Why a recent cover story of HT Brunch is problematic

This story was published in DailyO in February 2017, right after this issue came out. Re-published here in its unedited form.

 

I am an ardent reader of HT Brunch. Every weekend, I look forward to their latest edition to devour from cover to cover. As an engineer myself, I absolutely adore Mr Rajiv Makhni’s tech column. Ms Seema Goswami’s thoughts of the week always make for a fun and interesting read. Mr Vir Sanghvi’s rude food is always enlightening (I only wish it was sometimes accompanied by an English translation alongside the original Greek and Latin!).

Point is, it is a great magazine and makes for a wonderful showcase of everything that is new and young and worth knowing about in modern culture. Which is precisely why, I was highly disturbed to see their cover this Sunday.

This week’s cover story of HT Brunch is about the women’s football team. Normally, this should be a story that would fill one’s heart with pride for our girls, and pride at being a woman oneself. Normally, this should be a story I should want to recommend to all my friends who are parents of little girls and are looking for a bedtime story to read out to them – a story that would make them believe that anything is possible and any dream they dream that night can become a reality if work hard for it. Normally, this should be a story of grit, determination, blood, sweat and sheer girl gumption.

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But the moment I picked up the issue, I saw from the cover image itself that this would be no normal story. The cover image showed two photographs of the sportswomen – one, with them in their jerseys, posing with footballs, and the other, with them posing in fashionable clothing, wearing a ton of makeup, and high heels. The first photo was tagged “3k views” and the second “301k views”. Below the images was written in bold lettering, “It must be the make-up!”

My heart sank as I took in the monstrosity that was this cover image.

Even without opening the magazine, I felt let down by this publication that is supposed to be a herald-er of “what’s cool” and “what’s in” for the youth. Here it was, portraying women – sportswomen at that – in a light that reduces them to objects to be dolled up, and reduces their worth to “views” based on their looks and their make-up. I felt shocked that this horror passed the editorial process of the HT group. I felt shocked that, in this day and age, where feminism is finally becoming a point of discussion at family dinners, such a major magazine could still present a picture of women that sets their legitimacy as professionals back by decades, and reduces them to being pretty little things, valuable only because of their aesthetically pleasing bodies. While some in popular culture are making an effort to celebrate stories of parents encouraging their daughters in female infanticide-ridden Haryana to pursue sports, here is our national team being objectified on the front page of a leading pop-culture magazine.

The inside of the story offered no redeeming features either. It is frankly depressing that the magazine did not deem our national football team worthy of being covered by a sports journalist, and sent a beauty journalist(!) to cover their stories instead. The beauty journalist did what beauty journalists do – gave the ladies a makeover and spent time discussing their lip glosses, while their struggles and journeys as sportswomen went glossed over.

And then there was the utterly laughable section of the article where they brought in Mr Baichung Bhutia to comment on the girls’ makeover, because why would a woman dress up, if not for the approval of the nearest alpha male. It is a deeply awkward piece, where Mr Bhutia is clearly uncomfortable with what he is expected to comment on. Here is a picture of him in the magazine, where they have him shrug his shoulders in that “Who are these women and what did they do to my players?” kind of way. Not sure whether to laugh or cry at the self-goal there, pun unintended.

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I am sure Mr Bhutia must’ve felt far more comfortable talking about the game these women happen to play, and spoken about it at length as well. But here is the pearl of a quote the journalist picked and included in the article: “as a former FIFA chief once said, Indian women dance and move their bodies so well that they can definitely excel at football.” Downright educational to read Indian women’s sporting talent being traced back to gyration at wedding baraats. If this isn’t demeaning and belittling their respective struggles, and the hard work it must have taken to rise to where they have, I don’t know what is.

Someone I discussed this article with pointed out the responsibility of the women featured in the article and the role played by them in the angle the magazine chose to cover them with. To that, I can only respond by placing myself in their shoes. 20-21 year old girls, many of them from rural backgrounds, being covered by media professionals, cannot be blamed for trusting these ‘professionals’ to know their job. When I was their age, I was far behind them in terms of accomplishment (heck, I am a decade older and still far behind them in terms of accomplishment). And I cannot say with confidence, that if someone had asked me a decade back to put on some make-up and pose for a cover story in a leading magazine, I would notice anything terribly wrong with that.

