Category Archives: Life

Chronicles of a roving protester

For nearly two hours this morning, I tried finding out if there was a fast or protest planned in Mysore today. If people were gathering somewhere it would be good to add to the numbers, I thought, rather than fragmenting the effort. But I was told, “We are planning, but there is nothing today”. Nothing seemed to have been done yesterday or the day before, so I decided to make my own placard and go sit under Gandhi’s statue outside the court, for a few hours while it was still day.

I made a sign saying “We Want Jan Lokpal” in English on one side and “ಭ್ರಷ್ಟಾಚರ ವಿರೋಧಿಸಿ” (Oppose Corruption) in Kannada on the other. And around 4.45 I left the office, with the placard. I had decided not to go sit by the G. statue, because I could easily be missed and because it seemed a rather boring thing to do.

I walked along the Hunsur Road, but for the first ten minutes or so, I was on the left hand side, with my back to the traffic. I realised this wasn’t such a good idea–I need to face the oncomng traffic, only then would people pay attention to the sign. And it worked. People would slow down to read the sign and then speed up.

It was rush-hour traffic, people were going home from work, which also meant they were not in a mad hurry to get to office and face their workday. They had a moment to indulge their curiousity about this woman with a placard walking by herself.

For the first couple of minutes I was a bit shy about meeting people’s eyes. But I plucked up courage when I saw someone smile. And after that I kept looking at people’s faces, with as neutrally pleasant an expression as I could manage (or should that be ‘as my perpetually frowning face would allow’?).

Most people, about 60-65%, would see me, but would simply not care and drive past without slowing to read the sign. A smaller percentage read the sign, shrugged either physically or mentally, and drove on. Some read the sign and took a look at my face, but on meeting my eyes, immediately pretended I did not exist. Many looked completely cynical. One man said “ಅಷ್ಟೇನಾ?” “Is that all?”. A fraction looked at me and smiled, some in embarrassment at having been ‘caught’ looking at me and some in encouragement. Some wanted to talk to me, but were too shy. A few felt compelled to read my sign out aloud to me.

My first conversation was with a young man who drove up and asked why I was alone. I told him that i had tried to find out if anyone was organising a public event, but was unsuccessful and decided to go it alone. He said ph, that is very good madam, smiled and went away. He was wearing a helmet, but driving on the wrong side.

A minute later a slightly older man slowed down and said, “All the best!” I asked him how good wishes would help, and he looked sheepish. Unrelenting, I went on. Instead of good wishes, would it not be better if he also did something to change things? Poor man, he simply said, “Yes, yes, you are right, madam,” and sped away.

A little ahead, a man in a watchman-like uniform, with an Alsatian on a leash, asked me in Kannada, what my sign meant. In terrible, incoherent words I tried to explain, and through more effort from him than from me, managed to get the idea across. He asked if I was a lawyer. I lied and said I was a student.

Another man, (again driving on the wrong side!), stopped, introduced himself as a doctor and asked where the fasts had been organised. I told him I had tried to find out without much success. “So you are walking alone?” “Yes.” Good, good, all the best!” “Thank you.”

And suddenly, I didn’t know how to go back. Called M and asked for directions. Got them and went on. Two boys in the university compound, read the sign aloud, in funny tones, false voices, falsettos. I grinned and waved. They looked embarrassed and then waved back, jumping up and down for some reason. I felt like a celebrity.

At a crossroad where I was trying to do the right thing by using the zebra instead of walking diagonally, a group of young men in sports uniforms crossed ahead of me. One of them, not in uniform, asked me, “ಏನಿದು?” “What is this?” I replied, “The sign says ‘Oppose Corruption,’ and that is what this is about.” “What does that mean?” “Umm, it means we should all try to stop corrption and not be corrupt ourselves.” “What does that mean?” At this point, the rest of the group has begun to get impatient with him: “Don’t you know what corruption means?” “Why are you asking silly questions?” “Come on, man, you know exactly what this is about!”

