Sunday, December 30, 2012

At year's end

December has been horrible.

The stress of the 16 Days Campaign. No matter how much we plan. No matter how great the team. No matter what, this is a pressure cooker period for all of us.

Through December, my Periamma was very, very, very ill and she left us on December 15. That's December's worst blow. It's such a big loss that I haven't wanted to say it aloud. I can't write about it. I don't want you to know because then it won't be true. If it's not true, we will still see her again. So don't read this post that I so desperately need to write.

And then the Delhi gang-rape and everything that has followed. Horrible for all of us. For me too, even if I don't outrage or lament or rage or cry. Particularly because we talk about these things all year. Just spent an intensive 16 day period of doing absolutely nothing else. And when I see people react as if they didn't know these things happen, I don't know what outrages me most. I want to cry because the task is so enormous, it sometimes feel futile. Will my feeble voice be heard in the cacophony?

An assignment that is endless and in content, just as depressing as anything, is like the blight. I cannot see the beginning or the end of it, and I am writing in small sections that don't add up to anything in my head. The template is not mine. Nor are the strictures--and there are many strictures. And yes, it's about the same kind of thing: the misery of women in times of conflict. Except that the point is to contextualize policy strategies to change that. But I can't feel that point in my heart right now.

And through much of this, the grief has just sat there like a massive rock in my heart. I cannot afford to look it in the eye really. It would engulf me and this work would never get done. It's another matter that work is going really slowly anyway. The body and the heart are so weighed down with sorrow that the brain is not really interested in anything.

Someday, I will be able to tell you what a wonderful Periya-Amma I have had. Someday.

December has been horrible. And yet, in comparison to the lives I read about for my work, it's been an absolutely marvelous time. I have been safe. I have been warm. I have had food, clothing, shelter, family and friends. And the Internet. And quite a bit of electricity and clean water.

And someday, this grief will lift and transform into something that is easier to carry around. It will not snowball so rapidly into anger and annoyance and resentment and fury and sorrow and blankness and slow-wittedness and impatience with the world and with myself. But that's not this evening. Someday.

I sit here, chip-chipping away at small tasks. This is all I can do. This is all I can do. And do it, I must.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Where have you been all this while?

Rahul Roy, What do men have to do with it?,, December 28, 2012.

I agree with so much of what he writes. As I posted this on FB, I found myself expressing some part of the anger and resentment that have been brewing inside me for the last two weeks. I didn't post those words there, but am doing so here.

As I've watched people write and speak about protecting 'our women'; as the voices and words of male op-ed writers initially drowned out those who have been working on these issues for decades; I have wondered resentfully: does the 'mohur' of male opinion make this an important Indian issue? Are women too waiting for 'their men' to signal the importance of an issue before they will take or express an interest? Does it constitute 'permission'? Does male approval make women's rights a serious issue as opposed to a 'ladies' issue'?

I longed to hear voices from the women's movement everywhere on this issue, but it took one week for them to start showing up in newspaper columns. It infuriated me that decades of reports and learning and activism were overlooked when journalists asked here and there: who are the experts? If they had been listening all along, they would not have needed to ask.

Opposing violence against women has been on the Indian women's movement agenda all along, and the agitation against the Mathura judgment marks an important turning point in its history. That was 32 years ago. At least since then, if not earlier, women's organizations--including Prajnya--have worked on some dimension of this issue--providing support and services to survivors; lobbying the government on legal and police reform; training police and other government offices on gender issues; reaching out to the public with awareness programmes; writing and speaking everywhere possible. But who was listening?

We want society--men, women, transgendered persons, everyone--to speak out against violence--in all forms, all contexts. (That's why Prajnya made these videos.) But on equal terms, not the same old ones.

I want to tell you that this resentful post is a very subdued articulation of how furious I really am. I am really trying to be polite and diplomatic here. My cousin assures me that even when this moment passes, this time there will be some collective memory that once we were angry together about this issue. And that a few more people will join this journey after this. I hope she is right.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Research ruminations

I have been writing about gender and sexual violence as forms of insecurity, making the case that they are security issues, that they represent failures of democratic governance, etc., etc. And I have drawn on the cottage industry of reports and studies that reinforce some of these statements, especially in connection to gender violence and sexual violence in conflict zones.

One of the great women's movement victories of the last two decades or so has been to get sexual violence in conflict recognized as a crime against humanity. The routine looting and raping of armies during campaigns or occupation (and also of non-state actors) finally received the condemnation it always deserved. Moreover, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its sister resolutions, the message has gone out firmly to states and other conflict parties that at least in conflict situations, we are approaching a moment of zero-tolerance for this horrible human rights violation.