Which is why I feel that the responsibility for the irresponsibility shown by the Brunch team here lies squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps shared, in part, only by history and the way women – even exceptional achievers like these girls – have always been portrayed. Unfortunately, that is where one looks at the media of today to move forward and bring about change. I sincerely wish the Brunch editors had chosen to play that role, instead of repeating and reinforcing the mistakes of the past for a shinier cover picture.

I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of Brunch with bated breath. I wonder if it will feature the men’s football team. I wonder if they will send a beauty journalist to cover the boys too. I wonder if we will read all about their favorite hairgels and exfoliating skin care routine in the story. I wonder if a senior female football player will be brought into the room after the sportsmen undergo a makeover to comment on how pretty they looked, and how Indian men are naturally good at footer, given the practice they get dancing at weddings.

I wonder if we will ever try to legitimize the achievements of our sportsmen by giving them a makeover and a thousand times more views! It must be the make-up!

The High Road

Okay I am freezing as I type this so I am going to make it worth my while. And yours, dear angry-feedback reader at Bluber (cab service company name concealed for privacy). Your job must be tough enough without me dumping another poorly written poor review on you. And so, I am going to try to make it worth your while as well.

So here goes: The cab stank of marijuana.

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Something he should probably have thought of.

Like, enough to leave me coughing from delayed second-hand smoke level, stank. The cabbie had the windows rolled down when I boarded, so I assume he wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fragrant interiors of his car either. Which brings us to the question – was it the driver who relished the herbs or a previous occupant of the cab?

I tried hard to stare into the eyes of the former the entire journey to discern any signs of crimson through his rear view mirror. He might be confused about my degree of interest in his eyes so if he has given me a 5 star rating, we all know where that came from.

However, to be fair, apart from some suspiciously slow-mo blinking, I have little proof to go by. Unless you count the under speed limit driving and complete absence of road rage, which, frankly, for any self-respecting Indian driver, is pretty damning evidence of a DUI.

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This test would’ve been much easier if we had Stop signs in India

To give the man the benefit of doubt though, I do suggest you also check up on the trail of cabbie feedback my predecessor in the Bluber is leaving elsewhere in their wake. If (s)he is consistently getting 5 star ratings, we all know where that is coming from.

Which brings us to me. Right now. In the backseat of this car, inhaling a mixture of banned substances and B.O. Typing this review on my mobile with shivering fingers on a cold winter night, with my windows rolled down rather suicidally – in part, to keep my access to oxygen open, and in part, hoping to sober up our man Mr Sunil here.

As tempted as I am by this under-speed limit driving sans references to people’s mothers and sisters – and believe me this level of gentlemanliness is unprecedented in my past experiences, not only with cabbies, but nearly the entire male race – I cannot help but worry about Mr Sunil’s reaction times in case of Indian-style driving by our less-gentlemanly brethren around us.

I would, therefore, urge you to include instructions for Bluber drivers to not indulge in substance abuse, nor allow substance abuse by Bluber customers to go unreported in your training manual. Because, apparently, that was not obvious already.

***

PS: I request you not to Nihalanize this situation and ask how I recognize the smell of marijuana in the first place. I have functional olfactory senses. And I live in Delhi. Near IIT Delhi, to be precise. Case closed.

