Thursday, December 28, 2006

Where is Swadesh Deepak?

In an old mansion, on Ambala's Mall road
He lay in his room, doing nothing, only
speaking to characters. His thoughts went
berserk like cigarette stubs on his ground.

Food was brought to him; he ate it silently
swallowing most of it, and at times,
winking at his image in the glass of water,
spilling it inside, without any sound.

He had stopped going out and didn't care
for what happened outside. Within himself,
much took place, and it went on and on
Like a child in a Fair on a merry-go-round.

As if she would ring the doorbell with a bouquet
of sunflowers in her hands, say, Hello, is he inside?
Her voice came tiptoed, smiled, and said: I am the hunter
What would you like to be: The hare or the hound?

Oh, welcome, Maya, so you have finally arrived
Place a kiss, if you may, on my parched lips
and erase all the lines on my forehead; who asks then:
Where is Swadesh Deepak, and where could he be found?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Houses for you

Oh, it is not that we are not concerned!
Look! We have made houses for you
And they are made of proper brick and mortar

The soil is the same, you see
Here is the proof:
It can grow red radishes

We will even get a temple constructed
But be sure, you don’t blow the conch
It may tear off the fibre of Kashmiriyat

And yes, we could not create these houses
On the banks of a river
So you will have to solemnize your God’s marriage
By sending his bride to him
Through flower pots

And these low doors of your houses
They are for your safety, you see
The boys, you know, are no longer indigenous
But we swear, Afghans have a self-pride
You don’t believe us, ask your ancestors
Or the learned men of your community (Ha, ha, ha! Every Batta is an intellectual!)
‘Their Majesties’ will never lower their heads
Even if their forefingers may be twitching
To pull your guts out

We know, your backs are hardened
And your torso muscles as well
From continuously shifting hearths
During those initial years
But still, it pains us to see that
Old men and women have to
Transport polythene bags full of
Sesame bread, rice flour and spices
To their sons and daughters in
Delhi, Mumbai and beyond
We see them all the time
In trains and deluxe buses
Trying to keep fresh,
Vegetables, they carry with them

That is why we want you to come back
And settle in these houses made for you
Did we tell you that they
Are made of proper brick and mortar?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Flower dreams

I remember, one day
While sitting
Just like that
You made on
A pack of cigarettes
Kept on my table
A sketch of a plant
Come and see it now
A flower has apppeared on it
Translated from Gulzar's Koi Baat Chale...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Meeting Big B on NH 8

It is virtually the last milestone of prosperity, also marking the end of Gurgaon. As young software techie couples, wearing Nike sneakers and Levis Jeans step out of their Hondas to have a lazy brunch at the Haldiram’s, you almost forget that you are in India. Before this point, there are 24-hours power-backed apartments. Cheerleading Thomas Friedman are boys who turn from Pawan to Peter during the night.

I am travelling on the Golden Quadrilateral, one of the last symbols of the Vajpayee Government. Till few years ago, huge pictures of the former Prime Minister would don toll plazas built at various spots on the super highway. The pictures are gone but you can still find traces of the NDA era. At such one place on the National Highway 8, I meet Rajpal.

Outside the ‘Feel Good’ wine shop, Rajpal is quietly gulping down Old Monk mixed with Pepsi at 11 am. Our eyes meet and I strike a conversation with him. After a few minutes of polite conversation, he finally opens up, helped partially by the good old rum. He looks at me, points at the bottle and says, “ This is just to ward off loneliness. Have you heard this song: I feel so lonely baby, I feel so lonely, I could die…?” Though I am not fond of Elvis Presley, I recognize this song. Before I can utter a word, he continues.

“As a young man, I was inspired by Manoj Kumar’s Upkaar. I joined the Army. But in a few years time, I was disillusioned. I quit and returned to my village. I became a farmer, tilling my father’s land. But that also did not hold me for long. It is a cycle of Karma.”

“What do you do now?,” I ask him. He looks at me and smiles. “I just feel good now,” he mutters, followed by a hearty laugh. As I take out my camera to click a picture, he refuses to be photographed. “OK, but at least tell me where did you hear Elvis Presley?,” I ask him.

“In the Army, I was attached with a Colonel. He was very fond of old songs. Every evening he would play this song on his gramaphone and sing along with it. I picked it from there,” he says. We shake hands. “See me again while you are coming back; just ask this shopkeeper and he will guide you,” he adds.

I move on. Just before Kotputli, on the Jaipur highway, I enter a field where a turbaned man is sitting on the earth, a flute resting beside him. There are goats grazing nearby. His back is turned against me and so he is almost startled as I greet him. I tell him I have come from Delhi and would like to ask him few questions. His name is Raja Ram and he is 60 years old. He has been a farmer all his life. He has never been to Delhi or Jaipur. He lives nearby and has no electricity in his house. He has never heard of Sachin Tendulkar. “Who is Abdul Kalam?,” I ask him. “He was a fakir,” he replies. “What is your wish list for 2007?” He looks at me as I put this question to him and then looks at his goats. “Nothing,” he replies.

Just before Jaipur, around 240 kilometres from Delhi, I spot Reema, a young college girl, waiting for a bus on the highway. I cautiously approach her lest other men at the bus-stop might think I am teasing her. I introduce myself and tell her about my assignment. I can see that few boys at the bus-stop are looking at us with curiosity. One of them passes a comment, making others laugh. I can hear them talking about ‘jeans.’ I notice that Reema is wearing jeans. Reema begins telling me about her family. Her father is a farmer and after much persuasion she was allowed to study further in a college. “Usually girls of my age are married off but I managed to wriggle out of it, at least for now,” she says. She wants to become a teacher. And what are her expectations from 2007? She looks at the jeering boys and says,“ I wish I could wear jeans without inviting comments from them.”

Further ahead, I meet Ratan Lal, a young boy, who studies in 8th class in a government school. His village, Chapakhedi is a few kilometers away from the highway, which goes on to Mumbai. He wants to join Army when he grows up. Has he ever seen a computer? “No,” he replies almost apologetically, “but I have heard about it,” he asserts. “What is it?” “It is an electronic pigeon, used for sending messages,” he answers. What does he want in 2007? “I wish I could see a cricket match on television,” he says.

Along the National Highway, in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district, I meet Kishan Lal, 24, who drives a taxi. He is a lower caste. “ Come, I will take you to my village,” he says. His village Achalpura is situated along the highway. “This highway came up a few years ago but, you see, it brought no changes in our lives,” he tells me. Till a year ago, Kishan Lal says, the people of his community could not sit on a cot in his village.
“The upper caste men would object to this, maintaining that we had no right to sit on a cot,” he says. Last year, some of the boys of his caste, along with a few social activists began a ‘khaat andolan.’ They would take out cots from their houses and sit on them outside. Some of them were beaten up by drunken upper caste men. “They also declared a social boycott against us,” remembers Ram Lal. But still, he says, only 50 percent lower castes are with them. “The rest of them still prefer a non-confrontationist approach,” he says as he sits on a cot outside his house for a photo op.

A few kilometers before Udaipur is Idra gram panchayat, where 50 gypsy families have built small settlements. “We were tired of always being on the move and decided to settle here for the sake of the new generation,” says Banjara leader Bansilal. He laments that no politician pays heed to them since most of them do not vote. “We are always on the move, searching for jobs. If someone is working in Gujarat, how is he supposed to spend 500 rupees and come here for voting?,” he says. What is his expectation from 2007? “The Police harass us a lot here. I wish that could change,” Bansilal says, urging me to have a cup of tea at his house.

