Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hazy Shades of Winter

It’s winter again in Delhi. Time for gajjar halwa, peanuts and chikkis. Lots of Dilliwallahs just love winter – probably because they have some cause celebre, such as weddings and season-end parties. People also love to bring out their winter clothes from mothballs and flaunt them. It’s time for the silks, black suits, thermals and lehngas, shawls, mufflers and even overcoats.
There’s something very ceremonious about the season. People have to pull out their winter clothes, get the blankets back from the dry cleaners and silks and woollens out of the mothballs. It’s time for the morning fogs that disrupts flights and trains and chilly winds in the evening. But also time for weddings, parties and concerts. There are outdoor parties too where people huddle near charcoal stoves that are provided. Fresh colourful veggy salads, and kebabs are the favourite snacks that are circulated at the parties. It’s time for the hot chicken soup too and basking out in the golden afternoon sun. All of Delhi’s parks and even little islands of greenery have people sitting out, taking breaks from office or homes to just sit out in the sun and perhaps peel and eat oranges. For kids there are the picnics at Delhi’s sprawling gardens. At home, its time to roll-out the carpets and turn on the heaters.
I find that every year for the last three years, winter has brought a death – of a near and dear one. Many years ago, back in college, reading the Romantic poets had been about the symbolism of seasons where winter was symbolic of death and destruction. But when one has to grapple with reality, dealing with death is far more painful than accepting the change of seasons where winter will be followed by spring – the season for regeneration and rebirth. Again in Delhi, winter is also a time to plan trips to the monuments that surround us – Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. It’s the season when the ruins almost come alive in the background of the mellow sun and chilly mornings. TV, meanwhile, has visuals of Srinagar and Manali where snowfall is attracting hordes of holidaymakers from Delhi. There’s big time Christmas shopping too for cakes, candy and decorations – Khan Market is crowded with expats, well-heeled Delhiites, diplomats and even young college students – everyone’s looking for cakes, fruits, exotic veggies and fruits and even smart clothes – the new Autumn-Winter selections! The Kebab corners, not surprisingly, are drawing the largest crowds. Everyone’s packing their shopping bags with dry fruits too – Delhiites cant imagine their winter evenings without the kajus, kishmish, almonds, pistachios and walnuts conveniently served in tiny bowls probably with the sundowners. There are the very delicious and exotic chilgoza or pine-nuts too. And then there are the foggy mornings which are braved by walkers encompassed by their shawls and overcoats – wearing caps, socks and even gloves. This season there was the Italian Opera in the backdrop of the awesome Purana Qila – an awesome performance! Vacation time for kids is also time for parents to plan vacations – overall winter in Delhi is a season that’s a feast for the senses.
Read more!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taslima Nasreen - OMG

Like most modern platforms - the blog too is unsafe and insecure. This is what I just discovered after inadvertently leaving a comment on another blog - greatbong. The main comment was appreciating a post on the situation in West Bengal - a small after thought was about Taslima Nasreen's presense in Kolkata. So right now even as the hounds are baying for my blood - I shall make an attempt to state my views on Taslima from an immigration point of view - since I write on immigration matters and have some understanding about it. Firstly, the majority of Taslima's supporters - at least on greatbong's blog - are not liberal Leftists but rather the Hindutva brigade. What I gather is that the latter is a very aggressive group who given a chance would bulldoze anyone that comes in their way and reduce them to pulp. Their political opinion has no place for tolerance.
Moving on to Taslima, she enjoys UN refugee status and hence a country like India is in no position to force her to leave. But given the various law and order issues that West Bengal and other states have, I feel a person like her who is a self proclaimed humanist and human rights activist should leave for another country in the West which is better equipped to give her the high level security that she obviously needs. I don't think the government of West Bengal can afford to notch up a huge bill in providing her security and dealing with riots that may occur because of her presence in Kolkata. I'm sure in certain European countries, there is no likelihood of riots because of Taslima but in India it is very likely. Obviously rioting cannot be condoned and should be dealt with aheavy hand. But as experience has shown us, it is always better to avoid riots than deal with them when they happen. The huge loss of lives and suffering that accompanies rioting is absolutely avoidable at all costs, even if it means politely asking Taslima to leave. Also if there's money to spare - instead of using it for Taslima's security - why not use it for the uplift of the girl child in India's villages? Or even for relief to women who are victims of the cyclone in Bangladesh. My very personal opinion is that Taslima is a publicity hungry intellectual - who is putting her own safety at stake by remaining in India. If she moved to say Norway for instance, she would be safer but obviously less visible. That seems to be her main problem. When we come to the issue of granting permanent resident status to her, like all other countries India has the liberty to choose its immigrants. The US even cancelled the short-term visit visa of Narendra Modi because they perceived him to be a threat to peace - so why cant India ask Taslima to leave because she's a threat to peace?
Finally, I cant bring myself to equate Taslima with Salman Rushdie on the grounds that Rushdie is great writer while Nasreen is at best mediocre. Rushdie is a Booker winner and the creator of a new genre in English literature. Surely we cant put him and Nasreen on the same platform. And in any case, India is not offering permanent residence to Rushdie - so why Taslima? If we were to take on the responsibility of granting political amnesty to everyone who's prosecuted by Muslim fundamentalists, we would increase our population by many millions. Do we really have the resources to do that?
Read more!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

An island of contrasts and tranquility

I'm just back from Singapore - I like it there because it's such a relaxed city, country & island. The shopping is good, the food and drinks are great, the work was good, networking was not stressful and sightseeing very enjoyble. Despite being a financial hub and tourist hub - one of the biggest in SE Asia, life seems to move along at an easy pace. For one thing whether you are a tourist, a business traveller, a single woman - or whatever - you wont get stressed on any issue other than the non-availability of taxis during rush hour.
Of course, besides taxis, there's Singapore's hi-tech MRT system, which easily puts London Underground to shame. Overall, the public transport system is well-oiled and does not take tourists and foreigners for a ride. Security issues for women in Singapore are almost non-existent and the average person on the street is polite, helpful, non-aggressive and service-oriented. For someone who lives in Delhi - that believe me is a very big change. Again the sheer variety that one finds in the island-nation from beaches, to Buddhist temples, awesome dim-sum cuisine and spectacular Hindu temples, tree lined avenues, fascinating highrises, museums, art galleries and sprawling malls - the place has just everything and that too within an average of 15 minutes cab distance of each other. Singapore's China Town is the usual buzzy district with fascinating shopping options and great dim sum cuisine. A special mention could definitely be made of the local Tiger beer.
Mustafa shopping centre which forms the hub of the Indian district, is also very vibrant and good for quick fix and fast track shopping solutions. The upmarket VivoCity Mall, near Sentosa Island, on the other hand is a place to go hunting for designer and luxury brands - or just hang out and soak in the ambience.
Hotel Pan-Pacific where I had put up had a great gym and a swimming pool surrounded by dizzying skyscrapers. The weather too was not a complete wash-out and it rained a bit and was sunny for a bit.
A walk along the Singapore riverfront with a friend and lunch at one of the riverside thai restaurants was a treat - as was dinner with my cute nephews Ghotu & Kabir! Shopping at the malls was pretty good too and I picked up my long-time object of desire - an iPod Nano - from the well-known IT mall Funan. Also took a look at the current blockbuster the iPhone and the sexy PlayStation 3. From Australians to Indians, everyone wants an iPhone, it seems.
And now the Singapore government is looking for Indian immigrants in a big way for skilled jobs. Work permits are processed on the fast track and are not subject to any number quotas. The authorities are also wooing Indian students to some of the top engineering and management institutions. Hope, Indian IT professionals are listening - it's time to look East perhaps and leave behind the H1B worries folks.
Read more!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Let's face facts!

I’m now on Facebook! Well if you ask me what I’m doing on a virtual forum that’s largely the domain of 20 somethings, I don’t really have a quick enough answer. For one thing the technology fascinates me. There are all kinds of applications that allow you to do all kinds of interesting stuff related to music, travel, books, entertainment, food, games and tons more. When I need ‘timepass’ stuff, Facebook is turning into my most favourite haunt. Then again there’s a lot that can be done with photographs, which is great too. But it’s not just the technological wonder that has drawn me to Facebook – there’s the social networking thing too.

