We are the real dreamers

Project Why from Terrier Charlotte on Vimeo.

A few months back I got a mail from two globe trotters from France. They were passing through Delhi and wanted to spend two weeks at project why. To use Charlotte’s words: we want to bring our smiles and share our time and do something for your children. Charlotte and Matthieu landed at project why promised smiles in place and a host of ideas one of them being to make  a film where the pwhy kids will be the stars. The song they chose was Imagine, John Lennon’s moving Imagine. They also had plans to teach English and hold craft workshops with the small children. Ambitious? Read on.

They set to work in the most professional manner getting the words of the song photocopied. The idea was to teach one phrase of the song to different classes and put it all together. They had no idea what awaited them. It just took a day for them to realise that it would be a very uphill task keeping in mind the pronunciation of the kids, their poor singing ability and their self-consciousness in front of a camera and the shortage of time. It was soon decided that craft workshops and English classes would have to be abandoned. The film was a real handful. The first two days or so were spent in ‘auditioning’ and working of the ‘script’! But then disaster struck. Charlotte was diagnosed with dengue. We all thought Imagine would remain a dream. Not at all. Charlotte, a real trouper, proved a mettle. The show would go on! In between blood tests, visits to the doctor, bouts of fever, the bane of rashes and drops in energy, she directed the show from the wings – in this case a bedroom in my home-. Matthieu followed instructions to the T and thankfully dear old Jon’s  brilliant camera skills came to the rescue. After innumerable  takes and retakes – the maximum being mine – and so much footage as to saturate the computer’s hard disk, the film was completed in time.

I do not know if it was the magic of Lennon’s lyrics, the candid shots of the children, the terrible enunciation that actually became the film’s biggest asset or the love with which the film was made: the outcome was enchanting and moving. It brought tears to my eyes. The words of a song so deeply entrenched in our minds took a totally different hue. It was as if each word was written for these children of a Lesser God who have nothing to offer in abundance but their smiles. I am sure Lennon who have smiled had he seen this clip. But there is something else they have that we hanker for: the ability to dream. When they see a plane flying they dream of being the pilot that flies it; when they sit next to their teacher and learn they dream of one day becoming a true educator and when someone in their midst dies for want of a doctor, they dream of becoming that missing doctor. Their world is one of survival, but a survival laced with dignity and smothered with smiles. They have no possessions and yet they are always willing to share the little they have. They, more than anyone else, give a real meaning to the haunting and enchanting song. They live for today. 
I cried when I saw the film. I cry every time I see it. Tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of compassion, tears of pain. I joined them long ago… will you join them too?

Thank you Charlotte and Matthieu for this very special gift. We love you!

“Imagine”

 Imagine there’s no heaven
 It’s easy if you try
 No hell below us
 Above us only sky
 Imagine all the people
 Living for today…

 Imagine there’s no countries
 It isn’t hard to do
 Nothing to kill or die for
 And no religion too
 Imagine all the people
 Living life in peace…

 You may say I’m a dreamer
 But I’m not the only one
 I hope someday you’ll join us
 And the world will be as one

 Imagine no possessions
 I wonder if you can
 No need for greed or hunger
 A brotherhood of man
 Imagine all the people
 Sharing all the world…

 You may say I’m a dreamer
 But I’m not the only one
 I hope someday you’ll join us
 And the world will live as one

Oh my God(dess)

I have not seen Oh My God, the recent movie about something that touches all of us: religion! I believe  it shows us how from God lover we have become God fearing and how religion has become a business. I think most of realise this or am I being too optimist?

For the past 2 days, thousands and thousands from all walk of life are fervently washing feet of nine  little girls to mark the end of Durga puja. This is done as a mark of respect of the Goddess the symbol of the purest creative force. There are many interpretations of this ritual but one thing is certain: young girls are meant to be the image of the Goddess. So  they worshipped, venerated, idolized just for the few minutes of a ritual whose meaning everyone had forgotten. Come the said morning and in every Hindu home pressure cookers whistle, potatoes are peeled and cooked into a spicy dish and sweet halwa is eagerly stirred in large woks, flat breads are rolled and deep fried. The food is then served in nine containers and money or gifts as is the fashion now – pencil cases, lunch boxes, hair clips – are added.The feast for the Goddess(es) is ready. Every family has ‘booked’ their goddesses of the day – children of neighbours in slums and shanties, children of those who work for you and so on. The little girls are sat in a row, their feet are washed by all members of the family, then they are given the food and the gifts. Often little girls are seen going from home to home collecting their bounty of the day. It is not every day that girls are feted in India! No wonder project why classes are quasi empty on these days.

