Saturday, 15 November 2014
Tuesday, 11 November 2014
I assumed it went without saying; I took it for granted
Thought you could read my thoughts whenever you wanted.
Didn't strike me why you would bother to go through the fine print
When I couldn't make the effort to say the simplest thing.
First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.
I've got a love letter to post
And nowhere to post it to
A red red letter box
For a red red love letter
Which doesn't ask
Which doesn't ask
For a mailing address
What the sea does
For a message in a bottle
Would be welcome.
Would be welcome.
First published in the anthology The Rainbow Hues, October 2014.
Monday, 20 October 2014
For years now I have been looking to enrich my vocabulary of swear words with no troublesome arrows in the quiver. There are times when I urgently need to use profanity, for example, against all the harassers on bikes and in cars who would hoot at or brush past me, literally giving me a run for my money. I must have the last word, if not the last hand, in the situation and need to yell something out at these harassers. I become frustrated if the limited choice of words in my outdated assortment makes it seem that I am actually providing weapons to the other party, instead of employing the same against them.
Here, I'm using the term 'swear word' to refer to abuse, words that are very clearly directed at another party and not just to be muttered under one's breath as a form of venting. Let's do some stocktaking.
We have motherfucker, sisterfucker, son of a bitch (thereafter referred to as MF/SF and) as well as bastard and several more complex variations of the same, as deployed for instance by Scorsese. (I do not know if I am missing significant, powerful pelt-stones in English but in Hindi, my first language, we do not have a very wide range). Now to use MF/SF would suggest I have resigned myself to believing that men would be the eternal doers and women, the 'done-upons'. The broader connotation is that if some men are not MFs or SFs it is because of their kindness and the goodness of their hearts, though they can (denoting natural ability) fill those roles if they so wished, because women of course will never have any choice in the matter. And not on my life am I going to rob women of agency. As Germaine Greer writes in The Female Eunuch, 'All the verbal linguistic emphasis is placed upon the poking element; fucking, screwing, rooting, shagging are all acts performed upon the passive female . . .'
SOB is again supposed to be offensive to women though there can be ample speculation on what kind of dark legends were unearthed around bitches to put them in this category and represent them as worse than human. A word like asshole circles back, again, to the body. Why is a body part supposed to cause offence? In a word, shit. The only insult it causes is to Rabelais's scatological oeuvre, which his narratives used in the most imaginative ways. Even if it's a child's idea of grossing out someone, my use of it is not just to make the other person feel bad but also to tell them how exactly they were abominable.
Some suggest that women should use the 'male equivalent' of misogynist terms for men . Many expressions of profanity have already become unisex in their use. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr tells us, 'With the development of feminism, many swearwords have become more equal-opportunity, not less. Bitch can now be applied to men and women, as can cunt. In the 19th century shit as a noun was reserved exclusively for men — the “West Somerset Word-Book” defines it as “a term of contempt, applied to men only,” as in “He’s a regular shit.” Now, women too can work, vote, own their own property, and be called a shit.'
But what am I really gaining by calling someone a fatherfucker or brotherfucker? And using these terms now in a gender-neutral way certainly doesn't alter their sexist history. Even if a woman is saying 'Don't be a girl' to another woman or to a man, this is still a reductionist approach where a particular notion of a 'girl' (or woman) as unfortunately feminine and therefore lesser than remains frozen throughout time.
While the above-mentioned expletives are offensive to women, others do not stray far from sex and its consequences. A bastard, for instance, brings to mind the 'illegitimacy' of a union out of a wedlock, a relic from the dark ages. Restoration drama, on the other hand, was busy wishing all sorts of sexual maladies upon its characters. One option is to continue with the old terms and simply use them to vent out, without their having any real meaning at all. But in this way we are merely apprising the other person of our anger and not really telling them why we are angry. So they can attribute it merely to our 'feeling' rather than their 'doing'. Alas, the purpose of swearing would be lost. (I myself have had to bite my tongue several times before calling out one of these very names.)
For all of our forward thinking, the damned spots of regression continue to show. We still shudder to think of the 'sins' of the flesh and therefore think the worst ills of the world have to do with sex and the body. Surely it is not a bigger 'sin' to be born a 'bastard' than to be fundamentalist, cruel or dishonest. Yet these latter words are mere adjectives, not 'swear words'. Our choice of abuse is a reflection upon ourselves, of what we consider acceptable and what we let pass. Even if we are able to invest these words with a stronger meaning, the shadow of their sexist etymology would continue to loom large above them. If we are truly committed to equality, now is our chance to build a novel, gender-neutral vocabulary of profanity.
