Monday, 27 April 2009

We save a few rupees, but they rake in crores

(A crore is 10 million or 100 lakhs)
A crore of rupees - Rs 1,00,00,000

It is downturn time. People have lost jobs. Many have had to do with a cut in their salaries. The poor always had it bad, but the middle class is feeling the squeeze. Housing loans need to be paid off; school fees too. On top of it the elections have added to the woes. Summer means a rise in the price of vegetables. But the price of staples like rice, atta (wheat flour) and dals (lentils) has risen by about five to ten rupees per kilo. Ditto with sugar. When I protest, my neighbourhood grocer looks at me pityingly and explains, "Madam, I am being forced to charge the high rates. I am getting the goods at a higher price. Don't you know the sugar lobby has financed the political parties to the tune of some crores? In return, they have been assured that they can sell sugar at any price they want.”

More hardship for the common people – India’s middle class who will eventually have to bear the cost of the elections. Our rich netas (leaders) will get elected to another five years of pure unadulterated money making spree.

Meanwhile, I bargain for a few rupees with the vegetable vendor. I check out the price of 10 kg of atta in four shops to see who will give me the best price. I save a few rupees.

The leaders will rake in crores. A study shows how their wealth has grown between two elections. L Rajagopal of the Congress party representing Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh was worth Rs 9.6 crores in 2004 and now five years later he has declared Rs 299 crores as his assets! An increase of over 30 times!

There are many such candidates. Check out the following articles -
It is a good thing that the politicians are being asked to declare their assets and their educational qualifications. Check out the election commission site -

Of course we have no way of ensuring that what the leader has declared is all the assets he or she has. But we need to be told how they made the money and how much they have paid by way of tax. These figures should be available on the election commission website.

While the electorate is expected to pay its taxes, and penalties are stiff for late payment and evasion, our leaders evade them with impunity. In the state of Mizoram, none of the ten top candidates even possess a PAN card! Do we really want leaders like these- who have no regard for the law of the land? And shouldn’t we demand to know how the income tax authorities have proceeded against these worthies?

See how the assets of our political masters rose -

Check out how the residents of Vadodara are demanding their right to choose not to vote.

Is it any wonder then, why the middle class is so disenchanted of the politicians that it does not come out to vote. And the pundits on television keep asking why the elections do not enthuse the middle class and why it chooses to treat voting day as a holiday instead of joining the queue to vote a leader. If you do not take part in an election you have no right to grumble, say those working for election reforms. Fair enough! But what if the choice is choosing between a thug and a lesser thug? Then we should rather have the choice to register that none of the candidates meet our expectations and we choose not to vote. Like some people have in some constituencies.
And if in any constituency a certain percentage of voters say that they feel that none of the candidates are worth choosing, then the constituency should come under President’s rule. By having such a law, we would ensure that the political parties pick their candidates with care. For they would not like to see it go under President’s rule. We need such a law, and we need it quick. Otherwise, the fixers and the thugs will continue to occupy the seats of power.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Where is my leader?

Who am I going to vote for? The voting day is upon us and I have not been able to make up my mind. India’s problems are immense, the country is huge, its population is large. And governing it is no easy task. Granted. Over 60 years since Independence, and a substantial majority of Indians still go to bed hungry. Millions do not have a roof over their head that they can call home. Many more can’t read and write. But that is another story.

Here I wish to focus on my immediate neighbourhood in the capital city of Delhi and why it is so tough for me to find my leader.

I see corruption and callousness of the powers-that-be towards the common man. I see the power of money. It is used to bend the rule of the land, and in the bargain, the common man or woman is put through needless harassment of an unthinking system.

An example: Many buildings in my neighbourhood stand testimony to norms having been flouted, especially by the builders. Not only do they cover more than the stipulated area, they also rise much higher than what has been laid down.

If you want to buy a house, you will have to be really lucky to get one with a completion certificate; for most come without one. But the estate agent will assure you, “Don’t worry. You will not be harassed. Everything has been taken care of.” This means the pockets of those who matter have been adequately lined with money.

