Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Home stretch

These men love their machines. Incense burning in front of the mandatory God sticker- a Lakshmi, Ganesha, Hanuman or Shiva. Small change handed out to the regular pujari who makes his way from rickshaw to rickshaw at each auto stand every evening. A marigold dipped into a brass container, drops of sacred water sprinkled on the single front wheel.
The driver waves his coins in the air, urging the aged priest to finish the auto-puja.

Plastic flowers framing the windshield, artificial internodes sprouting gold tassels. A scratched compact disc strung on either side of the driver’s seat. A pair of blue eyes, possibly a Bollywood starlet’s, stuck on a meaningless rear-view mirror staring back at the driver.

One by one, passengers squeeze in. Drivers start their engines and edge towards the road, not quite ready to leave with a few square inches still unoccupied. Always insisting that there is place for one more.

Last evening there were nine of us in the auto rickshaw.
Five at the back and four in front.

The driver chose to put his three front seat passengers on his left, so he sat all the way on the other end of the seat, leaving him room to stick his head out and yell to all the vehicles which we proceeded to overtake from the left.
Leaning as he was to one side, sitting with no more than one cheek of his bottom on the edge of his seat, I wondered just how much control he had over his brakes.
Acceleration, however, was just fine.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Relief is receiving the results of your blood test and seeing the word negative next to 'Malaria Parasite' in faded ink.

Restlessness is waiting for the resilient symptoms to subside.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Stubborn little junglee

I admit I’m obstinate. And demanding. I’m a patient listener but I’m easily bored. I have few friends that I can really call friends.
I’m restless. A bit of a recluse.
Yes, I’m an only child. No, I’m not selfish.
And I can’t really be bothered to explain the choices I’ve made. It’s tiresome. And I refuse to get used to it.

When I go home, when I travel, when I’m introduced to someone new.
We sit at a café sipping ridiculously overpriced brew, inhaling passive smoke and vehicular fumes. Talk steers towards work and I stare at traffic. Once I’m roped in, I’m quickly reeled out once again.
'Oh. That must be interesting.'
'Why, yes it is. Tremendously.'
Back to traffic.

Nobody asked me to leave home, to forfeit a mainstream career and regular pay. I needn’t walk around in a medication-induced stupor as a job requirement. There was no compulsion to live in relative poverty for a year.
I wanted to.
It’s who I am now and will shape the person I become later.

Of course, this sort of behaviour has earned me the distinction of being the family junglee.
So, what’s your daughter doing these days? They ask.
Oh. How um…interesting. They say.

And the family has been more than supportive.
Ma and Baba check on me every night when I happen to be in a mobile network zone. To find out what’s for dinner, when’s my next field trip and whether they missed anything significant in the last twenty-four hours. Didi and dadu ask about my bank account balance and when I’m planning to go to Cal next. L pishi and uncle J e-mail editorials while they travel the world. T pishi will send a surprise sms telling me she’s heard about a recent ‘episode’ in my life.
All of them dropping hints that it’s never too late to stop running around in the forest.

Sometimes Ma will call from the club, chomping into the phone, announcing in accurate detail what’s on her plate. And then what’s on Baba’s plate. And what I would have particularly enjoyed had I been with them, reading aloud from the menu.
Z will send me a hurried sms from her car in the middle of a night out, mentioning what certain people are wearing and who’s most likely to get drunk and humiliate themselves later on. B will call, say that he misses me and then head towards beer and hard rock.
It’s all very comforting, even though I feign exasperation.

And now I’ve grown rather fond of my muesli mornings, my long walks to work and all the share-autos in between.
Skipping to trance. Reading to lounge. Cooking to Floyd.

Of course I miss home.
But I’m a stubborn little junglee.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Jai Hind

Double minority

That’s what I refer to them as when I write out project proposals for funding. Even though they are the original inhabitants of our land. Even though they step lightly on the earth that sustains them, giving back much more to the soil than we can ever hope to. Even though they work twice as hard as the men, yet settle for half their due.

Though being a woman in a marginalised community is gruelling, they bear the burden lightly. As they have seen their mothers and their mothers’ mothers do. Even though they are the ones who sustain the tribal community, they remain doubly disadvantaged.

Working with adivasi women has changed the way I see myself. The way I react to situations. The way I see choices that are available to some and not to others. The way I look at the rest of the world that has left these people behind.
But spend some time with the adivasi women and you learn how to smile at a sunset even when there’s nothing to eat but boiled rice and salt. Even when people are dying of treatable diseases like malaria. Even when starvation deaths are so real you saw the evidence being carried out on a wooden plank just this morning. Even when the next day gives you nothing to look forward to. There are big smiles for all the small things.

We’d squat near wood fires, wrap shawls around ourselves and sip chai at sunrise. We’d go for walks, wade through streams and shout out a warnings to the rest if a snake was sighted. We’d hold hands and climb hills, the rest of the troupe waiting impatiently for me to clamber up a steep slope despite the grips on my sports sandals.
I’d struggle to understand the exact meaning of their stories because to miss out on something would be nothing less than criminal. We’d sit in silence when clumsily translated words failed us. Which was often.

