Friday, December 31, 2010

A Million Sita-s.. and remembering the joy of creativity

Last night, I went to watch Anita Ratnam's new dance theatre presentation, A Million Sita-s. It was the first performance I managed to attend this Margazhi, and it was so worth shaking myself out of the inertia of staying home.

The presentation tells five stories through Sita's voice, breaking down the traditional distance/ difference between Sita and other characters in the Ramayana. Sita, the narrator, is in exile in Valmiki's ashram and encounters Manthara, Soorpanakha, Sabari and Ahalya. She tells them about herself, remembers her encounter with them and because she has empathy, she shows us the world as they would have seen it.

As Ahalya, she lets you into her feeling of temptation and being flattered, and her anger about her punishment--to turn into a stone till Rama's feet can liberate her. When Sita apologizes to Manthara for the teasing--even pelting with stones--that Dasharatha's sons inflicted on her, a window opens, and then you feel Manthara's sadness and anger... maybe for the first time. In Sabari's devotion, we are all moved--not just Rama. When Sita chats with Soorpanakha, you see them both as sisters. You hear a sarcasm that is never associated with Sita, when she asks Soorpanakha if she knows what the Maryada Purushottaman did. And in her sharing that, you see that they have a great deal in common.

If Anita's performance as Sabari was very, very moving, she was scary as hell as Soorpanakha. I thought for a moment that I would have nightmares, but of course I dreamt of deadlines instead. Anita Ratnam's Soorpanakha would have been a better aesthetic experience!

I am really glad I went to this presentation.

It was beautifully conceptualised, written and choreographed. The music was terrific, and Lakshmi Rangarajan's rendition of the bhajan that comes right after the Manthara segment was particularly beautiful.

Only two things that bothered me a little. The pile of cloth on stage when Anita danced as Ahalya--I kept worrying that she would trip--but maybe this particular stage was really small and that's why. And for the first part of the performance, the person reading out the narrative was speaking too close to the mike, so the sound was jarring and distracted from both the dance and the music, which is one reason I may not have understood the Ahalya segment correctly, actually.

In her performer's note: Anita Ratnam writes, "A MILLION SITA-s is not a feminist bashing of Rama." And it isn't a critique of the epic or the cultural traditions in which it is rooted either. It is simply a very sympathetic look at people in Rama and Sita's story who don't get a lot of airtime or understanding. I am not sure if this is the right way to put it, but it's very much a story told from within... from within this tradition, by someone who enjoy the epic and who enjoys all its characters. It's just a story told from an unusual standpoint within the story. Like a new look-out point in a very popular holiday destination. 

This was a wonderful experience and if "A Million Sita-s" is performed anywhere near where you are, you shouldn't miss it.

I saw "A Million Sita-s" on the penultimate day of 2010 and it reminded me of how much joy creative work can give the creator and the person who gets to enjoy the work. Those of us who can be creative in different ways and those of us that can appreciate creativity should never let those parts of us languish on the back-burners of our lives. That's my New Year's Resolution, for sure!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tenth Day

For ten days after a person dies, their family makes offerings to them every single day. On the tenth day, their appetites are satisfied and the soul can freely transmigrate to its next destination. Freeing the spirit of the one they love is an act of tough love for the bereaved family which must not do anything that tempts the departing one to linger.
And so my not-quite-42 years old cousin, Sivasankari, would have started her transit to another life yesterday.

I am told that we spent a lot of time visiting Sankari and my atthai when she was a baby.
Sankari was born after her father’s premature death. He had gone to the hospital to admit his ailing mother for treatment, but suffered a stroke and died. My atthai was more than eight months pregnant at that point. Sankari never knew her father and grew up in the care of her maternal grandparents—my father’s parents—and her mother in Gudiyattam.
My mother says that soon after she was born, we visited and spent whole days with my grieving aunt. I don’t remember any of that.

I don’t remember any of that. But I don’t remember a time when Shekhar Anna and Sankari’s presence in my universe were not real to me. I may not have met them much. I may not know much about who they were, have been, are… what made and makes them tick. But they were real and they were there and there was always affection for them.

Visits by us to Gudiyattam were rare and brief. My father was not one to linger over anything (he did not linger over death either). And we seldom travelled; my parents shouldered too many responsibilities for that.
Visits by my aunt and Sankari were also rare but they stayed longer. And that is probably my first real memory of my younger cousin.

My clearest, earliest memories of Sankari are actually of a long summer holiday when she was around 5 and my sister around 4. They were inseparable, insisted on dressing alike, played together from dawn till dusk and danced like our flat was a giant stage. I remember the giggling of two little girls and the twirling of their colourful pavadais.
At the end of that summer, my sister forgot every language but Tamil. With the facility of very little children, she had completely absorbed the vocabulary and inflexions of her slightly older playmate.

