Friday, February 29, 2008

A Train Diary

The first time I boarded a train was in 1965 to travel from Delhi to Howrah. The train in question was the Toofan Mail as it was then called and unlike today, where the train still remains a shadow of its former self, in those days it was still in spurts able to run like the Toofan it was named after. It was actually quite a prestigious train those days and the only one exceeding it in status was the Air-Conditioned Express, popularly called the Vestibule Express. It was the first or at least one of the earliest trains in which the vestibule facility was available. The train was still pulled like most others by steam engines and I remember the coal getting into my eyes as I poked my head out of the window to look at the passing country side.

Once I reached Howrah, for a day or so it still felt that I was in the train for at least a day with the train’s rocking motion still drifting in as soon as you closed your eyes. Even with the eyes open, the doors and windows appeared to be moving away like the trees and the electric poles from a moving train. On that occasion, the journey itself was more enjoyable than the final destination and since then it has always been that way for me. Innumerable train journeys later, once I have settled into my seat and if no one is pushing and jostling, the trip is still far more enjoyable than journey’s end.

Unlike many, I just love train, pantry car and platform food. I have had them all the Puri Subzi in leaking leaf plates, the bread omlette on numerous station platforms, the “veg” and “non veg” offered by the pantry car attendant armed with a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil and every thing in between including the “continental” on the Rajdhani Express. Of course there is more variety on the platforms- from the well known ones like the pedhas of Mathura and the pethas of Agra to the lesser known ones. Such as the Biryanis of Bhusaval and Manmad, the mihidana and sitabhog of Burdwan or Jalebis and Kachoris at Mawli near Udaipur.

The condition of the train and the mannerisms of your fellow travelers will tell you about the diversity of the country we live in. South bound trains are typically orderly. One can travel in reasonable comfort even in sleeper class as the flow of invading passengers who ask you to “adjust” is much fewer. Itarsi is the station near about which the Rishi Vashishta the legendary figure who crossed over beyond the Vindhyas into Dravidian India might have taken a sojourn as once trains have crossed the station, the evidence of North India beginning to blur in many ways beginning with the food. The Daal for example begins to get replaced by Sambar (they taste the same though in the train!) and Idli and Vada begin to make an appearance in the breakfast menu and the snacks by the train vendors.

Once in a while you get to see scenes that you might forever. One of them that I do is the memory of an elderly Muslim gentleman settling down to say hi evening Namaz in the train. It was not easy to figure out which was West in a moving train, nor to perform the necessary ablutions but he managed some how, spread out his mat on the upper berth and unmindful to all his surroundings and even a few staring passengers as well as many granting him grudging respect, he went through his prayers. Today when it is often the fashion to wear your religion on your sleeves and with aggression, the old man’s humble but clear assertion of his beliefs oblivious of any thing else for those few minutes reminded me of what true spirituality is all about.

Today when there is all this talk of competition between low cost airlines and trains and what each has to offer, the talk mostly is all about time savers, costs, short haul, long haul and such commercial vocabulary, I am reminded that journeys are not just about times and distances - it is also about the experiences- the ones you contribute and also the ones you collect over the years and that then shape and enrich you-- perhaps the length of the journey does not matter as much as its depth does when you have reached your destination and are settled in your arm chair reminiscing. Some times a non stop journey is not as invigorating as one with interminable stops.... Just some times.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

We have such thin skins.....

Some months ago, I got a chance to see Deepa Mehta’s film titled “Water”. It is part of the trilogy of “Fire”, “Earth” and Water. The film had made news for two reasons- Deepa had courted controversy when “Fire” delved into lesbian relationships, and then “Water” began shooing the plight of child widows at Benares, igniting the wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists and also attracting a law suit from the noted author Sunil Gangopadhyay who claimed that the film was based on his acclaimed novel “Those Days”.

“Water” is a pale shadow of what it might have been. After shooting was disrupted at Benares, the cast as well as location got dismantled; Deepa Mehta shifted her location o Sri Lanka and recruited a new cast. She tried to recreate with very plastic success, the ghats of Benares in Sri Lanka but the artificial umbrellas and ghat props would not deceive any one who has been to Varanasi.

