets with filth rather than pay to install new sewage pipes. It was bureaucrats who worked hard to create a decent sewage system. Someone has remarked that the streets could have been cleaned in ten years, but it took a hundred years because the educated, middle and upper class would not cooperate.

Now here we are, over two hundred years later, trying to figure out what to do with our endless tonnage of garbage and sewage. More and more paper and plastics are used as packaging material. More and more waste, much of it generated by the upper classes. Yet, most housing societies and commercial establishments do not invest in segregation or recycling.

The municipality in Bangalore has finally made segregation of garbage mandatory for homes and commercial establishments, starting October this year. But Bangalore’s hotels were opposed to the move. They thought it was not ‘feasible’, which is not true. It would only require separate bins and just a teeny bit of consideration.
They did say that garbage collectors would mix up segregated garbage, which is a real concern. Collectors aren’t trained properly in recycling and composting; the benefits are not clear to them. Hence, the Delhi High Court had to issue a contempt notice against the municipality’s sanitation department in Delhi for poor waste management. All the wet and dry waste collected was being mixed together again when it went into the landfill.

In Mumbai, there have been some feeble attempts. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation warned housing societies that they have to either start segregating garbage or pay fines. I don’t know how many were actually fined, but as far as I can tell, dustbins on the streets overflow with a mixed mess of glass, plastic and food. Which can only mean that either households are refusing to segregate waste, or that collectors don’t have separate bins and separate trucks for transporting wet and dry waste to different destinations.

It’s not so hard to do. I know that some residential areas in Pune had made it compulsory to keep wet and dry waste in separate bins. When the collector arrived in the morning, he brought two bins and that made his sorting task simpler. It also made it easier to convert waste into organic manure. There is no reason why segregation should not be mandatory in every town. Every housing society could have its own garden with its own manure-production unit. It could lead to an income for more people.

For once, the municipal authorities are trying to do the right thing. Perhaps they aren’t succeeding but the citizens – especially those who can afford dustbins – are equally responsible. We can clean up our streets in ten years, or we can take a hundred. Or we can wait for an epidemic.

First published here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A belated happy birthday note

A young man recently visited us and noticed a sketch of Gandhi up on my wall. He asked if I liked the man. I said I did. He said he didn’t. I asked why. He said, “We were better off under the British”. So I said, “Do you know what it was like with the British?”

He changed the subject, hopping from one general statement to another about how Gandhi didn’t work. I was about to argue, then I realized he didn’t read, and hadn’t seen much of India outside of his family business and an urban college with a fairly high tuition fee.

I could have told him about satyagrah. But that gets you into trouble with most authority figures including your parents and sometimes involves a stint in jail. But perhaps, I should have told him anyway.

I’ve been thinking about Gandhi all this month. The papers were full of photos of schoolkids dressed up like him – shirtless, bald, round spectacles. It’s one way of remembering Gandhi, to suggest that we want our children to be like him. But the baldness or spectacles were the least significant aspect of him.

The critical difference between him and other Indian leaders was that he embraced our greatest nightmare – poverty. He chose hunger. He chose to walk. He chose jail.

Gandhi could have stayed out of jail. With his determination and intelligence, he could also have served the interests of our colonial masters. He could have bent the backs of other Indians further. He could have bought a car, and sent his children to London. And the children could have done the same.

Instead, Gandhi cleaned toilets because he wanted to smash a social system where some human beings are forced to do ‘dirty’ work that other human beings don’t want to do. He believed in peace between communities and was subjected to assassination attempts – from Indians – much before partition.

Gandhi dressed poor and worked like the poor because he needed to remind us – and himself – that the poor exist, and that India was a place of exploitation. The main problem with imperialism is that it leads to exploitation. People become poorer and are kept that way through unjust laws. If they rebel, they are accused of working against the ‘national’ interest.

Today, the ‘national’ interest is no longer British interests. And yet, food godowns overflow and farmers kill themselves and ‘advanced’ technology allows seeds to self-destruct. Slum-dwellers get 24 hours to move before their homes are demolished, but builders must provide comfortable alternate accommodation for ‘flat-wale’ people whose buildings must be demolished. What would Gandhi do?

Some people in Chhattisgarh must have asked themselves this question. I saw photos from Gare village in Raigarh district, where an organization led a coal satyagrah, just like the salt satyagrah in Dandi, led by Gandhi. On Oct 2 this year, villagers decided to pick up coal from the open cast mines. They were willing to pay royalties as well, and they invited local officials to measure the mined coal and give them receipts for the tax purposes. This was their way of asserting rights not only over the land but also over mineral resources.

