Monday, July 30, 2012

The Flautist - a short story

Our eyes first locked across the street but I may be mistaken about that.

Across a street, things look different from what they are. Like I once thought that I saw a man selling orange-pink phirkis. I had not had one since I was a boy and my father got me one at the Gadimai fair. That phirki was yellow and green. Like sunshine on new wheat. It was my beautiful possession and I kept it safe through the winter. But that was a long time ago. So when I saw a man selling phirkis, I crossed the street to buy one. But they turned out to be birds of paradise. Flowers!

I hadn’t seen any before, but I have since found out that they are very expensive. One flower costs more than a rice-plate. The young man was holding those flowers rested them casually on his shoulder, like he didn’t care about how expensive they were. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen holding a bunch of flowers the way a girl would hold them.

There was a girl with him and when I came close and asked the name of the flowers and how much they cost, she giggled. She said, in English, that it serves him right to be mistaken for a flower-boy. He dresses just like a sadak-chhaap, she said.

He doesn’t. I wanted to tell her, I know a sadak-chhaap when I see one. This boy’s jeans were like only the rich boys can afford. His belt was a slim one with bits of metal sprinkled on. His shirt was loose and his hair was longer on one side of his face than the other, with one tuft standing up tall like a silken minaret. And he wore open sandals. A real sadak-chhaap steps outside wearing shiny shoes and tight jeans. He colours his hair too, because he thinks that’s what rich boys do. But you can always tell which one is the expensive cut, and who got a third-rate job at the barber’s shop down the road.

I wanted to say all this but I was angry at myself. Why did I ask about the cost of the flowers? This boy was too rich to care about the cost. Besides, I didn’t like the girl. She was short and her hair was uncombed. She was obviously not so rich herself. Why was she laughing at the boy? Such girls irritate me, but there are a lot of them here.

You have to be careful with girls. Here, nobody knows where anyone is from. And sometimes, this is what I like. Today I am me, from Birgunj. Tomorrow I can be from Gorakhpur. And if I meet someone from Gorakhpur, then I can be from Champaran. But with girls, it is different. You must know where they come from, who their father is.

My father told me, if you must find a girl in the city, make sure you know where she is from. And he is probably right. Because one big lesson I have learnt is – things are not what they seem at first.

Like the other day, I saw some artists working on a big sculpture. From across the street, it looked like a model of a building. It was solid and shiny and wobbly. Just like houses in this city. Concrete, but so fragile. You look at them and you wonder if they are safe. Some have cracks running down the sides, pasted over with cement like strips of grey band-aids. This sculpture, though, had no windows or doors; just smooth round walls.

I thought the artists wanted to say something about the city. Like this city doesn’t have enough air. Or that you cannot really leave this city. Buildings are like tombs without sunshine or friendship. That was what I thought.

But when I crossed the street to take a closer look, the sculpture turned out to be a shoe. One giant boot. I felt really stupid. But that is the trouble, you see. Things look different from far. When I was a boy, we used to chant a set of foolish rhymes about the illusion of distance.

From far, I thought I saw Vyjanthimala drying out her hair/ turned out to be a buffalo wagging her tail while taking the air!

From far, I thought I saw a dozen eggs getting hard-boiled/ turned out to be a bunch of baldies getting their heads oiled!

Nonsense rhymes like that. But it is true. You cannot make things out from a distance. That is why I do not talk much to girls. That is why I did not give much thought to that moment when our eyes locked across the street.

And yet, it seemed as if the breeze had dropped, as if the sun had trembled and begun to sweat. It seemed as if she was crossing the street only to come towards me.

I have a hard head. I know, she was not the type to look at me. She was surely a college girl. She was standing on the road divider, trying to cross the road. As for her eyes, who can say whether they were looking at me, or right through me?

But then, I saw her the next day too, clutching the railing on the road divider. She was looking right and left, but the traffic would not stop even for a moment. Every few seconds, she would squeeze her eyes shut as a bus growled past, tossing fumes and dust and light splinters into her face.

She stood there a long time and maybe she forgot why she was there. There was a gap in the traffic finally and all the others who were balanced on that divider began to rush across the road. But she just stood there, eyes at half-mast, looking at nothing.

