Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Delivered to the wrong address

Last week, I went to Wardha.

Our first stop was a settlement just off the dusty national highway. The villagers were working in the adjoining field and we waited until they decided to take a break. Forty minutes later, the group returned and sat down to join us. Men first, taking their place on the chatais we had spread out on the ground. Women next, and the children stayed away, peeking out from behind nearby haystacks and tree trunks.
The customary namaste is acknowledged but a tentative smile is met with blank stares. Every time I’d smile at an old lady or child when we were speaking, I was stared at. The only reaction it elicited was that everyone began looking at my teeth more closely.

One of the topics that we were addressing was the transition from a human settlement to a human habitat. In order to focus on such an enormous theme more realistically, we walked around a number of villages where the government, under its Indira Awas Yojana had constructed houses for the rural poor.

At the first village, we noticed that each one of the doors was bolted. I figured it was because everyone was in the field, but after a mapping exercise*, and while we were on our village walk**, they showed us where they actually stayed. Under oilcloth and canvas sheets behind the cement building. The people in that particular village believed it was bad luck to stay in houses which opened out onto the main road. Straight passage for spirits and ill omens.

‘And it’s too dark inside. Nature has never been unkind to us. The heat is bearable because we wait for the breeze. How are we supposed to stay in those houses, madam? Who will live like that?’

And so they keep their livestock in the government constructed houses. And they sleep under torn tarpaulin with their families.

A few kilometres away, in another tribal settlement, the State decided to let the community enjoy the benefits of sanitation. The women explained that the toilets were initially a welcome addition to their village because they’d have to walk a considerable distance to relieve themselves – day or night.
Then the structures were finally constructed. Tiny cubicles with no ventilation whatsoever. Unhygienic cement squares.
And so they’ve filled up the pans with bricks and sand. For their goats.

‘Atleast two small ones can fit at a time. Then we move them with the older ones later. Next time, we’ll ask the contractors to build them bigger. We could start keeping the calves of cows here also!’

I tried keeping my facial expressions to a minimum and made my notes, said my namastes, and moved from one ironical situation to another. And it struck me that so many of these incongruities could have been addressed by having a simple conversation with the people. One conversation.

As bleak as the statistics are, it disturbs me that even those facilities that may be included in the official figures are, in all practicality, useless.

*Village mapping is an interactive exercise wherein the target community draws their entire village on the ground with rice flour. The layout of the village provides a great deal of insight into the lives of the people; houses are sometimes clumped according to income, family, caste, crops cultivated and food habits; some homes may have access to a well while others do not; some are pucca while others are not. It’s also a technique that’s used to break the ice with a tribal/dalit community, given that initial tension is palpable between outsiders (us) and the villagers. It’s also interesting because the roles are subverted to an extent, with the community teaching us instead of an entirely one-way interaction from our side.

**The village walk is my favourite exercise where we split up into groups and get someone from the community to walk us through their settlement. You see an entire settlement as the community sees it, as a functional habitat. As you pass by different parts of the village, you hear all sorts of anecdotes about the history and changes that have taken place in the area over time. It’s very informal and a great way to get to learn more about the people, their livelihoods and way of living. Often, arguments will break out because some feel that a story is being told all wrong, and you get several versions of how a hand pump was rendered dysfunctional, why the grain banks were formed or the gossip on the young couple that got married and moved to the city.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rent a smile

Last week I visited one of the slums we work in for Holi. The kids went all out and choreographed an elaborate dance routine, directed and performed their own plays and did the decorating on their own. We were all suitably impressed. I let my colleagues find their places and went off to see if the children needed help with their costumes. As soon as they saw me approaching the green room, I was promptly chased away and instructed to sit down patiently.

The speakers were being tested and I sat on the ground to wait. One of the speakers was misbehaving and a small army of the older boys were fiddling with the wires. Occasionally, snatches of music blared from both and they'd whoop and start jumping around to the beat, hands in the air. Then the faulty speaker would go silent once more, the jumping would stop and a huddle would form again.

Now and then a small boy would run across the stage, to the changing room and back to the group at the speakers. He wasn't participating that day but took the role of supervisor upon himself. Nobody paid much attention to him, but he ran around with tremendous purpose. Every once in a while he'd stop suddenly and bounce his bottom to the music before scrambling off again.