Were they are breaking the law? I do not know. But I think they are right to want to do this. There are problems of exploitation in every district, every village. But Gandhi did leave us tools with which to fight. And perhaps, if schools had modules on Gandhian philosophy, or at least on human rights, civil rights movements and non-violent political tools, we might feel less powerless.

Published here

Monday, October 22, 2012

Of rice and ministers

What do Kashmiri militants, traditional caste-based panchayats in Haryana and the Chhattisgarh police have in common?

No, not various kinds of illegal violence. (Well, who knows?) But today, what I’m talking about is a hatred of denim pants. Jeans. That is, women wearing jeans. We’ve heard of girls getting shot at for wearing jeans in Kashmir. And now there are reports that the Chhattisgarh Police Training Academy is frowning upon policewomen in jeans.

Not just jeans, though. Apparently, they’re not supposed to wear slacks, leggings or any kind of western outfit during office hours. The funny thing is, most policewomen on active duty are actually supposed to be wearing pants. They don’t go chasing robbers (or alleged Naxals, for that matter) in sarees.

This rejection of ‘western’ denim is confined to its appearance on women’s bodies, incidentally. Male police officers are not obliged to do their bit for the preservation of Indian culture. Which makes me wonder — what were the two cops — now suspended — wearing when they molested school teachers in Rajgarh? And what were the male cops wearing when they were torturing Soni Sori? Were they in their khaki uniform pants or denim?

The Chhattisgarh police have been busy with other kinds of problematic actions too. There are allegations that one young man in Raipur was beaten up by the police, and he suffered hearing loss as a result. One Anwar Hussain was beaten up allegedly after he asked the chief minister Raman Singh a fairly reasonable question at a rally. The question was about rice production.

Perhaps Raman Singh wasn’t responsible for the thrashing. He may have asked the cops to just remove the guy who asked the question. But it was not the smartest thing to do. Especially when he’s just made the appalling public statement that a father should be punished for crimes committed by murderer or rapist sons, because it is daddy’s fault for passing on bad DNA. Clearly, his views on crime and punishment are a bit wonky.

At any rate, rice seems to be sore point with Raman Singh. Other reports suggest that he had yelled at a journalist who asked a question about rice procurement. Which wasn’t such a smart thing to do. When a politician lashes out at those who raise questions, it just confirms everyone’s worst suspicions. So, now, I’m really starting to wonder what’s going on with rice in the troubled state of Chhattisgarh.

Because troubled it surely is. If Raman Singh was serious about fixing it, he’d get serious about rice. He might look at reports coming in from citizens, and hear of people in Surguja district who have not been paid their dues for six months. He would hear of anganwadi workers in Bastar who have not been paid for months.

He might hear that forest-dwelling people would prefer not to have agricultural universities, as minister Sharad Pawar seems to be promising. They might think that they already know their agriculture. They might prefer it if forest land was not given over to coal mining.

Raman Singh would do well to prepare himself for criticism in coming weeks. If the India Against Corruption workers are to be believed, they’re busy digging up dirt in the state because they believe that “Corruption is the root cause behind the Maoist problem.”

I don’t know about the Maoists, but the people of ‘affected’ districts like Dantewada probably don’t want a college for the unemployed, which Raman Singh seems to be offering. I think they would prefer not to be made unemployed in the first place.

First published here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five reasons I am angry this bright Tuesday morning

I live in a country where a woman chief minister can attribute the awful, unforgiveable crime of rape to men and women, boys and girls actually acknowledging each other's existence on the same planet, and she can remain in office. This leader seems not to know the difference between violent assault and voluntary holding of hands, and she is expected to make and enforce laws.

I live in a country where feudal dens of patriarchy that have consistently defied the Constitution of my country are allowed to function. These community 'leaders' can attribute the unforgiveable crime of rape to the eating of chowmein, and they are not taken to the nearest mental asylum to be locked up until their own hormonal or moral imbalances are sorted out.

I live in a country where a popular Punjabi rapper sings of bloodying panties and instead of being being spanked bloody (I'm almost certain he secretly longs for this), he's given work in the mainstream Hindi film industry. Not one singer/lyricist/filmmaker sees it fit to send him to the re-education program he very obviously needs. I live in a country where it seems people fork over their hand-earned money to pack concerts where this creature performs, and I can't do a damn thing about it.