For decades people had encroached upon government land with impunity, added rooms and extensions not permissible by law, and operated commercial outfits from residential premises. Political masters chose to turn a blind eye, extracting money to let the matters rest. Even the poor cobbler on my street gave hafta (a sum of money paid every week) to the cops so that they would not drive him away from the pavement.

One day, the administration woke up. Some people were served demolition notices. Then the bulldozers arrived. I saw two brand new buildings that were being given the finishing touches being targeted. The builder of one building, and the owner of the other had deviated from the guidelines. Why did the municipal corporation pass the plan in the first place? And then why did it wait till the building was ready to take action?

But it had to act. Politicians of various hues had to score points. Delhi had to be made into a world- class city in time for the Commonwealth Games. So action had to be taken, or shown to have been taken. Some portions of the outer walls of the two buildings which faced the main road were knocked down. The way the bulldozer carefully selected where to hit, told a story of money having exchanged hands. The neighbourhood buzz had it that a few lakhs were given to the officers to be ‘considerate’, to inflict damage that could be rectified with the least possible expense.

The buildings stood with the holes for months. As if they were a testimony to an administration that acts. There was much hue and cry in the city. Many business establishments were shut down. Many people lost their jobs. People took out protest matches and went to court. The opposition made a din. Newspapers and television channels faithfully covered the demolitions. And then as happens in this land, things died down, just as suddenly.

The workers returned. Bricks were added to the gaping holes, a coat of plaster and a brush of paint and it looked as if nothing had ever happened. Only some people in the municipal corporation and their political masters got richer by a few lakhs.

The whole drama served no purpose. By the end of it no one was wiser. Who were the corrupt officers, who bended the rules and pocketed the money? We did not get to know. Would they ever be punished? Of course not. For then the corrupt politicians would be exposed. And the politician is a special breed, above the law.

Another example: I went vegetable shopping and parked my car in the same spot I have been parking over the past decade. Only, this time when I returned, my car was missing. A helpful soul announced: “Your car has been towed away!” Nonplussed, I headed for the police station. I was fined – Rs 600 for parking at a no-parking zone.

“There is no such board on the street. And I have been parking there for years,” I told the cop.
“Well, now you can’t park there,” he said.
“Where do I park then?”
“On the opposite side of the road.”
“When did you change the rule?” I ask.
“A week ago.”
“But I have seen no board announcing that,” I pleaded.
“We can’t be putting up boards on every street,” he retorted.
An old man arrived. Panting and puffing, he came looking for his car. Another Rs 600…and on it went. At least five persons paid up in the half an hour I spent there.

Who could I complain to at this arbitrary functioning of the police? Where is my neta?

Oh! Who do I vote for?

Friday, 10 April 2009

The essence of nostalgic post

What does this old skeletal of a building mean to me? Though its essential character has been ripped out, the place holds for me some of the most pleasant memories of a childhood. Of fun and games, care and friendship and discovery of the essence of India.

It was my grandmother's home and I visited it regularly ...almost every fortnight, sometimes staying over during vacations. It stands on one of the most bustling streets of Old Delhi called Chandani Chowk.

Once it was filled with people, relatives and friends, old and young. Sounds of laughter would reverberate through it; an aroma of delicious food would hang over it. It would sit in so well in the cacophony of life in that busy history-rich street. My grandmother, Bibiji, ruled over it like a true matriarch. Its main door was always open. Anyone was free to go up, and many did; members of the extended family, neighbours, beggars who needed alms, the local politicians collecting funds. Everyone was welcome. And people would flock to meet that one woman who gave the building such life and vibrancy. The building lost it all with her death. I couldn't get myself to visit it for decades.

Recently, a relative came visiting from London and I took him to discover Old Delhi. We had to pass the house and what I had changed beyond recognition. Its character had gone, it had been peeled away. It seemed as if the owner was going to give it a brand new look. Iron girders had been installed. The lovely green painted iron pillars were no more and railing of the balconies that ran along its length, could only be seen in parts. If you click on the photo you can see portions of the beautiful railing, in the building which was built about 200 years ago.

