India and its privileged class

Most of India is standing. Standing in serpentine queues in front of banks. Even before the banks have opened their doors, people are standing in queues. All conversations are revolving around Rs 500/Rs 1000.. And then there are some well-fed, well-oiled, net-savvy Indians who genuinely believe that their story is the only story of this vast, diverse country. If I remember correctly, more than 60% of Indians don’t have bank accounts. Yet, there are privileged urban Indians who talk like this:

Why can’t people just use paytm?

(Hello, please make sure that your domestic help, vegetable vendor, garbage collector have access to paytm. It’s like Queen Marie telling ‘let them eat cake.’ )

I commute to work by uber. I have no problem in paying as the money gets automatically deducted from my net wallet.

(Thank you very much for sharing this STATE SECRET)

I just ordered some designer outfits online using my net-banking.

(You definitely deserve a Nobel prize for peace for this extraordinary charity act of yours.)

India should be just cashless. America is so cool in this case.

(Yes, my dear, thanks for having such a wonderful realistic vision of Indian society.)

All my friends are all net-savvy people.

(Yes, your friends are God’s gift to this ancient land called India).

To a large extent, privileges make most people blind. The challenge is to open your eyes and see life and people around you.

The tragedy of India is that one half has no idea of how the other half is living.

Of JNU, Emptiness and Azadi

(Yes, I love JNU. If I have to choose something that changed my life and changed the way I see life around me, then it has to be JNU. There’s a JNU in the way I see/love India, its rich diversity, pluralism. There’s a JNU in the way I listen to music, the food I eat and relish, the films I love watching, the way I love people of this land and the way I feel for India’s marginalized communities.  

No, I am not a card holding member of any Communist party. I never was one and will never be one.  I cherish the dreams and imagination of a free, diverse, egalitarian, liberal India. I will fight for your right to say though I might not agree with what you say. And yes, I pay my taxes.  I also enjoy my Macbook Air and I start my day with a cup of Earl Grey tea.)  

‘I am feeling so empty,” I told over phone to my friend who lives in Dubai.  I have never felt so empty before. For the last 2O odd days, I have led a life marked by deep anguish, emptiness and pain. I tried earlier to pen my thoughts but I just couldn’t. Today, I sit down, look back and make a note of myriad thoughts that crossed my mind in the last few weeks. Sometimes at the break of dawn, sometimes in the darkness of night. I am using the symbol of hashtags to express myself because we now live in the ‘banal’ times of hashtags.

#  It was a February late night when before sleeping, I scrolled down the notifications on my Facebook .  I came across a post from a friend (ironically she lives in Nagpur) which mentioned #shutdownjnu. I was too tired to delve into the details. I left it there to sleep.

#  After  JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition, I listened to his speech to understand what he spoke. Yes, he ripped apart the BJP-RSS politics in that speech but I didn’t find it at all anti-national. And being a student activist in JNU in the 90s, I have heard far more scathing speeches. I loved that line in Kanhaiya’s speech, “What are universities for? To critically challenge, the society’s ‘common conscience.” Yes, we need universities to encourage a society to think, question and dissect. A nation is not made of computers, smart phones or tablets. A nation is made of men, women and children who think, imagine, love, debate, discuss. There’s no uniform software.

# Just a day after his arrest, the onslaught of hate speeches on social media happened. Prime Time TV studios felt like war zones. The talks of JNU students being ‘prostitutes/call girls/anti-nationals’ dominated the public space. I put a post on my Facebook timeline celebrating the ethos of JNU and an idea called India. The so-called ‘friends’ came up with choicest abuses. They showed the ugly face of aggression through their comments, personal messages.

# As a social sciences student, I am really curious to understand how do these people harbor so much of hatred, venom, violence within themselves. How do they live, work, sleep and raise children with so much of aggression, violence wthin them?  Yes, they have this AK 47 called Facebook and Twitter accounts and they think they can engage in mindless violence without rhyme or reason.

#   What’s nation? What’s the Idea of India? What’s imagination of a nation? Can a nation exist without imagination? Who makes a nation? These are the questions that have always fascinated me. Where does my cook who can’t now afford a bowl of her favourite Gujarati khatti mithi dal (Thanks to arhar dal being so expensive) figure in this idea of nation?  What about the rivers, forests, mountains and valleys that make this nation so beautiful and the way we are abusing them, destroying them in the name of development?  And who will decide what’s nationalism? Who will define how Indian am I? Will the central government (whether it’s a BJP/Congress/any coalition) decide what is nationalism? Will these governments put a stamp on my love and idea of my nation?

