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Kedarnath

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

This is a story about the mighty Himalayas and some grand old people from a time not so long ago but from long before Uttarakhand had come into existance.

In Calcutta, Kundu Specials is an institution. The Kundu family run travel company, for four generations, took good care of the travel bug that lay dormant in a middle class Bengali’s mind, selfishly hoarding casual leaves, sick and rainy day leaves through the year and building a corpus for that one annual vacation, to any where the heart desired. Because, when it comes to vacationing, the Bengali represents the Japanese tourist in India. Travel where you will, and you are bound to chance upon the inimitable saree draped Bangali lady, with kids popping out of monkey caps and sweaters and the harried gentleman trying to fit all of them into his photo frame against the sea, mountain, desert or historical monument backdrop. Kundu Specials, over the years, have ensured that the Bengali gentry travelled in comfort to places they had only dreamt of visiting, ate four Bengali meals a day cooked by the Bengali cooks who accompanied the group and brought back albums full of memories from the customised-and-guided-yet-affordable Kundu Special trip.

This story is from the days when Kundu Travels had moved their Strand Road office to the heart of Calcutta, on Chittaranjan Avenue, closer to where my Dadu’s (grandfather) shop stood. The second generation Mr. Kundu, Kundu dadu to us, would sit in my Dadu’s shop, sipping tea and hatching plots of sending out his annual troops to various parts of North India, to cooler climes and also chalk out itenerary for a handful of his friends like Dadu, to the mighty mountains, to the maths and ashrams hidden in the valleys among those mountains, to Gomukh, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath. Dadu, on those days, would evidently return home happier, having reserved four seats with Kundu Specials.

My Dadu loved travelling and nothing could ever come in the way of his wanderlust, not even money. I remember his tale about one such trip, when he had spent a few months of his twenty-something years in heart of India, Madhya Pradesh, in the estate of Rewa, interning at the Royal estate, where the morning breakfast, among other things comprised of bread with a really thick layer of butter, “about 5 mm thick. Imagine biting into such a slice and ending up with butter smeared over your lips and teeth,” he would tell us, eyes glistening from the memories of his carefree youth.

The first four seats reserved for Kundu Dadu’s tirth yatra to the Himalayas would be that of Dadu, Dida (my grandmother), followed by her best friend, her Boudi (her brother’s wife) and her brother. Come our summer vacation, the foursome would pack their leather suitcases with clothes, woollens and thermals, roll up their hold-alls and be gone for their summer sojourn.

Someone whispers the names ‘Joshi Math, Kedar Nath, Badri Nath, Amar Nath, Shesh Nag, Gaumukh, Lal Baba ka Ashram, ek roti ek kambal….’ as I sit writing this post. Voices from the past surface, ebb, flow and pour forth stories of walking up to Gangotri, riding horses that trotted perilously close to the edge of the road, narrow passes that opened up into valleys in the foothills of snow capped monsters, freezing, moon lit nights spent in makeshift Kundu Special tents, eating Luchi-alur torkari on the way up to Amarnath, Lal Baba’s Ashram at Gaumukh that dictated the rule ‘ek roti, ek kambal’ – the traveller would be given blankets equivalent to the number of Rotis he would have – ‘to keep the cold and weary traveller warm from outside and from within’. I remember Dadu telling us about that one time when on their way up the treacherous mountaineous terrain, he had been separated from the group, having lost his way in a sudden blizzard, very close to Kedar Nath and his only hope to guide him through the storm was his horseman. His horse had trotted off into the blizzard, they had nothing to guide them, their cry for help enveloped by the howling, raging storm, the late afternoon had darkened into an impenetrable, pitch darkness, and only long walking sticks to help them discern between the road and the slope that plunged into the deep ravine below. “Part of the way we had to slide down the barren, snow covered mountainside, do you know how?” he would ask the little heads who would gather around his knee, eyes popping out in trying to imagine the snow storm. “After the storm had passed, we moved ahead a few kilometers, stopping every few feet to dip the walking stick in the snow before stepping there. Then the ghorawalla pulled out out a thick plastic sheet, perhaps a part of his tent, laid it flat on the snow almost along the edge. We thought we had seen lights in the valley below. He asked me to sit down on it, and as I did he gently pushed me from the back, following right behind me on his sheet. It was a slightly bumpy but smooth ride down, perhaps a kilometer or two long – who could tell in that darkness?” He would smile.