Several reports and studies have been written describing the horrors of sexual violence during conflicts. They are powerful--I can attest to this--because they often include survivor testimonies. It makes for horrible and hard reading, and it makes exactly the impact that is sought to be made. Denial does not remain an option after one reads these reports.

In recent weeks, I have needed to look more closely at the same growing pool of resources, in search of data from Asia and have been dismayed to find very little. For one, most of the cases that are usually discussed are from Africa--Rwanda, Libera, Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan. For another, what you do find for Asia is usually either very specific (a quotation from one meeting) or very general (there was rape during this crisis). The information that might be available is in sources that for a variety of reasons are out of bounds, and many conflicts in Asia actually fall below the radar of what I can write about. After weeks of searching almost fruitlessly and literally scraping morsels out from this note and that report, I don't know what to think.

So here is a really hard question that I am actually afraid to ask but must if I am to be an honest scholar: If there is no accurate, reliable data on gender violence and sexual violence in conflict zones, are all of us over-stating a problem because for a range of our own reasons, we want it to exist? And my 'on the other hand' for this is: Data is also very sketchy and unreliable for other kinds of violence, but we do know it exists. For instance, we don't know how many wives face abuse in their homes, but it is safe to say that abuse is far more common than it ought to be.

But still, why is there so little data? And where there is, for instance, with the Special Rapporteurs' reports, they are based on visits that happen at unpredictable intervals and the Special Rapporteur does not necessarily return to the same context. We don't know what has changed and what has not.

The UN has tried to get around this by setting up a special database on violence against women, but they have sent out questionnaires to member-states that ask questions mainly about laws and policies in existence. Even if they had asked for data, though, where would member-states go for that data when it really hasn't been collected systematically--and maybe can never be--anywhere.But that's a concern I have written about at other times and that we did a seminar on last year, so I won't rehearse those stories.

I am more concerned about what we say about the experience of women in conflict and why? If what we write is half-based on imperfect accounts from other contexts and half on accounts that don't match a variety of evidentiary standards, then how do we tell the stories we know to be true in a way that is also factual? And without telling those stories again and again, how on earth do we point to the changes we want to bring about?

I don't know.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Deepavali wish, 2012

An Ashtalakshmi prayer for our world

May Aadilakshmi sustain mothers around the world with easy and safe childbirth and parents with good health and caring children.

May Dhaanyalakshmi be with the hungry and the undernourished. May there be enough, plenty and more, of what we need and what we want.

May Dhairyalakshmi stay forever in the hearts of those in distress and of those on frontlines of every kind. May we be brave and strong in every moment.

May Gajalakshmi stay in the hearts and hands of those who work and care for others, empowering them to try ever harder. May she become the patience we all need to keep on trying.

May Santaanalakshmi protect all our children from abuse, violence and starvation, and fill their lives with love and opportunity. May she sprinkle all our lives with the gift of nurture.

May Vijayalakshmi touch with victory, every endeavour that is caring and compassionate. May she reveal to us the different meanings of success and teach us to rejoice in all of them.

May Vidyalakshmi ensure we remain students forever, and keep our minds and hearts open even when the prevailing winds seek to close their shutters. May all our lives be filled with creativity.

May Dhanalakshmi be with those in need--those whose debts are driving them to suicide, those whose livelihoods have been destroyed and those who are struggling to make ends meet.

May Mahalakshmi give us all the heart and the ability to give back much more than we get!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The right to travel

“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

At the beginning of August, I took a six-hour road trip which took me through four European countries. From the very modern conurbation of the Netherlands Randstad, we drove past the busy port of Antwerp just missing the massive traffic jams, skirted Brussels to enter picture post-card perfect pastoral scenes with undulating green fields, cows, streams and farmhouses, past pretty Luxembourg which looms just past a large IKEA store and finally into France, which surprised us with hills large enough to look like small mountains. Six hours. Four countries. Not one passport check.

And where were we headed? To a very old city, named for the crossroads it has always straddled, not famous around the world for its stunning Cathedral but for having been the bone of contention for centuries between France and Germany. Strasbourg. Today, Strasbourg is home to several European Institutions.

When I am abroad these days, I am filled more and more with a wistfulness, “I wish everyone at home could have this.” I don’t feel envy because I know each community has done its time, paid its dues, but when will the turn of ordinary Indians come?

Southasia, Europe and India lie at three points on a continuum of integration, each having something to learn from the others about resolving conflict and finding a way to work and live together.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation on national integration processes in South Asia, I would read comparisons of India and Europe that I always found interesting. I was examining national integration from the point of view of secessionist movements, so I had a strong sense of the shortcomings of existing policies and programmes. However, these other political scientists were looking—rightly—at Europe and India representing two levels of integration. Europe was moving from sovereign warring states, to states in a contract to coordinate defence and foreign affairs, migration and employment policies and a common currency. India was past that, and trying to create a common national identity. Europe, these scholars would say, had a lot to learn from India. True, I suppose, especially as the current economic crisis is fuelling nativism and xenophobia even in more liberal and inclusive European states, even before a common European identity could emerge.

