Wednesday, July 2, 2014

‘Achhe din yahan kabhi nahi aayenge’

Two months ago, in the sultry humid heat of Mumbai’s Kamathipura lanes—infamous for its ‘red light’ area—I stood on a rickety narrow lane waiting for the campaign rally of former Congress MP Milind Deora to arrive. Election fever was high, and amid the fast building ‘Modi fever’, candidates from all parties were thrusting in a little extra effort to win voters’ heart before the polling day hit.
Anticipation was bubbling in my blood, I was curious to see how politicians interacted with sex workers. The lane on which I stood had dim yellow Chinese lights adorning 100 by 100 square feet rooms stacked like tiny matchboxes on either side of the road.
Just then, a woman, in her mid-thirties, stepped out of her door. With a ragged deep-blue lose nightgown, she looked anything unlike a sex worker. Thwarting the common notion of sex workers wearing bright red lipstick, gajra in their hair and vibrant sequin laced saris, she simply stood with her thick wavy hair tied up in a bun looking evidently desperate for a man to step into her room in exchange of a few hundred rupees.
She looked at me with calculating eyes. With laptop bag hanging on my right shoulder, a notepad in my hand and anxious stares pressing in from all around, she knew I was in a foreign land.
“This is not a place safe enough to stand for long, people will think wrong about you. What are you doing here?” she asked me. “I am here to cover the election rally, I am a journalist” I replied, to which she loudly laughed and said, “Madam, politicians don’t come to this part of Kamathipura. They will visit the residential areas. They don’t have the balls to stop and talk to us.”
Intrigued, I decided to talk more to her—Manisha, was her name. Her husband had kicked the bucket several years ago after which she shifted to Mumbai from Delhi to sustain her young boy. With no money in hand, distant relatives not interested in supporting her, and no source of employment (she was uneducated), entering the sex trade was the only option left for her.
“I am in this business for over eight years now. It’s not really that tough, Men enter our room for ten minutes and I earn my bread and butter. My boy can go to a school to study,” she explained the logic quite simply. While she earned in thousands few years back when their business was booming, she confided that with policemen doing far too many rounds now, truck drivers and waiters (her usual clients) are scared to enter the lanes. Her income has shrunk to a few hundred now.
I glanced at her room. Through a few inches gap between the curtains, I could make out three other women sitting inside. They take turns to occupy the room, Manisha explained. Whichever woman a man chooses to sleep with gets to take over the room for the required time during which the others wait outside. “Cost of renting a room is very high,” said Manisha, who, despite the hardships and frequent shame she is subjected to by the cops, looked steel faced and self dependent.
The world here was different. Unlike other assembly pockets where politicians could touch topics of water, shelter or inflation, these lanes had a realm of issues which were uncomfortably out of a politician’s gambit to probe into. The women here wanted a fair share of respect for them and their kids, no politician could buy that for them.
To top it all, the red light area in Kamathipura is majorly a population comprising migratory crowd. Women from the north have shifted here in search of employment. Therefore with no voter’s card, they hold no importance for several politicians. Their number is insignificant to create a dent in the votes.
A week was left before the polling day and not even a single politician had stopped by to interact with these women. “They don’t care whether we live or die. And we don’t care who wins or loses,” said Salma, another sex worker who joined us shortly afterwards. She was close to fourties, and I knew she had only handful years left before she would hit menopause and lose her clientele. “We have several issues but we don’t depend on politicians to solve them. We find our own way out,” she said.
On ground, these women don’t have a government for their well-being and despite all this they don’t criticize like we do. “Roads are horrible, the food prices are soaring, there is no cap on inflation….blah blah,” is what I hear everywhere. Over here, there is just one issue-- “We don’t have money to survive”—to which they have found a solution on their own.
Sex work is something they have accepted gracefully.
“I know neither BJP nor Congress will do anything for us. We have to earn on our own. In the last so many years, no politician has stopped by and talked to us. Even if they enter this lane during their rally, they purposely keep their heads straight, smile and walk away,” said Manisha. I was surprised to know that these women had never heard of the struggling Aam Aadmi Party, let alone knowing who its candidate from South Mumbai was.
The cops show no mercy either. Every alternate day, they round up men and women and demand Rs 2,000 from each. While sex workers in Kamathipura earn Rs 800 per day on an average, shelling off Rs 2,000 is beyond their capacity.
I decided to come back again and check on them post elections.

