Cultural contrasts in Gurgaon: Are we too quick to judge this city?
Yet another article, in the Business Standard this time, highlights the cultural contrasts between the original inhabitants of Gurgaon and its original inhabitants. “The two sets of people do not share public spaces — so vital for a city to become a melting pot of cultures. For example, the city’s sought-after clubs are out of bounds for the villagers because they do not fit the profile,” write journalist Veena Sandhu. Access to private schools is equally difficult for rural children, despite their immense material prosperity. It is a strange situation, by any standards.
I happen to frequent several days a week a space where these two worlds do meet. My gym. Owned by a local, most instructors in the gym belong to Gurgaon’s urban villages. The customers are a mixed bag of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The interaction has helped me look at the young men with a different lens. Often labeled as aggressive and uncouth, the citizens of modern, glitzy Gurgaon would like to dismiss the city’s rural young, avoid them. I, however, see their immense dedication to their bodies, their single minded focus and determination when they work out. I have not once (in several months) seen them ogle at a woman, flirt with one or even come anywhere close without permission. Initially, my attitude was as neutral as possible, perhaps even avoiding eye contact totally. Then slowly, I felt myself relax. Initially a smile would get a stiff response, almost a scared one lest I judge him. Now the regulars will smile back or even have a conversation in the lift. My trainer never introduces me to any of these friends of his by name; that comfort level has not been reached yet. But our distrust is as much the cause for this as the actual cultural divide.
I see spaces like this (and its good to take these spaces even more public than a membership-based gym) as a great opportunity to initiate interaction and sports can be a starting point to evolve a new culture for this city, which is young and in a delicate formative stage. I feel that we are so quick to judge, almost as if someone passing a diktat to allow intermingling will miraculously overnight resolve these issues. And then a woman gets molested, and everything clams shut again, the abyss deepened, trust destroyed.
We need to give this city time to evolve and find its balance. Yes, efforts must be made to initiate those dialogues, and equal opportunity is a good starting point especially in areas like education. Personally too, it is important that we get out of our shells and really open our eyes to the realities, to the ‘human’ side of the people around us.
Revisiting the idea of Patriotism
I often wonder about patriotism. It is a concept I have defended, debated and doubted at various points in my life, but I have always been unashamedly patriotic.On Republic Day, as Nupur and me drove together to a party, we were trying to examine how our concepts have altered over time. Not only in the sense that we now see patriotism very differently as adults in our mid-30s, cynicism and facts crowding our judgement, but also we wondered about how children saw it today.
As a school going child in the ’80s, my consciousness was strongly influenced by adult discussions about Indo-Pak wars in the decades just gone by and we still indulged in a lot of role play that involved skirmishes with the neighboring country. I remember Gautam, my neighbor, would constantly ask stuff like: If you lost an arm fighting against Pakistan, would you want to die or live? I would never know how to even begin answering such a question and would find it hard to try and imagine myself bleeding and cut up in a war zone somewhere! At school, the Indian freedom movement that overthrew colonial suppression was a large part of what we were taught, through history lessons and every day in the songs we sang and the speeches made at Assembly time for the birth and death commemorations of various national leaders. The glory of our ancient past was yet another refrain that was relentlessly drilled into our impressionable minds.
So yes, my initial ideas of patriotism did involve a muscle flexing superior image of India as a large, powerful nation in the regional context. At the same time, I was also perceiving the image of my country as poor, backward, under-developed and highly inefficient as seen by the West through adult discussions when they returned from abroad or when the various NRI friends my parents had as well as relatives returned for visits. Their disparaging tone hurt me, scared me and baffled me as I struggled to understand the contradictions in the ideas I had about India.
Each year, when I watch the Republic Day Parade on TV, I wonder at the colossal amount of resources that go into that spectacle. I wonder why we need to, in this so-called post-modern era, show the world what missiles we own and how well our bands march and what culture flourishes in our States. This time, I went to see the spectacle for myself. And I was drawn into the old-style tear jerking, chest-swelling-with-pride experience of patriotic feeling. It is a superbly choreographed show indeed and even the cynic in me just decided to shut up and enjoy!