First published in The Feminist Wire, 20 Oct 2014.
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
I smear my lips with red chili pepper,
Salivate between my short breaths.
Biting hard, the searing taste reassures me
Of iron within my dream of hot pursuit.
I wake up in a sweat,
Pour my head into a bucket of water.
Clamp down my nose and mouth
Counting one, two, three . . .
I stand upon my head,
Feel the welts on my soles.
Welts course through my brain and erupt.
A crown of thorns pierces my temples.
My thighs give way under the weight of bullets,
My first realization of how many layers pain can exist in.
But numbing as it is to try to live
In your body, to live what it lived, lives . . .
I wonder whether I have it in me
To some day see your body as only yours
And mine as mine alone.
But I don't want that, I don't
Want to be left alone.
It's pathetic, I know;
A sick mind makes the real absurd.
It scares me shit
To imagine that numbness.
How can I not follow you,
How can we not be in this
First published in Kashmir Lit, October 2014.
Friday, 29 August 2014
Tuesday, 22 July 2014
Several meetings were held with the police officials of the area for the prevention of Nigerians and transgenders. An account of the wrongful activities going on here was given to them. As a result, the SHO closed down the places for vending liquor and other nefarious activities in the neighbourhood. All landlords are requested not to let their properties to Nigerians or other such disruptive elements.
This is the translation of a paragraph in a pamphlet issued by the Khirki Residents' Welfare Association earlier this year after a raid was conducted by Somnath Bharti, law minister in the Aam Aadmi Party government. Members of the African community were accused of being part of a drug and sex racket, searched, and publicly manhandled. The premise of this attack was not the due process of law. It derived its confidence of legitimacy from the complaints of many of the 'aggrieved' residents. These grievances emerged from a prevalent set of stereotypes that can get thus proliferated only in gullies that rub against and merge into each other, as in Khirki. The murmurs collude in insisting that Africans, especially Nigerians, are here for drug dealing and prostitution. When Joanna (name changed), an African student from Malawi says that she gets a three-year visa in one go while her Nigerian friends have to get it renewed every year, sometimes every six months, it becomes clear that one is dealing not just with mohalla rumours here but set perceptions at a much more deep-rooted level. The comfortable gullibility with which accusations become trusted facts stands out in sharp relief against the city's famed hospitality, its readiness to accommodate and fete guests. Would the prejudices in the Khirki lanes be so pronounced, authorities so casual, had the accused been from the other side of the Mediterranean? It is difficult to imagine the RWAs subjecting European visitors to such obloquy, though they have their own challenges to deal with.
Ola Jason, an erstwhile resident of Khirki who moved out to Chhatarpur some time after the incident, says, 'When you have pain, you have a story.' It is to trace this story that I traversed the streets of Khirki, to learn about the lives and aspirations of the African dwellers there beyond their status as victims. When I had moved to Malviya Nagar, the first piece of information I had received about Khirki was, 'You can get places at low rents there. But because the buildings stand so close together facing each other, not enough light comes through.' My visit to the place happened once or twice only to go to some Internet cafe for a print-out or to go to the ATM. I remember feeling, on these couple of occasions, more conscious of what I was wearing as the narrow lanes made you feel that not just the buildings but also the people were standing too close to you. Then a few months back I signed up for a dance workshop in Gati studio there, a privileged space, a protected corner in Delhi where you could feel completely free learning about how much exalting movement and expression your body is capable of, instead of just being something you're always trying to protect.
Gati Studio/Photograph courtesy: Soumik Mukherjee
As I stepped out of the studio each day after my class, my perception also changed. Far from being intrusive, the alleys seemed to contain an open community space, a common courtyard where people weren't just locked up inside their homes but were out there, interacting with each other, bargaining, selling, living the ease-and not the paranoia-of being the part of a crowd. The lanes came alive with the chatter, robust humour, bustle . . . the sheer assertion of being there. Those days I would take my own time getting back home, leisurely walking to take in the surroundings, buying vegetables, getting a recharge for my phone.
