Is This The Man You Are Voting For?

There are exactly four paved roads in Juhapura, Ahmedabad.  The first is a national highway which cuts through the area, the second was constructed so trucks carrying solid waste could pass through the area, the third when the President of India visited a riot affected window house in the neighbourhood and the fourth was made after a Gujarat High Court intervention. Spread over 5 kilometers, the areas houses about 500,000 people. There are no sewage or water connections or a garbage management system.

It’s not a poor neighbourhood of Ahmedabad city. Judges, senior police and administrative officials, businessmen, small traders, working class people live cheek by jowl. No one in the rest of the city rents or sells them homes or commercial spaces.

There are no government buildings there – hospitals, secondary schools, ration shops. There is one government establishment – a police station. In 2011, a branch of a government bank opened here for the first time. Only because the central government came out with a rule that all minority areas must have banking facilities. Juhapura is a Muslim ghetto. It became one after the horrific 2002 riots. At that time the population of Juhapura was about 200,000. Within months it doubled.

It doesn’t matter that four feet of water enters homes during monsoon. Then the sanitary waste seeps into the borewells  meant for drinking water. That people fall ill every year. It just means that here – hopefully there will be safety in numbers, that at least there would be a chance to survive.

 

***

After months of using all my contacts and sources, having unanswered emails, phone calls unreturned or phone banged down in fear, I have finally found someone who is willing to talk about what happened in 2002. And when I get there – he is afraid to talk on-camera.

He starts talking about the Toofan of 1985. Toofan? Riot. And the Toofan of 1992-93 and then 2002. In 1985, he and the Hindu boys used to play cricket together on a vast piece of empty land between the mixed neighbourhood of Juhapura and the nearby largely Hindu area, ironically called the Unity Ground. And after the riots, a small wall dividing the area started extending into the field. In 1992, it extended further and now post-2002 Juhapura is a walled city. He calls the wall – border. At first I am uncomfortable at the use of the terminology.

But when I see the wall I am taken aback. It is a 30 feet tall structure and has rolled barbed-wire on top of it. Structure-wise I have seen smaller India-Pakistan borders than that. He turns to look at me and says quietly, “the wall is not a physical structure anymore. It is now built into the hearts of the people.” We continue to traverse the edge of the border. Organized, shiny apartment blocks and CCTVs peek from behind the Hindu area. On this side – garbage and human waste flood the streets. Because the Municipal Corporation refuses to build anything. Symbolically, a rotting, rusty ‘Work in Progress’ sign stands near the boundary wall.

I am appalled and disgusted in turns.

I ask him, “Can you go to the other side?” In a resigned voice, he tells me, “Not from this neighbourhood.” And then he adds, “at least at the Wagah border there is a gate.” There are small children playing cricket in one corner. Aged 10 and below, they were born and raised here. Division along communal lines wasn’t taught to them but it pervades through everything around them. They have learnt quickly that they are second class citizens of this country. A boy looks at my notebook and our camera, and mockingly says, “Apparently you are now in Pakistan.”

Someone asks me, “How can you tell 25 crore citizens of this country that we don’t belong here? That this is not our land.” I don’t have any answers.

 

***

“Are you still afraid?” I ask.

They smile at me. Like I am naive to even ask that question. “One fears death. And we have seen everything.” The elderly, the women, the young – all know their life is cheap.

A man tells me how in the first three days of riots VHP and Bajrang Dal ‘activists’, accompanied by the police would enter the area. Wave after wave would shout, “Kato, kato, miya ko kato.” (Butcher, butcher, butcher the Muslims). I cannot verify if he is exaggerating the words but the others surrounding him nod in agreement of the language used in those days.

Next day, a little girl who lives in the middle of Juhapura is accompanying us to the border for the first time. Before reaching there I ask her how does she imagine the border to be. Innocently she tells me, “I think it will be like the desert in the Kutch.” She talks nineteen to a dozen on the way, telling me about her favourite subject in school and how she loves horses and dogs and cats. When we reach the border she is suddenly very quiet. If she didn’t feel like an ‘other’ before, I am afraid she feels she is one now. And I wonder if it is too soon.

