India’s progeny

Two nights ago I finally managed to sit and watch, ‘India’s Daughter’- the hard hitting BBC documentary that examined the events leading up to and following the brutal rape of the 23 year old medical student, Jyoti Singh in Delhi. I was in the US at the time, and it took me an hour to locate a dodgy website that I could view the programme on. Youtube, and most other kosher sites had taken it down, following the ban in India. It made for some pretty gut churning viewing.

On the 16th of December, 2012, Jyoti Singh and a male friend were returning home from watching a film. Unable to find transportation, they took a ride in a private bus that was supposedly headed the same way as them. The male companion was taunted, beaten and knocked unconscious, and Jyoti was dragged to the back of the bus, raped repeatedly by six men, beaten and bitten viciously, and had an iron rod inserted in her, as punishment for retaliating. Jyoti and her friend were then thrown off the bus. She died as a result of her injuries, a few weeks later.

That is the plain, unvarnished truth of what happened. The BBC documentary examined the why.

Growing up in Delhi, I was always aware of how unsafe it was outdoors for girls, after a certain hour of the evening. We were restricted to our homes, or if we ventured out, it was always with family, escorted by at least one male member.

Nonetheless, at the age of nine, I was propositioned by an old man on a bicycle. A few years later, a respectable, middle aged man on a Bajaj scooter, saw fit to stop and expose his genitals to me, as I walked home after school. I had men rub up against me in temples, old ‘uncles’ let their hands wander down my back, a family ‘friend’ lasciviously suggest that I call him on his bedroom line. I learnt early to toughen up. To walk on the street with a heightened awareness of my surroundings, elbows out, ready to dodge or charge- whatever the situation required.

At the time I never sought to question why it was the way it was. I would listen to my cousin recount tales of staying out late in Mumbai (Bombay then), come home in a cab alone at midnight with no concerns, and feel a mild curiosity that two cities within the same country could be so different.

Moving and living abroad, opened my eyes to a different world. A world in which a woman could and did safely venture out at all hours. Where, what she wore, the hours she worked or the job she did, did not make her the cynosure of all eyes. Where there was no patriarchal tut tutting, no judgements on her gender, no restrictions on her movements.

In my twenty years living away from India, I heard of and saw plenty of change there as well. India was making great strides economically, and the new generations were benefitting from this globalisation. The youth of India were smart, aware, proud, savvy and not cowed by anything. And yet.

Every twenty minutes a woman is raped somewhere in India.

A silence shrouds these attacks. A silence that relies on the shame of the victims. It is shameful to be raped, it brings dishonour upon the family name, it begs the question what did she do/wear to ask for it?

Jyoti Singh was raped not just because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also because she was with a male friend after socially acceptable hours, and because she dared to fight back. A woman’s place in this trenchantly patriarchal society is seven steps behind a male member of her family, be that her father, her husband, or her son. The child bride of one of the rapists illustrates this in her protestations of her husband’s innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary. The defence lawyer, argues it with his statement that “women are like diamonds” and if thrown on the street, “Certainly the dog will take it”.

The “dogs” in this instance, took with such barbarity, such savagery that it tore through the shroud of silence. It led people to the streets, to agitate, to call upon the law makers, to question why, in the 21st century, were women still not guaranteed safety on the streets of India?

Even as India cobbles together laws and fast track courts on the one hand, it bans documentaries such as these on the other. In a hasty white washing of its image, it forgets that while the rot eats away at its foundations, it will never rightfully or proudly be able to take its place at the forefront of the international arena.

It’s time to turn that gaze inward. Time to examine those attitudes, and those platitudes. It’s time to retire statements like advocate ML Sharma’s : India has the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.

Watch ‘India’s Daughter’. Make your sons watch it too.


Dealing with disappointment

In the past week, three of my writing submissions were rejected. To one, there was no response. One made it to the long list but failed the next hurdle. The third (of which I had high hopes) came with a rejection email that complained about font size.

To say I was dejected would be a massive understatement. I considered that perhaps I just don’t have what it takes. Whatever the elusive ‘it’ maybe. I thought about giving it up altogether. Or, at the very least, taking a break from all my frenetic short story writing. Yet, with a deadline looming, I had a decision to make. Either to bypass this particular competition again, or to knuckle down, sod the odds, and submit submit submit.

Then I happened to stumble across an article that spoke to me directly.

It outlined the many bestsellers that had multiple rejection letters behind them. That, but for the writer’s persistence and self belief, would never have seen the light of day.

Consider this: Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections before Gone with the Wind found a publisher. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was rejected 60 times! J.K. Rowling received 12 publishing rejections in a row.

Yet, if there is one thing that binds these authors together, it is their determination, their refusal to take no for an answer.

I understand that all judging is subjective.What one particular competition may disregard, another may commend.That does not, however, let me off the hook either. My job is to refine whatever I am writing, so that, if it is rejected, then it’s not for trivial matters like font size.

So, with this in mind, I am back to writing. The other stories will languish on my laptop for a while, till time and distance lends me the perspective to go back to them, and edit,tweak and polish.

Ultimately, it is better to live with rejection than with regret.