“And when he had finally reached the camp, after the storm had passed, about eight hours later, I had thought it was his ghost that had appeared before us”, Dida would add, who incidentally had spent those eight hours, according to Dadu, “only thinking about the worse and howling her heart out”.

I distinctly remember four of those summer vacations, when the fantastic four had galavanted to the mountains and had brought back bags of walnuts, almonds, Gods and Goddesses carved out of marble and bags full of stories. I have treasured some precious moments from those summers, reading big fat books that belonged to Chhotomashi, the late evening card games with my cousins, nights I spent lying under the stars on the terrace with Chhotomashi listening to Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon, the eerily dark corridors on the ground floor mostly populated by over sized rats, the quiet of the night broken by the abuses of the neighbourhood drunkard, lazy, late morning breakfasts – almost a circus of sorts. And some afternoons, wandering through the quiet house, when all else were lost in post lunch siesta, touching my Dida’s fine bone china, her starched sarees on her closet rail, going through my Dadu’s drawer, his hair brushes and his collection of old coins, I would feel a fear gripping me, ‘what if they don’t come back this time?’

Dida, after all these years, spends most of her time by her aging window, quietly lost in her forgetfulness, once in a while the past flashes through her mind and she tells us those stories, again. The neighborhood has changed, the bougenville that my Mama had planted outside the house the year Dadu passed away has climbed along the wall and reached the terrace, the afternoons are far from quiet and the house doesn’t seem so large any more or perhaps I have grown up finally.

The last conversation I had with her was on my last visit, last year. She had thought that I was her long lost best frind from her childhood, I had played along and we spoke about her childhood, her marriage to Dadu when she was just 15, raising her children in a big city, Dadu and Dida’s Saturday evening ritual of watching a movie together, their trips, Vaishno Devi, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Joshi Math… And she suddenly turned to me and asked, “What if he hadn’t returned after the storm had passed over Kedarnath?”

Today, when I sit and write this post, thousands are still trapped, hungry and cold in Kedar, awaiting rescue with time ticking against their destiny. And her fears and mine have suddenly come true.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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“A very happy birthday….

to you” – read the simple, harmless message that I had typed out amidst a busy day, on my friend’s Facebook wall, about six months ago. What I didn’t know then was that that would be the last such message that I’d put up on any of my friend’s walls hence. The next day when I returned to Facebook, the little box in the right hand column announced the birthday girls and boys of the day, as it always does.

I surprised myself with ‘would I have remembered to wish them, in person, had I not logged in?’ and I had no answer to my question.  ‘What perfect timing to ask oneself such a rhetorical question!’, I chided myself, and logged out without posting my ‘warm wishes’. But the question hung in the air, waiting for a reply. I didn’t want to spell out the answer.

This might seem an absurd situation to someone who does not spend the better part of his or her day in front of a cold screen, at office or working from the dining table, like I do. It would have seemed equally strange to me, too, four or five years ago, when the cold virtual world was largely unexplored and I was accustomed to meticulously circling out ‘important’ days on the wall calendar, table calendar, the Bee’s organizer and mine. To refresh your memories, for it has been a long time since my last post, I need to remind you that I am married to a rather forgetful man, who barely manages to remember his own date of birth. Hence, I went through the exercise of making every ‘red letter’ day stand out and be counted.

…………………………….

It was my first year on Facebook and I was learning the ropes from those who had been there longer. I still remember the comment I had left behind on a friend’s update. His harmless update expressed gratitude to all his friends and foes alike for remembering to wish him on his birthday. Back in those days, I was far too honest for anybody’s wellbeing. So I added my comment ,‘dear XYZ, don’t thank us. Thank Facebook for reminding us :)’ to a long string of comments under his update. The ‘good’ friend is yet to forgive this loose cannon who decided to rain on his Facebook birthday party.