The Feminism of Dangal

As late as I was on the scene, I watched Dangal last night. Possibly the last movie of 2016 that I will watch in a theatre (barring a miracle that results in me making it for an unearthly-timed afternoon show of La La Land), and definitely the first one of 2017. And what a way to ring in the new year it was!
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I have enjoyed several movies that came out last year, and strongly believe that Bollywood is evolving and how. As we live and learn, movies that we 90s kids swooned at and swore by seem increasingly cringeworthy in respect of their treatment of female characters, even the purportedly stronger ones (think Simran and Anjali). Movies of today, on the other hand, are decidedly making progress in the right direction. And while Bollywood stars and starlets still avoid the F word like the plague, the moviemakers are definitely getting more and more feminist in their fresh brand of storytelling.
At a time like this, when mainstream art and culture are still evolving, I fear we do a huge disservice to the cause with acerbic op-eds nitpicking minor aspects on which, in our opinion, the artists daring to lead this movement, failed. This is not to say that higher standards must not be aspired to. This is just to say that this new species of storytellers must be respected and acknowledged for the gumption it takes to make art that is socially accepted and commercially viable without pandering to the follies of our legacy.
To me, Dangal is a shining example of what we need right now from cinema on three critical accounts: it is, one, essentially a feminist story told in a way that, two, makes it popular among the masses and, three, makes money for its producers. A movie that pleases every purist among us but is watched by few others is pointless. A movie that is a commercial blockbuster but reinforces the misogyny of the masses is a bhai flick.
Two girls, born in a rural household in a State infamous for its misogyny, are disappointments to their family even before they take their first breath. If their journey to becoming the pride of their nation on an international platform is not a feminist story, I don’t know what is.
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So what if the dream was their father’s to begin with? Worse outcomes have come out of parental pressure than international gold medalists. Which, by the way, is not an outcome possible without the next generation growing to own the dream whole-heartedly as their own. Offer this supposed liberation from their father’s dream to Geeta and Babita Phogat and I’d be willing to bet a 5-pointer at their hands they won’t be pleased.
So what if the word ‘nation’ appeared in the vision of Mahavir Phogat for his daughters? I am eternally perplexed by the notion that feminism and nationalism are divorced concepts. If a woman fights in the army for her nation out of her own choice, isn’t that a feminist?
Who decided that the feminism of someone who graduates from being destined to be a child bride and expected to be a boy-popping machine, to becoming an international sportswoman in track pants, is second in class to that of a business suit clad marketing executive or a skirt wearing videographer?
I am not one for extremism in any garb – be it nationalism or anti-nationalism – and I am all for the Phogat women and their father, who led the way for many more girls of Haryana to dare to imagine a future beyond traditional roles slapped on their fate by society. The first to tread a new path are the ones who face the most challenges.
“Idhar tauji apni duty kar rahe thhe, udhar gaon vaale apni.” 
We urban folks who think we’re sick of the ‘log kya kahenge’ syndrome ain’t seen nothing yet. Not until we experience the intrusiveness of life in a rural community. It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. In rural India, it literally is the village that acts like a family raising a child. And then, like all families, feels entitled to an opinion on how these children go on to live their lives. Mahavir Phogat must have faced all the hushed and loud criticism shown in the movie, of the way he was raising his daughters.
For standing up to that criticism (or even, for sometimes ignoring it), Mahavir Phogat is a feminist. For not succumbing to societal pressure on his journey of incubating his daughters’ talent, he is a feminist. For facing all the challenges that come with being ‘different’ in any society at any time, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For, after having choosen their father’s dream willing as their own as adults, working tirelessly towards it with such dedication against all odds, Geeta and Babita are feminists. For not giving up in the face of setbacks in an environment characterized by general apathy towards sports in general, and sportswomen in particular, the Phogats are feminists.
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Theirs was a story worth being told. And for telling that story in a way that earned the story a mass appeal and set the PayTM registers ringing at the box office, Dangal, to me, is not only the best, but also the most feminist movie of 2016.

To Babu or not to Babu, That is the question. – GradStory

Wrote for GradStory about the career choice of becoming a public servant. 

gradstory.in is a great idea whose time was long overdue. Here is the site in the words of the founders: “Our mission is simple: to create a platform for experiences to be shared. Gradstory is an organic website that allows graduates, young professionals and successful individuals to share their stories. Our endeavor is to allow you, our readers, to make informed choices about the future.”

And here are my humble bureaucratically-incorrect two bits on life in bureaucracy: http://www.gradstory.in/career-paths/upsc/

Distance Makes The Heart Go Monster

A long distance marriage is not easy. In fact, the only thing tougher is probably a short distance marriage. 

Let’s face it. Marriage is not easy. I am just 3-months old in the business and even I know that.

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Once upon a time, my husband and I were happily unmarried and in a long-distance relationship. Topics of our long chats on the phone usually ranged from the romantic weather in either of our cities, to world economics, to congratulating ourselves on being a couple that discusses world economics. So erudite. Cut to being in a long-distance marriage and our conversations are now shorter, more to-the-point, and about dinner. 

Did you eat?

No.

Y u no eat?

I will, now.

Okay then, talk to you later.

Yeah. Bye.