Of course “Water” is not the only film thus affected. Films in recent memory that have run into problems include the recently released “Jodhaa Akbar”, The Da Vinci Code, as well and of course politically tinged films like “Mangal Pandey-The Rising”, Shyam Benegal’s film – “Netaji, the Forgotten Hero”.

The Indian Express has been worrying about a growing tribe of Indians who have a thin skin and flaunt it too and is wondering as to why we are so quick off the block to take offence? It is an important question to ask ourselves. Of course the editorial speculates that perhaps the reason is that India is a democracy all right and so there is freedom of expression and which people feel free to use but society is not liberal enough and so the space for tolerance is limited.

But perhaps the issue to investigate is not so much the problem but the solution. Yes India is a democracy but we have a long way to go and to so we have learnt to take the freedom of expression that the constitution has given for ourselves but perhaps not learnt to provide the same right to others who think and act differently from us. But since India is a society which is millennia old, it can not easily shed its norm cannot be dragged by the scruff of its neck into a liberalized climate. So perhaps, while learn to accept the fact that we do indeed have a thin skin, perhaps we should also look at solutions that provide platforms for various points of view to be expressed in a way that is not so openly divisive.

Is that possible? Can we at least become thick skinned enough to at least others to speak, write and make films of their kind and at least allow them to live even if we never get to quite like them? A truly liberal society of course would allow a climate where a lot could be said and then the dissenters would also know how to express their dissent without fear of either courting or cultivating civil unrest. But we are yet far from those gates.

In school, there was a word that we learnt – xenophobia – the fear of all things foreign. In all those years since school, it seems that the word and the world in which we live today have both shrunk their borders and today the line between “them” and “us” is often as fragile as glass. Or to put it differently, if you are not with me in my opinions and it may be in the shallowest of matters, you are against me and different from me.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to look for signs of our common humanity and build on that. I would rather reach for the stone that will smash your window pane or your head, so that I can retreat to the privacy of my den and preen that I have been a bully yet one more day, ridding the world of that dreadful menace – those who do not think the way I do. Yes, Xenophobia is a frightening word, especially when it has shrunk so much that the borders are constantly closing in around us.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Agression in the Air

A few weeks ago Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Tejinder Khanna made a faux pas when he admitted in public what most people living in North India at least would admit to in private, though not perhaps in public that adherence to the Law in the Northern Parts of the country is quite a bit tardy. This is what Tejinder Khanna said “

“In this region, the situation is such that commonly it is a matter of pride to violate the law. The behavior pattern in south India is such that the people naturally stay within the limits of the law,” he said, addressing a function to launch Delhi police’s traffic patrol scheme. He remarked that there is much better compliance of law in south India and that too without any external pressure. “It is a specialty of north and west India that the people feel a sense of honor and pride in violating law and boasting that no action has been taken against them,” Khanna said.

Was Tejinder Khannna too way off the mark ? Breaking or not breaking the law and how many do or do not is a matter for the statisticians to data crunch and tell us what the powers that be want to hear but those who live in India would know of a certain aggression in the air, every time one leaves the house. This aggression need not always translate into crime but often does and the newspapers – especially the city sections reflect it in several ways – be it in the tracking of the number of people killed in blue line buses running over people in their hurry to get their faster or the squabbles with by the scruffily bus conductor as whether the fare to a particular point costs Rs.7 worth of a bus ticket or a Rs.10 one.

Certain kinds of aggression can be liberating in that they set you free to pursue the goals of Citius, Altius, Fortius." "Swifter, Higher, Stronger which are of course the motto of the Olympic movement but can be used else where to pursue any noble goal in life. But the bottom pinching , high speeding, vulgar speech driven aggression visible in North India and even more so in Delhi where I live and read some of these things in the morning paper, experience a few in the course of the day, and then come back to watch some more in the news channels on television is no customized meritocracy to move society to upward levels. this leering, domineering aggression is all about getting ahead not by raising the bar for myself but by lowering the bar in general by brutally crushing self esteem, and then crossing over the lowered bar in a crude wild west fashion. It is easy to cross the finish line by lowering the bar and then crippling the opposition, so that there is no legitimate opposition left in the race but there is little pride of achievement in such a victory, only the shallow gloat of the winner of the rigged race.