………………………………

What happens to all bottom drawers and top shelves of wardrobes, bookshelves and chest of drawers? They end up as our treasure keepers and all that was important to us in their prime. And one fine spring-cleaning day the 12 year old girl pulled out a cardboard box, frayed at corners, the lid hanging from the edges. ‘You need a new box for …. ‘and before she could make up her mind, her voice had got buried in the contents of the box. By the time I returned my attention to her, she had pulled out everything, thelittle notes, the letters, the greetings cards, a few address books from my Vth, VIIth and XIIth grade days – two ‘slam’ books and a bunch of hand made birthday cards held together with a piece of faded ribbon. She had finished with the rest. Her eager fingers were now unfolding each little card, scanning through the contents, giggling, sighing and moving on to the next. I joined in. Most of the birthday cards were made of ruled sheets of paper torn out of exercise books or white sheets torn out of drawing books and a few on blank cards bought from the stationery chap who sat by the school gate every morning. All of them were from the year 1988, the year before a tiny Archies’ gallery came up next to our school. “Why don’t my friends exchange hand made cards?” she wondered aloud, “and your friends were so good at painting!” she continued gushing over the heap of teenaged water colour trails and birthday sweet nothings, from a long time ago. I gave them a longer lease of life and a new box to live in forever.

………………………………..

I must admit that my birthdays over the last five years on the social network have been both flattering and rewarding. Every year, hundreds of messages appear on my wall from friends, colleagues, classmates, acquaintances and complete strangers and, as if by the rules of compounding, the numbers have only gone one way – upwards, year on year. It was the perfect complement to my erstwhile quota of phone calls, greetings cards, sms-es  and the visits of a few friends who dropped in to share my day. Now, wishes were flooding in from all over, from friends and foes alike, that too from across all the remote corners of the globe. Friends, who I had shared my school desk and lunches with, suddenly popped up on my wall, a classmate from my Philosophy class in college, neighbours from two cities ago, a bunch of smiling, gorgeous girls who claimed to be juniors from school, college, university, distant second cousins, and my husband’s friends and colleagues – don’t get me wrong, I was loving the attention.

But my old self, who loved hoarding greetings cards in boxes and marking ‘significant’ dates in the organizer; the person who preferred to call or drop in to wish friends/relatives/colleagues in person felt neglected and lost. She was slipping away as I was fast adapting to an ‘easy’ way out. I also ignored her complaints, ‘X used to call every year, why hasn’t she this year?’; ‘Y and I had this ritual of wishing each other at midnight, ever since eighth grade, whatever happened?’ ; ‘what happened to Z’s bunch of flowers and his smiling presence in the evening?’; ‘I have stopped making calls, and I was so particular!'; ‘How could I have forgotten A’s birthday – because there was no notification on Facebook?’ – she went on and on. The few reasons to call and catch up with friends and family were fast disappearing in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and the convenience that technology provided. And my Facebook wall was becoming a beehive of ‘quick-and-easy-even-if-somewhat-impersonal-but-gets-the-job-done’ activities.

Of late, I have been feeling a sense of loss; a loss of warmth and the thought that is required to remember such dates and convey the requisite wishes – whatever the means. That old sentimental me, is once again craving that personal touch, at least from those that are near and dear. A phone call, a message, a visit – more than a ‘one among the many birthday messages put up on others walls in the course of the day, every day.  And I have taken the first step. I have stopped writing messages on all walls, that of friends and acquaintances alike. The next course of action is yet to be drawn up.

Considering the number of walls I skipped in the last six months, I foresee quite a few steely resolves to sit out from wishing me this year, at least on Facebook. It will definitely make the number of birthday wishes on my wall dwindle substantially this year. But I am helpless. I can’t do this any more.

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

X Files

I had thought that new the millennium had archived Scully, Mulder, aliens, the Smoking Man and the X-Files.
Don’t get me wrong, for I had always been a X-Files believer – followed every episode till I realized that the conspiracies were getting too predictable and we were all asking the same ‘will they, won’t they’ (Scully and Mulder) question more than following the trail of where the story took us. And I confess, somewhere down the road, I had lost my faith and X-files had lost an avid follower.

And yet here I sit, trying to look busy in front of the laptop propped on my lap, clicking away furiously in trying to key in this tiny post, while the sassy 12 going on 13 is riveted to the idiot box, watching X-Files. This is a recent addiction that has appeared out of nowhere or perhaps because the father had expressed his discontent  about her keenness to watch horror movies. Thus her first reaction to X-Files was thus, ‘there’s no horror in X-Files, it’s sci fi, then why can’t I watch it?’ Round one, Daddy-0, daughter-1.