That summer, looking through my photograph albums, I remember Sankari asking our grandmother, “Why are there no photographs of us in this album?” Like most children, I was and remain much closer to my mother’s family.
But I have never forgotten that question. Or the hurt in her voice that she may not even have realised herself.
And till date, I don’t share photographs with people if they are not featured (actually, I rarely share photographs at all). I am deeply conscious that I may have unconsciously excluded them.

Our visits to Chennai got more frequent in the late 1980s. By this time, my aunt and her family had moved base to the city so we also got to see them more frequently.
Sankari was in college, then studying cost accountancy—the first person I had met in that field and introducing us to the costume jewellery treasure-trove that was Pondy Bazar.

Sankari got married when I was living in the US. For more than a decade, I have barely seen her. To be honest, our lives and interests barely touched, though strung along a single thread of familial affection. We saw my aunt more often, even her brother who lives abroad.
She married into a large close-knit family, had a successful career, two lovely daughters and moved around India with her husband and children.
In a family that is practical and honest in its relationships, we did not call each other out of politeness, subconsciously accepting the lack of intersect and understanding it did not mean disconnect.

I think I last saw her at the first birthday celebration of her younger daughter. That was seven years ago. It was a warm reunion and we were happy to see each other after a long time.
But we have not met since.

Two years ago, when our nephew has his upanayanam, Sankari could not attend. She was very ill and had to have emergency surgery. The surgical would did not heal well, and infection spread through her diminutive body. She suffered great pain and discomfort, spells of hospitalisation and finally loss of consciousness.
My aunt called us two weeks ago. “She is suffering. She is not well at all.” She did not tell us exactly what the matter was. Nor did she dramatise the gravity of the situation. People were flying in to see her—“vandu paathutu peita,” she said (“They have come and seen her”). We were puzzled by the phrasing but did not press. My aunt also said, “If there is a cure, let her be cured. If there is no cure, let her not suffer.”
Perhaps she was trying to tell us her daughter was dying. But it is not in our nature to probe; people will tell us what they need us to know.
Besides, we were still sure she would pull through.

Sankari had been finding it difficult to speak. She was communicating with her family by writing notes. When my aunt called us, she was already slipping in and out of consciousness. Her eyes would open briefly, then close.
As they did for the last time on early Tuesday morning, September 8, 2010, around 3:15 a.m..

Sivasankari is survived by her husband, two very young daughters, a doting elder brother, sister-in-law, nephew, niece, many in-laws, many cousins, many friends and a mother who has seen and struggled too much.

I barely knew her. Really, I barely knew her. And neither of us had been moved to simulate closeness or stimulate contact over the years.
But her illness and passing have cast a long shadow over my days. She will not know that.

She desperately wanted to be well.
I remember Sankari as a girl with many dreams and desires. Strange that I do, because it is not as if we had conversations in which she expressed these or enough time together to have known it. It is as if, unbeknownst to either of us, her yearning for happiness communicated itself to me. To others as well, no doubt.
I believe she was very happy to find herself married into a large, loving, inclusive family. I believe she had every happiness she could have dreamt of.
But I think: Would ten days of pinda offerings satisfy all her appetite for life? Will she see her dreams for her children realised? Will she do all the things she wanted to—maybe travel, maybe have a large garden, maybe kacheri-hop—with her husband when they both retired?

I am deeply, deeply saddened by Sankari’s death. I could not have predicted how much.
It’s not just the waste of a life that still had a lot of living left in it. It’s that cliché: Blood is thicker than water.

Your ten days are up, Sankari, and for Hindus, there’s no resting in peace. You must move on and so must we.
I can only wish for you a journey of fragrance and light. And immeasurable love and happiness in lives ahead.

September 16, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Are debate and decision-making mutually inimical?

A few years ago, I saw some students off on GN Chetty Road one night and went back in the morning to discover all the trees were gone. Perhaps there had been press coverage for months about the flyover that was scheduled to be built and I just did not notice. Infrastructural projects are not riveting news until their ecological and human costs become evident. And even then, not everyone stops to take notice.

Whether it is GN Chetty Road's trees, or Sethusamudram, or the Sardar Sarovar project, I think one of the really big problems is that discussion and debate begin after work on the project begins. You cannot return to the status quo ante and you cannot really proceed. So insult is added to injury as something is lost and yet, that which ostensibly could have been gained is delayed indefinitely.