Now, a month after BJP has strongly taken over the center, I called up Manisha. As confident as ever, she said, “I told you nothing will change for us even if the government changes. Achhe din yahan kabhi nahi aayenge.
And I knew she was right. This job-less sect has been conveniently forgotten and left to fend on its own.
(Pictures courtesy: Prashant Nadkar, The Indian Express)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The week that was full of Tejpal and Aarushi

Too much news to digest in the past one week. While the nation has been greedily laying its eyes on the two yet most sensational cases ever- Tarun Tejpal sexual assault and Aarushi-Hemraj double murder- a major news(at least in my eyes) was sadly ignored.
More about the ‘major’ news later. First, let’s see how the media has focused all its energies on the Tejpal and Aarushi case.
While I do not consider rape a trivial matter, I personally feel a crime committed by Tehelka’s editor has received more limelight than its fair share. In Mumbai alone, there were two different rape cases reported last week. One was of a minor girl’s rape in an auto rickshaw and second was a rape case registered by daughter against her father, who assaulted her for 11 long years.  Are these two cases not horrifying enough? Yet, they took a back seat because a spiced-up rape case which involved politics and media had snatched all the heat.
Tarun Tejpal, if convicted, has committed a grave crime and his actions have already caused multiple effects on Tehelka and on the employees working there. The media pressure has resulted in resignation of managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. However, engulfing ourselves just around one rape case is a bit uncalled for.
The second breaking news is of course of the life imprisonment sentenced to Dr Rajesh Talwar and his wife Nupur Talwar for the cold-blooded murder of their daughter Aarushi. The case has bewildered everyone since 2008. While there are several other unsolved murder cases in our country, this one swiped away everyone’s attention for two reasons- failure on the part of CBI to establish a clear crime scene sooner and the perplexing nature of the crime.
After the judgment, newspapers and news channels discussed the 26 circumstantial evidences that pointed towards the duo and debated whether justice had indeed been delivered. Various possible angles and theories were drawn in public forums. Media devoured so much into the case that something as personal as Aarushi’s character and her relationship with her parents was scrutinized like public assets.
News distorted and blown up- is not what journalism is about.
 While these two cases were flashing on every news channel, an incident of mid-day meal was pushed on the back seat. A whopping 493 kids fell ill after consuming mid-day meal in one of Mumbai’s school on October 25. While the nature of illness was not severe, it was dreadful to find out how government fund for children is being misused.
This is the first time such a large number has been affected due to mid-day meal. Maharashtra, currently, has the maximum cases of illnesses reported due to mid-day meal since 2004 in the country.
While the government has sanctioned  INR25 per child for one day’s meal, these students were given baked cupcakes worth 7-10 rupees. You may wonder about the remaining amount? My guess- either the school or the NGO appointed to serve the food has pocketed the difference.
It is a shame that we are failing to provide quality food to children. The Bihar fiasco(death of 23 odd kids) is still fresh, and this incident just shows how much ignorance this scheme is soaked in.
When I met the students and they discussed how unhygienic the meals were, my brain started fuming. According to guidelines of mid-day meal, baked items or chikki are not permitted in meals. The school or the NGO was not only breaching the guidelines, it was in fact preparing a recipe for malnourishment. Forget provision of hard-cooked meal, these kids were given either a bun-maska or chivda or a single banana for lunch. With no one to monitor, these kids were deprived of basic nutrients essential for their growth.
I wonder why an issue of such a big magnitude failed to capture media’s attention- because it concerned low-profile school going children or because there was no masala in it or simply because it was not a multi-crore scam?
In my limited understanding, a mid-day meal affecting almost 500 children is of equal importance. And issues of the voiceless need to be reported with greater focus because the ones having a voice will any how make sure they are getting heard. However, the poor will continue to suffer in silence. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

You think plastic is useless, don’t you?

