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Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra

For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.

For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.

This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving  and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”

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A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power

The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!

The farcical liberalism of the urban elite

On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.

Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned

It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!

We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?

Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.

Accepting mental illness without judgement #internationalyouthday #mentalillness

I remember her as unpredictable, but affectionate. She would have very dark moods, but she could also make me laugh. She was so much older than me, yet I thought of her as my playmate, my friend and someone who would protect me, no matter what! One day, I remember she looked at my hand and said, “I am darker than you. See?” And then she slapped me, just like that, without warning! I was seven. The tears sprang into my eyes, but I did not complain. I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me.

Mangal was my father’s first cousin. She was independent and smart, full of life but gradually, over the years, the demons seized her. Diagnosed to be schizophrenic, she drifted further and further from ‘normal’ as the years went by, till she finally gave up and passed away in her forties.

But back then, in those early days of her disease cycle, we bonded. On the streets of Mumbai- in her house in Andheri, at our home in Parel, on Juhu Beach. Walking together and laughing, staying home and playing make believe games, sitting around Ajjee (my grandmother) and helping her with her work. On some days, she would be full of angst and pain, and I can still hear her voice ringing out at the unfairness of what she was experiencing! “Why me, Aati?,” she would say, addressing my Ajjee. “You tell your God to make me all right. I don’t want to be sick like this. I also want to get married, have children, I also want to go to work, have friends. Why me, Aati?”

My parents, as doctors, were the natural port of call for every emergency and every incident related to Mangal’s schizophrenia. I saw a lot up close, first hand. As a child, my family did not need to teach me to accept. The acceptance was built into the fabric of my family.  I am sure there were some who were mean, but in my immediate surroundings, I only saw people being kind to Mangal, inadvertently teaching me the most valuable lessons about empathy.

Years later, I would visit Mangal and find it hard to get through. After my marriage, when Udai was born. She would refuse to speak with me and if she even looked at me, I would see the pain in her eyes.

Today, as we reflect on our attitudes to mental diseases specifically as part of celebrating the International Day of Youth, I am thinking of the value Mangal brought to my life and the enormous courage it took for her and her family to face the realities of a mental condition. I think of the happy times, the insane giggling fits and family outings, and I resolve to be there for others like my parents were there for Mangal.

As a dear friend mentioned on her FB page today, sometimes all we need is someone to talk to. Here’s hoping we can create more neutral and non-judgmental spaces, more opportunities for young people to share what they feel.

Another thing. One of the things that struck me most about the Nazi xenophobia was the elimination of the mentally ill. No, those with mental conditions need our support and acceptance, not our hatred or violence. I experienced this first hand as a child with Mangal’s story. And I know it made me a better person.

Note: Quotes in the piece are translations from Konkani, in which Mangal and me spoke back then. And Ajee too, even now!

And apologies for the slightly disjointed, hurried, emotional post today. I’m wanting to go look for a picture of Mangal’s. Wondering where to find it!

My piece in support of informal landlordism @ Next City #rentalhousing #informalcity

Am super proud to be published (read my article here) in a magazine I have admired for the last couple of years. The Next City formerly focused on the US now carried in reportage from a number of cities across the world. A dedicated section called the Informal City Dialogues , supported by the Rockefeller Foundation specially focuses on urban issues in developing countries and holds a wealth of insights that I have often used in my work in low-income housing.

The editors at Next City worked off a piece I had originally written as a book chapter. The book idea was to develop caricature essays based on the various people I have interacted with during my fieldwork on rental housing in Gurgaon. The first one was about Billu, the landlord. Interviewing him was one of the most interesting experiences I have had. We had very different notion of body language and personal comfort zones, for instance. And yet, his passion for life and his work (he manages about 80 rental rooms for migrants) and his extremely practical approach to complex issues like identity, politics and change made me wonder about whether I am given to over-analyzing situations!

The Next City piece has been edited to give it adequate context. Would be curious to get your feedback. I still nurture the dream of writing that book, you see!

Let politics not be a dirty word anymore! #youth #passion #empathy

Morning conversations while dropping kids off at the bus stop sometimes linger through the day. This morning, we spoke about the need to convey to kids the importance of passion. Personally, I think in demanding all round excellence from children, we fail to recognise and feed their interests and passion.

Now, as I read several editorials that celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, I wonder what drove great leaders like him to sacrifice their personal ambitions, face extreme difficulties and overcome enormous obstacles in order to achieve greater good? I am struck by the idea that great leaders are not just driven by passion, but have the rare gift of empathy and an ability to connect with fellow humans on a very basic level. Madiba and Bapu both had that and there is a reason why millions followed these men in a surge of passion with the belief that they were being led towards betterment and emancipation.

Are we a more cynical bunch of people today, us citizens of India who are quick to criticise but lazy to act even in matters of our self-interest? Or is it that leaders today are too far removed from our hearts? It is hard to believe that Rahul Gandhi, for instance, could truly empathise with the experiences of an ordinary citizen. Perhaps Modi’s non-dynastic humbler origins are what give so many Indians a level of comfort because they believe he may understand their daily struggle and genuinely seek to uplift them. Be that as it may, I cannot think of a single political leader today who I may believe to be selfless and exemplary.

Then there is the aspect of new leadership. We expect a generation of elite youth disconnected from the realities of how most of our countrymen and women live, burdened by the privilege of their education to step into the lead-heavy shoes of leadership? Why would they when the pursuit of self-interest is easier?

Perhaps if we’re to permit passion to drive young people without constantly judging them and assessing their ‘performance’, we might see emerge into politics young people with drive, with inherent qualities of empathy and leadership. When you look around you and see the enormous energies trapped inside young people, wasting or being misdirected, you just have to find a different approach to harnessing it. Politics must stop being a dirty word in our minds if we are to change the future world that our children inhabit. And, like many great people have said, we could begin the change from our own communities and neighbourhoods. I have a plan brewing in my head as I write this.. Will keep you posted!

Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012

I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!

I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.

Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.

I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.

Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.

We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!

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