My grandmother had rented the first, second and third floors of this building in 1947, soon after the Partition of India into India and Pakistan. The family was fleeing from Lahore, the city that had been home for generations. My mother, who was in her teens, narrates how war cries between the Hindus and Muslims would rent the air and they would see Hindu houses being set on fire. Some women she knew had been kidnapped and raped by the Muslims. She would blame it on the power hungry political leaders who had betrayed their people, ruined the perfect camaraderie between two communities that had together fought for freedom from the British. My grandparents being Hindus decided it was best that they leave Muslim dominated Lahore, which had become part of Pakistan, and set up home in Delhi. So one terrible day as blood cries rented the air, my grandmother left with a band of six children and some members of the extended family for Delhi. My grandfather stayed on behind to wind up the business and died a year later.

Grandmother's first task on landing in Delhi was to find a place to stay. Her eldest son located the building, we were told. I think the fact that it housed two chemist shops on the ground floor attracted the family to it. My grandfather ran a chemist shop in Lahore - Beli Ram and Sons. It was one of the biggest and the best known.

It was from this building that I discovered the rich secular fabric of India. On this road stand Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib (a Sikh worshipping house), the Gauri Shankar mandir (a Hindu temple), the Sri Digamber Jain mandir (a Jain temple) and the Sunheri masjid (the Muslim prayer house). On the opposite side is a little church said to be the oldest Baptist Christian church in northern India.

My grandmother would sit on a charpoy pulled out into the balcony and I would stand, my head a little higher than the railing, as she would point out the sights. We would watch the religious processions pass below and she would tell me what they signified. This little street showed that different religions can cohabit, as long as each respects the other. And like monocultures which harm the earth, mono-religions, weaken the secular fabric of a nation. India gives people the right to pray, to worship any way they want, any God they may chose. Indians respect different religions, and participate in each others festivals. You may choose to question aspects of your religion or you may faithfully follow; the choice is yours. That is the essence of India that I grew up with. I marvel to this day that my grandmother bore no grudges. She would welcome with open arms any friends from Pakistan who came over.
While four of my cousins who lived in the house, studied in a convent school, one of them went to an adjoining school for girls run by the Jain nuns. The blue board in the photo announces the school. If you click on the photo you can read its name. So great was the influence of this school on her, that she grew up to be a pure vegetarian in a meat-eating family.

Bibiji kept an open house. Family and friends could drop in any time and be treated to a hot meal. Many women, pushed out by their families, sought refuge with her. A bed would be provided and the person could stay as long as he or she wanted. Some would spend a day pouring their heart out to her, complaining about abusive husbands and sons, while others would come to recuperate from an illness or seek her guidance on relationship and matrimonial matters.

She would sit crosslegged on her charpoy, dressed in white, her snow white hair pulled into a neat bun. Three other charpoys occupied the room and each had its respective corner. A visiting daughter and her children, or an abandoned woman seeking refuge would occupy the other charpoys.

On one corner of the room were her Gods. It was in her that I discovered my first feminist. At a time when it was taboo to touch the gods or visit the temple if you were having periods, she refused to toe the beliefs blindly. If God thinks women pollute he would not have made them, she would tell us.

While the first floor served as an office for my uncle, the second floor were the living quarters - housing two bedrooms and a store. The third floor had the kitchen, the servant's room, a spare room used to store the many charpoys and bed rolls ready to be rolled out for guests as they came in. Sleeping on the terrace on crisp white linen under the star-spangled sky exhanging ghost stories with cousins is an experience I have never been able to duplicate.