So deeply embedded is aggression, that it has been appropriated by the State even, and often no symbol of authority is so disgusting than the sound of the police lathi banging menacingly on the street, bazaar or the railway platform as the constable signals his presence and authority by dashing his stick on the ground as he moves clearing space for himself. The lathi of the police man is not even a semblance of safety and security as much a tool of undisguised aggression and dominance.

There is no point in issuing cosmetic statements to ruffle feathers and talk of misquotes when aggression, quarrels and violence with open contempt and disdain for the law is so openly visible. Any one who even expresses a desire to do things the right way( try accosting a Delhi auto rickshaw driver to go where you wish and at the rates prescribed…..) is immediately turned into an object of ridicule and snigger…. No irrespective of whether the Lieutenant Governor said things which are politically incorrect or not, the import of his statement can not be just swept away like dust under the carpet. Aggression very much lies in the air. You have to just step outside the threshold of our houses to sniff and inhale it….. Not a far distance

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Vanishing Joker : The Decline of India's Circuses

India's first ever amusement park, 'Appu Ghar', set up shortly after the 1982 Asian Games operated for the last day on February 17, the last day of its operation. Set up almost on the lines of Disney Land and a brain child of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, 'Appu Ghar' closed down in compliance with the orders of the Supreme Court after more than 23 years of its existence to make way for the Delhi Metro and the Supreme Court Library.

There is of course a time for every thing- a time to flourish and a time to fade away and that is what has happened to Appu Ghar. It served the purpose of entertaining a generation and now has gone. But Appu Ghar is not the only institution that is on its way into history. Another institution that is on a life line and appears jaded when seen at all is the institution of the circus – The 130-year-old Indian circus industry, once the favorite form of entertainment with family and friends, is struggling to survive. In 2002, the Indian Circus Federation had 22 members; today, it has only 14.

Circuses in India are hemmed in from every side. They have earned the wrath of animal rights activists. The former Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Maneka Gandhi, banned the use of bears, monkeys, tigers, lions and panthers in circuses in October 1998 effectively putting circuses in coma. Most of small town India looked forward to circuses as their only means of having some glimpse of wild life as only the bigger cities and towns have zoos. It of course open to debate as to how cruelly the animals were or are treated in circuses, keeping in perspective that In India, circus performers themselves remain stigmatized, a far cry from several western countries where it is often an acceptable, respectable choice for a youngster to make, and where schools for wannabe circus artistes, scholarship programmes, and even websites with 'jobs available' and 'the latest in juggling' posted on them flourish.

Indian circuses have been accused of using children in their acts and using child labor and this is a catch 22 situation. Poor revenues often mean that good wages cannot be paid even if one wants to and besides when there is a steady stream of children waiting in the wings to learn and earn perform in hazardous acrobatic tricks, there is little incentive to do so. “Children, especially girls form the bulk of the performing artists in the circuses, as they are the main crowd attractions. A majority of artists in Indian Circuses are Nepalese girls who have been trafficked from the interior areas of Nepal under the guile of a great life at a very young age

Then there are environmental hazards, particularly fire. Over crowded circus tents with cramped seating and few exits can only mean one thing – that a catastrophe is just round the corner way back in the Nineties , a fire swept the main tent of the Venus Circus in Bangalore sending it crashing down in flames onto a crowd of about 4,000 people and killing more than 60 people. Although no major tragedy has been reported since, condition in circus tents haven’t got much better as any one who has visited one in recent times can testify.

So embedded is the circus in the Indian memory, that when a circus came to town in Bangalore after a long interval , the staid and stiff upper lip newspaper “Hindu” announced its entry with undisguised pleasure. “After six years, Jumbo Circus is back in Bangalore to entertain people during the year end. The show is on at the Palace Grounds, opposite TV Tower, since December 15.” As the circus as a form of entertainment hurls towards what looks like certain extinction, it could be the last time, one will come across such an announcement.