I had heard a very senior official in the global marketing team of one of the cola majors say in an interview that she along with all her team-mates hung out on areas like Facebook & Orkut to track the trends among the youth globally. Thus, more than social networking, it has turned into a professional necessity too. In a way, for me too there’s a professional compulsion – increasingly, I feel that many organizations in India are turning pro-young in a very active way. And often that leads to isolation of and even discrimination against older people in the organization. And in staying in touch with younger folks – what could be a better place than Facebook?
Of course, the same logic was thrown to me by my friend – the father of a teenager – that he was trying to persuade his daughter not to waste time on things like Facebook and instead spend more time with her studies - so how could he be seen there – sorry he was refusing my invite to join up. Again some friends who are academics don’t exactly want to be seen hanging out on Facebook with their students, that could lead to professional issues. And some others – who work for global listed companies – couldn’t get on Facebook because their employers may object. A few others felt that social networking online has a very serious fallout on their privacy and sometimes security. I can understand that all these issues are serious enough and often I wonder what I’m doing here myself. But then when I look at the diverse group of friends I have on Facebook, I don’t really regret getting on to this platform. From my colleagues – an obvious group – I’m now connected to a friend who’s a top fitness trainer and another one whose Salsa dance video is a big hit in the US. There is a restaurateur in NYC and a top VC in Silicon Valley, and many others from different places and diverse walks of life. There are former colleagues who I haven't met in many years and even friends from school who I thought I'd never meet again. And of course – the most inspiring group – my nephews and nieces – who keep me up-to-date about what’s hip and happening around the world today. So even as I poke people or send them a tequila – I don’t think it’s really a total waste of time! And for Keshu, Megha, Ashwin, Rahul, Iraj, Anand, Arvind, Schaunga & Ishani (Dasgupta) - thanks for hanging out with me. When I meet you on Facebook, I feel young and rejuvenated.
Read more!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Candle for Heena

I’ve been following the twists and turns of the Rizwanur Rehman & Priyanka Todi case in Kolkata on other people’s blogs. Some of the comments have really set me thinking about the rise of fundamentalist thoughts among the youth today, even in a state like West Bengal where we liked to believe that the religious divide was not so sharp and people were by and large more tolerant.
And even as I follow this case, which has today become very high-profile, I can’t help but think of Heena, an young Muslim girl who was a domestic worker in the apartment block where I live. She's dead and she too died like Rizwanur because she had dared to enter into an inter-communal marriage. The only difference was that there was no-one to fight for justice for her and I don't think anyone even remembers her today after a couple of years.

She worked at my house too and every morning greeted me with the energy and high spirits that only a young girl of that age can have – she was in her late teens, at the most. Heena came from a impoverished family where her father was ill and unable to work. Her step mother and she along with her sisters worked at domestic jobs to earn the living for the family. She had a couple of brothers too, who didn’t seem to have any great jobs. Heena, like many others who worked at people’s homes, often pilfered money from my purse – that was almost an open secret and I had told her off often. However, she didn’t grumble about any extra chores that I asked her to do occasionally and was always in good spirits. During Id she even brought across delicacies that had been cooked at her home for me. And then one morning she didn’t turn up anymore. A few days later her mother came and picked up the work at my place, telling me that Heena had been sent to her grandmother’s place and was to be married soon to a boy that the family had selected for her. A few months elapsed with almost no news of her. Finally, one day she returned looking frail and worn out and very unhappy. She told me that she had rebelled against her family and married a Hindu boy. She was now living with him and his mother at a colony nearby. She needed to have her job back since it was very important for her to earn a living to add to the meager income that her husband earned by doing odd jobs. She told me that her family was very unhappy over her marriage and had cut her off completely. Her father and brothers refused to even meet her, while her step-mother still spoke to her sometimes. She was not allowed back into her home. She had been meeting the Hindu boy before and both of them were keen on marrying each other – but what forced them to go against her family and marry in a hurry was the fact her family was forcing her to marry her first cousin who was many years younger than her. So for a few months she worked again with me though she had lost her verve and her youthful vigour. Money seemed to be a problem and she was taking on many jobs – she had lost a lot of weight and looked stressed most of the times.
And then again she stopped coming – after a few weeks her mother rang the bell and when I opened the door she burst into loud tears and told me that Heena was dead – set on fire by her mother-in-law and husband in their house and the door bolted behind her. She was hospitalized with severe burns and when her parents and brothers called in the police she made a statement on her deathbed saying that she had tried to kill herself and no one was to blame. After her death there was little her parents could do beyond burying her. Apparently there had been a reconciliation between her and her family and she had spent her last evening with them before she returned to her husband’s house and terrible end. What added to the tragedy was the fact that she was pregnant too.
When I got to know of this, more than two weeks had passed by since her death. When I talked to some of my neighbours and friends about it – wondering what we could do to seek redressal – most felt that there was nothing that we could really do. A Muslim friend of mine – who is herself married to a Hindu – told me that this was the price that the poor girl had paid for transgressing. She felt that her own family too would probably have felt a certain degree of relief at her death even though they were perhaps unhappy at her loss. For a girl who was weak economically and uneducated – marrying a Hindu boy was an act that she had to pay for with her life. And there was no justice afterwards. She passed into oblivion along with her unborn child - without anyone raising any voice for her. And today she’s largely forgotten, perhaps by her own family too. Even I wouldn’t really have thought about her had it not been for Rizwanur Rehman’s death. So I think I’ll light a candle for Heena even as I remember her lively laughter that helped me into wakefulness every morning for many months…I hope she has found her peace and justice somewhere beyond.
Read more!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

What’s in your collection?

Are you a collector? I don’t really mean the uber rich, connoisseur kind of collectors who accumulate vintage wines or cut glass or diamonds etc. What I mean is simple things – that people collect either when they travel themselves or their friends get for them as gifts. From tiny miniature cars – which were called dinky toys when we were kids – to little plastic animals that came inside toothpaste boxes, which we referred to as Binaca toys – we were collectors even as kids. Many of my friends complain that their kids – despite belonging to the hi-tech, computer savvy generation – drag them to McDonald’s for Happy Meals just to collect the toys which come with them.

There's something very personal and warm about collecting little things which I dont think is matched by collections of Mercs or jets. As a girl, I collected postal stamps – as did many of my friends. But then those were the days when we wrote letters to friends and relatives, sometimes across thousands of miles. And when the envelopes or aerogrammes arrived from uncles and aunts or pen-friends living overseas – carefully detaching the beautiful multi-coloured stamps and putting them up in albums was something that many of us enjoyed doing. My grandfather – a very creative person – collected feathers that birds had shed and then made beautiful cards for us with them. In a similar manner, my aunt collects leaves and flowers and preserves them between pages of notebooks to make cards for her friends and family members.
My sister is a big collector of headgear – caps and hats – from all over the world. I remember my first trip overseas to Phuket when she had specially asked me to get a straw hat for her. I had risked the x-ray machine and other hazards of international travel to bring back the biggest one I could find for her. She has herself added many chic felt hats to her collection when she traveled to Tibet during an arduous pilgrimage to Mansarovar Lake and Mt Kailash. Her friends have got her berets from France and baseball caps from the US. My uncle Subir Sen, too, had a big collection of traditional Indian caps from various Himalayan states such as Himachal, Nepal, Uttarakhand etc. And he loved sporting them in Kolkata, thus creating an unique style of his own.
Maitreyee Chatterjee – an activist for women’s rights in Kolkata – collects statues of owls and like her I know someone who collects frog statues. My mother, Haimanty, has a collection of miniature animals in metal, stone and terracotta as well as a lovely collection of small bells. My friend Nilanjan in America tells me that he is collecting Minolta cameras from yester-years. Don’t ask me why I do it, he had said. Perhaps, because they’re a throwback to our past when photography was all manual and involved positives and negatives and elaborate printing processes. Maybe collecting things that bring back the past is about nostalgia.
My father Rabindra – who for me symbolized simple living and high thinking – didn’t throw anything away unless it was absolutely of no use. In fact, he believed in recycling stuff all his life – even before it became fashionable to do so. From hairclips to old pens and glass bottles, my father put small things – which we would have thrown into the garbage can – to some use in household repairs or in his unique creations. I remember collecting wine glasses from all the wineries that we visited during a trip to Napa & Sonoma two years ago. But that's a touristy thing to do and a part of the wine-tasting ritual. Squirreling is perhaps an inherent quality in many of us – and that’s probably why we keep adding to the collection!

Read more!

Monday, September 24, 2007


It's Diwali come early in Delhi - in Kolkata despite three days of heavy rains and water logged streets people are out with victory processions on the streets late at night! Sachin Tendulkar is at home with friends opening bottles of champagne. Shah Rukh Khan who watched the match in Johannesburg - is celebrating with the heros themselves!! Tell us how you are celebrating the BIG 20/20 Indian Cricket win!!!! Read more!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Lear: Some thoughts

It was a rather intriguing experience I must say ... watching Kolkata and what I had always known to be a very typical representation of quality Bangla theatre at its peak - at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Rituparno Ghosh's Last Lear, inspired by Utpal Datta's Ajker Shahjahan had its world premier at the Toronto International Flim Fest last week. Naturally, the media has already discussed this ad nauseum, focusing on the "red carpet history", the presence of the crew, including Ghosh and Bachchan, but surprisingly little about the substance. About the latter, two things struck me in particular. For one, Ghosh provides an excellent critique of contemporary cinema and film-making and how it does not hesitate to demean other art forms as it considers necessary for asserting its own superiority. In the film, this ruthless self-referential, smug and insensitive character of contemporary 'young' cinema is represented through the director Siddharth (Arjun Rampal). But Siddharth does not only represent this ethos of contemporary cinema, but also, in my opinion, a certain faction of youth who possess the very same qualities.