She looked so sad in that moment. As if a passing bus had knocked her down and ridden right over her heart. She looked like a child might look when her bright paper phirki falls into a puddle. She looked like the girls in my village, when they were engaged to be married to someone who lives far away. In that moment, I suddenly felt like I knew where this girl comes from.

All of a sudden, she seemed to wake up to the street and its noisy horns, and she rushed across. Just in time, just half an inch from another growling bus. My heart almost stopped for a second.

She was wearing a saree that day. I saw her go into the library. I stood outside. It is a nice spot to stand. Nobody comes into the library so the staff does not glare at me if I hang around. But that stretch is busy since the big, new shop opened in the next building. Such a long shop! As long as six cars parked one behind the other. It has big glass windows and statues of men and women dressed in the same red color. During the Diwali season, these statues wear such rich clothes. Even the brides in our village never wore anything so rich. And during Christmas, these statues all wear red pants and shirts.

Many people come to that shop and they all walk past the library. They don’t always buy from me but sometimes they stop to listen. I weave a tune that will clutch at their hems, scraping its way into their blood. A song with painted talons.

Sometimes, they turn to their children and ask if they want a flute. They always buy the cheapest one. Some do not want a flute; they just want to listen to me. But they look at me and I look at them, and they know they should pay up. But they also see that I do not want a coin tossed at me. The only way to pay me is to buy from me. So they buy a flute.

I do not know whether they are good people but if they catch my eye, they look me in the eye. They do not stare at my clothes or my bare feet. They have the decency to lower their eyes if they are not willing to pay me for standing there and making music outside libraries that nobody wants to visit. Their hearts tell them that they are small, so they scurry away, running from their own gut, from a new ache that wasn’t there before they heard me.

Perhaps, I should say that I really play for money. If I did not play, nobody would buy my flutes. And except for playing the flute, and cooking and cleaning, I cannot do anything else.

Not that this city wants my music. These people would pay me more if I cooked and cleaned. Some of them might even let me live in their houses if I did this. I did it too. But only for a year. Two boys lived in that house and I did everything in return for staying there. I made their beds, cooked two meals, swept and mopped, washed their clothes. Then one more boy joined the house and he said I must wash his underwear. I refused, so they threw me out.

Now I am happier, playing the flute. It was very boring inside that house. Locked up all day. It is better to be outside. The street has so many possibilities. Every day, some new story unfolds.

What I like most is to watch the city slow down when I play. I am not boasting; it really does. When I play, I look at the feet of people walking past. As they hear the rising notes, their feet slow down. They linger even if they cannot afford to stop. If I play the theme song from Hero, more feet slow down. Sometimes I do ten different versions of Hero. A man from America once told me that I was a jazz pioneer in my own right. He did not buy many flutes though.

Another good thing is, when I am out on the street, I see a lot of girls. Like that girl. The day she wore a saree, she walked past three times. From the library, she walked to the museum, then to the college building, then back to the library.

I think it was a special day at the library. In the evening, many women walked in, and they all wore silk sarees. The men wore kurtas and coats. I played a soft tune that day, so soft that only those who were really listening for it would catch it. I saw her catch it. She looked around but she didn’t see me because I was hidden behind a pillar.

She came again the next day. Dressed in black with a white scarf round her neck. It was edged with silver gota. She was standing at the entrance of the library. I started playing my heaviest flute as I walked towards her.

She stepped forward. Then she took out her mobile phone, pressed a few buttons and held it a little away from her body. I knew she was recording my music but I did not stop playing. A minute later, she stopped recording and put away her phone. Finally she looked at me.

I looked into her eyes. She smiled. I took two steps towards her, still playing. Finally she spoke to me. She asked how much I was selling the flutes for. I told her the prices. I showed her how the air sounded huskier in the bigger flutes, and how you could blow into some from a hole cut near the top edge, but with others, you had to take the slim tip into your mouth. I played out a very simple tune of three notes on the most expensive flute I had.

It was two hundred rupees. She bargained me down to one hundred and fifty. It was worth more but I let her have it. She stuffed it into her bag, and walked back into the library.