I live in a country where I suspect bribes were paid on my account (though without my knowledge) to enable me to rent a house. And I can't do a damn thing about that either because there's no way of proving anything now, and if I tried, I'd only raising hell for both the real estate agents who were helping me actually find a place.

I live in a country where no service - public, private or cooperative - responds easily to any kind of customer request. Whether it is information or the actual service being offered, you have to claw your way to it. And despite the internet being available, there is no way of reaching companies or their complaint addressal systems. You send an email, no response. You call and you refer to the email, no response. You shout and threaten an escalation of the issue at hand, and you may get a tiny grudging response. You will probably still have to spend time and money going to their offices and drain yourself out by shouting some more.

And it bothers me because things don't work like this in other countries. We do not have to be this way. We want to 'develop' but our idea of development is building glass-fronted stores instead of actually providing the service or product those stores contain. I'm sure the executives who man the customer call phone lines like to shop for foreign brands in new malls. They just don't want to be as good as the best brands who snap to attention the moment a customer expresses dissatisfaction. And I am tired and drained by the whole mess before I've even had breakfast.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Baby blues

I wonder who decided to name her. As a baby name, it isn’t one of my favourites: Ahuti means sacrifice. There she was — three months old and beaten to death. And nobody really knows why. Ahuti’s mother has been arrested. The police say she’s admitted to beating the baby, and being unable to cope with the child’s constant crying.

I think about Dharmishtha Joshi too (Who named her? What sort of childhood did she have?).Some counselors are already being quoted in snap articles, suggesting that we as a culture are getting to be more intolerant, angrier.

But I think of Dharmishtra Joshi, alone at home, trying to cope with two infants (and one recently dead); a frequently absent husband with whom she clearly did not have strong, tender bond. She was furious about something. Or about many things. And because she didn’t know what to do with her fury, she lashed out at the baby.

What life did Dharmishtha dream of? Did she want those children? If she did not want to bring up those children, what would she do with them?

We ought to condemn her violence, but we also need to think of the consequences of burdening women with reproduction without changing our social and moral ecosystem. In the current environment, a woman faces less flak for beating her own children than for refusing to have children, or offering to give up her children to foster care if she feels unable to cope.

For all our breast-beating about the falling sex ratio, there is less moral outrage about dead daughters than discotheque-going daughters.

Now, there is talk of updating our laws to check female foeticide. There are plans to monitor women’s wombs, keep tabs on each pregnancy. In effect, we’d like the female child to exist because we’re worried about a nation with not enough females in it, but we don’t particularly care about what the female child wants from her own life.

There is talk of amending anti-dowry laws, to prevent misuse. But there is no acknowledgment of the fact that any family willing to give dowry has no business crying about it later. There is not one politician in our country who is willing to run an anti-dowry campaign along the lines of: “Don’t stay with a husband who wants dowry. Get out. Don’t try to ‘save’ a marriage through money.”

In fact, some states encourage dowry indirectly, coming up with schemes that give money to girls when they attain marriageable age instead of giving it out in the form of scholarships or vocational training; chief ministers enabling ‘kanyadaan’ so that the community bears the cost of the wedding feast. There is no clear dismissal of unaffordable feasts.

The focus of most women-centric laws is prosecution: Who can you nail? The woman? Her husband? The doctor? The radiologist? But we refuse to grapple with the moral hypocrisy that makes such laws necessary.

We need to understand that we cannot protect baby girls in a culture where grown women are not protected. In an ecosystem where panchyats can declare that marriage is a good way of preventing rape, where people aren’t free to choose a mate, where there is no way of getting out of a motherhood that one may or may not have signed up for — can we expect gentle mothers?

And so, sad as I am about Ahuti, I am also sad for Dharmishtha. I cannot imagine what demons plague her mind, but I do know that marriage and motherhood are often just ways of gaining respectability, and buying peace, or freedom from assault. Which is a hard, cruel bargain.

First published here.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Try growing your LPG

A family outing was spoilt recently after we got into an argument about prices, economic policy and so on. It started with a comment made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to explain the new LPG and diesel prices. He reportedly said that upping prices wouldn’t hurt the poor directly, since LPG wasn’t meant to be the poor man’s fuel anyway.

Which brought me to that awkward question — what is the poor man’s fuel?

I agree that LPG and even kerosene should not be subsidised. Subsidizing non-renewable fuels is the worst long-term policy we could invest in. But these fuels are getting too expensive even for the middle class. So what should the nation cook with? Wood?