Now, when I notice the remarkable number of CCTV cameras perched over the streets like birds of prey waiting for their death feast in silent alertness, asking everyone to remember they are under the gaze, I wonder if, like me, for other residents of Khirki too their own mental state determines what they find in their surroundings. Are the lenses a source of reassurance or an infringement for them? Do they feel more secure or violated? Do the machines instil confidence or lend insecurities to their daily milieu? I try to think about what may have happened for them to project their fear upon what has otherwise been a safe space. What was their reason for having unleashed this vigilantism upon their African neighbours?
A CCTV camera notice in Khirki
Khirki's own landscape defies definitions. A road going uphill will suddenly plunge into a godown of watermelons. You enter one end not knowing what you will find at the other. The lanes which house Khoj, an artists' association, and the NGO Swechha, along with Gati, best illustrate the tone and temperament of the place. Looking around the labyrinth of lanes you can quickly make out why members of other nationalities feel more at ease there. The street is abuzz with people, shops and vendors so that the walking area is reduced to a narrow strip. One 'apartment gate' could lead to basement parking, another could be an opening to an entirely distinct lane of houses, and yet another could be the entry to a salon with 'Namaste' graffiti stamps on one wall and bold, colourful, 'India Beyond' on the other. A closet-like tailoring shop rubs shoulders with a pakora shop, and the entire scene is duly punctuated with vegetable vendors. The mix of voices tells you that you are amidst people from many places-India and beyond.
I look at the African residents purposefully going out for their planned evenings and question the ethics of accosting them to ask my questions. On the first day I decide not to, until I have got appointments through friends. After a few days have passed with no leads and I have grown more desperate, I visit again and finally decide to ask a girl who has been walking in the area for some time and therefore, I try to tell myself, may be relatively free. I approach her and tell her about the idea behind this story and she agrees to speak to me some day soon, giving me her number of her own accord. I am surprised by and grateful for her trust. However, on the appointed day she does not turn up, either understandably upset about my not having been able to confirm an earlier appointment or having had apprehensions about the interview in retrospect.
It is not easy to establish contact with the Africans living in Khirki. Some of my mails to Indian artists and photographers well versed with the area-full of promises to respect my interviewees' privacy and to tread with sensitivity-go unanswered. These are people who in all likelihood are by now tired of people plaguing them with similar requests, having already complied with many. Other, closer friends do their best to help and succeed in putting me in touch with a couple of their African friends. My friends warn me that it was months before they could win the trust of their neighbours from another continent and, as it turns out, even with a reference many choose not to talk to me. After the raid and the subsequent controversy, and the tension gripping the area, there has been a certain amount of mistrust around Indians. There could also be the threat of being singled out because of their statements. Talking to African students studying in the universities here, whom I also met to get their perspective, was a little easier. As Jason tells me, like him, many Africans also decided to leave Khirki after the raid and are now settled in different areas from Chhatarpur to Janakpuri.
Srishti Lakhera, a filmmaker living in the colony, says that while Indian men gawking at or harassing women in the city is a common enough experience, she never faced any trouble from anyone of African nationality. In fact she has some good friends in the community. While I and my friend wait outside an apartment to meet an African contact for this piece, we find ourselves being looked at by many men. Some are also of African origin, though considering my several visits to Khirki the latter could be called an exception. In spite of knowing that generalization is a dangerous tendency in the social paradigm, we still let stereotypes target a community, more so if it is small and vulnerable. The media makes us feel so outraged every time there is news about Indians insensitively frisked at airports. We are incensed over 'our' people being subjected to discrimination in high-profile areas of corporate affairs, sports and diplomacy. Have we still learnt nothing about the injustice we commit and the intolerance we encourage by 'othering' communities? If Marie Curie is to be believed, 'Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.' But we tend to feel fear, not healthy curiosity, wherever we find difference. We discriminate not just on the basis of countries but states, regions, caste, sub-caste, language, dialect, class. In Khirki, Muslim landlords prefer African Muslims as tenants rather than Christians from the same place. Halilu Babaji, a Nigerian doctoral candidate in Delhi University, asks, 'How can you judge someone unless you know them personally?' There are drug dealers and prostitutes in India too, even if we do not get into a debate over their legal status here. Srishti says that such Indians have learned to be more discreet, and even know their way around authorities. On the other hand, Africans, used to a much more open culture, aren't used to such caution. They literally have to pay for being 'them' as the rents they are charged are higher than those paid by 'us', Indians.