When she came out, she was walking fast, heading towards the college. I began to follow her, playing all the while, watching the dozens of feet that slowed and quickened all the time.

When I caught up with her, she was at the sandwich stall. As she stood there eating, I went on playing. Twice, she turned around to look at me but she did not meet my eyes.

Then she went back to the library. From a distance, it looked like there was a black shadow across the doorway. When I came closer, I saw it was a young man. A dark man with a beard, and dressed all in black too. Leather boots with big heels and a leather jacket and leather cap.

She was walking quickly towards him. When she was six feet away, he opened his arms out. She did not run. She walked into his arms and then he hugged her tight so their chests were pressed together. They stayed that way for a long time.

Then she was looking at him like she was drinking in his face, and he was smiling down at her like he was enjoying the sun whispering its dying words. She tugged at his arms and they began to walk up and down the old pavements. I followed, just a few steps behind, still playing my flute.

Their heels clicked softly as they walked, and after a while, she let go of his arm. The sun had gone down and their shadows were pale and smoky. Their feet dragged. I had not seen any feet so slow on that pavement before. It was an old lovers’ walk.

They did not touch each other again. They would never hold hands again, even I could see that. But their feet clung to the pavement as if clinging to the last note of a song that you cannot bear to hear. If they hugged now, they would hurt each other. And I think they had decided to stop hurting each other.

From a distance, their long shadows were twisted out of shape. Like a strange beast born with wings so large, it can neither fly nor run. Still, it must leave. It knows that if it is not killed, it will simply die of waiting. It will hop if it cannot run. Crawl, if it cannot fly. There will be no grace in it, but is there grace anywhere? So after one last look, one last gulp of familiar air, the strange beast will leave. Get on a bus, and not return.

When they stopped walking, I fell back a little. And then, a little more. Slower and softer, my song changed and descended into some new note of plunging silence. There were twenty feet between us and then thirty and then fifty and then I stopped playing.
© Annie Zaidi

[This story was first published in New Woman magazine.]

Chori pe chori

Remember that delicate old song ‘ajeeb dastaan hai ye’ (what a strange tale this is)? It’s a romantic sort of lyric, but I often feel an urge to hum it when I read the newspapers. For instance, I automatically began humming it when I chanced on a report of 20-odd farmers being arrested. For stealing water.
Another report said that about 30 FIRs were filed against farmers in Saurashtra. They wanted to irrigate their fields and so they started drawing water illegally from canals fed by the Narmada dam. In fact, 600 police personnel had been guarding just one branch of one canal.
It’s quite an image: armed men standing along the length of a life-giving water source, and farmers sneaking around with plastic pipes, drilling holes into the walls of a canal. Picture postcard for our modern democracy, eh?
The Narmada dam is supposed to be a major source of water for Kutch and Saurashtra, which are dry regions in Gujarat. At least, that’s what they said while building the dam. But the water level had fallen to worrying levels recently. The state government had to stop supplying water to farmers because it was afraid it would run out of drinking water for cities. Then, the rains came down in parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat officials said they didn’t have a crisis after all. Besides, elections are looming and the ruling government would rather not annoy too many farmers. Especially the ones with money.
Another crisis looms, but that lies beyond the elections. Farmers who do get legal access to water aren’t paying for it. And they’re investing in more water-intensive crops, like sugarcane. They aren’t learning anything from the tragedy of Punjab and Maharashtra.
But speaking of sugarcane and dams, there’s been an interesting unraveling closer home. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithiviraj Chavan is under attack. He had promised a ‘white paper’ on irrigation projects. At least Rs 70,000 crores was devoted to “Major and Medium Irrigation projects” but there are worries that there’s been only a 0.1% increase of irrigated land in the state over the last ten years.
The can of worms was opened earlier in the year by Governor K Sankaranarayanan when he asked for a probe into Kondhane Dam, and a clamp on new irrigation projects, especially in Western Maharashtra. He pointed out that the state had failed to create a better canal network (which is necessary for irrigation) while sanctioning costly dams. The Kondhane dam contract was cancelled.
Water resources minister Sunil Tatkare was also under fire. Questions had been raised about the size of his assets. Now, the Opposition alleges an irrigation scam of Rs1,000 crore. Activists had been hollering about environmental damage and a larger ‘Dam Scam’, naming Kondhane, Kalu, Shai, Susari and Balganga as projects worthy of an investigation. One contractor seemed to be getting too many construction contracts. The backlash came from within the state government. NCP chief Sharad Pawar, being India’s Agriculture Minister, should have encouraged more probes. Instead, he turned around and accused the Governor and CM Chavan of “not doing enough for drought-prone areas”. He seemed to have forgotten that Sunil Tatkare is from the NCP. And so is his nephew Ajit Pawar, currently deputy CM, who was irrigation/water resources minister between 2000 and 2009.
And if you’re wondering why more farms in Maharashtra are not being irrigated, given the serious money we’re pumping in, or where the dam water is actually going, a good place to look would be some sugarcane fields. Word is, there are farmers with pipes, valves and even canals of their own.
First published here

