Sunday, August 29, 2010

An afternoon at Jeevika

A personal story of a family whose mother is a nurse, dilemmas and desires of three youngsters in the reform era, journeys of young women in search of brighter futures from Chattisgarh, Orissa to Delhi and the anguish suffered by them and their families, visual wonders of Titanic and Gabber Singh in Assamese of the 40 year old mobile theatre of Assam whose 120 member troupe performs for nine months straight moving from over 70 locations, mesmerising sounds of Rukma-the lone female Mangadia singer in Rajasthan, and to round it off a discussion with budding documentary makers on reality and the medium.

That was my afternoon at this year's Jeevika. There is so much I do not know about India.

In the discussion with filmmakers, Nandan-the moderator's question "what is a documentary?" offered different responses. It offers perspectives on everyday issues and happenings, it helps us discover new ones. It is a reflection of the filmmaker's conscience. It is a subjective portrayal of someone else's story told in a creative form. It offers a balanced view of a given situation or an issue. So what is the documentary's relation to reality? Whose reality does it portray? The film maker's choices of subject, the setting, the questions, the sounds, the speed, the flow, the length all make him or her an "agent of reality". He or she is presenting someone else's story and the way in which the story is told already adds a subjective coating on the original narrative. This is the structural design of any form of communication. Be it the written word or the news. The message and its form of communication can significantly affect how the receiver sees it.

Then of course the person who sees also brings his or her own subjectiveness to the message that is received. Its interesting that an audience will typically charge the documentary maker with onesidedness when there is a disagreement. If the film reflects your own feelings and opinions, one-sidedness of bias is usually not an issue. Another charge levied on filmmakers is one of prejudice. Why is the film being shown in AC halls to an "educated" audience? The third one is usually of follow up, what has happened after the film? How will this film be taken to those who matter, who can make a change? Are these unreal expectations? What the audience fails to see in many cases is the work that has happened before the film? Often filmmakers spend months and years understanding the issue, building relationships with the stakeholders, shooting, editing etc etc. I am no filmmaker but I can appreciate that what we see on the film is a microcosm of what all they know about the issue. For the audience, it is very easy to deflect their own prejudices, stereotypes and apathy back to the filmmaker. Maybe at the end of the screening it should be the filmmaker who should be questioning the audience?

Sheena Iyenger's book-The Art of Choosing also offered such similar inferences. So many cases, even for doctors, the presentation of the product than the product itself affected choices and decisions. We talk about "informed" choices; but unfortunately, the politics of that information sometimes makes the soundness of the decision seem incredulous.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Work, celebration and politalk at Patna

It so happened that our 9th anniversary clashed with a joint CCS-FNF programme with journalists in Patna. I was excited about visiting a new city and thanks to our dear friends Rajesh and Amit, we had a lovely anniversary celebration with cakes (yes we got two!), wine (which Rajesh went all over town to find!), litti (Bihari dish), breezy weather, and conversations on Bihari politics!

Bihar has a fascinating mix of history-Gautam Buddha attaining enlightment at Bodhgaya, Mahavir spending a lot of time here, Chandragupta Maurya building a vast empire, Ashoka ruled from Patliputra, now Patna. The famous Patna museum was established in 1917 houses stone sculptures and statues. As we travelled across the city, old British clubs are quite visible. We had dinner in the gardens with palm trees along side the river at one such club-Bankipore, established in 1865! There are many sites to explore out of Patna-Nalanda, Bodhgaya, Vaishali. Alas, this trip was too short!