I do not with to generalize, but the reckless, patronizing self-assuredness with which some of our younger generation treat the older generation (such as us) is something that may well resonate with many of us. Sometimes I envy them for their confidence. But more often, I am angered by their lack of interest in the past. The young, debonair, confident and yet somewhere violently confused director Siddharth wishes to use a veteran stage actor to essay his script; and yet has little patience, knowledge or sensitivity about the art form in which the actor excelled, much less about Shakespeare who the actor is obsessed with. This relationship between the young director and the veteran actor (Rampal and Bachchan) conveyed to me simultaneously the nature of the generational conflicts we see today as well as the superiority with which one artistic community views another.

The second feat that Ghosh has achieved is in presenting Kolkata - with all its specificities that one would not know if one has not lived there - in a truly global sense. How did he achieve that? As a hopelessly nostalgic Bengali, I think he focused on the attributes that manifests Kolkata's truly universal and cosmopolitan character: its love for the arts, for good theatre, off-beat relationships, conversations, the disconnect with materiality, the effortless evolution of friendships.. Perhaps we can now abandon the need to exoticize ourselves and celebrate the specificity of Kolkata, Bengal, or whoever, whatever we are without being ghettoized, or being limited to just that.

Finally, it brought back, inevitably perhaps, the memories of watching the great maestros such as Shombhu Mitra and Utpal Datta on stage.
Read more!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Of Mothers and Daughters: Debjani Banerjee

It was one of the rare sunny afternoons in August and we were celebrating my niece’s tenth birthday with a barbeque party. Watching her play around with her friends I was reminded of the day she was born. When the telephone call had come on a Saturday evening, I rushed over to my parent’s house to celebrate. My mother organized a puja to thank the Lord in her way and invited everybody over. We still had not stopped smiling when a well meaning neighbour came over to commiserate with my mother. ‘Don’t worry, may be next time.’ A neighbour who had just had a grandson echoed the same sentiments. I tried to picture my sister’s face and imagined people pitying her for delivering a beautiful, healthy baby girl. I was livid but my mother, having borne 3 daughters and 0 sons, was used to this sympathy and took it in her stride, just as she had remained calm for so many years in the face of much whispered rantings of ‘Who is going to look after them? They have only daughters.’ She had remained calm and confident as we had gone through our lives studying to be professionals (like other male children) getting jobs (like other male children) taking responsibility for our households (unlike other male children) and parents (like some male children). She remains equally calm now when the same commentators enviously say, (looking at us I hope) ‘It’s easier to bring up girls rather than boys.’ All’s well that ends well.

I was prodded out of my almost pleasant reverie by a news item on NDTV, ‘Bombay High Court upholds sex test ban.’ The petition was filed by a couple, Vijay and Kirti Sharma, residents of Lokhandwala complex in Andheri; they wanted to use sex determination to have a male child as they already have two daughters.

In their petition they said that in a ''less advanced society'' like India where a ''patriarchal mindset exists'' and where a ''girl child is not socially accepted,'' it is better that such children are not born. It was followed by a short and quick interview with Kirti Sharma, who said that, the ban on sex determination tests does not take into account the trauma a mother goes through when she finds out that the second child is of the same gender as the first!!
Others milling around the television found the incident funny. Someone suggested, ‘If I send my two hyper active two year old to them for a day, they’ll change their minds about wanting a son.’ But I could not join in their light hearted banter. It’s not an unknown fact that in many, perhaps the majority of the Indian households, the male child is looked upon as the ultimate blessing. The Sharmas perhaps even deserve a pat on their backs for trying to legalize something others are doing anyway. It is no secret that ever since prenatal sex determination tests have been banned in India people have explored many loopholes. For the right fee, doctors find ways around the law by revealing gender through gestures and codes. Advertisements saying, ‘Pay 500 now to avoid paying 5 lakhs later,’ are clear evidence of the existence of such practices.

But the issue that kept troubling me is that the Sharmas had two daughters and wanted a male heir; not only that they wished that the girl children were not even born? What message was Kirti Sharma sending to her daughters? That they were second best? That they were associated with stigma? Ten years down the line I could see the Sharmas struggling to put together a huge dowry to buy a son in law instead of turning right around and teaching their daughters to believe in themselves and be independent in social and economic terms. I cannot accept that my ten year old niece and five year old daughter, who are beautiful, intelligent, loving children, could be so easily dismissed as second-best. In fact, as a parent, is it not my responsibility to fight discrimination in any form? I thanked my parents for allowing us to live and blossom in an environment in the 70s and 80s where such inequalities were far away fictions. Looking around me now, I realize that it must have been a hard task and I congratulate them for that.

It is ten long years since my mother was consoled for having a granddaughter after three daughters. So much seems to have changed and yet so little! While women, in urban India at least, have made huge progress in every field imaginable, the Sharmas and perhaps many others seem to think that the girl child is not accepted in India. The Sharmas who live in an upmarket area in Bombay have argued that affluent couples who have the financial and social means should be allowed to choose the sex of the child as opposed to couples who use such tests to have only male children.
But isn’t that convoluted logic? Is it not one and the same thing? Is it not even more problematic to have daughters and sons and treat them as unequal?

There are two relevant issues to ponder upon and they may be linked. Firstly, there does not seem to be a way for the woman’s movement or individual women achievers to get through to this particular section of women – the affluent, upper middle class (if you like gradations) woman for whom modern India seems to have afforded a life of convenience and even moderate luxury. Women like Mrs Sharma are not able to identify with the fruits of the women’s movement, they have never had the conviction that women can be empowered in society or at least till they are, they can struggle for it.

Secondly, it seems to me that the Sharmas seem to be locked in the wrong battle. They are clearly vocal people who can speak up for their rights but perhaps their cause is a little misplaced? Why not use the same resources to challenge the “patriarchal mindset” that according to them, does not socially accept the girl child? Now, that could be a battle worth pursuing and it would make their daughters’ life easier. Why not fight dowry and other injustices that may contribute to the girl child being discriminated against? Wouldn’t that be a more concrete battle, improving the lives of their daughters instead of trying to add numbers to a population that is bursting at the seams?

The one silver lining in the whole issue is perhaps the stance of Justice Ranjana Desai who is among the few women judges in the Bombay High court. She has written that ''Sex selection is not only against the spirit of the Indian Constitution, it also insults and humiliates womanhood. It violates a woman's right to life.” It is not always easy to be so vocal about women’s rights even when and perhaps specially when one is in a position to do so. But she has come out and condemned the Sharmas’ arguments as shocking and upheld the ban in no uncertain terms.

So three cheers to her and to the spirit of our legal system!
Read more!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tagoreana: Sublimity encased in simplicity

As a Bengali who grew up in Bengal, Tagore’s songs or Rabindra Sangeet is something that I consider an intrinsic part of my life. Of course I know friends who probably outgrew Tagore’s songs or others who can’t relate to what they consider Tagorean upper class sensibilities. My sister too finds Tagore’s music somewhat contextually confined and has developed more cosmopolitan taste in music (except some renditions by Late Kanika Bandopadhyay the unparalleled exponent of Tagore songs). For me, however, it’s the sheer simplicity of Tagore that I can always relate to. I find most of Tagore’s songs a package of sublime thoughts wrapped in melodious tunes. They have almost all been touched with the magic wand of Tagore’s master craftsmanship when it comes to the poetry and for the musical scores he dips into traditions as diverse as Scottish highland songs to Indian classical and Bengal folk.
My grandmother, who was a grand-niece of Rabindranath had often related to us stories of how he would compose songs within a few minutes – sometimes as gifts for his loved ones on their special days. He had, in fact, written a humourous poem on one of my grandparents’ wedding anniversaries that he had spent with them. Tagore had composed various dance-dramas too – for performances by students of Vishwa Bharati University. He himself supervised these shows which were vibrant musical festivals in Santiniketan with Rabindranath himself as the focal point. But even though Tagore wrote some of his music and his poetry to commemorate day to day events, it’s the universal spirit in his work that has made it immortal. The simplicity of his sublime thoughts often bring solace to those who understand Bengali, even when they are far away from home or suffering from unhappiness and pain.

To end I’ll try a very rough translation of one of my favourite Tagore’s songs:

Diye genu basantero ei gaan khani…

I’m leaving behind this gift of a song of spring for you…
When the year ends, I know you will forget….
…But when another season comes and your eyes moisten over the nostalgia of this song, I consider that reason enough to compose it…
….And then Spring will come again and bring new people into your life and new melodies of life…

Probably when Tagore was talking about new melodies of a new spring, he was crystalball gazing into the present time when the copyrights on his songs have expired and people are free to do what they like with them – creative or otherwise. Who knows, it could be Rabindrik Rock perhaps!
Read more!