On my way back, I am reminded of my promise made to Rajpal. As the evening descends, I reach the spot where I had left him two days back. The shutter of the Feel Good wine shop is half open and in the dim light, I ask the owner about Rajpal. “He is holding his Panchayat behind this shop, in the fields. There is a turn there, you can go inside,” he says with an amused look on his face. And true to his words, I find Rajpal with his bottle, surrounded by a few men. He is regaling them with his stories.

“Oh here comes the babu,” he shouts as his eyes fall on me. I can sense that he has had a little too much. “Ok, let me play Kaun Banega Crorepati with you,” he says, and without waiting, he throws a question at me, increasing the baritone of his voice to match with that of Amitabh Bachchan, “Why is this country infested with so many problems?” I can feel all eyes set upon me. Before I can gather an answer, Rajpal comes to my rescue. “I think you need a phone-a-friend helpline,” he says, shifting from one foot to another. It is absolute dark as I hear his voice sifting through the air: Hello Manmohan Singh ji, mein Amitabh Bachchan bol raha hun

(This report appeared in the New Year special issue of The Sunday Indian)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Between the pages

Often in your books
I discovered dried flowers
And in my books, the winds
That dried them

In winds like those
I go out, wearing, these days
A checked woollen muffler
Around my neck
Considering its two ends
Your two arms

I do not know, what is there
In this song:
Beqarar karke humen yun na jayiye…
Loneliness or its panacea

Today, I almost knew
When in the cupboard
Beside naphthalene balls
I found, in an old copy of
Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education
Between pages 210 and 211
A stamp-sized picture of yours

Years have passed and
I could never tell you
But today, as I saw
You smiling in that picture
I found myself muttering:
Aapko humari kasam laut aayiye…

(This poem appeared originally here)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Her Master's voice

In a Rajasthan village, a woman sarpanch stays at home, while her husband conspires with the Panchayat to grab land belonging to Bheel tribals.

The sun is at its zenith and only when you come really close can you see the broken remains of what used to be the house of Dharmesh Bheel and his family. The clear skies invite winds and the dust enters Dharmesh’s eyes. He touches the empty ground where his house stood till recently and applies the sandy earth to his forehead.
“This had been my family’s house for 42 years and there are not even stones left now,” says a bleary-eyed Dharmesh. His wife has shifted to her father’s house and Dharmesh and his father stay in a neighbour’s house.

Dharmesh lost his ancestral house in a conspiracy supported by the Panchayat in his village Beeladi in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district. It all began in October this year when the Public Works Department started extension of an old grovel road under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana. The department conducted survey and laid pillars along the houses of tribal Bheels which did not interfere with their houses.
The village is home to 27 Bheel families, out of which 3 families live outside the village, by the river. After independence, the Government, recognizing the vulnerability of the Bheel tribe, allotted some land to the community in 1964 as a part of the land reforms. “Ever since we were allotted this land, the upper caste Rajput and Jat families in the village have had their eyes set upon this land,” says Gangaram Bheel, a village elder. The Bheel community members say that this particular stretch of land is very fertile and many times in the past, the upper caste landlords have offered them land elsewhere. But the Bheels refused to shift. “They destroyed our crops and even declared a social boycott but we did not part away with our land. How could we? We have nothing else,” says Dharmesh. In October this year, the plan to extend the old grovel road offered an opportunity to the landlords to grab the land belonging to Bheel tribals.

On October 26, the government excavator ran over Dharmesh’s house and destroyed it completely. It also made trenches on both sides of another house in preaparation to uproot it. The entire operation was overseen by Lal Singh, the husband of the village sarpanch, Lad Kanwar. “Lad kanwar is just a rubber stamp; for all practical purposes, her husband calls the roost,” says a villager. “After destroying my house, Lal Singh took away all the stones that formed the walls of my house, and the wooden rods also,” alleges Dharmesh.
The Bheels then approached the local administration including the Police and the SDM. The Police, according to the Bheels, accepted the complaint but took no action. The SDM, however, tried for a compromise between the two parties. “The sarpanch’s husband said that he will give land elsewhere to the displaced families. We told him to give it to us in writing,” says Bhanwarlal, another Bheel villager. That did not happen. What happened instead was something that the Bheels had been fearing for years.

On the night of November 10, the Bheels received a notice from the Panchayat that next day in the morning their ‘illegal’ houses and fields will be evacuated. When Bheels and labour activists complied a response and tried to submit it to the sarpanch, she refused to accept it. “She said that she had no knowledge about this case and would accept it only after consulting her husband who was not home at that time,” says Madan, a labour activist. The Bheels then pasted their response on the door of the Panchayat office.

Next day, the Bheels and the labour activists tried to reason with the sarpanch’s husband (the sarpanch never came herself) that it was totally illegal for the Panchayat to displace the Bheels. Panchayati Raj act clearly states that the Panchayat has executive powers only and doesn’t have the judicial power, which is a must to order evacuation of people. When the upper caste landlords realized that they had no legal standing, they decided to install fear among the Bheels. Late in the night, around 150 upper caste men, belonging to the Rajput, Keer and Jat castes, descended upon the Bheel houses and attacked their inhabitants. They were also joined by their women who surrounded the houses, armed with sickles. The Bheels and a few labour activists who were present there were beaten up by lathis. Some of them escaped in the fields and were later rescued by the Police. 2 Bheels and 6 activists sustained serious injuries and three of them had to be hospitalised. The attackers also allegedly destroyed the crops of the Bheels before falling back.
On December 6, a Bheel maha rally was organized in the village against the attack. On the same day, the upper caste landlords also organized a similar rally, alleging that the Bheels were trying to usurp their lands and were trying to vitiate the atmosphere at the behest of ‘outsiders’. Beeladi village is just a few kilometers inside from the super highway – also known as the Golden Quadrilateral project – that joins Delhi to Mumbai.
Noted social activist, Aruna Roy, who addressed the Bheel maha rally, demanding rights for the tribals, says, “Development has become an euphemism for grabbing the land of the poor and the downtrodden.”

A survey, conducted just before this episode, by two non-Governmental organizations in Chittorgarh district states that 1,389 bheegas of agricultural land, belonging to various Bheel families in 92 villages is currently in the possession of upper castes.

The social boycott may have dispirited them, but the Bheels have resolved to continue the fight. The first step, of course, is to rebuild the broken house. “Where do we get new stones for the house now,” asks Dharmesh’s father, as he sits cross-legged on a neighbour’s cot. Would the Vijay Raje Scindia government care to ask this question, and few others, to the ‘rubber stamp’ sarpanch of Beeladi?

(This report first appeared in The Sunday Indian)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Dignity of the dead

"How old is this?," the young labourer asks me. I take the plastic can filled with water from his hands without answering him. I'm still looking at the gravestone. I splash some water on the stone, removing layers of mud and dead leaves. The name is clear now: The Michaels. Died 2 July, 1868. Read on.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Landless in Punjab

Beyond the facade of prosperity in Punjab, lays hidden a grim tale of numerous landless workers, who are caught in a cycle of indebtness and end up turning into bonded labourers.

On a clear, cold morning in Mansa in Punjab, hundreds of shadowy figures, most of them draped in torn, faded shawls, huddle at the town’s Labour chowk. 60-year-old Ajmer Singh rubs his hands together and lets out a sigh. His eyes, like that of everyone else, are fixed at the main road. Farmers, riding jeeps and tractors, would be coming any time to pick up men like Ajmer Singh for working in their fields. Even on a good day, only 60 percent of them will get work. Life is hard. But for Ajmer Singh, it is a bliss as compared to the life he was forced to lead for years in his village Nangal Khurd.
Ajmer Singh was caught in a viscious web of bonded labour after a farmer from his village employed him as contractual labourer for 12,000 rupees per annum. On less than 35 rupees a day, he worked seven days a week, for 12-14 hours every day. The day he was unable to come for work due to illness, the farmer would ask Ajmer Singh to pay a fine of 100 rupees. Within a year, he was also forced to take some loan from the farmer. Once caught in the debt trap, he was forced to work in the farmer’s fields for years, on a very low wage. “I worked day and night at his fields. Gradually, he asked me to bring my 15-year-old son along with me to work. There was not even a single hour of rest,” says Ajmer Singh. Three months ago, Ajmer Singh was lucky enough to be freed by labour activists. He earns 60-70 rupees a day now, working on a daily basis in farms. The minimum daily wage rate in Punjab is 97 rupees. But still Ajmer Singh is grateful for his recently-acquired freedom.