We entered Patna town very soon after leaving the airport. It was almost 9 pm and the old market was bussling with people and traffic. The city itself is not very big, approx 25 km by 10 km along the Ganga.The famous Mahavir Mandir stands right near the Durgah. The differences in the original heights of the two religious structures pushes each one to keep building higher, said our driver! One immediate observation is the liveliness of the city at this late hour. This comes as a wonder thanks to the fear and lawlessness created by 15 years of rule by Lalu. Everyone we spoke agreed on one positive change under Nitish's leadership-the rule of law. It is simply shocking that such a publish display of kleptocracy would go unpunished. How can a CM openly ask for bribes, steal new cars from showrooms for his daughters wedding, and have his goons keep the entire state in a state of continuous fear and still have the guts to ask for increased salary? Our friend Rajesh shared that the goons were still out there, mainly being government contractors driving around Pajeros, they could not just take our a gun and hold you ransom. The journalist community regards Nitish very highly and sees in him a sincere intention to govern better. Unfortunately even with all this governance and visible improvements, his battle for keeping his seat will not be easy. Lalu and Paswan's recent alliance holds the strong caste-vote. Congress is seen to have more of a presence now though it is predicted to just retain its current share of seats. I just hope that sense will prevail and that the Indian voter will surprise all yet again! Another interesting discussion was about MNREGA and an unintended consequence was that due to this scheme, there was a dip in supply of casual labourers that was killing local industry! And what about high rates of growth? Well its could be attributed to larger government spending and not growth in private industry. Also the base was so low that any growth is seen as a positive growth-but the potential is far more.

This trip was too short to explore any of Bihar's wonders, so a trip back is on the cards for sure!

Photos courtesy: Parth's beloved blackberry!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The artist in the making!

These are the proud art works of my darling 3.5 year old nephew! He is quite spontaneous with his art tools and fervently produces these marvelous creations!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Highs and Lows on Independence Day

I have earned a bad reputation in my office for asking the annoying question-so what were your highs and lows on x, y/ z? I think today I can subject myself to this question. I am trying to make sense of what I feel about "India", not just today, but anyday. That is itself a difficult question to answer, since India is a land of mutliple realities. My German colleague gets quite annoyed whenever she asks us a question about India, in a typical Indian fashion, we answer indefinitively, this is also true, on the other hand, so is that....

My highs about India: My former boss once asked me what gives us optimism when all he can see around him goes against any ray of hope. My answer instinctively was-its people! I see my heroes and hope everyday: the street seller who was desperate to sell me a wet newspaper in the drenching rain, the cycle rickshaw puller who was pulling well-endowed and well-fed fellow citizens, the fruit and vegetable vendor who lugs his cart in my colony calling out to us; the auto-driver who waits endlessly at a gas station to refill, the stalls in Sarojini Nagar market who will loose their voices to just sell even 10% of their wares, my helper in my house-Shankar-who lives away from his family to support his son's education in a good private school, my maid who works in several houses to collect enough money to do the same-ensure her kids get good education, the construction workers building who go up and down the stairs in our building fifty times a day. I notice them and look at them and nod whenever I come across a smiling face. But whens its not, I just feel so embarrased and shamed to look them in the eye. They may feel I do so because I think I am above them, but the truth is, I just can't. It reminds me what all India is not. When I witness this sheer hard work and determination they show to do their job day in and day out, I feel happy. I also feel angry at all those who decide not to do this but to take up a gun. Many people argue that India's youth is becoming violent because they are unemployed, they do not have any opportunities. Well, all the people I listed above had the same choice at some time. They chose honest work. They don't see any other faster route to giving their families a better life.

Another high, is the changing political culture in India. Ok, many will disagree with me, especially my Dad, but I feel it is changing. Today more and more people are getting involved politically at the local level, state level and national level. There were more new parties in 2009 elections than ever before. Ok sure, they may not stand a chance to become an alternative to the big players, but they have entered the field. Last night I was in the company of some of these people, and I feel they are doing at least one thing they are very brave to want to step into the scary jungle of politics. They are slowly changing how we react to the dirty "p" word, "politics"! I was active in my RWA some time back when in school and I got discouraged very easily. So for them to fight and get defeated and then be back to fight again, big hooray for them!

My lows-well this is a much longer list. But what I am most low about is that there are so many things that people know need to change, but they just do not change. What will create change? Small change is happening, maybe its too dispersed and at a smaller scale, that we cannot see much of it. But it is happening. I would like to see more of it in the news, in the papers, in the magazines. Show us the positive stories, please! The change I am talking about it is improving how government works and more so in the panchayat or the municipality or a government department. In Ladakh, one of our fellow young travellers used to work in the City Parks Department in New York. Listening to her talk about her work, what they did, how the department was seen by the vendors and citizens, it just seemed so surreal. That a young person like her would want to work in the city government and was leading a team there and did not feel anything special about doing her job, that is what her department was expected to do. When I look at larger change; changing the rules of the game, that is where I am more sad. When will the police system reform, agricultural freedom, the courts.....This week's Outlook magazine compares Peepli Live and Do Bigha Zameen and it is indeed shocking that as with the film, the state of the Indian farmer is not much different.