I smiled at all of them and started to cross the road, when two men on a bike, one holding a camera waved at me and yelled for me to come to where they were. I waved back gesturing that I was crossing the road. The man with the camera kept shouting “Look here, I want to take a photo!” I hid my face with the sign and gestured that he should photograph that instead. Some of the sports people were still shouting questions to me: “Which college, akka?” I moved the sign to shout back some completely untrue response, when the photographer went click, click, click. Bleddy! I muttered some curses and moved on, hiding as well as I could behind the sign. He followed me for a while, but the traffic at the railway crossing got the better of him.

At the tracks, vehicles, children, university athletes and one large goat were all squeezing past each other. One motorist called out something complimentary about the placard being in Kannada.

The sun had nearly set by now. The roads were fuller than earlier, but fewer people seemed interested in the sign. People were not going to make the effort to read my squiggles in the semi-darkness.

Near the DC’s residence, a pillion-rider smiled and saluted. I saluted back. Two cops at the Valmiki Road signal said, “ಏನು ಮೇಡಂ, ಒಬ್ಬರೇ ಇದ್ದೀರಾ?” “What madam, you are alone?” “Yes, what to do, if no one joins, you must go alone, no?” “Yes, yes, you are right.” Smiles all around. Nods also.

Auto drivers at the Paduvarahalli stand, pointed at the placard and spoke to each other in a babble I couldn’t decipher. I did the usual thing: I smiled. They just stopped speaking.

M called a couple of minutes later. I was less than a kilometer from home. “I’ll come pick you up.” Sure, do! It was too dark for anyone to read the sign anyway. Or even to see me. I crossed the road to where M would meet me. A couple of auto drivers at the corner read the sign by the glow of the streetlamp and asked me what it was about. Before I could launch into my converses-only-with-in-laws-and-the-domestic-help-lady Kannada, M arrived and I extracted “politician”, and other crucial words from him and managed get the explanation across in a somewhat less garbled manner this time. M helped immensely by throwing in a metaphor about bandicoots.

Shoved the sign gratefully into the back of the car and went home.

The most significant observation I made today was that not a single woman wanted to acknowledge the sign or me. If I looked at them directly, they would not break the gaze, but simply shift focus, as if I was invisible and they were looking at something beyond. Most pretended, extremely effectively, that I did not exist. Women have a LOT of practice at this, with all the unwanted attention they get. But I must have looked into the faces of at least a thousand women today. Not one smiled. Not one looked curious. Not one stopped to ask me anything. All the people who commented or spoke to me, or even raised their eyebrows were men. I have no clue what to make of this.

It is almost three hours since I got home. My hands are still aching. Who knew a one-kilo placard was this heavy?

About a tree, actually two

I have mentioned the mango tree behind our apartment in an earlier post. In reality, there are two of them, growing next to each other in the same compound. They belong to an elderly lady, of remarkable spirit and physical will, who lives alone in the old house within the compound.

Neighbouring her plot is a house which has been extended several times and is occupied by several families. Among the many people in this strange house is a woman, K, who objects to the trees. She claims the leaves that the tree sheds ‘dirty’ her compound and cause her no end of trouble.

Three days ago, she called the city municipal office and complained about the trees. They promptly sent a few men over to cut them down.

Veena, a friend and neighbour, heard and saw branches falling and rushed out to talk sense into the municipal people and K. She begged and pleaded and even shed a few tears. The result was that the trees were spared, but all the branches extending over the compound were lopped off.

The trees are now precariously balanced, with most of their weight on one side. When the rains come, I won’t be surprised if they just keel over and crash.

The lady whose trees these are shut herself inside the house and refused to come out during the whole chopping up exercise. These are trees she has probably lived with all her life; they probably know each other as old friends do.

She’s well over 60, perhaps close to 70 even, and each week, she diligently sweeps up the leaves from the trees and either buries them (during the rains, for compost) or burns them (during the dry season to heat water).

Not all of us have the time and energy to maintain a garden, but I do wonder – to think of fallen leaves from a magnificent tree as garbage that ‘dirties’ one’s home, while being perfectly tolerant of the tons of un-reusable, un-recyclable plastic that we ourselves bring in daily, seems sadly warped, doesn’t it?

This is a picture of the old house and the trees around it from last year’s monsoon. The lopped tree doesn’t look too bad from my balcony, as the cutting was mostly on the other side, but still I can’t bring myself to take a picture of it now.

mango-tree-house

Crops and robbers

You are Mallesha.