These women wear their wealth. And don’t hesitate to exchange a gold nose ring for the sake of their family. These women, when gifted a new sari, tear off the aanchal and wrap it around their daughters. These women are granted a bride price when they marry and move to their husband’s village. For adivasis know that another pair of hands in the household is something to be grateful for.

We’d count the earrings we had on, me with six and them with much more.
Once, a woman pointed to my lopsided piercings- four on one ear and two on the other- and asked why they were uneven. I couldn’t explain that I had started out with the customary one in each ear, then two, after which I became partial to my left side. Struggling for an appropriate answer, I shrugged my shoulders and offered a simple, ‘Style?’
‘Oho…Tylee,’ she repeated, nodding as she held my face in her hands.
She totally understood.

They asked if I wanted any more. I pushed aside my sari drape and showed them my belly ring. The first time they saw it, a younger girl explained to her grandmother that it was the custom in the village I came from. I nodded solemnly.

Then smiled.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Coloniser's Logic

"These natives are unintelligent -- we can't understand their language."

-- Onwuchekwa Jemie Chinweizu

Monday, August 08, 2005

Unidentified flying object

Deep in conversation, we heard a distant, familiar buzz. Everyone reflexively looked skywards and there it was after much craning of necks. The kids finally shouted what I was saying in my head once the plane was in view, “Plei! Plei! Plei!
Then grabbing the nearest arm and jumping up and down at what was akin to a UFO sighting.
It could have been a scene from anywhere, but in the circumstances it seemed unreal.

The mothers decided to end the screech fest by tossing some stones at the naked infants. They shrieked some more and eventually hopped away. Back to work.

Why have you stopped sending your children to school?
What a stupid question. I hate the questionnaires I make.
Where’s the money, aagya?

I wish I knew where the money was. I wish that every project proposal I wrote created tidal waves of generosity. I wish I could give them something to look forward to, some sort of security more stable than the fluctuating daily wage. I wish I knew why the only thing that trickles down to the poor is spurious promises and polluted water.

What do you want your children to do when they grow up?
Anything that brings money to the house.
But how will they earn more if they’re illiterate?
They’ll manage somehow. We just figure out how to feed ourselves one day at a time.
And the days you don’t get work? How do you feed your family?
The question dies a natural death.

But they still smile when I ask them my absurd questions. They indulge me because I have statistics that need to be backed up by names and faces. Because somewhere deep down, I know they want to believe that I’m trying to help.

In the middle of it all I wanted to scream. Loud enough for the powers that be to hear me. The girl sitting cross-legged on the floor of what passes for a home. To listen patiently to every story that backs up each statistic.
And then the distant hum.

I imagined people sitting inside, sipping their apple juice and listening to music. Looking out of the tiny windows and pointing to the comically small buildings and roads, lakes and rivers. The carnival created by the mere sighting of the plane was invisible. How far away they were from our little party on the ground.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve travelled by air. I’d now like to avoid it for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Zohara jabeen

The earliest memory I have of the two of us is meeting halfway down my winding driveway, she with her grandmother, and I with mine. Some plastic fish exchanged and thrown in a bucket of water. Her little coconut tree ponytail sitting jauntily on top of her head. My boy’s cut messy and ruffled.
Then I left.

And came back uncertain of who would want to be my friend after so much time spent away. The empty years between us melted as we declared ourselves secret sisters. Identical haircuts, matching beach bermudas, the same swimsuits. And peals of laughter when strangers asked if we were twins.
No, no we aren’t really. But thank you!
Sitting in buckets filled to the brim, our torsos disappearing, nothing but arms and feet. She insisting on hot water for her bath, I on cold.
Years later we’d meet after school for a surreptitious cigarette, not even waiting to get out of our uniforms. Her skirt pleated and green, mine straight and grey. Complaining about classmates and teachers. The impending ISC and boys.

Then our lives became suddenly full. Occasional emails, photographs to preserve the laughter. We’d carry these with us to stick on bulletin boards, reminding us of time together in another world. Two distinct personalities emerging from a shared childhood.
The budding businesswoman and the struggling journalist.

Wake up calls at six in the morning to burn calories from forbidden indulgences. To fit into halter tops and scandalously low jeans. Her tattoo on her shoulder blade, my navel ring on display. Staring into the same mirror frowning.
Just look at you, you’ll disappear.
You’re one to talk, skinny.

Then I left once more, with her clicking her tongue and rolling her eyes in the background.
You always were a little crazy.
Finding ourselves in separate, yet making time for window-shopping and fast food. Disagreeing on larger issues, but knowing that the other will always be a constant. Generations cementing the bond we perpetuate.

And now it’s her turn. To move. To move on.
She’s found someone to hold her hand for the rest of her life. To push the stray strands of hair away from her face when she pouts prettily. To grow old with. To make new memories with.
And now every word she says is a smile.
And though I feel sentimental tears well up obstinately, I smile right back.

