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.

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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.

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.”
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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.

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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

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?

Not to tempt fate or anything…

To-do list for a Sunday afternoon:

  • Wake up at lunch time. Check.
  • Watch some God-awful TV. (And here I mean stuff that would make zombies out of living beings, kill these zombies faster than a head shot, and then bring the dead back to life. Still not the Kardashians though. What sort of lowlife do you think I am? Sheesh!) Check.
  • Read a book lying in a posture particularly bad for your spine. Check.
  • Make plans to go out for a run. But don’t. Check.
  • Take 4 naps. Check.
  • Apply enough oil in your hair to deep fry a shipment of McDonald’s fries. Check.
  • Sit all over the house in different sofas, chairs, and beds, leaving trails of said oil on them. All the time, proclaiming plans of a bath sometime in the near future. Check.
  • Do not take said bath until your mom literally locks you up in the bathroom. Check.

Ah, the many joys of a live well-lived. Happy Sunday, y’all!

Fate’s Forgotten

An Unkind Present

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Against the backdrop of the construction site of an upcoming 7-star hotel in South Delhi, sits Sandeep. It has been 9 years since 

Sandeep left his hometown in Bihar for greener pastures in the National Capital. He talks to me about home and hope. He tells me about his 4 brothers, 3 sisters, wife, daughter, and ageing parents – all of whom survive on a meager 1.5 acres of land back in Bihar. Two of Sandeep’s brothers work as labourers with other “companies” (labour contractors) here in Delhi. Half an hour from here is their basti (slum) on the Delhi-Harayana border, where 4 people share a single room to minimize their rent expenditure, and send as much as they can back home. With 8 hour work shift, extendable to 12 hours including overtime, Sandeep manages to make around 6 to 8 thousand a month, of which he is able to send home 4 to 5 thousand every month for his rather large family to survive on. It is little surprise then that all his sisters have been hurriedly married off and no child in the family has studied beyond high school.

To leave home and come to Delhi and find work as a construction worker was not his choice to make. He says it was his fate.

I am here with a difficult mandate. I want to talk to migrant labourers about their future. The grim stories they tell me of their difficult past and their present misfortunes make it an uphill task to shift the topic to the future. It seems almost a cruel question to ask, and I consider changing my topic several times even as I am speaking to them. It seems only natural to assume that a vision for the future is a luxury the poor can ill-afford. But as the conversation goes on, I learn a valuable lesson. I realize that hopes and dreams are God’s egalitarian gifts to each one of us. And that you can tell a lot about a person just by asking them to share theirs with you.

Lessons from a Ruthless Past

DSC_0787Take the example of 45-year-old Ram Balak Rai, whose story begins in the 1960s when his father landed a job in the army. A government job for a child was (and is) the ultimate dream of any Indian family – rich or poor. But Ram Balak’s grandmother persuaded his father to leave the army and come back home for fear of losing her son to the war. Several decades later, he continues to see his past, present and future as an aftermath of that decision. “If my grandmother had not called my father back, he would have continued with the government job. May be I would have got a job there too. Today, I am too old. I do not see myself ever getting out of this rut in this lifetime, and see little hope for my kids too.”

“If you had a chance to relive your life so far, do you think there would be anything you would have done differently that would have changed your current circumstances?”

“What can I change, Madam? This is my fate.”

Kosami is a mother of 5 from Jhansi. She and her husband took on several loans last year to cultivate their land. Due to crop failure, however, they ran into losses and ended up with a huge debt on their head. Now, the couple has left the village to come to Delhi to work their debt off, leaving their children (and a grandchild) behind. “Money is better here”, she tells me, “so we will stay till we make enough to repay our debt.” After that, she plans to go home, and hopes to never have to come back.

The Future – A Choice to Make

DSC_0788Rajkumar and his family of five sisters, three brothers, parents, wife and a daughter have claim to half an acre of land back home. One brother works on the land; another is engaged in the dairy business. I carefully tread into the territory of leading questions and ask him if he thinks the number of children his parents had has anything to do with their current situation. He seems to agree.

Encouraged, I venture, “So, now that you already have a daughter, how many more children are you planning to have?”

“Well, there is too much inflation to support many kids in today’s world. But I will have to keep trying till I get a son.”

At this point, someone in the group points out to him that it is possible he has 10 daughters before he gets there. Rajkumar holds his fort, “I need a son to feed me and my wife when we are old”.

Baffled by his logic (or the lack thereof), I ask, “But how will you feed 10 daughters?”

Madam, vo apna naseeb le ke aayengi. Naseeb mein bhookha marna likha hoga toh mar jaayengi. Varna jahaan ki roti likhi hogi vahaan ki khayengi.” (They will bring their own fate. If they are destined to die of hunger, they will. Otherwise, fate will provide for them.)

DSC_0777I decide to not judge the man for having had a life I can never truly understand, and turn my attention to Sonu, a 19 year old who is an exception in that he is the only one here by choice. His elder brother is a post-graduate student in English Literature in Uttaranchal, but he ran away from home as education did not interest him. Today, he feels proud that he is “standing on his own feet” and earning instead of having to study. Ask him about his future, and you get the vagueness of response expected from any teenager. Or maybe it is the fact that he always has (in his own words) “the fall-back option of going back to my father’s money if nothing works out.”

“Do you ever think about going back to studies?” I ask.

Padhaai mein mera mann nahi lagta, Madam. (Studies do not interest me.)”, he replies with a boyish grin.

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Just as I am about to give up all hope of seeing hope, I come across 20 year old Raju, whose dreams of getting a degree in Chemistry (Honours) hit a wall when his family’s financial situation forced him to drop out of school and migrate to Delhi for work. Just as I breach the topic of the future, he enthusiastically launches into an inspired monologue about starting a taxi service back in Bihar, complete with plans laid out for bank loans, a house, a shop – the works. He is pragmatic about his plans. But the past doesn’t seem to have cast a shadow on his dreams. “I would love to go back to education someday and get my degree. God willing, I will make that happen.” he tells me.

If there is one lesson Raju seems to have learnt from his family’s misfortune, it is that “I will have only one kid.” He adds with a chuckle, “Ladka ho ya ladki, main toh usey engineer bana kar hi chhodunga. (Whether boy or girl, I won’t rest until I make an engineer out of him/her.)”

“My child will not have to suffer the fate I did. He / she may have to come back to Delhi someday. But it will not be to do this work. It will be to do something better.”

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A short photo session later, as I thank them for their time and take my leave, I think about the stories I heard today. We see these people every day. The woman who washes our clothes, the man who we call to repair our leaky pipes, the boy painting the walls of that new building across the road – how many times do we stop to think about their lives? And it is not just us. The government, the administration, in some cases their own families, and God Himself, seem to have forgotten these people.

One could call this a hopeless situation. They did not choose to be here. They were simply born into these circumstances by a cruel joke of probability. Yet, as I discovered today, amidst all the seeming hopelessness, they too have a choice to make.

Some, like Ram Balak, choose to blame fate.

Others, like Raju, choose to write their own.