According to an estimate, there are at least on lakh workers in Punjab who are bonded labourers. Actually, these are contractual labourers who get caught in the debt trap and end up as bonded labourers. In Punjab, there is an increasing trend of hiring agricultural workers on a contractual basis, where they get an advanced payment of 12,000-18,000 rupees for the entire year. The poor workers end up borrowing small amounts for needs such as health care. The interest rate for such loans is a high as 60 percent per annum. As a result, the debt trap continues for years, sometimes passing on from one generation to another. In most of the cases, the other members of the family also get stuck.

Hameer Kaur was recently rescued from one such trap from her landlord’s house in Dindholi Kalan in Sangrur district. For 35 years, she was forced to work in the house of her landlord, which included domestic work and cleaning of cattle sheds and taking away dung. Her mother-in-law had taken a loan of 2,000 rupees from the landlord. The landlord, apart from making Hameer Kaur work for 35 years, forced her to bring her daughter-in-law also for work. This practice is well established throughout Punjab where generations inherit the family’s debt and work in the households of the moneylenders at very low wages to pay it off. “It is a never ending circle,” says Harbhagwan Singh, a labour activist, working in the Sangrur district.

According to a study conducted recently by the Sociology department of Punjab University, the worst cases of bonded labour in Punjab are found in the Malwa belt, which includes Bhatinda, Sangrur and Mansa districts. Most of these labourers are Scheduled castes, who hold only 2.34 percent of the land under cultivation in the entire state. There have been cases where the moneylending farmers have taken the houses of these labourers since there is no land to annex. Their livestock is also taken away and they end up living in open spaces or in community places like gurudwaras. “In most of such cases, the labourer’s family is too scared to go back. Even when we assure them that we will reclaim their houses for them, some of them just refuse out of fear,” says Bhagwant Singh Samaon, state secretary of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha.

The landlords have also devised another method to enslave landless labourers. They make labourers addicts of Bukki (Poppy Husk). “After consuming the drug, the labourers become oblivious to fatigue and work indefatigably in the farms of their landlords,” says Harbhagwan.
Janata Singh of Mansa’s Makha village was fed this drug regularly by his landlords. He worked day and night in their fields, while his wife worked worked at the landlord’s house. “They would give me a break of few hours on Gurupurab. For the rest of the time, throughout the year, I worked in a dazed state in their fields. I even slept in their fields,” says Janata Singh. “I would come home by midnight and by 4 am, they expected me back, for work in the cowsheds. I was deprived of sleep for years. I would fall asleep while cleaning the dung and then they hurled abuses at me,” says his wife.

“We know of cases where the labourers are given poppy husk as wages. The landlord often boils it along with a cup of tea and once the labourer is addicted, he is given large doses, the cost of which is deducted from his wages,” says Bhagwant.
Kala Singh was also fed Bukki by his landlords, while making him work in their fields. One day, while spraying pesticide, he got poisoned by it and had to be hospitalized. Kala Singh alleges that this made his landlords so angry that they got him arrested by the Police in a case of theft. “My landlord came drunk to my house and beat me up, while the Police looked on,” says Kala Singh.

There are many instances when such beatings turn fatal. 22-year-old Jarnail Singh of Khadiyal village in Sangrur district was allegedly beaten to death by his two landlords in November this year after he failed to turn up for work. His family members say that he was down with fever. According to them, Jarnail Singh’s landlords forcibly took him, as he lay feverish on his bed, to work in the fields. “A few hours later, they came home, telling us that Jarnail Singh had been poisoned while spraying pesticide in the fields. His landlords offered us one lakh rupees, urging us not to send his body for postmortem,” alleges a family member. After labour activists staged a dharna, the Police finally arrested the two accused on November 30.

Assembly elections are due in Punjab early next year and currently, the Punjab Chief Minister is busy touring the state, portraying it as a prosperous state where every household is able to dole out sarson da saag and makki ki roti for guests. The time has come now to look behind the facade of green revolution and ensure equal economic and social equations for all. Otherwise it would seem that the government itself is high on the husk of power.

(This report first appeared in The Sunday Indian).

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Punjab: A Bihar in Making?

In Punjab’s Malwa region, upper caste landlords are creating ‘Ranvir Senas’ in response to the growing Dalit assertion.

The first telltale signs of the growing class divide in Punjab are evident in the office of the CPI-ML in the Mansa district. In the courtyard, many Nihang Sikhs, dressed in their traditional attire, are listening to their first discourse on Marx.
All of them are lower castes. “We have told them that instead of fighting for Gurudwaras, they must fight for their own lot,” says Bhagwant Singh Samaon, a CPI-ML activist.

A few miles away, a caste cauldron is simmering in the Bhurj-Jabbar village. Groups of upper-caste Jat landlords stand outside their pucca houses, waiting for news from the court. Seven Jat boys from the village stand trial for attacking and badly mutilating Bant Singh, a 40-year-old Dalit, in January this year. He lost his two arms and a leg in the attack.
The news finally arrives in the village. For 3.5 hours, in front of the judge, Bant Singh narrated the sequence of the attack on him and identified his attackers. The final judgement of this case, as per Bant Singh’s lawyer, is expected by December 25.

“Our boys have been falsely implicated in the case,” says Sukhwinder Kaur, whose two sons are among the accused. A former village sarpanch, Sukhwinder Kaur’s husband is the current sarpanch from the Congress party. In the courtyard, the eldest son Yadavinder Singh’s three children are playing hide and seek. Holding her younger son’s photograph in her hands, she asks: “Does he look like a murderer? He was about to get engaged.”
On a string cot, in front of her, sits Amrik Singh, whose two sons have also been arrested in the case. “It is all being done at the behest of the liberation guys (CPI-ML activists). They are trying to mobilize Dalits against us. They are poisoning their minds,” he says. Ask him about the attack and he goes silent for a while and then whispers, “ It is not an act against Dalits. It is a case of personal enemity. Bant Singh had a series of fights with our boys. And some of them hit him back.” How many of them? “Only four, I swear. Three of them are innocent. They have been dragged into this.” And does those four include his sons? Another bout of silence. And then another whisper. “Yes, my younger son.”

As Bhurj-Jabbar waits to explode, upper caste landlords are increasingly taking cudgels against the formidable Dalit assertion. In Khadiyal village of the neighbouring Sangrur district, Jat landlords took out armed processions in an apparent show of strength, after the death of a lower caste labourer, Jarnail Singh, allegedly at the hands of his upper caste employers, on November 2. The labourers, led by the activists of the CPI-ML, staged a Dharna in front of the DSP’s office, urging him to arrest the perpetrators of the crime. After this incident, the Jats have made announcements through the Gurudwara loudspeaker, warning Dalits not to venture in their fields. “Their aim is to annex our lands; we are not against Dalits but they should not become a puppet in somebody else’s hands,” says sarpanch Harbans Singh, who is spearheading the agitation against the Dalits.