Monday, July 23, 2012

A march, a crawl

The wind was strong enough to drown out the feeble sounds of a group walking up to the tiny market in Rekong Peo. They had probably ‘marched’ to the Kinnaur district headquarters and were now returning — a few placards, a few men and women tiredly protesting the Karcham Wangtoo hydroelectric project, reminding the administration of broken promises, and so on.

I was surprised to see them. Last I heard of protests against this hydel power project was in 2007. It seemed to be a bit of a minor election issue, and when the former chief minister’s wife had tried to address an election rally, she had been interrupted by aggressive protestors, I was told. But that was then. Now, five years later, I had just driven past the massive walls supporting the proposed 1,000 MW project by Jaypee, a private firm. This private firm did not own the river Sutlej, whose waters were being dammed. But the government helped by granting permission and providing environmental clearances.
In any case, they don’t call it damming any more. They call it a ‘run of the river’ project. Anyone who has seen a river before-project and after-project knows that it doesn’t quite run. Crawling is more like it.
But even so, it really is too late to go about shouting slogans. In 2011, there were media stories about how the project was ready to generate electricity. How much electricity, and for whom, and towards what purpose — this was not told, nor was the question raised.
Besides, even the United Nations (Framework for Convention on Climate Change) has reportedly registered this project under its ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ list. There is some documentary evidence of waste disposal downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo project. Surrounding villages report that 26 % of water sources in the area had dried up by 2009. But never mind. The project appears to be adhering to some guidelines, which makes it better than several others.
Although this is a private project, the state of Himachal Pradesh will benefit through royalties — it earns and can sell a percentage of the power generated. It is a separate matter that this is already a ‘power surplus’ state, and is reportedly struggling to find buyers elsewhere. There aren’t enough takers.
But there they were, still bearing banners, still going round and round that tiny town in the Himalayas. And I thought to myself, what keeps them going? How do they find the strength in the face of so much thwarting, so much evidence that nobody really cares?
Then, I heard about Tongam Rina. The journalist who works at Arunachal Times was shot at when she stepped out of the office. She survived, but we don’t know if her spine is damaged, and how badly. We also don’t know why she was shot. What is known is that Rina is the vice president of Siang People’s Forum, a group that is opposing the Lower Siang Dam. There are about 150 dams planned or proposed in Arunachal Pradesh. A Global Post reporter who had met Rina has written about how she was offered a cash bribe to stop her crusade against the dams. The report also mentions that while the state gave the green signal to more and more dams, the personal wealth of our elected representatives leaped and bounded skyward.
Possibly, the attack on Rina has nothing to do with hydel projects. It could be personal vendetta. And possibly, our representatives’ hearts are as clean as the energy they promise us. It’s possible, of course. As for Karcham-Wangtoo, I suppose those dogged protestors will eventually get tired. 
First published here

Friday, July 20, 2012

What democracy means

“Earlier, people just did as they were asked. Or, they sniffed at the wind and followed its bent. Now, people note which way the wind is blowing, but sometimes, they bend the wind a little bit, bend it to their own will.”

So a woman told me. I was tempted to believe that it is too cold, simply too inconvenient to go out and vote in a winter election. Replugging this, simply because I am thinking of the landscape, the sound of the Himalayan winds, the betrayals of leaders. And because it is almost election time again.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In which I expose my maha-random musical tastes and hold forth on eggs as a philosophy to live by.