#  How will we thrive as a nation, as a society if our young minds are not engaged in debate/discussion? Why are we so scared of young minds? How will we arrive as a society if our young minds don’t think out of the box? Why are we scared of dream catchers, rebels, thinkers, philosophers, poets, artists? Aren’t ideas/cultures/narratives all about evolving? Where does critical thinking figure in our political/social/cultural narratives? Who are these people who are jumping into conclusions without even discussing?

#   I am not even talking about doctored videos, fake voices. I am not talking about somebody offering Rs 5 lakh for cutting off Kanhaiya’s tongue? Or posters offering Rs 11 lakh to anybody who will shoot Kanhaiya. And who were these masked people shouting slogans in JNU? Why can’t our state machinery/apparatus put a face and name to them?

#  Three of my close friends have lived a life of ‘the other’ in this country. My soul sister is from Manipur and she lived in Delhi for more than 15 years. All through her Delhi years, she was seen as a ‘Nepali’. But never as an Indian. House owners in mainstream India shut doors on her face when she went to pay the deposit money because they couldn’t possibly give the house on rent to a Chinese/Nepali/Chinky. Her face became her greatest enemy. She became ‘the other’ in her own country.  My friend ‘M’ is a Kashmiri Pandit who has lost her home in the valley. She mourns the loss of her beautiful land which now hides behind a veil of pain, anguish. Her voice chokes when she talks of her Kashmir yet she says she feels a sense of joy and warmth when she meets an elderly Kashmiri Muslim woman in a phiran in Delhi. She says time has stood still for her as she can’t connect with today’s Kashmir. Another close friend who’s a Muslim feels like an outsider in the land he loves dearly and warmly. His young daughter was traumatized for days when she was called a ‘Pakistani’ in the school.  I can’t understand urban India’s obsession with Pakistan. Pakistan is not my benchmark so far as the ethos and imagination of a nation is considered. I am sure many will agree with me.  Why should I celebrate a monolithic nation?  India with its vibrant democracy, multi-culturalism, diversity is closest to my heart.

#  Post his release on conditional bail, Kanhaiya Kumar became a prime-time hero thanks to his earthy, fiery, witty speech.  His speech appeared as front page lead in many newspapers. In the times of 24×7 channels and social media, he suddenly became the flavor of the day. ‘Azadi’ became the word of the season. For some, spring suddenly felt more enticing, more young, more beautiful. Was his speech a ground-breaking one which would go down in history?  I will suggest restraint. Let us not go overboard. As a student of JNU (in the 90s), I have heard equally soul-stirring, fiery, political speeches by young student leaders. There were no 24×7 channel television then to beam those speeches across the nation. There were no twitter trending hashtags then. Let us not become a desperate nation looking for momentary heroes or anti-heroes. Let us look at the larger canvas of nation building. Let us think of a nation that gives a fabulous world class education and medical facilities to its poor and marginalized. I liked it when Kanhaiya said in one of his TV interviews, “Speeches alone don’t make for political leadership.” The struggle has to go on. And the toughness of the struggle ahead will decide who is what.  The struggle ahead will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Let truth prevail. Let our young and old minds celebrate ‘azadi’.  Let the young think, imagine, feel and work for those who still can’t afford to study in this beautiful institute of learning in the last range of Arravalis.

His Last Letter

V Rohith, a Dalit PhD scholar of Hyderabad Central University  committed suicide on Sunday, January 17, 2016 leading to protests in many campuses (including his own) across the country. Rohith along with four of his activist friends were expelled from the hostel on disciplinary grounds some time ago.  Here’s the letter young Rohith wrote before committing suicide. ( This photograph is a mark of respect to the departed young soul and also in the hope that the dark times would make way for light, love and compassion)

 

Good morning,

I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of lamp

you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.

I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.

My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.

Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.

“From shadows to the stars.”

Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.

To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future.

For one last time,

Jai Bheem

I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself.

No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act.

This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this.

Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.