The status of women has known many mutations in India. From having equal status to men in ancient India their history has been eventful. It sad to learn that according to a recent study by Reuters India is the “fourth most dangerous country” in the world for women today. And though the are supposed to enjoy equal right to men the reality is different. In a male dominated society women suffer immensely. So is not hypocritical to worship little girls and the next moment forget that they are the image of the Goddess you venerate with so much false piety.

I for one do not wash feet of little girls once a year. I would rather continue in silence the work I do where I worship them in my own way every day by giving them what they need to fight for the rights so many of us have usurped.

Don’t eat chowmein

Eating chowmein contributes to the increase in rapes. No this is not a joke. This is the latest pearl of wisdom cast by the antediluvian kangaroo courts that ‘rule’ Haryana by force: the (ill)famed Khap Panchayats. To my understanding, consumption of fast food contributes to such incidents. Chowmein leads to hormonal imbalance evoking an urge to indulge in such acts, is what the leader of one such Khap recently stated. To end rapes one must eat light and nutritious food. Voila. Rape over. So if I understand well girls should be married at the age of 16 and we should not eat any spices or fast food and we will be rid of the heinous crime of rape. All hormonal issues will be solved. I guess all of us that each such foods are potential rapists.

To the idiosyncratic remark that stated that 90% of rapes are consensual, there was the added one that rapes are a conspiracy against the ruling party. I cannot begin to imagine where all this will end. But what is reality is that rapes are continuing unabashedly. Yesterday a 50 year old was gang raped by 4 men. For a person of the female sex is do not matter what age you are: 15 months or 50, you still run the risk of being raped. And that is not all, the 62 year old rapist of the 13 year old child is now being shielded by his community by offering the victim’s family money. 35K is the price of innocence.

There is seems to be no justice for the innocent victims. Instead of immediate and punitive actions against the perpetrators, one what sees is shielding the rapist, finding ludicrous explanations ( consensual rape, eating chowmein), blaming the victim (the way she dresses, she drinks, she goes out at night etc) and so on. Everyone is on a single mission: protect the perpetrator! It is time to stop this nonsense. But how? That is the question.

What all the above shows is that in the mind of the law makers, protectors and enforcers rape is a trivial crime where the victim is a much if not more to blame than the perp.

When a little girl is born she has the same rights as her male counterparts. She has the right to live, to laugh, to play, to grow, to study, to work. She has the right to be loved, respected, cared for and protected. She has the right to dream about her morrows and to see them become reality. Sadly in India all these rights are usurped in the name of false honour, false morality and social mores made by a male dominated society. Her life is controlled by a series of males: her father, her brother, her husband and even her sons. She has not much say in anything. Is she steps out of the line drawn by these male relatives she is reigned in and even branded. Her dreams remain dreams shared with no one.

When she hurts or is hurt by anyone, she is far too often held responsible and ordered to step back in line. The extreme instance is rape where the first accusation falls on her: why did she step out, why did she wear ‘revealing’ clothes, why did she stay out late etc. She seems to be the custodian not only of her family’s honour but of the honour of the entire world.

Trivialising rape is the highest insult to women. It is time this stopped!

Seeking Her protection

Today is the first day of Navratri or the nine nights in which we will worship the Goddess Durga .We will worship her in each and every form from the young Kumari, to Parvati to Kali to Lakshmi to Saraswati and along the way we will beseech her to protect us, to give us wealth and prosperity and knowledge and wisdom. We will end our devotion by worshipping nine little girls whose feet we will wash and who will endow with gifts and blessings. The we I refer to here is all of us Hindus, men and women. It is also all those who normally deride and dismiss women, treat them like second class citizens, who rape them with impunity, who use and abuse them without mercy, who even kill them in the womb! The disparity between the way we revere our Goddesses and treat our women every day is glaring.  Is it not hypocritical?

True some of us do not feel or act that way but do we hot keep strangely mum and behave like ostriches when aberrations occur? What right do we have to worship Goddess Durga if we are unable to protect girls and women? Why should she bestow anything on us when we forget once the nine nights have passed that she resides in every woman?

For the next none nights Durga will be adored and worshiped in every way imaginable. On the eight or night day nine little girls will also be worshipped as many will wash their feet as a mark of respect to the Goddess, each one symbolising one of the Goddess. Yet once the festivities over these very little girls will go back to the reality of not being wanted and treated respect and love. Every little girl has the right to ask why she is being worshipped once a year and abused for the rest of time.

I guess I am a believer though I cannot accept to be part of a show that his to say the last hypocritical. I have in days gone by been guilty of falling prey to the lure of ritualism. I guess it had to be a rite of passage, mercifully a short one. I was blessed to have had the privilege of entering a world that may seem alien to many but that brought straight back to reality and showed me the way I sought.