So am I more happy or sad today? From the comfort of my home, I am close to the former. But I just hope that the next time a film on farmers is made, it mirrors a better India!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Politics and Insecurity of Hair

Note: I was going so crazy recently about wanting a decent hair cut once and for all, that I thought penning down my mumbling mind may give it some rest!

When does one really become conscious of one's hair? How the look and feel of hair affect our lives and how do our lives in term affect our hair?

When I was in school, I had to sit out for the ritualistic oil massage, brading into a plat, making two pigtales or a ponytail for school. I did not much of a say in the inputs into my hair nor the output of how my hair would finally look like. Ironically, that was the time I think my hair in terms of quality was at its best.

At some point, peer pressure and the mirror started taking over which never really go away. I think, hmmm, how does my hair affect how I look? How I am perceived? Does it make me look older? Does it make me look well-kept? Does it match with the clothes I am wearing? Does it match with my face?....The constant need to whisk out my brush. Oh if there is one emergency item in my bag always, its a backup brush! And then comes that phase when I was determined to grow them. As if it was some competitive feat. Every other month I would proudly see how close my hair is to my waist!

With time, one more consideration pops in, manageability! Wash and go! How much time it takes to oil, clean, comb...Practicalities set in and I start thinking what type of cut makes for easiest maintenance.

Then comes all those shampoos to choose from. The ads look compelling, this one looks as if it just might work. Several trials later, I am as confused as ever.

I have never been satisfied with my hair. Its texture, its length, its shapeless nature, the way it does not cover my large ears, its annoyingly fast speed of growth (which means they soon go out of shape). Even till this day. Grass is greener on someone else's head, right? So I look longingly at the women who have nice curly hair that seemingly do not need any combing! Just get up and go.....(and then I find that those same women long for straight hair like mine.)

Now I have the shortest cut so far. Am I satisfied? In the hair and now, so far so good.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Word on the Road!

The roads across Ladakh are laiden with eye-catching and witty signs. A sample of what we saw over and over again...

"Drive fast. Test my recovery."

"I like you. But not so fast."

"Better Mr. Late than Late Mr."

"If you are married, divorce speed."

"After whiskey, driving risky."

"I am curveceous, be slow."----My favourite!

"Don't gossip, let him drive."

"Safety on road is safe tea at home."

On googling, I found many travelers have captured these. Ajay Jain has a book "Peep, Peep, Don't Sleep" on interesting road signs and ADs across India! And I thought I had the divine idea of a coffee table book:(

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An afternoon at Women's Alliance and the thoughts that followed...

One unique thing about Vinod's "Journeys with Meaning" are visits to civil society organisations working in Ladakh on disability, promoting Ladakhi culture, encouraging debate on the effects of globalisation and integration with the world. On our first day in Leh, we made a visit to one such organisation-the Women's Alliance of Ladakh (WAL),

"The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh was set up in 1991 with the twin goals of raising the status of rural women and to strengthen local culture and agriculture. Since its inception the WAL membership was swelled to over 5000 women belonging to over 100 villages from all areas of Ladakh." WAL was set up by ISEC (International Society for Ecology and Culture). Helena Norberg Hodge set up ISEC to "promote locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture". ISEC organises regular documentary screenings at Women's Alliance office (a mention in the Lonely Planet brings in almost every foreign visitor). We saw one such film-"The Economics of Happiness". The film showcased how modernisation and globalisation is taking people away from their local culture, food, traditions and sustainable practices and making them destructively competitive, greedy and environmentally unsustainable. Ladakh was the focus and the opening of Ladakh to the outside world in 1975 led to a cycle of problems which it is still grappling with today. Watching TV and foreigners, Ladakhi people get a romanticised vision of the western society and start looking down upon their own culture, habits, and ways of living. No Ladakhi youth wants to go back to farming and most want a big job in the city with lots of money and all the material comfort money can buy.