My new flat looks grand. With a promising fresh breeze flooding in from large windows that covers the breadth of the whole wall and with excellent ventilation, I almost marvel at my luck when I landed on this tenth floor flat. The ceiling has been artistically done, with a large green (yes green! My landlord has bad colour taste) POP slab ejecting out with hidden lights in them.
Sometimes I sit all by myself at the window sill, and sip my morning tea. That’s when I spotted the maze of blue plastic and rusted black corrugated roofs blocking my view. When one looks straight ahead from my window, one can get a glimpse of bunched haphazard buildings and dark outline of hills at the horizon. However when the gaze shifts downwards, a contrast presents itself- a huge stretch of slum, the roofs of which, as I see now, is adorned with thick blue plastic and discarded pieces of unevenly fixed aluminum sheets (‘patra’ as the locals call it).
The contrast is rigid. And it gets even more rigid during Monsoons.
While I fret over rains pouring and me getting wet, my maid, who lives in a small one room hatchment in the same slum, worries over water spilling inside her tiny cubicle, wetting her lone sets of furniture- a bed and a TV table. Once, she rapidly explained how horrendous her task was to pour water mug-by-mug from inside her house.
“This is the story of every monsoon. Water accumulates after one splash of heavy rain. But we cover our roofs with plastic so at least the leakage reduces,” she confides.
I, for one, have always considered plastic as a ‘hopeless’ commodity. It increases environmental pollution, is non-biodegradable and can be replaced easily with paper bags. However, what I absolutely missed was the irreplaceable use it offers to the poorest of poor people. It acts like a ceiling for them, like cement does for us. These huge plastic sheets serve the purpose of raincoat for them like umbrella does for us.
For slum-dwellers plastic is cheap and efficient. A meter sheet cost them anywhere between 350 to 400 bucks, while a roof made of cement or bricks can easily escalate to thousand of rupees.
A normal raincoat or umbrella starts from 100-150 bucks, but a thin plastic film merely costs 5-10 rupees. Why would they go for a more costly option such as umbrella when they can easily wrap a piece of plastic around them during rains? Their choice is limited-- plastic.
In India, environmentalists protest to ban plastic, with cities like Nainital already banning its use. However, for the lower-income group, environment has no place to stand in the ‘issue-list’ when heavy downpour threatens to float their furniture sets and a long list of monsoon diseases- typhoid, dengue, malaria, cholera, hepatitis, leptospirosis and gastroenteritis- lurk round the corner for two long months.
A quick Google search told me that according to All India Plastics Manufacturers' Association (AIPMA), domestic consumption of plastic has been growing at 10-12% CAGR over the last decade. The plastic processing industry is expected to touch Rs 1.3 trillion (18.9 million tones) by 2015 and increase employment to an estimated 7 million by 2015 from the current 3.5 million-plus people.
So, as futile as this commodity is considered to be, it is one indispensable unit in our country. In 2012, India was the third largest consumer of plastic in the world, that says a lot, isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Five things I hate about Mumbai

Diary of a Frustated Soul!

We all know and approve of the magnanimous pool of opportunities Mumbai throws at you at every nook-n-corner. We also agree that this city has a charm that no other city offers. And we are crazy about the fact that Bollywood and Marine drive are both in this same city! But but but, Mumbai, as impeccable as it is, has some irritating inevitable features that instigate me to just pack my bags and leave this city. Here’s my personal list of 5 things I hate about this city.
Wit the advent of summer, Mumbaikars can well understand the plague of heat and humidity- a deadly combination. I shower, wipe myself clean and step out of the house, and there it starts, tiny beads of sweat treacherously crawling down my cheeks, until a downpour of perspiration starts. No handkerchief or tissue can save you from the horrors Mumbai’s summer has to offer. One can look around and find ocean of faces, all sweating, cursing and walking.
The second thing I hate about Mumbai- Travelling. It takes hours and hours to just reach from one end to another end of the city. And on busy days, you can finish your whole meal at traffic signals! As much as I love the trains, they are still a pain. The combination of humidity, packed local trains, heat and sweat is a nightmare I dread to undertake. And even if you have the luxury to hop in a cab, you still have to walk. Walking is crucial in this city, one just can avoid it. Mumbaikars are used to it, but for new comers, they suddenly have a lot to take in! How can one just walk when the sun’s shining bright and there is sweat threading down your body?
But, the positive side- travelling is cheap and so is food, what is expensive is, any guesses? Yes, housing. And that is on my Hate list number 3. I’ve spent days hunting for affordable flats in South Mumbai, and until now my hunt continued. For a person working on a meager salary, living near Marine Drive is dream that stubbornly refuses to turn true. A small 1BHK can cost you around 50,000-60,000 per month, and that is the starting price. If you fancy getting a fully furnished flat for anything less, forget it!
It is already challenging to settle down in this hectic city, what makes it even more challenging is the sheer population. You go anywhere, walk on any footpath or sit in any restaurant, you will invariably find people all around you. The crowd comes on Hate list number 4. When you walk on Andheri station or in Crawford market, you have to play this game of dodging people. There’ll be crowd filling in from everywhere, and you just have to squeeze your way through them. The population explosion that this city is witnessing is historic! Only Andheri has a population of more than 1 lakh. With more and more people making Mumbai their home every year; infrastructure, sanitation and basic amenities are suffering a set-back.
But, what I really hate about this city is the one emotion that it tickles inside my guts- separation. One has to leave his or her home to be able to carve out a space in this big city. The struggle demands not only long working hours but also alienation from the comfortable life back home. There are tens of thousands of migrants living in Mumbai, people who have left homes to fulfill their dream, people who have come to attain better education and people who have come just in hope of better opportunities. But, as much as I hate to admit, Mumbai has made all such people (including me) stronger by thrusting separation. It has taught me that sacrificing something you gingerly love for something else is a process you can never avoid.
Mumbai, a city that has inspired so many films, has also inspired me in life-changing ways. And as much as I hate this city, I love it for making me the girl I am today- hopelessly independent!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Just a Random thought!

