Yeh Tara Woh Tara Har Tara (This star, that star, every star)

I am currently on vacation in the US. Well, it’s not completely a vacation given I will be working for the first half, attending a conference, and giving a talk. But it has been a really long time where the sole aim of travel was to travel. Apart from a few trips of 2 or 3 days to places like Sri Lanka or Hampi or Pondicherry, my travel for the past ten years or so has been entirely for work. It’s mostly fieldwork, conferences or various meetings. A few months ago, I traveled to Rajasthan for the first time. The people I worked with in Rajasthan were very surprised that I had never visited Rajasthan before, given it is such a tourist destination. Even the 7-year old daughter of my colleague had been to Rajasthan at least 3 times. But as I said before, I hadn’t worked in Rajasthan, so I never had the occasion to go to Rajasthan. Similarly, the reason I haven’t gone to Goa yet, another tourist trap, is because I have never worked in Goa. I work a lot in in Bihar, so Patna is as familiar to me as Bangalore. Essentially, I go to places where work sends me. And while this might not always be great for some people, given you do miss out on a few luxuries like sitting back and reading a book, or even just sleep, it has its own benefits.

When you travel to a new city or a village, the people you work with are no longer strangers who inhabit a different geography. More importantly, you stop being a stranger inhabiting a different geography. You become automatically an insider who is assumed to be part of the scenery. You become privy to secrets that visitors are blind to. So, when people take you to their favourite spots to eat their favourite cuisine, or show you the hidden vistas not visible through the thickness of tourist brochures and the tall tales of the tourist guide, it feels like a small sacrifice to work when you are traveling. But really, one of the most important elements for me when I travel for work are the people that I meet during the course of my work.

So, in Rajasthan, I met this person, L. Initially, we were a bit wary of each other, but as the day went on, we realized that not only did we share the same ethos about work, we also enjoyed the same songs. So, our trips across the dry lands of Rajasthan was heavily tinged with an odd mixture of our voices singing songs from films that had not yet captured colour. In one of these trips to a village, we finished conducting interviews in a remote village and realised it was too late to travel to the next village to continue the work. So, we decided to call it a day and given we had some time before we made the trek back to the city, we decided to climb a small sand dune.

The sand dune by itself was not very high. In fact, when the young people who were accompanying us climbed it ahead of me, it looked as though it was as easy as walking on level ground. But when I tried to achieve the same feat, I was huffing and puffing and had lost my shoes in the sand at least three times by the time I reached the top of the sand dune. When I got to the top, though, I realised the aggravation of the slipping and sliding were well worth  the view on the top. From the top, you could see in the clear moonlight, more sand dunes, interrupted by clumps of dry brush. The vista around is not the stark desert that we have come to imagine when we hear the word ‘desert’. Instead, here, the sand dunes co-exist with dry arid land where some vegetation grows. It’s a desert, but a hard rocky one. As you climb up, the thing that arrests one’s eyes is not the stark landscape but the view above. As far as the eye can see, the entire sky – without any obstruction, without any reflected lights of the city – filled with countless twinkling stars. The air was cool and the night was almost silent, except for the “ hello-hello” of another colleague, P, who was trying to coordinate our dinners amidst bad connectivity.

After a while, in the distance, the slight echo of chatter from  little children. The children from the village who had heard that P and L were in town, were scrambling over the sand dunes to meet us. They rushed to us in delight, and after the many hugs were completed, P sat them down in a circle and asked them to sing a song. All of them hesitated, and then, one of them started to sing a nursery rhyme. L interrupted and said that we should sing a song about stars,  given we were sitting under them. He suggested a popular song from a Bollywood movie, and started the first lines in his rich baritone voice. The children enthusiastically joined him, and their loud voices echoed through the sandy night.

Sitting there, looking out to the vast blackness of the desert and up toward the endless shimmering sky, and listening to the children and L, I felt happy – the simple uncomplicated variety. My voice joined their song without me intending to, and we all sang  together, out of the sheer enjoyment of that moment. After that song was over, we sang another one. So, we sang and we sang – in enjoyment of the vastness of space, and to match the endless joy within. So, I suppose that’s why I don’t mind traveling for work – because, for a few moments, under the stars and in the cool dark breeze of the desert sky, I can find delight in a different kind of harmony.