Even at the cost of my lungs, say I was willing to use a wood-fired stove. Would I then be allowed to cut trees? But in general, people are not allowed to cut trees without permission.

An argument was put forward — the poor should be planting more trees, and then cutting them down for the wood. But that brought me to another question — what have the non-poor done to deserve petrol or LPG?

If the poor grow their own firewood, they probably have a right to it. But how will affluent citizens ‘grow’ the gas they consume? And if they cannot replace LPG, then why do we expect that the poor will replace any trees they cut down?

One could argue that it is not the poor who ‘discover’ coal or gas. Somebody invests money in locating it. Somebody else extracts it, refines it, delivers it to the market. Those who can afford it, buy it. If most of us can’t afford to buy fuel in the market, how can it be helped?

But then, who is to say who had the right to the fuel in the first place? Say, person X wants to acquire fuel and market it. The fuel sits inside a piece of land owned by a village, ABC. Here, people have a bit to eat, and most people have work of some kind. The village does not want to sell to X. So X goes to the government to ask for help. The government has been elected by the majority of the people, mostly villagers like ABC. But instead of siding with ABC, as it ought, the government sides with X. It buys up land from ABC at low prices, claiming it is doing so for overall ‘development’, and gives it to X to exploit as he will.

The process might create some jobs. Say, A finds work, but B and C don’t. In fact, A’s job might place him in conflict with B or C. The soil or water or air may get polluted to the point of causing health damage.

X sells fuel to Y, who sells it further to Z, who sells it to all citizens, including ABC, who buy it if they can afford it. X makes a profit, Y makes a profit, Z makes a profit. As for ABC… well, too bad, eh?

Chances are that ABC can neither buy LPG nor do they have enough land or water for their work to translate into loose cash. If they migrate to cities, they may not have space to grow trees for firewood. And if they plant on public land, how do they prove that such and such tree is their own and they are entitled to cut it down?

So, although I understand the need to stop fuel subsidies, it would be really nice if the Prime Minister spent some time thinking about this – what, exactly, is the poor man’s fuel?

First published here.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Made of words

In the beginning, there was probably no word. More likely, it was a sound, or a tiny movement. Perhaps, it was no more than the invisible blink of a formless divine eyelash. Perhaps, it was a rogue electron. Or perhaps, the 'beginning' as we know it was the moment when we decided to be us - speaking animals with words as their primary currency.

Perhaps that is why we tip-toe around words. Because we trade through words before we give of our time and energy or possessions. We bind ourselves in word cages - legal agreements, contracts, the Constitution, the penal code. We conduct our rituals through words -- wedding vows, mantras, Quran readings, election manifestos and parliamentary speeches, obituaries. And of course, we educate and entertain ourselves with words - songs, fairytales, religious kathas, radio programs, and of course, books. Where we cannot easily depend on words, we turn to image -- election symbols, cave paintings, films.

So yes, we have reason to fear words. Words run us. And we can only make the world run the way we'd like it to, if we can control words. So we seek to contain the words that frighten us. We try to erase them from public view, and eventually, public memory. We hope they will die out, though we aren't yet sure what the world will be like without those words, without their meanings, without the people who utter them.

It is hard, of course, to control words. Harder than it is to control images. People talk all the time. They fight wars and give up their lives for the sake of the words they use, and the meaning those words lend to their lives. You can't shut up every whisper of the night. You can't fight lullabyes. You can't fight the language of dreams. You can't get rid of words that are written in sand or snow. The less tangible they are, the cleverer, the stronger. 

But you can fight words printed on paper, or spoken out loud on a stage. You can threaten to kill them because you can kill the people who speak them, write them. And so, you try.

In our own way, we are all part of this conspiracy to get rid of words. It's not just the right wing. It's every wing. We know of pseudo-religious militants who kill writers. We know of re-education programs in technically non-religious nations. We know of democracies who arrest people for writing a pamphlet. 

But we also know of ourselves, don't we? 

I will confess. I have thought to myself that some writers and speakers ought to be banned. Because I have thought of the consequences. I support controls on hate-speech after all. When a court summons a leader who is trying to cause rifts between communities, I am glad. I consider it a sign of sanity, of safety. When a leader is jailed for exhorting people to kill, I am relieved. 

Sometimes I begin to think, with what face do I say, 'Let's not ban books'? How can I say, 'Let us not discriminate between what is worthy of a ban and what isn't'? 