A Hasidic Parable Retold

"We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea

Once upon a time, there was a Rabbi who lived away in a far away town. His father too was a well known Rabbi, known for his scholarship and had a large and devoted following. The son like many others had studied with his father and after finishing his studies, a wife had been found for him and he was being groomed to occupy his father’s seat in time. All was fine. Or so it seemed.

But the young Rabbi led a disturbed life. He did not sleep well and had dreams every night – of a country far away where he had his home and family where he really belonged and that his familiar home and family were strange places. He did not want to worry his wife, but he confided in his father but the old man’s prayers and ministrations did not seem to make any difference. The dreams continued and in fact increased in their intensity.

So one day, in the dead of the night, the young Rabbi crept away from his home, in search of the town and the house that he always saw in his dreams convinced that it was there that his true home lay. He had enough clarity in his dreams to seem to know the direction in which he needed to go; he set out with sure footed steps trying to cover as much distance possible before day break.

He covered as much distance as he could before the sun rose making it too hot to carry on any further. He found a shady tree, took off his bundle to use as a pillow and carefully set aside his sandals by his feet pointing in the direction in which he was to go and lay down. He was tired and for the first time in months, he slept well with no dreams to disturb him. When he woke up, the day was pretty far gone and he hurriedly opened his bundle, had his meager lunch of bread and cheese and threw a crumb at a friendly pup who had joined him under the tree at some point of his reverie.

He hurried up because he wanted to reach before sun down. And as he speeded up, he could gradually identify landmarks that he had seen in his dream and realized that h was not very far away. Finally after walking a couple of hours more, he recognized the house that he had seen in his dream. He walked into the house and was received warmly by his wife and the rest of the family; but strangely no one seemed surprised. The wife was the one he had seen in his dreams but her she seemed only mildly curious. After dinner in his new house, he went to sleep again and for the first time in months, he slept undisturbed.

When he woke up, his father was at his bed side. But his son was confused; for had he not traveled a whole day to the town and house which he had recognized in his dream? The old Rabbi sat down with his son for a final lesson. The house he was in and the house he had seen in his dream and the one to which he had walked was the same. But till now, it was his father’s house where he had a son’s privileges. After the journey that he had made, it was no longer his father’s house where he was the son; it was now his house where his father also lived. What his house was till now because he was born there became doubly his because he had now walked there on his own two feet. The truth that was his till now by virtue of birth and inheritance was now doubly his because he had discovered it for himself and he explored it with a spring in his step and a vigor that he had not known before.

Traditions and values are like that. Parents may teach them to their children, schools and social institutions may “teach” social norms, values and practices; but to be taught me not the same thing as to learn and to be introduced to the tradition and practice of one’s fore fathers is not the same thing as the initiate having embraced it for himself. That journey is seldom encouraged; we are all scared that a journey of discovery may push us or those we love off the precipice and we may never see them again. And it is true; we may not.

Letting go with the hope that our loved ones will find the values, priorities and options that we have come to cherish on their own steam, wearing out their sandals on the journey but eventually getting home is a scary proposition. And so we take the easy way out; clip their wings and cripple the limbs so that they can only hobble when they could gallop, flutter when they could soar away into the sky, but crippled and lame they may be, they at least stay within our short sighted line of vision.

“We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand

Nepal : Staggering out of the Incense Curtain

Some pieces of news make for extremely sad reading. Like for instance the one about Nepalese Prime Minister, an atheistic Prime Minister of a state that was once the world’s only official Hindu State and is now slowly evolving in leaps and jerks into a secular state. Koirala, described by the Indian Express as a senile, aging leader who refused to perform religious rituals at his parents’ deaths now wants to sit on the throne on which the kings sat and have the priests recite the “Saraswati Mantra”.

When the priests who ceremonially perform the rites, the head priest and the deputy head priest did not turn up, they were suspended. The irony of the situation was that these worthies did not turn up because in one of the gyrations of Nepal becoming a secular state from a Hindu one, the priests had already been suspended and had not been receiving their salaries. Unfazed by the irony though, the bureaucrats surrounding Koirala suspended the priests all over again lest the Prime Minister be angry.

