Thursday, October 16, 2014

Am I too happy?

A house in Parmawala, Bijnor district


Razia's husband died a few years ago. Her father-in-law is blind, her eldest daughter still a teenager. She also has a grandmother and two young children. Razia has had to learn how to maximise her resources to keep her family going. She rents land at Rs.10,000 a year, but stays away from planting high-risk, high-investment vegetables like the rest of the village. Instead, she went to the block agricultural office and got some eucalyptus seeds for free. She has now started a nursery of these and will sell them in a year's time to the other farmers in the village. Razia applies her brains as well as her strength to her work. If the dam authorities do not release water till her saplings are sturdy enough,if the rains come in time, next year might just see them not having to borrow food. That seems to be poor reward for all her effort and ingenuity.

She was the strongest person I met last week. The others seemed utterly  beaten down by all the challenges they faced. And who can blame them? An unimaginable lack of options and resources, all their  efforts laid waste by god-like dam authorities, and the burden of generations of malnutrition and illiteracy.

I came home tired yesterday and crept into Mian's arms. There I usually find comfort, but not last night. I lay for a long time listening to his breathing, with the reassuring weight of his arm across me, and I was terrified.

Mian and I, we are truly blessed. Our home, our family, our friends, our work, each other. I come back from visits like these and am scared that this is  too much to have. Is there something like being too happy? too rich? And I know this is silly of me, but last night all the old tales of the jealousy of gods kept coming into my head.
I am scared.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Those people

I was travelling along the Ramganga for the last week. And I discovered I was walking in a lost land.
At it's simplest, this was a land of lost skills. Look at the fan I've shown here. Not a particle of the materials used in its manufacture have been purchased for the purpose. The wool and cloth are remnants from clothes-making efforts. The wood- well, that's to be picked up on the road. The base for the central panel is made of the plastic sacks used for packing grains. A wonderful use of materials that would normally have been thrown away in many households, including mine.
But this is also a land of lost people.
Immediately after that visit, I found myself shivering because of the air-conditioning in a conference room. In that room filled with bureaucrats and scientists, the topic of discussion was 'those people'. 'Those people' encroach on river banks, I was told. 'They' complain all the time about diminishing returns from agriculture, but do not have the gumption to select an alternative. 'They' protest when dams release flood water. 'Those people' should learn that development is inevitable. 'Those people' do not understand progress.
And that drove me and my colleague to alternate between anger and despair. For us, 'those' messy, uncooperative, uncool people have names.
Munni Devi is a widow, so is her daughter. They are sharecroppers on a bit of land where they grow cucumbers and gourds and scratch out a pitiful living. Very soon, that land will be submerged by Progress. They are terrified by what will happen next. I am terrified that Munni's daughter will take the only option that is left to her.
Parmawala does not have a flood warning system. Om Prakash's son died in a sudden release this year. He had gone to strip the leaves from the sugarcane field where the family has farmed for generations. The son died, the fields were destroyed. The family received no compensation. They  were after all, quite literally in the path of progress.
Agwaanpur does have a flood warning system- the masjid issues a loudspeaker warning. But one of them said, 'We can leave, but do you think our fields can get up and run away?' Seed costs 7,000 Rs a kilo. One farmer told me that he sowed seeds three times this year. And lost his harvest anyway.
Those people always complain.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Missing Madhu Bhaloo

Madhu, pressed against Mian and waiting for me
Madhu's idea of all being right with the world is when she is sitting pressed up against my side. Being sandwiched between Mian and me is the height of bliss. At night, she will sit on me and slide down to the sheets to make sure she's as close to me as possible. And then rest her head on Mian.

She was operated recently- we don't want puppies every six months. It was traumatic for her, the poor little thing, and I was sad at all that I was putting her through. Despite that, the only way she would remain calm when groggy with the  pre-anesthesia injection was if I stood touching her.

For two nights after the operation, I tied her tight against the bed so that she could not turn her head. I applied a stinging iodine lotion to her wound several times a day. Thrice a day, I forced large pills down her throat. Through all that, despite my causing her pain and discomfort, she still was attached to me.

When I lifted her out of the hospital, she was still under anesthesia. I had planned to place her in the car so that her head could lay in my lap. When I did set her down , I did it  wrongly. Rather than push her around and hurt her stitches, I got into the car from the other side and sat with my hand on her legs. She was out, I reasoned. It would not matter.

Thirty seconds after the car started, a groggy, uncoordinated, dry tongued pup flopped around, fell off the seat and would only consent to be placed with her head on my lap. Once she was there, the world was okay again.

I waited till her stitches healed, and then took off. I left on the 29th of September, and will not be back home till the 12th of November.
I miss that pup-let so much.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Of privilege

I was sitting in the Old Delhi railway station waiting room when I heard cries between me. 'Hat! Hat!' screamed the woman attendant. I looked around. It was not a stray animal she was shooing out in that manner. It was a sleeping man. He woke, got up meekly and asked for permission to go to the loo before he left. 'No!' screamed the woman again.  I went cold with nervousness and guilt. My turn next, I thought, even as I knew that it would not come.