The rooms in the two-century-old building were divided by wooden planks burnished a rich brown. The floor was of uneven kotah stone blocks joined together by cement. For the children it was a readymade hopscotch floor and we used it to our advantage. The high ceilings kept the place cool in summer. The house had no wardrobes. Clothes, bedding, linen would be kept in big steel trunks. One piled on top of the other in the second-floor store. A small steel almirah housed my grandmother's most prized possession -- a range of the yummiest pickles made by her. We were forbidden to touch it. She didn't want our dirty hands diving into the stone jars to sample the aromatic stuff. Instead, each day she would dish out a small amount into a porcelain cup for consumption. When she was not looking the cousins would sneak into the room, but the almirah made such a clatter while opening that she would get alerted and we would receive a dressing down.
Even the birds and animals felt at home in this house. A flock of pigeons would live on the ledges around the building. One or two brave birds would venture in to occupy the wooden ledge in her room. The neighbourhood cats would walk in and out with impunity. Saucers of milk would be placed for them at one end of the long balcony, while the pigeons got fistfuls of grain every morning from her. It was here that I saw a cat hunt a pigeon. And one dark stormy night encountered two gleamy green eyes next to my bed and let out a scream that shook the whole household upright and they came running to find out what had happened. But Bibiji, on her charpoy opposite mine, just turned over her side and told me, '"Go back to sleep, it is just the black cat. You have scared her away."

She was the ever indulgent grandmother. She knew the favourite foods of each of her grandchildren, and as and when he or she arrived, a servant would be dispatched to bring the goodies. It was here that I dug my teeth into the valewale samose, gorged on the juicy fruit chat, was introduced to chilled rabri and rose-flavoured and kesar-badam kulfi. The famous sweet shop - Ghantewala is right opposite this building. and when we left for home, she would get a box of the most delicious Indian sweets packed for us as a parting gift.

It was at her place that I ate the best cooked mutton ever. And the sumptuous tandoori chicken. Though she rarely stepped out of her house, she knew where the best was available.

It was from here, that I discovered the richness of the Indian arts. At Dariba - the lane that houses the gold and silver jewellery shops - my mother traded her old jewels for new ones and bought my sister and me our first set of gold earrings. We would walk the Kinari bazar looking for intricate borders and sequins to attach to dupattas. It was in one of the gullies (narrow lanes) that I discovered a nondescript bangle shop which had the most exciting bangles I have seen. I flaunted them in college and the girls hounded me to know where I got them from.

It is here that I got introduced to Bollywood. My parents were no movie buffs, but my unmarried aunt would aim to catch the first show of each movie as it was released. And if I happened to be in Chandni Chowk on a Friday, I would get to see it with her. There were a choice of film theatres. A couple survive to this day.

Chandni Chowk, translates into a moonlit square. It is said a canal once ran down the entire length of the street with Red Fort on one end and Fatehpuri masjid on the other. History tells us that the Mughal king, Shah Jehan's daughter, Jahanara, took an active interest in the landscaping of the area. She had a market set around a square pool and on moonlit nights the waters turned a magical silver and hence the place got its name. The canal was gone much before my grandmother set up her house here...

I head for the main door of the building, hoping to run up the steep staircase, like I did as a teenager. A panwala sits on the platform in front of it, like his father had done decades ago. Only the man does not know who I am. His father would greet me with a 'namste beti' (greeting to you daughter) and put a cardamom and some meethi supari (sweetened betel nut) into my open palm. The double panelled door is bolted. A big lock hangs from the latch. In this age of terrorism, you cannot keep open the door of even a bare building. Time changes...but I feverently hope the essence of India would live forever.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

extremists frighten us into silence

Another case of rowdy censorship. This one comes from Norway.

