Friday, 21 March 2014

Casting Away the Caste?

Late 80s – Bihar: There was an ongoing rate list for dowry as per the jobs held and salaries earned. I remember that lowest in the rate list was that of a bank PO. The rate then was a whooping Rs.7 lakhs, unthinkable at that time. Of course if you belonged to a higher caste, you could attach a premium and nobody questioned.

2004 – South India: The concept of Indians backpacking was not really known then; so my travel partner and I were often mistaken to be foreigners. The first question people asked us after clarifying that we were Indians was, “What is your caste?”. We were accorded quick and good service because my travel partner was a Brahmin. Naturally, we took advantage of it.   

2009 – Mumbai: An employee of a well known education NGO got super excited when she found out that my colleague is married to a Brahmin. She asked me enthusiastically if I was a Brahmin too.

2011 – West Rajasthan: We travelled to a village on work where we had lunch in the house of an adivasi family (one of the best meals I have had so far but that’s a different story). We invited our Muslim driver to join us but he consistently refused saying he already had his meal. Later we realised that he didn’t want to have food in an adivasi home.

Village elders who usually form the Jati or Caste Panchayats (in Rajasthan). 

2011 – Jodhpur: We had stopped for food at a roadside dhaba run by a Rajput, who told us with some pride in his voice that all people including dalits and adivasis are welcome to eat at his Dhaba. A bit later he adds that he however will never eat at a dhaba run by an adivasi or a dalit.

 2011 – Melghat: A tribal village in a forest had been assigned an Aanganwadi worker who threw her weight around because she belonged to a ‘higher’ caste. The result was that none of the families sent their children to the Aanganwadi resulting in waste of food every day.

2012 – Bhopal: A friend has a neighbour who belongs to the Scheduled Tribes. She asked my friend if her domestic help could also work for her. When my friend approached the help with the request, she flatly refused. The maid, also belonging to a Scheduled Tribe told my friend that she can’t work for the family because they belonged to a lower stratum than her.

An adivasi woman from a forest village in Maharashtra

2013 – Gadchiroli: Aanganwadi worker approaches me and asks, “Madam, Aapka surname?” (to figure out my community and caste). I tell her only my first name instead.

2013 – Delhi: An employee of a rights based organisation is heard asking another colleague her caste.

2014 – Pune: A well educated, professionally successful girl works in one of the best consultancy firms. She is 35 and single. Despite her background she has not been able to find a match because she belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and nobody from the ‘higher’ castes wants to marry an ST (as told to her). 
Across India: Areas in most villages are segregated as per community and caste. Due to reservation, many villages now have SC / Dalit sarpanches but they are treated just as nominal heads. The Up-Sarpanch from a higher caste holds the main power and people listen to him. If a Sarpanch is a woman from a lower caste, then she doesn’t have much of a chance of being heard at all.

Its a power game mostly – this desperate need to somehow feel superior in the absence of any other way to prove their superiority. Proving that you are better than others through deeds and actions is hard work and also subjective, hence its so much easier to fall back on your superiority by birth. Power comes easy.

Ambedkar was as usual right, social reforms are necessary if the country has to progress on all fronts. Abolition of caste so far has been neatly done on paper. The politics now behind the caste system (despite the best intentions of affirmative action) will ensure that it remains deeply entrenched in our society. Even after so many years of actually seeing and experiencing the fallout of some decisions by our founding leaders, we as a nation do not have the guts to debate again on this. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity like Secular are just mere words without meaning in our Constitution.

And since we do not have the ability to understand and follow the essence of our Constitution, we will continue to remain Un-Indians. 


Annihilation of Caste: An interesting read, more in the perspective of how Gandhi defended the caste and varna system.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Marriage, Feminism and Other Stories:

The question invariably creeps up. Women are more direct, while men try not to be direct. But ask all will once they get comfortable. And why not, since concern about other people’s marriage or marital status remains a national obsession.
Like my alteration tailor who often chats up with me.
Tailor: Aapke ghar mein kaun kaun hain?
When I tell him about my family, he asks: Aur Bhaiyya?
Bhaiyya here means husband and not brother, he clarifies when I looked confused.

Like the BCom pass farmer in Gadchiroli.

Farmer: Aapka ghar kahan hain?
Me: Mumbai
Farmer: Aap kahan ke ho?
And then he starts listing out the states in order to guess. When I tell him where my parents are staying, he finally talks straight.
Farmer: Ghar ka matlab, aapke husband kahan hain?


Though it’s a common refrain among married women in urban areas, lately I am beginning to hear the same from some rural pockets too.