Mumbai. 8 months. Tough life.
Mumbai jitni sakht hai utni hi mazedaar bhi hai’, this catchy phrase from super-hit movies(can’t remember which!) invariably enticed me towards the city. I craved to live independently here, roam about the city, and take time to pamper myself. But when I landed here, all I did was worry—worry about assignments, deadlines, classes, hectic schedule, lack of personal space and absence of mummy-made food. I started disliking the very reasons for which I was here. That stopped me from actually breathing in my moments of freedom. Silly issues engrossed me and it became easier to maintain a straight face rather than just smile.
Indore, my home town, is a quite and lazy city. I wanted action, and Mumbai promised me just that. But when I achieved what I wanted, its value declined considerably. I wanted to go back to the luxurious home, to the caring laps of my mother and the spendthrift arms of my father, but here I was, stuck as ever.
Eight months flew by, and I realize now, I have wasted so much time! My course at Xaviers is coming to a closure and I have no masala fun-filled incidents to flaunt! I want to go back, relive each moment, stroll on Marine Drive, kiss the bright sky, experience the sweaty weather. Alas! Too late!
But, I’m not completely at loss. Mumbai has toughened up the easily maneuvered nature of mine. It has converted me into a stronger shell, difficult to break or manipulate. I lived in a cushioned life with my parents, and Mumbai snatched away all those layers and exposed me to a harsher world. A world where no one bothers to turn around and give you a second look, a world with a mad race and no destination, a world where loneliness can threaten to devour you, but also a world which teaches you to value the minute happy moments in life.
I know now, I can survive anywhere and smile despite facing all the odds. These eight months have taught me the importance of many things, specially the value of my close ones. This was one hell-lot of an experience, but it was all worth it!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mumbai's Nervous System