B.P.Koirala could be ageing and senile but he is only mirroring the identity crisis that his country has and is going through eroding centuries of stability. In the days of the king- despot or not, things were clear. The King was regarded, by the common people at least, if by no one else as the living incarnation of Vishnu and maintained that appearance by residing in the Narayanhiti palace named after the deity and presiding over all key religious rituals of state. The astute King Birendra managed the balancing act between statesman and spiritual head well but his successor obviously hasn’t dome so well and egged on by the Maoists, the country has proceeded to throw away the baby as well as the bath water and is now throwing away not only the monarchy but the identity of the state itself without adequately under girding itself.

Of course a secular state itself is not a bad thing. Ideally, a secular state with separation of religion and government is preferable in most circumstances; a theocratic state can be either obscurantist or fundamentalist and both of these are menaces best avoided; theocracy in government has only one purpose – to manacle and shackle its people. And so while the resolve to start upon the journey to create a secular state is a good one, without adequate preparation, Nepal’s situation will not be very different from that of it Prime Minister- confused and unprepared to face reality and hiding behind centuries of tradition.

In a nation’s history, the journey is as important as the destination and the process has to be incubated and allowed to evolve. India’s own 60 year old journey is a good example Through Nehru’s rationalism, then soft Hindutva , hard Hindutva, debates on Raj Dharma and all that, we have arrived at an Indian road to secularism… and no the process is still not finished ….. political evolution of a State is forever a work in progress.

Its is to be hoped that the Maoists in Nepal will not be in so much of a hurry to abolish religion. May be they should do away with the seedier aspects of religion but leave alone the only roots that people cling to that give them solace. The sight of an ageing Prime Minister calling for religious Pundits despite his avowed atheistic beliefs is an indication that behind the senile exterior of the Head of government, lies a Nation’s yearning.

Baabul Moraa........ The Lament of Exile

Baabul Moraa, Naihar Chhuuto Hii Jaae
Baabul Moraa, Naihar Chhuuto Hii Jaae
Chaar Kahaar Mil, Morii Doliyaa Sajaave.
Moraa Apanaa Begaanaa Chhuto Jaae.”

O father, I depart forcibly from my home
Four men gathered to lift my palanquin
My loved ones will become strangers
The innermost portals of my home will be unreachable

Generations of Indians must have grown up on this haunting thumri in Raag Bhairavi since K.L.Saigal immortalized it in the 1938 film, “Street Singer”. Not many may know its history and source; typically it has become exemplified as a folk melody associated with Vidai rituals when a bride leaves her father’s home for her husband’s home.

I thought the same too; till a stray paragraph in a book I recently read and reviewed by the name of “Those Days” indicated that the truth might lie some where else and that the lingering melody is actually a song of lament – a dirge, if you will at being hounded of home and hearth, never to return again. The lament is that of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, whose life and times have been immortalized by Satyajit Ray in Shatranj ke Khilari. The origins of this composition and its composer - the epicure Wajid Ali Shah - are not as well known.

Wajid Ali Shah wasn’t probably much of a king but he was surely an artiste and a connoisseur and his lament at being exiled out of his beloved Lucknow, was the first modern original inheritance of loss that is recorded. In fact the annexation of Awadh or Audhas the British spelt was one of the events that led to the first war of independence in 1857. That he was popular enough in his own way is evidenced by the fact that when his royal caravan left Lucknow, the poets of his court lamented the exile of the Nawab as follows:

Lucknow bekas huwa Hazrat jo-gaye,

Fazle gul kab ayegi, kab honge aakar naghma sanjh,

Ek muddat ho gayi murgaane gulshan ko gaye”

One’s roots and ancestry is a strange thing. Whether it is a forced migration as it was in the case of Wajid Ali Shah or a voluntary exiling of one self for the sale of a better life as it is often the case today, there is an inner lament that may never find proper expression in words unless one is a writer of some kind. it is possible that Saigal’s song found the enduring popularity it did with just a tabla and a harmonium as an accompaniment because its heart tugging words pulled a chord in the heart of every body who has felt alienated and the strange foreboding that one is bidding farewell to a familiar territory.