The visitor

These days, I make it a practice to write every day. It’s not as ambitious as 10k a month word challenge. It’s just something I resolved to do every day, at least for a few minutes. When my wrist broke at the end of last year, I couldn’t type for six weeks. I have never felt more helpless and voiceless. The physical inconveniences were negligible, thanks to my parents. But the volume of words that were stuck in my head was unbearable. For the entire six weeks, I had a voice-to-text converter to write my report and other office-related work and I felt like all the words in my head came out wrong. When I spoke the sentences out, they sounded awkward and trite, and I couldn’t quite get the cadence right.

What I learned in those weeks was that my words flow through my typing. Ever since my parents got home a computer twenty-five years ago and installed typing software in it,  typing is the way that I can be free of the words in my head. Writing – physical writing – never worked for me. There are four reasons for this: (1) my handwriting is terrible (I hate to look at it ! ), (2) I can’t read my own handwriting, (3) I can’t erase and recompose my words without making an ugly mess, and (4) I write too slowly for the pace of the words in my head. So, invariably, on all four counts, I get frustrated. With typing, I can ramble on and on and on . . . as I am doing now. The point is, after my hand healed, I decided to appreciate the fact that I could write again, even if it is gibberish; hence, the resolution to write every day. I think of it as a form of cosmic thank-you for the use of my hands and through it, the use of my head.

So, every morning, I come to a big covered veranda in my office and write for 20 to 30 minutes. This veranda is a small rectangular space that connects the second floor of the house (that we work in) to the huge open terrace on the left, and to the backyard on the right. In olden times, it probably functioned as a servant’s access to the roof and to the second floor. The way that we have built this space  now is that it has a temporary tiled roof and is open from all sides. I often sit with my back to the terrace (where it is bright and sunny) and face the backyard to watch the green vista of trees that have been growing there for the past fifty odd years. There are mango, plumeria, jackfruit, and avocado trees all around. When it rains, it’s wonderful to sit in this little veranda and watch the greenness brighten with water. We often see lots of birds, taking a short break on their flight from Lal Bagh to wherever they are going in the city. Sometimes, we host monkeys and it’s not unusual for us to see at least one or two of the twenty cats (that the caretaker has)  prowling among the branches of the trees or the roof to catch an inattentive pigeon. We usually use this space for lunch, or for meetings. In the mornings, it’s often occupied by me, fulfilling a promise to myself.

Usually, S – our office assistant, is often cleaning up the office around this time. It turns out to be a convenient ritual for both of us. I am out of the room he wants to clean and I get a nice open space with trees all around to work in, even if it is for a few minutes. There is a small sink in the balcony stairs where he fills up his bucket to mop the floors. If he is in a talking mood, we talk while he waits for the bucket to fill up, and when he is not, we spend the time in silent companionship. I like his happy smile and his quiet way of doing things. I think he likes that I am up for a chat anytime he feels like talking.

This morning, we are in our usual places. Me facing the mango trees, laden with green fruit and the plumeria trees, dotted with their white and yellow flowers. The sun is shining and there is that smell of possibility that morning always brings. Or maybe, it’s just the smell of smoke from the chula from the caretaker’s house. Either way, it is a happy morning. S has just left with a fresh bucket of water and has not closed the tap fully. There is a small trickle of water flowing from the tap to the sink, a faint musical sound that I don’t pay attention to.

Suddenly, a dark shadow – a visitor to our little tableau. A young crow. He hops along the railing of the terrace, keeping an eye out for any sudden movement from me. I stop typing and look at him. He looks at me and hops slowly and methodically to the slightly open tap. Then, he dips his head, takes a swig of water and  swallows. Another sip, another glug. Then, two more in quick succession – no longer cautious. I watch this little scene: the sun glinting off the steel tap and the shining trickle of water against the dark green background of the swaying trees, the glossy violet-black feathers of the young crow, and his black eyes, periodically checking in on me. After he is satiated, this little bird and I look at each other, and then he is gone. The next moment, S comes in with his bucket of dirty water. He doesn’t know he was the inadvertent benefactor of a thirsty crow. He doesn’t know why I am stupidly smiling. He doesn’t know we had an unexpected visitor.