It is not that the courtship period was all rose-tinted. We used to drive each other up the wall even back then. But that was usually because of a mismatch in our views of deep stuff, like the meaning of life, or what the next UPSC reform should be. (Like I said, so erudite. What an obnoxiously smug pair we were.)

Today, this is a sample conversation that gets the passions running high:

Me: Did the maid come today?

Him: Yes, but she didn’t clean.

Why not?

I told her she can clean on alternate days. Our house doesn’t get so dirty everyday anyway.

Say whaa…?

Oh, and I gave her that Rs 10,000 advance she was asking for. She promised she will pay back.

I am trying that Jedi choking thing right now. Do you feel any difficulty breathing?

His boss famously said to him on getting our wedding invitation, “Women change after marriage.” It is a prized part of his arsenal to be used whenever I go astronomically ballistic. So, obviously, I hear it on a weekly basis. This, when I am 2000 kms away from all the funny smells that I know will welcome me back home.

But all is not lost. Every now and then, some politician will say something uncharacteristically stupid. Or one of our seniors will spout a particularly deep insight about Life, the Civil Services and Everything. And, BSNL call drops notwithstanding, we will find ourselves entangled in a long animated conversation about it. (Sometimes, my Husband The Geek will even point out exactly how long, down to two decimal points.) 

Then, suddenly, a knowing silence. We both can hear the other silently grinning.

And for just a euphoric little while, we feel unmarried again. 

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

A Tale of Two Cities

Those who are in my social / social media circle would be painfully aware by now that I have been managing a sustainable transport campaign over the past few months. The aim of our campaign is to spread awareness about non-motorized and public transport. But I can well imagine and understand that some of my unwitting audience may have felt irked by the incessant promotion I did. If you are one of those people, I apologize for the bother. And I am writing this post for you.

This is the story of two people whose paths never crossed, but who are inextricably linked now in my memory.

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When I first began this campaign in late 2013, I reached out to sustainable transport activists across the country hunting for stories of successful initiatives for us to document and showcase. That was how I “met” (and by “met” I mean exchanged emails with) Kadambari.

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Kadambari Badami was around my age, and had been doing some amazing work in making the streets of Chennai more walkable for the communities living there. I did not know her personally, but found her enthusiasm for my campaign encouraging.

Here is an excerpt from the very first email she wrote to me:

“Dear Mahima, This is a wonderful initiative on the part of DD News! We would be happy to participate and help put something together. Do let me know what we can do.

Warm regards,

Kadambari”

Last week, Kadambari passed away in a road accident in Bangalore. I had never seen her, nor met her, but somehow it felt like losing a friend.

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I got married recently. Like most others, my big fat Indian wedding too was a celebration with friends and family coming together to shower their love and blessings on my husband and me. Having lived away from home for the past 10 years, it felt like homecoming. I was rediscovering my own family members – the people some of my cousins had grown up to become, and the people my elders had always been, little known to me. I realized my family was a heady mix of interesting people and swore to stay in better touch.

The day after the wedding, my Mamaji (maternal uncle) met with a fatal road accident on his way to work. He had danced with us the day before, had participated enthusiastically in the wedding rites, had blessed us. And suddenly all we were left with were memories. He was my mother’s youngest sibling.

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He is survived by his wife – one of the strongest women I have ever had the honour of knowing, two beautiful children, and lots of love.

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Death is a reality. Our love for someone may be unlimited, but their time in this world is limited. When faced with our mortality, we must accept it as the way of nature. But what we must never accept as natural is untimely loss by agents of our own creation.

It may seem like progress to us when we buy a shiny new car. It may seem like development when a new flyover is inaugurated in our city. It may seem like welcome respite when a road to our workplace is widened. But what all this really does is make roads unsafer for us and our loved ones.

The “average car occupancy” in Delhi is just above 1 person per car. A bus can carry around 60 people in it. Imagine the street space one bus takes on the road. Now imagine the street space 60 cars take.

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To make space for these 60 car users, the government builds big flyovers and wider roads. Which makes these roads even more unsafe for pedestrians, cyclists and car users themselves.

The common Indian does not, unlike car manufacturers, have a lobby to fight for him or her.

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I usually do not share matters of personal joy or grief on public fora as a matter of policy. But I thought there was a lesson here. A variety of them, in fact: “Our time is limited. Live life to the fullest. Love unconditionally. Forgive and forget.” The choice of lesson you take away from this is entirely yours.