Babaji with a memento received in a university conference
Women of African descent have to sometimes face the worst of it. Unlike most Indian women, African women can be seen carrying themselves unapologetically and easily. Probably for several Indian men this becomes, as other signs of independence in women, a cause for insecurity, or disturbs their religious sense of virtue that is seen as reposited with women, and they pass lewd comments on the women. Despite such attacks, I notice with great respect that the women retain their uninhibited body language and often dress in their traditional attire, instead of always trying to conform and escape undue attention. Babaji recalls an African friend who once went up to an Indian woman to ask something and she panicked and started screaming. He finds the African culture better in this regard for it allows men and women to have regular interactions and does not compel them to remain alien to each other. He adds that while behaving in such spaces men know the laws and the consequences of not respecting women, or of trying to impose themselves on women. If India too, he feels, would be less conservative about following a rigid code of separation between men and women, there would be far fewer instances of violence on women.
In Khirki there are Africans who have earlier lived in other cities like Hyderabad and Pune, and find them much better and open minded. Temidara, a student from Ekiti, Nigeria, who has lived in Chandigarh and Mohali, describes her overall experience there as 'pretty good'. A Master's student Yucee Okoronkwo, whose name doesn't seem so unfamiliar to his literature friends who have studied Achebe's Things Fall Apart in Delhi University, has recently finished his dissertation on the anti-terrorism laws of India and Nigeria and is an avid blogger on the legal-political issues of both the regions. I ask him if he would have liked to stay in a place other than Delhi. He replies that despite its discriminatory practices, Delhi would probably still be more adaptive to foreigners, being more used to them. He remembers a trip to Himachal, which for all its beauty had irked him when people there would go around clicking his pictures without permission. Once he leaves, he says, he would miss India's cultural variety, which he had best experienced living in DU's International Students House and while organizing the intercultural festivals there. In these festivals students from different countries would participate with their music, dance, food, dresses and crafts. Kelvin Obi Olisamuni from Lagos, Nigeria, who has passed out of Ramjas College and Jamia Millia Islamia and lives in Kalkaji, also appreciates this about Delhi and is glad to have met his French girlfriend here. He agrees finding friendships becomes easier if you are in the university, that too as an undergraduate when other students are also new, still trying to find their footing. Joanna feels the same. She met her best friend from Assam on her very first day in Miranda House as a political science student.
However, students cannot be on campus all the time, where they have understanding, camaraderie and much more respect for differences. Once out on the road, they too have to face stares and catcalls. Kelvin says, 'When I hear them calling me names like kalu and habshi, I really want to ask them to grow up. I am a black man and proud of it. But what's wrong with Indians who are so crazy about fairness creams? For me someone's fairness doesn't make a difference. You have to be smart to get my attention. That's why I like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra better.' Joanna quips, 'Why am I always asked what I am doing in India? Do Indians feel that their country is not worth coming to? I would understand if they would ask me something more specific like what my special motivation was or about the particular things I like in this country.' Her response to hoots is to plug in her earphones and block the voices out, though she frets about her sister in Daulat Ram College who is much more vulnerable. Babaji feels that while racism exists in a country like the UK too, there people are careful not to let it show blatantly, 'I once boarded an auto here and the driver asked me to get off. After I did, I saw that a few metres ahead he picked up an Indian passenger. He describes another incident, 'I used to go to this shop where the shopkeeper would keep attending to other customers, ignoring me for a long time. Once a foreigner intervened on my behalf and called out the store owner.' In India other foreigners would often reach out to him, though he ultimately made Indian friends too and grew close to them.
Jason's experience of being gazed at was slightly different. 'When I was in Khirki, I used to work out in the gym for an hour. Eventually I had to reduce it to fifteen minutes because people would be gaping at me all the time. When I would ask them why, they would compliment me on having a great body and ask for tips about what they should eat and drink to have a body like mine,' he blushes. He continues to have this experience on the Metro and on the road. Like Kelvin, he too has had modelling offers and even accepted some (though one couldn't help notice that Lee Cooper chose to dress up Kelvin as a Masai warrior and a white guy in jeans to show stages of evolution in human clothing styles). Jason elaborates, 'When people look at me, it makes me anxious about what they might be thinking. So I ask them why. And even if they had something else on their mind, I would prefer if they say that they were admiring something about me, though such stares too can be tiring.' He is often benign in his treatment of onlookers, 'When a man once asked me if I were a south Indian and asked to touch my hair, I let him. By doing so, I helped him accomplish a mission going on in his own mind or it would have kept troubling him.' In strangers he was able to find some of his closest friends. An old man befriended him on the Metro and later had his son pick Jason up and bring him home. It developed into a relationship with all the family members, joining them for lunches and dinners and learning to cook Indian food. When not too tired to opt for KFC or Domino's, Jason cooks Indian and African food and is aghast that I cannot make chapattis.