Companionship

I got on the bus to go home mostly because I wanted to finish my detective novel. It was at a crucial point when the investigator starts to pull together the different pieces of the puzzle and realizes, slowly at first, the tiniest thing that was missed before that has suddenly become a key to solving the two murders. I love detective stories where the writer gives hints to the reader a minute or two before she gives them to the character. I especially love it when despite this headstart, the reader and the character arrive at the same conclusion together. I think it’s a rare talent to do that – when the writer doesn’t treat the reader as a complete imbecile. I used to love the Sherlock Holmes kind of stories, where the reader is often last to know, and the last pages are often devoted (like many Mills  & Boons) to letting the reader in on the plot. But now, I have no patience for that. I love it much more when writers create a journey with the character. Of course, I often do not solve the mystery, despite this prodding by the writer. I sometimes get glimpses of the guilty party, but I most often fall for the red herrings. I am a bit prone to the obvious, sad to say.

Regardless of this exposition on what kind of detective novels I like, here I am, sitting by the window, reading my book. I occasionally look up, out of the window, if I hear conversation or when the bus stops. On the way, at a bus stop, a young couple is parting ways. The girl gets on the bus, sits in the empty seat next to me, and waves across my face to the open window to her paramour who is also frantically waving back. Oh, young love. * eye roll *

After settling down, she (of course!) immediately calls him on the phone and they do the goodbyes and the love yous and the take cares that have been forever imortalised in the movies. She finally puts the phone down, and in the relief of not having to hear the saccharine sweet baby voice of love, I look up. And this is what I see:

A young boy is sitting on his haunches at the end of a footpath abutting the bus stop. His back is towards us. He is wearing a pale peach shirt (probably washed a million times), and very tattered shorts. He is hugging a chicken. Yes, a chicken. The chicken has his beak over the young boy’s shoulder, and it seems to be resting there quite comfortably. The boy, in turn, is slowly stroking the chicken’s back affectionately from its pointy head to the feathered tail. Startled, I look again. Unbelievable. A child hugging a chicken on the sidewalk. The bus starts to move. I crane my head to get a better view – I want to confirm what saw and I want to check if the chicken was squirming or trying to get away. But no – it was just a chicken and a boy, for a moment, content and happy together.

I smiled to myself. I love that life is full of such strange surprises. As I am thinking this, I hear the young girl beside me take her phone out and talk to her boyfriend. She is excitedly telling him exactly what I described to you – the chicken and the boy, in an embrace. After a minute or so, she puts the phone down and sighs. I catch her eye. We smile. The two of us, for a moment, content and happy together.

Lanka Ceylon Eelam.

I love this place. I have spent less than 24 hours in the place, and yet, I know. Like how I knew when I went to Scotland that if there ever was a place for me, the island made of sky would be it. And this morning, when I walked out into the sticky sea-air, here it was, another place recognised. Another place for me.

One of the benefits of being a reader is that before we encounter a place, we explore it through the characters in the place. England was crumpets, ginger beer, kippers, pork pies and scones from The Famous Five. Bath was carriages, balls, bonnets and smelling salts from Austen. The US was hamburgers, hotdogs, ice cream sodas and pepperoni pizza from The Archies. San Francisco was weed, Nob Hill, and Castro District from The Tales of the City. And so on and so forth. This country was made alive through Anil’s Ghost and the stories in a book left by a friend in my home. So, it was a bit of a disappointment, I must admit, when my first view of this place were bright lights in an elegant highway, yesterday night. The few sights afforded to me at that time were nothing like the richness I had encountered between the pages that I had read. The half-remembered memories that I had derived from the words did not match with the banal reality of the city. By morning, this feeling dissipated, mostly mollified by the beautiful antique table in my room. I sat out in the garden of my home stay and took in the humidity and the heat. A lady from the neighbourhood walked in. She folded her umbrella and sat next to me. We talked about music class, school admissions, and the weather. I felt right at home. It was better than any book.