I for one never imagined that the oh-so-nineties X-Files would have any appeal on these fantasy guzzling, gizmo loving next gen kids fed on the iPads, iPods, androids and computer generated imagery. But there she is, glued to the screen, gulping down science fiction, X-Files style. It of course makes her sci fi loving mother quite happy that finally the brat has let go of her ‘I love only fantasy and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I live’ belief and has embraced sci fi. But I would have been happier if she was reading a book (yes, I know I am THAT old fashioned) rather than watching it on tv.

So I casually slipped in this line, ‘if you look you might still find a copy of the book, X-Files, in the book case.’

Now it is time to turn the book case upside down, looking for the book. And I am dreaming of invading a bookshop in search of science fiction. Books.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Her story. Our story.

From my TOI blog : Freeze Frame

She is still alive and she is still willing to live. Her sodomized, gangrenous intestines have been removed surgically and yet her heart feebly beats on. Her body has started to reject antibiotics so she has been going through more surgeries and yet she whispers on ‘I want to live’. Her wounds don’t allow her to breathe on her own, she has been put back on the ventilator and yet she wants those who raped and brutalized her to be punished. She continues to will and continues to live. Her battered body continues to fight because of her unbroken spirit. That is her story.

I find myself in angry tears. Questions crowd my mind and judgment. ‘How is she still alive? What keeps her heart beating? Is it not better that she dies than live in such pain? Will her death put out the flicker of rage in us? Will the men who desecrated her body and tried to batter her spirit be let off with little or no punishment because of the lack of stricter laws? I have suddenly felt a stirring in me. A part of me that I had thought had died a long time ago has come alive.

As a girl, as a woman, I had been told that I have the right to live freely. But have I really lived freely? The answer does not please me. I realize that all these years, in the name of living freely in my city, in my own country I have only made compromises with myself. I have been made to feel embarrassed of being a girl. Even before I could understand that my little body was changing, that I was growing up, groping hands and elbows have told me that I was not a little girl any more. Men and older boys at busy street corners, crowded markets, on buses and trams have stared and ogled, passed jeering, lewd comments, tried to touch and stealthily touched – a touch that spread a feeling of hatred and fear as it told me that I would have to hide myself and my body, be embarrassed, be ashamed and feel guilty.  .

Though enraged I walked on without a word. Later, I dressed more conservatively, though in vain, in the hope that nobody would taunt me or make passes at me. I walked faster on occasions when young men on bikes suddenly stopped and tried to whisper lewd nothings into my ears. I have on occasion entered a shop and waited till the man or men who had followed me have walked away after waiting outside the shop for me to emerge. I changed routes ever so often and took long detours to avoid ‘unsafe’ alleys, even in the daytime.

On one occasion I changed buses, because a man taking advantage of the crowd around him tried to expose himself in front of me. I got off the bus at the next busy intersection, had waited very close to a group of men and women who looked ‘respectable’ and caught another bus, all the while looking over my shoulder to see whether the man had followed me and then frantically looking around for a man or a woman I could approach if this man accosted me. Was I scared? Yes. Did I try changing anything? Yes, the next day onward I carried a bigger bag and a broader dupatta and took a more circuitous route home. I remember, in my younger days, furtive instructions being passed on to me by my older cousin sister or my mother to steer clear of a certain relative or family friend, a guidance I respected and abided by, though wondering what may have caused this.

The few times I did pluck up the courage to protest, to question the ‘respectable’ face behind the groping hands I found myself surrounded by a sea of poker faces, my fellow human beings, standing next to me, listening to my outrage yet deaf and mute to their surrounding, ensconced in their little bubble that cocooned them and kept them safe with the thought that ‘it’s not happening to me, so it’s not my problem’.

Those were days of growing up in a gray city of repressed men; days, when I was supposed to rejoice in the spirit of carefree youth. Were they? Alas! By the time I was in my early 20s, I had resigned to the fact that compromise was an essential part of growing up and living as a woman in a big, decaying, old city.