I love you and good luck, skinny.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Itchy sort of satisfaction

Yesterday I visited a slum nearby. Homes with thatched roofs, exposed brick walls and cowsheds attached. The people I spoke to seemed content. They were wage labourers who had migrated here from other parts of Orissa. Some owned land in their villages which other family members were taking care of now. Almost everyone returned to their district every month to hand over whatever small surplus they could make in their time away from their village. It’s not an easy lifestyle, but they manage. They settle for it.
Just like they settle for lesser lives as lesser citizens.

We went to oversee the construction of a toilet for them. The women’s group said they’d like to be in charge. I suggested making it a pay and use toilet for people other than those living in the slum. So the women could use the small change for maintenance.
They thought I was insane. Who would pay to use a toilet when everybody just relieves themselves on the side of the road?
Silly me.

While the surveyors were discussing logistics I sat with the children. I asked them to recite the Oriya alphabet. That done, a recess was demanded. They sang and some of the boys did a little break-dance for my entertainment. They were climbing all over me- asking to be picked up and swung around in circles until they were dizzy and couldn’t walk straight. Such fun.
I went to sleep happy. And woke up scratching my head.
(Head lice is but a minor occupational hazard.)
Something tells me I’m going to have to buy a boochie comb and medicated shampoo this evening.


Field trips are the reason for my being here.

I’ve realised that I’m much less intrusive with my picture taking these days. The people I meet aren’t comfortable with cameras (they haven’t been included in the obnoxious tribal tours that the Orissa Tourism Department organises). I’ve lost many photo ops this way, but as far as sensitivity goes, I think I’m doing well.

Apart from fieldwork, I visited a haat- the weekly market in one of the districts I stayed in. It was so festive – with all the neighbouring villages marketing their surplus produce, coming from as far as 20 km away. It’s quite a party – desi alcohol made from ragi, fried food, vegetables and livestock for sale. I picked up the prettiest electric blue bangles there. The women laughed at the faces I made when they tried forcing impossibly small bangles past my reluctant fist, insisting that bangles are supposed to hurt. They also had plans of getting me drunk, but I maintained I was there for work.

Two of the cooks at one of our field centres invited me to watch their Magh festival, colloquially called ‘kukuda’ puja- kukuda meaning chicken. In honour of Magho devi, around 40 chickens were being sacrificed at dawn near the dam by the village. The puja was not on time and I woke up both Rammo and Bhaggo at five by calling for them outside their huts. When they did start the puja, there were no unnecessary rituals. The men picked up their kukudas, walked to the dam where altars made from leaves were set up the night before and arranged betel leaves on the ground. The chickens ate offerings from the ground and out came the panniki (boti in Bangla – a blade that curves upwards, at a right angle to the ground). Bhaggo, with extensive experience in our kitchen, did the honours. Off comes the head, blood was poured on the leaves in the altar and the decapitated body thrown aside where the children have gathered, laughing and flapping their arms around the headless chickens. Group photo. And vegetarian meals for the rest of my travels.

The set up in most of our field offices is that the office and spare room are at a distance from the kitchen and the staff residences. I make the walk up the path from the kitchen after dinner with a lantern, singing in my head (aloud just seems spooky in the dark). Dinner conversation inevitably veers to first hand supernatural encounters. Stories of ‘daainis’ (women who roam about naked, walking on their hands, feet in the air), possession by spirits and knocks on doors and windows in the middle of the night kept me up for a couple of nights. Then relief (and sheepishness) comes with daybreak.

Bathing is always a song and dance routine. This time around, there were no women to accompany me to nearby streams. The men would take over the well or hand pump while I dragged my bucket to my room. The first morning by the well was horrific. I filled my big aluminium bucket to the brim and began to haul it up the path, refusing any help that was offered- not wanting to seem like a spoilt city girl. There was a huge wet patch that I didn’t think much of and I began to take small steps across it. Turned out that the patch was moss with a sheet of water over it. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of things, my feet did a bad moonwalk and I landed squarely on my bottom. I was then required to learn the correct technique of drawing water from a well and sidestepping any suspicious puddles. I’ve come to think of it as my breaking-the-ice episode.

Food was fabulous, but the kitchens never are. Meals are in a mud hut divided into two parts- one for cooking and the other for eating. We sit on the floor with a sheet of tarpaulin over our heads to prevent mouse droppings from falling into our plates.

The Boudh Palace. Last stop. Last minute invitation from a member of the royal family. The royal family and palace are romantic only in name. The family is now dispersed, with no income from moneylending and the zamindari system like before. The palaces are mostly in ruins, with more than half the rooms rented out to forty odd families -- a new source of income from another type of landlordism. Descendants are seeking jobs in metros while the elders stay at home, keeping house. There was an entire family of tigers- stuffed and put on display in the living room. Four cubs.
The grandson told me he still goes for shikaar but only manages to kill sambar. At that point, I wanted a rifle myself.

Any oohs and aahs I had for the palace soon disappeared and I began to look at things as they were – a dilapidated, badly maintained building with a family trying to cope with dwindling income. Or perhaps I’ve become prejudiced in my thinking. Spending four weeks with those who think nothing of sixteen-hour working days for minimum wage (or not even that much) will do that to a person’s point of view.