The constant vibration, the loud clatter, the high-pitched calls, the elbow hit, sometimes the feet stamping, the irrefutable wind blowing, the urge to just fall asleep, the tiredness, the unbearable body odour, the restricted space, and the chhuuk-chhuuk-chhuuk-chhuuk…
Mumbai’s Local Train is an experience everyone dreads to undertake. 
I was a kid when I first saw the local trains. Excitement bubbled inside me like boiled water on stove, I wanted to experience the maddening thrill of chasing a speeding train and climbing into it. That thrill evaporated the moment I experienced it. My love for local trains has reduced to negative in the last seven months. Now it’s a necessity— speed and convenience, that’s it. But I can’t refute the fact that local trains continue to be the nervous system of this magnanimous city. Today, it is responsible for daily commutation of more than 7.24 million people and has the largest passenger density in the whole world.
Have you ever just sat idly(that is if you get a seat!) and observed the insides of a local train? If yes, you know what I’m talking about. If no, well, you are missing something! There is a pool of versatility pouncing on you, literally. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, student or professional, you name it, these trains have it. It has an amazing power of bonding people of all classes together. Marathi, Gujrati, Hindi and English, I hear a mixture of all these languages regularly.
Not only diversity, but locals present a whole range of human mentalities too. In ladies coach, you find these ladies who stubbornly refuse to move even an inch when your station arrives, ladies shouting loudly and gossiping, but sometimes, ladies who readily help you unload your luggage from train too.
But what I’m going to talk here is about the two most interesting elements of local trains- its instant markets and advertorial opportunities. Even in an extremely packed train, brave hawkers squeeze their way in and hang their items in steel holders for display. What is even more fascinating is that women (such shopping freaks they are!) take out time to carefully scrutinize and buy these items. Imagine a very crowded compartment, women sweating, some sitting, and most of them standing. Now imagine those who are standing have their one hand firmly clutched around the metal holders hanging from the top, and with their other hand, which they tactfully squeeze through the crowd, they sift through the items. Not only this, they even manage to bargain and buy it with a satisfied smile. Looking, bargaining and buying, all that in those extremely packed spaces; spaces in which I can’t even breath!
This is just the beginning. Now comes the part about advertorial opportunities. In the inside walls, plastered on ceiling, doors, windows and walls are print advertisements- not the normal ones we get to see on TV or magazines, but some innovative ones. The one I can never forget goes like this:
“Samasya hai to samadhan bhi hai.
Khula challenge 7 ghante me 100% laabh guarantee ke sath, aapki manokaamna 100% purn hogi jaise- naukri, karobaar me laabh, karzmukti, prem vivah, manchahi shaadi, kisi ne kuch khilaya pilaya ho, sautan pareshani, talaak, grah klesh, court matter, filmo me safalta, santaan prapti, lakshmi bandhan, muthkarni. Call Baba Ahmed Khan”
Now that is an advertisement! A poor unemployed fellow will surely try this out. After all ‘7 hours’ sounds so tempting. I was almost on the verge of calling this baba up, just to check whether its’s true! Not only this, there are many more ads. “Earn money at home” or “Join a call center” and the list continues.
 It is amazing how a transportation device has been harnessed to its full capacity in all respects, not only in terms of ads, but also in terms of its space. The local trains display a capacity of maximum 85 passengers in one coach. Once I tried to count, and after counting till 97 I gave up. It was too jammed pack! I realized then, the magnitude of population explosion our country is facing. Every inch is being used up!
And as I sit now, writing my blog in yet another local train (this one is less crowded so I can use my laptop here!), I realize its necessity in Mumbai. People thrive on locals. Mumbai grew exponentially because it had locals to connect even its remotest part. This city would have been just another city, had local trains not spread its nerves in every part of it. What is commendable is the fact that special compartments are allotted for handicapped people. And a cherry on cake-- a policeman stands on guard in ladies coach at night! I sit here alone in the compartment with just another policeman, and I know Western Railways will ensure my safety.
Mumbai will get handicapped without its locals, and so will we!
 The advertisements in trains.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An Untold Story: Face-to-face with Naxalism

It was a chilling January morning, chilling by Mumbai standards, which is usually like a steam boiler all throughout the year. I walked on the dry leaves strewn across the pathway. Panvel’s temperature is, by rule, a few degrees lower than Mumbai. It’s more open, has fresher air, and provides you with a blast of greenery. I was in Nere, a village located about seven kilometers off the main-road. It is a typical village- with kaccha roads leading you to farms, smell of cow dung filling your nostrils, golden-yellow hay-sack piling up every lane, and tanned labourers going about their daily routine in the bright sun.

Amidst all this, under a tree, stood a man who would have otherwise melted into the surroundings had I not heard him say “Naxalites”. A twiglike figure with hunched shoulders and curly hair soaked in oil, he resembled one of those geeky students who are invariably anxious about their upcoming engineering exams.
It would turn out much later that I was wrong.
I went ahead to get a better look. He was in his late twenties. He wore rimmed glasses which he kept pressing between the bridge of his nose. His black almond-shaped eyes reflected innocence and his thin lips spoke cautiously, pronouncing every word with deliberate slowness.
I was informed that he was the guy who would drop me at Panvel station. A little flashback—I had come to Nere with my college to participate in a community service program. Since I had to leave early, I was supposed to take a lift from someone and reach Panvel station. It turned out that this lean man was my helper for the same.
I decided I wanted to get pally with him. I introduced myself and so did he. He was assisting the local doctor who treated leprosy patients in Nere. “Bingo,” I thought. So he is indeed a geek.
I asked, “Did I hear you saying something about Naxals?”
See here’s the thing, the word “Naxals” has always intrigued me. So I could not control my urge to question him!
“Yes. I’m from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.”
“Hey, I’m from its neighbouring state, M.P.! I live in Indore!”
He smiled. “There is quite a difference between the both. I belong to a Naxal-hit area.”