Today I do not go seeking the elusive God I believe in, in temples and faraway pilgrimage sites. I see Her everyday in the eyes of the little children who have been forgotten by all, and yet who open their hearts to anyone fortunate enough to look into their eyes with their hearts.

For the next nine days I will worship all the little project why girls and seek protection, prosperity and wisdom. 

Hang your head in shame or speak out the choice is yours

She was 13. An age when you are and should be a child, carefree and happy. Your life should be filled with laughter, friends and happy occurrences. You should be going to school, spending time with pals and coming back home. And above all you should be safe. But that is not what happened to a young 13 year old in a small town in Haryana, the state which is now (in)famous for a spate of rapes. For the past 3 months she has been raped by a 62 year old food street vendor  who lured with a plate of hot food. It took three months of being abused by a dirty old man who thought his plate of food who keep her quiet forever. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma that little child went through. The pain, the shame, the hurt, humiliation that little soul experienced as her barely nubile was being assaulted over and over again by a vile old man. How hungry she would have been to accept the first plate of food? Or maybe it was offered because the tithe was demanded and she has nowhere to run. She was caught in the wily trap laid by crafty old sod. Anyway it was too late.

The horror lasted for 3 months. Just trying to imagine what she must have gone through day after day makes my blood run cold. I also cannot fathom what was the tipping point that made her break her silence and tell her father. I must salute the father who believed his child and contacted the police. The rape was confirmed. But the outcome was not what one would expect from a civilised society. The victim was arrested but one wonders for how long but the school authorities and the local political entity decided to expel the child and her sisters!

Yes you read right, the victim, the girl who had been repeatedly raped was thrown out of school. This is justice India style. Hang your head in shame or speak out the choice is yours. But this is a reality and we cannot run away from it. A young rape victim has been denied her right to education because she was raped. How that works is impossible for me to comprehend. Even the warped and skewed logic of a politician who wants us to believe that 90% rapes are consensual cannot be applied here. The victim was 13, the rapist 62. In any law book it is a rape!

My mind travels back some 7 or 8 years when I was faced with a similar situation. In one of our primary classes a girl always sat alone, never next to the others. No one spoke to her. She came and went alone. She was about 12 or 13. When I enquired upon the reason of such behavior I was shocked to hear that she had been raped when she was 3 year old, the rapist was her neighbour. he had been caught and served a sentence and was freed. But the girl had been branded forever. We took matters in hand and ensured that she was accepted by her class mates. I even got her to learn karate and she was a star. Slowly she regained her lost confidence but sadly her mother died and the family moved away. I wonder where she is now. I just hope and pray she is safe.

How long will this terrible injustice last? When will we gather the strength to say enough is enough! I feel so helpless.

License to abuse,kidnap, brag, tote a gun and who knows kill!

Are we responsible for the arrogance of our law makers and rulers is the question any self respecting India should ask him/herself in the wake of the spate of incidents that have occurred in the past 48 hours or so. Let us begin with the premise I hope still holds true. We are a democracy of the people, by the people and for the people. We are the ones who elect our representatives both in Parliament and State Assemblies. These representatives are supposed to protect our interest and  put forth our views. I guess we are all agree on this. So in the best case scenario representatives should be a reflection of who we are and it is our responsibility to ensure that.

However the reality is quite different if we are to go by what happened recently. We are agree that rape is a heinous and loathsome crime. It is a crime against women and girls, the worst form of abuse you can imagine. No a political leader of the ruling party in a State that has seen an unacceptable number of rapes in the past month stated two days back that in 90% of cases rape was consensual! Please explain how rape can be consensual as I am unable to figure this one. The last rape was that of a 6 year old who was lured with a bar of chocolate and raped by three men. Now is accepting a chocolate consent to rape? And what about the 13 MONTH old that was raped yesterday! How can we hope that with such a mentality our politicians will take rape seriously and get the victims justice they deserve and hope for. As I write these words, a Khap Panchayat, read Kangaroo court- is busy discussing lowering marriage age for girls to solve the rape problem. It is never the man’s fault, is it?

Let us move on. Some days back a senior politician and Minister insulted a priestess. The altercation was cost on camera and it was horrific to see how he abused the poor woman and ordered that she be locked up to teach her a lesson. Now Mr Minister there are laws in the land and no one can and should get locked up at the whim and fancy of anyone, let alone a person who can only aspire to the holds without the help of people just like the woman he was abusive to. It is a democracy and not your fiefdom.