The photograph I didn’t click, the image I carry

It was in 1992/93… I don’t really remember. I was nursing a bruised heart. My parents had come to Delhi though they had no idea of my heart’s haal. My father had a conference to attend, my mother was on a pleasure trip. I was studying in JNU then. During my parents’ visit, I was my mother’s tourist guide in Delhi. I felt very responsible doing this job of taking her around India’s capital city. Though my dad had given strict instructions to me to take my mom around only in autos, I being the one who hardly ever followed instructions did just the opposite. I egged her to go for a ride in the killer DTC buses. I gave her the logic that she must know how I travel in Delhi. She happily bought my logic and we had an enjoyable ride.

My mom wanted to see the Taj Mahal and as my dad was too busy I had to accompany her to Agra. Before that I had only seen the Taj Mahal in picture post cards or New Year Greeting cards (yes, there was a time when people used to send New Year Greeting cards. Now people wish only on Facebook or whatsapp). I was mesmerized by the Taj Mahal. Actually I never imagined it to be so huge, so grand. I always had this small picture post card images of Taj Mahal in my mind. I grew up with this romantic notion that I could hug the Taj Mahal.

From the Taj Mahal, we went to visit Fatehpur Sikri. I found it far more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. We had a wonderful tour of this fortified city meaning victory. As we were coming out of this fascinating historical place, my mother stopped by. There was an elderly man with flowing beard sitting in a kind of small structure and there was a lamp burning bright inside that place. The lamp was being lit in the memory of Emperor Akbar. I was ready to move ahead after listening to his story (I have no idea whether this tiny structure is still there or not or where exactly it was in that huge place). My mother pulled my hand and asked me to stand there. I saw her drawing the pallu of her sari on her head as she always does when she gets ready to pay her respects to anybody. I saw her touching the ground and praying in front of the earthen lamp. I have seen her worshipping like that in the temples of Odisha. I have seen her bowing like that in reverence in the Puri Temple.

There was something pure magical about that act of my mother in that moment. I felt a sense of elation, stillness, pure respect deep within me while watching my mother praying for Emperor Akbar. She offered some money to the old man looking after the structure. She got up and said “Akbar, what a great man he was! What all he has given to this country.” She added, “In the end, they all including Emperor Akbar also go away. But some like Akbar leave something behind.”

My mother in her lifetime never understood or tried to understand this whole talk of secular, pseudo-secular, communal. She didn’t understand right-wing politics or left activism. She just knew and believed in the simple art of reverence. This is what she did when she offered her respects to Akbar. I wish I had taken a photo of hers then. But I didn’t have a camera then. In today’s times that photograph would have made so much of sense. A Hindu woman from the temple town of Bhubaneswar touching the ground in respect on which Emperor Akbar walked once. An ordinary woman offering her respects to a mighty Mughal emperor. I don’t have a photograph but I carry that image in my heart.

For the last couple of days, this image is constantly playing in my mind. The image follows me wherever I go. On the roads while I am stuck in a traffic jam, while watching the mellowed sun calling it a day in my part of the world and thereby making the sky bath in soft colours or while drinking tea on an otherwise hot autumn morning. The image just doesn’t leave me yet it gives me comfort in my moments of deep hurt and agony of seeing what’s happening in India.

Who knows what will happen to our history? Who knows what lies ahead? How will the changing narrative see Emperor Akbar? Frankly speaking, I have no idea.

Like me, history is now fragile in this country. But I have that one image to cling to when I feel desolate and lonely. In today’s masculine, violent, aggressive India.

And there was no one left

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”  Martin Niemoller

protest

(Every morning I wake up and thank my parents for sending me to study in the bougainvillea laced beautiful campus of JNU. It was an act of great kindness on their part. They were not rich but they never compromised on spending money on providing quality education to their daughters. My parents could have asked me to study in Odisha and saved the money for themselves. But they let me explore a whole new intellectual, creative and absolutely fascinating world. JNU changed the way I listen to music, watch films, understand life, society, art, identity and most importantly India. It taught me the importance of dissent and protest.It taught me to celebrate diversity, pluralism and secularism.

My friend asks me not to be too vocal against Hindu fundamentalists on Twitter. She loves me. I think of this beautiful poem written in bold red color on a thick black paper and pasted on one of the walls of JNU.  I know the poem by heart.