I caught his eye and called him over to keep me company. His name was Chelu, he said. He wouldn't be participating because he missed most of the rehearsals. He was very ill, he said.
'You don't look ill to me,' I said. 'And you dance very well.'
'Thank you auntymadam,' he grinned. And stuck out his hand for me to shake.
I shook his hand and gave him a hug.

I don't know if it was because he wasn't used to physical affection of this sort, but he blushed and looked at his friends coyly, who stood a small distance away, giggling into their palms. I let him go and ruffled his hair just before he sprinted away.

Later, as I sat cross legged in front of the area chalked out as the stage, Chelu sat down quietly next to me. Before I turned and saw who it was, I felt a small, skinny arm resting lightly on my knee. I shifted to my right slightly and the arm flew back into its owner's lap.
'What happened?' I asked.
Chelu shook his head, probably embarrassed at having used me for an armrest. He dropped his head and became suddenly interested in the manuscript he had begun writing in the sand.
I reached over and placed him in my lap, not expecting the squeal that escaped from his lips. He wriggled around a bit, then found a comfortable spot and he didn't move after that. Once in a while I'd tickle him, just to hear that squeal again and to watch him cover his face in embarrassment.

We watched the kids dance, joined in at the end and handed out syrupy jelebis once the programme was over. As we were leaving, Chelu asked me to visit him the next day. I tried explaining that I had to go to my office, just like he had to go to school the next day.
'Holidays?' he asked.
'Of course, whenever you invite me. And you can come to my office, okay?'
Chelu looked suddenly serious, 'No auntymadam.'
'Why? Why can't you come to see me?'
'I don't have a clean pant-shirt,' he said, the smile never leaving his face.

And I smiled back and said it didn't matter. That he could come wearing whatever he wanted.
And after that, my smile wasn't really mine.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Therefore I think

Last evening saw me lecturing an eighteen-year old boy to ‘let go a little more in love’ and to ‘not always think about the consequences of every spoken word’ because he’s ‘so young’ and that ‘even if you get your heart ripped out and completely pulverised, it’s still completely worth it’.

The said boy slumped in his chair, examined the terracotta floor tiles and replied, ‘But it’s such a waste of time.’
‘Nothing is wasted. You only become more aware of yourself with every person you let into your life.’
‘I’m eighteen, Chamique. I can’t be thinking about this now.’

‘There’s nothing to think about,’ I insisted, ‘you needn’t think so much. It’s very simple, really.’
‘Thanks for your concern and all. But you know what? I’ll think about this stuff when I finally get to being your age.’

How does one calculate one’s age in human years, again?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Reclaim the streets

I’ve already posted something similar about the issue of street sexual harassment.

It’s assumed that a woman walking alone in a public space becomes public property. A mobile display of body parts that seem to be suddenly disengaged from the actual person that she is. I find myself thinking twice about a lot of things when I step out.

I debate over which route I should take home, depending on what time of the day it is. I think about getting tinted windows when I’m driving home alone at night. Whether outstation trips are safer by bus or by train.

I think twice when I rummage through my closet and look for something to wear. I have separate clothes for when I use public transport. For when I drive. For a girls’ night out, when we don’t want to be hit on by strangers. For when I’m with the boys and I know someone will be looking protectively over my shoulder.

I wear separate faces for friends and strangers. It’s not who I am, the brisk-walking, half-frowning girl you see on the roads.
I smile a lot. I like laughing at myself. I do charcoal sketches. I like my navel ring. I tell rambling stories and I forget what I wanted to say initially. I'm proud of my muscular legs.
I'm more than a girl with a backpack.
I love walking alone. I would love to bend over and pick up a torn butterfly wing from the sidewalk. But the footpath is not mine. The roads are borrowed. And the public space is for a public from which I am excluded.

Much has been said. But so much more needs to be heard.

