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/

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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.

***

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.

kadambari

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.

***

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.

mamaji

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.

***

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.

street space

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.

***

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!

Venice of the East

Alappuzha, nicknamed Allepey, is a small district in Kerela. With settlements along the banks of Kerela’s famous backwaters, and with the waterway being the primary mode of transportation for the locals, Allepey truly is the Venice of the East.

The backwaters and canals running through the middle of Allepey form the lifeline of the localites, who have set up their homes, shops, and various commercial establishments on the banks.

Another loving nickname attributed to the town is the “rice bowl of Kerela”. And true to its two famous nicknames, most of the population here is engaged in either rice cultivation or the houseboat manufacturing and service industry. The houseboats of Allepey are an experience of a lifetime.

Made out of a local coir body on a metal skeleton, the houseboats of Kerela are different from those of Kashmir in that they move. In fact, a ride up the canal to the mouth of the sea and back can take as much as an entire day. On board, the houseboat is equipped with every modern day housing comfort imaginable. There is a fully furnished air-conditioned bedroom complete with a television set, a well-stocked kitchette, and a deck that doubles up as a living room.

Here is the photo-feature about a trip down an Alappuzha houseboat:

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References:

The Elixir of the Gods

That is what Japanese lore calls it. A large proportion of India’s population is addicted to it. My parents cannot function without it. The public sector, in particular, seems completely dependent on it – to think, to celebrate, to mourn, to socialize – right from beginning of a day at work, to the end of a long day.

Any number of times, any number of cups – no Indian worth the name can have enough of his daily tea.

It is a great social leveler too, come to think of it. The industrialist and his consultant discuss business over a cup of green tea served in ornamental silverware sitting in the coffee shop of a fancy 5-star hotel, even as the construction laborer bonds with his co-workers after lunch over his daily glass of cutting chai at the roadside tea stall outside.

This is the story in pictures of the place your cup of heaven probably hails from. Situated in the Idukki district of Kerala, Munnar is a hill station on the Western Ghats, whose name literally means “three rivers”, referring to its location at the confluence of the three South Indian rivers of Madhurapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundaly.

India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, being a source of 28% of the world’s production. 23% of this share comes from the hills of Munnar – second probably only to those of Assam. Some of the plantations are located at an altitude of 2200m above sea level – which makes Munnar the world’s highest located tea cultivation region.

The tea plant is actually a species of tree, which can live for around a 100 years. When left to grow, it will reach a height of 12–15m. The plants, however, are regularly pruned to a height of around 1m for effective plucking. Due to constant plucking, the bushes are permanently kept in the vegetative phase, ensuring sustainable harvesting.

The Munnar tea plantations trace their history back to the British era when the East India Company owned much of the tea plantations of the region. Post-independence, the ownership has been taken over by Indian private companies such as Tata Tea and Kanan Devan Tea Plantations Company Pvt Ltd. To the delight of tea lovers and tourists, Tata Tea recently opened a Tea Museum which houses curious photographs and machinery, each depicting a turning point that contributed to a flourishing tea industry, as seen today in the region.

For those not heading in that direction anytime soon, here is a brief story in pictures:

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References for more information on the Munnar tea plantations:

http://munnar.in/php/teaEstates.php
http://www.world-unite.de/en/world-learner/tea-plantation-munnar-india.html
http://www.keralatourism.org/destination/destination.php?id=191979895
http://www.kdhptea.com/Environment.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munnar

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.

——

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.

beauty_clinic

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.

stunning-smile-bg

Or, don’t.

Because he does not know who I am

“He probably does not know who you are.”

This was what a colleague told me when I told him that the incessant calls he saw me getting at work today were blank calls from a guy who had been troubling me for some days.

So far I had just been ignoring him. Boring the hell out of blank callers and prank callers was a strategy that I picked up during my  B.Tech. It was a strategy that had held me in good stead in a Harayana-based engineering college, where a female voice on the other end of the receiver – with or without consent – was rarer than an unpaid news article in the media today.

But the statement above got me thinking. I have supportive family and friends. If I asked, any of them would have been happy to give this guy an earful of threats and profanities to protect me. Plus, I am a bureaucrat. Some of my aforementioned friends are senior police officials. It wasn’t the case until recently, but today I hold a job that comes with its share of clout.

To be fair, being a bureaucrat, in my view, is just another job – no more respect worthy than any other honest job. Provided it is done honestly. But the integrity of babus is a story for another day. For now, I was wondering: What about a girl who isn’t a bureaucrat? What if she cannot turn to friends or family at times like these? What would she do?

