Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Laughter Memoirs - Dehradun 2

Winter afternoons were precious. They would surrender to darkness sometimes as soon as 4.30, the impending night a guest that had come too early while we were still uncombed and disheveled. The silken sunlit theatre of these afternoons began with lunch, which everyone would pile on their plates carry outside to the nearest sunny spot.

It was the season of greens and salads and local citric fruits – like the tangy chakotra – and varieties of hilly daals – like tore – that we waited for from autumn onwards. The mooli salad with soft new leaves would make an entry on a huge plate, sprinkled with lemon juice that made it glisten in the sun, and red chilly powder that lent it a festive air; in the corner languished an accidental lemon pip with a secret sorrow. Then came the steaming daal, challenging the sun with its yellow heat, making rivulets amid mounds of white rice. Then the accompanying dish, which proceeded to raise the quilt-and-comforter feel of familiar food to the level of high art: Rich green paalak, cooked the Garhwali way, thickened with rice paste. Crisply fried mustard leaves laced with layers of besan. Golden kadhi, sour to just the right degree. “Aaaah, kafli today…”, an uncle would sigh – as one whose tantrum-prone lover had turned up after much beseeching – though kafli was made every Wednesday like clockwork.

Conversations over lunch often took an unexpected but fascinating turn. This usually stemmed from the fact that Dadaji was hard of hearing but reluctant to admit it, Chacha was hard of hearing but refused to do anything about it, Baba was absent minded but didn’t know it, and everybody’s mouth was full.

“I think Api can go stay at Mrs Sharma’s while studying in Delhi”, Dadaji would propose.

A chewy silence would prevail while everyone who had been able to hear him clearly commiserated with the unsuspecting family of Dadaji’s old friend, Dr Sharma, and tried to figure how to get them out of hosting my young cousin for 2 years. Dadaji got along perfectly with Dr Sharma who had short-term memory loss, and when she said “How is the rice Saklani sa’ab” and he replied “Tuesday”, neither of them felt they had lost anything.

“Dr Sharma’s will be convenient too; the metro line between her house and Connaught Place is starting in a year, I read in the paper today”, he’d bolster his argument.

“The Delhi Metro is excellent”, Chacha would opine, never having been on it and blithely unaware that his son’s future was being discussed.

“No, it’s starting in a year”, Dadaji would repeat his information.

“It started a looong time back, Pitaji,” Chacha would say with gentle pity, referring to the entire Delhi Metro project and looking at his father, the best-informed member of the family, with a patronizing smile. “Ask Juhi”, he would rally support as the family always did while arguing with the patriarch.

“Juhi? Api can’t stay with Juhi”, Dadaji would try to keep up gamely, “her house is too small”.

“No , no, it’s not small at all”, my father would unexpectedly enter the conversation, utterly oblivious of the context, bristling at the idea that anything regarding his daughter was being judged not good enough. “She deliberately does not want a big house, she has very different ideas.”

“Why would Api stay with Juhi?” Chacha would ask confused.

“Api? Stay with Juhi?”, my father would ask in alarm.

And both would look for explanation to their father. “Right, right…” Dadaji would strain to understand his sons, and fail, as he had much of his life.

Api meanwhile would be getting a military dressing down by our aunt’s husband, “Young man, you have nothing to say for yourself! It is your future they are talking about! Don’t slouch! When I was your age I was taking the responsibility for much of my family and paid for my own studies. I remember, when I went to Greece in 1952…”

Lunch over, the whole menagerie would disperse to find, quite literally, their places in the sun. Those whose rooms got sunlight went straight to warmed quilts. Those, whose rooms didn’t, would tarry, linger and delay, with perhaps a cup of coffee, in a chair that had already been dragged around the lawns and verandahs in determined pursuit of sunny spots for half the day.

In the sun it became increasingly hard to move. Through half-closed eye lashes we could see the bare movement of the shadow of the bottlebrush tree. A butterfly would flit past underlining the inertia of everything else. The warmth would become hypnotic. Very soon mumbled conversations about how sleepy rice could make you feel would die down.