I worry about this question. Is it right to ask for uncompromised free speech? Where do we lay down the law? Free Speech can't be free if it is constrained by ideas of what is acceptable and what isn't. If, for instance, somebody believes in sex with minors, or minors born with mental difficulties, and writes a book extolling the idea, what are we to do?

If somebody writes a book putting forth the notion that parents should have a right to get rid of unwanted children at any point -- before or after birth -- what are we to do? If someone puts forward a proposition that anyone who eats the meat of fish should be quartered and drawn, what are we to do?

And if we are not to ban these ideas, what are we to do? How can we say that other people should not seek bans on ideas that we find harmless, or even necessary? 

I struggle with this question. Because hate speech worries me. Child pornography worries me. The extolling of plastic surgery as a lifestyle choice worries me. But if you are stupid enough to kill or maim yourself or someone else just because a book/advertisement/website is telling you to, who is to blame? The words, or you? And if it is you, what good will banning the book do? 

If you are a killer -- or even just a damager of property -- and the people who run the judicial systems in your country have not been able to deter you, what will be accomplished by banning the books that inspire you?

On the other hand, a child is made or unmade by the words s/he is exposed to. How do we hold a person responsible wholly for their crimes without also holding those responsible who formed their minds? 

Like I said, I struggle. But first of all, we must answer this question: Are we willing to let each person take the fall for his actions, or are we going to allow him to get away, using another man's (or woman's) words as his excuse. I suspect, when we have held each adult to account to his actions, we might fear his words a little less. 

Monday, October 01, 2012

Fish-eaters enclave

Blurbs that promise oddities – ‘a manipulative-philanthropist ghost of a chairman’s mother; a footless whore in Siberia…’ – make one nervous these days. An outlandish cast of characters and wild leaps of fancy are no longer novelties in modern fiction. But there is a risk that the fantastical elements plucked out for the back of the book might be the most interesting thing about it.

Happily, this is not true of Lopa Ghosh’s ‘Revolt of the Fish Eaters’. The nine stories in this collection are compelling and Ghosh does deliver on the promise of taking you into a zone of glass towers, elevators, and recession-struck businesses.

‘The Chairman’s Mother’ tells the fate of a high-flying, award-winning executive after his dead mother begins to haunt him. She distracts him from the pursuit of profit by talking incessantly of floods. ‘Siberia’ tells the heartache of a professionally content research analyst whose school sweetheart has gone off to work in Siberia, and their conversation is mainly online. ‘Red Shoe’ tells of the encounter between a gritty young woman who has worked hard to pull herself up the corporate ladder, and a red pair of sexy heels that can no longer be bought for love or money.

‘Corporate Affairs’ is the most corporate story in this collection. It tells of a senior executive, an American, who is handing over his own responsibilities and during the course of a farewell dinner, discovers the conspiracies that have been brewing behind his back.

‘Richest Man in the World’ is not strictly a tale of the corporate world. The main protagonist is a slum-dwelling school-girl who is receiving a computer education at a center run by an NGO, thanks to a very rich man, while her abandoned mother howls and shouts and turns to black magic.

‘Death by Pineapples’ is the only tale here that unapologetically dives into magic-realism, for it is set in a plains town that finds itself overnight transformed into a hill town. It tells the story of a talented executive who is thrown out of his job for no fault of his, but the reference to climate change is obvious.

‘The Lockout’ is this reviewer’s personal favourite. This is the only story that is not just set in the world of corporations and the conflicts presented to their employees, it most directly reaches for the gruesome edge of employer-employee relations. What makes it refreshing is that the story is told as witnessed by the very young daughter of a top manager dealing with irate workers during a factory lockout. The victim label is hard to attach and politics doesn’t tip the story off its centre.

The only story that is more politics than business is the one that lends its title to the collection. It is also the one that offers the least surprise, the least tension. It attempts to traverse so much terrain – art, class war, elections, media, love affairs – that the reader is left with only a hazy impression of its context and purpose.

Overall, these stories are memorable. Ghosh successfully imprints her protagonists with a human ache, so that their financial and social drive lies crumpled around their ankles. This, along with a lucid, insistent narrative style, makes the book a worthy inhabitant of your ‘new writing’ shelf.

Published here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

This awkward business of sedition

Once upon a time, a man wrote three letters. He wrote that he hadn’t heard from his correspondent in a while. He talked of the gulf between rich and poor, of the need for propaganda, of how their organisation needed to do more to achieve their goals.