The answer that popped in my head was – turn to the law.

Of late, in the backdrop of a recent spike in crimes against women (or may be just reported crimes against women), the Delhi Police has gone proactive in advertising the steps it is taking to protect the city’s women. One of these is the setting up of a Women’s Helpine and an Anti-Stalking helpline.

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This is the story of when I called the helpline posing as a non-babu citizen.

Call #1: Women’s Helpine Number (1091)

No response.

The cliché that came to mind was that of the guy who, haunted by his abandonment issues, was about to hang himself and called a Suicide Hotline – only to be put on hold.

But may be it was an unfortunate co-incidence. May be they were short-staffed. I know the limitations that the system works under. So I decided to try another number.

Call #2: Delhi Police Anti-Stalking Number (1096)

A lady answers. She asks for my name (which makes me uncomfortable). I give her my first name. No surname. Next, she asks me where I live. Now this was getting personal and rather un-anonymous. So I said “Delhi.”

“Dilli toh bahut badi hai madam.” (Delhi is a big city.)

The tone seemed callous, especially to be used with a girl calling an anti-stalking helpline.

“I study at Jawaharlal Nehru University”, I replied, intentionally naming an area that is almost a micro-city in itself. It was also not a lie since some of us officers are undergoing training at JNU. So far, I had managed to skirt the significant issue of my job.The hope was that it would not matter who I was as long as I was a citizen in trouble.

I was now praying she will not ask for my hostel room number next.

Thankfully, she didn’t.

“Ghar pe police toh nahi chahiye?” (You don’t want police protection, do you?)

“Nahi, lagta toh nahi.” (I don’t think so.)

“Accha. Hold kijiye, aapko department mein transfer karti hu.” (Okay, hold while I transfer your call.)

Apparently, not asking for police protection had been a suicidal move for my case. I was put on hold for a long while listening to an automated message that ironically said “Thank you for holding. We appreciate the opportunity to serve you.”

Erm. I doubt any woman wishes to live to see the day when she gives an anti-stalking helpline an opportunity to serve her. While I wondered whether the authorities realized how borderline-cruel this well-intended message sounded, the first woman returned.

“Number busy aa raha hai madam. Thodi der baad call karo.” (The line is busy, please call later.)

-click-

Call later?

Seriously?

I got the impression that since I did not have a murderer beating down my door, my call was apparently not important to the customer-friendly helpline people.

Call #3: Half an hour later

The same procedure followed. I was asked to give my name and residential information and then put on hold. This time, mercifully, the call to the concerned department did go through.

Another lady now asked me for my phone number.

“It is the same number I am calling from.”

“What is the number?”

I spelt it out. So the anti-stalking helpline does not have Caller ID. Ouch.

“Does he know you?”

“I don’t think so. He is probably illiterate. He just got my number one day by a misdial. He has been calling everyday ever since. I am a student and he keeps disturbing me with his calls all day.”

“Toh class mein phone off rakha karo na.” (Then you should keep your phone off when in class.)

That bit of unwarranted and uncalled-for judgment took the Insensitivity Cake.

Keeping a steady voice, I told her that he calls at all times of the day. Would she have me keep my phone off 24×7?

“Ok, give me his number.”

I gave her the number and we said our goodbyes.

There have been no follow-up calls from them since. Not even an SMS assuring me that action has been taken. Or even a serial number under which my complaint is registered. To be fair, the man did not call for a couple of days after that – which may or may not have been a coincidence. And then the calls resumed in all their glorious frequency. I cannot help but wonder if the same would have happened had they known “who I was”.

I am not saying that the police force is not doing its job. Like I said, I understand the pressures that the administration works under. The police administration, in particular, is one of the biggest victims of federal politics. Few citizens are aware that the law of the land that governs the police to this day is the draconian Police Act of 1861, laid down in the British era. Ever since, several high-powered committees that suggested reforms have been ignored amid the centre-state tussle for power.

Meanwhile, our policemen are short-staffed, disempowered, overworked and overburdened. In the face of all this, I salute the efforts of the officer(s) who would have convinced the government to allocate funds and people to set up this helpline. I can imagine the kind of odds they would have faced in order to make it a reality. I respect them. A lot.

But that’s me, the bureaucrat.

That JNU student, however, is another story. She does not have time for empathizing with the administration. She has a dozen blank calls to ignore per day.

Because he does not know “who she is”.

And nor do her protectors.

The (a)pathetic Indian

“Why should I vote for them when they don’t care for me?”

