Monday, May 16, 2016

It can't possibly be that simple! (Could it?)

This morning, I stood in the shortest queue ever to vote. It was all smooth sailing. The cop at the entrance told us which queue to join--no second guessing, waiting and finding out it's the wrong one! The queue was blessedly short; so short it was single file! People were relatively quiet.

Prior to the election, I was wondering about the candidates. No one had bothered to canvass in our neighbhourhood except the BJP and then too, it was not the candidate but one of those autos with a megaphone attached. The ruling party had changed candidates on us--not that we got to meet or learn about either.

We stood for a brief moment and looked over the giant EC poster with candidate photos. It was an easy decision as we looked at those interchangeable faces.

I thought the queue would be discussing candidates, mainly because they were on my mind.

But the conversation in the queue was far more pedestrian and predictable for a middle-class Indian neighbourhood. People had come clutching all kinds of paper--the Voter ID, booth slips, receipts from the EC, ration cards, even Aadhaar.

There was great consternation because the parties had not distributed booth slips. Why? All that information is on your voter ID! But I did not say, because I have never learnt to sound authoritative about paperwork.

The Election Commission has banned these slips, one woman voter pronounced. The others said, it's going very slowly because the slips are not there. I wanted to say, they have to check against all their registers so that no one votes in your name. It does not matter how many pieces of paper you bring. But I said nothing.

Then the couple behind murmured about first time voters. I was curious. The queue was full of people 40+ and senior citizens. She said (also the one with the EC ban information in the previous para) they have the most awareness and want to vote. He said, "The EC is trying for 100%." I couldn't resist, so I asked, "Will they manage it? 100%? What are the chances?" He said, "75-80." Then with the tone of an expert (because all men are experts), "75-80% is also good." She added in support, "100% is not possible. They don't allow postal and Internet voting." Then they got into a discussion about government officials and who had the postal vote. I lost interest, as I usually do when men acquire that expert-voice.

Senior citizens in their 60s and 70s kept cutting the queue and entering the booth to vote. At one point, the entire family in front of us entered with them. There were ten people in there at one go and polling officers could not function. They turned to my mother, 80+ and standing obediently outside the room, and said, "You cannot crowd the room." I said, "She is standing outside. We will not enter till you call us." Although another queue-cutter was pressing into my back as if it were a stampede. (What is it with us???)

The conversation between her and the couple behind me resumed.

Voting is our duty. It is alright to wait 15 minutes for your turn. Your sambar will not curdle and you can miss 10 minutes of the Vijay film for this.

These people are my age. Do they not remember what it was like in the pre-Seshan elections? The rough and tumble of the campaign. The noise. The violence. The booth-capturing. The dumping of votes. The hit and miss of being able to vote or not. Having voted in a January election but disappearing off the voter registry in May. Whole buildings appearing and disappearing. Dead people showing up in registers but those who voted last year not being found. Don't these people remember what elections and voting were like?

I was so proud to be voting with someone who had canvassed door-to-door for the Congress in the first election and worked as a polling agent. She was posted by the Press Information Bureau to the Election Commission for counting during the next election and has voted in every single election since Independence. She stood there quietly, in spite of having been unstable on her feet this morning. She had water with lime juice in her bag, Vertin, a fan and a towel, and no complaints.

And there was this twitchy lady who must be barely 60, cutting the queue and pushing me to get into the polling booth.

 From the voting mark on my finger,
you might conclude I had not voted but made a splash! 
The policeman said nothing to her, but addressed my mother, "Don't go in now." I was so annoyed. "She has worked in the first election. We know the rules and won't break them." He was a little startled.

In the queue, the second-guessing about what ID was acceptable, what procedure to follow, continued.

We stepped in, and had voted in under two minutes.

It really was that simple. Thank heaven, the people in the queue were not allowed to make rules--they would have set up an obstacle course where there was none! 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Am I really a writer?