Here is the lesson I took away.

I try not to be the reason behind another car on my city’s roads unless absolutely unavoidable.

I now try to walk or cycle over short distances. I take the bus to work everyday. It is not easy. Sometimes, after a long day, as I wait at a bus stop endlessly and find myself wistfully thinking, “I’d have been home by now if I had gone by car.” When I walk, I have to deal with the dust, the pollution, the thoughtless bikers on the footpath and the occasional shoe bite. I find myself fantasizing about joining the people sitting in air-conditioned cars whizzing by.

When these thoughts make an appearance, I tell myself, “May be, me not taking the car today saved a life. May be it was my life. Or somebody’s loved one’s.”

And I find my commitment renewed.

Rest in peace, Mamaji and Kadambari.

Traffic Ab Bus Karo campaign videos are available at http://tinyurl.com/abbuskaro. Apologies, once again, to those who felt spammed during the campaign. Now you know why I had to do it.

***

Update: Please take 6 mins of your time to watch this wonderful video about how the road-fatalities-ridden Amsterdam became among the safest, greenest, most livable cities in the world.

See if you think that there is something you can do to make this happen in your city:

The Humble Cycle

Urban transport planning in most countries, including India, often ignores the cycling or walking man in favour of the swanky car driver. Here is a two part documentary I recently made on this subject. Apologies to the non-Hindi speaking crowd since the programme is basically in Hindi. However, most of the important interviews are in English (with Hindi subtitles). So there should be something for everyone here:

Part 1:

 

Part 2:

Comments and feedback welcome. Do share with people you know who would / should care about this issue. And pretty much anyone who uses roads!

Vanity Inc

Stock disclaimer: I am quite happy I was born Punjabi. We are the most fun race that I know of. Alu paranthe, bhangra, lassi, Santa-Banta jokes – I love the whole deal. So let not this post be taken as an anti-Punjabi one. The Gujju brides face their Solah Somvaars even before they are legal. The Tam ladies have to sing and dance for Appa-in-law. We Dilli vaale Punjabis have our own funny pre-marital quirks. All that this post (and probably more to come in this series) seeks to do is to point them out. If you’re a Punjabi, laugh at yourself. You know how to. That is part of what makes you awesome.

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Sample this conversation I had with a Concerned Punjabi Aunty (CPA) almost a decade ago:

CPA: What’s that on your face, dear?
Me (feels face*): What… Oh, that… Pimple, I guess.
CPA: Ah. So what did the doctor say?
Me (aloud): Uh… I… didn’t go to one.
Me (in my head):  I AM A FRIGGING TEENAGER WITH A PIMPLE, LADY, NOT A CANCER PATIENT!

Dus saal baad, the acne has mercifully relented, but little has changed otherwise. One of the many occupational hazards of being a Punjabi bride-to-be is mandatory objectification at the hands of the ‘beauty parlour’ lady. The universe of the ‘parlour’ goes by diverse names these days. From the old western style ‘Salon’ to the uber chic ‘Beauty Clinic’ – this is a one-stop breeding ground for complexes of all shapes and sizes.

From I’m-too-fat to my-skin-pigmentation-is-going-to-be-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, this place feeds on your fears. Yes, you may burn yourself during the pouring of the hot wax that seems to solve all the banes of womanhood in one one glorious ripping of the epidermis. Yes, you see women yelling hoarse about how that burgundy shade of hair color made them go Miley Twerking Cyrus bald. But all that is just the price you pay in order to look good for other people on your big day. People you last saw that time when you were all of 6 months old and peed all over their shirt. A fact they will not forget to mention on your wedding day as you try to smile through seventeen different layers of Bridal Radiance Grime that your face will be buried under.

But, I digress. This is meant to be a guide for the uninitiated into the deep dark dungeons of bridal vanity. The beauty parlour is supposed to be a second-home for the Dilli ki dulhan. I have been avoiding that impending visit with all my excusatory might. But the wedding season is upon us, and for Delhi’s Vanity Incs, this is sparta. You can run, but you cannot hide. The cosmos soon put an end to my protest with a free ‘beauty treatments’ voucher sneakily provided with my ticket at a PVR. I never knew beauty was a treatment-meriting ailment. And, with that, ended my short-lived satyagraha against Vanity Inc as I was dragged by my pigmented ear to the holy Mecca of manicures and gold facials.