There is an anecdote about the song composed by Wajid Ali Shah got into a Hindi movie. After the British annexed Awadh, they exiled him to the Metiaburz suburb of Kolkata, where he established a mini court with some pomp but no glory. There he tried to recreate the fabled charm of his legendary Lucknow and his mehfils were the favored destination of the Kolkata aristocracy.

The Nawab’s dirge was often sung there and though much of the pomp of the court vanished after Wajid Ali Shah died in 1887, the song remained on the repertoire of the musicians lamenting their own fall from grace. It continued to be sung in the progressively decaying music concerts of Kolkata, till Rai Chand Boral, the producer of Street Singer chanced to hear it in one of them and decided that it was just fitting for K.L.Saigal and the film. History has of course proved him right.

Finally of course, those who have read the biography of the Last Mughal by William Dalyrymple will know that Wajid Ali Shah wasn’t the last to die mourning the inheritance of his loss. Bahadur Shah Zafar, one of whose honorifics was jahanpanah (the shelter of the world) was exiled out of Delhi’s Red Fort to distant Rangoon and die lamenting that the one who once provided shelter to the world did not have luxury of being certain of a few meters of ground for his burial and a few yards of cloth for his shroud. If you have read the first few chapters of Dalyrmple’s book will know how the emperor was eventually buried. Loss is a strange phenomenon. It spares nobody. May be those boarding those crowded trains to get out of Maharashtra will not know but the eviction game has happened before. And will keep happening again and again.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Urdu Poetry at a Funeral

“Isliye rah sangharsh ki ham chune/Zindagi ansuon me nahae nahin/Shaam sehmi na ho, raat ho na dari/Bhor ki ankh phir dabdabai na ho

(We must choose the path of struggle, so life shouldn’t get drowned in tears. The evening shouldn’t get enveloped by awe and night shouldn’t be fearful. And the dawn shouldn’t crack with tears welled up in its eyes)

I like revolutionary poets for some reason; especially the Urdu ones. The Urdu revolutionary poets were giants – Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and all the rest. I don’t know what it was in that generation that produced so many giants in progressive poetry; but their sheer power, beauty and idealism is itself awe inspiring, even if some of their Persian rich vocabulary is a bit difficult for those of us for whom Hindustani is not the first language.

I do not know who out of these eminences composed these verses that activists sang at the state funeral of Baba Amte the other day. The Indian Express does not report this, but I am amused and also touched that activists and the State who rarely sleep on the same bed ever, got together at the funeral of the giant that Baba Amte was. If I am correct, it was the first State funeral of a private citizen in a long time – perhaps the first after Mother Teresa. And while the Baba looked grand wrapped in the Tricolor, it is a bit ironic that no one thought in the establishment seems to be have thought of honoring him with the Bharat Ratna while they were squabbling abut other octogenarians who were in the race.

“Haath lage nirman me, nahi marane, nahi mangane (let’s use our hands to create, not beg or beat)

I don’t know who wrote that piece either. I read those lines about not using our hands to beg or to beat with supreme irony. While Baba Amte’s body was being lowered into a pit in Anandwan in Maharashtra, in the state’s capital of Mumbai; North Indians who had come to work in the city because they did not want to beg were being beaten into submission and occasionally into death and destruction.

Aggression is every where and those Urdu poets had it all wrong. They wrote poetry to inspire revolutions and willed struggle for themselves, so that there would be no tears for the others to drown in. but we have turned the phrases all upside down. We are in more and more moving towards a society where the others struggle and it is our design increasingly that if it is possible at all to live a life that is free of tears , than that life should be ours.