Friday, August 31, 2007

The 'Come September' feelin'

It's that time of the year again - the only time when I feel the potency of the season in my veins. I can't really explain why this happens. But even as August turns to September, I start dreaming of blue skies with billowy white clouds. And no, I'm not in Kolkata or its neighbourhood - but I still feel the ambience of "Durga pujas" all around me. I'm sure I can't explain this feeling to anyone but other Bengalis, who've lived in Bengal and felt the monsoonal season slowly change to a mellow autumn. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;...that's Keats' Autumn - and mine too in many ways.
I remember lazy September afternoons on campus at Jadavpur University which slowly turned into light, hazy (Kolkata isn't misty, it's smoggy instead) evenings. It was puja vacations and most of my friends at the JU women's hostel had gone home - I would too in a few days. My father and mother - who were in Durgapur - had sent me a generous allowance to buy myself new clothes for the pujas. And I had treated myself to a shopping spree at Dakshinapan - Kolkata's only 'shopping mall' in those days. Actually it is a shopping complex with various government emporia under one roof - but for us in those days, it was the ultimate retail experience. And Dakshinapan has an outlet of the Gujarat emporium - Gurjari - which provided us with all our needs of ethnic chic apparel. I had just bought my new festival clothes but couldn't wait till the Pujas to start preening in them. I still remember my long red kurta - with elaborate embroidery and mirror work that I was wearing as I strolled around the huge JU lawns and the football field, waiting for at least one of my friends who lived nearby to turn up. Our on-campus 'subaltern' cafes, which were actually dingy tea-stalls were all shut for the vacations. There was a sense of desolation all around which perhaps was symbolic of the end of our heady campus life in a few months from then.

Going back to Durga Puja - it's that time of the year when the farmlands outside Bengal's city limits are overflowing with the yearly rice crop - ready for harvesting. So when you take a train ride from say Kolkata to Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan - your eyes can feast on the green fields and the blue skies, truly an artist's palatte. At many places the landscape is carpeted with the almost symbolic 'Kash Phul' - silky white blossoms on tall green stems growing amidst the grass which have been immmortalized by Satyajit Ray visually in his Panther Panchali, the first of the Apu Trilogy. Besides Tagore's own poetry that captures the beauty of the season, a novel called Nilkantha Pakhir Khonje in Bengali- set in Bangladesh before the partition of India also epitomises for me the understated and nostalgic beauty of Autumn in Bengal.
This is a season that doesn't have the exuberance of spring and the underlying tone is one of sadness and the onset of winter. Most Bengalis are part of revelries for the week-long Durga Puja celebrations - but Goddess Durga whose advent we are celebrating will soon be going back to the home of her husband leaving her parents behind in tears - that's the significance that the Pujas have mythologically. The season captures that feeling of loss and also brings with it a coolness all around with occasional light winds and showers - one can sense that winter is on the way, just waiting around the few coming weeks. But where I am now in Delhi, there's no such cooling down, it's still very warm, muggy and uncomfortable. But yet my senses tell me that things are about to change soon.
My birthday is usually close to the celebrations for Goddess Durga and my aunt, parents and grand-parents named me after her - so perhaps it's a kind of bond that I have with the Mother Goddess. My father, too, was born in September and so this year, the intensity of my memories is almost all engulfing. I have always felt that I looked like my dad and did quite a lot of things like him because we shared the month of our birth. Now I feel the pain of separation and a bond with him that runs far deeper than my life and his death...
Read more!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Independence = Freedom & Happiness.Enjoy!

I spent Independence Day with my cousins, uncle, aunts, nephews and neices at a beach resort near Mahaballipuram.It was a great break which I spent soaking in the sun and sand, swimming in the pool, tucking into Sri Lankan cuisine, negotiating the waves, getting myself a tan and most importantly enjoying the company of family.

The reason for writing this however, is to describe a tricolour ceremony at the Ideal Resort which was graced by Indians, Global Indians and non-Indians. The theme was of India changing and finding the true meaning of freedom. There were no arguments - though many felt that the last 20 years were far more meaningful chapters for Independent India than ever before.

We had senior citizens in our midst who were born before 1947 and a Britisher whose speech on the occasion was interrupted by a falling coconut "upstaged by a coconut" he observed with typical British dry humour and then carried on with what India and our I-Day meant to him.

The flag was hoisted by a lady from Chennai who's married to an African-American in Washington DC after which we the Indians and Global Indians in the group sang Jana Gana Mana... The couple with their two cute kids come back to Chennai to enjoy a seaside vacation every year. My brother-in-law, an IT professional in London - spoke about the economic resurgence in India while a retired school teacher said that for her freedom had meant grooming her young students to face life.

Later we enjoyed a cake with tricolour icing and listened to popular south Indian patriotic songs before everyone went back to the serious vacation buisness of relaxing on the beach. Of course, later in the afternoon, my nephew rigged up the kite he had specially stitched for the occasion and flew it on the beach taking advantage of the windy day, as the rest of us took lessons from him.
Read more!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Beyond argument: Nearly eighty percent of Indians live on half a dollar a day

From the Times of India

" NEW DELHI: The number of people below the poverty line may have come down, but 79% of unorganised workers, 88% of SC/STs, 80% of the OBC population and 84% of Muslims belong to the "poor and vulnerable group"... "That includes 6.4% who live on less than Rs 9 per day or three-fourths the poverty line level, another 15.4% who are between this layer and the poverty line, 19% who earn at best 1.25 times the poverty line and 36% who earn between 1.25 and two times the official cut-off for poverty. It, therefore, cautions that while large numbers may have technically ceased to be included in the official poor, they remain vulnerable"
This according to a report by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS). The report (says Reuters) shows that about 836 million people - 77 percent of Indians live on below 20 rupees (50 U.S. cents) per day.

As expected, there is lament all around as to how growth has not benefited most Indians. A real surprise, isn't it? Was it supposed be another way? A few days ago we had a post from RV Bhawani regarding the agrarian crisis. Reporting on the same issue P. Sainath has now won the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay award. Then there was the issue about malnutirition amongst India's children. Much ink was spilt by great economists such as Surjit Bhalla to suggest that poverty did not exist anymore in India. Then there was the debate about exactly how much poverty had fallen by. All along, we have had (fairly predictable) evidence as to what was happening to most of India.

Of course, fiscal redistribution is an immediate need, although its limits are well-known. I think there is little evidence in history which suggests that a nation can keep growing at 8,9,10 per cent with 77 percent of its populace in such condition. And, ironically, there is much evidence that redistributive growth has multiplier effects. But beyond that, there is the need to go beyond the game of fiscal redistribution; band-aids only go thus far and no further. Living off the crumbs of the back-office of the world cannot be a permanent solution for the 77 percent; in fact it is not even clear that it can serve too long as a solution for the 5-10-15% who are now gaining from it.
Read more!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Reducing India

"Twenty years ago the rest of the world saw India as a pauper. Now it is just as famous for its software engineers, Bollywood movie stars, literary giants and steel magnates."
Time Magazine

Pauper, really? and in my opinion, none of these four categories of people represent the people of India. Its amazing how the media is so apt at reducing India to one, two, three or four things ... or just one city (B'lore) or just one issue (foeticide) and so on...

Read more!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

India@60: Sixty arguments at Arguing India

Let us start with a few.... please add, comment, argue as you wish..

1. India is taking over the world

2. Indian democracy is reaching new levels of maturity

3. Inequality is increasing

4. The situation of India's women reflect deep and irresoluble contradictions

5. Life in India for Indians is much better than life abroad...

6. Indians are religious but India is secular (what is secularism is itself a matter of great debate everywhere and certainly in India. One meaning that I find useful is the one in India's constitution: freedom to practice any religion of one's choice; non-discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, caste, creed etc.; and separation of state and religion).
Read more!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Double standards on racial issues

They're both young Indians and they both were brave enough to look beyond the borders of India for a job. But that's where the similarities end. Dr Mohammed Haneef is back in India. As he himself has said at the press conference that his lawyer Peter Russo, his family members and he addressed in Bangalore - he's been a victim of terror investigations. While that may be a very politically and legally correct way of describing his trauma in Australia over the last month, the government in that country has categorically said that his work visa will not be reinstated and there will be no apology issued to him.
That brings me back to the topic of my previous post - glamorous Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was a victim too! And the UK government went all out to make amends to her - The Queen, then UK PM Tony Blair, UK media, the people of UK, human rights oprganisations and the organisations working on racial relations - everyone was rushing to Shilpa's side to offer her a shoulder to weep on after the Big Brother fiasco.
But no such sympathy wave for Dr Haneef - even though the Australian government has released him without any charges whatsoever. His only strength probably comes from his excellent legal team led by Peter Russo who seems to have pulled him out of his predicament in Australia. Of course, there was support from the India government too. So what would Dr Haneef need to do to turn the tide of sympathy in his favour among the public in Australia and perhaps even in UK - where the media was pretty unfriendly towards him initially. Perhaps hire Shilpa Shetty's PR firm! Shilpa Shetty is a Bollywood actress who has probably entertained Indians around the world with her performances - besides she's glamorous, beautiful etc! But Doctor Haneef too has served his patients at the Gold Coast hospital and played a socially relevant role in Australia. We're all aware about the skills shortages that many western nations face and the need for skilled professionals such as doctors, nurses and IT professionals from India to fill such gaps. Dr Haneef was brave enough to leave the comfort of his hometown in India and go first to UK for training and then to Australia to work. His situation was a real immigrant's story of struggle and not a reality show. Of course, both Dr Haneef and Shilpa were looking beyond Indian borders to make a living and faced racial discrimination in that search. So why is the British government and more importantly the Australian government not rushing to Dr Haneef's support?
Read more!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Are the Brits losing it over Shilpa?