After the day’s work, I was sipping ‘lal chai’ with Pooja, a young mother and her maternal aunt Shilpa in a village in Gadchiroli. The inevitable question came up.

Pooja: Didi, aapki shaadi ho chuki? (are you married?)
Me: No, not yet.
Pooja and Shilpa together: Didi, don’t get married. There is nothing in marriage. You are good being single.
Me (surprised and super curious): Why do you say so?
Pooja: In a marriage you can’t be your own, you can’t do anything for yourself. You only have to listen to others.
Shilpa: After marriage, I have always been stressed. About my children, my life. Look at me, I am 35 and marriage has made me lose my health and beauty. I wanted to do so many things, study and I have not been able to do anything.

Shilpa was a natural leader commanding attention the moment she spoke and bristling with curiosity. She had the restless energy of a person caged wanting to break free. Pooja on the other hand was bursting with a new found energy, ready to do more than just sit around the house. I felt sad and happy at the same time. Happy that there are women who are beginning to think differently; sad because so many lives like Shilpa’s are just dying a restless death.


Marriage is an institution created and perpetrated by patriarchy – so says the feminists but that has not stopped many of them from going ahead and getting married anyway. Some have done it the traditional way, some have retained their maiden names, some call each other partners instead of husband and wife while some just live together.   

In the urban areas, this institution or rather the idea of relationship is changing. Whether its distrust, ego, one- upmanship, space, equality, boredom or something else, relationships have altered dramatically. Like a fast changing society, people are also not sure what they should hold true or important.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang carries a universal truth, interpretable across all areas of life but more so in relationships. High cannot exist without the low, light cannot exist without the dark, man cannot exist without woman or vice versa. What is lacking in one, the other fulfils. Different yet complimentary and coming together to form a whole.

In an era where the self rules, this concept perhaps is too difficult for people to understand.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Long Live the Idea that is India:

For the first time I felt free, truly free. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder constantly to see who was coming or keep my antennas up even a tiny bit. I rode my cycle at a leisurely pace just like the locals, dreaming along the way with no care or concern even for the traffic. No, this wasn’t anywhere in India, but in another developing country, Vietnam.  Everybody cycles there, so cyclists usually get the right of way.  But that’s not the point; the point is that this simple experience hit me hard. What I have always craved for in my own country, I got it elsewhere. It hit me hard because of the fact that I will never get it here, in my own country. This ridiculous sense of Freedom.

In the course of my limited travel within Vietnam, I felt that this very young country (it’s just 38years since the war ended) has moved way ahead of India – in terms of infrastructure, amenities, lifestyle, discipline and attitude. So what is it that makes us the way we are – a poverty stricken, chaotic, highly patriarchal, corruption ridden country? Just as I was almost ready to drown in hopelessness, my country turned the table and surprised all of us yet again.   

The Delhi elections and its eventual outcome, a political thriller of sorts, just showed the world how a true democracy can function and just how powerful a true democracy can be. For people like us, this gave us a much needed sense of hope and a momentum to keep pushing for all the changes in the system in a democratic way.

Infact, if I really want to see it, there’s a lot about this country that keep my hopes up. Where else would you find a country where a gruesome incident (amongst many others) brought an entire society to look deep within itself, question its deep seated traditions and force lawmakers to quickly amend archaic laws? Where else would you find this freedom of expression across media without the threat of a clamp down? Where else would you have such a strong human rights platform, despite some horrible mistakes like Section 377? Where else would you have so many good government schemes for its communities, even though most are on just paper? Where else would you have a limited but immensely strong network of environmentally aware citizens, when around the world most forests and rivers have run silent? Where else would you have highly successful space program at such a low cost? Where else would you have a country which can stand the might of international pharma companies because it believes in providing cheap basic medicines to all? Where else can you find dolphins being recognised as non-human persons with their own rights?

I might not be able to cycle so freely in this country in my lifetime, but I definitely want our next generation to find that freedom someday in future and without our poverty stricken, corruption ridden, patriarchal and chaotic society.   

And now I have begun to believe that the more I dislike my country, the more I fall in love with the idea that is India.

Long live the idea of India. 
Watch this very interesting video of how dolphins have been helping fishermen for the past 150 years: Dolphins help Fishermen

Monday, 11 November 2013

What does Home mean to you?

And yet, as his own death drew near, Sakyamuni turned again towards the north....“ Come Ananda, let us go to Kushinagar”. Like the rest of us, perhaps he longed for home  -  Matthiessen in The Snow Leopard.

Let’s go home! – Dr. Ryan in Gravity

What does home mean to people? 