Since ISEC is an international society, most expert opinions were non-Indian. The only expert Indian voice was Vandana Shiva. Unlike other anti-globalisation films, this one made a special mention about the government regulations from the small entrepreneurs. However rather than argue for their decontrol, the film argued for increased control over the MNC-the demon which is deemed responsible for all of the world's problems. The film made decisive generalisations about the negative impact of globalisation-unhappiness, destruction of the environment, loss of community. Not many Ladakhi's were interviewed in the film, it did come across as a western perspective of the Ladakhi problem. Another great feature of the film were the best practices shown from across the world which showed that alternatives were possible. We had quite a robust debate after the screening where Parth and I challenged some of the premises on which the film was based. Our "policy" minds quickly made the jump from the assumption to the typical resultant expected behaviour or policy.

Intrigued by the film, I read Helena's book-"Ancient Futures" which documents the Ladakhi culture and its attack by the outside. She has done tremendous work in understanding the cultures and transcribing the Ladakhi language-the folk songs. I found the first part absolutely fascinating. How the Ladakhi's organised themselves, how they settled the occasional dispute, how they managed with their resources, how the people depended on the tradional healers, astrologers and oracles, how they chose the extent of their interaction with the outside world (they traded mostly for jewellry, salt and tea). They had village councils with representatives (one per ten households). They had groups of families that worked for each other in times of need. The fact that there are formal words for such groups in Ladakhi shows the organised nature of such processes. Their variable marital systems of polyandry, polygamy and monogamy depended on the need of the day and the resources available.

The book argues that the population increases in response to the perceived expanse of resources. Therefore as Ladakhi's came to the towns from the villages, they had more children than they would have had, had they stayed back. In the village the children born were in proportion to the resources available. (I was confused about this. In the older days, how did they "plan" their children. Were contraceptives available? Helena says that Ladakhi's are not sexually repressive, so hence it would seem that they were not very judicious when it came to fulfilling this desire?). One more interesting thing is that the children learnt from everyone, everywhere. Formal peer schooling has destroyed this. Also teaching is in Urdu or English and all the textbooks carry the same homogenized content developed by an educationist in Delhi. Many students cannot relate to this and hence had failed. SECMOL, another excellent organised, has created Ladakhi relevant textbooks and is running a school for helping children recover and re-enter the system. Another interesting point was that when government came in the picture and started development projects, the locals did not take ownership of these as they didn't regard these their own. Many such projects fell into disrepair as a result.

But one cannot ignore the realities. The smoke, pollution and noise from all the jeeps and cars storming in Leh. The ugly modern buildings that are overtaking the aesthetic and functional Ladakhi houses. The growing popularity of the alien packaged foods versus the traditional alternative. Food is flown and driven in from all parts of India and the world and subsidised so that the local foods cost more than the imported ones. Yes, we could not deny these consequences of integration. But what about the choice of the Ladakhi's themselves? What if they want the imported butter? What if they want to wear jeans? What if they want to travel beyond their land? Our conversations with the Ladakhi's suggested that they want the tourists. The tourists made them look proudly at their own culture. The Budhhist and Muslims don't fight in summer in front of tourists for fear of loss of revenue. Interestingly, Dalai Lama in his forward to the book writes, "No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development." How does one balance the inherent human want for exploration and adaptation with the unpredictable and conflicting consequences that come with it?

The Journey to Leh

Parth and I were quite confident of ourselves that we will not only make it through the 1000 odd km road journey to Leh but also enjoy every bit of it! We kicked it off with an overnight ride to Manali in a AC volvo bus, alas in the last row! One has to pay a price of booking at the last minute. Anyhow, the seats did recline with enough of a buffer from the seat in front. As we started out of Delhi, the rain Gods spoke and we were stuck in traffic for couple of hours before we felt that we had actually started. A quick stop was made at the Mirchi resturant in Ambala (which had CCD by the way!). With the intention of keeping the passengers entertained (or was it for the driver, hmmm!), two bollywood movies back to back made sure that we did not get much sound sleep! But I could feel myself moving at the thumping beats of the nice songs, though! One great thing about the Volvo buses are the large windows with no grills giving a clean view of the outside world. The hills came into view along with the river and trees...hmmm...the unrestful night did not seem so bad anymore.