Southasia, in turn, has a lot to learn from Europe. We have a real sense of shared heritage, with all our stories cross-referencing events and locations across borders. Our places of pilgrimage are scattered across the subcontinent. Our languages are common to more than one nation-state and our cuisines are distinctive but related. But we cannot visit each other easily or plan school tours or promise pilgrimages without elaborate visa procedures. Where Europe has effaced those obstacles, we have erected and fortified them.

I started this post two months ago. This month, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union, experts had many things to say, most derisive. This is a continent that fought bitterly for centuries, they said. “Is it meant to be an incentive for the EU to get its act together on the financial crisis?” “This award recognizes past accomplishment as the Obama one does potential.” I say it doesn’t matter.

Rivalries in Europe were older and more deep-rooted than the ones in Southasia. If they could be put aside, for any reason, in order for people to move freely in search of work, education or just for tourism, I say it’s a fine thing to emulate. If no-visa, no-passport travel is a distant dream, let us make consular access easier and offer visas-on-arrival as much as possible. The children of Southasia deserve free access to their shared heritage at the very least.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Once there was a girl": Book notes

This evening, some kind friends have asked me to release the English translation of poet and novelist Vatsala's book, "Vattathul." I feel very honoured and especially so because it's Vatsala who read at the first campaign poetry reading in 2008, at a time when we really were very new kids on the block. I also feel very inadequate to the task because after all these years and all this education, I remain a reader of storybooks rather than an erudite literary or intellectual commentator.

I opened my beautifully bound copy gingerly, wanting to love the book, and a little afraid that perhaps I won't. I entered the protagonist's home hesitantly, rather like a person entering a train compartment for the first time--trying to spot the beedi stub, the chewing gum, the cockroach and the lizard, before she settles down and 'adjusts'. I don't know at what point I slipped completely into the world of Janaki, aka Rani. It must have been easy because I have met everyone in Rani's world before. The large house. The once-and-briefly-rich family in decline. The parents who are not a couple. The favourite daughter and her mildly resentful but dutiful courtiers. The oppressive-by-default sisters-in-law. I have met them all before.

I settled down into the world of the book but with a lingering distaste for almost all the characters. To my mind, this is one of the most striking aspects of this book: not one character is a wonderful, immediately lovable person. The protagonist is actually quite horrid, and when you consider her world of people, you can almost justify her vanity and nastiness. She really has it tough and you feel stray moments of sympathy or empathy of which her irrepressible nastiness immediately cures you. For instance, you want to feel sorry for the girl brought up to be a queen who suddenly moves from being the object of adoration and envy to pity, but she herself is so bitter, you think it best to leave things alone. You want to feel compassion for her when her sister-in-law feeds her husband's anger about her housekeeping skills, but she herself is so horrible to people that you think she can look after herself. When she rules Jamnagar, you want to exult, but her pleasure in it has such pettiness that you are turned off.

How does such a gentle, nice, lovely person as Vatsala write so vividly about such a person as Janaki? That's a mystery and an indication of her calibre as a writer.

Two things happen when you read a really good book. The first is that you disappear into the book, absorbed into and absorbing its world completely, always able to recall and re-enter it even when you have to function in the real world.

The second is not as comfortable: you start to ask yourself difficult questions. And for me, with 'Once there was a girl' some of those questions are: Why do I assume that when a woman writes a book the female characters must be nice people? Or even, that female characters, especially protagonists, must be nice sympathetic characters? What do I expect from a book written by a feminist? Or what is a woman writer's book? I don't even fully understand these questions, honestly.

I think, and offer this view very tentatively, as a point for more learned people to ponder: what makes this a very amazing book is that it lets you enter so completely into Janaki's world that nothing is hidden from you--her feelings, the muttering under her breath, the hurt she feels, the continuing bereavement that she is not living the life she was meant to... that you also feel with her, you see her world as she sees it, and that's no more perfect than she is. People are fond of telling people like the Prajnya team, people who speak about women's rights and violence, that women are women's greatest enemies. "Once there was a girl" lays bare before you the dingy, foul-smelling world that patriarchy, caste and class jointly create for most women--instructing their imaginations, channeling their hopes narrowly, leaving them unskilled and then limiting the possibilities for them to live truly fulfilling lives. You feel no love for Janaki but you can see where she comes from. There, but for the grace of god or just dumb luck, go any of us. That is really amazing, I think.

We make a big push for women's writing, women's self-expression, the documenting of women's lives and work--they are invisible, we say. Do we inadvertently efface the women we don't like, ignore the stories whose politics make us uncomfortable, ignore the fact that lives like Janaki's show both victimhood and agency in their expression? Aren't all stories and all lives important and worthy?