It was my first time inside a radio station/studio, and I was already over the moon at the idea of being on the same show as writers like Bapsi Sidhwa and Hanif Kureishi, talking to the beautiful Mahvesh, who is actually so wonderfully well-read it is almost a bit intimidating.

But I am also totally jealous of Karachi for having a radio show dedicated to books and writers. Why does India not have such a show? And it goes on for nearly two hours. Why can we not go on for at least one hour? Much as I love Hindi films and Hindi music, and the people who make them, why can we not have just a little more imagination, and a little more courage in our radio and television programming? Or do we actually believe that writers are totally irrelevant and the only people worth talking to film stars, or perhaps film directors?

Not just Pinki

I was in transit through Delhi recently when I spotted an ageing gentleman at a metro station. He stood out in the evening rush hour crowd because he was in a dhoti and short kurta, with assertive white moustaches.
Every other man — and there were thousands, of all ages — was in western-style trousers or jeans. I began to wonder what would happen to a young man in our modern metropolises if he went to work in a dhoti, or a churidaar with a flowing angarkha-style kurta. Or even if he just wore surma in his eyes. I suspect he would be ridiculed. And a lot of this ridicule would find expression as questions around his sexuality. And there will be some who insult or hurt him because his sexuality is different.
It made me sad to think of how narrow our own lives have become, how we restrict our own sartorial or lifestyle choices, because we are afraid of being punished somehow. And I was even sadder to think that people believe they can punish a citizen for being born into a certain gender.
This isn’t really about Pinki Pramanik, and it isn’t only about India. There has been a small furore in the USA recently, where a transgender woman has been sent to jail for killing a man, but will be housed in a male prison. What makes it complicated is that Cece McDonald, a black woman, had stabbed a white man who was part of a group that had attacked her both physically and verbally. It is believed that she acted in self-defense, but now she must live in a male prison for 41 months. Reports suggest that transgender women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted in US prisons than non-transgender people.
But this isn’t about transgender people either. This is about gender violence and letting people get away it. It is about the 150 Afghan girls who ended up drinking poisoned water recently at a school in Takhar.
This is about the teenaged Lal Bibi who was kidnapped, raped and tortured, allegedly by a gang of Afghan police officers. It is about a culture where a raped woman is seen as ‘dishonoured’, and therefore must either be killed or kill herself. A culture where a rapist can claim innocence just because a local mullah has declared him ‘married’ to his victim.
So far, Lal Bibi has refused to punish herself for being attacked, and her family has chosen to seek punishment for the rapists. But some Afghan officials remain ambiguous about the case, or deferring to traditions, where the girl cannot choose who to marry. And so, this is about a global political culture where we pour ‘aid’ money into countries that refuse to take an unequivocal stand on women’s sexual right, knowing that most of that money is spent on arming men and training them to use guns.
It is about punishing gay activists in Russia for “distributing information that promotes LGBT rights and equality to minors.”
It is about men hacking into medical records, to steal information about women who had abortions, and try to ‘expose’ them on the internet. It is about refusing emergency abortions to women on the grounds that it is against the ‘religious beliefs’ of a hospital employee.
It is, finally, about trying to control someone else’s life. Because you are afraid of sexual freedom. Because you haven’t realised that the next humiliation or act of violence might be directed against you. And the danger is ever-present because you have not helped create a world where sexual violence is not tolerated.
First published here