Read this really weird news in Times of India
A leading UK University will confer an honorary doctorate on Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on Wednesday for her outstanding contribution to cultural diversity.

The Leeds Metropolitan University has, in the past, honoured prominent Indian personalities who contributed to India's emergence as a fast developing cinema-proud nation during its 60th year of freedom struggle, a spokeswoman of the University said.

Mangalore-born Shilpa Shetty is the youngest actor from the Indian film fraternity to join ranks of Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi and Yash Chopra who have been earlier chosen for the honour.

Isn't this Shilpa Shetty thing being carried too far. After all, when she joined the Big Brother show, Shilpa knew it was not going to be a bed of roses. She probably joined partly because she needed a boost to her flagging acting career and partly for money - both of which she got, and much more besides.
As for racism - obviously it cannot be supported. But then there are hundreds of Indians and people from other races too, including children, who are dealing with racism at school, on jobs and socially, in different parts of the world everyday. Isn't it time people started doing something for them too rather than go on and on with Shilpa?
As for a honorary doctorate, I think it's really unfair to dole out doctorates to people who have done nothing to earn it even as many students are struggling with backlogs to get their PhDs, even after they have worked very hard. In India, for instance, administrative delays have ruined the careers of many serious researchers, whose doctorates take up to even a decade in coming through. Many of these reasearchers have done pathbreaking work in their line of studies. Should the Leeds Metropolitan University then make such a mockery out of a PhD degree?
Finally, despite all the hungama around the Big Brother show and the Richard Gere kiss, I don't think Shilpa's career in Bollywood is going anywhere. Doesn't that come as a big professional failure for a person whose core claim to fame is being a Bollywood actor? Besides, how exactly has Shilpa contributed to cultural diversity - whatever that means? In fact, in giving her the doctorate and other such honours isn't the mainstream British society sweeping far more important racist issues under the carpet. It's almost like trying to put up a big show by heaping goodies on Shilpa and hiding their poor racist record. Shilpa may be a victim of racism, but it's not the worst form of racism that she has faced. There are much more terrible hate crimes based on racist tendencies that all of the Western society has to seriously face. And it's not even restricted to Western society - many countries around the world, including India, have to deal with racist issues! Shah Rukh Khan's wax model at Madame Tussad's makes sense because he's definitely the most bankable Bollywood star, as does a doctorate for Amitabh Bachchan, who has spent his whole life in producing a huge body of unparalleled work for the Hindi film industry! But Dr Shilpa Shetty - just doesn't make sense.
Read more!

Monday, July 16, 2007

In Memoriam

Got some photos of Ranjabati Sircar from the albums of a close friend of hers. While these would go well with my earlier post on her - I thought it better to post them separately, considering that her friend sent them to me after painstakingly searching them out and scanning them for our blog
Read more!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New continents & people

Fellow blogger Roma has been busy travelling around the world working on a project - here are some excerpts from her travelogue!

...After a harrowing day pursuing tickets to different destinations and nightmarish logistics, I just sat down in silence...and my Quaker journey starting in Oxford floated past me...I am sharing with all you pilgrims...all of you who have upheld me...

Broken, wounded, larcerated I arrived at Oxford on a supposed academic
journey I had no idea of the Spirit-led journey that I would be taken on
I was unevolved, uninitiated in the ways of the spirit
Moving to Canterbury Road was truly pivotal
There was a certain Presence there
And a sense of Being
But I only had glimmerings of this world
At moments in the Silent House in Taize
When silence released me from preparing a face to meet the faces that one
meets I was released into the peace of being and inner sanctum
But these were transient moments
I was too preoccupied trying to survive with a mindnumbing baggage of the
wounded past Pulling me down at every step
And then came the Quaker garden
That was the beginning of liberation
The true inner journey began to be revealed to me later mainly through
Sylvia Button and her mentor Constance Peters
Sylvia presented me with a book called Strenuous Liberty
In those twilight years in St Theosevia’s I scarcely understood what it
That people choose bondage with ease rather than strenuous liberty…
Years later when scarcely a day goes by without my thinking of Sylvia or
feeling her intense spiritual presence in my daily life when I often
experience her interceding on my behalf
I now understand what it was all about
Now that the garden is within me
I now understand that the contemplative life is about joy and abundance and
being thrice as alive as a normal human being

It has been wonderful these past two years of being without work
Without any constraints
When I could have more inner time
And feel that glow within in harmony with a cosmos aglow with Presence

With my new assignment once more has come the tumult of the outside world
The cacophony of untuned voices, the world of barter and exchange
After a long time I find my inner space being invaded by martians

It may be that I am being taken to a higher level of challenge where I have
to retain the inner garden within the busy-ness, cacophony and tumult
Or be led to rejecting busy-ness altogether and moving on to another way of

I am wordless with gratitude for this magnificent journey that has been
given to me

I pray that I am upheld and I can keep the Peace…

Some of you know that I lost my father rather suddenly in Nov 05 and since
then have been in India in Kolkata/Calcutta taking care of my mother who was
clinically depressed...fortunately she's much better now...and my father who
was a very pure soul...somehow his passing away...released me to more being

Recently I was head-hunted and have
been hired to do a global project and some sample countries
from the perspective of its commitment to gender one level I
am excited to do this Consultancy as it's years since I have had a global
conversation, but I am very wary of the political minefield of such
I am also being asked to travel rapidly through places where I have very
cherished friends-but it's an express train of meetings through places-New
York from 20th-28th-and a meeting in Hove (UK) from 5th-8th and then to
Amman, Jordan...

...anyway I
would love to stop at 43 for a bit- a core place in my being...

I normally stay with John Linton in a guest room at Oxford at Plantation
Road-as he had kind of become my godfather-but I fear he may be having eye
surgery in hospital and he can't hear so I can't phone him. I will write to
Wolfson to book me a guest room.

When I think Oxford, I think mainly of you all and feel humble at all the
love I have received


Greetings from Amman-here on a 2 week visit to collect analysis

Arrived safely from Kolkata/Calcutta-memorable flight over blue green
Arabian sea-I flew to Bahrain-looked like a beuatiful sea resort from the
air and then over Lawrence of Arabia land=over the Arabian peninsual which
was surreal
I remember flying over the magnificence of the Sahara -45 mins of an awe
inspiring vastness
Arabian plateau not that kind of experience
but closer tto Amman the sand dunes waved patterns and then the wind had
made lace patterns on the deseert
rtaher like nerve patterns-very intricate
Amman is full of bright light
beaytiful sandstone houses with lots of date palms
I am enjoying the warmth of my Jordanian colleagues
people are so courteous here

we have hectic meetings all day but I love working dor gender and social
development issues
so it's very rewarding and I feel very blessed to use my education for those
who are excluded by society
I am going for the weekend to see a project in Aqaba a sea side resort
and very close to me is the Jordan river where Christ was baptised
and the whole area is so historic
Petra where I have no time to go
goes back before 8000 BC!!
Thinking of each and every one of you with love


Flew from Kolkata to Bahrain via Muscat- After flying over the
blue Arabian sea with emerald green glints on the water, Bahrain looked like
a beautiful seaside resort with picture perfect turquoise blue sea and sandy
beach-the people were fashionably dressed in latest European fashions and
designer labels (the elite women all seem to be blonde and look like
European/Italian film stars) –just managed to board my plane to Amman-the
Gulf air flight from Bahrain to Amman had wonderful music channels-I
especially enjoyed contemporary Arabic music using pop and rock rhythms and
suddenly found myself flying over the Arabian Peninsula-while I have flown
over the Sahara – and marvelled at its vast awe-inspiring presence-almost 25
mins on an international flight-the Sahara is magnificent and has huge
presence-by contrast the Arabian Peninsula is vast but appears as rather
uninspiring stretches of sand-however, just 20 mins prior to landing in
Amman, the desert suddenly appeared interspersed with dark blotches (which I
later understood were occasional farms) and then the desert became a million
little sandy hills forming a pattern brownness which gave way to desertscape
that looked like a laced pattern rather like T.S. Eliot’s poem where he sees
a nerve-like pattern-the desert appeared like a surreal brown dreamscape
like a lace of nerves, in reality, all it was, was intricate wind erosion