So, read this book, use it as a text, gift it to your friends, and like me, learn to enjoy the discomfort with which it should fill you. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Today, we celebrate five years of Prajnya. Prajnya started as a response to things I felt needed doing, that I could help do, in my head, and today it stands outside my head looming large over me, grabbing physical space around, monopolizing my brain sometimes, with a significant group of volunteers who also own Prajnya and a very large extended community who support and keep in touch with us. Wow! You cannot imagine how hard it is to believe.

I feel, at the same time, somewhat tattered and exhausted. Like a person who has fought through fire, wind and rain to walk down the world's longest wind corridor with a large, open bag of cotton-wool intact. Or something like. You get the idea. Embattled, exhausted. And in recent weeks, as we've planned our celebration, getting to something like excitement and exhilaration.Music has kept me on course.

I want to doff my hat to four songs that I rarely listen to but that since childhood, have been my idea of how to life.

Climb Ev'ry Mountain, The Sound of Music 

The Sound of Music was the first film I saw, I am told. And this song has been a part of the soundtrack of my life forever. The words are rich with meaning, and a gentle nudge even when I am really fed up, that nothing's over yet.

The Impossible Dream

I first heard this song on a tribute collection of Glen Campbell songs that someone got me. It never fails to draw me up beyond whatever moment I am in, towards something else, something more important than I am. So here it is, almost the version I first heard.

Somewhere over the rainbow

And what keeps me on this road is the belief, no doubt some would label it delusion, that "there's a land... where troubles melt like lemondrops." And it's up to us to find that land and bring it to where we are.

And closer home, two songs that resonate in the same way.

Jeena isi ka naam hai

The words echo the ideas that 'Vaishnava janato' spells out--living is about giving. I like that idea. Sometimes I also like receiving, but on the whole, giving is good! And it's another thing that the tune takes me straight to another Raj Kapoor song with an entirely different mood, 'Aasmaan pe hai khuda.' I still like this, and would list it over many other Zindagi songs with the same philosophy.

And finally.... (why are you surprised?)... Ruk jaana nahin tu kahin haarke

What's left to say? Except, "Thank you for the music"! :-)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Picture postcards from my life

Recently, I visited my cousin after many years. As we sat at her kitchen table, I looked over at her refrigerator on which she and her husband have posted picture postcards from holidays here and there. As one or the other caught my eye, she would reminisce. If I had been there, I would add my memories. And slowly we caught up on memorable parts of each other's lives.

I've been a picture postcard buyer and hoarder since I was seven, and in our home in Bombay, would often use cards to decorate my cupboard doors, etc. In my dorm room in Syracuse, I used postcards to spell out my name for new dorm-mates. I bought cards liberally until about five or six years ago, I think. And then I forgot all about them.

Like other parts of my life.

I did not buy new cards; it seemed like a waste in my NGO-founder life. I did not look at my cards; I miss people and places from my past but I have no time for reminiscence. I did not display my cards. I cannot recall where I stored them. It's like you can switch off your own life at will.

In recent months, as burn-out and physical exhaustion first felled me and as I have recovered, one of the things that is clear to me is that I live without moorings. My work has consumed me to the point that I have been alienated from myself, from my own history. I have felt friendless in this life. I have felt the absence of people in my life who remember other parts of me. Recovery has thus come partly to be defined as recovery of all those parts of myself.

Starting with those postcards.

The other day I took down a box that I did remember. It turned out to hold not just blank cards I had purchased but a new year greeting on a postcard from my aunt to my great-grandmother. It held a card my maternal uncle sent me, describing New York right after he moved there. It held cards from my oldest cousin, sent dutifully from here and there, not thinking it beneath his dignity to write to his much younger sister. I found a card my father bought at the Cologne cathedral in the early 1960s that was very similar to one I bought this summer. I can see faint traces of belonging in these slightly stained, cellotape-damaged wonders.

I cannot wait to locate all my other picture postcards. I cannot wait to remember who and where I've been.

Friday, April 13, 2012

SRK and the INS

Now that SRK's second detention has acquired the status of a minor diplomatic incident, I want to add my two paise worth of questions to this:

1. It does not matter that the immigration officials at White Plains did not recognize Shah Rukh Khan. Even if they had, it was their job to check his documents. The real curiosity is that this was his second detention. Don't they keep records? Surely, they would have seen that this had happened before and he had been allowed to enter. On the other hand, this was White Plains, and maybe it just took two hours for someone to check them.

2. For every Muslim who has difficulties at US Immigration, at least some others must go through smoothly. What is it about this big Indian film star that raises a red flag to airport officials each time? Hard for most Indians to imagine, but an extremely curious thing. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Introspective confession of a silently fiddling worker ant

Things were not always like this.