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Once upon a time

Humans discovered that seeds could be put in the soil, to get more fruits and vegetables and grain. This caused humans to settle down in one place. Professional farming led to diverse trades, which led to the world as we know it. Wars were fought; freedoms wrested; empires built and destroyed. And through it all, farmers kept growing food.
When nations like India began to worry about how they were going to feed so many people, they invested in research institutions that would create and test hybrid varieties of seeds suited to local climates.
Then along came some corporations who thought they’d make money off seeds. They took seeds (which an anonymous farmer ‘discovered’), made slight changes at a genetic level, and sold them back to farmers at high prices. Makers of ‘GM’ (genetically modified) seeds invest large sums of money in promoting them as ‘better’.
Then, farmers discovered, there was no guarantee these expensive GM crop seeds would lead to better crops. They often need more chemical support (pesticide and herbicide). There were doubts about how these chemicals impact health. Tests were run and the results were not good news. Glyphosate-based herbicides caused birth defects; GM corn led to organ failure in laboratory rats.
But did the firms who make GM food stop making it? Did they spend money advertising possible damage to animal or human health? Well, what do you think? Which is why it is important for all governments to make GM labeling mandatory. Whether or not it is safe, we have a right to decide whether we want to risk our health or not.
For now, the Indian government is being sensible. The ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution has said through a gazette notification that, starting January 2013, packages containing genetically modified food must say ‘GM’. But the ministry has not said how it will enforce this norm. Still, it is comforting to know that the government prefers to let us decide what we eat.
On the other hand, we should watch out. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Indian Council of Agriculture Research is “seeking to collaborate with multinational seed corporations to develop high-yielding, durable seeds – both for profit and to improve the nation’s poor crop yields.” In exchange for ‘expertise’ and a share in profits, the ICAR offers access to one of the world’s most diverse gene banks.
Let us not, for the moment, question the assumption that crop yields are ‘poor’, although technically, India is a grain surplus nation. If yields are low, it is often because there aren’t enough farmers growing pulses, vegetables or fruits, or because they have moved to cash crops like cotton. Even so, a publicly funded body like the ICAR has no business seeking ‘profits’ that depend on blocking farmers’ access to new seed varieties!
The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and the Safe Food Alliance has already sent strongly worded letters about gifting our bio-heritage to multinational corporations on a platter. But in the meantime, we should keep an eye on international developments, especially reports related to GM food.
A farming magazine recently carried a story about a Danish farmer, whose pigs had chronic diarrhea, loss of appetite and reproductive problems. He switched to a GM-free diet and reportedly, the diarrhea disappeared; fewer animals died. In response to this, the Danish National Pig Research Centre has decided to investigate effects of non-GM and GM soya on pigs.
Which makes me wonder what GM soya or corn does to humans. But then, do we really want to find out?

Monday, July 02, 2012

The kids are not alright

24 kids ‘disappear’ everyday in Madhya Pradesh alone. Between 2003 and 2011, the total figure was as high as 75,521, with the chart peaking in 2010 (the figure for 2011 was calculated only up until October, so it is safe to say that trafficking seems to be on the rise in the state). Of the ‘disappeared’ kids, 12,636 were never found. Within this ‘never found’ category, the majority — 8,108 — is girls.
The interesting thing is that many of these disappearances occur in tribal areas. Tribal blocks in Madhya Pradesh are the only regions where the sex ratio is positive; that means that there are more than 1,000 females per 1,000 live male births. Now, there are reports that some of the girls who were tracked down are being sold off in neighbouring districts for anywhere between Rs35,000 and 60,000.
Madhya Pradesh isn’t the only problem state, of course. The National Human Rights Commission believes that 45,000 kids disappear every year in India. And yet, the scale and horror of the situation comes home to us only when the children come home to tell their stories.
One of the girls — named in the report only as ‘Savita’ — did return. Five years after she went to Delhi and was put to domestic work. She was sold, and then sold again. Next thing she knew she was in Iran where she was enslaved in a single room. Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. When she managed to escape with the help of a kindly neighbour, she reached Kolkata, child in tow. She reached Delhi, and begged on the streets to feed the child, then took a train back to Jabalpur, hitched a ride on a tractor and then walked another 50km.
Despite her trauma, Savita did return to her family. But over the last five years, 5,499 girls have gone missing from eight ‘tribal’ districts in MP, of which 1,501 girls cannot be traced. There must be hundreds of others whose parents couldn’t even file police complaints.
The reasons for a spurt in trafficking are complex — female foeticide, dowry, misogyny, food insecurity. But children usually leave home only when poverty is extreme, and no work can be found locally.
A group of teenaged children are offered jobs by ‘agents’. The kids rarely have cell phones, or addresses of potential employers. When they disappear, parents don’t know where to look. They also allege that the police sometimes don’t take complaints seriously.
On occasion, parents have gone with names and numbers of the local ‘agent’, but the police have not made arrests.

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