As part of the Blank Noise Project blogathon.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

No summer love

Something about the weather these days brings back memories of my summer vacations in school. Where sunny mornings would be spent at the pool and sultry afternoons would find me on the basketball court. After an exhausting game (girls first, boys next and then mixed teams) and lying around on the court, we’d head towards the juice joint on the corner and make plans for a movie or lunch somewhere.
Having gotten used to that routine for a couple of years, college holidays created a strange vacuum of sorts. My clique had dispersed and there were few sports-oriented people in my class. (This is excluding those who watched cricket and F1in pubs.) My swimming was put off because of the coaching classes for kids, and I grew tired of swerving around little legs on every lap. I eventually did find a few people in my final year who played basketball and conceded to come to college during vacation (and who didn’t cringe at the thought of playing with girls).

I was reminiscing at the gym this morning when the instructor closed all the windows and switched on the air conditioner. I looked up and he shrugged, pointing at a group of gossiping aunties who were sitting on a row of cycles without even pretending to pedal. There were a number of others, stretching, jogging in place and waiting to actually use the machines.
'Committee members,' he said.
‘Oh fo,’ I said to my reflection in the mirror, ‘Tell them to sit in a coffee lounge or something.’

Later, an aunty (from the stationary cycle kitty party) came up to me at the water filter and asked me to sign a petition to get rid of one of our gym instructors.
‘Uh, sorry but I don’t think I can sign that, really,’ said the diplomatic me, ‘my dad’s the member. I’m still a dependent.’
‘But you’re the one using the facility. Just put down your name. We need to get professional around here.’
I was firmer the second time around and told her I was getting late. My polite smile had disappeared a while ago.
I was given the once over and another lady said ‘We should introduce a new rule about allowing people to use hair oil when they come in.’

Background note: As part of my It’s About Time I Start Taking Care Of Myself deal, I’ve taken to oiling my hair once a week. Since the thought of sitting with oily hair all day scares me, I take care of this obligation at night. And since Saturday nights usually find me sauntering into the house at too obscene an hour to be rubbing oil into my scalp, I do so mid-week. And I take my greasy head to the gym with me the next morning, to be washed just before leaving for work.

‘I didn’t know young girls still did that with all the products available these days,’ another said to me, her eyebrows in her hairline. ‘I mean, my teenage daughter doesn’t.’

Yes aunty, some of us don’t use a multitude of products for straightening, defrizzing, styling, colouring and crimping; and we end up using things like oil. And judging by your scanty, spilt-ended, heavily dyed ’do, I’d suggest your daughter start doing the same.

Another looked down at my worn sneakers and remarked, ‘And put down sports shoes for the gym only.’

Background note: My sneakers give me sole support when I’m running after a bus that’s threatening to take off and leave me in a wake of exhaust and dust. My sneakers kick up their own dust clouds and heave a sigh of relief when I’m stationary once more. Then they are stepped on when others are searching for enough room to place their own feet. They walk the long walks I take from one place to another. Occasionally, they are known to step into minor accidents created by the big and bovine.
Wearing them to work makes me feel like I’m ready for anything physically demanding.

Field trips? Sure thing.
Walking kilometres to find a potential spot for a new settlement? But of course.
Joining in a game of kho-kho with a group of girls when they ask you? Go ahead, madam, we’re doing a technical survey now anyway.
Skipping off to the market to get a kilo of lemons for shikanji? Not a problem, my lethargic colleagues.
Jumping out of your seat and breaking into a dance of joy at a proposal being sanctioned? Got it covered.
My sneakers are worn until they have no wear left in them. And that is the only way of doing justice to a pair of sports shoes.

So excuse me lady, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to colour coordinate my shoes with my exercise clothes for the day unlike you.

I used to like the no-nonsense crowd that came in to work out at the club in the mornings. Everyone with somewhere to be at a certain time - work, home, college. We were the ones who came to exercise (unlike our evening counterparts who’d visit the gym for a public preening session). We’d sign the register, tick off a list of the equipment we’d use, pass the newspaper around and wish each other a good day. I suppose in the two years I was away from home, things have changed.
So now, when I wake up in the morning and step out into the early morning sunshine, my senses are fooled into smiling. Even though the weather tells me it’s a great day for something sporty, things just aren’t the same.

Maybe swimming classes for the kids haven't started as yet...