I used to live in the world of daily news. I had opinions about what was going on, sometimes strong ones. I held and argued one position or another. I may even have experienced outrage.

And then at some point, something changed. The world became grey. Daily news became miniscule data points on longer-term perspectives. Outrage faded into observation. Opinion was replaced by study. I guess one way to look at it is that I became an academic. I do have strongly held values, but they became somewhat meta-political. What I am trying to say is they held in a place that was above the daily world of petitions and polemics.

On another journey, words began simultaneously to gain and lose value. And I began to abdicate the position of daily engagement. I didn't want to waste words on anything. I wanted to weigh every word before I spoke or wrote. I wanted silence in my spirit and I got it in my engagement with the world.

I still see my work as political but at two levels. The first is the life of the worker ant. These are the tasks I can perform to make a difference. They may or may not address the issue of the day. They may or may not make a large difference. But this is what I can do, and this is what I am going to do.

The other level is the long-term, aerial view, where my work seems to be to build analytical and rhetorical frameworks to say what I think I want to say in a given moment. I am not even sure how to describe this work because I am not sure what it is. But what it is not, is conducive to 100% certainty about anything--not events outside of me, not processes inside.

The grey universe of the worker ant is strangely similar to that of Nero, who fiddled while Rome burnt.



I know S.P. Udayakumar and I know him to be an honest person who combines academic skills and work with very real engagement with everyday development issues in his village.  I know his educational projects are especially important to him whether it's the school he and his wife run or the peace education courses.

Uday has been arguing against the Koodankulam plant since I first met him at a WISCOMP programme in 2004. In fact, I was then given his book on the Koodankulam plant and asked to write a short review for a WISCOMP newsletter. The book sat on my desk for years and now I have to excavate it from my bookshelf; I have not written that review. These have been my worker ant years.

But in the last few months, I have read about his struggle and wondered about my silence. And my journey.


Unlike a lot of people, I did not come into security studies through a fascination with war or because realist politics gave me a high. I actually came in as a pacifist and I have remained that, even when I have felt silenced or chosen silence.

When I was in college, in my last year actually, Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik were both working for TOI Bombay and along with a few scientists from TIFR and BARC, they started the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament. There was a small rag-tag group that used to attend those meetings, and I was one of them. I learned a lot from Praful and Achin and all those nuclear scientists that were at the meetings. I even wrote a presentation on Pakistan's nuclear weapons; it was during that research that I first discovered Doc Centre and how to use newspaper archives.

I went to Syracuse to get an MA. And I wrote my thesis on India's nuclear options. I also wrote on the nuclear-free zone proposal during my internship at the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs.  On my way home from Syracuse, I visited a friend in Tokyo. Her family took me to Hiroshima, a pilgrimage for any peace activist. I came back and worked with Bhabani Sen Gupta because I was impressed by his work on nuclear policy (although I worked on other projects).

I am not listing all this to claim expertise in this area (I am clear I have little). I am listing it to remind myself that there was a time when I was completely engaged with nuclear security issues.


That shifted. Everything I saw, read and experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s, drew me to issues of dissent, political community building and conflict within states. The push-pull between internal security and democracy, if you would. Supervised by a person best known for his work on nuclear policy--Stephen P. Cohen--I wrote about national integration, ethnic conflict, language policy and constitution making.

But not before I attended the 1993 Security, Technology and Arms Control workshop in Bhurban, Pakistan. Faculty at the workshop included people like Frank von Hippel, George Perkovich, Barry Buzan, Praful Bidwai and Pervez Hoodbhoy. Also attending were several people who are now prominent security experts in the region. The objective was to build capacity in young professionals to write and work on nuclear policy issues.

For me, apart from the friendships formed during our two weeks together, what left a lasting impression were different perspectives that emerged during conversations in and outside session. Gendered differences emerged between what we were discussing in session and what we listed as priorities for our countries in our own conversations. Regional differences became apparent, as people from south of the Vindhyas brought entirely different readings of political events to conversations.

After Bhurban, I never returned to reading or writing about nuclear policy or politics. There were too many questions in my head for me to have absolute positions about anything. And there were other issues that seemed more clearly pressing. Issues that were either translatable into research projects or educational tasks.

Actually, I did write once about this issue. I wrote for the RCSS newsletter right after the Indian tests. The questions were already there.

The heart remained where it was--pacifist, anti-nuclear weapons, sceptical about nuclear energy--but the rest of me quietly vacated that space.


Even last year when the horrific descriptions of Fukushima emerged, I remained where I was.

I felt uncomfortable in my silence. I knew I had the skills if I decided to re-engage. But I didn't and partly because I simply did not have the energy for what that would mean.