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A list of all of God’s manufacturing defects that some of these magic-workers correct.

On a fateful Sunday after that, I found myself in the waiting room of a squeaky new Beauty Clinic seducing new customers through free voucher carrots. A world of dieticians and skin expert dementors hovering over people who feel that there is something wrong with them.

They help. They send these people back home, convinced that there is, in fact, a lot wrong with them. Go in for a routine procedure, come out feeling you need plastic surgery. As much as sit in the waiting room, and the dementors float in, magnanimously hawking weight losses by the kilo.

“We have a new lipo machine, ma’am. Latest German technology. You could lose 2 inches in one sitting!”

The good lord be praised, salvation is here!

As I sit, trying to tune out the generous offers, a guy my brother’s age walks in. He informs the receptionist that his friend met with a road accident and tragically passed away yesterday. You can imagine how distraught he was since this made him miss his Body Polishing and Stretch Marks Lightening Treatment appointment. He requests her to let him have his session today instead. She apologises and shows him a time table packed with fellow defective humans. But he wants his treatment, and he wants it now. He proceeds with what I can only imagine was his version of flirting with the receptionist and tries to bribe her with an apple (yes, the fruit, not even the phone) that he apparently brought just for her. Behind him, the staff giggles and pulls the leg of their colleague who will be allocated the unenviable task of lightening our man’s stretch marks.

As the air fills with the stench of ammonia and bleach curing someone of their pigments, something tells me satyagraha against this was not such a bad idea after all.

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Or, don’t.

The Monster

This is the story of the first time I met someone who looked me in the eye and told me about the night they killed a person.

Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) is an NGO working, among other things, in the area of rehabilitation of drug-dependent juveniles. The Juvenile Justice Board refers juveniles who show signs of drug-addiction and are convicted in cases of serious criminal offences to SPYM for rehabilitation. Their campus at Kingsway Camp runs a 3-month rehabilitation course with a capacity to handle 50 children at a time. It almost always works at over-capacity.

Children get addicted to drugs at the tender age of 8-12 years. In the absence of costlier options, they will ingest iodex, shoe polish, ink, etc to satiate their addiction. Slowly, as their dependence increases, and they get addicted to pricier options (such as opium, marijuana, smack, intravenous drugs, etc.), they are forced to turn to a life of crime.

How does an innocent child meet with such a fate? Shibendu (manager of Sahyog – the SPYM center at Sewa Kutir Complex in Kingsway Camp) tells me the story of a typical juvenile.

“A friend at school, or a neighbor, or a relative introduces him to a light drug one day.

Come, I will show you something fun.

He tries a marijuana smoke for the first time. It takes his mind off his hunger, his abusive father, his unfortunate and deprived existence. He likes the feeling. The next day, another free smoke. And so on for several weeks. Then one day:

Why don’t you treat us today?

But I don’t have any money.

Come, I will show you how to make some.

His first crime. May be he just has to carry a bag somewhere. May be a petty theft. It pays him handsomely. He gets to buy drugs. May be he even takes some money home. His parents, living in their own abject poverty, are happy the son has brought home some money. In most homes, no questions are asked about the source of the money as long as there is one. In extreme cases, the parents themselves are addicts. Any income is welcome in these homes.

And that is where it all begins.”

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At Sahyog, the rehabilitation begins with medical treatment and detoxification. But medical weaning is just a small part of the solution. Children are powerhouses of energy. What would a child with a tainted past do with all his extra energy? Sahyog realizes that it is critical to channelize all this energy in a positive direction.

“There are five elements of an effective rehab.” Shibendu tells me.