Why don't we debate these things before we start? It would identify pitfalls or at least make them known. My point here is not to start a rant but to genuinely pose this question.

I tried to look at this from the other point of view and imagine the reasons officials would offer for not having town-hall debates and the like:
  1. The issues are complex and cannot be debated by lay persons.
  2. Nobody would care enough to attend. If they did care, they would have been vigilant enough to know already.
  3. It is the role of civil society and the press to highlight these things.
  4. We cannot keep debating things; decisions have to be made and every decision comes at a cost.
All of these are valid to some extent but still don't add up to a reason not to debate. My question is how do we set up these conversations?

Prajnya campaigns against gender violence every year primarily in order to bring the issue into everyday conversation. We want people to recognize that there is a problem, to use the words for which they invent euphemisms and to come around to having their own discussions about the root causes and solutions. Lasting change will come through this, we believe. We try to come up with creative, fun, different ways in which to nudge these conversations to start, but it is not easy even with an issue like gender violence which is closer to most of us than we will admit.

How much more difficult then, to get people to stop what they are doing to discuss infrastructure or energy projects whose impact most of them will feel only considerably further down the line! Take this article by Milind Deora today arguing for a new airport in Bombay/Mumbai. How do we take this out of the op-ed page, the talk show studio and the cocktail circuit into every space where conversations happen?

And if we did that would we find ourselves in perpetual debate mode, never calling a decision and carrying it out? I am also afraid of that. In fact, temperamentally, that bothers me more than lack of debate, I must confess.

Therefore, this is a serious question and I would love to hear some answers: How do we generate debate on important public matters and how do we do it so that debate does not derail decision-making?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Personal is political is personal is political is...: Review

I have been following V.V.Ganeshananthan on Twitter for a long time (@Vasugi) but did not know anything about her. Then somewhere, probably on Twitter, I heard she'd published a novel. I was curious but because South Asian diaspora novels have become so common, was not terribly interested. Then, the other day, I saw her book in Landmark and thought, "Oh, why not?" My scepticism was underscored by the very small print of the edition I bought.

It's a good book, folks! You should read it. And this is why.

The protagonist is a young Sri Lankan-American and as the book unfolds, she learns about the country her parents (Tamil) have left behind. Yes, like most of us, she knows what happened, when it happened, in a textbook sort of way, and being a Sri Lankan Tamil, she has seen graphic pamphlets and heard bits of stories. But what she learns as the book unfolds is what most of us never have a chance to do: to put face to headline, to put feeling into choice, to see the inevitability that personal relationships will have political dimensions. To see it all together.

Ganeshananthan braids two strands--the interior, familial, personal one of marriage and the exterior, communal, political one of conflict--into one young woman's journey of seeing. The story of each marriage is a gem in itself, complete, stand-alone. I want to share with you a passage that I found very moving and particularly memorable (page 114):

"...Then he hit her across the cheekbone, and Harini's mouth flooded with blood.

      This is the taste of a Marriage Dying, her Heart said. Harini had swallowed everything, all her life. Her spinster sister Mayuri's jealousy of a Marriage that had happened too neatly. Her mother's quiet disapproval. Her own self-imposed status as a perpetual shadow. Harini swallowed again, swallowed air and blood. Her beating Heart had grown pulpy and old with abuse. 

     But Harini bent double, bent down. She picked up her Go-On Forever Smile from where it had fallen on the ground, and went on."

As the protagonist's family nurses her uncle, a Tiger who's been allowed to get away because he is dying, old stories are finally told, and new ones too. In that community in Toronto, she discovers just how personal politics is: the Tigers have chosen her cousin's future husband. And she discovers that personal ties cross political lines as well.

This is a book lots of people should read. First, those who are looking for a good story, well-written should definitely read this. Second, those who are interested in Sri Lankan politics, will begin to glimpse the things that textbooks don't record about why people make the choices they do. Finally, those interested in conflict should read this because it illustrates how much more complicated conflict resolution is than textbooks would suggest; there are no templates because the human Heart (to continue the author's usage!) doesn't read them.

I will finish by noting that the author teaches English at the University of Michigan, and was teaching a course on political fiction last year. This would be a great book to assign as recommended reading for courses dealing with issues like conflict or migration or in South Asian Studies.

V.V.Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage, Orion Books, 2008.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Yardsticks to trip over?

NGO accountability is a huge issue these days. For funders, government and the public, good governance becomes a measure by which to praise or berate the social sector. For the social sector, trying to regulate its own affairs, it is becoming a set of rigid standards based on an essentialised model of what NGOs do.

Take a look at this article by Vijay Nadkarni, former deputy director of Credibility Alliance, in a special issue of Agenda on civil society in India.