In Amman, in our hotel, I rebelled against eating spaghetti bolognaise and
lasagne that is cooked for foreign visitors, luckily my Canadian colleague
is as adventurous as me so at the first opportunity we joined some local
friends and went to taste typical Arabic food in a more vibrant bazaar area
and ate Mansaf (which is cottonwool soft lamb cooked in a yellow pilau like
rice rather similar to my mother’s Yakni pullao and a desert that tasted
like a pancake made of fried cream rather like the Indian shahi tukra, but
completely different from the latter)-I am constantly discovering Indian
indebtedness to the Arab world in language `duniya’, `vasta’ and `mulkin’ to
name some-in handicrafts-a lot of the brass engraving very similar to
Moradabadi work (but who got it from whom?) and of course the fabulous
mosaics, artisanal motifs-Indian cultural heritage owes much to the Arab

June 28th-We flew south to Aqaba- a fashionable seaside resort that people
in Jordan go to as a weekend getaway-after the desertscape just before
landing we saw the azure blue gulf of Aqaba against a series of endless
brown sandy ridges and date palms silhouetted against the coast-we stayed
for one magnificent night in a seaside resort that combined Swiss design and
hospitality with Arabic physical luxury and owing to a misunderstanding I
got upgraded to a VIP suite! I have never lived in such luxury-it was
aesthetically very Scandinavian in its elegant minimalism in design and
emphasis on wood and sandstone and muted colours where elegance is pure,
marked by restraint, as opposed to South Asian or Middle eastern exuberance
in design - every painting was chosen with taste and added to this we got
Jordanian human warmth in hospitality-the Jordanians are very pleasant
people and the ambience in Jordan is of a people who have found a way of
life that might be slower but they are happy and relaxed and that seeps into
any visitor
We had a private beach with a picture postcard view of the gulf rising in
different tones of blue and motor boats raced and yachts bobbed around and
there was a lot of happy Arabic families with lots of children swimming in a
glassy blue calm sea…a huge contrast to the turbulent and rough Bay of
In the evening one of my Jordanian colleagues’ brother who lived in Aqaba
invited us to a lovely restaurant called Ali Baba and I did feel like a five
year old Bengali girl in wonderland as he ordered so many delicacies for
us-the warmth, generosity and hospitality of this part of the world is

We ate delicacies from different salads, baba ganoush, olives, fried
calamari, falafel, meat chops, and then our main course was seafood (prawns,
crabs and cuttlefish) with rice (I of course ordered the rice!!)

In contrast to all this, the whole day we had spent with meetings with a
very fragile Palestinian refugee group –girls, boys, men and women who had
grown enormously in terms of a better understanding of their social
attitudes and leadership thanks to some innovative development programmes
that we are assessing-it was unbelievable to see the energy, vibrance and
creative ideas of adolescent girls and boys and to sit with a bunch of young
teenage leaders (every expressive face I have taken away with me) created in
a most confining of life spaces thanks to some innovative socialization
programmes –I was speechless with admiration-knowing that just over the
border young girls and boys were living in a scenario of armed conflict-I
couldn’t help thinking what if they had had the benefits of these programmes
and learned alternative ways of living eschewing violence…

What a difference progressive socialization makes-to have not just education
but to be trained in critical thinking –that’s what young people need the
world over
It was equally amazing to see middle aged and elder gentlemen from the
refugee camps speaking so reflectively about new attitudes to women, their
wives, sons and daughters after the workshops…it was a very moving
experience…social attitudinal change is never easy to facilitate and when
one witnesses it through the courage and determination of men and women who
are battling with serious life challenges, observing such a process is an
education in itself…the glaring inequality of their lives and the lives of
wealthy holiday makers in Aqaba was very disturbing for all of us…not
dissimilar to the inequalities we see in countries of South Asia-when
inequality is just taken for granted…
The night flight back the next day from Aqaba to Amman with a full desert
moon wraithe-like gliding over a blue black desert sky and miles and miles
of brown, lifeless ridges will be difficult to forget…
Today my first day off work in weeks I visited Bethany, the site by the
river Jordan where Christ was baptised and then to other amazing historic
sites (Petra which is the remains of a whole civilisation from 8000B.C. was
not possible to visit as temperatures here are searing! And the hot desert
winds are …!! )
I was equally moved by the simple waters of Jordan and the wild shrubs and
trees where John the Baptist had escaped to, from the persecution of the
Roman empire living as a hermit eating locusts and honey and where the boy
Christ was baptised-the physical simplicity of the place was very moving-and
more so as it was sandwiched between two militarised zones of Israel and
Jordan on either side of the river
My Jordanian driver, who knew hardly any English, even less about
Christianity or even Christ seemed to me a most Christ like character in his
simple human gestures-he took care of me like a mother hen and in his broken
English and my almost non existent Arabic I tried to make him stop to buy a
quick lunch and juice for both of us on en route-we did stop and eat but he
insisted on paying!!!…I really felt he was the saint in the story, a taxi
driver from Amman who had a value system that others take a lifetime to

This whole experience is one of contrasts-on the way back from Aqaba when I
told a colleagues’ daughter that I was worried about my family and friends
in India as there were floods, she replied: “Isn’t it strange that your
country has so much water and we people pray just for a drop…”

Read more!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Of women born and unborn

Two stories caught my eye as I read the BBC with my morning coffee. In Bangladesh, classmates of 13 year old Habiba Sultana was able to save her from a forced child marriage. Habiba comes from a poverty-stricken family and her father had decided to marry her off to her 23 year old neighbour. A not-so-unfamiliar story of the gender dimensions of poverty.

In India, the government has proposed that all pregnant women register with the government so that it can regulate abortions. This is, on the face of it, a ridiculous proposition both in terms of the norms it embodies and the institutional impossibility it entails. What we will effectively have is a black economy which will make back-alley abortions even more rampant and all sorts of new and creative arrangements for the harassment of women will become institutionalized. I am not sure if this proposal is any better than the cradle scheme or the 'palna' project. "Under the scheme, baby girls can be dropped off at government cradle centres - akin to orphanages - that would be set up in each district in the next couple of months. Cradles will be placed at various government agencies including primary healthcare centres, hospitals, nursing homes and short-stay homes. Later, these babies would be transferred to specialised adoption agencies for rehabilitation.." (link)

Of course, I do not wish to suggest that the alternative is just to allow the continuation of foeticide. But I do wish to suggest that this is not a problem where governmental efficiency can be put on display as a solution. The problem in India has many dimensions which cuts across social class and education female infanticide is not limited to "the poor' - in fact the "new" Indian middle travels to the US to take advantage of the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis technique). One of the reasons often cited for this "cross-class" gender bias are institutions such as dowry - and hence the efftors to link the question of foeticide to the economic value of women.

This value analysis of human beings, is in my opinion, ethically and politically unacceptable - and as long as we make economics the main argument against killing foetuses we will get nowehere. Neither will we get anywhere by taking away women's freedom of choice and her basic reproductive rights. The solution lies in two things: the strict implementation of the laws preventing sex selection, and political, legal and institutional support to (men and) women who try and resist this terrible practice. Just as Nisha Sharma made news by resisting dowry, there must be women in India who are refusing to kill their unborn daughters. We must find them and bring their stories into the realm of public knowledge.
Read more!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Bong connection & beyond

Last weekend found me going out and doing something politically correct - watching Anjan Dutta's latest movie - The Bong Connection. The backdrop of this was that I spent the earlier part of the evening with a friend and a group of Delhi 'Bongs' who have connected through Orkut and had got together for a book reading session in Bengali. Well how did I feel at the end of the evening?
To begin with, the movie was very average. The new genre of movies on cross-border Indian families and individuals has caught up with Bengalis too. But then the phoney accents of the central characters didn't leave much of an impression as didn't the laboured parallel drawn with Satyajit Ray's Apu. Also there seemed to be an element of wardrobe dysfunction with one of the central characters lounging around in what appeared to be a cross between an overcoat and a raincoat in Texas! The guy is a Bengali IT whiz working in an Indian start-up - surely he didn't have to overdo this peculiar dressing style when everyone else was suave and well turned out!
In any case, I object to the concept of "Bong" - which was even stretched to encompass a Bangladeshi cab-driver in a Crash-esque immigrant sub-plot. Bengali is a language and a culture. Bengal is my home which is full of idioms that are very close to my heart as an immigrant Bengali - but what is Bong? I frankly don't understand. It may be a hip and happening concept - but I can't quite relate to it. This is despite wanting to call this blog - BLONG - since so far all us participants are Bengali Bloggers! OK, so Bong may be just another smart word!
To digress a little beyond the movie, cutting all the literature and poetry out of the immigrant experience - as a day to day story, it seems to have changed many of our families into dispersed entities. My mother and sister, for instance, are in Silicon Valley and I'm in Delhi - and I'm not even beginning to calculate those miles between. Our home in Santiniketan, meanwhile, is desolate and I don't even want to go there alone. Often, it's a logistical nightmare organising a visit by aged parents to Europe or America as the case may be - not to forget the visa hassles. So here's where I'd say cheers to the many new flights between India and US and Europe that are scheduled to be launched in the coming months - Continental, Air-India, Jet Airways and Delta. I think actual air connections are far more comforting than far-fetched Bong connections.
As for the Bengali poetry & prose reading session - I'm not sure that one can really share such personal experiences with a group of folks that one connected with on Orkut?
Read more!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tilda & My Mother's Signature Biryani

Recently I did an article on Tilda Rice with my colleague Sudeshna Sen who's based in London. Tilda - which is one of the best known Basmati brands in Europe & US - is an example of a global brand created and promoted by a global Indian family. The London-based Thakrars, who set up Tilda in the 1970s, are a Gujarati family who lived in Uganda before 1972 and moved to UK during the Idi Amin dictatorship. The company is now a big exporter of basmati rice from India to major markets in North America, Europe, Middle East and Africa. The Thakrars are even known as the rice kings in UK.
Tilda basmati is a well known brand among South Asians in UK, US and Europe and the company now plans to launch many of its products in India too riding the retail boom. An interesting promotional activity undertaken by Tilda in UK is sponsoring events with the Craft Guild of Chefs and the company has even published a recipe book with signature biryanis by UK's famous chefs.