This was to be a blog on India. But one of my pet themes is human expression and how society seeks to control it. Expression gets curtailed, free speech is banned by a few among us who are loud enough to shout and violent enough to stomp, tear, destroy and even kill. All this as the majority of us just stand and watch, and remain silent.
Increasingly these shouters are getting more vocal, much louder and they frighten us into submission. With threats of violence, and vandalalim and plain murder.
And what is happening? The movie maker shifts base, the artist pulls down his work, the writer is banned. It is happening all over the world and with a frigthening regularity and frequency. Yes, we are becomong a lot less tolerant. We are unable to take criticism. We are unable to debate or frame fitting replies to something we do not like, or hold a contrary view to, in a civilised manner. When someone writes something, and we think it is wrong, why can't the argument be put forth in a civilised manner. Another article or a book, perhaps? Another set of paintings depcting the contrary view? Why do we have to throw stones, burn property and kill?
Last month, a Norwegian Library was forced to pull down posters of "anti-extremist Islamic Art" after vandalism and complaints by a small group of Muslims (three women we are told) who vandalised some works, and the library was forced to pull them down.
The posters were done by Ahmed Mashhouri, a Muslim artist and refugee from Iran. Ahmed and his wife were human rights activists in Iran and knew what people can do in the name of religion as they had experienced at first hand the cruelty of the Muslim fanatics.
The posters were up for only a few hours before the women got at them. This is what I call rowdy censorship and falls in the same category as the one that drove Deepa Mehta away from India for the filming of her film on widows, that drove Bangladeshi author Tasleema to exile first from her home country and for the second time from India, the country where she had sought refuge.
It is what frigthened a Mumbai gallery from exhibiting a painting which depicts nothing more than what our ancient scupltures do . Links to some of the stories are provided below.
The poster from the top is from Ahmed Mashhouri's collection.
In fact, I found the recent video of the public flogging of a girl in Swat valley of Pakistan, which was widely circulated, very very disturbing. The poster in fact, seems a watered down version in comparison of what some fanatics among us do to women in the name of religion.
I wonder if those who protested at the Norwegian library will raise their voice against the public flogging of a teenaged girl in Swat? Will those who bayed for the head of the Danish cartoonist, speak up against the flogging? And demand that those who did it be punished for their very unislamic act. Will the men who flogged her be brought to book?

For more on the posters -
Gateway Pundit: Artist Told to Remove Anti-Islam Display After Muslims Attack Exhibition

Articles on this blog -

Rowdy censorship and Deepa Mehta's film -Water

Have a cry

Friday, 3 April 2009

What kind of a religion is this?

What kind of a religion is it that allows such merciless flogging of a woman? Can watch it here -
The video of a 17-year-old girl being flogged in the Swat Valley is very shocking. Reminded me of the Muthalik goons in Mangalore. Even they beat up women.

There was national outrage in India. And women came together to demand action against the creeps. Does anyone know what has happened to them? The media these days can only report on the elections. Are Muthalik's men in jail? Or are they out? When will justice be meted out to them?

I was very happy to see condemnation by Pakistanis to the flogging. Here is the link to the way they have reacted - Check out another reaction at
Will the voices become vocal and strong for the government to reverse its pact with the Taliban powers that be? Have my doubts.

I loved the pink chaddi campaign in India. At least here, the women and men could try and shame the goons. It was action by the public, to show Muthalik and his ilk what we thought of them.

Okay, so the Swat society decided the woman had to be punished for something that is a crime in their eyes. A large group of men stood and just watched. Her brother was among those who participated in flogging her. But what about the man she was with? Is it okay for him to step out of the house with a woman not his wife? Will not the same punishment be meted out to him?
Now, how can one even ask a question like this!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

If you want to be healthy learn to express

These slides contain tips from a Brazilian doctor, Drauzio Varella, to keep you healthy.The mind has a lot to do with your state of health. If you are happy, you will be healthy, you feel so good and energised. The feeling is wonderful. But if you are depressed, everything seems to go wrong with your body. I am no doctor but I have seen it work in my life. The happiest years of my life have also been the healthiest...
These slides were sent to me by a friend who was a budding sportswoman and in the prime of her life met with an accident that left her paralysed.
She is a woman of immense courage and great wisdom. Ten minutes in her company and the statements she makes get you thinking about life. Why are we here? What is our role on Mother Earth? Why was I born?
What I have learnt from her is how to keep your spirits high in the face of immense hardship. And find meaning and happiness in life....
And for that, it is so important that one learns to express...Being able to talk, write, paint your feelings make you healthier. It is true. Try it.
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