This week, Indian Express has carried a few articles on this question, that I am blogging here mainly to bookmark for later and clip.

NGO non-governance, Indian Express, July 8, 2010.
Mandakini Devasher Surie, Watching the Watchdogs, Indian Express, July 10, 2010.
Ratna Sudarshan, Learning to ask, Indian Express, July 17, 2010.

Standards for NGO governance appear to be derived from existing standards in government and the corporate sector, both of which, if truth be told are not always stellar examples of upright accounting or transparency. In principle, this is a wonderful thing, and the reason many organizations have sought out affiliation and accreditation.

However, there are two self-defeating aspects to this. First, the checklist of standards is rigid across different kinds of organizations in different stages of development. As Ratna Sudarshan points out, the rubric "NGO" includes a wide range of organizations: think-tanks from IDSA to Prajnya; welfare organizations from a village SHG to a PRIA, etc. The same standards of integrity must apply, but apply in different ways. For instance, in Prajnya, we really have no employees who could take leave or have travel allowances, nor an office where they could sign a register. What would we do with a personnel policy we could not apply? Of course, we should have one, and there should not be arbitrary human resources standards in our organization, but for that standard to apply, we should have both humans and resources first!

The second, more worrisome thing, is that rather than developing an optimistic approach that assumes NGO boards want to do things properly and then mentoring them in that direction as they grow, the growing community of governance monitoring agencies and consultants seems to carry with them the "guilty until proven innocent" assumptions of the government and the general suspicion about NGO motives that the corporate sector has.

To whom can NGO boards turn for help in the circumstances, even as these standards are becoming influential in funding circles?

As a non-profit founder, a citizen with a vested interest in good governance anywhere, and a political scientist who is fascinated by how regimes of different sorts acquire the backing of a consensus and then move forward, these are matters that concern me profoundly.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Founder's Blues: What's my story?

I do not understand why such a fine idea as our Education for Peace Initiative is so hard to talk about. I have spent a lot of time (as I usually do) wondering about what we (I) say and do not say that is so uninspiring.

I got to thinking about the campaign against gender violence for which it is possible to at least raise individual donations. People are not moved as much by what we say as by the memories of a person or an incident that it evokes. I think. It is certifiably a good cause.

So is peace education. And lord knows, it should take no marketing outside of the news headlines. Why would 14 year olds elect to fight in violent insurgencies? Why would high school kids pick up the gun on small playground disputes? And short of the gun, think of the many verbal hostilities children learn by the time they leave school. We should all be seriously upset by this. But we are not.

It is hard to narrate these things as a story, I think. Yes, it's true these things happen, but I don't know if I can narrate the teenaged suicide bomber's life as a familiar anecdote. And if I say, children are carrying guns, is that a child that lives in my building?

I could come at it from the experience of the two people whose brainchild this has been, but we are the very fortunate. We come at peace education from a sense that we who have been so lucky as to have grown up around farsighted educationists and very liberal parents need to share this privilege. We share two convictions: 1. We can make a difference through our efforts and 2. The way to do that is by teaching children peaceful ways of relating to each other and living with differences. 

We could come up with a variety of personal anecdotes about the peace-teaching people and experiences we have had, and we have to some extent in our occasional blog: But it's not the same as Abc, aged 8, beat her little sister, aged 4, to pulp because there was cream in her milk.

So now I am going to embark on a search for the story. And test some of them here, bewarned.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Founder's Blues: Fundraising, the BYOI party!

That's what it is. Fundraising is a "Bring your own imagination" party. Little wonder then, that it must be one of the world's worst attended gatherings!

I can write up the invitation in any format you name. I can strategically deploy the words you currently love. I can break up my 'ask' into children's portions or lump them together to sound impressive. I can give you a multicoloured brochure or an academic's document full of jargon.

I can speak to your heart. I can orate to your conference hall. I can make you a jazzy powerpoint. If you gave me money, I could throw it down the drain to make an animated film about my funding needs. I could even write a song and sing it for you, with the refrain: Tum ek paisa de do, voh dus lakh dega! (Or, in tune with our current needs, tum 6 lakh de do, voh 60 crore dega!)

I can share my vision with you in the medium of your choice. Bur if you have no imagination, I have no cure for that but prayer.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The treasure trove at Giri Stores, Mylapore

In my deeply ambivalent, often antagonistic, relationship with Madras/Chennai, shopping is something that usually has a positive cast.

And since I moved here, Giri Stores near the Kapaleeswarar Temple is one of the few places I really like to go to. It's full of surprises--things I never knew existed; things I never knew I was interested in; things I never knew I wanted.