When a riot survivor describes me about the horror of seeing his son being hacked to death by a mob, I can’t look him in the eye. Instead I scribble notes in my notebook. “Should Modi be the next Prime Minister of India?” I ask. “No.No.No…he can’t be. We already live in enough fear,” he answers alarmed at that thought.

And I wonder is this the man people are voting for? Is alienating a section of the society the ‘Gujarat Model of Development’?

***

 

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Girls Aloud

It’s a sunny morning as I make my way through the city of Lucknow. The wide roads and half built flyovers give way to narrow lanes on the outskirts of the city. A meta-city awaits me in a slum hugging one edge of the city.

There are vegetable vendors, cheap clothes shops, grocery stores, tailors, chai wala, samose wala, people going for their daily wage jobs, even a school and a college and a few wedding tents. There are no open spaces. Most houses are unfinished brick structures, a work in progress. The richer people have painted houses and the work designation of the male member is proudly painted outside – mostly police officers who have earned enough (by dubious manners probably) to build their imposing oasis in the midst of the mess which exists.

There are no electricity poles, no sewage lines and no visible signs of pucca roads in many places. Post-monsoon water and garbage stagnate every few feet and herds of mosquitoes sit nonchalantly on them until pigs take a dive in the water, forcing them to fly away. Goats, stray dogs, cows, rats and flies complete the animal kingdom.

There is a Japanese saying translated in English, which says – a nail that sticks out will be hammered it. Everything here is hammered, squished, battered and forced to live in the space where every breath is a mixture cooking oil, dust, sewage, and the perennial male gaze and comments. Class, caste, religion and gender intersect here, giving it an uneasy flavour of diversity.

There are lots of men on the streets. A few women are part of the public milieu with their heads covered if they are Hindu and wearing a burka if they are Muslim. It’s heartening to see young girls going to school. I wonder if things are really as bad as I have heard. The next few days are spent unraveling the web of my questions. I think I know the answers. I have travelled so much in this country. I have covered so many stories. I know how it works. But I am so very wrong. And I don’t know it yet.

The slum is a thriving centre of local economy but most importantly it has its own set of social rules. Rules if not followed can lead to the collapse of the system which exists. Men go to out to work and women stay in the house.

The lanes become narrower as our car jostles for space. Inching closer to our destination, we are brought to a rude stop by someone digging in the middle of the road, trying to repair a mud pathway which has become sludgy. We have to cover the rest of the distance on foot.

Two young girls meet us so they can accompany us to our destination. They have a bright smile and confidently say their hellos. We exchange pleasantries as we walk past a cow shed, a small shop which a TV blaring out loud, an open ground. We hop over a two feet wall and enter a small house. I am greeted by a young woman, her excited dog, her shy mother and a man and a woman who are sitting in a corner, narrating a story.

The room is bare except a bed with a bright yellow bedcover, diagonally opposite it is a rickety old table, a dirty mirror propped on it. A few certificates and trophies adorn the wall and the table. On close examination they give a ‘certificate of excellence’ to the courageous work of the Red Brigade and its twenty five year old leader Usha Vishwakarma.

As the dark curtain flaps away, I listen to a woman discuss her woes – successful with an entrepreneurial spirit, she is a figure of jealousy within the menfolk of her village community. The upper caste men unable to accept how can a mere lower caste woman complete a university degree, work and earn enough to support her family. She has been threatened with gang-rape along with her teenage daughter. There are menacing letters given to her community members which talk about how the upper caste policemen who will look the other way when she is raped and/or murdered.

As someone who has had equal access to education and opportunity at work – unquestioned – I am horrified to hear her story. I have heard stories of the Uttar Pradesh badlands and the defined gender and caste roles which exist there. I have heard of harsh punishments for not towing the line. I have heard of machismo that every ‘man’ is supposed to assert. I have never believed that stereotypes can be true. Surely, these are just stories which our pop culture and cinema talk about. An aberration which the media reports about.

I am obviously wrong.

