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Week #36: Stories from Okhla

10 September 2014
Posted in: Books, Social issues | No Comments

52 weeks of reading and writing

my-sweet-homeWhat’s special about your home? That was the question that filmmaker and fellow writer Samina Mishra and her friend Sherna Dastur asked about two dozen children in Okhla, Delhi. In reply, they wrote and drew about their lives and their homes, about ‘the terraces, mosques and train tracks that lead to the villages that their families came from’. And the result was My Sweet Home, a book that explores this ‘busy, congested area that is teeming with stories that the newspapers and television don’t bother with’.

Once upon a time, Okhla was a small village on the outskirts of Delhi, which was eventually swallowed up by the gluttonous expansion of the capital. This is also the area that houses Jamia Millia Islamia, the historic university, established in Aligarh in 1920 during the nationalist struggle, moved to Delhi five years later, and to its current location starting in the late 1930s. The area developed and more and more people moved in. Today, there are mostly Muslim families, many of whom have moved here because of communal tension and intolerance, which makes it hard to find homes in other parts of Delhi. The growing population has led to infrastructure problems, but people still ‘throng to this “Muslim area.” In September 2008, Batla House, a locality in this area was the site of an “encounter” between the Delhi Police and some young boys who the police claimed were terrorists. The much-televised encounter thrust Okhla onto the national centre-stage and the area became synonymous with the image of a Muslim ghetto harbouring terrorists and fomenting fundamentalism, if not separatism.’

The My Sweet Home project began when Samina, who has lived in Okhla, started to wonder about

what was missing that could connect Okhla’s story to the story of other neighbourhoods in other cities and so let people interact with each other in ways that the television and news stories did not let them. The answer I felt was — everyday life… in which people go to work and children go to school, in which birthdays are celebrated and kites flown, in which exams are taken, friendships made and broken, cricket matches played. Stories of everyday life tell us what we have in common with this space and what is special about it.

It was these stories of everyday life that the children in the workshop wrote and drew about, and from which resulted the book My Sweet Home: Childhood Stories from a Corner of a City. The book is currently in production, but you can find out more about this amazing project here.



The auto-cracy strikes again

2 March 2013
Posted in: Social issues | 1 Comment

Turns out from 1 March onwards, (most) autos in Delhi are going to stay off the roads after 4 p.m., demanding a fare hike from the government. This is an indefinite partial strike and comes close on the heels of a 48-hour strike last month. But it also turns out that no one asked the majority of the auto drivers about it. Drivers who stand to lose a significant proportion of their earnings for an indefinite period of time. Drivers for whom it will make little difference even if the metered fare is officially raised.

On my way home from work today (well before 4 p.m.), I happened to ride with a particularly vocal driver who informed me about this strike. I already knew about it, but what caught my interest was the way he put it: “The union-wallahs are making us go on strike.”

“What’s the strike for?” I asked. “To increase fares?”

He shrugged and said, “It’s all politics.”

Later, when we stopped at a red light, I asked him, “Who are these union-wallahs?”

“The people who do politics,” he said.

“What about you, drivers?” I asked him. “Are you part of the union? Are you part of this decision to go on strike?”

He shook his head. It is well known that the drivers themselves are pawns in a bigger political game. There are apparently over 80,000 auto drivers in the city, and about 2,000 are union members. Do the maths.

I asked him about loss of earnings. He said: “We just have to do what they tell us. Otherwise they’ll throw stones at us, damage our autos.” Then he said something that really got me thinking: “What sense does it makes to go off the roads after 4 p.m.? It’s really inconvenient for commuters. That’s when people need to go home from offices.”

Gasp. Could it be that an auto driver actually cares and has a sense of responsibility towards the service he provides?

The thing is, we routinely vilify auto-rickshaw drivers as crooks and thieves, but there really is another side to the story. Like my driver today, most are poor, in many cases their family’s only breadwinner, and desperately trying to make a living in a system that really doesn’t work for them. Thus, the truth behind these strikes has remained the same.

Yes, the metered fares are unfairly low. Even most commuters will admit to that, especially given that CNG prices have gone up more than once ever since the last fare hike. One also needs to acknowledge that without autos, which ply in Delhi’s extreme climate (it was 5°C two months back and will be 45°C-plus in another three months), most of the city would be stranded. That said, however justified a fare hike is, it does not necessarily mean auto drivers will earn more—quite likely they’ll just have to pay higher rents to their contractors, who will continue to harass them and wield their power over them.



Can’t buy you love

14 February 2013
Posted in: Scratchpad, Social issues | 1 Comment

Commercial loveSomething strange happened today—I almost found myself in agreement with HT City. “Are we being conned?” screamed the headlines, asking if Valentine’s day was a gimmick thought up to line the pockets of sellers of pink and heart-shaped things. Unfortunately, a closer look revealed that the placement of the story was probably a gimmick itself. And my world was righted.

Citing a survey “across platforms”, HT came up with the revelation that 42 per cent (of youngsters aged 18 to 25) agreed that it is a con, followed by 35 per cent who thought it probably is but are willing to be wooed, and bringing up the rear were the remaining 23 per cent who felt it is a “worldwide tradition” that ought to be embraced.

Like most of these sort of polls, a closer look at the sample told a different story: 340 respondents in a city with over 16 million residents (23 million if you count the entire NCR) is hardly representative. Moreover, one would hardly imagine the “platforms” the survey was conducted on—website, social media, FM radio channel and face-to-face (and they got only 340 people?!)—made any effort to reach every corner of its complex society. Yet another testimony of how the day is targeted at a class able to spend money.

Up until liberalization in the early 1990s, we in India really hadn’t much notion of Valentine’s Day. The first I heard of it was as a pre-teen, through an aunt who worked at a Christian missionary school and was generally better informed about saints and their “days” than anyone else I knew. It was only around the mid-1990s that the commercialization started (as I recall it). Twenty years later, Valentine’s Day is a money-spinning blitz coated in shiny, glittery marketing, and pushed down our throats in a package of emotional blackmail.

Most of the carrots are dangled in front of youngsters—”Tell your special someone that you love them. All you need is this heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in pink shiny paper, and here’s a bunch of roses and a fluffy teddy bear holding a card with mushy verses inside just in case they are a bit slow.” And if you’re slightly older, there’s always that special Valentine’s Day dinner or romantic getaway. These messages are also continually reinforced by deviously planting in impressionable minds the idea that if you get it wrong, there is something lacking in your relationship. Thus, an unrelenting pressure to conform, without really stopping to wonder why.

My general derision for Valentine’s Day does not mean I’m opposed to romance or love. Just that the idea that you’re supposed to express it in a certain way on a certain day is loathsome (to me). Especially because doing so will mean I’ve fallen for the marketing brainwashing. Also, who can really get excited about a day that “revolves around a deranged baby with a weapon” (from Switched at Birth)?!

Call me regressive, but if you love someone, they should know it by how you are every day, not because you buy them overpriced roses and take them to dinner because a shiny ad in the papers said so.



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