Is it the house that one stays in or owns?
Is it the place where your family or parents are?
Is it the place where one grew up?
Or the place where your ancestors came from?   
Is it just being with the person you love?
Or is it just being yourself with your partner or your friends?
Is it a place where you feel you belong?
Or is it the feel of the air and the earth that is so familiar to you?

We humans are strange beings. At one hand we are forever trying to explore and reach the unknown and then again going further – from the continent of Africa and now to Mars and beyond. On the other hand, there is always an unrelenting need to find one’s roots, a place one can call home.

I have often wondered if the second generation of Tibetans in India feel the same sense of rootlessness that their parents must have felt in an alien land. What about the Bengali and other communities who were forced to leave Assam and Meghalaya even though they had lived there for generations....did they find their roots back in Bengal or do they still pine for the smell of the hills? Despite so many stories and movies, will we ever really understand what people must have felt when the two communities were suddenly uprooted during Partition? Does every Jew in the world feel the need to visit Israel, just so that they know it’s their home and a place which is supposed to be a safe haven for them always? If ever they find peace, will the people of Gaza strip and Palestine who have grown up in an era of strife feel that freedom and comfort to travel and venture out? How deep was the pain of Navratilova who had made America her home but could not stop her tears when the Czech national anthem was played?  

When people ask me where is home, I am often stumped. My connection with the state of my community or ancestors is very low because I have never lived there. Except for nostalgia and good memories of a carefree childhood, the place where I grew up has no charm left for me anymore. I do miss the autumn and winters of Delhi but it’s a city I will not like to go back to anytime soon. I have found my warm fuzzy corner in Mumbai but I still have to grow my roots here.

When I grow old and my parents are not there anymore, I do not know where home will be then. But like the Buddha, if there is any place that I would want to go back to at the end of my years, it will be to the high snow bound mountains up north.  It’s cold winds, the cerulean skies, warm afternoon sun and the towering snow peaks all around; that is what I want to feel and that is what I want to see when I finally close my eyes. At home, at peace.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Understanding the Other Side:

I recently met an academician and our conversation veered from Geology (her subject) to Climate Change.  She, like many geologists across the world vehemently disagrees about anthropogenic climate change or change in climate due to man-made reasons. This piqued my interest because for the first time I realised that in my eagerness to talk about environment, I had forgotten to look at the other side of the coin!

She insisted that the ‘issue’ of climate change as it stands in the global economic and political forums is a hoax / hogwash because all these so-called changes in climate discussed ad nauseam in media are just a part of Earth’s natural processes. She rattled off names of scientists, researchers, and agencies etc who have worked on this and though I had not heard of any of these names, I vigorously nodded my head just so that I didn't sound so ignorant.    

I asked her for some reading materials which she happily acquiesced to. What I read is just a tip of my ignorance iceberg but they are definitely very interesting; enough for me to want to know more and oh yes, debate!

In short, NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change) was formed to counter IPCC’s (International Panel on Climate Change) claims about Climate Change. According to HIPCC, IPCC is funded by governments through tax payers’ money and hence has vested interests. The scientists with IPCC usually move around in swanky hotels in exotic locations and use computer generated models to predict catastrophes which don’t have any scientific backing. HIPCC and other independent geologists have also alleged that IPCC has changed or ‘corrected’ data to prove future disaster scenarios and dramatic rise in sea levels. To every claim that IPCC has come out with, HIPCC has come out with a counter claim proving exactly the opposite. So as per HIPCC and many other geologists / scientists, there is no rise in sea levels or will be (infact it has dipped in some places), there are no glacial melts, no extreme weather patterns, no crop failures or ecosystem changes which cannot be explained as basic natural cause and effect.  This group believes that increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is infact good because it will help in regeneration of forests and produce better crop yields (to name a few). So, life is good as it is and we should continue in the same way.

Fair Enough!


Though I have hardly read or understood enough and I am Definitely not an expert on this subject, I am left wondering why so much of this debate is only centered around greenhouse gas emissions. Should it just be about CO2 emissions or about overall environmental degradation? Yes, Earth has a cyclic pattern of heating up and cooling down. When average temperature rose a 1000years back, it wouldn't have made much difference because they had more forest cover, lesser ‘emissions’ to counter the rise.  Now with most forest cover gone, polluted rivers, plastics galore, and dams blocking rivers etc, will not the natural change in Earth’s temperature affect many things?  And what vested interests would governments have in changing a perfectly established highly capital intensive economy to something which might not be so in future?

As for me, in the four decades of my nearly ignorant life, I have seen enough damage to nature to not get worried. It worries me that Mumbai’s balmy 30 degrees climate has changed to a hot and humid 36 degrees; that Delhi’s winter has shortened to a few weeks instead of months and that there are hardly any afternoon rainfall in Bangalore these days.