The kids were enthralled, each with their own perceptions. Udai loved the marching, Aadyaa liked the dances. They both practiced the National Anthem in the car, but I realized they are not too sure about which one is the Anthem and which one is the song. And they have no clue about the National Pledge! Those of you who remember the endless jokes about “All Indians are by brothers and sisters” would be having a good laugh. But yes, times have changed. Today’s youngsters have much less doubts about India’s capabilities and see themselves as citizens of this nation with undoubted pride. They associate the image of India with technology and competence, and are less obsessed about military or cultural superiority. In fact, at nearly nine, I think Udai is in more of a global citizen mind frame and is barely conscious of his identity as an ‘Indian’. Quite a contrast from how we were at the same age!
So do we consciously inculcate patriotism in young Indians? And how do we deal with the contradictions in the image we offer to them? I don’t subscribe going back to the hyped distorted way history was often presented to us, for instance. Or do we allow them to develop their own brand of patriotism as they grow, learn more, analyze what is happening around them?
As an unashamed patriot, I know I influence my children without even knowing it to take immense pride in their nation. For its achievements certainly, but also for its diversity and pluralism, and for the simple fact that it is our home.
Yes, to remember Dec 6th is important, for me! How the Babri incident changed my world, etc
Each year on the 6th of December, newspaper editorials remind us of the Babri Masjid episode in Indian history. I can hardly believe two decades have gone by when I watched the TV screen in utter horror and heard the mixed opinions of the adults we knew and trusted. I grew up in Lucknow and my family was very much liberal and rather left of centre in their political leanings, though never directly involved with anything political. I was brought up in the post-independent ethos of secularism and socialism and held these two as non-negotiable values of life. For the most part, I still do.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement burst my ‘the world is a good place’ bubble. For the first time in my life, I realized that there very radically different belief systems at work even in my little world, that these were contradictory in nature and could create confrontational and tremendously uncomfortable situations.
I was aghast to find that ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ who I thought of as harmless and ‘nice’ were capable of unleashing a diatribe of hate against Muslims. That they had been silent so long and felt empowered to speak after the Babri Masjid incident perplexed me no end. I kept thinking whether I had simply not been exposed to that side of them, or had chosen not to see it, or had they developed these opinions overnight. I didn’t realize that this was the subtext of many conversations to come in the future, that this would test my own beliefs repeatedly, push me against the wall and take me far, far away from God as propagated by religion, any religion.
I remember watching that inflammatory CD that did the rounds at that time, the one that clearly shows BJP leaders egging on kar sevaks, and bodies being dumped in the Saryu. The inane jubilation and naked hatred, the meaninglessness of it all. The sense of jubilation around the room and the sadness in my parents’ eyes.
Life changed after Bari Masjid. No doubt about that.
So many visuals flash past me from those few weeks. No school. My attempt to visit a friend, only to find her street cordoned off by the police, curfew declared and spending many hours worrying if she was safe. The policeman ushered me away urgently and I could literally watch the tension on the other side of the barricade.
The confusion of other people my age, our hesitation in discussing any of this, not knowing what belief system the other follows. The silence. The subsequent breaking apart of a city that had lived in relative harmony for centuries. The segregation of religion, but also of class. The search for security. The changing definition of security. My people, my own, keep out the ‘other’. I wasn’t aware of all this before. I still live in acute awareness today, hoping against hope that people will rise above this and find a more meaningful way to view their lives, their world.
Low-income informal communities offer a window into an astonishing array of home-based work- Sep 25, 2012
Yesterday, we revisited Sundernagari, the site of the project we did last year in which we experienced a fairly intense community involvement process to redesign a slum in-situ. One of the first questions we got asked was if we knew whether the scheme to redevelop the slum would take off. Kokila Ben, the member of the women’s cooperative run by SEWA Bharat and MHT, had been fending questions by community members asking if they should invest in adding floors to their homes. Already, we saw several homes had been added to or were in the process of doing so when we walked through the neighborhood.
The home is a matter of emotion, pride and sustenance for anyone, more so for the poor and especially for this community where most people practice home-based occupations. A mochi community, nearly every home has its male head sewing and repairing shoes, while women support the house by venturing out to sell shoes or, in some cases, working as domestic help in middle income homes nearby.