Later, in the evening, after I had argued with the world (or more accurately, the people in the conference) about grand notions of feminism, gender violence, and the ‘maternal’ instinct, I sat on the boardwalk, eating stale popcorn, listening to the sound of the ocean and watching people quarrel, love, pose, stare and smile. There is little else in the world that would have made me happier. And yet there was. It was the red sun streaking the sky with broad strokes of orange, before taking a bow into the Indian Ocean. It was a marvellous performance. As I made my way back to the home stay, I thought to myself – happiness is finding one’s home, even if it is not your own.

A Difficult Love.

I was to go to Lahore next week. But because of the lines drawn by history, we tripped mid-way with a bureaucratic hurdle and landed flat on our faces. Now, we have nothing to do, but brush off our expectations and visions of the trip – of visiting the night markets, of buying beautiful cotton, and of crossing the ‘border’ – and slink away into the sidelines.

Well, in my case, I am on a train bound across the northern plains. In the hot afternoon sun, with the land shorn of its bounty, it is difficult to imagine that this land has seen all manners of kings and queens fight over it. So many of these rulers – rajas, nawabs, the maharanis, the begums, the majesties, the diwans, the didis, and the netas – have come and gone, and yet, the contours of the mountains, the flatness of its plains, and the shape of the horizon seem to be the same. But I know that’s just illusion. A lot has changed. Isn’t that why I am making this journey – to document exactly how much things have changed.

But when the train crosses a river, with that familiar thumping beat when it rides over a bridge, you feel that you haven’t quite grown out of the young girl who was excited about trains because it involved tinkle comics, air pillows, gold spot, and compartmentalised food. But it is the grown woman who is startled by a dome in the river. I look up from the water – a perfect white dome against the blinding white of the sky. Even the brightest sun can’t blunt the perfect symmetry of the smooth curving lines of stone that defined beauty in an earlier time.

And suddenly, my heart swells with my love for this land – with the history that is seeped into this land by the sheer force of time. But my love for this land is not simple. I know this land treats the powerless cruelly. It is difficult to love this land that kills men for cows, that is frothing at its mouth to build a temple for a man-god who abandoned his pregnant wife based on a rumour, that paints the diversity of the land a uniform colour of saffron in the guise of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, that dictates who can love and live in this land.

Yet, here I am, feeling an overwhelming urge to explore its colours, its flavours, its legends, its stories, its hypocrisies, and its anger – perhaps, to really understand this strange beast that I love. I don’t know why I have this urge. But I know I am increasingly thinking of the border lines that trip us up – the ones that we create in our heads – about who is good and who is right and who can eat and who should die – and I know there are deeper lines drawn between us than any that can be drawn across this land I love. And these lines are also carved out of love, not unlike mine.

So, here’s my ode to this land – may it survive our love for it.

For my Kids.

I come from a family of teachers. My parents are teachers. My sister is a teacher. Hey, even my grand uncle was a teacher. I, too, am a teacher. I love teaching. It was not love at first sight, however. I entered my first class in 2003 with a lot of expectations of myself and from my students. It was an unmitigated disaster. I lectured for long periods of time, became nervous, then angry. They progressively got disinterested and resistant. After the class finally ended after 4 long weeks, I told M (my advisor) – an excellent award-winning teacher himself – that I can’t do this. He handed me some iced tea in his lovely garden next to his goldfish pond and simply said – you’ll improve. And I did. I took myself less seriously. I followed M’s philosophy and understood that students learn differently, and I became more focused on the process of discovery than a set of things they needed to get out of the class. And somewhere along the way, during those years in graduate school, I learned to enjoy it.