On that day however, despite being on either sides of the spectrum, we both agreed to one thing – that this (the debate on Climate Change) is just another Game!

To read more on the other side of the debate check out

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Stinking Earth:

Sitting outside in the balcony of a guest house overlooking the valley and snow peaks which were then hidden by clouds, my friend pointed to a small mud house in the distance. It was the only remnant of a time when the valley was filled with farms and beautiful village huts.  The valley and all the area around it is now covered by concrete constructions and garbage.  When my friend had first queried with the owner of the guest house on where to throw the garbage, she had matter-of-factly told her to throw it outside her balcony.  In the next few days, I noticed most guests living in the neighbouring guest houses dumping garbage and plastic bags into the valley and stream below. My friend walks a few kilometers to throw her garbage into a designated garbage dumper every few days.

Mud house in between concrete

This is how the present day Mcleodganj, Dharamshala and Dharamkot region in Himachal now looks. The quaintness and the beauty that I had found on my first visit to the same region way back in 2005 are long gone.  As tourists pour in every weekend changing the social fabric of the place with their rough behaviour and ‘eve-teasing’, the travelers have started moving further out changing the quaint villages into mushrooming concrete jungles with trails of garbage all around. The locals who have never known large sums of money get swayed easily and sell off their land. The money vanishes within years and most of them then have to migrate out in search of jobs or hard labour plunging their families into difficulties they had never anticipated.

Scenes of garbage all along Dharamshala and Mcleodganj

The vicious cycle continues and it doesn't have any immediate solutions. In the meanwhile, the beautiful valleys and quaint villages keep getting covered with plastic and garbage which neither the municipalities nor the local communities or the tourists want to take responsibility for.


Photo credit: Zalina Gamat

Abhijit Patil, a photographer, is using his art project Sadakchhap to create awareness about the menace of garbage in the mountains. Apart from showcasing the work of local budding photographers in the region, he will also create an installation made out of garbage. To know more about the project, get onto the Sadakchhap Facebook page.

Didi Contractor, a well known architect, uses local materials, knowledge and labour to make modern houses in the mountains. These houses are made of mud, costs much less than concrete houses, is eco-friendly and also do not require regular maintenance.

In an interview with HarmonyIndia, Didi said, “I am not against money but valuing things by money is a terrible mistake. The most valuable things are those we cannot buy, like love and sunsets. We have betrayed our relationship with nature. We should be ashamed that we are not leaving behind a better world.” (source:

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Why I will never work for Violence Against Women:

In early 2011, as part of my work, I went to Pune to document our partner’s work with survivors of violence primarily domestic. I spent the whole day with the lawyer activist discussing the topic and trying to understand its various aspects. I saw and heard the cases which had just come in while I sat there in the office. Then I went out to talk to a few survivors themselves and know of their stories.

At the end of the day, while waiting for a cool cab to take me back to Mumbai, I finally got some time to review what I had seen and heard throughout the day. And it was then that it hit me. I stood there clutching my stomach as wave after wave of nausea coursed through me.  I was suddenly desperate to come back to the warmth of my home. Next day I went to office and told my manager NEVER again to send me for work on this theme.

That one day in a tier one city made me realise a lot of things. That all this while I, like others, had happily chosen to ignore this issue as something which happened only in the lower income strata. That violence can take such ghastly forms and proportions that it becomes unbelievable. That we live in a society so SO sick, that it has begun to scare me.  That people, rather men, can go to any extent for greed and doesn't matter if it’s your 70 years old mother, 12 years old daughter or a newly wedded wife.

Over the years I have come to question why we talk about violence as only a women’s issue. When the focus is just on the women as victims or survivors, the perpetrators or the men are relegated to the background and their behaviour accepted. It’s left to the women to survive and try and lead a next to normal life.

Well, I do not think it’s an issue related to women at all. For me, it’s an issue related more to the society in general and men in particular. Isn't it strange that in most of the cases of violence (in any form), the perpetrators are men? It’s the men who are violent not only against women, but they are violent against children and other men too. So, shouldn't we as a society start to see and accept the problem in its right perspective? And more importantly, shouldn't men start to introspect as to why is it that only they tend to behave like that? Women, who are survivors of abuse and violence even as a kid, do not grow up to become perpetrators themselves. The same sadly can’t be said about men.

Over the years, I have gained tremendous respect for all the women and men working tirelessly on this issue under so much of negativity and surrounded by so much of despair.  

The lawyer activist had told me that one learns to build a defense mechanism else they could be easily pulled down.   

As for me, I am just not brave enough. And for the sake of my emotional sanity, I prefer to stay away.