These letters were carried by a doctor. The doctor was subsequently arrested. For sedition. Which means that his actions hurt the nation.

Dr Binayak Sen was already known for the years he spent serving the poor, providing medical aid that the government should have been providing. He was then accused of waging war against all of us. Those letters he carried were written by a sick senior citizen called Narayan Sanyal, who was in jail for Maoist/Naxalite activities.

In a new book, The Curious Case Of Binayak Sen, journalist Dilip D’Souza points out that the judge who found Binayak Sen guilty offered the interpretation that a letter describes certain murders as reactionary. But the letter does not mention the word ‘murder’ at all. At another place, the wording has been twisted around. Instead of a request for ‘MR’ to send funds for ‘friends here’, the judge interprets it as a request to send money to a person or group called ‘MR’.

D’Souza mentions that there are people who dislike Dr Sen because of his alleged support of Maoists, or even just because he was trying to help Sanyal in jail. The author describes his own brief brush with the law. 

D’Souza writes that he — along with some other men — was once arrested for travelling in the Ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai. He was bailed out and asked to appear in court. The other men did not appear in court. They had already bribed their way to freedom.

Which brings us to this awkward business of corruption. Now a cartoonist called Aseem Trivedi is accused of doing the nation harm. He drew a cartoon that seemed to suggest that the lions on our national emblem have turned into wolves, their mouths dripping blood. Their motto reads: Bhrashtamev Jayate. The Corrupt Win.

Whether it was a good cartoon or not is a separate matter. But it did citizens no harm. It did the national emblem no harm. The emblem remains where it was, engraved on a pillar. As for our motto, Satyamev Jayate, it should be engraved on our hearts. But seeing how corrupt we actually are, how every law turns into an opportunity for someone in governance or administration to extract money illegally from harried citizens, Trivedi was probably just telling the truth as he felt it.

So who does that cartoon actually damage? It damages, I suppose, our image of ourselves. That image of us being lion-hearted defenders of the truth.

If only we were. If only our policemen arrested people who do damage the nation. If only the policemen themselves did not damage the nation.

In D’Souza’s new book, he quotes historian Ramchandra Guha, who has written of his encounter with a Muria tribal in a jail in Chhattisgarh. Dabba Boomaiah had a job as a labourer on a lift irrigation project. One day he offered to take a road-building crew to the Bhopalpatnam police station. The police began to quiz him about Naxal activity in the area and pressured him to become a vigilante, via the Salwa Judum. When he refused, he was arrested.

Neither Guha, nor D’Souza, nor I, know what has happened to poor Dabba since. Let us hope he is out of jail, at home, safe. Perhaps, he is considering engraving upon his lion heart, the words: Satyamev Jayate.

First published here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Smoke that!

What would you make of a man who told your daughter that it is her duty to suffer violence? And what would you do if this man happened to be the person to whom we all turn for justice?

A certain Justice Bhaktavasala has gained notoriety recently for his handling of ‘family matters’ — which means divorce or domestic violence cases. First he rebuked an unmarried lawyer for arguing a divorce case, implying that she couldn’t possibly understand the significance of marriage. He also forced the estranged couple to spend time together though they were reluctant; at least, the woman was.

There was a minor furor when this judge confronted another young woman who was getting beaten up by her husband — in public, and sometimes at night when she’d be thrown out of the house. Reports quote Justice Bhaktavatsala as saying: “Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman... Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you. Why are you still talking about his beatings? I know you have undergone pain. But that is nothing in front of what you undergo as a woman."

He proceeded to ask the woman if her father had never beaten her mother, and cited the example of the film actor Darshan, whose wife went back to live with him despite reports of violence. When her lawyer produced photographs showing the young woman’s face after being assaulted, this judge is reported to have said: “You have to adjust… You have to give him a divorce or go with him... What is on your mind and what is on your agenda?”

If the honorable judge had been getting beaten up himself, he might have had a slightly different take on the matter. But anyway, my problem is not his personal attitude to wife-beating. That is his own wife’s or his daughters’ problem. My problem is his disregard for the law.

Petitions were sent out to the Chief Justice at the High Court in Karnataka and eventually, ‘family matters’ was taken away from Justice Bhaktavatsala. While this is a relief, it is also horrid to know that this man is not likely to be penalised for this blatant defiance of the very laws he is supposed to uphold. God knows how many lives have been destroyed along the way.