Similar armed rallies have been taken out elsewhere too. In October, Landlords took out a procession, carrying their licensed arms, under the banner of their newly-formed organization, Kisan Mazdoor Vyapari union. “The government is scared of Dalits. We will have to deal with them ourselves,” the leaders of the union are believed to have declared.

In Raipur village, in August, landlords came out in huge numbers after labour activists tried to lay siege over a piece of land which, they allege, had been illegally acquired by a landlord. In a meeting, the upper caste sarpanch appealed to other landlords to take out their weapons and come out in the form of a rally on August 28.
The labour activists staged a dharna outside the DC’s office in Mansa, demanding that the administration take action against the landlords. Finally, a day before the rally, the administration seized all the licensed weapons, thus nullifying the rally. “They are trying to create a Ranvir Sena in Punjab,” says Sukhdarshan Singh Natt, a veteran leftist (In red turban).

“A line has been created between the bigger farmers and the labourers after the Bant Singh attack,” says farmer leader, Raldu Singh. “It is not a caste war; it is the rich versus the poor,” he adds. But it remains a fact that almost all big farmers in Punjab are upper castes and all the local labourers are Dalits; most of them landless. Punjab has the highest number of Dalits in the country – almost one-third of the total population. So ultimately everything boils down to caste.
Nobody can swear this more than Bant Singh himself. “Being a lower caste, they expected me to keep to myself. But I would raise my voice everytime they committed any wrong. I got their ration depot cancelled and I was not even dependent on them since I raised pigs for a living instead of working in their fields. They did this to me in order to send a message. But it has boomeranged,” says Bant Singh, as he is being carried back to the hospital, from the court.

After the arrest of the accused in the Bant Singh case, landlords in a number of villages decided to boycott Dalit labourers. They were barred from working in the fields and were even prohibited from entering them. Most of these labourers have no access to toilets and thus depend on the fields for relieving themselves. It was only after the adminstration’s intervention that the boycott was called off.
“But it still continues in some villages; our men in villages are getting threats that they will be finished off,” says Kamaljeet Singh, a former Robotics engineer, who is now a CPI-ML full-timer (standing behind in maroon jacket with his fellow comrades).

After this boycott, a large number of labourers got mobilised. “When we gave a call for a meeting, we were surprised to see them turning out in huge numbers. We were not expecting this,” says Natt. “The credit for this goes to the sacrifice of Bant Singh,” he adds.

In Bhurj-Jabber, all eyes are now set upon the court judgement. “In his latest statement, Bant Singh has even named sarpanch Jaswant Singh as an accused. His two sons are already under arrest. The Jats will revolt against this injustice,” says a farmer.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, Bant Singh’s second daughter wipes the sweat on her father’s forehead. Since the incident, she has been away from her home, at her aunt’s house. “I am scared to go back, but I miss my home,” she says, with a faint smile on her lips. Considering what the court judgement may be and the consequences thereafter, her home-coming seems unlikely as of now.

(An edited version of this story first appeared in The Sunday Indian).

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pratibha's remarriage?

The number of farmers committing suicide in Vidarbha since June 2005 has risen upto 1,136. In November alone, this year, 91 farmers have committed suicide.

This morning, a farmer tried to commit suicide by consuming pesticide in the Yavatmal district. His condition is reported to be very critical. In his suicide note, Rameshwar Annaji Kuchankar has blamed the Maharashtra Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister for bringing disaster to the Vidarbha region. His suicide note, released by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti reads:
I don't know how to continue living. I have taken a loan of 15,000 rupees. The Government says that the price of cotton will not be hiked. Since I have plunged into losses, I am ending my life. My mother and father should not be harrassed. Chief Minister, please give us the correct price for our cotton. Deputy CM, RR Patil, fix the rate at 3,000 rupees otherwise more suicides will happpen. Pratibha, please get remarried; I am sorry, I am leaving you alone.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The scarecrows of Kolezari

The village of Kolezari in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district is a sample of government’s short-sightedness and administrative apathy.

The board at the entrance of village Kolezari declares that the village is free from open defecation. Yet this small but significant achievement could not lure Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Kolezari when he came to visit Vidarbha in July this year. “Five helipads had been constructed at various points in the village to facilitate the PM’s visit, but the state government conspired to cancel his visit to our village,” says a villager. This is the village which is at the epicenter of protests against the state government.

It was at the entrance of Kolezari on May 8 that Gosawi Pawar, a 52-year-old farmer committed suicide by consuming pesticide. A day later, on May 9, his son and daughter were to get married. His relatives say that he was under extreme pressure to buy presents for the marriage ceremonies. He owed an amount of 36,000 rupees to the bank and 90,000 rupees to the money-lender. “He was very restless for fifteen days. And then he just left, only to be brought back by the villagers as a corpse,” says his son. The villagers then pooled in money to get his children married the next day.

The villagers had prepared a complete file of grievances, which they hoped to hand over to the Prime Minister for redressal. Villagers allege that a few days before the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to the village, a few men from the state intelligence came to the village with a hidden camera to guage the people’s mood. When they reported the villagers’ anger, the state government decided to bypass the village. On the day of Singh’s visit, a widow, whose husband had died in a road accident, was presented in front of the PM at the Yavatmal town, as Gosawi’s widow, allege the villagers.

One of the letters, addressed to the Prime Minister that never reached him, reads: It is said that a Tehsildar and Talathi are friends of an agriculturist; however this is not true. These individuals have become corrupt and hardly visit the village. Whenever a farmer requests the Talathi for 7/12 extraction (revenue record) of his land, which is made freely available to farmer, he demands money. Such is the sorry state of the affairs at the village level. “Who will complain?,” says an old farmer, “for that, one has to go to the Agricultural officer, who sits in Kalam, 50 kilometers away. That means one has to have 100 rupees in his pocket. And who knows if even that will solve the problem.”

Arvind Lal Singare, one of the educated men of the village, points to a board near a handpump, that was put a few days before the PM’s visit. It informed the villagers that the water from the handpump was not fit for drinking as it was contaminated with fluoride.

“The handpump came into existence three years ago. Imagine we were drinking water contaminated with excessive fluoride and nobody bothered to tell us,” says Singare. Now there is one handpump at the extreme end of the village. “There is always a line in front of the handpump. I have to wake up at 3.30 am to collect two pitchers of water,” says a woman.

Almost every villager (around 350) has got Chikungunya this year. The nearest Health centre is nine kilometers away. “When I went there a month ago, the doctor gave me four tablets and asked me to get lost,” says a farmer. No wonder, most of the villagers went to a private doctor, who is six kilometers away. “He has become very rich,” a farmer refers to the private doctor, “there are times when he puts a patient on two bottles of saline water at the same time.”

“No one comes here. No rain, no Collector, no Prime Minister,” says a farmer, laughingly, “ I will tell you why. Because we are scarecrows. Scarecrows of Kolezari.” Some of the young men laugh with him. In times like these, laughter is a rare commodity. For who knows, when will the next suicide take place. And more importantly, who will commit the next suicide?

Also see: Interview with activist Kishore Tiwari and this.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Heads I win, tails you lose

As farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra continue to be driven to suicide, it is the sarkari babus who are really benefitting from the relief package announced by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A report from Ground Zero.

Even Gandhigiri has failed miserably in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. As a group of farmers in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district washes the feet of a bank manager – to coax him into granting more loans – 45-year-old Kowdu Ukunda Parchake is being laid into his grave, in village Daaba. A tribal farmer, Parchake ended his life by consuming pesticide when his other family members were not at home; a pesticide that ironically cost him 3,000 rupees a litre. Villagers have assembled outside their mud settlement, where Parchake’s widow Savitri sits silently, her tears making two dirty arrays over her cheeks, down to her neck.