Then the whole tableaux would find its fulfillment in a gentle open-mouthed nap. A benign sun would fill that valley of ours, a little bowl amid the gently pretty Shivalik hills, with its slanting rays. With Dadaji’s oiled skin shining a healthy red, Baba’s silver hair catching the light, an orange cat curled up near Chacha’s green socks, ma’s banana-yellow shawl, the family looked more than anything like a Dutch still-life oil painting of a fruit bowl. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Travels: Anu – Work in Progress; Varanasi Junction

A railway station in India is not a place where people choose to spend time. It seems to be an essentially transitory space with a relentless march of anxious feet, tense bodies, harassed minds through the day, a space from where any sense of harmony or peace has exited forever. Beneath the veneer of a portal, however, lies a whole self-sustaining universe. Peopled by those who never quite leave.

The porters, vendors, rag pickers, informal hawkers, beggars, girls who are sex workers by night, boys who ran away from possibly abusive homes, the addicts, the destitute, and those who turn the threat of destitution into the possibility of survival every day, every same-old new day.

It’s an alien insecure world for me – and it doesn’t trust me either – but I make my way confidently through its unfamiliar terrain because I feel safe following this little heroine, all of 5 feet high, weighing some 45 kgs. For the last 2 years, 22-year-old Anu has made this her workplace and more, her vocation.

I see it all through Anu’s eyes. The platform is not really a platform but a ‘contact point’ for runaway, destitute or trafficked kids. The vendor is not a purveyor of goods but a possible ‘stake-holder’. The little flat a couple of minutes down from the station is ‘the shelter’. And all of this is a backdrop to the essential business of rescuing exploited children; physically and psychologically helping the runaways to return home; counselling floundering adolescents; teaching young sex workers about hygiene, disease, AIDS and contraception; offering some shelter – a bed, a bath, some food – to all. Eventually, holding out hope and practical options of schooling and perhaps more worthwhile employment.

Stay here and fight

Across a seemingly infinite wasteland of “girls can’t”, girls shouldn’t”, “girls must not”, Anu walks towards us with bleeding feet, grimly determined. She carries her own bandages and is her own doctor. I have rarely seen anyone so courageous and strong-willed. Painstakingly she has recreated herself – from a girl who was refused a bicycle to a working woman who bought one with her first salary; from a child who couldn’t continue studies after Class XII to a student-of-life who is paying for her own graduation; from a person who was not schooled in English (and is still quite unconfident about it) to a social activist who rattles off “liaisoning”, “stake holders” and “informal education classes” with ease. Compliment her on any of this and she credits the people who helped her and discusses how much more she has to achieve. Anu: the work-in-progress.

Everyday she comes to the railway station, having pedalled on the bicycle they said she couldn’t have, carrying a mobile phone they don’t want her to possess, doing a job they don’t want her to do so badly that her family has hardly spoken to her for quite some time.

The ‘they’ in Anu’s life is unfortunately her immediate family. A lot of her growing up memories as a child have to do with having her opinions not valued, her desires thwarted and her independent-mindedness questioned. That bicycle she couldn’t have – another threat of a girl becoming mobile, independent and potentially out-of-hand – still rankles. Good at her studies, Anu wanted to study in a school affiliated to the nationally well-respected CBSE board but was made to study in a state-affiliated school. She was not able to take up the science stream because the school that offered this was “too far”. When she chose the college of her preference her brother opined that the reputation of the college was not good, the boys there were indecent and the girls were ‘spoiled’. She gave plenty of arguments, which seem admirably reasonable – “how does it matter what others are like”? “I’m interested in studying, why would I necessarily become like them”? “Shouldn’t you trust your sister”? And even, “At least let me get admitted, and if you see any signs of my getting spoiled I will leave the college” – but none of this worked.