I stayed away. I did not even read everything that was being circulated or written. I did not even re-tweet or share on Facebook. Heck, I did not even 'like' people's posts. I am not a joiner, so I rarely sign petitions anyway.

And then nothing seems so black and white any more. My world is very grey. That may be a reflection of confusion, exhaustion or moral decline. Whatever, the fact remains that everything seems to come with a 'yes, but.'

Nevertheless, I have written this post a hundred times in my head. I have been that uncomfortable with my self-exile from talking about this issue.


The truth is I don't really know what to say about it. I do not have the time to wade through the mountains of text that are being written. I do not have the bandwidth to process all that information. And I do not have the audacity to take a position without truly understanding.

So here are some small things I want to say:

1. I know Uday and I believe he is an honest man. He would not take a position for any other reason than that he truly believed in it.
2. I think the evidence has been mounting for years that there is a problem with nuclear energy and that if Fukushima doesn't make us think, I am not sure what will.
3. I think Uday was also trying last year to get people to talk and explain in lay terms, to draw this out of the world of nuclear and security experts, and to get everyone to understand. I think that remains very important.
4. I also think that India's energy needs are very real and do need to be addressed. But absolute, non-negotiable positions and slandering are not the answer. More public conversations about choices--lifestyle choices and energy choices--are.
5. I do think all of us retain the right to disagree. The questions about Koodankulam are old, so why couldn't there have been less of the "Because I say so" or "Because someone else told you to ask" and more sitting down with the blueprint and discusssing. In public. I don't think suppressing dissent or making accusations about a "foreign hand" are appropriate responses.

That is all.


Will I re-enter this policy area, will I re-engage? I don't know. I don't know if I have the time, energy or frankly, the stomach. There are so many who have so much to say about so many things; is it even necessary for me to speak?

And this is the way that citizenship crumbles. We are silent, not because we acquiesce, but because we are busy or tired or bored. And thus, we acquiesce because we are silent.


I don't know if I am a worker ant or a silent fiddler, but I know however I am judged (by myself or others), I will carry a little bit of responsibility for all and any outcomes. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Founder's Blues: Losing the point, losing the way

There are days--many days--when I cannot remember what the point of Prajnya is.

We do a lot but it is so removed still from things at the core of our vision that it is hard to relate the purpose of our daily activities to the form we imagine for our main work.

We have some limited success at fundraising but not enough for anyone to be devoted full-time to this work. Which is one reason our full-time research and school training programmes are not in place.

We communicate across every medium possible. But when people we think are close to us still seem unsure of how to describe us, I wonder how effectively I communicate.

And people. We have an enviable community of volunteers, who take time to do things with us out of interest and conviction. We look like frugal spenders because we spend their time free of cost.

And underpinning this free volunteer labour is hours and hours of my time, to do the boring tasks and the pesky things and patchwork and mopping-up of every project. I cannot remind or ask people to do anything too often, because they are volunteers. Yet, I must act in consultation and cannot decide things on my own. Somehow at that point, the work they do feels like a personal favour, not a social obligation they are choosing to own.

That is the founder's responsibility. Credit for success is shared. Responsibility for every failure is still mine alone. That is fine.

But the thing that is breaking me now--and it may be politic to hide this but I think it is important to document as a reality of this moment--is that is that none of it feels like it is enough. Nothing I do is good enough. And I cannot remember what this is for? What for, all this? It worries me that I do not know why. It worries me a lot. Losing the point of Prajnya, I lose the point of everything else in the present moment.

This is Trishanku Swargam--can't return to your life, cannot proceed towards the afterlife. This moment is very real. I want that registered for the future--for those who want to do something like this and for those who may someday see Prajnya as a steady success. This moment is real, and this moment is horrible to live through.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I've been spending time these last three weeks with my infant niece.

I've always enjoyed hanging out with babies and children, although now I have far less energy than I once did. I have dozens of nieces and nephews and I don't really distinguish between 'sagey' and honorary ones. Relationships originate in the heart and the heart knows no distinctions. It must be a reflection on my relative maturity that with this child, I am noticing and understanding the cliched things people normally say about children.

She really is, like all babies, sthita-prajnya.

People remark on the fact that she greets everyone alike. She lets people approach her. She returns their attention quietly. She does not differentiate between one person and another. She does not know as yet that one person is a close relative, another person is a friend, a third person works in this house. Everyone is the same to her.

She listens. She has her way of communicating. But she also pays attention to what people around her express. She has made us acutely and embarrassingly aware of our verbosity.

She does feel Chennai's sweaty heat. She gets hungry. She gets tired and sleepy. These sensations simply are. She has not learnt to place a value on them as yet. And so she experiences them in the moment, expresses her discomfort in that minute and leaves it completely behind with no endless post-mortem as we do, "It was so hot, I was so thirsty..."