Now, after close to fourteen years of having survived three other cities, including Delhi and several countries, each of which left a few scars in my life, I have learned my lessons well. I know my limits, I know how to stay out of trouble, I know how to stay safe, I know I have to make certain compromises if I want to continue to enjoy myself without exposing myself to potential harm. I know that no one is safe – little girls, boys, married women, even the elderly – can fall prey to the viscous lust of these depraved creatures for whom it all seems to be child’s play.

So where did my tears come from today? Had they not dried up a long time ago? Why does the state of this unnamed girl who was raped, battered and left to die make me so angry? Why now? Why do I want anything to change? What is it that is forcing me to step out of my safety bubble and feel this outrage again? Is it the way she had been brutalized?

I know why. It’s her ‘never say die’ spirit and her incessant fight, even in her darkest moments, which tell me that I gave up even before I thought of putting up a fight. Her story tells me that I compromised too soon. She has razed the inhibitions that I have been living under for the better part of my life. Even in her defeat, her brutal assault at the hands of these beasts who call themselves men, she has taught me that there is no shame; there is no defeat; there should never be any compromises made; that life is worth living despite the barbs and arrows that fate unwittingly throws at one. Salute!

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The God Factory of Kolkata

Read it on my TOI Blog, Freeze Frame.

Have you ever wondered where God is created? Is there a factory that makes them as per order? There is such a factory, where men toil through the year to create deities out of straw and clay, in the heart of an aging metropolis.

Let me take you there, to the graying city, standing by the mighty Hooghly River. The five day festival of the Durga Puja has just drawn to a close. The lights are yet to be taken down; streets still look festive with themandaps standing tall; some of the popular Barowarior community pujas are yet to immerse the idols; the schools are still in the middle of their Puja vacation and the newspapers have just started their post-puja circulation. The city is stretching its arms as it emerges from the throes of week-long festivity, too tired and almost reluctant to return to the proverbial ‘grind’, still hung over from the culinary excesses, late nights, pandal hopping and all the madness that surrounds the 5-days of Durga Puja. But the God factory, which was abuzz a fortnight ago with moulds, straw, clay, paints, glitters, laces, colourful fabric, roles of fibre hair – adding last minute touches to the Dashabhuja Devi Durga and her children, is still busy. The wheels keep turning, men keep toiling, preparing the clay, mixing colours, dying fibres, painting hands, feet, faces – the factory is busy rolling out more Gods for the ‘baro mase tero parbon’(the proverbial thirteen festivals round the twelve months in a year) in Bengal.

  

Lets step into one of those small rooms, that line the narrow, ancient alley. A big pedestal fan whirs away in the darkening room. A naked bulb lends light to a section of the room, where a man is hunched over a roll of tightly wound fabric. His deft fingers have already given shape to the beautiful face, now he is bent over giving final touches to the lotus like eyes. His apprentices have already left for the day. Neatly tied stacks of hay, feminine structures crafted out of bamboo and straw line an adjacent wall, the day’s task been accomplished. Standing a little further away are clay figures of various incarnations of the Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and other gods and goddesses, in various stages of making and repair.

Tomorrow his apprentices would be back to plaster a few more of the straw and bamboo structures with the silty, gray clay that comes from the neighbouring ghats of the mighty Hooghly. Of late with the late retreat of the monsoon, the struggle to dry the idols has only become harder. The pedestal fan whirs in agreement. And suddenly the eye having accustomed to the darkness follows an ember glow in the darkest corner of the room, and a closer look reveals the contours of a few finished heads of idols being dried over the dying ember of a coal oven. In a few days time, when the idols would be suitably dried, the Potua or the artisan would start painting the figures. The most important part of this creative process is however the painting of the eyes of the deity. Only the most senior and the most skillfulpotua is responsible for painting the eyes of the deity, thereby breathing life into the clay idol.