In anger, Anu, with financial help from a grandmother, obstinately joined the same institution for sewing classes. For her class material, she used to take leftover scraps from the tailoring shop of an acquaintance. But when the time came for her examination, she wasn’t able to get the requisite money together for the form and fees. She also tried to do a beautician’s course but couldn’t because the make up products were too expensive and no help was forthcoming from home.

It wasn’t a good life, it in fact didn’t feel like life at all, and Anu wondered if she should run away. She nearly took the drastic step once, she says, relating the episode with a lot of unexpected calmness and maturity. Ironically, it was at the railway station that is now fast becoming home to her that she sat and thought hard about leaving home. She stayed. “I’m really glad that I finally decided against it. At that stage, uneducated and vulnerable, I could have fallen prey to anyone. And anyway, the correct thing to do is to stay here and fight my battles from within.”

It turned out to be a good decision. One of the steps Anu took in fighting her battle from within was to get in touch with a friend whose relative worked for a local NGO. She joined them, underwent training and became, in her parlance, a ‘street educator’ for them. Anu recounts her early and unconfident days. “At my first workshop, I was literally trembling like a leaf because I would have to give my introduction and so many eyes would be looking at me. But with the help of my seniors and repeated practice I was able to participate in workshops and programmes and articulate whatever was necessary. I got over the shyness of stumbling over English words and phrases, got over the embarrassment of discussing reproductive hygiene and contraception in front of people, and with colleagues’ help I overcame family opposition to travelling to other towns for work-related programmes”.

So is this job her fulltime concern now? “Well, I have to get more skills and a graduation degree is very important in the world.” And so Anu is paying her own way, with her NGO salary, through a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work; a computer course (“it covers Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint”, she says confidently); and a course in spoken English. There’s one more rather important thing that she has done with her salary. She has bought her 10-year-old niece – with whom she clearly has a mutual adoration society going – a bicycle. And as she tells me this, pure glee shining through her overwhelming poise and gravitas, I glimpse the triumphant child who lives on in the young woman. And I hear the voice that echoes in so many female heads: “I won’t let this happen to my daughters”.

The sweeper children Anu works with, rendered anonymous at her request

Making of an expert

Anu is such a mine of information on the station’s children that for a while I forget my role as an interlocutor and simply become a fascinated student. I may never get such an opportunity to talk to an expert on this subject, and expert she clearly is.

The children often run away because they are scolded or beaten at home, they imagine having freedom away from home, and are too young to know that how exploitative and brutalising the experiences that await them in the world can be. Anu and colleagues also watch out for trafficking. We can make them out, she says, because it’s usually a group of 5 or more children with only one or two adults supervising them. The language, the body language… is a give away. In such cases, we get in touch with the railway police and see that action is taken. The other day we found an infant girl abandoned in the garbage. We had to follow her case through to the City Magistrate who heads the child welfare committee. We then took her to the state orphanage as he directed.

A big part of her work is getting the station’s children – mostly boys – to engage with the shelter and start envisaging possibilities of a different life. Any station child, anytime of the day or night, is welcome to visit the shelter, have a talk, catch up on sleep or take a bath. For a nominal sum they also get meals. “We have to charge something for the food, otherwise these boys spend all their earnings on the whitener they are all addicted to. (At the station she points out to me how the boys soak a piece of cloth with the whitener used to correct typing errors and sniff it’s pungent, mildly intoxicating odours through the day). It is important that after a point they feel committed to the shelter”. Anu also teaches them informally with the help of charts and pictures. The shelter has paintings made by kids pasted all over the walls. The boys who become interested in alternatives are encouraged to enrol in a school run by the NGO on the outskirts of the town, well away from the station.

Anu spends a lot of her working day at the station, talking to auto drivers, taxi drivers, local police, railway police, hawkers, vendors, porters, station officials, TTEs and more. It’s an energetic saga of making sure that as many people as possible know about the NGOs work, are sensitised to the problem of these children and know that there is someone to contact if the need arises. Much of her time is simply spent with the kids in building rapport and making friends. “I have to be a friend, it doesn’t work if I am judgemental. They are mostly good fun and become quite fond of me. One of them said the other day protectively, ‘you should stop coming to the station, it’s a bad place.’ Well, if it’s such a bad place, I said, you stop coming here. I have to because of you. If you stop being here, I’ll have no need to come either”.