For Chike, another Nigerian, who owns a salon on the outer side of Khirki facing the Saket malls, the 'auto man' is his best friend who comes whenever Chike gives him a call and takes him wherever he needs to go. He has been in Delhi for a year and while the salon is doing well with several Indian men as part of its clientele, he could do better, Chike feels, if he could also open his cafe. He proudly recounts how all his meat pies got sold in the Antarrashtriya Khirkee Festival organized in March 2014 by a community of resident artists and others. But because of language issues he is unable to communicate with his landlord for a little more space for the cafe.
Chike in his salon
For Kelvin and Jason, Bollywood fans with a host of Indian friends, language isn't a similar barrier. Jason remembers how at home he would be doing dishes to the tune of 'Yeh duniya ek numberi, toh main das numberi' as a child. Even then he knew that he would be coming to India one day, though people at home often miss him and feel he should come home now. Talking of his reasons for leaving Khirki, Jason shares that he used to be an articulate, vocal member of the community. When the raid happened, national and international journalists were coming to speak to him. His name became familiar in the locality and he also got a call from Somnath Bharti's office about creating an Indo-African community. All this created suspicion around him in the community; some felt Jason was trying to sell them out. He felt that his landlord had started seeing him as a threat. His apartment was broken into, and money and valuables were stolen. He then decided it was time to move out and keep to himself for some time. In response to a question about what he does, his answer is, 'I can sing, I can cook, I can make someone look good, like in a salon, I can write, and I can make documentaries.' His current passion project is to start a magazine, which would serve as a space for African voices, 'Many people have faced many troubles but don't have the space to share. Reading about others will help them believe they too can do something.' Leaning against a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., he talks of how Gandhi and Mandela had to struggle so much, 'But ultimately it is their success that is celebrated.' He refers to a park in Malviya Nagar as his example, saying it won't have been named after Bhagat Singh had he not been a revolutionary, 'A strong leader has a clear vision and clears all the roadblocks in his path.' This is the sort of vision he now has for the magazine. His other dream is to have a storytelling place for children called 'Tales by Moonlight'. He wants that kids from different national backgrounds should get together to share their stories, play games and attend and participate in dance and musical performances. Through this, he hopes to make them culturally rich and tolerant from the very beginning.
Possibly the Antarrashtriya Khirkee Festival organized in Khirki and Sheikh Sarai was a glimpse of the dreams Jason and others like him cherish. The 'friendship festival', through the participation of the numerous nationalities living in Khirki, had a photo exhibition, food stalls, video screenings, singing and drumming. It had Indian kids joining their African friends in hip hop performances and African youth rapping in Hindi. Another significant effort in bridging interracial differences was Gabriel Dattatreyan's film Cry Out Loud, which not only documents the community's experiences but also uses young local talent to put the film together. Baba Da Dhaba, an open air eatery run by Indians, is a place Africans come to for their north Indian fare. One hopes that through the contribution of both Indian and African communities more such spaces for mingling and dialogue grow, and that soon enough, along with Sai Mandir and Krishna Mandir, 'Tales by Moonlight' becomes a popular landmark in the area.
Baba Da Dhaba
Srishti Lakhera and Smita Rakesh participated in conducting some of the interviews. All photographs of people and their properties have been taken with permission.
First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep, 2014. Later published in the anthology The Best of TEL, May 2015.
Sunday, 13 July 2014
'क्या आप जानते हैं?
आपके घर में
फ़र्श के ऊपर,
कालीन के नीचे,
टॉयलेट के पीछे,
नसों को खींचे, मुट्ठियाँ भींचें,
आप पर हमला करने को तैयार हैं
सैकड़ों, लाखों, करोड़ों कीटाणु?'
जी? जी, नहीं।
अब रेंगते वक्त इन बातों का खयाल ही कहाँ रहता है?
'क्या करोगे नहीं पढ़ोगे तो?
फेल होके स्कूल से नाम कट जाएगा,
फिर बैठे रहना चरवाहा विद्यालय में।'
हम डर गए, पढ लिए।
अब कोई और चलाता है रिक्शा,
कोई और बैठे रहता है चरवाहा विद्यालय में।
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