  1. Counseling: Peer counseling works much better than even professional counseling. We get boys who have come out of this life to talk to these children about their stories, the obstacles they faced, and what helped them overcome these obstacles.
  2. Literacy: 70% of these children are primary school dropouts. A new technology “Talking Pen” is used to make them at least semi-literate in the limited 3 months they spend at Sahyog. The Talking Pen technology involves a book with a bar code printed next to each word.
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    When the pen is placed on the word, it reads the bar code and the word is read out loud through the speakers built in the pen.
  3. Skill Development: Organized as a Public-Private Partnership, there are many vocational training modules at SPYM Sahyog. A food production certificate course, a motor mechanics course, laundry training, and computer education are the main programmes being run here.
  4. Bal Panchayat: A big reason behind these children getting wayward was their inability to stand up for themselves and decide what is right or wrong. To build this important decision making ability in them, they are formed into a Panchayat or Parliament, whose members are rotated every week. This panchayat takes all decisions regarding the running of the center, designs class schedules, resolves disputes, and distributes workload of cooking, cleaning, laundry etc among the children fairly.
  5. Halfway Home: SPYM’s biggest concern is what happens to these children when they go back out in the real world. Many come from families with a history of drug abuse. Some are orphans. 12 year old Rajesh’s (name changed) father killed himself, and he is forced to earn money for the family. He has already relapsed twice and this is his third stint at the center. He says that he never wants to leave the center. The center fought a case in the court that allowed them to let him stay on. For children like these who are not yet ready to support themselves in the outside world on their own, a Halfway Home has been set up in the same campus. Children get food, lodging and boarding there while they are given due support to become self-reliant.

SPYM Sahyog is just 2 years old. In this time, it has already rehabilitated hundreds of young boys. While worldwide standard of success rates after rehabilitation is 5%, Sahyog has seen a success rate of 50-60%.

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“Children are more easily cured of the addiction as it is rarely more than 2 years old in their case. Also, their bodies are more resilient and recover faster than adults.” says Shibendu. The real challenge is to avoid them falling back into the circumstances that led them here in the first place.

He introduces me to Ali (name changed) who used to be a drug addict. While Ali speaks to me, I notice his left forearm is full of scars – presumably from intravenous drug use over months, or even years. I ask him to tell me about his experience at Sahyog, expecting a rosy tale of the triumph of the human spirit.

“I fell into this habit as a child. My family kept trying to warn me but I was beyond reason. Eventually, I even lost my father to this habit. One Dussehra night, I and my friends went to the Ramlila maidan to see the fireworks. I don’t even remember how many drugs I was on that night. Ganja, smack, alcohol – I had had everything that night. As we were walking back from the maidan, I ran into this man. I threatened him and took his money. Then I killed him.”

At this point, I barely suppressed a look of shock. He went on to tell me how he underwent laundry training at Sahyog and today trains the younger children who come here for rehabilitation. But, to be honest, my mind was still on the fact that I was talking to a murderer. A completely innocent-looking boy – cute, even – telling me about this gory act he committed with a straight face. For all my holier-than-thou, spirited journalist, uncovering-the-truth mode of operation, I was – admittedly – afraid.

I spent 3 hours at Sahyog. I was spellbound by the amazing work they were doing. I had new-found respect for the goodness of man, seeing the selfless work being done by the people behind SPYM. All this notwithstanding, on my way back, I couldn’t help but think about Ali.

I imagined what I would have thought if I read his story in a newspaper. A teenage drug-addict loots and mercilessly murders an innocent man going home after Dussehra. The man probably had a family back home waiting for him. Wife, children, parents, dependents – loved ones waiting for him to come home. What would I have thought after reading the article?

I’d have thought of how unsafe our city has become. I’d have blamed the wayward youth of our country. I would have said that the murderer must be given the worst punishment possible. When an innocent person gets mugged and killed for no apparent reason, it seems fairly easy to point a finger at the “monster” behind the crime.

However, meeting these juveniles and hearing their moving life stories makes you wonder if the verdict is indeed as simple as it appears to be. When a child eats shoe polish to keep his mind off his hunger, who is the culprit? My interaction with the Director of SPYM, Dr Rajesh Kumar, opened my eyes to the role we as a society play in the condition of these people. None of us want slums defacing our beautiful city. We hate traveling with stinking migrant labourers in public transport. We condemn juvenile criminals for being the scum of the universe.

But we do want cheap labour to build our skyscrapers. We do want to pay the housemaid as little as possible. We readily pay 500% premia at the supermarket, but will haggle with the vegetable vendor for the last 5 rupees.

Is it possible that the vegetable vendor’s hungry son is turning to drugs? Is it possible that our house maid’s child, whom she could not afford to keep in school, has turned to a life of petty crime?

Is it possible that we are a part of the problem too?