Appeasing the palate at the Palace

“You must try the haleem”, my friend had urged, and after a few unsuccessful forays into local restaurants, where the waiters looked at me askance, I had finally struck gold. It was in the sumptuous surroundings of the Falaknuma Palace, that I finally got to sample the rich, wheat, barley, lentils and meat stew.

It had been a bit of a tussle getting my husband to agree to this rather expensive lunch. Unless you are resident in the hotel, the only way to gain entry is to book a meal at either of it’s two restaurants. Boy, were we glad we had! A visit to Hyderabad, India, could not be complete without visiting one of the finest palaces the state of Telengana boasted of.

Falak-numa or Mirror of the Sky in Urdu, was the grand residence of the Nizam of Hyderabad up until the 1950’s, when it was closed up, and left untouched till a lease agreement with Taj hotels, and a major restoration by them, breathed new life into this elegant old building. The original owner, the erstwhile Prime Minister of Hyderabad, had built the palace for his own use. In the process, he ran out of funds, and ended up selling the palace to the then Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha.

As the present Nizam dwelled in Turkey, we were getting to savour a slice of royal living. With the haleem and its accompanying victuals safely lodged in our stomachs, we waddled obligingly to the foyer, where a man built like an ox waited for us.

“Myself, bodyguard of Nizam”, he introduced himself proudly. “Today, guide.”

For those in our party who only spoke English, the rest of the tour was largely unintelligible. Our guide had an interesting way with the English language, which consisted of spouting random words together in the hope that they would translate into something meaningful. Case in point: “Building scorpion. This-tail. That stained glass.” A shame, as his Urdu tour was so much more enlightening.

Unable to take photos inside, we chose instead to take away impressions. From the beautiful mirrored ballroom, to the famed dining hall that can seat a 100 guests, to the impressive carved walnut roof of the library, the scorpion shaped palace left us feeling steeped in the history and culture of a bygone era. Our guide’s parting shot was a bit of Urdu poetry, loosely translating as: “There is the sky, and there is the palace that mirrors the sky. It is only the fortunate that get to see the latter before they are returned to the former”

Feeling like I was about to return to the former, I politely declined the offer of a second helping of biryani at another friend’s that evening.

“You ate what? Haleem is only consumed during Ramadan, when the Muslims eat before daybreak. It sustains them the entire day!”

No wonder I felt like I’d swallowed a palace!

Needless to say, Falaknuma lodged itself inside of me, in more ways than one.



His- story?

Walking up the 380 uneven stone steps of the Golconda fort in Hyderabad, I heard frequent complaints from my eleven year old, who insisted on pausing every ten minutes. I pointed out all the old folk, who’d made the journey up, and were now returning.

One toothless old lady passed us by, and I said, “Look- just look at her. She must be at least seventy!”

“And she has no teeth”, added my husband.

“Well, she doesn’t exactly walk on her teeth”, daughter reparteed grumpily.

Fair point.

The sweltering heat of the afternoon sun was receding somewhat, and a cooler breeze started to reach us as we climbed higher. It had been an afternoon filled with sightseeing. We had seen the rather magnificent Qutub Shahi tombs, and then made our way back through the narrow streets of the old city towards the fort.

The history of the fort is interesting. Shepherd’s Hill or “Golla Konda” as it’s known in Telegu, was christened thus because of a shepherd boy who came across an idol. A mud fort was constructed around the holy spot by the then ruler. Over the years, and under the generous administration of the Qutub Shahi kings, this was expanded into a massive granite fort. However, when the fort was conquered by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, he saw fit to destroy the impressive structure, leaving little but rubble behind. It was the remnants of this structure that we were picking our way through, amongst several hundred other tourists.

As we climbed and paused, and took photos I couldn’t help but notice the litter that was casually thrown about. There were plastic bags caught in bushes, empty water bottles carelessly strewn, ice cream wrappers discarded cavalierly. Amongst History there was muck.

Litter can be picked.

But what of the graffiti I saw every corner that I turned? A loved B, and declared it on the wall for the world to see. Names scrawled, pictures drawn, defacing monuments that should be respected, preserved, restored even.

This got me wondering about the nature of graffiti.

Was I looking at this all wrong?

I have seen graffiti on bridges in Budapest. Wild, wonderful art, full of colour and mayhem. An expression of youth and of irreverence. And Banksy, the elusive street artist and activist, who even as I write this, is making waves with his art on the walls of Gaza. Why admire this and denigrate the other?

Rather than ascribing all these random scribblings on the walls of Golconda as markings of ignorance, I tried looking at it differently. Was this not just another attempt by man to make a mark, however trivial, however insignificant it may seem? If Ravi loved Savitha, he wanted not just to shout it from roof tops, but he wanted the multitudes who visited the fort, to see his love, and register, even if it was for a brief moment, his existence.

Some make forts. Some reduce them to rubble. Others make political statements on that rubble. While others still, just draw a heart and write that they love someone.

Thousands of years later, if this planet still exists, perhaps someone somewhere will try and make sense of it all, just as historians try and make sense of the early man cave paintings. I wonder which message will resonate the loudest then.