It is ironic that the last movement that Baba Amte was involved in was called the Bharat Jodo or the Knit India movement. Pity that he was too old by then for the movement to benefit much from his leadership and there isn’t any one it seems who will effectively take over that piece of the Baba’s work. For in the midst of a Bharat todo movement, a Bharat jodo movement is much more needed than ever. As discordant voices and slogans rend the air and people talk of distributing sticks and swords, Baba Amte must be turning over in his grave. Very literally.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gender Imagery and Advertising

For years, we have been used to seeing a certain kind of advertisement- especially advertisements from the financial sector. The advertisements would exhort you to save, so that there was enough in the kitty for your daughter’s wedding and of course enough to fund your son’s education. The financial planner’s marketing buzz was to make these basic inquiries and then suggest a savings plan to meet those goals.

But for some time now I have been watching a series of advertisements which go against this grain. In one of them, the daughter of the house comes lamenting that she has secured admission in a good university abroad but doesn’t have the resources to pay the fees and her scholarships will not pay the full amount. Various alternatives are suggested including a loan from a wealthy uncle but they don’t find favor. Finally the father hugs his daughter and says that there is some one who has been saving for this very day for years and the girl gets the point that it is none other than her dad. The advertisement is for a children’s’ savings plan for a particular insurance company but the treatment of the subject is touching.

The same company has recently begun airing another advertisement. In this, a couple has retired and their income plummeted. As they cope and adjust with their life style (the man is shown repairing his old car), the man’s daughter coaxes him to buy a new one. As the man demurs, his daughter provides him the cash, because she has been saving up so that she can be of help and support to her parents in their old age. Again, this is an advertisement for a pension plan of the same insurance company but the manner in which the company has tried to break though the layers of social stereotypes that it is the son who needs an education and the daughter a husband is refreshing. Or the equally prevalent imagery that in times of need particularly financial need, it is basically the son, to whom you turn to for help.

Advertising has a nasty connotation with many individuals - implying the promotion of excess and useless mass consumerism. But in some cases, advertising can be a powerful vehicle promoting ideas for positive social change and this series of advertisements is an example. Typically socially relevant messages can tend to be preachy and sound and look like the old Films Division documentaries which nobody liked to sound and watch. But it is important to recognize and look out for messages couched in commercial imagery but which challenge and replace norms – to begin with in the world of small and big screens and then in real life.

As Suzanne Keeler of the Canadian Advertising Foundation puts it,

Social change doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t ever happen quickly. Permanent social change usually requires commitment, tenacity and real action on several levels - the public, government and industry. It requires attitudinal change at all these levels as well and that doesn’t take place overnight either. Social change is already happening in advertising and it is being furthered by the industry”

Meanwhile, for many of the rest of us, so used to devilling the advertising world as peddlers of greed and consumerism, it may be time to applaud and commend the bright spots around that we see. For there is hope that one day they will turn into beacons of light that will transform the social landscape as we see it today in many significant ways.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Silent Tragedies We Ignore

When the Prime Minister visited Arunachal Pradesh recently, he reminded many in what is called “mainland India” about the existence of the North Eastern states in India’s political map. It is a pity that his advisors did not club a trip for him to Mizoram as he was in the area. It would have helped. Mizoram today is one of the few states in the North East that today enjoys relative peace but once was a hotbed of insurgency. In fact one of the Indian Air Force’s inglorious acts in post independence India was to bomb the town of Aizawl and this till today is the only aerial attack India has carried out against its own people.”

Some insurgencies are man-made and entirely political in character and some happen as a response to events and then become politicized. The Mizo insurgency was one of the latter. The events are worth retelling. A large portion of the forested area of Mizoram is occupied by bamboo forests. When bamboo plants flower (they do so only once in 40- 50 years), they produce a large volume of seeds, which are a source of food for many predators, especially rats. As masses of flowering bamboo produce this natural bounty, rats are attracted to the area. Fortified by the protein-rich seeds, they multiply rapidly. But the supply of bamboo seeds is limited. When it is exhausted, armies of these marauding rodents turn their attention to standing crops, devouring acres of rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes within a few days. As a result, local peasants, who are fully dependant on agriculture for their sustenance, are subject to famine.

The last time such a phenomenon of the flowering of the bamboo flowers (locally called mautam occurred was between 1961-65. the resultant famine which claimed between 10,000-15,000 lives. Its inept handling by the government of the day led to the formation of Mizoram’s insurgency outfit, the Mizo National Front and an insurgency movement that lasted twenty years before a peace accord was finally signed.