A woman among men

So what is this work like, being in the station all day, I ask. Surrounded by people so different from you? Do you get scared? Are you harassed?

And out come tumbling the stories. Anu’s narratives of work-related problems would have been very much like the harassment that many working Indian women face through the day – stares, gestures, innuendoes, comments, propositions, malign gossip, deliberate misrepresentation… -- except for two factors. One, that the overall atmosphere of the railway station netherworld can make the danger and insecurity much more acute than usual. And two, that Anu has an approach to these situations that, truth to tell, boggles the mind. She doesn’t give in to anger, frustration or a sense of humiliation. Nor does she accept situations fatalistically (as in, “what can be done, this is how things are”). She keeps her larger purpose of helping the station’s children as some kind of beacon always in sight and navigates her way through these shoals. “The railway police constables keep asking me to come and have tea with them. It is important that they know about our work; they are the ones we have to go to if we come across children being trafficked or exploited in some way. So I don’t fight with them. I just politely tell them that I don’t drink tea.”

“Once the sex worker girls told me, you shouldn’t come here, people say bad things about you.” “Who says bad things and what does he say,” asked Anu. ”Maybe I can talk to him and make him see things the right way”. It was a vendor who had apparently sent a message that he would pay Anu to sleep with him. “I made one of the girls take me to that vendor. I didn’t say anything to the vendor that would make this girl feel bad – if I had been outraged, as in ‘how dare you think of me as a sex worker’, she would have felt humiliated. I told him he was mistaken, that I spent a lot of time on the station and in company with these girls because that was the nature of my work. I then told him all about my work. See, anybody can become a useful aid in rescuing the children. One or two or even three people might ignore what I say or be cynical about it or get annoyed, but at least the fourth will listen.”

I am slightly dumbstruck at this amalgam of level-headedness, practicality, positiveness and engagement. Her sensitiveness to the sex worker is remarkable and shows how beautifully she is living out the politics and philosophy of her training. I may be appalled on her behave, but she tells me wisely, “samaj hee bigadta hai, par samaj hee banayega.” (It is from society, from the people around us, from the world that surrounds us that our problems will come, but it is from the same society that our solutions will also come). Anu is willing to give society a chance.

She narrates the time when she had to harshly scold an older boy for the sexual abuse of a younger child and turn him out of the shelter. Later, a colleague said that the boy was threatening to hit Anu with a stone. She went looking for him, calmly walked up to him and said, if it makes you happy and gives you peace, go ahead and hit me. I don’t mind. But let’s get it out of your system and move on. Of course, he didn’t hit me, she smiles. “Anyway I don’t feel all that unsafe here. These boys are quite protective towards me”. She knows them all by name, knows their individual histories, their quirks, their possibilities…

A homeless boy from the railway station sleeps at the shelter

Anu’s first will and testament

If all was ideal in the world, what would you dream of for yourself? She considers:

I already have two sources of great satisfaction and joy. One is when I come to the platform and the children come running to me happily, calling me Didi. And the second is when I escort a child home and his parents bless me and I feel this story has come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I want to continue working in this field and do better at it. I definitely do not want to stop working after marriage. My family keeps getting prospective grooms to see me and they keep warning me, “Don’t tell him you have a job.” But I can’t do it this way. When I get married I will let the boy know clearly that I work and intend to keep working. That I plan to finish my graduation. In fact, I don’t want to marry for another two years till I get my degree. There is no way I am going to be dependent on the goodwill and earnings of someone else, ever. I don’t want be wildly successful or have enormous wealth. Just enough to satisfy my needs, not be dependent on anyone, let my children have a future. And I want to be someone in my field. To make a bit of name, gain a bit of recognition. So that all these people who say today, ‘All this is impractical, come to your senses, we will see how long your obstinacy lasts’… all of them have to acknowledge, ‘Yes, she did something; yes, she became something. She is someone’.