Our guesthouse-The Drifters Inn was quite close to the bus station and we passed by this little colony of foreigners in Old Manali with handicrafts shops, tour operators, German bakeries, and cheap guesthouses. After a big breakfast and a three-hour nap, we set on to explore Manali by foot. Following an intriguing sign of "Little Italy" in the inner lanes, we stumbled upon this guesthouse for Israelies. Continuing our exploration, we found this path down to the river and had real cappucino and chocolate balls at the German Bakery near the the river. Eager to build up our appetite for the infamous trout dinner I was so looking forward to, we wandered around the Nature Park-a green enclosure with a nice walking path overlooking the river below. The trout was as great as its omnipresent advertisements. Parth picked up some anjir (fig), walnuts and pine nuts (of how I remembered my little days when my Mom patiently opened pine nuts for me!) for our onward journey. We met the rest of the gang who had come from Mumbai by train.

After a restful night, we set about our two jeeps in the morning unsure about the Rohtang pass which was rumoured to be blocked. Which it was!!! An oil tanker was stuck on the road which had blocked traffic for six days! The weary truck drivers looked on hopefully at the least bit of movement by the army "Recovery team". We hardly witnessed foul language or angry behaviour from them. Not so true about our army guys who did their best to spew out the worst of obscenities! One army guy even beat up a truck driver. Hour by hour of wait turned into about nine hours in total. Luckily we had one jeep to ourselves, so in between dosing and reading and munching on whatever we could find, we managed to kill the time. When it was cleared, a dysfunctional government babu claimed the first right to cross over from the other side again blocking the traffic. One driver died. Atleast three others were seriously ill. 2000 vehicles got stuck that day.

And what makes the news? Aishwariya Rai's movie shooting is affected as Rohtang pass is blocked! The night halt was at Keylong a few hours drive from the Rohtang Pass. Vinod managed to get us a comfortable hotel with nice hot food and water! With four hours of instant sleep, next morning we started off our day long non-stop ride to Leh. When we passed by Sarchu, a part of me was very happy we did not stay there as planned! The tents and open fields next to mountains would have made for a cold cold night! The change in landscape was the first thing to take our breath away. The second was the altitude. Armed with Diomax and Avomine, we managed to fight the nausea and the headaches. Even though we were munching throughout, we devoured the dal-chawal-subzi at the lunch break. Some tents had nice beds which helped stretch our legs.

The next part of the journey was the most difficult for me. Sitting on the back of the Jeep with not so good roads helped digest every bit of food but also made me cry out for a butt massage. Thanks Preeti for the long chat about your work and HR, kept me distracted! But slowly slowly our time to Leh was reducing. Issa our driver was in a chatty mood and patiently answered all my questions about Ladakh, the schools, the governance, the effect of tourists, the future of young men like him. As our words exchanged, the landscape kept changing. The colour of the mountains from brown, red to black...with patches of green shrubs in between. The Chortens started appearing marking habitations. We passed by villages and small towns. One last stop before Leh was Upshi. Interestingly, the bus that had left at the same time as us from Keylong arrived just after us. Small vehicles may not necessarily reach faster than big ones! There were two foreigners on the bus and the smiles on their faces showed no fatigue, no frustration. Keshav and I had a another lot chat about Andhra politics and soon enough we reached Leh. All my tiredness and grumpiness vanished in an instant, I felt just pure happiness at arriving at a new place I had never gone before.

The Calming Peace of Ladakh

Even for an agnostic, there is something deeply spiritual about Ladakh-the Little Tibet. The rotating prayer wheels, the multi-coloured prayer flags, the mound-like Stupas and Chortens containing relics of Buddhist texts or remains of Buddha or a saint are omnipresent.

They mark the beginning of habitation, the high points of mountain passes, the entrance and roof tops of houses and monastaries, the length of bridges...The colours of the prayer flags symbolise the five elements: Blue (sky/space); White (air/wind); Red (fire); Green (water); Yellow (earth). Traditionally families have an inscribed wooden block which is used to make the flags. The old ones are never removed when the new ones are added, it is believed they will naturally merge with the wind in their own time.