But that is not all. You agree that an official needs to do his duty. The duty of a toll tax officer is to collect the toll tax. Now some people are exempted – why is that I do not know – and need to show proof of their identity. If I told you that one such exempted person – a Member of Parliament in the occurrence, the kind of bloke you and I are supposed to put there – chose to jump out of his car gun in hand and threatened to shoot one and all in true John Wayne style. Now wonder what would have happened if you and I had tried that!

And last but not the least, should you not like what an officer is doing and want it done your way, then kidnap him! Yes you read right! That is exactly what another Minister did recently. It is true that he has since resigned, but on the other hand no FIR has been registered against him.

So it seems that when we – and by we I mean voters – elect a representative we give license to shoot his mouth, license to insult and abuse, license to brandish a gun and maybe even kill and license to kidnap. Wow that is something I was not aware of.

But let us come to the main point. We are a democracy and a democracy can only function well when each and everyone of us exercise our right to vote freely and intelligently. We are proud of being a democracy and cherish the freedom it gives us. Then why is it that most of us – so called enlightened electorate – fail to go and vote. I too have been guilty of this crime, for crime it is. We have to accept responsibility and take our role as citizens seriously.

Marry them at 16 to stop rape

The recent spate of rapes in the state of Haryana – 13 in just one month – have once again brought the extreme vulnerability of women in our country to the fore. It is not just the crime that is heinous and reprehensible. What is more shocking is the reaction of the law makers and keepers. Last week a young sixteen year old girl was gang raped by four men. Not able to bear the shame, she set herself on fire and died. In another case the father of a rape victim committed suicide as we was not getting any justice.

Rape is an abhorrent crime to say the least. What makes it worst in our land is the fact that it is the victim that is put to trial. Some months back following another spate of rape the administration had come up with astonishing prevention measures: women should not be working after 8pm, and should wear appropriate clothes! This time the local village council leader as come up with an even more astounding solution to rape. He feels early marriage would put a stop to rapes.  “I believe this is happening because our youth are being badly influenced by cinema and television. I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere. This way rapes will not occur,“. Voila! Rape over! And that is not all, a political leader of the ruling party goes on to call rapes a conspiracy to defame the government. How that works is beyond my comprehension.

The bottom line is that in our country, where Goddesses are worshipped with passion and devotion women and girls are treated with utter contempt. If they are not killed in the womb then what awaits them is a nothing short of hell. As they have been branded as the keeper of the family’s honour they are divested of any form of freedom. Should anything untoward happen, they are the ones to bear the consequences. This is what the recent stories seem to tell. Rape is the worst form of crime where a man or many give themselves the right to use and abuse of a woman’s body. The tragedy in our land is that the onus of the aberration is squarely placed on the shoulders of the victim. They dress wrong, they watch the wrong movies, they have sexual needs that they need to fulfill being the latest accusation. How does all this apply to a minor who has been gang raped is a question begging to be answered.

It is sad that instead of being condemned by one and all, a reprehensible and depraved crime like rape becomes a political issue. I have no words to describe how it makes me feel. The country has a democratic system and an independent judiciary and the law is in the hands of judiciary and nobody else said one leader. We all know how the law works. We all know how humiliating the process is for the victim. Some countries have chemical castration of rapist. Maybe we too should consider that. It is time that women were treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Mamma Mia, Doraemon and Chutki

How many times have you seen your favourite film? I wonder. Personally I am not a great cine fan and rarely go to the movies. I did once, but cannot remember having seen a film more than 2 or at best 3 times.  Often the extra times were to please a friend and were not my cup a tea. I would have preferred spending the two yours reading. So if I told you that in the past few weeks I have seen a single film so many times that I have lost count you would not believe me. But this I a fact!

Now before I carry on I must admit that this new fad, if I can call it that, is courtesy the new man in my life: Agastya my grandson. This little man has changed my life in more ways than one and managed to make me do things I never dreamt I would. One of them being seeing a movie n times. It all began like this.

One day my husband showed the little fellow bits of Mamma Mia on his computer and the little one got hooked. After that day, every time he was allowed to watch the screen, he wanted to see Mamma Mia. I honestly thought he would get tired of seeing the same movie over and over. No way. So for the past month or more I was treated to Mamma Mia day in and day out. He would get up in the morning and even before saying Good Morning, would turn his endearing eyes to his grandpa and say ” Put Mamma Mia”and if the old man did not comply then he would turn to me and say ” Nana is not putting MM!” So MM it was early morning and MM became our good night song.