This was the 'upper class' waiting room- for passengers who have purchased a 3-tier AC ticket. The man who was being thrown out presumably had a sleeper class ticket. So did I. I too, was an interloper.

But I would not be thrown out, I knew. And I was both reassured and mortified by that. The being reassured is simple enough, the mortification needs some explanation.

See, what was the difference between me and that unlucky man? We both had sleeper tickets, we were both looking for a place to spend a few hours between trains. The difference was my being of a family of atleast four 'educated' generations, on both sides. And their being educated at that time could only happen because they were brahmins.

And today, because of them, I exude that something which makes the waiting room attendants believe that I belong in the Upper Class area. In the waiting room it was my computer. But the previous night, I was lying in my sleeper (non-AC) berth swaddled in Mian's lungi. Half-asleep, I could hear the ticket collector make his way up the compartment. He was business like to the point of being curt. 'Ticket dikhao' is all he said over and over again. And then I heard him say 'Hello Madam, your ticket please'. The three generations of brahmins apparently are visible even through a lungi.

It makes me uncomfortable, this cloak of privilege.

Disclaimer: I don't normally use my cloak. The ladies' waiting room was closed for maintenance, and the general one was shadowy and forbidding.




Friday, August 8, 2014

The perils of interviewing

While interviewing people in the course of work, I always am slightly uncomfortable. Researchers ask respondents for their time, their opinions and their  emotions. All of this is often willingly given. And what do we give in exchange? Very often, it is nothing.
And sometimes, we offer entertainment in exchange.
This happened when N and I trudged up to a village almost exactly in the centre of Uttarakhand. 'We are trying to understand the river', we said. 'We would like to speak with you.' We were led to a group of  five merry old women-maybe in their seventies. These were old friends who had now moved to various cities, but return to their village every year.
 On age:
'What is your age?' I asked one.
'The same as yours'
'But I am 37!'
'That's what I said. Now write that down!'

On livestock:
We asked them the number of cows, buffaloes, goats, and mules  in the village. At the end of  it, one of them pointed to a mango tree.
'There are crows there. We don't know how many, but you should go and count them.'




Saturday, July 19, 2014

Towards the light

The dark underground space was full of small chirps and whistles. Almost unheard among these was the faint sound like paper being torn as the first baby pushed out of its egg. This was immediately followed by more rustlings till the entire brood had emerged from their eggs into the warm darkness of their nest. Aimlessly, they stumbled around till the first of them felt a far-off thunder and sensed a glimmer of light above. This faint radiance drew the brood towards it with the all consuming passion of  going home.

Its siblings stayed back as the first baby turtle struggled up from the nest and poked its head out onto the beach. After several suspenseful seconds, it clambered out and was immediately followed by the rest of the brood. They were going home.

There it was. The sparkling horizon reeled them in, all instincts led the turtles to scurry towards that light. Where the light twinkled, their bodies told them, there it was. There they would find home.

They continued walking around, over, and through traps that their instincts could not warn them against. The plastic bags and discarded nets and rolls of twine trapped some, but the others went on and on towards home.

Stray dogs claimed some turtles and terrorised the others. But it did not matter, there- just in front of them- surely was home.

They couldn't reason, but their bodies knew what to do. Over the beach they struggled, filled with an overwhelming sense of urgency that drove them on. And so the turtles eagerly panted on and on, towards the distant rumble and twinkling lights of the East Coast Road.

Far away behind them, the sparkling Bay of Bengal continued to call its babies.

*  *  *




D, my colleague, told me of the disorientation of the Olive Ridley hatchlings due to the road along the beach. Very few of these hatchlings survive that first walk to the ocean, even fewer reach adulthood. There are some efforts being made to lessen the extent of the damage that humans are doing. The Chennai Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network I've been told, are doing stellar work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In hiding

There is a woman I wish I knew better. She's super-intelligent, attractive, and tough. She has committed her life to a cause most would consider lost, but still retains her sense of humour. Her integrity, her courage and her brilliance are held in awe by all the people who know her. In three sentences, I have told you pretty much all I know about her, barring a few details of name and place. Despite this paucity of information, I love her. I believe she likes me too.

She has been diagnosed with cancer of the breast. The mutual friend I spoke with could not hide the betrayal he felt as he told me that the tumour was not discovered for a long time. 'I don't understand how you can not notice something like that', he said. 'It's in such..such  a prominent place.' And then stuttered at his wretched choice of word. He didn't need to. I understand what he  meant. As a man worried about possible  inflammation of a hidden gland, it can be difficult to understand how women can not see something right under their  chins.

The truth is, we banish our breasts into hiding.

I am not talking of publicly- there of course, the two-three layers are there, covered with a dupatta over it all. I am talking of in private. Neither I nor my friends, non-prudish and non-diffident women though we might be, ever look at our naked breasts. We shower in a hurry, wear our clothes in the bathroom, and only face the mirror for makeup. We are conditioned to go through life hiding our breasts, and we have learnt to do that so effectively that we hide them from ourselves as well. And yes, there are times when we show them off. But then too, they are not something we look at for themselves- they are just tools in our seduction kit. Do you ever anxiously examine your chisel? And so it is shockingly easy to not notice any changes.

A breast self-examination. Learnt properly, practised regularly. Please.