[First published in Plan International’s Because I am a Girl – Voices of Change in India, 2011.]

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Travels: The 'Dom Girl', Varanasi

To go somewhere. To do something.

“It is like this, didi”, says Priyanka, when I bring forth my nth ‘why’ (a sort of ineffectual why-spoon to excavate the layers of her 17-year-old life: Why did you leave school? Why did you not take the class IX exam? Why did you not perform in the play you had rehearsed for?), “it is like this. The boys, they can go everywhere and do anything. We – she means girls – can go nowhere and do nothing”.

The enormity of Priyanka’s “we can go nowhere” is, remarkably, even more overwhelming than that of the average Indian girl – if there is such a person – and her carefully regulated and circumscribed movements. It slowly takes shape as we sit chatting in a communal space outside her house, as her female relatives and neighbours add their narratives and the area social workers pour in their own thoughts and experiences. It emerges, honed, sharp, perfected and piercing in the Mind Boggling Case of the Invisible Dom Queen.

Priyanka’s community – the Dom – is a small, localized community in Varanasi, performing a very specialised service. They are the ones who ritually light the cremation fire for the bodies of dead Hindus who are brought to the sacred ghats (river banks) of the Ganga in Varanasi. They are “in charge” of the cremation. But they occupy a strange ‘necessary-evil’ kind of space in the local imagination. They must initiate the burning, but being so closely associated with corpses, they are stigmatized in a Hindu society defined by purity-pollution paradigms. In a hierarchical caste system that is cruel to the ‘lower castes’, they are supposed to be the worst off – outside the pale of caste. They are considered ‘untouchables’. The Doms have a ‘king’– the Dom Raja – a hereditary leader who monopolises and redistributes their cremation earnings. Once the Dom kings’ wife, an unlettered middle-aged lady, was invited by some social workers to come out of her house and join their classes; maybe she could learn to write her name? Her relative answered, “She has only come into the front room of this house three times or so in her entire life. How will she come out of the house?”. How indeed?

A haunting question which, however, Priyanka and her friends are trying to negotiate in whatever way comes naturally to them. Mostly with a smile. The negotiation involves crossing literal and metaphoric boundaries that are practically oceanic, it seems to me, given that Priyanka is not supposed to visit even the lane that is two lanes away from hers. The Doms only marry within the community (as do nearly all traditional caste-oriented people in India). If Priyanka can be married into a household in a particular lane then she must not visit there or be seen by any potential in-laws, especially male ones. These norms seem mildly relaxed for pre-pubescent girls, which may explain why girls like her go to school till around classes V to VII and then tend to drop out. An adolescent girl should ideally not be seen and a young married woman must keep her face entirely covered.

Feisty Bandevi and Priyanka (smiling behind her) in their much loved sewing class

Priyanka and I are sitting about a three-minute walk from the Ganga. From those famous ghats of Banaras where travellers come from all over the world to sit, gaze, photograph, paint… the river’s serene majestic presence. Right now, in this humid oppressiveness of August, it would be lovely to spend time in the river breeze. But it seems unthinkable for Priyanka and me to go off for a stroll on our own, to sit and chat at those ghats.  And the monsoon winds blowing in from the river bring mostly cremation smoke and soot into her world. “This is nothing”, she laughs, as my eyes water. In heavy monsoon, when the river swells up and the ghats are flooded, cremations are often held right in the adjacent lane.