The first feedback I got came from a student who was studying the violin at Penn State. He had taken a summer course with me and was extremely resistant to the ideas of feminism. I was teaching Sociology of Gender then. Every class was a struggle with him – it helped me immensely to sharpen my thinking, but I had no idea what he got out of the class. . .until two years later, I received a letter of invitation to his solo violin performance at the School of Music. He wrote that he had learned a lot from me, and it would be his privilege to have me in the audience. I remember sitting in my chair, holding the letter in my hand, looking out the large windows on the 7th floor of Oswald Building to the changing colours of the Nittany mountain, and feeling like a part of me had just settled into my own skin, like a part of me recognised who it is that I was.⁠⁠⁠⁠

I revisited this feeling yesterday, when I stood in front of another classroom as a guest lecturer. I didn’t know who the students were or what they knew, and yet, at the end of the class, I recognised that familiar feeling of connection – of us having taken a journey together. After the class, I went to dinner with my former students from IIITB. People in my life know them as ‘my kids’. I met them five years ago – young, eager to learn, and very impressionable. Now, they have grown into themselves. I sipped my very strange cola at the dinner table and I remembered how fascinating it was to teach them and to read who they were through their assignments. And how it continues to be fascinating to watch them, as they are pushing out of the nest into a world they are trying to make their own. As I watched them make plans for the future – some make-believe and others, very real – I feel so proud to know them, so privileged to have been let into their lives, with such openness and abandon.

I once told my kids that I teach because I get to learn from them. And it still holds true. They still surprise and challenge me with their questions. And as I made my way home yesterday, in the midnight traffic of Bangalore, I smiled to myself – in one way or another, no matter where they go, they will always be ‘my kids’. And that, perhaps, is the reason I teach.

Another Woman’s Day.

A story for the International Women’s Day. As I mentioned last year, I don’t really celebrate women’s day. It seems to have been increasingly appropriated by corporate slogans and gift vouchers, which is richly ironical, given the origins of the day. But we are living in such richly ironical days. So, a story for these times.

A woman calls in the dead of the night. I recognise her voice. Actually, I recognise her halting breath. She is in the middle of a flashback. She can’t speak, she can’t think – at this moment, she is only able to feel. But she can hear. That’s why she’s calling. I tell her useless things – that I am there. That it is over. She is no longer trapped. There is no one out there. She is safe. She is safe. I am there. She is safe. I ask her to go hug her pillow, her dog, anything that can bring an alternate reality to the one she is experiencing. Slowly, she comes back to me. Her breath is more even, she has stopped whimpering. Then, she asks me in a soft voice – so, what kind of rice did you eat today? I tell her and then we chat, for a while, about how much she hates rice and how much I miss it (now that I am in the US). We joke and laugh, and tell each other silly stupid things. She knows a small part of my life. I know a small part of hers. In the middle of the conversation, sometimes, mid-sentence, she is back there – in that dingy room in that terrible darkness. And the only reality she knows is fear. And I try again – you are okay, you are here with me, you are safe.

Some days are better than others. Some days, she screams. Some days, we talk about rice and curry for hours. I miss her, sometimes. I miss the conversations we had. I miss her humour, and her snark. I miss knowing that no matter how fierce the pull of her darkness was, she swam continuously towards us.

So, this day, I remember my midnight caller – for it is because of her that I learned to carry hope. It is because of her that I learned the valuable lesson that no matter what the darkness holds for her or for me, we can move to new realities by holding each other through it.

The Geography of Poverty.

A bridge. Made of mud and brick and some cement. Water is abundant here. Sides of the road, aglow with bright pink lotuses contrasting with the green of the wheat and the yellow of the mustard. Rivers are often full and trees huddle around the local pond like children do when discussing a secret. The seasons changed and the clouds rushed in. The bridge stays strong against the swelling of the water and then, suddenly, as if changing its mind, joins in the flow. An entire village cut off. Cell phone towers still work, fortunately, and information reaches a group of women in the next village that food is short. All day, they prepare. Then, they hitch up their saris to their waist. They join some of the men and wade into the cold cold waters of the river, walking with tentative feet to find the higher sand banks of the river. All day, they form a human chain, and soon, they reach the other side of the bank and deliver their precious cargo – the one they carried, on their heads, the entire width of the rushing river – hot bins of khichidi prepared that morning. So, with cold feet and hot hands, they do this every day till boats arrive to evacuate the entire village, made an island by the turning of the season.

