Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some facts and a note from the common person

It was the year 1974, somewhere in a small far away village in Uttar Pardesh, a wedding celebration was underway.
 Mayadin was getting his eleven year old cousin married off to a thirty something man. With the fiery girl child out of the way, he was sure that no one else would prevent him from the sole enjoyment of all family property, a small piece of land and wood from a neem tree. Mayadin was wrong, his cousin had no plans of being an obedient child bride or accept marital rape as her lot. So Mayadin decided to set up a false case of theft against his cousin, who was sixteen now. The cousin was arrested and apparently raped in jail by the police for three days.
Such were the first 16 years of Phoolan Devi.

"On the night of June 22, 2002, our family reaches a decision.
I, Mukhtaran Bibi, a woman of the peasant Gujar caste,living in the village of Meerwala, will be the one to confront an influential and aggressive local clan, farmers of the Mastoi caste....
My little brother Shakur is accused .....of having "spoken" to  Salma, a young woman of their clan. Shakur is only twelve years old, while Salma is over twenty. We know my brother has done nothing wrong but if the Mastois have decided otherwise, we Gujars must bow to their demands. This is the way it has always been."

The tribal council will eventually order the gang rape of Mukhtaran Bibi after which she was meant to commit suicide.  

Mukhtaran today runs schools in her village trying hard to educate little children especially girls but if you were to read of her fight for justice, it would take a cold heart of stone not to weep.

December, 2012, the metropolitan city of Delhi, the capital of India witnesses another brutal and horrible gang rape. A tragedy of insurmountable proportions stares at a young  23 year old girl.
 As details of the macabre incident unravelled condemnation flew in thick and fast on the social media, mobile phones, television, parliament, the internet, on the streets. Other rape cases,{ and mind you on an average one rape case is reported just about every day on some inside page of every national daily,} found more prominent space in newspapers. Effectiveness of the legal process, more stringent punishment including castration and death were discussed. Better policing was discussed. Courts aired their disgust and shock. The police was reprimanded and admonished. It seems that policing since the incident has improved or at least that was the observation of a friend who was visiting Delhi during this week. God knows who long will it last...    
 However somehow I the common person, my negligence was never discussed. I, the mother or father of a married daughter who cajoles her to go back to her matrimonial home and put her life and respect at peril; I the common person who sees nothing wrong in seeking dowry; I the common person who travels in public transport but would never come to the aid and assistance of any needy person leave alone a woman in peril; I the common person whose life actually resembles  the characters of "saas bahu" serials. I the common person who objectifies and stereotypes the woman; I the common person who seeks honour in killing a brother or sister simply because they choose to lead life on their own terms. I the common person who gives in to self styled gurus and god men seeking to explain the role of the woman as subservient to man; I the mother-in- law who doesn't have a problem siding up with her son against the daughter-in-law; I the common person who is too scared to be a witness; I the common person who is too caught up in his or her own life to bother for others....we the many common people who together make up the system that we all individually fear so much.......what do we have to say for ourselves?

The harsh truth is that we as a society are still very far away from respecting women and womanhood. The role of law comes in at a much  later stage; the issue is how and why are men even able to think that rape is an option? How has that thought found its way into society? A lot of notions of honour and respect have  to be unlearned... It is time that each person, each family, each community does some introspection and we ask ourselves what are the little things we can do so that no other woman ever has to face such horror.

Note:    Information on Phoolan Devi has been sourced from wikipedia and on Mukhtaran Bai from her      book "In the name of Honour"

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"There are causes, more important than love, in our times"

At a book release function a few days ago I bumped into a  dear cousin who introduced me as as an "activist lawyer" to her friends and family. I found myself getting quite attached to the introduction, although truth be told I have seldom managed to take to the street for a cause and my activism if at all is limited to the realm of drawing room conversations.However in that moment I was happy to believe that I was an activist!

Later that evening I chanced upon a book called "Anthems of Resistance" which beautifully details the Progressive Writers Movement that found its feet in India prior to independence, its role during the independence struggle and the causes that it made its own. Poets and writers of the stature of Premchand, Nirala, Mulk Raj Anand, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majaaz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Mukhdoom, Sajjad Zaheer, Manto, Kaifi Azmi amongst many other put their lot behind the movement.

Angarre (Embers) had already been published a year or two earlier  It had been criticized and banned for questioning religious orthodoxy, discrimination of women and other burning issues of the day. Communism, socialism, the working class were the flavour of the times. Organised religion and the caste system also came under attack.  It was the era of activist writings and causes.There was no time for love and romance or was there?