So this really would have been Priyanka’s entire world (but it is not, as we shall see) as it is the world of most of the women she knows – this tiny lane, with communal sitting in the lane itself. This tiny world made of the human, the animal and the crematory in almost equal parts. As she talks to me, Priyanka is surrounded intermittently by women – her mother, aunts, sisters-in-law, a grandmother…. Several goats run in and out of our congregation, as do a few mongooses, rodents and a monkey, while a cow stays tethered near by. Cremation smoke is a constant and partly used cremation logs are brought in for cooking – it’s free fuel. Kerosene or gas stoves are not the norm here. Priyanka wakes up every day at five, helps in the cleaning, cooking and other chores, and the women spend the entire day chatting with other women of the lane or sleeping and lately watching TV. One of the chores is getting water for all purposes from a hand pump in the adjoining lane; the taps here don’t deliver much water. But. “If a cremation is taking place in the lane with the hand pump”, says Priyanka’s mother, “and I am thirsty, I have to bear it till a boy passes by and I can ask him to get me water”.

Why am I not surprised that each of these women consume up to 25 mildly intoxicating tobacco-filled paans in a day? Their menfolk are near-constantly drunk. It is seen not so much as social/personal evil as an occupational necessity. “They drink all the time”; “They say they can’t survive without it”; “The work is so tough, the heat is so harsh”. The work consists of giving fire to the pyre, breaking the skull, staying with the burning corpse, gathering body parts that fall off, sifting any personal valuables or utility items from the ashes and from the Ganges in which the ashes are ritually immersed, collecting and selling bones, figuring out what to do with half-burnt bodies when the relatives can’t afford wood for a proper cremation…. The deadening that all this necessitates comes from day-long intoxication which is so par for the course that even children start off on their tobacco-paans fairly early in life.

The fact is, gender discrimination being what it is, Priyanka and her ilk hardly stand too many chances of self-fulfilment and advancement when even her brothers are unable to conceive of alternative life possibilities. All her male relatives hang about the cremation area waiting for their turn to officiate (the community has to ensure that every family gets its turn). A brother runs a small shop close by – and he too sells cremation related objects and ritual materials such as shrouds, incense, garlands, ghee…. The boys go to school till a point but whenever their labour and earning capacity is needed by the family, studies fall by the wayside. “How do you study on an empty stomach”, asks my 17-year-old, worldly-wise philosopher. Without requisite education, it’s difficult for the boys to get jobs or access training and other schemes. If they turn to other informal employment their caste comes in the way.  A boy recently lost his job as a shop assistant because a customer refused to drink the water he served, since he knew the boy was a Dom.

“When I was a child there was a dai (nanny) in our school who was a Brahmin. She had been there long and she was very influential. She used to tell other children not to sit with us, not to play with us. The teacher was not so bad…”. That there should ideally have been no question of the teacher being casteist at all doesn’t quite seem a possibility in her choice of words. Priyanka went to school till class VII. Why she dropped out is a bit vague. The school offered classes only till class VIII. This was the only government school that was close enough. It had to be a government school because of their affordable nominal fees. Priyanka’s friend and companion-in-arms Bandevi is more clear about why she had to stop studying around the same time as Priyanka. “I used to go in a group of girls. Then the others got married. So, of course, I couldn’t go by myself.

At 17, Priyanka got married, rather late by the prevalent Dom norms it would seem. She is shyly giggly about questions regarding her husband and future life. The feisty Bandevi has “escaped” so far – “Who wants to get married? Life gets ruined after marriage. Can’t do a thing”, she says. But Priyanka has accepted her marriage as one accepts the natural order of things. “If there’s a likely groom and if they have some money, parents marry off their girls at any age – 7, 10, 12…” What does her groom do? He goes of to work in far away Daman. Priyanka can’t quite conceive how far Daman is. The Varanasi Cantonment area, some five kilometers away, is far enough in her life (“I couldn’t go for those classes because Cantt is so far away, obviously they wouldn’t let me go.’) After marriage? Well, we will live with my parents-in-law and I’ll have to cover my face and do what they say. If my husband and I start living separately, we can have a little more autonomy. Of course, I would like to earn my own money, stand on my own feet, do something with my life. Of course I will try to educate my children better. 