A fire. In the mountains, still inhabited by ‘tribals’. The roads to these mountains are constantly being encroached by the forest, and livelihoods are eked out through the preparation of mahua and the harvesting of the tendu leaf. A woman from the mainland has arrived to conduct a meeting with a group of women. Education is high on the agenda and so are issues of domestic violence. The group chats long into the evening. And then the fire. In one of the animal sheds. Most of the animals inside escape. A buffalo is stuck inside. You can hear its pitiful bellows. The woman from the mainland is astonished that the group is just sitting and watching the fire. Soon, the rope tethering the buffalo to the shed burns, and the buffalo runs into the safety of the forest. The woman turns to the group and asks – why are we sitting here? Why can’t we douse the fire? Why are we not acting? The women look at her and ask – where is the water, didi? They contained the spread of the fire with mud, but could do no more. At dinner, when the woman drank the water she was served, it tasted bitter-sweet – scooped from the hollows of the ground and sieved through a sari. The buffalo died later that night of its injuries.

The physical distance between the bridge and the fire is approximately 30 kilometers.

And that, to me, is the geography of poverty – the mapping of abundance and deprivation. It is the visceral understanding that the poverty one experiences is dependent on the sheer chance of being born into a mountain or a seasonal island. It is the knowledge that the sometimes, 30 kilometers is an impregnable distance.

Life Lessons on the Road.

There are a few things that I have observed about travel: people will spit everywhere, men will pee anywhere, and a well-built road is a small miracle. Kids will play with anything, anywhere, women always seem to be carrying things – children, clothes, firewood – and the sight of yellow mustard fields in the early morning light, topped with a light fog is a sight not easily forgotten. I have been on the road for three days, travelling about 8 hours at a time, and the profound conclusion that I have come up with is this: Honking is a sophisticated language that is worthy of study. It communicates, often at once, the girth of the vehicle, the size of the roads, mutual signals of outrage, sympathy, and frustration, and the daredevilry of drivers who perform feats of near-misses all the time. I feel like there is a life lesson hidden in there, somewhere– that perhaps, the constant honking is one’s affirmation of one’s existence on these precarious roads.

Life lessons like these are easy to come by when you have had four hours of travel on patchy roads under your belt, and time and the road stretches infinitely before you. Sometimes, you feel you are just someone who is standing still against the ever-changing landscape of huts, fields, shops, rivers, trees, buffaloes, and birds. But that is poetic language for constantly feeling nauseated with the erratic motion of the car and the musical conversation of the honking on the roads.

But the next post is not about idle philosophical thoughts about roads as a metaphor for life. It is, in fact, about the geography of poverty. I first came to realise the meaning of the concept in my field visits to the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. I realised very quickly that water and weather are like the lottery – unpredictable and capable of changing your life immeasurably and irreversibly. The right time and right amount of the monsoon rains is the difference between sending your kids to school and a can of pesticide. It is no different in Bihar. So, two stories, true in the way only stories can be true.

Happy Endings.

In Muzaffapur, at the end of a very busy market, there is a small lane, with a tree hanging heavy with grapefruit. There is a small gate that leads to a large building, with small rooms, one of which is occupied by a group of women who are gathered there to meet us.

The women, as a collective, have experienced a lot. The list of violence and pain is endless. Acid, sticks and stones have broken many a bone and occasionally, their spirit. Yet, invariably, they all sing the same song of the phoenix – how they rose up from the ashes and now, are too brilliant to behold. It’s a siren song – it excites you with its allegro tempo and lulls you into a false sense of security with its redemption beat. It’s easy to believe if you want to believe in happy endings. And I so desperately do.

But life is not over when the story ends, and almost as an after-thought, the after-stories emerges. Money saved up for education is lost in an ugly legal fight. Jobs are gone, children fail within educational systems set up against them, husbands continue their harassment and abuse in different flavours, and there is no equal pay, no equal opportunity. . . hell, no equal anything anywhere in sight.

To me, the songs that emerge in these after-stories are that of the crow – The ubiquitous, cunning, practical, adaptable, pesky crow. These are songs of swollen feet and broken fingers, of hot khichidi and waist-high waters, of burned corpses and delayed justice, of empty stomachs and defiant daughters, of trickery and triumph, of patience and bitterness, of survival and continuous mind-numbing, never-ending struggle.

As I fly back to Bangalore, I begin to realise why the phoenix is mythical and the crow much more real. The song of the crow, after all, guarantees no happy endings.