Yesterday, I did a radio interview that was surreal for more than one reason. I thought I was going to talk about a Prajnya project. It turned out to be a literary show. I wondered what I was doing there but thought, and was reassured that we would still be talking about the project. Then, I got there and it was about paperbacks--which I have never written. But at that point, inertia set in with disbelief and while I kept trying to insert our agenda into theirs, somewhere along the way, the second layer of surreal set in--were they really interviewing me--ME?--as a writer?

Sure, I write. And someone told them I inspire others to write (thank you, you know who you are!), whereas I seem mostly to beg or bully people into writing. I write a lot--tweets, FB posts, email, SMS, blogposts, work writing. I said in the course of the interview, that I wrote 1000-2500 words most days. That may be quite inaccurate, but if you count the words I write in my head and the words I want to be writing, you would overshoot that number.

I do have publications to my credit--but yesterday, when she asked me, they seemed quite lame!

"What do you blog about?"
"Honestly, mostly about blogging! Or not writing! Or not having anything to say!"

"What is your beat for the column?"
(Should I confess it's hardly a column for how infrequently I write it? I let that pass!)
"Gender, politics, IR." O-kay, that's kind of true.

"What are your academic interests?"
Finally a question I can answer without pretension.

"What is the title of your upcoming book on disasters?"
The true disaster--I cannot remember the exact title! I am not expecting to promote the book but rather an election checklist for voters. I cannot remember and I cannot access the Internet from that studio.

Am I really a writer? Or am I just a person in love with words and with the act, the process of writing?

I went with the flow, quelling a sense of dishonesty as I sat there, because I was curious. I wanted to see what the masterplan was and I would never find out by resisting. I thought about the last year or so and how much writing has come to matter to me. I thought of the great joy I got--and get--from wandering around with a notebook and pen, writing down my travel notes. I thought of the longing I feel for those very rare times when I can do that. I thought of the thrill of saying, "I am going off to write this morning," which I could and did say in Colombo at least once a week and I never do in Chennai. Here were these people, who knew seriously less than nothing about me, calling me a writer and forcing me to admit that I was one, in spite of my misgivings--what is the masterplan?

Each time I have said, "I am going to write," or when I say, "This is my writing desk," I feel a happiness that nothing else gives me. Writing belongs to me as no other part of my life does. It's the only thing I own--the process and pleasure of writing.

As we talked, I mentioned the joy of writing as I travel. Seemed like a safe thing to do; after all, I post many of these travel notes on my website. Then, she asked me about the places I had kept notes on--Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Portugal--and it was like slipping through some subtle layer into another world. I forgot all about the election checklist, and just wanted to share the magic of those moments. The trees of Peradeniya Garden. The wind at Cabo de Roca. The memory of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing in an open-air amphitheatre.

If my joy in finding the words for those experiences makes me a writer, then I might be one.

But then it could have also been the old person's joy at finding a captive audience. I have lived here for over a dozen years and not one person has asked me about my own experiences in life--which have been very interesting and varied, and many, quite unusual. People here are content to transact, broadcast and leave. I remain to the most people in Chennai as featureless as a wall of plain acrylic--useful, practical and forgettable. The invitation to share unforgettable moments was irresistible.

When I write--truly write--I actually don't care about readers. I am quite sure no one is interested in my writing and so I write more or less for either the joy or the relief of the process itself. Because I don't expect people to read, I actually am freer in the moments when I write (like this) than when I do almost anything else. That freedom is addictive. I crave it.

I love the framing of an idea or an experience. I love choosing words. I love to arrange them elegantly and simply. I like to re-read and re-live.

But am I really a writer? None of these takes away from that feeling of being a rank impostor in the interview yesterday. I hadn't solicited the interview. I kept trying to correct them. And then, I gave up and enjoyed myself, talking about writing.

But that does not make me a writer. Or, does it?