Daw Aung Sung Su Ki,during the Jawharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, touched upon this conflict between personal and public spaces that leaders and activists often have to deal with . While she described leaders like herself as  prisoners of conscience. She wondered what was the jurisdictional space, the length and width of this conscience. She gave Nehru's example who during one of his many jail terms was offered immediate freedom, if he were to give, even an informal assurance of leaving politics for ever. This offer came in the backdrop of Nehru's wife, Kamala's accute illness and suggestions from friends and family that his immediate personal presence by her side was absolutely critical for her well being. Nehru refused to give the assurance. Su Kyi endorsed his conduct.

Faiz puts this quintessential dilemma thus: Aur bhi gham hain zamaney mein mahubat ki siva (There are graver causes that need to be addressed in these times other than mere love!).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What makes this Diwali special

Tarapada came to Delhi some seventeen years ago from a small hamlet in West Bengal in search of a job. Within a couple of years he was a proud owner of a pan kiosk. In this harsh and difficult city, Tarapada seemed to have done reasonably well for himself and considered himself lucky. The pan shop did brisk business and it also provided him enough time to pursue his hobby of drawing and making patterns and images which quite often adorned his shop. It was not abnormal for the odd customer to praise his artistic abilities quite contrary to all the admonishing he had received from his family for "wasting" his time on unproductive activities. 

Then one day he got news that his mother was very ill and he had to rush back to the village. When he returned, his shop had been removed and the authorities refused to let hum set it up again. His luck seemed to have run out. 

 While still deliberating what to do and where to start, he chanced upon an old customer.  Yeswant Miranda, a web designer and loyal customer of the panwaadi swore by Tarapada's artistic abilities. At Yeswant's insistence and with some guidance Tarapada put all his creative energies into the "unproductive activity" of making lamp shades. 

I am sure we could all use some of his lamp shades this Diwali!


Yeshwant believes that there are many Tarapadas in the galis of Delhi and is in the process of incorporating a company with the idea of giving talent a second chance!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A chapter from Pune

I arrived in Pune with a letter for one Colonel  Yardi. The Colonel was a "family friend" of a "family friend" and for that reason alone was expected to give me boarding and lodging till I found my bearings in a new city where I did not know anyone. I had just finished school and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about forcing my company on a retired couple whom I had never met or known. However there simply was no other option.

Having settled in with the Yardi's,  I arrived early for my first day at college to check with the staff if they knew of any cheap and reliable student accommodation, close by. It seemed that there were many places available around the college and in fact one particular peon even offered to personally show me this "nice room" to rent.

As soon as my classes were over I went in search for the good samaritan who in fact was already waiting for me at  our previously decided meeting place.

We ambled up the steep drive way of the college. This was the same drive way for which my yet to be friend Batjuban Edmond Marpana of Nongbet would famously quip: "As I see it man, in this city if you are a girl and in trouble go stand in the middle of that ramp and ten knights in shining armours will emerge from somewhere to help you but if you are a guy and in trouble then just go back to the city you came from!!"

After a twenty minute walk we arrived in the back alley of a rather dilapidated house. After negotiating 2 stories of rickety stairs I was inside a windowless room.  Although I had already mentally rejected the room I still asked "So how much will it cost?" "Three other people will share the room" said my friend. "The monthly rent will be Rs. 2000/- per person, Rs. 2000/- security deposit and another Rs. 2000/-"

"Hmmn" I mumbled in the most non-committal manner.  "It's beyond my budget." On the way back I casually asked my peon friend. "So I understand that the monthly rent and advance was going to cost Rs. 2000/- each  but what was the third Rs. 2000 for?" "For me of course", he said most shocked to note that I had no desire to remunerate him for his efforts.