Last year, a Bangalore resident had filed a petition seeking to be reunited with his wife. He claimed that she was being illegally detained by her parents. Justice Bhaktavatsala had remarked that the Hindu Marriage Act ought to be amended so a girl under 21 could no longer marry without the permission of her parents.

And thisman, who would rather send a loving husband to jail than the violent man who beats his wife, is being paid by all of us. To think that I work hard and pay taxes to enable this man’s livelihood!

He isn’t the only one with strange ideas about women. V Shekhar who was representing the health ministry in the Supreme Court, made statements like: “Indian tradition doesn’t permit a lady to smoke.”

Which makes me wonder if Shekhar even knows who India is. With my own eyes, I’ve seen women smoking in Rajasthan, in Madhya Pradesh, in Maharashtra, in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (I haven’t travelled much in the south or northeast). None of these women were urban, nor did they watch many films. They were as ‘traditional’ as they come. They had their beedis or chillums, often in front of children. And they enabled and passed on culture. Smoke that!

First published here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Short 2

And here is a new short film I made. It was great fun working with the actors. The whole thing was shot in a day and a half. Feedback welcome.

The Millionaire Effect

When I first went to Dharavi I wasn't wearing my middle-class-gawker glasses. I was researching a story on successful businessmen and already knew the sprawling slum was host to industries ranging from plastics to pottery, tanneries and bakeries. I knew there was serious money involved and also that the slum once tagged the largest in Asia (currently, the Orangi township in Karachi is the largest, according to the United Nations) is no longer even the largest in Mumbai.
The UN defines a slum as a run-down urban area, "characterised by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security". While these characteristics do exist in the 557 acres that comprise Dharavi, that the definition is inadequate becomes apparent as soon as you set foot there.
Which brings us to the other question – if you could avoid it, why would you set foot in a slum?  Yet a whole lot of people are doing just that, and paying for the privilege. There are at least four tour operators within Dharavi that offer guided tours, charging between Rs 500 to 2500 per head, depending on whether you want a private tour or travel in a group. There are no clear figures, but based on operator estimates, in 'season' – roughly from the end of October until March – Dharavi has thousands of visitors.
Call it the Slumdog Millionaire effect, or just that old thing, curiosity. People have always wanted to discover the lives of the 'other': the phrase 'slumming it' comes from members of the upper class touring poor neighbourhoods in London and New York in the nineteenth century. Indian cities have no dearth of squalor, poverty or insecurity. Mumbai has slums, or slum-like conditions, in almost every suburb. But what distinguishes Dharavi is its unique economic ecosystem. The poor don't just go there to sleep. They create wealth.
Krishna Pujari, who runs Reality Tours and Travels, lived in the Prateekshanagar slums for two years but says that Dharavi offers a unique experience. He says since 2006, when he co-founded the firm, Dharavi has changed. "Slum policies are changing too. People also work for BPOs, MNCs, hotels. There are schools and hospitals. Infrastructure is better but nowhere close to good. And we get more and more tourists. Perhaps, people are developing a social conscience. Or maybe they are just intrigued."
This curiosity is not always appreciated though. Pujari himself admits it was hard at first. "When Chris Way, one of our partners, first visited Mumbai, I took him to Dharavi. People said, 'Take him to Malabar Hill or the Gateway. Why are you bringing him here to show off our poverty and filth?' So, I asked, 'Do you think you are poor and dirty?' They said, no. I said, 'So, let him see that you're not'."
Since then, resident tour guides have taken a measure of pride in 'their area'. Fahim Vora, 24, says that when he was first approached to be a guide, he baulked. "I felt, 'What? Bringing those people to my area?' But I did it once, and realised that nobody really minds."
Fahim was working with Reality at the time but soon developed independent ambitions. Along with partner Tauseef Siddiqui, he set up 'Be The Local' in 2010. Now they employ other Dharavi boys, mostly college students, as tour guides.
Pujari trains English-speaking students for a month on the history and economic spread of Dharavi. He says he prefers to take students "from humble backgrounds" and also works with government schools and local teachers. The firm also supports some NGOs either through money or the use of their space and skills. They help fund a girls' football team. But the tour itself, he says, is like an empowerment program for young people who cannot find jobs.
The guides agree. Despite 'knowing' English in theory, Fahim couldn't draft a coherent email until he started the job and Tauseef didn't have the confidence to talk to people until his first tour. For students, there's some pocket money to be made and the chance to meet interesting people. Nilesh Vaidya, a student who has worked with Reality for six months now, says that he has grown from being a shy, silent type into an aspiring radio jockey. Since he lives in the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat area, his learnings have been greater. "I came here for an interview, and that was my introduction to Dharavi. I'd heard of the filth and the bhai-goondas (goons, often those with mafia links). But now I say every Indian should visit this place once," he says.