And then I am wrong again. Because sitting next to her is her husband, supportive of her, trying to find a way to help her. Not all men are caricatures of the stereotypes. Usha finds ways to help her – holding a gender sensitization camp in her village, teaching the women and girls self-defense, teaching them ways to stand up instead of cowering in fear.

But this is a band-aid approach to a problem rooted into the system, woven into the fabric of the society. There are no easy ways to fix it.

Later Usha and I have a chat. She talks about a time, almost seven years ago when she was eighteen. To support her carpenter father, the eldest of four children, she had decided to augment the family income by working. She started to work with a local NGO, teaching under-privileged children when one day a male teacher tried to rape her. She fought back and ran away.

The next one year was a blur, spent dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The social conditioning meant that she believed that she was responsible for the sexual assault, that she had asked for it. Approaching the local police would have meant dealing with questions like what was she wearing and why was she with a man. She didn’t tell her family either – the shame would make her unmarriageable. Dealing with the trauma on her own, at times she would break down, at others filled with rage. Slowly she began to confide in her friends. In turn they told her their stories of sexual advances, harassment and rape.

As the day progresses, we walk outside and she shows me the bushes and the open ground near her house. Many kuccha houses have been built on the edges but hers used to be the only house at the end of the maidan about four years ago. Many young girls would meet their lovers there at dusk.

Growing up on a diet of Bollywood films romantic notions of love like meeting of the eyes, sending love letters and walking past the boy one fancies is what love means for these girls, forbidden to interact with the opposite sex. As rules go, good girls stay at home or go out accompanied by a male member of the house and come back home to help with the household chores. Lover’s trysts are for bad girls who are game for anything.

Before the other houses were built, twice girls were rescued by Usha or her mother when in their eagerness to meet ‘boyfriends’ they were pounced upon by the boyfriend and his friends. Crying, shaking with fear, both girls were lucky enough to spot her house and flee there. The men, waiting outside Usha’s home so they could rape them. In neither of the cases, the girls reported the crime to police or told their families. And Usha says there is no data to confirm if others were violated in the same spot.

The men who mostly live there are daily wage labourers. They work for a few days or weeks on a job, earn enough to survive and drink. Then they idle away their time in frustration, jobless, standing around tea stalls, gossiping and passing comments as women and girls walk past. These socially acceptable behaviour patterns are cues for younger men and boys to behave in the same manner. Emboldened and influenced by the men around them and their favourite bollywood films – they sing sexually suggestive songs as girls walk past them. And if they really want to have some fun they grab her hand or snatch her scarf.

Usha tells me that the ground was a popular location to play cricket during the day. To access the main road, or visit the shop or exit the slums, one had to pass through the ground. With groups of men standing there the whole day, Usha’s ears would sting with sexually explicit remarks, wolf whistles and kissing sounds, undressing with eyes – in short street sexual harassment. She and other women complained to the police, but the officers asked them to change their routes or timings because boys were born to ‘eve tease’ girls.

Angry and helpless, Usha saw all around her that young girls and women were suffering in silence while unprovoked sexual violence continued in the slum. The last straw probably was when Usha’s one bedroom house expanded to two rooms and beyond, a jealous neighbour tried to assault her younger sisters.

And then enough was enough.

Usha, her friends and sisters decided on a novel approach – they started to verbally confront the boys. Taken aback at the insolence of the girls, the boys didn’t know how to react. Some retreated but others continued. The girls gave them a few chances and then visited their houses and talk to the parents, persuading them to talk to their sons. Some people responded with anger, labeling the girls as prostitutes for being outside their homes. But other parents spoke to their sons.

Eventually a smaller group of men remained in the ground, challenging the girls to try and avoid harassment. Being pushed in the corner for too long, the girls channelized their anger and beat the boys. The public shaming was enough for most to never come back there or look the girls in the eye. However, some filed police complaints against Usha for the assault and a slew of false cases.

But something began to change. The girls started to believe that they weren’t lesser than the boys, that they deserved the freedom on the streets as much as the boys did, that they deserved to be treated with respect, that their body belonged to them.