  

The workshop we stand in now, is one of the workshops of the god making industry, nestled in a narrow, dingy alley of a network of many such serpentine lanes, which criss-cross each other, in the heart of the aging metropolis, Calcutta. History pegs the age of this neighbourhood of potters or Kumortuli, as over 400 years, a hundred years older than the erstwhile capital of the British Empire. During the days of Bengal Presidency, when the British administrators were planning the layout of their new capital, they built the Fort William by the bank of the river Hooghly, which displaced a lot of the inhabitants of the local village. The displaced people were rehabilitated to other parts of the then presidency town that consisted of Sutanuti, Gobindopur and Kolikata. The ‘Indian quarters’ of the presidency town were largely concentrated in the two villages of Sutanuti and Kolikata. While richer section started to settle in areas like Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata, the worker sections were allotted areas according to their vocation closer to the ghats of the mighty Hooghly river. Eventually these areas came to be named according to the profession of the people who lived there. So Ahiritola was the neighbourhood of milkmen, Kolutolla ofKolus or oil producers, Suriparah of wine sellers, Muchipara for the shoe smiths and cobblers and Kumortuli, a neighbourhood of potters.

The potters who earned a meager livelihood out of making clay pots, slowly started to sculpt images of deities for the various Hindu religious festivals that were becoming popular during the British Raj. The most prominent of the festivals of Bengal, of course, was and still is the Durga Puja. Potters from the neighbourhood were hired by the rich Babus, in those days, to live in their houses and sculpt the deity in the thakurdalan or the courtyard attached to the ancestral temple, of the Babus.

The recently departed writer, Shree Sunil Gangopadhyay once wrote “In those days, instead of buying the idols from the market at Kumortuli, families invited the kumor or artisan home to stay as a house guest weeks before the Puja, during which time he sculpted the idol. The idol at our Puja was known for its magnificent size. It used to be over 10 feet tall. Every morning as the kumor started his work, we children gathered around him and gaped in awe as he gradually turned a fistful of straw and a huge mass of clay into a perfectly formed, larger-than-life figure.”

  

Around the 1930’s, with the freedom struggle stoking patriotic fire in native hearts, in Bengal Durga puja started to gain prominence as a community festival. And the potters slowly found themselves orders to sculpt the Dashabhuja out of straw and clay, for the autumnal festival.

Ever since, this nighbourhood of potters has become the workshop of the God-makers. They say that God rested on the seventh day, after Creation was complete. But the God-makers of Calcutta know no rest. The festival season is on. Come Monday, lorries would make a beeline outside their alleys for idols of the Goddess Laxmi. Meanwhile, the apprentices have started to create the basic straw and bamboo structure of the other incarnation of Durga, Ma Kali, for Kali puja is round the corner. The wheels at the God Factory have to keep turning as there will be no seventh day when the God makers would get a day of rest after creating God.

  

Picture courtesy :

Saraswati – filmapia.com

Soil – calcuttawalks.com

Soil being mixedhttp://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/India/East/West_Bengal/Kolkata/photo741105.htm

Flickr.com

Flickr.com

flickr.com

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Not a country for little girls?

Read it on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame.

Baby Ahuti died of cardiac arrest on Monday. But that was not the real reason of her death. Her little heart could not bear the trauma of her battered little body. She had “multiple skull fractures, broken ribs, a dislocated neck and bruised limbs”. The parents had claimed that her injuries were from a fall. Though the doctors investigating her case had surmised that the three month old’s head may have been bashed hard against something hard, perhaps even the floor, causing her soft skull to fracture. Her twin sister had evidently died under mysterious circumstances, when she was just a 12 days old.

Another child, Tanaaz Sayyed, aged two was reported dead just two months prior to this. Cause of death, ‘suffering relentless physical abuse at the hands of her parents’.

The year started with baby Falak succumbing to her injuries. She had been abandoned with ‘a fractured skull, broken arms, and human bite marks all over her body and cheeks that had been branded by a hot iron’. Baby Shirin, baby Afreen and many more just added to the list of girls who were brought to hospitals around the country this year, battered, bludgeoned, bruised and left to die.

The irony of the situation is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. These are cases that have been reported because the culprits have gotten caught or because their brutality was too many to ignore by the purveyors of health or the law. The truth is  “India lacks rigid and streamlined guidelines to detect, diagnose, treat and solve child battering because the family is supposed to be sacrosanct and private and external factors are not allowed to intervene even in situations that might end in tragedy. There is no specific law under which parents can be taken into custody on suspense…. in India, there is no specific law under which parents battering their children could be booked unless there was concrete proof of the crime”.

In the comfort of my home, a simple Google search fills up pages with data; data on how people killed their infants because they were girls.