But few Indians do. Even those who live an easy cab ride away are uncurious, perhaps nervous about going into a slum. Deepa Krishnan, who organises tours through Mumbai Magic, says she gets at least 500 visitors a year but most are overseas tourists, ranging from "upscale" to backpackers.
Some like Emily Lawrence, 20, already have some exposure. "I'd seen a documentary. It looked interesting and I was curious." She'd never seen this sort of slum in the UK, but conditions were better than expected. "I was surprised by how people live together in these cramped spaces and are still so organised. I didn't expect that."
And then there are visitors like Anna Wagner, 22, who takes Bollywood dance lessons in Austria. She wanted to see the city where the films get made but she also wanted to find out more about Dharavi. To her surprise, the streets were not full of people begging on the streets. "They are all working," she said, adding that she wishes her Indian host, who lives in Mumbai, would visit too. "More upper and middle class Indians should go. It is more important for them."
There are Indians who do visit slums on work, of course, but they'd rather not go as tourists. Suman, a volunteer at a social school (name changed, because she prefers to remain anonymous) is critical of this "exhibition of misery". She believes that instead of sensitising them, slum tours merely gives tourists something to talk about at home. "It's an ego boost, making them feel blessed because they don't have to live in such conditions." She was particularly riled by a note on the Internet (posted by 'Bollywood Tours') that says 'their life is full of struggle for existence but still make them happy'. Suman wants to know, "How can they be happy? There is a don in every lane; the men are crippled by bad habits and they force their women to work and bring home money to buy more booze... Slum tours show none of this. For God's sake, these people are not freaks or animals in a zoo that we need organised tours!"
People certainly don't want to be seen that way, which is why most tour companies have a no-photo policy. Rajesh Prabhakar, a researcher who co-founded the Red Press and Media, and a life-time resident of Dharavi, says that people have become especially sensitive after the movie Slumdog Millionaire. "They still hurt about being called 'dogs'. Besides, the depictions of life were false. That toilet scene, for instance, belongs to the 1950s, not the '90s," he says.
Some parts, according to Prabhakar, were shot guerrilla-style, which makes people suspicious of cameras now. Recently, a friend of his was interrogated in the Rajiv Gandhinagar area when he was out shooting without permission. When hutments near an important water pipeline were demolished last year, residents believe it was because of foreigners taking pictures and the media publishing them, though it turned out the municipality did so for different reasons.
On my first visit, attempts to discuss the fruit business with a banana vendor were firmly rebuffed. But I did have a long, rambling conversation with L. Kannan, who runs the Murugan Laundry. As I sipped on a bottle of cola (which he insisted on), he gave me the shop's history, living conditions – the lanes are so narrow that if you have a medical emergency and an ambulance needs to be brought in, god help you – and his hopes for his sons. All along, his hands were busy, ironing.
On that trip, I'd been led by Prabhakar, who doesn't do conventional tours. "I take people to meet people. I don't take them to pre-decided spots. I take them to families. I can arrange for you to spend a few hours just talking to a potter, for instance. But if you say you want to do a tour tomorrow, within two hours, I can't do that."
The debate about the ethics of slum tourism is an old one. Some claim that it helps to bridge the psychological divide between rich and poor. A Wall Street Journal article has talked about how 'philanthropic travel' – that seems to be politically correct term – is growing, with large international travel firms diversifying into slums. But it poses the question of whether this could help 'bridge' the gulf of understanding between rich and the poor, especially if the traffic is one-way. Surely, the poor too must be allowed to see how the rich live, and where they work?
The question is interesting but perhaps, a bit unfair. After all, the upper classes in India areexposed to the scrutiny of slum residents who work in their homes or offices. It is the reverse which almost never happens. Tour operators believe that they are helping tear down negative stereotypes. In fact, Deepa Krishnan emphasizes, "This (Dharavi) is not a 'slum' tour. If you are expecting extreme poverty and despair based on movie depictions, you will be disappointed."
Even in Indian movies, locals complain, Dharavi is represented as squalid and dangerous, full of dons, drunks or drug addicts. But the young men who work as tour guides insist that the problem is no larger than it is elsewhere in Mumbai. It is just that Dharavi's problems have nowhere to hide.
First published in the Sunday Guardian.

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