It's also been a research mainstay. Since I moved here, I have done a little bit of work on Indian political ideas and in the absence of any decent research libraries, buy a lot of books. Mainstream bookstores don't carry the range of books on the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas, or on Indian philosophy, that you can find at Giri Stores or at the Motilal Banarasidas store nearby in Luz. There are also two stores off Royapettah High Road, but Giri Stores is so much fun!

You walk into the floor with all the pooja samagri, everything smells wonderful. And yes, you do want to buy all the dhoop and agarbatti immediately! One flight up into the mezzanine, you find the many kinds of metal things that live in pooja rooms--kuttu vilakkus of different sizes, kamakshi vilakkus, yantrams, kalashams, etc. The next flight up, they stock music and DVDs and not just religious stuff. I saw good old Dev Anand gazing out of the 'Asli Naqli' DVD package! Finally, they have a floor of books. I spent a lot of time and money there this morning, all in the name of research! I was able to find academic books as well as the tiny pocket-book size edition of something my mother asked for.

The basement may be the most blah part of the store--it's where they stock "gift items." From pocket-size pictures of various deities to those now-ubiquitous Chinese-made idols, it may be both the most contemporary and the most generally tasteless floor.

All in all, a place at which you can really spend a lot of time browsing with no agenda. And did I mention how good it smells? (Yes, I did also buy lots of incense as well.)

Check it out!

Monday, June 7, 2010

On the street where I live

(with apologies to Lerner and Lowe)

"I have often walked down this street before..."

and it's always littered with garbage and attended by a faint whiff of the open urinals that are the small streets leading us from here to the famous bazaar road that runs parallel to our street.

"But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before..."

There's no pavement here. Nor in in the streets that surround it. And in that famous bazaar, the pavement has been taken over by vendors, leaving no room to reach the shops from an auto that parks on the road.

"All at once am I, several storeys high..."

"Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?
Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?"

"Does enchantment pour out of every door?"

No, it's not just the street where I live.

"People stop and stare, they don't bother me."

There's nowhere else on earth I wouldn't rather be.

Let the time go by, they don't care if I, can't bear the stench of the street where I live...

And oh the-ghastly-feeling, just to know they never clean here.
The ooooo-verpowering reeling from the smell that may suddenly appear..

"People stop and stare, they don't bother me."
If it made a difference to how clean my street might be
I would bus them here, show them how it feels
to walk here, on this street where I live.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Discovering the Mary Westmacott books

Thanks to new Rs. 150/- editions and my sister leaving behind a couple of Agatha Christies on her last trip, I have been reminded of how wonderfully she wrote. It's now well over twenty-five years since I first discovered and drank them in. I have occasionally found an unread book or re-read favourites, but between excellent writing, a decent memory and cinematic adaptations, had stopped, thinking I would remember them too well to enjoy another reading.

Not true.

And yesterday, I bought "Giant's Bread," one of the novels she wrote under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. I have long hesitated to pick these up. What if they are boring?

Let me tell you: "Giant's Bread" is unputdownable! Set over a couple of decades between the Boer War and the First World War, the characterization and plot are amazingly contemporary. It's only the references to specific locations and events that remind you that this is not a story about the last two decades (and yes, the absence of email and cell-phones!).

I want especially to highlight the section where Christie/Westmacott writes from the perspective of a small boy. It's brilliant. There's no trace of the well-traveled, world-feted novelist there: just a little boy, who is afraid of grand pianos and has imaginary friends.

If you are looking for a fun read for a summer evening, try "Giant's Bread." Now, I must earn the time-off to read the first volume of the Ariadne Oliver omnibus!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

An hour in Landmark

I took some time off to wander around Landmark, Nungambakkam this morning. I go often, usually with visitors or with a specific agenda. It's always a pleasure to wander around books without an agenda or time-limit. It's not often that I do that without also spending money.

I increasingly spend more time in the non-fiction section than the fiction, mostly because I am in the middle of some project and so the subject is on my mind, but also because I am increasingly loath to spend money on fiction. The Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith are a delight but almost INR 600/- for fiction is more than I can afford. And I realised today that I want to be very sure I will enjoy a book before I pay for it. Take the two together and there's not a lot there that I will pay for. But that's not what I wanted to blog about.

I was looking at the women's studies shelf, or whatever they call it at the moment. It's a melange of books that includes V.Geetha's "Theorizing Patriarchy" alongside Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and "Women who run with wolves." Whatever. But searching for something that I might enjoy as much as I did "Reading Lolita," I noticed two trends.