She is completely in the moment. This minute, she is completely absorbed in a paisley motif on the bedspread. We call to her, we have her complete attention.

Are you in front of her, pretending to entertain her? Fine. Is she on her own? Fine. Is there a crowd visiting her? Fine. Is it just the usual suspects? Fine. Has she been on a little excursion today? Fine. Has she been in the same room all day? Fine. Nothing has an ascribed value, a judgment attached. It's all truly the same to her.

I look at her and I listen to us. And I cringe. There's nothing good we can teach her. No value we can add. All she will learn from us is to worry about the past and future; to complain about this and that; to judge people; to miss the love in their voice for its tone or accent; to be discontented and to be moved by the things that don't matter. We take perfectly excellent beings and pretend to raise them. There is a Tamil saying, "Chumma irunda shangai oodi kedutanan"(He took a perfectly good conch and ruined it by blowing on it). She brings that home to me.

I wish for her that all our best efforts to raise her more or less fail, and that she remains sthita-prajnya all her life.

I wish for me, that when I grow up, I become like her. Like I too may have once been. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Isolation envy?

This post is about my uncle, about xenophobia and about securitization.

My uncle is a Quaker. He has also been a key member of Quaker Peace and Service, through which Quaker volunteers work as mediators in peace-building efforts and facilitators of development projects. The Quakers are described by Elise Boulding as one of the historic peace churches, along with Mennonites and the Brethren. The Quakers and Mennonites have long innovated and practised non-partisan, humane approaches to peace-building and conflict transformation. My uncle served as a Quaker facilitator/ mediator in Sri Lanka and in Nagaland over decades.

But through all those decades, he visited India often also to be with family. With no problem.

Until last month. A frail octagenarian now, and retired from Quaker work for six years, he flew down with his daughter to visit his dying brother, but was turned away at Bangalore airport. On the grounds that he was a Quaker. He has learnt that he has been blacklisted and his OCI visa has been cancelled. Heartbroken, he is trying to find out why. The Indian High Commission in London, which granted his OCI visa, has no idea. He has written to Mr. P. Chidambaram, but how can we assume he will receive an answer?

There are two questions that arise. One that troubles my uncle: What intelligence about the Quakers has led to this? And one that should trouble all of us: The Quakers have been quietly working in peace-making for decades, why has this intelligence only now registered?

I am very sad that my uncle could not come and see his brother. As one grows old, family ties tug at us more strongly, and to deny siblings a last chance to meet is so un-Indian. 

I am also concerned that traditional pacifist groups like the Quakers are now falling into the same net as genuinely pernicious outfits. 

But most of all, I am concerned about the casual securitization of everything. Not new, not breaking news, but we all lapse into apathy, and I am choosing to speak up now. 

My uncle wants to know what intelligence has learned about the Quakers; but by blacklisting Quakers, the state has privileged information about them. It has securitized this issue, so that it can withhold information and we cannot (in spite of the RTI) actually extract it from the security establishment. And chances are at one level, our own instinct is not to push for it. 

But we should push. Because our own liberties are at stake. Because our identity as a political community is at stake.

So many questions to ask:

1. Why did my uncle and the Quakers get blacklisted now after all these years? Why were they blacklisted at all? 

2. Why are we so afraid of mediation as part of peace processes? It's not like we don't offer our services to others. It's not just foreign NGOs we are afraid of, but routinely our approach to conflict zones is to treat them like small-pox wards--keep everyone out, keep the problem in an airless tin for it to fester. Indian civil society has limited opportunity to work in conflict areas.

In fact, one of the questions we are asked over and over: Is your work political? Of course, it is. We are in the business of social change and social change is political. It is as if the state would like civil society to engage in charitable rather than civic work. 

3. Why are we so xenophobic? This is a theme to which this blog returns over and over again. 

Sixty years after decolonization, we are still afraid of everyone and their shadow. Whether it's foreign students and researchers, foreign investors, transnational NGOs, funding agencies, food chains.... you name it, we fear it. Our decision-making seems to operate on the assumption that foreigners are malicious and anti-India (whatever India means in any instance) until proven otherwise through mysterious measures. 

Such an unconfident people, we have become. And why that is so, is another question for another blogpost.

4. Why are we so respectful of  'security' that we ask no questions? Or accept that we won't get answers. In this case. On Koodankulam. On a dozen other areas. Every Indian political party handles democratic discourse by securitizing a question rather than engaging with it. And in the world's largest and noisiest democracy, we accept that, choosing to outrage instead over whether a remote Siberian village bans the Gita or not. 

My uncle's sad predicament prompted me to write this post but really, the questions are much larger. It's about who we are, who we are becoming and how we are content with ourselves... Like paranoid frogs in a well. 