But that is not all, in between viewings of MM, I was made to discover other things: Doraemon and Chotta Bheem. I must confess I have never been a cartoon nut even in my younger days but lo and behold grandma had to get hooked on these two cartoons and rather than resist and turn my face around and pick a book, I decided to follow the little leader and watch these shows. I must say rather sheepishly that I got somewhat hooked and found myself following the stories. Utpal watches these shows too and never got me to follow them as the fleeting images I saw as I came in and out of the room were never enough to make me want to sit down and watch. But having to forcibly, well not quite, sit with Agy made me watch and enjoy the episodes. The endearing cat robot  Doraeomon comes or the daring little Chutki became part of my life too. Grandma had to rock!

My little boy flew away yesterday night after a last viewing of Mamma Mia. The house is so empty but my head is ringing with Abba songs. I am missing my little man. May be I should simply go to my room and watch Mamma Mia!

Your maid’s rent is higher than yours

Square foot for square foot your maid’s rent is probably higher then yours. The rents for shanties and jhuggies across the capital have hit the roof. People are paying 30 rs a square foot for flimsy tenements not larger than 10 square feet with no bathroom, kitchen or running water. This fact was revealed in a study by the the School of Planning and Architecture’s (SPA) National Resource Centre.

We have experienced first hand the skyrocketing of rents over the past decade. Ten years ago you could still find a shanty for 500 rupees a month. Today the same space is nothing less than 2000 Rs. And migrants have no option but to rent such jhuggis are rooms in any part of the capital is nothing less than 5000 Rs a month. A poky, windowless room with an apology of a bathroom  goes for 5K in the Govindpuri lane where we are located. And Madanpur Khader village that till recently had rooms @ 1000 a month and provided shelter to migrants is undergoing a mutation. With medical tourism at its height and Apollo Hospital a stone’s throw away, landlords are evicting their poorer tenants, knocking off the old structures and erecting swanky guest houses and service flats for the relatives of long term patients. It is a roaring business with many takers. The erstwhile tenants are now running helter skelter to find alternative accommodation in a city that has none.

We may turn up our noses in disdain and even disgust while passing through a shanty town. We may feel that such aberrations have no place in a city like ours. But have we ever stopped to think as to why this has occurred? And above all do we realise the strong link that binds us to the inhabitants of these shanties. But let us begin with the first statement: how and why have we reached this situation. Have you ever wondered if our city has adequate provisions for housing its poor? Big cities normally have poorer quarters with high rises. We have zilch. Many years back private houses had the ubiquitous servant quarter that were meant to house those working within the premises as well as their family. So your maid husband could be an plumber, electrician, carpenter or simply an employee in a shop. Then slowly the concept of large well constructed servant quarters was transformed as people redid their houses taking in the servant quarter space to make a new flat that could be rented. The servants were relegated to tiny rooms on the roof often with just an asbestos sheet to ward the heat or cold. The room was barely sufficient for one person.

When migrants came to Delhi  many many decades ago they looked for space to live. They often found  some vacant space and erected bamboo poles and a plastic sheet begin with. They knew the space was illegal and so did the authorities. But the later did not evict them as they saw a way of lining their pockets. The poor migrant had no option but to pay. When the numbers grew the political parties started looking at them as potential vote banks they needed to woo. They were given an identity in the  form of a voter’s card and soon became legal! This game carried on. The migrants felt emboldened and the flimsy structures were soon replaced by more concrete ones and then just as the rich did, they too decided to become landlords: roms were built on top of the one they lived in and rented to newcomers. This happened in every slum in the city from the larger ones and even the legal rehabilitation colonies to the tiny ones that often sprung up on small pieces of empty land across the city. These are the rooms that now fetch a hefty rent.

These places house the people who are the backbone of the city and as I said earlier people who are closely linked to us. The ones who carry out repairs or even build our homes, the ones who look after our every day needs and care for our very own, the ones who make our lives a tad easier. Have we ever stopped to think about where our maid  or our plumber lives? I think we should.

The shanties and hovels a large part of the city live in are homes to those who stay in them. I have been always impressed by the care taken in setting them up: the kitchen corner with shelves lined with gleaming utensils, the sole bed that always dons a bright cover, the school bags of the children that hang neatly in another corner and so on. The space is squeaky clean. I have visited many such homes and been warmly welcomed each and every time with smiles and warm cups of delicious tea.

But these living conditions are abysmal and appalling. Any city that expects any of its inhabitants to live in such conditions should hand its head in shame. The surroundings are dirty and often dangerous. Many such homes are build next to factories and often lower than the roads. Many factories discharge their chemical in the open drains where children often play.

It is time something was done for these people and time for the city to embrace its own with the dignity they deserve. But for that the Government would have to build proper housing. I do not think that is about to happen if we are to believe today’s headlinesGovernment plans to sell surplus land to ease fiscal crunch!