The pages bring back stories I would hear from my grandmother, stories from her childhood and before. There was a time when the news of a girl born in a family was never shared with the world outside. What would later be shared was the news that the child was still born or died of natural causes minutes after their birth. The little girl, in reality, instead of seeing the light of day would have had salt forced down her tiny throat till she choked. Severe dehydration would eventually lead to hypernatremia leading to brain edema and coma. Her frail body would then be anointed with chandan, wrapped in muslin and buried in keeping with Hindu funeral rites.

I’m once again back to the multiple browser windows open in front of me. One page leads on to more pages, one story links to many more. Another little girl killed at birth or within the first few months joins a list of many who have gone before her. Pages fill up with reports, news stories about little girls badly beaten up, sexually assaulted, abandoned or left to die. Countless stories on why this was never a country for little girls and how the future still looks bleak.

In one related report I chance upon Gita Aravamudan, author of the book Disappearing Daughters (2007), who writes that since traditional methods of female infanticide (feeding the child salt, drowning the child in a bucket of water) could be traced back, people adopt more inhuman and novel ways of killing their baby. Wrapping a child in wet towels right after birth to induce pneumonia, feeding a new-born alcohol to induce diarrhoea are common practice….

But why does she have to die again and again? The answer is not that simple. The SUB GROUP REPORT on the Girl Child in the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012), by Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India reveals disturbing trends: “The sharp decline in female sex ratios over the years suggests that female foeticide and infanticide might be primarily responsible for this phenomenon followed by general neglect of the girl child The sex ratio has been dwindling even in States like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat which are supposed to be economically prosperous. Female infanticide has been reported from parts of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The magnitude of girl child mortality is reflected from the fact that every year, about 12 million girls are born in India; a third of these girls die in the first year of  their life; three million, or 25 per cent, do not survive to see their fifteenth birthday. The child mortality rate between 0-4 years for girl child is 20.6%, two percent more than that of boys (18.6%).”

Table: The Human Development Index of the Girl Child in India:

Indicator Males Females Persons
Population (0-6) 81,911,041 75,952,104 157,863,145
Sex Ratio (0-6) - - 927/1000
IMR (April 2006) - - 58
MMR - 407 -
Child Mortality Rate (0-4) (2000) 18.6% 20.6% 19.5%
Anemia (15-19) - 56% -
Literacy rate 75.26 53.67 64.84
Gross Drop Out Rate
Class 1-5 35.85 33.72 34.89
Class I-VIII 52.28 53.45 52.79
Class I-X 60.72 64.97 62.58

What is all the more alarming is that a significant number of studies have conclusively shown that there is little correlation between the number of such incidents with the lack of education or wealth – the common belief – and that is true for most parts of the country. But if this is indeed the case, what will make such atrocities stop? How can we enlighten the people of this country that our girls deserve better; that they are to be treasured, nurtured and cherished and not be the subjects of such heinous crimes? Is the solution in public awareness campaign, demonstrations, public interest litigations or in developing a water-tight legal structure that seeks to make an example of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes? Whatever the case may be, may better sense prevail and let’s get down to setting things right, sooner than later, or we will have very few girls to call our own.

Photo credit: newstopnight.in

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Forgetful me

Read it on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame.

‘I am prone to momentary lapses of memory and at times it gets really embarrassing for me. Are you still sure? Think about it.’ The warning came on the morning of the first day of Baishakh, almost a decade and half ago. But that year the day had another purpose other than turning over the Bengali new year. He and I were also getting married the same day.

He had requested that he would choose the date, with the refrain that ‘that way, I’ll never forget our wedding anniversary.’ Either it was too late to back out or I was too much in love with him (and in retrospect, I think it was the former than the latter). Anyway, I gave myself no reason to reason with myself, to look back or think. I just took the leap. I draped the fuchsia Benarasi my mother had lovingly chosen for the occasion, allowed her to fuss over my hair, garlands, ornaments that had been passed down from generations, let her cry a little and basically have everything her way for, perhaps, this would be the last time. I had boldly signed on the dotted lines, next to his scrawl and was his better half, about a half an hour ceremony later. Social paraphernalia had followed a month later. The fairy tale had begun with a very brief courtship, a period not long enough to gauge the depth of his ‘momentary lapses of memory’. The nature and the depth of his ‘forgetfulness’ manifested itself once we had moved lock, stock and barrel to the Bengali ghetto in Delhi.