A fifty-six year old farmer. You live in Maguvinahalli, a village on the northern boundary of the famous Bandipur National Park.

Every year, at the end of summer, you till your meagre 4 acres, sow some jowar and some sunflowers. For weeks you work in the baking heat. Once the monsoons arrive, you continue working, in the pouring rains.

Once the seeds have sprouted and you have a crop, you don’t relax, no sir, you don’t. You build a thorn fence around the field. And a machan (platform) on the peepal tree in your field for you to sit up on, all night. Waiting and watching for the elephants.

Yes, the elephants. They come from the forest, to feast on your precious crop.

Last year, your brother Murthy lost everything in a single night to a herd of 9 elephants. It happened at the very end of the season, a few days before the harvest. He still owes the moneylender 14,000 rupees.

So for several weeks you get no rest at all. Night after dark night you sit up on the machan, shaking your head and muttering to yourself to keep sleep away. They are eerily silent, these elephants. You have to be alert all the time.

You look out of the machan, moonlight outlines the distant hills. The silence is broken by the roar of a speeding vehicle on the highway. It used to be a small dusty strip when you were a boy. Now it is dangerous to cross with all the tourist traffic.

You have heard the tourists pay 3000 rupees for a day at the hotel at the edge of your village. You could buy seeds for a whole season with that! Why would they spend so much just to see some elephants? They could instead sit up in your machan, for free.

The gentle breeze lulls you into a dangerous calm. Your head tilts. You sleep.

Kttrrrrck! You are suddenly wide-awake, but it is too late. You fumble for the match and light a firecracker. The wick forms an arc of light, then bursts. Your hand is shaking as you throw another. It is louder than the last. One of the elephants lets out a cry. You can feel the earth shake under you.

As quickly as they came, they are gone. But the silence is not comforting. You sit numbly, not wanting to move.

Dawn arrives and reveals the damage. In the ten minutes they spent in your field, the elephants have taken half your crop.

Lead settles in your stomach, you can’t even feel anger. Slowly, you tuck the matchbox and firecrackers into the folds of your dhoti. And walk home.

Overhead fly an early flock of parakeets.

On bees dying

Yesterday, our neighbours smoked out a bee hive that had come up on one of their window shades. They had some pest control people hired for the purpose. Kerosene was sprayed on the bees and then smoke of some sort used to drive the more persistent insects from the hive.

Within a few seconds of the operation, our balcony, which is located right below the hive, was covered with writhing bees. When they die, bees do a strange thing – they spit out honey. While thrashing about, they also manage to get stuck in their own sticky spit. Watching them do this fills me with a sort of horrified fascination – purging honey in their dying moments seems like a final renunciation of everything they have lived for. Almost as if they were saying: this honey is what defined me all this while. But I don’t need it where I am going.

Stranger still was what I found this morning. Bees that had managed to escape the kerosene were hovering around, flying from dead bee to dead bee. I wondered if this was an apian homage of some sort, but suddenly I saw what they were doing. They were collecting honey. Did this qualify as stealing from the departed? I think not – bees are unlikely to be weighed down by the same false morals we burden ourselves with. They were probably making the best of a bad thing. No more.

Here are some pictures.

untitled

when you have news
of death,
walk down to tell them.

no, don’t pick up
that vulgar machine.
look them in the eye
and say the words.

consider the syllables.
do they colour
your steel gray memory
of him,
do they hang
quietly
like the smoke
from his cigar?

remember
in their unknowing
he lives still,
until your words
take him away.

if only to delay
your own guilt,
walk down to tell them.

Do they also serve…

December 2006

It is 7 pm. The sun has long set in this eastern seaside city. We are at a bus stop, the evening rush hour blares and glares its aggressive way past us as we cower against a wall. There is no footpath, no shelter, nothing to dignify the daily wait of dozens of commuters. Divakar waits with us, clutching his stick as close to himself as possible, so it doesn’t get in anyone’s way.”What number is it?”, he asks every once in a while. His ability to discern the roar of a bus over the general din is amazing.