And now the company plans events with top chefs in India too and is planning to bring Cyrus Todiwala, MBE and founder & executive chef of London’s famous restaurant chain Cafe Spice Namaste to India.

Tilda sees South Asians all over the world as its brand ambassadors.The company sponsors the TUCO University Chef of the year competition in UK every year. And talking about signature biryanis I would like to share with our readers my Mother's Signature Biryani. This is possibly the most simple and yet most delicious biryani in the world. A lot of my busy friends and family have told us that this is the ideal recipe for entertaining people during the weekend and provides a quick and tasty option. Another good thing about this recipe is that it's not too high calorie either.

So here's My Mom's Biryani - something that I've grown up with and will always love.
1.Mutton 1kg.
2.Yogurt (dahi) 800gms
3.Basmati Rice 4 cups/you could use Tilda! ( 1kg apprx)
4.Onions 2 large or 3 small
5.Oil for frying
6. Jeera(cummin seeds), Methi (fenugreek), Mouri (aniseed/saunf), Sukno lanka dry (2-4 dried red chillies) fried and powered
(1 teaspoon of all the spices and half teaspoon of fenugreek)
7. 6 cups of water
8. Turmeric powder
9. Salt to taste
1. Marinade the meat in yogurt and the spices and
turmeric powder for 2 hours.
2. Put in a pressure cooker
and add 1 cup water. Cook till meat is soft (about 15
20 mins, according to the quality of the meat.

3. Meanwhile cut onions into thin slices and fry in about 2 or 3
tablespoon of oil till golden brown.

4. Wash rice and drain
5. When u can open pressure cooker, put the fried onions
with oil and put in the rice.Add rest of water
6. Close cooker again and put on fire, wait till the pressure builds. Now lower the heat and
keep for only 5 mins not more (this is important.)
7. Open pressure cooker when u can.
8. Don't try release pressure by lifting the wieght with a spoon
Read more!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Marching with BRIC

The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are about to crash into the G-6 list, displacing France, U.K., Germany and Italy. According to a Goldman Sachs report prepared in 2003, called "Dreaming with BRIC's - the path to 2050", only Japan and the USA will remain in the top six economic powers by 2050. The ranking at that point, according to the report, will be

1. China
2. USA
3. India
4. Japan
5. Brazil
6. Russia

India is forecast to maintain the steadiest growth rate throughout this period. If the predictions are correct, India's GDP should outstrip that of Japan by around 2030. In the words of a recent article in "Accountancy" magazine, the journal of The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales "..India's the one to watch !"

Many aspects of the report have raised eyebrows. One is the prediction that Brazil will outrank Russia. Another is a forecast that the currencies of the BRIC countries will appreciate by 300% against the US Dollar by 2050 !

The currency outlook is one which requires careful scrutiny and is likely to be the main indicator that matters are progressing according to the Goldman Sachs projections. The Indian currency steadily declined against the dollar after Independence. Some of us remember that in the 1950s the Rupee was 7 to the dollar ! However, that trend may well have been reversed. In 2005 the Rupee declined to 49 to the dollar. Today it is around 40, an appreciation of 18% over two years. While the prediction of a 300% increase may sound unrealistic, it is worth recalling the history of another currency - the Japanese Yen. In the mid-1970s the Yen was app. 300 to the US Dollar. Today it stands at 120. So the analysts of Goldman Sachs may yet be proved correct.

Danger signals abound, though. The growing (and highly visible) disparity between the upwardly mobile urban middle class and the teeming masses mired in poverty, requires the most urgent attention on the part of India's social engineers. Even the Goldman Sachs report points to the risk that political and social instability could derail the Indian Express.

It's worth repeating the words of the late Archbishop Romero of El Salvador " What good are beautiful highways and airports, all these beautiful skyscrapers, if they are fashioned out of the clotted blood of the poor who will never enjoy them ? "
Read more!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Farmers' widows & children in Wardha: RV Bhavani

R V Bhavani, Director, B V Rao Centre for Sustainable Food Security, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has sent us the following article

Linisha and Bharti Bhatero outside their ramshackle hut in Wadgaon village, Seloo block, Wardha

Over 60 percent of India's population is rural and dependent on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood. The landholding situation is highly skewed with the majority being small and marginal farmers with landholdings of 2 hectare and less. The share of agriculture in the Gross Domestic Product has however been falling over the years. So has investment in agriculture per se as well as investment on agriculture research and in rural infrastructure - a phenomenon that has characterised the neo-liberal reform period beginning in the nineties. Insurance for crop failure is virtually non-existent. The agriculture extension system has failed. The farmer is largely left to take a beating on the Input (Credit, Technology, Inputs) and Price and Market fronts. Increasing number of suicides by farmers in rainfed farming areas (mainly the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Vidarbha region of Maharashtra) since the late nineties is a manifestation of a serious malaise afflicting the Indian economy today. In fact, these are danger signals for the policy makers to sit up and take note but that sadly is not happening.

Their husbands/fathers have taken their lives, leaving behind the mothers and children to cope with the harsh realities of everyday existence. The situation is bleak; what do they have to look forward to, is the question that keeps coming to mind when one meets and speaks with them. It is a question of surviving from day to day. Most of the widows now work as farm labour and the children also go to work during weekends and holidays. While the women/girls get Rs.25/- to Rs.30/-, for five hours of work, the boys get about Rs.50 (in both cases, less than a dollar). In some families, atleast one son has dropped out of school to help their mother with farm work. In some families, the older son had been in a crucial year at school when the father committed suicide and that put an abrupt end to studies. The land in most cases is joint property or in the in-laws’ name. One could feel the anger in 17 year old Linisha’s voice, from Wadgaon village in Wardha district, when she said that her uncle now cultivates the land they had and her mother goes out to work as farm labour. Linisha has given her class X exams and would like to study further. Her sister Bharti, 13 has gone to class VIII. Their home is a ramshackle hut with asbestos roofing and mud flooring in the front room.

The insensitivity with which the agrarian distress relief packages are being implemented and the general apathy especially at the lower levels of administration also comes to light. Usha Dhale of Rohankheda village shelled out Rs.4000/- for a cow under the relief package. The cow is not yielding any milk and is an additional liability. Her father has taken it to his village so that it is not a burden on her. Asha Kurwade from Khambit village in Ashti block with one acre of land and no well was thrust with an engine for which she had to shell out Rs.5000/-. She has since borrowed from a moneylender at a rate of 5% per month to meet expenses when her children fell ill.
Asha Kurwade with her children, Khambit village, Ashti block, Wardha - what does the future hold for them?

The license for the fair price shop that Sushila’s husband Prakash Taksande used to run in Kharda village of Deoli block in Wardha district was withdrawn when he committed suicide. His wife, young Sushila who, hats off to her resilience, manages to have a smiling face all the time, was not considered for running the same, inspite of being class IX pass. She has not got any suicide relief either. The household of mother and two sons aged 12 and 7, runs on the rupees ten thousand she gets annually by leasing her four acre plot of land. In one village, the post office cuts Rs.20/- per child from the instalment deposited in the post office savings account as monetary support for education by a NGO.

Most families still have the debt outstanding, to the pressure of which their husbands succumbed, hanging over their heads. Some suffer from health problems, following the trauma of the husband’s death. What is however heartening in the scenario of gloom, are the aspirations of some of the children to study and the endeavor of the mothers to stand by them and strive to ensure that their desires are fulfilled. Nineteen year old Amol from Ashti village whose mother works as a helper at the anganwadi centre in the village will be completing an ITI course in wire work this year and hopes to take admission in class XI. Some of the families have children who are going to take their first steps in schooling and go to the balwadi or class I, and have a long way ahead.