Parchake’s story has elements very similar to 111 other farmers of the region, who decided to end their lives in October. And to 1,101 of those who chose to bid a silent farewell to this world since June, 2005. Parchake was a loan defaulter, for 11,400 rupees that he had secured from a bank, and he had further borrowed an unknown amount of money from a private money-lender. He was under pressure to get his daughter, who had attained the age of eighteen, married. The cotton crop he had sown on his 3-acre land had failed, and as the Minimum Support Price of cotton fixed by the government dwindled to 1,750 rupees a quintal last year, he had lost all hope.

It is easy to blame multinationals or foreign powers for the suffering of Vidarbha, but one visit across the region makes it clear that the suicides by farmers are a result of the mess created by the government. The policies introduced by the government, activists working in this region allege, are inspired by economists and agricultural experts who never venture out of their air-conditioned environs. The cotton crop is about to be sold in the market, and the administration is now distributing pesticides to the farmers. A litre of pesticide that costs the government 1,700 rupees is sold off by most of these farmers for 200 rupees. During times when there is not even food to be offered to children, even 200 rupees mean a lot.

“Look at this,” Munna Bolenvar of village Hevyura points at a sack of gram seeds, “The government offered it to us, claiming that they were providing it to us at a 50 percent subsidized rate of 18 rupees a kilo. We went to the market and found that the same seeds, from the Mahabeej company, are available at 18 rupees a kilo. My brother-in-law lives in Andhra Pradesh, and I procured seeds from the same company, at 10 rupees a kilo from there.”

Everywhere in the region, the BT cotton has been affected with the deadly Lalya disease, which hits the crop so fast that by the time the farmer realizes it, the crop is reduced to shreds.

“The government beat drums about the quality of BT cotton. Right from the Union Agricultural Minister, Sharad Pawar, the government swore that this new variety would change our lives. They even roped that Marathi film actor, Nana Patekar, to trap us. Look how they have changed our lives,” says 70-year-old Nagarao.

“The non-BT cotton variety would bear flowers at least twice a season. But this BT cotton has ruined our lives. The moment the disease strikes the crop, we are forced to buy costly pesticides which can cost 10,000 rupees a litre and still the crop will not give the desired yield,” rues another farmer.

The Prime Minister’s rehabilitation packages, meant for the six worst-affected districts of the region, hardly reach any farmers. The packages are for the Yavatmal, Akola, Amravati, Buldhana, Wardha and Washim districts. They are meant to offer waivers of interest worth 712 crore rupees on bank loans, and extension of the period for repayment by three to five years for loans of 1,296 crore rupees.

A new breed of middlemen have come into being, since the Prime Minister declared the 3,750-crore packages. Thakur Sangrachaure, a farmer from village Kolezari, had borrowed an amount of 20,000 rupees from a bank. After the PM’s visit, a middleman arranged to pay his loan back to enable him to receive a fresh loan. After the middleman paid the amount to the bank, Sangrachaure received a new loan of 25,000 rupees. From this amount, the middleman deducted his original 20,000 rupees plus 2,000 rupees commission. Finally, Sangrachaure was left with a mere 3,000 rupees and moreover, he now owned 25,000 rupees to the bank. “This is happening in connivance with the bank officials. The manager has a share in the commission,” allege farmers. There is no way a farmer can put such little money to use to rescue his crop.

“So he ends up purchasing an item like television since it is a matter of prestige among villagers,” says Bhimrao, an activist.

“Is this the package they are talking about?” a farmer tells us, as he shows us a water pump. The pump, bearing the name of Vijay Motor Pump, was offered to farmers under one of the PM’s packages. For a period of three years, the government would offer farmers pesticides and other agricultural equipment worth 25,000 rupees. For this pump, a farmer was made to pay 4,500 rupees; the government claimed that it would pay the rest of 10,000 rupees directly to the company. “But we found that the same pump was available in the market at a price of 6,000 rupees. So who is cheating us? The government itself,” says Bolenvar.

Singh also proposed measures like horticulture and fishery, to diversify farmers’ income. The farmers collective of village Hevyura submitted a proposal for diary farming to the District Collector more than two months back. But they have yet to hear from him.

The Prime Minister also sanctioned 2,177 crore rupees for 523 irrigation projects; most are on hold, due to financial and management constraints. Out of 60 crore rupees meant to be spent on building 3,000 check dams this year, the state government has released only 7 crore rupees so far. Vidarbha has poor irrigation facilities; moreover, water charges in Maharashtra are the highest in the country.

In Vidarbha, farmers do not have easy access to cooperative and bank loans. Institutional loans disbursed to farmers in Vidarbha are as low as 8 per cent of the total of all loans, compared to 80 per cent in western Maharashtra . “It is a vicious circle,” says journalist Jaideeep Hardikar, “When farmers don’t get loans from the banks, they approach the money-lender, who charges interest rates as high as 200 percent per annum.” Two-thirds of Vidarbha’s farmers are loan defaulters. “It is almost 100 percent,” claims an activist.

Farmers across Vidarbha say that they cannot do away with money-lenders. “Suppose I fall ill and need money immediately. Do you think I will get an instant loan from the bank? The bank will never give me money. The sahukar (money-lender) will,” says a farmer. The banks may not have money for farming or health emergencies, but they surely have two-wheeler loans. Activists say they are aware of cases where a bank has personally delivered motorcycles to farmers who did not even known how to ride a cycle. As a result, it is a common sight across Vidarbha, to see motorcycles parked outsides homes who may not have even have a morsel of food.

Have the farmers ever thought of growing food crops instead of cotton? “Yes, we have,” says Dev Raj Sheda from Karanji village of Pandharkawada Tehsil, “We have grown jowar. But just a month ago, jowar was 800 rupees a quintal. Now it is less than 400 rupees a quintal.”

So, is offering packages a solution? No, say farmers in unison. “Just give us a correct price for our cotton. If not 3,000 rupees, give us at least 2,500 rupees a quintal,” says Paras Ram of Saikar village.

“There is nobody as miserable in India as Vidarbha farmers,” declares Kishore Tiwari of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, “In America, the cotton farmers get a subsidy of 14,000 crore rupees. The Indian ‘Shehanshahs’ (Kings) are acting on behalf of the supreme Shehanshah of the world, George Bush.”

Besides better crops and pricing, another important step to stop suicides would be to bring private money-lenders under some sort of regulation. “If one Harshad Mehta would result in SEBI, then why are so many deaths not waking up the Government from its slumber,” asks Tiwari.

While the farmers are battling weather and debt, the illness chikungunya is spreading its tentacles. In the absence of government medical facilities, almost 80 percent of those who suffered from the disease went to private doctors. As a result, the farmers fell further into the debt trap. The nearest health centre from village Hevyura is 10 kilometres away. “I took a relative of mine, suffering from chikungunya, to the government rungnalaya (health centre) in Pandharkawada, but instead of treating him immediately, the doctor was taking a stroll outside, while listening to music on a Walkman. When after repeated requests he did not budge, I beat him up,” says Munna Bolenvar.

The most disturbing aspect in the region is that tribal farmers have been increasingly committing suicide, for the past two years. “Until two years ago, a tribal suicide was unheard of. No matter what happens, a tribal resident will stick to his land. But now, even they are ending their lives,” says Hardikar.

If Chandrakant Baprao Ji Mule had shouted from his home in, say Delhi or Mumbai, on April 1, people would have thought that he was trying to play a prank with them on April Fool’s Day. But that afternoon, when Mule’s wife, Rekha and his brother, Prahlad heard that cry, their hearts sank immediately. Even before they could react, Mule, a farmer from Saikar village, appeared from his room, engulfed in flames. His brother tried to douse the flames with a bucket of water, but it was too late.