With the other girls Usha decided to organize a formal group. All the members were girls who had faced some form of sexual violence. They would wear black and red outfits, black for protest and red for danger. As they would walk down the streets of the slums, men would taunt, “Here comes the Red Brigade.” And that’s how the group was christened – by reclaiming the words from a bunch of harassers.

As more and more vulnerable girls started coming for help, the group expanded into learning and teaching gender sensitization. Someone did a story in a local newspaper and help poured in form of a martial arts trainer who started teaching the group self-defence. A silent revolution began at the homes of these girls as they began to question patriarchal norms and the culture of victim blaming.

Then the horrific December 16 incident happened.

A group of fifteen girls became a group of hundred. And even though core members remain between fifteen and twenty, many volunteers walk through the doors of Usha’s home, determined to change the society that colludes to keep them quiet.

National and international press has flocked to her home to try and understand why these girls have to take extreme measures – confronting and beating men. Is it the need of the hour? Is it symptomatic of a bigger problem?

The slum represents what is wrong with the society – men who believe sexual violence is the ultimate power, the victim who would rather keep quiet, the society which at one end is steeped into traditional values and at the other changing too fast, the lack of consent, the deficiency of the justice system.

On my second day there, Usha impassively points out to the house where a one month old girl was raped, another where a five year old and another where a twelve year old were raped. She spent days at the police station and the families’ homes pleading them to press charges, following up with lawyers and doctors. Having made the mistake of keeping quiet once, she knows the price of silence is much higher than the price of standing up to violence.

Outside in the slum when I ask people about the Red Brigade, men instantly clam up feigning ignorance about the group. They refuse to acknowledge the Brigade’s existence but when the girls walk past, they avert their gaze, knowing fully well that unacceptable behaviour will be punished. All the men I interview grudgingly tell me that now women want to step out of homes – for work and education. They are clearly unhappy with the way these girls are changing the rules about not bowing down, demanding equal presence in the public space and the consent of their bodies. They believe that the old system was far better.

By the third day, I have stopped noticing the flies, the pigs, the smell of garbage and stagnant water. I see girls walking nonchalantly on the roads, I see a woman manning a snack shop. And in Usha’s house the girls are getting ready for the monthly protests – to mark each month of the death anniversary of the Delhi gang-rape victim. The girls are painting posters, giggling, gossiping, their camaraderie and warmth palpable. Jokingly, they tell me that the boys of the neighbourhood are too afraid to date them, lest they get beaten up.

I ask them about school and their dreams. All of them have fought at home to continue their education, not so they can get good husbands, so they can be lawyers, activists, teachers and leaders.

The stirrings of a revolution are just beginning.

For Usha the fight continues everyday – to raise collective voices against sexual violence, to make sure that the girls complete education, that they are not forced to marry at a younger age, that the police registers complaints of sexual assault, that more women and men can be empowered through gender sensitization.

Wise beyond her age, she talks about reaching out to men, to make them equal partners in the fight. The feminist movement, according to her, cannot be restricted to women. She is not fighting for “women’s issues” but for equality and dignity of life. In her eyes, the balance of the society is restored only when both men and women stand together, not when the oppressed decide that one day they will become oppressors. She regrets that sometimes they are forced to beat men. As the sun is setting on a winter evening, slowly  she says she will be the happiest when one day there won’t be a need to have a group like the Red Brigade.

Till that time it looks like the nail which was battered and beaten into submitting to the pressure of the society’s structure is now starting to stick out, somehow managing to break free and vowing to pierce through. And in the slum of Naubasta Khurd, men are learning this the hard way.

———

The essay is based on a news story that I covered recently.