I knew he was right.  The word ‘Naxals’ derives from ‘Naxalbari’, a village in West Bengal from where the Communists Party of India (Marxist) first began their violent uprising. Unfortunately this movement did not limit itself to just that village, it spread like a forest fire. Now it covers Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I have always felt sorry for locals living in that area. I mentioned that fact to him.
“But I had a secure life in Bilaspur,” he said.
That shocked me. Bilaspur is the epicenter for naksalvadi (Naxal) activities. I got even more inquisitive. I asked whether Naxals never bothered them or killed locals as portrayed by the government and media alike. He shook his head, as if out of habit. “Many people have asked me that question,” he said. “Come let’s talk while I’m driving, you have to reach Panvel right?”
I nodded. And we left on his Pulsar—with him driving slowly to facilitate conversation and me clutching the back steel-handle tightly. (PS: I don’t trust men riding bikes!)
On that half-hour ride, he introduced me to the world of Naxals. I unlearned whatever I knew before. Naxals originated when landlords suppressed farmers and forcefully took their land away. It first began as a movement to safeguard their rights. Later, Communist leader Charu Majumdar entered the political arena to get a better hold over government. He even wrote “Historic Eight Documents” which laid down the ideologies of Naxals. Their struggle continued intensively from 1967 to 1975 after which it dwindled due to several causes.
“You know my father told me that Naxals helped in improving the infrastructure of our area,” he said. “They not only taught new farming techniques but even brought development to regions where the government failed to reach us.”
I was amazed. I had heard a little bit about Naxal development, but I had always discarded it as a myth.
“But why do they kill locals now?”
“You’ll be surprised to know. But there’s a conspiracy theory. In the 1970’s the ruling Congress party deployed spies in the Naxal group. There were several elements that started misusing Naxal ideologies and killed tribals. My family believes that the government dumped allegations on Naxals so that they could justify counter-attack on them. It was a pre-conceived plan that Congress played.”
My jaw dropped. I could feel goose-bumps now. He continued to explain how his father was himself a government employee but the Naxals never harmed him. It was incorrect that Naxals killed locals. They just fought for their rights. But when the government used unfair techniques, the Naxals retaliated back with murders and loots. It was then that they lost their aim and started indulging in violence.
“So what is the scene now?” I asked.
“Now, Naxals do not involve themselves in any developmental project.” Even with the wind thrumming strongly in my ears, I could detect a hint of sadness in his tone. He explained that the government paid many villagers to spy on Naxals and transfer information. Since then, Naxals have stopped helping villagers. Now they have grown into a bunch of angry men ready to take revenge. They neither trust anyone nor are they willing to help locals. They feel betrayed and are unsure of everyone. That’s why they have limited themselves to jungles and isolated patches. What began as a fight for the helpless turned into a violent aimless struggle.
He left Bilaspur after completing his graduation in Medical Science. He feels his family is still safe there because he knows that Naxals won’t kill anyone without any cause. The man sitting right in front of me was working hard in Mumbai so that he could earn and go back to Bilaspur to start a hospital. He wanted to get better medical aid for his city. And neither the government nor the Naxals will help him in that.

We reached my destination—Panvel station. I got down, thanked him for the lift and the story that he had told me. He smiled. I realized this man was everything but a geek. He’s about to start his own hospital, how cool is that!
I waved good bye and left. When I had caught my train and was reflecting back about my meeting I realized something. I spent 45 minutes with this man and we did’nt even know each other’s name!
But at least, I learnt something more about the dreaded Naxals. That is-- Don’t dread them, help them.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Of ‘Marriage’ and ‘Singlehood’

We met after exactly four months. Last time I saw her, she looked fresh like a juicy apple, her cheeks glowed and her smile never faded. Now, she had that same rosiness, but there was something about that smile- it looked more tired.