Mule had suffered almost 100 percent burns. The same night, he died in the hospital, leaving behind two children. “He never talked about the fact that he owed one lakh rupees to the bank and an unknown amount to the money-lender. He was an owner of 15 acres of land and had suffered heavy losses for the past two years,” says his brother.

Nobody can identify a farmer who is about to commit a suicide. Almost every farmer has the potential of committing suicide. Prem Das is the owner of 22 acres of land. He spent 1.5 lakh rupees on a harvest of cotton and is hopeful of gaining a profit of 1 lakh rupees. But he owes 3 lakh rupees to a money-lender, for which he has to pay an interest of 1.5 lakh rupees. “I better not think about it, otherwise I will also have to drink Spintor (a pesticide),” he says, as he manages to give a faint smile.

“Why do you drink so much alcohol?” a woman from an NGO recently asked a farmer in Wardha district.

“Because I don’t have the courage to consume pesticide, madam,” he is reported to have replied bluntly.

The government had also roped in members of the Art of Living in few districts to teach farmers how to meditate. “Have they never heard of this: Bhookhe paet na hoye bhajan Gopala (prayers cannot be said over empty stomachs)?” wonders a farmer from Amravati district.

Girls in the region have now become wary of getting married to men who are farmers. “I have seen the condition in my own house since my father is a farmer. I don’t want to marry a farmer and turn into a widow in few months,” whispers a girl.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists are flocking to the area, hoping to report the ‘true image’ of a ‘developing country’ that boasts being a nuclear power. A French journalist asks a farmer’s widow: When was the last time you had meals with your husband in a three-star or a five-star hotel? The poor woman looks at the blonde lady, until the journalist’s Indian resource person drags her away.

Sources say they have seen a few men in the region who talk about ‘dying and killing for a cause’. This is confirmed by a farmer in Pandharkawada, who says that he has seen ‘Annas’ (elder brothers, as men from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh are referred to) talking to villagers. Not very far away from the scene, a farmer picks up from his field a few red leaves of the cotton crop, affected by Lalya (the red disease). “The red colour is ruining our lives, but in the end, we might have to join the Red like our brothers in Andhra Pradesh,” he mutters thoughtfully. He is referring to the Naxalites. Had the government heard this, would it have been worried? Looking at the way the government is handling the Naxalite problem, it seems unlikely.

(This report appeared as a part of the cover story of The Sunday Indian)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

India Social Forum, 2006

India Social Forum

'India Shining' in Khairlanji

Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange cannot sing. His wife or daughter were not models, walking over the ramps in fashion shows. In fact, nobody from the Bhotmanges, a Dalit family living in Khairlanji village of Maharashtra’s Bhandara District, could speak his mind on Umrao Jaan in front of titillating television mikes. Probably, that is why what happened to the family never made headlines. But what 50-year-old Bhaiyyalal witnessed on September 29 is something that will continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.

It was towards the evening when a mob of upper-caste landlords descended upon the Bhotmange household. In their ramshackle hut, Bhaiyyalal’s wife, 44-year-old Surekha was preparing evening meals while her bright 18-year-old daughter Priyanka studied in one corner. Surekha’s sons, Roshan, 23, and Sudhir, 21, sat nearby. As the landlords dragged the mother, her daughter and two sons outside, Bhaiyyalal was about to reach his home. But when he heard the cries of his family, he halted and hid behind a hut.

Surekha and Priyanka were stripped naked and taken to the village chaupal, 500 meters away. For almost next two hours, they were beaten up, bitten and raped by the mob. One of them was even strapped to a bullock cart. After more than an hour of rape and plunder of their bodies, Surekha and Priyanka died. Eye-witnesses have told the Police that sticks were pushed into their private parts, and even after they died, some people continued to rape their bodies. Roshan, who was blind, and his brother were beaten up and stabbed to death. Their bodies were thrown at various spots in the villages. The next afternoon the Police fished Priyanka’s body out from a canal nearby.

“ I was too scared; I was almost paralysed,” says Bhaiyyalal, who has now fled to another village, fearing that the upper-caste landlords may even kill him, too. “Nobody, except a single woman from the village, tried to stop the mob. The lone woman was silenced by the men with a slap,” recalls Bhaiyyalal.

For almost a decade, the Bhotmanges had tried to lodge a Police complaint. A portion of their 5-acre land had been grabbed by the upper-caste landlords of the village. Even after that, they would not let the Bhotmange family live in peace with the remaining land. So for years, the Bhotmanges had to tolerate incidents of tractors mowing down the standing crops in their fields. The Police chose not to pay any attention to their grievances. The upper-caste landlords even tried to prove that Bhaiyyalal’s wife, 44-year-old Surekha had an affair with a Police Patil (honorary Policeman) in neighbouring Dhusala village, Siddharth Gajbhiye, who was actually her cousin.

On September 3, the landlords beat up Siddharth so badly that he had to be admitted in a hospital. Fearing for his life, Siddharth’s younger brother got him admitted in a hospital which is 100 kilometres away. The hospital, realizing that it was a medico-legal case, informed the local Police, who in turn informed their counterparts in Khairlanji. This time, the Police was forced to lodge a case and 14 arrests were made. Despite repeated threats, Surekha identified the culprits in the identification parade. All of them were released on bail on September 29. The same evening, they decided to take revenge.

Siddharth Gajbhiye called up the local Police station, six kilometers away, at 6.15 pm. One head constable visited the spot at 8.30 pm, but did not register a report. The next day, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange went to the Police station to file a report, but he was not taken seriously by the SHO. It was much later that an FIR was lodged. Both policemen have been suspended for not responding, and a case has been registered against the head constable.

The postmortem report, intriguingly, said that the two women were not raped. “Doctors were managed and the police bribed.” This is what Surekha’s nephew has alleged, in a report submitted to a social organization. “Everyone in Kherlanji knows what happened with my aunt and cousins, everyone was a witness to the heinous crime,” he has said in his statement. After pressure from social activists, the bodies were exhumed, and another autopsy was conducted. But that too has not been able to establish rape. Some of the perpetrators of crime are believed to be politically well-connected. Social activists are now demanding the arrest of the doctor who conducted the first postmortem.

“It was a gory dance of death, the height of brutality,” says the district Superintendent of Police, Suresh Sagar. He agrees that the Police did not act well in time. He also clarifies that Surekha did not have any illicit relationship with Siddharth Gajbhiye. The Police have arrested 44 people so far, including 2 women. Police sources now say that some of them have confessed to the crime.

Priyanka was a bright student and was preparing for her HSC. She was also a NCC cadet and wanted to join the armed forces. “Had it been a case of rape or murder of a model like Jessica Lal, the media would have gone overboard. But in this case, not even the National Commission for Women has reacted so far,” says Dr. Rupa Kulkarni, a Nagpur-based social activist. “This is because Dalits are considered worthless in this country,” she adds.

After the protests against the incident turned violent, the State government has finally woken up from its deep slumber. Maharashtra's Chief Minister visited the village and offered a government job to Bhaiyyalal. But Bhaiyyalal declined the offer, saying that all he wants is the guilty to get severe punishment. The question is: Will justice be delivered?

(I covered this incident during my recent visit to Nagpur. This article has appeared in the recent issue of The Sunday Indian)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Chess and Nirvana: A travel along the Ganges

One October afternoon, in 1994, a young, bespectacled man arrived at a roadside resort on the Delhi-Dehradun highway. He was accompanied by a tourist from Britain. The man carried a copy of Plato, and most of the times he talked about chess and the virtues of arm-wrestling.