Why is the retelling of all this history important? Because this is 2008 and forty years since the last flowering of the bamboo in the sixties has gone by. The flowering started again in the last two years and the year 2007 saw over 95 per cent bamboo plants in the agrarian state flower and rats destroy tobacco, cucumbers, pumpkins, grapes and other fruits and vegetables, while paddy cultivation came down by 75 per cent and maize to practically zero due to farmers’ apprehensions of an impending famine. But like the last time the “mautam” occurred close to fifty years ago, this time too, no one is taking much notice.

While a bus overturning in a ditch and killing passengers or a rail derailment attracts a lot of attention, silent disasters like the bamboo flowering induced famine in Mizoram don’t attract much news. Not by the aid agencies. Not by the media, not by the government it would seem except for the State Government which is run by the MNF with its own history in the famines and the bamboo flowering of the sixties. And often these states fight their own battles silently and often with little political or moral support. So while the visit to Arunanchal Pradesh is welcome as is the announcement that it is India’s state of the rising sun, it will be more helpful if all of us- be it the government or the private sector as well as the common citizen like me share in the life of these states- rejoice with them in their celebrations and festivals as well as share with them in their calamities.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Social Responsibility — Not Just Corporate Responsibility

I read an interesting news item the other day which talked about temporary workers employed in the Noida authority going on strike. This is by no means unusual, of course - strikes, though not as crippling in India any more except perhaps in Kerala and West Bengal, do still happen and occasionally make sufficient news and noise. What was interesting here was the demands that the Noida employees were making.

The demands:

* Residential plots for all the employees in Sector-122

* New bank accounts for all

* PF and bonus facilities

* Compensation of Rs 5 lakh in case of an employee’s death

* Recruiting a family member of a dead employee on 50 per cent salary hike

* Compensation for PF and medical facilities from 1988 onwards

* Cases against the protesting employees be withdrawn and all will be posted back to their respective posts

Some of the financial demands like Provident Fund and compensation in case of death or the employment of a family member are demands that are quite common and we are used to reading about them at every strike call. But what had me stumped was that the temporary employees were demanding residential plots and new bank accounts.

While fighting for your rights is never a bad thing, especially if a case is definitely made out, I wonder when we will learn to appreciate what we have and not make audacious demands. After all, the bulk of the work force in India is unorganized and non-unionized and those who are in any form of organized employment, belong to unions and have collective bargaining power should consider themselves fortunate. According to the results of the National Sample Survey conducted in 1999-2000, total work force as on 1.1.2000 was of the order of 406 million. About 7 % of the total work force is employed in the formal or organized sector (all public sector establishments and all non-agricultural establishments in private sector with 10 or more workers) while remaining 93% work in the informal or unorganized sector. And this figure might be actually on the lower side as post 1991, there has also been a decline in trade union activity over the years. So the 7 percent who are may be even temporary workers with no clear job security are better off than the large mass of the population who enjoy no such benefits.

As Delhi was all abuzz abut the temperature coming down to zero degrees Celsius for the first time in recent memory, one could but wonder about the plight of the close to 140,000 people who live on the streets in Delhi, and many of whom are frozen to death in winter. But many of these rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, vagrants and other destitute snuggle upto each other among dry leaves or generate heat by burning tyres did those striking abjurers shed a tear for any one of these ones. Oh, no. There eyes were all glazed dreaming of the free residential plots that they hope to either get or at least use as a bargaining chip as they sit down to negotiate better terms for themselves.

These days a lot of attention is paid to corporate social responsibility and how a large number of corporate houses are not doing anything for society in general and only enhancing shareholder value. But when I hear of workers demanding residential plots in a country in a situation where there is a shortage of 2.47 crore houses in urban India and aggregate housing shortage in the country has increased by 134% during the last six years, I wonder whether we should begin talking not just about corporate social responsibility but the common responsibility of the citizen. For clearly if the corporates have their responsibility, the workers seem to be no saints either.