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. I took bath in a hurry and ran to the Marine Lines station with my hair dripping wet. She stood on the main road looking for me. Her eyes pressed into a thin crease as she strained against the sun overhead. Then her eyes fell on me, and she smiled automatically. I walked faster and smiled in response. Her smile had always been infectious. When I reached her, we did not hug or exclaim loudly. We just smiled, exchanged a “hello” and I took her large handbag and we set off walking again, back to my house.
That was our friendship. My childhood friend and me- we never expressed our love for one another, never bought fancy gifts for birthdays, and never remained in close contact like besties do. But, we still shared a bond in which we shared everything the moment we got down together.
Earlier our talks used to be of college, parents, studies, shopping, latest fashion and movies. Mostly we shared our world on either her or my scooty- a vehicle that provided us the time to sit and ride wherever we wanted. This Sunday things were different. She was a married pregnant woman and I was a stressed out college student. We did share everything yet again, but, on my bed and not on my pearl silver scooty.
She is one and a half years older than me. But I never felt any age difference throughout our childhood or adolescence. That age gap only broadened dramatically when she got married in October last year. I realized this the moment we started talking. I asked her about her life and she set off to describe the intricacies of a married life. She lives with her husband and in-laws and is still coping up with the hectic lifestyle that Mumbai presents. Her days are spent doing housework, and when dusk approaches she waits for her husband to return. She has been thinking of doing some job in order to contribute her share in the family’s budget. But with her pregnancy, she knows she has to wait for a long time before she can realize her dream.
Her thin body has been bearing a seedling since four month. This February, she’ll be five months pregnant. I felt weird. My stupid college talks and assignments seemed meager in front of her family plans and pregnancy talks. She spoke about how she had sudden urges to eat chocolates and how sometimes she felt instantaneous hatred towards a food item. “That happens”, she said and I nodded. It all went beyond my level of understanding. I obviously have never tasted such an experience and watching my friend go through it felt as if it’s me whose experiencing the joy of bearing a child.
We spoke for hours about mundane issues and it registered how matured our talks had become. From movies to silly crushes, we have now moved on to another level. Our talks lingered on future job plans and busy lifestyle, pressure on our heads and our efforts to cope up with them, current news and its impact on the society. Who thought two silly girls would grow up to share the contrast that they share? While one is a happy satisfied housewife, the other is a busy diploma student. While one is worried about maintaining the monthly budget, the other is spending carelessly on shopping. While one is about to become a mother, the other is in the process of hunting for a job.
Our lives were so similar previously, now they are poles apart.
But when I think now, I’m glad we still share the same old bond of friendship! I’ve learned lessons from her that no un-married friend could have taught- that is selflessness and devotion to your own family.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Racket

When one watches Slumdog Millionaire, one wonders whether in reality a racket as brutal as child trafficking really exist. The smuggling of young kids, training them to sing bhajans, and then using them to beg on roads makes us question the authenticity of the whole process. May be this is’nt real. But things more gruesome than this are…

When I first stepped in the Cuffe Parade slum, I instantly felt nauseated. Was I sick? No! It was the atrocious stink which filled my nostrils and reached the pit of my stomach that made me want to puke. Even when I was busy trying to control my nausea, I could not help but get surprised by the fact that the people around me- the ‘slum-dwellers’, were absolutely fine with the obnoxious stink that made me sick. Recovering from that initial attack, I moved further into the depths of the slum. A mix of dilapidated shanties and ‘pacca’ houses flanked either side of the ‘kachha’ road. People, specially men kept staring at me with eyeballs ready to pop out any instant. I felt an urgent need to go and grab a stole or ‘chunni’ for myself. Why did I come here? I kept asking myself. If it was not for this assignment I had to do, I would never have come here.
The slum I was roaming in can be fairly categorised as a well-to-do slum. People do not live in extreme poverty here, although you could fairly guess that they do struggle to make their both ends meet. For basic bread and butter one has to work for the whole day and only then can he expect a decent meal. My initial shyness evaporated in about twenty minutes, and then I started my interaction. I was chit-chatting with young boys playing football when my eyes fell on a policeman who was keeping his eyes steadily on the boys. I decided to talk to him. Mohan Bhisai, the officer who has been appointed to look after kids in that lane spoke in a guarded tone, as if not sure how much to reveal. “My senior instructed me to stay here”, he said. “I look after the kids who play here since there have been several kidnappings in the past”, he further added after a little urging from my side. Zapped, I stared back at the kids. Were they even aware of the potential threat they faced in their own locality? The home, the shelter, the protective cocoon, which made them feel so secure, was in fact one of the most dangerous place to live in.
I kept asking other people, since Mr. Bhisai was in no mood to divulge further details. What I gathered was shocking. Young kids, less than six to seven years old were kidnapped and found dead a few days later near the slum. There were two things common in all the missing kids- their dead bodies were invariably discovered on a ground near Lalit building in Cuffe Parade and even more gruesome was the fact that the kidneys of all the corpses were found missing. What was shown in the movie Slumdog Millionaire was nothing in front of this horrifying kidney racket.
Bharat Chauhan, a young banjara, spoke about how his neighbour’s three-year-old daughter was kidnapped and later found dead on the same ground. “Her kidney was missing”, he confirmed. And what he added on was even more horrendous- the girl’s head was chopped off. Such brutalities immediately alerted the Cuffe Parade police and they installed CCTV cameras along with stationing policemen in every lane of the slum. When asked, people talk about such kidnappings with caution, since they have been instructed not to discuss much about it by the police.
I went to the police station to enquire further, since the locals were not giving in much. Jagannath Gaikwad of Cuffe Parade Police station mentioned that the first kidnapping took place on October 20, 2011 when a girl went missing from Sayonara Junction. Days later her dead body was recovered. The second kidnapping happened on January 12 2012. This time a three year old girl was the target, she was kidnapped while she was walking with her grandmother. The third incident took place on April 18, 2012, and yet again a girl was kidnapped. All the girls were found dead after a few days. The police preferred to keep mum when asked if there were any signs of sexual assault. And they maintaned their silence when asked about kidneys being stolen from the bodies. Their silence forced my thoughts to linger on one possibility- a huge racket was at play here. Its web was far-fetched and full of conceits. No one knew what to say or whom to blame. The police has not yet unearthed evidence against a single party. Too many questions and too many doubts, so far nothing has been answered.
However, the police did start taking measures with the second kidnapping and stringent action scared off perpetrators. But fear flies high, and slum-dwellers still worry about their little ones playing outside blissfully. The ignorant children are not even aware that they’ll be picked by strangers from just outside their houses. The people living there stated that kids were lured by chocolates and they followed the person wherever he took them. Even after repeated attempts at cautioning kids, this process of trapping kids continues.
Can the children of Cuffe Parade be saved from a racket that is freshly brewing? For that we need to rely on the police and make the slum dwellers more cautious. Only then can one hope to save what looks like another Slumdog Millionaire in making.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