The British tourist had been invited by the man to accompany him to a visit to his ancestral village. But a few hours after they had lunch at the resort, the Brit found himself kidnapped on gun-point and dumped in a dark room in Ghaziabad town, neigbouring Delhi. It was by sheer chance that a Police party, investigating a case of cycle theft, crossed way with the kidnappers and the tourist was rescued.

Twelve years later, I am at the Cheetal Grand resort, trying to Imagine that I am sitting on the same chair on which sat Omar Sheikh, the bespectacled man, who would grab headlines, worldwide, years later, for the gruesome murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. It is an October afternoon and instead of chess, I have in mind a long journey, which I have planned to undertake with a friend of mine.

Earlier that day, we left Delhi, on an Enfield motorcycle. The plan is to take a night halt at the holy town of Rishikesh, where flows the river Ganges, and then proceed to Srinagar town in Garhwal. We have no further concrete plans. The aim is to just let things happen. Like Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, we just want to explore as much as we can and bask in the glory of the miles covered. Rishikesh is 225 kilometres from Delhi and Cheetal Grand resort is approximately mid way. After a breakfast of Masala Dosa and a lemonade, we proceed on to Rishikesh.

It is towards late afternoon when we reach Rishikesh after crossing Haridwar. The market is bustling with foreigners, mostly from Israel, who have come to Rishikesh in search of Nirvana. Some of them have been staying here for months now, in cheap hotels and paying-guest accommodations. No wonder, I see a restaurant carrying this message: Israeli, Japanese, Nepal-special Chowmein (whatever that means), Italian, Continental cuisine served here. Next to the restaurant is a barber’s shop, where a foreigner is getting his head tonsured. We check in a hotel on the banks of the Ganges. Tariff: Four hundred rupees. I am in a mood to complete this journey in a shoe string budget.

Inside the hotel room, the first thing I do is hide the remote control of the Television that looks down at us from a pedestal. I don’t want my companion to succumb to the temptation of watching the prime-time news bulletin in the night. After a bath in the freezing cold water, we just lie down on the bed to comfort our bottoms. My friend, you see, has not cushioned the seat of his motorcycle.

The sun is setting and we venture out. After gulping down a bottle of water, we cross the Ram Jhula. There are two rope bridges in Rishikesh named after the Hindu God Rama and his brother Lakshman. We cross to the other side to witness the evening Aarti (prayers). Every morning and evening, there is a prayer session on the banks of the Ganges. We can hear it from a distance – the sound of drums and cymbals. Devotees have gathered over the stairs of a temple and they are signing hymns in praise of the Ganges and Krishna. Young boys, wearing saffron dhotis, who have vowed to a life of celibacy, are singing passionately. Between prayers, they raise their hands in unison to offer their salutations to God. Many tourists form a part of the prayer group.

Earthen lamps in small baskets made of leaves are put in the river waters. The lamps bedazzle the water around them and after they have traversed till some distance, they topple in the water as it gains momentum. The water is in a hurry. There are people waiting for it. Waiting to be absolved of their sins.

There are many book stores and music shops selling stuff on Yoga, spirituality and Hindu way of life. On our way back, I can hear an English artist chanting Hare Rama, Hare Krishna in her album. We are going to have food in Chotti wala Baba Restaurant. It is very famous among tourists in Rishikesh. In the evening, a man dressed as a Sadhu sits outside the restaurant on a bridegroom’s chair. It is a gimmick to attract tourists and it also serves as a signboard. Not that you need them in a small place like Rishikesh.

Next morning, we take off for Srinagar, which is 105 kilometres from Rishikesh. The plains give way to hills, as we find ourselves under the shadow of the Himalyas. I am about to experience a very strong déjà vu.

To be continued…

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nonsense offerings of Peace

Drink tea from a bone-china saucer with a slurp. Walk on a highway, whistling, hands in pockets. Listen to a Mohammed Rafi song, in darkness, lying on a cold marble floor. Hear a church bell ringing in the hills. Sing to oneself, the song from the film Khamoshi: Pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do koi naam na do (Let love remain love, don’t put a name to it). Make an omlette and name it Temptation. Smell the scent of the earth when it is about to rain. Dance in front of the mirror in the washroom of the pub. Search for a round pebble and offer it space on your writing table. Keep a flower to dry between the folds of a book. Wash your white shirt with your own hands. Run for no reason. Sow a seed. Watch a burning pyre. Sharpen a pencil. Throw a coin from a bridge into a river. Climb stairs with hands held behind the back. Talk to yourself when no one is watching. Look at the palm of your right hand the first thing when you wake up in the morning. Rub some cream in your elbows. Imagine your belly to be a drum and try sending a coded message to Phantom. Imagine peace to be a piece of cake and eat it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Missing Man: Part 4

There are so many strange things in life. Like the noise that you hear occasionally in your head. Or the fact that the only thing you forget in the pocket of your trousers, most of the times, is movie tickets. Or that very few people use the first urinal in a public toilet. Or that some people sleep so much in a bus that you almost think that they have passed away.

In the street where Srikant lived, there would come, every Thursday, a man whose face was painted to make him look like a monkey. He wore tiny bells in his ankles and carried a whip in his hand. He would be accompanied by a woman, probably his wife, who carried a small drum around her neck. On the beats of the drum, the monkey-man would contrive dance steps and at the same time whip himself. After every whip, he sought alms from people who passed by. Srikant watched this spectacle secretly from behind the muslin curtains of his room.

After he would have gone, Srikant often equated life with the monkey-man’s act. Every moment was a whip, he thought, for which one got one breath in charity. The trick for living life was to remain oblivious to moments, or at least pretend to. When you began to feel every moment, the pain would surface, like the mark of a whiplash, making it difficult to live. The thing with Srikant was that he felt every moment intensely. As a result, he would get flogged with existence.

The bus had been moving for more than six hours and Srikant did not know where it was going. It didn’t matter as long as he could maintain his flight. He knew that somewhere Sneha would be in a similar flight, the wings of which were shaped in mind.

There was some movement beside him and Srikant found that the old man had woken up. He was taking out something from his bag.

‘Where is this bus going?’ Srikant asked him.

The old man turned his head slowly towards Srikant as if he could not believe what he had heard just now.

‘Where are you going, Sir?’, the man asked back.

Srikant let a weak smile and replied, ‘Nowhere in particular. So where is this bus going?’

The old man sighed and said, ‘I am going to Rudraprayag, where the mighty rivers of our land meet, Sir. The bus is also going there. That would be the last stop.’

‘What takes you to Rudraprayag?’, Srikant asked.

The man waited for a moment or two. He felt something in his bag and then replied, ‘Actually, Sir, it was at Rudraprayag, fifty years ago, that I met a girl who would later become my wife. She is no more now and I can feel that my body has also set itself in the mode of an invisible transition. Before the transition is complete, I want to visit those places where my wife and I spent some time together. Before dying she had expressed a desire that her bangles be thrown at the spot where the rivers met. So I have brought them along.’

He took the bangles partially out of the bag and put them back.

Srikant thought of the first instance when he had met Sneha. That meeting was also strange. Strange like the noise in his head.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Missing Man (Parts 2 & 3)

Part 1
He woke up from his alcohol-induced sleep. He looked at the watch. It was 7.39 am. A straight line of sunlight sieved through two folds of curtains. On the floor lay a heap of books. A book mark peeped from a Bulgarian novel. He suddenly had this urge to disappear.

When he was a child, Srikant would lay hiding amid the bushes behind his house, deriving pleasure from controlling his bowels. He would imagine to have in his possession an invisible space ship that would carry him wherever he wanted. The ship could even enter a room through its keyhole.