We are living in tough times. The voices of dissent need to be loud in the times we are living in. If we don’t protest, who will then? What kind of narratives will we be leaving for our daughters, sons, nieces and nephews? )


Chai Chai : A love story

My best friend in my office is probably the shy young canteen boy who gives me a cup of tea exactly at 11 in the morning. Till he comes and pours the tea in my cup, I can’t bring my brain operate to its fullest capacity. Once I see him, I feel at peace. Well, I am not alone in my obsession with tea. There are many across India who can’t think of starting their day without a cup of tea. Or many cups of tea.

tea

(During a recent visit to Wagh Bakri Tea Lounge, Ahmedabad, I fell in love with this beautiful tea kettle)

For many many years, lots of things in India happened over tea. But there was no glamour attached to it. It was a part of life but not a lifestyle statement. Many from my generation grew up with the song ‘Sayad meri shaadi ka khayal..Isi liye mummy ne meri tumhe chai me bulaya’
Chai or tea can be easily called India’s lifeline. From railway platforms to swanky living rooms of India’s rich and neo-rich, chai is omnipresent. To understand tea, you have to understand the emotions that come with it in that little cup.
One of the most endearing memories of growing up in India is the train (in which you are travelling) chugging along and entering into a station and then comes the cries of ‘chai, chai garam’ almost embracing one with a deep sense of love and affection. Nothing comes close to sharing a cup of tea with your friends. And let us be honest, chai always tastes better with a bit of harmless gossip. Some years back, when I used to visit my friend in Mumbai (she always came to receive me at the station even though the train used to arrive at 4.30 in the morning), we used to sit together cozily in her living room with two cups of tea in our hands and discuss in utter seriousness about lives of Bollywood stars, cricketers and politicians. .
Chai is more/less like India. There are many layers to discover. So, when you want to save a little money, you go for the cutting chai. Where else in the world you will get this unique ‘cutting chai’? (for those who are uninitiated, cutting chai is a glass of tea that’s divided into two).
What’s more romantic than watching the lashing rains with a cup of garam chai and a plate of pakoda. And if you love your share of  ‘spice’ in life then nothing is more welcoming than a cup of ‘kadak adrak chai.’ With ginger and pudina added to your tea, you can be as efficient as the Chinese machine.
Chai has different avatars in different parts of India even though there’s a thread that runs through it. The English might give their ‘bed tea’ a miss today but the Punjabis do not. Every time I stay at my Punjabi friend’s house, her domestic help wakes me up in the morning with a cup of bed tea. Needless to say, the tea comes with an overdose of milk and sugar. In Gujarat where even dal comes with a generous sprinkling of sugar, the less it’s said about the sugary chai, the better it’s. Chai here in Gujarat is much savoured with khari biscuit, maska bun, khakhra and ganthia. In India’s intellectual city Kolkata (no other city can boast of this tag), people can spend hours and hours at addas and over cups of tea argue endlessly over Mamta Banerjee and Dibaker Banerjee.
But there’s a new competition to our humble chai now. Swanky coffee shops with wifi connection have now become a part of urban landscape. Suddenly you can see that a lot is happening over coffee. From ‘make-ups’ with nervous giggles, job interviews, business deals to teary break ups— lot is actually happening in the sanitised air-conditioned coffee shops. Suddenly cappuccino, cafe latte have become part of urban dictionary. Sipping frothy coffee with a smiley carefully done has become a sign of ‘being cool.’ Smartphones and a cup of cappuccino is the sure shot way to show off  your cool quotient. Now where does the humble chai actually figure in? Well, the chai has got a makeover.
Urban India has now moved beyond those kadak chai, adrak chai or overboiled sweet milky tea. It’s now time for peach tea, apple tea, green tea. Exotic has become the mainstream now. With new money showing its ugly face from every nook and corner of the street, the chai has to keep pace too. And look beyond that ordinary garam chai served in a kullad.
However, even it its new avatar, there’s less masculinity about tea. I feel, there’s a tenderness about tea. Tea is like a love story taking its own time to evolve. It’s not in a hurry to prove itself to the world. The coffee is a tad different. Trapped in a bone china cup that arrives on your table even as the blaring music of Justin Biber’s ‘Baby’ shows a slice of globalisation penetrating India. It’s a little bit on your face. May be it has got to with the fact that now in urban India coffee has suddenly become a uber cool lifestyle statement. Every now and then friends, colleagues and acquaintances say, “Let’s meet over coffee.’ May be a time will soon come when people will say, ‘Let us make love over coffee.’
Do I see any threat to our good old chai? No, not really. To have chai is politically correct now. We have a ‘chaiwalla’ prime minister in India now (Mani Shankar Aiyer, you can eat your own words). And yes,  hopefully we will have lots to discuss over a cup of tea. You know, chai pe charcha.