It is easy to underestimate the importance of this articulation, these ‘of-course-desires’. But it would be a mistake. I can’t imagine asking Priyanka’s mother or even her sister-in-law, something like, what do you want from life, what do you hope for from the future? Life is these lanes, this gossip, these drunk menfolk, this cremation smoke. The future is these lanes, this gossip, these drunk menfolk, this cremation smoke. (A job for my son, is the only answer that elliptically floats up once, and that because I am a seemingly influential visitor from powerful Delhi, I seem to be in a position of doling out patronage). But Priyanka has made it possible for me to ask her this question. And has made it possible for herself to not be fazed by it. And has been able to articulate an answer to it.

Half-used cremation wood brought for cooking at home

So, from where have the seeds of these answers come? Seven years of formal schooling, help and inspiration of activists from a local NGO who have been patiently working with her community, the lack of any fierce resistance from her own father and family, some English-speaking classes, some sewing classes and a basic computer course. This is how that nebulous ephemeral thing called change comes about, in the mind of a girl who is able to giggle and say, “On Sunday there is no computer class, English class, or sewing”. We don’t like Sundays. Boring”.

What do you like most among the things that you do? The English-speaking classes she says. Both Priyanka and Bandevi have homed in on the advantages of spoken English with clarity – “in today’s world you must know English”. She shows me her book. ‘They teach through ‘translation’ ” – she uses the correct English word a bit self-consciously but, it seems to me, with a little pride too. The book contains simple-to-complex sentences in Hindi with their translation into English. The fees of Rs 600 per month would have made this course an impossibility for Priyanka – that she learns English is nobody’s priority and definitely not at such a cost – but the activists are helping fund this. In her own turn, Priyanka tries to teach the youngsters in her colony informally, with the help of charts and the attractions of copies and pencils.

The 4-month computer course is an offering for underprivileged caste groups from the District Urban Development Authority; it’s a vocational scheme. So today, the first among the girls of her community has learnt to handle a computer, switch it on, figure out a mouse and keyboard, and though ‘Microsoft’ is yet an alien word and concept, she has learnt to draw digitally. “You can make things with a pencil and rub them out with an eraser” she says shyly. She can attend these classes because she had an escort in her brother who attends as well.

Priyanka has even taken part in a theatre workshop and rehearsed for a play that tried to communicate to the world what exactly the Doms do. A step-by-step guide to the cremation process in the hope that understanding will bring humanity closer. And an attempt to address some basic problems a step-at-a-time: let little children not be involved in cremation processes, let them not be involved in procuring alcohol, let them go to school. She was only allowed to attend rehearsals after the NGO workers promised to escort her to and fro, bring her back by an appointed hour and ensure her safety. There was the time when she was late returning (they came back at 6.30 pm instead of 5.30!) and her father refused to let her continue. And finally, there was the fact that, having performed in a space away from the ghats, she could not actually perform publicly in the ghat area itself. “My father-in-law was to be there, so I couldn’t…”. 

But it is still a couple of years till the father-in-law and his world turns into Priyanka’s concrete everyday reality. She is married but the ritual called gauna, with which the bride shifts to her husband’s home, has been fixed for a two years later, primarily after some gentle persuasion from the activists. This pleases her. Unselfconscious, unaware of her potential as a role model among the girls of her community, uneasy with notions of very radical change, what Priyanka (and friends) look forward to is a 2-hour sewing class everyday. ‘How can we have friends”, Bandevi had asked earlier, “they may come to our house but we can’t go to theirs’ and we cant’ go to have fun with them anywhere else either”. But the sewing class is a space of friendship, laughter and learning something practical that may actually help them earn later. It is close by and a group of girls makes its way there daily.