When the right bus arrives, Divakar tries to apologise and excuse his way in, but the mass of bodies jammed on the footboard does nothing to help. The whistle is blown and the bus leaves, without him. Until a friendly hand hauls him in, Divakar will wait, patiently and cheerfully. But today, I am nearly at the end of my tether. He has waited more than an hour, while four uncaring buses have left him behind. “Do you know who this man is?” I want to scream. “Can’t you see he needs help?” “How dare you push him!” But it will only embarrass him. So I bite my tongue. Several times over.

A few days ago, Divakar managed to squeeze into a bus, only to step on another passenger’s foot. Perhaps overwrought from a long, difficult day, the passenger burst into a string of abuses, shoved Divakar around, and, emboldened by his apologetic manner, punched him hard. Frail Divakar could take it no longer. “I am very sorry sir, I truly am. But I cannot see. Please forgive me.”

In the silence that swept over the bus, a woman called to the dumbstruck passenger. “Apologise to him, you fool. If he curses you, seven generations of your progeny will be born blind.”

Yet another bus arrives, and this time, Divakar makes it in. He waves in our general direction and we wave back. He would expect us to.

~

March 2007

Harsha’s parents are sitting silent and anxious when Divakar enters. They can barely bring themselves to be polite to the man who encouraged, in fact instigated their son to quit a Masters course at a leading institute, to pursue what he loved best – music. What kind of teacher ruins a student’s life? But an hour later, Harsha’s mother is insisting Divakar have dinner before leaving. His father is almost smiling at the man’s ineffective refusal.

Divakar teaches Humanities at a technology-centred institute. In a campus where human problems are addressed through better and better technology, Divakar makes it his job to (gently) suggest that the real solutions may lie not in the realm of what we can make, but what we can do without.

With greater strength of character than any of us can gather, Divakar lives his beliefs. He has refused campus accommodation so his aged parents can spend their last days in a home familiar to them. He can afford both a car and a driver, but chooses to change two buses and then walk a bit to get from home to work.

Harsha is not the first student Divakar has led ‘astray’. There is Raju who quit a month before finishing his thesis, to go teach tribal children in a forgotten forest. There is Manasi, who refused an investment banking job and went back to classical dance. And so many, many others.

~

December 2008

It is 7 pm. The sun has set, but the sky is bleeding a dark purple. Strange. We are on a quiet street in a middle-class neighbourhood west of the city. We ring the bell at a low, rusty gate. A woman comes out smiling and lets us in. “He is very tired,” she whispers as she leads us to his room. “He hasn’t even had a spoon of water in a month.”

Divakar is lying in bed, his head propped up by a few pillows. He has four tubes going into and out of him. I can see each vein, each finger bone; there is a well where his cheeks used to be. “How was the concert?” he asks feebly. It was excellent, sung by a man twice Divakar’s age. A concert he would have attended in better times. We tell him it was good, careful not to use superlatives, they seem out of place here.

We ask him if he has been listening to the concerts on the radio. He shakes his head. “I can’t concentrate,” he says. I almost smile. Music has never been a background activity for Divakar–it is necessarily centre-stage, never something to disrespect through inattention.

A colleague of his arrives. A couple of students have come along as well. The boy says nothing the whole time, the girl tells Divakar the albino blackbuck calf born recently to the only herd on campus is doing well. He is happy, but the tubes don’t allow him a smile. They leave behind a CD for Divakar. Dhrupad. Good choice, bad timing.

We sit, listening to him breathe. It is from his silence that we know he is in pain. The nurse comes in, helps him up, removes the glucose drip and replaces it with something else. “Morphine,” he says. “It helps me sleep.” We rise to take leave. “I am not giving up, you know.” Divakar slowly turns his head to face us. “I will admit, I wish this hadn’t happened. But now I will fight it. Until the end.” He is rasping from the exhaustion of speaking. He takes a few slow breaths, and smiles. “I will see you in Mysore, soon.”

~

Read, please

I don’t often post links. In fact I can’t recall the last time I posted a random link and asked people to read. But this one demands it. No, that isn’t right. It does no demanding at all. It simply lies in a corner of a busy news site, unread, ignored and very, very still.

Bihar: http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/showcolumns.aspx?id=COLEN20080066718