When he grew up he wished he were an orphan. He wished that he were brought up by an old man who would have died later, leaving him alone in this world, bereft of any relation. Then he would live life as he wanted to. Imagine what fun it would be to live a life where you had no duty towards anyone including yourself. One day, you would just not want to go back to where you lived. You would not have to call anyone and offer an explanation. You could aimlessly sit in a bus that took you anywhere. You could come back after a week or a month or a year and decide to make love to a young prostitute. You could choose to stay naked inside your house and not venture out for, say, ten days. You could just shut yourself up in your bathroom and not come out till evening. You could decide to eat nothing for two days. Then eat only a banana for two days. And then eat platefuls of rice and chicken curry for two days. And then lift a flower vase and break it against a wall. And then dance over the glass shreds, leaving blood imprints all over the house. And then go and watch a burning pyre on the banks of the river Yamuna. And then put a Nirgun Bhajan sung by Kumar Gandharva on your player and lie on the cold marble floor. And sing aloud with him. And then cry like he did once, in the middle of a busy street, while thinking about the despondency of art. And futility of life.

There was a loud thud. The newspaper had landed in the balcony. But Srikant had no desire to get up. He wanted to disappear. This was a week before he went missing.

The diesel fumes of the bus woke him up. His head had been banging subtly with the glass pane of the window but he had managed to keep his eyes shut. A folk song played, probably on a radio set, in the rear of the bus. Srikant looked at his watch. He was a few hundred miles away from his home now. They must be looking for him – his family members – Srikant thought. But inside the State Roadways bus, no one recognised him.

The bus negotiated a curve and Srikant imagined it to skid off the narrow road into the overwhelming river below. All the passengers would die and their bloated corpses would be found miles down, playing footsie with the iron gates of a dam built over the river. No one would come to claim his body and it would lay, for roughly a week, in the freezing drawer of a mortuary. Then he would be cremated (cremated because they would see that his penis was not circumcised and they always assumed such unclaimed body, as per their convenience, to be of a Hindu). Moreover, they would find no identification papers on his body.

Someone snored beside him. Srikant looked at the old man. His head dangled as if he was replying in affirmation to a question. But even in his sleep, the old man was clutching hard a gunny bag. After some time, his head came sideways to rest over Srikant’s shoulder. Srikant could feel the man’s breath making a warm contact with his neck. He looked outside from the window.

The night had taken over from the evening and countless bulbs shone like fireflies in the valley below. Srikant concentrated on one bulb and imagined what could be happening inside the house in its light. May be a young couple was copulating. Or may be a drunkard was beating his wife. Or may be a mother was singing a lullaby to her sleepy child. Or may be a restless man was writing poetry. Or may be someone cried behind that light.

Srikant didn’t know why, but he remembered a few verses of an Urdu poet:

Ghar ki tameer chahe jaisi ho
Isme rone ki kucch jagah rakhna
Jism mein phelne laga hai shehr

Apni tanhaiyan bacha rakhna

(No matter how you construct a home
Make sure you leave some space for crying
The city is spreading in the body
Make sure you save your solitude)

What did a man seek ultimately, Srikant thought. Was it not that some unknown happiness remained, like residue, while one was unhappy? And what of the unhappiness, that invisible ounce, pervading like the smell of damp moisture, during moments of joy? And what about the point when a man felt neither joy nor sorrow? Did he seek something beyond that point? If yes, what?

If Sneha was around, Srikant thought, she would have loved to gather answers for these questions as one gathered berries. But was she not doing that already? May be, one of those lights in the valley below was actually shining over her, as she lay on a bed, feeling the cut on her arm. And may be she had found some answers.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Srinagar, Jammu, Delhi

For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live: Theodor Adorno

Two days ago I saw
My land like a tourist
On the Discovery channel

My father shouted and
Told my niece:
Look that is the Dal lake
Where lotus stems come from

In his shikara
Gulla carried
Bunches of Narcissus
Which we would decorate
In a brass plate
Along with a pen
And a coin to
Welcome the spring

Now springs are spent
In colouring rusted coolers
To enable them to
Provide succour in heat

Relatives from Jammu
Arrive every few months
Bringing with them
Souvenirs of my land
Green saag with roots
And local sesame bread

My father and mother
Arrived in Delhi
A few years ago
From Jammu

And now when
He refers to Jammu
My father says:
Back in Srinagar

And then he stops
When he realises
That Srinagar was
What he left
Sixteen years ago

And then for days
He keeps silent
He keeps on staring
At the ceiling
He also does not
Then read newspapers

Friday, August 25, 2006

Monaco Biscuits

You have retained
Your habit of making
Caricatures when you
Do not bother
To listen to
What a speaker
Has to say

The free strands
Of your hair
Look like Vincent’s
Corn-field and
Your worn-out
Canvas shoes
Like his canvas

You wear
A silver ring
On the little finger
Of your right hand
Through which I desire
To pass like a
Pashmina shawl

When you entered
Yesterday into
The array of my vision
You passed your
First glance at me
How I wished
I had a beard

I also heard
You telling your
Friend that you
Were hungry
I could have fed you
My liver instead of
Those Monaco biscuits

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In search of a poet

The train passes through lush green fields and small towns with walls painted with advertisements of quacks and tantriks, who claim to have an antidote for everything, ranging from bad jobs to failed love. I really do not know why I am on this train, bound for Lucknow. But gradually I figure out. Back home, in Delhi, the Internet is not working and the service provider is behaving like Dickensian Uriah Heep. My desktop gets restarted after every fifteen minutes. A local courier has not reached even after three days have passed. The electricity is playing truant. I feel like joining the Gestapo. Instead, I run away to Lucknow.

I have been to Lucknow many times before and if you really ask me, I have never ventured anywhere barring an old bookstore in Hazratganj market that has in offing a decent collection of Hindi literature. But this time I know something which was previously unknown to me. Just few metres away from the book store is an old hotel that has been renovated recently and turned into a huge banquet hall. But on its rooftop it carries a burden of history from which it cannot be absolved. It is the Capoor Hotel.

Raaste mein ruk ke dam le lun, meri aadat nahi
Lautkar waapas chala jaun, meri fitrat nahi
Aur koi hamnawa mil jaaye, ye kismat nahi
Eiy Gam-e-dil kya karun
Eiy vehshat-e-dil kya karun
(That I should stop and take a breather is not my habit
That I should turn back and return is not my nature
That I should meet a co-traveller, I am not that lucky
What do I do, my sorrow-filled heart?
What do I do, my grieving heart?)

These lines were written by Asrarul Haq Majaaz, who is known as the Keats of Urdu poetry. He was very famous among poetry-lovers. Ismat Chughtai recounts that girls used to take out lottery in order to decide who among them would marry Majaaz. They used to sleep with his photograph under their pillow.

Majaaz was a progressive poet who believed in the equality of women. He wrote:

Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bohot hi khoob hai lekin
Tu is aanchal se ek parcham bana leti to accha tha
(The scarf on your head is fine
Only if you could turn it into a flag)

Many of Majaaz’s friends made money by writing film lyrics. Majaaz never belonged there. So he spent most of his life in taverns of Lucknow. It is said that after drinking, Majaaz would wander on the streets of Lucknow. His fans would take him home, make him drink more and make him recite his poetry till he collapsed. Then they would ask a servant to drop him on a bench in a park or in a railway station.

It was on a chilly December night in 1955 that Majaaz was taken by some of his fans to the rooftop of Capoor Hotel where they left him alone after drinking till midnight. In the morning he was found unconscious and was then rushed to a hospital where the doctors said that he had died because of severe cold which had damaged his brain. He was 44.

Bohot mushkil hai duniya ko sanwaarna
Teri zulfon ka pecho-kham nahi hai
(It is very difficult to simplify this world
It is not the tangle of your tresses)

What else is there to write? About Lucknow? About anything else?

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