I was struck by how much lower the activity levels seemed as compared to last year. When I asked, a tale of woes and apathy spilled out. Apparently, the Lal Qila market where these people sold their finished products is being disbanded and moved to the defunct Power House near ITO, which will take a while to attract customers. As of now, the shoemakers are selling from their basti and constantly being hounded by the police for what they claim is illegal work. It is clearly hard to make ends meet, and with kerosene halved on their BPL ration cards plus hiked electricity rates, they were tightening the belts for tough times ahead. One mochi brazenly asked us for a loan to grow his business and claimed he could make chappals to our design specifications if we wanted to try him out.
Walking around the basti, we saw some other very interesting occupations. A wizened old lady was sticking pins into tiny pieces of plastic, apparently a component that goes inside a bicycle horn. Another woman was putting together two small bits of plastic to fashion a whistle. These little components would then be fitted by someone else into the colorful plastic cover that we associate with the whistle! Other home-based occupations we ave noticed in these slums are buffalo rearing, which makes for an interesting though messy situation, metal fabrication to make things like birdcages and rat traps, jewelry making out of beads and sequins, embroidery and needlework, stitching and carpentry. Quite an array, isn’t it?
Indian communities have such a strong traditional of skilled handwork and handmade items of all kinds. The level of finish may vary but these people take pride in what they do. Most of these are non polluting, take very little energy and gives livelihood to scores of people. Certainly the city would not be able to provide employment to all these people if they stopped doing what they do. Yet, we place such little economic value on these tasks, and our legal system declares many of these home-based activities to be illegal, subjecting these poor people to the misery of harassment and corruption. It sees to me rather unfair and I wish I knew how to help these communities with better linkages to the supply chain, some means to reduce exploitation and increase market value through design inputs, branding and skill enhancement.
Let them struggle! A parenting adage for our times- Sep 2, 2012
The last Open House session at Shikshantar, which is where my kids study, was about ‘autonomy and boundaries’. Many relevant things were revealed and discussed through case vignettes assigned to parent groups as exercises.
It’s clear we live in stressful times. A consumption driven economic philosophy is pushing the world towards a me-myself-mine mindset and each of us wants to succeed within this paradigm, creating a stressed and performance-oriented life. Our kids are at the receiving end of this lifestyle. We fail on two fronts here. We curtail their autonomy by being over instructive. The luxury of negotiation is no longer a part of our lives. It’s simply too tiring and time consuming! We also are unable to clearly set boundaries. On one hand, we expect discipline, but we also give in to demands easily. We end up confusing our kids about right and wrong, what’s ok and what’s not!
In all of this, what’s most critical is that by controlling children’s lives, over protecting them, over monitoring them, we are not letting them develop some of the most critical life skills. Ability to resolve conflict, confront bad situations, just ‘deal with it’ basically. As parents, teachers, coaches, we need to recognize that children must go through their own struggle, on their own. We may help them out if we see they are stuck and seeking help, but a lot of the sorting out needs to be done within themselves, through self-reflection, goal setting, prioritization and other critical skills we all covet and use (or not!) daily.
I had the opportunity to experience a heart wrenching moment this afternoon. Udai and me were in music class. We have individual lessons, one after the other. Each of us sits in on the other’s class. He is starting afresh and has been having a hard time with getting a couple of notes right. These notes, the Sa and Re, are critical. It’s impossible for the teacher to move ahead unless he perfects the essential saptasura. This concept was being drilled into him again and again, in a firm but nice manner. He was just not getting it right! I could sense the struggle, sense the tears welling up. I watched him fight them back, control himself. He snapped himself out of the emotional web, concentrated on instructions and managed to improve his rendition within the half an hour time span of the class.
Through this, much as my heart ached for him, I said not a word. He did not once look to me for help or support. He chose to bond directly with his guru and leave me out of this. I am proud of him for making that choice, for showing the maturity and for taking a challenge on directly and forthrightly.
It’s a small example, but I really do feel my kids benefit hugely from me staying out of their hair! All those of you who have the opportunity to influence a young person, all those who are role models in whatever way, it’s a great adage to hold on to- Let them struggle! It’ll be a lot more helpful than making life unrealistically simple for the little ones, who must grow up one day, soon enough, too soon in fact!