 

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The Boat of Life

We are all travellers

In the boat of life

 

Adrift, marooned, anchored

In different faces of time

 

Sometimes we row furiously

At times at leisure

 

And peer at other boats

To see if they’ve found a shore

 

In stormy seas we hold on

Or fight to stay on course

 

Battered, bruised we soldier on

There are oceans to conquer, you see

 

Sometimes the sun shines

And sparkles on the water

 

Blue, green, yellow, gold

The colours melt into one another

 

Reverie broken, eyes searching

For another pair of arms for the oars

 

Maybe there’ll be more seas to explore

Or a bay which becomes home

 

But one thing is for sure,

we are all travellers in this boat

 

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84 Minutes

Those 84 minutes of hell

That you endured

Screaming, Shouting

Fighting, Pleading

 

You know you woke

A nation which was asleep

You were a ray of light

Just like your name

 

My fearless sister

Are you at peace today?

Did you look down from Heaven

And smile a little bit

 

Di d you see the people

Cheering outside the courts

And did you see the fire

Which was lit by you

 

Are you happy that

Those animals are caged

That they will spend their

Rest of the days, waiting to die

 

It will be hell for them

And you can watch them

With some satisfaction

I suppose

 

I hope your 84 minutes

Of agony and distress

Be 84,000 for them

Oh fearless one, rest in peace now

 

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My Mumbai Colleague

My Mumbai Colleague

Like you,

I am a journalist

 

Like you,

I visit many places

For work

 

Some lonely

Some crowded

Some in the evening

 

Like you

I was an intern

When I was 22

 

Tasting the new success

After a college education

Exploring my world

 

Like you

I was a professional

Doing my job

 

Like you

If my assignment was in the mills

I would have gone

 

Like you

I would have never thought

I would be violated on my job

 

Fight, my sister

Be brave

For all of us

 

Don’t listen to anyone

Who says

That you were

 

In the wrong place

At the wrong time

Or in the wrong clothes

 

It wasn’t you

My Mumbai colleague

It’s them

 

They were in the wrong place

At the wrong time

With the wrong intentions

 

It’s not your shame

It’s not your izzat

It’s not your family’s honour

 

That they took

Who hunted

In a pack

 

It’s their’s

They should be ashamed

Of being worse than animals

 

They assumed

That they were

Powerful

 

But they are wrong

You are a woman

Shakti Chandi Durga

 

Rise, my sister

In your fight

I hold your hand

 

Like the girl on

December 16

Jolt us out

 

Of apathy

Of desensitization

Of nothing-can’t-be-done attitude

 

Fight the fight

For all of us

My Mumbai Colleague

 

Work

Laugh

Live

 

Live

My Mumbai Colleague

So they know

 

They don’t have

Any power

Over you

 

Live

Because it’s your life

To live

—–

Poetry written for this fellow journalist

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Death

Death is black

It is quick

It is slow

 

What does it taste like?

It’s like the salty tears

Which never stop flowing

 

It tastes like black soyabean

Which hungry children

Once ate

 

It’s in the mud

Which covers the graves

Of small bodies

 

It’s in the guttural cries

Of a wailing mother

And a stoic father

 

It smells like school books

Whose pages haven’t been turned

New, unused forever

 

It’s in an empty classroom

Where human life ceases to exist

And stray dogs sleep

 

It’s in a village

Which mourns the loss

Of its future

 

It’s in the empty playground

Where six friends once played

Now buried together

 

It’s in the eyes of a grandfather

It’s in the heart of a mother

And in the silence of a sister who cheated it

 

It’s in the green fields

And blue skies

And a pond which reflects everything

 

It’s in the apathy

And desensitization

Of the hordes who die, anyway

 

And the – oh, those poor children

So sad they died

It was somewhere in India, right?

 

———-

One month after the Mid Day Meal tragedy where 23 children died.

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Yamuna

I walked past you today

Oh, pregnant river

 

You were in the earth

Where I used to tread

 

Sinuously swirling

You called out to me

 

Enchanted I stopped

To take a look

 

Swollen, full

You almost seduced me

 

In the yonder

I saw your mate

 

I decided to hurry

Past you

 

But you linger on

In my memory

 

Oh wretched one

I know your games

 

I belong to you

I know that, don’t you

 

But I am not ready

To be a part of you

 

One fine day

When the sun will shine

 

I will tread gently

On your loving waters

 

Unafraid that your hungry belly

Will consume me

 

You dangerous one

You will want to drown me

 

But I will be ready

To swim instead

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