Away from her family and kinship space, Priyanka’s articulation becomes a shade less vague. “You have done so much” she says to the NGO activist, barely two years older than herself. “But among our community, we girls can keep thinking, thinking, thinking, till we die. Nothing much happens”. But she is laughing as she says this. She is young and strong and her life lies ahead. And for now, there’s two hours of teasing, banter and gossip to look forward to. She quickens her step with the other girls, merging her giggles with theirs’, all of them moving on like a flock of happy mynahs.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 1

As summer came, the bougainvillea would become positively intoxicating. Rich and uninhibited, sometimes mango yellow , mostly voluptuous magenta. There we would be, a group of friends and I, looking for more friends to make the evening plan with, walking down those bougainvillea-flattered roads.

[At least one known human being in recorded history, however, managed to transcended that rich floral spell. A professor, walking down from a Linguistics seminar with a colleague, found himself more lost for words than usual in expressing his appreciation of the flowers, since he couldn’t remember their name.
 “What’s the name of that flower”, he cried in agony.
And his erudite Linguistics expert companion suggested, “Rose, you mean? The Name of the Rose?”
I kid you not, you can see the exact spot where this happened. Umberto Eco’s spirit is still standing there, I hope, slapping its forehead.]

Yes, so, all parantheses apart, there we would be walking among those flaming shameless hussies of bougainvillea and we would come across a friend walking towards the library, even carrying some books. This meant that he was either going directly to the library canteen (once introduced to a new student as the only canteen in JNU with a library attached to it), or going to the library to recce for a nice spot – from where an eye could be kept on the general comings and goings, where he could put his books, maybe even his notebook or pen, in perfect readiness for when the inspiration would take him  – and then going on to the library canteen. 

Come with us, we would say, come na, Rohit has come from home and is bound to have some money. Yaar, I have to write this paper, he’d object as he swivelled right around and joined us, with every symptom of being a good-natured soul doing his duty by insistent friends.

And on we would walk to the nearest liquor shop in Munirka, as the sun set, and some peacock let out a loud indignant squack, in a breeze that hadn’t exactly lost the memory of cooler times, at that hour of godhuli. Godhuli. That hour of twilight in JNU when dust would be kicked up by the moving hooves of students going to the local booze shop.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Laughter Memoirs - Dehradun 1

In summer afternoons, Dalanwala would gather an air of full-bellied somnolence, draw its curtains and go to sleep in darkened rooms. You could hardly discern the movement of its breath. When we would return from school at about 2.30, and trudge trudge to our homes from the bus stop, an intense blue sky would be pouring yellow sunshine on a silent world of impossible peace. We walked down a silent road, crickets the only sound. The boundary walls of houses on both sides were low, moss covered, a secret world in themselves. Behind the walls, the homes were hardly visible from among the heavy litchi, jackfruit, guava, apricot, or mango trees. Old silvery Eucalyptus stood like patient elephants teaching the riotous red and yellow flowers in the lawns to shush for a while, people are sleeping. We picked their fallen leaves, and inhaled the lemony scent.

At this time of the day the lawns would be content just being green. The houses themselves, low and bungalow-style, separated from each other by acres of land, asleep. Their windows asleep, curtains asleep. The odd stray dog on the road, her pups gathered around her, also asleep. Only the bumblebees brought life to the portrait, weaving along their drunken trajectories, their buzz and drone holding up the summer afternoon.

When I reached home I would open a small black gate. To my right, a lawn with two bottlebrush trees, to my left a small mango tree, and in front a generous bougainvillea creeper going up the pale yellow house wall. The house was clearly well settled, full of rice, daal and raita, and dead to the world. I would scrunch my way on crushed pebbles towards the porch which sheltered the old grey family fiat. On one side of the car, the giant Bhotia we had – more hound than dog – would open exactly one lazy eye, move its tail sufficiently to make place for, say, a friendly ant, and go back to sleep. On the other side of the car, the orange cat would be magnificently uncaring, and would manage to show it with equal efficiency, using closed eyes or a direct basilisk glare. From beneath the car, two protruding human feet would welcome me. Chacha’s voice would emerge with absent-minded affection as he tinkered with the car’s undersides – the only human awake for miles – “Arre, tu aa gayi?”