Friday, March 16, 2012


I have always looked for patterns in my life, and on birthdays, I tend to look at the factors of my age and reflect on them. That is to say, at 21, my life seemed to be made of three 7 year long segments; at 32, two sixteen year segments.. and I have always found prime number ages ominous, mainly because you can't tell what to make of them. And 47 was a little bit like that.

48. Neatly displays one's life in four 12 year segments. Like the chatur-ashrama of textbook Hindu lives. 1-12 childhood. 13-24 student life. 25-36 householder's life. Of course... this is not how I have lived, nor how my life's segments are best categorized. That said, 48 says something to me about my life.

48 says to me it's time to move on. To another life-stage. It seems to me to be a beginning of the next 12 years, an important transition somehow. A time to move out of getting, owning, being to something else.. becoming, perhaps? I don't completely understand these words either but I feel compelled to write them.

In these 12 years, I have to simplify my life. I just know it. It cannot be so full of bells, whistles, objects, appurtenances, attachments, agendas, anxieties and suchlike. It has to become simpler. सरल. सहज.

So this morning, I want to start this phase by making some small changes. (And yes, I don't need to do this publicly, but I strongly feel the need to express this moment.)

Simple changes.

I am going to start giving away things.
I am giving up buying silk. I will still wear silk that I have but also start giving that away, maybe.
I also hope I will not buy leather again.

I am taking back time for reading and writing. I will really now relegate other things to the margins and the interstices.

I want to make time for silence. I don't know how, but I will try.

I will make time for the yoga and the meditation that will help me in this transition.

That's all, for now. That's quite a lot, really. If all this seems natural to me after a few years, then I will make more changes.

But 48 is really a call to action and movement.

At the end of these 12 years, I want to be a person of few wants, simple needs, equanimity and silence.

Why? I don't need to but I want to answer this question also. The answer is a mix of many things.

வைராக்கியம். வெறுப்பு. The draw of "vanaprasthashrama" from somewhere deep inside my heart. The instinct that there is somewhere else I have to be, and this is a way-station. Exhaustion. The deeply ingrained rhythm and value of a civilization--something that says there is a better way to live. Even though, I am not sure that I am ready for any of this, I cannot today sit still and stagnant.

48 says, enough of thrashing about here, complaining. It's your life, pick up the litter and keep moving.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Eager readers, reluctant detectives and Bombay life

I don't know Kiran Manral except on Twitter, but if you're on Twitter, it's easy to imagine you know a complete stranger. I bought this book out of interest, curiosity and loyalty, and waited two weeks to be able to sit down and enjoy it without guilt.

First piece of news: the voice of Kanan Mehra is not the voice of Kiran Manral on Twitter. It's far more breathless for starters and her mind wanders. Sometimes it wanders so far, you forget this is a murder mystery. Kanan Mehra exhausted me. So first off, congratulations Kiran for writing about someone who sounds completely unlike you do. I think that takes courage, imagination and a very, very keen eye.

Another surprise for someone who usually reads Kiran Manral in 140 character installments is that her way with similes and metaphors is exuberant and extravagant. The novel is strewn with them, rather like protagonist Kay's bedroom when she is choosing clothes for an outing. The profusion is striking at first, but gets overwhelming after a while. Nevertheless, it is consistent with the protagonist we are meeting here. Why would Kiran ask me for advice? No reason at all. But if she did, I would remind her that it is hard to enjoy an embarrassment of riches.

I enjoyed the depiction of 'society' (as in housing cooperative society) life very much. If you have lived in Bombay, and lived in a building with a buzzing society (inevitably), you will find many familiar faces. It's a particular universe that I want to suggest is unique to Bombay, combining the anonymity of big cities (the reluctant detective barely knows her murdered neighbour) with the social norms of a small town 'colony' that has grown around a company's factory (being particular about condolence calls). 

I am not sure why this book is being marketed as a murder mystery. What it does is paint the portrait of a particular kind of lifestyle and people who live in a particular kind of community. The murder is almost just a hook--a reason to show us how people call each other, share news, etc.--and I wonder if Kiran Manral was as reluctant to have this label attached as Kanan Mehra is to do detective work. In this, "The Reluctant Detective" is a lot like the Precious Ramotswe books (which I love) where the detective work is almost an excuse to introduce us to life and manners in Botswana.

If this is to be the first of many Kanan Mehra books, I can see that they have the potential to gently and humorously document a world which is quirky and full of people we might know. Maybe they don't need to unnecessarily kill people off for that to happen.

So buy this book and read it. It's the perfect journey read, or evening read on that work trip where you just want quiet time with a book after talking all day, or for a person who has just finished taking demanding entrance exams.

Thank you, Kiran, and I hope you will keep them coming!