The least the larger community could do is to ensure that these children do see some hope at the end of the tunnel and their aspirations are not thwarted even before they have taken shape. While it is a fact that by and large the scenario is not going to improve unless the ground realities of the agriculture that they do changes and necessary infrastructure and support services are in place, immediate support to the widows and their children is imperative. A small pilot initiative steered by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, a non-profit trust, is on in Wardha district of Vidarbha, where children of school going age from farmer suicide families are getting monetary support to ensure that they continue their education. 77 children from 37 families spread across the eight blocks of the district are covered at present. Children completing class X and XII now need help and counseling by way of courses they could join that would also give them some income earning skills instead of just leading to a run of the mill degree with no assurance of a job at the end of the day. The Rural College at Pipri, Wardha for instance offers a two-year diploma course in agriculture. Students undergoing the programme can if they wish to study further apply for admission to any degree programme other than engineering and medicine. Alternately, the diploma is also considered as valid qualification for certain jobs in the district administration. Children who had to drop out due to the sudden tragedy can also benefit by acquiring some vocational training skills that will help them to earn some additional income besides working just as farm labour. For instance, Nilesh, 19 of Paloti village is class X fail; so are brothers Narayan, 23 and Nitin, 22 of Sawli Wagh village. The Community Polytechnic at Pipri, Wardha offers six-month certificate courses in computer hardware repair, TV repair, two-wheeler repair, welding, electrical work etc. Undergoing such training can help them have an additional income earning skill in hand.

Ranjana with sons Abhishek (Class I) and Suraj (Class VI), Chincholi village, Karanjha block, Wardha: A long way to go...

Livelihood rehabilitation for the widows is also a matter of concern. Many have qualification ranging from class VIII pass to Class XII pass. Many are quite young too, in their early twenties to mid thirties. Most as mentioned earlier now work as farm labour. Life has virtually stopped midway on the tracks for them. Training in some skill that they can put to use while in their respective villages and make some money can help them get confidence, but it is also a challenge. A village may have only one such affected woman. The villages are spread out across the district, some being a hundred kilometers from the district headquarter, making a plan to bring them together for long periods of training difficult. Some of the women are members of self help groups. But only in one case we heard of a Self Help Group (SHG) having started a goatery enterprise with bank loan. Moving from just saving and lending to enterprise development and management is crucial if the quality of life is to improve. Uppermost on the minds of the mothers however, is the worry on what the future holds for their children, on what will happen after they have completed schooling so that they get a better deal in life.

Wardha abounds in educational institutions some with international renown; there are also many research institutes in the vicinity like the Central Institute of Cotton Research and National Bureau of Soil Science and Landuse Planning at Nagpur, just 70 kilometres away; The College of Agriculture in Nagpur is a century old. There is no dearth of intellectual capital either. The banks in the district led by Bank of India and State Bank of India, have undertaken a financial inclusion initiative. Historically, Wardha happens to be the base from where Gandhiji steered India’s freedom struggle and had all the potential for developing as a ‘Gandhi Zilla’ where everyone has a means of secure livelihood and can lead a life of dignity. Sixty years on however, the challenge is to stave the ignominy of being labeled a farmers’ suicide district.
Read more!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Of Women and Presidents: Debjani Banerjee

It has been a heady week in Indian politics and the Presidential nomination is still up in the air. But I thought I would post this anyway so we can mull over matters while the politicians play their cards.

I was excited when I heard that India was going to have its first woman president. Even if the role of the Indian president is largely symbolic and not quite equivalent to that of the French or American president (if the U.S. swears in a woman this November, I promise I will have no rants), it is path breaking. A woman even as the ceremonial head of India seemed like a harbinger of things to come.

But as I pondered over the matter I wondered if Pratibha Patil-Sekhawat’s nomination was clinching a deal for the women of India. I think people who are working at the heart of gender politics would not agree so readily.
The problem is not that she is low profile or that she has not done enough work in the area of gender development. The problem is that she is being chosen for her name rather than her work. Her hyphenated name at once appeases the vociferous Sekhawat community and complicates the candidature of the Vice President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who has jumped into the fray. As a son (sorry, daughter) of the soil, her nomination would please the Maharashtrians, (The NCP of Maharashtra, under Sharad Pawar, has been threatening to break away over several issues and they need to be mollified.) Suggesting the name of Pratibha Patil, currently the governor of Rajasthan, was a brilliant masterstroke by the Congress (who along with their allies are in political power at the moment) after their candidate, Shivraj Patil, the ex speaker of the Lok Sabha was turned down by the Left. The Left and the allies had also rejected the names of Sushil Kumar Shinde who represented Maharashtrian Dalits (we have already had a Dalit President in K.R. Narayanan so there is no urgency to appease them again right away?) and Karan Singh. (Dr.Karan Singh who hails from the royal family of Kashmir and studied at Doon School is obviously too esoteric a choice?) In contrast, Pratibha Patil, who belongs to a comfortable middle class and has a good education and a distinguished, if not spectacular career, seems like a safer choice. Her nomination has been lapped up by the allies of the Congress. But the Opposition parties have other ideas.

In the most recent development, the Vice President (who is being supported by the Opposition party) has said that he would withdraw his candidature if Dr.Abdul Kalam, the present incumbent, agrees to a second term; supported by heavyweights like Jayalalitha from the south, the President has maintained that he will return to Rashtrapati Bhawan only if he is the consensus candidate. In this complex game of identity politics and electoral ratios, Pratibha Patil, is being positioned as a woman candidate who, by virtue of her gender, represents all the women of India. My concern here, is not that she would have to be called the rather inelegant, Rashtrapatni, but that too; are we going to rename the post and the place of Residence? And even if we do that, can this lady stand outside of petty political strife to even try and make a difference? India is no stranger to women in politics. We have had a woman Prime Minister who has “ruled” India for fifteen years; the current de facto power in Indian politics, it is whispered, is a lady. And yet the position of women in non urban India has not improved in leaps and bounds.


So, if Pratibha Patil is chosen as the President when the politicians have exhausted all their moves, will it mean something for the women of India? Does it mean that women can have more legislation in their favour? Can it even signify that women’s achievements are substantial enough for them to be considered as the head of state, even in a titular position? Or is it just a token gesture that will not serve any real purpose? Tokenism worries me because for those of us who take gender politics seriously, it is a reminder that those in power can just use gender politics to their advantage; because “they” do not want to commit themselves to women’s empowerment in any serious way, they nominate a woman president! It sounds like circular logic but it is unfortunately how tokenism works. And tokenism implies condescension. Well sorry, we cannot pass the bill that ensures that women should have 33% seats reserved in the Lok Sabha, (and this is the place where Bills are debated so it is important to be there) but instead, we can have someone who looks like you as the President! It is like being handed a bar of chocolate when one needed serious attention in order to deal with female foeticide, anti dowry legislation, better education for women and the skewed gender ratio. Tall orders, any of these, but this is what India needs if ever we want development for all our citizens and globalization at a less-than-surface level.

It is being claimed that Pratibha Patil’s biggest advantage is that she has the right name, she is close to the Gandhi family and that she is non-threatening. This last bothers me more than the first two. Previous presidents have been chosen for their names and yet Abdul Kalam, Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed have left individual imprints as good speakers, who with their knowledge and intellect can make appropriate legal interventions. Kalam certainly has been hailed as a popular President and as such, Patil has large shoes that she has to fill. Can she find non threatening ways to commit to progressive and secular values for the women of India? Or will she be just another name on Wikipaedia? Going for her is that she is a lawyer, an efficient administrator and an experienced politician who has held ministry portfolios of housing, health and education. And my personal favourite – she was the table tennis champion in her college!
Read more!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Coming to terms with Father's Day

Usually I don't feel too inspired by marketing driven events such as Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day etc. Every year there's a kind of circus around Valentine's Day when certain fundamentalist political elements resort to vandalism on the streets in some Indian cities while at other cities and metros various companies and restaurants etc manage to make a packet around lovey-dovey marketing buzz. In fact, even very public celebration of birthdays sometimes don't fit in with Indian social realities and often when one goes to wish a colleague whose Birthday is announced on the official website one is greeted with blank looks. That's probably because the colleague in question has a different date of birth for the records than his/her actual birth date. One then gets the feeling that exporting US HR practices directly into Indian companies are sometimes examples of cultural insensitivity and lack of understanding of social realities.

In any case, this year Father's Day (which was yesterday) left me feeling different because I was missing my father a great deal. Every little advertisement on TV and even the promotional flyer that a local hospital had inserted into my Sunday newspaper brought him back to me as did all the little things around my house like the light bulb that he changed during his last visit and the chair that he had painstakingly painted.
After a great deal of soul-searching I zeroed in on the following poem as the best way to remember my dad on Father's Day. Sailing had been one of his favourite leisure activities and he loved adventure. The poem is Classic T.S. Eliot, so enjoy. And Happy Father's Day (somewhat belated) to all you fathers out there.

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird.
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger -
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than
the eye

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and
hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life; my speech for that unspoken,
The unawakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
What seas what shores what granite islands towards
my timbers
And the woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.
(Quis hic locus, Quae
regio,quae mundi plaga?)

Read more!