A memoir, if ever written on our life together, would definitely start with this paragraph: “Their new life was full of hurdles. He forgot his wife’s birthday. The wife took it in her stride and brushed it aside as a ‘minor’ glitch. He forgot other ‘important’ dates and she started maintaining an annual calendar of events that hung next to the dining table. She keyed in ‘important’ numbers in his phonebook, updated his address books, created files that lined the guestroom shelves to store forgotten bills/ prescriptions/ correspondence/ insurance papers etc, tried to remember the names of faces that she met for the first time so that next time he knew who he was talking to and much more that eventually became part of their history.”

    

One winter evening, I spotted fresh roses at the tiny flower-shop in our neighbourhood “Second market”, in CR Park, and left him behind to chat up with the florist from Bankura and haggle over prices. It did not take long to get a good bargain for a dozen long stemmed roses. But something seemed odd. Suddenly my questions were not met with his usual monosyllabic replies. So I turned to look for my husband. There he was, standing a few shops away, slightly blurry because of the fog that was slowly descending upon the dimly lit street, talking to a tall, elderly gentleman, in a long Kashmiri housecoat. I walked up to join the animated conversation.

‘And how are the daughters? Hope mashima is keeping well, too? I don’t see you taking strolls down our lane anymore.’ he was asking the gentleman, who had surprise clearly written on his aging face.

‘They are fine, but your mashima is still not used to the Delhi cold, even after all these years’, came the reply, in a halting, confused tone. ‘And I prefer to stay indoors these days. My old bones can’t take the biting cold either.’

Having found me standing quietly by his side and discreetly pulling him by his sweater from the back, he seemed to get the message. So he broke off with a, ‘Okay Roy Mesomoshai, do take care.’

A barrage followed. ‘What was that all about? Why were you pulling at my sweater? I can see you’ve got your roses. So? What do you want now? Did you forget your purse again? Need more money? What was it? Haven’t met Roy mesomoshai in a long time, so I was talking to him.’

So I had to tell him.

‘That was NOT Roy mesomoshai! Have you even forgotten what he looks like? You were chatting with a complete stranger!’

‘No? But Roy Mesomoshai always wears a Kashmiri housecoat and is as tall. He even wears a similar Nepali cap in winter. How can you be so sure? That was him!’ And only a visit to Roy Mesomoshai, who lived two houses away, allayed his doubts. ‘Minor glitch’ I sighed.

And such minor glitches continued. He would often come home from office with a bag of Salim’s Kebabs, even after being told that I had already cooked dinner (which in retrospect seems like an intentional lapse of memory, as those would be the exact days I’d cook vegetables like bhindi, bNadhakopi or pumpkin). He recognized faces and was capable of continuing a meaningful conversation but their names failed him, noticed things which were almost in his face much later than he was expected to. I was still not worried.

But when it resulted in him missing flights, both domestic and international, forgetting laptops at airport lounges, blackberries and phones in taxis (that too, on foreign shores), our driver with the car at the meeting venue and taking a ride back with his colleague or asking me the name of the person he had just finished a well-informed conversation with – it worried me slightly. You know the kind of thought that goes, ‘he might forget me at a bookshop some day’. That’s about it.

And also the fact that in trying to keep up with his forgetfulness, my gray cells are growing lazy. Of late I set up reminders on the Blackberry to remind me about things to do, appointments to keep, set up alarms to reach on time, maintain a diary of my daily chores, fill up the refrigerator with to-do-post-its etc.

But this is what it has come to pass. Just the other day, I was so excited about finally watching one of Soumitro Chatterjee’s plays in Bombay. I bought premium tickets two months in advance, alerted the husband and made him mark off that time of the evening as busy on his blackberry, marked it on my calendar et al and so that we both remembered, I even put the tickets in the husband’s ‘important docs’ drawer. And we were all set for, Monday, 9th of July to arrive.

Something struck me on Sunday evening. Perhaps the husband’s remark ‘how could have they planned a play for a Monday evening? They’re typically either on a Saturday or a Sunday. I’ll have to miss a conference call…’ I pulled out the tickets from his drawer. The date on the tickets read ‘Saturday, 7th July, 2012’.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 
 
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