Now as it happens, till then I just assumed that one pays for tangible things like eggs, bread, a house, a meal at a restaurant and such like. It did not occur to me that people would seek remuneration for "helping" others. I saw reason much later when I qualified as a lawyer!!!! However at that point I remember being most shocked at his desire to make money off me and continued to hold a very bad opinion of him, to put it mildly. So much so that when a bunch of friends, at the end of the year, were indulging in some loose talk about leaking examination papers, I confidently offered a name of a peon who was known to leak examination papers!  Guess who?!!  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Of the People, by the People, for the People

Elections in Gujarat are around the corner. If the pundits are to be believed then Narendra Modi is going to win yet again with more than a comfortable majority. The pundits may well be right.
Let us go back to that election immediately after the Godhara deaths and the pogrom that followed. The question to be asked is did the voter believe that the Narendra Modi Government was complicit in the massacres that followed or did they accept the State Government's version that the State was impartial and tried to do all that it could to save life and property. If it was the latter then the matter rests there, however naive one may perceive the voter to be. On the other hand if the vote was "an expression" of a tacit, covert acknowledgment of the Government's role in the savagery then that opens up a completely new debate.
It   is a complex debate with many facets and issues. The core of the issue however is the social acceptability of the idea of discrimination. Discrimination based on gender, class, ethnicity, caste and what have you continues to have social sanction.
The State does no better and cannot since it is merely a reflection of society. Take the example of "caste barracks" in the Patna Police Lines. How are these police men expected to uphold the principle of "equality" as set out in the Constitution when they are most comfortable and accepting of existing discrimination?
Of course, as pointed out by a friend what is more disturbing than the social acceptance of discrimination is the collective acceptability of savagery......

Corruption Vs. Corruption

Big ticket financial corruption has received a lot of attention lately. While I found the anarchic tendency of the agitations and the "either you are with us or against us" tone of "Team Anna", IAC etc. problematic and undemocratic there was no denying that financial corruption was and is a relevant issue. However to use such agitations as a smoke screen to prop up controversial leaders and unacceptable ideologies as legitimate governance models, is itself corruption of the highest kind. 
Conveniently,  political leaders are  being assessed only and only from the prism of financial corruption. 
Here we have "leaders" who have no respect for human life in particular and humanity in general yet there is hardly any popular middle class resentment. Atleast nothing comparable to what we see for the issue of "corruption." What should be the priority if one had to chose between catching a murderer or a thief?

So if Mr. Chetan Bhagat the leader of the "Mera Neta Chor hai" campaign ( were to come up with a "Mera Neta Katil hai" campaign is he likely to get popular middle class support? Of course, the more interesting question is whether Mr. Chetan Bhagat would be interested in leading such a movement at all?! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Memories of Lucknow

We lived in the city for a short while but I was too small to remember many details, other than the fact that we stayed near Qaiser Bagh and Baara Dari and Dikshit Uncle gave me a bath in Chelpark Royal Blue for a fancy dress get together at Cathedral where I went as the baby Lord Krishana. I suspect that my unwavering, albeit misplaced belief, in my ability to charm the fairer sex may have some co-relation to this incident so early on in life! There are two other incidents that I remember, one I will specifically omit to mention but the other one I don't mind sharing. Mittho, our pet parrot was left out in the balcony one rainy night and ended up looking really sick. Friends and family decided he had caught a cold and amongst various other medical procedures, cough syrup drops were downed his throat using those medicinal droppers. Mittho did not survive.

Lucknow was a city where we had both our sets of grandparents and invariably all our summer and winter holidays were spent in the city. The journey, itself used to be quite an event. There were no direct trains from Chandigarh and we used to invariably take a bus to Ambala and then take the train to Lucknow. Back in the 1980's the trains were invariably very late or maybe it was just our unique experience. Since Baba hardly had any leave, he would accompany us to Ambala from where Amma shouldered the responsibility of getting us three siblings to Lucknow in one piece.

 The other unique aspect of IInd class train travel in the 1980's and early 1990's were the crowds. The crowds seeking to travel always seemed to be 10 times the seating capacity. So getting into the bogey required special expertise and some unique tools like knitting needles which were most effective in creating the necessary space that would make it feasible for a lady to negotiate the unruly crowds. Amma would determinedly make her way to the ladies coupe holding on to the three of us while simultaneously shouting instructions to the coolie. Once inside the ladies coupe, she would  plonk us all on the top most berth and get busy with insuring that the luggage was safely tucked away below the berth.

If the train was not very late then we would find ourselves at the Charbagh station, Lucknow, the next morning, just about when the sun was rising. That was a good time to reach, the city had yet to wake up from its revelry of the previous night. We would have the streets to ourselves other than perhaps the buffaloes on the way back to their sheds from an early morning bath in the Gomti river.
 From the railway platform itself, hordes of rickshaw pullers would start jostling for our attention. "Mine is a new rickshaw", one would say. "I know the address, come with me" another would say