One, books about friendships between women seem to use Jane Austen a part of their plot. Women read Austen. They write about Austen. They recreate Austen. Now I love Jane Austen's books and have no trouble understanding why others do, but it's just curious that so many books seem to make people loving Jane Austen's work central to their plot.

I also noticed that a lot of books are about mothers looking for children, fighting for children, etc. Or the book about the beauty parlours of Kabul. Or women in West Asia writing about their struggles with what western publishers see as a bad situation with marketing potential. Why not, is one reaction, and "hmmm" is the other.

I also noticed that the shelf with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" magazines has grown in size. Interesting, I guess. Magazines are glossy, people are glamourous. And I feel like Rip Van Winkle, rediscovering the universe, one bookshop visit at a time.

And perhaps the strangest thing was that I was not tempted by a single new work of fiction. Not one. I came back with Agatha Christies that I have read before, confident that they would be totally paisa vasool. And that others visiting our home would be happy to read them too.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The delicate thread of livelihood: A tangail from Fulia

Last week, this time, I was getting ready to go with two friends to the small weaving village of Fulia in West Bengal.
The expedition was planned following a casual question about saree shops in Kolkata. I am a great fan of Bengal cotton sarees. They are simple, elegant, hardy and still light enough for the hot, humid weather of cities like Bombay, Chennai and indeed, Kolkata itself. They are also always wide/ tall enough for tall women to wear comfortably, a great virtue in my family. And need I say, they last forever; out in the balcony two days ago, was a saree I had bought in 1996--worn first to outings, then to work meetings, then at home during the day by my mother and now in the night.... still going strong. (Very simple saree on the right was the first cotton saree I chose for myself at 14, and the one I wore to our school farewell party thirty-one years ago.... still good!)

Anyway, this post is not about sarees or our clothing preferences. It's about the consequences our changing preferences have for traditional artisans.

I want to share with you some photographs I took in the village, with the encouragement of my friend. I don't normally take photographs of strangers and am uncomfortable when I see tourists do that. People are not curiosities! But I want to share these pictures that I took in a weaver's shed, with the weaver's nonchalant assent. And I do mean nonchalant. He barely looked up from his work, letting the rhythm keep him focused in a way I wish I could emulate.

We had driven out in an air-conditioned vehicle and could still feel the cruel mid-day sun, past the tinted window-glass. He wove with that sun beating down his bare back.

We had gone to Fulia at least partly in search of lower prices. But travel is such a good teacher! The visit reminded me of things I knew, but don't think about.

It takes so many days' work to weave a single saree, and the work is so fine. We take one look at a saree and say, "No." Or if we are more outspoken, "Ugh!" or "Who'll buy that?" If we actually like the saree, we are likely to second guess the quoted price because we are sure that the customer is taken to be gullible. The person who really loses out is the artisan/ artist who created the saree in the first place. But we don't think of that.

If I buy a saree for Rs. 400/-, I will then make sure I have a petticoat/ underskirt that's just right and a blouse that matches. I might even have two blouses made--a dressy one and a simple one. More fabric, and tailoring, too. Depending on where I live, I might spend between 700-900 rupees to make my saree ready-to-wear, but the weaver will still get a small fraction of that. And that's the fraction affected by the habit of haggling over prices.

But if I don't even buy a handloom saree, with or without haggling, what happens? That's the point of my post, really.

In the last few years, I have seen more and more Indian women move away from handloom. The most important reason is that handloom cloth is hard to maintain. It needs to be washed separately because bright dyes may bleed. It needs to be hung out to dry separately. Handloom sarees (and salwar-kameezes) often need starching. They almost always need ironing. Who has time? Who has space in India's densely packed cities? And how many can afford even the roadside istrivala (ironing-cart) on a regular basis? Fair enough.

Handloom is also more expensive. There are inexpensive weaves but they don't last as long. And synthetic daily wear sarees are cheaper than better quality handloom cottons. Understandable.

But how about those who can? Why do Karan Johar's heroines wear chiffon where Chanderi or Maheshwari weaves can look as delicate and more gorgeous? Why are TV bahus in georgette and crepe when a Mysore silk or Paithani might work as well? What about TV anchors? And evening gowns on Indian red-carpets? These are all people who can afford the sarees and laundry.

Most of all, it is the increasing adoption of the climate-inappropriate, funereal black business suit that upsets me. This is a hot, mostly sweaty country. Why would Indian women (or men) choose to wear ghastly Western style business wear (with stockings/socks and shoes) here? Moreover, when we are talking about climate change all the time, why consciously adopt office-wear that makes it mandatory to run air-conditioning all the time?