I could write a book on all that is wrong with that statement above. In all fairness, it was made by an 18-year old. In all honesty, she answered all my preceding questions in the negative. These included:

“Did you go online and check out the manifestoes of the parties contesting elections from your constituency?”

“Have you looked up the asset declarations and criminal records of the candidates contesting elections?”

“Do you know that all these details are updated on the Election Commission website?”

“Do you (even) watch the (bloody) news on TV?”

The words within parentheses were said within the safe confines of my mind.

I suppose there may have been a crack in the non-judgmental demeanor I was trying hard to pose, because after a while she seemed to get defensive about her ignorance. And hit me with that knock-out of a logical argument.

“Why should I vote for them when they don’t care for me?”

Possible responses that went through my head included:

–          Umm. Precisely that’s why?

–          You don’t vote to do others a favour. Voting is a favour you do to yourself.

–          Duh.

–          <<facepalm>>

–          Hand me the revolver please so I can put myself out of the agony that is your logic.

I pride myself on the decent and incredibly restrained “Hmmm” that I managed to utter out loud.

But my Election Duty woes were far from over yet.

Sample this lady I encountered at what was, in hindsight, a “Kitty Party” I gatecrashed armed with my loyal notepad in hand. She was silent at first and let her 40-year-old friend who had never voted in her life explain to me how it was all the Election Commission’s fault that she never bothered to apply for a Voter ID. At some point, however, I assume she arrived at the conclusion that all this Voting Awareness Generation nuisance was coming in the way of the whole Kitty Partying fun she wanted to have.

So she decided to give me a piece of her mind.

She walked up to me, looked square into my eyes, and proudly proclaimed, “I don’t believe in voting.” It was worded and delivered as a typical teenager “you can’t change me” challenge. Except thrown by the mom of one. By this time, however, I had become an expert in reigning in my natural instincts to strike. So, without missing a beat, I proceeded to the next logical question, “Why do you not believe in voting, ma’am?”

Judgmental questions are a dish best served with a side of extra-fake politeness.

Here is a highlight of the long, rather nonsensical ramble that followed. De-cluttered from transcript into grammatically correct sentences:

“It has no impact on our lives whether we vote or not.”

“I am simply not interested.”

“The children’s schools are about to reopen. We are going out for a vacation this weekend.”

“Yes, it is important that the right people get elected. But not for us. We don’t need anything from the government. But I feel bad for the poor people. They depend on the government for everything. For them, voting is important. Not for us.”
UrbanVoter

Okay, that cartoon is not a quote. It is, however, a reasonable extrapolation.

That the political scenario of the country has no bearing on their lives, is an omnipresent emotion in this demographic. The fool’s paradise that the uber-rich of Bangalore live in is jaw-dropping.

Another pat on my back for not letting that thought manifest itself in action.

Now juxtapose this with one of the many slum women I interviewed. This one was a vegetable vendor. Translated from Kannada, and quoted from transcript:

“Will you vote this time?”

“Of course!”

“Do you vote during every election?”

“Yes. I never miss it. Even if I am unwell, I make it a point to go and cast my vote.”

“Won’t you be working on Sunday?” (Karnataka State Elections are on 5th May 2013, a Sunday)

“Yes. But I will shut down my stall for an hour and go to vote.”

“That means you will incur actual monetary loss to vote! Why is it so important for you to vote?”

“It is my right and my duty. I must vote for the right person who will bring development to our area. If we people don’t vote, how will anything change?”

Take a deep breath and let that sink in.

They may not have internet facilities to download and go through manifestoes. They may not be the most politically aware. They may be under pressure from multiple parties, trying to influence their vote by bribes or threats. They may not have the luxury of spending their mornings reading the newspapers and armchair philosophizing over what needs to be done to set things right in the country, even as they sip their morning cup of steaming hot laxative.

But, come Election Day, they make their voices count.

They vote.

M_Id_269235_Voters_at_Shastri_Nagar_in_Govandi

I have spoken to over 200 people so far. The patterns are painfully obvious. The poor consider it their duty to vote. The rich and “educated elite” prefer to sit in their air-conditioned rooms and make impressive speeches to whichever unsuspecting audience is obligated to listen to them by bloodline or payroll.

Yes, there is corruption. Yes, the votes of the poor are often bought. Yes, the representatives we are sending to our legislature leave much to desire. But think long enough and you will find the finger pointing to your own un-inked finger.

Tomorrow, I must drag myself out of bed to go take more interviews in the educated software professional community.

Tonight, I will go to bed praying for strength and restraint while conducting them.

Or, at least, for the absence of any sharp objects within my reach.apathy_biggest_logo