Indian cities need to deeply study concentrated poverty and find solutions: Urban transformation is the only way forward! April 12, 2012
It’s a changed world from the one we grew up in, for sure. When I was a kid, anything that came from or had origins in the United States of America was regarded with utter fascination in India. The US and Europe, the first world, were regarded as havens of prosperity and wealth, largely because we believed these were nations that were able to give even ordinary citizens a basic minimum standard of living, amenities and equal opportunity.
How wrong this notion was, especially for the United States, we have seen in the aftermath of the worldwide economic recession we have experienced since 2008. A report released a few days before by the Citizen’s Committee for Children reveals that were are 1.6 million people living below the federal poverty line in New York in 2010, up by 120,000 since 2008 (US Census data). One in three of the city’s children live in poverty. In fact, they live in “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty” where residents face obstacles like lack of employment, high crime rates, few educational opportunities and poor housing quality.
Concentrated poverty (also called neighborhood poverty) is a well-defined term in US policy and scholarship. Federal poverty lines too are defined clearly and are comparative to the overall income levels of Americans, which means the poverty line rises and falls proportional to the income levels of higher income groups.
In India, the situation is very different. The poverty line an absolute concept, some say this is so because the nation would be able to show very little progress on poverty alleviation if it were to be relative considering the type of skewed and dramatic economic development we are seeing in this country.
The study of poverty in India, from what I have seen, is on a pan-India scale and discusses the relative concentrations of poverty in certain states and regions in the country. Unlike the US, where concentrated poverty is studied within cities by census tract, Indian cities are not identifying and focusing interventions on pockets where there is a higher density of people living in socio-economic deprivation. Despite available technology (something as simple as google maps and community surveys in conjunction with each other, as well as poverty data from the census), there is inadequate understanding on concentrated poverty and the factors that lead to the perpetuation of such a phenomenon.
In the US, racial and ethnic segregation is often a factor. In India, we might find caste, class and the prevalence of illegal, informal settlements like slums to be reasons for concentrated poverty. We do need to recognize these areas in a city because people, especially children, get trapped in a spiral of poverty that they will probably not emerge out of for generations into the future. We need to collect sufficient data and understanding of such areas to be able to look for innovative solutions for education, employment, career counseling, housing improvement, basic services, health, water quality and many other areas where small improvements can make big impacts.
Who will do this? I doubt the government will take initiative unless we force their hand. We meaning professionals, NGOs and civil society working together to transform our cities. Without urban transformation, all the glitz and glamor of rising GDP is nought!
Women feel unsafe: Of petitions, activism and perceptions- March 19, 2012
The atmosphere of festive bonhomie at India Gate yesterday morning could have fooled some, but there was real anger simmering inside for a lot of us who chose to show our support by walking from India Gate to the President’s home Rashtrapati Bhawan to hand over a petition asking for measures to enhance safety for women.’We want women safe’ was what the event called itself….
The most unlikely people have spoken to me these past few days about feeling unsafe in Gurgaon. A girl who works at the beaut parlor across the road left her job after the latest rape that has triggered the spate of protests. Her friend recounted her personal experiences of being teased, heckled, harassed, a male friend who was dropping her home being beaten up, etc. My maid spoke about not being able to take up work on winter evenings as it wasn’t safe to walk or cycle back to her basti; she spoke of relatives being groped, pushed over from their cycles, people in passing cars trying to pull one young girl in…. Amid the outpouring is a scary sense of helplessness…there must be some way to change attitudes!
On Sunday morning, we saw a group of enthusiastic cyclists (some had come in from as far as Noida and civil lines), many walkers and a show of support from the Harley Davidson club; plus kids on skates, a street play, drummers….the works. I wouldn’t say there were a lot of emotional moments, but everyone felt strongly for the cause and proud of being able to do something, release the frustration and angst that was festering inside. Nupur and me clicked some pictures that document the protest march.
Encounters with street children in Gurgaon- Mar 5, 2012
So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.
Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]
Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]
Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]
Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]
Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]
Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.
The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.
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!