I work with young people who freak when I suggest (in jest) that they wear a saree to our programmes. It's such a beautiful dress, at any age! Our compromise solution: the salwar kameez. Because left to themselves, they would be in western clothes. In what way are t-shirts and jeans or funereal (I repeat the word on purpose) office suits more beautiful or appropriate in India than these? And aren't other people tempted by them as I always am?

With each such choice--whether by the office-goer or the student or Manish Malhotra--the weaver's livelihood diminishes. And an important part of our heritage is lost, as this traditional art, passed on from generation to generation, dies. Change is the order of life, I accept, but why usher in change unthinkingly? Will we then wait for an outsider to come and re-discover our textile heritage, willing then to pay 4000 Rs for something we shun at Rs 400? This, of course, is the FabIndia success story.

Are you now tired of my tirade, asking: So what am I supposed to do? Here's what I would request: Buy handloom when you can. And give artisan's bazaars like Dastkar or government cooperative stores a chance, before you head out to the big department stores. Try Co-optex or Apco or Tantuja or Mrignayanee, at least occasionally. Your small detour might save someone's livelihood or life, and will definitely save a part of your heritage from disappearing.

Take a look at the following: Swati Garg, Recovery a mirage for Fulia's weavers, Business Standard, May 11, 2010. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Founder's Blues

I've been meaning for ages to blog about the process of setting up a non-profit think-tank. Not so much because I have any great insights to offer but because someone else doing the same thing might stumble upon my blog and think, "Okay, I am not alone in this universe! There are other insane, misguided and obstinate people out there, whose egos won't let them beat the retreat that the rest of them urges."

So right there: Some qualities that it takes to found something when you have nothing more than your own skill-set and a clear vision. A healthy degree of insanity that allows you to boldly go where only Star Trek has gone before. An ability to selectively edit out the cautionary advice you get--and where I am, where answers to all questions begin with either "That's not possible" or "That's very difficult"--this is especially important. Obstinacy that makes you stay the course in a way that's true to your vision and not "what someone else does" or "what funding agencies like." And an ego that won't let others be right, even if you have to bend the universe to your will.

I would say that Prajnya is the natural adult version of an institution-building imagination I have always had. I am not just rewriting history to say this. Every cousin, aunt, uncle or schoolfriend that has been subject to my school prospectuses and architectural blueprints for a campus would attest to this. My school dream borrowed from all the school story-books I loved and my vision for Prajnya grew out of all the other think-tanks and dreams I have encountered.

And yes, I do use the collective 'we' when I speak about this in public, but the reality is this is a dream that found its first agent in me. So this and related posts will inevitably be very personal.

So where do I start with this? I won't do this in a linear mode because really it would not be fair at this stage to narrate the back-story of Prajnya in any particular way. Ultimately, this will be a story of many stories and many people.

What I do want to write about are moments like the one I have been this morning.

I have before me a fundraising proposal to write. It requires imagination, knowledge of the field and a tedious amount of detail to be worked out. Inevitably, we are leaping in the dark on that detail. The chicken-egg problem here is that we cannot actually be sure of the detail till we have money. We cannot get money without writing as if every detail has been finalized. So we sit down, the 2-3 of us that are usually available for this, and imagine a house of cards.

We will do X in January. We will do Z in February. So-and-so and So-and-so2 will do this with us (never mind, that they still have no idea). Jane Doe will evaluate this. Etc. Etc.

That's what all grant-seekers do. No big deal.

The catch: We actually don't have any full-time people on our payroll. So even the 'we' is an iffy 'we'. So as the person who is always there because the dream is in your head, you start to think: Okay, what's the point? Who am I writing this proposal for? Who cares if I do this? Who else is at all invested in this?

The hardest part of founding and building something is that it is very lonely. And this is both ironic and worrying, because an institution-building is a team effort--not just during public programmes but every single day. And I don't want a codependent relationship with Prajnya. It's very hard even for the founder to stay motivated when the team remains virtual beyond a point.

Prajnya is teaching me to live in the moment--the human, financial and material resources I have at any moment are all I can count on. That has spiritual virtue but in the real world, it is very difficult. I have not learned how to live this lesson yet. I worry less about what will happen--I have enough faith in whatever's brought me here to know that Prajnya will become what it should be. But I have a hard time staying motivated. My conviction on specifics wavers. My faith in anyone outside myself is easy to shake and it billows and folds like a light curtain caught in a resentful wind. And I need a lot of cheerleading which we all know is mostly unavailable in the adult world.