There is a secondary question: Do I want to be a writer? Do I want to be a writer with everything that it means today--writing, pitching, rewriting, promoting, partying? Isn't what I love the act of sealing myself into a shell with just my thoughts and words? Who the heck are all these people milling about my words? That is the topic of another post!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

52 (Or, the Full Deck of Life)

52 cards in a pack. 52 weeks in a year. But my thought a few days ago on turning 52 was, "Does this mean I now play with a full deck?" The thought makes a strange kind of sense because at this point, you've probably got yourself together more or less. What-what (as we say) can you see, learn, think, do, experience in 52 years?! A lot! I thought I might write about those things but I cannot.

As my birthday comes to a close, I am filled with great gratitude for the abundance of affection that has marked these weeks, this day in particular. People who did not need to have taken the time to think about my birthday, about my being away from home and about my tastes and preferences, and put together a day that I will not forget.

From the birthday cake that friends brought upstairs early this morning (and I do mean early!) to the phone calls people took the trouble to make--trouble for local friends because I am not usually around for them to call and trouble for friends and cousins who had to figure out a new location--to the profusion of balloons and handmade cards that greeted me at work, every single act was performed with caring. The plan for lunch, the careful and secret scheming and the office cake and song ceremony. There was no need for any of it but people thought about me and went out of their way.

The real birthday present tucked away in the middle of this warmth-filled day is to be able to start this new year feeling that abundance is real and grace is infinite and expressed in countless small acts of giving. The real celebration is a day when your heart brims with gratitude and your ego is diminished by the generosity others show.

My heart is too full to pontificate about anything.

(And maybe 52 means that even though our blogpact is stuttering, I can still embark on a scheme to write at least one blogpost a week for the next 52 weeks--all of which will of course, count towards the blogpact 100!)

A little art and beauty

I have come to Colombo a few times over the years but I have not really taken the time to be a tourist here. This time, I wanted to make that effort.

I learned online that Colombo has an art street. I don't know much about art, but I was curious. The "Art Street" is right across from Vihara Mahadevi Park and its offerings compete with the magnificent trees on that road for one's attention.

The stretch actually begins with the National Art Gallery which is a crying shame. It's a medium-sized hall with about 30 paintings, mostly portraits that are dusty and in disrepair. There are a few landscapes towards the end of the collection, almost like someone forgot to pack them when they moved. A few busts stand in a row in the centre of the room. Really, Southasia's museum spaces, the official ones, are something we should be ashamed of. Of course, there are exceptions but they really only prove the rule.

I have been reading about all sorts of interesting art movements and moments here since Independence, but if I were to judge just by the art gallery, I would think this was a country with zero visual arts sense.

Anyway, you just have to walk a short way away from the gallery, which, by the way, has some pretty flowering trees along its walls, to arrive at a stretch where artists bring and display their own work.

Again, I should say, I don't know much about art. Hanging out with my sister and brother-in-law, I am marginally less of a philistine than I ever was. 

The paintings on display vary from fairly stock images of perahera elephants and fishermen perched on poles against a twilight background, to what seemed to me more interesting work. Why it is interesting, I do not have the depth of knowledge or the vocabulary to tell you. But I chatted with the artists, and then took advantage of their generosity to take a few pictures so I could share them here. 

 I loved these. I loved the colours and I found the technique eye-catching. They are by Rohana Kumarasiri (Rohana Kasthuri Arachchi on Facebook).

I also really liked these lotus paintings by Rajakaruna B Ananda.

Both artists are on Facebook, and you can contact them that way.

But a walk down this little stretch is totally worthwhile, even if you feel intimidated by "art" as I sometimes do. It opens up another person's creativity. In their desire to do something creative and expressive, you find reflections of your own. You are refreshed by the memory of that desire even if you walk in sweltering heat under the scorching sun.

Go. Look. If you like something and can afford it, buy. At the very least, you can ask the artists about their work, and learn something you didn't know before.

And these are the young artists who were indulgent enough to chat with me and answer questions during my visit.