To Yash ji, with Love.

Since months now I did not get the opportunity to blog. With assignments lined up, creativity was messed up! But when I heard the news of Yash Chopra's sad demise, I could not help writing about him. A little tribute to the legend through my small piece of writing.

I was about to sit for my daily prayer when my friend rushed in. Her cell-phone, the tool for her twitter updates, was in her hand and she wore a shocked expression. “Yash Chopra just passed away”, she uttered. I stopped short, mirrored her expression, and stupidly asked, “How come, his movie was about to release next month?”
I’m not that stupid generally. It was utter shock that made me ask such a question. What I meant was, you were so fit and healthy, happily directing movies, and then you suddenly left this worldly life into an another extension. Yashji, ever since my memory has developed into a substantial form, I remember the definition of ‘romance’ through your movies. In 1995, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released, I remember distinctly how the movie’s lovey-dovey craze rolled over the whole nation; what I don’t remember is how many times have I watched that film! The love, the emotion, the action quotient, and the family drama- the movie was a perfect amalgam of everything. And then came Dil to Pagal hai in 1997, the movie’s music was an instant hit with my mother, and it didn’t fail to attract a seven-year-old girl like me. I used to dance to the tune of ‘The Dance of Envy’ and sing ‘Dil to Pagal hai’ song 24*7. You gave music and romance a new definition, and that’s the definition I still acknowledge till date.
When you declared that you were retiring from the film industry on your 80th birthday this year, it gave me a jolt. The 54-year- long glorious career would finally come to an end. Who would make romantic movies now? I was even more anxious and equally thrilled to watch your next flick- Jab tak hai Jaan. It pains me to think that you would not be here to see the box office success of this movie (and I’m sure this movie is going to be a blockbuster hit since it’s in limelight now).

 I started falling in love with Shahrukh’s acting with your movie Darr, and I started believing in hard-core romance after watching Chandni and Silsila. The elegance of Sridevi in Chandni, the ‘Angry young man’ look of Mr Bachchan in Deewar, the sugar-sweet romance of Shahrukh in DDLJ, and the seriousness of Anil Kapoor in Lamhe- it all came out from the mind of one brilliant man, and that’s you, Yashji. Speaking of films, one can never forget your association with Switzerland- I cannot even count the number of films that have sported Switzerland’s background. Be it the crystal white snow or the long stretch of tulips, be it the country-side roads or the snowy mountains, your films have invariably captured the beauty of Switzerland.

The newspaper spoke of dengue followed by multiple organ failure as the cause of your death, since then, the thought of ‘dengue’ sends currents of goosebumps in me. Had the female mosquito Aedes never come into existence, the dengue virus would never have spread; or had there been a treatment to this deadly disease, you would be alive at this very moment. So many if’s and but’s… I wish one permutation or combination worked here! Perhaps then, at this moment you could be thinking of some new story idea or helping your son Aditya with a new project. Yashji, you gave Bollywood a different identity. Romance would never be portrayed in the manner your films did.
When people said the King of Romance passed away- they were indeed true. No one can ever surpass your directorial skills in terms of hard-hitting romantic dramas. It is not surprising that BAFTA awarded you its lifetime membership, which is an absolute honour since you were the first Indian to receive it. My salute.

Your fan,

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