This is a downer of a post in some ways but this is not an easy process. And as I said, I hope my being candid will give someone else solace: You are not alone. All of us have to remember that we started on this course because we had faith in ourselves and in our dream. We need to remind ourselves (and each other) of that, oftener than we do.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What Ramin Jahanbegloo writes, that we sometimes forget

I started reading "The Spirit of India" by Ramin Jahanbegloo last night. Dr. Jahanbegloo is an Iranian political philosopher. He was imprisoned for a few months on charges of spying ("improper contact with foreign countries") in 2006. Around that time, he also spent time in Delhi. But this post is not a bio of the professor. I found this gem on the second page of this book and wanted to share it:

"...when the soul of India speaks, it reflects the peaceful diversity that has been the cornerstone of India as a nation. It is its national spirit."

The book goes on to discuss the ideas of several prominent Indians. But coming at the end of a day of very trivial politically-driven divisions, this sentence, written by an outsider-observer, was balm to my spirit.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The importance of libraries

I have decided that everytime I find myself writing more than a couple of tweets one after the other, it's really a blogpost, and I will just visit the blog and write here instead!

Last night, I posted a request to my friends on Facebook for help locating a couple of articles. My good friend Piper responded, and actually walked over to the magnificent, the heavenly, the phenomenal, the *fill in any superlative* library stacks at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign--my alma mater, to locate, copy, scan and send. When you have friends like this, what's there to ask for.

Except maybe: Access to a really good library where you are?

I grew up in Bombay where good library meant 'BCL' or 'USIS.' And of course, the local circulating library for fun. My school had a tiny library and when we were in Class X, we were forbidden to use it because it would disturb our Board exam preparation. All that did was take us to the circulating library which had a lot more trash to offer.

After school, I went to Sophia for two years and learnt wonderful words like 'open-access,' 'Dewey Decimal System' and 'card catalog.' I was in heaven. I read like I was in heaven for one day only. Elphinstone, where I moved to get a Political Science degree, had a great library, but an outdated catalog, closed stacks that you could not browse and a long-drawn out requisition system which required interface with disinterested staff. By year two, I managed to get permission to browse simply by begging and being determined. But it was such a waste for anyone who did not do that. Then came, Syracuse--Bird Library may have been my first glimpse of heaven. Open stacks with a repository South Asia collection, interlibrary loan from Cornell, carrells to sit and read in, open most hours of the day. Even a person who does not like books, cannot but be seduced, and for me, the only challenge was reading what I was required to rather than what took my fancy.

I came back to India and my luck with libraries became a little spottier, to some extent, because of my own choices. A terrific personal library completed my history education. A very focused think-tank library continues to be a personal favourite in India. I discovered the Sapru House library, which I am happy to report is in the process of revival and digitization.

And then I went to the University of Illinois. UIUC has the world's largest public library system. 'System' is the word. Words fail me as I drown in nostalgia about it. Just check out the link! After my Ph.D., I worked for three years at MSU, a library that looks very new and contemporary, rather like a USIS (or whatever it's now called) library in India. After UIUC, my first thought was: nice toy library. I had to quickly remind myself that I still hadn't read most books in it! Over three years, I grew fond of this place too. Of the collection, the people I smiled at, the naturally lit reading rooms, the excellent reference collection in the basement, and maybe most of all, the beautiful tree at the foot of the front entrance, and the Red Cedar running behind.

But after MSU, I was at Yale for a year. One of the first things I did was take a library tour with the South Asia librarian. I have no idea what he said to me in that entire hour. All I could think as I took in the beautiful building and the books was: I have died and gone to heaven. Yale however, still takes second place to UIUC for me, because it's not quite as efficient, and the South Asia collection is not half as good as Syracuse or UIUC.

Anyway, now I live in Chennai. I work independently, so I don't have access to a college or university library. All I have, and it's pretty decent by Chennai standards, is my own collection, which anticipating exactly such a situation I have built up over the years without stinting.

But there are so many things beyond my reach. Electronic databases with full-text access to journals, for instance. The local libraries are outdated, hard to access and/or poorly organized. Chennai doesn't even have something like the Centre for Education or Documentation!

Someone like me, at this stage of my career, can still call on friends to help out, travel to another city, buy books and afford most regular subscriptions. But what of young students who are not in Delhi? What choices do they have? Where do they go?

Even if people don't want to take on the very large issues of poverty, public health, gender violence and communalism, they can still find good issues to tackle for which solutions CAN be found: good local public libraries are a great point of departure if you want to invest time and resources in India's youth. Think about it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Recently, I have been enjoying Twitter a great deal. I find sometimes that I am writing three-four tweets where really the beauty of the medium is brevity. Why not blog briefly instead and link the blog to Twitter, I thought? So, here's the experiment. Let's see how it turns out!